Sometimes I think about the mornings, gray and wet, and so cold that my breath looked like steam from a pot of hot tea...except there was no hot tea. The mud then was thick from the pre-dawn rain, and seemed to cover everything. But it didn't matter, because the mud was the earth and the earth was life, and anything that reminded us of the living was good. But I'm getting much too far ahead of myself. It's only fair to tell you the beginning, so that you'll know how I got to the end.
My name is Hanna Berkenski, and the day it actually started was the Sabbath, a lovely sunny Friday in November of 1941. It also happened to be my birthday, my fifteenth birthday. I will try to tell you about my family and my home first, so you will know that in spite of the awful German soldiers who completely took over and ruined our city, we were still a happy home. We were looking forward to the possibility that soon these terrible intruders would go away and let us get back our normal lives.
I was born in a small town in Poland, but to this day, I can't remember the name. When my Papa was able to get his position at the University, we moved to a little house just outside of Warsaw. It was so tiny that my sister
Rachel and I had to share a bed.Sammy, who was the oldest, got to have his own bed, but all of us children slept in the same room.
It wasn't bad to share, except when Sammy ate too much cabbage for dinner...and then he would be very rude...and very smelly. On those particularly bad nights, Rachel and I would take our blankets and pillows, and sleep in the parlor, leaving Sammy to deal with his odors all by himself.
The best part about our house was the garden. Mama had a wonderful green thumb, and everything she planted turned into color, which made the house look like something out of a fairy tale. A little cottage surrounded by sparkling multi-colored jewels. In the spring and summer when the breezes blew the lace curtains, and the geraniums and petunias were in bloom, I couldn't imagine anywhere more beautiful.
That all changed soon after my birthday in 1939. My thirteenth birthday was one of the most special days in my life. Mama made dinner for all of my friends, and then we had a magnificent peach cobbler for dessert. Everyone brought me presents, and Papa played the violin and he was quite good. I started my lessons when I was eleven, and while I was making very nice progress, I certainly was no match for my Papa.
I was at the age then where friends become you're whole life. My best friend, Freyda, and I spent practically every spare moment together. We would talk of our special dreams and of the wonderful holidays we would take as soon as we finished school.I would tell her about my plan to become a professor like my father, and while everyone else in my family laughed at the prospect of a woman sitting in a professor's chair, Freyda never laughed. She only said, "We can do anything we want to, Hanna."
Freyda didn't have as lofty ambitions as I did. Her heart's desire was to marry Sig Krazinski and have lots and lots of babies. The only part she left out was that Sig Krazinski had never spoken a single word to her...ever. In fact, he never looked at her, or any other girl for that matter.I always wondered about Sig Krazinski...
Men certainly were not a part of my plan for a long while. I enjoyed the idea of having some handsome young man pay for my dinner, or take me to the theatre. I had no intention of forsaking my dreams for a life of dirty diapers. Not for a long, long time. But, there was this one boy who always smiled at me in class, and I often wondered what it would be like to kiss him. I wondered what it would be like to kiss anyone.
One day, when Freyda and I went down to the lake to sun ourselves, we talked about what it would be like. We decided to try it out on each other...just to see what someone else's lips felt like. We giggled a lot at the thought, but then we tried. It felt soft and warm and nice. But there was something missing. We both felt it. I would never get the answer to the missing part of the puzzle until many years and many sorrows later. When I finally found out that secret, I was no longer the same innocent child who experimented by the lake.
Our life was perfect, from a thirteen-year-old's point of view, until the day the letter came.
It said we were being evicted from our home, because of the War, and all Jews were going to be given housing in Warsaw.
Papa ranted and raved for three days, while Mama went about the unpleasant business of packing up a whole family, a whole life, into cardboard boxes in preparation for our move. We tried to help her with the packing, but she insisted on doing it alone, and every time I looked at her, she had tears running down her cheeks.
I finally managed to talk Mama into allowing me to help. She looked so tired and so sad, I couldn't let her do anymore of it alone.
"Please Mama," I said, "it's too much...please let me help you."
She looked into my eyes and enfolded me in her arms, and I could feel her warm tears on my face.
"Why are you crying, Mama?"
