Her Childhood

My Childhood

I was born about ten years before the First World War, in the capital of Poland, the beautiful city of Warsaw. My memory goes back to the time when I was a child till about four or five years old. I remember my mother being a young, beautiful, charming and elegant lady, in lovely fashionable clothes, her frocks long to the floor, her coiffures high, and her high button shoes which I loved to button up for her with a special hook. She loved us deeply, my brother, two years older than me, and myself.

My father was eleven years older than my mother, a rather serious looking gentleman, always nicely dressed. He probably loved us very dearly too, but not so affectionately. Nearly every afternoon, however, when he came home from his business and we were having our main meals, he would bring us some little toys or sweets. I remember how we used to sit, the four of us on the four sides of the long table at which twenty four people could be seated easily, and he would say to me, “Heniusia darling, would you go to the hall and put your hand in the pocket of my overcoat, I think I forgot something there.” And there would always be something there for myself and for my brother. Of course we waited for those words every day, and if sometimes we didn’t hear them it was a great disappointment for us.
In the mornings we used to go to one of the most fashionable kindergartens in the district where we lived. We had many friends there. I know I started going at the age of three, and my brother at the age of five. In the afternoons Mother, or our maid, took us for a walk, or to play in one of Warsaw’s beautiful parks, several of which were very near our house.

The kindergarten teacher and her son and daughter, who were also teachers there, liked me very much. I was the smallest and prettiest child there at this time. I was always small for my age as a child, very beautiful, with long blond curls, blue eyes, and white and pink cheeks. They used to carry me in their arms all the time and play with me. Most of the children there were older than me. I went to that kindergarten for about six years and they prepared me to go to high school. My happiest childhood times were spent there. My home life, however, on the surface quiet and happy, was not so in reality.
We had a very nice apartment in a very nice part of Warsaw, and my father’s business was nearby. I remember three huge rooms — a bedroom, a dining room, and a living room. Each one of these rooms could contain one of the modern flats. When we were very little our little cots were put in our parents’ bedroom, but when I reached the age of about four, the living room was made into a children’s room. Until that time my mother didn’t want us out of her sight. But later, when we were in the children’s room, whenever I woke up at night I was always very scared, and I ran through the big dining room as fast as I could, trying not to see my figure in the great mirror hanging between the windows there, straight to my mother’s bed. I was always afraid of the dark, even many years later.

My mother was one of ten children of a very well to do middle class family. My grandfather was a very distinguished architect in those times, and I was told later that he had been awarded a gold medal by the Czar of Russia. I never saw this medal, but I did see his name printed in gold letters on the walls of some public buildings in Warsaw. I was very proud of this, of course, and later on used to take my school friends and show it to them.
My mother had four sisters and five brothers. All the boys received higher education, mostly at universities abroad, and all the daughters, after only a few years in school, got very nice dowries, to marry suitable men from suitable families. As far as I heard, in those times all marriages were arranged, so when girls reached the age of seventeen or eighteen they were married. If they had a dowry, of course. If they didn’t, they mostly stayed spinsters.
My mother was married when she was seventeen. My brother was born when she was eighteen, and I was born when she was twenty. My parents lived a very gay life. They knew many well known artists, they went to the theater a few times a week, they invited many artists to dine with them, and there were always many guests in the house late into the nights, when we were already long asleep. Not that they cooked they just rang one of the very exclusive restaurants nearby and dinner was sent to our place.
But my young mother was not happy. I remember one very cold winter afternoon when I was about five years old: there was too much snow outside, so I stayed in. I saw my mother sitting on the sofa, crying quietly. She must have been very unhappy that day, because I had never seen her like that before. I asked her what the matter was, and she told me she was thinking of committing suicide. In her unhappiness she probably didn’t realize what she was saying to a five year old child, but it gave me a terrible shock. I have never forgotten that day. I really didn’t know what she meant by it, and when she realized what she’d said she was sorry, she took me on her lap and cried and cried and asked me to forget what she’d said. But I insisted that she explain those words to me, but she told me not to cry, she hadn’t meant it seriously, it was just that she felt so very, very unhappy. I asked her why, I was surprised, I didn’t know what unhappiness was at this time. But pretty soon I understood it all.
My father had a big vice. He liked to play cards. He had taken to going to card parties, which went on for whole nights, sometimes even for days and nights, and she didn’t see him very often during these days. Soon he stopped caring for anything except the game. And soon, too, to keep the house going, my mother had to start attending to the business. Loans were growing on all sides, and after a few years of this the business went bankrupt, and just a couple of months before the war we had to leave our apartment. It was then the spring of 1914, and as we usually went to a fashionable summer resort for at least three months each year, my mother decided to put our furniture in storage, and we left for our holidays.

