part I, Cesia Dymetman and her family -- father, mother, and younger
sister -- are living in the Warsaw Ghetto, during World War II.
Rudolf Natter, a German officer, controls much of Ghetto life,
conducting daily inspections, population counts, and enforcing
a brutally random discipline, even as he turns a blind eye to smugglers
and, occasionally, brings illegal weapons and identity papers into
the Ghetto himself. Shortly after Cesia and her father inadvertently
survive the liquidation that sends her mother and sister to Treblinka,
they secure false identity papers for Cesia from Natter. Father
and daughter settle into a new daily routine, until circumstances
force Cesia to make an instantaneous -- and irrevocable -- choice.
T he father and the daughter
soon settled into a new, confined routine. Cesia, eighteen at last,
registered for compulsory factory work at Derringwerke. The false
papers stayed hidden in their room, wedged into a small hollow space
behind a row of ceramic tiles, padded by a thick cover of old newspaper.
Just as some of their neighbors hoarded cyanide tablets - also available on the black
market, for the right price - Cesia and her father safeguarded
her papers. Let the neighbors find their way to death, she thought.
She would fight, even shoot, or so she imagined. She had no gun,
of course, and no chance to fight, only to work and to sleep and
to barter her mother's empty leather shoes for carrots and parsnips.
She heard talk of resistance among the youth. Natter was not the
only small arms merchant in the Ghetto, and the boys especially
bragged of stockpiles of pistols, grenades, gasoline for firebombs
buried deep in earthen bunkers. Cesia never knew what to believe,
but she listened. Perhaps one in five were telling the truth, she
thought; perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Day by day, she worked, she
lived, and she listened.
Occasionally at night, her father's breathing a wheezing metronome,
Cesia pried the tile hiding place open to study the papers. Now,
her papers. He had forbidden this, fearful that even the smallest
sound after curfew could raise suspicion, that the slightest movement
could attract attention, a search, arrest. He had changed, her
father. Though hardly 40, he had become frail and remote, an old
man stooped with sorrow. Cesia had always listened to him but now
she didn't. She had to see who she might become.
She studied her new name, so odd matched with her own photo. Was
Dvorokovska a real person? Had she once been real, a girl like
Cesia? The birth date was a new one - Cesia learned it quickly - but
the hometown was Warsaw, her own. Did she play volleyball in the
summer, too? Go to school, flirt with boys? That the name and identity
could be real meant that the real Dvorokovska, the authentic one,
was probably not real any more - that is, not even alive. Cesia
traced the photo's sharp corners with her fingernail and wondered,
could she simply step into another life and out of her own by spelling
a new name, learning a new birth date?
Some of the glue used to stick the photo onto the heavy ivory
stock had spattered into the type; would that be a problem? The
letters were typed but uneven, o's sitting slightly higher on the
line. Would that reveal her? And what about the stamp - it was
slightly crooked, was that right? The work of a careless forger,
or the well-placed mark of one who knew well the practiced slam
of the official's stamp?
What if, one day, she was asked for information the real Dvorokovska
would know - her school, her mother's family name, her church,
of course. What if she had to say the Rosary, or take Communion?
Cesia remembered how her maid used to cross herself, and tried
to practice the smooth pattern of vertical and horizontal gesture,
the kiss to the fingertips. Could she pass? Even with practice,
could she leave this life behind?
The papers grew darker where she handled them, smudged by the
oil of her hands; would that be a problem as well? Nothing was
without questions. Nothing could be known, for certain, save that
she had to live and to do so, she had to have these papers. One
night, with the sky beginning to pink up toward dawn, she put the
papers away, shoved them deep into the hollow space. There, she
thought, now they are gone. They do not exist, not until I need
them. This was the first time Cesia found a way to keep a secret
so secret that she herself could forget it - too many questions,
answers that led to more confusion, all could be resolved if the
thing itself never happened. So the papers went away.
She chose to stay within the life she knew, within the Ghetto.
She would live with her father, work now that she was old enough,
and together they would manage.
Daily, father and daughter left the apartment block and walked
together to the main Ghetto gate. There was little conversation;
Cesia's attempts to engage her father met with steady silence.
She soon grew self-conscious, choosing instead to keep the talk-stream
flowing inside her head, but not aloud. As they walked, she registered
familiar sights: the beggars; the rigid corpses, stripped of their
still-useful garments and covered in newsprint; the Nazi soldiers
posted near Pawiak; the streetcar tracks. The Ghetto lay in the
heart of the city of Warsaw and, although its walls kept Jews in
and others mainly out, regular Polish streetcars passed through
the Ghetto a few times every day, loaded with Poles shuttling to
work. They gawked at the Jews as the streetcar rumbled through.
That it raced through quickly, without stopping at all, was some
kind of mercy. Count ten, count twenty, the streetcar would be
gone, and with it the jeering, whistling passengers. Count thirty
and the dusty cinders in the streetcar's wake would have settled
into the cobblestones. Cesia could pretend the streetcar hadn't
passed at all.
Every morning, Rudolf Natter waited for the workers at the main
gate. The responsibility of counting the workers was an important
one, and he entrusted it to no junior soldier - the consequences
of error were too great. A man could lose his rank, Natter knew,
or his family could suffer the consequences at home. More than
one had been sent to the front, far to the East, where life was
very bad indeed.
Natter counted people in pairs. Two by two, the workers lined
up and were led out to the factory. Natter, who had been at the
job a while, sought out some familiar faces amid the pale and stony
stares. He would shake one man's hand every morning - a factory
man, not a one-time rabbi or a pious man, but one of the regular
workers - and enquire as to his health. As the charade unfolded,
the lines waited. When Natter finished, the lines moved.
Natter also watched the women. After the liquidation efforts,
so many women were gone, and those that remained had grown so scrawny
that they looked less like women than eunuchs, skinny scarecrows
in worn dresses. Only the young ones were anything to look at these
days. They managed, pinching their cheeks and biting their lips
to raise the color before they passed Natter's watch, to favor
him with a smile, a glance, what he imagined were tender looks.
He was a man of some principle, and on this he prided himself:
No Derringwerke woman would be his. Let the others mix duty with
pleasure; Natter, the consummate soldier, would not follow that
route to professional doom. Besides, he was too much a man to take
a Jew, and plenty of Polish girls were more than willing, for extra
rations or even without, to entertain an officer. But still, he
was a man. He looked. And many, many looked back.
Cesia was one who looked, too. She liked Natter; he had done something
good for her, had gotten the papers that might save her. If revealed,
the act - dearly bought and motivated far more by economics than
by humanitarian impulses - could cost him at least his commission,
at most his life. She knew he shot, had seen his pistol gleam dully
as he aimed over the workers' heads, taking target practice at
the Ghetto's brick walls. She had seen him suddenly turn, lower
the barrel, and end the life of a beggar kneeling at his high black
boots. This was Natter; he shot, he helped, he shot again. Even
so, Cesia looked.
Natter looked back, met her eyes every morning going out, and
every evening coming back. He never spoke to her, and she never
to him. A single syllable might reveal the collusion that got her
the papers. They looked, twice a day, then looked away.
Work in the munitions factory was a good way to spend the time,
Cesia thought, as she moved bits of metal into a press, punched
them with two holes, and slid them to the next woman. Working,
she didn't think, she didn't wonder as much where her mother was
living - for Cesia only believed she was alive, no matter what
the Bund boys said in the bunker meetings most nights. They talked
of resistance, of armed struggle within the Ghetto, of Jews fighting
the Nazis and winning. This was rubbish, she knew; there was no
winning, only living. If she could just stamp and slide and count
and punch, she didn't have to imagine Renia, could box her thoughts
into another secret cask and work, stop for soup in the middle
of the day, then stamp and punch until the evening whistle blew
shrill and the machines sighed to a stop.
Cesia worked on the second floor, the finishing area. Most of
the women worked there, too, as their smaller fingers - and greater
dexterity, the more experienced women bragged - better suited them
for the fine work of metal finishing. Her father worked downstairs,
on the ground floor. A silversmith and jeweler by trade, he now
hauled pallets of raw metal destined to be worked into shell casings
and perfectly smooth bullets, packed and capped by the ladies on
the third floor, above the finishers. A hive of munitions manufacture,
it was a better living than many others in the Ghetto. At least
there was a bowl of real soup at noon; the best, and for many the
only, meal of the day. There were always potatoes in the soup,
barley, too. Better than most.
Among the workers, there was conversation. Cesia listened more
than she spoke, as was her way. Around her, the women spoke, less
of their present situation than of the lives they lived - the meals
they cooked, the holidays they celebrated, the tablecloths, the
baking. On Fridays, the few pious women swapped recipes for challah.
No one baked, but they debated: Sugar or honey? And how many eggs?
How long to rise? As if the talking would bring the food into their
Spring meant one thing, in the lives they had left behind: Passover.
Cleaning, cooking, more potatoes and eggs than there were poppy
seeds on an onion roll. April was upon them all. Cesia hated all
the talk of food: It was not her life, this religious attachment,
and it only made her hungrier, made her long more deeply for her
mother. She preferred the Bundists who were, this April, not talking
food. They were talking, with equal passion, of war. People, they
said, were gathering 'cold' weapons - iron pipes, brass knuckles,
any hard, metal hitting thing - and 'hot' weapons, too, caching
knives, guns and smuggled grenades in the same kind of hiding niches
where Cesia's papers were hidden. Every night she went to the Bund
meetings, the talk continued, the plans grew more detailed. Expect
annihilation, said the organizers. No one should hope to survive,
simply to resist and die fighting. Of the half-million Jews who
crowded the Ghetto at its peak, 40,000 remained. This remnant,
this fragment, was honor-bound to fight.
On April 19 - the first day of Passover, except that it was 2
am, the middle of the night - soldiers surrounded the Ghetto walls.
Nazis and conscripts, Poles, Ukranians, Letts, civilian police
pressed into service, each man stood 20 paces apart around the
perimeter of the Ghetto. By 5, when the black-marketeers were usually
rousing from sleep to begin their negotiations before the light
of day, it was altogether too quiet. No one was out; only the soldiers,
outside the walls, standing sentry. The gates of the Ghetto were
By 6, the sun was up and bright. Cesia was awake, her father asleep,
as battalions of black-uniformed troops - full battle dress, regalia
gleaming - carrying not pistols but machine guns, flanked by Panzers
and military tanks assembled outside the gates. When the gates
opened and the troops marched in, the Uprising began.
The soldiers broke into platoons and fanned out into the side
streets, and the shooting began. First from the soldiers, who shot
their introduction into each courtyard, spraying machine gun fire
like swaths of black pepper. Then from the rooftops, where snipers
hidden by chimneys and smokestacks killed, too, one man at a time.
Cesia heard the machine guns, heard single shots ring out, but
saw little from her upstairs window. A platoon marched past on
Mila Street and she felt as if her heart had stopped beating: Pass,
pass, pass us, she willed, pass us by. You took everyone from here
long ago, there is no one for you. Pass us by.
Fires were set all around the Ghetto. Some were set by Jews, to
distract the attacking army - a brush-factory in flames, a stack
of dray wagons soaked in gasoline and torched, mid-street. Hard
to get a tank past that kind of obstacle. Then fires began from
the shooting, as sparks caught the timbered beams of the apartment
houses. Fire was everywhere from Cesia's window. All morning, her
father slept, and she watched the fires burning. All afternoon,
they sat together at the window, watching the fires, until the
sun set and the fires lit the lowering gray sky at dusk.
The next day, the Nazis came again, but this time, they did not
parade in the streets. They came as single soldiers, or small knots,
clinging close to walls, leaping across doorways, shooting machine
gun spray into every open window, door, alley, archway. A trio
of soldiers came into Cesia's courtyard, sprayed a hail of fire
at the ground floor apartments. Everyone still living there was
either hidden in a bunker, dug to a double depth below a false
cellar floor, or hiding in a ceiling space - an attic, a bathroom,
a kitchen vent. Cesia and her father hid themselves behind part
of the same tile wall where her papers were hidden; a section two
meters square had been pried loose even before her mother and sister
left. Before they hid, Cesia took the papers from the small hiding
"Put that away," her father said, and she went to put the papers
back into the hole.
"Not there - away, under your dress," he said, as he strained
to lift the tile panel from the wall. Cesia tucked the folded paper
next to her skin; she pushed it down, under the waistband of her
underwear, and felt it begin to soften and bend as she and her
father sat, cramped, in the dark, small hollow space behind the
They sat in silence and in darkness. They sat for hours. Then,
like thunder, boots in the courtyard.
" Achtung , Derringwerke laborers!" Natter's voice bounced
around the yard.
"Derringwerke will shelter its workers during this situation.
All Derringwerke workers, assemble in the courtyard in a quarter
Tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk , on the stairs, followed by the
galloping boots of soldiers in his wake. Tuhk, tuhk, tuhk,
tuhk, tuhk, louder and louder, until the landing. Then, the
knock of a nightstick on the door resounded in the empty room.
The knock sounded again, then the sound of battering, of many hits
of metal against wood, until a splintering and the door was open.
Slowly, then, tuhk tuhk in the apartment; tuhk tuhk,
tuhk tuhk, pause.
"If you can hear me, listen now," began Natter, in his deliberate,
gentle tone. "If you are hiding here, come out. Come to safety.
Save your lives. The Ghetto is in flames. The streets are full
of fire. Come to the courtyard; be quick, or be lost."
Cesia heard fabric tearing - the curtain at the window? The thin
sheet that covered her father's bed? She heard gunfire so close
it pinged off the enamel kitchen stove, big enough to hide a small
child. A stream of bullets sounded, like a woodpecker striking
metal, and then, as suddenly, stopped. Tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk,
tuhk tuhk , receding now, with the chorus of boot
heels in pursuit. They did not bother to close the battered door.
Cesia and her father sat still in the silence. They sat until
the sound of footsteps faded from the stairwell, and until they
heard voices above them coming down the stairs, headed for the
courtyard. At the sound of familiar voices, Cesia's father slid
the panel away from their hiding place, unfolded his tall frame
into the trashed room, and stretched his cramped back. Cesia followed
his example. She stepped out into the room. It was the curtain
they had torn down, and the stove was neatly punctured with bullet
holes. Her father didn't move for a long time, just stood, slowly
turning his head this way and that, half surveying the wreckage,
half memorizing the space that he would never see again.
"We will go down," he said at last. "With them, we may live; without
them, we surely die. We will go down."
Cesia, mute, fingered the papers in her waistband. Now was the
time, she suddenly knew, now was when and why her father had insisted
on the papers, had bartered the last of his own mother's jewelry,
had bought Natter's help in procuring the precious documents. Now,
only now - there was no more 'before the war,' no more 'after'
to look forward to. There was only now, this present, this moment,
and Cesia knew, they would go downstairs - to Natter, and into
whatever mystery lay ahead.
They packed no suitcases; they were under no illusions, this was
not resettlement, but survival. Cesia took only her mother's old
leather satchel. She wrapped a packet of photos - happy pictures,
carefree years, with her mother and sister on the carousel, riding
the streetcar, visiting family - in a handkerchief, and knotted
the bundle closed. She put a piece of soap inside a sock, rolled
it up, and put it in the satchel. Thus packed, she and her father
went down the stairs.
In the courtyard stood perhaps two dozen workers. Fires burned
on Mila Street, right in front of their apartment, and across the
street as well, but Natter had his checklist, and the workers lined
up, dutiful as dogs, to present their names for his inspection.
"Dymentman," said Cesia's father.
"Dymentman," said Cesia, in her turn.
Natter looked at her. "Dvorakovska, do you mean? Or Dymentman?
Which shall it be?"
"Dvorakovska," Cesia answered, a sudden fire burning in her cheeks,
as the next person behind her in line waited for his turn to speak.
Natter led the group out in two neat columns. He led them out
the main Ghetto gate, and marched them directly to Derringwerke,
where the floors had been spread with fresh hay, sweet-smelling
and soft enough to pillow many exhausted heads while they slept.
Cesia stared again, from a different window. The sky over the Ghetto
turned red at night as the fires raged. Five days they burned,
black smoke all day, then furnace-red at night. Five nights she
wondered, why did Natter bring us out? Who paid him? None of the
Jews had said they'd done it - and oh, how they would brag if they
had, just to build themselves up in this puny, dreary hell of a
life. So if none of the workers paid, did Derringwerke? Pay to
get their slaves out of the Ghetto inferno? Another question without
an answer, another mystery. Who was behind their rescue? Could
Natter have simply walked them out on a whim, to prove once again
his immense power, his singular mastery, in the world of the Ghetto
After five days, the factory began production again. Cesia returned
to the second floor, to the finishing room. She kept her papers
under her dress, and strapped the satchel underneath, too. The
dress hung loose on her skinny frame, as loose as a sack - there
was plenty of room for her mother's bag, and she liked how the
leather grew warm next to her skin, how it gave off a scent that
smelled, in some distant way, like the inside of her mother's armoire
There was little talk among the workers now; work was steady,
work was calm, amid the thrumming machines. The soup came at midday,
still with potatoes; one day, even with beef. Life resumed a new
normal, contracting again to a world as small as the factory itself,
where the workers ate, slept, occasionally prayed and regularly
squabbled, while the Ghetto burned and burned.
One morning, Cesia stood at the metal press. The bits of metal
moved quickly in her hands. She daydreamed a little as she worked;
it helped to have the satchel. Waking into alertness, she bristled
to hear the sound of feet on the stairs, rushing up, sounding like
dozens - running up, not down, no order or march-cadence, but rushing,
helter-skelter, up to the factory roof. Suddenly mobile, she left
the punch press running, smacking empty bits of nothing between
its plates, and went to the landing. She saw a man she knew, a
Bundist from the nighttime meetings and ambitious plots, and grabbed
him by the sleeve.
"What is it? Where are you going?"
"Up, to the roof. People are jumping to the next building. Or
out the window, if you like. It's no matter, it is the end. There
is no place to go. Natter and his troops have returned, shooting
as they walk. People are running or dead. You must run, too."
Cesia looked up the stairs, clogged with people, and down again,
thick with pushing, crying workers. She looked at the open window.
Outside was Warsaw; the streets were full of traffic and people
and pushcarts. She felt for her papers, still at her waist, and
felt the strap of her satchel tight against her body. Without another
look, she jumped.
In Part 3, after years on the run, Cesia returns to Warsaw to look
for her family. Approaching the ruined city, she encounters Rudolf
Natter one final time, at a checkpoint on a bridge over the Vistula