- It Was Meant to
Be: Part One
(Warsaw, Poland, April 1917 - November, 1939)
Dedicated to our
mother's brothers and sisters:
Part One - "At the Mercy of Our Luck"
On April 14, 2008, the original manuscript of "Beshert - It
Was Meant To Be" was added to the permanent archival collection of the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D C.
© Written in 1976 by Roma Talasiewicz-Eibuszyc
CHAPTER FOURSeptember 1, 1979
My grandchild comes to visit today. He is an unusual child. I find it amusing that he would rather talk to me than watch television. Today he tells me he is reading fairytales in his school. He asks if I remember any from when I was a child in Poland. I quickly see that it is probably just the gnomes in the Maria Konopnicka story I tell him that fascinate him so. As I go along I try to add the important revelations that I discovered many years ago from this fairytale, my childhood favorite. I wonder, as I watch his innocent face if children today are aware of the beauty around them, of the compassion they are capable of giving to others. I want to tell my grandson this is one of the stories that helped me to survive, but I do not tell him. He would not understand.
My mind is suddenly flooded with the turn of events that led me to this fairy tale and the revelations that followed.
I remember it was just about a year after my mother died, that a doctor was again visiting 54 Nowolipki Street. This time is was for Sevek. My brother was only eighteen years old when he started showing signs of a weak heart. Sevek was very content with his job as a tanner in a leather workshop but because it was physically demanding, he had to stop working.
I was devastated by my brother’s illness although when I look back now, some interesting things occurred as a result. For one thing we had the good fortune of having Dr. Pupko bring light and hope into our home. I believed then in my heart, and I still do today that anything good that happened to my family was because of the generosity shown by Mr. and Mrs. Rotband. They owned the factory where Adek worked and would later welcome him into their family through marriage. I know, even without being told that it was the Rotbands who managed to get Dr. Pupko to see Sevek. This was only one of the many compassionate things they did for us. My mind immediately goes back to September 1939 during the never-ending bombings in Warsaw. Once again this couple opened their hearts to us. Along with the Rotbands thirteen of us huddled in their apartment. But this story will have to wait.
An older, Jewish physician, Dr. Pupko normally saw patients either at his home or at a hospital. I remember the day I was in the courtyard throwing away the garbage when the very short, thin man stepped gingerly out of a horse-drawn carriage. He tipped his hat to me and rushed into the building.
Dr. Pupko was a religious man who came from a very poor family. We tried so many times but he would not accept any payment from us. He seemed happy enough to drink the tea Pola served him, and spend a few minutes to sit and talk about his life. We learned he had been the only Jewish student in a Polish Medical School, and because of poverty, had to make enormous sacrifices, to study medicine. He said it was a never-ceasing need to help the sick and unfortunate people around him that gave him the strength to persevere. Now a famous doctor in all of Warsaw, even revered by his Polish colleagues, Dr. Pupko lived a very simple life dedicated to medicine. Once in a moment of humor I asked the aging doctor if it was true that he had never married. Dr. Pupko smiled sadly. He said being a doctor was the most important thing to him; that it wouldn’t be fair the way he lived to have a wife or children.
He spoke with such passion, with such honesty that I would inevitably be filled with hope when he left. Dr. Pupko tried to convince us that we should not worry. He actually promised that, given time Sevek would get better. I guess he sensed our doubt because after a few visits he confided that he himself had suffered from the same heart condition as Sevek.
Confined to bed that whole winter, Pola and I took care of our brother as best we could.
Pola cooked his meals and I brought them to him. Pola and I worked together to change his linens. I washed them in the tub of water we had warmed on the stove. Pola hung them on a line across the room. The most important thing that we were told to do was to keep Sevek calm.
Thankfully Sevek loved to be read to so reading to my brother was good for both of us. We explored all the Polish literature that I could get my hands on, and read under the one light deep into the night.
Once summer came we managed to send Sevek to a sanitarium in the town of Otwock. This was only possible because Dr. Pupko wrote a formal doctor’s order which in turn meant we paid very little.
