יצחק דזשאַעקק, אַ חשבו (Yitzchak Jaeck, An Account)

by Michelle Sayers 

(Received an Honrable Mention in SAA's 2018 Archives Short Fiction Contest)

My name is Yitzchak Jaeck. I am nineteen years old. I am a body collector, a smuggler, a resister. I am a Jew. I have been asked to record what I have witnessed, and what I have experienced here. This is my account.

I was in the Jewish Quarter since the beginning. Since before there was a Ghetto. I watched my city defeated and divided, and then sealed apart by high walls and guns. Before, my father owned a small printing press and participated in the Bund, the General Jewish Workers Union. Before, I went to the Jewish day school with my younger sister, Chava, and helped my father in his shop in the evenings, learning the craft of the written word. Before, my mother baked bread every Thursday afternoon, and we celebrated Shabbat every Friday evening. Before, my best friend was Jan, the Christian boy who lived three blocks away. After school, we climbed the trees in the park; he taught me Polish slang and I taught him how to swear in Yiddish.

But my account is not about before. It is about after. After, the walls surrounding the Quarter suffocate me. They have been fortified to keep in the stench of death. After, all around me, children cried for want of bread and some of the older ones scavenged for food in the gutters overflowing with waste. Emaciated women with hollow eyes peered out of run-down apartment windows. I was sixteen when the Germans laid siege to Warsaw. One year later, they sealed the Jewish Quarter. October. The weather was turning colder. The bricks, brought straight from the kiln, were warm in our hands as we closed ourselves off, prodded by shining steel and hard German words.

I accepted the fact that I would die of hunger before I died of anything else. One hundred eighty grams of bread distributed to each person each day. Typhus and cholera seeped through the streets, infiltrating the stones of the buildings and attacking the most vulnerable. The children always went first. Their small bodies wrapped in bundles of coarse bland material lay on the sidewalks propped up against their homes. It did not take long before it was common enough that the sight no longer warranted attention, even from the most tenderhearted Quarter residents.

Every day I took my cart to some part of the Quarter and removed the dead from the sidewalks and gutters. I was accustomed to dragging the feather-weight bodies through bitter cold and dizzying heat, loading five, seven, ten onto my cart before pushing it through the streets to the designated storage area near the cemetery. The gravediggers buried them as quickly as possible, becoming wealthy from their booming work.

In the spring of 1942 my sister finally succumbed to the typhus. Her body, weak and frail and starving, had no strength to fight. It was then I determined I could no longer service only the dead. Three days later, I carried her body to the cemetery, and there I joined the smugglers. The easiest way in or out of the Quarter was the cemetery; unoccupied except for the dead, and only loosely guarded by Jewish policemen, who in secret joined us in our endeavors. As a body collector, I had an advantage. I visited the cemetery every day; my starved, diseased fellows became useful even in death. Under their bodies I mastered the flow of goods in the Jewish Quarter. Neighbors came to me with their most precious belongings: candelabras from their grandmother, precious stones passed down through generations. I carried them to those brave enough to leave the walls entirely to sell goods, to buy information and bread. The smuggling kept us alive.

Those who were not so fortunate to have access to the cemetery resigned themselves to walk the sewers with the rats, bartering any and everything for food and information. Children who were healthy enough were conscripted to wiggle their small bodies through the tunnels, dodging through the Christian Quarter to the safe houses who provided the necessities we could no longer obtain in the Jewish Quarter. For some reason, they always had the courage to return.  Even still, the Germans have not yet blocked this escape route, but it is only a matter of time until they discover us. But I am getting ahead of myself.

In the beginning, we tried to carry on as before. Schooling was forbidden, but underground schools somehow thrived. Chava took several children under her wing who knew no Yiddish and understood no Jewish custom, having been placed in the Quarter only because of their ancestry. She spent her days trying to help them catch up with a proper Jewish education. Occasionally there was a community concert or play. Everywhere we organized ourselves to try to make life seem as normal as possible; cafes and clubs still functioned, though only for those who could afford it. We were foolish, thinking this was a small moment in our lives. But then, rations were cut, more people from German occupied territory were sent to the Quarter, and soon there was no place to put them. It was only a matter of time before the lice exploded and typhus appeared, and the optimism and blindness to our real situation slowly faded.

After my days at work cleaning the streets of the Quarter, I often sought the company of former schoolmates and new friends within the smuggling ring. Occasionally, other body collectors joined us. The curfew did not allow us to linger together for as long as we often would have liked, but time to play a game of cards, and try to forget our existence in this place was welcome. We did not talk about the past, as it was so far removed from our reality; nor did we talk about the future, for we had seen too many who dreamed of the future snuffed out.

I watched in the summer of 1942 as the deportations began. We were already dying in steadily rising numbers. I had been in the Quarter for three years. It is the Ghetto now. My father, though he never really recovered from the loss of his printing press in 1940 when the Quarter was sealed, became a teacher in one of the underground schools and tried to carry on. After Chava’s death, my mother rarely moved from her rocking chair at the apartment window. She watched as people with suitcases in travel clothes were paraded by Germans and Jewish police down the street, around the corner, and toward what the Germans called the Umschlagplatz. “The Germans never do anything good for the Jews,” she remarked, each day as she watched the crowds. “They claim they are resettling us into labor camps, where there is room and fresh air, after they have made us live in squalor, with no food, no blue sky, for three years. We cannot trust their words. I do not believe there is resettlement. But I do not imagine where they are taking so many of us.”

Only a few believed in the resettlement the Germans offered. And her words did not have impact on me at first. I had been collecting bodies for two years when the resettlement started. Starved children, diseased old men, and young men shot at the Ghetto walls who were suspected of trying to escape. German laughter and mocking as they watch us gather the bodies of our dead, the bodies they had destroyed. It did not matter where they were taking us, what “resettlement” meant. Day after day, I watched as hundreds and then thousands were taken away on the train. Whether it was here or it was there, we were going to die.

But then.

On a night of cards, three weeks after the deportations started, Moshe, my old school friend, sat next to me. Quietly, he told me that a family three apartments away from his own had been sent to the trains that day. Moshe watched as the mother and father guided their three small children through the crowd. Then, he quite suddenly changed the subject. He was part of Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist youth group. Had I heard of it? I had heard of such groups flourishing in the Ghetto but did not have much cause to be involved in them. Would I be interested in coming to their next meeting? As a body collector and a smuggler, perhaps I could be of some help to them with a new project they were working on.

I went to the meeting out of curiosity. How could a body collector and smuggler help a Zionist group? They met in an underground room; several of my card playing friends were also in attendance. Here I learned of the plans. Of my usefulness. For months, they had been building an artillery of handguns, grenades, any sort of weapon they could get their hands on. They called themselves the Jewish Fighting Organization. And they needed smugglers on their side.

 And so I joined the Jewish Fighting Organization. I did not have anything to lose. I did not tell my mother or my father. They already knew of my smuggling activities, and I could easily pick up the work without alerting them. My life was already worth nothing if the Germans discovered me. It did not matter if I was carrying bread or bullets. A man named Krzysztof, a veteran of the Organization and secular Jew, became my body collecting and smuggling companion.

The deportations ended in September, as suddenly as they had begun. There was a quiet restlessness in the Ghetto then. With so many removed, it was too still. The soldiers no longer entered the Ghetto. The winter was coming on, and many wondered if the Germans were done with the deportations, if they would leave the rest of us in peace. The Organization, however, continued their work. I continued each day to collect bodies and take them to the cemetery. Some days I traded them for weapons and ammunition. Thousands joined the resistance. In November, we were taken under the wing of the Polish resistance, and the smuggling operation picked up speed with their contributions to the cause.

We worked. We stockpiled. We waited.

Yesterday, January 18, 1943. A biting wind blew out of the northeast. I was assigned to work with Krzysztof on Zamenhofa street. It is the street closest to the railway station, the place the Germans escorted the deportees months ago, sending them off to their deaths. The Germans think we still believe their claims of “resettlement.” Three years of Ghetto living, starving, smuggling, and suffering, and four months of deportations the previous summer and fall have made even the most foolishly optimistic of us wise.

I heard the trains before I saw them. Steam billowed from the tracks, the clanking of metal and screech of brakes echoed off the buildings. I felt a tightening in my stomach as I realized the day had come.

Krzysztof and I ignored the activity and buzz of the German soldiers around the train and went about our duty of pulling body after frozen body onto our carts, trying to maintain the normalcy of our work. Did the Organization know what was happening? Krzysztof and I said little to one another; soon I became aware of someone watching us. I looked up toward the trains, and saw a German guard studying us as we loaded our merchandise onto our wagons, cradling his gun in his folded arms and smirking slightly.

Then, I became aware of another sound coming from within the city. This sound was even louder than the trains, and both Krzysztof and I turned toward it. Yelling, mixed with the stampede of footsteps, and suddenly a transport came into view, almost running, provoked by German guards and guns. Most of the people were trying to keep up, and a few stumbled as they raced toward the trains. Resignation, exhaustion, but also fear on their faces. They were heading to the Umschlagplatz, to await boarding. It had begun again. The Germans had returned to finish their work.

Gunfire. The smirking German looked confused and drew his weapon, for it was no German gun that had fired the shots. Krzysztof and I, having made way for the deportees, watched him from an alleyway. More gunfire, closer now. Then one of the Germans went down, and we fled.

Here I must close. We are outnumbered, but we have the underground. We are not defeated on our first day, nor our second. But they are trying to protect the accounts. They have placed them in milk cans and security boxes and will bury them around the Ghetto. The Oyneg Shabbos they call themselves. Collectors of our suffering. I cannot record how the uprising will end, or what our fate has in store. Perhaps one day the world will know what happened here, through Oyneg Shabbos’ work. I am but a small person, just one of many. But I pray that my account may speak for the thousands. The brothers and sisters I placed on my cart, those faithful even in death who assisted those still hanging on to their meager lives. They lie on the streets now. I can no longer help them. Those whom we have watched walk to the trains. Those of us fighting to live just one more day. All of us. We are the Warsaw Jews.

* * * * *

The archivist carefully placed the weathered paper down next to the rusted milk can, the Yiddish script faded in the light. He glanced up at the two stacks of similar paper crowding his desk; a testament. The Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw was liquidated in 1943, most of it burned or bombed into oblivion in order to destroy the uprising. For two years longer the war raged on, and through all of it, the archive lay hidden under rubble, under quiet debris-filled streets no longer burdened with the crying of starving children, the shots of indifferent soldiers. Before the archivist lay thousands of documents: newspapers, diaries, letters, and accounts like the one before him; rescued from the leveled Jewish Quarter with the help of Rokhl Auerbakh, one of only three survivors of Oyneg Shabbos, who knew the location of the hidden cans and boxes. The only hope of bringing a hidden archive to light. Where does one even begin with such documents? How does one share so the world will understand the sorrow, the suffering, and the resilience of this people?

The archivist took another look around. Then, he picked up his notepad and a pencil.

“Item 1.”


© 2018 by Michelle Sayers


About the author: Michelle Sayers supervises the Processing Team at the Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (CHL) in Salt Lake City, Utah. She graduated with a master’s in history from the University of Utah in 2010 and became a certified archivist in 2016. She was involved with archives and special collections through various internships and programs for several years before landing at the CHL, where she has worked for the last seven years. In her spare time, she reads and knits and tries to keep up with her two (most adorable) young sons.