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 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 (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 8: Berlin

When we disembarked, we left our luggage in the hands of the German guard, who assured us that nothing in his van would be touched while we were waiting to board again, as it has a locked cage in which our bags are stored, and only he has the key. One thing you can certainly say about the Germans is that they are very trustworthy on day-to-day matters, and would not attempt to tamper with the luggage. That’s not something I could say about the Poles with my hand on my heart, at least not the class of Polish worker who hangs around in the stations.

Anna saw Olek waiting at the barrier as soon as we stood on the platform, and waved to him enthusiastically. She was disconcerted at his lack of response and continued to try and gain his attention. He did not wave back, though he clearly saw us, and it was only when we were a few yards from him, queuing to go through the gate, that he signalled with a surreptitious shake of the head for us to follow him across the concourse to the exit. Once out of the station, on the Askanischer Platz, he kissed me on both cheeks and holding me then at arms length in a fatherly appraisal, he smiled to me.

“My apologies for the cloak and dagger stuff in there, my dear. It has become dangerous to draw attention to oneself in public places here. Yesterday, I came to the station to check on the time of your arrival and witnessed a group of Jewish women, recently off the Nord Express, herded into a police van. I could see no reason for their arrest, and it is clear that the Jews are being rounded up for deportation, without ceremony or excuses. I’ve been here for two weeks and frankly, each day is worse than the one before. But enough of all that. It is wonderful to see you and you are both looking so well. Anna, my little angel, how are you and how was Vichy? Happy Birthday, by the way. I have a little something for you, but you must wait till we are somewhere more comfortable to open it. Let’s find somewhere to sit and talk.”

Olek is a tall, grey-haired, slim man with a high forehead and steel-rimmed glasses. Like me, he doesn’t look particularly Jewish, and he always dresses carefully. He was wearing a herringbone three-piece suit and a heavy overcoat, and homburg, despite the late August warmth. I realised that his style was a sort of armour against being treated with anything less than the greatest respect. Staff in the station and the hotel bowed slightly to him and held open doors, which certainly would not have happened if he had less gravitas, since it was evident they didn’t actually know him. The doorman even clicked his heels in the way of the Prussian Fusiliers, which was in fact appropriate, as Olek had fought in the Austro-Hungarian army in the Great War. It is hard to imagine him in the epaulets and dress uniform now, but at least he’s sensible enough to act his age and not to go trying to enlist again.

Olek ushered us into the foyer of the bustling Excelsior, full of men in SS uniforms, standing in circles and talking loudly, laughing and joking. The place was full of Berliners out for breakfast, or on their way to work, who seemed indifferent to the presence of the military men. It must have been like this throughout the summer, since Berlin has been like an army base for months, according to Dieter. We’d managed to avoid Germany on our way down to Vichy, by travelling though Belgrade and Trieste, because I so much enjoy the views from the train as it travels through the Riviera, but I know that Berlin has always been a city with a purpose, and now I could see now how focused everyone was. There was no lounging or loitering. Everyone had somewhere they had to be or someone they needed to talk to. In a way, this sort of energy has always attracted me, but now it has an edge, which I don’t like. Everyone is glancing across at each other. They always seem to talk in slightly mooted tones, or positively whisper in one another’s ears. There is an aggressive hierarchy among the soldiers, which is so obvious in the way one expects another to hold open a door for him, or run his errands. Officers barely deign to acknowledge their underlings when spoken to, and the more epaulets and medals and stripes a man has on his clothing, the more his nose points to the ceiling in an effort to look down it on everyone.

We managed to find a table in the restaurant where we could talk and Anna could have something to eat, albeit sandwiched between a business breakfast meeting of seven or eight men in suits, and a group of officers hunched over their food. Everyone had that air of purpose and the waiters moved quickly between the tables. There were, I noticed, few women in the restaurant.

Olek was barely whispering, in Polish, trying not to be overheard by either group. His whole demeanour was furtive.

“You look well, my dear. The weather in Vichy has given you a fine colour, and I trust that your stay at the Hershey was as enjoyable as ever. I’m so pleased that you are here safely. I’m sure that the journey from Paris has not been easy.”

“Thank you, Otto, it was both an enjoyable break and a reasonable journey, though I don’t need to tell you how worried everyone is. The Frenckels send their best wishes, and Dieter Koch asked me to let you know that he will be in touch about the mahogony shipment as soon as he has more information. He said you would know what he means”

“Yes, thank you. He has been trying to arrange a delivery for weeks, but it is proving impossible to move anything by sea at the moment, as even the freighters are being re-deployed for military purposes. But let’s not talk about timber. I hear from Otto that you are going to arrange to meet with Ania and Paul when you arrive tomorrow. I have to warn you that since you left in July, Krakow has become a very nervous place to be. I don’t recommend you stay longer than necessary.”

“Is Maryla there, Olek? Is she keeping the children at home? Why are you not returning? Surely you’re not as crazy as Otto to want to enlist.”

“No, my dear, I’m far too old, and besides, I am far better off being in Danzig in order to obtain papers for Maryla and the children. It’s impossible to get an official to sign anything in Krakow, and the city is effectively evacuating. I really wanted to counsel you to find a safe place in the country. Would you consider travelling on to Naleczow and staying in our summerhouse, or perhaps you’d like to visit the Uzdropwisko Spa there for a few weeks? I sent Maryla word that she should do so.”

“I have just spent several weeks in Vichy, so why would I want to go to another spa? I just want to be at home for a while. You know, re-engage with our friends and look after Anna’s schooling. She’s becoming a young lady and needs to be educated. Surely we can remain in Krakow until this blows over?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that. I just don’t see it being possible to step back into the lives we have led until now. Nothing is as it was a few years ago and I’m certain that for people like us, it will not be possible to keep our old lives. From here, it is clear to me that troops are being sent to Poland, and I cannot see how the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement means anything other than invasion from both the East and West. “

“I was planning to go to London to stay with Tom and Max, you know, but Otto insisted we return to Krakow. Do you understand his demand, Olek? I mean, is there something I’m missing in his thinking? I am very worried, as you are, by the stories in the newspapers, and I frankly don’t understand why he made this demand. ”

“We haven’t been able to talk for a while, but I know that Otto feels the family should be together, and that you should be at home, rather than stranded abroad, should there be war. I know that he would want to be with you, but he also feels strongly about his role in defending Poland. None of us were nationalists, any more than any of us is a good Jew.” Olek was barely whispering. “But when we are threatened in this way, I believe, and Otto does too, that we should be ready to protect our homes, our families.”

“What nonsense! I’m sorry Olek, but you are trying to obtain papers to get Maryla out of Poland, while Otto is insisting that I return. Besides, he’s far to old to be joining up, and he would be far better off protecting his family by keeping us out of harm’s way in London than basing himself in Rumania to defend Poland!” I couldn’t help raising my voice, and two or three of the businessmen at the next table looked in our direction, though thankfully, the officers were so engrossed in their breakfast they didn’t notice my outburst. Olek, in his normal reticent way, placed his hands gently on mine and made a face that showed his pain and unease, but also his understanding of my frustration. He reached into his breast pocket and took out a manila envelope.

“This is for you. It is not much, but it’s all the zlotys we had in the Danzig office and what I brought with me. You will need to hold on to cash, as the banks will be closed, I’ve no doubt. I could have laid my hands on plenty of Reichsmarks but unless Germany takes over Poland, God help us, you won’t need those.” Olek’s dry humour didn’t raise a smile on his face or mine. “Make sure that you travel with any jewellery or gold you have, and keep it close. I’m sure that in times like this you will need liquid assets and not fine china or pictures. Please, Miriam, for all our sakes, look after yourselves and take no risks.

“It will be important to keep in touch, as I will also investigate visas for you and Anna. As you know, I have my diplomatic papers, which I have used to apply for Maryla and the children to join me, but nothing is guaranteed. Otto will also be investigating the opportunities from wherever he is based.”

“I hope you can come and help us soon, Olek. I really would not be going home if Otto hadn’t insisted, and frankly, I am not hopeful that we will be left alone once we return.”