Title: The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die
Author: Randall Platt
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Pub. Date: May 9th, 2017
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction
It’s 1939 in Poland and Arab knows that being Jewish and a girl can get a person killed. As the Nazi occupation overtakes Warsaw, she plans to survive the way she always has: disguise herself as a boy, king her street gang, and above all, refuse to get involved. Arab will need to use all the skills the streets have taught her—and avoid every enemy she’s made along the way. And then there’s her baby sister Ruthie—how will she survive the occupation? Trying to be a hero is a surefire way to die. Hard-hitting and unforgettable, The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die is a story about surviving, and finding hope when the world is at its darkest.
Excerpted with permission from The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die by Randall Platt. Copyright 2017, Sky Pony Press, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
I hand it to him and watch his face carefully. He’s not my first Nazi.
The young soldier looks at the photo on my forged Austrian student pass, then back at me. “Your reason for entering Poland?”
“My aunt is dying,” I say, hoping he can’t detect the accent in my German. I might be fluent in four languages—five if I count the street slang my gang uses—but I know my accent shines a Polish light on every word.
“Where does your aunt live?”
“When will you return to Vienna?”
“I have final exams in two weeks. I have to be back . . .” I frown at him and add, “That is, providing I can get back. I’d like to finish my second year before . . .” I stop.
A little smile won’t hurt. “I’ve been in Vienna for two years, sir. I’m pretty sure I know what’s coming.” I adjust my skirt.
“Yes, well,” he says, “these are dangerous times, especially for young women traveling alone.”
Don’t I know it! These days, a girl needs to know how to defend herself. In five languages. I keep my valise close to my leg and hope he doesn’t notice the padding in my skirt hem. Money, more forged papers, a knife.
A soldier pokes his head into the room and says, “There’s about fifty more out here, Claus. Quit flirting!”
This Claus looks at me and his face reddens. He knows I understand. I don’t smile. I watched these Krauts overrun Vienna and I’ve had more dealings with them than I’d like to admit. I know I have an edge here. My very gentile-looking smile, this new shade of lipstick I lifted from a woman on the train, these new silk stockings all help. Not to mention my ability to conjure up tears.
“I’m sorry,” I say, pulling out a crinkled hankie. “Aunt Bożena is very dear to me. I hope I get there in time.”
He hands me back the pass.
There’s some sort of scuffle in the hall. I hear a woman cry out and a man make a threat in Yiddish. Others shout in Polish, German soldiers shouting back.
“Is everything okay?” I ask, tilting my head toward the door.
“Yes, yes. Very well, Fräulein, you may go.” He pulls a paper off a pad, fills in my name and dates, signs it. Then—ka-chunk!—he pushes down a numbering stamp. I watch over his shoulder. It’s a pass in and out of Poland good for two months. Street value? Big.
I rise, and he hands me my valise. If he finds out what’s in it, I’ll be detained. Or worse. I’m still wanted on two warrants in Vienna. “Please, be careful,” Claus says. “And a little bit of advice, if I may.”
“Try to leave Warsaw. In fact, leave Poland altogether. As soon as you can.”
I give him a quick look, but then smile sweetly. “Really? Why?”
He smiles back and opens the door for me. “Well, you don’t want to miss those exams, do you?” And he winks at me.
“Oops, forgot my hankie,” I say, as he follows me out the door and starts to talk to someone in the hall. I rush back in the office and tear off several more passes from the pad and the numbering stamp, pocketing them just as he steps back into the room.
“Yes, thank you.” I dab my eyes, smile, and leave. I walk down the hall against the line of people yet to be processed, and step into the large waiting room. I’m almost there. This train station in Ostrana, Czechoslovakia, is the last checkpoint. Poland is within spitting distance. Then hitch a ride to Warsaw and I’m home free.
But not looking like this.
I find the ladies’ room, slip into a toilet stall, and make my change. The prim, innocent school girl goes in, the street ruffian comes out. Thick cotton pants, boots, a baggy sweater over two shirts and my chest wrap. The blonde wig, the cloche hat, the pleated skirt—everything for the schoolgirl set— gets crammed deep into the trash can after I rip my valuables out of the hem. On second thought, I pull the silk stockings back out. Always a street value. I dunk my head in the sink and wash my face, then grab a towel and hold it over my head.
“Come on, you coward. Look,” I mutter, daring myself. The towel slowly comes down.
My hacked-short blonde hair is thick from months of neglect. My skin is ruddy and rough and intensifies my blue eyes. I’m sixteen—aren’t I supposed to be blossoming by now? I stand sideways and look at my profile. Flat-chested, scrawny, too tall. My periods still show up unannounced, like an unwelcome maiden aunt.
“So, tell me. Just who are you?” I ask my reflection. “No. What are you?”
The scream of a train whistle reminds me to move out fast. I pull my cap down low, hike up these stolen pants, pull down the moth-eaten sweater, and take one last look. This is the real me—not the Abra Goldstein my filthy-rich Jewish parents tried to forge. No, on the streets they call me the Arab, and I’m ready to reclaim my territory on the shady side of Warsaw. Start up the Warsaw Chapter of the Meet Me in Hell Club—my gang of street kids.
I back out of the swinging restroom door and nearly knock over a well-dressed woman coming in.
“Pardon me,” I say, backing away. “Wrong door.”
She responds with a bit of a huff as I start toward the waiting room.
Damn! It’s that Claus coming toward the men’s room, walking with another soldier. I look around. Nowhere to duck into. Quick, think! He’ll recognize my valise, if not me! I rush back in the ladies’ room, hold my valise against my chest, and lean against the door. The woman looks at me in surprise. She looks Jewish, but then again, I don’t. Still, it’s my only card. I put my finger to my lips and whisper in Yiddish, “Please . . .” We can hear the soldiers walking outside the door. She dries her hands and looks at me, then at the trash can where the blonde wig is just barely showing. An uneven smile comes to her face.
I listen outside the door. It’s quiet. “Thank you,” I say to her. I pull out the silk stockings and press them into her hands. Already I’ve redeemed their value.
“May God go with you,” she says, her Yiddish well marked with a German accent.
I peer around the door. The way is clear. If God wants to go with me, fine. Not stopping him, as long as he keeps his advice to himself. God’s one of the reasons I’m in this situation in the first place. No, it’s more likely I’m on my own.
Just the way I like it.
After two days of walking and hitchhiking through Poland, I’m here. Welcome home, Arab. I hop on the back of a passing lorry and take a deep breath. The scents of the Vistula River off in the distance mix with industrial smoke and it’s as though I never left. My gaze wanders north to where my parents’ extravagant home anchors an entire city block. The lorry passes a roadside flower stand and the scent of rose blossoms reminds me of the bushes my mother planted when Ruth was born. Ruthie. That little brat fell into my heart the minute she was placed into my arms. Perfect in every way but one: that tiny, sweet, clubbed foot. But oh, Ruthie’s smile, her eyes, her everything. Despite myself, I adore that little imp.
I wonder if she’d even remember me after two years. After all, she was barely three when I left. Probably doesn’t even have a photograph to remember me by, such was my father’s wrath. But if I’ve learned anything in the last two years, it’s that yesterday means nothing. Tomorrow means nothing. Today is everything.
And today, I have an old score to settle. If he’s still in Warsaw—if he’s still alive—I’ll find him. I’ve been planning our reunion for two years.
I follow all the regular routes, look in our old haunts, hideouts, and meet-up joints. I stroll through Praga Park on the Vistula River and pass familiar places: where Sniper and I first met, our first flirtations, our first confidence game together, our first holdup.
I thought Sniper was the sun and the moon and the stars in between. Back then, I would have walked through hell for him. And I damn near have. I was thirteen, and a stupid little shit—a gawky, clumsy, stupid-in-love Jew-girl. Eager and willing to run with his gang—to prove myself to him. I know what I saw in him: something different, exciting, even dangerous. But what did he see in me? A dupe. Plain and simple. A lamb to throw to the wolves. And I let him.
I look down each street in this district, our old turf, thinking every thin, tall, dark man I see might be Sniper. I can feel my heart pound. Anticipation of—what, Arab? Revenge or—No! Stop thinking that! Revenge can get a girl killed.
I walk past a café and remember I haven’t eaten a real sit-down meal in days. I have some money, but wonder why I should use it when I can see a purse limply hanging off a woman’s chair, begging to be lifted.
I bump my valise into her chair, upsetting her.
“Young man!” her escort says. I scramble to set things straight. Kneeling down, I easily slip her purse off the back of her chair. Into my valise it drops and—snap!—it’s closed.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, backing away.
I walk to the next street over, hop a streetcar, take a seat in back, and paw through the purse. I smell the scented hankie—not bad—so I stuff it in my pocket. Hmm, this lipstick is so red! When did that come into style? Not my color—as though I have a style! I open the compact. This stays with me. It’s as good as eyes in the back of my head! And oh, lovely, lovely cash. Enough for me to live on for days, or longer. I find the woman’s identification and pocket that, too. The rest—photos, a comb, tweezers—useless. I leave them and the purse on the floor of the car and get off at the next stop.
I head for one of my old haunts, the Crystal Café. I take a table close to the sidewalk, an old habit—I get an up-close view of the passersby before they get an up-close view of me, and it’s a quick escape if I need it.
“Arab?” the waiter asks. “Is that you? It’s me, Albin!”
I look at him carefully. Not everyone in Warsaw is an old friend.
“Remember? Spades?” He looks around and whispers, “You know, from Sniper’s gang?”
My heart takes a leap at the sound of Sniper’s name. I offer him a slight smile. “Sure. I remember you. Good pickpocket.”
“Where’ve you been hiding out?” He hands me a menu.
“Oh, here and there.”
“Gosh, I felt bad when you got caught. Never trusted Sniper after that.”