Chapter 24: Leaving Lwow (3)

“Without the right papers, you cannot travel, but if you have a catholic identity, you can easily move out of the ghetto and you can travel, perhaps to Krakow where you have people you know well. You know I will always help you if I can. I have made enquiries, and I have still got some good friends here. I have arranged to buy some new identity papers for you both, and some travel permits. They will be drawn up tonight by a reliable man I have found, who deals in these things, and I can return later with them, provided I have all the information I need now. You must choose a suitable surname, and you must give me your ages, and an address I can use. How old is young Anna?”

“She’s thirteen. But Alexandre, isn’t this very dangerous for you, helping us? Will you not be found out? Also, I’m so sorry but I cannot afford to pay for these papers.”

“Miriam, I have to live with myself in this uniform. Do you think I could live with myself if I didn’t try to get you to safety?”

I had become so terrified of being picked up by the NKVD since the closure of the soup kitchen, and because of what had happened to Paul, I would have done anything for some forged papers for myself, and Anna, that did not show us as Jews. Many people in the quarter had traded their possessions, or their bodies, for such papers, and most had been let down by poor fakes or by false promises. I had almost given in to the temptation to accept an offer through my dentist contact to trade the diamond he knew about for papers, but had resisted, on the grounds that I didn’t trust him enough. Now, my salvation had arrived in the form of a man I could trust absolutely, and someone who would do everything in his power to ensure our safety.

“Mrs Wojcik was my neighbour, and she’s moved in with her sister. She’s a Catholic and it is an easy name to remember. Wojcik. Miriam Wojcik, aged 41, from Krakow. Do you think it is enough? Can you really have papers made that will fool the guards at the station or soldiers on the roadblocks? I can’t believe it might be possible. I don’t know how I can ever…” I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer, and there was nothing I could say that would express my gratitude. I handed him our documents in my married name, Weiner, and he took these as they had our photographs, and so that the forger could alter our names and address. Szeroka street is in the Jewish quarter in Krakow, so I gave Celestyna’s address, which is in a Catholic neighbourhood, and at least if the Gestapo called there, and she was at home, she would have the sense not to give us away. I could visit her if we had papers, and let her know. I had no idea how this would all be effected, but after what Alexandre had told me, these papers as they stood would be arrest warrants, and so would be no use to us again.

Alexandre left me his handkerchief and stepped quietly out of the room, saying he’d return as soon as he could.

True to his word, he returned two hours later, once it was dark, with papers in the name of Wojcik, for myself and Anna, together with travel permits and train tickets to Krakow. I had no idea how he had managed this since the station was in the hands of the NKVD, but Alexandre was always well connected in Lwow, and I could only assume he knew a local Pole who did a lot of the work for him in booking our tickets, once the papers were forged. I had never looked overtly Jewish, and my new identity as a Catholic Pole, gave me some protection. The papers were, as far as I could tell, as genuine as the originals, and had probably costs a great deal. By the time Alexandre arrived, it was very late. I stood shivering on the landing, and whispered my thanks into his collar, as he held me. We both knew in our hearts that this might be our last private moment, ever. How could we hope to meet again in Vienna or Berlin or Krakow in peacetime? How could he and I both survive this war in our respective places, on opposite sides of the chasm, which Hitler’s ambitions had created? Alexandre looked all his 45 years and more, and he must be so tired. His poise was gone, his happiness too. Could he outlive this tragedy, and could we maybe see one another again? When Otto seemed to have deserted his family and failed us, only this man had come to our rescue, at any cost. I knew then, as I had known before, one true feeling for him, and I told him what I had never dared before, that I loved him.

Then, like a ghost, he’d gone and I crept back into the bed with Anna, to plan for the next day.

Chapter 24: Leaving Lwow (2)

I was so taken aback at seeing him there, in his uniform, that it took me a second before I recalled myself and opened the door to usher him in. I quickly glanced up and down the landing behind him to see whether he had been observed. Luckily it was deserted. He had taken great care to cover his uniform in a great coat, which looked just like and NKVD coat, and he wasn’t carrying the peaked cap of a German officer.

He bowed, taking my wet hand, regardless of the carbolic smell from my servant’s clothing.

“Miriam, I hope you will forgive my informal visit.”

When he spoke, I realized how real this was. I must have been in a dream when I saw him first , and now that I heard his familiar voice, I felt suddently terribly weak, and my knees began to shake. It was like a wave washing over me, mixing so many emotions. I felt hope rushing into me, and my heart seemed to flood. I felt so ashamed. How I must look? What could have brought him to me? Was he here to save me? Did he need help? After what seemed like minutes rather than seconds, I found my voice, and remembered my manners.

“Alexandre! How wonderful to see you. Come in, come in. I must apologise for my circumstances, and I am sorry that I can’t offer you anything much except tea.” I looked about me and realised how different our surroundings were to those of our previous meeting, in his restaurant.

When I looked back at him, Alexandre was staring in disbelief at the bare room, with mould on the walls and holes in the floorboards, and he only caught himself then to look into my eyes. I began to cry, as I remembered the last time we’d met in the Café Austerlitz in Vienna, and how we’d dined off fine china and drunk the best champagne, and how he had touched my hand under the table.

I had met Alexandre a good ten years before that, in the mid-twenties, just a few years after I married Otto. How splendid I must have looked then, in my beautiful blue silk dress and my diamonds, or was it that wondrous cream taffeta with the pearls? And, oh, didn’t he have a monocle? Maybe not, I forget. I think I was on a shopping trip to Vienna. It must have been in the autumn of 1926, with the boys, since I remember that Max was still a baby, and I’d brought the wet nurse with me for him. Otto was away on business, and I was collecting some dresses I’d had made. Tomasz was six, and already doing so well at school. We always stayed with our friends, the Frenkels, who had a large apartment there. It seems ridiculous now, looking around my room, to think of the expense and luxury we took for granted then. I spent more on a hot chocolate in the Café Central then that I have spent on food for both of us in a week in the last six months.

That weekend, I had taken them to the opera, as a thank you, and we’d decided to go out to supper afterwards at the Austerlitz. It was their favourite restaurant, Stashek said, and they knew all the staff. It was so magnificent, with chandeliers and heavy linen white tablecloths and silver cutlery and cut crystal glasses. The waiters were dressed all in black with white aprons to their ankles, and a string quartet played Chopin and Strauss from the balcony overlooking the diners. That was a fairy-tale image even then, and now it is a fantasy I can hardly believe existed at all.

As we were leaving, Stashek introduced me to a tall, handsome man with a handlebar moustache and very stiff deportment. I’d noticed him earlier from across the room, staring unashamedly at me, and I’d been intrigued. He wore a tailcoat, waistcoat, wing collar, bow tie pinstriped trousers, and spats. He might have been the bridegroom at a wedding.

“Miriam, this is Count Alexandre Roskov. He is not only the owner of this fine restaurant, but also my good friend from the regiment. We were on the Eastern Front together, and I never met a finer soldier. Alexandre, may I introduce my dear friend Miriam? Miriam is visiting from Krakow for a little shopping, and we have just been to La Boheme.”

“At your service, Madame,” Alexandre actually clicked his heels. “I hope that you enjoyed our cuisine.” Alexandre bowed stiffly from the waist to kiss my hand, something that was already somewhat archaic, but very charming.

“Are you staying long in our fine city?”

“Count Roskov. I’m honoured to meet you. Stashek has often talked of his comrades in arms. I must congratulate your chef on exceptional food, and your sommelier on his recommendations. No, I’m only here for the weekend, but I am often in town for shopping and entertainment.”

As Alexandre straightened up, I was completely mesmerized by his blue eyes and the smile on his lips. It seemed that he wanted to tell me that I should come to Vienna to see him, and I knew that is what I would do.

 

“I can’t believe how long it has been since we met, and how everything has changed.”

Alexandre could not help looking down at his uniform with shame. He reached out to brush my tears away. It was the first time he had touched me since that evening, and his hand was shaking.

