About the Book:
Kelly Rimmer’s newest novel is an epic WWII saga and love story, based on the real-life efforts of two young people taking extraordinary risks to save their countrymen, as they try to find their way back to each other and the life they once knew.
Following on the success of The Things We Cannot Say, this is Kelly Rimmer’s return to the WWII category with a brand new novel inspired by Irena Sendler, the real-life Polish nurse who used her access to the Warsaw ghetto to smuggle Jewish children and babies to safety.
Spanning the tumultuous years between 1942 and 1945 in Poland, The Warsaw Orphan follows Emilia over the course of the war, her involvement with the Resistance, and her love for Sergiusz, a young man imprisoned in the Jewish ghetto who’s passion leads him to fight in the Warsaw Uprising. From the Warsaw ghetto to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, through Nazi occupation to the threat of a communist regime, Kelly Rimmer has penned her most meticulously researched and emotionally compelling novel to date.
28 March, 1942
The human spirit is a miraculous thing. It is the strongest part of us—crushed under pressure, but rarely broken. Trapped within our weak and fallible bodies, but never contained. I pondered this as my brother and I walked to a street vendor on Zamenhofa Street in the Warsaw Ghetto, late in the afternoon on a blessedly warm spring day.
“There was one right there,” he said, pointing to a rare gap in the crowd on the sidewalk. I nodded but did not reply. Dawidek sometimes needed to talk me through his workday but he did not need me to comment, which was fortunate, because even after months of this ritual, I still had no idea what to say.
“Down that alleyway, there was one on the steps of a building. Not even on the sidewalk, just right there on the steps.”
I fumbled in my pocket, making sure I still had the sliver of soap my stepfather had given me. Soap was in desperate demand
in the ghetto, a place where overcrowding and lack of running water had created a perfect storm for illness. My stepfather ran a tiny dentistry practice in the front room of our apartment and needed the soap as much as anyone—maybe even more so. But as desperate as Samuel’s need for soap was, my mother’s need for food eclipsed it, and so there Dawidek and I were. It was generally considered a woman’s job to go to the market, but Mother needed to conserve every bit of strength she could, and the street vendor Samuel wanted me to speak to was blocks away from our home.
“…and Roman, one was behind a big dumpster,” he hesitated, then grimaced. “Except I think we missed that one yesterday.”
I didn’t ask how he’d come to that conclusion. I knew that the answer was liable to make my heart race and my vision darken, the way it did sometimes. Sometimes, it felt as if my anger was simmering just below the surface: at my nine-year-old brother and the rest of my family. Although, none of this was their fault. At Sala, my boss at the factory on Nowolipki Street, even though he was a good man and he’d gone out of his way to help me and my family more than once. At every damned German I laid eyes on. Always them. Especially them. A sharp, uncompromising anger tinged every interaction those days, and although that anger started and ended with the Germans who had changed our world, it cycled through everyone else I knew before it made its way back where it belonged.
“There was one here yesterday. In the middle of the road at the entrance to the market.”
Dawidek had already told me all about that one, but I let him talk anyway. I hoped this running commentary would spare him from the noxious interior that I was currently grappling with. I envied the ease with which he could talk about his day, even if hearing the details filled me with guilt. Guilt I could handle, I probably deserved it. It was the anger that scared me. I felt like my grip on control was caught between my sweaty hands and, at any given moment, all it would take was for someone to startle me, and I’d lose control.
The street stall came into view through the crowd. There was always a crush of people on the street until the last second before seven o’clock curfew. This was especially the case in summer, when the oppressive heat inside the ghetto apartments could bring people to faint, besides which, the overcrowding inside was no better than the overcrowding outside. I had no idea how many people were inside those ghetto walls—Samuel guessed a million, Mrs. Kuklin´ski in the bedroom beside ours said it was much more, Mother was quite confident that it was maybe only a hundred thousand. All I knew was that ours was not the only apartment in the ghetto designed for one family that was currently housing four—in fact, there were many living in even worse conditions. While the population was a hot topic of conversation on a regular basis, it didn’t actually matter all that much to me. I could see with my own eyes and smell with my own nose that however many people were trapped within the ghetto walls, it was far, far too many.
When the vendor’s table came into view, my heart sank: she was already packing up for the day and there was no produce left. I was disappointed but not surprised: there had been no chance of us finding food so late in the day, let alone food that someone would barter for a simple slip of soap. Dawidek and I had passed a store that was selling eggs, but they’d want zloty for the eggs, not a tiny scrap of soap.
“Wait here a minute,” I murmured to my brother, who shrugged as he sank to sit on an apartment stoop. I might have let him follow me, but even after the depths our family had sunk to over the years of occupation, I still hated for him to see me beg. I glanced at him, recording his location to memory, and then pushed through the last few feet of people mingling on the sidewalk until I reached the street vendor. She shook her head before I’d spoken a word.
“I am sorry young man; I have nothing to offer you.”
“I am Samuel Gorka’s son,” I told her. It was an oversimplification of a complicated truth, but it was the best way I could help her place me. “He fixed your tooth for you, remember? A few months ago? His practice is on Miła Street.”
Recognition dawned in her gaze, but she still regarded me warily.
“I remember Samuel and I’m grateful to him, but that doesn’t change anything. I have no food left today.”
“My brother and I…we work during the day. And Samuel too. You know how busy he is, helping people like yourself. But the thing is, we have a sick family member who hasn’t—”
“Kid, I respect your father. He’s a good man, and a good dentist. I wish I could help, but I have nothing to give you.” She waved to the table, to the empty wooden box she had packed up behind her, and then opened her palms towards me as if to prove the truth of her words.
“There is nowhere else for me to go. I can’t take no for an answer. I’m going to bed hungry tonight, but I can’t let…” I trailed off, the hopelessness hitting me right in the chest. I knew I would be going home without food for my mother that night, and the implications made me want to curl up in a ball, right there in the gutter. But hopelessness was dangerous, at least in part because it was always followed by an evil cousin. Hopelessness was a passive emotion, but its natural successor drove action, and that action rarely resulted in anything positive. I clenched my fists, and my fingers curled around the soap. I pulled it from my pocket and extended it towards the vendor. She looked from my palm to my face, then sighed impatiently and leaned close to me to hiss,
“I told you. I have nothing left to trade today. If you want food, you need to come earlier in the day.”
“That’s impossible for us. Don’t you understand?”
To get to the market early in the day one of us would have to miss work. Samuel couldn’t miss work; he could barely keep up as it was—he performed extractions from sunup to curfew most days. Rarely was this work paid now that money was in such short supply among ordinary families like his patients, but the work was important—not just because it afforded some small measure of comfort for a people group who were, in every other way, suffering immensely. But every now and again Samuel did a favor for one of the Jewish police officers or even a passing German soldier. He had a theory that one day soon, those favors were going to come in handy. I was less optimistic, but I understood that he couldn’t just close his practice. The moment Samuel stopped working would be the moment he had to perform an honest reckoning with our situation, and if he did that, he would come closer to the despair I felt every waking moment of every day.
“Do you have anything else? Or is it just the soap?” the woman asked me suddenly.
“Tomorrow. Come back this time tomorrow. I’ll keep something for you, but for that much soap?” She shook her head then pursed her lips. “It’s not going to be much. See if you can find something else to barter.”
“There is nothing else,” I said, my throat tight. But the woman’s gaze was at least sympathetic, and so I nodded at her. “I’ll do my best. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
As I turned away, I wondered if it was worth calling into that store to ask about the eggs, even though I knew that the soap wasn’t nearly enough for a whole egg. It wasn’t enough for even half an egg here on the market, and the stores were always more expensive than the street vendors. Maybe they would give me a shell? We could grind it up and Mother could drink it in a little water. We’d done that once before for her. It wasn’t as good as real food, but it might help a little overnight. It surely couldn’t hurt.
As I spun back towards our apartment, a burst of adrenaline nearly knocked me sideways. Dawidek hadn’t moved, but two Jewish police officers were now standing in front of him. Like me, my brother was tall for his age—an inheritance from our maternal grandfather that made us look bizarre when we stood with Samuel and Mother, who were both more diminutive. Even so, he looked far too small to be crowded into the doorway of an apartment by two Jewish Police officers. That situation could turn to bloodshed in a heartbeat. The Kapo operated on a spectrum from well-meaning and kindly to murderously violent, and I had no way of knowing what kind of Kapo were currently accosting Dawidek. My heart thundered against the wall of my chest as I pushed my way back to them, knowing even as I approached that intervening could well get me shot.
For everything I had been through and for everything I had seen, the only thing that kept me going was my family, especially Dawidek. He was my favorite person in the world, a burst of purity in an environment of pure evil. Some days, the only time I felt still inside was when he and I were playing or talking in the evenings—and that stillness was the only rest I got. I could not live without him, in fact—I had already decided that if it came to that, I wouldn’t even try.
“Dawidek?” I called as I neared. Both Kapo turned toward me. The one on the left, the taller one, sized me up as if an emaciated, unarmed 16-year-old was any kind of threat. I knew from bitter experience that the smart thing to do would have been to let Dawidek try to talk his own way out of this. He was nine years old but used to defending himself in the bizarrely toxic environment of the Ghetto. All day long, he was at his job alone, and I was at mine. He needed his wits about him to survive even an hour of that, and I needed to trust that he could handle himself.
But I couldn’t convince myself to be smart, even when I knew that what I was about to do was likely to earn me, at best, a severe beating. I couldn’t even stop myself when the Kapo gave me a second chance to walk away. They ignored me and kept their attention on my brother. “Hey!” I shouted, loud enough that my voice echoed up and down the street, and dozens of people turned to stare. “He’s just a kid. He hasn’t done anything wrong!”
I was mentally planning my next move. I’d make a scene, maybe push one of the Kapo, and when they turned to beat me, Dawidek could run. Pain was never pleasant, but physical pain could also be an effective distraction from mental anguish, which was the worst kind. Maybe I could even land a punch, and that might feel good. But my brother stepped forward, held his hands up to me and said fiercely, “These are my supervisors, Roman. Just supervisors on the crew. We were just talking.”
My stomach dropped. My heartbeat pounded in my ears and my hands were hot.—I knew my face was flushed raspberry, both with embarrassment and from the adrenaline. After a terse pause that seemed to stretch forever, the Kapo exchanged an amused glance, one patted Dawidek on the back, and they continued down the street, both laughing at me. Dawidek shook his head in frustration.
“Why did you do that? What would you do, even if I was in trouble?”
“I’m sorry,” I admitted, scraping my hand through my hair. “I lost my head.”
“You’re always losing your head,” Dawidek muttered, falling into step beside me, as we began to follow the Kapo back towards our own apartment. “You need to listen to Father. Keep your head down, work hard and hope for the best. You are too smart to keep making such dumb decisions.”
Hearing my little brother echoing his father’s wisdom in the same tone and with the same impatience was always jarring, but in this case, I was dizzy with relief, and so I messed up his hair, and let out a weak laugh.
“For a nine-year-old, you are awfully wise.”
“Wise enough to know that you didn’t get any food for mother.”
“We were too late,” I said, and then I swallowed the lump in my throat. “But she said that we should come back tomorrow. She will set something aside for us.”
“Let’s walk the long way home. The trashcans on Smocza Street are sometimes good.”
We were far from the only family in the ghetto who had run out of resources. We were all starving and any morsel of food was quickly found, even if it was from a trashcan. Still, I was not at all keen to return to our crowded apartment, to face the disappointment in my stepfather’s gaze or to see the starvation in my mother’s. I let Dawidek lead the way, and we walked in silence, broken by his periodic bursts of commentary.
“We picked one up here… Another over there… Mordechai helped me with one there.”
As we turned down a quiet street, I realized that Dawidek’s Kapo supervisors were right in front of us, walking a few dozen feet ahead.
“We should turn around, I don’t want any trouble with those guys,” I muttered. Dawidek shook his head.
“They like me. I work hard and don’t give them any trouble. Now that you have stopped trying to get yourself killed, they won’t bother us, even if they do notice us.”
Just then, the shorter policeman glanced towards the sidewalk on his right, and then he paused. He waved his companion ahead, then withdrew something from his pocket as he crouched low to the ground. —I was far too far away to hear the words he spoke, but I saw the sadness in his gaze. The Kapo then rose and jogged ahead to catch up with his partner. Dawidek and I continued along the street, but only when we drew near where he had stopped did I realize why.
We had been in the ghetto for almost two years. Conditions were bad to begin with, and every new day seemed to bring new trials. I learned to wear blinders—to block out the public pain and suffering of my fellow prisoners. I had walked every block of the ghetto, both the Little Ghetto with its nicer apartments where the elite and artists appeared to live in relative comport, and through the Big Ghetto, where poor families like my own were crammed in, trying to survive at a much higher density. The footbridge on Chłodna Street connected the two and elevated the Ghetto residents above the “Aryan” Poles, and even the Germans, who passed beneath it. The irony of this never failed to amuse me when I crossed. Sometimes, I crossed it just to cheer myself up.
I knew the Ghetto inside and out, and I noticed every detail, even if I had taught myself to ignore what I saw as much as I could. I learned not to react when an elderly man or woman caught my hand as I passed, clawing in the hopes that I could spare them a morsel of food. I learned not to so much as startle if someone was shot in front of my eyes. And most of all, I learned to never look at the face of any unfortunate soul who was prone on the sidewalk. The only way to survive was to remain alert so I had to see it all, but I also had to learn to look right through it. The only way to manage my own broiling fury was to bury it.
But the policeman had drawn my attention to a scene of utter carnage outside of what used to be a clothing store. The store had long ago run out of stock and had been re-purposed as accommodation for several families. The wide front window was now taped over with Hessian sacks for privacy; outside of that window, on the paved sidewalk, a child was lying on her stomach. Alive, but barely.
The Ghetto was teeming with street children. The orphanages were full to bursting which meant that those who weren’t under the care of relatives or kindly strangers were left to their own devices. I saw abandoned children, but I didn’t see them.
I’d have passed right by this child on any other day. I couldn’t even manage to keep my own family safe and well, so it was better to keep walking and spare myself the pain of powerlessness. But I was curious about what the policeman had given the child, and so even as we approached her, I was scanning—looking to see what had caught his attention and to try to figure out what he’d put down on the ground.
Starvation confused the normal growth and development of children, but even so, I guessed she was two or three. She wore the same vacant expression I saw in most children by that stage. Patches of her hair had fallen out, and her naked stomach and legs were swollen. Someone had taken her clothing except for a tattered pair of underwear, and I understood why.
This child would not be alive by morning. Once they became too weak to beg for help, it didn’t take long, and this child was long past that point. Her dull brown eyes were liquid pools of defeat and agony.
My eyes drifted to her hands. One was lying open and empty on the sidewalk beside her, her palm facing upward, as if opening her hands to God. The other was also open, slumped against the sidewalk on the other side of her, but this palm was not empty. Bread. The policeman had pressed a chunk of bread beneath the child’s hand. I stared at the food and even though it was never going to find its way to my lips, my mouth began to water. I was torturing myself, but it was much easier to look at the bread than at the girl’s dull eyes.
Dawidek stood silently beside me. I thought of my mother, and then crouched beside the little girl.
