The Little Jewish Boy

The Little Jewish Boy (A Short Story):

“Mine is a story of repentance—that’s guaranteed. But is it also one of redemption? I don’t know; but I hope so. Perhaps, you can answer that for me. God knows; but I’ve stolen so much from him already, that I haven’t the courage to ask him for anything more. Besides, it seems, he isn’t speaking to me.”

Janusz Kowalski, the old man sitting across the table from me, grimaced and smiled, somehow at the same time—a singular expression—expressing quite opposite emotions simultaneously; and he continued:

“I was nineteen when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. I was living on a small farm with my parents, about a half-day’s journey by horse east of Gdansk, which was then called Danzig. My father was Polish, but my mother was German; so we were happy, or at least my mother was, when the Nazis came to ‘liberate’ us. My father accepted the German occupation as inevitable, though he was far less enthusiastic about it than was my mother. I was still young, but already I understood that if it weren’t the Germans who came, it would have been the Soviets; everyone took what they could back then, and Poland was there for the taking, we were ripe for the harvest.”

“After the Nazis took what they wanted, they began pruning the rest away, gathering what they considered ‘chaff’, and tossing it into the furnace. But that came later; eventually, their gathering and burning grew very systematic indeed. At first however, it was merely chaotic. As German soldiers flooded into the area, everyone else seemed to scatter, like ants having lost their trail. The German majority who lived in The Free City of Danzig, held fast, of course, but the rest of the population smelled danger, and having lost the scent of peace and freedom, they ran. My father, being a Pole himself, argued strongly with my mother, trying to persuade her to abandon our farm, and to take our meager possessions south to Chelmno, where he had family. But she was stubborn and wouldn’t consider taking such a loss, by leaving the home she knew and loved; and she was hopeful too, trusting in the goodwill she imagined our liberators would grant to Poles who were married to Germans. By her logic a Pole married to a German was made more ‘German’ by the association; but the Nazis didn’t see it that way.”

“Eventually my father gave up trying to convince her, and finally the opportunity to leave closed. But the Nazis gave my father a new opportunity, one afternoon when they drove up to our home, and informed him that he would no longer be needed as a farmer, and instead he could ‘work’ for them at the nearby work camp outside of Sztutowo, a village just a mile or two east of our farm. So he went to work at Stutthof, as the Germans named it, in the late fall of 1939, while my mother and I continued to work the farm. Not long after that first visit by the Nazis, they visited us a second time to give me an offer I couldn’t refuse. They invited me to join what they called ‘Cleaning Duty’, using the term ‘cleaning’ in that vague and euphemistic way beloved by criminals and evil men throughout history. Apparently, as they saw it, our region had grown very ‘dirty’ through the longtime habitation by Jews, Gypsies, Poles and other unsavory, and even ‘sub-human’ characters, as the Nazis termed them. But now, soldiers and good Germans were working hard to clean up the region and I would be given the honor of helping.” 

Janusz stopped talking for a moment and we sat in silence; I watched him quietly and expectantly. He peered pensively into his cup of tea and appeared to be fighting back tears, until he mastered himself again and continued his story:

“I remember that day as if it were yesterday, it was November 11th, and it was a cold but clear day; it was a pretty day—blue skies, I could see my breath. That was the day I died, but I just didn’t know it yet. I didn’t know anything then. I hadn’t seen anything yet. That all quickly changed when they returned later that night, as arranged, and I climbed reluctantly into the back of their truck. That night was an eye-opener for me; it was an introduction into real violence. Even so, that first night was only a foretaste of worse things to come. We drove into Danzig, a caravan of some ten trucks or so, each carrying, I would guess, around ten men, most around my age or a little older, local-boys from surrounding villages and farms. In addition to we civilians, there were two or three Nazi soldiers per truck, there to mentor us into a new debauchery; really they were there to shepherd us in our descent into hell. We were like little lambs, sheep being led to slaughter—not to be slaughtered—but to slaughter. Our job that night was to create as much chaos and mayhem as possible to the shops and shopkeepers in the Jewish district, and to anyone else who appeared a little different: folks who lived in or frequented the red-light district, perverts, gypsies, people like that, you know what I mean.”

“So we did our job, what else could we do? Some of us enjoyed it far too much, I thought, but none of us refused. We broke windows, we lit fires and burnt buildings, and we spilt blood that night. And we drank. I’d never had alcohol before, but we stole beer and vodka and everyone got drunk; it made everything easier, especially forgetting. I woke up the next morning, back at my farm, with a splitting headache and feeling awful; and my mind was in a fog. I couldn’t remember what I had done the night before, and that was for the best.”

“We returned to Danzig the next night, with the same mission. Frankly, I was surprised any of the Jews were still there. Why would they stay after what had happened to them the previous night? Maybe they had no place else to go. I wish they had. I remember one family especially, they had their dinner table set up in a front room, and I could see them all from the street, through their windows. The father was at the head, and the mother was serving, and three children sat waiting for their meal. Outside, we were already getting started, and several fires had already been lit, but none of us had touched this family yet. The father appeared to be calm and he sat stoically, but an occasional sidelong glance out the front window betrayed his inner tension and fear. Nevertheless, he was brave, they all were, fighting to maintain some normalcy, to have a simple meal together, while a tempest brewed just outside their front door. But they were foolish also, and it came crashing in on them suddenly. Three men broke in, a soldier and two civilians, and I could see them grab the father, while the three children fled to their mother’s side at the far end of the room. The father was screaming and gesticulating, but I couldn’t hear what he said from where I was standing in the street. But he pointed at the menorah in the middle of the table, and he pulled a ring from his finger and placed it in the Nazi’s hand. The other men released the father, and he ran about the room collecting valuables, and offering them to his assailants. They took his ring, and one from his wife as well, along with the silver menorah from the table, and they left the old house laughing and patting one another on the back. I watched as they continued down the street, breaking windows as they went. From within the home I heard a great wailing and weeping and I turned back to see the father slumping in his chair, exhausted and despairing, with the rest of the family clinging to one another, the youngest burying his head into his mother’s apron. I turned my head, unable to watch any further, and then I ran away, down the street in search of some vodka; I was ready to forget again.”

“Near the heart of town, in a large square set off to one side of Ogarna Street, was the site of the Great Synagogue, which had been demolished by the government earlier in the year. On this frigid November night, six months after that demolition, an impromptu party began, with a large bonfire fueled by wood pulled from the remains of the nearby synagogue. I found my vodka here in abundance; grabbing a bottle, I sat with my back against a nearby building and watched the revelers. They celebrated this night of destruction, they celebrated their ‘accomplishments’ from earlier in the night, and they celebrated the first year anniversary of Kristallnacht, which had taken place the previous year throughout Germany, with the destruction of thousands of Jewish shops, hundreds of synagogues, and the loss of hundreds of lives. As I watched several men pull what appeared to be a long church pew from the rubble and then drag it onto the bonfire, my thoughts drifted to the time when carpenters somewhere had built that pew, for the purpose of worship. Now, here it was fueling a very different kind of celebration; was it still worship of some kind? Maybe a perversion of worship; the sacred stolen by the profane. What God intended for good, man would use for evil. It seemed ironic to me, as I watched the pew ignite and burn. And as I poured the cool, clear liquid down my throat, I couldn’t help but smile a twisted, ironic smile and wonder: ‘Was everything good in the world burning now?’ Was the vodka filling my belly and the alcohol numbing my brain erasing all memory of what was good, or of what was bad, or any memory of what separated the two?”

“A few nights later I found myself back on the street where I had seen the family having dinner, and I searched for their home, curious to see how they were faring. The street was littered with glass and debris, bricks lay in piles, and many of the houses were completely destroyed. It was difficult to orient myself because of the changes, and I could barely recognize this as the same street where I had stood watching the poor family only a short time ago. Eventually I found their home, but they were no longer living there; it was uninhabitable, having burned nearly to the ground. A blackened brick veneer still wrapped the foundation of their tiny home and shards of coal-black wood shot upwards—a skeleton which implied the framing of the front windows and the doorway. I stood sadly staring at the remains, and wondered what had his ‘gifts’ for the Nazis, that the father gave, bought him? A little time possibly, and hopefully enough to escape. Had it spared the lives of his wife and children, at least? Were their lives worth a silver menorah, and two wedding rings?”

“The following week I was transferred to a different assignment; one that sounded promising, and gave me hope that the worst atrocities were now behind me. They were taking a group of us out into the forests near Piasnica to dig trenches. It sounded like hard work but I reasoned it must be better than dragging people from the homes and beating them in the streets. I was a strong young man, tall and muscular, so I had the physical make-up for these things, but not the mental or emotional ability to leave people battered and broken in the gutters. I welcomed getting out of Danzig and into the woods. I felt hopeful now, as they drove us up the dirt trail, deep into the pine forests to our new assignment. The air was clean and fragrant and reinvigorated my soul. I felt relief as I looked out the back of the truck, as we wove our way under the trees, past several military checkpoints and then stopped in a large clearing.”

“It was very busy, strangely busy for such a remote location. At the far end of the clearing stood a small hut, or tent, with several military vehicles parked nearby, and throughout the clearing were numerous transport vehicles, trucks of various kinds, some military and some civilian, unloading common people, with Nazis everywhere barking orders and shoving folk into lines, and marching them in various directions to far ends of the clearings, or further off into the trees. I didn’t expect this, and the other men that had traveled with me were equally surprised by the sight. A small gaunt officer, with a stern expression and deep-set eyes greeted our work-group curtly and motioned to follow him. The crackling of gunshots filled the air: handguns, rifles and some machine gun fire. I looked all around me trying to determine where it was coming from and if we were in danger; but it was so chaotic and my mind couldn’t understand what I was seeing.”

“All hope drained out of me however, when I saw a man of about fifty, shot through the forehead, not ten feet away from me, and as his lifeless body fell backward into a pit behind him. As we continued walking past, I peered down into the hole, and there strewn across the bottom, were other lifeless people. I recoiled in horror, and turned away to stare up into the treetops. How could this be? Where were we?! It then became clear to me; these people piling out of the trucks, were all here to be executed. This was murder on a large scale; and I was to have some role in it. I grew nauseous upon this realization, and collapsed to the ground; and then I threw up, recognizing we were here to dig graves, not trenches.”

