Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Thirteen

The long winter was finally coming to an end. I know it wasn’t really longer than winters past, but it felt like it was. There are still a few areas of ice and snow in shady places, but the early blooming flowers are poking through the soil and will be in full bloom soon enough. Leaf buds are visible on the tree branches. I wanted to start a flower box in my bedroom window, but Father hasn’t able to purchase a new window to replace the one that was broken in the early days of the war. At least it’s only the bottom half of the window or my room would be very dark.

For the most part, we've learned to coexist with the Germans. Many of the details of daily life have been unaffected by their presence. Father goes to work every day. "As long as Polish businesses remain open, they still need their accountants," he liked to say. Max is still working part time at Uncle Jozef’s law firm and is continuing his law studies under Jozef’s tutelage. The firm has taken on more business since the German occupation. Several other firms shut down when their partners fled the country at the beginning of the war. They wanted to move their assets out of Poland before the Germans blocked them.

Max and Kate are still together, and their relationship is getting serious. Max bought a small engagement ring and plans to propose soon. Kate and I have come to know each other very well, and I’m looking forward to her joining the family. Kate’s mother had a couple of frantic months. There were rumors that the Germans were confiscating art collections from private citizens, and Kate's apartment was full of them. Her father pried up the floor boards under the heaviest pieces of furniture to hide the art and antiques. Kate's mother then had to use her decorating budget to purchase ugly knickknacks that the Germans wouldn’t look twice at. Her hope was that, if the Germans did enter their apartment, they would think there wasn’t anything worth finding.

My daily life consists mainly of mundane housework and cooking. I know it’s my responsibility to take care of Father and Max with Mother gone, but there really wasn’t that much to do. I go to the market most mornings to purchase what we need. Some foods, especially meat, have become scarce because most incoming shipments go straight to the Germans. Some foods are rationed, so we have to be creative. Luckily, Uncle Jozef has contacts who trade in the black market, which is bringing in foods from some of the farms in the area. It’s located in the basement of a building on the outskirts of town, and I go once a week to purchase some of the items I can’t get at the regular markets.

I spend a lot of my time reading. Before the Germans destroyed the university library, Uncle Jozef organized his “study group” to remove as many of the books and other collections as possible. Most of it is sitting in boxes in a hidden storage room in the basement of the law office. Max brings me a new book every week. With school closed, I don’t bother with math and science, neither of which I was good at anyway. I focus on history and literature, but I’ll read pretty much anything I can get my hands on. Father gives me a small allowance each month to purchase used books from street vendors for us to share.

Peter and I have a strong relationship. Father won’t give permission for me to marry until I’m eighteen, so we’ll have to remain unofficially engaged until then. During the winter, Peter and I met Maria and Tomas at the café every other Friday afternoon. Now that the weather is getting warmer, we hope to meet every Friday again. Father said that as long as he and Max have paying jobs, he’ll be able to give me an allowance for personal expenses. A lot of families don’t have that, so I feel very lucky.

Tomas disappeared for four weeks when the Germans “volunteered” him for a road-work crew. Maria had convinced herself that he was dead, but he finally returned home, ragged and thin. The toes on his left foot were severely frostbitten and had to be amputated, but he’s already up and about using a cane.

Father has been having fun making Peter work for his approval. I did figure out a way for Peter to really get on his good side. When Peter’s father receives shipments of liquor and wine from other countries, the Germans monitor the shipments, searching for hidden weapons in the crates. They don’t pay any attention to the packing materials, though, so the newspapers hidden in the crates make it safely past their checkpoints. Peter brings these to the “study group,” and when we’re finished translating and reading them, we share the newspapers with our families. I told Max to let Peter bring them to Father. Father loves his newspapers, so he actually looks forward to Peter’s visits. The news is a few weeks outdated, but "any news is better than no news," he likes to say. Peter also brings us a few treats. Apparently the liquor and wine suppliers are able to fill some of the bottles with small food items and medical supplies. Peter brings packets of miniature meats, such as salami, and cheeses every few weeks.

Over the past couple of months, there have been a lot of changes in the city. Those Poles and Jews who had the money and connections to escape are already gone. The last of the remaining Jews have been forced to relocate to the already overcrowded Jewish section of the city, just beyond the city hall. It turns out that the wall that was being constructed in that area late last year was not built to enclose the Jewish section. Rather it was built to restrict their movement into and out of certain parts of the city and is only a few blocks long. Father was right; it is just a wall. And it isn’t a very good wall at that, having been built by unskilled Jewish laborers who were “volunteered” for the task.

Uncle Jozef agreed to let me do more than just translate documents to help the resistance against the Germans. I’ve already completed several assignments carrying messages and small packages between Jozef and his contacts around the city. Father knows about it, but Max assured him that he’s keeping an eye on me and won’t let me take on anything too dangerous. The used books I purchase from the street vendors come in handy for hiding messages. I can walk down the street without being noticed and “accidentally” leave the book behind on a park bench or store counter. That’s also how I pick up some messages.

I feel very proud to be making even a small contribution to the resistance. I wish I could tell Maria what I’m doing, but I don’t trust her not to tell her father, who has developed close ties to the Germans. Maria was bragging about his reporting two Jewish children being hidden in the building next door to theirs. I don’t know how he found out about them, but both children and the family hiding them were forced out into the street and murdered on the spot. Lately, I feel like I’m continuing my friendship with her just so I can listen to her stories and maybe glean something useful from them.

I’m on my way out to deliver another message, this one hidden inside a ragged copy of The House of Seven Gables. I made sure to read the novel before cutting out a section the size of the small packet I was to carry. One important rule for this job: I’m not allowed to read the messages. I’m the courier, plain and simple.

As I headed out, I remembered the instructions Max gave me before my first assignment. First, try to stay on busy sidewalks whenever possible so I blend into the crowd. Second, don’t stare at the ground like I’m afraid or have something to hide. Walk erect, making eye contact with people. If it’s a nice day, admire the birds and flowers. And, finally, if I’m being followed, or feel like I’m being followed try to keep walking normally and then duck inside a shop to try to give the person the slip. Don’t run unless absolutely necessary, and never run home or to a home or place of business of someone we know. I know the city well enough to be able to shake anyone tailing me.

I’m heading over to the park today to sit on a bench near the northeast corner of the park and pretend to read the book. At exactly three o’clock, I can expect to see a woman wearing a green hat with a brown ribbon. When I see her, I’ll pretend to sneeze, place the book on the bench, take out a handkerchief, and blow my nose. After that, I’ll stand and walk away without looking back, leaving the book.

Everything went as planned until, as I was walking away, something made me glance back toward the bench. Two German soldiers were questioning the woman in the green hat. They had the book. She was motioning that she didn’t know who left the book. The soldiers went over to an old man sitting across the way and asked him something. The next thing I knew, they were pointing at me. Shit! I turned to the right instead of taking my planned route home. It was difficult not to look back, but somehow I managed not to. My heart was racing.

As I came around the side of the building out of sight of the bench, I looked at my watch and made a comment to myself to indicate that I was late for an appointment, hoping that anyone near me would think I was picking up my pace because I was late for an appointment. At the next corner, I turned right again. This street was empty, so I began to run. I could hear loud footsteps behind me, so I turned again and ducked down under some stairs. I didn’t have a clear line of vision to the street, but I could hear the sound of boots on the cobblestones. The soldiers ran past my hiding place and stopped. I was sure they could hear my heart beating. It felt like it was about to jump out of my chest. Even my watch’s ticking sounded loud enough for them to hear. After a moment or two, I heard the boots again, this time just jogging instead of running, but definitely heading away from me. I let out a deep sigh.

I decided to wait five more minutes to make sure they were gone and so I could calm my nerves. The situation was scary but also invigorating. I’ve never been in trouble before, and coming so close to serious trouble was thrilling. I know I couldn’t tell Father about this, but Uncle Jozef needed to know so he could find out if the other courier was safe and if the message was intercepted.

I carefully poked my head out and didn’t see anyone. Just as I was about to rise, someone stepped out through of the door above my hiding place, so I stayed down, pretending to tie my shoes. The lady barely noticed me. I walked in the opposite direction from where the soldiers had gone. As I was walking, I found myself glancing back and to the side until I realized that was making me look guilty. Suddenly I noticed that I had walked all the way to the already crumbling wall around the Jewish section. The street running along the wall was quiet, so I turned the corner to rest for a moment and make sure the soldiers hadn’t doubled back.

I was near one end of the wall, where it abuts a bombed-out building. Most of the buildings on both sides of the wall had suffered severe damage. The wall itself appears to have been constructed from some of the building rubble.

The silence was suddenly broken by scraping and shuffling sounds in the corner. I listened for a few seconds and then slowly approached the wall. There were some broken crates and rusting barrels scattered around. It’s probably just a cat or dog scrounging for food, but my curiosity got the better of me and I had to look. As I got closer, I noticed a hole in the wall and the sudden flash of a hand disappearing on the other side. Definitely not an animal.

“Hello?” I whispered.

No response.

“Hello? Who's there? It’s okay, you don’t have to be afraid.”

I thought I heard a response but couldn’t make it out. So, after looking around to make sure no one can see me, I crawled over a couple of crates and kneeled down at the hole.

“Hello?” I said again.

“Hello,” the person replied. It was a girl’s voice.

“Hi, my name is Helena. What’s your name?” I tried to get a glimpse of her face but she was off to the side.

“My name is Gitla,” she replied.

“What are you doing?” I asked, pulling over a piece of wood to sit on.

“I was just looking for a quiet place to sit and think when I noticed this hole. I was curious to see if there’s anything to watch on your side, so I tried to make it a little bigger.”

“Well, it’s very quiet on my side. That’s why I’m here. I sort of got into a little trouble and need to lay low for a while.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Sorry, I can’t say. Are you a Jew? How old are you?”

“Yes, I’m Jewish. We all are on this side of the wall. I’m sixteen years old, almost seventeen.”

“I’m sixteen, too. Do you have a school to go to? We don’t. The Germans closed them all at my level.”

“No, no school. There are some informal schools for the younger children to make sure they learn the basics, but most of the older children have to try to find work or help out at home, so they don’t bother with school for us. I do have some books that I trade with other people.”

“I really miss school. I have access to books as well, so I read a lot of literature and history.” I leaned over directly in front of the hole. “Can I see what you look like?”

Gitla leaned forward. She had blue eyes and long, dark curly hair. Very pretty.

“I’ve seen you before, just before the war started. My mother and I were in a Jewish market. You and I bumped into each other. I wanted to tell you how much I liked your curly hair, but you hurried off before I had a chance. This is a weird coincidence.”

“I’m sorry,” Gitla said. “I don’t remember you. I like your straight hair. My hair is so difficult to manage.”

I laughed. “I guess we always want what we don’t have.”

“Very true,” Gitla said with a giggle. “Do you have the time? I need to be at work at five. I work the dinner shift at the soup kitchen, serving and cleaning up.”

“Yes, it’s a little past four. I should get going. I have an important phone call to make. It was very nice meeting you. Maybe we can meet here once a week. It looks like a nice quiet spot on both sides of the wall.”

“I’d like that,” Gitla said.

“How about Friday afternoons, just after lunch, weather permitting?” I suggested.

“That’s a good time for me. It’ll be nice to get to know you and hear about life out there in the world.”

“Well, it’s not very exciting out here, and my world is very small, but you’re right, it will be nice to have someone new to chat with. Ooh, wait, I just remembered,” I said, reaching into my pocket. “Here, I have a couple of candies. Would you like one?”

“Yes, thank you very much. It’s been months since I had a treat,” Gitla said, quickly unwrapping the candy and placing it in her mouth. “That is so good! Thank you again.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll try to bring more next time. I’ll see you soon.”

“Goodbye. Have a pleasant week.”

I peeked out to make sure no one was around. The street was still deserted. The buildings were so badly damaged and I doubted anyone lived in them anymore. This was a good spot for secret meetings.

As I began my walk home I looked back at my secret corner. A new friend, very exciting. And what a coincidence, the girl from the park and the market. I wondered what the odds were of that happening. People were beginning to head home after work, so the streets were becoming more crowded. Good for me; I felt more comfortable on busy sidewalks than quiet streets right now.

As soon as I arrived home, I called Uncle Jozef at work to tell him what had happened. He was glad that I was able to act quickly to get myself to safety, but he hadn’t heard yet if the other courier had been so lucky. He knew I was worried about her and promised to let me know as soon as he found out anything. No more courier assignments for a while though. We need to make sure that the Germans weren’t looking for me. I didn’t tell him about Gitla. That’ll be my secret, at least for now. Father and Max will be home soon, so I quickly washed and started making dinner. Soup and crackers…again. Each week I hoped to find something interesting at the market to break the monotony, but that rarely happened.

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