Zygmunt Frankel


Chapter 8

Captain Werner Again

One day, after Mimi and I left the Roma and parted in front of it, Captain Hans Werner, once again wearing a civilian trenchcoat and hat, fell into step beside me and asked how I have been. I have not seen him for a long time; our last talk was about that gramophone record, and it was almost like meeting an old friend. I said very well, thank you, and you? Also well, so far, he said. I did not ask what he meant by "so far"; we were not friends enough for that. There was something he wanted to discuss with me, he said. Could I drop in and see him one day soon, at the German administration building?
My heart missed a beat.
"Is it something about that other occurence, some months ago?"
"No, no connection whatsoever. It's something half official and half private. Are you free tomorrow morning, say ten o'clock?"
"Yes, I can make it. Is it the main entrance to the building, with the two soldiers on guard?"
"No, there's no need. There is another entrance from the little Palewska Street behind it, number eighteen. I'll tell the guards - there are also some, but in the corridor inside - to expect you at ten a.m. and let you through. I'll be in number six on the second floor. Could you please tell no one about this visit until then?"
"Of course I won't."
I was on tenterhooks and worried about the invitation for the rest of the day and much of the night. He said it was half official. My own record was clean; was it possible that Marta, or Mimi, or Adam, or one of our husbands, got involved with the underground, and was Captain Werner trying to protect me again? Or recruit me as a secret agent? Or seduce me? I couldn't very well refuse the invitation because if the official part of it went through official channels - he did once mention an associate of his who did not believe in civilized methods - things might get worse and out of control. On the other hand, while we were talking in French, perhaps I should not have called him "mon capitaine" - a correct form of address in the French army which might be misunderstood outside France. The German administration building was a large one, with both offices and living quarters, and I didn't even know whether number six on the second floor was an office or living quarters.
It was a flat. The rear entrance to the house was like entrance to any other house, and it was only after you entered the corridor that you saw the table with the two soldiers seated behind it, their submachineguns on the table. One of them, a sergeant, got up, and when I told him mine and Captain Werner's name, he nodded with impartial face, pointed to the staircase at the end of the corridor, and saluted politely. It was all perfectly formal and I was none the wiser when I knocked on the door of number six.
Captain Werner opened it, wearing grey slacks and a light-blue rollneck sweater which made his eyes even more blue. He helped me off with my coat and hanged it respectfully on a hook on the door. I was wearing a light dress with a modest cutout, with the beginning of the divide between my breasts just visible. He said that I looked very lovely and I thanked him. We were in a small sitting room with two closed doors; one, I supposed, leading to the bedroom, and another to the bathroom. There was a desk by the window with some papers on it, a low sofa, a coffee table, two more chairs, and a small sink in the corner.
There was a family photograph on the desk - a slightly younger Werner in an open-neck shirt, with respectable middle-class parents and a young sister - and another, of a girl, not unlike me but slimmer and with darker hair. There was a nail protruding from the wall above the desk. Has Werner removed and hidden Hitler's portrait out of delicacy? His uniform and pistol were also nowhere to be seen.
"May I offer you a cup of coffee?" he asked, and when I accepted, he filled a small kettle with water from the tap above the sink, took a little camping spirit stove from under the desk and lit it, and put the kettle on.
"A cigarette?"
"Thank you."
He drew another chair to his desk and we sat down, facing each other.
"I've been uneasy about inviting you here like this," he said, "and I hope you won't suspect me of using my official position to lure you to a bachelor's den for immoral purposes."
"You said it was something half official and half private."
The kettle boiled. He excused himself and made the coffee, bringing it to the table with a plate of chocolate-coated biscuits.
"The official part," he said, "is that I am being transferred to the Russian front. They need more people there for the final effort. To be perfectly frank, I would have preferred my associate to go, but he has wangled things in his favour, so that I am going and he stays. I seem to have too soft methods on my concience, like talking to you privately that time instead of arresting Mimi with the young painter and putting both of them through the third degree, and so on. There was also a little matter of my having exchanged some luxury officer's rations for some gramophone records with a man who plays chess at the Roma, and that did not help either."
"So it was you after all; the selections from "La Boheme?"
"Yes. I wouldn't have let him have it back if he didn't tell me it was for you."
I am sorry to hear about the front. I hope it will be over before you get there."
"I hope so too," he said, but without conviction. Did he know something about the Russian front which was not in the papers? And was I beginning to feel sorry for a German officer?
"And now the private part," he said. "You see, I can't take all of my belongings to the front, only what fits into a rucksack or, at most, into a suitcase. I am sending the rest home, but I wondered whether you would care to look at my gramophone records and choose anything you like for yourself, as a souvenir of our brief but, to me, delightful acquaintance."
A load slid off my heart, and I thought it would be unwise to refuse. He showed me his records, a whole stack of them: Wagner, Strauss waltzes, some German Lieder, selections from a few operas, and a Polish record.
"Where did you get this one?" I asked, picking it up.
"From the same person," he said. "Do you know it?"
"Of course; it became very popular shortly before the war, and the whole Poland danced to it."
"What is it called?"
"Naprawde Szkoda Lata" - "Indeed, What A Pity The Summer Is Over."
"Really?" He looked out of the window at the grey autumn sky and said, a little sadly: "How appropriate. How does the rest of it go?"
"And only a month ago the whole countryside was bathed in sunshine; indeed, such a pity. It's as if someone most dear and most beloved has left you and took away the sun and the joy and left only tears; indeed, such a pity and so on."
"It's lovely. May I offer you another cup of coffee and put the record on, to follow the words better?"
"Please do."
The soft music filled the room, and brought memories.
"We used to dance to it, before the war," I said. I didn't add that two of the partners were Polish officers who did not come back from the war.
Hans Werner got up, clicked his heels, bowed slightly, and asked, all of a sudden shy:
"May I have the pleasure of this dance with you, Madame?"
I hesitated a little and then agreed. Half an hour later we were in bed together. I mean when you accept to dance with a man alone in his flat there is nothing more to say or clarify afterwards unless you are what is vulgarly called a cock-teaser. You place yourself voluntarily in his arms, your bodies move together to the music, and anything you may say afterwards is superfluous. In our case he was also going to the front and I could well be his last woman, and it would have been cruel to deny him that.
And there was a reward and a revelation. There was nothing physically wrong with my husband or Leo or Adam, and Hans Werner was slightly taller than any of them and very handsome both in uniform and civilian clothes, but, naked, he was the nearest I have ever seen to a Greek god; I almost fainted when I first saw him like this. Some philosophical and wise voice - it could almost have been that of my father - told me to take a good look at him and to remember everything because, however young I was and however many lovers I might yet have, this could well be the most beautiful man I have ever had in my life.
Afterwards, he told me how he had fallen in love with me the moment he first saw me in the Roma, and how happy I have made him today.
"You do not find me too fat?"
He was almost offended.
"Good God, no. You are perfect. You know, sometimes I think there is something wrong with men who go for skinny women, hidden homosexuals or something. You are really beautiful."
For all sorts of reasons, I kept my affair with Hans Werner a total secret, even from Mimi, however difficult that was at times; she must have suspected something and really grilled me to find out. My last meeting with him in his flat, the day before he left for the front, was a very sad and passionate one. I took home the record of "Indeed, What a Pity" - easily explained because, although we did have one, it had suffered a nasty scratch. We decided not to write to each other so as not to compromise either of us; I was a married woman, and he had that unfortunate personal file which, with army censorship, might be further compromised by correspondence with a Pole.
"You know," he said softly, holding me in his arms and looking over my shoulder at the photograph of the dark girl on his desk, "ever since I left home and until you came here for the first time, I always imagined this girl by my side after the war and the mother of my children. And now, all of a sudden, it's not her any more but you."
"Hans," I said, "I am already married." I stopped in time not to add "and you are a German" and"and you are going to the front."
"Let's not talk about it any more just now; let this war be over first. I just wanted you to know."
I suddenly found myself crying on his shoulder, and he stroked my hair and kissed my tears away.
"Please don't," he said. "We shall talk about it again, one day."
"Six o'clock, the evening after the war?"
"Six o'clock, the evening after the war."

20th December 1942
Another winter and, all of a sudden, it is beginning to look like a disastrous one for the Germans. Their Sixth Army - I don't know how many men there are in an "army" but it must be a lot - has been surrounded at Stalingrad. In the news it sounds like a temporary setback, soon to be put right, but something tells me that if it were really temporary they wouldn't mention it in the news, just wait till contact with the rest of the German forces was regained. If they make such a thing out of how bravely the surrounded army is fighting, the situation must be worse than they say, and they may be preparing the listeners and readers for the Sixth Army's doom. I hope Hans Werner hadn't been sent to Stalingrad. Back here, everything is rationed and scarce, and in winter it's always more difficult because you have to divide what little money you have between food and coal, to heat the flat for at least an hour a day and to cook something. The rations are a hundred gram of bread per person per day, and as the bread is the consistency of clay, it is only half the volume it would have been if properly baked. More important than the bread is the soup they distribute to the employees at my husband's factory once a day; quite decent, made with potatoes and scraps of meat; abypassing the rationing and way of feeding better those who work. My husband brings a tin of it home every day and we warm it up in the evening. Apart from the bread ration, there is a little jam made from beetroots and saccharine at long intervals, and a hundred makhorka cigarettes and a bottle of vodka once a month. People who can't afford black market prices are going hungry, shabby, and, in winter, cold. Those who have something to sell - jewellery, clothes, shoes, watches, clocks, furniture, carpets gramophones - are selling them, rather cheaply, and buy food with the money.
The people who are buying this stuff are the nouveaux riches - the peasants and, especially, the go-betweens. Even a peasant with a single cow, so long as he can spare some butter, or a few eggs, or a small sack of flour or potatoes, not to mention slaughtering a pig, is more prosperous now than he could ever hope to be before the war, and "more prosperous" is an understatement. I remember the poorer peasants in our village before the war. They would split matches legthwise with a razor blade to make two or even four out of one. They couldn't afford fly-paper either, and would bring a toadstool from the wood, cut off the stem, put the cap on a saucer, spread a few grains of sugar or a few drops of honey on it, scourge it with a little boiling water, and place it on the window sill, where the flies would come to drink the sweet poisonous syrup and die. My own parents - unpatriotic to relate - are doing extremely well, and with what they let us have, my husband and I are spared the deprivation most people are going through. Some of the stuff stocks our own larder. We give some to Marta and Mimi from time to time, barter some more for extra coal, coffee, and sugar, and sell some on the black market. Not directly; that would be both risky and undignified. I am doing this through Adam, the most compact and valuable stuff being butter and honey in small jars and slices of bacon and lard. (This is also an excuse - and partial alibi - for knowing and meeting Adam, although my husband believes that we only meet at the Roma or in the street outside.)
My father told me that another source of income for some peasants is hiding Jews or - slightly safer - Jewish children, pretending that they are their own. But this is becoming a tremendously dangerous business compared to the black market; the Germans have announced that they will shoot anyone caught hiding Jews together with the Jews themselves, on the spot. There are varying degrees of danger in hiding Jews, according to their appearance, age, mother tongue, and the documents they have or do not have. To start with, Jewish women and girls are safer than men and boys. The men carry their death sentence in their pants; they can be identified as Jews on the spot, having been ordered to drop their trousers, by their circumcision. (Memories here of Leo on the river bank.) There are rumours of surgeons making good money by "undoing" the operation - I suppose stretching and tightening the skin back over the tip of the penis, or perhaps grafting an extra bit of skin from somewhere else on the body. If a woman has fallen under suspicion, by looking Jewish or speaking faulty Polish with a Yiddish accent, her Jewishness has to be proved by other means. There are also ugly rumours of fast and easy money being made in town, by people who specialize in recognising and blackmailing Jews with false papers in the street; or, if they can't pay, handing them over to the Gestapo; or both, in that order.
My father, however, did get involved in something dangerous, against his will, and there is nothing he can do about it. There are, it transpires, partisans in the forest. Whether they have been there from the star or have been organized since, perhaps with Russian or British help, is not clear They recently blew up a small section of railway track near a village, luckily not ours. The driver of the train carrying German soldiers to the front noticed the damage in time and stopped the train. The Germans repaired the tracks within a couple of hours and shot twenty-five hostages from the village.
(Madame de Sevigne's "so the good will suffer for the wicked", all over again.)
One evening last autumn a man called on my father, said he was a partisan from the forest, and asked for some food for his group. He appealed to my father's patriotism, foretold the collapse of Germany and the reemergence of free Poland, and also hinted darkly at punishment for traitors who refused to support the struggle. My father gave him some grain, potatoes, butter, and pork, and since then the man comes regularly about once a month on dark nights. Nobody else in the family knows about it; I am the eldest child, and father and I have always been very close. Father is now caught between the anvil and the hammer; the partisans can be as quick on the trigger as the Germans, and sometimes less logical about it. The only future advantage, father says, might be that if the Germans are driven out of Poland - and changes of regime are notorious for settling of accounts, real or imaginary - it might help to have cooperated with the partisans.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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