Robin Teese (Curtin University, Australia)
“Come in, please come in. You can hang your umbrella up here. I won’t be long.”
He was back before I could arrange my notes and set up my recording equipment.
“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. We are a little short staffed today and the lad I sent out for the display…”
He slapped his head three times. I’m a journalist so I notice things like that. Multiples of actions, always in twos or threes.
“Please forgive, but I’ve forgotten your name. With the closing down sale, there was a lot going on in the store and at eighty-three years of age, my hearing is not…”
I waved the explanation away and saw at once a softening in his sallow features, the lines that were so deeply etched disappear until only a few faint ridges below the skull remained.
“I’m very glad you could come. It isn’t every day that the imminent closure of a business draws such attention. You see, we have been here for over twenty years. But before the war, we were famous in Poland — at least in our little village. We felt like royalty. No tailoring business could come anywhere near our standard of quality and customer service… alas, all that is finishing. Remnants. That’s all we have now.
“I could tell you so much about men’s wear and how we used to design clothes for every walk of life, every religion. We never discriminated, never compromised. And we were generous to the poor. Not that we were wealthy. But it was a community — a community, you understand.”
He had raised his voice a notch. It was subtle, but there was gravel in it I hadn’t noticed before, as though he had dug up something from somewhere deep down.
“We even allowed credit to our clientele because the majority were honest, reliable and we welcomed them into the store like family. Occasionally we bonded with one of the customers and would invite them to our house… is it recording?”
He had pointed at my equipment and his voice had dropped to a whisper. I wanted him to continue but didn’t have the courage to command him. He looked satisfied and, taking a careful look around the store to check for any new arrivals, subsided into a chair that he’d set up opposite me but whose presence he had seemingly forgotten.
“You don’t ask me any questions. Maybe this is the new way of interviews. Like a shrink earning big bucks from listening to his patient, so he talks himself out. No matter. I like talking, as I’m sure you’ve discovered. I’m feeling…”
He closed his eyes and screwed up his face.
I waited. His skin had turned a blood red, making the veins stand out. He opened his mouth, but closed it again. I urged him to take his time. A noise from the front of the store made me flinch.
“It is the boy come back from the train station. I tell him again and again not to slam the door. But will he listen?”
That gravelly tone again, and with it, a sharp smoker’s exhale. A glance at his fingers, gaunt and pale, without a trace of nicotine, tells me he isn’t a smoker.
“Przepraszam — excuse me, it’s the dust. I can’t help it. We do everything here, like in the old country. Design, sew, repair, dry clean…”
He coughed and then from nowhere a handkerchief, silk, embroidered, appeared from the top pocket of his bespoke suit coat. He turned aside, coughed again and when he turned back the handkerchief was gone. Only the white tip protruding like an afterthought.
“I would like to help you, Miss, I really would. But, you see, at my age, my memories are like torn up pieces of paper, fragments.”
He kept talking, throwing words into space, hurling hopes about this and that, an instant of pleasure here, of disappointment there. I smiled encouragingly but when I looked at my equipment again, it wasn’t registering. I waved my hand frantically but he kept up the flow of his talk until a sudden attack of coughing made him duck once more into the folds of his handkerchief. And he remained like that, whimpering. After a few minutes, he put away the handkerchief, faced me and bowed. “Forgive me, but I am so confused, so much is unclear to me, unresolved… Are you recording this…?”
I nodded dumbly, guilt all over my face. But he seemed content.
“…Then I will tell you a story… my story — not a nice one, but it must be told — I must get it from my chest before I go. This store, this business has been my life ever since my… my…”
Something flashed in front of me. A photo.
“My wife, my son and me. Look. Isn’t he handsome? Even at five years old, it is obvious he is more beautiful than his old father. And my wife. No one on earth prettier. I didn’t know then that the Vodnici — you understand, the watermen, with their froggish eyes and green hair, their filthy webbed feet, were looking for her, looking for my Adreanna, wanting to steal her from me… .”
The gravel had risen into his voice again. He didn’t cough this time, but swallowed loudly three times.
“Perhaps you don’t believe me. Perhaps you think I am senile, doddering, a useless piece of human flesh left out for the dogs to devour at their leisure.”
I was regarding him now. His eyes had a curious fixity, pupils enlarged like caves blocking the light.
“Thomas… you can close the shop now. I’ll see you tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock sharp. Okay.”
An imperious voice, but directed at a mere boy, an apprentice most likely.
“Oh, he’s all right, young Thomas. We’d keep him on, make him part of the business, but he’s got other ideas like going to uni and becoming an academic. Ha. Much good will it do him. But it’s a sign of the times: nobody’s interested in fine tailored suits anymore. They want everything off the rack. Too easy. We worked hard at our business in Poland. And we never complained. Not once did we groan about a sore back from hours of ironing, cutting out patterns, standing and standing until our feet were numb, even in the dead of winter with snow all round us, hemming us in. We kept working because work was our salvation and we prayed and sang at synagogue and we were good, law abiding people…”
Three raps on the forehead.
“… Przepraszam, przepraszam. Speak up. They will hear you, but it doesn’t matter. You mustn’t bow down to them, you must be proud of who you are. Odwazni. Be brave.”
I looked at my equipment. The volumeter was a frenetic dance. I was charged with adrenalin, wanting to leap up and skip around the room, but I just sat there restraining myself, pushing back on my excitement, the miniature earthquake that had been set off within me. The old man’s breath hissed like an overheated engine.
“Remember the Passover. The escape of the Israelites from certain death…”
He had halted in mid-sentence, eyes glazed. I tried not to look, stared down instead like a fool at my instruments, at the needle that had suddenly gone still. When I looked up again, he had risen from his chair and his fingers were locked together and his face, again that reddening, those veins standing out like ropes.
“Przepa… sorry — old men are like that, their minds wander, not good to interview. Perhaps we should give it away.”
In response, I lowered my eyes once again to the recorder. Waited. No sound in the store, with its racks of hand-crafted neck ties, bow ties, crisp white business shirts, knife-pleated trousers. Just up the road was the George Hotel. It was January, 1969. Hot and humid. The pubs were busier than ever and on their way to St Kilda Station drinkers stopped by Levin Menswear to window shop, chat or have themselves measured for a new suit. Invariably they left behind their calling card — a heady tang of sour beer — hovering in the air. Eerie, this mingling of dust, material and yeast.”
His voice scissored through the silence, arousing me from daydreams.
“When we invited him, a loner who often visited the store and who liked to talk — Ah that man, he liked to talk— Anyway, we were celebrating Passover and he would be our special guest and would enact with us the ritual, dine with us and pray, commemorate our liberation from bondage, learn something of our customs. God knows there were so many ignorant of our ways, and there had been rumours… people were saying… but, but you don’t want to hear all this.”
For the first time his eyes tightened with what seemed like hostility.
“In any case, you are too young to understand; how could you believe my story. Who are you? Some cub reporter with a prurient interest in my personal affairs. Why do you bother an old man like me?”
Hollow breathing, oxygen pumping in and out, shoulders hunched, expression of hopelessness, hands raised like an offering.
“We kissed each other on both cheeks at the end of the night. I couldn’t believe it. A young gentile in our midst. My son, Aron, three years old, so excited we’d made a new friend, a football star and stamp-collector, hugged our visitor as we farewelled him at the door… but my wife, why didn’t she smile? I felt so, so embarrassed when she turned her back while my son and I eagerly waved him to his car… forgive me, I need some water — If you like, I can fix you a tea or maybe coffee?”
I asked for tea, black with lemon. He disappeared, leaving me for a few moments. I stood up and walked to the front of the store. Outside, it was still raining, but the wind had started blowing. People half-hidden by their umbrellas dashed for the tram, or huddled in cafes, grateful for the shelter and the comfort of a hot drink. Tolarno’s would be doing great business in this weather, I thought with a sigh, but promised myself I’d be gracious to Mr. Levin and now, here he was, emerging like a shadow from the workroom, balancing two steaming cups in one hand and what looked like butternut biscuits in the other.
