Inside the Walls
Loss in the Ghetto
During this first winter, as the walls grew wet and frozen, we had to move to Brzezinska Street, where we were warmer and away from the barbed wire fence and the German guard who occasionally fired his gun. I made friends in our new place. One of them was a composer a few years older than me. He had a girlfriend who was a musician as well. Even though we lived in the same building, we exchanged letters; we promised to be friends forever.
The small apartment where we lived was available for a short time only, and we were next sent to occupy a small room on Zgierska Street, near the bridge. The apartment consisted of a tiny entrance hall and kitchen combination, and another room that was already occupied by a family. This building was close to the barbed wire fence, behind which the tramways for the gentile population moved along freely. However, we were not directly exposed to the fence, as our room faced the courtyard. There was an outhouse in the yard, where people would empty their chamber pots. In the winter the opening to the outhouse would freeze over, and people would continue to empty their pots, creating a hill that grew and froze until spring came. There was no escaping the stench and it was hard to avoid stepping into it. While I dulled my senses to everything else, this sight and the smell repelled and revolted me. I washed every part of my body whenever I could.
Almost immediately upon our arrival to Zgierska Street, we were, to our horror, infested with lice, and there was no escaping the scourge. I succumbed to a feeling of self-loathing, and once, as my father and I stood by the window, I exhaled loudly and told him that I wished that someone would push me into a hole in the ground and bury me. Surprised at my own vehemence, I glimpsed my father’s profile and saw a look of sadness and despair.
During the first few months in the ghetto, we received mail from my brothers in Soviet-occupied Poland. They were preparing to come back and lead us to the Soviet Union along a certain route. My brothers specifically stressed that there would be schooling for me there, which was an ongoing family concern. But in the spring of 1940, the ghetto was hermetically closed and there was no longer any mail, news or communication whatsoever with the outside world. The penalty for listening to a radio was death.
In the fall, on Yom Kippur, we went to a prayer gathering; it was the first time I saw my father dissolve into tears. Whenever we thought things could not get worse, they did.We were hungrier than ever and we were getting weaker. My father was unable to carry on digging ditches for potato storage, the work to which he had been assigned. I started to work at a saddle factory, sewing leather and making harnesses, and the meagre pay was enough to receive our basic weekly food ration. It was up to us to consume the ration – bread and other staples – when we wished, and we rationed our food scrupulously, but it was a terrible temptation to dig into the weekly supply. The amount of the ration changed every week, depending on what the administration could get as payment for the production of goods for the Germans.
I felt mindless. Starvation was soon rampant, and mortality in the ghetto reached epidemic proportions. Death started with apathy, weakness and the swelling of ankles. The swelling would move upward, and ultimately the heart and lungs would shrink, resulting in a lingering death. On July 2, 1941, that is how my father died.
When my mother realized that my father’s situation was critical, she sent a neighbour to come and get me at work, and I came home. My father looked at me for a while, and then he closed his eyes for the last time. He was buried in the cemetery at the edge of the ghetto.
My mother and I were now alone.