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By Michael Fine
© Michael Fine 2020
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
She was a nobody, a flirt who was still unmarried when the Germans came, back in 1939, and can you believe it, she was probably glad when they returned, at least at first. Hannah Singer had been only seven the first time the Germans came, in 1915, but she thought the Germans were so much more polite than the Russians and the Poles, and so much better looking. At seven, Hannah didn’t understand wars or politics, of course, and didn’t understand the meaning of the words and ideas that were thrown about then – The Kingdom of Poland, the Czar, the Central Powers, Zionism, the three partitions, Socialism, Communism, Bolsheviks, Arch Duke Ferdinand – because who among us, even then, knew what was good or bad for the Jews. The Poles didn’t have real uniforms and their clothes were often muddy. The Russians were boors. They drank too much, swore and spat in the streets and acted like they had a right to take what they wanted, even though they didn’t seem to know what street they were on or where they were going. But the Germans had nice manners. Please and thank you. They would hold the door for a woman, even a Jew. They asked permission to come into a store or business to look around. And we could usually understand them, more or less, even though the language they spoke seemed so formal and stiff.
In any case, the Russians disappeared when Hannah was a girl, even though we still called where we lived Russia-Poland. Hannah, who had a gift for languages, remembered Russian anyway. She learned German, formal German, while the Germans occupied Mazovia. We could all speak a little Polish, maybe even more than a little, which we used when the working people and farmers came to Biezun on market days, but we didn’t speak it at home unless someone was telling a joke. Treif. Unclean. Polish felt unclean. Yiddish was the mamaloshen, the mother tongue. We lived and breathed and prayed and thought and joked in Yiddish, even though we spoke other languages. Hannah spoke Yiddish, of course, and read Hebrew. She learned Spanish and French in the Gymnasium. Seven languages. Most of us only spoke three or four languages, and only one or two well. That’s how it was. Our life then. Complicated. The life that had been given us. We didn’t give any of it a second thought.
Hannah was ten when the Germans disappeared in 1918. Later, we learned that the Central Powers had intended to empty Mazovia of Jews and Poles and settle Germans from the Eastern Provinces in what were then our homes, after they won the war. What the Central Powers planned was nothing, of course, compared to what the next German government planned, and did. Who could have imagined?
Even in Mazovia, there were ethnic Germans, who lived alongside the Poles and the Jews, for hundreds of years. The Jews were the inn keepers and the grain dealers. The Germans were the bankers and the bureaucrats. And the Poles worked the land. Nobody remembered how the Germans and the Jews came to be in Mazovia, how we each were the allies of the Polish Kings, once upon a time, and had been sent to subjugate and modernize a backward land of peasants and drunken noblemen who had allied with the Polish Church, and how we each were the wedge those kings used to split the church and the nobles apart, and wrest power away from local people, to create riches for themselves. Except the Poles. The Poles remembered. Someplace deep inside themselves. They saw our granted rights, our separate laws, and our courts, and even the miserable lives we eked out with the very limited franchises we had been given as privileges, that had been taken away from them by guile and the force of arms, and they never forgot. Then, we thought to ourselves, the Poles are a sad people to be avoided, even if they are our neighbors, our customers, sometimes our friends and sometimes even lovers. To Hannah, and to the rest of us, the Germans were the people of culture and of modernity, and we looked up to those Germans, both those who lived nearby as our neighbors and those who came in uniform in 1915 and then left again after the Armistice, as the people we wanted to be.
Hannah was the youngest child of eight, a golden girl. Her maternal grandparents (my grandfather’s brother was her grandfather’s cousin) owned inns in Ciechanow and Plonsk and stables in both places. People of means. They set her parents up in business in Biezun, as dry-goods merchants and dealers in vodka in a little market town twenty-five kilometers away that was surrounded by wheat fields. The rich earth made for good harvests. The farmers came to Biezun on market days, and all Hannah’s father had to do was to be in the right place, on the right day, keep stock on his shelves, and he could make a living.
Maybe it was Hannah’s mother, who had grown up around a little money and had high expectations of a better life. Maybe it was living in a small place and meeting those German soldiers, who had such nice uniforms and good manners and spoke politely during the war years. Maybe it was the children she played with in that small town, the children of the banker and the clerk of courts, who were as different from the Poles as Hannah was, but in a different way. Whatever it was, Hannah came out flighty and insubstantial. She chattered on and on. She liked pretty things. She spoke perfect German and a good Polish and even a decent Russian, but she never read a book.
Not that life was any picnic during the first war. Shortages. Men conscripted for labor. Horses requisitioned. Stores emptied in support of the war effort. People went hungry enough to eat uncooked groats. But the Germans were different from the Russians in Galicia. They knew not to starve and kill us and drive us to support their enemy. We survived. That Jews were starved and murdered or chased out of Galicia by the Russians wasn’t lost on us. That Austria, the one country to our east and south, that gave Jews the time of day, was German speaking wasn’t lost on us either.
Girls didn’t go to study then the way boys did. Boys went to cheder from age three in Radzanow and from age ten to yeshiva in Raciaz. But girls learned at home or in the local public school and then only until age twelve. Reading and writing. Sewing and simple arithmetic. In bigger places the Jewish community had schools for girls and the children of working people, but Biezun had only a little synagogue and a little mikvah but no school. The girls learned siddur Hebrew from the rebutzin in the Synagogue after the public school was done.
But the local school wasn’t good enough for Hannah. She was a nobody in her school. She wore pretty dresses. She flitted from place to place and made friends with the German kids and the Polish kids, as if there was no difference between us. She chattered on in those languages and she even began to look like the other children in Biezun. She didn’t have blond hair, exactly. But she played outside in the spring and summer, and her brown hair lightened and developed chestnut streaks, and she never had the brooding expression, eyes downcast, of the rest of her people. We were visitors in this land, and we knew it. Mazovia had only opened to Jews a hundred and fifty years before, and some cities and counties were still off limits. The Church hated and feared us. We could all be gone in a minute, and somewhere in our souls we knew that. But Hannah didn’t seem to understand, as if our lives and our history didn’t apply to her. She was a lightweight, a butterfly, pretty but insubstantial. And that was all she wanted from life.
Then one day in 1918, without warning or explanation, Hannah was gone. She had gone to live in Ciechanow, to live with her grandparents and go to Gymnasium. A Jew from Biezun, studying at a Polish gymnasium with the Polish and the German girls! Haskalah thinking had infected our communities thirty years before. Yeshiva students from all over Poland rebelled, threw over their traditions and went to work in factories and to write socialist tracts. Or started smoking cigarettes and wearing berets. Or went off to America. Or became labor Zionists, learned to farm and went off to Palestine. So, we were used to a certain amount of disruption. But a young girl from Biezun, going to a Polish gymnasium where she’d learn French and read Goethe? All of us expected to see her come back in a Daimler limousine, wearing furs, on the arm of a blond man. If she ever came back at all. Bad enough that she had no substance. Worse that she would soon be lost to her family, our people and our history.
So, we forgot about her. The first war ended. The Germans went away. The Second Polish Republic came into existence in November 1918 and Pilsudski came back from exile. The Russians didn’t come back to Poland until 1939, and they never came back to Mazovia. Some of our cousins left for America and Canada. Others went to Argentina. One or two went to Palestine after all. For five minutes we thought Poland might be good for the Jews again.
For five minutes. Then Lithuania attacked Poland, Russia attached Poland, the Ukraine used its own five minutes as an independent nation to attack Poland, and Czechoslovakia attacked Poland, and everyone who was anyone formed a political party, and all the parties began to fight with one another.
Hannah disappeared from our lives. As the years passed we heard this and that, whispers about a romance with a financier and an army officer after the Coup. And then something about singing in the Opera. But no wedding. No husband and family. Nothing. No word. She was nobody we thought about anymore.