* * *

I just realized that I’ve passed to 1914, and I intended to say a few words about my childhood before that time.
Well, as I already said once, I went to kindergarten from the time I was three. I don’t know if I’m repeating myself, but I’m too lazy to look back. I want to say that I was very happy there, I had many friends there, everybody liked me very much, I looked like a little doll with curly golden locks and blue eyes. I remember best the lady who owned the school and her two children who were the teachers there, Lubek i Wanda. They were people of very high principles, and it was they who really built my character. To this day I remember a little verse which Lubek wrote down in my little album when I was about to leave them for school. Many a time it guided me throughout my life. I will write it in Polish and try to translate it later:

‘Na całym swiecie wzdłuz i wszersz,
     Spotkają Cie zawody.
         Jeśli zachować honor chcesz,
              Nie proś o szklankę wody.’

‘In the whole world, lengthwise and breadthwise,
Disappointments will meet you.
If you want to hold on to your honor,
Ask no-one for a glass of water.’

I always remembered this, and I never liked to ask anybody’s favors. I tried always to depend on myself. I learned all through my life to know that if I want something I have to get it by myself, without anybody’s help. If I had to ask someone, I’d rather try to do without. Sometimes in my life I had very hard times, and I could probably have made it easier by asking a little favor, but in the last moment the little verse always comes to my mind and I don’t ask, which always makes me very happy and satisfied with myself.

Well, all the mornings, except Sundays, were spent there. Afternoons, we were taken to Ogród Saski, the Saski Garden. Not in the summer, when we were always in the country, but in spring, autumn, and winter.
The Garden is a very old one, but it was very nice and very near our place. There was a lovely lake there with white swans, there were many trees and flowerbeds, a café where you could sit and have a drink and lovely cakes and a kiosk where we could buy cold drinks, milk, kephir and rolls, ice cream and so on. There was a theater there, where sometimes plays for children were put on, there was ice skating on the lake in winter. My brother used to skate, but I was not allowed to, which made me very glad, because I was scared that the ice would break and that I would fall in the icy water, which happened sometimes.
I remember winter afternoons when we were coming home, I was so frozen that I cried terribly. My mother used to put me on the sofa, take off my snow boots and my gloves, and patiently massage my little hands and feet until I felt warmer and stopped crying. Nearly every day it was the same.

During this whole time of my childhood I had a very close girlfriend, Niuta. She lived in the same house as we did. Her parents were very rich. Her father owned one of the largest, nicest, and richest jewellery shops in Warsaw at this time but real jewellery, like diamonds, rubies, emeralds, all real and very expensive stones, next to my father’s shop. Niuta’s mother used to help him in the shop because they couldn’t trust anybody strange with all those riches, so she always had to be in the shop. She must have been ten years older than my mother. At this time, when my mother was in her twenties, she must have been in her thirties, and her husband probably just a couple of years older. She was always very nicely dressed, she was a very dignified lady, her husband was rather simple.
At home they kept a maid for cooking and housework, and a German governess who took care of the children – Niuta, and her younger brother Olek.
I don’t think the parents were very happy. I remember seeing Niuta’s mother crying very often. I was at their home very often, and stayed for dinners many times, and there was never easiness in the atmosphere of that house.
The reason I found out much later. Niuta’s father also had a vice, but a very cunning one (he was a very cunning man): he loved women. And he usually slept with all the governesses and maids who worked in his house, and of course his wife knew that, and it made her very unhappy. But he did not lose his money or his business because of this. On the contrary, he kept his money with all his might, and he made a terrific amount of money during the war, he didn’t know what to do with all his money, no that’s wrong, he knew very well, he never kept it in cash, always in precious stones, he also bought a new expensive apartment, about 10 rooms, a carriage, horses, later a car, and a farm, the largest farm to be owned by a Jew in Poland. Of course it was only for pleasure, not for making money, but to spend the summer there in company with friends.
Niuta was in the same kindergarten as I, but she was not such a beautiful girl, she was very shy, not very good at studies, and not very much liked. We spent a lot of our time outside the kindergarten together, going for walks, or when it was raining I was mostly at their place. She was not allowed to go out very much, her governess kept her very strictly. But I was allowed to go there, and we used to play with her dolls, or many other toys.
These were the times when we were on the same social level, but after the war broke out and her father made plenty of money and my father lost everything, our ways separated. We still kept in some touch, however, and I remember thinking that they were very proud of being so rich and I was only their poor friend, and every time I went there I felt humiliated.

I think I have now written about everyone who played a role to remember until my childhood abruptly was finished, broken, and there was no more the same child.

* * *

My happy childhood ended abruptly in the autumn of 1914. Though I was only 9 then, I think that was when my childhood really came to an end.
Well, as children we were still very happy when we were told in the spring that we would be going to Radość, the name of the summer resort which in English means Joy, and that after the summer we would be moving to a new apartment. Of course we couldn’t have known or even thought that we would be going to something worse. We thought it’d be something new and very nice.
We enjoyed the summer pretty well, as usual, all four of us. In August we noticed that all the adults – our parents, and their many guests – were getting very nervous and excited. I still remember my father telling people that if there would be a war it would be very short, three months at the most. We didn’t know at that time that my father had lost his business, that it had passed into another man’s hands to pay his debts.

When the war finally broke out we packed in panic, and all the things we had with us were taken to my grandmother’s by horse drawn cart. We followed by train. As my grandmother had a very large apartment and only a few of her children were still living at home, she managed to give us a room for the four of us, which was of course temporary, until we could find something.

After we moved to my grandmother’s, I started school in the same month. For some time I went to a very elegant school, to the 1st Class, after a month or two my parents found out that it was too difficult for me and I changed schools and the class. I went to another school, to once class before the 1st, which in Polish was called “wstępna”, which means something like “preparatory”. I felt much better there too, the girls were more friendly, I had many friends there, I did not realize then why, but I found out later that in the other school I had been the only Jewess, and though I was such a little girl they were hostile to me, and in the new school the majority were Jewish girls and Christians were in a minority, there were only about eight Catholic girls in the class of 40 girls. Every morning, however, the whole school together sang a prayer, and they had their religious classes from which we were excluded, and during that time we played or prepared our lessons.

After a few months we found a small flat: two rooms with a kitchen and balcony, very near my grandmother’s, but nothing like the grandiose place we’d had before. We were disappointed, but little did we know what the future held for us.
My father started looking for a job, which was a hard thing to find in wartime. My brother went back to school, and I started school. There was no business and no job, so my mother started selling our things: furniture, carpets, crockery, cutlery, pictures, and so we had money to live on and to pay school fees for some time, I really didn’t realize for how long. We no longer had a maid, so my mother used to cook.

A year later, when I passed to the 1st Class, I made a very good friend, with whom I had a friendship for the next three years, until she left this school for the best school in Warsaw. She was a very rich girl, lived very near me, they had a beautiful apartment in which they stayed many, many years. She married when she was 20, she had plenty of money to offer. Her husband was not much older, he went to study painting in Paris and her parents kept them there for many, many years. I heard not long ago that they are still living in Paris and that her husband is one of the best known painters in Paris nowadays.
My life in those three years of our friendship was quite different. As I wrote before, we found a little flat, which was nearly opposite my school, I had only to cross the street, which I did not like in later years, when I started to meet boys on the street, and as I started to be quite pretty girl, nearly every one looked at me, I wanted to have more distance to walk to school to be able to enjoy more of those stares.
My father got some kind of job. He got an agency from some friend of his and was always running with some samples, I don’t remember what it was, but the times were bad, my father was not a good businessman, being always too honest, so there was no money at home except what my mother got for selling things. But you can’t go on selling your things forever. We were left with hardly anything in the house, nothing left that could be sold, no money to pay rent, or school fees, nearly nothing for food. Well, the landlord got tired of waiting for the rent, and sent a man to stamp everything in the flat so we had no right to sell anything because everything stamped belonged to him. Finally he said we must leave the flat.
My father probably found money for a month’s rent for another flat, which was about the same size, with a bit bigger rooms, but very far, and now, when there was no money, war, and cold winter, I had to walk all that way to school. In those years I was not happy about that, I was about 11 then, I was growing up fast, my shoes were too small, and there was no money for shoes. They were so small that I could not put them on, and after I finally squashed my feet in, it was difficult to walk. It was an exceptionally cold winter and plenty of snow and I had no snow boots, I was always very hungry, not only I but the whole family. We had nothing to eat. Only the rations: a quarter-kilo of bread a day and some potatoes or kasza. The bread was black, heavy, and inside it we would find glass, string, wires, buttons, anything. The Germans were in Poland. My mother would stand in line for a few hours every day to get the rations, When she brought home the bread, the big round bread which looked very nice but it only looked so, we used to cut it into quarters, which we weighed carefully on little scales, so that all four of us would get the same. When she cooked kasza and some of it stuck to the bottom of the saucepan, I and my brother took turns scraping the bottom of the saucepan.
Most of that time we missed school, firstly because the fees had not been paid and they would not let us in, and secondly because it was too cold, not only too cold to go outside, but also too cold to get dressed. We stayed in bed, warmly dressed and warmly covered, and got up only to get this bit of food or to go to the toilet. Of course the people who had money could buy anything on the black market, there were very many people making a lot of money at that time, people who made millions, people who had never had anything before, and so a new class came to life in that time, the class called “newly rich”. They had a French name, I’ve forgotten how to write it, but it was “nouveau riche”. They were usually very common people, without any scruples, no intellectual or cultural intelligence, but they were the people who counted.
As far as I remember, we stayed in this place, from which I had terrible memories, for about three years. During this time my grandmother died, and my mother’s youngest sister, Hela, moved in to live with us. We shared everything we had with her, but she was not like that to us. I don’t know from where, but she had some nice things to eat (like white bread – what a dream) but she never shared it with us. She must have been 18 or 19 and she was beautiful. After the incident with the cross she left us and she was never interested in us. She was a very selfish and cold person, and kept in touch only with the Catholic part of the family.

When I was about 13½ or so, we were told to leave that flat because we hadn’t paid the rent for some time. It was tragedy again, because rent had to be found for another flat at least three months. When my father sometimes brought money home my mother used to take us to a very cheap restaurant, which was called “Eating-Rooms for the Intelligentsia”. This was the only luxury we knew during those times, but when we left the place we were still very hungry. They were cheap, but they did not give anything to eat. When we used to cry that we were hungry, I remember the tears in my mother’s eyes.
Well, to look at the hunger and cold of your children, being thrown from place to place, I could feel how my mother’s feelings towards my father were changing. She put all the blame on him, for losing all her money on cards, for losing the business on cards, for not caring for his home and his children. She did not want anything for herself, she was a person who never cared for herself, only for her children. And to have all that security before, and to lose it just because a man liked to play cards, I don’t wonder that she grew bitter. The arguments started, and every day the arguments were hotter, until my father did not seem to care at all for any of us. Though I don’t know, I was a child and could not understand him well then.

The time came when he stopped talking to any of us. He also stopped bringing money home at all. When we had to leave that flat I don’t know where the money came from. I suppose my mother got it from somebody in her family. My brother, then 15, and I, 13½, went looking for a flat, and we found one just next to my school again, again two rooms, but smaller. But this was a time when you could still rent a flat, there were cards hanging on the big gates of buildings, advertising vacancies. This one was in the second court on the third floor, without a lift of course and even no balcony.
When we moved to this flat my mother saw already that she couldn’t depend on my father to take care of us, she started to think of work. She had never studied anything, but she was very talented, as I mentioned before, she used to make all our clothes by herself and was always complimented on it. She started making clothes for the children of some of her friends, and soon she had a very exclusive, if small, salon of children’s clothes. If it had not been at such a bad time she would probably have made plenty of money, but she started during the war, when very few people could afford new clothes for their children, and then the depression later.
Among her first customers were Niuta’s and Olek’s mother, who could afford new clothes for them and pay good prices, and some other friends, and afterwards strangers came who had been recommended by them and so on.
We lived in that flat for the last year or year and a half of the war, very hard times they were, we had just a little bit more to eat, not too much, but we were not so hungry as before, my mother managed to buy some new clothes, which we needed badly, because both of us were growing very quickly. My father still didn’t bring any money home. My mother, whenever she looked at him, could not hide her bitterness, especially because the man who had taken over our shop had got very, very rich in it. There were many bitter words and tears, and there was born in me at that time a terrible hatred for arguments and quarrels, which stayed with me all my life. As far as I remember during my whole life my nerves betrayed me about only twice, besides I never quarrel or argue.
My father never answered any more in these times, and when he came home it was only to sleep, he never ate at home. My brother and I both loved our mother deeply and were very good friends with her, so we were always on her side, but my father never in those made any move to win our sympathy, love or understanding. It is very painful to say but our feeling to him at that time was like to a stranger who came only to sleep and never said anything. I suppose he must have been suffering very much because of the whole situation, but he never showed anything.
And so things went on. My mother hardly managed, she was always behind in the rents for about six months, but they never told us to leave this flat. There was a nice “superintendent” of the flats who collected the rents, and we found later that he was in love with our mother, but only platonic love, it had to be, because my mother had very high morals and I remember that when he sometimes tried to visit us in the evenings, not on his duty, my mother always sent one of us to open the door for him and say that she was not at home. At that time she was only 33 and still very beautiful. Next section

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