In the Mouth of the Wolf (9 page)

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
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It began to get light. I knew the old woman would be stirring soon. Very quietly I left the apartment and started off for work, resolving to look for a new place that day. I found one, too—a much better apartment on Ditla Street, much closer to where I worked.

I survived that night all right. I didn't get sick. But to this day I can't abide the sound of church bells.

Friends and Enemies

 

 

      I continued working at the hospital, and, as I came to know those Russian soldiers better, they began taking me into their confidence. Few, I learned, were real Nazis. Most volunteered simply as a way of getting out of the prisoner-of-war camps, where hundreds of men were dying every day. They had no intention of spilling even a drop of their blood for Germany—not if they could help it! For them, being in the hospital was a paid vacation, one they naturally tried to prolong. What malingerers they were!

“I never take any medicine,” one soldier admitted to me. I asked him how he got away with it since the nurse
made everyone open his mouth to check if he swallowed his pills. “I hide the pills under my tongue,” he laughed. “When her back is turned, I spit them out.”

They complained of intestinal cramps, stomachaches, all sorts of internal pains—the sort of ailments that are impossible to verify. That was how they came to be on the third floor, where patients received a special diet of soft food.

Somehow they all seemed to have money. They often asked me to purchase small items for them: cheap tobacco, cigarette papers, newspapers, stationery. This was technically forbidden. But so long as there weren't any signs around, I could always say I didn't know the rules. It was touching to see how those Russians got along together. If one soldier had tobacco, he divided it into equal portions and shared it with his comrades, keeping no more than a single share for himself. They were a fine group of men.

As weeks passed, I became friendly with one soldier in particular. He was a slim, dark-haired fellow from Rostov. I often chatted with him when I was on the ward. He said he was an accountant. He was obviously a person of culture and education, and I enjoyed his company. We talked about literature—especially about Pushkin's poetry, which I adored—and politics. Like the rest of his comrades, he was eager to know what the attitude of the Polish populace was toward the Soviet Union, what the Germans were up to, and how the war was going. He introduced me to a friend of his, another young soldier from Rostov, very tall and also very intelligent. I asked if they had been friends for a long time, and they replied that they had been schoolmates together. Somehow I got the feeling that they shared a secret, and as I came to know them better, I was certain what it was.

Part of my job included stoking the coal stoves that heated each room. I started up the fires in the morning, making sure there was enough coal in the scuttles to keep the fires going through the day. The coal supply was stored in the cellar, and I developed such huge shoulders from hauling buckets of it up to the third floor that by the end of the winter my coat didn't fit. My friend, the accountant from Rostov, had one of those vague stomach complaints. Since he wasn't confined to bed, he often volunteered to help me with my chores. One morning as we were getting a fire started in one of the stoves, I decided to see if my suspicions were correct. I waited until we were alone, then I asked him under my breath in Russian,
“Ti Yevrei?
Are you Jewish?”

He took a step back, paused, looked me up and down while thinking very hard, then finally said, “Hmmm…yes.”

How did I know? It wasn't hard to guess. Not really. In fact, I suspected it the minute I saw him. His features and coloring were not at all Slavic. In fact, all he needed were earlocks and a skullcap to look like a perfect yeshiva boy. When he told me he was an accountant, I was sure. Business, mathematics—these are traditionally Jewish occupations.

“And you?” he asked me.

“I like Jewish people,” I told him. “In fact, I have reason to suspect I may have Jewish blood. Don't worry. I won't betray you.” I don't know if he suspected the truth about me, but after that we became closer friends than before. He told me all about his life before the war, about his family and fiancée, about his best friend, the other soldier, who was keeping his secret, too.

Once we began spending more time together, the other
soldiers stopped asking me for favors. I discovered that they had an unwritten law among themselves of never horning in on another one's contact. The taboo was even stronger in my case because the rumor got started that I was “taken.” I was not at all happy to hear this because, unlike many of the other girls working at the hospital, I never sought to become romantically involved with anyone. Yet somehow all the other Russians came to the conclusion that the fellow from Rostov was my boyfriend. Whatever did they think was going on? He was sick, practically a prisoner, and I had so much work to do. Nevertheless, the more you try to deny a rumor like that, the more people believe it. I decided simply to ignore the whole business and let them all think whatever they liked.

 

A few weeks later my friend and most of his comrades were transferred and we were ordered to prepare for a new set of patients. Their arrival was a shock. Among them was a large number of Kalmucks, nomadic tribesmen from Siberia. They were completely uncivilized! Total savages! Not one knew how to use a toilet. Thank God I no longer had to clean the bathroom! Those brutes left the most disgusting mess everywhere.

My Russian friend wasn't gone too long before I began to miss him badly. I liked my job and got on well with my supervisors, but I was starved for intelligent company. I had little to do with the other girls working there. Most were crude, lower-class types, very jealous of the fact that I had risen to a maid's status so quickly. I usually avoided them as much as possible, but as the Christmas season approached, all sorts of parties and gatherings began taking place. It was impossible to keep to myself without arousing suspicion, yet taking part in those celebrations was a big risk. Whenever
the
staff
got together at lunchtime, someone would start singing a Christmas carol and in no time at all everyone would join in. The gentile girls knew dozens of carols, but I knew only a few. I mouthed the words to the songs and hoped no one would notice. I began finding different ways of keeping busy during lunchtime. That helped, but some encounters were unavoidable. On one occasion one of the girls urged me to ask the soldiers to give us cigarettes as Christmas presents. I didn't like the idea at all.

“Why don't you do it yourself?” I said. “I'm really not interested.”

“Oh, come on. We need you. You're the only one here who speaks Russian.”

“No, thanks,” I told her. “It sounds too much like begging.”

She laughed. “Begging? Oh, Wanda, I can't believe you sometimes. You talk just like a Jew.”

Once I made a very serious gaffe. A new girl was assigned to take over the cleaning chores on our floor to give me more time to assist the nurse. I explained her duties to her, and she said, “Fine. I'll look forward to starting next week.”

“Great!” I said. “I'll see you Sunday.” What had I done? Only a Jew would say that because the Jewish week begins on Sunday. For a moment I thought I was lost, but fortunately the girl wasn't too bright.

“Sunday?” she asked, very confused. “Don't you mean Monday?”

“Oh, yes, yes. Monday,” I said, covering up very quickly. “Did I say Sunday? How silly of me. I'll see you Monday.” I hurriedly changed the subject and got rid of her, but I couldn't help thinking how many other times I slipped without realizing it. I knew the girls were talking
behind my back, and some, I was certain, suspected I was Jewish. There was no way to avoid it. My speech, my clothes, the way I carried myself, the fact that I spoke two languages were all evidence of an upper-class upbringing. What, then, was I doing working in an obviously lower-class job? I didn't fit in, and there was no way I ever could. I realized my days at the hospital were numbered and began seriously thinking of finding another job.

 

With the coming of cold weather, a booming black-market business in hospital supplies sprang up overnight, literally under the Germans' noses. The Russian patients sold blankets, sheets, and long underwear to the cleaning women, who sold them to people outside the hospital. Two girls on the second floor did a thriving trade in smuggled goods. They asked me to join them, but I wanted no part of it. Smuggling cigarette tobacco and writing paper into the hospital as a favor was one thing. Smuggling government property out was another. I had no intention of risking a jail sentence.

In the meantime groups of soldiers came and went. By now the population of the third floor was a mixture of Russians and Ukrainians and a great many of those horrible Kalmucks. One day a man arrived who was different from the others. He was a Georgian by birth but not a Soviet national. His parents had left Russia before the revolution, and he had grown up in Paris. The other patients were exprisoners of war and under close guard, but he had been serving in the German Army since 1940 and was allowed to come and go as he pleased. He was violently anti-Communist, spoke Russian fluently, and did not hesitate to express his opinions to the others. In appearance he was darker, more slender, and somewhat taller than the rest, but
he was far from handsome. Deep pockmarks pitted his whole face…and what eyes! Huge, dark, staring orbs they were, ringed by enormous circles, as if he lay awake night after night tormented by horrible dreams. I loathed the man the first time I saw him. Just being near him made me feel sick. It had nothing to do with his face. Somehow I sensed a quality in him that was infinitely more cruel and revolting than even the overt crudeness of the Kalmucks. He disgusted and frightened me. I tried to stay as far away from him as I could, but, wouldn't you know, I caught his fancy. He decided he would make me his girl.

There was a small room next to the nurse's station where we kept thermometers and patients' files. It was here I brought the trays after the soldiers finished eating. Part of my job was to wash the dishes before sending them back to the kitchen. Since there was no sink, I carried the water from the bathroom in a basin. Every time I came down the corridor, there was the Georgian, waiting for me. I made it clear I couldn't stand him, but he paid no attention. He wasn't discouraged. He would not leave me alone.

“Hi, Wanda,” he'd say as I came by with the basin. “Where are you going? What's your hurry? I only want to talk with you.” I kept on walking, but he'd follow. “When do you get off work? We can go to the movies sometime. Tell you what, I'll even buy you dinner. I can meet you somewhere after you get off work…” On and on he went. Always the same lines. He gave me no peace. At first I ignored him, but that had no effect. He went right on bothering me. One day I lost my temper.

“You go to the devil! Just leave me alone! I don't know where you got the idea I'd ever go out with you, but you can forget it!”

It didn't bother him at all. He was after me constantly,
telling me how much money he had, how he was going to buy me clothes or treat me to dinner or take me to a show. If I disliked him before, I detested him now. He knew my schedule and followed me around. There he was every time I turned my head. He started making suggestive remarks. Every hour at work was torture. I considered asking for a transfer to another floor but realized that he'd only follow me there. What could I do? There was no way out. One day I decided to settle things once and for all, come what may.

I had a load of lunch dishes to wash. I went to the washroom and let the hot water run, then filled my basin almost up to the brim. I took a deep breath before stepping out into the corridor. I knew he would be waiting. I opened the door. Sure enough, there he was. “So tell me, Wanda, when are we going out…” I threw the whole steaming basin right in his face.

He howled! The other patients in the corridor roared. “Aha! We warned you!” they cried. “We told you to leave Wanda alone. You got just what you asked for!”

He was furious. “You wait,” he snarled, glaring at me with those sinister black eyes. “I'll get you for this. You'll pay dearly.”

“Ha! That's what you think!” I sneered, turning my back and sauntering away. But even as I put up a careless front, I knew I was in trouble. He was my enemy now, and somehow, sooner or later, he would find a way to get his revenge.

I didn't have to wait long. The next morning when I arrived at work, the doctor summoned me to his office. He looked at me very sternly, then said that he had received a report that I had purchased a hospital blanket and a pair of underwear from one of the patients. I knew quite well who
the source of that accusation was. It was a serious charge, but fortunately the doctor liked me enough to at least hear me out.

“Sir, I have worked here for several months,” I began. “You know the quality of the work I do and what sort of person I am. I swear to you that I never bought anything from a patient in this hospital.”

What I said was the truth. But still the charge wasn't completely false. In these situations it is always best to tell the truth, and so I did. “A few days ago one of the kitchen workers asked me for a favor. She wanted to buy a blanket to make into a winter coat for her daughter. She told me she knew of a Russian who had a blanket to sell and wanted me to act as an interpreter. It was a simple favor, so I agreed. I even asked the fellow, ‘Are you sure this is your blanket and not the hospital's?' He said it was his; his mother gave it to him when he joined the Army. It didn't really look like a hospital blanket, so I assumed he was telling the truth. I can't deny I was involved, but only as an interpreter. I myself never sold or bought anything that belonged to this hospital.”

The doctor listened thoughtfully to my story. Then he asked, “Have you ever seen anyone buying or selling hospital property?”

Once more I told the truth. “I must admit that I have seen that on a few occasions. But I was never personally involved.”

“All right,” the doctor said. “But what I really want to know is how she got the blanket out of the building without being seen.”

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
6.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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