The Incandescent Threads
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Richard Zimler
After my mother died, my father would sometimes stop in the middle of the street, tuck his head into his shoulders, and swivel around in a slow, suspicious circle, his eyes in search of imminent peril. Dad was seventy-six years old then – tiny, slender and fragile. My wife claimed she still spotted an optimistic bounce in his walk, and my nine-year-old son, George, trying equally hard to cheer me up, said that Grandpa looked like one of those amazing old guys who competed every year in the Boston Marathon.
As for me, every one of my strained and hesitant breaths seemed like a pledge to never accept the injustice of Mom leaving us when she was only sixty-four years old.
The morning after she passed away, Dad brought his clunky cassette player into the kitchen before making his coffee and started listening to an interview she’d done with a Sephardic singer from Istanbul whom she’d befriended. A few minutes later, he found me standing by the back fence of our garden. He’d brought me the bowl of oatmeal I’d left behind in my desperation to get away from my mother’s cheerful voice. As he handed it to me, he said, “I’m sorry, Eti, but I won’t be able to go on without hearing your mother every morning. So just be patient with me.”
Three days after Mom’s funeral, while my father and I were walking through the parking lot of his Chase branch, he stopped and peered around, his hands balled into fists.
“Is it a ghost you’re looking for or an old enemy?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” he shot back, furrowing his eyebrows into a V in order to imply that I was asking a nonsensical question.
My father has eyebrows like hairy caterpillars. When I was a kid, they sometimes seemed ruthlessly critical of me – especially when I dared to ask him about his childhood in Poland.
“You seem convinced that somebody dangerous is going to show up around here,” I told him, trying to sound casual.
“Around here where?” he asked.
Rather than say I have no idea, I swirled my hand around to indicate the shopping center, the parking lot, Willis Avenue, and the rest of what we normally consider reality.
“Bah!” he said, flapping his hand at me as my version of reality didn’t count for much from where he was standing. But he also shivered, which was when a familiar latch opened inside me and I felt time slowing down and then coming to a halt, and I made the old mistake of gazing into his big, black, watery eyes for far too long, and when he started panting for air, tears leaked out through my lashes, and that’s when I started thinking that he really was a marathon runner, and not just him, but me, too. I’ve been running behind you, you elusive nutcase, since I was maybe eight years old, I thought, trying to catch up while you try to locate a secure hiding place!
In answer to his worried question, I told him it was the frigid wind that had made my eyes tear. I also tied his woolen scarf around his neck and kissed him on the forehead.
Children of Holocaust survivors learn to hide their irritation early on, of course.
All the time we were in the bank – while he was writing out his withdrawal slip, bantering with our favorite teller, Lakshmi, drinking a cup of coffee with the bank manager, and making a quick pit stop in the employee bathroom – I kept imagining my father as a panicked eleven-year-old boy standing at the window of the tailor shop where he spent his afternoons inside the Warsaw ghetto, waiting for his parents to return home.
Dad always grades the public bathrooms he uses for cleanliness, but this time he had no comment. “I didn’t notice a thing,” he said when I asked for his report.
He regained his energy the moment Lakshmi fetched him a second cup of coffee, however. He appreciated coffee more than anyone I ever met – even the bank’s stale brew. He licked his lips after every sip as if it were honey – and to make Lakshmi grin at him.
I admired how he charmed everyone, even now, after Mom’s death, and also how he jabbered away so knowledgeably with the bank manager, Ed, about the upcoming baseball season, his coat open to reveal his University of Utah t-shirt – a gift from an old friend – unconcerned about its fraying collar and holes.
When Ed gave me the familiar signal with his eyes, I told Dad it was time we let our friends at Chase go back to earning profits.
As a kid, I used to try to imagine what my father’s parents looked like. From clues he dropped, I ended up picturing them as rumpled, ravenously hungry versions of Edward G. Robinson and – if you can believe it – Barbara Streisand.
Why Barbara Streisand? Dad said his mom used to sing to herself while she cleaned their apartment. He once hummed a bar of her favorite tune to me. Mom later told me its title: Złociste Chryzantemy. Golden Chrysanthemums.
My father had a sweet baritone, but he only sang when he got a little tipsy or when a synagogue service called for us to join in on a hymn or psalm. It always seemed to me as if Dad believed that showing too much happiness or love in public might get him selected for the ovens.
The lyrics of Złociste Chryzantemy begin like this: Golden chrysanthemums in a crystal vase are standing on my piano, soothing sorrow and regret. Occasionally, I find myself singing that verse to myself. My own voice has come to sound to me like a form of defiance – of the way the world has tried to keep my father and me apart.
Just before he and I walked back through the Chase parking lot to my car, I did up the top button of his overcoat, and he smiled at me – a tight, boyish smile meant to look sweet-natured and to cover what he was really thinking.
The smile, my mother and I called it.
Did Dad learn how to shield himself with a smile when he first entered the ghetto in November of 1940, or only after his parents were loaded on a transport to Treblinka a year and nine months later? I never asked; I learned to avoid leading him back to the cramped, nearly lightless, ground-floor apartment where he lived in the ghetto with his parents.
After his parents disappeared, and until his escape in April 7, 1943 – for eight straight months – Dad stood every afternoon at the window of Willi’s Tailoring Workshop on the third floor of his apartment house on KoszykowaStreet. During the first two months his cousin Abe would join him there, and they’d sometimes play chess. Then Abe was picked up by the Nazis and taken away.
Dad told me only the vaguest outlines of this story; it was my mother who filled in the details.
Dad was lucky to escape when he did – the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising started twelve days after he was smuggled out, and his chances of surviving the bloody battles the Jews fought against the Nazis would have been close to zero.
After escaping from the ghetto, he spent eight months in hiding in Christian Warsaw, – much of the time reading by candlelight in a lightless alcove at the back of a storage room. In December of 1943, his saviors Piotr and Martyna – old friends of his mother – rolled him inside a rug and took him to a more secure hideout in the countryside, where he lived with an elderly and childless piano teacher named Ewa. She knitted Dad a gorgeous blue pullover that he still hides in his underwear drawer, though I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to know that.
I had just finished giving my second piano lesson of the day and was pouring myself a cup of linden tea in my backyard when I heard a motor car grinding over the bumpy lane in front of my home. The burst of delight in my chest caught me off guard and made me laugh – I’d not suspected that I’d missed my younger brother so much.
I searched the threatening sky – all those heavy, slate-gray clouds that had come in from the east that morning – and grabbed my cane, wondering if it would be safe to drive in a downpour. While making way through the music room to the front of the house, I began practicing how I’d tell Karol that we ought not to go very far until the weather cleared – to which he’d say, “Ewa, you’re always such a frightened little mouse!” Then he’d head to the back door to evaluate the weather for himself, and his gaze would be drawn by the ponderous gravity of our childhood over the farmlands and hedges he knew so well, and when he turned back to me, he’d curse our parents for what he regarded as a miserable upbringing.
I stopped at the window at the front of my house and saw the swirl of dust kicked up by the wheels of Karol’s car which was dark and large.
Ewa, I’ve purchased a Mercedes! he’d written in his last letter to me, three months before. It’s essential for getting around such a huge city, and since I wish to advance in my career, I must show my senior colleagues that I am to be taken seriously. In the summer, I shall drive to Lodz to see my old friends from school, and while I’m there, I’ll stop by and take you on a ride.
I’d wanted to write back, Would the owners of a German insurance company really promote a Pole to vice-president? But my reference to his foreign origins would have irritated him, so I simply congratulated him on his wise decision and asked for a photograph of him with his car.
He’d signed his letter Karl, the German version of his name – and what our father, a native of Gdansk, had always called him.
When I stepped outside, I saw that my anxiety was without cause; my brother had not come for a visit after all. The driver of the car that had just parked under my sycamore was Piotr, who had studied with me for several years when he was a boy, until his family moved to the capital. I’d last seen him two years before, when he and his wife had stopped by for a chat while on a visit to his aunt, who lived on the outskirts of Brzeziny, a twenty-minute walk from my farmhouse.
The relief at seeing Piotr instead of my brother made me thank my good fortune. I was astonished that, just a few moments earlier, I could have experienced a flash of joy at the possibility of seeing Karol – of embracing the sad and taciturn young boy that he’d been. What little-girl fantasies my heart still invented for me!
I recognized Piotr’s sad, deep-set eyes right away. The scruffy beard he’d grown made him look like the lonely and otherworldly Jesus that Orthodox artists painted on their icons.
He got out of the car and hailed me with a wave. “Yes, Ewa, it’s me!” he hollered. “Give me a moment.”
He seemed to have become more slender and frail since I’d last seen him. Had he gone through very hard times of late?
After opening his back door, he dragged out a rolled-up Persian rug, brick red and brown with a golden fringe. He unrolled it on the bare ground to reveal a surprise: a dark-haired young boy. He was dressed in loose-fitting black trousers and a white shirt. He wore no shoes. His hair was mussed and his face was caked with dust.
He didn’t stir. He lay across the arabesque pattern of the rug with his eyes closed, his arms crossed over his chest, which reminded me of a photograph I’d seen only recently, though I couldn’t recall where. In his right hand was a tiny scroll tied with a black ribbon.
The boy is dead, I told myself, and Piotr has come to bury him where no one will ever find him.
I reached back for the door frame because my legs had gone weak.
After Piotr knelt down on the rug, he brushed the dust from the boy’s face with a handkerchief that he took from his pocket. “Benjamin, we’re here,” he said in the soft, summoning voice that an adult uses to awaken a child.
The boy’s eyes opened. Piotr smiled reassuringly. “We made it!”
Piotr introduced me to his young friend, who gazed off beyond me toward the horizon. It was at that moment that I noticed the bruise on his forehead, but it seemed nothing compared to being rolled up in a rug.
“He’s tired after the long journey,” Piotr explained.
He pointed down the hallway to the rear door and told the boy to wait in my backyard. “You’ll be safe there. I’ll talk with Ewa for a little while and then I’ll come get you.”
The boy did as he was told without any hesitation or sign of distress. As we stepped into my sitting room – just large enough for my sofa, an armchair, and a card table – I asked Piotr if his car was a recent purchase, and he replied that unfortunately his teacher’s salary didn’t permit such luxuries and that he had borrowed it from a cousin. In reply to my subsequent questions, he said that Benjamin was the son of a Jewish friend named Graça who’d been with him at university, and that she and her husband Adam had been caught in a Nazi round-up more than a year ago. “Benjamin was at school when they vanished,” Piotr continued, “so he started waiting every day for them to come home, but they never did. Then his other relatives were taken away. And when one of his great-uncles was the only person left he could entirely trust, the old man gave the boy all the money he had and instructed him to escape the ghetto any way he could. Benjamin already had my name and address, so he showed up one day at my door. He was filthy – he’d crawled through one of the cramped tunnels leading out of the ghetto. And he was infested with lice, too.”
Piotr’s resigned shrug reminded me of how we had all grown used to the most terrible news over the last few years. And yet I winced on picturing the boy trapped in a lightless tunnel. “How did he come to have your name and address?” I asked.
Piotr picked up the deck of cards with which I played solitaire. “His mother had spoken to him about me. We’d been very close at university. She told the boy that if anything bad ever happened to her and Adam and his other relatives, he was to come to me – that I’d help him get to safety.”
I leaned on the oaken chest where I stored my sheet music and gazed through the open window at Benjamin, who was standing at the edge of the pond that I shared with Bartosz, my nearest neighbor. He’d joined his hands together and was now tilting his head far back.
“What’s he doing?”I asked.
Piotr looked out the window. “Imagining something, I suppose.”He tapped the top of my music chest. “Do you still store your eggs and cheese with your scores?”
“Yes, and they still don’t understand Schoenberg’s compositions!”
He grinned, but when he looked out at Benjamin again his eyes narrowed, and as he turned to me, I heard him tell me in my mind: There are things you don’t know about the difficulties my mother and I had when I was Benjamin’s age. I only alluded to them once with you, and very vaguely, because my father had threatened me. Even today, I find that those old troubles weigh on me, because I could do nothing to help my mother when she needed me most, and it is a terrible thing to fail someone you love.
Was I reading far too much into his expression – imagining what he’d confess to me if he dared to speak his mind – or had I come upon a hidden truth?
Piotr put down my deck of cards and rubbed his eyes like he does when he’s anxious. I took his wrist and gave his palm a kiss, exactly as I used to.
“It’s good to see you, Ewa,” he said.
“Piotr, you know you’re always welcome here,” I told him.
“I wasn’t sure where to go,” he said. “I had to leave in a hurry. The woman who lives in the flat just below us found out somehow about Benjamin.”
“Did she try to blackmail you?”
“No, but we couldn’t risk being caught with the boy.” He shook his head. “The ghetto in Warsaw… have you heard about what’s happened there?”
“No, I occasionally get some local news – mainly what my students tell me. But almost nothing reaches me from Warsaw.”
“The Germans started transporting everybody out of the ghetto – thousands per day, I was told. Then the Jews who were left started fighting with whatever weapons they could find. The Nazis used all their firepower against them: tanks and machine guns and God knows what else.” Piotr reached a tense hand up to his forehead. “Ewa, I don’t think anyone got out alive.”
Tears rose in my chest, but I fought them back. How would my weeping help any of the dead, after all? Piotr helped me to my bathroom so I could wash my face with cold water. I then sat alone for a time in my bedroom, in silence, marveling at how everything can go wrong so quickly. When I returned to Piotr, he told me he was sorry to have upset me.
“No, you did the right thing,” I assured him. “But there’s something I don’t understand. Where did the Germans transport the Jews?”
“A friend in the resistance told me that they were taken to camps in the countryside.”
“What kind of camps?”
“Ewa, look, maybe it’s best if we talk about something else.”
“Piotr, do the Germans murder them in these camps?”
“Yes. That’s what I’ve heard.”
Why kill all those defenseless people? I almost asked, but as we’d discovered since the start of the war, that was a question that made no sense to the Nazis. I returned to the window. Benjamin was now sitting on my weedy lawn with his legs crossed. He held a stick in his fist and he was hitting it into the ground over and over, as though punishing someone in his mind.
Piotr came to me. “I’ve got to find a way to keep him alive until the end of the war,” he said. “Then I’ll try to find out if anyone in his family survived. So that’s why I’m here, Ewa.”
“But… but surely there is someone in a better position to hide him,” I stammered. “A distant relative, an old friend of his parents. Maybe Martyna knows someone.”
Martyna and Piotr had gotten married a few years earlier.
“We couldn’t think of anyone else we could trust,” he said. He gazed down, pondering alternatives. At length, he said, “But you’re right, it’s too dangerous for you. I see that now. I have an old friend in Lodz who might be able to keep him for a while. To have come here to you–” He apologized for his lapse of good sense.
Guilt began to prowl around inside me. “Couldn’t your parents take the boy?” I asked.
“No, my mother is a fan of Mr. Hitler. She blames the Jews even when we have bad weather.”
“Will he be safe with your friend?”
“For a while. Listen, can I see the music room before we get on our way to Lodz? Your piano and I… My goodness, it was love at first sight!”
I laughed, but my chest was aching with shame, and I hid my hands behind my back because I could no longer control their trembling when I was upset. “Of course, Piotr,” I said, “though it needs to be tuned. Remember, Grzegorz, the piano tuner who lived just opposite the All Saint’s Church in Lodz?”
“No. I don’t think I ever met him.”
“He was murdered by the Germans last year. He’d been hiding a Jewish couple.”
In truth Grzegorz was in good health and had attended to the needs of my piano just a few months earlier, but I lied in order to remind my old student why I could not accept the boy.
After shaking his head at the injustice in the world, he squatted down to take a look at the pedals. “Remember how much trouble I had reaching them at first?” he asked.
He’s so much more alive and worldly than I am, I concluded when our eyes met, and yet my love for him tethered us together. It is a blessing to have known the length and breadth of such a good man, I said to myself as if it were a prayer.
“What is it?” he inquired.
“Just the strangeness of time,” I replied.
“Yes, it passes quickly. I’m thirty-two years old now. Can you believe it?”
“Wait till you’re sixty and then you’ll know how fast everything passes!”
“Are you sixty? My God, you don’t look it.”
“Sit, you little liar!” I told him. “Play something for me.”
“I haven’t played in at least a year.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
He sat on my bench and moved his right hand over the opening phrase of Pictures at an Exhibition by his beloved Mussorgsky. He held the final F as if keeping a door open. He looked up at me, waiting for my approval, so I smiled the smile I have been making for my students for forty years. You are safe to go through the door, it means. I will watch over you wherever you go.
As he played, however, glum thoughts assaulted me. I sat on the fraying velvet loveseat against the back wall and put one of the big white cushions over my lap. It’s my own fault that he’s here, I thought. I convinced him that he could always trust me.
Pictures at an Exhibition… When he was just a small and excitable little demon, he heard me play the first movement at one of the recitals I’d organized for my students. Afterward, he told me that he had to learn it – that it was the most exciting piece of music he’d ever heard. He was too young for it – its complex rhythms and harmonies would burden him like an older brother’s overcoat – but he was unstoppable as a boy. And in any case, children must be permitted to grow into the music they play.
Whenever he would come for his lesson, he’d race to my piano, breathlessly determined to show me how perfectly he had mastered the sections of Pictures from an Exhibition that I’d asked him to work on.
After I’d given him an opportunity to show off, we would always work on Bach for the first half hour of our lesson.
It is said that if you place a newborn baby in a warm pool, he will swim with ease and grace, as though he had been meant to live out his life under water. Most children will take to Bach in the same way, I have learned.
Over our last half-hour, for nearly two years, we worked on Pictures at an Exhibition. He concentrated on it as if it were a mountain he had to climb in order to reach his homeland.
After our lessons, I’d always make him tea and serve him a piece of cake on my mother’s royal blue china, sitting him in my armchair as if he were local nobility. I’d discovered that such rituals helped him master his nervous nature. We would listen together to recordings of the master pianists on my Victrola.
Now, as my old student swept through the chord progressions, I turned to the window and watched the Jewish foundling by my pond. It seemed now that I’d always known that Piotr would end up tugging me someplace I didn’t want to go. After noticing my discontent and dismissing it as a betrayal of the love I felt for Piotr, I surprised myself by searching for an explanation for the boy that the people in the nearest village would accept.
He’s Piotr’s son. You remember, my student with the sad eyes. His wife is ill with consumption. He doesn’t want the boy in Warsaw right now. He’s afraid he’ll catch the disease.
He’s my cousin Maria’s grandson. Yes, Anton, the one who was suspended from school for hitting a teacher. He’s going to be staying with me for the summer because Maria feels that...
When Piotr finished playing, I said, “That was quite good,” but I hadn’t been listening.
“It was a shipwreck, but thank you for being kind,” he said, giggling.
When I looked out the window at Benjamin again, a cavern of terror seemed to open under my feet, and I reached out to my piano to steady myself. “If someone discovers that the boy is living here,” I said to Piotr, “then how will I explain him?”
“I thought you might say he was Anna Jagoda’s son. She’s in Krakow now. She’s a nurse. The old people will remember that she was your most talented student and that you took her in for a time, when her mother was unable to cope with her and all her brothers and sisters.”
At that moment, it seemed that it was no mere accident that I’d presumed that my brother had arrived for a visit; the world itself was showing me that no matter how clever a story Piotr and I invented, neither I nor Benjamin would ever be completely free of danger.
“Someone still might guess the truth,” I said.
“I’m afraid that’s true.”
I took a deep breath. “Piotr, I mean my brother. He’ll see through any ruse we invent. And he’ll be relentless; he always is. He’ll contact Anna. And he’d have the boy taken away.”
“You could say that Benjamin is my son. That way, if he calls, I’ll confirm the story.”
“Yes, that’s what I’d have to do,” I agreed. “I mean, if I were to take in the boy.”
“I thought your brother was in Berlin. Has he moved back home?”
“No, he’s still in Germany, but he bought a car and is planning to visit. In fact, when I heard your car, I thought that you were him.”
Piotr played a chord sequence: C major, A minor, G seventh, C major.
“Putting the world back in order?” I asked.
“You taught me to do that,” he replied with a grin. “Does Karol hate the Jews?” he asked.
“I rested my hand on his shoulder. “Oh, Piotr, I’m not entirely sure that he knows what he likes and dislikes – except our parents. He hates them, I’m afraid.”
“They were simple people. And too fearful of God to raise confident and happy children. Worst of all, our mother could neither read nor write.”
“Is that a reason to hate someone?”
“Embarrassment turned to hate in him. Does that happen often? I don’t know. I only know what happened to my brother.”
Piotr wrinkled his nose, and I remembered that he used to do that whenever he hit a wrong note. “For some reason, I thought that he was a Communist.”
“He was, but he joined the Nazi Party so he could get a promotion. If he suspects Benjamin is Jewish, he won’t hesitate to denounce him.” I paused to reflect, then said, “And me, too.”
“But that would mean imprisonment for you at the very least.”
I nodded by way of reply. I didn’t want to explain that my brother also blamed me, his older sister, for adding to the landscape of affliction that had trapped him as a child.
Piotr stood up, went to the door, and called the boy, who pretended not to hear. He turned to me. “Benjamin hasn’t been outside in eight months. And he’s been confined in one little room. We couldn’t risk his being seen or heard.”
Eight months without sunlight,I thought, trying to understand how always having a ceiling over my head would affect me, and deciding that it wouldn’t be so bad if I could play piano. This was a shamefully silly thought, of course, because if I were a Jew doing my best to vanish, I couldn’t very well bring a musical instrument into my hiding place or make any noise at all.
Piotr summoned Benjamin again, and this time the boy started shuffling dejectedly back to us.
“Are you hungry?”I asked him as he reached us, smiling in what I hoped was a motherly way.
Benjamin gazed down by way of reply.
“How about you?” I asked Piotr. “I could boil up some potatoes and carrots from my garden,” I suggested in an enticing voice.
“No, we better get going,” Piotr said. “I’ll take Benjamin to my friend in Lodz.”
As he gazed around the room a last time, his eyes grew moist and he rubbed a nervous hand back through his hair. I could see that his affection for me would turn to disappointment – or even contempt – the moment he led Benjamin back to his car.
“Ewa, your hands, they’re trembling,” he said anxiously.
“It’s not a problem; when I play, they’re steady enough. It’s really something of a miracle. Listen, Piotr, how long would the boy stay with me?” I asked.
“Until the Germans leave. Or until you sense danger.”
“It could be a while before they go. Hitler claims that his Reich will last a thousand years.”
Piotr scoffed. “Bach and Beethoven will last a thousand years. Handel, too. Hitler – no one with any decency will want to know anything about him in a few years.”
“And Mussorgsky?” I questioned.
“I’ll tell you this: If I have anything to say about it, he’ll last a million times longer than any of the Nazis or their Polish collaborators.”
Benjamin never spoke to me during our first days together, and hardly even looked at me, and I began to sense that there was something ugly or corrupting about me that he alone could see. A disquieting thought assailed me one night in bed and made me so sick that I had to run to my bathroom: He can see the cowardice I’ve shown at all my most decisive moments.
After I’d cleaned myself up, I went outside so I could revel in the cool air. It was a night full of stars, though I didn’t see any guidance in their light. I’ll be hanged in the main square in Brzeziny, I thought. I’ll die without ever having done anything I was supposed to do.
And I whispered aloud: “One life – there are no second chances.”