cultures and centuries, certain narratives persist: stories of creation,
of the battle between good and evil, love and hate, the righteous
and the damned. This story is not universal but particular, a specific
myth-that’s-not, a true legend peculiar to my family and rehearsed
all the years of my childhood, as my mother told and retold her
tale. It unfolds in three parts and reveals layer after layer of
truth, received memoir and longing for a lost time, a lost world,
a life less complicated and dark.
Part I: The Ghetto
Tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk.
Then again: tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk, tuhk
Getting closer. The sounds of hard heels
on cobblestones, the sharp clatter of an officer’s walk on
ancient, uneven streets. Now fading: tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk, soft
in the gaining distance.
Rudolf Natter, on his evening rounds,
walking on Mila Street, passing the blocks of crammed apartments,
lingering on the corner, near Pawiak Prison. Deliberately he steps,
his oiled leather boots gleaming silver in the moonlight. The boots
are his pride; he steps over muddy gutters and choleric beggars
to avoid soiling their hand-stitched soles. Tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk,
then a little sigh of exertion as he hoists himself over just such
an obstacle, and again, tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk.
Natter was an SS man. Assigned to the
Warsaw Ghetto, he prowled the streets with a pistol on one hip and
a bullwhip curled on the other. No one saw him actually use the
whip; it seemed permanently coiled in its place, more trophy than
weapon. But the pistol, well, he did not hesitate when the time
to shoot was at hand.
The time to shoot was a flexible thing.
Sometimes, of course, one had to shoot unbidden – say, when
a laborer leaving the Ghetto for a shift at the Derringwerke munitions
plant stepped out of line or clumsily, idiotically, tried to slip
away. Then, Natter shot. A single shot, usually, sometimes to hurt,
sometimes to kill, but always – or nearly so – a hit.
People saw him shoot and laugh; heard him hold a conversation with
barely a breath-stop for shooting and then saw a limp body crumple,
or heard the cry of a man in hot, searing pain. Natter shot. He
was good at his job. Took pride in it. He kept his pistol as clean
as his boots.
Natter also wore a jacket, which –
like so much else during wartime – was good for more than
one thing. First, of course, it kept him warm against the bitter,
wet months of a Warsaw winter – gray days, black nights, seeping
damp that never dried out of woolen trousers. Also leather, like
his boots, but the jacket was brown, whereas the boots were ink-black.
It was the badge of a German officer, and no one, it seemed, was
more born to the role of the Aryan overlord than Rudolf Natter.
The jacket also helped Natter in his
entrepreneurial adventures, for everyone knows, an officer’s
salary, while greater than an ordinary soldier’s, buys precious
few nylon stockings or bottles of whisky. Not to mention a future
he had to consider: the war wouldn’t last forever, he knew,
and even when his side won, it couldn’t hurt to set something
by for his civilian burgher life. So Natter smuggled: He traded
gold, jewels and coins, for extra food ration tickets, waiting with
his boot-heels clicking while a woman ripped the hem of her skirt
to reveal the gold rings stitched in its lining. Quickly, she passed
them to him. As quickly again, he passed her the ration vouchers.
She put them in her bag, mumbling, “Thank you,” as he
struck her on the shoulder, sending her to the pavement.
though he was a ranking officer, Natter knew he was surrounded by
other eyes, eager to expose any deviation from official orders,
all too ready to report a senior officer if it meant a chance at
improving their own commission. He had to make the street exchanges
look good, or good enough – that’s why he struck the
women. But, in his own act of kindness, he always struck them on
the shoulder, or in the gut. No marks on the face; he wanted no
scars, no gashes traced to Natter’s hands.
So Natter’s jacket smuggled goods
out of the Ghetto. Gold and diamonds; money; letters impossible
to mail within the Ghetto walls. And occasionally, Natter’s
jacket smuggled things into the Ghetto, too. Very occasionally,
and always at tremendous risk to himself – not to mention
his family at home, who knew nothing of his black-market exploits,
save for the spoils – Natter brought something inside the
Jewish world. Aspirin tablets, for the right price, cheap potato
vodka, again for a price. Very occasionally, he brought guns. It
was not that he supported the Jewish resistance – they were
puny, weak, utterly deluded even to imagine they stood a shred of
a chance against the far superior Nazi troops. But the trade was
good; gold and stones for simple guns. Portable, liquid, universal
currency – always best in wartime.
