Into The Ghetto

August 18, 2012
More by this author
“Goodbye Herr Krugler!” Pavel called as his last patient of the day left his clinic. He turned from the door to tidy up his office. Just then Pavel heard the door to his small clinic burst open.

“Grandfather!” he heard a boy cry.

Pavel turned around and saw his grandson standing there, eyes shining with excitement.

“Grandfather,” the boy said again, “Do you remember what day it is!?”

Pavel tried to look puzzled, “Is it Hanukkah already?” He said jokingly, “Where did the time go...?”

The boy looked hurt, but then got the joke. He hugged his grandfather around the waist. “No!” he said, smiling, “it's my 7th birthday!”

Pavel scooped up his grandson into his arms and kissed him on the forehead. He noticed that the boy (who was already small for his age) was becoming even thinner and lighter. It was no wonder, since there was less and less food to eat ever since the war started. But his smile was as bright as always.

“Oh yes,” Pavel said “How could I have forgotten your birthday... what is your name again?” Pavel asked, trying to keep his face serious.

The boy giggled, and said, “My name is Shmuel of course!”

Pavel nodded slowly, “Oh yes, that's right. Sh-muuuu-e-l. And, what is my name again?”

At this, Shmuel broke into a fit of giggles. “Your name is Pavel,” he said, catching his breath, “but Joseph and I call you Grandfather.”

“Well,” Pavel said, “Happy birthday, Shmuel.” He hugged his grandson tightly.

Pavel locked up the clinic and then pulled Shmuel onto his shoulder. Together, they walked through the bustling streets of Krakow, Poland. They stopped at the market to buy a loaf of challah, braided egg bread, to eat during Shmuel's birthday dinner. Shmuel's mother had been saving the food ration stamps to make Shmuel a special feast.

The two stopped quickly at Pavel's apartment which he shared with his wife, Hellena. Pavel quickly went to the bedroom to grab the small overnight bag he shared with her. The curfew that was placed on Jews by the Nazis was 8 o'clock, so he and Hellena- who was already at her son's house, helping Shmuel's mother Lillie prepare the feast- were going to stay overnight.

Pavel came out of the bedroom to see Shmuel looking out of the window. The apartment had a view of most the city. Pavel walked up to Shmuel and found that he was staring at a far part of the city, where a wall was being put up around the poorest neighbourhood in the city. Pavel's heart jumped. This can't be true, he thought. He'd heard rumours that Jews in the city would be forced to move into a ghetto and be sealed inside. No way in, no way out. No, he thought, there must be some other reason for the wall...

“What is that, Grandfather?” Shmuel asked innocently, “Are they building a zoo there?” Shmuel would tell anyone who would listen about his love of animals and how he wanted to become a zookeeper, so the thought of a zoo in Krakow excited him; and Pavel saw that in his eyes.

Pavel couldn't help but smile at his grandson's childhood innocence. “We'll have to wait and see, won't we?” He said, ushering Shmuel away from the window and out the door.

* * *

Shmuel burst into his father's watch shop much the same way he did into Pavel's shop not half an hour before.

“Papa!” he shouted, looking around. Pavel's son, Theodore, was the owner of a small watch shop in a quiet neighbourhood in Krakow. He came out of the back store room with his oldest son, Joseph.

“Hello son,” Theodore said, “How was school?”

“Great!” replied Shmuel, hugging his father. Shmuel went to and all-Jewish school, a new law passed by the Nazis. Joseph was learning how to make and repair watches so he could one day take over his father's business.

Shmuel turned to his older brother, “Hi Joseph!” he said.

“Happy Birthday little brother,” he said, rustling Shmuel's hair.

Pavel hugged his son, “Hello Theodore,” he said, “how's business?”

Shmuel's father told Pavel about how the shop's business was slowing down, and about a special surprise he had for Shmuel. Pavel looked around to see if Shmuel was listening, but he was already racing Joseph up the stairs.

* * *

As Pavel and Theodore opened the door to the apartment above the shop, they were overwhelmed by the delicious smells coming from Lillie's kitchen. They could hear the oil sizzling as Hellena cooked her speciality, and Shmuel's favourite food, latkes (potato pancakes). The two men greeted their wives and Pavel handed Hellena the loaf of challah before dropping the overnight bag in the spare bedroom.

