A Square of Sky

Janina David


A Square of Sky

Janina David


Until she was nine, Janina David led a sheltered life with her prosperous Jewish family in Poland. One year later they were all on the verge of starvation, sharing a small room in the Warsaw ghetto.

When it became clear that none of them were likely to survive, David was smuggled out to live with family friends. When their home became too dangerous, she was sent with false identity papers to a catholic convent, where she lived in constant fear of being discovered.

In this memoir David records the events around her through the eyes of a child, lonely and terrified, yet her determination to survive reads like a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

‘Written without self-pity, this is a book to make you marvel at the human capacity to survive unbroken and unembittered.’ - Sunday Times
‘Like Anne Frank’s Diary, it scavenges hope from the ruins.’ - Nicholas Shakespeare, Sunday Telegraph
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A Square of Sky: A Wartime Childhood: from Ghetto to Convent
ISBN: 978-0907871-73-6
Format: 428pp demi pb
Place: Poland

Author Biography

Janina David was born as the only child to a Jewish Polish family, and moved with them to Warsaw in 1939. After she escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, taking refuge with a German-Polish family and then in a convent, and her parents had died as victims of the holocaust, she left Poland in 1946 and moved to Pariswith an uncle. She then emigrated to Australia where she completed school and studied at the University of Melbourne, gaining a B.A.. She then took Australian citizenship. In 1958, she moved to London, where she was a social worker in some hospitals. In 1959 she began to write her three-volume autobiography, A Square of SkyA Touch of Earth and Light over the Water. Since 1978, she has been working as an author and translator of children's and young people's books, and of radio plays, for the BBC and others.

Extracts from Chapter One

THE SCENT OF ripening apples and pears fills the small room. There is a row of fruit on the windowsill where the sun will put lovely colour on their cheeks. Behind the half-open window the orchard dreams and murmurs, and behind the orchard, watchful and protective, stands the whispering wall of the forest. From every window of the house and from every road outside one can see the dark line of the trees enclosing the village. They come up to the road facing our house: the tall, dark firs and pines, rough and sticky with resin; the solid oaks with shiny, beautifully cut-out leaves, which make the best crowns when we play kings in the forest; and between their gnarled trunks the silver birches dance and sway, princesses and brides in green summer robes which change to a cascade of gold in the early autumn, when holidays come to an end and it is time to devise a happy ending to my summer tales and leave all the heroines in a state of blissful suspension till the next year.

The night air throbs with the singing of frogs, and the village dogs add their sharp comment. A night bird tries out a new song outside my window and inside the room a fly, caught on the strip of sticky paper, buzzes furiously. From the verandah come whispers and smothered giggles. They are all there, impatient and nervous, waiting for Stefa to give the word, waiting to start on another of their nightly expeditions to the orchard.

Stefa’s voice murmurs: ‘Let’s see if she is asleep.’

Another voice pleads: ‘Let me come too,’ and my heart turns over as I recognise Tadek. Quickly I arrange myself on the pillow, spreading my hair in a halo. I pull the sheet up to my chin and fold my hands like the Sleeping Beauty in my book of fairytales. The door creaks. Through half-closed eyes I can see Stefa holding a candle and, behind her, the curly black mop and Tadek’s shiny eyes. They peer at me in silence while I hold my breath and smile sweetly to my dreams. The door closes.

‘She is fast asleep,’ says Stefa.

‘She is very pretty,’ says Tadek simultaneously, and there is a burst of smothered laughter as they all scramble down the verandah’s wall and scatter into the orchard. Now they will sing and play the guitar and hide-and-seek among the trees, and sometime in the night Stefa will return with her apron full of half-ripe fruit.

I hear them passing under my window, and soon their voices 

grow dimmer and mingle with the whispers of trees across the road. I drift after them in a happy dream. It is summer 1939 and I am nine years old.

The village of Crossways, a typical Polish village, consisted of about a hundred farmhouses and summer villas, scattered among the woods. It had a general store-cum-post office, and a couple of guesthouses with a beer-garden on the main road.

After our sudden reversal of fortune two years earlier, when the family’s flour mill burned down one summer night, giving the whole town a remarkable pyrotechnic display, Mother decided that we could no longer afford to spend our holidays abroad. As a result, Stefa and I were spending our second summer alone in the two tiny, whitewashed rooms in Crossways. The villa, divided into three small flats, housed besides ourselves another family, consisting of a nurse and two small boys. The third flat was occupied by the two adolescent daughters of the owner of the house – Christina, the elder of the two, blonde and blue-eyed, and Janice, who was as dark as myself. To me the fascinating thing about them was that they had two mothers, both alive. But Christina’s mother no longer lived in their house. Perhaps she did not like Janice’s mother who now lived there. The two sisters spent their holidays together in the villa and looked after the comfort of the tenants. Soon after our arrival last summer they were joined by their thirteen-year-old brother, and I chose him for my hero without a moment’s hesitation. Tadek must have been very short for his age, as he was only a head taller than me. His black curls grew low over his thick eyebrows and fell into his eyes, which, I decided, smouldered with the fire of genius. Dressed in a pair of khaki shorts, the only garment he seemed to possess, suntanned like a coffee bean, he was for me the glorious example of unsupervised existence, for which I sighed enviously. Tadek climbed trees and fences, swam in the frog pond, waded barefoot through the puddles and disappeared for hours, no one knew where. Often he spent the night in a tree or in the tool shed curled among the wood-shavings with the farmer’s cat.

I tried desperately to follow his example and earn his admiration, but, after a few attempts, was forced to retreat – sore and sunburned and bandaged up. I blamed my failure on Stefa and her stifling discipline, which left me no freedom, even on holidays.

The rules which regulated my existence in town were relaxed very little in the country.