|Word count (without title): 1,995)
The 25th of January 2005 marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
To commemorate the day, I've written this story, which could have ended with two young talented people having a beautiful life together, if not for the Nazis.
We shall never forget the horrors.
A new era has begun
It was the fifteenth day of February 1931, my twenty-first birthday celebration. I looked around the ballroom, feeling like a caged animal. Mother on the other side of the room was talking to Halina the housekeeper. I knew the parade of caviar and Champagne was about to begin.
The party was thrown against my wishes. Showing off my family's wealth was not something I enjoyed, although father had always been extravagant, making sure the whole of Warsaw knew who the richest and most powerful man was. Being a Petit Bourgeois to his core and a Nouveau Rich didn't change his way of thinking.
I spotted a group of young people standing around my father's favourite sculpture which stood by the patio door. Made of white marble, magnificent by size and artwork, it was the only piece of true value my parents bought since coming into money. I went to say hello to my classmates, the ones I met at Med School every day, but were my close friends as well.
I made my way to them but was stopped several times by my parents' acquaintances, all dressed "Hollywood style": furs, feathers, jewellery and sweet perfumes. Quite disgusting, I thought, but answered politely to all questions, moving steadily towards the patio door.
"Hey Anka, happy birthday!" Smiling widely, Janek caught my hands, leaned forward and planted a noisy kiss on my cheek. "We bought you one gift, from all of us. You don't mind, do you?"
I knew that most of them came from humble homes; buying a gift for a rich girl that had everything was an impossible task. I smiled and nodded.
The others soon saw me and came over. Alex and Lidia seemed to be chummy, arms around each other, eyes shining. I realized that Lidia finally gave in to the persistent attack on her maidenhood. That was good. She needed destruction from the morbid atmosphere at her home.
"Where is Leon?" I asked Basha who was lifting a full glass of Champaign against the chandelier, admiring the pink colour of it. She turned to me and said, giggling, "Pink! What do you know! And it's sweeeeet!"
Basha was tipsy. No use asking her about Leon. I needed to talk to him on that particular evening, wanting to see his wise grey eyes and hear his soft voice telling me to put up with my family for a few more years, at least until I've earned my diploma. I needed his calming presence and his crazy humour.
But he wasn't there, at least not in the ballroom. I had a feeling he stayed away on purpose. He was never comfortable in our house, being the poor Jewish boy who made it to Warsaw's medical school and considered a genius. The young man who left behind, in a small village, his heritage and tradition.
Janek saw my worried expression and said, his speech slurred, "He's in the garden, your sweetheart. For the life of me I don't understand why you prefer him to me… I'm better looking… And my father is a dentist, not a poor Rabbi…"
Ignoring him I rushed out to the patio and down the stairs leading to the garden. Leon was sitting on a bench, his head bent and his hands clasped together. He seemed lonely and dejected. My heart went out for him. I said, as cheerfully as I could manage, "There you are, naughty boy! I thought it was customary to greet a birthday girl when coming to her party?"
Leon lifted his head to look at me. I've never seen him so distraught. "What is it?" I uttered. "Has someone died?" That was a stupid question, but it was all that came to mind. I sat beside him and took his hand in mine. "Tell me. Why are you so upset?"
He released his hand from mine and got up. Standing in front of me, he straightened his back, brushed off his only suit an imaginary particle of dust and said, "I just came to say goodbye. I'm leaving."
"Leaving? Going home for a visit? It's not good timing, you know, with the exams next week?" I watched him carefully. He felt bad about something. It wasn't just the "leaving" part. There was more to it.
He shook his head. "No. Not home. My family is going to America. All of us. I must go with them. Father insists… "His voice broke.
I pulled him back to the bench. "And you? Do you want to go? To a strange country, where you don't speak the language and know none of the customs?" My voice sounded sharper than I intended to. The man I was planning to marry and loved with all my heart was immigrating to America. Great, just great!
Leon said suddenly, "I never told you about what had happened in our village last Passover. I didn't want you to think that it had any bearing on our relationship. I was wrong. I should have told you."
"So tell me now. If it has anything to do with your leaving, I want to know."
Leon hesitated then the barricade came down and a horrid story was revealed. Some hot-headed youth in his village had attacked a Jewish merchant in his shop, beat him to death and set the place on fire. Two more Jews were injured in the incident and were taken to the nearest hospital. The merchant was Leon's uncle. The local police had not arrested the perpetrators, dismissing it as a folly. On the next day, Leon's father left for Warsaw and went straight to the American embassy where he applied for visas for his entire family.
