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28 March, 1942
The human spirit is a miraculous thing. It is the strongest part of us—crushed under pressure, but rarely broken. Trapped within our weak and fallible bodies, but never contained. I pondered this as my brother and I walked to a street vendor on Zamenhofa Street in the Warsaw Ghetto, late in the afternoon on a blessedly warm spring day.
"There was one right there," he said, pointing to a rare gap in the crowd on the sidewalk. I nodded but did not reply. Dawidek sometimes needed to talk me through his workday, but he did not need me to comment, which was fortunate, because even after months of this ritual, I still had no idea what to say.
"Down that alleyway, there was one on the steps of a building. Not even on the sidewalk, just right there on the steps."
I fumbled in my pocket, making sure I still had the sliver of soap my stepfather had given me. Soap was in desperate demand in the ghetto, a place where overcrowding and lack of running water had created a perfect storm for illness. My stepfather ran a tiny dentistry practice in the front room of our apartment and needed the soap as much as anyone—maybe even more so. But as desperate as Samuel's need for soap was, my mother's need for food eclipsed it, and so there Dawidek and I were. It was generally considered a woman's job to go to the market, but Mother needed to conserve every bit of strength she could, and the street vendor Samuel wanted me to speak to was blocks away from our home.
"...and, Roman, one was behind a big dumpster." He hesitated, then grimaced. "Except I think we missed that one yesterday."
I didn't ask how he'd come to that conclusion. I knew that the answer was liable to make my heart race and my vision darken. Sometimes, it felt as if my anger was simmering just below the surface—at my nine-year-old brother and the rest of my family. Although, none of this was their fault. At Sala, my boss at the factory on Nowolipki Street, even though he was a good man and he'd gone out of his way to help me and my family more than once. At every damned German I laid eyes on. Always them. Especially them. A sharp, uncompromising anger tinged every interaction those days, and although that anger started and ended with the Germans who had changed our world, it cycled through everyone else I knew before it made its way back where it belonged.
"There was one here yesterday. In the middle of the road at the entrance to the market."
Dawidek had already told me all about that one, but I let him talk anyway. I hoped this running commentary would spare him from the noxious interior that I was currently grappling with. I envied the ease with which he could talk about his day, even if hearing the details filled me with guilt. Guilt I could handle; I probably deserved it. It was the anger that scared me. I felt like my grip on control was caught between my sweaty hands, and at any given moment, all it would take was for someone to startle me, and I'd lose control.
The street stall came into view through the crowd. There was always a crush of people on the street until the last second before seven o'clock curfew. This was especially the case in summer, when the oppressive heat inside the ghetto apartments could bring people to faint, besides which, the overcrowding inside was no better than the overcrowding outside. I had no idea how many people were inside those ghetto walls—Samuel guessed a million, Mrs. Kuklinski in the bedroom beside ours said it was much more, Mother was quite confident that it was maybe only a hundred thousand. All I knew was that ours was not the only apartment in the ghetto designed for one family that was currently housing four—in fact, there were many living in even worse conditions. While the population was a hot topic of conversation on a regular basis, it didn't actually matter all that much to me. I could see with my own eyes and smell with my own nose that however many people were trapped within the ghetto walls, it was far, far too many.
When the vendor's table came into view, my heart sank: she was already packing up for the day, and there was no produce left. I was disappointed but not surprised: there had been little chance of us finding food so late in the day, let alone food that someone would barter for a simple slip of soap. Dawidek and I had passed a store that was selling eggs, but they'd want zloty for the eggs, not a tiny scrap of soap.