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Behind the Walls
Be gracious unto me, O Eternal, be gracious unto me,
for in You has my soul found refuge;
and in the shadow of Your wings will I take refuge
until wickedness passes by.
Belgium, 1939. Together with the rest of Europe's Jews, Chanah's comfortable life is harshly disrupted. Without prior warning, the eleven-year-old finds herself in a gentile woman's dank cellar, and after that, behind the foreboding walls of a Christian convent, with only her soul to call her own. Her hair shorn and her clothes replaced with the convent uniform, Chanah assumes a new identity—that of a gentile girl. Will this young, delicate child persevere against the odds?
Behind the Walls is the unique, moving story of Chanah's stark determination and unwavering faith in her Creator, the courageous story of a family's sole survivor who stood up against intense spiritual and physical trials. This vivid documentary is more than just a powerful memoir; it is a glimpse into the spiritual heroism that many of our People exhibited just over half a century ago.
Something strange happened in my class. The Jewish girls were suddenly isolated. I had been sitting next to Janet. We were good friends, hut now she changed her seat. She moved next to Maria and wouldn't speak to me! Chanah Spieler, who had sat next to Christine until now, came to sit next to me. All the Jewish girls now sat in one row. And Maman didn't let us play in the yard behind our building, either. "Jewish children don't go outside. They can play nicely at home. Everything has changed, because of Hitler."
Hitler. 1 had heard that name — he was the evil man who shouted on the radio. But what did that have to do with us, the children? Why couldn't we play downstairs because of Hitler? But none of my questions were answered.
Young Chanah's carefree life is suddenly turned into one of fear and confusion. Strange things are happening in her comfortable Brussels home: the Jews of the city begin to mysteriously disappear; Papa takes down the Pesach dishes, even though Pesach is months away; and all the household possessions are sold. Then, suddenly, Chanah is taken to a gentile aquaintance, who promises to hide the eleven-year-old in her cellar until the war is over.
Behind the Walls is a unique, inspiring account of a young girl's war years. It is the story of fear and hope, of deprivation and courage, of despair and emunah. You will feel as if you are with Chanah throughout her seclusion in the dark cellar and near experience with death, and during her years of spiritual suffering and physical want in a convent. Like Chanah, you will hear her father's words whisper to her throughout her ordeal, "Chanah'leh, you will live. You will continue our family."
POB 43163 Jerusalem 91431
208 Airport Executive Park Nanuet, NY 10954 www. feldheim. com
The Story of a Young Girl's
Spiritual and Physical Survival
during the War Years
Originally published in Hebrew as Me'achorei HaChomos (Feldheim Publishers, 2002)
Translated into English by Miriam Samsonowitz
First published 2006
Copyright © 2006 by Feldheim Publishers
Printed in Israel
A yahrtzheit candle in memory of my family members who were murdered in the Holocaust:
My dear parents,
R Shimon Dovid and Sarah Zucker
My beloved brother,
My husbands parents,
R Yosef and Chana Kaufman
May Hashem avenge their blood.
THIS DIARY OF A young child who survived the trauma of the Holocaust years was written so that coming generations would know of the suffering and the hell we experienced.
I thank the Creator of the universe, Who gave me the emotional strength to withstand the most horrific situations — placing my faith and trust in Him, and for leaving me among the living.
I am ever grateful that I was privileged, together with my husband, to establish generations of children and grandchildren who are going in the way of Hashem.
I want to express my gratitude to:
R' Mordechai Shikrika (who is called "Grandfather" in this book) who was Providence's messenger to rescue us.
R' Zelig and Mrs. Rosa Bamberger from Belgium, who rescued and raised me after the Holocaust.
Mrs. Miriam Cohen, who initially suggested that I write my story and who brought the project to fruition.
And the most beloved last, my husband, who has supported me and stood at my side for over fifty years. May we merit to receive much nachas from our children until 120!
The trees flew past us rapidly. I turned my head to the left and looked at one of the trees, following its rapid movement until it disappeared. Just as quickly, a new tree appeared on the right... I knew which was right and which was left because Maman had taught me. But little Meir still didn't know the difference between them yet, and it didn't matter to him. He was sitting next to me and we were both looking out the window of the moving train. He wasn't exactly sitting; he was really jumping up and down, banging on the closed window! Papa had closed it because Meir had been sticking his head out, even though Maman had warned him it was dangerous. He just kept forgetting, and finally, Papa had closed it. Meir would be safe now, but the tinted windows clouded the beautiful scenery.
Even with the closed windows, Meir was excited about everything he saw. "Look at this, Chanah'le! Look at the cows! They're drinking water from the canal! Look! The cows are eating grass. Look! There's a little dog standing next to those big cows and it's not even afraid of them. Look, look!" He pulled on my dress.
"Enough already! Let go of my nice blue dress." I carefully straightened the pleats, checked my buttons to see they Were still buttoned properly, and adjusted my big sailor's collar. Meir was also wearing a sailor suit: dark blue knickers and a white shirt with a large blue collar. Both of our outfits also sported stylish gold buttons with a small anchor design on each one. Maman had stayed up late the night before, sewing us these lovely outfits in honor of our trip. How wonderful to be traveling on a train! Low bushes dotted with pink flowers grew along the length of the train tracks, and tall, majestic trees were interspersed among them. The train sped along and this scenic view traveled with us. Vast green plains stretched out for miles, it seemed, beyond the shrubs and trees.
It had all started the week before, when Papa had returned home in high spirits. "Hello everyone!" he practically sang, and with a sweeping motion, he lifted Meir up in the air. When my tall father lifted Meir up that way, he would almost reach the ceiling! Then, with Meir still in his arms, he hugged me tightly, and all three of us tumbled onto the large brown sofa. The elegant pillows Maman had embroidered bounced up and down with us.
"I see you have good news," Maman left the kitchen and gave Papa a questioning look.
Papa's eyes danced. "You're right!" he replied, grinning broadly.
Maman sank into the cozy armchair — the one we called "Grandfather's chair." Something out of the ordinary had happened, and she was curious! Cupping her chin in her hands, she looked straight at Papa. "Nu, tell us already!" Maman said. "Don't keep me in suspense for so long!"
But Papa, his eyes still twinkling, refused. "I want you to try to guess. I'll give you a hint — we received something that will make you happy."
Maman straightened up. "A letter?" she said immediately.
"Exactly! How did you guess?" Papa shook his head back and forth in feigned amazement, and pulled a rustling paper out of his pocket. I clapped my hands excitedly and began jumping on the sofa. "A letter!" I cheered. "A letter from Bubby and Zeidy in Poland!"
Papa stroked my hair gently. "Not just one, Chanah'le! Two letters! One from Bubby and Zeidy, and one from Avrum and Leah." Uncle Avrum, Papa's brother, was married to Aunt Leah — Maman's sister. Their names were mentioned in our home frequently, together with the story behind their wedding. After Papa and Maman left Poland to seek their fortune in Belgium, both sets of parents remained in Poland. They missed their children so much and longed to see them once again. But Belgium was miles away and transportation was costly. They decided to unite their families again — Uncle Avrum and Aunt Leah'le married soon after. Once a new Zucker family was formed, both Papa's and Maman's parents reported in their letters that they didn't feel so lonely.
Papa read the letters out loud - first the one from Bubby and Zeidy, and then the letter from Avrum and Leah'le. The news they contained brought tears to Maman's eyes. "Avrum and Leah'le are moving to Eretz Yisrael — how I wish we could see them again and bid them farewell!" she lamented.
want to go to Poland, to see your parents and mine, and to say good-bye to Avrum and Leah'le. Oh, how I miss them!
ur parents don't even know our precious children — whom they prayed for so fervently! Were it not for their tefiltos, we would still be waiting for them until today — our two miracle children! It's only in the merit of our righteous parents' prayers that we merited to receive these two treasures."
Meir shook my hand behind Papa's back. I looked at him and saw that his big, dark eyes — which seemed to have grown even bigger now — were focused on Maman. I looked at Papa, and saw tears in his eyes too. He also missed his family.
I hugged him and whispered, "Papa! Please say yes! Since Meir was born, you keep promising that we'll travel to Poland and finally meet our family."
Papa and Maman frequently told us about the double miracle of how Meir and I were born. They unequivocally believed that it was in the merit of our grandparents' endless supplications, and in the merit of the many blessings our grandparents had received from tzaddikim on our parents' behalf. Our grandparents had traveled from one tzaddik to the next, entreating them to bless our parents with children. The story always ended with Papa and Maman expressing the hope that we would soon travel to Poland so our grandparents would finally see us. "To see that it was worth it," as Maman used to say.
On Shabbos, when Papa told us stories from the parshah about our illustrious forefathers who weren't blessed with children for many years because Hashem wanted to hear their prayers, I thought about my parents. I thought about my grandparents — whom I only knew from pictures. I knew that they had moved heaven and earth so that Papa and Maman would receive the blessing of children, and Hashem had listened to their prayers. Maybe my grandparents were tzaddikim like Avraham Avinu, Sarah Imenu,Yitzchak Avinu and Rivkah Imenu?
In my eyes, my grandparents were holy people, human angels, so to speak. I pictured my grandmothers reciting chapter after chapter of Tehillim with tears streaming from their eyes, and my grandfathers adorned in their talleisim and tefillin from morning until evening.
Meir jumped into Maman's arms, hugged her and said, "Let's go, so they can see us!" Maman smiled at him, but her voice was sad. "Our parents have aged so much — it's even an effort for them to write to us," she told Papa.
All the laughter and joy that had entered our home with Papa suddenly dissipated. Papa tried to stay positive. "Don't worry so much, Sarah," he said. "Let's think about it; let's try to find a way. Maybe we really will manage to make the trip to Poland..."
The shimmering bolt of deep blue material spread out on the table caught my eye immediately. The fabric was simply magnificent! Maman's sewing jobs were mainly alterations — this fabric must be for us! "Maman, is this for me?" I asked. "Are you sewing me a new dress?"
"Yes, my Chanah'le," Maman stroked my cheek affectionately. "A new dress for you and a matching outfit for Meir. We'll be visiting Uncle Yankel and his family soon, and the two of you must look like a prince and princess!"
Papa laughed. "They're a prince and princess already, Sarah, even without fancy clothing."
"Of course they are," agreed Maman. "You and I know it,
out I want it to be obvious to everyone who sees them..."
If I'm a princess and you're my mother — then you're a
queen," I reached the logical conclusion. Maman smiled and
hugged me tightly. "Yes, Chanah'le, you turned me into a queen. You and Meir made me and Papa into a king and a queen, and our home into a palace."
"But that's only how it seems," Papa quickly added his reservation. "Hashem is our true King. He is the King of all kings."
"He is the King in Heaven and you are the king in the house," I said, but Papa repeated gently, but firmly, "No, my Chanah'le. Hashem is the King in the Heavens and on earth. His Glory fills the world and He exists in every place."
And now we were on our way to Uncle Yankel, dressed like a prince and princess, reclining on red upholstered chairs in the long, speeding train. Papa and Maman had decided to travel first to Uncle Yankel — who lived with his family in nearby Mellis — and to plan a joint trip to Poland.
The steady clickety-clack of the train's wheels on the tracks seemed to be singing my personal song: "We're traveling to Uncle Yankel, traveling to Uncle Yankel... and soon we'll travel to Poland, too! To Poland, too!" Papa and Maman, sitting on the bench facing me, were chuckling quietly. Could it be that they were laughing at me because I kept straightening out my new clothes and Meir's?
Just thinking about our new clothing made me swell with happiness. "Oh, Maman, the outfits are so beautiful!" I exclaimed.
"The children who are wearing them are beautiful," Maman answered with a glowing smile. "The clothes just add a little more color to your precious faces."
The conductor passed through our car and checked the tickets. He promised that we would reach Mellis in exactly half an hour. "You have to eat now," Maman told us when she heard that. But how could we eat when we were so excited? Meir and I tried to listen to Maman. We sat down in I comfortable seats and held our sandwiches. But we didn't sit for long! The view from the windows was more en-icing. We stood glued to the glass panes, admiring the pic-teuresque villages. Children stood next to the small houses waved at the passing train — at us! We were finally traveling! The train kept singing, "Traveling to Uncle Yankel! Traveling to Uncle Yankel!"
