Helen lay in an open field, tall grass surrounded her. It was as good a hideout as she was going to get. She had lost count of how long she’d been there for, three hours? Maybe more. Her mind raced, replaying the events in her head. The cabin. The shot. That single shot that killed her beloved husband. They hid in separate areas when the Polish police found him. And now, she was alone. Her stomach empty, her heart full with despair. She wasn’t going to make it, no, not alone.
The drizzle came first, and then the downpour. The tall grass bent on its knees and she was now exposed. She could hardly differentiate between her tears and the rain, but she tasted their salt, coming from the wells of her pain and the shear exhaustion that shook her frail body. As she lay there, peering at the sky through water drops, she made a silent prayer, for a world where bluebirds sing, a world where love wins, and evil dies.
She knew she had to keep moving. Shivering, she got up and began to walk, then to run. She was running in the rain. The water strengthened her, somehow gave her purpose. For a brief moment, she, a fugitive, felt free. Finally, she reached a small village, approached the first home she saw, and collapsed on the steps. A farmer noticed her from his window and came rushing out. “Can I help you? Who are you?” He escorted her inside. And as his wife prepared a small soup with vegetable scraps, Helen told them her story. The story she had rehearsed in the field. A story that she, a Jew, could only say because she had blonde hair and blue eyes.
She was a teacher, but she had lost her husband and she was all alone with no family. She was looking for work, any kind of work, to feed herself until the end of the war. The couple looked at each other, whether they felt she was telling the truth or not, they did not give away. They offered her food and board in exchange for helping to maintain their small home and caring for their children. Her heart, still heavy, filled with a mix of gratitude and cautious optimism. Because she knew, when you’re on the run, you never let your guard down, and you never stay in one place for too long.
The days passed and she fell into a routine, throwing herself into the housework, repeating menial tasks, again and again, doing more than she needed to, to keep her hands busy. To keep her mind sane. But one day, a rumour spread. There was a Jew in the village. No one said it out loud, but she heard the whispers. A Partisan. The thought of a fellow Jew in hiding made her heart leap, both with fear and with hope. One evening, this man was invited to dinner at the home she had been staying in. She realized that this encounter might be her only chance to meet him, without approaching him in the village and appearing suspicious. She needed to find a way to let him know she was Jewish. A message. A sign. Something that only he could understand.
She was setting the table when he walked in. As he sat down, she placed a plate in front of him and began to hum. She hummed when she brought the food from the kitchen, and when she sat down to join them. She hummed like someone who was carefree, like someone who was not afraid, like someone who had not yet lost hope. The two men were discussing the war and all the while the man watched her closely. That tune, he knew that tune. He remembered his father singing it, and his grandfather before him. Perhaps his mind was playing tricks on him. Why would a young woman with blonde hair and blue eyes in this small Polish village be humming the tune of Kol Nidre, the song that signalled the beginning of Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish year? Only a Jew could know this tune. Only a Jew.
She wouldn’t meet his gaze that evening, and the conversations went on. But she knew in her heart she could trust him. As he was about to leave, she approached him. She shook his hand and slipped him a crumpled piece of paper. She had written the names of friends from what seemed like a lifetime ago. She knew that some of them joined the Partisans and there was a chance, however small, that he might know their whereabouts.
The next day, the man returned and suggested they go for a walk. They walked deep into the forest, toward the Partisans. The next time Helen left that forest, love had won, and evil died.
This courageous, beautiful woman was my husband’s grandmother.
*I was privileged to hear her first-hand account thanks to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, and to her incredible willingness to share and record her story so that you and I, and all the generations to come, never forget.