Sixty-five years ago there lived a little boy Jacek, with his parents, grandparents, brother Marek, and sister Jadwiga.
They all lived in a cottage in the tiny village of Chlewiska which had only seven houses. The nearest city, Siedlce, was fifteen kilometers away.
Father and Grandfather were farmers. They grew potatoes, onions, apples and many other wonderful things.
Jacek loved all the farm animals—sheep, cows, chickens, goats, geese. His favorites were Kasia the cat and Hippolyta the horse.
Jacek liked to visit Reymontówka, the great manor house of the village. There lived Pan and Pani Tyminiecki with their baby daughter Teresa.
Grandfather told him that once the widow of a famous man had lived at Reymontówka. The man had written a book about Polish peasants. Jacek loved the life-sized wood carvings of characters from the book, that stood on the lawn.
Jacek knew that evil Germans had come to Poland. Grandfather said it was good that Chlewiska was so far from the city. In the winter the dirt road to Chlewiska was covered with snow and ice. In spring and autumn it was washed out from the rain. In summer it was all bumpy with ruts. Of course there were other ways to get in and out of Chlewiska. But only the Poles knew how.
Germans said that Poles were stupid, but Grandfather said it was the Germans who were stupid because they tried to drive their trucks on that road. Finally they gave up.
So Chlewiska was left in peace and there was plenty of food in the village.
Since the Germans had come, most Polish people were hungry. Pan Tyminiecki asked the farmers of Chlewiska to give food to these hungry people. Jacek liked to help Father and Marek pack bundles of food. Mother said he was helping to feed hungry children.
One day on a visit to Reymontówka, Jacek saw some people he had never seen before.
“Who are they, Grandfather?”
“They are friends of Pan Tyminiecki.”
“Why do they look so frightened?”
“The Germans want to kill them.”
“Because they are Jewish.”
“Jesus was Jewish.”
“Jacek, the Germans want to kill Jesus too.”
It was the afternoon of Wigilia (Christmas Eve). For days Mother and Jadwiga had been cleaning the house and preparing Wigilia food. The smell of beetroot soup, mushroom dumplings, baked trout, and poppy seed pastries made Jacek’s mouth water.
The tree was decorated with nuts, apples, painted eggshells, colored paper mobiles, and paper cuttings.
As Mother set the table she placed bits of hay beneath the tablecloth, a reminder that Christ was born in a stable.
“Mother, why do you set an extra place?"
“The extra place is for the Baby Jesus.”
“Do you think He will come?”
“The candle light in the window will guide Him here. If someone comes tonight, we will know it is He.”
“When will we eat, Mother?”
“When the first star appears in the sky.”
Jacek went to the other room and peered out the window, hoping to see the first star.
He looked about. There was no one in the room except Kasia. She sat licking her paws and smiling.
Kasia jumped off the chair and scratched at the door. He opened it.
“Jacek, follow me.”
Kasia turned and looked at him.
Jacek followed Kasia to the stable.
When he opened the stable door another voice said, “Jacek, the hayloft. Above my head.”
There was no one under the loft except Hippolyta who was standing just below the far corner.
Jacek climbed up to the loft and went to a pile of hay.
The hay pile stirred.
“Who’s there?” asked Jacek.
Finally Jacek uncovered a small boy about his age.
“Who are you?”
Jacek knew that Kuba was a nickname for Jakob so the little boy was probably Jewish.
“Please come down from the loft,” he said to the gaunt, hollow eyed child.
“Take Kuba to the cottage, Jacek,” said a voice.
Kasia escorted the boys back to the cottage.
“Mother, the empty place---”
“A guest in the home is God in the home, Jacek.”
Later Jacek heard the grownups talking, using big words like “ghetto” and “liquidation” and “deportation.”
“Jacek,” asked Grandmother. “Why did you go out to the stable?”
“Kasia told me to. And Hippolyta told me to look in the hayloft.”
Grandmother smiled. “On Christmas Eve the animals speak with human voices. But only the innocent of heart may hear them.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story is based on my conversations with Teresa Tyminiecki, her younger sister Maria, and an elderly peasant couple who live in Chlewiska. Liquidation of the Siedlce ghetto was completed in November 1942. A few children managed to escape to the surrounding countryside.
To read about Polish Christmas Eve customs click here:
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