"Why won't you marry me?"
"I'm 17, Peter. There are things I want to do before I get married."
"Other girls marry at your age, Karin. Don't you love me?"
I was an old argument. It seemed to come up every few weeks nowadays. Maybe Warsaw, Poland in 1941 made the young feel they had to hurry with life. Karin's brother, Alex, and his friends already had been declared "ethnic Germans" and drafted to fight with the Nazis. Peter, at 23, was considered a cripple; a childhood injury left him with a limp. He wouldn't be a soldier, but they could make him work in an office. He currently worked for his father as a bookkeeper; he was a wiz with numbers.
"Karin, we could go to Switzerland. Maybe we could leave on a honeymoon and never come back. It's getting worse every day. Our Jewish friends are vanishing. I hope they are fleeing to safety, but you know that's not all that's happening. They are sending them to a ghetto."
"My parents would never let me leave," Karin said, meekly.
"When are you going to be an adult, your own person, Karin?"
"Soon, Peter. I need a little more time."
So, the "talk" was shelved for a few more weeks. They kissed goodnight and walked the block to her house. Her parents would be holding dinner for her. They liked Peter, but they didn't want her marrying so young. She had worked for six months in an office and was learning to take care of herself, important in this perilous time.
"You look tired, dear," Karin's mother observed while setting the table. Mother was ever-watchful. "Is it work or Peter?"
"I'm fine, really," Karin repied as she put the food on the table. "Pop, it's dinner time."
Karin's apparent fatigue was the evening meal's topic of conversation. "Are they working you too hard at Lexes?"
"Not at all," Karin replied, trying to look animated. The rest of the discussion revolved around her aunts and uncles and cousins. They didn't discuss her soldier brother, Alex--they didn't know where he was--nor their Jewish friends and acquaintances, who seemed to be more scarce as the weeks went by.
Karin's parents and grandparents--the Brandt family--had lived in Warsaw for generations. They weren't political; they believed in live and let live. They were well thought of in the community. Karin was slightly younger than her former school friends. Some had married; some had jobs. She saw them at Saturday night dances; that's where she met Peter. He had courted her relentlessly for six months. He felt inferior to the other young men because of the limp, but she gave it little thought.
The morning came way too quickly. Karin dressed hurriedly; she wanted to stop by the Nowak Market for fruit. Her Lexes coworkers loved the apples, pears, and oranges she kept in her desk. Lexes, a photography developer, was fairly generous to its employees. They received two 10-minute breaks and 30 minutes for lunch. Usually, at least four of Karin's friends came up to her floor during the day in search of the tasty fruit.
Karin started as a developer. She enjoyed her work in the darkroom and watching the photos come to life. After a few months, the owner Mr. Lexes needed a new office manager. Since Karin was an excellent typist, she received the promotion. Every now and then, she still made her way to the darkroom, but most of her life now involved paperwork, phone calls, and sitting at a desk.
She was running late and hurried to Nowak's, but as she walked on the street, she saw Juden scrawled on the building a few doors away. It was the Abramson's pasmanteria shop. Some of the windows had been smashed.
Karin stopped for a moment, looking at the windows. Suddenly, she saw a face in the window. It was Rachel, the Abramson's 13-year-old daughter. Karin remembered playing with Rachel in the park when they were younger.
She walked on to Nowak's, feeling unsettled. She quickly bought a large sack of different fruits and then walked down the alleyway behind the shops. She knocked on the backdoor of the Abramson shop. Rachel cautiously looked out the window and then opened the door.
"Do you remember me, Rachel? We used to play together. I'm Karin."
"Soldiers took our parents," Rachel sobbed. Rachel's little sisters, Rebecca and Ruth, stood behind her.
"When?" Karin stared down at the heartbroken faces.
"Two days ago. I think they took them to the ghetto. Momma told us to hide. They didn't find us when they came."
Karin started putting half of the fruit on a table. The little girls grabbed it hungrily. They had already eaten all the food in their apartment above the shop.
"They may come back," Rachel said fearfully.
"Let me think of what to do. I have to go to work, but I'll be back. I'll try to bring more food."
