Chapter 7: Return to Warsaw

With the bottle in clear view, I did not have to wait long. A Soviet command car with several soldiers stopped, and the driver asked me  where I  wanted to go.  “To Warsaw.”  “Very well”,  he answered,  took the  liquor,  and told me to climb in.  He drove about 5 kilometers,  then turned into a side road,  and told me to get out.  “We are not going to Warsaw.” I
demanded my vodka back. At this he pointed his automatic rifle at me, which ended our argument.
I went by foot in the direction of Radomsko, brandishing the second bottle at every driver who bothered to look, but their  response rate was poor.  Eventually,  a Polish military vehicle  stopped,  and the  driver agreed to take me in the desired direction, in exchange for my second and last bottle of vodka.  Later that evening he unloaded me in a little village north of Radomsko.
I was now 40 kilometers closer to Warsaw, but with no vodka, and without the Wieczoreks, Placeks or anybody else who would bother to help me. I was alone and hungry. It was dark. No place to sleep. I walked toward a large, well lit country house. In the darkness it appeared close, but I walked for nearly an hour before  reaching it. I knocked on the door and was let in. The house and the farm were apparently owned by a well-to-do family. It was spacious, clean, had many rooms,  good furniture, and a  large kitchen  full of utensils.  I was permitted to stay overnight.
Shortly after I entered, there was another knock on the door, with many  loud,  Russian-speaking voices.  A  group of about 15 Soviet  troops,  with  their  commander,  were  asking  for shelter overnight.  Their  reception was  very hospitable.  The hosts lit a fire in  the kitchen stove and started cooking dinner in large pots brought from a store-room. I participated fully in eating the dinner, but much less in the lively conversation.  The hosts knew some Russian. The guests talked about their lives in Russia during  peace  and war,  about  their war  experiences,  and the commander boasted  of his knowledge of a few Polish words and of his ability  to read the Latin alphabet.  To sleep,  I was given a place in a barn, on a heap of straw, which was not at all bad. I was probably  lucky to have come before the military group.  Had it been  the other way around,  I doubt whether a place would have been found for me.
In the morning I continued on my way toward Piotrkow. Without the bait of vodka, no driver bothered to stop. It took me a couple  of  days to  reach Piotrkow. My feet were  painful and swollen. I was permanently hungry,  almost without food,  except for  an  occasional bowl of soup or a piece of bread, which somebody cared  to spare.  There  were no shops or stores on the way,  and nothing could be bought.  I slept wherever someone let me in, usually on the floor,  if I was lucky,  or sitting on the stairs, if I was not.
In Piotrkow, after knocking on several doors and showing my swollen legs,  I  found a family who let me stay with them for a couple of  days,  until the swelling subsided.  I ate three free meals a  day at  an outlet  of the  Principal Protective Council (RGO) - an institution  established in Poland for the purpose of helping the needy.  While going to the RGO,  I left my parcel at "home",  which made  walking easier.  On  one such  occasion,  I approached a Polish military group in the street,  who agreed to take me  part way  to Lowicz.  Although  not exactly on the way, Lowicz is closer to Warsaw than Piotrkow.  Also,  they told me  that in  Lowicz I  could expect  much greater  military traffic in the desired direction. I settled for that. Next day I travelled with  them part way,  and continued to Lowicz by foot. When I reached the town, my feet were swollen more than ever before.  I was  unable to  walk any  more.  Again,  a family  of strangers agreed to let me stay at their home for a few days.
The distance from Lowicz to Warsaw was only 70 km (43 miles), but the  condition of my feet and my exhaustion were such,  that any attempt  to reach Warsaw by foot was out of question. It was already February,  and  I had  been on  my way  for two  weeks. Despite earlier predictions, trains had not been converted to the wide-track Soviet system,  and had started to operate in the old way. I took my  belongings to the railway station,  and decided to wait there,  until I managed to board any train going in the direction of Warsaw. The station was crowded with people, all trying to get to Warsaw.
After one day, the desired train reached the station. Immediately hordes of people ran amok, and invaded it wildly. They pushed each other out of their way violently, with utter disregard for others,  entering the  train through doors or windows. No one had  tickets,  no  one  sold  tickets,  and no  one checked  for tickets. The congestion was incredible. Some people stood on the steps of the train, holding onto the door handle; a few managed to get on the roof, to ride on top of the train. The law of the jungle, or worse. I managed to get inside. Actually, caught by a human wave,  I was carried inside.  When all the space was solidly packed, someone  shouted that the train was going in the opposite direction, away from Warsaw. The human wave moved again,  but I decided not to risk leaving my spot. I stayed, despite the risk of going in the wrong direction. This was either good judgement or good luck. Eventually, in the evening, when the train moved, it was toward Warsaw.
We reached Pruszkow (the site of the transition camp during the evacuation of  Warsaw) in the middle of the night.  This was the end of the line. From there,  the only way to Warsaw was by foot. I slept the  remainder of the night on the  staircase of an apartment building.

