Extracts of Warsaw Boy
(From Chapter 11. Train Trips & French)
Apart from the war, I shared my contemporaries’ preoccupations with two other things. One was sex, surely an unbelievable pleasure that must be just around the corner. For some unimaginable reason the nearest any of us seemed to have got to it were the chaste kisses on the cheek exchanged with the girls who somehow contrived to bump into us when we took our long Sunday afternoon walks in the mountains.
The other one was the acquisition of an Arbeitskarte. This was a work card that every male over the age of fourteen was obliged to carry. Those not employed in occupations sanctioned by the Generalgouvernement were liable to be drafted for work in Germany. Some were employed on farms, others in factories. As an alternative to struggling in poorly paid jobs at home Poles were encouraged to volunteer for it. ‘We’re going to work in Germany!’ declared a well-known poster of a trainload of happy-looking people, all waving their hats.
My father had given serious thought to my Arbeitskarte long before it was due. First, he decided the clandestine classes I rather enjoyed were getting too dangerous in a small town like Maków. Second, he decided I was to be employed as a shop assistant. He had found work for me at a small haberdashery that was based in Maków but served the entire district. It was a family concern run by a couple who were happy to do the colonel a favour, though it was understood that there would be no question of wages. Nonetheless, I was excited by this large step into the adult world. By the time my fifteenth birthday came around I would have been in possession of an Arbeitskarte for over a year and, with any luck, immune from the periodic round-ups by an enemy in desperate need of manpower.
But before I started work I was sent back to visit Ada, in Kraków, and deliver a suitcase full of butter and meat, including a rather pungent garlic sausage. This time there was no mention of documents, and I was to travel by a different route. At Kraków Central Station the Feldgendarmerie, assisted by the Polish civil police, had started to crack down on the smuggling of black-market foodstuffs into the city. Arrests had been made and people deported to Germany.
For the moment, probably because they were short of manpower, the police did not appear to have extended their operations to the southern suburban stations. I was to get off at Bonarka and board the blue and white tramcar number 6, which travelled a circular route around the city. My father informed me that it should take about forty-five minutes to reach the same stop where I had alighted the first time for Ada’s flat and workplace.
At Bonarka I boarded a tram with several other people from the same train. For some time we travelled down streets with low two-storey houses and front gardens. It was a warm day, the suitcase was between my legs, and I thought I could smell the garlic sausage. Then the buildings became taller, the gardens disappeared. I noticed a tall barbed-wire fence dominated by towers that were occupied by men with binoculars.
‘So they still haven’t rerouted the line,’ I heard somebody say.
People were looking out of both sides of the tramcar. It was then that I realized the line led straight through the heart of the ghetto. On both sides the pavements were lined with barbed wire. There were wooden overpasses to allow people to cross from one side of the street to the other. My first impression was that it was like being in a zoo, only with people instead of animals in the cages. I was amazed to see that there were women behind the wire wearing colourful summer dresses in the sunshine. Some of them had their armbands lined with lace, while the men’s armbands were often neatly starched. There were shops that seemed to be doing business, and I saw a Jewish policeman in his blue uniform with a Star of David on his cap. Jews were leaning out of the windows of their houses, staring at the slow-moving tramcar while we stared back at them.
‘Can they leave the ghetto at all? I asked Ada later. I was telling her about what I’d seen while she removed the garlic sausage and the other presents from the suitcase and put them away.
‘Officially no,’ she said. ‘But some of them do go to work in groups outside the ghetto. Some even get permission to go to another town. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult.’
I told her about the women in the pretty dresses, about the shops and how surprised I’d been. It didn’t look much worse than other parts of town.
‘It’s no holiday,’ said Ada, shaking her head. ‘You can’t see everything from a moving tram. There are more than a hundred thousand people crammed into streets where twenty-five thousand used to live. They live three or four to a room. And every week hundreds of men are taken to the new concentration camp they’ve built at Oświęcim, the one they call Auschwitz. The Nazis are mad. They’re like children trying to rearrange the universe.’
I returned home to find that my father had once again been addressing the problem of my French tuition. He was rightly concerned that, without regular practice, I would get rusty and had arranged for a young woman who had recently arrived from occupied Belgium to give me daily conversation. She lived with her mother in one large room they had rented on the ground floor of a somewhat dilapidated villa surrounded by a wild garden.
Nicole was dark-haired, buxom and wide-hipped. She usually wore long dresses. She was trying to lose weight, so the lessons usually consisted of a long walk during which we spoke about almost anything: the war; what was going to happen to the Jews; food prices; and the girls I knew.
‘So you’re having lessons with the Jewish woman,’ a boy I knew said to me at about this time. It was more of a statement than a question.
I was amazed. It had never occurred to me. Neither she nor her mother wore an armband. But then quite a few people who had left the cities to live with the peasants were thought to be Jews who had failed to register with the authorities. Judging by some of the things Ada had told me, one could hardly blame them, but they lived at the mercy of anyone who felt like betraying them. And the terror against the Jews seemed to be increasing on a daily basis.
When I was due for one of my conversations I usually found Nicole waiting for me on a chair on the veranda. One afternoon she wasn’t there. Somewhat puzzled, and perhaps slightly apprehensive, I knocked on the door.
‘Entrez,’ I heard from inside.
It was definitely her voice, so I opened the door. I saw her immediately.
Nicole was lying on one of the two beds, and she was stark naked. She had a white, ample body, enormous breasts with large, dark nipples and, most shocking of all, masses of black pubic hair through which I noticed she was moving the fingers of her right hand.
I felt like I was on fire. I stood there with an embarrassing erection stabbing against my ridiculous short trousers. I didn’t know what to do. For a moment I considered running away.
‘Viens près de moi,’ she said.
I advanced towards the bed, trying in vain to conceal my erection.