The geography of war was played out on my stomach, stretched like a pancake, somewhere between my sharp ribs. We knew the war was going badly for the Wehrmacht because we got less to eat and my stomach shrank. When they were advancing towards Leningrad, eating everything in their path, we got a bigger ration and my stomach advanced. Our turnip soup no longer had any meat floating in it, was little more than coloured water, that could not squeeze any taste out of even the most receptive taste buds and the winter cold killed just as effectively as bullets. I shivered and shook and my body gave up; a ceasefire of effort.
Herr Doktor let me cower under the covers. ‘Two days and then she’s gone,’ he said to no one in particular.
His pointed words stuck with me. I tried to rise, but flopped down again. I dreamed of ménage a trois, played against a backdrop of madrigals, of pigs’ head, horses’ hock and lamb chops dancing in my mouth. A cold compress startled me from my reverie.
‘Shhhh,’ said Ruth, ‘just rest’.
‘Danke,’ I replied, wondering where that word, that language had come from.
I pictured them all at home, a magical kingdom where the light filtered through the jars on the counter and coloured my crib in confectionary colours. My hands grasped at the hard sweetness of Mama and Papa’s life. It was my job to be quiet, but I never quite managed.
My father owned a store. Grunewalds. Papa had fought for the Kaiser, lost his right foot, but still loved all things German. He had struggled through food shortages, beer shortages, fuel shortages and queues that stretched from the tobacconist on Karmelinka Street right past our front door. I didn’t see my father die. He was about ten miles away. But he was an heretic that refused to believe that he could be a confectioner with a Jewish wife, son and daughter. Or he could disown us and be a confectioner. He could not be both. The sugar shortage killed him.
Mother died shortly afterwards. Some said of a broken heart at having lost her husband and being forced to close the shop and move. We were only allowed to take household goods. Some clothes. But not fur. That would be ripped from your back. Bed linen. But not jewellery. No foreign currency. Both had to be surrendered to help pay the cost of our forced repatriation. But people still wanted treats in the ghetto. There was no longer any point in hoarding money. Live for today was the constant refrain. And mother, with little more than a steel pan and the cradle of an open flame, made enough people shuffle silently up our stairs, to support us.
German financiers set up sweat shops in the ghetto making everything from water bottles for the Wehermacht to uniforms. The hours were long and the pay meagre. At first, only the truly desperate Jews worked in them. The new law making it compulsory for every Jew, regardless of sex, to work in these ‘shops’ made every Jew desperate. Those without work would, be expelled to the East, ostensibly because of overcrowding in the ghetto.
‘Shop tickets’ became our new currency. The spouse, parents and children of such workers were considered protected. Mother, of course, had no spouse and her parents had already gone East. Jasio and me were not old enough to work, but old enough to look as if we should be working so that even suitable papers were no protection. We had to hide when the cry went out that the streets were being swept. The attic and basement were the first places that were always checked.
Hunger is always the same story of blood and bone eating bone, and was never a heroic ending. I never understood how Mama had let herself believe that that there was food a plenty for those that wanted to work, and were willing to work, as long as they gave themselves up. Perhaps it was after they had taken Jasio to the Umschlagplatz. Mama had laughed at the idea of a ‘Resettlement Order’. Now she showed me her hands. ‘Worker’s hands,’ she said, but her eyes were filled with tears. She begged me to come with her. I pulled her away from the window, begged her not to go.
I had no choice but to become an outlaw’ living on the fringes of an outcast society. The only people below me were those that worked for the Germans, the Jewish Council and, in particular, the Jewish militiamen. They made sure that at every selection shouts and cries were ignored and mercy was squeezed as they got rid of the ‘undesirables’: men, woman and children, who did not work, or have documents to work. Curses, whips and clubs were their main weapons, and without waiting for any German orders ‘Laufen’ those in front, row upon row of them ran like cattle to be penned in cattle trucks later.
‘You’re going to be all right,’ said Ruth.
She had a basin of water and a cloth in her hand and I knew that she had sponged me down, but I’d only the faintest memory of it, in a sinking feeling in my stomach. I hoped she’d let me die. She smelt of spring rain and in the light her hair fell around her shoulders like a halo. Even her print dress looked washed and fresh. I was a world away from caring, but Elke the new girl poked her head through the tapestry of old carpets and curtains that made up our makeshift cells.
I say new, but Elke was really an old girl, at least 40. I like to try and keep cheerful was her common refrain. She knew all the most popular songs and liked to sing them to keep her spirits up. Her faded dress spoke of a harsh past, but it was her clogs she complained about endlessly to anyone that listened.
‘They said that I stole them,’ she’d said to anybody that would listen, but nobody would, except Ruth. ‘I didn’t,’ she’d whine incessantly, perhaps even enough to convince herself.