“I am so sorry that we have to meet in such different circumstances. I would so much like to turn back the clock to happier times. Vienna is no longer the city I knew, and so little is left of the Europe we loved. The world has been turned up side down by Hitler, and I find myself pressed into his service. You know it was not my choice, Miriam. I abhor the violence, and the greed and the racial myopia. I knew that if you’d managed to survive this long, under Russian occupation, you should not have to face the Nazi onslaught.

I had to find you and to try and help you. When I heard you were in Lvov, from a friend of Olek’s, I knew it was imperative that I come and find you.”

“But Alexandre, this must be so dangerous for you. I know that the Russians are retreating, and that Hitler will take Lwow but haven’t you crossed your enemy’s lines to come into the city? What were you thinking?”

“I have been thinking of you for so long, and I have felt so powerless to do anything useful for you. I had to come, regardless of any risk. I’m afraid I can only stay a few minutes, but I had to reach you before it is too late. By tomorrow, I might not be able to help. You must by now know that the German army will be in Lwow within the next twenty four hours, and once our army… their army… enters the city, you will no longer be safe. I have seen this in so many towns already. No, I’m ashamed to say I have been involved in the process in so many towns, where my unit has entered, as the Russian soldiers have left, and we have rounded up all the Jews, and they have been loaded onto trains and sent to labour camps. I know that this is carefully orchestrated, and that there are lists compiled in advance of all those who must be arrested. The administrators, the Gestapo, have sources of information on all documented Jews in Lwow, based on the papers they have used in their work. In my own work, I have access to a certain amount of this information, but it isn’t my area. I do know about the plans to take the city, and to rid it of all its Jews. There will be nowhere to hide.

I came to tell you that my regiment will be first into the city, and we are tasked with the arrests. The lists are very comprehensive, and I am certain that your name will be in them, since Olek’s friend informed me that you have been working in an official food distribution centre, and so you must have presented your papers.”

“Yes, Alexandre, it is true, but surely, you have risked your job . . . no, your life…” I couldn’t begin to understand what he had risked in coming to find me.

“I did what I had to do to reach you before it is too late. You must leave immediately, or you and your daughter will be taken away.” He sat stiffly at the small table and accepted a glass of black tea. I stood at his side, and rested my hand on his shoulder, then stroked his hair, as the tears ran down my cheeks.

“You have been so kind to me always, and I’m overwhelmed that you have taken such a chance to come and warn me, but I cannot see what I can do to leave before tomorrow. We are unable to travel without papers, and I can’t even walk out of the city without a permit. Besides, where would I go?”

Chapter 24: Leaving Lwow (1)

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.

Chapter 23: The tide turning

Ada was destitute now that Paul was gone, and had no work herself. Ania and Isidor had been gone six months, and we had no idea whether they made it across the border, or if they were languishing in some jail, or slaving a labour camp, or had been buried in a mass grave after being executed. If anyone could pull strings, Isidor could, so we had to assume that they were OK. It would have been unbearable to think that both my siblings were beyond help. Paul, my beloved younger brother, might be working in Siberia, since it was still summer, or perhaps he didn’t make the journey. He might have escaped, or he might still be in prison. No knowing was depressing. If he survived the torture they had undoubtedly subjected him to, and if he survived the journey, and then the back-breaking work they would make him do, he’d then have to survive a Siberian winter in a hut or hovel, and that would dwarf all other suffering.

Anka joined Ada and me and we pooled our small amount of Roubles, which would last for a week or so, to buy bread and vegetables. Anka had found some work washing and mending clothes for a black market trader who specialised in pillaging the homes of arrested people, or worse. She hated him for his work, and hated herself for supporting it, but he paid her in cash, as well as letting her choose items from his horde. She brought home clothes for Anna, and shared her meagre pay with us. I considered selling my diamond, as I had so many times, but decided to hang on a little longer.

Tensions were mounting between the Jews and the Ukrainians since there was so little work and most people were starving. The Jews were seen by the OUN to be exploiting the Russian occupation, taking jobs, which had formerly been for Ukrainians. I found it hard to accept, since there were almost no Jewish employees in the civic offices, none in the police, and few working in the remaining shops either. Nevertheless, the NKVD were now employing Poles in the prisons and I heard from Anka that the Ukrainians who came to her boss for clothing talked about wanting the Germans to come and take over, to ‘get rid of those Jewish Bolsheviks.’

Whatever was going on in political circles and whoever was joining one underground movement or another, it was clear that we couldn’t keep going any longer.

“Ada, do you have anything left to sell? I have only one piece of jewelry left, and that’s the diamond from my mother’s engagement ring. I doubt anyone would pay what it’s worth or even a fraction of what it’s worth.”

“I haven’t anything now. Two weeks ago, I got just 25 Roubles for my last pair of diamond earrings, from that thief of a money-lender in the square. I was then followed all the way to my lodgings by some OUN men who must have seen the transaction. I wanted to keep some of the money, but I dared not, so I bought food and a pair of shoes.”

“I’m worried that if the wind changes direction, the OUN will start hounding us. Sorry, Anka, but there seems to be more and more anti-Semitic behaviour among your people nowadays.”

“My people? Who is my people? You are my people, and I don’t care what religeon you have or don’t have, Miriam.”

“OK, I know, and I’m sorry. I meant the Ukrainians who seem bent on getting rid of the Jews.  But I do think you’ll be under pressure to avoid us in public if this goes on much longer.”

“Since when was I bothered by what people think? Didn’t I put myself on the line with Boris for Paul? Besides, there’s meant to be over 100,000 Jews here now, and that’s a lot more than the Ukrainians. You have us outnumbered,” she laughed.

A week later, news came through on Lwow Radio, and spread out across the city like wildfire, that the German army had attacked Russians on their border, effectively breaking the agreement by which they had partitioned Poland. Russia had been attacking its neighbours in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, and had been moving into Rumania, trying to take more land. Since we knew that France had fallen to Germany, and that Hitler had most of Europe under his control, it seemed that Russia was his next target. Initially, He seemed ready to let Stalin take over more of the Baltic states, so that Russia could keep supplying Germany with raw materials, but that clearly wasn’t his plan. The radio news said that there was a massive refugee movement going on with people pouring out of Rumania towards Germany, and that the Russians were stripping the refugees of their possessions as the fled, and the Germans were caught with the destitute influx at a time when they had shortages themselves. The Bolsheviks didn’t want to leave anything worth having for the German invaders and were burning and looting whatever was left, in their retreat east.

“Anka, what should we do if the Nazis reach Lwow? I think we will all be rounded up and executed.”

“We should flee, but we’ll be stopped at the gates. The NKVD is already on high alert.”

“But what do we do? If we wait till the Russians are defeated or if they leave us to the Nazis, we will have nowhere to run.”

“Miriam. Couldn’t you use your last diamond to buy some papers? Something that makes you a Christian, and maybe some travel permits? I’m not so concerned for myself. If the Russians leave, I will leave with them. I can go back to my birthplace and try to live off the land, if they open the gates, that is. But for you and Ada and Anna, there’s going to be precious little hope under Hitler’s rule. Maybe you should try to get something forged.”

“Yes.  I should try now, I know.”

 

Two days later, the NKVD started rounding people up, almost without discrimination, and force marching them out of Lwow, on the road east. Then there was almost continuous gunfire from the prison on Zamarstynowska, inside the yard where executions always took place. It went on all day, and it became clear that they were massacring prisoners, rather than letting them go, since all the NKVD officers were starting to leave. The OUN attacked the prison in the afternoon and managed to get in. They were trying to stop the killings of their relatives who had been locked up there for weeks. For a time, they seemed to wrest control from the officers, who were in disarray, but then the Russians moved back in and we heard explosions inside the building. The Germans were closing in on the city and vast numbers of refugees were already leaving on foot, with the retreating Russian army. We did not know what we could do to save ourselves, and even though I asked anyone I could trust, who was still in the city, nobody offered to help me with buying false papers.  The Dentist could have helped, and Isidor would have know who to turn to, but it was unlikely that anyone capable would still be in Lwow.  They’d have done their best work forging travel permits for themselves and would have left by now.

Chapter 22: Demise of the kitchen

That summer was baking hot. Anna was listless and pale, and hardly went out. The soup kitchen supplies became so limited we could only feed a small portion of those who came to the door, and by mid-day we were out of food, so Martyna closed earlier and earlier. Every day, there were scuffles in the queue, as starving street dwellers tried to ensure they would be one of the diminishing number of people to receive a bowl of soup. There was no bread at all any longer. When trouble broke out in the queue, the NKVD started beating, and then arresting the starving refugees in the line who were fighting to survive. The priest who oversaw our work, and was beholden to Boris to allow the continued kitchen service, told Martyna that she would have to close the doors if trouble continued. Boris and his colleagues had been to see him, apparently, looking for a larger share of the donations he was receiving, which themselves were dwindling. They threatened him with retribution against his church, and that they would have the soup kitchen closed immediately if he didn’t comply, but made it clear that it was the civil disobedience which would be cited as the reason. He had to agree to provide the NKVD with more food from his parishioners and he demanded that we bring our ‘customers’ into line if we wanted to keep our jobs. We tried to tell everyone to stop pushing, to wait their turn, and to leave peacefully once the day’s rations ran out, but of course they were desperate and each saw that meal as their priority, and not their good behaviour.

One day, we had no deliveries of food, and we had nothing in the kitchen left over. I knew that the NKVD men had intercepted the food cart on its way from the church and taken our supplies for themselves. It had happened before, and we could do nothing to complain. In the past, we’d managed to improvise with what we kept in the kitchen from the day before, but that was when we had generous tradespeople donating to the church. Now that had all dried up, and the priest had been selling off the church silver and buying food where he could to keep the kitchen going.

We had to go out and tell everyone in the queue that there would be nothing for them. Anka, Martyna and I went together, as the largest and strongest staff, and we dreaded doing so. There was a lot of groaning and muttering, but most people turned and began to shuffle off. A group of about ten teenagers down at the corner, who had been waiting for hours already, began to shout at the NKVD officers who were standing across the street, keeping watch. These were the same three officers who were posted outside every morning, swinging batons and berrating the starving refugees, or threatening them with beatings and arrest. The teenagers now shouting at them were part of a local gang who spent their evenings mugging people on their way home from work, and their nights breaking into local houses to steal what was saleable. They lived in bombed out buildings or under the old railway arches, and they we mostly boys, who would normally still be at school. The police were outnumbered, but were much stronger and armed with batons, while the gang of boys had only their home-made knives and the rocks they had found lying in the gutter. As they squared up to one another, and the three officers looked set to retreat, about twenty more NKVD arrived from the police station with rifles, and began to shoot above the crowd.

Then they charged at the youths with their long batons raised and began beating people indiscriminately. Women and children were knocked to the ground, their faces bleeding and clothes ripped. Older men from the queue entered the fray, and some tried to grab NKVD men and haul them off. Anyone who fought back was beaten and kicked until they were inert. The sergeant, one of Boris’ regular entourage, who knew us all well and was generally civil to the staff, was shouting to everyone to go home, and threatening to arrest anyone who didn’t do what they were told. The affray didn’t last long, since it was so one-sided, and after half an hour, the street was deserted, and anyone who had been injured in the fight had either been arrested or carried off by their friends. The Sergeant took the manager on one side and told her to close the place down, while his men came in behind the counter and confiscated all the pots and pans, taking them for the police station.

Anka and I stood helpless in the kitchen until everything was gone and the NKVD had left, then we hung up our aprons and walked home. Neither of us knew how we would continue to live without the free food we’d been depending on.

Chapter 21: Paul (3)

The next day, Anka talked to Boris, when he came into the kitchen for his breakfast, which meant that everyone in the queue was held back while he and two of his officers strolled to the front and took their bowls of stew, and slices of the very limited supply of bread we had. Boris sat at his usual table in the corner, while the other two sat a few feet away at the next able. They knew that he liked to have a chat with Anka and that he wanted privacy, but clearly also an audience, or maybe a security escort.

Boris beckoned Anke over to him to keep him company. I watched from the serving counter, as she chatted and teased him, and he seemed in a good mood. Then I saw her lean forward and, looking nervous, she became much more tentative in her conversation. Boris ate in silence, shovelling the food from his plate as he listened, and didn’t look up at her. She finished speaking and put a hand on his sleeve. He immediately withdrew his arm, pushed back his empty bowl and looked up into her face. He screwed his eyes and frowned, and he seemed to wince, as though in pain. I saw him look briefly at his two colleagues, who were seated at a respectful distance, and concentrating on their food, then he whispered something to her. She looked blankly at him and he stood up and walked out. The two NKVD men left unfinished plates of food and hurried after him.

It was more than an hour later, when the stew had run out and the early queue had died down, that I got to speak to her.

“So I saw you talking to Boris earlier, Anka. Did you get a chance to ask him about Paul?”

“What do you think? Of course I did.”

“And did he offer to help?” I knew the answer before I asked the question. Anka had been silent and downbeat since he had left so abruptly, and it had obviously not ended well.

“Miriam, I’m sorry. I tried, but he can’t help. We have to hope that Marek will have better luck.”

“But what did Boris say?”

“You don’t want to know. It doesn’t matter.”

“But Anka, you seem upset, and I didn’t want to cause trouble for you with Boris. I know how much you like him. What did he say?” Anka was so open and frank, and we’d shared so much over the last year, I knew she wanted to unburden herself to me.  It was more that she didn’t want me to carry responsibility for her suffering that kept her from telling me the full story.

“If you must know, he told me that if I wanted to join some ‘Fucking Yid trouble-maker’ in the cells, he’d be happy to take me in. He accused me of . . . having relations with Paul . . . and that he wants nothing more to do with me.”

“Oh no! I’m so sorry this has happened. Are you OK? Do you think he will cause more trouble for you?”

“Miriam. I knew the risks, and I chose to ask. Excuse me for saying it, but Boris can go fuck himself. It was worth the risk, for your brother’s sake, and perhaps now me and Boris are no longer ‘an item’, people will leave me alone.”

For two days we heard nothing. Then Marek came to Anka’s rooms late on the third night, and Ada and I rushed down from my room to meet him. Ada had been curled up on the bed for most of the last two days, and there had been a very strained atmosphere. I completely sympathised with her worry, and God knows I was worried too, but one has to keep going and she could have kept herself busy by helping out with Wiktor, since Anna is not well, but she did nothing.

Marek was different in his greeting, less off-hand than last time we’d met. I introduced Ada to him and he shook her hand and asked her to sit on the bed, while he stood facing her with his hands at his sides. She stared up at him in terror.

“OK, I’ve got to say that Kowalczyk did what he could. He took a huge risk. When they had your husband in the interrogation room, and they were taking a break in his interview, Alek let himself in. He has keys because he’s the warder, and he works down in the cell block. Alek didn’t tell me what they’d been doing to Paul, but your brother was still conscious, because Alex said he managed to get his attention. He couldn’t really talk to Paul, but he left the door open and said he was going outside the street door, which was just up the corridor, for a smoke.  He couldn’t exactly lead him out, but he made it pretty bloody obvious, he told me.

Then he went out of the interview room, up the corridor and stood outside the side door – you know that low metal one set into the wall on Sheremety – and waited for Paul to come out. He figured he could run him round the corner and let him off in the alley.

He did everything he could to get it into Paul’s head that if he wanted to walk out of the jail, he could. He said he waited almost an hour, while the NKVD men were upstairs having their lunch or whatever, and in all that time, Paul just sat there and didn’t dare leave. In the end, Alek heard them coming back down to the cells, so he had to go back in quick and lock Paul back in. It was all he could do.”

“Oh God, no.”

Ada burst into tears with her head in her hands. I sat down on the bed and held her to me. I was dumbfounded by Paul’s failure to escape. How could he not realise, and if he did, why didn’t he take his chances?

“Do you know why your brother would’ve ignored the chance to get out, Miriam?” Anka asked.

“No, how can I understand? Perhaps he was confused, if they’d been interrogating him. Perhaps he was petrified that this was a trap. Why would he trust your friend? I know he wouldn’t be easy to convince that risks are to be taken. He probably thought as he had nothing to hide that somehow he’d be allowed out through the front door, or else he just assumed it was a trap. Marek, did your friend say whether he’s still OK? They didn’t … hurt him did they?”

I couldn’t bring myself to think about what that might involve, but as he hadn’t been released, there was every chance they had worked on him in some way.

“Yeah, well, sorry to say he was put on the train yesterday to Siberia, along with about fifty others.”

At that, Ada burst into a loud wailing, and shook from head to toe.

“Look, love,” Marek sat on the other side and held Ada to him, “that doesn’t mean the end, you know. I know it ain’t going to be a walk in the park, but he’s able bodied, isn’t he? They’ll put him to work, but they only shoot the people who can’t work…”

“OK, Marek, that’s enough. Let’s not speculate. Ada and Miriam have enough to deal with without imagining Siberia.”

Anka gave Ada a cup of water and laid her hand on my arm. I knew in my heart that Paul wouldn’t come back.

Chapter 21: Paul (2)

Anka agreed to go back to the house with the food I had for Anna, and to look after the children. From Marek’s place I walked to Ada and Paul’s new lodgings, which took an hour, and told her what I’d managed to do. She was downhearted but grateful. I think she was already panicking that he had been executed, or deported, and I tried to placate her with the possibility that he was simply being held for questioning, though I knew, as she did, that the NKVD were prone to torture first and question later.

“Would you like to come back with me to sleep at our place? It isn’t good for you to be on your own just now.”

“But Paul might be released tonight and what would he do if I weren’t here. He would worry. No, Miriam, I think I’d rather stay here. But thank you.”

By the time I got home, it was already late and I was exhausted, but worry over Paul’s circumstances kept me awake. I spent most of the night thinking about him and how I should have spent more time with him since we’d lived so close in Lwow, and how time had passed before the war and we’d rarely met for dinner in Krakow, despite my getting on so well with him and Ada.

Paul had always been such a quiet person, even as a boy, serious and diligent. He’d studied hard and graduated from Krakow University with a first class degree in civil engineering. He had been working for the city council in the roads department after he graduated, designing a new main route through the city, and had met and fallen for Ada then. She was from Lwow, and they’d spent a lot of time here in the early thirties. Paul even said he would consider moving here, if she wanted, because he thought the grand design of the city, and its complex layout, would be a great challenge for his work.

Once I’d married, when Paul was eighteen and just finishing school, we saw much less of one another. He was preparing for university, and I was totally wrapped up in Otto’s business life and travelling with him to see possible places to live in Danzig and Berlin, though I didn’t want to leave Krakow. Paul and I had been so close as teenagers, with only eighteen months between us, and we’d often holidayed together, skiing and hill walking, before my ski accident. He had such energy for outdoor activities, and he was good company. I loved his dry sense of humour when it came to our evenings by some log fire in a mountain lodge or at some homestay in the country. We were quite different in our outlook, and it was impossible to raise any interest in him for politics, or business. He was a scientist really, and had a passion for numbers and design.  I think he would have been a great asset to Otto, running sawmills, or designing machinery, if he’d been so inclined, but Paul didn’t like Otto. I knew this from very early on, even when Otto came to court me, and Paul, who was only sixteen, would be rude and disparaging about him. Later, two or three years after we were married, and Tomasz was still a baby, Paul had stayed over with us, and because Otto was out for the evening having dinner with some business associates, Paul tried to talk to me about my marriage.

“Miriam, I know it’s not my business, but I want to ask you how it’s all going with Otto.”

“That’s a strange question, Paul, and not one for a younger brother to ask his older sister. What do you mean ‘how its’ going’?”

“I know I should keep my mouth shut. It’s just that I worry about your happiness, Mimi, and I thought that you seemed a bit down today, and, well… “

“What?”

“Well, a bit short with Otto. He doesn’t seem to be very, well, gracious with you, either.”

“That’s just his way. He’s so busy dealing with the men on the docks and in the sawmills that he often forgets himself when he’s talking to me, and he says things he doesn’t mean. Or he says what he means, but he doesn’t think to phrase it well. I’m perfectly used to his way.”

“Really? You sound like you’re excusing him. Are you OK together?”

“Mmm. I appreciate your concern, my dear, but a man and his wife have to deal with their own lives in a marriage, as you will find out one day. You can’t interfere, you know. I’m not saying everything is perfect, and that I don’t worry some of the time about how the future will be, but we have everything I could want. We have a beautiful home, a motor car, and a housekeeper. Otto is ambitious, business-like, hard-working and well respected. We entertain, and I have time, and a generous allowance, to shop. Tomasz wants for nothing. He is a beautiful boy and he is so bright. Otto was the right choice for a husband, in many ways.”

“That doesn’t sound like someone who has fallen for their partner. I would only want to marry for love, and I will only do so when I have found my soul-mate.”

“That’s so easy for you to say, Paul. Men have that choice, especially when they are no longer under their parents’ control, like you. So do you have a girlfriend?”

Paul blushed and became quiet. It was probably unfair of me to ask, since he was barely out of short pants, but I could see he was already an eligible young man, and someone with a passion about him. The sort of man I would like to have married, had I been given the choice.

I had almost no sleep before Anka knocked to call me for work. We heard nothing from Marek all morning, and it was mid-afternoon before he appeared. He had a word with Martyna, whom he clearly knew, and she didn’t try to intervene when he beckoned me and Anka over to a table in the corner. There was something about his demeanour that conveyed authority, as though he were still in the police force. Nobody dared cross anyone in authority, or even people who might have connections.

“Well, I’ve got some news. I was in to Zamarstynowska first thing, once I saw my old workmate, Aleksander Kowalczyk arrive. He was my sergeant, but he’s nothing more than a warder now. Anyway, I caught him on the street before he went in and I gave him the name of your brother. He said he’d check for me and be back out to me. It wasn’t more than a half-hour before he came to tell me that a Paul Golinski was in the cells with his three workmates and that so far they have not been questioned or mistreated. I asked him if there was anything he could do to help your brother, and he said to leave it with him, but he didn’t sound that hopeful.”

“Thank you so much for trying. It has to be good news that he’s OK, and that he’s not been taken away, doesn’t it?”

“It’s no bed of roses in there, I’m afraid. Alek told me that there’s a lot of people dying of starvation and overcrowding in there, and others that the NKVD does for. I’m not going to scare you with the details, but in the end, if he’s on their list for the full treatment, you’d have to wish they’d taken him out to the yard straight off and…”

“For God’s sake Marek, can’t you see Miriam is upset enough without your tales. You did well, though. When do you think this Alek will let you know anything?”

“He lives down my road, so I’m sure he’ll be on to me as soon as he as any news. I’ll tell you when I have something to tell you.” He got up, nodding to the manager to thank her for her patience.

“Anka. You could try your friend Mikhailov, you know. I appreciate that he’s in charge, and it won’t be easy, but you should see how the land lies with him. He only has to say the word, and they’ll release Miriam’s brother without harming a hair on his head.”

I looked hard at Anka. It had to be her decision. We knew each other well enough for me to know that asking her outright to put herself and her relationship on the line for my brother was unnecessary. She would have thought through that already.

“I know, Marek. I’ve been hoping Boris would have been in already this morning.”

So, she had decided to ask him. I touched her hand, and looked into her kind open face for a moment, but said nothing. She looked worried, and I knew that she didn’t expect Boris to help, and that the very fact of her asking him would jeopardise their relationship, since he could not appear to be doing favours for girlfriends in his position. Boris had always struck me as a hard and manipulative man who was only out for himself.  He had that Russian harshness about him, and however strong Anka was, he was far stronger, and would, in my view, think nothing of crushing her along with all the others, if he chose to.

All day we worked hard, and there was no sign of Boris. It wasn’t every day that he came into the kitchen, and perhaps he was off arresting Jews or supervising the torture of some university professor.

I was going to take the long walk to Ada’s place after work, to check in on her, but she came to the kitchen as we were locking up and walked home with me. She said she didn’t want to spend another hour alone in their home without Paul, and asked if she could sleep on the floor in our room.