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A Piece of Paper

KARTKA
by Mariusz Szczygieł
Translated from Polish by
Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Issue 28 Online Exclusive

 

1.

 

My pen falls off the table in the New World café on Nowy Świat Street, central Warsaw. I bend down to pick it up, and see two things lying on the floor; as well as the pen, in the crack between the table leg and the wall, there’s a piece of paper—yellow with age and covered in scribble. It’s not a page from an exercise book, more like a notebook. On either side somebody has written a list of people’s names, with the years of their birth—all in the 1930s, and their addresses. I think it must be important to someone, so I would simply hand it in to the waiter, if not for the fact that all the names on it belong to women, and that one of them is a personal friend of mine.

There are twenty-one names in all.

The piece of paper is old, but not crumpled—it looks as if nobody has ever folded or unfolded it. The names are written neatly, in ink, by a practiced hand that’s used to writing. The only thing to connect the women is the fact that they were all born at roughly the same time.

Two of them have been marked out—beside Krystyna P. of Puławska Street someone has put three exclamation marks, and beside Ewa S. from Lower Zalesie there are an exclamation mark, a plus sign, and then another exclamation mark.

One of the twenty-one addresses hasn’t existed for almost sixty years: 16/33 Stalin Avenue, so the list has to date back to the early 1950s.

I call the one I know—it’s the writer Hanna Krall.

“I’ve found you on a list of women’s names that aren’t numbered or in alphabetical order,” I say, and read out the names.

“How strange. I don’t recognize a single one of them,” replies Hanna. “Have you any idea what it’s about?”

“I have a theory, but I don’t want to offend you,” I say.

“Come on, out with it.”

“What if the list was compiled by a man? An inventory of all the women he’d had? That’s why they wouldn’t have known each other—he was counting on that.”

“It sounds logical, but it’s out of the question.”

“Why?”

“Because only one gentleman has ever had me, and he’s away skiing in Val Thorens right now, so he couldn’t have lost a piece of paper. It has to be something else—a tailor’s list, for instance.”

“But what would a tailor need dates of birth for?”

“Hmm, yes, that’s a good point.”

 

 

 

2.

 

The women’s surnames seem more likely to be their maiden names, as they must have been in their late teens, or about twenty at the time. Nobody at 28 Londyńska Street has ever heard of Katarzyna S. Perhaps she just rented a room there for a short time? From the lists of tenants in stairwells I identify people with first names that sound out of date—there’s a chance they’re old enough to remember a neighbor from the early 1950s. I call Franciszeks, Józefs, and Wacławs. There’s nothing at 59 Sienna Street. Nothing at 26/6 Mickiewicz Street. And nothing at 8 Dynasy Street.

And five more nothings.

I call Hanna Krall again. “Have you had any new ideas?”

“It could be a doctor’s list.”

“But why would a doctor have brought a list of patients to the New World café, and why fifty years later?”

 

 

3.

 

I decide to place a small ad in the Warsaw edition of the main daily newspaper. But I can’t say I’m looking for some women whose names are on a list I found on the floor. What’s more, I (still) have a hunch it was written by a man who didn’t want to get his love affairs mixed up.

“I’m writing a feature about the women of Warsaw in the 1950s…” I add the names they could have had at the time, and the streets where they lived.

Next day I get the first call. “My name is Katarzyna Meloch, and you mentioned me in your advertisement.”

I glance at the list. “I’m sorry, but you aren’t mentioned here at all.”

(My profession has taught me that this sort of thing happens—there are people, especially lonely ones, who like to assume other people’s stories, as a way of seeking attention.)

“No, you are looking for me. But as Irena Dąbrowska.”

“Yes, that’s right, I am looking for Irena Dąbrowska.”

“That’s me. I didn’t just change my surname, I changed my first name too. Does that interest you? Perhaps I can tell what the list is all about—let’s meet at the café tomorrow.”

 

4.

 

Next day, Katarzyna Meloch is at the New World café.

She’s a journalist, author of a book called An Invitation to Loving, portraits of writers of the generation that wrote for the biweekly literary journal Współczesność (Modern Times) in the 1960s. She’s brought a photograph with her.

“Why did you change your first name and your surname?”

“It was in 1968, to do with the situation in March that year. The witch hunt against Jews had started, and lots of people had had their original Jewish names exposed, which they’d changed to Polish ones during the war, for obvious reasons. I’d been called Irena Dąbrowska for the past twenty-eight years, and I thought: This is it, now I have to come clean. I must tell other people the truth, but I must tell myself too—I am a Jew, and my real name is Katarzyna Meloch. I knew I’d feel better as soon as I’d done it.”

“And did you?”

“It reached the point where now I’m a member of a society called the Children of the Holocaust, I inspire other people, and you know what? There’s always someone coming out of hiding.”

 

 

“Are there people who don’t want to?”

“Yes, and they die of heart attacks.”

“Why heart attacks?”

“If a guy is sixty-seven years old, and his wife and children have no idea who he really is, what’s he got left? People who conceal something so persistently die of heart attacks.”

Katarzyna-Irena forgets her cup of tea—she hasn’t drunk a drop of it. She shows me the photo. A handsome young man in wire-rimmed spectacles is resting his head on his hand, beside a girl of incredible beauty. Enlarged a few times, the picture advertised an exhibition called “Photography of Polish Jews” at the Zachęta Gallery.

“That’s my mom and her brother—Wanda and Jacek Goldman. There was a phase when I’d walk around the city and see them staring at me from all over the place—from advertising pillars and bookstore displays. There they were, looking at me, from a time when they didn’t yet know of my future existence. They can’t have been twenty when it was taken.

“In 1939, when our house near the Prudential was bombed, we moved away to Białystok. My dad, Maks Meloch, who worked for the State Archive, disappeared. Some of my parents’ friends escaped from the Germans to the Soviet Union. Mom was a teacher of Latin and Greek, but in Białystok she taught history. She told me the stories out of Kipling’s Jungle Book, while we sat at home, waiting.

“She knew they’d come for her. When the German picked up her Soviet passport, he said out loud: ‘A communist, and naturally a Jew!’ ‘I’m just a mother,’ she replied. They let her get dressed. She left, and was gone from my life forever. I was nine years old at the time.”

The waiter is hovering hesitantly. He asks if he should bring a third cup of tea, because the second one has gone cold too. But Katarzyna-Irena has nothing to say on the topic of tea.

“I started being Irena Dąbrowska. I used a dead girl’s birth certificate. I was hidden by nuns, the Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in a place called Turkowice outside Lublin. They took care of about two hundred children, among whom during the Nazi occupation there were about thirty Jews.”

“So what’s this all about?” I ask, pointing at my list.

“They’re Jewish girls who were saved under occupation-era names. But watch out.”

“Why?”

“It’s the tip of the iceberg.”

 

5.

 

I leave the café and call Hanna Krall.

“It could be yet another list of Jewish women, real names and adopted ones. Lists like that get passed around, so do be careful, Mariusz…”

“I’m always careful what I say.”

“I know you are, but they might react with terror. You know what? Best leave that list and those women in peace.”

 

 

6.

 

Alina Krzepkowska (who goes by her husband’s surname nowadays) is the only one who still lives at exactly the same address as on the list, in a pre-war tenement house on Tamka Street. She’s a handsome-looking woman—tall, erect, and elegant, with her white hair in a bun. The apartment is full of books and pictures painted by her husband. He instantly committed the sights that seduced him in Arab countries to canvas. She used to work in foreign trade, and he is a doctor of engineering. On the coffee table there’s a copy of Nasz Dziennik, the newspaper favored by right-leaning patriots.

We talk about history.

“So much is being said about September the eleventh that we’ll have a paradox soon,” my hostess explains. “Under plaques commemorating the Warsaw Uprising, I come across young people who have no idea what it was. Soon we’ll have wiped out our own history.”

(My profession has taught me that sometimes it’s better not to ask direct questions. I would never ask a woman who has written a farewell letter to her family before an operation: “What did you say in that letter?”—that would give her a chance to avoid answering. Instead I ask: “I wonder what someone would write in a farewell letter?” That sort of question gives my interviewee an option—if she doesn’t want to talk about herself, she doesn’t have to.)

“Could this be a list of Jewish girls who were saved during the war?” I ask.

Instantly she smiles and says: “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m not of Jewish descent.”

We talk about literature. My hostess says she loves nonfiction. She could never bear made-up stuff.

She examines the list. “Just a moment… I know the lady with three exclamation marks. We studied math and natural sciences together. Krysia was beautiful—blonde with green eyes, incredibly pretty. Though you could tell she’d turn out fat in the future.”

“How come?”

“Because she wasn’t the type to keep fit. Maybe the exclamation marks are for beauty? It looks as if she lived very near me.”

“But who could have written it, and why?”

“Perhaps we got on the wrong side of someone? I never hid my views. Maybe it’s a Security Service list? In foreign trade I know I spent my time among agents. Once I was in Budapest for trade talks, and there was a Polish man sitting at the table whom I had never seen before. We all said hello, and he suddenly introduced himself to the clients as Zbigniew Kowalski from the finance department. But I was perfectly well aware that Zbigniew Kowalski, my colleague, had stayed behind at the office and wasn’t even on his way to Budapest.”

We talk about the tenement house on Tamka. “We’ve been living here since the liberation. It’s a famous building. It even features in a book about a wartime resistance unit called Against Tanks and Secret Agents.”

From here I go straight to the address of the girl with three exclamation marks.

 

7.

 

Next day, Halina P. from the Solec district calls in response to the advertisement about Warsaw women. I tell her it’s actually to do with the list.

“I think I know what that list is about,” she says confidently. “It’s not something to discuss on the phone, but one thing I can tell you—we girls were terrible in those days. Of course the others are sure to try and avoid the truth. They might even advise you to have nothing to do with it.”

 

 

8.

 

There’s a call from Hanna Krall. “I think someone must have recognized you from TV and deliberately slipped you that piece of paper. For some reason, they wanted you to write about it. Did you leave your table at the café at all?”

“Yes, I did.”

“For as long as it takes to go to the restroom?”

“Longer than that, because I spotted a friend at the other end of the café.”

“Well then, someone left it there for you on purpose. But why? Sorry, I’ve got to go—Tadek Sobolewski is calling.” He’s a well-known film critic.

An hour later Hanna calls again. “I told Tadek about the list—he knows every movie plot in the world, and he says they planted it on you.”

“Hanna, could someone have thought you were a terrible person in those days?” I ask.

“Me? Terrible? I’ve always been very tactful!”

 

 

9.

 

The terrible woman lives on the second floor on Solec Street. The stairwell smells of urine, but the apartment is neat as a pin. She’s retired, and shows me her life’s work: four hundred maps from the days when she ran a cartographic publishing company. She’s gotten everything ready for my visit: rowanberry vodka, brandy, and cherry liqueur.

“It’s a bit early in the day for me,” I say, as she sets the crystal shot glasses on the table.

“Never say it’s too early for anything,” she says. “You’ll soon find it’s already too late for everything.”

“Why were you ladies terrible?”

“Show me the list, please… Well yes, I can’t remember whose handwriting it is anymore. If it’s the man I’m thinking of, he was high up in the Stalinist days. He could have had that many women. No, he may have had more, and this list is just part of it.”

“But what was terrible about you?”

“Shhhh!” the Terrible Woman suddenly hisses, and stiffens in her chair, listening.

“Is it a mouse?” I ask in a whisper.

“No! Shhh! Eight, nine, ten, eleven. All right. Eleven steps is to apartment number three.”

She calms down, and sinks back into her chair.

“We did some terrible things… Hush! She didn’t open the door! Oh, they’re going down again! We had a moral revolution. We weren’t just interested in sexual experiences. It was a rebellion. Our communism was a rebellion. It was purely to rebel that I joined the Union of Polish Youth in college. We believed our parents had caused that dreadful war. We believed we had to live a different way. As one of my friends says, the Church didn’t rule hearts and minds, and there was no AIDS in those days. We weren’t thinking of pleasure, we thought it was a new way of life. But the consequences were disastrous.”

“What consequences?”

“Shhh! Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen… Oh, no—they’re going to number six!”

“What consequences?”

“Abortions. We had pregnancies terminated as if we were having teeth pulled. That woman at number three is an awful old cow. So nosey. ‘Oh Halina,’ she says, ‘I can’t for the life of me imagine how come you were never married.’ ‘Because it’s better to live alone than with an idiot,’ I always say, and she knows I’m talking about her husband.”

“Did you have a termination too?”

“Three times. I was madly in love with this blockhead. He had a wife and two children, and I didn’t want to cause him trouble. We were together for seventeen years. We went on holiday fourteen times, eight of them to Bulgaria. He told me his wife was a nightmare and that all she cared about was money. And do you know how stupidly it ended? One day, for a joke really, at Christmas I said to him: ‘I wish you all the best, and I wish her all the worst.’ He didn’t speak to me for a whole year! He actually did love her, but he told me he was only with her because of the children. The relationship we had for seventeen years meant nothing to him! My God, it was enough to make me fall to the floor in fits and lie there all day.”

Silence.

She’s listening again, but there’s nothing to count.

“And why are you so stiff? Why haven’t you drunk your cherry liqueur? As I was nearing forty, I suddenly wanted to have a baby. With whomever. But no chance. Abortion has terrible consequences, and these days I’m not in favor of it. Show me that list again. It could belong to a gynecologist too, and that’s why I don’t know these women… You’ve touched upon something extremely intimate. Don’t go looking for these ladies. Shhh!”

“And why do you count the footsteps?”

“Because fourteen would be to me.”

 

10.

 

A letter comes from Katarzyna-Irena: “Please don’t imagine it’s a list of lovers. In the 1950s we were far from that sort of thing. We matured late, and we were still virgins, that’s for sure. And one more thing: the copy of the list that you gave me has mysteriously disappeared. I’d like to have the whole thing so I can give it some more thought.”

 

11.

 

I’ve had a brainstorm.

One of the women on the list is a famous actress. I’ve been reading the last name as Krystyna Stenkiewicz, but I should have read it as Sienkiewicz.

I call the actress, who is in Katowice right now. “Good God!” she cries down the phone. “Don’t tell me—they’re all dead except for me. And I suppose I’m only alive because I happen to be in Silesia? Am I the last one on the list? As well as the devil who’s been killing them off, is there a guardian angel watching over me?

“And why did you call in the evening? I won’t sleep a wink now. I’ve never been mixed up in any shady business, but I’ll spend the whole night agonizing about it. I was once interrogated by the Security Service. When Bolesław Piasecki’s son was kidnapped, the girls and I were at a masked ball. Some time after the boy was murdered, the secret police thought there were clues leading to the ball. Two knights in armor had come along to it, who hadn’t raised their visors all evening. We suspected they were murderers. Or secret agents keeping an eye on the ball.”

“Or secret agents and murderers all in one,” I say.

“Exactly. And I was questioned on whether I knew what the knights really looked like. Maybe the women on the list were at the ball too?”

“No, they weren’t. Piasecki’s son was killed in 1958, and the list dates from the days of Stalin Avenue, so before 1955.”

“What’s the house number on Stalin Avenue?”

“Sixteen, apartment thirty-three.”

“I used to live in that apartment!”

“No, Izabella Prokopp lived there, fourth from last on the list.”

“But so did I! In the 1960s. At Izabella’s mother’s place—she was a famous opera singer between the wars. I rented a room, until I was forced out of it by the Big Blancmange. I had to move out, because she’d settled in for good.”

“The big who?”

“The Big Blancmange, but there was a Little Blancmange as well, you know. The Blancmanges had all the appeal of blancmange, and they had bleached hair the color of blancmange too. They came to Warsaw to rub shoulders with the big city. The Big one, whose name was Hania, was the sweetheart of a stage performer. They both danced on the table in the movie Gangsters and Philanthropists. I’m a generous person, so I let her stay at my place, until she pushed me out. Those were the days!”

“Beautiful girls everyone dreamed about, and who had great futures ahead of them?”

“But I had nothing to do with any married men, so it can’t be a list of lovers. Did you say Irena Przybyłowska from Dziekanka Street is there? She’s a close friend of mine, she was very respectable. She went to live in Szydłowiec with her husband who was a vet, and her married name is Hanusz. She graduated in Polish and worked as a high-school teacher. No, it can’t be an inventory of love affairs. And terminated pregnancies are right out of the question!”

 

12.

 

I try to find evidence of Izabella Prokopp at her mother’s apartment, and while I’m at it, of Krystyna Sienkiewicz and the Big Blancmange. I’m helped by a small chain of individuals including four women and one man who live in three of the neighboring tenement houses.

These days Izabella lives in Józefów. She studied musicology. Until December 13, 1981, she worked for the literary weekly Kultura, and then for Polish Radio, writing record reviews. She and the composer Tadeusz Baird coauthored a book about him. She’s been romantically occupied since the age of fifteen.

“Maybe it’s a list of those who attended an inter-faculty lecture, if they were all students?” she guesses.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” I say. “The age range among students is six years. Only people from the same year or contiguous years could have had lectures together.”

“Then I can’t think what else the list might be.”

 

13.

 

Period. I’ve hit a brick wall.

Two of the women on the list, whose families I’ve found, have passed away.
Who visited the café with this list from all those years ago, and why?

“The culprit always returns to the scene of the crime,” says Hanna Krall. “Go to the New World café and sit at the same table. Maybe something will happen.”

So off I go, and something does happen. I ask the lady at the desk if anyone has been looking for a lost document.

“Yes, they have! An elderly gentleman who comes here regularly asked a few days ago if anyone had found his souvenir list. If you’ve got it, please leave it with me.”

“No, I’m not going to do that…”

 

14.

 

A man over seventy comes to the meeting. He’s in a herringbone jacket, he’s not very tall, fair-haired with a beard. He hasn’t even gone gray yet.

“The list was drawn up from the tenth to the twentieth of April 1954,” he’s happy to explain. “I was a junior doctor, and I inoculated two thousand seven hundred and ninety female students against typhoid. While I was at it, I jotted down the names of the prettiest girls.”

“But what for? Did you meet up with them later on?”

“God forbid, I never got to know a single one of them.”

“So what did you need the list for?”

 

“Because I was very shy with women. I was five foot six and weighed two hundred pounds. I decided that if I wasn’t married within six months, I’d try courting one of the girls on my list. I’d come and say the inoculation hadn’t worked and would have to be done again. After all, love can start like that too.”

“And did you? Did one of them become your wife?”

“No, I married someone who wasn’t on the list. A blonde with a ponytail whom I met outside the health-care finance department when I went to collect my pay.”

“Why did you bring the list here?”

“By accident. I was reading an article about the actress Jean Seberg and her husband, the writer Romain Gary, who shot himself in the head because of her. He spent a few years living in Warsaw.”

“What does that have to do with the list?”

“I’m a distant cousin of Romain Gary’s. Do you know how his book Promise at Dawn begins? ‘At the age of forty-four I still dream of some essential tenderness…’ When I read the article about their marriage it reminded me that somewhere I had a letter from Jean Seberg written in the 1960s, and among my papers I came upon my list of the prettiest girls. Just keeping that list in my diary for a few days cheered me up. And that’s all. Then I realized to my horror that I’m such an oaf I’d lost it somewhere.”

“And why does this lady have three exclamation marks?”

“Because she was the prettiest of all. I’ll never forget her… A blonde with green eyes. Slender, though she may have put on weight by now.”

“I found her!”

“And?”

“She won’t open the door to anyone, she never goes outside, and she’s lost her memory.”

“For God’s sake, please don’t tell me any more about those women!”

 

 

___

This text is reproduced by kind permission of Agora SA. It first appeared in Kaprysik, Damskie Historie (“A Caprice: Ladies’ True Stories”), a collection of articles by Mariusz Szczygieł published in 2010.

Photo of Krystyna Sienkiewicz by Sofia Nasierowska; printed with the permission from Reporter Agencja Fotograficzna

Photo of Hanna Krall by Erazm Ciołek / © A. Ciołek.

Mariusz Szczygieł is among Poland’s leading authors of reportage. A former television presenter, he is acclaimed for his press features and his books. After Gottland came Do-It-Yourself Paradise, comparing Polish and Czech attitudes to religion. He cofounded the Institute of Reportage, which trains young reporters.
Translator
Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a prize-winning translator of Polish literature. She has translated works by many of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists, including Paweł Huelle and Jacek Dehnel, and authors of reportage including Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Jagielski. She also translates crime fiction by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, poetry, essays, and children’s books. Her translation of Gottland by Mariusz Szczygieł—a candid portrait of the Czechs—was published by Melville House in 2014.