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  • Lumen by Ben Pastor
  • Ben Pastor |  Lumen
Lumen by Ben Pastor

Cracow, Poland. Friday, 13 October 1939 

The Polish words stencilled on the plaque read, “Take Good Heed”, and the Hebrew script below them presumably repeated the sentence. Coloured pictures illustrating the alphabet were pasted on the wall around the plaque. For the letter L, the picture showed a little girl pushing a doll carriage.  

Suddenly the odour of mangled flesh was sharp, crude. It came to his nostrils unexpectedly, so that Bora turned away from the wall and walked towards the middle of the room, where an army medic stood in gloves and surgical mask. Behind his figure, flooding the classroom with light, three wide open windows let in the afternoon sun and a lukewarm afternoon wind. 

Six desks had been joined by their narrow ends, two by two, and the uniform-clad bodies lay on top of them, over tarpaulin sheets. Blood had dripped down the ends of the desks, from the little spaces between sheets. The larger puddles were coagulating, and reflected the light of the windows on their surface. Bora stared at the reflection before stepping closer, nodding to the medic. 

After looking over each body, he pronounced a name in a low voice, a collected and controlled and forcibly boxed-in voice. The medic was holding a pad, and wrote down the names on it. 

When he lifted his eyes from the third body to the wall ahead, Bora met with the colourful print of the little girl pushing a doll carriage. It read, Lale. Dorotka ma lale 

 

“We thought you’d be best suited to identify them, Captain, since you were in the car right behind them.” 

Bora turned to the medic. He didn’t say anything. For a moment he looked up and down the medic’s grimy apron as if wondering what either one of them was doing here. What, indeed, any of them – dead and alive – were doing in a Jewish day school on Jakova Street in Cracow. 

He felt sweat run under his arms, down the middle of his back.  

Bora said, “Yes, I was.” 

Major Retz waited below in the army car. He was smoking a cigar, and the air in the car was hazy with it, because he had all the windows rolled up. When Bora opened the door to enter, a bluish cloud floated against him with an acrid odour of tobacco. He took his place in the driver’s seat. 

Retz said, “So, of course they were Lieutenants Klaus, Williams and poor Hans Smitt. Had they been wearing their identification disks, you wouldn’t have had to go up and look at them. How bad are they?” 

Bora started the engine, avoiding Retz’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “They’re in shreds from the midriff down.” He lowered his window, and with the motion of the car the smoke began to blow away. 

They drove down the deserted street into a square, Bora following the direction signs hastily put up in the last few days over the Polish names of streets and bridges. Retz made some trivial observations, and Bora answered in monosyllables. 

The afternoon light shone lavish and clear, it drew long shadows from the trees flanking the street and the tall city blocks. Overhead, the sky was thinly raked by aircraft flying east, delicate trails like pentagrams without notes. 

“That’s no way to go, is it – blasted on a mine.” 

Bora kept silent, so Retz cracked the window to toss the butt of his cigar out, and changed the subject. “How do you like Intelligence?” 

This time Bora looked up into the mirror. Retz wasn’t looking at him. His arrogant, crude face was averted, and there came the rustle of a large sheet of paper being unfolded. 

“I think I’ll like it.” 

Retz’s eyes met his. “Yes. They tell me you’re the student kind.” Bora thought Retz probably meant “studious”, but “student” was what he said. He felt a curious little surge of insecurity at that assessment of him. More crumpling of paper followed, and a badly refolded street map was tossed on the front seat from behind.  

“Our lodgings are supposed to be close to the Wawel Hill in the Old City. I’d hoped we’d lodge closer to headquarters, Bora, but that’s what we get for staying longer than most on the field of battle. I hope there’s indoor plumbing, and all that. Drive to the office, I want to check where exactly they’re going to house us.” 

 

14 October 

The German Army Headquarters on Rakowicka Street overlooked a formal garden, and, past the gate, across the sidewalk lined by trolley tracks, sat a grey Dominican church. Pigeons flew to its roof, alone and in pairs, fluttering.  

Bora listened to what Colonel Hofer was explaining to him. All the while, he thought that in comparison with Richard Retz, his commander was an introverted and sullen man. Hofer’s hands sweated, so that he wore talcum powder in his gloves to absorb the moisture. His palms retained a dusty appearance, like fish floured in anticipation of frying. Of an unclear age (Bora was young enough to misjudge the age of anyone older than himself but not yet white-haired), the colonel had a small nose; a womanly nose, almost, with wide nostrils, a sensitive mouth and narrow teeth. He wore spectacles only when he had to read something, but his squint gave the impression that he needed them even for simpler tasks, such as looking at people while talking to them.  

After an intense morning of briefing Bora on his duties, Hofer took him aside by the window, and for some time didn’t say anything at all. Fixedly he stared beyond the flowerbeds into the street, oblivious to Bora’s nearness. At long last, he focused his circled, watery eyes on the younger man.  

His eyes seemed weary, Bora thought, as in one who doesn’t sleep or sleeps poorly – something that could be said of all of them in the past furious weeks. Except that the young officers didn’t look, or probably didn’t even feel tired. 

With some envy, Hofer was drawing a similar parallel. Bora stood by him with a fresh, prim countenance, disciplined into not showing his eagerness but yet very eager, as his record showed. Hofer could shake his head at the enthusiasm, at the eagerness, but it was a time to encourage, not discourage those excesses. 

He said, “Captain, how familiar are you with the phenomenon of the stigmata?” 

Bora showed no overt surprise at the question. “Not very, sir.” He tried not to stare back. “They’re wounds like those received by Christ on the cross. Saint Francis of Assisi had them, and some other mystics.” 

Hofer returned his gaze to the street. “That’s true enough. And do you know how Francis and the others received them?” He didn’t give Bora time to answer. “It happened during ecstasy. Ecstasy did it.” He nodded to himself, with his fingernail scraping a little spot of dry paint from the glass. “Ecstasy did it.” 

Hofer walked away from the window and into his office. Bora stayed behind long enough to glance at the roofs of the Old City churches, rising to the left like distant ships’ forecastles behind uninspired new blocks. Directly ahead, pigeons still flew to and from the Dominican church, seeking the sunny side of the roof. Spain, only six months before, had been an exultation of crude and dazzling light.  

What did the stigmata have to do with anything? 

He thought no more of it until after the lunch hour, when the colonel again stopped by his desk. Bora had been familiarizing himself with the topography of southeastern Poland, and now stood up with a red pencil in his hand. 

Hofer took the pencil from him, and laid it on the desk.  

“Enough map reading for the day, Bora. Tomorrow you’ll go out on patrol. Your interpreter is Johannes Herwig, an ethnic German, and he’ll tell you the rest in the field. A good man, Hannes – we go back a few years. Come, now. I want you to take a ride downtown with me.” 

“I’ll fetch the Colonel’s car.” 

“No. Let’s use yours. I want you to drive.” 

At Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, a musty, waxy odour hovered in the convent’s waiting room. Light came in through a set of three windows lined in a row, high, small, squarish, with deep slanting sills from which one couldn’t look out, even on tiptoe. There were three doors and all of them were closed. The silence was so complete, Bora could feel absence of sounds like a void against his ears.  

Startlingly real against a blank side wall, a life-size crucified Christ hung in agony, his torso contorted and bleeding, eyes turned back to half-hide glass pupils under his lids. It reminded Bora of the bodies in the Jewish schoolhouse, and he nearly expected to see blood on the floor at the foot of the cross. But the tiles were spotlessly clean, like everything else. No marks on the walls, no fingerprints, no streaks on the floor. And that waxy, musty smell.  

Waiting for Hofer, who had disappeared into one of the rooms down the hallway, Bora paced the floor. The quiet orderliness of the room forced a comparison with the wreckage and noise of weeks past – villages torn open, fields rolling by, speeding by, convulsed by drifting smoke and the fire of big guns. Bora admitted now that he’d pushed through havoc with the mindlessness of a sexual rush, awed and drunk with it. All the more he marvelled at the sterile peace of this interior. 

He’d been waiting for over an hour (the light was changing in the small windows, turning pinkish and less strong) when one of the doors opened and a priest walked out of it. Their eyes met, and the two men exchanged a noncommittal nod of acknowledgement. The priest wore clergyman’s trousers, an unusual sight in this conservative country. He went past Bora, down a hallway and into another door.  

Later a nun came gliding by, was gone. The light in the little windows grew lilac as the shadow of the late afternoon filled the street. Bora measured the floor in slow steps, trying to tend his thoughts and boredom. At last the priest entered the waiting room again. 

He said, in English, “Colonel Hofer tells me you speak my language.” 

Bora turned rigidly. “Yes.” And, recognizing the American accent, he relaxed his shoulders a little.  

“He sent me to keep you company while he concludes his meeting with Mother Kazimierza.” 

“Thank you, I’m all right.” 

“Well, then – you can keep me company.” With an amiable smile, the priest took a seat on a lion-footed bench, but Bora didn’t imitate him. He remained standing, hands clasped behind his back. 

The priest kept smiling. He was a man in his fifties, or so Bora assessed, big-shouldered, big-footed, with wide freckled hands and extremely lively, clear eyes. His neck, Bora saw out of the corner of his eye, emerged from the Roman collar as a powerful bundle of muscles, like the neck of a wrestler. The combination of his alert glance and strong frame recalled the pictures of warring peasant saints, cross in one hand and sword in the other. 

But the priest was telling him, in the most unaggressive tone, “I’m from Chicago, Illinois. In America.” 

Bora looked over. “I know where Chicago is.” 

“Ah, but do you know where Bucktown is? Milwaukee  

Avenue?” 

“Of course not.” 

“‘Of course’? Why ‘of course’?” The priest’s face stayed merry. “Consider that for most of my parishioners the important landmarks are precisely Bucktown and Trinity church, Six Corner, the memory of Father Leopold Moczygemba —” 

“Are you teasing me?” Bora asked the question, but was beginning to be amused. 

“No, no. Well, what I meant is – you and I would be at war if I were British, but I’m of non-belligerent nationality.” 

It was true enough. Bora found himself relaxing more and more, because he was in fact tired of waiting and not unhappy to make conversation.  

“Who is Mother Kazimierza?” he asked. 

The priest’s smile broadened. “I take it you’re not  

Catholic” 

“I am Catholic, but I still don’t know who she is.” 

Matka Kazimierza – well, Matka Kazimierza is an institution in herself. Throughout Poland they refer to her as the ‘Holy Abbess’. She has been known to foretell events in visions, and has apparent mystic and healing powers. Why, several of your commanders have already visited her.” 

It came to Bora’s mind that Hofer left the office early every afternoon at the same time. Had he been coming to see the nun, and was he embarrassed to be driven to the convent by his chauffeur? Bora took a long look at the priest, who sat and continued to smile a cat-like smile at him. Friendly faces were not an everyday occurrence in Cracow. He thought he ought to introduce himself.  

“I’m Captain Martin Bora, from Leipzig.”  

“And I’m Father John Malecki. I was put in charge by His Holiness of a study regarding the phenomenon of Mother  

Kazimierza.” 

“What phenomenon?” 

“Why, the wounds on her hands and feet.” 

So. That’s what the stigmata had to do with Hofer’s talk.  

Bora was thoroughly amazed, but all he said was, “I see.”  

Father Malecki was adding, “I’ve been in Cracow these past six months. In case you were wondering, that’s how I happened to find myself here when you came.”  

It was as unadorned a way as Bora had heard anyone describe the invasion of Poland. 

“Yes, Father,” he spoke back with faint amusement. “We did come.”  

Later, it was impossible for Bora not to think that the colonel had been weeping. Hofer’s eyes were red when they came out into the street, and although he wore his visored cap, the congestion of his face was still noticeable. He laconically indicated that he wanted to return to headquarters. It was late in the evening, but he walked straight into his office and locked himself in. 

Bora gathered his papers for the trip on the following day, and then left the building.

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