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PART 2B






CHAPTER 37



Warsaw

Our train was a slow one that was not rushing to its destination. The "goods" that it was carrying were not "top priority", so it stopped at many stations, waiting on a side track, to allow other trains to pass. The door did not open. Only echoes of conversations reached us, calls and signals, but we had no idea where we were nor where we were heading. For the first few hours after we left Auschwitz, we were tired, tense from the unknown and impressions, so we huddled together, each one deep in his own thoughts, making a reckoning of past events and trying to imagine what was awaiting us in the future. I saw, as in a dream, the nightmare of the smoke rising from the chimneys of the crematoria, smelled the odour of cremated skin and heard the cries of human victims, of young children whose cries were smothered by the murderers. I closed my eyes, tried to block my ears, but the nightmarish scenes and sounds of the victims, their cries and the shouts of their murderers permeated my whole being.

I fell asleep but woke up again when the grey dawn infiltrated our wagon through the cracks or through the tiny window at the top of the wagon. The cold also got in and cut the feet and hands as with knives. People had to perform their physiological needs so a bit of space was made in a corner for this function. This stank and polluted the air and nobody wanted to sit nearby, so arguments started and even fights. People were upset, in pain and bitter. It was a miracle that the frost froze the human waste so that it prevented it from running through the whole wagon. After two days of travel in these horrible conditions, we finally reached our destination. In the middle of the night our train stopped and remained at the station until daybreak. When the first bit of light started to appear through the cracks, many climbed up to the little window to see where we were. They saw piles of brick and grass. We tried to guess where we were but nobody could guess.

The grey early dawn light cast a shine on the faces which were yellow and dirty. Each one's gaze at the other seemed to be asking: "What awaits us here? What surprise is destined for us?" Eyes had the appearance of sheep's eyes when they feel that the knife is at their throat. It did not take long and we heard action outside, shouts and orders that were already so familiar to us. We heard the clip-clop of wooden shoes which sounded as though a pile of bricks had come crashing down. In a little while the doors of our wagons quickly opened. The SS crashed in with their helpers, the Kapos, and, armed with sticks, clubs and whips, started, with wild voices, to beat pitilessly. They shouted: "Raus! Raus, ihr mist!" (Out, out, you garbage).

Within a few minutes everybody was outside. Some were stepped on and bloodied. Some had lost their shoes, others had their clothes torn, but quick as lightening, everyone had to get lined up in a row like soldiers.

We still did not know where we were. We cast our eyes in all directions. Everywhere, we saw piles of bricks, stones and grass. From the distance we saw only ruins, pieces of structures, chimneys and iron ladders which seemed to reach up to the sky. We were afraid to ask because for any unnecessary word or motion we got beaten, accompanied by curses. However, one of us managed to find out from a katzetnik that we were in Warsaw. Warsaw! Warsaw! This is what has become of the Mother City of Israel. This is what has become of the once bustling and lively Jewish streets, of the active Warsaw courtyards, of the synagogues and study houses, of the clubs and organizations, of the professional groups and political parties, of the Jewish factories and businesses, of the restaurants and cafÈs of Jewish schools and children's homes. From all this there remained ash and rubble. This grand Jewish metropolis lay before our eyes in ruins. I felt as though all these mountains of wreckage had landed on my head, had covered me with their steel arms and had cut into my limbs. When we were later chased through the destroyed streets of the Warsaw ghetto, I felt as though my blood was dripping. It was then that I understood why no Polish Jews were allowed in this transport. We all knew the Warsaw of former days, the pulsating, bustling Jewish community, and could not make peace with the idea that this Jewish Warsaw had been so brutally and totally destroyed. We recalled the former Warsaw's learned men, scholars, Hassidim, and the Germans, the refined youth and the hard-working people, the elegant ladies and the proletarian trade workers, but above all, the children, the Warsaw children with whose voices the streets rang, the Shloimelach and Yoselach, the Malkalech and Brochelech, those who used to play in the Warsaw courtyards, in the gardens and parks. Where are they all? It is as though the ground had opened up and swallowed them all. This very heap of bricks and stones is the giant collective grave of thousands of victims. We did not know where we were because there were no longer any streets or neighbourhoods, or houses, only hills of devastation and grass. Through the stone and rubble there were beams hanging loose, doors and windows and pieces of walls swaying, with a "still life" picture.

