Manya Friedman (Moszkowicz)
The Road to Freedom
It was about the end of April 1945. Days in camp turned into long months, months into years, one day resembling the other. This day began like any other day. Wake-up call at dawn, with all my strength I gathered up my weary, aching bones to face another day of misery and abuse. If by chance I managed to rinse out my underwear the night before, it was often still damp in the morning, but I had to put them on anyway, even in the wintertime, there was no choice. Then I lowered myself from the upper bunk, with a bent back so as not to hit my head on the ceiling, my wooden shoes in one hand, being careful not to step on someone below, and I rushed to the washroom to get in line. I often tripped in the dark over bodies that had expired during the night. On the way I caught a fistful of water from the dripping, rusty faucet, to apply to my face in a hope to wake up. Again I rushed with the tin cup to get some of that foul-tasting brownish lukewarm brew called "coffee". Sometimes it had a faint taste of the soup from the previous night, because the kettles were not washed well. But who cared? It tasted just the same.
The shrill sound of the Kapo's whistle, like a whip cutting through the air and through our shivering bodies, reminded that it was time for the appell (roll-call). I rushed to get in line -- lines of grotesque-looking figures. In the winter we shivered from the cold underneath the striped, thin dresses, in the summer we sweltered under the oppressive heat, waiting to be counted. The countless reading of the numbers, no names, the faint reply "here", counting by one of the Kapos then another; often someone in line fainted from exhaustion and weakness, and had to be supported by others. Even in this small camp it seemed like an eternity, being counted and recounted, again and again.
But that day was different. While standing in line to be counted, a Kapo accompanied by a military person walked up to our group, pointed a finger at about a dozen or so girls, and ordered them to step forward. You could sense the uneasiness and anticipation in the lines, the lines shifted like an ocean wave. What now? In those few seconds all kind of thoughts flashed through my mind. Why me? Where to? Sneaking a quick glance at the others around me, I tried to figure out how I differed from the rest. Again the thought, why me? And why now, when there is a spark of hope that this hell may finally end, judging by the frequency of air raids, and the roar of Allied planes above our heads. There was no use trying to find a reason, there was no reasoning in camp. To the many questions circling in my head, there were no answers. Though one thing was certain, a selection had never meant a better lot.
After the selection, our small group of girls, with stooped shoulders under the weight of uncertainty, resigned to feeling helpless and dragging our feet in the wooden shoes, was marched toward the gate of the camp, leaving the others behind, and not knowing what the future would bring. Would there be a future?
Outside the gate, a white, covered truck was waiting, a few Kapos and soldiers were mingling about, flirting and laughing, a familiar sight. The Kapos motioned to us to climb into the truck, but it brought few results. Though the truck's tail-gate was down and we tried hard, we were too weak to conquer this hurdle, despite the fear that at any moment the Kapo's whip come down on our emaciated bodies. Instead, to everyone's disbelief and amazement the Kapos actually helped us climb up into the truck. Somehow, from nowhere a crate appeared which we used for a step to climb up. I thought I was hallucinating, or this must be a dream, I did not trust my senses any longer. But momentarily I recalled how the Germans often used all kind of tricks to get the people to come to an assembly point, using the pretense either to register, or to check and stamp the passports, but instead were put in trains or trucks and deported.
After being settled in the truck, each one of us received a "C.A.R.E." package. Again disbelief, but no time to rationalize "HOW" or "WHY", even if this would represent our last meal. Within seconds the packages were ripped open and the contents devoured. IT WAS FOOD. There was powdered milk, cocoa, sardines, crackers, everything was eaten at once, we were not even aware what it was. Some of the girls got sick, our stomachs not used to digesting such food.
The truck kept rolling on with its exhausted, helpless, resigned cargo, and we had no clue where to. No one spoke, each one of us preoccupied with our own thoughts. Then, lo and behold, the truck reached Denmark. FREEDOM? Incomprehensible! We were all dazed, unable to comprehend what was going on around us. (It was the end of April 1945, and Denmark was still under German occupation).
It appeared that the white truck that our group was being transported in was from the Swedish Red Cross. It had markings on the sides and on the roof, but we were not aware of it. Later we learned that negotiations were going on between the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, head of the Swedish Red Cross, and Himmler, head of the Gestapo, about the release of Norwegian POWs, but since it was the end of April, and Himmler was realizing that Germany lost the war, he agreed to Bernadotte's request to release from the camps some Jewish women of Polish origin and hand them over to the Swedish Red Cross. Thus began the brave rescue operation.
The courageous Danish people were waiting for the survivors with food and a place to rest up. A small boat carried the few of us from Denmark to the shore of Sweden, Malmo. What a sad-looking group we presented. Now, out of camp, among normal-looking people, the sight of us was deplorable. Our short cropped hair growing untamed in all directions, the sunken wide eyes, the shapeless striped dresses covering our skeletal bodies, tied at the waist with a piece of frayed roped. And the wooden shoes. Somewhere I found a pair of high-laced leather shoes on raised heels to replace my wooden ones, but without shoelaces. It took some searching to find two pieces of string long enough to pull through two eyelets to hold the upper part of the shoe together, and even more strategy to place the strings in the right place to hold up the long tongues attached to the shoes, so as not to trip over them.
In this pose I was approached by two reporters who accompanied us on the boat. I do not recall what they asked me, nor what I told them, but I vividly recall feeling embarrassed. One hand nervously reached for my head trying to slick my hair down a bit, the other pulling at my dress trying to smooth out some folds. Could this have been the moment I regained the feeling of being a human again? After all, I was still a teenager.
At the shore, in Malmo, our group was greeted by some dignitaries, a Rabbi, a clergyman, either a minister or priest, and an orchestra or maybe a band playing, I could not distinguish one from the other. We were mesmerized by the sight. All those people came to greet us. Yet, somehow, I felt detached from all this, like viewing in all through a sheer curtain. There were people making speeches, I assume to welcome us, but we were incapable of listening or comprehending what was going on. There were also many onlookers, some probably came out of curiosity, others out of sympathy. The entire situation seemed so unreal.
There was also the medical staff of the Red Cross waiting, and they took us to a large hall where people wearing masks and gloves met our group. Our group huddled together being more comfortable with the girls from our own camp. The sick were taken immediately to the hospital while the rest of us went through a hot shower, with real soap (I can still feel the luxury), delousing and disinfecting. We were scrubbed, sprayed and dusted. Then received clean clothing donated by the local people. It felt good to be rid of the lice that consumed every amount of our free time trying to eradicate them, without success. The clean outfits that replaced our soiled, striped dresses felt as splendid as if they were made of pure silk.
We were put up in some school buildings. Each one of us got a mattress covered with soft paper sheets. We felt pampered. Yet, it still didn't sink in that we were really free. At night, if you woke up, you could always see girls looking out the windows to make sure that we were no longer in camp. But the nightmares persisted.
A few days later, in the middle of the night we heard a big commotion going on. Students, in their handsome uniforms and white round caps came running up the stairs shouting: "The war is over." "The war is over." We all ran out to greet them, forgetting that we were only in our underwear, hugging, kissing and jumping up and down with joy. A lot of celebrating was also going on in the streets. People dancing and singing, people blowing the cars' horns, nobody slept the rest of the night. The next day there was a lavish reception in the school's recreation hall. Since there were among us people from different countries, the band was playing everyone's national anthem. Never before, or since was I so touched listening to the Polish anthem, because this time the sound of it had for me a different meaning. A sign that the war has ended, and so has our suffering, but most of all, hope of finding somebody from the family.
"The war was over", but I was left all alone ...
Images Etched into my Mind
He was only nine years old when Germany invaded Poland. The youngest of three children, he was a skinny little boy on spindly legs, agile body, and a small pale face. The only outstanding features were his two large brown eyes, mischievous and alert. Since Jewish children no longer were allowed to attend school, he became restless and was constantly on the move. He often kicked around a ball in the backyard, or pebbles, or rode the bike he had to share with his older brother and sister. It was amusing to watch him navigate that bike. Too short to sit on the seat and reach the pedals, he would stand up and shift his hind end from side to side, the bike leaned in one direction and he in the other to maintain balance.
Before the war a tall building was being erected next to us, but the construction was interrupted when the war started. He used to roam around in that unfinished building looking for a place where we could hide, and often seriously discussed the possibilities with father, convinced that we could make a hiding place there. Of course, he did not take into consideration the necessities we would need to survive.
He was also outgoing and streetwise, he had the last word in any dispute, and was in complete contrast to the rest of us. His mind was always working on how to "organize" something (an expression used during the war). Somehow, he always knew where a line was forming to distribute something edible. By the time we got in line he was already a mile ahead of us with his inseparable school satchel, either by himself, or attached to someone pretending to be their child. We often came home empty-handed because they ran out of provisions, but he usually managed to bring "something" home. He took his job very seriously, which often caused our parents much anguish. Sometimes he sneaked out from the house while the curfew was still on, and our parents spent many anxious hours looking for him. But among our parents' friends, he became a celebrity, a hero. They admired and praised him. This made his two-year-older brother somewhat jealous. There was such a contrast between the two of them, both in looks and personality. The older brother was blond, blue eyed, with a light complexion and angelic face. He looked like a well-fed, protected child. Some said he had an aristocratic look. He was quiet, serious and reserved. When into mischief, he did not need to defend himself; grandmother acted as his lawyer. He was her favorite, probably because he was named after her husband, who died very young. By then he was twelve years old, already employed by a German company. His employment card (sonder-card) had great value, not only for himself but also for the entire family. The more employed members in the family, the better chance of not being deported, at least for the time being. Those cards were called "a way to life." But the older brother still wanted to prove that he too could contribute. Beside the miserly few things allotted on the ration-cards, Jews were not allowed to have any other staples in the house. But the allotment was so meager, hardly enough to survive on. So whoever could, at a great risk, bought things on the side (black market). Some unscrupulous Poles took advantage of the situation and cheated the Jews. One day the older brother, on his way home from work was approached by a young Pole with an offer to sell him some margarine at a price. He came home very excited and told mother about the prospect of getting some margarine. Mother gave him the money and the next day he brought home a package wrapped in a piece of cloth which he excitedly produced from under his coat. The margarine, in those days came in cubes about 3 inches in diameter. When mother unwrapped the package, there was only a thin, outside layer of margarine, the rest was a nicely sculpted turnip square. We all felt sorry for him; no one said a word because this was a common occurrence. You exchanged money for the "merchandise" in some dark alley or hallway, at a great risk, making sure that there was nobody around, and ran.
In March 1943, the SS men surrounded the shop where I was working and we were all taken for deportation to Germany. My parents and both brothers were still at home. They all came to the deportation point and brought me a suitcase with my personal belongings. We could not talk much. They stayed till it was time to leave, each one of us probably with the same thought...
That was the last time I saw either of them.
Their images are forever etched into my mind.
A Pleasant Summer Day
As the instructor distributed a prewar photograph taken in Munich, Germany, he requested, �Tell me your impression of this picture, and how you would fit into it.� At first glance I noticed a family gathered in the garden on a sunny day, all in a cheery mood. Then I noticed the short leather pants worn by two young men, and my heart skipped a beat. Typical German. So many years have passed, yet we are still sensitive to certain signs. On second thought, this could have been an assimilated Jewish family that had adopted German traditions. Either way, I somehow did not fit in there. But gazing at the picture brought back memories about my own family and the summers before the war, when life was carefree, spent in the country...
The farmer�s family usually gave us their best room, even if their children had to sleep in the barn sometimes. All for a few extra zlotys they could make during the summer for renting to city-folks. Though life in the country on a farm was very primitive, the last days of school were spent day-dreaming of the freedom, the open spaces, fields and meadows stretching as far as the horizon, occasionally obstructed by a grove of trees. We gladly exchanged the bakery-bought sweet rolls for the farmer�s black bread thickly spread with freshly churned butter (no fear of cholesterol yet). Rolling down a steep hill, in tall grass, challenging the others, who can roll the fastest? Chasing the goat out from the vegetable garden, or sometimes being chased by the goat in turn, annoyed for being disturbed. Our help was not always very productive, but the farmer was indulgent with us, probably having fun watching city kids. Once they were trying to teach me how to milk the cow. They were holding the cow�s head, but the cow hit me in the face with its tail trying to swat off the flies from its back, and I bent backwards so far that I fell off the milking stool, with my feet in the air and the milk bucket turned over. That was my last attempt to become a milkmaid. Though we must have been clumsy doing farm chores, we were willing to learn and adapt. I recall jumping in the lake with only our underwear on, copying the farm children. And helping to collect the freshly laid eggs, still warm to the touch.
I also recall the bellyaches from eating too many green apples, and the cuts and bruises on our feet from trying to run around barefooted like the farm children. Our faithful companion was the farmer�s old, shaggy dog. He seemed rejuvenated each summer we arrived. Sometimes on the way to the farm we would wonder if he was still alive. Every time we paid some attention to him he would run ahead, then come back wagging his tail like a young pup. But when we were busy playing and ignoring him, he would just lie there pretending to be asleep, yet watching us with one open eye. The same way he was watching the farmer�s few sheep grazing in the yard. On Sundays you could hear the church bells ringing, calling the faithful to worship. Occasionally I would go with them to the little church; the farmer usually stayed back, claiming too many chores to be done. Instead of staying in church, we spent most of the time at the adjoining, very old cemetery, trying to read the hardly legible inscriptions on the headstones.
Reminiscing about all this, it�s no wonder we could not wait for school to be out. Mother would pack up the large wicker coffer brought down from the attic. The hinges in front were connected with a metal rod, and padlocked for security. It also had sturdy handles on each side because when the coffer was filled it took two people to carry it. We each gathered a few of our favorite things, and mother always insisted that we bring along some books, not to waste the summer without reading. We said goodbye to grandparents and relatives, though it was a short goodbye, many of them would come out for the weekends to visit. The horse-drawn carriage was waiting in front, the horses impatiently shifting from side to side. Father came along for the ride to get us settled but had to return to town to attend to his business. However, he came every weekend, brought lots of goodies from town and a host of relatives for a visit. He also brought for mother the week�s newspapers; the news was stale, but mother was mainly interested in the serialized section of the latest book.
The picture in front of me reminds me of such a weekend, when relatives came to visit, sitting under a shaded tree, inhaling fresh air, sipping cold drinks, and exchanging news and gossip. I see myself as that young girl, between the ages of nine and twelve, at every occasion hanging around older cousins. With a grin I now recall those years when together with one of my older female cousins and her friends, I made myself inconspicuous, pretending I was not there, yet listening to every word they uttered, giggling when they talked about boys and other feminine topics. On the other hand, when I was around my older male cousins, I craved to be noticed, though their conversation was of little interest to me. They usually talked about sports or their dreams of someday owning a car. Whatever they said, an occasional pat on my head made me happy that I was there and that they noticed me.
The summer quickly came to an end. Time again to pack up, but this time everything was carelessly thrown into the old wicker coffer. However, we had many more packages to carry back home, baskets with fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs � also a healthy tan from being outdoors all summer long. Father came to take us home, bringing gifts for all the members in the farmer�s family. The carriage was being loaded, we said goodbye over and over, reluctant to leave. Even the old dog got hugs from us. The children were running along the carriage as long as they could keep up with the horses, waving goodbye.
�2002, Manya Friedman (Moszkowicz). Used by permission, further use is prohibited.