Lillian (Coming Soon...)

Survivor of Warsaw Ghetto and the German occupation of Poland
2004 Symposium

The Old Brown Suitcase: An Excerpt

One evening my parents tell me that I will be finally going to school, but that it must be kept a secret. Schools in the Ghetto are forbidden. No one must know in case the Germans find out.  In the morning, Father takes me to a building not far from ours but on another street. We walk down to a room in the basement where he leaves me saying that he will be back at noon to pick me up.

The teachers are two young sisters. Fela is short and Hala is tall. But both are skinny, have dark hair and wear glasses. There are about ten of us children, both boys and girls. The youngest is six and the oldest is ten. We sit in two groups of five at separate round tables. The tables are very low, and the seats are wooden boxes with lids on them. Each table has a stack of exercise books, paper and pencils.

When introductions are over, Fela calls us to attention. "Children, we are happy to have you with us," she begins, "but before we start our lessons I want you to listen carefully to the following instructions. Each of you is sitting on a bench that opens at the top. Inside it you will keep your books and drawings. If there is a knock on the door, I want you to put your pencils, books, and drawings quickly into the bench. My sister, Hala, will be responsible for all the other things that have to be put away, while I will take care of whoever is at the door." We sit quietly listening to our teacher's words. "If anyone asks what you are doing, answer politely that you are playing games with paper, glue and crayons and cards. Above all do not mention the word 'school' outside this classroom to anyone. No one must know what we do here. Learning is forbidden in the Ghetto. Breaking these rules can cost us our lives. Do you understand?

We all answer "yes" in unison, with very serious faces. But soon we begin to enjoy ourselves. Fela and Hala are very patient. They laugh with us, and teach us songs and poems. I can hardly wait from one day to the next to go to school. I am finally Teaming. There are stories to read and listen to, wonderful stories about life in Poland, geography and history, and even a bit of math. We draw and paint and make things out of colored tissue paper. When the materials run out, we laugh, and puzzle over how. to do a project for which there are no tools. When there isn't any colored paper we use whatever paper we can find. When we run out of ink we use pencils. Fela calls it "using ingenuity and common sense."

One day someone knocks on the door. Fela gives us our cue. We pick up our drawings, exercise books and pencils and throw them into our boxes. Meanwhile Hala swiftly picks up the textbooks and disappears into another room. All that is left on the table are some playing cards. Fela goes to the door. But there is nothing to panic about. Just an elderly man looking for someone. He looks in and shakes his head.

"You are fooling with danger," he says, "but I admire your courage. I hope that you are also teaching what it means to be a Jew."

Our teachers laugh, "We don't need to study being Jewish, we are living it!" says Fela. The man shrugs his shoulders and leaves.

An excerpt from "The Old Brown Suitcase" by Lillian Boraks-Nemetz: Ben-Simon Publication, Brentwood Bay, BC, 1994, pp. 42-44. Boraks-Nemetz is a child survivor, now living in Vancouver. The Old Brown Suitcase won the 1994 BC Book Award for Best Children's Book and the Rachel Bassin Prize for Young Reader's Literature.


Offered by the

Victoria Holocaust Remembrance and Education Society