Lagodny, Poland—September 1, 1939
RADIO changed Victoria Darski’s world. It brought swing jazz and blues into her living room. And on the first of September, when she sat on the high-backed sofa and reached for the brass knob on the cabinet radio, it brought news of war.
“This is a special announcement,” the commentator said. “German tanks crossed the Polish border in a devastating predawn attack that Hitler launched against Poland.”
Victoria sat upright. Her hands trembled as she dug to the bottom of her black leather handbag and pulled out rosary beads, a cotton handkerchief, and her train ticket. Departure: 9. 1. 1939 11:00, the stamp on the ticket read. Her train would leave in two hours to take her to the women’s dormitory at the University of Warsaw. She was supposed to start her first semester tomorrow. The announcer was saying that all university classes were suspended indefinitely, but Victoria’s suitcases sat packed and waiting in the front hall closet. Can it be true? Victoria crossed one leg and then the other to buckle the straps on her platform shoes. She hurried to tell her parents the horrible news.
By twelve noon, Victoria joined her mother and her sister, Elizabeth, in kissing Papa’s freshly shaven cheeks, telling him to come home safely. The army reserves had called him into active duty. It was the first time Victoria had seen her parents cry in each other’s arms. When the long embrace ended, and the goodbyes were whispered, the Darski women—Victoria, her mother, and Elizabeth—remained at home, glued to the radio all hours of the day and night, believing that at any moment the Germans would turn back, that western Europe would come to Poland’s aid.
Victoria’s bags still waited in the front hall closet twenty-eight days later when Hitler raised the German flag on the Warsaw capitol building. She couldn’t listen to jazz because Chopin’s dirge was the only tune playing out of Warsaw. But she played the radio anyway. It was her only solace, her quasi escape from being held hostage in her own home. It muffled the sound of her sister bickering with her mother about the impossibility of cooking with little to nothing—no salt, no butter. Would there ever be potato dumplings again? Sausage or bacon or ham? Thankfully, over the noise of the cupboards slamming in the kitchen, Victoria heard Chopin.
That is, until Elizabeth stormed into the living room and said, “Mother wants you to turn the radio off and come help me bring the laundry in from the clothesline.”
Victoria didn’t look up. She straightened her dress hem and ignored Elizabeth. Not until Elizabeth switched the radio off did Victoria look at her sister. Elizabeth’s face was flushed brighter than the red polka dots on her blouse, and Victoria said calmly, “I’ve been fourteen, Elizabeth. I know it isn’t easy, but at least try to behave like a lady.”
Elizabeth crossed her arms defiantly. “No. You need to help me with the laundry.”
None of them had set foot outside in weeks, at least not past the clothesline in the backyard. Not since the German soldiers arrived in Lagodny and gave them strict orders not to leave the property. Being cooped up in the house was putting them all on edge. Victoria took in a deep breath and gathered her thoughts. “The point is, Elizabeth, I’d be at the university if it weren’t for Hitler. My suitcases are packed, sitting out there in the hall closet, and I don’t plan to let them sit there forever. There is a chance that Britain and France will show. They’ve declared war on Germany and this occupation could end, and when it does, I’ll be out of here.”
Elizabeth’s perfectly round face and delicate features hardened. “I’d love to see you go to Warsaw. I’m praying for it. Then I won’t have to watch you dress up day after day as if you’re going off to college, wasting your time on tying all that ribbon in your hair. Why can’t you face the truth?”
Victoria stared at Elizabeth. She had taken time on her waist-long French braid, elaborately weaving in the thin pieces of indigo ribbon. And why not? They had all the time in the world. But it never helped to reason with her little sister. “Right now, I’m thinking how nice it would be if you didn’t treat me like the enemy.” Victoria switched the radio back on. “You go get started. I’ll be right out.”
Victoria again turned up the volume. The lamplight threw a hazy glow over the front room, and she found a sense of comfort in the smells of her mother’s cooking. The midday meal would begin, as always, with soup. Today it would be a clear beet soup, followed by potato cakes and sliced apples. She was too hungry to care that the food would be served without salt or butter. They had run out of salt days ago, and no one could go to the market. No one could even so much as visit a neighbor to borrow some salt. Not until they had ID cards.
Even with the radio turned up loud, the dirge didn’t muffle the sound of the crucifix rattling on the wall behind the sofa. Someone was pounding at the front door and nobody but the Nazis made a heart-stopping knock like that. Victoria came to her feet, dizzy from fright, loathing the visitors outside, thinking how wrong it all was. That they were still banging and she needed their permission to leave the house. She was old enough to make her own decisions. Maybe this means our ID cards have arrived? Perhaps she could dispel her fear and go see Sylvia and borrow some salt. She and her best friend hadn’t seen each other in weeks.
Mother reached the door as Victoria detected through the curtain the silhouette of a man’s hat, the high-peaked cap and black leather brim she’d seen many times before.
“Untermensch, öffne die Tür!” the man demanded in a loud voice, but who knew what he meant?
“Open door!” a second man shouted.
Victoria peeked through the curtain at the grotesque skull-and-bones pin on his hatband, unique to the Nazis.
“Victoria, go get your sister,” Mother whispered.
“Is it the ID cards?”
Mother turned away from the door, her voice full of emotion. “Go get your sister. Bring her down to the basement. Hurry!”
Victoria scurried toward the hallway, but an explosion of gunfire cracked so close that she cupped her hands over her ears and fell to her knees. Through flashes of light before her eyes, she saw Mother motioning for her to follow her down to the basement. There wasn’t time to look for Elizabeth. Mother had already made it to the stairs leading to the basement. The men were inside the house.
Victoria reached the stairs and pulled the basement door shut. For a moment, she heard only the sound of her heart pounding against her chest. Then more gunfire bursts.
“Down here,” Mother said, gesturing from the landing below.
Her mother stood just three steps down, but Victoria couldn’t move. She was frozen there on the top step by the sound of gunfire and shattering glass. The basement door didn’t lock from the inside, but Victoria reached for the doorknob and held it with all her strength when boot heels pounded up the hallway and stopped outside the basement door. Victoria held her breath and gripped the doorknob. She felt it turning in her hand, slowly at first, and then the door yanked open and a gun barrel pointed in her face.
Behind the gun was a silver-eyed Nazi who grabbed her by the hair, shouting, “Kommen rout! Rout!” He dragged her up the steps and into the hallway where the second German shouted in a mix of Russian and Polish, “On the floor!”
Victoria crouched at his feet. His friend went back after Mother, hauling her up the steps by the arms. He shoved her into the hall.
Mother was on her knees next to Victoria. “Take me. Let her go. Please,” Mother’s voice pleaded.
“I kill slow whores,” he said. “Both of you. Down on your bellies.” Before Victoria could move, the man hit her in the back with the butt of his gun and forced her head flat against the floorboards. He held her there, the gun butt against her face. “Who else is down in the basement?” he demanded of Victoria.
“No one,” Victoria managed to say through jaws smashed into the floor.
What he heard must have been Elizabeth on the back porch. Victoria searched for Mother’s face, to see something in Mother’s eyes that would tell her what to do, what to say, but she saw only the man’s black boots. “My cat is down there. That’s what you must have heard.”
He leaned on his gun barrel, pinching her face until she thought her teeth would break loose. She tasted blood. In a blur, his red armband—the white circle and black swastika, the bold-stitched letters SS—passed before her eyes. The back of his gloved hand smashed against her face, again and again.
Mother begged him to stop, but he and the other Nazi laughed. “That’s where you both belong! Groveling on the floor.” He spat in Victoria’s face and called her untermensch and turned to Mother. “Where’s your mister?”
“I’ve only the girl with me,” Mother said, her voice trembling. “My husband is—”
Elizabeth crashed into the house from the back door, crying, “Mama! What’s happening?” When Elizabeth reached the hallway and saw for herself, she screamed at the top of her voice, “Mama!”
“Stay there, Elizabeth,” Mother called out. “Get down on the floor. Do what he says.” Then to the German: “Take me. Let the girls live.”
Elizabeth sank to her knees in the hallway, whimpering loudly.
“Maybe I want you and maybe I don’t. Maybe I want all three. But first, I want your money and your food. Everything you have belongs to Hitler. You don’t even have a country to call your own. So, you give me what I want and maybe you’ll live. And maybe you won’t.”
Elizabeth screamed when he took hold of Mother.
“Keep her quiet, will you! Make her shut her mouth! I hate screaming children! Make her shut up!”
Mother told Elizabeth to hush, but she screamed all the more hysterically.
Victoria wanted to quiet Elizabeth, but she didn’t say anything. Not until the gunfire sounded. Not until her sister collapsed to floor, and Mother screamed, “No!” Not until Elizabeth’s polka-dot blouse was riveted with holes and her blood splattered all over Mother’s rosebud wallpaper did Victoria cry out, “Elizabeth!”