I’m cold and my feet are wet and I’m trying to stay invisible as I walk home from Akiva. Nobody glances my way, and for that I am grateful. If the wrong person sees me there are many things that could happen. I could be shoved onto one of those trains. I could be beaten or raped. I could be killed. These are not safe times to be Jewish.
Usually, I would walk with my friend, Anna, but she has a cold and could not attend the meeting. I don’t go to school anymore. They’ve forbidden Jewish children to attend. They’ve imposed a curfew and I’m running late. I’m walking faster than usual so I can be safe at home before then. I’ve heard rumors of Jewish families being forcibly relocated to ghettos. I haven’t seen one yet, but the thought of living in one of them scares me to death. I don’t want to leave the home I know, and I don’t want to find my family one of the ones who simply disappear without a trace. I live in fear and this is the worst of all.
I’m not an ugly girl, but I wouldn’t think myself beautiful either. I don’t have my family’s tendency to longer noses, and my face is a little wider than theirs. I touch a strand of my hair and tuck it behind my ear. As I pass by one of the shops, one owned by a Polish family so there is no graffiti on it, no stars with “Jude” written within, I catch a glance of myself in the reflection. I see the way my brows knit together and cringe. I’m only 18 and my skin should be wrinkle-free. It would be if I’d reason to smile more.
The star on my jacket annoys me. There are days I want to rip it off, make sure the stitching is gone and take my chances pretending to be Polish. I shake my head and brush the thought aside as I turn the corner towards my home.
Horror stops me. I watch my family being led away, one suitcase in each of their hands, by Nazis carrying rifles. I want to run to them, to scream, to cry, but I don’t dare. I need to hide, to become a ghost and fade away until the morning. If they catch me, they’ll send me to the ghetto with them, and I can’t help them from there.
I remember the young man who was introduced to us at Akiva that evening. He spoke of a resistance, a group who were fighting back, trying to save the Jewish people from the ghettos and beyond. I hadn’t known about “beyond” until he spoke that night. He hinted to ways we could help, and addressed the women specifically. Our group has 13 young women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two. We watched as he focused on us, and wondered how we could help. Of course, some watched him because he was a handsome man, maybe 25 years or so, but I wasn’t one of them. I watched him because I was interested in what he was saying. I knew that I needed to do what I could to help. I’d planned on finding him tomorrow where he said to meet but didn’t talk to him about it before he left.
Now I know I have to speak with him. I know that tomorrow is no longer a plan but a necessity. I’m going to do what I can to help. I have no choice. For tonight, however, I need to find a safe place to hide and get warm, where the soldiers cannot find me. My mind is racing. I could try to go back to our meeting location, but I’m afraid that the Germans may have discovered it. I think of finding the young man, but that’s too far to walk after curfew. While I try to think what to do, where to go, I buy myself some time by hiding behind some bushes at the back of my house. The woods are too far away. It’s too risky to ask my neighbors for help. I’m giving up hope, but it hits me. They’ve already raided my house and are leaving. I see their footprints and guess they’ve already checked our yard. I wait for them to leave, then quietly sneak into the back door, leaving the lights off. I climb to my room, keeping as far away from windows as possible. I fumble around until I have a small bag in my hand, then find some clothes and stuff them in the bag. I hope they match, but my appearance isn’t as important to me right now as clean underwear. I sneak into the kitchen and grab some cans and a can opener. The kitchen is blocked from the windows in the front, so I allow myself to stand. I lower myself and crawl past the windows until I reach the trap door down to the basement. Carefully, very carefully, I climb in, clinging to the ladder with one hand, the bag with the other. I let the bag drop to the ground then reach up and pull the trap door over me.
I slowly creep down the ladder into a darkness even more solid than that upstairs. As my feet touch the ground, I feel around for the bag and grab it. I find my way to the outside basement door.
Lowering myself to the cold floor, shivering because I hadn’t thought to bring a blanket, I use the bag as my pillow and allow myself to doze off into a fitful sleep, nightmares of the day to follow making the dreams more petrifying.
I jolt awake to the bright light shining through the cracks in the outside basement door. I listen as carefully as possible, putting my ear to the freezing metal door. I see a dusting of white on the basement floor, letting me know it snowed overnight.
I hear nothing more than normal chatter in the distance, but know I can’t just barge right out as if nothing has happened. Curfew is early. I’m certain the neighbors saw my family taken away. I’m not sure which ones, if any, I would be able to trust not to call for the Einsatgruppen, the Nazi police, to have me hauled away to the ghettos. I’m afraid if I were, it might be a different ghetto than my family.
I wait until after the Polish children have gone to school and the chatter lessens as men head to their jobs and women to their housework. Slowly I lift the door and sneak out, and just as carefully shut the door, cringing at every creak of the metal. I cover my bag with my jacket, hoping the bulge isn’t too obvious, and slip onto the street. I keep my eyes open yet slightly down as I walk to the market. If I’m just another Jew going to market with her coupons to get her ration of food then the police won’t pay me any mind. Unless they choose to. Unless they decide it’s time to beat up another Jew. Unless they decide they’d like a little Jewish girl for brunch. Unless, unless, unless. It’s always “Unless” to us.
I reach the market and turn right. I come to the meatseller’s stall and he waves me over in a friendly manner.
“What can I get for you today, Golda?”
I answer him, requesting a pound of ham. This was the code the young man, whose name I still didn’t know, gave us. My voice quavers as the words come out. There are so many “unless” situations here. He might accept the password, let me into the back room. Unless he does that then sends for the police. Unless he keeps talking with me, nodding to a shop boy to send for the police. The young man might be who and what he said he was. Unless it is a trap to catch as many Jewish girls in Akiva as he possibly can. I’d thought of all these possibilities before I went to sleep last night, but I still was afraid.
My conclusion the night before had been difficult to arrive at, but it came to me. “What choice do I have?” I couldn’t stay at home. My house would probably be owned by some Nazi family before the day was out. I couldn’t hide in the market or with anyone I knew. How would I know they wouldn’t send me to my death or to the ghetto? That won’t come with even the slightest chance of me being able to take action. This course I take now gave me that glimmer of hope. I realize as I follow Hans, the meat-seller, into the back room that I haven’t felt hope since the Nazis first invaded Poland.
Hans creaks the door to the back room open a crack and says, out loud, to the room inside, “Szymon, I need more of the beef loin.” I know there is no “Szymon” who works there, so that is another code to whoever is beyond the door. Hans looks at me with a sad smile and said, “Good luck. Kochanie. I hope to see you again.”
His words scare and comfort me. I know he hopes to see me again, which means he doesn’t want to report me, but it also means there’s a chance he won’t be able to see me again. He knows about the ghettos, I realize. He knows there is something “beyond.”
I step, hesitantly, into the room, and squint into the low light. It’s better than the light in the house was last night, but it’s anything but bright. The door closes behind me and I hear a creak. One woman has lifted a trap door in the store and the young man steps out of it.
“I didn’t think any of you women last night paid attention to what I said,” he states, his tone blunt and saddened.
“Most only paid attention to your looks,” I say with a blush,” but some of us cared. I care.” Our eyes meet and hold. He’s sizing me up, I can tell. I’m also sizing him up, daring him to disappoint me. Daring him to think I’m going to cower away.”
“You paid attention,” he says after a long moment. “But why are you here so soon?” He’s daring me to say something about a crush. I don’t. I don’t really see him that way. I’m not interested in a boyfriend. It seems foolish of me to think romantically when the boy and I might be hauled away and separated at any point.
“I planned on coming anyhow. I wanted to know more. It’s more important to me today than it was last night before…” My throat catches as I fight back the tears that had yet to fall. “Before my family was taken last night.”
“But not you?”
“No. I was late getting home. I saw them taken away, but I hid.” My tears start to fall, finally. I can’t stop them. I find myself wobbling, and grab for a chair to sink into. He gets to it before I do and places it near me, gently guiding me into it. He doesn’t hold me or do anything that I’d think most men would do. He just waits as I cry it out. He lets me have my moment. He gives me room. I appreciate it. My need to know his name becomes important. I can tell he’s not going to turn me in, he isn’t a snitch. I ask, in a whisper, for his name.
I know when he tells me that it’s not his real name. I decide to accept that. I figure it’s his own way of staying safe. He calls himself Moshe. It’s a good name. It’s the name of the man who led us out of Egypt. I think it’s appropriate. He is trying to lead us out of persecution and death. I smile at him, approving.
He hands me a handkerchief from his pocket. I glance at it, then look up again. “I’ll make it all disgusting and you won’t want to touch it.”
He laughs. He actually laughs. I haven’t heard that sound in a long time. It makes me smile which turns into a laugh. I want to stop, to chastise myself for laughing so soon after crying. For letting my emotions grab hold of me and take control. That’s when I realize the need to laugh. I need to laugh in order to give me the strength to carry on. I breathe, regaining my composure as he signals for me to actually use the handkerchief, which I do. When I’m done, it is disgusting. I shrug at him, and hold it out to him. He gives me a look that almost sets the giggles off again, then reaches for a little trashcan that looks like it’s ready to be put in a bigger trashcan.
“I want to help. I want to fight back. I want vengeance, but that won’t help. I just want to help.”
Moshe nods, then says, “I am a member of the resistance. While I usually am one of the fighters, I volunteered to help organize the Kashariyot here. I blink. “Couriers? How can couriers help?”
He sits on the edge of a crate and begins to explain the duties of a courier, to explain how much more I’d be doing. He tells me of the dangers I will be facing should I decide to join the effort.
“How will I get into and out of the ghettos? I can’t even get on a train! I’m Jewish, remember.” I protest, my mind not quite wrapping around the tasks I will be facing. I am not thinking “if.” I know I will. I just want to know what I’ll be facing.
“You have a Polish look about you.”
“I do?” I suppose I do. I say, with more acceptance, “I do.”
He nods. “We will get you fake papers. Remove that star. Pull out the threads. When we get you to where the Kashayirot meet, they will provide you with new clothes, Polish clothes. Practice walking like a Polish person while I talk to you.
I try, and he interrupts himself to correct the moves. Most Jewish people have a slightly different way of holding themselves, of walking than Jewish people. Because he is busy helping me walk, he forgets to talk. I burst out with the question, “What about my name?”
“We’ll choose a new one. Do you speak Polish fluently?”
“Of course. We studied in school.” Most Jewish people spoke Yiddish primarily, so knowing the local language wasn’t a given. While girls studied at Polish secular schools, boys studied at Heder, Jewish schools.
“Good. Speak some for me.” He has a reason to ask. I know he does, but I think it’s because he needs proof. I speak in Polish. I’m reciting a portion of my favorite boo, “The Doll,” by Boleslaw Prus.
Moshe nods, grinning. “No accent,” he says. I blink. He didn’t ask me to speak it for the reason I thought. I’m confused, and he sees my expression. “You can pass as Polish much easier.” I nod at the explanation.
It makes sense to me. I ask him when I can start and he says he’ll bring me to the Kashayirot’s location an hour after lunch, when men are at work, women are at the market, and soldiers are spending more time watching the women than marching around the back streets.
In the meantime, I eat and pick a name. I toss out various names, but at first they are still Jewish names. I shake my head when he points that out. “You use a Jewish name.”
“I can’t pass for Polish anyhow.” He glances downwards and I blush. He’s talking about his circumcision.
“All right. How about Agata?”
“Too different than Golde. You want a Polish name, but you want to remember it more easily.” I nod, and try again. “Gael?” I try this, but he shakes his head.
“More Gaelic. Back to Polish, please.”
I grumble and call him picky. He gives me a glare that I ignore and try again. “Gosia?”
He grins, and nods. “Gosia is a lot like Golda. Perfect!” Moshe’s expressions seem to be very easy to read, and they are infectious. He gives me more determination. If he can be enthusiastic, so can I.
I’m excited to get started, and am very antsy. I look at my watch and begin to pace. “Two more hours!”
“Then you’d better sit. You’ve got a lot of walking and running to do from now on.”
We wait in silence now. In my head, I plan what I will say to the other women I will be meeting. I snort at myself. I always do that, and then the conversation never ends up as I planned. When I was younger, I would blurt out, especially with Abba, “That’s not what I planned you to say!” He would hold me on his knee and simply tell me to stop trying to plan what other people will say and do. I think, now, that I’m going to have to start planning again, but keep flexible. I will have to plan how to make the Germans and Polish I speak to say and behave like I want them to. I decide to hold off on any planning at the moment, though. I’ve decided to wait until I speak with the Kashayirot I will be joining. They will have advice for me on that, I’m sure. I wait on.
Moshe drops me off then heads out. The trip was uneventful, but nerve-wracking. We kept looking over our shoulders while trying to look normal. It’s a good thing that no soldiers were around, because we failed at the “normal” quite badly.
The discussion with the women goes well. They reiterate what Moshe had told me then give me hints on how to get around without raising suspicion. We spend the rest of the day getting acquainted. The leader, who calls herself Krystyna, is a strong woman with an easy manner. She sits, comfortably, on the corner of her chair as she talks with me. As she talks, she uses her arms, but not nearly as much as the Jewish people I know do. I’m watching her behavior to know how to “act” Polish.
I note, with surprise, that her eyes are blue. This is not common with us, but is probably helpful to her when performing her tasks. Her brown hair falls into her face often and she keeps trying to tuck it behind her ear to keep it out of the way. I try not to count the seconds before it falls out and into her face again. I force myself to focus on her words and after a few tries I succeed.
Another of the women I talk with is a bubbly girl about my age. I like Wanda immediately. I decide to try to imitate her cheer when on missions. I want to be happier and I figure that the Polish are more likely to smile than the Jewish people are. They aren’t the ones who are shoved into ghettos, after all.
There are many others, but I can’t remember all their names, yet. Most are not present, I’m just told about them. I’m shown to a cot which I’m told will be mine when I’m around. There’s a small trunk at the foot of the bed where I can store my belongings. They barely take up a third of the trunk.
We eat and chatter and it feels as normal as if there were no war, no troubles, and no danger to be faced. I revel in the feeling until I remember my family and how we used to be just like this before the occupation. Before a moment passes by with my sudden introspection Wanda interrupts me. “I know, it’s hard. You have to keep telling yourself why we do this.” Her bubbly demeanor has vanished for a moment, making me wonder if it’s an act or she knows how to get serious when it’s necessary and she’s that cheery by nature. “You keep telling yourself you will be fine and that you will see your family again. Whether or not it’s true, it doesn’t matter. Convince yourself of it. It’s very important to.” She passes me a chunk of bread and a pat of butter, a luxury these days, and gives me a playful shoulder bump, breaking us out of the serious moment. I grin at her and it’s real. I know Wanda is going to be the best thing for me while I keep trying to survive while helping the resistance, helping lives.
I ask when I get to do my first mission.
“Not right away, certainly. Tomorrow, you will go out with Wanda. Act like friends and chatter as you go. She’ll tell you about the task this evening.”
I smile, and dart a glance at Wanda before saying to Krystyna. “I don’t need to act, there.” Wanda beams at me, and I know she wants the friendship as much as I do. Friendly chatter resumes.
After dinner Wanda and I sit on my bed, face to face, legs crossed under our bodies. She begins to “brief” me on the mission.
“We’re going to start off easy with you,” she says to me. “Well, as easy as it can get. We’re still going to be doing something dangerous so you want to be alert but not draw attention to yourself. Tonight we’re going to practice acting as if we don’t have a care in the world. How well do you flirt?”
She takes me by surprise. “Flirt?” I say, hesitantly.
“Yes, of course. When the soldiers stop us and question us, it’s best to have a small touch of flirting mixed in with talking with them. If they think you’re charming, pretty, and at ease with you, they search your belongings with less fervor. They see the “pretty” before they look at you to see if you might be Jewish,” she tells me.
“Are we going to be going near soldiers, then?”