On a day when Natter was bringing a gun,
everyone who knew the plan – the machers who arranged such
deals – knew to lay low, clear of the streets and of Natter’s
path. Tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk his stride announced itself on the stones,
and then a scuffle, seemingly from nowhere. In most cases, Natter
grabbed a man by the lapel of his coat, accused him of theft. The
man, unwitting, denied the infraction. A second man, and a third,
and soon a fourth and even a fifth, inevitably rose to defend the
‘thief.’ In the midst of the scene, one who knew slipped
from a doorway’s shadows to Natter’s left side, near
the whip, trading a flannel pouch of stones for a pistol. Slip away,
quickly – for in the next instant, Natter’s pistol was
out and flashing fire. The thief lay splayed on the paving stones;
or sometimes a defender, it didn’t matter.
Natter knew the eyes on him; knew he had
to mask his ‘humanitarian’ efforts to arm the Ghetto
fighters. One life or another mattered little. They were all headed
for Treblinka; Natter knew that even if they didn’t. When
a fate of naked incineration awaited you, perhaps it was a kind
of mercy to die in an instant on a city street. In any case, Natter
shot. The calculus was simple: to gain the weapon cost a life; impressions
had to be maintained.
In addition to his own private business
concerns, Natter also had SS work to do. Beside the everyday chore
of keeping order among the forced laborers as they left the Ghetto
and returned at night – troops saw to their escort to and
from the factory, but Natter was responsible, Natter was the man
who made sure that as many came back in the evening as went out
that morning. In addition to keeping the streets free of robbers
and thieves – for even in the Ghetto, petty crime persisted,
life went on, along with measly concerts and anemic celebrations
– Natter had to nag the Jewish burial society, it seemed every
day, to clear the sidewalks of corpses. With typhus and cholera
rampant, and people crammed 40 to an apartment, he wondered that
so many were still left alive to ship out to Treblinka when the
time came. Every morning, the bodies lay on the sidewalks, in winter
as solid as statues, literal frozen stiffs; in summer, stinking
and rotting on the paving stones. They came with wheelbarrows, these
Jewish body-chasers, and heaped the corpses like so many sacks of
wheat, until the barrows overflowed. No matter how vigilant Natter
was in his pursuit of the Jew morticians, there were always more
bodies. This bothered him, the scent and the mess offended him.
And of course, his boots got dirty in the filth. The sidewalks were
a mess, entirely.
Once every week or so, Natter and his
unit received special orders. In characteristically precise detail,
Natter’s men approached a specific Ghetto block. The Ghetto
was in the oldest part of Warsaw, and the apartments were built
on a U-shaped model, so that the open side of the U faced the street,
and three sides of apartments surrounded a sheltered courtyard,
used in better times for laundry and soap-making and games of tag.
“Raus! Raus! Alles raus!”
the soldier’s voices would call in the courtyard. Out, out,
No one came outside, of course. Who would
go out when a Nazi invited you? A few peeked from windows. Others
hid in secret spaces, behind stoves, in ceiling panels. And waited
for the next invitation from the courtyard.
“Attention, everyone with a blue
Kennekarte! Holders of the blue Kennekarte, this message is for
Kennekarten, or identity cards, were
issued by the Nazis to Jews living within the Ghetto. Color-coded
to indicate family status, place of origin, and date of arrival,
the Kennekarte was like a flimsy Ouija board for its holder: Was
yellow better than blue?
1940, better than ‘41? What about
those signed by Natter, or by his underlings? Everyone looked to
the Kennekarte for clues to their Ghetto lives. Also, the little
cardboard rectangle gave comfort. If you had an official paper,
how bad could things be? If it was signed, and stamped, and had
your name and a date, too, certainly you were secure – for
the time being, at least, if not for good. The Kennekarte was proof
of your existence; losing it was nearly as great a disaster as dying
itself, for there was no replacing it, and without it, no food rations,
no nothing at all.
