It was late when I arrived in Cambridge and was met form the station by Lawrie to take me to Nicole’s. I went straight to bed having hardly said two words to either of them and then proceeded to sleep for most of Tuesday only getting up for dinner. The next three days were lost in a whirl of last minute arrangements – flowers, name places, dress alterations and numerous trips to the hotel where the reception would be held to double check arrangements. Lucy arrived on the Wednesday afternoon looking somewhat easier with the world around her than she had done the last time I’d seen her. With Lucy on side we were able to soothe Nicole’s nerves a little and try and bring Samantha down from her great plane of excitement. By the time Tish arrived on Friday evening everything was more or less in under control and the four of us were able to open a bottle of wine and toast the future Mrs Lawrence Jenkinson. It seemed so strange to think that only two years ago everything was so different.
Saturday morning arrived, grey with a little light drizzle; I awoke around six and couldn’t get back to sleep. I wriggled off the camp bed where I had fallen asleep with an overexcited Samantha in my arms. Neither Tish nor Lucy, head to toe in the spare bed, stirred as I slipped from the room, book in hand and headed to the kitchen. Nicole was already up and awake, the window open and her arm stretched out of it.
It’s raining, she said glumly.
It might clear up by eleven, I said cheerfully. It’s only just six now. Here, shift, you’re in the way of the sink and I need a drink. How long have you been up?
Nicole shrugged as she moved so I could fill my glass. An hour or so.
Nerves, I asked as I hoisted myself on to the work top where I sat swinging my legs.
She shrugged. I’m not sure.
It’s a big step.
Nicole grinned. And that’s a cliché.
Fair point. Any sign of life from the others?
Not a peep, not even from Samantha.
You got out of bed without waking her? I’m impressed.
So am I! What time are you expecting your parents?
Around nine I think they said. Not that there’s much to be getting on with apart from getting ready. I’m not sure I’d have been this organised without you, Lucy and mother. At least Samantha’s been at school so I haven’t had to worry about her getting under everybody’s feet! She’s the work of six people on occasion but I wouldn’t change her for the world; I just wish Annie could see her now.
I wonder what she’d make of us all now.
We’ll never know.
Auntie Sharlie, came indignantly from the doorway. I slid off the work top as Samantha came to me. I woke up and you weren’t there. I picked her up and she buried her head in my shoulder. You mustn’t do that; it isn’t nice.
I’m sorry sweetheart, I said, kissing the top of her head. I only came to get a drink of water.
I thought you’d left me.
No, I’d never do that.
Samantha looked at Nicole. Can I get up now Auntie Nicole?
You already are, grinned Nicole.
Well can I stay up then?
You certainly can, but the question is may you, I quoted softly as Nicole giggled.
What’s so funny, demanded Samantha.
I’ll explain another day, I said setting her down. Today is not the day for it.
Lawrie and Nicole were married from the nearby church that they both attended. Nicole radiated happiness and Samantha as bridesmaid found herself spoiled rotten all day long. The new Mr and Mrs Lawrence Jenkinson left the church to a shower of confetti and the good wishes of everyone present.
Who’ll be next, asked Tish as we waved the newly married couple off on honeymoon.
Sharlie, said Lucy decisively. I gave a snort of laughter. Don’t laugh you fool; I’ll bet you I’m right, you mark my words.
I bet Tish, I retorted.
I bet you as well Sharlie, grinned Tish. In fact I’d have betted you before Nicole but that’s the way it goes.
She and Lawrie were made for each other, I remarked. And he adores Samantha. I don’t doubt that they’ll make a very happy family.
Then the Almitra spoke and said, And what of marriage, master?
And he answered, saying:
You were born together, and together you shall be for evermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness.
And let the winds of heaven dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,/
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
Kahlil Gibran ~ The Prophet.
