Home > The Warsaw Orphan

The Warsaw Orphan
Author: Kelly Rimmer

 

1


   Roman

 

 

28 March, 1942


   The human spirit is a miraculous thing. It is the strongest part of us—crushed under pressure, but rarely broken. Trapped within our weak and fallible bodies, but never contained. I pondered this as my brother and I walked to a street vendor on Zamenhofa Street in the Warsaw Ghetto, late in the afternoon on a blessedly warm spring day.

   “There was one right there,” he said, pointing to a rare gap in the crowd on the sidewalk. I nodded but did not reply. Dawidek sometimes needed to talk me through his workday, but he did not need me to comment, which was fortunate, because even after months of this ritual, I still had no idea what to say.

   “Down that alleyway, there was one on the steps of a building. Not even on the sidewalk, just right there on the steps.”

   I fumbled in my pocket, making sure I still had the sliver of soap my stepfather had given me. Soap was in desperate demand in the ghetto, a place where overcrowding and lack of running water had created a perfect storm for illness. My stepfather ran a tiny dentistry practice in the front room of our apartment and needed the soap as much as anyone—maybe even more so. But as desperate as Samuel’s need for soap was, my mother’s need for food eclipsed it, and so there Dawidek and I were. It was generally considered a woman’s job to go to the market, but Mother needed to conserve every bit of strength she could, and the street vendor Samuel wanted me to speak to was blocks away from our home.

   “...and, Roman, one was behind a big dumpster.” He hesitated, then grimaced. “Except I think we missed that one yesterday.”

   I didn’t ask how he’d come to that conclusion. I knew that the answer was liable to make my heart race and my vision darken. Sometimes, it felt as if my anger was simmering just below the surface—at my nine-year-old brother and the rest of my family. Although, none of this was their fault. At Sala, my boss at the factory on Nowolipki Street, even though he was a good man and he’d gone out of his way to help me and my family more than once. At every damned German I laid eyes on. Always them. Especially them. A sharp, uncompromising anger tinged every interaction those days, and although that anger started and ended with the Germans who had changed our world, it cycled through everyone else I knew before it made its way back where it belonged.

   “There was one here yesterday. In the middle of the road at the entrance to the market.”

   Dawidek had already told me all about that one, but I let him talk anyway. I hoped this running commentary would spare him from the noxious interior that I was currently grappling with. I envied the ease with which he could talk about his day, even if hearing the details filled me with guilt. Guilt I could handle; I probably deserved it. It was the anger that scared me. I felt like my grip on control was caught between my sweaty hands, and at any given moment, all it would take was for someone to startle me, and I’d lose control.

   The street stall came into view through the crowd. There was always a crush of people on the street until the last second before seven o’clock curfew. This was especially the case in summer, when the oppressive heat inside the ghetto apartments could bring people to faint, besides which, the overcrowding inside was no better than the overcrowding outside. I had no idea how many people were inside those ghetto walls—Samuel guessed a million, Mrs. Kuklin´ski in the bedroom beside ours said it was much more, Mother was quite confident that it was maybe only a hundred thousand. All I knew was that ours was not the only apartment in the ghetto designed for one family that was currently housing four—in fact, there were many living in even worse conditions. While the population was a hot topic of conversation on a regular basis, it didn’t actually matter all that much to me. I could see with my own eyes and smell with my own nose that however many people were trapped within the ghetto walls, it was far, far too many.

   When the vendor’s table came into view, my heart sank: she was already packing up for the day, and there was no produce left. I was disappointed but not surprised: there had been little chance of us finding food so late in the day, let alone food that someone would barter for a simple slip of soap. Dawidek and I had passed a store that was selling eggs, but they’d want zloty for the eggs, not a tiny scrap of soap.

   “Wait here a minute,” I murmured to my brother, who shrugged as he sank to sit on an apartment stoop. I might have let him follow me, but even after the depths our family had sunk to over the years of occupation, I still hated for him to see me beg. I glanced at him, recording his location to memory, and then pushed through the last few feet of people mingling on the sidewalk until I reached the street vendor. She shook her head before I’d spoken a word.

   “I am sorry, young man. I have nothing to offer you.”

   “I am Samuel Gorka’s son,” I told her. It was an oversimplification of a complicated truth, but it was the best way I could help her place me. “He fixed your tooth for you, remember? A few months ago? His practice is on Miła Street.”

   Recognition dawned in her gaze, but she still regarded me warily.

   “I remember Samuel, and I’m grateful to him, but that doesn’t change anything. I have no food left today.”

   “My brother and I...we work during the day. And Samuel, too. You know how busy he is, helping people like yourself. But the thing is, we have a sick family member who hasn’t—”

   “Kid, I respect your father. He’s a good man and a good dentist. I wish I could help, but I have nothing to give you.” She waved to the table, to the empty wooden box she had packed up behind her, and then opened her palms toward me as if to prove the truth of her words.

   “There is nowhere else for me to go. I can’t take no for an answer. I’m going to bed hungry tonight, but I can’t let...” I trailed off, the hopelessness hitting me right in the chest. I would be going home without food for my mother that night, and the implications made me want to curl up in a ball, right there in the gutter. But hopelessness was dangerous, at least in part because it was always followed by an evil cousin. Hopelessness was a passive emotion, but its natural successor drove action, and that action rarely resulted in anything positive. I clenched my fists, and my fingers curled around the soap. I pulled it from my pocket and extended it toward the vendor. She looked from my palm to my face, then sighed impatiently and leaned close to hiss at me.

   “I told you. I have nothing left to trade today. If you want food, you need to come earlier in the day.”

   “That’s impossible for us. Don’t you understand?”

   To get to the market early in the day one of us would have to miss work. Samuel couldn’t miss work; he could barely keep up as it was—he performed extractions from sunup to curfew most days. Rarely was this work paid, now that money was in such short supply among ordinary families like his patients, but the work was important—not just because it afforded some small measure of comfort to a group of people who were, in every other way, suffering immensely. Every now and again, Samuel did a favor for one of the Jewish police officers or even a passing German soldier. He had a theory that, one day soon, those favors were going to come in handy. I was less optimistic, but I understood that he couldn’t just close his practice. The moment Samuel stopped working would be the moment he had to perform an honest reckoning with our situation, and if he did that, he would come closer to the despair I felt every waking moment of every day.

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