Goodreads reviewer and indie author Katharina Gerlach said Rising Up is “….one of the best books on [the Holocaust] I’ve ever read…”
Read the first part of Evie Woolmore’s haunting Warsaw novel. If you enjoy it, please go to Amazon to buy it.
Tom wakes with a start, yawning broadly and smearing his dribbling mouth on his sleeve. He must have been dreaming of home— no, further back than that, of childhood, of cosy evenings kneeling on a mat of newspapers in front of the fire, carefully polishing the brasses while his grandmother read to him from Austen or the Brontë sisters.
‘Please not the girls’ books again, Gramma,’ he’d protest. ‘Can’t we have the Musketeers or Monte Cristo?’ But she would only raise a grey eyebrow, causing a slight tremor in the severe knot of hair that crowned her head, and remind him that the reader got to choose the book.
Tom blinks in the half-light of early evening and takes in his surroundings, the two faux Danish Modern armchairs in airline orange, the low melamine coffee table with its splayed black plastic legs, the wall of empty bookcases. His hefty rucksack abandoned in a heap by the sitting room door, his walking boots kicked off beside the chair, their tongues wagging and laces released. The unfamiliar view from the ninth floor. He yawns again, rubs his eyes, then pushes himself slowly to his feet, stepping over his boots and padding across the thin grey carpet to the badly fitting glass doors that open out onto the ledge of an excuse for a balcony. Up close, the low buzz of the wind shaping the corner of the building becomes a pursed shriek as it forces its way through the shabby metal window frames. Warsaw must be bitterly cold in winter. Today it’s just wet.
The trees are lush and heavy with rain, every leaf one of a shower of tiny green umbrellas above the shiny streets below. Tom watches young people dodge and run between cars that suck up puddles into spray, and old people who trudge and potter, hatted and scarfed. It’s not cold, but they are wrapped up against something. And down there, to the left, just beyond the corner of the building, a solitary mound of grey rock outlined by clusters of flickering tea-lights. He could see it better from the kitchen, he thinks, and better still close up. But it will keep until tomorrow at least.
Tom exhales noisily, if only to fill the room with his own presence, trying to remember what book his grandmother had been reading to him in his dream. David Copperfield? Wuthering Heights? Several minutes after waking he can still recall her voice, a reminder of home, a reminder of why he’s here, peering out from this borrowed nest above unfamiliar avenues. It’s a little weird though. He scrubs with his palms at the seven-thirty shadow piercing his chin, trying to wake himself up a bit and haul himself into the present.
Not a Brontë, no. Pride and Prejudice? Yes, perhaps, though it wasn’t his grandmother’s favourite. She was no lover of Austen’s tortuous evolutions of romance, irritated in this case by Bingley’s lack of mastery over his sisters and by Darcy’s interference. She always said that Elizabeth Bennet should have accepted the pompous ass after his first proposal halfway through the book, and saved everyone a lot of time and trouble, including the dear reader. Looking out over these foreign streets, Tom remembers her decree that you knew if you loved them from the first moment you looked into their eyes. Procrastination is merely a literary device.
But then, of course, she would have said that. He knows that now. At the time it made no sense at all and he had grown up thinking her at odds with herself, lacking the emotional nostalgia that should have been her entitlement as a young war widow, a lifetime of marriage blown off at the neck by a mortar on the beach at Dieppe. At nine or ten years old Tom could not have understood she had become too practical to be romantic, but now at thirty-two, he finds her articulate in the swift and terminal crush of passion. A passion that had nothing to do with Dieppe at all. A passion that had instead hacked his family apart and left comfortable histories in tatters, while in their urn her ashes swirled in the slipstream kicked up by all the fuss she’d left behind.
Slightly perturbed by the odd sensations left by the dream, Tom concludes that it was probably the residue of a frustrating day all round. His flight from Heathrow was late, he missed a connecting bus into the city and had to wait almost an hour for the next one, and when he got to the university, he had to go on a wild goose chase in search of the key for the apartment left by his absentee landlord. Tom had also been annoyed to find himself wrong-footed by the language barrier: his reckless assumption of the sway of English had been met with careless uncomprehending shrugs, and the consonants that sing in every other European language he’d ever heard, now smudge and cluster subversively before his eyes. Polish is obviously God’s revenge for Babel.
Nor had Krystyna been at the university to meet him, as promised. There wasn’t even a note for him at the faculty desk, where Tom had tried to make himself understood to the babushka with chemical red hair who seemed to be running the office, discovering to his embarrassment that she was not sekretarka but Profesora. She had frowned at the puddle forming around Tom’s sodden boots, then told him in perfect English to come back tomorrow. Finally, on his way to the apartment he had stopped at a small grocer for bread, milk, chocolate and fruit, where he completely failed to grasp the local protocols of queuing, ordering or paying.
The light is beginning to fade, and Tom decides it would be better to track down somewhere to eat before the dark has completely closed in. He briskly shakes out the contents of his rucksack onto the bed in the room next door, then takes a few moments to find a suitable hiding place for the plastic wallet of documents that have brought him here in the first place. They have no monetary value to anyone, but they are of such significance to Tom that he feels they can’t be left lying around, for just anyone to find. He knows he has been infected by the aura of the communist past that still colours Warsaw in its broad avenues and right-angled post-war reconstruction. It’s not as though he expects the apartment to be covertly searched after he has left, and he knows that the dour solitary men who stand smoking on street corners and at tram stops are unemployed not undercover, but he suspects there is much in the content of his documents that men and women once lived and died to protect.
