I think I owe you an apology, that’s what Mrs Stone said to me…
My mother was talking about something that had happened over fifty years ago; her top lip had its characteristic thin hardness. I was a small child then and, although I didn’t remember the occasion, I had heard this story many times before, so I wasn’t really listening. I was thinking more about how hard it is to let go of some of the things that have happened to us. I am never sure about whether this is what it means to be human, to feel, and to go on feeling things, even if you don’t ever talk about them or whether, by repeating them again and again, you exorcise them and find a free step into the future.
My mother fell between the two. She still told things over and over with the same pain. And though she is getting very old now, her white hair is still full and her memory clear enough and, sometimes, she could talk for a long time without pausing. I heard about the exact circumstances, the people, what my father had thought, and so on; this story about cleaning her windows one late afternoon and her neighbour’s remarks was one I’d heard frequently over the years with little variation. Mum was sitting on her favourite end of the sofa by the fire, her legs swollen, blotched and red were, grudgingly, up on her green stool and, without her socks, I could see the hard yellow of her toenails. I was going away the next day so Kraków was also in my mind. Well, she did apologise, and offered to babysit the three of you, so your dad and I could go out for the day. My mother was trying now, I could tell by the way she moved her head slightly and her eyes opened up just a little more, to make a new sense of Mrs Stone.
– And did she babysit? I asked, more out of care for my mother, an indulgence, since I knew that she had.
– Yes, and your dad and I had a good day.
I had been to Kraków the year before. This time it was Easter and there was a celebratory market in Rynek Glowny, the main square, a place I found beautiful even before the market had been set up. On the hour the trumpeter sounded from St Mary’s high turret window, the horses with red festive feathers pulled white carriages for the elegant pockets of the tourists, the young Poles in simple jackets and plain trousers, with a mix of reticence and daring pressed fliers for restaurants or city tours in their small plastic covered electric cars, or for trips to the Salt mines, the Ghetto and, of course, Auschwitz. There’s a bookshop, too, in Rynek Glowny. Kiesargarna, the oldest bookshop in Europe. Part of a large chain now, but this first one, a place with a long corridor of books that leads to a small colourful cafe and, nestled between the books on the way down to the back of the shop, are plush red seats with black-buttoned backs and small tables for books, coffee and rich cream cakes. A warm refuge from cold, sleet and rain, I had been in there several times before. Each time, I was drawn to the same book. There are copies in three languages, La Residenza Della Morte, Residence de la Morte, Auschwitz, Residence of Death. Each time I glanced at it, read a little, closed it, and quickly went outside to the market. Stalls boasted honeys, cheeses, huge rounds of breads, leather bags, sheepskin rugs and jackets and glossy coloured wooden boxes, hot sausages. Spitting and splitting they were then stacked up in small heaps at the side of the grills as another bag was opened and more tumbled out over the flames and huge pork hocks glistened in oil, both served on paper plates with mustard smudged liberally on the side. The smoke drifted windward into my eyes.
And, on Palm Sunday, everyone, well, all the Poles, had clutches of buksxpanolodkoray. Dark green leaves which looked very like the box hedges in England. Or proudly held arrangements of dried grasses with purple and yellow flowers as they crowded out from St Mary’s Church, the women draped in silk shawls embroidered with flowers. And a platform had been set up in the middle of the stalls — the dancers, too, were in traditional costume. You could see the simple white lace petticoats of the Polish girls, in their shy, slightly awkward hesitancy as they stretched up a hand to meet the boy who was waiting to swing them to the centre of the festival’s makeshift stage. The round green balls of leaves, the high green poles, both woven with daffodils, throughout the market reminded me of the ribboned maypole I’d danced around as a child at primary school and the warm fleeting passion in boys’ hands as they pulled mine. Even Nicky, the rather serious boy with a cowlick, I sat next to in class — he would put his head on the desk and stroke my arm gently when our teacher, Miss Rogers, read stories in the afternoons, and who was so good at maths and running — even he would smile when he took my hand and spun around me again and again, as the flowers too seemed to spin and open to the possibilities of summer.
The little cafe Alchemia, in the Jewish quarter where I had breakfast each day was a lucky find, although I did notice the Trip Advisor sign later on the door. The young Polish waiter, his long fringe swept to one side, his slightly drooping eyes and pale skin making him seem a bit sleepy, was keen to try out his English and, over the days I went there, he told of his other life as a law student, and how a few days after I left, he would be returning to the countryside, to the peace there, picking plums for bottling, collecting eggs each morning from the chickens his father kept, and where he would find the quiet he needed for all the books he had to read. He wanted to live in England. One morning, I went to a synagogue and the Jewish cemetery. Small piles of stones on the graves. Unlike flowers that faded, stones in Jewish cemeteries, I learnt, marked permanency, a permanency against pain. And, inspired by Spielberg’s film, I visited Schindler’s factory. Hard to find, outside the main city, it’s now an unwieldy labyrinthine space telling story after story through memorabilia, film, even a train carriage, about the war and, to further grasp the past in the Poland of the present, I asked myself again and again, should I visit Auschwitz?
The Pawlikowski film I saw in the small, discreet cinema in Rynek Glowny answered the question. Black and white, the medium of memory that solidifies spectres, those toned negatives, were of a young nun and presented, frame by frame, the story of her journey first to an alcoholic aunt she had never met, then to the woods where her murdered parents and her cousin were buried. A cumbersome, painted crucifix is dragged through the snow into the Convent courtyard in an opening sequence, the figure on the cross, though white, seemed almost the same plastery pink that is the colour of some of the Christ figures I have seen around the streets of Kraków. Long slow shots of sunlit trees, became dense dark woods, then, the only sound, loud and reverberating like a heartbeat, the hard, thlink, thlink, thlink, shovel after shovel, into the ground, as the sweating, uneasy Polish man who had murdered, then buried her parents, uncovered their skulls. The dug soil, as it piled up, a makeshift, fresh burial mound. The young nun had not know, at first, she was a Jew.
Why didn’t you kill me too?
You were a baby, you had red hair, no one would tell if you were a Jew. I took you along to the priest. The boy had dark hair, he was circumcised.
I understood the close-up on the serene beauty of the young nun’s face as she walked down the bare empty country road, at the end of the film, to be her journey from the world of men, clothes, dances, and vodka, back to the convent. Her aunt having, before this, slowly, frame by frame, put some Mozart onto the record player, opened the windows wide and jumped out. I would, I decided, have to go to Auschwitz.
The next morning I am back, in Rynek Glowny, the sun warm on the greens and yellows of the Easter poles, the vibrant market stalls, the boys and girls dancing and, suddenly, I am crying.
I don’t remember Mrs Stone. The woman, who my mother said was over six foot, with black hair and big hands brought no image. I remember her husband, her two children. The son, handsome, slim with thick black hair much older than me. The girl younger, with dark eyes. I see her black hair, the plump child’s beauty of her open, slightly mischievous face, and she is on an orange scooter, one foot fast, and her whole body in the energy of movement going up Tubbenden Drive. She has white socks, that don’t reach her knees. Eric and Anita. They lived up the road, in a bay windowed semi-detached house, like ours, like all the houses with their blunt cut lawns, one car driveways, hedges, gates and low walled gardens. The pavements, both sides of this quiet, commuter-belt road, had grass verges, and on our side, halfway up, there was one thick cherry blossom tree, whose petals in spring blew everywhere. We always started our games of hide and seek at this tree. The seeker, entrusted to fold their arms against the dark scored bark of the trunk, rest their head on their arms with shut eyes and to count to forty, before looking for all the hidden, who might be found, behind the small privet hedges, lying flat on the inside of the low walls, even under the odd car still on the drive. If you were found, you were ‘it’ next time, unless another player, still hidden, got back to the blossom tree before being spotted and saved you. Once whoever was it began their search and had found one or two in hiding, the game burst into frenetic running, a race as if your life depended on it to getting back to the blossom tree at top speed, calling out, Forty, forty, I save… Mike, Kevin, Johnny or whoever it was. If you were the last one to be found, your speed would, if you ran fast enough, save everyone. It was the late sixties. I loved another boy now, an American called Dale, an exotic name I’d never heard before he was new to the school, popular with everyone, he had the blondest hair I’d ever seen. Mr Stone, living alone by then, had sworn loudly at my brother and I when he found us hiding in his garden. What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?! His wife had seen my mother washing windows at 5 p.m. and, as my mother’s story went each time, had come across the road years before. You must be a very lazy woman not to have got these done before now! The summer sun melted the tarmac and small, oily black bubbles popped as we ran to the cherry tree, heart-leaping, lung-gasping, the soles of our bumper boots, nearly everyone had them, sticky and stained. And the late afternoon air would be alive with the triumphant, breathless laughter of the winner, the joyous whoops of the saved. Mrs Stone must have been informed by a neighbour of my mother’s thyroid problem… I was so tired, Lees, by the time I’d got you all to school, the washing done… the apology and the offer to babysit followed. But today, on that rather grey, wet afternoon in her small back room in Bexhill, my mother added something she’d never told me before — you knew, Mrs Stone was a Jew, didn’t you?
My mother has her own memories of the Second World War. I have heard these too many times over the years. The orange, the only one she had as a child, was a Christmas present, the dances with the RAF, and the eggs she cooked in the YMCA for the GIs who’d landed in up in the West Country, and who would smile hello, Hi, Red, the name they gave her on account of her hair. What have you got for me today? Yanks, my Dad called them, who were overpaid, over-sexed, and over here. My mother saw it differently, we danced up at Oldway, you remember Oldway, don’t you? And I did. In Paignton, it was a large stately home, modelled on Versailles, that belonged to the Singer family. My grandfather’s tiny rented terraced house was down the slope of the wide drive, across the road and two doors down from where he lived as a boy. I walked in the grounds of Oldway early in morning when we went back to Devon every year to stay with my grandfather for a short holiday.
Sometimes there were men playing bowls on the lawns, or even a couple of tennis players on the gravelly courts, the red of the Devon soil visible underneath. I peeped in once through the beautiful arched white framed windows, to try and see the panels and huge gilt mirrors that, my mother said, lined the ballroom and which even in sunlight, glittered magically …you never knew if you would ever see someone you’d danced with again, these lovely young men, all in uniform, who took you onto the floor, swayed you to the music… and my mother, unable now to dance with an imaginary partner round the room, in the way she did to show me as I was growing up, moved her hands in time to the music instead, …they were such handsome young men, Lees, in their uniform… I never knew if she only meant the GIs or the RAF crews who were stationed at Oldway, but my mother, too, a very handsome woman, I can see this now from photographs, her slim waist and her long hair, still a mesmerising auburn when I was growing up would, I knew, have been very popular…and there was the night her father had come back after a bomb had landed, it was the children, mostly boys, the rubble-covered dust-tattered dead, their limbs blown off, that had left him sitting on the side of the bed vomiting, his hands shaking, not quite crying and, even now, I wonder why I never asked her more about the day she said she was machine-gunned from a plane on Paignton beach. I’d heard all these things many times. But no, I didn’t know Mrs Stone was, the words detonated inside me, a Jew.
Ever since I can remember there was the war. How often, well, during the war…started something in my mother or father’s idle conversation. And, there have always been images, black and white ones, Anne Frank’s sharply intelligent, smiling face in my schoolbook copy of her diary, Joel Grey’s feminized sinister grin in Cabaret, Nazis, with guns and dogs, flags and processions, trains, crowds at bewildered stations, searchlights on mud, barbed wire fences, flashlights on the blurry whites that became first eyes then, out of the darkness in attics, cupboards, drains, sewers, shit, human faces, as a camera, in one film and another and another draws in close on the hidden, and always, there are more slowly uncovered, further in and deeper down, in the dark than you can ever imagine, — and now in Krakow’s bookshop, in The Residence of Death, what I saw, as a macabre memorial: a picture of a pile of suitcases, battered, with names numbers and dates chalked on them.Marcus Rosa N432, Helerie Liou 31-10-05 Holland, 733 Luria Marie 1937. The suitcases, like a jumble of simple gravestones, we’re all piled up in Auschwitz Block No.5, a block devoted to mass extermination. And a few pages on, were these words printed on yellowing paper in large letters, as if still on the handwritten manuscript of Zalman Lewental, a Jewish prisoner:
“600 hundred boys were led there in the middle of one bright day, 600 Jewish boys, dressed in thin striped camp uniforms ragged boots or clogs on their feet. The boys were so well-built not even the rags detracted from their beauty. This was the second half of October 1944 25..55 men led them in. The boys saw the smoke belching from the chimney and realised instantly they were being led to their death. They began running around the square in wild horror, tearing out their hair not knowing how to save themselves. Many of them broke down in grievous weeping a terrible lament went up. The Kommandofuhrer and his helper beat the defenceless boys mercilessly to make them disrobe. His club broke from that beating. So he fetched another one and kept beating them over their heads till his violence wore out. The boys disrobed and huddled together naked and barefoot in order to protect themselves from the blows and they did not move.
The young clear voices of the boys grew louder by the minute (until they changed into bitter crying). That terrible lament went so far.”
And over the next page, shots of the bones of barely recognisable bodies heaped on carts and, and, and…
I was born merely fifteen years after the end of the Second World War. But it had nothing to do with me. I was a new generation. And though my parents talked about it, I was bored by something that seemed so long, so long ago, so far away, and was closer than I’d had any idea, in Tubbenden Drive, where Mrs Stone lived, a couple of doors away from my own and, as always, my heart pumped a little faster with awe and fear at those two small words — a Jew.
My mother is still talking. She hasn’t waited for an answer to her question. Mrs Stone had a brain tumour, I didn’t know this at first, and now my mother is saying something I haven’t heard before either, …but with all that chemotherapy, she lost her hair. I felt very sorry for her. They didn’t have many wigs those days… so one day, after I dropped her back home from taking her to the dentist, she thought her teeth were playing up, but it was the tumour, I’d offered her a wig and a hat I had… your husband might… She understood at once. Smiled at me. Invited me in. It was a red hat. Don’t know where I got it now, but it didn’t suit me, with my hair…Mrs Stone had laughed. I was no beauty, Janet, when I first met my husband, she said. When Chappie first saw me I was a skeleton, but he’d just marched in and fell in love with me, there and then. I had no hair. She must have seen, I was puzzled. I am from Hungary. He was one of the first British soldiers to liberate Belsen. My head was shaved as soon as I got there. And, then my mother said, Mrs Stone pulled up her sleeve to show the number tattooed on her arm saying, as she did, I am a Jew.
Eva? my mother suggests as if I could confirm it, even though it was my question since I didn’t know Mrs Stone’s first name either. Though I do know how when it rained, and it wouldn’t be long before we were called in from our hide and seek, come on, in you come,…hurry up… now! the blossom from the tree was all over the road, spectral-white on the wet black tarmac. And I know Spielberg’s film ends, in present day colour, with Holocaust survivors lining up, one by one, to go to Schindler’s grave. Each of them carries a stone.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/GTnici