Home > Lilac Girls(8)

Lilac Girls(8)
Martha Hall Kelly

“I haven’t seen her,” Papa said. “When I couldn’t find Kasia, I went to the postal center and took my files outside to burn. Information the Germans will want. Names and addresses. Military lists. They’ve occupied the postal center in Warsaw and cut the telegraph line, so we’re next.”

“What happened to the staff?” Matka said.

Papa glanced in my direction and did not answer.

“Our best guess is German troops will be here in a week. Chances are they’ll come here first.”

“Here?” Matka gathered her housecoat around her neck.

“Looking for me. I may be useful to them.” Papa smiled, but his eyes stayed dark. “They’ll want to use the postal center for their communications.”

No one knew the postal center like Papa. He’d run it for as long as I could remember. Did he know secrets? Papa was a patriot. He’d rather die than tell them anything.

“How do they even know where we live?”

Papa looked at Matka as if she were a child. “They’ve been planning this for years, Halina. If they take me, hopefully they’ll need me enough to keep me alive. Give it two days. If you don’t hear from me, take the girls and go south.”

“The British will help us,” Matka said. “The French—”

“No one is coming, my love. The mayor is evacuating, taking the police and fire brigade. For now we need to hide what we can.”

Papa pulled Matka’s jewelry box from the dresser and tossed it on the bed. “First, wash and dry any tin cans. We need to bury anything of value—”

“But we haven’t done anything wrong, Ade. Germans are cultured people. Hitler has them under some kind of spell.”

Matka’s mother had been pure German, her father half-Polish. Even woken from sleep, she was beautiful. Soft but not fragile, a natural blonde.

Papa grabbed her by the arm. “Your cultured people want us gone so they can move in. Don’t you see?”

Papa went about the apartment gathering our most valuable possessions in a metal box with a hinged lid: Matka’s nursing certificate, their marriage license, a small ruby ring from Matka’s family, and an envelope of family pictures.

“Get the bag of millet. We’re burying that too.”

Matka pulled the canvas bag from under the sink.

“They’ll probably do a house-by-house search for Polish soldiers in hiding,” Papa said, keeping his voice low. “They’ve broadcast new rules. Poland no longer exists as a country. No Polish will be spoken. All schools will close. There will be curfews. A pink pass is required to violate them, and we are not allowed weapons or ski boots or any food over our ration limit. Secretly possessing these things is punishable by—” Again Papa looked at me and stopped speaking. “They’ll probably just take whatever they want.”

Papa pulled his old silver revolver from the dresser drawer. Matka stepped back, away from it.

“Bury that, Ade,” she said, her eyes wide.

“We may need it,” Papa said.

Matka turned away from him. “Nothing good comes of a gun.”

Papa hesitated and then placed the gun in the box. “Bury your Girl Guides uniform, Kasia. The Nazis are targeting scouts—they shot a pack of Boy Scouts in Gdansk.”

A chill went through me. I knew not to argue with Papa and placed my prized possessions in tin cans: the wool scarf Pietrik once wore that still smelled like him, the new red corduroy shift dress Matka sewed for me, my Girl Guides uniform shirt and neckerchief, and a picture of Nadia and me riding a cow. Matka wrapped one of her sets of Kolinsky sable-hair paintbrushes, which had been her mother’s, and added them to a can. Papa melted wax on the seams of the tin cans.

That night only stars lit our back garden, a patch of dirt surrounded by a few planks of wood held up only by the weeds around them. Papa stepped on the rusty shovel blade to push it into the ground. It cut through hard soil as if it were cake, and he dug a deep hole, like a baby’s fresh grave.

We were almost done, but even in near darkness I could tell Matka had kept her engagement ring on her finger, the one her mother had passed on to her when Papa was too poor to buy her one. The ring was like an exquisite flower, with a big center diamond surrounded with deep blue sapphire petals. It glittered like a nervous firefly as Matka’s hand moved in the darkness. “The diamond is cushion cut—from the seventeen hundreds when they cut stones to react to candlelight,” Matka would say when people admired it. React it did, shimmering, almost alive.

“What about your ring?” Papa asked.

The firefly flew behind her back, protecting itself. “Not that,” Matka said.

As children, when crossing the road, Zuzanna and I had always fought over who got to hold Matka’s hand that wore that ring. The pretty hand.

“Haven’t we buried enough?” I said. “We’ll be caught out here.”

Standing there arguing in the dark would only attract attention.

“Suit yourself, Halina,” Papa said. He flung shovelfuls of dirt into the hole to cover our treasures. I pushed earth into the hole with my hands to make things go faster, and Papa tamped it down smooth. He then counted his steps back to the building so he’d remember where we buried our treasure.

Twelve steps to the door.

ZUZANNA FINALLY CAME HOME with terrible tales of the doctors and nurses working all night to save the wounded. Word was many were still alive trapped under rubble. We lived in fear of hearing the sound of Germans at our front door, our ears to the radio in the kitchen, hoping for the best news but hearing the worst. Poland defended herself, sustaining great losses, but in the end could not match Germany’s modern armored divisions and airpower.

I woke Sunday, September 17, to Matka telling Papa what she’d heard on the radio. The Russians had also attacked Poland, from the east. Was there no end to the countries attacking us?

I found my parents in the kitchen peering out the front window. It was a crisp fall morning, a light breeze blowing in through Matka’s curtains. As I drew closer to the window, I saw Jewish men in black suits clearing the rubble from in front of our house.

Matka wrapped her arms around me, and once the road was cleared, we watched a parade of German soldiers roll in, like new tenants in a boardinghouse with their mountains of luggage. First came trucks, then soldiers on foot, then more soldiers standing tall and haughty in their tanks. At least Zuzanna did not see this sad sight, for she was already at the hospital that morning.

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