In these modern years, every birthday celebration seemed a grander occasion than the previous.
Today, as I sit before the fireplace holding hands with Jannah, my wife, on the wheelchair beside me, we fondly watch the family members rejoice. Our four boys, our grandchildren and even our great grandson Mateusz, are here with us to celebrate my 99th. Many decades have passed but it all seems like only yesterday.
Born on May 16, 1919, in Będzin, an old town in Southern Poland, earlier known as Lesser Poland, life was as most children live it. Fun and free. As I reminisce, my mother toiled all day at the factory making garment buttons, while dad, left early to polish pews and clean floors. Feliks, my best friend and I, attended the town school. As we furiously pedaled to race the train, Feliks who was always a few wheels ahead, constantly checked over his shoulder, never leaving me too far behind. He taught me mimicry, to play hide-and-seek, how to cycle and even how to hit an old tin can with a catapult. In school, Feliks was a bright student. We had begun school when he was 7 years and me aged 6. As years flew and we grew up sharing our small joys and big secrets, it was time to detach. Feliks left for studies to join the High School of Engineering in Warsaw. I stayed back in Będzin to slog in the iron-ore mine. Though Mom and Dad had accomplished to save some money for my higher education, it being far from adequate, I thought it would be best to defer my studies and instead lend a helping hand to them. My mother was wearing herself out. It wasn’t her age but long hours of work that had affected her.
Time passed by and occasionally I would get a scripted message from Feliks. We had our way of communicating without too many words. It was in one such message that I remember Feliks telling me that it was the intention of the iron hand to liquidate all leading elements here.
Mom was too weak to move. Her health had started to deteriorate rapidly. She lived with persistent pain in her bones and raging bouts of cough, from which she hardly found any reprieve. Dad and I continued to toil. After work, he would sit with mom and I would run home to cook a meal for us. One day just as we were sitting down to have our supper, moms coughing got worse. She had started to throw up blood. Dad cradled her, caressing her saying all will be well and that he would go and get new medicines tomorrow. Just then she called out my name, she smiled looking at me. Between heavy gasps and bouts of bloody cough, I could here her softly say to me ‘Be Brave’ and to my Dad, ‘I love you’. Those were her last words.
The cars in Będzin were being stuffed up. Rations and people huddled to move to safer terrain. News had started to filter-in about the Polish military’s defeat and increasing warfare. We looked towards the sky, as we had never seen anything like this before. Within the next five days of the invasion, our town was already witnessingincreased number of over flights by high-altitude reconnaissance aircrafts and bigger troop movements into Będzin.
In our grief, we failed to see the enormity of uniform men entering Bedzin. When they marched into our town they destroyed businesses, seized personal property and five days later, torched the main synagogue on Wzgorze Zamkowe [Castle Hill] as congregants gathered for Shabbat. It was the first to be destroyed. The flames burned the grand, Romanesque structure to the ground, and along with it, many of my memories. While dad and I cautiously peeped out, we saw the fires had engulfed five neighboring buildings as well. Those who ran to escape the deadly embers were being shot. The men in uniform had started to occupy most empty houses. Horror and hell within it. The air in this squalid town had turned thick with the acrid fumes of loss. In the still of the night we could hear the muffled screams of poor young maidens. Each day bodies piled up by the roadside. If you were an enemy, if you were of no use, you had to die. It was a month since mom and sanctity had left us. On that fateful day, in the still of the night, having carried his friends on his shoulders to a grave, my father collapsed. Behind the old burned down edifice as I hid and tried to revive him, I realized it was all over. Was it the weight of his friends or loneliness after my mom had left him, I’d never know? That night was the longest night. In the moonlight, my hands were digging away as quietly and as close to mom as possible. Finally when I lay him there, I could see the moon go down and the sun come up. At that very moment, I was wanting and waiting to die. With tears in my eyes and a smile on my face, I murmured, ‘Thank you God for uniting them both’.
Just then I got another cryptic message from Feliks. He was leaving Warsaw to flee to Switzerland. People he said were being hauled up like animals and taken away. No one knew where, no one ever saw them again. So many slaughtered as he watched from his hideout. He asked me to escape while I was still alive but I didn’t know where and how. Until one day too soon, when I was hauled up from my hideout and taken as slave. I was 20 years, alive, strong and able to cook meals and wash uniforms for the soldiers. Jannah, came each morning to help me in the kitchen. Her hazel green eyes were always sad. She hardly ever spoke a word. Her father used to sell fabric, from whom my mom often procured to stitch new clothes for my every Birthday. Now Jannah too was left behind, alone and abused each night. Even as I longed to reach out to her, she’d always move away signaling prying eyes on us.
After days, months and years of living in trepidation, news filtered. The war had come to an end. Today as the soldiers were leaving, I still continued to cook. This meal was certainly not going to be a casserole of potatoes and same sparse vegetables boiled in bouillon. As the last one left, I took Jannah’s hand into mine as I led her to the bowl of rice. Set down on the empty kitchen floor, was a bowl of rice with two chicken pieces atop. Happy Birthday to me, I murmured into Jannah’s ears. Tears rolling, lips passionately kissing, we held tightly onto one another as we lay there on the kitchen floor, free and alive. Don’t know when next morning came but we remember celebrating my 26th birthday with a bowl of rice with two chicken pieces atop.
Year after year my birthday was celebrated. Jannah cooked a scrumptious meal but there was always the bowl of rice with two chicken pieces atop. Our four boys grew up well. They went to colleges away from home. One day my oldest son brought home Irena, his girlfriend, to meet with us. Tears rolled down my eyes when I saw Feliks walk proudly beside his daughter.
Feliks and I caught in the tightest never-ending embrace drowning in tears of joy. We had endured an anomaly of history. Jannah, sat with us through the night as our stories never ended.
We were survivors of the holocaust!