Of the half dozen languages my immigrant parents knew, Polish was the one used for secrets−−anything we children were not to understand. A few years after they had both passed away, I visited my family’s homeland, and the homeland of previous generations until the Holocaust. Something pulled me to return a second time, and then a third. In 2009, I spent six months in the Polish city of Lodz, uncovering the past and trying to learn the language of secrets.
My five-month Polish language course began on the second of March, on the second floor of an eleven-story tenement like building that was the armpit of the University of Lodz. The building was nicknamed “Babel.” We numbered twenty students that first week−from Yemen, Turkey, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Ireland, Iraq and China, amongst other countries. I was the only American, the only Jew, and old enough to have mothered most of my classmates. Thankfully, at least one of our teachers was my age.
Eva was our only teacher those first few weeks. She had a quicksilver mind and a passionate spirit. Colorful earrings dangled against her jaw where her skin sagged just slightly, the only clue to her years of experience. She pushed us to take chances—to communicate in whichever way we could.
Soon a second, younger teacher, who taught only grammar and rote repetition, replaced Eva for two days each week. The next month a third teacher, with flaming dyed hair and the air of a Shakespearian actor, took two more days. Whenever she anticipated one of us about to make a mistake, she would begin to whisper “I will shoot you,” increasing the volume and pitch in stages, until the words echoed like a banshee’s.
My language skills were strong, but Polish presented unexpected challenges. Grammar came more easily than speaking. Verbs were the hardest. There seemed to be millions of them, distinct in meaning yet disguised in waves of indistinguishable consonants. The consonants whispered just below the threshold of comprehension, armies of consonants that rustled in the wind, surrounding the all-too-few lonely vowels like women holding babies on a battlefield.
The night after our final exams in July, Eva invited me to tea, curious to hear how the exams had gone. She had withdrawn from the class a month earlier, deciding it made no sense to have three teachers when each one used a different teaching method.
“Anyway you were right, the way you pushed us, Eva.” I’d earned the second highest score in the class, but regretted how little I was able to converse in Polish after five months of study. “I would have learned faster if I wasn’t always worried about making mistakes.”
“It was the same when I was learning Italian. But one day it changed,” Eva said. “Don’t worry. It’s not time yet. You will speak when you are ready.”
The next afternoon, a friend accompanied me to the train station in Lodz. I would spend the night in Warsaw, fly to Paris in the morning, and return in three weeks for a major Holocaust commemoration. Since we’d arrived early, my friend kept me company on the train awhile−−a newer model with red upholstered seats framing a long central aisle.
A tall, lanky fellow with black hair falling in front of his eyes, and a large black backpack, sputtered past us, cursing in English under his breath. He chose a nearby seat, throwing his possessions around like a petulant child. Hearing our English, a rarity in Lodz, he played to his audience and his swearing grew louder.
Curious, I glanced over. Finding an English speaker was usually a treat, but now I was looking forward to gazing out the window undisturbed, and letting my mind dissolve for the next hour and a half. I deserved it−−my course had ended and along with it, the longest chapter of a very long journey. As soon as my friend stepped off the train and waved good-bye, bits of his story landed on me like jagged jigsaw pieces.
“Shit. . . fuck. . . “
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, my father just died and I have to get back to Belgium for the funeral. I took the train from Warsaw this morning. Some friends were supposed to pick me up and give me a ride, but they never showed up, the jerks.”
I said nothing for a while, taking it in. “You must be in a state of shock, if your father just died,” I said finally.
“No, I hated that bastard. I’m only going to the funeral for my mother’s sake.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Yeah, he was a bastard. He beat my mother and he beat the other kids. He always did shit like that as long as I remember.”
I really wasn’t interested in delving into his family’s messy story. I looked out the window for a while, trying to disengage, but something drew me back.
“So how did he die?” I asked after a while.
“He was an alcoholic. Yeah, the bastard was driving drunk when he got killed.”
“I see,” I said. His fingers were tapping the seat next to him.
“I kept waiting for those jerks to pick me up, and when they didn’t come, I started drinking beers. Yeah, so the trouble is now I don’t have money for the ticket.”
“You mean to Belgium?” I asked. Beer was cheap in Poland, barely more expensive than bottled water.
“No, for the train to Warsaw. My girlfriend, Agneizka, she told me to get on this train and hide in the bathroom when the conductor comes ‘round, or tell them I will pay for it in Warsaw. It’s my only chance to get to Belgium by tomorrow. She says there is some overnight bus I can take to get there in time.”
“So they won’t wait for you, huh? Well at least you’ll be there for your mom, even if you miss the funeral.”
“No, I have to get there for the reading of the will and to sign the documents. ‘Cause I’m going to inherit a lot of money. Six and a quarter million Euros. But if I’m not there at the reading of the will, I lose it and I don’t get anything.”
“Really? Why is that?” I asked.
“It’s how it works in Belgium.”
“That seems very strange,” I said. “You’re sure?”
“Yeah, I’m very sure, that’s how the law is.”
I did the math. It was around eight million dollars. But he didn’t have enough for the train to Warsaw, about ten dollars? His knee was pumping up and down so fast it almost vibrated, his heel softly thumped against the floor. I wondered if beer was all he had had that afternoon.
“So what are you doing in Poland?” I thought I might as well change the subject.
“I met my girlfriend, Agnieszka, seven years ago when I had a journalist job and they gave me an assignment in Warsaw. We fell in love right away so I left the job and moved to Poland to be with her. She’s my true love, my wife really, but we just didn’t manage to make the wedding yet. We got to do that soon. We got two kids, four and six, but they’re living with Agnieszka’s parents right now. She’s gonna meet me at the station.”
He kept glancing nervously around, checking on the conductor’s whereabouts.
“Well, if she’s meeting you, I guess I could possibly loan you the money for the ticket until we get to Warsaw. You say Agnieszka’s meeting you there, right?”
“Oh yeah, that would be great. She can pay you for it right away. You’d like her. We have a great time together. Like yesterday, we spent the whole day at the zoo and we had a wonderful meal and then we went for ice cream. I love to give her everything she wants. But now we’re broke again. I am Christoph, by the way.”
“What do you do now for work, Christoph?”
“I had a job selling insurance in Warsaw for a Flemish company. They paid me a lot of money, but then they fired me for not selling enough after three months. Still, I made pretty good money so Agnieszka and me, we travelled around Europe for a few months, but finally all our credit cards got cancelled so now we got to go by cash.”
The picture was coming grimly into focus. Whenever they had any money, they spent it immediately. They couldn’t even raise their own children. Yesterday they’d splurged and today they were penniless like children themselves. I wondered if I had made a mistake offering to loan him the ticket money. Still, I couldn’t see the harm if Agnieszka would pay me back. I could tell Christoph was in love with her by how often he repeated her name. The more he talked about her, the more he softened and smiled.
“Yeah, so now we’re staying in a hostel in Warsaw. Agnieszka works nights as a stripper, cause it’s the only way for us to get money. It’s not so great − some nights she makes a lot of money, some nights she comes home with almost nothing. You never know. So I was happy when my mother called me last week and told me she found money hidden inside the wall, behind a painting. She found thirty million Euros. And she promised that one day I will get my share of it. My mother deserves it too, for putting up with that bastard. She calls me every day. She’s still a young woman, only forty-eight.”
A wave of something like vertigo passed over me.
The conductor was a woman. As she stood in front of us, I explained in Polish that Christoph’s father had just died and that he had to get back to Warsaw in order to go home but didn’t have money for the ticket. Could he pay for it later? When I needed it, apparently my Polish wasn’t so bad after all. She replied that there was a special form by which he could arrange this, but the ticket would cost three times as much and it would take time.
I looked at Christoph. “Well if you promise she’ll pay me back when we get to Warsaw, I guess it’s simpler if I just pay for it.”
“Yeah, sure, no problem,” he said.
The conductor began to issue the ticket on her hand-held machine, but it ran out of paper, so she disappeared somewhere to get it working again. Meanwhile Christoph, his mood noticeably brighter, called Agnieszka.
“This nice girl on the train is going to loan us the money for the ticket. . .” Nice girl? I was older than Christoph’s mother.
The Polish woman sitting opposite me had been taking everything in. She smiled approvingly when I told her that I had been studying Polish. Feeling apologetic for Christoph’s loudness, I added that I didn’t personally know this fellow, but she seemed neither judgmental nor disturbed.
Christoph had wandered down the aisle with his cell phone and now was back. “Agnieszka said she doesn’t have the money anymore. She spent it on some food or something like that.”
Great. “Well, I don’t have that much money either,” I said. “So maybe you should fill out that form and you can deal with paying it back later.”
I guessed there wouldn’t be any serious repercussions, and the extra cost for Christoph was negligible if he was inheriting millions of Euros. Why was I getting involved and taking such good care of him, anyway? Christoph agreed and then pulled out a map to show me the location of the new home he had already picked out to buy with his inheritance, in a suburb of Warsaw.
The conductor took forever to come back with her little machine. When I told her we had changed our minds about my paying for the ticket, her eyes dimmed and her cheeks went pale. She had worked hard to get the ticket-maker working again. Feeling for her trouble, I decided to buy the ticket after all. I would treat it as an act of random generosity, something rare for me where money was concerned.
Somewhere inside, I wondered if I was a fool. Something about Christoph’s story didn’t jibe. It seemed eerily coincidental that his mother had found the hidden money only a week before his father’s accident. And that Christoph had already picked out the house he was going to buy with his share of the money.
Shortly before we reached Warsaw, Christoph finally asked a question about me − what was I doing in Poland?
“I’ve been studying Polish and doing some family research, possibly beginning a book,” I said.
“Oh yeah, I’m writing a book too,” he jumped in excitedly. “It’s gonna be about my father. My parents are German actually. My father was born in 1941. He was a member of the Stasi−−made his living hunting down and killing spies−−KGB and MI-6. The bastard killed about two hundred men in his life. But so far I’ve only written half a page.”
I knew next to nothing about the Stasi. I couldn’t think what to say, so it was quiet for a time.
“Yeah, there were a lot of dark dealings in my family. My grandfather, he was an important member of the Gestapo during the war. He was responsible for killing thousands of Jews in the Powstania Prison in Warsaw. You should visit the Warsaw Ghetto/Uprising Museum. You can see lots of photos of my grandfather there. Sixty thousand Jews were killed there.”
A couple of minutes passed. Even if his tale of spies and Nazis was bullshit, I couldn’t go on without saying something.
“I think I should tell you that my parents were Jewish Holocaust survivors, from Poland.”
Christoph said nothing. Perhaps he suspected it already and was confessing to me. Or perhaps he couldn’t care less. He’d talked about his grandfather like some famous guy, a movie star or other celebrity. His silence offered no clue.
As the train pulled into the station, I initiated the exchange of email addresses. At my request he promised he would let me know if he reached Belgium in time to receive his inheritance, and said he would pay me back when I returned to Warsaw in a few weeks.
Bartek, my friend, was waiting in the station. And so was Agnieszka, her blonde hair in a ponytail. She was anxious to meet “the girl in the train” who had paid for Christoph’s ticket. I sensed she was worried about female competition and told Christoph he should have told her I was old enough to be his mother.
As for Christoph, he was bright and cheerful−−entirely unlike the person who’d entered the train in Lodz. Before we parted, I impressed on him the importance of dealing properly with money in the future. Otherwise his inheritance would soon disappear like the rest of his money. With warm hugs, they both said goodbye.
As we made our way to Bartek’s apartment, I couldn’t stop thinking about Christoph. Tthe irony of the situation kept haunting me. Had I helped Christoph in some way? Or had my kindness encouraged the grandson of a Gestapo murderer to be even more arrogant and irresponsible in the future? I preferred to think something positive had happened from our paths crossing, but it left me unsettled.
Bartek made dinner and gave me his bedroom for the night so I’d have a good rest before my morning flight. As I lay down it hit me−−the thirty million Euros hidden in the wall had almost certainly come from the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto.
I could barely stand to think about what my family—one single family−−had lost at the hands of the Nazis. Purely on a material level, the money and properties stolen were enormous. My mother had begun proceedings to receive payment from Germany for her five years of slave labor without wages. She’d said she wanted me to have the money, but her death came before that small token of repayment could happen.
Raucous street noise intruded through Bartek’s window. Somehow I couldn’t relax. When I thought of that money hidden in the wall, it gave me the chills. I wondered about karmic credits and debts, and my ‘random’ act of generosity. Would this Jew’s kindness have some effect on Christoph, however imperceptibly? The respite of sleep never came for me that night.
When I returned to Poland three weeks later, I emailed Christoph and asked if he had arrived in Belgium in time. He replied that he had, but didn’t offer to repay me for the train ticket. Though the amount was almost negligible, the gesture would have been significant. Nor did he thank me for my help. I realized how much it would have meant to me if he had.
I remembered Eva’s words . . . .don’t worry, it’s not time yet . . . her patient strength, her faith and trust in what I couldn’t yet seem to do. Apparently it wasn’t time yet for Christoph to wake up. I wondered how long it would be until he was ready.