Exceptionally Long Line, An

Hanna Krall
Exceptionally Long Line, An
  • a5
    Kraków 2004
    132 pp
    ISBN 83-85568-62-X

An Ecxeptionally Long Line is the story of a tenement building in Lublin and two of the people who lived there. The building was erected in the seventeenth century, and was home to ordinary people – Poles, Jews, intellectuals and civil servants. For centuries their lives and occupations intermingled. Recreating the fates of the building’s residents is like reconstructing the history of the city, and also the history of memory. For at heart Hanna Krall’s book tells us as much about the past as about remembrance, which itself prolongs history. As soon as we stop remembering, any line – even an exceptionally long one –  is broken.
 Krall’s story starts with the origin of the tenement building, in a Poland of aristocrats and noblemen. In short, random, but vividly narrated accounts, Hanna Krall summarises the building’s turns of fate. Sometimes she describes individual people, at others some significant detail, such as a historical event or something about an apartment’s décor. However, the point of the whole narration is the tale of its two main heroes, Franciszka Arnsztajn (1865-1942) and Józef Czechowicz (1903-1939). Both were killed during the war, he in the bombing raids that took place in the first few days of September 1939, and she much later, during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. They met in the Lublin tenement building, where Czechowicz came to see her, drawn by her renown. For Franciszka Arnsztajn was a legendary figure among the Lublin intelligentsia of the inter-war period. She came from an assimilated Jewish merchant family, the Meyersons. She was an emancipated woman, and had studied natural history in Germany. She and her husband, doctor and social worker Marek Arnsztajn, founded the Towarzystwo Szerzenia Oświaty „Światło” (“Light” Society for the Promotion of Education). But first and foremost she was a writer, poet and playwright. In 1932 she and Józef Czechowicz jointly founded the Lublin Writers’ Union. Their encounters began with the young poet reading his poetry to the elderly lady, who was hard of hearing.
 The people who live in the tenement today no longer talk about their former neighbours. They never tell the story of how Józef Czechowicz predicted his own death in one of his poems, nor do they wonder what Franciszka was doing at the time of her death. According to Hanna Krall, perhaps she was reciting one of Czechowicz’s poems. The present occupants’ silence is like a break in a long line. By setting out to tell the story, Krall’s book tries to extend this line. Her narrative reads like a neighbourly chat - something of a muddle, with a multitude of voices and full of digressions – but it keeps returning doggedly to its main theme. Thanks to this book we too can join in the conversation.

- Przemysław Czapliński

Czechowicz - continued

She never gave up furniture, she never bought new things, it was all as in the past: a long table with squat legs, a green velvet tablecloth, a three-armed chandelier and an oil lamp in the middle of the table although the tenement had electric lighting by then.
She too sat as in the past at the head of the table.
Czechowicz placed his written in, graph-paper exercise book before her.
He waited.
She read in silence, but repeated some of the verses aloud. She was nodding her head; I knew she liked it.
Once he began with polite questions  they were easy, so he guessed them from the lip movements.
How is the doctor? He meant her husband.
Then: how is the captain? He meant her son.
Then: how is your daughter-in-law? He meant her son’s fiancée.
Then: how’s everything in general?
She replied in short, matter-of-fact sentences, though he had asked quite formally.
Rywcia Winograd gave birth to a child with no fingernails, so I consoled her by saying they would grow.
Meir Reichgold’s daughter can’t learn French. Her parents won’t let her to, because the lessons are on Saturdays. I consoled her by saying she can teach it to herself.
My granddaughter prayed in her own words at school again. No, I didn’t console her, I talk to my granddaughter like an adult, said F.A., and from a letter-writing pad she tore a page with a poem, neatly written out in capitals, with artistic flourishes.
He listened. He changed seat. He started writing, about the poem she had read to him a short time ago, or his own poem, unfinished, that he was still working on. Their sheets of paper lay next to each other. She looked over his shoulder. When he took his pencil off the page, as if suspending his voice, she tried to guess how it would go on, generally getting it wrong. Then he finished writing. Oh yes, she said, of course it’s like that.
They decided to put some pages together as a whole, his and hers. F.A. wrote them out in a fair copy. A lengthy work emerged, with fifty-six verses divided into “Voices”  male and female. In the final stanza next to two verses he wrote “Together”.

I’ll quietly enter, an old man, into the light of ancient bonfires,
for I lived with the double strength, of waiting and of loving.

(that’s him)

Sunset already. The day is at an end. What has the slave of hunting
in his net.

(that’s her)

What’s left beneath the silver distaff of Lachesis?
A work  the gleam and the body of verse  in stigmata.

(that’s him)

He brought her poems about the approaching holocaust. He was listening out for it. He tried to tame it with words.

one is from time immemorial
the famine the holocaust and you
one is from time immemorial
the famine the holocaust and you

He spoke, or rather wrote: in your fate what I have feared all my life, what I still fear will come true. What I fear most of all: death and loneliness. They are coming after me step by step, but it’s you they’ll catch up with, not me. You will take them on for both of us.
So nothing bad can happen to you, she wrote, though she might have said it aloud.
You’re consoling me like Rywcia Winograd, he smiled, but he did seem reassured.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones