Two times over the course of my visit to Żychlin, my host Henryk told me a story about a young Jewish boy who survived the war and returned to the town to collect his family’s jewels. A bad Pole threatened the boy’s life unless he showed him where the valuables were hidden. The frightened boy showed him. They sat down at a table and for each one item the bad Pole gave the boy, he took several for himself. The boy took out a roll of money and offered to buy the jewelry. Then, the brother of the bad Pole came in and saw what was going on. He told his brother, “Here, I have two bottles of vodka. We’ll drink together.” Then he gave the boy all his money and jewels back.
The story made an impression on Henryk. He said a woman from Włocławek had told it to him. Because they were talking on the phone, he didn’t want her to tell him the real names of the men. He wants to save it for when they meet in person. That kind of information is better shared face-to-face. The second time he told me this story, it occurred to me I might know the woman he had spoken with. Indeed, it turned out that it was Mirosława Stojak, who has made it her personal quest to learn all she can about Włocławek Jews. Henryk promptly called Mira so we could talk. I met Mira during my first visit to Włocławek in 2014, and then again when I was there in June.
Mira uses her talents as a poet, writer, and actress to share the stories of Włocławek Jews. In her book Utkane Sercem Włocławskim Żydom, she includes the story that so captivated Henryk, called “Two Bottles of Vodka.” Here is the translation of the story:
Two Bottles of Vodka
Winter 1946 was cold. All around, snow covered homes, roads, and trees. Long icicles hung from the roofs. On a January afternoon, Ariel came on the snowy road to the home of his relatives. Before the war, together with his sisters, he was there a few times. During his last visit in 1939 Ariel’s father, a merchant from Żychlin, knew that soon Germans would attack Poland militarily. Sixteen-year-old Ariel, a short boy, emaciated after the experience of the camp, walked pensively listening to the scrape of his creaking shoes. In his ears rang what his father once told him:
“You have to save yourself, and whoever survives should return here…”
He knew perfectly well that his visit would not be viewed happily by the new owners of the house. He was even afraid that he would be treated poorly. He wasn’t sure, either, if the home still stood, or if it was bombed during the war. He hoped not. He walked slowly, every once in a while touching an icy rock. He passed ruins of houses and ashes, people shoveled snow. He heard dogs barking. Before the war he loved dogs, and they even had two beautiful German shepherds at home. Now, they reminded him of scenes from the camp and he was horribly afraid of them. In Auschwitz they were trained to murder. Ariel picked up his pace. Soon the sun would set and it would be dark. After a while, he saw the home of his uncles and aunts, who didn’t much care for visitors during the war. Fearfully, he knocked on the door. A young man stood before him, tall and well built. He had an unfriendly expression on his face, as if he had been expecting him. With his strong hand, he pulled Ariel inside, shutting the door, and yelled,
“Where is it?”
The frightened Jew led him down the stairs to the basement, and then the “brute” pushed him against a wall and demanded he say where the treasure is. A few strikes of a hammer against a wall and in the hands of his “captor” appeared a casket. Now, the boy was led upstairs and into the kitchen. The man grabbed his shirt and sat him on a chair at the table, then sat down across from him and opened the box. Inside was the ancestral jewelry of Ariel’s family. There were brilliantly shiny rings, broaches, and necklaces. Taking the valuables out of the casket, the man put them on the table, between himself and Ariel, loudly counting:
“Mine, mine, yours, mine, mine, mine, yours, mine, mine…”
When he finished, there were just three family heirlooms in front of Ariel. Tears appeared in his eyes. They reminded him of his mother, who always wore a string of white pearls around her neck when she went to synagogue. Now they lay in front of him on the table awaiting their verdict. The boy slowly reached into his pocket and pulled out a role of banknotes, explaining that for him the jewelry has sentimental value for his family and he would gladly buy them back. The “brute,” without thinking, took all the valuables lying on the table for himself, and in a deep resonant voice called out,
In the kitchen doorway appeared a “man like an oak,” big and broad-shouldered, who asked contemptuously,
“What?” and looked at the table.
The brute moved aside, his eyes not leaving the valuables. Józek who was much older was supposed to settle the matter. Ariel began quickly explaining, persuading him to agree to his proposition to buy the jewelry. He asked Józek to take the money and give back the valuables and then everyone would be satisfied. Józek thought; he silently looked at the young Jew and the table with an appraising eye. Frightened, Ariel imagined them closing him in the basement and starving him, or God forbid, murdering him. Wouldn’t it be ironic to die here and now, after he had the good fortune to miss death at the hands of the Nazis? After a while, Józek broke the silence, yelling:
A boy who was perhaps eight years old came into the kitchen. Freckled, with wavy hair and an intelligent look. From the pile of money lying on the table, Józek took one bill, gave it to the boy and told him:
“Go and buy two bottles of vodka.”
The boy, like a shot, ran from the cottage. Józek pushed the jewelry and money in the direction of Arial and said:
“Take it and go!”
Ariel ran as fast as his legs would take him. It was a marathon. He didn’t even touch the rock; he didn’t hear the barking dogs. He sped ahead with all the strength in his legs, not looking back. When he got to the station, the train stood ready for departure.
Mirka told me she met the boy from the story when he visited Włocławek (now of course, he’s an elderly man). His wife wore some beautiful jewelry; she doesn’t know if these were pieces he recovered, but it is nice to think that they were. At his request, she changed all the names when she wrote down the story. Nor did she write about the further misfortunes the boy experienced before he found his way to safety in Israel. I won’t either—the most important thing is that he survived.