Friday is my favorite day of the week. I’m still not being given any courier assignments, so the only fresh air I get is when I go to the market each day, and Friday afternoons when I visit Gitla at the wall and then meet Peter, Maria, and Tomas at the café. Over the past few weeks, Gitla and I have become good friends. We have a lot in common, especially our love of history. She plans to attend the university after the war to study archaeology. I had thought about becoming a history teacher if I didn’t marry right after graduation, but archaeology sounds much more exciting. We agreed to try to study and work together after the war, if Peter doesn’t mind my traveling occasionally.
Gitla told me all about her family. Her father, Szymon, is a shoemaker, so without a supply of new shoes, there is plenty of repair work for him in the Jewish ghetto. Yes, ghetto. That’s the word Gitla is using now. Her father trained her two brothers, Zalman and Ruben, in the same trade, and they are all kept very busy.
The boys spend a lot of their time combing through the trash looking for any materials that can be used to patch holes or replace broken laces. It isn’t easy. Because all of the supplies needed for daily life are so scarce, people rarely discard anything useful. Unfortunately, the best source of supplies is the death of another resident. They have to get there fast, though.
Gitla’s mother, Freda, is a skilled seamstress, so she’s also able to earn money for the family. Gitla’s day job is to scrounge for any scraps of fabric and thread her mother can use in her work. Freda had tried to teach Gitla to sew, but it just didn’t take. Gitla laughs at that because she isn’t a very good cook either.
Gitla has a younger sister, Rosa, who shows promise as a seamstress, so their mother gives Rosa some of the smaller sewing jobs. She’s too young to be out on the streets anyway. Her older sister, Sarah, was already married. Her husband, Meyer, joined the Polish army in 1939 and was killed on the first day of the German invasion. He never met their daughter, Zelda, who was born two days later. Zelda was sickly from birth and survived only a few weeks.
Gitla also has an older brother, Avrum, who escaped east when the Russian army evacuated. He planned to join the Russian army to fight the Germans, but with no mail, there’s no way to know what he’s doing or if he’s safe.
There have been a lot of changes in the world over the past few months. Germany conquered most of western Europe in May and June, and the Japanese continued their march through Asia and the Pacific nations. We heard on the radio last week that Italy, Germany, and Japan have signed a cooperation agreement. With the changes in Europe, the flow of news to Poland has been almost completely cut off. Peter’s father isn’t getting as many shipments from his suppliers. We still have some black market contacts, but it’s now more important than ever to ration the supplies we already have. The only place to eat meat is at a restaurant but the prices have increased to ridiculous levels.
We listen to the radio, which now has to be hidden, for a few minutes each evening. The Germans have been confiscating radios, so Father built a hamper-like box in the bathroom from some scraps of wood he found in an alley. We keep some towels tossed on top of the radio just in case the Germans raid our building. The news on the radio is always disappointing, but we have to listen anyway. England is all alone now. There was one report that the Americans might be sending them supplies and equipment, but I wonder why America hasn’t entered the war. I don’t know enough about world politics to understand why.
My figure filled out over the summer, and I can now fit into some of my mother’s clothes. Father moved all of her things into my room. Some of the blouses are loose in the chest though. When I told Peter that was because Mother had larger breasts than I do, he said, “I think yours are just the right size. If they were any larger, I wouldn’t know what to do with them.” He can be such a wise-ass sometimes. Since I don’t need my old clothing anymore, I’ve been bringing one or two items at a time to Gitla. If her family doesn’t need them, they can try to sell them or her mother can use the fabric.
With winter approaching, coal and wood are high on our list of priorities. Max is trying to arrange a trade: old shoes and clothing for coal and wood. If we really need to, we can sell or trade Mother’s jewelry, but I don’t think any of us is ready to part with that yet.
Father recently put me in charge of the supplies. I feel very proud that he trusts me. I don’t want to let him down, but I also feel the need to help Gitla however I can. We’ve already begun rationing certain things. The coffee and tea won’t last much longer. We probably should have limited our use on those months ago. Now we’ve cut back to one cup for each of us on Saturdays and Sundays only. Another reason I enjoy going to the café on Fridays; I can have a nice cup of tea.
Mother had gone overboard hoarding certain items. We have more cinnamon and vanilla extract than we could ever use, especially with the milk and egg shortages. She probably didn’t count on that. I’m thinking of asking a local bakery if they want to buy those items. I did give some of the cinnamon to Gitla, thinking they might be able to flavor their meager food supplies. I also gave her a couple of bottles of aspirin. They have few, if any, medications in the ghetto. I want to keep a large surplus, though, because Max says aspirin might have a high street value if the war continues much longer. The only other items I felt comfortable sharing are the sour ball candies I had purchased. Gitla and her family really enjoy the treats. Father, Max, and Peter still don’t know about Gitla, so I can’t tell them what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel like I’m lying to them by not letting them know, but I’m certain that I’m doing the right thing.
On my way to meet Gitla one Friday, I heard “Hello, Helena,” as I stepped out into the street. I looked up to see Wanda at her bedroom window. I waved to her and gave her a weak smile. That’s about as much as our relationship has mended over the past year.
Gitla ws already waiting for me. I handed her the few things I could spare that week, and she thanked me several times. I felt bad for not being able to do more, but I had to make sure my family was taken care of first.
“Newspapers! How wonderful!” Gitla exclaimed. “These are as valuable as gold in the ghetto. Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said, taking my hand.
“So, did you have a good week?” I asked. “The weather is turning cooler now. The air just seems cleaner.”
“Well, it hasn’t been a very good week. My Zaide Srul died three days ago. He had been suffering from malnutrition like the rest of us but also contracted dysentery. The end seemed to come too slowly. My mother was so distraught that we couldn’t have a proper funeral. She didn’t get out of bed until this morning.”
“Zaide? What’s that?”
“Zaide is the Yiddish word for grandfather. Bubbe is for grandmother.”
“Interesting. Those are actually similar to Polish. I’m so sorry to hear about your Zaide. Not to be morbid, but what happened to his body if you couldn’t bury him?”
“There is a cart that come through the ghetto every day to collect the dead bodies. All we could do was carry him down to the street and place his body on the cart when it came by. I don’t know what happens to them afterward, and I’m not sure that I really want to know. There are so many people dying every day that I’m sure the bodies are not being handled with the respect they deserve.”
“That’s sad. Are your other grandparents still living?”
“Zaide Srul was married to Bubbe Chaja but she died when I was very young. They're my mother’s parents. My father’s parents, Moshe and Miriam, live with us. They are both in their sixties but relatively healthy. It’s interesting how some people catch every germ in their vicinity, and others are in good health right up until their last breath, dying of old age. What about your grandparents? I don’t remember you mentioning them.”
“Well, my father’s parents Andrej and Emilie are alive and well. They live near my Uncle Jozef, so they spend more time with them. We try to see them every couple of weeks. My other grandmother, Greta, died a few years ago. She’s the one who taught me how to cook, not that there’s much use for those skills now. My Grandpa Nick died last year, shortly after my mother died.”
I realized that I hadn’t told Gitla that story yet. Why, I wondered. It wasn’t a secret, but the subject just hadn’t come up for some reason. I shared it now and surprised myself that I was able to tell the story without weeping.
“I’m very sorry for your loss. I’d like to see a photo of your mother, your entire family, if you have any. It sounds like your Grandpa Nick was quite a character.” She paused for a moment. “The war has touched each of us in different ways. For example, this poor excuse for a wall. The Germans built it to limit our access to the rest of the city, but most of the people who have business outside the wall aren’t really affected by it. If it weren’t for the wall, you and I would never have met. Have you told anyone about our friendship?”
“You’re right. We wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for this stupid wall,” I said, giving the wall a punch. A brick fell off, almost hitting my foot, and we couldn’t keep from laughing. “I guess during times like these we need to latch on to any good fortune that comes our way. I haven’t told anyone about our friendship, not even Peter. I know I can trust him, as well as my father and Max, but I like having this secret to myself. Have you told anyone?”
“My family knows that I have a contact outside the wall, but I only share the details about our meetings with my sister, Rosa. I had to tell someone, and she’s surprisingly good at keeping secrets. I wish we had real schools because Rosa is very smart. In addition to speaking Yiddish and Polish, she is almost fluent in Russian, at age ten, if you can believe it. Zaide Moshe taught her. Of course, she has no use for Russian now, but maybe she will find a use for it in the future.”
“The best time to learn a foreign language is when you’re young. Considering Poland’s past, it’s likely that knowing Russian will be a good thing in the future. First we have to survive this nightmare.” I checked my watch. “I need to go. It’s my regular outing with Peter, Maria, and Tomas at the café. I’ll try to remember to bring some family photos next week. If you have any, I’d like to see them, to put faces to the stories you’ve told me. Is there anything specific that you need me to get for you? I don’t have access to much, but I can always try.”
Gitla thought for a moment. “Buttons! We could use buttons.”
“I think my mother kept a can of extra buttons. I’ll have to keep enough for my family, but I can bring you some.”
“That would be great. I think something as simple as a small bag of buttons will cheer up my mother. It’s the little things in life, right?”
“Absolutely! Have a safe week. See you next Friday.”
“Bye, and don’t forget those photos.”
I gave Gitla a nod and looked around to see if the coast was clear. As usual, this end of the street was very quiet. I had finally stopped looking over my shoulder for soldiers chasing me, but that one close call taught me to be more alert when outdoors. Hopefully, Uncle Jozef will begin giving me courier assignments again. I’ll have to insist instead of waiting. I think Jozef told Father about that day and Father asked him not to give me any new assignments. That isn’t fair. I’m seventeen now, an adult. I should be allowed to take a more active role in the resistance.
Maria and Tomas had arrived at the café already. They’re always early, which makes me feel like I’m always late. I greeted them, sat down, and poured my tea. Maria didn’t even look up. She mindlessly stirred her tea.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Tomas and I were both looking at Maria, waiting for her to tell me, but she just sat there, looking down.
Tomas finally spoke. “I asked Maria’s father for permission for us to become engaged. He said no. When I asked him why, he replied, ‘because I said so,’ and said that he didn’t want to hear any more talk about it.”
Maria began to weep. Tomas pulled her chair closer to his and put an arm around her.
“We don’t want to marry for a few months, in the hopes the war will end and we can have a church wedding. Why won’t he just let us get engaged?” Maria sobbed.
Tomas explained that his parents had given him permission, but until Maria turns eighteen next year she can’t marry without her parents' permission.
Maria’s father has always been an ass. “But wait a minute,” I said. “You need your parents' permission to marry, not to get engaged. Why don’t you just get engaged? It’s not really much different than your relationship now.”
“I think my father is trying to break us up,” Maria said “He never had any objections until recently. If he gets to the phone first and Tomas is calling, he tells Tomas that I’m busy and can’t come to the phone. Even when I leave the house for this weekly café get-together, he asks if I’m meeting Tomas and then shakes his head when I say yes."
"My mother loves Tomas,” she continued, taking his hand in hers. “She thought that maybe my father would see things differently if Tomas made a commitment to me. That’s why we decided to get engaged. We have no idea why he’s suddenly turned against Tomas.”
“Did you try just asking him?”
“My mother did, but he won’t tell her. I’m afraid to ask now. He might lock me away or take some other extreme action.”
“Well, you both know that you're committed to each other. I know it, too, so let’s just consider you two unofficially engaged. One more year and you won’t need your father’s permission to marry. If he won’t accept that, then he’ll have to live with the fact that he missed his only daughter’s wedding.”
Maria took my hand. “Thank you for that Helena. I know you’re right. I just need to figure out how to survive another year in that house.”
“You will. At least your father works a lot. That’ll make it easier.”
I noticed some dark clouds approaching from the west, and the wind picked up, so we hurried to finish our tea before the nasty weather arrives. Maria gave me a big hug and even managed a fake smile that I know was for my benefit. I watched Maria and Tomas walk away, his arm around her and her head resting on his shoulder. Things will work out, I’m sure of it. Maria’s father was acting strangely though. Maybe it’s just the stress of the German occupation. He has some kind of relationship with them, but I’m not sure exactly what it is.
I thought about Peter and me. We’re not in a rush to get married. Maybe next year, when I turn eighteen. Peter’s been dropping hints that he wants to take our relationship to the next level, meaning sex. I don’t think I’m nervous or scared about the physical act of sex. I’m more worried about getting pregnant at a young age. I love Peter, but I have things that I want to do with my life. Gitla and I are going to work on archaeological digs together. A big, fat raindrop landed on my head, and when I instinctively looked up at the sky, another one landed on my cheek. Time to get home.
At Sunday brunch, I took Uncle Jozef aside to ask to give me a more active role in the work he and his "study group" were doing. I don’t know why he, Max, and Peter insist on calling the group by that name. The family knows what they’re doing, at least in general terms. Only the people involved in the details know what’s really being done. This way, if questioned, their families can honestly say that they knew nothing about our covert activities. For additional safety, most of us involved in the movement know very little beyond our individual assignments. The leaders, on the other hand, like Uncle Jozef, know everything. I still don’t feel like telling anyone about my friendship with Gitla, but I’m now beginning to wonder if our connection might be useful to the resistance movement. Gitla told me that large groups of Jews have been rounded up for resettlement or relocated to labor camps. I need to speak to her before telling anyone. For now, Jozef gave me the standard "I’ll think about it."
Monday morning I decided to go over to the abandoned buildings near the wall to see if there was anything useful to be salvaged. Kate had the day off from work, so she came with me. It was the first really cold day of autumn. We decided to wear oversized coats so we could hide anything we might find and look like we’re just bundled up against the cold wind.
The ground level of each building had already been picked clean, but it didn’t look like anyone has bothered with the upper floors yet. The stairs were covered in dust, and there was no evidence of footprints. Some of the staircases were damaged from the bombing, but we were able to make our way safely upstairs by staying close to the wall where we found solid footing.
It’s eerie being on the second floor with the roof and sections of the walls missing, and we wondered if the residents were able to escape to safety.
We gathered up some useful items. I found a small bag of coal and even some extra light bulbs, an item that’s extremely scarce. Kate found a couple of boxes of candles and a case of sardines.
“How did you know about these buildings?” Kate asked me.
“I was just out walking one day and was curious about the wall, so I walked down this street.”
“You shouldn’t be walking around alone in the deserted areas of the city, especially after what happened to your mother. The Germans are just as evil as the Russians.”
“It’s okay,” I said “I’m careful to make sure I’m not being followed.” Suddenly we heard a crashing sound. “I wonder what that is.”
We carefully walked over to the rear window and saw that equipment had been brought in to demolish the wall. The section where Gitla and I meet ws already gone. On the other side of the wall, Jewish laborers were waiting with picks and shovels, presumably to clear the debris, and I could see stacks of bricks. A couple of the workers were mixing mortar.
“Oh no, Gitla,” I whispered to myself. My eyes began to tear up.
“Who is Gitla?” Kate asked. I guess I didn’t whisper as quietly as I thought. “Helena, what’s wrong?”
I shook my head and composed myself. “Let’s finish up and get out of here. I’ll tell you on the way home.”
We hurried to gather the things we'd found, hiding them in our coats and wearing the clothing items over our own clothes so we didn’t have to carry them. In addition to our hidden stash, we each grabbed whatever loose pieces of wood we could find and carefully made our way downstairs. The building we were in was very close to the street corner, so we were able to slip out and quickly turn the corner without anyone seeing us. The soldiers were focused on the wall and the workers.
Kate kept looking over at me, waiting for me to tell her what had upset me so much. I took a deep breath and told her about Gitla. We kept walking, no one paying attention to two young women bundled against the cold, carrying some wood. Before I knew it, we were home. Kate followed me into my apartment.
“I can’t believe you kept that secret for so long. Do you know how dangerous it is for you to be in that part of town alone…and befriending a Jew on the other side of a wall meant to keep her separate from us?”
“Are you mad at me for keeping a secret, taking a chance with my safety, or having a Jewish friend? I hope it’s not the latter because I know you’re better than that.”
“These days having a Jewish friend is taking a chance with your safety. I have no grudge against the Jews. I like Max’s friend Jakov, and I hope if he and his family are on the other side of that wall they’re safe. What if someone had seen you at the wall, and you were arrested, or worse? The Germans could have come for all of us. And what about Gitla’s family? They’re also being put at risk.”
Kate was clearly upset. She began removing the extra layers of clothes she was wearing, but it was as if they were attacking her.
“Kate, sit down for a minute. Take a deep breath. Let’s both take a deep breath. Okay?”
We sat quietly for a few minutes. I was beginning to feel warm with the extra layers of clothes, so I started to remove them. Kate did the same.
“Maybe we’ll have a chance to go back,” she said. “There are still some things we might need. We’ll have to wait a few days to make sure the soldiers and workers are gone. Hopefully you can make contact with your friend.”
I looked up at Kate, tears in my eyes, “I’d like that. Hopefully the new wall is as poorly constructed as the old one. Oh, and for the record, I never intended to put anyone in danger. Gitla and I met by chance and discovered that we had a lot in common. I consider her to be a good friend whose family needs help, so I helped them.”
Four days. I had to wait four days to find out if Gitla and I can still meet. There was no point in going to the wall until Friday because she wouldn’t be there. I tried to stay busy to keep from worrying--cleaning, reviewing our list of supplies, anything. After two days, I was laughing at myself. I thought Mother was being neurotic when she busied herself with the same tasks I’m doing, but I now understand that she was just trying to focus her attention on things she could control instead of sitting and worrying about the things she couldn’t.
Friday finally arrived but the weather was really bad, rain and wind. Gitla and I normally don’t meet on days like today, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I ran out to the market in the morning. It wasn’t as crowded on bad weather days, so it was easier to purchase the scarcer food items. Today I was lucky enough to buy half a dozen eggs. They weren’t cheap but we needed the protein. I knew Father would approve.
During lunch, I jotted a note to Gitla. If I have to, I’ll toss it over the wall in the hope that she’ll find it. In the note, I called her “G” and signed it “H” and made sure not to mention specific meeting times in case someone else finds the note. I wrapped it into a ball around a small rock, secured it with a rubber band, and drew several red X’s on it to make it more visible. Then I bundled myself up and grabbed a canvas bag in case it was safe for me to go scavenging in those abandoned buildings again. On a day like today, the only people outdoors are those who have to be outdoors.
The street leading to the wall was empty. I ducked into the last building on the left to get out of rain. Through a broken window, I was able to get a look at this new wall. This one was built to last. No holes, and the debris that had provided me with a hiding place while Gitla and I visited has all been cleared away. There’s no way for us to meet face to face. After looking around to make sure the coast was clear, I went to the corner where I used to sit and gently tossed my note over the top of the wall. I wanted it to land in the corner. Just as I turned to walk away, I noticed a ball of paper on the ground.
Can it be?
I slipped it into my pocket and hurried back into the building. The paper was very delicate from being out in the rain, so I had to be careful not to tear it. Yes! It’s a note from Gitla. Great minds do think alike! She had torn a blank page from a book to use as note-paper. Some of the writing had already smudged, so I decided to lay it out on the floor to dry for a few minutes while I went upstairs to look for supplies. I found some more broken pieces of wood and a closet full of clothes and shoes. There were several pairs of fashionable high-heeled shoes, but I knew I had to be smart and take the practical shoes instead. There were also some men’s shoes, hopefully Father or Max’s size, and a few ties and belts.
By the time I got back downstairs, the note had dried a little. Gitla had just scribbled down an account of her week. The Germans were extending the wall now to fully enclose the ghetto. Her brother Zalman has been assigned to the labor crew even though he knows nothing about construction. He’s exhausted at the end of each day. The workers receive a cup of weak coffee in the morning and some broth and bread for lunch, but it wasn’t nearly enough food to give them strength for the work they’re doing. She hopes that my family and I are safe and healthy and thanked me for my friendship and the gifts of food, clothing, and medicine I had brought her.
I hope she’ll come back and find my note so she knows that she isn’t alone, just a little more cut off from the world. I wish I had paper and pencil with me now to write another note saying that. I’ll have to wait until next week before I’ll know whether she received my note. That damn wall isn’t going to keep us apart, at least not as long as I can do something about it. I carefully folded the note, placed it in my pocket, picked up my bag, checked the street and hurried home.