The Journal of Hannah Blum
by Melissa J. Taylor, 2004. May not be reprinted.
The Journal of Hannah Blum
I was only ten years old when the Nazis came to Poland on September 1, 1939. But I still remember it, because it was the beginning of my life changing forever. I now live in the Warsaw ghetto [historical note: this is not the same as a concentration camp], a town surrounded on all sides, like a prison. I have never been in a prison, so I go by what I have heard. Some say it is worse.
A Jewish Ghetto Occupant
Warsaw Ghetto, 1941
The housing is so cramped. Mama and I are with five other people in our room. My favorite of all is Rebekah. She is thirteen, a year older than I, but she never makes me feel any younger as other girls might do. We try to find games to keep us busy. Her father took off his boot-lace so we could play cat's cradle.
Our house is in a square shape with three other houses, and we share the land between. There are brothers in our house that are terribly mean and spoiled little boys. Their mother is named Mrs. Goldberg. She has a lot of jewelry and likes to call them her little babies. By "them" I mean both the boys and her necklaces, rings, and bracelets.
When I see the other fathers here they do not remind me of my papa. They do not have beards. They are not allowed to.
One boy, named Joshua, was forced to shave his father's beard off in front of others. Joshua is about fifteen years old, and I suppose he looked forward to growing his own hair, once it came in that way. His father refused to shave off his beard, and that began the trouble.
One of the Gestapo agents grabbed his boy and told Joshua that if he didn't remove his father's beard, then maybe they would find something to do with it. (They didn't say what.)
I am glad I have a photo in my locket of Papa with a beard. He would have wanted me to remember him only that way.
We are not allowed to be ourselves and practice our faith. I am not allowed to pray, but I do anyway. I keep my eyes open at all times, but that doesn't mean that I'm not praying. Many people here worship in secret...I know they do. But we cannot observe the Sabbath or openly observe other religious practices.
Mama reminded me that I used to be awfully picky about her cooking. Well, I feel awful about that now, because all we get here is soup. I have never felt more hungry in my life. I used to be terribly embarrassed if my stomach growled, but we could have an orchestra here, set to belly music. It is that bad.
Mrs. Goldberg said that the Nazis are trying to starve us to death. "You mark my words. They are trying to kill us by not letting us eat. That way they won't be able to take the blame and will be rid of us at the same time." She rattled her jewelry as she spoke. I have noticed men looking at her jewelry out of the corners of their eyes. Think how much food her jewelry could buy! I do believe she sleeps with it on.
Almost all I can think about is food; I even dream about food, especially sweets.
One of the women here--she told me to call her by her first name, which is Leah--has been eating non-kosher meat. She has a very round, distended stomach.
"God is angry at her for not following His law," I said to my friend Rebekah.
Rebekah rolled her eyes as she took the cat's cradle from my hands, making another formation with hers.
"No, she is not sick. She's having a baby!"
"But why would she eat the meat?" I wondered.
"Pregnant women have been told that they have special permission not to eat kosher. It's for the safety of their babies."
I do not know what to think. I wonder if I would do that. I wish I could have her ration. If it's okay for her then why let the rest of us starve on soup?
A few days ago, Mama asked me to start sneaking out to beg for food. She is not pregnant like Leah, but she is very hungry, like me.
Because I am a child, it's easier for me than for Mama to sneak past the guards. I have done so twice, but so far I have only gotten a couple slices of bread.
Some children get potatoes, and some get onions. I would like either, but I suppose they would become potato soup or onion soup! I would prefer mashed potatoes or even eating an onion raw, letting it tear up my eyes that want to but cannot tear. But soup helps food go farther...you can add water and make a broth that lasts forever.
I worry that if I ever get anything really good when alley-begging that I will eat it before I get back. That is naughty of me, but I know Mama and her kind heart. She would want to share with everyone. But one potato cannot be split well between so many.
I am past the point of wanting to share. Except for maybe with Rebekah. She does not eat well and her father will not let her go out to ask for food. Everyone has their own morals here, but often we cannot keep them for long.
There is a rumor here that Nazis love golden hair.
I have golden hair.
Mrs. Goldberg made a joke that my roots are not showing. "Now that they know your hair is truly blonde, they will take you away to be their wife."
Mama gave her a stern look that quieted her, but not before I had already heard what she said.
Would they really take me away? What would Mama think if they took me away in the night? We have already lost Papa and Jonathan to them. I am all that Mama has.
Sometimes I expect to see Jonathan return. JoJo was fifteen, and they did not hurt him like they did Papa. He was blonde, like me. Mrs. Goldberg says he probably pretended to be Aryan and joined up with the Nazis. Sometimes I wish I had tape. If I did, I would use it on Mrs. Goldberg's mouth.
If I had a zloty for every time Mrs. Goldberg made me mad, I would be able to buy every occupant here a prime steak.
She said to our whole house group "Under other circumstances, I would not associate with 'certain' people."
She didn't say who "certain" people were, but she didn't need to.
Rebekah has come up with a new game, but it is naughty, so we must play it in whispers. Normally, Mama would not allow such play, but she sees that it makes me laugh.
What we do is think of a dangerous job for Mrs. Goldberg to have once we are out of the ghettoes. By then she will no longer be rich, and will of course need a job.
Rebekah decided her job could be to test out guard dogs and make sure their bites were vicious enough.
The job I decided for Mrs. Goldberg was testing parachutes.
Mrs. Goldberg was so hoighty-toighty when she lived in her big house, but not now! She has been knocked down a peg or two! She came to me today and asked me to take her two boys out to beg for food. I said, "no. They are too young. It's dangerous." They are only five and six years old!
Mama gave me a stern look and said that I must help anyone who lives in our room--Mrs. Goldberg, her two sons, Rebekah, or her father Mr. Lerner. They are our neighbors, and we are to help our neighbors when they are in need.
I took them to meet Lion. Lion is my secret, so I did not even write about him in here. He is not a secret anymore. Lion is thirteen years old, and not the type of person Mama would want me to learn anything from.
Lion taught me how to sneak out.
Mama has told me that people will do almost anything if they are hungry enough. I guess that's why she lets me go out and beg. I guess that's why Mrs. Goldberg wants her boys to go. And I guess that's why Lion is a smuggler.
I don't know much about food smuggling. I do know it is dangerous and maybe not even very moral. But at least Lion is helpful in giving us tips on how to avoid getting caught.
Maybe that makes up for all his badness.
Today was the first time the Goldberg boys were to go out begging.
Before we left, I asked Mama in a whisper, "Why can't Mrs. Goldberg sell her jewelry to buy more food?"
But even as I said it, I knew the answer. Mrs. Goldberg would rather sacrifice her children than her wealth. Besides, Mama would not answer me.
Mark, who is six, and Adam, who is five, were anxious to meet Lion, who I had told them about in secret yesterday. When we got to Lion's compound's center yard, he spotted me and ran to me, giving me a huge kiss on either cheek. He then hugged the boys and told them it was wonderful to see them again. Lion used this charade to protect all of us from the guards. We look like we are family or good friends and are only visiting. We don't have any Lions in the Blum branch, but no one knows that. His last name fits him, too, because he is tough and strong, despite being pretty young. But despite being tough, he has been very helpful to me. He also tried to help Mark and Adam, by telling them all about the alley and the people who frequent it--who to trust, who not to trust, and how to run for your life.
It will help them that they are so small. It will be harder for them to be seen. Today, though, they got out and followed me, their eyes big. Mark had ripped his shirt on the barbed wire and looked ready to cry.
We went right back in because I was worried we might get caught if he made a commotion. So far they are not successful beggars!
I'm lucky that I'm so small. I pray in secret that I will not grow any more. My life and Mama's life may depend upon it. We were hungry today. I blame Mrs. Goldberg.
Rebekah told me a new job for Mrs. Goldberg. She can be a taste-tester for a king. Rebekah said this used to be a real job. If the food had been poisoned by the king's rival, the taste-tester would die and the king would be safe.
I told Rebekah that I would like that job myself--but I would work for a nice king that had happy subjects!
Mama sold one of her favorite plates and gave me the money to beg for food. "Maybe you can get a good deal on something."
I slipped out to the alley. (I am through helping the Goldberg boys beg. Mama put her foot down when Mrs. Goldberg demanded I take them again. She said she will not make me risk my safety. Mrs. Goldberg's eyes shot daggers!)
When I got into the alley, my eyes must have lit up like stars. A man was walking around with a box that contained a fresh cake. I could smell it, and it made my mouth water.
Imagine my joy when I found out he was selling chances to win the cake! We have not had such rich food ever. The money in my hand was just enough to buy a chance to win.
I lingered and watched as others purchased chances to win the cake. I told God I needed the cake. I would share it with Mama and Rebekah and Mr. Lerner and Mrs. Goldberg and Mark and Adam. Yes, even the Goldbergs. Because of that I was confident that God would let me win.
I didn't have the winning number.
I also took time to watch the smugglers. Lion winked at me when he caught my eye.
The street smugglers wear fancy clothes, and eat caramels and other fancy sweets. It is pure torture to watch them, yet at the same time I hope they will take pity on my starving, empty eyes and throw me something. Today I worked up my nerve and walked up to them. I likely would not have, had Lion not been there. For his own sake, I acted as though I did not know him.
"You fellows have a lot of food," I said, looking at them.
"We work for it," one boy said. The others called him Betel. "We work hard for it. We aren't common beggars."
I scowled. "You don't think what I do is work? It is work just to stay alive."
One of them tossed me a caramel. "Then eat this!" he said rudely. "It will rot your teeth so that you can't bother us with your talk."
But Lion tossed me a bag of flour and a couple of carrots. "Beat it, kid!" he said.
He said it very rudely, but I knew what he meant. He meant here is some food, now go home and get out of the street.
Mama cried when she saw the flour and carrots. "I am so glad I sold that plate. I didn't need that as much as we needed food."
A tear fell down my face. "Mama, I did not buy the food. It was given to me."
"Then what did you buy?" She sounded even more hopeful.
I had to tell her I had wasted the money, and that I had gambled it.
She didn't react as severely as I thought she might. "It's hard to think on an empty stomach" was all she said.
Rebekah and I split the caramel. I did not let Mrs. Goldberg see it, because she would have wanted it for her awful boys. It did not taste as good as I had hoped. I think because of the way it had been given to me. I don't believe I will bother the smugglers again.
Mrs. Goldberg is beginning to lose her hair. Mama said that is from malnutrition because her body is not getting enough nourishment. She is saving up the hair like a little squirrel with its hoard. She saves anything she can get her hands on, even things I feel are trash. It is making our room smelly and dirty. Mr. Lerner is the man of the house and I wish he would say something to her about it. But Rebekah told me her father said he is not Mrs. Goldberg's husband and couldn't tell her what to do. If it keeps happening I think Mama will say something to her about it.
I told Rebekah I think Mrs. Goldberg is going to save all her hair so she can make a wig, for when she's bald.
Rebekah said she thinks Mrs. Goldberg is getting delusional...crazy.
Well, diary, I can't even tell you how I feel now. I am scared to be in the same room as her, yet I feel sorry for her boys.*I can't barely believe what I did today.
I sold my locket, photo and all.
I was going to sell only the locket, but the lady who wanted to buy it from me--Miss Gitel--said the man in the photo reminded her of her fiancee Abraham. She had no photo of him and would only buy the locket with the photo in it.
So I sold the locket and the locket had Papa's photo in it. I hope I never run into Miss Gitel again, because she kissed the photo and called him Abraham. She is not crazy like Mrs. Goldberg, only lonely.
The money was able to get us some bread, but Mama made me give most of it to the Goldbergs. My locket was worth more to me than that.*
I rarely talk to other children, because I am mostly quiet. Rebekah is my best friend. But there are thousands of children here. Sometimes the adults arrange things for us to do in secret, away from the Gestapo agents' eyes.
One of my favorite things to do is listen to the orchestra practice...and sometimes they give concerts. I like to hear the violinists practice and tune their instruments. The tone of the violin fits here and mirrors the way our spirits feel. Haunted, yet somehow beautiful. Maybe if things get better soon I can learn to play the violin. Mrs. Goldberg says things will only get worse, but she is depressed and I try not to let her get to me.
Some children are in complets, which are secret classes. An adult teaches several students and is paid what parents can afford...often merely a loaf of bread or less for a salary.
I am not in a complet because I am needed to beg for food. Rebekah is not in a complet because her father will not let her do anything illegal that might result in her getting hurt. Mr. Lerner is awfully nice, but I think he would be boring to have for a dad.
I hate the politics here.
We have a Jewish Council (Judenrat) made up of Elders. The leader of the Warsaw ghetto is Adam Czerniakow [historical note: this is true, but he is being used fictionally in this story]. Some people here trust the Council and say it does its best. But Mrs. Goldberg said, "they are traitors to us all, helping the Gestapo. They make lists of who here should be deported."
Today they told Mr. Lerner. He is to go.
I do not like Adam Czerniakow. If I could, I would march up to him and kick him. Hard.
"He can't split up a family," I said. "If Mr. Lerner is to be deported, they need to take Rebekah, too. Then they can both be free."
Mrs. Goldberg opened her mouth, but Mama held up her hand to stop her. Rebekah was in the room and Mama did not want her to hear what she whispered to me that evening.
"Hannah," she said, grasping my hand and squeezing it, "it is believed that people who are deported are chosen by the Elders because they are old or feeble or sick. You know that Mr. Lerner is an old man...he married his wife when he was in his sixties. The people chosen are...are...sacrifices to the Nazis."
My eyes opened wide as I looked at the empty pallet by Rebekah, where her father used to sleep.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
But I didn't need for her to answer.
Rebekah and I have promised one another that we will never get sick. We don't want to lose one another. We need to stay strong.
A new person has taken her father's pallet. Her name is Mrs. Karasik, and she's in her sixties. She is not new to the ghetto, but her house complex was getting too full due to two crying babies being born.
"Why does Mrs. Karasik get to stay, and my father be deported? She has no family." Rebekah did not mean anything against Mrs. Karasik. We just don't understand how the Elders make their decisions.
I didn't answer back, but I suppose Mrs. Karasik will be one of the next to go.
She said she is ready to die and be home with Jesus. Mama told me Mrs. Karasik is a Messianic Jew, who believes Jesus was the Son of God. There are Christians here as well as Jewish people. She smuggled in a Bible and said Rebekah and I may have it if she is deported. She said some of it is like our Text, and we can read the parts Mama lets us.
I like Mrs. Karasik.
Mrs. Goldberg is still hoarding things. Mama was missing two plates, and we found them and Mrs. Karasik's Bible under Mrs. Goldberg's mattress.
Mama decided to talk to Mrs. Goldberg. But Mrs. Goldberg got mad and said it was no one's business to snoop under her bed. She rattled her jewels and looked at us with wild eyes. She then ran from our house complex, pulling her hair and screaming, crying, and wailing.
I could not believe it! Her boys Adam and Mark started to cry, and I was ashamed of her behavior. Mama ushered us inside so that we would not have to watch her.
Another deportation list came out today. Now that I know what they are, I pay special attention.
I was worried that Mama, Rebekah, or Mrs. Karasik might be on the list.
Mrs. Goldberg's name is!
She yelled and screamed about the room. Mama told us to go outside; and Mrs. Karasik held the two boys.
"Mrs. Goldberg is not right in her head," Rebekah whispered to me. "That's why the Elders chose for her to go."
Mama came back out of the house and shook her head. "I can't talk to her. She is not thinking straight. She is piling everything into the middle of the room and wants to barricade the door."
I didn't blame Mrs. Goldberg for doing that. By tomorrow she will be gone. I wish I could take back all the mean things Rebekah and I whispered about her. I didn't realize that this was all so serious and real.
It is quieter here with Mrs. Goldberg gone. None of our things show up missing. It does not matter. I still want her back.
Rebekah and I tried to play cat's cradle today, but the boot-lace only reminded us of her father and of Mrs. Goldberg.
A teenage girl moved in. Her name is Ruth Mornel. She knows Leah--the lady who was eating non-kosher meat--and told me she had a baby boy who died right after he was born. Sometimes I wish I didn't ask for updates about people. It is never good news.
Ruth is sixteen and very tall. And very pretty. And very nice. She told Rebekah they would be sisters from now on. They sleep on the same mattress and whisper secrets to one another and giggle a lot. Now I wish even more that Mrs. Goldberg were still here!
I told Rebekah that I have a boyfriend, and his name is Lion, so there. I am trying to get back at her since she is with Ruth so much now.
"Oh yeah?!" she said. "If you have a boyfriend, then what is his first name?"
I had never told her about Lion. Only Adam and Mark had met him. And I have not seen him in a long time. I guess she has every right not to believe me.
Mama broke in and told us not to fight. She didn't even ask me about Lion, so I suppose she doesn't believe me, either.
And my idea didn't work, because Rebekah and Ruth whispered and giggled again. I suppose they were making fun of me and my imaginary friend.*
I saw Lion today! My heart nearly burst because I am so glad he is still in the ghetto, and hasn't been deported. I saw him while begging in the alley, and he took me aside to talk to me, as he was alone. I told him all that had happened, and each of us has had a birthday. I am thirteen now, and he is fourteen.
I told him about Mrs. Goldberg and Mr. Lerner, and about my friend being taken away from me by someone else.
Then Lion gave me a big hug, and wrapped his coat around my shoulders. "Next time I see you," he said, "I will have gotten you something very nice. But, for now, you can keep my coat."
When I got back home, Rebekah asked me where I had gotten it from.
"My boyfriend James gave it to me," I said. "James Lion."
Ruth's eyebrows shot up. "He is a smuggler!" she said.
I thought she was being mean, so I got ready to defend him. But she ended it by saying, "Smugglers are very brave."
Conditions here are getting very bad. There is little sanitation, and many times everything is overflowing with waste. Often we do not have enough water to drink.
There have been some typhus outbreaks here, and because of that the Nazis keep giving us what they call "disinfection." During "disinfection" many of us lose our belongings because if they like them, they keep them. If they don't like them, they often give them back, ruined.
In disinfection we strip naked and have cold water sprayed and dumped on us. It is the dead of winter! Surely they can't believe this is healthy for us! And it is so humiliating and degrading. I cannot stand it. I usually stand with my eyes closed and try to drown out the outside world--the cold, the screaming, the agents laughing, but I can't. Today Rebekah grabbed my hand and Ruth grabbed the other. Afterward Ruth said she had meant for the three of us to be sisters, not just her and Rebekah, but she thought I did not like her or want to be her sister.
I like Ruth very much.
Adam is naked. Officially buck naked. He and Mark are so spoiled they thought that if they ruined their clothes that we women would immediately replace them. So they rough-housed and ruined their clothes. Mrs. Karasik mended Mark's, but said there was no hope for Adam's. There are other children here that are naked, too. Adam and Mark have lice, and it is difficult to keep the lice from getting to the rest of us.
At first we thought Adam was going crazy, like his mom did. Then Mrs. Karasik said the worst: "he has typhus."
An old nurse named Miss Szotland has taken him away from us. She is trying to keep the people alive. For one, she hopes someone will give him clothes!
Mama felt bad about that, but we do not have much for ourselves. Mama feels like she has become a parent to four new kids.
I feel bad about Adam. I did not like Adam, but I think I probably didn't like him as a big sister doesn't like her little brother.
Miss Szotland said matter-of-factly that most people don't make it.
We tried to clean the house as much as possible, top to bottom. Including Mark.
Mrs. Karasik kept saying she could not let any more of her family get sick. I love Mrs. Karasik. She is like a wonderful grandmother.
*We have a new person in the house. You know what that means. Adam did not make it. The rest of us seem to be doing very well...or as well as can be expected.
The new person is very quiet and sad. Her name is Bernice, and she is in her late twenties. Her husband was just deported, because he was disabled. Ruth, Rebekah, and I can do nothing to cheer her. Mark even tried to climb up into her lap, but she set him back down.
I am sad, too. And every day is without hope.
*Today I went out in the freezing cold to beg. I was grabbed from behind and pulled to the side of a building. Before I could scream I was whirled around and met the gaze of Lion...James.
"Don't scream!" he warned. "I want to keep this a secret so no one tries to steal it from you. You may only wear it inside of your blouse. Promise me."
I promised, wondering what he had.
He reached into his pants pocket and pulled something gold out.
James had my locket. My very own locket!
"I knew Miss Gitel had your locket, because I had seen you wearing it first. Money and food can buy anything back." He unclasped it and placed it around my neck. Tears filled my eyes as I turned around and met his gaze.
"I don't know how to thank you," I said.
He gave me some hope during dark times.
This story was written by Melissa J. Taylor, April through May of 2004. Please respect my sharing it here and do not pass it on or alter it.
A note on historical accuracy: This story was historically accurate when I first wrote it in April of 2004 as an essay for a class. May 18th and 19th I expanded it into a blank journal, and the added items may not be 100% historically accurate. The historical aspects were gleaned from the following books which I had to read for the essay assignment: A History of the Holocaust by Yehudah Bauer, A Holocaust Reader by Lucy Dawidowicz, The Holocaust by Donald Niewyk. Last names were found by looking at an online database of last names of people present in the Poland Warsaw Ghetto. All names are, however, used on a fictional basis.
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