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The Circus

Even with all the work, study, and religious celebrations, I still had time to just be a kid. I have vivid memories of when the circus came to town—so strong that I can still smell the wet sawdust and the delicious popcorn. The circus would roll in around sunset, and along with it was a caravan of dilapidated old trucks, which transported the exotic animals. A flashy old convertible of English-make led a big van painted orange, blue, and green. I imagined the man inside was blond and had a handlebar mustache, but I couldn’t see much in the gathering dark.

By morning, the whole circus was set up. Red and white tents with three central stakes appeared like magic. It was bigger than I had imagined. The smell of animals and hay was pungent. Now, I had never actually seen an elephant but I knew that all of the tremendous piles of poop on the ground in front of me had to be made by one!           

When we entered the tent, the air was thick and dark. My eyes adjusted slowly to this inner world, which seemed to me to be from another planet. I wondered about the kind of people that lived in the circus. There were people with paint on their bodies, people in bright clothing, and women wearing feathers and wings. Bleachers were set up for the patrons to sit in. Everyone took his or her seat as a man with a black face and wearing nothing but a scanty leopard skin climbed up a rope. I was fascinated because I had never seen a black man before. I had heard that they existed, but had never seen one in Poland.

It was hard to focus on all of the events and sensations! The smell of popcorn, ladies jumping from rope to rope, twirling batons; clowns crying and then falling down. And in the center of it all was the jaunty ringmaster, an amazing man in a top hat and sporting a handlebar mustache, just exactly as I imagined.

I was disappointed that I still saw no elephant when finally, in the corner of my eye, I saw fire erupt! To my astonishment, a man was jumping through a flaming hoop. It was magnificent! The awesome sight more than made up for the absence of a pachyderm.

Lydia was seven years older than me and had already gone to college. She was a teacher at a Catholic school. It was rare at that time for a Jewish woman to go to college. She went to Yaganasko University in Krakow, and was the only Jew to finish. It was even more rare for a Jewish woman to be a teacher. But Lydia was smart. She was always teaching me and helping me with my homework, and she even found the time to tutor other children. I loved to have her around. While she wasn’t pretty in the traditional way, people felt her wise and recognized her beautiful spirit and wanted to get to know her. Nothing ever held her back, not even the limp caused by a birth defect of her hip. She married late but well. Her husband’s name was Lanak Bolva, and he dearly loved her. As a lawyer he was very helpful to our family when our childhood days became a distant memory, and the war changed our world forever.

Now, what we didn’t know in 1938 was that the Germans had already positioned spies in Poland. They knew everything and had lists of all the Jewish families living in Krakow. They even had my name and my entire family’s names recorded. They even knew who we were and where we lived. The Germans had all of these records before the war. They were so prepared.

I later learned that they even had a record of what I did every day and where I worked! The records continued throughout the war. I know this because the German government sent me these records after the war. And it was this information that forced them to approve my pension. I am ninety-four years old and the German government still sends me a pension for all of the work I did in the concentration slave camps during the war.


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