Monday, April 1, 1940
The flask of water in Rachel’s hand was empty. She was tightly wedged in the centre of a wagon, sandwiched in a cavity scooped into the hay. Labouring for every breath, she lay in an airless space, her body moist from the heat trapped inside, smelling of her own urine, her thirst a nagging reminder of her confinement. She had been told the journey would be long, to use the water sparingly and to avoid relieving herself. Rachel had wanted to cooperate, but it had been impossible. The acid from her urine stung her inner thighs. She wanted to scratch, but her arms could not reach the irritation. The cocoon in which she lay made any movement almost impossible.
The wagon tilted frequently from left and right and Rachel feared it would lose its load and expose her as a fugitive. She was hidden inside a long bale in the centre of the load where no one could see her unless the wagon was completely emptied. She heard muffled voices whenever the wagon stopped, then felt the rustle of hay as someone pulled and pushed the outer bales.
Was it day or night, she wondered? Time was meaningless in the darkness of her prison. She tried to find a place where her body would not rebel from the discomfort, but she could find none. Trickles of air filtered through the straw. She sucked hungrily at its coolness. There were times she was not sure if she had dozed off or had fallen into unconsciousness. The movement of the wagon was torture, much worse than the storeroom. At least in the crate, she could move her legs when they cramped. Here in the wagon, that was not possible. There she was tense as she listened to the sounds through the wooden walls of the case and held her breath whenever anyone came near. Here she could hardly breathe.
Finally, someone opened the box. An old woman looked at her and Rachel stared back in fright. “Come quickly,” the woman said. “You’re part of the cleaning staff. Do what we do and, when we are finished, you come home with me.” She gripped Rachel’s arm, rushing her out.
“The supervisor will know I don’t belong,” Rachel answered as she lifted herself out of the box.
“Yakov’s arranged everything. No one will question you tonight. We have to get you to my room.”
Rachel tried to stand, but spasms of pain in her back stabbed at her. The woman held on to her as Rachel forced her back to straighten until she was able to stand erect.
“I didn’t know you were pregnant!” The woman said in surprise.
“Please say nothing. I’ll be all right,” Rachel begged, gripping the woman’s arm. “What happens in your room?”
The woman stared at Rachel’s body, shaking her head, a look of concern on her face. “I live on Zagajnikowa Street. It’s not too far from the old Jewish cemetery. Tonight you leave Lodz through the cemetery. You will have to climb the wall.”
Rachel understood. She followed the woman from the storeroom and for the next four hours joined the prisoners cleaning the floors. Afterwards, because it was past curfew, they left under escort of the Polish police and were taken to the entrance of a dilapidated building on Zagajnikowa Street. Within minutes of her entering the woman’s apartment, there was a light rap on the door and Rachel was ushered by a young boy who led her to through the streets. They hugged the sides of buildings, avoiding the light cast from the gas lamps. There was the smell of rain in the air. Whenever they heard the sound of a vehicle, the boy gripped Rachel’s arm and dragged her into an alley or behind an obstruction until it passed. Rachel’s stomach cried out for food, her head pulsed and her body rebelled with each step she took. When they reached the metal fence surrounding the cemetery, they moved quickly towards the brick wall that was the ghetto boundary. Dogs barked and beams of flashlights wove inside the grounds. The boy stopped in front of a large bush and beckoned Rachel to get down on her hands and knees. He parted the bush, exposed an opening under the metal fence and pushed her through. Rachel dragged herself on her back through the tunnel, fearful of the metal prongs that poked at her stomach. The boy followed her, pushing the bush back into place before beckoning her on. At the wall, he hooted softly like an owl and waited.
Numb with exhaustion, Rachel gazed at the wall, her tired eyes seeking an opening in the barbed wire that wound its way across the top. Suddenly, she saw the wire divide. The barbed wire had given the illusion of being continuous, but in fact it was not attached. A rope sailed over the wall. With the boy’s help, Rachel pulled herself to the top, her hands smarting from the rope burns, her knees scraping against the bricks until she was able to straddle the top. A voice whispered from the other side for her to jump. She edged herself over the wall on her stomach and into the arms of a man wearing a hood. He pulled the rope back, looped it into a circle and placed it over his head and one arm, removing two long sticks that kept the wires apart and collapsing the long sticks into smaller pieces. He put his finger to his lips. “Make no sound,” he whispered. Carrying the disassembled sticks in one hand and holding onto her hand with the other hand, he led her through the empty streets to a dark house. He fumbled at the lock, opened the door, tugged on her arm and led her inside. “We’re safe for now,” he said softly. “In two days we’ll get you out into the country.”
Rachel collapsed with a sigh into a chair and covered her face with her hands.
“I can’t put on any lights,” he said. “I know you must be hungry, I have some food.”
“Thank you,” she said, almost too weary to speak. “I’m very grateful.”
Rachel heard the man chuckle. “Did I say something funny,” she asked, dropping her hands. She was shocked at the sound.
“I was waiting for you to give your brother a hug.”
Rachel’s head snapped up. Her rescuer had pulled off his hood. “Josef! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” She flung herself into his arms and began to cry uncontrollably, her face buried in his chest, her body heaving in great painful sobs. It was the first solid comfort she had felt since the Germans had arrived. Josef held her, gently patting her back, until the only sound in the room was the patter of rain on the window.
“Feeling better?” he asked her.
“Yes. Where have you been?”
“I know you have a million questions, but I haven’t time to answer them. I must return to the ghetto before it becomes light. We were counting on the rain, and it won’t last long.”
“What about Poppa and Aaron?” Rachel gripped Josef by his arm. “Are they out too?”
“No.” There was a pause before he continued. “I was too late. They sent Aaron to a labour camp. We don’t know which one. “Poppa was being held on a soccer field. While one group went for you, the other went for Poppa, but the Germans got there ahead of them.”
Rachel moaned. “And Janusz? Have you heard anything about Janusz?”
Josef didn’t answer.
“Josef, please. Have you heard anything about Janusz?”
“No, nothing. Some soldiers are in work details. Others are in detention camps. I have heard that some have been sent to Germany to prisoner-of-war camps. But nothing about him. Right now we have to get you away from here, Rachel. You were my first priority and now I’m going back for Poppa.”
“Josef, I’m going to have a baby.”
Josef stared at her stomach. “How many months?”
“Five . . . maybe six. I’ve lost track of time.”
“The night Janusz left?” Josef could not see her smile.
“Yes. The night he left. It was my idea. Now, it may be all I’ll have of him.”
Josef sat on a chair. “I have a problem. Your condition changes my plans for you. I was going to get you to Russia, but that’s out of the question if you’re pregnant. It would have meant a lot of walking and living in the forests as you went north and it will get colder. It’s a dangerous trek for someone who is healthy. For a pregnant woman – impossible.” He moaned. “Listen to me, Rachel.” His voice was urgent. He gripped her hands and squeezed them hard, making her wince. “It’s important to me that one of us survive. Now that you are with child, it is doubly important. I don’t know what I can do for Poppa or Aaron, but I do know what I can do for you. For now, you rest. There is food in the kitchen. Don’t go near the windows and don’t answer the door unless there is a series of knocks – one, three and then two. Do what that person asks. Be safe.”
“What are you saying?” The fear had returned to her voice.
“It will get worse before it gets better. Every day it will get worse. Be safe, Rachel. Many will die, but you can live. My life has been a shambles since Miriam’s death. Too many years behind me to change what I have become, but maybe in you and your baby I can atone for the mess I’ve created. In all these deaths, there must be life – at least yours, the baby’s, and hopefully Janusz’s. I want you to live, Rachel. More than anything, I want that.”
Rachel hugged her brother for a long time.
“I will make other plans. I must go.”
“How will you get inside the ghetto?”
“We have another way used for the black market.”
Rachel looked at him, not sure if he was deceiving her.
“It’s all right, Rachel. I won’t endanger myself. I’ll be fine. It’s you who must be careful.” He kissed her and left.
Two days later, she was in a horse drawn wagon surrounded by hay, on her way to an unknown destination. The wagon stopped. She heard the hay being moved and refreshing night air entered her cocoon. “Let me help you out,” the driver said. Hands pulled at her shoulders and dragged her from within the cocoon. “I’m sorry,” the man said, “there was no place I could stop before. This farmer is a friend. He will let you freshen up and change your clothes. They have a doctor nearby who will come to examine you. Don’t worry. They are friends.”
“Where are we?”
“Outside of Lipce. This is where I leave you. Tomorrow a truck will pick you up. The driver will have forged documents. You and your alleged husband will be going to Grodzisk to deliver vegetables. From there, another team will take you to your final destination.”
“Which is . . .?”
“Warsaw. Josef has arranged for you to go to Warsaw where others will help you. I can’t stay any longer. Good luck.” The man hurriedly piled the hay back on the wagon, climbed back on, and Rachel watched him disappear into the darkness.
“Please come with me,” a small man said. She followed him into the darkened farmhouse, heard the door lock and the rustling of fabric. “Just making sure the windows are completely covered before I light a candle,” he said.
She heard a scraping sound of a match and a candle flickered on a table by the wall. “Are you hungry?” the man asked,
“Yes, and thirsty,” Rachel answered. “And I could use a bath, if that is possible?”
“Of course. I expected you might want a bath. Please, follow me to my daughter’s room.” He picked up the candle and headed for the stairs leading to the top floor. Rachel followed.
Opposite the stairs was a door to a small bedroom. As he placed the candle on a dresser, Rachel couldn’t help but notice how drawn and pale his face looked. “The tub is in a room at the end of the hall, next to the back door,” he said. “I filled it with water when I heard they were bringing a woman. I’m sorry, the water is not hot. You will find towels beside the tub.” He gestured at the dresser. “Take whatever clothes you need that fit.”
“But . . . they’re your daughter’s.”
There was a heavy silence before he answered. “She is out in the field, buried in front of a large tree she loved to play under when she was a child.” There was another long pause. “She
. . . she was raped and then killed by German soldiers passing through.”
“I’m sorry,” Rachel whispered.
He didn’t answer, only turned to leave the room. He stopped at the door. “You don’t have to worry. I’ll sit on the porch until you are finished. Call me when you are ready to eat.” He shuffled out and closed the door behind him.
Rachel moved to the dresser and pulled out the drawers, fingering each item before taking something out. The daughter, it seemed, had been about her size. Josef planned well, she mused. Fresh clothing over her arm, candle in hand, she left the room and made her way down the hall. As she gazed at the full bathtub, her eyes filled with tears. What is happening to me? I see a tub for bathing and I cry, and yet when I hear a tale of grief, I have no tears. I can’t seem to control my feelings any more. She undid her dress and removed her soiled underwear. She looked down at her expanded abdomen and closed her eyes, forcing her thoughts to span the distance between her and Janusz. If you can hear me, Janusz, I promise our child will survive.
She took a deep breath and stepped into the water. She gasped at the coolness, but forced herself to stay under, letting the numbness that came take away her tension. She scrubbed her skin with the coarse bar of soap and felt herself relax. When she finished bathing, she dressed and went to the front door. She knocked on it to draw the man’s attention.
He came in and locked the door. “I have food ready in the kitchen. Let me warm it up.”
“No, let me,” Rachel responded. “You sit. I’ll help myself.”
“You must be tired.”
“A little. The bath was refreshing.”
Rachel stoked the fire in the stove while the farmer placed a log in the fireplace. Rachel lifted the pot and stirred a goulash of meat and potatoes. “Have you eaten?” she asked.
