My Childhood: Warsaw to Shanghai

A tinted  portrait of me  aged 3?

A tinted portrait of me aged 3?

I think I remember a room, the sitting room in our apartment, ornate furniture and heavy curtains, pink, a lot of pink. I was alone, maybe two years old, my parents had gone out, it was getting dark. I was afraid, or simply didn’t want to be in the dark, alone. I cried, called for my nanny. No one came. I pushed an armchair, one of those ornate chairs with a back carved in wooden curlicues I must have thought I could climb up, all the way to the wall where the light switch was and started climbing up it to the switch. Either the chair fell, or I lost balance, anyway I fell, my head hit the floor, and I blacked out. When I awoke there was light, my parents standing over me, lots of blood around me. I still have the scar on my forehead, though it’s very little by now. I remember it bigger. [Perhaps it being there all those years is what has kept the incident in my memory.]

The cake had four candles on it. Three for the years I’d lived and one for the next, Mother explained, sitting back in the armchair. Nanny lit the candles, and Mother held me up and told me to blow. She blew with me, and the lovely flames flickered and vanished. There were other people around, who clapped and started singing: “Sto lat, sto lat…” “A hundred years, a hundred years, may he live.” Father wasn’t there. Mother said he was far away, in a place called London, on business.

One evening she took me up to bed and said “I want to teach you to pray to God.”  “Why?” “Everybody who can speak should pray to God, because then God looks after us.” “Who’s God?” “God’s like the father of us all, of everything, He made everyone and everything and knows everyone and everything and looks after us all if we ask him to.” “Where is He?” “Everywhere.” Then she said I should pray every evening before going to sleep, and to say, in Polish, Panie Boże, Mister God, please look after me and my father and my mother and parents & all our relatives & my nanny & …” …

Here’s a small gallery of some pics of me from Warsaw or a vacation place we spent in summers in, probably from two different years, because I was much chubbier in some than in others. There’s one with my mum holding a quite chubby me, & one with both my parents, perhaps when we were having passport photos taken (you can click on all pics to enlarge them):

I had a friend before we left Warsaw, a boy my age, I see him in photos I still have. In one of them he holds a book in English about Dumbo. I don’t remember his name, but I do know that some time before we left Warsaw he & his parents left for the United States, the Madison, Wisconsin − & that photo may have been one that his parents sent us from there. & another friend [or was it the same one, I don’t remember, & I do seem to see a resemblance in the photos’ we may have been a year younger in the two on the right] was with me one time in the country, on summer vacation, at a resort we went to in the summer months. My mother and me, his mother and he. Trees, many trees, and paths between them, and a low and rambling one-story house, and a brook, it was hilly country.

Another night, I was in bed alone, looking up at Mother and Father, both very elegantly dressed. Mother said: “We’re going out soon, to the theater.” “Me too?”  “No, but if you’re nice we’ll bring you a program, and tomorrow I’ll tell you the story of the play.” That didn’t really seem like such a treat…

Rysiek, they called me, Rysio. The Polish “si” sound is very soft, sibilant (to make it, lift the tip of your tongue to just above your top teeth while pronouncing the sound “sh”, as in the English word “shed”).

[I don’t really remember our flight from Warsaw, but when I first wrote this memoiring many many years ago I wrote it as if I did, though I’m pretty certain I just made it up.] Much traffic noise from the streets, packing bustle inside. We were leaving our lovely home, and our lovely city of Warsaw, Mother said, because the Niemcy were coming. The long loud noises, she explained, were airplanes, and the short bursts we had heard were called bombs, that destroyed houses, and killed people. She said I should pray to God with her that Father would get home safely with the car he had managed to get. And that we would all get away safely.

In the pink room at home I think I waited alone for a while as my parents completed the packing and loaded the car. My father had managed to get petrol. There were many cars in the street. Before leaving Warsaw we went to see my mother’s mother [I wrote a page in this blog about her recently, link], the mirror on the stairs broke or was already cracked from the first bombings by the Germans. Grandmother pointed to it and said it was bad luck, and looked at me, and she looked anguished. I see her white hair, and a face like my Mother’s only with a shorter and rounder nose, and a black dress, a tall fairly thin dignified woman. It was a tearful parting. We would only be away for a month or so, my father had said, or so my mother wrote later, for he believed that the British and Americans would not allow the Germans to conquer Poland. But my grandmother had known we wouldn’t ever be seeing each other again, so my mother also recorded.

We were in the car. Father was driving, Mother beside him. I was with Nanny in the back seat. The car hardly moved because of all the other cars on the street. People were running past us in the street, moving faster than the cars, all heading in the same direction. Leaving Warsaw, all my toys stayed behind. I especially missed the new electric train my father had brought me from London.  We drove.

Here are passport photos of my parents from (I think) the period of these travels.

I’m impressed as always by my mother’s fashionable & complicated coiffure & also by my father’s sleek hairstyle (I remember that he used to put on a black hair-net every night to keep it disciplined), but most of all and repeatedly I’m moved by the melancholy if not anguish in my parents’ faces in these photos, especially my father’s (I’m guessing that was most probably their general feeling in those days, and I don’t look too happy either).  Yet I know that with all that melancholy my father was active, & effective: he got us out of there, through his initiative, foresight, and resourcefulness — at a time when he was younger than the youngest of my sons, Zohar (whose eyes most remind me of his) , is today [this was written when I first posted this page; today Zohar is 43+], though at what cost, dying at 40 after a year of protracted pain. But again I anticipate…:

Lemberg. We stayed a few months in Lemberg, my mother wrote, but fled again as soon as we could after it was taken by the Red Army. No memories of any of that, just know what my mother wrote about it.

My mother and I were captured and imprisoned by Soviet soldiers in an attempt to reach the Lithuanian border to escape from the Soviet-occupied part of Poland and join my father who had gone across first to arrange things. I do have a vague memory of the prison-camp, a barn full of people cramped together in its narrow space. A door occasionally opened out into a snowy space surrounded by barbed‑wire, and that space too was cramped. Outside it walked soldiers in large fur hats and fur-collared coats, holding long rifles. When we pressed our way out into the open air we could see them closer. Some of them sang some of the time. One clear memory I have is my mother once giving me a piece of buttered bread, and telling me to keep the buttered side down so no-one else would see and try to take it from me ‑ or, presumably, try to take from her whatever it was that had enabled her to afford to obtain something so precious for me. Beside the fence I ate my upside-down slice of buttered bread, which with every bite and each new shock of the feel of the butter on my tongue rather than on the topside of my mouth made me feel, more than any single other thing I had encountered so far on this strange voyage of flight, how completely topsy-turvy our life had become.

I do remember trudging through snow again, in the dark, Mother, Nanny and I, and the two strange men my father had organized to smuggle us into Lithuania. I had to keep up with the big people, and to keep quiet, it was too much for me, I felt cold, wet inside in my boots, I started crying, one of the strange men picked me up roughly and put me on his shoulders. I didn’t like him holding me, but it was better than trying to walk.

Father’s cigarette glowing in the dark room in Vilna, he lying on the opened-up double couch with my mother, everyone else was asleep, he was awake, perhaps worrying, planning… And I could hear the snores of his friend Kuba, who was sharing the room with us.

& this too is one of my memories from then & would have a protracted effect on my life: Lying in my cot happily playing with my little erection, when all of a sudden there were or was Mother &/or Father, yelling at me. “That’s a terrible thing to do. It’s dirty. You mustn’t touch it except when you go to make peepee, and then always wash your hands immediately after you touch it, like we’ve told you so often! Never play with it again, or it’ll go black and fall off, you’ll get sick, you’ll die!” Or something like that, with numerous gasps of astonishment, horror, disgust, anger. I’m sure they believed they were doing the right thing…

