Running Through Fire – Book Excerpt

Book Excerpt:

run_coverRunning Through Fire:
How I Survived the Holocaust


The Laboratory

I worked in the kitchen of the laboratory feeding the doctors. One of these doctors was always screaming and hollering “Heil Hitler!” right and left. But I noticed that whenever some poor man or woman knocked on the door, he would take sausages, butter, chocolate from France, whatever he could get, and would give it to these poor people. And he would give whatever money he had in his pocket. Then he would scream, “Don’t you ever knock on this door again!” This German, Dr. Julius Klein, understood Polish but he could not speak it. He was a Catholic from the town of Allenstein in East Prussia near Danzig. I found out later that he was very much against Hitler and the Nazis, but he was pretending because he was afraid of arrest. This German took a big fancy to me. One day he came into the kitchen. “Show me your hands,” he said. I could not speak German, but I understood. He took my hand and said, “You are not a worker. You were never a worker in your life. Wait a second. Wash your hands.” He brought me some disinfectant to wash my hands because he was a maniac about bacteria. Then he took me to the laboratory. He showed me a microscope. “What’s that?”

“Microscope,” I said in Polish.

“Ah, you know what it is. Good. So you are educated, too. Good, fine. You will be my assistant, my helper. I will teach you laboratory work.”

Not only did he teach me laboratory work, he taught me German. Every day he took at least an hour with a pencil repeating words in German to me. He was teaching me to such an extent that, while I could not speak, I could understand more and more. Eventually, I started to speak a kind of broken German.

He called me by the false name I used for my papers, Irena (or Irene, in German) Olszewska. He was just crazy about me. He was a married man in Allenstein. For Christmas he got a furlough and he went to visit his family, but he immediately came back without completing his vacation to give me the cakes and food that his wife cooked for him. That’s how crazy he was. He would say, “When the war is over, I will make a doctor out of you. You will study and go to the university in Warsaw and I will not go back to Germany. This will be Germany anyhow. I’ll live in Warsaw and we’ll get married.” But no matter how good he was, I had nothing really to do with him. This way I was fine. I was correct. It was platonic and he was dreaming. My mother had been staying with the Ukrainian woman, but suddenly she had no place for her anymore, and my mother was sleeping on the stairs. I wanted to bring her in to stay with me, with the teacher, so under the pretext of Christmas, I asked if I could invite a friend of mine. Since I had been to Catholic school, I knew everything about Christmas. For me it was easy. Before we left the ghetto I taught my mother catechism and to wear a cross. Some Jews were laughing at us for wearing crosses. They did not know I was preparing myself to be out living amongst Christians.

So my mother came to stay for a Christmas party at the teacher’s place. I had all this delicious food that Dr. Klein had brought me from Allenstein. My mother was having difficulty, and when the teacher heard my mother, she said, “I don’t know. She must be a Protestant. There’s something wrong with her, she’s talking nonsense.” Instead of keeping quiet, my mother went to help with Christmas dinner. She was spoiling everything with her talk.

The woman got angry with her and said she couldn’t stay overnight, and my mother left. I cried because I was able to stay while she was stranded outside in the freezing weather. For Christmas the doctors invited the Gestapo to a big party. There were some high officers, all these doctors, women Gestapo, and German women who worked with the electricity and telephone companies. Dr. Klein invited me to come. The party was supposed to end very late, after the curfew, so he said he could take me home on the tramway. Poles could go out after the curfew only if they were with a German.

“You have to help in the kitchen,” the doctor had said earlier, so I helped make salads and prepare dishes. The cook was furious. She and the others knew I was Jewish. The Ukrainian woman had told them, after my mother confessed to her that we had escaped from the ghetto. The cook was terribly jealous that they took me from the kitchen, from peeling potatoes, to work in the laboratory. At the head of the dining room was the General, a doctor, and behind him a big picture of Hitler on the wall. I sat next to Julius Klein as his assistant. They served us drinks. They gave me plenty and I drank. I could usually get drunk and still remember what I should or shouldn’t say. But sometimes I could slip and say things I was not supposed to. By this time, I had gotten myself nicely drunk. While they were serving, I noticed that one of the Gestapo men would not stop looking at me. At that time I had long, bleached blond hair, the lightest blond possible, and I had plucked my eyebrows so as not to look so dark. But he was watching me suspiciously. He asked Klein who I was, how I came to work there, and so forth. Then he asked me directly, so I pretended I did not understand him.

I was already drunk, and that Hitler on the wall bothered me a lot. So I got some bravura, and I said in Polish things like, “Why doesn’t he drop dead!” But this Gestapo man understood. So Julius Klein got panicky, scared. He pinched me and sent me roughly to the kitchen to fetch something. He went after me. “Keep quiet! Shut up! What are you talking about? Bring this out and don’t say a word.” When I came back, they were singing songs. Someone asked me, “Do you know some songs?” “Yes, I know some,” I said. So I sang the Polish national anthem. When they heard that, they just looked at each other. I spoke a lot of nonsense.

