Chapter 31: Kilburn 1972

There were always fine threads and hairs on the carpet. Miriam couldn’t understand where they were coming from. However meticulously she picked each one up, there always seemed to be more. It didn’t make sense. She didn’t have pets, and she was living alone, but every day it was the same. The grey wool carpet showed up every particle of dust, and those hairs. Max had bought her a Hoover, but she preferred to use a carpet brush and her fingers. You just couldn’t get the Hoover to pick up every one, and it was important not to miss any.   When the sun shone through the lounge windows she could see hairs and dust particles floating in the light.

            It felt ridiculous that she should be reduced to spending her days cleaning up, but there really was no choice. Every day the kitchen floor needed washing, and she did it because she was alone, though she really felt too old to be on her hands and knees. It was not supposed to be this way.

She was sitting in the lounge bay window, overlooking the communal waste bins and patch of scruffy lawn behind the mansion block, polishing the silver cake forks from her treasured cutlery service, the one she’d dug up and rescued from the garden in Szeroka street in ’46, before Tomasz took her with him back to Kilburn. Each piece needed a great deal of care, and the walnut cutlery cabinet, which had been wrapped in a tarpaulin for six years, was wax polished every day. Hardly a blemish on the cabinet, and the silver was as good as new, after its tarnish had been removed. She’d dusted the Chinese vases, eighteenth century blue and white, on the sideboard. The glue holding them together was yellow now, but they were still beautiful. They would of course have been hugely valuable, had they not all been chipped and cracked when they were finally shipped after the war.

One has to take care of one’s few possessions. I learned that in Lwow, hiding my jewelry in the chimney in that cold garret, once we’d run out of fuel to burn. To think, I had two maids, a housekeeper, a cook and a driver at one time, and accounts at all the great department stores in Vienna.’

Miriam moved the bucket and wrung out the cloth once again, as she scrubbed the clean lino for a second time.

‘Tomasz and Max are such good boys for visiting their mother, and helping with the rent, but it is still hard to be alone. But we all have our own cross to bear. Poor Anna, with her seaweed remedies and herbal teas; it hasn’t been easy for her either. She told me recently that she has to sleep alone in a child’s bed, with her nose against the wall, curled into a ball.’

 

Polishing the silver always brought back memories of Alexandre, in his restaurant in Vienna in the twenties. She could see the chandeliers sparkling as though it was yesterday, and almost hear the waltzes, but her memories of him were cast in shadow. She only had the one photograph of him. In it, he was standing alone, in a civilian suit with that high-waisted pants 1930s cut. He was in front of some poor stone cottages, on a dirt road, holding a guidebook.

What a shame I don’t have one of him in his red hussar’s jacket and epaulettes, and that manicured moustache he wore in the twenties. I loved how he looked, so dashing and strong.’

Miriam sat upright on the edge of the sofa-bed, working Silvo into the blade of a cake knife whose swirling engraved design tended to harbour tarnish.   She was dressed in an aging French navy tweed skirt and cashmere cardigan, even though the flat was overly warm, and her reading glasses hung from a fine gilt chain around her neck, over the pearls she always wore.

How splendid I looked that first evening in the Café Austerlitz, in that beautiful blue silk dress and my diamonds, or was it that wondrous cream taffeta with the pearls? Alexandre. Where are you now? Are you in your own little heaven, a place for Nazis who refused to do as they were told? Did you meet your end in a firing squad, or perhaps you slipped away to South America, like they say so many did.’

Would it have ended differently if she’d accepted his offer to move to Vienna before the war?

But I had the children, a home to take care of. And besides, how would we have hidden our differences when the Nazis came to power? Our paths took two completely different directions, and there was no going back to find one another. Perhaps he did survive. He was well connected, well travelled. He could have acquired false papers and managed to escape. Imagine. He could have pretended to be a Jew!’

Whenever Miriam scrubbed the floor in her little kitchen, with a pail of water and her old housecoat on, it brought back the stink of carbolic from that attic. ‘How hard I tried to keep some semblance of order, some sort of self-respect. Oh, and those cat hairs which were impossible to get rid of. Anna, poor child. Allergic to cats, and I could do nothing, but pick them up all the time.’

When she walked past the small French restaurant on Kilburn Highroad, and the smells of cooking wafted from the door, she always thought of the Café Austerlitz, where his chefs prepared her favourite Wiener Schnitzel, and the delightful French waiters in their long white aprons carried huge silver trays of drinks and steaming food on their shoulders between the busy tables.

            ‘Anna and Jan brought borscht round for dinner yesterday, and some of the babcia rye bread, which I love. I wish she wouldn’t let him cook though. He’s a good man but I worry about his level of hygiene. He spends his days making pots, and then he prepares dinner. Anna brought her special seaweed concoction in a small plastic tub. The poor girl never regained her appetite after Lvov. It was hard for her, finding a husband after everything, and though I would have preferred to see her marry an educated man, someone we knew, Jan is a good man and cares for her. If her father had lived, he would have stopped their marriage. But the old ways seem to have been forgotten.

ENDS

 

This first draft will be removed and edited in July.

Chapter 30: Mossourie

The valley swept away below the house. Otto sat, reading in the late afternoon sun, dressed in his corduroy trousers, and wearing a cardigan, despite the clear blue skies, with a rug draped loosely over his knees. His hair had turned white, and his moustache was unkempt. Maryla was always trying to trim it for him, as she had done when they first met, but he objected to her interference, while not bothering to look after it himself. He liked to chew the ends while reading.

Two spotted eagles circled high above the garden, riding the updrafts, searching for mice and rats in the fields, and crickets chirped in the rhododendron bushes. Sanjay was pruning the roses on the lower terrace, and Savita swept the veranda, but otherwise, there was silence and stillness.

Otto had been reading MC’s editorial in the National Herald about the inevitability of partition since the war had ended. He wondered how long it would take for the British to relinquish control in Lucknow. He put the paper down on the small teak side-table and looked across the hills towards Mussoorie. He could smell the peach blossom, and wondered how he’d ignored this wonderful fragrance for so many years.

The sun felt warm on his bare arms, but the air was fresh, and it was only in the last few weeks that the Himalayan winds had begun to warm. He thought about November in Krakow, and the fur coat he would need, had he been sitting outside at this time there. He had a fleeting image of himself and Olek outside Café Zentral, in the Kazimierz, indulging in a plate of knedle while they talked through their day’s business, their breath in white clouds, their coffees cooling all too rapidly. That was less than ten years ago, but it seemed a lifetime. Poor Olek. They’d buried him in Karachi after that second heart attack had taken him. He’d been Olek’s business partner for ten years, and travelling companion for two, from Hungary to Casablanca, then Aden and on to Pakistan. They’d been through so much together, and shared everything, even Maryla. When Olek was in the hospital, in that plain white room with its tiled walls, on his last day, they’d had a few words.

“Take care of our loved ones. I know you will,” Olek whispered.

“Listen, my friend. You’ll be up and about again very soon, and we need you to get your strength up. We must find somewhere out of this interminable heat for you to rest up. We’ll go into the mountains. It’ll be like Zakopane. Remember those trips?”

“No Otto. My skiing days are over. This is it. I won’t be travelling on with you all. But I want you to know I never blamed you for how things turned out.”

“Please, let’s not talk this way.”

“For Maryla. The children. She loves you, and we’ve made our peace about that, she and I.”

Otto thought of writing again to Tomasz in London, but he had had no reply to his previous letters, which he assumed had gone astray, or that Tom had moved digs. Of course it was ridiculous to hope that the post would follow a student from room to room across that great city, if it had even reached London. He’d long since given up writing to Miriam in Krakow. It had been four years since he’d had any word of her whereabouts, and the chances were that post wasn’t even getting through now, since the communists had taken over in Warsaw and there was reportedly no order in Krakow. But even if it were, he had no idea whether she had survived. Only now was it becoming clear what had happened, what had been done by the Nazis and the Russians to his country.

He thought about the last time he’d seen Miriam, in Vichy. How they’d fought about Maryla, and his returning to Danzig when she needed him to pay attention to his family. How he had hated her then. How that had faded, along with the sound of her shrill abuse. He pulled her photo from his wallet. It had been taken in ’36, in Vienna. He closed his eyes, heard the Strauss waltz, the clinking of fine china and the hum of voices in the restaurant.

When Maryla returned to the house, after collecting Anita from school, she ordered tea to be brought out to the veranda. As she came over to wake Otto, she noticed his mouth had dropped open and his head hung at an odd angle. He wasn’t breathing.

Mousoorie, March 19th 1946

My darling,

It’s so lonely, now you’ve gone. I felt I had to find some way to communicate with you. Each day I visit your grave and talk, but today I wanted to write to you. I’m sitting under the shade of the bougainvillea, which is in flower, and Sanjiv is busy on the lower terrace, pruning the roses. The air is fresh and there’s a light breeze. You’d love to be sitting beside me here; I know you would. Our spotted eagles are circling over the mountain, as always, and the crickets are chirping. It is so peaceful.

I had a shock this morning, when a letter came for you. Just seeing your name brought tears to my eyes, and then to realize from all the postmarks and crossed out addresses that it was from Krakow via London. It had to be from Tomasz or Miriam. I sat with it for a long time before deciding to open it. Finally, with trepidation for the bad news I expected, I opened it and it was from Miriam. After all these years, and too late for you, it felt so precious. It was in her precise handwriting, which I remembered from so long ago, and it was very moving. She’s alive and well, and living with Tomasz and Max, who managed to rescue her from hell. She didn’t say much about the last five years, but I could tell it was awful. You would be so happy to know that Anna is also with them. They all survived!

Miriam tells you that Anna has had dysentery having spent years in terrible conditions with poor nutrition, but there are many good people helping them in London, and your boys are both in fine shape.

Oh Otto. I’m so sorry you aren’t here to read such wonderful news, and to be able to reply. You spent so long feeling guilty and fearful that they didn’t make it, and now I am the one who must write back to her. I hardly know where to begin. I can’t hide the facts, and I can’t lie to her. Since poor Olek’s death, it will be obvious to her that we’ve lived as man and wife, but what do I tell her about the children? Surely she must have known. I know she had her suspicions when they were born, but in all our months together in Lvov, she never once raised them with me. She was so gracious and strong and helpful to us. I know you and we talked about this so many times, but now you’re not here to help me, I feel overwhelmed with the responsibility. I think it’s too much for anyone to manage, and especially after what Miriam has been through. It’s as much as I can do to tell her of your death, and how we spent your last three years together, after Olek. I can’t also tell her about the children.

I will do my best to write well. I will tell her how you suffered for not being able to reach her, and how hard you found it to leave her behind. I will send her details of how to find your last resting place, should she ever manage to make the journey here to Mussoorie. But I just can’t tell her outright about Stephen and Anita – I am afraid I am too weak to do that.

I went into the travel agents in Lucknow yesterday, when Anita was in school, and I have made reservations for us all on a sailing to New York next month. It will be so hard to leave here, and to sail into the unknown. As we agreed last year, I’m going to try and buy a place that is suitable for a boarding house. Stephen is old enough to be man of the house, and Anita can earn pocket money by helping me with meals and cleaning. I so wish you were coming with us, but I will always remember our happy time here.

I wanted to tell you something, which I should have told you when I could have heard your reply. I don’t know what kept me from saying it, but perhaps it was because we’d spent so many years without being open, and I knew how much of a burden it was for you not knowing what had happened to Miriam and your children. When Olek was in the hospital, that day after his heart attack, he said very little. I told you then that his only words were that he loved me, and that was all. He was very weak, and I had only moments with him when he was conscious, but he said more than that. He told me that he forgave us, and asked me to care for you as the father of his children, and that he loved you as his brother. Now you’re gone, I feel lost. I should have told you, and I know you would have been happy to hear it.

I must say goodbye for now my darling. I will visit you every day until we leave here.

Your Maryla.

Chapter 29: Flight

I knew that the false papers would only work for us until the efficient German bureaucracy asked Kozlow for his register of employees, and reverted to the main register to check all the ID numbers. It would be a matter of time, and I would have to be ready to pull Anna out of school and to flee without time to spare. I always kept a packed overnight bag in our lodgings, and I carried our papers with me at all times, in the hope that we would still be able to use them if we could be forwarned of discovery.

Helena knew someone in the Jewish Fighting Organisation, an underground movement in the ghetto, which was in touch with a secretary or clerk who worked in the SS headquarters, a Catholic woman who had married a Jew who had been taken away and shot. She had been intercepting and disseminating SS communications pertaining to investigations of Jews in Czestochowa. So Helena agree to warn me if my name appeared in Gestapo lists of suspected Jews living in the city, and it transpired that I was not the only Jewish employee on her books. It was precious little insurance, but certainly more thn I had hoped for before coming to Czestochowa.

The job was reasonable, though I didn’t warm to most of my colleagues, who were remarkably indifferent to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews form the ghetto. They would laugh and joke about arrests and even describe the beatings they’d witnessed in the streets with some glee.

One morning, in the office, I received a note from the delivery boy who brought parcels, and he slipped it surreptitiously into my hand as I signed for the day’s parcel delivery. It was from Helena, who told me I had to get out immediately as my false name had come up on a list, alongside my place of work, as a suspected Jew. It wasn’t clear whether Mr Kozlow had been required to submit the papers of all his staff to the Gestapo, but that was probably the cause of the discovery, rather than my train ticket.

I went to see Mr Kozlow immediately. He was a quiet, older man who had kept his views to himself about the Germans since I’d known him. When his business partner once laughed and joked to everyone in the office about how he had reported some Jews who were in hiding to the Gestapo, and how they’d been rounded up and deported, Mr Kozlow did not participate. I sometimes wondered if he suspected my race but said nothing.

“I’m sorry to bother you sir, but would you mind if I took an early lunch today? My daughter is sick and I must collect her medication from the pharmacy.”

“No problem, but be back in an hour.” He smiled at me.

I collected my handbag, and left the office, as if to go for lunch. I rushed to the school and collected Anna from her class, claiming to the teacher that I had had an urgent message regarding her grandmother’s heart attack. Anna already knew that this meant we had to leave immediately and to go along with the story. We ran back to Karola Szymanowskiego, and let ourselves into the house. Luckily, the landlady was out, so we grabbed our few belongings together and walked to Czestochowa station, trying not to look scared or to run. We passed many soldiers gathered on street corners or lounging outside cafes, and each time I wondered if we had been under surveillance, and would be stopped to have our papers checked. At the station, there was a queue for tickets, and of course, a soldier checking papers next to the ticket booth. We had no choice but to brazen it out and hope that the list of names had not been circulated yet. Within the hour, we were on the first train leaving, and had tickets for Krosno, a small town towards the Slovakian border, a backwater I felt we could hide in. We found out that the ghetto had already been emptied and many of the Jews taken to Rzeszów, a labour camp from which nobody escaped. Our papers were checked and passed inspection, and we were again looking for accommodation and work for me, and schooling for Anna, but this time without the help of Helena, who had been such a support for the last few months.

Again I managed to rent a room for us and to find work as a secretary, and here we lived in hiding for almost three years, until early 1946, when I could return to Krakow as the Soviets drove out the German forces.

Chapter 28: Absolution

Arkhypenka Street, Lwow

11th October 1940

Otto,

I am writing this letter late at night to give to Maryla for you, before she leaves tomorrow to travel on her visa to Danzig to meet Olek. I feel sure that if she makes the journey without being arrested and deported, she will meet him, and they will know where to find you. It is my last letter to you because I do not believe that we can continue to survive here much longer, and because I have made a decision about our marriage.

You should know that the last year has been like hell on earth for Anna and me, and that the terror we have suffered by being caught in Lwow under Russian occupation has been immeasurable. For now, we are not under threat of arrest by the NKVD, but there is much hatred for Jews among the Ukrainian population, and many believe that Hitler will soon want the rest of Poland for himself. You may know more than I do about what happens to Jews who are rounded up and taken away by the SS. I am told that many are taken into the forests and shot, and many more are taken to labour camps where they are starved.

I hold you responsible for our predicament. Your demand that I should return from Paris to Krakow, rather than staying with Tom and Max in London sealed our fate. I have stopped being angry about that, Otto. At that time, you may have thought it best for us, and certainly you saw merit in the family being together, and in my protecting Maryla.

We have been married for twenty-one years, and have produced three beautiful children. During those years, you have been unfaithful with more than one woman, and for the last ten or fifteen, I know you and Maryla have been having an affair. You have refused to discuss this, and now we have been apart for almost eighteen months, I’m no longer interested in what you have to say. I am only interested in the safety and protection of our children. But I can’t do enough to protect them on my own. Max and Tom are, hopefully, safe in England, and unless the Nazis succeed in defeating the British, perhaps they will survive this terrible war. If you are in touch with them, tell them I love them and I think of them every day. Anna has been sick for some months with dysentery, and has lost a great deal of weight. She isn’t able to walk a lot, and has had no schooling. Her days are spent lying in her cot, while I slave in a soup kitchen for twelve hours, serving an endless queue of starving refugees. But that is the reality of this war, and I do what I can for her.

So this letter is your absolution from our marriage. If you and Maryla are destined to be together, then take better care of her than you have of me, because she is a good and kind mother who is not as strong as I am. If you are not, then perhaps you will still find someone more suited to you to spend your days with. I wish you well.

Your wife

Miriam.

 

Chaper 27: Aden

Cresent Hotel, Aden

28th November 1941

My dear Tomasz,

This is my third letter to you, care of your address in Bloomsbury square, the last I have for you. I’m no longer convinced you are still residing with Mrs Stanmore, since you didn’t reply to my last two, though of course you may have replied and posted letters which simply didn’t reach me in Budapest or Casablanca.

I imagine that Imperial College is no longer running the metallurgy course, whilst London endures the blitz. It may be no more than rubble now, from what I have heard of the terrible bombing.  Have you spent your nights in the London underground stations? They report here that everyone is driven into their cellars and into the tunnels of the railways to escape the bombs.  I hope so much for your safety.

And what of Max? I trust you are both still living together and that you are keeping an eye on his behaviour. I assume he managed to finish his studies, and that he passed his matriculation examination, though he will have had to pull up his socks to do so. I would hope that he is considering some gainful employment in London, where there is a thriving timber import business. I do of course have many contacts but until I hear what he is doing, it is probably best not to try and advance those opportunities.  It would also be likely that their wharfs were bombed during the blitz, as these would be prime targets.

As you can see from the letterhead, I am now in Aden, and have travelled with Olek, Maryla and her two children from Budapest, via Casablanca. I was only able to meet up with Olek three months ago, after having been discharged from the regiment, owing to ill health (nothing to be too concerned about, simply a recurrence of my angina). We were stationed in Budapest, but the regiment was being disbanded, and many of my compatriots were travelling to Scotland under General Kukiel, to form an army in exile to help the British fight Hitler. Apparently, Stalin has released a large number of Polish soldiers from prison, to help fight Hitler, since he decided to attack Moscow. I was advised not to go with them, but to go south to Palestine or somewhere else which is hot and dry, and now that we are together here, I also feel that Olek will need support with looking after Maryla and the children. If you are able to find where the regiment is stationed, there are some very fine men among them and you could do worse than join up. I expect there is an headquarters for the Polish Free Army in Edinburgh. I’m not sure what can be done by our chaps in Scotland, though I understand that the Allies see this as a potential point of invasion from Hitler across the North Sea, but I am sure they need all the help they can get.

Olek is not so well himself, and he has suffered a minor heart attack since we last met. He has aged considerably, and now sleeps a great deal. He was so worried about Maryla and the children, caught as they were between the German and Russian advances, and then living under the Bolsheviks for a year or more, and it seems to have taken all his resources to get this far. Maryla has lost a great deal of weight, and the children were very quiet for some time after they all escaped. It is so saddening to see what a sorry state they are all in, and I do what I can to build them up  again.

It has been a torturous journey, full of mishaps and administrative blocks. We have been ‘on the run’ from the advance of Hitler into Africa, and after a great deal of trouble, not to say expense, in Casablanca, we finally find ourselves in a relatively safe haven, in this British protectorate, where there is a thriving Jewish community. We have been here in Aden for two weeks, awaiting more documents, and tickets which will allow us to travel on to Karachi. I must say that it has been a source of great frustration that I have been unable to reach London to find you and Max, and of more than frustration to tell you that I am still unable to locate or communicate with your dear mother.

I appreciate that you must be extremely worried about her and little Anna, since they returned to Krakow almost two years ago. Though I have not exchanged letters with Miriam, I have in fact heard about her and Anna, and to my knowledge, they are still OK. Here is what I do know:

Your mother took Anna from Krakow to Naleczow soon after returning home, along with your aunt Ania and uncle Paul and their children, because of the declaration of war, and their obvious fear of being over-run by the Nazis. There she met up with Maryla, Stephen and Anita, and everyone decided they should travel east, as Hitler advanced across Poland. I gather they settled in Lwow, where your resourceful mother found work in a charity, close to where aunt Ada’s mother lives. Nevertheless, from the descriptions of life in Lwow from Maryla, I have to say that I have been very worried about your mother and Anna’s experiences under the Russians. Miriam is, as you know, one of the most resourceful people alive, and I am convinced that if anyone can survive this terrible ordeal, she can.

Olek was in Danzig, and through his diplomatic contact, Conrad Brzozowski, who was visiting Lwow regularly, managed to obtain travel visas for Maryla and the children, but was unable to help Miriam. I had already tried to apply for documents for her and Anna, when I thought they were in Krakow but of course I failed. Besides, I have only discovered their whereabouts recently, so it would have been impossible to send anything care of Krakow.

Olek retains his diplomatic papers from the work he did in Bucharest for the Rumanian government many years ago, and surprisingly, he was able to persuade the authorities in Berlin that these still have some validity… But that is another story. Since Olek and Maryla and I met up, I have of course written many times to the address in Lwow which Maryla had for Miriam, but to no avail.  Your mother must have moved, or else Conrad failed to deliver my letters, because I did not hear back from her. Maryla brought one letter with her from Miriam, which I have beside me. It is now four months old, and I have been unable to reply, since Conrad did not return to Danzig before we left. Olek thinks he may have been arrested in Lwow, where we hear that many politicians and diplomats have been jailed by the NKVD, and sent to Siberia. In your mother’s letter, she asks after your wellbeing, and sends her love, in case I am able to contact you. She said that Anna was unwell and that they were barely able to find enough to eat. She asks me for money, which I am unable to send her. She tells me that the banks have confiscated our accounts, which I of course knew, and she asks for news of Olek. I am sorry that I have not been able to respond to her questions.

I hear from Olek that Stashek Frenkel is in Britain, and it is possible that you could try and find him with the Polish forces there. I’m sure that is a tall order, but Gabriela is still in Krakow, so perhaps he could write to her from England, since their letters would not be subjected to the same scrutiny, and perhaps she can reach Miriam. Such a convoluted process this is to send and receive news!

So, I must say that we are forced to keep moving, and Karachi is not somewhere I would have considered in my wildest dreams as a destination, but here in Aden, one has to take one’s chances when they come. While most people seek transportation to the United States of America, it is apparent that all the steamers have been requisitioned for the Atlantic Fleet, and nobody is getting berths any more.

Tomasz, you know I am not a religious man, but if I were, I would pray for your and Max’s safety. For now, I have to assume you are in perhaps the last safe haven in Europe. I hold myself responsible for asking your mother to return to Krakow from Paris when she was with you there, and I am unfortunately unable to turn back the clocks and recommend to her that she travel with you to London. As you know, we were very often apart at that time, and it was so very hard to know what was best in those weeks before the declaration of war. So I must live with the consequences of my decision, and ask those who still believe in a higher power to pray for your mother and sister’s safety.

I so hope this missive reaches you, and that you will be able to write to me: Poste Restante, Karachi.

With much love

Your father.

 

Chapter 28: Relative safety

The city had been occupied by both Russian and German armies during the Great War, but because it was a very important religious centre for the Catholics, it had been protected until the Germans occupied the region in 1939. I found that the Jewish Ghetto had already been subject to regular Pogroms, and over the next couple of years, about 45,000 Jews were taken from the city and killed.

I spent two days brushing up on my secretarial skills and getting ready for my interview, and Anna and I also visited Helena’s friend who was a landlady in the Catholic district. She lived in a large house on Karola Szymanowskiego, just a couple of streets from the park and the museum. I thought the area was quite grand, and her house was an elegant double fronted three-storey home divided into six apartments, which were all fitted with quite comfortable furniture. After Lwow, it was positively palatial, and I would have expected it to be well outside my earnings, but when I asked Mrs Lisowski, the rent was quite low. Later I found out that Helena, ever the business-woman, had negotiated a preferential rate for me, because she would do anything for Gabriela and because of my need to a better life. It struck me that before the war, we wouldn’t have considered Gabriela and Stashek’s religion as a point of difference. Besides the wedding mass, neither they nor we had been church-goers, and Stashek was positively aetheistic, as we were. Helena also showed no sign of attending mass on the Sunday after we moved into her house, but I could see crucifixes in each room of the apartment in Mrs Lisowski’s house, and it struck me that Helena may have chosen this place purposefully.

Mrs Lisowski was a friendly woman in her fifties, with a tired expression and too much face powder under her grey hair. She wore an apron and had clearly been mopping the floor when we arrived into the hallway.

“I have always had a home help, you know, but since the occupation, it has been hard to keep staff,” she said, eyeing up Anna. “I could do with a young helper, if your daughter wanted a few hours work each week, after school. Anna, isn’t it? Well, Anna, I expect you haven’t enrolled in the local school yet, so perhaps you can give me a hand till you start?”

Anna had neither the energy nor the inclination to become a skivvy, and I wasn’t going  to allow the landlady to take advantage of her.

“Anna must study a lot, Mrs Lisowski, since she has missed a lot of school recently due to ill health. I’m not sure that she would be much use to you, even if she had the time to help.  She has to rest every day between her studies. What time is morning mass at Jasna Gora, please?” I asked in as off-hand a way as I could.

“I don’t attend mass there, Mrs Wojcik. It is a convent, you know, and it’s really only high days and Christmas when the locals go to mass there. It takes a while to get there, you know. We usually attend Niedziela, which is a lovely small church, and the priest is very devout, you know, and after all, it is much nearer. They have mass at 7am, if you want to go before work, otherwise it’s 10am. You should of course visit Jasna Gora to see the Black Madonna, which is so famous, but if you have visited before from Krakow, I’m sure you have been to pray to her, haven’t you?”

“I have been before, of course, but not for some years, and I should love to pray for peace with the Virgin.”

I was becoming self-conscious about my ignorance and resolved to ask Helena to accompany me to mass on Sunday, if she wouldn’t mind, so she could whisper instructions to me during the service. Meanwhile, I agreed the rent with Mrs Lisowski, and explained that I would not be able to pay the first month until I had started my new job, but could give her a small deposit from what I still had of Alexandre’s money. She waived my notes away.

“Helena told me you would be good for the rent and that you plan to start working at Kozlow’s next week. She has given me a deposit for you, and I have agreed to return it to her when you pay the first month’s rent. You can move in tomorrow, if that suits you. I just have to give the place the once-over before you come, and I will of course need your papers for the lodgers book.  You can’t be too careful nowadays, and the police are often here checking that I have everything up to date.”

I promised to bring her my identity papers the next day, knowing too well that this would be a pre-requisite of moving in. If I was unlucky, my ID number would be checked against my original registration as Miriam Weiner, and all would be over for me and Anna.

The next morning I presented myself for interview at Kozlow and Partners, on Radomska, which was a small and old-fashioned firm. Mr Kozlow had received my resume from Helena, such as it was, and asked why I hadn’t worked for so many years. I explained that I had been looking after young children in Krakow, and then as they grew up, my husband had been moving offices quite a lot, and we hadn’t been in one place long enough for me to stay in work. I also told him that I’d been working for the business a lot, which in the early days I had certainly helped with, and explained my understanding of accounting, shorthand and other secretarial duties. He didn’t seem perturbed by my lack of legal expertise, and he didn’t ask about Otto.  I suppose that during war, there is a level of decorum among the educated classes not to ask about one’s husband or father or son, in case they have not survived. In Mr Kozlow’s case, I think it was simply a lack of interest.

“We are only looking for someone who will work hard and always turn up, Mrs Wojcik. We do not expect specialised knowledge, and we can train you in any legal information you will need to have. I have your reference from Helena Bartosz here. We have used her firm over the last few years to recruit staff, and have always been very happy with her choices, so that reference stands for a lot.  If you want the job, it’s yours.  Please bring your ID papers with you and you can start on Monday.”

We moved into the apartment that afternoon, and I started work the following Monday. Anna was enrolled in the local Catholic school to start on the same day, and for the first time in two years, I felt safe.

Helena had been wonderfully supportive, and though she didn’t agree to attend mass with me, she sent Emelia along with Anna and me, and the children whispered throughout the mass, and I followed their lead. Within a couple of weeks, I had the prayers and responses learned by heart, and I began to take communion.

The Apartment was luxurious after Lvov, and we managed to settle in quickly. Every day I cooked our dinner, and we lounged comfortably in our small sitting room. Anna’s health started to improve, especially as there was some lunch provided at school, and her whole demeanour improved once she was able to spend more time with girls her age, albeit Catholics. She even brought one or two children home after school to keep her company while I finished my day at work, and they seemed to accept the new girl without any questions about her past.

Within two weeks, everything seemed to be quite stable. I was paid by Mr Kozlow and  settled up with Mrs Lisowski for the first month’s rent, and she then paid back Helena. I went to early mass every day and was already becoming friendly with other congregants, albeit without giving away much about our lives. Despite the blissful relief of living as a Catholic in a Nazi occupied town, where nobody suspected my Jewish origins, I had to contend with anti-Semitic conversations every day at work and even at church. It was strange to find that as soon as I was assumed to be a Catholic, the true nature of this bigotry was opened up to me. I even had to pretend that I agreed with it, laughing at Jewish jokes or smiling when told that some Jews had been arrested. The old lady from further down Karola Szymanowskiego, who also went to seven o’clock mass, told me that she’d found out that some Jews were hiding in a neighbour’s attic. She’d had no qualms about reporting them to the Gestapo officer who hung about at the café on the corner. It seems he was stationed there, every morning, with his newspaper and coffee, and his main job was to listen to gossip and to note down anything suspicious.

“So I told him to get himself along to number 23, and to ask the lady who lives there to show him around. At the top of the stairs, there’s a cupboard which has a false wall at the back, and apparently there’s a staircase up to the attic behind there, and there’s a whole family living in her attic. I heard it from my friend who lives next door. They thought they had rats in their roof, and when they were up in the eaves, checking what was causing the noise, they heard whispering, and apparently, they could see the glow of candlelight through a hole in the wall. It didn’t take long for them to figure out what was going on. Those bloody Yids! They’ve got some nerve, hiding out in a good Catholic neighbourhood.”

“But what will happen to the lady who has been harbouring them?” I asked.

“Who knows, lovey. She must have known the risks. They’ve been clearing out the Ghetto, and I suppose some of them sneaked out at night and they must have either forced her to take them in, or maybe she’s a Jew too. You never know, do you?”

“But don’t you think that the Gestapo will take her away and jail her, or maybe worse?”

“She only got her just deserts, I say. And don’t you agree, we have to help them get rid of the Jews from Czestochowa, so that the Nazis will leave us in peace? And besides, what did the Jews ever do for us? Just a bunch of money-grubbing trouble-makers if you ask me. They’re dirty, and they don’t make any effort to mix in here. I heard that they’ve got gold and diamonds hidden in those houses in the ghetto. Good riddance, I say!”

While I had to pretend I didn’t care about this sort of repugnant bigotry, I was much more concerned when Helena told me that she had been asked for a list of all the people who she has on her books, together with their identity numbers. The Germans were, in their typically thorough way, cross-checking the identity numbers against travel permits and with the registrations on file. If she gave them my number, it would only be a matter of time before I would be discovered as Miriam Weiner.

“I haven’t been able to provide them with all my files, Miriam. You understand that my records are not completely up to date, and also, there are a number of documents which were damaged by a small flood I had in the office recently…”

“Helena, I am indebted to you for your discretion and help. I appreciate how big a risk it is not to report me.”

“I will let you know if they come back looking for more information. However, I can’t hold out on them if they go to Mr Kozlow, and he supplies them with a list of names and ID numbers for people whom I have put forward to him. You are, I presume, always ready to move on quickly?”

“Of course. But I have not felt so safe as this in two years, and I hope I can remain here.”

Chapter 27: Moving on

The next day we spent talking about the future. Gabriela was concerned about my new identity being unmasked in Krakow, since I had so many friends and acquaintances who would recognise me, and quickly alert the Gestapo, either intentionally, or by association. It was not obvious to me initially that there would be informers among the Jewish population, though Gabriela told me that it was so, but apparently the Gestapo’s level of influence, through so many pressures they brought to bear on people, was enormous. There were shop keepers whom I had known to say hello to, who held accounts in Otto and my names, who would recognise me, and would also be in the pay of the Gestapo, or under threat of arrest for non-co-operation. If I were to be seen on the street by someone who greeted me, the next thing might b a knock at Gabriela’s door from the SS.

“Miriam, I know you want to work, and it is possible to work in an office now, since you have Catholic documentation. There are probably jobs to be had for good secretaries, but you cannot afford to be recognized. I speak as a Catholic who knows the mind of my neighbour. Whilst many are indifferent to the Jews’ plight, there are more who feel that while the Nazis have been focused on rounding up the Jews, they have left the Catholics alone. When the troops arrived here, after you’d left, they persecuted our priests and so many were arrested, and even though Pope Pius has done a lot to help Jews escape from Hitler’s attacks, he has kept his head down when it comes to denouncing the Nazis publicly. I think that if you are known to catholics in Krakow, quite quickly, you will be known to the Gestapo, who are cracking down on people with false papers here.”

“That is valuable to know. I will have to consider moving on, as I must become independent, and the last thing I want is to put you in any danger for harbouring Jews. I heard in Lwow that the labour camps are being used for mass killings, and that ghettos are being set up across Poland to help the Nazis coral all the Jews, so they can be sent to their deaths. That’s the story coming from refugees who were arriving into Lwow in the last month or so. It’s going to be unsafe everywhere, but from what you say, it will be more unsafe where I can be recognized.”

“So I have been thinking. Would you consider coming with me to visit Helena, to see Emilia. You remember Helena coming to dinner with me and Stashek at your invitation a couple of years ago. She is very able and well connected in Czestochowa and I can write to her to tell her than my friend Miriam Wojcik is coming with me because she would like to move for work. Helena can look for an apartment for you and Anna, and may know of a job that would suit you, since she’s been running an office which deals with recruitment across the city. She will know you are Jewish, but she will not tell anyone.”

“Thank you, Gabriela. That would be ideal. Bjut is it a slow process to access a travel permit to visit?”

“For me, I can easily get a one-day pass which is enough for my monthly visit to Emilia. You would probably be able to do the same, but just not return to Krakow. I doubt that the authorities in Czestochowa would be checking on whether you returned to Krakow, and you have not registered your presence here, so nobody at this end would be looking for you to be here. The Gestapo is incredibly thorough, so I presume the only issue will be whether your ticket from Lwow to here will be checked.”

“Well, let’s do as you say. Can you send a letter to Helena, and I will keep a low profile till we travel, so as not to be reecognised. I would so dearly like to be able to get into the apartment and see if our belongings are still there. I would love to replace my clothing and Annas. Also, I would like to contact Celestyna because she is looking after some of our valuables, and since I have none of my jewelry left, I would be perhaps able to raise some cash from the sale of one or two things.”

“Miriam, if you are short, I can help you a little, and Helena will make sure that until you are employed, you won’t starve.”

 

Within two days, we were boarding a tain to Czestochowa, with Gabriela, on a day pass. When we got to Helena’s, Anna and Emilia were like two sisters, and I was heartened to see Anna smile for the first time in months. Helena was as I remembered her: a tall, stern, middle-aged woman with a straight back and her hair tied up in a tight bun. She wore a dark suit, and seemed very focused on her work.

“Good afternoon, Miriam. I’m so pleased you could come. I so much enjoyed meeting you before the war, and to hear about Otto’s business. I had hoped to open an office in Krakow with Gabriela and Stashek’s help, before everything changed. Now I am struggling to keep our business running here. Gabriela’s letter told me that you were coming for work, and would welcome my help with accommodation.”

“Yes, I would be most grateful of any help you can give us.” I pulled my forged papers from the handbag Gabriela had leant me and passed them to Helena. “As you can see, I am a Catholic and if possible I would like to move into the area around Jasna Gora, so that I can attend daily mass. I’ve been reading as much as possible in some of Gabriela’s books to make sure I will fit in.”

“I have a friend who rents rooms, and she will be able to find you something. But first you may be interested in a secretarial job I am trying to fill, in a firm of solicitors. They need shorthand and good typing speeds. I expect you may be a bit rusty, but I have a typewriter upstairs, and I have made you a bed in our spare room. It should help you to sette for a couple of days while you prepare for your interview, and I will invite my friend over to meet you here. I hope that is all acceptable to you. I felt it would be best to make advance plans.”

“Helena, you have dome so much for us, and we don’t want to impose on you, but this is so very generous. You’re right, I will been to practise my typing and shorthand before I can apply for secretarial work, not to mention Anna and me attending mass with someone who can guide us through the service.”

“good. That’s settled then.” And Helena went to make tea for Gabriela and me while the girls played in Emilia’s room. From that moment, Helena never asked me a question about the past, and never referred to my Jewish origins even in private.

I said a fond farewell to Gabriela, when she left to catch the late train home, and I could see how upset she was to leave Emilia behind as she returned to Krakow.