A herd of black and white Friesian cattle, a pair of mismatched draft horses, and a blacksmith’s shop passed by the Fiat’s windows. Nothing looked any different from any other Polish village. Yet today there were twelve thousand reasons why Zbaszyn was no longer a simple farming town. If only I could find them.
“Where do we go, Frau Zinsli?” Our driver, Fräulein Ivona, used the only name of mine she knew, my Swiss alias. My real name was Hannah Vogel, but in all of Poland, luckily, only my son Anton knew it.
“On.” I pointed forward, although I had no idea where the refugees were housed.
Once I found them, I would talk to as many as possible, then the local doctor, the townspeople, and the mayor if I could. Getting quotes should not be a problem, as I warranted that many in Zbaszyn spoke German. Less than twenty years had passed since it was ceded from Germany to Poland in the Treaty of Versailles.
We approached a large brick stable with armed Polish soldiers clustered in front. They stood awkwardly, as if not certain why they were there, and kept stealing glances inside. Somehow, I did not think they guarded horses so closely.
I directed Fräulein Ivona to stop. She rolled the car to a halt next to a cluster of military vehicles. Clad in a tight white dress and jacket and high-heeled pumps, shoulder-length ash blond hair perfectly combed, and China red lips made up into a Cupid’s bow, she stroked a languid hand over her hair, checking that every strand was in place before she turned off the engine.
“Anton,” I said. “Wait in the car.”
He gave me a look of utter disbelief before ordering his features. “All right.”
I stopped, fingers on the door handle. He never gave in so readily. I studied him. He had no intention of staying put. The moment I was out of sight, he would follow. My thirteen-year-old daredevil would plunge straight into trouble and stoically bear the punishment later. As if reading my thoughts, he gave me a deceptively innocent smile. Freckles danced on the bridge of his nose.
I had to smile back.
I had brought him to Poland to enjoy time together while I researched a light feature piece about the Saint Martin’s Day festival. Every November 11, Poznan held Europe’s largest parade to celebrate the saint, known for his kindness to the poor. 1938’s event promised to be grand.
The assignment should have been fun, but I viewed it as punishment. I had been banished to this backwater from Switzerland because my recent anti-Nazi articles had resulted in a series of threatening letters, and my editor at Zürich’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung did not want to risk anything happening to me. If I had been a man, he would not have cared.
But I was not, so I had resigned myself to enduring my sentence quietly until I read the newspapers this morning and discovered that Germany had arrested more than twelve thousand Polish Jews and deported them across the border. I could not let that pass unnoticed, so I had headed to Zbaszyn to see the refugees myself. The paper had no one nearer. My editor would grumble, but he would also be grateful.
At least I hoped that he would.
Anton rubbed two fingers down the clean stick he had whittled. He pursed his lips as if about to whistle a jaunty tune to prove how innocent his intentions were.
“Fine.” He was safer where I could see him. “Come with me. Stay close.”
He clambered out eagerly. “Will there be riding?”
He loved to ride. In Switzerland, the stables were his second home. This would be like no stable he had ever seen. Suddenly cold, I turned up the collar on my wool coat. “I think not.”
I pulled my Leica out of my satchel and snapped shots of the stable and soldiers. Their silver buttons and the silver braid on their dark uniform collars gleamed in the weak autumn sun.
I turned my attention to the stout brick building. Its tall doors measured more than twice the height of the men. Thick, too, with sturdy hinges and wrought iron bands fastened on the outside of the wood. They could safely contain horses. Or people.
Behind me, the Fiat’s door slammed. I winced at the sound, and as one, all the Polish soldiers in front of the stable swiveled in our direction. So much for doing a quick walk around unnoticed. I wished that I had procured a car without a driver.
I hung my camera around my neck and hefted my satchel’s leather strap higher on my shoulder. We walked to the stable and the soldiers guarding it. The soldiers admired Fräulein Ivona as she sashayed up.
Perhaps she would choose to use her assets to our advantage.
“Dzien dobry!” she said brightly.
The soldiers answered enthusiastically and tipped their queer uniform caps to her. The caps were round where they fit the head, but the top was square and the corners extended out an extra centimeter, like a combination soldier’s cap and professor’s mortarboard.
I looked through the half-open door behind them. The stable teemed with people. Most had a suitcase or small bundle, but I saw no food. A few souls peered out, looking as confused as the soldiers in front.
I itched to take notes.
The autumn breeze carried the smell of horse manure and the unpleasant odor of human waste. Presumably, no one had had time to set up toilet facilities for those packed inside.
