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Chapter 6: Maria Wieczorek


Hospital. A bath. Clean bedsheets. Three meals a day. Friendly faces.  Polite  doctors  and nurses.  Everybody  smiling at  the youngster who  had "lost  his parents  during the  Uprising" and nearly starved to death.  No one suspected that I was a Jew.  My Polish was faultless, without any trace of a Jewish accent.
My physical examination was quite superficial: auscultation of the heart  and lungs,  a  quick look  into the throat and at the tongue, and palpation of the abdomen.  Luckily,  nobody told me to undress completely.  The  food was  appropriate for my diarrhea, and within several days my bowels were functioning normally. I started gaining weight.  An  orderly offered  to wash my clothes ("these stinking pants"), and for an additional small charge promised to disinfect in formalin.  Gabriel had given  me some  money in Warsaw,  so without  knowing anything  about formalin,  I gladly paid the orderly.
Upon discharge from the hospital I was transferred to the camp for  Warsaw  refugees.  Responsibility  for  the  camp's  proper functioning was shared by the Polish Red Cross and the Principal Protective Council (Rada Glowna Opiekuncza). It was located at the outskirts  of Czestochowa,  and consisted of a row of wooden barracks,  each one  accommodating several  hundred people.  Each person had a place on a wooden  sleeping platform and one thin blanket. The platforms were arranged in long rows,  three levels high. I got a place on the upper level (the third "floor"), at the far end  of the  row.  It was  October and the nights were cold. There were no facilities for bathing. The sight of parents cleaning  their  children's  heads  of  lice  was  common. Near-starvation meals were distributed three times a day. Doctors came at regular times to see the ill; among them I recognized  several  from  the  Infant  Jesus  Hospital.  A Roman Catholic priest visited us daily for prayers, confessions, occasional last rites, and other spiritual needs.
The poverty was overwhelming. Under those living conditions, anyone who  could afford  it moved to  a rented apartment,  or to relatives  or  friends,  if  such  could be  found.  Many Warsaw evacuees had made earlier arrangements, and never arrived in the camp.  Those who  arrived and  stayed  were the  poorest of the poor:  people who  could afford  neither decent living quarters, nor food.  Among them,  there were probably some from well-to-do homes, who had lost everything during the destruction of Warsaw, and had  no relatives  in this  part of  the country.  Into these depths of  misery, the good residents  of Czestochowa came daily and brought food, blankets and clothing.

For me, a light suddenly appeared at the end of this tunnel. It came in the form of three women:  Mrs.  Placek,  her mother Mrs. Sommerfeld and her maid Jasia Wieczorek. Mrs. Placek and her husband owned a pharmacy at Kusciuszko Avenue. At least one of the three  women came every day; more often,  two came together. They immediately took notice of me. The other children in the camp were  with their  parents.  A  child on his own attracted  more attention.  They brought  special meals  just for me,  and after several  days  invited  me  to the Placek  home for  lunch.  This invitation was repeated several times, and finally was converted to a permanent one: lunch every day.  The long walks to the Placek’s home and back to the camp  were a good exercise after 17 months of near-immobilization in the Savior's Square in Warsaw. Also, I became  a  frequent  visitor  of Mrs.  Sommerfeld,  helping  her husband with various chores at their home. The Placeks suggested that  I  look  for  some  long-term  arrangement.  Winter  was approaching, and the camp was a terrible place.
The Red Cross and the Principal Protective Council (RGO) made appeals to the peasants in nearby villages,  asking them for shelter and food for the refugees, in exchange for help on their farms. Some of the peasants  responded  positively.  They  were  willing to  accept youngsters who would stay with them and work.  I was assigned to a family  named Kazik in Rudniki,  12 km (a little over 7 miles) northeast of Czestochowa.  And so,  after having spent about two weeks in the camp, I packed my belongings,  took some food,  and departed  to  Rudniki  by  foot.  Unfortunately,  I had  greatly overestimated my  physical fitness after 2 months of starvation. The 12 km hike, which should have been completed in 3 hours, took me all  day.  My bag  felt heavier  with every  step I  took. I arrived exhausted, hungry and badly depressed.
The reality of my new home did nothing to lift my spirits. The Kaziks lived with their three small children in a simple one-room hut, in which all cooking, eating and sleeping was done. The hygienic conditions were deplorable.  They never undressed for the night. "Washing" meant wetting their faces in the morning, which Mr. Kazik invariably did fully dressed,  with his cap on his head. Cleaning the children's heads of lice was a daily routine. Their meals consisted of boiled potatos with sour milk twice a day, and were the same for everybody. I was not singled out in any unfavorable way.  I must admit that after my experience with starvation,  these  meals  were not  so bad,  but I was still permanently hungry.
I was supposed to watch over the Kazik’s two cows as they grazed.  By anyone's  standards this was not hard work, but for me, without any experience,  it was almost unbearable.  Whenever the clever cows saw me, they ran away to a far-away field, and I was terribly afraid of losing them.  They were,  after all,  the Kaziks' main  possession.  Running  after  the  cows,  I  became exhausted,  barely able to catch my breath,  and I cried and cursed the cows. After every such episode, the Kaziks sent their little boy, 3 years old, to bring the cows back.  He did so without any difficulty.  The Kaziks  were amused by my correct Polish.  They spoke the  slang of the local peasants  with complete disregard for grammar,  pronunciation  and  syntax.  They  looked  at  me sarcastically,  and  I  often  heard  comments  about  "the city intellectual who  speaks like  a poet,  but  cannot catch a cow. Our baby son is so much more useful!". Indeed, he was. My unhappiness increased,  and  within several  days I decided to return to  Czestochowa.  The Kaziks  did not  shed any tears upon my departure.  They were happy at my decision,  and wished me well, giving me some bread for the return hike.
In Czestochowa I returned to the refugee camp. With the approach of winter, many people there had increased their efforts to leave the camp, and during my absence, the population had thinned out. Upon my return I promptly contacted the Placeks, telling them about my  unhappy experiences in the country, and asking  for their advice.  They were concerned and wanted to help. Jasia, their maid, told her parents about me, and a few days later they offered me a place  at their home.  I accepted gratefully,  and joined Jasia's family, this time leaving the camp permanently.

The head of the family, Jozef Wieczorek, was about 60 years old. He worked and supported the family. I do not remember his occupation, but the family supplemented their income by plaiting baskets from  cane,  in which everybody participated,  and I too became  actively  involved.  There were  three children:  Jasia, Antek  and  Stasia.  Jasia,  Mrs.  Placek's  maid,  was  in  her twenties,  hard working  and kind.  Antek was 18 years old,  and wild.  I did  not like  his friends,  and was a little frightened of them.  Stasia was 16 or 17, worked hard at home,  and was always very sad.
Maria Wieczorek was Jozef's second wife, and did not have children  of  her  own.  She  was  an  intelligent  woman,  and understood that  one of  her main  functions was to provide a good upbringing for her husband’s children. Therefore, she tried to be close  to  them,  to help  and educate,  and  frequently offered criticism and  advice.  But the  children never  accepted her as their  mother,  and  her  attempts  were  met  with  resistance, creating constant tension.  Antek in particular was arrogant and offensive to her. Maria Wieczorek read books.  She had clear-cut political  views,  which  were  conservative.  She  (as  indeed everybody  in  the  Wieczorek  family) did not like Jews. Antisemitic jokes were frequent.
Religion was very much the center of family life. Every Sunday the  family attended Mass.  I often  accompanied them,  but sometimes went  alone,  to a different church.  Everybody prayed before meals, before sleep, and upon rising.

Czestochowa is a great pilgrimage attraction and the center of religious life in Poland. The famous Jasna Gora Monastery houses a famous picture of the Virgin Mary,  believed by many to have miraculous powers.  Terminally  ill  people  and  invalids  come  to  the Czestochowa Virgin to pray, hoping to recover from prolonged and incurable illnesses.  It  is the Polish equivalent of the shrine of the Virgin of Lourdes in France.  The proximity to Jasna Gora with its  miraculous picture  is the  main reason  for the  deep religious feeling of  the local  population.  Shops with  devotional articles abound  and are an important source of income for local residents.
The monastery founded in the 14 century has a very rich and interesting history,  and is the city's main tourist attraction. It provided the center of national and religious support during the wars with Sweden in the 17 and early 18 century. Serving as an important fortress, it was badly damaged and nearly conquered by  the Swedes  in 1655. Many  in Poland  considered its ability  to  withstand  the  prolonged siege  miraculous.  This spiritual  support  continued  through  later  centuries, particularly during the 123 years of partition,  when Poland was divided up between its three powerful neighbors.  As all of my time was free,  I visited Jasna Gora several times,  entering all its churches,  chapels and  museums.  I was  deeply impressed by its majestic appearance and rich collections.
Walking the streets gave me many opportunities to see interesting things,  not  always pleasant.  There  was the HASAG camp,  where Jewish  slave labor  was used  for the needs of the German military  machine,  mainly in the munitions factory.  It was  located  on  the  eastern  outskirts  of the  town,  in the Zawodzie section, behind the river Warta. Heavily guarded groups of Jews from HASAG were led to the city,  for labor.  I saw them on a  number of  occasions; they reminded me of the prisoners of Janowska camp in Lwow, and sent chills down my spine. I also saw Polish prisoners  of war  laboring while  guarded by German soldiers.
I also met youngsters, whom I tried to avoid, but they often approached me.  One  looked at  my semitic  face and  asked with suspicion whether  I was a Christian.  Did he really expect me to tell him  the truth? Of  course,  I "confirmed" my Aryan origins and good Christian faith. Another lad looked at me, and all of a sudden shouted  "Jewboy!".  I did  not react,  and later avoided that street. However, in contrast to Warsaw,  I was not aware of any  instances  of  blackmailing.  I  never  heard  about anyone demanding  gorals,  perhaps,  because  the phenomenon  of Jews hiding among Christians was most unusual in Czestochowa.  Nobody asked me  why I  was not  in school; staying  out of  school was common at this late stage of war,  particularly among youngsters in their mid-teens.

One day in November, during one of my walks, I had a wonderful surprise.  In  the  street, walking towards me,  was  Uncle Gabriel.  We were both equally surprised and very happy,  but we behaved  in  a  very  restrained way,  in  order not  to attract attention.  Since we  had lost contact in Warsaw,  on the way to the transit camp  in Pruszkow,  neither of us had known anything about the other’s whereabouts. Nor did we know anything about Tosia and Leszek. It turned out  that Gabriel  had been on  the same  train to Czestochowa that I had,  but in a different car,  and  so  we had not met.  He had not  stayed in  the refugee camp,  but had managed to find a cheap room with  a family  in the  center of  town.  He took me to his home,  where  we  conversed  for  a  long  time,  discussed  the political situation,  exchanged  addresses,  and decided to keep close contact from then on. He gave me some money,  part of which I immediately spent on a pair of shoes.
I had been using one pair of shoes since 1942. They were now several  years  old,  torn  beyond  repair,  and served  more as decoration than  protecting the  feet.  I bought a pair of cheap, war-style  wooden  clogs.  The  sole  was  a  smoothed-out 30 cm segment of board; the  upper part was made of coarse leather. The wooden sole did not bend, which made walking uncomfortable. However, better shoes were still beyond my means. Later, during the  winter,  I  discovered  that  because  of  wood's  poor conductivity, these shoes were good at keeping in heat, and my feet stayed warm. My pants were also torn in several places,  and new holes  appeared  every day.  But  with  my  limited  financial resources, I sewed the holes as best I could, and waited for the end of the war to get a new pair of trousers.
When I became 15 years old, I needed an official identification card ("Kennkarte"). I went to the German-controlled Citizen Registration Office  and applied  for one.  As  legal basis  for obtaining the card,  I presented my birth certificate and school identification card,  both  "made to  order" and purchased by my father in  Lwow.  My documents  did not arouse suspicion,  and an identification  card was  issued in  the name  of Jozef Balicki, with my photograph on it (Fig. 32). So finally,  toward the end of the war,  I was properly registered and equipped with a genuine document.

Fig 32
Fig. 32:  My German Identification Card

Living at the Wieczorek home, I was treated like a member of the family.  This  meant  participating  in  various  religious activities, such as attending church and praying before sleep. I tried  to  copy  the  others  as  best  I  could.  Before sleep, everybody  prayed  while  kneeling, and so did  I.  One evening, when I had just finished my prayers, Mrs. Wieczorek quietly told  me,  “You are  supposed to  kneel in  front of  a cross  or picture of a saint, not somebody's photograph.”.  I realized that I had  committed a  cardinal error.  I  thought that  it was the kneeling itself  that counted,  not  realizing that  it was  the expression of honoring God. I was very alarmed.  In an instant it became clear to me that Mrs.  Wieczorek was warning me.  She had seen me  several times before,  kneeling and praying in front of some family photograph or a landscape picture,  but did not want to draw the others’ attention to my mistake. Therefore, she had waited until the two of us were alone,  and then  gently pointed out my blunder.  She was  very kind  and tactful.  The word Jew was not uttered and she did not mention her suspicion.  A suspicion? She must have  known for  a long time that I was a Jew and protected me from her own family. I was very greatful that she did not ask me directly about my origins,  because,  if confronted,  I would have found it most difficult to lie to her.  For a long time I avoided looking into her eyes.
Another related episode occurred a short time later. On entering into the  role  of Jozef Balicki, a Roman Catholic,  I  conditioned myself  not  to  admit  that my  father was  a businessman  - an occupation common  among Jews  in pre-war Poland.  The father of Jozef  Balicki  was  a  police  officer,  a  thoroughly Catholic occupation in Poland. Antek was impressed by this,  and one day, while we  ate lunch,  asked  me about  my father's  rank in  the police. Without hesitation, I answered "Captain". This surprised him  very  much:  According to  my documents,  we  had lived  in Zborow, the little town where the taxicab breakdown had occurred on our way to Zbaraz on September 3, 1939. "Was there a Captain in the police force of Zborow?", asked Antek.  I answered,  this time hesitatingly:  “Well,  maybe he was a lieutenant...”. Maria Wieczorek,  realizing  that  I  was  getting  into  trouble, interfered: “Antek,  why won't you leave Jozek alone; how can he remember what his  father's rank was so many years ago?”. Antek shut his  mouth and  stopped bothering me.  Maria's intervention saved me  in an instant. Can there be any doubt that she knew who I was, and protected me?

Until today, any mention of Czestochowa or Jasna Gora immediately brings this remarkable  woman to  my mind.  I am unable to think about that period in my life without thinking of her. Was she an  antisemite? Like other  members of her family,  and almost everybody  in  Czestochowa,  she disliked  Jews very  much.  She blamed  Jews  for most  of the  troubles that  Poland had ever  had: economic, social, and political. She even disliked the great Polish national  leader, Jozef  Pilsudski,  because "he protected Jews".  Indeed,  I remember my mother crying when Pilsudski died in 1935,  for the   same reason that Maria Wieczorek opposed Pilsudski and rejected his ideas. But at the same time she hid a Jewish boy in her home.
She protected me not only from outsiders, the Nazis, the hostile world, but also from her own family. Apparently, her dislike of Jews  was one  thing,  but the thought of sending a Jewish boy she knew  out into the street in the cold of winter,  perhaps into the hands of the Nazis, was quite another. Perhaps she recalled some Jews whom  she had  known,  and who were not quite as bad as her image of  Jews in  general. Perhaps this was her reaction to the hostility which  she suffered  from her  adopted children. While realizing that  I was a Jew,  she preferred not to talk about it and not  to confront  me.  In case  of disclosure  by the Nazis, sheltering  a  Jew knowingly  could  mean death  for the  entire family.  Playing  ignorant seemed less dangerous,  but if the Gestapo came,  could she prove that sheltering me was an "honest mistake"? For  the  sake  of  one  Jewish  stranger  she  was endangering  her  life and  the lives  of her  family in  the most serious way. I did not pay her anything and she could not expect any reward,  at  least not  in this world.  "Pilsudski protected Jews..." Didn't she? Blessed be her memory.

*     *     *

During my visit to Poland in 1989 I went to Czestochowa and tried to locate the house at 32B Tomaszowska Street, where the Wieczoreks had  lived. However,  during the  past four decades, many streets had been renamed  after various  generals of World War II, communist leaders,  and others. There is no Tomaszowska Street in Czestochowa today.  I met an elderly taxicab driver who had lived in  Czestochowa all  his life and knew the city well,  but even he did not remember the street, and was unable to find it. Looking for Maria Wieczorek 45 years after these events, when she would be about a 100 years old, was pointless.  Wieczorek is an extremely common name in Czestochowa, and the first names of "my" Wieczoreks were  also very  common.  So the  track of Maria Wieczorek has been lost.

*     *     *

The situation on the eastern front changed in December 1944. On August 1, when the Warsaw Uprising had started, the front line had come to a standstill. Praga, the eastern section of Warsaw,  was conquered by  the Soviets on September 14,  but otherwise very little happened during the next three months. In December, a new Soviet offensive started. Every day,  familiar sounding names of Polish  towns  were in  the news,  as  they were  liberated from German occupation.  The  front line was approaching Czestochowa, and the battle for the city was expected to begin any day.
On Wednesday, January 17, 1945, I spent part of the day at the Sommerfeld's home, helping them with some work.  They lived very close to  the Jasna  Gora Monastery.  I  left their  home in the afternoon and  was at  the Virgin  Mary Avenue,  when shots were heard,  and several  Soviet tanks appeared in the street.  I was about 25 meters  (85 feet) away from  a tank  that was  hit by a German missile and started burning. A crew member crawled out of the  tank,  but  was  immediately  hit by  a bullet.  I  saw him falling, apparently dead. There were bullets everywhere, and I ran to the  nearest apartment  house for protection.  Unfortunately, the gate  was locked.  About  10 people squeezed closely against that  gate,  so  firmly  that  we  almost  flattened  out,  and everybody felt protected by others. None of us was hurt. I do not remember how long the battle lasted. When it was over, it was dark. People started dispersing. I ran to the Placek's home, which was  nearby,  and they  let me  stay overnight.  A refugee family  was  staying  with  them,  so  all the beds and  sofas were occupied, but after witnessing the recent battle,  the floor was comfortable enough. Next day I saw Polish and Soviet soldiers in the streets. We were liberated.

The window-panes in all the stores along Virgin Mary Avenue and adjacent streets were broken, providing an easy way for looters to enter  and carry  out goods.  Many  did,  and the stores were quickly emptied. I happened to pass by a large shoe-store at the corner of Virgin Mary and Wolnosci Avenues.  Looters were carrying out loads  of boxes  without even bothering to  look at their contents.  I looked  at my  wooden clogs,  then at the wide-open door.  It was obvious that the store would  be completely emptied within minutes.  After  a short  struggle with my conscience, I entered the  store and  looked around,  trying  to find just one pair of shoes for myself. But everybody else was faster and more efficient,  and  I  was  pushed  around. Eventually, between heaps of empty boxes on the floor, I managed to find two shoes in  two different  shades of  brown,  not a pair,  but one right and one left,  both several sizes too large.  I wrapped my feet in several layers of paper and some rags,  to make them fit the shoes.  They felt comfortable.  Walking out of the store,  I left my clogs behind. At home, Antek ridiculed the appearance of the two unmatched shoes, but Mrs.  Wieczorek said that they looked almost like a pair, and forgave my participation in the looting.

In  Gabriel's  room we planned our next move. We had to return to Warsaw as soon as possible. Before the Uprising,  Stella and her two children lived in Praga (the borough east of Vistula), at 63 Targowa Street. They must be found. Praga had not been destroyed, and the chances  were  that Stella  would still be there,  waiting  for Gabriel,  for me,  and  for Jozek,  whose  participation in  the Uprising and  whereabouts were still unknown to us.  Trains were not running  yet,  and it  was generally assumed that they would first be  converted to the wide-track Soviet system,  which would postpone their operation for a long time.  Because there was no other means  of transportation,  I would have to make the 250 km (155 miles) trip between Czestochowa and Warsaw by foot. Gabriel could not. In  World War I he had lost all his toes, and since then used special orthopedic shoes and a walking stick. He would have to  wait for the trains, no matter how long it would take. He gave me some money for the trip. The Wieczoreks also advised me  to go to Warsaw to try to find my  parents as soon as possible.
Walking all the way by foot would be difficult. I remembered the 12 km trek  to the  Kaziks in Rudniki,  which had lasted all day and exhausted me. However,  there  was busy  military traffic on the roads, in all directions,  and some drivers might be willing to take a hitchhiker along. The Wieczoreks advised me to  take  some  bottles  of vodka  as a  bait for  drivers,  and purchased two bottles for me. I would stand at the roadside with a bottle  in hand,  and  tempt the  drivers to  stop and take me along.
Several days after the liberation, equipped with some bread, two bottles of vodka, and a parcel with all my belongings, I went to the road leading from Czestochowa to Piotrkow and took up  position, holding one of my bottles high up in the air,  to attract the attention of military drivers.


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