Hannah, Chapter 1
"Even a passing moment has its fertile past." Wistlawa Szymborska
True, I was not his beloved Shoshana. True, I was never beautiful, just a simple farm girl, but smart and practical, at least. True, I was not a survivor of Auschwitz. True, I was not Jewish, although neither was he. I carried bread, messages, and guns out to the partisans in the forest, but that story is a small seed to his tale. Stanislaw often told me how lucky I was, that I had not been in a camp. I knew he was right, but hearing the story of Shoshana hundreds of times in our married life was another form of torment.
In the beginning, I thought he would fall in love with me, if I were good or served him delicious blueberry pierogis or even after the birth of Mateusz and Irena. How naïve! I was just as deluded as Stanislaw about love. It was easy for him to love a woman he could never have. And I had believed my mother's advice about love that in time, he would love me because I was always loyal and attentive.
Marriage was disappointing. I have been lucky with my children, though. Now I am not afraid of loneliness. You cannot will someone to love you: they either do or they don't.
I did not go with Stanislaw to Israel to receive his certificate of heroism, or to see the Pope. We did not have the money for two tickets. How I would have loved to go to Italy! After Italy in 1988, Stanislaw added this detail for visitors: "Six minutes with the Pope."
What I have now: boxes of magazine and newspaper articles from Poland, Italy, Brazil, Spain, and Germany about the story of Stanislaw and Shoshana, three films from Polish television, a certificate of heroism from Yad Vashem, photographs of him with the Pope, books published on the Shoah, his two published books, and the recent photographs of Shoshana in Florida after her stroke. She died recently. I could have thrown all the boxes away when I was packing, but why? Only occasionally is the past a raw nerve, like an arm which has been amputated. The arm was gone, and yet the body still felt the ghost.
Besides the boxes, stuffed with the story of Shoshana and Stanislaw, I have a daughter and a son. My daughter, Irena lives in Brooklyn. I have two grandchildren, Tony and Rosie. Irena married an Italian named Luigi, who owns a Mercedes Benz car dealership. He is a little crude, but at least he doesn't drink and he is a good provider. Tony and Rosie are teenagers now. Unfortunately, I do not see them often.
My son, Mateusz is a professor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama--such a strange little town. He studies how the experiences of concentration camp survivors affected their children. In his own way, he is also obsessed with the story of Shoshana. I did not encourage it necessarily, but it was in the air in post-war Poland--so many stories. Stanislaw wanted him to be an engineer like us but how could he expect this when he was telling the story of Shoshana night and day?
If I blink once, I think I am in Poland with the green meadows and the tall trees. But look again, there are residential districts with yards, two-story houses with heavy Greek columns, a monstrous concrete football stadium, parking lots with big cars and jeeps and church complexes. No concrete Soviet high-rise housing. If I want to walk, I stroll over to the university. The squirrels sit in front of me on their haunches, and nibble their acorns. In spring, the dogwood trees are in bloom, a cheerful pink. Hydrangea blossoms look like blue muffs. The young university girls stride past me, wearing their tight shorts. Their blonde pony tails bob up and down as they march by.
Life is slow here, and the people are friendly. Peaceful. No severe winter. No ice. Few gray days. No informers. No lines for soap. Any ingredient I desire I can find at Brunos, or Wal-Mart. That is so wonderful. Why shouldn't I be happy here?
Besides the Civil War, the other war is the crunching of heads and bodies called football. Not soccer. The attraction of this game, I don't understand. I hear the roar of the crowd on Saturdays, like the howling of an angry bear. Afterwards, the oooohs and aaaahs of pleasure. Victory. Traffic blocked for miles. A circus. Near the graveyard, people are selling tee-shirts, mugs, flags, banners, key chains. ROLL TIDE? Outside my kitchen window, the church is even selling parking spaces.
Now that Stanislaw is gone, I tell the story to few—not indiscriminately to a steady stream of curiosity seekers, journalists, and scholars, like he did. After forty years of serving coffee and crackers, I have learned: stories must have the right listeners, just like people must have the right lovers. Otherwise, the story simply evaporates. Tak, tak, telling the story too frequently is just like sexual promiscuity-- something Stasiu never understood. He was never interested in who was listening, or why they were listening. In the end, the story became a stony monologue, like our marriage.
Claire, my landlady is my friend. I have been here one year and haven't made many friends. Strange, but I feel a little shy about making friends again at seventy. I can speak English well, (my third language after German) but I cannot communicate with so many of the ladies I meet.
Loulah, one of my neighbors, often drops by on the pretense of borrowing a cup of sugar, but she is really trying to recruit for the Methodist Church.
"There are some eligible bachelors in our mature Sunday school class," she said, giving me a wink. "Why don't you give it a try? Some mighty handsome men."
"I am Catholic," I said, hoping she would think I am a leper.
"Psssaw. It's social. You'd meet some new people. I am sure that you have some interesting stories. You know, we didn't suffer from the war in the same way you did. It was more in-di-rect. All the men were picked over the WWII. Why I didn't marry. Dead, crazy, or am-pu-tates. Ha!" Loulah said.
I find Loulah's personal confessions disarming. One day, she plopped down on my sofa and told me how she fell in love with a murderer--she talks rubbish.
"His name was Ezekiel. From Dothan. He murdered his wife in a fit of rage with a butcher knife. Found her in bed with the preacher. He was so grateful that I was his parole officer that he sent me walnuts every Christmas for years afterwards. The job had its rewarding moments. I was the first woman probation officer in the state of Alabama. The very first, yes sir. Say, why don't you tell me about your experiences in the war," Loulah said.
I do not want to tell Loulah a single thing about my life. Five minutes afterwards, I imagine her blabbing to every single person she knows in Tuscaloosa, talking about my life in the most casual way. "Say, have you heard about Hanna? Uuuhhuhh. Yes, the very same. Her son's a professor at the university."
When I told Claire about Loulah, she said, "She's not bad. But crazy as a bedbug."
The Baptist ladies hope I will come to their church, Covenant Hill, which I can see from my kitchen window. They don't believe that I won't be seduced by their suppers or their sewing club. The Catholic priest--an Irishman from New York, I heard--doesn't know about me yet. I will go to mass when I am ready, not a moment sooner. Mateusz goes to the Episcopal Church. He says he does not want to be Catholic anymore. He tells me that in America you can decide who you are, even though in his academic work he has focused on Poland. How can he say this?
From my window, I can also see the graveyard. Not the kind of graveyard you would expect next to a wealthy church--modest graves with simple name plates--a bed of pure green with sprouts of iron crosses. A potter's field. Like the field in the Old Testament Jeremiah, a place where garbage and potsherd were dumped. The people buried here were strangers who died far from home, penniless, during the Civil War.
During the Second World War, when thousands of people were disappearing, people refused to believe the wicked stories and dismissed them as rumor. Sometimes, life is more outlandish than storytelling.
Stanislaw said that the prisoners in the camp did not even know about the mass murders in the beginning. The chambers were hidden by a hedge and a row of beautiful geraniums, as if it were a tidy German middle-class home! The Germans told stories, as if the prisoners were children: "you've come for a bath." "You're going to be workers." "You're going to farm the land." The baths were underground so no one outside heard a thing.
Quite early on, after the first winter, Stanislaw was on grass-cutting detail outside near the crematorium. They were cutting grass with scythes, wearing flimsy clothes in the bitter cold. He understood: if you work outside, you will die.
He heard one German officer call out to the other, "Come, look at this shit."
Why were they holding handkerchiefs to their noses? They were not burning grass.
Since he knew German, he got himself moved to the granary. He could steal grain. Later, at Warsaw University he did well, too. Those years after the war he knew precisely how to avoid purges. Who would inform on you; Who was harmless; Who could be trusted. I do not know if I would have survived a camp or not. If you did not experience it, that will always be a speculation. Of course the people who didn't survive would never speak! Tak, tak, I was brave, but maybe more naïve than Stanislaw about the motives of other people. Not suspicious enough. Not savvy enough about systems. Governments. He had no illusions.
It takes energy to explain the history of Poland to people who are not interested. Should I only busy myself making pieorogis for Mateusz (who has not married) or horns, stuffed with soft cheese or strawberry jam? No. Silence in the face of ignorance is criminal. Even though I am frustrated with these people, I still find myself a teacher: "Have you heard about the bravery of our people in the Warsaw Rising? Do you know how we used underground sewers as tunnels, right underneath the Germans' noses? Do you know how many thousands of our officers were murdered by the Russians at Katyn in 1939?"
Sometimes, one of the ladies will have a husband who fought in the Second World War. Grasping for connection, she might say, "My husband was in Okinawa. Maybe you should talk to him about your experiences."
If I show them pictures of my children and grandchildren, they understand. This frustrates me though, because life is not purely personal, either.
For now, I do not feel like reading--only Polish poetry, only Milosz and Symborska. And yet whatever dissatisfactions with America and this town, my flat in Claire's villa is the most elegant I have lived in in my entire life. The windows are large, and look out onto a green backyard with oaks and an arbor for Muscat grapes. Claire has left all her family's antique furniture in the flat. I sleep in a large poster bed, like a queen. I do not have to share the bathroom with anyone.
I had never seen such a house--a lavish, impractical house, like one for Polish aristocrats. A pink Italian villa, with an onion dome. Built, Claire told me, by a man named Josephson, who owned fifteen plantations and six hundred slaves. He was forced to hide in a swamp to avoid capture by Union forces, which were occupying Tuscaloosa in 1865.
Hiltrud, that German woman upstairs in Apartment 10, is also a pest--another Protestant recruiter. She married an American medic and that is how she got to America, although she is now on her third husband, Rufus. The first one drank himself to death and left her with a young son, Gebhardt. He works as an engineer in Brazil now. Rufus was selling light bulbs for the Lions Club--how she met him. I wonder if she only did Morse code for the Nazis, as she says. Of course, after the war, much bigger rats than Hiltrud kicked over the traps and ate the cheese. That man, Von Braun who was building Vl rockets at Buchenwald went to work for the Americans at their space center in Huntsville. I just wish Hiltrud would stop nagging me to buy spaghetti dinner tickets for the Lutheran Church! She also slips Devotional Guides under my apartment door.
In the afternoons at Claire's, I have pieced together her story:
Many years ago, she almost married a Puerto Rican named Amelio, but her father forbade her to marry him. Instead, she married another man, an Alabama lawyer who was crippled by polio. The day before she married the lawyer, she was accepted to the Royal Academy for Music in London to study the cello. Her father persuaded her to continue at the Mississippi College for Women. "More practical." All her life Claire regretted not going to London and not marrying Amelio. Her marriage to the lawyer was not happy (he drank), but she was devoted to her four children. Later, after the children were grown, the lawyer had her committed to the local insane asylum. But Claire, who always had friends was rescued by her father's sitter, Isabel, who slipped her car keys into a bowl of custard. Claire, then, drove across three states in her white station-wagon hearse. In the end, she had fled to Puerto Rico for a rendezvous with Amelio, heir to the Barcardi fortune. However, she was too late because he had died from a heart attack a week before.
I heard Claire calling, "Mofeed. Yoohoo. Mofeed." I drew the curtain back from the window. She was climbing out of the white station wagon-hearse. Dr. Samuel Johnson, her Scottie, was tucked under her arm. Usually, she had a retinue of black students from the college following her, but today there was no one.
Mofeed, that young Iraqi man from Apartment 12 was helping her carry a tattered box into the building. I opened the door to my flat.
As they opened the front door to the villa, I heard Claire say, "Would you like to have a cat, darling?"
"My mother won't allow it. I mean, she likes cats, but the apartment is too small for a pet."
"What if I talked with your mother?"
"Actually, it's my Dad. He's always hated cats. Ever since we lived in Kuwait," Mofeed said.
Mofeed was struggling to get the box up the grand staircase. The bottom was about to collapse. A yellow paw reached over the box.
"Good afternoon," I called out. I had not spoken to anyone all day. I checked the mailbox, which was outside my door.
No letters from Poland. Usually my cousin enclosed obituaries from Gorlice. But here were two letters, one from California and the other from Kuwait. California? The letter from Kuwait was addressed to Rema, Mofeed's mother. The mailman had made a mistake.
"Why, Miss Hanna. Why don't you come and have a peek at these beautiful babies?"
I knew she would try to persuade me to adopt one. Claire tried to save animals and people; it was her virtue and her downfall. Her apartment building was full of strays: emigrants from so many countries, who often couldn't pay the rent.
I put on my glasses and looked into the box. They were so vulnerable, crawling over one another. They had not opened their eyes yet. Tiny, fragile things!
"Sweet. But I can't," I said.
I was on a strict budget. I did not want to ask Mateusz for any money, although he had offered. My pension from Warsaw University did not go very far in America. Sometimes, I received small royalty checks from Stanislaw's books. What an irony that Stanislaw and Shoshana's story is now my grocery money. And I adored the taste of American cigarettes, especially Winston. I rationed myself to one pack a week.
"Here we are," Claire said, taking out an enormous skeleton key, for the door to her flat. A clever Polish gypsy could open the door with his eyes closed.
"You can set the box there. The Mama cat will have to find a new nest for her babies. I will have to get rid of the Abyssinian. They were in the bathroom but then the Mama cat moved them behind the bookcase. She knows her babies are in danger."
"I better get going. My mother needs me to go to the store for her, " Mofeed said.
"Thank you, darling. You are so helpful."
"Any time," Mofeed said.
When I looked up, he had already disappeared.
"Nice young man. Why don't you stay and have an iced tea?"
"Good idea. But you know, I like black coffee," I said, following Claire into her flat.
Claire set her red purse on the purple velvet love seat and then threw the blue wig across the room, like a plate and it landed in a rather deep chair.
"I'm burning up," she said, huffing. "That wig is a nuisance. Losing your hair is terrible. I wouldn't wish cancer on my worst enemy."
Her thin hair was pinned up in ringlets on top of her balding head. You could see how beautiful her face had been without the wig as a cap.
"Neither would I," I said. I was fifteen years older, but had few health problems. I was going a little deaf in my right ear; Mateusz has been trying to get me to get a hearing aid.
"If the medical insurance wasn't so good, I would retire from that school. They are getting their money's worth."
At the black college she wrote proposals for grants for the development office, taught four classes of composition, proofed speeches for the president, taught speech to black students who spoke in dialect, and in her spare time, ran the pronunciation lab for the foreign students on campus. The college believed that she was a wealthy white woman who didn't need the money. Anyway, if you were too kind, people took advantage of you.
"Should I make the coffee?" I asked.
Claire sat down heavily in her chair, her belly rose up even further when she was seated, as if she were pregnant with sextuplets. Of course, I should pick the speck out of my own eye. Sampling strudel had done nothing for my figure.
"If you don't mind…I am so tired. Ice tea in the fridge."
As I was going into the kitchen, she said, "Possessing land. It's a Southern story."
She called out something, but I did not hear the rest.
Her kitchen was appalling. Large brown creatures flew for cover when I flipped on the light. Claire had a good heart; I must not criticize her housekeeping. But so unsanitary. Should I mention it? I had called POACH-A-ROACH--they sprayed for me once a month. How could she cook in such a kitchen? When I opened the refrigerator, I saw stacks of foam boxes from Morisons, that terrible cafeteria with bad green beans in the mall. Several sacks from QUICKIE PIG: a rather large pig was drawn on the front. Underneath the caption read: We deliver a pig with a jig in a jif. Quickie Pig? I couldn't believe how many fast food delivery services there were in America. The only thing on the second shelf was a jar marked RUTABAGA jam without a lid. Otherwise, the refrigerator was empty. I opened the vegetable bin. One shriveled carrot.
I picked up a glass from the counter. Cloudy. Better to rinse it with soap. Isabel was not doing her job. When Claire's father had died, Claire had hired her to be a maid, as a kind of charity.
"Here we are," I said, bringing in the iced tea and coffee.
In Poland, I had served the coffee and retreated to another room. Visitors were not interested in talking to me, although I had a few good stories about being in the Resistance. In America, I made the coffee and stayed. When Stanislaw was talking, he closed his eyes, leaned back in his recliner, and talked for three hours, without interruption. Guests sat in the stiff, brown chairs, scribbling notes. He had promised me that we would replace the dull chairs when we had the money. When we finally had the money, we quarreled about how to spend it. No trips, except for short visits to the Baltic Sea coast with the children.
I handed Claire her ice tea. "Thank you darlin.'"
How lovely this living room was compared to our cell-flat in Poland. The big vases, painted with flowers were not to my taste, however. Claire also collected tiny statues of cats. Her china was displayed in a cabinet with glass shelves.
I sat down on her long velvet sofa, which was comfortable.
The phone rang.
"'Lo," Claire said, picking up the Mickey Mouse handset. "'Lo O.T. Uuhh, huh. Yes. Well, it's none of your business."
I opened the letter from California. Dear Mrs. Lesniak: Some years ago, your husband, Stanislaw sent us a script about his heroic escape from Auschwitz. It has come to the attention of a number of movie studios in Hollywood, namely Warner Brothers. Robert De Niro is especially interested in the script…
"Not selling. Bye," Claire said, hanging up the phone.
"They want to buy Stanislaw's story," I said, handing her the letter. I couldn't believe it, as if I had been presented with a pot of gold. I would not have to worry about money for the rest of my life. I must restrain myself. How did I know if these people were trustworthy? Maybe they were just fast talkers.
"An agent for Warner Brothers," I said.
"That's wonderful, darlin.' But you never have told me. What is the story?"
I imagined Shoshana having coffee with her Polish maid in Manhattan in 1983. What had prompted Shoshana to tell Josepha, her maid, the story of her escape from Auschwitz?
Claire's dogs were barking.
"Actually, it was a story which affected my life, too. Our marriage. Although there were some happy times when the children were small."
"Laurance was a good father. When they were young, he was very devoted. I am sorry, Hanna. I interrupted you. Go ahead."
Now, that Claire had asked for the story, I felt awkward about telling it. Stanislaw always began with meeting Shoshana in the granary, where she was mending sacks. Or should I begin towards the end of our marriage, when the middle-aged Shoshana came to Poland in 1983, and brought us so many gifts from America? Or in between, after Auschwitz had become a museum, when Stanislaw had gone there together. Behind the glass, were thousands of suitcases, yet we saw the suitcases of Shoshana's family, their name, scrawled in blue. I said: "My dear, why have we come here? We have to put the past behind us. We have to move forward." But this only made Stanislaw unhappy, and he replied: "The past always comes back to the present in unexpected ways." You see, I said that about the future because after the war, many people were so haunted by the experience of the camps, they killed themselves. But Stanislaw did not do that; he profited from it. His sad story became like a circus routine, even more than his career, professor of engineering at the university.
"I finally met her in 1983. After all those years. Shoshana. Stanislaw and Shoshana escaped from Auschwitz."
"Your son told me," Claire said.
"My son has already told you?" So Mateusz was as big a blabbermouth as Stanislaw.
"Well, darlin', he didn't give me the details. He only told me that his father was a great hero in a love story. That he'd saved a woman's life. When I asked him more questions, he started talkin' about some philosopher named Lacan and memory. It was all too high-brow for me. I lost the thread, so to speak."
I would have expected him to give Claire a lecture about psychology and memory. But the romantic talk about his father?
"When Shoshana came to Poland, I expected to dislike her," I said.
I had thought that if I were more beautiful, Stanislaw would love me. If only I had a better figure. If only I had brown eyes like Shoshana. If only I had wavy hair. It was ridiculous. I couldn't transform myself into Shoshana; I was Hanna. My nickname in the Resistance was "Swallow." A plain bird, which swoops from the rafters with messages and then disappears from sight. But of course, when I met Shoshana, I was surprised. She looked like me, matronly and gray-haired--nothing like the old photographs from the war.
"Well, darlin'. I think such a feelin' is natural. Who wants to be the other woman? At one point, I had a feelin' that Laurance Duffy was cattin' around with his secretary."
"She brought us so many presents from America. Soap. Oil. Towels. Shoes. There were many shortages in Poland at that time. We spent hours every day in lines."
Of course, I was even more astonished that Stanislaw gave her thirty-nine tulips when her met her at the airport. A tulip for every year that they had not seen each other. Maybe I am being petty, but he had never given me flowers in our entire marriage. You see, in daily life Stanislaw was stingy, but he could make extravagant gestures for a fantasy woman who he did not live with emotionally. If he had one extra zloty, he would spend it on postage to promote his books, rather than a dab of butter for the house.
Shoshana wanted him to go away with her, as if life was like a happy ending in a movie. She was a widow. "Come away with me. Live in America," she said. When I asked him if he were going, he said, "He had become used to me." As if I were a duvet. This was Stasiu's gruff way of telling me that he cared for me. But you see, I realized he couldn't imagine starting again. There she was right in front of him, alive and breathing. He didn't know a word of English. So in the end, he lacked the courage. Easier to keep reliving the story of his past heroism. When I realized that he could be afraid, too, I became more confident in our relationship. If I didn't feel like doing something he requested, I just said, "No."
"So he didn't leave you after all," Claire asked.
"No." At the time, I was grateful that he stayed. Now, I can see that it would have been better if he had left. Knowledge comes too late.
"Of course, being alone is not the end of kingdom come. Saying that, I stayed with a drunkard for years. There's one thing I don't understand, darlin.' Why did she suddenly reappear in 1983?"
"She thought he was dead," I said.
Her husband, Lev had died and so she was lonely. She invited her Polish maid, Josepha to have coffee with her. She and her husband owned a men's clothing store in Manhattan--she had responsible people working for her. She didn't feel like rushing to the store because the work was not meaningful anymore. They had plenty of money. She had no children. She had no grandchildren. She began to wonder how her life might have been different had she married Stanislaw. And so she told Josepha, how Stanislaw had saved her from Auschwitz. How Stanislaw had joined the partisans in the forest. How he was murdered by the Russians during the war. How she had finally gone to north Poland after she learned he was dead. How he had gone to Denmark first, and then how she had emigrated to America. She had an uncle in New York. At this point in the story, Shoshana cried and pitied herself, that she had not married the only man who truly loved her, forgetting that her dead husband, Lev had treated her with respect, and given her a role in his business. In America, Shoshana became Rose, a co-partner in a successful business, in a time when women could only be nurses and teachers. Josepha, who had always done more television-watching than ironing in the wealthy houses she worked in, felt there was something familiar about this story. Where had she heard this story before? A soap opera? In between? Before she came to America? Three years ago. There was a short documentary about this heroic man named Lesniak, a professor of engineering, who had saved the life of a Jewish woman named Shoshana. The rest of her family had gone to the gas. Josepha shouted, "He's alive. Tak, tak. He's alive."
"I remember the day she called. During Solidarity. So many strange things were happening. You never got phone calls at five-thirty in the morning, unless you were in trouble with the secret police. But it was from America. At first, Stasiu thought it was one of his other friends from Auschwitz. But someone was weeping at the end of the line," I said.
"Hanna, darlin.' You've been through so much. And yet you keep it all inside. Bottled up. The stories you have. The experiences," Claire said, handing me a Kleenex.
"Stanislaw was always the star. It was the time. The way I was raised. My mother was always pointing out the women who never married," I said.
"Women were supposed to play second fiddle. How I wish I would have defied my father and put my cello first," Claire said.
"It was Stanislaw's aunt who told Shoshana he was dead. She hid Shoshana for months. But she didn't want Stanislaw to marry a Jew. They were not bad, these farmers. After all, she was hiding Shoshana. But still, these farm people were strong Catholics. They didn't believe in mixed marriages."
Here's what his aunt told Shoshana:
Stanislaw was murdered by the Soviets. He had gone on a partisan mission to the Soviet side. (The Soviets were supposed to be allied with the Poles, against the Germans. Often officers from the Resistance went on "friendship" missions with the Soviet army; instead, they were murdered or sent to labor camps in keeping with the Soviet policy on Polish annihilation.)
"Stanislaw came looking for Shoshana when the war was over. He missed her by four days. He did not know where she had gone. He searched for her for an entire year. After the war, so many people disappeared. Were displaced," I said.
"We had a professor from the university from Estonia who met his wife in a Displaced Persons camp in Berlin. I believe their families were dead," Claire said.
"There were so many lost or displaced after the war. We did not know who was alive. Who was dead," I said.
When they finally met in Poland in 1983, Stanislaw and Shoshana went to see his aunt, who was then ninety-five. They never mentioned that they knew she was the one who had told Shoshana that Stanislaw was dead. What could be gained by confronting this ancient, frail lady about a lie she had told long ago? But when his aunt saw Stanislaw and Shoshana together, she wept.
When Stanislaw told the story, he began with Shoshana's great beauty. I think this is the part that made me the most jealous, because it made me feel unattractive. It sounded melodramatic, "I saw her from across the granary." But when I met Shoshana, what she remembered was Stanislaw's kindness and encouragement in the face of such a terrible situation. She did not dwell on his looks, not even his enchanting blue eyes. This touched me because over the years Stanislaw had constructed a hard shell over his kindness, as if he were a crab. He showed his kindness rarely, even to me. I was just expected to know that the kindness was buried underneath.
Because Stanislaw knew German, he was given more responsibility than the other prisoners. He had the keys to the room, where the Jewish women, who were mending the sacks, were kept. The SS officers would go off for forty minutes for their ample lunch of sausage and potatoes. The moment the SS officers turned their backs, Stanislaw opened the door. You see, male and female prisoners were segregated. This was a chance for male prisoners to talk to women. After all, they were so young, and longed for contact with the opposite sex. This was how their romance began.
"One day Shoshana was crying during the break. All of her family had gone to the gas."
Stanislaw said, " I will save you."
It was just like Stanislaw to make these dramatic statements, even though he was basically a reserved person.
Shoshana laughed. "How? You know, no one escapes from here."
When Shoshana told the story, she did not mention this exchange. She mentioned how Stanislaw had given her a fistful of grain, when she was crying. She said she wasn't hungry, but he coaxed her to eat anyway. "You must not get weak," he said.
She might have seen Stanislaw's kindness, but did not know how shrewd and egotistical he actually was. But this, too, is why he survived over four years in the camp--his number was #232. The others from the Resistance in the first shipment all died. Stasiu was visionary and practical at the same time. From the beginning, he understood the importance of contacts in the camp, and this is why he could make such a grand plan. Over a period of three months, a friend who worked in the uniform warehouse smuggled out a SS officer's uniform. A belt. Sunglasses. Boots. Holster. Pants. Once Stanislaw had the complete uniform, he hid it under some boards in the attic of the granary.
Spring 1944. The Germans had stepped up the gassing.
"One day, he went to the granary and Shoshana was gone," I said.
He did not know if she were alive or not. He was desperate. Eventually, he received a message from one of his contacts that she had been moved to the laundry. And even though he had the uniform, he needed an official permission. He could not move around the camp with a prisoner if he did not have a permission slip. Eventually, a careless German officer, left a permission slip, lying around. Stanislaw realized certain stamped permissions are good for a few days. Still, what if the guard at the gate knew the person, named on the slip? With a piece of chewing gum, he forged another name on the slip.
"Now he had to choose the right time, " I said.
Secrecy was very important. If too many people knew about the plan, someone was bound to blab. No one knew of his plan, except for the friend. Not even Shoshana. Only three days before, there was an attempted escape. All of the prisoners were executed. The Germans did not think anyone would attempt an escape quite so soon, he reasoned.
"He decided on three o'clock the next day. July 10, 1944. Without saying goodbye to anyone, he went to the attic and put on the uniform. Sunglasses. Everything. He did not look like the same man."
"Surely. Clothes can completely change your appearance," Claire said.
"Your identity. He could also do it because he was fluent in German," I said.
When he went to the wash house for Shoshana, he was sweating so much, his sunglasses fogged up. The kapo, the woman guard, was flirting with him. "My dear, why don't you take off your glasses? No sun in here," she said. He didn't dare.
"Shoshana came and they walked out of the wash house. She did not even recognize him."
Towards the end of his life, Stanislaw told me he thought the plan had a twenty percent chance of success. Guards up above every which way you turned. Barbed wire. The guard looked at the permission for a long time. This is it, Stanislaw thought, 'We have gotten this far. Now we will get caught. Now. Yes, now.' But the guard simply waved them through. They passed through the gate. He expected to hear the alarms. The shout, 'Halt." Machine gun fire. Nothing. They kept walking. They passed the prisoners working in the fields, where he was supposed to be taking Shoshana. At night, they hid in the fields. They heard the sirens.
They walked for days until they came to the thatched roof of Stanislaw's aunt's house. They were finally safe. After a few days, Stanislaw went to join the partisans in the forest.
"So that is the story. You know the rest," I said.
Claire offered me another Kleenex.
"Sad. It's all sad, darlin.' Saddest of all, is living all those years with a man who doesn't love you. Or doesn't appreciate you. I know that story too well," Claire said.
I didn't want to talk about it anymore, as if I had purged myself. I was not Stanislaw. I was not Shoshana. They were both gone now.
"Maybe I should bring you some horns? I made some fresh today," I said.
"No. I can't. You know, how I love sweets. But I've already had a Snicker's bar today. The doctor has been warning me about diabetes."
"It's late. Suppose I should go. Should I prepare a meal? You could come over to my flat," I said.
"Not hungry. Don't go. I have something to tell you, " Claire said.
"Is something wrong?" I asked.
"This has probably been the worst day of my life. I take that back. There have been worse days. Like the day I realized I would get married to Amelio. Like the day they carried me to Peacemont. Like the day I found out I had lupus. Like the day Marcus Aurelius, my first Scottie, was hit by an ice cream truck. Like the day I lost all my hair in chemo treatment, " Claire said. Then she laughed, "Lord, I sound like Calamity Jane."
I was so afraid Claire would say her cancer had returned.
"You should have told me earlier. This was not the right time to tell you a sad story. I have added to your burdens."
"Not at all, darlin.' I was curious to know, but didn't want to intrude on your privacy. When your son, Mateusz lived there, he told me a few things, but obviously not the full story."
Did anyone ever know the full story about another human being's life?
Claire sighed, gloomily. She fanned herself. "Hot flashes. The least of my worries."
"What's wrong? What happened?"
Claire waved her hand at the church behind the house. Was that large ring on her index finger, a ruby?
"The church wants my house. The land. They cannot build across the street because there is a mosque. They cannot build on the cemetary. That leaves…" Claire said, her voice trailing off.
"What do they want to build?"
"A parking lot," Claire said.
"Shysters. Greedy pigs," I said.
The church would raze this historical Italian villa with the onion dome from the face of this earth, for a slab of asphalt?
"So they can sell more parking spaces at football games, " Claire said.
"Americans have no sense of history," I said, and then realized this might sound insulting. "I'm sorry."
"No need to apologize. You're just speaking the truth. The Civil War is invoked quite frequently around here for sentimental reasons, although we did lose the war. But when it comes to a profit…"
"Are you going to sell?"
Once when Claire was telling me the history of the house, she had mentioned that her family had lost the house twice in the hundred years they had owned it.
"No. I'll never sell," Claire said.
I admired her defiance. Why was she worried then?
There was a cacophony of barking.
"So you have nothing to worry about," I said.
"Well, it's not that simple. I haven't paid my back taxes for two years. My father's trust matures in two years. Can't touch it now. I am not really liquid, so to speak. Don't have much cash," Claire said.
One dog continued to bark, as if to say: what do you think of that?
"I love these darlings. Are you sure you don't want a dog to keep you company? I believe I love Dr. Johnson more than my husband, Laurance Duffy. He is certainly more considerate."
I laughed. Even if it was true, it sounded funny to say you loved your dog, better than your husband. But why not be honest, rather than say the expected thing? What would my life had been like if I had left Stanislaw? Of course, no one left their marriages then. Where would you live? Where could you go? No housing. Terrible salaries. No visas. All the borders were closed. If you were unhappy, you went to another room. Lived together without sharing or talking. Slept somewhere else. Breakfast was punctuated by grunts.
"Isn't there some historical association that protects the buildings in this town?"
"I could try to appeal to them. But the realtors are the fat cats in this town. They're sitting on the board of Covenant Hill Baptist," Claire said.
"Your brother won't help you save the house?"
"He's jealous papa willed it to me. Some years ago he contested the will. He's trying to get me to sell. If it comes to auction…he will outbid the church," Claire said, sighing. "I know my brother only too well."
"What will you do?"
"I don't know, darlin.' But it looks like war. We are under siege."
Like our people who fought underground in the sewers, I thought but didn't say. I wondered if Claire could hold out. She was always asking the tenants what kind of wallpaper they would like in the entrance, but never changed it. The red rose-colored wallpaper had long since faded. She also had not changed the locks, although had promised to. Hiltrud was convinced that everyone who came around were thieves, especially the black people. The villa was in bad need of repair.
As if Claire could read my mind, she said, "It's likely to get dirty."