A Carol from the Past
Every year, after Thanksgiving, I long for the first signs of Christmas.
I delight in the appearance of the green twigs, red ribbons, and silver balls sprinkled with artificial snow. The fat Santas amusing children in department stores and the big tree at Rockefeller Center fill me with excitement. Yet I am Jewish, and in my own home Chanukah is celebrated. So why does Christmas mean so much to me?
I would like to tell you my own Christmas story.
It is Christmas Eve, 1942. I am 11 years old. I live in Poland, a predominantly Catholic country where Christmas is widely celebrated. I am fascinated by the festive atmosphere. I am also cold, hungry, tired and very much afraid.
For the entire month of December, German soldiers have been searching the Jewish quarter of our small town, looking for children and old people.
Since they cannot work or bring any benefit to the Third Reich, they are to be eliminated. The victims are rounded up, assembled in an old courthouse and taken to be killed in a small forest at the outskirts of town. Most of my friends are not here anymore.
I have been hiding with my mother, who is not old but her hair turned prematurely gray at the beginning of the war. We have changed our hiding place several times. Once we were caught and then miraculously let free.
We have hidden in cellars, attics, barns, and other improbable places. We do not bathe or eat hot meals. We live like hunted animals, just escaping our persecutors, always on the run. We have finally run out of hiding places and returned to the ghetto.
My parents know that my chances of surviving are nil, so as a last resort they contact Frania, the woman who worked for us as a housekeeper before the war. She is a deeply religious Catholic woman and was with our family since before I was born.
Frania comes to our small, shabby apartment on Christmas Eve. She figures that on that night, the guards at the entrance to the ghetto will be drunk and more lenient.
Her estimation proves to be correct. She has no trouble entering the forbidden area. She is appalled by our living conditions and remembers our affluent pre-war lifestyle.
Frania does not take long to make up her mind. She has nothing to gain and everything to lose. If she is caught hiding me, she will be tortured and hanged in the middle of town, as a warning to others. We have all witnessed such scenes. Yet without any hesitation, she tells me to get ready.
She promises my parents that she will take good care of me and raise me as her own daughter after the war. (There is almost no chance that my parents will survive.)
Frania is a plain woman. She never went to school and she cannot read or write. She
is not a woman of big words, but her heart is gold.
It takes me no time to prepare. I am always ready to run. In the preceding four weeks, I have never taken off my clothing. I wear my entire wardrobe: 2 dresses, a sweater, some underwear and an old coat that belonged to my late brother. Because I am skinny, I fit easily into all these clothes.
By wearing everything I own, I stay warmer and nothing can be stolen. Frania covers my black hair with a woolen cap. My pale, starved face is bundled with a big scarf. I am protected against the cold and my non-Slavic looks are camouflaged.
I realize that I will never see my family again, yet I do not cry. I do not know how to cry. I hug my parents.
Frania takes my hand and tells me not to be afraid. She calls me by my old pet name and we go. Nobody stops us as we leave the ghetto. We are accompanied by the stars shining in the dark sky as the white snow crunches under our feet.
We meet people going to the midnight Mass. We greet them with "Merry Christmas" and Frania starts singing carols. After a while I join her in singing, and suddenly I am one of the many people in the street singing.
We reach her small apartment. During the day, she works and I hide under a bed. I miss my mother and I am very sad, yet I do not complain. After several months, Frania realizes that she cannot take the place of my mother and my older sister, so they come too. We all hide under beds. I do not know how we manage. All the while, Frania's deep faith helps us to survive.
We remain with Frania through two more Christmases. Each of them is filled with careful preparations. We make Christmas decorations out of scraps of paper, small gifts from old boxes and pieces of fabric. We sit at a festive table and try to bake and cook. The cakes are made of inferior black flour and artificial sweetener. They look sad and lie flat like mud pies.
After two-and-a-half years, the Russians liberate our town and we are freed. Eventually we are reunited with my father, who returns from a concentration camp. In December 1949, we leave Poland for good. With heavy hearts, we part from Frania. We believe we will never see her again.
As the train leaves the station, the last thing I see is her face full of tears. It is heartbreaking and I have begun to cry again.
* * *
I was fortunate enough to see Frania again after 25 years. She came to visit us in the United States. I did not recognize her at the airport: She was very worn. Her face looked like plowed earth. When we both got over the initial shock - after all, she last saw me as an 18-year-old - we resumed our loving relationship.
She is the same person I remember: generous and full of common sense. She spent several weeks with us, cooked my favorite dishes, and spoiled my children.
She is modest and does not think of herself as a hero. According to her, it all happened on Christmas Eve, when people are supposed to love each other, and she only did what she had to do.