Chapter 25: Krakow

The journey was interminable, as the train was stopped three times for identity checks. Each time I cowered before the Gestapo officer who came with his escort of SS to check everyone’s documents, but thankfully everyone else in the compartment seemed as scared as I was. But with Alexandre’s papers and permits, we arrived in the late afternoon without difficulty into Główny. The station had changed. Not physically, but the place was teeming with soldiers, all in Nazi uniforms, and we saw few civilians who weren’t either walking fast with their heads down or queuing at gates to have their papers checked. The station café was occupied by SS officers, and nobody else, and the whole place seemed like a barracks. I could see swastikas everywhere I turned.

There was no choice but to walk, but then it was so long since we’d used a taxi or driven in a car, I might have chosen to walk even if we’d been offered a lift to the house. It was late June and the sun beat down on us as we walked. It felt more oppressive than it should have done. After all, it was a beautiful summer’s day and Krakow, my home town, was still the same place. But bricks and mortar don’t make a city what it is. The boulevards were lined with army paraphernalia and tanks drove up Stradomska towards Wawel Castle, as though they planned to destroy it with their shells. It might have stood for eight hundred years, but then I was sure it would take a few hours to reduce it to rubble, along with the Jewsih quarter to which we were headed.

Avoiding the main square, where there were squads of marching soldiers and large numbers of armoured vehicles, we walked the mile to Kazimierz through back streets, with our heads down and covered in scarves. Turning onto Szeroka street, with its familiar plaza and gardens, surrounded by bars and cafes, I had to stop and hold onto a railing as I began to feel faint with fear. The Jewish quarter I had known and loved since childhood was unrecognisable. It had been turned into a Nazi social centre, full of revellers and prostitutes, and the bars were spilling grey uniforms onto the pavements. When eventually we made it into Gazowa, and could see the Vistula flowing swiftly in the evening light ahead of us, I pulled Anna quietly into a narrow passage opposite our apartment. We stood quietly, watching. There were German soldiers on the pavement outside, and a large army jeep parked in the driveway. The anti-Semitic graffiti which I remembered from eighteen months ago was still visible on the gate, though it had faded.

“Mamushu, why can’t we go indoors? I’m tired of walking and I want to go to see my room again.”

“Shhh. We can’t go in, because it looks like there are soldiers living in the house. Let’s just wait here and see whether we will be able to go in or not.”

There were lights on in the lounge windows on the first floor, and it was clearly occupied. We didn’t have to wait long. Within minutes, the door opened and three SS Officers came out, chatting and smoking, and strolled towards the bar on the corner.

“I’m sorry, darling. I know you’re tired, but we can’t go home now.” I whispered to Anna, who had said nothing, though I could see her chin begin to shake and a tear ran down her cheek. “Remember we changed our name only yesterday to Wojcik.  If we were to go into the house now, they would arrest us as Weiners and we would be taken to jail.”

Anna was used to saying nothing, and doing exactly as she was told. “We’ll have to visit someone else’s house tonight, and see whether we can stay somewhere else for a while. I know, we’ll try the Frankels. You remember Emilia. You used to play together. They live across the river.”

We crept out of the alleyway and in the dark, crossed the river to Podgorze, a quiet leafy suburb where Stashek and Gabriela lived. Otto and Stashek had been school friends, though Stashek’s parents were good Catholics, and we’d been invited to their wedding. Gabriela had always been one of my confidantes. She was very intelligent and understood much more than I told her about Otto and me. We used to dine with them regularly before the war, in that different world, where I spent so much time and money on dinner parties. When there were not endless lines of starving people waiting for a bowl of gruel, and when I had nothing more in my mind than how to occupy my time with social entertainment.

Their street was some distance from the river, and we were becoming more tired as we walked. Neither of us had eaten much, since there was little to buy in Lwow, and once we’d arrived in Krakow, all we wanted was to get home. Now it was growing dark, and we crept along in the shadows. There were few people on the street, and I realized that perhaps there was a curfew. But it wasn’t late, and this smart suburb was probably being used by senior Nazi officers and their families. Indeed, we’d seen one or two smart cars drive into the gates of houses as we passed. Stashek was, as far as I knew, conscripted, and so he might well be gone. He could, heaven help him, be dead, and Gabriela would have been thrown out of their home by now. I hoped desperately that they would be at home still. To my great relief, Gabriela opened the door as soon as I knocked.

“My God! Miriam… and Anna. I hardly recognized you. Come in. You look… exhausted.”

Gabriela was shocked at seeing us. Of course, she had probably assumed that we had been taken off to a labour camp, having been in Nazi occupied Poland since the start of the war. She looked well and smartly dressed, and we looked like two tramps, emaciated and dirty. Our clothes, though fairly clean, were torn and worn, and Anna looked like a ghost of her former self, as well as being six or eight inches taller. I suddenly caught sight of my face in the hall mirror. It was the first time I’d seen myself reflected in weeks, or rather the first time I had looked. There was an old woman, who looked like a skivvy. My hair was completely grey, which it hadn’t been when Gabriela last saw me. Though I had my colour done once a week in the thirties, it was only to cover one or two stray grey hairs. My face was deeply lined, and my eyebrows had grown bushy.

“Miriam, where have you been? How have you managed? And how did you get here without being arrested? Oh God, it’s such a relief to see you both.” She took me in her arms, and I began to cry. I shook and cried and couldn’t stop. I knew it was relief that brought me to tears, but once the dam had burst, I couldn’t hold back the waters, and Gabriela had to lead us to her lounge, where we collapsed into the soft sofa. She handed me a clean white handkerchief, and I stroked the fine fabric for a while, just for the pleasure of touching it. Anna was already curling up onto the sofa, like a cat looking for comfort.

“I’ll make us some tea. I wish I could offer you something stronger. You look like you need it. I haven’t a great deal of food, but I’ll heat up the bigos. I know it’s pork, but you’re not Kosher, are you, and you both look like you need some good food.”

“Thank you, Gabriela. You don’t know how much it means to find you. It has been so long. Everything has been so . . . difficult . . . “ And I couldn’t help myself but began to cry again. Gabriela left us while she went to the kitchen to make tea, and I was glad she did. Anna had fallen asleep immediately, and I was able then to sit in silence, in the safety and familiarity of a comfortable room, in a peaceful house on a quiet street, knowing that I wasn’t in immediate danger, with my new identity. I felt sick, and immensely tired, but the relief was like a wave of warm water washing over me. I closed my eyes and must have dozed.

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