The pre-war Jewish Warsaw is a mere phantasm today. The Northern Quarter, inhabited mainly by Jews, was razed to the ground by the Nazis, and on the ruins the new housing estates Muranów and Mirów were built, designed for Polish workers. Only a dozen buildings survived – they stood in a sea of ruins like monadnocks. Photographs of pre-war Warsaw show a completely different city. One needs a large dose of imagination to see it again while walking along present-day streets. Either that, or a conversation with Józef Hen. Writer and journalist, born and raised on Nowolipie Street, he recreates details, tastes, smells, and events from his past with photographic accuracy. After the war he never returned to Muranów, although he was offered a flat. He refused, explaining that he would not be able to shut his ears to the screams of those murdered in the ghetto. Now, however, he leads us along the routes of his childhood and youth. He stresses that the world of his early life extended beyond the “Jewish quarter”, created by Germans in October 1940.
The city of my youth was all of Warsaw. It was the Germans who crammed the Jews into one district and imposed the boundaries of the Warsaw ghetto. In fact, many Jews, particularly Polish-speaking bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, lived well beyond the limits of the future ghetto; they lived wherever they liked. The Kryński Junior High School, which I attended, was located on Senatorska Street, on the corner of Miodowa Street across from the Primate's Palace, while my sister Stella lived in Złota Street. With two partners, one of whom was Catholic, my father built a tenement house on Iwicka Street, Mokotów district.
53 Nowolipie Street was where I was born and raised. The building was similar to many others in Nowolipie Street, an elegant Art Nouveau apartment building with a yellow-tiled entryway. After the war, I found a tile like that in the rubble, but my wife, not knowing what it was, threw it away during our move from Kraków. The most expensive flats were situated on the first floor, cheaper ones on the second and third floors, and the basement flats were cheapest. We lived on the third floor. Only in retrospect do I wonder what our third floor meant to the man who brought us our coal...
The flat above us was occupied by a midwife who attended all births in the neighbourhood. As luck would have it, all the children born in our building were boys: in addition to the two of us, Hipek and me, there were three Goryna boys, three Rozenkiers, Kons and Kacs. My sisters Stella and Mirka had been born before our parents moved into the building.
Looking through the grated window into the yard in the direction of Leszno Street, I saw the empty, quiet courtyard of the neighbouring building, whose gate opened onto Leszno Street. Sometimes, peddlers knocked at the door of our third-floor flat. One of them, a paunchy man, winded from climbing the stairs, let out delightful aromas whenever he opened his bag. He sold chocolate and tea. Sometimes he came with his little daughter. My mother liked him and treated him to cups of the Ceylon tea that she bought from him. In “Nowolipie Street” I mentioned the black-eyed Chaskiel, who dressed in Hassidic clothes and visited people's homes before holidays to collect orders for the “Karmel” kosher wine. Whenever Chaskiel was expected, my sisters expressed sudden interest in wine. They would sit at the table and gaze into his beautiful eyes.
The housekeeper was like a family member sometimes; she slept in the kitchen. In the morning she went across the street to Mr Hochgelernter's grocery shop with a notebook where the shopkeeper wrote down everything she took, and once a week my mother would go there and settle the accounts.
An important place in Nowolipie Street was Mr Frankenstein's pharmacy, which offered some popular medications, such as the “Rooster” headache reliever, often used by my sister Mirka. Across the road, at 50 Nowolipie Street, there were several buildings with courtyards. It was perhaps in the second one that my father's company had a workshop. It smelled of iron, with vises and die-stocks all around. In the third yard, there was a stable with four horses and platforms for transporting heavy loads. The three waggoners were the owner's sons, who all had large yellow front teeth, which made my mum seriously suggest that their mother must have looked too hard at the horses while pregnant!
Once, during an author's meeting, a reader remarked that the atmosphere in our building resembled a small town. In truth, our fifty-odd tenants only got closer during the siege of Warsaw in September 1939. We were all Jewish except the Krzyżewski family. He was a shoemaker, and not just a cobbler. He made new shoes. He had wonderful sons and a beautiful daughter who married a colonel. Once during the siege, Mrs Krzyżewska brought us half a loaf of bread – she must have guessed we were hungry. I will never forget her kindness. I do not remember any neighbour disputes during the siege. We were united by a common cause: erecting a barricade in Nowolipie Street near Smocza Street. It consumed a lot of old furniture and other junk – the people, filled with patriotic enthusiasm, were not sorry to give up their possessions. On the sixth or seventh day of the war, when it looked like the Germans would come any day and the government had already evacuated, our building commander (who had previously volunteered) got frightened and resigned, leaving the power in the building to the youth. That was how I ended up in command during the siege.
As I stand at the former 53 Nowolipie Street today, I feel no emotional connection to this place. A few years after the war, when I was offered a flat in Muranów, I refused. I was afraid I would always hear the screams of the murdered people.
My first school was a kindergarten in Nowolipki, across the street from the Church of St Augustine. The children brought milk and hardboiled eggs for lunch. The teacher boiled all that milk, producing a smell that repulsed me. An important place of my childhood was the Krasiński Garden.
Later its role was taken over by the Saxon Garden. In the Krasiński Garden there is the hill with a stream where I watched people sledding in winter, but was afraid to join. Until I reached five or six years of age, I was a very fearful child. (The little boy from the Krasiński Garden would be amazed to know that his manuscripts would one day be archived at the Palace of the Commonwealth – the National Library). The reliefs on the tympanum of the palace made a huge impression on me. I believed that this was what people looked like in the past and that the world used to be more beautiful than what I saw around me.
I was not quite six years old when my mother took me to Mr Krelman's school at 24 Nowolipki Street, close to Karmelicka Street. In those days, Karmelicka was a narrow yet very busy street, even a tram pushed its way through occasionally. I recently heard from America from the granddaughter of Mrs. Paulette Krelman: apparently her grandfather used to run a school in Nowolipki Street. It turned out that he did not survive the war, but his son, Paulette's father, did (he is mentioned in “Nowolipie Street”).
I must have been no more than nine years old when I started to write. It made me very different from my friends, but there was no envy: they were mathematicians, and I was a writing weirdo. They thought it was nice to have a friend who collaborated with “Mały Przegląd” (Friday supplement to “Nasz Przegląd”). The editorial office was located at 7 Nowolipki Street, next to the Mostowski Palace. The building was not destroyed in the war, and in the 1990s I showed it to Japanese journalists fascinated with Korczak. The tenement house, which should have been classified as a historical monument, was demolished in 1992.
In the stairwell hung a mailbox where children could submit their articles and letters. I had great admiration for the most active and talented collaborators – celebrities in this circle – Lusia from Częstochowa, Aneri, Emkott, Harry, Lejzor from Gęsia Street, Leon G-rg (after the war he visited as Leon Harari from Kibbutz Maale Hachamisha). Korczak, founder of “Mały Przegląd”, was succeeded as editor-in-chief by his secretary Jerzy Abramow, later known as the brilliant novelist Igor Newerly.
Afterwards, for some time I attended the school of the Teachers' Association (Polish: Zrzeszenie Nauczycieli) at 7 or 9 Zamenhofa Street. The school was located between Pawia and Dzielna Streets, from the side of the Pawiak prison. The teachers were very ambitious. We had our own farm, where we grew vegetables.
I rarely went to Nalewki Street. Once I went there with my mother to buy my school uniform. Until year four, junior high school students wore uniforms with a blue stripe, while the stripe for senior high school was burgundy. In practice, all the boys in year four already wore burgundy, ostensibly to avoid the expense in the next year, but actually to impress the girls.
We played football behind the Gdańska railway station, on the Broni Square situated between Dzika, Stawki and Pokorna Streets, or in the nearby Traugutta Park across Muranowska Street. One of my father's brothers, Mojsze, had a tiny grocery shop in Muranowska Street; I still remember the golden colour of kippers sold from wooden boxes there. In the end, he closed his shop and decided to work for my father. He did not know the profession, but he was useful; he got a sheepskin coat and guarded the hardware from thieves at night. Sometimes he earned his living with a shovel, taking an extra job at excavations. On Saturdays, he came to our home in Nowolipie Street to read the newspapers we set aside for him for a whole week. He died in Treblinka with his big, stout wife and daughter. When I wrote about our backyard football years later, I placed the field in Obozowa Street. Occasionally, we went there to play with a local team of Christian boys. Their friend Mundek Grozberg, son of a carpenter, lived nearby. Mundek may have survived the war; he spoke and behaved just like those boys, and his looks were no different. I liked him a lot.
Leszno and Bielańska Streets were where we went to clubs to play ping-pong. The “Maraton” was on Bielańska and the “Hakoach” was situated on Leszno Street, on the even-numbered side, closer to Żelazna Street.
I got to school either by tram, line 0 (I got on on Nowolipie, corner of Smocza, and rode along Smocza, Gęsia, Nowiniarska and Krasińskich Square to Miodowa) or line 9, as in the song: “dziewiątką pojechać w Aleje” (“to take the 9 to the Avenues”). To ride the 9, I had to walk to Leszno Street first, and then jump off at the corner of Miodowa and Senatorska Streets, because the stop was quite far from the school. Although there was not much traffic, there was always the risk that someone might drive by just as I was jumping off the tram.
Leszno Street, whose central section has been renamed Solidarności Avenue, runs east to west and is one of the most sunny streets of Warsaw. In “my” times it was narrower, but could accommodate two tram tracks.
Leszno was the Ujazdowskie Avenue of the Jewish district. In addition to several popular cinemas on the even-numbered side of the street, a new modern “Femina” cinema was being planned, but the vicar from the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary across the street protested, arguing it would be sacrilege to open such a “lair of depravity” so close to a church. What it really meant was that he did not like the owner of the cinema, Mr Bachrach. After all, there were cinemas even in parish halls, for example the St Andrew cinema in Praga, admission 25 grosz, where a priest walked along the rows, riding crop in hand, making sure the girls were sitting on one side and the boys on the other. Paradoxically, “Femina” was only authorized by the Germans during the occupation.
Left of “Femina” was Solna Street, of which only one building has survived to this day. My grandparents lived in a very nice tenement house at 9 Solna Street. On Leszno Street, I think it was number 21, was the seat of the Jewish Academic Sports Association (Polish: Żydowskie Akademickie Stowarzyszenie Sportowe, ŻASS). There, while playing volleyball, I met Gina, my first sweetheart.
She lived in a tenement house in 56 Leszno Street, across from the Courts building, and I hung around the gate, hoping to see her. Whenever I saw Gina go out, I would follow her all the way to Świętojerska Street. It was May 1939 when I finally approached her in the street. I wanted to give her some photos that I had a street photographer take at the ceremony of students paying tribute to the memory of Józef Piłsudski at the anniversary of his death. She said we needed to meet again, she wanted to pay me back. But I – I am not sure if I felt she insulted my honour or if I suddenly stopped liking her – I said: “I have no financial troubles!”. In “Nowolipie Street” I mention how Gina's picture helped me get past a German border guard as I was crossing to the Soviet side – she looked very “Aryan”. “The love paid off”, I concluded at an author's meeting.
In the 1950s I received a letter from a woman from Canada, saying she saw Gina in the ghetto. She was still pretty and elegant, but she had tuberculosis. She was seen at a Jewish sanatorium in Otwock, then back in Warsaw, and there the trail breaks off. Gina's father took the printing shop he had run on Elektoralna Street into the ghetto, but material success became a psychological trap. If they had escaped to the Aryan side, Gina, a blue-eyed blonde, would probably have survived.
Another important place in Leszno Street was the Evangelical Church, because nearby, at an iron gate with railings, at a certain time I always passed a lovely friend of Gina's, who wore a blue uniform jacket and a white pilot's hat on her fair hair. I knew her name was Lusia. We never talked to each other, but we knew when and where we would pass each other in the street. She attended the Dicksteinowa Junior High School near the “Maska” cinema. In “Nowolipie Street” I wrote how the two of them, the beautiful Judyta Cukier, my distant cousin, and a few other girls stood on the terrace of the Makabi swimming pool near the bank of the Vistula and sang “Alexander's Ragtime Band” by Irving Berlin a few days before the war. They sang for us boys, and we tried to impress them with our gymnastic feats. Although the girls are gone now, they are still there, singing. In my memory, they remain young and beautiful.
The Evangelical Church was illuminated at night by spotlights located on the other side of the street. Before the war, I never went inside, but I liked to look at it from the outside, because every boy of fourteen is a bit of a romantic. I liked to compare it with Gothic buildings. Against them, it looked relatively modest, but in Warsaw it still stood out. After the war I was inside several times. The unfortunate occasions were memorial services for the souls of my departed friends.
At the rear of the church was Mylna Street. True to its name (which might be translated as Deception Street) this winding street was difficult to find. If it existed today, it would start near the “Muranów” cinema. That was where my aunt Dora lived with my two little cousins. From where a side wall of the Mostowski Palace stands today all the way to the Arsenal ran another nonexistent road, Przejazd Street, with the second-rate “Fama” cinema, where tickets cost 75 grosz and premiere screenings of Yiddish-language films were held. The “Maska” cinema in Leszno Street showed Hollywood melodramas, but they were cut short since two films had to be squeezed into two hours. Usually children below 18 were not admitted, but we were allowed to go in as long as we stood against the wall near the side exit and ran out into the courtyard if we spotted an inspector. Thanks to the indulgence of the ushers, I enjoyed a good look of Joan Crawford's legs.
The Municipal Cinematograph was located in a palace with a small, elegant courtyard at 25 Długa Street. It played an important role in my biography. On Saturdays and Sundays I went there to watch nature and tourism documentaries. Before the screening a slim man in glasses delivered a lecture to the audience. Cinema was truly educational for children. In “Nowolipie Street” I also mentioned that this was the first cinema I ever took a girl to – by accident, actually – to see “Rose Marie”. After the film, she asked: “Walk me home!”. I was infatuated with her, but she was three years older and I never saw her again.
I also visited more expensive cinemas like “Uciecha” in Złota Street and “Adria” in Wierzbowa Street, where I saw, among other films, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” starring Errol Flynn, but I usually chose cheaper options in our district, such as “Promień” in Dzielna Street, which showed westerns starring Ken Maynard. You could say that I was raised by the cinema. My friends, to whom I told the plots of films I saw and didn't see, saw me as something of a screenwriter.
I applied to the Kryński Junior High School in Miodowa Street. In the entrance exam I failed math so badly that I should not have gotten in, but Professor Chłopski, the history teacher, caused me to understand that my Polish essay was exceptional. „Kryński” (shield No. 100) was the only junior high school in Poland to get approval from the superintendent of schools to introduce 40-minute lessons, because even though we studied a lot of subjects, our ambitious headmaster introduced a very efficient educational programme, known as the half-Dalton curriculum. We had many special labs, so there was not much sitting in the classroom; we mostly toted our bags from room to room.
The ground floor of the building held Gelateria Veneziana, an Italian ice cream shop, which I described in my novel “Przed wielką pauzą” (“Before the Lunch Break”). We visited it with the Professor to buy ice cream for 20 grosz, real Italian ice cream, not on a stick or from a machine. In the back of the building, behind a courtyard, there was a Christian junior high school for girls. For fear of offending the religious Catholic girls, we never tried to flirt with them. Years later I told a graduate of that high school about it, and she cried out: “But we kept waiting for you!”.
The school building burned down in September 1939. It was later restored according to older plans instead of recreating its pre-war appearance. I was there to see the fire, and I remember a white bowl, surrounded by flames, sitting on the windowsill in the lab room. The fire consumed an award I won but did not get to receive – a volume of poetry by Słonimski. I got it for first place in a competition for the best essay about our school. The teachers submitted my work to “Mały Przegląd”, which published it on the front page in 1939 under the title “Moja szkoła” (“My School”). After the war I told the whole story to Słonimski – about the book of poems, the award that burned down along with the school.
We often stared at the Primate's Palace, located in Senatorska Street across from the junior high school. It was the property of Primate Michał Poniatowski, brother of King Stanisław. Prior to the war the building housed the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform. I always hoped to see it on the inside, and that happened eventually, but in a sad way: I stood guard at Lucjan Rudnicki's funeral, and later at Leon Kruczkowski's.
Another important place in Senatorska Street was the Luxemburg gallery. It was reduced to a skeleton, then completely pulled down, which is a pity, because the gallery used to bustle with life: there was a cinema, a dance club, a revue theatre, a printing house, and a lot of shops. In August 1939 the people of Warsaw gathered at the gallery before proceeding to dig anti-aircraft trenches. I remember Adolf Dymsza with a shovel.
Close to the building that today houses Marek Kondrat's winery, next to the “Adria” cinema, there was a vending machine with sandwiches for 20 grosz. We could not believe it was really automatic, that was too amazing to be true. We suspected there was a person inside who handed out the sandwiches. We used the machine to impress girls.
In Bielańska Street, near the “Maraton” club, was Ida Kamińska's “Nowości” theatre, where I heard my first ever symphony concert. It was our teacher Prof. Chłopski, a great music enthusiast, who took us to the matinee to ensure our music education. Thanks to his encouragement, I took part in several qualifiers for the Chopin Competition.
At the “Europa” cinema, located in a tenement house adjacent to the building in Świętokrzyska Street that later housed the “Nowy Świat” café, Korczak organized two film screenings for contributors to “Mały Przegląd”. Correspondence from the editorial office was delivered by volunteers – mostly boys. Once they brought me the book “Dusiciele Bengalu” (“Bengali Stranglers”) by Asolant, another time a postcard with cherries on it, which was a pass to a screening of “The Paul Street Boys”. I was allowed to take two people with me – it was Korczak's idea that the child should invite his mother to the cinema and not the other way around. I took my mum and brother. During the screening my brother, jealous of my success, kept kicking the man sitting in front of him. The man turned around and we recognized his face from photographs. “Stop it, it's Korczak!” I whispered, but my brother kept on kicking. At that point I witnessed Korczak's pedagogic failure: he switched to a different row.
The Wielopole marketplace looked like the Roman Colosseum and was located close to the Hale Mirowskie trade centres. Inside, it was filled with shops, most of which sold clothing. That was where my mother bought my school uniforms. Haggling was one of the local customs. The salesman would run out of his shop, calling after my mother: “I can't lower the price any more, I'd lose my profit, on my honour! That is real gabardine!”. To that, my sarcastic mother replied: “Maybe it lay next to gabardine once!”. The youth spoke Polish. The parents used different languages with each other, but spoke Polish with the children. They also used different languages while shopping – the shopkeepers spoke Polish, but the hawkers spokeYiddish.
Outside the rotunda, in Rynkowa Street (formerly Gnojna Street), my uncle kept a china shop, which had previously been owned by my grandparents. In later years my grandmother, very attached to trading in china and proud of her knowledge of the subject, sold it in the street, standing behind a market stand, swathed in her warm clothes, even in freezing weather. As I wrote in “Nowolipie Street” she was fortunate enough to die before the ghetto was established. A crowd of sellers from Wielopole escorted her in the funeral procession.