On his way out, in dry boots and a clean sweater, Tom hesitates for a moment at the sitting room door, his attention caught by something he can’t place about the character of the room. It is as impersonal as any hotel, bereft of the possessions that Aleksander, the owner, has taken with him on sabbatical to Paris, and not yet filled with Tom’s own temporary clutter. But it is not that the space has been stripped of the residual marks of someone else’s personality. No, it is something more tangible than that. He shudders as he realises that what he feels is the silence left when someone else has just stepped out of the room.
At the sound of squabbling on the stairs, Ela quickly tugs at the mattress beside the wall, stuffing her book into the tiny crevasse beneath. If she hides it badly, she will toss and turn all night from the hard ridge that digs into her scrawny shoulders, disturbing her sisters who sleep crammed in beside her. If she gets it right, it will lift the folded blanket she uses for a pillow just a little higher to cradle her head.
On the floor above a door slams, no doubt to block out the argument which is now in full swing on the landing. Ela scurries across the floorboards in her bare feet and snatches open the door. Outside, her sisters are squared off against each other, inches apart, Lucja’s narrow face white with anger between the straight brown curtains of hair, Mala’s curved cheeks flushed pink amid chaotic black curls. Ela grabs both of them and drags them inside, then slams their own door for good measure.
‘I hope you were not arguing on the street,’ she says, quietly but firmly. ‘It would not do to draw attention to yourselves.’
‘She should have thought of that sooner,’ replies Lucja, not taking her eyes from Mala’s face. ‘Our sister is not suited to an unobtrusive existence.’
‘As if we should take lessons from someone who hides away behind Nazi skirts.’
‘Mala!’ Ela snatches again at her youngest sister’s arm. ‘Do you know what you are saying? You are accusing her of collaboration.’
Mala’s eyes flare with a deliberate fire and Ela knows immediately that the insult is intentional. The substance of it cannot be true — it just cannot — but it is framed by the insistence on provocation that has always run through Mala’s veins. Ela unconsciously grits her teeth as the look of contempt is turned on her.
‘And if you dragged your head out of a book for more than five minutes, you might see what is going on right under your nose. Your ignorance is as much of a crime as what she—’
‘Enough. Papa will be home at any moment, and I will not have him witness the two of you like feral cats—’
‘You waste your breath,’ says Lucja, going to the sink to wash her hands. ‘You are now tarred with the same brush as I am, a fate worse than death and one not to be reversed.’
‘But do you not care that she called you a traitor? You could be shot—’
‘The Nazis look after their own,’ adds Mala dryly.
Ela winces in anticipation of Lucja’s retort, but none comes for several moments and even Mala seems to have abruptly run out of ammunition. But in lieu of the silence of truce, the room is filled with the racket of ghetto life as it floods in through the open window. Handcarts clatter over cobbles among the scuff of weary feet dragging through the motions of existence. The sobbing of the constantly bereaved, the soft wails of hungry children, punctuated by the distant snap and rattle of pistol shots and machine gun fire on other streets in other lives. The intense heat seems to make it all so much louder, and behind it that constant hum that Ela thinks she will always hear, whenever the war ends, however it ends: the gasping for breath in this desperately overcrowded place.
Lucja has begun washing dishes, her back steadfastly turned on her sisters. Ela is not sure what the point is of such domesticity. There will be nothing to eat unless Papa brings something home with him. The plates were licked clean anyway last night and not a crumb remained. She is suddenly choked by the acid lurch of hunger, and something snaps inside her. She turns on Mala.
‘If pushing paper in the Jewish Council gives you the right to judge the rest of us, then surely I am already condemned—’
‘Leave it,’ warns Lucja, but now it is Ela who is not to be stopped.
‘—and I am only surprised that they let it go on, but then they are no braver than I when it comes to taking a bullet instead of standing up for the dignity of the dead. You know, I scrub and scrub my hands when I return here at night, because even when the layers of dried blood have been washed away, I still feel dirty for unclasping necklaces and pulling off watches and rings and unscrewing table legs and tearing up floorboards in search of the last shreds of value that we are left with behind these walls. Perhaps tomorrow Papa will be shot—’
‘—and I will be brought here by the Nazis to scrape through his possessions in search of something that can be looted and stolen and taken by those who do not deserve it. Surely that makes me the traitor.’
Mala has held Ela’s gaze throughout, and now she blinks in that pretty way she has, and says, ‘But Lucja is nursing their soldiers. She is keeping them alive.’
This is news to Ela but she gulps back her surprise. ‘Then she has no more choice than I—’
‘She sits in the front of their cars—’
‘Then they put her there at gunpoint. You are talking about our sister. You know she is no collaborator, and at least, unlike me, when she is not nursing Nazis she is nursing Jews, Poles, people like us. I help no-one but those who would slowly stifle us in this place.’
‘Go back to your book,’ says Mala. ‘You make more sense when you speak someone else’s words.’ …
Text copyright © Evie Woolmore 2007 All Rights Reserved