Next to me, Fräulein Ivona wrinkled her nose. “We can’t go in there. It’s full of vermin.”
“It is full of human beings,” I reminded her.
“It’s a stable.” She shuddered. “It’s also full of rats.”
“There are worse things than rats,” I said.
A young boy wearing a thick overcoat two sizes too big waved from inside the dark building. I put his age at around four. Anton waved back and took a step toward him.
When a soldier blocked Anton’s way, he stumbled back in surprise. In Switzerland, stables did not have armed guards. Yesterday, in Poland, they had not, either.
Touching the shoulder of Anton’s brown coat, now almost too small for him, I said, “Wait.”
I handed the soldier on the right my press credential. He turned the document over with puzzlement. A small-town soldier, he had probably never seen anything like it. It sported an official-looking Swiss seal that I hoped might sway him into letting us pass.
“I am authorized to go inside,” I told him.
Fräulein Ivona raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow skeptically. I had no such authorization, of course, as she well knew.
“I don’t know,” he said in German. He handed the credentials to the soldier next to him, and they discussed my case in Polish.
If I did not get in, the view into the stable might be all I had to write about. I snapped pictures of people on the other side of the open door. Because of the lighting, the quality would be poor, but it would be better than nothing. The soldiers shifted uneasily, but did not stop me.
When I had finished, I turned impatiently, as if late for a most important appointment. “Well?” I used my most officious tone. “Will you give way or must I speak to your superior?”
I hated using that tone, but it was often effective on soldiers, a hint that perhaps I had authority somewhere.
The soldier handed me my papers. “A quick visit.”
A look of surprised respect flashed in Fräulein Ivona’s eyes.
Anton walked toward the stable with his shoulders back as if he expected a fight. I quickened my steps to catch up. Together we stepped across the threshold.
Fräulein Ivona lagged behind, exchanging flirtatious words with the soldiers before following.
The long rows of horse stalls had not been cleaned. I suspected from the smell that the animals had been turned out only minutes before they herded in the refugees. Horses and manure smelled fresh compared to the odor of unwashed bodies and human waste.
Fräulein Ivona wrinkled her nose again, Anton clamped his jaws together, and I breathed through my mouth. I paused, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the gloom.
So many people. When I tried to do a quick head count, I realized that too many people crowded into the small space for me to do more than guess. A few stood, but most sat dejectedly on the dirty wooden floor, mud-spattered long coats drawn close against the cold. The women wore torn stockings and proper hats; the men fashionable woolen coats and fedoras. These were city people. They had not expected to exchange their urban apartments for a Polish barn.
“The guards say we may stay inside the stable for a moment only.” Fräulein Ivona shifted in her white pumps. Mud smudged the once immaculate heels. “Your press credentials worried them.”
I photographed as fast as I could, hoping that the dim light would be enough. Pictures would show what had happened more convincingly than any words I could muster. No one took notice of me as I clicked away. The tall ceiling absorbed sounds, and the refugees spoke in hushed tones.
Anton kept close and quiet. I wished that I had insisted he stay in the car so that he would not see what had happened to these people. But he lived in this world, and he was not keen on any attempt to protect him from it.
Yet I never would have brought him here had I known it was this bad.
I stopped in front of a woman sitting on the dirt floor, back propped against the edge of a stall. She cradled a baby inside her long black coat. I knelt next to her in the dirty straw.
“My name is Adelheid Zinsli.” I used my best fake Swiss accent. “Do you speak German?”
“Of course I do.” She sounded nettled, her accent pure Berlin. “I was born in Kreuzberg. In spite of what my passport says, I’ve never even been to Poland.” She looked around the filthy stable and hugged her baby close. “I can’t say I like it much.”
“I am a reporter for a Swiss newspaper. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung. I want to tell your story.”
She looked at me suspiciously, then shrugged. “What more have I to lose?”
“What is your name?”
“Ada Warski. This is my daughter, Esther Warksi. I don’t imagine you much care, but my husband, Uriah Warski, is in Dachau for the newfound crime of being a Jewish man in Germany.”
I pulled out my notebook and fountain pen. Anton knelt next to me, so close that his pant leg touched my dress. I wanted to send him away somewhere safe, but where would that be? “How long have you and Esther been traveling?”
“Three days. They took us from our apartment at night and arrested us. They gave me only a few minutes to put together a bag for the baby and a few more to pack up a lifetime of possessions.” Frau Warski’s voice shook with outrage. I wrote as quickly as I could. I did not want to forget a single detail.
“They took us to a train station under guard. Neighbors I’d known all my life stood in the streets, yelling ‘Jews to Palestine!’ although we were only going to Poland. The candy man who used to give me sweets when I was a girl was there, too. Yelling.” She stared at the muddy floor. I thought of Berlin, my own home, having come to this and clenched the smooth shaft of my pen more tightly. I would tell this to the world.
“After that,” she went on, “they made us stand for hours in the station. Many of the old fainted. Some people were lying down by the stairs, but we were too packed together to see much.”
She rocked the baby. Anton watched with wide eyes. When I put my free hand on his shoulder, he let it rest there.
Fräulein Ivona seemed to cave in on herself as if she tried to make herself as little as possible. She wanted nothing to do with this place. I wondered why she did not simply leave.
“Trains came, and they ordered us in at gunpoint. More trains came behind ours. I can’t speak for the others, but our car had two SS men. They stood guard, to keep us from escaping. As if we would jump off and run back into Germany.” Frau Warski spit on the floor.
Anton started in surprise. In Switzerland, women did not spit—but then again, they did not have as much cause as Frau Warski did. “We ended up at the station at Neu Bentschen. What day is today?”
“Sunday, about noon,” I said quietly.
She stroked the baby’s soft black curls. “Saturday, then. They searched us and took all our money. They let us keep only ten Reichsmarks. They said, ‘That’s all you brought into Germany, and that’s all you can take out.’ My father came into Germany with much more than that, as I imagine most of us did. But we did not argue.”
She looked up at me. “What will I do now? Ten Reichsmarks is enough for only a few meals. Here there isn’t even food to spend it on.”
Anton shifted closer to me.
“Did they bring you here in lorries?” I asked.
She sniffed. “No. When they’d taken all they could, they told us we had to march to the border on foot. Two kilometers, they said. Some people, the very old, couldn’t walk, so—” She broke off and hugged her baby close. Its blanket looked pitifully thin in the cold stable.
“So, they beat them. I held Esther in one arm and my suitcase in the other, and I ran as if the Devil were at my heels.” She shuddered. “It was raining and very cold. I put Esther in my coat, but I worried that she would get sick.”
I swallowed, not daring to make a sound.
“When we got to the border, someone fired guns. I don’t know if it was Poles or Germans, although I don’t suppose it would have mattered much if you’d been hit by one. A Polish bullet kills as well as a German one.”
I scratched away at my notes. I would tell her story, but I wondered if it would help her, or the others here.
She took a deep breath before continuing, calmer now. “The Poles were surprised to see us here. I gave my papers to a Polish officer, and at first I thought that he would send us back toward the SS. I hear that some were marched back and forth through the rain. But not me. They let me through. Maybe because of Esther. They sent us here. We walked all the way in the rain.” She shook her glossy dark hair, cut into a bob like my blond one. “I thought that the Third Reich would come and go and things would go back to the way they were before. Now I know they won’t. Not ever.”
“When did you last eat?” I did not see how such a small town could provide for this many refugees. Zbaszyn had only about five thousand inhabitants.
“Bread this morning. Nothing for the first two days.” She brushed her fingers through the baby’s curly hair again. “I’m glad Esther is still nursing. It has been difficult for the very young and the old.”
Anton fished in his coat pocket and brought out a chocolate bar. He handed it to her.
“Thank you,” she said, surprised.
“It’s all I have,” he said with a note of apology.
Shamed, I reached into my satchel and handed her the bread and salami that Fräulein Ivona had brought for our lunch.
“How many of you are there?” I asked.
She nibbled a corner of the chocolate. “I don’t know. Thousands, I think. I heard that they arrested twelve thousand people. Some died on the journey. I don’t know how many. The Polish government let some into the rest of the country, but I’ve heard there are about seven thousand of us trapped in Zbaszyn.”
Dirty white pumps shifted in my peripheral vision. I glanced up at Fräulein Ivona. She looked as if she might be sick on the floor, either from the smell or from the enormity of the situation.
“Thank you,” I said. “Your story will be heard.”
“It will make no difference,” Frau Warski said bitterly. “Since Évian, we have known that no one cares.”
I had no ready answer. Months ago, the world had held an international conference in Évian, France, with the charter of addressing the burgeoning Jewish refugee problem. The only outcome had been a near consensus that no country wanted to take them in. The conference went so badly that the Nazis had been able to use it in their anti-Semitic propaganda.
“Please!” screeched a voice from across the stable.
A short woman dressed all in black called again. I looked at her more closely and drew in a quick breath. I knew her, and she knew my real identity, the one I struggled so hard to hide.
The one that could get me killed.
Copyright © 2012 by Rebecca Cantrell