The Woman from Hamburg and Other True Stories

The Woman from Hamburg and Other True Stories

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by Hanna Krall

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In twelve nonfiction tales, Hanna Krall reveals how the lives of World War II survivors are shaped in surprising ways by the twists and turns of historical events. A paralytic Jewish woman starts walking after her husband is suffocated by fellow Jews afraid that his coughing would reveal their hiding place to the Germans. A young American man refuses to let go of


In twelve nonfiction tales, Hanna Krall reveals how the lives of World War II survivors are shaped in surprising ways by the twists and turns of historical events. A paralytic Jewish woman starts walking after her husband is suffocated by fellow Jews afraid that his coughing would reveal their hiding place to the Germans. A young American man refuses to let go of the ghost of his half brother who died in the Warsaw ghetto. He never knew the boy, yet he learns Polish to communicate with his dybbuk. A high ranking German officer conceives of a plan to kill Hitler after witnessing a mass execution of Jews in Eastern Poland.

Through Krall's adroit and journalistic style, her reader is thrown into a world where love, hatred, compassion, and indifference appear in places where we least expect them, illuminating the implacable logic of the surreal.

"It is precisely the difficult path [Krall] takes toward her topic that has made some of these texts masterpieces."
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (on Dancing at Other People's Weddings)

"Heartbreaking, strange . . . and marvelously told."
Die Zeit (on Proofs of Existence)

Editorial Reviews

Elena Lappin
Krall's distinctive style could be called Holocaust gonzo journalism. She reports the basic facts but adds a novelistic twist, weaving her interviews into elegant, multilayered narratives. In Madeline G. Levine's subtle translation, Krall's deceptively artless prose speaks of real events with the power of fiction -- creating a mysterious fusion she acknowledges in her story ''Salvation'': '… Perhaps it is easier for an author to tell the stories of others. But when Hanna Krall writes her own story some day -- in the first person -- it will be hard to mistake it for fiction.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The grim and the surreal portentously collide in Krall's 12 genre-bending pieces, all shadowed by the brutal facts of the Holocaust. In "Hamlet," Andrzej Czajkowski, a Polish piano impresario and composer who survived WWII as a child hiding in wardrobes, bequeaths his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the supernatural "Dybbuk," an American professor of architecture tries to exorcise the tormented spirit of his half-brother, who disappeared in a Jewish ghetto. "Phantom Pain" draws the life of Alex von dem B., a German officer who lost a leg on the Eastern front and plotted to assassinate Hitler after witnessing a massacre of Jews. Conspiracies resurface in "The Back of the Eye"-backlit by Cold War terrorism and the violence of the Baader-Meinhof Gang-in which Stefan, the son of a concentration camp survivor, serves a life sentence for a 1977 abduction and murder. A lineage mystery centers the fine folkloric title tale, though digressive genealogies obfuscate and confuse minor and major characters elsewhere. These investigations are stitched with information culled from diverse sources: interviews, an encyclopedia, state archives, diary entries, photographs and letters. Krall's (Shielding the Flame, etc.) prose is compressed, unadorned and journalistic. Braiding history with imagination, she produces necessary accounts that incisively unveil and interrogate the ruptured historical legacy of Jews after WWII. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Polish-born journalist Krall (Shielding the Flame, 1986, etc.) writes true stories about real people, but does so using fiction's methods. All of her people were in or were touched by the Holocaust. In the title story, featured in The New Yorker's "fiction" issues (Dec. 20 and 27, 2004), a woman, using increasingly larger pillows, pretends to be pregnant and give birth-so she can raise the baby of the pregnant Jewess she and her husband are closeting from the Nazis. "Phantom Pain" is the riveting family history of a young German baron (Axel von dem Busche) who ends up in the fighting on the eastern front-and becomes part of the assassination plot against Hitler. The rich vibrancy of Jewish life in Polish villages and towns-and the horror of its extermination-are made real all over again in the story of a man who, having survived, is drawn compulsively back to the now-empty places ("Portrait with a Bullet in the Jaw"). A man in "Only a Joke" is obsessed with the seven years of his childhood-a childhood that ended with the Warsaw Uprising. "The Back of the Eye" brings events up to the 1970s and the years of Cohn-Bendit, while in "The Dybbuk," an American professor and survivor knows that his doomed six-year-old brother still lives inside him. "The Chair" is the pitiable tale of a group in hiding who kill the old man whose cough is going to give them away, and in "A Fox," an aging pair of survivors live in a prewar past that has been utterly annihilated. And the utterly extraordinary "Hamlet" is the life story of the fiercely talented and troubled musician Andrzej Czajkowski, who, born in 1935, was a "hidden child," left behind by his mother as she successfully went over to "the Aryanside."From Krall, herself born in 1937, conscience-driven reconstructions of lives that lie forever in ruins. Invaluable.
From the Publisher
New York Times Paperback Row Ihsan Taylor
A Polish journalist, Krall is drawn to unusual stories of World War II survivors, Jews and non-Jews alike, and portrays how they lived, died and coexisted. Our reviewer, Elena Lappin, said Krall "reports the basic facts but adds a novelistic twist, weaving her interviews into elegant, multilayered narratives."

Product Details

Other Press, LLC
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Read an Excerpt

The Woman from Hamburg and Other True Stories

By Hanna Krall Other Press (NY)

Copyright © 2006 Hanna Krall
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781590512234

Chapter One

The Woman from Hamburg


Their home was far away. They, were incredibly sociable; they danced throughout Carnival. They liked horse races and gambled enthusiastically, though (of course) in moderation. They were resourceful and thrifty. He was a master painter; he had worked hard and acquired his own firm and three apprentices. Commonplace jobs, like painting walls, he entrusted to his apprentices; sign painting he reserved for himself, especially if the signs included many letters. He was in love with letters. It was their shape that enchanted him. He could spend hours sketching ever more artistic symbols. Sometimes they were sad because they had no children, but they would soon cheer up-they had each other. All of this was a long time ago.


They had turned thirty right before the war broke out.

The war didn't change their life, except that they stopped dancing and new words appeared on their signs. Now, they had orders for warnings. First in Polish: UWAGA! ZAKAZ WJAZDU! Then in Russian: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Then in German: ACHTUNG! EINTRITT VERBOTEN!

One winter evening, in 1943, he brought home a stranger, a woman.

"This woman is a Jew. We have to help her."

His wife asked if anyone had seen themin the stairwell, and quickly made some sandwiches.

The Jewess was petite, with curly black hair, and although her eyes were blue, she looked very Semitic. They put her in a room with a wardrobe. (Wardrobes and Jews -this is, perhaps, one of the most important symbols of our century. To live in a wardrobe-a human being in a wardrobe. In the middle of the twentieth century. In the heart of Europe.)

The Jewess would go into the wardrobe whenever the doorbell rang, and since her hosts continued to be very sociable, she spent long hours inside it. Fortunately, she was a sensible woman. She never coughed; not even the slightest rustling issued from the wardrobe.

The Jewess was never the first to speak, and she responded to questions with the fewest possible words.

"Yes, I did."


"In Belzec."

"We didn't have time to; we got married right before the war."

"They were taken away. I don't know, in Janowska or else in Belzec."

She did not expect sympathy. On the contrary, she rebuffed it.

"I am alive," she would say. "And I intend to remain alive."

She would watch intently as the wife (whose name was Barbara) ironed or stood beside the stove. Occasionally, she tried to help her, but did so with irritating clumsiness.

She would watch intently as the husband (whose name was Jan) practiced drawing his letters.

Once, she said, "You might practice with something more interesting."

"For example?"

She gave it some thought.

"What about this: 'Once upon a time there lived Elon lanler liron//Elon lanla bibon bonbon ...'"

This was the first time they had heard the Jewess laugh, and they both looked up.

"What's that?" they asked, surprised, and the woman, animated, continued reciting.

"'Once upon a time there lived Liron elon lanler// Lanlanler lived in the world....' Do you see how many splendid letters it contains? It's by Julian Tuwim, 'An Old French Ballad,'" she added.

"Too many L's," Jan objected. "But I can write OLD FRENCH." And he bent over his sheet of paper.

"Couldn't that Jewess learn to peel potatoes?" his wife asked him that night.

"The Jewess has a name," he replied. "You should refer to her as Regina."

One summer day, the wife came home from shopping. Her husband's jacket was hanging in the anteroom; he had come home from work a little earlier than usual. The door to the Jewess's room was locked.

One autumn day her husband said, "Regina is pregnant."

Barbara put down her knitting needles and smoothed out her work. It was the sleeve of a sweater, or maybe its back.

"Now listen to me," her husband whispered. "I don't want any stupid ideas entering your head. Do you hear me?"

She heard him.

"Because if something should happen ..."

He bent over his wife's head and whispered straight into her ear.

"If something bad should happen to her, the same thing will happen to you. Do you understand me?"

She nodded-she understood him, and she took up her needles.

A couple of weeks later, she entered the Jewess's room and, not saying a word, removed a small pillow from the bed. She undid the seam on one side and shook out a small amount of down. She sewed ribbons onto two sides. She concealed the pillow under her skirt. She tied the ribbons behind her and, for extra measure, secured them with safety pins, then pulled on a second skirt over the first.

A month later she added some down, and began complaining to her neighbors about her nausea.

Next, she cut a large pillow in half.

As the Jewess's belly grew bigger, she enlarged her pillows and let out her skirts-for the Jewess and for herself.