It was snowing when we arrived in Warsaw in the early evening gloom. It had been a busy week since Nicole’s wedding going first to Lucy and then on to school. My trip to the Platz had been a pleasant affair, although strange to only be paying a flying visit. I had been filled in on the term’s events, in particular those surrounding the new girl, one Flavia Letton. It certainly had been eventful in my absence although I was privately glad to have been out of anything that involved kidnappings and gun wielding men in the Head’s study. Six long years had passed since my first visit to Poland but it still struck something just as it had done before. There had been a very few of us on the flight over – only those moving in political circles – a sure sign of the tightening grip of the Soviet Union on Poland, not to mention the rest of Eastern Europe. I had to wonder how much that grip had tightened since the rebellion had been put down in Hungary. Professor Stewart and I walked quickly through the streets of Warsaw trying to make ourselves inconspicuous amongst the crowds – neither of us wanting to attract attention to ourselves as Westerners. It was a bit of a culture shock arriving in Warsaw after the relative freedom I had experienced in America and I didn’t like it. I hadn’t felt comfortable in Poland the first time around; now I felt even less so. I wondered how we could have got it so wrong yet again.
In Warsaw I was able to renew my friendship with Alicja; we had tried corresponding but we had soon fallen out of touch. I had been wary about writing, unsure as to who was actually reading the nonsense that I wrote to Alicja about my daily life, and I had no desire to endanger her. Alicja accompanied me to Chełmno; Professor Stewart had merely sniffed and said it was up to me whether I went or not. His work was focussing on Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau, any mention to Chełmno was merely in passing. I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt drawn towards Chełmno’s story, maybe it was the silence that radiated in the absence of survivors’ voices. Using Alicja as my translator I tried to ask the villagers there what they remembered but they only turned away from my questions. I had touched a nerve, they didn’t want to remember the old menace, they were too preoccupied with a new one. It was difficult not to be disheartened but I couldn’t help it; on reflection I was too naïve in thinking that people would want to talk about it. Polish Jewry is conspicuous in its absence, I had read somewhere and how right they were. Yet that I understood, many had left, few had braved the horrors of the past and returned. Could I have done it? I doubted it but then there was so much which remained inaccessible to me because I had not survived a daily life in which the following day was not a given fact.
Everything seemed so much more difficult than it had been five years previously. Our questions were met with a stony indifference, people would simply turn their backs and walk away from our questions. It frustrated me that they wouldn’t talk, but how could I make them? Could I have talked about it, confessed that I had betrayed people I knew, or that I had merely stood by and watched them go to their deaths? Would I have believed the stories that had been brought telling of the infernal machine of destruction that was the death camps or would I have dismissed it as a wartime propaganda? The one thing I would never understand was the degree of hatred, fear and paranoia that had allowed it to happen. The few who talked to us pleaded ignorance; they had wondered where the Jews were being taken but the Nazis had spoken of a ‘resettlement plan’ for them in the East and they had believed it. In Poland something struck a chord of discontent inside me. It mostly concerned the rebellion I’d heard of being put down in Hungary. Eastern Europe had emerged from the shadow of Nazism and fallen straight under Communism. I agreed, to a certain extent, with the principles of Communism but there were such terrible stories of the suffering under its regimes that I could only wonder what might happen next. The iron curtain that Churchill had spoken of had well and truly descended on the world.
It had been three long weeks in Poland; of fruitless arguing, of refusals, of trying to blend into the background, of being ignored, of being turned away, and most of all, of learning. I had felt restricted during the three weeks of our stay and landing in the light drizzle of a December London evening, I felt the freedom that had been suppressed rise up inside me. I said my farewells to Professor Stewart and headed north to Liverpool with the voices of the previous weeks ringing in my ears.
He recalls the first convoy very well, and when all those Jews were brought here people wondered “What’s to be done with them?” Clearly they’d be killed but no one yet knew how. When people began to understand what was happening, they were appalled and they commented privately that since the world began no one had ever murdered so many people that way.
Czeslaw Borowi (Treblinka villager)
Poland’s a sad country. It’s a country that has always been unhappy, crushed by neighbours that were too powerful. It’s hard to be unhappy and not hate, and we’ve hated everybody for all the centuries of our servitude and our partition. We’ve hated the Russians, the Germans, the Czechs, the Lithuanians, and the Ukrainians; we’ve hated your people, because you had scattered over our country but you didn’t want to become like us, dissolve into is, and we didn’t understand you. We began to understand you when you rose up in Warsaw. You showed us the way; you taught us that even in desperation, people can fight.
