November 14, 2018
by Julie Keefer
It is early spring of 1944. I am three years old and living in the home of the Schwarczynskis at 78 St. Sophia Street in Lwów, Poland. My pretend “aunt,” Lucia Nowicka—the Polish Catholic woman who saved my life—is their live-in housekeeper. Rex is the Schwarczynskis’ dog. I cannot really call Rex a pet; he is a guard dog—a huge and ferocious German shepherd. His sharp white teeth and the drool from his mouth glisten in the sun. He barks at Nazis. Because the Nazi governor lives next door to the Schwarczynskis and has Nazi guards and soldiers lined up at his front door, Rex barks constantly. His bark is a deep-throated, menacing growl. Even the Schwarczynskis are intimidated by him. He is kept outdoors on a metal chain. His food and water are shoved to him with a long pole.
Lucia is busy all day, cooking, cleaning, and tending to an old, sway-backed horse and a skinny pig. My six-month-old sister, Tola, “my baby,” is already gone. I am told that a doctor took her to a hospital to make her “all better”; she has not come back yet. I am lonely, so I decide to befriend Rex. As I approach him, Lucia, who is watching me, is about to scream and run after me, but Mrs. Schwarczynski calms her and stops her from coming after me and exciting Rex. I pat Rex and hug his thick neck. He begins licking me with his long, pink tongue. I get on his back.
We become inseparable. He is no longer chained up outside. He starts to sleep on the floor next to my bed. Now, I do not know if this is pure memory on my part, or if Lucia told it to me, or both.
I am sleeping in a bed with a short ladder attached to it. Perhaps it is a crib with a side that can be raised and lowered. I’m not sure which it is. I just remember Rex lurching up and grabbing my pajama top and shaking me awake. Then, somehow, I get on his back, as he takes me out of that room and toward the front door. As I ride on him, I see bright bursts of light and begin to choke on thick smoke. I cover my ears with my hands to block out the loud crashes and bangs nearby. I am shaking. My hands are cold and clammy. I am afraid. I get off Rex, my heart pounding, my blood rushing. Rex places his huge, furry body right next to my chest as though he’s trying to calm me. Finally, my heartbeats become slower and my blood stops rushing. I feel safe. Much later, I am told that a bomb fell right on the spot where my crib had been. Rex saved my life.
How did Rex know that the bomb would fall right where it did? How did he manage to get me out of danger? How did he know that plopping his huge, furry chest next to me would calm me?
Rex was a fierce guard dog. When any Nazi approached the house, it was my job to take Rex under the kitchen table, which was covered with a long tablecloth. I was to hide there with him and keep him calm, not allowing him to bark, or worse, bite a Nazi, as he had once done. Were the Schwarczynskis trying to protect Rex or me? Did they suspect that I was really a Jewish child and not Lucia’s Polish Catholic niece, as she claimed?
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