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THE Memories We Keep
By WALTER ZACHARIUS
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2004 Walter Zacharius
All right reserved.
Chapter OneConfined against my will. Trapped. Imprisoned. That's my memory of the summer of 1939. It was, of course, long before I'd seen a real prison or been locked away.
We were vacationing that summer in Krzemieniec, "the Polish Athens," an ugly, provincial little artists' colony where we had stayed the past ten summers and which, until this year, I had adored. Now adolescent hormones had taken hold, spiraling me alternatively into giddiness and despair, and keeping me in a near rage at my parents, who had brought me to this hellhole while my classmates were spending their holidays at chic Riviera hotels and Loire Valley châteaux. Jews had always made up a sizeable minority of the resort's seasonal population, and this year was no exception. The Polish families, like ours, mingled with the guests from Germany and France.
The Café Tarnopol, once the poet Slowacki's salon, seemed old-fashioned now, dusty and boring, just like our hotel, and the bourgeoisie who rented the same rooms year after year filled the café with their mediocrity. They no longer spoke of Slowacki, or Pushkin, or even Baudelaire. Oh no. Conversations this season focused on "Jew this" and "Jewish that" till I thought I'd go mad.
It was impossible to concentrate on my music. In previous years, I'd played Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu or Nocturne, op. 72, but this year the non-Jews insisted on Wagner, Hitler's favorite composer, and the Jews didn't dare object. Aryan music had become high culture because of Adolf Hitler, and also because of him my parents, obsessed with our safety, returned to Krzemieniec from our home in Lodz, rather than go to Switzerland, which my father could at long last afford. It was too cruel. I gave up playing anything at all in public, refused to sing, and moped about the hotel, looking vainly for someone to share my misery. Jozef, my brother, was working on his doctoral dissertation in Kraków, all the other guests were as old as my parents, and the local girls shunned me and called me names.
My mother scolded me for being too dramatic and too impatient. "When it rains Mia gets wet," she told my father, "even if we're inside."
The miserable summer of 1939 dragged on. Once, after a wasted afternoon of failing to practice my scales on the hotel's piano, I escaped to my room and flopped across the massive four-poster. Catching my reflection in the full-length mirror as I landed, I jumped up, startled, to examine the mysterious creature who seemed to have taken over my body-a young woman with high, taut cheekbones, dark skin, jet-black hair, and green eyes rimmed with amber.
"You have Jewish eyes," I told the stranger. "You have big sensuous Jewish lips, a succulent Jewish neck, and big Jewish breasts." But my height and long waist were gifts from my mother. Although my hair was black and curly, my hands were tapered with the long fingers of a pianist, and my legs were thin and shapely, my feet small. Maybe I'm only half-Jewish, I told myself, and I should be grateful. I could pass.
Jozef, I realized, did not look Jewish either. With his tall, muscular build and blond hair (where had that come from?) he could have passed for a Nordic prince. Back home in Lodz when I walked beside him with my hair tied back with a silk scarf, he made me look like his gypsy bride. How I missed him!
I stared at my profile, trying to imagine one of those repulsive Jewish armbands with the Star of David set against my skin. Just before term's end, a classmate had brought me one from Berlin. My father told me that if I had gone to the Salzberg conservatory instead of the lycée, in Paris, I'd be wearing one.
A wave of rage engulfed me, and I yanked off the carved ivory barrettes I wore in my hair and released the two long braids, which Mama had painstakingly, and painfully, wound around my head. The long curls bounced back wildly and spilled onto my shoulders. I was nearly seventeen, yet Mama insisted on treating me like a child. She kept me in plain cotton slips like some wretched Heidi and forbade me to use lipstick.
There was a sharp rap on the door. "Schatzie?"
My father. I raced to the latch and locked it.
"Are you in there?"
"Yes, Papa." I sighed, leaning against the door.
"Have tea with us in the gazebo. I have a surprise."
Father's surprises were usually disappointing. "I'm not ready."
"You've got five minutes," he said. Then, perhaps regretting his harshness: "Is anything wrong?"
Wrong! I felt tears gathering in the corners of my eyes. How could I make him understand that everything was wrong? This place, my clothes, a summer among Jews without Jozef. Even Bach seemed boring. Mozart. Schönberg. The Café Tarnopol. Mama and Papa themselves. Boring, boring, boring!
"I'll be right down," I shouted and began pinning my hair up, rebelliously allowing a few stray wisps to float about my ears and neck.
* * *
Papa's surprise was sitting beside Mama in the gazebo-a trim, immaculate man of about fifty, dressed in a three-piece suit utterly out of place in a resort. He was tugging on his long mustache.
"Here you are!" my mother exclaimed, looking angrily at my messy hair. "Pappie and I have been waiting for you to-"
"Never mind," my father whispered in Yiddish. Then, in French, "Mia, this is Professor Jules Stern. He is a lecturer in philosophy at the Sorbonne, and a great lover of opera. And this, Professor Stern, this is my little songbird."
