Chapter One: Lodz, 1942, Ghetto at Baluty
Like the shattering of my family and Poland due to Hitler’s and Stalin’s ruthless power ambitions, my first impressions of life in Lodz in the midst of WW II, my awakening, emerged not as a continuum but as fragmented images and episodes. . . .
I was six. I held her hand and through her fingers felt my mother tremble at the approach of an SS man, but he passed us by on the street. A menacing sky hung close above Lodz’s numerous factory chimneys. Bulky ashen clouds and snowflakes crowded the air as my mother, brother and I stood waiting at a street corner for the trolley. Around us more and more people were caught in the whistling wind. It blew one way and the other and swept in mad pirouettes.
The trolley barreled toward us growing to enormous proportions before it squealed to an abrupt stop. A door opened in front of me, so I freed myself from my mother’s hand and hopped onto the stairs. But the next second she yanked me backwards by my collar. I slid on the snow, and before I had time to think she picked me up and rushed to the last trolley car. My brother raced beside us. We boarded. Mother sat on the one available seat.
“Don’t try to get on the first trolley car ever again, Dziunia. Wait for me. Hear?” she whispered, once the trolley jostled forward. “Do I have to repeat each time? Those cars are for the Reich people. You may never see me again if you climb up there.”
“I won’t do it again, Mamusia.” The thought of losing her was unbearable.
I turned around. An SS man stood at the rear of the car with his back toward us. A dank smell closed my nostrils. Snow from people’s shoes had melted on the floor into muddy puddles that quivered as the streetcar rumbled on. I sat on my mother’s lap and she held me close against her coarse coat. A lavender gauze scarf covered most of her black, wavy hair and framed the oval of her face⎯her charcoal eyes restless, surveying. I pulled her head down to whisper something when my brother, Janusz, looked at me.
“I would rescue you, Dziunia, if you were in the next trolley car,” he said with the assurance of a twelve-year-old. Thin, as tall as Mother, with his favorite navy blue knitted shawl wrapped twice around his neck, he stood next to her⎯his cheeks burned by cold and wind, his fleshy lips the replica of hers.
“I’d walk on the chain from one car to the other and I’d rescue you,” he continued, his eyebrows gathered to affirm the significance of his words. “Then we’d walk on the chain back here. I’m not afraid. I can do anything.”
I looked at him in disbelief.
“Don’t say that. I’m scared. I never want to walk on the chain with you,” I said.
“That’s because you’re a baby.”
A girl sat across the aisle from us, smaller than me her pale complexion a stark contrast to the gray surroundings. Next to her sat a man to whom she directed loud, continuous questions.
“Where are we going, Tatus?”
“Shh. We’re going to visit Aunt Kasia.”
“Shh, I’ll tell you later.” The man placed a hand over the girl’s mouth.
“No. I want to know now,” she shouted. People stared at them.
Janusz and I eyed each other and smiled. Will she ever get tired of talking? I envied her and wished my father were with us, but my mother had told us he had left for war, and no one knew where he was and when he’d return.
With abrupt turns and screeching wheels, the trolley arrived at the Jewish ghetto in the Baluty district. We passed under wooden bridges that extended from one sidewalk of Zgierska Street to the other. On both sides of the trolley tracks, endless strands of barbed wire encircled the ghetto streets and buildings as well as the bridges. On the other side of the fences, people plodded along the streets, their expressions rigid, eyes lost, faces sick. Covered by ragged clothes, they didn’t seem to mind the wind and the cold, and a few dragged their tattered belongings on the snow. Wilted patches of yellow stars brightened their chests, their backs, their sleeves. They looked like ghosts, and like ghosts they disappeared among the buildings, becoming one with the gray cement. A repugnant stench of garbage filled the trolley.
The people around me grew silent. The trolley wheels’ steady clatter slowed in the middle of a ghetto block and jerked to a stop. With a quick movement, the father of the talkative girl loosened and opened the window next to him. He glanced back and hurled a round loaf of dark bread over the barbed wire. On the other side a man scurried toward the bread, snatched it from the ground, and hid it in his rags. He looked left and right and hurried away.
Past the ghetto, at the next trolley stop an SS man came marching down the aisle. He shoved his body nudging the aisle passengers out of his way. With fists shaking, he yelled, “Who fed the Jew? Identify yourself immediately. Otherwise this whole car is under arrest!”
A few minutes later, the child’s father rose. The SS man dragged him from the trolley and out on the sidewalk. Several passengers cuddled his screaming girl. Visible through the window, the SS man forced the man down onto the snow and shoved a pistol against his temple. A short thud pierced the air. The man’s body jerked once and lay still, curled. His daughter’s gasps filled the trolley car, growing louder every second.
On the street people ran away in every direction, pushing their children in front of them or covering them with their coats. I hid my face in Mother’s coat.
“Will they kill you too?” I asked.
Mother covered my eyes with her hand and muttered a Hail Mary. Janusz and I clung to her and cried.
“We’re going to be fine,” she whispered. “Nothing will happen to us.”
You’ve just read the first chapter of Eduvigia (Junia/Dziunia) Ancaya’s book Struggle for Freedom: Marta’s Courage–a Memoir. Here is an excerpt from a review.
“It’s a revealing odyssey of war, its immediate aftermath, and the long years in exile as seen through the eyes of a Polish Catholic girl, whose first memory is of a chilling encounter with the SS. At the heart of the story lies the relentless courage of Marta, the girl’s mother, who is left alone with two children. Her husband has departed to fight against the simultaneous German and Soviet invasions of Poland in September 1939. Against all odds and under incredible pressure, Marta struggles to protect her children during the horrors of the twentieth century’s most destructive and inhumane war. After the war, the family fights to find one another and reunite despite the repressive Communist regime in Poland. A breathtaking escape leads to joy and sorrow as they try to find a place to call their own in a redefined world.”
She also wrote a related book called Stefan’s Journey on the Road of Sorrows, her father’s story during and after World War II. This book, Struggle for Freedom, is one of the books that will be featured in the Brenda Tipps Reading Series OLLI class taught by Joyce Carpenter, Cath Mason, and Anne Strozier. For more information, follow this link and go to Page 15. — Editor
Eduvigia (Junia/Dziunia) Ancaya is a nonfiction writer who has taken creative writing courses at USF and numerous courses at OLLI. She has contributed two previous posts to OLLI Connects. You can find them using the Search box on our Home page.
A native of Poland, who escaped Communist tyranny in 1946. She immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. She is a retired physician.