The Windows of Wolinska Street
Written By: David Bottoms
Krysztof Król stood in front of the cinema’s forlorn marquee and admired a towering Hopalong Cassidy, who sat jubilant in a tooled saddle and waved a hat in exultation. His suit was a briskly white marvel, and the cuffs of his trousers rode over lustrous boots engraved with flame and feather. The trail beckoned, and the boy reveled in the hero for another moment before preparing to walk home. His own trousers, too large and held up by stiff black suspenders, helped cover the dust worked into the cracked leather of his shoes.
Three years before, newly arrived in the City and ushered into school at the age of nine, he kept his head low, but still betrayed his blood in speech: the Lithuanian, the Slovak, maybe even some Roma, no?, it was jeered. For the Germans’ purposes he was a slight boy, another in a shifting rabble of youth wearing the same white armband. He dodged the truncheon—and largely, the spit—but he was still no one’s Pole. There was too much Russian in him.
Even as the wall had gone up there was still a will toward normality. There were guarded pleasantries. These lay now on the sidewalks, however, layered amid the periodic showers of shattered glass. Tight-lipped civilities were winnowed away to nothing. The sons of Warsaw had little need for pleasantries, and amid the general upheaval of closures, relocations and subdued whispers the boy caught daily hell.
Krysztof the beggar.
Krysztof the donkey-fucker.
He kept such taunts to himself. In any event, he had a few friends: sandy-haired Dudek (known, even among his small cohort, by the unfortunate nickname dupek), talkative Pawel, would-be leader Jacek. The three boys had also attended the now-shuttered school, and the four had been reassigned to a makeshift training centre located in an obsolete foundry, northward on dim Czenklow Street. They seemed uninterested in giving Krysztof grief, which was reason enough to fall in with them. Yet when leaving their company, Krysztof headed home not to solitude but to three small rooms of squalor, inhabited by him and his mother.
He’d been six when they moved from a comfortable (if drab) home on the riverbank to the cramped third-floor lodgings they now inhabited…lodgings divided, then subdivided as more and more inhabitants of Warsaw were plucked up with whatever they could carry and deposited into the shrinking, fetid confines of the city’s middle. The Kaczmareks moved into the apartment on the same afternoon as Krysztof and his mother, but their three children weren’t the end. Pani Nowicki arrived the following morning, clutching a bag heavy with numerous photographs, the frames of which poked and strained the bag’s aged floral fabric.
His mother sewed jackets and trousers alongside eight other women in a converted bathhouse, her fingers stitching, hemming, deftly placing Wehrmacht eagles above breast pockets then piling these garments into bins, each day identical to the one before. She shared the same sparse meals as most of the city’s grimly focused workers, breaking bread into small shards to accompany chipped ramekins of soup, or cabbage, perhaps a slice of beef on a good day. At one end of her new dwelling on Wolinska Street sat the garment works, and on the other a soup kitchen that housed a clandestine shul and the operations of a group of candle makers.
There didn’t seem to be movement in the streets as much as concentrations of people: here, in the shops or the work-centres; there, awaiting a trolley. City police maintained appearances, but were idled as often as the queued citizenry. Krysztof knew the rhythm of the day. Much of it was spent staring at someone’s back.
In another time, at another moment, finding his father’s gun mightn’t have been terribly worthy of comment. The days of such benign discoveries were over, however. Krysztof’s mother sat him down in the parlor, the workday scarf on her head forgotten, and began to tell him of his father. He had been there early on in Krysztof’s life; the boy was sure of it. The memories his mother stirred in him were, if not bright, then at least brighter than the murk of his days at present. Traugutta Park, ducks on the water. A pad for penmanship, and a birthday paintbox. Sometimes he closed his eyes and imagined his father standing next to him.
“Krysztof…did you take the last of the bread?”
A moment passed, then a smile on Papa’s face.
“I can’t be angry with you. Your mother makes wonderful bread.” He was always the same in each of these brief imaginings—a man with dark hair brushed back from merry eyes, a slight mustache poised over his mouth. A man neither large nor small, chest taut against a wedding-day waistcoat.
