The woman I see before me is not the one I expected at all.
Ten minutes earlier, I stood before the mirror in my hotel room, brushing some lint from the cuff of my pale blue blouse, adjusting a pearl earring. Distaste rose inside me. I had become the poster child for a woman in her early seventies—graying hair cut short and practical, pantsuit hugging my sturdy frame more snugly than it would have a year ago.
I patted the bouquet of fresh flowers on the nightstand, bright red blooms wrapped in crisp brown paper. Then I walked to the window. Hotel Wentzl, a converted sixteenth-century mansion, sat on the southwest corner of the Rynek, Kraków’s immense town square. I chose the location deliberately, made sure my room had just the right view. The square, with its concave southern corner giving it rather the appearance of a sieve, bustled with activity. Tourists thronged between the churches and the souvenir stalls of the Sukiennice, the massive, oblong cloth hall that bisected the square. Friends gathered at the outdoor cafés for an after-work drink on a warm June evening, while commuters hurried home with their parcels, eyes cast toward the clouds darkening over Wawel Castle to the south.
I had been to Kraków twice before, once right after communism fell and then again ten years later when I started my search in earnest. I was immediately won over by the hidden gem of a city. Though eclipsed by the tourist magnets of Prague and Berlin, Kraków’s Old Town, with its unscarred cathedrals and stone-carved houses restored to the original, was one of the most elegant in all of Europe.
The city changed so much each time I came, everything brighter and newer—“better” in the eyes of the locals, who had gone through many years of hardship and stalled progress. The once-gray houses had been painted vibrant yellows and blues, turning the ancient streets into a movie-set version of themselves. The locals were a study in contradictions, too: fashionably dressed young people talked on their cell phones as they walked, heedless of the mountain villagers selling wool sweaters and sheep’s cheese from tarps laid on the ground, and a scarf-clad babcia who sat on the pavement, begging for coins. Under a store window touting wi-fi and internet plans, pigeons pecked at the hard cobblestones of the market square as they had for centuries. Beneath all of the modernity and polish, the baroque architecture of the Old Town shone defiantly through, a history that would not be denied.
But it was not history that brought me here—or at least not that history.
As the trumpeter in the Mariacki Church tower began to play the Hejnał, signaling the top of the hour, I studied the northwest corner of the square, waiting for the woman to appear at five as she had every day. I did not see her and I wondered if she might not come today, in which case my trip halfway around the world would have been in vain. The first day, I wanted to make sure she was the right person. The second, I meant to speak with her but lost my nerve. Tomorrow I would fly home to America. This was my last chance.
Finally, she appeared from around the corner of a pharmacy, umbrella tucked smartly under one arm. She made her way across the square with surprising speed for a woman who was about ninety. She was not stooped; her back was straight and tall. Her white hair was pulled into a loose knot atop her head, but pieces had broken free and fanned out wildly, framing her face. In contrast to my own staid clothing, she wore a brightly colored skirt, its pattern vibrant. The shiny fabric seemed to dance around her ankles by its own accord as she walked and I could almost hear its rustling sound.
Her routine was familiar, the same as the previous two days when I watched her walk to the Café Noworolski and request the table farthest from the square, sheltered from the activity and noise by the deep arched entranceway of the building. Last time I had come to Kraków, I was still searching. Now I knew who she was and where to find her. The only thing to do was to summon my courage and go down.
The woman took a seat at her usual table in the corner, opened a newspaper. She had no idea that we were about to meet—or even that I was alive.
From the distance came a rumble of thunder. Drops began to fall then, splattering the cobblestones like dark tears. I had to hurry. If the outdoor café closed and the woman left, everything I came for would be gone.
I heard the voices of my children, telling me that it was too dangerous to travel so far alone at my age, that there was no reason, nothing more to be learned here. I should just leave and go home. It would matter to no one.
Except to me—and to her. I heard her voice in my mind as I imagined it to be, reminding me what it was that I had come for.
Steeling myself, I picked up the flowers and walked from the room.
Outside, I started across the square. Then I stopped again. Doubts reverberated through my brain. Why had I come all of this way? What was I looking for? Doggedly, I pressed onward, not feeling the large drops that splattered my clothes and hair. I reached the café, wound through the tables of patrons who were paying their checks and preparing to leave as the rain fell heavier. As I neared the table, the woman with the white hair lifted her gaze from the newspaper. Her eyes widened.
Up close now, I can see her face. I can see everything. I stand motionless, struck frozen.
The woman I see before me is not the one I expected at all.
Everything changed the day they came for the children.
I was supposed to have been in the attic crawl space of the three-story building we shared with a dozen other families in the ghetto. Mama helped me hide there each morning before she set out to join the factory work detail, leaving me with a fresh bucket as a toilet and a stern admonishment not to leave. But I grew cold and restless alone in the tiny, frigid space where I couldn’t run or move or even stand straight. The minutes stretched silently, broken only by a scratching—unseen children, years younger than me, stowed on the other side of the wall. They were kept separate from one another without space to run and play. They sent each other messages by tapping and scratching, though, like a kind of improvised Morse code. Sometimes, in my boredom, I joined in, too.
“Freedom is where you find it,” my father often said when I complained. Papa had a way of seeing the world exactly as he wanted. “The greatest prison is in our mind.” It was easy for him to say. Though he manual ghetto labor was a far cry from his professional work as an accountant before the war, at least he was out and about each day, seeing other people. Not cooped up like me. I had scarcely left our apartment building since we were forced to move six months earlier from our apartment in the Jewish Quarter near the city center to the Podgórze neighborhood where the ghetto had been established on the southern bank of the river. I wanted a normal life, my life, free to run beyond the walls of the ghetto to all of the places I had once known and taken for granted. I imagined taking the tram to the shops on the Rynek or to the kino to see a film, exploring the ancient grassy mounds on the outskirts of the city. I wished that at least my best friend, Stefania, was one of the others hidden nearby. Instead, she lived in a separate apartment on the other side of the ghetto designated for the families of the Jewish police.
It wasn’t boredom or loneliness that had driven me from my hiding place this time, though, but hunger. I had always had a big appetite and this morning’s breakfast ration had been a half slice of bread, even less than usual. Mama had offered me her portion, but I knew she needed her strength for the long day ahead on the labor detail.
As the morning wore on in my hiding place, my empty belly had begun to ache. Visions pushed into my mind uninvited of the foods we ate before the war: rich mushroom soup and savory borscht, and pierogi, the plump, rich dumplings my grandmother used to make. By midmorning, I felt so weak from hunger that I had ventured out of my hiding place and down to the shared kitchen on the ground floor, which was really nothing more than a lone working stove burner and a sink that dripped tepid brown water. I didn’t go to take food—even if there had been any, I would never steal. Rather, I wanted to see if there were any crumbs left in the cupboard and to fill my stomach with a glass of water.
I stayed in the kitchen longer than I should, reading the dog-eared copy of the book I’d brought with me. The thing I detested most about my hiding place in the attic was the fact that it was too dark for reading. I had always loved to read and Papa had carried as many books as he could from our apartment to the ghetto, over the protests of my mother, who said we needed the space in our bags for clothes and food. It was my father who had nurtured my love of learning and encouraged my dream of studying medicine at Jagiellonian University before the German laws made that impossible, first by banning Jews and later by closing the university altogether. Even in the ghetto at the end of his long, hard days of labor, Papa loved to teach and discuss ideas with me. He had somehow found me a new book a few days earlier, too, The Count of Monte Cristo. But the hiding place in the attic was too dark for me to read and there was scarcely any time in the evening before curfew and lights-out. Just a bit longer, I told myself, turning the page in the kitchen. A few minutes wouldn’t matter at all.
I had just finished licking the dirty bread knife when I heard heavy tires screeching, followed by barking voices. I froze, nearly dropping my book. The SS and Gestapo were outside, flanked by the vile Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst, Jewish Ghetto Police, who did their bidding. It was an aktion, the sudden unannounced arrest of large groups of Jews to be taken from the ghetto to camps. The very reason I was meant to be hiding in the first place. I raced from the kitchen, across the hall and up the stairs. From below came a great crash as the front door to the apartment building splintered and the police burst through. There was no way I could make it back to the attic in time.
Instead, I raced to our third-floor apartment. My heart pounded as I looked around desperately, wishing for an armoire or other cabinet suitable for hiding in the tiny room, which was nearly bare except for a dresser and bed. There were other places, I knew, like the fake plaster wall one of the other families had constructed in the adjacent building not a week earlier. That was too far away now, impossible to reach. My eyes focused on the large steamer trunk stowed at the foot of my parents’ bed. Mama had shown me how to hide there once shortly after we first moved to the ghetto. We practiced it like a game, Mama opening the trunk so that I could climb in before she closed the lid.
The trunk was a terrible hiding place, exposed and in the middle of the room. But there was simply nowhere else. I had to try. I raced over to the bed and climbed into the trunk, then closed the lid with effort. I thanked heavens that I was tiny like Mama. I had always hated being so petite, which made me look a solid two years younger than I actually was. Now it seemed a blessing, as did the sad fact that the months of meager ghetto rations had made me thinner. I still fit in the trunk.
When we had rehearsed, we had envisioned Mama putting a blanket or some clothes over the top of the trunk. Of course, I couldn’t do that myself. So the trunk sat unmasked for anyone who walked into the room to see and open. I curled into a tiny ball and wrapped my arms around myself, feeling the white armband with the blue star on my sleeve that all Jews were required to wear.
There came a great crashing from the next building, the sound of plaster being hewn by a hammer or ax. The police had found the hiding place behind the wall, given away by the too-fresh paint. An unfamiliar cry rang out as a child was found and dragged from his hiding place. If I had gone there, I would have been caught as well.
Someone neared the door to the apartment and flung it open. My heart seized. I could hear breathing, feel eyes searching the room. I’m sorry, Mama, I thought, feeling her reproach for having left the attic. I braced myself for discovery. Would they go easier on me if I came out and gave myself up? The footsteps grew fainter as the German continued down the hall, stopping before each door, searching.
The war had come to Kraków one warm fall day two and a half years earlier when the air-raid sirens rang out for the first time and sent the playing children scurrying from the street. Life got hard before it got bad. Food disappeared and we waited in long lines for the most basic supplies. Once there was no bread for a whole week.
Then about a year ago, upon orders from the General Government, Jews teemed into Kraków by the thousands from the small towns and villages, dazed and carrying their belongings on their backs. At first I wondered how they would all find places to stay in Kazimierz, the already cramped Jewish Quarter of the city. But the new arrivals were forced to live by decree in a crowded section of the industrial Podgórze district on the far side of the river that had been cordoned off with a high wall. Mama worked with the Gmina, the local Jewish community organization, to help them resettle, and we often had friends of friends over for a meal when they first arrived, before they went to the ghetto for good. They told stories from their hometowns too awful to believe and Mama shooed me from the room so I would not hear.
Several months after the ghetto was created, we were ordered to move there as well. When Papa told me, I couldn’t believe it. We were not refugees, but residents of Kraków; we had lived in our apartment on Meiselsa Street my entire life. It was the perfect location: on the edge of the Jewish Quarter but easy walking distance to the sights and sounds of the city center and close enough to Papa’s office on Stradomska Street that he could come home for lunch. Our apartment was above an adjacent café where a pianist played every evening. Sometimes the music spilled over and Papa would whirl Mama around the kitchen to the faint strains. But according to the orders, Jews were Jews. One day. One suitcase each. And the world I had known my entire life disappeared forever.
I peered out of the thin slit opening of the trunk, trying to see across the tiny room I shared with my parents. We were lucky, I knew, to have a whole room to ourselves, a privilege we had been given because my father was a labor foreman. Others were forced to share an apartment, often two or three families together. Still, the space felt cramped compared to our real home. We were ever on top of one another, the sights and sounds and smells of daily living magnified.
“Kinder, raus!” the police called over and over again now as they patrolled the halls. Children, out. It was not the first time the Germans had come for children during the day, knowing that their parents would be at work.
But I was no longer a child. I was eighteen and might have joined the work details like others my age and some several years younger. I could see them lining up for roll call each morning before trudging to one of the factories. And I wanted to work, even though I could tell from the slow, painful way my father now walked, stooped like an old man, and how Mama’s hands were split and bleeding that it was hard and awful. Work meant a chance to get out and see and talk to people. My hiding was a subject of much debate between my parents. Papa thought I should work. Labor cards were highly prized in the ghetto. Workers were valued and less likely to be deported to one of the camps. But Mama, who seldom fought my father on anything, had forbidden it. “She doesn’t look her age. The work is too hard. She is safest out of sight.” I wondered as I hid now, about to be discovered at any second, if she would still think she was right.
The building finally went silent, the last of the awful footsteps receding. Still I didn’t move. That was one of the ways they trapped people who were hiding, by pretending to go away and lying in wait when they came out. I remained motionless, not daring to leave my hiding place. My limbs ached, then went numb. I had no idea how much time had passed. Through the slit, I could see that the room had grown dimmer, as if the sun had lowered a bit.
Sometime later, there were footsteps again, this time a shuffling sound as the laborers trudged back silent and exhausted from their day. I tried to uncurl myself from the trunk. But my muscles were stiff and sore and my movements slow. Before I could get out, the door to our apartment flung open and someone ran into the room with steps light and fluttering. “Sadie!” It was Mama, sounding hysterical.
“Jestem tutaj,” I called. I am here. Now that she was home, she could help me untangle myself and get out. But my voice was muffled by the trunk. When I tried to undo the latch, it stuck.
Mama raced from the room back into the corridor. I could hear her open the door to the attic, then run up the stairs, still searching for me. “Sadie!” she called. Then, “My child, my child,” over and over again as she searched but did not find me, her voice rising to a shriek. She thought I was gone.
“Mama!” I yelled. She was too far away to hear me, though, and her own cries were too loud. Desperately, I struggled once more to free myself from the trunk without success. Mama raced back into the room, still wailing. I heard the scraping sound of a window opening and felt a whoosh of cold air. At last I threw myself against the lid of the trunk, slamming my shoulder so hard it throbbed. The latch sprang open.
I broke free and stood up quickly. “Mama?” She was standing in the oddest position, with one foot on the window ledge, her willowy frame silhouetted against the frigid twilight sky. “What are you doing?” For a second, I thought she was looking for me outside. But her face was twisted with grief and pain. I knew then why Mama was on the window ledge. She assumed I had been taken along with the other children. And she didn’t want to live. If I hadn’t freed myself from the trunk in time, Mama would have jumped. I was her only child, her whole world. She was prepared to kill herself before she would go on without me.
A chill ran through me as I sprinted toward her. “I’m here, I’m here.” She wobbled unsteadily on the window ledge and I grabbed her arm to stop her from falling. Remorse ripped through me. I always wanted to please her, to bring that hard-won smile to her beautiful face. Now I had caused her so much pain she’d almost done the unthinkable.
“I was so worried,” she said after I’d helped her down and closed the window. As if that explained everything. “You weren’t in the attic.”
“But, Mama, I hid where you told me to.” I gestured to the trunk. “The other place, remember? Why didn’t you look for me there?”
Mama looked puzzled. “I didn’t think you would fit anymore.” There was a pause and then we both began laughing, the sound scratchy and out of place in the pitiful room. For a few seconds, it was like we were back in our old apartment on Meiselsa Street and none of this had happened at all. If we could still laugh, surely things would be all right. I clung to this last improbable thought like a life preserver at sea.
But a cry echoed through the building, then another, silencing our laughter. It was the mothers of the other children who had been taken by the police. There came a thud outside. I started for the window, but my mother blocked me. “Look away,” she ordered. It was too late. I glimpsed Helga Kolberg, who lived down the hall, lying motionless in the coal-tinged snow on the pavement below, her limbs cast at odd angles and skirt splayed around her like a fan. She had realized her children were gone and, like Mama, she didn’t want to live without them. I wondered whether jumping was a shared instinct, or if they had discussed it, a kind of suicide pact in case their worst nightmares came true.
My father raced into the room then. Neither Mama nor I said a word, but I could tell from his unusually grim expression that he already knew about the aktion and what had happened to the other families. He simply walked over and wrapped his enormous arms around both of us, hugging us tighter than usual.
As we sat, silent and still, I looked up at my parents. Mama was a striking beauty—thin and graceful, with white-blond hair the color of a Nordic princess’. She looked nothing like the other Jewish women and I had heard whispers more than once that she didn’t come from here. She might have walked away from the ghetto and lived as a non-Jew if it wasn’t for us. But I was built like Papa, with the dark, curly hair and olive skin that made the fact that we were Jews undeniable. My father looked like the laborer the Germans had made him in the ghetto, broad-shouldered and ready to lift great pipes or slabs of concrete. In fact, he was an accountant—or had been until it became illegal for his firm to employ him anymore. I always wanted to please Mama, but it was Papa who was my ally, keeper of secrets and weaver of dreams, who stayed up too late whispering secrets in the dark and had roamed the city with me, hunting for treasure. I moved closer now, trying to lose myself in the safety of his embrace.
Still, Papa’s arms could offer little shelter from the fact that everything was changing. The ghetto, despite its awful conditions, had once seemed relatively safe. We were living among Jews and the Germans had even appointed a Jewish council, the Judenrat, to run our daily affairs. Perhaps if we laid low and did as we were told, Papa said more than once, the Germans would leave us alone inside these walls until the war was over. That had been the hope. But after today, I wasn’t so sure. I looked around the apartment, seized with equal parts disgust and fear. In the beginning, I had not wanted to be here; now I was terrified we would be forced to leave.
“We have to do something,” Mama burst out, her voice a pitch higher than usual as it echoed my unspoken thoughts.
“I’ll take her tomorrow and register her for a work permit,” Papa said. This time Mama did not argue. Before the war, being a child had been a good thing. But now being useful and able to work was the only thing that might save us.
Mama was talking about more than a work visa, though. “They are going to come again and next time we won’t be so lucky.” She did not bother to hold back her words for my benefit now. I nodded in silent agreement. Things were changing, a voice inside me said. We could not stay here forever.
“It will be okay, kochana,” Papa soothed. How could he possibly say that? But Mama laid her head on his shoulder, seeming to trust him as she always had. I wanted to believe it, too. “I will think of something. At least,” Papa added as we huddled close, “we are all still together.” The words echoed through the room, equal parts promise and prayer.
The early summer evening was warm as I crossed the market square, weaving my way around the fragrant flower stalls that stood in the shadow of the Cloth Hall, displaying bright, fresh blooms that few had the money or inclination to buy. The outdoor cafés, not bustling as they once would have been on such a pleasant evening, were still open and doing a brisk business serving beer to German soldiers and the few foolhardy others who dared join them. If one didn’t look too closely, it might seem that nothing had changed at all.
Of course, everything had changed. Kraków had been a city under occupation for nearly three years. Red flags with black swastikas at the center hung from the Sukiennice, the long yellow cloth hall that ran down the middle of the square, as well as the brick tower of the Ratusz, or town hall. The Rynek had been renamed Adolf-Hitler-Platz and the centuries-old Polish street names changed to Reichsstrasse and Wehrmachtstrasse, and so on. Hitler had designated Kraków as the seat of the General Government and the city was choked thick with SS and other German soldiers, jackbooted thugs who walked down the sidewalk three and four wide, forcing all other pedestrians off their path and harassing ordinary Poles at will. At the corner a boy in short pants sold the Krakauer Zeitung, the German propaganda paper that had replaced our own newspaper. “Under the Tail,” people called it in irreverent whispers, implying that it was only useful for wiping one’s backside.
Despite the awfulness of the changes, it still felt good to be out and have the sunshine warm my face and to stretch my legs on such a beautiful evening. I had walked the streets of the Old Town every day I could remember of my nineteen years, first with my father as a child and later on my own. Its features were the topography of my life, from the medieval Barbican fortress and gate at the end of Floriańska Street to Wawel Castle seated high atop a hill overlooking the Wisła River. Walking, it seemed, was the one thing that neither time nor war could take from me.
I did not stop at the cafés, though. Once I might have sat with my friends, laughing and talking as the sun set and the lights went on for evening, sending pools of yellow cascading against the pavement. But there were no nighttime lights now—everything was dimmed per German decree to disguise the city against a possible air raid. And no one I knew made plans to meet anymore either. People were going out less, I reminded myself often as the invitations that had once been plentiful dwindled to nothing. Few could purchase enough food with ration cards to entertain at home either. Everyone was too caught up in their own survival, and company was a luxury we could ill afford.
Still, I felt a pang of loneliness. My life was so quiet with Krys away and I would have liked to sit and talk with friends my own age. Brushing the feeling aside, I circled the square once more studying the shop windows, which displayed fashions and other wares almost no one could afford anymore. Anything to delay going back to the house where I lived with my stepmother.
