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Home DUCTS.ORG Issue 12 | Winter 2003 the webzine of personal stories
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The Moments Between

Helen Zelon

Across cultures and centuries, certain narratives persist: stories of creation, of the battle between good and evil, love and hate, the righteous and the damned. This story is not universal but particular, a specific myth-that’s-not, a true legend peculiar to my family and rehearsed all the years of my childhood, as my mother told and retold her tale. It unfolds in three parts and reveals layer after layer of truth, received memoir and longing for a lost time, a lost world, a life less complicated and dark.

Rudolf Natter
Part I: The Ghetto

Tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk.


Then again: tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk.

Getting closer. The sounds of hard heels on cobblestones, the sharp clatter of an officer’s walk on ancient, uneven streets. Now fading: tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk, soft in the gaining distance.

Rudolf Natter, on his evening rounds, walking on Mila Street, passing the blocks of crammed apartments, lingering on the corner, near Pawiak Prison. Deliberately he steps, his oiled leather boots gleaming silver in the moonlight. The boots are his pride; he steps over muddy gutters and choleric beggars to avoid soiling their hand-stitched soles. Tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk, then a little sigh of exertion as he hoists himself over just such an obstacle, and again, tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk.

Natter was an SS man. Assigned to the Warsaw Ghetto, he prowled the streets with a pistol on one hip and a bullwhip curled on the other. No one saw him actually use the whip; it seemed permanently coiled in its place, more trophy than weapon. But the pistol, well, he did not hesitate when the time to shoot was at hand.

The time to shoot was a flexible thing. Sometimes, of course, one had to shoot unbidden – say, when a laborer leaving the Ghetto for a shift at the Derringwerke munitions plant stepped out of line or clumsily, idiotically, tried to slip away. Then, Natter shot. A single shot, usually, sometimes to hurt, sometimes to kill, but always – or nearly so – a hit. People saw him shoot and laugh; heard him hold a conversation with barely a breath-stop for shooting and then saw a limp body crumple, or heard the cry of a man in hot, searing pain. Natter shot. He was good at his job. Took pride in it. He kept his pistol as clean as his boots.

Natter also wore a jacket, which – like so much else during wartime – was good for more than one thing. First, of course, it kept him warm against the bitter, wet months of a Warsaw winter – gray days, black nights, seeping damp that never dried out of woolen trousers. Also leather, like his boots, but the jacket was brown, whereas the boots were ink-black. It was the badge of a German officer, and no one, it seemed, was more born to the role of the Aryan overlord than Rudolf Natter.

The jacket also helped Natter in his entrepreneurial adventures, for everyone knows, an officer’s salary, while greater than an ordinary soldier’s, buys precious few nylon stockings or bottles of whisky. Not to mention a future he had to consider: the war wouldn’t last forever, he knew, and even when his side won, it couldn’t hurt to set something by for his civilian burgher life. So Natter smuggled: He traded gold, jewels and coins, for extra food ration tickets, waiting with his boot-heels clicking while a woman ripped the hem of her skirt to reveal the gold rings stitched in its lining. Quickly, she passed them to him. As quickly again, he passed her the ration vouchers. She put them in her bag, mumbling, “Thank you,” as he struck her on the shoulder, sending her to the pavement.

Even though he was a ranking officer, Natter knew he was surrounded by other eyes, eager to expose any deviation from official orders, all too ready to report a senior officer if it meant a chance at improving their own commission. He had to make the street exchanges look good, or good enough – that’s why he struck the women. But, in his own act of kindness, he always struck them on the shoulder, or in the gut. No marks on the face; he wanted no scars, no gashes traced to Natter’s hands.

So Natter’s jacket smuggled goods out of the Ghetto. Gold and diamonds; money; letters impossible to mail within the Ghetto walls. And occasionally, Natter’s jacket smuggled things into the Ghetto, too. Very occasionally, and always at tremendous risk to himself – not to mention his family at home, who knew nothing of his black-market exploits, save for the spoils – Natter brought something inside the Jewish world. Aspirin tablets, for the right price, cheap potato vodka, again for a price. Very occasionally, he brought guns. It was not that he supported the Jewish resistance – they were puny, weak, utterly deluded even to imagine they stood a shred of a chance against the far superior Nazi troops. But the trade was good; gold and stones for simple guns. Portable, liquid, universal currency – always best in wartime.

On a day when Natter was bringing a gun, everyone who knew the plan – the machers who arranged such deals – knew to lay low, clear of the streets and of Natter’s path. Tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk his stride announced itself on the stones, and then a scuffle, seemingly from nowhere. In most cases, Natter grabbed a man by the lapel of his coat, accused him of theft. The man, unwitting, denied the infraction. A second man, and a third, and soon a fourth and even a fifth, inevitably rose to defend the ‘thief.’ In the midst of the scene, one who knew slipped from a doorway’s shadows to Natter’s left side, near the whip, trading a flannel pouch of stones for a pistol. Slip away, quickly – for in the next instant, Natter’s pistol was out and flashing fire. The thief lay splayed on the paving stones; or sometimes a defender, it didn’t matter.

Natter knew the eyes on him; knew he had to mask his ‘humanitarian’ efforts to arm the Ghetto fighters. One life or another mattered little. They were all headed for Treblinka; Natter knew that even if they didn’t. When a fate of naked incineration awaited you, perhaps it was a kind of mercy to die in an instant on a city street. In any case, Natter shot. The calculus was simple: to gain the weapon cost a life; impressions had to be maintained.

In addition to his own private business concerns, Natter also had SS work to do. Beside the everyday chore of keeping order among the forced laborers as they left the Ghetto and returned at night – troops saw to their escort to and from the factory, but Natter was responsible, Natter was the man who made sure that as many came back in the evening as went out that morning. In addition to keeping the streets free of robbers and thieves – for even in the Ghetto, petty crime persisted, life went on, along with measly concerts and anemic celebrations – Natter had to nag the Jewish burial society, it seemed every day, to clear the sidewalks of corpses. With typhus and cholera rampant, and people crammed 40 to an apartment, he wondered that so many were still left alive to ship out to Treblinka when the time came. Every morning, the bodies lay on the sidewalks, in winter as solid as statues, literal frozen stiffs; in summer, stinking and rotting on the paving stones. They came with wheelbarrows, these Jewish body-chasers, and heaped the corpses like so many sacks of wheat, until the barrows overflowed. No matter how vigilant Natter was in his pursuit of the Jew morticians, there were always more bodies. This bothered him, the scent and the mess offended him. And of course, his boots got dirty in the filth. The sidewalks were a mess, entirely.

Once every week or so, Natter and his unit received special orders. In characteristically precise detail, Natter’s men approached a specific Ghetto block. The Ghetto was in the oldest part of Warsaw, and the apartments were built on a U-shaped model, so that the open side of the U faced the street, and three sides of apartments surrounded a sheltered courtyard, used in better times for laundry and soap-making and games of tag.

“Raus! Raus! Alles raus!” the soldier’s voices would call in the courtyard. Out, out, everyone out.

No one came outside, of course. Who would go out when a Nazi invited you? A few peeked from windows. Others hid in secret spaces, behind stoves, in ceiling panels. And waited for the next invitation from the courtyard.

“Attention, everyone with a blue Kennekarte! Holders of the blue Kennekarte, this message is for you.”

Kennekarten, or identity cards, were issued by the Nazis to Jews living within the Ghetto. Color-coded to indicate family status, place of origin, and date of arrival, the Kennekarte was like a flimsy Ouija board for its holder: Was yellow better than blue?

1940, better than ‘41? What about those signed by Natter, or by his underlings? Everyone looked to the Kennekarte for clues to their Ghetto lives. Also, the little cardboard rectangle gave comfort. If you had an official paper, how bad could things be? If it was signed, and stamped, and had your name and a date, too, certainly you were secure – for the time being, at least, if not for good. The Kennekarte was proof of your existence; losing it was nearly as great a disaster as dying itself, for there was no replacing it, and without it, no food rations, no nothing at all.

