I could smell Mama's perfume when she woke me up. Georg must have gotten it for her on the black market. The scent was faint, and muted by cigarette smoke, but she smelled like Mama dark, sweet, and smoky. "There's extra bread," she said, "and three whole potatoes we can make for supper. Georg brought them last night."
She didn't have to tell me he had been here. I'd heard them talking, all night and far into the morning. Like most of Mama's boyfriends, Georg only appeared sporadically, but at least he hadn't disappeared yet. I hoped he cared for Mama more than the others did, even if he never had much to say to me. Still, I didn't like him too much; his wild plans really scared me.
I squinted at Mama from my bedroll on the dusty floor. "What if the Nazis heard what Georg said? What if they come here looking for him and arrest us?"
Mama inhaled on what was left of the nub of her cigarette. "It's just talk. You're such a worrier, Halina. Like your grandmother. 'Ikh hob moyre,' all she ever said was how worried she was." She clucked her tongue. "I thought I'd shielded you from that peasant mentality and here you are, like your grandmother's ghost."
I hated it when she said that to me. It wasn't as if we had nothing to worry about. And even if being thirteen meant I should act more grown up, it was too hard to pretend everything was fine when it wasn't. I was tired of pretending not to care when the guards hit someone with their rifles, tired of pretending not to hear gunshots in the streets. Wasn't thirteen the age when you were supposed to stop pretending?
I dressed for work, thengrabbed a piece of black bread and sank my teeth into it, trying to chew as slowly as possible. Yesterday all I'd had to eat was one small, moldy potato.
"I just don't want the Nazis to torture us," I whispered.
"Nothing bad will happen nothing worse than what we have already. Georg has a good position on the Jewish Police. He'll protect us." Mama drew me to her. She stroked my hair and I smelled her perfume again. She hadn't hugged me in a while, and I wanted to hold on to her for a long time, but in a second she pulled away. "You need to finish getting ready. We have to leave in five minutes."
Once we were outside, Mama walked ahead of me, assuming her blank, fade-into-the-scenery look. That was the safest way to be in the ghetto. When they first sent us to Poland, we went to her village, but a few months later, the Nazis came and made us move to Norwogrodek. They built a wall around the section where we lived and lined it with barbed wire. We couldn't leave the area without permission.
The narrow streets were filled with people. I watched two soldiers carting away a group of old women who were covered with sores. I tried not to look at others like them huddled in the doorways. I tried to hold my breath because they smelled so bad. I tried to pretend, to wipe the worry off my face and make it blank like Mama's, but it was hard, because I kept thinking about what I'd overheard last night. Georg said the Germans were going to have another selection. He wanted Mama to run away to the forest, but Mama said she wasn't cut out for that kind of life. "It's better to stay here," she insisted. "In your position you can protect us."
But Georg couldn't protect the Rojaks when Batya's brother, Yosl, was taken away last month. Batya, her father, and her other brothers who lived with us in our room prayed for days, but God didn't help either. They kept praying anyway every morning and every night. I couldn't believe how religious they were.
The guard at the gate was the older man today, who always seemed sleepy and uninterested. But I still didn't hug Mama good-bye it was too dangerous to show that you cared about somebody. Sometimes the guards made dirty remarks when we passed them, but other times Fritz was there. Fritz talked to me if no one was looking, because once he heard me humming, and we discovered that we both like to sing. Fritz sang in the opera before they recruited him into the army. He told me he couldn't wait for the war to be over so he could go back. He sang for me once. I had to keep walking and pretend he wasn't singing for me, but his voice was amazing. I think he could have cracked a glass.
