Shadows of Survival
A Child's Memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto
Kristine Keese
(Academic Studies Press)
I was a bedwetter - - - one of those who just couldn't stop those things that came in the night, no matter how hard I tried. It was a great joke in the family: I was labelled Admiral Wetbottom, much to everybody's amusement. Well, almost everybody's.

As the years rolled on, it got to be a matter of me waking up at four a.m. and feeling the cold wet sheets and creeping out of bed, changing my pajamas, turning over the mattress, trying to use hairdryers or irons to get rid of the wet. My mother figured it out, but never said a thing. At least she didn't snigger like the rest of them.

In those days, there were no support groups - - - Bedwetters United! - - - so most of us were going it alone. But what a flood of memories it brought back, as I was reading Keese's autobiography, to find her twelve-year-old self at a point where

    sometimes I wet my bed, which meant having to go through complicated maneuvers to try to dry the sheet and switch around the mattress so that it would not be discovered in the morning.

It was the cold winter in Poland at the end of WWII, before the liberation, and she was a twelve-year old, hidden by her mother in a Catholic home on the outskirts of Warsaw. It's a homely, honest & true picture that brings Shadows of Silence to life, separates it from the many other desperate tales of bare survival in countries under martial law in WWII.

And this one ends with the author's wistful turn in the final scene (take lemon, make lemonade department): the only bathroom, an outhouse, was well away from convent, and "I often found it difficult to make it in time. Running through the snow and with my hands holding on to the crotch of my pajama pants, trying to hold off the stream of urine, was very unpleasant, but it may have had some benefit."

    That winter most children, in spite of warm gloves and possibly due to malnutrition, suffered from frostbite on their hands. I never got frostbite and read somewhere that an application of urine prevents frostbite.

It is this light touch in the midst of a cruel time in the venomous war-culture of 1940 - 1945 that makes us want to go on reading, just to make sure that this good kid makes it through.

She and her mother were moved into the Warsaw ghetto in November of 1940. Almost her first revelation came when she was roughed up by the new inhabitants' children below their apartment, "a loud, aggressive group of kids of various ages who looked unkempt and unfriendly. These were the children I walked by on the poorest streets of Warsaw. To my horror, I realized they were all Jewish. A fat little girl with kinky dark hair started to punch me . . . I called her a 'dirty Jewish cow.'" Kristine's brother Jasio, working upstairs, came down, grabbed her, and "said I must not talk like that. I had never seen him so angry at me."

    Why not? " I asked. "That's what she is."

    Jasio said, "Because you are Jewish too."

    "Jasio dragged me upstairs and lectured me on how to fit in. I listened, but I knew better. I was not one of those people. I was not like them. I would not share their fate.".

§   §   §

Pacing is the key in such a taut story, and Keese has it down. There are moments when, even though we know she made it through - - - she wrote the book - - - she and her brother Jasio and her mother Genia are trapped, in a back room, in a basement, in their apartment, and we are sure that they are going to be wiped out. Then something happens, at times magic, and they survive yet again.

The most effective touch here is the author setting herself back in the head of an eight-year-old to know how one child deals with the unfathomable:

    The knowledge that deportation meant death must have been universal at that point. I knew it, but it had no name. If you had asked me what I thought happened to my friends, Ella, her sister, and Marek, when they were "taken," I had an image of them falling into a big black hole never to be seen again. I guess that was as accurate as you could get.

There are so many stark images that we are left with here: the bodies on the streets, there after the Uprising, covered with newspapers; a sobbing Russian soldier, forced to leave his first hot meal in weeks because of the need to get back to the war; sneaking through a public building to escape the ghetto - - - and she drops a bar of soap on the marble stairs, knowing it might be heard outside, that they might be hunted down and killed because of it; refusing, after the end of the war, to admit to anyone that she was Jewish, because the very word had been a death-knell for so long.

And, learning for the first time, how to - - - as all children must, even just outside the deadly ghetto of Warsaw - - - first defy adults, to be one's own person. In the nunnery, the sisters found nits in her long and beautiful hair. She is told to either cut it or have her head forcibly cleaned.

"I was sat in a chair outside in the yard as hot gasoline was poured on my head and cleaned my hair. Groups of children gathered around me, calling me names and making fun of my infested hair."

    As I sat there in some pain when the gasoline scalded my scalp . . . I remember the feeling of triumph that I can call up to this day looking at the jeering children around me. "What dummies," I thought. "Don't they realize that I could not care less what they are saying? I have triumphed here, I saved my hair, which is all I care about, and no one can do things to me I don't want done." I realized then that with enough determination one could say "No" to adults and they would have a difficult time overcoming that. This was really different from the feelings of fear and helplessness I had lived with so long.

Earlier on, I used the word "magic." The long and fruitful life that ultimately came to Keese and her family are part of that magic, as was the hold of ancestors long ago laid away in Poland. In 1972, as she is visiting the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw with her daughter and her step-father, she tries to seek out the resting place of her grandmother Balbina. With the hundreds of overturned and desecrated headstones, the mossy weeds, it seems like a lost cause. "Boulders," she reports, "barely visible in the underbrush, on closer inspection were recognizable as broken and overturned gravestones."

But suddenly, as she goes down one trail, the flowers she was holding spill from her hand, fall to her feet.

    "She must really want those flowers," I heard myself saying to my daughter, with a feeling of assurance that the fall was in direct response to my previous comment. I bent down, gathered the flowers, and with a strange certainty made a right turn on the path, reading the gravestone names. The third grave from the edge said Balbina Dywan.

--- Pamela Wylie
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