Issue 165, Spring 2003
In early December 1946, I arrived in Warsaw at midnight after an arduous train journey from Prague. In their retreat, the Germans had nearly destroyed Poland's railroad system, and our train with its few passengers took four times as long to reach Warsaw as it had before the war.
The train halted for hours in vast tracts of snow. Inside the cars, the glacial air kept us motionless on hard wooden benches in a silence broken only by the faint whisper of our shallow breathing. Sometimes we halted in villages so small, they barely disturbed the surface of the snow. At these stops, seemingly purposeless, some of us went to stand on the ice-coated train steps and leaned out as any travelers might, looking for a sign of life. Once three women emerged from several hovels clustered near the track, kerchiefs binding their heads, and ran heavily toward us, holding up mugs of burning tea and pressing them into our frozen hands.
There were moments when I thought we might never feel again those grinding lurches forward that had marked the hours since we left the Prague station. I began to imagine that we would simply fade away, that we would remain only a memory to some peasant who had once seen our train moving sluggishly through that forsaken landscape.
But we did arrive at last at the temporary Warsaw railroad station. Behind it, in almost total darkness, a few droshkies waited. Horses snorted and stamped their hooves, and the drivers were huge and shapeless in their greatcoats and scarf-wrapped faces. In one of those small carriages, I rode into the silent city. Here and there, like the glow of banked fires, light shone from out of mountains of rubble and revealed the black ruins snow had not covered.
We entered the walled courtyard of a hotel I had been directed to by an acquaintance in Prague. A guard wearing straw boots, carrying a rifle, stepped out of the shadow of a portico, spoke a few words to the driver as I paid for the ride with zlotys I had bought in Prague, then watched me closely as I walked into the narrow lobby. There was no one there.
Carrying my one suitcase, I walked down a long corridor.
I could smell fresh plaster. Suddenly I heard the opening measures of a Chopin etude. The source of the music was a small loudspeaker attached to the ceiling above the threshold of an immense dining room. I found out later that the hotel had been constructed with miraculous speed to accommodate ministers of the soon-to-be-elected Polish government, the first since the end of the war. The dining room too smelled of plaster and paint, but still it suggested a kind of faded splendor like that of the salons of grand hotels I had seen in other European cities but which were now nearly deserted.
As I stood there, bewildered by the brilliance of the lights, staring at the white columns that supported the high ceiling, I realized I was not alone.
Leaning against a circular food bar in the center of the room was a Polish officer, one black-booted foot in front of the other as though he might leave in an instant. He heard me put down my suitcase, turned toward me indolently, nodded, and went on eating a hard-boiled egg he held in the fingers of one long pale hand. No waiter appeared. We remained alone, the officer, the music, me. I had the sensation of being in a dream that belonged to someone else.
Later, a clerk found me half-asleep at the table and led me to a room where I fell into bed with my clothes on.
The next morning I moved to a cheaper hotel, the Centralny, where among other less affluent members of the press corps, I stayed until the middle of February.
Most of the people who came to Warsaw that winter were journalists sent to observe and report on the election. There were other foreigners, relief experts, economists, architects, embassy personnel, and the various technicians who follow upon disasters. The journalists represented all shades of political opinion, and they wrote their stories for every kind of publication from the Times of London to Midwestern agricultural quarterlies. There were stars among them like Dorothy Thompson and Ralph Ingersol. Some were stringers like me with tenuous ties to wire services in Paris or London or New York. But there were a notable few whose presence remained mysterious and who, apparently, represented only themselves.
Such was an Indian from Kashmir, frequently observed hurrying through the ravaged streets, his coat flapping open in that terrible cold, looking for bridge panners for himself and his friend, an elderly Polish countess who lived in the cellar of a bombed pastry shop. Another was a very young Englishman always wrapped in a rusty black ulster, who waited patiently and shamelessly for invitations to meals, who was rumored to be a spy, a morphine addict, not English at all in fact but a member of a Hungarian fascist youth group, and who, it was said by some, was stark naked under his coat.
