On my arrival in Warsaw, I always like to visit the suburb where my aunt lived. The tramcar stops at the square, just in front of the old church. I get off the car and look around to familiarize myself with the place. I sigh with relief when I notice that no changes have occurred, and then I go to the flower sellers sitting outside the church and choose a bunch of flowers. After that I take a walk along the walls surrounding the church until I get to the adjoining street. Now I look for a plaque on the wall, and once I find it, I know that this is the right place. I lay my bunch of flowers on the pavement and look across the street. There is the block of flats where my aunt used to live. The house looks a bit different now, as it was partially destroyed during the 1944 uprising, but I recognize most of it and I’m tempted to run upstairs as I had done before, so many times when I was a seventeen year old girl.
The year was 1943 and the place was Warsaw the capital of Poland. At that time Warsaw was occupied by Germans. I was a young girl, full of energy and zest for life, who lived there and who dared to enjoy her youth.
At the time Warsaw was the place of great misery and sufferings. The ghetto was burning, and the Jewish people were losing their battle for survival. The leaders of the Polish underground organizations were getting ready to liberate the city from the occupants. The Nazis became more and more vicious knowing of the growing resistance, they had increased the number of arrests, executions and rounds ups. Nobody was safe, in the streets of Warsaw. But as I traveled through those streets everyday by tramways and buses, I had (as yet) never experienced the fear. One day I was returning from doing some errands for my aunt. She employed me as her messenger for her newly established enterprise, which involved weaving materials on looms. I used to deliver her samples, collect money, and look for a market. It was a very rewarding occupation, because at the same time I could collect and deliver our underground press. Our daily “newspaper” was in great demand, and sometimes I was lucky to have my own articles published in it.
That day I had a few dozen “newspapers” wrapped in brown paper in my shopping bag, and I was going to deliver them soon after seeing my aunt. The tramcar was very full, there were even people hanging like a bunch of grapes on the steps of the car.
The passengers seemed all stressed out and preoccupied with their problems, and there was a heavy atmosphere of total frustration. At one of the stops a street singer got in. He had a guitar and he began to play and sing songs; some of which were composed during the occupation. The passengers responded enthusiastically to the music. As the front seats of the car (which were allocated to Germans) were unoccupied, we joined the singer and sang without restrain, demanding an encore and paying him with generosity. Now the people smiled and joked and repeated, “We shall conquer.”
We were approaching the square when suddenly the tramway came to a stop. An ominous silence fell on the people and we waited with growing unease. It was frightening how in a few seconds, the atmosphere in the tram had changed. We all began to press to the windows and somebody shouted, “This is a round up!”
The passengers abandoned their seats and rushed to the door, but the German soldiers were already all around the tramcar, and for the first time I felt fear taking hold of me. This furious beating of my heart, this sinking feeling of pain in my stomach, and then the realization; this is it; this is real. And panic, what could I do to save myself, what about my brown packet in the bag? How should I dispose of it? I was scared. I looked around and saw that some women were crying, and others prayed; men were staring ahead with unseeing eyes, while the younger ones were fidgeting nervously and trying to check their documents or emptied their pockets of some compromising stuff. There was fear on each face, and the tension was unbearable.
The soldiers began now to shout at us to get out, some passengers obeyed the command, while others hesitated not knowing what to do. More shouts to hurry up, I took my packet out of my shopping bag and placed it under the seat. I got up and walked out with the others. .
I looked around. The square was full of scurrying away people, even the flower sellers abandoned their seats and were running away like a flock of frightened geese. I stood in a crowd of unknown people, surrounded by soldiers, while the tramcar was now searched for the rest of the reluctant passengers. Then the tramway started to move away, and I watched it go with the growing despair.
“They are going to kill them,” a woman screamed, the other women began to wail as the soldiers began pulling out men and young boys from the crowd and lining them up. More screams and laments when some of the young women were added too. I was getting more and more angry and desperate. The woman was right, they were going to kill us all, or maybe send us away to some of the slave camps we had heard of. I saw a SS officer standing aside, watching impassively as his men were prodding the people with the butts of their rifles and pushing them into a new group. I had had enough. I pushed myself through the crowd and ran to the officer, “Waarom? Why ?” I shouted. It was one of the words I knew .in German.
He looked at me without an expression on his face, but when I shouted again, he looked at me closely as if he were waking up from a dream. He must have seen my anger and my desperation, or maybe even my plea for help. “Go!” he screamed at me pointing in the direction of the church. I ran and ran, thinking when will I get shot in the back by his shiny revolver hanging on his waist? But nothing happened. I reached the church and turned into the street where my aunt lived. I rushed inside and climbed the stairs. When I was on the first floor I could not walk any more. I leaned against the window and tried to calm myself down. Slowly my breathing slowed down, but I stayed at the window, my mind in turmoil. As I turned to climb more stairs I saw them outside in the distance. There were men and women from my tramcar. There was even the street singer with his guitar. There was some commotion as the soldiers tried to line them up against the wall. A man tried to run away and a shot was fired. This was followed by a second one, and another, and another… I covered my ears. I couldn’t look any more. I rushed to my aunt’s apartment. I rang the bell, and when she opened the door I tried to tell her what had happened but I couldn’t utter a word.
This was one of the many street executions which took place in Warsaw as a revenge for a Nazi that was killed by the Polish underground army. For each Nazi killed, fifty Polish people had to die. They rounded them from the streets, cars and buses. They were all innocent people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sixty years has passed by, the places that the executions took place at are still national shrines where people come and light candles, lay flowers and read how many people died for their country. As I read the inscription on this memorial plaque. I recall the face of that unknown SS man who saved me from my death. Why did he do it? Was it because of a sudden whim, or was he was taken by my courage when I dared to shout, “WHY?” at him. Maybe he saw the desperation in my eyes and there was still a little compassion left in his heart? Who knows?
Maybe I should stop thinking about it and start believing that someone greater than him, and the whole Nazi Empire was in control of my destiny that day, and granted me the gift of life.