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When six-year-old Michal Glowinski first heard the adults around him speak of the ghetto, he understood only that the word was connected with moving-and conjured up a fantastical image of a many-storied carriage pulled through the streets by some umpteen horses. He was soon to learn that the ghetto was something else entirely. A half-century later, Glowinski, now an eminent Polish literary scholar, leads us haltingly into Nazi-occupied Poland. Scrupulously attentive to the distance between a child's experience and an adult's reflection, Glowinski revisits the images and episodes of his childhood: the emaciated violinist playing a Mendelssohn concerto on the ghetto streets; his game of chess with a Polish blackmailer threatening to deliver him to the Gestapo; and his eventual rescue by Catholic nuns in an impoverished, distant convent. In language at once spare and eloquent, Glowinski explores the horror of those years, the fragility of existence, and the fragmented nature of memory itself.
I remember when I heard it for the first time. It was at the very beginning of the war, right after the defeat. The word drifted into my ears as people around me deliberated: will they lock us in the ghetto or not? I didn't know what this word meant, yet I realized it was connected with moving. I sensed that it was something adults spoke of with fear, but to me, it seemed that moving would be an interesting adventure. And in the end I envisioned this mysterious and incomprehensible ghetto as a huge, many-storied carriage riding through the streets of the city, pulled by some umpteen horses. Into such a carriage they would put us, and we would live there; on the whole it would turn out to be something quite exciting and entertaining. I imagined that in this carriage there would be all kinds of staircases, so that one could run freely from one floor to the next, and many windows as well, so that nothing would stand in the way of looking out over the unknown world. In my imagination, I conjured up this fantastical carriage on the model of a hearse-the black carriage of death-such as could be seen from time to time in our city. Quickly, though, I would be forced to part with these childlike phantasmagoria. We did in fact move, but it did not turn out to be a fascinating adventure. And in the very near future direct experience would instruct me in the precise meaning of this word. Little time had passed before I no longer entertained any doubts as to its implications, even though such a short time before, it had sounded so mysterious, so exotic, so intriguing.
To this day I still don't understand that space encircled by walls. I'm not able to grasp it, to capture it, I'm not able to discern the principles by which it was organized. That space remains for me a chaos, impossible to comprehend. And this is so not only when I reminisce, when I try to remember how I observed it at the time, when I was shut inside it. This is also true today when I look at a map of what was once the old Jewish quarter, a place that would so quickly reveal itself to be the site of collective death. That space remains for me a tangle of streets connected in a way I'm unable to penetrate. I'm unable to place where we lived, I'm unable to point to what felt close and what far away. I know now that spatial images had no objective dimension, for behind the walls-as in any prison or camp, or more generally, in any place that can be described as a penal colony-peculiar spatial relations come into being. In my memory, that tangle of streets was never empty for a moment. I was not out, naturally, after the curfew, nor during those times when, by the nature of the situation, everything was desolate. I saw those streets during the day and was one of the crowd, a dense crowd that was barely possible to squeeze through.
The ghetto remains in my memory as a place without a shape, deprived of any ordering principle, a space enclosed by walls from which all sense has been taken, just as the sense of life was taken from those pressed within it. Yet I remember its color, unique and inimitable, the sort of color that might signify every collective misfortune: a gray-brown-black, the only one of its kind, devoid of any brighter color or distinguishing accent. Before my eyes remains this monochromatism of the ghetto, perhaps best described by the word "discoloredness." For everything was just that-discolored-regardless of what its original color had been and irrespective of the weather. Even the most intensive rays of sunlight would not brighten or even vaguely tint this discoloredness. But did the sun ever shine in the ghetto? Can the sun appear in a place without an inch of green?
In my memories, the color of the ghetto is the color of the paper that covered the corpses lying in the street before they were taken away. The corpses belonged to the permanent landscape, as the street was a place of death: not only sudden and unexpected death, but also slow death-from hunger, from disease, from every other possible cause. The season of great dying lasted in the ghetto without interruption. These bodies covered with sheets of paper never failed to make an intense impression on me, and that paper itself became for me one of death's embodiments, one of its symbols. I'm unable to describe its distinctive color; afterward, I never again saw such paper, yet I think that the description "discolored" would be closest, most fitting. Precisely that color without color-neither white nor ash nor even gray-defines the colorscape of the ghetto and imparts its tone. And that permanent discoloredness inscribed itself in my mind. I was much astonished when I suddenly encountered it-made real and tangible-once again. I was at the cinema, watching Andrzej Wajda's black-and-white film about Janusz Korczak. This was not an ordinary black-and-whiteness-and not only because the director made use of black and white at a time when color dominated the screen. It was not ordinary because it came to signify the color of the ghetto, that grayness with no boundaries, no differentiation. Watching the film, I could not believe my eyes. I was seeing that discolored color-in essence, the antithesis of color-in the very form in which it had imprinted itself in my memory decades earlier. And if only for capturing this colorless color of the ghetto, I am grateful to Andrzej Wajda for that unusual and important film, which some fanatics have attacked for reasons difficult to fathom.
Scenes from the Street
I'm reflecting on what has stayed in my memory from the streets of the ghetto, apart from a generalized picture in which the streets form a labyrinthine web, into which stumbles not a lone wanderer, but a humiliated crowd, systematically deprived of all rights, not yet fully aware that the greatest right-that of life-would be taken from it as well. Some fragments have also remained, details having only vague significance vis-à-vis general knowledge, but which for me are important as traces, pressed deeply in my consciousness, of those places and of those times.
I don't know why this scene in particular became fixed in my memory so forcefully, as there was nothing to distinguish it as something that would fascinate a small child. I was walking with someone from my family-not my mother this time-along one of the overcrowded streets when suddenly on the street I saw a rickshaw or a droshky. (But were there droshkies in the ghetto? It was a world deprived of natural things, I don't remember that I ever saw a horse there.) In it rode a festively dressed young couple, obviously returning from their wedding. The newlyweds gave the impression of being happy, the young man held his companion by the hand. It was certainly for two reasons that I remembered that snapshot, in itself of no larger significance. First, it seemed as though displaced from another world, transcending those things that constructed the reality in which I was living. Possibly I saw it as a scene extracted from a fairy tale. There was, though, still another reason. The newlyweds were not riding away from their wedding in a golden carriage, yet they drew the attention of passersby who made no attempt to conceal their distaste: a honeymoon, even if only from one ghetto street to another, was apparently not suited to this reality, it seemed inappropriate. I remember that a boy shouted to the young man: "That one, hold onto her, or she'll get away." Maybe I'm conflating that scene with another, from another day and another place-I can't exclude that possibility-but it seems to me that just then I saw the Germans filming this very street in the ghetto. Perhaps the image of the young couple was meant to attest to the propaganda that calm prevailed in the Warsaw Ghetto, that life proceeded normally.
Another fragment from these streets that has lingered in my mind has an entirely different character, even if only because it concerned not a singular and atypical occurrence, but rather a scene that repeated itself with great regularity-perhaps to say every day would not be an exaggeration. As I walked to the lessons taught by Panna Julia and Pani Bronislawa, I would pass on my way there-which after all was not very far-an emaciated man, no longer young, playing the violin. He always played the same tune, which I learned from one of the adults was a fragment of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. It was said that before the war the violinist had been a member of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, and only the extreme poverty of the ghetto had forced him onto the streets. I can still see his figure before my eyes. There was so little of him that he faded away into his wide gray overcoat, which undoubtedly had fit him during better prewar times, but which now hung on him as if made for three such men as him. He played all the time, regardless of the weather, wearing a hat, which like the coat seemed much too large for him, his face was lost in the shadow of the wide brim. Everything associated with him-apart from the melody that came from his violin-was connected to grayness, and so existed in harmony with the general color scheme of the ghetto. I don't know if people threw offerings to him; I can't imagine how he could have collected them, since his instrument occupied both his hands. He must have succeeded in collecting something, given that he played every day, but these would have been sums insufficient to provide for even the most basic needs. Destitution and hunger were ever more visible in his appearance. A skeleton, clothed in an overcoat, playing the violin.
Viewings of Death
I've mentioned already the corpses covered with paper lying on the street. That scene was my first meeting with death, and it sank into my imagination. Still, this was an anonymous, impersonal death, as I didn't know any of those who had ended their span of years on the sidewalks of the ghetto. Yet in the season of great dying, even a child's experience of death could not be limited to this type of random encounter; death was encroaching from all sides and would come to assume a more personal form. Very quickly I grasped the essence of the matter: a person was-and suddenly is no more. My becoming conscious of this fact was yoked with terror; it was a consciousness that evoked a fear difficult to overcome. It seems to me today, so many years later, that I never managed to get used to it, even in the conditions of the ghetto where contact with dying belonged to the sphere of everyday occurrences, commonplace and banal.
My first experience of death, beyond the sight of corpses lying on the street, was not connected with the departure of someone close to me or even of someone I knew well. Rather it was connected with someone whom I had seen only a few times; I didn't even know (and don't know to this day) his name. He was a tall, very thin man, slightly hunchbacked, whose movements-it seemed to me-were as if mechanical. In general he gave the impression of one who had been artificially put together from different parts: his head, with oddly protruding cheeks and wire glasses falling down his nose, gave the impression of having been fastened with screws onto the rest of his body. This strange man evoked in me a panicked fright. Perhaps that's why I remember him so vividly, although, of course, I have no assurance that the picture which has lasted in my memory corresponds to the actual person. (Many years later I imagined several characters from Hoffmann's fantastical tales in just such a way.) I saw him from time to time when I went to Pani Anna for lessons; he lived in the same apartment as she did, and he may have been her cousin. One day when I knocked on the door at the usual time, I was told there would be no lessons today, because the man whose very appearance had so frightened me had just died. Soon it reached me that he had hanged himself in the bathroom the night before. The image of that dead man dangling in the bathroom haunted me for a long time afterward-and I think that it was just then, being no more than seven years old, that I grasped what death was. That man, somewhat resembling a scarecrow, became my emblem of death.
Only once did I witness a killing. It happened later, I think in the time just before the beginning of the Aktion, the transports to Treblinka. We were living someplace else then, close to the ghetto wall, in an apartment where the kitchen windows looked out onto the kind of courtyard-well so characteristic of the Warsaw of times past. I heard screams, and I wanted to see what was happening. Several Germans were gathered in a narrow, tight space, and in front of a wall several men stood. The execution began. I don't know who the victim was or what was the immediate provocation. I only saw a shot fired and a person fall. My mother pulled me away from the window; the shots that followed I only heard, resonating oddly inside the courtyard. She didn't want me to be a witness to the successive horrors, although I had already seen more than one; she worried, too, that the Germans would begin firing upward at those who were leaning out of their windows. I don't know how many people died that time; I remember, though, the enormous pool of blood in the courtyard. That scene stayed in my consciousness in the form of a snapshot, a momentary occurrence. My thoughts didn't often return to it, for now the season of great dying had entered its culminating phase, and even for a child it was difficult to revisit earlier events. The dominant place in my consciousness came to be occupied by two words not heard earlier: "Umschlagplatz" and "Treblinka."
The story I will tell now happened already in the final phase when those two words were on the lips of everyone locked behind the walls. The liquidation Aktion had only just begun; that day our turn came. We were to be herded off to Umschlagplatz-and delivered directly to the gas chambers. My family and a good number of our neighbors (perhaps all of them?) hid inside one of the cellars, the one located farthest away from the entrance, although certainly not especially well concealed. As far as I can remember, the building caretaker locked the cellar from the outside. I can still see him: he was a young, tall, broad-shouldered man. He himself wasn't yet hiding-he must have judged that the role he served would protect him from the transport-but his wife was probably with us. And, indeed, he was not taken this time.
It's difficult for me today to say very much about our time in hiding, as the details have faded into the mist. It was crowded, and the vault was so low that it was impossible to stand. I already understood well what was going on, what we wanted to escape by hiding in a place not meant for human habitation. Every sound approaching from the outside brought terror. And I, too-understandably-was overcome with fear. I nestled close to my parents, though in such a situation, even they were not a guarantee of safety-I realized that they were threatened by the same thing as I was, as we all were. It was dark, absolute silence was obligatory, no sign of life was permitted to escape from behind those walls.
Excerpted from THE BLACK SEASONS by MICHAL GLOWINSKI
Copyright © 1999 by Michael Glowinski. Excerpted by permission.
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|Fragments from the ghetto||5|
|My grandfather's suicide||27|
|Beans and a violin||33|
|The black hour||59|
|Candid evening talks||67|
|The villa on Odolanska Street||75|
|The house beneath the eagles||83|
|A quarter hour passed in a pastry shop||91|
|Jasio the redhead||97|
|The death of Sister Longina||103|
|On a Sunday morning||111|
|A louse on a beret, a chasuble, a pair of shoes||125|
|It was I who killed Jesus||147|
|Books I didn't read in my youth||159|
|"Germans are people, too"||169|