“Possibly,” she says, nodding. “We’re going to be smuggling an underground newspaper and a few forged identity cards into the Warsaw ghetto. There are trolley lines into the ghetto, but they aren’t available to the Jewish people. They’re roped off to keep us from escaping on the trolley cars, but they do go through the ghetto. Tomorrow’s a weekend, so we’re going to ride the trolley in order to gawk and sneer at the prisoners.”
I look at her in shock. “We’re going to do that to…”
“If we don’t, they’ll suspect us.”
“But how do we get the stuff to them if we’re on the trolley?” I ask, realizing there’s a chance I might see my family. I worry how they’d react if they see me on the trolley mocking them and sneering at them.
“We’re going to be wearing scarves and hats. I’ll have the newspaper and the cards will be in them. They’re going to be wrapped in a package which is addressed to a Polish family in Warsaw at the other side of the ghetto. Many times we must rely on luck. We have a contact on the inside who will grab the parcel and hide it under his jacket, hopefully before anyone sees him.”
I scrunch my brows, trying to think of everything. “You mentioned scarves, And wouldn’t the soldiers see us drop the package?”
“Not if they’re trying to catch a Polish girl’s scarf that blew off and return it to her,” she says.
I laugh. “That’s good! So what do I do?”
She grins at me. “You’ll be the one who loses her scarf. I know exactly where to drop the parcel. Pay attention, but act as if you lost your scarf accidentally. Gasp and act distressed about it. You’re the distraction.”
I think about it then nod. I feel useful all of a sudden. I feel like I can do anything, especially if I can help my family. I know if they see me jeering, then see my scarf blow off, they’ll watch. And I hope that when the contact has the newspaper and cards that they will realize I helped with it and are proud of me.
I hope they are the ones to get the cards, but I suspect not. I think they’ll go to people who are more likely to be able to join the resistance and fight along with us.
We get off my bed and start role-playing. She starts with easy situations. I have a package (a rolled up skirt,) and I’m trying to get it from the bed to the window. She’s the police. She makes me laugh at first, marching around and mocking the soldiers, but then gets serious and we start.
I start to walk, carrying the skirt tucked under my arm. I try to look as calm as possible, and I make sure not to hurry. I don’t realize it, but my eyes are darting back and forth, watching. She stops me and points that out.
I try again, and this time, she steps in front of me and says, “Girl. What’s in that package?”
This time it’s my turn to be silly. I unravel my “package,” and say, “My skirt. Do you think it makes me look fat?” I manage to keep a straight face as I say this until I see her reaction. She’s staring at me with her mouth agape. Seconds later, she starts to giggle, then it busts into a full-blown laugh. I can’t contain myself any longer and I join in.
“Be serious, Gosia. This is important.” I start to calm myself, then she snickers again, which sets both of us off again. Krystyna comes in the room and blinks at us.
Shaking her head, she coughs and we both look at her, trying to remain composed again. Both of us start snickering again, and without knowing why, Krystyna starts in with us. It takes us a while to get serious again, but I see by the look in Krystyna’s eyes that she’s pleased that we are able to laugh. She tugs on Wanda’s braid, the color of chocolate, and tells her to behave. She turns around and walks out, having discovered what was going on in here.
We return to the practice. I manage not to start up again when she tries it again. My response this time is better. “Just a loaf of bread that I made. Do you want a slice?”
Wanda nods, then asks me how I’d handle it if he insisted on seeing it. I gave it some thought and said that I would have a loaf of bread, cut a slit in the bottom, and slide the cards in there, making sure that the slit is covered when I show it to the soldier.
“And if he does want a slice?” This is easier as I already had thought of it.
“The slit would be more to one end, so it would be safe to break off a piece.”
“Very good idea!” she is pleased. I’m happy, and even more so when she tells me that she might have to steal the idea from me.
We keep practicing late into the night until I feel confident, but just as we are about to finish the lessons and I’m beginning to be almost cocky, she snaps me into reality by saying, “Practice is easy. When you’re standing with the real situation, it’s far scarier. You have to keep the character. Your life depends upon it.”
I think about that as I lie down on my cot and review the eventful day I have had. When I almost forget it’s going to be real tomorrow, I fall asleep.