- My War Zone
When I was growing up war always hovered somewhere in the background. I was born after the Second World War ended, but for a long time, at least until the early ’60s, its presence was still palpable. We lived in an apartment building that had survived the fighting, though the one next to it hadn’t, and some ruins still remained. All over town there was rubble. When I was very little, I still heard warnings of kids finding unexploded bombs and being blown up. Soon most of the ruined buildings were bulldozed, but their underground cellars filled with bricks and debris were perfect places to play. The braver and older among us would explore them and tell hair-raising tales about skeletons and ghosts in Nazi uniforms. [End Page 52]
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My friends and I used the bricks to build homes for our dolls, but when all the children on our street, boys and girls, got together, we played war. The older children assigned the younger ones the role of civilians who were supposed to elude capture. No one wanted to be a German, so we drew lots. Once you were caught, the Germans pushed you and poked you with their stick machine guns, pinned your arms behind you, yelled “Heil Hitler” and threatened you with death. The make-believe was fun for older kids but scary for the little ones, who would often end up crying. Even though I soon claimed membership in the older group, my heart raced and my hands felt clammy because of how real our games were to me.
Our family members still talked about the war as if it had happened yesterday, and like many children of my generation, I developed a taste for war stories. Once I heard a story, I wanted to hear it again, since each time new details emerged and repetition made it even more real. I had my favorites among them. I’d often ask my grandmother to tell me how she went to the country to buy food and then smuggled it into Warsaw. I loved the part about her wrapping sausage around her waist and placing a slab of bacon above it. The train reeked of smoked meat, tobacco and moonshine, which the passengers drank to keep warm in winter and bribed the German police with. There was danger in it, but overall the story had a happy ending: Grandmother arrived home with her booty.
Some other stories she told me were scary. One of them was about the time she was stopped on the street in a roundup with many other people. She was coming back from a friend’s place when suddenly at both ends of the street Germans on motorcycles appeared and cut off the exits, screaming, “Hände hoch!” Trucks drove up, and the captives started to be loaded into them. My grandmother knew what would happen: some time later her family would hear of the executions. “So how did you escape?” I asked. There was this older German man, she told me, and he took pity on her when she begged him to let her go back to her children, who were alone at home. He grabbed her arm and pushed her toward the door of the building they stood in front of. She opened it and ran to the end of a long hallway. A woman, maybe a janitor’s wife, let her into her own apartment, where Grandmother sat shaking until it was again safe to go out on the street.
Mother had her stories too. The war years in Warsaw, hiding in the building’s basement during the German air raids in September 1939 and then during the Warsaw Uprising, had left a deep imprint on her psyche. She’d witnessed atrocities, knew of the Gestapo arrests of family [End Page 54] friends and neighbors, heard of street executions. I learned from her how terrifying and chancy life had been under the German occupation. Each time you left home, you risked your life, but you...