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Like a princess. That is how I grew up, like a character from a storybook fable. At least, that is how I grew up for a while. I was born on October 28, 1935, at a time when Lvov was one of the most vibrant cities in Poland. It was a magical place, a Renaissance city, only it was not the best place to be a Jew. There were over 600,000 people in Lvov in the middle 1930s, including about 150,000 Jews.
We were Jewish, of course, but we were not terribly religious. We observed the Sabbath. My mother, Paulina Chiger, always lit the candles. We celebrated Passover. But we did not go to temple. On the High Holidays we would go, but the rest of the year we observed at home or not at all. We would light the Yahrtzeit candles on the anniversary of a death, but we would not always say the prayers. We were Jewish by tradition more than we were Jewish by faith, yet a strong sense of Jewish identity ran through our household. That came from my mother’s side of the family. My father’s side did not believe in God. They considered themselves Jewish, so they also had that strong identity, but it was more of a heritage than a religion. They were Socialists and Communists. They were more concerned with social justice. They would not be treated like second-class citizens. In their minds, I think, the thought that all people are created equal was a way to lift the Jews to level ground. You see, even before the war, the Jewish people in Lvov were sometimes made to suffer, usually at the hands of the Ukrainians. People today, they do not talk about this. Or they do not remember. But it was so. My father told me stories about how he used to walk through certain parts of the city and Ukrainian boys would lash at him with razor blades taped to long sticks, tearing at his clothes. He said it was like a game to these boys, taunting and intimidating the Jewish men who crossed their path. This was not the only discrimination my father experienced, yet it is the example that has stayed with me.
I did not know of such things as a small girl. All I knew was that we lived in a grand apartment and that I did not want for anything. I had fine clothes, wonderful toys. My maternal grandmother used to bring me souvenirs from Vienna, where she would go on buying trips for her textile business. She brought me a lovely silk robe, which I remember wearing constantly. I used to jump up and down on my parents’ bed, wearing this robe. Jumping with me was my imaginary friend, Melek. This Melek, he was my constant companion. I talked to him. He answered me. Later, when we were in the sewer, he kept me company. I do not know how I came to invent this Melek, how he got his name. It was a nonsense name, Melek. It does not mean anything in Polish. It was just a name. Melek. Together we laughed and laughed, jumping on my parents’ bed.
My grandmother also brought me beautiful dolls and a spectacular dollhouse, with a kitchen and furniture. I had the whole set, all the different rooms, all the proper pieces. Today, a dollhouse like that would cost thousands of dollars. It was my most prized possession, and I would lose myself in my imagined world of that dollhouse, inventing fantastic little lives for the people who lived there. The people who lived in my dollhouse were not Jewish or Christian, Polish or Ukrainian, Russian or Hungarian. They were just people, and they were happy with their nice things, their nice furniture, their nice families.
In my imagination, the dollhouse was on a charming street in Lvov, not far from our apartment at Kopernika 12, in the nicest part of the city. This was my reality corresponding to my fantasy. Our building on Kopernika Street is still there, and the street is much the same, but it is darker now, more dreary. It is different from the picture I have carried in my mind for so many years. The colors have all changed. The trees that line the street no longer appear to bloom. Or perhaps they do and I no longer see it. Maybe it is because I cannot look at the city the same way I did when I was a child, when it was filled with fine, happy things. Maybe it is because of everything that happened there, and how violently and suddenly everything was taken from my family, beginning with our apartment. We had four bedrooms, with a nice entry hall, a big dining room, a kitchen, two full bathrooms, and two entrances, one for the labor and one for our family and guests. There were wrought-iron gates opening out onto the street, balconies overlooking the street in front and the courtyard in back, and a vaulted ceiling on top of the interior stairwell, throwing light onto the entryways of each individual apartment.
Absolutely, it was like my special dollhouse, like a fantasy. To me it was like a palace, because I really did feel like a princess. I was an only child for a time, so there was no place else for my parents to lavish their attentions. Everything was made especially for me. I had a nanny, who wore a starched white uniform. We had a house keeper, who wore a traditional maid’s uniform. In our china cabinet, we had a Rosenthal service set for thirty-two, though I do not recall that we ever set our dining room table for thirty-two guests. Still, I believe the contrast of how we lived before the war with how we lived later is important. I do not mean to boast, but to compare. Certainly, we lived well. My mother used to take me for my clothes to a store called Mickey Mouse. It was just the name of the store. It had nothing to do with Walt Disney, but it was a fine clothing store, and I used to stand on a very high stool while a woman pinched here and there and took my measurements to make my clothes.
Like a princess, that is how it was for me. That was my life.
It is hard to imagine what happened to Lvov during the Russian occupation, and how it was torn apart during German rule, but the city I remember was beautiful. There were so many exciting things to do and see, so many wonderful things to eat, so many opportunities all around. It was such a shame to see how it deteriorated, first under the Russians and then under the Germans, because it had been a place of heart and hope and happiness. Even a child could notice the transformation. There was a park down the street from our building, and I used to go there almost every day when the weather was mild. My nanny would walk me there and sit on the bench while I played with my friends. Through the open windows, in summer, you could always hear laughter and singing. We would play in a little courtyard behind our building, until it was time to go inside for supper. In winter, after a fresh snow, the streets were quiet and still and beautiful, like a postcard.
