Irena was a brave woman, but one could not blame her for hesitating for a moment before she opened the door to the caller. The man looked dirty and disheveled. He also seemed unwell, because he could not control his shaking. Irena had a sudden feeling of fear, but tried hard not to show it, she had a premonition that his arrival (at her cottage in a village outside Warsaw) signaled danger to her life. She knew him very well in the good old days. His name was Moses Levin, and he was her husband's tailor. His shop was situated in the centre of Warsaw; at Nalewki Street.
In those days, the street was a beehive of activity; with the carriages, droshkies and horse-driven vans blocking the traffic; while crowds of passersby milled about stepping aside only when an expensive looking landau or some other important looking vehicle stopped at the entrance of one of the well known shops. Moses' establishment was well attended by gentlemen who liked well tailored clothes; he had a great reputation for his good and reliable service. Moses inherited the business from his father, and he expanded the shop by introducing new Parisian fashions. He had a great knack of choosing the right clothes for his clients, and his popularity grew and grew. He was happily married, and his beautiful wife Sarah, produced two adorable boys. Moses was a happy man.
Irena's husband was also a well-known personality. He was a colonel in the Polish Army. He was a handsome man who liked to look good; he found that Moses could tailor his military uniforms to perfection. He became a regular customer, and together with Irena they regularly visited his shop.
All this changed with the outbreak of the Second World War.
Moses walked in to Irena's lounge with hesitation, but she waved away his apologies and went to the kitchen to prepare him some food.
'You're so kind,' Moses repeated again and again while hungrily eating slices of brown bread and butter. 'I spent days and days in the open, searching for my wife and children. I sent them away when the Germans started the ghetto in Warsaw. I thought they would be safer in the small village where Sarah's parents lived; but when I went to see them, I found the whole family had disappeared. I searched for them everywhere, finally I met a man who told me how the Germans were rounding up the villages, the old people, the children, and sending them away to an unknown destination. It was probably to Treblinka, the extermination camp.' Moses was now crying softly and wiping his tears with his fingers. 'My family is gone, what am I to do?' he sobbed.
Irena touched gently his shoulder, 'You can stay here, with me and my mother,' she said, and then she stopped abruptly as if she got suddenly afraid of what she had just said.
'Mistress Zaborska, you don't know what you're saying,' Moses exclaimed. 'You say you want me to stay with you, but if the Germans find me here they will shoot you and your family for harboring a Jew. You've already stuck your neck out by letting me in.'
'Where will you go? Have you got a place to stay?' Irena inquired, a little relieved by his refusal.
Moses nodded, 'I still have my apartment at Nalewki Street, though it is now full of refugees and homeless people, I will go there, the ghetto is not completely sealed off yet. I'll leave tonight; it's safer to walk when it gets dark. Will you let me rest here for a few hours? I am so tired.
'Of course,' Irena exclaimed. 'I shall take you to a room in the loft, you'll be safe there.' She took him up the stairs and left him to fetch some water and soap. When she returned he was already fast asleep. She thought of telling her mother about their guest but she changed her mind. Her mother would probably not understand the situation. Her mind was clouded, and she hardly knew her own daughter. She stayed alert the whole afternoon working on her sewing which brought in a little money for their keep. Her husband was in the OFLAG, the prisoners' camp for war officers in Germany. She had to fend for herself and her mother. The evening came and there was no sign of movement in the loft. She crept upstairs. Moses was tossing and moaning in his sleep, and it seemed to her he was running a high temperature. She didn't have the heart to wake him up, and so she went to bed. She woke up in the morning and rushed upstairs. Moses was still there. He saw her as she bent over his bed, he tried to get up, but couldn't. 'You stay where you are,' she ordered him, 'you are not in a position to go anywhere.'
Moses managed to whisper, 'Thank you,' before he became delirious again.
Irena could do nothing but nurse him back to health. She was disturbed and afraid. She knew the risk she was taking, and was angry that she had to do it and endanger her and her mother's lives for Moses. It was hard to keep all her doubts and fears to herself, because she was too afraid to confine in anybody in the village. There were many informers, and she could not be sure of anybody. People (even the bravest ones) could break down under interrogation from the Gestapo. She had heard so many horrific tales of torture and betrayal. The Germans were everywhere. They regularly patrolled her village, which was only thirty kilometers away from the city. It was easy distance for people on the run from Warsaw. They often searched the houses and looked for hidden radio stations and guns. She could expect them anytime.
Moses was getting better, but his mental anguish stayed with him. He seldom left the loft, and performed daily Kaddish (which was a prayer for his dead family). Later on, when he became stronger, he helped Irena with her domestic chores and her sewing. He was very innovative, and showed her how to make dresses of discarded pieces of material, and how to turn the old suits so that they looked as good as new. Irena was doing well with her new skills, and took all the credit for the work they did together. Nobody in the village had any suspicions so far, and her old mother's blabbing about the ghosts walking in the loft was never taken seriously.
Life went on, but news from Warsaw was more and more tragic. The ghetto was sealed off to the outside world by high walls and barbed electric wire. There was terrible hunger and disease and people were dying in the ghetto. The Germans started rounding up old and young for transportation. Irena heard the news, but she seldom shared it with Moses. He was not yet strong enough to comprehend the whole tragedy of his people, and she did not want him to fall into depression again.
One day Irena heard a rumor that some Jews had managed to escape the ghetto and were hiding in the forest outside the village. She immediately warned Moses of the danger it posed, and took extra precaution by insisting he allow himself to be locked in the old wardrobe, and that he should remain there during the day. Moses agreed after having drilled a hole for air, and he meekly allowed himself to be closed. One morning, when Irena took a plate of food to Moses, she found the wardrobe open, and there was no sign of Moses.
Irena became desperate with worry. She did not know what had happened to Moses. Was he caught, and if so, how should she protect herself and her mother? She cursed him and cried, and kept running to the garden gate looking for him. Her mother sensed that there was something wrong, and she began to wail and demanded her constant attention. Hours dragged on and still there was no sign of Moses. Finally late in the afternoon, when she had given up hope of seeing him again, Moses arrived. He looked exhausted, but strangely jubilant.
'I found them,' he said in a strange highly pitched voice. 'They are all from the Warsaw ghetto, they are moving on tonight. They are waiting for the partisans to fetch them. They will be alright. One of them knew me and Sarah, and he said that Sarah is alive. He saw her and the boys just before he left. She is working in a factory, and they have enough to eat. Imagine, my beloved Sarah is alive; my family is alright. Oh God, how wonderful are Thy ways. And I doubted Him so many times. Moses was crying and laughing and jumping for joy. 'Mistress Zebrowska, I'm going back. I thank you for looking after me, but now I must go to them. I don't want to waste one more day without my family.'
Irena was silent. There was nothing to say. She went to the kitchen to prepare him some food for the road.
Moses was ready before the night set in. He took Irena's bag of food and threw it over his shoulder. He kissed Irena's hand, and said he will never forget her kindness. 'Please, be happy for me and don't worry. I'll get there; they told me how to find the entrance to a sewage canal which will take me inside the ghetto...
I'll see my beloved Sarah and the children tomorrow night.'
Irena stood at the gate and watched him go. There was a full moon that night, and Irena began to worry about his safety. He walked with such a buoyant steps; proudly carrying himself as if he were going to conquer the world. He turned to her once and waved, before he disappeared round the corner. Moses, the tailor was on his way to Warsaw, to join his family.
Irena kept standing at the gate thinking of their reunion. It will be a happy and tearful one, but for how long? The ghetto was burning; it will be destroyed with its entire people. It was simply a question of time; when and how they will perish. But if their happiness only lived for one day, it was still worth the price he paid.