Krysztof cobbled together a voice for his father from the market, the institute, sometimes the wireless. “I can’t be angry with you,” he said. “I can’t be angry with you.”
Friends, however. Among them there were confidences, hidden treasures, items of interest.
“Why the ‘VIS’ on its grip?” he’d asked Jacek.
“Those are the men who designed it.”
“And…the ‘FB’ on the other side?” he asked.
“That’s Fabryka Broni! That’s Radom, dummy – South of us! Krysztof, seriously!” returned Jacek, an apple on his breath, punching his friend on the arm.
Pawel and Jacek knew of the training centre’s closure for the day (more bureaucracy), but no one felt like traversing the short blocks to Krysztof’s to relay the news. Too many soldiers about. As the day waned, the two collected Dudek and did make their way to 24 Wolinska, where they were greeted at the top of their stairs by a Kaczmarek daughter.
“Go on,” she barked toward the boys. “He’s not here.”
“You go on,” said Pawel, shoving her aside and knocking on the door. Krysztof answered.
“There’s a rocket launcher outside Gdanski Station,” Jacek reported. “Let’s go.”
“Go?” Krysztof was confused. He shook his head in refusal.
“Through the sewer, of course!”
“You don’t know the way.”
“I know the way! Now come on, or we’ll never get back.”
The trip took somewhat longer than it might have ordinarily, even taken through the sewer. There were two changes of route and two doublings-back, and a brief moment where Jacek and Pawel stood staring at each other wide-eyed before the route was again established. The level of the muck against the red brick dictated one of the changes, and the smell almost drove the group back homeward. At the terminus of one tunnel, a side-grate slid away under Dudek’s substantial grasp, and the boys peered cautiously through the aperture onto the street’s surface.
Soldiers smoked and laughed, and unloaded large shells from canisters. The four just managed to arrange their faces inside the opening.
“What are those?” asked Krysztof.
“They’re not explosive,” said Jacek, following the progress of the unloading. “They’re smoke rounds.” The soldiers straightened immediately and fell silent as an NCO approached. He gave a terse order, then moved again out of the boys’ view.
“Who would fight the Germans?” wondered Dudek.
“Perhaps the Russians,” said Jacek. “Perhaps.” The group ducked back inside the opening, feet poised carefully on the sloping brick of the tunnel.
After traversing the brick again for what seemed like a much longer time, the boys re-emerged and eased into the lengthening shadows. Jacek paused at the corner of a large home on the central Żelazna Street, weighing his options. Voices came through a picture window on the house’s front, and—noting heavy linen curtains on the front window—he motioned the boys forward. Slowly they looked inside, eyes barely clearing the window’s framework. A group of soldiers sat before a table full of meat…potatoes…beets, bread with bowls of butter, bottles of wine and even a decanter of jeżynówka. The air was thick with smoke. The sight was enough to strike the group silent, tongues clicking dryly against palates, until Dudek shook his head and said, “All of that…for four men –” before Pawel shoved him downward, hard enough for Dudek to strike a cheek against his knee.
“If we were heard,” hissed Pawel. If we were found out.” Dudek rubbed his cheek and nodded slowly.
“We’ve got to get back home,” said Krysztof. “We’ve already missed curfew.”
He did walk toward the apartment, but stopped to look into Mr. Sobczak’s window, as it was only a few doors away from his own. There were a couple of lamps lit, and one cast a glow upon a wonderful old city crest, on which the Syrenka Warszawska, smiling her mermaid smile, held a silver sword aloft in defiance—
Mr. Sobczak startled him as he cracked the door open.
“Don’t stand there in the dark, Krysztof. It’s chilly. Come inside.”
The boy stepped into the shop, looking around at the empty tidiness. “Where is the rest of it?”
“The rest of my merchandise?” Mr. Sobczak chuckled. “Ah: I am between deliveries. My goods and suppliers have become few!” He sat down beside a stove and relaxed into his chair. “I remain open, however. One never knows.”
Krysztof stood, palms at his sides, and seemed to complete his brief inventory. “You can’t make a living,” he said to the shopkeeper, then, after a moment: “They don’t want you to make a living.” The old man caught Krysztof in a glance, but said nothing. Krysztof folded his arms.
“Why do we flee? Or hurry down the street from door to door like rabbits? Why do we not fight?”
“Who would you fight? With what would you fight? These men have trucks…aeroplanes,” said Mr. Sobczak. “Guns they have. Cannon.” He saw the expression in the boy’s eyes, so he raised his gaze level with him and took a sweet from his vest. Krysztof accepted the candy, unwrapped it quickly and crunched it between his teeth.
“You want to fight the Germans,” Sobczak repeated softly. “I had a nephew at Kotowice…a goatherd until he was conscripted. His division had old rifles, and even older ammunition.” Krysztof dragged a chair over and sat it next to the old man, who rose to prod the stove’s small fire with a long iron stave. “Another man told me of that day in September,” he went on. “Coming through the valley toward them…a column of dust so long and high they couldn’t see its end.”
“Why another man? Your nephew couldn’t tell you?”
‘No,” answered Sobczak, considering the boy thoughtfully. “For him, that first day was the end.”
“The men that are here now –” began Krysztof, but the shopkeeper drew up a finger sharply.
“These men have eyes everywhere, young Krysztof. If it happens in Warsaw, they see it.” Through the shop’s windows, Krysztof noted the deepening of the sky.
“I must go, Mr. Sobczak,” he said, standing.
The old man stood as well, then walked across the creaking floor to a pantry from which he took out a small bag. This he handed to Krysztof. “A bulb of garlic, an onion. For your mother.”
“Thank you,” Krysztof said, then slipped out into the street. He and his mother had neither wood nor coal for the stove, and acquisition of such commodities was a day-to-day pursuit. Following the coal carts through the alleys was useless, as there were numberless small children who did that very thing, and furthermore had more time than him to do it. Perhaps she had some put away. Perhaps one of the Kaczmareks had brought a little in.
His mother wouldn’t receive her pay packet for another two days, yet as Krysztof slowly mounted the apartment’s stairs he felt the night’s slight chill might be abated by a pot of soup.
He presented the bag to his mother, and she smiled.
“An onion!” she exclaimed. “Garlic! They’re lovely…where did you get them?”
“From Mr. Sobczak,” Krysztof said, looking away.
“Oh,” she said, her smile softening a bit, then “Is he well?”
“I’ve a couple potatoes.” She glanced toward the bedroom, her attention caught by a lively argument among the Kaczmarek children. “Pani Nowicki got some schmaltz up the street this morning. We can make soup. Perhaps a few latkes. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“It would be,” Krysztof agreed, smiling.
The sun of June had offered not warmth as much as a light thrown onto the sooty walls and dust: dust thrown ever upward as another wall toppled, splintering and smashing in its collapse. Krysztof’s mother watched as a young Polish home guard soldier—blindfolded, chest soaked in blood—was thrown from the back of a truck. Four Wehrmacht vehicles with broken windows had resulted in the razing of a synagogue in May, and when she found out (through a meddlesome Pani Nowicki) that Krysztof was seen emerging from a cluster of youth at the mouth of an alley, heads full of the words of organizers like Anielewicz, she’d almost forbidden him to leave the house.
The privies backed up in almost every hallway, and the stench fought cabbage, beetroot, onion cakes, herring and lard in the shimmering air. Animals, thought Krysztof. Animals in pens. He ground hate between his teeth until it was a coppery ingot: foul, vile. There was laughter in the streets, but none from Polish throats.
The sun had hung overhead, and the pigeons sought respite amid the eaves. Again the season turned; autumn deepened the city’s stone shadows and thinned the coats of its people. A year and a half after the relocations, and what? Tightened screws, and longer queues prodded down the streets by gray-coated bastards alternately detached and brutal.
Krysztof felt closed away, locked down, submerged like a fish in a parlor bowl, but where the fish knew nothing but swimming in zigzags, darting through the lacquered portals of its watery castle, and hurrying toward the disturbances caused by food flakes dropping onto the water’s surface, Krysztof knew confinement. The smells and stricture of the captive.
I can’t be.
Gatherings of the four friends outside the training institute provided a measure of routine. There was, what: classes, with aproned instructors to mimic? Cigarettes to cadge? Girls? One September midday, the boys unable to determine whether to roll their sleeves or not, Jacek slowly produced a wallet.
“Eh?!” he crowed, brandishing the wallet under the noses of the others.
“So what’s in it?” demanded Pawel.
“Let’s have a look,” said Jacek. “Identification. Something in German!” The boys laughed as he dropped the card into a sewer grate. “Some Reichsmarks.” These were dropped into the grate as well, with no mooning after currency they could never use. “A letter, poor old Fritz!” Jacek took out one last bit and—holding it gingerly—dropped the wallet into the grate. The boys craned inward. It was a strip from a photo booth, four images of the soldier and a female companion.
“His German pig of a girl!” Jacek continued, delighted. In the first image she regarded the soldier, smart in his dress uniform and with his hat at a jaunty angle. She prepared to lean in and kiss him. One buss found his cheek; another grazed his temple. In the fourth she looked again at the camera. Her mouth pulled upward into a smile but her eyes were elsewhere, far away.
“We can’t hang around, pig,” said Jacek as he spit at the images, dropped them after the rest, then nodded at his companions to leave.
They stepped over a dead man with a shawl over his filthy woolen coat. Yom Kippur was two days away, yet the fast would be, by now, just another day with no food.
A simple, ready-printed placard announced the closure of the little shop.
Mr. Sobczak’s building yet had (it could be said at least) all of its windows, and was free of defacement. Behind the leaded glass was no movement. The mermaid looked over the motes of dust flitting down in the afternoon light. The stove sat unlit and untended.
Zamkniety/Obszar o ograniczonym dostepie
And amid the colorless faces: Pawel. Three places behind Mr. Sobczak, for reasons known but to the sector administration, or Gestapo, or both. Krysztof stared at his friend, who betrayed no notice and who didn’t even seem to move his feet as the queue moved slowly forward. Better to stand in a doorway and peer into shadow, however, than to see the shop’s proprietor, a small case in his hand and an ashen look about his features, handing over identification for examination, then being briskly directed into a line with other such men, teachers, shopkeepers. A butcher left with no meat to cut. A publisher with a long-dismantled press, idled, fit now for no occupation but the walk, or the lorry, to the trains.
That autumn, if the word were spoken, no others need follow.
Krysztof thought that he might write to his relatives, the ones in Krakow so distant since the war, in order to extend a hand beyond Warsaw. He’d affix a stamp, if one could be had, and post the letter. The thought gave a brief lift to his spirits, yes, he’d write his family! He had nothing to say, well…maybe something about the training course. He had uncles that were engineers, mechanics, every manner of occupation. Couldn’t men discuss such things?
Under a stack of papers, through which he burrowed in search of writing bond and envelopes, there was a small bundle of old letters. They were tied with a string that Krysztof snapped as he pulled against it, then the letters were free. Every one was addressed from his father to his mother, each in the same careful script. Thirteen, fourteen such letters, and he didn’t need to pry to ascertain their contents. Memories of a beach, or a banquet, or a photo booth. Love, on a buff-colored page. What was the last letter, though? Why so different? The handwriting on the envelope was tentative, the envelope itself was of a chalky texture, its face marred by rubber-stamped addenda in purple and blue.
He opened the letter and read.
He stepped—the anger not yet fully formed—over the litter of sleeping bodies and stood by his mother’s bed.
“Mother,” he said, shaking her shoulder.
“Mother!” louder, his voice urgent in the dark.
“Krysztof…what?” she murmured against her arm.
“What is Lublin?” the boy demanded. She turned toward him now, awake, and lightly gripped his fingers.
“Lublin is a place where the men from this area went to work,” she said.
“He didn’t go to fight.”
“No.” She pulled him forward, and he sat down at the bed’s edge.
“He went to work. Not of his own wishes. Why tell me otherwise?”
“Dearest Krysztof,” she said, and he could sense the slight shake of her head in the dark, “you were so young.”
On the following morning he stood shivering in a small group called by one of the instructors. He received a folded paper, a couple of thin manuals, another packet of regulations from the city administrators. He was to be trained to operate a lathe.
The lines were growing: growing through the sparse, cold Hanukkah and into a January frozen and draped onto the city, and people walked with stares fixed at their feet. The leaden mornings sucked away more of their neighbors, and if one’s turn arose, his family usually accompanied him through the blank horror of processing. Before the lockdown, there were days the young Król family spent in the park. Had they, though? Had they ever sat in a park…among trees? Had there ever been trees in Warsaw? The bodies he stepped over now were those of children.
There were new troops headed for his block (pens and checklists at the ready), and he’d heard this, and bolted (gunfire in the streets behind him in echoing report) the distance from the institute to home. He reached the apartment and took the stairs by twos, and opened the door onto fearful eyes.
“Get in!” cried his mother, motioning him inside. Pani Nowicki sat beside her, eyes clenched in prayer and shaking her head slowly back and forth.
Outside the window, to the west—explosions.
“Don’t bolt the door! We’ll catch it if they come round!” Krysztof took in the two women huddled in the parlor, and the almost-silent Kaczmareks, motionless in the bedroom.
Pani Król heard the door open from the street. Number 24 had been selected for inspection, and soldiers moved busily through the first floor. There were shouts. A crash. Boots on stairs. A voice snapped briefly and forcefully, and the din stopped. Only the tread of footsteps now: words spoken conversationally, pleasantly. Krysztof heard a repeated protest, met each time with a muted, calming response.
The voices moved closer. They were on the third floor now. Krysztof slipped into the bedroom, a finger at his lips, as the rap sounded at the apartment door. He stood at the doorjamb, motionless, breathless, as his mother admitted a genial officer and his assistant.
“Pani Król, is it? A lovely afternoon to you.” Krysztof sneaked a brief look around the doorway and took in a man of stately carriage.
“I am Sturmbannführer Völcke. My assistant, Gefreiter Schmidt.” The man’s uniform was impeccable. If his boots were fantastic in their sheen, they were surpassed by the buttery leather of the holster at his waist. “We are meeting the residents of Wolinska strasse this afternoon. It is you, and the Kaczmarek family? Which of them are present?” With a nod toward the room’s huddled occupants, Gregor Król’s son stepped into the parlor, gun gripped firmly under wet fingers.
“Krysztof—no!” Every eye took in the boy and his weapon, then after a moment:
“But Pani Król, he is a soldier.” It was said as a statement of fact, with no guile, no patronization: indeed, the German straightened a bit and smiled as he sized up the boy.
“Krysztof, the gun, please,” Völcke asked gently, as to a comrade. His mother’s breath caught in her chest. Krysztof shook his head slowly.
“My boy, I understand…” Völcke began again, “but I’ve a great many people to meet with today.” His palm opened almost imperceptibly wider. In response, Krysztof worked the slide sharply, chambering a round. It settled back with a ratcheting noise that was deafening in the still air of the room. His hands were firm around the weapon’s stock, and he felt himself concentrate calmly and fully under the gleam of the parlor’s light.
The gun was warm and heavy.
Krysztof held Völcke’s eyes.
Klara Król didn’t see a lean figure leveling a pistol at an SS officer. She saw a laughing child, bounced into the air by a laughing man who caught him again and fed him toffee, cherry candies and once—a quick sip of brandy. A boy held aloft on the shoulder of his father while a village band played a spry processional as night fell. A boy who, spent from the day’s proceedings, giggled and protested as the day’s soil was washed from his young body. She saw these things, and was silently thankful that she’d discovered the gun and spirited away its bullets, thereby keeping a moment such as this from turning into disaster—into ruin.
For his part, Krysztof was pleased at having found his mother’s hiding place, and accordingly prepared to avenge his father. His city. His country.
David Bottoms is a music and culture historian who dearly misses the Midwest. He’s previously been published in an Australian journal, Vine Leaves, as well as in the essay collection The Cincinnati Anthology, and he’s shopping a literary novel.
He loves tracking down regional cuisines and haunting dimly lit junk shops, and keeps his eyes open for the moments, talk and minutiae that help us understand who we are. He loves cats. He does take a drink.