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Moses and his friends had to decide wether they would enter the Warsaw ghetto, which they already knew to be doomed, or retreat into the forest, where they could calculate some chance of surviving. The group split up. Many made their way through the underground tunnels towards the ghetto, probably to their deaths. The remainder, including Moses, opted for the woods. There they hoped to make contact with Polish and Russian partisans.
After days of continuous walking they saw some flames reflected in the sky, and the next day they spotted a hunter in the distance.
‘Find out who he is,’ urged his companions.
Moses took his unloaded pistol and ordered the elderly man to stop.
‘Are you a German?’ Moses inquired.
‘No I’m Polish,’ he replied trembling.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I work in the forest.’ ‘Is Warsaw far from here?’ asked Moses lowering his voice, and the pistol.
‘One hundred and sixty kilometres away.’
Moses questioned the man about the Warsaw Ghetto.
‘The last Jews in Warsaw were killed one month ago in this wood and it is all over in the Ghetto,’ he replied. ‘There’s not a single Jew left in Warsaw and there is a huge square as big as a city and full of ruins where the Ghetto once stood. But the Germans suffered tremendous casualties.’
‘Can you tell me where we can find a group of partisans?’ asked Moses, almost as a formality, for he had long given up hope of finding one. To his surprise, the Polish hunter answered affirmatively.
‘I can tell you. They are close. Go straight ahead for two hundred meters. You will see a small wood of young pine trees, where you will only need give one long whistle followed by two short whistles for attention. It is a large group and I’d say you will be well treated.’
Without inquiring as to the type of partisans, or who they were fighting for, the group quickly made their way as directed. Within minutes the whistle signal had been given. A tall young man appeared . His face was hard-looking, like that of a seasoned bandit.
‘Hello, hello. What do you want?’ he asked.
Idek, the oldest in the group and keen to be leader, stepped forward to answer.
‘We are six men who want to fight for justice and freedom,’ he replied.
The man was momentarily astonished, and then broke into laughter.
‘Have you fought for justice and freedom before?’ he inquired jokingly.
‘Yes against the Nazis.’
‘Well wasn’t that enough?’
‘We won’t be satisfied while fascism still lives!’
‘Then, my friends,’ began the partisan, I must tell you that you are not real fighters. Real partisans fight for pockets like us. We are neither idealistic nor patriotic. How could we fight for justice if it never existed, or for peace if the whole world is covered in blood. Patriotism! Idealism! They are only dreams. Only brigandage and death exist. They are the only two laws in our code. Without death the planet would be swarming with creatures, and without brigandage, life would be boring and without meaning.’
The partisan’s words were delivered as if addressing a political rally and the crescendo had reached its peak. Moses could not help feeling that this man was no more than a common bandit; that his doubts about ever meeting up with true partisans were gaining credibility by the day. The speaker paused before recommencing in his original tone, this time whilst visibly ‘playing’ with his pistol.
‘This is the situation: you want to fight for justice and freedom, so you will stay here and be our servants, we need some!
Two other members of his group approached and were introduced by the spokesman.
‘These are the leaders of our group, Jen Wacek and Michal Tadek. The others are followers and they don’t count. You will have plenty of food to put some meat on your bones, and you will live well with us.’
Silent after realising what strange partisans these people were, Moses and his group allowed themselves to be escorted to their tents. It would have been pointless to resist. As they walked across the camp, they noticed a group of beautiful women with the bandits. Moses realised that these women were not free to move about and surmised that like him, they were prisoners.
The whole day passed with no opportunity to escape from this disastrous situation. The following morning two of the bandits arrived on motorcycles, each carrying a German soldier on the back.
‘We have some gold,’ they were telling the Germans as they entered the leader’s tent.
An hour later the partisan who had first spoken to the Jewish fugitives came to Moses’ tent and said:
‘You want to fight for justice and freedom. Now you have an opportunity to demonstrate your worth. You must kill and bury the Germans we have captured.’
Moses and his group were in no position to refuse.
Some days later a Jewish man was brought to the camp. He was extremely thin, filthy, and dressed in rags. Convinced that he was hiding treasures, the bandits started whipping him. Urging him to talk. The poor wretch only had one possession, his life. He denied any knowledge and shouted that he had nothing to hide.
When the leader of the bandits was convinced that he was not going to get anything of value from the man, he turned to Moses and sharply said:
‘Kill him and bury him.’
‘There is no way I am going to do that!’ Moses protested violently.
‘Why ever not?’
‘Because this man has already spent years suffering; he has fought against the Nazis as I have, and he is almost dead anyhow. Let him stay with us, you’ll find him useful.’
The bandits threw a grim stare in Moses’ direction, but didn’t insist that he kill the man. Moses breathed a sigh of relief for he had saved the mans life. He took the man to his tent to recover.
That night Moses was unable to sleep; he was still very much upset by the days events. The group of women captives were staying in the tent adjacent his and through the night he head them talking. To his astonishment he realised that they were speaking Hebrew. This was not uncommon amongst the Jews since most Europeans could recognise Yiddish but not the ancient language of Jewish prayer. The girls were definitely Jewish. Moses’ heart jumped a beat. Finding an opportunity to speak with the girls proved more difficult than Moses had first anticipated. The opportunity finally arose when the bandits left camp with most of his companions and left him behind. As the youngest member of the group, the bandits had not considered Moses to be a threat. As his captors departed, Moses entered the girl’s tent. In front of him were five young girls. One was lying on a couch, completely naked before reaching for something to cover herself, and the others were barely dressed. His visit did not surprise them; they hardly reacted to his presence.
Their story was a simple one. The previous year they had fled Warsaw in a car that was supposed to take them to a nearby city. They were travelling along a road at the edge of the forest when accosted by a group of bandits. The driver tried to accelerate through the roadblock but the bandits fired a machine gun at the tyres of the car, and sent it hurtling into a tree. The driver was shot on the spot and the girls were brought back to this tent, stripped of their clothes, and made slaves to the desires of the men.
‘Girls,’ Moses began, ‘a few nights ago I heard you speaking Hebrew. Don’t try to deny it and don’t worry, because I am Jewish too.’
Mela, the girl who had told their story, embraced Moses and burst into tears. They talked for some hours, dreamily spoking of freedom.
A week later Moses was awoken by the sound of heavy gunfire in the forest. The bandits and the Jewish group feared that a German round-up was taking place. The bandits together with their booty and without concern for their servants, quickly dispersed. Suddenly the Jewish fugitives and the girls found themselves free of the bandits, but surrounded by Germans.
After finding some clothes for the girls, who were almost to terrified to move, the group escaped through the woods. The shooting was becoming more intense and since it was getting closer to them, they decided to hide by climbing trees.
Finally Smil, who had been an avid hunter before the war interrupted. ‘My dear boys and girls, the guns you can hear are not weapons, but hunting rifles. Obviously the Germans are having a bit of fun!’
This was indeed the case, as soon as the sounds receded into the distance. They had been extremely lucky. They continued their march. Some hours later, while climbing a small tree-covered hill, they heard someone in the distance shouting , ‘Stop! Stop!’. Despite realising that the call was not directed towards them, they quickly took cover behind the trees. Sure that he was hidden, Moses extended his head to see what was happening. Below him, two German soldiers armed with machine-guns had surprised a group of fifteen bandits. In the fierce shoot-out that ensued, one German was killed while all of the bandits, armed only with pistols, were mowed down. The battle over, the German took out a whistle and blew it loudly. Some minutes later a huge German patrol arrived at the scene leading a large group of bandits. The Germans spoke at some length, occasionally pausing to glance sadly at their dead compatriot. A group of German soldiers then lined up about ten meters from the captured bandits and opened fire. In a few seconds all of the criminals were dead.
When the Germans had left, Moses and his group resumed their march. They felt happy; they had plenty of food and the forest was full of wild fruits and, as well as eggs. They would not die from starvation on this journey.
The following morning, whilst Moses was wondering through the forest in search of mushrooms, he noticed some footprints softened by the dew. Curios, he followed them and arrived at a thicket, where he saw another man who was also picking mushrooms. The man was leaning over and had his back to Moses.
‘Hello,’ Moses said, upon which the man, terrified, rose suddenly, jumping around to face Moses. He was holding a long knife menacingly.
‘Who are you?’ he asked Moses.
‘Your asking me? I am a partisan like you!’
‘What sort of Partisan?’
‘What do you mean: ‘What sort of Partisan’?’
‘Come on, what nationality are you?’
‘What a question, I am Polish.’
He had a crazed look in his eye.
‘Oh so you are a Polish partisan. Maybe you’re one of those who killed my wife, my daughter, my brothers in the ghetto at Osrtrawic!’
He moved slowly towards Moses, the knife drawn.
‘Don’t do anything ridiculous! I’m Jewish too!’ cried Moses.
The stranger immediately slowed.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Moshe Hoffman. And you?’
Moses took Motek back to his group and after brief introductions, Motek escorted his new friends to his underground shelter. It was very well constructed and ventilated and the entrance was practically invisible.
‘I am an engineer,’ explained their host. ‘Just yesterday the Germans passed over my head for hours while they were hunting and they didn’t suspect a thing.’
Motek was visibly proud of his work and while he was talking, he was doing his utmost to find comfortable objects upon which his guests could sit.
‘Tell me,’ he continued, what day and month is it? And what is news?’
‘Are you telling us, Moses interjected, ‘that you don’t even know what month it is?’
‘No, I don’t know at all. I have been in the forest for so many months. But I will tell you of that tomorrow. Sleep now.’
He was the first to lie down to sleep.
In spite of his fatigue Moses could not fall into slumber. He was lying next to old Motek and he felt the earth shake, as if struck by an earthquake.
It was an air raid. Perhaps the Germans had discovered a group of partisans and were blowing them out of the forest. Only Motek awoke; Moses felt his body move.
‘Motek, are you awake?’
‘Yes. Is that you Moshe?’
‘Why aren’t you asleep?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Do you dream every night too?’
‘And what do you dream?’
‘Of my dead.’
there was a moment silence.
‘How is the war going?’
‘The Russians are advancing from the Caucasus.’
‘Then it will soon be over?’
‘And you will be free.’
‘Don’t you mean ‘we’ll be free’?’
‘No, only you. I am too old and ill and my heart won’t hold out. I have already had attacks, and one day I will fall asleep and not wake up. Perhaps I will die dreaming. Each night I dream that long lines of skeletons are approaching me, and when they are beside me they all stare at me with their empty eye-sockets. They stretch their bony hands towards me and it feels like they are beckoning.
And I dream about so many children, all the children I have seen in my life, even those I thought I had forgotten. They surround me and stare wide-eyed, silently asking why they are young and dead while I am old, yet still have life. They call me to them, and I answer, ‘I’m coming, I’m coming’. But God doesn’t want me yet; he is not ready. In the meantime, I have seen three generations of my family disappear around me, and am forced to live with the birds.’
Motek stopped talking, and his breathing became heavy and laboured. ‘What is the matter Motek?’ Moses murmured.
Motek didn’t respond and his breathing became a wheezing which continued for some time before fading away.
‘Motek are you better?’
Moses could hear no reply, and the old man’s body relaxed next to his. The old man had died and Moses, who was momentarily frozen with shock, fiercely jerked the body away, and fled in terror.
A few hours later Motek’s body found its resting place in front of his shelter, while Moses and his friends recited their prayers in a whisper.
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