Marian Pankowski (born in 1919) has lived in Brussels since 1945. He is a novelist, poet and dramatist, the author of "subversive" literature specialising in controversial themes, taboos and hushed-up affairs. His most famous novel, Rudolf (1980), which has been translated into many languages, is the story of the friendship between an ageing Polish university professor who is a political émigré and one-time prisoner in a German concentration camp, and a slightly older German brought up on the Vistula, a former soldier in the Wehrmacht who dodged front-line action and is a homosexual. In recent years Pankowski’s linguistically innovative and morally daring prose has become the object of fascination for young Polish writers and readers. The Polish gay movement and the young literary left wing regard Pankowski as their guru. His older books are now being reissued and awarded new prizes and distinctions. For example, his concentration camp memoir, From Auschwitz to Belsen (Z Auszwicu do Belsen) was short-listed for the Nike Literary Award in 1999, and for The Angels’ Last Rally (Ostatni zlot aniołów) he won the Gdynia Literary Award in 2008.
This slim volume, There’s No Jewish Woman, is dedicated to his wife, Regina Pankowska, nee Fern, and the story of the fictional Fajga Oberlender, who escapes from a transport on its way to an extermination camp, is a version of her fortunes during the Nazi occupation. This is prose full of linguistic fireworks, of a lineage that is hard to classify in terms of genre: at times it reads like dramatised scenes fitted with a prologue and an epilogue; in it, dirge and lamentation feature alongside scenes evoked from memory and imagination, and the fictional story is interrupted by the author’s digressions. As he often has lately, Pankowski takes up the topic of the war, the occupation and the Holocaust, and does it with a writer’s typically offhand manner: “Just then the Lord God was at Castel Gandolfo, playing patience. He hadn’t the time to be at Auschwitz.” The story of what happened to Fajga during the occupation is one long stream of humiliations, proof of how alien the fate of the Poles and Jews was, but the scenes from her time in America also show how alien she is within the local Jewish society, which is incapable of understanding her wartime experiences.
- Marek Zaleski
about what happened.
“It was the end of March. The thaw. The gutters were making a nice noise. The blackbirds were calling each other. The children – I could hear them through the draughty planks of my hut – were playing their first game of hide-and-seek … As if I’d caught their carefree mood, I got up from my bed of straw,” – her face wrinkles in embarrassment – “and started to twirl, just like that, to do a sort of dance… And it came back to me how Mama used to sing… I was prancing about, humming” – carried away, she starts singing a Yiddish lullaby, Wigele; she comes to her senses and falls silent.
“What about the children?” Sara Krynitzer reminds her.
“I could hear their shouts, and when they stopped, I thought they’d gone off, gone home… but all the time they were spying on me! Through knotholes in the wood. They ran off to Marek’s mother.”
A voice off-stage, or
events describe themselves.
“Mama,” calls Marek from the doorway, “that Jewish woman who ran away, she didn’t run away at all! She’s hiding in the hut!”
“She’s singing in there,” says Jarek.
“She’s cuddling her baby, swinging and dancing…” say the voices of Ania and Manya. “You can hear a lullaby again, just as much as ever.”
“Children! What a lot of nonsense!” she flares up. “A fine story you’ve cooked up, you little fibbers! Be off with you, out of my sight!”
The children have gone outside. They turn left, where the stream is. And no one knows what’s dawning in their heads. Neither Baśka, nor her mother; only the author will hear Show-us-your-watch-Jarek shake his head and say:
“Marek… yer mum, what does she mean, we’re ‘fibbers’?! And that Jewish woman ain’t there? I saw her – what about you, Manya?”
“I saw her too.”
“Me too,” adds Ania sounding scared. Marek agrees.
“I saw her too. Tomorrow we’ll show her to Mama and Granny!” And he’ll talk to the three little Indians in such a low whisper that not even the author can hear.
As every Saturday, Baśka, in other words Marek’s mother, was doing the laundry, while Granny was going shopping. She takes a bag, but first she checks to see she’s got some money. And along comes Marek and says:
“Granny… I can go and get the bread and rolls.”
“All right, sonny,” says Granny, pleasantly surprised. “You know what kind, a half-loaf… and six rolls… Wait, here’s some money.” She hands him some zloty notes.
Off goes Marek, proud as the frontline soldier storming the enemy in the story told by Mr Bałbecki, whose noble bravery definitely led to victory in the attack he described, during the Austrian offensive in the Balkans… He walks with his head up. A little later his three fellow conspirators join him.
They all go into the bakery together. Mrs Pancake, busy splitting a loaf for two lady customers, smiles at the little gang. It’s their turn.
“So what can I get you, children?”
“Half a large loaf and six rolls, please… and also… a small challah.” And he drops his crumpled banknote on the counter.
Already on their way out the women have turned around, and one of them is shaking her head at the baker, who is also intrigued by the children’s final purchase.
“Is it for you, the challah?”
Silence, as they look at one another. But Marek has a head on his shoulders:
“We want to play at Jews, missus,” he says.
The chubby Mrs Pancake snorts with laughter, laughter that is immediately lost in the wrinkles around her mouth, around the word she has at the ready, but that at the last moment she censors.
Let’s go back to Mr and Mrs Hazenlauf’s house in Azojville. As if she has already got the better of the tumult of painful associations, Fajga calmly tells her story, as if she were reading Little Orphan Maria and the Dwarves to some sick children.
“I was woken up by those little brats running about and shouting. I get up, go over to my ‘secret’ door… draw the board aside… and there… on the compacted snow, three paces from the hut, lies a golden brown challah! My God, darling Baśka thought of giving me such a treat! A present to make me weep with gratitude! I nip out and in a quick grab I’ve got the challah. I haven’t yet taken a step towards my hideout, when from behind the hut the children lean out and go:
Dirty black like a nasty crow,
By night she steals, by day she lies low,
She poisons the well with paraffin,
She stinks like a rotten onion skin!’
“Just after that comes Baśka’s voice, not a voice but a dreadful shriek, so bad that the children go on leaning out as if bewitched.
“ ‘Get home right now! This instant!’ ” The way she’s breathing you can hear the moment when it actually occurred. She looks at her fellow guests. “When it got dark… as if nothing had happened… I got a billycan of hot soup and a slice of bread and lard… I couldn’t sleep. The children’s rhyme was pounding away in my head – they were overjoyed because they’d hunted down a hungry animal by setting a cunningly chosen bait.”
Fajga looks at the Jews from Azojville. Now a sort of sad smile runs across her face:
“Let the author tell what happened next… I wouldn’t be capable.”
The author picks up
the thread of the story.
Once the children have sat down in the kitchen, Baśka waits a while, like a judge whose mere gaze is enough to stir a sense of guilt in the defendants. And now in a voice full of unexpected sweetness she encourages them to accept her version:
“Dear children… you’ve seen a few too many films… all that running about and shouting by the poor hut… You’ve thought up a fairytale about a Jewish woman, sure. She appeared, danced, and vanished. Nothing but a bad dream! That’s enough of your silly game… Don’t forget to say your catechism because Easter’s not far off… You’ll be singing ‘He hangs on the cross’ in the children’s choir. And now… you can go and play a bit more.”
The children haven’t budged an inch. They go on sitting there. Neither the amicable tone, performed with such mastery by Baśka, nor her subtle reminder of the impending time for universal repentance have made the anticipated impression on the children. They go on sitting there. Marek’s mother has underestimated the honour of the “palefaces” accepted into the Indian tribe. Ania and Manya look inquiringly at Jarek, and straight after that at Marek. And he says:
“Mama, it’s not a fairytale... there’s a Jewish woman there, because there’s a trail! And not just one!”
“What nonsense, son!”
“Mama… when the winter was harsh... there weren’t any trails. Now the snow’s melting.”
“And it’s all coming to the surface, if you please, missus,” Jarek puts in a rough word. “There’s lots of bits of newspaper poking out of the snow… And if there’s a trail… if you please, missis… the best way to hunt the Jewish woman’d be with beaters, like my dad hunts wild pigs!”
“That’s enough! Stop it! It’s not true!”
“But Mama, it’s true…”
“It’s true, missus… and the trail… he’s not a fibber. It’s there!”
A moment’s silence. Marek slowly opens his mouth:
“Mama… you made us headdresses, so we’ll always speak the truth, like ‘noble Indian chiefs’! But now you don’t believe the Indians when they’re on the trail!”
The bang of a door shutting. Granny has had enough of being a witness to the argument between mercy and truth.
The third day came. In the morning, when the weak March sunlight had not yet fully lit up the world outside the windows, the women were no longer asleep. Granny was praying in her room, and Baśka was making delicious coffee out of roasted oats. Now she sat down. She wiped her face and her eyes, because at once they had misted over.
Someone still wasn’t asleep. Suddenly, there was Marek in the doorway, dressed! At the sight of him Baśka burst into tears! But she wept as if remembering the dawn of her girlhood, her china doll that fell onto the stone steps, her first period and the sheet, as if the Christmas turkey had been butchered on it!
Gradually Marek approaches. It’s the first time he’s gone towards someone weaker, who needs help. Who rapidly wipes her face… and hears her child say:
“Don’t cry, Mama… When you were asleep it was snowing… a short while ago. It’s white everywhere, as white as can be. It’s winter again.” He strokes her hands. “It’s going to keep on snowing… until the end of the war, you’ll see.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones