It is a good thing for us that it is October and there is no snow on the ground to show our footsteps. It is an especially cold harvesttime, and the wind blows strong and hard across the steppe-land meadows and fields we cross. It pierces my kurtka, wool hat, and stockings. I miss my scarf.
We climb icy rock walls and push through hedgerows.
Before we step into the forest, I look back over the meadows to the small dark shape that was our home for so many years. From somewhere in the wide valley, a dog barks three times.
“I wonder if that is Ovid saying good-bye,” Symon says from behind me.
“I think it is,” I respond gently.
“Keep moving, Hanna,” Uncle Levi orders, urgency in his voice. He is bringing up the rear, while Papa leads us in the front. We are to break into four groups if anyone starts to follow. But all is quiet, except for the clumps of underbrush that scrape our dresses and pants and kurtkas as we pass by.
And the occasional grinding of small stones underfoot, and a smell of forest rot. As we move deeper in, the floor grows softer and the clean smell of astringent pine surrounds us. We push away drooping boughs. The moving line up ahead no longer makes any sound as the growth clears out. When Little Natan starts to whine, he is quickly shushed and picked up by Auntie Maya.
We walk until Kwasova seems very far away. My shoulders begin to relax. I did not realize how tense I have been, knowing those who hunt are behind me. The Cohan brothers had talked of people fleeing through fields, shot in the back as they tried to escape the Aktions. My back had all along been ready for a bullet. I roll my neck and shake my arms to loosen the knots.
The sound of wood jays and nuthatches and song sparrows waking up overhead signals we are nearing the cabin. And then there it is, the ramshackle forestry station we will now call home.
Papa lights a lantern. In the gloom, we see a shelter built from the forest around us. The logs still have rough bark on them, the gaps are stuffed with moss. There is no visible window, just a front door made of smaller logs that closes with the help of a wood latch. If anyone wants to break in, they won’t need to. There is no lock.
Papa opens the door, and we slowly gather inside in a group, the two families in the center of the one-room house. The house is longer than it is wide. If those of us on the outside of the family circle reached out our arms, we would touch a side wall. Along these outer walls, benches are built for sleeping. An iron stove sits on a large flat stone in the left front corner.
There is nothing else. . . .
There is much to do when we wake up in late afternoon. We begin by cleaning out the shelter. Mama had packed a hand broom, which we attach to a solid tree branch. She sweeps the floor clear of droppings and the walls and corners clear of cobwebs. The men do not yet dare to saw down any trees until it grows dark, but they gather dry fallen wood for the stove and get it working, after removing an old bird’s nest from the stove vent. Then they bank the fire till after dusk, when they will start it up again.
A small stream runs past the house, in a fern-covered gully. With a water source, we know we can survive. It is not large enough to bathe in, holds no fish, but we can get a bucket full of icy clear water for drinking, cooking, and hand bathing.
Before it grows dark, we hang blankets across the middle of the cabin, so that our cousins have the right side of the cabin, and we have the left side. We gather in the front, near the door and the stove, to eat some cold cabbage soup with onions and fennel in it. No one leaves anything in their wood bowls, not even the old gray translucent cabbage. Not liking or not wanting to eat a food is no longer an option. We eat whatever we have. And going hungry by choice is no longer an option. We don’t know when our next meal will come. We know that only experienced foresters and hardened resistance fighters live here; we know winters in the backwoods with subzero temperatures are hard to survive.
After supper, and when it is dark enough, the men leave for the second round of supplies. It is the start of many temporary good-byes between them and us women and children. Each time the men are to venture out for something we need—wood, olive oil (it is impossible to find or make schmaltz now), washing powder, food, information—it is a ceremony of farewell. Mama always blows Papa his special kiss, and he always holds it to his heart.
We don’t know if they will return. And it isn’t just the German army we are afraid of, but the bears that come down from the mountains before they start their hibernation, famished and feasting, or the lynx and wild pigs that could injure a leg.
Another cabin to the west is filled with our friends, lucky friends, the Stadnicks and the Rabinowitzes. Gradually during the winter, after forays into the town and to Yuri’s place, we hear bits and pieces of stories of the last of our Jewish community, who just disappeared into the forest with only the clothes on their backs and a rucksack. They scattered as far as they could go to avoid being found. The strongest of them built underground bunkers, or joined the partisan armies in the mountains. The weakest didn’t make it.
Except for the Cohan brothers, the very last of the Jews in our shtetele, who were incapable of leaving or afraid to do so (it takes courage to leave what you know, as bad as it can be), were all ordered to move to the Borszczów ghetto on October twenty-second, just ten days after we escaped.
Kwasova is now considered Judenfrei.