Watching the Fire

My 29-year-old mother was smuggled out of the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto one month before its obliteration. She had lived within the city all her life and inside the Ghetto since its creation, and had known hundreds in her home town by name, thousands by sight. But by March 1943 out of all of them—the girl who knew all the answers at school, the aunt whose dog sat beside her table eating from a plate, the dentist whose wife ran away to Paris, the geometry tutor who gave up early on my mother’s math—out of all the people, her father and her husband were the only ones she had left.

Her father and her husband both were essential in her escape. She felt that in some way, however coincidentally, both of them perished because of it. In the war, my mother says, coincidence could be everything.

To run away from the Ghetto and come out alive was almost an impossibility; my mother managed it twice. Her husband orchestrated the first breakout. While her husband scrambled desperately to get her false papers, she lay hidden on the Aryan side, stowed away in the goose cellar of Christina, her family’s pre-war house cleaner. Christina’s husband objected, but Christina let her stay among the geese. When asked why this woman had risked her life for her—they would have been shot on sight had my mother been detected—my mother says, “I was kind to her when she worked at our home.” She shrugs. “I was lucky with people.”

Meanwhile my mother’s husband had scurried all through the underground, among the smugglers and traders of forged documents, trying to buy her a new, safe identity. He could not do it. After a week Christina’s husband prevailed. They turned my mother out. Walking the streets without papers was too dangerous. So she had no other choice. Having escaped from the Ghetto without being caught—one chance in a million—she had to go back in.

Her husband hatched and carried out the second rescue too. But for the plan to work he knew he needed money. He had nobody to turn to except others as poor as they.

Her husband disguised my mother as a young man, then managed to sneak her into a labor crew being marched out to work on the “Aryan” side of Warsaw. There were 12 to be accounted for; my mother’s presence brought the number up to 13. But the German guard had been paid off to look the other way when she ducked under the checkpost spotlights.

How did they get the money for this bribe? The only possession of value left was her father’s overcoat. Her father was by then even more alone than they. His wife—my mother’s mother—had been snared half a year earlier in the first great round-up for Treblinka. My mother stood in between her husband and her father while her husband asked. And when, in their unheated room, they told her father the escape plan, and what they needed to carry it off, he slipped off the coat and handed it to her. Maybe he felt in his bones that the winter just over would be his last. Maybe he calculated that between the two of them, his strong young daughter had the better chance to survive. Maybe he simply had ceased to care. Over the last 50 years, the memory of this one coat has haunted her—as if that thin wool might somehow miraculously have saved the aging man from annihilation.

Her husband, too, escaped the Ghetto. He lived with a group of Christian laborers and worked shoveling bricks from houses destroyed in the bombardments. My mother and her husband made up to meet every week at the construction site where he worked; it was the most they could risk to see each other, and even that was probably too much. Twice she found him there; the third time he was nowhere to be seen. She paced around the block, then circled again, and once again. She waited for an hour, two hours, three, studying everyone. Then, unable to hold herself back, she approached the worker with the least threatening demeanor and described her husband. The man looked both ways and leaned down close, “Gone. Taken away,” he whispered. My mother hurried off. There was no more reason to loiter at the dangerous place where undesirables had been discovered and deported. She knew her husband would not be back.

My mother’s husband had procured false papers before she left the Ghetto for that second escape. With them, she took on the identity of a dead Ukrainian girl named Helenka. She found work as a housekeeper. One month later the reincarnated Helenka stood in a steaming kitchen on the Aryan side cooking an Easter dinner.

The dinner coincided with the christening party of a first-born baby girl, daughter of her new employers. Despite the war, luxuries had been obtained for the important occasion. Helenka was put in charge of the cooking, she who had hardly been allowed to so much as boil an egg in her parents’ pre-war apartment. She was tall, unusual among Polish Jews, and her Polish was pure, so she might look the part. Despite her dark hair and dark eyes, eyes whose sad expression it was said unmasked many an imposter. But it wasn’t only your face that could expose you. Wearing a maid’s uniform and a white lace cap, she peeled the potatoes with thick ungainly strokes and hoped her clumsy heavy-handedness would not divulge her secret.

The party’s piece de resistance was a pig, to be roasted and served whole. Helenka grimly sprinkled seasonings on this carcass. In the main room the guests had already arrived, their faces flushed with vodka and the excuse to celebrate. Helenka bent her head down to work. Through the doors she heard the verses of folk ballads, the tinkling of glasses, the brittle laughter of women.

The cooking and bustle had heated up the kitchen, and the window was flung wide open to let in the cool spring air. Helenka glanced up and out of the window beside her. It was nighttime, yet the sky was pink. A huge cloud of black smoke billowed over half the horizon.

There were no aerial bombardments—the Germans had conquered Warsaw years before. But the smell of smoke penetrated every apartment in Warsaw. Yet there were no sirens of fire engines, no sign of alarm in the streets. Everything was deadly still except the sulfurous smoke and the sounds of the merrymaking in the next room. With growing horror she peered at the column of smoke and made out its origin. Then Helenka knew what she was seeing. Filling the sky was the Ghetto on fire. A fire nobody was trying to extinguish.

The christening feast lasted for three days, but it took the Ghetto longer than that to burn, closer to weeks.

Later, after the war, my mother would learn the details.

Following the great transports to Treblinka the previous fall, to which her mother had fallen prey, and after the decimation of the population through starvation and disease, only 60,000 were left inside the Ghetto by the spring of 1943, in an area that at its height had forced in almost half a million people.

The Nazis decided to liquidate the Ghetto in a quick action set to last three days. But when they rolled in on April 19, they were stunned to be met by armed resistance, a doomed uprising by a few hundred young men and women. Amazed by the gunfire, the Germans decided to destroy the Ghetto by methodically setting every single block ablaze. People had the choice of suffocating in the flames, jumping to their death, or surrendering to the trains, trains that departed full up for the gas chambers of Treblinka. In the last bitter weeks some Ghetto inhabitants tried to escape through the sewers over to the other side: smoke bombs were thrown down, the sewers were flooded, yet a few succeeded. The final inhabitants were smoked out of bunkers and rubble, then shot. By the end, not one human being was left alive within the Warsaw Ghetto, where less than a year before 400,000 had lived. After the last fire burned itself out on May 16, 1943, whatever ruins were left standing were razed, and the S.S. officer in charge of the operation could report: “The Warsaw Ghetto is no more.”

Of all the stories my mother has told—of swollen malnutrition, of typhus and frozen corpses, of mothers watching their children linger and then die, of the starving stealing bread from the starved, of clothes of the arrested being sent back minus the person, of dogs named “Man” ordered to bite men called “Dogs,” of countless humiliations and losses, of miraculous escapes, near-misses, and tragic disappearances—this fiery landscape of the Ghetto burning is the strongest wartime image she has left us with.

For as my mother told me what she saw through the window that night, I was seeing her: A young woman holding on for dear life to her own life, clutching to a dead stranger’s identity. As she pretended to be another, cut off from every other human being she had ever known, I imagined her stunned beyond tears, watching the shards of her past being scorched to ashes.

Looking at the conflagration, Helenka knew that to stay alive herself, she had to pretend indifference.

“The Jews are burning!” one guest cried merrily, pointing happily to the viscous smoke. My mother nodded. As she watched the Ghetto burn, Helenka went on dressing the pig.

Last year, 54 Aprils later, I too saw the Ghetto burning. In the bookshop of a museum in Tel Aviv, I stood leafing through a thick album, a collection of photographs from Poland.

Then, on page 179, I saw it. Shot in the outdated techniques of early color photos was a single image—billowing black smoke conquering the sky of an anonymous city. The caption at the bottom of the page confirmed what I knew before I read its small print. This picture, it said, was the only known existing color photograph showing the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. It could have been snapped from the steaming kitchen window where Helenka stood cooking.

Until that moment, the Ghetto in flames had been a symbol in my mother’s stories of a never-never-land of surrealistic horror. I knew that for many in my family—grandparents and cousins—the Warsaw Ghetto had been the stop before their last. Yet never before had I imagined it as a tangible place. The conflagration, indeed the whole Ghetto experience, floated in a sort of extraterritorial reality.

I knew it irrational, yet I would have my mother the sole witness of the blaze. For me there were only two things that had existed in the world that night: the Ghetto burning and my young mother watching it through the window. And those black clouds of smoke represented the pain that continued to smolder in my mother’s soul. The pain that, to her suppressed and ultimate horror, she must realize she passed on against her will to me.

I put down the book and fled outside. None of the tourists crossing the courtyard into the museum seemed to notice a woman leaning against the concrete side of the building, shading her eyes against the intense light of the spring sun.

It took me six months to get a copy of that photograph. I couldn’t find it anywhere for sale. Finally I located the volume in the reference room at the main branch of the New York Public Library, but they had no color copier available to the public.

I had just about resigned myself to the fuzzy black and white photocopy I had managed to obtain in the library when, coincidentally, I heard from my friend that she thought she had seen the book at her friend’s apartment. Coincidence, it seemed, could still be everything.

I telephoned this friend of a friend, not quite knowing how to phrase my strange request. On page 179, plate 311 of a certain book of hers was there a picture of the Ghetto burning? I held on. Yes, came her surprised and bewildered reply. And could I borrow the book and photocopy that one page?

I carried the heavy book and the light envelope of copies at once tightly and gingerly beneath my arm. The color copies looked better than the original. I had made four. One for myself. One for my daughter. One for my cousin who, like me, never met the grandfather who had sacrificed his overcoat. And one spare copy, just in case.

I felt no need to include the identifying caption in my prints. All of us who have heard my mother tell her story have stood in that kitchen too, with the heat on our wet foreheads, with the window open, wearing a white maid’s cap, dressing that holiday pig, our throats acrid from the Ghetto’s smoke.

And maybe that is the explanation for my unexpected and tenacious need to possess the burning Ghetto. Maybe the real photograph in its solid frame hanging on the stone walls of my life will prove that it was no imagined nightmare, either for my mother or for me. Or perhaps the physical picture will demystify the myth, allow it to rejoin the past and to sleep, if not quietly, at least fitfully so.

I have not been able to tell my mother any of the story I’ve written here. When she comes into my room, would she recognize what she saw? I didn’t give her the chance. Whenever I expected my mother at my house I took the photo down, and slipped it behind some books. For her, I thought, to see the Ghetto burning once was fire enough.

But once I forgot to hide it. And when my mother came in, she glanced at the wall—and passed the blaze right by. If she recognized the Ghetto burning, she didn’t say.

Helen Schary Motro is an American attorney and writer living in Israel. She is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post newspaper and fiction editor of the WIN electronic magazine. Her work appears in the international and American press including the International Herald Tribune.