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3. Back to the Grodno Ghetto
Dad and I returned to the empty Ghetto. All the people were gone. Itlooked like a deserted Western town. We immediately went to a hidingplacethat one of my uncle's had built in his bakery. When we arrived, therewere afew others hiding. We joined them but there wasn't enough food tosustain allofus for very long. Some of the people left in the middle of the night tojoin thePartisans, (resistance fighters) in the forest. There were only four ofus left,my Father, my Uncle, a Jeweler and Me. The Jeweler had a suitcase fullofjewelry. Gold watches, bracelets, gold necklaces and much more. Heasked myFather if he knew of a Christian who would be willing to hide him untilafter thewar in exchange for the gold. Dad replied:
I know of a couple ofChristianfriends who might be willing to take a chance. We will leave our hidingplacetonight and go to the village where they live.
Under cover of darknessmyFather, the Jeweler and I left our hiding place, dodged search lights,crossed acemetery with open graves, slid down an embankment, crossed the river uptoour waist in water, took off our yellow Stars of David and walked thestreetspretending we were Christians. We arrived at the first house one o'clock in themorning. When the lady of the house saw us at the door she got scaredandsaid nervously. "Please leave, you are putting our lives at risk." Weleft andfound another house about one kilometer away. We gently knocked on thedoor. The lady of the house saw us through her upstairs window. Shecamedown quietly and motioned to us to enter quickly. She hid us under thestepsand said, don't make a sound until I come in the morning.
The next morning we heard many footsteps. They were the sound of boots. We heard German being spoken. My heart stopped for a moment andI couldn't breathe. Through the cracks, I saw Gestapo people in brown uniforms going up and down the stairs. The jeweler was the one who appeared to be the most frightened.
The Gestapo happily thanked the Polish lady for a nice breakfast. As they left the house, our eyes were fixed on them through the cracksbetween the riser facing the front door. The spit-polished black boots wereonly inches from our heads as the risers bent slightly under their weight. The Polish lady came over to the crawl space under the stairs and motionedusto come out. She first bolted the front door. The lady askedincredulously,"Do you realize where you are? The Gestapo live here. Had you come duringthe daytime you would have been shot." Luckily for us, she had no love for Nazis and agreed to help us. She ran a boarding house for the Gestapo.She informed us that she would hide the jeweler in a barn down the road.
Shortly after the Gestapo left, she came to our hideout and said,"Get ready to leave now." In the darkness of the crawl space, I grabbed thelittle black suitcase and rushed to the front door, with Dad right behind me.We had to move fast and undetected to return to our hiding place in thevacant portion of the ghetto -- it was the only safe place we could think of.
We again had to walk clear across town to the creek, cross it, andhike up the embankment to the cemetery fence. We crawled under the barbedwire fence leading to the cemetery and crossed the cemetery in totaldarknessin order to avoid being spotted by searchlights. We had finally arrivedsafely!
We removed the obstruction from the hidden entrance to the cellar and descended below ground. We lit a candle and found everythingintact, just the way we left it, except for one thing. We were exhausted fromthe dangerous trip back to our hideout. I undressed and opened my littleblack suitcase to put on some dry clothes for the night. To my amazement,instead of finding my clothes and personal possessions, my eyes were blinded bythe riches of a king's treasury. The suitcase was filled with gold,glittering diamonds, necklaces and earrings. The contents of the suitcase sparkled brilliantly in the dim candlelight. Gold coins in different sizes andvarious shades of gold, from many countries, spilled over my mattress! Somewere yellow gold and others bronze gold.
This suitcase was much heavier than mine. I had failed to notice the difference in weight in the haste of my departure. I quickly realizedwhathad happened. I called to Dad and showed him the contents. I had in my possession Mr. Weiss's suitcase and he had mine, filled with oldclothesand worthless junk. It did not take us long to decide that tomorrow nightwe must make the dangerous trip back to town again and return Mr. Weiss's suitcase to him, even though it meant risking capture and spendinganother day under the steps of the Gestapo. Dad said to me, "This time I'll goalone, it will be less dangerous and I can move more quickly."
I begged him totakeme along. I was too scared to be there alone. I began to cry. Dadcounseledme on the danger involved. I said to my Father, "If you are caught, what goodismy life here alone? How long can I survive in this cellar without you?"
I continued, "If you are caught, I want to be caught also. I don't wantto beleft alone in the world. Dad agreed that we would take the trip togetheronce more, the two of us.
As soon as it got dark, we silently climbed out of our cellar hiding place. The ghetto was empty and we felt safer making the trip thesecond time. We went to the gate, over the fence to the cemetery. Wedescendedto the river bank, entered the icy cold water under the cover of darkness and crossed the fast flowing stream at the same place as before. We walkedacross town to the house where the jeweler by now had discovered the dilemmahe was in, and wondered what was to become of his life. We made certainthat it was very late at night when we arrived and that all the lights in thehouse were out. Dad picked up a small pebble and threw it at the window wherethe lady was supposed to have been sleeping. After the landlady opened the window, Dad came out of the shadows and revealed his identity. Thewoman then came down and opened the door for us. We already knew thedirection of the crawl space under the steps and headed right to it. The ladyquietly closed the front door and went back to sleep.
In the morning we informed her and Mr. Weiss how it all happened. Dad explained that I took Mr. Weiss's suitcase by mistake and was sorryfor all the anxiety we had caused him. Mr. Weiss, who had been hiding in asmall corner in the attic was brought down to join us. His eyes shone with disbelief when he saw us. He hugged us and cried with joy.
It was one o'clock in the morning before it was safe for us to leave. Then Dad and I set out again in the heavy darkness of night. There wasno moon out that night, and as we walked through town we accidentally bumped into a couple of drunks walking the street late at night. Wepolitely apologized and quickly went on.
We saw a slight reflection in the river from the scanningsearchlights, so we knew where we were. We followed the river bank to the exact spot where we crossed each time before. After crossing, we walked up the embankment, under the fence, into the cemetery to the ghetto fence. Carefully we climbed the ten foot fence into the ghetto and proceededtoour hiding place, which was just a short distance. It wouldn't be muchlonger before we would feel the security of our hideout, remove our wetclothes,and get some badly needed rest. Our sanctuary was now in view.
The weatherwas beginning to turn warmer and the snow was turning into slush. There was no need to worry about our footprints now. We reached our house and walked inside. I approached the entrance and noticed that the emptycrates in front of the camouflaged entrance were arranged differently than thewayI left them when we departed the day before. I didn't pay much attentionatfirst and removed them from the entrance door at the closet. I removed thecover at the hideout entrance and lowered myself down into the cellar. I wentfirst because I was smaller and could go down faster to light a candle forDadto see the descent.
I felt my way around the darkness, feeling for the area on the shelf where I knew the matches were kept. I found them right away andproceeded to light a candle. I extinguished the match as the candlelight began tofillthe room. I couldn't believe what I saw!
The entire cellar was ransacked. Everything in sight was destroyedand spilled. The cellar was beyond recognition. There was nothing of value,so nothing was taken, but everything we owned was rendered useless. Ibecame completely speechless. I couldn't utter a sound. I just waited for Dadtocome down to see for himself. The sight spoke for itself. All Dad said was"Oh,my God."
It was obvious that our hideout was discovered the day we took Mr. Weiss's suitcase back to him. Dad said to me, "Had we been greedyand kept the gold for ourselves, we would have been discovered the daybefore and probably shot." I replied to Dad, "Yes, that is true, but had yougonealone and left me here for safety, I wouldn't have been here when youreturned."
There was no way that we could risk spending another day there. The Polish workers would probably bring some SS officers to show off their discovery. We only had a few hours to make a decision.
I don't know what kept me from breaking down in such a hopeless situation. I just wanted to die; there was nowhere else to go. I didn'twantmy Dad to know how I felt and cause him great grief. It was the end of theroad for us. There were no more Jews left in the ghetto. They had all beenshipped to Kelbasin. The entire Grodno ghetto was vacant. Of the 25,000 Jewsthat were here a year ago, to the best of our knowledge, we were the onlyones remaining. My Dad was only 37 years old at that time and he wasdestinedto have to make a decision not only for his life but also for mine. Hewas confused and did not know what to do. He sat down on the floor andsaid, "Let's rest awhile. There was silence. No one spoke and we werethinking. About twenty minutes passed and then Dad said, "Lets go to Bialystoknow."