There was the Irishman from Limerick who strode through the rubble and snow in shabby riding boots, smacking one gauntleted hand with the quirt he always carried in the other, and who had distinguished himself by remarking that the wreck of the old Warsaw railroad station was the most aesthetically satisfying bomb site in all of Europe and England.
The cold was so intense that like many others I took to wearing sheets of newspaper under my coat. There was hardly any public transportation, a few streetcars to whose sides people clung like flies on a lump of sugar, two or three buses, a few tiny cars with no windshield wipers and perpetually fogged windows, and some motorbikes with strapped-on wooden seats from which, after the shortest ride, one toppled like a stone.
Most of us walked or, when we could afford it, hired a droshky. In its chilled depths, weighed down by mangy, foul-smelling bearskin rugs, one fell into a snow-bound trance as the droshky, drawn by a horse whose head hung disembodied amidst the vapor of its own breath, made its way down a street or across the bridge over the frozen Vistula River.
Late at night, Warsaw was dark except for an infrequent kerosene lamp glimmering amid the debris where a room, or a less defined space, had remained intact. The wind that blew through the city came all the way from Lake Ladoga far to the north, and it was often so fierce that I wondered why it didn't dislodge the fire escapes and bathtubs hanging from the shells of blasted buildings.
On nights when there was a moon, its light shone through the holes of windowless ruins that surrounded the heart of the city like a black frieze. To walk in Warsaw as I often did in the late evening, my chin buried deep in my collar, snow and ruins piled up on every side, was to feel the cold and desolation and silence of a city of the dead. When the thaw came, we were told, the corpses of those who had fallen in the Warsaw uprising would be exposed.
During the day the streets were crowded, ringing with the noise of the living. Women sold giant cans of UNRRA fruit juice from crudely carpentered sheds. Men peddled fountain pens, razor blades, whatever they could carry in their pockets.
Loudspeakers in the city center broadcast Chopin all day long, and the crystals of snow glittered in the pale sunlight of snowless days and seemed to echo and reflect the notes of music.
The Centralny was a two-minute walk from the comfortable, well-lit Hotel Polonia with its spacious restaurant where you could order what was said to be the best Wiener schnitzel in Warsaw. To have a kind friend at the Polonia meant you could have a weekly bath there, and not have to ask the Centralny's one servant girl to carry bucket after bucket of hot water up its narrow staircase-the elevator never workedto the hotel's only tub, which was in a bathroom on the third floor. On the second, there was a small cafe where one could get scrambled eggs and vodka, real Moscow vodka in paleblue little bottles.
Cigarette smoke, strong drink, and conversation in a dozen languages sent one off to one's narrow room with an illusion of warmth that lasted until one slid between sheets that were like frozen lead. Scandals, private or political, gave a hectic animation, a spurious intimacy to exchanges between people who had nothing in common except proximity.
The election was a foregone conclusion. Radziwill had partitioned his lands, and the peasants who had gathered for the ceremony drank a toast: Death to the Mongols. The wouldbe suicide at the Bristol Hotel, where mostly the British stayed, had tried the same trick in Paris six months earlier over a different man. The secret police had dossiers on every journalist in Warsaw. A Reuter' s man was having an affair with a short, stout Bulgarian woman despite the fact that the Bulgarian delegation kept her locked up at night in her hotel room in the Polonia.
No one spoke about the Jews. Not in public. But in private there was much speculation about how many of them were still living in Warsaw. Some said a dozen. Others guessed several hundred. They were hidden, like the Russian soldiers in their garrison on the other side of the Vistula, out of sight of the Poles.
When I think of the Jews of Warsaw, it is not the ghetto that comes first to my mind but Mrs. Helen Grassner, who arrived by plane a few days before the election. She had a room at the Polonia. We became acquainted right after she was attacked by a boy who sold newspapers outside of the hotel entrance.
No one knew his name or where he came from. He lived as many other people did that winter in some hole in the ruins. It was rumored that he was around fourteen. He looked ancient, not of time. A wooden peg was attached to the stump of his right knee. Although he could only hobble, he crossed the ground like a rat, muttering to himself all the while and, from time to time, emitting a terrifying cackle.
It was early in the evening when Mrs. Grassner stepped down from the droshky that had brought her from the airport to the Polonia entrance. I stood a few yards away about to join a friend for tea in the dining room. The boy swung an armful of inky newspapers up at Mrs. Grassner' s face, shouting in Polish-I knew he was demanding she buy one-and when she attempted to pass him, he cracked her across the shin with his peg, balancing himself on the crooked stick he carried, and accompanying the assault with his deranged shriek.
She cried out, dropped her purse on the snow and covered her face with her hands. I grabbed her elbow, retrieved the purse and pulled her into the lobby. She looked at me with one hand against her cheek and bent her head to look at her leg.
“My God! What was that?”
“He does it to everybody," I said quickly.
“Everybody?" she said in a dazed voice.
“If they don't buy a paper. The best thing is to give him a wide berth. He doesn't see so well.”
“A savage!" she exclaimed.
“He just doesn't give a damn for anything," I said.
'Tm not surprised," she said. “I'm not surprised at all.”
I was still holding her arm. She glanced at my hand, thanked me and said she'd best go to her room and put something on the bump. “I can feel it swelling," she said.
After that I saw her everywhere, at the Foreign Ministry for press handouts, at hotel press conferences given by politicians, even in architects' offices who were working on plans for reconstruction of Warsaw. There was no special uniformity of dress among reporters but Mrs. Grassner, in her dark, neat suit and plain white blouse, always seemed out of place among us. She wore rubber overshoes and her tight gray curls were flattened beneath a small felt hat. Her muskrat coat fell to midcalf. Occasionally I would see her write something down in a notebook. More often she sat or stood on the outskirts of the crowd of reporters like someone waiting for a telephone call.
She looked like, and was, a suburban housewife. Her credentials, I discovered, were from a Jewish women's organization in the Midwest. The organization had sent her to Poland to see what the government intended doing for Jews who wanted to leave Poland and settle in what was then British-governed Palestine.
She spoke to me without a formal greeting, picking up our conversation from the day before about the weather. She suffered intensely from the cold and spoke of it bitterly. On election day, just before I left with a group of reporters for Radom in a car provided by the authorities, ostensibly to observe the voting, I found Mrs. Grassner in the Polonia dining room drinking tea.
“Aren't you going to any of the polling places?" I asked her.
“Why should I?" she replied and blew her nose. “What's to see? You think there'll be a surprise or something?”
“Well, just for interest.”
''I'm not interested," she said.
Irritated, I left and went out to the car. How had she managed to get anyone to send her to Poland? Why didn't she buy proper boots? The election passed. From a balcony in the new Parliament House, we watched Boleslaw Bierut being driven slowly in an open Mercedes through a double file of Polish cavalrymen as snow fell in large soft flakes. Later that day the new president held a press conference in the Winter Palace (perhaps it was the Summer Palace-I've forgotten). Then there was a party.
I turned toward the windows of the great reception hall, away from the long tables laden with vodka and Tokay wine, caviar, and Polish ham. I could see through the dusk the snow-drenched woods where Polish royalty had once kept herds of deer. Mrs. Grassner had not come to the party, although even the Limerick Irishman was there gobbling up caviar.
I didn't see her until a few days later when, with twenty or so other reporters, I waited in front of the Polonia for the bus that was to take us on a ten-day tour of Silesia. Mrs. Grassner stepped from the entrance, cast a quick glance up and down the street to make sure the newsboy wasn't there-he never was in the morning-and walked over to me. She nodded.
“I hope the bus is heated," she said.
“Oh, it will be," I assured her.