Otwock was a rural town with a peaceful atmosphere that helped those like our brother to heal. In the late 1800 hundreds a sanatorium for those with tuberculoses opened there, but soon it became a fashionable health resort for middle-class Jews from Warsaw and central Poland. The evergreen trees in the thick forest made this region and its air famous for healing.
We put Sevek on the train and stood on the platform waving as the train pulled out of the station. When I was sure he could not see I let the tears escape from my eyes. Perhaps it was because I still felt the terrible loss of my mother that I had the irrational thought that I would never see my brother again.
The trip to the sanitarium did exactly what it was supposed to do. Sevek came back to Warsaw looking and feeling much better although two years went by before Dr. Pupko allowed him to go back to work.
Sevek learned how to make women’s purses when he realized he needed a job that was not physically demanding. To his delight and ours, he made beautiful samples which he then took to shops where the owners were quick to place orders. Sevek even found time to make some purses for all of us sisters.
Soon after Sevek’s health improved, when I was sixteen years old I started to cough up phlegm mixed with blood. Adek took me to our local health center to see Dr. Szolemski who prescribed syrup for my hacking, dry cough. He said I had pneumonia and recommended I leave for the countryside to rest as soon as possible. I remember saying I could just rest at home but the doctor was too smart for me. He seemed to know about all my responsibilities at home and responded that I would have to leave the city to get better.
Sala had met a nice Jewish family in the bakery. The mother was going away with her children to a place called Michalin. It was a small town near Otwock where Sevek had regained his health. I was permitted to go with them although it was understood we had to pay.
I packed the few things I had, some undergarments, a dress, a blouse, a skirt and a sweater. I was shaking from the fever as I picked up my mother’s blue blanket and held it to my chest. I knew that if I took it, she would be with me. I also took some of the books I had not had time to read yet.
Sala took the train with me and left on the next train back to Warsaw. At first I wanted to go alone, but Adek refused to let me. I really didn’t argue too much. Up until that point, I had not been out of the city alone at all.
It didn’t take long for me to feel uncomfortable with the family I was staying with. Most of the time, they treated me as if I wasn’t there. For a while the books I brought with me were my only companions and I spent my days reading. I read books by Julian Tuwim, a famous Polish writer and poet, and an inspiration. He was Jewish and wrote only in Polish. I loved to read, and quickly moved on to Adam Mickiewicz, another famous writer in Poland who was a great champion of Jewish rights. However, it was Maria Konopnicka’s fairy tales and short stories that made the greatest impression on my young mind. How easily I associated with that poor little orphan named Marysia who did for others rather than for herself. I knew the pain she carried through her motherless life. I don’t think there was a day I didn’t think of my mother and miss her terribly.
One day I was just finishing another of her Konopnicka’s stories when I was interrupted. Although the boy in the family was about my age, the mother would send only me to the well to get pails of water. Now, once again I was being told to go to the well. It was a long walk from where we were staying. I carried heavy buckets of water that I could barely pick up. I paused every minute due to my shortness of breath and my chills.
Konopnicka’s story was with me as I turned the wheel to bring up the pail of water that day. I stopped to catch my breath again and had a coughing spell. Suddenly, for no particular reason I could think of at the time, I got a picture in my mind of that heroine Marysia. She was so strong, so capable of finding beauty everywhere even though her life was so difficult. Not only that, in the fairytale Marysia also seemed to have compassion for the poor people around her even though she had so little in life herself.
A sudden wave of anger, rebellion swept through my body. Having compassion was one thing, being sick and taken advantage of was something else. I knew that I had been avoiding the truth and there was no way to do this any longer. I was being forced to do something that was too difficult for me. A voice in my head said that no one had a right to exploit me like this. There was no question that I needed to go home as quickly as possible.
As I walked back to the house I wondered about that author I loved so much. While I devoured her work, I knew very little about her. I vowed to find out more.
I strode into the parlor, placed the two pails on the floor and asked for the mother to take me to the train station and help me buy a ticket back to Warsaw. The mother looked down at the pails, shrugged and said okay. I was amazed then, and I still am. She did not even try to stop me.
My siblings were shocked when I walked in to our room. For one thing my rest period was supposed to be longer, and I had come home all alone. I told them quickly what had brought me back and they all understood. What they didn’t know was that I came home a changed person.
As if over night I became aware of things I was not aware of before. As I rested for the next few weeks, I was able to see clearly what my own life had been like up until then. I also discovered that I was indeed an orphan. The more I read the more my eyes were opened. I saw and understood things that I hadn’t even known existed before. There was a world outside my immediate surroundings, and in it there were people who were not all good and yet, not all bad.
Around this time Sala, now twenty-five years old was going out with girlfriends and meeting boys. She soon fell in love. During the Purim Holiday it was traditional for a young man to send a cake and wine to a young lady to signify he was sincerely interested in her. Purim, depending on the year falls between four and six weeks before Passover. In Poland it was still cold this time of year. The snow and sleet covering the streets and sidewalks made it slippery and hazardous to walk. There was always an unfortunate article in the newspapers at this time of year about some young man falling while carrying cake and wine to an unidentified young lady.
Sala’s suitor Moniek had only a mother. Sala made it quickly known that she was not happy with his being a house painter as this trade was looked down upon. They decided, or perhaps she did, that Moniek was to pay a barber to teach him the skills he need to be one himself.
Sala and Moniek were married by a rabbi, but there was no celebration. Neither of them had any money for a party. The day Sala moved out from our room was bitter-sweet. I was happy for my sister but I also felt it was the beginning of the end of what was left of our family. I helped Sala move into her new home which she would share with Moniek and his mother. The three of them would be living in one tiny room which had one small window and only enough room for one bed and a table. Moniek’s mother was to sleep on a mattress that was placed on the floor.
Although Moniek quit house painting and learned to be a barber, he could not find a job. Sala continued working in the same factory as my brother. She sewed clothes on the machine for ten hours a day. Their financial situation was so fragile that when she realized she was pregnant Sala and Moniek decided not to go through with it. I was amazed. Even though I was sixteen, I could not figure out how this had happened with Moniek’s mother sleeping right there on the floor next to the newlyweds. What I learned later on was that couples like Sala and Moniek were quite creative when it came to fulfilling their needs. They would wait for the mother to leave for a while, or at least until they were sure she was in a deep sleep.
Abortions in Poland were illegal. Doctor’s were closely monitored by the government although there were still some who did perform abortions, partly for the money and partly to help a girl in trouble.
Sala tried everything she could to end her pregnancy, from running and jumping to taking pills to induce a miscarriage. Nothing worked. The search began to find a doctor who could help her. I was chosen to help because I spoke Polish the best of all of us. In fact, once we did find a doctor, through a friend of a friend I did have to make all the arrangements in Polish. I wrote down details of the appointment and the directions to his office.
I find myself shaking my head in amazement when I recall going with Sala that day. As much as I thought I knew about pregnancy and babies, I really didn't know very much at all. I was not ready for what was about to happen although I know I appeared calm. It took all my energy to not cry as I tried to comfort poor Sala who trembled uncontrollably. I made up my mind; right then and there that I would never, ever put myself through what my sweet sister was going through. The waiting room was dark but I was grateful it was clean. It was after regular office hours which made Sala feel even more miserable. She asked me if I thought she was doing something wrong. I answered that since we were in a nice, clean doctor’s office everything would be just fine. I don’t know that I believed it, especially when the doctor nervously asked two times how Sala got his name. Finally he seemed to accept her answers but told us to wait a while to make sure we hadn’t been followed. After about fifteen minutes very little was said. Sala was ushered into the next room after handing the doctor 30.00 Polish zloty. I asked if I could come in too and there was no objection from the doctor. I saw the tears; in Sala’s eyes when he said that time was precious. It was obvious to me that it would be best for all of us if we could get done and leave as quickly as possible.
I sat in a chair next to my sister and held her hand as she lay on the doctor’s metal table. She never made a sound. After about thirty minutes Sala got up, straightened her clothes and thanked the doctor.
I wish I could say that was the end of the abortion issue but it wasn’t. Two days later, Sala woke with a high fever. She had always been very thin and somewhat anemic with frequent bouts of tonsillitis. It was obvious that going through the abortion had put a great strain on her already weak body, as well as her mind. Sala stayed in bed for two weeks and hardly spoke to anyone, not even her husband. Although she recovered enough to go back to work, I felt she was not the same.
To make matters worse, Moniek still couldn’t find a job. He and Sala decided that he would go to his uncle in Luxemburg and try his luck there. After a few months with no success there either, Moniek came back to Warsaw. Now he decided to join a group of young men, called Halutzim, the pioneers, who were embarking on a trip, by foot to Palestine. Sala was totally opposed to this idea but nothing she said could stop him. I remember the sadness in her eyes that day he kissed her lightly on the cheek and left.
At the beginning the local Jewish newspaper wrote about the travelers’ whereabouts. During the day they walked and at night they slept in small towns. After three weeks there was no longer any news. Sala was frantic. She wanted to go to the town from where the last news had come. So that she would not be taking this journey alone, in her still fragile condition, her girlfriend Ella, who was a tough young lady went with her.
Sala arrived to find, to her disbelief, Moniek parading around town with a young lady on his arm. Sala told me later that he did not make a fuss when she and Ella insisted that he return immediately with them to Warsaw.
I was so angry with Moniek I couldn’t look at him. At the same time I was so grateful for Sala when soon after their return, cousin Itzak came to their rescue. Like the gallant knights I’d read about, Itzak knew about Sala’s misfortune and made Moniek an offer. As Itzak was receiving a monthly allowance from his father in Paris, he decided to purchase a barbershop on Nowolipie 36 Street and make Moniek his partner. Life for Sala and Moniek slowly fell into place. My sister was smiling again.
Sala soon became pregnant again but when it was time to give birth she was afraid to go to the hospital. She decided to have her baby at home with me, Andza, and the midwife we hired to help. We stayed up all night trying to do the best we could in the awful experience that followed. Moniek, like all men was not allowed in the room while his wife was giving birth. He was in charge of boiling water. Sala’s screams filled the room and I am sure all the neighbors heard her as well. The midwife looked on and did nothing. I couldn’t understand how this could be happening but I had to assume that she knew what she was doing. Suddenly Sala’s pain seemed to subside. The midwife reported that the baby’s movements had stopped.
As always, in a case of emergency my sister and I ran to Adek for help. At that time he already was married and lived quite far away. Adek had married his boss’s daughter and was doing well after all the sacrifices he had made for us. His wealthy wife was also pregnant with their first child. He quickly called for an ambulance on the precious telephone that they had just installed weeks before. The three of us rushed back to be with Sala. With the ambulance a doctor was dispatched, and after examining Sala he immediately ordered her to the hospital to have childbirth by C-section. The two ambulance workers had to carry Sala down the steps of the four-story walk up.
We counted the hours and then the minutes until we could go to the hospital to see if Sala’s baby was still alive although I worried mostly for Sala’s life. We had to wait until nine o’clock in the morning for the downstairs information window of the hospital on Wolnosci Street to open. Andza and I went there at eight and already found dozens of people waiting in line. When the information window finally opened and our turn came, we looked at each other and froze. Andza pushed me in front of the window where I managed to ask how Mrs. Gasfeld was. Andza and I started to cry when we heard the words, ‘your sister gave birth to a beautiful baby boy at four o’clock this morning.’
We were not allowed to see Sala that day as only husbands were allowed to visit, and even then for just a few minutes. We were allowed to bring food for her though and we left it at the hospital’s window. If the food was easily digested, such as soup, cooked vegetables or fruit compote and most dairy products it was accepted.
In those days women stayed in the hospital for eight days after giving birth. Sala was weak but happy when she walked out of the hospital carrying Pinkus, who was named after our father. We affectionately called him Pinek.
Soon Adek’s wife gave birth to a girl who they named Bluma, after our mother.
Adek like Sala got married in 1933. His bride’s parents were both alive and she had two young brothers. She was the oldest of the three children. Adek told me the family was very loving. I was so happy for him. The father of Adek’s wife was an owner of the large textile factory on ulica Bonifraterska 27 where Adek and Sala worked. As I mentioned earlier, that is where Adek started working when he was twelve, after our father died. The bride’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Rotband made a gala wedding and then made our brother a business partner in the factory. The newly married couple moved in with their in-laws where Adek quickly became, as he said, ‘one of the family.’
Through all this time we stayed close to our mother’s family, her four sisters and two brothers. After the First World War the oldest of the sisters escaped with her husband and children to Russia. They never came back although we knew they had two daughters and five sons. While surviving World War II in Russia I visited my cousins and uncle in Moscow in February of 1941 but this will come later on in my story.
One of our mother’s brothers, Dovid was a socialist. He took on the dangerous job of working against the Polish government and subsequently became a wanted man. He was hiding guns in his mother’s stove in the summer time since it was not used. The guns were discovered anyway and Dovid had to go into hiding. His family dressed him as a woman and arranged for false documents to get him out of Poland and into France. His best friend also had to leave Poland since he too was working against the Polish government and was a wanted man. This best friend was married to Estera, the youngest of my mother’s sisters.
Estera, a beautiful woman with blond hair and blue eyes was always a welcomed visitor at our room. She had one son, Itzak who was the young man who helped Sala’s husband with the barber shop. Already many couples were starting to marry because they were in love. This was a new, revolutionary concept but in Estera’s case we all knew that she was not in love with her husband. On the other hand, he loved Estera very much. Since mother’s brother and the husband of mother’s youngest sister were both wanted by the Polish authorities, both men did successfully escape to France where Estera and her baby later joined them in Paris. After a few years, however, Estera missed her sisters and brother in Warsaw. She came back and that was how her son Itzak grew up with us and became like another brother.
Another of mother’s sister, Hadasa had four children- two girls and two boys. She too was pretty and dressed in a very stylish manner. All four of her children went to school and the oldest son became a bookkeeper. Her husband was a successful merchant. He owned a large grocery store on Gesia Street and so they were well off. Every time Hadasa came to visit us she would clean her shoes before leaving to go back home to Nalewki Street where all the rich Jewish people lived. I never quite understood heir little ritual with her shoes but it left quite an impression on me.
Mother’s only other brother who lived in Poland was Motel. He was the youngest of the siblings who, as I mentioned earlier, Pola was feeding at our expense. Motel was a proud man who owned a store where he manufactured and sold fashionable women’s hats. The store and his home were in the Polish neighborhood. Motel had two sons and one daughter. His marriage fell apart when the children were still young. To his credit he kept the children and raised them by himself.
Now there were only four of us left in our one room apartment. Pola was different from the rest of us. She was indifferent to the outside world and only wanted to stay home, take care of us and do the house chores. She was close to our neighbors, relating well to the other women and seeking their advice. Pola seemed to be happy with her life. She did demand that her working siblings give her all of their earnings.
There was a constant battle between Pola and Andza. Andza was a very smart young woman who, by 1934 was fully participating in the workers movement. As Pola stood strong in her demands for Andza’s money the tension grew in our home. Andza’s rebellion brought about vicious fighting between the two of them. One Friday night, just before the Sabbath, their arguing was especially fierce. It started off like every other Friday night for the last three years. Pola stood there with her arms crossed over her chest, waiting for all of Andzia’s earnings. Andzia looked so tired that night when she rushed in right before sundown. Perhaps it was because she was so tired that she responded the way she did, but she refused to hand over any of her money.
“I cook, I clean, and I take care of all of you.” Pola’s voice was getting louder and louder. “What am I supposed to use for money?”
It was Meant to Be is
published here, in a serialized
version, with the permission of Suzanna Eibuszyc. © Web site Copyright Judy Cohen, 2008.
© Web site Copyright Judy Cohen, 2008.