Recap: Nazis came and killed many of the zoo animals. The Zabinskis had to think fast how to keep the zoo going, and they requested it become a pig farm to provide meat for the Nazis. Rys gets a baby pig as a pet. Mimi follows Rys downstairs to help him feed his new pet, and this proves to be a big mistake.
We stepped into the kitchen and I froze in my tracks. The cook looked up at me with surprise. I hadn’t realized she would be in the kitchen. I wanted to run away, but Mrs. Zabinski threw me a penetrating look and said, “Oh, Zelda, come help me shell these beans.” She spoke matter-of-factly to the cook. “This is my niece. She came late last night by train from Austria.”
The cook turned away and continued slicing vegetables.
I thought I would faint. My heart was pounding so hard.
I shelled the beans and then I excused myself. When I got upstairs, I told Mama what happened. She was trembling when I told her. “Oh, Mimi, anyone can tell on us and the––”
She didn’t have to finish the sentence. I knew. In Poland now it was illegal to house or help Jews. Anyone would be shot if caught doing this.
“I’m so scared. I shouldn’t have followed Rys downstairs. What if she tells someone?”
Mama knew I meant the cook, and the “someone” was any Nazi authority. “Daven; ask Hashem to protect us.”
Mrs. Zabinski came upstairs a while later. “It’s all right,” she said to me. “Don’t worry.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize.”
“I let the cook go. I will hire someone I know I can trust. It’s fine. Don’t worry.”
The next few days, I followed Rys around the villa with his pet pig, but only when we knew the coast was totally clear. I still felt my stomach clench every time I heard any noise outside the zoo gate. We taught Morys to retrieve things. He liked to roll over and have its belly scratched. Rys would run away from his piglet and it ran after him. They were so cute together. I told Rys we should teach Morys to dance to the flute.
That night, I played a country dance and Rys moved Morys’ feet. We did it over and over and then I said, “Let’s see if he’ll do it on his own. I played the first measure and, amazingly, Morys moved his little feet back and forth.
“That’s a talented little pig,” I said.
Days ran together like colors blending on Mama’s canvas. Time was running on a different plane while we hid.
One day, Papa came home with a treasure. He had a letter from Bayla and Shimon Zev.
“How did you get it?”
“It’s a crazy story,” Papa said. “I was heading back from the ghetto and Jan suggested we stop by my house. He’d heard that people were receiving mail. No one is in our house now. Germans luckily haven’t taken it over yet. Anyway, I walked over to the mailbox and opened it, expecting to see nothing, and there was this letter.” I noticed Papa was holding a second letter underneath it, but he didn’t say anything about that letter.
We all huddled near Papa and he read Bayla’s letter to us. The letter was dated a month ago. Bayla had written the first few paragraphs and Shimon Zev tacked on a short paragraph. They both sounded like they were doing well in France. “Bayla sounds homesick,” I said. Mama sighed. “We hadn’t expected them to be away so long.”
Papa said, “It sounds like she’s really making progress with Sophie, and that’s the main thing right now.”
Mama nodded. “And we know they are both safe there, but how can we write back to let them know we are safe. They must be so worried about us.” Mama said.
“You write the letter and I’ll ask Jan how we can post it. Obviously, it can’t be from anywhere near this house.”
After dinner, Papa told us, “I have a mission with Jan tonight. We’re trying to bring some more Jews out of the ghetto. Jan has invited many people he knows to come in and out of the villa. He says many people are the best camouflage.”
It was incredible that we were right here in the center of all these Nazis in a house totally surrounded by glass but that made it safe. Papa said Jan was betting on their never imagining anyone would harbor Jews right under their noses like that.
I saw Papa place two pistols at the bottom of his knapsack. On top of that he placed the carcass of a rabbit.
“Ew!” I said.
“It’s for our dinner,” Papa laughed.
“No, it’s not.”
“It’s not, but if anyone checks, that’s the story.”
Mama shook her head. “Yosef, this is dangerous. I wish you weren’t doing it.”
“Pikuach nefesh – it’s a mitzvah of the highest order. I am honored to be part of it with Jan.”
Mama sighed. I watched Papa disappear downstairs and heard him leave with Mr. Zabinski out the front door.
Just then, Rys asked me for help with some arithmetic problems. He was still going to school and had homework to do. I thought of all the Jewish children who were now excluded from school. Mama was teaching the children here in the hideout. She had a strict schedule of spelling, arithmetic, and geography.
I didn’t hear the raised voices at first. Mama stepped towards the glass terrace. She hid behind the curtain and peered outside. I followed her.
A loud German voice barked. “Hands up! Show me what is in that knapsack.”
I glanced at Mama. My whole body shook. The Nazi was talking to Papa.
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.