I knew that I had an uncle, Bolek, one of my mother’s brothers, somewhere in the Far East, and while we were in Kobe we found out his address. He was in Shanghai. He had been in Russia during the First World War, and during the revolution he had sent his wife back to Poland, and had gone to the Far East with a Russian girl-friend. He was then very handsome, very rich, and spoke about 6 languages perfectly. I wrote to him from Kobe, and he wrote back that he had found a room for us in Shanghai.
We had a pleasant trip there on a first-class boat, but I hated Shanghai from the moment I saw it. Coming from the clean sea to the dirty stinking bay was awful, but more awful were the dirty and stinking streets of Shanghai, full of beggars, you could not walk there without hordes of beggars all over you, you could not get rid of them, dirty, stinking, full of lice and terrible wounds, whole armies of them. Most of them I later heard were professional beggars, some of them were said to be millionaires. It was also a shock to see the rickshaw coolies, like horses, carrying other people in rickshaws. I went through the streets with my eyes closed, I hated it.
But it turned out that not all Shanghai was like that. This was a Chinese part of the city. My uncle had thought that we were coming as penniless refugees, and had found us a place in the cheapest part. But after a few days your father found us a beautiful place in the French Concession, a large room, with five windows on three sides, a separate entrance through a garden, and our own bathroom. It was like heaven.
After we settled down the first thing was to get you into a good kindergarten. We made some inquiries and found one of the best kindergartens in the French concession, run by an Australian lady and her daughter. Children from the best families in Shanghai used to go there. You were then, dear, four and a half years old. Your father arranged everything. He spoke English very well (he had been in London twice for some time, and had been studying English at home for about ten years before the war, an English teacher used to come to our place in Warsaw twice a week). I could not speak a word yet. But I took you to the kindergarten on the first day, I thought you might be scared or might not like it, so I decided I would stay there the whole day on your first day. I sat outside while you had some lessons inside, but to my surprise in the first break you came out to me and told me to go home. You said you liked it very much and were enjoying yourself. I did not want to go, but you were stubborn on that point, so I left and just came back at the end of the day to take you home. From then on I took you there every morning and brought you back every afternoon.
You made wonderful progress. After a few weeks you spoke perfect English. When you were five years old you were already reading perfectly and you started to write. In those times you read Polish too. Somehow you did not have to learn how to read. I remember when your cousin Karol was 7 he was still learning to read syllable by syllable, you never learned like that, it just came naturally to you. After being shown the alphabet you started to read. As far as I remember what my mother told me about my childhood it was the same with me. I remember I used to read the signs above the shops, that was how I started to read.
The next important thing for your father now was to find some business to do, he wanted to make some money. We had quite a lot and we were able to get our money from the English bank, we also had some in the United States which we also were able to bring back, but living on capital is not very safe, especially when it was not invested.
Oh, he tried to buy some things and sell them, but they were bad investments and he sold them without making a penny on them: he tried to buy and sell dollars or things like gold-bars, that was an illegal business and I helped him with that, being a woman I was running less risk of being discovered while delivering, but I did not like it, it was too dangerous, if I were caught I would be sentenced to jail, and it did not bring in much, so we stopped that.
Then he started to play on stocks, he used to buy shares of cotton bales and sell them, but he was very unlucky, he always bought or sold at the wrong time. Some other people made lots of money out of that but he only lost quite a few thousands. But being a gambler, it fascinated him. He begged me to go with him and watch the market, he always believed I was bringing him luck, I always had to sit next to him when he played bridge or poker. I went with him a few times but it didn’t help, he just didn’t have the touch for it. I begged him to stop, because I saw that whatever we had was melting away. He promised that he wouldn’t do it again, but he tried secretly a few times more before he finally stopped. He just could not do any business. He was so clever, I always thought that during the war he would be the one who would make millions. But I found out that war brings opportunities to dishonest people, he was just too honest.
So finally he started buying and collecting stamps, which took quite a lot of his time, and he joined the International Bridge Club (the only one with the best personalities in shanghai) and started playing bridge there in the evenings, and at home in the afternoons. It was a very elegant club, and I sometimes used to go with him, and played bingo there while he played bridge. I must say that his winnings from the bridge games gave him more than all the kinds of business he tried to do. He was a brilliant bridge player, and in Warsaw had won quite a few silver cups in contests.
I don’t remember if I mentioned that he was a wonderful pianist and loved to play, he always had a piano at home, but after we got married his parents did not give him the piano. Not that they needed it, they just sold it. He bought a new piano after we moved to the bigger flat in Warsaw. He loved playing, sometimes he sat at night playing for hours, and people liked his playing, he was always being asked to play. I will never forget his eyes when he was playing the piano, it seemed that he did not see anybody or anything, that he was looking inside himself just listening and reading something that was just inside him. After we left Warsaw he missed his piano very much, and one day in Vilna he came with a piano-accordion, and from the first touch he played it beautifully, with the same look in his eyes. He enjoyed it tremendously, but before we left Vilna he sold it, because he knew it would be taken away from him on the way to Japan. And in Shanghai of course he had nothing to play on. He missed it very much. At the beginning of our stay in Shanghai he was still trying to get a visa to Australia or America, but it was not possible to get one.
He was very irritable in those times, he was still worrying about having lost so much in Warsaw, he was worrying that he was not making money, he was worrying about everything. I was always his moral support, but sometimes I lost patience too, but I did not show that to him, I was always trying to show as much understanding and help as was expected from me, and it was really very much. But I think I was much braver at that time than he was, I was taking it easier, maybe because I had had it so terribly bad during the First World War and I was afraid that it would be the same during the Second. During the First War I knew what it was to be hungry, and though I was a child, I knew what it was for my mother to see us hungry and have no food for us, I was afraid it would be the same again. As a matter of fact before we left Warsaw I cried terribly and when your father asked why I was crying so much I said I was afraid that I might see you hungry, and your father said then “I promise that as long as I am alive he will never be hungry”.
Well, he kept his promise. We had a nice place to live, maybe we had not so much to eat, but you, dear, had whatever you needed to eat. You had your milk and your butter, even if I had to travel a long time for it, and even if I had to make the butter myself. Everything was rationed, bread too, but as long as there was money there was always a black market, and there was nothing too expensive for you, dear. As your father was not making money he was trying to save as much as possible, but not on you. You had everything you needed.
At the beginning, before the Japanese came to Shanghai, we used to go to the pictures sometimes, but after that we stopped, first of all because they closed most of the theatres, and secondly because our money was shrinking rapidly. There was inflation, if at the beginning it cost $10 a month to live, later it cost us $200.
You had, however, often to pay for your father’s irritation. You were a very lively boy and not always obedient, for which you got quite a few beltings. I don’t know if you remember this, dear, but I will never forget it. Every belting cost me much of my health. I did not believe in belting children, nobody ever touched me or my brother. I always believed in kindness and understanding, but your father did not agree with me, he believed in hard punishment.
I will never forget a day when I bought something special for you, and you did not want to eat it. I never forced you to eat when you did not feel like it, but your father felt that it was not fair, he thought that since it had been bought with special effort you ought to eat it. He forced you and you vomited, he said you did that on purpose, because you were just stubborn. I knew you much better than your father, dear. An le argument started, he wanted to punish you and intended to get his belt, but I said you would not be belted ever again. I did not care for arguments, I avoided them as much as I could, but I felt this was the limit. The food might have cost a lot of money and been very difficult to get, but that was not important for me. I felt that the punishment had to be prevented at all costs. I also felt that you were not vomiting on purpose, I felt that you were going to be ill. A terrible quarrel followed. I got hysterical, I cried and I wanted my mother, like a child I cried for my mother who was thousands of miles away.
It was evening, and your father ran out of the room and did not come home for many hours. That night I did not care, if I had had a place to go to that night I would have taken you and left, but as things were I had no option. As it turned out, you were ill the next day, with a high temperature, and were in bed for about a week. That time I was not the first to start speaking with your father, as I usually did after some arguments. That time I was firm. But after three days your father was on his knees begging forgiveness. Being what I am, I forgave but I never forgot. A big wound was deep in my heart. It does not mean that I stopped loving him. I did love him, I cared for him, but this love was different already.
At about that time a funny thing happened to me. I fell in love with a stranger, I knew that it was natural, but both of us were afraid to make the first step to know each other. It happened when I was taking you to and from the kindergarten. Every day I would see a very good-looking man who was bringing his little girl to the same school. After I met him for the first time I saw him every day, because he was always earlier than me and used to wait for me outside the school, and then he took the same tram I did, or when he was on a bike he used to follow the tram, and when I sometimes took a rickshaw he followed the rickshaw. He had an antique shop on the Avenue Joffre not far from the kindergarten, and when I was going to pick you up, mostly in a rickshaw, he would wait in the door of his shop and then take his bike and follow me. In the mornings when he took the tram back he would get off at my stop and follow me to our house. His wife worked in his shop.
This went on all the time you were at that kindergarten. sometimes he was on the verge of talking to me, but I did everything to avoid him. I was afraid, I was much too infatuated, and I could not or would not trust myself. But I used to dream about him days and nights. I must say that it made some kind of difference, some kind of interest, the waiting for the moment when I would see him again. Of course I had to be careful even thinking about him, your father was jealous about thoughts and dreams too. But I must say I was an exceptionally good-looking woman in those war years. I had lost a lot of weight, I was pretty fat after you were born, dear, I had then a very nice figure, and lovely shoulder-length hair, as the style was at that time. It was nice to know that men took notice of me again.
I remember once we had to buy some clothes for you, and I made an appointment with your father in the City. We were going to Department House to buy you your first long trousers and a lumber jacket. We met your father and he came with one of his business associates, a very rich and good-looking Dutchman. The man looked at me with surprise and said to your father: “I did not know that you have such a charming wife”. This was the first time I heard that said in English. No need to say that it was on very few occasions that I saw this man again, everything was being done to avoid it.
At the same time I had an English teacher who came to give me private lessons. You might remember him, dear. He liked me very much too, but I was not much taken by him. He was the one who two weeks after your father died asked me to marry him, and wanted to take us to Australia. But I didn’t feel like marrying anybody then. Not that I feel different today. But later on there were times when I was tired of struggling and I wanted to get married, but always found I could not. But I will come to that later…
The war-time passed slowly. I was enjoying taking care of you, I was enjoying bathing you, dressing you, knitting nice suits for you, or when you grew up some more, little sweaters. I was sorry for all those years when I did not do everything for you from the time you were born, of course I had been working, but I was deeply sorry. It gave me so much joy, you were so lovely and so lively. You made so much progress in that school, you would have stayed there much longer, but when the Japanese came, after some time they soon closed it. Then your father found one of the best schools which was still open, and we thought it might stay open. It was an American school, but you did not like it there, there was an English teacher, she was born in Germany and was probably very anti-Semitic, she did not like you, she was always sending for me or for your father, so after a while we took you from there and enrolled you in Shanghai Jewish School, which was open until the end of the war, you liked it very much there and you were always the best student in your class.
In your final year there you got the first prize at a special ceremony, which of course I attended, but your father was dead by then, he would have been so proud of you. He loved you very much, dear, of course he could not give you as much time as I could but I remember every Saturday morning he used to take you for a walk, or to a café to show you to his friends. He was proud because you were so clever, so intelligent and so beautiful. By the age of six you were reading and writing in English, Polish and Russian. English you learned at school, Polish you just picked up from me, Russian you just taught yourself from a Russian-English dictionary which belonged to your father, but you used to take it, put it on the floor, sit down next to it, and study it. And that was how it came about that you started editing a newspaper in English at the age of six. We got the Russian newspaper every day. You would read the Russian news about the war, and translate it into English, of course only the headlines. The size of the paper was about the same size as one double page in this exercise book. About one and a half pages were news, and half a page advertisements, and some drawings. Every day you used to make two copies of these newspapers, and sell one copy to me and one to your father. There was a Polish newspaper in Shanghai, and one of its editors was a friend of ours. One day he happened to see your newspaper, and the next day he wrote quite an article about it in his paper. I remember the headline was “The Youngest Editor in Shanghai”, and the last sentence was that you sold two copies of your paper every day to your parents for one Shanghai dollar each.
Besides that you had a map on the wall, and every day you marked the changes at the war front, and when the front changed so much that you could not mark it any more you ran to the news-agency to buy a new map. You also loved to play with cars and planes at that time, and we used to buy you plenty of those. You were always sitting on the floor, and when not reading or writing you had a whole big drawer of toys, you took those cars and planes out and pushed them around with a big shush, shush, shush – – – – –
How I miss that sweet little boy.
I don’t remember the exact dates, but at some time of the occupation the Japanese made a ghetto in Shanghai. People lost their freedom, many were put into jails, which were infected with a terrible kind of typhus and after a few days in jail or a couple of days after they were released from jail they died. One of our very close friends was put in jail, then they let him out and he came to us, and after a few days he got sick and died, he was only in his thirties. At his funeral we arranged a demonstration against the Japanese, but they started to shoot at us, so we dispersed. Those were very sad times.
Then one day your father was maltreated by the Japanese. He was wounded, and got an infection, and from that wound a horrible tropical disease began. I don’t know if you remember those days, but they were the worst days of my life. He suffered terribly a whole year. I don’t want to write about his sickness, because it always opens wounds in my heart. After 12 months of terrible suffering he died at the age of 40.
We were left alone. Before his death your father asked you to take care of me, and you promised him and you were wonderful. Especially when I started to work at the American PX and knew very little English, and you decided that you wouldn’t speak Polish to me any more, only English. It was thanks to you that I finally learned as much as I did. But you were still a baby. I was working from 2 in the afternoon till 10 in the evening. And one night when I came home I found a note: “Mother, I want my Mother”. But it happened only once. Usually you were very brave. You used to come from school, go to the restaurant to eat, come back home, prepare your home-work and go to bed all by yourself, and always left a note for me.
Very soon after the war ended I got news through the International Red Cross about my brother Bron, the news was that he was alive, and living in Johannesburg. I wrote to him, telling him about our terrible loss of your father, and he answered telling me about the same terrible news about our mother and his wife. From then on we corresponded regularly, he sent us some financial help a sometimes, but he did not have much himself, he had just been discharged from the British Army and was not earning very much. Finally he got us a visa to South Africa, which was pretty difficult to get in those times, but when I already had the visa in our passport, we couldn’t go because we had no money for the passage.
In the meantime he got married again, for the third time, and through his father-in-law, who had a brother in Melbourne, he arranged for us to get a permit to come to Australia. By that time some Jewish committees had been organized, and our passage to Melbourne was paid by the Joint. An American warship was provided to take a few hundred refugees to Hong Kong, and two days later we were all to go on to Australia on board the Australian ship Duntroon. Next section →