“Oh Ghetto My Love” by Eduardo Halfon
A story about discovering a family history before Auschwitz
AN INTRODUCTION BY DWYER MURPHY
A few years ago Eduardo Halfon told me about the Spanish word “desubicado.” It’s difficult to translate, he said. His best attempt was “not being situated,” though he felt that wasn’t profound enough, and I got the impression he had thought about the meaning of that word for a long time and it mattered quite a lot to him. We were talking about a period in his life when he had returned to his native Guatemala, when he was struggling with a career he’d soon abandon and a language he’d nearly forgotten in a country that had just endured thirty-odd years of civil war. We never settled on a precise equivalent, but the word–“desubicado”–came back to me as I was reading the latest of Halfon’s stories to be translated into English, “Oh Ghetto My Love.”
In “Oh Ghetto My Love,” no one is comfortably situated. Our narrator, Eduardo Halfon (the author Halfon’s favored distortion), is in Łódź, Poland, meeting with Madame Maroszek, a mysterious local who acts as a guide for descendants of the city’s Jews. Halfon and Maroszek drink sweet vodka, eat herring, and search out the apartment where Halfon’s grandfather lived before being sent to Auschwitz. In the courtyard outside the apartment, Halfon has an arresting vision in black-and-white: “Jews leaping to their death from the highest windows, no longer able to bear life in the ghetto, or life at all.” The events of the story are dizzying. The exchanges are tense and madcap. Motives and translations are garbled. Each interaction becomes a kind of detective story in elegant miniature. Just as we, or Halfon, or both of us, seem to be on the cusp of an answer, a new fiction emerges. A chilling punch line hits home–the herring down the throat, the invented name, the filched porno. The tragic and the absurd collide and we’re left with a subtly moving story about a man adrift, searching for his bearings.
Halfon’s work thrives in those in-between, disoriented spaces. “Oh Ghetto My Love” might be a follow-up to his acclaimed novel, The Polish Boxer (the same seminal story, passed down from a grandfather, appears in both), or it might be something entirely new, where a new version of Halfon shows up in Łódź wearing a pink jacket, carrying a photograph, in need of a cigarette. I haven’t thought to ask Halfon how much of this story is true, or where to place it among his other novels and stories. That would, I suspect, spoil something. And probably he’d refuse to answer. Halfon wants us there with him–desubicado–a little ill at ease, never sure of where we are or where we’re headed.
Associate Editor, Electric Literature
“Oh Ghetto My Love” by Eduardo Halfon
Everyone called her Madame Maroszek. A French friend, at a café in Saint-Nazaire — located inside the enormous old base used by the Nazis during the war to store U-boats — was the first person to tell me about her. He told me that, because she had no faith in technology, she didn’t use a phone or email, and any communication would therefore have to be by letter. He told me she liked to write long letters — full of stories and anecdotes — as well as to receive them. He told me she preferred that people write to her by hand. He told me I could write to her in Spanish, because she spoke it perfectly (I’d later learn she spoke more than ten languages). He told me Madame Maroszek might, just might, be able to help me find what I was looking for in Poland.
I wrote to her immediately, and thus began our slow but steady correspondence. Her letters — written in an exquisite, anachronistic, fountain-pen cursive — always came on half-letter or quarter-letter size paper, in various shades of white, or gray, or pale yellow, all bearing the letterhead of some hotel in Łódź. I liked to imagine her strolling the halls of her city’s hotels, wandering into open rooms and stealing the sheets of stationery off of the nightstands. I received letters from her from the Grand Hotel, Andel’s Hotel, Hotel Światowit, Hotel Focus, Hotel Łódzki Pałacyk, and the famous old Hotel Savoy, where I myself was staying, and in whose lobby I finally met her in person.
I knew it was her the moment she walked in. Perhaps because, the whole time I’d been receiving and reading her letters, I had imagined her just like that: short and heavyset and with an air of aristocracy. But of an unseemly, over-elaborate aristocracy. She gave the impression of having spent hours before the mirror, putting on perfume, applying make-up, dying and styling her copper-colored hair, making sure each jewel, each earring and pearl, each ring and gold bracelet, each scarf and wrap and silk shawl were perfectly matched, until standing there in the mirror, day after day, she achieved the same image. Like an actress in the theater dressing room meticulously becoming her character, because she knows that her entire oeuvre, her entire life, depends upon it.
I am Madame Maroszek, she exclaimed from the middle of the lobby, my hand clasped in hers.
Vodka and herring. That’s what lay between us. On the table were four small glasses of vodka, thick and cold, and in the middle of those four glasses, blossoming up like some strange gray plant from a fifth small glass: the tails of four whole herrings, pickled or possibly raw. Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka, the side of each glass said, in black letters. Madame Maroszek raised a glass of vodka, pointed a crimson-colored fingernail to the letters, and sternly, watching or challenging me, translated into Spanish: Bitter vodka for the stomach. I too raised a glass. Welcome to Łódź, Eduardo, she said, her accent thick, her voice hoarse and grave. Do dna, she said. That means down the hatch, she said. That’s our custom. We toasted with only our eyes and downed the vodka in a single shot. It was more sweet than bitter, more warm than cold. Then I watched Madame Maroszek reach out a pudgy ring-filled hand, a braceleted wrist, place her glass down on the table, take a herring by the tail and hold it up in the air (its tiny body arched, its skin taut and iridescent and sparkling in the bar’s fluorescent lighting), tilt her head back slowly, open her mouth, and deposit the entire herring therein. She barely chewed. She barely swallowed. Or maybe she didn’t swallow at all, and the herring — glimmering, silvery — slid down of its own accord.
Madame Maroszek opened the pack lying on the table, extracted a long slender cigarette, and lit it. Popularne, I saw written on the pack in big red letters. She was now eyeing me in silence: her arms crossed, her expression intense and dark and overly made-up. She was waiting, I supposed, for me to take a herring and do the same. That was the deal. That was the custom. I slightly readjusted the pink overcoat I was still wearing, maybe because the bar was cold or because Madame Maroszek hadn’t removed her huge regal fur coat either. I reached out a hand and pinched one of the tiny tails between my thumb and index finger and felt the fish give a little leap. It’s alive, I said or asked, a bit shocked. Madame Maroszek said nothing. Perhaps she didn’t hear me. I tried again and this time the herring kept still and let me take it by the tail — a wet, slimy, squishy tail. It’s possible that, as I raised it to my mouth, I was hit by an ammonia-like aroma. Though it’s equally possible that I only imagined it. How do you say herring in Polish? I asked, trying not to look at the poor little fish still dangling before me, all stiff. Śledź, she whispered. Right. I couldn’t repeat the word. I didn’t know what else to ask. Didn’t know what else to say. Then with a small sigh I tilted my head back and opened my mouth and let the tepid little fish drop onto my tongue and began chewing as fast as possible, while Madame Maroszek looked on incredulous as I turned green and tried my best not to spit it out onto the table and run from the bar like a misbehaved child. Delicious, I stammered.
It was already dark and the streets of Łódź were almost empty. The wind was blowing icy and damp and I had to pull my pink coat tighter around me. Madame Maroszek, standing before me, leaning on her old ebony cane, simply watched, perhaps wondering what I was doing in a coat so pink, so feminine. But all she did was take out a cigarette in the dark, light it, and blow out the smoke with a couple of coughs. She held the pack out. I took a cigarette. The tobacco was black and strong and made me feel dizzy. But a good dizzy, a radiant dizzy, a dizzy like from spinning around and around while staring up at a starry sky.
Walking down Piotrkowska Street, Madame Maroszek asked me how my trip had gone so far, before Łódź. I kept quiet a few seconds, pondering or recalling. I was going to tell her that in Warsaw I’d touched the bricks of the last vestige of the ghetto wall, between Sienna Street and Zlota Street, and that I felt nothing. I was going to tell her that, also in Warsaw, I’d had to buy that ridiculous pink coat in a second-hand shop at the Centrum metro station, under Defilad Square, because the airline had lost my suitcase, and by the time they finally brought it to my hotel, a few days later, the coat had become a part of me, and I had become a part of it, and my walk was now a Polish woman’s walk. I was going to tell her that later, after much indecision, I’d taken a train to Auschwitz and, dressed in my pink coat, in my Polish woman disguise, I’d paraded through Auschwitz with all the other tourists; I’d seen, with all the other tourists, the crematoriums of Auschwitz, gone with all the other tourists into Block 11 of Auschwitz, where my grandfather had been prisoner, and had met the Polish boxer, and had been tattooed with his number. I was going to tell her that in Auschwitz, or rather opposite Auschwitz, while eating a very bad hamburger at a run-of-the-mill cafeteria, two teenage tourists, probably American, probably on a school trip, were groping each other under the table right in front of me with all the ignorance of what is forbidden, their hands lost in each other’s clothes, their faces flushed and smoldering with the blinding fire that excites for the first time. I was just about to tell Madame Maroszek something, or everything, when suddenly, still smoking, I slipped my other hand into my coat pocket and felt the white envelope.
I’d forgotten that I had it with me, in the pink coat. I stopped and handed it to Madame Maroszek, who also stopped and accepted it and opened it in silence, the cigarette dangling from her lips, the ebony cane hanging from her wrist.
First she took out an old black-and-white photo of my grandfather: young, thin, dressed in a suit and tie, riding a bicycle down some deserted Berlin street at the end of ’45, shortly after being freed from Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He’s not smiling, but his expression is light.
Then she took out a second photo, also black and white, old and damaged, of my grandfather’s family at a photography studio in Łódź, possibly just before they got separated by the war (it’s the only photo my grandfather managed to keep of his two sisters and his younger brother and his parents, and it always hung by his bed). They all look serious, concerned, almost frightened, as if they realized that that would be the last image of them together, as if they knew what was about to happen to them, as if their gray faces already foretold the whole tragedy. Madame Maroszek said nothing. She simply replaced both photos carefully, a trail of smoke wafting up before her face, and pulled from the envelope a small sheet of yellow paper.
Every time I told my grandfather I wanted to go to Poland, to Łódź, to the neighborhood where he was born and raised and then captured by the Gestapo in September of ’39 — as he and his girlfriend Mina and their friends, all nineteen years old, played dominoes on the street — my grandfather said not to go. Sometimes he’d say it furiously, other times sad and perplexed, and still other times he seemed to be pleading, as though to protect me from something.
My grandfather arrived in Guatemala after the war, after spending six years as a prisoner in various concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen, Neuengamme, Buna Werke, and Auschwitz, where a Polish boxer saved his life, training him for one night to defend himself and deliver jabs with his words. My grandfather lived out the rest of his life in Guatemala, and died there, still offended by his compatriots and his mother tongue. He never returned to Poland. He never said another word in Polish. The Polish, he used to say, betrayed us.
Not long before he died, while I was having dinner with him and my grandmother for what would turn out to be the last time, I insisted once more that I wanted to travel to Poland. And my grandfather, by then quite ill and weak and delirious (he thought his mother, Masha, was standing before him; he thought his siblings, Rachel and Raizel and Zalman, were speaking to him in Yiddish; he thought there were Gestapo soldiers waiting for him in his bedroom), shouted at me that I mustn’t go, that a Jew must never go to Poland. Then he turned to the old credenza, pulled open the drawer, and took out a folded piece of newspaper. Look, Eduardito, he said, showing me the clipping that he’d kept in that drawer for years and that he’d shown me several times already, as evidence, as a warning. It was a page from some British newspaper, with three large black-and-white photos. The first was of a wall on a Łódź street, graffitied with a game of hangman, in which the hung man was not a man but a Star of David. The second showed a policeman holding up a confiscated t-shirt outside the stadium of Widzew Łódź, the city’s soccer team, bearing an image of crosshairs, like from a shotgun, beneath which was written: We hunt Jews here. The third showed a stand full of Poznan hooligans, who the caption said were chanting at the Łódź team: Move on, Jews, your home is at Auschwitz, back to the gas chambers. Before the war, the article explained, the population of Łódź was one-third Jewish. That is, there were two hundred fifty thousand Jews in Łódź. Fewer than ten thousand survived. But, for the rest of the Poles, what survived was the city’s Jewish image.
My grandfather struggled up from the table with difficulty. He returned the newspaper clipping to the credenza and walked out of the dining room, leaving me alone with my grandmother, who didn’t know whether to burst into tears or try to soothe me and so instead simply took tiny sips of her tea. But my grandfather soon returned, holding a yellow slip of paper that bore a few lines of writing, in his own hand. It was the complete address of his house in Łódź: ground floor of the building on the corner of Żeromskiego Street and Persego Maja Street, number 16, close to Zielony Rinek Market, close to Poniatowski Park. One last piece of yellow paper. One last note, in his shaky old-man writing. One last testament to a grandson, who receives it from his grandfather’s hand, as if at that moment, at that last supper, he were receiving the whole of his inheritance.
I awoke with a headache. Maybe it was the previous night’s cheap, sweet vodka. Maybe it was the bad night’s sleep on a sagging old mattress. I had a few hours until I needed to meet Madame Maroszek down in the lobby, so I took a couple of aspirin and went back to bed and half-dozed for a while in the pale winter dawn, listening to the delicate drizzle falling on the window.
I knew very little about her. I knew her full name was Agnieszka Maroszek, and that she’d been born there, in Łódź, a few years before the war. I knew she wasn’t Jewish — around her neck she wore an enormous gold cross — but that she dedicated her whole life to helping relatives of Jews from Łódź, and never charged a thing. But I didn’t know why. My French friend, whom she helped find the graves of two siblings who’d died of typhoid in the Łódź ghetto, told me that, as far as he knew, Madame Maroszek’s parents had been executed during the war for helping Jews, and she had then dedicated her life to continuing her parents’ efforts, in her parents’ memory. Later, however, an old Chilean poet whom she’d helped to recover some family property in the outskirts of the city, wrote me back and said that, from what he knew, Madame Maroszek’s parents had denounced many Jews during the war, sometimes even handing them over themselves to the Gestapo at the much-feared Rote Haus, or Red House — a gorgeous red-brick building on Kościelna Street that had once been a Catholic parish house and that the Germans converted into a police station for the Kriminalpolizie, or Kripo, and from whose seven cells could be heard the cries of Jews being tortured and murdered — and that all of Madame Maroszek’s efforts, therefore, were nothing but attempts to atone for family guilt. Then, I spoke to a history professor at an American university, an expert in the Holocaust years whom Madame Maroszek had also helped to find the whereabouts of her grandmother (murdered in Chełmno) and grandfather (murdered in Treblinka). She told me over the phone that, according to her research, Madame Maroszek’s parents had helped Jews and also betrayed Jews; she was never able to confirm either, she said, but had found testimonies supporting both stories. When I asked her how that was possible, that someone could simultaneously help and betray, that they save some and send some to be executed, she at first said she didn’t know, then said she didn’t in fact know if it was entirely true, and finally said that it didn’t really surprise her, that everything in war was incoherent.
Each and every thing about the Hotel Savoy seemed like an anachronism. The rickety beds were from another century, faux Rococo. The wallpaper in the halls had a geometric, light-blue floral pattern, and was curling back from the ceiling. Strange noises issued forth from the walls, the plumbing, the heaters, the wooden floorboards. Inside the elevator, an old man, who wore a black uniform and a black hat and spoke only Polish, was always there — at any time of day, apparently — sitting on a wooden bench. I had to indicate my floor with fingers and gesticulations in order to get him to push the button.
That morning, when the elevator doors opened, the old man stood up to receive me. Dzień dobry, I said, which means good morning in Polish, and the old man, with all the silent formality of a gendarme, touched a hand to his cap and gave a little nod. All that was missing was the bayonet. Lobby, I announced, pointing down at the floor, and he immediately pressed a button and we began to descend. Still standing beside me, he said something in Polish that I didn’t understand. He pointed to his chest, and I saw his name stitched in gold thread over his heart. Kaminski, I said. Mister Kaminski, yes, he whispered. Then he pointed to me and said something else, his tone questioning. Halfon, I said, my fist to my chest. The old man furrowed his brow and took a hand and cupped it behind his ear. I repeated my name, louder and slower, but he simply shook his head and leaned in toward me, as though asking me please to assist him. And suddenly, seeing him there, helpless and hunched over, it struck me that it wasn’t that he couldn’t hear my name but that it sounded too foreign to him, too unfamiliar, that my reality, in fact, did not mesh with his. So I banged my fist on my chest, and assumed a voice that was forceful and booming and no longer my own, and said Hoffman.
The elevator stopped and the doors opened. The old man had dropped his hand. He smiled at me, jubilant. His gaze lit up. Hoffman, he pronounced in a mix of honor and gratitude. That’s right, I said on my way out, Signor Hoffman.
We were standing before six enormous graves, gaping and empty and located by the old wall surrounding the city’s Jewish cemetery. A black cat watched from atop that brick wall, motionless and suspicious. Madame Maroszek, as dressed-up and made-up as she had been the night before, told me that the Łódź ghetto had been the first one the Germans established, in November of ’39, and the last one they liquidated, in August of ’44. She told me it had survived so long because all of its residents were used for labor in the German war industry. She told me that, after it was closed and the last Jews were deported to Chełmno and Auschwitz, the Germans selected 840 Jewish men to stay behind and clean the streets of the ghetto of trash, of excrement, of bodies. She told me that the group was called the Aufräumungskommando, or cleaning commando. She told me, gazing down at one of the six graves, that the Germans had also ordered those last 840 Jews to dig their own mass graves in the cemetery, so they’d be ready and waiting for them once they finished cleaning the ghetto, which they did, knowing that those six mass graves would be their own. She told me that the Germans, however, had been forced to flee Łódź before they could shoot those last 840 Jews, who were therefore saved. But their graves remain open.
We were having kreplach and red wine for lunch at the only restaurant in Łódź that served Jewish food. It was called Anatevka, Madame Maroszek told me, the name of the fictional shtetl in the Sholem Aleichem story that was later brought to the stage, and to the world, as a musical. The walls were covered in old photos of rabbis and Jewish families and Jewish art. Menorahs adorned the tables. The waiters were in costume (I think), dressed as orthodox Jews. A very blonde and very pretty girl sat atop a small flimsy wooden scaffold, her head nearly touching the ceiling, playing on her violin — over and over and over — a song from Fiddler on the Roof.
Madame Maroszek took too big a bite of a kreplach and, chewing, perhaps smiling or teasing a bit, told me that another Signor Hoffman, the German writer and composer E.T.A. Hoffman, had lived for years in Poland, back when Poland was part of the Prussian empire. She took a hefty swig of red wine and then, without the least bit of shame, let out a brief and charming little burp. For several years, she went on, Hoffman was a public official in Warsaw, where it’s believed he got the idea for his story about the nutcracker and the mouse king, later brought to the stage as a ballet and to the world as a Christmas production, with music by Tchaikovsky. Madame Maroszek half-closed her eyes and raised a pudgy ring-filled hand and pointed all around, as if to say look, just like Sholem Aleichem and this whole performance. Her hand still in the air, she said: Hoffmann was the public official in charge of naming Polish Jews.
The blonde girl on the scaffold, perhaps interested in what Madame Maroszek had to say, stopped playing. I took a sip of wine, savoring both its acidity and the sudden silence of the violin.
At the end of the 18th century, Madame Maroszek said, after more than a century of autonomy, Poland fell under Prussian rule once more, and many Jewish families in Warsaw were obliged to officially register for the first time. Jewish peasant families, I’m talking about, who had never before used formal surnames. And that was Hoffman’s job. To name them, officially.
The blonde girl on the scaffold, perhaps having lost interest, went back to playing the same piece on her violin.
Madame Maroszek took a final sip of red wine, and continued. She explained that Hoffman, in his office, would stare for some time at a Jew before shouting the first word that came into his head, a word that a notary would then write down as his surname in an enormous register, thus naming the Jew, officially. She explained that before he’d had dinner, on an empty stomach, Hoffman gave Jews more serious names (like Alterman or Richter), and after dinner, when he was in a better mood, he gave them more pleasant names (like Einhorn or Dreyfus); that on Fridays during Lent he chose names of fish for the Jews (like Karpfen or Hechte), and on Mondays, after receiving roses at mass the day before, he chose floral names (like Nelke or Pfonstrose); that sometimes, after having led his church choir, he gave the Jews names with religious undertones (like Helfgott or Himmelblau), and that other times, after going out and getting drunk with Prussian colonels, he gave them military names (like Festung or Trommel). Madame Maroszek explained to me that these names, all invented by Hoffman, became real simply by virtue of being spoken and taken down in a register, and once real they were propagated throughout the world.
Madame Maroszek leaned forward and, humming the violin tune, poured us the rest of the wine. And as we drank for a while amid the white noise of diners and glasses and orthodox waiters and the incessant and folksy violin up on the scaffold, I envisioned an entire scene in which E. T. A. Hoffman, one lazy or ill-humored afternoon, decided to give his own name to a bearded Jew in a shtetl, and this Jew, on receiving it, ripped off the last letter and left it on the table and stormed out, spewing insults in Yiddish. I recalled having heard or read something about Jewish names that, since the early 19th century, had undergone a forcible adjustment in German-speaking territories. The Jews’ new German names were, shall we say, adapted to their Jewish identity. So, Hoffman, with one n, could be the Jewish adaptation of Hoffmann. An entire history, an entire tradition, an entire people, all in one letter. Or in the absence of one letter. I told this to Madame Maroszek and she seemed not to attach any importance to it and simply asked me if my surname meant anything. I told her I wasn’t sure, that in fact it was only half of the original surname (the second half was chopped off by an immigration officer at Ellis Island, arbitrarily), but that according to my paternal grandfather, my Lebanese grandfather, Halfon came from an ancient Hebrew word or maybe an ancient Persian word meaning he who changes his life. Madame Maroszek lit a cigarette and, exhaling a cloud of smoke, smiling slightly, whispered: Like the engineer who becomes a writer. And I smiled back and said yes, perhaps, and finished my red wine in silence, thinking that a name, any name, is that transcendent, and arbitrary, and fictitious, and that all of us, eventually, become our own fiction.
The building was a massive solid block, five stories high. The façade now looked decrepit, mildewed, all gray and ocher. Some of the windows were broken. I thought that must have been how it looked the last time my Polish grandfather saw it, in September of ’39, with German troops already marching through the city, as he and his friends played one last game of dominoes out on the street, right before they were captured.
Madame Maroszek turned the handle and opened the building’s front door as though entering her own house and, stepping aside, told me to go in.
I walked cautiously into the long dark hall. The yellow paint on the walls was scuffed and scratched. The floor, covered in garbage and wrappers and pieces of paper, was a block of bare cement that might once have been tiled. Madame Maroszek slammed the door behind me and I felt a stab of fear in my chest, but kept making my way slowly down the corridor in the semi-darkness. I passed the wooden doors of several apartments, all of them rotted and decaying. On my left was a staircase with an old wrought-iron banister, on my right a mail hutch with a pigeonhole for each apartment. I kept walking until I reached a small black door at the end of the hall, and stood motionless a few seconds. I didn’t know what to do. Madame Maroszek, walking behind me, was silent. I saw that a narrow band of light was filtering through a crack in the door. I pushed the door with both hands, and immediately we were bathed in the icy white light of an inner courtyard.
I walked out toward the center of the immense courtyard and stood there, trembling a bit. The patio was irregularly shaped. Its walls, with no paint, no coating of any kind, seemed naked. Black cables dangled everywhere, hanging from one rooftop to another and from one window to another, as if electricity had been an afterthought. It seemed that at any moment a little tune might blare from an ancient speaker announcing the arrival of a troop of Polish acrobats and trapeze artists.
Madame Maroszek hobbled toward me. She understood that although the courtyard was enormous there was no room for words, and so simply offered me a cigarette amid the damp and deathly silence. The smoke tasted bitter. I adjusted my pink coat and turned my gaze upward, toward a dense and cloudy sky and all the small windows surrounding us. I imagined, in those windows, the emaciated black-and-white faces of so many Jews staring down at me, judging me down below. I then imagined, in those windows, the black-and-white hands of so many Jews throwing down their trash and excrement, until in the center of the courtyard, a reeking mound of detritus formed around me. I imagined the black-and-white bodies of so many Jews leaping to their death from the highest windows, no longer able to bear life in the ghetto, or life at all. And suddenly I didn’t want to imagine anything else. So I simply looked down, and tossed my butt to the ground and crushed it with force, almost with rage, discovering by my foot a small gray stone. At first I thought that the stone didn’t belong there, in an inner courtyard in Łódź, but on some sunny beach with a celestial-blue sea. Then I thought that maybe it did belong there, in an inner courtyard in Łódź, like one of those stones at a Jewish cemetery left by relatives visiting the graves of their dead. Then I thought that an inner courtyard can also be a gravestone, and a whole building a mausoleum.
Crouching, I picked the small stone off the ground and clenched it tightly in my fist, wanting to feel its cold in my fist, wanting to squash it in my fist like a plum.
The cries were coming through the door.
I felt a flutter in my stomach. Maybe it was fear. Maybe it was something else. I turned to Madame Maroszek in the semi-darkness of the hallway and whispered that maybe this wasn’t the best time. She smiled, making clear my cowardice. Then she clucked her tongue and told me to ring the bell again. This time the cries abruptly ceased.
The door was opened by a woman, blonde or strawberry blonde, with pale lightly freckled skin, thirty or thirty-five years old, and wearing slippers and a flannel robe. She looked like she’d just woken up. Or perhaps she was hungover. Her expression, in any case, was not friendly.
Madame Maroszek greeted her and started to say something in Polish, probably that we were sorry to bother her, that I was the grandson of a Polish Jew, a Jew from Łódź, a Jew who’d survived, a Jew who had lived there before the war, in that old apartment, with his parents and siblings, all of whom were killed by the Germans. While she listened, the woman stared at me without discretion or sorrow, as I simply smiled like an idiot in my pink coat, wondering what the hell I was doing in this ancient building, in this strange city, standing before this poor woman who’d just woken up. Why had I come to Poland? Why this insistence on tracing my grandfather’s footsteps? What did I think I was going to learn by visiting this apartment, which probably looked nothing like it did in September of ’39? What was I really hoping to accomplish? Was I trying to get close to my grandfather, to a tradition? To rummage through the last remaining bones and fossils of a truncated family history?
I was about to interrupt Madame Maroszek and tell her that we should leave, that I no longer wanted to go inside the apartment, that I no longer wanted to bother anyone, when suddenly she took some papers from her enormous leather purse and handed them to the woman. They were photocopies from the historical archives, as she’d told me that morning, bearing the names and addresses of Jewish families in Łódź before the war, and they confirmed the address my grandfather had written on the yellow slip of paper. The woman, still standing there in the doorway, began flicking through them as if to verify the authenticity of our story, of my story. I didn’t yet dare to look behind her, into the apartment, without her permission. So instead all I did was lower my gaze, and was surprised to see, peeking out from the folds of her flannel, the shy and tearful face of a little boy.
The woman looked unconvinced. She said something in Polish that sounded to me like a refusal, and handed the papers back to Madame Maroszek. There came an awkward silence. The little boy stared up at me from the flannel robe, his brow furrowed. And just then Madame Maroszek said a few words in Polish, no more than five or six words, but they immediately changed the look on the woman’s face. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened a bit, and she quickly stood aside, inviting us in. I turned to Madame Maroszek and asked in a whisper what magic words she’d uttered, but she simply motioned with her hand to indicate that I should hurry up and get in. And crossing the threshold of the apartment, I thought fleetingly that her five or six words might have had a threatening tone, an intimidating tone. Though just as fleetingly I stopped thinking it.
Dziękuję, thank you, I said to the woman with a smile. Then I smiled at the boy, who immediately leapt from his flannel hiding place and shouted an insult in Polish and punched me softly on the thigh.
The apartment was far more modern than I’d imagined, and also much smaller. It only took us a few minutes to see it, guided and accompanied by the woman. Her son, a three- or four-year old blond boy, kept a few steps behind us the whole time, staring at me from afar, in curiosity and distrust. Perhaps plotting his next punch.
We were all standing in the living room when the woman asked in Polish about my grandfather’s parents. I told her that my great grandfather, Shmuel, born in a shtetl called Chodel, near Lublin, had been a tailor there in Łódź, and while Madame Maroszek translated I looked around the turquoise living room and tried to imagine my great-grandfather there, sitting on the horrendous turquoise sofa, a measuring tape around his neck, a felt pin-cushion strapped to his forearm, full of needles and pins. Then I told her that my great-grandmother, Masha, had been a laundrywoman, washing clothes for people in the neighborhood, and as Madame Maroszek translated I looked around at the fake decorations and tried to imagine hangers and clotheslines in among the plastic plants, and my great-grandmother hanging out rags, her face bleached-looking, her hands pale and wrinkled from all that washing. Then I told her that, based on Madame Maroszek’s research, my great grandparents had been deported to Auschwitz during the final liquidation of the ghetto, in August of ’44, where they had both died, possibly of hunger, or possibly shot to death, or possibly in the gas chamber.
As Madame Maroszek translated, I noticed the boy spying on us from a bedroom doorway. On the living room wall there was an enormous gold crucifix, a long rosary, and a silkscreened image of a monk or saint. The fluttering in my stomach intensified.
The woman said something to Madame Maroszek. She wants to know, she translated, why you wanted to see the apartment, since it’s different now, remodeled even, and it’s no longer the same apartment your grandfather lived in all those years ago. I turned to look at the woman and kept silent a few seconds. For the first time I’d have to articulate an answer, any answer. For the first time I’d have to put into words something that I myself did not understand. I don’t know, I whispered in Spanish as Madame Maroszek translated into Polish. I’ve known for years that I had to come, I said, that I had to visit my grandfather’s house here in Łódź. Without really knowing why, I said. Like a pilgrimage, I said, and immediately closed my eyes in shame, envisioning myself in a billowy white tunic, with a crown of petunias on my head, and leaning on a long walking stick as I trudged barefoot through the desert. Some images, I thought, are simply made of lead.
The blond boy let out a shriek from afar. The woman crossed her arms, pulled her robe tighter around her and smiled at me, as though embarrassed by her son’s cry. Madame Maroszek started to say something in Polish, which sounded like some form of goodbye.
Would it be possible to ask her if I could use the bathroom? I asked Madame Maroszek, interrupting her. More powerful than the urge to urinate was the need to be alone, to isolate myself from everything and everyone for a few minutes. Madame Maroszek looked slightly surprised, and seemed not to approve, but she translated the question into Polish for the woman, who extended an arm and said something as she pointed toward the end of the hall.
It struck me as I closed the door that perhaps I’d walked into the wrong bathroom. There were shelves full of women’s perfumes and creams and lotions. Women’s underwear was hanging in the shower. It looked like the woman’s personal bathroom rather than the guest bathroom. Or maybe, as is often the case in European apartments, there was only one bathroom. I wasn’t sure. Nor did I care. I raised the toilet seat and tried to urinate as neatly as I could, without splashing too much, and without thinking about the fact that it was possible that in that same spot, seventy years earlier, my grandfather had also splashed a bit.
I finished and flushed and, while washing my hands, I looked up and discovered something in the mirror that I hadn’t seen before: behind me was a small black metal locker, narrow, maybe two feet tall. The door was ajar. A tiny padlock lay on the floor. All it took was a little nudge of my knee to open it the rest of the way.
It was full of videos. Twenty, maybe thirty videos. All stacked up. All looking like they were from the eighties. And all Polish porn flicks. I smiled, feeling slightly aroused at the thought of naked women, feeling like a detective who by chance uncovers the most promising clue, or the most unpromising clue. Suddenly I became aware of voices in the hall outside and was about to close the small locker door when I glimpsed, on one of the covers, a color photo of a blonde who looked very much like the woman of the apartment. Except much younger, and much prettier, and much curvier. I got a little closer and began carefully to pull out other videos. Almost all of them had a photo of the same blonde on the cover, though in different poses and different clothes. On one: dressed as a nurse, cupping her tits. On another: she and another woman, in skimpy black bikinis, kissing and fondling each other in a bathtub. On another: on all fours, her ass aimed at the camera, her expression of ecstasy also turned to the camera. On yet another: face-up on red velvet sheets, her long legs spread wide, her hands just barely covering her sex. But was it her? Was it the woman of the apartment? The voices were getting louder out in the hall, and the boy kept shrieking, and I hurriedly picked a video, any video, either the most explicit or the most infamous or the one closest to me, and slipped it into the enormous pocket of my pink coat, telling myself that yes, maybe, it might be that in the very ghetto apartment where the Nazi’s had captured my grandfather there now lived a porn star, a faded porn star, and how then could I not masturbate later, and loud, in Polish, in her honor.
I don’t think the cafeteria even had a name. It was full of old people drinking coffee and smoking desperately and we had to stand at a crowded narrow bar. The owner — or maybe she was the only waitress — was a woman in her fifties, rather unpleasant. She served us two espressos, and for me, at Madame Maroszek’s insistence, a puff pastry with vanilla custard called karpatka. Either to perk myself up or to calm myself down, I knocked back my espresso in one swallow.
Outside, a gentle drizzle was falling. The station platforms were nearly empty. From time to time you could hear the metallic clanging of an old train arriving, an old train departing.
Madame Maroszek, ebony cane dangling from her wrist, sipped her espresso daintily. I wanted to take advantage of what little time we had left together by asking her about her parents, asking her which versions of the stories about them were true. But I thought it indiscrete, and unseemly, so instead I asked her for one last Polish cigarette. She placed her huge leather purse on the bar and took out the pack of black tobacco and we smoked our last cigarette slowly, as though in an ancient communion.
For you, she said, pulling from her purse a bundle wrapped in crème-colored Manila paper, tied with an elegant white ribbon. A little farewell gift, she added. I thanked her, taking the package, surprised and also embarrassed: it was me who should have been thanking her, me who should have been giving her gifts. Go on, open it, she ordered. I untied the ribbon and carefully removed the Manila paper, to reveal three books. Madame Maroszek took them from my hands.
Holding up the first book — a classic old tome, like one found in an antiquarian bookstore — she told me that after the war someone had found, in an abandoned house in the ghetto, an old illustrated copy similar to that one, to that same novel, Les Vrais Riches, by French writer François Coppée, whose margins contained, written in four languages — Polish, English, Yiddish, and Hebrew — the hand-written diary of a Jewish teenager from Łódź. His notes on life in the ghetto are extraordinary, Madame Maroszek said, but they only cover three months, from May fifth to August third of ’44, which was the day he was deported to Auschwitz, where he may have died in the gas chamber. No one knows for sure. No one even knows his name.
Holding up the second book — which looked like an accountant’s ledger, new, with gold lettering on a black cover — she told me that after the war, in ’61, while carrying out excavations near Auschwitz Crematorium III, workers unearthed the diary of a Jew from Łódź, written on 342 loose sheets of paper that he himself had ripped out of an accountant’s ledger very similar to that one. Each entry was written in the form of a letter that began Dear Willy, and meticulously recounted daily life in the ghetto. After having spent fifteen years underground, two thirds of the pages were illegible, but the others survived. No one knows the writer’s name, she said. No one knows who Willy was. All that’s known, from the pages that survived, from the words that survived the interment and the gas, is that the writer had a wife and three daughters.
Holding up the third book — a shabby little notebook with a black-and-white photo on the cover of a man surrounded by children, each with a Star of David stitched onto their clothes — she told me that after the war, a Jew from the Łódź ghetto named Jo Wajsblat, an Auschwitz survivor living in Paris, had published that short book, Le Témoin Imprévu, in which he’d compiled the songs that his friend Yankele Herszcowitz had written and sung during his time in the ghetto. Though a tailor by trade, she said, Yankele Herszcowitz had become a famous troubadour in the ghetto. He would stand on the streets of the ghetto, she said, on a wooden box or trash can, and for a small hand-out, a few coins, he’d sing his ballads and songs that told with humor and nostalgia of life in the ghetto, of hunger, of injustices, of suffering, of the endless deaths. (I found out later that almost thirty years after having survived the Łódź ghetto, the ovens of Auschwitz, and the concentration camp at Braunschweig, Yankele Herszcowitz, back in Łódź, committed suicide one winter night, by gassing himself.) Yankele Herszcowitz, Madame Maroszek said, used satire in his songs to say all the things that ghetto Jews weren’t allowed to say, on pain of death, and those songs became subversive hymns of resistance in the ghetto. Everyone in the ghetto knew and sang his songs, she said, but in particular one of his songs. Geto, getunya, getokhna kokhana, went the Yiddish refrain. Ghetto, little ghetto, oh ghetto my love.
Madame Maroszek handed me back the books and brought the little cup to her mouth with a theatrical air, and it struck me that never had a gift left me as euphoric or as unnerved.
I thought I heard in the distance the whistle of an enormous black steam train, while listening to Madame Maroszek’s voice as if in a dream. She was saying something about my grandfather, about my grandfather’s family, about my grandfather’s apartment, about the blonde woman who now lived in my grandfather’s apartment, but I could barely pay attention. I wanted to interrupt to ask why she’d given me such a strange gift, ask why those three books, when suddenly I thought of all her letters, all her stories, written by hand on letterhead stationery of different sizes and colors and from different hotels, and I sensed that I was on the verge of understanding or glimpsing something. Maybe this: that what mattered to Madame Maroszek was using paper and text as a place for common ground and reconciliation. Maybe this: that what mattered to Madame Maroszek was the actual paper on which people wrote their story, whether it be a loose sheet of accounting paper or letterhead stationery or a yellow slip of paper or old sheepskin parchment. Maybe this: that what mattered to Madame Maroszek wasn’t whether people wrote their story in an accounting ledger, or in the margins of a bad French novel, or on invisible music scores, or on letterhead stationery from a city’s hotels; maybe what mattered to someone like Madame Maroszek wasn’t where we write our story but that we write it. Narrate it. Leave testimony. Put our whole lives into words. Even if we have to do it on loose or stolen pages. Even if we have to get up from a last supper to go find a last slip of yellow paper. Even if we have to tell it nameless or with an invented name, written down in an enormous register. Even if we have to use little pieces of white chalk on a wall black with smoke. Even if we have to do it in the margins of some other book. Even if we have to sing it while standing on a trash can. Even if we have to kneel down and dig a hole with our hands, secretly, beside a crematorium, until we’re sure we can leave our story in the world, here in the world, buried deep in the world, before we turn to ash.
I smiled bitterly at Madame Maroszek, slipping the books into the huge pocket of my pink coat, and smoking in silence, and listening to the echo of a voice in Polish announcing the departure of a train, perhaps mine.
For more, read Electric Literature’s interview with Eduardo Halfon.