“For several days, we dug graves, wide shallow depressions in the earth to receive the dead, the half-dead, and occasionally the fully alive—if a bullet happened to miss the mark. Typically these were shot again, as they were in the process of climbing back out, having left a short trail in the newly turned earth, with a hand or perhaps an arm having reached out over the top, grabbing hold of a tuft of grass as their final living act. There was no vodka here to help us forget these things, and so we went out of our minds in order to escape what we witnessed. Against reason, we accepted what the Nazis told us, that these people were not human, they were less than human, and they deserved this fate. I had to accept this because how else could it make any sense whatsoever? How else could such an injustice befall the just; no, these deaths must be justified, somehow, and therefore these people must be guilty, of something, anything, to make it right.”

“I died a second time out in those forests of Piasnica. Are there degrees of death? There must be, for I had already died a first time, several weeks earlier when I had been taken from my family farm and taught how to terrify and brutalize people, when I learned how to beat the innocent and leave them bleeding and unconscious in the streets of Danzig. But this was much, much worse. I had retreated into forgetfulness then, but now, where could I retreat, there was nowhere to go; I felt the death reaching into my own soul, like a spreading gangrene.”

“In this way we allowed ourselves to be hypnotized, to take direction in a daze, and to follow any order without question. We gave up fighting, happily relinquishing any protest, because acquiescence allowed us to take another step, to go on living another moment; otherwise, we couldn’t have gone on, and a bullet would have inevitably been our own end. I suppose we still hoped, somewhere inside, that we might awaken again to the life we once knew before this nightmare took over; so we clung to any means to keep going, in hopes of stumbling, by some miracle, back into that former life.”

“We usually dug during the night in order to prepare enough graves for the next day’s victims. And during the day we followed the living as they were marched to their end. And then our job was to fill in the holes once they had been killed. I no longer recognized faces, or individuals. The new arrivals to the clearing were just forms moving about in a haze. I rarely looked at them as we walked; I just followed their feet with my eyes as they shuffled across the matted grass, or through the mud to their deaths. I had grown accustomed to the sound of gunfire, and of the cries and screams. The pleading mothers and fathers, and the crying infants or young children, they were simply the soundtrack of the forest in Piasnica. There was no birdsong in that place; the birds had all fled long ago, lucky to have wings.”

“One day, a day like any other, a truck arrived late-afternoon and let out a group of twenty or so, who were quickly divided into groups of five, and marched towards their graves. I followed one of these small groups as they trudged forward: a pair of men’s shoes, a pair of women’s shoes, two sets of young, slender legs with bare feet, and a small pair of boy’s shoes made their way through the mud, and I followed after them, with a Nazi soldier sauntering nonchalantly at the rear. As we walked, I recognized a strange sound, not a bird, but like that. It was a sweet sound and I found myself smiling, though unsure at first where it originated. It was a woman’s voice singing softly as we walked, and then a man’s voice joined her, also quietly, though resonant and full of emotion. I lifted my eyes to watch them, unable to resist; and I stole quick glances, as the mother and father sang to their children, as if to create a shield, or a shelter over them, by their loving voices.”

“It was a deeply intimate series of moments between parents and children as they sang, while caressing their heads with their tender hands, while whispering consolingly familiar songs into their ears, hovering close with their lips, and kissing their children’s faces repeatedly as they went. My own calloused heart silently scoffed at the futility of the singing and the loving attention, and yet, this same heart of mine, stirred and yearned for the singing to continue. Even if it made no difference upon the final outcome for this little family, and I knew there was no chance that it could, even so, somehow these intimate moments shared between them seemed to rebuke the ugliness around us and it made me happy. I smiled to think that this is how angels might spit in the face of demons; simply by ignoring their evil, and continuing to love in spite of it all.”

“At the direction of the soldier, the family stopped and stood huddled together at the rim of a muddy hole, the one I had dug earlier that morning. Though they prayed, and though I joined in a silent, unconscious prayer of my own on their behalf, even so, at one particular moment in the life of the world, the sublime and sacred finally succumbed to the carnal and profane; several gunshots rang out in quick succession and the family vanished into the earth. But why did I happen to recognize them at that moment, of all moments? As they slipped away altogether from this world, I realized that this was the same family I had glanced upon through the front window of their home in Danzig, only a few nights earlier. They had been enjoying a family dinner together, and hoping somehow to survive the madness which had now become all of our lives in Poland. I think my memory was jogged especially by the little boy I remembered, he who had buried his face instinctively into his mother’s dress, while she held him close, and as his older sisters clung to her sides, sheltering him within their midst. The exact scene played out again here, just before they were shot, and it impressed me; I wondered how many times this scene was also playing out in other parts of the forest, and throughout Poland, perhaps even across the entire world.”

“I trudged forward in the gathering gloom, the sky darkening and my own mood depressed. Why hadn’t they just died in their home back in Danzig? I wondered, surely that would have been more comfortable and sensible; rather than straining to live a few more days only to die in this mucky hole as the sun turns its back on them, hidden behind the gathering clouds, and finally sets behind the trees. I was the only person they had now, the last who would ever recognize them and offer the slightest care for the lives they had lived, because certainly the soldier who just shot them had already forgotten them in his haste to get away. I turned to watch as he practically ran to join his fellow executioners in a cigarette break at the far end of the clearing. I heard them laughing, and one let out a hoot, craning his head back and yelling up at the heavy sky, trying to relieve some of the tension from his busy and stressful day. I was left alone in my corner of the clearing, to cover the dead. Others worked in other pits scattered here and there, also busy at the same work of shoveling and burying, and I could see their dark forms moving against the gloom of the clearing and the even darker night of the surrounding forest.”

“I covered the father first. For some reason it seemed easier, and more proper perhaps, and even more practical; as if he might lead the way into the earth, blazing ahead under the dirt in order to make it all a little less foreign or scary for his beautiful wife and his beloved children. It also seemed to me less an affront to bury him first, and strangely more acceptable than committing this indignity to his family; and I imagined that he accepted the dirt as I poured it over his face. I remembered his stoic expression when he had sat at the head of the dinner table several nights ago, and I believed that his lifeless face betrayed that same calm acceptance now, and he was telling me, in his quiet way, that he didn’t mind the dirt, and he wouldn’t blame me for shoveling it over him and his family. When the last of his pale face disappeared, I grew nervous and agitated at the thought of continuing. Though I had been doing this same work for long enough and I should have grown accustomed to it by now, if that is ever possible, I couldn’t bury the little group huddled below my shovel.”

“I stood staring down into the hole for a very long time. It was night now and the cloudy sky afforded little ambient light to see by, but I could see the mother and two girls huddled together in much the same arrangement they had been when they had been standing, however their mother was now turned and facing downward, so that I could only see the back of her head. She must have twisted on the way down, or possibly having turned at the final, fateful moment before being shot, in order to shield her little son. Who knows? But what was this?! I swore at that moment I saw her stir in her grave, a small rising in her upper torso, as if trying to raise herself from the earth, but very weakly and unable to do so. She appeared to try once again, and then instead, she shifted slightly to the side, attempting to turn herself over. What had at first seemed certain in my mind to be an illusion, or a hallucination, became very real when I heard a small cry, which awoke me from my stupor and I jumped down into the hole to help the poor woman up. I leaned over and reached around her shoulders and grabbed at her arm and lifted; she was very weak and unable to assist me in my efforts by even the smallest degree. In fact, she appeared in every way to be dead, from the absolute coldness of her flesh to the indeterminacy of her movements. I struggled for a short time at this before something more unexpected and surprising rose from the grave. Her little boy was alive! And he clambered slowly out from beneath her breasts, and lifted himself with great effort while pulling his legs out from under her hips to release himself from the earth.”

“Sadly, his mother had, in fact, died when she had been shot, and her movement here was only the result of her son’s attempts to break free from their tomb. But the little boy appeared to have been spared entirely, for I could find no bullet hole upon his body; and he was intact. I stared at him incredulously and with great joy for a brief moment before considering to what end or purpose was his survival? This fleeting thought brought me back to reality as I determined the improbability of him getting out of this forest alive. Nevertheless, I had come to celebrate within myself the smallest of hopes; and even an impossible possibility gave me reason to hope and to dream. The miracle of his life, as I was truly looking upon his living face, and feeling his warm breath, and touching his living body, was enough for me to deem his survival, even if it was to be short-lived, a complete success of goodness over evil. And I wept. I held the little boy close to me and trembled and shook as tears fell from my eyes for a brief moment before I stifled them and looked cautiously and fearfully behind me towards the direction of the officers gathered under the lights near their tent and vehicles. I held my breath and listened to discover if they had heard me; but they continued their smoking and laughing, and paid no attention to us.”

“But what to do with the boy? It was an impossible situation. He had just lost his entire family and he stood motionless, in a daze, as I held him close to me. He stared down at his mother and two sisters, but he didn’t cry. What could I do for him? I couldn’t get him out of that place, and there was nowhere good to hide him. Even if I was willing to sacrifice myself, what would that accomplish? His father couldn’t buy his life, he couldn’t rescue him, and I had nothing at all to give. His parents and his sisters were only able to provide him a little more time, but nothing beyond that. Yet, that was something; and I could also give him that—a little more time. I knelt and looked him in the eyes. They were alert and filled with sorrow. I apologized to him for what had happened, and for what I had to do. I explained that I had already buried his father and that I must bury his mother and his sisters as well. There was no time to shelter him from these things, and the hard truth seemed the only kindness I could offer him in that place. I asked him if he understood me and he nodded that he did, but he didn’t speak. Next, I explained that the Nazi’s would return soon, to check that I had done my job. He needed to run and hide in the forest now, if he wanted to survive. I had no idea how long he could survive in there, or what sad and unfair death he might eventually meet, but I had no better idea to propose. I stressed to him that he must run, but to be as quiet as he possibly could, and that he must keep running and get away from this place. He nodded, and I helped him up out of the hole. I pointed in the direction I thought he should go, but he just stood looking down into the grave, unable to move. By this time I heard the soldiers breaking away from their reveries, and saw lights coming our way. I shook the little boy and whispered my command: “Leave, now! You must go now! Run! Don’t look back, just run and get away from here!” He stared at me for a moment, took a final look at his mother and sisters and then turned and ran away into the forest as fast as I’d ever seen a little boy run.”

“Will God remember these little things that we’ve done? When I die, will his parents come to me and thank me for the small kindness I showed their son; or were they smiling at me now from their eternal beds? Even if there were no God, and no family to commend me, at least the sight of their son running into the forest warmed me in that moment, and that was my reward as I buried his dead, and then moved on to preparing new graves for tomorrow’s dead.”

“We worked until about ten o’clock that night, and we ate our bread and drank our soup before laying down to rest for a few hours; gathering what strength we could before we’d rise again around three the following morning to continue digging. As I lay trying to sleep, I imagined that the boy might find his way through the trees and, if he was lucky, discover a kind farmer on the other side, who might hide him and care for him as his own. Perhaps that farmer might even adopt the boy, and give him his own name and rescue him from his fate, gifting him with a new one, and a long and happy life.”

“Close to midnight, I am guessing, a brisk breeze arose and gently shook the treetops and rattled our flimsy tent; and with it the clouds began to part, and it grew lighter as the stars and a waning moon cast their pale light into the clearing. Unable to sleep, I left the tent and walked out across the clearing to look at the stars. I remembered my mother telling me that the stars were angels, souls of the departed taking their places in the heavens and shining their radiant light down upon loved ones they’ve left behind. I suspected the skies were getting a lot more crowded now, since the Nazis had begun their work. I searched to find the little boy’s family up there. Squinting slightly, I was able to find a small cluster of bright shining stars that I decided were his father, mother and sisters, newly arrived and comfortably settled into their celestial home. As the breeze quieted slightly and just gently touched my face, I heard a whispering voice, sweet and clear, drifting lightly upon the wind. It was faint and distant, as if coming from some remote corner in the back of my mind and I listened for it intently, hoping to extract its beauty in order to sooth my troubled soul. The voice continued, and it was singing a familiar though foreign tune; I recalled it as the song the mother and father had sung earlier that day to their children. I recognized the melody though I didn’t understand the words; it was sung in the Jewish tongue, of which I knew nothing.”

“I happily listened to this, somewhat surprised that I had remembered it so vividly, having never heard the tune before that day; convinced I was hearing the memory of it playing out within my own imagination. But unlike other imaginings, the specters within my own mind which eventually dissipate and give way to new thoughts, this singing continued, and in fact grew louder, as I walked across the clearing. I stopped walking and craned my neck, tilting my head in the direction of the singing, in order to attempt to capture every decibel of sound, hoping to discover the source. I’m not a superstitious person, but when I realized the singing was coming directly from the gravesite of that poor family I had just buried, I got goosebumps and the hair on my neck stood on end. It sounded as if the mother had begun to sing again to her lost children. I slowly began walking in their direction and as I came through a small, thin copse of trees (for there were still standing a few trees here and there throughout the clearing), I saw the boy standing over his family’s grave; and he was singing to them, his head downcast and searching the turned soil, as if he was hunting for some clue as to their whereabouts.”

“The stars above us shone down upon him as he sang, and cast him in an otherworldly silvery light. He lifted his head, and his singing became a cry, a plea, and a tribute. I was transfixed by his music and the gift he appeared to raise up to his distant mother. Had he also found her star in the midnight sky and was he calling up to her? I hoped he felt her loving embrace in the light she shone upon him. I could only speculate upon what he felt; but I felt clearly the blessing his singing had upon me. He softened the heart within me that I had given up hope of ever knowing again; his music showed me the way to myself again, and returned humanity, even divinity to the earth, where I had lost hope of ever finding it.”

“But why had he returned; did he not know the danger? I wished for his sake that he had continued running through the darkness of the forest to find the light of morning, far from this evil place. That would have been far better for him, wouldn’t it? Instead, he returned to us, and brought the light of morning back with him. For some remarkable people there is something more important than self-preservation; this little Jewish boy singing to his family in the clearing of Piasnica, in the midst of slaughter and destruction, was one of these special kind of people who serve a deeper, higher calling which leads them to plant seeds of goodness, kindness and mercy in the soil previously made sterile by man’s inhumanity. Of course, he was overwrought with sorrow at having lost his family; and how could he leave them? Perhaps there was no longer a life on this earth for him in absence of all those he loved. I doubt he had considered any of the higher philosophical reasons that I attributed to him and to his actions. Nevertheless, I believe they were still true of him; sometimes we don’t understand the real meaning of our actions, and only as others interpret them for us, do we discover that meaning, and come to understand ourselves as God intended us.”

“His singing eventually drew the attention of others in our small encampment, and soon many had joined me in listening to his beautiful voice. Even the Nazi soldiers stood quietly by, and I noticed their smiles as they listened attentively. The boy didn’t seem to notice any of us as he continued to sing to his family—offering his sweet music to the earth, and to the sky—wherever they might be. The Nazi officer broke his silence and commented reverently, ‘He sings like an angel, doesn’t he?’ And I agreed with that; I believe we all did. But if angels do walk among us, we who are carnal cannot tolerate their presence for too long. Another soldier raised and pointed his gun at the singer before saying, ‘I’m tired, I think it is time to sleep.’ However, before he pulled the trigger, the officer stopped him. ‘No! Bring him with us, I have a better idea.’ So the soldiers ran up and grabbed the boy, who didn’t struggle, and carried him back to the tent for the remainder of the night.”

