Anna Baum

The Lady from Cracow

From "A Chance Encounter and Other Stories"

Copyright by Anna Baum

The spacious waiting room of the newly opened ophthalmological wing was quite crowded. I was waiting with my sister-in-law, who has a persistent glaucoma problem, and was scheduled that day for a laser treatment. She was very tense. In order to divert her thoughts, I tried to tell her all kinds of amusing stories but with little success. When, at last, she was called in, I wanted to follow but the nurse in charge told me that it was only for a preliminary examination and that I should wait outside.

As soon as my sister-in-law went in, a tall gray-haired lady in a light beige suit, sitting in the chair next to mine, turned to me and said: "Pardon my impudence, but I could not fail to overhear that you and your friend were speaking Polish."

"My sister-in-law," I said impatiently. I've never been very keen on intruders.

"My husband and I also speak Polish."

I leaned over to have a glimpse, but the next chair was empty. She noticed my movement, and without delay informed me that "My husband is with the doctor. He is in for his post-treatment checkup."

I nodded politely and thought that our conversation had come to an end, but the lady had other ideas. "I'm from Cracow," she told me, and looked at me as if she were expecting something to follow.

I was a bit annoyed, but out of politeness I told her that both my sister-in-law and I were from Lódz. She turned her inner arm toward me and showed me her number. "From the Plaszow Ghetto straight to Auschwitz," she said.

Instantly I felt the familiar squeeze where the heart should have been. I nodded, expressing my sympathy and understanding. She craned her head to look at my arm. "No, I have no number: I was in Russia." I looked at the door, expecting my sister-in-law to come out any minute.

"Don't get impatient, it'll take another ten or fifteen minutes." Seeing my restlessness, she added: "Trust me, I know all the procedures. My husband has had glaucoma for many years. I had ample opportunity to learn all about it. Well, we are all well trained people. During our lifetimes we have had to learn a lot. And to be quick about it. Sometimes I wonder," she continued, "how we could have made it. Perhaps because we were young then. There are times that I think that all that we have gone through can't be true. It could not be possible that one has already been in hell and has come back alive. I must have dreamt it all. But there it is, the evidence," and she looked at the inner side of her arm. "The number is branded into my skin forever. Even the Germans have acknowledged it. They gave me a pension. I wish I would never have had to get it. In the beginning I refused to take it, but my husband convinced me. `To make our life a bit easier,' he said. Take my husband, for instance, he is not from Cracow," she went on. "He comes from a nearby small town. In the small-town ghettoes the conditions were less severe. What does `less severe' mean? I will put it in a nutshell. I see you are constantly glancing at the door: I told you, it will still take some time. Believe me. I know.

"First of all, in a small town it was easier to get food, and then I think that the people were more friendly. And, most importantly, one had to be lucky. Of course, whoever made it was lucky, but some were luckier than others. Perhaps the Almighty took special care of them. You won't believe me what I'm going to tell you. You were far away from what was happening in the ghettoes, but I must tell you that my husband's life was saved by a Nazi officer." She stopped and looked at me to see the reaction. "I know it is hard to believe, but, irony of ironies, that's how it was."

"How could it be?" I asked.

"I will make it brief. When their ghetto was liquidated, the remaining Jews of that town were brought to Plaszow, the ghetto for the Cracow district. As soon as they were brought in, a Nazi officer in high riding boots and a whip in his hand came along and asked who could attend to a horse and carriage. No one answered. He started to scream and to whip the nearest standing fellow. `Die Verfluchter Hund, die Verfluchter Jude, you can't even look after a horse.' My husband, like all small-towners, knew many things that we Crakovians had no inkling of. He stepped forward and so became that officer's private driver. He drove him around in the ghetto. One early morning the officer asked my husband to be ready at once. He had to go to Cracow. When my husband pulled up, the officer jumped into the carriage and motioned the guard to open the gate. My husband's head sank into his shoulders when he passed through that gate: he feared the outside, alien world. `Never mind, you are going with me,' his Lord said. He told my husband where to go. My husband knew Cracow well, and drove where he was told. Then suddenly the German barked `Halt!.' He jumped down, got into a doorway, and disappeared inside.

"My husband was sitting in the front of the carriage. He looked around and was surprised to see that people still walked in decent clothes, that the streets were still swept, that there were no begging or dying children on the sidewalks. Then he turned his eyes upon himself: a sorry sight in comparison to the also impoverished but, at the same time, incomparably better looking people outside of the ghetto. And there were cinemas, stores, restaurants, and cafés. What a contrast with the destitution and hopeless dilapidation prevailing where his people were closed in. And the townspeople moved normally, not like those half-dead apparitions in the ghetto.

"So he sat there lost in his sad thoughts. Suddenly, from somewhere a sturdy youth, of the same age as my husband, approached the carriage and started to scream: `Dla Boga, ludzie, for God's sake, people, a Jew, a real Jew. Most probably he stole the horse, or even killed someone to get it, and now he's running away.' Some passers-by stopped and looked in amazement, some others shrugged their shoulders and walked on. But the youth was adamant. Soon stones started to fly. My husband also started to scream, that he was not running away but that he was waiting for his master, a German officer, but no one could hear him. Overwhelmed by the torrent of blows and flying stones he groped blindly in the air trying to protect his face that was already bleeding. Amid the rain of stones he fell to the bottom of the carriage, saying what he thought was to be his last prayer, when the German officer came out of the doorway, had a look at the crowd, took out his gun and fired it in the air. The crowd stopped screaming and dispersed at once, but that youth still did not want to give up. `Eine Jude,' he kept poking his finger at the carriage, `Eine Jude.'

"`Ja wohl, the officer said. `It's my driver. I picked him myself.'

"And so his life was saved by a Nazi, cursed be their name. Mind you, he stayed with that officer for quite some time, and was sent to Auschwitz in one of the last transports. Oh, here comes your sister-in-law. Take care of her. I still have to wait."