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Escape from the Ghetto

Writing Contest home

Dana Fast, Lake Clear, NY
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers
Runner Up in Category: Memoir Writing

We creep stealthily through the morning shadows, slinking along the gray walls, hiding in doorways. No one is allowed to see us. As children, by now we have no right to be. All other children our age have been deported; only those old enough to work remain.

The cold, gray city street is narrow and dusty, lined with dirty, crumbling houses, patches of cardboard replacing the shattered windowpanes. The buildings are pockmarked with holes from the German bombs; what plaster is left is gray and peeling. Dirt and garbage cover the pavement of the narrow alleyways. The smells of refuse, urine and dirt mingle in the sultry August air.

In spite of the morning chill, I'm hot and sweaty under the layers of two dresses and winter coat. Although it would be a hot, sunny August day, when my father, six-year-old brother Jurek, and I left our home on Nalewki Street in the pre-dawn grayness, it was still cool.

We arrive at the Waha gate on Zelazna Street at the crack of dawn. Dad stands by the gate, and shoves us into a dark doorway where we huddle together, peering into the crowded street while trying to appear invisible.

I'm scared. I wonder what awaits us. Is another chapter of my life coming to an end? I think about my life outside the walls, then about the past two years in our crowded one-room apartment in the ghetto. The secret school, my school friends, playing with other kids on the dirty, stinky, crowded ghetto streets amidst corpses covered with old newspapers…

I had become used to living with the dangers of the ghetto. What will happen to us now? Will we be alive tomorrow? The uncertainty of the future is scarier than the ever-present danger of uniformed Gestapo.

Columns of laborers dressed in gray, faded, tattered clothes move through the gate in both directions under the watchful eye of Jewish ghetto police with yellow armbands and navy uniformed Polish police. These are Poles who work inside the ghetto and Jewish laborers who work outside the walls. German gendarmes stand guard on each side of the gate.

We wait for our guide, but he doesn't appear. The sun is now high, the sky blue, and the day is getting hot. It shouldn't be like this… we should be playing outdoors, in green grass… I think of the park I used to play in, the beautiful Krasinski Gardens where I went for walks with Janina before we moved to the ghetto. Dad looks more and more worried. A sharp pain shoots through my stomach - a reaction to the stress of the moment.

A man approaches my father. Tall and blonde, very handsome, he looks to me like a movie star. He has shoes without holes, socks, faded gray pants and a light shirt that isn't tattered. He has been watching us for some time. He asks: "You want to get those two children to the other side, don't you?"

My dad wavers. He knows that in the broad daylight we can't return home without running into either police or Gestapo. If by some miracle we did get there, then what? Sooner or later we would be discovered. Staying in the ghetto means certain death.

But can he trust this stranger? He takes a good look at him. It could mean life or death for us. His face seems kind. After several seconds that seem like an eternity, he decides to trust his precious children to this stranger.

"Yes." My father makes the instant decision.

We are still huddling in the dark, dirty doorway. I am pale, hot and sweaty in all the layers of clothes Mom dressed me in. My stomach hurts. Little Jurek, small, dark, and skinny, clings to me. He looks comical, clad in a dark woolen coat, pants, shoes and socks instead of shorts and sandals on this hot sunny August day. He's sweating, too, but is quiet, without complaints. He is scared, without Mama, in these unfamiliar surroundings and strange state of affairs.

The man replies, "I'll do it for a price."

"How much?"

The movie star names the price, but dad doesn't have this much.

The sum agreed on before, with someone else, was not as high. Dad isn't prepared to pay so much. He hesitates again. What now? Does it mean the end?

The stranger then points to dad's big pocket watch - an old-fashioned, solid gold watch with a gold chain. "Add the watch," he says.

"It's done." Dad agrees, handing over the watch.

At the last moment, dad whispers a warning in my ear. "Don't lead him to Aunt Ada's apartment. Lose him before that. Janina will wait for you at the bus stop at Kilinski Square near Miodowa Street."

Janina. I smile. My dear nanny… It will be great to see her again.

Everything happened so fast, we didn't even say goodbye. These were the last words Dad said to me. This was the last time I saw my father. I'm proud that he put so much trust in me.

The nameless stranger takes us by the hand, me on the right, my brother on the left. We enter the column of workers marching eight abreast. At the gate, he pushes the watch into the SS guard's hand. The guard looks the other way. We are out - out of the ghetto walls and on the Aryan side.

Is this all? I wonder. On the Aryan side everything looks different. The gray buildings are still full of bullet marks, but the windows have glass rather than cardboard. The people hurrying by us, walking quickly down the street, don't look so starved. Even the German soldiers don't seem as fierce. There are no dead bodies lining the pavement, covered with newspapers. No hungry, bloated, starving kids begging for any scrap of food.

Once we're safely on the other side of the wall, the movie star said, "Let's get breakfast." We go down a few stone steps, into a little corner store, and sit at one of three small round tables. We each get a ham sandwich on a Kaiser roll and a hot cup of tea.

It had been three years since I'd had a sandwich like this. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Forty years later, I asked my brother if he remembered anything from the events of that fateful day. Jurek remembers only the sandwich. We both agree that this was the best ham sandwich we've ever had in our entire lives.

After this memorable meal, the stranger walks us to the corner of Miodowa and Dluga Streets. Out of the corner of my eye I see Janina waiting at the bus stop. Our eyes meet in silent understanding. My heart begins to race. Here is my dear nanny. Now everything will be well again.

I remember Dad's warning. "This is the house," I point to the big gray apartment house on the corner. "We'll go up alone."

Clutching Jurek's hand, we run up the front staircase. From the landing, I look down into the street. When I saw the man leave, Jurek and I walked slowly down and joined Janina.

Smiling, she asked, "Do you know the way to Aunt Ada's?"

"Yes," I replied. "I'll go by Dluga and Freta streets past grandpa's old house."

"Then take that route, and go by yourself." Taking my brother's hand, she proceeded by a different route.

I went alone. At eleven, I was scared, but I marched boldly to Aunt Ada's house on Nowe Miasto Street.

That evening, Aunt Ada sent the following telephone message to mom and dad: "Both parcels arrived in good condition."

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