Bene Merito: The Story of Ewa Janina Wocjicka
A Dwarf from the Slums of Warsaw Who Rose to Heroic Stature in Wartime

S. Nadja Zajdman


 
© Copyright 2020 by S. Nadja Zajdman




          Photo of Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman, Nadja's mother.

At the end of June 2011, Mum, Michael and I received the news that her cancer had resurfaced and this time, it was inoperable. Mum’s battle with cancer had lasted longer than the war, and it appeared she was about to lose it. Still, my brother Michael insisted that she proceed with plans for a trip to Poland. Michael promised to accompany her. Michael is a medical doctor, and his repeated interventions repeatedly extended our mother’s life. Renata would be safe with her son.

In Warsaw, at summer’s end, a conference was going to be held by a network of world Jewry whose members survived the Holocaust as children. It would be the 20th anniversary of an association known as The Association of Children of The Holocaust. For ten of those twenty years Renata worked to have a conference held in Warsaw. Her dream was coming true. Her nightmare was unending.

Treatment was started, and Michael fulfilled his promise to accompany Mum to Poland. The day before the conference, Mum was invited to a reception held by the Polish government’s foreign ministry, where an outstanding schoolteacher was to receive an award as Best Teacher of the Year for Holocaust Studies. As Mum sat in the audience beside her son, her name was called. She was instructed to approach the podium. In a daze, she struggled to her feet. Despite the air-conditioning, her auburn-coloured wig itched. The 82-year-old cancer patient limped to the front of the hall with the aid of a cane. She supported herself, standing on her feet, while a representative of the foreign ministry read out a list of her achievements, and bestowed upon her a medal for the Order of Merit.

A hall filled with a hundred people; teachers and their families, government officials, diplomats, and a rabbi, leapt to their feet, applauding in ovation. Michael remained in his seat. He was stunned.

Mum was confused. Through her partial deafness, she managed to decipher that she was receiving this award for her part in having her wartime Polish rescuers honoured as Righteous Gentiles, and for her ceaseless activism in building bridges of understanding and forgiveness between Polish Catholics and Polish Jews.

Still, Mum could not process the meaning of the award. “This can’t be for me,” she thought, growing haunted. She felt tugged by the memory of a doll-like young woman, perfectly formed, who seemed to have been created in miniature. She was so petite that those who knew her called her “Lilliput.” She had a wide and open face, wore her ash blonde hair in a straight and flat pageboy, dressed in children’s clothes because they came in the only size that fit, and wrapped her slender torso in an ornately patterned peasant’s shawl. She hovered in Mum’s heart and mind for seven decades, refusing to leave. Perceiving her own approaching end, Mum feared the story and memory of the woman she considered her surrogate mother would die with her. “This isn’t for me.” Mum was already distanced from the proceedings of the present, and slipped into the parallel universe of her past. “This award,” she told herself, “No. All of it. My whole life, the lives of my children and my grandchildren, all of it, I owe to my Janka.”

*****

Ewa Janina Wojcicka was born in the slums of Warsaw on Christmas Eve of 1908. She was the daughter of labourers. She had an older sister. She had been in Natalia’s employ since she was a teenager. Family interference tore apart Natalia’s marriage, and she and her husband separated in 1935.

For the beleaguered Natalia it would be her housekeeper Janina, known as Janka, who became her lifelong confidante and companion. While Natalia went into the wider world to provide for her children, it was Janka who pushed Renata’s perambulator in the Saski Gardens, it was Janka who spoon-fed her kefir, and it was Janka who made her laugh and dried her tears.

For Janka, perhaps Renata filled the space left by the child she was forced to deny. A little girl wove in and out of Natalia’s household, born the same year as Renata. She was introduced as Janka’s niece. Janka’s sister raised her. In fact, the girl was Janka’s daughter, the issue of a rape by her bestial brother-in-law.

In the last spring of peace Janka was once more large and swollen with child. She had spent Christmas with those who passed for family and in the new year returned to Natalia’s apartment carrying another issue of another rape. In the summer Alek, Natalia’s son, and her eldest, took Janka for daily walks until he was mobilized into the reserves, and then the two women disappeared into the countryside. When they returned, Janka’s silhouette was slim once more.

Renata was slated to resume school in September. September came, but school didn’t start. What started in September was the Second World War. When the month-long siege of Warsaw ended and schools re-opened in October under German occupation, only Catholic children were allowed to attend. Renata spent school hours inside the family apartment, reading works of literature Natalia acquired for her from local libraries, while she and her older daughter Ania braved the daily line-ups for bread. Only bakeries were allowed to re-open, under the supervision of the Germans. As they patrolled these line-ups, German soldiers brutalized anyone they suspected of being Jewish. They were assisted in identifying their victims by Polish collaborators who, at this early stage, were mostly teen-age hoodlums heedless of the consequences.

It was an inefficient way of removing the Jews, and the Germans prided themselves on their efficiency. In late autumn posters plastered across the city and news announcements over Polish radio declared that, as of December 1, all Jews over the age of 12 were obliged to wear white armbands illustrated with a blue Star of David. That is when Natalia announced, “We’re getting out of here.”

While Natalia and Ania spent the days acquiring bread, Janka developed business contacts. Semi-literate, she kept her salary hidden under her mattress. As Natalia’s resources dwindled, Janka handed her employer money, as needed. With her seed money Janka began buying from the desperate Jews, and selling to savvy farmers. Even savvier, Janka bartered with the farmers, and pocketed her profits from the Jews. Quickly establishing a reputation as a black market racketeer, Janka used her increasing wealth to keep her adopted family alive. She brought in coal to heat the apartment for the coming winter, along with hefty sacks of potatoes and flour, while Natalia planned the escape of her daughters and then, her own. In the meantime Alek had defected from the defeated Polish army, ditched his uniform, stole a horse and, acquiring clothes from a peasant in a manner that can only be guessed at, rode back into Warsaw, to his mother’s house. Natalia then decided that her swarthy, circumcised son must leave first.

On December 1, 1939, Ania and Renata crossed over into Bialystok. Local farmers who found a new source of income in leading Jews across the border into the Soviet sector, extorted more money from Ania than had been agreed on. Natalia and Janka took the precaution of equipping Ania for such an event and, once the farmers’ greed was satisfied, the sisters were able to join Alek in a ramshackle farmhouse on the outskirts of town, filled with fellow refugees.

When Natalia received word that her daughters were safe, she embarked on her own escape. Janka stayed behind in the apartment. It was more wished for, than expected, that the war would be brief, and Natalia and her children would soon return to a home maintained by Janka.

By the time Natalia began her journey in early December of 1939, more and more escape routes were being discovered and sealed. She had to take a roundabout route, and reached Bialystok more than a week after her departure.

Ania, always restless, always reckless, could not endure the wait. She decided to cross back and retrieve her mother. Alek pleaded with her to have patience, and stay put. Generally irrational, Ania could not be reasoned with. She believed she knew the route and did not require the assistance of farmer/smugglers. Going it alone, Ania attempted to re-enter the German zone. She was caught, arrested, beaten and raped. The only reason she survived was because she was able to pass as Catholic. She was allowed to return to her home, only to discover that her mother was no longer there.

By the time she arrived in Bialystok, Natalia was running a fever. A doctor was summoned. Natalia had contracted typhus. She was one of its first victims in the first of many wartime epidemics to come.

Natalia was removed to hospital, not so much for her own sake, but in order to spare the refugee shelter coming under quarantine. There was no medication available. The doctors, and Natalia’s children could only watch and wait. The stricken woman survived the disease’s first crisis, but succumbed to the second. She died on the first night of the new year, at the dawn of 1940.

After Natalia was buried, Alek decided that he and Renata must return to Warsaw and be with Ania. Renata was terrified of returning. Alek joined a band of refugees who had decided to go back. Some could not tolerate life in exile. Some could not bear to be separated from their families.

These frightened people were further frightened by the prospect of having a child in their midst. Alek pleaded with them to accept Renata, as he had pleaded with Ania not to attempt a return. The group relented, but Renata did not. Brother and sister had a violent argument. In frustration Alek hit Renata and dragged her to the meeting point. As the adults climbed over and ducked fences, passing a point of no return, Renata made a split-second decision to run. In the other direction. Alek stared in horror at his fleeing sister, but it was too late to turn back. It was not so much the Germans Renata was terrified of returning to; it was her sister.

Without Renata, in Warsaw, it fell to Alek to break the news of Natalia’s death to Janka and most traumatically, to Ania. In her frequent fits of hysteria, Ania taunted Alek for “losing the child.” Alek finally slipped on the blue and white armband. Doing so would’ve horrified his mother. Ania continued to defy the order and relied on her ability to pass as Catholic. Despite her dark, slanted eyes and luxuriant dark hair Ania, chameleon-like, could slip out of her Jewish skin and into the persona of a Polish peasant. She could blend and weave in and out of crowds undetected as surely and swiftly as Janka. Together Janka and Ania bought and sold and bartered and bribed, keeping each other and Alek, alive.

On November 15, 1940, under the German occupiers’ new law, Ania and Alek were compelled to enter the ghetto established for Jews in Warsaw. On that same date Janka moved out of Natalia’s apartment and back into the slums, with her sister and bestial brother-in-law. She arranged to have Natalia’s furniture moved to various safe houses, and then she began selling it off. With the proceeds, she bought food and smuggled it into the Ghetto, keeping Alek and Ania alive.

After the Germans invaded the Soviet sector in the summer of 1941, Renata was confined to the ghetto established for Jews in Bialystok. On orders from their German masters the local Judenrat, the Jewish council, were recruiting young and strong workers to fix potholes on the roads. Renata secured a position in what amounted to a chain gang without chains. Every day in the blistering heat, under armed guard, she set out with other incarcerated youngsters, to fix the potholes. They wore yellow patches on their chests and upper backs, as a mark of shame. Each day that their work progressed, they had to walk further to begin it. Each day they passed the Ghetto gates to the taunts and jeers of local Poles, and each evening they re-entered to the sound of the same obscenities. The Jewish children’s reward for their slave labour was a small bag of kasha handed out at the end of the day, which Renata handed over to the adults who allowed her to share their apartment. Like many Jewish children trapped on a planet gone mad, Renata took a grim pride in keeping adults alive.

One evening, at summer’s end, as Renata marched towards the gates of the Ghetto along a gangplank flanked by hate-filled faces and vicious mouths shouting curses she heard, among them, the echo of a familiar voice calling a name only few people knew. “Renusia! Renusia!” It was the diminutive used by family. “Renusia! Renusia!” The voice grew louder and more insistent. Renata, who had learned to avert her gaze from the sight of the nightly mobs, turned to follow the call. A pint-sized woman with luminous blue eyes and a sleek ash blonde pageboy, her tiny torso wrapped in its signature peasant shawl, was calling to her. It was Janka. Renata gaped. Janka slipped through the crowd to Renata’s side, and with her through the Ghetto gates. Hoping she might find Renata alive, Janka had brought, in a lid-less basket, a five-dollar U.S. bill, in case someone needed to be bribed, a tin medallion engraved with the image of the Virgin Mary, and the Jewish armband worn in Warsaw. The presence of the armband would prove a grievous mistake.

“I came as soon as I could.” Janka’s understatement was masterful. Renata, stunned and overwhelmed with grief and gratitude, led Janka to the apartment she had access to, where she was allowed to sleep in the hallway. Janka gave another young girl the five-dollar U. S. bill in exchange for two yellow patches and her place in the work detail. She quickly stitched the patches onto the front and back of her blouse, and cradled Renata to sleep in her arms.