“I hope you’re a sweet-tooth. I can’t eat these, myself. Ha, but you young ones, you don’t have to worry about your figure.”
He sat. Drank his coffee to the dregs. Exhaled.
I switched my equipment back on as a hint. He took it. A rasp as he resumed.
“It was in Szczebrzeszyn, where my father, Joachim had his shop. The Nazis came in October 1939 and we all breathed a sigh of relief when they said we could continue trading. But not for long. We had heard about the Jew hunters, ah, such a phrase! We always said it wouldn’t be us; we were survivors, protected by God. But then the knock on the door.
“The heart freezes, I’m close to shitting my pants as I rush to let them in, not wanting them to do any damage to our house. Who? I say, who has betrayed us? I call for my wife. Adreanna, Adreanna. They want to see our papers. Where are you, Adreanna? Aron, come quickly, your father needs you. It is the law, we mustn’t try the patience of the Vodnici. But they do not come and I am left alone to face the monsters with their helmeted green hair and webbed jackboots, their sickening smell of reeds and death. They check my papers, demand to know the names of the other occupants. ‘Stay here. We will be back tomorrow.’ I answer politely but already I am plotting my escape.”
My feet, so keen to move to a hidden beat have stilled. I can’t even feel the floor or hear the rain pelting outside.
“There was a letter — I didn’t find it at first — concealed in one of my shoes. In the bedroom, a shoe without a mate loitering there between bedroom and hall. I only noticed it when I picked up the shoe and it fell out, sinking like a dying butterfly. I read and reread this letter from my Adreanna; I must have read it three times before I understood: my wife and son had fled. She was afraid of what might happen to us; knew I would agree. We would meet again when things were back to normal, please be careful, my darling.
“I sat for a while, I don’t know how long, sniffing the letter paper, moist from the fingers of my wife’s dear hand. The Vod… Nazis would be coming in the morning; they might even come in the afternoon. What was I doing here? I knew of a doctor, a man of integrity, who had operated on a stomach ulcer I had developed in a year when our profits had plummeted. I packed a small suitcase, so as not to cause suspicion, and was about to leave the house when I noticed, peeking from my wife’s wardrobe, something soft and iridescent. My tailor’s eye was caught at once and I went back into the bedroom to find out what it was: Adreanna’s wedding dress, the cream beauty with its inlay of gold shimmering like a rainbow as we stood in the sun before the rabbi. I could not leave it there. My eyes filled. I carefully wrapped the dress, folded in the bright blue bow and gathered the scooped neck into a small package. I was suffering, you see, dropping my tears on the material, thinking, in my grief, that Adreanna was still in this dress, and we were kicking up our heels and the wedding guests cheering and clashing their brimming glasses together, and the music going faster, faster…”
Mr Levin picked up his coffee and then, remembering he had already drained it, put it down again, gently, as though afraid of shattering the cup. He looked at me, or more precisely, through me and, although my tea was still hot, my hands were shaking. I reached behind me for my jacket.
“Although a German, Dr. Gärtner was a true gentleman. He ushered me into his house, but took me quickly down to the cellar. ‘You must stay here,’ he whispered. ‘It isn’t safe. I will see what I can do about your wife and child, but you must trust me.’ I thought of the Nazi officers who would arrive next morning only to find an empty house, and gave in. Then he showed me his diary, the entries he had made…
“As the month wore on, my doctor friend kept me informed by reading nightly to me from his diary. First the Nazis made the Jews into cleaners. It didn’t matter if you were a florist, stockbroker or rabbi, you had to sweep and dust the streets, wash out the latrines. If we had any weapons, we were stripped of them. They made it easy for us by putting signs up with precise instructions. Only a fool would get it wrong and then he would pay dearly for his error. We had to record all infections within our family groups and then a curfew was imposed. Day by day, the sorry litany of our persecution was catalogued by the doctor with me keeping quiet in his cellar where he kept me clothed and fed. But I felt guilty, terribly guilty that I was safe and they were out there, toiling like slaves, subjected to unspeakable treatment.”
He rapped his forehead three times then looked at me as though surprised there was anyone else in the room.
“The doctor returned each evening from his rounds to inform me that nothing had been heard of my wife and child. He urged me not to keep up my hopes, given the circumstances. I would have done anything, anything just to know if they were all right, even surrendered to the Germans, shovelled shit with my compatriots. I was beside myself with grief. Grief — even when I didn’t yet have evidence that… Anyway, the good doctor kept up his diaries. For him it was a ritual, a diurnal performance because, he said, all must be recorded even unto the last action. But he also confided that it was like slicing through his skin with a hot knife every time he put pen to paper, while he stared through his window, incredulous.
“One afternoon, the doctor came home, fixed me something to eat, then took up his position by the window, as he always did. There was no conversation; all I could hear was the scratching of his pen, the quick turning of pages, the occasional inrush of breath. When he had finished, he handed me the diary…”
I looked away then, anywhere but at that face, that map of pain. To be truthful, I was uneasy, embarrassed even to be listening to these confidences and surprised that I only half believed the enormity of his story. It was too dark, too inhuman, too much the stuff of horror movies. I told myself I was a reporter for a very important local magazine. ‘Don’t allow yourself to get involved’, my boss had told me. ‘It’s your first feature. Be dispassionate or you’ll only end up with romantic pap and that’s not what this magazine’s about. Get the job done and get your article written preferably before the deadline?’ I’d giggled at that. He wasn’t such a bad old stick.
All this time, Mr. Levin went on talking:
“… and all the Jewish households had been sealed, mine included. Sentries had been posted. And then there were the railway cars being loaded with Jewish prisoners. But they stood there, those cars, in sleeting rain, not moving, yet out of them — oh miserable! — so many personal possessions — clothing, jewellery, shoes. Workers, fellow Polacks, heaped it all up at an assembly point, while the trains waited in the downpour. As my doctor friend noted in his diary, we were henceforth stateless, homeless and without direction. It was then the shootings began.”
I hadn’t realised how long we had been sitting here. Inside the shop the light seemed brighter, but the air still cold. I pulled my jacket tighter around me, rubbed my hands to get the warmth back. It had started raining again, but it was just drizzle. I thought of those trains, those vehicles I always took for granted, my transport from home to school, now to my place of work. I knew I would never think of them the same way again. Mr. Levin drew his handkerchief from his top pocket, turned it over with great care and with it wiped his eyes once, twice, three times. It was after the third time that I felt the first pricking of tears. I tried not to show my distress, but Mr Levin must have noticed.
“How old are you, young lady? Twenty, twenty-one…?”
I spread the fingers of my right hand and held it up to him.
“I see. Twenty-five. A baby. You have so much to learn. But you are lucky. There is still time. For the young, it is never too late to know the hideousness of the Vodnici. They are all around us. Wherever there is water, they lurk. They are like frogs and their feet are fitted for deep diving. Their hair is the colour of reeds. Be on your guard; they never give a second chance. And just when you think you have an ally in the Vodnici, they pull you down. Down, until you gasp, opening your mouth for air and your throat fills with stagnant water and then your belly, your sweet, sweet belly — bursts.”
He hauled in a breath. Then another. Stared fixedly into the distance. Inhaled again.
“I had been in the cellar for less than a month when I heard of the first executions. The Nazis said they were disabled people and therefore unnecessary. But the next day when the doctor wanted to have his car repaired, he found there was a scarcity of mechanics and then that specialists of every kind seemed to be disappearing. ‘Had they gone abroad?’ I asked. He picked up his eraser, swept it over the paragraph he’d just written. ‘All — vanished,’ he said. I had the sudden, terrifying, giddying sense that I was balancing on the edge of history, a tipping point and that there was no retreat.
“‘We must get you out of here,’ the doctor said. ‘If you stay much longer, they will come; these monsters don’t need a search warrant. Yesterday a colleague of mine was arrested when he tried to bar the door to them. They found nothing… no one, but he spent the night in a cell. He is a good man, law-abiding, but his wife was distraught and he only got out of prison because he bribed an official, a Polack like himself, a fellow card player but if you think they’ll ever be friends again…”
“… We waited until it was pitch dark. The doctor, who had packed some food for me, clothes, some books — Senkiewicz, Reymont, Zeromsky’s Trilogy… ‘They will keep you company,’ he said — drove through the town with the headlights off while I cowered in the dark.
“We crossed the Bug River and, making small stops along the way, finally reached the Ukrainian border. The doctor had organised friends to meet me there. I would be in safe hands. They were socialists — real ones, not like the Nazis, who only pretended to be. I might have to fight alongside them if the Germans continued with their Blitzkrieg, but better be here than in god-forsaken Poland. Not trying to hide my tears I thanked the doctor, embraced him like a brother. ‘Do what you can,’ I pleaded. ‘If you can do half as much for Adreanna and Aron as you have done for me, you are a saint.’ ‘Keep to the mountains,’ he answered. ‘Stay out of sight until you hear their signal. Don’t worry, it isn’t far; they are expecting you.’
“The doctor was as good as his word. After joining what was then an early version of the Resistance, we helped countless refugees across the border. I searched their faces for signs of Aron, Adreanna yet every time was disappointed. But other priorities intervened. The trains had already left Szczebrzeszyn with their sorry cargo for Auschwitz, Treblinka…
“When, after years of needless slaughter the Germans were suffering defeat after defeat, I took ship from Odessa. I had heard that Australia was a country that would welcome us so I sailed there, only to be flung into an internment camp — was there nowhere safe left in the world? — where I spent several years before being released. I was single again, or so I feared, and so was responsible to no one but myself. Drinking coffee in a restaurant in Fitzroy St, near here in St Kilda, but long gone by now, I met a man who said he needed a tailor for his new men’s wear store. I was overjoyed and joined the firm immediately.
“It was then I had a letter — the letter I had hoped never to read. It was from my doctor friend. My mouth went dry and I could feel my heart pound as though I had just sprinted a hundred yards without drawing breath. A slip of paper fell out of the envelope. It was a newspaper cutting, dated January 1940. I held that cutting folded in my hand until I felt ready to brave its contents. There had been a series of escapes before the train had made its departure. Many of the escapees had made it to the Vistula River before they were surrounded by pursuing Germans and traitorous Poles. My own people! They were trapped all of them on the river bank. Some ran but were mowed down by German machine guns. Adreanna was among them; so was my little one. But they didn’t run. While the bullets crashed into the bodies of the fugitives, Adreanna took his hand and they walked to the very edge. I can still hear her desperate cry: ‘Come, you wicked Vodnici, come and take us, you are too strong and we are too tired to fight.’
“But this is an old man’s fantasy: the only monsters were those who forced my loved ones to take their own lives. The list of the drowned was there for all to see, in alphabetical order, with Adreanna and Aron Levin at the head. You would not believe it of me but I lost the power of speech for three whole days after that. My employer let me work at the back of the store and, when I needed time for myself, I crossed the street to the station, unlocked the display case and set about rearranging exhibits. Sometimes I would be there for hours, watching the trains, waiting for the shrill signal of their departure.
“I had lost almost everything of my son and wife. All I had left were the newspaper cutting and my wife’s wedding dress. Through the years it had frayed badly, parts of it unravelling, the vivid colours fading until it seemed time to throw it out. But that would be like ripping out my heart, erasing the memory of my life with her starting with that auspicious day when we were joined together and danced like madmen and everyone screamed Mazel Tov at the tops of their lungs.”
Mr Levin pushed back his chair and excused himself. This time he returned earlier than I’d expected, a beatific look on his face and holding something iridescent and soft. When he reached me, he opened his hand. The remnant with the gold lining caught the light and, for a brief moment, the air shimmered like a rainbow.
Robin Teese has been writing short fiction and poetry for a number of years and has published works in various formats. He is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at Curtin University.