In another ruin there was still the remains of a child's crib over which still roamed childish dreams of angels, but unfortunately what did materialize were devils. No way could we figure out through what streets we were passing because we were walking over a sea of destruction. At certain intersections, however, someone had placed the old signs where old Moranov was, after which stretched the Molevkes, the narrow Mila and the wide Mila, then Novolipka, Twarda, Gensha, Krochmola. These are all streets that contributed to a glorious chapter in Jewish history. Now it is all wiped out, turned into a pile of ash and dust. It is as quiet here as in a cemetery. From the destruction, there arose a wail. Thousands of dreams, hopes and fantasies lie buried in this mass grave.

We were chased into a lager which was on Gesia Street near the former military prison. Here a concentration camp was erected, with thousands of concentration camp victims, nearly all Jews from various European countries. These slaves were put to work to clean up the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. The wreckage was cleaned up. Wherever there were still houses, the place was cleared. Those which were still in good condition were redecorated and rebuilt. Polish foremen were in charge of this work. They arrived every morning from the city, from the Aryan side, and in the evening they left the ghetto. We were housed in barracks, divided into various contingents. In the beginning I was assigned to clean away the bricks and to pile them up neatly. The work was not easy. First of all, we had to work all day in the outdoors with frozen feet and hands in heavy snow and extreme cold. Secondly, walking back and forth over the rubble with wooden clogs, twisted our feet and caused wounds. The shoes quickly came apart because they got soaked. Finally, I was left without shoes in the bitter cold and snow, so I wrapped my feet in rags which we found in the bunkers, and tied them with wire to keep them on. At night it was hard for me to remove the rags, because in the morning I did not have time to tie them on again. When we were awakened we had to dress very quickly, grab our bit of black water (so-called coffee) and get out for roll call, otherwise we would get severe beatings, so I slept in the rags.



CHAPTER 38



The first day amongst the wreckage of Warsaw

After a night of horrible nightmares in this new hell which was called Warsaw ghetto, being overloaded with dreadful impressions and experiences, we were awakened in the pre-dawn and rushed out for roll call. The roll call was at 4:30 in the morning, earlier than always, because we had to be counted, a record kept of all the newcomers for slave labour, assigned to groups and registered. It was a cold, damp day which was felt in the bones and sent a shiver through the body. Finally, we were sent out to work. The clatter of thousands of pairs of wooden clogs echoed through the wreckage with unpleasantness, as though we were disturbing the rest of a cemetery. The open mouths and eyes of the wrecked homes regarded us as though with surprise and regret for us not leaving them in peace. The shouts and orders of the Kapos resounded with a loud echo in this disturbed and destroyed world.

When we arrived at the central point where the headquarters of the Kapos and foremen were, the work tools were distributed--picks, spades and ropes, and everyone was given a job. Here, I saw for the first time, free Poles who came into the city every day to carry out the work of removing the wreckage and cleaning it away. I looked at them with surprise. It was a long time since I saw free civilians who were decently dressed and clean. Another thing that surprised me was that the Poles could communicate best with the Greek Jews with whom they spoke in sign language, each one making himself understood in his own language, and yet they understood one another. With us, Polish Jews, who spoke the same language, they avoided establishing any contact. We went about in a state of confusion, not knowing what was happening. One of the Poles, a young fellow, looked at me inquisitively from eyes cast down and then raised them high and did not take his eyes off me. I got closer to him and asked in Polish,"Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Oh, so you speak Polish?" He was so glad to hear this. He once again looked at me, pulled my red sweater, and said: "Sell me this."

When I heard this proposition, I got completely confused, but at the same time, astounded. This was a new way of talking, for I was not used to words such as "buying" and "selling". Even here there was business going on? The Greek Jews were keen "entrepreneurs," even though they did not know the language. They had come a few months before us to Warsaw, so they had already managed to establish contact with the Polish foreman with whom they carried on business on a grand scale. When they found anything of worth, they sold it to the Poles in exchange for food. They were given gold, diamonds, and jewelry, for a piece of bread, an onion, a piece of garlic, or a few cigarettes, a few potatoes and sometimes a bottle of liquor. The Poles made a fortune at work.

I froze, though, when I heard the offer to sell my sweater for bread. At first the magic word "bread" flashed in front of my eyes, but in a minute I started to think more logically. If I give away my sweater in such cold weather, I will freeze. I will get sick and die. This mere thought sent a shudder through me. The Pole did not leave me alone though, until I agreed to sell it to him. In the struggle to decide whether or not to sell it, I decided that I would sell it. I thought that if I keep the sweater and do not freeze to death, I will die of hunger, so would that be better? Either way I wouldn't last long here, so let me at least once have my fill of bread. The mere word "bread" grew in my mind, out of all proportion, into something immense. Bread! Fresh bread!!!

I came to an arrangement with the Pole that for my sweater he would give me half a loaf of bread and 40 zlotys. A kilo of bread ...


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