Book Extracts
  • A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miloszewski
  • A Grain of Truth |  Zygmunt Miloszewski
A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miloszewski

Wednesday, 15th April 2009

Jews are celebrating the seventh day of Passover and are commemorating the crossing of the Red Sea. For Christians it is the fourth day of Easter week. For Poles it is the second day of a three-day period of national mourning declared after a hotel fire in Kamień Pomorski in which twenty-three people were killed. In the world of European Champions League football Chelsea and Manchester United go forward to the semi-finals, and in the world of Polish football some fans of ŁKS, the Łódź team whose main rivals are a team called Widzew, are charged with inciting racial hatred by wearing T-shirts inscribed “Death to Fucking Widzew-Yidzew”. Police Headquarters issues a report on crime figures for March – compared with March 2008, crime has risen by eleven per cent. The police comment: “The economic crisis is forcing people to commit crimes.” In Sandomierz it has already forced a saleswoman at a butcher’s shop to sell cigarettes free of excise duty under the counter, and she has been detained. In the city it is fairly cold, as throughout Poland, and the temperature does not exceed fourteen degrees Celsius, but even so it is the first sunny day after an ice-cold Easter.


Ghosts certainly don’t appear at midnight. At midnight there are still late films running on TV, teenage boys are having intense thoughts about their lady teachers, lovers are gathering strength before the next go, long-married couples are having serious conversations about “what’s happening to our money”, good wives are taking cakes out of the oven and bad husbands are waking up the children in their drunken attempts to open the front door. There’s too much life going on at midnight for the spirits of the dead to be able to make a proper impression. It’s quite another matter shortly before dawn, when even the staff at petrol stations are nodding off, and the dull light is starting to pick beings and objects out of the gloom whose existence we had never suspected.

It was approaching four in the morning – the sun would be up in an hour – and Roman Myszyński was fighting off sleep in the reading room at the State Archive in Sandomierz, surrounded by the dead. Around him towered stacks of nineteenth-century parish registers, and even though most of the entries concerned life’s happy moments, even though there were more baptisms and weddings than death certificates, even so, he could smell the odour of death, and couldn’t shake off the thought that all these newborns and all these newly-weds had been pushing up the daisies for several decades at least, and that the rarely dusted or consulted tomes surrounding him were the only testimony to their existence. Though actually, even so they were lucky, considering what the war had done to most of the Polish archives.

It was bloody cold, there was no coffee left in his thermos, and the only thought he could formulate was to berate himself for the idiotic idea of founding a firm that specialized in genealogical research, instead of taking on a junior lectureship. The salary at the college was low but regular, and came with free health insurance – nothing but pluses. Especially compared with the jobs at schools which his friends from the same year at university had ended up in – just as badly paid, but enhanced with non-stop frustration and criminal threats from the pupils.

He glanced at the huge book lying open in front of him, and at the sentence finely inscribed by the parish priest at Dwikozy in April 1834: “The applicant and witnesses are unable to read.” That really would have said it all, as far as Włodzimierz Niewolin’s noble ancestry was concerned. But if anyone still had doubts that perhaps the father of Niewolin’s great-great-grandfather who presented his child for baptism was just having a rough day after wetting the baby’s head, his profession was enough to dispel them – peasant. Myszyński was sure that as soon as he rooted out the marriage certificate, the Marjanna Niewolin mentioned in the birth certificate – fifteen years younger than her husband – would turn out to be a serving wench. Or maybe she was still living with her parents.

He stood up and stretched vigorously, accidentally jogging an old, pre-war photo of the Sandomierz market square that was hanging on the wall. He set it straight, thinking that somehow the square in the postcard looked different from today. More modest. He peered out of the window, but the market-square frontage visible at the end of the street was shrouded in the dark mist of daybreak. What nonsense – why should the old market square look any different? Why on earth was he thinking about it? He should get down to work if he wanted to reconstruct Niewolin’s past and get back to Warsaw by one o’clock.

