Chapter 4. Hygiene
Have you ever thought how to maintain reasonable cleanliness, with no shower or bath available, no hot water, and no place to wash yourself? This was my problem for four years. It began in the Lwów Ghetto, with 26 people occupying a two-bedroom apartment with no running water. It continued through nearly all my hideouts in Warsaw and, as a Warsaw refugee in Częstochowa. After the war, in liberated Warsaw, hiding was no longer necessary, but due to widespread destruction and congestion, the subhuman living conditions persisted, and the problem of bathing has not changed. Only after four years, in the Zatrzebie Children’s Home, have I seen again a normal bath with hot water and sufficient amount of soap – free to use.
The longest period when these problems had to be solved was from May 1943 until October 1944 at the Bajer home in Warsaw. There was no bath in the apartment, but there was tap water and sink in the kitchen. We all washed over the sink, under the stream of cold water, with a piece of brown laundry soap. The various "shampoos” and "conditioners,” so common nowadays, were not in existence yet and, as few people realize, the colorful and smelly soaps used today, offer hardly more than the primitive brown soap, as far as hygiene is concerned. For washing legs and the more discreet parts of the body we all used a small wash-basin. In addition, I used a piece of cloth, soaked in water and soap. So I managed to be reasonably clean. There were, of course, other hideouts, where such luxuries were not available, so sometimes a week or two passed without washing.
My fear of getting infested with lice led to obsession of washing my hair daily in cold water and soap. Was it ever necessary? Perhaps. In fact, while handling old Soviet lice-infested army uniforms in the Textilia factory in Lwów, and later, while living from time to time among people plagued with lice, I was never beset by any insects. Was it due to my daily ritual of washing my hair? Isn’t it possible that lice simply did not like the smell and the taste of my skin? Anyway, I was lucky.
There was another fixed idea concerning hygiene. Brushing teeth, perhaps not the most important worry when death was lurking uninterruptedly, was, nevertheless, my constant obsession. There were prolonged periods of time, when toothpaste was not available, or too expensive. However, there was a much cheaper powder for brushing teeth, or a solid piece of "tooth-soap” made of a similar powder (same taste), that was quite effective. And when the toothbrush grew bald because of overuse, my finger with some powder or "tooth-soap” on it would suffice, and the teeth were always taken care of. When necessary, one can manage with very little.
I fully realize that my situation was quite privileged. Many Holocaust victims in the death camps did not have the opportunity of washing, or brushing teeth at all, and "shower” often meant death in a gas chamber. But it is not my intention to haggle about who was dirtier or who suffered more. I am just trying to describe my own circumstances, perhaps privileged in certain respects, but still rough.
As other aspects of the Holocaust, this hard way of adhering to hygienic needs also influenced my way of thinking, and became an inseparable part of my behavior.