“Nothing is guaranteed," she observed.
It was a small bus with hard seats. Along with Mrs. Grassner and me, there was one other American, a young man whose knowing smile with its peculiar note of triumph was always there when I glanced in his direction. It was as if everything that had happened in Poland was in accord with some agreeable program of his own. Also among the party was an Englishwoman, three Czechs, and three Yugoslavs. Ottokar, the oldest Czech, was a favorite of everyone, even Polish officials at the Foreign Ministry. He looked older than his age, forty, and his gaze held such simple kindness that in response to it I had noticed people smile gratefully.
After dinner in the village where we spent our first night away from Warsaw, the Czechs grew merry. The two younger men danced; they were quick and inventive with the controlled bright force of acrobats.
Before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, Ottokar had been a concert singer. Now he was a political columnist for a Prague journal. The Nazis had put him in a concentration camp in Breslau (Vroçlaw) where he had spent three of his four years there in solitary confinement. The other Czechs had been in camps too, Karel for four years and the one we all called Baby, two years. The Yugoslavs had been partisans under Tito's command. These six men became the heart of our group, the center of nearly everyone's attention, as though their presences were a continuing drama of endurance and survival enacted now against a backdrop of snow-blanketed fields, raw new factories, and the ancient villages our little bus took us through.
Ottokar's last song that night was a wordless lament that, he told us, was sung by border guards along the Hungarian frontier. His voice broke in the middle of it. He became silent. Then the Englishwoman, Mary, stout and very young, sung to us in her sweet soprano about the Molly Maguires, massacres and betrayals, and Irish boys with bullets in their breasts, fallen on the moors.
During all of this, Mrs. Grassner sat alone in the small dining room of the provincial hotel where we were to spend the night. She neither smoked nor drank nor did she applaud the singing as the rest of us did. When I passed by her table on my way to bed, I saw she had made a dozen or more neat piles of bread crumbs.
She did not go with us to visit the wagon-wheel factories, the day nurseries for working mothers, the mines, the new municipal buildings or the evening parties. At first I thought her absence might be explained as a result of her dislike of the cold, that and a fundamental dullness of outlook. But then, at some point, perhaps in a hotel lobby in Katowice, she started to talk to me about something other than the weather.
“English and my poor Yiddish won't do," she began softly, more to my ear than to me. “I wish I'd learned better.”
I reminded her that we were often provided with interpreters as we traveled about. “Oh, yes!" she exclaimed with a touch of bitterness. “That's all right for all of you! But I have different fish to fry. Where I have to go I need at least German.”
“The Czechs speak German," I said.
She gazed broodingly at the floor. “That young one, Karel," she began. “You know he was four years in a camp?”
I nodded, surprised she had learned that much.
“I know a lot of Jewish people and everyone of them has lost relatives, whole families. But I didn't. How could that be? It's hard to believe that my whole family got away. I keep thinking... there must have been a cousin, even a distant cousin, murdered by them, the Nazis. But no. I have been informed there was no such cousin. ”
She spoke in an expressionless voice but her face, as though animated by feelings her tone concealed, began to crumple until, at last, tears ran down her cheeks. She opened her purse and skinned out a handkerchief with one small delicate finger, wrapped it around her nose and blew.
“Don't think I'm not grateful," she said. But I feel like a ghost. I've had such troubles... operations, disappointments, sadness... and now I'm a ghost.”
Her purse slid off her lap. I picked it up and handed it to her. She seemed unaware of taking it. She stared at me intently, then shook her head from side to side. “Well...how would you know? A young girl like you?”
Late that evening, as we idled at the tables in the restaurant where we'd eaten dinner, a drunken soldier burst through the curtain that hung over the door. He peered at us with bleary, blue eyes. His jacket was torn and his blond hair rose up in spikes. He had a vehemently Polish face, a turned-up nose, and cheeks reddened by cold and alcohol. As he staggered between our tables, he appeared to have sprung from the pages of a Polish fairy tale.
The Yugoslavs toasted him and gave him a drink from their private store of slivovitz. He stood still an instant to drink. He was disheveled, laughing, nearly incoherent and his mood veered as suddenly as he did. He whispered hoarsely to the glass as though blaming it for being empty, held it out for more, frowned, and seemed to age before our eyes.
Ottokar rose swiftly from his chair, put his arm around the soldier and tried to lead him out of the restaurant. But he grew stubborn and stamped the floor with his boots. Mrs.
Grassner got to her feet, looking stricken. She left the room hastily, casting one horrified glance at the drunken Pole.
Later Karel, in his rudimentary French, asked me why Mrs.
Grassner had left so abruptly.
“The soldier frightened her, I think," I replied.
“She's a Jew, isn't she?" he asked.
“She lost her family in Poland?”
“In another place?”
“She told me she lost no one. ”
“But she feels it all the same," he said. “When they have no dead, people feel worse somehow.”
I couldn't tell from his tone whether he was asking a question or giving an answer.
When we departed the next morning, Karel asked me to find out if Mrs. Grassner would share his bus seat with him.
When I passed on his request to her, she looked surprised then shrugged. “As long as it's not one of those Yugoslav lummoxes," she said.
She and Karel sat silently together during the morning.
At some point, perhaps when we stopped for lunch, they must have discovered a middle ground between her Yiddish and his German because in the afternoon they were talking together animatedly. From where I sat just behind them, I could see that she was smiling.
In Vroçlaw, we were given a day free of tours. Ottokar walked up to me in the hotel lobby and asked if I'd take a short trip with him. He didn't say where we were going.
We rode a streetcar to the central square where the town hall rose in monumental grimness toward the low-hanging gray clouds. Snow flurries came and went. It was raw. Ottokar stared at streets that led off the square, now one, now another.
“I'm not sure," he said.
“Where are we going?" I asked.
“I was driven in a car with drawn shades. But I knew we were next to the river," he said.
It took another hour to find it, an ancient prison behind which barbed wire drew a vast rectangle around stone blockhouses laid out like tombs. The wind from the Odra River whipped us as we stood on a narrow street between the water and the prison. There was no one within sight.
“One winter," he began, “they let me out to toss garbage in the river. They let me do it for a week. It was heaven to be outdoors, to hear human voices, to see the moving water.”
He suddenly clasped me around my shoulders. “After all, it was only a dream," he said. “What else could it have been?”
We walked back to the square. By then the snow was falling heavily. I looked at Ottokar's face now and then. He was aware of my glances. I felt he knew what was in my mind, knew as I suddenly did, that there was nothing more he could tell me.
Arrangements had been made for us to attend the opening of the opera house that night, the first time a concert had been played there since the beginning of the war. Our interpreter told us to dress warmly. “There are holes in the roof from the bombing," he said.
Even after the musicians had taken their seats, even when the audience filled the loges and orchestra, that penumbra! cavern with its smell of dust and damp felt like a catacomb.
There was something wrong with the electricity, and the lights couldn't be dimmed without plunging us into total darkness.
Only the Brahms violin concerto was played. The violin soloist, a short dumpy woman wearing a short black dress, resembled Mrs. Grassner. She wore mitts, and I could see from the box where I was sitting that they were woolen gloves with the fingers cut off. The musicians wore ordinary suits. Some were without neckties.
We all listened so intently that it was as though none had ever heard music or would again. The Yugoslavs leaned forward, resting their chins on the worn velvet backs of the empty seats in front of them. At the end, the audience gave the performers a standing ovation, but the soloist and the musicians hurried offstage to their coats and hats before the applause died down.
As we walked back to the hotel, Karel asked me where Mrs. Grassner had been. I said I didn't know.
“The violinist was aJew," he said.
Mrs. Grassner was sitting in the lobby when we arrived at the hotel. She motioned me to a nearby chair.
“You should have come to the concert," I said as I sat down. “The soloist was Jewish.”
“I know, I know... “ she said with a certain impatience.
“She's a public figure, a well-known artist. I'm not thinking about her. It's the others... ”
“The others?" I repeated.
“My contacts. Don't you know anything? They don't let the Jews leave this country. Oh yes... they promise transportation.
Everything. They even make nice broadcasts to Palestine. ”
“Have you been seeing your contacts every place?”
“Every place," she replied. “When I can find them.”
I had been so sure she was huddling in blankets, alone in her hotel room, while we had been herded through wagon factories that even now I couldn't visualize her hurrying down streets to meet with her “contacts." Didn't I know, she was asking, that the Poles were the worst anti-Semites in Europe? Had I imagined that Hitler had instructed them how to kill Jews? I had better think again, she said.
“That soldier! Did you look at his face? The drunken bum.
When he came to the restaurant, I felt he was there to murder me!”
At that moment I recalled a young translator from the Foreign Ministry who had told me, as we stood talking on a street corner, shielding our faces with our hands against the glacial wind, that years before the war, on that very corner, he and other boys had chased Jewish children with razor blades tied to sticks.
Our last stop was a village near Swidnica where we were to spend the night. We would be only a few miles from the Czech border, so Karel and Baby were to leave the tour there and return to Prague. Their reportorial assignments were finished, they had no further reason to stay on. We were all cheered by our village accommodations, a comfortable old farmhouse with a large stove in the central hall whose heat rose up through a wide stairwell to warm the two floors where our bedrooms were.
Mary, the Englishwoman, and I and a French woman, Mademoiselle Tetreault, were to share a room. Mlle. Tetreault was a dour, middle-aged woman who was writing a series of articles on Polish working women for a French weekly. Until we shared the room, I had hardly spoken to her. As Mary and I were emptying our suitcases, she observed that Mrs.
Grassner had managed to get a small room for herself. She spoke French as though certain Mary and I would understand.
As it happened, we did, but the assumption riled Mary, who remarked, coldly, in French, “How can that possibly matter?”
“I would like to know, simply, how she managed to insure her privacy. After all-I might have enjoyed a room to myself,”
Mlle. Tetreault responded.
“Then do ask Mrs. Grassner to exchange with you,”
“I am not in charge of arrangements," Mlle. Tetreault said.
The village was of particular interest and I had heard of it in Warsaw. The population was entirely Jewish. The government, it was said, had resettled the village with Jews who had found refuge during the German occupation in the Soviet Union. The next day we were taken by our guide to a shop where several tailors sat cross-legged on long tables as they worked. When they heard Mrs. Grassner speaking Yiddish to them, they looked up from their work at her, their faces eager and surprised and touched with some emotion I couldn't name.
The mayor of the village, a short, stocky man who snapped his fingers while talking to us through the interpreter, and laughed often, led us down a narrow lane toward the market square. The only color on the ground was the snow-dusted piles of frozen horse manure. The mayor had spent years in prison before escaping to the Ukraine, the interpreter said, his voice muffled by a huge woolen scarf.
“One of those tough Jews," remarked the young American journalist. Mrs. Grassner gave him a suspicious look. She quickened her pace until she was walking beside the mayor.
She said a few words to him in Yiddish. He took her arm vigorously in his own then motioned us to halt.
On the side of the path was a sign nailed to a post in German. The Mayor pointed to it, spoke rapidly to Mrs.
Grassner, snapping his fingers, and laughed. Mrs. Grassner turned to us. “That's a sign the Nazis put up," she explained.
“It says no Jews will ever walk this way again.”
The mayor clapped his hands. Mrs. Grassner smiled broadly at him. She told me later that it was not the Germans but the Poles who had put the mayor in prison. “He was a radical,”
During the afternoon we were taken to a farm a few miles from the mayor's village. “It's aJewish farm," Mrs. Grassner told me. There was no remarkable change in her voice. Her inappropriate lady's hat was clamped on to her head in its usual position. Yet she radiated a peculiar energy like the heat thrown off by a fever.
In the farm kitchen we were given large jugs of fresh milk to sample. The pale young farmer pointed proudly at a new stove, then led us through a covered passage to his barn.
Once there, he grabbed up handfuls of grain from a sack and let it run through his fingers, smiling shyly as he did so.
When we returned to the kitchen, the farmer told us what the government was doing for him. His wife joined us, carrying a tiny infant, as pale as his father, with the same round, colorless cheeks. It did not seem possible that the three, so small and frail, could survive the hard winter.
When we returned to our farmhouse, Mrs. Grassner said, “That was supposed to be a surprise visit. But it was arranged.
The farmer told me in confidence that the authorities always bring foreigners to his farm. It's the only good one, he says.
Besides, there are very few other Jewish farms. Don't you be fooled!" Her voice was uncharacteristically fierce. “In this country, these people only want Jews to keep selling each other shoelaces. You see?”
We had a good dinner and a lively evening. Ottokar and Mary sang for us until their voices grew hoarse. Warmed by vodka, we all decided to take a late walk. Mary and I wandered off, listening to the Yugoslavs singing in the next narrow street. Their voices grew fainter. At last the silence was broken only by horses snorting in nearby stables, or the thud of their hooves as they shifted their weight. It began to snow. The street we were following ended abruptly at the edge of a large open field that appeared to be hanging like a sheet from the sky, tied to it by dark, threadlike branches of pine trees.
Back in the farmhouse, Mary and I stood next to the stove, warming our hands. Above us came the murmur of voices as people got ready for bed. The outer walls of the farm were as thick as a fortress but the inner walls, put up to subdivide the old rooms, were thin as straw. Upstairs, we found Mlle.
Tetreault in a long-sleeved salmon-colored nightgown sitting on the edge of her bed examining her fingernails.
“Nail polish cracks in this weather," she remarked.
Later, as I returned from the bathroom in the hall, I could hear voices rising clearly from the stairwell. I glanced down and saw below Karel and Mrs. Grassner sitting side by side in front of the stove, their feet resting on an encircling iron rim.
Suddenly I felt uneasy. Mrs. Grassner, whom I had had the presumption to regard with a certain unthinking tolerance, had escaped my definition of her. She was as large as life.
I went back to the room where I found Mary playing solitaire with a worn pack of cards and Mlle. Tetreault filing her fingernails. A few minutes later, we heard Mrs. Grassner's door open and close. Karel's voice, although it was only a whisper, came to us clearly. Mlle. Tetreault lifted her head as we heard the sound of kisses.
“Sans pudeur," muttered Mlle. Tetreault.
“Hush!" hissed Mary.
“Don't address me in such a way!" Mlle. Tetreault protested.
She rose to her feet, her throat taut, her mouth drawn down. She snatched up a hairbrush from her toilet bag. “People are too irresponsible," she said as she began to brush her hair violently.
Mary unpacked and repacked her suitcase, then went back to her solitaire. I sat on a bench beneath a high window against which snowflakes clicked. Mlle. Tetreault punished her hair. Imprisoned by the muffled sounds from the room next door, we made our futile gestures. I picked up a Polish newspaper from the floor and stared at it, the ink staining my damp hands.
“Oh, well... “Mary murmured, goodwill struggling with some other emotion in her face. She beckoned me to her bed. Aimlessly, she dealt out cards and we played rummy.
Mlle. Tetreault put down her hairbrush at last.
''I'm going to sleep," she announced loudly.
“Aren't you cold?" Mary asked me. I nodded yes. We heard Mrs. Grassner's door open and close. He had left her.
Mary and I threw down our cards.
“An old woman like that!" exclaimed Mlle. Tetreault.
“How could he!”
“She's no older than you are," whispered Mary. “And keep your voice down.
“Ugly," Mllle. Tetreault said, but in a lower voice.
“He's sorry for her," Mary said to me. “You saw that? Listening to her in that nice respectful way of his? Keeping the wind from her in the square this morning? Did you notice? It's their business anyhow.”
I thought of how Mrs. Grassner had talked about her troubles with impatience and contempt, as though she'd been cheated of what was important by things that didn't count.
“It's because he isn't a Jew," I said, “but went through those years in the camp.”
“I saw the tattoo on his wrist, the numbers, when he reached for a piece of bread at table," Mary said. “It was blue and blurred but you could see what it was." She smiled absently.
“Ah well," she added, “our tour wouldn't have been complete, would it, without a little romance?”
The tension, along with the last vestiges of warmth, had left the room. I crept into bed. I felt an obscure gratitude toward Mary but I was too sleepy to think about it.
The next morning, Mrs. Grassner and Karel took the back two seats in the bus. Mlle. Tetreault didn't look at them but Mary and I turned around more often than was tactful. I don't know what I expected to see. Mrs. Grassner's head was bowed and, although they weren't talking, Karel bent toward her as though listening.
An hour or so later, the bus stopped at a fork in the road where Karel and Baby were to leave the tour and return to their own country. They shook hands with each of us, embraced Ottokar, and went down the two steps and out the bus door.
Mrs. Grassner followed.
I wiped my window clear of vapor and saw Baby walk away from Mrs. Grassner and Karel standing close to each other.
She shivered. The snow was driven by wind gusts so intense as to rock the bus. Karel took off his glove and held out his hand to her. She took it in her own. Suddenly, she brought his hand to her cheek then let it drop.
When she got back on the bus, Ottokar took the seat next to her and put his arm across her shoulders. Karel and Baby were no longer visible through the window. I could see their tracks filling up with new snow.
Soon after our return to Warsaw, I began to prepare to leave. I needed an exit visa and a seat on a flight to Paris.
On my last day, I walked about the city until I ached with cold. I went to the Warsaw ghetto again to stare at that great emptiness, but this time I went by bus. As it happened, just as we reached its perimeter, the bus was stopped by a bomb rolling in front of it, perhaps dislodged by a shifting ruin.
We sat for an hour, waiting for the bomb squad to disarm it.
When I returned to the Centralny, I found a message. Mrs.
Grassner would like to see me in her room at the Polonia. I drank a cup of hot tea then hurried over and was about to walk through the hotel entrance when the newspaper boy screeched like a night bird and hobbled toward me with his armload of newspapers. I leaped out of his way into the lobby.
I found Mrs. Grassner sitting on her bed, wearing her hat and overshoes.
“I hear you' re leaving, “ she began.
“Yes." She looked at me somberly. “I'm going to Spain,”
“Spain... “ she echoed. “Well, I wanted to show you something before you left." She pointed at a large bolt of dark wool cloth on the bed. It was similar to the material of her suit. “I found a wonderful place for wool, “ she said. “You might like to go there.”
“I haven't any money left," I said. “Just enough to leave.”
“Oh," she said as she lightly stroked the wool. “I still have a bruise on my leg from that devil at the door." She sighed then. ''I'm leaving soon too. This cold... my nose began to run that day I arrived. I'm nearly out of handkerchiefs. I wonder if it ever warms up here.”
“I heard that the snow can thaw as early as March," I said.
“And after that? What's there to see then? I didn't know how to answer her. Instead of trying, I asked, “Did you find out any more information about all those things you were telling me on our bus tour?”
She bent over to unbutton her overshoes.
“I found out everything," she answered. She looked up at me. For a second I thought I saw a flash of amusement on her face. Perhaps I only imagined it.
“So what do you think of my material?" she asked.
I tried but could think of nothing to say about the wool except that it looked as though it would wear well.
This all happened so long ago and in a different world.
Helen Grassner would be dead now. The Czech, Karel, who looked like a boy, is old. If he is still alive.”