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They’d spotted me.
The hyenas had spotted me!
And they were out to get me.
I could tell by instinct. Without actually having seen or heard them yet. The same way an animal in the wilderness can sense when it is in imminent danger, before it has actually sighted the enemy. This market, this perfectly ordinary market, where the Poles bought their vegetables, bread and bacon, clothes, and roses, even, was the wilderness for people like me. A place where I was the prey. Where I could die if they found out who or, more importantly, what I really was.
Don’t walk any faster, I thought. Don’t slow down. Or change direction. And whatever you do, don’t look back. Don’t do anything to arouse more suspicion.
I found it incredibly difficult to keep moving, pretending to stroll through the market as if I was enjoying the sunshine on an unexpectedly warm spring day. Everything about me wanted to run, but then the hyenas would have known that they were right. That I wasn’t an ordinary Pole carrying groceries home to her parents; that I was a smuggler.
I stopped for a moment, pretended to admire an apple on a farmer’s stall and wondered if I could risk taking a quick look. After all, there was a chance that I was imagining that I was being followed. But every inch of my body wanted to flee. And I’d learned to trust my instincts a long time ago. Otherwise I would never have managed to survive till sixteen.
I moved on slowly. The old farmer’s wife was disgustingly fat. She obviously had more than enough to eat, far too much in fact. She kept on croaking, “These are the best apples in all of Warsaw.”
I didn’t tell her that every single apple looked amazing. For most of the people forced to live within the walls, even a moldy apple would have been a treat. Not to mention the eggs in my pockets or the plums or, best of all, the butter I was going to sell on the black market for a great deal of money.
I had to find out how many people were after me before I had the slightest chance of ever getting back behind the wall. They couldn’t be 100 percent sure yet, or else they would have stopped me by now. I needed to get a look at them without being noticed. Without causing any more suspicion.
I looked down at the cobbled street. The heels of my lovely blue shoes clacked on the stones. They matched my blue dress with the red flowers perfectly. My mother had given me these clothes when we still had some money, and I always wore them when I was out smuggling. All my other clothes were threadbare, and most of them had been mended again and again. If I had been wearing those, I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes at the market without being noticed. The pretty dress and shoes were my work clothes, disguise and armor all in one. I took great care of them.
I casually let my heel get caught between two stones. I buckled my ankle a bit and swore out loud, “Oh, crap!” Then I put my bags down, glanced over my shoulder and saw them: the hyenas. And they were smiling.
My instincts hadn’t deceived me. They never did, unfortunately. Or fortunately, depending on how you looked at it. There were three of them. A short, unshaven, stocky man with a brown leather jacket and a gray peaked cap was up front. He was about forty years old and was obviously the leader. He was followed by a big man with a beard who looked as if he could throw a rock or two, and by a boy about my age who was wearing the same leather jacket and cap and was like a mini version of the leader. Maybe they were father and son? At any rate, the boy didn’t go to school—otherwise he wouldn’t be able to hang around markets in the morning, looking for someone to hunt.
Behind the walls, we weren’t allowed to go to school anymore, because the Germans had banned all classes. There were illegal schools in the underground, but not everyone could go and I left ages ago. I had to feed my family.
This Polish boy could go to school and get educated, but chose not to. Of course, there was a lot of money to be made by a gang of szmalcowniks, or hyenas, as we called them—people who hunted Jews and then handed them over to the Germans for a bounty. There were loads of them in Warsaw, and none of them cared if the Germans shot every illegal person found on the wrong side of the wall.
It was spring 1942, and anyone found in the Polish sector of the city without a permit was sentenced to death. And that wasn’t the worst of it. There were the most awful rumors about how the Germans tortured prisoners before they put them to death. Men, women, and children alike. They actually tortured children to death! Just thinking about it terrified me, but I wasn’t dead yet. And I needed it to stay that way for my sister Hannah’s sake.
There was no one in the whole world I loved as much as that little girl. Due to the appalling food rations, Hannah was far too small for her twelve years, and pale as a shadow, except for her eyes. They were big and wide awake and inquisitive, and deserved to see something better than the nightmare behind the walls.
All the power of an endless imagination shone in those eyes. So what if she wasn’t very good at most of the subjects taught at the Szulkult underground school, like math, biology, or geography; when it came to telling the other children stories during the breaks, no one could do it better. She made up stories about a ranger called Sarah, who freed her beloved Prince Joseph from the clutches of the three-headed dragon; or about Marek the rabbit, who won the war for the Allies; and the ghetto boy Hans who was able to bring stones to life but never wanted to, because they were always so cross and grumpy. Anyone who listened to Hannah found the world a brighter and better place.
Who would take care of her if I let myself get caught here? Not my mother. She was so despondent that she never left the shabby hole where we lived anymore. And certainly not my brother. He was far too busy worrying about himself.
I looked away from the szmalcowniks and let my hand rest on the cobblestones for a moment. Often, when fear gets too strong, I touch the surface of something to calm myself: metal, stones, cloth—it doesn’t matter—the main thing is to feel something else apart from fear.
The bright stones beneath my fingers had been warmed by the sun. I took a deep breath, grabbed my bags, and set off again.
The szmalcowniks were following me. I could tell. I could hear the sound of their footsteps speeding up, although the market was full of so many other sounds: the voices of the sellers praising their goods, buyers haggling over prices, birds chirping, or the sound of cars passing on the street behind the market. People strolled past at a leisurely pace. A young blond man wearing the same gray suit most of the Polish students wore whistled away to himself. I could hear everything, but the sounds were muted somehow. All I could hear properly was the sound of my breathing, which was getting hectic, although I wasn’t going any faster whatsoever, and my heart racing more and more from one second to the next. But the loudest thing was the sound of my pursuers’ footsteps.
They were getting closer.
And closer, and closer.
They’d catch me in a moment and would confront me. They’d probably try to blackmail me, demand all my money for a promise not to hand me over. And then, when I paid, they’d do it anyway, and take the Nazis’ bounty, too.
I’d known that this was going to happen sooner or later, ever since I started smuggling. That was a few weeks after Papa abandoned us. We didn’t have any money left to buy food on the black market, and the food rations the Germans allowed us per person were only 360 calories a day. Most of the time, the food they gave to us Jews at the food dispensary was rotten. We got whatever was too lousy to send to the troops on the Eastern Front: spoiled turnips, bad eggs, or frozen potatoes that couldn’t be cooked but could be turned into a more or less edible patty with a bit of luck. Last winter, the whole ghetto smelled of those patties on some days. So if I wanted my family to eat, I had to do something about it. My friend Ruth sold her body at the Britannia Hotel and had offered to get me in, even though she did grin and say that my figure was a bit boyish, but I preferred to risk my life smuggling rather than doing that.
Just in case I did get caught by the szmalcowniks, I’d concocted a story: I was Dana Smuda, a Polish schoolgirl from another part of Warsaw, who liked to come to the market because it’s the only place you can buy a special sweet puff pastry cake with the most wonderful apple filling. It was important that my fake address was a long way away, because otherwise the hyenas would just walk me to my given address and find out that I was lying. I always bought a piece of cake every time I came to the market and put it in my bag to prove my story, just in case.
I also always wore a necklace with a cross. And I had learned a number of Christian prayers by heart, so that I could pretend to be a good Catholic if I had to. Prayers like the Rosary, Sanctus, or Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior…” As if any sane spirit could rejoice in God these days.
If He were to appear in front of me, I’d throw eggs at Him for sure, even though they were worth a fortune in the ghetto. I didn’t believe in religion, or politics, or in grown-ups anymore. All I believed in was surviving.
“Stop!” one of my pursuers shouted. Probably the voice belonged to the leader of the gang.
I pretended that he couldn’t mean me. I was just an ordinary Polish girl; why should I turn around to a stranger’s command?
I went through everything in my mind one more time: My name is Dana Smuda, I live at 23 Miodawa Street, I love puff pastry cakes …
The hyenas blocked my path and crowded in on me.
“You can’t get rid of us that easily, you Jew-whore,” the leader said with a grin on his face.
“What?” I asked, acting angry. It was a matter of life and death not to look scared.
Copyright © 2014 by David Safier
English translation copyright © 2014 by Helen MacCormac