During the Second World War Janina David was smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto, hidden in a convent and raised by Catholic nuns. Recently, Janina was delighted to have succeeded in getting the nuns recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. To commemorate this achievement, and to remind ourselves of the trauma of war and exile, we revisited this moving description of Janina’s return, alone, to her native town in Poland back in the early 1960s. Both of Janina’s parents were killed by the Nazis in the extermination camps.
A Wartime Childhood
from Ghetto to Convent
by Janina David
Point of arrival
Last year I went back to Poland to revisit the town where I was born and from which I ran away seventeen years ago.
I fled from my memories as far as I could go and finally settled in Australia, vowing never to see Europe again. But after ten years the wounds healed and I returned to England. And last year, following a blind impulse, I went back to my old town.
It has not changed. Only the inhabitants are new. As I wandered through the crowded streets I thought that no one now would recognize my name or my face. In the town where once every child knew our house I could not, on that first day, find a room for one night. I passed a flower shop whose owners once lived in our house and I entered, curious to know how they would react. As I stood searching for words the old woman at the counter suddenly burst into tears and threw her arms around me. Behind her the husband stood rooted to the spot, repeating over and over: ‘I was with your daddy in the same platoon, back in 1920 . . . I was with your daddy . . . ’
In this town where a telephone is still a rarity the news of my return spread like fire. I was asked to come to a café to meet an old friend and when I entered a crowd rose from the marble-topped tables and advanced with outstretched arms. I spent the next few hours sipping the bitter black coffee and nibbling at cream cakes, listening to all those middle-aged men and women who once knew my parents, went to school with them, worked with Father, or took their afternoon tea in this very same café with Mother. And they remembered me as a child.
When all my future meals and nights were finally divided among those present I escaped to the park. Here I had played every day till 1939 as my parents had played before me. Here I was born, in the little clinic hidden among the trees. Here a child spat in my face and called me a Jew. Here I went to the theatre for the first time. And here was the Conservatory, where in 1945 I briefly tried to continue my musical education. From this bridge Father once jumped fully clothed into the river to rescue a drowning boy. Here I played truant from school while I waited for my parents to return . . .
The swan pond was empty and overgrown with lilies. The Russians shot all the birds in 1945 and they were never replaced. The glass roofs in the orangery were broken but the old trees were still there and a peacock spread its tail at my approach. I put my arms round a silver birch and knew that I had been right to return.
In the centre of the market-place the Town Hall raises a thin spire which can be seen from almost every part of the town. During my years of exile a recurrent nightmare plagued me, night after night: I was back in my town, trying to reach the central square. I saw the Town Hall spire but whenever I tried to find my way towards it, walls rose from the ground, blocking my passage. Night after night I wandered, exhausted and frightened, with the spire beckoning and always out of reach. When I asked for directions I was met with hostile stares and incomprehensible replies. I could not understand their language. Now I found my way without difficulty and walked around the Town Hall trailing my hand on its walls.
Finally I went to our house. It was occupied by strangers. In 1945 I stood before the door willing myself to ring the bell and finally ran when my courage failed me. Now I walked upstairs and rang the bell. A woman admitted me with a smile. I sat among strange furniture staring at the floor – the same floor surely – while the past rushed back and I knew why I had to come.
I walked around the flat searching for remembered things. I flattened my nose against the nursery window and was greeted by the same view which used to meet me every morning of my childhood. When the woman left the room I kissed the wine-red porcelain stove which had been there all my life. I touched the door frame, thanked the woman, and went out.
As I walked through the darkening streets, my high heels slipping on the cobblestones I knew that I had come home. There was no need to run any more. In the years of exile I was the only one to remember this town, my parents, and my family. Slowly, as the years passed, the image became blurred and I wondered how much of all this I had imagined and how much was true. I began to lose my identity and the rootlessness of my existence almost convinced me that my life had begun suddenly at the age of eighteen, in Melbourne.
But I came back to find that my memory had served me well. That there were still people who knew my family and could confirm their existence and my own. I found my house, my friends, and my town, which after all these years of foreign travel is still mine. I even found the way to the Town Hall and the people in the streets spoke the same language as I. The nightmare had ended.
© Janina David, First printed in The Guardian, 26 November 1963