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The Moments Between

Rudolf Natter - Part III

Helen Zelon

On the Brink: New Life

In every life, some things are known, and others, mysterious. Stories with clear narratives satisfy a real human craving for order and understanding; they unfold from their beginning, thicken in the middle, and resolve at the end. But stories from life often lack that linearity, looping from event to event with sometimes startling gaps in fact and logic. This story, my mother's, is strung together like beads on a long silk thread. It begins in the early months of World War II, in the Warsaw Ghetto, and traverses hundreds of kilometers and thousands of days - the contours of a lost terrain. In part III, Cesia learns to survive the last years of the war by impersonating a Polish refugee.

Read > Part I

Read > Part II

She jumped. The windowsill her diving board, Cesia leaped into the fresh spring air and fell, eyes squinting against the sunlight. She fell past bricks, stacked in neat rows - the factory wall - and past new-green treetops. She fell and fell, in a moment that lasted longer than her whole life, stretching on and on until she hit the ground, knees first, her dress above her waist.

She landed on the street. A city street, with people bustling and trams rumbling past and pushcart vendors hawking the last of the winter's store of cabbages, fist-sized turnips, the first of the spring sorrel. Ladies with parcels skirted past, stepping around the fallen girl like the other beggars that littered the block, no one noticing that she was bleeding crimson down her calves and into her shoes. Cesia sat still for another moment. What had she done? Where was she now? And what was she to do? First, get up, and get on with it, she thought. Get up, and walk away.

She stood and felt for the worn satchel, her papers, her new life. All there. The photos made a stiff square in the soft leather pouch. She patted the edges and again, looked around. All there, and nothing there at all. Where was her father? The boy who told her to jump? No one had followed her out the window. She was alone.

No one had stopped. Apparently, girls falling out of windows had become ordinary. No notice was required. Again, she looked up and down the street - had someone seen her? Who watched her now? She felt eyes everywhere. Every direction she looked, she feared Natter or one of his soldiers, blue eyes gleaming, waiting to leap out and snatch her back. But as long as she looked, no one looked back. Cesia had become invisible - yet another poor person, alone in the cauldron of war.

Turning toward the wall of the Derringwerke plant, away from the street, Cesia took hold of her mother's satchel and brought it into the daylight, outside her dress, for the first time. The strap that had lain next to her skin was warm. Now it crossed her chest, like any girl, Cesia hoped, like any Polish girl going to work. But what Polish girl went to work with bloody knees? She had to clean herself, somehow, make her leap disappear, before she could blend into the street, into the people swirling around her, and melt entirely into Warsaw.

Cesia felt light, as if she could float up over the street and, perhaps, back into the factory window, back to her father's arms. She felt she might faint, but her feet gripped the ground, resolute. No falling, not twice, surely two falls would not go unseen. And she stood steady, and reached inside her satchel for the hanky, full of photos.

With one hand, she undid the knot and slid the pictures out of the wrinkled cotton. Again, she looked, over one shoulder and the next, and felt happy, unseen, unnoticed on the sidewalk, lurking near the bushes. She wiped the hanky on her knees. It hurt. Gravel had shredded deep grooves into her knees and the skin rose up in clotted knobs and furrows. Still, she wiped her knees, and spit on the hanky and cleaned herself, until at last, with the white cotton now blotched pink and her knees presentably pale, she smoothed down her skirt, brushed her hair back from her forehead, and walked down the block, into nowhere.

As she walked, she heard Natter's boots behind her, tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk . Afraid to look, afraid to breathe, she willed herself to walk even faster, away from the black boots and frank smirk. But the sound she heard was never him - it was a horse pulling a droshky in the street, or a worker hauling coal, or - incredibly - a beautiful woman in a pea-green coat with camel-colored gloves, her boots clicking like Natter's on the sidewalk. And still, Cesia walked, through the city, through the streets and parks of neighborhoods she'd never seen, the goyische parts, the streets that Jews avoided, even before the war. She walked, all morning, and all afternoon, and her knees healed to scabs and the blood that spotted her shoes dried dark, unnoticeable.

A week later, Czeslawa Dvorokovska, Polish civilian, applied for work at a metals factory. Workers were scarce and she, with metal-press skills, was quickly hired and put to work. She took a room with a widow and her daughter, both Poles, both bankrupt by mid-war and eager for boarders who paid their weekly fees in cash.

'Czeslawa' shared a room with the widow's daughter. The girl was spoiled and unpleasant, saving the bath soap for herself, complaining when Cesia woke early to go to work. But rather than lash out when the girl whined - the brat, who stayed under her quilt and drank her tea, while Cesia went out to earn the means to pay for the room - Cesia bit her tongue. Who could be picky during wartime? At least she had her own bed, and two drawers in a dresser, to call her own. And no one knew she was Jewish; that was a good thing, too. Yes, the landlady had clucked a bit when Czeslawa arrived without a suitcase, without even a valise or a change of clothes, but a week's advance on her rent and a story about family left behind in Lodz seemed to snuff her curiosity. The landlady had seen her papers - Czeslawa Dvorokovska, birthplace Lodz, Poland. Besides, it was often better not to ask too much during war. Better, sometimes, simply not to know.

Weeks passed; summer followed spring and the roses succeeded the lilacs in the building's courtyard. Cesia worked, ate, smoked, slept, and worked again. The days the factory was closed were bad; too long, they stretched, yawning, into night. Those days, Cesia thought too much. She walked, from breakfast time until past dark, wandering into her old neighborhood - long since forbidden to Jews, but as she was not Cesia the Jew any longer but Dvorokovska the Pole, she moved freely through the familiar blocks.

She smoked and walked and searched, as if by walking alone she could summon her mother, sister, father to the sidewalk, and they could go again to the café for ice-cream and tea. Brazen, she walked to the battered Ghetto walls, grooved by thousands of bullets. It was empty now, too - hollow, unfeeling, but still standing, day and night, numb and mute. She walked because stillness meant thinking, and thinking was too much to bear.

She knew what had become of her mother, now, and of her sister and likely her father too. She knew what had happened to her boyfriend - from another life, it felt, another planet, perhaps - and the Bund boys and the women who swapped dream recipes in the Derringwerke shop. Treblinka happened. They went east, yes, but not as they had been promised, to farms and new lives and kilos of margarine and fresh, white bread. East meant Treblinka, death camp set in stone-strewn meadows, wrapped in gold-green forests. Cesia had heard the whispers, still inside the Ghetto, of the chimneys and the train tracks and the ditch-like graves that deportees first dug and then, human dominoes, tumbled in, propelled by the hot momentum of machine gun fire. She had heard all this, then, but who could believe it? Who could imagine?

Now, walking the empty blocks, she knew. No one had survived. Of her family, she alone walked Warsaw's streets - no longer Dymetman but Dvorokovska, no longer Jew but Pole. The lost, at least, were dead, but Cesia had to figure out a way to live. Work was one way; walking was another.

One summer morning, the widow and her daughter delighted in a neighbor's bounty. Somehow, this neighbor knew someone who had a cousin who brought them a basket of eggs - fresh, country eggs, the likes of which had not been seen in Warsaw for seasons. Eggs for breakfast.

" Pania Dvorokovska," began the widow, "we have eggs today." Cesia took her meals with her landlady and the daughter - it was part of her rent, and there was no room for waste - and so was included in the breakfast anticipation.

"How shall we have them?" asked the widow, "fried? Or boiled?"

Cesia had been a picky eater all her life, until starvation brought her an appetite. The word 'eggs' made her mouth water. She liked hers scrambled, with fried, brown onions and plenty of salt and pepper.

"If there's an onion, we can have onions and eggs," she said.

"Onions and eggs?" asked the widow, her eyes flicking sparks. "Did you ask for 'onions and eggs'?"

"I did," said Cesia. She sat still in her chair. Something had shifted, but what? "Onions and eggs?" said the daughter, still in her dressing gown. "Did you really say 'onions and eggs'? That's Jew food. We don't eat that filthy crap." The daughter came close to Cesia's face, nearly touching noses, until Cesia lit a cigarette and brought it to her mouth. The smoke stung the girl's eyes.

"Never mind," Cesia said, exhaling a thick stream of smoke. "I don't care." She heard a pounding in her ears; it was her pulse, racing ahead of her imagination. Don't overreact, she told herself, calm down. Hide your fear. Smoke, sit. Calm down.

"Never mind?" asked the widow.

"Never mind?" said the daughter. "You cannot tell us what to do. Who are you, anyway, to say anything to us? My mother was only being nice to ask you how you like your eggs. And what do you say? Onions and eggs! Why do you eat Jew food, then?"

"Forget it," said Cesia, stubbing out the cigarette in a china saucer. "I'm not hungry. I'm going out," and she rose up from the chair to go to the bedroom.

Still the daughter pursued her, following Cesia into the room they shared.

"What are you running from?" the girl asked. Perhaps she wasn't so stupid after all, Cesia thought. Who knew what she knew?

"Where do you go when you go out? Who do you see?"

Cesia felt her face get hot and her hands get cold. The pounding in her ears grew loud again.

"How is it you're here with us, anyway?"

Cesia began to grab things, whatever she could find, a sweater, a slip, and stuff them into a bag.

"Where did you come from? Are you really a refugee..."  

Cesia took the satchel, with her papers and her photos, put them across her chest. Still, the girl wouldn't stop.

"... or are you a Jew?"

Cesia's knees buckled. She fell to the floor, in the narrow space between the two beds, near the dresser. She nearly blacked out but held onto the strap of the satchel strapped between her breasts, and began to breathe again.

"Are you, then?" the daughter went on. "And that's why you wanted the onions and eggs? Have you been lying to us, all this time, and laughing your Jew laugh every night while you smoke and pretend to sleep?"

What did she know? Cesia had to know it, she had to remember. What had she revealed, unaware, that planted a doubt in the girl's mind? She hadn't shown her the photos - never, no one saw them - or her mother's satchel. What gave her away? Her shoes? Her hair? Her Polish was perfect, no trace of Yiddish - or so she had always thought.

"And have you been making fun? Putting me and my mother at risk? If they only knew we were hiding a Jew they would kill us, too, no question."

The daughter's harangue flooded Cesia's ears as she knelt on the floor. She put two hands on the knobs of a low drawer to pull herself upright - she would go out, she would walk, night would fall, the whole fight would evaporate like a summer rain, if only she could stand and leave the room. She leaned over and held the knobs, steadying her will to stand.

"I will call the police!" the girl whispered, "I will call them when you are out, and the Gestapo will come for you, and you will go too, like all the others. Pffft! Where you belong, in the ashes and the dirt."

Cesia leaned against the drawer knobs to prop herself upright. She stood, and the drawer pulled loose from the chest. Cesia lifted the drawer up over her head, and brought it down full force onto the daughter. With a solid thwack, Polish birch met blonde skull. The wood bottom splintered but the drawer front held fast, and Cesia stood, holding the knobs and the broken drawer, and looking as if from a great distance at the crumpled Polish girl suddenly still, silent and bleeding, between the beds. The open bedroom window beckoned freedom. Staying behind, certain arrest and likely death. The girl was really bleeding, now. Fat drops spotted her gown and darkened her fair hair. Cesia climbed out, onto the street, and once again began to walk, striding past horses, houses, soldiers, children; tram cars, wagons, troop transports and trolleys, blind to all but the cobbles of the streets and her own thoughts.

She kept her job at the metal press and moved from boarding house to boarding house, never staying long enough to reveal again some detail, some nothing that could cost her life. Did the girl live or die? Cesia didn't care. The girl asked too much, she pushed too hard. Whatever the girl got, she deserved. Dead or alive, she was responsible for her own fate.

In late summer, the metal shop closed. The war was going badly for the Germans. Private businesses lost their wartime accounts as the Nazi army took up greater numbers of slave laborers to do skilled work. For Dvorokovska, Polish civilian, unemployment.

Cesia heard that a girl like her - healthy, strong, comely enough to catch an officer's roving eye - could find work behind the army lines, as kitchen help. She weighed her options. Working for the German army was, of course, a risk - but she was now a Pole, and passing for months. Her papers showed her native-born, and she had never been challenged, not even in the old neighborhood. No place could be better for a Jew to hide, especially a Jew in deep disguise, than with the enemy. The symmetry of sheltering with those who would harm her pleased her. That, and the knowledge that working in a kitchen she would never go hungry. She signed up, and soon was sent to the east, beyond the Polish-Russian border.

