The telegram came at eight in the morning. He was still lying in bed; he didn’t really feel like getting up. He couldn’t stand Sundays anymore; they were empty days difficult to fill. So he stayed in bed as long as he could, waiting for the morning commotion to die down in the apartment, and the scrambles for the bathroom and kitchen to cease. That usually took quite some time, since the apartment housed three families, one in each of the three large rooms. He himself occupied only a tiny cubicle, probably a former servant’s quarters; its only advantage was that it belonged exclusively to him. It didn’t even have room for a second bed and only once, when some of the landlord’s relatives from eastern Poland came to visit, did he have to take in a ten-year-old boy for the night. The boy slept on the floor.
That was probably the best night he spent in that house; otherwise he slept fitfully, plagued by nightmares. He often woke in the middle of the night and would lie awake until dawn. That night, as the “little boy”—he thought of him as a little boy, though in reality he was already quite a strapping lad—was lying on the mattress spread out next to his bed, he had the sensation that Henryk had come back and had fallen asleep, worn out, still a little unfamiliar, a little more grown up, a little more of a man. He listened to the boy’s breathing, looked at his dark head buried in the pillow. How easy it was to slide right into that lie so cunningly laid by his imagination!
He didn’t struggle against the emotion and for the first time since he came back he felt a warmth welling up inside him. Embers long extinguished and covered with ashes once again caught fire. He began to thaw. That night he slept peacefully, more so than the little boy, who tossed and groaned in his sleep. The morning was difficult. He avoided looking the boy in the eye when the latter grew talkative and curious and tried to draw him into conversation. He excused himself by saying he was in a hurry, and because there was the usual line in front of the bathroom, he left the house unwashed and unshaven, even more morose and withdrawn than normal. The fresh air calmed him down. He reproached himself severely for his momentary lapse into sentimentality, for departing from his cool and rational demeanor. That evening he found his room all tidied up; the landlady thanked him for his kindness and informed him that her relatives had left for Lower Silesia. He was relieved the boy had gone, but that night he slept very badly; against his custom he took a strong dose of sleeping pills.
It would be madness to delude himself into believing that Maria and the boy were still alive. Seven months of scrupulous searching—letters, ads, trips to acquaintances and visits with strangers—and not a trace. Everything broke off on the tenth of May 1943. Because up to that day he was able to reconstruct practically every movement of his wife and son during the occupation, based on numerous accounts and conversations. Not a single link was missing: first HoÅ¼a Street, then the “Aryan” apartment and the surname WisÅ�owska. Next blackmail, a move to Krakow under the name Kowalska, finally a second return to Warsaw (why they went back he couldn’t discover), the room at the engineer Z.’s, and a job at the post office.
On the tenth of May Maria and the child left the house at eight in the morning. Nobody ever saw them again, nobody ever inquired about them. After that there was only darkness and silence.
“I don’t want to be cruel,” said Z., the engineer, “but I would exclude every possibility except that they ran into some thug who denounced them when they couldn’t pay what he wanted . . .”
“But it could have been a roundup! They could have been sent to a work camp!” he replied to all those who either shrugged their shoulders or else dismissed his crazy search for the dead as the pitiful act of a desperate man.
One month before the telegram he stopped looking. His suitcase was crammed with replies, forms and letters, all of which said “No.” There were official seals from the Red Cross, the White Cross, the Jewish Committees, the Office of Repatriation, JOINT, HIAS, the cities of Warsaw, Geneva, London, Paris. One month before the telegram he locked his suitcase with a key and accepted the sentence of death. He stopped asking, stopped chasing people, stopped collecting wartime biographies. He took a job in an office, where he soon earned a reputation as a conscientious worker as well as an unapproachable colleague. He began signing forms as “widower.”
And then it came. His immediate impulse was to reach for a cigarette, but his hands shook so violently he couldn’t light the match. So he collapsed back onto his pillow, weak and shaking, as if struck with some terrible disease.
“I told them so,” he whispered, “I told them.”
The news came from the Warsaw branch of the Red Cross, which had on more than one occasion sent him information that contradicted the contents of that day’s telegram. Obviously Maria’s address had taken this long to reach them, letters from abroad take a long time, many of them disappear underway, so there was no reason to be surprised. He kept holding the little white card up to his eyes, kept reading the crooked lines of type: “Maria Kranz with son camp UNNRA 94 Ettlingen Germany American Zone.”
“Just like I thought. First a roundup, then a work camp or some other kind of forced labor. I felt, I knew that it wasn’t blackmail.”
He saw the great covered station in an unknown city, saw himself stepping off the train, walking toward the two of them. Maria in the light dress he liked so much, her hands shading her eyes, and little Henryk . . .
Henryk had the same face and the same dark head of hair as the boy who had spent the night with him.
He felt a salty drop land in his mouth. “I’m crying,” he thought with joy.
An hour later, as he was saying good-bye to his landlady, he asked her to call his office and explain his sudden departure. “Couldn’t you put it off until tomorrow?” she asked, surprised not so much at the news itself, which was common enough in those days, as by the pace of events. “Prepare for your trip properly, buy provisions for the road; after all, it’s a long way. Wouldn’t it be better if you applied for an exit visa? If you try and cross without papers you’re likely to wind up in prison! Why don’t you write her and ask her to come here? In a month the dining room will be free; the doctor and his family are moving in with his parents.”
He listened politely, patiently, already fully equipped for his journey—a warm sweater, a knapsack, a windbreaker. Then he repeated: “The only thing I’d like for you to do is call the office.”
He moved efficiently, logically, decisively. He left the city on the first train headed southwest. After studying the map he decided the best place to cross the border would be near one of the spa towns, where the heavily wooded plateau would provide the most security. Anyway, it was silly to speak of danger at the very moment he found his wife and son.
When he got off the train he didn’t even take notice of the picturesque little town, its narrow streets and covered walkways. While he was waiting for the bus he sat down in a smoky pub: through the dirty windowpanes he could see people rummaging around the booths in front of the railroad station.
His calculations worked out exactly. He would reach K. at sunset, so he would have plenty of time to cross the border.
He bought cigarettes, rolls and apples and tossed them into his knapsack.
Riding on the bus he had the impression that the whole day was a dream from which he could not wake. He felt a sudden fright and must have moaned out loud, since his neighbor turned to look him over and asked in a thick Lwow accent: “You’re not feeling very well are you?”
When they reached the end of the line he walked on down the road; according to his map he had to go for two more kilometers before veering off into the forest.
In the evening he made good progress. The clean mountain air made it easier to breathe; his leg muscles felt supple and fit. Now he would be able to talk with Maria for as long as he wanted, all through the night and the whole next day. Now at last it would be possible. He never could talk to a dead Maria, a murdered Maria.
The forest floor was fragrant and moist. He pushed on slowly, with the measured step of an experienced hiker; he didn’t stop until he reached the summit. Full of quiet happiness, he gazed up at the sky and at the stars. He called out loudly: “Maria,” and his echo answered.
He made it. After two days of travel his eyes were burning, his legs swollen. He had covered much of the way on foot, or else by hitchhiking. He had ridden and walked without seeing anything around him. He passed by famous cities with utter indifference, he completely ignored the sounds of a foreign tongue, he paid absolutely no heed to the fact that the country in which he found himself was enemy territory.
After two days of level going the land again begin to rise in gentle green domes. There, at the foot of those hills, was Maria.
In the pub they were easily able to point him in the right direction. The UNRRA camp was located in the former SS barracks, a ways out of town, in the woods.
“Eine wunderbare Gegend,” a German lady sitting behind the counter praised the area. Her hair was freshly curled. The beer hall was cold and orderly; the wooden stools and benches glistened, polished by the bottoms of the beer drinkers.
The German lady had blood red fingernails; the radio was playing a violin concerto by Bach. He walked out quickly, as if they were after him.
He passed the bridge and the last houses of the city. The day was coming to an end, the cars racing past at full speed had already switched on their headlights.
Around the bend, against the backdrop of the forest were several light-colored, multistoried buildings.
He wanted to quicken his pace, but his heart wouldn’t let him. He was panting as if he’d been running for miles. His legs went weak; he knew it wasn’t fatigue. He wiped his forehead; moist, dirty stains appeared on his handkerchief. Without stopping he lit a cigarette.
He was afraid.
A guard wearing an American uniform asked him in Polish: “Where do you think you’re going?” The guard pointed to a one-story building: “They have lists inside the administration, but the office is closed now.”
He attempted, incoherently, to explain what he was after and that he couldn’t wait for morning, please, it has to be now, right now, right this minute . . .
He sat down on the steps and waited. In front of him there was a large plaza surrounded by barracks that was now used as living quarters. The grass was dotted with women and small children, little groups of people were moving up and down the paths. Someone was playing an accordion. In the middle of the plaza stood a tall, solid flagpole flying a red and white flag.
“Are you the one looking for Maria Kranz?” he heard a male voice above him. He nodded. His throat was dry, cramped, constricted. “Pani Maria is our nurse. She lives in the fourth building, room number fifteen.”
He thanked the man, threw his knapsack over his shoulder, and took off in the direction indicated, without saying a word, even though the man was clearly waiting for some kind of explanation.
As he walked he felt he was causing a little stir, since people were stopping to look at him. He suddenly remembered he had neither shaved nor washed properly for three days. The dirt and grime had turned his windbreaker completely gray, a thick layer of dust covered his shoes.
In front of the entrance to the fourth building he stopped and took one deep breath, then another. His heart hurt as he exhaled.
He climbed up to the second story, checked the number of the room next to the stairwell: ten. That meant her door was the fifth one down.
He couldn’t bring himself to knock right away. He stood and listened. The room was quiet, a thin line of light came through the crack of the door. He wanted to call out her name but his lips were frozen numb, no longer his own. He heard a door slamming shut on the floor below, a scolding female voice and then the cry of a small child.
He gently turned the handle. The door opened softly, without resistance. Inside the room a lamp was burning, next to the bed. And on the bed, wrapped in a gray blanket, lay a woman. A woman he’d never seen before.
He stood in the doorway and exhaled loudly. The woman raised her head, he saw her light hair, her very light hair piled up in tiny curls. She was not young.
“What do you want?” she asked.
He clutched at the last bit of hope, although he now knew it was in vain.
“I’m looking for Pani Kranz. Maria Kranz, with her son.” As an involuntary reflex he added: “I’m her husband.”
The woman’s eyes grew wide, she tore herself from the bed, then quickly recovered control and stated calmly: “My husband was killed. There’s been some mistake. You have to be looking for a different Maria Kranz.”
He took a couple steps and, without taking off his knapsack, collapsed heavily on the chair.
“What do you mean a different Maria Kranz! You’re telling me that she’s dead, that she’s never coming back, and you call it a mistake!”
She stepped closer to him, he saw the ache, the weariness on her face.
“I’m sorry. Please forgive me, I’ve been on—”
There’s nothing to forgive,” she interrupted, shrugging her shoulders, “you think I don’t understand?” They stood there a moment in silence. Then she added, “Please, tell me, where did you get my address?
He took the telegram from his pocket and handed it to her without a word. She read it and placed it on the table. He left it lying there.
“The Red Cross, of course, I wrote them about a month ago—one last time, I thought. You see, I’m still hoping, too, that somebody from my family might . . .”Except I would have checked first, instead of packing my bags and taking off, just like that, just like a moth into the candle . . .”
What was there to check? he thought, The same exact name. With son. But all he said was “Once again, please forgive me, I’ll be on my way . . . ”
He returned to the little town. His steps were heavy, labored. “Everything hurts,” he thought, “one dull ache . . .” It was already dark, the streets were dead, only the pub on the square where he had asked for directions was lit up. He was afraid he might not have the strength to walk across. He stopped and leaned against the stone casing of the well. “One dull ache,” he thought again. “One great dull ache . . .”
A young woman wearing a light dress came running up out of the square, stepping lightly. She ran right by him, so close, so close—and disappeared into the dark. His heart pounded inside him, he gripped his chest to calm it down. He stood there clutching his heart and waited. She’ll come back, she’ll call my name. Like she used to.
Not a soul was inside the pub. The waitress with the bloody fingernails was reading a book, the radio was silent. He took off his backpack, collapsed on the bench, covered his face with his hands and sat there frozen. Without waiting for his order the German woman placed a full mug in front of him. He drank it down in one long gulp.
“Sie fahren weg?” she asked, as he paid for the beer. “You’re leaving? That’s a pity, it’s so nice here . . . eine wundersch—ne Gegend . . .“The tourists are going to start coming back; our vineyards are famous throughout the country . . .”Wein, Weib und Gesang . . .” Wine, woman and song. He looked up. His eyes frightened her. She jumped back.
The night was cool. He reached the station just as the green signal arm was going up. He climbed aboard the train not knowing where he was bound and took a seat beside the window. Beyond it lay the thick, impenetrable darkness.