Delivery in Montmartre
By Warren Warsaw
At dawn, Suzanne steps outside her apartment at 52 boulevard Voltaire and realizes she might never walk back in. More than the daily Nazi nonsense, it is today’s appointment she dreads. She’s thirty minutes late. They’re waiting for her. All the way up Montmartre. She has thirty minutes to make the hour’s hike. The directions had been clear. Sept heures. Don’t be late. Don’t bother knocking if you are. We will not answer.
Her plans had been perfect. Get up before everyone else. Quietly kiss Geneviève while she slept. Tiptoe to the front door. Flirt with the German. Pass by the checkpoint. Continue on to the rendezvous.
But it was that good-bye kiss that woke up her three-year-old, who cried until her mother left, and half the building complained. Even now, from outside, Suzanne can still hear Geneviève’s muted cries from the apartment.
“How can you leave her like this?” Uncle Felzen had asked.
“C’est pour la Résistance,” she’d answered, feeding his sense of patriotism.
It’s a humid July day. Odors seem sharper than usual as if liquefied in the air. Gasoline exhaust. Seine brine. Cigarette smoke from the cafés.
Suzanne looks left and doesn’t like what she sees. Or rather what she doesn’t see. The German soldier from yesterday. Instead, she sees Jews. Two of them. Near the Oberkampf métro checkpoint. Two judenpolizeiasking residents for identification, looking quite Aryan in their wool shirts and armbands. Where was the German soldier? Young and handsome and away from home. Now, that was something a twenty-seven-year-old woman can work with. Suzanne had been very nice to him, wearing her long curly black hair down the entire week. She had hoped for a quick pass through the checkpoint today. But these two are a nightmare! One of them even looks like Chana’s younger brother. Suzanne’s small nose and fake Catholic papers might not be enough to pass through. Arresting her would bring quite a prize. Maybe an extra loaf of bread from the occupiers.
Suzanne looks left again. The risk of arrest by the Jewish policemen is too great. She turns right, heading along the Vincennes railroad, the rising sun in her face.
In her hand, a scribbled note. An address. 117 rue Lépic. Or is it 177? There is a smudge. It could be 177, and her trip could be even longer. Sept heures. Don’t be late. Don’t bother knocking if you are. We will not answer.
Maybe it’s best if they don’t answer.
Suzanne heads north with a bag of fake laundry under her arm. She feels weaker and weaker. The dizziness is getting worse with each step. They hadn’t mentioned that. Did she take too much? Too little? What if she doesn’t make it to Montmartre and dies right here in the street?
Maybe this wasn’t meant to be. That wouldn’t be so bad.
Still, she knows that whatever happens to her today, her little girl will be all right. Uncle Felzen — why do we call him by his last name? — is a good man. He will provide for Geneviève. The whole family will.
Since the Occupation, a dozen Felzens and Citrons have moved in together. They know it’s not smart — catching one of them will mean catching all of them — but closeness means comfort, especially for the ones like Suzanne whose husband is gone.
She’s nearly half way to Montmartre, thanks to her muscular thighs. For three months before the Occupation she did squats in the apartment. The Felzens and Citrons laughed at her. But she knew she would need to be stronger for what was about to come. For a day like today.
Suzanne quickens her step and looks at her watch. She believes she can make it there on time.
She thanks God that her return trip — if there is one — will be downhill. Especially given the state that she’ll be in. Right now, the dizziness is worse. Each step is harder to make. But she doesn’t let it show. No need to draw attention. How her life has changed!
Before this embarrassing moment, before the walk this morning up Montmartre, before the Occupation, there were two young Poles. It was 1930. Suzanne and Wolf arrived in Paris separately, barely in their teens, struggling to find their way in a new city. They were strangers to each other, coming from two shtetls on opposite sides of Poland. She from Checiny; he from Krakow. Four years later their paths would collide. One day the young apprentice handbag maker was sent on an errand to the seamstress factory to see if a repair could be made. Six months later they were married. Four co-workers and a dozen family members attended the ceremony at Temple Victoire. They ate stuffed cabbages. They drank red wine.
Suzanne arrives at 117 rue Lépic. The apartment building is in perfect condition, given the war happening further downtown. Maybe it was too hard a hill for the Nazis to climb.
Ring three short times, they said. Suzanne rings three times. She hears someone coming downstairs. An elderly woman answers the door but takes care to stay well hidden behind it. Without speaking she bids Suzanne to walk upstairs. She is about the tallest woman Suzanne has ever met. Her hair is like brittle dried wheat stalks, her dress soiled with undeterminable stains.
They slink up four flights of stairs in silence.
Once inside the apartment, the woman locks the deadbolt behind them. “You are Suzanne, yes?”
“You are late.”
“Yes,” says Suzanne reaching into her cloth bag of fake laundry.
“I said Reichsmarks, not francs! What is this?”
“This is more in francs than what you had required in Reichsmarks.”
“But how am I supposed to exchange this? This amount of money? You think I can go into a bank and they will not run and get the SS?!”
“I beg of you. Take my money. It’s all I have. I had no other choice.”
The woman grabs the wad of bills and begins counting it, licking her fingers as she goes.
“Merci,” Suzanne whispers.
Madame A. finishes counting and places the money on her dresser.
“Okay, take off your underwear. Let’s get this out.”
Three months earlier, April 20, 1940, was an unseasonably cold day. Rain and wind whipping the windows of Suzanne and Wolf’s fifth floor apartment. The news was not good for Paris. It was just a matter of time before the Germans reached French soil. Everybody knew it. Everybody prepared for it. Grocery shelves and bank accounts were emptied. Casual conversation about the weather was pointless. Nobody trusted anybody anymore. Mundane dialogues seemed to be interpreted by some as code for Nazi troop movements in Ardennes.
Suzanne and Wolf, married barely five years, looked at the rain hitting the windows and wondered what kind of future Geneviève, sound asleep on the couch, would have.
Wolf stood and walked towards the window. He couldn’t keep his secret any longer. “Here,” he said, giving Suzanne a letter. It was typed and very official looking. She read it and started to cry.
“What if you don’t report to the caserne?”
“What do they do to army deserters? They shoot them! They will find me and kill me. And then what will you and Geneviève do?”
“It doesn’t matter anyway. The Germans are coming.”
“Suzanne!” Wolf shouted. He liked calling her by her French name. “Do not talk like that! It does not help. I will be making money. I will send it back to you two.” Wolf sat down next to her on the bed and took her hands. “And I thought you liked men in uniforms!”
Suzanne hugged him, sobbing, running her fingers through his black curly hair. They looked at each other. They looked over at Geneviève. Silently they kissed. Silently they undressed.
It was the last time they had made love.
And now there is a woman pushing down on her abdomen as if she’s tenderizing meat.
“You ingested the pennyroyal when?” Madame A. asks.
“At six this morning.”
“Bad. The instructions were clear. Three o’clock and no later.”
“I am sorry,” she sighs, reluctant to explain that she’d not wanted to take it when surrounded by her relatives.
“Even if we are only halfway through you will need to leave before sunset.”
“I understand. I will do whatever I need to do.”
Madame A. fetches a big vat of boiling water from her stove, and sets it down in the bedroom. Steam and sun and dust twist and float together like one of Geneviève’s snow globes.
“Here, sit down on top of this one. Careful, it’s hot.”
Suzanne lifts her dress, straddles the vat and squats over the vapors.
“Twenty minutes, okay?”
The sun pours into the apartment. Street conversations rise through the open window. This would be a nice day — were it not for the men with guns outside and the imminent death in the room. Suzanne’s focus slackens. The steam numbs her body and lulls her mind to sleep.
Twenty minutes pass, and a second vat is heated and placed underneath her.
“I need to check,” Madame A. says. She lathers her right hand with an ointment and thrusts her right fist inside Suzanne.
Suzanne remembers a time, a few years ago, before Geneviève, when it was just her and Wolf. On a whim, the newlyweds took a train to the Oise River to visit a farm an hour outside of Paris. Of all things! These two young city Jews visiting the pigs and goats and cows. Manure on their nice shoes. Hay in their hair.
Now Suzanne thinks herself one of those cows. Madame A. removes her hand and checks her fingers. “No, still not ready.”
She disappears to the kitchen to wash her hands. While Madame A. waits, she does not talk. Or read. She looks out the window, her gaze fixed on nothing. She might as well be blind. A third vat is heated and Suzanne squats another twenty minutes.
There’s a fourth vat and more pushing. More ointment and discomfort.
“You need to push harder. You’re not pushing hard enough,” Madame A. commands. After an hour of humiliation and heat, Suzanne is on the verge of collapse.
Finally, after yet another hour, Madame A. says, “Yes, it is ready. Let us begin.”
In a small closet, just off the hallway, is a fold-up cot. Madame A. drags it into the main room. She fits two poles inside metal stanchions on the cot. At the end of each pole, a place for the feet. Suzanne climbs on the cot and lifts her feet into the appropriate place.
Madame A. slides the stool under herself. She looks up at Suzanne and there is a wordless conversation that takes place at that instant. There is sorrow, forgiveness, anger. In Madame A.’s eyes, a promise. But a promise of what? There is regret and a shared resolve that surprises them both. All this transpiring before either of them blinks, before either of them can change her mind.
Madame A. begins. Trilingual curses fly out of Suzanne’s mouth — French, Yiddish, Polish. There is blood everywhere. On the floor, the towels, herself. There is vomit, too. And other things, she’s sure. Violent tugs of flesh. Suzanne is sure that there is something wrong. That Madame A. is removing not the fetus but a vital organ. So this is what it’s like when flesh rips inside your body.
Suzanne faints several times, a kind of preparation for death. Seconds seem like minutes. Minutes seem like seconds. In these moments of unconsciousness she finds peace. A kind of a half-sleep, where sounds and smells and sights become otherworldly. A not-at-all-unpleasant dreamlike state. She can see Wolf now. In his uniform. It is then that she speaks to him.
“Nineteen thirty-four. Of course you remember, mon chéri! We two Polish Yiddishe kopfs in this city of cities. You were so handsome. You were so kind. We were so poor. You promised me diamonds! You should see Geneviève. So beautiful! She looks like you. Such a nice girl. You were right, Wolf. And I was wrong. Forgive me. We should have left sooner. When you come back we will move to America or even Israel. They say it will be safe for us there after the war. Please come back. Come back to us, please.”
“It is coming out in pieces. I am sorry.”
“Please, hurry. Please.”
“What a mess!” says Madame A., casually, as if she had just ruined dinner.
And where is Wolf? It has been three months since the surrender. Three months with no letter. Maybe he escaped. There is talk that some of them escaped to England. Her heart soars. Maybe he is a prisoner. This is what happened. Her heart sinks. Or maybe he is —
Suzanne doesn’t let her mind go there. Impossible to think that she is removing from her body the final flesh of her husband.
“ARRETEZ!” she screams. “Arretez! Je ne peux pas,” she repeats in her Polish accent.
“Quiet! Have you lost your mind? They will come for us!
“I cannot do this.”
“It’s too late. I cannot stop. You will die. We are too far along. One more tug and I should be finished,” Madame A. assures her.
Suzanne begins to pray, and it surprises her. It’s her own prayer in her own language said to a God who’s forgotten her. Take this child inside of me. Forgive me! Take him from me. He is yours. Take him so that my Geneviève may live. Take even my own life.
This is death poured into life. An addition by subtraction. Suzanne does not think of the private holocaust happening right there in her womb.
“It is finished,” says Madame A., carrying a bloody, viscous thing inside a metal bowl to the kitchen sink.
Suzanne is too tired to cry, but she knows she will in the coming days. At least I am alive, she says to herself.
Returning to the bedroom, Madame A. takes three cotton diapers from Suzanne’s laundry bag and stuffs them in Suzanne’s crotch, securing them with gauze and tape.
“Before you go, I need to ask you something,” says Madame A., placing the final bandages on. “It’s a question I ask all my patients.”
“I need to know why.”
“I need to know why you are here.”
“What kind of a question is this? And why ask me now?”
“I ask all the ladies. It is something I require. I need to know why I am doing this.”
“This is a very personal question.”
“Personal? You had your dress pulled up and you squatted over water. I had my entire arm up there. I think that was personal.”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“Were you raped? A German soldier? There have been stories.”
“A lover, then?”
“I need to leave. It will be dark soon.”
“I can’t let you leave without knowing.”
“Vous êtes folle! You don’t need to know,” says Suzanne as she gingerly sits up in bed. “I am leaving.”
“I can make a call, you know.”
“Espèce de salope!”
“Then, tell me.”
“My husband,” Suzanne shouts. “Are you happy now?”
“Your husband? Why do this then?”
“He isn’t at home.”
“He left you?
“He is a soldier.”
“Well, you mean ‘prisoner’? The war will not go on forever. He will be home one day. This is no reason to not have a baby.”
Suzanne looks away. A lie would have been easier but it’s too late for that.
“You’re Jewish?” says Madame A.
Suzanne nods her head but says nothing.
Madame A. takes a step closer to her. Suzanne braces herself.
“Then, there was no choice,” says Madame A. softly, holding both of Suzanne’s hands in her own.
And then, a knock.
Madame A. looks at Suzanne and motions for her to get back into bed, and, as quietly as she can, folds up the cot and places it back in the closet.
“Oui?” Madame A. says through the door.
“Was ist denn hier los?” answers a man’s voice.
An SS officer.
“Öeffnen!” he says.
Madame A. opens. The officer walks in uninvited and looks around. He is short for an SS officer. He has thinning hair and a mustache that should be trimmed.
“A kind neighbor of yours told us they heard a woman screaming ‘stop’.”
“No, there was no screaming.”
The officer walks into the kitchen.
“Vos papiers, s’il vous plaît,” says the SS officer, his “v”s sounding like “f”s.
Madame A. hands him an envelope.
“Merci, Madame. So, tell me why your neighbor is so concerned.”
“My friend and I were laughing. I had just told her a joke.”
“I love jokes! Bitte, tell me this joke. I need a joke right now at this moment.”
The officer walks into the bedroom.
“Shhhh....she is sleeping....drunk,” Madame A. warns.
“What is that smell? Was someone sick? An odor of vomit is in here.”
“Suzanne. She cannot tolerate liquor.”
The officer spins around quickly and faces Madame A. “Madame, I am still waiting for my joke.”
“It is a rather crude joke. I shouldn’t say.”
“S’il vous plaît, tell it to me.”
Madame A. thinks for a second. “It is a Jewish joke.”
She takes a deep breath. “Two Jews are about to be shot. Suddenly the order comes to hang them instead. The one says to the other ‘You see, they’re running out of . . .’”
“Bullets. Yes, that is an old one. And not very funny. Either your friend is not too bright or the liquor is quite good.” The officer laughs heartily at his cleverness. “And can you wake her up?”
This is it, thinks Suzanne, opening one eye in panic. I will die just outside this window. He will drag me out by my hair, bloody dress and all. On the street. One shot to the head. This happens so often that nobody even cares to look outside anymore when they hear a gunshot.
“Suzanne,” whispers Madame A.
“Mademoiselle! Wake up! The war is over! You are in Germany now. Everything is fine!” The officer laughs.
Suzanne feigns fatigue, rubs an eye, and props herself up in the bed.
“Bonsoir, Monsieur,” she says masking her Polish accent. Say short words. Words you can pronounce à la française.
“Bonsoir, Mademoiselle. You shouldn’t drink so much. We don’t like pretty women when they drink. Yes?”
“Vos papiers, s’il vous plaît.”
Suzanne reaches in her laundry bag and gives the officer her papers. Madame A. watches the German closely. He looks not at Suzanne’s papers but, rather, at her bloody dress. Madame A. is sure of it. And then she notices that, on the floor, one of the stirrup poles is peeking from under the bed apron. She walks out of the bedroom.
“So you don’t live around here,” he says to Suzanne. “Tell me, how are you two friends?”
“Suzanne’s mother and I were good friends until she passed,” Madame A. interrupts, returning to the bedroom.
“Listen, Herr Offiziere, we have broken the law with our loud noises and I would like to pay my fine now,” says Madame A., moving quickly towards the officer. She hands him an envelope. The one with Suzanne’s money.
He looks at the money. He looks at Suzanne and Madame A. “You know, some of us say that the French are not a very grateful people, but I find them to be very kind. Very lawful.” The SS officer walks to the door, placing the envelope inside his jacket pocket. “Bonne nuit, Mademoiselle, Madame.”
“Bonne nuit, Monsieur.”
Madame A. and Suzanne listen as the door shuts, and the officer heads downstairs. Silently they watch through the window as he walks down the street and out of view.
Suzanne’s mouth is agape. “Why didn’t you just tell him that I’m . . . ?”
“They would have left you alone for the rest of the war.”
Madame A. shrugs. “It’s not good for business. Having Nazis dragging women out of here.”
“Tell me, Suzanne, what is it they call you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your real name. Polish name.”
“Well, Sura, we have had quite a day. You are tired. I am tired. It is time for sleep.”
And Suzanne listens, lies down like a compliant child and falls asleep.
The following morning, stumbling home, she realizes — happily — that she will no longer bear children, and that, if she survives today, she will know that God exists and that He is good. Once inside the apartment, Uncle Felzen chides her for being gone for so long. Suzanne embraces her daughter tightly, and allows her grief to plunge her into a dark sleep.