' I wasn't happy. I wasn't unhappy. I was there at that time and that was all. I didn't involve myself in philosophical reflections, but my mind was like a camera, imprinting forever the idyllic beauty of the European summer of 1939. '
The idyll does not last long. Within days a young Jewish girl and her family are engulfed by the Second World War in Warsaw, Poland. Outside the concentration camps and mostly outside the ghetto, the adolescent heroine and her family experience the war with a secret. Living in a country house, they survive on false papers and 'good looks', while hiding four of their close relatives in the cellar. One day they have to cope with waves of German soldiers bursting through their houses; the next moment the Warsaw ghetto burns; another day they wake to find the front line in their front garden.
The author recreates this inhuman world though the eyes of her adolescent self. There are moments of poetic vision and moments of searing pain, but the book is a testament to heroism and concern.
|Publisher:||Scribe Publications Party Limited|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.87(d)|
About the Author
Maria Lewitt is a Melbourne writer. She is the author of No Snow in December and numerous short stories.
Read an Excerpt
An Autobiographical Novel
By Maria Lewitt
Scribe Publications Pty LtdCopyright © 1980 Maria Lewitt
All rights reserved.
The leaves tremble above me as if a shiver has gone through the whole tree. Blotches of the sky play hide and seek, exposing bluest of blue among the clusters of green. And the sun sends its rays through, a spotlight in the theatre bringing the whole scene to life.
I screw up my eyes and rock in my hammock, encircled by colours and the appeasing quiet of nature around me. If I shut my eyes tight I can feel the dancing shadows. If I open them ever so slightly I am surrounded by a rainbow. And if I shut them again a multitude of coloured circles swims in front of me.
The late summer is still, pregnant with all the right sounds and scents, rich in shades, kind in warmth.
And there I was, half hypnotised by continuous rocking, voices and colours. A bird flew into the tree and chirped, twisting and lifting its tail up, wiping its beak in a jerky way, ignoring my presence. The wind, or rather a suggestion of it, swayed the cornfield in a multitude of waves. The shadows of the clouds moved slowly, followed by the beam of the sun's rays: the light chasing the gloom away.
Snatches of words came from a distance, fading and gaining in strength: 'Irena ... lazy ... selfish ... disasters ... worries ... don't know ...' I knew that my mother was discussing me; some of her words had hit me dead centre. It was true that I spent most of my days in the hammock, or walking around in the fields and the forest. She was concerned about my lack of communication and my selfishness. I was moody because I wanted to be with Irma and my other friends, while my parents had decided to send my sister and me for a summer holiday away from Lodz, our home town. They were waiting for 'the political situation to clarify', as they explained to us.
But I was not concerned with the political situation, and was sick and tired of hearing it discussed at our home. I was fifteen and wanted to live, to experience, to know. And there I was, planted in that hole, my only company being Tania, my elder sister, who was beautiful and freckled. She looked down on me, which irritated me. She spent her days sun-bathing, probably hoping to tan evenly all the spaces between her freckles. The result was devastating and made her unapproachable.
There was a boy of seventeen who was my only hope for romance, and not bad to look at. My mother said he was a 'very intelligent, brilliant student'. She was right, too. He was brilliant and intelligent, always starting a sentence with, 'As you probably know', which most of the time I didn't. I felt awful, getting myself entangled with my nonchalant replies, 'Of course I know!'
He always quoted Latin, which I detested and didn't know very well; and he had a beautiful chocolate tan, while I looked like a boiled beetroot. There was one thing, however, which I knew better: poetry. So I recited to him whenever he allowed me. It wasn't easy; it wasn't easy at all. He knew exactly what he wanted to say, precise in every word, preaching all the time about obligations and self-discipline. He was an expert in every field. He called poetry escapism and memorising, a waste of time.
So we drifted apart, he on his Latin quotations, I on my ignorance — romance and companionship unfulfilled.
I wanted something to happen during that summer, something to carry me from everyday boredom. But nothing happened. What my mother called 'laziness' wasn't really laziness. It was a peculiar search for values and answers. What she called 'a lack of concern and selfishness' was really me looking at myself and trying to sort out what was going on around me.
I wasn't happy, I wasn't unhappy. I was there at that time and that was all. I didn't involve myself in philosophical reflections, but my mind was like a camera, imprinting forever the idyllic beauty of the European summer of 1939.
My father cut our holidays short. He was apologetic, but preferred to have us all together in the city. Germany and Russia had just signed a non-aggression pact. Father was very worried that the Pact would assure Russia's neutrality, making Hitler even more militant and dangerous than he had been. His next objective would surely be Poland.
My father looked tired, and his words made mother very quiet. Tania went to pack her things. As for me, I ran outside, overwhelmed with joy and, while breathing in the warmth of the late summer evening, performed an atavistic dance. I was going home to my friends, to my normal life.
When we returned the whole city was in a frenzy. Patriotism was riding high, with flag-waving and flowers for the soldiers. Troops were marching and singing:
We're going to fight in Berlin
where we'll kill Hitler,
The streets carried the people along as though on a conveyor belt. It was a happy and noisy crowd, exchanging victorious glances, boasting of our strength, suspicious of spies, laughing at Hitler's army with its cardboard tanks and margarine instead of butter.
I threw myself gladly into that whirlpool. Every morning I met my friends and we would spend the day digging trenches and shelters. We joked and we sang army songs:
Oh, how beautiful the War is,
and when you fall off your horse,
we won't stop.
Because when you die,
you'll see our beloved Poland
in your last sleep.
It was great. Radio programmes overflowed with patriotic speeches and gay military music. Each day was eventful. In the evenings the whole family assembled at home. In contrast with myself and the life outside, my parents were strangely unenthusiastic and quiet.
One evening my mother arrived home with a big tin box, put it on the table, and said quietly: 'I want to make a wish. Let this box be always full of bread in the years to come'. She left the room in her calm way, followed by my father. Tania and I looked at each other without understanding, some uneasiness creeping in around us.
And then it started, with a noise of aeroplanes and the radio announcement. We were at war. The sirens measured the fragments of our days and nights, between one alarm and another.
We spent most of the time in the cellar; however, my father stubbornly refused to join us and the other residents of our flats in the safety of a damp and stuffy refuge. For the first time I met all our neighbours. It was exciting, because before the War I had hardly known the people around me. Our janitor was jubilant — at long last the mighty ones from 'above the ground' had come to join him and his family. He kept the door of his wretched flat wide open, not even trying to conceal his satisfaction; he would sit in his chair, his children in bed, his wife endlessly patching one garment or another, while we felt lost and uneasy in the strange surroundings.
Lodz was hardly bombed; but news, official and whispered from ear-to-ear, was depressing. Apparently the German army was moving swiftly; our own soldiers looked dirty and tired. The various women's committees set up hot kitchens for the boys. The soldiers were frightened to touch the food, claiming that some of their friends had been poisoned by German spies. So we sampled the food in front of them.
There were no more flags, no more flowers.
Curfew was introduced, and prices soared, but our bread bin was still full. At night we heard a constant thumping of soldiers' feet and horses' hooves. We waited for the promised victory, cursing our beautiful cloudless sky, hoping for a drenching rain which would, surely, bog and ruin the German offensive.
And then the night came when we stood in the entrance to our flats. An 'expert' in building construction came to the conclusion that the arch of the entry was the soundest structure in the entire building. Our janitor wasn't too happy. We heard approaching planes; we could hardly hear each other. Some people disagreed with the general opinion and decided to go to the cellar, which made our janitor happy and the building expert angry.
My mother put her arms around Tania and me. 'I wish your father was with us.'
'Would you like me to fetch him?'
The noise was growing but it wasn't planes any more: it was a mixture of voices and an uneven stamping of feet. I looked through the opening. The entire width of the street was covered with people carrying children, suitcases, bird cages, pictures, bundles.
'Where are you going?' Someone fired the question.
'Running from the Germans.'
'Going towards Warsaw.'
'All men should join the Army, haven't you heard?'
The voices were grave, mixed-up. I didn't want to hear any more. I ran upstairs, ignoring my mother's protest.
My father was sitting in his chair reading a book. He looked up at me, his eyes questioning.
'Have you been listening to the radio?'
'No, I haven't.'
He turned the radio on, twisting the knobs with his long, nervous fingers. How I had missed him, how good it was to be with him again.
Attention, attention. Radio Warsaw speaking. The enemy is gaining on our territories. The Army has decided to redeploy our forces in Warsaw. We need new recruits ... This is an urgent announcement. All men are instructed to leave their homes and join our forces in Warsaw ... Our Victory depends on you. Men of the Polish Republic, join us. Before long, you'll be back in your homes, bringing victory to your families ... Attention, attention.
My father switched the radio off. He got up, took his raincoat, and kissed me. I followed him down. My mother and Tania ran towards him.
'I knew it.' Mother's voice was dry. 'Shall I prepare something for you? A suitcase, food?'
'No, nothing.' Father kissed Tania, then mother, then me, threw the coat over his shoulders, and left us. He disappeared almost immediately, was lost among the moving, terrified crowd, the flowing lava of an erupted volcano.
We watched the people and then went to our flat, each of us to her own room. I snuggled into my bed and, for the first time, fully realised what war really meant. My father didn't say good-bye, he didn't say that I was a big girl, he didn't tell me to look after my mother and Tania. He didn't tell me anything.
I saw the bent figures of people marching towards Warsaw, with their indistinguishable faces; and I heard the tumult of voices, the shuffling, shuffling of feet. And my father was among them, one of them.
My father was dead. We were going to his funeral. All of us were dressed in black. My mother's face was hidden behind a veil. Her hands in black gloves lay lifeless on her lap. The only sound was the rhythmic clip-clop of horses' hooves and Tania's restrained sobs.
The carriage was going slowly. The driver hit the horses, urging them to trot. Why was he hitting them? My father was dead. They hit him, too. They hit him until he lost consciousness and died. My father was dead and the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and I wished I had a black veil; it would have deadened the day too bright and beautiful for a burial.
People were walking, trams passed by. The sound of the city grew in volume, reaching a piercing, intolerable crescendo. My city was alive, my conquered home town was coming back to reality, learning how to live under German rule. People mingled, brushing their bodies against the uniformed conquerors. My father's killer must have been somewhere among them.
Two weeks before father had returned home. He had come at night; dirty, thin and strangely quiet. He was sick with exhaustion, full of unexplained worries, his blue eyes now dull and sad. He bathed and he ate, he asked questions and listened to us. He was home, and we almost forgot that, outside, German flags hung from every door, German soldiers marched through our streets, and every day brought new decrees.
I showed him my school books, and he looked through them as always, and I promised to work really hard that coming year — though nobody asked me to make any promises. Tania kept on asking whether she would be allowed to continue her studies in France, and mother sat with us just looking at father, until he grew very tired and went to bed. The three of us stayed up very late, keeping our voices as low as our excitement allowed. My father was back home, home with us, home to stay. Could there be happiness in war, joy in war?
The next day I went to school, ignoring the flags, the army and the queues. As long as we were together it didn't matter so much any more. I entered my school. Uniformed Germans were walking up and down. I went past, not looking at them. Before long I was told that the fourth floor of our school had been requisitioned by the army and must be vacant by lunch-time. All the teachers and the girls started work immediately. We carried desks, tables, school equipment, books. We felt very important.
On the following day the fourth floor was returned to us. Our joy helped us to speed up the task of returning the school's items to their rightful places.
The next day the first floor of our school fell victim to the requisition. The foreign language and uniforms, the military transports and flags frightened me once more.