This happened in our families from time to time. And it was exactly what we expected, knowing Hannah as she grew up. It wasn’t that there wasn’t a brain in the head or a heart in the chest. It was more like there was nothing Hannah needed to do, and no reason for Hannah to make one choice or the other. As if she had no memory, no conscience, no history, no connection and no guilt. She spoke seven languages. She could be whomever she wanted to be, whenever she wanted to be that person. Or nobody at all.
And then, in 1938, just before the world came apart, a different Hannah returned to Biezun. She came alone. She lived in her parent’s house, which was the largest house in our town, a yellow wood frame wooden house with a big porch just off the town square. The rest of the Jewish community lived on and around Ciechanow Street as it went east – small squat wooden houses, packed together, nestled in little lanes and back alleys just before our little town emptied into the wheat and barley fields that surrounded us. The synagogue and mikvah was around the corner, on the far side of the town square, just steps away. The town hall was on the square as was the Catholic Church, which was made of stone and by far the biggest building in town. Our lives were paced by its bells, which rang on the hour, and rang most on Sundays and on market days.
Hannah appeared in Biezun one fall, just after the town lights started coming in the early evening when the days had shortened, just after electrification. We saw her sitting on one of the rough-hewn wooden benches in the town square on days when there was no market. Or we saw her sitting on the porch of her parent’s house. She wore the plain dark dresses and square black shoes of the observant women and of the Polish war widows who were called to Mass every morning by the bells. She had her own hair, not a wig, so it wasn’t like she’d become observant and married. There were rumors of a love affair with one of Pidiluski’s colonels, a married man, and of a child who had died in infancy, but that’s all they were, rumors. Hannah didn’t talk much, and she certainly didn’t talk about her life.
Sometimes a woman would join her on the bench in the town square, a German woman who had also gone to Gymnasium in Ciechanow.
Hannah was at the table when her large and boisterous family sat down for Shabbos dinner or on Rosh Hashanah or at Pesach, but she didn’t talk much. Her younger cousins watched her with a certain kind of awe. She had gone into the world and returned. She was lost to us but came back, not like the cousins, aunts and uncles who had gone bravely off to America, Canada, Argentina or Palestine, and who didn’t come back but sent letters and packages and stories of their lives in those places. Not like them at all. What did all this mean?
By the time Hannah returned, however, we were filled with foreboding. Pilsudski died in 1935 and the National Democrats, the Endejka, with their quotas, their cold pogrom and their young thugs, returned. It was impossible to ignore what was going on in Germany, in that elegant, sophisticated, modern nation just to our west, which gave encouragement and succor to the many anti-Semites in Poland, and was a difficult distraction to a disorganized, hungry nation that yearned for a strongman, that wanted control and order more than it wanted diversity, modernity, and light.
Pilsudski made a deal with the Nazis in 1934, the German Polish Non-Aggression Pact. Then Krystallnacht happened in November of 1938. We worried about Hitler and the Jews, of course. But Germany was still another country. We had plenty of Anti-Semites at home. And it was still the Depression, so not everyone had enough to eat.
Sometimes Hannah could be seen in the back women’s gallery for Minhah-Maariv, the afternoon and evening prayers, not davening, not praying, but just sitting quietly by herself. She’d leave before the others, so almost no one knew she had been there. Almost. On those late fall and winter nights, she could be seen walking home under the huge elms that grew around the town square as the new electric lights came on, and as the bells from the Catholic Church tolled six times.
And then disaster. 1939. The German Polish Non-Aggression Act with Hitler’s idea of a joke. Hitler and Stalin made a secret pact on August 23, 1939 and partitioned Poland again for the fourth time, dividing it amongst themselves.
One week later, on September 1, 1939, the German tanks rolled into Mazovia. By September 4th the Germans had gone past Biezun and taken Ciechanow on their way to Warsaw. On September 10th the Einsatzgruppe V was looting Jewish homes and synagogues in Ciechanow. They arrested several hundred Jews as well as the local intelligentsia, such as it was — school teachers, priests, ministers, and postal clerks and lawyers — took them to the village of Oscislawo, machine gunned them all, and then buried them in a mass grave. By October 6 Poland had been conquered and divided again. There was no surrender. Just annexation – the west went to Germany, the east to Russia, with little pieces chipped off for Lithuania and Slovakia.
We saw the bombers flying over. It took only two weeks for the Germans to appear in Biezun, after the Gestapo set up shop in Ciechanow and Plonsk. We went about our business. We were a little town, not very important, surrounded by wheat fields, on no major road. For a while we thought the Germans might just forget us. But that was not to be.
The Germans remembered the plan for Mazovia made during the first war, the plan to empty Mazovia of Poles and Jews so that it could be given to Germans from the west, and so Mazovia’s wheat fields could feed the Reich and the Aryan race. So, the Gestapo came to Mazovia first. In late October a German truck with loudspeakers rolled into Biezun, followed by two troop carriers. The voice over the loudspeaker ordered all Jews to the town square. The trucks parked in front of the synagogue. Not that there was anything unclear about who the Gestapo was and what they wanted.
Register first. Give us a list of every man, woman and child. Yellow stars. Armbands and a big yellow star to be worn on the left chest and back. The Jewish stores and businesses were all immediately closed.
We were going to be moved to Ciechanow. That’s what we heard. We put on the yellow stars and we stayed in our homes. Young men roamed the streets at night drunk, calling to one another, sometimes saying our names, sometimes saying the names of the Jewish girls they knew.
In October they arrested the schoolteachers and all the seventeen and eighteen-year olds, Jews and Poles alike, and took them away. They cut the salaries of all Jews who earned a salary by sixty percent. We could only go to the market for an hour, on Tuesdays. That first winter there were still apples, potatoes and carrots from the gardens, of course, from our own gardens and the root cellars of the peasants and wheat farmers, but they were gone by spring.
When we had to go out we walked quickly, with our heads down.
We knew about the concentration camps in Germany and how Jews were sent there after Krystallnacht – but that had happened in Germany, a different country, until it wasn’t. Some people believed that Warsaw was safer. I don’t know why. Some people fled east, hoping to cross the border with Russia. But there really was no escape. Our parents wrote letters to family in Argentina, Canada, England, and America, coded messages. Thank you for telling us about your recent success. We hope to see you in the New Year, the letters said. Send bread and salt, the letters said. Do anything and everything you can to get us out. Now. We are starving, the letters meant. But Hitler got his hands on the post office and stopped the mail of the Jews. They called that postsperrem. Block the post. Those letters never arrived.
It didn’t matter.
The winter of 1939 into 1940 was long and cold. The wind howled into Biezun from the wheat fields. There was still a little wood that could be bought and burned but no coal – the Nazis took it all. And the spring wasn’t real to us that year. Spring has little meaning when you are locked in your own house, and can’t see branches get red and then grow leaves in the thickets, or see the grass turn green, or let the sun fall on your arms or back, or walk without shoes in the brooks and streams that are teeming with newts and salamanders, with pollywogs and then frogs and toads.
We didn’t think about it when we saw Hannah walking by herself after sunset. She had a dark bonnet and a dark grey cape, and she kept her head down and stayed close to the houses and walked in the shadows of the roofs as she walked from house to house. She walked in the town square as she always had, but she walked there under the huge elms just a few minutes before dusk just before the lights came on. Later, when the Gestapo turned the lights off, she walked under those elms after dark as well. When you saw her, just a shadow moving quickly to avoid the light, when you saw a little movement out of the corner of your eye, you wondered if you had seen a ghost. When you looked, nobody was there.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, in the hours just before dawn, before even the birds awoke, after the moon had set and or on nights with no moon, trucks would come down the Ciechanow road slowly, without headlights. In the morning a house would be empty. We didn’t speak about it. The choices weren’t good ones. Run to Warsaw. Safety, perhaps in numbers. Perhaps. But people were starving in the Warsaw Ghetto. Harder to beg or buy a carrot or a potato or to steal a chicken. Find a farmer to hide you. Hide in the woods. Or stay, be deported, and die.
