Anna Bolecka has never gone in for easy topics. In the wonderful White Stone, she returned to the lost paradise of the past in the eastern marshes of the old Republic. In the intriguing Dearest Franz, she brought Franz Kafka to life in order to deal with the major themes of his prose in her own personal way. In her new book, The Tzadik and the Girl, she sets the bar even higher: she decides to describe the fate of several people involved in the painful events of World War II, in a Warsaw occupied by the Nazis.
Her task is made especially difficult by the fact that Bolecka, who was born af ter the war, cannot rely, as many of her illustrious predecessors have done, upon her own memories. Thus she makes extensive use of the literature on the topic, drawing particular inspiration from the memoirs and letters of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman from the Netherlands who became the prototype for the main character of the book, Pola Rubin. It is the story of this troubled, confused girl, whose Jewish identity was issued to her by higher-ups under the Nuremberg Laws, that serves as the depar-ture point for this story about other characters facing life’s most important decisions. Among them is her friend Chava Muszka, whose father is an Or-thodox Jew and who is hiding from the Nazis, her family trying to escape occupied Warsaw and get abroad and hoping that the German Major Brock, risking his own life, will help them in that escape. Another important part of the plot is the love that connects Pola Rubin and the old Jew Stein, an expert palm reader.
The Tzadik and the Girl is the work of a born writer. Bolecka knows how to maintain the pace of a story perfectly, gradually increasing tension, lead-ing her characters up to the proverbial wall, making them figure out who they are from scratch. The truth is blended with fiction in different propor-tions, and the characters’ fates are so dramatic that it’s hard to put the book down. You sometimes get the impression that this Hollywood-style triumph means more than the psychology of the characters, though there is no lack
of fellow-feeling for them. Bolecka’s language is also intriguing, as she viv-idly describes wartime Warsaw and its surroundings in a way that is both stripped-down and literary. All of this makes Bolecka’s book worthy of read-ing – and, no doubt, of filming.
When they finally got outside, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. You could see by the light of the
fires. The stench of death hung about the streets, filled the courtyards of houses that didn’t exist anymore. Those who survived and did not lose their minds, came out onto the surface. They wandered now amongst the ruins and the spared shreds of homes, not recognizing the streets where they had spent their entire lives. They walked, brushing aside curtains of thick, swampy smoke. A bloody reflection moved down the surviving walls and every so often a stronger gust of wind would strike at the unimaginably blue window of the distant sky. Burn victims and the sufferers of other injuries had gathered at medical care points and around provisional hospitals. Some wine casks had been rustled up from some bombed-out cellar. There were so many of them that drunks soon appeared on the streets. The dead were lying on the pavement. People cut out pieces of meat from the corpse of a horse. German leaflets had fallen on the streets of downtown. If you do not surrender, the city will be gassed. The terrible word “capitulation” was circulating around Warsaw.
Many of the houses downtown and in the Wola district had been demol-ished. Rubble, clouds of twisted wires, torn-up tracks, and broken street lamps barred the passage from street to street. People had to walk through
broken glass, among strips of burnt curtains and charred window frames. Whole sections of the city had changed their appearance. Nowy Świat Street was almost completely gone. A fire that had been burning for a few days already was slowly digesting the last remnants of the ruins. In the smoke, as the walls that jutted out over the debris threatened collapse, people pried bodies out from amongst the rubble. Sometimes a scream would resound, and a wounded person who had survived beneath the stones would rise to the surface. The barricades were hurriedly dismantled. Women were selling pickles in great big jars at the gates. Leaning against a doorframe there was a board reading “Herring sold,” pointing into a courtyard where a long line
had formed. People with buckets looked for water. Swastika flags hung on balconies and on the walls of houses. People tried to steer clear of them.
Pola went down Marszałkowska with Stein, who was still in the city. What had happened and what was still happening around them fueled feel-ings that had never abated and that they didn’t try to fight anymore. It was a love that appeared at the absolute perfect time. Right now, while the world was so thrown off, while it lay at the bottom of a dark, icy abyss. While directions were all mixed up, and the night gleamed with explosions, and darkness fell in the day, that man become the only source of hope amidst the ruins.
“What we’ve been through has changed us,” she said.
“Yes. We won’t be able to go back to how we were before the war.”
“I was thinking about our love.”
He looked at her and laughed. There was a young and carefree gleam in his eyes. They were walking down the tunnels of streets toward the Saxon Garden. At the corner of Królewska Street, an old woman was sitting with
her back up against a wall. In a broken jar she had a bunch of roses.
“The last roses, and what a scent,” she said. “Go ahead, buy them.”
“You see how when we ask for nothing, we always get something,” said Stein, handing Pola the little bouquet of still-closed yellow roses spared mi-raculously in the flowerbed of some city park.
Those flowers in the wounded city struck her as something that had no right to exist, and yet it existed, and it gave its scent off with timid delight. We’ll have to learn to take joy in the tiniest little things, she thought. Otherwise we won’t be able to survive what’s coming next. The life we had before can’t be restored. For better or for worse. Until just recently, she felt as though reality were hanging on her like ill-fitting garments you had to still grow into. Now, walking next to Stein, she felt strength and confidence. No hesitation, no evasion, no questions like, “Do I love him? What do I want from life? What is the point of all this?” She was ashamed of her old doubts. She had once thought things – how long ago it seemed now! – like whether Stein wasn’t too
old for her, whether he would be good in bed, how often he would cheat on her. She had even said to him once, “We have become fond of one another, but we can’t nurture any hopes for the future.” And he had replied, with a hint of irony, “If you understand the future in such materialistic terms…” And then just like that, all of that had become the past. She pressed her shoulder to his and slid her hand into Stein’s warm hand.
“When do you have to go back?” she asked.
“I was supposed to be there a long time ago. But,” he hesitated, “I don’t know how they’re going to receive me. I am a German citizen. They might actually consider me their enemy.”
She looked at him in a panic. She hadn’t thought about that. She reflex-ively lowered her voice.
“But that’s impossible.”
Stein stayed in Warsaw for some time longer. They would meet in a room that Pola rented with some friends of hers. The girls weren’t there, and she didn’t even really know what was going on with them. The house had sur-vived, although the landlady said that they had all run out along the bom-barded street as though down a never-ending tunnel of fire. She had sur-vived, but the neighbors had perished. Pola heard stories like these from everyone. She didn’t wonder why she had survived when others hadn’t. She would shut the door to the room she went into with Stein and forget about the world beyond the window for a long while. They would make love or lie next to one another. She would rest her head on his chest, listening to the peaceful beating of his heart, and she would feel safe, as though she were in the arms of some powerful being that would never die.
“What are you thinking about?” she would ask.
“About the demons that torment humanity. When I was young, I thought I would eventually be able to change something in this imperfect world. Don’t laugh, I was young.”
“But nothing will change if we stay the same. We have to seek out the sources of evil within ourselves. Isn’t that what you taught me?”
“One thing is for sure, this war will have changed us. But the question remains: for better or for worse?”
On one of the first days of October, Stein got into the same truck that had brought him to Warsaw, and, along with a shipment of linens and medicines for a hospital in Otwock, he left. At that time, refugees had started to re-turn to Warsaw, and there was always traffic on the roads leading into town. The telephones were working again now, though not as they were supposed to, and everyone wanted to know why some people could make as many calls as they wished at no charge, while others couldn’t even hear anything through their receivers.
Translated by Jennifer Croft