Read an Excerpt
The Pilava Local
In Poland, on the night of 11 September 1939, Wehrmacht scout and commando units–elements of Kuechler’s Third Army Corps–moved silently around the defenses of Novy Dvor, crossed the Vistula over the partly demolished Jablonka Bridge, and attempted to capture the Warsaw Telephone Exchange at the northern edge of the city. Meeting unexpected, and stubborn, resistance, they retreated along Sowacki Street and established positions on the roof and in the lobby of the Hotel Franconia, called for dive-bomber attacks on the exchange building, and settled in to wait for the light of dawn.
Mr. Felix Malek, proprietor of the Franconia, put on his best blue suit, and, accompanied by a room-service waiter, personally served cognac to the German soldiers at their mortar and machine-gun positions. He then descended to the wine cellar, opened the concealed door to an underground passage originally dug during the Prussian attack of 1795, hurried down Sowacki Street to the telephone exchange, and asked to see “the gentleman in charge.”
He was taken up a marble staircase to the director’s office on the fifth floor and there, beneath a somber portrait of the director–pince-nez and brushed whiskers–presented to the officer in command, a captain. The captain was an excellent listener, and the questions he asked inspired Mr. Malek to talk for a long time. Arms, unit size, insignia, the location of positions–he was surprised at how much he knew.
When he was done, they gave him tea. He asked if he might remain at the exchange, it would be an honor to fight the Germans. No, they said, perhaps another day. So Mr. Malek made his way through the night to his sister’s apartment in the Ochota district. “And what,” she asked, “were they like?”
Mr. Malek thought a moment. “Educated,” he said. “Quite the better class of people.”
Mr. Malek had not been thirty years an innkeeper for nothing: the defenders of the Warsaw Telephone Exchange, hastily recruited amidst the chaos of the German invasion, were officers of Polish Military Intelligence, known, in imitation of the French custom, as the Deuxième Bureau. The Breda machine gun at the casement window was served by a lieutenant from the cryptographic service, a pair of spectacles folded carefully in his breast pocket. The spidery fellow reloading ammunition belts was, in vocational life, a connoisseur of the senior civil service of the U.S.S.R., while the commander of the machine gun, feet propped on the tripod, was Lieutenant Karlinski, heavy and pink, who in normal times concerned himself with the analysis of Baltic shipping.
The officer in charge, Captain Alexander de Milja, was professionally a cartographer; first a mapmaker, later assistant director of the bureau’s Geographical Section. But Poland was at war–no, Poland had lost her war, and it was clear to the captain that nobody was going to be assistant director of anything for a long time to come.
Still, you couldn’t just stop fighting. Captain de Milja stood at the open window; the night air, cool and damp, felt especially good on his hands. Idiot! He’d grabbed the overheated barrel of the machine gun to change it during the attack, and now he had red stripes on his palms that hurt like hell.
4:20 a.m. He swept the façade of the hotel with his binoculars, tried–based on the proprietor’s intelligence–counting up floors to focus on certain rooms, but the Germans had the windows shut and all he could see was black glass. In Sowacki Square, a burned-out trolley, and the body of a Wehrmacht trooper, like a bundle of rags accidentally left in a doorway, weapon and ammunition long gone. To somebody’s attic. De Milja let the binoculars hang on their strap and stared out into the city.
A refinery had been set on fire; a tower of heavy smoke rolled majestically into the sky and the clouds glowed a faint orange. A machine gun tapped in the distance, a plane droned overhead, artillery rumbled across the river. War–fire and smoke–had made autumn come early, dead leaves rattled along the cobblestones and caught in the iron drain covers.
Captain de Milja was a soldier, he knew he didn’t have long to live. And, in truth, he didn’t care. He was not in love with life. One or two things had to be taken care of, then matters could run their course.
The director’s telephone was, naturally, of the very latest style; black, shiny, Bakelite plastic. De Milja dialed the military operator he had installed in the basement.
“Sergeant, have you tried Tarnopol again?”
“Can’t get through, sir. I’ve been up to Wilno, and down to Zakopane, just about every routing there is, but the whole region’s down. We’re pretty sure the lines have been cut, sir.”
“You’ll keep trying.”
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
He replaced the receiver carefully on its cradle. He had wanted to say good-bye to his wife.