The boy of 18 Mila Street

The toddler clutched the large bread-crust tightly in his hand, as he crawled down the stone steps into the yard. No one noticed him. No voice shouted, Come Inside! Some twenty metres away he saw the nodding heads of the chickens, their keen eyes searching for corns. The little boy rose to his shaky legs.

He could scarcely believe his luck. No one stopped him!

Inside the modest home, the lean woman who normally had a sharp eye on the chickens, her cow, the boy and everything else in her small domain, was not on her own. Two serious men stood in her living-room, which was also the kitchen and dining room, where they had placed several items on her only table.

“The Germans lost twelve casualties during their first storm on the ghetto!”

The first, who called himself Antoni, pointed to a photo: “The assembly point in the Warsaw Ghetto. That was where it had begun. Is that correct, Anka?”

Screeching with joy, the little boy waddled towards the chickens. This time he would grab one! He was, as yet, unable to think very far ahead. But he knew the pond! That was where the chickens drank – they never went further than that – soon he’d be able to touch one.

Anka. That was the name she had used in the Polish Underground. She tried to remain calm. The small one…she guessed why the men had come.

“So I was told. On the 19th of April, 1943. That was the day before the Jewish liberation feast Passover. Police and SS support troops entered the ghetto. They had orders to clear the place. And remove some 60,000 in the course of the next three days.”

The younger and smaller of the visitors, who had told her his name was Henryk, nodded in agreement. He knew that between July and September 1942 some 300,000 Jews had been taken from the ghetto to death camps such as Treblinka. Another 11,600 were sent to forced labour camps, where they probably succumbed to overwork, hunger and exhaustion. Those, who had been left behind knew that the same fate awaited them. They had heard the rumour that the ghetto was to be closed down.

Henryk said: “The Jews built bunkers. At the end the Germans found about 650! Two groups of fighters made common cause, about 750 men and women of the fighter units: Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ZOB and the Jewish Combat Organisation Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy – ZZW. They knew that they had no chance to prevail over the enemy with their nine rifles and assorted pistols.“

Anka nodded: “On the afternoon of the 19th April two boys climbed on top of a tall building and raised two flags – the red-white of Poland and the blue-white of the Jews. One could see them from the Polish side waving in the wind! The comrades cheered, stamping their feet and singing in appreciation! Even if they couldn’t hear it in the ghetto!“

The boy had caught up with the hens. They fluttered about uneasily to get away from the intruder. He saw the white hen, who was always the first to begin picking at the corn his dear Mama strew in front of her. It had a name: Czar! He ran towards it as fast as he could, while it fluttered furiously out of reach. The little boy stumbled. He almost dropped the bread-crust. Something occurred to him. His legs gave way as he suddenly sat down on his behind.

Antoni wanted to know exactly what had happened. “The shooting began suddenly, when the masses were being rounded up at the assembly point?”

Anka nodded again. That was how it had happened, as she had been told by the survivors. The Germans couldn’t believe it! A real battle was fought out. The Germans lost twelve casualties during their first storm on the ghetto! The masses dispersed in all directions – away from the assembly place! It had been the start of the Jewish resistance.

She said: “It was almost unbelievable. They had asked us for weapons, we couldn’t give them many…and the majority of the comrades…”
She didn’t add, what she had been about to say: that the comrades had not believed the Jews would dare to stand up to the Germans. Instead she continued: “Their resistance was astonishing! Jewish fighters shot out of narrow lanes, the sewers and windows. All at once Germans were no longer safe in the ghetto!”

Henryk excitedly explained further: “They threw Molotov cocktails and hand-grenades at the Germans! In the end the commander talked about 110 casualties, but it is believed there were far more than that! The Jews had virtually no guns, only pistols! They even destroyed two armoured vehicles! The Germans had been taken by surprise, they were beside themselves with fury! At no time had they suspected that Jews would try and defend themselves!” Antoni placed another photo on the table, while Henryk added: „The longest battle took place at Muranowski Square. That was where the ŻZW-leader David Moryc Apfelbaum was killed during the fighting.“

Meanwhile Anka had become increasingly animated: “That was by no means the end! The Nazis ordered the ghetto to be totally destroyed. Everyone, fighters and the other inhabitants of the ghetto hid in bunkers and cellars. The Germans proceeded systematically. They used flamethrowers, threw grenades and explosives into each house, one after the other and set these alight, block after block. We saw the massive flames, the black smoke, heard later of the red-hot stones of the houses, we had to overcome the choking smoke even on our side.”
Henryk called out: “In spite of all that – the bunker war, the fight out of the houses continued until May the 16th! The Jews held out one whole month! Longer than many occupied countries had fought against the invading Germans!”

Anka could no longer bear it. She pointed to a photo and said: “18 Mila Street. That was where a young woman gave birth to her baby, while the battle raged all around her!”

The baby – the child. Who had survived while its mother Deborah had died, his father had succumbed to his wounds in another bunker, where he had fought until the end. One of the Polish comrades, who had helped the survivors to escape through a tunnel and sewers to the “Aryan” side of the city, had saved the newborn, who had been wrapped in a blanket by one of the doomed women.

Henryk pursued the subject: “It was in 18 Mila Street that the Germans discovered the largest bunker! 18 Mila was the ZOB-command centre… they fought desperately until the Germans used teargas – about 100 fighters together with the ŻOB-leader Mordecai Anielewicz took cyanide.”

The boy waved his crust. His little fingers broke off a small piece. Czar, he cried, cluck, cluck! Exactly like his dear Mama. He stretched out his small hand.

Anka had something that she wished to say: “Only a few, including Marek Edelmann, Anielewicz‘ deputy could escape with our help two days later through the canalisation from Prosta Street. As Edelmann said, they had resisted because “we wanted to choose our own death and its place.”

Their despair had turned them into heroes. And one comrade, who knew she had a smallholding with her feathered friends – and that she was lonely, grieving for her lover, whom the SS had tortured to death, had brought her the baby. The little boy she loved as though he was her own.

She heard the words as though from a distance: “Anka, there are people – they had fled from 18 Mila to join us partisans in the forest. We must return the boy to the Jews. Henryk and I, we were instructed…” He saw the distress in HER dark eyes and said no more.

She did not reply. Went to the small bedroom, where she had left him. Was shocked when she saw it was empty. Oh no – the pond! She jumped across the steps, couldn’t see him, only the chickens were swarming around at the edge of the pond.

That was where he sat. In the centre of a muddy puddle. Naked legs dangled in the water. A duck and her two young ones had edged closer, but he was only concerned with the hens. Slowly, he tore one bit of the crust after the other to throw these to the excited creatures, while Czar sat on his shoulder. He clapped his hands as he saw Anka and cried: “Mama…cluck, cluck!“

She lifted him. Held him close, kissing the curly hair, the muddied cheeks. Carried him in one strong arm, while groping with her hand in her large apron for a handful of crumbs which she threw towards the chickens. Several landed in the pond, where the ducks dived to find them.

She told Antoni and Henryk: “There is the samovar. Help yourselves. I must wash him. Change him. Pack his things. You realise: today is the the eighth of May. The anniversary of the day the Germans discovered 18 Mila Street. Where the leader Mordechai Anielewicz died. Once more she kissed the little one: “And when the boy was born.”

The men were surprised. Henryk said: “The eighth of May! Today the Germans surrendered to us and our allies! From now on the weapons are to be silent.“

Anka looked at the boy and said it aloud, so that the men could hear: “Happy Birthday – and good wishes for your life!”