"The Ping-Pong Player" is a popular novel that does not avoid satirical and romantic themes. It is based on the true story of the massacre in Jedwabne, a small town in north-eastern Poland, where in July 1941, at the instigation of the Germans, the Polish residents murdered their Jewish neighbours. The book is set in 2001. Mike Murphy, a retired judge who used to live in the town, arrives from America for a ceremony to unveil a monument commemorating the victims. In those days, as a teenager he failed to save the life of his Jewish friend, with whom he used to play ping-pong with a passion. Some of the perpetrators of the massacre are still living in the town. The history of the occupation is judged in various ways by its present-day citizens. Years on, conversations with the witnesses, the culprits and accessories to the pogrom, their sons and daughters, with new residents as well as with people who have come from abroad for the ceremony, provide the opportunity for a bitter reckoning with the past. Time and again murky secrets to do with the pogrom are revealed, and time and again the murky side of human nature comes to the fore. The history of the twentieth century, especially the history of this bit of Europe is a tragi-farce, says the hero of the novel. The graveyard where the victims lie will indeed by tidied up, but the former criminals and their descendants are still exercising their authority here. Life goes on in the town undefeated: romantic liaisons and new friendships are being made, radical conversations are even being held, but the fairy-tale happy ending is merely superficial. Coming to terms with the past is a parody, the criminals remain unpunished, the secret of our deeds unfathomed. Some consciences are stirred, and there are people of good will living alongside the callous culprits, but above it all rises the raving of the local idiot, who, brainwashed by the anti-Semitic propaganda of the right-wing press, regards the ceremony taking place in the town as a Jewish plot aimed at swindling massive compensation out of Poland.
- Marek Zaleski
He was waiting for them in front of the house – just as the journalist had described him, tall and wiry, Gerwazy without the moustache, with several days’ grey stubble on his face. They introduced themselves to each other, and went across to the orchard, under the branches of the fruit trees. Would you like something to drink, he asked them. Some kvass? No thank you, we’ve had something, in any case Judge Murphy hasn’t the time.
“Mr Stefan,” Ania encouraged him. “Please tell the judge about your orchard.”
“These are cherries… you see? And those ones over there are apple trees. Some of the flowers were killed by the frost, some survived. You see, Sir, they used to grow at the Ehrlichs’ place.”
Mike stared at the red of a tractor standing among the trees as some hens fluttered onto it and started pecking – they must have found some scattered grain.
“I was friendly with Zygmuś Ehrlich,” he said at last. “The boy Waldek shot.”
“Yes, I know. So what was he like, the young Ehrlich? I don’t remember him.” After a pause he added: “Just his sister, Mirka.”
“How did the trees get here?”
“I dug them up from their orchard and brought them home.”
“Snopek let you do that?”
“He wasn’t in charge here yet. There was a period with no owners, you could say, so the trees would have gone wild. I rescued them.”
“You profited by it.”
“A tree has a right to live. That’s what it’s for.”
It would have been too simple to say: doesn’t a man have a right to live? Trite. Then Mr Stefan admitted: “Yes, I profited.”
“And do you have a cat?”
“I’ve got two. Why do you ask?”
“You probably know. Because Kaźko Butrym…”
“He won’t come here,” said the fruit farmer gloomily.
“How do you know? He’s a madman.”
“Even a madman knows where he’ll get a beating.”
They went into the flat. There was a large table and some chairs. By the wall there was a grandfather clock at a standstill – a quarter past nine. When did it stop moving at that time? And why didn’t this lonely man get it going again? Mike pointed at the clock and asked:
“No. It was the Wolfowiczes’. I got to their place and said they had to go, that Kostek had given orders, you know the one, Waldek’s father, it was him, and Wolfowicz said to me: ‘Take it, Stefan, take it, I’d prefer you to take it.’ ”
“Why did he prefer you to?” The man spread his hands.
“I don’t know. Maybe he sensed there was no satisfaction in me. I don’t know,” he repeated. “He gave me a wristwatch too, saying ‘Take it, why should anyone else take it?’ ”
“Where is the watch?”
“I gave it to my son.”
“For his first communion?”
“Did he know whose watch it was?”
“No, how should he? He may have guessed later on.” He looked sad. “I haven’t seen my son for a very long time. Maybe he threw it in the river.”
“Would you be angry with him?”
“For that? No, I don’t think so. Though a thing is a thing. It has to be respected. But nowadays I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“What about then?”
“I took the watch, didn’t I?”
“Did you say thank you to Mr Wolfowicz?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. Maybe I took it as if it was owed to me. For the hard work. Because it was hard labour, like digging a ditch. That Mr Wolfowicz – this might interest you – as we were leaving the house he was muttering something, in Hebrew I think it was. So I ask: what’s that you’re mumbling? And he said: the Book of Job.” The fruit farmer shook his head pensively, and then said: “I got to that years later.”
“To the Book of Job?”
“Yes. I’ve got the Holy Scripture, I have, but the evangelical one.”
“And what did you read there?”
“That it ends well. Job started a new family and got rich again.”
“But your Job died in the flames, you meant to say?”
“He died in the flames, that’s just what I meant to say.”
“So there was no point in comparing himself with Job?”
The fruit farmer didn’t answer. He just shook his head in his own way, and Mike began to suspect it was a tic he had acquired. He asked:
“Were you at the barn? How did you feel there?” An alarm clock could be heard ticking. The fruit farmer went up to the motionless grandfather clock. He gazed at its frozen face and stammered:
He thinks like that now – did he then, as well?
“Did you think: ‘What am I doing here?’ ”
“I can’t remember. I probably didn’t think anything. My mind was a blank. I remember feeling thirsty.”
“So why do you say ‘dreadful’?”
“Because I felt that too. Something dreadful.’
“Mr Stefan,” said the journalist, “please tell us about Mirka. Listen to this, Judge.”
The host sat down at the table and propped his head in his hands.
“Mirka…” he began. “She was older than your friend. She was about nineteen. All ready to get married. A beautiful girl. She wasn’t at home, they came for the Ehrlichs, she hid outside town. That was when you took your friend away.”
“I was unsuccessful,” said Mike.
“Unsuccessful. Waldek was after you, I know. I was going home across the field, tired, I could hardly stand up, when look, there’s Mirka running towards me. Her hair’s tousled, there are ears of corn in it, her eyes are like a madwoman’s. I shout: Hey, girl, where are you going? Hide yourself! And she replies: I want to go to Mama and Zygmuś! It’s too late for them, I say, you can save yourself, go back where you came from! And thump, she’s on her knees. Mr Stefanek, please shoot me, I beg you, I want to go to Mama! And I say: Have you lost your mind? You can live! What a pity for such a lovely girl!”
“You said it differently,” stated Mike without hesitation.
“Well yes, I said it differently, I was a boorish lout. It has sometimes occurred to me that if I had said it more subtly, wisely… And she said: Stefan, I beg you, do it for me, I want to be with Mama. I’m going to die anyway, it’s my last request, it matters, and you’ve got a gun, so shoot.”
“Was she crying?”
“I don’t think so. I took my pistol from my belt and shot her straight in the heart. So she wouldn’t suffer. I dragged her off the path to the side, I arranged her to be life-like, her legs were bare up to here, so I pulled her skirt down over her knees. In the night I drove up the horse and cart, threw her in, and the mare snorted, you know, Sir, if it’s unusual a horse doesn’t like that sort of load. I took her to the Jewish cemetery, dug a grave and buried her. All in secret.”
“Why in secret?”
“They wouldn’t have praised me for it.”
“And did you confess it to the priest?”
“Didn’t you think that killing a sin?”
“It was a sin. I could have not killed her.” A pause. “That lot would have killed her. But she wanted me to do it. I couldn’t refuse. Tell me: could I?”
Ania said angrily:
“You could have saved her.”
“She wanted to go to her mother,” he said, staring at the table. “I often see it before my eyes: she’s begging, on her knees, ‘Stefan, it’s my last request.’ And I shoot. I didn’t refuse.” He raised his head. “What do you think about it, Judge?”
Judge Murphy adopted an official tone.
“I’ve never had a case like it.”
In parting Mike said:
“Do you know what ceremony is being held tomorrow?” The fruit farmer nodded.
“Yes, I do.”
And that was all.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones