My heart leaps into my throat as I see nine Gestapo soldiers ransack my home. They have been informed that I smuggled Jewish children. They believe that I may have hidden them in my home. I had been informed that this might happen and I am prepared.
I had thrown the list to Janina as I was expecting this to happen. The lives of so many children are at stake. I watch as Janina hides the list in the folds of her dress and walks by casually. No one suspects her.
The soldiers are unable to find anything in my house, but I am taken prisoner. I am quickly stuffed into a jeep and I know this is just the beginning of a long ordeal. Pawaik is where I am brought. I shiver.
Pawaik is called the slaughterhouse. No one comes out alive. As I walk through its dark corridors I am brought to the women’s prison. There are small cells with big iron bars, stuffed with inmates, and only a small grated window at the top. The air is unbearably stuffy and reeks of human excreta and dead bodies. Few cells have a small glow of orange, which I assume is a bulb. Most of them are dark. I can hear grunts, swearing, yelling, and screams. I am clutching the cross around my neck hard.
I change into a rough prison uniform with the guards watching me. My clothes and belongings are taken away. Even my cross. The prison uniform is harsh and stained. It still carries the odours of the previous users. I am sure it has never been washed.
My hands are tied behind my back. My mind is numb. A guard kicks me into a small dark room with a ceiling light that has been encased in a cage hanging high from a rope so the prisoners cannot access it.
I can smell the dank air, blood, sweat, and mildew. The walls are barren and the lone window is too high to let in any fresh air or sunlight. A strange feeling clutches my heart. I want to hold on to it but it seems to be escaping from me. Hope, I am losing hope.
Two tall men walk in and circle me. Their faces are contorted and angry. One of them hits me with his baton on my right knee. I succumb to the hard concrete floor. The guard has me pinned to the floor with his foot on my cheek and he is pressing down hard.
“Where are the children?”
“I don’t know,” I scream and a kick from his high military boot lands on my temple.
Father is dying. He has caught the deadly disease. No! Papa! Don’t leave me alone. Irena, my daughter, I am sorry, but I could not abandon my patients like other doctors. Typhus was spreading fast and if I had not helped them, many more would have died. Always remember, if you see someone drowning, you must jump in and try to save them. No religion is greater than humanity.
I try to open my eyes, but blood seems to have caked over my right eye. It remains shut. My hands have been chained to the walls and I am standing between them. The cuffs are cutting into my wrist as I make any movement. At least five guards are standing in the cell. I have no inmates. I am a solitary prisoner.
“Tell us the names of your comrades.”
“I have none.”
They strike repeatedly on my right leg with something sharp. I can feel the wetness of the blood. I holler and shriek. They do not stop. A guard is now sticking nails in my calf. I try to pull away. The prison seems quiet except for my screams. My leg is numb.
Irena! German soldiers are going to take the Jews to Pawaik prison from the ghetto here at Warsaw, Helena is screaming.
We can save the children, Helena. The Jewish parents have consented to hide their children with Christian families. I have given them Christian names. Izabella and Zofia have found safe homes.
How are we going to take these children out without being caught?
Ah! A splash of cold water falls on my face. A guard is yanking my hair and has a gun in my mouth. I am falling in and out of consciousness. I can’t feel my right leg.
“Name the people hiding the children.”
“I know nothing.”
I can smell cheap liquor and cigarettes. This time the blow lands on my left knee. I hear a cracking sound. They splash more cold water on me. Now they bring in a machine. They strap some wires around me and suddenly my body is shaking with the jolt of the electric shock. My teeth are clenched hard.
Helena, quick! I have brought these sacks. Hide them in these and cover them with clothes. You can use these boxes as well. Hide some of them in these coffins. Tell them to remain calm and not cry. Everything will be over soon.
She begins concealing the children and repeatedly tells them their new names.
Do you remember the prayers we taught you? Christian prayers!
We get a nod in unison.
Yaser is crying again; the soldiers will hear him, Helena shouts.
I bring out the dog I have trained to bark at command. He begins to bark loudly to drown the cries of children.
My arms are hurting and are swollen. I am hanging now. My legs are painful and cannot hold my weight anymore. The guards seem to take mercy on me and disengage me from the chains. I fall to the floor like a sack of grain. Dear god, make them stop, I pray silently. One of them tramples my foot and is pressing it down hard. I whimper, trying to supress my scream.
“Your comrades! Name them!”
“I do not have any. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
He slashes my feet with a knife and twists it in. I can feel warm blood oozing out. I finally begin speaking out false names and addresses as we had previously decided. I hope this will bring some respite from the daily torture. It does. Some inmates are sent inside my cell to clean up. They carry me to a bed stuck to the wall. I had not noticed it there. I do not remember sleeping, just passing out after the torture was done. They are ordered to leave and the doors shut. I can see them through the iron bars.
My eyes slowly shut, but the mattress is an infestation. The fleas and bugs keep me awake and I force myself down from the bed.
Is it morning or night? Has it been a moment or days have passed? The torture has been relentless. I cannot use my legs anymore. My throat is parched. I wish I could drink some water. The food thrown into my cell is inedible. There is smell of death all around me.
I hear footsteps again. I shudder at the thought of the onslaught that awaits me.
“You have been sentenced to death by firing.”
I cry again. Sorry Papa. I could not save anymore children. I wish I could see them reunited with their families. My mind tries to find peace in the fact that Janina had not been caught and the list is safe. My list, where I had noted the true names of children and their family members, and the names of the safe families they were hidden with. Janina and I had hidden the list in marmalade jars and buried it in our neighbour’s yard, under the big apple tree. Even with me gone, our mission to save these children will continue.
It is cold. Very cold. I guess it must be January. I was brought to the prison in October and today will be my last day. I pray for my friends and family. I pray for all the little children we could not save. I pray to God to stop this senseless war.
I am told to dress up. They throw some clothes at me. I cannot get up. I let them carry me. My vision is blurred. The sudden daylight makes me shut my eyes hard. Once again, I am stuffed in a jeep and I know this will be my final journey. Dear God forgive me my sins.
I am lying on the floor of the jeep. I wish I could see outside one last time. The jeep stops. I prepare myself for the final execution, but the guards throw me on the road and leave. I am in a daze, looking around. A car stops near me and some people pick me up and make me sit on the seat.
Someone is hugging me.
“Irena! Thank God, you are alive.”
I move back trying to focus.
“Maria! Maria Palester! How! How did you get me out?”
“I went to the Zegota chief Julian Grobelny to get the funds to bribe the guards. From then on it was just a matter of planning. I am so glad to have you back.
I wake up in a hospital. I am told my legs are crippled and I will never be able to walk. I now wait for the war to end.
LIFE IN A JAR: The title of my story is from ‘Life in a Jar-the Irena Sendler Project’ an award-winning book on holocaust by James Mayer.
IRENA SENDLER: A polish catholic social worker born in 1910. She orgainsed a rescue network of fellow social workers to save 2500 Jewish children from certain death in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940s. She was a qualified nurse. She was able to reunite many children with their families because of the lists she hid.
Gestapo: the official secret police of Nazi Germany in German occupied Europe.
Pawaik prison: German gestapo prison after invasion of Poland in 1939.
Typhus: A highly contagious disease carried by body lice which thrive in cramped unsanitary conditions. It spread like an epidemic in Warsaw ghetto where living conditions were appalling.
Zegota: Polish Underground State, active from 1942-45 in German occupied Poland, set up specifically to save Jews.
This is a fictional account of her time in prison.
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