Karin walked quickly to the office, two blocks away. She felt sick to her stomach. The Germans forbid Polish citizens from helping their Jewish neighbors. If she didn't help them, they would be captured. They would starve.
Her thoughts were so focused on the three Abramson girls that she ran up the two flights of stairs at Lexes without even thinking.
"Well, look who decided to come in," said Hanna, Karin's officemate.
"I'm sorry I'm late, but I brought fruit."
"You are forgiven then."
Karin sat at her desk and tried to concentrate on her work.
"You're so quiet," remarked Hanna. "Did you and Peter have another go-round?"
"No, we're OK," Karin tried to smile and act like nothing was bothering her, but she couldn't stop thinking about the girls and wondering how to help them. Ruth, the smallest girl, was only 4; the middle girl, Rebecca, was 8. Rachel would need help taking care of them.
There were rumors all the time about the United States entering the war. Karin prayed for it daily. Surely, the war couldn't last much longer.
Karin's old boss and the owner of the shop, Mr. Lexes, had told her the Germans intended to kill all the Jews. His wife was Jewish, so he and his family left one night without telling anyone. Mr. Lexes' duties at the shop were divided between Karin and his assistant, Len. Len decided to stay in his second floor office.
"These orders just came in." Hanna was standing in front of Karin's desk."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I must be in my own little world."
"Got your mind on that boyfriend," Hanna laughed as she silently wished she had a boyfriend.
Karin tried to busy herself with paperwork. She remembered how worried Mr. Lexes had been. He paid a huge amount to secure travel papers for himself, his wife, his mother, and his two young children.
Karin knew some Jews had gone into hiding in various places in the city. Every now and then, you would hear sirens and know they had been captured.
Maybe Karin could hide the girls. Peter would be appalled over such a risky plan; her parents would send her away for even considering it.
There was something that only Karin knew about the Lexes office. Mr. Lexes had installed a bathroom, with a door behind a bookcase. It was behind Karin's desk.
While Karen never used that bathroom, Mr. Lexes preferred it to going down to a lower floor. Maybe the girls could be hidden there. It wouldn't be that comfortable, but they would be safer than in their apartment above the store..
Karin thought about it all day. If the girls were in the office, she could get food to them more easily.
After work, she stopped and bought cheese and bread. She walked carefully in the alley, glancing around to see if she was being watched.
When she tapped on the Abramson's door, Rachel opened it quickly. "You came back," she said, relieved.
Karin put half of the cheese and bread on the table. "I may have found a safer place for you. Can you be ready tomorrow at 6 p.m.? Bring one change of clothes and one toy or book each. I'll come get you."
Once she was resolved to do something, Karin rarely backed off from a plan--a trait Peter hated.
Tomorrow would be Saturday, and the office would be closed for the weekend, so she could move them. The hiding place was small, but the girls would be warm and protected from rain--and the Germans. Karin tried not to consider what would happen if they were discovered. They would be sent to the ghetto or worse; Karin would be arrested.
"We going to the dance tonight?" Peter ran up behind her.
"OK. Get me after dinner."
Dancing with Peter was nice that night. She could pretend it was life before the Germans came, before her brother had to leave, and before she found those three terrified children.
"We could do this all the time in Switzerland," Peter said, dreaming.
"In Switzerland, there would still be rent to pay, jobs to do."
"We'd be a married couple--there's a lot more we could do, if you know what I mean."
"Behave yourself," laughed Karin.
"I am behaving--just badly."
The next day, Karin did her chores around the house, occasionally glancing at the clock. She told her parents she needed to do a quick errand. In her bag, she packed food, a jug of water, and a small quilt.,
At 6, the girls were ready with their few belongings, which were placed in Karin's bag. They moved silently on the dark streets. Karin figured it was dinnertime for most of the German soldiers.
Karin felt huge relief when they finally got to Lexes and closed the door behind them.
On the third floor, she moved pulled the bookcase forward and then opened the door.
"A bathroom?" asked Rachel, giggling.
"You'll be safe here, but you mustn't flush the toilet or run any water during the day. You mustn't move around in here until it is dark outside."
The younger girls listened, but she was not sure they grasped the rules.
"Rachel, it would be best if you all got used to sleeping during the daytime. During the day, you must be absolutely silent. You've got to keep your sisters quiet."
Karin looked around the small space. There were towels that could be used for bedding on the floor. She emptied the bag, and they quickly organized the few items. She remembered a drawer that could be opened from the office. Mr. Lexes used it to store toilet paper without entering the bathroom. Karen moved all the toilet paper out. The drawer would be useful in passing food to the girls. She told them she would plan to visit every weekend.
The girls looked a bit overwhelmed, and Karin was afraid she had done the wrong thing in moving them, but she was convinced nothing else could be done.
When she returned to the office on Monday, she was so nervous. It was like there was a brick in her gut.
Hanna was at her desk, talking about orders on the phone.
Karin heard nothing behind her. She waited until Hanna went downstairs and then quickly opened the drawer to leave a few food items. She saw Rachel's hands claim the food and saw the edge of her face as she smiled up at her.
After going to her desk, Karin relaxed a bit. Maybe this would work out. At least she wasn't worrying about the girls with their faces behind those broken windows.
In the next weeks, Karin got used to the routine of bringing food daily and visiting the girls on weekends. She managed to get hold of books and a few toys for them. Out of the sunshine, the girls became very pale, but they were surviving.
The girls, in most cases, stayed very quiet during the day. If Karin heard a cough or sneeze, she would make noise at her desk to cover the sound. Once Hanna heard something drop on the floor.
"What was that? It sounds like it's something behind the wall."
"Oh? No, I think it's something on the roof," Karin replied.
Peter found Karin to be preoccupied. She couldn't tell him--or anyone else--what she had done. She no longer allowed talk of Switzerland. He wasn't happy as he was now working in a Nazi office, doing bookkeeping on all the money stolen from the Jews.
"On a warm weekend, can't we at least go to a seashore somewhere?"
"Peter, I think you need to find a more carefree girl."
In truth, if it weren't for Karin, Peter would have probably already moved away. She tried to encourage him to do so, but he thought it was just a ploy to make him stay. "I want to marry you," he insisted. "I don't want anyone else."
Occasionally, Karin heard the German troops going on their rounds, looking for hidden Jews. Sometimes she was fearful, but at other times, she felt that she and the girls were victorious. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Americans entered the war. Karin felt that victory was at hand.
The year was coming to an end. Karin was shopping for Boze Narodzenie (Christmas) on a Saturday morning. She even bought a few gifts for the girls. Crossing the street to Lexes, she didn't notice anything unusual, but as she opened the door, she heard a German voice. "You are too pretty of a girl to be working on Saturday." She saw two Germans inside the door.
She tried to sound casual. "Oh, I just remembered some paperwork I need to finish; I thought I'd stop by."
"We've been watching you. You've been stopping by a lot on weekends."
Karin shook her head. "It's not against the law to be a diligent worker."
They laughed. "But it is against the law to do the other thing--the three girls upstairs."
She froze. They found them. "I don't know what you're talking about."
The soldiers said nothing else. They didn't say where the girls were. Had they already arrested them?
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"We figure your parents might share some information with us. Are you hiding others?"
Once they reached her house, she saw fear in her parents' eyes.
"Please, my parents know nothing. I did this on my own. I hid the girls."
Her mother started to cry. "We didn't know."
"She made a childish mistake. She thought she was being helpful." her father said.
Karin repeated. "Please, my parents knew nothing about this."
She was relieved when the soldiers walked her out of the house. Maybe her parents wouldn't be blamed.
"Do you know what happens to people who hide Jews?"
From the corner of her eye, Karin saw Peter standing down the street. She quickly shook her head at him; he needed to stay away.
"We need to make an example of those who break the law," one soldier was saying.
She was placed against a wall in the town square. At that moment, she realized she was going to die. But were the girls still alive? Maybe they'd survive. And Peter. He needed to leave; he should leave as soon as he could get away.
Karin watched as the soldiers lined up across from her with their guns. She watched birds fly overhead, as free as the wind. In her heart, she knew. She had done the right thing.