At dawn Janka clipped the medallion around Renata’s neck, under the nightgown she wore, which doubled as a dress. It was a baby blue-coloured nightgown with a small white flower design. Lining up with a group of Jewish youths as their German captors counted heads, the nanny and her charge marched through the Ghetto gates and onto a hot and dusty road. At noontime, which signalled lunchtime for the German guards and continued work for the Jewish youths, the guards retreated to the shade of trees, enjoying meals brought in on rolling canteens. Satiated and lulled by beer, the German guards grew drowsy. Janka nudged Renata. “Move and keep moving.” Gently Janka coaxed Renata into a ditch, dropping down beside her. They crawled on their bellies over the stones and hard gray earth, and then Janka stopped in order to pull the stitches out of the yellow patches on Renata’s makeshift dress, and on her own blouse. She wrapped Renata’s neck in a kerchief in order to camouflage the holes in the material left by the torn stitches, and then she wrapped her own shoulders in her colourful shawl, to do the same.

When Janka surmised that they had gained sufficient distance, she instructed Renata to rise. Janka was four feet five inches, and twelve-year- old Renata had grown to her full height of five feet four. “Walk slowly. Keep calm.” In broad daylight, in blistering heat, the woman-child and the child-woman ambled down country lanes. As they nodded to passing peasants on the road they were hailed with the traditional greeting, “Praise the Lord.” Without irony, the Catholic nanny and her Jewish charge responded with the same.

It took Janka and Renata two weeks to reach Warsaw. They sustained themselves by sneaking into barns in the evenings and sleeping there during the nights. Before dawn Janka would wake Renata. They stole eggs from under squatting chickens, cracked their shells, and drank the contents raw. Janka’s lid-less basket, covered with a cloth, held a small cup and cans she had picked up along the road. She taught Renata to milk cows and they drank the milk, along with the raw eggs, before the farmers were up and able to catch them at it. On their odyssey to Warsaw, they supplemented their diet from farm fields by stealing carrots and cucumbers and potatoes. They ate the vegetables raw and enjoyed them; even the potatoes.

In downtown Warsaw, Janka and Renata boarded the tramway that ran through the streets of the Ghetto, and back. Police agents patrolled the platforms to make sure that no one dared get on or off until the tramway had returned to the Aryan Side. Warsaw’s transit system was controlled by a socialist union with connections to the Polish underground resistance movement. Should an inmate of the Ghetto manage to board at one end and escape at the other, the drivers would turn a blind eye. Often the drivers tossed loaves of bread out the window, as their route took them through the Ghetto. Sometimes their passengers did the same.

Before boarding the tramway, Janka slipped the armband into Renata’s pocket. A sharp curve was coming up on one of the Ghetto streets. The driver would be compelled to slow down. Janka instructed Renata to jump when the driver approached the curve. Renata positioned herself on the back platform, while the patrolling agent spied her from the front. After a summer of hard labour Renata was physically strong and deeply tanned, yet there was telltale terror in her eyes. Renata had the look and feel and scent of a hunted animal. The agent was trained to hunt.

Janka caught the agent eyeing his quarry. Her instructions to Renata changed. “Renusia,” Janka whispered. “Stay put.” She felt they had no choice but to continue riding the tramway full circle and finally, they disembarked at its starting point, on the Aryan Side.

The agent disembarked with them, grabbed Renata, frisked her, and found the armband. He struck her, and declared her under arrest. Renata protested that she had been trying to get into the Ghetto, not out. Though it was true, it was also unbelievable. The agent struck her again, and dragged her off. Janka pleaded with the agent to let the girl go. He shoved Janka out of his way. “You Jewish whore!” The epithet was addressed to Janka. “Stay out of this, or I’ll arrest you too!” Helpless, Janka could do no more than watch and follow from a distance.