Yes, I had a very good life, only I did not like my nanny very much. This was my one wrinkle. She was very strict. She never laughed. In my family, we were always laughing, always joking, so my time with my dour nanny was very serious. It was not a lot of fun. I remember that she tried to feed me constantly and that I did not want to eat, not with her. I kept the food in my cheeks and spat it out when I thought she was not looking. Perhaps I was just being rebellious, because I never gave my mother any trouble when it came to eating. Or our house keeper. Her name was Marisha, and she used to say, "Mrs. Chiger, I do not know what it is. With the nanny, she does not want to eat at all. With you, she is finished in five minutes."
My parents owned a textile store called Gold Textiles on Boimow Street, one of the first Jewish streets in Lvov. Most of the merchants on the street were Jewish. There were apartments above the stores, and most of the people who lived there were Jewish, too, but everybody came to our store. Christian, Ukrainian, Russian . . . it did not matter. My parents had good customers from every background. It was a very successful store. My mother worked there full-time, which was unusual back then, but not so unusual for me. It was all I knew, so that was that. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, she also worked full-time, so I did not think anything of it. My grandparents also worked as textile merchants, and my parents’ store was like an extension of theirs.
A favorite outing with my nanny was to go to my parents’ store and wait for my mother to finish her work. Oh, I loved to go to the store, with its wonderful textures and supplies and smells. Such a busy place! There were giant rolls of fabrics, and the people would come and my mother would take down the fabrics and show the customers the designs. She would spread out the material on a big table and run her hands over it, to smooth it down. Her movements were so crisp, so professional. It felt good to be among all those grown-ups, all those nice materials. I was proud of my mother, watching her work in such an important job, moving about in such an important way, helping the people to pick out their materials and to plan their alterations. Everyone was always so excited, coming to my parents’ store, because out of that visit would come so many pleasant things like draperies for their home or a new dress for a special occasion. It was a place where people were preparing to be happy.
Some evenings, I would wait for my mother on the steps in front of the store. I can still remember one of my parents’ regular customers passing me on her way inside and asking me what color I liked best. She called me by my name, Krysha. This was what everybody called me, except my father, who called me Krzysha. The first was a popular diminutive of my name, Krystyna, an intimacy; the second was especially so. In Polish, you can hear the difference. I answered that I liked yellow, and when she was through with her shopping the customer passed me once again on the steps out in front and handed me a small yellow swatch of material. It was just a little something I could maybe use for my dollhouse, a little something to make me smile.
In the summer, we vacationed in the Polish countryside. This was not so unusual among the Jewish families of Lvov. We rented a house with my aunt and her family. We stayed for two months each summer. My father went back to Lvov during the week, but my mother did not work the entire summer. It was a wonderful retreat. Everywhere you looked, there were yellow sunflowers. Acres and acres of brilliant yellow sun flowers. How I loved those flowers! I spent most of my time running up and down those fields, lost in my own fantasy world. I remember one day, I was asked to do some type of chore around the house, and I did not want to do it. The woman who was renting us the house scolded me and said, "If you do not listen, Baba Yaga will come and get you." Baba Yaga was like a witch, from a popular folk tale. This scared me, but still I did not listen. I neglected my chores and went outside to play. I was afraid, but I was also bold.
My father’s name was Ignacy Chiger, and I do not think he enjoyed working at the store. It provided a very good living, and for this he was grateful, but if it had been up to him, he would have done something else. He was a very intelligent man, a very creative thinker. He had a PhD in philosophy and history. He could have been anything, but he attended school at a time when Jews were prohibited from certain occupations. This was the result of a government plan called numerus clausus, and it is proof that even before the Second World War, even before the Germans, life was very difficult for Polish Jews. My father would have been a doctor, but he could not study medicine. He could have gone to another country to study, but this was also difficult. It was even difficult for him to finish his studies in philosophy and history. No one would sit next to him in the lecture halls. He might never have gotten his degree were it not for a very good friend, who happened to be Ukrainian and who acted like a kind of bodyguard for my father, protecting him from the young Ukrainian hoodlums who would torment the young Jewish men. Once my father had completed his degree, starting his own business as an outgrowth of my grandparents’ business seemed like the best option available to him, and he made a great success of it. The store provided my family with a comfortable living, even if it meant my father could not pursue a life of the mind. He would be a shopkeeper, a merchant, instead of a university professor, instead of a doctor, instead of a well- known writer, and he would continue to read and learn and consider new ideas in his own way. That was just fine with him, because he had a family to support. Nothing was more important.
All was right in our little corner of the world, in our little corner of Poland, until 1939. Early on in 1939, something wonderful happened, but after that something terrible happened, and the two events changed my world completely. The something wonderful was the birth of my baby brother, Pawel. We all called him Pinio. He was born on May 18, 1939. It was a church holiday, and my parents sent me out of the house with our house keeper, Marisha, as a distraction. My mother was to give birth at home, and they did not want me in the apartment with all the excitement, so Marisha took me to the park and then to the church. She was not Jewish, of course. She wanted to see the service, but I kept tugging at her arm, wanting to go home, knowing on some level that she was keeping me from something. I did not know the first thing about babies and pregnancy, but I knew my parents’ moods. I knew there was something they were not telling me. When we finally returned home, my father announced that he had a present for me, and I walked in to see my mother holding Pinio. Here is how he came to us, I thought: my mother placed several cubes of sugar on the carpet by the window, and the stork came and took the sugar and left my brother behind. For years, this was what I believed.
There was another present waiting for me that afternoon— a beautiful French pinscher we called Pushek. The name loses something in the translation, but it had to do with the goose-down feathers that call to mind a fresh snowfall. Our Pushek, he was so little and so white, like a snowball. He joined the two yellow canaries we kept in a cage in our living room to give us a regular menagerie. Now, between the baby and the animals, our apartment was a whirlwind of sounds and activity. So much joyful noise! My father had brought the dog home as a distraction for me, knowing my mother would be busy with the new baby. He did not know if I would be upset about this and thought he would delight me in what ways he could. He need not have bothered, though, because Pinio was delight enough, but now I had my two new playthings to keep me busy.
And then, on the morning of September 1, 1939, there came something terrible. My father took me to the window of our apartment and pointed out the German Messerschmitt planes flying overhead. He said, "Now this is the end." To jest koniec. He explained to me what was happening, how the Germans were at war, how they had already attacked the western part of Poland and were now on the outskirts of Lvov.
"My Krzysha," he said with melancholy, "this is the end."
I was confused. Not frightened so much, but confused. I had picked up bits and pieces of my parents’ concern about the coming war, through conversations at supper or over the newspaper. I paid attention, because I liked to know what was going on, but of course I was only a child. I was not prepared to hear the bombs. It sounded as though they were being dropped right outside our window, although in truth most of the damage was on the other side of the city. Years later, I read about the famous German-Soviet nonaggression pact, which meant that the planes over the central part of the city were mostly for show, because Russian foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop agreed that the German army would not advance directly into Lvov. Of course, we did not know this just then. All we knew was that we were under attack, so we hurried to the basement of our building, which we used as a bunker to wait out the bombing. I passed the time with the daughter of the concierge, who was about my age. Her name was Danusha, and she had beautiful blond hair. She lived on the first floor of the building, and when the bombing quieted I retreated with her family to their apartment to get something to eat. My mother stayed in the basement with my father and Pawel, while Danusha’s mother made me eggs, sunny-side up. I had never eaten eggs prepared in this way, and I liked them very much. To me, at four years old, the discovery of these eggs was as big as the bombing. When I got back to the basement, I told my mother about the eggs, and from that day forward that is how she prepared my eggs, and every time I took a bite I thought back to the German invasion. That is a funny thing about the human brain, the way it can tie two sense memories together, for all time.
The bombing continued for several weeks, but after the first few days we moved to my grandparents’ building, because their basement was bigger. I was not used to seeing the streets so empty. There was just my family and probably a few other families, hurrying for safety. I helped to push my brother in his carriage—one of those English prams with the big wheels. My mother carried a few things, and my father carried a few things, and we had placed a few things more inside the carriage with Pawel. After three or four days we were able to return to our Kopernika apartment, and on the way back I could hear my parents wondering how our lives might be different now that we were living under a different regime. I did not know what this meant, a different regime, but it did not sound good. Their worry became mine, even if I did not fully understand it.
Despite all the bombing, we did not see too much destruction on our way to and from my grandparents’ apartment building. Most of the damage was in another part of the city, although I suppose it was possible that my mother steered us away from any streets with bombed-out buildings to keep me from being afraid. Such a noise, from all those bombs, for days and days, and I did not see evidence of it anywhere. It is possible that as a child I did not make the connection between the bombs and the devastation, but everything looked as it had always looked. I was only happy that the bombing had finally stopped. I listened to my parents talking and tried to imagine the changes they said were coming, because all around the streets looked much the same.
The quiet lasted only a few days more, because the Germans and the Russians decided to divide Poland. This of course created almost as much tension and confusion as the bombing. Hitler and the Germans were to occupy the west part of Poland, and Stalin and the Russians would occupy the eastern part, which included Lvov. All around, people were talking about which was better, to be under German rule or under Russian rule. Some people said it was better to be ruled by the Germans, because they were cultured, educated, refined. But they were also cruel and ruthless. My father, he was afraid of the Germans. Already, people knew what Hitler was doing to the Jews, and as a result many thousands of Polish Jews escaped to the eastern part of Poland. They could not live under German rule. They did not want to live under Russian rule, either, but they would take their chances. Very quickly, the Jewish population of Lvov grew to over two hundred thousand, because of all the Jewish refugees from western cities like Krakow and Lodz.
Of course, the Russians were not such a good choice, either, as we would come to know. The Communist ideal sounded wonderful in theory, but in practice it could also be cruel and ruthless. And harsh. No, they had not built concentration camps to exterminate the Jews, but they sent a great many people to Siberia, and a great many people died there, too. Jews, Christians . . . it did not matter to them. If you had money, if you owned a business, if you did not work, you were of no use to the Russians. And if you were of no use, they sent you away. That was the Russian way. They confiscated material possessions, moved people from their homes, kept people from pursuing the freedoms they had only recently enjoyed. There was no good choice, the people were saying, and yet among the Jews of Lvov there was the feeling that with the Russians we had been spared an even more terrible fate.
My father considered our situation with a sense of humor, which was how he and my mother tried to approach our ordeal. He called the Russians "our uninvited guests," because they had come to spoil our party. He wrote, "They call themselves our liberators, because they liberate us from everything."
The first change I noticed under the Soviets was that we no longer had a nanny or a house keeper. We were now part of Communist Russia, and as Communists everyone was treated equally. We were all working class. We would all suffer, and struggle, and starve. These women would no longer work for my family in a subservient role. At first, I thought it meant that these women did not like our family or that they felt they had been mistreated. In any case, it meant that my mother could no longer work, because she now had to stay at home to take care of me and my brother. Actually, this was a welcome change for me. I liked having my mother around all day. She used to tell me stories at the kitchen table. She would make them up as she went along, but by the next day she would forget what she had told the day before. I would say, "What happened to the wolf?" Or, "What happened to the little girl?" I wanted to know what was going on, and she had already forgotten.
The other big change was that I started kindergarten that September, just after the bombing ended, during the transition to Russian rule. The school was two or three blocks from our apartment, and I did not want to go that first day. I cried when we arrived at the school, but my mother convinced me to stay. I held on to her for those first few hours, I could not bear to see her go, but eventually she did go, as did all of the other mothers. I can still picture the classroom, where I had to hang my coat, where the teacher was showing us the toys, the faces of all the other children. The next day it was a little bit easier. We developed a routine. My mother would walk me to school and my father would pick me up in the afternoon, except on one afternoon when my father could not make it, my mother picked me up instead. When my father came home later that evening, he was very upset. He walked in the door and I could see he had been crying. "That’s it," he said, handing over the key to the store. "We’ve lost everything. This is all that is left."
His sense of humor was gone. I looked and looked, but I could not find his smile. My father had known this day would come, but now that it was here he was not prepared for it. On some level, yes; on some other level, no. I listened to him tell my mother what had happened. Some Russian officials had come in and had told him to turn everything over to them. Already, my father had seen other private business owners sent to Siberia, for the crime of being bourgeois, and if he had been thinking clearly, he would have counted himself lucky for merely being sent home. But he was not thinking clearly.
A few days before, the Russians had taken my grandparents’ business. They had employed about fifteen people, and what was especially upsetting to my grandparents and to my father was the way these workers responded to the change in ownership. It showed how quickly the people could be brainwashed by the Russians, how Soviet propaganda could poison not only our way of life, but our relationships as well. By coincidence, my father was present when the Russian officials demanded control of my grandparents’ business, and my father could not believe how these workers turned on my grandparents. They had all been very well treated, very well paid. They had all been to dinner in my grandparents’ home. It was like a family. Yet when the business was taken from my grandparents, the workers seemed happy about it. When the Russian inspectors came in, they told everybody to put their hands up. All of the workers were searched. One of the workers, an educated woman, pointed to my father and said, "Why don’t you search him?" For some reason, my father had been overlooked during the first inspection. He was frozen with fear, because he was carrying a gun. For some other reason, the Russian inspectors overlooked the woman’s comment and failed to search my father a second time, and it was a lucky thing because if they had found the gun, they could have said my father was a spy and sent him to prison.
I did not know my father carried a gun, but he said he began doing so to protect himself from the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians had a deep-seated hatred for the Jews. The Russians simply hated the upper class. The one was bad enough without the other.
My parents had only a few workers in their store, and none of them turned on my mother or father the way my grandparents’ employees turned on them. Almost all of the workers stayed on in my parents’ store after it was requisitioned by the government, but my father was forced to look for another job, because in Communist Russia if you do not work, you are a drain on society. He got a job in a bakery that happened to be on the ground floor of our apartment building, which was very helpful when the Russians started to ration our food. There were long lines just to get a loaf of bread or some sugar, and my father used his job so we would not have to wait. Sometimes he would trade an extra loaf of bread for something else we might need. Quite often he would pinch an extra loaf for a friend or family member, as a kindness. Once, there was an extra shipment of sugar and eggs and other foods and supplies, and my father arranged to hide the overage in the apartment of the concierge, Galewski—Danusha’s father. Because of this, the two men had something extra to sell or to trade. My father made only about 400 rubles per month at the bakery, which was not enough for us to live on, so he soon took another job. This second job paid about 300 rubles per month. Together, this was almost enough to get by, except we hardly ever saw my father. He was working fourteen hours a day.
In a matter of weeks, the Russians had reorganized all of eastern Poland. In Lvov, all private businesses were nationalized. It was amazing to my father how swiftly the Russian bureaucracy managed to move, how they were able to turn capitalist Poland into Communist Russia in just a few weeks. It was like a trick of black magic. Everything was run by the NKVD—the precursor to the KGB—and the Polish people were terrified of these agents. The Russians, too, lived in fear of the NKVD. They knew everything about us, tracked our coming and going, decided who would stay in the city and who would be sent away. One moment the merchants were running their stores and businesses; the next they were out on the street or in prison. Everybody had to work or risk being sent off to Siberia. You had to wait on long lines and meet with the Russian officials and discuss what kind of work you were qualified to do. My father was always afraid that my mother would be sent away, because she did not work. She had to stay at home to take care of two small children—a logical reason not to work, but the Russians did not always agree with logical reasoning.
As a little girl, however, I did not have any of these worries. Also, I did not mind any of these changes. Most of them I did not even notice. Of course, I did not like the tension in our family, the uncertainty that had crept into our lives, the unhappiness I could sometimes read on my mother’s face, but all I really cared about was that I had my mother with me most of the time. I had my imaginary friend, Melek, for company. I had my baby brother and my beautiful French pinscher.
From time to time, when his work schedule allowed, my father would meet me at school and walk me home. Once, he came to pick me up, and I suggested we take a different route back to our apartment. "It will be shorter," I said. My father smiled. He liked that I had figured out a shortcut. He said that this was the problem under Russian rule. Everybody does as they are told. Nobody thinks for themselves. Nobody considers a better way.
Outside of school, I spent most of my time with my mother and brother. My mother would take us on long walks. There was a beautiful park up in the hills just outside of town, and we used to hike there. Wysoki Zamek, this place was called. High Castle. From these hills, you could see all the way into town. My aunt would join us, with her children. You would not know we were living in a city in turmoil, on a continent at war, to look at us cousins romping and playing on those hillside trails. I was happy. I ran around with my cousins, smiling and laughing.
It was during the Russian occupation that my mother took me to see my first movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There was a movie theater not far from our apartment, and it was a special outing, just the two of us. I can still remember looking up at the screen, with all those bright colors, all those cheerful songs, marveling at this new type of storytelling. I had never heard of such a thing as moving pictures, but there it was, and as I watched I never once thought about the tension or uncertainty I could sense at home and all around. For me, from the narrow point of view of a child, this was a happy time.
Sometimes we would go with my mother to visit my father for dinner. We did not see him much, because of the two jobs (sometimes three). He worked in the afternoon and evening at a health club across town. He had always been a strong athlete—he was a volleyball player and a soccer player—and had somehow managed to secure a position at the club. This was considered an important job to the Russians, who placed special emphasis on fitness and physical activity. The health club was a large facility, like a YMCA, with a gymnasium and a swimming pool, although maybe it only appeared so big to me because I was so little. I think I had a chance to go swimming there on just one occasion. It was difficult, with my baby brother, to make the arrangements. Usually, we had only a short visit with my father while he ate a hot meal my mother prepared at home, and then we collected the dirty dishes and walked back to our apartment.
Probably the first I noticed the Russian occupation was when we had to share our apartment. Our landlord had been sent away, but we were allowed to continue living in our grand apartment at Kopernika 12. For some weeks, we stayed on in the apartment with our routines relatively unchanged, except for my father’s busy work schedule and reduced income. But then it was announced that the rationing by the Soviets would extend to our living quarters. They set a limit that no individual be entitled to live in a space greater than seven square meters, which meant that our family of four could not exceed twenty-eight square meters. This was now the law, and it meant we could live in only one or two rooms in our big apartment. Rather than wait for the Russians to assign our apartment to a group of strangers, my father reached out through the Jewish community to take in individuals and families in particular need. They would still be strangers to us, but at least we would choose. Soon, we were joined in the apartment by a father and two sons who had escaped to Lvov from Krakow, and by a husband and wife named Bodner. This was a big adjustment. We shared the kitchen, but each family took its own meals. Once in a while, Bodnerova would sit with us at the kitchen table over tea and biscuits, and sometimes she baby-sat for me and my brother while my mother went across the street to visit with her sister. Bodnerova would be in her room, but if we called to her, she would come and sit with us until my mother came home.
I had a habit of waking up in the middle of the night. I would call to my mother, and she would come to me and whisper, "Cicho, cicho, cicho." Ssshhh, ssshhh, ssshhh. Over and over and over. In Polish and English, it sounded much the same: 'chi-sho, chi-sho, chi-sho.’ Somehow, the sound of her voice, the warmth of her touch, the gentle rhythm of her whisper, made me feel better, and soon I would fall back asleep. One night, I awoke and called out to my mother, but Bodnerova came to my room instead. I was half- asleep. She took me in her arms and whispered, "Cicho, cicho, cicho."Over and over and over. Ssshhh, ssshhh, ssshhh. My mother had told her what to do to comfort me, but I recognized this was not my mother’s voice and shook myself fully awake. I started to cry. At the same time, I was afraid that if I cried, I would be punished, but then I decided that if my brother also cried, maybe they would forget about my crying. So I stood next to Pawel’s crib and cried. Louder and louder, I cried. Finally, Pawel woke up and he started to cry as well.
Poor Bodnerova, she did not know what to do.
It was a big difference to how we lived before the Russians, but not so big after all. When you are little, you can get used to anything, and here I got so quickly used to these other families that it was as though they had always been a part of our house hold. I got used to all the different foods, and to not having so much money, and to no longer taking summer vacations in the country. I even got used to the language and started to speak a little bit of Russian. Yes, our family business was gone. Yes, there were strangers living in our apartment. Yes, our movements were endlessly tracked by the NKVD. Yes, my parents were in constant fear of being sent away to Siberia. And yet at four and then twelve years old, my world was little changed. I was no longer a princess, but still I had everything I could possibly want. Not so many fine things as before, but more than enough. I could not be greedy, because in Communist Russia everything was meant to be shared equally. I had my mother, who was with me constantly. I had my father, who smiled with such great pride when I did so little as come up with a shortcut home. He was busy, of course, moving from job to job—for a time, he worked as a medical assistant in a doctor’s office!—but he always made time for me. I had my little brother. I had my puppy, and my canaries, and my cousins. I had friends. And so I had my fill.
No, all was not quite right in our little corner of the world, which was now our little corner of Russia, but it was mostly okay. Not like it was, but mostly okay. And yet these things too were about to change—so much now that even a child had to notice.
In June 1941, almost two years after the Germans cut short their approach into Lvov, we heard those Messerschmitt planes flying once again overhead. My parents did not talk about it, but they must have known this would happen. Once again we heard the bombs, and once again we retreated to my grandparents’ basement. This time, too, I helped with the pushing of Pawel’s stroller, laden with some of our worldly possessions. This time we expected the worst, and on June 29, 1941, when the Wehrmacht marched into the city, my parents were terrified. There was a big panic. The nonaggression pact was no more. The Russians had fled. The Jews were afraid to come out of their apartments. And the Ukrainians were dancing in the streets. This was one of the most disturbing aspects of the German occupation, the collaboration of the Ukrainians. You see, the Germans had promised the Ukrainians a free Ukraine, which was why they were so overjoyed at being liberated from Russian rule. They welcomed the Germans with flowers. The German soldiers paraded through the streets with their motorcycles, with their helmets and their boots and their black leather coats, and the Ukrainian women would walk out among the motorcade and greet the German men with hugs and kisses. We watched from our balcony. My father, he was very upset. Once again, he said, "This is the end for us."
My father did not let us leave the apartment, and he went out only when he had to work or to bring back food or supplies. The Ukrainians were ruling the streets. They were doing the Germans’ dirty work even before the Germans could set about it. This was the beginning of the pogroms that took place that summer in Lvov, in which more than six thousand Jews were killed by Ukrainians. There were orchestrated attacks, but there were also small instances and disturbances, not unlike the razor slashing meted out on my father as a young man. A thousand tiny torments, adding up to a riot of violence and torture. Young boys beating on Jewish men with sticks, pulling their beards so hard that they would bleed, following them home and looting their apartments before turning them in to the Germans, terrorizing Jewish women with impunity because they knew their misconduct would be supported by the Germans.
In July 1941, in part to revenge the assassination of former Ukrainian leader Symon Petlyura, the Ukrainians killed more than five thousand Jews. I would later learn about Petlyura in history class. He was a famous Socialist who served as president of Ukraine during the Russian civil war. Under Petlyura, the Ukrainian government perpetrated a series of pogroms that resulted in the killing of as many as one hundred thousand Ukrainian Jews. He allowed the pogroms, it was said, because they demonstrated his people’s solidarity. Years later, Petlyura was approached on a Paris street by a Jewish man who shot him three times at close range and cried out with each shot: "This, for the pogroms. This, for the massacres. This, for the victims." My father always believed that the pogroms of 1941 were a kind of payback for that one act of defiance, an endless retribution.
The Ukrainians rounded up the top-ranking Jews in the city—the upper classes, the intelligentsia, the community leaders— and delivered them to the Germans. They worked off target lists of Jews and checked each name off the list as that person was captured. As a small child, from my window, I could see it was terrible. I was not supposed to watch, but I could not look away. With the help of the Ukrainians, I could see, the German soldiers were pulling the Jews out into the street and shooting them on the spot or taking them on the transport to the Piaski, the sand quarry northwest of town where Jews were executed. It was too soon for the establishment of the forced labor camp on Janowska Road, but already large numbers of Jews deemed unfit for work were being sent by transport to the concentration camp at Belzec.
Within just a few weeks, the Germans completely reorganized life in the city. It was ordained that all remaining Jews had to wear a white band with the Star of David on their arms any time they were out on the street. There was a curfew, from six o’clock in the eve ning until six o’clock in the morning. Separate stores were established where Jews could shop for food and necessities, but only during the hours between two o’clock and four o’clock in the afternoons, at prices determined by the Ukrainians put in charge of the operation.
I do not have any firsthand observations on what life was like in the city in the first days and weeks of German rule, because I did not go outside. I stayed in our apartment on Kopernika Street with my mother and brother, and I could see everything from our big picture window. One night, German soldiers came to search our building. They knocked first on the door of the elderly doctor who occupied the entire first floor. He had a big, beautiful apartment— ten rooms, the whole length of the building. They took him out into the street. Then they went upstairs and kicked down the door that corresponded to the doctor’s downstairs apartment. This was our next-door neighbors’ apartment, and the Germans went inside and collected those people as well. But we were spared, because the second floor was divided into two apartments and they searched only the one, thinking the layout was the same as on the first floor.
It was, my father used to say, one of the first of the many small miracles that kept our family alive.
Frequently, the Germans would come to inspect our building, and Galewski, the concierge, would stall them until my father could leave by the back entrance. He was a good man, Danusha’s father. He helped us many times. The Gestapo and the SS, they would come for inspection and ask, "Are there any Jews living here?" Galewski would shake his head, Nein! Then he would engage the Germans in conversation, knowing my father would have seen them approaching from our upstairs window. Galewski kept them talking, to give my father time to hide or to escape.
Our building was adjacent to another nice building the Germans had commandeered as a kind of headquarters, so many of the highest-ranking German officers regularly walked our street. Many of them eventually came to our apartment, where they took turns picking and choosing among our artwork, our furniture, our silverware. All across the city, the Germans would take what they wanted and leave the rest, setting fire to the buildings after they had looted them. Here, though, we were directly across the street from an old palace that was now occupied by the Luftwaffe. The general of the Luftwaffe had set up house keeping there, and there were other officers with the idea of turning our building into their living quarters, so they were not about to burn it to the ground.
One by one the officers came to our apartment, and one by one they left with our nice things. It must have been heartbreaking for my parents to see all their worldly possessions being taken from them, but at the same time they were thankful that we were not being taken out into the street along with our things. Soon, all of our furniture was gone, including our piano, a fine August Förster, one of the best pianos ever made. My mother used to play for us, very beautifully, but the piano had been silent since the German occupation. Still, it pained her that this wonderful instrument would be taken from our apartment and that she would never play it again. The piano was claimed by a German officer named Wepke, a man who was acting as the interim governor of Lvov. The only solace was that Wepke seemed to appreciate how fine a piano he was about to receive and that he could also play it beautifully. It was the poetic way to look at the injustice, to see that at least the piano would be enjoyed and put to beautiful use.
I have kept a picture in my mind of my brother and me sitting on the floor of our apartment, our furniture all but gone, the walls checkered with bright squares where our paintings used to hang. In another time, in another place, it would have been a picture of any two children, their house hold packed for a move out of town. I sat on the floor and watched and listened. I could see the shine of the piano pedals against the polish of the officer’s boots. Watching him play, listening to him, you would never think he was capable of cruelty. The splendor that spilled from his fingers! The joy! When he was finished, he stood and complimented my father on the piano. Then he made arrangements for the instrument to be transported to his apartment across the street. Before it was taken away, my father wrapped the piano carefully with a blanket pulled from our linen closet. It pained him to lose the piano, but it pained him more to see it damaged. He stamped it with his name—ignacy chiger—on the small hope that he would someday get it back, after the war. Always, he was thinking ahead to the end of the war. Always, he was hopeful, and so he put his stamp on everything.
Before the piano was taken, another officer came to the apartment and admired it, but my father told him the instrument had already been claimed. My father leapt to his feet with misplaced pride. He said, "I am sorry, sir, but the piano has already been claimed by Officer Wepke." In his voice, I could hear how pleased he was that our fine piano was the focus of so much attention.
The second officer was very angry when he heard this, no doubt because Wepke had him outranked and also because he had gotten to the piano first. Afterward, my father admitted that it had been foolish of him to announce with such pleasure that the piano was not available, because this second officer could have easily shot him right there in our living room. It was just the sort of stupid reprisal he kept hearing about, and he regretted saying anything the moment the words left his lips. Luckily—another miracle!—this second officer did not take his disappointment out on my father, but contented himself with some of the remaining things that had not yet been claimed.
The next day, the piano delivered, Wepke sent an officer back to our apartment with a package for my father. It was our blanket, along with a bottle of wine and a note of thanks for the piano. I was six years old, still a child, and even I could recognize the absurd mix of humanity and inhumanity. It was a curious gesture of civility, we all thought. My father wrote about it after the war, how it was strange to find decent people among such animals. That such a people, with such a high culture, could do such terrible things . . . it was unthinkable.
With our piano now in the possession of such a high- ranking officer, we were left alone for a few weeks. My parents took the opportunity to distribute some of their possessions among their few Polish friends. Silverware, china, jewelry, some furniture . . . whatever the Germans had not claimed for themselves, my parents gave away to non-Jews, with the hope that we might recover the property or that it would at least be enjoyed by someone of our choosing. All along, I had been watching the officers take my toys, and it made me very sad. I wanted to cry, but already I knew not to cry. I did not fight or protest. We gave my dollhouse to my friend Danusha. It made me happy, to see her with my dollhouse. She had always admired it, and I knew we could not take it with us. It was still not clear where we were going, or when, but it seemed a certainty that we would not stay on in this apartment much longer.
One day, while my father was out seeking provisions, another set of officers came by to consider our remaining possessions. My father liked to take pictures. He had a very good German camera, a Leica. The camera was still in our apartment, tucked away in one of my father’s bookcases, and one of the officers saw the camera and prepared to take it. Next, he examined some of the beautiful books still on the shelves of our library. My mother noticed him admiring one book in particular, a fine collection of photographs. He turned and asked my mother if he could take it. He did not have to ask, but he asked.
"No," my mother said, "it belongs to my husband. I will have to ask him first."
The officer smiled, a devilish smile. He said, "I can take it without his permission." He said this with some good cheer. Then he paused for a moment, and his smile deepened. "But I will wait for your decision," he said.
When my father returned later that afternoon, my mother told him what had transpired. He was very angry at my mother. He said her head was in the clouds. "He asks," he said of the German officer, "you give it to him." It was a simple equation, as far as my father was concerned, an obvious transaction. He did not like that my mother had put our family at risk.
The next day, the officer returned. He was still in good cheer. "So," he said to my mother, "what have you decided?"
My mother apologized and gave him the book. "It is yours, of course," she said. The officer took it gladly. He was very polite. Then he told my mother that the Luftwaffe was planning to commandeer our apartment the following day. He did not have to give us this information, but he did it as a kindness. He said, "Tomorrow, they will come and you will have to leave. Whatever you still have, you must pack."
There was not much to pack: a single suitcase filled with clothes, some pots and pans. The soldiers and officers had picked our apartment clean. There were no toys left for me to take, no dolls, no special playthings to keep me amused or distracted. Even if there were, I do not think we would have taken the trouble to pack them. My parents did not explain why we were packing or where we were going.
Before we left, my father made an inventory of everything the Germans had taken. He wrote who got what, and where he had stamped his name. He also recorded the names of our Polish friends who had come to collect what was left. And then we prepared to leave. We stood in our kitchen for a moment, before embarking. There was our one suitcase. There was my brother in his stroller. There was a bottle of milk, which Pawel would need for his supper later that night. I pushed the stroller as we left. Always, I liked to push the stroller. It made me feel all grown up. My parents walked a few steps behind. It was the first time I had been outside since the German occupation, and a part of me was glad to be in the sunshine. Around every corner, I imagined Baba Yaga, the witch who haunted the stories I heard as a small child. In my imagination, I was running through the big, open fields of wild sunflowers once more, with my friend Melek at my side. I was afraid, but I was trying not to be afraid.
In museums, you can see photographs of the dispersed Jewish families of Eastern Europe, put out on the streets with all of their worldly possessions. This is the picture we must have made, the four of us, shuffling along Kopernika Street with no clear destination. My father must have known where we were going, but he did not say. We were going, just. And as we walked, Pawel started to cry. I did not like that he was crying. My parents were nervous, because we were out on the street and vulnerable, and their nervousness became my own. I kept whispering to Pawel to be quiet. I was thinking about Baba Yaga, thinking about my dollhouse, thinking about our dog, Pushek, whom we had to give away. It was a lot for a little girl to keep on her mind.
Still, my baby brother kept crying, and so my whispering grew louder. Soon, I was yelling at him to go to sleep. I was so angry. I started shaking his stroller, I was so angry. Finally I said, "Close your eyes forever, already!"
As soon as I said it, I regretted it. I felt so terrible. I was six years old, my brother was two, and I knew this was not something a sister should wish upon her baby brother. Probably, under normal circumstances, this is something a sister might say to her brother all the time and it would be nothing, but these were not normal circumstances. I knew this was not something you say when the Ger-mans and the Ukrainians are taking Jewish children off the streets, when they are liquidating the city. My words hung there in the bright afternoon sunlight, stinging me, making me feel guilty.
Mercifully, my parents did not hear—they were a few steps behind—and I did not tell them. Pawel must have heard, because he immediately stopped crying, or maybe he quieted because of the tone of my voice. He never said anything. He was so young, but he was speaking in full sentences, so he might have said something. But he was quiet. Suddenly, I leaned into his stroller and started kissing him and hugging him. My parents, looking on, must have wondered what had come over me, but I did not say. Already, I had my inside life, the thoughts and dreams and hopes and fears I did not share with anybody.
Excerpted from The Girl in the Green Sweater by Krystyna Chiger with Daniel Paisner.
Copyright © 2008 by Kristine Keren.
Published in October 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher