The day my grandmother jumped out the window dawned the same
as every other day in the Transnistria Ghetto — gray.
Her breakfast, a piece of bread —also gray —
crumbled dryly in her mouth. The baby wanted to nurse. She
was really old enough to be on solids, but there was little
enough for my grandmother Miriam to offer her, and nothing
attractive enough to tempt her with.
Today Miriam was to begin a major project: Toilet training
the baby. Under normal circumstances it would seem absurd to
train a child too young to even pull up, let alone walk. But
with the minimal sanitation and the crowded conditions of the
ghetto, it seemed a logical, if not easy, thing to do.
My grandmother's friend Marysia stopped by. They sipped hot
water and chatted about toilet training, but Marysia kept
nervously picking at the tablecloth and glancing out the
window, which overlooked a garbage strewn alley. My
grandmother raised an eyebrow, "Come on, Marysia, what's on
Lowering her voice, she leaned across the table. "I heard a
rumor," she licked her lips. "When they pull out, they plan
to . . . " here she made a motion across her throat,
"What are you going to do?"
"What does anyone do?" Marysia's eyes darted away
My grandmother gave her a long, level stare. "You have a
place to hide?"
"Miriam . . . "
"But they don't want a baby, do they?"
Marysia studied her hands, and my grandmother ruthlessly
continued, "She'll cry, she'll give away your hiding place .
. . so you're going to let us both die."
Marysia whispered, "It's not just me, it isn't that simple .
. . "
The baby chose that moment to make a puddle on the floor, and
as Miriam wiped it up with a rag, Marysia sidled out.
Looking at the baby, my grandmother thought about her
husband, who was probably dead, and her father, who was
certainly dead. "But you," she said to the baby, "you're
going to live." And she grabbed her, squeezing too tight so
the baby yelped.
Sitting at the table chewing her fingernails, she tried to
formulate a plan: The sewers maybe, but what about the rats?
Whom did she know who could help? She knew she only needed to
hide for a short time; the Germans were pulling out. But
where to hide? Her thoughts went in circles. No one wanted to
hide a baby . . .
She jumped when she heard the pounding, the gutteral German
shouts. The time for thinking was over.
Grabbing the baby off her potty, she opened the window,
closed her eyes, and leaped.
The landing was painful, but thankfully, it had only been a
twenty foot drop. Not taking the time to recover, Miriam ran.
Sidestepping the debris, she raced down the alley to where it
joined the next and from there to the next. But eventually
she ran out of alleys and stood trembling in the shadows. She
didn't know what to do, where to go. The Nazis were sure to
search the alleys eventually; she couldn't stay where she
was. To go into the street, though, was to make herself a
target. The crucial thing, she decided, was not to look like
Squaring her shoulders, she stepped out of the alley.
The street in front of her was a major thoroughfare, swarming
with German soldiers, tanks, and artillery. Overwhelmed by
the noise, Miriam stood for a moment, surveying the scene.
There was a German Wehrmacht officer who seemed to be in
charge. He was maybe a major or a colonel, shouting orders,
My grandmother walked up to him and asked him, in her perfect
German, to help her cross the street.
The left side of his mouth lifted in a brief smile, and
taking her elbow, he lifted his arm to halt the traffic, and
walked with her across the street. Turning to face her, he
said, "It seems to me, Madam, that you need a place to
Miriam trembled so much she almost dropped the baby.
He smiled again, "Don't worry. I have a wife back home and
two babies. I hope that — anyway, I want to help you.
Do you have a place to hide?"
Afraid to say anything, she examined his face and decided
that he could be trusted. Did she have a choice? "I think I
know of a place, but they won't let the baby in."
"Come," he said, "show me the way."
Miriam was struck by the strangeness of walking down the
street with a German officer. Hesitantly, she led the way to
Marysia's apartment building, down worn wooden stairs that
groaned ominously with every step, to the basement. "I think
that somewhere . . . "
"That wall," the officer said, pointing to a wall made with
unvarnished, mismatched boards, "it's too close, it should be
several meters east . . . " He banged on the wall and shouted
Miriam heard a squeal of fright and panicked voices. Then a
panel slowly slid to the side, revealing a doorway and a dark
room beyond. The space was crowded with terrified faces, and
she saw one woman retching in the back.
The officer pointed to Miriam, "This woman and this baby will
hide here with you. Understand? You will not send her or her
baby out until the German army has left and it is safe. Do
you understand me?" He didn't shout, but spoke in a tone that
would brook no disobedience.
The people nodded, too shocked to speak, and the officer
turned to Miriam, "Good luck."
Overcome by a mixture of gratitude, shock, and relief, Miriam
could only nod as he turned on his heel and marched out.
Someone grabbed her arm and pulled her inside, whispering,
"We must not speak, we must not make a sound. Keep the baby
quiet. The Nazis are searching the ghetto." Miriam sank to
the floor near the wall and held her hand near the baby's
mouth, ready to silence her should it become necessary.
Miriam crouched there for hours, hungry, terrified, almost
overcome by the odor of the bucket in the corner that was
used as a chamber pot. It was absolutely dark in the hiding
place, and she could not see the faces of her neighbors. The
only thing she could do was listen, straining to hear
anything beyond the noisy breathing of the people around
After what felt like days, but could have been only hours,
one of the men whispered that he was going out to look
The Germans were gone.