The Present

Jerome Mandel

Dina suddenly appeared in the door.
        “Oskar Wiznicienski is here to see you,” she said. She could have used the intercom, but I encourage the human touch. I closed the folder on my desk, information about random access memory, and put it away. I want my clients to remember that they are my only concern.
        “Oskar!”
        “Menachem!”
        “Come in, sit down. You’re looking fine.”
        He is a wiry man about the size of a leprechaun. His complexion is pink, healthy, his eyes almost merry, and his energy quite daunting. But for a man as rich as he is—and I know to the penny how much he is worth—he dresses in surprisingly shabby clothes. Blue serge suit pants, vintage 1950s, with a shiny seat. A long-sleeved white shirt, even in summer, slightly frayed at the collar points. I’ve become accustomed to the eccentricities of the rich.
        “Can I get you something to drink, Mr. Wiznicienski?”
        “Is this on the account, Menachem?”
        “No, Oskar, it’s free.”
        “Then I’ll have a glass of orange juice, Dina, not cold.”
        “Menachem?”
        “Coffee, Dina, please.”
        “So, Menachem,” Oskar said, “I hear you’re going to Poland.”
        “Yes. Germany first.”
        “Germany?”
        “It came as a surprise to me, too. The German embassy got in touch. The city of Freiburg invites everyone displaced by the war to return for a commemorative visit, at their expense, and to dedicate a memorial.”
        “I didn’t know you were a Freiburger.”
        “That’s how I got out—through the Schwarzwald into Switzerland. And now Tova and I are going back for the first time in almost fifty years.”
        “Wives too?”
        “Everything. Air fare. Five-star hotel. Banquet with the mayor and city councilors in the Burgermeister’s hall. All paid for by the German government and the city of Freiburg. A real gift. Completely unexpected.”
        “El Al?”
        “No. Lufthansa—it’s part of the deal. Frankfurt first and then on to Freiburg. On the way back, Tova wants to stop in Zürich. She’s really quite excited about the duty-free shopping. Swiss chocolates, cheese. You want me to bring you presents for your grandchildren too?”
        “No. I don’t need you to buy anything for my grandchildren, but if you’re going on to Warsaw…”
        “Yes, I am.”
        “…there’s something you might do for me, if you have the time.”
        “Of course. Anything.”
        He laid five stacks of hundred-dollar bills on the table.
        “Give these to a man called Krystyn Swoboda. If he’s still alive and you can find him. He must be in his middle eighties by now.”
        “Who is he, a cousin? Still living there?”
        “No. No relation. He took care of me during the war.”
        “He must have treated you like a prince. What did he do, put you up in a villa on Lake Como?”
        “Ha-ha! No. I hid in the forest. But I’ll tell you, Menachem, there’s not much to eat in the forest for a city boy. I couldn’t bring myself to eat grubs and worms. Could you? The birds were too fast and the small animals too clever. I ate nuts and roots mostly, some eggs I stole from chicken coops, fruit from orchards. But mostly I starved.”
        Dina came in with the orange juice and coffee.
        “Thank you, Dina.”
        “Well, eventually they caught me not because I was a Jew but because I was a thief. Stole food from a peasant’s cart. They sent me to Sachsenhausen. That’s where I met Krystyn Swoboda. Everyone knew who he was and he knew everyone. I arrived near the end of the war. No food. No medicine. And there was typhus in the camp. I worked. How I worked. But not even I am immune to the disease. I became ill and crawled into bed to die.”
        I shifted in my chair. I didn’t want the coffee.
        “There’s something familiar and comfortable about dying,” Oskar said. “Yes. You grow accustomed to the fever. The shivers make you smile. The pain in your guts is almost comfortable—I don’t know, because it’s not worse, maybe. That’s the point. It’s not unendurable. It’s familiar. You lie there waiting, knowing you will either die or get better, and there’s not much you can do one way or the other. And it really doesn’t matter.”
        “But you didn’t die.”
        He smiled. “But I didn’t know that then,” he said, holding up a finger. “I thought I was going to die. I was waiting to die. And Krystyn Swoboda came down the aisle between the bunks. I had spoken to him, maybe a day or two before. There wasn’t much light and he came slowly. When he got to my bunk, he stopped for a moment to make sure no one was watching. Then he reached into his shirt and placed half a loaf of bread on my chest. Half a loaf of bread! Do you know what that meant in the camps at the end? It was a gift, you see. He gave me my life. I turned to the wall, the precious bread protected by my body beneath the blanket. I ate the bread slowly over the next few days, first the soft insides and then the crust, and I knew I was alive. A few days later we were liberated and got to eat Russian food, cabbage, potatoes.”
        “And now you want to pay him back.”
        “Now I can return the present.”
        “Five thousand dollars for half a loaf of bread?”
        “Well, of course, I could give more, but I have his pride to consider. Too little isn’t enough and too much is an insult. Anyway, five thousand dollars is a lot of money in Poland.”
        “Especially for an old man,” I said.
        “If he’s still alive.”
        “I’ll do it, of course,” I said, smiling broadly.
        “And if you see that he’s impoverished and needs more, give from your own pocket. I’ll pay you back when you return.”
        “My pleasure.”
        “I would do the same for you,” he said.

-2-

I love to fly first-class, especially when it is free. When I fly to Europe on business, the client eventually pays. But this was different. A gift. All the money was up-front, and I didn’t have to wait for anything. Tickets and spending money in Deutsche Marks—not much but enough—arrived by courier from the German embassy.
        And I’ll tell you something else. I like to fly Lufthansa. They project the most civilized aspects of German culture. The music is Strauss and Mozart. The people are courteous. The planning is impeccable and the execution unobtrusive. The food is as good as can be expected for people confined in a small and dangerous place, surrounded by polished steel and suspended thousands of feet above the earth.
        But most of all I like the cutlery. It has the elegance of German functionality and the user-friendly design of the very best German manufactures. Whenever I fly Lufthansa, I always take a knife or a spoon or a fork. They’re not quite elegant or full-sized enough for everyday use, but good enough for picnics with the grandchildren. They’re better than plastic, and we don’t much care if a piece gets lost. They’re easily replaceable. I consider it part of German reparations.
        The city of Freiburg was as generous as could be expected. They met us—we were thirty-three Israelis—at the airport. They immediately separated us from the rest of the tourists, gathered us at a special collection point, waved us through customs, handled all our baggage, provided special transport directly to the hotel where, again, a special selection process eased us through registration. They had our names and country of origin on a list with room numbers already assigned. Instead of the usual hassle of hotel registration, we gave our names, and they gave us a number and a key. We were expected. All the arrangements had been made. Impeccable planning!
        I remembered many of the people who came from Israel and even some of the others who came from the United States, Mexico, South America. One couple came from New Zealand. They said that was as far away as they could get and that they had never expected to return to Freiburg.
        In many ways, the best part of the trip was the banquet in the medieval Burgermeister’s hall. How we ate! A feast served by waiters in medieval costume. Bright scarlet and blue silk, brass buttons, gold braid and epaulettes. Some unfortunates, of course, had food prepared especially for them by a cook flown over from a kosher hotel in Switzerland, but the rest of us ate like we’d never eaten before. Such meats, such vegetables, such cakes and breads. And beer and wine and desserts like only the Germans can make. The whole thing was impressive. The various dishes, skillfully prepared, arrived hot all at the same time. How they do that for a banquet of over one hundred people, I’ll never know. A real triumph of German efficiency.
        My chair was next to one of the oak pedestals on which the refectory table rested, and there, carved into the wood, was a little medieval mouse, caught forever scurrying up the table leg to get the last morsels of food before the brothers cleared it away.

-3-

Tova returned home via Zürich, and I went by myself to Poland. Germany is modern; Poland is medieval. Germany is rich; Poland is impoverished. Germany is busy about the future; Poland remembers the past. It was like stepping back into the muddy Middle Ages. The markets were empty. A few shriveled carrots. Shabby cabbages. Oh yes, they have trains and heavy industry, but I always felt this was a façade imported to impress foreigners with Poland’s modernity, when all the time the real Poland of horse-drawn carts, sudden violence, and milking by hand was just beyond the wall. Not waiting to be discovered or changed. No. Waiting with the stolidity of the bovine to return.
        After I finished my business in Warsaw, I was to return to the twentieth century by catching a LOT flight to Frankfurt and then the Lufthansa flight home. But first I went to find this Krystyn Swoboda fellow for Oskar. Oh, I found him. Yes. He wasn’t hard to trace. His pre-war union had merged with another and been absorbed by a third, but in all the permutations Swoboda’s name remained constant. He was almost a hero, a semi-famous man. On the one hand, he was an original Communist from the days before the Communists came to power. Now that the Communists were out, he was a fossil, an irrelevant historical anecdote. He had a government pension and had lived for many years already in a retirement home about forty miles from Warsaw.
        And so on a golden day in late summer, a rented car and driver took me for a ride in the Polish countryside among wheat fields ripe for harvest so that I could deliver a gift to an old man from an old friend who remembered.
        The driver knew I was a foreigner and therefore rich. He expected an enormous tip, which, converted into zlotys, was worth a week’s wages. He tipped his cap and opened the door obsequiously. He chattered like a child. He pointed out notable sites, former gypsy camps and Jewish villages.
“The Polish people are 97% pure now,” he said proudly.
        When we stopped at a traffic light, he pulled a bottle of wine from beside his seat, uncorked it with his teeth, and tipped it up. He offered me a swig, but I said, “No, thanks.”
        The place where Swoboda had been sent to die had been the summer residence of some Polish prince, a scion of the Radziwiłłs. It had endured all the benefits of communist equality. The walls were freshly whitened with a lime-wash. The brass-and-gilt filigreed shutters were painted black. The walnut wainscoting was institutional green. Only the floor remained as it was: black and white stone squares in the foyer, old parquet in the side rooms. But the parquet was worn and varnished, not waxed, and pocked with age, neglect, indifference. Some strips had lifted off and disappeared. Each design squealed in a different voice and gave like spongy carpet as I walked across what had once been a dining room to meet Krystyn Swoboda.
        I expected senility—he was near 90. I would present the money to the institution to guarantee a little better care or more food or warmer blankets for the winter and then return home in good conscience, having honored Oskar’s memory of a kindness that saved his life.
        But Krystyn Swoboda wasn’t in a wheelchair; he sat in the sun beside an open window. He stood up quite easily, I thought, and, resting on a cane, he bowed slightly toward me as we were introduced. His clothes were neat though old, not shabby. What was frayed had been neatly trimmed away. The buttons were sewn with thread that looked like twine. His clothes displayed care and crispness, that same rigor of mind that must have preserved him in the war and in the camps and in the unions both before and after. I felt I was in the presence of a remarkable man—erratically wrinkled around the eyes. His brow and cheeks were smooth, pink even, like a boy’s. His eyes were small and watery and blue. He wore no glasses.
        “From the Holy Land?”
        “Yes,” I said.
        “I have never been there. Nor have I ever wished to go. It was enough for me that our Lord was from that place.”
        “You don’t mind if I ask you some questions?”
        “No. I have been interviewed many times.”
        “I want to ask you about the war and about the time you were in Sachsenhausen.”
        He looked at me keenly before he said, “You Jews are only interested in the war and the camps. Yes. It was a terrible time, but no worse than any other war. The first war was worse in many ways. But you Jews only want the second war. You think it is your war.”
        “Many of us died, and we were civilians, not soldiers.”
        “Many die in all the wars and most of the dead are civilians. You must learn to forget.”
        “Our strength is that we remember,” I said.
        “A mistake. The Swedes conquered us and butchered us and now they are our friends. Then the Russians came and did the same. Then the French. Then the Germans. Each time it was terrible. But now we are all friends. The lesson of history is to forget the past. That is how we survive. Even after Pearl Harbor, the Americans are friends with the Japanese. And look at the Germans.”
        “That’s what I want to talk about.”
        “The Germans were no worse than Napoleon or the Cossacks.”
        “Do you remember the end of the war?”
        “Yes.”
        “You were in Sachsenhausen.”
        “Yes.”
        “There was typhus in the camp.”
        “A terrible disease, especially to the weak and malnourished. All were dying, prisoners and workers alike. There was no water to drink. Everything was filthy and dying. There was no food.”
        “And yet you gave away half a loaf of bread.”
        “No,” he said.
        The sun danced with shadow in the shredded garden. The sheer curtain stirred with the odor of wheat fields and manure.
        “You didn’t give a ration of bread to a sick man?”
        “Never.”
        “Toward the end there in Sachsenhausen? Just in the last days?”
        He was silent for a moment, but his clear eyes never wavered from my face.
        “I know what you mean,” he said at last. “I went to see Piotr Kruglanski, a man from my quarter of Warsaw, who was dying of typhus. He had received his ration of bread the day before, and I wanted to see if he had eaten it. But Kruglanski was dead when I got to the workers’ barracks. The loaf of bread was under his blanket, his dirty hand still stuck in it. The bread would have been found by those who came to bury him, but at the end no one worked, and the dead lay among the living until the Russians came.”
        “That was the bread?”
        “Yes. I took it. Who else better to inherit than I, his friend from Warsaw. I put it in my shirt.”
        “Then why did you give it away?”
        “Yes. I was hungry, you see, but not starving. Even at the end I had some privilege and was not prepared to eat rotting potato peel—like some. I was still in the workers’ barracks, among the dead and the dying. The stench was awful. The lights were erratic because of the Russian advance. The electricity went on and off and on. And as I walked between the rows of corpses, I thought, ‘This bread is surely contaminated. If I eat it, I will die.’ It was yesterday’s bread, you see, in the dirty hands of a man dead from typhus in the barracks where the very air was poisonous to breathe. I took the bread out of my shirt and left it on the chest of a dead man there. I didn’t give it away; I threw it away. Anyone willing to take contaminated bread off the body of a dead man could have it as far as I was concerned.”
        “Two days later the Russians arrived?”
        “Yes. Two or three days. I don’t remember. And when the Russians arrived, we ate like princes! Such feasting! Soup made from cabbage and potatoes. Tea with sugar. A little beet borscht. I have never eaten so happily or so well.”
        “Do you remember Oskar Wiznicienski?”
        “No.”
        “He also survived in the workers’ barracks until the Russians came.”
        “I don’t remember everyone.”
        “A Jew,” I said.
        “Really? A Jew? Then what was he doing in the workers’ barracks? It was not allowed.”
        “He was imprisoned as a thief, not as a Jew. He was the one you gave the bread to.”
        “Impossible.” He sat quite still. “I put the contaminated bread on the body of a dead man.” He leaned forward in his chair and looked me evenly in the eye.
        “I would never have given that bread to a Jew,” he said.
        Out in the driveway beyond the garden, my driver was polishing his ancient car in erratic sunlight. He saw me watching through the window and gaily waved his snotty handkerchief.

Jerome Mandel, sometime Chair of the English Department at Tel Aviv University and now Professor Emeritus, is the first-place winner of the P.E.N.-UNESCO International Short Story Competition for 1997.  He was born in Cleveland, Ohio, moved to Israel in 1978, and lives in Tel Aviv.


Back to Contents