Chapter 26: Krakow (2)

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.”

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.

Chapter 24: Leaving Lwow (4)

The next morning, we carried our few possessions and left the house without anything to eat. Alexandre had given me some Zlotys and Reichsmarks, as well as 25 Roubles, which he had kindly acquired for me when he bought the train tickets. He said I could use either the Zlotys or Reichsmarks in Krakow but that people in Krakow would not take the Roubles. If all went well at the station, my Roubles would not be much use to us by the end of the day, and if the Russian retreat continued as it had, the whole of Poland would become German occupied territory and Reichsmarks would become the legal tender. For 25 Roubles, I could buy more food than we had seen in a long time, including bread and fruit, if there was any to be had. It was the first time in months I’d had any Zlotys and I had no idea what they would now buy in Krakow.

The room which had been our home for eighteen months was as bare as the day we arrived, and I had no hesitation in walking out without looking back. I felt very emotional about leaving behind the fear of being Jewish in Lwow, and the fear of starvation, but I was determined to make sure Alexandre’s great kindness was not in vain.

“Anna. Before we go, I need to tell you that this is going to be difficult and scary. The Nazis are going to be asking us questions and checking our papers, and we must never, ever, say that we are Jewish again. Do you understand me? You are Anna Wojcik, and we are Catholics. You must not be scared, as I will protect you. Don’t answer questions from soldiers. I will answer. Don’t stop to watch anything you see which involves the SS officers. Keep your head down and keep close by my side. We will be home again in Krakow by tonight, if we are lucky.”

Already a Ukrainian family who had been sharing Mrs Wojcik’s rooms with several other refugees was carrying their meagre belongings up the stairs to our room, as we came down. The front door no longer had a lock, and was banging in the wind, though the day was hot. It was a Sunday, and I thought momentarily of going to the Catholic church to pray, or at least to be seen greeting the priest. As soon as we got to the corner, I realized how stupid I was being. The streets were awash with people, all bent on walking out of Lwow, as the German soldiers marched in. The noise and smell were overpowering, and we had to dodge our way between handcarts and men with large sacks over their shoulders. Women carried small children, and many people were bare-foot. They would not get far, though I doubted that the Germans would be trying to stop them from leaving, unless these were Jews, destined for arrest.

We had only been walking for a few minutes towards the station when we passed a group of Jewish people kneeling in the street with their hands above their heads, surrounded by German soldiers in grey uniforms, pointing guns at them. Each had the Star of David stitched onto their slieve or breast, and they were all terrified. We hurried past with our heads down, as an empty truck screeched to a halt beside them and the soldiers roughly handed them into the back, ignoring their infirmity, or the helplessness of the children.

I thought of Alexandre’s warning that they had lists of all the Jews to round up. My name and address was obviously on one of their lists, since I had worked at the soup kitchen, and no doubt, shortly, soldiers would arrive in Arkhypenka Street to begin clearing the quarter, house by house. It was no more than half a mile away, and they were clearly working quickly and methodically. They would probably be looking for Miriam Weiner within hours, if not already, but I was no longer her. I was Miriam Wojcik, and that small change could save my life.

We heard shots in one or two of the houses we passed, and we saw some people, who ran from their houses, being shot in the street. Their bodies were left in the gutter as soldiers ran past them into the houses. Screams and cries came from windows, and I even glimpsed someone climb out of a third floor window and jump to their death below. This carnage was more shocking than anything I’d seen from the NKVD.

We walked for half an hour, and stopped twice to buy food from street vendors, neither of whom spent long haggling, since they seemed more intent on packing up their stalls. We approached the station with trepidation, and already the German soldiers surrounded the entrance, and had taken over the ticket office. We queued for a few minutes and as we came to the head of the line, I realised that this was the first test of the forged papers. The young Nazi who took my papers and the train tickets for the mid-day Krakow train looked at the photo and into my face, and then handed me the papers and ushered us through the barrier. If he could have known how fast my heart beat, we would have been questioned, but everything passed muster and we were onto the platform.

Chapter 19: Winter 1940

Life became increasingly stressful as the summer faded and the cold winds arrived again from the east. We had no fuel and only worn clothing, and Anna was a thin as a rake. Her cough had not disappeared, and now she had diarrhoea all the time. There was no schooling or even any friends to play with, and the soup kitchen didn’t allow me to bring her in to work, because they considered children to be a distraction for the kitchen staff. Every day, she looked after little Wiktor, but both of them slept a lot because they had so little nutrition, they lacked energy. Getting to work and home was now an obstacle course of street stalls and families living in the gutter, their children emaciated and barefoot, their begging hands out as we pushed past them. Many recognised me or Anka from the soup kitchen and we were always treated kindly by those who knew us, but nevertheless seen as inexhaustible suppliers of food, even when we were not at work. Both of us had to secrete food under our clothing now, rather than carrying pots of stew or soup in our hands, and it was always difficult to resist giving what we had to the waifs dying of cold and hunger around us.

We worked harder and harder to try and feed everyone in the queue each day, and the quality and quantity of food in the stews we made dropped all the time. If we had one goat a week to butcher, we would make it last all week, mixed with root vegetables, grown in the nearby park by volunteers who were allowed to jump the queue for their daily bowl of food in exchange for bringing us their produce. Gangs of hard working ‘farmers’ worked and guarded their plots, and escorted one another along the street with their vegetables, so as not to be robbed. We knew so many of the faces of those who queued, but scarcely a day went by without someone letting us know of the death of one of their friends or relatives. We’d even had one or two people collaps, never to get up, while waiting to be fed. Despite these miseries, we didn’t lose heart with the work, and if anyone in the kitchen slackened off at all, there were a thousand others waiting for their job.

The hardest emotion to deal with was the nagging fear that we would be rounded up and sent off to Siberia, or that the Russians might trade us Jews to the Germans in exchange for food or weapons. We completely lacked any concrete information on the way the war was going, and in the vacuum, our imaginations ran wild. We hadn’t been bombed for several months, but the number of arrests we heard about was increasing dramatically, and the number of Jewish refugees pouring into Lwow continued to increase, bringing with them stories of atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in the west against Jews and Gypsies, Catholic priests, and Polish soldiers. We heard that Hungary was working with Mussolini and that Hitler was increasing his hold on Poland. We heard that Russia had left Slovakia to German rule, and were looking to take over Bulgaria and Turkey. Nobody had any hope of a quick end to the fighting by then, and Hitler seemed to be bent on taking over the world, with Stalin’s blessing. I’d wanted so much to hear from Isidor and Ania, but as the winter came, and the news of Hungary was so bad, I lost hope of hearing of them. Even to know that they were safely away from Europe would have been a great boost to my morale, let alone any direct help from them. I wondered whether Maryle and Olek were now safe in North Africa or elsewhere, and whether Olek had managed to communicate with Otto. In all those months, I never faced the possibility that one or more of them had died in their escape.

Paul told me that Russia was trading oil for German weapons, and while they seemed to have very different objectives, they were happy to divide Poland between them and maintain a border. Ukrainian and Belarusian émigrés were apparently pleased to be Russian, which we found hard to understand, since Stalin’s massive army was like a plague of locusts, removing everything of any use from our country. What was left in Lwow now had a uniform grayness. The city was like a giant cracked shell, teeming with scavengers, like a termite’s nest. I often felt homesick for Krakow, but we heard that it had changed completely now that it had become the capital of the German occupied zone. The Jewish quarter was no longer full of Jews, and I had to assume that the Germans had taken our property, along with all the others. All we got were shocking stories, which had passed through dozens, maybe hundreds of people on their way to Lwow. Occasionally we would hear stories, which had come through the wealthy elite of Lwow, who were trying to buy favour from Russian officers by entertaining and bribing them. We heard about the rounding up of Jews throughout the German occupied Polish towns and cities. We heard that they were being deported, and that they were being shot and buried in mass graves, and we even heard that they were being sent to labour camps from which they did not come back.

Anka said “ignore all the rumours. They can’t possibly be true. Why would they bother to get rid of all those hard-working Jewish people who can slave for them?” But Anka was born a Catholic, and she didn’t carry the history of subjugation inside her.

Chapter 9: Leaving Krakow (2)

I finished our packing late that evening and fell exhausted into bed. I dreamed about a fire in the apartment, and I woke up smelling smoke. I was convinced that the lounge was on fire and that Anna would be overcome by smoke in her bedroom. I leapt up and ran through the rooms in my nightgown, convinced I would come upon an inferno, but everything was silent, and after a few moments, I heard the dawn chorus from the trees outside. I crept back to my room and lay in bed, wide awake, and thought about why I might have dreamt  such things. Certainly I was anxious about the day ahead, and about leaving this relative security behind. I was scared for Anna and myself, and I felt more depressed than I can remember about the twists and turns of my life. How could we be in this position when only weeks ago, we were enjoying dinner parties in Vichy and had plans for our futures. The silence of the early morning brought home to me the need to calm down and to take care of each moment as it comes. We might be about to uproot everything, to take ourselves out of our comforts, but we are strong, independent, intelligent beings with the ability to control our destiny, and also to rise above the awfulness of our circumstances. As I lay there, knowing that in an hour or two we would be leaving, I promised myself that I would look on whatever was given to me, and I would hold fast to my values and purpose. After all, there would not need to be accoutrements or plush comforts, financial security or predictable routines in order for Anna and me to come through this storm. I began to calm down and my heartbeat, which had been racing, slowed. I felt resolute and almost happy in the moment that this challenge brought. I rose again and padded barefoot on the thick carpets around the apartment, saying goodbye in my mind to all those beautiful polished surfaces, to the cut glass decanters, to the framed paintings and velvet curtains. It didn’t feel like a wrench, or even a sad parting.

I dressed in comfortable clothing, nothing dressy. I’d have been tempted to wear trousers if I’d had some, but chose a tweed skirt and blouse, and a pair of sensible walking shoes. I boiled the kettle for coffee, made toast for Anna, and boiled a few eggs for the journey, before waking her and dressing her in her everyday play clothes and a pair of ankle boots which would withstand plenty of wear. It was still only six thirty and she was groggy with sleep.

Over breakfast I said:

“We’re going to be driving all day today, darling, so you can catch up on your sleep in the car. It’s the beginning of a big adventure, and I can’t tell you where it will lead, but I want you to know it’s going to be all right. We’re travelling with Aunt Ania and Uncle Paul, and all your cousins, and we’ll be meeting Anita when we find out where she and Aunt Maryla are staying. I’m sure you’d prefer to be sleeping in your own bed, and playing with your toys here, since we’ve only just returned after the summer holiday, but we may be away for a while. You must be brave always and you must help the adults when asked. I will be with you all the time, and you needn’t worry, even when you see things which might scare you.”

“ What sort of things? What will we be doing in Naleczow, Mamushu? Will I be going to school there? Will we stay in the hotel?”

“I can’t tell you the answer to all your questions now, dear. All I can tell you is that it will be an adventure and you have to put your best foot forward. We’ll see what we will see. Now, can you check you have everything you need for the journey in your satchel, and it will be your job to help Janek pack the car with your things. And can you pack our lunches into a shopping bag, and include some fruit. You know it’s good for you.”

Celestyna had arranged for Janek to call early to help load the car, and he came at seven, silently doing what was asked of him, carrying my trunk and Anna’s suitcase, plus a few other items in boxes, which I thought we might need. I’d packed our battery powered flashlight, some hand-tools I found in the cleaning cupboard, my writing box and stationery, some cutlery and crockery, a corkscrew, kitchen knives, and even a small hatchet, in case we had need of it. It all reminded me of my teenage camping trips in the mountains with Paul, and I wondered if he too would be packing his rucksack full of climbing gear.

We left at 7.30, and it struck me that this was the first time in years I’d actually driven myself in the Duesenburg. It’s a huge, lumbering beast of a car and I’d have far rather had a smaller car for myself, but Otto has a mean streak and sees no use in us owning a second vehicle when we have people who can drive me about. He loves the Duesenburg, because, I think, it makes him feel important, but for me it is a throwback to a time when one had a chauffeur and arrived in state to balls and suchlike. Today, it was fairly full, and I was grateful for the space, but concerned that we would have difficulty buying petrol on our journey, since the newspapers had been reporting fuel shortages for months. The fuel tank holds vast amounts of petrol, but seems to drink it extremely quickly. But here is the first example of something I could deal with when it became a problem and something I should learn not to worry about.

We’d arranged to meet the others on the main road, across the river, which was equidistant between our three homes. We were there at eight, and waited no more than a few minutes for the others to arrive. With only a few words of greeting and a quick discussion about our planned route, we began our journey to Wilkolaz Pierwszy, where we found ourselves in a stream of traffic heading east. By the time we reached Rzeszow, we were at crawling pace, and we dared not stop for a rest in case we couldn’t reach Naleczow in daylight. Most of the people already on the road were driving cars and lorries, but there were many people piling their belongings onto carts at the roadside, and by tomorrow, it would be impossible to make any headway. Luckily, we had our lunch packed and flasks of lemonade for Anna and coffee for me, so we didn’t need for anything other than a toilet on the journey, and we arrived into Naleczow early in the evening without mishap.

Chapter 9: Krakow (2)

Alexandre Roskov was an Austrian restaurateur, whom I was introduced to by Stashek in Vienna when I was still in my twenties, when Max was a baby. It was at a time when Otto must already have been seeing Maryla, and everything between him and me was falling apart. We had stopped sleeping together, and we were hardly talking except when we were both in company.

Alexandre was everything that Otto wasn’t. He was tall and handsome, almost beautiful, and the most gracious and respectful man I think I have ever met. I knew the moment we first met that he wanted me as a lover, and had I given him the right signals, he would not have hesitated because I was married with young children. His dedication to me was obvious, and from the beginning, we became great friends, though I was certain he always wanted more. Our brief affair came later, and I was the one to end it, because I could not have it on my conscience and remain married, even though I felt sure Otto was continuing to play around.

There have, of course, been many others who have admired me. Otto’s business associates, the fathers of Tom and Max’s school friends and even the husbands of some of my neighbours and friends. But I am no longer young, and now I see no reason demanding a divorce. It wouldn’t help the children, and with war on the way, it would be impossible to arrange anyway. Standing among my possessions, in my home, I felt trapped, and my responsibilities to the family were a huge burden.

The following morning, Janek collected our trunks and we decided to unpack because home is home and there was no immediate need to leave. I spend the next three days calling to all our friends’ houses to see who was still in Krakow, who was intending to leave, who had stories to tell of friends and relatives of theirs in Germany and Austria who had already been deported, or who had escaped to America or Switzerland. It became a litany of other peoples’ woes. Everyone wanted to know what I planned to do and I suppose I wanted to draw on their networks of information in order to make sensible decisions. It came down to the fact that those with business interests in Krakow, especially those involved in export, were keen to stay to try and run their companies, but were concerned in case their workers stopped coming in to work, in case the banks stopped functioning so they couldn’t pay the wages, in case their export markets dried up. Dieter Koch, who had returned from Vichy directly after I left, to protect his timber interests, had already lost a number of contracts because he was unable to travel to Germany to negotiate with customers, and those he was able to talk to on the phone or by telegraph, were suffering so badly that they had pretty well stopped ordering stocks. On the other hand, he knew of two or three Catholic owners who were winning big contracts from the German army for supplying equipment boxes and so on. Local shopkeepers were, like Mr Wiśniewski, packing up their belongings and leaving, some selling off the contents of their shops, others putting them into storage, in the hope of returning soon. Altogether, Krakow was becoming a bit of a desert during the day, and the only businesses that were thriving locally were the bars in the plaza which served soldiers. Even then, many troops were confined to barracks and others were being shipped out in convoys of army lorries, some to the east and others to the west. I could not see the autumn in Krakow being much better.

Anna’s school was due to open on September 1st, but I received a note from the head teacher to say that so many parents of pupils had been in touch to tell him they were withdrawing their children for this term, because they were leaving the city, that he had been forced to suspend classes. Anna was not disappointed, as she doesn’t love school, but I realized it would be one more change of arrangements to contend with. Normally, I would spend the mornings visiting friends and shopping, and in the afternoon, I might be at home to visitors, but Anna wasn’t part of my social life. Of course now, most of those I would have visited had gone, and I had only two or three visitors in those afternoons, which I spent going through our belongings and trying to get in touch with Otto to have him arrange with the bank to release funds to me.

The political news from abroad was sketchy and rarely factual. I had sight of a newspaper each day which was two days old and produced in Warsaw, and this was probably the best source. German troops were reported to be amassing on the Polish border. A bomb was set off in Tarnow, which was apparently the work of a German agent, and it killed 20 people in the railway station. Britain was encouraging Germany and Poland to meet to agree Poland’s security, and were warning that if we failed to negotiate our independence, we would undoubtedly end up at war. Hitler, it seemed, was prepared to negotiate with our Government, but it wasn’t clear from the report whether he would agree to leave Poland alone. It seems that Danzig was at issue and Germany was demanding that it be returned to German rule. I thought of Olek, who was probably back there, and I thought of his request for me to help Maryla, who was meant to be in Naleczow, at the spa. Perhaps it would be best to plan to travel there in the next week, along with my brother, Paul and his wife, and Ania and her husband and children.

By the 31st, I read that Slovakia had given in and accepted German rule two days earlier, and I wondered how the talks between Germany and Poland might be going. The local troops had almost all left the city, and now the plaza was very quiet in the evening. The Jewish restaurants were shut.

We’d been home less than a week, when Celestyna came to the door in tears. Once she had been brought in and given a handkerchief, and had calmed down a little, she told me that Janek had come to her an hour ago to tell her that Germany had invaded Poland. He had heard from several petrified families arriving by car from the border city of Gleiwitz, where apparently the Polish army was not prepared for the attack that Hitler had ordered at daybreak. The General in charge had been waiting for some peace negotiations, which didn’t take place, before he ordered the men to prepare, and of course they were taken by surprise. They talked of German war planes bombing the ground troops and civilians, and how huge numbers of refugees had begun to pour out of the border towns travelling East towards Krakow. News preceded the onslaught like the blast before an explosion, and while there were no more newspapers with bulletins, or any obvious form of mass communication, it was amazing how the stories told by retreating Poles and returning travellers from the west became common knowledge.

The families who arrived by car were in the vanguard, as many were on foot, pulling their possessions by horse and cart. There were stories being spread that many towns near the border had been set alight, and that before that, in each town, people were lined up in the town square or outside the town hall and shot. Apparently it wasn’t just the Mayor or the able-bodied men, but women and children too. In Bedzin, hundreds had apparently been burned alive in their homes and in Piotrkow, all the Jewish quarter was set on fire.

Chapter 9: Krakow

After a largely uneventful day on the train from Berlin to Krakow, with papers being checked at every station and little, if any, conversation, Anna and I arrived into Glowny station late on the evening of August 26th. The train was almost empty by the time we reached the Polish border, and returning home felt slightly anti-climactic in the event. I thought people would have been cheering and clapping that we’d got through safely to our destination. Instead of which we were all just tired from our journey. I’d even been short with Anna after the twentieth rendition of Clair de Lune and she had sulked for the last two hours, refusing to read, even. Once we’d crossed the border, it was heartening to see station names in Polish, and to look out across the cornfields, resplendent in the evening sun. The train chugged slowly into Glowny Terminus and I had a brief word with the guard about putting our trunks into left luggage. He was polish, and I assume he took over from our German guard in Berlin, as I didn’t recognise him. Needless to say, it took a five Zloty note to bring an ingratiating smile to his lips, and as I handed the note over, I thought of Olek’s envelope and what a thoughtful man he is.

People queued quietly at the gate to show their papers to the soldiers who manned it. They were waving to relatives on the other side of the barrier and smiling to one another, clearly relieved. There was no tension, as there had been at every station on the way, though clearly, everyone getting off was Polish, and I recognized one or two faces from the Jewish quarter. We would normally have had Janek, the odd-job man, collect us, but I hadn’t remembered to ask Celestyna to ask him when I telegraphed her about our return time. We’d be fine crossing town on foot.

I would arrange with Janek to collect the trunks in our car in the morning. I wanted to make sure the apartment was fine and that Celestyna was there to help us unpack before he brought them and cluttered up the dressing room. If Olek’s worst fears were realized, we might be moving on quickly and there would be little point in unpacking. It might be sensible to pack some wonter clothing and take out our smarter summer wear from Vichy. After all, it seemed unlikely that Anna’s birthday dress would get any use in the coming weeks, and my ball gown would be better hanging up in my wardrobe than being dragged from one place to another. From what Olek had said, I should also spend time sorting through our valuables to decide what we could sensible travel with, should the need arise. The portrait which Otto had commissioned of me, which hung over the fireplace in the lounge, something which we both prized highly, would have to stay, while my diamonds and the pearl necklace he gave me for my engagement present could easily be locked into my small travelling portmanteau.

Janek is a big-boned, lumbering man in his forties, with tufts of hair in his ears and a strong tobacco smell about him. He lives next door to Celestyna and he’s sweet on her, though I’m sure she isn’t interested in him. If she were, she’d have him cleaned up and his ears shaved in no time! He doesn’t read, unfortunately, so every request or message must be sent through her, but at least he is very compliant. She only has to ask, and he will do whatever she wants. He’s as strong as an ox, and thinks nothing of shouldering my trunk to carry it up a flight of stairs.

It was a beautiful evening, and we decided to walk home, as there was no sign of any cabs at the station. The park was surprisingly quiet, considering how the sun still shone and it was warm in the late summer air. The park keepers had clearly already gone home, and one or two couples were out walking, but not nearly as many people as I would have expected. Not a child was in sight, and only a few dog walkers passed us. I wondered whether I could still get a copy of Glos Narodu at the newsagent, but they said that there had been no papers for the last week. Mr Wiśniewski, the newsagent, who is normally such a gossip, had nothing to say. He looked tired and furtive, and besides raising an eyebrow when I asked for the paper, he gave me no more than a simple greeting. His shop looked empty, and I could see suitcases stacked in the back room, through the door behind the counter. I was going to ask him where he was going, but thought better of it. One has to be careful to whom one talks about one’s affairs. Olek was right.

We live on the second floor in one of the magnificent 19th century houses overlooking the river. It’s more of a villa than a town house, with a long front garden, a curved driveway and a pair of heavy iron gates and high railings alongside the pavement. The house has an elegant sandstone façade, which is intricately carved with cherubs and angels and there is even a coat of arms, though I haven no idea whose it is. The whole street was rebuilt in the early eighteen hundreds, and our house was probably converted into apartments around the time of the great war. We bought the place in ‘32, after we received a windfall from one of Otto’s best timber deals with the Office of Public Works, and I chose it for the views, and its beautiful high ceilings and fine plaster work. We spent quite a bit with our decorators and I had a fitted kitchen installed, with a modern range, which was quite a new idea, so that Celestyna could cook for large dinner parties in comfort. The house is around the corner from the plaza on Szeroka street, where the restaurants and bars are so popular. Otto is convinced it has doubled in value, or he was until earlier in the year when he was told almost point blank by the estate agent that nobody wanted to buy a Jew’s house except Jews, and that would depress the price. He would have taken offence, except the agent was himself Jewish and a regular in the synagogue, and clearly knew what we would be up against in selling. It had only been an idle enquiry, as we’re very happy there. The neighbours are quiet and generally keep themselves to themselves, and it is in the perfect location for visiting friends, eating out, for schools and so on.

That evening, as we made our way home, many of the bars in the plaza were still thronged with people, and I had a moment of relief when I heard the familiar music they were playing, and smelt the cooking from their kitchens. I thought for a moment that perhaps the nightmare we were all expecting was no more than a dream, and that everything was as it should be. But that was a rose-tinted view which I knew in my heart wasn’t true.

There were many uniformed soldiers outside the bars, lounging against the walls, sitting on the railings and smoking. They were relaxed, and even though many of them were coarse and their language was inappropriate for Anna’s ears, it didn’t seem wrong that the place was overtaken with khaki and brown uniforms. I felt happy to be in my own neighbourhood again.

There was quite a lot of anti-semitic graffiti in the square, but that was nothing new. Any young hooligan in Krakow could turn up there late at night to deface the walls. But when we turned the corner at the end of our road, and approached the house, I was shocked to see a swastika daubed on our front gatepost, and the paint looked fairly fresh. I made a mental note to get Janek to scrub that in the morning.

It was a great relief to turn the key in our front door, and to put down my portmanteau and Anna’s bag, which I’d agreed to carry from the station. The apartment was as I had left it, and thankfully Celestyna had prepared us a late supper of cold cuts before she went home. We were both ravenous after the long journey and ate in silence. Anna was exhausted and went to bed straight after supper. Once I was alone, I wandered through the silent rooms, admiring the furnishings I had spent so much effort on, picking up silver framed photographs of the boys and rearranging the flowers I’d asked Celestyna to buy. I opened the French doors and stood on the balcony of my bedroom, overlooking the river. I could hear the music from the square, and I felt peaceful, almost happy. But even then, I couldn’t help but feel that my life had been overtaken by my duties, by Otto’s expectations of me, and by parenthood. It felt as though I had never really had the chance to be an independent person in my own right. My friends in Krakow are mostly the wives of successful businessmen, who occupy themselves with spending money and giving parties. I’ve never had the chance to make my own way, or achieve anything for myself. I’m well educated, I have some business skills and I’m still young enough to make a change. I’ve only recently turned forty, and I can still turn heads, although I used to occupying the limelight as a younger woman. Otto has probably been unfaithful to me for years, and yet I’ve been faithful to him, with one exception, despite my never having loved him in a romantic way. Why is that? Perhaps I should have had more of my own adventures. And why did I obey him over returning home? Was it because he knew best or because I couldn’t bring myself to declare my independence. I know in my heart that if I had gone to London against his wishes, he would have tried to cut me off financially, and assumed I wanted a separation or divorce. That’s the way men of our generation see their wives; as chattels. We’ve never spoken of a formal arrangement, but I know Otto, and I know he would not want to be the accused. He would want to be the wronged party. Despite his infidelity, he would expect to be able to tell everyone that his wife ran off, his wife gave up on his devoted marriage. If he had ever found out about Alexandre, he would have been quick to mount an attack, to divorce me on the grounds of adultery. But that is long buried, it was years ago and it happened in the twenties, when the boys were young and it was at a low point between Otto and me.  Unlike Maryla and him, which started then and has never stopped.