Liberation: Two Train Stories
By Carol Lipszyc
On a warm July night in 1946, a train rolled through the countryside destined for Czestochowa, holy city of the Black Madonna, Jasna Gora. There were no available seats on the train. Since the day the war had ended, an endless stream of commuters rode trains free across Poland. People were restless. It was discernible in the way they held their bodies, like they were loose springs, coiled, propelled by a curiosity to see, to travel, because they had earned the right to indulge themselves. In one of the cars sat Pola Friedberg, a sixteen-year-old Polish Jewish survivor, who was herself returning to Czestochowa after visiting a friend in Waldenberg. Before the war, her trip would have taken her across the border to Germany, but Waldenberg had now been declared part of Poland. The borders between countries in post-war Eastern Europe were changing hands like a chessboard with competing strategists. In the aftermath, there had been talk as she passed through the stations, satisfied talk among the beleaguered Poles, that the Germans had lost territory they once possessed.
She boarded the train alone, leaving behind her sister, Rivka, and her brother and sister-in-law who were awaiting the birth of their first child. Taking a seat, she daintily flattened the folds of her skirt, laid her handbag at her side, and only then, made a quick mental note of those travelling with her. She still took this precaution in a world divided between Jews and non-Jews. Liberation from the Warta ammunition factory, the faction of the slave labor camp in Czestochowa where she had been interned, had not absolved this need. When she first left the camp with a group of fellow female prisoners in January, 1945, freedom had been bitter. German troops had withdrawn and those who lived in the area would no longer have had to face retribution for aiding Jews. The women were blindly confident as they walked out into the nearest street that cold January night, dressed in rags and open-backed wooden clogs that froze to the ground. They looked at the windows. Perhaps one of the Poles who lived there would welcome themin, offer them hot coffee, some food. Their spirits sank. Window curtains moved mysteriously, bodiless hands motioned: "Go away.” They wondered where they would go, frozen from the wind, without shelter. Returning to their hometowns proved to be as desolate an experience as the day they first rejoined the free world. Former Polish neighbors greeted them with disbelief, guarded against any property claims the Jews might have made. Some turned openly hostile. “What — you returned? Have you come for your things? We thought Hitler had killed you all.” By surviving, the Jews had violated the laws of nature.
Pola leaned back in her seat and breathed deeply. It was summertime, she was free, and the day with her friend had been a happy one. They had talked of their childhood homes in Lodz, of their families, and of the rich and precious lives they had once led as observant Jews. Summers had always been her favourite season. On a day like the one that had just passed, the windows in her family's apartment would have been opened and residents of the neighborhood would have heard her brothers sing the sweet tunes of prayer, the zmirot. The house was transformed by her mother into a palace, its floors scrubbed, the merchandise her father sold covered up for the day of rest. She longed to relive the quiet sanctity and ceremony of those days, but she knew they could not be retrieved, not as they once were.
She looked out at the night. The train spun by lone trees and sparsely grouped tiny wood-framed houses and barns that resembled children's deserted playthings. Through the cloudy grime of the glass window, her own silhouette was obscured. There was little to see that occupied her mind. She directed her attention to voices around her, which grew increasingly loud. A middle-aged woman sitting on her right was leading the discussion in an indignant voice. She had a snout-shaped nose, thick hair peppered with grey, arms that were bulbous, the flesh under them flaccid. Holding a wrapped basket of food on her lap, she used one free hand to accentuate her words.
“Did you see how the Jews are walking around dressed in such finery with their heads held high? Did you see? We thought we were rid of them, but they have survived and wish to flaunt their wealth as they did before the war.” The woman gnashed her teeth as she spoke.
“We shouldn't have to put up with them anymore,” her listeners smacked their lips in agreement.
The blood rose in Pola's cheeks. If she moved from them, she would give herself away. But how could she listen and say nothing?
She was about to announce that she was a Jewess. No one seemed to suspect. Her fair complexion did not give her away. But the arguments against doing anything silenced her. To rebel was to put herself at risk. She was outnumbered, and the woman could easily incite the others against her. Pola lowered her head to hide her distress. Sensing she was not well, the woman turned and offered her a sip from the bottle of water she pulled out from the covered basket. Pola looked up at her face. Her features were set tightly, but it was not a face devoid of feeling, even tenderness that cracked open now like a broken shell. She gives me this, thought Pola, because she considers me a Pole, and for one of her own, she can find humanity in her heart. Pola gladly drank from the bottle. She would have her silent revenge. She wanted to tell the woman, "Do you know that your mouth will later touch the same bottle a Jewess has touched?” But she said nothing.
Leaving the train, Pola walked by foot to the house where she rented two rooms with her family. It was pitch dark, and she held her handbag tightly, moving quickly with a fearful premonition. She entered the courtyard, walked toward the closed gate, and knocked for the janitor to open it. He did not come down. It was late, she guessed, and the janitor was probably in bed. She knocked again and waited. She called out softly in Yiddish, “Chaskiel.” There was no answer. Odd, she thought. The mild-mannered man was punctual. She frequently waited for his sprite step and felt protected by his small thick hands as they opened the gate. He worked the lock with a persistence she admired. Perhaps today he had fallen sick. It must have been a sudden illness for there were no prior symptoms. A voice called out from above. Pola’s back stiffened. A young man who lived on the top floor peered down from an open window and asked who it was as audibly as he could without attracting attention. Pola informed him that she lived there and that she wished to come in. His head bobbed back inside. Within minutes, he was opening the gate.
“What is it? What has happened to the janitor?” Pola asked anxiously.
The tenant checked both sides of the street. “Didn't you hear? Do you not know what has happened today?”
Pola shook her head.
“Not like this. We'll talk inside.” When they entered the hallway, he spoke quickly.
“Were you out of town?” The tenant was lean; his frame seemed to shrink further in the half-light that flickered from a single fixture in the hallway.
“Yes. I came from Waldenberg.”
“And you travelled on a train?” He leaned forward, moving into her space. His eyes were bloodshot.
“Yes, of course.”
His voice quivered like a reef. “From this train, from all the trains today, whoever was travelling, these Jews were murdered. There was a pogrom in Kielce and it has spread to the trains.” The tenant stepped back a few paces, acknowledging a breach of etiquette. “They have accused us again of the killing of Polish children, and rant how we were responsible for the war and for communism in Poland. A pregnant woman from nearby, her stomach was slit, and the baby came out. Some Jews were killed with boards, stones, earlier today in front of the train. Chaskiel, the janitor, that is how his life came to an end. It is terrible, this news. Would you rather we speak in my apartment?” The tenant pointed up the stairs.
Pola declined the offer. Her feet would not move. “But how did it happen that he left the house? He seldom left.”
The tenant's hands fumbled in his pant pocket for his spectacles. Placing them carefully around his ears, he sighed. “Yes, a little simple in the head. We all knew it. Who didn't know? Never travelled anywhere from the day he was released from the camps. But just yesterday, what luck, and it is the bad luck of a simple man. Just yesterday somebody came from another town. He had a house he needed to sell, and he wanted Chaskiel to be a witness. So the poor fellow took a train out of town for the first time. We discovered this evening that a group of Poles forced him off the train and stoned him to death. They killed him at the station.”
Pola felt queasy and light-headed. Had she spoken back to the woman with the bottle of water… “My family is waiting. You will have to excuse me. I must go upstairs.”
“Good luck,” the tenant shouted after her, his hands on the staircase rail. “We are, each one of us, getting out of this God-forsaken country for good. We want nothing more to do with them.”
News of the pogrom had spread. She found her sister, Rivka, in the apartment packing. Her brother and sister-in-law urged them to go and promised that they would follow once the baby was born. This time they would not wait as they had in 1939. Pola and her sister dressed in two layers of clothing and rested for awhile. They would leave their few belongings behind and make their way out of Poland on a route others had taken before them. The two sisters would watch after one another, as they had done in the labor camp.
In the morning, they boarded a train. Fearing a new outbreak against Jews, they masked their faces. Pretending she suffered from a toothache, Pola put on a kerchief while Rivka laid her head back against the seat and feigned sleep. A boy sitting across from them grew curious about the novelty of the two sick and sleepy girls with whom he was to share a ride. Long-legged, he tapped Pola's shoe with a meddling insistence.
“What's wrong with you, lady?”
Pola groaned and pointed to her kerchief.
“Do you have a toothache?” He mimed a pained expression, displaying a front, chipped tooth. Pola noticed bristles on his raised chin. She nodded.
“Where are you going to fix it? Do you have a doctor?”
Pola directed his attention to the windows.
“Where? I don’t understand.”
She closed her eyes.
“Poor lady. It is time for the dentist. Mother forces me to go, but most times I find reasons to postpone my appointment.”
The boy soon became bored with her and, to her relief, got off the train after a few stops. Pola and Rivka's journey, on the contrary, had just begun.
Pola and Rivka made new plans. Travelling close to the German border, they waited in an abandoned house with other refugees for members of the Jewish brigade of Palestine to lead them. These Jews were known to be fighters. A silent and solemn understanding between the refugees and their new leaders marked the journey. In a line of unspoken trust, they led the tribe single file through the woods to Czechoslovakia. As they crossed the border, many refugees fell to the ground and kissed it. They could not say what it was that awoke this emotion in them. Ahead of them lay nothing more than an empty field. No one knew of their arrival but a Czech farmer who at that moment crossed the field with a cow. When the farmer saw the wandering Jews, he gladly offered them water from a nearby pump. For the first time since they were liberated, they felt accepted.
“Borders are strange entities,” Pola remarked to Rivka. “They change like the people who live within them.” The refugees talked of returning to Germany, to a displaced persons camp and the relative safety that might bring. But Germany would not be home for the two sisters. The day they arrived at that unknown place, they promised one another, would be a day of pure joy and would count as their first true day of liberation.
A JEWISH INTERROGATION
After the war, trains throughout Germany ran sporadically. I travelled lightly, boarding a train in Bremen that was en route to Frankfurt am Main. From there, I planned to reach Salzheim and join other Jewish refugees. I left a Polish Displaced Persons camp set up by the United Nations, along with two male Polish companions I had befriended there. Both Jan and Bronislaw were slender, genteel young men who had fought in the Warsaw Polish Uprising and been taken as prisoners of war in Germany. There was about them a silent melancholy; they lapsed into it uncontrollably, briefly, as one lapses into a little sleep. But they did not lack hope. They were curious, restless as we all were, with latent desires and ambitions that were only now reawakening.
I was sixteen and had survived the war under a false alias given to me by a righteous Polish farmer in Noviny with whom I was still corresponding. Through the war, letters had gone back and forth asking after my welfare, sometimes with the gift of baked and dried slices of cake and bread packed in paper. Now, I could shed the name, Helena Jablonska, which I had assumed while working in a rope factory for the navy in Bremengron, and return to my birth name, Roza Handelsman. My identity was something I had learned to wear, like my hair, which I braided in the early morning hours to tame its natural wave and quell any suspicion of Jewish roots. Knees on the cold floor, I wove my hair crisscross, fearful of detection. Eventually, I wore my identity like a second skin, becoming the Jablonski girl well-versed in farm chores, creating vignettes whose details I loved to fashion and had to replicate perfectly with each telling.
But language held me in limbo. Building a new person entailed sealing my lips forever from uttering my mother tongue, Yiddish, which I had spoken at home with family and with my spawning circle of friends on the streets of Lublin. I had to bury Yiddish for safekeeping, for my preservation.
On a winter morning in 1942, during the first winter of forced labor at the rope factory, I walked with a crew of Polish girls and my youngest maternal aunt, a twenty-one year-old, who fled with me to Germany under the pseudonym, Lodzia Jablonski, She became both older sister and mother figure to me. I, in turn, consoled her with the naiveté and brashness of a pre-teen. As we walked outside the Sudetenhaus, my aunt pinned her hopes on me.
“Do you really think we will survive?”
“I have no doubt we will make it,” I answered, strutting.
On guard, we listened for one another's missteps, ready at an instant to close holes in our fabrication of the past. Most often, our eyes read our hearts.
Each morning, we trekked to the factory from our quarters at the Sudetenhaus in Bremen Wegesak, a northern district of the city. Snow stuck to our wooden clogs, weighing us down. As we passed a group of timber-framed houses, a German boy, his winter coat open, his face sweaty, jumped out in front of us with a snowball in his hand. Polish pigs, schweine, he yelled, pitching his weapon with his right hand.
The word pig in German is the same in Yiddish. I screamed back in the language of my fighting schooldays that I would punch his teeth out. The German boy dropped the snowball and stared at me, suspended. My aunt pulled me away, into the group. Generally composed and steady around the workers, she began to laugh nervously, which first set off tittering and then all-out laughter among the girls who mistook my words for German. I joined the chorus. In a small way, this was our act of resistance.
But I knew, as did my aunt, that I had put our lives in peril. That evening and for the rest of the war, I could not retrieve a spoken word of Yiddish. The fear I felt was like a drug that lay my knowledge of the language to sleep. The power of the mind was more mystifying with each passing day of the war. I could understand Yiddish after the German defeat, though the words would not come to me when I spoke. My train ride to Frankfurt am Main brought this loss of language to a head.
We three, Jan, Bronislaw and I, could not find vacant seats and went from section to section until we noticed two empty compartments secluded from the others. “Let's sit here,” I suggested. We settled in, relieved to have found a place together. Our train ride would have passed uneventfully as we crossed Germany had it not been for one of the last groups of oncoming passengers who boarded. It was a stop whose name I cannot accurately recall, as if those particular passengers came from a place uncharted on any map. Two men, I remember, first bustled into our car speaking Yiddish and bits of Hebrew I could decipher. Standing at the train door, they directed those passengers who would presumably fill the remaining seats. I realized then they were Jewish survivors, and it pierced my heart. How had they survived the war? I combed my mind for the possibilities, the same possibilities and dreams I had once carried for my own family. Some must have emerged from Siberia where they had lived out the war. Russian was scattered in their talk. Some Jews survived the camps, others emerged from hiding and some, like me, must have lived under a false alias. The two men speaking Hebrew I estimated to be Zionist emissaries. I knew something of the movement. Its idealism appealed to me: I saw myself as a pioneer in a Jewish homeland, hands in the earth, the Star of David my personal banner. How I might arrive there, I didn't know; what good I could do, I didn't consider. The dream was a flame I would not extinguish, not even on my aunt's counsel to protect myself and remain with her as the sole child survivor of the family. I knew only that I wanted to break away from a past I couldn't sustain.
A number of the new passengers stood in the aisles, among those remnant Jews who had returned to Poland and fled for their lives after the Kielce pogrom. Arms thrashing, they cried out to the two men in broken sentences that their property had been seized by Polish officials at the border. They drew objects in the air to make clear their plight, some with small gestures, others enlarging the dearness of the goods to lifelike size.
“We understand,” the two men assured them. “Now don't upset yourselves, and we will take this up with the proper authorities.” The train began to jostle all of them about. The new passengers muttered under their breath as they returned to their seats.
On hearing the three of us speak Polish, they angrily demanded in Yiddish, “Who are these Poles, this Gentile girl? They do not belong here.”
Jan stood up and nodded to Bronislaw to follow suit. “Let's leave. We’re not wanted in this part of the train. Helenka, why don't you join us?” Jan and Bronislaw did not know of my true Jewish identity. Out of a longstanding sense of secrecy and fear, I had not confided in them.
“They'll have to forcibly throw me out the door.” I pulled Jan down back into his seat. “We have every right to sit here.”
Unwilling to enter into a conflict, my two Polish companions moved to another car. I remained, determined not to be jousted out of my seat.
“Excuse me.” One of the two Jewish leaders, a short, stocky man, approached me once Jan and Bronislaw had left. “We mean no harm. This compartment is especially allocated for Jewish refugees. The turmoil, you understand. It is better this way.” His Polish was fluent, and his tone to me courteous.
“But sir, it is you who do not understand. I am a Jew.” I had not uttered these words throughout the war years. They sounded foreign.
He ceased questioning for a moment. Then speaking in Yiddish, he called over the other leader, a mustached man with white hair and glasses, to join us. “She says she is a Jew. We ought to give her the benefit of the doubt.”
His associate asked, “Can you speak Yiddish?”
I answered in Polish that I could not, though I had been fluent before the war. But my listening comprehension, I added in an effort to gratify, was excellent. The two men conferred. The mustached man declared that my answer was a lame one and I was not to be believed.
“She claims she cannot speak Yiddish,” the more civil of the two repeated somewhat sympathetically.
The other turned back to me. “If you are a Jewish girl from Poland, as you profess, how is it you cannot speak Yiddish?”
I explained that I had developed a case of amnesia during the war.
“Are you saying that out of fear you lost your mother tongue?”
I nodded yes, one of my mother tongues, since I had spoken Polish on a daily basis.
“You don't strike me as being the kind that would easily lose her nerve. Well, you're seated here, and those other two men might as well have stayed with you.”
That was not, however, to be the end of it. My alibi was a transparent one. Several survivors encircled me and began posing a series of questions to prove I was an impostor. They were serious in their quest and took turns examining me. I had presented them with a dilemma. If I was once a Jew, which they didn't for one moment believe, I had over time transformed my manner, and if I wasn't a Jew, why would I pretend to be a member of a doomed race? Perhaps I was playing the ingénue in a drama of my own making?
“Did you come from a religious home?” the first question was put to me. The speaker was young, his look ascetic and scholarly.
“Mother was kosher, but we attended synagogue only on the Holy Days. No, we were not religious.”
“When does Passover fall?” The second question was a test.
“Usually sometime in the month of April. We celebrated seder with alternate members of the immediate family. Mother had six brothers and two sisters. Father had four brothers and sisters. I had many cousins.”
A voice came from behind him. “That was too simple. Easter falls in the same part of the year.” They were confident that they would now catch the mouse in her own trap and watched intently for any signs of surrender.
“Tell me, what does Passover mean? Every Jewish child knows this.”
“Freedom from slavery. Moses led our people to their freedom and the land of Israel. We ask why this night is special from all other nights as a question.” I spoke with little feeling. “The youngest who is able… reads.” I wanted to rest.
They challenged me with an unlimited supply of questions, which I answered to the best of my ability in Polish. Details I had not considered for years flooded back, bits of stories, lines of a song I once sang. My responses were then translated back whenever necessary into Yiddish by the rabbinical council that had formed around me.
“What do we hear on Rosh Hashanah?”
“The shofar, the ram's horn.”
“And what is the saddest day of the calendar year?”
I hesitated. “Tisha B'Av.” The mustached man with glasses smiled and raised his eyebrows.
“And it commemorates?”
“The destruction of the first and second temples.”
“And who destroyed the first temple?” his partner interjected.
“No,” the stocky man hmmmpphed, “where did you learn this?”
“A rabbi was brought into our home. He taught both me and my older brother.”
“Brought into the home. I see.”
I was to match other Jewish holidays and their rituals. Sukkot I accurately named as the holiday that commemorated the wandering of Jews through the wilderness and the booths where they dwelled, booths we were commanded to cover only with things that grew on the ground.
“Tree branches, sticks, bamboo reeds.”
“And what do we shake at Sukkot?”
“Lemons, palm and willow branches.”
“What about Purim? Which queen do we honor?”
“Queen Esther of the Persian Empire who saved us from our enemy, Haman.”
“Show us what you do when the name Haman is mentioned.”
I stamped my feet.
My audience turned silent, recognizing the truth, when a hypothesis was again put forward which weakened my credibility. I had merely witnessed other Jewish children in the act and mimicked them. Willful, I volunteered more information. “My parents were members of the Jewish Socialist Bund before the war. Also, they joined Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist organization.”
I went on to tell them I was born in Lublin, on Grodzka Street, that my maiden name was Handelsman, that I had seen neither my mother nor father since 1942, and that my mother and brothers were said to have been deported to Treblinka, but of this I had no written proof since there was no documentation of their death. From what little information I gathered, my father was seen alive by a Polish witness in Majdanek as late as 1943.
“Treblinka, Majdanek. Just names of camps she could have read about. She gains no vote of confidence from me.”
I protested. “I had a younger brother. He was circumcised. I remember this. How could I invent it?”
But then hadn't I invented a complete Polish Christian counterpart for the past four years, and hadn't I succeeded in convincing everyone around me of my false identity? The rigorous questioning continued through dawn. By morning I hoped I had satisfied my Jewish interrogators.
Shortly before approaching the city of Frankfurt, I overheard one Jewish man say to another in Yiddish, “So what do you think?”
“I'll tell you. I bet she was a maid employed in a Jewish home.”
I exited the train without a word. I felt a mixture of pride, sorrow and rage as a Jew. Nothing filled my growing sense of loss, and yet I couldn't comfortably embrace the Jews I met. My Polish Gentile identity was no more secure than my Jewish one. Throughout the war I feared betrayal, but in sharing food with the girls and working together, I became one of them. When I greeted a Pole, I wanted to say, “Sister, brother, let me join you.” Ours was a kinship I could not deny, and this caused me guilt since I couldn't reconcile our affinity with the death toll exacted across our country.
So little was left to salvage. The world had been sectioned off like the train I rode that night, and I doubted much would change now peace was won. I disembarked and walked through the crowd as a falsely assumed and converted Pole, a newly declared and abandoned Jew.
Passengers spilled out of the train cars in great numbers. “Make way, make way,” the station master announced. New voyagers crowded the doors to board the train while others waiting for recent arrivals strained to see above all the heads. It was as if a flock of migrating birds was in transit.
Jan and Bronislaw greeted me.
“Salzheim will be my first stop, not my last,” I told them of my dream of embarking on a boat to Palestine.
“We remember some of the Jewish youth in Warsaw and their organizations. They had zeal,” Jan said gently, his arms reaching toward me. “A homeland is somewhere to return to,” Bronislaw remarked, emboldening me. “As for the two of us, we plan on returning to Poland shortly.”
We embraced with promises of reuniting on some unknown date. I walked on, saddened by our parting and apprehensive about the future. I too had a need to return, but to what place would I go? I was not a Polish patriot like the two of them, on their way to rebuild what had been ravaged. A hybrid soul, I was in search of new ground. And if I couldn’t take stock of my Jewish past, I would have to try and rejoin my people to build a future. That is, if we would have one another.
Somehow, I had faith.
Copyright © Carol Lipszyc 2012
Carol Lipszyc's book of lyrical and autobiographical poems, Singing Me Home, was published by Inanna Press, York University, 2010. Stories on children in the Shoah from the collection, Saviour Shoes and Other Stories, have appeared in Midstream and Parchment. As an educator and scholar, Carol has published in international journals in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.K. Her Literacy/ESL Reader with chants, People Express, was published by Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1996. Carol is currently an Assistant Professor at State University of New York, Plattsburgh teaching English teacher education and creative writing.