The next morning Julius Klein told me that the next time I spoke like this, I would go to jail and he would not be able to help me. “I know how you feel, but you cannot say these things in front of the Gestapo!” The following day, the Ukrainian woman came to get food from the doctors, and she started to cough. Dr. Klein examined her and immediately took a sample of her phlegm and looked at it under a microscope. “You have tuberculosis, and you didn’t tell me. You could infect us!” The Ukrainian woman looked at me. I had not known she had it. I thought she had a bad cold. Besides, even if I had known she had tuberculosis, even if she had told me to sleep with her in the same bed, I would have slept with her. Nobody thought about health, only about survival. And why would I reveal her secret when she helped me, gave me work, food, and a place to sleep? But she decided that this was the time to denounce me because she might lose her position with the Germans.

I felt a funny atmosphere at work. A few women in uniform came for a visit. They were talking with Klein in low, German voices. I already understood. They were saying, “Poor girl. She is probably from the ghetto, that’s what it is. When she was singing so much, she couldn’t hide her feelings because she was drunk. She must be Jewish.” And Julius Klein said, “I don’t think so. Maybe, but I don’t think so.”

He took me home without saying anything. I started to wonder. I did not know that I had already been denounced, but I started to get very frightened. That night I was thinking whether I should go back to work or just never show up. Maybe I should go out into the streets with my mother again. But I decided to wait and find out. Maybe they were just suspicious.

When I came to work the next morning, Julius Klein called me to his office in the laboratory. “Who are you?” he asked.

“You know who I am. I am Polish.”

“No!” he screamed at me. “Who are you?”

“I am Polish.” So he called the cook. “Juda,” she said. She could not speak German. She only knew one word, and she repeated it a hundred times. “Juda!

Juda! Juda!”

“Are you Jewish?” he asked me.

“No,” I answered, very calmly.

There was a man who was cleaning the floors. He called him over. “Who is she?” he asked him. And the man looked at me.

“What are you asking? She is just like me, Polish.” He had actually known from the beginning. I knew by the looks he gave me. He would smile and give me winks, not to flirt with me but to let me know we were friends. “She is not Jewish,” he said. “Who said so? She is Polish.” I knew that Julius Klein was a good man, that he screamed a lot of “Heil Hitler!” at the same time he helped people with money and food and medicine. But I did not know to what extent I could count on him. He threw out this man and the cook, yelling, “Get out! Get out with your dirt! Get out! You don’t know anything. You are liars! You are all liars!”

He was hollering on purpose. When the doors closed he took a gun and he put it to my forehead and he said, quietly, “Who are you? And you better tell me the truth. Now nobody hears but me.”

What should I do? I knew one thing about good Germans.

If you told them a lie they would hate you like poison. But you could never tell a bad German the truth. I said to myself that I would take a chance. “Yes, I am Jewish.”

He put away his gun and started to cry. “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. What have I done? You, my beloved girl, you are Jewish? This is terrible. They will send me to the Russian front. I don’t know what I will do now.” In Poland, the German laws were such that if somebody said you were a Jew there were no questions asked. They did not even bother beating you. They would take out a gun and kill you on the spot. No German man could have any kind of contact with a Jewish woman, especially not sexual relations. If he did, he would be demoted and sent to Russia immediately. They were all scared of going to the Russian front because the Germans there were suffering from the terrible cold. They were freezing without proper clothing. They were not prepared. They were wearing galoshes in the snow and they were losing legs in the frost. They laughed at the Russians who wore rugs and paper on their feet, but that was the thing to wear. So Klein was very afraid of being sent to the Russian front.

He put his finger to his mouth, signaling me to be quiet and he showed me to the door while he repeated, “These Poles, they are liars!” He wanted to get me out of the office onto the street to protect me because, now that I had been denounced, the Gestapo would come and kill me. He screamed, pretending he did not know, so that he would not be guilty of his connection with me. But he also wanted to get me out of there, as if he did not really believe I was Jewish. He took me out on the street and said, “My God, you are a poor girl. Where is your mother?” “My mother is here somewhere.”

“And where is the rest of the family?”

“They have been killed.”

He began to carry on. “Look, you can never come back to this job. Change the place where you live. Don’t go to sleep there anymore. They will go after you because I will say I was the stupid one that let you get away but I did not know. I did not believe you were Jewish. But you must get away because they will kill you. Take this for when you need something, when you are in trouble …” He tried to give me money, but I did not accept it. “If you need money, or are hungry, just call me up on a telephone. You call me, and then I will meet you somewhere. But do not ever come back here anymore.”

I really hope that he was not sent to the Russian front. After the war was over, I sent letters to Allenstein in his name. The letters did not come back, but I never found out if he was dead or alive. If he is alive, he should live long and be very healthy, because he saved my life.

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