Then one night just before Pesach in April of 1941, after we had almost survived more than a year and a half of living on air, on a knife edge, there was a soft knock on the door after midnight, the knock of a gloved hand. We lived in fear of the pounding on the door of the Gestapo, who would come to interrogate with the least provocation, after a Jew had been seen talking to a Pole or, perish the thought, to a German; after a gallon of gas had gone missing from a petrol station; when a Jewish mechanic was caught working on the car of a Polish policeman; when a Pole had been seen near the Jewish section with two pounds of flour, more than the allotment for his family — or after a family had disappeared.
“Wer ist da?” said my father, who was still awake, whispering in German. Who’s there?
“Keyner,” whispered the voice back, in Yiddish. Nobody.
My father opened the door.
“Hannahala!” he said, and rushed Hannah inside.
It was a different Hannah. This Hannah was thin, like the rest of us. She wore the grey cape and the dark hat we had seen her in at dusk when she walked close to the buildings. No yellow stars. She looked right at my father, which was something women didn’t ever do them, look directly at men who weren’t their husbands, but there was no time to waste and she needed him to hear her and move quickly.
“Tonight,” Hannah said. “Now.”
“To where?” my father said.
“The Red Forest is safest. But we can try for Warsaw. The Gestapo is in Ciechanow and Plonsk. The ghetto in Nowy Dwor is no better. You know that.”
“And there are people?…” my father said.
“There is no one.” Hannah said. “I can get you out of Biezun. After that you are on your own. But winter has passed. You work with your hands. You will go under a truckload of straw. The Nazis can’t eat straw. Not even them.”
“To the Red Forest, then,” my father said. He turned to my mother. “Wake and dress the children,” he said, not realizing I was already awake.
“I am a Russian woman,” Hannah said. “With four Russian children, who is in Poland twenty years, married to a Jew who I met during the last war, when he fought for Austria. My husband is in the Strzegowo Ghetto. You found me by accident, through a cousin who lives in Radzanow, when you were trying to sell furniture and learned I knew someone with a truck. You don’t know my name or where I live.”
“I understand,” my father said.
“Who arranged all this?” Hannah said.
“Nobody,” my father said. “Nobody I know.”
Hannah came with us in the truck. She sat with the driver. She had removed her hat and put on a bright red kerchief over her hair like the kerchiefs that wives of Polish farmers preferred.
We arranged ourselves under the straw. All we took with us was a satchel or two for clothing. We took a hatchet and knives and matches and candles and enough food for two days, and we each wore three changes of clothes, one on top of the other. The truck drove without headlights until dawn, when it turned into a side road and pulled off the road under a grove of trees. And we jumped out.
My father never got a chance to ask Hannah anything about what had happened in her life, or what brought her back to Biezun. What had changed her? We would never learn the answer to that question.
We found a thickly wooded little hilltop near a farmer’s field about two days walk from where we had been dropped , and built a shelter for ourselves out of rocks, branches and tree-bark, and dug into the hillside to make a cave for ourselves in a rocky north-facing ravine far from any road. There was a stream at the bottom of the ravine for water. We learned to steal a little from the fields of surrounding farms – a little, enough to feed ourselves but too little for the farmer to notice. We learned to eat tree bark and grass and learned how to trap squirrels and eat snakes. My mother, who spoke good Polish, would walk up to farms, claiming to be a Polish woman whose husband was a schoolteacher and had been shot by the Gestapo, looking for work. The suffering of the Polish people was like our suffering, only different. Sometimes she brought back a chicken. Most often they shoo’d her away, afraid of who she might be, or just afraid.
Hannah likely died in November of 1942. The remaining Jewish population of Biezun was moved to the Ghetto in Ciechanow in July of 1942. Most of the 4500 Jews of Ciechanow had already been shipped to labor camps or other Ghettos and would end up in Auschwitz. In November of 1942 all the remaining inhabitants of Ciechanow Ghetto, 1800 souls, were marched into the Red Forest, machine-gunned, and then buried in a mass grave. We heard the gunfire and then the earth movers, but we didn’t go to look.
One day in March of 1943 my father went out to scavenge for food and never came back. Sixty years later, when the archives of the Ciechanow Gestapo were opened for public view, I learned that my father had been murdered by a Polish farmer, clubbed to death as he was trying to steal a spring lamb, and then buried in a shallow grave.
My brother Chaim, who was eight, died of frostbite and hunger during the winter of 1944. One morning he was just dead. Cold and stiff. We dug his grave and buried him at the top of the hilltop.
Towards the end of 1944 we saw the Soviet Air Force and Polish Air Force planes flying over us from east to west. Then the thud of bombs, falling on German positions. The Luftwaffe had always flown west to east. There was antiaircraft fire at the Soviet planes at first. After the bombing runs the antiaircraft guns fell silent.
In the spring of 1945, after weeks of no bombs, when the Polish farmers came into their fields, we understood the war was over.
Then we walked back to Biezun, where we had lived. But no one from our old life was still alive in that town. The Polish Red Cross was there. And they helped us, first to a displaced person’s camp, and then to Canada, where my mother had cousins in Montreal.
As far as we know, all the Jews of Biezun who were still there in 1939 died — some in labor camps, some in Auschwitz, some in the Warsaw Ghetto, and many in the Red Forest. All but us.
Most of Hannah’s work was for nothing. She and most of the people she had tried to rescue died at the hands of the Third Reich. Somehow we survived — my mother, who died at 96 in Toronto, my sister and myself.
I was twelve in 1939. I have had a rich and long life. The world sometimes is a cruel and unfair place. But sometimes it is achingly beautiful.
Hannah Singer was not a nobody.
All of Michael Fine’s stories and books are available on MichaelFineMD.com or by clicking here.
Michael Fine, MD is currently Health Policy Advisor to Mayor James Diossa of Central Falls, Rhode Island and Senior Population Health and Clinical Services Officer at Blackstone Valley Health Care, Inc. He is facilitating a partnership between the City and Blackstone to create the Central Falls Neighborhood Health Station, the US first attempt to build a population based primary care and public health collaboration that serves the entire population of a place.
He recently served as Health Liaison to the City of Pawtucket. Dr. Fine served in the Cabinet of Governor Lincoln Chafee as Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health from February of 2011 until March of 2015, overseeing a broad range of public health programs and services, overseeing 450 public health professionals and managing a budget of $110 million a year.
Dr. Fine’s career as both a family physician and manager in the field of healthcare has been devoted to healthcare reform and the care of under-served populations. Before his confirmation as Director of Health, Dr. Fine was the Medical Program Director at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, overseeing a healthcare unit servicing nearly 20,000 people a year, with a staff of over 85 physicians, psychiatrists, mental health workers, nurses, and other health professionals.
He was a founder and Managing Director of HealthAccessRI, the nation’s first statewide organization making prepaid, reduced fee-for-service primary care available to people without employer-provided health insurance. Dr. Fine practiced for 16 years in urban Pawtucket, Rhode Island and rural Scituate, Rhode Island. He is the former Physician Operating Officer of Hillside Avenue Family and Community Medicine, the largest family practice in Rhode Island, and the former Physician-in-Chief of the Rhode Island and Miriam Hospitals’ Departments of Family and Community Medicine. He was co-chair of the Allied Advocacy Group for Integrated Primary Care.
He convened and facilitated the Primary Care Leadership Council, a statewide organization that represented 75 percent of Rhode Island’s primary care physicians and practices. He currently serves on the Boards of Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s largest service organization for the homeless, the Lown Institute, the George Wiley Center, and RICARES. Dr. Fine founded the Scituate Health Alliance, a community-based, population-focused non-profit organization, which made Scituate the first community in the United States to provide primary medical and dental care to all town residents.
Dr. Fine is a past President of the Rhode Island Academy of Family Physicians and was an Open Society Institute/George Soros Fellow in Medicine as a Profession from 2000 to2002. He has served on a number of legislative committees for the Rhode Island General Assembly, has chaired the Primary Care Advisory Committee for the Rhode Island Department of Health, and sat on both the Urban Family Medicine Task Force of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the National Advisory Council to the National Health Services Corps.