- 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"
Edited by Cora T. Schwartz, author of Gypsy Tears: a story about loving a Holocaust survivor, and The Forgotten Few: a photo journal of the remaining Holocaust survivors in Mogelov, Ukraine.
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
My mother Roma, 1948.
It is the Fourth of July here in America. From the roof top of my apartment building I see the fireworks of these proud American people celebrating their independence. I wish there had been a cause for such celebration in Poland after the First WW, but all people had to show for was horrible casualties, and many losses. Polish casualties from First World War were horrific. Many men perished or came back home disabled. Our country’s spirits were broken and tired.
As a country Poland was broken. Trying to rebuild with help from America was a slow process. As a child, all I knew and cared about were the kitchens that were set up to feed us. Every day Adek took me to the one closest to where we lived. I would get a cup of milk and a piece of bread. America also opened orphanages for orphaned and abandoned children. Many children who weren’t orphans were sent to live there because their parents couldn’t care for them. Thankfully Mother never considered sending any of us there. One Friday night, as we sat around the table in the glow of the Shabbat candle, Mother looked down at the potato soup and then up at us. “Poor but always together, like a mother bird with its newborn babies in a nest,” she said. The warm feeling I got from her reassuring words are still with me today.
Yes, we were poor, but so were most of the other people in our neighborhood. Everyone was busy doing what they had to do in order to survive. Winter can be hard everywhere but in Warsaw winters were especially severe. To make matters worse, I wanted so much to go out and play, even in the cold but I didn’t have shoes. All I could do was work on defrosting the one window to look outside. This was not an easy task and eventually I had to give up. As winter progressed Mother had to cover the window and sealed the frame with rages to keep out the freezing draft.
Two times a week, usually on a Tuesday and always on Friday before Shabbat, Mother managed to burn a little coal in our stove. Coal was very costly and Mother could not afford to burn it every day. Its warmth was bliss. By Saturday morning some of the warmth was gone but since we were all expected to be home this added another kind of warmth. Mother observed a strict Shabbat. We were not allowed to do anything, not even read or write, and of course all foods were served cold. This was a hard day for us children, and as soon as we saw the first star, we said the Shabbat prayer and lit the kerosene lamp. After the prayer, Mother always managed to prepare a warm meal.
In the summertime things were easier; I could go down to the courtyard barefoot and play with other children. Some of them wore shoes; some were barefoot, like me. When I was six I got my first pair of shoes. That they were made of wood didn’t matter a bit. I remember that day as though it was yesterday. My older sister Sala went with me to buy them. I walked home happy and proud, with my head held high. On the way home, I saw so many children without shoes turning their heads and looking at me with envy and it was then that I started feeling a little guilty in the midst of my own happiness.
I wore the clothes my sisters outgrew. I don’t remember ever getting new clothes although I did have two of everything. Mother washed one set while I wore the clean one. When my sister Andzia (forth in line) turned twelve, Mother arranged for her to work as a seamstress. At that time, it was customary for a young person to work for free, like an apprentice. After the first few months, the apprentice would start getting some wages but they were usually very low.
I heard mother talking to the neighbor out side our apartment that first day after Andza left for work. “What can I do?” mother said. “I know how Andzia is being taken advantage of but we need to eat.”
“The rich capitalist have no pity and take advantage of children, worst of all.” The neighbor added in agreement and walked away.
And so, at age twelve working for free became Andza’s reality although after a few months she was also bringing her wages home on Friday along with my other three working siblings. Everything was given to Mother. Life slowly started to get a little better. Hunger became a thing of the past. We began to eat meat at our traditional Shabbat dinner. My usual daily meal now consisted of soup, bread, herring and onions; we still could not afford fruits. When someone was sick Mother would buy a lemon to add to his or her tea, but otherwise fruits were for rich people. It was common to walk through the public gardens and see wealthy mothers encouraging loudly their children into eating their bananas and oranges. It always amazed me that I could watch these interactions and salivate even though I never knew the taste of those exotic fruits. Even today I will hold an orange and examine it as though it was some precious jewel before I eat it.
At this time many Jews outside of the city of Warsaw were farmers. They grew fresh vegetables and raised animals and fowl. Early in the morning, these farmers would arrive in the streets of Warsaw with everything from fresh milk, potatoes, peas, beans, onions, carrots, parsley, radishes, and cucumbers. This was the least expensive way for people to buy food, as long as one remembered to boil the milk. Many cows were sick with tuberculosis.
Most of the families on Nowolipki Street were just like us, poor, working class, Jews. Polish people lived in separate neighborhoods and were already anti–Semitic. Polish laws were anti–Semitic toward Jews as well. Most jobs were off limits to our people. Jews could not work in any government jobs or teach school beyond the elementary level. We were only allowed to do jobs in retail or in a trade. For most part we were shopkeepers, bakers, shoemakers, painters, barbers and tailors.
Polish people did live toward the end of our street, but we knew from a very early age not to there. If one was foolish enough, or careless enough to be where he was not supposed to be, it was not unusual to be beaten up or pelted with rocks.
Our street was long and narrow but we did have a few small grocery stores, two bakeries and a dairy store. When things got better for us financially, in the morning one of us would run out to the bakery for fresh kaiser, onion or caraway seed rolls. Crisp bagels, with a crust that crackled when I bit into them, were my favorite. In the evening men came around from courtyard to courtyard with baskets full of fresh, hot bagels. They were braided and baked in a special way. On better days we ate them with butter. Even now I can still taste that warm buttery delight.
By law, stores in Poland had to close at seven in the evening, but every store had a back door. This setup allowed many stores to stay open longer for people who needed to shop after work. The police knew about this back door shopping and walked around enforcing the law giving summons to the shop owners. However, a small money bribe could keep the police away for a few weeks.
The sanitation people paid visits as well. There were high penalties if things were not clean and orderly. With the crowded living quarters we all lived in, it was difficult to pass these inspections. Apartment owners had to answer to the sanitation officials, and in our neighborhood those owners were Jewish. As if the penalty was not enough, the word ‘Jew’ was used frequently along with it. As young as I was, I still remember that for even for smallest offense I heard the officials in the courtyard sneer, “Jews go to Palestine”.
My childhood memories were joyful at times, but depressing too. I guess everyone has happy and sad childhood memories but somehow my younger years were filled with very dramatic ups and downs, and so clear they can still move me to tears or make me smile.
The building we lived in, its courtyard where I was able to hold my face up to the warmth of the sun after a bone-chilling winter was a blessing. It was also a prison of sorts as well. Like all the other tenement buildings in our neighborhood we had a watchman-janitor who lived on the ground floor. He was the only gentile living in the building which was a necessity because he would light the fires in the stoves on Sabbath. Of course, as Jews, after sundown we could not do most things during Sabbath. Pan Juzek was a cranky old man who lived alone in a tiny room off the main entrance to our building. We usually tip-toed past his door, not out of respect but rather, because all us children feared his terrible temper. I remember hearing some of the adults comment that Pan Juzek was lucky he had a job and especially one that earned him extra for lighting the fires. Even at my young age I realized his job of cleaning the courtyard with its horrible toilets, and the piles of smelly garbage would make anyone nasty.
Aside from taking care of the grounds, Pan Juzek was responsible for locking the front gate at exactly ten o’clock every night. It was also at this time that we were expected to put out all kerosene lights. I lived in dread of the pitch black hallway and staircase outside our apartment. If anyone needed to go out after ten, a candle and matches were an absolute necessity. The gate had a bell that was connected to Pan Juzek’s room. Sometimes after 10:00 PM I would hear the bell ring. I waited to hear the squeak of the wooden gate, and the grumbling voice yelling curse words I did not understand. With all his carrying on at least I knew he had come with the key. I couldn’t understand why Pan Juzek had this job if he hated us so much. Mother smiled sadly when I asked her.
“He doesn’t really hate us,” she said. “Maybe he had a little too much to drink, and said something he didn’t mean.”
“I think I will not drink when I get older,” I responded. “I don’t want to hate anyone.” There were times when I fell asleep waiting to hear the gate open like the night when my sister was in agony from an ear infection. I know it was after ten as I watched mother leave to get some medicine. She lit her candle in the door way and disappeared into the black. I heard the heavy wooden doors creak as I fell asleep. I had no way of knowing how long it took for mother to get back. I did know she did not have the few groszy to give Pan Juzek to compensate him for getting up at that ungodly hour. I had a nightmare that night. My mother was screaming and shaking the gate to come back to me, and no one was in sight to let her back in.
As I got older I came to realize that we were not prisoners but rather that we were being protected by Pan Juzek. Being imprisoned and being protected became a big, confusing issue for me later on as I fled from one place to another. Our whereabouts were always based on what others in authority said. Sometimes it was said that we were being protected when we were really in prison. But I am getting ahead of myself.
To make the nights even more treacherous, our neighborhood streets were over-run with wild, hungry dogs, who lived on the rare scraps and bones they found. It was not uncommon to trip on a cat lurking on the stairs. They too were wild and starved to the point where their hunger overtook their gentle nature. Pouncing up in the dark they would scratch and bite at anyone. Rats and mice lived between the walls and the floors. At night they came out looking for any crumbs they could find. I became obsessed from an early age with keeping my blankets up high on my bed as the horrible little demons scraped across our wooden floor.
the war people did whatever they could to survive. It was not
uncommon for Jews to go begging from house to house. Some would play
the accordion and sing beautiful Yiddish songs in the courtyards to
make five Groszy to buy a piece of bread.
During the war schooling was put on hold for most children. After the war, thousands of children needed to catch up, and of course there were also a lot of youngsters just starting their educations. Poland was ruined and the strain on its resources was enormous. So many Polish schools were destroyed there wasn’t enough place for half of the school-aged children in Warsaw. Schools were being rebuilt but construction was slow. Private schools always had room but only wealthy families could afford to send their children there.
who were turned away from the public schools could only hope that next
year would be different. In 1924, my brother Sevek and I
tried unsuccessfully to register for the third and the first grade,
respectively. He was ten and I was
On the first morning, mother left wearing her most determined face. She marched to the Jewish school with Sevek and registered him. She looked happier when she returned. I guess she didn’t realize that Sevek would be learning Polish even though he was in a Jewish school.
I remember my mixed feelings the first day I watched Sevek go to school, leaving me behind. I was happy for him but felt so sorry for myself. I wanted so much to go with him, not that I would dare complain. The Jewish school he went to did allow girls but I knew mother did not have to money to send us both there.
I started waiting in the courtyard every afternoon for Sevek to come home from school. I would grab his books and be honored just to carry them upstairs for him. I also copied everything he did for homework. It didn’t take long for me to learn the Polish alphabet. All of my siblings were at work and Sevek was at school, so after the alphabet, I had plenty of time to move on to reading from his Polish schoolbooks. As the months went by, my pride washed away all the sadness.
One night Sevek was looking over my shoulder as I copied his work. “See, little sister,” he said. “You are not missing out at all.”
A year later the construction of a beautiful, modern elementary school was completed right there in our neighborhood. It had playgrounds on each side, and even a bathhouse for the students. A small house in the rear was supposed to be for a caretaker. My friends and I hoped the caretaker would be nicer than Pan Juzek. This was fairy tale school, complete with newly planted trees and flowers. I made up my mind, after standing there once again to stare at this breathtaking building that I would get into that school at the beginning of the school year no matter what I had to do.
It was still dark when mother and I left the apartment that morning to register at my fairy tale school. My heart dropped when I saw there was already a long line of mothers and children. I watched silently, with tears rolling down my cheeks as the front door of the school opened and closed, opened and closed, each time letting in only a few children. Each time I looked up at mother. She smiled down at me and patted my shoulder in a way that said they would never get to me.
had been on line for about two hours when something happened that I
considered a miracle. My eyes were set on the window of the
registration room when suddenly a man inside, dressed in a suit walked
to the window and opened it wide. I didn’t hesitate for more
a few seconds. A Jewish woman, who I knew was a teacher saw
me and looked away as I quickly and quietly climbed in the low window.
I took my place in front of the big desk where children were obviously
registering. Registration still took a long time, the rest of
the morning to be sure. At one point I was asked to come back with my
mother. The Jewish teacher stepped forward and said she knew
me well and that there was no need to call my mother. I will
never forget the amazement and joy in mother’s face as I came out with
my registration papers for second grade.
During recess in the summer we played outside in the sun, dancing in a circle and singing. In the winter we also went outdoors sometimes even for an hour although it was cold. We were allowed to throw snowballs and rolled in laughter. Sometimes we actually threw snowballs at our teacher, because we liked her so much although we did always stop when she asked us to.
had a gym where we went two times a week in black shorts and white tee
shirts to climb ladders and jump on trampolines. The school did not
have a cafeteria so we ate breakfast during the twenty-minute morning
recess and eventually in our classrooms.
For the first sixteen years of my life, I never left the city of Warsaw. During the summer break wealthy children went away with their families to such places as Falenica, Michalin and Otwock. They all came back suntanned and rested. As mother could not afford such things, I stayed behind and played with the other poor kids on the street, or in the courtyard. I lived every day with the anticipation of being back in school in September.
At home daily life was getting easier. Four out of the six of us were working by 1925. Mother took care of the house. I loved going with her to shop on Fridays to an open market where food was fresh and less expensive. She made our room as comfortable as she could, and we continued to observe a strict Sabbath.
Although Mother observed a strict Shabbat and we celebrated all the other Jewish holidays’ with much respect and pride, we wore normal western-European clothing. At this time Warsaw was the home to many acculturated Jews who dressed and looked like Polish nationals. The majority of Jews, however, remained Yiddish speaking, orthodox, and dressed according to traditional laws.
Every Friday, Adek, my oldest brother would bring out a book of Jewish songs. After dinner we would gather around mother and sing. As I see us all now, I realize in our limited way that we were creating a warm and joyous atmosphere for the mother we loved beyond words.
Every season brings something different to life, but to my family on Nowolipki Street the seasons gave meaning to our colorless existence. Spring brought life with its green grass and budding trees. Flowers started to bloom in hues we saw no where else. I thought May was the most beautiful month of all, with the non-stop chirping of birds and fragrance of lilac in the air. On Sunday mornings in Spring and in Summer my family carried blankets and a basket of food to the nearby Praga woods. We filled our lungs with fresh air after a week of work and school. Summers in Warsaw were as hot as the winters were cold. To keep our food from spoiling, we kept it in a large container together with a block if ice.
Polish law caused problems for the Jewish economy. The typical workweek in Poland was six days—Jew or Gentile. The Poles, like the Jews, were strict in their Sabbath observance. However, Polish Sabbath is Sunday. Sunday is the first day of Jewish workweek, but by Polish law, everything had to be closed on Sunday. Since the Jewish economy would have a hard time surviving on a five-day workweek, most Jews secretly worked on Sunday.
Even when I was a child Warsaw was already terribly overpopulated. People came to the city from smaller towns in search of work. Those who already lived in Warsaw would make room in their own living space for a bed and rent it for 15.00 zlote a month. By being very creative they made a little extra money to survive. Many people also lived in basements or in attics where rents were also cheaper. Although these basements and attics were not pleasant the people who rented them worked so hard, sometimes with seasonal jobs, worked from sun up until midnight that it hardly mattered where they slept. The goal for these seasonal workers was to make enough money for when season ended. Yet with all the poverty, overcrowded living conditions, and grueling work, people somehow remembered to be warm and brotherly toward one another. When someone was sick and a doctor was called to a very poor home, most often he did not accept any money. Day or night, rain or shine, our own neighborhood doctor came whenever we needed him. I remember his kindly face and the huge form that filled the doorway. Dr. Szolemski always wore a suit no matter what the weather or time. I always thought of his small black bag as magical. It seemed to have everything that was called for.
Every Saturday after services at the synagogue volunteers went from courtyard to courtyard with large baskets. They asked for donations for the Jewish hospital. People gave them eggs, butter, milk, bread, cooked meat, whatever they could spare. Our Jewish community had a big heart even in hard times.
After the war, immune systems were weakened from the deprivation. A shortage of nutritious food, living in crowded rooms with windows tightly closed during the cold winter months all added to the eventual tuberculosis epidemic. Out of control through out Poland, this devastating disease claimed entire families. As there was no treatment at the time, prevention was the only cure. I remembered hearing Mrs. Meir upstairs crying and begging God, unsuccessfully to save her son. Even Dr. Szolemski was helpless.
At school we had to obey strict medical regulations. Our teachers kept the classrooms clean and made us scrub our hands before eating. Every recess, regardless of weather, all the students had to leave the building at which time the large windows were opened wide to let in fresh air. A hygienist would come weekly to check us for cleanliness, and especially with regard to our hair. All of Poland had a huge problem with lice. The treatment for the unlucky child was to have his or her hair cut very short and the scalp saturated with kerosene. I remember that Sevek was the unlucky one in our family. I can still hear him cry as the cloth saturated in kerosene was then rubbed on his scalp and proceeded to burn his skin and the sores from the bites.
One day, a classmate invited me to her home to do homework together. Without much thought, I went. The homework took us a few hours, and during that time, my mother became worried and went to school looking for me. The caretaker told her that all the children were gone. She went into the streets looking for me, and when I finally headed home, I saw her pacing our street. I ran toward her, the only thing she managed to say to me was “Where were you” as tears rolled down her face. I never meant to worry her and I promised myself that I would never make her worry like this again.
As I got older I came to realize the torment she must have gone through when I went missing. Even today as I am writing down this episode from so long ago, I can still see my mother’s face behind a stream of tears. It was not uncommon at our school, for the Jewish children to be taunted and sometimes even be beaten up by non-Jewish children. My mother must have thought something terrible had happened to me. I had seen and heard the signs of anti-Semitism but that day it never occurred to me that I could become a victim.
I loved my mother very much; I was never a difficult child. I helped her in whatever way I could; I often went to buy wood or coal for her. I was the quiet child at home, as well as at school. I never expected or demanded anything from her. I never complained that I had to do without so many things. I understood our situation. Instead, I helped myself and made the best of my circumstances. At home my two brothers and three sisters and I lived in harmony. My mother was proud of us.
went by. Days, weeks and months passed smoothly. We finally relaxed and
allowed ourselves to think the sun was shining for us, even if we were
still in that gray, fourth floor room. A ray of warm
sunshine, along with a fervent hope entered our lives. We came to
believe there was indeed a bright future ahead. Beshert -
It was Meant to Be is
published here, in a serialized
version, with the permission of Suzanna Eibuszyc. © Web site Copyright Judy Cohen, 2008.
Beshert - It was Meant to Be is published here, in a serialized version, with the permission of Suzanna Eibuszyc.
© Web site Copyright Judy Cohen, 2008.