Silence. I sat quietly, my guts turning. I wasn't prepared for such a gruesome story. Yes, sure, there was anti-Semitism in the country. Jews were never loved, only tolerated, but attacking an innocent man and killing him just for the fun of it without even being questioned by the police? That was a new phenomenon.
"I'm so sorry about your uncle," I said, voice trembling. "I understand why you want to go. I don't want you to leave, but it is a good reason… What will I do without you?" My voice broke and I started sobbing. I felt stupid. There I was, facing morose facts of life, and all I could think about was my own happiness.
Leon gathered me into his arms and tried to comfort me. "You can come to America too," he said. Get your diploma and then we'll have a party in New York."
I wiped my tears and looked at him sadly. "My father will never let me go. I'm his only child and you know how possessive he is."
My mind was in turmoil. I had to make him see that his future was with me and not in some foreign country. He had a brilliant career ahead of him. Together we could go into private practice and establish the best children's clinic in Warsaw. I was not going to let him throw away his future.
Leon sighed. I guess he knew how stubborn I was, and although I never mentioned anything about a future together, he pretty much figured out that I was not going to let him go. He probably didn't want to go but for his father's belief that there was no future for Jews in Poland.
"Here in the city, people don't hate Jews," I said. "It's only the narrow minded peasants that cause trouble. You are to become a doctor. There are many Jews at the university and many in the army. You know that. So, why don't you stay with me and we'll celebrate our diplomas together? Please don't go. I'll just die without you."
Leon didn't give me his answer that night. He kissed me good bye and left. I was not going to see him again and I cried myself to sleep, worrying my parents who stood dumb by my bed not knowing why I was in such a state. They even called the family doctor.
In the morning I told them about Leon. My father was not surprised to hear about my feelings for that Jew boy. He had hired some ex-policemen to watch me, afraid someone would use me to get to him. He never said a word to me, but that morning he tried to dissuade me from getting involved with a Jew. He said it won't work and that our children will suffer between the two different worlds.
I blocked my ears and said that it is Leon or no one. I was as stubborn as my father was and he had to respect my wishes.
I went to my classes that afternoon, dark glasses hiding my puffy eyes. Basha and Lidia met me after class and heard about Leon. The story about Leon's uncle shook Basha completely. She was partly Jewish having a Jewish grandmother and was a close friend of Leon's.
"So, what are you going to do?" said Lidia. "Will you go to America?"
I shook my head. I was going to finish my studies first. It would be easier to find work anywhere in the world as a doctor. Leon will have to wait. Our life together will have to wait. That was my decision and I was going to stick to it.
When I got home after classes, Halina was waiting for me in the hall and said my father wanted to see me in his den. I thought he was going to lecture me some more and was not particularly in the mood for it. I started to walk towards the stairs telling Halina I'll see father later, but she caught my arm and whispered, "You'd better go now to him."
She smiled mysteriously and pointed her head towards the den. Well, I thought, let's get it over with…
The door to the den opened silently and I walked in. Leon was standing there, smiling his soft smile and reaching his arms towards me. I rushed into his embrace and we stood there for a while, enjoying the togetherness.
A voice came from the arm chair, "So when is the wedding?"
I was startled. My father was sitting in his swivel chair and was in the room all the time.
"Wedding?" I said stupidly,"whose wedding?"
"Ours," said Leon calmly. You do want to marry me, don't you?"
Of course I wanted to marry him, and my Nouveau Rich father wanted to make sure that his daughter had her toy and possessed it legally.
It is the fifteenth day of February 1940, my thirtieth birthday party. Leon and the children had baked a birthday cake and I could see some cream streaks on Deborah's face.
I blew out the candles and opened the gifts. My parents would come later. I am surrounded with love and Leon is the best obstetrician in Warsaw, as I'd predicted.
I am pleased to see my children smile, but a dark cloud of evil is covering the land. The Germans had occupied Poland on September 1st 1939 and we are beginning to feel the Nazi boot coming down on us. All Jews are required to wear white armbands with a blue Star of David on it, all Jewish organizations were disbanded and a Jewish council was chosen by the Germans to govern Jewish affairs. All Jewish schools were closed down and Jewish properties were confiscated.
Some horror stories about killing Jews in Germany slipped through the borders and reached the leaders of the Jewish community. Leon is worried sick and says we must leave for America at once. But he knows it is not possible now.
I'm not Jewish, but my children are half Jews and have to wear the white band. I fear for their safety. Father is trying to find someone who would smuggle us across the border to Switzerland.
A new era has begun.
January 25, 2005
Another Holocaust story, please read.