The distance to the outskirts of Warsaw was about 10 km, but to Praga, where Stella lived, I had 25 or 30 km to go.  When I left Pruszkow it was still dark.
The way was straight east, facing the rising sun. A huge mass of people, returning  to their homes,  walked in the same direction, nearly all at a much faster pace than I.  The closer to Warsaw, the greater war damage was seen, much of it caused intentionally by the retreating  Germans,  after the  Uprising.  Within the Warsaw city limits  the destruction  was complete,  all the  ground covered with the debris  of collapsed  houses.  It was  impossible to  say whether I  was walking along what used to be a road,  a sidewalk or sites of buildings.
My legs hurt terribly, and walking on the ruins was difficult. One thought kept me going: Stella was at the end of the way and I had to reach her before the day was over.  By strength of will I became oblivious to pain, and made a firm decision not to stop,  whatever might happen. I made only brief resting stops, each one lasting a few minutes. I hadn't eaten anything for more than a day and was very hungry, without hope of finding anything eatable.
Close to noon I approached the Vistula. Along its banks, lying in snow, were many bodies of soldiers killed during the recent battle. Their nationality could be determined only by their uniforms; their faces were all black from rotting. A horrible view. Warsaw had been conquered  by the  Soviets on January 17,  the same day as Czestochowa.  Since  then,  many  bodies had  remained  uncollected, decomposing under the sun - a process slowed down considerably by the freezing temperatures.

Three bridges spanned  the Vistula, and I intended to cross one of them.  However,  as I soon found out,  they were reserved for military traffic; civilians were not permitted to cross. But there seemed  to be another possibility of getting to Praga.  It was February,  and the  Vistula was  covered with ice.  I saw people walking across  the river,  over  the ice,  in  both directions. Unfortunately, this initiative did not help, because Soviet troops formed  a line on the ice to prevent people from crossing the river. People who approached the line were sent back  whence they came. Movement of civilians between the two parts of Warsaw was "illegal". Besides, crossing  the ice was risky. At the edges,  close to the banks, the ice was thin and fragile, and sometimes broke under weight. Some people drowned and no one could help.  Following the example of others, I decided to take the risk, and an idea crossed my mind. I approached one of the soldiers and  told him that I had come  from Praga  (the east bank) and intended to go west. Would he, please, let me go? In the crowd surrounding us, he did not notice that I had actually come from the  west.  Impatiently,  he rejected my plea,  and sent me "back" to Praga.  Close  to the bank,  the ice was very thin and broken in several places,  but following other people carefully, I managed to cross the river uneventfully.
In Praga things were different. This part of Warsaw has been conquered by  the Soviets  nearly 5 months  earlier,  and a  new routine of life had started to develop. Damage was relatively light. Illegal commercial life flourished. Along the streets, a variety of goods for sale were spread on the sidewalks.  Loaves of bread attracted my  eyes instantly.  I had money issued by the Germans for use in German-occupied Poland, the Generalgouvernement. But on  this  side of  the Vistula  a new  currency has  been issued several months  earlier by  the Polish communist government. My money was obsolete. I offered it all for a loaf of bread, but my offer was  rejected.  My hunger was incredible,  my stomach ached, and I was reminded of the starvation during the Warsaw Uprising. Unlike the people in Piotrkow and in Lowicz, the people in Warsaw were  not willing to spare even a piece of bread.  In the big city one had to pay or starve.
Continuing on my way, I saw men standing along the street, uttering  repeatedly  one word:  "buying,  buying,  buying..." I approached one,  asking  what he  was buying.  "Gold,  diamonds, dollars" was his answer. I had an old, well used blanket, which I would have gladly exchanged  for a loaf,  or even a slice of bread. "Would you buy my blanket?" He looked at me amused and did not bother to answer.

