Dai­ly life ris­ing from the rub­ble, War­saw 1948

Karol Szczecin­s­ki, East News

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Feliks Haas­man stepped off the train at Łódź Fab­rycz­na and did not look around. Because what for? He could have found his way back to his child­hood home if he were blind.

Thumbs hooked under rifle strap, he took Tar­gowa Street up to Pił­sud­skiego, and hung a right onto Kil­ińskiego. If he chanced on a famil­iar store­front, he calm­ly refo­cused his gaze. A dif­fer­ent man might have searched the faces pass­ing him, but Feliks con­sid­ered him­self a real­ist. He already knew he would rec­og­nize no one he want­ed to see.

The entrance gates to his building’s court­yard on Piotrkows­ka Street stood open. He crossed the cob­ble­stones and stepped inside the vestibule. It smelled, as always, of damp stone and boiled car­rots. The stained glass of the stairwell’s win­dows had been knocked out in places, and as Feliks took the stairs to the fourth floor, unfa­mil­iar slash­es of white light fell onto the wind­ing ban­is­ter, expos­ing a lay­er of dust.

As he’d expect­ed, the mezuzah on his family’s door­frame was gone, as was the brass plate inscribed with their name. A mod­ern lock had been installed above the old key­hole. But the carved art deco num­bers on the door had been left alone. Feliks ran his fin­ger­tips over the four and the two. A sculp­tor friend had brought over the chunk of Cuban mahogany one after­noon when Feliks was just a boy. Tata had gone to work on it imme­di­ate­ly, danc­ing his knife through the sweet-smelling wood right in the mid­dle of the salon.

Sweet­heart, have you lost your mind? I just had that rug cleaned yesterday!

Mama’s voice, its teas­ing lilt, sound­ed so real … He shook off the mem­o­ry and knocked. Firm­ly but, he hoped, not arro­gant­ly. He’d heard the sto­ries: peo­ple killed for the crime of show­ing up unmur­dered at the doorsteps of their fam­i­ly homes. But if being a sol­dier these last six years had earned Feliks any­thing, it was the right to take an impul­sive risk, and call it bravery.

Eter­ni­ties passed before Feliks heard foot­steps shuf­fling toward the door. He’d been wait­ing, against all rea­son, to hear the sharp click of the heels Mama had always insist­ed on, even inside the house.

The door cracked open. Dart­ing eyes peered out. A woman — slight, incon­se­quen­tial. Good. Feliks was quick to make his busi­ness clear. I want noth­ing, ma’am. I’m here only for an old tin my moth­er left in a cre­den­za … in the sec­ond bed­room on the left?”

The door closed. He heard the scrape of met­al as the chain was unlatched. When she’d let him inside and locked the door behind him, the woman drew her cardi­gan tight­ly across her chest and set off down the hall­way. Feliks fol­lowed, set­tling his gaze on a hole in the beige wool at her shoulder.

Even as he did his best not to look, he could not help noting:

The mot­tled pink splotch in the cor­ner of the din­ing room, where his broth­er, Bruno, had chucked a fresh­ly peeled beet when Poland was knocked out of its first World Cup.

Curi­ous­ly shaped patch­es on the walls where the paint looked brighter. It took Feliks a moment to real­ize they were where his father’s met­al­work had once hung.

That the floor still creaked in the same spot in front of the bathroom.

And that all his par­ents’ fur­ni­ture was gone.

Feliks low­ered his shoul­der, let­ting his rifle slide down into his hand. If the apart­ment had been pil­laged, how was he to believe that the one thing he came for remained? Was this meek, mute crea­ture lead­ing him into some sort of trap?

The woman entered Bruno’s room. Feliks came up behind her and scanned the space over her shoul­der. There it was: the wal­nut cre­den­za, a phone book where one of its flut­ed legs used to be. In the cor­ner, next to the win­dow, stood Bruno’s bed. A sullen ado­les­cent leaned against the head­board, his bony knees pulled up to his bare chest. Gen­tly, Feliks placed the rifle back over his shoulder.

The woman crossed the room. You’ll excuse us, Offi­cer.” She wres­tled an under­shirt onto the boy’s nar­row frame. My son, he’s unwell. He removes his cloth­ing, picks wounds into his own skin. He won’t answer if you speak to him … There’s noth­ing I can do.”

Please, don’t con­cern your­self for my sake.”

When his moth­er fin­ished dress­ing the boy, Feliks nod­ded at him. But the child did not respond. His atten­tion was focused on a length of thread that he was wind­ing tight­ly around his slen­der index finger.

The woman knelt before the cre­den­za, and pulled open a door by a twig wedged into its key­hole. Feliks not­ed that the del­i­cate rosette mold­ings that had once adorned the piece were gone. It’s a mir­a­cle, real­ly — my hus­band threw the pho­tographs away at first. He thought it was mor­bid to keep them in our home, but the truth is, this isn’t our home, is it? We were only just placed here. They’re of your fam­i­ly, then?”

Who else’s, ma’am?”

The woman reached inside the cab­i­net and pulled out the blue tin. I brought them back up from the street. I knew … it’s odd, but I knew that one day you would come. I was cer­tain of it. Such a beau­ti­ful fam­i­ly, a joy to look at, all those love­ly chil­dren. How many of you are there?”

There were four of us.” Feliks could not help the ran­cor that had crept into his voice. The woman looked down at the tin in her hands. I’m sor­ry.” She wiped the dust off its lid with the bag­gy sleeve of her sweater. Feliks heard whis­per­ing. He turned to the bed. The boy winced and again avert­ed his gaze.

The woman hand­ed Feliks the tin, and moved to lead him out. At the door, she turned back to him. You know, Offi­cer, three fam­i­lies shared the apart­ment when we first got here, but the oth­ers were moved. I don’t know where. And now it’s just us. Our vil­lage was destroyed. You under­stand, we had noth­ing. Nothing.”

She men­tioned the name of her home­town, but Feliks had nev­er heard of it. The beige sweater she was wear­ing, though — he rec­og­nized that. It was Tata’s. Mama had bought it for him at Vogel’s, up near the inter­sec­tion with Jaracza Street, but Tata had hat­ed it. He had some­thing against cardi­gans — they remind­ed him of schoolteachers.

My hus­band works for the rail­ways, lay­ing track. He works very hard. It’s a month some­times before he comes home. Because of his job, we were pushed up the list for reset­tle­ment and … well, here we are. Where else could we go?” She looked help­less­ly at Feliks.

A cloy­ing odor per­me­at­ed the room. Lily of the val­ley. But how, when this was almost Octo­ber? Feliks yearned to be back out­side. He should say good­bye. But the walls bore down on him, immo­bi­liz­ing him. Blam­inghim. For the rot that had appeared on the floor­boards, the water stains spread­ing across the ceil­ing. The scent inten­si­fied, a field of putres­cent flow­ers, and now he heard a hum, as if from very far away. A woman’s voice. He strained his ears, and the melody took shape. A Tuwim piece? Yes, a cabaret song, out of an old spy film. One of Mama’s favorites. It grew loud­er. He could make out the lyrics. Love will for­give you anything …

He saw her then: a tall fig­ure in a long, satiny blue dress stand­ing with her back to him in front of the cre­den­za. Her dark hair was swept up in a bun, loose ten­drils at her neck. She posi­tioned a vase of white flow­ers, their tiny bowed heads shiv­er­ing, on a hand-embroi­dered doily.

A loud crash cut off the song, and Feliks saw he was alone. Alone, that is, with the bird­like woman, who rubbed her hands against Tata’s sweater, ask­ing him if he was okay, if he need­ed a glass of water, if she should call some­one — there was a doc­tor two court­yards away, a gyne­col­o­gist, but very kind. At Feliks’s feet lay sev­er­al dozen pho­tographs. He had let the tin drop to the floor.

He couldn’t find the words to make the woman stop talk­ing. She knelt down in front of him. Her fin­gers raked the scat­tered images into a pile. There was Bruno, between goal­posts on the school’s foot­ball field, frozen in mid-move­ment, poised to spring back to life.

The woman picked Bruno up, returned him to the tin.

The hum sound­ed again, faint now. Feliks made out only snatch­es of melody punc­tu­at­ing a dis­cor­dant buzz. He took one last look around the room. There was no doily on the cre­den­za, and cer­tain­ly no lily of the valley.

If being a sol­dier these last six years had earned Feliks any­thing, it was the right to take an impul­sive risk, and call it bravery.

Feliks adjust­ed his rifle strap. He took the tin the woman had refilled with his fam­i­ly pho­tographs out of her hands and, say­ing noth­ing, left the room.

The woman came up behind him as he spun the new lock. Please, Offi­cer. There’s a trick to it.” He moved aside, and she let him out of the apartment.

In the hall­way, he found his voice, and his man­ners, and thanked her.

There’s noth­ing to thank me for,” she said. They are your pho­tographs, after all.”

Feliks could not bear what he saw in her eyes. He clenched his fist to keep from reach­ing for her pasty neck. Curs­ing, he raced down the stairs. He should be grate­ful. He knew he should be grate­ful. But he couldn’t stand it, not from some­one so pathet­ic. He swore that he would one thou­sand times take death over pity.

In the court­yard, a small girl, skirt cinched tight­ly at her waist with a man’s belt, pound­ed a rock against the iron rail of the car­pet hang­er. The clang shook Feliks out of his fury. He took sev­er­al deep breaths of crisp air and, glanc­ing up at the win­dow to Bruno’s room, regret­ted the scene he had caused in the apart­ment. Imag­ine, a sol­dier of the II Corps, los­ing his com­po­sure before a woman and her sick child … The only con­so­la­tion was that he nev­er need­ed to see those peo­ple again. He tugged at his ear­lobes, as if that might dis­lodge the hum that had fol­lowed him down the stairs.

Feliks tossed the girl a coin. And where have they brought you from, child?” he asked, but she only slipped the coin under her tongue and gawked at him. It didn’t mat­ter. The infor­ma­tion would tell him noth­ing about the chil­dren who had once reigned supreme in this courtyard.

The train back to War­saw wouldn’t leave for a few hours, so Feliks cir­cled through the unchanged streets. Łódź had sur­vived the war almost entire­ly unscathed, thanks to the tens of thou­sands of Ger­mans who had made it their home. The air was a balm to Feliks’s lungs. In War­saw, dust still hung in thick clouds over the city, months after the Ger­mans had gone. The stench of bod­ies rot­ting beneath the rub­ble could knock the breath out of you if you start­ed down the wrong avenue, or if you hap­pened on one of the squads charged with dis­in­ter­ring the dead, as they trudged home with their shov­els after a shift.

On Wól­cza­ńs­ka Street, a sharp crunch drowned Feliks’s hum. Beneath his boots, curled brown leaves blan­ket­ed the ground. He stopped short. Trees. It had been months since Feliks had seen them ris­ing from between the paving stones of a city street. There were no trees left in War­saw. The Ger­mans, dur­ing their retreat from the city, had fire­bombed them out of exis­tence. He placed his palm on the knot­ty bark of a lin­den and stared up at the boughs arch­ing over the street, obliv­i­ous to the humans who moved across their shadows.

Feliks paced along the edge of the plat­form. The train was near­ly an hour late. Feel­ing eyes on him, he turned to find a man in civil­ian clothes sit­ting on the back­rest of a sta­tion bench, blow­ing rings of smoke in his direc­tion. Feliks took a step back from the tracks and leaned against a pil­lar. He scanned the arti­cles on the slips of week-old news­pa­per with which the babush­ka out­side the sta­tion had wrapped his yeast cakes: chopin’s heart safe­ly returned to holy cross church; lec­tures resume at war­saw poly­tech­nic: All Forty Stu­dents to Pre­pare Diplo­ma Designs on Recon­struc­tion of Destroyed Capital.

A whis­per just behind his ear: Nu?”

Feliks spun around and saw the wiry man, cap pulled low, who had been watch­ing him from the bench. He’d spo­ken the first word of Yid­dish Feliks had heard since Pales­tine. Do I know you?”

The man shook his head. No, Offi­cer. But now you do.” He chuck­led, and put out his hand. Leonid Szyk.”

Feliks didn’t appre­ci­ate the trick. Feliks Haasman.”

Leonid pulled a pack of Amer­i­can cig­a­rettes out of his shirt pock­et and offered one to Feliks. They’re worth their weight in gold.”

Along­side them on the plat­form, a group of soot-encrust­ed work­men cursed loud­ly, com­plain­ing about a mal­func­tion­ing gin at the cot­ton fac­to­ry. Feliks glanced at them, and then switched into Pol­ish. I don’t smoke.”

Leonid shrugged. Your loss.” He pound­ed his chest with the side of his fist. Good for the spleen.” Slip­ping his cig­a­rettes back into his pock­et, he asked, And you’ll be back from, Officer?”

The West­ern Front. Injured at Bologna.”

Leonid whis­tled, impressed. We haven’t seen many of Gen­er­al Anders’s boys back from the front yet. Word is they’re refus­ing to come home after Yalta.”

This was true. Sol­diers were hes­i­tat­ing to return from the front, afraid of what they might find. The end-of-war nego­ti­a­tions at Yal­ta had not been kind to Poland. The men plan­ning the future of Europe — Churchill, Roo­sevelt, and Stal­in — seemed to have for­got­ten the mas­sive sac­ri­fices Poland had made since the very first days of the war. Feliks shrugged in res­ig­na­tion. What does it mean, Mr. Szyk, to come home’ when the land on which your home stands has been wrapped up with a bow and giv­en to the Russians?”

But you did. Come home. ”

For me it’s dif­fer­ent. They can shift the bor­ders a hun­dred miles this way or that — my Poland is still Poland.”

You’re an opti­mist, then?”

Feliks was not sure whether by opti­mist, Leonid meant Com­mu­nist. It was hard to gauge where peo­ple stood on the mat­ter these days. Poles on both sides of the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum were still being killed, not by the Ger­mans or the Rus­sians now, but by their own coun­try­men. And for what? Dif­fer­ent visions of the future of the coun­try? The only idea that Feliks held strong­ly now was that he want­ed the killing to stop. I’d hard­ly go so far,” he said, avoid­ing Leonid’s gaze.

Leonid took a notepad out of his pock­et. But regard­less, you’ll allow me?”

Feliks glanced at the paper. These lists his coun­try­men car­ried around sad­dened him, part­ly because he did not have one of his own to share. But also because a man who car­ried such lists was giv­ing in to fan­tasies. And of fan­tasies, Feliks did not approve.

Still, how could he say no?

Leonid pro­ceed­ed to recite a list of names. After each, he looked up, and Feliks shook his head. Then Feliks heard, Emil Zielinski.”

A face mate­ri­al­ized. Zielin­s­ki!” Feliks said, incred­u­lous. Small? With a nose like a cau­li­flower? Bit of a joker?”

Yes, yes! Eye­brows like two riv­er leech­es! He’s my sister’s boy.”

Artillery­man … Last I saw him was just before we were deployed to Italy. Decent sort, Emilek — always gen­er­ous with his arak. He stayed back when we were deployed to Italy, but he’s alive, in Pales­tine. At least as of ear­ly 44.”

A desert­er? Emil?”

Many men stayed back. Offi­cial releas­es, with Gen­er­al Anders’s bless­ing. Some of our best sol­diers.” Feliks shrugged. A man can only fight one bat­tle at a time. Emil found some­thing for him­self in Palestine.”

Leonid thought about this.

You did not find some­thing for your­self in Pales­tine, Officer?”

No.” Feliks looked down the track, hop­ing the train would soon appear. He longed to be alone, with his pho­tographs. My bat­tle is for Poland.”

Ah, well.” Leonid did not both­er turn­ing his head to exhale, and his cig­a­rette smoke filled Feliks’s nos­trils. I hope your Poland proves her­self wor­thy of such loyalty.”

Feliks glanced back, and saw that the ranks of the work­men on the plat­form had dou­bled. They were red-faced, as if they’d been drink­ing, and their talk had grown loud­er and increas­ing­ly vulgar.

They may look stu­pid,” Leonid said in Yid­dish, but in some ways they can be absolute genius­es. When I came back to Poland, I wasn’t in uni­form like you, Offi­cer. I came from There­sien­stadt. My coun­try­men looked me up and down when I reached Kraków and knew exact­ly what I was. Made me pay for it, too.” Leonid tugged down the col­lar of his shirt and showed Feliks a patch of yel­low-green skin, and the ragged rem­nants of a gash at his shoulder.

It was a shame. But not much com­pared to the injuries Feliks had seen in bat­tle. You ought to have had that stitched. Any vil­lage doc­tor could have done it for you.”

Leonid moved so close that Feliks was forced to take a step back. I plan to leave a Leonid Szyk – sized hole in this land just as soon as I’m sure that I’m not leav­ing any of these good souls behind.” He jabbed at his list with his fore­fin­ger before clos­ing his notepad, and slip­ping it behind the cig­a­rette pack in his shirt pocket.

Feliks respond­ed in Yid­dish. The words were clay in his throat, a strug­gle to form after years of under­use. You let evil win, then. You let them chase you away. Out of your home, off your land. Where’s the hon­or in that?”

Leonid laughed. You can keep your hon­or, your Poles, and your Poland. I’ll take my dignity.”

______

In War­saw, Feliks slept in a store­room off the kitchen of a wheel­chair-bound for­mer air force colonel. When he got to his room that evening, he threw him­self on his pal­let on the cold floor.

Feliks spun around and saw the wiry man, cap pulled low, who had been watch­ing him from the bench. He’d spo­ken the first word of Yid­dish Feliks had heard since Pales­tine. Do I know you?”

His west-fac­ing wall had been blast­ed open, but as most of the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hood had been lev­eled, Feliks, five floors up, still had plen­ty of pri­va­cy. The hole would need to be board­ed up — the colonel had been ask­ing Feliks to take care of it for weeks. But for the moment, Feliks pre­ferred to suf­fer the winds and keep his view over the north­west of the city.

Skele­tons of build­ings dot­ted the vast expanse of rub­ble, their roof­less tops crooked jaws, gap­ing in hor­ror at the sky. Warsaw’s angles had been soft­ened by fire and explo­sions; many of the pro­tru­sions ris­ing from the ground were so dimin­ished that they looked like decay­ing yurts in some dis­tant oblast. And the decom­po­si­tion of the metrop­o­lis con­tin­ued, near­ly a year after the fight­ing had stopped. Feliks saw chunks of mor­tar yield­ing to grav­i­ty and crum­bling off build­ings far in the distance.

In the street below Feliks, a for­mer liai­son offi­cer from the 44 Upris­ing ran a makeshift restau­rant from the shell of a bombed-out street­car. He heard the young woman’s pow­er­ful voice echo through the ruins, announc­ing the evening’s dish­es as she slopped soup into tin bowls for the rag-tag group of injured vet­er­ans, grand­moth­ers, and stray dogs gath­ered around her.

When the restau­rant closed for the night, silence fell over the ruins, and the hum that had fol­lowed Feliks back from Łódź took up in his head again. There was no melody at all now, just a monot­o­ne moan, dis­tinct­ly female.

Feliks lit his oil lamp, and pulled over the tin of pho­tographs. Its lid bore the choco­late factory’s logo: a yel­low-haired boy in a romper rid­ing a zebra, with planks of choco­late strapped to his back. Feliks had want­ed to open the tin on the train, but he had­n’t been able to shake off Leonid Szyk, who had been deter­mined to recount every unfair­ness that had befall­en him in Poland. These men were a type, Feliks thought, and per­haps the coun­try would be bet­ter off with­out them.

Feliks loos­ened the lid. Even all these years lat­er, the smell of cocoa still waft­ed out. The pho­to­graph at the top of the pile inside was of Estera, his old­er sis­ter, in a white blouse with a scal­loped col­lar. She sat on a pho­tog­ra­pher’s stool, star­ing wry­ly out at him, her del­i­cate fin­gers clasped around her knee. Feliks slammed the lid back on the tin.

A week after he’d returned from Łódź, Feliks was called up for an appoint­ment at the army bar­racks. Sol­diers return­ing from the West­ern Front were viewed as secu­ri­ty risks by the People’s Army, and Feliks was inter­ro­gat­ed about his polit­i­cal views. He pro­claimed, I am a Jew by birth, but a devout sec­u­lar­ist by con­vic­tion,” and was met with dour nods of approval by the Sovi­et-influ­enced offi­cials. (It was not actu­al­ly his own dec­la­ra­tion: he’d stolen it from a French sculp­tor who had once sum­mered with his fam­i­ly at the Masuri­an Lakes.)

At his check­up with the mil­i­tary doc­tor, Feliks brought up the hum. He couldn’t be the only sol­dier who suf­fered this way. The doc­tor sent him for a bat­tery of hear­ing tests. When his hear­ing proved per­fect, Feliks dropped the matter.

He reen­list­ed, but did not move into the bar­racks. The colonel had to be car­ried up and down the crum­bling stair­well, and Feliks was told to stay with him until con­struc­tion on the Mil­i­tary Home for Incur­ables was completed.

Feliks was assigned to keep the streets free of civil­ians while sap­pers were defus­ing mines and clear­ing shells. When dis­ori­ent­ed repa­tri­ates strag­gled back into War­saw, climb­ing through the rub­ble and search­ing in vain for land­marks, Feliks was often the first sign of offi­cial­dom that they encoun­tered. He liked to believe, despite evi­dence most­ly to the con­trary, that he gave them hope. With a stick, he drew in the mud that coat­ed the streets the routes they could take to reset­tle­ment offices, sur­vivor reg­istries, and soup kitchens.

When he wasn’t work­ing, he watched the city from his perch in the colonel’s store­room. Packs of dogs prowled the alleys; chil­dren scaled piles of rub­ble in spir­it­ed games of Com­mu­nists vs. Home Army. Feliks tried not to think of his fam­i­ly. The apart­ment, though … he kept see­ing that woman in Tata’s sweater.

Nights were a tor­ment. Once, he dreamed of his sis­ter Rosa; she pressed her face against a dirty win­dow. Feliks could see her dark curls flat­tened between her pale skin and the glass. He rushed toward her, but the clos­er he came, the more her face blurred. He banged on the win­dow, called her name, but the image fur­ther dis­solved, until there was noth­ing behind the glass but a murky liq­uid. When he woke, he still couldn’t recall the con­tours of her face. He lit his lamp, tore open the tin, and dumped the pic­tures on the floor. He found a large, high-con­trast print of all four chil­dren, lined up for one of Tata’s pho­tog­ra­ph­er friends, who was exper­i­ment­ing with film stocks he’d brought back from St. Peters­burg. Rosa was only six at the time, and while the oth­ers stood at an angle to the cam­era, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er had sat her atop the cre­den­za. Feliks, Bruno, and Estera looked put out to be stand­ing in the sil­ly pose, but Rosa smiled sweet­ly at the camera.

________

When the woman in the Piotrkows­ka Street apart­ment opened the door for Feliks, she untucked her hair from behind her ears. You’ve come back,” she said. Even in the dim­ness of the foy­er, Feliks could see she was blush­ing. He couldn’t help feel­ing flat­tered. He didn’t con­sid­er him­self par­tic­u­lar­ly hand­some — he always thought he lacked breadth, both across the shoul­ders, and ear to ear. Bruno had had the stronger fea­tures, and the ath­let­ic build. But Feliks sup­posed he cut an impres­sive enough fig­ure in his army uni­form, espe­cial­ly with the long mil­i­tary over­coat he’d brought back from Italy.

The woman led Feliks into what had once been the dairy kitchen, and invit­ed him to sit down for a cup of tea. She apol­o­gized at length for hav­ing noth­ing more to offer. Her hus­band had run into dif­fi­cul­ties when try­ing to send her mon­ey. Feliks sur­veyed the room. Its grey­ing walls begged for a fresh coat of paint, but the space was tidy, and bright­ened by a col­or­ful, embroi­dered table­cloth and a vase of dried flow­ers. On the wall next to the win­dow hung a wood­en crucifix.

Illus­tra­tion by Lau­ra Junger

The Haas­mans had not been reli­gious. Feliks only ever saw Mama with her head cov­ered on the High Hol­i­days, when she took the chil­dren to shul. The fam­i­ly had occa­sion­al­ly eat­en out­side the home, in restau­rants and even at the tables of Catholics. But Mama had insist­ed on cer­tain things. Among them was keep­ing Shabbes, and hav­ing sep­a­rate kitchens for dairy and meat. Feliks was by far the most lit­er­al-mind­ed of the Haas­mans. He had made up his mind when he was thir­teen that the belief in an omnipo­tent God who watched over men was absurd.

Still, a cru­ci­fix on the wall was too much, even for as devout a sec­u­lar­ist as he was. He changed seats so he was fac­ing away from it.

His host­ess moved on to the top­ic of her unfor­tu­nate son. He’d been a nor­mal, hap­py child before the war. It had been the hunger, or the cold, or the typhus, or the ter­ror that had left him stunt­ed and half-deaf and dumb. There had been an old­er son, too, with a stronger con­sti­tu­tion. He had not come back from the war. As she talked, she cov­ered her mouth with a trem­bling hand.

Feliks took a pouch from his pock­et, pulled out a pile of bills, and placed them on the table. It’s for the credenza.”

The woman low­ered her­self into a chair across the table from Feliks. She stared at the money.

If it’s not enough, you will of course let me know.”

She shook her head. You must have the cre­den­za. It’s yours, after all. But I couldn’t possibly … ”

Feliks pushed the mon­ey toward her. You must. What would your hus­band say if he found you’d been giv­ing the fur­ni­ture away to strangers?”

My hus­band.” She looked up at Feliks. In the light from the win­dow, he noticed the spat­ter­ing of youth­ful freck­les across her nose. He’s on the tracks near Szczecin now, I believe.” She shrugged, and then placed her hand over the bills. I could go to the shop and pick up a bit of meat, some bar­ley. Per­haps you’d like to stay? It’s been so long since any­one has joined us … My son and I, we know no one in this city.”

The woman was so close that Feliks could hear her irreg­u­lar breath­ing. She smelled of naph­tha­lene, and vine­gar. She was younger than he’d remem­bered. Still, her shoul­der blades jut­ted out of her bent back like the wings of a starved chick­en. Or a spar­row. Feliks some­how found him­self both attract­ed to and repelled by her small­ness, her vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. She met his gaze when he touched her cheek, and tilt­ed her face so her lips grazed his palm. Relief coursed through Feliks — the relief of feel­ing anoth­er human’s warmth after all this time. But just behind it came the hum. It rose in vol­ume, and in pitch. He willed it away, but it couldn’t be con­trolled. He took back his hand, pushed the chair away from the table, and stood.

The most char­i­ta­ble thing he could do was to take his cre­den­za and go.

Leav­ing the woman alone with the mon­ey, he went down­stairs to fetch the porter he’d hired at the station.

The burly fel­low backed his way out of Bruno’s bed­room hold­ing one end of the cre­den­za; Feliks fol­lowed with the oth­er. He now saw the extent of the dam­age the piece had suf­fered. Some Ger­man had etched the birth and death dates of a Pri­vate Arik Blau into the wood. A sec­ond flut­ed leg had come off when the cre­den­za was lift­ed, and it now banged around inside a drawer.

As they passed what had once been the salon, the porter, far drunk­er than Feliks had guessed at the sta­tion, grunt­ed under the weight of the wood. No won­der they left this piece of shit to rot in here. They’re not idiots, those Ger­mans, are they now?”

Feliks glanced apolo­get­i­cal­ly at the woman. Again he saw pity in her eyes. But also some­thing else.

I wish I could’ve tak­en bet­ter care of your cab­i­net, Offi­cer,” she said. But the dam­age was already done when I got here.”

Shame. The woman felt shame. For the swastikas etched into the wal­nut of the cre­den­za. For liv­ing in his home. For accept­ing the mon­ey he’d left on her table. And for wit­ness­ing what sure­ly must seem an act of mad­ness — so much effort for a cre­den­za that was all but falling to pieces in his arms.

Sir,” the porter cut in. If you wouldn’t mind too ter­ri­bly — are we mov­ing this mon­stros­i­ty, or are we play­ing tug-of-war with it across this kind lady’s liv­ing room?”

It was impos­si­ble, Feliks thought, as the freight train chugged east­ward. Impos­si­ble, a nor­mal inter­ac­tion. An inter­ac­tion free of shame or pity or anger. Of sus­pi­cion. Of disgust.

For six years, the coun­try had endured the most salient expres­sion of hatred that any Pole — Catholic or Jew — had ever imag­ined. They had lost fam­i­lies, homes, and land. Final­ly, the night­mare had end­ed. As in a fairy tale, or dream, evil had been defeat­ed. Yet what, real­ly, had changed since 1939?

He sat down and let his feet dan­gle from the open door­way of the box­car. Behind him, the cre­den­za was strapped safe­ly to the wall. With the wind whip­ping his face, he watched the land rum­ble past him. Murky streams, clogged with duck­weed. Out-of-use sta­tions sur­round­ed by the sun-bleached ruins of razed vil­lages. And chil­dren. Chil­dren every­where: band­ing togeth­er to roll fall­en tree trunks into streams, chas­ing small­er ver­sions of them­selves, lob­bing rocks at the train with slingshots.

In the dis­tance, the browns and greens and greys of the flat land­scape leaked into one anoth­er. This view of Poland did not steal Feliks’s breath as had the shim­mer­ing deserts of Per­sia, the turquoise gem that was the Dead Sea, or the Alpine peaks that breached the heav­ens. But the coun­try pulled his insides taut in a way that no oth­er ever could. It was an hon­est land, unas­sum­ing, and some­times it could be sad and strange. He didn’t blame those who no longer saw any­thing here but a vast ceme­tery, who felt they need­ed to leave. But anger like Leonid Szyk’s was mis­guid­ed. Of course there was evil in Poland, but there would be wher­ev­er man walked on earth. Feliks’s duty was to stay. Not just for his own good, but for Poland herself.

It was dark by the time the train reached the out­skirts of War­saw. The trip back to Łódź had not relieved the hum in his head. He rose to unstrap his car­go. Where would he even sleep with it in his room? The cre­den­za was a huge weight that he’d car­ried into a life whose only real advan­tage had been its near total lightness.

Basia Wino­grad, a New York City – based writer and film­mak­er, teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Hunter College.