A trusted midwife attended the birth. Fortunately, labor didn't last long, despite the fact that the Jewess was narrow in the hips and her water had broken the day before.

Barbara took the pillows out from under her skirts and, with the baby in her arms, paid visits to all her neighbors. They kissed her tenderly.

"At last," they said. "It came late, but the good Lord had mercy on you."

Filled with happiness and pride, she thanked them.

On May 29, 1944, Barbara and Jan took the baby and went to the parish church with a couple of friends. ("Archdiocese of Lwsw, Latin rite, the parish of St. Mary Magdalene," was inscribed on the certificate signed by Father Szogun and stamped with an oval seal: "Officium Parochia, Leopli." In the center of the seal was a heart from which emanated the sacred flame.) That evening, they held a modest reception. Because of the curfew, the guests stayed until morning. The Jewess spent the entire night in the wardrobe.

On July 27, 1944, the Russians entered the city.

On July 28th, the Jewess disappeared.

The three of them stayed put: Barbara, Jan, and a three-month-old, blue-eyed baby with fine black curls.


They were repatriated to Poland in one of the first transports.

They settled in Czestochowa. (One of Regina's prewar acquaintances had told them that she had distant relatives there.)

As soon as they entered the apartment, Jan dropped his suitcase, laid the child down, and ran out of the house. The next day, he went out at dawn.

He searched for her for days on end. He wandered the streets, stopped in at offices, inquired about Jewish apartments, approached people who looked Jewish. He gave up his search only after a visit from two men who introduced themselves as Regina's emissaries. They offered a large sum and asked the couple to give the baby back.

"Our daughter is not for sale," Barbara and Jan said, and saw their guests out.

Their daughter was a well-behaved and very pretty little girl.

Her father spoiled her. They went together to sporting events, to the movies, and to cafis. At home, he would talk about how people admired her beauty, especially her hair, which hung down to her waist and was twisted into French curls.

When Helusia was six, packages began to arrive. They were sent from Hamburg; the sender was a woman with a strange, foreign name.

"She's your godmother," Barbara explained. "I don't wish her an easy death, but write her a letter and thank her nicely."

At first, Helusia dictated her letters; later, she wrote them herself.

"Thank you, dear Aunt, I am doing well at school, I am dreaming about a white sweater, maybe angora, but mohair would be better."

In the next package, a white sweater would arrive.

Helusia was ecstatic, but Barbara sighed and said, "If there is a God, she won't have an easy death. Sit down and write a letter. You can mention your First Communion and that white taffeta would come in handy."

Sometimes there were banknotes in the packages. There were never any letters; just once, between two chocolate bars, there was a photograph. It showed a dark-complexioned woman in a black dress, with a long fox fur draped over her shoulder.

"That's a silver fox," Barbara observed. "She's not very poor."

But they didn't get a good look, because Jan took the photograph out of their hands and hid it somewhere.

Helusia didn't like her Father's rapturous moods. They were exhausting. She would be studying or playing with her friends, and he'd be sitting there and looking at her. Then he'd take her face between his hands and look again. And then he would start crying.

He stopped drawing artistic letters.

He began drinking.

He cried more and more often, he drank more and more, and then he died. But before he died, a couple of months before his death, Helusia was leaving for France. She was twenty-five years old. A girlfriend had invited her so that Helusia could calm her frazzled nerves after her recent divorce. Helusia came home one day, radiant, holding a passport in her hand. Her Father was drunk. He studied the passport and embraced her.

"Stop over in Germany," he said. "Pay a visit to your mother."

"Your godmother," Barbara corrected hint.

"Your mother," her Father said again.

"My mother is sitting next to me and smoking a cigarette."

"Your mother lives in Hamburg," said her father, and burst into tears.


She changed trains in Aachen.

She arrived in Hamburg at seven in the morning. She left her suitcase at the station and purchased a map. She waited in a little square, and at nine she stood in front of the gate of a large house in a quiet, elegant neighborhood. She rang the bell.

"Wer ist das?" she was asked from behind the locked door.



"It's Helusia, open up."

The door opened. She saw herself standing there on the threshold: Helusia, but with black hair pinned high on her head, with blue eyes and a too full chin. Helusia, only somehow astonishingly aged.

"Why did you come?" the woman asked.

"To see you."


"I wanted to see my mother."

"Who told you?"

"My father."

A maid brought in tea. They were sitting in the dining room, amid white furniture with tiny painted flowers.

"It's true. I gave birth to you," her mother said.

"I had to. I had to agree to everything.

"I wanted to live.

"I don't want to remember your father.

"I don't want to remember those times.

"I don't want to remember you, either."

Her mother paid no attention to Helusia's sobbing, which was growing louder and louder; she just kept repeating the same few sentences over and over.

"I was afraid.

"I had to live.

"You remind me of my fear.

"I don't want to remember.

"Don't ever come here again."


Helusia got married again, to an Austrian-a quiet, rather boring owner of a mountain inn near Innsbruck.

On the anniversary of her father's death, she came back to Poland. She went to the cemetery with her mother. (Barbara was still her mother; she referred to the woman who had given birth to her as "The Woman from Hamburg.")

Over tea, Barbara told her, "When I die, you will find everything in the drawer with the lids."

Helusia bridled at this; then she confessed that she was pregnant and a little afraid of giving birth.

"You have nothing to be afraid of!" Barbara exclaimed. "I was older than you, and even skinnier, and my water broke too early, but I had no trouble giving birth to you."

Helusia was terrified, but Barbara was behaving completely normally.

"Should I notify The Woman from Hamburg when the baby is born?"

"Do as you like. That woman caused me a lot of grief, but do as you like."

Barbara grew pensive. "My God, how happy we were without her! How gay! If it weren't for her, we would have been happy for the rest of our lives."

If it weren't for her, you wouldn't have me, Helusia thought, but she could not say this to her mother, who had given birth to her without any difficulty, despite being old and skinny.


In the drawer that Helusia opened after Barbara's funeral, there were two large envelopes among the pot covers. In one of them was a packet of hundred-mark banknotes. In the other was a notebook divided into two columns: "Date" and "Amount." Barbara had set aside and recorded every banknote that had been sent from Hamburg.

Helusia bought long silver-fox furs with the money. She sewed a black dress to go with them, but it turned out that the fox furs were poorly prepared, they shed, and they didn't go with black at all.


Several months after her second wedding, she had told her husband about her two mothers. She didn't know German yet. She knew what the word for "wardrobe" was: Schrank. "Pillow," Kissen, she also knew. "To hide" she found in the dictionary: verstecken. "Fear," also in the dictionary: Angst.

When she told the story the second time, to her twenty-year-old son, she already knew all the words. Despite this, she was unable to answer several obvious questions: Why didn't Grandma Barbara throw Grandpa out? Why did Grandma Regina run away without you? Does Grandma Regina not love you at all?

"I don't know," she repeated. "How could I know all that?"

"Look in the dictionary," her husband advised her.


Twenty-two years after their first conversation, The Woman from Hamburg invited Helusia to visit her for a couple of days. She showed her old photographs. She played Chopin mazurkas for her on the piano. ("The war interrupted my studies in the conservatory," she said with a sigh.) She recited Tuwim. She talked about men. She had had two husbands after the war who adored her. She hadn't had children.

"And what is your husband like?" she asked.

Helusia confessed that her second marriages was falling apart.

"It's because he bought several hotels. He doesn't come home at night. He said that I should make a new life for myself."

She spoke to her not as to "The Woman from Hamburg" but as to her own mother, and The Woman from Hamburg panicked.

"Don't count on me. Everyone has to survive on his own. One has to be able to survive. I was able to, and you must be able to."

"You survived thanks to my parents," Helusia reminded her.

"Thanks to your mother," The Woman front Hamburg corrected her. "That's the truth; thanks to her alone. All she had to do was open the door and walk a couple of meters. The police station was across the street. It's extraordinary that she didn't open the door. I was amazed that she didn't do it. Did she ever say anything about me?"

"She said that if it weren't for you ..."

"I had to.

"I wanted to live."

The Woman from Hamburg began to tremble.


Excerpted from The Woman from Hamburg and Other True Stories by Hanna Krall Copyright © 2006 by Hanna Krall. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Hanna Krall

Hanna Krall was born in Warsaw in 1937 and was a reporter for Polityka from 1957 until 1981, when martial law was imposed and her publications were banned. The recipient of numerous international literary awards, her books have been translated into 15 languages. She lives in Warsaw.

Madeline G. Levine

Madeline G. Levine was Czeslaw Milosz's prose translator. Her translation of Ida Fink's A Scrap of Time and Other Stories was awarded the PEN Book-of-the Month Club Translation Prize.

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The Woman from Hamburg and Other True Stories 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
numnum757 More than 1 year ago
I could not figure out for the life of me where the author was going with this. It made about as much sense as a drunks ramblings. I returned the book for a refund and I treasure books like gold and this was not hard for me to do. Unless you like being dizzy and confused I do not recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Totally agree with previous reviewer, I was totally confused from the start. This is one of a very few that I did not finish, nor can I recommend. Very sorry!
mike100274 More than 1 year ago
The idea of this book is a good one, but it just is bad. It was originally written in Polish and there seems to be something lost in the translation of the book. The chapters don't make a whole lot of sense and just sort of go nowhere. I found myself either not understanding or not caring about what happened. If you can read in Polish, then perhaps give this book a chance, but the English translation just isn't good.