White Maria

Hanna Krall
White Maria
  • Świat Książki
    Warszawa 2011
    ISBN: 978-83-247-2453-6
    144 pages

In the 1970s Hanna Krall presented a story to the film-making duo, director Krzysztof Kieślowski and screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and they made it into a film. Thirty years later, Krall tells what the director changed and what was actually true. She tells the story on behalf of the main characters. Or else: she tells it they way they might have told it if someone had given them a voice.
Anyone who has seen Part Eight of Kieślowski’s The Decalogue knows the story: during the war a Polish woman has promised to become godmother to a little Jewish girl. The woman backs out of her promise at the last minute, because as a Christian believer she cannot bear false witness before God. The mother and daughter walk out into the street, occupied by the Germans...
Instead of the straightforward film version, Hanna Krall constructs a narrative which is organised according to proximity: each of the people who came into direct contact with the little girl and her mother is presented individually, gaining the right to be heard. Sometimes they speak in their own name, and sometimes the narrator reconstructs their history in a purely hypothetical way, relating how it might have been. The narrative jumps, passes from character to character, and changes era (the war, communist Poland, the present day) and place (Warsaw, Dęblin, Osmolice). If anything really links it all together – Jews and Poles, small village and big city, the famous Rosenthal ‘White Maria’ porcelain dinner service, and Marion, the German aristocrat who lives somewhere in the Polish provinces after the war – it is a growing absence: those who were betrayed and exterminated are gone, and those who betrayed them or helped them are also gone. All that is left are the graveyards of the past, where the remains of a former life have piled up: objects left behind by the Jews collected in museums, lists of people’s names, things scattered about houses. There is also human memory left, but as people die, it goes too.
So perhaps this book is about various stages of dispersal, about the rising intensity of disappearance: instead of complete sets of souvenirs only the remains are left; instead of a well-organised story we have a tangle of fates told out of order; and instead of authentic voices we have the narrator’s hypotheses.

- Przemysław Czapliński

Excerpt

1. THE MOTHER
Have you got a faked certificate, perhaps? you asked. (You liked to ask that sort of question. Have you got an upper-class communist? What about a magician? And have you got an anti-communist too?)
This time it was about the commandments. The eighth, you added. You’re not going to say...
And of course I had one. Just the thing for your film.
About a woman and a man, who were standing at the head of a table...
No. About a mother who was standing opposite them, some way off, because it was a long table.
Not that either. About a little girl, whom the mother is holding by the hand.
But it is about the woman and the man. Polite, friendly, middle-aged, the woman had a highland shawl around her shoulders, a flowery one, edged with tassels.
The table was covered with something white, some sort of tablecloth.
The mother refused to sit down. She gazed hesitantly at the hosts, at the couple behind the table, but it was obvious, ever more plain to see they weren’t going anywhere in a hurry.
As you know, the woman began, we are believers.
(The mother nodded. Seriously, respectfully.)
But we’d have to tell a lie.
And where, in church. Before the Lord God.
You should...
She plaited and unplaited the ends of the tassels.
You should understand us.
Her surname (a wave towards the little girl).
Her first name (another wave).
Why is she so big, why is it so late, and what about the father? What if the priest asks what about the father?
It’s all made up, all of it, and where, in church...
She was talking more and more incoherently, more and more nervously, you should...
She didn’t have to repeat it, the mother understood the first time. They were believers, they couldn’t tell a lie, there wasn’t going to be any baptismal certificate.
She said goodbye.
They went down the steps.
They stood in the street.
They stood and stood.
How long can you stand in the middle of the street? With hair that the mother had bleached that morning extremely carefully, strand after strand, and which in the light of a summer’s day was even more, even more awfully yellow than ever. Not to mention the eyes, how much can you... Come on, whispered the girl. Come on. Well, come on then.
Maybe?
Of course, you were pleased. But... you stopped talking, you took off your glasses and reached for a cigarette.
But...?
There was something else there too.
Really? What was it?
I don’t know.
There wasn’t anything else.
You started to insist: there was, it’s just that we don’t know what.
And you added the Gestapo – you and your screenwriter. Just in case. And the Home Army – the host was in the sabotage unit. The people to whom she was meant to go with that certificate were working for the Gestapo, the godparents could have been caught, and worse yet, so could the entire Home Army underground. (The information was false, no one was working for the Gestapo, but that came out too late.)
It all became clear to you.
You wrote the screenplay.
As well as the Gestapo, you added a guardian, and he was the one holding the little girl by the hand. You dispensed with the mother. You decided – you and the co-author of the screenplay – that it was evening. ‘It’s evening, it’s cold and the little girl is freezing.’
It wasn’t evening, it was daytime. There were trams, rickshaws, lots of passers-by, and that yellow hair.
There wasn’t any tea either, but never mind, you wanted tea, so let there be tea. You put the cups on the table (they were made of good porcelain, you added, though each one was different.) Drink up, the hostess encouraged the little girl.
They showed The Decalogue again, part eight. At rather a good time, straight after a concert on the beach in Rio de Janeiro.
Once again I was surprised. That God – didn’t you believe? The little girl did. I know – I knew that little girl rather well.

2. THE GODPARENTS
Read aloud.
Quid petis ab eccl... ecclesia... That’s the priest. And we say: Faith. In Polish.
What about faith?
That it’s being requested. Because his question means what is one asking of the Church of God.
Who is doing the asking?
She is, because she’s going to be baptised. Fides quid... that’s the priest. What faith gives you.
What does it give you?
Eternal life. That’s us.
So the priest only talks to her?
She’s going to be baptised, so yes, to her.
If he talks to her, let her answer him.
She can’t. Up to seven years old the godparents do the talking, as for a baby. And if the parents are dead, the godparents do the whole thing.
The whole thing?
Care, upbringing. Everything. The priest said so.
Couldn’t it be read from the page?
From memory, the priest requested. But the sacristan will prompt if there’s any need.
So the sacristan will be there too?
He has to be. Now he’ll ask her about Satan. Do you renounce the evil spirit. I do renounce him. Repeat.
I do renounce him.
And all his works?
I do renounce him.
And all his pomps? Then he baptises her. And he’ll give us candles and...
Wait a moment. What’s he like?
Who?
The sacristan. Did he ask any questions?
Why so late. Why are you only baptising her now? he wondered. I explained that the father was godless, but what about the grandfather, he asked, was he godless too? Couldn’t the mother and the grandmother have seen to the baptism?
Is that what he asked?
Yes. And the organist too. About the mother. He’ll record her in the register of baptisms. He likes boasting that he’s learned calligraphy... Do you want to hear this? We take the candles and the priest says: Receive this burning light, and keep your baptism so as to be without blame, that when the Lord shall come to the nuptials, you may meet Him... That’s nice. If we’d had children, we’d have given them a lovely baptism too... Why are you so quiet?
I’m thinking.
Thinking what?
That as parents... The father has already gone, the mother at any moment... So will we be with her for good after that?
For good. The priest said so.
Why are you quiet?
We’ll be baptising her in the sacristy, under the cross. The cross goes up to the ceiling, with the entire figure so clear to see. I looked at the face. At the feet. Is it all right to tell a lie like that before Him? She isn’t really asking the Church for faith, nor does she believe in the Church, she isn’t even saying her real name. Do you actually know what her name is?

That’s what it may have been like.
That’s how they might have talked in your film too – you only had to add the details of the occupation era. The dim light of a carbide lamp, bread and salt and a dab of oil, the darkened windows – anyway, your screenwriter knows how it’s done.
Well, never mind, there isn’t going to be another film now.


Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones