Sunday, February 1, 2015

Just a Wall - Chapter Sixteen

Gitla had received my note, and we were both very happy that we figured out a way to keep in touch. I felt bad that I couldn’t help her with supplies in any meaningful way, but with each note I did include a few aspirin tablets and a piece of candy. The ghetto is fully enclosed now, with the exception of one gate that’s guarded by armed soldiers. Max told me that some of the Jewish resistance fighters in the ghetto are still finding ways to make contact with the Polish resistance. The information coming from inside the ghetto isn’t good though.

The problems we had outside the ghetto seemed like minor inconveniences compared to what the Jews were dealing with. There was only one well in the ghetto that had potable water, and their food rations were tighter than ours. They had no medicines to fight the epidemics that seem to hit one right after the other. Gitla’s brother Zalman died. He injured his arm while working on the new wall, and it became infected. They weren’t able to amputate the arm before the infection spread beyond the original injury. Once again, the family had to carry the body of a loved one out to the street for pickup. 1941 is not off to a good start.

Peter showed up at our apartment this past Saturday for our weekly lunch with bruises and a broken finger that he refused to explain to me. “Don’t worry,” he kept telling me. Of course I’m worried, but I also know that I can’t tell him what to do anymore than he can tell me what to do. The problem was that I had been keeping a secret from him: my friendship with Gitla. Why shouldn’t I expect him to keep secrets as well?


I bundled up a new note for Gitla and went to deliver it. No need to carry a bag with me today. The abandoned buildings have been picked clean of all useful items. I quickly tossed my note over the wall, picked up the note Gitla had tossed over to my side, and hurried away. I planned to read it after I get home from the café. Maria was already at the café when I arrived.

“Where’s Tomas today?” I asked Maria.

“I don’t know,” she replied, obviously trying to hold back her tears. “My father has forbidden me from seeing him.”

“Why?” I asked, taking her hand. “Did he give you a reason?”

Peter arrived, giving me a kiss on the cheek, and sat down. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Maria’s father won’t let her see Tomas anymore.”

“That’s wrong. Why would he do that?”

“Well, my father finally explained why he had been acting so strangely toward Tomas. He discovered something a few months ago that prompted him to make it difficult for Tomas and I to see each other. He hoped that we'd break up on our own. Since that didn’t work, he decided that he had no choice but to break us up himself.”

Our tea and cookies arrived. I quickly poured the tea and Maria took a sip, her cup rattling against the saucer as she picked it up. She took a deep breath and continued.

“Somehow, a few months ago, my father saw a list of Polish residents who have partial Jewish ancestry. Tomas’s maternal grandmother was on the list, shown as being one-quarter Jewish. In the eyes of the Germans, that’s the same as being one hundred percent Jewish. Neither Tomas nor his mother is considered to be Jewish, but my father decided that he didn’t want to take any chances. That’s when he began trying to keep us apart. ‘The last straw,’ as he put it, was a few days ago when Tomas' grandmother was taken away in a late-night raid. She was forced into a truck along with many other people, presumably the others on that list. His grandfather was severely beaten trying to save her and wasn’t expected to survive his injuries.”

“Oh my god, Maria, that’s terrible!” I exclaimed. “Have you spoken to Tomas at all?”

“Just briefly. My father allowed one last phone call. Tomas didn’t even know he had Jewish ancestors. It wasn’t something the family talked about."

 “I think I know why my father didn’t initially tell me what was happening,” Maria continued. “You know that he has reported several people for hiding Jews?” Maria asked. Peter and I nodded. “Well, I think he didn’t tell me in part because he was trying to protect me, but also because he knew I’d tell Tomas that his grandmother was on the list, and Tomas would have tried to hide her or help her escape to a safer place. My father is helping the Germans round up Jews, and he doesn’t care that one name on the list was someone we knew. He’s just a bastard!”

I had no idea how to respond to that. Neither did Peter. Maria seemed different after telling us the story, calmer somehow. She even smiled as she looked up at the sun and closed her eyes, taking comfort in its warmth. We enjoyed the rest of our tea and cookies in silence, watching people coming and going. As I looked at their faces, I wondered which ones were carrying secrets that have yet to be discovered. I put my hand in my pocket to clutch Gitla’s note, hoping that my secret would remain hidden for as long as I want it to remain so.

A light tap on my shoulder startled me.

“Are you Helena?” whispered a small voice.

I turned to see a young girl in a wool coat that looked as if it would turn to dust in a strong wind. All of her hair was tucked up into her knit hat.

“Yes, I’m Helena. Do I know you?”

She looked at Maria and Peter nervously and leaned in closer to me to whisper, “I’m Rosa, Gitla’s sister.”

My jaw dropped, and I felt like all of the blood rushed from my face.

“Rosa? How did you get here?”

“Who is this girl?” Maria asked. She leaned in and whispered, “She looks like a filthy Jew.”

Maria understood that the look I gave her was meant to shut her up. She looked embarrassed for having made such a comment and mouthed an apology to me.

“Um, I have to go now,” I said. "Can I take the rest of these cookies? Maria, I’ll see you next week. Not a word to anyone, okay? Peter, walk me home.”

I handed Rosa the cookies, grabbed her hand, and Peter and I rushed her off.

“Who is this girl?” Peter asked.

“Let’s get home first. I’ll explain everything later.” I felt as if everyone on the street was looking at us, walking along with this little Jewish girl, but when I looked around, I saw that no one was paying any attention to us. Rosa finished off all the cookies by the time we got home, looking very content, not scared at all. My heart felt like it was about to leap out of my chest. When we got into the apartment, I fell back against the closed door. I hadn’t been this scared since that day the soldiers were chasing me.

“Rosa, here, sit down. How did you get out of the ghetto?”

“The ghetto!” Peter exclaimed. “What the hell have you been doing, Helena?”

“Peter, I promise I’ll tell you everything later. Let me process this first.”

I reached over to remove Rosa’s hat but she placed her hand on her head. “No,” she said. “Gitla told me to keep my hat on. I have lice. She said that you’ll know what to do.”

“Okay,” I said. “We’ll take care of that. How did you get out? Did Gitla come with you?”

“Gitla couldn’t get out. There are still some openings along the wall small enough for young children to fit through. Gitla is too big. Only I could fit. She told me where to find you on Friday afternoons and that she sent you a note telling you that I’d be coming.”

The note! I pulled it from my coat pocket and quickly unraveled it. Yes, Gitla wrote that she was sending Rosa to me and that she trusted me to take good care of her. The time was right to make a move like this. There wouldn’t be many more opportunities. Life in the ghetto was getting more dangerous every day. Rosa had head lice but is otherwise healthy. Knowing that Rosa had a chance to survive would give the family comfort. She signed the note "Love Always, G."

I looked at Rosa. Her eyes are the same as Gitla’s, but her facial features are softer. If not for her coloring, she might fit in with the Polish population, if no one looked too closely. The scarf she was wearing is one that I had given Gitla. I noticed a dark band on her coat sleeve, probably from the Jewish armband she had to wear.

“Let’s get you cleaned up. You need a bath with strong soap to take care of the lice, and those clothes will have to go in the incinerator.”

I found a trash bag in the kitchen and a pair of scissors, and scooted Rosa into the bathroom while Peter set a large pot of water on the stove to boil so Rosa’s bath wouldn’t be too cold. We rarely had hot water from the faucet anymore.

I began to fill the bathtub while Rosa removed her clothes and placed them in the trash bag. I didn’t mean to look at her, and I had to hide my surprise when I did. She was so thin. She removed her knit hat last. So much hair. I was surprised it all fit in the hat. It was dark like Gitla’s, but not as curly. Unfortunately, her hair is matted and knotted beyond saving.

“I’m sorry, Rosa, but I’m afraid we’ll have to cut off most of your hair. This way we can get your head good and clean.”

Rosa looked down and began to sob, probably just the stress of the day catching up with her. I reached out and lifted her face, looked her straight in the eye, and said, “I promise your hair will grow back to be just as beautiful as it was before the war. In the meantime, I have lots of hair clips and ribbons we can use to make you look pretty. Okay?”

Rosa nodded, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. I leaned her head over the bag of clothes so the hair would fall straight into the bag. It was a messy haircut, but we’ll fix it later. Peter knocked on the door. I held up a towel in front of Rosa so he could come in and dump the pot of hot water into the tub. Rosa climbed into the tub, and I gave her soap and shampoo.

“I’ll be back in few minutes. Scrub hard all over your body until you’re squeaky clean.”

Peter was standing in the middle of the kitchen with his arms crossed, waiting for me, when I returned from the incinerator chute. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

I took his hand and led him to the sofa. “Okay. First, I’d like to say that I was not keeping this secret because I don’t trust you. It’s just something I needed to have for myself. I had to tell Kate a couple of months ago after something happened, and she's the only person who knows.” I looked him straight in the eye. “Do you believe me?” He nodded. “I’ll be right back. Let me check on Rosa.”

Rosa looked so small and fragile in the bathtub. “Did you give your head a good scrub?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Well, let me do it one more time just to make sure those nasty head lice are gone.” I poured some shampoo on her hair and scrubbed, making extra lather just for fun. “Are you hungry?” I asked.

“Yes, very.”

“It’s almost dinner time and we’ll have soup and crackers. My father will be home soon. I think you’ll like him.”

“Will he be angry that I’m here?”

“Who could be angry at a cutie pie like you?” I joked, dabbing some bubbles on her nose. Rosa giggled. Actually, I didn’t know how my father would react. This situation put us all at risk.

While Rosa toweled off, I went to find some clothes that might fit her. I told Peter that I would explain everything in detail when my father got home because he deserves to know the whole story, too. I put together a makeshift outfit for Rosa, but we have a lot of sewing to do tomorrow for her to have clothes that fit. The baggy clothes made her look even thinner. I wish we had some milk.

Rosa handed me a small, flat package.

“What’s this?” I asked.

Rosa shrugged. “I don’t know but Gitla told me that it’s very important.”

I carefully opened the package. It contains two pieces of paper and some photos.

“That’s my family,” Rosa said as she began to cry.

“Come here,” I said, putting an arm around her. “Tell me about the photos.”

I picked up a pencil and as Rosa identified each person, I wrote the name on the back of the photo. Rosa seemed to be a few years younger in the group photo, so I wrote "1937" on that one as an estimated date. I think it’s important to get this information now. I didn’t say anything to Rosa, but we really don’t know how long it might be before she’ll see her family again, and her memory could fade.

After we finished with the photos, I unfolded the first piece of paper. It was a list of all living family members, with their parents’ names and dates of birth. The list includes the names and last known addresses of cousins in America, Palestine and Australia. Gitla must have figured that this information would be important later if the family is further separated.

“I’ll make a copy of this list so we can hide it in two different places. This is very important information about your family.”

Rosa nodded, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.

“Why don’t you go into the top drawer of my dresser and take a handkerchief. Every young lady should have one handy.” Rosa nodded and went into my room.

I unfolded the second piece of paper, the one with my name on it:

My Dear Friend H, I hope my sister and this letter find you well. I’m sorry for not being able to give you much notice of her arrival, but I made up my mind to do this and knew I had to move quickly. I believe I know you well enough to know that you’ll do your best to care for Rosa. Life in the ghetto is getting scarier by the day, and there are rumors that are making us wonder if we have any hope of surviving. At least we can save the youngest member of the family. Rosa is sweet and smart and has a bright future. Unfortunately, I need you to explain some bad news to Rosa. I told her this is a temporary situation. I didn’t let her say goodbye to our parents because I’m not telling them until she’s gone. They would have tried to stop me. I’ll be breaking the news to them around the time you’ll be reading this note. Please tell Rosa that we all love her very much. Once she is past the shock of the situation, ask her about the family and write down the stories she tells you so she can remember us later. I trust you to act in her best interest and to send me updates for as long as we can continue our current method of communication. Your Friend Forever, G

“Are you alright Helena?” Rosa asked.

I hadn’t see her come back in the room, and I was in tears. I quickly folded up the letter and placed it in my pocket.

“Yes, I’m fine,” I said, wiping my face. “See…fine.”

“Why are you crying?”

“I was just remembering something sad. I’m OK now. Did you find a handkerchief?”

She nodded and held it up to show me. “Ah, the one with the pink flowers. My mother made that for me when I was a little girl. It’s yours now.”

I looked at her hair. It was dry now, and I could see where it needed some trimming. We went into the bathroom and took care of it. Her hair was so short that I thought it would be best for her to wear a scarf until it grows in a little. Peter had heard Max come home, so he went over to talk to him. I asked him not to mention Rosa and invite Max and Kate over for dinner. He agreed to keep them in their apartment until he heard my father come home.

No comments: