Home > Lilac Girls(6)

Lilac Girls(6)
Martha Hall Kelly

As dawn suddenly breached the horizon, the breath caught in my throat, the kind of gasp that can surprise you when you see something so beautiful it hurts, such as a baby anything or fresh cream running over oatmeal or Pietrik Bakoski’s profile in dawn’s first light. His profile, 98 percent perfect, was especially nice drenched in dawn, like something off a ten-zlotych coin. At that moment, Pietrik looked the way all boys do upon waking, before they’ve washed up: his hair, the color of fresh butter, matted on the side where he’d slept.

Nadia’s profile was also almost perfect, as was to be expected of a girl with her delicate features. The only thing holding her back from 100 percent was the purple bruise on her forehead, a souvenir from the incident at school, less of a goose egg now, but still there. She was wearing the cashmere sweater she let me pet whenever I wished, the color of unripe cantaloupe.

It was hard to understand how such a sad situation could lead to the prettiest scene. The refugees had fashioned a most elaborate tent city out of bed linens and blankets. As the sun rose, like an x-ray it allowed us to see through the flowered sheets of one tent to the shadows of people inside, dressing to meet the day.

A mother in city clothes flapped open her sheet door and crept out, holding the hand of a child dressed in pajamas and felt boots. They poked the ground with sticks, digging for potatoes.

Lublin rose beyond them in the distance, like a fairy-tale city, scattered with old red-roofed pastel buildings as if a giant had shaken them in a cup and tossed them on the rolling hills. Farther west was where our little airport and a complex of factories once sat, but the Nazis had already bombed that. It was the first thing they hit, but at least no Germans had marched into town yet.

“Do you think the British will help us?” Nadia said. “The French?”

Pietrik scanned the horizon. “Maybe.” He ripped grass from the ground and flung it in the air. “Good day for flying. They better hurry.”

A string of spotted cows sashayed down the hill toward the tents to graze, bells tanging, led by kerchiefed milk women. One cow lifted her tail and scattered a troop of lumps behind her, which those following stepped around. Each woman carried a tall silver milk can against one shoulder.

I squinted to find our school, St. Monica’s Catholic School for Girls, a tangerine flag swaying from its bell tower. It was a place with floors so polished we wore satin slippers inside. A place of rigorous lessons, daily mass, and strict teachers. Not that any of them had helped Nadia when she needed it most, except for Mrs. Mikelsky, our favorite math teacher, of course.

“Look,” Nadia said. “The women are coming with the cows but no sheep. The sheep are always out by now.”

Nadia noticed things. Though only two months older than me—already seventeen—she seemed more mature somehow. Pietrik looked past me at Nadia as if seeing her for the first time. All the boys liked her, with her perfect cartwheel, flawless Maureen O’Sullivan complexion, and thick blond braid. Maybe I was not as beautiful and a miserable athlete, but I was once voted Best Legs and Best Dancer in my gimnazjum class in an informal poll, a first, at our school anyway.

“You notice everything, Nadia,” Pietrik said.

Nadia smiled at him. “Not really. Maybe we should go down there and help dig potatoes? You’re good with a shovel, Pietrik.”

She was flirting with him? A direct violation of my number-one rule: Girlfriends first! Pietrik pulled my wreath from the river on Midsummer Eve, gave me a silver cross necklace. Did traditions mean nothing anymore?

Maybe Pietrik was falling for her? It made sense. Earlier that month the Girl Guides had been selling dances with local boys for charity, and Pietrik’s little sister Luiza told me Nadia bought all ten of Pietrik’s dances. Then there was that awful dustup outside the school gates. Nadia and I were leaving school when street boys started throwing rocks at Nadia and calling her names because her grandfather was Jewish. Pietrik had been so quick to rescue her.

People throwing rocks at Jews was not something unusual to see, but it was unusual for it to happen to Nadia. I’d never known she was part Jewish before that. We attended Catholic school, and she’d memorized more prayers than I had. But everyone knew once our German teacher, Herr Speck, made us chart our ancestors and told the whole class.

I’d tried to pull Nadia away that day as the boys hurled rocks, but she’d stood firm. Mrs. Mikelsky, pregnant with her first child, had rushed out, wrapped her arms around Nadia, and shouted at the bullies to stop or she’d call the police. Mrs. Mikelsky was every girl’s favorite teacher, our North Star, since we all wanted to be like her, beautiful and smart and funny. She defended her girls like a mother lion and gave us krowki, toffee candies, for perfect math tests, which I never failed to get.

Pietrik, who’d come to walk us home, chased the street boys away waving a shovel in the air but ended up with a little chip off his front tooth, which in no way damaged his smile and in fact only made it sweeter.

I was startled from my daydream by a peculiar sound, like the buzz of crickets all around us. It grew louder until the vibration soaked the ground beneath us.


They zoomed over us, flying so low they turned the grass inside out, light bouncing off their silver bellies. Three abreast, they banked right, leaving an oily smell in their wake, and headed for the city, their gray shadows gliding across the fields below. I counted twelve altogether.

“They look like the planes from King Kong,” I said.

“Those were biplanes, Kasia,” Pietrik said. “Curtiss Helldivers. These are German dive bombers.”

“Maybe they’re Polish.”

“They’re not Polish. You can tell by the white crosses under the wings.”

“Do they have bombs?” Nadia asked, more intrigued than afraid. She was never afraid.

“They already got the airport,” Pietrik said. “What else can they bomb? We have no ammunition depot.”

The planes circled the city and then flew west, one behind the other. The first dove with a terrible screech and dropped a bomb in the middle of town, right where Krakowskie Przedmieście, our main street, wound by the town’s finest buildings.

Pietrik stood. “Jezu Chryste, no!”

A great thud shook the ground, and black and gray plumes rose from where the bomb had fallen. The planes circled the city again and this time dropped their bombs near Crown Court, our town hall. My sister Zuzanna, a brand-new doctor, volunteered at the clinic there some days. What about my mother? Please, God, take me directly to heaven if anything happens to my mother, I thought. Was Papa at the postal center?

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