It was the summer of 1945 – the year I was four years old, uprooted from the only home I knew, and abandoned with strangers. This was post-war Poland and my parents, Jews who had miraculously survived the Holocaust, wanted me back from Irina, the woman I had lived with for three years. But no one asked me what I wanted. And to me, this was the biggest calamity of my young life.
I tried objecting, stamping my foot, crying. “You’re my Mama,” I said to Irina. “I want to stay here with you and Janush and Mishek!” To no avail.
Irina dressed me in a clean, patched up shirt and sandals, which I hardly ever wore as I ran around barefoot all summer outside the simple cottage at the edge of the village. After wiping my face with a wet cloth and combing my hair, she said, “Now stop crying or your eyes will be red and they’ll think I’ve been beating you!”
Putting her best shawl around her shoulders, Irina took my hand and we walked to the train station. I dragged my feet, stirring up the dust in the road, but she yanked at my arm until it hurt and I had to keep pace with her. All the way to town on the train, I stared out the window, barely seeing the passing fields and hovels. I couldn’t recall my parents’ faces no matter how hard I tried. When we arrived at our destination, I clung to Irina’s hand. I had never seen so many people before, jostling me on every side. Most were farmers and their wives like the people I was used to seeing in the village, but others were gaunt skeletons in rags who looked like scarecrows. And there were lots of loud, swaggering soldiers, too.
“Watch out for those Russians!” Irina warned me, when a young soldier chucked me under the chin and called me krasivaya, (beauty). “They’re no better than the Germans!”
On the edge of the crowd were two strangers waving at us. Irina pulled me in their direction. The woman had upswept blonde hair and wore a fitted polka dot dress with shoulder pads and wedgie shoes. She rushed toward me with outstretched arms and hugged me so tight I could hardly breathe. A cloud of flowery scent like the lily of the valley flowers growing around our cottage in the spring enveloped me. The man stood by watching. He had thick black hair and a black beard on his unsmiling face. He greeted Irina and took an envelope out of his jacket pocket, handed it to her and shook her hand.
When he made a move toward me, I was overcome with panic. I stepped back and grabbed Irina by the legs, too petrified to speak.
“Let go, Mirka. This is your Tatu,” she said, prying my fingers off her thigh one by one.
“But he looks like the bogeyman,” I whispered, burying my face in her dress.
“Don’t be silly. These are your parents. You must go with them now,” Irina chided.
She turned me firmly to face the man squatting down and holding out something in his hand. His mouth smiled, but his eyes looked sad. The woman was crying softly.
“Take it, Mirka. It’s chocolate,” Irina urged.
My greed won out over my fear and I reached for the treat. As I did so, Irina, freed at last from my grasp, embraced the woman and disappeared into the crowd.
I shouted frantically, “Mamusia, where are you?”
The strange woman held me captive even though I landed a few solid kicks to her shins. When I spotted Irina boarding the train, the sound of my wailing managed to reach her ears over the general din.
She waved and called out, “She is your Mamusia now. I’ll come to visit you!” Then she was gone.
My struggles to free myself subsided as I realized it was hopeless. The blonde woman patted my head and said, “You must call me Mama now. And you’ll call your father Tatu.” She pulled something from a bag. “Look what I have for you.”
I knew she was trying to bribe me as soon as I saw the doll. I wasn’t going to take it. Or to call them Mama and Tatu, either. But I’d never seen a doll like that before. I resisted as long as I could and then, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand, I accepted her as a peace offering. She was a baby doll with a pretty painted china head and a knitted pink dress with a tiny white bib.
Mama took one of my hands. I was glad that the other one was wrapped around the doll so that Tatu couldn’t take it. Instead, he picked up my little bundle of belongings and we set off for what they called home.
My legs were so short that I had to trot to keep up with these people. I kept swivelling my head from side to side, taking in all the strange sights. The street was made of cobblestones, not dirt like the road in the village, and it was very wide. On both sides, there were tall, stone buildings tight against each other and against the sidewalk. There were gaps between some of the buildings, filled with crumbling walls, broken glass and rubble. These buildings looked so massive to me that I wondered how they could have been knocked down. Soon we came to a grey house with a big glass window on the main floor. Tatu took out a key and Mama and I followed him inside into a room with round tables and chairs. At one end, there was a glass case full of meats and cheeses with jars of pickles and glass globes of candies on top. I stood in amazement at the sight of all this food. In the village, we ate mostly potatoes, eggs, cabbage and a mushy cornmeal. Once in a while one of the boys killed a chicken or caught a rabbit for a special meal.
“This is where we live and work,” Mama told me and took me upstairs. “And this is your room.” She showed me a room with a bed pushed up against the wall, a chest of drawers and a straight backed wooden chair.
I finally broke my silence. “Will you sleep here with me?”
“No, I’ll be next door with Tatu.”
“I have to sleep all by myself?” Back home I shared a bed with the boys and Irina’s bed was just an arm’s length away.
