Next Tuesday’s Pogrom is Marcin Wroński’s fifth crime novel chronicling the adventures of Commissioner Zyga Maciejewski, a former boxer and an extremely effective police officer. It is without doubt the best novel in the series so far (Wroński plans to write another five). Therefore it is no surprise that it has proved popular with readers and garnered praise from crime fiction connoisseurs. Suffice it to say that Wroński’s latest novel scooped every prize on offer for Polish crime fiction in 2014.
Next Tuesday’s Pogrom departs from previous books in the series in that the entire plot is set in the period following the Second World War. Wroński, who in previous novels has proved to be an intelligent and engaging portraitist of the interwar period, handles the post-war reality with equal skill. Moreover, Wroński’s description of Lublin in September 1945 is undoubtedly this novel’s strongest feature: the authorities’ merciless treatment of their enemies (both real and imagined), the partisan survivors, the desperate and lost souls with guns in their hands, the ruthless gangs of thugs, the blackmailers seeking to lose themselves in the crowds rolling through the city, the castaways of war and ordinary people seeking to rebuild their lives in a new reality, where the rules remain undefined and unpredictable...
In the preceding novel in the series, The Winged Coffin, Maciejewski was imprisoned by the UB (the communist secret police), accused of collaborating with the Nazis (which to some extent was true, as Zyga was forced to work for the Kriminalpolizei during the occupation). His UB persecutor — the sinister Major Grabarz — has now decided to set Maciejewski free. Of course, Grabarz’s decision is motivated by self-interest and he imposes tough conditions on Maciejewski’s release. Everything indicates that a Jewish pogrom is about to take place in Lublin, which is awkward for the UB officer. What’s more, there’s a pair of brutal murderers on the loose in the area. Only Maciejewski, an outsider to the new system, can uncover the truth and stop the bloodshed; and, while he’s at it, rescue an old pal and get his wife back (she has long since written him off as a lost cause). In the chaos of Lublin in 1945, Maciejewski takes a beating from all sides, and yet, like a roly-poly toy, he keeps getting up again. And throughout he tries to stick to his principles — within the possibilities available to him, which aren’t great.
Above all, Wroński’s novel is a wonderfully constructed crime story with a precisely developed plot that will keep readers on the edge of their seats to the very last page. It also features an interesting — thoroughbred, so to say — protagonist (alongside Marek Krajewski’s Eberhard Mock, Maciejewski is one of the most fascinating characters in Polish crime fiction). Yet this is no ordinary crime story. Wroński demonstrates that one can write about important, serious problems in genre fiction, and touch the painful spots in Polish history, depicting them without simplification and from surprising perspectives. Few retro crime writers can combine an entertaining read with serious thought. Marcin Wroński is able to do that. This is just one of the things that makes him an outstanding crime writer.
Wednesday, 12 September, 1945
The door was ajar and riddled with bullet holes. By now Zyga was tired of knocking, so he pushed it open. Standing there on show, he had merely aroused the curiosity of the neighbours overlooking the gallery which led to the apartments upstairs in the annex.
In a short dark corridor he stumbled over a basket, spilling some dried peas onto the floor.
“Lejb? Is that you?”
Zyga was pleased to hear Polish.
“No, it’s Maciejewski.”
Sunlight struggled to penetrate the room through the thick drapes made out of an old army blanket. There were just a few beds and a lopsided wardrobe against the walls. The woman — perhaps the victim’s wife, if the cashier’s account was to be trusted — was moving to and fro in a wicker rocking chair, while staring into a tea glass. Judging by the dried-up tea leaves inside, it had been empty since yesterday.
“Why is it you and not Lejb...?” She raised her head. “Leon, I mean.”
The cashier had said she was very young but Zyga hadn’t noticed that until now. There was something elderly about her movements, about her hunched figure, and the way she rocked in her chair. Only now did he see her smooth, unwrinkled face; her eyes were deeply sunken, though. She was no beauty but still a catch. At least when it came to women, Zyga would have spoken a common language with the late lamented Wasertreger.
Zyga glanced around the room but there wasn’t much to look at. The only picture — a wedding portrait — showed an older man with a prominent Jewish nose; beside him stood a girl of about twenty, on whose head the hairdresser had created something disastrously unsuited to that round face and childish, but good-natured eyes. That same girl, thinner and a little older, was now looking at Zyga.
“Leon Wasertreger?” said Zyga, clearing his throat. “Your husband?”
“Yes, my husband,” she nodded, reaching for the glass with the tea leaves inside. She raised it to her lips and took a sip of the imaginary tea. “Do you have a message from him?”
“Yes, but I have to be sure, you understand.”
“Of course. Tea?”
She passed him the glass.
He raised it to his mouth and, taking care not to disturb the now mouldy tea leaves, pretended to drink.
“I have to be sure,” he said again. “If you could tell me about the evening when you last saw your husband, I’ll know I am talking to the right person. And then I’ll pass on the message from Leon.”
“Leon is my husband,” she repeated. “He was lying there.” She pointed at the door. “It’s strange, isn’t it? They were shouting: ‘Open up, Wasertreger!’, but he didn’t open it, and then he lay there all the same, as if he had opened it. Those who open the door end up bleeding on the floor. He hadn’t opened it, but he was bleeding too, only not as much. That’s why I don’t close the door, you see?” She smiled slyly. “If I don’t close it, they won’t shoot.”
“How many of them were there?”
“Same as always, an entire squad. Then they took him away, supposedly to the hospital, but I know exactly where they took him, given that you’ve come, Comrade Maciejewski.”
By now her smile was so naive and nauseatingly knowing that Zyga had to stop himself from turning around and leaving.
“What else did they say?”
“They were shouting: ‘Secret police pig!’ and ‘Drop dead, Jew!’. Bang, bang, bang. But I know him, he was pretending to be bleeding, he’s very good at pretending, even the doctor was fooled!” The murder victim’s widow laughed. “Did they shoot at you, too?”
“Of course they did,” Zyga replied with a serious look on his face. “Leon was with the UB?”
“You mean you don’t know?” she asked suspiciously.
“I do, but I need to check,” Maciejewski wormed his way out.
“He pretended to be. He was always pretending. Now he’s pretending to be dead. But you have a message from him? Please give it to me at once!” shouted Mrs Wasertreger, her hand outstretched. “I’ve told you everything, that he pretended to bleed when they fired because he wouldn’t open the door, ‘you Jewish pig!’, I was sitting here, I know he’s told you all that. The message!” The woman’s hand was twisted like the bird’s talons on a militiaman’s hat.
“I’m still not sure,” Zyga replied calmly. “What’s your first name?”
“I do beg your pardon! Care for some tea?” She reached for the glass again. “Oh, I’m sorry, you’ve already had some. What did you say your name was? Ah yes, Maciejowski! I’m Perla... I mean Tekla... I mean Perlmutter... I mean Wasertreger... he didn’t tell you?”
She looked at Zyga warily.
“He did. People tell us everything.” Maciejewski clenched his teeth. Major Grabarz would be pleased people were quoting him. “Here is the message: ‘Dearest Perla, I’m in good health and thinking of you. We’ll meet again soon, until then keep well, your loving husband, Lejb’.”
“And is there a letter?” Tears appeared in the woman’s eyes.
“You know better than anyone how dangerous that would be. Leon wouldn’t want to put you at risk.”
“He wouldn’t, he wouldn’t!” The widow nodded fervently. “Did you know he even had a funeral? How funny! I mean, how could there be a funeral if he was only pretending? He said... promised... nothing would happen to him!”
Maciejewski tried to leave, this time avoiding the basket of peas, but while leaping to the door he fell over it again, it overturned and the peas scattered across the painted wooden floor. Mrs Wasertreger took no notice, Zyga even less, as he grabbed a strange man by his grubby shirt collar and dragged him inside from the corridor. The man was only slightly smaller than he was, but far more surprised.
“Name!” he hissed into the stranger’s ear. The man smelled of nicotine and freshly consumed krupnik.
“And who would you be?” The man attempted to break free but Zyga had one hand under his chin and the other round his throat.
“I ask the questions around here,” Zyga snarled.
“Darzycki. Stanisław Darzycki. I’m a neighbour,” he wheezed. “I was the one who informed the authorities once that lot had stopped shooting. I’m clean!”
“So why are you so scared?” Maciejewski shoved him behind the door and pressed him to the wall. “There’s nothing to be scared of, Darzycki, we’re not under occupation now. Speak, Darzycki!”
“I’m scared you lot in the security service might think that since I wrote to the housing office...”
“You wrote to the housing office, did you?” Zyga persevered, not wanting to lose his advantage. True, he was carrying a ladies’ Walther in his pocket but he didn’t have any ID on him, more’s the pity. “Something of a wordsmith are we, Darzycki?”
“Well, why is it that those Jews are shacked up in a room big enough to fit two families while we’re crammed in together like rats? And now she’s got that place to herself while we’re...”
“...crammed in together like rats,” said Maciejewski. “And that’s how you’ll remain until the housing office decides otherwise.”
“Show me your ID,” Darzycki demanded perfectly lucidly.
That earned him a forehand slap in the face, followed by a backhander too.
“Don’t fucking push your luck, Darzycki. In the security service we’re fully aware there’s many a bastard who’d send his own wife onto the street, or lie his head off, or kill for a decent housing allocation. So quit bullshitting and tell me what you know!”
It sounded decisive enough to fool the man, but Zyga knew full well that he himself was pushing his luck. After all, “cops aren’t whores, they don’t go out alone at night”, as you often heard in Kośminek before the war. The secret police continued this tradition, even in the daytime. A lone agent was a plausible sight in a public toilet, but not in people’s homes. On the other hand... Of course, as there might be another side to the story, Stanisław Darzycki was admitting that when they shot Wasertreger he was at home, but he’d been afraid to even fart, let alone show his face. And as proof of his cooperation with the authorities, he’d promised to ask around in the building. Perhaps someone would sooner blab to him, as one neighbour to another... ‘Citizen, if you could come back in a few days...’.
“And what if I just took you down to the office?” Maciejewski growled menacingly, though this was the last ace he had up his sleeve – distinctly marked too. “You’ll remember everything there. We’ll help you to remember...” [...]
Darzycki turned this over in his mind, tearing scraps of wallpaper from around the open door to his apartment. From inside came the sound of two women quarrelling, something about a burnt onion, the stench of which was now drifting into the gallery connecting the dark stairwell to the residents’ cubbyholes. Zyga peeked inside. The women were obscured by the kitchen partition, but were now bickering at the top of their voices. In the main room someone was snoring in a bed behind a curtain made from a blanket suspended on a piece of string.
“But there’s already been an inquiry for Wasertreger...”
“So what? It’ll be reopened if need be,” ventured Zyga. “That’s being decided by wiser men than you.”
“If that’s what the authorities have ordered, I’ll try. Tomorrow. The day after at the latest.”
“At the very latest!” Zyga turned and went downstairs. The smell of burnt onion had made his nose tingle, and now it was starting to make his stomach turn.
Translated by Garry Malloy