On September 1, 1939, Nazi planes burst into the Warsaw skies, some dropping incendiary bombs and spreading fires throughout the city, others dropping high-explosive bombs and turning buildings into dust.
Nature responded with heavy rains angrily pounding the pavement.
Terrified people ran in all directions.
Streets were ripped into deep canyons.
Faucets ran dry. Between bombings, people dragged heavy buckets of water from the Vistula River for drinking and cooking.
Smoke from the fires painted everything gray. Not far from our building, amid this grayness, were big mounds of brilliant pigments—reds, yellows, blues—in the courtyard of a paint factory in ruins.
I watched from our window in a daze. I didn’t fully realize what I was seeing, although it was all happening right in front of my eyes. It seemed unreal and distant.
Later that day, I sat on a table, and as Mother was putting a pair of new boots on my feet, she said, “We’ll need to walk a lot.”
I was four years old.
For days, as the bombs fell, my mother and I stayed inside. Although the doors and windows were tightly shut, a noise from hell filled every room of our small apartment. The terrifying whistling of gunfire and explosions of bombs was unbearable.
My only refuge was drawing. Always drawing, drawing, drawing. I drew stick figures. Stick figures marching back and forth on pieces of Father’s old newspapers, filling up any empty space on the page I could find.
Each time I heard an explosion, I closed my eyes and held the paper in the air. Now my pencil became an airplane, flying at top speed, point first, piercing round holes into the paper.
It became a game of chance. Will the stick figures evade that frightful pencil-plane? Will they be hit? Will we be hit? Are we going to die? Will we starve to death?
Our food was almost gone. Mother decided to go down to buy bread. In these uncertain, unpredictable days, she didn’t want to leave me alone in the apartment. So I went with her.
When we came out to the dark hallway and headed toward the stairs, what I saw took my breath away.
The staircase had a large gaping hole all the way through it, from top to bottom.
On each floor, a narrow wooden plank made an improvised bridge over the hole to the next floor, wide enough to walk up or down but too narrow to cover the hole completely.
I said, “I’m scared. I’m not going down.”
Mother said, “We must. With no food we’ll grow weak. We must be strong and brave. I’m not leaving you alone!”
I had no choice. There was no arguing with Mother.
Running down the stairs used to be a game; now it was a nightmare. Trembling, I cautiously followed Mother down the rickety planks. It was impossible not to look off to the sides, into the crater. Seeing the hole made me dizzy.
I had to stop periodically to regain my balance.
Before the war, Father once took me to the Warsaw Zoo. I never forgot the hippo that opened its mouth to yawn, revealing what looked to me like a deep cave with two teeth as large as butcher blocks.
I was blessed with, or perhaps cursed by, a vivid imagination.
Now, walking down the wooden planks, I was convinced that I’d be swallowed up by that hole—the hole that looked to me like the hippo’s gaping mouth. If that happened, I knew I would be chewed up by huge butcher-block teeth and would die a horrible death.
But I made it downstairs.
Copyright © 2020 by Uri Shulevitz
Map copyright © 2020 by Gene Thorpe, Cartographic Concepts, Inc.