The number of absurdities, coincidences, strokes of luck and blows of misfortune that befell Izolda Regensberg, a Jewish woman living in Warsaw during the war and the heroine of Hanna Krall’s new book, exceeds all the norms. Her husband was arrested, and as she loved him in a truly romantic way, she decided to rescue him. From that moment on her entire life was dedicated to her husband and her efforts to save him.
She escaped from the Umschlagplatz, survived Pawiak prison with a Polish identity, ended up doing forced labour in Germany as a Pole, ran away from there, smuggled tobacco into Vienna, was interrogated (and tortured) by the Viennese Gestapo for alleged collaboration with the Polish underground, and was transported to Auschwitz as a Jew. After being selected by Dr Mengele, she ended up in a camp at Gubin, from where she escaped, and in an effort to regain her “Polish” identity went back to forced labour by confessing to her previous escape. As a runaway she was then sent back to Auschwitz… The train taking her to the gas chamber stopped just after leaving the station, and at that very moment Auschwitz was liberated.
She was victimised as a Jew, a Pole and a woman. She survived because of her love, and because none of the cruelties of the Holocaust could surprise her. That is how Candide would have behaved if he had been a Jewish woman during the Second World War – he’d have done his best to find a pattern to the inevitability of what was happening. So did Izolda: like Candide with a yellow armband she defends the rationality of fate, insisting throughout that everything that was happening had to happen in order for her to rescue her beloved husband.
So she was right to search the world over for a writer whose narratorial abilities were on a par with her life story. She was expecting a tale full of “emotions, love, loneliness and tears”, but as usual Hanna Krall wanted to write about “more than that”. The final version is a compromise; the heroine describes her emotions and her frantic race against the war and the Holocaust, while the writer, alternately condensing her account and faithfully recreating her conversations, throws us into the middle of an incredible story. The heroine cannot see the world beyond her beloved husband, while the author allows us to see why this love was so unusual.
If we wish to remain loyal to Izolda, just like her we should treat the camps, denunciations and cruelties as commonplace evil, and regard her love as the only truly incomprehensible thing. It won’t make the Holocaust go away, but it will make it a tiny scrap less forceful.
She buys a pair of laces for men’s shoes.
As she makes this everyday purchase, she still believes she loves Jurek Szwarcwald. Everyone believes it, most of all Mr and Mrs Szwarcwald. Jurek isn’t ugly and he isn’t boring. Nor is he poor. She is borrowing the shoes from him, because a bomb has destroyed the house on Ogrodowa Street and it’s impossible to get into the wardrobe or the flat.
In her borrowed shoes she drops in on her close friend Basia Maliniak. She drops in briefly to put on the new laces.
There’s a young man at Basia’s place. He is standing by the stove, leaning both hands on the warm tiles. He is tall and thin with straight, golden hair. His hands on the tiles are a golden colour. He sits down with his knees apart and lets his hands drop rather carelessly, as if absent-mindedly. It makes them look helpless and even more beautiful. He turns out to have two first names, Yeshaiah Wolf, but Basia calls him Shayek. The lacing takes a while. After an hour Shayek says: “You have eyes like a rabbi’s daughter.” After two hours he adds: “A doubting rabbi.” Basia sees her to the door and whispers with hatred: “I ought to kill you now.” THE MEETING
She is walking along a narrow mountain road. She gazes at the meadows in the valley, the roses in the gardens, the green shutters, the white church tower and the blue of the sky.
Around the corner some men in concentration camp uniform are sitting on some stones. They are presenting their faces to the sun and smoking cigarettes; they call something out to her, kim maydele, they call, kim zu mir…
What language are they talking?
Come here, girlie, kim zu mir…
So loud?! In Yiddish?!
She quickens her pace and hopes they’re not coming after her, and that no one heard them. Trickles of sweat pour down her face and she can feel her heart thumping (“how many times a minute does the heart beat? it depends if you’re afraid…”). Some women in thick woollen skirts and ornately embroidered waistcoats are coming down the hill. Grüss Gott, they say with a friendly smile; Grüss Gott, she replies, and comes to her senses. She straightens her damp blouse on her shoulders and under her arms. She smooths out the white cotton gloves she put on in the train to stop her hands from getting dirty. The war is over, she thinks. I’m going to my husband. This is the last stretch of my journey and it would be silly to go crazy now.
The path gets narrower and narrower, and on the hillside a dwarf mountain pine appears.
There are some barracks or buildings.
A voice asks her who she is looking for.
I’ll take you there, says the voice. She can see he has dusty plimsolls and that there are stones and gravel moving about underfoot. She sits on the crossbar of a bicycle. The bicycle stops at a barracks gate. Inside there is a long corridor. She walks down it. Someone presses a handle, a door opens, and she’s standing in the doorway. There’s a fair-haired boy with flushed cheeks lying on a bed, maybe in a fever, there are some men standing at his bedside, and her husband is sitting at the foot of the bed. He has no shirt on and he’s wearing shorts. His tanned hands rest on his knees. He looks up… He looks at her… The man who brought her here beckons, the men come out of the room, and the sick boy closes the door behind him. Her husband comes up to her. He embraces her – slowly, very cautiously…
I’m just about to feel immense joy, she reckons. I’m sure to be very happy.
She can’t feel any joy.
She isn’t happy.
She can’t feel anything, nothing at all.
It’s because I’m wearing gloves, she reckons.
She removes the gloves behind his back and throws them to the floor. She strokes him. He’s warm. Is that all? She is filled with bitterness. It’s not fair – she has found her husband but she isn’t in the least bit pleased.
Her husband unclasps her hands.
“I’ve got to go,” he says. “I’m going out for a moment – you wait here.
”She obediently sits down on the bed.
Her husband turns round in the doorway and says: “I’ll just tell her you’ve arrived.”
“Who?” she asks.
“Liesl,” says her husband. “I’ll run down…It won’t take long, just wait here.
”The men come back into the barracks.
“Do you know where he’s gone?” one of them asks.
“Yes, to see Liesl.”
“And aren’t you upset?”
“She’s not bad looking, that Liesl,” replies the man. “A young war widow. She fed your husband and got him over his pneumonia.”
“How very noble. I’m grateful…. to Liesl. Do you know, that’s what our prison in Vienna was called? As a pet name.”
“You are a sensible woman,” says one of the men approvingly. He looks through the open door. “He’s coming back… It looks as if he’s bringing you a present.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones