The beginning was easy.
I came out of a tunnel and saw her sitting in the distance. On a low wall, like a young woman, her legs crossed, her left foot swinging. She wore a pleated skirt in sand and gray tones. Her hair was chin length, full and heavy. Standing next to her was a man, she was flirting with him.
The light was translucent that day, as if I had brought it back with me from my travels; and warm air still embraced my body, which was gaunt, and my soul, which knew that something was starting.
May I introduce you? the man asked.
She smiled: I’ve already heard about you.
That surprised me, I hadn‘t yet done much for anyone to hear about.
We gave a reading together at a school.
She read a text about an unemployed man who applied to an agency for a job as a pig. I read from something I remember as being rather melodramatic about a woman who wanted to go away forever. Which is a contradiction in terms, “forever” and “away,” because you can’t always be away, at most and at best always there. Later I ripped that story into pieces.
They asked her how she could write something so funny, and me, why something so serious. We talked for a bit, were given sandwiches, and drank tea in the teachers’ lounge.
Afterwards, we walked a short way together to the train station. She said that I had talent and that my text reminded her of another text she’d once read, by a Frenchwoman she thought it was, something similar, a little bit different, but it reminded her.
She wanted to know what I was working on, what I did, and my telephone number. She wished me success and then stepped somewhat laboriously into the number 9 tram and I, into my narrow life.
I don’t remember much about the two years that passed before she called.
Things happened of course, I moved, didn’t travel so much anymore, got rid of my absent boyfriend, bought myself a single mattress, and exposed myself somewhat more boldly to the winds of loneliness.
When the time was up, I was given my task.
She passed it to me in the form of a book. On the balcony of her apartment with a view of the city’s gardens; after we’d exchanged some pleasantries, I’d drunk Nescafé from an oversized mug, and the broken webbing of the cane chair had jabbed me in my backside and my legs – she always got the one with the blanket.
She asked me about love. She was the first of us to do so. In answer, I shrugged my shoulders.
Then it came.
Read this! she said. The way a doctor says: Take this. It will do you good. A prescription.
It was a translation. Two hundred ninety-one pages. Ragged margins. Blurry printing. The cover was made of shiny cardboard with a charcoal drawing of trees, with crowns like black smoke forming a lattice of sorts. Inside there was an opaque photo of her in which she cocked her head and laid her forefinger on her cheekbone, a pose she never assumed.
The original title was Przezylam Ošwiecim.
I Survived Auschwitz.
She dedicated the book for me and I read it in one night.
Later she called me and asked if I had finished it.
I said yes.
And? she asked.
You see! she said.
But to this day I don’t know whether I see. My eyes however were certainly opened.
In retrospect, I can’t say anymore why I did it. The decision came suddenly and I was the one who made it.
One evening I called her and said she should tell me everything, the rest, her secret.
Had I remembered – the agitated movement of her age-spotted hands, the sudden tension in her body, the disquiet – or was it the story itself, which lay fallow, arable land for everything? At any rate it was naive. But it’s often naiveté which is inescapable.
In my hand I held the receiver of my old telephone, which was gray and for some reason always a little bit sticky, as if the plastic were already disintegrating. I stood upright, looked out the window over the roofs onto which evening had already fallen, ready to spread out. Trains rolled in the distance.
It was a long time before she spoke.
What for? she asked me.
It’s important, I said.
She was silent.
Could she have some time to think it over?
Yes, but only until tomorrow, I said.
I think I was almost offended.
She met him in the winter of ‘56/’57. Change was in the air in Poland; people were listening to Radio Free Europe, privatizing, founding jazz clubs and poetry circles – workers’ councils took over the factories. And because all of that was unusual, the winter wasn’t called winter, but “October.” The “Polish October.” It lasted about a year. Those who tended towards pessimism added “for how long” to the spirit of change; the very pessimistic added “who knows what will come next.”
Parliamentary elections took place, maybe they’d already just taken place. Gomulka had his power affirmed and proceeded to use it.
At any rate it was night and it was late, and since the moon wasn’t shining and the light of the streetlamps was yellow and diffuse, the mood on the street was somewhat nebulous, the snow looked grimy. The showy apartment building was inhabited by those who had made it; it belonged to the KGB. In retrospect I’m surprised she never mentioned the political situation in the country at the time, the country she loved so much.
But you don’t think, say, or remember: “when I first met him, Soviet tanks were rolling into Hungary.” Or: “we met during the Cuba Crisis.” You think, say, and remember: “when I first met him I was wearing a bathrobe;” or: “I had just bitten into an apple.”
She was wearing a bathrobe. She sat wrapped in it at her desk in front of the window on the third floor of the big house, pondering over lyrics for a pop song. The heavy velvet curtains were closed. Crimson and closed. The radiator pipes banged. Polish winters are cold. Under the bathrobe she was wearing a floral patterned nightgown, its ribbon ties peeking out of the collar. Her bare feet were plunged into fluffy pink slippers. Her blond hair lay brushed and curly down to her neck; there were traces of powder on her cheeks. She never went anywhere without powdering her face, not even to bed. Her nail polish was beginning to flake off.
It was quiet in the neighboring rooms. Her two sons were sleeping, her mother at the end of the hall too. The man who lived in the rooms across from her and to whom she was married wasn’t there. Why, that will have to be clarified later, or there is no clarifying it really, because the husband of the woman who sat at her desk humming was a bearer of secrets, it’s difficult to describe that kind of life, because by its very nature we hardly know anything about it.
She pursed her lips, her eyes wandered up and down the folds of the curtains – the melody was a real earworm. On the table in front of her was a graph paper notebook. In the niche beside her stood her bed, the thick down blanket already turned back.
She took a ballpoint pen from a dish full of pens, put it to paper, pushed it back and forth; it was empty. She threw it back into the dish, took another one, then wrote:
Hey young man across the street,
c’mon over, we should meet.
You’re so young, you’re so fine,
shouldn’t you be mine?
The young man was German and was sitting at that moment in Warsaw’s small satiric theater where she was literary director; waiting impatiently with a bright open face for the end of the show.
On stage was a kind of revue, one of those blends of cheeky, frivolous sketches and song that were so popular at the time and whose scripts are almost impossible to find today.
The ensemble included a Frenchwoman who – because she did not speak Polish, nor did she want to be recognized – had been given the role of a silent Moor. But because her costume was so tight and her figure so good and her big blue eyes so startling in the black shoe polish, it was exactly this woman who got the biggest applause.
Her name was Jasmine and the young man already knew that she could lead him to the woman he had to meet, no matter what. Which is why, right after the show, he stormed into her dressing room, talking to her forcefully in rapid Parisian French, and threw her blue wool coat over her shoulders. She slipped hastily into her narrow loafers, where were her boots, no boots in this snow.
He didn’t even leave her time to really get her make-up off, which is why the remaining color encircled her dainty features like a kind of mourning band.
Jasmine was used to this kind of ambush. In France she’d had politically unpopular friends who’d supported the guerrillas in Cuba. She’d had to leave the country and had sought refuge in Poland. Except until now it had always been her audacious lovers who had been torn from her, and not she herself who was wrested away.
With small steps she walked fearfully and obediently alongside the man through nighttime Warsaw and the snow, while he tried to calm her down; they weren’t going to Siberia, just to a doorbell. And he didn’t want to arrest her either, he was only asking in this wild way for her to put in a word for him with the woman he wanted to talk to, had to talk to, now, this very night. His motives were noble and sincere; he hammered this message into the Frenchwoman.
Frozen through and through and completely soaked they arrived at the apartment building. In front of the doorbell Jasmine hesitated again:
Can’t it wait until tomorrow? They’re influential people.
Then she rang. She rang the bell at least five times; it buzzed on the third floor of the house in which only one light was burning.
If you’re going to do it, do it right, the Frenchwoman said to herself.
Shortly afterwards the two of them faced each other for the first time. The light from a never-cleaned hallway lamp fell on him. She’d pulled her bathrobe tighter around herself. Jasmine, with her framed face, gaped like a lemur at the two of them.
There was a trail of muddy slush behind him. Dewdrops sparkled in his curls, his hair the color of malt beer.
Behind her was the long apartment hallway, which lay in darkness. Jackets and overcoats spilled black from the wall, shoes were piled on the floor.
The door was open.
She pulled his letters from behind the wooden radiator cover. Later I realized that they were contraband smuggled by the crying blind man; even later I had an inkling of why, only to reject the idea once more; in the end they were just regular letters again. Thin, folded, unsorted letters. They were in an old plastic envelope that had also been folded and that was smeared with an oily film of dust. It left traces on the wall as she pulled it out, she tugged harder, the envelope got stuck between wood and marble top, she yanked once again, a film of dust flew off and she had a coughing fit. We had to open the window of her bedroom, the room she never slept in. Her bed was in the living room and wasn’t a bed, but a daybed, surrounded by medication, water bottles, a telephone, and books.
She’d forgotten that, she said. That she was allergic to dust. That was a problem. She wouldn’t be able to read the letters and I wouldn’t understand them, that was the much bigger problem, that I wouldn’t understand anything, you needed to know so much, the whole background, the mise-en-scène.
A new word: mise-en-scène.
She would hound me with it yet.
You’ll manage, I retorted. And tried to clean the thick, folded envelope with a damp rag.
The next time I can open the packages and blow off the letters beforehand.
I was surprised we didn’t laugh, in that dust-filled room.
We spread out the contents of the package on the grey couch table in the living room. Her son had said he would use that table top later for her coffin. That she’d laughed at, the girls just always have the weightier questions.
Then we took out the papers, one by one.
A postcard of a golden carriage. A poem with a coffee stain. A telegram with stripes from the glue, the exact time, place. “Coming one day later, Zilp.” A few tiny pages from a loose-leaf notebook. A letter with oversized writing, typed notes, white notes, brown, weathered envelopes, empty envelopes, a photo, airmail, “Italcable,” “I’m sitting, my head aches, the climate makes me ill,” “Your 81/4 Harry ,” “lalunia,” “at Kozlowska’s round table,” “I long for you,” “Your Highness, I would not dare,” “Dearest, it didn’t just recently become difficult to talk to you,” “M. has no chance of getting anything out of the courts anymore,” “definitely to kill that book,” “sell the Moskvitch,” “where will that country be,” “good that you have such a savvy approach,” “the rats.”
Return address: Schiller Inn, return address Moscow, return address Crimea, return address Ljubljana, return address Milan, return address Rome, return address Berlin, Par Avion, blue with red stripes, “where will that country be.”
“Puma case closed! You Chinawoman! What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Say hi to Witold and the children,” “Wish list: K2R stain remover,” “Dear Comrade Secretary,” “Darling, I send ten thousand kisses,” “where will that country be,” “you Chinawoman.”
It was dark in her room. Only the cones of light from bedside lamp and desk lamp marked out two circles. The colors near them gleamed, the crimson of the curtains, the sofa and the pillow.
The German and the Frenchwoman sat on the edge of the sofa, the Polish woman stood in her bathrobe.
First he said his name. He said it in French, moi, je suis…
His name was his story.
Then the Moor began to speak, her braid bouncing, her face contorted, a mix of her mother tongue and strange broken Polish. That she was embarrassed, she repeated again and again, that they’d barged in so late and unannounced, that she didn’t want to, but the young man just took her with him. But it’s for a good cause. Apparently he – he’s German by the way – only means the best. And he’s just a little over-enthusiastic, it’s about something very important. He wants to write a play. About the uprising in the ghetto. And he needs eyewitnesses. And then he heard that she’s an eyewitness, you are, n’est-ce pas? And that she could bring him to her, since they happened to be friends. And then just now– it gave her quite a shock – he just broke into her dressing room right after the show, took her arm, talking insistently the whole time, threw her coat over her shoulders…
She went on and on.
But something else had been going on in the room for quite some time.
“You’re so pure” was the second thing he said. He said it in German.
“Well,” she answered, now standing right in front of him, raising her eyebrows and looking at him sharply, “I just washed.”
“I’m a poet,” he countered.
She pushed a strand of hair out of her face.
The Frenchwoman’s feet squeaked in her wet shoes.
“It’s important that I write this play! People should know that the Jews fought back. The whole world believes they went to the slaughterhouse like lambs. Someone has to do something about it. It has to be a big, strong piece, an inflammatory pamphlet. For human rights, against indifference.”
She went to her bookshelf and pulled out – between the rows of wedged-in, piled-up, squeezed-in books – a slim brown volume whose pages looked like packing paper.
“Read this,” she said and put the book into his hand. “It contains everything I know. I wasn’t there for the uprising, I was already in the camp.”
The young man stood up, and with him the now-shivering Frenchwoman, excusez-moi, he thanked her, bowed and held the book out to her.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked him, irritated.
“I don’t want it.”
“You don’t want it?”
He placed the book on the arm of the sofa.
“Why not?” she inquired, indignant.
He beamed at her.
“I need a reason, for tomorrow.”
His name was Thomas Harlan.
He had a broad, open face, stretched in an inimitable manner that made him look as if he were fleeing, made his eyes move to the side as though to look or maybe steal away instead .
His eyes were violet. A human eye color associated with nothing, neither character traits nor particular beauty. It was only rare and therefore strange.
In summer his hair was blond, in winter brown.
He was lean, of average height, with well-defined muscles. He liked to sail, he could ice skate, ski, dive, race cars, speak four foreign languages fluently. He was charming, had had many girls, women, boys and men. And he was young.
He had good manners, which he cared nothing about, and he had once worked on a Kibbutz in Israel for a while, which was still quite unusual at the time. Because he’d misbehaved, he’d been kicked out.
His father was a Nazi.
That’s not the whole story, but that’s how it was.
His father was not a Nazi.
Now one assertion stands against the other.
The quintessence of both assertions was his son.
By the next morning, this essence had already created a fait accompli. He was sitting in the kitchen before she got up. A large kitchen with simple furnishings and many pots and pans, knives and ladles on the walls, and more traces of intensive use. A kitchen whose walls definitely could have used a fresh coat of paint. In its middle stood a round table; on it, open jams in every available variety, also coffee, cold cuts, cheese, milk, eggs, honey, bread – the entire contents of a Polish pantry.
Baba had set the table. He’d already won her over. She swung her hips, her rosy cheeks glowed, would you like another egg?
The boys were touching his pants.
Jeans! Real jeans!
Yes, he would like another egg.
Did he have any Elvis records?
The little one blew a bubble with his gum, it popped. He was just telling us he bathes with his pants on!
They all spoke German, that strange guttural language that he sang more than spoke. Then she came in, slowly, tired, gray, she went to the stove, almost shuffling.
It seems I’m always in my bathrobe when I meet you, she said in the direction of the fat-speckled tiles. Her tea was there.
I don’t mind, he answered. But do you know how absolutely wonderful your mother is? Sit down, darling, this same mother murmured and pushed the chair in, I was just leaving.
I drove home with her packet of letters. On the streets of the city tanned girls displayed their long legs. Men let their overcoats blow open, their inside pockets weighted with money. The lights drew stripes, the air was hot. The city a dream on wet earth. Of marble and gold, beauty and steel, of future, money, wind and long hair.
Urban grids, cobblestones, arterial roads, the change to the countryside is abrupt. Black fields with mistreated flowers in piled-up boxes, the Flehe Bridge, interchanges near factories and printing plants, a last floodlit parking lot, then the stars came and the night was free.
Her name was Krystyna. And it’s not accidental that I haven’t said her name until now.
It was her name for her second life.
In the first one she was called Sophie.
Sophie Landau. “Landauerka” he’d once called her.
Sometimes she was called Sonya or Zosia.
“If someone came and suddenly called me Tamara you wouldn’t be surprised, would you?”
She had three different birthdays.
It took me years before I was sure which was the right one. September 1, a historic date. The beginning of the war. The year is uncertain. She was older than she said.
Her second birthday was January 18. The day she managed to flee the evacuation march from Auschwitz; the year is certain: 1945. It was evening, around 7:00, the sky was black and the snow was white, they’d been marching since 2:30 p.m.
“…adieu, horrible Auschwitz, and you abominable Birkenau. Only the wind will blow sadly through your empty barracks…”
As she stepped through the gate, she looked back; the watchmen’s “swallow’s nests” were empty and everywhere SS men were running around burning mountains of paper, files, documents; evidence.
“There will come a time when grass will grow here” her friend said. It was still easy for them to walk through the town of Auschwitz, they’d seen the families of the SS packing and fleeing. But soon walking became agony. They dropped their first bags.
The guards beat them, the SS screamed; they walked alongside every third row of five with dogs that growled and bared their teeth.
At seven, the first prisoners sank exhausted to the snow to freeze or be beaten to death.
How much further? she asked one of the guards.
Three hundred kilometers, he muttered.
They’d gone seven.
The rows of five had broken up. “Quick! Stand up! Faster! … Faster! Swine!”
She’d sworn to herself the moment she left the camp: she would not go to another jail, or another camp.
She saw a haystack on the side of the road.
“Now, Basia, now! You too” she whispered to her friend and let herself fall. And her friend reacted immediately, quickly covered her feet with hay and went on, while Krystyna lay there, half unconscious, with hay in her mouth, in her eyes, in her ears.
Once a guard sat on her head, now it’s over, she thought, a dog sniffed at her, but didn’t bark, and a shot fell that hit someone else.
She was not found.
Between two groups of prisoners she was able to scrabble out of the hay and step into the meter-high snow over corpses and discarded clothing on the way to a far-away free place. She tore the number off her prisoner’s coat, on the horizon the next group approached, a gray mass of humans, accompanied by shots, barking, and the ringing of sleds.
Every year, her friends gave her a bundle of hay on that day.
Her third birthday was in May. She received a telegram of congratulations and a huge bouquet of flowers. The Municipal Department of Culture congratulated her on her seventieth birthday. Neither was she turning seventy, she had been seventy for quite some time, nor was it her birthday. She gave the bouquet to me.
From Krystyna. Und die Liebe, frag ich sie by Liane Dirks.
© 1998, Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne
Translation © Laura Radosh