Richard Rozencwajg was high in the air in the forest outside the city of Radom, Poland, where he had been born. During air raids, the trees could be surprisingly safe, although, of course, Richard would have preferred to shoot a gun. The partisans had trained him, but at eight years old, he just wasn’t strong enough. He could shoot the gun only if his father or one of the partisans wedged it for him on stones or in the crotch of a sapling.
The problem was that his father was too busy to practice with him. His father was the partisans’ doctor; he could not find the time to wedge the gun or, it seemed, to ever play with Richard. It was not easy, but the boy was coming to understand this. After all, it was the winter of 1943, deep in the forests, where the partisans had set up their secret medical unit, and they were at war.
Richard sensed that the partisans—a unit of Armia Krajowa (AK), the official Polish home army—who had rescued them from the Germans were not really fond of his father or himself. They were ordered around a lot. Richard certainly had heard the crude and cruel jokes, and he was old enough to know they weren’t liked because they were Jews. Still, it didn’t make much sense to Richard, because his father’s apron was always covered with the partisan fighters’ blood from all the work he did trying to keep them alive.
He felt safe enough , and he knew his mother was also safe and living in the nearby village. Richard had to be brave. Each man had a specific job to do in order to kill the Germans. Richard’s father’s job was to fix up the AK’s men if they were wounded, so they could go out and fight against the Nazis. And Richard, too, had his work. He was the feather boy, and he was very proud of it.
Before he was feather boy, he had been just an ordinary boy.
In 1939, when he was four years old, the Germans attacked Poland, and Richard and his parents fled east into Soviet territory. His father, Pinkus, became head of the military hospital at Lubomyl.
When the Germans occupied Lubomyl, they humiliated his father by making him do the work of an orderly; then they forced all the Jews into the ghetto. But Richard’s father had managed to save some money, and he used it to make an arrangement with a peasant couple.
The family left the ghetto by night in a wagon, and the peasants hid them in a wardrobe—a large closet—in the cellar of their house. In the closet, Richard could stand up and walk back and forth, but only if his parents moved to one side and lay close together. His mother, Rojza Szyfra, told him stories; his father taught him the alphabet and arithmetic by drawing the shapes of the letters and numbers in the palms of Richard’s hands.
After twelve months, the family’s money ran out . Richard’s father appealed to the peasants to let them stay longer, and they agreed, for a price: one more month in exchange for the last valuable his father had left, a pair of fine French leather shoes.
A month later, the peasants evicted the Rozencwajg family, gave them a bag of food, and directed them to the partisans in the forest. These partisans, however, wanted all foreigners, which meant Jews along with Germans, out of Poland. They turned the Rozencwajg family over to the Gestapo, who immediately transported them to the ghetto in Lublin.
When other partisans—the Armia Krajowa—realized Richard ‘s father was a physician , the family was smuggled out of the ghetto in a rag wagon. In exchange for his father’s services, Richard and his mother were allowed to live in the village, while his father headed the partisan medical unit in the forest.
To alter his identity in order to protect him, Richard was dressed as a girl and presented as a sick child. Richard tried hard to be a girl, but it was not easy. It was difficult to switch speech patterns and word endings to the feminine gender. It was odd also to try to walk like a girl. Although his mother showed him, it was particularly difficult to urinate like a girl. One did these things, she explained, in order to survive.
Yet why did the child not go to school? The partisans began to fear Richard and his mother would be recognized in the village as Jews. If they were turned over to the Germans, under torture they might betray the partisans’ position. Richard’s father would leave them, and they would again be without a doctor.
After three months of this masquerade, it was determined that Richard could not continue hiding in the village any longer. He had a tearful parting from his mother, and the partisans took him deep into the forest to the medical unit. For his eighth birthday, on April 15, 1943, he was given the best present he had ever received in his entire life: a whole loaf of Polish peasant bread all for himself.
At least Richard could now be near his father. The partisans also gave him an important job to do. They gave him a feather, which he kept in his belt. After each battle, Richard’s job was to walk around and place the feather under the noses of the enemy bodies that were laying about. Richard had to hold the feather carefully, without any movement, under each nose while counting to one hundred. If the feather fluttered at all during that time, he was to call one of the partisans over, who then shot the German again, killing him.
During the second winter, the coldest and hardest, Richard was in a tree during a bombing raid. When the explosions stopped, he climbed down. There were no bodies to apply the feather to that he could see, but this time he noticed an entire human leg complete with a boot. The leg was just about as large as Richard. Without a second’s hesitation, he went over to it and dragged it 200 meters in the snow all the way to the hospital where he knew his father was working.
Richard’s father was wearing an apron stained with blood, like a butcher. When he saw the leg, his father took it and came as close to tears as Richard ever remembered. “But it’s perfect,” Richard said to him. “I thought you could use the leg to fix someone who had lost his own!” That was the last time he saw his father, who disappeared during a sudden German raid on the hospital.
When the Soviets liberated the forest, Richard and his mother returned to Radom. But the Poles threatened them and drove them away. Because Richard was ill, he spent time in a sanitarium for refugees. When he recovered, he and his mother moved through several Displaced Persons (DP) camps, arriving finally at the camp at Stuttgart, in Germany. Here he was given the only clothing that could be provided for the boys: Hitler Youth uniforms.
Eventually, Richard and his mother made their way to Paris, and then, in 1951, to Melbourne, Australia, to live with an uncle who had survived the war in Russia. Richard Rozen, as he would call himself, grew up, married, and raised a family. The war experiences as a hidden child had shaped his life in fascinating ways. He excelled at chess and bridge—games that are played in the confined spaces of a board and table and that require the memory work he engaged in with his father back in the peasants’ wardrobe in the first winter of the war.
Richard and his mother looked for years for his father, but he had disappeared without a trace.