Cesia and the other kitchen help slept in a hayloft, above a barn floor lined with animal stalls but filled with men - soldiers - sleeping on the summer's sweet hay. The farmers were gone, no one said where, and no one asked. The soldiers took the farm as their garrison.

It was just like "Gone With the Wind," Cesia thought, awake in the loft while hundreds of snoring, wheezing soldiers slept on the hay-padded ground. Just like when the soldiers took over Tara, trampling through the great house with their shit-caked boots. Cesia saw the movie just before the war, in the same cinema where she watched Fred Astaire whirl with Ginger Rogers, where Shirley Temple sang in an incomprehensible soprano and danced until her curls bounced like springs. She remembered Scarlett, who would never go hungry again. That's me, Cesia thought, that's what I'm doing. I will not be hungry. So they are Nazis. So what? These men are no different from other men. They ate, drank beer and plenty of Polish vodka, like other men. They looked at her, with their bleached eyes, and talked about her - as if she didn't understand their German! - about her beauty, her eyes, her dark curls. So what! Let them look. She knew; a man was a man, uniform or no, German or Jew or Pole. She was not afraid.

Platoons of soldiers went out on daily sorties from the farm. The Russian army, approaching from the East, engaged German troops on the front lines, with heavy losses on both sides. The Nazi platoons, trudging the flat farmland with supplies for the front-line troops, drove the dirt roads and rutted country tracks. Boring work, really, unless they drove over a mine or caught random mortar fire. One day in late summer, though, a platoon returned, storming the mess tent in a throng.

Cesia heard bits and pieces as she moved out of the kitchen and into the dining area with glasses of beer. They sat at a long wooden table, six or seven men, and with their hands and excited voices described an attack by Jewish partisans, hiding in the forests.

The Jews had come at them, said one officer, with hails of bullets and Russian army grenades, certainly stolen. There were 10 men, said another soldier, ten skinny Jews in shabby clothes. There were 20, said one more, 10 at first and 10 more behind them. The soldiers drank their beer, and bragged of the Jews they'd killed with their revolvers, of the shots at close range - to a temple, to the base of the skull - and the stink of Jewish blood as it soaked into the earth. They called for vodka, too, and as they drank, more soldiers gathered, and more, and more. Then the singing began - war songs, army songs, drinking songs - and still the vodka flowed. Cesia brought them more, with sausage and cheese and brown bread and onions.

As the soldiers sang and drank and ate they grew tender, sentimental. How they missed their homes, their own wives and daughters. How she, their darling girl, made them long for home, they said, and she said nothing, but brought more vodka, more beer, more bread and sausage. She was numb to their pats and their pinches, her body shut down long ago. She wasn't even a woman any more, she thought. She hadn't menstruated for more than a year. And she didn't miss it, either. Life was easier, not feeling. Doing was far better than longing. So they touched her, so what? They could not truly touch her, ever, at all.

When the moon was high, one officer said to her, " Fraulein, liebschoen , sit with us."

" Nein, danke ," she replied.

"Sit with us, fraulein , and take a drink, in our honor, in honor of our victory."

" Nein, bitte ," she repeated, but the officer took her by the arm and cleared a place for her at the table. What could she do? She sat.

"Here, liebschoen , a little schnapps for you." A glass of vodka appeared.

"To our gnadige fraulein ," the toast went up.

"Our gnadige fraulein !" the soldiers cheered, eager to toast whatever was at hand as long as the vodka flowed.

Cesia took up the glass. How bad could it be? She had never tasted it. She sniffed the clear liquid. The smell burned the inside of her nose. Jews don't drink, she thought, but Poles do. Drink I must. She lifted the little glass and copied the others, swigging back the glassful in a single burning swallow.

"Again!" the men cried, delighted that they'd convinced the maid to join their party. "Again, to the death of the dogs!"

Again, she drank, and the bitter, hot tide of grain alcohol pulsed through her in a sudden, spiking fever. Her head felt odd, her mouth, thick. Her cheeks were blazing.

"One more," the officer said.

"No more, bitte ," she said, but he poured, and she drank, again. She tried to stand. No good, the tent walls spun around her. She sat.

One of the soldiers climbed onto the table, boots stomping in time to a march, leading the others with a vodka bottle in his hand. A comrade climbed up to join him and together the men sang: of the German race, and the Jewish pigs; the bloody boot, the lifted fist, God's gifts to his master race, Germans pure, rulers over all. The soldiers' boots pounded loud on the wood, and all the others fell in, stomping on the hard-packed dirt, their heels marking 4/4 time as they sang.

Cesia couldn't count the boots on the table. She couldn't quite see them, in fact, as they blurred and stomped and threatened to shatter the empty glass before her.

She held the glass in both hands and said, in a whisper, "I am a Jew."

No one heard her. She said it again. "I am a Jew," she said, this time a little louder. It felt strange to tell the truth; it felt good and bad at once. She couldn't stop.

"What is it, liebschoen ?" asked the officer, "what do you say?"

"I am a Jew, Ich bin Juden , I am Jewish." Again and again, she said it. Trying to stop it now was like trying to stop the vodka's heat - the momentum was its own force, and she was drunk again on her words.

"You? Pah!" said the officer, amused. "You, a Jew? Impossible."

"I am a Jew," she repeated. "It's true."

"What a joke you're playing," the officer scoffed. "Always so quiet, who knew you had a sense of humor." And above the singing, he shouted to another man, "she says she's a Jewish bitch, can you imagine?"

"I am, I am Jewish," Cesia said, still holding her glass.

How they laughed. How they roared. How they said, impossible, not you - not our gnadige fraulein , our darling girl. "Go to sleep," the officer said, suddenly paternal. "You've had too much to drink and you don't know what you're saying. Go now, go to sleep." Still laughing, the soldiers shooed her out of the tent and into the night's clear darkness.

Later, in the loft, she lay awake. What had she done? What did she say? The scene played out in her mind: There she was serving, then sitting at the table. There she was, drinking, and there the soldiers sang and cursed the Jews. And there she was, again, clutching her glass, speaking the words that were unspeakable. And they laughed, and she spoke again, and they laughed some more. They didn't believe her. But she knew that stupid drunks grow smarter in daylight. Soon enough, one of the soldiers would remember her drunken talk and wonder. That one would talk to another and soon, someone would lay a trap, and she would be caught, killed, worse. She felt in the straw for her mother's satchel, her pictures square and real inside it. She found a sausage she'd hidden in the hay, put it in her bag, and left the farm before daylight, following the road without knowing where it led.

Moonlight gave way to morning sun, and Cesia walked the dirt road until its intersection with a larger, paved road. In her mind, walking North and West was good - North to the lake district, and West, to Poland. A known hell was better than an uncertain one, behind enemy lines. She took the paved road to the North. It was a beginning.

She walked and walked, the familiar oblivion a numbing comfort. She had no destination, no 'where' to go. Still, she walked, until a troop transport driving past pulled over on the road's dusty shoulder and a young German soldier hollered out, " Fraulein ! Need a ride?" Then, she ran, to the rear bumper of the truck, and clambered up.

How one town gave way to another, and one road turned from North to West to North again, she didn't know. She just rode, grateful for the forward motion - not toward anything in particular, but away from the situation she had escaped. She pretended not to understand the German the soldiers spoke around her; it made things easier to act the stupid Pole, and simply listen and watch the unguarded soldiers as the kilometers clicked past. At last, they put her off, outside a small town called Plock, on the banks of the Vistula River - the same river that flowed south to Warsaw.

In Plock, Dvorokovska the Pole found work. Slowly, she was able to eat and pay rent and buy cigarettes again, instead of foraging in the gutters for ground-out, half-dead butts. In Plock, Cesia found a kind of steadiness. For months, she worked - as a doctor's receptionist - and began to live, week to week and month to month. And in Plock, Cesia also found love, or something like it, with a tenacious Jewish boy who wore down her resolve until she admitted her true identity and began to breathe, once again, with Jewish lungs.

Part IV: Brings Cesia back to Warsaw, and will appear in the next issue.