Krzysztof Lipowski’s Honey and Wax is post-memory literature, as it tends to be defined at present: the generation of children of victims of the Holocaust, World War Two, concentration camps, gulags, deportation and resettlement returning to the traumatic experiences with which their parents’ and grandparents’ generations had marked them. Honey and Wax is made up of four short stories. All of them are linked to the author’s hometown of Puck, which lies on the Bay of Gdańsk. They speak to the dramatic fate of the Polish-German inhabitants of this port town, which was struck hard by the tides of history. Father’s White Shirt tells of the end of the Polish world in Puck together with the outbreak of war in September 1939. Caterpillar is the story of Paul, a resident of Puck, a theology student from Tübingen, mobilised just before the war breaks out and stationed on the Eastern front. Set in Bronze" is a portrait of Lisa, a young girl who ardently supports nazism in her native Puck, is resettled in Berlin after the war, and lives out the rest of her days in bitterness and solitude. The final story, Gathering Ashes, is a tale of the author’s trip to the town and country of his childhood years, a return he himself finds inexplicable. This is also a would-be variant on the fate of the author, had his family history been different and he’d turned out to be, by history’s verdict, a German. Written with meticulous care for historical detail, Lipowski’s brilliant literary prose remains free from hatred and bias, pat judgements and moralising. It bears a vision of the end of a world of neighbours, sometimes even Polish-German families, portraits of people who, from one day to the next, became enemies and destroyed each other’s lives, sometimes due to instinctive loyalties that turned out to be both false and murderous. The memory of wounds and injuries became for some an intolerable burden, and for others an impulse that spurred them to develop new identities.
- Marek Zaleski
Krzysztof Lipowski (b. 1961) is a PhD at the University of Gdańsk, and a teacher. Honey and Wax is his literary debut.
Lisa was lying in bed, remembering the poster it all started with. She first saw it in the train station waiting room. The walls of the station building were grey and scratched, and against them the colour poster stood out like a box of sweet chocolates, the best brand on the market. In the poster, a young blue-eyed and blonde-haired girl was dressed all in black, and had a very confident gaze. In that gaze you could see a combination of character and determination. The girl’s hand was raised in a victory salute. Lisa often went to the train station to soak in that colour poster, which was a promise of a new life, and encouraged her to join in the gatherings in the most beautiful villa on the bay.
Imagine her surprise when she found that she had the very same profile as the girl in the poster. When she combed her hair up, the delicate outline of her nose was equally distinct. She watched the black-and-white film with Marika Rökk again in the cinema, and now she knew for certain that the female figure in the poster was her. Yes, it was Marika Rökk! It was she who called for everyone to join the ranks of the Bund Deutscher Mädel!
She always remembered the evening when all the girls gathered together on the banks of the bay. They were dressed in white blouses and blue skirts that went down to their knees, they knelt before the swastika flag. They raised their right arm, and touched the flapping cloth with the tips of their fingers. The light of torches trembled upon the faces of those standing, the flags fluttered loudly in the wind from up on their high poles. At a signal from their superior they recited the holy oaths, concluded with a thunderous shout, and then chanted the song of the BDM girls. With a ritual gesture, the superior handed each an object shaped like a brooch – on a dark background there shone a bright cross, made up of four reversed Greek letter T’s. That evening, Lisa discovered the joy of singing the new national songs, and wrote down the words to some of them in her private journal.
Now she could walk the main street of our town in her white-and-blue uniform. She bought better bread and more pairs of stockings. She ordered hot water on the coffee-shop patios, into which she poured her own real coffee. Into this she dunked a crumbly pastry she’d sneaked out of the house, baked every Thursday by Cecylia. She did this surreptitiously, so that not even the tiniest crystal of sugar remained on the table.
Anxiously awaiting the summer camp trip to Eastern Prussia, she meanwhile registered for courses on economical housekeeping and home economics. The meetings took place every afternoon, in a converted Jewish house of prayer. In the corner of her room, she took careful care of the bit with the portrait of the leader, who peered out at her every morning and evening from amidst the flowers and candles. She knew she was safe and that the nation needed her; and that she could no longer give in to her old vain impulses. Even the reduced portion of chocolate for the real Germanic Christmas holiday didn’t worry her much. She felt like she was now answering to a higher calling.
On Sunday afternoon she left her house for church, as usual. Dressed in her best clothes, she quickly turned right behind her house, keeping out of her mother’s sight. She went back to her room through the kitchen door, holding a portrait of the Führer.
Her everyday clothing was very plain, she dressed in a dry, stiff manner. She no longer wore her once-favourite perfumes, not even those cheap French ones that our shops had carried for some time. She still loved the black-and-white Marika Rökk films that were screened in the small cinema hall. Before the show you could buy chocolate candies in the hall. Ever since the cinema owner had received a piano from Horst Wahrsieg (the same instrument that had stood in the finest room of the Health Resort), she didn’t have to stand in line for a ticket. She went in with the Wehrmacht soldiers, who had recently been coming in large numbers on leave. After the film, she went for walks toward the Green Bridge.
Every afternoon, Lisa proudly dressed in the BDM uniform. She was of modest height, but when she walked down the main street to the gathering at the villa on the bay, she stood up straight, and lifted her head majestically above the heads of the pedestrians. She enjoyed this state and her steadily diminishing sense of inferiority. She wanted to forget the powerful jealousy she felt observing the life of the social elite. She recalled the summer of thirty-nine, when she sneaked glances the wives of Polish officers sitting in the villa gardens under the vault of chestnut trees. She watched them dance the foxtrot to the gramophone records, smoke long cigarettes and drink colourful liqueurs. She spied on the young ladies who wore shimmering, flowing dresses and straw hats with tortoise-shell pins. Lisa liked the major’s wife’s dress best of all; it was the palest blue, with frills of transparent muslin.
When the gramophone finally fell silent in those final days of August, all you could hear in many rooms was the anxious ringing of telephones and the hurried pitter-patter of female footsteps. A silence reigned in the homes by the bay. Soon, however, the scattered sugar crunched under the soldiers’ heavy boots. The Germans invaded with hoopla and self-confidence, the language they spoke had none of the soft Slavic rustle. They sprawled out luxuriantly in the wicker chairs they’d brought from the garden and sought shade from the surprisingly hot September sun. Their faces were clean-shaven and smelled of “Echt Kölnisch Wasser,” the insolent smell of the victors. Their loud laughter rang out everywhere, bottles of champagne were popped, bright-celadon liquid splashed forth onto the white tablecloths they’d dug out of wardrobes. On that day the plaque with the white eagle was unscrewed from the front of the building; it fell slowly to the ground, as if to spite the expectations of the drunken Wehrmacht officers. Till finally it hung its head. And thus it stayed for a long while.
A few weeks later the BDM girls diligently collected the scattered sugar, closed the doors of the oak commodes and the wardrobes and the drawers of the night stands. The plasterers and the carpenters were summoned to the villa to deal with the row of holes in the walls across from the windows. They replaced the smashed doors and the parts of the floorboards that couldn’t be cleansed of their dun-red stains. A Siemens radio appeared in the room, on the superior’s night stand, along with a high, firm bed upholstered with seagrasses. On the walls there was a portrait of a man whose likeness was always decorated with fresh-cut flowers. A large cross with unbecomingly broken arms flapped on a red cloth on the front wall. The girls, obliging as always, quickly introduced cleanliness, discipline, and a new set of good manners, combined with a sense of mission. Their applied knowledge of tiny particles of dust now turned out to be very useful. They made stewed apple drink for the army hospitals, stitched blankets and memorised the new calendar of national holidays. In the fall and winter they brought a roasted grain beverage, similar to coffee, in thermoses to the train station for the soldiers, who warmed their frozen bodies by a coal stove.
Translated by Soren Gauger