Zygmunt Frankel


Chapter 6


18th March 1941
Another spring, and my weight steady at between sixty-nine and seventy kilos! I've done it! It only shows what strong will can do. And I look good too, having slimmed in exactly the right places, waist, ankles, and face. It may also have something to do with Adam. Perhaps there is nothing like a lover on the side to make a woman look - and feel - her best, especially if the affair is a comfortable and uncomplicated one, nothing like Mimi's with that young painter last summer, what with his threats of suicide and afterwards his arrest. (There was nothing in the papers about it, and we don't know in what prison or concentration camp he is now, and for how long.) Adam and I are both civilised people - and both married - and he's a model of discretion. It's nice while it lasts, and neither of us expects any great tragedies or heartbreaks when it's over.
Adam is the smartly dressed man who plays chess at the Roma. The opening shot came one cold winter day when I arrived at the Roma before Mimi. Adam - whom I only knew as Mr. Zaslawski till then - passed my table and unobtrusively slipped me a small nicely wrapped cardboard box, about five by five by twenty-five centimeters as my husband would say, very light, and said it's a present but could I please only open it when I got home. I thanked him, kindly but non-committally; not knowing what it was I had no reasons to refuse it - we were old though slight acquaintances after all - but no reason to thank him too profusely either. I put it in my handbag and then Mimi arrived.
On my way home there was a sudden commotion and the street was sealed off at both ends by German soldiers, with some more along the walls of the houses to make sure no one ducked into an entrance. They were checking documents, handbags, and shopping bags; it was a frequent occurence and my papers were in perfect order. When my turn came and I handed my identity card to a sergeant, he asked me to open my handbag.
"What's in the box?"
"I don't know," I said. "It's a present from someone I know and he asked me not to open it before I got home."
"You'll have to open it now."
I unwrapped the box, hoping to God the smart man at the Roma had not slipped me anything like underground literature or drugs. There was a single red rose in the box, beautiful and fresh.
"Unbelievable," the sergeant said, visibly touched. "In the middle of the winter, too; it must have been grown in a hothouse. Please wrap it up again quickly, before it freezes."
I put the rose in a little crystal vase at home and looked at it until half an hour before my husband was due from work. Then I took it out, wrapped it in an old newspaper, and buried it at the bottom of the dustbin in the kitchen.
The next day I thanked the smartly dressed man and told him of my scare.
"No, I don't do anything of the sort," he said. "Just stuff like coffee, sugar, cigarettes, alcohol, even an occasional gramophone record or a rare book, and I do it carefully and am pretty well covered on all sides. I don't feel any particular shame about it, seeing what the situation is. I have done my best in September - I was mobilized at the start of the war - and even got wounded; a small shell fragment." He undid a mother-of-pearl cufflink and showed me a scar on his forearm. "When the front fell apart, we couldn't get through to the southern border to cross into Romania, and the Russians were approaching from behind, so rather than go into captivity we threw our rifles into the bushes, having removed the bolts and buried them so that the rifles would be useless if found, and made our way home on foot. I would be quite ready to fight for the homeland again within some proper framework with some chance of success, but not risking my neck in some harebrained scheme where the only thing you can achieve is to get shot, or get twenty innocent hostages shot instead of you."
"Of course. Did you say gramophone records? I was looking for a selection from "La Boheme" for Mimi's birthday in two weeks' time, and couldn't find any."
"Why didn't you tell me a week ago? I had one, and let someone have it, with several other records. You know what? Give me till the end of the week to try to get it back from him, in exchange for some other record."
"I would be most grateful."
Two days later, when Mimi went to powder her nose, he whispered to me that he had the record. He had exchanged it for a selection from Wagner's Ring - he stopped here, as if having said too much - well, anyway, to keep it a secret till Mimi's birthday, he could bring it to my place one morning, or, if I preferred to call on him, he would be delighted to show me a selection of some other records, difficult to find in shops; and he slipped me his visiting card. We arranged a meeting at his place the next morning. He lives alone in a fairly large and luxuriously furnished flat in a smart section of the town - he is married and wears a wedding ring at all times, but the family villa is somewhere on the outskirts of the town and this, as he calls it, is his pied-'-terre - and received me in the sitting room. At first he wouldn't hear about my paying for the record, but I insisted and he named a ridiculous price, slightly below that of the cheapest and most available record in a shop, and resisted all my attempts to raise it. He also treated me to a real champagne breakfast with caviar on toast - God knows where he gets those things - and showed me a rare old edition of Mickiewicz. He also said that as it was another week to Mimi's birthday, he might find something interesting to add to the record, and two days later invited me to call on him again. When I did, he took out of a drawer an old score of the first translation of "La Boheme" into Polish and gave it to me. He wouldn't hear of my paying for it, saying that it was included in the price of the record, which was absolutely ridiculous. Then we had another champagne breakfast, and afterwards he showed me the flat, pointing out various rare or curious items, and when we got as far as the bedroom with the curtains drawn, well, it happened.

30th June 1941
Another war, for God's sake, a big one, totally unexpected, not too far away, and I might not be able to spend the summer in the country this year because of it. The Germans attacked Russia a week ago, and the Russian army seems to be falling apart. Not that anyone is sorry, remembering what they did to Poland two years ago. It is better to see your two enemies annihilating each other instead of cooperating in peace. At least that's what the men say; they seem to welcome every new war, without remembering what the last one was like. But the men have decided that the whole thing should be over in a couple of months: with the Germans five hundred kilometers into Russia in the first week, on the Dniepr and pushing towards Moscow and Leningrad, and half a million Russian prisoners of war, it's all over. A lot of troops, tanks, guns, and lorries rolling through our town in the direction of the front, some by road and some by train. No air-raid warnings or bombardments of any sort; the boot is on the other foot now. One can't really wish the Germans well, but there is a vengeful satisfaction of sorts.
Adam seems to be prospering, and slips me little "undetectable" presents from time to time: an expensive French perfume (a German officer on his way to the front from Paris?), poured into my little spray-bottle from the original one, or a pair of silk stockings. (My husband has no idea how often they run and how difficult and expensive it is to replace them nowadays.) And little intimate luxury breakfasts at his place. (Caviar on toast is less fattening than potatoes and bread.) And afterwards it's so nice in the large soft double bed with a vigorous and experienced man, with the red velvet curtains drawn and the expensive and slightly suggestive paintings on the walls. Mimi is following the affair with great interest and thinly disguised envy, and this opulence might be spoiling her memory of the shabby little studio of the unfortunate young painter. The mills of the gods grind slowly but they grind exceedingly fine. Once bitten twice shy, Mimi seems to be in no hurry to find another lover, at least not without investigating him more thoroughly than she did the young painter.
One afternoon I ran into Captain Werner, in uniform this time, in the street. He seemed to be in a good mood, possibly because of the victories in Russia. He saluted me smartly, stopped, and asked with a twinkle in his blue eyes whether he could ask me a question, non-political this time.
"By all means," I said.
Lowering his voice to a confidential whisper, he asked:
"Was it you by any chance who wanted a gramophone record with selections from "La Boheme" a few weeks ago?"
"Yes," I said, surprised. "How do you know about it?"
"Ah," he said with deep satisfaction, "I can't disclose secret information, but, as you see, we know everything."
We laughed, he saluted again, and we went our separate ways. Something fell into place. Adam had sold the record of "La Boheme" to someone who later agreed to exchange it for Wagner's "Ring", very popular with the Germans, and now Captain Werner knew about the deal. Was it he himself who had originally bought the record and then agreed to return it when he heard it was for me? And when Adam said that he was "covered on all sides", did that include the Germans, what with all the French perfume and silk stockings? I was not going to ask any questions. Once was enough, and I was going to keep bedrooms and politics separate forever after.

1st September 1941
The second anniversary of the outbreak of the war. Have just returned from a month in the country; I have managed it in spite of the war in Russia which is growing more distant, with one German victory following another, and does not affect us very much, except that the Germans have requisitioned one of the two horses my father had managed to acquire after they had left him with a single old nag. I was surprised that such a motorized army needed our horse, but father says that the roads in Russia are awful, especially when it rains, and that in some situations a horse is more useful than a bogged-down lorry. Moscow and Leningrad have not fallen yet, but the Germans have another month of decent weather to finish the job.
We were talking in the kitchen one early afternoon, and the strong sunlight streaming in through the window made my father's hair look more white and sparse than usual and threw the wrinkles of his face into sharp relief. All of a sudden he looked old. My mother's figure had also grown more stout and her movements less lively; it was one of those moments when one realizes that time is passing, that old people are growing older and will die one day, and that the young ones are not immune to the passage of time either. Just then my father, who, through coincidence or intuition, may have been in a similar mood, asked me whether my husband and I were planning a child in the foreseeable future. I told him we have decided to wait until the political situation settles down, and he approved, but added that my mother and he would be enormously delighted by a grandchild whenever it comes, and would of course do their best to help us raise it in any way they could.
A pregnancy now would put an end to my affair with Adam and my coffees with Mimi at the Roma and men's admiring looks and compliments. I am now in full bloom and in my prime, and there is something in the Bible about the time to do this and a time to do the opposite, a whole list, and they might have added a time for being young, beautiful, and free and sowing one's wild oats, and a time for bearing and raising children and sliding into middle age. I wouldn't say it aloud, but I sometimes wonder whether it isn't better to be a beautiful young woman under enemy occupation than a plain one in an independent country of one's own.

4th January 1942
A subdued Christmas and a sober New Year. Every winter seems a little longer and more drab and difficult than the last one. The Germans have not quite managed to defeat Russia last autumn, and are now dug in for the winter in front of Moscow and Leningrad, waiting for the spring to finish the job. Another war has broken out, on the other side of the globe, between America and Japan, but it does not seem to affect Europe, and, the men say, should help Germany by keeping America busy. Those who had hastily and dramatically called the war "The Second World War" at its outbreak two years ago have been proved right; the only occasion, as far as I can remember, on which they have been right so far.
Those things do not seem to bother Marta, who is pregnant again, and does not look too well in these early stages. And Mimi is having an affair with, of all people, Marta's husband! In a way it seems less of a real adultery, between old friends, and with Marta's husband deprived of some of the joys of conjugal love, but on the other hand more of a treachery, although it's supposed to be a classic situation. (And a little nagging thought: would she do it with mine, although we are much closer friends than she is with Marta?) She told me that it started on my parents' farm last summer when all of them were there for the weekend, so the place already has two adulteries on its concience, although she doesn't know about me and Leo. Now, back in town, Mimi and Marta's husband are running into the usual difficulties - when and where to meet and how to avoid suspicion. Marta's husband's working hours - he is a sales agent for a clothing firm - are more flexible than those of Mimi's, and he visited her at her place a few times at first, but it was too risky and nerve-wrecking and now they are taking a room in some shabby little hotel near the railway station where rooms can be rented by the hour; safer, but it does not make a love affair more romantic. I give it a few months at most, till the new baby arrives and Marta's husband is elated, fully mobilized for the chores, and has even less money to spend on a hotel room.

10th March 1942
Mimi has a nasty problem: she is pregnant and doesn't know who the father is: her own or Marta's husband. If she could be sure it's hers she would go ahead and have the baby, war or no war, but she can't be sure so it will have to be an abortion. It's a depressing business, first to find a reliable doctor and then the money; and afterwards, remebering what happened, perhaps less enjoyment of sex, and, worst of all, the nagging fear that maybe the operation has damaged something and she won't be able to have any more children.
According to Mimi it happened during the safe period. Marta's husband did use a condom but has remained inside her for a while afterwards, and the condom must have slipped as he was withdrawing the by now less rigid member. The trouble with men's sperm is that it's an awfully efficient lubricant. Mimi took a douche afterwards but it may have been too late. Then, the same night, still relying on the safe period, she let her husband do a coitus interruptus without anything on, and seems to remember a couple of pulses, the start of an ejaculation, just before he drew back. I questioned her very closely about all this, because, as they say, the only mistakes you should learn from are those of others, and have decided to be even more careful in future than I have been till now.
We found a good reliable gynecologist who does such things with an assistant, at a proper clinic where he otherwise does more legal work. The price was very stiff. Mimi had some money of her own, about a third; I lent her another third, and Marta's husband provided the rest, with some difficulties, because the hours in the little hotel had made inroads into his budget.
The operation passed well, and a couple of hours after Mimi has recovered from the anaesthetic I took her home in a taxi and put her to bed, leaving shortly before her husband was due to return from work. She told him it was some female complaint, an infection perhaps. He insisted on calling a doctor; Mimi resisted at first and finally agreed. This had also been arranged beforehand; the doctor they called was the assistant gynecologist at the morning operation, "recommended" by me. He diagnosed the complaint as an infection - nothing venereal of course - and prescribed some pills, a couple of days in bed, and no sex for the rest of the month. When Mimi's period finally came she heaved a great sigh of relief and swore to be ever so careful in future. The pregnancy and the abortion also ended her affair with Marta's husband, and, as far as I could tell, their relations returned to what they were before, with the guilty secret possibly making them even better friends while it slowly receded into the past.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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