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The Moments Between

Helen Zelon

Rudolf Natter Part II: No Turning Back

In part I, Cesia Dymetman and her family -- father, mother, and younger sister -- are living in the Warsaw Ghetto, during World War II. Rudolf Natter, a German officer, controls much of Ghetto life, conducting daily inspections, population counts, and enforcing a brutally random discipline, even as he turns a blind eye to smugglers and, occasionally, brings illegal weapons and identity papers into the Ghetto himself. Shortly after Cesia and her father inadvertently survive the liquidation that sends her mother and sister to Treblinka, they secure false identity papers for Cesia from Natter. Father and daughter settle into a new daily routine, until circumstances force Cesia to make an instantaneous -- and irrevocable -- choice.

he father and the daughter soon settled into a new, confined routine. Cesia, eighteen at last, registered for compulsory factory work at Derringwerke. The false papers stayed hidden in their room, wedged into a small hollow space behind a row of ceramic tiles, padded by a thick cover of old newspaper. Just as some of their neighbors hoarded cyanide tablets - also available on the black market, for the right price - Cesia and her father safeguarded her papers. Let the neighbors find their way to death, she thought. She would fight, even shoot, or so she imagined. She had no gun, of course, and no chance to fight, only to work and to sleep and to barter her mother's empty leather shoes for carrots and parsnips.

She heard talk of resistance among the youth. Natter was not the only small arms merchant in the Ghetto, and the boys especially bragged of stockpiles of pistols, grenades, gasoline for firebombs buried deep in earthen bunkers. Cesia never knew what to believe, but she listened. Perhaps one in five were telling the truth, she thought; perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Day by day, she worked, she lived, and she listened.

Occasionally at night, her father's breathing a wheezing metronome, Cesia pried the tile hiding place open to study the papers. Now, her papers. He had forbidden this, fearful that even the smallest sound after curfew could raise suspicion, that the slightest movement could attract attention, a search, arrest. He had changed, her father. Though hardly 40, he had become frail and remote, an old man stooped with sorrow. Cesia had always listened to him but now she didn't. She had to see who she might become.

She studied her new name, so odd matched with her own photo. Was Dvorokovska a real person? Had she once been real, a girl like Cesia? The birth date was a new one - Cesia learned it quickly - but the hometown was Warsaw, her own. Did she play volleyball in the summer, too? Go to school, flirt with boys? That the name and identity could be real meant that the real Dvorokovska, the authentic one, was probably not real any more - that is, not even alive. Cesia traced the photo's sharp corners with her fingernail and wondered, could she simply step into another life and out of her own by spelling a new name, learning a new birth date?

Some of the glue used to stick the photo onto the heavy ivory stock had spattered into the type; would that be a problem? The letters were typed but uneven, o's sitting slightly higher on the line. Would that reveal her? And what about the stamp - it was slightly crooked, was that right? The work of a careless forger, or the well-placed mark of one who knew well the practiced slam of the official's stamp?

What if, one day, she was asked for information the real Dvorokovska would know - her school, her mother's family name, her church, of course. What if she had to say the Rosary, or take Communion? Cesia remembered how her maid used to cross herself, and tried to practice the smooth pattern of vertical and horizontal gesture, the kiss to the fingertips. Could she pass? Even with practice, could she leave this life behind?

The papers grew darker where she handled them, smudged by the oil of her hands; would that be a problem as well? Nothing was without questions. Nothing could be known, for certain, save that she had to live and to do so, she had to have these papers. One night, with the sky beginning to pink up toward dawn, she put the papers away, shoved them deep into the hollow space. There, she thought, now they are gone. They do not exist, not until I need them. This was the first time Cesia found a way to keep a secret so secret that she herself could forget it - too many questions, answers that led to more confusion, all could be resolved if the thing itself never happened. So the papers went away.

She chose to stay within the life she knew, within the Ghetto. She would live with her father, work now that she was old enough, and together they would manage.

Daily, father and daughter left the apartment block and walked together to the main Ghetto gate. There was little conversation; Cesia's attempts to engage her father met with steady silence. She soon grew self-conscious, choosing instead to keep the talk-stream flowing inside her head, but not aloud. As they walked, she registered familiar sights: the beggars; the rigid corpses, stripped of their still-useful garments and covered in newsprint; the Nazi soldiers posted near Pawiak; the streetcar tracks. The Ghetto lay in the heart of the city of Warsaw and, although its walls kept Jews in and others mainly out, regular Polish streetcars passed through the Ghetto a few times every day, loaded with Poles shuttling to work. They gawked at the Jews as the streetcar rumbled through. That it raced through quickly, without stopping at all, was some kind of mercy. Count ten, count twenty, the streetcar would be gone, and with it the jeering, whistling passengers. Count thirty and the dusty cinders in the streetcar's wake would have settled into the cobblestones. Cesia could pretend the streetcar hadn't passed at all.

Every morning, Rudolf Natter waited for the workers at the main gate. The responsibility of counting the workers was an important one, and he entrusted it to no junior soldier - the consequences of error were too great. A man could lose his rank, Natter knew, or his family could suffer the consequences at home. More than one had been sent to the front, far to the East, where life was very bad indeed.

Natter counted people in pairs. Two by two, the workers lined up and were led out to the factory. Natter, who had been at the job a while, sought out some familiar faces amid the pale and stony stares. He would shake one man's hand every morning - a factory man, not a one-time rabbi or a pious man, but one of the regular workers - and enquire as to his health. As the charade unfolded, the lines waited. When Natter finished, the lines moved.

Natter also watched the women. After the liquidation efforts, so many women were gone, and those that remained had grown so scrawny that they looked less like women than eunuchs, skinny scarecrows in worn dresses. Only the young ones were anything to look at these days. They managed, pinching their cheeks and biting their lips to raise the color before they passed Natter's watch, to favor him with a smile, a glance, what he imagined were tender looks. He was a man of some principle, and on this he prided himself: No Derringwerke woman would be his. Let the others mix duty with pleasure; Natter, the consummate soldier, would not follow that route to professional doom. Besides, he was too much a man to take a Jew, and plenty of Polish girls were more than willing, for extra rations or even without, to entertain an officer. But still, he was a man. He looked. And many, many looked back.

Cesia was one who looked, too. She liked Natter; he had done something good for her, had gotten the papers that might save her. If revealed, the act - dearly bought and motivated far more by economics than by humanitarian impulses - could cost him at least his commission, at most his life. She knew he shot, had seen his pistol gleam dully as he aimed over the workers' heads, taking target practice at the Ghetto's brick walls. She had seen him suddenly turn, lower the barrel, and end the life of a beggar kneeling at his high black boots. This was Natter; he shot, he helped, he shot again. Even so, Cesia looked.

Natter looked back, met her eyes every morning going out, and every evening coming back. He never spoke to her, and she never to him. A single syllable might reveal the collusion that got her the papers. They looked, twice a day, then looked away.


Work in the munitions factory was a good way to spend the time, Cesia thought, as she moved bits of metal into a press, punched them with two holes, and slid them to the next woman. Working, she didn't think, she didn't wonder as much where her mother was living - for Cesia only believed she was alive, no matter what the Bund boys said in the bunker meetings most nights. They talked of resistance, of armed struggle within the Ghetto, of Jews fighting the Nazis and winning. This was rubbish, she knew; there was no winning, only living. If she could just stamp and slide and count and punch, she didn't have to imagine Renia, could box her thoughts into another secret cask and work, stop for soup in the middle of the day, then stamp and punch until the evening whistle blew shrill and the machines sighed to a stop.

Cesia worked on the second floor, the finishing area. Most of the women worked there, too, as their smaller fingers - and greater dexterity, the more experienced women bragged - better suited them for the fine work of metal finishing. Her father worked downstairs, on the ground floor. A silversmith and jeweler by trade, he now hauled pallets of raw metal destined to be worked into shell casings and perfectly smooth bullets, packed and capped by the ladies on the third floor, above the finishers. A hive of munitions manufacture, it was a better living than many others in the Ghetto. At least there was a bowl of real soup at noon; the best, and for many the only, meal of the day. There were always potatoes in the soup, barley, too. Better than most.

Among the workers, there was conversation. Cesia listened more than she spoke, as was her way. Around her, the women spoke, less of their present situation than of the lives they lived - the meals they cooked, the holidays they celebrated, the tablecloths, the baking. On Fridays, the few pious women swapped recipes for challah. No one baked, but they debated: Sugar or honey? And how many eggs? How long to rise? As if the talking would bring the food into their mouths.

Spring meant one thing, in the lives they had left behind: Passover. Cleaning, cooking, more potatoes and eggs than there were poppy seeds on an onion roll. April was upon them all. Cesia hated all the talk of food: It was not her life, this religious attachment, and it only made her hungrier, made her long more deeply for her mother. She preferred the Bundists who were, this April, not talking food. They were talking, with equal passion, of war. People, they said, were gathering 'cold' weapons - iron pipes, brass knuckles, any hard, metal hitting thing - and 'hot' weapons, too, caching knives, guns and smuggled grenades in the same kind of hiding niches where Cesia's papers were hidden. Every night she went to the Bund meetings, the talk continued, the plans grew more detailed. Expect annihilation, said the organizers. No one should hope to survive, simply to resist and die fighting. Of the half-million Jews who crowded the Ghetto at its peak, 40,000 remained. This remnant, this fragment, was honor-bound to fight.

