Helen Degen Cohen

 

 

 

(POLAND-USA)

 

 

 

 

GOD OF THE PRISON

 

« I would like to meet your wife and child, » the new Commandant said. Just like that. And he started telling Joseph about his own family.
And then Joseph took him upstairs to meet Bella and the Child. He couldn’t believe it. Right away he was beginning to suspect that this Nazi was a real human being.

« Bella, » he said to Bella, making eyes at her like a wild man, « this is Herr C—-, the new Commandant. » He looked at the Commandant’s face, who was looking at Bella. Bella, it was true, looked very attractive then. And you know what he did, the new Commandant? He kissed her hand; and Bella, so surprised, was shaking his hand with both of her hands, and the Child smiled. Joseph was astounded. He explained to the new Commandant about having the special barber chair up here in the room, for special occasions, when somebody didn’t want to be bothered downstairs with all the noise and people coming in, and the new Commandant wanted a haircut right away. Well. The Commandant started to speak with the Child, and he liked her, right away. She was a very beautiful Child, he could see. She laughed in a very nice way. Later he even asked her to sing a song! And she did, sitting on the bed. Donner-vetter! The Commandant pulled out a candy from his pocket and gave it to the Child. He wanted to know how the Child lived here, and Joseph, explaining that they just came here from the Ghetto, said, in a very casual way, like it didn’t make any difference,

« Herr Commandant, this is only our first visit, and already I want to ask you a favor. It is not for myself, you understand. »

« Yah? »

« I would like to ask you if the Child can go out, oh not far, maybe across the street to play with the cook’s children. She shouldn’t be here in the room all the time, you understand, and not in the yard too much. People would ask questions. »

But the Commandant was already saying yes, not understanding how a child could live this way. He forgot all about Herr S—-. And Joseph couldn’t believe it: didn’t this Commandant know how the children live in the ghetto? What did he mean « living this way. » Joseph knew that some Nazis had very isolated jobs that didn’t make them see things, but this Nazi was a baby! Maybe he lived in the woods! The Commandant was looking happy, like a clown, and Joseph was so grateful that he had to stop talking, and Bella ran up and kissed the Nazi’s hands. Joseph was a little ashamed of her; she shouldn’t do such a thing to anybody. He wouldn’t. But maybe he would. He didn’t know anymore how people could behave in certain situations. He ran to get the tools.

Joseph was giving the Commandant his best shave and haircut, and joking around, and telling some funny experiences, and even the Child was watching and having an enjoyable time. It was like a party. And Bella made tea.

« You know something? » he said to the Commandant. « –when I was learning to be a barber, one day a man came in with a mustache like yours. Only in those days a mustache was even more important, a sign of manhood. So–but I forgot, his mustache was stiff, you know how stiff they used to make them, with wax. So–he sat down and I cut his hair, and–he fell asleep. So I took the iron–you know, how we used to put the end of the mustache, the part that goes up on both sides, through the iron–only I never did it before. So I took the iron and did it. I made the mustache go up stiff. Only the iron was too hot. And part of the mustache came off. Well, I didn’t know what to do, I was afraid he should wake up and find out! So I took some more of that wax, you know, and with that wax I glued that mustache back on, so it should look like nothing happened. And I ran out of the barbershop. I was hiding in the store, on the corner, and looking out to see what would happen. Well! When he came out, he started to touch the mustache, to feel it, you know, up, to see how stiff it is, and when he took his had away, a part of the mustache was in his hand! Well, he was so mad! He went back in. So I felt sorry for him, and I went in and didn’t charge him for the the haircut and the shave, and I talked nicely to him, and it was all right. But my boss told me, « Never, never do that! Never do that again! Hah! »

Well. Everybody was laughing at Joseph’s story. But the Commandant was laughing the most. He couldn’t stop laughing, his whole stomach was shaking. So Joseph told him another story. He had plenty stories. And the next day, while the Jew who was an informer and a few others were being shot downstairs, he was telling another story in the Office, to another German and one of the Polish guards. And they were all laughing; everybody liked a funny story, no matter if they were Germans or Jews or Polish or Russian or anybody else. S—- was the only one who didn’t laugh at the stories, maybe because he was mixed up, you know in his blood, because he was a half-German, a False-Deutche they used to call them. Funny, they should have a name for somebody who was half this and half that.
It was a funny thing, how two good things could happen in two days. Because when he went to talk to Valenska, and to give her the proviant, and to ask her if his daughter could visit her children sometimes, she was happy, and not only that: she said, « If something happens, Joseph, and you have a chance to save the Child, send her to me and I will take care of her. »

« You mean hide her? »

« Yes. I will do everything I can. And tell her now to come to play with the children, every day. They would like this very, very much. Marishya has too much on her mind, for a girl her age, and your daughter has a lively look in her eyes. »

« You know my daughter already? » he said, amazed.

After his visit to Valenska he thought, human nature is very complicated. So. Ten Polish priests, five Jew informers, twenty Polish informers, five Russian prisoners, what difference did it make? Political prisoners? Traitors? Hah! People, that’s all. A small town prison. But in a war like this how could any prison be a normal prison? How could they have normal prisoners? For robbing? For murdering? Somebody murdered four-and-a-half thousand in one day and didn’t go to prison, so what kind of prison is a normal prison? Human nature didn’t have anything to do with it–not a thing; and still he, a clever Jew, had to rely on human nature, tell jokes, ask favors, be like a rag, like nothing, be important–indispensable!–steal, talk like a nobody, talk common sense–because, after all, he didn’t have only himself, he had a wife, and a child.

A Child in war like this. Crazy.

So he had a few talents, he was a fixer, he was a fast thinker; they were not such bad talents to have. But most of all he was a realist, from the time he was a child. Being poor as a child you learned a lot from things! He would have been dead already many times. If for example the Polish guard didn’t recognize him during the Selection, he, all of them, would have been dead already. A realist had to make friends with everybody. Not to trust anybody and make friends with everybody. Bella said he talked too much but Bella didn’t know how to talk enough, she wasn’t so smart. What did she know? He had to tell her everything that was going on. It was her nature, to keep quiet sometimes. As for somebody like Hitler, or S—-, that was a part of human nature you couldn’t do anything about, so there was no use to try, there was no use to ask any God about it. You had to make yourself as small as you could with people like that, that’s all. Small, but sometimes necessary. And if this didn’t work and you had to die, then you had to die, that’s all. It would only take a minute, a second.

It was a good thing he didn’t think as much as Bella did, he thought. He could still sleep at night, but she had a hard time. She had nightmares, Bella did. He didn’t understand how people could have nightmares after a hard day; maybe she didn’t have enough to do. After such days, you would think, with a warm bed and warm people in bed, she could sleep. But it was never over for her, never, it was
her nature. You couldn’t blame her.

In front, at the gate, it was a very familiar story: a woman with a big shawl and a bundle was talking to S—-. She was saying, « We heard you were here, working for the Germans; my sister knows your family; they said you could do something; a plain man like Piotr who never hurt anybody shouldn’t be shot, it is against God. In this bundle are things from a few neighbors, because they want you to do what you can for my son. I beg you, I beg you to be a good man, a Christian man…. » And S—- smiled and told her that of course he would try, and thanked her for such a nice present. She didn’t even see the kind of smile it was, she was too busy crying. Imagine asking somebody to be a good man, Hah! What if somebody asked him, Joseph, to be a good man? And during the Selections he could say to the big separator, « I am a good man, I am supposed to live. »

Idealists. So, it was a good thing to have a sense of humor.

And what could he say to the ten Polish priests dressed in black? What could he say to ten dead idealists? Funny thing, they didn’t even make him mad, these black priests; he felt sorry for them; he was going to help them. Let the ten black priests not starve at least, before they died.

He had to open a fresh bag of potatoes and the smell poured out.

They thought they were going to heaven, those ten priests. So let them think, before they died. They weren’t the only ones. A lot of babies in the prison. The Commandant. A lot of believers. His own Child. Up in the room. She was thinking somebody was going to save her. She knew everything, everything, even at her age, even when he and Bella spoke Yiddish, not to let her understand. She understood. So who was going to save her? At night she slept between the two of them, not only a body, but a mind too. It had made him shake.

One thing: Bella would never shake like this. She would have nightmares; she would worry and pull on her cheeks, but when she had something to do, she would do it. She would not shake. She would not forget, either. No.

It was not smart, to shake, « Joseph, control yourself, look look at yourself, » she used to say. « I beg you to be a good man, » the woman said to S—-. « You shouldn’t have nightmares, » he used to tell Bella. It didn’t make any difference.

The next day, S—- shot the woman’s son himself. He couldn’t even let somebody else do it. He was telling about it in the office, having a good time and getting a little drunk. The Polish guards were more than a little drunk, and a lot of noise and wild singing was coming out of the Office. His wife and child would hear it, but would not say anything. It happened many times this way. The Polish guards didn’t like each other too much, but they hated S—- and were afraid of him and were drinking and laughing with him. Who could blame them.
But the ten Polish Priests, Hah! One of them took Joseph’s hands and looked in his eyes. Another one looked at the ground thinking, with his hands folded, and then looked up all wet. Another crossed himself and prayed for Joseph. Another one ate everything out of the bowl without seeing the food, and then gave the empty bowl to Joseph like a present. Hah! Lunatics. They didn’t know what was going to happen to them. It was so simple what was going to happen to them–why shouldn’t they know!

Ah, what difference did it make.

Ten days later, when S—- shot the ten priests, he made Joseph watch it, Joseph didn’t know why. He didn’t know why? S—- had eyes in back of his head. S—- wanted to look good in the eyes of the Gestapo, but he wanted more than that; he probably didn’t even know himself what he wanted. For a Jew it was very simple, a Jew wanted to live, but for S—- it was different. So, after feeding them, Joseph had to watch them being killed, one at a time. Orders would come from the Gestapo, kill ten, kill five, kill this one, kill that one. But S—- was a free man, he didn’t even need the Gestapo. The hild could hear the shooting, from upstairs, Bang! Bang! and quiet…. It was better to turn on the radio and listen to the invasions and keep in touch. When they killed the priests, it was one at a time; they took out one from every cell, telling the others nothing, so the priest didn’t know he was going to be shot until he was standing there in the yard ready to be shot, a target. They wanted to keep the yard quiet as they could–calm, orderly–so they got rid of a lot of noise by surprising the prisoner–with his own death. The same way, they didn’t want to tell the Jews where they were going when they took them to the Camps, so they told them they were taking them to work, to better conditions, and they believed it! Even when they knocked on the doors and pulled them out, hundreds and thousands, like for the Selection, and those people never came back, some would say, « You don’t know, you were not there. » Even when they saw the digging and heard the shooting, they believed them. But even when they did finally know–every one of those priests–because the rifle was already pointing at them, they didn’t move a muscle, they saw nothing; so S—- had to use Joseph to get some satisfaction, he wanted somebody should see, somebody who was not a believer and would appreciate. S—- was a smart killer, he knew how to enjoy himself. Sometimes he killed from on top of a horse; then from on top of a moving horse. He made challenges for himself. He was a man with a lot of drive, he would probably get far in business! So, what kind of philosophy made somebody a killer? According to the Gestapo, some people had to be killers, like some people had to be accountants, so they liked a talented man, and when they found one like S—-, they didn’t like to lose him. It made sense.

So it was like a business. The Polish guards, for instance, came all by themselves to work for the Germans, because their families were starving, and in this kind of job they could pick up bribes maybe, the war wasn’t so organized in a little town like this, like it was in important places. It was organized enough for when orders would come from the Gestapo to liquidate, a hundred, a thousand–it was carried out. But otherwise, little things like food, haircuts, delousing, all the little business, they couldn’t watch over so carefully, so they were supporting some clever people who learned fast about, what do you call it, side benefits. Joseph didn’t charge a penny for doing things under the table. Hah! Maybe he enjoyed it. Like S—– liked killing? He liked to watch the Child licking an egg, sugar. Bella enjoyed it too. Who wouldn’t enjoy it? What else could they give their Child? In this place? everything on top of the table had to come from under the table.

So she went out now, the Child, in the morning, and came back when it was almost dark sometimes, and the guards had to let her in and out like a regular citizen. That was funny, nobody else except the Child should be so free. Nobody could know anything in this world. If the guards looked angry, so what! Maybe things would even work out, maybe the war would some day be over. It was strange to believe it. Living in a cave so long, you think this is how it was always, you don’t expect the door should open to a big light, just like that. Somebody puts food under a crack, and you eat it, you don’t even look at it. Somebody says soon they will drag you out to die, and you wait. You get to be an expert in waiting. But don’t be mistaken–you hear everything, every little drop means this or that. But not everybody is like Joseph and Bella, some of them are just falling asleep waiting, dreaming about good old times, how it used to be, looking at a gold watch, a ring, a father looking at his daughter for a little affection, a mother looking at both of them, everybody trying to make things normal. Ah, let them do what they want.

So he had to be practical to make up for everybody else. Indispensable. He learned all the insides of the prison like a doctor learns about a body; he was not just a barber, he was an expert in everything! Hah! Bella used to say to him before the war, « What’s the matter with you, you think you know everything? » And he said, »Yes! »

« You know what? » he told the Commandant, shaving him, « when I was not such an experienced barber yet, a man was sitting in the chair, like you, and he had a little mole, you know, on his face, like yours, here. So I was being very careful to shave around the mole. But he said to me, ‘Why are you being so careful shaving, what’s the matter with you?` So I said, ‘I don’t want to cut your mole.’ And he said, ‘What do you think I am, a child? Cut it!’ I said, ‘I don’t want to cut it. Why should I cut it? It might bleed.’ ‘Cut it!’ he said.

The Commandant was laughing. « What did you do? » he said, « you had to take orders from him? »

« Of course! He was my customer. So I did as he said: I cut it. »

The Commandant was laughing harder. « Didn’t he beat you up? »

« Naah, he was too drunk. He got so scared when I cut it, that he started to throw up, and we had to drag him to the washroom. But what could I do–he said he was going to beat me up if I didn’t cut it.

– –

So now the Commandant used to come with eggs and candies and butter for the Child, and the Child talked to him like somebody familiar, somebody she knew always. It was not even so hard to believe now, because when it comes right down to it, you can even get used to human nature. Inside, the Commandant was a good friend, and outside, for people to see, he was an official, like everybody else, who had to tolerate a Jew. It was a funny situation, but for Joseph, if not for funny situations, there would be no situations and nothing to talk about.

Still, there were five hundred left in the Ghetto, not counting a few in the prison, and, according to what the newcomers told him–and they did tell him, forgetting that he was a Jew himself–they would have to clean up Lida too. Like they used to clean up the barbershop. Five hundred Jews in one small town was too big a mess. When he looked at the Child up in the room, he thought, « This too is a mess? » So, it was not a question of understanding.

« Listen, » he said to the Commandant, joking of course, « don’t ask me any complicated questions–I only got to fifth grade in my education, and then I went to work. »

« Then how did you become so smart? » the Commandant asked, laughing.

« By living! What else? I had a lot of experiences. You meet a lot of people being a barber. All kind of people, believe me. »
« And you ask questions? »

« Ask questions? Who needs to ask questions. I have eyes. But wait a minute, wait a minute, you just reminded me a funny story about asking questions. I want to tell you a little story– »

« I am sure you do, » the Commandant laughed.

« Sure! »

« One day when I was a barber, a very rich customer used to come into the shop. He used to wear the most expensive suits and ties, you know, and he used to give me the biggest tips. He was a very nice man, too; and we became friendly to each other. His name was Paul, I still remember, and his wife’s name was Sofie, I know, because sometimes she used to come in with him, in a very expensive fur coat. She was also very friendly, a nice lady. Well, he talked about all kinds of things, naturally, but I was always curious about how a man makes so much money. Finally, I couldn’t stand it. So one day I decided to ask him, straight out. So I said, ‘Paul, tell me something, I can see you are a very rich man, the way you look and talk, I hope you don’t mind, I would like to ask you a personal question, I would like to know what you do for a living, how you became so rich.' »

« Well! You know what he said to me? Hah! He said, ‘Joseph, I’ll tell you something: I know a man who made a million dollars minding his own business.’ I thought that was so funny, I never forgot it. But still, you know I was very curious. Maybe it is my nature. So one day when he was leaving the shop I decided to follow him.

« So I followed him, and pretty soon I saw a man who looked like a beggar, you know, and this man stopped him, and it looked very normal, like a beggar was asking him for something, some money or something. But after Paul gave him something, they were still talking for a while, and it looked like the beggar was telling him something, something extra. Still, I thought, this is nothing, and I went home. But I couldn’t stand it, I followed him again the next time after the haircut, and the same thing happened! Well, I thought this is not a normal beggar, so naturally I was going to investigate. But you know what? It was really something! Listen–« The next day, I read in the headlines that a man tried to rob the biggest bank in Warsaw. It was not only the bank but the place where they had all the gold, you know, the treasures and everything. And you know how this man tried to do it? He got himself a room to live not too far from the bank, and he organized a little group to dig a tunnel from his basement to the basement in the bank where the treasures were! And he almost made it!

« Well, do you know what his name was? That’s right! It was my customer! Paul! So, I thought, his poor wife will have no more fur coats, and I will have no more customer. His poor wife? After reading some more, his poor wife, the nice lady, Sofie, was also a criminal! You know how she got the fur coats? Maybe you won’t believe this, but it is true! Like some people have a big pocket, she had a place between her thighs, and I want to tell you she became an expert walking with a fur coat between her thighs! She used to go in a store with a fur coat, and come out with another fur coat between her thighs, walking normally, like anybody else. It took a lot of practice! »

« Ah! » said the Commandant, looking at Joseph for more.But Joseph didn’t have too much more; he thought he finished the story. « So, » he reminded himself, « I never forgot–how this man made a million dollars minding his own business! »

Joseph was laughing more than anybody else, he really liked this story.

« But he got caught? » the Commandant said.

« Sure he got caught! But he came close. He almost fooled the whole Bank of Poland! And he was a nice man! »

It was unbelievable, that the Commandant became such a very good friend. In the evenings they could hear the executions from the southwest corner of the yard, a little empty space, even from their room over their office (which was across, in the norheast corner, yes), where Joseph sometimes watched the Commandant play a little chess with Bella. He didn’t care, he didn’t have to keep telling stories. Bella was cooking on top of the little stove, soups, all kinds of soups, so they could talk and play a little cards or a little chess and smell the soups, and most of the time the Child was across the street playing. This was a hundred percent better than the Ghetto! When it was Easter, the Comandant even brought colored eggs and butter for the Child. Sometimes when Joseph wasn’t too busy and could notice the sun shining, it made him think, « Who can know anything? » So he organized the proviant and fixed the pipes and gave shaves and haircuts, and a little life passed by. After all, he had his wife and Child, and a lot of jokes. He even had two friends, not prisoners: the Cook and the Commandant. As for the prisoners–he smiled–they were like passing friends: you couldn’t count on them to live, but you could help them out a little, you could understand how you would feel in their place, even knowing that everybody is going to die, so you would not make them beg for something you could give. It was a funny thing: to the Commandant he gave only very good haircuts and shaves, that’s all, and still the Commandant gave him–for the Child–sugar and eggs and even information. Why? It was the man, that’s all! He was a human being! Sometimes he was like a child himself! AndBella made soup, and sometimes even cheese, like before the War, by pouring milk in a bag to hang. Ah! Between the barley soup they gave to the prisoners–Hah! They called it barley soup, a little dirty water–between the two « soups » it was day and night! Because Bella had a lot more than water and salt.
So it went on, Joseph noticing lately that the Germans who came back from the Front to get deloused had funny expressions in their eyes, but he tried not to think about this too much. They were tired, that’s all. They were not so enthusiastic and clean-dressed, they looked like something was wrong. Something was wrong in the war, for the Germans. Ah, he already knew it, he guessed it from a newspaper, from talk in the Office where nobody knew how to put together details, rumors, and from the big bars, sometimes red and white, sometimes black and white, on paper and in the radio, red bars for the enemy, black for our side, but sometimes it could be the other way around. Our side? If « our side » was the enemy, then who was the other side? Who was the enemy that was going to liberate them? The Americans? The Russians? This was a long way from other peoples, it was hard to imagine. What advancing and retreating bars, who was white and who was black and who was gray on the maps of War sometimes became confusing for some people in the Office, but Joseph forced himself to figure it out, to know more than enough. And sometimes the Commandant told him things he didn’t even tell the others. Some things even S—- didn’t know.

But once S—- stopped him and said, « So? Five hundred left, and soon they go, Jew, and you too, ey? » Joseph was thinking S—- was in a good mood, that’s all.

But one day S– stopped him and said, « You sure you want to wait? Maybe you should go first, eh? At the head of the crowd, like a bigshot. » S—- said it in Polish, as if talking in a private language they had in common, and Joseph got a little scared.

And one day a man from the Gestapo came to look things over. He was walking through the cells on the east wall, then through the kitchen and the proviant buildings across the yard, then he looked up and down at the horse and wagon next to the kitchen, and next to it the repair shop with all the tools, and next to it the boiler room (in the northwest corner, yes), where Joseph could see him from where he was hiding, keeping to himself like the Commandant said, and next to the boiler room the shower building and the delousing place, and then back to the Office. He forgot to look at the cells across from the east wall, and the execution place. He overlooked some of Joseph’s friends, he should have asked Joseph for a real tour, hah!

« I was just telling our friend from the Gestapo what a good barber we have here, » S—- said to Joseph with a small wink, and Herr Vogel looked very pleased and wanted a haircut. So Joseph gave him a haircut, trying very hard not to talk; and still Herr Vogel liked the haircut very much, and maybe even liked Joseph a little bit, as Joseph brushed all the hair off the clean uniform, and all the hair from the shining boots, and S—- said, « Pretty good barber for an unimportant prison like ours, eh? » So Herr Vogel looked more closely at Joseph and asked where did he come from, was he native Polish? And S—- said, « Oh, he doesn’t come from too far…just from the Ghetto. »

« What? » Herr Vogel turned around.

« A former citizen of the Ghetto, » S—- said, winking.

When Herr Vogel saw that it was a Jew, he was irritated, but he didn’t want to antagonize S—-. Still, he said, « Get rid of him » and later he said he was going to discuss it with the Commandant. If he did, nobody would know.

But one night the Commandant came to the room upstairs and told Joseph and Bella–the Child was almost asleep–that every Jew would have to be liquidated, and they too. He started to cry like a baby, and they felt sorry for him. But they felt even more sorry for themselves. For a while Joseph didn’t know what to do, he was a little shocked, that’s all, but then–because the Commandant said over and over what should he do, what can he do–Joseph told him what to do!

« Tell them, » he told the Commandant, very plainly, and not shaking, « that the Jew cannot be replaced, that’s all. But act like you want to get rid of that Jew. Don’t show them how you feel! Say, ‘What do you think, I want him here?! But what am I supposed to do? He does this, and this, and who will do it?’

« But it could happen–that they will say, ‘What? Nobody works with the Jew? Nobody oversees him?' » The Commandant tried to think. « And then I will remember Vladek, the man who helps you…only– »

« Vladek? » Joseph was laughing now, « Helps me? Who helps me? He follows me around a couple of times, and then he gets drunk! This is the truth! Hah! » He waved his hand and started pacing.

« The truth means nothing, » the Commandant said wiping his face, a little ashamed of saying this. Joseph was becoming a little impatient.

« If you can say nothing else about Vladek, tell them about the romance he has with a Russian woman! » he shouted at the Commandant. The situation was very serious, didn’t they understand!

« You could do this to Vladek? » The Commandant looked up, surprised.

« They would do nothing to him, nothing! He is a guard and a drinker, and a half-German like S—-, and he is my helper! » Joseph couldn’t understand how something like Vladek came up. His life was in danger and they were talking about a stupid man like Vladek, somebody he forgot all about. « Just explain to them what the Jew does, say, ‘I need time! I have to get somebody to replace him!’ Just don’t behave like a Jew-lover! »

But the Commandant was already understanding.

Joseph was pacing up and down.

« Just wait a day or two–just wait. » Up and down. « Later, I will explain later. » He waved his hand at nobody. « Just bring somebody from the Gestapo on–Wednesday–and I will show you something, I will show everybody something! Yah. Just don’t behave like a Jew lover! »

The Commandant looked at him walking this way for a while. Then he picked up his hat and, still looking at him, said almost in a whisper, « Don’t worry, Joseph… I will say it right. » And he he walked out.

Joseph and Bella had a very bad time then. Of course Bella was pale and had nightmares, and of course Joseph had to do a lot of walking back and forth, day and night, and thinking. But he still wasn’t shaking. Did he say Wednesday? All right.

There were three sewer holes in the prison yard. One in the middle, one near the wall on the south side and one closer, almost near the guard house. So on Wednesday morning Joseph got up very early, when nobody else was up, and he took rags from the kitchen and from the shower room, and he stuffed the rags in his shirt and in his pockets. When he came to the sewer holes he bent down and– But first he looked all around. Nobody was there. It was still dark. So he took off the cover of the sewer hole–a little cap, you know, made of stone–and he looked inside for the the right place, and he put rags in the sewer holes, one at a time. He put rags inside some of the pipes in the sewer holes, he knew where of course. And he went back upstairs to sleep. Maybe he put rags in two sewer holes, maybe in all three, what’s the difference; he put enough.

Because when he woke up, already the commotion was starting. Already somebody found a few leaks. By noon water was coming down all over the prison! Not just in the shower rooms and in the washrooms, but even in the Office. Even in the cells! So the prisoners were making noise. And everybody was running around like crazy! The whole prison would have drowned! And somebody started screaming, Friezier! And this is when the Gestapo walked in, a man different from the other one. Well. The Gestapo man came in and everybody was crazy; everybody was screaming, « Friezier, Friezier! » The barber! Where is the barber! Hah! Joseph was hiding in the boiler room, behind one of the boilers. He was waiting for the right time to come out.

« I am a very simple man, » Joseph always told everybody, « so when an unsual situation comes up, I try to think of a simple solution. After all, I only got a fifth grade education–I’m a delinquent! » Joseph was very happy hiding behind the boiler. Sometimes he forgot he was a young man still. This was one time when, from behind the boiler, he noticed on a wall that the sun was shining. Ach! How crazy everybody was running! And now the water was starting to pour even on him! Just a little dripping. It was very funny. And still they were running and screaming « Friezier! » Where is the Friezier!

Friezier!…

Friezier!…

All his life, Friezier!…

Let him carry the tool box all his life and let them scream « Friezier!… »

Let him carry it before the war, and through the war, and after the war, all the way to Florida where he can put it down and sit in the sun, while they call « Friezier!… »

So, when he was good and ready, that’s when he sneaked out and showed himself. Suddenly he was there, and everybody was yelling very excited about the water all over the prison. And where was he all this time! « I had a good nap, » he said, smiling, « I fell asleep. » « But what can be done! » they screamed. So–he pretended for a while, like a thinker, to be listening very carefully, and then he said, « Ah, it’s nothing; I’m sure it is something very minor. Don’t be so excited, I will find out what it is. » But they were not convinced right away–to believe or not to believe–so he repeated, « It’s nothing! Just give me some time to look things over, and I’ll fix it! » And he walked away from them. He pretended to be looking around, in the buildings. And when everybody went back, and he looked carefully around to make sure nobody was looking–it was getting dark already–he took the rags out of the pipes and the water stopped running. He stopped the drowning of the prison. He stopped the flood. And, very slowly, he walked back to the Office, and told them, « It’s okay now, I fixed it. » But after all, he was not just a Jew here. He was the Friezier! God of the prison! No? A fixer! If the Commandant was the official God of the prison, then wasn’t he, Joseph, a much more practical God of the prison?

They couldn’t believe it! Donner-vetter! They said, « This man is a genius! » It was almost too easy.

So Joseph, back in the room cutting hair, said exactly this to the Commandant, « Yah, Herr Commandant, it was too easy. So far, life is too easy. » And in the mirror the Commandant’s face smiled, like in a dream.

 

 
Ending B:
stone–and he looked inside for the the right place, and he put rags in the sewer holes, one at a time. He put rags inside some of the pipes in the sewer holes, he knew where of course. And he went back upstairs to sleep. Maybe he put rags in two sewer holes, maybe in all three, what’s the difference; he put enough.

Because when he woke up, already the commotion was starting. Already somebody found a few leaks. By noon water was coming down all over the prison! Not just in the shower rooms and in the washrooms, but even in the Office. Even in the cells! So the prisoners were making noise. And everybody was running around like crazy! The whole prison would have drowned! And somebody started screaming, Friezier! And this is when the Gestapo walked in, a man different from the other one. Well. The Gestapo man came in and everybody was crazy; everybody was screaming, « Friezier, Friezier! » The barber! Where is the barber! Hah! Joseph was hiding in the boiler room, behind one of the boilers. He was waiting for the right time to come out.

« I am a very simple man, » Joseph always told everybody, « so when an unusual situation comes up, I try to think of a simple solution. After all, I only got a fifth grade education–I’m a delinquent! » Joseph was very happy hiding behind the boiler. Sometimes he forgot he was a young man still. This was one time when, from behind the boiler, he noticed on a wall that the sun was shining. But after all, he was not just a Jew here. He was the Friezier! God of the prison! No? A fixer! If the Commandant was the official God of the prison, then wasn’t he, Joseph, a much more practical God of the prison? Ach! How crazy everybody was running! And now the water was starting to pour even on him! Just a little dripping. It was very funny. And still they were running and screaming « Friezier! » Where is the Friezier!

 

 
stone–and he looked inside for the the right place, and he put rags in the sewer holes, one at a time. He put rags inside some of the pipes in the sewer holes, he knew where of course. And he went back upstairs to sleep. Maybe he put rags in two sewer holes, maybe in all three, what’s the difference; he put enough.

Because when he woke up, already the commotion was starting. Already somebody found a few leaks. By noon water was coming down all over the prison! Not just in the shower rooms and in the washrooms, but even in the Office. Even in the cells! So the prisoners were making noise. And everybody was running around like crazy! The whole prison would have drowned! And somebody started screaming, Friezier! And this is when the Gestapo walked in, a man different from the other one. Well. The Gestapo man came in and everybody was crazy; everybody was screaming, « Friezier, Friezier! » The barber! Where is the barber! Hah! Joseph was hiding in the boiler room, behind one of the boilers. He was waiting for the right time to come out.

« I am a very simple man, » Joseph always told everybody, « so when an unusual situation comes up, I try to think of a simple solution. After all, I only got a fifth grade education–I’m a delinquent! » But after all, he was not just a Jew here. He was the Friezier! God of the prison! No? A fixer! If the Commandant was the official God of the prison, then wasn’t he, Joseph, a much more practical God of the prison? Joseph was very happy hiding behind the boiler. Sometimes he forgot he was a young man still. This was one time when, from behind the boiler, he noticed on a wall that the sun was shining. Ach! How crazy everybody was running! And now the water was starting to pour even on him! Just a little dripping. It was very funny. And still they were running and screaming « Friezier! » Where is the Friezier!

 

 
Friezier!…

Friezier!…

All his life, Friezier!…

Let him carry the tool box all his life and let them scream « Friezier!… »

Let him carry it before the war, and through the war, and after the war, all the way to Florida where he can put it down and sit in the sun, while they call « Friezier!… »

So, when he was good and ready, that’s when he sneaked out and showed himself. Suddenly he was there, and everybody was yelling very excited about the water all over the prison. And where was he all this time! « I had a good nap, » he said, smiling, « I fell asleep. » « But what can be done! » they screamed. So–he pretended for a while, like a thinker, to be listening very carefully, and then he said, « Ah, it’s nothing; I’m sure it is something very minor. Don’t be so excited, I will find out what it is. » But they were not convinced right away–to believe or not to believe–so he repeated, « It’s nothing! Just give me some time to look things over, and I’ll fix it! » And he walked away from them. He pretended to be looking around, in the buildings. And when everybody went back, and he looked carefully around to make sure nobody was looking–it was getting dark already–he took the rags out of the pipes and the water stopped running. He stopped the drowning of the prison. He stopped the flood. And, very slowly, he walked back to the Office, and told them, « It’s okay now, I fixed it. » They couldn’t believe it! Donner-vetter! They said, « This man is a genius! » It was almost too easy.

So Joseph, back in the room cutting hair, said exactly this to the Commandant, « Yah, Herr Commandant, it was too easy. So far, life is too easy. » And in the mirror the Commandant’s face smiled, like in a dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

______________________________________

 

Helen Degen Cohen’s (aka Halina Degenfisz’s) awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, First Prize in British Stand Magazine’s International fiction competition, three Illinois Arts Council awards, an IAC Fellowship, an Indiana Writers Conference Award, and fellowships to the major art colonies. She co-founded and co-edits RHINO and coordinates its adjunct, The Poetry Forum. She has taught as an IAC Artist-In-Education through the Illinois Arts Council and as an instructor for Roosevelt University. Twice featured in The Spoon River Poetry Review, and in online zines such as TheScreamOnline.com., her work is the subject of articles such as “Rootlessness and Alienation in the Poetry of Helen Degen Cohen,” in Shofar (U. of Nebraska Press) and « This Dark Poland–Ethnicity in the work of Helen Degen Cohen » in Something of My Very Own to Say: American Women Writers of Polish Descen (Columbia University Press). She published two collections in 2009: HABRY,and ON A GOOD DAY ONE DISCOVERS ANOTHER POET. Helen served on the editorial board of the new anthology from SUNY, WHERE WE FIND OURSELVES, which includes “Mirka & I”, another excerpt from her autobiographical novel THE EDGE OF THE FIELD. NERUDA NIGHTS, a new chapbook, will be in print by early November and available for purchase beginning July 31st.

 

 

Publications and Prizes
Books:
HABRY (Puddin’head Press, 2009)

Chapbooks:
On a Good Day One Discovers Another Poet (Finishing Line Press, 2009)

Anthologies:
Brute Neighbors (DePaul University Press, 2011), A Writer’s Congress (DePaul University Press, 2009), Where We Find Ourselves (State University of New York, 2009), Blood to Remember: Poets on the Holocaust (2nd edition) (Time Being Books, 2007), In Praise of Pedagogy (Calendar Island Publishing, 2000), The House on Via Gombito (New Rivers Press, 2000), Something of my Very Own to Say (Columbia University Press, 1998), Sarajevo Anthology (Texas Tech University Press, 1993), Blood to Remember: Poets on the Holocaust (1st edition) (Texas Tech University Press, 1991)

Journals:
Another Chicago Magazine, Antigonish Review, Cream City Review, Laurel Review, Natural Bridge, Outerbridge, Partisan Review, Quiddity International Literary Journal, Rhino Magazine, Shofar, Spoon River Poetry Review, Stand Magazine, Versal 2

Prizes:
-National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. -First Prize in British Stand Magazine’s International fiction competition -Three Illinois Arts Council Literary awards-Poetry and Fiction -Indiana University Writer’s Conference Award -Fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, The Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Ragdale Foundation.

 

 

For fuller and more personal bio, see the About the Author page for Habry: www.angelfire.com

Articles similaires

Tags

Partager