When I wasn’t in kindergarten or at home, I was at my Aunt Paula’s, who with her husband, my Uncle Nuhim, and their daughter, Lily, lived in an apartment over Emil and Nora’s coal store. The apartment consisted of three rooms, only one of which had electricity. Central heating might have come to the rest of the world, but in our part of the world, each apartment still had its own stove and needed coal for heating and cooking. Besides being the landlord, Nora and Emil sold coal. No one was quite sure whether they were Nazi sympathizers or not, and they probably weren’t, but still there was that whiff of suspicion. The store was on the first floor, and the apartment was on the second, and was accessible only from a usually locked front door and a flight of stairs. Only the main room, fronting the street had electricity. It also had two windows, one of which seemed in permanent possession of Putzil, the cat, who spent her days watching life out on the street. In this room, life–cooking, eating and socializing–was carried on. The room also served as Lily’s bedroom. There was also a back bedroom without electricity, with one window looking out directly over Emil and Nora’s mounds of coal, which meant that the room was in permanent darkness, which turned out to be a good thing later on. There was also a storage room not directly attached to the apartment.
Many people came to visit my aunt. Her other children, Saul and Hilchen Spector, and Rudy and Rosa Klausner, as well their children were regulars. There were also many others. People would just drop in because they knew that my aunt would always be at home. My cousin Lily, who at that time must have been around eighteen years old, was severely cerebral palsied. She was always in a wheelchair, unless in bed, and required constant care, as she would often have fits.
My uncle was also generally at home. He had a job making underpants for the Wehrmacht, the German army, which he did on his treadle sewing machine. Once he had made a whole lot of them, whoever was in the apartment would help finish them by pulling ribbons through the waistbands. Of course, I also helped and actually enjoyed it. Since there were several people doing it, there was talk and a sense of doing a job that actually needed doing. After we were finished, my uncle would make a great bundle out of all the underpants, place the bundle on his back, and carry it wherever it was wanted by the Nazis.
It was an extremely busy place, my aunt’s apartment, full of people, cooking, and activities, but I didn’t think I was really liked there. I guess I was competing against my second cousins, my aunt’s grandchildren, and my mother, because of the trouble she had with my father, was considered the bad girl of the family, and that somehow also transferred to me. In any case, that apartment and its people became very important in my life for a variety of reasons.
And then there came a letter asking all Jews to register with the local authorities. Instructions were provided as to where and when, but no one in my family was stupid enough to register. Everyone knew what it meant.