What else might he find? He shouldn’t have any trouble with the marriage certificate, and Jakub and Marjanna’s birth certificates must be somewhere too – luckily the Congress Kingdom of Poland was fairly kind to the archive researcher. From the start of the nineteenth century, thanks to the Napoleonic Code, in the Duchy of Warsaw all the registry documents had to be drawn up by the parishes in two copies and delivered to the state archive; later on the rules had been changed, but even so it wasn’t bad. It was worse in Galicia, and the eastern Borderlands were a real genealogical black hole – there was nothing in the Warsaw archive relating to territory east of the River Bug but the remains of some documents. In other words, Marjanna, born circa 1814, shouldn’t present a problem. As for Jakub, the tail end of the eighteenth century was still not too bad; the priests were becom-ing better educated, and apart from in the exceptionally lazy parishes, the books were generally complete. In Sandomierz it was a help that during the last war neither the Germans nor the Soviets had sent them up in smoke. The oldest documents dated from the 1580s. Earlier than that, the trail broke off – it wasn’t until the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century that the Church had come up with the idea of registering its flock.

He rubbed his eyes and leant over the outspread records. What he needed were the marriage certificates from Dwikozy dating from the previous two years, and maybe he’d look for the mother at once. Née Kwietniewska. Hmm. A small alarm bell rang in the researcher’s head.

Two years had passed since the time when, against everybody’s advice, he had founded his company, Golden Genes. He had had the idea for it while gathering material for his thesis at the Central Archive of Historical Records in Warsaw, where he kept coming across people with a mad look in their eyes, ineptly seeking information about their ancestors and trying to draw up their family tree. He helped one lad out of pity, one girl because of her stunningly beautiful bust, and finally Magda, because she was so sweet, with her great big genealogical chart, something like the Tree of Jesse. It ended in Magda and her chart coming to live with him for half a year. Five months too long – she moved out with tears in her eyes and the knowledge that her great-great-grandmother Cecylia was a bastard, because in 1813 it was the midwife who had had her baptized.

Then he had decided he could take advantage of the genealogical craze and sell his ability to make use of the archives. As he registered the business, he was very excited by the prospect of becoming a historical detective, and it never entered his head that the name Golden Genes would mean that every, literally every single client would first ask if it had anything to do with Gene Wilder or Gene Kelly, and then try their best to make a silly joke about “taking down your jeans”.

Just like in the opening pages of a crime novel, at first he spent most of his time waiting for the phone to ring and staring at the ceiling, but finally the clients had shown up. From one case to the next, from commission to commission there were more and more of them, unfortunately not for the most part leggy brunettes in stockings. There were two types who came along most often: the first type were complex-ridden, bespectacled men in tank tops with a look on their faces that said “But what have I ever done to you?”, whose lives had turned out so badly that they were hoping to find their meaning and value in their long-since-decomposed forebears. With humility and relief, as if they had been expecting this blow, they accepted the information that they were the descendants of no one from nowhere.

The second type – the Niewolin type – made it understood from the start that they were not paying to be told that they came from a clan of drunken carters and worn-out whores, but rather for their crest-bearing noble ancestors to be found and the place where they could take their children to show them that here stood the manor house in which Great-Grandfather Polikarp recovered from the wounds he sustained in the Uprising. Any uprising would do. At first Roman was painfully honest, but later on he realized that his was in fact a private firm, not a research institute. As evidence of the nobility meant bonuses, tips and further customers, let there be nobility. If anyone were to form a view of Poland’s past based on nothing but the results of his research, they would soon come to the conclusion that despite appearances it was not a land of primitive peasants, but of distinguished gentlefolk, or at least prosperous burghers. Although he twisted things a bit, Roman never lied – so far he had usually just dug around in an offshoot of the family until he found some lord of the manor.

The worst thing of all was to come upon a Jew. The historical arguments that in inter-war Poland ten per cent of the citizens were Jews, as a result of which one might well find an ancestor of the Jewish faith, especially within the Congress Kingdom, which covered the heart of the country, and Galicia, did not convince anyone. It had happened to him twice – the first time he was sworn at, and the second time he almost got hit in the face. At first he couldn’t get over his amazement, then he spent a few days brooding on it, and finally came to the conclusion that the customer is the boss. He usually brought this issue up during the initial conversation, and if it turned out to arouse excessive emotion, he was ready to sweep any chance Izaak under the carpet. However, it had happened extremely rarely – the Holocaust had chopped off the crown of the Jewish genealogical tree.

And now if you please, Marjanna Niewolin, née Kwietniewska, had appeared in the nineteenth-century records. It wasn’t always the case, but surnames derived from names of months – in this case “kwiecień”, meaning “April” – were often the names of converts, after the month in which the baptism took place. The same went for names containing days of the week, or starting with “Nowa-”, meaning “new”. The name “Dobrowolski” – meaning “good will” – could also indicate the fact that an ancestor had voluntarily converted from the Jewish to the Christian faith. Roman liked to believe that the motive behind these stories was love, and that people faced with a choice between religion or emotion, had chosen the latter. And as Catholicism was the dominant religion in the Most Serene Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, the conversions were usually in that direction.

In fact, Roman could drop that lead; as it was, he was surprised Niewolin’s documented roots went back so far. But firstly he was curious, and secondly he was annoyed by that arrogant bastard toting a signet ring with a space on it for a crest.

On his laptop, Roman fired up one of his basic tools – a scanned copy of the Geographical Dictionary of the Polish Kingdom and Other Slavonic Countries, a monumental work dating from the late nine-teenth century, where every village located within the borders of the pre-partition Polish Republic was described. He looked up the entry for Dwikozy, to find out that it was a village and a grange that was formerly Church property, consisting of seventy-seven houses and 548 inhabitants. Not a word about a Jewish community, which was natural, considering there was usually a ban in force on Jews settling on Church estates. In other words, if Marjanna came from a local family of converts, he would have to look in the nearest towns, Sandomierz or Zawichost. He browsed the scanned pages, and discovered that in Sandomierz there were five Jewish hostelries, a synagogue, 3,250 Catholics, fifty Orthodox Christians, one Protestant and 2,715 Jews. Whereas in Zawichost, of a population of 3,948, there were 2,401 people who professed the Jewish faith. A lot. He looked at the map. Intuition told him that Zawichost was a better shot.

He drove off the thought that he was wasting time, got up, did a few squats, winced at the sound of his knees cracking, and left the reading room. He flicked the switch in the dark corridor but nothing happened. He flicked it a couple more times. Still nothing. He looked around hesitantly. Although he was an old hand at spending the night in the archives, he felt uneasy. It’s the genius loci, he thought, and sighed with pity at his own tendency to fantasize.

Losing patience, he pressed the switch once again, and after a few flashes the stairwell was flooded with pallid fluorescent light. Roman looked down the stairs at the Gothic archway leading from the administrative part of the building into the archive. It looked somehow – how should he put it? – menacing.

He cleared his throat to break the silence and headed downstairs, thinking how the story of Niewolin and his great-great-grandmother née/converted Kwietniewska gained a curious touch of spice from the fact that the Sandomierz archive was housed in an eighteenth-century synagogue. The reading room and the staff offices were in the kahal building tacked onto the house of worship, which would have been the administrative headquarters for the Jewish community. The actual records occupied the synagogue’s main prayer hall. It was one of the most interesting places he had seen in his career as a detective of the remote past.

Downstairs, he pushed open the heavy iron door studded with nails. The nutty smell of old paper struck his nostrils.

The old prayer hall was in the shape of a large hexagon, and had been adapted in a peculiar way to meet the needs of the archive. An open-plan cube had been constructed in the middle of the room, composed of steel walkways, stairs and, above all, shelving. The cube was not much smaller than the entire room; you could walk around it along the walls, or you could go inside it, into a labyrinth of narrow little corridors, or climb to the upper levels and immerse yourself in the old records there. Its structure made this metal scaffolding into a sort of overgrown bimah, in which instead of the Torah you could study registers recording births, marriages, taxes and sentences. Bureaucracy as the holy scripture of the modern era, thought Roman. Without putting on the light, he walked around the scaffolding, running his hand over the cool plaster. He reached the eastern wall, where only a few decades ago the Torah scrolls had been kept in the alcove known as the aron ha-kodesh. Roman switched on his torch and the light forced its way through the particles of dust densely rising in the air, picking out of the darkness a golden gryphon holding a tablet with Hebrew writing on it. He suspected it was one of the Tablets of Stone. He aimed the light higher, but the wall paintings situated nearer to the vaulted ceiling were flooded with darkness.

To the tune of a metallic echo, he ascended the steep open-plan stairs to the highest level. There he found himself close to the ceiling. As he walked between the shelves full of records, he started inspecting by torchlight the pictures of signs of the zodiac that adorned the upper part of the room. He frowned at the crocodile. A crocodile? He glanced at its neighbour – Sagittarius, the archer – and realized the crocodile was meant to be a scorpion. Perhaps there was a reason for it being a scorpion. All he could remember was that in Judaism you weren’t allowed to represent people. He went up to Gemini, the twins. In spite of that fact, they were represented as human figures, but without heads. He shuddered.

He reckoned he’d had enough of this expedition now, on top of which he had noticed a sea monster wrapped about a small round skylight. Here was Leviathan, the spirit of death and destruction, surrounding a patch of grey light as if it were the entrance to its underwater kingdom, and Roman became ill at ease. He felt a sudden need to get out of the archive, but just then, from the corner of his eye, he noticed something moving on the other side of the aperture. He shoved his head inside the monster, but he couldn’t see much through the dirty glass.

On the far side of the room a floorboard creaked. Roman jumped, painfully banging his head against the wall. He cursed and crawled away from the skylight. There was another creak.

“Hello, is there anyone there?”

He shone the torch in all directions, but all he could see were reg-isters, dust and signs of the zodiac.

This time something creaked right next to him. Roman gasped aloud. It took him a while to calm his breathing. Fantastic, he thought, I should treat myself to even less sleep and even more coffee.

At an energetic pace he followed the metal walkway towards the steep stairs; there was a thin railing separating him from the dark hole yawning between the staircase and the wall. As the top level of the scaffolding was also the level of the windows that admitted light into the hall, he passed some very strange contraptions used for opening and cleaning them. They looked like small drawbridges, now raised to the vertical position. To get to the windows, you had to release a thick rope and lower the bridge so that it reached across to the window alcove. Roman thought it rather a curious mechanism – after all, neither the scaffolding housing the records, nor indeed the thick walls of the synagogue were likely to be going anywhere, so they could have been kept permanently lowered. Now it made him think of a battleship with raised gangways, ready to set sail. He swept the entire structure with the beam of his torch and walked towards the stairs. He had only taken a single step when a mighty bang filled the room, a shock ran through the staircase, and he lost his balance, only failing to tumble down the stairs because he seized the railing with both hands. The torch fell from his grip, bounced off the floor twice and went out.

As he straightened up, his heart was beating with dizzying speed. Quickly, feeling slightly hysterical, he inspected his surroundings. The drawbridge he had walked past had fallen. He gazed at it, breathing heavily. Finally he burst out laughing. He must have accidentally disturbed something. Physics – yes; metaphysics – no. All quite simple, really. Whatever, it was the last time he was going to work after dark among all these great-great-grand-corpses.

He blindly groped his way up to the drawbridge and grabbed the rope to pull it vertical again. Of course it was jammed. Swearing like a trooper, he crawled up to the window alcove on his knees. The window looked out onto the same bushes as the aperture guarded by the sea monster.

The world outside was now the only source of light, and it was extremely feeble light. Inside it was almost impossible to see a thing, and outside the break of day was changing into a springtime, still timid dawn; out of the darkness loomed trees, the bottom of the ravine surrounding the old town, the villas built on the opposite side of the escarpment and the wall of the old Franciscan monastery. The black mist was changing into grey mist, but the world was foggy and out of focus, as if reflected in soapy water.

Roman stared at the spot where he had seen something moving earlier – in the bushes just below the remains of the fortifications. As he stared hard, a sterile white shape stood out of the sea of grey. He wiped the window pane with his sleeve, but despite the sophisticated drawbridge mechanism, evidently no one was too keen on cleaning it very often, so he just smeared dust across the glass.

He opened the window and blinked as cold air swept across his face.

Like a little china doll floating in the mist, thought Myszyński, as he gazed at the dead body lying below the synagogue. It was unnaturally, unsettlingly white, shining with lack of colour.

Behind him, the heavy door into the old synagogue crashed shut, as if all the spirits had flown out to see what had happened.

  • A Grain of TruthZygmunt Miloszewski