This book from a small publisher has gained considerable popularity and brought the author a prestigious prize from the monthly magazine Polityka.
The plot is fairly insubstantial, because all it contains is the description of a one-day visit to a boarding house in a summer holiday place outside Warsaw by a young man who as a small boy often spent time there with his granny, and now encounters several greatly aged guests who remember him as a child. But it is no ordinary boarding house: the residents are Jews who survived the Holocaust, and so everything that occurs here is like a dream about the past, a summoning-up of ghosts, a resurrection of not just people but also events, debates and ideological arguments from long ago. Thus the plot only appears to be simple, but in fact it is set on several time scales and is bursting with typically Jewish anecdotes and parables, because its heroes thrive on the past, which meets up with the present in a sort of concurrent time. Exactly how the old people see the past, like something so close as to be within reach, but also distorted by obsessions or gaps in memory; they are the last living witnesses to the pre-war world of the Polish Jews. The author shows in what form Jewish tradition exists in Poland today. The book has an unusual atmosphere full of warmth and gentle irony, draws sensually rich images, and at the same time shows the diversity of the Jewish heritage: we see it on the one hand as a dialogue between different fates, and on the other as an endless dispute about the ultimate questions, about the existence or non-existence of God, and about the tasks facing the Jews. This dispute permeates the everyday world and blends with it in a comical way, but gives it meaning even when it is going through drastic changes, and most of the people taking part in the argument are dying. At that point it is taken up by the survivors, who resurrect the dead as partners in the debate.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Piotr Paziński (born 1973) belongs to the “third post-Holocaust generation” and is editor-in-chief of the monthly Midrasz.
I wanted to hear the rattle of shutters and the scrape of windows opening, offering the hope that my neighbours had dropped their vigilance and were willing to show themselves on one of the surplus of balconies, but nothing of the kind occurred, although I waited until noon, savouring the view of the pine trees rusting in the wind.
No one came out, the garden was empty and the windows were shut. Perhaps they had all hidden in the dining hall or the day room, like in the old days, clustered around the broken telly, under the mural depicting the history of the Jews? Maybe that was the place to look for them? And if not there, then where?
In those days it was easy, because there would be a non-stop din in the corridors from first light onwards. Long before breakfast, before they’d got around to burning the porridge in the kitchen, all over the house, everywhere, doors would crash, footsteps thumped and the wooden floor creaked. Mr Abram used to go outside with Mr Chaim to light up the first cigarette of the day. Mrs Hanka would complain that her bones were aching, and screech away at Granny about her sleepless night. Mrs Tecia would be off to fetch the paper. And Mr Leon, wearing a short bathrobe and holding a striped towel, a ginormous brush and a glass for rinsing his teeth, would be rushing to the bathroom to take his health-giving, Siberian, ice-cold shower in peace. Then he and Dr Kahn would do their morning gymnastics. One, two, one two! Dr Kahn used to wave his arms to set the pace. Three, four! Mr Leon’s old back would creak in reply. Bend five times, straighten five times, two semi-squats, and a few neck turns to right and left. One, two, three, four five!
The boarding house would be filled with their shouts, growing and brightening as the daylight poured inside from all directions. People would gather in circles by the stairs, on the landing, keenly debating, then they would split up and form new groupings, until they reached the ground floor, where they could sit down comfortably in the beetroot-red armchairs and wait until the dining hall opened. From behind the door came a merry clatter of plates. Through a chink I could see them setting shiny soda water siphons on the little tables, waitresses entering the hall with soup tureens and bowls of cottage cheese and chives. I loved this time when we all sat together under the portraits of the Yiddish classics and started our breakfast. This was our family of adopted uncles and aunties, different from the families immortalised in the group portraits. But I don’t even have a single photo of Mr Leon or Mr Abram. And if they were suddenly to pop up in front of me, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell them apart.
I can’t remember much more – sometimes almost nothing. My past lies deep inside me, but whenever I try to reach it, I come up against a hollowed-out void, as if I’d been born yesterday, and everything that happened earlier were just a jumble of shadowy images, decaying and scattering into the specks of atoms Mr Leon used to talk about. The throng of these images creates an illusion of memory, and in the same way as a multitude of photographs becomes a substitute for life. I head after them, I seek them out in the dust between the cobblestones on a familiar street and in gaps in the floor. Maybe some enfeebled particles of the old days still survive somewhere, intoxicating and revolting all at once, like the smell of gum Arabic preserved in the crannies of a drawer? And nowadays I know it is from there, from that dining hall that I get my constant feeling of living on an island, of being inadequate or not fitting in. And that the pessimistic awareness that everything passes, is old and devoid of any chance to continue, doomed to become eccentric, degenerated and coated in a rime of grey, stretches its roots right down to that time, when I used to watch Dr Kamińska and Mr Chaim as they took short, laborious steps at the end of the woodland avenue.
Now as I passed the row of doors in the corridor, there they were, one after another, standing to attention like nurses setting off to war, their faces shining with solid layers of oil paint. But there were no number plates, although they were still there when I used to walk past in the evenings, and there would be a draught coming through the open door onto the upper terrace, where I used to meet Mr Jakub, and where Mr Chaim resided, and in summer when it was fine Dr Kahn used to play chess with Mr Abram.
Breakfast time was long over. Or maybe it was dinner time? Could they have eaten without me? No one had rung the bell. I hadn’t rung it either. I’m not little any more. It was the final privilege of the youngest guests, of whom there aren’t any here now. But is there anyone still left here? Mr Jakub? And the manager. I can’t hear the clatter of his typewriter, which means he hasn’t reached his office yet. At times he resembles Mr Abram and his diary, especially when he is writing out invoices in his tiny script. Our trusty chronicler – he sits alone and scribbles away, filing index cards and drawing up reports – there will be a stack of useless documents left after him. Doesn’t one of the stained-glass panels hang in the corner of his office? A blue Benjamin, the ravenous wolf, the beloved of the Lord. He dwells in safety by Him, Who shelters him all the day long.
The silence in the hall rang out with a groan. As I approached, an echo from the stairs carried the sound of voices in the dining hall. The manager must have gone back to that lot, to finish off his argument with Mr Jakub. Our historical argument, the one we’ve been conducting since the time of Moses, or maybe since Adam himself. As Mr Abram used to argue with Mr Leon. And Mr Chaim, who always presented every issue from one side as well as the other, carrying on those conversations of his about the exodus from Egypt, and about those who had remained in Warsaw, who had stayed and who had left. We are always leaving some place, never to return, but the difference lies in the fact that if no one had left on that occasion, there wouldn’t be any of us at all. I could never understand this gloomy, ruthless logic – for years on end the unavoidability of that choice bothered me. Wouldn’t we have been somewhere else, not here, but there? Not today, but... Because wouldn’t the molecules, whose dance Mr Leon talked about so much, have one day arranged themselves into our bodies and brains – even if Grandpa and Grandma hadn’t left the city after the first September bombardments?
I walked across the dining hall. It was empty. Nothing in here had changed. Beyond the five veranda windows white pillars still held up the gently sloping roof, colourful flowers peeped merrily out of concrete pots, and shoots of yarrow grew between the paving stones. Inside, the serving table still stood underneath the portrait of a Jewish couple. Cleared, only the remains of crumbs were left on the waxed table cloth, and three dried rings marked the spots where our night-time mugs of tea had sat. Further on, behind a glazed door, the ballroom stretched away. I pushed it, but it wouldn’t open. Both handles had been tied together with a piece of string. And yet I thought I could hear a conversation coming from in there. A conversation I didn’t remember, or could never have heard before. But all I caught was the murmur of voices, some vague, blurred contours of sentences and individual words.
I pressed my face to the crystal-clear glass.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones