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The Moments Between

Rudolf Natter - Part IV

Helen Zelon


In every life, some things are known, and others, mysterious. Stories with clear narratives satisfy a real human craving for order and understanding; they unfold from their beginning, thicken in the middle, and resolve at the end. But stories from life often lack that linearity, looping from event to event with sometimes startling gaps in fact and logic. This story, my mother's, is strung together like beads on a long silk thread. It begins in the early months of World War II, in the Warsaw Ghetto, and traverses hundreds of kilometers and thousands of days - the contours of a lost terrain. She survives the last years of the war with false identity papers, pretending to be a Polish refugee. In Part IV, Cesia returns to Warsaw.

Read > Part I

Read > Part II

Read > Part III

In Plock, Dvorokovska the Pole found work. Slowly, she was able to eat and pay rent and buy cigarettes again, instead of foraging in the gutters for ground-out, half-dead butts. In Plock, Cesia found a kind of steadiness. For months, she worked — as a doctor's receptionist — and began to live, week to week and month to month. And in Plock, she also found love, or something like it, with a tenacious Jewish boy who wore down her resolve until she admitted her identity and began to breathe, once again, with Jewish lungs.

His name was Mauriczcy, or Maniek for short, and he had a full head of wavy hair, bright black eyes, and a stubborn ebullience totally foreign to Cesia. The simple force of his presence unsettled her, undid her careful solitude and walled-in longings. The years of the war had taught her to pack her yearnings away, stuff them inside a niche not of bricks or tile but of will and muscle, the desire to forget longing, obliterate hope, eviscerate any shred of vulnerability that could cost her a wrong decision, a careless sentiment. But this man, this Maniek, persisted, unrelenting. He had survived the war by his own wits, lived and not died by his own nerve and street savvy, and had returned to Plock with his only brother. Mother, father, sisters, grandparents; uncles, aunts, cousins, gone. But Maniek and Vladek came home, and began again, with the only business they knew.

Their father had been a simple man, a leather merchant, buying hides and selling fine, tanned skins. Their mother had been the brains, building the business into one that sold goods all over Poland — Warsaw, Lodz, Gdansk, Krakow, everywhere. The flat where they were born, on one floor of a building that had been their auntie's, had with its furnishings become a Polish family's home, seized as war booty. But the caretaker of the building had a son. The son had once been Maniek's playmate, skimming stones (or the maid's cat) into the surging Vistula River, racing bicycles and playing soccer. The Polish boy spoke to his father, and the father took the two Jewish boys in, gave them a room and a meal a day — a risky proposition, but less so, certainly, in the waning days of the war, and in a small, neglected village long occupied by German forces. Under the noses of the Nazis, Maniek and Vladek began to trade. They dug up a cache of money Maniek had hidden long ago, before the idea of camp seemed a possibility, much less reality, back when the family was all still together. The money their father had hidden — the coins, the dollars, the jewelry, the candlesticks that belonged to Maniek's grandmother — the brothers couldn't find. The stones were long gone, traded during the first years of the war for food, for safe passage on a trip north from Krakow, for medicine. But the brothers found the skins, and with the skins, they began their business, and began to make a new life.

Maniek was aggressive: imprisonment and forced labor left him always hungry, starved for life. Maniek had always wanted more than Plock could offer. As a boy, he thought he would be a doctor, go to university, be more than his father the leather merchant in a backwater town surrounded by birch trees and freshwater lakes. Forced out of high school during the early days of occupation, Maniek and a few others who had returned from their own hells in Germany, Poland and elsewhere, formed a loose-knit high school in an empty basement. Every day they studied together was another brick in the wall that would be their future. Every day, that tempting hallucination — a life, a profession, some semblance of normalcy — became a little more tangible. Yes, the war was going on, soldiers and plain people fighting and dying, Jews leaving this world for the next by the tens of thousands, but that was all far, far away — geographically, and at as great a psychological distance as the brothers could muster. Their focus was the future. They were young; they had lived. To survive now, they had to look forward, not back.

Cesia had heard about the school, from patients chatting in the doctor's waiting room and from the doctor himself. She was bright, she was quick to learn — why didn't she go, too? He asked her again and again, nearly every day, and she never answered, always choosing silence, her faithful friend. No one knew of her life as a student, as the first Jewish girl in Warsaw to attend the elite, technical 'Gymnasium' that prepared young people to become scientists and physicians. No one knew of her dreams of rivaling Marie Curie, of conquering physics, and Paris, like her idol. Surely Dvorokovska of Lodz had no such need.

And what did Cesia need, now, to go to school? No; she needed cigarettes and food and money to live. She needed to see Warsaw again, see the streets she walked in her dreams, night after night. She needed to see her house, the streetcar tracks, what was left. Returning to school had never dawned on her, but when it did, was she curious? Was she hungry for physics and math, the same way she savored the sausages that hung behind the butcher's window? Or eager, perhaps, to shut up the well-meaning doctor, whose good intentions grated like steel on glass? Did she herself even know what pulled her to the school, to open the doors and walk inside, to speak with others her age — which she never, ever, did, preferring instead a life of monosyllables and solitude?

Cesia became, again, a student. Maniek was there, watching her, a student himself. Who was this girl? Thin and pale; beautiful, aloof. A Jew, that's certain, he thought to himself, but she had registered as a Pole, as Dvorokovska, of Lodz. She had no marks — no tattoo from the Koncentration Lager, no limp or visible defect that shouted "concentration camp" — and yet, he knew.

He asked her to coffee; she declined. He offered her a smoke; she accepted. He asked her, later, to a dance; again, she declined. But when he asked her again, a thousand cigarettes and a hundred cups of ersatz coffee later, she accepted.

Cesia made no special efforts before the dance; she didn't dress up, or primp, or redden her lips as if for a date. She would go to the dance with this Maniek, this boy who wouldn't take 'no' for an answer — there's no harm in dancing, no gamble, no risk.

That was critical: to risk, to take a chance at all, meant vulnerability, fresh wounds. She would go, but she wouldn't allow herself to feel anything. It was something to do, that's all, better than sitting in a rented room and smoking all night. She went.

Weeks passed; the couple became friends and grew accustomed to each other. There was no great moment of romantic illumination — no crashing bells, no soaring violins — but slowly, the two strangers became familiar. They walked along the riverbank, they smoked, they nursed coffees from hot liquid to cold silt, and slowly told each other the story of their lives. She showed him her pictures, every one, and told him who was who, what was what. Everyone had a story, it turned out, one wasn't more daring or flashy than the next, because everyone — everyone here now, that is, everyone who had survived to tell the tale — had moments of luck; of sheer faith; of blind, thoughtless action that meant survival or death. Life turned on the heel of a Nazi boot, on the whim of some officer who saved them, another who arrested them, yet another who sold black-market sugar or margarine for a steep price, in cash or in flesh. Maniek and Cesia — for she had shown herself to him, given up the Dvorokovska mask to him alone, and climbed gratefully back into her own skin when they were together — listened, smoked, talked, kissed. Love grew.

Cesia, who had been alone since the day she leapt from the Derringwerke window, didn't know herself, didn't recognize the feelings of pleasure that sprang, raw and new, into her life. She wept more now than she had before; why was that? She was happier now than she had been in years — not happy, really, but less often sad — yet her sorrows were deeper, too, as if having something or someone at last made her losses acutely sharp. But Maniek stayed, through her tears and her silences. He scolded her for looking backward. They would make a life together, he and she — leave Poland, leave Europe entirely if need be, and go to his mother's sister, in America. (The aunt, sent abroad by prescient family in the years after World War I, had married well in the United States, and now lived with her three children in Los Angeles.) They would find a way to go to university, somewhere, and begin anew, together.

All of this rushing life overwhelmed Cesia. How could Maniek be so clear and know what he wanted, how could he see so far, past their awful present to some kind of American future? More than anything, Cesia longed to return to Warsaw — to dig, again, for some evidence, some family, some something of the world she'd come from. She did not want to travel alone, but Maniek wouldn't go.

"In case you don't know," he said, "there is still a war here, and the cities are the battle lines. I will not go to Lodz, or Krakow, or to Gdansk," cities he knew when he'd traded leather for cash, his father's emissary in the early days of the war, "and I will never, ever go to Warsaw."

"But it's my home--" Cesia countered, "I have to go, I have to see it again."

"No," said Maniek, "it is not safe. In Plock, one can yet disappear, but in Warsaw, no. With the Nazi army on one side of the river and the Russians on the other, each waiting for the other's first move, there is no safety. Perhaps more so for you — a 'refugee' with Polish papers — but for me, there is no place safe but here, and even that's a question." For the first time in their romance, Maniek refused her.

Cesia insisted, she wheedled, she begged. Finally, he said she could go — if she promised to return. To secure the promise, they would marry. She could go to Warsaw if she liked, as long as she promised to leave Poland, with him, if and when the opportunity arose.

They were married in a rabbi's office that August, she in a blue dress, he in the fine, English suit he'd stolen from the labor camp mailroom, in which he'd made his escape. Jewish law required witnesses to sign the marriage contract, the rabbi said, but Maniek and Cesia had come alone, no fuss or celebration, just arrived and asked to be wed. The rabbi waited; Cesia and Maniek went out to the street, he searching one way, she the other, and found two Jews, also students but strangers, not friends, to stand as their witnesses. There was no party. Shortly after the wedding, Cesia left for Warsaw.

She traveled light, with a change of clothes and her mother's satchel, so as not to attract attention from the German troops that stood, threadbare and worn, at checkpoints on the Western banks of the Vistula River. Riding in the back of an open truck with a dozen others and their baskets and bundles, Cesia saw the wrecked villages and ruined towns, near-empty as the truck rumbled through. Skeletal frames of rusted-out German vehicles, abandoned at the roadside, had been stripped of every bit of rubber, steel, or chrome that could be pried loose — and sold, no doubt, for food or for money, on the black market. Beggars, everywhere. The trip took hours, the roads clotted with rag-clad refugees, grabbing at the bumpers, the paneled sides, running alongside the lurching truck — for the roads were ruined, all ruts and gulches, nothing level at all in the great, flat plain of Poland — to try to find a way aboard. Near Cesia, a middle-aged man, a Pole, used a stick to knock people off the truck's side. No sooner would a hand grab hold than rap! the stick smacked a row of knuckles, and the hand let go. There was no room for hangers-on; no room in the back, no room on the bumper. If you had paid in Plock, you could ride. Otherwise, no room. Cesia watched; she smoked, she shielded her eyes from the hot August sun, and sometimes she watched the Vistula's greenish waters rushing in the opposite direction, from the Carpathians in the south, past Warsaw, past Plock, to the sea.

Russian tanks and gun emplacements lined the Vistula's Eastern shore. The Germans clung to the Western banks. Yet even with not one but two armies occupying the roads, life continued, day to day, week to week. People still traveled to and from Warsaw, living around, or perhaps in spite of, the war. Cesia wanted to be absorbed into this stream of plain Polish folk. She wore a simple dress, peasant's shoes, and her mother's leather satchel across her chest. She had a little money, and hoped to be able to buy some information — perhaps someone knew of a cousin, an aunt or an uncle, who survived. Perhaps.

Since the day she had leaped from the windows of the Derringwerke factory, she had not gone out without her mother's satchel. That she needed her identity papers was plain survival, but the photos were always there, too, as much a part of her as the clothes she wore. Most days, Cesia rarely looked at the images — it was too hard to see the smiling, naïve faces. Maniek's questions made it even harder; she didn't know what had happened, didn't want to know, couldn't know, in the end. But simply feeling the photos in her bag, their shape, the bumpy, rippled edges, gave her comfort. The images were her history. She didn't need to see them — she knew who she was, where she came from — but they were her evidence, physical proof. Their existence anchored her own. The photos were her only physical link between Cesia's world, the world that was, and the one she lived in today, as Dvorokovska the Pole.

A knot of uniformed Nazi guards manned the checkpoint at Warsaw's perimeter. The great capital, the Paris of Eastern Europe, lay now in heaps of rubble, piles of brick and stone. The perimeter so closely guarded was itself artificial, a line imposed by the German army. Even the ancient city walls in Stare Miasto, Warsaw's 13th -century heart, had been flattened into heaps of antique gravel by years of steady bombardment. Everyone had bombed Warsaw: First the Nazis, then the Allies, and lately, the Russians generously showered what was left of the city with fire from the sky. Shards of stained glass sparked red, blue, amber, green in the gray stone piles.

The checkpoint was little more than a truck and a platoon of soldiers; there was no more city inside the checkpoint than there was outside, on the riverbanks, or on the roads leading to Warsaw. All of it, decimated; it seemed that nothing whole still stood, only bits and pieces and rooms and fragments, pieced and patched together in these last, bitter months. Cesia didn't recognize her home.

She stood in a long line, waiting for her chance at the gate. Even after all this time, she dreaded showing her papers. The little discrepancies that first worried her — the crooked type, the spot of glue — had caused her no harm, but whenever she offered up Dvorokovska's papers, Cesia felt her face burn, felt her pulse throb at her temples, and feared that all she was feeling could be seen, like milk billowing into a cup of strong black tea. So in the line, Cesia worried. She fingered her photos in the satchel, felt for the identity papers that lay next to them. She smoked, and she waited.

In front of her, a merchant selling old clothes unwrapped two bundles for the checkpoint guards. Cesia saw them sift through the garments, saw them toss folded clothes to the ground as they 'inspected' the goods. The merchant was allowed to pass, bowing his gratitude and scooping up stray clothing as he went.

"D'you see this one, the skinny one?" one soldier asked another, in German.

"The pretty one? Next in line?" his friend asked in return.

"Yes, that's the one. Not bad — but too skinny for me," said the first.

"Skinny as a horse," said the friend, "too skinny to give a fellow like you a good ride!"

Cesia heard the soldiers laugh; the sound came to her ears as a familiar, unsettling echo. Her cheeks burned fresh; she was the skinny one, she was their plaything — a piece of meat, an animal, a whore.

Stop it, she told herself, your mind's playing tricks. They are only soldiers, only laughing. Stop.

As she stepped to the gate, she cast her eyes up, quickly, to size up the soldiers who stood in wait. They still held the guns. At this moment, they held the power. On a whim, on a technicality, they could seize her, arrest her, erase her entirely. She thought of Maniek and cast her eyes to the ground, in a suitably pliant gesture — this she knew, how to defer to authority with her body and her posture. This was her best chance to enter her home city, her Warsaw. Neither proud nor defiant, but a poor Polish girl, shy and well-mannered, on family business.

"Fraulein?" a man's voice asked. "Your papers?"

Cesia dug into her satchel, suddenly flustered. She thought she knew the voice, but she couldn't, impossible. The soldier asked her again, leaning in close enough that Cesia could see the coarse bristles of his mustache.

"Fraulein? Is there some difficulty?"

"No, none at all," she answered, as she fished her papers out of the satchel. Caught in the crease was a photo of her sister Renia's birthday party, the year she'd turned seven, her last. Cesia tried to hide it, stuff it back into her satchel, as she offered the identity papers to the guard.

The guard took her papers. He held them at arm's length and watched her as she struggled to smooth the satchel closed. Now regarding the papers carefully, slowly, the soldier turned to another and whispered, "Get Natter."

The murmur didn't miss Cesia's ears. Impossible, she thought, touching the satchel again to make sure her photos were safe. Impossible that he is here — that he survived. But as she stood, she heard, tuhk tuhk, tuhk tuhk, and with her eyes fixed on the ground she saw black boots — Natter's boots — stop in front of her.

"Fraulein?" he began, holding her papers in one hand, "or should I say, Pania Dvorokovska…"

"Yes, sir," she answered, unable to pull her eyes from his boots.

"Fraulein, look at me."

"Yes, sir," she said again, and looked up. Rudolf Natter had aged, badly. Set deep in a worn maze of tiny lines and deep fissures, Natter's steady blue eyes looked back. He looked at her, too, for a long time. No doubt, time had changed Cesia as well, but he looked at her, and through her, and she knew he knew who she was. How could he know, she thought, how could he remember? I am one of thousands, I am nobody to him, he can't remember. She argued with herself — he can't know me; he does — but lost, in the end, once he spoke again.

"What brings you to Warsaw, fraulein?" he asked, polite and formal. "It has been many months since your last visit, and then, you left in such haste…"

"I am on family business," she lied, one hand on her satchel. Natter held her papers in his hands. In the Ghetto, he had determined her fate. And now, again, her life was his to decide, as fragile as the papers he himself had given her. "Family business," she repeated, lame, lost.

"And you are Dvorokovska, of Lodz?" Natter glanced away, nodding to a soldier standing close, the one who had first checked her papers, the one who called Natter. The soldier stepped in. Cesia saw him finger his weapon. She noticed Natter no longer had his whip.

Natter asked her again. "You are Dvorokovska, of Lodz?"

"Yes, that is me," she lied, mouth dry as salt.

"And what is it you have in your bag, fraulein?"

"Nothing, sir, nothing much. A little money and some cigarettes…" This, at least, was true.

"The officer said you were carrying photos," Natter said softly. He looked at her with kind eyes. Was he helping her? Was it a trick? Cesia didn't know.

"May I see the photos, please?" he asked. Cesia knew the 'please' was for show only. Maybe he was a friend; maybe the 'please' was his way of saying, trust me, I will help you. He had helped her before, and could again — or not, as the whim struck him. Whatever his motivation, she had only one action open to her: She had to give him the photos. To lie, to deny the officer's observation, meant punishment — and meant losing the little life she had in Plock, losing Maniek, losing her future. But to reveal the photos meant another kind of risk: Exposure, as a Jew. She was certain that her Jewishness bled through the images, radiated from the snapshots to the world, fragments of a Jewish life, a Jewish family, obliterated. There was no good choice. She stalled.

"They are just family photos, sir, nothing of any value…" Idiot, she thought, even as she spoke. What could be of value? Why say they're not valuable — unless they are? Idiot, idiot. She smiled at Natter, head tilted up toward his face, not quite flirtatious — but not numb to her charms, or to their allure, either. "They are just mementos, no more."

"Still, Pania, my dear, I wish to see them. You will permit me; you have nothing to hide, I know." In Natter's eyes she read, do not refuse me, and not in front of my men. Someone behind her began to complain about the line; a soldier broke away from Natter's side and struck the whiner with the butt of his rifle. Silence again, but for the wind and a bird's song in the distance.

Cesia took out the photos from her satchel. They made a small, neat stack, no more than ten pictures — snapshots of family gatherings, parties, her parents and sister in the park. Natter took the images and looked through them, one by one, without a word. When he came to a photo of Cesia the day she started high school, he looked up at her, staring hard into her face, then back again to the photo, which he put behind the others in the stack. He held her identity papers, too, with the photos.

Her life was in Natter's hands — her papers, her photos, whether she would cross into Warsaw as Dvorokovska, safe, or be revealed as a Jew, arrested or simply shot dead on the spot. People in the line watched to see what would happen; even without hearing the whispered conversations, that something was amiss couldn't be denied. There was potential here; everyone smelled it, like smoke from a hidden fire. Cesia stood still.

"My dear Pania Dvorokovska, welcome again to Warsaw," said Natter, sweeping his free arm wide in a theatrical gesture of welcome. He stepped aside from the gate, which he had been blocking with his body. Cesia reached for her photographs, and he again stepped away. "But you will not be needing these while you are here, I believe," he said, eyes fixed to hers. And he began to rip the photos, first in half, and then into quarters and eighths, until finally the scraps fluttered from his hands to the ground. He took a cigarette from a metal case in his breast pocket, offered her one, lit both, and dropped the match into the torn pile of paper. The flames licked up the tiny stack, until Natter ground out the flame with the heel of his black boot.

Cesia watched the little pile crumple, first in the fire, then under his foot. She said nothing. A breeze kicked a few scraps to the riverbank, and carried them down the slope to the water.

"No, my dear, you do not need those at all. But this, of course, is your own." Natter returned her identity papers with a formal flourish, and with a small bow and a courtly click of his heels, walked away.

"You are free to enter now, Pania Dvorokovska," he said a moment later, as she hadn't left her spot in the line. "And better hurry, too. Be quick!" he said, tapping lightly at her heels with the worn toe of one boot. "There are many people waiting."