Edek, Polish partisan, Primo Levi ‘If not now, when?’
If you live through that experience, it becomes part of your life. And you remain forever with the corpses you left behind.
Zoran Music, artist, 1909-2005. Dachau survivor
I will give them an everlasting name. Isaiah 56:5
Christmas was an unusual affair, having it at Elizabeth’s made more difference than we had thought it might. James’ parents and his brother and sister had all come as well and weren’t used to having small children around; consequently they weren’t sure how to act around Sarah, Jack and Claire. James laughingly remarked that they would have to get used to it as he proudly rested his hand on Elizabeth’s stomach. A parcel had arrived from America whilst I’d been in Poland containing a selection of garishly coloured candy and a card from Bea, Jen and Will.
Just a few things to remind you of us – if you can’t manage it all yourself then we’re sure those children you’re always raving about can help you out! It feels very strange not having you around now – you really did make your mark on us all. It’s a shame you missed the end of term; especially as the snow’s starting now and everything’s so white and pretty. We hope you had a successful trip to Poland from a research perspective and that things are beginning to take shape now.
It only remains for us to tell you to have yourself a merry little Christmas and don’t leave it too long until you come back to visit.
Love Bea, Jen and Will.
Harriet announced her engagement to Martin on Christmas Eve; it came as a surprise to no one as we’d been expecting it for some term. They were talking about a summer wedding, probably in August, which would take place down in London. I’d always wanted to see Elizabeth and Harriet settled before me so I was pleased to see them both so happy. It was hard to ignore the concerned expressions of the others as they tried to gage my reaction but I had learned to ignore those looks. Nothing would prevent me from being happy for my sisters; it would have been selfish of me not to be so. Harriet’s news was all about her, it had nothing whatsoever to do with me and I had no place to feel any self pity. I caught a few snatched whispers of James’ family saying that it seemed such a shame that I would be the one ending up ‘on the shelf’ or ‘the maiden aunt of the family’ whilst my younger sisters settled down and married. I had to laugh to myself over it; I had no expectations that they could possibly ever understand my reasons for being on my own.
A massive thunderstorm blew up on Christmas night and it felt as though the house would come down around our ears. I watched it from the window seat in the spare room I was sharing with Harriet, Aunt Jane, Caroline and James’ sister, with a frightened Sarah on my lap. As a child I had hated thunderstorms but I had grown accustomed to them; more so since I’d been at the Chalet School. With every clap of thunder Sarah tensed a little and tightened her arms encircling my neck. I leant back against the wall watching the lightening dance along the roof tops and listening to the incessant pounding of the rain. For a mad moment I entertained the idea of leaving Sarah and running outside to stand in the middle of it all, but feeling Sarah’s grip relax a little as the sleep she had been fighting won her over I decided not to and settled back to watch the awesome power of nature at work. I was so engrossed in watching the storm that I didn’t notice Rebecca enter the room until she laid a hand on my shoulder at which I jumped more than any clap of thunder could make me do.
Is she sleeping, she asked in a whisper.
I nodded. Only just though.
Rebecca frowned. I should take her to bed, if nothing else it’ll be more comfortable for you both. You must be getting stiff.
I experimentally wriggled my right foot. Not completely, only a little.
Rebecca prised Sarah away from me and gathered her up into her arms as I managed to climb off the window seat. Are you okay?
I stretched my arms. A little creaky.
I didn’t mean like that.
Oh. Yes. Why?
You’ve been quiet all day; it’s not like you, that’s all.
I shrugged. Just a few things on my mind, nothing important.
Are you sure?
Yes. Becca, I appreciate the sentiment but if I want to talk about things then I will. Talking, it’s something I’m good at, remember? That and getting on with things. I know you’re trying to help and I do appreciate it but I’m dealing with things my own way.
We had reached the room Rebecca was sharing with Philip and the children. She laid Sarah down and tucked her in before turning to me. Just don’t lose sight of what matters, she whispered, laying a hand on my cheek.