The day that Natter and his men arrived at the apartment block on Mila Street was sunny and warm; spring had come to the Ghetto, its trees blooming pink, a sudden yet entirely welcome respite in the crowded stench. That day, before coming to Mila Street, Natter had enjoyed his second cup of coffee after watching and counting the columns of exiting day laborers. It was midmorning when the officer and his soldiers clattered into the courtyard and began to call out to the residents.

“If you have a blue Kennekarte, listen now, for good news awaits. If your karte is yellow, this announcement is not for you. For those with orange Kennekarten, we expect news later, perhaps next week. Today, we have a message only for those with blue Kennekarten.”

Inside the apartments, hurried conversations whirled at half-whispered volume. “Should we go down?” one asked, one who held the blue card.

“I would never,” spat another, but he held a yellow card, so who expected him to

“Maybe I will go down, and the children can hide,” a mother reasoned. “At least they will be safe upstairs, even if I go down.”

“Achtung, Juden!” called Natter. “Holders of blue Kennekarten, into the courtyard. Present your card and you will receive rail tickets for you and for your families. We will resettle you in the East. You will be safe.” Silence from the apartments; no one moved.

“Everyone who comes now will not only receive rail passage, but also a kilo of margarine and two loaves of bread. If you do not come, we will come for you. It is better, you will see, to come now.”

Natter’s voice resounded off the brick apartment block and bounced up to the open windows. Slowly, heads came into view, looking down to try to discern the soldiers’ intent. No guns were drawn. There was a wheelbarrow with bread, its scent sweet on the spring breeze, and wrapped bricks of oleo stacked on an upturned box. The soldiers stood, smoking, relaxed. Natter held a clipboard, and shouted up again to the apartment residents.

Slowly, a few people came to the courtyard and presented their blue Kennekarten. They reached for the bread, but soldiers stood in their way.

“You must come down with your things, ready to travel,” Natter explained, in the soft voice used to coax a shy child. “You are going on a journey, you must prepare yourselves.”

Soon the courtyard buzzed with activity. People packed their valises with their dearest treasures – the trains, Natter said, would be crowded, one bag for each family only – and kissed the unlucky goodbye. Who knew the blue card would be a ticket out of the squalor? A passage to the East, to safety, to farms with geese and chickens and a cow or two? How lucky to have a blue card!

One woman hesitated upstairs longer than the others. Her husband was at work in the Derringwerke factory; how could she leave him? And then there was the matter of her daughter Cesia, who was nowhere to be found. The littlest girl, Renia, was right with her at home – where she belonged – but Cesia, who could know where she was? She had a boyfriend now, her mother knew, a handsome boy about her age, who had even begun to shave with a razor, and with whom Cesia spent her daytime hours.

Where was Cesia? Leaving the Ghetto behind would be good, the mother reasoned; maybe they could start over, east of Bialystok, make a life apart from the city they had always known. But she was unwilling to go without her whole family, so she and Renia stayed, hidden behind the ceramic panels of the large kitchen stove.

Tuhk, tuhk – Natter’s boots on the stairs, followed by a stomping herd of soldier’s heels. She heard them on the landing of the floor below; heard them break the door and move through the rooms shouting “Raus, raus!” heard the neighbor’s children cries fading as they were led down the stairs into the courtyard. Then, as easily as one breath gives way to the next, Natter was in her apartment – in the living room, in his tall black boots. Tuhk tuhk, louder now, his steps took him into the kitchen.

Looking for someone, anyone, hidden. Whether he found her behind the stove, or whether she emerged on her own, will never be known. What is clear is that she went downstairs, with her child Renia and her blue Kennekarte, accepted the bread and the margarine, and rode off to the East with the others from her apartment block. The train left from the Umschlagplatz, in the center of Warsaw, and headed northeast to Treblinka, where, finally, no one needed the things they brought from home.


At dusk, the columns of workers marched back through the Ghetto gates from the Derringwerke factory. All men and boys older than 18 had to work, according to the laws of the Ghetto, created by the SS administrators and enforced, with a devotion bordering on obsession, by the Judenrat, the self-elected body of Jewish leaders who, at least theoretically, governed the world of the Ghetto.

Cesia and her boyfriend were among the workers marching in. In a move so
brazen it could only have been borne of the naïve, willful invulnerability of teenagers during wartime, she and her boyfriend had sneaked into the factory line in the morning. They had made a bet they’d go to Ogrusatzky Park, an elegant formal greensward, where swans glided on ponds and linden trees stretched in long parallel rows, shading lacy ironwork benches. It helped that she was tall, for a girl, and always skinny, even before the war and the food shortages and the rotten potatoes and the bad milk. For once, she had been glad to be flat-chested, too, as she borrowed her boyfriend’s second suit of clothes and his cloth cap to hide her hair. In her clever disguise and with her boyfriend at her side, they marched out of the Ghetto to Derringwerke. He knew a door at the back of the factory, where they wouldn’t be seen, and through which they left, into the broad streets and bright sunlight of Warsaw early on an innocent spring morning.

Now, at dusk, they returned, hiding among the ranks of weary laborers. Natter stood just inside the gate, counting again, by twos, as the workers returned. Ja, the count was square – the ranks of workers scattered to their homes.

Cesia avoided her father on the way home. She reached the courtyard on Mila Street after he did, shaking the hair loose from under her cap and trying to imagine how she would explain her appearance, in men’s clothing. He stood in the courtyard, talking with a neighbor. Cesia saw him turn his head up to their apartment window. She wondered why the courtyard was so quiet; where were the children squabbling before suppertime? And where was her mother’s face in the window? A stab of colossal guilt seized her – how she must have worried her mother, how frightened she must be – until she looked again at her father, whose shoulders were bent and shaking.

She ran to him. Her father looked pale, his eyes wild, as if she was someone else, or someone not real at all. “Cesia,” he said, “is it you?”

“Who else?” she answered, afraid.

“You didn’t go?”

“Where?” She was afraid again, sure he knew of her illicit day in the city.

“To the East, with them all. With your mother and your sister, you didn’t go?”

“Where did they go?” she asked, uncomprehending.

“Natter came and went,” her father said, nodding to the neighbor that had given him the news. “And with him went everyone from our building – all with the blue Kennekarten were granted permission to go.”

“And Mama? And Renia?”

“They had the blue cards; they went.”


That night, Cesia didn’t sleep. Her father sat up, too, staring out the window, watching for the dawn, hours away. He didn’t eat dinner, refused his breakfast – sat in silence by the window, staring east.

From that day forward, Cesia and her father were alone. He didn’t speak much after the first day or so, just worked and stared and slept, in snatches, sitting up by the window. He had lost his will, and lived now only to see Cesia live, to see her survive. She could, he said. She held all his hopes – his upstart, his scholar, his firstborn, winning a place in Warsaw’s technical high school in 1938, the first girl to win such an honor, not to mention the first Jew, boy or girl, who studied with the goyim scientists there. Lithe and headstrong, speaking a beautiful patrician Polish (no shtetl Yiddish for his girl), Cesia was the vessel into which he poured his scant hope. All he wanted – and for this, he went again to Natter, with the last valuables he had, the last of the gold – was false papers for his daughter. With another identity, with her intelligence and her youth, she would survive. This hope sustained him even as it burned in her. She would, she promised, live.

For a price, Natter came through. Cesia Dymetman, Warsaw Jew, became Czeslawa Dwororokovska, Warsaw Pole. Shadowed by guilt, sure she could have saved her mother and sister if she hadn’t been larking about Warsaw on a dare, Cesia swore she would survive. For better or for worse, she swore to her father and to herself, she would live.

Part II: The Factory continues the story of Cesia and her father in the Warsaw Ghetto, through the time of the Uprising. In Part III, Cesia returns to Warsaw after the war, for her final encounter with Rudolf Natter.