New decrees had reached an epidemic stage, with printed bills posted all over the city. 'Attention, attention. Jews are not allowed to live on or to use Adolf Hitler Strasse' (the main street).
When I arrived home my father was in bed, my mother frantic, trying to get a doctor. Father asked me about school and whether we enjoyed our return to the fourth floor.
'Oh yes, very much,' I said, and it was the first time I consciously lied to him.
'We are heading for hard times.' He managed to sit up. 'No matter what happens', he said, looking at his hands, 'we have to be prepared, realistic. They might take everything away from us, except for our experiences and knowledge'. He picked up my hand. 'Your schooling is very important.' He held my hand for a while. I didn't know what to say. He let my hand go and I left his room.
In the evening he was better. Irma's father dropped in. They had been friends for many years, since their student days. They loved to discuss and argue about politics and music. We had spent many holidays together, the Kohns and us. It was during those long summers when my friendship with Irma was cemented, long before we started school. I was very fond of her parents, especially of her father. Mr. Kohn's face was always alive; he treated me as his equal and his voice was full of music.
On this occasion both men were hungry for news, as all radios had been confiscated at the beginning of the Occupation. As usual, they got themselves entangled in political speculations; and, as a result, Mr. Kohn missed the curfew and stayed overnight. I went to sleep peacefully, listening to the familiar voices I loved so much.
Next day, during the maths lesson, I was called to see our headmistress. It surprised me. I was trying to find an explanation and, as I walked, the school corridor seemed to stretch out in front of me.
My mother was waiting for me, and she looked stiff. I sat next to her. The squareness and coldness of our school benches made me feel even more uneasy.
'Your father is gravely ill.' Mother's face was throbbing.
It couldn't be, I thought. He was better last night; he told me about values, and I hadn't said a word and left him. What was she saying, my mother? My father beaten up? No, no. An SS man came to take my father away, accused him of being a lazy, dirty Jew? No, no, I must have been dreaming. What was my mother doing at school? She should have been at home and I should have been in my class, because schooling was important. Why was she turning her face towards the window? Yes, she was crying.
'I told him your father was sick. "I know Jewish sickness; all Jews are sick when they're asked to work", he said. And he kept on kicking your father, methodically, coldly.' She waved her hand as if she wanted to chase something away. 'We had better hurry home.'
'Leave them till tomorrow.'
It was strange to return home at such an early hour and in the company of my mother. She kept on talking in a detached, disjointed way, allowing herself short spells of silence.
'He asked me if I was Jewish. "I am his wife", I said. "You shouldn't be living with a Jew", he said. He was young. I tried. I really tried to stop him. He laughed, he pushed me away, and left only when your father collapsed.'
We went home, trespassing on Aryan grounds.
My father died the following morning.
All mirrors were covered up; there were hushed voices around us, sounds of weeping, and black stockings and dresses for the three of us.
I sat in my room alone, stunned, wondering where our mourning garments had come from. People kept on coming. 'Will you please accept my most sincere expressions ... 'I couldn't distinguish faces any more; my eyes were dry. My great-aunt shook me, tears streaming down her wrinkles. 'Why don't you cry, child? Your father is dead, don't you understand?'
My father was dead and I didn't cry. My father was dead and the world was alive. Our carriage turned towards the Jewish cemetery. Once upon a time, or was it just a few weeks ago, the entrance had led through an avenue lined on both sides with old trees, their branches meeting, forming a green roof. Once upon a time. Now all the branches were chopped down, the trunks stripped and naked. And young people were standing between them, shouting, bending down, straightening up, waving their hands. 'Down with Jews! One less, good riddance, hurray!' The stones hit our carriage. My mother lifted her black-gloved hand to her face.
My father was dead, the sky was blue. Merciless bright sun.
The sky should have been black, with the threat of a downpour to make the stone-throwers stand still, to wash their sardonic grins away and leave their faces wet, as a sign of sorrow for a man who had died.
Excerpted from Come Spring by Maria Lewitt. Copyright © 1980 Maria Lewitt. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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