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A Reader in the Ghetto

Teaching I.L. Peretz’s story ‘Miracles on the Sea’ to children who are sentenced to die

Chava Rosenfarb
April 03, 2019
Esther Werdiger/Tablet Magazine
Esther Werdiger/Tablet Magazine
Esther Werdiger/Tablet Magazine
Esther Werdiger/Tablet Magazine

Springtime, when I see the carefree children of Montreal chasing each other in the parks, kicking balls in the alleys, or speeding by me on their bicycles; when their boisterous shouts and laughter rise from the yards and street corners to echo against the walls of my workroom, I am reminded of the children of the Lodz ghetto. Most often, my memory picks out the beautiful face of one dark-haired boy with large, coal-black eyes. Once, long ago, the radiance of those eyes, filled as they were with the infinite longing for spring, illuminated the oppressive gray of a classroom located in the attic of a factory building in the Lodz ghetto. The face was that of my favorite pupil, Shloymele.

I liked to talk to Shloymele’s eyes; they seemed so eager to swallow every word I spoke. If, as sometimes happened, Shloymele was absent from class, I had the impression that there was not enough light in the room. On such a day the suffocating grayness of my surroundings penetrated my bones, and the words I spoke to the children fell mechanically from my lips, lifeless and without wings. I was always especially apprehensive if Shloymele failed to appear after a night of raids, when people were herded together for deportation to one or another of the extermination camps that dotted the maps of Poland and Germany. At such times, anguish would grip my heart.

During that long night of terror called the Second World War, the Jewish ghetto children were the most helpless of all the Nazi victims. The fact of their Jewishness, added to the fact that they were so young, sealed their fate. Whereas an adult could occasionally, by some stroke of luck, save his own life, no such good fortune ever befell the Jewish child. Even the child’s parents, whose duty it was—like the parents of other species—to protect their young, were protectors no longer, eager though they may have been to do all in their power to defend and save their young.

The Nazi judgment of doom hung over the heads of all the children in the ghetto. Fear was their constant companion. It gnawed away at their young hearts as they slept, and pursued them when they woke. It ate at them as they chewed on their dry crusts of bread or sipped their rations of watery soup. No secrets were kept from the children of the ghetto. They knew the truth, understood their situation, and yet clung fiercely to life. Like small animals aware of the hunter’s pursuit, they huddled in the corners of buildings or inched their way stealthily along the walls of the ghetto, doing their best to appear invisible.

At the very beginning of our incarceration in the ghetto there had existed schools for the children. But these were abolished with the arrival of Jews from the provinces and from other countries. These newcomers, whom the Nazis deposited in the Lodz ghetto to await future deportations to the various concentration camps were lodged in the school buildings. In 1942 the Lodz ghetto was designated a forced-labor camp and in such a camp there was, of course, no room for children. It no longer mattered much anyway—the majority of the children had already perished by then, while the annihilation of those who remained was completed during the Sperre of August 1942.

The Sperre, short for gehsperre, meaning “curfew” in German, consisted of eight days of house arrest, during which the entire ghetto population was ordered to stay indoors. Every day, from early in the morning until late in the afternoon, cohorts of SS men marched into the courtyards of the buildings, one building after another, roused the inhabitants and ordered them to line up in the center of the yards, so that a thorough selection could take place. Those selected for deportation were mostly the sick, the weak, the old, and the children.

Every morning of the Sperre, frantic mothers dressed their little Moisheles and Yacovs, their little Miriams and Sarahs in their finest clothes. They combed the little boys’ hair and wove colorful ribbons into the little girls’ braids in the futile hope that the sight of such “mothers’ treasures” would soften the hearts of the fathers of German children. After the selection, the young ones, earmarked for death, were placed on trucks. There they were neatly arranged in rows, one child next to the other, row upon row, and carted off in their tens, in their hundreds, in their thousands. When the trucks passed through the streets of the ghetto on their way to the train station they looked like wagonloads full of colorful bouquets of freshly cut flowers.

Despite the Germans’ vaunted thoroughness, a small number of children did succeed in temporarily eluding their Nazi pursuers by concealing themselves in ingenious hiding places. Officially, these children ceased to exist. They were provided with forged identity cards by those in a position to pull strings. On these new cards their ages were altered to make them appear older. Transformed overnight into maturer versions of themselves, they became ressort workers, ressort being the name given to any kind of factory or work place in the ghetto.

These old-before-their time children could be seen in all the ressorts, working at any job assigned to them. Pale, scrawny, hardly more than skin and bone, they operated the simplest as well as the most complicated machinery, and were in no way distinguishable from their adult co-workers except by their size, and their agility and diligence. They displayed a wonderful dexterity, spurred on by an unquenchable zeal to excel. They seemed intent on showing off what they could do, on proving their usefulness, and in this way convincing the world that they deserved to be granted the gift of life. The results of their labor did not differ substantially in quality from that of the adults.

However, the children’s workdays were twice as onerous and nerve-racking as those of the adults, because while they worked, their senses had to be constantly on the alert. Their ears were forever straining to catch the slightest noise coming from outside, while their eyes darted restlessly back and forth, in case a German commission should suddenly appear to conduct an inspection. In such an event the children would vanish into previously prepared hiding places until the danger was past.

Did I call them children? There were no children in the Lodz ghetto. There were only diminutive emaciated Jews, visible here and there as they mingled with the rest of the ghetto population. Dressed in adult clothes, the cuffs of their oversize trousers trailing along the muddy pavements, the sleeves of their voluminous coats dangling over their hands, and the visors of their ill-fitting caps sliding down their foreheads, they went stealthily about their business. Peering out from beneath the shades of the visors, their eyes betrayed fear and anguish as they surveyed their surroundings, checking to see whether danger lurked on the left or the right, in front or behind. The empty canteens attached by a string to the buttons of their threadbare coats tapped out, with an incessant clicking, the sound of their craving for food and for the joys of childhood.

The children possessed a fund of energy whose source was as much a mystery as their survival. After a 10-hour day of toiling in the factories they had to devote themselves to the problem of “making ends meet.” Their cunning and inventiveness in supplying themselves with the necessities of life put many adults to shame. They were more adept than the adults at sneaking boards for firewood out of the factories. They were better at stealing spools of thread and worming their way to the head of the line at a food distribution center. No adult could surpass them in agility and speed when it came to snatching up a turnip or a few potatoes that had tumbled off a passing wagon on its way to the distribution points.

Most of these children risked their lives to help their families—that is, if they still had families. Often they themselves were the heads of households, their parents being ill or deported. The children were the only support of these dwindling homes, or they were the sole survivors. And then, after such a long day of labor and fear, many of them still had enough energy left over to take part in all sorts of clandestine organizations. Sneaking through the backyards and alleys, they would hurry with their comrades to after-curfew meetings and discussion groups.

For these working children of the ghetto, illegal schools were organized in the buildings of the ressorts where they were employed. I worked as a teacher in one such school at the Metal-Works Ressort No. 2. My subject was Yiddish and Yiddish literature. The classroom was located in the loft of the building and was furnished with a few tables, benches, and a blackboard. The loft, though drafty and bitterly cold during the winter, was nevertheless spacious and bright. Beyond and below the small windows lay the ghetto, and beyond the ghetto, the city of Lodz could be seen spread out as in a bas-relief. From that perch it was also easy to see German military vehicles stopping in front of the factory to unload the members of an army commission on their way to conduct an inspection. In such an event, we all made ourselves scarce, sneaking down the back stairs of the ressort and into the street.

My students were 11- to 12-year-old boys, since only men were employed at the Metal-Works ressort. Some of the boys barely looked their age, while others resembled withered old people. They climbed the stairs to the loft directly from their work stations, their faces and hands smeared black with machine oil and dirt. Disciplined and solemn, adult expressions imprinted on their faces, they slid into their seats on the long benches. There was not a trace in their conduct or demeanor of the playfulness or mischief characteristic of 11- or 12-year-old boys. Learning was serious business in the ghetto. With passionate greed they devoured the meager crumbs of knowledge that the teachers managed to put before them during the limited hours allotted for the lessons.

Shloymele, my favorite student, lived all alone in the ghetto. The rest of his family had been caught during a raid. On the morning of the raid he had left home to fetch the family’s turnip ration at the vegetable distribution place. While he was gone, his parents and siblings had been loaded onto trucks and transported to the train station. But Shloymele’s life had been temporarily spared.

I liked Shloymele very much. Whenever I entered the classroom and was greeted by the light from his flashing black eyes—eyes full of curiosity and expectation—I would begin my lesson with renewed zest. He charmed me with his comeliness, with the finesse of his manners, at the same time as the radiance of his face made my heart ache with pain. The light in his eyes spoke so clearly of his longing for both knowledge and laughter. He infected me with his burning hunger for life.

He was as diligent a student as any of the other boys, but more than once I detected the glint of a threat in his burning eyes, a warning to me not to babble. This was because I sometimes liked to entertain my students with silly chatter. Still in my teens, I occasionally indulged my own yearning for escape during the lessons and fantasized aloud about the blissful times awaiting us after the liberation.

Shloymele did not like this sort of talk. He would not tolerate digressions from the subject of the lesson. Whenever I launched into such a monologue, his eyes would turn towards the window, and I knew that I had lost his attention for the rest of the lesson. But there were moments when observing the dreamy expression in Shloymele’s eyes as he peered through the window of the loft, I wondered whether my words had not, in fact, given flight to his imagination. Perhaps his mind was roaming freely in the open sky beyond the window, a sky which seemed so close that it could be touched. Perhaps he sought there an escape from his fears and from the sentence of doom hanging over his head.

I shall never forget one particular class that I taught in the loft of the Metal-Works ressort. I read to the children the story “Miracles on the Sea” by the great Yiddish writer, I.L. Peretz. The story describes the life of a Jewish fisherman by the name of Satia, who lived in a Dutch village, far from any other Jews. The only Jewish holiday that Satia observes is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. One day, on the eve of Yom Kippur, Satia sets out to catch a fish so that his family will have food for after the fast. The other fishermen, Satia’s neighbors, warn him not to venture out on the sea that day because a storm is gathering on the horizon. But Satia smiles trustingly, “There is a good Lord in the heavens, my friends. He will protect me.”

And so Satia rows out to sea on the eve of Yom Kippur. Sure enough, the storm catches up with him. Satia wrestles mightily with the gale, stubbornly bucking the waves and rowing with all of his strength until it occurs to him that the sacred holiday must have begun. Physical labor is no longer permitted. So Satia drops the oars, saying, “I won’t row on Yom Kippur.” He raises his eyes to the darkness above his head and exclaims, “Do with me as you wish, Almighty God. I won’t row on Yom Kippur.”

As I was reading the story, I felt that the children in the room saw themselves accompanying Satia on his boat, that in their imaginations they sat next to him on the stormy sea, and that Shloymele, my favorite, joined Satia and the others in facing the tempest. The sky seemed to have vanished from outside the small window of the loft. The only things that the children saw before their eyes were the towering waves tossing the helpless Satia from crest to crest, until he sank to his death beneath the cruel sea.

When I finished reading, a heavy silence fell on the room, a silence which I sensed was about to explode. Shloymele jumped to his feet. Pounding his small fist against the table top, he angrily exclaimed, “I would never give up like that! I would never let the oars fall from my hands! Never!” And he sat down as abruptly as he had stood up.

The other boys did not react. Their silence compressed the air between the walls of the loft, as if it contained a pent-up scream. Dark-red blotches, like points of flame, broke out on the grimy childish faces. It was clear to me, that each child saw himself alone with his life on the stormy sea. Each of them became Satia. And again it was Shloymele who broke the silence. Once more, he jumped to his feet and began to formulate his own strategic plans for how the ghetto should resist the Germans. The other children perked up, and inspired by Shloymele’s vision of the struggle, began contributing ideas of their own. At first shyly and hesitantly, then with increasing enthusiasm, they chattered away, giving their imaginations free rein. Finally, they reached the height of their fantasies, imagining an all-out Jewish war against the Germans, dreaming of simultaneous uprisings in all the ghettos and concentration camps of Poland and Europe.

The book containing I.L. Peretz’s “Miracles on the Sea” lay open before me, as if it were the great writer’s listening ear. It was as if in this loft in the Lodz ghetto a dialogue was taking place between Peretz, the literary master, who had written of the spiritual continuation of the Jewish people in his play The Golden Chain, and the generation to whom it was not given to become a link in that chain.

The number of children in my class in the loft of the Metal-Works Ressort No. 2 dwindled from week to week. Fewer and fewer boys showed up for my lessons. Some were kept from their work and from my classes by hunger, or tuberculosis, or dysentery, or typhoid fever. Others had been caught and deported to the crematoria. Of the 60 boys I had taught at the beginning, only 10 remained in August 1944 when the school and the ghetto were liquidated. After that we were all sent to Auschwitz.

Shloymele attended my class to the last. During all that time he and I did not grow closer by so much as a hairsbreadth. I knew that he took pleasure in my friendliness, in the affection I showed him—and that he feared it at the same time. He avoided me when he saw me in the street. I understood him. He did not want to attach himself to anybody, so as not to suffer any more losses.

I never encountered a single one of my students after the liberation. Springtime, when I am most inclined to think of them, their faces all assume the features of my beloved Shloymele. Again I see before me his beautiful, coal-black eyes that had expressed such eagerness for knowledge, for joy, and for laughter. I know that he did not for one moment let the oars fall from his hands. But the cruel black sea was stronger than he was. It prevented him from reaching the shores of freedom and the summer of his life.

Translated from the Yiddish by Goldie Morgentaler. Reprinted from Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays, by Chava Rosenfarb, edited by Goldie Morgentaler, available this June. Copyright © 2019 McGill-Queen’s University Press. All rights reserved.

Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011) is the author of the novels The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto, Bociany, and Of Lodz and Love, and the short story collection Survivors. She was a frequent contributor to the Yiddish literary journal Di goldene keyt.