Marta picked at a loose string on her threadbare blouse as Mr. Petroski spoke. His whispered voice still sounded too loud in the dim basement of the old bookstore. His moustache wriggled as he spoke, distracting her. Her mind threatened to wander, to make her float, as she liked to think. It happened a lot lately. A change of voice brought her back to the room. It was Stas, echoing the shopkeeper.
"He's right. No longer can we sit idle," he grabbed a German book from the shelf, throwing it to the dusty floor to prove his point. He watched the others grimace and cast about furtive glances before continuing. "They make us sell only their books, restrict our businesses, and have our musicians playing on the street corners. We flinch when anything German is disrespected for fear of retribution." He stopped speaking, the others sat in silence. When he began again, his voice was barely a whisper.
"But what Marta and I are speaking of is much worse than their crimes against us," his voice cracked at the memory of the children torn from their mother's arms. Their cries still haunting his dreams. "It is nothing compared to what they are now doing in the Ghetto. You'll see when you go to work there tomorrow."
Marta studied the men gathered in the basement of the Strona Bookstore. Men who could no longer stand the two-year occupation. Had it been two years already? She could hardly recognize her beloved city of Warsaw. The centre of town now hosted a ten-foot wall, obscuring the atrocities occurring in the Ghetto just beyond. There was Mr. Petroski, the proprietor of the bookshop, willing risking everything so they could speak. Next came Stas with his perpetually clenched jaw. She often feared his face would get him arrested or draw undue attention. Finally, there was Jan, her childhood friend and the only one needing convincing. His gaze was transfixed on the book laying on the floor. His hand twitched, itching to pick it up. She spoke to break his fascination.
"Exactly! We must act. It's dangerous, so is this meeting. You've come halfway, what's a bit more? Please, we have known each other for so long. Do I ever ask something without a good reason? Please, Jan we need your expertise." She laid a hand on his arm, looking him deep in the eye.
The Shopkeeper stood, putting the book away. He pulled his chair closer. "If I may, Jan, Mr. Buruski. I have not always sold only German books, as you well know. But I do what I must to survive. We all do. Yet there comes a time when inaction becomes a participation in the evil. Which is why we are meeting here. We are all taking significant risks. If we don't act now, when should we? We didn't act when they labelled the Jews illegal, nor when they took away their health insurance and civil liberties. We accepted the red J's stamped in their passports and turned our heads when we saw the stars. We pretended to sleep while officers came and took our neighbours, like Mrs. Rosenblatt, away in the middle of the night and allowed our politicians to explain away the Kristallnacht as quashing resistance. Now the Jews, human beings, are housed in squalid conditions in a ghetto. Walls stand in the middle of our city. The time for inaction has ended."
Stas placed a hand on Mr. Petroski's shoulder as the old man began to weep, guilt etched deep into the wrinkles of his face. "Jan, I understand your fears. We all have a family. That is all the more reason to help us. Families are being ripped apart. Young children, housed separately, forced to take care of babies while dealing with their own heartbreak and loss. There are rumours of torture, sickness, and death. People whisper of a new camp being built to house all the Ghetto residents. Time is running out." Jan chewed his fingernails, a habit from childhood. He tore a piece of a nail with his teeth, ripping the skin, wincing in pain before sucking on the bleeding digit. It really hurt, but it was nothing compared to the German's punishment if he were caught helping the resistance. A voice in his mind reminded him that while he feared for the safety of his family, countless other families were being wrongfully detained. Why did he have to help fix it?
He wiped his finger on his shirt, studying Marta's face. She was 42, yet now looked much older. Her once black hair now dull and grey, a deep-seated hurt reflected in her flat eyes. "I know it's horrible, but why should I help? I'm not a hero."
Marta could sense him softening. "You are not a hero, neither are we. Look around, there are no heroes. Only people courageous enough to take a stand for what's right. Disable the floodlights around the ghetto. We'll do the rest."
Jan could feel an idea forming. The Germans were having issues with the electrical along the wall, which is why they were forcing him to work on it. He could cause a delayed short and blame it on the previous electrician. If he-
Mr. Petroski stood, wringing his hands at the sound of passing boots. "Please, Mr. Buruski, will you help us?"
"What happens after?"
Stas shook his head, "All you need to know is we'll be rescuing as many children as possible."
Jan began to nod his head. A sense of excitement building, his adrenaline decided for him. He was tired of forced labour. If he couldn't fight them, he would sabotage them. "Yes. When?"
"Tomorrow, 11 p.m." The sound of boots passed the shop again; time was up. Jan nodded his agreement, and Mr. Petroski motioned for Stas to sneak out first. He would then send Marta and Jan. He would spend another night sleeping in his shop; one could never be too careful.