In those times very few children addressed their parents in the second person singular (Ty). We did. But as we did not like my mother’s name (Ernestyna, Erna), or rather she did not like it, we called her “Matka”, but we thought that was too hard, so we used to call her “Madka”. Władek was the first of our friends to call her this and to address her with the “Ty”, and after this all my friends and my brother’s friends did so too.
During all those years I was afraid to walk alone on the stairs, I suppose I must have been scared by something when I was still a child, and always on returning home I would call my mother from the yard through the window, and she would go to the staircase and we would talk all the way as I walked or rushed up the stairs – even when I was coming from home school and it was still light. I did not go out in the evenings yet, if I did go out it was with my mother to visit some of my aunties, or to the pictures sometimes, very seldom in those times.
We lived on the third floor and we had no phone at home, as we used to before the war, so all our friends, before coming up, called out to me or my brother to find out if we were at home.
In those times my best friends were Romka and Irena, who were both in my class at school. Romka was a more serious girl, from a well-to-do home. She had a sister five years older than her who finished the same school while we were still going there, and a brother ten years older than her studying law at the University of Warsaw. Their mother was more than ten years older than mine, and looked to me like quite an old lady. Her father was only an agent, selling some things, but a hardworking man, very attached to his family and crazy about his younger daughter and she loved him very much too.
I and Romka used to tell each other all our secrets, and she played a very big part in my life. When we had bad times and I was not allowed to go to school because the fees had not been paid, Romka always managed something, a child as she was, only 12, 13, or 14, she went to the headmistress to ask her to let me come until my mother had money to pay the fees, or if that would not work to borrow from some parents until my mother could pay back. And I remember her coming a few times to our place with the good news that I could go back to school. She was absolutely unselfish, she was always thinking about others.
We used to study together and I spent many afternoons and, before exams, sometimes whole nights, when we used to study very hard and drink plenty of hot coffee not wanting to fall asleep. Her mother and her whole family liked me very much and I felt there like one of the family. She grew up to a very pretty girl, she was dark with lovely long eyes and beautifully shaped long, thin eyebrows. She had a very pale complexion and beautiful lips, she was almost my height but a bit too fat. We were keeping in touch until the time of the 6th of September 1939.
Irena was a quite different girl. She was quite selfish, thinking mostly about herself. She could not listen for long to anybody. She was not very good at school (Romka and I were always second or third in the class, sometimes I was first), and she did not pass her exams in the last class, and she changed schools. We never studied with her. I did not like her as much as I liked Romka, but she was nice in company, she was very gay and so we kept together. She was also one year older than us, which is quite a difference when you are only 12 or 13, but she was not more serious than us.
Irena, too, came from a home that had once been well-to-do, but in those times her father did not make much money. Her mother was about ten years older than mine, and she had a sister who was a year younger than her and a younger brother. I lost contact with her when, in about 1926, she emigrated to Palestine, to marry a man about ten years older than herself, with whom she was in love. Had she stayed in Warsaw and waited without money for a husband as we did, she would probably have had to wait another ten years, and would probably have perished as Romka and most of our school friends perished during the Second World War.
I haven’t mentioned this before, probably because it was so natural to me: during our whole childhood we never played with the children on the streets or in the yards. There was always a crowd of children playing in the yards, but they were all from families who had nobody to look after them, where most of the parents left for work (so I suppose now, I never thought about this before) and they were just doing what they wanted. During the war, when we were so terribly poor that we had nothing to eat and were thrown from flats to the street and going to new places to live, we always used to keep at home, never to mix with the street children, we never even thought of that possibility. We did not know why, I now suppose, but it just did not enter our minds.
When were in the 4th class, we were then 13, we got two new teachers who I believe had much influence on our characters. I would not say on everybody’s, but certainly on mine and my friends’. They were Panna (Miss) Halina, who taught us ancient history in such a beautiful way that we all loved her classes, and she also tried to teach us a bit about ancient philosophers, and made us want and love to read them. I feel that for many good points which are in my character I must be grateful to her. In her special way she opened our young eyes to life, she made us understanding. We were sorry when we had to part from her, I think she got married and gave up teaching, which she loved. The other teacher was Panna M—— [illegible]. She was a hunchback, but was so good and had such a lovely personality that you forgot all about that. She taught us Latin and we loved that too. Altogether I loved school and loved studying and learning about new things.
Later on, when I was about 15 or 16, I always loved to read, and most of all to go to the theatre. We (Romka, Irena and I) used to go for walks, but we did not go to the Saski Garden as we used to as children. The Saski Garden had a bad name at this time, and a different sort of youth used to go there. It started to be the place of a certain kind of people, where respectable girls should not go.
We used to go for walks to the best part of Warsaw, Łazienki Królewskie, Boulevard Ujazdowskie, Park Ujazdowski, and so on. It was a beautiful part of Warsaw, where years ago Polish kings used to live, and you could go inside the Summer Palace, paying a few groszy, and have a look at all these beautiful things, all the antiques, from hundreds of years before, beautiful pictures on entire high walls, sculptures and so on. We of course did not go there always, but when we felt like looking at those things again, we went. There was also a beautiful big lake with white swans, cafés, they were very large places, and you could walk there for hours. Sometimes I spent whole summer days there all alone, with a book and sandwiches, and I felt happy.
Almost everybody who was anybody used to come there for a drive in those years, in carriages with horses of course, and you could hire these for an hour or so, not for a big amount of money. You could drive not only up and down the Boulevard, you could drive inside the gardens as well. It was simply beautiful.
Many summer afternoons, or in spring and summer, after finishing our homework, we took a tram and went there for some fresh air. We had already started to be interested in boys, and very often we just had a liking for somebody whom we knew only by sight, and it could go on for a long time, we just went there to look at him. We were not girls whom a boy could pick up and make acquaintance with, we had to be introduced.
Only once, I remember, a boy had enough courage to get to know us. It was like this: we had already walked back to the tram stop, and waited for our tram, and got on when our tram came, when we noticed that a boy a bit older than us was racing and trying to catch the tram, and at last he succeeded and jumped on, which was prohibited. We were standing on the back platform, which was open, and he stood next to us, but we still had not the slightest suspicion that he was there for us.
At last our last stop came and we all alighted. Irena would reach home first, I the second, and Romka last (we all lived very near each other). He followed. We pretended not to see, we did not like it. At last Irena said goodbye, then I turned into my home, of course first calling to my mother through the window.
About half an hour later a beautiful basket of flowers was brought by a posłaniec (a special man in uniform, whom you could hire at almost any streetcorner and send him to do messages for you, of course for a special price. You would buy flowers in a flower shop, of which there were plenty in Warsaw, then you hired a posłaniec, and then you waited for him if you wanted an answer to your message).
The flowers came up, with a short note, that he liked me very much and would like to be introduced. The name on the card was printed, it was the name of the son of a very-well-known-in-Warsaw Director of many companies and the owner of a very well known private high school. He was not a Jew.
I sent the flowers back with the same posłaniec. I was not interested.
After this that boy waited for me every day outside my gate, but I never wanted to talk to him, and of course he got tired of that and stopped. It’s a funny thing that I should remember this after all these years. I suppose it was my first success at first sight, and all the others I’ve already forgotten.
But when boys liked us and were really interested they usually found a way to be introduced.
At about the same time we started to go for our first dances, which were arranged especially for young people, and many friends were made, but nothing special to remember.
During those times Niuta sometimes invited me to her new place, which her parents had bought during the war. It was very luxurious. She had many friends there from school, only rich girls, everybody looking nice in nice, new elegant clothes; only I in an old, poor dress, looking like a poor relative, and always feeling humiliated. Never nor with anybody in my life have I ever felt the way I felt in their house at those times. I had some rich friends, my brother had some rich friends, Władek was extremely rich, at the age of 17, 18, 19, he had money to burn, and he did it. He used to light cigarettes with 5 złoty (then about US$1) notes. It was of course childish, and showing off, but I never felt poor or humiliated in his company. After their arrival from Russia his parents had bought the apartment of some Polish duchess or princess, and just for the empty apartment had paid $35,000, and even more to furnish it, but he felt very good in our little two-room flat, and I think he spent more time there than at his parents’.
In those times we – Irena, Romka and I – were all of us very innocent girls. At the age of 16½ we still did not know anything about sex, about how children are born, and so on. At that time you didn’t talk about sex, not with your parents nor with your teachers. The only people to whom you could speak were your girlfriends. Well, all three of us knew nothing. We were wondering what it meant that we were virgins, and we thought that you could lose your virginity only by getting married, and immediately you could get pregnant, but how, in which way, we could not imagine. If you were unlucky and did not get a husband you could die a virgin not only in your body but also in your mind. We wondered about this, talking among ourselves many times, but we did not come to any conclusions.
In those times, when I was in first childish love with Władek and he sometimes kissed my hands, I was all excited and of course told Romka and Irena about it. They too had their childish loves and we had plenty to talk about. And when sometimes it happened a kiss on the lips we were all in heaven, in fact up till today I remember when Władek kissed my lips for the first time, but nobody else’s first kisses do I remember.
In those times, as I mentioned before, my brother used to take me to some parties, which were often at his friends’ place. They lived not far from us, they were two older girls and a younger brother and sister. The older girls were my brother’s good friends. They kept an open house. People were always coming and going. They had a very large family, a few cousins, boys who were about my brother’s age, and many, many people used to come there.
They were very musical. One cousin, Adaś, sang and played piano. He grew up to be a very well-known singer (he changed his name to Aston) and made quite a lot of money singing on the radio and making records. He married a beautiful girl and during the war, when they were transported to Siberia, his voice saved him, they were sent to Moscow, where he sang and she was some kind of minor actor.
Anyhow, they made plenty of money and after the war they came to Johannesburg, where they had a very high standard of living and where I met them after so many years, but while I was still there they left for London, to make their home there.
Adaś was a very good friend of my brother, he lived on the same street as we, and was very often at our place. He was a very good-looking boy, tall and blond, and my mother liked him very much. She always asked him to sing for her, which she did.
There was another cousin, Maciek, a very good-looking, dark boy, who also sang very nicely, but his ear for music was not so good, so he never made a career out of it.
They were all young people coming there, except one person, and that was an uncle of the girls and also of the cousins. He was about 40. He was extremely good-looking, very elegant, and terribly rich. He had a beautiful car, there were very few cars in Warsaw in those times, he had a carriage with two horses, and he had a little two-wheeled chariot drawn by one horse. I would never look at him for all those riches, to me he was just an old man, but he thought differently. I would never mention him, except that we he did to me made quite a difference to all my married life.
He started to be my shadow, even in the times when I was still at school. He used to wait for me till school finished, always outside the gate, not in his car or carriage, because he knew I would not come near him, and he always wanted to take me for a drive, but for a long time I used to refuse, I did not know why but I was scared of him. He was unhappily married and I knew that he was getting divorced.
But one day in summer, when I came home from Niuta’s, I met him waiting for me outside my house and I let myself be taken for a drive. My mother of course knew nothing about him, but Romka and Irena knew him by sight from the times he waited for me outside our school. Romka also had an admirer of about the same age and we often talked about them. They did not attract us, they were too old, but we were flattered that men of that age should be attracted to us, we did not know at those times that it was not normal, that those men were just perverts (I’m not sure if this English word is the right one).
As I let myself be taken for a drive and then to visit his house, just for one drink (!!!), I thought what a wonderful story it would be to tell Irena and Romka. Up till then I never had any drink, except tea and lately cocoa, in my mouth.
Well, I don’t know what kind of a drink it was but I lost consciousness soon after drinking it. When I came to I felt a horror, I knew that something had happened to me but I did not know what it was, but I soon found out.
I started to cry, and shout, and tell him that I hated him, that he had made me unhappy, that I would now have a child and that I was going to commit suicide.
He said that I was just a silly girl, that he loved me and wanted to marry me.
I did not want to marry that old man and I hated him, more that I ever hated anybody in my life.
He took me home, but afterwards he still did not leave me alone, but I ran away as soon as I only thought that I saw him.
At home I did not sleep the entire night. I did not want to tell my mother. I knew that she would not throw me out of the house, I knew that if I wanted help, she would be the one who could help me, but I did not want to worry her, I knew that she had enough troubles without that.
Next day I met Romka and Irena and I told them what happened.
None of us knew what to do and how to know if I was going to have a baby.
We decided that we would wait three months, and during that the situations must clear itself, and if not, then after 3 months I would go and see a midwife. We started studying advertisements in case I needed the help of one.
After three months I was all right and there was no need to go and see a midwife.
I was of course living it through terribly, to be a girl without money and dowry and without virginity, there was not a chance to get married at all in those times. I felt like a fallen woman. But my nature was different, with virginity or without, I was just the same, and through all these years until I knew my husband quite a few years already I always behaved as I was always a virgin.
Slowly I forgot about that, but it was my husband who found out about it from somebody, and went to see that man and nearly killed him, throwing at him a heavy inkpot but luckily missing, who always remembered that, and any time we were somewhere, in a café or night club, and that man came in, we had to leave the place at once, and my husband stopped talking to me for at least a few days. This state of affairs continued until we left Poland in 1939.
And I have something more that I want to add about that brute.
I always believed in God, and very soon after that affair that man fell down from his two-wheeled chariot and broke his leg, and from that time on limped all his life, I believed that God had punished him. He was as I said very handsome and very proud of that, so for him it was more terrible than it would be for any other kind of man.
And a few years later I had another satisfaction, when I read in the paper that he was sentenced to two years in a London prison.
I knew that he was a brute, but I did not know that he was a crook. He had as a front some respectable business, but that business could not give him as much money as he needed, so he was also a criminal. He was forging English stamps in great quantities and smuggling them in double-bottomed suitcases into England. He was caught in the end and was put in prison for two years.
After he returned he was an old man already, but he still had plenty of money and he married a very young girl of about 16 and settled down to his modest income, until they perished during the war.
My father had started to make money again and we had started to breathe a bit easier, and life looked a bit happier, but it did not last long. There had been a civil war in Russia, and the Bolsheviks, after winning, decided to take this part of Poland that for 120 years had belonged to Russia but after the Peace Treaty of 11/11/1918 had become Independent Poland together with other parts that had belonged to Germany and Austria before that.
The Red Army came as far as the Vistula, they even took Praga, the part of Warsaw that lies on the other side of the Vistula. Everybody, young and old, went to fight for Warsaw. My brother was in his 8th class at the time, just before matriculation, but he joined the army too. My father was 45 then, my mother 34.
At this time my father did not feel well, and as this lasted for some time, the doctors told him to stay in bed. He was suffering. The doctors found that he had some water in his lungs, and they started to pump it out, which was very painful. I don’t remember how often they pumped, but he suffered very much for three months, and just as the war with Russia was finishing he died, in October 1920.
All the responsibilities fell on my mother again. I was then in the 7th class, doing what in English would be translated the “small matriculation” – if I’d wanted to go to university I would have still had to go to the 8th class to do the “big matriculation”. But I decided not to go to university after finishing the 7th class and getting my “diploma”. I decided to learn typing and shorthand and to find a job. My mother did not insist, because I was a girl and would have to marry sooner or later, but my brother was in the 8th class and he had to finish the year and go on to study at the university. Things would be much easier for my mother, she would not have to pay my school fees any more. My brother’s school was a state school, so she didn’t have to pay fees for him.
Bronek and Sevek and Fredek were all at the same school and in the same class. About three months before the final exams Sevek came one day to see my mother. He said he had very bad news, but he couldn’t keep it from my mother any longer. He had come to tell her that Bronek hadn’t been at school for the past three months. This was terrible news for my mother, because Bronek used to leave for school every morning, taking his lunch with him, and she had not suspected for a moment that he was not going to school. Well, she was in despair, now he couldn’t possibly pass his matriculation exams, and so it would be a year wasted, and where could he be going to? When he came home, pretending he had just got back from school (he never studied at home, I never saw him opening school books, he was always reading, with his meals, in the toilet, in bed, everywhere, but not studying), my mother told him what she had found out, crying bitterly. He told her not to worry, he would go to school tomorrow and everything would be all right. My mother begged him to study more, but he said there was no need. He was always first or second in his class. And much to our surprise he got one of the best results in his class in the matriculation exams. Next section →