"Because we are leaving this house where we have been so happy...where Rachel was born. Because we are leaving my beautiful garden.Because we are being made to live in a ghetto in the middle of our own city, a ghetto surrounded by fences, and walls and locked gates...and soldiers with guns. Why? Because we are Jews? Have we done anything to hurt these people? We have only tried to live by God's laws, to be kind and generous, to love our children, to love our country. That is why I am crying, my Hanna, because I fear this is only the first stop on a much longer and more difficult journey." She said this as she looked deep into my eyes, willing me to understand.
"What journey, Mama? What are you talking about," I asked.
"A journey to the unknown, my darling...a journey that Jews have been taking over and over since Moses led us through the desert. But this time, I fear, there will be no Moses to part the Red Sea."
I remember looking at her, still not knowing the meaning of her words, but the sound of them gave me a chill that went all the way up my spine.
She kissed me then, and said, "Now, get the candlesticks and wrap them carefully in the lace tablecloth."
As soon as I entered the door to our new home, I knew we would all hate that place. The first thing to greet us was the smell. An awful combination of fried fish, boiled cabbage, tobacco smoke, and sewage. What amazed me in the two years that we spent there, was how quickly we got used to those obnoxious odors, until we literally didn't know they existed. Unfortunately, the second thing to greet us was something we never quite got used to...the cockroaches.
We figured out, after not too long, that the only way to survive them was to laugh about them, and eventually, even though they were loathsome, disgusting, sneaky creatures...we began to give them names and track their comings and goings. The only one in our family who enjoyed their presence was Sunshine, our large, mostly orange Tabby cat. Because she was used to being outdoors all the time and was now confined to this tiny torture chamber with five humans, she spent much of her time hunting down the roaches to assuage her boredom.
We tried to think of all the names of people we disliked, like Mr. Schultzkoff, the tailor, or Hirschel Rosenbaum, the bratty boy in Rachel's class at school. And then, when Sunshine reigned victorious in her quest for a particular cockroach, we would laugh and say, "Good! It served him right!"
It took Mama one whole week of scrubbing her fingers raw, to make our new home clean enough to meet her standards.Only when everything finally shined and every corner was scrutinized for dust and crumbs, did she pronounced it our new home. And, announced that we were going to add another member to our family in five months.
There was always a sadness about Mama in those months. I am certain that it was because she heard rumors of what the Germans were doing to the Jews of Europe. And while we all believed, at least in the beginning, that the rumors were silly lies told by half-witted people, and this awful apartment was only temporary, and that we would all be going back to our lovely little house any day. Mama knew in her heart that this was only the beginning of much worse things to come.
The grown-ups in the neighborhood were very careful not to talk in front of the children about the details of these secret and scary things. And so, we were very sheltered from the realities that surrounded us. Of course, we saw the soldiers on the street corners as we made our way to and from school, and as the months went on, there was never enough food. But, because we were young, we took these things in our stride and went about the adventure of living with an indifference that only children can have.
The boundaries of the Warsaw Ghetto, as it was called, were patrolled by German soldiers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so that if anyone was brave enough, or perhaps, stupid enough to try and sneak out...well, it was usually their last stupidly, brave act.
After a while we became used to life as it was, and soon our cramped, little apartment was the only home we thought of.
Five months to the day from Mama's grand announcement, Esther was born. She was named after Papa's father Ezra who died before the War. She was such a beautiful baby that none of us could keep our hands off of her. Rachel, who was eleven at the time, used to carry her around all day long, which was just fine with Mama, who had her hands full enough with taking care of the house, and the cooking, and the laundry.
My job was to help Mama with preparing the meals and with washing the diapers, which as you can imagine, was not my favorite pastime. I particularly hated the winter, when I needed to hang the diapers on a clothesline in the freezing temperatures. When it was time to pull the line in, the diapers would be stiff as boards from the ice, and I nursed hands that were bright red and chapped all winter. I asked Mama what the point was of hanging clothes on the line if they were only going to get frozen. And she said, "The point is, my darling, no one has invented a better way. So unless you are the inventor, we do it this way."How could you argue with that?
And so our lives continued for the next two years. Soon we were not allowed to attend school any longer, and there were endless lines for everything from bread to turnips. We no longer ate eggs, or milk, or meat, or poultry of any kind unless one made a deal with the Devil himself for a tough piece of beef or a scrawny chicken on a special occasion.
And that takes us to the real beginning of my story. We didn't need to deal with the Devil that day...only Mr. Frankel, the butcher. He was the one who provided us with the chicken we had to celebrate my birthday.