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My father had a beautiful pure tenor voice, and he loved to sing. Every Sunday afternoon during the opera season, he would take my mother, my brother, Tadzo, and me to the Warsaw Opera, where we had a loge to ourselves. My mother loved music too, but she was tone-deaf. Stefania Bathsheva Gromb was her name. In Yiddish she was called "Sheva," but people called her "Stefcia."
She was a beautiful woman, much younger than my father, a restless person, a coquette, who dressed like a movie star. My father was very much in love with her, so he doted on her. Before the depression, when he was still well-to-do, he'd throw banknotes wrapped in tissue paper on her bed. "Stefciu, here is some money; buy yourself a nice dress," he'd whisper, while she slept. He adored her, despite the fact that she had many admirers. I knew many men were very much in love with my mother. From time to time flowers from strangers were delivered to our home. I remember azaleas.
I was a very perceptive child. I thought, What will my father say? Azaleas like this. My father said, "That's wonderful! I have two daughters. I am happy when my two daughters are happy."
All her life my mother had an affair with Abram Juwiler. She was crazy about him. She told me they had met in a garden when she was seventeen years old and they were both on vacation. They had shared a swing. He was her first and only true love. My father knew all about it, but said nothing.
Her parents forbade her to marry Juwiler; he was too assimilated for the Grombs. They wanted somebody respectable and religious, like my father. In their eyes Abram was a vagabond. They thought he was too handsome, looked like a movie star. He had been a diamond polisher in Brussels, spoke French beautifully, very well dressed-white slacks, blue blazer with gold buttons-that kind of guy. When he arrived in Warsaw he started a jewelry business, but he was a gambler. He'd play the horses every day. He'd win, he'd lose, win, lose. Every evening he was at our house, except on Friday because he would not be allowed to smoke cigarettes. My father was observant, while Juwiler was a freethinker and a chain smoker. On Sunday we'd go to the opera, but without Abram.
When I was a child I didn't know that there was anything wrong with the arrangement. I liked Abram very much. And my father liked him too! As a matter of fact, when Juwiler lost his business, my father hired him as an agent. Didn't I have wonderful parents? My father was an angel. He looked just like Tadzo-a more handsome version of Tadzo, although he had a slightly pockmarked face. He was taller than Tadzo, but he had absolutely the same personality: gentle, funny, and ironic.
And I'm like my mother. If I weren't happy in my marriage, I too would become a very big flirt. Because in a way life is so empty. I have my music, but just to be a housewife, I can't. If I were not in love with Willy I would have three boyfriends. It's not the sex, it's the boredom.
* * *
My parents had one of the most attractive apartments in the Jewish section of Warsaw, such that young people planning to marry would stop by to see how it had been furnished. In the bedroom-they had made it to order in golden oak-there were parquet floors. The curtains were lilac, and the lampshade by their bed was in the shape of a half moon, lilac and gold colored. The walls were gold. The dining room furniture was black, and from France my parents had brought Gobelin tapestry of the Three Musketeers. My mother had gone to Czechoslovakia especially to buy water and wine glasses.
My parents invited fifty people for my sixteenth birthday, including the directors from the Bank of Vienna and the Agriculture Bank. Before the party my mother had a pale blue crinoline dress with white embroidery especially made for me. They hired an orchestra. The tables were beautifully laid out with silver and porcelain. Two maids circulated with trays of hors d'oeuvres, while the guests danced and drank until morning.
My father imported tea-a family tradition. He told me that when he was fourteen years old, his father sent him to Yalta in Russia to learn how to mix tea. And then he was sent to India to learn how to mix orange pekoe with other teas. He owned four cars: a Chevrolet, a Ford, a Talbot, and a special truck for the tea. The truck had the company name on it, Japonczyk, and in the back was the trademark: a Japanese water carrier. My father had twenty agents working for him, and some had also been invited to my birthday. These were my surroundings before the depression and the war, when I was young.
He was a very religious man, and when I think about him, I don't understand him. Why did he choose my mother, who was such a beauty, so much younger than he, and such a freethinker? He had a difficult life because he loved her but didn't show how he felt. Of course before they were married, he didn't know that she was in love with Abram. There were other things that didn't make sense: My father, who was so religious, still exposed me to nonreligious teachers. Why did he sent me to the conservatory of music and urge me to become an opera singer, when at first he didn't want me to go on the stage?
* * *
My grandfather on my mother's side was Tewel Gromb. He was in the textile business, but his hobby was to study literature. I remember him only vaguely because I was a small child when he died. He was a handsome man who didn't look Jewish at all. He was blond and blue-eyed and had a very gentile-looking face. My mother looked like him, and so did I, and so did Sylvio. He was also very assimilated. In his youth he had gone to the yeshiva, a Jewish seminary, but also to the university. When I visited him as a child he took me for a stroll around his study to examine his manuscripts. He spoke perfect Polish, French, and German. It was a very cultured house.
His wife, grandmother Helena, was a very gifted woman, especially in languages, and she had a superb memory. She spoke French and German fluently. Her Polish was impeccable, like mine. I never heard her speaking Yiddish. Maybe it was because of antisemitism in Poland, our people avoided speaking Yiddish even at home. We would speak Yiddish only when an uncle came from the country who didn't know Polish. I don't know how to speak Yiddish, although I understand most of it.
Grandmother Helena was quite the lady, but she was a bit weird. She loved jewelry to the extreme. When she came to our house for Pesach, Passover, she would wear twenty brooches-I'm not kidding!-everything she owned, and a lilac mantilla with laced borders. Usually her hair was uncovered, but on the sabbath and on high holidays she'd wear a wig like a traditional religious Jewish woman.
When Grandfather Tewel died of cancer, Grandmother Helena would spend a week at Andzia's, one of my mother's sisters, and a week at our house. Friday evening, following the "benching," the-grace-after-meals, she would pick up her pince-nez and start to read articles about Hitler. Already, by 1934-35, they were trying to get us ready for war, but no one believed it.
The paper was called Nasz przeglad, "Our Review." We sat drinking wine, while grandmother would read the paper. She'd start with the date when the paper was printed and then proceed with an article. "Children, listen to what Hitler says. There will be war. Nacia, we have to flee from here!" she'd warn over her pince-nez.
"Why, Grandma?" I'd ask.
"I'll read what the paper says: 'November 21-27. Senior Reporter, Jakub Apenszlak, Junior Reporter, Jakub Frankel. Quoting from Mein Kampf ...'" She would go on this way. Then she'd lay down the paper and quote from memory parts of the article. An extraordinary memory ... People would sit and listen, but nobody took her seriously when she said, "Let's run away."
Sometime I'd say to my father, "Dad, we've got the money, why don't we go to London, maybe to America?"
My father would respond, "Nacia, there won't be any war. I'm no longer so young. I'll now start looking for a new position in London? We have a beautiful home. There won't be war. I know about such things-more bark than bite." So we stayed in Warsaw.
* * *
For the most part, I had a happy childhood, but at times I felt neglected and very lonely. My brother, Tadzo, was younger than me, and at the time we had nothing in common. Even as a child I was grown up in a way. I knew many things. I observed many things. When I was in my room, I'd hear people playing cards: "Pass! Bianco! Pique!" I had nobody to talk to. I was close to my mother when she had time for me, but mostly she was busy with her own life, with cards, with Abram.
The only thing is that my father was crazy about me and thought that I was the best child in the world, and I was very pretty and beautifully dressed. When I was older, twice a week he'd take me to a movie. In the evening after work I'd pick him up in the factory, we'd have a bite, then at nine we'd take the car and go to a movie together.
I was very close to my father. I was eighteen years old, and still I would sometimes sit on his lap! I loved him beyond everything. Today when I open up a package of tea and smell the orange pekoe, I'm reminded of him. The fragrance of orange pekoe clung to his suit. Whenever I get even a whiff of it, I want to weep.
Later, when I finished the conservatory, because I felt so lonely, I started having one date after another. Every evening I went dancing with a different young man. I slept with none of them, but I flirted a lot. I'd get all dressed up, I'd go out. I'd feel important when the young men would shower me with compliments. For me it was all a big joke, just not to have to stay home. It was too boring. What was I to do? I could read a book for two hours, but you can't read all evening long! And I didn't want to hang around watching my parents and their friends play cards. It bored me to death.
I won three beauty contests in Warsaw. I was very happy to be pretty and gentile-looking, because if you looked Jewish you were lost in Poland. Wherever you went, you felt the weight of your Jewishness. One day when I was singing some songs of Leoncavallo at the conservatory, I noticed that my fellow students were whispering among themselves. They had seen my father drop me off at school and had figured out from his looks that we were Jews. All my Polish girlfriends dropped me from that moment on.
* * *
Warsaw was a very elegant city-a smaller, more intimate version of Paris. Jewish women, especially in my circle, were very well dressed. They'd go to Italy and to Paris to buy clothes. We had beautiful nightclubs and coffee shops. And the most beautiful nightclub I saw in my life after Paris was called Adria, where I performed. It was built from white stone and had red carpeting and chandeliers made out of crystal, real crystal. Beautiful tables, delicious food, people in tuxedos in the evening, and women in long gowns-very elegant. During the day women like my mother would meet for lunch and gossip at various restaurants and coffee shops. Galicki, on Nowy Swiat, near where I lived when I was married, had especially wonderful cakes and cookies.
When I was little we lived on Nowolipki Street, in the heart of the Jewish area. During the depression, when things got harder, we had to move a few blocks south to Prosta, but our apartment on Nowolipki 23 was in a brand new building with an elevator. Next to our building was a shul, and you could hear the men davening, praying, day and night.
Much of life was in the street, especially for the Jewish poor. When you left your apartment, you'd see groups of Hasidim talking with their hands: politics, Hitler, dus yens, business. Not everybody was religious, of course. There were Jewish workers who belonged to the Socialist party. There were even communists who didn't believe in God. Everybody was mixed up together.
Excerpted from False Papers by Robert Melson Copyright © 2005 by Robert Melson.
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|Prologue : our faults make us real||1|
|1||Before the war||11|
|5||Wanda and Tadzo||76|
|Epilogue : a normal life||169|