September 17, 2006
By Charlene Schiff
It was midwinter of 1943. I was on top of a mound of hay inside a barn, trying to stay warm, when a hand removed the hay covering my upper body. I found myself staring at a young woman with a look of surprise on her face.
Only the day before I had been in the forest. It was brutally cold. The little pit where I usually hid didn’t give me much protection from the elements. I realized then I would not survive another day in the forest.
I made my way to a nearby village. It was difficult—my outer clothing was threadbare, the top of one of my shoes was separated from the sole. I tied the shoe together with pieces of my underwear and walked toward the village. I was hampered by the shoes, which were falling apart, and so the relatively short distance took almost all night.
Several farms were close by. I picked one which looked substantial and proceeded toward the large barn. The snow made everything quite visible. I walked gingerly toward the main doors and opened them. No dogs—great, I thought. I climbed up to the top of a pile of hay. It was almost dawn. I was exhausted. The last few nights I hadn’t slept for fear I would not wake up. Shivering from the cold, and half of me wet from walking in the snow, I fell asleep.
It couldn’t have been much later when I found myself facing the young woman. She put her finger to her mouth indicating for me to be quiet, and then she disappeared.
I wasn’t tired anymore. Would this woman denounce me? I wondered. Would she bring the authorities here, or would she come back and drag me to them? It was broad daylight, and I was in no shape to escape. My shoes were almost disintegrated—I couldn’t run barefoot. Was this going to be the end? I was cornered. All the fight had gone out of me.
There was a lot of activity below. I heard voices and I felt like shouting, “Hey, I’m here, and I’m a human also.” I heard dogs barking, and wondered where they had been when I arrived.
Later in the afternoon the young woman returned. Again she had her finger to her lips, and I kept quiet. She was quite young. She wore a flowered babushka, tied under her chin and pulled around the back of her neck. She had high cheekbones, a full mouth, and her eyes were a sliver of the bluest sky. Her complexion was pale, and the visible wisps of her hair light brown. She was pretty, and didn’t look threatening. She brought a pail with her and took out some warm soup and bread. She spread a small towel in front of me and motioned for me to eat. I didn’t believe my eyes. The soup was warm and delicious and the bread heavenly. She whispered her name—Paranka—and said she’d be back the next day. It took a long time to sink in. I had been treated like a human being, with kindness and generosity. I had forgotten how that felt.
Early next morning, Paranka came and brought me more food—bread, milk, and dried fruit. She also brought a set of flannel pajamas. She told me to put them on, which I did. When she saw my bare feet, she asked where my shoes were. When I showed them to her, she had tears in her blue eyes, but I didn’t say anything.
The next day when she came up, she had a pair of slightly used boots in her pail, along with more food and a shawl. The boots were a bit large, but inside them she had two pairs of heavy socks. She didn’t ask many questions but she was fully aware of what I needed. Every day at different times she would come up and bring food and more warm clothing. Once, she made a quiet remark: “The dogs sleep indoors, and you are here. Where is justice?” She said she had been working there for over two years. Apparently, she had a large responsibility on the farm—all day I heard people calling Paranka this, Paranka that.
This went on for almost two unbelievable weeks. I was still hungry but was ashamed to admit it to Paranka. She was so generous, and so very thoughtful. She outfitted me with warm clothes and more good food than I had had in the longest time.
One day, at mid-morning, two policemen arrived on a horse-drawn sled. They asked for the farmer, who was not home at the time. The farmer’s wife came out. The policemen said they wanted to see Paranka. The farmer’s wife became agitated and asked them why. They didn’t bother to explain. Paranka came out of the main house. Everything was loud and I heard it all. They asked for her papers. She went back to the house to get them. All of the farmhands were outside watching Paranka come out with the papers. I could see it all through the slots in the roof. After a short while, I couldn’t hear what transpired but I certainly heard two shots. The farmer’s wife screamed, “My beautiful Paranka, she was not a Jew.”
“Shut up, or we’ll burn down the farm” one of the policemen warned her.
The sun came out for a while, and then hid in shame behind the dark clouds. It was snowing heavily, and the pure white snow tried in vain to cover up the evidence of that murder.
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