Before the war my one wish would have been to sing as well as Fritz could. When we still lived in Germany, I practiced my singing every day; I even did all the boring warm-ups that Frau Schneider, my voice teacher, seemed to like so much, scales and arpeggios and breath control. Frau Schneider only gave me simple songs to learn, but after we saw The Magic Flute, Mama bought me the score and I secretly practiced all the arias. My favorite was the aria of the Queen of the Night. I knew Frau Schneider would say it was too hard for me, but I just loved the way it sounded so strong. Whenever I sang that aria, I felt transformed into someone magical and powerful. I was going to sing it for Frau Schneider after I'd made it perfect, but soon after I'd started to learn it, we had to leave Berlin. We left so quickly, I didn't even have time to tell Frau Schneider good-bye. We could barely take anything with us, not even my rock collection. I think Mama just said that because she never liked it when I brought rocks home and put them on all the windowsills. "No one knows where those rocks have been!" she'd say. Even after she washed them in hot water, she still said the rocks were dirty.
After we passed the gate, Mama and the Rojaks headed toward the munitions factory. I walked in the other direction toward the commander's wife's house, which I cleaned every day. When her husband wasn't around, the commander's wife was kind to me. Sometimes she told me about her life in a small city called Rostock. She had grown up near the beach, and she had a wonderful shell collection. When I told her about the rocks I had to leave behind, she told me I could take a shell from her, whatever shell I wanted. I picked a shell that looked like coral with little holes that reminded me of hiding places, and I put it on the windowsill, just as I had done with my rocks at home. When Mama saw it, she didn't insist on washing it, though she frowned when I told her who had given it to me. "Be careful," she said. "She might turn on you and say that you stole it from her."
That evening, the commander's wife gave me some chicken. It was so rich and I'd been so hungry for so long, I could barely eat it. I wanted to save some to share with Mama and the Rojaks, but I didn't want to risk someone stealing it from me on the way home, so I ate as much as I could and thanked her, hoping she wouldn't be angry that I wasn't grateful enough to finish it all. She just smiled and patted me on the head. "I wish I had a daughter," she said. Then she looked away from me, out the window, and I knew it was time to leave.
The streets were quiet as I approached the ghetto gate. A light spring rain had begun to fall and the sound of it reminded me of an Italian song Frau Schneider had taught me. I bit my lip because whenever I thought of a song, I'd start to hum it out loud, and that could be dangerous if the guards were in a bad mood. I hoped Fritz would be at the gate. He wouldn't care. But it was the older man again. I handed him my papers and looked at the ground until he grunted. Then I moved on as quickly as I could. The Nazis didn't like us in the streets.
As usual, I stamped the ground hard when I opened the door to our building, hoping to scare the rats into hiding. Batya's father told me to imagine them receding into the walls like the parting of the Red Sea. I liked his stories, and the way he always tried to cheer me up when I was scared. I often wondered whether my father would have told me stories. He left us when I was a baby. All I had was a picture of a bald man with a bushy mustache. His name was Grisha Rudowski. Mama told me I was built like him, but she didn't seem happy to tell me that. He was a big, stocky peasant from Poland who met Mama in Berlin. When he lost his job and couldn't find work, he went back to his farm. Mama liked the city too much to go with him. I think the worst day for Mama was when the Nazis sent us back to Poland. Mama told me she had spent her whole life trying to find a way out of her little village. I think that was even worse for her than the day the Nazis moved us into the ghetto. Of course, we didn't know then how bad the ghetto could be.
The apartment was empty, exactly the way it had been when we left in the morning; Mama's cigarette butt was still lying on the cracked saucer, next to the torn movie magazine she had filched out of the garbage. I opened the cupboard to find something to eat, then remembered that I'd already had chicken, so I decided to make Georg's potatoes for Mama. I found the peeler, scraped off the skin and the mold, then put some water up to boil. The chimes rang in the main part of town. One more hour before curfew. Mama and the Rojaks were usually back by now. Had they all been held late at the factory? I looked out the window to see if they were on their way. No one was in sight.
I drained the water and covered the pot to keep the potatoes hot, then looked out the window again. A lone man, tall and gangly like a spider, hurried along the street. He sneaked into an alley as a guard passed, then inched out again, propelling from alleyway to alleyway in short bursts. I heard noise on the stairs. Mama at last! But the footsteps weren't Mama's. There was a knock on the door.
We all knew that a knock on a door after dark could mean only one thing. The Nazis!
Could I pretend no one was here? They could probably smell the potatoes.
There was another knock, louder and more urgent.
"Halina!" The whisper was hoarse and raspy. "It's Georg. You must let me in!"
Mama's boyfriend pushed his way inside as soon as I undid the latch, then leaned against the wall, panting to catch his breath. His graying, curly hair drooped into his bloodshot eyes.
"Mama's not here."
"I know. She was taken. Everyone at the munitions factory is gone."
The word hung in the air like a bad smell. I looked at the bare walls and down at my hands, which were rough and red from bleach. What was he saying? How could Mama be gone?
"I don't know exactly."
I felt a stillness inside, an emptiness, then a moment where it felt as if I couldn't breathe. And then a big breath, a big, sad wave with a sound louder than any sound I thought I could make forced its way out of me before I could stop it.
"Shh!" Georg clasped his hand over my mouth and drew me close to him. He smelled of sweat, mold, and garlic. "They're planning to empty the entire ghetto within the next three weeks," he whispered in my ear. "We must act quickly. Plans are in place. The escape route is almost complete. But we must bribe the right people. Your mother said she had money hidden in the cupboard."
"How can you think about money now?"
Had Georg ever really cared for Mama at all? It was his fault, all of it. The Nazis had found out what he was doing and were taking people away before they could escape. I clenched my fists and pounded at him, trying to wrench myself away. I wanted to hit him over and over until he brought Mama back.
"I came to help you, to help all of us." Georg's words were sharp as he grabbed my wrists. "Before it's too late."
It was already too late.
I shook myself free from his grasp and walked over to the window, looking for Mama one more time. The streets were empty. The commander's wife's coral lay gleaming on the sill. I picked it up and threw it down hard on the floor. It broke into small sharp pieces.
"I made the potatoes you brought for Mama," I said, still looking at the shards.
"Eat them. You need your strength."
"I can't. You may as well eat them."
Georg took the pot and began to stuff the potatoes into his mouth in large, quick forkfuls. I looked toward the door again. He had to be wrong. In just a few minutes Mama would come in the way she always did. She'd take off her shoes and massage her swollen feet. The Rojaks would come back too. Mr. Rojak and his sons would chant their evening prayers as Batya fixed them supper.
Georg rose and handed me the empty pot. "The Germans are planning to start the liquidation in three days," he said. "I don't like the idea of leaving you here alone, but I have work to do. Tonight we will put our plans in place. Tomorrow night we will go. Tomorrow you must go to your job as usual. You must act as if nothing has happened. Tomorrow night I will come for you." Georg opened the cupboard and took Mama's money out from under a small can of peas. "Wear as many clothes as you can. Anything you want to take must be small enough to fit inside your pockets."
If I still had my rock collection, I could have put some of the stones in my pockets, I thought. Not all of them, just a few of the ones I liked the best, the ones with flecks of mica that shone in the sunlight my lucky stones.
"We're going to the forest," Georg said. "Believe me, it is the safest place."
"But what if Mama comes back?"
We both looked at the floor again, at the broken coral. I knew what he was thinking, what we both were thinking.
No one who had disappeared had ever come back.
Georg awkwardly patted my shoulder, then slipped out, closing the door behind him.
Copyright ©2006 by D. Dina Friedman
For a long time I just lay on the floor, unable to move or speak.
How could she really be gone?
The rats scratched inside the walls, but I didn't care. I just lay there hugging my knees, murmuring the song the Rojaks sang when they heard about Yosl. I didn't know the words, but I remembered the tune because they sang that song every night for over a month, rocking and swaying and trying to comfort themselves. Now I sang the song over and over again, not caring if people heard me or not. If Mama was dead, there wasn't much point in being alive anyway.
Somehow I must have fallen asleep, because suddenly the sun was streaming in the window. I got up, brushed the dust from the maid's uniform that I had never taken off the previous night, and walked to the gate with my papers as if nothing had happened. Beyond the gate I looked out at the long marsh grasses and the row of scraggly trees that marked the beginning of the forest. Everything was newly green. It should have given me hope, but it didn't. Tonight I would escape, or be shot trying. Either way, it didn't seem to matter.
