My friendship with Fela began when I tried to beat up a boy who called her names, and pulled on her plaits. I was only six years old, and the boy was older than me, and much stronger. I lost the fight, but I gained a friend. Fela and I became very close and had a lot of fun together.
Fela lived across the river in a Jewish township, while I lived in a hotel on the outskirts of a Polish town called, Krosno. I lived in a hotel because my mother worked there. She was a cleaner, not by choice, but by necessity. She was a war widow and had to earn a living as a maid. While Fela's mother was employed in the hotel as a washwoman, her husband also lost his life during the war, and she had to take up washing to keep her children alive. I suppose we were all poor, but as for us children, life was good and we had many happy moments. We had our rag dolls, wooden toys, and a few shining pebbles for our games.
There was a wonderful un-kept garden next to the hotel, and down towards the river was a marshy meadow full of minute pools which were brimming with aquatic life. Sometimes we ventured even further down to the bridge which led to Fela's home. The bridge was great fun as it swayed when you walked on it, and there were always young boys who tried to swing it even harder from side to side. My mother knew little of my adventures, especially of my visits to the hotel bar. It was always full of men in uniforms who drank and smoked, and made a lot of noise. I was told to keep away from them, but some of them seemed quite nice. They were teaching me to speak German; and they always offered me sweets, chocolate or biscuits. One of them used to put me on his knees, and told me that I reminded him of his little daughter back home.
I was a pretty child with short curly hair, a lot of dimples and a ready smile, but I think Fela was much better looking than me. She had huge violet eyes, and lots of dark shining hair. I shared everything with Fela. We had even pricked our fingers and extracted some blood which we mixed together so that we could become true blood sisters. We had our secret hiding places in the garden, and we used to have our impromptu picnics there. Afterwards we would chat and giggled a lot, as young girls do; we also dreamed a lot about the future. Fela was always very modest with her dreams. She simply wanted a small, white washed house with pretty lace curtains and a kitchen full of lovely china and copper pots, and a little garden with roses and a few apple trees. My dreams were to travel to distant lands, and have many hair rising adventures; but at intervals I would visit Fela with exotic gifts.
Our dream world began to crumble when Fela had to wear a band with a yellow Star of David on her arm. I did not like it because it made her different from me. Soon afterwards Fela's mother stopped coming to work, and I was told that Fela would not come and play with me anymore. I was inconsolable and even tried to visit her, but there were men with guns on the bridge, and they would not allow me to walk through. Even though I smiled at them, and said that I was Fela's best friend. I begged my mother to do something, and bring Fela here, but she said there was no way she could do it. From the hotel window I watched the evening lights flickering at the houses and huts of Fela's township. I whispered to her that she must come and see me even, if she gets one of the witches to fly her over on a magic broom. But Fela never came, and one day the men in uniforms did not come for drinks to our hotel anymore. That day there was a strange silence in the hotel, and the staff gathered together in the lounge to pray. As we prayed we heard the sound of guns coming from the direction of the river, but nobody would tell me what it was all about.
One day a crowd of people appeared on the bridge. It was a strange sight. There were some men, but mostly women and children .They were walking slowly and carried heavy bundles. They walked through the bridge to the street below our hotel, and in the direction of the railway station. All staff of the hotel came out to watch the procession. As they came nearer, I saw that they were not alone. They were surrounded by guards who were holding their guns in readiness. The soldiers kept yelling and tried to keep the people marching in some kind of order. I looked and looked, trying to identify some familiar faces. Suddenly I saw Fela's mother carrying a big bundle on her back, and next to her, I saw all of her family. There was Fela too, she carried her favorite doll.
'Fela, Fela, wait for me,' I shouted running down the hill as fast as I could. She saw me and stopped for a moment. I managed to avoid a guard and pushed myself into the crowd of walking people. I then struggled to get to Fela, but I finally reached her. We embraced each other and moved on while holding hands. 'Where are you going?' I inquired; Fela smiled happily and told me that they were all promised new houses with gardens, in a beautiful place not far from here. But that they had to go by train in order to get there quicker than other people who were promised the same. She was so happy and I thought it would be nice to see this new place. I walked with her, and as we got to the station where there was a cordon of police and the soldiers who enclosed us in a tight circle. There were no coaches, but cattle trucks, and I wondered why there were no proper trains, and how we were supposed to get into them.
The soldiers began to yell again and tried to push the people onboard the trucks. Some families got separated and the women began to wail and run in circles while looking for their children. Fela started crying for her mother and I became frightened. There was no way to find her in this mass of people who were rushed by soldiers onto the trucks. We too were pushed and jolted as we got closer to the entrance of the truck. I saw the soldiers lifting the children up and throwing them inside. There was a pandemonium as mothers screamed and children cried. The soldiers shouted, and everybody was in a state of panic. We were already in the first row; standing in front of the truck. All of a sudden somebody grabbed me roughly from behind, and lifted me up in the air. I started screaming and kicking, but instead of throwing me into the truck, the man carried me through the cordon back to the railway station. As he put me down on the platform, I saw my mother calling my name. The man pushed me towards her. 'You nearly lost your daughter,' he shouted, 'Get her out of here.' Now I remembered him, he was the man who used to tell me that I reminded him of his daughter. 'Where was Fela?' I cried, 'I promised to see her new home.' My mother rushed me out of the station. She did not answer, she just held me tight.
The next evening the hotel was full of men in uniforms, who were drinking and getting merry again. I looked through the hotel in the direction of Fela's home, but it was dark, not even one flickering light was shining. I tried to visualize Fela on the train, reunited with her mother, and chatting happily about their new home. I hoped that their new house was pretty, and that it had lace curtains, and a little garden where they would grow roses, and plant an apple tree.
After years of traveling, and living in rented apartments, I now have a small whitewashed cottage and a few roses growing in a garden of my own. Next spring I shall plant my first apple tree. At last I'm going to live Fela's dream, which in a strange way was my dream for a long, long time.