Anka and Wiktor left on Friday, because Marek and his wife had secured the use of a horse and cart, and though the animal was clearly starving, and had been eyed up for slaughter by Marek for weeks, they felt it would be better to use the poor beast’s last energy to pull their belongings and Wiktor, while they joined the walkers. It was a terribly upsetting experience for Anna, who had become like a little mother to Wiktor, and Anka and I spent a long time sitting silently holding one another’s hands, before she left. There was nothing to say, except to wish one another safe keeping. We knew that our paths would never cross again, and that even if we both survived, and returned to our past lives, we wouldn’t look one another up. Our relationship had been borne of our circumstances and we had no other reason that that to be friends. We had no culture or religion or education in common, and we were not even of a similar age. We’d worked hard together, fought one another’s battles, fended for each other, fed one another, helped each other’s children and we’d kept each other company, held up our heads together through a long, hard year and more. We were more similar than we should be: both fighters and survivors, both fierce and strong, and both compassionate and generous. Anka had helped me to find all that in myself and I loved her dearly for that.
Ada had gone back to her lodgings after our discussion, to talk to Paul’s boss, who was going to travel east with the Russians. He’d been able to continue with his work in the planning department because the Mayor trusted him, and he and his wife had been promised a space on one of the trucks, which were leaving. Ada hoped to be taken along with them, as a ‘relative’ and she promised to talk to me again before they left, if possible.
It was now Saturday, and I’d spent the day walking the streets, trying to find out if anyone I knew would help Anna and me. I had no more money, and only my diamond to sell. I had no work and everywhere there was violence being perpetrated against Jews by Ukrainians and the NKVD. I had witnessed beatings in the streets, and even saw two men kneeling naked in the gutter while an NKVD officer drew his pistol and shot them both in the head, before walking on, as though nothing had happened.
The streets were packed now with families carrying their meager possessions, as they headed towards the eastern gate, in a long line. It reminded me of the endless procession we had been part of just 22 months previously. It seemed almost surreal that we had been in the comfort of three expensive cars, in our fine clothing, still wearing our jewelry and with a hamper of rich food in the boot, waiting to be picked over. I couldn’t remember the taste of meat, nor the pleasure of even a glass of clean water, let alone the chance to sit in the soft leather of a driver’s seat. Anna hadn’t eaten all she was given then, and now, I couldn’t find her enough food for one meal. And of all the adults and children in that convoy, only three of us were left.
Ada arrived to the door as I was sitting on the front step, summoning up the courage to beg Mrs Wojcik for some food, if she had anything which she could share with us. The landlady, Mrs Wisniewski , almost never came to the house any more. It was three months since she’d accepted with resignation our failure to pay her any more rent, and since there was nobody who had any money looking to rent property, there was no point turfing us into the street. We’d paid diligently for over a year, so she simply told us to look after the place, and she’d move back once the enemy moved out. It was a rare gesture of generosity, which I hadn’t expected from her. She said that her sister was still receiving food parcels from her husband in the army, and it made sense for them to stay living together at her sister’s house. Meanwhile, we already had eight families living on the Arkhypenka Street house, which was bursting at the seams. Everyone was Jewish, and all had become extremely concerned about the invasion of Russia by Germany. It seemed to us inevitable that the Nazis would over-run Lwow in no time, since the Russians were showing no signs of defending the city. Most of the tenants were packing to leave in the morning, and I had decided that we too must go.
There was a distant thud, and then more, and we recognized the familiar sound across the city, as German planes flew overhead, having dropped their bombs on the defending forces at the western wall.
“Miriam, I’m leaving in the morning with Benedykt and Celestyn. They’ve managed to persuade the Mayor to put my name on the list of passengers in the convoy. We’re driving out at 4 am, if the road is safe to leave by. I came to say goodbye and to ask if you have any plan to leave?”
“I’ve decided that we will start out tomorrow too, but we’ll be on foot, and I am worried that Anna won’t get far without help. I’m not strong enough to carry her, so I will try to find a space on a cart for her. I hear that the station is mobbed with people trying to board trains, but the NKVD are stopping anyone from getting near unless they have papers, since they are all heading for Moscow.”
“I brought you a few Roubles from Benedykt, and a pot of vegetable stew which we have left. I’m sorry it isn’t more.”
“Ada, you have saved us again. I was waiting to see if anyone in the house had something to spare, but everyone is going without an evening meal.”
“I was thinking perhaps I could continue my journey to Siberia, and try to find Paul there. I don’t know where all the camps are, but perhaps there’s some way of finding out, som sort of office in Moscow or whatever which keeps a record of prisoners.”
“Ada, You must look after yourself, and trust God to take care of Paul.” I hated myself for making such a platitude out of the life of my brother and her husband. He didn’t deserve to be relegated to that. I knew, and had known since his arrest really, that Paul was doomed. Ada knew it too, in her heart, but unlike me, she was devout in her prayers and I’m sure she prayed for his safety morning, noon and night.
We hugged and she cried a little, and then she left. Anna and I finished the food she’d given us, and then Anna slipped downstairs to sleep in Wiktor’s bed, since she’d spent much of the last few months sharing with him, rather than cramped in our single bed with me, and now that he had gone, she felt so upset, it was all she could think to do to comfort herself. Anka’s rooms were empty, but Anna knw every inch of them, and would not be scared.
I sat on alone, and wondered whether I would ever see Ada again, like Paul and Isidor and Ania and Anka and Wiktor, and so many of our friends. I didn’t have much belief in the trustworthiness of the Russian authorities. They could stop the convoy in the middle of the forest and simply chuck out all the Poles, leaving them to fend for themselves against the advancing Nazis, in an effort to reduce their numbers and make the food last longer. They could do much worse. It was already well known that they had been carrying out mass executions in the forests, and not even burying the bodies. The decision to join them was a huge risk for Ada, but I had noticed, since Paul’s disappearance, she had a very fatalistic attitude. I wondered if perhaps she was better off with this attitude than I was with my dogged determination to survive. She no longer cared if she lived or died, unless she would see Paul again, and that made her choices easier.
I decided to wash Anna’s clothes in the bucket, so that they would dry by the morning, and I would then sit down to stitch my few belongings into a sheet, and add a makeshift strap to carry everything over my shoulder.
I was on my hands and knees, when there was a quiet tap at the door. I rarely had visitors, and then only by arrangement, so I was immediately scared that the NKVD had come for us. I would have pretended not to be at home, and Anna was well used to hiding silently under the bed when people called during the day and I was at work, but somehow the quiet knock at the door reassured me it wasn’t a threat. Anna was silently sleeping, and didn’t stir at the knocking.
I opened our door cautiously and stood dumfounded. Standing on the landing was Alexandre Roskov, my dear friend from Berlin, whom I had not seen in five years. I looked at him, dressed in a grey overcoat, despite the temperature, then over his shoulder, to see that he was alone. I just couldn’t belive that someone so precious to me was here, in Lwow, standing quietly watching my reactions.
I was shocked by the change in his looks: his graying hair and lined, pale face, so different from the polished high colour he always had, and the loss of his handlebar moustache which he’d worn as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. I was about to step forward to him when his coat fell open, and I saw under his coat that he was dressed in the uniform of a German SS officer. Alexandre was a Nazi! Of course, he was an Austrian officer, and would have been conscripted. My first thought was ‘Why have they sent a friend to arrest me?’ But I knew straight away that he had not come in an official capacity. He could never hurt me. I knew it in my heart. However cautious one becomes when considering the enemy, one always knows instinctively to trust one’s closest friends. I would place my life and Anna’s in his hands in any circumstances, and now in this situation, I was certain it was all right.
He had taken a huge risk in coming into Lwow before the German army had taken the city, even though they were effectively in control of the region, and an even bigger risk in coming into the Jewish Quarter to find me. I couldn’t understand how he had managed to locate me, though it transpired that he knew Conrad Brzozowski, and had been in touch with Olek as well, trying to find out where I was.