Slowly the fields and country meadows disappeared and signs of city life took their place. We now saw towering apartment buildings and crowded houses instead of the quaint village cottages and their wide courtyards. With a grinding halt, the train pulled into the station. We had arrived! Papa and Maman carefully pulled down the suitcases from the overhead compartments. Maman gave us our coats to put on, and even though it wasn't cold outside, we didn't protest. A feeling of anticipation welled up inside of us. We had arrived at Mellis!
Uncle Yankel and Aunt Esti were waiting for us at the platform with Rivkah'le, their youngest daughter. I looked at Rivkah'le in amazement. Was this the "little Rivkah'le" that Maman and Papa always spoke about? But she was not a little girl — she was a real young lady. In the commotion of the reunion, and amid the tears of excitement, Rivkah'le picked me up and hugged me warmly.
"Come, the wagon is waiting," my uncle pressed us. The adults lifted us and the suitcases up, and then joined us in the wagon. Meir was a little uncomfortable around all the unfamiliar faces, but I was delighted to be next to Rivkah'le and my confidence soared.
Our uncle and aunt's children and grandchildren were waiting in their house. The oldest grandchild was Meir's age, and the younger ones were all adorable babies. All of them doted on me and handsome Meir, but I especially took to the cute babies — they were so sweet! I loved Rivkah'le very much too; she took me with her wherever she went, played with me and told me stories.
It was a week of laughter, fun and pampering. During the week, a decision was made: Uncle Yankel, Aunt Esti and Rivkah'le would travel together with us to Poland, b'ezras Hashem. "I want to take Rivkah'le," Aunt Esti said. "Maybe we'll find a shidduch for her in Poland. It's so hard to find a proper shidduch in Belgium."
What's a shidduch? I wondered. And why can't you find one here in Belgium? I didn't really need an answer, though — the main thing was that Rivkah'le would be traveling with us to Poland!
The trip was planned for next year, around Sukkos time. My parents and uncle and aunt had already saved up part of the money for the trip, and from now on, we would try to save every penny. Meir and I decided, between ourselves, not to ask Papa and Maman to buy us anything. We would be happy with whatever they'd give us. As long as there would be money to cover the trip, that would be enough for us! Papa said he would take a loan to complete the sum, but Maman was against it. "A loan has to be repaid at the end," she reminded him. "It's better to save as much as possible and not need to take a loan."
Meir and I decided to apply ourselves to our studies diligently, so we wouldn't be embarrassed when we would meet our cousins in Poland. We would show them that even in Belgium we know how to be good Jews! Since we were both good students, it wasn't hard to keep this promise. In addition to our studies in school, Maman sat with me every day.
She taught me how to daven and told me stories from the Parashah. Meir also learned much more than before. We did everything with such joy. Happiness permeated our home, climaxing toward evening, when Papa returned home from work. He came home later than usual, because he had taken on a second job to pay for our trip. He would also bring home sewing jobs for Maman for the same reason. At the end of the day, he was very tired, but he still found the strength to sit with us on the brown sofa. Meir and I sat on either side of him, and Maman sat opposite us in the old, sturdy armchair. That's how we spent every evening — our small and united family.
"War Is a Terrible Thing
Something happened. Something bad. Papa had stopped singing, and Maman's eyes were full of sorrow. We weren't going to make our long-awaited trip to Poland after all!
"But, Maman, why?" I asked worriedly, refusing to believe. The disappointment was too deep. After all the plans, all the extra work, all our excited anticipation — how could they just cancel the trip? Won't we ever get to see our grandparents and uncles and aunts? No! It can't be!
"Because war broke out," Maman said, wiping away her tears.
"War? What is war? I want to travel to Poland!" I protested. "So what if there's war?"
"Chanah'le, you don't understand. War is a terrible thing," Maman explained, her voice full of grief.
We stopped singing, laughing and playing. We were frightened, the adults just as much as the children.
Meir and I sat almost every day on the sofa. Sometimes I would read him a story, but we spent most of the time talking quietly, clinging to each other.
