My childhood was almost unmarred by death or sorrow. Two of my grandparents had died before I was born. My grandfather in Ustrzyki Dolne was pushing ninety in good health, and my grandmother in Wieliczka, though close to sixty, did not have a single gray hair; I do not think she dyed it. But death and sorrow were never far away; they were only visiting others. There was an elderly widow in Reymont Street, a friend of Kolynyczowa, who always wore black. Many years before, her only child, a little girl, died of tuberculosis. The widow never remarried and never had any more children. She would visit her daughter's grave often, and once, upon a return from such a visit, I overheard her talking with Kolynyczowa and crying. Kolynyczowa was comforting her and saying "What do you mean, to see her once again? There are only poor little bones left of her by now;" and the woman sobbing and saying that she would even be ready to see the poor little bones.
A year before the war, Zubik's quiet and softly coughing wife died of the tuberculosis she had been suffering from. We watched, from the window of our flat, the elegant black hearse with two black horses with black plumes over their heads, and the equally elegant shining black coffin slowly carried out of the house and slid into the hearse. It was difficult to imagine Zubik's wife inside it. Afterwards, my mother told me that Jewish funerals were much more plain. There was a tradition that, rich or poor, everyone was equal before death, and all Jews were buried in plain wooden coffins without varnish or trimmings. The naked body was wrapped in a plain shroud. Not only was jewellery not allowed, but even gold teeth were extracted by the undertakers so as to neither leave one body richer than another nor provide incentive for grave robbers. The coffins of the religious Jews also had a bottom which could be slid out sidewise after the coffin has been lowered into the grave, leaving the body in direct contact with the earth, in keeping with the Biblical passage about return to dust. As a matter of fact, the original Jewish burial, still practiced in Palestine, involved the shroud only, the wooden coffin being a concession to European custom and sensitivity.
Not all bodies, however, find a final resting place in the cemetery. One day, Kazik, Witek, and I, playing in a dark narrow neglected blind passage behind the carpentry found a gold-painted human skull in the rubble, and sat around it in the garden wondering who it originally belonged to. There were rumours of the bolsheviks shooting people in that passage in the Polish-Soviet war of 1920, but there was still the coat of gold paint - perhaps acquired in the studio of some painter or philosopher. The skull was going to be a great accessory in our games of pirates and buried treasure. Unwisely, we started by scaring the girls with it, and they must have talked because our parents got wind of the skull, confiscated it and somehow got rid of it.
A young strong handsome Jew who used to supply coal for our street once asked Kazik to take a letter and a bunch of flowers to a young Christian girl, a typist, who lived nearby, slipping Kazik a packet of milk chocolate as honorarium. A written reply arrived with the messenger, informing the young coalman that his sentiments were not shared. The next day he sent another, longer, letter and another bunch of flowers. The coalman seemed to be truly and deeply in love. The third time Kazik returned almost at once, embarrassed and still clutching the bunch of flowers.
"She was not at home?" the coalman asked hopefully.
"She was," Kazik said, looking at the ground and giving him back the flowers.
"Did she read the letter?"
Kazik blushed and shook his head.
"What did she do with it?"
Kazik didn't say anything.
"Come on, what did she do with it?"
"She...she tore it up."
"Did she say anything?"
Kazik bit his lip and blushed even deeper, glancing from the coalman to me.
"Come on, what did she say? Please, tell me her exact words." Then, having suddenly remembered, he reached into his pocket and took out a packet of chocolate. Kazik didn't want to take it and the coalman forced it into his hand.
"Come on, her exact words; please, Kazik."
"She said: 'Tell the dirty Jew to leave me alone'."
The young coalman stood there without saying anything, his face slowly going pale, and then, for the first time, we saw a grown-up man cry. At first only his lips moved, then a tear accumulated in the corner of each eye and slowly rolled down his face, followed by another and a third. Finally he took out a handkerchief, wiped his face, and left. Sharing out the chocolate in the garden - it did not taste as good as the first two packets - we speculated whether he would commit suicide or come back with a gun and shoot the girl. He did neither, and a few months later we heard that he emigrated, either to America or Palestine.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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