Gabriela woke me with a mug of hot tea, which had sugar in it. Something I hadn’t tasted for over a year. Then she put two bowls of bigos on the table and I woke Anna to have something to eat. The food was rich and spicy, and I quickly began to feel nauseous because I was so unused to meat. Anna couldn’t eat her food, as she was so tired, and she too felt sick
“And where is Emilia, Gabriela? Is she already in bed? Anna would love to see her I’m sure.”
“No, I’m afraid she isn’t here. It hasn’t really been safe here in Krakow for a long time, and I didn’t want her to be on her own when they closed the schools. She’s living with my sister Helena, in Czestochowa, and I visit when I can get a travel permit. Stashek has been in England for some months now, where he has joined up with the Polish Free Army. We rarely hear from one another, because there is only sporadic post, and it is impossible to phone abroad. He would like me to join him there, but I have found it impossible to travel, and so we live apart. But tell me, Miriam, have you heard from Otto?”
“Gabriela, I have so much to talk about with you. Let me first take Anna up to bed, if I may, and then we can talk more.” I didn’t want to discuss Otto in front of Anna, and besides, she was badly in need of sleep now.
“Sorry, Miriam, what a poor hostess I make. Please let me offer Anna Emilia’s room. The bed is made up and there’s hot water if she would like a bath.”
“Hot Water! Do you hear that, Anna?”
But Anna was so tired I decided that we would leave bathing till the morning. I took her upstairs and put her to bed in Emilia’s bed, and for the first time in so long, she was able to curl up under the covers with a soft toy. Despite her fourteen years, she looked like a small sick child, lying there with her white face against the pillow. She smiled at me when I bent to kiss her goodnight. “I’m so glad we’re back home again, mamushu. If only we could have our own house back, and then everything would be alright.”
“Sleep now, Anna darling, and in the morning, we’ll see what we can do about finding somehere of our own to live. We must put our best foot forward, and we need to find you a school. I need to ask aunti Gabriela who is here and whether there is anywhere I can get work. Now go to sleep. I’ll be up myself soon.”
For the next hour, I told Gabriela about our flight from Krakow, through Naleczow to Lwow, and about the family, all of whom she knew well. For her part, Gabriela told me about life in Krakow under German occupation, and how part of Podgorze had become a ghetto for thousands of Jews behind a newly built wall, and how the SS guarded it like a prison, regularly tearing people from their homes and taking them away for work parties in the city. There were apparently groups of Jews who were trying to resist, and regular skirmishes by the ZOB, a youth movement, which found ways in and out of the ghetto. Living on the gentile side of the wall was relatively bearable, and Gabriela was able to draw money from their bank account, though it was now in Reichsmarks and the exchange rate with the Zloty was ridiculous she said. I wondered if Otto’s domestic account was still accessible. Each month he had deposited my allowance, and perhaps I could now obtain funds. But that would mean using my married name, for which I no longer had papers, and besides, Gabriela told me that the accounts owned by Jewish families had been cleaned out long ago.
“So, now we are alone, tell me when did you last hear from Otto?”
“I have heard nothing in almost two years. When war was declared, he demanded I return to Poland from Paris, when I intended taking Anna to London with Max and Tom. Meanwhile he wasn’t intending on returning from Hungary, and had some hair-brained scheme to enlist in his old regiment, which I assume he did. If I had only ignored his demands, I would have been safe and with all my children, and not trapped in hell. If I hadn’t made it from Naleczow to Lwow with Ania and Paul and their families, and Maryla too with her children, we would all have been arrested as Jews. And once we were in Lwow, under Russian control, life was miserable.”
“Stashek was in touch with Otto in Hungary last year, before he left Poland. Otto was trying to contact you and he couldn’t find out where you were. We didn’t know, and Otto was hoping that Olek might know someone in the diplomatic service who could find you.”
“Yes, he does, or rather he did. Conrad Brzozowski was his name, and he was very helpful to Maryla when we first arrived in Lwow, giving her money, which Olek had asked him to do, and eventually arranging some papers for her, Stephen and Anita, to join Olek in Danzig. I gave them letters for Otto, and that was the last I heard from them. Unfortunately, Brzozowski was taken away by the NKVD soon after that, because of his political connections, and I doubt he is still alive. If Maryla joined Olek, she would have given him details of where we were living, and if Olek and Otto were in touch, which I assume they would have been, then Otto should have received my letters and must have known where we were.”
“Perhaps, but I am sure it would not have been possible to contact you without some contacts who could travel freely between Danzig and Lwow. “
“Gabriela, I have for some time given up on Otto, and it is no use speculating about what he could or couldn’t have done. I just need to manage on my own now, and with the help of some remarkable people whom I met in Lwow, it has been possible to survive all this time.”
“And how did you manage to travel from Lwow. I hear that Hitler’s declaration of war on Stalin has meant that the Russians are retreating and the Nazis are advancing on Lwow.”
“And they have now taken Lwow. In fact, as I boarded the train yesterday, they were in the Jewish quarter, rounding people up and pushing them into lorries.”
I then told Gabriela the whole story about Alexandre coming to our rescue, though I didn’t paint too much of a picture of my past association with him, since I must assume that anything I say to her will be passed to Stashek, and then on to Otto. Though frankly, at this point, I do ask my self whether I care that he might know. It was, after all, Stashek who originally introduced me to Alexandre, as they had both been soldiers together in the Great War, and he and Gabriela knew him well enough. Alexandre had once told me that Stashek had asked him about me, and whether he was behaving ‘honourably’ towards me, but otherwise there was no reason to suppose that he or Gabriela knew about us at all. We had only met a few times when I was in Vienna, and never with them after that first introduction.
“So Alexandre Roskov, who is now an SS Captain, is in Lwow with the vanguard of the invading forces, and his unit is responsible for supervising the arrest of Jews, and yet he helped you to escape his own men. That is a miracle. Why would he risk so much for a Jewess? I always knew him to be a fair-minded man, and could not begin to understand how someone like that could cope with Fascism. And he made the arrangements for you to receive forged papers in the name of a Catholic, in one night, so that you could escape from the enemy in the last moments before they would have hauled you off to a labour camp. It truly is a miracle. An with your new name – Wojcik, you say – you are effectively as free to travel as I am. Amazing!”
“Yes, that’s true. But with that name, I am now unable to access my past. I’m no longer Miriam Weiner, and any of my Jewish friends who are still here will almost certainly be living in that Ghetto you told me about, poor wretches. My money is not available to me, and I have nowhere to live, and no work. Gabriela, I’m at your mercy I’m afraid.”
“OK, let’s sleep on that and in the morning, when you’ve had time to enjoy some home comforts, and I’ve found some clothes for you and Anna, we can talk about the future. For now, I am deeply grateful to whatever angel has looked over you.”
“Thank you. I’m afraid I lost what faith I had when I saw what atrocities have been perpetrated against innocent people. There is no God that could let happen what I have seen.”