"You Must Go"
I have the entire sum!" Maman told Papa cheerily, as if telling him good news. But then she immediately erupted in wracking sobs, her whole body shaking. Instead of calming her down, Papa wept together with her. Meir and I clung to each other on the blanket, bewildered and scared. Maman's sobbing was nothing new. Even before the war she would cry — when she told us a sad story, when she received a letter from Poland, or when she lit the Shabbos candles. But Papa's weeping frightened us. Our big, strong Papa was crying! I had never seen him cry, and now he was sobbing heavily. I was terrified.
Papa got up from the crate he was sitting on and approached us. He hugged me tightly and said in a trembling voice, "Chanah, my Chanah'le, you will live! You will remember us. You will be the continuation of our family! My Chanah'le, you are a Jewish girl. Never, ever, forget that you are a Jew."
"Papa, what are you talking about? What do you mean? Papa, I don't understand what you're saying."
Papa, still holding me close, looked at me with tear-filled eyes, eyes that once twinkled with constant laughter and joy. "Chanah'le, my Chanah'le," he whispered, his voice cracking. He was quiet for a few seconds — long, drawn-out seconds. Then he inhaled deeply and spoke again. This time his voice was determined and strong. "I'm telling you, I'm commanding you, I'm pleading with you: You will live! You must live!"
I realized something else was changing. The force in Papa's voice made that very clear. But what? And why specifically would I live through this war? And of course I know I'm a Jewish girl! Still bewildered, I looked at Maman, hoping for an explanation.
"Maman, will you tell me what Papa means? Please, Maman," I pleaded. Maman didn't say a word. She bit her lips and remained silent. Her terrifying sobs had already stopped, but her tears continued to flow silently down her cheeks.
Above Maman's head was a lighter square on the wall, where a picture had hung just days before. It, too, had been sold along with all of our belongings. Suddenly, that square appeared to be shining with a light that wasn't there before. A light from another world. I closed my eyes tightly so I wouldn't see that frightening light. When I opened them, Papa was looking straight at me. He continued to bid me, pleadingly, "Chanah'le, you will live! Remember us. You will be our continuity. My Chanah'le, you are a Jew. You are a Bas Yisrael. You must never forget this, no matter where you are."
Maybe Meir knows what's going on here? I thought. It seemed to me that everyone understood what was happening besides me. Meir was only seven, but he was wise beyond his years and at times knew how to explain things that I didn't understand.
"Meir, what does Papa want from me?" I whispered. But this time he had no explanation to offer me. He just said, "Chanah'le, I'm scared. I'm so afraid. Hold me tight, don't let anyone take me. Watch over me! You're my big sister." "Don't be afraid, Meir. I'll watch you. I promise."
Maman made an effort to change the heavy mood. "Today we are sleeping in our beds!" she announced, trying to sound cheerful. Lately, we had been sleeping in our hiding places, but the beds were still in our house. The doorman of our building had already bought them, but he was only supposed to take them the next day. Meir clapped his hands and called out, "Sleeping in a bed! Sleeping in a bed!" But his cheers were hollow, without real joy.
I lay alert in my bed that night, unable to fall asleep. Numerous questions preyed on my mind, questions that had no answers. Why had Papa spoken like that to me? Why weren't we sleeping in our hiding places? Has the danger already passed? It certainly didn't seem like it had. Something strange was happening here. Suddenly, I felt Maman's hand stroking my face, and I felt the soft touch of her lips on my forehead. I pretended to be sleeping. I wanted Maman to come back and pat me again and give me another kiss.
She didn't pat Meir's face or kiss him, only me. Why? What happened? I couldn't understand why Maman was still awake. It must have been past midnight! Suddenly, Papa was next to me too. He also patted my face lovingly, and then I felt tears falling on my face — my parents' tears. Why? I knew they also loved Meir dearly. So why were they only crying next to my bed? Was something terrible about to happen to me, just to me?
They're not telling me anything, they're not explaining a thing. Why aren't they telling me what's happening? Papa and Maman always explain everything to us, they share things with us. But this time, there has not been one word of explanation. Only hugs and sobs and Papa's mysterious words.
What did Papa mean when he said that I would live? We'll all live, b'ezras Hashem. Does Papa think that... chas v'shalom... enough! I'm not going to think about it. But what about Meir? Why didn't Papa tell him also, "You will live"? Why only me?
Papa and Maman had already left the room, but I still couldn't fall asleep. I tossed and turned in my "real bed;" I hadn't slept in a bed in a long time, but I was too troubled to enjoy the comfort. All of our linens had already been sold. Maman had covered our beds with a piece of old material that she used to cover crates in the attic. "Meir, Meir," I whispered. He didn't answer. Apparently, he had fallen asleep quickly on the comfortable bed. And now I wanted him to be up... I tried to speak to him, to let out some of my anxiety. How could he sleep at such a tense time? My hands were cold, my feet were numb, my heart was pounding. Why wasn't the pounding of my heart waking Meir up?
I was afraid to move. "Meir, Meir," I whispered a little more loudly. Again, Meir didn't respond. I wanted to climb on his bed and shake him, but I simply couldn't get out of bed. I was frozen in place.
I must have fallen asleep, because I awoke suddenly. Maman was hugging me tightly and whispering in my ear, "Wake up, Chanah'le, wake up quietly."
"But Maman, it's still dark," I protested.
"Shhh ...don't wake up Meir. Get up quietly and come to the other room."
I crawled out of my bed, throwing a quick glance at Meir's bed. He lay quietly and didn't move. Was he in a deep sleep, or maybe just pretending? I restrained myself and didn't approach him. I went straight to the living room, where Maman was waiting for me. "Come, put on all the clothes I prepared for you here. We're going," she whispered.
"We're going, Maman? Where? In the middle of the night? But there's a curfew! And what about Meir?"
Maman gently placed her finger on my lips. I knew that meant I should keep quiet. I began to dress. How many outfits did Maman lay out here? "Should I wear all these clothes?" I asked in surprise. "All of them, one on top of the other?"
Maman nodded, and without a word, I put on all the clothes. It was a little difficult, but I didn't ask any more questions.
"Mi, nu, faster. Time is passing, my precious child," Maman whispered, helping me put on yet another layer. "Take this," she gave me a small package. "There is a blanket here, and the pillow that you love." She took my hand in her hand and brought me to the door. There was Papa, standing in the entrance. He placed his hands on my head and blessed me, as if it was Shabbos night after Kiddush. Then he bent down and hugged me, and I felt his wet face. Suddenly I began to understand, and a dreadful fear overcame me. "I don't want to go! I want to be with you! We all have to stay together!"
But Papa put me down and gently steered me out the front door. I held on to him with all my might. "I don't want to leave! I'm only going with you!"
"You Must Go"
"Chanah'le, you must go. You have to live," Papa whispered to me, his voice trembling. Maman pulled my hand. "Come, come already." As we went down the stairs, I felt my feet moving forward, but my heart remained behind with Papa. He stood in the doorway and wept. Only now did I understand what Papa told me in the evening. His words were words of farewell.
We left out courtyard and went into the street. Darkness. Total darkness — aside from the twinkling stars. I lifted my eyes to the stars above. "Hashem in Heaven, do You let children be separated from their parents?" I asked soundlessly. Countless stars sparkled before my eyes. I never knew there could be so many stars in the skies of Brussels like the millions of stars in Spa — a resort area we used to travel to for our yearly vacation.
We hugged the buildings as we walked, scuffing our toes on the sidewalk stones to feel our way in the dark. Oh, how I hoped no soldier would pass by now! It was prohibited to be outside during curfew hours. I felt the icy wind whipping through my many layers of clothing. It was cold, biting cold. The air was frigid, but we continued on our way without stopping. Interesting — I always thought I knew our street very well. I thought I could walk down it confidently — even with my eyes closed. And now, in the darkness of night, I realized that this was not true. I don't even know where I am, and I must feel with my feet and be careful not to fall. "Maman, Maman," I pulled on her arm. But Maman hushed me, "Quiet, Chanah'le, don't speak in the street."
We turned another corner. Some of the cobblestone on this street were straight, and others were broken. Now we had to be twice as careful! Are we going to Irena's house, I wondered. The cobblestones on our street were also old and crooked. No, we can't be going to Irena — when we left the house, we turned left, not right. Now we turned into another street. Maman patted the walls of the building next to us until she found a door. The door wasn't locked. Maman opened it quietly, and we entered the stairwell. I followed Maman up the stairs and then she knocked softly, three times, on the apartment door. The door opened immediately and we walked in.