A humane Japanese consul in Lithuania acting independently of his government’s policy was issuing visas to Jews for six-month transit stays in Japan, and is said to have saved about the lives of six thousand Jews. This I know about from my mother’s memoirs, and of course his indefatigable humanitarian endeavors are well known. His name was Chiune Sugihara. There’s a good item on him on & on, I recently posted a comment on him on that site:
chiune sugihara “My parents & I were among those 6000. We had fled from Warsaw on the day the Germans began bombing the city & after several months of tribulations found refuge in Vilna. Soon after this the Soviet Army occupied Lithuania, & life there became hard for everyone, & dangerous for refugees. Fortunately my father managed to get us the visas for a six- month stay in Japan that Chiune Sugihara was issuing. With those it became possible to obtain Soviet transit permits (not easily, but that’s another story, partly told elsewhere) for the long journey across Russia & Siberia to Japan, from where, because no countries were issuing visas to refugee Jews, we found our way to Shnaghai, where no visas were then required… I have always known that he saved our lives & those of many other European Jews, & will always admire his courage & honor his memory.”

Moving again. A steam-train from Vilna. I have a memory of walking wide white ivory steps of the Moscow underground, long white well-lit tunnels, long wide marble stairs, not many people moving. Signs with some strange-looking letters in them. My father speaking to officials in Russian. Then the long slow train to Vladivostok, with a few stops on the way, through many days and nights of snow-covered steppe-land, a train with all seats full, but room to run through the corridors. No one to play with. No one except my parents to speak Polish with, and they didn’t have much time for me. At one stop, just a few buildings in the white world beside the railway track, we got out and moved about a bit on the snow, and ate some hot soup. People in furs moved through falling snow. Then we moved off again. More days and days and nights and nights, and always snow outside.

A boat to Japan, Kobe, suddenly a great city of many Japanese in the streets almost all of them wearing small masks over their nose and mouth, and paper walls and doors in thin wood frames, and my parents explained about the Japanese’ fears of infection, and about the earthquakes, I saw a crack in a road where an earthquake had been, but there were many high buildings all around.

On a large steamship on the Whangpoo River. Wide wide water, murky yellow-brown. Many junks and sampans, coolies in them in straw hats and tunics, some coming near trying to trade. I pressed against the rails at the side of the deck, with my parents and all the other European passengers speaking many languages. Around a curve of the great river, suddenly masses of high buildings on the right-hand bank, which I later learned was called the Bund or water-front of Shanghai and the city behind it [only yellow reeds, no buildings, on the other side that is now Pudong]. Cloudy sky, much the same color as the river. Hot in my serge suit, except in the space between my kneelength short pants and my almost kneehigh socks. Mother and Father whispering nervously, anxiously, straightening the lapels and flattening the hems of their jackets and mine, several times. The ship did not dock, a pilot tug brought it in fairly close, and then a smaller boat, a “tender”, started ferrying passengers. Shouts, whistles, pushings, time passing, people cursing, then some started descending stairs to the tender. It filled up and began to chuff towards the great shoreline buildings of the Bund, toward the great city, and then another one drew alongside. We waited a long time for our turn to go down the shaky ladder onto the rocking boat below.

The Bund in the 1940s

The Bund in the 1940s

Then the shock of the outside, scores of Chinese beggar children pleading with each new group of disembarked passengers leaving the customs house,  and then the shifting panorama and loud polyphony of the street, the roadway filled with rickshaws and pedicabs outnumbering the cars, many Chinese in Chinese clothes and here and there some Europeans in European clothes walking towards or away from the river between the unbroken line of hawkers’ stalls on the kerb side of the sidewalk & the dark gray walls of the buildings lined with beggars seated on the ground, sometimes whole families, many of them little children in rags, some with amputated limbs or other deformities, some calling out to all passing Europeans “No mama no papa” as they reached out an open hand… and learning while still a child the same age as some of them that parents could injure their children so terribly in order to arouse the pity of passers-by (and reading much later in my mother’s memoirs that it was rumored that some at least of these sidewalk beggars were millionaires).

We had accompanied my father to the Bund district where he was neeting someone on some business he was trying to do, & my mother and I were riding home in a trolley (I think) along the Avenue Joffre. I loved sitting by the window, looking out. The trolley stopped. I saw some children outside making faces at the people inside. I made faces back. Mother slapped me gently. “Don’t make faces. A wind might come and freeze it, and you’ll have that face for the rest of your life.” I tried to make my face normal, but I wasn’t sure what face I was willing to risk carrying about for the rest of my life….


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