It was Wednesday, July 29, 1942, the eighth day of the Aktion
designed to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto. We were to present ourselves with mother at the Courthouse on Leszno Street at 11:00 a.m. Olek had conveyed this information to us at the Department of Provisions .
It had been the fourth night that we had spent sleeping in rows on the floor of the office - it was dirty and disgusting but certainly safer than at home. In the morning we listened with beating hearts to the sounds of gunfire and those of passing trucks that emanated from the end of Leszno Street. Each time that the sounds grew more distant, we breathed with relief. Remaining in the vicinity was tantamount to a sentence of death. Of this we no longer had any doubt.
Something had clearly changed in the system of deportation since yesterday. Apparently its tempo hitherto had been too slow, though the midget Lajkin sought frantically to supply for the giant Szmerling the greatest quantity of transportable human mass to the Umschlagplatz. German, Ukrainian and Lithuanian troopers were now brought into the Aktion
. An inferno begun to be unleashed, whole streets were being blocked; people were dragged out of their homes and onto the loading platform thousand of unfortunate people, the rest were driven among the fusillade onto the pre-loading yard. The Jewish Police were being heavily supported, but even so this was still not enough for the Germans and Lichtenbaum, who having become head of the Jewish Council after Czerniaków's suicide
, zealously sought to carrying out their orders. He ordered members of the Jewish administration of the Ghetto to work at the side of the overworked Jewish Police in bringing about the liquidation of the Ghetto. It was the price one payed for saving oneself and one's dearest - but for how long? The order applied also to the Department of Provisions, or at least the able-bodied men among its employees. Instead of presenting myself as commanded at the assembly point, I ran to the nearby photographers studio, and implored the owner to take a photograph of me. He did so with trembling hands and promised that, in exchange for bread, the prints would be ready by the evening (...)
I already had in my pocket a receipt, arranged for me by Olek, that the documents I supplied for the issuance of an Aryan kennkarte had been accepted. I only had to provide a photograph, after which, upon affixing a signature and the fingerprints of both index fingers, I would have in my possession an identity document valid for five years. Of course, first one had to get out of the Ghetto...
In the evening I fetched the photograph. It wasn't bad and what is stranger, it has survived to this day. It rests now, fifty years later, on my desk, and reminds me of this unlikely truth that I am the Mieczysław Chmielewski it portrays (...)
The rest of the night passed without any problems, and next morning, as always, Olek appeared, having managed to elude the round up on Karmielicka street. He had an excellent German document with a permit, valid until recently, for crossing to the "Aryan" side and was - for the time being - relatively safe. He told us the time of the meeting in the Courthouse building and the name of the judge, one Kup¶ć. One does not forget such a surname too easily, even after 50 years. All the other details of our joint exit from the Ghetto had been previously agreed upon, now we possessed the full complement of information.
As rapidly as possible, we had to get to Chłodna 16, where we had been living for the last half year. Fortunately, we did not encounter any round-ups. The streets were empty, the crowd of vendors and beggars so characteristic of the Jewish part of town had disappeared - they were the early victims of the deportations. Single pedestrians were sneaking here and there. Someone was pulling a cart with linen, presumably to one of the German establishments
. Feverish attempts continued to find unpaid employment in one or another German manufacturing establishment, which were appearing like mushrooms after the rains, since their Aussweises
were for the moment still honored by the Germans. For a job in a Schulz or Toebbenss establishment people paid a fortune.
The street bore signs of recent round-ups; here and there lay discarded items of clothing, old coats and trampled dolls.
Chłodna street had, up to now, been spared from the liquidation Aktion
, if one excludes the shooting spree that took place in the apartment of the antiquarian Abe Gutnajer, a spree in which many persons lost their lives, including, among others the noted surgeon who had come to the Ghetto for a medical consultation, Prof. Franciczek Raszaja. It happened on July 21 and gave merely a foretaste of what was to take place the following day. The street, the most elegant in the Ghetto, was completely deserted. The houses, with tightly drawn curtains, gave the impression of having been abandoned. On their other side, the "Aryan" one, members of the Lithuanian militia were on the prowl, shooting at any Jew who showed himself in a window. One of our neighbors had a nervous brakedown down and committed suicide simply by standing on her balcony.
In the huge apartment, where we occupied a room, remained only the principal resident, Mrs. Czerwińska, the widow of the recently deceased member of the Ghetto's administration. She had not yet recovered from the loss of her husband and his funeral at which, unexpectedly, a German camera crew had appeared together with a number of the highest officials of the Warsaw district, including Leist and Auerswald. The funeral of Czerwiński was to become part of a documentary film showing the Jews' Ghetto existence in the best of lights - that they were living in a state of plenty and that the German occupation authorities did not forbid the cultivation of Jewish beliefs and traditions. Similarly to the feast in Czerniakow's home and the orgies in the mykvah, the funeral was carefully staged. The widow was forced to make loud lamentations and to tear her clothes. My place was among the funerary extras who were ordered, for what reason I don't know, to alternately run and fall on the ground, run and fall, run and fall to the point of total exhaustion. The whole thing lasted a couple of hours and constitutes one of the most surrealist memories of those years. Unfortunately, in spite of many attempts, I have not managed to find any sign of this German "document" -- in so far as I know it was to bear the title "Asien in der Mitte Europas" or "Asia in the Middle of Europe." A rather absurd title given who considered themselves as European (...)
We washed ourselves for the first time in years, donned appropriate clothing, while mother filled two briefcases prepared for the occasion, with memorabilia of my father, documents, and photos. These two briefcases, indispensable elements of characterization -- was all that we could take beyond the Ghetto's walls. I was only interested in my book collection. I was losing my second one, this one compiled in the Ghetto. I took with me only one book, whose possession had not been, up to now, punishable. It was the first Polish edition of the Pickwick Papers
published in 1879. I had it for two years and read it when most saddened. It was lost only later during the Warsaw Uprising.
The Courts functioned for both Poles and Jews. The entrance to the Polish section was on Ogrodowa Street, that to the Jewish section on Leszno Street. Armed gendarmes inspected most carefully who was exiting onto Ogrodowa Street and besides the place was full of plainclothesmen. On this day the place was not busy, though busier than I had expected. Maybe people were seeking to secure documents needed for employment in the Ghetto's German enterprises.
No sooner had we come into the building that a suspicious looking man approached us mumbling something about our illegal presence in the Courts. This was surprising in so far as we were wearing our armbands [yellow ones bearing the Star of David - trans.] and nothing gave away the purpose of our visit. I don't know why, but I gave him 20 zloty in a manner that one employs with beggars. The blackmailer took off without a word. Had we become involved in negotiations with him or had given him a larger sum, the whole escape plan could have come to nought. I realize all this only much later -- I had acted without thinking, under the impetus of an impulse born of emotion.
It was anther half hour till 11 o'clock, the appointed hour. Further presence in the entrance hall had no purpose, we had to go find Judge Kup¶ć chambers post haste. It did not prove a problem. There we found Olek waiting with his mother and brother.
It was the first time in my life that I had seen Mrs. Oszernowska. She was pretty and looked young in spite of her milky white hair. Both she and her younger son, Rysiek, had the ideal appearance in terms of the contemporary categories of thought, that is, they did not attract attention to themselves as Jews. Things stood less well with Olek's long nose, but he too - with his fair hair and blue eyes -- could risk life on the "Aryan" side. We also felt carefully scrutinized and that Mrs. Oszernowska approved our appearance.
I and Olek had met only recently, applicants both to the illegal law studies that had been set up in the Ghetto under the auspices of Warsaw University and the leadership of the noted lawyer Mieczysław Ettinger. In the process, I got to know Olek and a friendship developed more or less upon our first encounter. It turned out we both had recently lost our wonderful fathers and that we had to take care of ourselves as well as our mothers. It was then that the concept of leaving the Ghetto as soon as possible was promoted by me with some obstinacy. We had a lot of friends on the Aryan side and mutually helping each other we could base our out-of-Ghetto existence on a firmer basis. Olek, as the possessor of a pass, arranged for us all the false document, that is, most genuine documents but ones belonging to others. It was also his task to arrange the details of our exit from the Ghetto. To-day, a half century later, I must admit that there are very few people to whom I owe as much as to Olek. After we exited the Ghetto we were in accord on almost every move, but in the end I let him down, I did not agree to go to the French health resort at Vittel via Hotel Polski on Długa Street in Warsaw. Olek was fascinated by this possibility, employed his unrivaled energies and departed without us. Instinct warned me against the perfidious scam. (..) Olek's death is one of the festering wounds that remain from the time of the German occupation (The German organized scam sold Jews South American visas and a journey via France. When they arrived in France, however they were held in camp and eventually shipped to Auschwitz where they perished. - trans]
The impassive Judge Kup¶ć placed our documents and photos in a drawer, promising their return after the war. As I learned later, he destroyed them soon thereafter, presumably for good reasons. Thus we were left with no photos or other memorabilia of our previous life. The few that survived, came to us years later from friends in distant parts.
In the Judge's chambers we also got rid of our armbands and everything that could testify to our stay in the Ghetto. We now were: I - Mieczysław Chmielewski, my mother - Natalia Irena Godlewska and because of the different surnames of necessity not my mother but my aunt. The life history of Chmielewski and Godlewska we knew down to the smallest details and committed to memory long before exiting the Ghetto.
Meanwhile, lawyers were coming into the chambers for the prearranged performance. I remember exactly Esquires Płoska and Pilecki, and other figures known in the Court building. The last to arrive was old Luczynski, a partner of Olek's father and, on the basis of the latter's last will and testament, the family's trustee until Olek's maturity. I realized immediately that it is he who is in charge. On a signal from him, we assembled in the corridor in a prearranged order, our group in the middle, the rest surrounded us on all sides. Well, just a group of lawyers leaving the building after a hearing.
- "Relax" - commanded Luczynski - "Laugh as I crack jokes" (...)
An explosion of laughter occurred in the moment we went out of the Ogrodowa Street entrance. Still laughing, I saw the mugs of the German sentries and their lazy glances skimming the known faces of the lawyers. Our group of five did not engender any interest. We found ourselves on the "other" side. . .
And - the first individual I came across was the blackmailer whom we had met when entering the building from the Ghetto side. What disastrous luck -- I thought. Everything had gone so well . . . But, instead of calling the Germans, he smiled in a knowing way and even winked at me. When he had disappeared from the field of view, I asked Judge Kup¶ć for the likely reason for this phenomenon.
- "It's clear" - he answered, - "From the first this man regarded you as Poles who had been in the Ghetto illegally to do some business (...)"
Excerpts from Antoni Marianowicz's 1993 book ¬ycie surowo wzbronione
(Existence is strictly forbidden]. Translated by Peter K. Gessner.