Chapter Five: "A Starry Night"
“Oi, Itzak, such bad news,” Rachel’s mother said as she hurried into the shop. “Have you heard? Everybody is talking about it.” Her face was flushed. Damp curls clung to her head and neck.
“Reisl, calm yourself,” Mr. Rosenblum said. He had just fitted his last customer for a suit, and the shop was empty. “Here, come into the little room. Sit down, sit down.”
He could ssee his wife’s agitation. He knew in a moment that their worst fears had been realized. Polczevka was to be made ‘Judenrein, free of Jews.’
“This is too horrible,” Rachel’s mother said as she tried to keep from sobbing. The anxiety made her tremble.
“We will just have to explain to the children the plan we have come up with,” her husband said to her, trying to disguise the tremor in his voice. He cleared his throat.
“Thank goodness we talked of this weeks ago,” Rachel’s mother replied. She was breathing more evenly now. “I will have to speak to Marfa. Tomorrow is Tuesday, and she will be coming to the marketplace.”
As each new outrage had been absorbed by the Jewish people living in Polczevka, they had gradually come to learn who their friends were. Whom they could trust, whom they should avoid. Of course, it wasn’t always clear, and a mistake could cost lives. But they did the best they could, going by their instincts, and by common sense.
Marfa was a peasant woman whom the Rosenblums had come to trust. She lived in the town of Bielska, a small farming village ten kilometers away. Farmers from the neighboring towns came to the marketplace once a week to sell their vegetables and trade with others. Marfa would be there tomorrow.
“Do you think she can help us?” Mr. Rosenblum said. “You know, we will have to leave everything behind, when we are . . . taken. The store—and everything.” His mind could hardly make sense of it all.
“We will have no money, Reisl, to pay a Polish family, even if they do agree to risk their lives and hide our children.” His voice grew soft. “Such goodness I cannot picture.”
That night at supper, Mummy and Papa told Rachel and Ben about their plan.
“We are going to find a home for you,” Rachel’s father began.
“But this is our home, Papa,” Rachel burst out, “the only home we’ve ever known. We can’t just pack up and leave it, Papa. We can’t.”
And Ben added quietly, almost as if he were holding his breath, “Have Rachel and I been bad children? Is that why you are sending us to live with someone else?”
“Oh, no mein kinder,” Rachel’s mother answered sadly. “You are the best children any parents could want. We would never give you up.”
“Then why are you finding another home for us?” Rachel asked again, still not understanding.
“Because, my child,” Papa answered, “we want you to be safe. Mummy and I want our little family to survive these terrible times. Everywhere is fear—in the streets, in the houses. Even in our own beds. If we know our children are protected, we will be able to be strong.”
Papa’s explanation made a kind of sense to Rachel, but still she persisted. “Where will you and Mummy go while we are living in a stranger’s house?” And then she added, as an afterthought, “Can’t they make room for you, too?”
“No, my child,” her father said wearily. “If we are lucky enough, please God, to find a family for you, they will be very courageous people. They will be risking their own poor lives in order to help out.”
“But what will you and Mummy do while Rachel and I are in hiding?” Ben said to his Papa, trying hard to be grown up, but fighting back his tears.
“We will keep ourselves strong by thinking of you, and knowing you are safe,” Mummy and Papa said together, in a single voice.
Ben slept in Rachel’s bed that night, the two of them, for warmth. And Papa sang them the special song he had made up when Rachel was young. It was about the ocean, and even though Rachel had never seen the sea, when her father sang his lullaby, she could always drift to sleep on the waves of his beautiful voice.
Mummy kissed the children on their foreheads, Papa gave them each a hug, and together they recited the Shema:
“Shema Yisroel Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echod. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
And then their father sang.
Ride the waves, so clear and free
Softly bring you back to me.
Listen to the ocean roar,
Let your little spirits soar.
Ride the waves, storm-tossed and free,
Bring you safely back to me.
Rachel closed her eyes, and drifted off to sleep.
The next day Mrs. Rosenblum went to the market square. Business was brisk as usual, even with the scarcity caused by the war. Carts sold scanty baskets of produce. Some had milk and cheese to sell. Others, vegetables and early summer crops. She found Marfa by a baker’s stall.
“Ai, Mrs. Rosenblum, I have heard,” was all that Marfa said. She shook her kerchiefed head and clucked softly with her tongue. “You poor, poor people.”
Mrs. Rosenblum bent close to her friend and whispered a few words. They had to be careful in this public place. Some Poles would turn in their neighbors if they suspected they were helping Jews. And the penalty for helping Jews was death. By hanging in the market square. It was an ugly time, and ugly people became uglier.
Marfa answered softly. “I have found shelter for your two children, Mrs. Rosenblum, but they will be in different homes. It is easier that way. It will attract less attention. Benjamin will be a ‘nephew.’ Rachel will be a ‘niece.’”
Rachel’s mother drew in her breath. “Separate families?” was all she said. This last bit of comfort was being denied her little ones. Each child would be alone.
“And we think it best that each child not know where the other one is. That way, if one is in danger, the other will not be found out.”
