Authors: Julia Ain-Krupa
Published by New Europe Books, 2016
Copyright © Julia Ain-Krupa, 2016
Cover design by Oksana Shmygol
Cover photo by Vladimir Korostyshevskiy
This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews.
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-9900043-9-4
Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available from the Library of Congress.
This book would never have been made possible without the generous grant awarded me by the Fulbright Commission, which originally took me to Krakow in 2012.
Life, laughter, love, and work would not be possible without my friends and family in Krakow, New York, and now also in Tel Aviv. You all make it possible for me to soar. To my Dotan and his friends, to Mara, to Alice and Teresa, to Lyn and Will, to Denise, Paulina, Marin, Anna, Asia, Esther, Verushka, Danae, Katie, Tala, Adel, Antosia, Samara, Liana, Alex, Alexis, Wendy, and countless others. There is no room in this world to express what you all mean to me. You make the world home.
Thank you to Jonathan Ornstein and Kasia Leonardi, who helped make Krakow my new home. Thank you to Rabbi Avi Baumol for his patience and interest in all my questioning. To my fellow Fulbrighters and writers, Denise Grollmus and Oksana Lutsyshyna, who encouraged me through the first pages of this book, and who held my hand during that first Polish winter. To the invaluable Joanna Sliwa, to Dara Bramson and Dara Weinberg, to survivors Sofia Radzikowska and Henryk Meller, and to Pan Mundek Elbinger, Pan Gamon, and Bernard Kuśka. Thank you to Slawek Pastuszek and the entire community of the Krakow JCC. To Malgosia Ploszaj and to all those Poles I have met who devote themselves to preserving Jewish culture and heritage in Poland, with no personal gain or reward but simply because they feel an absence and are moved to do something. Certain places and memories stand out for me, including the Jewish community of Lublin, and traveling with Justyna to the forests near Bialystok, where graves were overgrown with vines and little red berries grew wild.
Scott Morgan, Elspeth Treadwell, Andrew Seear, Tana Ross, Leah Rhodes, Didi Drachman, Deborah Kearns, Anne Thulin, Fred Pirkey, Randy Bloom, Zahra Partovi and Vincent Fitzgerald, Judy and Michael Sacks, Catherine Shainberg, Beth Biegler, and Kathleen Farrell.
Antosia Kondrat and her family, Olga, Janusz, and Marysia Stoklosa, Franek Mula, Esther, Nili, and Natty de R, the Mulji family, Gabi and Uwe Von Seltmann, Olga and Ania Szwajger, Teatr Stu, Muriel Shockley, Lisa Wells, Joanna Anderson, Maria Makuch, and the people who always encouraged me to write, especially Elysha Schneider, Zowie Broach, and Brian Kirkby.
Thank you for the help of Anna Spysz, Robert Braille, Elzbieta Mankowska, Dorota Nowak, and William Vidal, and historians Edyta Gawron, Tomek Jankowski, Anna Pero, Grzegorz Jezowski, and Katarzyna Zimmerer.
Thank you to my patient and kind publisher, Paul Olchváry, at New Europe Books, and to my cover designer, Oksana Shmygol, whose angelic spirit and beautiful design work helped make this book what I dreamt it to be.
For the cafés that serviced my imagination, especially Bliekle, in Krakow, and Cheder. To the New York Society Library’s beautiful writer’s room, which has provided me with a makeshift office for the past four years.
Thank you to Dotan. Your entrance into my life is a long-awaited blessing. Thank you for your incredible love and for being so uniquely you. I love you more every day.
And, finally, thank you to Krakow, my eternal home, with its beautiful cobblestone streets, its mist-filled air, and its loving people who have always made me feel that I too can belong.
For my ancestors, who took me by the hand,
Dorothy Ain, Wolf Ain, Viktor Frieholc, and Elzbieta Krupa.
For my parents,
Noa Ain and Olek Krupa
For rabbi Boaz Pash, who,
though he was afraid of my questions,
allowed me to ask them anyway.
And for those who passed away while I was writing this book.
For Deborah Jacobson, Ryo Murakami, Elzbieta Krupa, and Jonathan Ain.
e are all called Sarah. My name used to be Rachelka, but then it was changed, and now I am Sarah just like all the other girls. My house is built of fragile bones. They shine like crystal prayers in the moonlight. Breathing with the rest of the world, they tremble with mystery and become mirror images of that last living thing that gives us life, the night. These bones are built of the same calcium that once belonged to the stars. At least that is what Pan Kubilak taught us in science class, and I can never forget it.
And what are we now? Are we still living, trapped inside this old house with no visible walls, only bones to support a transparent roof? Are we like the house? Does an undetectable presence within us marvel at the beauty of our remains as they shine in the brilliant night? We cannot step beyond these invisible walls, and yet we wonder, after so much time, is there really anywhere to go? And where would forty-one Sarahs go to make a new home, anyway?
Wiktor Frieholtz is running late again. He awakes this morning to a strange aching in his head, a burning sensation in his stomach. Not wanting to go to work, he retreats beneath the warm coziness
of his duvet cover and tries to hide from his wife, Waleria, for as long as he can without being noticed. Praying for invisibility, he caresses the lace trim of his blanket with his toes.
My wife made this
, he tells himself, and examines the outline of his hands, which are so closely connected to those of his wife after so many years of marriage. He knows that she will come into the room and yell at him (with maternal kindness, of course). He knows that he will get up and go, running as always, but for this moment in time he claims total ignorance. He peeks from beneath the covers as a child would, absorbing the first signs of spring as they cast shadows on the newly painted wall. The war has been over for a year. Life begins again.
When her shouting becomes unbearable, he dresses and shaves before the old brass mirror. Wiktor always shaves, even when he is late. He runs his hand across his closely cropped hair and touches the cross that hangs humbly over the doorframe, as he always does, even on mornings like this. He takes a sip of coffee and in three bites eats his morning bread and butter, while almost simultaneously kissing his daughter, Elżbieta, her newborn son, Mateusz, and his wife on the head. Before they know it he is out the door.
“Wiktor Frieholtz is running late again,” Pani Ewa says as she removes a saucer of milk from the stove for her husband’s morning coffee and catches a glimpse of his back as he brushes the branches of her rose bush, its tiny buds bursting at the seams. Traces of his silhouette linger in the patterned lace curtain that shelters her kitchen from the outside world.
Wiktor is running late, but he is almost there.
Adjusting the knot on his tie, he passes Pan Buchta’s yard, where a group of drunken soldiers nearly blasted all the fine tomato plants away for good last year. Small vines retrace their paths, remembering with pride where they once did reside. Wiktor notices Pan Buchta’s bent figure like the classic representation of an old crone, his hand as it rustles through newly turned soil,
but by the time Pan Buchta is able to look up and see him, he is already gone.
Past the Makowski twins, who are arguing over who will get to carry the wounded sparrow, and through the brush, across the little bridge and into the fields that every morning carry Wiktor to work and that at the end of every day bring him home. It wasn’t long ago that soldiers were camped here, along this very stream. Its banks were their tiny trenches, and when the war came to a close, they left behind their helmets, their bayonets, what little treasures the neighborhood children could collect and trade, and headed straight for a nonexistent home. Now these stream banks are all free land. The only permanent inhabitants are rabbits and squirrels.
As it should be
, Wiktor whispers to himself while climbing the hill to the train tracks where he works. The air is fresh and smells of wild thyme and hay, and Wiktor has the idea that spring exists for the first time. After a lifetime of winter, of war, Wiktor cannot help but smile at the awakening
Wiktor has no chance to check in with the train dispatcher, and having just buttoned his jacket and tied his tie, he gingerly removes his jacket, rolls up the cuffs of his white starched shirt, and begins to work. His newly cut hair whistles in the wind, but he has no time to pay attention to the sound. He crouches before the tracks, checking the switch that enables trains to change paths as they approach the station. The local train is headed his way as he busies himself with an old rusty track. In fact he is so busy with his work that he does not notice the wind as it changes directions, does not hear the train approaching, does not see it barreling down. There is a tremendous sound. He does not realize that it is the sound of his own blood boiling, his own mind racing, as his body is being crushed.
Mid-breath now. Is there an exhale that takes place up in the sky? Out in the ether, Wiktor, did you watch how we cried? How people came all the way from Katowice to mourn your loss? How
Waleria locked herself in her room, cross in hand, berating herself for letting you go? How she held her baby grandson in her arms and cried that he was a gift from God? Did you see us weeping when the doorbell rang every day at five and there was no one waiting to be let inside? For weeks the bell rang, but still you were never there. We knew you were gone, but we waited for you anyway. Did you take one last breath before you took flight?
Wiktor rises from beneath the weight of the steel train, now resting like a feather on his new form. He walks slowly, sensing every atom of his movement as he never has before. He does not look behind. He does not see the wreckage of his body, but rather moves with some kind of childlike delight. Each step feels like a gentle transition in space, the thrill of each molecule of matter spurring him on, as if his body has no separation from the earth or the sky.
Must be the headiness of spring
, he tells himself. But even spring cannot induce such exaltation. He thinks better of what has happened, recalling that morning and the feeling in his stomach that told him not to go. He thinks of Waleria’s hands. Suddenly frightened by his weightlessness, Wiktor looks down at his hands for reassurance of his existence, but there is nothing there. He discovers now that he has no hands, only space where dexterity lived just moments ago.
He cannot move quickly, and there is no way to go home. There is only one movement, only one direction in which to go.
Wiktor returns to the banks of the stream, and daylight has dimmed as if it is already evening and morning light is turning to night. The smoke from Rybnik’s coal-burning stoves blows across the stream, and Wiktor strains to see. He notices a strange lump on the ground and bends down to find a muddy helmet obstructing
his path. Not far away lies a pile of bayonets, which leads him to a group of German soldiers sitting by the river. In silence they look out over the stream. One man with broad shoulders and features so identifiably unlike that of a Pole smokes a hand-rolled cigarette, flicking the ashes into the slow-moving current. His cheeks are ruddy from too many nights spent out in the cold, and his shirt is torn across the chest. There are patches of snow where the men are sitting. Winter is in their hearts as they wait for something to change. Wiktor walks up to the smoking man and nods a hello.