bed as a tomb
We draped ourselves around the big rickety stove, like our washing, hanging on its pipes that grudgingly whistled and belched, before throwing out a little heat in our direction. The clean smell of soap was soon lost in the smoke from the stove, fug of cheap tobacco, and the lost and lingering sweat from our bodies. The literate tried to sneak in front of the illiterate; the well off in front of the poor; those with a head for languages and those with little formal education; all of us; tried to push our noses forward for that little extra heat. But no one has thought how we were to get precious fuel, the coal or wood, denied to Jews and prostitutes for their stove. There was probably a codex on it written somewhere. But we grew bold as laboratory rats in our scavenging of classrooms, nominally cut off from us. A thousand years of learning could be consumed in an evening, with a wobbly chair providing some respite from the big words in big books. The Ukrainian guards who accompanied us cared little about such desecration and more about the Vodka that we offered as a bribe.
We drank not to forget about our lives, but to make another life, in which we were out of reach, another state in which we were free. The Ukranian guards understood that very well. And if the price was to tell the same man that came night after night, before returning to his unit, that you loved him, but would need a little something, well, there was no harm in that.
My dreams were of escape, of being able to walk once more in the sunshine, not as the crow flies, or as the Jew walks. For one side of one street may be verboten; the other simply off limits. Only a smiling corpse, or perhaps a lawyer, could show the difference. The Vernichtungkommando performed miracles with such words, such legal niceties. They could make the paralysed twitch and move, with a precious bullet through the eye and through the ear. Only they could casually stop a baby from crying, or an infant from crawling. And if you weren’t a dirty Jew, you were a Pole, which was almost enough, because they did not make mistakes. The ausrotten policy made them king. You were one or the other. Leaving the shelter of your temporary home was always a matter of testing each footprint on the pavement to see if it would hold, of thinking ahead and looking behind and asking at each street corner: ‘where are they?’
The Aryan side was the safe side, but also the most dangerous. I longed to stroll once more without an armband in the streets around Lezno, to look in shop windows at the cut of fashionable clothes and not use them as mirrors to look at the lookers. I was wanton in my need to stare at people and places and not feel that great weight around my neck, pulling my head down to look at the ground, so that it was as if my shoes had eyes. To see the marvel of well-dressed people travelling at the speed of light in a tram and not rickshaws pulled by emaciated corpses. To suck in the smell bread and bagels and not feel guilty about the richness of the experience. To walk slowly and aimlessly and not come to a checkpoint with gendarmes, those that probed us with their hard fingers, and with their guttural commands, that cut up our world, and our day, into little squares of pavement that we had to hurry over. I wanted that Gentile world so much that I could almost taste it on my lips, in each swirl of alcohol, burning its way into being.
There was nothing to do, but talk. Monologues. Soliloquies of children prised from open arms, of husbands and mothers and ghosts of grandmothers all crowding in and speaking of our loneliness now. Or even dialogue, but the topic was always the past. Sometimes Eva, the Communist, would talk about the future. But even she was talking about the past when the world made sense and was not all about killing and dying.
‘Is Africa close to Poland?’ Marina asked when we heard about Rommel’s defeat at El Alamein.
‘Not that far,’ I said.
Little Sarah, the Rabbi’s daughter, with her broad face in permanent mourning, snorted and in a melange of Low German- Yiddish said, ‘listen, the English tanks will soon be coming through this door’.
Marina looked behind her.
‘No, they will come,’ she said, swigging back some Vodka, ‘they will come, but whether we will be here for them…’
‘They will come,’ I said, patting Marina on the shoulder to reassure her.
I did not offer her any more words of comfort, or the reassurance of our vodka held beliefs, because somehow, I felt it was better to brood like Little Sarah, or swallow back words like Eve. Marina was too young to hold down drink’s promiscuous promises, and I was scared it would make her brave, like Tusia, and that she would end up the same way.
‘They will come,’ I said, my lips curling up into something like a smile; the one that I used on the men.
I looked at Marina’s face, her eyes and nose, the curve of her mouth, the whiteness of her teeth, dissected each part for its Jewishness. Unlike the men there were no Semitic marks that pulling our pants down would brand us as Jews. I was sure she could pass as a Gentile, her child like innocence would be an asset and it only needed Vodka and 1000 zloty to bribe the guards.
Nulah, the gypsy, made the same hazardous journey once a month to visit her husband on the Gentile side. He’d grown rich from the trading between the ghetto and the Gentiles. It always amazed me that she came back, but although she was a Gypsy and not a Jew, her features were coarse, a caricature almost of Jewishness and any but a cursory examination of her papers would have found her out and led to her death.
‘It’s safe here and it’s not as if we are hard worked. They’ll always need us,’ Nulah said, pushing up and out her breasts as further evidence of her argument.
‘What if you get sick, or pregnant?’ I asked.
But Nulah’s ears were always closed to such things. ‘We can make them like us,’ she said scratching under her hairline as if she was wearing a sheitel.