Songbird! All my triumph at my mother's distress dissolved, leaving me stranded between humiliation and fury.
"Enchanté," Professor Stern said, rising to kiss my hand. His eyes roamed over me. "And may I call you-"
"Marisa, monsieur ... Mia," I managed.
He flashed a toothy grin beneath his mustache, and I felt the intensity of his eyes. Removing my hand from his sweaty grip, I scurried toward a chair next to my mother's.
Papa intercepted me, grabbing my waist playfully and swinging me onto his lap as if I were a child.
"Dr. Levy has told me of your accomplishments, Mia." The professor smiled. "A singer and a pianist both! Perhaps you'll perform for me."
"Of course she will," Papa exclaimed, sending me on my way with a stinging love-spank. "My daughter is a prodigy. Why, in Paris she performed Schönberg's Erwartung."
I refused to look at either of them. Was this some sort of slave market at which I was to be auctioned off?
"As you can imagine," Papa rattled on, "it was a hard decision-denying her the Mozartium. But the way things have gone for poor Austria...." His voice trailed off.
My mother poured tea, passed around a platter heaped with Sacher torte. "Our son, Jozef, is also accomplished," she offered. "A celebrated German scholar at the university in Kraków."
Stern ignored her. He was staring at me. "Do you know Stravinsky's work?" he asked me. "Nobody is more talked about in Paris. I sincerely hope, Benjamin, that you and your family will be able to see his Oedipus Rex at L'Opéra this fall."
Papa sighed. "I'm afraid I won't be able to get away from Warsaw. I will be extremely busy at my medical clinic. But Mia will be back in Paris by then. She has another year at the lycée."
The professor practically salivated. "I shall be delighted to accompany you myself, ma'amselle. That is, of course, with your parents' consent." He took a bite of his Sacher torte.
I snapped my head up as though I had been slapped by an invisible hand. I thought Stravinsky far inferior to Schönberg so wouldn't even have gone on my own. But with this man....
My father was looking at me expectantly. "Of course, monsieur. I would be honored," I heard myself mumble.
A piece of pastry from my plate tumbled down onto the pale violet napkin on my thighs. Blushing crimson with embarrassment, I seized the corners of the napkin, flung it on the table, pushed my chair back, bolted down the gazebo steps, and fled down the gravel path to the safety of the gatehouse at the bottom of the hill. The tears that had been building all summer began to spill.
Embarrassment for my parents filled me with shame. Wasn't there condescension in the way the other guests hailed them? Did the Parisians and Berliners think of them as "those boors from Warsaw"? Were they the brunt of those hideous Jewish jokes?
My parents wanted me to attend the best schools because education was very important to them. I began studying the piano in Lodz when I was six and for many years had dreams of being a concert pianist. I also loved to sing. The lycée in Paris seemed to be the best school for me to attend. My father was a successful doctor, and he wanted my brother and me to benefit from his success.
Two years before, in September, Papa insisted on driving me to the lycée, taking a route through Austria and Switzerland, and touring the French countryside on the way to Paris.
In Vienna, Mama's Yiddish-she knew no German-embarrassed her. The hotel maids and bellboys ignored her or pretended not to understand what she was saying. In Switzerland, she regained some of her composure, but in the peaceful heart of the Loire Valley, the innkeepers made fun of her French and behind our backs pointed us out as les juifs to the other guests.
When we reached Paris, Papa registered us at the Hotel Steinfeld, a place Jews preferred, where at last my mother was comfortable. I insisted that we go immediately to the Lycée LaCourbe-Jasson, and after interminable introductions and instructions, the headmistress at last directed me toward my room in a building across the courtyard.
I ran away from them, my mother, who seemed somehow tainted, and my father, who was unable to protect her. I ran without looking back, carrying my heavy suitcase, and stumbled up the steps of my home-to-be. I paused at the door of my room on the second floor long enough to catch my breath and pull my sweaty cotton undershirt away from my skin. There was light coming from the transom and I could hear girls laughing within. My roommate hosting a first-day party, I imagined. I knocked.
The door opened and a round face peered out. "Who's there?"
"It's me. Marisa Levy."
"Levy did you say?"
"Okay, Marisa," the face said, and the doors flung open, leaving me revealed to six sets of inquisitive eyes.
At my appearance, the room exploded with laughter. Somebody said the words "new Jewess," and the hilarity increased. I thought of my mother at the Viennese hotel and understood that I was experiencing now what she had-and that I always would.
For the next weeks, my classmates made fun of my textbook French, my braids, my homemade school dresses. And so I retreated into music, the piano keys my dearest companions, their sounds the balm to my soul. I played for my teachers and loved to talk to them, but with the other girls I was silent. Meanwhile, I set about building a wardrobe, mastering French, going alone to cabarets or concert halls.
A clarinetist named Benny Goodman came to Paris to perform with his band, and through the lycée I was able to buy a ticket to hear them. What music they made! It was new to me, melodic, rhythmic, filled with a sensuality I experienced throughout my body, the notes flying from the instruments like wild birds, diving and soaring around my head. Some in the audience began an impromptu dance, and I ached to dance with them, but when a young man came up beside me and asked me to join in, I shook my head and remained seated. When I'm older, I told myself. Then I will dance.
Undaunted, he sat beside me and introduced himself as Jean- Phillipe Cadoux, who had arrived in Paris from Lille two years before, now lived in the 9th arrondissement, and was working as a postal worker to support himself as an architecture student at the École des Beaux Arts. We could talk easily together, once I found that his aggressive approach masked an innate shyness, and we became friends. Just friends so far, but it was to him that I poured out my loneliness and alienation and I knew that when the time came-when it was right-we would become closer. At the end of term we parted, promising to see each other again, and as soon as I returned to Paris he contacted me and we resumed our relationship.
Back in Lodz that summer, more sophisticated and snobbish than all of my classmates combined, I was restless and unhappy. My sweet, pompous father irritated me, and I despised my well-meaning mother for being such a fear-ridden shrew. I scorned them for a lack of elegance and savoir-faire, and pitied them, too.
But at that moment, at the hotel gate in Krzemieniec in the summer of 1939, I would have given anything to be Papa's little girl again. When I looked up and saw him coming toward me along the gravel path, I gave a little scream of pleasure and ran to him, crumpling onto his broad shoulder.
"Eh, what's this, Mia?" he asked, stroking my hair.
"It's that man," I said. "Professor Stern. He-"
A loudspeaker began to blare from the top of a black panel wagon approaching the hotel. Papa held up his hand, signaling me to listen. "President Mos´cicki," he said.
Fellow citizens! Last night, our age-old enemy, Germany, began hostilities against the Polish State. I place on record before God and history that our noble Poland will never be vanquished, that our gallant army will fight to the last man before....
My father grabbed my hand, and we ran up the hill to the hotel. Guests were fanning out in a dozen different directions. There was pushing and shoving. Young children screamed for their mothers. My own crisis was pushed aside. Life was reduced to motion.
By the time we'd fought our way back to the hotel suite, Mama was already packing. "I thought it would be best," she told Papa.
"You were right not to wait." They spoke in a fearful staccato. Papa paused in the middle of the sitting room, chewing on a fingernail. He was working on our dilemma as if it were a chemical equation.
I ran around Mama and darted toward my room. She raised her head, for once oblivious to my disheveled appearance. "Don't fuss over the packing," she called. "We must be ready to leave at once."
With quick, mechanical motions I transferred piles of clothing from drawers to an open suitcase. Everything fell into a kind of rhythm. Throughout the resort village, the Volhynian mountains, perhaps all of Eastern Europe, life rushed toward a frenetic crescendo.
I carried my suitcase back to my parents' suite. My father had picked up the phone, his hand covering the receiver. "I'm trying to get through to Jozef, darling. Yes, right this very moment. I ... wait. Operator? I'm calling Kraków.... No. Kraków ... Yes, madame, I fully understand ... yes, of course.... But if you would only nonetheless try...." After a while he hung up with a sigh.
An hour later we were standing outside the hotel, huddled next to a mountain of traveling bags, in the midst of a long line of people shoving one another in their attempts to commandeer cars, trucks, wagons-any transportation that would take them home.
Finally we were permitted our turn. A hay cart driven by a drunken peasant rolled up. "Please, sir," Papa called out in his elegant, educated Polish, "we would like to hire your services to take my wife and daughter, plus myself and the luggage as far as Dubow."
"You hear that?" the driver whispered conspiratorially into the horse's ear. "As far as Dubow." He patted the horse's neck with affection then spat on the ground. "How much money you got?"
I could feel Papa fighting an impulse to thrash the farmer for his insolence. "Enough to pay for a cart ride to Dubow."
The peasant raised a questioning eyebrow. "What then?"
"Then?" Papa shook his head as if the question had not occurred to him. "We decide once we arrive. Maybe the train to Lemberg. Or Ostrog. Eventually, Lodz."
"In that case, the price is five hundred zloty."
"Unheard of! In Lodz, we could hire a Daimler to drive us to Krzemieniec and back for that."
"Then do it, Mister. I was offering you a bargain only because you've got such a pretty daughter. I thought she might want to sit in front with me, to keep me warm. Otherwise, my price would be a thou-"
"How dare you!" Papa bellowed in Yiddish, leaping at the driver's throat. With his free hand, the driver drew back his whip and lashed out.
My father fell to the ground, blood streaming from his cheek. His face was a dangerous vermilion.
"His heart," Mama hissed, kneeling to open his collar.
"Filthy Jew bastard," the peasant snarled, lashing out again at the empty air. "You're not fit to lick my horse's asshole." He turned to the people in line. "Next."
Excerpted from THE Memories We Keep by WALTER ZACHARIUS Copyright © 2004 by Walter Zacharius. Excerpted by permission.
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