Recap: Germany attacked Poland. Mimi and her family tried to get a train out of Poland but the trains were not running. Jan Zabinski comes to their house and takes them to the zoo to hide.
Although the closet was narrow, it was very long, and fresh air blew in through the windows. The white curtains fluttered with the breeze. Somehow, I finally fell asleep. I was in between Mama and Bubby on a narrow cot.
When early morning sunlight streamed into the bedroom, Mrs. Zabinski came upstairs with a breakfast tray of fruit and milk and black tea. She knew we couldn’t eat anything cooked or prepared.
I davened. Bubby and my mother were still sleeping. My father and Zeidy were davening in the other corner of the closet. I could hear the monkeys jabbering outside and the hippos braying. Just then, I heard the sound of men speaking German. Two Nazis were in the kitchen looking for food.
I glanced at Fraidy who was still asleep. I prayed she would stay asleep.
My heart was pounding till I thought I would burst. I kept saying T’hilim. Fraidy woke and I motioned her to come close. “We’re playing a quiet game,” I whispered in her ear. “You have to be very, very quiet and then I will get you a treat.”
Fraidy liked the treat idea. I was desperate. Mama had woken and she heard the Germans talking downstairs. She nodded towards me. We sat there holding our breath.
Finally, the door closed. They’d left. Mrs. Zabinski came upstairs. “Jan found a place nearby where we can take your parents and Fraidy. Too many soldiers come in here during the day to keep a young child like her quiet.”
Bubby and Zeidy were taking Fraidy with them to a farmer nearby. We hugged each other. It was so hard saying goodbye. I kept a journal for gratitude. I used it now to record what was happening to us.
I hate the Germans. I wish we could just go back home. Focus on the good, Mimi.
I’m thankful for the Zabinskis’ kindness. Thank you, Hashem, that my family is together and safe. I wish I could play my flute.
I practiced the fingerings without blowing on my flute. I imagined Bayla playing the accompaniment.
When Mrs. Zabinski saw me fingering my flute, she offered, “Late at night, I will come to get you and you can come to the drawing room and play your flute. I will play piano with you if you like.”
We fell into a routine that week. Papa started going out with Mr. Zabinski to the ghetto to help him bring Jews from the ghetto back to the zoo. Mama told me that the Germans had sent all the Jews to the Old Town and made it a ghetto. Papa described the terrible living conditions there. We were so lucky to be at the zoo. Our supply of food we brought was diminished, but Papa went out to scavenge for more. We were trying our best to keep kosher in this difficult situation. I wished he didn’t leave. It was scary out there with all those German soldiers. I worried about Papa being safe, but I was proud he was saving Jews.
Mama found ways to keep us busy while we were hiding upstairs. She showed me how to do needlepoint and to crochet. Though I’d never really been interested in these types of arts, they kept my hands busy, and that in itself was a brachah. Bayla was more the crocheting person. When I thought of her, I felt an ache inside. Bayla, I miss you! I wanted to scream. I didn’t want to think too much. During the day the sound of bombing had stopped.
Mrs. Zabinski came upstairs later that day. She was holding what looked like a badger. Her eyes were brimmed with unshed tears. “I went outside. The zoo is in shambles, just like the whole city of Warsaw. Zoo cages are lying broken and destroyed on the ground, and so many of the animals perished. The poor things had no way to escape. The elephant that was born at the zoo lost her parents in the bombings. Jan told me the city is a wreck. Tile roofs are lying on the ground and homes and buildings are destroyed.”
Mama put her arm around her friend to comfort her.
“A German officer is coming to meet with me tonight. He’s a zookeeper in Berlin. He was always jealous of our animals here. I suspect he’ll want to take whatever animals are left. I wish Jan could be here, but he’s busy with his work in the ghetto.”
It was so awful that we were all at the mercy of these German soldiers.
It was understood we had to all stay upstairs and be silent tonight.
I huddled close to Mama and listened to the voices of the German zookeeper and Mrs. Zabinski.
“Herr Hecht, can we offer you some wine.”
“Yes, thank you. It is terrible I see what has happened to your zoo.”
“How can he say that,” I hissed. “It’s your fault. Your wicked country.”
Mama put a finger to her lips. Her eyes burned a warning.
“So, I would like to take the zebras and the other rare mammals to my zoo. It’s strictly on loan, of course.”
“Loan?” Mrs. Zabinski asked. “Then we will be able to retrieve them after the war?”
There was a brief silence. I imagined the man swirling his drink, his evil, beady eyes plotting his next move.
“Of course. Of course.”
Liar, I wanted to scream.
Mrs. Zabinski sighed. “Very well.”
“Always a pleasure,” Mr. Hecht fawned. “You have the best zoo in these parts. Such exotic animals. They will be in good hands with us.”
I imagined Mrs. Zabinski trying to smile while inside her heart was breaking.
After the man left, Mrs. Zabinski played a Bach Invention, the signal it was safe for us to come downstairs. I felt exposed in the living room with all the glass doors, but she’d put up blackout paper since the bombing, and Mama said it was safe. I brought my flute and, just as she’d promised, Mrs. Zabinski accompanied me from her baby grand piano as I played. At first, the sound of my flute was garbled, and my fingers trembled, but gradually the melody calmed me, and I found my place, as my flute teacher used to explain that place where the music flowed from your heart to your fingers.
The grandfather clock in the corner ticked loudly and I saw it was already 10 p.m. Papa had been gone all day. “Mama, when will Papa return?”
Mama exchanged glances with Mrs. Zabinski. “Papa is helping Mr. Zabinski tonight. Don’t worry. With Hashem’s help, he will be back very late. It is really time you go to sleep.”
I missed Fraidy and Bubby and Zeidy. I wrote in my gratitude journal that I was grateful for the Zabinskis’ kindness, but I missed the rest of my family and I missed Bayla so much. I wondered if she knew what had happened in Poland. I wondered what she was thinking.
To be continued…
Susie Garber is the author of Denver Dreams, a novel (Jerusalem Publications, 2009), Memorable Characters…Magnificent Stories (Scholastic, 2002), Befriend (Menucha Publishers, 2013), The Road Less Traveled (Feldheim, 2015), fiction serials and features in various magazines including A Bridge in Time, historical fiction serial (Binyan Magazine, 2017). She writes the community column for The Queens Jewish Link and she writes freelance for Hamodia. She works as a writing consultant in many yeshivahs and she teaches creative writing to students of all ages.