A pub. A militiaman, a baker, a cobbler and a caretaker at the city administration. Four shot glasses strike the table now and then. They’re talking about honesty.
Of an entire row of lamps, all exactly the same, just one has a different shade, evidently the old one got broken, and these days no identical shade could be found ― where would you start? There’s a grey-and-brown flypaper hanging from each lamp, some twisted, some straight; it’s July, after all, and there are lots of flies. They come in from the countryside, from ditches at the edge of town, swarms of them, especially now, settling on everything. There are cakes on the counter under a glass bell, but try reaching for a piece, and at least one fly will instantly appear and have to be shooed away with a wave of the hand, once, and again, until the customers start joking that the waiter’s a bundle of nerves today.
“But what we’re talking about here is honesty!” said the baker, raising a solid, bread-baking hand, which he curled into a fist as if about to bang it on the table, but he got the better of himself, uncurled it and let it drop to his knee. “Honesty. It’s not as if everything costs whatever you like. Only among profiteers, perhaps.”
“Weeell, among profiteers anything was possible,” said the caretaker. “We all remember what it was like during the recent war, but during the earlier one it was really bad…”
“It’s a fact,” agreed the cobbler, who couldn’t remember the earlier war because he was lying in his cradle when it ended, but he agreed anyway.
“Have you got children?” the baker continued. Two of them nodded, but not the militiaman, who was a bachelor. “So you have got some. How many?”
They both answered in chorus, the cobbler to say two, the caretaker three.
“And when you or your lady wife sends one of them out to the shop, the kid knows a kilo of bread costs fifteen zlotys and not one hundred and fifty, don’t he? You tell the little nipper, and even if he’s only seven or so, he gets the idea. Well, the same goes for jewellery.”
Instead of agreeing, the caretaker just toyed with his glass, raising it and setting it down by turns, as a timid way of suggesting they should pour another round. But the bottle was empty.
“Am I wrong? Am I?” The baker refused to let go, he had to win; finally the militiaman agreed, because he was the youngest, and someone had to. “Exactly. I’m right. Honesty is what matters most, rings like those ones cost their price, and that jeweller knows how much it ought to be. Am I right?” He tugged the caretaker by the sleeve until his glass, raised at that particular moment, banged against the table top.
“I wouldn’t know,” said the caretaker.
“He wouldn’t know,” the baker loudly repeated, because the caretaker had only said it quietly, under his grey, bristly, neatly trimmed moustache, but the baker said it out loud; and immediately did it again, so that not just their table, but the entire pub could hear him: “He wouldn’t know!”
“Shhh…” the militiaman scolded him.
“Now…” said the caretaker, who was the oldest, and meanwhile had gathered strength, though for the time being only enough for a single word.
“So? Now what? Now what?” urged the baker.
But the caretaker was tired of the younger man’s drunken prattle, so he put both hands flat on the rather sticky table, looked him straight in the eyes, and, choosing his words carefully, he slowly began:
“Now, after the war, things have got bad, people have been reduced to rags. We’ve seen a thing or two. We’ve seen more than enough, haven’t we? And it stays with you. Godlessness… by your leave, Officer,” ― at this point he nodded to the militiaman, as if apologizing for a blunder, but the militiaman just waved a hand obliquely, as proof that, despite representing the new, atheist authority, matters of faith were of no concern to him ― “one man is stifling another, squeezing the last zloty out of him… A kilo of bread costs fifteen zlotys, but the price has been two hundred before now. It said in the paper that in Warsaw, during the Uprising, a kilo of butter cost one thousand five hundred zlotys. One thousand five hundred zlotys! Profiteers, crooks, so much greed…”
“But now the people’s power is dealing with those problems,” chanted the militiaman ― a Civic Militia corporal ― reassuringly. The older man just shrugged and said: “That may be, I’m just stating the facts.”
“But that’s not what I’m talking about ― I’m asking if honesty matters,” said the baker. “Does a ring have its price? Does an earring have its price?”
“If you weigh the gold, then maybe it does,” said the caretaker, and shrugged again, which suited him, for what can a caretaker do if not shrug indifferently? “But there’s the craftsmanship too. What sort of work went into it. Whether it’s of value, or like a piece of scrap. Because for scrap they have a table of prices.”
“They test a sample.” The cobbler nodded; he’d been giving the occasional nod for a while now, quite apart from what anyone was saying. “They check its price on their chart… and they know…” He scraped back his chair. “Ugh, I’m not sure this stain will come out of my trousers.”
The corporal glanced under the table, so the cobbler displayed his stained trouser leg from a little further off, under the light falling through the tall pub window, through the faded yellow calico café curtains that must have been put up in the days of Marshal Piłsudski, causing it to cast that pre-war shade of yellow on the trouser leg too.
“Why shouldn’t it come out?” he said at last. “Be glad you’re not a bachelor ― your wife will take care of it. Women have their ways of dealing with that sort of thing.”
“So are you a bachelor, Officer?”
This question, asked directly to keep the conversation going from one round to the next, got under the militiaman’s uniform and put his nose out of joint; the cobbler was close to 40, but he was only 24, and in all those 24 years he hadn’t achieved much in this field, just some fumblings, some awkwardness, he was ashamed to think of it. Now that he was in uniform, things were going to be different: he’d have a home, a wife, children, everything the others had and he didn’t yet.
“It’ll come out in cold water,” was all he said.
They sat a while in silence, thinking their own thoughts. This part of town was quiet and peaceful now – through the windows, above the yellow café curtains, the crowns of trees were visible, huge and patient, the roofs of houses and a wheeling flock of pigeons shimmering white and grey, like a ring of silver sparkling in the air.
The baker could tell it was his turn now, so he waved at the waiter. That day they weren’t the only ones with something to celebrate; the town was filled with a sense of excitement, of respite, the positive energy that comes with a clear blue sky in July and a sort of sense of community, at last: the feeling that they’d acted together ― the cobbler, the baker, the caretaker from the city administration, the Civic Militia corporal (a bit of a stranger, but one of them after all) and the driver whose name they didn’t even know (whom they were going to pay but hadn’t, so essentially he had done what he had done as a community action), but they’d done it all together, under the vault of this pure blue sky, across which the silver ring of pigeons was now endlessly rolling and glittering.
So they weren’t the only ones with something to celebrate, but plenty of people were still busy, and only three or four of the tables at the pub were occupied, with the same atmosphere prevailing at every one of them, permeating the whole place like one big breath of air, jostling the flypapers, the flies glued to them and the lampshades, including the odd-one-out. It was a mood of elation and relief all at once, the voices were bouncing up and down as if on potholes, now louder, now softer, but occasionally the company was overcome by lassitude, and everyone fell silent, so all one could hear was loud chewing, the clatter of knives and forks cutting and spearing pieces of cold tongue and pig-trotter aspic, the thud of glasses against the table top and loud exhalations as the summertime, insufficiently chilled vodka burned its way down from throat to stomach.
Some snacks and a new bottle rode in on a tray. The tray was new too ― that is, old, but new to this pub ― thought the caretaker, who was often in here, leaving a sizeable share of his salary on the counter ― plainly someone had already brought it here and sold it; during and immediately after the war things circulated more briskly than in the past. The waiter set down the items, turned on his heel, tucked the empty tray beneath his arm and headed two tables further on, to take the next order from a stout fellow who was wiping the back of his neck with a checked handkerchief.
“So what do you say about honesty, then?” the baker asked, feeling that as he had paid for this bottle, he was entitled to return to his hobbyhorse. His face, always ruddy, maybe from the oven, or maybe just by birth, with black stubble ― which at this time of day cast a shadow on his cheeks and chin that would have looked blue on a paler man, but on his face looked healthy – had now gone even redder from the vodka and the heat.
The cobbler set about inspecting his trouser leg again, the militiaman focused on his cold meat, and the caretaker sat back in his chair, knotted his hands on his knees and started twiddling his thumbs. But, driven by a drunken sense of justice, the baker refused to yield.
“It’s like with a kid, you know. As I said. Even a little squirt of seven or eight years old, knee-high to a grasshopper, knows how much things cost. Beans cost this much, flour this much. bread this much. As I said. But that man fleeced us, the scum.”
The others remained silent, the militiaman’s jaws only moving to chew, now aspic, now tongue, by turns. Labour always made him hungry, he was a gluttonous lad, and that big, strong, youthful body had to be fed; the future corporal’s wife would have a job to do. And perhaps quite soon she’d be a sergeant’s wife, these days they were promoted quickly, there weren’t enough men, and the state was getting stronger.
At first he wanted to say: ‘Gentlemen!’, but he wasn’t sure it was appropriate, and the word ‘Comrades!’ might prompt a scowl, so he just poured another round, pointed at the neck of the bottle and the glasses, and uttered a curt: “Hey!”
The four men drank up, four glasses banged on the table, four throats emitted a muffled “Aaaaaah”; the caretaker, admittedly the oldest, hardly grimaced, as if he’d downed a small cup of water.
“It just won’t do!” said the baker.
He broke off the next instant, when the militiaman raised a hand and said: “I’m at the militia post, you’re at the bakery opposite, we see each other almost every day, and now, it’s true,” ― here he faltered slightly ― “events have brought us closer, so maybe we could drink to brotherhood and be on first-name terms?”
The caretaker was all for it, so he leaned over the table, grabbed the bottle and filled their glasses. Then he filled a third, for himself, not because he was going to drink to brotherhood, but just for the sake of drinking. And finally he filled the cobbler’s glass too, so no one could say he was being stingy.
“Stefan, I’m telling you, it just won’t do…”
“Oh, Kazek, there you go again.” He laughed, displaying his teeth. “Give it a rest now ― what’s the difference if he gave us three thousand, or two, or four? No one was forcing him, we did the selling ourselves. We could have gone to someone else, taken off to Kraków, or Łódź. But we sold the stuff to him. Easy come, easy go, seven hundred and fifty per head is better than a poke in the eye. If you found seven hundred and fifty in the street, you’d be pleased, wouldn’t you?”
But the baker was still caught up in his sense of injury and injustice.
“It was ours, it was due to us. But he sure fleeced us ― he did none of the work himself, but he’ll get the profit. He’ll sell those rings and those earrings for five, if not ten thousand!”
“A million,” huffed the caretaker, at which the baker cast him an angry look.
“There’s nothing to say,” replied the caretaker impassively, tugging at his grey moustache. “There was a war, people lost their homes, their families, everything to the last shirt, to the last quilt, and he’s going to argue about a few hundred zlotys that fell into his lap from heaven…”
The baker all but stood up, jolting the table, and forcing the cobbler to grab the bottle before it overturned, but the caretaker remained unimpressed.
“I know, I know,” he said. “I’m just a common caretaker at the town hall…”
“It’s the city administration now,” the militiaman corrected him.
“Whatever it’s called. I get no respect. But I’ve seen a thing or two in life, I’m coming up to my half century, and I spent the first war in the trenches. I’ve a wife, children, and a cottage. Those things are important. They’re secure. Money is never secure. All we know about money here is that there’s never any of it left.”
“Sit down, Kazek, people are looking,” muttered the militiaman. And Kazek sat down. But with all of his large, swarthy, red-faced being he emanated disagreement. Ignoring this patent hostility, the cobbler leaned towards the caretaker with a bit of tongue speared on his fork, casting sad glances now at the tongue, now at his trousers.
“Do you really think it’ll come out? In cold water?”
“Yes, cold water, my wife always uses cold water.”
That reassured him, and he finally put the piece of meat into his mouth, then set down the fork on his plate with a loud clank.
They drank and chatted for two more hours, then finally paid – including a generous tip – a round thousand, and reluctantly headed off, each in his own direction, to see to his own affairs; that evening Kazek the baker dropped in on Stefan the militiaman with a bottle, at first to apologize for rambling on so much, so pointlessly, but once they were sitting down together, they drank to each other’s health and swapped confidences about this and that, fantasizing about Mrs Corporal, possibly soon to be Mrs Sergeant, and Mrs Baker, about how loving and beautiful their wives would be, how they’d soon be leaning over cradles, looking radiant, waiting patiently at home for their husbands, grateful to them for their tender care; in exchange for all these wonderful things, the baker and the corporal ― possibly sergeant ― would have to see to the furniture, the flowery curtains, the dresses in which they’d greet them on the threshold, with child in arms, or possibly, who knows, a fur, of the modest kind, but some sort of fur, all of which meant they couldn’t let that jeweller get rich at their expense, now it wasn’t just about the injustice he’d done to them, Kazek and Stefan, but the hurt he’d be inflicting on their radiant wives, the two beautiful women standing on the threshold with child in arms, in floaty dresses, weary but sweet and grateful, so without bothering to undress, they dozed off in their chairs with their faces on the table, side by side, exhaling the vodka, the snacks, the whole of the day gone by, and next morning they rose, more or less tidied themselves up, chop-chop, splashing their faces with cold water from an enamel bowl chipped black around the rim, and passing a kiosk ― where the morning papers already lay, quoting Stefan ― they went to see the jeweller, who partly stood up to them, partly took notice of the uniform, partly complained, and partly raised a finger, saying that it was obvious how they’d come by those three rings and those two earrings, that had to be reflected in the price as well, citizens, it had to be allowed for, but finally he gave way, took back the three thousand, and handed them the three rings and two earrings, which they must still have had on them later that day when they were arrested for the murder of Regina Fisz and her child, for inflicting violence on Regina Fisz and Abram Moszkowicz, and for robbery, they must have had them in their breast pockets safe and shiny, not yet exchanged for marital bliss at the side of the baker’s wife or the corporal’s or possibly sergeant’s wife, who were never to appear, never to stand on the threshold with child in arms, looking radiant, because on the eleventh of July, at the first hearing, all four men ― Civic Militia Corporal Stefan Mazur, age 24, bachelor; Kazimierz Nowakowski, baker, age 28, bachelor; Józef Śliwa, cobbler, age 39, married with two children; and Antoni Pruszkowski, caretaker at the city administration, age 45, married with three children ― were condemned to death, loss of rights and forfeiture of their property, and on the twelfth the sentence was carried out; Stefan managed to break free and escape, he was running away when the bullet hit him, but soon there was nothing left of him, not even a photograph, only that quote in the newspaper, saying he’d shot the six-week-old baby because its mother was dead already, so the child was bound to cry.
Warsaw, 3-7 July 2019
Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
This story is based on true events that took place in Kielce in July 1946, when local residents, including soldiers, militia officers and civilians, carried out a pogrom against members of the Jewish community who had survived the Holocaust and returned to the city. More than 42 people were killed, and at least 35 wounded.