Renata was taken to a downtown prison and tossed into a cell with a gang of hardened prostitutes. The sight of their Virgin’s image on the body of a Jewish girl enraged them. For three days and three nights they taunted and tormented and beat the girl. They denied her access to the pail in the cell used as a toilet and the terrorized child became incontinent, which is when they mocked her and kicked her and spit into the thin broth served to all inmates. Warsaw’s true whores had been given free reign with someone they could feel superior to.

At the end of three days Renata was released into the custody of another policeman. “Say hello to the Gestapo!” The prostitutes waved her off.

I’m taking you to your people,” the Polish policeman blandly informed the filthy, stinking and terrified child. At one of the Ghetto’s several gated entrances the policeman stopped, unzipped his pants, and relieved himself against the Ghetto wall. The hunted animal became an alert animal. Renata spotted a hole in the wall. On their odyssey through the countryside Janka had updated Renata on current conditions in the outdoor prison penning in the Jews. While the cop’s pants were still down Renata leapt through the hole dug by children on the other side, knowing an adult could not follow her there.

In the summer of 1942, the Ghetto was being culled of its old, its sick, its homeless, and its orphaned. Renata was hiding on a roof as she watched the director of the Ghetto’s ever-expanding orphanage march through the streets, singing, with 200 of his charges. He was leading them to the cattle trains, which were waiting for them all. When they were removed from view Renata descended the roof and questioned her brother. “If Dr. Korczak went with the children, how come we aren’t going too?” Alek stared at his little sister in horror, and said nothing. His answer came several days later. “I’ve got you into a work detail that will be leaving the Ghetto. Once you’re on the outside, you will be approached by a Polish policeman who is going to arrest you. Don’t try to resist him, and don’t be afraid. He’s on our side.”

Finally Renata perceived the true nature of the transports. She followed her brother’s instructions without protest, and was arrested without incident. The policeman winked at her, and led her to his home. Hovering in the background, like a guardian angel, was Janka.

While Renata resided in the sanctuary provided by the policeman and his family, Janka went to work arranging false identity documents, and another safe house. When neighbours grew suspicious, Renata was removed. As Janka kept watch and detected the questioning looks and the wagging of tongues Renata was removed, and moved again. Running out of available safe houses, Janka resorted to locking up Renata in her brother-in-law’s rat-infested tool shed. His job as a bricklayer kept him away during the day. In the evenings Janka plied him with vodka and his wife went to bed with him so that he would be unable, or too indifferent, to inform on them. These were desperate measures, and couldn’t be kept up for long. In the next apartment Renata was moved to she was so quickly spotted, denounced and arrested that even Janka was unable to save her. It was Ania who came to the rescue then.

The policeman who arrested her beat Renata and she broke, confessing the crime of her Jewish identity. As she languished in the prison cell, expecting to be taken to the Gestapo, a dark-haired woman with dark, slanted eyes and high, wide cheekbones, a brazen young woman with a manner of the streets, barged through the doors of the station and strode up to the policeman on duty. From behind bars, Renata gasped. It was her sister Ania. “Let her out!” Ania barked at the policeman.

“Have you taken leave of your senses, woman?! Do want me to arrest you too?!”

“Let her go.” Ania confronted the policeman like Moses confronting Pharaoh. “I used to work for the family. They were good to me. I promised her mother I’d take care of her.” That last part was true. “Look,” Ania began to negotiate, “If you hand her over to the Germans you’ll get nothing. I’ll pay you for her. How much do you want?”

The cop considered the offer. “Fifteen thousand zlotys.”

Ania opened her purse. “I don’t have that much on me. I’ll give you what I’ve got and I’ll bring the rest tomorrow, but you’ve got to give me the girl now.” The corrupt cop accepted Ania’s offer. He released Renata, and the two Jewish sisters, stone-faced, walked out of the police station, free.

Ania kept her word to the cop. The next day she returned to the station and paid the balance owing on Renata’s life. Most likely, the money came from Janka.

A time came when the policeman would pay. Ultimately The Polish Underground executed him. Not for blackmailing captured Jews, but for collaborating with the Germans.

After this electrifyingly narrow escape, Janka kept Renata close. Natalia’s housekeeper chose homelessness, rather than abandon Natalia’s child. The nanny and her charge slept side by side on the platforms of train stations, pretending they were waiting for the train. On cold nights Janka and Renata snuck into cellars and attics and slept there, creeping out again before morning light. When the weather was clement they curled up in ditches, and huddled together in open fields. They stole potatoes and carrots to keep from starving, and they stole coal from stationary freight cars on the outskirts of town. Anticipating winter, in the autumn of 1942 coal became as valuable as gold. Janka and Renata took turns scrambling up the ladders attached to the sides of the roofless cars, tossing down heavy black lumps to each other. Then they would return to the city and sell their booty. Janka and Renata had to fight for the fuel with street toughs, who clambered up the freight cars for the same purpose.

Janka taught Renata the language of the streets. She insisted the Jewish girl learn to swear and curse like a hardened hoodlum. Renata was a quick study, but not quick enough. Janka goaded and provoked until, exasperated, Renata blasted, “Fuck off!”

“Bravo!” Janka applauded like a demented professor. “Now you’ve got it!”

Winter was coming, and Warsaw was unreasonably dangerous for Jews. They could not continue living in the streets. Janka sent out feelers to farmers she bartered with. By November, in a hamlet located between Radzymin and Wolomin, Janka and Renata had farmed themselves out as hired hands.

Janka and Renata slept in the barn. The farmer, his wife, his toddler, and his mother-in-law resided in the main house. The farmer had a city cousin. Henryk, a young man in his early twenties, had joined a cell of partisans hiding in the forest. He used his cousin’s farm as a base, coming in to eat and to bring food to his gang. When Henryk was in residence he, too, slept in the barn. Henryk seemed a quiet young man.

During the first week of their employment, Janka trained Renata. Under Janka’s tutelage Renata learned to feed the pigs, spread manure, and harvest potatoes. Henryk kept a watchful eye. When Renata made a mistake and hurt her hands, and when her palms became calloused from the unaccustomed work, she felt compelled to hide them. Their employer believed he had hired experienced hands.

After the first week on the farm, seeing that Renata could hold her own and believing her charge was safe, Janka decided to return to Warsaw. “I want to get Alek out. If I can find a safe house for him, maybe I can convince him to escape. As soon as I can, Renusia, I will come back for you.”

When Janka left, the assaults began. At night, in the barn, Henryk crossed over from his pile of hay and grabbed Renata. “Rebecca!” He hit her.

“What?! My name is Krystyna!” Krystyna was Renata’s Catholic pseudonym; the name registered on her false identity documents.

“I know who and what you are, Rebecca,” Henryk smirked. “If you want to live, you’ll do what I want and what I say.”

Renata was barely fourteen and sexually illiterate. She didn’t understand what was happening until it happened. All the while she clung to the tin medallion around her neck and prayed vociferously to the Virgin Mary. Renata cried and Henryk laughed.

For the next five weeks Renata laboured in the fields by day, and nightly returned to the barn and the relentless rapes. Malnutrition had suppressed her menses, so Renata was spared pregnancy. She was spared nothing else.

On Sunday morning Renata attended the local church with the farmer and his family. Henryk was not in attendance. One Sunday, Renata recognized a girl in a neighbouring pew. Before the war, they had gone to school together. Renata’s former classmate smiled at her. The next morning, on the farm, a forester from the adjacent town came to arrest Renata.

“You’ve got a Jew on your premises,” the policeman informed the farmer.

“What?! That’s impossible. Krystyna can’t be Jewish! She prays with us in church! If that girl is Jewish I’ll run her through with my pitchfork! I’ll kill her myself!”

The hamlet was so small and the adjacent towns so ill-equipped, that a co-operative group of farmers and foresters with horses and buggies worked with the police when transportation was required. It would be inefficient to bring in a sole Jew, so a forester was sent to pick up Renata after picking up three partisans who had been arrested and were being brought into the police station for questioning.

It was December. Snow blanketed the farm and covered the fields. It wasn’t late, but it was already dark. Renata was ordered onto the front seat of the buggy, next to the forester. Three strapping young men, clearly non-Jews, sat sullenly in the back. Henryk decided to come along for the ride. The arrested men were his comrades. What they didn’t say, they signalled with their eyes.

A full moon hung in the frigid air, like a lamp. The snow was high and the forest was still, except for the clip clop of the horses’ hooves. The young men, seated behind the forester, began to negotiate, offering Renata’s sexual services in exchange for their freedom. Becoming nervous and growing tense, the forester snapped at his passengers to shut up. Renata sensed sudden movement behind her back. There was a skirmish. One of the men had leapt upon the forester. The forester had no gun, but he had a knife. Instinctively he lashed out, and cut Renata’s throat.

“Scram!” Henryk screamed at Renata, who seemed stunned into paralysis. “Beat it!” The partisan shrieked, as he and his buddies laid in, murderously, upon the trapped forester. “Run!” Henryk howled at the girl, and at the baleful moon. Renata’s rapist was saving her life.

Henryk’s wails shocked Renata into action. She ran through the woods, in the opposite direction to where the forester had been heading, in snow that was sometimes waist-high, her path lighted by a benevolent moon. Red drops splattered onto the plush white carpet of snow. Renata realized that she was bleeding. She wrapped her peasant’s shawl tightly around her neck, as a tourniquet. The bare black trees bore silent witness to the wounded girl’s dash for life and freedom. The full bright moon beamed on her until relieved of its post, at dawn.

Reaching the adjacent town and its train station in early morning, Renata edged her way onto the crowded commuter line, and arrived in Warsaw before the conductor had time to ask for her ticket. Pale, weakened, and in stinging pain, Renata dragged herself to the flat where her sister roomed with an old laundress. Ania had staged her own escape from the doomed Jewish ghetto. She gasped at the sight of her wounded sister. Ania hid Renata in her room and staunched the gash with vodka. The right side of Renata’s neck was infected.

For the first time that Renata had seen, Ania broke down. She wept and answered Renata’s unasked question. “Janka is dead.” On that frosty December morning, while dressing the wound on Renata’s neck, Ania invented a story. She told her little sister that Janka had been caught in a round-up in the countryside and shot there. It would be decades before Ania could bring herself to reveal the truth. Janka had been making one of her regular forays into the Ghetto; this time, to bring Alek food. She was hoping to convince him to allow her to help him escape. Diminutive Janka, with her loaded, unlidded basket, was negotiating with a sentry at one of the Ghetto gates. Usually Janka knew who could be bribed and whom it was best to avoid. Perhaps this sentry was a new recruit. Perhaps it was simply that Janka’s luck ran out that day.

Ania was an eyewitness. She had been standing across the street watching, in helpless horror, the pantomime of Janka’s wild gesticulations. In 1942, German soldiers didn’t engage in protracted debates with Polish women. The sentry ended the discussion by shooting the pest dead.

Janka’s corpse lay in the street, in the snow, until a work squad pushing wheelbarrows for just this purpose tossed it into the barrow, and wheeled it away. No one claimed Janka’s corpse. Except for those helpless to act, no one cared. If Janka had lived to Christmas Eve, she would’ve seen her 34th birthday.

The Polish foreign ministry’s representative pinned a medal on my mother Renata’s thumping chest, and placed into her trembling hands a plaque with her name on it, which read, in part, “Odznake HonorowaBENE MERITO.’ ” “Honoured with the Order of Merit.” As a microphone was placed to her lips and she attempted to speak, the old and sick woman reflected on her childhood nanny’s two lost children, unknown even to each other who, even if they had survived, would never learn that a saintly smuggler and Christ-like thief, murdered at the age of 33, was none other than their mother.




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