The day that Natter and his men arrived
at the apartment block on Mila Street was sunny and warm; spring
had come to the Ghetto, its trees blooming pink, a sudden yet entirely
welcome respite in the crowded stench. That day, before coming to
Mila Street, Natter had enjoyed his second cup of coffee after watching
and counting the columns of exiting day laborers. It was midmorning
when the officer and his soldiers clattered into the courtyard and
began to call out to the residents.
“If you have a blue Kennekarte,
listen now, for good news awaits. If your karte is yellow, this
announcement is not for you. For those with orange Kennekarten,
we expect news later, perhaps next week. Today, we have a message
only for those with blue Kennekarten.”
Inside the apartments, hurried conversations
whirled at half-whispered volume. “Should we go down?”
one asked, one who held the blue card.
“I would never,” spat another,
but he held a yellow card, so who expected him to
“Maybe I will go down, and the
children can hide,” a mother reasoned. “At least they
will be safe upstairs, even if I go down.”
“Achtung, Juden!” called
Natter. “Holders of blue Kennekarten, into the courtyard.
Present your card and you will receive rail tickets for you and
for your families. We will resettle you in the East. You will be
safe.” Silence from the apartments; no one moved.
“Everyone who comes now will not
only receive rail passage, but also a kilo of margarine and two
loaves of bread. If you do not come, we will come for you. It is
better, you will see, to come now.”
Natter’s voice resounded off the
brick apartment block and bounced up to the open windows. Slowly,
heads came into view, looking down to try to discern the soldiers’
intent. No guns were drawn. There was a wheelbarrow with bread,
its scent sweet on the spring breeze, and wrapped bricks of oleo
stacked on an upturned box. The soldiers stood, smoking, relaxed.
Natter held a clipboard, and shouted up again to the apartment residents.
Slowly, a few people came to the courtyard
and presented their blue Kennekarten. They reached for the bread,
but soldiers stood in their way.
“You must come down with your things,
ready to travel,” Natter explained, in the soft voice used
to coax a shy child. “You are going on a journey, you must
Soon the courtyard buzzed with activity.
People packed their valises with their dearest treasures –
the trains, Natter said, would be crowded, one bag for each family
only – and kissed the unlucky goodbye. Who knew the blue card
would be a ticket out of the squalor? A passage to the East, to
safety, to farms with geese and chickens and a cow or two? How lucky
to have a blue card!
One woman hesitated upstairs longer than
the others. Her husband was at work in the Derringwerke factory;
how could she leave him? And then there was the matter of her daughter
Cesia, who was nowhere to be found. The littlest girl, Renia, was
right with her at home – where she belonged – but Cesia,
who could know where she was? She had a boyfriend now, her mother
knew, a handsome boy about her age, who had even begun to shave
with a razor, and with whom Cesia spent her daytime hours.
Where was Cesia? Leaving the Ghetto behind
would be good, the mother reasoned; maybe they could start over,
east of Bialystok, make a life apart from the city they had always
known. But she was unwilling to go without her whole family, so
she and Renia stayed, hidden behind the ceramic panels of the large
Tuhk, tuhk – Natter’s boots
on the stairs, followed by a stomping herd of soldier’s heels.
She heard them on the landing of the floor below; heard them break
the door and move through the rooms shouting “Raus, raus!”
heard the neighbor’s children cries fading as they were led
down the stairs into the courtyard. Then, as easily as one breath
gives way to the next, Natter was in her apartment – in the
living room, in his tall black boots. Tuhk tuhk, louder now, his
steps took him into the kitchen.
Looking for someone, anyone, hidden. Whether
he found her behind the stove, or whether she emerged on her own,
will never be known. What is clear is that she went downstairs,
with her child Renia and her blue Kennekarte, accepted the bread
and the margarine, and rode off to the East with the others from
her apartment block. The train left from the Umschlagplatz, in the
center of Warsaw, and headed northeast to Treblinka, where, finally,
no one needed the things they brought from home.
