Authors: William Styron
the stoic mood of the perpetual runnerup, decorously concealing by means of a languidly arranged hand the gabardine bulge in my lap. Despite all this frustration, I began to try to convince myself, with partial success, that I was happy; certainly I was happier than I had been in as long as I could remember. Thus I was ready to bide my time and discover what might felicitously happen, see what Sundays like this--entwined amid the other promising days of the onrushing summer--would bring. I drowsed a little. I was set softly aflame by Sophie's nearness, by her bare arm moist against mine, and by some scent she wore--an earthy, disturbing perfume vaguely herbal, like thyme. Doubtless some obscure Polish weed. Floating on an absolute tidal wave of desire, I fell into a daydream through which there rushed back sharp flickering impressions of my hapless eavesdrop of the day before. Sophie and Nathan, asprawl on the apricot bedspread. I could not get that image out of my mind. And their words, their raging lovewords showering down! Then the erotic glow that bathed my daydream faded, vanished, and other words echoed in my ears and caused me to sit up with a start. For at some point yesterday in that pandemonium of frenzied advice and deafening demand, amid the shouts and muffled murmurs andrandy exhortations, had I really heard from Nathan the words I now so chillingly recalled? No, it was later, I realized, during one moment of what seemed now their unending conflict, that his voice had come down through the ceiling, booming, with the ponderous, measured cadence of booted footfalls, and cried out in a tone that might have been deemed a parody of existential anguish had it not possessed the resonances of complete, unfeigned terror: "Don't... you... see... Sophie... we... are... dying! Dying!" I shivered violently, as if someone had thrown open at my back in the dead of winter a portal on the Arctic wastes. It was nothing so grand as what might be called a premonition--this clammy feeling which overtook me, in which the day darkened swiftly, along with my contentment--but I was suddenly ill-at-ease enough to long desperately to escape, to rush from the train. If, in my anxiety, I had done so, hopping off at the next stop and hurrying back to Yetta Zimmerman's to pack my bags and flee, this would be another story, or rather, there would be no story at all to tell. But I allowed myself to plunge on toward Coney Island, thus making sure to help fulfill Sophie's prophecy about the three of us: that we would become "the best of friends."
In Cracow, when I was a little girl," Sophie told me, "we lived in a very old house on an old winding street not far from the university. It was a very ancient house, I'm sure some of it must have been built centuries ago. Strange, you know, that house and Yetta Zimmerman's house are the only houses I ever lived in--real houses, I mean--in my life. Because, you see, I was born there and spend all my childhood there and then when I was married I lived there still, before the Germans came and I had to go live for a while in Warsaw. I adored that house, it was quiet and full of shadows high up on the fourth floor when I was very little, and I had my own room. Across the street there was another old house, with these crooked chimneys, and the storks had builded their nests on top of these. Storks, isn't that it? Funny, I used to get that word mixed up with 'stilts' in English. Anyway, I remember the storks on the chimney across the street and how they looked just like the storks in my book of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm that I read in German. I remember that so very, very plainly, those books, and the color of the outside and the pictures of the animals and birds andpeople on the cover. I could read German before I read Polish, and do you know, I even spoke German before I spoke Polish, so that when I first went to the convent school I would get teased for my German accent. "You know, Cracow is a very ancient city, and our house was not far from the central square, where in the middle is this beautiful building that was made in medieval times--the Sukiennice it is called in Polish, which I believe translated in English means the cloth-hall, where they would have a market in all types of cloths and fabrics. Then there is a clock tower there on the church of St. Mary's, very high, and instead of bells they have actual live men who come out on a kind of balustrade, these men who come out and blow trumpets to announce the hour. It makes a very beautiful sound in the night. Kind of distant and sad, you know, like the trumpets in one of the suites for orchestra of Bach, that make me think always of very ancient times, and how mysterious is this thing of time. When I was a little girl I would lie in the dark of my room and listen to the sound of the horses' feet on the street below--they did not have too many motorcars in Poland then--and when I would go off to sleep I would hear the men blow the trumpets on the clock tower, very sad and distant, and I would wonder about time--this mystery, you know. Or I would lie there and think about clocks. In the hallway there was a very old clock on a kind of stand that had belonged to my grandparents, and once I opened the back of it and looked into it while it was running and saw a whole lot of levers and wheels and jewels--I think they were mostly rubies--shining in the reflection from the sun. So at night lying there I would think of myself inside the clock--imagine anything so crazy from a child!--where I would just float around on a spring and watch the levers moving and the various wheels turning and see the rubies, red and bright and as big as my head. And I would go to sleep finally with this clock in my dreams. "Oh, there are so many memories of Cracow, so many, I can't begin to describe them! They were wonderful times, those years between those wars, even for Poland, which is a poor country and suffer from, you know, an inferiority complex. Nathan thinks I'm exaggerating about the good times we had--he makes so many jokes about Poland--but I tell him about my family and how we lived in a wonderful civilized way, the best kind of life you can imagine, really. 'What did you do for fun on Sunday?' he says to me. 'Throw rotten potatoes at Jews?' You see, all he can think of about Poland is howanti-Semitic it is being and make these jokes about it, which cause me to feel so bad. Because it is true, I mean it is famous that Poland has this strong antiSemitism and that make me so terribly ashamed in many ways, like you, Stingo, when you have this misère over the colored people down in the South. But I told Nathan that yes, it is true, quite true about this bad history in Poland, but he must understood--vraiment, he must comprehend that not all Polish people was like that, there are good decent people like my family who... Oh, it is such an ugly thing to talk about. It makes me think sadly about Nathan, he is... obsessed, so I think I must change the subject... "Yes, my family. My mother and father was both professors at the university, which is why almost all my memories have this connection with the university. It is one of the oldest universities in Europe, it was started far back in the fourteenth century. I didn't know no other kind of life except being the daughter of teachers, and maybe that is why my memories of all those times are so gentle and civilized. Stingo, someday you must go to Poland and see it and write about it. It is so beautiful. And so sad. Imagine, those twenty years when I was growing up there was the only twenty years that Poland was ever free. I mean after centuries! I suppose that is why I used to hear my father say so often, 'These are sunny times for Poland.' Because everything was free for the first time, you see, in the universities and schools--you could study anything which you wished to study. And I suppose that is one of the reasons why people was able to enjoy life so much, studying and learning, and listening to music, and going away to the country on Sundays in the spring and summer. Sometime I have thought that I love music almost as much as life, really. We were at concerts always. When I was a little girl in this house, this ancient house, I would lie awake at night in my bed and listen to my mother play downstairs on the piano--Schumann or Chopin she would play, or Beethoven or Scarlatti or Bach, she was a wonderful pianist--I would lie awake and hear the music faint and beautiful rising up through the house and I would feel so warm and comfortable and secure. I would think that no one had a more wonderful mother and father or a better life than me. And I would think of growing up and what I would become when I was not a child any more, perhaps become married and become a teacher of music like my mother. This would be such a fine life to live, I thought, to be able to play beautiful music, and teach and be married to a fine professor like my father. "Neither of my parents come from Cracow in the beginning. My mother was from Lodz and my father was from Lublin. They met in Vienna when they were students. My father was studying the law at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and my mother was studying music in the city. They were both very religious Catholics, so I was brought up very devout and went to Mass always and church school, but I don't mean I was, you know, fanatic, nut. I believed very much in God, but my mother and father they were not, you know, I don't know what the exact word is in English, like dur--yes, hard, harsh. They were not like that. They were very liberal--even, you could say, almost socialist--and always voted with labor or the democrats. My father hated Pilsudski. He said he was a worse terror for Poland than Hitler, and drunk a whole lot of schnapps to celebrate the night Pilsudski died. He was a pacifist, my father, and even though he would talk about these sunny times for Poland, I knew that au fond he was gloomy and worried. Once I heard him talking to my mother--it must have been around 1932--and I heard him say in this gloomy voice, 'This cannot truly last. There will be a war. Fate has never allowed Poland to be happy for very long.' This he spoke in German, I remember. In our house we spoke in German more often than we spoke in Polish. Français I learned to speak almost perfect in school but I spoke German even more easier than French. It was the influence of Vienna, you see, where my father and mother had spend so much time, and then my father was a professor of law and German was so much the language of scholars in those days. My mother was a wonderful cook in the Viennese style. Oh, there were a few good Polish things she cooked, but Polish cooking is not exactly haute cuisine, and so I remember the food she cooked in this big kitchen we had in Cracow--Wiener Gulash Suppe and Schnitzel, and oh! especially I remember this wonderful dessert she made called Metternich pudding that was all filled with chestnuts and butter and orange skin. "I know maybe it sound tiresome to say so all the time, but my mother and father was wonderful people. Nathan, you know, is okay now, he is calm, he is in one of his good times--periods, you say? But when he is in one of the bad times like the time when you first saw him--when he is in one of his tempêtes, I call them, he start to scream at me and always then call me an anti-Semitic Polish pig. Oh, his language, and what he calls me, words I've never heard before, in English, then Yiddish, everything! But always like 'You filthy Polish pig, crummy nafka, kurveh, you're killing me, you're killing me likeyou filthy Polish pigs have always killed the Jews!' And I try to talk to him, but he won't listen, he just stays crazy with this rage, and I have always knew it was no good at such a time to tell him about the good Poles like my father. Papa was born in Lublin when it belonged to the Russians and there were many, many Jews there who suffered from these terrible pogroms against them. Once my mother told me--because my father would never talk about such a thing--that when he was a young man he and his brother, who was a priest, risked their lives by hiding three Jewish familes from the pogrom, from the Cossack soldiers. But I know that if I tried to tell this to Nathan during one of these tempêtes, he would only yell at me some more and call me a dirty pig Polack liar. Oh, I have to be so patient with Nathan then--I know then that he is becoming very sick, that he is not all right--and just turn away and keep silent and think of other things, waiting for the tempête to go away, when he will be kind and so sweet to me again, so full of tendresse and loving. "It must be about ten years ago, a year or two before the war began, that I first heard my father say Massenmord. It was after the stories in the newspapers about the terrible destruction the Nazis had done in Germany on the synagogues and the Jewish stores. I remember my father first said something about Lublin and the pogroms he had seen there, and then he said, 'First from the east, now from the west. This time it will be ein Massenmord.' I didn't realize completely what he mean then by what he said, I suppose a little bit because in Cracow there was a ghetto but not so many Jews as other places, and anyway, I didn't think about them being truly different or being victims or being persecuted. I suppose I was ignorant, Stingo. I was married then to Casimir--you know, I was married very, very young and I suppose I was still in this state of being a little girl and thinking that this wonderful life so comfortable and safe and secure would continue forever. Mama and Papa and Casimir and Zosia--Zosia, that is the, you know, nickname for Sophie--all living so happy in the big house, eating Wiener Gulash Suppe and studying and learning and listening to Bachoh, forever. I don't understood how I might be so stupid. Casimir was an instructor in mathematics that I met when my mother and father had a party for some of the young teachers at the university. When Casimir and I were married we had these plans to go to Vienna like my mother and father did. It was going to be very much like the way they done their study. Casimir would get this supèrieur degree inmathematics at the Austrian Academy and I would study music. I had been playing piano myself ever since I was eight or nine years old and I was going to study under this very famous teacher, Frau Theimann, who had teached my mother and was still teaching although she was quite old. But that year there came the Anschluss and the Germans went into Vienna. It begun to be very frightening and my father said we were certain to go to war. "I remember so well that last year when we were all together in Cracow. Somehow I still could not believe that this life we all have together would ever be changed. I was so happy with Casimir--Kazik--and loved him so very much. He was so generous and loving, and so intelligent--you see, Stingo, how I am attracted only to intelligent men. I cannot say whether I loved Kazik more than Nathan--I love Nathan so much that it hurts my heart--and maybe we should not do such a thing as compare one love with another. Well, I loved Kazik deeply, deeply, and I could not bear to think of the war coming so near and this possibility of Kazik being a soldier. So we put it out of our heads and that year we listened to concerts and read many books and went to the theatre and took long walks in the city, and on these walks I begin to learn to speak Russian. Kazik was in the beginning from Brest-Litovsk, which was for so long Russian, and he spoke that language as good as Polish and taught me it pretty good. Not like my father, who had also lived beneath the Russians but hated them so much that he refused to speak that language unless he was compelled to. Anyway, during this time I refused to think of this life ending. Well, I knew there would be some changes, but natural changes, you know, like moving out of the house of my parents and having our own house and family. But this I thought would come after the war, if there was one, because surely the war would be very short and the Germans would be defeated and then soon Kazik and I would go to Vienna and study like we had always planned to. "I was so stupid to think of such a thing, Stingo. It was like my Uncle Stanislaw, who was my father's brother and was a colonel in the Polish horse troops. He was my favorite uncle, so full of life and this big laugh and this kind of wonderful, innocent feeling about the greatness of Poland--la gloire, tu comprends, la patrie, et cetera, as if Poland had never been under the Prussians and the Austrians and the Russians all these many years but had this continuité like France orEngland or some places like those. He would visit us in Cracow in his uniform with his saber and this mustache of a hussar and would talk very loud and laugh a lot and say that the Germans would be teach a lesson if they tried to fight Poland. I think my father would continue to be nice to my uncle--you know, try to humor him--but Kazik had this very direct, logical mentality and would argue with Uncle Stanislaw in a friendly way and ask him how these horse troops would have effect when the Germans came with their Panzer troops and tanks. And my uncle would say that all that was important was the terrain and that the Polish cavalry knew how to maneuver in the familiar terrain and the Germans would get
total lost in the strange terrain, and that is how the Polish troops would turn the Germans back. And you know what happened when there was this confrontation--une catastrophe totale, in less than three days. Oh, it was all so foolish and gallant and futile. All those men and horses! And so sad, Stingo, sad... "When the German soldiers came into Cracow--this was in September of 1939--we were all shocked and scared and of course we hate this thing that was happening to us but we stayed calm and hoped for the best things. Truly that part was not so bad, Stingo, I mean in the beginning, because we had faith that the Germans would treat us decent. They had not bombed the city like Warsaw, and so we feel a little special and protected, spared. The German soldiers they had very good behavior and I remember that my father said that this proved what he had believed for so long. And that was that the German soldier was in this tradition of ancient Prussia which had the code of honor and decency and so they would never harm civilians or be cruel to them. Also, it makes us to feel calm to hear all of these thousands of soldiers speaking German, which to our family was almost like the native tongue. So we had this panic at the very beginning but then it seemed not so bad. My father suffered terribly over the news about what happened in Warsaw but he said we must continue with our lives in the old way. He said that he had no illusions about what Hitler think of the intellectuals but he said that in other places like Vienna and Prague many teachers in the universities was permitted to continue their work, and he thought that he and Casimir would too. But after weeks and weeks passed and anything didn't happen, we saw that this time in Cracow was going to be okay, tolerable I mean. "One morning that November I went to Mass in St. Mary's church, that is the church that has the trumpets, you know. In Cracow I went toMass quite often and went many times after the Germans came, to pray that the war be over. Maybe it sound selfish and horrible to you, Stingo, but I think mainly I wished the war to be over so I could go to Vienna with Kazik and study. Oh, naturally there were a million other reasons to pray, but people are selfish, you know, and I felt very lucky that my family had been spared and was safe, so I just wished for the war to be over so that life could be as it was in the old days. But when I prayed at Mass this morning I had a... a prémonition--yes, the same, a premonition, and was filled with this slowly mounting frightful sensation. I didn't know what the fright was about, but in a sudden the prayer stop in my mouth and I could feel the wind blowing in the church around me, very wet and cold. And then I remembered what caused the fright, something that just came over me like a bright flash. Because I remembered that this same morning the new Nazi Governor General of Cracow district, this man named Frank, had make the faculty of the university to assemble in the cour de maison, you know, courtyard of the univesity, where they were to be told the new rules for the faculty under the occupation. It was nothing. It was to be a simple assembly. They were supposed to be there that morning. My father and Kazik heard about this only the day before and it appeared, you know, perfectly reasonable and no one thought about it very much. But now in this bright flash I felt something very, very wrong and I run from the church into the street. "And oh, Stingo! now I tell you: I never saw my father or Kazik, ever again. I run, it was not far, and when I got to the university there was a vast crowd of people near the main gate in front of the courtyard. The street was closed to the traffic, and there were these huge German vans and hundreds and hundreds of German soldiers with rifles and machine guns. There was a barrière and these German soldiers wouldn't let me pass and just then I saw this older woman I knew well, Mrs. Professor Wochna, whose husband was teaching la chimie, you know, chemistry. She became hysterical and crying and she fell into my arms, saying, 'Oh, they are all gone, they have been taken away! All of them!' And I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it, but another wife of the faculty came near and she was crying too and she said, 'Yes, it's true. They have been taken away, they took my husband too, Professor Smolen.' And then I begun to believe it little by little, and I saw these closed vans going down the street toward the west, and then I believedit and cried and came into hysteria also. And run home and told my mother and we fell crying into each other's arms. My mother said, 'Zosia, Zosia, where did they go? Where did they take them?' And I said I didn't know, but only in a month we learned. My father and Kazik were taken to the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen and we learned that they were both shot to death on New Year's Day. Murdered only because they were Polish, and professors. There were many other teachers, one hundred eighty total I believe, and many of them didn't come back neither. It was not long after this that we went to Warsaw--it was necessary that I find work... "These long years after, in 1945, when the war was over and I was in this center for displaced persons in Sweden, I would think back to that time when my father and Kazik were murdered and think of all the tears I cried, and wonder why after all that had happened to me I couldn't cry no longer. And this was true, Stingo, I had no more emotions. I was beyond feeling, like there was no more tears in me to pour on the earth. At this place in Sweden, I became friends with a Jewish woman from Amsterdam who was very kind to me, especially after I tried to kill myself. I suppose I didn't try very hard, cut my wrist with a piece of glass, and it didn't bleed much, but this older Jewish woman become very friendly to me and that summer we talked a lot together. She had been at the concentration camp where I was, and lost two sisters. I don't understood how she survived, there were so many Jews murdered there, you know, millions and millions of Jews, but somehow she survived as I did, just a very few of us. She spoke very good English, besides German, and that is how I begun to learn English, since I knew I would probably come to America. "She was very religious, this woman, and always go to pray at the synagogue they had there. She told me that she still very much believed in God and once she asked me if I did not believe in Him too--the Christian God--just as she believed in her God, the God of Abraham. She said that what happened to her made more strong her belief of Him, even though she knew Jews who felt now God was gone from the world. And I said to her yes, I once believed in Christ and His Holy Mother too, but now after these years I was like those Jews who think God was gone forever. I said that I knew that Christ had turned His face away from me and I could no longer pray to Him as I did once in Cracow. I couldn't any longer pray to Him or could I any more cry. And when she asked how I know that Christ have turned His face awayfrom me, I said I just knew, I just knew that only a God, only a Jesus who had no pity and who no longer care for me could permit the people I loved to be killed and let me live with such guilt. It was terrible enough they died like they done, but this guilt was more than I could bear. On peut souffrir, but you can suffer only so much... "You can perhaps think it is a little thing, Stingo, but it is to permit someone to die without a farewell, an adieu, a single word of comfort or understanding that is so terrible to bear. I wrote to my father and Kazik in Sachsenhausen many letters but they always came back marked 'Unknown.' I only wanted to tell them how very much I loved them, especially Kazik, not because I loved him more than Papa but because our very last time together we had a big fight and that was terrible. We almost never had fights, but we were married above three years and I suppose it was natural to quarrel sometime. Anyway, the night before this terrible day we had a big fight, I don't longer remember what it was even about, really, and I told him 'Spadaj!'--which in Polish is like saying 'Drop dead'--and he rushed away and that night we didn't sleep in the same room. And I never seen him even once after that. So that is what I found it so difficult to bear, that we don't have even a gentle parting, a kiss, an embrace, nothing. Oh, I know Kazik knew I loved him still and I knew he loved me, but somehow it is all the worse that he must have suffered too, from not reaching me to say it, to communicate we love each other. "So, Stingo, I have lived long with this very, very strong guilt which I can't lose, even though I know it has no reason, like that Jewish woman in Sweden said, when she try to make me see that the love we had was the most important thing, not the silly fight. But I still have this strong guilt. Funny, Stingo, you know I have learned to cry again, and I think perhaps that means I am a human being again. Perhaps that at least. A piece of a human being, but yes, a human being. Often I cry alone when I listen to music, which remind me of Cracow and those years past. And you know, there is one piece of music that I cannot listen to, it makes me cry so much my nose stops up, I cannot breathe, my eyes run like streams. It is in these Handel records I got for Christmas, 'I know that my Redeemer liveth,' that make me cry because of all my guilt, and also because I know that my Reedemer don't live and my body will be destroyed by worms and my eyes will never, never again see God..." At the time of which I write, that hectic summer of 1947, when she told me so many things about her past and when I was fated to get ensnared, like some hapless June bug, in the incredible spider's nest of emotions that made up the relation between Sophie and Nathan, she was working in an out-of-the-way corner of Flatbush as a part-time receptionist in the office of Dr. Hyman Blackstock (né Bialystok). At this point Sophie had been in America a little less than a year and a half. Dr. Blackstock was a chiropractor and a long-ago immigrant from Poland. His patients included many old-time immigrants or more recent Jewish refugees. Sophie had obtained her job with the doctor not long after her arrival in New York in the early months of the previous year, when she had been brought to America under the auspices of an international relief organization. At first Blackstock (who spoke fluent Polish aside from his mamaloshen Yiddish) was rather distressed that the agency had sent him a young woman who was a goy and who had only a smattering of Yiddish learned in a prison camp. But, a warm-hearted man who was doubtless impressed by her beauty, by her plight and by the fact that she spoke flawless German, he hired her for this job which she sorely needed, possessing as she did little more than the flimsy clothes that had been given to her at the D.P. center in Sweden. Blackstock need not have worried; within days Sophie was chattering with the patients in Yiddish as if she had sprung from the ghetto. She rented the cheap room at Yetta Zimmerman's--her first true home in seven years--at about the same time she took the job. Working only three days a week allowed Sophie to keep body and soul together, in a manner of speaking, while also granting her extra days to improve her English at a free class at Brooklyn College and in general to become assimilated into the life of that vivid, vast and bustling borough. She told me that she had never been bored. She was determined to put behind her the madness of the past--or as much as a vulnerable and memory-racked mind permitted--and so for her the huge city became the New World in spirit as well as fact. Physically she sensed that she was still badly run-down, but this did not prevent her from partaking of the pleasures around her like a child turned loose in an ice cream parlor. Music, for one thing; just the availability of music alone, she said, filled her insides with a sense of delectation, as one feels just before what one knows will be a sumptuous meal. Until she met Nathan she could not afford a phonograph, but no matter; on the inexpensivelittle portable radio she bought there was splendid music emanating from these stations with weird initials she could never get straight--WQXR, WNYC, WEVD--and men with silken voices announcing the enchanted names of all the musical potentates and princes whose harmonies she had been deprived of so long; even a shopworn composition like Schubert's Unfinished or Eine kleine Nachtmusik touched her with fresh rapture. And of course there were the concerts too, at the Academy of Music and, in the summer, at Lewisohn Stadium in Manhattan, gorgeous music so cheap as to be virtually free, music like Beethoven's Violin Concerto played one night at the stadium by Yehudi Menuhin with such wild, voracious passion and tenderness that as she sat there alone high on the rim of the amphitheatre, shivering a little beneath the blazing stars, she felt a serenity, a sense of inner solace that amazed her, along with the awareness that there were things to live for, and that she might actually be able to reclaim the scattered pieces of her life and compose of them a new self, given half a chance. Those first months Sophie was alone a great deal of the time. Her difficulty with the language (soon overcome) made her shy, but even so she was content to be alone a lot, indeed luxuriated in solitude, since privacy had been something she had greatly lacked in recent years. These same years she had been deprived of books, of printed matter of almost any kind, and she began to read greedily, subscribing to a Polish-American newspaper and frequenting a Polish bookstore off Fulton Street that had a large lending library. Her taste ran mainly to translations of American writers, and the first book she finished, she recalled, was Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer. This was followed by A Farewell to Arms, An American Tragedy and Wolfe's Of Time and the River, the last translated so wretchedly into Polish that she was forced to break the vow she had made, in the prison camp, to forswear for the rest of her life anything written in German, and read a German version that she was able to obtain from a branch of the public library. Possibly because this translation was felicitous and rich, or because Wolfe's lyrical, tragic though optimistic and sweeping vision of America was what Sophie's soul demanded at that moment--she being a newcomer to these shores, with only a rudimentary knowledge of the country's landscape and its gargantuan extravagance--it was Of Time and the River that excited her the most of all the books she read that winter and spring. In fact, Wolfe so captured her imagination that she decided tohave a go at Look Homeward, Angel in English, but quickly