Zygmunt Frankel


Chapter 11

The Green Earring

20th October 1943
Another autumn, and the winter promises to be even more difficult than the last one.
A few days before my return to town I was sitting under a tree with Maciej the old bee-keeper, munching on a slice of bread with honey, and listening to him talking about the old times. A large dark cloud covered the sun and the air grew chilly. He shivered a little.
"Another winter coming," he said. "When the winter comes, old people say that this one is more difficult than the last one, but they are wrong. All winters are difficult, only they are the more difficult the older you are. More people die in winter than in summer, just as more people die at night than during the day."
"We feel the same in town," I said, "but not because of age; the rations are getting shorter all the time, and the people who only go hungry in summer go both hungry and cold in winter. The Germans in Russia have it even worse."
"They shouldn't have gone there. When I was a little boy I had a very old grandfather who remembered - he himself was a young boy then - seeing Napoleon's army, or rather what was left of it, returning from Russia. He always said it was silly of them to go in there, and that it was not the Russian army but the Russian winter that has beaten them, and now the Germans are making the same mistake. If my grandfather knew about it, this Hitler of theirs should have also known. He's their leader; it's a great responsibility."
But the Roma is as nice as ever, even though the coffee has gone to the dogs; it almost doesn't taste like coffee anymore and rumour has it that they add roasted acorns to it or something of the sort. The Germans call such substitutes "ersatz" and there's any number of "ersatz" jokes, some of them about masturbation, of course.
But there's still real coffee at Adam's place. We have slipped back into bed as if I hadn't been away for over a month, and it was as nice as ever, without either of us asking any questions about what the other one did or did not do during that time.
One day, while Adam was out of the room taking a shower, I put my hand down in that corner behind the bed where I once found a hairpin, and, lo and behold, there was something there again. When I saw what it was I opened my eyes so wide that they almost popped out: a little silver earring with a small green stone, one of a pair which I once gave Mimi for her birthday. I slipped it into my handbag and it took some time and effort to compose myself before Adam came back. I did not say anything. If I absolutely had to share him, it was better, perhaps even fun, to share him with a friend rather than with a stranger. Mimi did tell me that she at long last had a lover again, acquired during the time I was in the country, but seeing that he was a marrried man - not my husband, of course, perish the thought, she added - discretion was called for and she had sworn not to tell anyone, absolutely no one, who he was.
That, I thought with some irritation, was very noble of her, and a challenge for me - to worm out his identity sooner or later. (I did not tell her anything about Zygmunt either; but affairs with partisans from the forest were not innocent amourettes but a matter of life and death.)
The next day at the Roma, after our coffee arrived, I asked Mimi to close her eyes and put out her hand, which she did with a happy expectation on her face. When she sew the earring she almost fainted, going first pale and then a deep beetroot red, and just sat there without saying anything, looking from me to the earring and back sort of fearfully. Then I burst out laughing and, after some hesitation, so did she. This was even better than telling each other about a love affair; this was sharing it, and comparing things. It was absolutely out of the question for Adam to know that we knew, and we made a good job of keeping a straight face when he walked into the Roma later that day, and since. And, depraved as it may sound, it made Mimi and me even better friends than we were before.

Christmas 1943
The most austere Christmas we've ever had: a Christmas tree the size of a potted plant, and half of last year's decorations unused because the tree was too small. A decent Christmas dinner though, a combined effort of our three couples, and a warm room. My husband somehow got me a lovely thin silver bracelet for Christmas, and I knitted a sweater for him; Marta had taught me. I saw, out of a corner of my eye, Marta's husband kissing Mimi under the mistletoe: nothing, just a brotherly kiss; they really seem to have put their affair behind them and remained good friends." Que reste-t-il de nos amours?" (An apparently new French song I recently heard one night on the foreign radio.)
Sixty-nine kilos; the price of the winter hibernation, in spite of the food shortages. Have visited my family twice this winter so far, weekends only. Have not seen anything of Zygmunt. Father says he only called once since I left, during a snow storm, because of footprints which otherwise might have made things easy for the Germans. (And for my family if I went to meet him at the barn at night, not to mention the risk of a frostbitten behind.) It snows often, and makes me think of the Germans and the Russians fighting there, day and night, in the snow; difficult to understand how they can stand it. A snatch of an overheard conversation between two German soldiers in the street a few days ago: "Lots of suicides out there in winter; the rifle muzzle in your mouth or a handgrenade against your chest, and it's all over." They are fighting somewhere near Kiev; that's Ukraine, not too far from the old border, although I suppose the Germans will push forward again as soon as the winter is over, like they did every year till now. On the other hand, with the British and the Americans in Italy, they are now fighting on two fronts in Europe, and might find it more difficult. The men have decided that the Germans should negotiate peace as soon as possible, to get better terms. They should be made to withdraw from Poland; after all it was their attack on us which started the whole thing; but if not, it is generally agreed that some sort of autonomy should be granted us, and that all things considered it would be better to be under German rule then the Russian one; the Germans are Europeans after all, while the Russlans remain some sort of Asiatic horde to this day.
Adam is the only man I know who doesn't talk politics. One of his favorite sayings - he attributes it to some Italian - is: "One should think a lot, talk little, and write not at all." The Italian must have been a lawyer. Adam must be doing well because he recently bought a car, quite large and almost new, a Mercedes; not flashy, a quiet grey colour, with only a little chrome. I couldn't refuse an invitation to drive around the town with him - with a veil over my face so that no one should recognise me - and it was a delight. He says he needs the car for business, to reach his customers and suppliers, because the trains are a pain in the neck, especially in winter; and it had to be large enough for his family and luggage - it must have been a slip of the tongue because he immediately corrected the "luggage" to "picnic baskets", adding that he had a guilty conscience about neglecting his family in the past. Has he bought the car to get away if the front got too close?

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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