Warsaw, the summer of 1939. 6-year-old Helena lives happily with her parents, the owners of a brewery, and a fairly irresponsible nanny. The little girl's only problem is that she doesn't have any siblings, and so she is pleased to find a stray kitten one day. Although her new playmate is intelligent and knows how to talk, it eventually finds its way to a different little girl, Brygida, a factory-worker's sister. Helena's father does business with the Germans, among others (he has blood ties with them as well), but he also keeps up neighbourly relations with everyone, including the Jews. One of them works in his factory. The outbreak of the war and the anti-Semitic witch-hunt does not destroy these old friendships. And so when some friends of the family are imprisoned in the ghetto, the protagonist's family hurries to help them. Their efforts continue through the whole of the war, and not only involve the people they know. Of course, things are often dangerous and not always effective.
Helenka grows up and gradually stops letting anything astonish her. She visits the ghetto with her father, she comes in contact with death and with situations of mortal peril, she intuitively senses when there is danger afoot and disdainfully rejects the Polish demonstrations of anti-Semitism she encounters. She communicates the tragedy in her childlike manner: naively, but faithfully, without shying away from the horrible details. A magical element has been introduced into her story, however, in the form of the kitten, who leads Brygida out of the ghetto. The whole story has a post-war epilogue, in which the protagonists' further lives are presented, including a meeting between Helena and Brygida in their old age, and the death of the main protagonist.
Joanna Rudniańska has chosen a fairly seldom-used device, the presentation of the war and the Holocaust from a child's perspective. Not a Jewish child, but a Polish one, who is not directly affected by the mass annihilation, but who bears close witness to it. She is, above all, a witness of silent heroism. The child's perspective the author has taken on serves above all to make this heroism an everyday thing, to present it as a reflex of natural kindness and faith in one's convictions. The dramatic finale of the story, however, reminds us that this tale's message is directed at adult readers.
Brygida's Kitten is a book written in a simple language that is nonetheless quite evocative in its manner of expression. It is an appeal to us to recall both the tragedy, and those who did not remain indifferent to it.
- Marta Mizuro
Joanna Rudniańska (born 1948) is a mathematician by education who began by writing science-fiction stories for children. She won the international Janusz Korczak Award for her book "Year of the Dragon" for children (1991).
Helena awoke in the middle of the night. The air was stuffy and she felt bad. She heard a horrible trumpeting. And then she recalled that she was in the shelter. And that the trumpeting was the snoring of Grandma Istmanowa, who never laid down, she even spent her nights in the old armchair in the corner of the cellar. It was absolutely dark. Helena stretched out her hand. Stańcia should have been lying on the straw-stuffed mattress. But Stańcia wasn't there. Helena crawled over Stańcia's mattress on all fours and, without getting up, moved that way to the door. It was easier to move in the dark like a dog or a cat, on your hands and knees, like you had four paws. You couldn't stumble or trip, and your head was a better way of feeling for obstacles. Helena only got up when she reached the door. She slowly turned the handle and left the shelter. Only then did she hear the aeroplanes. A hollow rumble that once drew closer, once grew more remote. It was dark out here, too. Helena fell on her four paws again and climbed up some stairs to a small corridor, from which you could get out into the courtyard. She groped for the door and went outside.
Daybreak was probably near, because the sky was much brighter than the gloom down below. Not a single light was on. The moon, which had slipped behind the clouds, was bathing everything in a faint glow. Helena's house and the building next-door were black cliffs. Helena went to her mulberry tree. She could climb up it with her eyes closed. And that's what she did. She only opened her eyes when she was high up. She heard the aeroplanes. They were flying from the direction of the Vistula, four great, heavy birds. They were dropping bombs. Against the backdrop of the clouds lit up by the moon, you could clearly see the tiny packages falling from the aeroplanes' bellies. Helena grew terrified that one of those packages would fall on her, or her house. But she still stared. And the planes were coming closer. Somewhere far off, maybe as far as the Old Town, she could see a red halo. Those are incendiary bombs, don't let them fall on my house, thought Helena.
"Go away! Go Away!" she screamed at the top of her voice.
But the four aeroplanes were slowly getting closer to her courtyard, getting bigger and more terrifying. Helena looked down at her house. It seemed so small next to the tall building. And suddenly she saw someone on the roof. But the aeroplanes were already so close. Then the figure on the roof ran two steps closer. It was Stańcia, Helena recognised her. Stańcia was holding a broom. A bomb fell on the roof. Stańcia drew back and swept the bomb off the roof with one stroke. Then another one fell, and again Stańcia swept it down into the courtyard. One more bomb fell onto the sloping roof of the building and bounced straight onto the roof of Helena's house. Stańcia swept that one down too. Three red-hot bombs lay in the courtyard. The aeroplanes flew off. Stańcia appeared in the courtyard, took a shovelful of sand from the crate standing by the factory and poured it over the bombs. She stared up into the sky and went home. Helena came down from the tree. The courtyard was empty. The sky had turned almost totally bright. Helena saw her father and Kamil. They were standing on the factory roof. Kamil was smoking a cigarette. They chatted while leaning on sticks they held in their hands. Helena ran off home. She went ever-so-softly upstairs, to her room, to her bed. It was so pleasant to hug her head to her pillow and wrap herself up in her own quilt. Mama was right not to go down to the shelter at night. I'd like to do that too, thought Helena. She fell asleep immediately.
In the morning, Helena went into the kitchen just when Stańcia was boiling some milk. Stańcia was staring in suspense at the pot, because the milk was about to boil over at any moment.
"You were on the roof at night. I saw you. Next time I'm going to go on the roof and sweep the bombs too," said Helena.
Stańcia turned to Helena. And just then the milk boiled over. It hissed and poured onto the burning-hot stove rings, and the kitchen filled with an unpleasant smell.
"Oh, darn!" shouted Stańcia and removed the pot. "You must have dreamed it. Me, on the roof? What's come into your head?"
So what really happened? thought Helena. Did I dream it or didn't I? How did it really go? She was afraid to ask her father, because he could have become angry at her for leaving the shelter at night. So she asked Kamil:
"You were on the factory roof last night, right? And what were you doing there? Hitting bombs off the roof? With a stick?"
"That's right. With a hockey stick. I used to play hockey. I was good at it, but I was too short."
That's what Kamil said, but Helena didn't know if he was serious or joking.
A few days later Róża came, Mama's best friend. Helena liked her a lot. She called her by her first name, because that's how Róża liked it. Róża and Mama were the most beautiful in the world. Róża had black hair, and Mama's was gold, and together they looked like princesses from a fairy-tale. But that day Róża seemed different. She didn't even kiss Helena hello. She sat down in the kitchen and took some cigarettes from her purse.
" Róża! You never used to smoke! I always said to Dzidzi that you were my role model!" Stańcia cried.
"What happened? How come you're smoking?" asking Mama, and then took a cigarette from Róża 's pack herself.
"And why are you smoking?" Róża asked gloomily, and smoked some more.
"When did you start smoking?" Mama asked further.
"Since last Saturday. When my house burnt down."
"Oh, God! I didn't know about that either! Your home? On Wilcza Street?"
"I always slept during the air-raids," said Róża. "I hid my head under the quilt and thought the best thing to do would be to fall asleep and wake up when the raid was over. Then nothing bad would happen. There was no way I wanted to go down into the shelter, though my father yelled at me terribly."
"Oh, God! But you live on the top floor, right below the roof!"
"Not any more. I slept really soundly, but they woke me up. They shook me and yelled that it was on fire. I threw a trench-coat over my nightshirt and ran downstairs. I stood on the street and stared as the curtains in my room went up in flames. You know, the pink ones. I cried. There was a man standing next to me. It'll be all right, he said. I have one extra cigarette, have a smoke. And I smoked. First time in my life, even though Mama was right nearby. I'm an adult after all, I thought."
"Adult, phooey," snorted Stańcia.
Translated by Soren Gauger