The False Teeth of Lila Weiss
Two men who said they were looking for "soap made of human fat" smashed windows and beat a guard at a Jewish History Museum in Romania yesterday. The men entered the museum at 8:30 a.m. and said they wanted to visit the exhibit. They asked museum guide Beatrice Stambler, 78, "Where is the soap made of human fat? Is there any Auschwitz soap?" Then they punched security guard Virgil Grecu, 63, in the face and choked him. The attackers smashed windows and threw objects before fleeing. Stambler and Grecu, whose throat was bruised, were in shock for several hours. There were no other witnesses. Sorin Iulian, secretary-general of the federation of Jewish communities, called the attack "an unprecedented act of hooliganism, with anti-Semitic tones." "Until last summer we did exhibit a case of soap made of human grease in the Nazi concentration camps," Iulian said, adding that the exhibit was withdrawn amid doubts about its authenticity.
(Associated Press, Bucharest, December 29, 2000)
Encountering Daša Drndić's dramatic text, it is only barely possible to avoid using the genuflexional punch-words "exterminationists" and "Holocaust deniers." This piece, which concludes a novel written in Croatian, touches on crucial circumstances surrounding the Gulag and the Shoah, twin reifications of the 20th century's chief totalitarianisms embedded in the phenomenal languages of the epoch--Russian and Hebrew. As well, it deals with some still controversial aspects of the historical "normalization" of the Soviet and Nazi systems in the aftermath of World War II. Yet as a literary work of the imagination, it in no way offers answers to the controversies surrounding the ideologies of those systems, ideologies whose demise was lived out as nowhere else in the violent break-up of the century's miscarried child, Yugoslavia, in the last decade of the millennium. This is a play about the fate of an archetypal orphan of the century, a small, lone person whose life was defined by the Holocaust and who outlived it. The historical Holocaust is the theme of the piece, but its topic is fascism.
Drndić's writing focuses on the disturbing unrealities experienced by souls on the margins of collapsed worlds, by those who lose everything but live on. The False Teeth of Lila Weiss (Zubalo Lile Weiss) comprises the final part of her work Totenwände. Walls of Death (Totenwände. Zidovi smrti, 2000), which continues the exploration of the totalitarian twentieth century in Europe that she began in her earlier prose works, particularly in Canzone di guerra. New Battle Songs (Canzone di guerra. Nove davorije, 1998). For the eponymic unfortunate of Drndić's text, the Gulag encapsulates the Shoah, as it did for the Jewish characters in Danilo Kiš's A Tomb for Boris Davidovič (Grobnica za Borisa Davidoviča, 1976), which typologized this subject in the erstwhile Yugoslav literary context.
Now, a quarter century later, Drndić deals with similar phenomena in the context of the Croatia's national present. Clearly she is informed by Adorno, Arendt, Semprun and Levi in her effort to contribute to a conscious, critical clearing up the nation's past, to show how one can work through very difficult material by public critical self-reflection. And she does this at a time in her nation's history when every official effort was made to qualify, even deny the dark places of the past.
In the new Republic of Croatia of the 1990s, when the general mood in the country, disrupted and truly endangered by a war of aggression and un-democratic political agendas, was not only in favour of remembering but of invoking and justifying its fascist past, Drndić's words have a special significance. Public expressions about the "historical strivings of the Croat people;" the erasing of signs and names connected to the anti-fascist struggle during WWII and the replacing of them with Ustashe ones, along with like salutes, songs, slogans and emblems; the government's proposal to construct an "all-Croat cemetery" on the site of Jasenovac, the concentration camp where during WWII the Ustashe imprisoned and killed large numbers of Croatian communists, Jews, Roma and Serbs; the parliamentary attempt to add to the Croatian constitution a bizarre paragraph prohibiting anyone in the future from making associations between Croatia and the Balkan states ; public intimidation of intellectuals critical of reactionary policies, including persecution in the media, such as the sensational sexist campaign against the so-called "five Croatian witches," women writers who dared at the time of the "Homeland War" to resist the nationalistic manipulation of the rape issue and more generally the patriarchal censorship and exploitation of women which grew as nationalism did--all these reflect the revival of fascism that constitutes the subtext of The False Teeth of Lila Weiss. Drndić's ironic allusions to the historical context (Lila: "And even there, in that Croatia, they used to kill Jews.") reflect her larger intention of attesting to the excesses of nationalism and the constant renewal of fascism.
The Rhetoric of the Historical Burden
Drndić re-presents the personal impact of holocaust in the larger sense, under both Nazis and Soviets, through the interlocution of a mother and daughter, two generations represented by a survivor and the lone survivor of that survivor. This is not a psycho-drama about the guilt-ridden residue of surviving in the aftermath of Europe's century of genocidal cataclysms. Nor is it a dramatized treatise on the moral dialectics of "forgiving" but not "forgetting." It is also not about repristinating past lives through an individual's experiential odyssey between East and West even though, through the wide range of names, places and events she evokes in her memory, the heroine's life is linked from shtetl childhood in Poland to Russia, Kazakhstan, Romania, Croatia, back to Poland and, finally, to the end in the USA. Rather, Drndić engages in a critical dialogue with the traditional memoiristic representation of Holocaust cum Gulag by presenting the underside of both. The auto-confession of her main character chronicles the undramatic life of an ordinary Jewess who did not experience the death camps of one but who knew the labour camps of the other; who first avoided planned mass annihilation in a Nazi Vernichtungslager, then coped with state-administered mass incarceration under the Soviet Gosudarstvennoe upravlenie lagerei.
Even though personal histories and impersonal ideologies dominate and determine her physical existence, they only overshadow Lila Weiss's instinctive will to preserve and continue life. Drndić has an ear as well as a mind for history in its subjective context. History for her is a universal treasure-house of infamy and violence, a sparking point for fabricating self-admission from the fragments of a spent memory, not a pre-text or a sub-text for an informed analysis or new interpretation of evil and atrocity.
What, one asks, are Hitler, Stalin, and the phantom human soap maker Dr. Rudolph Spanner doing in this text? The piece demands careful reading. From those who audit its dramatic enactment, it demands careful listening . . . lest the ear miss the tendentious rhetoric of history resonating with limpid irony in the dialectic between Lila's terse comments and Rimma's proctoring elaborations. From the interchanges between the child-like mother and her ever-mothering daughter, for example, the inattentive might wrongly assume, as Dušanka Profeta does in her notes on Totenwände , that Jews were expelled from Poland in 1936:
LILA: It is very cold. He was a year or two older than me. I left in '36.
RIMMA: That late? In '36? They were still arresting people in Russia
at that time.
LILA: We didn't know that. Jews had to leave Poland. To save their
skin. He wrote to me...
But this would be a wrong reading of what Drndić has Lila say. Jews, of course, were not made to leave Poland in that year, and in fact the overwhelming majority remained in that country throughout the thirties. Drndić knows this. Through Lila's stark utterances, she conveys not the objective logical motivations for her emigration to the Soviet Union in the years leading up to the war, but the subjective anticipation of disaster in that precarious period, which became part of the postwar reworking of the past. Lila recognizes a holocaust defined as Shoah only in hindsight, remembering her young self as one of those ordinary youths whose reaction to the threatening spectre of rising fascism was to follow some of their generation's politically motivated fellow idealists, not only Jewish Poles, to the Soviet Union. With them, Lila escaped the Nazi conflagration only to live through thirty years of its Soviet complement. Joining Isaac in Russia, she escaped the totalitarian spectre of national socialism and fell straight into the totalitarian maw of international socialism: first Stalin's labour camps (1938-1948), followed by exile in Karaganda (1948-1958) and "repatriation" to Communist Poland (1958-1968).
As Drndić has her tell her story, personal lives and objective history inter-mix through a process of subjective reduction, resulting in an emphatic intonation of historical facts: "Jews had to leave Poland. To save their skin. He wrote to me…" Although these words are spoken by Lila, a simple, underprivileged seamstress from the Polish market town of Warka, the ellipses hint that the urgent, urging rhetoric is not hers but that of her more educated beau Isaac, who speaks through her and touches on several circumstances that would have influenced the young woman's outlook at that time: 1) the threat felt in Poland and elsewhere (Italy, in particular) from the Nazi rise to power, with fascist dogma encroaching on the social, moral and political atmosphere; as Rimma explains: "She was 20 when Hitler came to power. Some Jews decided then to remain in Poland, others left for America, a third group went to Russia. Those were all young people"; 2) the influence of leftist agitation on young intellectuals at the time, evident in the adamant defensive statements Isaac utters to Lila's father, a Jewish Orthodox butcher, when he first meets him: "No, I don't eat kosher. Hitler kills Communists and Jews. We need to run away"; 3) the blind optimism in Isaac's letters to Lila from Russia, "that place of hope": "He wrote to me that there was no Hitler in Russia. Isaac. He wrote me that I should just come."
Totalitarianism and Subjective Irony
From the beginning, Drndić's "readerly" didascaly makes it clear that the old woman is in a mental and emotional state of deterioration, but only in a qualified sense: "She pretends to be forgetful and senile much more than she really is." With this instruction, we apprehend Lila living out her last, sequestered days reviewing her past---discontinuously, yet in chronological sequence--and evoking the stream of men who have appeared in her life and disappeared: her father Berel, her first husband Isaac, her second husband Albert, her third husband Dezhe, her fourth husband Max, her fifth husband Mendel. The fundamental dramatic structure develops as an autobiographical outline is sparked by Lila's answers to questions not asked but implied by an interviewer who is not present in the text. Drndić causes Lila's narrative to overlay "objective" reality, because she conceives her to be neither simply an informing witness to events nor a victim confessing her traumatic past to a sympathetic listener. Instead, she is the subjective presence of personal history vascillating between a lucid grasp of the past and her emotionally labile memories, memories of
her own fate in the words of her husband Isaac from Russia:
RIMMA: He said - come.
LILA: No, Rimmotchka. He said - we survived.
her generation in interwar Poland:
RIMMA: There were many Communists among those who left the country…
LILA: There were many religious people.
her internment in Karaganda:
RIMMA: She had spent eight years in the camp. Eight.
her most intimate life:
LILA: That's true. Albert Zeifer was so kind. Well educated.
RIMMA: That is true. My father, my biological father, was an architect. His name was Seiter. Herbert Seiter.
LILA: That's true.
In these exchanges, it is Lila who is lucid and accurate, while Rimma confuses even her father's name.
Lila's personality inheres in the tense and contradictory interaction between the two women. The authenticity of her memory is affirmed even as Rimma undercuts and qualifies it in an effort to correct or explain (not always accurately) the reasons for what her mother says about the historical circumstances surrounding personal events in their lives: Lila's departure for Russia, where the time with Isaac in Taganrog--their honeymoon year--seems a brief idyllic interlude, followed by the shock of his sudden arrest and disappearance; Lila bearing her first child after her own arrest, then the infant's death from starvation in the camp; her survival in the prison camp by sewing elegant clothes for the wives of her incarcerators; giving birth to Rimma after her release from the camp and raising this second child in Karaganda's creative circle of internal exiles, then the disruption of their return to Europe; the initial euphoria of their new life in cosmopolitan Warsaw, ended by their decision to go into "exile" and the loss of Polish citizenship in the wake of the Party-sponsored anti-Zionist campaign following the Six-Day War. At this point, the joint effort of the two women powerfully re-contextualizes the past. No logical reasoning, no official documents, no specific facts, can account fully for their individual personal motives, especially not the visualization of past motivations in their memories:
LILA: And then we had to leave Poland.
RIMMA: We had to leave again in '68.
These lines designate the completed generational transition: "having to leave" is personal exodus redux. Just as for Lila in 1936 ("Jews had to leave Poland."), so for Rimma thirty-two years later, the issue of escaping an antagonistic political atmosphere by seeking refuge in a foreign country is voluntary and essentially moral. The daughter provides both the counterpoint to and the continuation of what the mother calls her "journey."
Drndić summons the voices of real shades from the past--Hitler, Stalin, Sigmund Mazur, Zofia Nalkowska, Philip Friedman--to testify, while Lila and Rimma summon only illusive figures of their family members and their men, whose accidental fates disallow testimony. On another only apparently objective level, the disappeared persons and the vanished past of Lila's life are set in the context of actual events through a fictional device of depersonalized pseudo-documentation--"My name is Konrad Koshe and I do not exist. I am a footnote"--while the "facts" of history are presented as part of a reality that is only virtual, represented by a "male voice" and a word-processing "§" The resonances between Lila and Rimma on one hand, and Koshe, the anonymous male and the document icon on the other, provide only abstract and simplified representations of the "real world" phenomena of interest. The enormous Nazi plan and the even larger gulag system involve processes beyond their individual conceptual capacities:
LILA: There was a Holocaust. There are no more Jews in Warka
RIMMA: The arrests were massive.
LILA: Massive arrests of all the foreigners.
RIMMA: And even there, in that Croatia, they used to kill Jews.
LILA: There are no more Jews in Poland.
Similarly, outside the range of the women's human scale at the other end, are losses too diminished and too little known for them to process: Isaac's disappearance; Albert's alcoholic self-destruction; Dezhe's demise from a broken heart in Romania; Meyer's drive to compensate for the extermination of his family in Stutthof.
The two dramatic registers of the drama thereby become evident. Lila is willful but resigned. She does not suffer from the guilt of the survivor, does not introduce "that insufferable tone of self-righteousness" of those haunted by the horrible thought of what they escaped through no merit of their own. Her memory is intentionally unreliable, yet the intention is not pre-conceived. We remember Drndić's autonomous stage direction: Lila is less debilitated in old age than she lets on. Her resilient ability to accommodate such a dual personality--to embody an orphan-like vulnerability as well as an inborn, stubborn will to live on--is what, we learn, enabled her to avoid being murdered by Hitler and to withstand internment by Stalin. Lila escaped the death that would be met by every member of her family by leaving Poland too early--already in 1936. And this was a time when that country was barely beginning to experience the destabilizing signs of the extreme nationalism that would exploit a strong anti-Jewish feeling and, within two years, result in reports of "Polish Nationalists brazenly imitating" the Nazis of Germany by engaging in a "campaign of terror directed ostensibly against the Jews."  Yet Lila went to the Soviet Union too late, following Isaac who had gone there a year before, at the very moment when Stalin's purges were in full swing; the next in line for persecution would be, as she says, "handsome and idealistic foreigners." The young Lila did not have the perspective to be prescient about either the repressive Fascist or Communist absolutisms that confronted her, but speaking as an old woman she has the wits to comprehend her fate with the full capacity of her personality to pretend: with irony and with naivete.
The Dramatic Militation of the Virtual and the Fictional
In The False Teeth of Lila Weiss, Drndić, a seasoned documentarist and interviewer, uses an icon to mark virtual documents as real factual texts, then juxtaposes these with the material of verbatim drama acquired from private interview. The dramatic model she offers here reflects a recent and significant discursive development in contemporary Croatian women's writing. The distance from the main public stream that isolation, exclusion, and sometimes self-exile has imposed on some of the most talented women writers (among them Irena Vrkljan in Berlin, Dubravka Ugrešić in Amsterdam, Svetlana Slapšak in Ljubljana, Rada Iveković in Paris, Daša Drndić temporarily in Toronto) has encouraged in them a sense of independence from literary trends, modes and circles. As the Zagreb comparatist Andrea Zlatar notes, during the past decade creative writing in Croatia has become "democratized" in the sense that the distaff side of what has traditionally been a patriarchally dominated field has expanded to include, even to favour, autobiographical and essayistic forms . Drndić has gone even further, finding her voice in the friction between fictional and non-fictional discourse. Doing so, she warns about the virtuality of history and militates against the complacent oblivion that permits its replication--both at home in newly independent Croatia and in the new, more interdependent European Union.
1. Gordana Crnković, "Dvojnici beznađa." http://www.zarez.hr/85-86/kritika3.htm
2. Dubravka Ugresić, "Balkans my Balkans," Report of the Seminar "Crossing Perspectives: Cultural Cooperation with South East Europe" (Amsterdam: European Cultural Foundation, 2003), p. 26.
3. Svetlana Slapsak, "Censorship in Yugoslavia: A Personal Story," in The Power of the Word II: Women's voices and the New European Order. http://www.wworld.org/publications/powerword2.htm
4. Dušanka Profeta, "A Bell Tolling for the Nameless bones Scattered All Over Europe." http:/www.croatianwriting.com/news.php?id=121
5. Hannah Arendt, "Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility," in The Portable Hannah Arendt, ed. Peter Baehr (New York: Penguin, 2000), p. 156.
6. William Zukerman, "Jews and the Fate of Poland," The Nation, April 2, 1938, Vol. 146, No. 14, p. 379-381.
7. Andrea Zlatar, "Tko nasljeđuje 'žensko pismo'," Sarajevske sveske (Sarajevo: Mediacentar Sarajevo, 2002), p. 86.
THE GENESIS OF LILA WEISS
Mirroring in a sense the ordeal of its title character, the drama The False Teeth of Lila Weiss has had an unusual journey that has spanned several countries. However, unlike the real Lilla's exodus, the journey of the play text is still far from reaching its end, and the present publication of an English translation could be a step towards some more wandering of this as-yet-unproduced drama.
The text in its present form came into being over a period of about ten months. In 1997, Croatian playwright, novelist (seven books of fiction published so far), scholar, radio-producer, and critic Daša Drndić shared with me an extraordinary documentary drama she produced earlier that year for CBC Radio, entitled Children of Our Age. Daša's narrative took its listeners along the troubled life-path of a Jewish woman who, for the sake of an innocent teenage love, suffered the most unimaginable fate of constant flight and countless personal losses. The authentic voices of Lilla Weiss and her daughter Rimma (recorded over several interviews that Daša conducted with the two women in Toronto) constituted the core of her documentary drama, which was then underscored with some suggestive and carefully chosen music, and adorned with the profound wisdom of the verses of the Polish Noble laureate Wislawa Szymborska (whose verse became also the title of the original radio-drama). On the one hand, the polyphonic macrocosm of Children of Our Age played the horrors of Nazi concentration camps against the terrors of Gulags, and those in their turn against the dreadfulness of Jewish pogroms in post-war Poland. On the other hand, the microcosm of the feature intersected the brutality of history with dry but lucid and often witty remarks of the two women who were reminiscing about their troubled past in the present security of their new Canadian home.
My instinct as a theatre director was immediately awakened, and it did not take a lot of convincing before Daša agreed to turn the radio-documentary into a full-length play. The collaboration that ensued expanded considerably the already rich structure of the original documentary drama, thus broadening the initial scope and widening the complex geo-historic maze with accurate topoi of Lilla's half-a-century-long agony. Moreover, Daša complemented the factual figures and dates of the play with a few invented, pseudo-documentary sources which added new angles to the story. A major enhancement to the factual add-ons (introduced partly in order to couple the peculiar humour and the bitter-sweet interplay of both real and fictional Lilla and Rimma) were the fictional voices of the two dictators that moulded Lilla's and Rimma's lives - Hitler and Stalin. The imaginary confessions of the two tyrants were intertwined so as to augment the absurdity of the times Lilla and her daughter had to go through. At the same time, their presence offered a possibility to stage opposite ends of the spectrum of humanity.
Since its completion in 1997, a number of theatres in Croatia, Lithuania, and Italy have flirted with the idea of producing The False Teeth of Lila Weiss - going to so far as to be cast and to enter the pre-production stage at one theatre in Croatia - but ultimately the "delicate" nature of its topic proved to be too much and the play still has yet to be produced.
The False Teeth of Lila Weiss was published in Croatian in 2000 in Daša's book Totenwände (Meandar, Zagreb). This English language translation of the play received a staged reading in English in March of 2003 at the Graduate Centre for Study of Drama at the University of Toronto, directed by Lary Zappia. Like the iconic "Wandering Jew," The False Teeth of Lila Weiss is still looking for its proper venue on the professional stage.
THE FALSE TEETH OF LILA WEISS
Translated by Lary Zappia
LILA - eighty-seven years old, gentle but stubborn and strong; moody.
She pretends to be much more forgetful and senile than she really is.
RIMMA - fifty-one years old, edgy, apparently cold and frustrated, but actually screwed-up.
ALBERT ZEIFER |
JAMES | THEY ALL EXIST ONLY IN MEMORY
A FEMALE VOICE
A MALE VOICE, appears as § in the text
Possible use of:
· the excerpts of the original ballads of the Gulag prisoners, sung in Russian by Dina Vierny;
· the excerpts from the documentary Human Remains by Jay Rosenblatt - the parts with Hitler and Stalin (Copyright © 1998, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival; http://www.sfjff.org);
· the studio recording of a poem in Polish by Anna Freulich;
· the tape with the authentic voices of LILA and RIMMA;
· the poetry of Przybylska and music according to the director's choice, preferably Polish;
· projections of old photographs, etc.
Lila and Rimma are seated at the table placed obliquely across the stage, in a room which is a cross between the living room and a prison cell. the stage is empty and there are no superfluous details. (curtains, quilts, coasters, doilies, carpets, upholstered furniture, or lamps should all be avoided.. if any lighting fixtures appear on stage, they must be of simple, almost severe design; not a trace of kitsch.) there should be nothing to create a warm, homey atmosphere. all the surfaces should be smooth. lila should not be seated in a wheelchair. on the table, or behind their backs, there could be a samovar. from time to time, lila is chipping away at, or crumbling, a round sponge cake which sticks to her teeth. occasionally she uses her index finger to get pieces of cake off her teeth. that is her only tic. both women are talking without much emotion. behind them, there is a big rectangular, relatively low window (the bottom edge is at the level of their shoulders while seated), taking almost the entire width of the back, diagonal wall. there are no bars on the window.
the underlined text represents reminiscences - the sparks of memory.
KONRAD: My name is Konrad Koshe and I do not exist. I am a footnote.
(Przybylska or someone else sings a song about the shtetl.)
RIMMA: Przybylska!!! Oh, Jesus and Mary!
LILA: Oh, Jesus and Mary! Excuse me.
....This is me, this is my cousin, she died in Israel. This is my cousin, he was killed by Hitler. This is my cousin. And this. And this. They were killed by Hitler, too.
(the projection of the documentary on Hitler starts. over it, we hear the voice of Hitler.)
HITLER: Actually, I was an artist. I wanted to withdraw from politics. I believed that the only permanent masterpieces were those created by the human mind. That is why I adored the arts. I made beautiful sketches. Nowadays, at auctions, they fetch unimaginable prices. Early on I adored Chopin and Strauss. Bach and Mozart were getting on my nerves. Later, I liked Wagner. For me, he was a God. His music was my religion.
LILA: This is Nathan, this is Etzia, this is Israel, and this is his wife Karola. There are no friends. There are no relatives. Only photos.
KONRAD: And this is me. Konrad Koshe.
RIMMA: This is Warka, Franciszkanska Street.
§: The town of Warka is mentioned for the first time in 1321 in a document signed by Trojden Czerski I. The town got its name from the word "warować" (which means "to fortify", or "to guard") because at the time the town, situated at the mouth of the river Pilica, served primarily as a lookout post.
RIMMA: This is their house. Franciszkanska Street 12. You can see the Jewish shops on both sides of the road. The shops of the Mokotow family. The jewellery, the leather goods, the butcher shops, the bakeries. They made cheap beer and wine in Warka.
§: The beer from Warka was famous all around. The Prince Boleslaw V made a decree by which he ordered that the entire quantity produced should be delivered exclusively to his court, and that the beer should be sold to the general public only in the cellar of the Warsaw City Hall.
Today one can still occasionally hear the anecdote about the beer from Warka, according to which the papal nuncio Gaetano - a great lover of that beer himself - while suffering from throat cancer, cried out: "Biera di Warka." The priests who surrounded his deathbed, not knowing what he was talking about, thought that he might have been calling upon a saint unknown to them, and so they started to pray: "Santa Biera di Warka, ora pro nobis…," at which point the sick nuncio burst into laughter and regained his health.
RIMMA: There were three squares in Warka. There was a lot of trading on market days. The Poles were bringing in the potatoes and the Jews the horses. I don't know how it is today.
LILA: There was a Holocaust; there are no more Jews in Warka.
KONRAD: My mother was born in Warka. In 1914.
I was born in Zagreb in 1939. I graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in 1964, in the class of Professor Albert Kinert. In 1965, I left for Brazil where my father happened to be at the time. When he escaped from Croatia in 1942, he was a clerk in the Administration of the Independent State of Croatia and a professional chess player.
From 1970 until the present day, I have been exhibiting my works collectively and individually throughout Latin America, in Canada and the United States, in Germany, in France, in Belgium, and - only recently - in Poland. I returned to Croatia in 1990, and then left it again in 1995. I do not have a place of permanent residence. I just listen and I eavesdrop.
LILA: What? We were in Russia, in Taganrog, the sun in Taganrog, Isaac and I in Taganrog, and they in Poland. All of my people in Poland, and we - in Russia. Nathan is 14, the ghetto in Łódź, hunger, everybody is hungry, Etzia is little, Nathan sneaks out of the ghetto, comes back with two eggs, Israel was selling gloves in Łódź, soft leather ladies' gloves, and silk scarves, and hats, lots of hats, Jews like hats. In a beautiful little dimly lit shop with a scent and a mystique in Łódź. He was selling buttons made of mother of pearl and ivory, combs for long dark hair; I myself had a long dark hair, heavy. Not anymore. My hair is very small now. He was selling porcelain figurines, porcelain buttons. Nathan returns to the ghetto. He passes the guards, he laughs, he carries two eggs for his little sister Etzia. The German shoots. It's all over. Nathan is gone. Family dinners. Soup served in porcelain. In the ghetto Karola dies of hunger. In the ghetto. Nathan is 16. Dead, at the entrance of the ghetto. The eggs drip. The whites slip, the soil absorbs. The dust of the ghetto wrapped in the egg whites. Etzia is taken to the textile factory in Augsburg. What? May? May 1943. I am so far away, Etzia is hungry, Karola is dead. Then Etzia disappears. Everybody disappears.
(THE FILM - HITLER.)
HITLER: I really adored the movies. Especially American movies. I watched the one about the Bengali Tiger three nights in a row. Of course, I loved the movies that Leni made. Well, the two of us were very close.
LILA: Ich bin alte frau. It sounds German. It is not German. It's Yiddish. I love Yiddish. I speak Yiddish, I write Yiddish. I am Lila... What, Rimmotchka, Szymborska?
(A FEMALE VOICE): Few of them made it to thirty.
Old age was the privilege of rocks and trees.
Childhood ended as fast as wolf cubs grow.
One had to hurry, to get on with life
before the sun went down,
before the first snow.
LILA: It is not good to be old. Ich bin alte frau.
I worked in Warsaw with my friend Lenka. Lenka Marcus was from Glowaczow. From the neighbouring shtetl, Glowaczow.
§: In Hebrew, shtetl means "a little town." Most shtetls were found in Poland. They were inhabited predominantly by Polish peasants and the Jewish merchants and craftsmen.
Shtetl was also a way of life. Shtetl was the language, the religion, the cooking, the way of dressing, of thinking; shtetl was the family traditions and institutions. Today, shtetl is nostalgia. A blurred memory. Horror and joy.
There are no more authentic shtetls. Their traces can be found in ethnic communities around the world, in little protected enclaves where the past does not want to die.
Shtetl was responsibility. Shtetl was hierarchy and status. The rich Jews and the poor Jews, the educated Jews and those without any education - they all lived in a shtetl. In a shtetl, everybody belonged, nobody was outside.
LILA: Lenka did not go to Russia. Lenka was taken to a ghetto.
Lenka Marcus, later Lenka and Adam Starkopf. Lenka's letters to Taganrog...
A FEMALE VOICE, LENKA (PLEASE RESPECT THE PUNCTUATION.): I am selling the lace at Barbara Schechter's nobody buys lace at Barbara Schechter's, I am sending you a little sample of lace from the shop of Barbara Schechter for a tiny black collar, on a tiny evening dress, here nobody wears tiny evening dresses because the stores are disappearing people are disappearing, Lilla. (PAUSE.) Stella is born. Our name is now Starkopf and we wear a star. Adam is not selling toys, the shop is closed, there are no toys for Stella, Stella was born on a kitchen table. (PAUSE.) From time to time we look at the stars, we constantly look at Stella, we will make it.
LILA: They made it. Stella and Adam and Lenka.
Adam, Lenka's love.
They loved each other in his shop, amongst the toys. Stella was born in the ghetto. Stella means star. Then they escaped. They made it. Adam provided for the false documents, they'd put Stella to sleep and they wrapped her in a pillowcase. They tied the pillowcase with a belt, and then they put the pillowcase with Stella in it inside a little coffin. They told the guards of the ghetto: "Stella died; we want to bury her in the Jewish cemetery; here is a gold coin for you," and the guards said: "All right." Adam provided for the false documents. The false documents with German names. With Catholic German names. The Catholic cemetery is right next to the Jewish cemetery. They buried Stella in the Jewish cemetery, and when the gravediggers left, they dug Stella out. Then they jumped over the fence into the Catholic cemetery, because the Catholic cemetery was in the Catholic part of town, outside of the ghetto. And so Lenka and Adam and Stella became Catholics, and they lived in the countryside and they came back to Warsaw only after '45. Afterwards Lenka died and Stella was 17 and Adam was old. What?
RIMMA: They have moved the cemetery to the shore of the river Pilica.
§: The river Pilica contributed a lot to the flourishing of mercantile activities in Warka. It was used to transport logs from the nearby woods, and food and salt from the south. In 1556 there were two bridges over Pilica in Warka, and on its shores there were eight working mills. The railroad that connects Warka with Warsaw was built only in 1934.
After the division of Poland in 1795, Warka was under Prussian rule. Twenty years later, it was under Russian rule. The Poles started numerous uprisings for national liberation. All of the leaders of those uprisings, from Piotr Wysocky and General Jozef Bem to the Lieutenant Wladyslaw Kononowicz, were executed by the river Pilica.
RIMMA: There, buried under the ground by the river Pilica is the rabbi Jitzak Kalish, a well-known Hasidic rabbi from Warka. He died a long time ago, in 1848. And mom's mom died when my mom was 4. There are many stories about the cemeteries. About the Jewish cemeteries.
LILA: Isaac? He was a year older than me. I call him to Warka. I introduce him to my father and my stepmother.
ISAAC (WITH A ROSE IN HIS HAND.): No. I don't eat kosher. Hitler kills Communists and Jews. We need to run away. I love your daughter.
LILA: Mama died in '33. Then Father remarried. Jews don't live alone. Father came back from the war. The first one. I was with my aunt in Warsaw. When he came back, he woke me up and then he cried. Then he went to Warka. To his little shtetl.
§: A long time ago, in the distant past, Warka had seven churches. One of these seven churches rested on the shores of the river Pilica, just where the Dominican Lake is today. For unknown reasons, according to legend, this church was swallowed up overnight by the earth. Until this day, on every major religious holiday, the music of church bells can be heard from the depths of the lake.
LILA: Mama died. Father remarried and had a little son. He then disappeared in Chelmno.
§: The little town of Chelmno, about eighty kilometres from Lodz was where the first mass killings of Jews by gas took place. That was the beginning of the action called "the final solution" which, at the concentration camp of Chelmno alone, took almost 300,000 lives. The commander of the camp was Herbert Lange, who was transferred to Chelmno from Posen where he had successfully led the program of euthanasia of psychiatric patients, the so-called "Program T4." Lange and his team in Posen brought to perfection the mechanism of the liquidation gas-trucks. The first models started using tubes by which the carbon monoxide that the engine produced was introduced into the rear compartment of the vehicle where "the patients" were locked up. Chelmno had three functional trucks at their disposal. According to Lange's plans, all of these trucks used the Renault chassis on which the hermetically sealed tin compartments with double doors were mounted. The floor was covered with removable wooden boards in order to facilitate the cleaning process. This technique proved to be very efficient, so there was no need for further improvements.
(THE FILM - HITLER.)
HITLER: I suffered from stomach cramps and eczema. I was obsessed with my health. My favourite dish was Nudel Suppe. I simply adored the little dumplings. There were rumours that I was a vegetarian, but there was liver in the dumplings, and there was chicken in the soup. I ate enormous quantities of eggs. I was watching my weight, but I could not resist chocolate eclairs, not to mention plain chocolate. I used to devour a kilo a day. I despised sports. When I gained weight, I used to go on a diet of walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and fresh fruit. I marched into Czechoslovakia with my pockets full of hazelnuts. I had serious trouble with gas.
LILA: Father disappeared in Chelmno, and I was far away. In Taganrog.
RIMMA: Her father had a butcher shop. He was very rich and very religious. Very kosher.
ISAAC: I don't need your money. I don't need your approval. We will get married. Lila is going with me. We don't need your blessing.
LILA: My father liked Isaac. He was a good fellow. And Isaac liked my father too. We got married. Before going to Russia. We got married. He left first. To Nizheudinsk. A cold city. In the Urals.
RIMMA: In Siberia.
LILA: In Siberia. Very cold city.
RIMMA: Who could have known it? Take off your sweater. (RIMMA TRIES TO TAKE HER SWEATER OFF, BUT LILA RESISTS. SHE DOESN'T LET HER DO IT.) He left first. For that place of hope.
LILA: He was writing that there was no Hitler there. I will take my teeth out. I have to brush my teeth.
RIMMA: Then the Stalinist paranoia began. The murder of Kirov. The external enemies. The purges. The purges that lasted for years.
§: It is very unlikely that Kirov intended to put Stalin in jeopardy, although often sparks flew between the two of them. Stalin, as paranoid as he was, began to doubt the loyalty of his close collaborators within the Leningrad Party Organization, so he was looking for an excuse to start purges of unprecedented proportions. Kirov's murder served his purpose excellently. The perpetrator of this act - which was later proven to have been planned in great detail - was a young man called Leonid Nikolayev. It seems that the murder of Kirov was ordered by Stalin and the NKVD.
(THE FILM - STALIN.)
STALIN: Truth be told, my name was Josef Dzugashvili. For the longest time they called me Koba, or sometimes, endearingly, Soso. Then I changed my name to Stalin, which means "man of steel."
I was never interested in becoming rich; I was interested in power. I was a bit raw; my behaviour was somewhat unpolished. Once I offended Lenin's wife, Krupskaya, and almost lost my position.
With my first wife, Yekaterina, I had a son, Jacob. Yekaterina died very young. With her, died all my feelings for human kind. I didn't even care about Jacob. I didn't see him again until he was 27.
§: On December 1st 1934, after the execution of Kirov, Stalin introduced draconian punishment for any alleged political mischief. In order to invent a farcical defence of Kirov and to condemn his killers, Stalin initiated an enormous witch-hunt. For the next four and a half years, millions of innocent Party members as well as people who had absolutely nothing to do with the Party, were executed or deported to concentration camps - the majority of them under the insane accusation that they had taken part in the murder of Kirov.
From then on, Stalin never visited Leningrad again. He carried out all of the monstrous purges in that city, in that Russian historical window to the West, from a deep shadow.
(THE FILM - STALIN.)
STALIN: When I met my second wife, Nadia Aleluyevna, she was 15. I was 38. Svetlana, my "little sparrow," was born in 1926. Six years later, Nadia killed herself. She was 31 then. Nothing could cheer her up. Not even her children. There were stories that I killed her, and that I poisoned Lenin. That's just nonsense. But I do admit that Lenin's death helped make my position much stronger. But to poison Lenin - that was not at all on my mind. I declare this with full responsibility; I can assure you that I visited Lenin at least once a week. Then why would I kill him?
Since I mentioned Lenin, I should also say that the embalmed body that is on display, the body that people have been walking by and bowing to out of respect for decades - is not Lenin's at all. For heaven's sake, Lenin was cremated!
LILA: I was a foreigner. And Isaac was a foreigner. Very handsome. An ideal suspect.
RIMMA: Isaac left first.
LILA: Oh, yes. He left first. I forgot that. With his two brothers. To see how it was, in the Urals.
RIMMA: In Siberia.
LILA It is very cold. He was a year or two older than me. I left in '36.
RIMMA: That late? In '36? They were still arresting people in Russia at that time.
LILA: We didn't know that. Jews had to leave Poland. To save their skin. He wrote to me...
RIMMA: He said - come.
LILA: No, Rimmotchka. He said - we survived.
RIMMA: But they didn't survive. He wrote very optimistic letters. He should have studied.
LILA: He was so handsome.
RIMMA: Then he left for Taganrog. And then she joined him.
I arrived. I found work. It was nice. Very nice. Like the spring. Like the spring on the shores of my Baltic.
§: Chekhov was born and lived in Taganrog. His house is now a museum.
Greeks used to live in Taganrog.
There was once a lively Jewish community in Taganrog. Today that community is not so much alive.
Other than that, Taganrog is a city with a big harbour in the County of Rostov, situated in Taganrog Bay on the Azov Sea. It was founded by Peter the Great in 1698, and later turned into a fort and a strong naval base. In the 19th century it was used for exporting wheat. Today, it has both heavy and light industry, a university, and about 300,000 inhabitants. It has beach four kilometres long. Its climate is dry, continental.
KONRAD: After over twenty years spent in Kazakhstan, Lila remembers Taganrog like in a fairytale. Today the city is linked with the rest of the world with roads, railroads, a big harbour, and an airport. When Lila and Isaac lived there, the city was linked with the Communist Party. Today, public transportation is free. And so are calls from public phone booths. This might appear like something left over, like a vestige of the communist idea of opulence for everyone.
LILA: I was sewing in a factory. Men's shirts and women's dresses.
I was good at sewing. They praised me. I was young. He was working in an office. He was educated. We were young. Someone lived with us. A Russian family. Many people arrived there at the same time. We were numerous. We had friends. He wrote to me and said - come. Beautiful city, good climate. There was no war in it. So I came. He was my husband. Very handsome. Very good.
RIMMA: There was hope. There was peace.
A FEMALE VOICE (SZYMBORSKA): Ah, Rimma,
Even when you take to the woods,
you're taking political steps
on political grounds.
Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar...
Meanwhile, people perished,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.
RIMMA There was hope until 1940. Then they arrested him. On Stalin's orders.
(THE FILM - STALIN.)
STALIN: I was 162 cm tall. Above the Georgian average. My shoe size was 43. My favourite drink was a cocktail made of vodka and Georgian red wine. More than anything, I loved to smoke. From Bosnia, my friend Mustafa Golubich, otherwise an excellent agent, provided me with "Herzegovina Folo" cigars. Maybe I only loved drinking more.
I loved making mischief: slipping tomatoes on my guests' seats, clandestinely pouring salt in their wine. I believe I had a fairly good sense of humour, although I was known to lose my temper occasionally. To have real fits of rage. Once I slammed a telephone against the wall, and I threw a raw dead chicken through the window.
RIMMA: The arrests were massive.
LILA: Massive arrests of all the foreigners.
§: To obtain Stalin's permission to immigrate to the Soviet Union was considered to be an immense privilege. Until the end of the 1940s all the people who emigrated from Germany, Poland and other European countries, but also from the United States, and who came to the Soviet Union, were absolutely uncritical of Stalin and the Comintern. Most of them were trustworthy and loyal supporters of the Party leadership and they did not interfere in Party conflicts. During those times, almost the entire Jewish intelligentsia emigrated from Poland to the Soviet Union.
In order to be granted permission to enter the country, both the police and political files of the new immigrants were examined in great detail. Later on, thanks to those same files, the newcomers were mercilessly persecuted and executed. For Stalin, all the old Communists who entered the Party as revolutionaries were potential enemies.
RIMMA: The arrests were massive.
LILA: Massive arrests of all the foreigners.
RIMMA: And not only of foreigners. Of all the "suspicious elements." First and foremost, Russians. Your turn was yet to come. Isaac disappeared without a trace. They picked him up at night. In the middle of the night.
LILA: We were asleep.
RIMMA: They picked up Izaac first. Then they picked up mama.
LILA: Isaac, Rimmotchka. They were taking them by truck. And then they were loading them onto trains. Into cattle wagons. Bring me my slippers.
RIMMA: They interrogated mama. They declared her a traitor. An enemy of the people. Pick-up those crumbs.
LILA: We were the enemy of the people. The traitors. Both of us. They took us to jail. They charged us with treason. Jail. Separate jails. He disappeared. They separated us. He disappeared.
RIMMA: Separate jails. Then separate camps. He disappeared so suddenly. Her husband. Izaac.
ISAAC: What are we going to call it, Lila? What are we going to call our baby? We'll have lots of children, Lila.
LILA: We will call it Isaac. That's how we'll call it. It will be a boy. My little Isaac.
ISAAC: We will call it Heshie. It will be a girl. Heshie. Like a whisper. My two girls. My Lila, forever my Lila, and my little Heshie. Everything will be all right.
RIMMA: Isaac. She never found out where he was taken. Nor where he died. He disappeared.
LILA: He disappeared. Without a trace.
(THE FILM - STALIN.)
STALIN: I had a lot of children. Even one with some woman from Siberia whose name I cannot remember. But the name of my dog, Tyshka, I remembered until my death. I was very devoted to him.
Svetlana was my favourite child. I loved to watch her dance. Sometimes she was just obnoxious. She used to wear tight T-shirts. I would not tolerate that. A Bolshevik has to be modest. Svetlana used to go out with all sorts of suspicious guys. It really got on my nerves. Most of them were Jews. She protested when I reproached her. I would then slap her good. I could not believe that she would debase herself so much. While my country was at war, she would be going around fucking. Still, she was the only person I ever truly loved.
RIMMA: The majority of the so-called enemies were sentenced to from five to eight years of hard labour in the correctional camps. The interrogations were long and painful. Most of them took place at night. The NKVD threatened, tortured, and blackmailed. The interrogations lasted for months. The prisoners were transported from one jail to another. They were then crammed into cattle cars and taken to work camps, to the Archipelago, to the Gulag.
§: By 1936, a total of 5 million prisoners were taken to the Gulag. Besides the rich peasants and the peasants who were against collectivization, they sent to the Gulag Communist Party members, military officers, German war prisoners and prisoners from other Axis countries, members of ethnic groups accused of treason, Soviet soldiers and citizens captured by the Germans during the war, people accused of sabotage, dissident intellectuals, ordinary criminals and - above all - totally innocent people, victims of Stalin's purges. The figures made public by the administration of the Gulag itself, which became available in 1989, reveal that between 1934 and 1947, over 10 million people were deported to the camps. To this day there is no historically reliable data.
RIMMA: There were massive deportations. Massive persecutions of Poles in the Soviet Union. And of Jews. Polish Jews. They kept on disappearing until 1949.
LILA: Heshie was growing in my belly. Heshie like a whisper, as Isaac used to say.
ISAAC: Stalin doesn't know. They're working behind his back. Stalin must be informed. Stalin would never do something like that. He definitely doesn't know. Stalin must be informed.
LILA: It was spring. It wasn't cold. I don't remember how we got to the jail. We were sitting there and waiting. It was in the middle of the night. They called out his name, he got up and went out, and I never saw him again. He was a nice fellow.
It was by train. We went by train. Some sort of a German train. They called it "nara." That train was called "nara." It was full of people. All sorts of people. It was so crowded. Horribly crowded. For days. We traveled for days. They gave us some water. They gave us some food. Nothing fancy. We thought - "It's kaput." Once we arrived - there were questions. Lots of questions. Questions all the time. Loud questions. Very mean and harsh questions. They wanted to know why we didn't love Russia. We loved Russia.
RIMMA: A transport like that could easily have had between forty and fifty cars, with about sixty people in each of them.
LILA: They didn't let me go. I was sent to a concentration camp. To a Russian concentration camp. To Dolinka. Far away. Far in the east. In Kazakhstan.
RIMMA: Near Karaganda. That's where I was born. In Karaganda.
§: At first these were just little towns which existed even before they started the Gulag. Over the course of time numerous camps were built around them, and these little towns gradually evolved into provincial metropolises of the Archipelago. The towns inevitably picked up the atmosphere of the concentration camps. The officials from the camps or groups of camp guards would walk down the streets of these towns like an occupying army; the camp administration was the town's main civilian institution; the telephone switchboard did not belong to the town but to the camp; and all of the inhabitants were working in one way or another for the camp and making a living like that. The biggest of all provincial metropolises like this was Karaganda, whick was mainly populated by refugees and ex-convicts.
RIMMA: She had spent eight years in the camp. Eight.
LILA: I was sewing.
RIMMA: Potato sacks.
LILA: All sorts of nice things. They praised me.
RIMMA: Mom has magic fingers.
LILA: They are ruined now. They are not good anymore. I used to have golden hands, but not anymore.
RIMMA: She was in a Stalinist camp.
LILA: I eat too much.
RIMMA: Mom's generation was constantly in exile. Mom was born in 1912. She was 20 when Hitler came to power. Some Jews decided then to remain in Poland, others left for America, another group went to Russia. Those were all young people.
§: On May 15th, 1939, the luxury ocean liner, S.S. St. Louis left the port of Hamburg. Its destination was Cuba. 937 people boarded the ship, most of them Jews who had already been in concentration camps prior to the Crystal Night. They had been the upper class of German society prior to being stripped of all their assets by the Nazi government. What they did possess were entry visas to Cuba. The St. Louis sailed to Havana. On reaching their destination, however, they were turned away. The Cuban government refused to recognize the visas and refused to let the Jews in. The search for sanctuary began. Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Panama were approached - and all turned the ship away. Within two days, all the countries in South America had refused to grant sanctuary to the Jewish passengers of the S.S. St. Louis. Then the St. Louis turned towards Florida with the same mission in mind - to unload its passengers. But Florida also said no. The United States sent out a gun ship to shadow the cruise liner to ensure that it did not enter American waters. The cursed ship's next destination was Canada. The Immigration Minister at the time, Frederick Blair, also denied the passengers of the S.S. St. Louis, who were mostly Jews, permission to enter the country. Five weeks after it left the port of Hamburg, the St. Louis returned to Germany. Of the 937 exhausted and desperate people who started the transoceanic journey, 907 came back. The rest of them died from dysentery and other maladies, or by jumping overboard in temporary ports on the way, hoping that once they swam to the new country, it would take them in. The final count: three quarters of those who left Germany on May 15th, 1939, in search of a better future, met their deaths in concentration camps later.
LILA: He wrote me that there was no Hitler in Russia. Isaac. He wrote me that I should just come.
RIMMA: There were many Communists among those who left the country.
LILA: There were many religious people.
RIMMA: Many idealists. Only those who were taken to the less savage camps survived. Isaac probably died during the journey, in a railway car. Many of them got sick; mostly from typhus. Many of them died. Many of them died from the hard labour.
LILA: Like Meyer.
§: For most of the concentration camp inmates hunger was the greatest threat. Occasionally, if they refused to work, they risked being executed. Between 1918 and 1956, it is estimated that between 15 and 30 million people perished as a result of hard labour, harsh climate, inadequate nutrition, or illegally passed death sentences.
LILA: Most of the supervisors lived in Dolinka. There were three wards in total in Dolinka. Those wards were like autonomous estates, like some sort of farms. There were a lot of people there, all sorts of people. And around us - the barbed wire. I used to work outside the barbed wire. I would go out in the morning, and in the evening I would come back in. There was barbed wire everywhere. Lots of barbed wire. Lots of separated people. Men and women, separated, put it in separate barracks. From time to time, we would stage little shows. And we used to sing. Have you heard of Dina Vierny?
(DINA VIERNY SINGS. RIMMA, OR LILA, OR THE FEMALE VOICE CONTINUES (OR NOT) WITH THE TRANSLATION.):
I have replaced my new suit and squeaky shoes
with this prison uniform.
I have suffered a lot the past eight years,
and my hair has changed color.
Outside it's a gorgeous day;
you can see the moonlight through the window,
but I still have four years to serve,
and I don't feel too good; I'd like to go home.
LILA: Dina Vierny sings songs from the Gulag.
No, we did not have a dining room. Just a communal kitchen. A regular, simple communal kitchen. You were supposed to wait in line. I waited in line with shoemakers and tailors; I am a seamstress. At noon you get your meal. Not your lunch. A meal. A soup and a slice of bread. At breakfast - the same - soup. Sometimes "kasha" "Kasha." No taste in it at all. Not sweet, or sour, or spicy. Nothing. But you eat it anyway when you're hungry. Occasionally, one could find a little bit of meat in the soup made of bones.
A FEMALE VOICE (SZYMBORSKA): Lila,
Write it down. Write it. With ordinary ink
on ordinary paper: they weren't given food,
they all died of hunger.
A FEMALE VOICE (SZYMBORSKA): How many?
LILA: It's a large meadow. How much grass per head?
A FEMALE VOICE (SZYMBORSKA):
Write down: I don't know.
History rounds off skeletons to zero.
A thousand and one is still only a thousand.
That one seems never to have existed:
a fictitious fetus, an empty cradle,
a primer opened for no one,
air that laughs, cries, and grows,
stairs for a void bounding out to the garden,
no one's spot in the ranks.
[...] Hands came flying from blackened icons,
each holding an empty chalice.
A man swayed
on a grill of barbed wire.
Some sang, with dirt in their mouths.
LILA: That lovely song about war hitting you straight in the heart.
A FEMALE VOICE (SZYMBORSKA): Write how quiet it is. Yes.
LILA: Your teeth fall out in a camp. At first they start to wiggle, then they fall out. There are no bathrooms, no tubs. You get a bucket of water and a little piece of soap. I used to trade my bread for soap. Men were dirty, full of lice. I had lice too. I sewed all these years. For people who were in one way or another working for the camp.
They would say they want a suit or a dress like this, and I would make it. They had good fabric, nice materials. There were shops in Karaganda. There were free people there. I had my own clothes. A blouse, and a skirt. Occasionally, they'd even give us shoes. I used to meet some people outside of the camp. And they used to give us some bacon. They were free. They had everything. They even had goats. We had nothing. Not even money. We were slaves. Their slaves.
I had two children. My baby died in the camp. My Heshie. My and Isaac's Heshie. And that's how it ended. With Isaac. With my first husband. When they let me out, when I got out of the camp, I went to the NKVD in Karaganda, and I asked them: "Where is Isaac?" They just shrugged their shoulders. They even refused to tell me where he died. When he died. In which camp he died.
When Heshie died, she was seven months old.
LILA: Heshie, Heshie, sssh, Heshie... Don't cry. Mommy's here. Don't cry. Quiet now, quiet now, Heshie... Give me a smile, Heshie. Give a smile to mama. And one more.
LILA: They kept her in the children's ward. That's where she died. A lot of children died. A lot of people came with children. There were a lot of children. I had no milk. I couldn't breastfeed her. They didn't let me stay by her side. Rimmotchka, bring me my slippers. She got pneumonia. Yes, "za-pa-le-nye plu-tcha."
A few years later I got pregnant again. And Rimma was born. Rimmotchka. We met each other in Karaganda. He became my lover. Albert Zeifer. He was very handsome.
ALBERT ZEIFER (IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP UNIFORM, WITH A BOW TIE.): Lila, I have a piece of soap. For you. Would you like to have a piece of soap?
LILA: Ah, the soap, Albert. I would be pretty and clean, Albert. Give it to me!
ALBERT ZEIFER: Hmm, I don't have it here. It's in the little room. I have a little room of my own, Lila. A little room on the other side of the fence. Go there tonight.
LILA: But how, Albert? On the other side of the fence? It's not allowed, not at night. It's dangerous.
ALBERT ZEIFER: A piece of white soap, Lila. I also have a piece of bacon, Lila.
LILA: To be clean and fed. It would be so nice...
LILLA: It was absolutely forbidden to have any kind of contact with men in the concentration camp. Absolutely forbidden. But children were still being born. People connected. Men and women. That's instinct. You cannot fight instinct.
I used to meet men. When we went to work out in the fields I used to come across men.
I never saw Isaac again. I fell in love once more.
ALBERT ZEIFER: Come and get the soap, Lila. You will be pretty and soft and clean...
LILA: I was young. That's the law. Young people fall in love. I got pregnant. That's normal. That's the law of nature. He was kind. Albert. A woman and a man must connect.
RIMMA: He was a Volga Deutsch. A German from the Volga region.
LILA: They used to arrest them too. The Germans from the Volga.
RIMMA: They were considered to be "suspicious elements." Enemies of the people.
LILA: That's true. Albert Zeifer was so kind. Well educated.
RIMMA: That is true. My father, my biological father, was an architect. His name was Seiter. Herbert Seiter.
LILA: That's true. We spent a year or two together. When I think of it, that was quite a long time.
RIMMA: He was also in the concentration camp. And he stayed in the camp when mama got out. Was it because you were pregnant that they let you out? No? No. In 1948 people were gradually released.
LILA: He got out after me. Much later. He had a little room of his own in the camp. It was outside of the barbed wire. In the free part of the camp. Children were being born. Rimma was born in 1948. In a hospital. He got out later. I lived for a while with his mother and sisters. He had a family.
RIMMA: In the Gulag. They let him out when I was 4. Then we lived together for a year or two. There was an entire community of Germans from Volga. When he got out of the camp he was quite privileged. He was an architect. They needed him. We moved into a house of our own. And we had our own chauffeur.
Do we have a photo of him? No? No. We have a photo of his sister. I remember him. I remember him very well. We used to live together. Until I was seven. I was in elementary school then, in the first grade. I remember him. I remember him vividly.
LILA: Then he married another woman. A German woman.
RIMMA: Then he remarried. She was closer to his heart. They had the same roots.
LILA: He didn't want a Jew. She was prettier than me. I wasn't very pretty back then. It happens. I had lost my teeth. Then they made me new ones. We moved away. They made me some gold teeth in Karaganda. It was expensive, but fashionable. And I paid for it. Later, in America, I had them all removed. The gold teeth. In America, white teeth were in style. And so they made me beautiful new white teeth, they looked real. I kept one, I kept one gold tooth. As a souvenir. This one here. See? (SHE OPENS HER MOUTH WIDELY, AND SHOWS IT TO RIMMA.)
RIMMA: Her career blossomed once she got out of the concentration camp. She sewed costumes for a theatre in Karaganda.
LILA: One of my customers found me that job. I bought a sewing machine. In Karaganda. I was a free person. This customer, she found me a job in the theatre.
A lovely theatre. A drama theatre. We often played Chekhov. There are many old costumes in Chekhov's plays. Many beautiful costumes. I worked in the shops. I worked with other seamstresses. Sometimes we had to tear apart what we had just finished sewing. There was no silk. We used to dye the fabric. There were six of us. We used to sew. Some other women were dressing the actors. They were the dressers. I didn't have to buy tickets to see the shows. And I had a babysitter. She would come in for a few hours. I used to work till five.
RIMMA: I used to do my homework in the theatre. In the shops. I used to study Russian history and literature. All in the theatre. And I used to hang out with the actors.
LILA: I remember Chekhov, Griboedov. "Uncle Vanya," "Chayka." There were no comedies. Only tragedies. Everything was so dramatic. Russia was in crisis with comedies.
RIMMA: That little theatre was the heart of cultural life. Cultural life was very rich because people who were released from the camp were not allowed to move to Central Russia. They had to stay in Central Asia. Just like us. Only later, in the '50s, were they allowed to move. To Leningrad, to Moscow.
LILA: Oh, don't even mention them. The scum. I don't even want to think about them.
RIMMA: Who is the scum, mama?
LILA: The Russians. The scum. The swindlers. They cheated us. They cheated all of us who arrived in their country. We returned to Warsaw from Karaganda. Bring me my slippers.
RIMMA: We left Russia in 1958. Your slippers are wet. I knew nothing about Poland. I didn't really care. I didn't ask any questions.
LILA: Nobody asked any questions. Rimmotchka came home once and said: "He told me I was a Jew."
RIMMA: Now I know. I am a Jew, on Lila's side. On Lila's side.
LILA: Her father was not a Jew. He was a Volga Deutsch.
I met Deje in Karaganda. A friend of mine was married to Deje's friend. Deje was a jeweller from Ploieşti. That's in Romania.
§: The first Jews arrived in Ploieşti in the second half of the 17th century. At that time, they were so few that they did not have their own cemetery, so they had to bury their dead about a hundred and twenty kilometres northeast from Ploieşti, in a cemetery in the city of Buzăuu. At the end of that same century, they bought some new land for a cemetery of their own, but it was very far away from Ploieşti as well. Besides, shortly afterwards, this newly acquired land was confiscated by an influential landlord who wanted to expand his property. The third cemetery grounds, granted by the city to the Jewish community in 1818, proved to be a little too close to the urban center this time, and so were again taken away from them. Finally, at the beginning of the 20th century, the fourth Jewish cemetery was erected at the gates of Ploieşti.
LILA: There was oil in Ploieşti. Then the Germans came there, so Deje had to leave.
§: The German army marched into Ploieşti in the fall of 1940. Antonescu, who was then in power, appointed Cojocara as the chief of the local police in Ploieşti. Cojocara started the confiscation of all Jewish property in town, and followed it with the mass arrests of merchants and artisans. He managed to destroy both Jewish schools, and out of five synagogues in existence at the time in Ploieşti, his Iron Guards burned down three.
All men between 18 and 60 years of age were taken to the concentration camp Teis, and from there to the labour camps in Bessarabia and Moldova.
KONRAD: Deje was among them.
LILA: Deje was a jeweller in Ploieşti. In Karaganda he was nothing, just a lonely man. I was better off at the time. I was making some money. Deje was a kind man. I invited him to come and live with us.
DEJE: I love you, Lila, but I have to tell you again - I'm not free.
LILA: Who cares about the past. I'm not free either - if you look at the papers. People disappear. And with the people, papers disappear, documents disappear. Life goes on. You are alone now. Come and live with us.
DEJE: I don't know...
LILA: It's not good to be alone.
DEJE: I'm not really alone. I've got friends...
LILA: We'll be fine.
DEJE: I don't know...
LILA: He said: "Lila, would you like to get married?" I said: "I sure would." And so we got married. I wanted to have a man. And I wanted to have a father for Rimma. This is him. I have a lot of photographs of him. That was a legal, proper marriage. I never divorced him. Deje was in the camp too. With his friend Meyer. Deje was very handsome. Very handsome.
RIMMA: After Isaac, Deje was her only true love.
LILA: He must have said something publicly in Ploieşti, because they deported him to a camp. I don't really know what he said. He never told me. Or perhaps he did. Perhaps I have forgotten. He had a wife and child in Ploieşti. There were many Jews in Ploieşti. He thought that they had died. He had no news from them. Then one day the news came. The Red Cross brought the news straight to Karaganda. The Red Cross said: "Deje, we've found your wife and child. They are alive." And then he left. He had to leave. He left for Ploieşti. Is that in Bessarabia? He was very handsome.
KONRAD: Running away from Ploieşti, Deje's wife Margita and their three-year-old daughter Ava jumped onto the train heading northeast to Jassy, where Margita's family lived. They arrived on Sunday, June 29th, 1941, only to see a horrible sight…
§: …In a large scale action that started the night before, Romanian and German soldiers, para-militaries, city police, as well as some civilians, forced their way into Jewish homes, and brought all the occupants to the yard of the police station. The other, non-Jewish citizens just watched as their neighbours - some of them half naked and bleeding, and with their arms raised above their heads - were marched towards the police building...
KONRAD: …It was then that Margita saw Deje's parents and five members of her own family in the crowd…
§: …It was a cloudy day, with just a light drizzle. Most of these new prisoners were immediately executed there in the yard of the police station…
In the second wave of violence, the remaining Jews....
KONRAD: …and Margita and Ava with them...
§: ...were taken to the railway station. There, they waited until midnight on their knees, with their foreheads against the ground. Later, they were divided into two groups and pushed into cattle cars.
After leaving the station, the first train went back and forth along the same tracks with no particular destination, stopping for two or three times at the same railway stations, until finally, on Sunday, July 6th, it reached in an unbearable heat, the town of Calarasi. Of 2530 Jews on board, 1485 died.
The second train left the Jassy railway station on Monday, around 9:00 A.M. The day was so hot that the overcrowded cars were like furnaces. During the journey a few passengers suffocated, and a few others committed suicide. Eight hours later, after a voyage which - judging by the actual distance - should have lasted no more than thirty minutes, the train stopped just in front of the town of Podul Iloaiei. 1250 of the people aboard were never seen alive again. Only 750 survived the "journey…"
KONRAD: …And among them, Margita and Ava.
RIMMA: Deje was very kind. Very gentle.
LILA: He was making good money.
RIMMA: They both cried. They were soul-mates. We lived well. We would go for trips. I was little then. Still, he decided to leave.
LILA: I thought I would not survive. But I did survive. Deje died.
RIMMA: He died of sorrow. He died of love.
LILA: No one in this family has ever died of love.
[…] No death-defying vigils, love-struck poses
over unrequited letters strewn with tears!
RIMMA: His heart just broke, shortly after he left. He wrote to mom..
LILA: He couldn't write in Russian.
RIMMA: I remember his letters. She used to keep them in a drawer. And then she just fell apart. The losses had been accumulating for too long.
§: One of the last train "journeys" ended on May 5th, 1945. A day before the liberation of Buchenwald, on April 9th, 1945, 5000 inmates boarded the "train of death." For 27 days the train travelled around without an aim, until it finally stopped in Theresienstadt. Of the 5000 prisoners who boarded the train on April 9th, only 800 got off alive on May 5th.
(THE FILM - HITLER.)
HITLER: When it comes to political life, I consider myself lucky. But in private life, I was the most unhappy person of all the people I knew. There were numerous stories about my sexual life. People said that I was gay, or that at least I was a latent homosexual. They found proof in the fact that my favourite hero was Frederick the Great, a known faggot himself. They also blamed me for calling Albert Förster, the Gauleiter of Danzig - Bubi. They told me that all homosexual partners called each other - Bubi. Nonsense!
There were rumours that I was a chronic masturbator, that I was a voyeur, and that I came best when I was watching others. Some people said that I was just an ordinary impotent masochist. That has nothing to do with the fact that I liked to lie down in front of the widespread legs of my niece Geli. Besides, it was not me who told her to pee. Those were just pure accidents.
Some people believed that I was a heartbreaker. They used to call me "the King of Munich." Truth be told, I did know a lot of women. And many of them were generous in returning my affections. Among those were Maria, Mitzi, Siegrid, Leni, and - of course - Eva.
I truly loved only my niece Geli. She used to call me Alf. She got mad at me only once, when I left her locked in the apartment because I had to go to Hamburg. The next morning, I found her dead. She killed herself with my own pistol. She was only 23.
After Geli's death, I never ate meat again. It would be as if I were eating a corpse.
Eva tried to kill herself too. Twice. Women love more deeply than men.
LILA: (True, some did die with bullets in their brains,
for other reasons, though, and on field stretchers.)
[…] For others, Death was mad and monumental -
not for these citizens of a sepia past.
Their griefs turned into smiles, their days flew fast,
their vanishing was due to influenza.
RIMMA: My mother likes to recite poetry.
LILA: I don't like to recite poetry...
They moved us constantly from one place to another. We always had to go somewhere, Rimma and I. We were constantly leaving. I'd like to have some tea.
RIMMA: Deje had a guilty conscience when he had to leave mother and me. So he asked a concentration camp friend to watch over us. His friend was a Polish Jew. At the time this Polish Jew was living in Kiev. So Deje invited him to come to Karaganda to take care of us.
LILA: He told him: "You should marry her. She's a good woman." He was alone.
DEJE: You should marry her. She's a good woman.
MAX: I'm already married. My wife stayed in Poland.
DEJE: People disappear. Papers get lost. Life goes on.
MAX: I must find out what's going on with my family. I have a child.
DEJE: Take this as something temporary. Everything is temporary. See, I could not even have imagined that my family was alive.
MAX: Well, I am still imagining. I must go back to Poland.
RIMMA: And that is Max. We called him Max. His real name was Meyer.
LILA: And so we got married.
RIMMA: They got married in 1958. Mother married Meyer Geller in 1958. Meyer Geller was a chemist, and I was ten years old. He was a nutritionist. He had no trouble finding work in Karaganda.
LILA: He found really good work there.
RIMMA: His entire family was killed in the Nazi concentration camps. When he fled to Russia, his wife was pregnant. Then they all disappeared. They told him later: "Your folks were taken to Stutthof." His wife, his brother, his father, his mother. All of them taken while he was in Russia. All of them disappeared in Stutthof. His entire family.
LILA: Did you ever hear of Stutthof? There is this writer, Yoram Kaniuk. And he used to say like this: "On a shelf in a store, wrapped in a yellow paper decorated with olive trees, lie the entire Rabinowitz family." The Rabinowitz family is not our family. Our family lies somewhere else.
§: Stutthof - Sztutowo, is a little town in Poland, 34 kilometres from Danzig, a town that is today called Gdańsk again. In that city Professor Rudolf Spanner had his "practice."
Professor Rudolf Spanner, an SS officer and a "scientist", used to work at the Anatomical Institute of the School of Medicine in Danzig, Gdańsk. His "empire" consisted of a modest unplastered one-story brick annex located in the yard of the baroque building of the Anatomical Institute. In fact, the edifice was more of a little factory, well hidden from the public eye; one could say that it was a genuine miniature soap factory.
MAZUR: My name is Sigmund Mazur. In 1940, I was an employee of the Institute in Danzig, nowadays Gdańsk again. I was Professor Spanner's assistant. At the Institute, a few scientists were exploring the possibilities of producing soap from human bodies. They would gather corpses, bones, and human fat in a little room called "The Laboratory for Bone Recycling and Flesh Cremation." The Head of the Department, Professor Spanner, personally gave me the recipe for making the soap.
ZOFIA: I am a Polish writer, Zofia Nalkowska. I died in 1954. I was a member of the International Committee for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes. On May 5th, 1945, just prior to the fall of Berlin, I visited the Danzig Institute. The moment I entered the dark and roomy basement of the little red brick annex in the yard of the Institute, I saw the recipe written with the best penmanship hanging on the wall in a wooden frame. It was dated February 15th, 1944.
MAZUR: Take 5 kilograms of human fat, and mix it with 10 litres of water and 500 to 1,000 grams of caustic soda. Boil the mixture for two to three hours, then leave to cool. The soap floats to the surface, and the residues and the water remain at the bottom, in buckets. Add to the mixture some common salt and a further handful of soda, then some more fresh water, and boil for two to three hours more. After cooling, pour the finished soap into moulds.
§: Professor Spanner started his experiments back in 1940. He named his product RJF, which was the acronym for "Reines Judische Fett" or "Pure Jewish Fat." After the liberation, in Spanner's "factory" the Allies discovered basins filled with corpses waiting to be processed.
ZOFIA: We found about three hundred and fifty corpses. Three hundred and fifty creamy-white, naked young bodies, resembling hard sculptures. They were in perfect condition, although they had been waiting many months for the time they would no longer be needed. They were lying in long cement tubs with open lids that looked like sarcophaguses. We passed one corpse-filled bathtub after another: all of the bodies were neatly stacked. And all of them were headless.
I remember the beautiful body of a decapitated young man. A big and strong body. In that moment, I thought how he resembled a gladiator. There was a tattoo of an old-fashioned sailing boat put out to sea on his chest. And under the boat, there was the inscription: "God bless us all."
The shaved heads were lying in a separate container, all neatly stacked as well. Piled like potatoes. Crushed human faces. Smooth. Yellow. In perfect condition, cut just at the bottom of the neck, looking as if made of stone.
MAZUR: I boiled the soap from bodies of men and women. It took several days--from three to seven--for one productive boiling. The two boilings which I know about, in which I took direct part, yielded a finished product of more than 25 kilograms of soap. For these boilings, 70 to 80 kilograms of human fat were collected from about forty corpses. We preferred women for that purpose. They have more fat. The finished soap was then usually passed on to Professor Spanner. I have also personally used the soap made from human fat for my washing and laundry requirements. It was not a great soap. The lather was poor. I might have used a total of about four kilograms of this soap.
FRIEDMAN: I am a writer. My name is Philip Friedman. I have seen documents which confirm that in 1940, the Germans used to throw the ground bones of dead concentration camp inmates into the river Wisla. As of 1943, they began to sell them to a corporation called "Strem," which used them for producing phosphates. In other words, they were producing fertilizers. In the documents that I have seen, it is stated that the corporation "Strem" bought a total of 112,600 kilograms of ground human bones. There is no evidence that the Germans made soap from the prisoners of the concentration camps. There is, however, evidence that at the same time there was an active soap factory in Poland. And there is evidence that people did not want to buy German soap.
LILA: Soap was almost as rare as gold in Dolinka. And even later, in Poland, soap was so expensive. Even in Karaganda, once I was more or less free, there was never enough soap.
I heard various stories in Karaganda about the soap from Stutthof. At first, I thought it was all nonsense, lies. At the time we had no idea that Meyer's family had been taken to Stutthof. Once we returned to Poland, Meyer started to collect information about Stutthof, about Professor Spanner, about the soap. He almost went insane. He would dig and research without stopping. He discovered all sorts of things.
I also have a little story regarding that soap.
ZOFIA: There, in row on the shelves of display cases, lay the skulls and thigh bones, boiled clean. They were so clean and white. Beside them, we also saw a large chest with layer upon layer of finely prepared human skin, cleaned of the fat.
LILA: That is a totally different story - the story about the human skin. That happened in Buchenwald. But no one from our family ended up in Buchenwald, so we didn't investigate much. We wanted to forget. I know that there was this woman who worked in that concentration camp, a certain Ilse Koch, who later hanged herself in prison. It was in the papers. She was called "the bitch from Buchenwald." They also said that she liked to take baths in Madeira wine. I wouldn't know. I don't drink. They said she had lampshades and little dress purses made of human skin. And that she particularly liked tattooed human skin. I wouldn't know; maybe those are just stories. I don't know.
MAZUR: Professor Spanner and his assistant von Bergen were collecting human skin. I know that for a fact because I have seen it with my own eyes. Von Bergen was bringing in most of the corpses himself.
--Did I ever go with him? --Yes, I did. Twice.
--Where were they bringing the corpses from? --From the prison. From the prison in Köningsberg, and from the one in Elbag, and from the camp in Stutthof, and from the asylum in Danzig.
But it seemed that all those bodies were not enough for Professor Spanner, so he wrote a letter to every mayor of the neighbouring towns imploring them not to bury the corpses, but to deliver them to the Institute instead.
KOTUS-JANKOWSKI: I was the mayor of Danzig. I too received Spanner's letter.
MAZUR: The situation regarding the corpses improved considerably once they introduced the guillotine in the Gdańsk prison. Generally, we received Polish corpses, but occasionally we would get some German soldiers as well. Once we even got five Russians. That happened on the night von Bergen returned to the Institute with about a hundred decapitated bodies in total. Von Bergen always delivered the bodies at night. But then when Professor Spanner changed his mind and started asking for corpses with heads, things got complicated. He also refused to work with those who were shot, because he claimed they had bled out too fast. Luckily, the corpses coming from the asylum always had their heads.
ZOFIA: Finally, on a tall table I saw pieces of whitish, gritty soap lying in several metal moulds.
MAZUR: Professor Spanner used to keep the soap in a secret place. He used to lock it up. Nobody told me that that was a crime. That it was wrong to make soap from human fat.
§: After the war, Professor Rudolf Spanner was never brought to trial. He disappeared.
MAZUR: It was January 1945. He told us that he had to go to Halle to deliver a lecture. When he left, he also told us to work on the fat collected during the semester, and he ordered us to make the soap and do the anatomy properly, adhering strictly to the recipe. We had to keep everything tidy so it looked "human." Those were his words - "human." He did not tell us to remove the recipe from the wall. Perhaps he forgot. He said he would return, but he didn't. We forwarded all of his mail to the Institute of Anatomy at Halle an der Saale. Nobody told me it was illegal to make soap from human fat.
(THE FILM - HITLER.)
HITLER: I drank very rarely. And I never smoked. I hated the smell of tobacco so much that I never allowed anyone around me to light a cigarette, not even after dinner. People often asked me how I could possibly decline all the pleasures. It is all just a matter of will, I repeatedly replied to them. I also never had coffee. I drank only mineral water and chamomile tea, which I also used as an enema. I had serious problems with gas. With every meal I had to take a few pills against the gas. Those were the pills made by the famous Dr. Köster. They would help me feel less bloated, although they could never eliminate the sensation altogether. Until the end, I was unable to control my farting.
LILA: I wasn't thinking about returning to Poland at all. But then Poland invited its people, its refugees, to come back.
When we arrived in Poland, Meyer started looking for his family. Everybody was looking for their relatives. Everybody wanted to find somebody. Meyer found his wife's brother, her cousin, and some of his friends.
When Meyer came with me to Poland, Polish professors used to visit us. And we would return their visits. Meyer studied before the war, but wasn't allowed to sit during the lectures because he was a Jew.
Prior to our return to Poland we had to buy tickets, we had to provide visas. It was a long journey. Poland is so far away. Kazakhstan is so far away... And there I was, riding on a train again. After twenty-three years. Only this time I wasn't riding in a cattle car.
First, we went to Moscow. To the Polish embassy.
Then, we continued by train through Ukraine. The train stopped in Dobra Matka. We got off to freshen up. Rimma was jumping up and down the station.
RIMMA: There was some sort of a shack there at the station. I thought it was a restroom. I went in and I discovered a case full of soap. Then I walked to the water pump and I washed my hands and my face and my neck and legs. Then I went back to the shack to take some more soap. Lila was constantly saying how there was no soap in Dolinka. I wanted to surprise her, to make her happy.
LILA: The soap had the engraving: RJS.
RIMMA: She said: "Throw that away." -It didn't make her happy.
LILA: It did make me happy. That soap was not us. It could have been us. But we were alive.
RIMMA: Nonsense. All those stories about the soap. And as for us - yes, we were alive, but barely so.
LILA: In Poland, we all lived in one room. We had a tiny kitchen, too. We were lucky. We were happy. Some of the people who came back had'nt lived in Warsaw before the war. I had, and that was my advantage. I got that little apartment. I got that little room. The buildings themselves were built for refugees. They knew how much we had suffered in Russia. They felt sorry. Before we left, the Russians gave us a little bit of money. So we bought a TV and a camera. Later on, in Poland, we sold all of that. And then we bought a sofa, and an old table, and for Rimma, a desk - all used. And then Meyer fixed everything and made it look pretty. It wasn't expensive.
When I returned, I went back to my shtetl. I wanted to see if anyone I knew had survived. Nobody survived. There was no one there. There were no Jews there anymore. There were some Poles, some Germans, some rich peasants. Hitler had left them in peace.
(HITLER - THE FILM.)
HITLER: I had many fears in my life. I was afraid that I would be poisoned, that I would become fat, that I would die too soon, and that I would lose my mystical guiding star. Sometimes I was even afraid to sleep. The bedcover had to be folded in a very specific and particular way. Otherwise, I would become very nervous.
I had difficulties making even the simplest decisions. For instance, choosing a coat or a tie. What else could I say about myself?
I had only one testicle. I adored pornography, especially the dirty stories and the comic books. My close friend, photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, made a few exceptional pornographic movies. He made them exclusively for me. I also owned a considerable collection of photographs of nude women. Some of them hung above my bed. I had a simple metal frame bed, but its headboard was decorated with colourful ribbons. It all looked quite nice.
My faithful dog Blondie was with me until the end. She was given to me by Bormann in an attempt to occasionally distract my thoughts and focus them on more beautiful things. Eva had her two disgusting and hysterical Scottish terriers, Stasi and Negus. They were constantly sniffing each other. A day before my death, I gave orders to kill the dogs. Even my Blondie. All those photos with dogs and children were pure propaganda. I never truly enjoyed nature. I could not find any beauty in it.
LILA: I went to see our house. I thought I'd find someone there. There was this woman living in it. She started to cry. She said: "I don't know anything. Go away." I said: "Don't cry. I don't want to take anything away from you. I know, they've given it to you. They have given you my house."
RIMMA: She comes from a small town. From the town of Warka. The whole town of Warka, the whole shtetl near Warsaw was inhabited by Polish Jews. It was a little shtetl.
LILA: Shtetl. Listen: shtetl, shtetl, shtetl, shtetl. Listen to Lila sing. A word so rarely pronounced. Shtetl. My shtetl Warka. My mother is not there. The narrow winding streets, the slanted roofs. The writers say, shtetl is Chagall's paintings. Nonsense. The writers say, on the slanted roofs you can see dancing violinists from Chagall's paintings. There is no Chagall. That's an illusion. There were no merry violinists in Warka. The miller Mokotow is dancing, the jeweller Gerszt is dancing, Ada Friedman is crying, grandpa Friedman is slaughtering a chicken, I'm watching - the blood is dripping, Kriksman is singing and saying: "You can fry this blood and eat it, just like the liver," that's what Kriksman is saying while collecting the blood in a little pot, and it drips, drop... tap... tap... tap... p... p... Popper is sewing a winter-coat, the winter of the departure is arriving, the Glicksman family is selling beer, Felix Taube has kissed Elza, Eva Faiszienberg is closing her hat shop, nobody buys hats anymore, the hats of Eva Faiszienberg, the huge black hats, the black veil covering your eyes, the hats made because of the veil, the veils made because of the hats, or what? The hats for funerals. For the funeral of Boris Gitman. The Cohen family no longer eats kosher, Eduard Kalish lights his candles even though it's already dawn, Hilda Kharchov swaddles Golda, Golda's lips are all blue, she's shivering and dying. Golda... I had a sister named Golda. She ran away on time. She was the only one to run away on time. The crematoria in Stutthof never cool down, the ghetto in Piotrkow becomes more crowded every day. Zbanzyn is already overcrowded. I am young and I am getting ready for my journey. My sister Golda is already gone. Some chess player took her with him to Croatia. I lost all traces of her. We have all lost all of our traces. We are people without traces. (PAUSE.) And even there, in that Croatia, they used to kill Jews.
KONRAD: My mother, Zlata Koshe, born in Warka as Golda Weiss, Polish by birth, meets her future husband and my father, Albert Koshe, in Warsaw, and in 1936, she leaves with him for Croatia.
LILA: Golda is long gone now, and I am getting ready for yet another journey. When I return, shtetl, every shtetl, my shtetl will fly towards the sky, shtetl - smoke from the chimney, shtetl - a cloud, with no color. Why do they bring up Chagall? Chagall is just imagining things.
RIMMA: I like Chagall very much. Mom doesn't understand.
LILA: How did my sister disappear, what happened to my sister Golda? You, Rimmotchka, you don't know, and I cannot remember. When we returned, there was no one there anymore. My father was from Warka. He was executed in Chelmno. His wife was also executed in Chelmno. We went to the Town Hall. We made inquiries. They said: "There are no Jews alive." We didn't find anyone.
§: In 1941, more than 2000 Jews, long-time residents of Warka, were taken to concentration camps from which, of course, they never returned. After a fierce battle between the Polish Air Force and the German Luftwaffe over Warka, on July 23rd, 1944, the town was completely levelled. According to the reports of the survivors, only five houses remained standing that could be lived in more or less.
LILA: We found only the Poles, the Germans, the rich peasants in Warka. Hitler had left them in peace. We didn't find anyone at the cemetery. Not a single gravestone at the Jewish cemetery. Not a single name.
RIMMA: At least she found her house.
LILA: They have taken it. The Poles have taken it. When we arrived, everyone was crying. They were afraid we would take my house away from them. They were afraid we would take my furniture away from them. They had appropriated everything.
RIMMA: We were all right. We were really fine. Warsaw was bursting with life. A cultural mecca. Everyone was nice to the Jews.
LILA: They used to say: "Come, you Jews, come to Poland. Come back. We will help you." It didn't turn out like that.
RIMMA: We thought this was the end of our wanderings. We thought we had finally arrived. That this is where we would stay. Where we would die.
LILA: But we didn't, we didn't die. We had to continue our journey.
RIMMA: We thought that our graves were there. That we would be near our ancestors. Stay with our relatives.
LILA: We didn't find anyone. There were no relatives. There were only graves left. Only the graves. We had come to take care of our graves. There is a big Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. That's where we went. And then we had to leave Poland.
RIMMA: We had to leave again in '68.
LILA: We were exiled. They told us that we were Zionists.
RIMMA: Pogrom. It was a real pogrom. Pogrom in the schools, in the factories, on the streets. And we had to leave. I was 12. I remember when we came from Russia to Poland I was 10.
RIMMA: I could not understand a thing. I did not speak Polish. I was afraid of the Catholic churches. Everything was so different. I used to cry all the time. I missed my language. Russian.
LILA: I didn't know that. She never told me. You never told me that. Why didn't you ever tell me that?
RIMMA: I didn't know a single word of Polish. Until then we had only spoken Russian at home. I had no idea what happened. I'd no idea what was happening.
LILA: She never wanted to listen. She never wanted to hear what was happening.
RIMMA: That is not true! She didn't want to talk. You didn't want to talk. You never told me a single word about what was happening. Stop crumbling the bread.
LILA: I think I'll take my teeth out anyway.
I think I wanted to tell you. I wanted to tell her. I think I did.
A FEMALE VOICE: Rimma,
Regardless of the length of life,
a resume is best kept short.
Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.
Landscapes are replaced by addresses,
shaky memories give way to unshakeable dates.
Of all your loves, mention only the marriage;
of all your children, only those who were born.
Who knows you matters more than whom you know.
Trips only if taken abroad.
Memberships in what but without why.
Honors, but not how they were earned.
What is there to hear, anyway?
The clatter of paper shredders.
RIMMA: We never spoke openly until we arrived in America. Only in '68 she started to explain to me the how and the why. You could have told me earlier.
RIMMA: I became a different person.
I lost a few goddesses while moving south to north,
and also some gods while moving east to west..
I let several stars go out for good, they can't be traced.
An island or two sank on me, they're lost at sea.
I'm not even sure exactly where I left my claws,
who's got my fur coat, who's living in my shell.
My siblings died the day I left for dry land
and only one small bone recalls that anniversary in me.
I've shed my skin, squandered vertebrae and legs,
taken leave of my senses time and again.
I've long since closed my third eye to all that,
washed my fins of it and shrugged my branches.
Gone, lost, scattered to the four winds. It still surprises me
how little now remains, one first person sing., temporarily
declined in human form, just now making such a fuss
about a blue umbrella left yesterday on a bus..
RIMMA: Will you stop reciting?
LILA: I'm sorry, Rimmotchka...
I don't need my slippers... Then we lost Max.
When is Stella coming? I think I'm going to wet my pants.
RIMMA: Max had taken us to Poland.
A FEMALE VOICE (SZYMBORSKA): He came home. Said nothing.
It was clear, though, that something had gone wrong.
He lay down fully dressed.
Pulled the blanket over his head.
Tucked up his knees.
He's nearly forty, but not at the moment.
He exists just as he did inside his mother's womb,
clad in seven walls of skin, in sheltered darkness.
Tomorrow he'll give a lecture
on homeostasis in megagalactic cosmonautics.
For now, though, he has curled up and gone to sleep.
RIMMA: We had organized our lives pretty well. We had a nice apartment. A gorgeous apartment near łazienki Park, in downtown Warsaw. Gurska, Gurska Street number 17. Apartment 29. That was our little paradise.
Stella isn't coming today. I can give you a bath. I can give you a massage. (PAUSE.) If you'll let me.
LILA: Then, one day Max said: "I have to go to France. I have to find my relatives." I knew I was going to be alone again. Rimma and I were going to be alone again. Max Meyer was a good husband.
When we arrived, Rimma did not speak a word of Polish. She was happy. You were happy, Rimmotchka. Right? I used to sing to her in Polish. I used to sing to you in Polish. She never asked me what happened. You never asked me what happened, Rimmotchka.
RIMMA: Max left us. The father who adopted me, left us. Poland was suffocating him. We arrived in '58, and he left in the early '60s. Two or three years after our arrival. He said: "Rimmotchka, I have to leave."
LILA: He didn't have to leave. He had a commitment. He had a child. An adopted child.
RIMMA: He left for France, but he ended up in America. Poland became our homeland. Nobody was expecting 1968. Max could not bear the memories of the Holocaust. Everything reminded him of the Holocaust. The two of us were not enough for him to forget.
He still thinks of himself as my father. He is there, on the West Coast. We're here, on the East Coast. America is a big country. He has no one. He is alone now. Max Meyer. On the West Coast. He calls me sometimes.
LILA: He was a very kind man. He was very kind to me. It didn't last long. He used to send money to us in Poland. And clothes.
RIMMA: And then the two of us left. We had to leave. We had to leave again. In that '68.
LILA: And again, I didn't die. I just left.
RIMMA: We wanted to be Polish Jews. Nothing more. Just Polish Jews in Poland.
LILA: I'm cold, Rimmotchka. I'm very cold. Rimmotchka, I'm growing cold.
RIMMA: When Max left us, we went to America. To the East Coast. I went first. And then I brought mama over.
LILA: I peed in my pants.
RIMMA: A year later, she met a very nice Polish Jew here in America, and they got married.
LILA: I had been alone for so many years.
RIMMA: For us, it was mostly solitude. Men would appear like in a puppet theatre. They would come and they would go. They would play their little roles, their spiel, and then they would disappear. And the two of us would be alone again.
LILA: Always alone. Alone for many years.
RIMMA: She married that man, Mendel Schleiffer, and they lived together.
MENDEL (POPULAR JEWISH MUSIC.): May I have this dance?
LILA: I don't know how to dance. I forgot how to dance. It was a long time ago.
MENDEL: I will help you remember. Come on, let's try.
LILA: I see you often at these gatherings. You are always alone.
MENDEL: And so are you.
LILA: What do you say if we got together? If you moved in with us?
MENDEL: You're so direct.
LILA: There's no time. So, what do you say?
We lived in Connecticut. He was a nice man. He refused the treatment. He died of cancer. You cannot outsmart life. Mendel was a tailor. He was a very nice man. We spoke the same language. I was happy. He was Polish. We went to Israel to look for our lost relatives. We went to Israel to see if anyone survived.
RIMMA: Those were the only calm years of her life. Those fifteen years with Mendel who died of cancer. Then she moved in with us, when Andrew was born.
LILA: Mendel died recently. Five or six years ago. When Andrew was born, Rimma became allergic. Rimma has a friend here. Her friend's father was a tailor. Her mother used to make hats. We knew each other from Warsaw. They didn't like Jews. This friend of hers used to come to our house, back in Warsaw. She used to come with Rimma. After school. She often had lunch with us. She would eat everything. Her family did not like Jews. There are no more Jews in Poland. There are no more friends. You want to see your friends, your relatives - but they are gone. There is no one there anymore. I used to know many tailors.
RIMMA: I had a boyfriend in Warsaw. His name was Mietek.
MIETEK (WITH A ROSE IN HIS HAND.): I don't eat kosher, I'm not a Jew, but I love your daughter. We are going to study together. We are going to rent a room. We are going to study, we are going to love each other, we will be fine. Mrs. Weiss, I am going to take good care of your Rimma. Rimmotchka, will you marry me?
RIMMA: We loved each other. I wanted to be his wife. And then his mother learned about us. She came to our house, to Gurska Street 17. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. She said: "Mietek will never, never, never be your husband." And she also said: "Leave Mietek alone." And I left Mietek alone. We all withdrew into the shadows. We all left. We left them alone.
LILA: Rimmotchka married an American fellow who happened to be studying study in Warsaw. They used to call it a cultural exchange. I have photos.
RIMMA: And, you say, there is everything in America?
JAMES: People live by themselves in their own apartments. They don't have to share their apartments with people they don't know, like you have to do here.
RIMMA: And do they like Jews? Do Americans like Jews?
JAMES: And nylons are cheap.
RIMMA: And you don't mend them like we do here? If they are torn, you just throw them away?
JAMES: You just throw them away.
RIMMA: Take me to that land, take me to America.
LILA: He was a good-looking man. His mother is Polish. She lives in America. They were not happy. They went to America, and I followed them later. They were not happy. Then Rimma met Richard and got married again, and the children were born. Then Rimmotchka became allergic. Very allergic. She got allergic when the children were born.
RIMMA: I work a lot. I have many commitments. The kids, mama, Richard...
LILA: Richard works at the University just like Rimma. He is also an American, but he is a Slavist. He teaches Russian and Polish. He is not a Jew.
Now, Rimma is going back to Poland. For her high school reunion. She decided to go. After 30 years. I don't want to go. The Poles did not treat us nicely.
RIMMA: I will go back there and then I'll come back here. (PAUSE.)
"La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn't it terribly cold there?" my girl friend asked, and then sighed with relief. So many countries have been turning up lately that the safest thing to talk about is the climate.
(PAUSE.) Everywhere I go, I am just a visitor. I'm already walking down the streets of Warsaw. Down the paths of my łazienki Park. And I remember Polish poetry. (PAUSE.)
"Madame," I want to answer her, "my people's poets do all their writing in mittens. I don't mean to imply that they never remove them; they do, indeed, if the moon is warm enough. In stanzas composed of raucous whooping, for only such can drown the windstorms' constant roar, they glorify the simple lives of our walrus herders. Our Classicists engrave their odes with inky icicles on trampled snowdrifts. The rest, our Decadents, bewail their fate with snowflakes instead of tears. He who wishes to drown himself must have an axe at hand to cut the ice. Oh, madame, dearest madame."
That's what I mean to say. But I've forgotten the word for walrus in French. And I'm not sure of icicle and axe.
"La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn't it terribly cold there?"
"Pas de tout," I answer icily.
LILA: I don't understand, Rimmotchka.
RIMMA: I have been here for 30 years. I teach Russian literature at the University. I'm going to Poland soon. I will meet with Wisława Szymborska. Anna Freulich is here. She hasn't been in Poland for 50 years.
LILA: Anna came to see Rimmotchka.
RIMMA: She brought her new poem...
A VOICE FROM THE TAPE: Zapominam dokładnie,
moj krajobraz ojczysty,
moj krajobraz codzienny.
chmury nad jakmis niebie,
chmury nad jakmis miastem.
Zapominam do końca,
zapominam je ciagle,
twarze w mroku zagarnięte…
RIMMA (OVER THE TAPE.):
I am forgetting thoroughly, she says, very thoroughly,
I am forgetting, so that I will never remember again, she says,
I am forgetting my landscape,
its fluffy clouds scattered over the sky,
its clouds over the city.
I am forgetting constantly,
I am forgetting completely,
and, above all, I am trying to forget the faces that I left
lingering in the darkness,
as my train was leaving.
That's what she says.
LILA: There is nothing left any more. Mendel has died. Now it's my turn. I must forget everything. You know, I get very dizzy these days. And I have trouble walking. Rimma and Richard want to take me to the hospital, for a checkup. There is nothing to check up. The doctors will not find anything. I am just old. There is nothing to find. Well, there's one thing. (PAUSE.) I was born in Poland. Poland is in my blood. (PAUSE.) I like America, though. (PAUSE.)
Do you have a TV? Have you seen "Schindler's List?"
(MUSIC IS HEARD, OR WE GO TO A BLACKOUT.)
KONRAD (EITHER AS A VOICE, OR AS SUBTITLES WHICH REMIND US OF TELEGRAMS.): Lila Weiss died in Boston in 1999. I buried her in the Jewish cemetery in the town of Warka. All I have left of her are her false teeth.
NOTE: The English translations of the poetry of Wisława Szymborska are by Stanisław Barańazak and Clare Cavanagh.
© Daša Drndić
© Wisława Szymborska
© Stanisław Barańazak
© Clare Cavanagh
© Lary Zappia
© Ralph Bogert