A dim light shone in the house. Mrs. Salsky was waiting for us here — the non-Jewish lady who used to launder our clothes every week. She looked at us worriedly. "Did anyone see you coming here? Did anyone see you on the street?"
"The street was completely deserted," Maman reassured her. "No one is walking around during these hours. Even the guards weren't out on such a cold night."
Mrs. Salsky looked at me and shook her head. Then she turned to Maman and said, "Nu, what do you have for her?"
With a trembling hand, Maman took out a small bag from her coat pocket. I recognized the bag immediately — that pouch contained all the money Maman and Papa had saved up for our trip to Poland. Maman had also kept the money she had received from selling all of our household goods in that bag. Maman placed the bag in Mrs. Salsky's hands and whispered, "After the war, you will receive double this amount. My father will send the money from abroad. The main thing is that you carefully watch over my child!"
Where would Maman receive double this amount from after the war? How could my grandfather send money? From conversations I overheard in the house, I knew that my grandparents didn't have money. And here, in this bag, were all of Papa and Maman's possessions. I hoped they didn't put everything in the bag; I hoped they saved something to buy food with. But I didn't say anything. I didn't dare utter a word. Then Maman looked at me, and I mustered my courage. I whispered to her in Yiddish, "But Maman, you said that we would buy tickets with this money and escape to France!"
Maman wrapped me in a warm embrace. "No, my child. France was also conquered. We have nowhere to go."
Mrs. Salsky grasped my hand and we went down, together with Maman, to her cellar. In her neighborhood, every family had their own private cellar, not a large communal cellar as we had in our building.
I pulled my hand away from Mrs. Salsky's and clutched Maman with both my hands. "Maman, don't leave me!"
Maman spoke calmly. "Be a good, quiet girl, Chanah'le. It's forbidden for the neighbors to know that you're here. You may not make any noise. During the day, you will be here alone, and every night Mrs. Salsky will come down to you. She will bring you food and drinks, and she will empty the pail. Believe me, Chanah'le, it's for your good! Mrs. Salsky will watch you until the end of the war. After the war, Papa and I will come and take you home. Until then, we won't be able to meet. I cannot come and visit you here — it might endanger you and me."
"Maman!" I sobbed. "Maman! Don't leave me alone!"
But Maman only hugged me and said, "There is no other choice, Chanah'le, it's better this way. It's safer."
"But why only me? Why did you only bring me here? What about Meir? Why can't both of us stay together?"
Maman's eyes grew dark and serious when she answered, "No, Chanah'le, it's impossible. Meir had a bris milah. Enough, Chanah'le, be a good, quiet girl. Wait for us here patiently. We will come! When the war is over, we will come back for you."
Another hug and another kiss, one last hug, and that was it. I was alone. Alone. No one was with me.
I sat on the chair and cried. For a long time I sat and cried, until my body felt like stone. The tiny stump of candle that Mrs. Salsky had left in the cellar was about to go out. I began to peel off the many layers of clothing I was wearing, hoping to undress while I still had light. Afterwards, I lay down in bed. The bed was small, and the blanket was thin. What luck that Maman packed me another blanket. It wasn't a feather quilt — that Maman had already sold — but I figured that two blankets together would keep me warm. I hugged my beloved pillow and cried until the stump of the candle burned out. It was pitch black in the cellar, and cold, oh so cold. I was very cold even under both my blankets. I got out of bed and felt around for the chair, where all my clothes were. I put them on again and crawled back under the covers. Now I wasn't cold anymore, and I fell asleep while crying.
When I woke up, it was still dark. I was scared. Why is it so dark here? I held up my hand in front of my eyes, and I could barely see it. I sat up in bed, willing my eyes to see through the darkness, but to no avail. A strange weakness overcame me. Despite doing nothing, I felt drained. I lay down again, and fell asleep right away.
Again I awoke to darkness. What time was it now? Day? Night? Evening? It seemed an eternity since Maman had left me alone, all alone.
Beginning chapters from Behind the Walls
by Miriam Cohen
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