The two men met in the living room to talk. Pavel told Theodore about the wall he saw being put up and the rumours he had heard.

“Yes,” said his son solemnly. “I too have heard rumours about ghettos being built for the Jews to live in.” He sighed, “We should try to escape before we are sent to one.”

“I agree,” said Pavel, “I have heard that South Africa is allowing Jewish refugees inside its borders, as well as China.”

“We could go into hiding until a spot opens up for us,” said Theodore. Pavel could see in his eyes that the gears of his brain were spinning like those in the watches he repaired as he pondered the possibilities. “We could seal off the door to the stairwell form the shop, or maybe we could...” Theodore continued.

Pavel watched his son ramble on and wondered how his life had come to this. He remembered a time, before the war, when Jews were free to be outside after 8 o'clock, when they could walk outside without having to wear armbands that identified them as Jewish. Pavel remembered when his clinic used to be large and open to everyone and had the best medicines and equipment available. He had many patients from all over the city, Jewish, Christian, everyone. But then the Nazis came. They downsized his clinic and told him he could only treat Jews and they took away most of his medicine and equipment, probably to go towards the Nazi war effort. The thought made him sick.

“Dinner!” Lille called from the dining room, interrupting his thoughts.

The family enjoyed a delicious dinner. When they were finished and the women were done clearing the table, Theodore gave Shmuel a small wrapped box. Shmuel opened it excitedly and gently took out a shiny silver watch. He held it in his hands and just stared at it for a few moments in awe; before giving everyone a hug and saying thank-you.

At 9 o'clock, the children were in bed and the adults were talking in the living room. They discussed Theodore's idea of hiding until they were able to leave the country. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. The family knew what to do. Pavel, Lillie, and Hellena grabbed the family's most precious belongings- the Tanakh, the few framed photographs of the family, and the food ration books- on their way to the back bedroom that Shmuel shared with Joseph.

Theodore opened the door and saw a Gestapo officer standing there. He braced himself for what was about to happen. The Gestapo sometimes stormed Jewish homes, stole their belongings, and arrested Jewish men and sent them to work camps, all for no apparent reason. And no one stopped them, how could they?

But the officer simply handed Theodore a letter, turned on his heel, and marched away. Theodore gently closed the door, opened the letter, and began to read it.

Lillie, Pavel, and Hellena cautiously stepped out of the back bedroom. They were relieved until they saw the letter in Theodore's hand and the look on his face.

Pavel was the first to speak. “What does it say?” He asked, unsure that he wanted to know the answer.

Theodore took a deep breath then said, “It says that we have two days to pack up our belongings and move into the Krakow Ghetto. If we fail to do so, we will be found and either arrested or killed.”

Everyone was silent. They were all thinking the same thing; their worst fears had come true. The rumours were true. They were going to be forced to live in a tiny, cramped, apartment, they would have even less food, and they were going to be sealed off from the rest of the world. And who was to know what was after that. Theodore and Joseph, maybe even Shmuel and Pavel, might be forced to go to a labour camp and work for the Nazis.

The only thing that broke the silence was the muffled weeps of a young boy and the soothing words from his older brother, coming from the back bedroom.


The family lived in the Krakow ghetto for one and a half years. They lived in an apartment with 11 people in total. Hellena died two months after their arrival of pneumonia. Pavel lost his sense of humour after her death. After one and a half years, on March 15th, 1943, one month before Shmuel's 9th birthday, the men were sent to Auschwitz II-Birkenua, the death camp where Shmuel met Bruno. Lillie went to the woman’s sub-camp, Rajsko, where she eventually died. Theodore was soon after sent to Auschwitz III, a labour camp and was later joined by Joseph. Pavel was beaten by a German lieutenant and died, leaving Shmuel all alone. He would later be gassed with the son of the Commandant, Bruno. Joseph and Theodore managed to survive the work camp, were liberated by Soviet troops in 1945 and were sent to a displaced persons' camp. They did not return to Poland because of the rumours they heard of Jews being killed by mobs when they tried to go back to their homes. Theodore died in the camp of starvation because he gave his small rations of food to the young children in the camp. Joseph was later chosen out of the refugees in the camp to immigrate to the United Sates where he married and had three children and nine grandchildren. He made sure, before he died, that his father's kindness and bravery live on in his descendants.

Post a Comment

Be the first to comment on this article!

Site Feedback