Chapter 6: Leaving Paris

After our week in Paris, visiting a few galleries and showing Anna the Louvre, I planned that we would all travel on to London together and Anna and I would stay at a small private hotel in Holburn, near Tomasz and Max, for the autumn, rather than returning to Krakow. I came up with this plan only days before we left Vichy for Paris, because the newspapers were full of stories about the German army mobilising, and the failure of our Government to engage in planning the country’s defence. Even in my inexperienced view, Germany might decide at any time to attack us in Krakow. All the talk in Vichy was of war, and I felt it would be better to be close to the children, in the relative safety of London, rather than being divided at this time.

I made this decision alone, but whatever I felt about Otto’s behaviour, he was still my husband and on some level I still felt beholden to him.  I felt obliged to check my plans with him first, against my intuitive judgement. Otto had told me he would be in Danzig on business throughout the second half of August, though I assumed it was because Maryla was there. In fact, she was at home, and he really was at the Danzig office. I telegraphed him with my proposal, and was somewhat taken aback by his terse response insisting that Anna and I return to Krakow immediately, leaving Tomasz and Max to travel back to London without us.

Pack up the apartment and take Ania’s family with you to Naleczow where you will be safe. You must not remain in France. You will be safer at home.”

I was furious at his lack of consideration for my wishes, and his disregard for our safety.  Why would it be better to be in Poland, when Germany had been focussed on the East, and not in Britain, with the English Channel between the children and Hitler?  I would so much have liked to telephone him and have a sensible discussion about our plan, but it would have been impossible to get through in the circumstances. Besides, I’m sure I couldn’t have presented our case in a cool and calm way.

Looking back, I think his first concern must have been to bring as many of his family together in our home country as possible, but at the time I got his reply, I could only see selfishness in his demands. He wanted the apartment to be taken care of, and he was worried because he was parted from Maryla, though he wouldn’t say that.

When I met Olek, a few days later, it transpired that Otto was unable to return immediately from Danzig due to some problems with his travel papers, which he could have told me. I only found out after Anna and I had committed to our return, and so he was effectively leaving us alone in Poland while remaining in The Free State.  At that point, I did really consider ignoring his telegraph, pretending even that it had not been delivered to the Georges Cinq, but I am fundamentally honest, and loyal, and I couldn’t bring myself to go against so firm a demand while staying married to him. I felt obliged to go along with his decision, and it was with reluctance that I booked our train tickets from Paris to Krakow via Berlin, on the Nord Express.

After I had booked the train I received another telegram from Danzig.

I have decided to join my old regiment if possible and I leave for Rumania in the morning.”

That really added insult to injury! How could he demand my return to Poland only to absent himself with this hair-brained scheme to enlist? Whatever his view of my independence and capability in a crisis, he was responsible for our family and owed nothing to his regiment. We Jews must stick together. We are being assaulted with hatred. The regime in Germany is poisonous and it is shocking to see Hitler’s propaganda gaining momentum and support, even in other countries. Yes, we are Poles and proud of our nationality, but we are a family, and a race under threat, and we have to look after our own.

Besides, Otto was already in his mid-forties, and could not possibly be any use to his regiment. His place was at home, looking after the business in Krakow, not fighting a cause, which he’d shown little interest in before. It is over twenty years since he had anything to do with the Polish army, and from what little I know, they are not a strong defence against the might of Hitler. He’ll be killed as soon as he is on the battlefield! But I know that there is no reasoning with Otto when he has the bit between his teeth. He was clearly unhappy with my freedom while taking advantage of his own, without consultation. And where is Maryla in all this? I find it strange that he would leave her behind. I must approach Olek carefully to find out what he thinks of the plan.

After the second telegram, in my anger, I considered again ignoring Otto and travelling to London with the boys. I would have done so had he been on his way back to Krakow, because I could rely on him then to take care of the family in Poland, but now that he is planning on travelling to Rumania, and is clearly not prepared to take responsibility for his own in Poland, I know that I must return in order to find Ania and Paul at home, if they have not already moved to the country. It is so hard here in Paris to establish just how worried everyone is at home, but from what news I can glean, Hitler’s intentions are to invade Poland, and so are Stalin’s. The expectations of a German invasion, in the articles I read in Le Monde, are very disconcerting, and if they are true, Hitler’s forces will reach Krakow quickly from the eastern border. If Poland is facing two threats, with the Germans invading from the west and the Russians from the East, the Krakow Army is not going to be in a position to defend us against either advance, and the Carpathian Army, which has been defending our Eastern borders for months, is not going to get back quickly to help, if, that is, they dare to leave the border open to the massive Russian armies.  I feel that I will be putting my head between the jaws of a fierce lion, like some circus performer.

According to this morning’s papers, the Germans and Russians have signed a pact in Moscow, not to fight one another. It surprised everyone, because we thought the Germans hated the Slavs, and didn’t their last agreement fall apart? And I must say that I understood Stalin was talking about a pact with France, which the newspapers were very positive about when we were in Vichy. It all feels so confusing that I am unable to look far enough ahead to make a decision. I feel that we just have to get on with our lives and leave these posturing madmen to decide what they want.

We seem now to be dependent on our agreement with Britain and France to protect us, but I don’t understand how they could possibly reach Poland quickly without aeroplanes, and especially with Germany in between us and them, to help us defend ourselves from both these powerful enemies? And what would happen to the people living in the middle?

It has not been easy to focus on the children these last few days, and on the beautiful art we have been seeing, when I fear that returning to Krakow will put us in the greatest danger. I have been tempted to discuss it with Tomasz, because he is a sensible young man, despite his mere eighteen years, but I see that he only hopes we will come to London, and doesn’t understand why Otto would demand our return to Poland. In his world, Otto is an unreasonable bully, so it’s not possible to have a rational discussion with him about this.

Chapter 5: Proposal

We spent a few precious days together, as planned, touring museums and galleries, walking in the Tuileries and strolling on the banks of the Seine. The boys were full of stories about their year together in London, and other than one or two military parades, there was no evidence of soldiers or even tension. It was an idyllic few days, and looking back on them, they were really the last time all four of us felt like a happy family. It’s easy in retrospect to recognise the pleasure in something one takes for granted at the time. It is harder to see the good in something which at the time seems awful.

I didn’t see a newspaper at any stage. My spoken French is excellent, while my reading is a little rusty, so even if I had bought Le Monde, I would not perhaps have understood the nuances of Hitler’s negotiations with Britain and France, or how he was playing a double game with Russia, or just how close we were coming to war.

It has been a good summer vacation until now. To be honest, I’m glad to be away on my own. Otto has been impossible to talk to for months, and I’m heartily sick of hearing his excuses for not being at home. He is happy to lie without compunction about business trips and late nights in the office, and I know full well that he’s spending as much time as he can with Maryla. Of course he denies it, which is frankly demeaning, as it is pretty common knowledge among our set in Krakow. If I hadn’t worked out what was going on myself months ago, there are plenty of busybodies ready to give me sympathetic looks and mutter behind their hands about it. Otto is such a disingenuous man in many ways, not at all sophisticated in his deceptions.

Why he chose to have an affair with Maryla, the wife of his business partner, when we’ve all known each other half our lives is beyond me. Olek was Otto’s best man at our wedding, for goodness sake, and I’ve minded her children and she mine, and Anna and Anita go to the same school too. I wonder how long it has been going on.

I should be outraged by their behaviour. I‘m sure Olek would be if he knew. Perhaps he does, and hasn’t the strength to do anything about it, especially if he’s not sleeping with Maryla. But who knows what goes on behind closed doors in a marriage. Look at mine, after all. Everyone saw us as the perfect couple in love, and then when the stories began to circulate, and I saw the looks they all gave me…

I’ve always had a soft spot for Olek, though I wouldn’t consider such behaviour. I’m not saying that I have not been attracted to other men since Otto and I were married, but really, our closest friends and his business partner. I would like to think of myself as a good wife. I have always tried to be dutiful and kind. I look on Olek as a father figure, and he certainly has been a gentle influence in Max’s life, which makes a change from Otto’s heavy-handed dealings with him. I sometimes wish that Olek had been his father. It is fair to say that Maryla is a kind and quiet young woman. She is beautiful too in her way. I ought to feel jealous and to hate her for sleeping with my husband, but in all truth, I don’t want to stand in their way, if it keeps the peace and allows me to have my own privacy without Otto intruding.

Perhaps Maryla was too young for Olek. I gather that their marriage was arranged, and although Olek was already doing well in his work, and was certainly a good catch, it isn’t fair to a woman who is just out of her teens, and in her first flush of adulthood to be tied to a much older man. They were having great difficulty starting a family, and in the first years of their marriage, I was something of a confidante to Maryla, though it was not something I relished. She did explain to me, with a great deal of embarrassment, that Olek had received mercury treatment for a venereal disease some years before they met, which he contracted during the Great War, as so many soldiers did. I must say when I heard that story, I assumed he might be unable to produce any children, though I didn’t tell Maryla my view. We were all surprised when she became pregnant with Stephen, and then only eighteen months later, with Anita. They are lovely children, so well behaved. Stephen has a sharp mind too, like Max, and they always enjoyed playing together when they were younger, even though he’s three or four years younger.

I didn’t seen it coming, Otto and Maryla, but in hindsight, I can see how they became lovers. Otto and I have never been close in that way, and yet he has a powerful drive when it comes to the bedroom. I was never attracted by that side of him. I’d agreed to marry him out of the desperation I felt to escape my fate after my father refused the suit of Josef, a Turkish doctor whom I met, and fell in love with, at the age of eighteen. It was just after the Great War, while I was visiting Vienna, that we met, and I would have gladly married Josef if Papa had not considered him beneath the family’s dignity. I remember overhearing my uncle David agreeing: “It would not do for her to marry a Turk.”

Once he was banished from my life, and Ania, my sister, did as she was told and blocked all his letters, which I only found out years later, Papa decided that I should not be sent to the Swiss finishing school, as I had hoped, but would be put to work as a secretary. I would have liked to go to an art school and perhaps become an artist, but was instead forced to enter the local secretarial college and study shorthand and typing. Not that I rebelled. In fact, I matriculated with high honours as the top student in the class, and spent many tedious hours each day in my father’s office.

In the summer of 1918, we were in Pisztany, in Czechoslovakia, for six weeks at the spa, staying in the wonderful Thermia Palace, where all the royalty used to stay. One evening I was introduced to Otto, who at that time was a business associate of Uncle David’s. I remember being completely disinterested in him when we first met. I didn’t immediately realise that this was the presentation of a suitor, and I couldn’t imagine Otto being in any way suitable. He was certainly interested in me, in his way, but I was still heartbroken over Josef, and of course I refused to consider anyone else. Even then, in the beginning, he seemed to me to be like a block of wood. I may have been a petulant young woman, but he made little effort to please me, even though he was obviously being encouraged to court me by Uncle David at every opportunity, often in a most obvious and even coarse way.

I remember that I didn’t find him in the least attractive or interesting; he seemed old for his years, and talked of nothing but work. When we returned from Pisztany, I thought I’d seen the back of him, but I was shocked to find that he had been invited to visit us by Uncle David. That was when the penny dropped, and I realised that the family intended me to marry him.   I kept out of the way as much as possible when he visited, though that seemed to make no difference, as nobody saw the need to bring me into their discussions. Such was the nature of arranged marriages. They were arranged without the input of one or sometimes either of the parties concerned. I do remember coming down to dinner after Otto had arrived and seeing him coming out of Uncle David’s study with my aunt. Uncle David called me in then and told me that Otto had asked for my hand that day, and that he had given the suit his blessing, subject, of course to my approval.

“I’ve spoken with your father, and we are very impressed with Otto. I’ve known his father, Lolek, for many years, and he is an astute man with a successful business. We feel that this is a good match. What do you say?”

I was panic stricken, and without the time to think, I felt ambushed.

“I’m sorry, Uncle David, but I don’t have any feelings for Otto, and I don’t think I would be happy with him. Please convey my apologies for his wasted trip.”

“Now look here, Miriam. This is not the sort of offer that comes along every day. You’re my ward and your father agrees with me. “

Aunt Jadzhia had, along with Ania, been my help-mate and protector and I turned to her to defend me against this attack. But she just stared at her hands and said nothing to endorse my refusal. She and David had already discussed the probability that I would demur.

“I’m sorry, Miriam, I have to agree that this is a good match. You’ll do as you’re told,” she warned “You’re in danger of being left on the shelf young lady.”

I was a strong willed girl, and while I loved my aunt, her exhortations were water off a duck’s back to me. Unfortunately, Uncle David had another card to play:

“As I said, my girl, your father approves this match, and if you refuse it, you will have to make your own way in the world. It’s high time you were no longer dependent on us. I’ll be happy to find you gainful employment as a governess or secretary elsewhere.”

“I won’t marry him!” I stormed out and spent the evening in my room, crying. Everyone knew better than to follow me, and they all left me to stew over the subject. I raged and cried, and felt bitter towards Ania for not helping me, but of course nobody changed their minds.

I’ve never been one to hold on to an inappropriate position in an argument, and when looked at coldly, I could see no sense in fighting. By the end of the evening, I’d changed my mind, and weighed up the prospect of Otto against the miserable life I saw myself having as a secretary in some grubby office and living in a rooming house for single women. I even began to agree with Jadzhia that I was in danger of becoming an old maid, even though I was just twenty-one at the time. David’s practical nature and control of the allowance had had its effect. I could not imagine a world in which I would have to fend for myself financially and to manage on the meager income of a governess or secretary.

We married in May 1919, and lived as man and wife for the next five years, during which time, Otto grew out of his bookish stuffiness and became a successful businessman, and with my help, something of a socialite. The problem for Otto was, once I’d had the two boys, I was no longer prepared to allow him into my room as often as he wanted. He had never been my choice, and I never enjoyed our relations. Our marriage was so much about our public relationship once the children had been born. That’s not to say that I was unhappy. We worked well together, both socially, and in terms of our parenting responsibilities. Otto was very generous, and didn’t refuse me anything. I kept an excellent house, and our entertaining was renowned. The kitchen staff and maids were well trained and diligent, and Celestyna, our cook, was the talk of Krakow.

Chapter 5: Paris

Anna and I took the train to Paris three days ago, having bade our farewells to our friends who remain, and to M Beranger. Vichy never changes, which is its greatest achievement. I wondered, as we drove to the station, how it would be affected, should a war ensue.

We had couchettes on the sleeper, which was fun for Anna, though the sheets weren’t what I’d call pristine, and our guard was rushed off his feet, as the first class compartments were full. Half of Paris seemed to be returning from Vichy, and all the talk was of war.

We arranged to meet Tomasz and Max at the hotel, since they had been travelling for much longer than us, and would need to rest. I had booked our rooms at the Georges Cinq, which was an extravagant treat for Tomasz, whom I know has been living in some dank basement in Bloomsbury, in London, during the last year. We discussed his finding better digs, but Otto wasn’t prepared to fund luxuries of any sort, and Tom, typically disinterested in his material wellbeing, hasn’t complained about his allowance. He and Max came from London via Dover, by train and ferry, which took the best part of 24 hours, because apparently the railways in Britain are full of troops and the ferry time-table was disrupted. Tomasz is a good sailor, while Max clearly spent the voyage leaning over the rail and vomiting, but he loves his food, and had already recovered by the time their train reached the Gard Du Nord.

Tomasz looked thinner, I thought, though handsome as ever. Max must have been shaving since he moved, and his face was pockmarked and spotty. The poor boy always had the tendency to run to fat, which wasn’t helped by his greed as a child. He stole chocolate, which I had to secure under lock and key, and he became quite obese, though he does seem to have shaken that off a little, and his trousers are already too short, though they were only purchased in July.

Tomasz is in his second year at University College London, which is one of the best academic institutions in Europe for scientists, I am told. He is such a bright boy, and he’s studying metallurgy and physics for his Bachelor of Science Degree. He chose the subjects, which I must say sound extremely complicated, because he loves numbers and is fascinated by how machines work. It is hard to know where the studies will lead, but he is so brilliant, there is no doubt he will become successful in whatever he does. I should think he wants to become a famous scientist. I supported his plans, while Otto would have had him study business at Krakow University, or even miss his studies to go straight into the firm, so he could at some point take over the timber business. It seemed ridiculous to me that Otto, who is not yet fifty, would want to line Tomasz up as his successor, when he may not retire for ten years or more. I knew that this wasn’t what Tomasz wanted, and besides, Max is younger and much more suited, and has time to grow into that role. Tomasz is far too academic and not at all interested in money, while Max has always been the negotiator, trading with his pals at school, buying and selling his way around the neighbourhood. He’ll make a fine businessman, I think, like Lolek, his grandfather, while Tomasz takes after Ada, his grandmother.

Lolek ran the best-known tannery and belt factory near Krakow, and Otto has taken that and merged it into my family’s timber business, which he now runs with Olek.   Ada, God rest her, was the youngest of five girls, who went to university in Vienna to study chemistry, which was very unusual for a woman, especially before the Great War, though I too should have had such an opportunity. Ada was interested in the chemistry of tanning, which is why her family funded her studies. Lolek, on the other hand was something of a roué, and he was like a limpet towards me, before Otto and I were married and even when I was pregnant. If he hadn’t been so charming, I would have been much more brusque with him, but he always managed to smooth-talk his way out of embarrassment when he’d gone too far. I often wonder how he begat Otto.

I remember that even when I first knew him, in his late fifties, Lolek loved to socialise, and spent a good deal of time out on the town, in Krakow. According to Otto, he was always womanizing and drinking, and had even dragged Otto into some of his trips, ostensibly for business. Not that any of that rubbed off on Otto as far as I can tell. He hasn’t enough charm, let alone too much!

Ada, on the other hand, was a quiet academic, and while Lolek was away gallivanting, she stayed at home with her books, and helped to educate Otto and his brother, which is why Otto became so interested in his studies. She knew what Lolek was like but in the same way as my family pushed me towards Otto, she understood how important the match was for her family, and did not expect marriage to be about love either.

When I was seventeen, I wanted nothing more than to fall in love, and to marry for love, and to live happily ever after, but once I’d had my first love taken from me, I realized that it is just too painful to live in that way, and that it’s more important to have companionship, respect and honesty in a marriage. When it came to Otto, I suppose I started out with those expectations, but lost all three. As for the romance, I didn’t have even that to fall back on.

One has to question whether arranged marriages are in the end more successful than marriages for love. But there is no point, in my view, questioning for long something one can’t change. It will of course be interesting when Tomasz’ time comes, or Anna’s, to see what freedoms they are given by Otto. For myself, I think I would prefer that they choose a partner for life whom they are at least attracted towards, though I suppose, looking back, that Josef and I might have suffered too much hardship for our love to blossom. We would have been cut off in the world, from two such different cultures. But what’s the point of speculation. I have to stop myself daydreaming that one day I’ll be in Vienna, walking down the Ringstrasse, towards the Opera, and will see Josef walking towards me, though in my daydreams he often has a young wife on his arm.

Otto agreed to Tomasz studying in London, after much persuasion by me. He was more resistant to sending Max to Britain two years later, though, and he only agreed to that provided Max was under Otto’s control and protection. Max is to matriculate in two years’ time, and when he returns to Krakow, he is immediately to be apprenticed in the office. Max moved to London last year, when he turned sixteen. He has lodged with Tom in his digs, since apparently the landlady is quite kind and cooks for Tom, and Max is supposed to be studying hard, with Tom’s guidance. Max is something of a lazy boy, and Otto and I feel that he might pull his socks up under Tom’s influence. I’m not sure just how much he listens to Tom, and whether he can be kept from roaming the London streets looking for adventure, but at least he’ll be in a centre of learning, and without the distractions he’s come to know in Krakow. He failed several examinations at school, and was absent without leave on several occasions. He was never particularly troublesome at home, and usually came home in time to eat, but he often seemed to have money which hadn’t been given to him, and I’m sure he wasn’t working for it.

When we reached the hotel, the Maitre D told me that the boys had arrived, and that lunch had been sent up to their room. When we had been taken up to our own room, I went straight to the connecting door and opened it without warning, to find Max sprawled on the bed, full clothed and surrounded by dirty plates. He was asleep. Tomasz was in the bath.

“Well that’s a fine sight! Max, for goodness sake get your dirty boots off the bedspread. If you are so tired, then have a bath and go to bed for the afternoon. And for goodness sake, put those plates onto the trolley and ring for someone to collect them. Oh, Tomasz, how well you look. You really should eat more, though, I can see your ribs.”

“Mamushu.” Tom kissed me on both cheeks in a very mature gesture. “How was your journey?” He looked splendid with a towel around his waist, in the bathroom doorway, grinning. “And Anna, how’s my favourite sister?”

“I’m your only sister, Tom. How can I be your favourite?”

Chapter 4: Vichy, August

I planned to stay for a few weeks in Vichy over the summer, with my youngest, Anna, to take the waters as much as to get away from the heat in Krakow. It wasn’t her first visit, and as she was already thirteen, it would be an excellent opportunity for her to improve her French. I could catch up with the Holtzers and the Frenkels, who stay at the Hershey for a month every July. Stashek has some financial interest in the hotel I think, as he is so well treated there, but in any case, they always take the same suites on the first floor, the ones with the balconies overlooking the pine forest.

Otto and I had a few weeks in The Hershey with Olek and Maryla in thirty-three, or thirty-four, I forget which. Otto was distracted and disinterested in the company, and it would have been a miserable trip, but I found the treatments did me a power of good. Otto and I were regular guests there in the twenties when the boys were younger, but that was when we used to travel as a family, when he and I enjoyed each other’s company, at least sometimes. But in the last few seasons, I have taken to visiting alone, or with Anna for company. I find that the various mud bath and sulphur treatments help with my rheumatism and sciatica, which I have suffered with ever since my ski accident all those years ago. Having children of course exacerbated it, especially as Tomasz was a massive four kilos. It’s such a shame that I can no longer ski, since the winter travel is so limited in Europe, and Zakopane is so beautiful in the snow. I do miss the resort every February, but of course there’s no point being stuck there in the Palace Hotel with nothing to do but sit in one’s furs by the lake and watch the skaters having their fun. But what parties we had as teenagers! My brother Paul was an excellent skier, and climber, and he still goes every year.

Before we started visiting Vichy, the family always spent the summer in Naleczow, near Lublin, since it is only a few hours’ drive from Krakow, and when Otto and I married, we went a few times. Otto preferred to be close to the office, and I always found it to be an excellent spa and a top quality hotel, where we were friends with the Maitre D, and were well treated. But frankly, one couldn’t be sure that they could provide the service now. My sister Ania continues to stay there, but she told me that last year they were already short-staffed, and many of the friends we used to meet there had either stopped taking the waters, or were already staying on the French Riviera or Capri. Poland really has come under severe pressure economically it seems. Otto knows so much more about it than I do, though I do try to keep up with the news. I know it isn’t considered appropriate for a woman to follow politics, or read the business pages, but sometimes I wish Otto would be more open about his concerns. I have to find out what I can over the dinner table by asking Olek and the other businessmen who are prepared to open up about their affairs.

So this year, Vichy seemed the best idea, because the boys are both in London, studying, and I have arranged for Anna and I to travel to Paris before their autumn term begins, to meet them there for a few days and to reassure myself that Max is getting down to his studies.

The weather in Vichy has been fine and dry. The drive from the station was glorious, since Monsiour Beranger, the General Manager, kindly sent the open topped Citroen to collect us, and the chauffeur was resplendent in his uniform, and the sun shone through the plain trees which line the whole route and which are so characteristic of France. The Hotel Hershey doesn’t seem to have suffered the privations, which we’ve seen in Poland. When it’s copper green roof and the quaint tower came into view, I felt quite sentimental. There have been so many years when we enjoyed our summer here. The car swept around to the front entrance, with the portico and staircase in all its splendour, and the chauffeur called two bell boys to take the trunks, as Monsiour Beranger himself came to greet us at the door. The lobby is just as opulent and accommodating as always, and I was delighted that we have been given our favourite room, on the second floor. Once we’d settled ourselves and discussed unpacking with the maid, we took a tour of the ballroom, where the hotel was serving afternoon tea, accompanied by a string quartet in full evening dress. It is just as splendid as I remember it, full of fashion and bustle. And still the same faces. Our waiter, Hugo, who has been here forever, brought us the most delicate patisserie with our tea today. Their wonderful Sicilian marzapane and caliscioni, the macaroons and puff pastry flutes filled with almond paste are renowned, and I have to ration myself and Anna every time we come. The Parisians are here in force of course, talking at the tops of their voices and looking down their noses at me when they realise I’m from the East, which is quite tiresome, but there are still friends from Vienna here.

I met the Weinreichs and Deiter Koch having their tea in the hotel today. They have apparently taken the summer-house which they often rent for the season. Eleanor told me that they had to get away from Vienna, because of the military. It seems that there were soldiers everywhere, and one couldn’t get served in any of the best restaurants, which were over-run with Nazi officers. We have even seen one or two uniforms since we’ve been here, French soldiers, but so far the place has an air of calm the like of which I haven’t felt for some time.

Last week Anna had her birthday tea party at the hotel. I allowed her to invite some young Vichissois girls she’d befriended, and they managed to behave like young ladies, dressed to the nines as they were, in brightly coloured summer frocks and lace bonnets. Anna is still very childlike, but one of two of the French girls were the shape of young adults, and needless to say, attracted the attention of every teenage boy in the room, not to mention their fathers.

Anna is doing well with her French, talking with Hugo and enjoying the company of the French children. She was never a boisterous child, but I must say how pleased I am to see her coming out of herself this summer for the first time. I think of this summer as perhaps the last of her childhood. From next year, I will have to start teaching her the ways of a young lady, which of course will be a pleasure of its own.

Chapter 3: Marriage

They had been married for three years when Otto slept with another woman. She was a younger friend of Franzi, whom Lolek had continued to meet regularly in Danzig. It was during a short business trip they had taken together, and Otto took advantage of the opportunity because he was sexually frustrated. Miriam had not allowed him to visit her bedroom since their son Tomasz was born, and Tomasz was now two. Otto felt nothing for the woman, and quickly put the night down to too much drink. He felt as though he’d taken necessary medicine for an ailment, and been cured. He did not feel any guilt because his wife knew nothing about it, and he persuaded himself that this was the only way to manage when Miriam was just not interested in him on a personal level.

Otto began to develop the timber business, and, through a merger, found himself working with a business partner, several years his senior. Olek was a war veteran and a quiet, thoughtful man. Otto found him to be warm and generous, as well as a steady hand in the business. Olek had married shortly after the war, at the age of thirty-three, and his beautiful young wife, Maryla, then only nineteen, became friendly with Miriam, and looked to her for advice and support in her marriage. Maryla was intelligent and energetic, though far less independent in nature than Miriam. She was quite innocent, as far as Otto could tell, and he assumed she had never had any boyfriends before being introduced to Olek.

One evening, after they’d put their work discussions to bed, over a glass of wine in the café below their Danzig office, Olek was very quiet.

“Are you OK? You seem a bit off form, old chap.” Otto rarely noticed other people’s feelings, but Olek was such an open person, he’d come to share more with him than almost anyone.

“I have another appointment tomorrow morning at the clinic. Well, to be honest, Maryla and I are going together.” Olek looked sheepish, which was not like him.

“Clinic? Are you sick, or is Maryla? You should have told me.”

“Not exactly. We are visiting a fertility specialist. You know we have been trying to have children for a long time, and haven’t been able to do so. Maryla is quite depressed. She has assumed there is something wrong with her, and I suspect it might be me.”

It was a testament to their close friendship that Olek shared such personal information, and Otto considered the possibility that Olek was telling him all this for a reason.

“Ah, I see. I must say it hadn’t occurred to me. You’re married, what, five or six years. I suppose I assumed that you didn’t want children.”

“Miriam would tell you otherwise. She has spent many evenings comforting Maryla and advising her to seek help. It was Miriam who recommended the specialist to us, in fact.”

“There you go. That’s marriage for you! She didn’t tell me anything.” Otto made a point of not discussing Olek and Maryla with Miriam, though they spent a lot of time together. It was not the sort of thing they spoke about.

“This will be our fifth visit, and so far, nothing. The fact is, Otto, though I am ashamed to tell anyone, I caught a venereal disease in 1916, while on leave after the battle of Kostiuchnichnowka. We were billeted in a small town nearby, and there was a brothel… Well, I don’t need to go into details, but the specialist thinks that the disease, which was thankfully cured, may have caused permanent damage to my chances of conceiving. He told me this when I last visited the clinic alone, and I have not discussed it yet with Maryla,though I have meant to several times.  We will go together tomorrow so that the specialist can talk to her about my problem.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, but I suppose you must keep trying, and the bright side is that you have the enjoyment of trying, no?” Otto realized this was somewhat crass, but he found Maryla very attractive, and would love to have the opportunity to sleep with her.

“Well, I appreciate your sentiment, but it hasn’t been much fun recently. Without any sign of children coming, to be frank, our relations have cooled. We no longer share a bedroom, you know.” Olek looked down at his hands.

“Yes, well, I’m not completely unfamiliar with that issue myself, though we have the boys, and being a parent does seem to get in the way of one’s marriage in that department. Miriam is so often tired…” Otto looked into Olek’s face. What he took to be an irritation, Olek was much more downhearted about. For Otto, there was no question that he would consider another woman if the opportunity arose, while he could see in his friend’s gentle eyes that there was neither then drive nor the wish to cheat on his wife.

Otto felt he should in some way commiserate with Olek by showing he understood his problem, but in truth, he was quite titillated by the fact that Maryla was clearly not enjoying healthy sexual activity with Olek, and must be frustrated. He never wondered the same about Miriam, though her circumstances were similar. He assumed that as she chose not to let him sleep with her, she was not interested in sex. It never occurred to him that perhaps she simply didn’t want him. He put Miriam’s disinterest down to her being a few years older than Maryla, and having had children.

Nothing more was said about the issue, and though Olek went once or twice more to the specialist, it was without any success.

The two couples often made up a foursome for trips out on Olek’s yacht or for picnics in the country. Despite Otto’s conservatism, he was very drawn to Maryla, whom he felt was much more gentle and submissive than Miriam, whose fiery temper he hated. Maryla was not long in noticing that he engineered time alone with her by sending Miriam off with Max for a walk while Olek was out of the room, or dropping in to their house to give papers to Olek, knowing full well he was away on business. Otto wanted someone to return his affection, and he wanted someone to sleep with. He justified his advances in his own mind on the basis of Olek’s confidence. It struck him that Olek may have chosen to divulge his secret in order to open the way for Maryla to have an affair with him, in order that she might become pregnant by him. It was not unheard-of, when families wanted heirs, and divorce was unacceptable.

Within months of finding out about Olek’s infertility, Otto became very expressive and made a point of touching Maryla whenever possible. It was clear that he wanted to sleep with her, and she didn’t repel him. She was clearly uneasy about the idea of infidelity, and though she admitted that she felt nothing physically for Olek, she loved and respected him and didn’t want to threaten their marriage. Otto put up arguments for their having an affair, and repeatedly told her that he would never do anything to undermine her marriage, or hurt his friend. He persuaded her that what nobody knew about would hurt nobody, and that they could be together so long as they were careful. It wasn’t long before they arranged to meet alone, and the affair began quickly. It was a very physical relationship, and what Otto seemed to lack in social situations, he brought to the bedroom. They had a chemistry, which Otto had not known with Miriam. They would often meet for only a few minutes, standing in a bathroom, or in the woods, half-dressed and groping one another in their rush to find their release. He thought about Maryla many times a day, and tried to meet her alone several times a week. He sat with her at dinner, in front of Miriam and Olek, and fought to control his fascination with her breasts while discussing innocuous topics. He enjoyed her company, but he did not feel burdened with any romantic attachment.

For some months, they were careful about their assignations, but little by little, rumours spread, and slip-ups were made. Olek either did not hear or chose not to pay attention to gossip, and seemed to turn a blind eye to their relationship. Miriam too seemed ignorant of the affair, and didn’t stop socialising with Maryla, but at the same time, she was not focused on Otto in the way Olek was on Maryla, and seemed to ignore what was plain to see, as she concentrated on the children and kept house.

Chapter 2: Otto (2)

In the summer of 1918, Miriam was in Pisztany, in Czechoslovakia, for six weeks at the spa. She was staying in the Thermia Palace, where all the royalty stayed, when her uncle David, a business associate of Lolek’s, invited Otto to visit. David arranged for an introduction to take place at the regular hotel soiree. As expected of her by her family, Miriam then accepted Otto’s invitation to tea the next day. Otto and Miriam arranged to meet at 4pm in the conservatory, where Otto would reserve a table.  Miriam arrived at the requisite time of 4.10pm, and Otto bowed.  The sandwiches and cakes were already at the table, along with the silver tea service.  Otto clearly didn’t like to waste time.

“Your uncle is a very smart businessman, you know,” Otto said. “We have worked closely together for some time, and I am very impressed with his handling of the tannery business.” Miriam gazed distractedly across the tearoom. She seemed far more interested in the latest fashions being paraded by her fellow guests than Otto’s earnest conversation, but he was uneasy with small talk and hadn’t a notion of what would amuse her.

“Yes, my father has always looked to my uncle David for support. Since my mother passed, I have been his ward.” Miriam looked straight at Otto, confident that he would be attending to her. She was used to young men hanging on her every word.

“And David tells me you’ve studied in secretarial college. Did you consider helping with your father’s timber business?” Otto felt this presented him as a modern thinker, though from the look of Miriam’s stylish clothing and perfect manicure, she certainly didn’t fit his experience of office girls.

“I have spent some time in his business, helping out when they are very busy, but my health prevents me from spending too long at the typewriter, and besides, I would prefer to be painting. People tell me I have quite a talent for the arts. I would have preferred to study at art school, but my father thought otherwise.” She said this without expression, but Otto heard an edge in her voice.

“I do so admire those with artistic leanings. It must have been hard for you to be directed towards office work if you wanted to be an artist. My mathematical mind doesn’t draw me in that direction, but I am sure one needs an artist’s eye for choosing one’s wardrobe, or decor.” Otto thought Miriam looked very fine, and while he’d certainly never considered that his wife should be involved or even interested in his work, he wouldn’t want to marry a dreamer. She should, ideally, be practical with her home making, maternal and supportive of him, like his mother.

“And do you have other hobbies? Do you like sewing or cooking? Do tell me, what you enjoy most?” He worried that Miriam would think him superficial, but he’d been told by Lolek that women only wanted to be asked about themselves.

“Before my ski accident, my brother Paul and I would go hiking, but now I am plagued with sciatica and I spend many weeks each year taking the waters and having treatments,” she replied. “I’m very interested in current affairs, and dancing of course. Life can be so dull without parties, don’t you think?”

Otto failed to make it clear to Miriam that he was a suitor, and she gave no indication that he was in any way acceptable as far as she was concerned. The parted after no more than an hour, and without making any firm arrangement to meet again, which would have marked their intent. Nevertheless, David and Jadzhia made sure they dined together within days, and encouraged more meetings.

Miriam was polite, friendly and generally attentive, but not evidently attracted to him. Otto was certainly interested in her, in his way, but made bumbling and weak attempts to please her when they met, though he was encouraged to do so by her uncle at every opportunity. She seemed young, perhaps flighty, and certainly wilful. However, he was assured by David that she was practical, hard working when she wanted, and well schooled by her mother in all aspects of domestic life. It was not that he didn’t find her attractive, intelligent, even quite warm towards him. It was simply that he had no idea how to make love to her, and found her strong views and decisive manner rather off-putting.

Otto was not particularly handsome. He was a heavy-set young man with old-fashioned clothes and a substantial moustache. He wasn’t as tall as Miriam, and he was sure she didn’t find him in the least attractive or interesting; he knew that he was seen as old for his years, and he found it hard to talk of subjects other than work and politics. Nevertheless, he didn’t see these as particular barriers to their being married. He didn’t need his wife to be a part of his working life, other than to entertain his business colleagues on occasion. He had never been emotionally engaged with any woman other than his mother, so he didn’t see their lack of ‘chemistry’ as a fundamental problem. They could have children without that.

After the trip to Pisztany, Otto received a written invitation to visit the family in Krakow from David. Normally, business associates invited him to dine in the city, or to meetings and to their clubs to talk shop, but this was clearly not a business arrangement. It was implicit in this invitation that he would ask for Miriam’s hand, and that he would be acceptable to David and her father. Lolek seemed to know in advance about the invitation, and it was clear that he had been talking with David and encouraging the match. Otto assumed that the business end of Miriam’s dowry had been discussed, and that the idea of merging their timber and leather businesses in some way was acceptable to both parties.

The invitation was for a Friday evening dinner, en famille, and then to ride the next afternoon, after a light lunch. Otto had never enjoyed horses and wanted to decline that part of the invitation. It would perhaps be possible to plead ill health or a minor injury when the time came, and as the weather was already turning cold, perhaps it would rain and they would be forced to spend the afternoon indoors. It struck Otto that in fact, the proposal should be put to David before dinner, and that he would perhaps have a response the next day from Miriam, which would overtake any plans for entertainment.

From the moment he arrived, it was clear from the beaming smiles which David and Jadzhia gave him, that they wanted him to ask for Miriam’s hand. David ushered him into the study for a pre-prandial, and he duly obliged. It was much easier to bring up the subject than he had imagined, and David was quick to accept on Miriam’s behalf, while making it clear that, of course, the decision was hers.

“I’m sure you appreciate that Miriam is her own woman. She is also headstrong, and has notions of becoming an artist. But you and I know, dear boy, that the world doesn’t owe one anything. She is capable in all the domestic requirements, and you’ll agree she makes a very elegant hostess. I can tell you that she will see what a good match this is.”

Otto was taken by Jadzhia for a tour of the garden, which he had absolutely no interest in, while David asked Miriam to his study to break the news. Otto heard nothing of the negotiations, but was graciously accepted the next morning.

Chapter 2: Otto

“For God’s sake lad, get yourself out there and meet some girls! I would rather see you learning about life by living it than having your nose buried in those accounts all the time.”

Lolek stood behind Otto’s desk in the small office, his thumbs in the waistcoat pockets of his tweed suit, one rubbing the smooth cover of his gold pocket-watch, the other curling itself round the heavy gold chain and fob.

“Since you climbed out of that uniform, you’ve barely relaxed into civvy street. Anyone would think you had a baton between your arse-cheeks. Don’t you like girls or something?” Lolek was very focused on the female form. He always had been. It was hard for him to imagine monogamy, let alone celibacy.

Otto was scared of his father, whose temper was explosive. He’d often been beaten as a small boy for little reason, especially when his parents had rowed about his father’s womanising. Otto was expected to achieve high marks at school, and while his mother considered him the brightest child of his generation, Lolek always found his son disappointing. In truth, he didn’t admire academic excellence as a trait, preferring to believe in astute business mindedness, and wanted Otto to be more adventurous, risk-taking and fun. More like himself, in fact. Beatings were normal among Otto’s peers, so he didn’t think too much of them, but nevertheless he came to associate them with his father’s infidelities and marital disharmony, as much as with his own failure to please Lolek.

As a teenager, Otto often sat on the stairs and listened to his parents’ arguments when he was supposed to be in bed, and he hated Lolek for causing his mother so much pain. How could he cheat on her and pretend it hadn’t happened? How could he ignore her feelings when parents were supposed to care for one another? When she cried, Otto wanted to hold her and comfort her, but he knew it was not his place, and that she would send him away. He wondered whether such unhappiness was the norm in marriage. He was sure that few people he knew of had been allowed to marry for love, and he assumed that if they didn’t love one another, they would look to satisfy their desires elsewhere.

His sexual education had been imparted by other boys at the Academy, and he had the facts of life in his head as a mechanistic process for the production of children, something married people had to go through whether they loved one another or not. So did couples just have to knuckle down and accept their unhappiness, or was his father’s behaviour the alternative? He knew that men cheated on their wives, without retribution, but that women cheating on their husbands were cast out of marriage and society, and he’d heard that they also lost custody of their children if they were divorced.

Otto’s childhood was sheltered from the worst of his parents’ problems by his attendance at various boarding schools, and then the military academy. Fortunately for him, he was too young for conscription, and he matriculated from the academy in 1917 to join Lolek in the family business. He took this for granted and didn’t question whether he should try to make his own way instead. Lolek didn’t encourage him, but worked him extremely hard and paid him little more than pocket money. In addition to working in the firm, Otto studied law in the evenings and had no energy to socialise. Life was monotonous, and he had no friends. Most of his classmates at the Academy had gone into military careers, and whenever he met one of them, he was envious of their uniforms and medals, their tales of adventure and the admiration of the girls they knew. He spent what little spare time he had with his mother, taking her shopping or to visit family. He rarely met girls his own age, and when he did, it was under their mothers’ tight supervision, so he learned little about what made them tick.

Lolek had taken him out once or twice to business dinners at which women were present, but he was given little attention, other than as the butt of salacious comments.

“So, tell me Lolek, is this son of yours a chip off the old block?” A somewhat overdressed woman named Franzi, who looked to be in her thirties, sat between them at the dinner table. She was rouged and powdered, her hair in ringlets more appropriate to someone half her age, and her perfume was overpowering. She leant in close to Otto, showing her cleavage, and causing him to blush from ear to ear. Reaching up with her fingertips, she stroked his incipient moustache and looked into his eyes suggestively.

“You are adorable, Otto. I hope your father is teaching you how to enjoy yourself.” She let her hand brush his leg as she turned to talk to Lolek. Otto felt a loathsome desire pushing him towards her and at the same time he had an urge to slap her hand away.

“He’s barely out of short pants, Franzi,” Lolek grinned. “And Otto’s idea of enjoying himself is to solve engineering problems.”

Otto realized he couldn’t continue to hide away, and he would get nowhere in his father’s eyes without his respect, which would be won on his father’s terms. He decided to make an effort to visit Vienna, ostensibly on business, but with a view to being exposed to a little culture and to women his own age. Invitations to the best salons and soirees were easily given to him, as an extremely eligible bachelor. So he began to take the daughters of Lolek’s business associates out to the theatre or opera in order to show his father that he was on the right track. The family had an arrangement to use a box at the Vienna Opera House, and Otto found himself there on a regular basis that summer. It wasn’t his idea of fun, climbing into his penguin suit and sitting through Mozart or whatever, and he had little patience for the endless parties, which Vienna seemed to be built on. He’d rather talk shop with his clients, or read an engineering book.

He was very good with numbers and passionate about making them add up, while Lolek was more of a dealmaker. In that way, Otto was an asset, and Lolek was smart enough to realise he wouldn’t change his son by forcing him into his own style of life. He made it his business to help the boy find some suitable woman who would support him in a more settled lifestyle, which would suit his temperament. If he was going to stand in his father’s shadow, at least he should look the part, and perhaps help to give Lolek a plausible alibi whenever he needed one to escape his own domestic claustrophobia.