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A Mother Who Survived World War II Returns to Poland

Vacation Memories

May 08, 1988|MICHAEL BIRNBAUM | Birnbaum is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. and

Can we ever recapture the past?

Probably not, but last summer I got the chance to at least take a glimpse into my mother's past--as a young woman in World War II Poland--with my mother as my guide.

In the process, the image of her cozy, domestic life as housewife and homemaker faded, and the image of another life emerged--of furtive black-market trading and frantic midnight truck rides with lives hanging on the outcome; a life as a "criminal" and a slave, spent scratching for bare survival every day for six years amid the chaos of the war.

I've always been aware of this other side of my mother's life, but being there--physically, where it all took place--pounds the message home in a way mere memorabilia or memory never could.

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This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

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Krakow, her hometown, is a perfect city to come from if you want to return one day in search of the past. Neither World War II nor urban renewal has touched this picturesque, medieval gem along the Wisla River. To the hordes of tourists besieging the city, this means a feast of architecture, art and history. For my mother it means that her ghosts and memories can still be visited at their familiar addresses.

While we joined the crowds parading around the Rynek Glowny, the ancient, massive market square ringed with Renaissance townhouses, we were soon drawn to a nondescript neighborhood of residential apartments about a mile away.

No. 95 Starowislna, third floor, corner apartment. It had been 45 years since my mother last saw this building. She looked up and stared. This was where she grew up, secure in the safety net of family, friends, school, community. Here she began her long chess game with death.

German Invasion

September, 1939. The lightninglike German invasion separates Sala Unger from her family, who have been visiting relatives in the unoccupied Eastern zone of Poland.

My mother must make the most difficult decision of her life. She senses her future as a Jew under the Germans. But her family members are now refugees without support; only she has a job--bookkeeper at a textile store--that can provide the money, contacts and information necessary to save them.

Instead of fleeing to safety, she remains at home for the moment, alone in the storm. My mother has always measured family above everything. Here, in her home at No. 95 Starowislna, she would never see her family together again.

Wawel Castle, massive and haughty, looms over Krakow's old city. Along with thousands of visiting Poles, we marveled at the gracefully arcaded Renaissance courtyards and the magnificent tapestries and sheer bulk of the fortifications, which proclaim its history as the seat of Polish kings for 500 years.

We continued south from the Wawel's base for about two minutes, until we reached a storefront in the middle of Krakow's bustling business district.

No. 10 Stradom now hawks small household appliances; at another time it was Dresner Textiles, where my mother worked. Either way, it seemed an improbable place for my mother to begin her "criminal" career.

Constant Danger

By 1940, my mother's family had fallen under German jurisdiction. They were hiding in small country towns, in constant danger of being rounded up and shipped to prison camps. Only money could save them--money for bribes, information and transportation to a safer place--when a roundup threatened.

And so my mother used her base at No. 10 Stradom to become a black marketeer. German troops had been issued scrip to use in purchasing store goods. The scrip sheets they presented were often unsigned, and therefore reusable.

My mother often stole the scrip and sold it to Polish contacts--a crime punishable by death under Nazi law. But this money bought her the information she needed about future German roundups--and the power to act on it.

The roads out of Krakow open up onto a countryside of placid, timeless beauty--an alternating pattern of rolling hills, deep woods and checkerboard farmland stretching to the horizon.

For my mother, though, the fear and sadness echoing along these roads is as real as the haystacks that line them. Here she traveled at night--without her Jewish armband, posing as an Aryan, with a truck and a driver bribed with black market money--to remove her family from towns that she knew were threatened with evacuation.

Car Breaks Down

At one point in the road we stopped. Here, in the middle of just such a mission 40 years ago, my mother's car broke down in the dead of a wintry night. Working frantically with her driver, they muscled the car off the road to avoid German patrols.

My mother wandered on the spot, awash in memory; I tried to picture her at 20, straining against a car's fender in the black, icy night.

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