by Emily Ann Putzke

The last time I saw my brother, I was eight years old. We said goodbye, but I didn’t know it would be our last. I thought he was coming back. He said we’d be together. I see now that he was only telling lies to comfort me.

That night began with a whisper.

“Hanna.” His voice, soft as a feather, grazed my ear. It tickled and I turned over in bed, rubbing my ear with the heel of my hand. But it came back, humming in my ear like a determined fly. “You have to wake up."

“No.” I grumbled, burying my head under the itchy blanket. Sleep pulled on every muscle, dragging me down into a world where no soldiers hated me. A world of flowers and trees instead of blood stained streets.

“Hanna.” The voice was firmer now. I reluctantly popped open one eye. Arie stood above me, his jacket and cap on. The carbide lamp flickered on the table behind him, casting inky shadows on the walls. I sat up, brushing the hair away from my face. A chill seeped into my skin and I hurriedly crawled back under the covers. I felt the bed creak as he sat on the edge. He was quiet for a long moment, so I lifted the corner of my blanket and peeked out. Our eyes met. “Come here,” he ordered, patting his lap.

I inched toward him, blanket still wrapped around me like a cocoon as I climbed into his lap. He wrapped his strong arms around my tiny frame and I nestled into his chest. His jacket smelled of musty sweat, but I didn’t mind. “I’m cold,” I said, showing him the goosebumps the slathered my thin arms.

He hugged me a bit tighter before holding up my sweater. “Put this on.” I wiggled both arms through the worn sleeves and began to button the front. It was a lopsided mess by the time I was through. Arie set a chunk of bread on the table along with a small glass of water. I furrowed my brow as I glanced at the window. What time was it? My bare feet pitter-pattered across the floor as I pulled back the tattered curtains. The ghetto was veiled in darkness, and I could hear a distant gunshot split through the air. The smell of human waste and rotting flesh rose from the streets, impregnating the air with the stench of death. I quickly dropped the curtain as my stomach knotted.

Arie pointed to the table. “Eat, Hanna. Hurry.”

I stuffed the bread into my mouth, devouring it with a ravenous hunger. The dry clumps lodged in my throat, but still I stuffed in more. “Where are we going? Why am I’m eating breakfast in the middle of the night? Is something bad happening?” I asked, talking around the bread.

“Something bad is always happening in this God forsaken …” He trailed off as he yanked off the scarf from around his neck.

“Where did you find that?”

“You ask too many questions.” He wrapped it around my neck, tucking the ends into my sweater. “Take my hand.” I stood up, placing my small hand in his. As Arie opened the apartment door, someone stepped out of the shadows. Fear tore through my veins, releasing in a scream.

“Shut her up!” The stranger said. Arie clamped his hand over my mouth, but still I whimpered. My limbs trembled as the stranger emerged from the shadows, tall, swarthy, and angry. “Shut her up or the deal’s off.”

Arie’s hand tightened around my mouth. “Hanna, don’t you dare make a sound. Understand me?”
I nodded, and his hand fell. Arie grabbed my hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze as we followed the stranger. I looked up at him, a million questions rushing through my mind. He swallowed hard and fixed his eyes ahead.

The stairs creaked under our feet. My fingers trailed the wall where typhus signs were peeling, reminding us that death didn’t always stalk the streets in a uniform. I held my breath as we neared a corpse draped across the bottom step. The stranger sauntered past it without a second glance. I stopped walking. The woman was staring at me with glassy eyes that were sunken deep into her emaciated face. She wore no clothes. Only a newspaper covered her body. Arie put his hand over my eyes, as if he could shield me from all the evil that seeped into our daily lives. He tried to protect me, but I still saw and heard things everyday.

We continued on in silence through the murky streets. I lifted my head to gaze at the handful of stars peppered throughout the sky. When I brought my gaze back to earth again, my eyes fell on children crawling out of the shadows.They stretched out their hands, eyes wild with hunger. Arie reached into his pocket and tossed them a piece of bread. We turned the corner where the watchmaker shop used to be. Now it was a soup kitchen. In the daytime, people swarmed around the building like bees around a hive. The stranger was kneeling beside the sewer grate, half hidden in the shadow of buildings. Arie casted a furtive glance over his shoulder, then shoved me forward. The black hole reeked.

“Arie?” I stared at him, silently begging my brother to tell me what was happening.

He knelt down in front of me.“Hanna, we have to say goodbye now.”

I took a step back, shaking my head fiercely.

“Hanna,” Arie grabbed my wrist. “Hanna, listen to me.” He took a deep, shaky breath then ducked his head and stared at the ground for a long moment. When he lifted his face again, I thought I saw tears glistening on his cheeks. But it couldn’t be. Arie never cried. “You’re going into the sewers with Moshe. He’s getting you out of the ghetto.”

“But you’re coming too, aren’t you?”


Anger and fear sunk their deadly teeth into my flesh. I ripped my arm away from Arie and started running, exerting every muscle in my body. My mind was replaying one thought over and over again. I hate him. I hate him. I hate him. I heard cursing behind me, but I couldn’t tell if it was the stranger getting impatient or my horrible brother. Footfalls echoed off the cobblestone road. Someone was gaining on me. I pushed harder. An arm wrapped around my stomach, lurking me backward. Arie had me in both arms and was shaking me hard.

“What’s wrong with you?” he hissed in my ear. “If a German sees you out here after curfew, you’re dead. Hear me? They’ll shoot you.” He carried me back toward the sewer where Moshe was pacing.

I gripped his jacket in my fist. “I don’t want to go! You can’t make me!”

“I’m done with this,” Moshe growled. “She’s going to get us all killed.”

“Please, just give us a minute.” Arie set me down. Moshe mumbled something and continued pacing. When Arie kneeled down again, I slapped him across the face. “Hey!” His hand instinctively flew to his cheek.“I’m warning you Hanna—”

“You’re the worst brother in the whole entire world!” Tears tumbled down my cheeks.

“Hanna, you don’t mean that.” He appeared more hurt by my words than the slap.

I wiped the tears with the back of my hand. “Yes I mean it. You’re abandoning me.”

“I’m doing it to protect you. Something is going to happen in the ghetto and you can’t be here when it does.  I … I’d never be able to forgive myself.”

“But I want to stay with you!” I grabbed his shoulders, trying to shake sense into him. “Please, Arie. Please!”

“No.” He stood up, indicating he was done with the conversation.

“I’m scared!” I threw my arms around him, clinging for dear life. My limbs and voice were trembling. “Arie, I'm scared!”

“We all are, Hanna.” He turned away from me. “Moshe, take her before I change my mind.” Moshe hurried over to us, holding out his hand to Arie. My brother placed a pile of zlotys into the young man’s palm, fixing him with a deadly glare. “You better take care of her.”

“I will. I know a family who will take her in. Everything will be fine if she’d quit crying like a baby.”

I cried harder.

“Shh,” Arie put both hands on my face. “I’ll come back for you, Hanna. I’ll find you and we’ll be together again.” He wiped away my tears with this thumb and offered me a forced smile. “Really, we will.”

I leaned into his chest, wrapping my arms tightly around his neck. “Are you sure?” I whispered between hiccups.

He hooked his arm around my waist. “Yeah.”

“But I’ll miss you,” I buried my head into his shoulder.

“And I’ll miss my Hanna.” He held out his hand and I took it. “Come on, it’s time to go.”

“About time,” Moshe said, slipping down into the sewer ledge.

Arie held my hand for a long moment, as if not wanting to let go after all. He finally slipped his hand out of mine and shoved it into his pocket. “Go on.”

I crawled into Moshe’s arm but before he took me down in the dark abyss, I caught sight of my brother walking away.

He wiped a tear away with the back of his sleeve.


  1. Wow, this is so sad! Poor, Arie and Hanna. It's so heartbreaking that things like this actually happened in history.
    Thank you so much for sharing! I so enjoy reading these short stories that you share, though I must say they make me want to read more abut the characters. ;)

  2. Emily, please tell me there is more to this story!!!!! This was so good!

    1. Awww thanks, Morgan!! I'm going to work on a full length novel about the Warsaw Ghetto someday ... maybe Hanna and Arie will make a reappearance. =)