Agata recommended a friend to me whom she knew was living in a rooming house nearby. Eva Wojcik had two rooms on the ground floor of a tall terraced tenement on Arkhypenka Street, which was just a few minutes’ walk, and Agata thought that the lady on the top floor had fled west only a couple of days ago, since Mrs Wojcik had told Agata that the lady’s husband had been reported killed on the Western Front and she couldn’t support herself alone. She had a sister in Lublin and had decided to take her chances with the German advance. We might have passed her on the road, though there had been very few people travelling against us today.
I left Anna with the suitcase in Agata’s tiny sitting room, where she was now alone with the old lady. Ania and Isidor had opted to drive on to their friends’ house on the far side of the city, because Isidor knew that the house would be vacant since the friends spent every summer at their villa, and Paul and Ada were walking to the address of another of Anaka’s contacts from the synagogue whom she thought would put them up in her own home, since they were relatives. I offered Paul the Duesenburg, which still had a little fuel, on condition that he would bring my trunk in the morning, but he refused, because he couldn’t be sure how safe the car would be overnight. It would be better, once I’d found somewhere to stay, if I took it in, and emptied the car of everything worth keeping. In the event, I wish he’d taken the car, and I was exhausted and would have preferred to leave everything till morning, but it was true that on our drive across the north side of the city, we’d seen cars supported on bricks, stripped of their wheels, with their windows smashed and people sleeping in them.
I promised Anna I would be back soon and asked Agata to let her curl up on the sofa under a blanket while I was out, since she was barely keeping her eyes open. I followed Agata’s directions to the house, which turned out to be pretty shabby but at least it was intact. Mrs Wojcik let me in, because the landlady was out. After introductions, she was happy to let me see the room, and felt that the landlady would be fine about it too. I trudged up four flights of stairs to look at a small room under the eves. It was almost empty, except for an old iron bed, covered in a none too clean mattress, a rickety table and two upright chairs. There was a bucket, a broom and a small cupboard with nothing inside, but there were no cooking facilities, and no running water. The small window was cracked, and there was no rug or carpet. Just the bare floorboards. I wondered when the old fireplace had last been used, as there was no sign of any fuel or ash. But it was clean enough, and didn’t smell of anything except dampness, which was evident in the corner where the roof met the wall, and a gutter was presumably broken. It would have to do for tonight, and then we could look in earnest in the morning for something more comfortable. Surely such a grand city had more genteel suburbs full of small apartments for rent, with furnishings and perhaps the services of a maid or housekeeper. It need be nothing grand or ostentatious, since we had little money to spare, but somewhere adequate. We would, hopefully, hear from Otto soon, and he could probably arrange for a local branch of the Bank of Poland to receive a transfer of funds which we could then live on until this war collapsed.
Eva Wojcik was a quiet and respectable single lady who had been living on the ground floor for many years, she said, and the landlady, Mrs Wisniewski, had rooms across the hall from her. She felt sure that Mrs Wisniewski would be happy to rent us the room, and that we should move in tonight and talk to her in the morning, because she would be late back from visiting a sick person in The Jewish Hospital.
I returned to collect Anna, and we drove over to Arkhypenka Street, rather than lugging our bags on foot, and bit by bit we unpacked the trunk and carried our belongings up the four flights to the small room. Anna, who is normally oblivious to her surroundings, was shocked when she first saw where we would be staying the night.
“I don’t want to sleep in there mamushu. Look, there’s a big stain on the bed, and it’s cold.”
“I know darling, I know. But it’s just for tonight. We’ll find a better place in the morning. Look, you can sleep in your clothes if you’re cold, and I’ll sleep beside you, so that you will be warm.”
By the time we had finished unpacking, and locked the car, the street was empty, and the moon was full above us. We closed the door and climbed up to our garret, and fell into the bed without a wash. We were both asleep immediately, but in the middle of the night I was woken by shouting from the street far below us and the sound of a window breaking. I would have crept to the window to investigate, but was so tired that I quickly fell back into a dreamless sleep.
It wasn’t until I went down to the yard with the bucket for water in the early morning that I saw the broken glass all over the pavement outside the house and realised that our car had been stolen. I began to fret about its value and how upset Otto would be, and then I decided to let it go. There was no fuel to be had on the open market, the car was a dinosaur anyway, and maybe it would provide shelter for someone living on the street. Otto could rant and rave about it if he ever came to find us.
We’d agreed to take breakfast with Agata, and to buy some bread and milk on our way at a bakery she had told us about. It was already eight o’clock by the time I had Anna dressed and washed in the cold water I had carried up the four flights, and we had met the landlady and paid her an exorbitant sum for the room. It was enough for a minimum of a week, which she recommended, and demanded.
“You won’t get anything better, Mrs Weiner. There’s nowhere to rent, for love nor money now. You know how many thousands of people we’ve had coming into Lwow in the last month? And besides, there’s plenty of landlords who won’t take Jews in, you know.”
“And why is that Mrs Wisniewski?”
“Well now, I wouldn’t care to speculate, but if you ask me, its because Jews is being arrested and taken away all over the country. What’s going to happen if we get over-run by the Hun and that terrible Hitler? I ask you. Now I’m not prejudiced you know. Some of my best friends is Jewish. I was only visiting Elijah Abramovski last night, who is a lovely Jewish gentleman who was lodging with me for years, and now he’s not well and he’s in the Jewish Hospital. The place was heaving, mind. Couldn’t swing a cat in there, let alone take any more sick people.”
“OK, well we must go now or we’ll be late. We will see what is available and come back later for our belongings, if we can get a taxi. Did you hear our car being stolen last night, from right under your window?”
“I don’t know anything about a car being stolen. This has always been a good neighbourhood you know. I sleep like a log mind, but I do remember a big blue car parked outside when I got home last night. Was that yours?”
Mrs Wisniewski didn’t seem at all put out about the theft, and I decided then that her only interest would be in our money and not our welfare. Luckily, our room door had a key, and I had it in my pocket, though probably she had a duplicate and would be into the room as soon as we’d left to see what we had brought with us. I made a mental note to check our belongings when we returned.
The bakery was on the corner of Agata’s road, but there was a long queue already on the pavement and I sent Anna on to tell Ada’s aunt I would be a while. While I was waiting in the queue, I got talking to the lady in front of me, who was a local.
“Every day I get here earlier, and every day the queue is longer. I’ve been coming here for years and it’s never been like this. The Bidermans who run it are going to have to close down soon, they told me, because they can’t guarantee to get the flour every day, and without it, there’d be no baking. It’s strictly one loaf each now, if they have any, and I hope you’ve got plenty of cash, because it’s five Zlotys now. It was only 50 groszy a month ago. And just in case you’r wondering they won’t take those new Zlotych notes, you know. I don’t blame them. It’s like toy money.”
“We’ve only just arrived from Lublin yesterday, and we spent the night in a pretty terrible place. I’m wondering whether you might know where we could rent a comfortable apartment in this district, by any chance?”
The lady started to chuckle, and when she saw that I was not joking, she stopped.
“I’m sorry dear. I’m sure that there were plenty of nice places to rent a month ago. Sure, half the city was empty in July, when the rich left for their country summer houses, and all the men joined up, but that was then. Now, if you’ve a roof over your head, hold on to it and don’t let anyone in, because there’s an endless queue of people trying to come here. You must’ve seen them, if you came from Lublin yesterday. And they have to stay now because the army has blocked all the roads out. My next-door neighbours have taken two families into their house, as an act of charity, and since word got out, we have people banging on the doors all day long asking if they can come in. Yesterday, someone offered me their gold pocket watch for rent, and someone else pleaded to be my cleaner and housekeeper in exchange for a room.”
By then, we had reached the head of the queue, and the lady paid over her five Zlotys and took her loaf of brown bread, thanking the baker’s wife and asking after her children. As she turned to go, she smiled sympathetically at me.
“Well, good luck with the house hunting. Perhaps you’ll be lucky. I’m sure we’ll meet around if you’re still in Arkhypenka Street.”