Rachel’s mother suddenly realized the enormous courage her children would have to show. But she knew that they were strong. “God requires no synagogues, except in the heart,” she thought aloud. “My Papa, may he rest in peace, used to say that to me when I was afraid.”
“And my dear aunt, Cioci Wanda, who took care of me when my mother died, used to say when I was sad, ‘When God closes a door, He opens a window.’ Things will work out for your children, Mrs. Rosenblum. The Lord will see to that.” Marfa crossed herself. “I will pray for you.”
Rachel’s mother squeezed Marfa’s hand, and went quickly home. It was decided that Papa would take Rachel to her ‘family,’ and that Mummy would take Ben. They would leave that night, each walking across the fields in a different direction.
“And when the war is over,” Papa said, “we will all find each other, and be united once again. Be it God’s will.”
Rachel spent the rest of the day gathering her things, and saying goodbye to their little house. She said farewell to every window, every wall. Then she took a little sack and filled it with special things: a seashell that Aunt Hannah had given her, from a vacation at the shore. Some pebbles from their yard. A needle, some buttons, and embroidery thread. Some pretty scraps of fabric—one from Mummy’s flowered dress, a few small pieces of silk, and a little square of soft gray flannel. And her Grandma Esther’s Mogen David, a small round circle of soft, worn metal, with the six-pointed star in the center, inscribed with the Hebrew letter, Chai, for life.
She wrote a short note to her Mummy and Papa, and she was ready to go.
All the stars were out. It was beautiful and still. Rachel’s father took her hand in his, and they began to walk across the fields. A few strands of cloud passed overhead. Stars twinkled in the darkness.
Rachel was quiet for a while, then she said to her father,”Papa, if the sky is made of air, how can God live there?”
“My Ruchella,” her father answered, “God lives in the sky, and in your heart as well. He lives everywhere, in everything.”
“But if God is in the sky, how come we don’t see Him?”
“Because, my little Ruchella, He sometimes hides from us. We must look so carefully. With our hearts, and with our minds.
“With every fiber of our being,” he added to himself.
Rachel pulled her sweater tighter. Her father squeezed her hand.
“It is like the evening sky,” Papa continued. “When clouds are there, you cannot see the stars. But your heart knows they are there, even when you cannot see.”
They walked on through the darkness. Stars blinked and twinkled in the cold night sky. Rachel held on tighter to her father’s hand.
Something made him pause. He looked down at his daughter and stroked her hair.
“God is like a star inside you,” he said softly. “A still, small flame. When you are afraid, or cold, or lonely, remember that you have a secret star inside, and you will know that God is there.
“You must remember, Rachel. It is a place that no one else can touch.” And then he added, with a smile, “You are the only little Ruchella that God made. The only one.
“Will you remember that?” he said, as he gave his daughter a long, tight hug.
Rachel could feel his scratchy face, which always smelled so good. His voice was soft and soothing. As long as she lived she would remember that sound.
Rachel looked up at her father and said, “I will remember it always, Papa. A still, small flame. A secret star.”
“What was that? Were those shots?” Rachel said to Lise, forgetting she was just a child.
From somewhere in the nearby woods they suddenly heard shouts.
“Halt!” a rough voice said. Dogs barked savagely. They heard horses’ hooves crashing through the brush. Before they could gather their blanket, two German soldiers appeared. They rode swiftly over to the spot where the two girls stood trembling, and dismounted.
“What are you doing here?” one soldier said. His eyes were dark and cold. “Why are you not working in the fields?” he said to Rachel.
“We were looking for firewood,” Rachel replied. “And we thought to have a picnic.”
“I see no firewood here,” the other soldier said. “And as for picnics . . .”
Lise started to whimper, and the first soldier looked at her.
“Tears are for the weak,” he muttered in disgust.
His harsh words and angry voice made Lise cry harder.
“Ach, you Poles,” the other soldier said. And then, as if he thought of something else, he turned to Rachel and said, “What have the frauleins seen while they’ve been ‘picnicking’?”
“It’s been very quiet,” Rachel whispered.
“You are lying!” the soldier said. “We know that Polish Partisans are hiding in these woods. Perhaps you gave a note to them, some food . . .”
“Oh, no,” Rachel interrupted. “We have seen nobody.” She was trembling, and her voice shook.
“Shut up!” the soldier barked. “Did your Momma and Poppa teach you no manners? Go home now, both of you. And I never want to see you here again. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” the two children said, and they both made the sign of the cross.
Rachel thought she saw something moving in the shadows. Had somebody been watching them? They quickly gathered up the blanket, their picnic things, and Lise’s dolls, and ran across the fields to their cottage.
That night at supper Mr. Pytowski said, “These are dangerous times, my children. There are people hiding in the woods, and Partisans protecting them. And us,” he added.
“That’s right, father,” Jozek said. “We Poles will be strong in defending our country. If the Germans should win the war, all of Poland would be under their boot. We will not let that happen.”
Mrs. Pytowski looked over at her son. She saw the fierceness in his eyes. And she was proud.
“But you children must be careful,” she added, as she crossed herself. “We cannot trust our neighbors—anyone. Even at church we must be careful not to show our feelings. There are some who covet the reward for ‘finding’ enemies.”
“A reward!” Lise said, her eyes lighting up. Much of what the grownups said made no sense to her.
“No, little Lisele,” Rachel said. “Not the kind of reward in our fairy tales. This is money that bad people get for doing evil things.”
Mr. Pytowski nodded his head. “So we will do, instead, what is right, and get the final reward that Our Father in Heaven provides.”
The days that followed were filled with anxiety. Rachel and Jozek went into the village to listen for news whenever they could. There were German soldiers everywhere. Some on horseback, some in shiny vehicles. Some marching stiffly in their tall, polished boots.
One morning when Rachel and Jozek had gone into town to see if there was any mail, they saw Pietro on the street. He was shouting at his horse.
“Move, you lazy animal,” he screamed, and he brought his fist down on the horse’s flank. Then he kicked it in the shin. Jozek rushed over and grabbed the horse’s harness, and started talking to it gently.
“There, there, my pretty one,” he said, and then to Pietro, “What’s the matter with you? You don’t strike an animal like that!”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Pietro snarled. “It’s my horse, and I’ll do what I want to it.”
Rachel looked on in silence. Pietro glanced at her, and then at Jozek. He shoved Jozek out of the way, and grabbed the harness in his hand.
“You’ll be sorry for this,” he shouted, as he pulled his horse down the street. “You’ll be sorry.”
When Rachel and Jozek got back to the farm they told Mrs. Pytowski what had happened.
“You’d better run and get your father,” Jozek’s mother said to him. “I am afraid there is going to be trouble.”
Lise was sitting on the floor playing with her dolls. Mrs. Pytowski looked down at her and said, “Now little Lise, if anything happens, we must all be very brave. Your ‘cousin’ Ann Marie is going away to look for food. She will not be here when the strangers come.”
Then Mrs. Pytowski turned to Rachel and quickly said, “You must hide yourself. It will be best for all of us if we don’t know where you are.”
Rachel nodded her head, hugged Mrs. Pytowski and gave Lise a kiss. Then she disappeared.
Moments later, the barnyard was in an uproar. Chickens scattered, the geese waddled quickly. Two German soldiers appeared, holding on to a snarling dog. Stasha barked, and the German Shepherd bared its teeth.
“Where is your Jew!” they shouted. “Where is she hiding?” They shoved Mrs. Pytowski aside and entered the house. They knocked over the table, kicked over the benches, and pulled the cupboard away from the wall. Dishes crashed to the floor. They pulled the covers off the featherbeds and pounded on the floors.
Satisfied that nobody was hiding in the house, they came outside. Mr. Pytowski had just arrived.
“What are you doing here?” one soldier barked.
“I have just come home for my lunch,” Mr. Pytowski replied.
“We know you are hiding a Jewish girl!”
“There are no Jews here,” Mr. Pytowski replied, his voice calm, but firm.
“And the young fraulein?” the soldier barked back.
“That is our niece,” Mrs. Pytowski said. “But she is not here today. She has gone to look for food.”
“Ah, so,” the soldier shouted. “We will look and see.”
And, their dog straining at its leash, they headed for the barn.
“Only to be home again,” Rachel whispered to herself. She was cold and wet. The mud from the pigsty stuck to her body. The smell filled her nose. A big lump in her throat made it hard for her to breathe. She could hear the pig grunting. She felt the mud shift as he nosed around for food.
“On a wa-agon bound for ma-arket
There’s a calf with a mournful eye,”
she hummed, rather than sang. No sound coming out, only her quiet breathing.
“High abo-ove him, there’s a swa-allow
Winging swiftly-y through the sky.”
“Swine, Jude,” one soldier shouted. “The fraulein must be somewhere!”
“Ya, Jew-drek!” They came closer to the sty.
“Dona, dona, dona, do-a-na,
Dona, dona, don-a-a don,
Ai didde dai dai, Ai didde dai . . .”
Like a little prayer, only Rachel didn’t know it. Whispering, “Please, dear God, oh, please, dear God, please keep me safe—dai, ai didde dai dai . . .”
“Ach! Such drek,” a soldier said in disgust, holding his nose.
“Let’s leave it to the swine,” the other soldier said. And they marched out of the barnyard, their shiny boots caked with mud.
Rachel felt the warmth of relief. She had wet herself, but she wasn’t ashamed. She had saved her life by being still. Like the flutter of a swallow’s wing, her quiet little prayer—that sure.
Papa was right, she thought to herself. It’s just like Papa said. She thought of the secret place inside, the place that can’t be touched, and she felt safe.
When she was sure that the soldiers had gone, she crept out of the pigsty. She went down to the brook and washed herself. She went up to the hayloft and put on fresh clothes. Then she went into the house.
Sharon Flitterman-King, who lives with her husband, author David King, in Hillsdale, New York, earned her Ph.D. in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. She has written, taught and lectured for many years. "A Secret Star" is her first novel.