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1 ~ The Hour of the Children and the Mad
I began my wartime career as a pianist in the Café Nowoczesna, which was in Nowolipki Street in the very heart of the Warsaw ghetto. By the time the gates of the ghetto closed in November 1940, my family had sold everything we could sell long ago, even our most precious household possession, the piano. Life, although so unimportant, had none the less forced me to overcome my apathy and seek some way of earning a living, and I had found one, thank God. The work left me little time for brooding, and my awareness that the whole family depended on what I could earn gradually helped me to overcome my previous state of hopelessness and despair.
My working day began in the afternoon. To get to the café I had to make my way through a labyrinth of narrow alleys leading far into the ghetto, or for a change, if I felt like watching the exciting activities of the smugglers, I could skirt the wall instead.
The afternoon was best for smuggling. The police, exhausted by a morning spent lining their own pockets, were less alert then, busy counting up their profits. Restless figures appeared in the windows and doorways of the blocks of flats along the wall and then ducked into hiding again, waiting impatiently for the rattle of a cart or the clatter of an approaching tram. At intervals the noise on the other side of the wall would grow louder, and as a horse-drawn cart trotted past the agreed signal, a whistle, would be heard, and bags and packets flew over the wall. The people lying in wait would run out of the doorways, hastily snatch up the loot, retreat indoors again, and a deceptive silence, full of expectation, nervousness and secret whispering would fall over the street once more, for minutes on end. On days when the police went about their daily work more energetically you would hear the echo of shots mingling with the sound of cartwheels, and hand grenades would come over the wall instead of bags, exploding with a loud report and making the plaster crumble from the buildings.
The ghetto walls did not come right down to the road all along its length. At certain intervals there were long openings at ground level through which water flowed from the Aryan parts of the road into gutters beside the Jewish pavements. Children used these openings for smuggling. You could see small black figures hurrying towards them from all sides on little matchstick legs, their frightened eyes glancing surreptitiously to left and right. Then small black paws hauled consignments of goods through the openings – consignments that were often larger than the smugglers themselves.
Once the smuggled goods were through the children would sling them over their shoulders, stooping and staggering under the burden, veins standing out blue at their temples with the effort, mouths wide open and gasping painfully for air, as they scurried off in all directions like scared little rats.
Their work was just as risky and entailed the same danger to life and limb as that of the adult smugglers. One day when I was walking along beside the wall I saw a childish smuggling operation that seemed to have reached a successful conclusion. The Jewish child still on the far side of the wall only needed to follow his goods back through the opening. His skinny little figure was already partly in view when he suddenly began screaming, and at the same time I heard the hoarse bellowing of a German on the other side of the wall. I ran to the child to help him squeeze through as quickly as possible, but in defiance of our efforts his hips stuck in the drain. I pulled at his little arms with all my might, while his screams became increasingly desperate, and I could hear the heavy blows struck by the policeman on the other side of the wall. When I finally managed to pull the child through, he died. His spine had been shattered.
In fact the ghetto did not depend on smuggling to feed itself. Most of the sacks and packages smuggled over the wall contained donations from Poles for the very poorest of the Jews. The real, regular smuggling trade was run by such magnates as Kon and Heller; it was an easier operation, and quite safe. Bribed police guards simply turned a blind eye at agreed times, and then whole columns of carts would drive through the ghetto gate right under their noses and with their tacit agreement, carrying food, expensive liquor, the most luxurious of delicacies, tobacco straight from Greece, French fancy goods and cosmetics.
I had a good view of these smuggled goods daily in the Nowoczesna. The café was frequented by the rich, who went there hung about with gold jewellery and dripping with diamonds. To the sound of popping champagne corks, tarts with gaudy make-up offered their services to war profiteers seated at laden tables. I lost two illusions here: my beliefs in our general solidarity and in the musicality of the Jews.
No beggars were allowed outside the Nowoczesna. Fat doormen drove them away with cudgels. Rickshaws often came long distances, and the men and women who lounged in them wore expensive wool in winter, costly straw hats and French silks in summer. Before they reached the zone protected by the porters’ cudgels they warded off the crowd with sticks themselves, their faces distorted with anger. They gave no alms; in their view charity simply demoralized people. If you worked as hard as they did then you would earn as much too: it was open to everyone to do so, and if you didn’t know how to get on in life that was your own fault.
Once they were finally sitting at the little tables in the roomy café, which they visited only on business, they began complaining of the hard times and the lack of solidarity shown by American Jews. What did they think they were doing? People here were dying, hadn’t a bite to eat. The most appalling things were happening, but the American press said nothing, and Jewish bankers on the other side of the pond did nothing to make America declare war on Germany, although they could easily have advised such a course of action if they’d wanted to.
No one paid any attention to my music in the Nowoczesna. The louder I played, the louder the company eating and drinking talked, and every day my audience and I competed to see which of us could drown out the other. On one occasion a guest even sent a waiter over to tell me to stop playing for a few moments, because the music made it impossible for him to test the gold twenty-dollar coins he had just acquired from a fellow guest. Then he knocked the coins gently on the marble surface of the table, picked them up in his fingertips, raised them to his ear and listened hard to their ring – the only music in which he took any interest. I didn’t play there for long. Mercifully, I got another job in a very different kind of café in Sienna Street, where the Jewish intelligentsia came to hear me play. It was here that I established my artistic reputation and made friends with whom I was to pass some pleasant but also some terrible times later. Among the regulars at the café was the painter Roman Kramsztyk, a highly gifted artist and a friend of Artur Rubinstein and Karol Szymanowski. He was working on a magnificent cycle of drawings depicting life inside the ghetto walls, not knowing that he would be murdered and most of the drawings lost.
Another guest at the Sienna Street café was one of the finest people I have ever met, Janusz Korczak. He was a man of letters who knew almost all the leading artists of the Young Poland movement. He talked about them in a fascinating way; his account was both straightforward and gripping. He was not regarded as one of the very first rank of writers, perhaps because his achievements in the field of literature had a very special character: they were stories for and about children, and notable for their great understanding of the child’s mind. They were written not out of artistic ambition but straight from the heart of a born activist and educationalist. Korczak’s true value was not in what he wrote but in the fact that he lived as he wrote. Years ago, at the start of his career, he had devoted every minute of his free time and every zloty he had available to the cause of children, and he was to be devoted to them until his death. He founded orphanages, organized all kinds of collections for poor children and gave talks on the radio, winning himself wide popularity (and not just among children) as the ‘Old Doctor’. When the ghetto gates closed he came inside them, although he could have saved himself, and he continued his mission within the walls as adoptive father to a dozen Jewish orphans, the poorest and most abandoned children in the world. When we talked to him in Sienna Street we did not know how finely or with what radiant passion his life would end.
After four months I moved on to another café, the Sztuka (Art), in Leszno Street. It was the biggest café in the ghetto, and had artistic aspirations. Musical performances were held in its concert room. The singers there included Maria Eisenstadt, who would have been a famous name to millions now for her wonderful voice if the Germans had not later murdered her. I appeared here myself playing piano duets with Andrzej Goldfeder, and had a great success with my paraphrase of the Casanova Waltz by Ludomir Rózycki, to words by Wladyslaw Szlengel. The poet Szlengel appeared daily with Leonid Fokczanski, the singer Andrzej Wlast, the popular comedian ‘Wacus the Art-lover’ and Pola Braunówna in the ‘Live Newspaper’ show, a witty chronicle of ghetto life full of sharp, risqué allusions to the Germans. Besides the concert room there was a bar where those who liked food and drink better than the arts could get fine wines and deliriously prepared cotelettes de volaille or boeuf Stroganoff. Both the concert room and the bar were nearly always full, so I earned well at this time and could just meet the needs of our family of six, although with some difficulty.
I would really have enjoyed playing in the Sztuka, since I met a great many friends there and could talk to them between performances, if it hadn’t been for the thought of my return home in the evening. It cast a shadow over me all afternoon.
This was the winter of 1941 to 1942, a very hard winter in the ghetto. A sea of Jewish misery washed around the small islands of relative prosperity represented by the Jewish intelligentsia and the luxurious life of the speculators. The poor were already severely debilitated by hunger and had no protection from the cold, since they could not possibly afford fuel. They were also infested with vermin. The ghetto swarmed with vermin, and nothing could be done about it. The clothing of people you passed in the street was infested by lice, and so were the interiors of trams and shops. Lice crawled over the pavements, up stairways, and dropped from the ceilings of the public offices that had to be visited on so many different kinds of business. Lice found their way into the folds of your newspaper, into your small change; there were even lice on the crust of the loaf you had just bought. And each of these verminous creatures could carry typhus.
An epidemic broke out in the ghetto. The mortality figures for death from typhus were five thousand people every month. The chief subject of conversation among both rich and poor was typhus; the poor simply wondered when they would die of it, while the rich wondered how to get hold of Dr Weigel’s vaccine and protect themselves. Dr Weigel, an outstanding bacteriologist, became the most popular figure after Hitler: good beside evil, so to speak. People said the Germans had arrested the doctor in Lemberg, but thank God had not murdered him, and indeed they almost recognized him as an honorary German. It was said they had offered him a fine laboratory and a wonderful villa with an equally wonderful car, after placing him under the wonderful supervision of the Gestapo to make sure he did not run away rather than making as much vaccine as possible for the louse-infested German army in the east. Of course, said the story, Dr Weigel had refused the villa and the car.
I don’t know what the facts about him really were. I only know that he lived, thank God, and once he had told the Germans the secret of his vaccine and was no longer useful to them, by some miracle they did not finally consign him to the most wonderful of all gas chambers. In any case, thanks to his invention and German venality many Jews in Warsaw were saved from dying of typhus, if only to die another death later.
I did not have myself vaccinated. I couldn’t have afforded more than a single dose of the serum – just enough for myself and not the rest of the family, and I didn’t want that.
In the ghetto, there was no way of burying those who died of typhus fast enough to keep up with the mortality rate. However, the corpses could not simply be left indoors either. Consequently, an interim solution was found: the dead were stripped of their clothes – too valuable to the living to be left on them – and were put outside on the pavements wrapped in paper. They often waited there for days until Council vehicles came to collect them and take them away to mass graves in the cemetery. It was the corpses who had died of typhus, and those who died of starvation too, that made my evening journey home from the café so terrible.
I was one of the last to leave, along with the café manager, after the daily accounts had been made up and I had been paid my wages. The streets were dark and almost empty. I would switch on my torch and keep a look-out for corpses so as not to fall over them. The cold January wind blew in my face or drove me on, rustling the paper in which the dead were wrapped, lifting it to expose naked, withered shins, sunken bellies, faces with teeth bared and eyes staring into nothing.
I was not as familiar with the dead as I would become later. I hurried down the streets in fear and disgust, to get home as quickly as possible. Mother would be waiting for me with a bowl of spirits and a pair of pincers. She cared for the family’s health during this dangerous epidemic as best she could, and she would not let us through the hall and on into the flat until she had conscientiously removed the lice from our hats, coats and suits with the pincers and drowned them in spirits.
