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 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.