At dusk, the columns of workers marched
back through the Ghetto gates from the Derringwerke factory. All
men and boys older than 18 had to work, according to the laws of
the Ghetto, created by the SS administrators and enforced, with
a devotion bordering on obsession, by the Judenrat, the self-elected
body of Jewish leaders who, at least theoretically, governed the
world of the Ghetto.
Cesia and her boyfriend were among the
workers marching in. In a move so
brazen it could only have been borne of the naïve, willful
invulnerability of teenagers during wartime, she and her boyfriend
had sneaked into the factory line in the morning. They had made
a bet they’d go to Ogrusatzky Park, an elegant formal greensward,
where swans glided on ponds and linden trees stretched in long parallel
rows, shading lacy ironwork benches. It helped that she was tall,
for a girl, and always skinny, even before the war and the food
shortages and the rotten potatoes and the bad milk. For once, she
had been glad to be flat-chested, too, as she borrowed her boyfriend’s
second suit of clothes and his cloth cap to hide her hair. In her
clever disguise and with her boyfriend at her side, they marched
out of the Ghetto to Derringwerke. He knew a door at the back of
the factory, where they wouldn’t be seen, and through which
they left, into the broad streets and bright sunlight of Warsaw
early on an innocent spring morning.
Now, at dusk, they returned, hiding among
the ranks of weary laborers. Natter stood just inside the gate,
counting again, by twos, as the workers returned. Ja, the count
was square – the ranks of workers scattered to their homes.
Cesia avoided her father on the way home.
She reached the courtyard on Mila Street after he did, shaking the
hair loose from under her cap and trying to imagine how she would
explain her appearance, in men’s clothing. He stood in the
courtyard, talking with a neighbor. Cesia saw him turn his head
up to their apartment window. She wondered why the courtyard was
so quiet; where were the children squabbling before suppertime?
And where was her mother’s face in the window? A stab of colossal
guilt seized her – how she must have worried her mother, how
frightened she must be – until she looked again at her father,
whose shoulders were bent and shaking.
She ran to him. Her father looked pale,
his eyes wild, as if she was someone else, or someone not real at
all. “Cesia,” he said, “is it you?”
“Who else?” she answered,
“You didn’t go?”
“Where?” She was afraid again,
sure he knew of her illicit day in the city.
“To the East, with them all. With
your mother and your sister, you didn’t go?”
“Where did they go?” she
“Natter came and went,” her
father said, nodding to the neighbor that had given him the news.
“And with him went everyone from our building – all
with the blue Kennekarten were granted permission to go.”
“And Mama? And Renia?”
“They had the blue cards; they
That night, Cesia didn’t sleep.
Her father sat up, too, staring out the window, watching for the
dawn, hours away. He didn’t eat dinner, refused his breakfast
– sat in silence by the window, staring east.
From that day forward, Cesia and her
father were alone. He didn’t speak much after the first day
or so, just worked and stared and slept, in snatches, sitting up
by the window. He had lost his will, and lived now only to see Cesia
live, to see her survive. She could, he said. She held all his hopes
– his upstart, his scholar, his firstborn, winning a place
in Warsaw’s technical high school in 1938, the first girl
to win such an honor, not to mention the first Jew, boy or girl,
who studied with the goyim scientists there. Lithe and headstrong,
speaking a beautiful patrician Polish (no shtetl Yiddish for his
girl), Cesia was the vessel into which he poured his scant hope.
All he wanted – and for this, he went again to Natter, with
the last valuables he had, the last of the gold – was false
papers for his daughter. With another identity, with her intelligence
and her youth, she would survive. This hope sustained him even as
it burned in her. She would, she promised, live.
For a price, Natter came through. Cesia
Dymetman, Warsaw Jew, became Czeslawa Dwororokovska, Warsaw Pole.
Shadowed by guilt, sure she could have saved her mother and sister
if she hadn’t been larking about Warsaw on a dare, Cesia swore
she would survive. For better or for worse, she swore to her father
and to herself, she would live.
II: The Factory continues the story of Cesia and her father
in the Warsaw Ghetto, through the time of the Uprising. In Part
III, Cesia returns to Warsaw after the war, for her final encounter
with Rudolf Natter.