If the commander's wife knew or suspected anything, she didn't show it. I wished I could have asked her. Maybe she knew what had happened to Mama. Georg said not everyone was killed. Some people were sent away. They still needed people to work and Mama was strong. Mama is not dead! I thought the words over and over again as I rubbed at a berry stain that straddled both sides of a crack in the sink. Mama was a survivor. I had to remember that. I had to remember the way she always stood straight and tall, fearless. I imagined Mama getting into a train, twisting her dark, curly hair into a bun to keep it out of her face, adjusting her skirts, patting an area clean, sitting down as if she were a queen on a throne. When we were first forced to move into the ghetto, Mama had opened the door to our room and immediately planned where to put our things, as if we were moving into the Versailles Palace. When the Rojaks arrived later that afternoon, Mama welcomed them with tea served on the china she'd saved several weeks' wages to buy in Berlin. It was always important for Mama to have nice things. Better to have a few nice things than a lot of drek, she always said.
I rubbed the stain so hard that bits of polish came off with the juice, leaving a dirty patch of rust. The patch kept getting bigger, but I kept rubbing, my arms shaking. How would I escape? The guards were everywhere. I'd probably be shot. I scrubbed harder, trying to stop worrying so much, but I couldn't help it. Even if I made it to the forest, what would I do when I got there? Where would I sleep? I didn't have a tent or any warm clothes, just a plain cloth coat that was too small and worn with holes. I should bring the long underwear that Mama sewed for me last year. What else? I couldn't take Mama's china. I should take her cameo pin and pearl necklace and the picture of my father, Grisha.
Why had the Nazis closed the factory? Why had they taken the people who were healthy, who were supporting the war? They'd already had a selection just last month. Everyone in the ghetto, even the members of the Jewish Police, had been ordered to line up in the main square. We stood out in the cold for hours until a Nazi commander asked us some questions and they sent us to another line. We kept standing there until everyone had been divided up into two lines. Then we watched as the soldiers marched the people on the other line out of the ghetto, and we never saw them again. I knew better than to ask Mama what happened to them. She would have just called me a worrier.
At dusk I walked home slowly. Fritz was at the gate and he smiled and touched my hand as I showed him my papers, but I didn't say anything. I walked as quickly as I could to our building and climbed the stairs to our room.
Just as I was about to put my key in the door, I heard a noise footsteps. Someone was in the apartment. The soldiers! They were taking Mama's things! They'd find the pearls and the cameo, all Mama's treasures.
They'd find me!
I bent down and tried to look through the keyhole. The footsteps stopped. The apartment was quiet again. Were they waiting for me? Where could I hide? Should I go back to the streets? It was almost curfew. When Georg came, how would he find me?
I leaned against the wall behind the door, hoping the soldiers wouldn't see me when they left. Then I waited.
No one came out. They must be waiting for me. Or waiting for Georg. That was it. They knew about the plan and they were waiting here to arrest Georg! I needed to leave so I wouldn't put him in danger! No, that would put him in more danger. He'd enter the apartment looking for me and find the soldiers. The best thing to do would be to tiptoe down to the landing and warn him when he set foot in the building. I started quietly down the stairs.
The door opened, and a familiar face appeared in the crack of dim light.
"Shh." She grabbed my arm and led me inside, then closed the door.
"Wasn't everyone at the factory taken? I thought you were the soldiers."
"I heard you humming and waited for you to come in. When you didn't, I got worried."
"I was humming! I'm so stupid. What if you were..."
"It doesn't matter," Batya said. "You must gather your things. Georg came a little while ago. He is coming back soon."
"What happened? Did Mama escape, too?"
"I don't think so. I hid when they were taking everyone to the fort and " Batya covered her face with her hands. Her long black braid curved over her shoulders.
"Did you see?"
"They took my father and brothers; they took all the men away and put them on a train. There was a deep pit. They told the women "
"Shh!" I felt Batya's arms around me as she reached up and pressed her hand over my mouth. "You can't let anyone hear us. It will endanger the whole "
"Did you see Mama?"
