The girl in the green sweater lived in the sewers of Lvov, Poland, for 14 months. For 12 months, she lived with the thousands of rats, with the raw sewage, the mold and dankness and cold, underneath the Bernardynski church, in the sewer. For two months before that she lived in a different sewer, underneath a different church, Maria Sniezna, Our Lady of the Snow, with the dangerous Peltrew River always close. The river carried away the sewage flowing through the pipes surrounding the girls hiding places.
She was seven years old.
She lived there with her mother and her father and her brother Pawel. The four of them were the only intact family to survive the Nazi Holocaust in the city of Lvov, which, before the Nazis, had 150,000 Jews. Exactly one family survived from all those people. The family survived the initial Soviet occupation of Lvov, the subsequent German occupation, the ever constricting ghetto to which the Germans then consigned them, the final liquidation of the ghetto, then 14 months of confinement in the sewers. Amidst it all, ethnic Ukrainians distinguished themselves for hostility and brutality, even in the sewer itself in The Palace, as the survivors called their L-shaped chamber.
Bad becomes good when something else becomes worse. It was bad when the Soviets robbed the populace of its freedom of movement until the Germans occupied the city and entered the apartment of the girl with the green sweater and helped themselves to the belongings there. Everything from dishes to the piano became free for the occupiers. Gradually, her familys apartment was stripped bare. Just like that: people came, people took. It was bad. Until it became worse, when the family of the girl with the green sweater was forced from its apartment into the ghetto, from the many rooms of the apartment at Kopernika 12 to a single room with several families. This was bad. Until it became worse, when the actions, the Nazi shootings and deportations, began. They, too, were bad, until it became worse, when the ghetto was shrunk, the freedom of movement drastically reduced, the availability of food and water reduced to the barest subsistence. That, too, was bad, until the final liquidation, when the only choice seemed to be escape to the sewers.
It was an escape planned well in advance by the father of the girl in the green sweater, by Ignacy Chiger. If ever there were a hero of the Holocaust, it was he, who always seemed one step ahead of the Nazis, who always saw the next step coming and found a way to prepare for it, who was good with his hands and quick with his tongue; who knew how to construct a false wall in the back of a closet and a crawl space beneath a window ledge; who knew how to build an unseen bunker, who knew how and where to dig through many feet of concrete to locate an entrance to the sewers; who, above all, was not going to be separated from his wife, Paulina, and his two children, seven-year-old Krystyna and four-year-old son Pawel.
Miraculous as it was, the survival of this one intact family was a cursed attenuation, as one by one Ignacy and Paulina and daughter and son watched their grandparents and cousins and siblings and in-laws shot or drowned or deported.
Their spirit was not broken.
That which could break the Chigers spirit was bad, until it got worse. Living with the rats, hunted like animals, still, some 21 people initially found themselves safe in the sewer together. Until Paulinas father got separated and presumably drowned, like so many others, in the Peltrew River, only a single slip away from the small ledge of the sewer pipe; in any case, never heard from again. Still, the nuclear family of the Chigers included Paulinas brother-in-law, Kuba, who was also resourceful, until he was drowned in a sewer pipe that suddenly flooded, leaving the Chigers diminished and Ignacy deeply guilt-ridden. He had allowed Kuba to take his turn fetching the fresh water that day. (The water, gathered in drops, leaked through cracks underneath Lvovs Neptune Fountain.) Still, the Chigers remained intact until their lives were threatened by some of their underground comrades, Jews who resented the two Chiger children, as they required additional care.
Enter Leopold Socha.
If ever there were a gentile hero of the Holocaust, it was Leopold Socha. As Ignacy Chiger and his co-escapees initially broke through the concrete in their ghetto hideaway to reach the sewers, Socha, a Lvov municipal sewer worker, happened to be there. He could have turned in the Jews on the spot, having discovered their escape plan. He looked at Paulina with her two chicks, as he called them Krystyna in her green sweater, knitted by her fathers mother, and her primary protection throughout 14 months in the sewers, and her little brother Pawel and Socha looked at all of the Jews gathered there. He decided, on the spot. He would guide them to the sewers and bring them daily bread, in exchange for a fee. He would need money to buy food to sustain 21 people daily; he would need money to pay two co-workers whose help would be indispensable, and he wanted recompense for endangering these three families. Ignacy Chiger, very resourceful, had saved many zlotys, jewels and other valuables for just such an occasion; and the others committed to pay, too.
He was a co-savior of Socha, whose principal job was to stand guard above. Nazis were always on the lookout for evidence of Jews such as voices coming from the sewers below, or Jews who exited via a manhole (they were shot). Polish sewer workers were always at work, descending into the sewers. Kowalow knew the sewers like the back of his hand. He stood guard, knew how to move around the Jews underneath and managed to wave away other sewer workers. At one point, when the Russians were closing in on Lvov and the Germans were mining the area around their headquarters, the Germans were digging up the street directly above the Chigers underground hideaway. Kowalow confidently strode up to the Nazis, told then that not only were there sewers below, but also gas lines. If they kept digging, they would blow themselves up. He was persuasive; he stopped the Germans.
Socha never stopped. Two kilometers per day, each way, he crawled through the raw sewage to bring food to his Jews, as he later proudly called them.
Leopold Socha and his faithful assistant, Wroblewski, kept alive the girl in the green sweater, her mother, her father, her brother, and many others underneath the Bernardynski church kept them alive seven days a week, crawling through the sewage, two kilometers each way, to bring food.
And not only food.
Sochas wife Wanda did their laundry or, at least as much of it as could be squeezed through 40-centimeter-wide sewers without getting soiled. Along with the rats were the lice. Lice everywhere. Wanda boiled out the clothing to rid it of the lice a temporary but welcome respite. Once, in perhaps the ultimate irony, Socha managed to steal from a Nazi store a pile of upscale men’s wear, and somehow he got it to his Jews. For a short period, Jews in the sewers of Lvov were decked out in the fanciest finery that Nazi-occupied Poland could offer, until the dankness and filth did their work.
More ironies. What is one to do during the day (there was no light, except for that provided by weak lanterns), so as not to go stark raving mad? (Its not just a phrase; some did go stark raving mad. They had to get out. They crawled the two kilometers through the sewers, opened the manholes, hoping to escape to a friend or to the forests or something, anything. With a single exception, Kowalow reported that they all were caught and shot instantly, including those who had threatened to kill the Chigers.) In the dark, underground, this is what they did: They put on little skits. Comedies. In whispers. (They heard the voices above the street, so the people above could hear noises below.) They poked fun of each other. In the sewers of Lvov . . . laughter.
Socha managed to find workbooks for the girl in the green sweater. Her father taught her how to read, by the dimmest lamplight, in the sewers of Lvov.
And there was prayer.
One of the group, which had dwindled to 11 people after some had exited the sewer (only to be shot), was Henry Beretycki, who had managed to retain his tallit and tefilin. In the sewers of Lvov, Beretycki donned his tallit and tefilin every morning (they knew it was morning by the timing of Sochas daily visit). With his prayers he provided hope and inspiration to his 10 comrades. Once a torrential rain came. The streets were pouring water into the sewers, and the Peltrew River was rising from below. The waters flooded The Palace and kept rising. The children would be drowned if their parents did not hold them up. The waters kept rising up to the necks of the adults. The girl with the green sweater screamed out to Beretycki to pray, which he was doing. Still, the water kept rising, but as it reached their nostrils it began to subside. Socha had gone to his church to light a memorial candle for all of his Jews. He thought for sure that he would find nothing the next day but corpses that they had all drowned.
Candles Socha brought Shabbos candles, too.
Every Friday, Paulina Chiger, mother of two, nurturer of everyone in The Palace, lit the candles of Shabbos . . . in the sewers of Lvov.
And wrenching, wrenching tragedy.
It is bad until it is worse. It became evident, very slowly, to ten of the 11 people in the sewer that the eleventh person, Weinbergova, was pregnant. Pregnant in the sewer! Weinbergova had hidden it; most of the time it was virtually impossible for anyone to see anyway. This same mother had handed her toddler to an Aryan woman just before she descended into the sewer, to save her childs life. The same woman had been abandoned by her husband and now was deathly afraid (not a metaphor) of revealing her pregnancy; the babys cries could give away their secret location. In the end, Ignacy Chiger became midwife, while Paulina Chiger and the other women prepared a mixture of warm sugar water to get the child to nurse.
Socha, who had been informed of the pregnancy earlier that day but did not know of the birth, was desperately trying to find a home for the baby on the outside. Weinbergova, who feared for the safety of the group, did not know of Sochas efforts and kept covering the childs face with a rag, at first seeming to quiet his crying but actually trying to suffocate him. Each cry endangered the group. Paulina pushed the rag away from the infants mouth. Mother put the rag back on, Paulina pushed it back off. Back and forth. All of this happened, records the girl in the green sweater, without a word passing between the two women. Then Paulina drifted off for a moment. Weinbergova put the rag over the infants mouth and suffocated him.
Paulina awoke, and was beside herself. But perhaps Weinbergova had saved all of their lives? Then Socha arrived. He announced that he had persuaded some nuns to take the child and save its life. Weinbergova was inconsolable. She had killed her baby to save their lives when it had been arranged, unbeknownst to her, that someone would save her baby.
Horrible until it is still worse.? I have told you stories from life in the sewers, and I spare you others so as not to give away this tale altogether. I spare you, for example, the story of the Ukrainian who ended up a prisoner of the Jews in the sewers. I spare you the stories of the Jews in nearby Tarnopol, Poland, who came out of the sewers when they thought the Nazis had been defeated, and ended up dead, for the Nazis retook the city and killed them. I spare you, most of all, the stories of the liberation of Krystyna Chiger, the girl with the green sweater, and of her family and of the others in their little underground sewer society, except to tell you that upon exiting the sewers, the hollows beneath Krystynas eyes, and beneath the eyes of her brother Pawel, were as deep and empty as a corpses.
And except for this:
On May 13, 1945, less than two months after the Chigers, on their way out of Poland to escape the new, communist oppression, had said their last goodbyes to Leopold Socha who crawled two kilometers, each way, each day, through the sewers to save his Jews, and did so even after the Jews money ran out; who risked his life and that of his wife and daughter and that of his two co-workers the Chigers received a telegram. It said that, the day before, a reckless Russian army truck driver had struck Socha.
And killed him.
This alone was worse than the pain I felt over all the other tragedies I had been made to experience, Uncle Kuba, Babcia, my grandparents, my cousins, my aunts, my uncles . . . their tragic deaths did not add up to the pain of this one loss. . . . I thought back to that day toward the end of our time in the sewer when Socha took me by the hand to find that small sliver of daylight, to ease me from the depths of depression. I closed my eyes and pictured his big, bright smile. I heard his voice. I felt the positive energy he brought with him into our Palace chamber each day when he arrived with food and provisions and news of the war. I considered all of this and held fast to my mother. Together, we were crying, crying . . .
Run over on the street by a reckless driver, Sochas blood, it was learned, had dripped . . . into the sewer below.
Every year on the anniversary of his death, I light a yahrzeit candle in his memory and I consider these words he who saves one life saves the entire world, kto ratuje jedno zycie, ratude caly swiat . . .
The Girl in the Green Sweater, by Krystyna Chiger, with Daniel Paisner, is published by St. Martins Press (2008).