Authors: Hanna Krall
MEIKE ZIERVOGEL PEIRENE PRESS
This is a beautiful love story but also an incredible account of one woman’s quest to be heard. Told with astounding simplicity, this book recreates the Holocaust not as an historical event but as a terrifying, shared, experience. I am amazed – and honoured – that it was left to Peirene to publish this book for the first time in English.
She buys shoelaces for a pair of men’s shoes – such a trivial purchase.
As she’s buying them, she still thinks she’s in love with Jurek Szwarcwald. Everybody thinks that, especially Jurek’s parents. Jurek isn’t ugly and he isn’t boring. He isn’t poor, either. Izolda is wearing his shoes because a bomb destroyed the house on Ogrodowa Street and now she can’t get into her apartment, let alone her wardrobe.
She stops at her friend Basia Maliniak’s. Just for a moment, to thread the new laces.
A young man is standing by the stove, warming his hands on the tiles. He’s tall and slender, with straight, golden hair. His hands have a golden tinge. When he sits down he spreads his legs and drops his arms – non-chalantly, almost absent-mindedly. His hands just hang there, helpless, and even more beautiful. She learns he has two first names, Yeshayahu Wolf, and that Basia calls him Shayek.
She takes her time lacing her shoes. After an hour Shayek says: You have the eyes of a rabbi’s daughter. An hour later he adds: A sceptical rabbi.
Basia sees her to the door and hisses: I could kill you right now.
He drops by a few days later, with bad news about Hala Borensztajn’s brother Adek. (Izolda shared a desk with Hala to the end of sixth form.) Adek’s dead. From typhus. She can’t believe it: typhus? People die of scarlet fever or pneumonia but not from typhus. Shayek says: Now they’ll be dying differently, we better get used to that.
They walk over to Hala’s. Adek’s friends have come as well. The apartment is cold. They drink tea. Basia Maliniak is knitting a colourful sweater from unravelled yarn and doesn’t say a word to either of them. The others talk about typhus. Supposedly it comes from lice. Not from people? No, just lice. Hala laughs at her father, who wants to build a shelter and hide from the lice and from the war. His daughter assures him that the war won’t last long, but he’s already stocking up on provisions.
The talk moves to love. Izolda says: You know what? I thought I was in love with Jurek Szwarcwald but I was wrong. Should I tell him or not? After some debate her friends conclude that would be too cruel. Get engaged to someone else, they advise, and Shayek tosses out: I’m available. After he leaves, Basia Maliniak puts down her knitting and says: He meant that – and she’s right.
They take a local train. She opens the window and warm, spring-like air flows inside. The train passes Józefów. She points out the road the old peasant wagon used to
take coming from town. You can see how it follows the tracks. Always around this time of year. That’s where it turned behind the trees. You can’t see the houses from the train. The one with the big porch belongs to the Szwarcwalds. The wagon would drive up and the servant girl would unload all the baskets packed with linens, summer clothes, pots, buckets, brushes. Then she’d fetch water from the well and scrub the floors. At the end of summer the same wagon would drive back in from town and the servant girl would load up all the baskets packed with linens, pots, brushes. There used to be a sandy glade in the woods, not far off, with an old oak tree. No, of course you can’t see the tree. It always had so many acorns.
She talks and talks, hoping the words will drown out her fear, as well as her embarrassment and curiosity. They get off at Otwock, the end of the line. A group of older boys scrambles out of the next carriage, all very serious and conspiratorial, probably scouts. Their leader issues a few quiet commands – fall in, compasses, north-east – and the column fades into the woods. A freckle-faced boy with a broad smile brings up the rear.
The Zachęta guest house smells of warm pine. Inside the room, Shayek clearly knows what to do with a woman who’s as eager as she is afraid, as curious as she is embarrassed. Later that afternoon they head back, stopping to rest under a tree. She lays her head on his lap. They hear a chorus of voices, not very loud, singing a scouting song:
Hur-rah hur-rah, hoo-ray hoo-ray! As long as we can, let’s seize the day!
– the boys from the next carriage are also returning to the station. The freckle-faced boy
again brings up the rear, but he isn’t singing; maybe he doesn’t have the voice for it. The boy notices them. Hey, he shouts, take a look at this, the Yids are making love. The boy snickers, then turns around and catches up with his colleagues. Izolda keeps her eyes closed and whispers: Your hair is so blond and your skin is so light, but they could tell. He drapes her sweater around her shoulders. She hadn’t realized it had slipped, exposing the armband with the blue star.
They get married. She wears a sky-blue dress tinged with lilac. Her mother bought the fabric a long time ago, thinking she would sew something to wear for her son’s birthday dinner. The colour was
– very much in vogue because Wallis Simpson was so fond of it. The duchess had worn periwinkle when she married Edward VIII, or maybe it was to the banquet afterwards. In the end Mother didn’t sew anything because her two-year-old son died of pneumonia. She dressed in black and announced she would wear mourning for the rest of her life.
Thanks to Jurek Szwarcwald (he was surprisingly quick to accept her breaking it off and he too got married, his wife Pola was a nice, smart woman and by no means unattractive despite a longish nose) – thanks to Jurek, who’s studying medicine, Izolda lands a job in a hospital, looking after the typhus patients. She gives them water with valerian, massages their bedsores and straightens
their pillows. For the first time in her life she sees corpses (which are carried off to the cemetery in wooden hand-carts with two large wheels on both sides and four handles for pulling). She has yet to witness someone dying and she very much wants to. She’s not so curious about what visions the dying person might have – light, dark, angel or God – but wants to know what she might see when someone else’s life comes to an end. A soul? A sign? Because if there is a sign, it ought to be read. She sits beside a young girl, very beautiful despite her illness. She keeps watch all night long, and just as the day breaks she hears a quiet sighing. The sick girl’s chest rises – and doesn’t fall. Izolda leans over the girl, alert and concentrated. She examines the girl’s face – peaceful, serious – but sees no sign of a soul. They load the girl’s body on to the black wooden wagon. Izolda takes off her apron and goes home. She tells her husband what death looks like: no soul, no sign. Then she adds, by way of encouragement: We’re still alive, though. To which her husband says: Even that is less and less certain.
At night she works in private homes. These patients are well off, they have their own clean sheets, their own doctor and a genuine funeral. They also have a separate grave. Whoever can’t afford a grave or a funeral is taken out to the street, where the body must be covered with sheets of newspaper. The paper has to be weighted down against the wind with a brick or a stone.
There’s a lot to be learnt from these newspaper shrouds.
Who counts as a Jew (anyone with three Jewish grandparents).
Where to wear the armband with the star (on the right sleeve only).
What kind of armbands are to be worn by ragmen and waste collectors (purple-red – the green ones used up until now are no longer valid).
What the March ration cards are good for (500 grams of sauerkraut and 100 grams of beetroot), what the April cards are worth (one box of forty-eight matches) and what can be expected in December (one egg with an oval stamp on the shell).
How to make soup out of leftover bread (soak in water, boil, strain and add saccharine).
What kind of saccharine is kosher for Passover (as decreed by the rabbinate, only in crystal form, dissolved and run through a sieve before the holiday).
Where Dr Korczak will be telling children stories (the orphanage on Śliska Street).
What kind of crime Moszek Goldfeder committed (he passed a woman on the street, grabbed her loaf of bread and took off, eating as he ran; when brought before the Jewish police he apologized to the victim and promised to change for the better).
Where to mend clothes (nowhere but the Keller workshop, because they hire pedantic old spinsters).
Where to arrange for a hearse (nowhere but Eternity, the company that invented the bicycle cart hearse – very practical, it can carry up to four coffins at once!).
The source of Jewish optimism (it comes from being created in God’s image – the fount of all goodness and the source of all being, without beginning).
No one in her family has died yet. Her father traded half an apartment building for a whole calf’s hide. Her mother trades pieces of the hide for onions and bread.
She needs to borrow a little money. She goes to Hala Borensztajn (the one she sat next to in sixth form). Fifty? What do you need fifty zlotys for? Hala’s father is surprised. Izolda explains that it’s for the German guard: he looks the other way and I walk out of the ghetto. That costs fifty whole zlotys. You want to leave? Hala is astounded. With your hair? Hala herself is blonde and has a snub nose, but she has no intention of leaving their shelter before the war is over. She shows off the tap with water, the bags of grain and the stock of medicine. Izolda agrees, the shelter is fantastic, so, now will you lend me the money? Mr Borensztajn hands her ten zlotys and she promises to return them when the war is over. She borrows forty from Halinka Rygier’s father (Halinka sat right behind Hala in school) and then hurries to her husband.
Her husband works in a factory set up in the attic of a multi-storey apartment building. She hears the rumble of trucks as she climbs the stairs. At the top of the stairs a man is putting a padlock on the door to the workshop. His hand is shaking and he has trouble fitting the key into the lock. Where’s Shayek? she asks
the man. In there – he points at the door (the hand he uses to point is also shaking) and then runs downstairs. Shayek, she whispers to the lock, I can’t get in. The motors get louder and louder. Shayek! She tries to break the padlock, punches it with all her strength. Shayek, I can’t just stand here! In the courtyard someone shouts, ‘Jews come out!’ and she hears the stamping of feet. She knows what’s coming next: they’ll search the apartments, floor by floor. They’re going to find me, she explains to the lock. They’re going to find me and take me to Umschlagplatz. She hears a child crying, then several shots and a quavering voice she doesn’t recognize: Save me! Shayek, save me! When she hears ‘Shayek’ she realizes that the voice is her own. That’s me crying out, I just got a little scared, but now I’m calm, I can’t stay here because they’ll shoot me, I can’t stay here, they’ll shoot me on the spot, he’ll open the door and then what, he’ll see me shot dead, I can’t… She says all that out loud as she runs down the stairs. In front of the building Jewish policemen and SS men are lining everyone up in a column. One of the policemen is Jurek Gajer, who recently married Basia Maliniak. He notices Izolda and lifts his hands to say: I can’t do anything to help you, you see for yourself, and places her in the column. They march off down the empty streets and through a wide-open wooden gate. They pass the hospital and stop at the collection point. She thinks: This is Umschlagplatz and this is where I am. The cattle wagons will come for us… My God, they’ll come to take us away – and how will he manage without me?
The film is playing in slow motion and the sound has been turned down – that’s why everyone is moving more slowly and speaking more quietly. Or not speaking at all, they’re just sitting on their bags and rocking back and forth, back and forth. Or they’re whispering to themselves, very possibly praying. They’ve calmed down, stopped bustling about, there’s no more running away. They wait. They don’t have the strength for anything else.
She is unable to wait. (By now the round-up must be over, the man has unlocked the door and the workers have come out of the factory. Are you Shayek? the man asks. Your wife was here… Shayek runs down on to the street, Iza, he calls out, Izolda, and Jurek Gajer repeats: Izolda’s gone, she went to Umschlagplatz… Stop shouting, listen to me, Izolda isn’t here.)
Izolda looks around. There’s a barrel next to the wall. She can tell at a glance that it’s too small, but she tries to climb inside anyway. The barrel flips over and so does she. The hospital is locked, but even so she stands near the entrance and waits there for hours. A doctor from the typhus ward looks out of the window and sees her. That’s our nurse, he tells the policeman. They let her in, she lies down on an empty bed. Surely they won’t take the sick people, she thinks, but someone enters the room and announces that they’re taking all the patients. She gets up and mops the floor, thinking they won’t take away the orderlies, but someone enters the room… She puts on a white apron, they won’t take the nurses… A Jewish policeman lines up all the workers and holds out
his cap. People toss in rings, necklaces, watches… Izolda takes out the silver compact Shayek had given her as an engagement present. She opens it, wipes the powder off the mirror, checks herself and tosses it into the cap. The policeman picks up the compact and returns it without a word, he’s not interested in silver. They’re allowed to leave the hospital. Umschlagplatz is now empty. A few people are scurrying through the streets. The wind picks up newspapers, bangs on abandoned pots, slams open windows. A horse whinnies somewhere close by. Lying on the pavement is an overturned bowl, white pockmarked with black where the enamel chipped off – a bowl someone had wanted to take along but it was too unwieldy for the journey.
Izolda tells her parents she isn’t spending another day in the ghetto. That’s right, you’re absolutely right, her father agrees, making a slight gesture with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. She knows that gesture, that’s how her father underscores his pronouncements. You’re not going to your death like some docile little lamb, he states in a solemn voice, raising his right hand once again. She’s not thinking about how she will go to her death. She isn’t going to her death. She’s thinking about her father’s reflexive gesture, how it originates in the left hemisphere of the brain, which is responsible for speech and the movements of the right limbs. She learnt about reflexes at nursing school, but can people on the Aryan side distinguish between the workings of the left hemisphere and Jewish gesticulation? It’s good you’re getting out of here, he assures her, and hugs her tightly, so that his hands are behind her back. And because his
hands are behind her back, she doesn’t have to wonder what people might think who don’t know about the workings of cerebral hemispheres.