"I ran when I heard the gunshots. A messenger found me. He said it would be safer to return to the ghetto and escape with the others tonight, so he put me in a sack of potatoes and brought me back through the gate. Go and get ready. Wear as much as you can."
"But did you see Mama?"
"She was in the line with the other women." Batya spoke softly, squeezing me tighter. "But you can't think about that now. She'd want you to save yourself."
Batya unwrapped her arms and tried to break away from me, but I held on to her, burying my face in her thick braid, which smelled like potatoes. It was just yesterday that I'd held on to Mama like that, before I'd left for the commander's house and she'd left for the factory. If only we had known what would happen. I would have just held on and on. I would have tried to remember everything she said to me. I would have insisted that we hold hands before we got to the ghetto gate, the way we used to when we walked together in Berlin. I would have sung one last song for her.
"We must get ready," Batya said again, breaking away more firmly. "Take some of your mother's things so you can remember her."
I opened the wardrobe. There wasn't much left. The Nazis had taken most of our possessions. On the top shelf were three tubes of red lipstick worn down to the bottom and a compact. Hanging below was a heavy black coat, a red umbrella, and two dresses one pine green and one navy blue. In the pocket of the green dress were Mama's pearls and cameo pin, along with an embroidered linen handkerchief. I put these in Mama's coat pocket and put on the coat, feeling the weight of Mama's body and that perfumy, smoky smell.
The coat felt heavy, so heavy, I suddenly couldn't move. I sank to the floor and let the tears roll down my face, biting my lip to keep myself from making noise.
"Halina, get up right now! We don't have much time!" Batya scurried around gathering long underwear, wool stockings, and sweaters. "Put these on."
I let Batya slide my legs into the underwear and stockings, and put the picture of my father into Mama's coat pocket. Batya gave me two potatoes. She rolled up Mama's two dresses and stuffed them into the sleeve of the coat; she put an extra pair of stockings in a sweater pocket, and grabbed Mama's fur hat, which had been stuffed into a crack in the floorboard. Mama had hidden the hat when the Nazis ordered us to give up our furs.
"Hide this hat somewhere," Batya said as she put her father's tallis and tefillin into the pocket of her older brother's large coat. "We should daven Ma'ariv. My father would want us to, even if we're girls."
What good would that do? I wanted to say, but I merely
nodded and listened politely as Batya murmured the Rojak family's familiar evening chants under her breath.
"Now Kaddish...," Batya said. "For your mother."
We stood together as Batya murmured the prayer for the dead. Only then did her voice break. "I'm doing it all wrong! When my mother died, we lit Yahrzeit candles. We didn't leave the house for seven days."
"That was before the war. You didn't do that when Yosl disappeared."
"We didn't know that he was truly dead."
"I saw her at the edge of the pit. I heard..."
I covered my ears. "I have a candle."
"We can't light it. Someone might see!"
"We'll just light it for a minute away from the window. Then we'll blow it out."
As Batya lit the candle, I imagined that Mama's spirit was in the flame, which rose high in the darkness, a large orange triangle whose tip pointed to the sky. We sat holding hands in the dark, watching the flame shift its shape with the passing currents. That was how I'd have to be now, I thought. Ready to move wherever I had to. Mama wouldn't want me to sink uselessly on the floor and be caught by the Nazis. Mama would want me to be brave and strong. Mama would want me to do whatever I could to survive.
There was a knock on the door. "We're ready," Georg whispered softly. "Come."
Copyright ©2006 by D. Dina Friedman
About the Author
D. Dina Friedman teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts. She has published a number of short stories, poems, articles,and plays in literary journals, and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. This is her first bookfor a younger audience. Ms. Friedman lives in Hadley, Massachusetts.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is awesome plot and stucture wise, and is very well written, but is geared towards girls. I'm a guy and I enjoyed it, but it's up to you. Happy reading!
I very good read indeed. I recomend it to anyone who likes historical fiction. It tells the tale of a girl hiding in the woods with her friends trying to escape a countryside fraught with Nazis.