a short story
translated from Polish by Stephen Poleskie
"Do you understand this?" the man said, speaking hushed into the telephone, his hand cupped over the receiver so as not to be overheard. "We will be coming to your apartment tomorrow morning at nine! I repeat; you and your family should not be there!"
This was his last call of the day. The police inspector could go home now, walking in the dull gray rain which overlaid all of Warsaw that evening. Three of the persons on his list did not have telephones. Although they were out of his way, he would stop by their apartments and leave notes. He might risk being seen; nevertheless, he could not condemn a family just because they did not have a telephone.
The inspector hesitated at the base of the bridge that lead across the Vistula River to the decaying ghetto district on the other side. An image of tomorrow formed in his mind. A family would be huddled in their drab rooms, finishing their breakfast, or perhaps washing up, not expecting anyone; then he would knock, his men waiting behind him with guns drawn. No, they must believe his call. They must not be home.
A low fog hung on the surface of the river as the inspector crossed the bridge back to his side of town. Not many people were out at this hour, most of the shop windows appeared dark, some were boarded over. There was a time, not long go, when he would have stopped in the cafe on the corner for a cup of tea, and to rest before going on. But the place was closed now, the owner and his family had gone away, no one knew where.
He paused for a moment at the apogee of the span and looked down, white shapes of ice swirled by in the murky waters below. A pedestrian approaching from the opposite direction caught the inspector’s police uniform in the glare of the overhead lamp, and crossed to the other side of the street, pulling his hat down over his face.
The inspector stood there, his hands on the rail, staring at the cold black water. With the heavy dampness in the air, his breathing was more labored than usual tonight. Jan Malinowski had been conscripted into the Russian army, and fought in The Great War on the eastern front. He was at Bolgako on the Vistula when the Germans had unleashed the first poison gas attack in history. The fumes destroyed everything in its path: trees, grass, birds, insects, human beings. Horrified by the unimaginable devastation their side had unleashed, the German soldiers risked their own lives to rescue their Russian foes, carrying them on their backs, slipping and crawling, out of a forest that the gas had blackened and turned to slime.
After the war, when Poland had been restored as a nation, Jan had been given a small pension, and his job with the police force. Six months ago the inspector had put in a request for retirement, but with the Germans in control of the country now his letter had been ignored.
The rain was growing stronger, and beginning to freeze. The inspector turned up his collar and wrapped his coat more tightly around himself. Breathing heavily, he tried to increase his pace. The bureau gave him a car to use, but since the occupation there was always a shortage of fuel, and he would need the car for his rounds tomorrow.
"You’re soaking wet, Jan! Where is your umbrella?" the inspector’s wife, Agatha, said, throwing open the door to their apartment the instant she heard his key scratching at the lock. Her gray hair was pulled back in a tight knot, and she wore three rather frayed sweaters against the cold. The dim hall light revealed a look of tiredness on her face, as if the secret they kept between them was weighing her down.
"Oh . . . I forgot and left it at the office. . . ."
"You are so forgetful these days, I think you are working too hard. Come and eat your meal. . . ." Agatha spoke dispassionately, leading her husband into the kitchen, to a table that had been set sometime ago.
They sat in silence eating their food, which had grown cold waiting for him. Since the occupation they were lucky to have the coal to heat it the first time; to reheat it was an inconceivable luxury, even for the wife of a police inspector.
"You are very late tonight. . . . You stayed after everyone left, and made some calls again, didn’t you? You’re such a fool!"
Jan kept his head down, concentrating on his food. He did not like sharing his secrets with his wife. Whenever he did participate in their conversations it was only a pretense, an acknowledgement that she was there. He slid his knife into the small, fatty sausage he had brought home yesterday. She would never know the compromises he had made for this tiny bit of meat. Due to his influence as a police inspector they were eating better than most people in the city this evening – except for their occupiers.
"Think of us, and your daughter . . . who we have had to send to live with your sister in Vienna. If the Nazis find out what you have been doing, what will they do to us? They will send us to the camps!"
"I have been thinking of that. . . ." the inspector replied.
With a nervous hand Jan wiped a crust of bread across his plate claiming the last of his meal, then put the bread in his mouth and began to chew. His eyes studied the pattern on the blue and white china. He raised the flower-decorated pot, offering to share the last of the cold tea, but his wife put her hand over her cup.
"You are crazy! Tomorrow, when you and your men go to round up the people on your list they will all be gone," his wife said, lowering her voice and casting a furtive glance at the door, "because you have called them this evening and told them not to be there! How can you do this? When you began your career with the police department, the first thing you were taught was respect for the law. You are supposed to be an enforcer of the law. Now you defy it! Why do you carry on this way?"
He sat at the table unable to speak. The inspector was a thoughtful man, who usually saw so many options in any one situation that he often became immobilized. Jan had seen death before, in The Great War; now he was seeing it again, marching down the streets of his beloved city.
The inspector’s new intimacy with death had also given him a renewed intimacy with life. The sun shone brighter. The snow seemed whiter. He enjoyed just being able to breathe the musty Warsaw air. He had discovered his own mortality, and with it had developed an enduring capacity of love for his fellow human beings: which caused him to do what he now did, despite the dangers it posed.
"My dear wife," Jan said after an awkward silence, using the last of his tea to wash down the lump of bread that had lodged in his throat during her tirade, "I have thought of you . . . and our daughter . . . and our life together. I make my telephone calls out of respect for the law, not to defy it. I have been trained to arrest people who have committed a crime, and these people have committed no crime. In this country it is not yet against the law to have been born a Jew. . . ."
Agatha got up and began to carefully clear the table. She loved her china, and would not want anything to happen to it. It was the blue and white set her parents had given them for a wedding present.
Outside the coldrain had turned to snow, blanketing the street, muffling the sound of the dark van that had driven up to their building. The downstairs door slammed shut with more than its usual noise. The inspector and his wife heard footsteps on the stairs, the hollow ringing sound made by well-shod boots. The sound spiraled upwards, increasing in intensity, until it stopped at their door. There was a loud, rude knock, a pounding. The husband and wife looked at each other, a sense of apprehension in their guarded glances. The hour was late; they were not expecting anyone.
Getting up from the table, the Jan moved toward the door, his movement, like the eternal movement of nature was indifferent; he neither hastened nor dallied; his hand grasped the handle:
"Inspector Jan Malinowski? Open the door! Gestapo!”
Stanislaus Podlz-Hozempa was born in Poland, and moved to the United States sometime after World War Two. He lived alone for most of his life in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, where he worked as a laborer in a drycleaning plant. It is unclear where he developed his writing abilities, although he was known to have read the work of the modern Polish writers Bruno Schulz and Witold Gombrowicz. As his knowledge of English was only rudimentary, he wrote in Polish. His manuscripts were only discovered recently, thirty-three years after his death, stored in a box in the basement of his former house that was being torn down. This is his first published story.
Sidney Grayling, editor