The year was 1943 and the winter, as is usual in the Bialystok region, was harsh. The trees looked like glassy, motionless objects. Houses in the entire town stood shrouded in melancholy and dread. As night fell, the lights went dark in the windows, leaving only the moon casting its glow among distant cold stars. Sometimes passing airplanes could be heard, followed by the sounds of bombs exploding far away and then a glow of fires burning somewhere over the horizon reflected in the night sky.
My parents’ home was located near the Biebrza River – a large house surrounded by verandas, with two glistening ponds behind it. On the other side of the street, amongst the tall poplars, were the utility buildings of our property . Our family lived on the first floor of the house. At the time, the upstairs provided three quarters for the occupying German military police. One of the residents was an officer about 40 years old who had a room to himself. Not far from our house was the market square surrounded by a church originally founded by Countess Potocka, the town firehouse, a childbirthing center and various shops. Most of the buildings, including the parish community center were forcibly occupied by the Germans during the war.
My oldest sister finished high school in 1938 and was quite proficient in German which she had learned at school. Her best friend happened to be Jewish. I remember her well for she was often a visitor in our home. This girlfriend had a five year old sister. We all sensed the fate awaiting the Jews and we knew what would happen to any Pole found helping a Jew. There was just one punishment for anyone harboring or helping Jews – death for his or her entire family..
At the request of my sister, my father made a decision to go out that day, Christmas Eve, to fetch her girlfriend’s five year old sister. He took warm clothes for her and with his two horses harnessed to the sled, he started out after having obtained the appropriate pass from “our” German officer with which he was able travel about in the area. Earlier, my father had obtained a “birth certificate and “appropriate documents” from the local pastor for “Zosia” – that was the name as written in the papers when she arrived at our house during the day of Christmas Eve or Wigilia.
My sister told the German officer that the little girl was our cousin and that her parents had died. He replied that it would be best for the young girl not to leave the house. I wondered what he could have meant by this; why did he say that? What was he thinking? Did he know who this girl was? Zosia spoke Polish well and she knew my sister and thus quickly became used to her new surroundings. She particularly enjoyed my company and we talked and played together often.
And thus little Zosia took the empty place set at the Wigilia dinner table covered in straw and white linens, that special place reserved for a traveler in need during the night of Christmas Eve. The German officer quartered in our house would often take the little girl on his knee. He kept photographs of his family in his pockets and would look longingly at the pictures of his wife, dressed in white with their two daughters, somewhere around Zosia’s age standing next to her. Even today, the questions still haunt me. Did he know about Zosia? Did he survive the war and was he able to go back to his family?=
After the war, my sister began teaching at an elementary school and Zosia and I were among her pupils. Later my sister moved to the city where she had gone to high school and found Zosia’s surviving family ( not her immediate family). Zosia went back to live with them, but kept our family name. Twenty years later Zosia contacted us from her new home in Canada. But my sister never learned the fate of her dear girlfriend, Zosia’s older sister. And I, upon becoming a young man, truly began to understand and appreciate what my father had done that night and the risk he had taken. It defied logic and the instinct of self preservation and can only be understood and appreciated emotionally in the deepest reaches of the heart. Now every year upon Christmas Eve, as I gaze upon that empty chair at our Wigilia table, my imagination takes me back – I see Zosia sitting on my father’s lap.
Translated by Zofia Wisniewski