In the spring, when I had become more friendly with Roman Kramsztyk, I often did not go straight home from the café but to his home, a flat in Elektoralna Street where we would meet and talk until late into the night. Kramsztyk was a very lucky man: he had a tiny room with a sloping ceiling all to himself on the top floor of a block. Here he had assembled all his treasures that had escaped being plundered by the Germans: a wide couch covered with a kelim, two valuable old chairs, a charming little Renaissance chest of drawers, a Persian rug, some old weapons, a few paintings and all kinds of small objects he had collected over the years in different parts of Europe, each of them a little work of art in itself and a feast for the eyes. It was good to sit in this small room by the soft yellow light of a lamp, with a shade made by Roman, drinking black coffee and talking cheerfully. Before darkness fell we would go out on the balcony to get a breath of air; it was purer up here than in the dusty, stifling streets. Curfew was approaching. People had gone inside and closed the doors; the spring sun, sinking low, cast a pink glow over the zinc rooftops, flocks of white pigeons flew through the blue sky and the scent of lilac made its way over the walls from the nearby Ogród Saski (Saxon Garden), reaching us here in the quarter of the damned.
This was the hour of the children and the mad. Roman and I would already be looking down Elektoralna Street for the ‘lady with the feathers’, as we called our madwoman. Her appearance was unusual. Her cheeks were brightly rouged and her eyebrows, a centimetre thick, had been drawn in from temple to temple with a kohl pencil. She wore an old fringed green velvet curtain over her ragged black dress, and a huge mauve ostrich feather rose straight into the air from her straw hat, swaying gently in time with her rapid, unsteady steps. As she walked she kept stopping passers-by with a polite smile and asking after her husband, murdered by the Germans before her eyes.
‘Excuse me … have you by any chance seen Izaak Szerman? A tall, handsome man with a little grey beard?’ Then she would look intently at the face of the person she had stopped, and on receiving an answer in the negative she would cry, ‘No?’ in disappointment. Her face would distort painfully for a moment, but was then immediately softened by a courteous if artificial smile.
‘Oh, do forgive me!’ she would say, and walk on, shaking her head, half sorry to have taken up someone’s time, half amazed that he had not known her husband Izaak, such a handsome and delightful man.
It was around this time of day that the man called Rubinstein also used to make his way down Elektoralna Street, ragged and dishevelled, his clothes fluttering in all directions. He brandished a stick, he hopped and jumped, he hummed and murmured to himself. He was very popular in the ghetto. You could tell he was coming quite a long way off when you heard his inevitable cry of, ‘Keep your pecker up, my boy!’ His aim was to keep people’s spirits up by making them laugh. His jokes and comic remarks went all around the ghetto, spreading cheerfulness. One of his specialities was to approach the German guards, hopping about and making faces, and call them names – ‘You scallywags, you bandits, you thieving bunch!’ and all kinds of more obscene terms. The Germans thought this hilarious, and often threw Rubinstein cigarettes and a few coins for his insults; after all, one couldn’t take such a madman seriously.
I was not so sure as the Germans about that, and to this day I don’t know if Rubinstein was really one of the many who had lost their minds because of the torments they had suffered, or was simply playing the fool to escape death. Not that he succeeded there.
The mad took no notice of curfew time; it meant nothing to them, or to the children either. These ghosts of children now emerged from the basements, alleys and doorways where they slept, spurred on by the hope that they might yet arouse pity in human hearts at this last hour of the day. They stood by lamp-posts, by the walls of buildings and in the road, heads raised, monotonously whimpering that they were hungry. The more musical of them sang. In thin, weak little voices they sang the ballad of the young soldier wounded in battle; abandoned by all on the battlefield, he cries out, ‘Mother!’ as he dies. But his mother is not there, she is far away, unaware that her son lies dying, and only the earth rocks the poor man into eternal slumber with its rustling trees and grasses: ‘Sleep well, my son, sleep well, my dear!’ A blossom fallen from a tree to lie on his dead breast is his only cross of honour.
Other children tried appealing to people’s consciences, pleading with them. ‘We are so very, very hungry. We haven’t eaten anything for ages. Give us a little bit of bread, or if you don’t have any bread then a potato or an onion, just to keep us alive till morning.’
But hardly anyone had that onion, and if he did he could not find it in his heart to give it away, for the war had turned his heart to stone.
Copyright © 1999 by Wladyslaw Szpilman