“Don’t worry. I’m close by.”
That evening, Mama sat down beside me and helped me to fold my clothes neatly on the chair that she’d put beside the bed so that I wouldn’t fall out during the night. I started to cry again.
“Don’t cry, sweetheart.”
“But I want to go home.”
“This is you home now. You’ll soon get used to it.”
“I won’t!” I said, clutching my new doll to my chest.
“I’ll sing you a lullaby.” Mama’s voice was sweet and soothing. I was so tired out by the day’s events that soon I drifted off to sleep.
For the first few nights, I woke up in the dark screaming and Mama would lie down with me until I fell asleep again. In the daytime, I kept searching the street hoping to see Irina and the boys coming to take me back to the village. I couldn’t believe that they would just leave me here with these strangers whom I had to call Mama and Tatu. But nobody came. The doll, whom I’d named Rutka, was my only friend and confidante. I told her secretly that I was beginning to like Mama. She was gentle and kind. But Tatu still scared me. Although he tried to be nice to me, there was something in his eyes that told me that he could be really mean if I wasn’t careful.
Mama and Tatu ran a store which sold alcohol and all kinds of staples and delicacies that Tatu obtained on his many business trips. There were a few small tables at which customers could socialize over a drink and a snack. The atmosphere was more relaxed when Tatu was away. I didn’t have to chew with my mouth closed and use a knife and fork instead of my fingers.
But one thing Mama was strict about. Every bright and sunny day, I had to play outdoors.
One morning after I’d asked her for perhaps the tenth time, “Why do I always have to go outside?”, Mama wiped her hands on a dish towel and sat me down at one of the round tables.
“Because we were hiding in a cellar for a long time without food and sunshine during the war. Now that we have both, we have to appreciate it.”
“But I wasn’t in a cellar.”
“That’s true. But fresh air and sunshine will make you healthy and strong.”
“But I am strong,” I said, making a fist and holding up my arm for inspection.
“Yes, you are, thank God. And I want you to stay that way.” Mama got up and took my hand, walking me to the door. “Now, enough of your arguments. Go outside and play with your ball.”
Instead, I sat on the stoop and sulked. I wished for rainy days to stay indoors with my books. Mama was teaching me how to read and books were opening up a whole new world for me. I especially loved the picture book with the story of a prince who rescued a beautiful maiden, who was really a princess, from a fire breathing dragon. Mama looked like the princess. When Tatu was angry, he looked like the dragon.
Sometimes when the weather was bad, I sat in the store, just watching and listening to the people at the tables. The Russian officers always sat by themselves in the same corner. Everybody got quieter when they entered but they liked me and gave me chocolates. There was one handsome officer with hair so blonde that it looked almost white. He always greeted me with a bow, kissed my hand and called me “Miss Mirka.” It made me giggle but secretly I was pleased to be treated with such dignity. I wondered if he was a prince in disguise.
One sunny afternoon, this officer came alone to the store without his friends and took me inside with him where he lifted me up on the counter. I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the dark interior while he talked to Mama.
“You have a lovely daughter, Pani Teplitzky. She looks just like you,” he said to Mama with a smile that showed all his white teeth.
“Thank you, Captain Petroff.” Mama beamed at him in a way that I never saw at any other time.
“So what kind of delicacies has your husband procured for us this time?” the Captain asked.
“He finds only the best.” Mama bent down behind the counter and pulled out a brown bottle, a small jar of black stuff and some rye bread.
“Ah, French cognac! And caviar! Your husband is truly a genius to find such treasures in times like these.”
Mama poured the amber liquid into a couple of little glasses for herself and Captain Petroff. She filled a glass for me with my favourite drink, sok, a lovely pink liquid made with raspberry syrup and soda water that tickled my nose.
We all clinked glasses and said, “Nazdrovye!” before we drank.
I kept looking back and forth between the captain and Mama. He was very handsome and gallant. And Mama looked so different in his presence. Some of her hair had come loose out of her bun and had fallen around her face. She kept pushing it behind her ears and her cheeks were flushed. She and Captain Petroff were smiling at each other as if I wasn’t even there.
“Have you finished your drink?” Mama asked me. I was trying to make it last as long as possible so I could prolong this time together with her and the captain. “Look, the sun’s out. Time to go outside,” Mama said.
I tried to protest but, at a nod from Mama, Captain Petroff lifted me down from the counter onto the floor and shooed me out the door like a pesky poodle.
But there was no one to play with and I was lonely. It was times like that when I especially missed the boys and the big black dog, Bobo, too. He used to follow me around in the yard of the cottage. After a few weeks I had stopped asking to go home because every time I did, Mama looked so sad that I began to feel guilty.
After a while, I got up and bounced my ball on the pavement without much enthusiasm. Then I started throwing it against the strip of uneven stone wall beside the large window of the store. It felt good to throw it as hard as I could. I wasn’t a very good catcher yet, so the ball kept rolling off the sidewalk into the cobble stoned street. I was getting tired running after it and every throw made me angrier. No one cared about me. Irina and the boys hadn’t even come to visit. And now, I wasn’t allowed to stay inside with Mama and Captain Petroff, who had obviously forgotten all about me as they enjoyed themselves.
Through the window I could see Mama and the captain laughing and drinking from their little glasses. It just wasn’t fair! I stamped my foot and threw the ball as hard as I could. It missed the strip of wall and hit the plate glass window instead, shattering it into what looked like a million pieces. I froze and let the ball roll away down the street.
“Mirka, what happened?” Captain Peroff came running out and lifted me in his strong arms. Bright red blood was spurting from my wrist all over his uniform.
“Oh, my God!” Mama was right behind him, wringing her hands.
The captain put me on a table and gripped my arm. The people from the other tables crowded around as Mama ripped off her apron and tore it into strips. She ran behind the counter to get a bottle of vodka and wet one of the strips of cloth with it.
“Be brave, darling,” Mama said as she pulled a shard of glass out of my wrist and dabbed the cut with the vodka. But I couldn’t help myself. I howled with pain. Captain Petroff held me firmly against him while Mama tied the wound up tight to stop the bleeding.
“There, it’s all done.”
There were whispers and sighs as the customers went back to their tables. Mama kissed my wet cheeks and pushed the wet strands of hair back from my face.
“Let’s see if we can find some way to make you feel better.”
Captain Petroff put his cap on my head, gave me a big grin, and carried me over to the counter. I tried hard to smile but my wrist still throbbed. After I had a small sip of a fiery sweet liquid and a handful of candies, the pain was more bearable.
“I should have been watching her more closely,” Mama said to Captain Petroff.
“Don’t upset yourself, Hannah. It was an accident. Accidents can happen any time.”
“My husband will be furious when he comes home. The child bandaged upâ€¦.the window brokenâ€¦..”
“Please don’t worry. I’ll make arrangements to have the window repaired. When will your husband be back?” Captain Petroff reached around me to clasp Mama’s hands.
“He’s supposed to be gone till the end of the week.”
“Good. I’ll send someone tomorrow morning. In the meantime, I’ll nail up some boards over it.”
“Thank you, Vlodya,” Mama’s voice softened. “You’re such a big help.” And she flashed him one of her brilliant smiles.
Unexpectedly, Tatu came home the next day.
“What happened here?” he demanded to know from Mama just as the man sent by Captain Petroff was finishing off repairing the window.
“Lower your voice! The child!”
“What happened to her?” Tatu pointed at my bandaged wrist. My stomach lurched and a trickle of fear ran down my spine.
“Mirka, go play outside.” Mama practically pushed me out the door.
With a backward glance at Tatu’s angry face, I headed out and sat on the stoop, my chin cupped in my hands. Clouds were darkening the sky and soon, a few drops splashed down on me. Now it was safe to go in. There were no customers. I sat down at one of the tables and waited. Tatu’s booming voice broke through the sound of the pounding rain outside.
“Pshia krev!” I cringed as I heard him curse. “What the hell was that bastard doing here again? I told him to stay away from you!”
The thunder and lightening combined with Tatu’s roar made me shiver with fear. I tiptoed closer to the backroom door. When I heard Mama’s muffled sobs, I imagined the worst. What if Tatu was hitting her like he sometimes hit me when he lost his temper? I flung the door open and threw myself into Mama’s arms.
“What are you doing to Mama?” I shouted.
“See what you’ve done? You’ve upset the child,” Mama said and put her arms around me.
“I’ll tell you one last time. If I ever see him here again, I’ll kill him!” With that, Tatu stomped out of the room.
Mama kissed me on the head. “You don’t have to worry about me, sweetheart. Tatu would never hit me.”
“But he was shouting at you. Why was he angry?”
“He’s had a hard life. He gets angry when he’s upset. You’ll understand when you grow up. Now let’s go and get you a glass of milk and a piece of chocolate cake.”
I didn’t understand. Holding Mama’s hand, I went back into the store. I saw Tatu downing a glass filled with vodka. When he saw me, he hoisted me up on the counter, stroking my cheek.
“You’re getting almost too big for sitting up here,” he said. “You should sit at a table like a big girl.” With that, he carried me over to the closest table and sat me down in a chair.
“Does your arm still hurt?”
“It’s much better,” I mumbled, not meeting his eyes.
“Good. You’re very brave.”
Mama came over carrying a plate with a piece of chocolate cake and a glass of milk. Under their watchful gaze, I forced myself to eat and drink, although I really didn’t feel like it.
Captain Petroff never came into the store again. Over the years, I became more aware of Tatu’s tirades and tried hard to keep from triggering one of them, not always successfully. I lived in dread of these eruptions. As for Mama, she always made excuses for him and acted as if it was somehow her fault. Her face lost the beauty she’d had when I first saw her at the train station and she became drawn and anxious. I rarely saw that brilliant smile that she had shown to the captain. As for Irina and the boys, I never saw them again.