“Hello,” I said, stiff and awkward. The child did not react. I cast my gaze all over her face, taking it in. The sharp cheekbones. The way her eyes seemed too big for her face. The matted hair. Someone had once brushed this little girl’s hair, and probably pulled it into pretty braids. Someone had once bathed this child, and tucked her into bed at night, bending down to whisper in her ear that she was loved and special and wanted.
Now, her lips were dry and cracked, and blood dried into a dirty black scab in the corner of her mouth. My eyes burned, and it took me a moment to realize that I was struggling to hold back tears.
“You should eat the bread,” I urged softly. Her eyes moved, and then she blinked, but then her eyelids fluttered and fell closed. She drew in a breath, but her whole chest rattled, the sound I knew people made just before they died—when they were far too ill to even cough. A tear rolled down my cheek. I closed my eyes, but now, instead of blackness, I saw the little girl’s face.
This was why I learned to wear blinders, because if you got too close to the suffering, it would burn itself into your soul. This little girl was now a part of me, and her pain was part of mine.
Even so, I knew that she could not eat the bread. The policeman’s gesture had been well-meaning, but it had come far too late. If I didn’t take the bread, the next person who passed would. If my time in the ghetto had taught me anything, it was that life might deliver blessings, but each one would have a sting in its tail. God might deliver us fortune, but never without a cost. I would take the bread, and the child would die overnight. But that wouldn’t be the end of the tragedy. In some ways, it was only the beginning.
I wiped my cheeks roughly with the back of my hand, and then before I could allow my conscience to stop me, I reached down and plucked the bread from under the child’s hand, to swiftly hide it my pocket. Then I stood, and forced myself to not look at her again. Dawidek and I began to walk.
“The little ones should be easier. I don’t have to ask the big kids for help lifting them, and they don’t weigh anything at all. They should be easier, shouldn’t they?” Dawidek said, almost philosophically. He sighed heavily, and then added in a voice thick with confusion and pain. “I’ll be able to lift her by myself tomorrow morning, but that won’t make it easier.”
Fortune gave me a job with one of the few factories in the ghetto that was owned by a kindly Jew, rather than some German businessman only wanting to take advantage of slave labor. But this meant that when the Kapo came looking for me at home, to help collect the bodies from the streets before sunrise each day, the only other viable person in our household was my brother.
When Dawidek was first recruited to this hideous role, I wanted to quit my job so that I could relieve him of it. But corpse-collection was unpaid work and my factory job paid me in food—every single day, I sat down to a hot lunch, which meant other members of my family could share my portion of rations. This girl would die overnight, and by dawn, my little brother would have lifted her into the back of a wagon. He and a team of children and teenagers, under the supervision of the Kapo, would drag the wagon to the cemetery, where they would tip the corpses into a pit with dozens of others.
Rage, black and red and violent in its intensity, clouded the edges of my vision and I felt the thunder of the injustice in my blood. But then Dawidek drew a deep breath, and he leaned forward to catch my gaze. He gave me a smile, a brave smile, one that tilted the axis of my world until I felt it chase the rage away.
I had to maintain control. I couldn’t allow my fury to destroy me, because my family was relying on me. Dawidek was relying on me.
“Mother is going to be so excited to have bread,” he said, his big brown eyes lighting up at the thought of pleasing her. “And that means Eleonora will get better milk tomorrow, won’t she?”
“Yes,” I said, my tone as empty as the words themselves. “This bread is a real blessing.”
Excerpted from The Warsaw Orphan by Kelly Rimmer, Copyright © 2021 by Lantana Management Pty Ltd. Published by Graydon House Books.
About the Author: Kelly Rimmer lives in rural Australia with her husband, two children and fantastically naughty dogs, Sully and Basil. Her novels have been translated into more than twenty languages. Please visit her at https://www.kellyrimmer.com/
Author website: https://www.kellyrimmer.com/