Later during the day I reached Targowa Street, house number 63. The janitor's room: small and crowded, with several little children and a very thin, hungry-looking wife. “I am  looking  for Mrs.  Janina  Rogozinska.”  The janitor's  wife looked at me for a long moment,  and then said “Mrs.  Rogozinska left the  house several  months ago.  She  lives in  Sulejowek.” “What is her address?” “We do not know” she answered. I was devastated.  Were all my efforts to reach this desired place for nothing? My starvation,  swollen  legs,  sleeping on staircases, crossing the fragile ice on the Vistula - all this, to hear that Stella is  not here,  but  in Sulejowek,  east of Warsaw,  at an unknown  address? Should I now start another  long  walk  to Sulejowek? Without even  knowing Stella's  address? I felt as if the whole world would collapse and crush me.
The janitor's wife must have noticed something in my face, because she  invited me to sit down and offered me tea.  I told her that I  had not eaten for two days,  and she gave me some food. Then she told me that Mrs. Rogozinska was expecting her husband and other relatives to come from Germany.  Once every couple of days she came there watching for their return. I should be able to meet her  within a  day or  two.  Meanwhile I  could stay at the Principal Protective  Council (RGO),  and  get there  three free meals a day. She told me where to find the RGO.
That night I slept at the RGO, on the floor, with scores of other people in the same room. I took my shoes off, but in order not to have them stolen, put them under my head as a pillow.  In the morning  I saw  people combing their hair with dense combs in order  to remove  lice,  and throwing live lice on the floor. Others objected, and there were some arguments and fights.
After breakfast of bitter black coffee and a slice of bread, I left my  belongings in the office and went to look around Praga. The most important place to visit was 63 Targowa Street. Stella had  not  come.  Next  day...  and  another  day...  "Did  Mrs. Rogozinska come from Sulejowek?" One day the janitor's wife pointed to a corner. Stella saw me before I noticed her, and started crying. In my return she saw a resurrection.
The next day Stella brought her two sons from Sulejowek and we spent  the  following  two  nights  in  the janitor’s room, together with  his family,  sleeping on the floor.  I brought my belongings from  the RGO.  Soon Gabriel arrived by train from Czestochowa.

Stella had been evicted from 63 Targowa St. a few months earlier,  because  her  room  had  been  requisitioned  by  the military.  Because Praga  was too  crowded to find another room, they moved to Sulejowek.  With the return of the head of the family, they were  again entitled  to a room in the same building.  By a decision  of  some committee,  we  were assigned  a room  in the apartment of Rykiel, a family who lived on the fifth floor.  The Rykiels were openly hostile, but they had no choice, and gave us the smallest of their rooms. We moved from the janitor's room to the fifth floor.
Our room was 2x3 meters (7x10 feet), for a family of five. There were two narrow beds: in one,  Gabriel slept with Marek,  in the other,  Stella with  Adam.  I had  a mattress on the floor which was stored on one of the beds during the day. There was a table, two or three folding chairs,  and a small iron stove for heating the room.  For  cooking,  an electric hot plate was  placed on the table.  The  way  to the toilet  led through the Rykiel’s living  room. Anyone passing through was followed by hostile looks and comments about “trespassing”.
Part of the roof above our room has been blown off during one of the air raids, so every time it rained,  water dripped on us from above. We used pots, basins,  and every possible vessel to catch  the water  and lessen our misery,  but it did not help much. No one thought about repairing the roof.  We certainly did not have the obligation or the means to do it.  The Rykiels were in no  hurry either:  the  more we felt the rain,  the sooner we would leave their apartment.
We got bread and occasionally other food supplies from the Jewish  Committee, a newly established institution to help survivors of the Holocaust. It was not enough,  but we were not starving.
We had to earn a living somehow. Someone brought a supply of combs, buttons,  needles and threads,  and suggested that we sell it on the street  for a  slightly higher  price.  I joined the rows of other street vendors in a busy spot at the corner of Targowa and Zabkowska  Streets.  Rather  than  spreading  my  goods  on  the sidewalk, I used an old tray which I still have in my possession.  Commerce was apparently not my strong feature, because on many days I returned home with all my merchandise untouched. A day could be considered lucky, if I had managed to sell a few combs or needles for a meager profit. In addition to  failure in my new occupation, I soon learned that without  a licence,  it was also illegal.  When a policeman appeared at a distance, all the vendors ran away, and I joined them.
Soon I abandoned my attempts at supporting the family and we became entirely dependent on the Jewish Committee. From them I got a  pair of  pants,  and I  threw out  my old torn ones which had served me  so well  through the  years of war.  The new trousers were almost new, and after my old pair, I felt "elegant" almost to the point of embarassment.

Early in 1945 the exchange of German-issued money to the new Polish currency was completed.  In order to eliminate capitalism once  and  for all,  and  to assure  that in  the new  socialist society all  people would  be economically  equal,  everybody was permitted to  exchange only  500 zlotys (the  famous “goral”) for the new currency. Any additional savings would become worthless. This would instantly eliminate all those "capitalists" who were stupid enough  to hold  their savings  in zlotys.  How clever were they  who had taken  care of  their savings earlier,  and had exchanged them for hard foreign currency and other valuables! One had to come  to  the  Government  Bank  with an  identity  card  (the German-issued Kennkarte).  After checking the person's identity, a square of the document below the photograph was cut out,  thus assuring  that  no-one  will exchange  the 500 zlotys  more than once. Socialist equality was thus assured (Fig. 32).

Passover was approaching. Matzos were not available, but Stella spent all night baking our own on the electric cooker, so that we  would not have to eat bread. A day  before the  holiday, at to her request, I took all the bread which we had at home, and sold it in the street for one-half of the nominal price.
The examples of Stella's adherence to Jewish tradition and religion are many.  During all the years of war, when kosher  meat was  not available,  she did not eat any meat. However, at the same time, in order not to deprive her children of necessary  nutrients, she bought and cooked meat for them. Every fall, at the approximate time of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement),  the traditional day of fasting,  she chose one day, which according  to her  calculation was  most likely  to be Yom Kippur, and imposed on herself a 24-hour fast.
Her  unshaken  religious belief and adherence to tradition were matched only by her solidarity and love for her family. For many months  she  watched  hundreds  of  exhumations  of  fallen  and murdered heroes of the Warsaw Uprising, unsuccessfully trying to identify the  body of her brother Jozek.  With great difficulty, she managed to locate Dr. Piotr Załęski,  the wounded Commanding Officer of  the Blaszanka Hospital,  corresponded with him,  and eventually met  him.  He told her much about Jozek's activity in Armia Krajowa before the Uprising,  and of his work as a surgeon during  the  Uprising.  He  also  provided  details  about  the treacherous denunciation  leading to  Jozek's arrest  and murder (Fig. 33).

Fig 33
Fig. 33:  Dr. Jozef Klinger (Jozek), and his Cross of Valor awarded posthumously

From the time of my parents' death, Stella and Gabriel accepted me as their son. Between 1943, when they arrived in Warsaw, and our reunion in 1945, this relationship could not fully express itself, because of our physical separation,  but from the moment of our reunion, Stella and Gabriel had not two,  but three sons. Stella took over the functions of my mother without any official adoption process, and she always treated me as an equal of Marek and Adam. There was never any difference in her feelings, love and care toward her two sons and toward me. Her home was  always my home, and she became the grandmother of my children (Fig. 34).

Fig 34
Fig. 34:  With Stella and her family, Warsaw 1945

In the spring of 1945, Adam, 7 years old, became sick. He had fever and  coughed a lot.  We did not have any health insurance, and a private physician was summoned. A handsome and intelligent man  in  his  thirties,  he  was interested  not only  in Adam's symptoms,  but  also  in the  patient,  his family,  and  in our terrible living conditions.  He conversed with Stella in several languages  (her  French  and  German were  impeccable),  and was deeply impressed by the extent of our tragedy and the decline to our  present  misery.  After  giving  medical  advice  and  a prescription, he was about to leave. Stella asked him how much was the fee. As answer he took a bill from his wallet, put it on the table, said “this is for milk for your child”, and left. A short time after his visit,  a tragic accident happened to him:  while crossing  the street,  he was hit by a car and was killed instantly. Unfortunately, I do not remember his name.
Adam's illness was diagnosed as pulmonary tuberculosis (primary infection). Doctors at the Jewish Committee advised an immediate improvement of his living conditions,  good food and “good air”. Streptomycin and other antituberculous drugs were not available in Poland  at that  time. “Good air” meant  sending the child to Otwock - a nearby health resort, where many sanatoria had been functioning before the war. Placing the child in a sanatorium was financially impossible, but Stella rented a room in Otwock, where for a whole year she took care of Adam and provided him with good  food. Thus she became physically separated from the rest of the family. Gabriel, Marek and I were left without our main supporting pillar.

At about the same time, the Jewish Committee took steps toward taking  care  of Jewish  children,  survivors of  the Holocaust. “Children's Homes” began to be organized, in which surviving children, usually orphans, could find shelter. One such home had just been opened  in  Zatrzebie,  a  village  on  the  south-eastern outskirts of  Warsaw.  Both Marek  and I  applied for admission. Marek, because of his brother's illness, seemed to present a health  hazard  for the other  children; besides,  he  had  living parents.  His  application  was,  therefore,  rejected.  I  was accepted to the Zatrzebie Children's Home.