“The following morning, as the first truckloads of captives arrived, the Nazi officer set up a wooden chair on a small mound near where the trucks stopped and unloaded their cargo. He placed the boy on the chair and instructed him to begin singing, as he pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket and lit it. The boy hesitated as he looked about himself, confused and frightened; and the officer nodded encouragement to him while he motioned with his hand and mouthed as if he were singing, in order to prompt the reluctant performer. Several other soldiers nearby laughed and stopped what they were doing to see if the boy would start to sing; and their expectations were fulfilled and they responded with cheers, clapping, and slapping one another on the back, as if, for some unknown reason, they felt they were the ones to be congratulated. I took offence at this, but the boy appeared unaffected, singing with more determination now, as the people filed past him on their way from the trucks to their executions. It was unclear to me what exactly the Nazi officer intended by this performance; I assumed it was undertaken in jest and mocking, and from his appearance and that of the other soldiers they all seemed genuinely pleased by the show. Perhaps they themselves also didn’t know what they were doing; since their reactions to the boy’s song, seemed to oscillate confusedly between derision and admiration. For the Jews who were greeted by the little boy’s familiar song, I noticed a wide range of reactions; most came to this place already in a state of shock and confusion, and for many of them, these feelings were exacerbated by the vision of a little boy serenading them from his perch atop the wooden chair. They looked at him perplexedly, unsure what to make of his performance. Others smiled at him, and some stopped momentarily with expressions as if they were seeing a ghost, or more accurately a heavenly spirit, their faces shining with inexplicable joy and awe. A few broke down and cried, crumpling to the ground in tears. He took encouragement from these people and sang with greater confidence, and with deeper emotion. He and they seemed to understand each other, and they shared something that the Nazis couldn’t comprehend. I’m not sure I comprehended it either; but it came across to me as a nobility, and I guess I would call it a sanctification. Yes, there was something holy in it, something sacred. The boy was bringing forth into the world a divine gift for those about to die; he was showing them a glimpse of the beauty of the next world. He seemed to be opening a doorway into eternity for them to see, through his singing, so that they might go to their grave with a little less fear, and a little more hope than they could have were he not there to shepherd them.”

“This lasted three days. The boy sang at intervals during this time, and he was given relatively kind treatment by the soldiers. He was fed well and even allowed some time to play, though he mainly used that time to sit with his family. He didn’t try to run away, though I still wished he would; but by this time it seemed clear he had no intention of continuing in this world for long, but preferred to follow his parents and sisters into the heavens. On the third day, there arose a commotion in the morning when a new officer arrived and an argument ensued between he and the officer who had made the boy sing. The new officer, who was clearly superior, chastised the first, along with several of his accomplices, reminding them with very strong language, that they weren’t here running a nightclub or a talent show. He made it very clear that it was unacceptable to harbor the boy, and worse, to allow him to perform; he failed to understand how these soldiers could have so completely misunderstood their mission. It was not to be tolerated and must be brought to a stop immediately. He instructed the other officer, right then and there, to take the boy out into the field and shoot him. For a fleeting moment the officer hesitated, and I understood that he also loved the boy, as I did; but there was also no escape in this place for him, as there was never going to be for the little boy. I understood this very clearly. So that officer took the boy and trudged off a short distance. After a moment, a single shot echoed across the clearing, ricocheting among the trees and then there was silence. I didn’t bury the boy, but one of the others buried him. However, later that night I removed him from his place of rest, and under the cloak of darkness I carried him across the field to where his family lay.”

“After this, I resolved to escape that horrible place. Fear had stopped me from previously considering it. I didn’t want to die, but the courage of the little singer inspired in me a new determination. The Nazis weren’t able to touch the boy, he was immune to their disease; and though they were able to kill him, they weren’t able to infect him. He remained pure and true throughout his ordeal. He gave me hope, not in certain survival, but in recovering dignity. I was no longer afraid to die, for he had shown me the way of life. It was as if he had given me new life; and the deaths I had already experienced at the hands of the Nazis fell away into shadows of memory, and I experienced a light of rebirth. So I plotted my escape.”

“Every evening, at close to ten o’clock, two trucks left the clearing, carrying the majority of troops away for the night, to a base further south in the small town of Wejherowo. And each morning the same trucks brought the soldiers back for their day’s work. A small contingent stayed with us throughout the night, but the tent accommodations in the forest were inadequate to house everyone, therefore most of the Nazis were transported away. I placed my hopes in hiding myself in the undercarriage of one of these trucks, if possible, and then slipping into the night somewhere between Piasnica and Wejherowo. The trucks were Polski Fiat 621s which were built with about two to three feet of clearance between the undercarriage and the ground, so getting under the trucks quickly would be easy for me. Over the next few days I managed to steal quick glances at the trucks; even dropping my shovel nearby to afford a view from just the proper angle, to peer up into the truck’s underside, as I leaned over to pick my shovel back up. Just over the axles and suspension, sat a reinforced metal frame which supported the cargo box above. If I could pull myself up into that framework I should be able to hide there for the short journey south. At the back, just below the rear bumper, hung a steel frame which held a spare tire; if the tire was missing then access up into the chassis would be much easier however, even if the tire was in place, I figured I could still squeeze up behind it, and then pull myself over the rear axles and hang on to the steel supports and straps that reinforced the cargo bed above. It would be a tight fit, but it looked large enough for me, and so long as nobody was looking directly under the vehicle from the side, I should be safely concealed. Fortunately, there was also a storage box on these models, suspended just behind the driver’s side door which obscured one’s view under the truck, along with the pair of wheels and fenders on both sides.”

“I felt confident that if I could manage to get into this hiding place then I would be successful; but how to get under the truck without being seen? And at the proper time so as not to be missed or draw attention? These were the main problems with my plan, yet to be solved. I racked my brain trying to come up with the answer but nothing satisfied. Though several things were in my favor, such as the lack of light near the trucks at night. And the soldiers usually kept guard from a good distance away; typically they would stand across the clearing where the dirt road exited south through the forest. Still, everything was up to chance, and I couldn’t come up with a way to increase my odds for success. I decided to stay alert and ready for when the right time may suddenly present itself; for essentially I had no plan.”

“I prayed for the right moment to come, and for the courage to seize it when it finally did. Two nights later, a miracle occurred. It was just after we had finished eating as we were getting prepared to sleep, and as the soldiers were about to get into the trucks to leave the area, when we heard an enormous crash across the clearing. A large tree had fallen, which drew the attention of the entire encampment. In the ensuing confusion, I leapt up from my cot and ran as fast as I could, around the back of the tent and out to the trucks, and dove under one of them. My heart was racing as I grabbed hold over the back axle and pulled myself up between the differential and the spare tire. But then my heart sunk as I became wedged between the two, unable to pull myself any further. I panicked when I heard the engine suddenly come alive; and as the men began to climb up into the back of the truck I couldn’t breathe for fear. If I couldn’t pull myself up off the ground before the truck began to move I would be flayed alive, my legs and lower torso would be ground to pulp; I feared a horribly painful death and struggled desperately to pull myself free. I pushed with my back against the spare tire, trying to shift it but I couldn’t get it to budge. I knew my time was almost up, and I looked frantically for a solution. Twisting myself around in hopes of seeing a way to move the tire, my body slid slightly to the right, and released from the narrowest point between the tire and differential, and this was enough to allow me to pull myself off the ground, and up over the twin axles into a place of relative safety.”

“The trucks sped away from the clearing and down the muddy road, through the darkened forest towards Wejherowo. I was cold and wet, and mud continuously shot up into my face and covered my body as I clung to the undercarriage of the moving truck; but as we left the clearing behind us, and with every passing mile, I grew less and less aware of any physical discomfort. Preoccupation with bodily comfort was gradually replaced by more sublime matters, as my mind and spirit became joyful at the prospect of freedom. And as my dreamlike hopes for escape solidified into reality I considered my next step. Clearly I had been naively mistaken in thinking that I would be able to extricate myself from the truck’s inner workings as it sped along, and to somehow let myself off along the way; that aspect of my plan was apparently ridiculous because the truck was moving far too quickly and I was trapped far too securely for such a maneuver. So, now I needed a backup plan. I decided to wait until the truck parked in Wejherowo, after letting the soldiers out; hopefully then I could pull myself free, and escape into the night. But the truck only stopped briefly at the base in Wejherowo, only long enough to let the men out, before driving off again to some new destination. I feared they might be returning to the clearing in Piasnica, bringing me right back to where I had escaped only moments earlier. However, as the truck continued I recognized pavement speeding by below me; and this assuaged my fears, since there were only muddy trails leading back up into the forest. Within a half hour the truck arrived at its destination, parked, and the driver got out and walked into a nearby building. Fortunately, the street was not well-lit, and there was no traffic nor pedestrians nearby, so my exit from beneath the truck went unnoticed, and I managed to slip away undetected.”

“I was in Danzig now, and I made my way quickly through town, following back streets and alleys to avoid being seen. Instinctively, I was heading to my family’s farm, located several miles east. Even in the dark, I knew the way well, and managed to get there by early morning. It was around one in the morning, I guessed, when I approached the narrow lane which led south to our property. But then it occurred to me that they would come looking for me here, once they discovered I had escaped Piasnica. It wouldn’t be safe to stay at our farm, and I’d certainly be endangering my mother if I did. It was best if she knew nothing about my location, when the Nazis would come knocking later that morning. So instead, I continued east a few hundred yards and then turned south, following the main road which traversed the plains of our agricultural district. This route would take me, first across the Szkarpawa river at the town of Rybina, then across several smaller irrigation canals, and finally over the Nogat river near the tiny village of Jazowa. I hoped to make that final crossing before daylight, and then find a hiding place in the nearby woods on the eastern bank of the river, to evade being seen throughout the coming day.”

“By the time I arrived at the woods near Jazowa I was tired and hungry, but grateful to have safely made it that far. I clambered deep into the woods and then set up several branches against an old fallen tree and covered them with leaves; after pulling myself under their cover I scraped together a small pile of moldering leaves and dirt as a makeshift pillow, and fell asleep. I slept through most of the day, awaking as dusk was setting upon the countryside. My hope was to make it to my uncle’s farm, about seventy miles south of my present location; he would take me in and I could stay with him indefinitely. His farm would be easy to find, I had traveled there with my father many times over the years, during the late summer and early fall, when we visited my uncle to help him with his harvest. I would follow the Nogat river south through the town of Malbork and continue south to the village of Biala Gora, where the Nogat meets the Vistula, and from there it was simply a matter of following the Vistula river south until I reached Chelmno and my uncle’s farm was a few miles to the east. Traveling at night was slow, I had to keep from being seen, I was cold and hungry, but ever since I left Piasnica, really since I had met that little boy, I had a renewed determination, and I had no doubt I would make it to my uncle’s place and begin my life again.”