But it was foolish to stay on the street much longer. The Germans were known to stop people for questioning and inspection with increasing frequency as night fell and the curfew drew closer. I left the square and started down the grand thoroughfare of Grodzka Street toward the house just steps from the city center where I had lived my entire life. Then I turned onto Kanonicza Street, an ancient and winding way paved with cobblestones that had been smoothed by time. Despite the fact that I dreaded encountering my stepmother, Ana Lucia, the wide town house we shared was still a welcome sight. With its bright yellow façade and well-tended flower boxes in the windows, it was nicer than anything the Germans thought a Pole deserved. Under other circumstances it surely would have been confiscated for a Nazi officer.
As I stood in front of the house, memories of my family danced before my eyes. The visions of my mother, who had died of influenza when I was a toddler, were the least clear. I was the youngest of four children and had been jealous of my siblings, who had so many years with our mother, whom I had scarcely known at all. My sisters were both married, one to an attorney in Warsaw and the other to a boat captain in Gdańsk.
It was my brother, Maciej, closest to me in age, whom I missed the most. Though he was eight years older, he had always taken time to play and talk with me. He was different than the others. He had no interest in marriage, nor the career choices my father had wanted for him. So at seventeen, he fled to Paris, where he lived with a man named Phillipe. Of course, Maciej had not escaped the long arm of the Nazis. They controlled Paris now, too, darkening what he had once called the City of Light. But his letters remained upbeat and I hoped that things were at least a bit better there.
For years after my siblings left, it was just me and my father, whom I had always called Tata. Then he began making trips to Vienna for his printing business more often than he had. One day, he returned with Ana Lucia, whom he had married without telling me. I knew the first time I met Ana Lucia that I would hate her. She was wearing a thick fur coat with the head of the animal still attached around the collar. The poor thing’s eyes stared at me piteously, filled with recrimination. A whiff of her too-heavy jasmine scent filled my nose as she air-kissed my cheek, her breath an almost hiss. I could tell from the cold way she appraised me upon our first meeting that I was not wanted, like furniture that someone else had picked out, which she was stuck with because it came with the house.
When the war broke out, Tata decided to renew his army commission. At his age, he certainly did not have to go. But he served out of a sense of duty, not just to country but to the young soldiers, barely more than boys, some of whom had not been born the last time Poland went to war.
The telegram had come swiftly: missing, presumed dead on the Eastern Front. My eyes stung now as I thought of Tata, the pain as fresh as the day we had learned the news. Sometimes I dreamed that he had been captured and would return to us after the war. Other times, I was angry: how could he have gone and left me alone with Ana Lucia? She was like the evil stepmother in some childhood story, only worse because she was real.
I reached the arched oak doorway of our house, started to turn the brass knob. Then hearing boisterous voices inside, I stopped. Ana Lucia was entertaining again.
My stepmother’s parties were always loud. “Soirees,” she called them, making them sound grander than they were. They seemed to consist of whatever decent food could be found these days, paired with several bottles of wine from my father’s dwindling cellar and some vodka from the freezer, watered down liberally to make it stretch. Before the war, I might have joined her parties, which were filled with artists and musicians and intellectuals. I loved to listen to their spirited debates, arguing ideas long into the night. But those people were all gone now, having fled to Switzerland or England if they were able, the less lucky ones arrested and sent away. They had been replaced by guests of the worst sort—Germans, the higher ranking, the better. Ana Lucia was nothing if not a pragmatist. She had recognized early on in the war the need to make our captors into friends. The table was filled every weekend now with thick-necked brutes who fouled our house with cigar smoke and soiled our carpets with mud-stained boots they did not bother to wipe at the door.
At first, Ana Lucia claimed that she was fraternizing with the Germans to get information about my father. That was in the early days, when we still hoped he might be imprisoned or missing in action. But then we received word he had been killed and she continued to socialize with the Germans more than ever before. It was as if, freed from the pretense of marriage, she could be exactly as awful as she wanted to be.
Of course, I did not dare to confront my stepmother about her shameful actions. Since my father was declared dead and had not prepared a will, the house and all of his money would legally go into her name. She would happily cast me out if I made trouble, replace the furniture she had never wanted in the first place. I would have nothing. So I treaded lightly. Ana Lucia liked to remind me often that it was thanks to her good graces with the Germans that we remained in our fine house with enough food to eat and the proper stamps on our Kennkarten to enable us to move freely about the city.
I stepped away from the front door. From the pavement, I looked sadly through the front window of our house at the familiar crystal glasses and china. But I did not see the horrid strangers who now enjoyed our things. Instead, the visions in my mind were of my family: me wanting to play dolls with my much older sisters, my mother scolding Maciej that he would break things as he chased me around the table. When you are young, you expect the family you were born into to be yours forever. Time and war had made that not the case.
Dreading Ana Lucia’s company more than the curfew, I turned away from the house and started walking again. I was not sure where I was headed. It was almost dark and the parks were off-limits to ordinary Poles, as were most of the better cafés, the restaurants and movie theaters, too. My indecision in the moment seemed to reflect my larger life, caught in a kind of no-man’s-land. I had nowhere to go, and no one to go with. Living in occupied Kraków, I felt like a pet bird, able to fly just the tiniest bit, but always mindful of being trapped in a larger cage.
It might not have been like this if Krys was still here, I reflected as I started back in the direction of the Rynek. I imagined a different world where the war had not forced him to leave. We would be planning a wedding, maybe even married by now.
Krys and I had met by happenstance nearly two years before the war broke out when my friends and I had stopped off for a coffee at a courtyard café where he was making a delivery. Tall and broad-shouldered, he cut a dashing figure as he strode through the passageway carrying a large crate. He had rugged features, which appeared to be cut from stone, and a leonine gaze that seemed to hold the entire room. When he passed our table, an onion fell from the crate he was carrying and rolled close to me. He knelt to retrieve it, and looked up at me and smiled. “I’m at your feet.” I sometimes wondered if he had dropped the vegetable deliberately or if it was fate that sent it spinning in my direction.
He invited me out for that very night. I should have said no; it was not proper to accept a date on such short notice. But I was intrigued and, after a few hours at dinner, smitten. It was not just looks that drew me to him. Krys was different from anyone I had ever met. He had an energy that seemed to fill the room and make anyone else present fade away. Though he came from a working-class family and had not finished high school, much less gone to college, he was self-taught. He had bold ideas about the future and how the world should be that made him seem so much bigger than everything else around us. He was the smartest person I had ever known. And he listened to my opinions in a way that nobody had.
We began spending all of our free time together. We were an unlikely couple—I was sociable and liked parties and friends. He was a loner who shunned crowds and preferred deep conversations while taking long walks. Krys loved nature and showed me places of rare beauty outside the city, ancient forests and castle ruins buried deep in the woods that I had not known existed.
One evening, a few weeks after we had met, we were walking along the high ridge of St. Bronisława Hill, a hill just outside the city, heatedly debating a point about French philosophers, when I noticed him watching me intensely. “What is it?”
“When we met, I expected you to be like the other girls,” he said. “Interested in superficial things.” Though I might have been offended, I knew what he meant. My friends seemed largely interested in parties and plays and the latest fashions. “Instead, I found you another way entirely.” We were soon spending all of our free time together, making plans to marry and travel and see the world.
Of course, the war changed all of that. Krys was not conscripted, but like my father, signed up to go and fight from the start. He had always cared too much about everything and the war was no exception. I pointed out that if he just waited it might be all over before he had to go, but Krys would not be swayed. Worse yet, he had ended things with me before leaving. “We don’t know how long I will be gone.” Or if you will return, I thought, the notion so awful that neither of us could bear to voice it. “You should be free to meet someone else.” That was a joke. Even if there had been young men left in Kraków, I would have had no interest. I argued with more force than my pride now liked to admit that we should not break up, but rather get engaged or even married before he left as so many others had done. I wanted at least that piece of him, to have shared that bond, if something happened. But Krys wanted to wait, and when he saw things a certain way, there was nothing in the world that could convince him. We spent the last night together, becoming more intimate than we should have because there might not be another chance for a long time, or maybe ever. I left tearfully in the predawn hours, sneaking into the house before my stepmother could notice I was missing.
Even though Krys and I were no longer really together, I still loved him. He had broken up with me only because he thought it was in my best interests. I felt certain that when the war was over and he returned safely, we would reunite and things would be as they were. Then the Polish Army was quickly defeated, overrun by the German tanks and artillery. Many of the men who had gone off to fight returned, wounded and downtrodden. I assumed that Krys would do the same. But he did not come back. His letters, which had already grown less frequent and more distant in tone, stopped coming altogether. Where was he? I wondered constantly. Surely I would have heard from his parents if he had been arrested or worse. No, Krys was still out there, I told myself doggedly. The war had simply disrupted the mail. And as soon as he could, Krys would return to me.
In the distance, the bells of the Mariacki church rang out, signaling seven o’clock. Instinctively, I waited for the trumpeter to play the Hejnał as he had every hour for most of my life. But the trumpeter’s song, a medieval rallying cry that recalled how Poland had once repelled invading hordes, had been largely silenced by the Germans, who now allowed it to play only twice per day. I recrossed the market square, considering whether it was worth stopping for a coffee to pass the time. As I drew close to one of the cafés, a German soldier seated with two others looked up at me with interest, his intent unmistakable. No good would come from sitting down there. I moved on quickly.
As I neared the Sukiennice, I spotted two familiar figures, walking arm in arm and peering into a shop window. I started toward them. “Good evening.”
“Oh, hello.” Magda, the brunette, peered out from beneath a straw hat that was two years out of fashion. Magda had been one of my closest friends before the war. But I had not seen her or heard from her in months. She did not meet my eyes.
At her side was Klara, a shallow girl for whom I had never much cared. She sported a blond pageboy haircut and eyebrows that were tweezed too high, giving her a look of perpetual surprise. “We were just doing some shopping and are going to stop for a bite to eat,” she informed me smugly.
And they had not invited me. “I would have enjoyed that,” I ventured carefully in Magda’s direction. Despite the fact that we had not spoken recently, some part of me still hoped that my old friend would have thought of me—and invited me to join her.
Magda did not answer. But Klara, who had always been jealous of my closeness to Magda, did not mince words. “We didn’t call. We thought you would be busy with your stepmother’s new friends.” My cheeks stung as though I had been slapped. For months, I had told myself that my friends were no longer getting together. The truth was that they were no longer getting together with me. I knew then that the disappearance of my friends had nothing to do with the hardships of the war. They had shunned me because Ana Lucia was a collaborator—and perhaps they even believed that I was, too.
I cleared my throat. “I don’t associate with the same people as my stepmother,” I replied slowly, struggling to keep my voice even. Neither Klara nor Magda said anything further and there was an awkward moment of silence among us.
I lifted my chin. “It’s no matter,” I said, attempting to brush off the rejection. “I’ve been busy. There’s just so much I need to get done before Krys gets back.” I had not told my friends that Krys and I had ended our relationship. It was not just the fact that we seldom saw each other or that I was embarrassed. Rather, saying it aloud would force me to admit it to myself, make it real. “He’ll be back soon and then we can plan our wedding.”
“Yes, of course he will,” Magda offered, and I felt a twinge of guilt as I remembered her own fiancé, Albert, who had been taken by the Germans when they raided the university and arrested all of the professors. He had never returned.
“Well, we must be going,” Klara said. “We have a reservation at seven thirty.” For a split second I wished that for all of their rudeness, they might still invite me to join them. Some pathetic part of me would have swallowed my pride and said yes for a few hours of company.
But they did not. “Goodbye, then,” Klara said coldly. She took Magda’s arm and led her away, their laughter carrying back across the square with the wind. Their heads were tilted conspiratorially toward one another and I felt certain they were talking about me.
Never mind, I told myself, pushing the rejection away. I drew my sweater closer against the summer breeze, which now carried an ominous chill. Krys would be back soon and we would get engaged. We would pick up right where we had left off and it would be as if this terrible intermission never happened at all.
Copyright © 2021 by Pam Jenoff
The Woman with the Blue Star by Pam Jenoff
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Girls of Paris comes a riveting tale of unfathomable sacrifice and unlikely friendship during World War II.
Inspired by harrowing true stories, The Woman with the Blue Star is an emotional testament to the power of friendship and the extraordinary strength of the human will to survive.
Pre-order your copy today!