The Weight of Words

The finger of fate pushed Miss Götha Traub into Belgian Wallonia at the end of the 1930s, leaving her stranded there when, with lightning speed, the Wehrmacht occupied the country. She had come to Belgium to study the French language in its Wallonian guise, but during the war she ended up at a hospital caring for casualties, victims of the bombings and those suffering from the diseases that raged during the war. She took care of Belgian civilians, German soldiers, French and English prisoners of war, and sometimes, more rarely, slave laborers carted into service from distant places.

Götha Traub’s job was to undress the patients, wash, bandage, and medicate them, and then dress them again. During breaks in her work she tried to comfort them, to cry and laugh with them, to close their eyes when they died and fold their hands, if they had hands. While she was at it she learned languages—French, of course, but also Flemish and German, and to some extent even Russian and Polish, Yiddish, a touch of Basque, and the strongest curses in Maghreb Arabic.

“So in that sense I was successful,” she conceded to her best friend, Mrs. Kuf, in the Primula Café on Mannerheimintie, in 1952, the year of the Helsinki Olympics. “You and I made it out of that hell’s furnace alive, one of us in the heart of Europe, the other in the far north, in circumstances very different, yet nevertheless similar. I got the languages as part of the package.” She had studied for her master’s degree after peace came. “Languages breathing down my neck like the last gasps of the dying. I became a French teacher. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

“Better to laugh,” said Mrs. Kuf. “Or cry for joy.”

“I don’t even remember anymore why I went to Belgium in particular to study languages,” Götha sighed. “Some finger of fate just shoved me that way, some caprice of destiny, or if those words are too lofty, too weighty to describe the meanderings of a single individual’s life, then I’ll ask what toe of chance kicked me in that direction. And when the Winter War started I couldn’t come home to Finland, so I stayed where I was, since there was still peace in Belgium.”

“Why didn’t you come back to Finland in the interim peace?” Mrs. Kuf asked. “We were waiting for you. I was terribly worried about you. We all were.”

“And I about all of you,” said Götha. “I intended to come back when the Winter War ended, but you know how I am. I was so slow and hopeless. Two months would have been enough time, but I didn’t get my bones moving, and by May it was too late. The Germans attacked Belgium, and I couldn’t get out.”

“That must have been awful,” Mrs. Kuf said.

“It was one long nightmare. But I don’t want to talk about that,” Götha said, and instead started to talk about her experiences once peace arrived:

I was living in Namur and got to know a certain Pole named Tadeusz who was a Master of Romance languages and had survived the Eisden labor camp, Miss Götha said in a cool, expressionless tone (from which Mrs. Kuf deduced that this Pole had been very close to her). We had a custom of sitting for hours nose to nose in a tavern known as the King’s Jester drinking a beer called Namur Pale and talking about this or that. We were sitting there on the eighth of May, which happened to be the first anniversary of the German surrender, and, fittingly, a Saturday. We were recounting to each other and to ourselves the funny side of our experience of the horrors of war. We got rather quiet when the laughter caught in both our throats, then changed to the most general of subjects such as the significance of literature in nurturing the will to live. As was my habit I talked myself into a heat on the subject, and felt almost dizzy. When I finally finished speaking, Tadeusz, who had been listening somewhat impatiently, said:

“Now that we’ve thoroughly worked over the importance of literature and the weight of the printed word, it occurs to me that it’s a topic that can be also be examined from a more physical and dare I say quantitative standpoint.”

He filled his pipe slowly, with excruciating care, while I waited. Finally, he spoke:

“Before the wars I had a friend named Traugutt Chalupiec, a Pole like me, who was a Doctor of Natural Science and had also garnered some acclaim as a translator. This Chalupiec was crazy about old books, unlike his wife. They lived in a small apartment in an old house in the town of Poznan. Their children had already flown off into the world, but he had filled the space left by their departure with shelves full of books, some climbing up the walls, others rising from the middle of the floor in narrow rhomboidal towers that reached nearly to the ceiling. Above them all was a set of shelves that hung freely from hooks attached to the rafters where the doctor kept his oldest books, the rarities that he valued highly but seldom used, books his wife particularly hated because there was no way to dust them except to climb to the top of a rickety stepladder, risking her very life.

She was also galled by her husband’s habit of buying very old books that he thought of as finds and lugging them home. She thought that this bibliomania of his was a burden to the family finances. Money was needed for their son’s studies and their daughter’s wedding expenses and other costs measurable in cash of which the doctor, self-centered as he was, took not the slightest notice.

In the summer of nineteen thirty-eight, Dr. Chalupiec went as a representative of the Poznan Natural Scientific Society to a seminar organized in Krakow with the theme “Know Your Birds in Polish.” The purpose of the seminar was to bring the Polish bird list up to date by translating the most current foreign names of birds into Polish and correcting the taxonomically heretical names on the list. Doctor Chalupiec set off on his journey glowing with enthusiasm, because the study of the history of Polish taxonomy was his particular passion.

The free time he had in Krakow the doctor spent hunting for rarities in the antiquarian bookstores along the Grodzska pedestrian street and the makeshift bukinista stalls in the courtyard gateways of the buildings around the old marketplace. Breathing in the dust of decades and centuries, the doctor greedily fingered and flipped through history books, encyclopedias, natural science textbooks and annuals, colorful, oversized engravings of tropical animals and plants, old maps . . .

He was surprised by the large number of Jewish books, which were in Yiddish or Hebrew, printed with letters that bore the weight of thousands of years, the shape of their lines reminiscent of swords and daggers, scythes and sickles, which the doctor could not interpret. On a rack of old postcards were Hanukkah cards, color pictures of children spinning a dreidel, the same letters hanging over them.

Like the sword of Damocles, the doctor thought, even if the words and sentences formed by these letters were meant to be happy greetings from the world of childhood.

At one of the antiquarians’ stalls next to the market square the doctor found two volumes of Alfred Brehm’s marvelously illustrated Tierlieben, or Life of Animals, as well as a 120-year-old Latin–Polish dictionary. He was thrilled, particularly about the Tierlieben, which he had wished for all his life, and after some quietly firm dickering he bought both of them. He reckoned he’d got himself a good bargain.

His feet carried him in due time through the door of the next antiquarian and halfway up a shelf ladder until his eyes were level with the second shelf from the top. There, to his joy, he found Samuel-Bogumil Linde’s Slownik jezyka polskiego, a Polish dictionary, one of the first of its kind, printed in Warsaw in 1807, which he’d dreamed of having since he was a child. Three of the six volumes were for sale. He bought them and vowed that he would acquire the other three before he died, or perhaps afterward.

He hauled his heavy purchases back to the Karykatura traveler’s home, where, as night fell, overcome by an odd sort of ecstasy and bathed in the weak light of the reading lamp, he examined his treasures until he fell asleep in the midst of his reading, a happy smile on his dust-dried lips.

When the seminar ended, the doctor toted his things to the train like a worker ant; his back and arms ached but he was as excited as a little boy, and also a little afraid. When he got back to Poznan he left his load of books in a locker at the train station because he didn’t yet have the courage to show his purchases to his wife. It wasn’t until the following Sunday, when his wife was at church for morning Mass, that he smuggled the books home.

The doctor moved several volumes of poetry by Slovack and Krasinski from a ceiling shelf and hid them in the cellar, replacing them with the books he’d bought. He changed the places of some of the other books as well, hoping that his wife wouldn’t notice the new books, at least for a little while.

But his wife had learned to expect just this sort of thing, and as soon as she got back from church she saw the changes to the uppermost shelf, noticed the new books there, and put two and two together.

Mrs. Chalupiec expressed her anger at this splurge of her husband’s more vehemently than usual. She was particularly offended by the fact that he had tried to put one over on her in such a rudimentary manner. After raging at him for a time she burst into tears and rued the day she’d turned down a chance to marry the bricklayer Zartownis, even if he did drink every weekend and turn hard when he was drunk, since empty bottles were easily discarded and bruises could be covered up, while the spiritual weight of books slipped into the house under false pretenses was enough to crush a person. She cursed her husband and his pathological mania for collecting and wished in hindsight that a cat had scratched his eyes out when he was a child so that he never could have learned to read.

Mrs. Chalupiec threatened to leave her husband. The doctor took the threat calmly; she had threatened to leave before, but had always calmed down once her rage had passed. This time, however, she was fed up, and made the threat real, leaving just like that a couple of days later on a train to Masovia, where her sister lived.

Doctor Chalupiec was sorry to see her go, but he took it like a man—he did have his new books to keep him company, after all.

After just a few days the daily chores that his wife had always taken care of without complaint started to become burdensome and eventually overwhelming for the doctor and he decided to call her and ask her to come back. She told him she was ready to come home on the condition that he found some way to bring as much money into the house as he had spent on books in Krakow. His son was once again penniless, his daughter’s wedding day was approaching, and his wife, too, needed a new dress for the festivities. It was up to him, and no one else, to choose what, if anything, was to become of them.

Doctor Chalupiec vowed to mend his ways. No more would he waste a single zloty on old books, from that day forward. Instead he would buy a bottle of Wyborowa  every weekend.

Wearied but relieved, the doctor procured translation work and took on extra teaching hours. With a heavy heart he sold his Slovack and Krasinski and a valuable first edition of a Sienkiewicz novel to the antiquarian’s at a discount, fought off the urge to buy something else to replace it, and sent the money to his wife in Masovia. She gradually relented and promised to come home. She still had to help her sister with the cherry picking, then she would be ready to return.

Doctor Chalupiec was sitting at his desk working on an English translation of a monograph on the subject of “The Polish Cochineal” by his colleague at Poznan University, Antoni Jakubski, when he noticed a spider’s web on the highest bookshelf. His interest was aroused, and he climbed the ladder to examine the web and determined that it was of an unusual construction: two of the sectors of its wheel were missing their circular threads, leaving a free radius thread between them that led from the center of the web straight to the spider’s nest, which was at the lower edge of the web and partly behind it. A housefly was stuck to the web and the spider had wrapped several threads around it.

A garden spider-type, a sector spider! he deduced, and reached for his arachnid handbook, but the book was behind the spider web, out of reach, and he didn’t want to break the web. The weaver of the web was nowhere to be seen, hiding in its woven nest and not likely to come out until nighttime.

Doctor Chalupiec was a single-minded and thorough man of action. He walked briskly to the university library, hunted down a field guide to arachnids, and immersed himself in comparisons of spiders.

It must have given the fly a fatal bite, tied it up with a few threads of spider’s silk, then hidden away in its nest to wait for nightfall, when it would swaddle its prey in silk and carry it back to the nest to enjoy straight from the package, Doctor Chalupiec muttered, engrossed. Most likely of the genus Zygiella, although it might be Calyptrata, or Keyserlingi. Or perhaps a wasp spider that had wandered indoors!

The doctor was excited by this deduction, as such varieties of spider weren’t normally seen in Poland. But you never knew; it was a restless time, odd populations moving from place to place—why not spiders as well? If his book spider came from southern Europe, or India, or belonged to an entirely new, previously unknown genus, it would be a small arachnological sensation.

He decided to waste no time in taking some photos of the spider’s web. He would try using a magnesium flash to capture the spider itself on film that very night.

Walking home from the library it occurred to Doctor Chalupiec that a new zygiella needed a new name. He stopped in at a favorite students’ tavern, ordered a pint of beer, and thought for a long time about a fitting name. Zygiella polonica? Zygiella posnaniensis? Zygiella chalupieciensis!

When the doctor reached home his wife was already there. She had come on the morning train, glowing with good feeling and forgiveness and wishes for a better future. To show her goodwill she had decided that the first thing she would do was to clear away the dust from the hated Krakow book acquisitions. As he stepped through the door into his study, the doctor saw his wife standing on the top step of the ladder. Her duster was moving toward the zygiella’s web. He let out a cry of alarm. His wife took a fright from his shriek, lurched on the top of the ladder, and took hold of the bookshelf for support. The doctor rushed to hold the ladder, his wife lost her balance and put all her weight on the shelf, which came loose from its hooks on one end, and the heavy books came sliding out and fell on the doctor as he heroically attempted to hold the ladder upright and thus failed to cover his head. The first volume of Bogumil Linde’s Polish-language encyclopedia (abakus–gulasz) hit his head with a thump, he let go of the ladder, his wife hung by both hands from the end of the shelf with just one foot still on the ladder, the shelf came away from its supports, its sharp edge struck Doctor Chalupiec in the temple and knocked him unconscious, the ladder fell sideways, and his wife leaped quickly free and flopped straight onto the sofa.

The doctor was rushed to the hospital, unconscious and bleeding profusely. His wife came through with a few bangs and bruises and the fingernails pulled out of two of her fingers.

The doctor lay at the brink of death, but then he didn’t die. The hospital said that the sharp edge of the shelf had dented the bone at his temple and damaged his hippocampus, which is located inside the temporal lobe, near the ear. This little organ happened to be a part central to the memory of any person, including Doctor Chalupiec.

Before the doctor had returned home the neurologist took Mrs. Chalupiec aside and urged her to prepare herself for the fact that her husband’s memory would be but a memory of its former self. He had lost his ability to read or write. There was a possibility of small improvement, but any hope she had for a complete return of memory should be laid to rest.

With this provision, Doctor Chalupiec was allowed to go home. He knew he was at home but he didn’t enjoy being in his study anymore. He didn’t understand why the room was full of books—large books, small books. The kitchen had never been particularly familiar to him. He moved into the bedroom to live. He felt comfortable there.

Naturally he couldn’t continue his work at the university, or anywhere else. He slept for most of each day. When he wasn’t sleeping he stared at the ceiling slowly eating Masovian cherries and spitting the pits at the ceiling lamp. And in that posture he passed the time, suffering from both anterograde amnesia—the inability to remember going forward, causing an insurmountable difficulty in learning new things and committing them to memory; and retrograde amnesia—the inability to remember going backward, causing difficulty remembering events prior to the point at which the weight of words fell on top of him.

Doctor Chalupiec was blissfully ignorant of the fact that he had damaged his hippocampus and was happily unable to store any memory of the episode or any semantic or, to any great extent, declarative memories. Professor Jakubski tried patiently to explain his condition to him, but his episodic memory was an immediate obstacle, and he didn’t recognize the professor.

Don’t talk nonsense young man, the doctor said to the professor. Any child can see that Rubinstein plays Chopin better than Paderewski.

Doctor Chalupiec tired of lying on his back and staring at the ceiling, however. He wanted to go out, he longed for the bustle of the city. That was generally considered a good sign. He was taken here and there in town: to the Old Town, to Kierskie Lake, to Wilson Park and its famous Palm Gardens.

He seemed to enjoy these trips, asking about everything between heaven and earth like an eager child, but in the evening he didn’t remember anything at all about his day. In spite of this, and because he demanded to be allowed to go out alone, he was considered alert enough to move about town unaccompanied. This judgment was proved mistaken. The same cursed scar on his hippocampus that was the cause of the doctor’s lapsed memories also scrambled his cognitive map considerably. He started getting lost in even the most familiar locales and his wife had to come and get him from all sorts of places, often used bookstores that he’d wandered into without knowing where he was or what he was looking for. Sometimes he would be sitting on a shop stool crying like a child, the booksellers comforting him and offering him hot cocoa.

Mrs. Chalupiec was greatly saddened by her husband’s condition. She began to think that she was at least indirectly responsible for the doctor’s lost happiness. She had, after all, cursed her husband and his old books aloud and wished that a cat had clawed his eyes out. She deeply regretted her curse, thought it a sin, and went to confess it so frequently that her confessor, Pater Witold, scolded her for the sin of self-aggrandizement and forbade her to come again until she had some other sins on her conscience than a curse let fall in anger.

She had faith in the priest and stopped coming to confession, but nevertheless prayed fervently for her husband’s recuperation.

And soon it seemed that her prayers were heard. The doctor didn’t recover, it’s true, but nevertheless something happened that could in good faith be considered a small miracle: the doctor’s son Matek was gathering the books that had fallen from the highest shelf and packing them into cardboard boxes to cart them to the antiquarian’s when he found among the pages of a heavy Latin – Polish dictionary a four-sheet series of stamps printed in Galicia under the Austro-Hungarian occupation and depicting the Emperor Franz Josef, his family, and a slew of Austria’s Hapsburg forefathers. Young Chalupiec recognized the stamps’ value, which, unlike that of the dictionary, was measurable in cash and could be sold at auction. The stamps were rare enough to procure for the doctor and his family a tidy sum with which the doctor and his wife could more or less get by, the son could pay his debts, and the daughter could finance a respectable wedding.

Most of the rarities among the doctor’s books were put up for sale, but on close examination of each volume it was found that there were none of any value. The bloody second volume of Linde’s dictionary Mrs. Chalupiec burned in a bonfire in the courtyard of the house. As the book slowly withered in the flames she pronounced her curse three times backwards, spit three times thrice, and made five backward signs of the cross. She thus broke the curse and could live the rest of her days with an untroubled mind.

For something to do, Doctor Chalupiec started raising fish and lizards. The empty bookshelves were dragged out to the yard and in their place he bought aquariums and terrariums. He gave the fish and lizards the names of Polish kings and queens: Boleslaus the Brave, Mieszko the First, Anna Jagiellon, August the Strong, and the like. The ugliest fish he gave the names of the nobles of the Swedish House of Vasa. The largest, reddish goldfish, a ruby tetra, was named Stephen Báthory, and its wife was Anna. The doctor remembered every noble fish and lizard by sight and by name, the neurologist who treated him wrote a scientific article about him, and Professor Jakubski was overjoyed by the improvement in his former colleague’s anterograde amnesia and hoped that the doctor would soon be well enough to continue his English translation of the book on the cochineal louse. Mrs. Chalupiec spoke of a miracle and tired Father Witold with detailed descriptions of her husband’s fish and lizard populations.

This idyll lasted for one year. It ended in September of 1939, when Germany attacked Poland and Poznan was made a part of the Reich and became Posen. In November, just after the first frost, Doctor Chalupiec was riding the tram to the Park Solacki pond to buy some sticklebacks from the little boys there for his aquarium, whose entire Jagiellonian dynasty had died of hunger for lack of appropriate dry flake food. A German patrol stopped him in the middle of his purchase. The doctor did not have any identification papers with him and couldn’t remember his name or address but instead in his panic recited a long list of Polish kings. This angered the Germans, and since the doctor had also grown a longish beard, they decided that he was a Jew and arrested him and took him to a Polish school for the blind that had been shut down, where dozens of Jewish families were awaiting transport to the east, to the German General Government in Warsaw or Lublin, from there to the camps, and from the camps . . .?

“That is the last that was seen of Doctor Traugutt Chalupiec; nothing more was ever heard from him,” said Master of Romance Languages Tadeusz, and blew on the bowl of his pipe.

“What a sad ending,” said Mrs. Kuf, and wiped her nose.

“Isn’t it?” said Miss Götha Traub. “Tadeusz saw that I was crestfallen and tried to console me.”

“Since Chalupiec was apparently not mentioned in any lists of the dead by name he might very well still be alive,” he said, taking my hand. And though neither of us believed that possibility, we ordered another Namur Pale and tried to be glad that we, at least, had survived.

©Daniel Katz and WSOY. “Sanojen paino,” from Berberileijonan rakkaus (Helsinki: Werner Söderström Corporation, 2008). Published by arrangement with Werner Söderström Ltd. (WSOY). Translation ©2014 by Lola Rogers. All rights reserved.