“I left the woods at around six in the evening and entered the outskirts of Malbork several hours later. By this time I was extremely hungry, having eaten nothing for the past twenty-four hours. As I made my way carefully past Malbork Castle, keeping to the shadows to avoid detection, I heard the bells, from the old Catholic Church south of the castle, strike ten o’clock. I followed their sound and arrived a short time later at a small square just out front of the church’s huge bell tower. Set up near the middle of the square was a Nativity scene: with several birch branches fashioned into a simple framework, and a wooden star at the apex, and in front of that, several plaster statues of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, who had been placed upon some straw that was set into a wooden feeding trough. In front of each of these were the remnants of numerous large candles, protected by glass globes. Several were still lit, and they cast a faint but warm light upon the statues. I stood a few moments enjoying this pastoral scene before another light caught my eye; it was a single bare lightbulb mounted on the brick wall above the entrance to the church. The doors below this light were open, and I felt drawn to enter. Inside, it was very dark with the exception of light from a few candles up near the altar. I appeared to be the only one inside the church and I walked up to the altar to get a closer look. It was a beautiful church, and I enjoyed taking a moment to look around, but what really interested me was a small golden bowl on the altar with several wheat wafers still in the bottom; these were used for communion. I felt ashamed for thinking about taking them; but after glancing around me, to make sure nobody was watching, I grabbed the bowl and emptied the contents into my mouth. They tasted wonderful; but there weren’t enough of them. I needed more. I had forgotten how hungry I was until I ate those wafers; but suddenly I was ravenous. I searched under the altar and found a bottle of wine, half empty and with the cork protruding. I grabbed the bottle and flipped the cork out onto the floor, and emptied the contents down my throat. It warmed me pleasantly, but I was still so hungry. Placing the empty bottle back under the altar where I had found it, I turned to look around the front of the church more closely. In the corner, near a side door and practically unnoticeable in the dark, was a stack of boxes; one contained several bottles of wine and another was filled with packages of the wafers. I grabbed as many packages of wafers as I could easily pile into my jacket, along with two bottles of wine and quickly ran out of the building. I felt horribly ashamed of myself for stealing from the church, and of all things stealing the communion wafers and wine. As I exited the church I nearly stumbled into the nativity scene in front of me. But in my guilt I couldn’t face the holy family then, so I made an abrupt turn, and ran out of the square by a different way.”

“Down by the river I ate more wafers and drank more wine; and I felt that it wasn’t right what I had done, what I was still doing. But my hunger argued against me, and made excellent points; and in the end my belly won the debate. I was a thief and I accepted that; but I was no longer a hungry thief and that counted for something. As I drank more wine, my memory turned back to the party in Danzig, that night not long ago, when I watched the men pull that pew from the ruins of the synagogue, and burn it in the bonfire. I had judged them harshly then, but now was I any different from them? Wasn’t I also taking the sacred and making it profane, as they had done? Or the Nazi officer, the one who made the boy sing, wasn’t I was even like him?! He took that boy and the gift he offered so purely for his people, for all of us, and the officer stole it to satisfy his own desires, making a mockery of what was holy. Oh, wretched man! How I hated that soldier then, and how I hated myself as well; but I couldn’t stop eating and drinking. Later that night I was finally satiated, and I fell asleep very close to the edge of the Nogat.”

“The next morning the river awoke me, when I shifted in my sleep, and my left leg dropped into its icy waters. It was a shock, but also good fortune, because the sun was rising and I hadn’t made it very far after leaving the church the night before. Several German military installations were located in Malbork, so it was a very risky place to be discovered; so I quickly made my way south out of town. About a mile up river, I found a large forest located behind an old cemetery. As I had done in the past I walked a good distance into the trees, and made a camouflaged shelter, and hunkered down for the day.”

“The rest of my story is really just more of the same. I can tell you that I made it to my uncle’s farm after several more nights; and he took me in, as I knew he would. And I helped him on the farm. The following year, in 1940, we both joined the Polish resistance and actively fought against the Germans. During the day we were farmers and at night we were soldiers. I am proud to say that we directly helped rescue and save the lives of several Jews, some of whom were children. And we helped destroy several German vehicles and one supply train. Eventually the war ended, and well, I went on with my life. I don’t know how we survived, we were lucky I guess. After the war I moved here, to the United States, and started a new life, another new life. One more new life—it seems I’ve had several—and it’s been a good life, even including the bad things.”

Janusz Kowalski grew silent after that, and it appeared he was finished telling me his story. I thanked him for taking the time to tell it, and for sharing such intimate details, and also such difficult memories. Before we parted, he had one more thing he wanted to tell me, which he said was very important to him:

“You know, I don’t know if my life has amounted to much. I’ve often wondered why God kept me alive throughout the war, and after; all these years, it is really something isn’t it? What is it now, 1999? Is that right? Well then, it’s been about sixty years now, exactly, since all that began. Sixty years ago—I’m almost eighty now. But do you know what? This is important. Everything I’ve done, I don’t think any of it mattered so much, as what that little boy did back there in Piasnica. He was my hero; and my savior. He really was. Maybe that is why God kept me alive all this time, so I could tell you about that little boy. Yes, if there isn’t anything else good that I’ve done with my life, at least I’ve told the world about him, and what he did for us. And maybe that is good enough.”

The End


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