Halina Szwambaum died in the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943, fighting alongside her lover in the final unsuccessful uprising of the seventy thousand. Born in Warsaw, the only child of cultivated, middle-class parents, she was brought up by her father, a Polish patriot, to love her native city. But the Germans came and reminded them they were Jews, herding the family into the Ghetto. There her mother died first, then her father, and then Halina, at the age of twenty-two.
Halina managed to keep in constant touch with her woman friend and former teacher, Stefania Liliental, and when their secret meetings at an appointed spot by the Ghetto walls had to be given up, they exchanged letters which were delivered by underground channels. The four letters from Halina that were preserved are printed below (they appeared in the Polish weekly, Swiat, October 23, 1960). The translation of the letters from the Polish was done by Barbara Vedder.
My dear friend,
For several weeks now my heart has been filled with longing and guilt, until at last I feel that I must talk with you. It’s not really the lack of time that has kept me from writing—one can always find a free half hour during the day—but somehow I didn’t want to “squeeze you in” between chores. . . . It’s not right to do this with real friends, for the time devoted to them should also be a source of happiness. And so, since I am now seated in an armchair on my balcony, surrounded by flower pots blooming with sunflowers and beans, as in a green arbor, I am very glad that I can write to you at last, although at the same time I am sad. I don’t quite know how to say it, but I’ve only just come to realize how much I miss you and how dear you are to me. It is somehow surprising, even for me, this longing for you which sometimes takes hold of me, and this horrible helplessness of ours. In addition, I am now so overworked and tired that I have little energy for keeping our rendezvous; on Tuesday mornings it is difficult for me to find a free fifteen minutes at the appointed hour, and even a visit to Mrs. E.’s for news is a problem. Not because I don’t care—you believe me, don’t you? There is an expression, not very elegant, that describes my present condition: I’ve gone completely to pot. The French call it dé-gringolade. I am still studying that beautiful language—my professor would not let himself “be fired” and still comes faithfully, even though he doesn’t get paid. This gives me a chance to forget and keeps my “brain muscles” in a more or less flexible condition. Recently I undertook the great task of describing the cathedral of Chartres in French. It filled an entire 50-groszes notebook, consumed quite a few evenings, and kept my mind busy, which is a good thing. But it will be a long time before I have the strength for another such escapade.
My present occupation, about which you asked, takes several hours of my day. I go around to different apartments, up and down many flights of stairs, with a heavy briefcase. For this I need a great deal of physical strength and the patience of an angel. I don’t know where either one of these comes from. But they seem to come, and my “business” is prospering. I myself am losing weight—but some people say that I look very well and perhaps they’re right. I eat almost adequately, which means, in comparison with others, wonderfully well; better than you, I am sure, and that thought often worries me. Many people here make use of the community kitchens (70 gr. for a plate of soup); I do, too, which greatly helps my budget. Keeping house takes up quite a bit of my time, although lately I have become a rather broadminded housekeeper—I simply haven’t the strength to go in for any exaggerated floor polishing “beyond the point of exhaustion.” . . . I read very little, and only in French. I have no patience for Polish books, but the French I treat as “classwork,” which somehow makes it easier. I read only the classics: Balzac, Molière, etc., and I’ve developed quite a taste for them. It seems to me that one must have a certain maturity and experience to appreciate them, because I can’t imagine that two years ago I could so fully have realized the greatness of Molière as I do now—I would probably have thought him dull. And there is another thing I’m doing, though I don’t admit it to many people: I am continuing my studies of the history of art under the direction of a good friend of mine, an expert on these matters. I am now up to 15th-century France and in the midst of the “primitives.” I do my best to keep it up since, aside from the French, this is the only contact with learning left to me.
I have written all this about myself, and yet it is not what I meant to talk about. I wanted to tell you about my state of mind, how very tired I am, how heavy my heart is all the time. Recently I went through a rather foolish affair, something of a disappointment in love, which also depressed me, although actually it was not unexpected, and nothing serious, really. I would like to walk over your way, to rest from the people I have to live with, and from all that is happening here, but I don’t know whether I can find two free days or enough money to live on away from home. Basia R.’s husband once told me that I might sleep at their house, but I don’t know whether I could take advantage of the offer now. Anyway, I don’t have their address, and I’m not even sure if they are still in Warsaw. I will try to keep our rendezvous next Tuesday—then we can talk. Now I guess I’ll close—I’ve rambled on long enough. I miss your sofa with its soft pillows, where little Witus used to scramble about; I cannot believe I will never see that apartment again. And sometimes it all seems so remote as, for example, the time when you taught me Greek. It was long ago, wasn’t it? I don’t remember Greek at all any more, even though I used to read Xenophon and Homer. Life was better then than it is now, though you, for instance, did not yet have Witus. So, on the other hand, perhaps it was worse. Well, it’s no use philosophizing. Our individual suffering, no matter how painful, isn’t really important in view of History—History which now walks the streets. We are unhappy, we are tired, Witus doesn’t get butter, we don’t have enough soup, but then every adult and every child in all Europe, almost, is not eating enough. Will Witus’s generation believe us when we tell them about the terrible things we experienced?
I want to ask you to please send me as many of the cute “sayings” of your little one as possible. I long to hear them, and they are very popular around here. How is the shoe factory? Are you very tired? Has your income improved? I want to know everything.
I send you many affectionate kisses, and I hug the little one with all my strength. I beg you for letters!
* * *
October 20, 1941
My dear Mrs. Liliental,
My conscience is so heavy with guilt, I really don’t know if I should begin by thanking you or by begging forgiveness. Anyway, I love you very, very much, and when I received the books you sent I was so touched and felt so lonesome for you that I could barely hold back the tears. And yet, I am on such a constant treadmill that up to now I couldn’t find even a moment to write you a few words. Several days ago I visited Mrs. E., to get the latest news, and this finally inspired me to write. I am terribly worried about your sore hands and feet. . . . I heard about your new plans for the winter: so you are going back to what you did early in the war. Well, I am glad that at least the Royal Infant and his Mother will be warm—that’s important. As for me, I am very rich: I have a little bit of coal, a little wood, and a great deal of natural warmth . . . and anyway, I’m always in motion. I do want to tell you something about my life, how I spend my days and weeks, though it will not be easy. I have already given you an over-all picture, but did I describe my everyday existence? It is not only a struggle for survival, literally of “life and death,” but something quite unique, unique in its ugliness, in its drabness, in a kind of tragic comedy; it is a masquerade, impossible to put on canvas, and which no writer could ever imagine. And so I believe that after all, it has a certain value, and it seems to me that in the future, when I make an accounting of the good and the bad experiences, in the sum total of everything suffered during this war, I will have to deduct whatever contains certain positive moral values. Every generation, every society, must undergo its quota of unhappiness, and so I don’t see why I should consider myself particularly unfortunate to be doing my share of suffering in the Warsaw Ghetto during this war. This is what fate dealt out to me; apparently I was meant to observe life from this particular vantage point. It’s as simple as that. But enough of philosophizing about life in the ghetto. It seems to me that my philosophy changes with each letter, but it doesn’t matter. You are the only person to whom I write, to whom I like to write and, as you say, my letters have a certain “archive” value. In any case, it’s an interesting study: the evolution that takes place in a female on a reservation of the vanishing Semitic tribe in Central Europe. If this turns out to be a thirty year’s war, as happened before in Germany, there will be left perhaps only two or three living exponents of this tribe—people will come to look at them for a fee.
But let’s get back to reality: I work for endless hours each day, and meet new people all the time. I’m becoming more and more independent, more and more sure of myself. In the mornings, until 1 P.M., I am the “lady from the library,” since people come to see me; between 1 P.M. and 9 P.M. I am the “girl from the library,” since I run around town; in the evenings I am a bookkeeper, bookbinder, and a businesswoman, and at night, sometimes, a student again. I have little time to think, or to worry. Problems of wider social importance don’t touch me at all, I’m separated from the world not only by the ghetto walls, but by the entire setup of my present life. Krakowskie Przedmiescie [a Warsaw street] is as far away as the Champs Elysées or the Piazza San Marco. Recently I studied the Polish Renaissance, as the last chapter of the general history of the Renaissance. I had the feeling that Warsaw’s Old Town Square was somewhere at the end of the world, and only the memory of the narrow, colorful houses helped me to realize that it actually exists. During the past month, my “professor” and I made several “trips” to Italy. We visited Siena, Pisa, Bologna, and Venice. Soon I shall be going to Florence for an extended visit. You asked me, once, what I intend to do after the war with my “brain capital”: take advantage of it, of course! This will be exactly the starting point for my future studies, and I look forward to it so much. I know a lot already and I “see” even more, which is particularly helpful in this “branch of learning.” The ability to evaluate certain things independently is more important than the actual knowledge of facts in the history of art. During these past two years I’ve written several works that could be Ph.D. dissertations as far as their length is concerned. And I have started doing translations from the French. I’ve already translated a little book on the French “primitives,” and a friend of mine who happens to be a student of Polish literature is helping me edit it. I would like to do a lot of this sort of thing, so that in the future I can become “the ambassador of French scholarly literature in the field of aesthetics”—like Boy Zelenski [Polish writer and art critic]. And I am still studying French. So much for “bragging,” now a little about others. Elsa asked me again to give you her regards. She is very brave—she works in a slipper factory for twelve hours a day to earn 6.50 zlotys and two plates of soup. She looks funny, like a Komsomol girl, but nice. Irka had typhus. We went through a very bad time with her for a while, but it all ended beautifully. For that matter, typhus is a whole separate chapter in our ghetto epic: it has become a rather familiar and commonplace phenomenon. It’s no longer a bogeyman. We have gotten used to it and don’t dread it so much any more. Nobody avoids the sickrooms any longer, people nurse one another, every child is as familiar with the progress of the disease as he is with the five fingers of his little hand, and every inhabitant of our “country” is a silent accountant for some of his loved ones: how many more days? Because it is a mathematical kind of disease—fourteen days. As soon as you catch your breath after one crisis is over, someone else falls sick, and again the counting begins. Generally everything ends well, except once in a while we hear news, relayed from mouth to mouth, that somebody young and strong, someone’s son, someone’s only daughter—yet they took such care. . . . On the other hand, those who do recover, the so-called “post-typhus,” are a class unto themselves. They really have a heyday! They can visit the Bazaar as often as they like (at the Bazaar one doesn’t buy, it’s too crowded), they can ride the bus, which we call “the house of the louse,” they can forget about counting to fourteen, and when they are bitten by a bug, it’s as if they were made of steel. Sometimes they even feel hurt—nobody takes care of them any more or worries about them: you have a fever, a cold, a headache?—take an aspirin; that’s how it will be for you for the next thirty years!
The above was for the archives. Now for you: we bought Sigrid Undset’s The Bridal Wreath so we already have the entire Kristin Lavrensdatter. It always makes me very happy to be able to circulate a worthwhile book, since it’s the only form of unspoiled “nourishment for the soul” that can be given to our unfortunate, abused people. We are now completing our collection of Proust. Someone with a collector’s bug ought to open a bookshop in the ghetto. We have almost all the items mentioned on the slip I sent you.
I have written so much, and yet I feel that something is incomplete. Perhaps I wanted to talk about little Witus? But how can I, if I never see him and am not able to see him? I want to know a lot about him—what he says, what he does, how he plays. And how are his “gooey” fingers? I beg you, give me many, many details about him. But I know that you will. I wait impatiently for news—for a long letter. It’s 8 P.M.—I have barely time to take this letter to Mrs. Edzia.
I kiss you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you again, and I beg you for letters and news.
January 11, 1942
My dearest friend,
For the first time this year I have managed to steal a little time, a little space in an empty room, and a little daylight so that I can write a few words to you again. It must be half a century since I last wrote. Days and months fly by so quickly as to suggest the horrifying thought of a steadily approaching “liberation”—eternal rather than temporal, since it is the only one we can be certain of. Anyway, the general feeling around here is that “those who survive, will be free; those who die, are free already.” After they confiscated our fur collars and muffs, this feeling took on a deeper meaning. When the temperature is below freezing, we are happy that “they” are also cold. In the year 1943, one freezing January day, two Jews meet on the Chlodna Street bridge—two last Mohicans of the Semitic race in Warsaw. One lives in the northern, the other in the southern part of the ghetto—all the other members of their faith are dead. Both are naked, except for yellow arm bands: “How ‘they’ must be freezing today!” says one to the other.—Such is the mood here. I wonder what is being said “on the other side.” I am terribly sad that I can’t see you. Somehow it always turns out to be impossible, and I’m afraid that the only meeting place we have will be taken away, and then I just don’t know when we will meet again. I see Mrs. Edzia quite often and get more or less regular information through her. I hear such superlatives about little Witus, who is now almost three, but I don’t know when I shall ever see him! I would like so much to have a letter from you again—secondhand information never has enough of the details.
The cold weather is very hard on me, for I spend most of the day on the street. I’m glad that one-third of January is over already. A long winter is too difficult to endure under our conditions. If you could only see these barefooted children on the streets!
I meet the same beggars week after week, and I cannot help wondering how some of them have managed to keep alive, why they haven’t caught pneumonia, how they continue to walk around on feet swollen with pus, frozen. Yet in this nightmare there is a kind of pathos—there ought to be a composer to write a macabre symphony of the ghetto. The streets of the ghetto sing a horrible, but wildly colorful tune—one has to know how to listen. Every beggar, every vendor has his own song, interrupted and unchanged for long months at a stretch. Then there is the steady accompaniment of the footsteps of the passing crowd. Now it is the crunching of snow, now the slushing of mud, or the rhythmical pounding on the pavement. Depending on the weather. And over all this, the dominating noise of traffic, the symphonic fortissimo. A few days ago, at 7 P.M., I stood at the corner of Pawia and Zamenhoff, to look and listen to the street. Along the sidewalk stood rows of vendors selling candles and cigarettes, many of them children yelling “laicht, laicht,” each trying to outshout the others, each in a different tone, making a strange melody. The burning candles flickered in the dark, and threw a dirty yellow light on the walls and pavement, clashing with the whiteness of the snow that gleamed despite the blackness of the night. And everywhere the silent, thick crowd, churning, churning in the dark. Just like a Goya painting. There is some kind of morbid lyricism in this life of ours.
Apropos of poetry—have you read a poem sent from America by Tuwim,1 called “Flowers”? It has been circulated here for some weeks. It is a beautiful epic, of a completely novel and unexpected quality, although only fragments of it have reached us so far. If you don’t know it, I can copy it for you so you can read it and pass it along. Last night we organized a “Tuwim evening.” There were about ten of us, and we recited Tuwim’s poems from his earliest to the most recent. “Flowers” is his crowning achievement. It’s really a beautiful poem.
Besides poetry there was also something for the body—the hostess treated us to a “crutch” (a leg of lamb made of bacon strips, for want of an honest-to-goodness roast). My social life is a very rich one. I have met endless numbers of interesting people, and my house is always full of “guests.” I was never particularly social, never had too many acquaintances, or even friends, but now, during the war, all that has changed. I don’t know how to account for it, but I find it neither unpleasant nor unnatural. This way I find it much easier to endure what must be endured. Otherwise, I would not be able to stand it. The worst thing of all is the home, family life, living conditions. I live in a walk-through room—it’s like living in a bus. Not only do people buzz around countless times per minute, but they push through the doors all at once, as if they were entering the “metro.” It’s simply disgusting! I don’t think I can stand it any longer. Crowding is even worse than hunger—or am I wrong? We all suffer from a hunger for “space.” I’ve become extremely sensitive to landscape—both described and painted. On my walls I have hung postcards of landscapes by Corot, Sisley, Monet, and I never tire of looking at them. Anything green moves me deeply. I daydream of grass—to be able to lie in it—of a meadow, of trees, of a forest. Once I dreamed about the sea, but that was an unpleasant dream.
Well, enough for today. It’s growing dark. I shall write again soon. Greetings to Genia. I kiss you very affectionately and await your letter.
* * *
June 25, 1942
My dearest Mrs. Liliental,
Thank you for your letter, you are very sweet—it’s funny that we both feel guilty, and write to each other about the same things. As I hadn’t heard from you in a long time, when they brought me the envelope with your handwriting on it, I suddenly felt how much I have missed this assurance that someone is thinking of me, even though that someone is so far away and has so many worries of her own. During these recent months I have been thinking of you the way prisoners or emigrants might think of their dear ones who stayed behind in their native country. I wish I could walk out of here and go to you, to Warsaw. I would stroll down Bielanska Street, through the Theater Square, across Foch and down Nowy Swiat, then straight on and on to the Place of Three Crosses and Aleje Ujazdow-skie. I would walk very slowly, breathing in the summer air, the greenness of the leaves and the grass of Lazienki Park—I would fill my lungs with it. There would be so much space around me, so much sky over my head! Maybe I would take the Agrykola Road down to the pond to look at the statue of King Sobieski and the Lazienki Palace. This was the Warsaw of the old days, when one could go to the Polski Theater to see November Nights and later, at midnight, wander down toward the gates of the park. How quiet and peaceful it must be now! I no longer seem to have a memory for sound, for I can’t quite imagine that silence. My ears are filled with the deafening clamor of crowded streets and cries of people dying on the sidewalks. Even the quiet hours of the night are filled with the snoring and coughing of those who share the same apartment or, only too often, with the shots and screams coming from the street! But why am I back in the ghetto? Here is the best proof that one cannot escape it. . . . A moment ago I was in Lazienki Park. Now I walk over to Mokotow. Your apartment is locked up and, oh, horror, not a sign of its inhabitants! But I see there’s a note on the door: “We’ve gone to the country.” You and Witus are in a green meadow. I would lie down, on my back, in the grass; nobody would understand why I was crying at the sight of the blue sky over my head.
Will I ever again in my life see the Vistula River? No one can imagine how much it is possible to love this river; and how one must rack one’s brains to recall exactly how it looks. Because after a while one starts to forget. Just as we forget the features or the voices of the dead, no matter how profoundly we may miss them.
One day a “prison mate” asked me: “Do you still remember a forest?” At once I began to imagine a dry, warm day on the suburban “line” and the woods all around—tall pines with smooth, brown trunks and branches spreading at the top like umbrellas. And walking over slippery pine needles, over moss and heather; everything dry, everything crunching underfoot. Since then, since that question, I can find no peace. I want to go to the country and be in a pine forest so much that I can’t stop thinking about it, and I’m afraid that I may develop some kind of “forest complex.” Once I tried to explain a pine cone to a six-year-old boy, but I could not convince him that it was an ordinary “fruit of the evergreen tree.” He didn’t know what it looked like, so finally I made him plant some beans in a flowerpot. The little fellow planted a few seeds, watered them carefully, observed the green leaves, and now he knows what nature is! He even saw a tree growing in the back yard of a friend’s house. No wonder he doesn’t remember pine cones—he was still so little “before the war.” But now there is awakening in him a love of nature—perhaps an inheritance from his shepherd and farmer ancestors of the great King Solomon’s era.
All our children are growing plants. In flowerpots, in boxes, on balconies, on window sills, everywhere sprout beans, peas, nasturtium, marigolds, reseda, and clover. Visiting friends, one immediately sees, along the window, flowerpots with various green things sprouting—“How well your plants are doing! It’s much worse at our place, we have no sunlight.” But the plants are kind—somehow they grow, even without sunlight! They stretch their little heads toward the light, grow sideways, but keep on growing—to spite the whole world. We have best luck with clover, and even better with weeds. I, therefore, specialize in weeds. Last year they prospered so well that they grew taller than the gardener. My balcony, though not sunny, looks like a real garden. Flowerpots, window boxes, a lot of greenery, a lot of hope for flowers. My greatest joy are the sweet peas—the first little white flower opened yesterday.
To create a summer-villa atmosphere, I placed a brick and a stone among the flowerpots—that brings in an architectural element—brique et pierre—symbol of French architecture. I also have a view of the steeple of a neo-Gothic Lutheran church, and a tiny bit of open sky. It all fits together—the poor man’s garden and Gothic.
My education has now dropped down to the very bottom of the list of my many daily duties, so it seems that “after the war” I may not be quite so smart as my earlier efforts suggested. If I had time, I would study botany, because “later” I want to have my own garden on the outskirts of Warsaw. Only now I really don’t know if on this mortal coil there will ever be found the fuori le mure.
More and more often at social gatherings we talk about life after death. That doesn’t mean that I have become excessively pessimistic—oh, no—but it is necessary to be prepared for the day when we shall have to admit that we have been defeated and must go to be gathered to Abraham’s bosom. I wonder to whose bosom the Aryans are gathered? It won’t be such a terrible thing, after all, only no one is in a great hurry to go, especially since it’s hard to tell how it really is over there. Very often now my mind is filled with figures—the merciless death statistics: 5,000 a month, 50,000 last year. In other words, we are all in the waiting line on which—oh, wonder—everyone wants to be as far back as possible, because—who can tell—maybe the receiving window will be shut right before his nose! That is: maybe he will manage not to die before the end of the war. And then . . . then there will be aurea aetas, heaven on earth, and all Jews will be very, very happy. In the meantime, we live in constant fear, owing to persistent rumors about the approaching end for the children of Israel. We await some great calamity, some huge storm which is supposed to sweep us from the face of the earth, forever. I don’t know why all this has come up just now. In fact, however, it is our destiny to await destruction.
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, we will see), as I’ve written you before, I’m in love. And so my mind is preoccupied with such important things that I cannot very well worry about all the Jews, too. This one Jew gives me enough worry. I have no time to see him and, what is worse, no place to see him. The best guardian of morality in the ghetto is the housing situation. We even had a play here called Love Is Looking for an Apartment, We meet hurriedly, sometimes at dinner in the community kitchens, or sometimes, just before 9 P.M., I drop in to his place for five minutes to say “good night,” only to hear some rough words from the policemen later on. Wanda Milner is a realist and takes life simply: she has become “officially engaged” to some young punk and is waiting for the war to end. In the meantime she has a “fiancé” and is terribly proud of it. Irka and R. work in the “shops” twelve hours a day for room and board and one or two zlotys. Elsa would like very much to write to you, but she sleeps every moment that she’s not working. Actually, this news of our school friends may be quite outdated. You may readily imagine how often we see each other, since it takes me forty-five minutes to get to Wanda’s and we both work an endless number of hours. Several times a year our various birthdays come around. Then we arrange to meet, though often we finally don’t show up. We get news of each other secondhand, from people we happen to meet on the street. Luckily we have friends in common. Occasionally one of us gets lonely for the other, or has something particularly important to tell her. Then we come and spend the night.
1 Julian Tuwim, a Jew and one of the major modern Polish poets. He had managed to get to America, but after the war he returned to Poland, where he died several years ago.