Please Papa: Help Me

A Week in the Warsaw Ghetto 

Warsaw Ghetto, Fall 1941
My family and I are squeezed into one room of a six room apartment—forced from our beautiful home. We can bring with us so little, just what can fit on the back of a flat cart. The Germans continue to round up Jews from the entire countryside: Soon six other families share our kitchen (so different from the one where my mother alone made our Shabbos dinner), and six other families share our bathroom (so different from the one right next to my own bedroom where I used to bathe in luxury whenever I chose).

All of us are focused on one thing: survival. Families are selling off their few remaining valuables just to buy a loaf of bread or a beet root.

I am overwhelmed by feelings of meanness. I hate these strangers who have been thrown on top of us. Do I allow myself these feelings, or do we all find a way to live together?

Papa cannot find any work. Mama (who used to have maids wait on her) gets a job working in a German food factory outside the ghetto. She peels potatoes all day and is sometimes able to get through the guards and bring home the peels to us. With just a bit of flour and water, we can make a meal.

My little brother Jacob coughs and coughs. Papa says to me,- “You’re my son, Basia; you’re going to survive this. I know it. You’re going to continue the line.”

Warsaw Ghetto, Spring, 1942
I get the typhoid first, I think in October. I don’t have any memory of the winter. Sometime in the spring I awake, though, in a new apartment. Our furniture is all gone—my parents have sold everything. They have aged and changed so much that at first I don’t know who they are. Mama is disoriented, and doesn’t know my name.

I am hemorrhaging. Papa turns me upside down. There are beautiful lights and a tunnel. I promise God I will give my first five dollars to charity if I only I live. The bleeding stops.

Once I feel stronger, I set about looking for bread. I meet some smugglers who ask me to set up a coffee concession in a basement. In exchange they give me some bread for lunch. I save half of it for my family. I know the Germans will kill me on the spot if they find me.

Soon Mama comes down with the same sickness as me. She throws up and can no longer work. This means no more potato peels. By now, half of the ghetto (frozen, starved, shot) is dead. After Mama dies, Jacob’s coughing gets worse. Within a month, he is dead, too.

Warsaw Ghetto, Summer, 1942
The typhoid has seized my darling Papa. He tells me to sit down at his bedside. He tells me his life story, also where to find certain papers that will prove what property he owns, and how he had special papers to come to America but that Mama wouldn’t allow him to go alone. “I’ll never forgive your Mama for your pain,” he tells me.

I run out, desperate to find a doctor. “Please, help me. I have no money, but I will give you my winter coat!” A doctor follows me back to our room, looks at my father and says simply, “Let him die in peace.” Papa takes me in his arms; then he dies.

There is no time to mourn. A new family is piled into the room where I have watched my whole family die.

Warsaw Ghetto, Fall, 1942 
The Germans are rounding up whoever is left here. They come with their barking dogs and pull us by our clothing, pushing and dragging us into trucks. Many are shot on the spot. They tell us they are relocating us to a better place, with more food, but Dr. Lipmann (a friend of my family) is told by an underground informant that Jews are put into railroad freight cars and that no one comes back. Twenty-five of us (four families and a handful of teenage girls like me who have no one) decide to try to hide together.

The Germans evacuate half the block of Bergen Street in one day. We are certain they will evacuate the rest of the street the next day. Greta and I find a basement room in the building next door. What a gift! Everywhere there are dressers (that must have belonged to those who have already been taken away). I catch my skirt and have to push a dresser to free myself. Behind it I see another door.

“Greta. Come, quick!”

We open the door to blackness. I blink hard. We are in a room, perhaps I5 by 20 feet, and nothing is in it. God must have helped us find this.

Within half an hour, ten of us make our way down to this small, black hole. Little Felix, the doctor’s son, is the last one in; he squeezes his tiny body through a bare crack in the door and then thrusts out his hand to pull the dresser leg back in its place. We sit in the airless cave and simply wait. If we put our heads down close to the floor, we can breathe better.

Eventually I feel that enough time has slipped by for a new day. I tell everyone I am going out to check. There is an eerie silence in the building. Upstairs, on both sides of the landing, doors are opened wide; no one is anywhere. Bits of clothing lay in heaps on the floor. A few pieces of paper remain on a table; cups are unwashed in a sink; chairs are tipped over. I don’t need to see the other floors to know they are more of the same. Our little group spends all day foraging. Bands of German soldiers are picking up stragglers, either shooting them on the spot or forcing them into I , trucks. We duck in and out of doorways, jump across roofs, V ‘ run up deserted stairways, scavenge through the remains of kitchens.

A miracle. I find two potatoes. Greta finds an old carrot; little Felix, able to sneak into barely opened windows, gets an onion. We silently cook up a little soup in the darkness of a deserted kitchen, then we divide up the portions equally and return to our hole.

After I put my head down on my jacket to sleep, I hear, “Basia. Get up now and leave this place.” The voice speaks to me with great clarity.

“Papa. I know it’s you. Why are you telling me this? I can’t go. I have no one. It’s safe here.”

“Get up, Basia. Leave this place now.”

Greta hears me stand and she cries out, waking the others. I tell them I have to leave and whisper that anyone who wishes should join me. No one does; they tell me that I am walking into certain death. They beg me to stay, but I can’t.

My hands feel the way. Don’t disturb anything. Too dangerous. I tiptoe to an opened door. The whole ghetto is silent. I can dimly see down the street. No lights anywhere, just opened’ doors that bang in the night’s cool breeze. Make no noise. This neighborhood has been my home for my seventeen years; I know every crack in every sidewalk. Now, though, where can I go? I am utterly alone. Keep to side streets that have already been swept out. Find a bed—no, a corner. Beds carry someone’s disease. I pass by my old grammar school and try a door. It’s locked.

Keep going. Go to Tante Hike’s house—she was taken away last week, I turn the corner and freeze. Half way down the block is a band of SS. They have flashlights and dogs.

“Halt!” I hear two shots ring out. Something whizzes by my ear and pierces some mortar behind me. A chip lands in my hair.

“Cross the street, my child. Cross it quickly. There will be an open window.”

I obey the voice and find the window. I plunge through the space, landing on a sharp pile of coal. I want to scream out, but pray instead that my panting will not be heard. A flashlight pierces the darkness, only it is high, over my head. I hear one soldier tell the others that it is probably just a dog or rat. They laugh. “No Jew rat here.” Their feet march away. I try to sleep away my hunger.

After dusk, I make my way back to the basement on Bergen Street. The side door has been pushed open; the lock smashed. Oh God, no. I walk down the three steps and creep silently to the room with the furniture. The dressers and chifferobes are all shoved to either side, making a crooked path. Several dressers are upside down, the legs broken off. Our secret door is torn off its hinges. As I peer into the dark hole, I see nothing but Felix’s little hat.

“Papa! What do I do now? Please, Papa, help me.”

No voice speaks now. Safe or not, I cannot move from that little room. I put my head on top of Felix’s hat and cry all night and day until my whole body aches. It is my second full day of nothing to eat.

By the next morning I have a plan. Several blocks away, there is a rich family that once owned a grocery store. The father is a member of the ghetto council, so maybe the family is still there—perhaps they will take me in to tutor their children. I dodge my way between the deserted buildings. I know the street well—it is on the way to my synagogue. I ring the doorbell and a return buzzer opens up the front door. Mrs. Sternberg is at the top of the stairs in a long, pale satin robe. She even wears lipstick and her hair is pulled back with a white bow. I beg her for a job.

“I know your children need looking after,” I say. “I am well educated; I’ve been to private school. I can keep them safe. Let me help.”

She looks at me with disgust. “You’re so dirty. You must be sleeping in coal bins. And your hair. Please,” her hand pushes at the air, “go away.”

She doesn’t even offer me a crust of bread. I sit paralyzed at the bottom of the stairs trying very hard not to cry: I can’t waste the tears. I think, what would Papa tell me to do now—if I could hear him?

I go to Tante Hike’s house, feeling somehow safer there than at my old apartment. One of the bathtub faucets is working. I take a freezing bath, scrubbing with only my hands. I am gone perhaps three hours, and then I go back to Mrs. Sternberg’s with a body that is at least not so black.

I dare not ring the bell—surely she’ll turn me away. So I move softly up the back stairs and peek through the window. The kitchen chairs have been thrown about; several pots are on the floor.

“No! No! Not again. It’s so fast!”

The Sternberg kitchen is unlocked. The entire apartment is deserted. Silently I creep from room to room, each one still furnished with some measure of comfort. Didn’t

they sell anything? Gold drapes hang before opened windows; a lace cloth graces the dining room table. There are dolls in the girls’ room. I haven’t seen such luxury in years.

I find bread, two apples and two carrots. I eat slowly, fearful of what might happen should I eat too fast. How glorious! I save one carrot, one apple and the remaining piece of bread for later. Then I check their filled closets. “Why did the Germans take them?” I ask myself. “They were supposed to be protected.”

In front of Mrs. Sternberg’s bedroom closet is a mirror. For the first time in a week, I see myself. My God, who is this person? I go up close, examine the face, the nose. I check my eyes, then my teeth. I slowly unbutton my dirty blouse, unzip my torn skirt and let the foul clothing fall in a heap by my feet.

My body is so skinny, I look like twelve, not seventeen. My brassiere hangs. I take it off, drop it. My toe nails are black. My hair, although just watered down, is still streaked with soot. My thinness scares me.

At least I can wash with soap and hot water before I leave. I find some clothes that almost fit. I pull a belt tight around a brown wool skirt and pack some clothing into a bundle—sweaters and a jacket for winter.

At the bottom of the front stairs I see a girl hiding. It is Lise from my old neighborhood! We embrace, we cry. Lise thinks of a place to go.

The Germans are establishing some small “factories,” and they need a few Jews to work there. Lise takes me to a factory that makes brooms—we are hired. There is a little food. I begin to believe that things are getting better.

United States, Spring, 1952
At the end of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Germans send me to Majdanek, a death camp. Perhaps I survive the slave labor because I survived typhoid earlier. Perhaps I survive because of Papa.

After the war, though I am now married, I decide to take my own life. My father’s voice comes to me for the last time: “Basia, you must not kill yourself. You have a baby inside you—a son. Name him after me.” Indeed, I was pregnant and didn’t know it.

I arrive in the United States with a new baby—Moshe. I believe him to hold the soul of my Papa.

Liane Clorfene-Casten is a freelance journalist specializing in environmental and education issues. Her expose on breast cancer will he published by Sierra Club Books in the fall of 1995.

Ellen Bass: When an Abuse Counselor Teaches the Holocaust

Ellen Bass, 47, is the well-known co-author of The Courage to Heal, the workshop “bible” for women survivors of childhood sexual abuse, as well as the co-editor of / Never Told Anyone, a compilation of testimonies from survivors of sexual abuse. Here is how Bass would teach Basia’s Please Papa: Help Me:

I would use this story when I conduct weekend workshops on “Surviving Loss and/or Abuse.” Basia is an expert on “coping strategies.” She has a great deal to teach us.

I think the most extraordinary “coping strategy” in this chilling story is Basia’s ability to receive the guidance of her deceased father as a “guardian angel,” someone to hold her hand through virtual hell. She hears her Papa’s voice during her most acute crises, and he “guides” her, telling her when to run, where to hide.

I would ask workshop participants: “Whose voice can you summon when you’re In your most abandoned place?” Sometimes survivors do “hear” voices, but they are destructive or disempowering ones. I would suggest that we work to develop the other voices, those more loving. Basia’s resourcefulness is a compelling model. When she can’t “hear” her Papa’s voice—when she’s starving, sleeping on coal, hunted by Nazis—she can be just as strong through reciting, “What would Papa tell me to do now—if I could hear him?”

Another important lesson from this story has to do with luck. Survivors sometimes belittle luck if we have it, and if we don’t have it, we often blame ourselves for what was truly out of our control. Do we feel entitled to our luck? Can we accept that our losses are not always due to our own failures? Sometimes we do our best, but still cannot escape bad things. Can we accept luck as part of our survival. That’s one of the reasons that Basia’s alive today. Finally, Basia finds a reason to live, because she’s pregnant. She’s carrying life against a backdrop of destruction; she interprets her pregnancy as a revisitation of her Papa, her “guardian angel.” How can we work with Basia’s model? Pregnancy is just her way—we can generate life in other ways, too: we can feed the hungry, plant a garden, be an AIDS buddy.

Basia couldn’t write this story herself. We can choose to see an “incapacity” like this (of hers or ours) as a strength or as a weakness. I find it remarkable that she had the courage to find a way to share her story. By doing so, she offers us such a valuable resource.

Reading Basia’s story, you may feel, as I did, that you would do all you could to help this brave and precious child. I would ask participants, “How can each of us remember that there are people, who feel this way about us?”