21 THE UKRAINIAN’S PRIEST TALE
Anna headed back to see the Ukrainian. She was escorted into the guardhouse. The Ukrainian, his face flushed, was seated on an old torn couch, drinking coffee with vodka, his dirty boots resting on a stool.
“So I see you have given it some serious thought. What do you wish to do now?” he asked. He puffed from his cigarette and blew a series of blue smoke rings into the dank air.
“I do want to go with the child,” Anna said. “Thank you so much. You’re very kind.”
“Kind?” he said. “No-one in recent years has connected that word to me. You know, I’ve been thinking, I could get into big trouble if you’re caught with a child leaving the ghetto. You know the children were supposed to have been all evacuated. It’s dangerous to hide them.”
“Yes, I know,” said Anna. She’s my baby sister-please let me take her now. I would be so grateful.”
“The child is your sister then. You told me she was not related to you.”
“I lied. I was afraid. And you said I could take my family out. She’s the only one I could take. Please let us go. I’d be so grateful.”
“You would? Well then, let’s first see how grateful you would be. Do you have more valuables, jewelry, gold, diamonds? No paper money. I want no currency. What do you have that could pay for my service? It’s risky for my career you know. I could be shot. I could be reassigned to a labor camp. I may need to pay off others to smooth your way if word gets out. I mean the other guards know what’s going on. They’ll have to be paid. One way or another. What do you have?”
“I have some jewelry but it’s not worth so much, I’m afraid. I have a gold ring and a gold necklace. No diamonds, I’m afraid.” Anna smiled weakly.
The Ukrainian sipped his coffee, staring at Anna. He puffed from his cigarette and blew more rings
“Why was your little sister in the hospital?”
“Actually she was recovering from a bad cold.”
“Ah, too bad. The ghetto is so unforgiving for the little ones. And she will not survive what’s coming, I can tell you that. I can tell you for sure. Well I can get you both out as promised.”
“God will bless you sir,” said Anna.
“But I doubt that. God hasn’t looked kindly upon me since long before I shipped one of his priests off to a concentration camp back in ’41,” the Ukrainian said, waiting for Anna’s response. His pocked face with the thin lips and large hooked nose broke into a grin revealing several missing front teeth. He thought he saw anger flash through her eyes.
She held her breath. “But what could a priest have done?” she finally ventured to ask.
“He didn’t mind his own business,” the guard replied. “These priests think everything that goes on is their business. I was assisting a young Catholic woman – a very pretty young woman like you – who had a Jewish husband. You don’t have a Jewish husband, do you?”
“No sir,” Anna replied, nervously biting her fingernail.
“Well, no matter. To continue with my little tale then, let me tell you that the husband didn’t like my attentions to his young wife. I knew this because the priest had mentioned it one day. He actually asked me if I would stop as she was married. Imagine that? She offered me certain favors and here the husband was asking me through this intercessor – this busy-body worm of a priest – if I would keep my attentions restricted to single ladies. I told the priest she didn’t want to marry me and that, besides, I was already married myself then, and that the young woman had tempted me with her obvious charms and what was I to do about that? Can you believe it! He had the nerve to tell me that I should confess my sins and leave this woman to her husband. So the next day I sent the husband to a labor camp for a little vacation. And let me tell you the wife continued to offer me favors but even more frequently than before. She asked me to get her husband out. I agreed naturally as I wanted her to feel comforted. On the other hand I had no influence whatsoever over prisoners in any camp once I got them in there. Nowadays I might have had something to say about it. But not then. So what do you think happened next? Can you believe it? The priest threatened to go to the Gestapo and inform on me. Imagine that? What? Was he crazy? These priests think that God’ll protect them in anything they do and so they do the stupidest things. Don’t you think that was plain stupid? So guess what I told him?”
Anna gestured with her shoulders and a nod of her head as though to say she didn’t know.
“I told him he should right away go to the Gestapo where they would be more than interested to know of his complaint. I had him marched right off over to the Pawiak prison near Dzielna Street. They took him to Gestapo headquarters. Next he was off to a labor camp – I don’ know which one. He’s probably saving Jewish souls there even as we speak,” said the guard, laughing uproariously at his own joke. “Maybe he’s converting the husband. I told my Gestapo friend about this little worm of a priest and he arranged the whole thing. But of course my friend wanted a share in the action so I had to convince the Jewess to bestow favors upon my friend too. It didn’t take much to convince her, let me tell you. She was more than willing if you get my drift. And the wife had become a single lady again so the priest got his wish! Ha! Ha! Ha! What do you think of my story? Funny, huh?”
“I hope you will be true to your word with me and let us go freely,” Anna said, noting that he made her a promise.
“Oh yes. I‘ll let you go. You can be sure of that. On my word. Please do not worry. You helped me when I was in need. But you‘ll have to pay. You should know that by now. By the way I was curious when you said the child’s name was Elena Melcovitz. Funny, but I would have thought it would be Elena Leibowitz, like yours,” he said, raising his right eyebrow and lowering his left one in a mock frown.”
Anna recoiled inside. She was stunned to know that the Ukrainian actually knew her last name as she felt sure she had never mentioned it to him.
“But it doesn’t matter,” he said. “It makes no difference to me if you want to save your baby, your sister or someone else’s sister, brother or mother. So long as I get what I want, you’ll get what you want. It’s very lonely here for me. My girlfriend is away in the countryside for a month. Come into the bunkroom with me. It’s warmer in there. I’ve prepared the fire. Come,” he said casually
Anna froze. She then blushed from head to foot it seemed as a heat wave pulsated throughout her body. She embarrassed easily. Her light skin did not help. She felt her face turning beat red and she hated this response of her body that she couldn’t control, especially now. The guard noticed and smiled, self-satisfied. She had promised herself she would never submit again and here she was once again trapped. Anna thought of venereal disease and wondered now if he had had it. Then she said the same thing she had told Langner when he first trapped her at her apartment on Zorawia. Suddenly and breathlessly, she said, “I cannot do this for you. I wish I could because you’ve been kind to me but … it’s not that I don’t find you attractive. But my boyfriend was recently killed. I cannot be with anyone else right now. I’m sorry. Please don’t take it personal. I have jewelry and medical supplies.” It was all she could think of to try to buy time. But she knew this excuse would fall flat.
The Ukrainian read the fear on her face, in her blue eyes, and in the way they avoided him as she said, “I cannot do this for you.” He wanted to savor the victory. And again he felt a deep satisfaction. He felt an ethical quality about Anna that he wanted to subdue, to bring it down, to bring her down. He was excited. Sometimes he and his friends would joke around their barracks about this Jewess or that one and sometimes they would toss dice to see who would have the first “go” at a pretty young Jewess who they had noticed passing through the gate or hanging around the wall waiting for little children who had gone over to the Aryan side to later smuggle food into the ghetto.. Or they would play cards into the late hours-the smell of cigarette smoke and vodka permeating the bunkhouse – gambling away “first” rights to one of them.
Anna now felt like a fox in a steel leg-hold trap. Outwitted. The only question now was how he would ravage her. The man was ruthless. It was only now that she saw this. “How could I be so utterly stupid as to trust a fascist again,” she thought. “I should have gone over the wall. I’m so stupid.”
“Come. Follow. You want the child right? You want to get out of here, then do as we ask.” Her chest rising and falling as she felt out of breath, Anna entered the bunkroom where two other Ukrainians were waiting. She wanted to vomit but was afraid of the implications if she did. She suppressed the urge. She turned. One of the men turned down the kerosene lamp that was atop an ammunition box that acted as a table. The other one started to undo his belt buckle.
When Anna left, she felt totally defeated. Her consolation was that she was still alive and she had the child who she took to a safe house on the Aryan side. Then she decided to go back into the ghetto with one purpose – to locate the resistance and volunteer in the fighting that was imminent. She would die with them now if that’s what it would come to. But she would never again submit to a fascist, she promised herself, no matter what. Unknown to her at that moment, she would see Langner again.