Doctor Levin was our family friend. He was always there for us. He attended to our whooping coughs, measles and scarlet fevers. We loved him; for he used to bring us sweets, toys, comic books and he even made us laugh. He was an old bachelor, but he understood children. He was also loved by all his patients, especially poor and down trodden; but I think he liked our family the most. My father, who was also a doctor, called him, 'my venerable brother,' but to my sister and I he was always, 'Uncle Sam.' We used to spend a lot of time together, often going for picnics in his newly acquired Ford model A (which was one of the first cars in our town). We had even celebrated Christmas together, and sometimes spent our school holidays with him. We had lots of fun in those peaceful times; before the Second World War broke out and changed our lives forever.
On the third of September 1939, the Nazis entered our city, and soon afterwards Poland had lost the war. We slowly grew accustomed to daily harassments, the curfew hour, the patrolling of the streets and the danger of being searched and arrested. There was a scarcity of food and we all had to queue for long hours to get bread and other commodities. Life became more and more difficult for my parents. But especially for my mother who showed great strength of character and an ability to adapt. The atmosphere of lovely parties and celebrations was no more, everybody had one thought in mind, and that was how to survive.
Doctor Levin was kept busy as before. His patients paid him in eggs, meat and vegetables, and he shared his 'treasures' with us, his extended family. But as time went on, we saw less and less of him. There were constant rumors about the Jews, and there was a general feeling that the German occupants were up to something.
One day I met Doctor Levin in the street, and was shocked. I noticed he had a band around his arm with a big Star of David on. As I stared at him with confusion, he greeted me cheerfully and said jokingly, 'You see, Lilka, how distinguished I have become. This Star is my latest medal and it's only given to chosen people.' I still could not understand, 'But I thought, you were one of us?' I cried.
'I am, I am. We are one, one people, one of the same kind; but the Nazis don't see it that way. Maybe because of my long nose they think I am different from your father, and so they asked me to wear this band,' he laughed. And I laughed with him.
I told my father about our meeting, but he was not amused. He was so nervous those days, I was so worried about him, but I kept it to myself; besides, I was starting to become preoccupied with my own life. Our so called, 'school,' had just started. It was not a proper school because the Germans closed down all the schools and universities, and forbade us to study. But the Polish underground movement had organized secret schooling and we began to study in small groups; four to five learners in private houses and apartments constantly changing venues and being mindful of possible danger. I was so happy to be a school-girl again. Studying with my girl-friends and being a carefree child (at least for a few hours), meant that I could pay more attention to my books than to my parents' problems.
News started to circulate that all the Jewish people had to move to the first part of the main street (of our town) which was called the Avenue of Our Lady. The area was to be called, 'The Ghetto,' and it was to be properly secured by walls and barbed wire. This part of the avenue consisted of old, dilapidated houses which were mainly occupied by very poor people. Those who were not Jewish received an order to leave immediately, and find accommodation on the Aryan side of the city. I had often cycled past that part of town and was shocked by the appalling conditions that those people lived in. It would be unacceptable for our Jewish friends who were accustomed to live in comfort to be taken there. But it did happen'
One day as I was leaving my friend's house where we had our session of learning, a woman came shouting that the Nazis began to remove the Jewish families from her street. I rushed to see Uncle Sam on my bicycle. His surgery was closed so I cycled to his apartment. Nobody answered my knocks on the door. The caretaker finally appeared and shouted at me to stop knocking because the doctor was not there. 'The police took him away this morning,' he muttered. I was in tears and rushed home. 'Uncle Sam is gone, they took him away,' I shouted to my father, 'Do something, go and see where they have taken him.'
But my father just stared at me and said nothing. I ran to my room and cried and cried.
The ghetto was guarded day and night, but one could visit the inmates with special permission. My mother managed to get a permit and prepared a parcel of food for Doctor Levin. I volunteered to take it. Uncle Sam had a room in one of those drab, dilapidated houses. The place was filthy; the smell of rotten litter and urine permeated the staircase. The noise of wailing infants, quarrelling people, and fighting youngsters was everywhere. The room occupied by Uncle Sam had hardly any furniture, but he seemed quite indifferent to the lack of comfort. As I walked in, he was examining a wailing baby. He was very happy to see me and joked that he hadn't got a proper place to entertain a young lady. When I looked horrified at his surroundings, he laughed and said, 'No self, no problem, as the Buddhists say. I follow their teachings, it makes all the difference.'
I did not stay long. There was a queue of people outside his room. He was busy (as usual) but complained that he could not get any medical supplies, and that only those who managed to get medicine on the black market were lucky enough to survive. The children were dying due to a lack of hygiene and hunger. He thanked me for the parcel and said, 'Tell your father to be of good cheer, and not to worry,' he repeated again, 'No self, no problem.'
My father was angry (with us) about my visit. He accused me and my mother of endangering our family. My mother was unrepentant and I couldn't understand his attitude.
Soon after my visit, the Nazis sealed off the ghetto and nobody was allowed to enter from the Aryan side of the wall. We managed to get the news from the people inside, that the Nazis were selecting the old and the children for transport to an unknown destination. It was later confirmed that they were sent to the Majdanek extermination camp.
The Germans began a systematic search of the houses and apartments on the Aryan side. At night we kept on listening to the screech of cars stopping in front of the block of flats and the distant gun fire. One night I woke up smelling smoke in the kitchen. I got up and rushed there to see my father tearing old photos from the family album and burning them in the stove. When I implored him to stop, he said he had to burn his past. This was enough for me. I begged my mother to do something about my father's strange behavior. He finally relented and told us his secret. Actually, he was quite composed when he called us together and confessed, he felt that we had a right to know in case the Germans come for him. Apparently, his grandfather was a Jew, but for business reasons he changed his name and later married a Christian girl. He was completely assimilated and proud of his country. Nobody had ever suspected that my father had some Jewish blood, but with the German systematic search for pure Aryans, it was possible that they could trace his origin.
'You could divorce me, and save yourself and the children,' my father said to my Mom, but she laughed and reassured him that this was ancient family history, and that there was nothing to worry about. Now, this day, is all that we must take care of. The rest will be as it should. My father seemed to be relieved, as if his confession lightened his burden. As for me, I was quite excited that I had a few drops of the Jewish blood in me. I felt even closer to Uncle Sam whom I loved and admired so much for his courage and kindness. How I wished I could be like him, especially in such times of the danger and uncertainty. But my sister was not happy. We were in bed when she suddenly said, 'It's alright for you. Nobody is going to accuse you that you are Jewish. You look like a typical peasant girl with your blond hair and blue eyes, but what about me? I am so dark.'
'And so pretty!' I laughed and suddenly felt so lighthearted, as if I knew that everything was going to be alright. 'No self, no problem,' I said to my sister, but she got angry and went to sleep.
Soon afterwards, we left town and settled in a village where my father opened a small medical practice. We had survived the war, but Uncle Sam was not so fortunate. He was amongst the 45,000 Jewish people who perished in our town. I am sure he was brave till the end, and tried to live according to his maxim, 'No self, no problem.'