On April 19 - the first day of Passover, except that it was 2 am, the middle of the night - soldiers surrounded the Ghetto walls. Nazis and conscripts, Poles, Ukranians, Letts, civilian police pressed into service, each man stood 20 paces apart around the perimeter of the Ghetto. By 5, when the black-marketeers were usually rousing from sleep to begin their negotiations before the light of day, it was altogether too quiet. No one was out; only the soldiers, outside the walls, standing sentry. The gates of the Ghetto were barred shut.

By 6, the sun was up and bright. Cesia was awake, her father asleep, as battalions of black-uniformed troops - full battle dress, regalia gleaming - carrying not pistols but machine guns, flanked by Panzers and military tanks assembled outside the gates. When the gates opened and the troops marched in, the Uprising began.

The soldiers broke into platoons and fanned out into the side streets, and the shooting began. First from the soldiers, who shot their introduction into each courtyard, spraying machine gun fire like swaths of black pepper. Then from the rooftops, where snipers hidden by chimneys and smokestacks killed, too, one man at a time. Cesia heard the machine guns, heard single shots ring out, but saw little from her upstairs window. A platoon marched past on Mila Street and she felt as if her heart had stopped beating: Pass, pass, pass us, she willed, pass us by. You took everyone from here long ago, there is no one for you. Pass us by.

Fires were set all around the Ghetto. Some were set by Jews, to distract the attacking army - a brush-factory in flames, a stack of dray wagons soaked in gasoline and torched, mid-street. Hard to get a tank past that kind of obstacle. Then fires began from the shooting, as sparks caught the timbered beams of the apartment houses. Fire was everywhere from Cesia's window. All morning, her father slept, and she watched the fires burning. All afternoon, they sat together at the window, watching the fires, until the sun set and the fires lit the lowering gray sky at dusk.

The next day, the Nazis came again, but this time, they did not parade in the streets. They came as single soldiers, or small knots, clinging close to walls, leaping across doorways, shooting machine gun spray into every open window, door, alley, archway. A trio of soldiers came into Cesia's courtyard, sprayed a hail of fire at the ground floor apartments. Everyone still living there was either hidden in a bunker, dug to a double depth below a false cellar floor, or hiding in a ceiling space - an attic, a bathroom, a kitchen vent. Cesia and her father hid themselves behind part of the same tile wall where her papers were hidden; a section two meters square had been pried loose even before her mother and sister left. Before they hid, Cesia took the papers from the small hiding place.

"Put that away," her father said, and she went to put the papers back into the hole.

"Not there - away, under your dress," he said, as he strained to lift the tile panel from the wall. Cesia tucked the folded paper next to her skin; she pushed it down, under the waistband of her underwear, and felt it begin to soften and bend as she and her father sat, cramped, in the dark, small hollow space behind the kitchen wall.

They sat in silence and in darkness. They sat for hours. Then, like thunder, boots in the courtyard.

" Achtung , Derringwerke laborers!" Natter's voice bounced around the yard.

"Derringwerke will shelter its workers during this situation. All Derringwerke workers, assemble in the courtyard in a quarter hour."

Tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk , on the stairs, followed by the galloping boots of soldiers in his wake. Tuhk, tuhk, tuhk, tuhk, tuhk, louder and louder, until the landing. Then, the knock of a nightstick on the door resounded in the empty room. The knock sounded again, then the sound of battering, of many hits of metal against wood, until a splintering and the door was open. Slowly, then, tuhk tuhk in the apartment; tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk, pause.

"If you can hear me, listen now," began Natter, in his deliberate, gentle tone. "If you are hiding here, come out. Come to safety. Save your lives. The Ghetto is in flames. The streets are full of fire. Come to the courtyard; be quick, or be lost."

Cesia heard fabric tearing - the curtain at the window? The thin sheet that covered her father's bed? She heard gunfire so close it pinged off the enamel kitchen stove, big enough to hide a small child. A stream of bullets sounded, like a woodpecker striking metal, and then, as suddenly, stopped. Tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk , receding now, with the chorus of boot heels in pursuit. They did not bother to close the battered door.

Cesia and her father sat still in the silence. They sat until the sound of footsteps faded from the stairwell, and until they heard voices above them coming down the stairs, headed for the courtyard. At the sound of familiar voices, Cesia's father slid the panel away from their hiding place, unfolded his tall frame into the trashed room, and stretched his cramped back. Cesia followed his example. She stepped out into the room. It was the curtain they had torn down, and the stove was neatly punctured with bullet holes. Her father didn't move for a long time, just stood, slowly turning his head this way and that, half surveying the wreckage, half memorizing the space that he would never see again.

"We will go down," he said at last. "With them, we may live; without them, we surely die. We will go down."

Cesia, mute, fingered the papers in her waistband. Now was the time, she suddenly knew, now was when and why her father had insisted on the papers, had bartered the last of his own mother's jewelry, had bought Natter's help in procuring the precious documents. Now, only now - there was no more 'before the war,' no more 'after' to look forward to. There was only now, this present, this moment, and Cesia knew, they would go downstairs - to Natter, and into whatever mystery lay ahead.

They packed no suitcases; they were under no illusions, this was not resettlement, but survival. Cesia took only her mother's old leather satchel. She wrapped a packet of photos - happy pictures, carefree years, with her mother and sister on the carousel, riding the streetcar, visiting family - in a handkerchief, and knotted the bundle closed. She put a piece of soap inside a sock, rolled it up, and put it in the satchel. Thus packed, she and her father went down the stairs.

In the courtyard stood perhaps two dozen workers. Fires burned on Mila Street, right in front of their apartment, and across the street as well, but Natter had his checklist, and the workers lined up, dutiful as dogs, to present their names for his inspection.

"Dymentman," said Cesia's father.

"Dymentman," said Cesia, in her turn.

Natter looked at her. "Dvorakovska, do you mean? Or Dymentman? Which shall it be?"

"Dvorakovska," Cesia answered, a sudden fire burning in her cheeks, as the next person behind her in line waited for his turn to speak.


Natter led the group out in two neat columns. He led them out the main Ghetto gate, and marched them directly to Derringwerke, where the floors had been spread with fresh hay, sweet-smelling and soft enough to pillow many exhausted heads while they slept. Cesia stared again, from a different window. The sky over the Ghetto turned red at night as the fires raged. Five days they burned, black smoke all day, then furnace-red at night. Five nights she wondered, why did Natter bring us out? Who paid him? None of the Jews had said they'd done it - and oh, how they would brag if they had, just to build themselves up in this puny, dreary hell of a life. So if none of the workers paid, did Derringwerke? Pay to get their slaves out of the Ghetto inferno? Another question without an answer, another mystery. Who was behind their rescue? Could Natter have simply walked them out on a whim, to prove once again his immense power, his singular mastery, in the world of the Ghetto Jew?

After five days, the factory began production again. Cesia returned to the second floor, to the finishing room. She kept her papers under her dress, and strapped the satchel underneath, too. The dress hung loose on her skinny frame, as loose as a sack - there was plenty of room for her mother's bag, and she liked how the leather grew warm next to her skin, how it gave off a scent that smelled, in some distant way, like the inside of her mother's armoire at home.

There was little talk among the workers now; work was steady, work was calm, amid the thrumming machines. The soup came at midday, still with potatoes; one day, even with beef. Life resumed a new normal, contracting again to a world as small as the factory itself, where the workers ate, slept, occasionally prayed and regularly squabbled, while the Ghetto burned and burned.

One morning, Cesia stood at the metal press. The bits of metal moved quickly in her hands. She daydreamed a little as she worked; it helped to have the satchel. Waking into alertness, she bristled to hear the sound of feet on the stairs, rushing up, sounding like dozens - running up, not down, no order or march-cadence, but rushing, helter-skelter, up to the factory roof. Suddenly mobile, she left the punch press running, smacking empty bits of nothing between its plates, and went to the landing. She saw a man she knew, a Bundist from the nighttime meetings and ambitious plots, and grabbed him by the sleeve.

"What is it? Where are you going?"

"Up, to the roof. People are jumping to the next building. Or out the window, if you like. It's no matter, it is the end. There is no place to go. Natter and his troops have returned, shooting as they walk. People are running or dead. You must run, too."

Cesia looked up the stairs, clogged with people, and down again, thick with pushing, crying workers. She looked at the open window. Outside was Warsaw; the streets were full of traffic and people and pushcarts. She felt for her papers, still at her waist, and felt the strap of her satchel tight against her body. Without another look, she jumped.

In Part 3, after years on the run, Cesia returns to Warsaw to look for her family. Approaching the ruined city, she encounters Rudolf Natter one final time, at a checkpoint on a bridge over the Vistula River.