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< Echoes of Memory

Jarosław, Living as Catholics


By Halina Peabody

When our captor left us, the three of us found ourselves standing on a sidewalk of a strange city. We had no luggage, little money, only the few zlotys that he returned. Mother spotted a little café and decided to walk in. She requested some milk for my sister and then started asking customers if anybody knew of a place where we could find lodging. A young man got up and said he knew a washerwoman who took lodgers and offered to take us there.

We followed him and he introduced us to a small lady, explaining that we were looking for a place to stay. Mother told her that we have no money but she would look for work immediately to pay her for hosting us. The lady looked us up and down and I thought she might not take us, but she said she would. Then a couple of her sons appeared and, seeing us, urged her not to take us. (You can’t blame them, we had spent four days and nights on the train and must have looked it!) But I’ll never forget what she said to them, and I am quoting: “Oh no, no, this is a mother and two children, I have to take her!” And she did. She gave us one bed, just perfect to keep warm with me sleeping at their feet. The next morning, Mother went out and found one of many odd jobs, which paid for our keep, and we slowly and gingerly started our new life as Catholics. I went to school and our kind landlady looked after my sister. 

There were many pitfalls for me. Going to school, I had the advantage of knowing how to read but had zero knowledge of the religion. Of course one of the subjects was religion. I was saved by a book, which the priest gave to every student, it was called the catechism and contained questions and answers for us to study. It took me no time to swallow that book, which saved me from being caught with wrong answers. I eventually received Communion and managed not to make any fatal mistakes! Of course I understood that this was role-playing, and I hoped not to offend the Catholic religion by pretending to belong, but I did so want to live and being Jewish was a death sentence, so I couldn’t afford not to continue in my role as a Catholic. 

We were on very thin ice and anything could give us away, so we were always alert and very careful. Mother knew that our papers may not be real and so was worried about being stopped in the street and asked for documents. In order to find some security she tried to sign us up to go to Germany, where they always needed workers. She explained to me that the Germans were not as good as the Poles in recognizing Jews, so it would be safer. However, they would have taken her and me, but not my little sister, so of course we didn’t go. In a bold and brave move, she marched into the German military camp and applied for a job! She knew that they would ask for papers, and they did, and we lived in dread during the time that they were checking them, but she did get the job and the Ausweiss (ID card), which proved that she was working for the Germans. 

Indeed, on one occasion when the Germans swooped into our home and took everybody to the Gestapo station to check them out, we three were the only ones left because Mother showed them the Ausweiss! The other people who lived with us were taken away to the Gestapo station, were checked out and came back the next morning, but we were spared that trip!

We didn’t know what was going on at the front. Radio and newspapers were strictly forbidden and being caught with them was punishable by death. With great trepidation, Mother exchanged a couple of letters with the people we left behind and one of these letters brought us the news about my father. He had sent a letter through the Red Cross that he was free and safe with his sister in Palestine! Great and welcome news but we couldn’t do anything about it as long as we were occupied.

One morning we woke up very early and were surprised that there were no carts and horses on the street as usual. The silence was deafening. We were discussing whether Mother should go to work. Suddenly there was a tremendous blast, a bomb had exploded over the house. I started screaming “my hand, my hand.” Mother grabbed my sister and me and we walked into the street and started walking toward the hospital. My hand was bleeding badly, and when we finally got to the hospital, they picked me up and put me in a doctor’s office to patch me up. Unfortunately they had to take my left thumb off altogether and I had lost half of my little finger. The palm was an open wound. They patched me up and put my hand on a rail to keep it straight. They then told my mother that if it got infected, they would have to amputate my hand altogether.

My mother and sister spent that night with me at the hospital. When they got back to our lodgings they discovered that the building was in shambles, the bomb destroyed it. Unfortunately, it also caused the ceiling in the kitchen to fall down and kill our landlady. A kind neighbor took Mother and Ewa in and we lived there until we left Poland.

I spent two months in the hospital and owe a debt to my nurses; the Catholic nuns kept me from getting an infection and my hand finally healed. Mother did knitting jobs and was able to pay for our keep and for notices she sent to Palestine to find Father. But our troubles were not over because Mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have an operation immediately. When we finally found Father, he sent his sister’s son, Arye, to help us get out of Poland.

© 2022, Halina Peabody. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   halina yasharoff peabodyechoes of memory, volume 14hidingreligionlettersoccupied polandgestapo



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