She ladled several spoonfuls onto a plate and carried it to the table. It was then she noticed the pitcher of milk on the table and gently moved it aside.
“Is something the matter?” he asked.
“Um. Could I have water instead?” she asked.
“It’s fresh. I milked the cow this morning.”
“It’s not that. I would prefer water,” she answered.
The farmer cast her a perplexed look and returned the milk to the icebox. He filled a cup with water and placed it in front of her. “I did something I wasn’t supposed to?” he asked.
“It’s all right. Jewish people don’t drink milk with meat. I know this is not normal times and even eating unkosher meat is forbidden, but as long as I can, I would like to refrain from doing as many thing that I shouldn’t.” She saw the perplexed look on his face. “Koshering is a method of treating the meat before cooking.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I never knew a Jew before the war, and now . . . because of my daughter . . .”
“I understand.” Rachel ate until she could eat no more. She removed her dish and washed the utensils. The farmer watched her. Her full stomach and the warm room sapped whatever energy Rachel had left. Her eyes grew heavy and she longed for sleep. “I do not know how to thank you. Is there something I can do for you?”
“You’re very kind. I know I’ve been staring at you, but, wearing that dress, you bring back memories of my daughter. I miss her.”
“What was her name?”
“Michelle. My wife was French. We were married eighteen years.” He laughed, a dry, unemotional sound without warmth. “Michelle Sawicki, daughter to Witold and Gabrielle Sawicki. Born, lived and died, all in sixteen years.” His voice broke and he paused. “She was so beautiful, so full of life. Innocent.” He paused, waiting for his voice to stop quavering. “I buried her deep. My hands hurt from the digging, but I wanted to protect her forever.” His voice caught again and he placed his hands over his face.
“Where is your wife?”
He lowered his hands and when he spoke it was a whisper. “Buried beside my daughter.”
Rachel looked at him, almost afraid to hear the rest of his story.
“I wasn’t home when it all happened. They didn’t rape her. She was shot and I found her outside. I found my daughter in the kitchen. How many times have I wished I had been home so I, too, could be with them now. But I know it is a sin to take your own life and, if I did, I might never be with them again.”
“I’m so very sorry,” Rachel murmured, her eyes filling.
“You’re tired. You can sleep in my daughter’s room. Tomorrow will be another long day for you. The doctor will be here early and you must be gone soon after. We can trust him. He is a close friend. He supposedly comes to see how I am.” He handed her an unlit candle. “Good night, kind lady.”
Wednesday, April 10, 1940
“What are you going to do?” She demanded. Yetta’s brown eyes blazed with anger as she shouted at Yakov. “The courier said she’d be here in three days. You never told us she was six months pregnant. Where in God’s name are you going to hide her?”
Yakov faced a large map pinned to the wall. “Josef said he had nowhere else to send her.”
“Are you mad? You’re risking our lives. Warsaw is the wrong place to bring her. They’ll look for her here. They know what she looks like and, if they find her, they’ll find us. Josef made a mistake sending her here.”
“Maybe! She’s pregnant because she screwed a goy. A Jew is not good enough for her? Now you want us to hide her. I say get rid of her. She’s bad news. Are you listening to me? You bring her into Warsaw and she’ll be dead in six weeks and so will those who’ve hidden her. Not maybe. It’s damned sure!”
“I haven’t seen you this hot and bothered since Josef was last here. Who’s talking, Yetta the fighter or Yetta Mandelker the jealous lover? Is it because you’re angry with Josef that you’re spitting these pearls of wisdom about his sister? I warned you not to get serious about him. He doesn’t let anyone get close to him. Screw him, but don’t fall for him. I warned you.”
“Screw you! I’m telling you the facts. She’s bad news. Bring her in contact with us and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Remember, I warned you.” She stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
Yakov continued to stare at the map. “Rachel, Rachel, Rachel. What am I going to do with you?”