A Way to Die: Living to the End

By Victor and Rosemary Zorza



 
Eleven

    In the night Rosemary awoke suddenly to find Jane's eyes wide
open with a look of fear.

    "Mum. Are you there? "

    Rosemary bent over so that Jane could see her and feel her
touch.

    "Yes, I'm right here."

    "Mum, I'm absolutely terrified. Where are we? What is this
place?"

    Rosemary kissed her to try to drive away the nightmare.

    "Jane, it's quite all right. We're in the hospice near Oxford and
everyone is wonderful. They've been working to reduce your
pain, and you're much better."

    "It's another hospital?"

    "No, it's completely different. When you wake up properly,
you'll remember how much you like it here."

    "We're still in England?" Her eyes remained wide open and
frightened.

    "Yes. Dad's asleep just down the corridor, and Richard and
Arloc will be with you tomorrow morning."

    She wasn't convinced. "I still don't get it. Can we go over it
again?"

    Rosemary repeated her reassurances, but Jane's eyes remained
troubled.
 

    "I'll ask Nora to fetch Dad. If you see him, it might help."    .
A few minutes later Victor padded in on bare feet. Rosemary
explained Jane's confusion while he bent over her, touching her.
They switched the brighter lights on. Jane looked around sus-
piciously.

    "But this isn't the same room I was in yesterday."

    "Yes. it is. You haven't been moved, and they won't move you.'
--,                          ,       ~            i

    "No, Dad. It isn't the same." Her eyes passed vaguely over
the room. "The furniture is different." Her voice was firmer,
surer. She was fully awake but still deeply suspicious.

    "That's just because we moved everything round when you
were asleep to make room for a cot for me." Rosemary touched
each piece of furniture. "See, this cupboard was over here by
your bed with a chair beside it. Now the chair is in the passage.
There was another chair here, the other side of the bed, that's
out in the passage, too."

    "The window looks different. It isn't in the same place."

    "That's only because the curtains are across the window. Look,
I'll pull them back. There are stars in the sky."
Jane still wasn't convinced. "Are we in England now?" she
asked again.

    "Yes," Victor repeated, "in a hospice, near Oxford."
Rosemary had an idea. "Tomorrow, when we rearrange the
furniture for the night, we'll do it before you go to sleep, Jane,
so that you can watch us. That'll help you to remember."

    Slowly she began to relax.

    Victor had had a good sleep in the visitors' room. He suggested
he should stay with Jane now, while Rosemary took the more
comfortable bed. But he had no sooner settled down in the cot
than he heard Jane call out: "Look, Dad, look." She pointed to
the foot of the bed. "Make it go away!"

    "What is it, Jane?"

    "There's the nasty little brute again." She described to him the
ratlike brown animal she could see scurrying across the bed. "It's
giving me the horrors!"

    "All right, Jane, let's make it go away together. If you can see
the little brown animal, then you must know he's in a field, not
on your bed. Can you see the field?" 

    "Ye-es," Jane said doubtfully.

    "A beautiful green field with the grass bending in the wind," 
he continued evenly, almost hypnotically. "Tall, green grass.
Wavelike. With beautiful wild flowers—red poppies, very red."

    "Yes," she confirmed, this time with more assurance. The little
brown animal had gone. "Red poppies," she repeated easily.

    "The field is on a slope, the wind is blowing uphill, the sun is
shining and it's a hot summer day—not a cloud in the sky. A blue,
blue sky . . ."

    "No," Jane interrupted him suddenly, almost angrily. "There's
no hill. There's a field, but no hill." 

    "Oh?"

    "It's very flat. There's a small stream, then there's the field. 
And a cottage with a thatched roof." She was describing the
house where we lived when we were first married.

    "There's a garden by the stream. Yes, lots of flowers, red
poppies."

    "Go on, Jane." He began to feel uneasy. The picture was ac-
curate, but . . . Then he knew in a flash, with a sense of shock,
what was wrong. She was describing something she couldn't have
known. Jane had never lived in that house, we had moved from
there before she was born. 

    "But, Jane . . ."

    "Richard is in the garden, and I'm angry. Richard is there, 
and you and Mum are there. But I'm not there. I'm very angry."
Victor didn't know what to say. Dr. Murray had warned him
about nightmares and hallucinations, not visions.

    "But, Jane, that was before you were born," he said finally.

    "That's why I'm so angry. Richard was there, and you and
Mum, but not me."

    No, it wasn't a vision, he thought, it was like something out of
Freud. She'd always been a little jealous of Richard. So many
things that were difficult for her seemed to be easy for him. Jane's
old feelings must be rising to the surface again. But how could
she know what the place looked like if she hadn't been there?
His sense of unease deepened. He managed to change the subject
to her own childhood, to some of the happy times she'd had.

    Then, suddenly, the explanation came to him.
"Jane, that cottage, the garden, the stream . . . It wasn't be-
fore you were born. We had moved out of there, and then—you
were about four or five—we went back to see the cottage. We
were together that day, you and Richard, all of us. That's what
you remembered."

    But she was no longer interested. The anger had subsided. They
went on reminiscing easily like two old friends. Jane didn't want
to go back to sleep, she wanted to talk. When he asked about the
pain, she dismissed the question with a very slight movement of
her hand—a better answer than any other she could have given,
because it showed how the pain in her arm had subsided. He was
amazed at the improvement.

    If he hadn't known how ill she was, how deeply the cancer had
eaten into her, he would have thought she was beginning to heal.
But, he asked Dr. Murray later, would she be as ready to die now
that she appeared to be getting better? He wondered if she would
begin to hope for a cure. Then all the good the hospice was
doing her would be cancelled out.

    And when Dr. Murray next saw Jane, he found the questions
she was putting to him had changed. She wasn't asking about
the pain, she wanted to know more about the disease. What was
the cancer doing to her body, was it spreading? The present had
completely preoccupied her when the pain was so intense. Now
she was inquiring about the future. She didn't ask, "Am I going
to get better?" in so many words, yet Dr. Murray thought that
perhaps the idea lay behind her questions. He told her of the
tumour in her stomach, of the cancer in her bones, and explained
what he was doing to control the distress this had caused her.
The real answer to her question was, "No, you're not going to
get better," but he did not put it so bluntly. The previous day
he had marvelled at the equanimity with which she viewed the
prospect of death. He had not often met such acceptance in some-
one so young. Yet it was just because of her youth that her atti-
tude might alter. He could see now why Jane's shift of mood
worried her father, and he decided he had to deal directly with
Victor. He gave him as much time and attention as if he were a
patient.

    David Murray told Victor how it happened from time to time
that dying patients changed their minds and abandoned their
acceptance. "Some come here in great pain, though not often in
such agony as Jane, but we usually get it under control. Then,
when the pain's relieved, they think they're getting better. They
can't understand why they're still weak. There can be a simple
equation in a patient's mind: Pain means I'm dying. No pain
means I should be getting better."

    "Is Jane thinking this?"

    "If she isn't, then she may at least be wondering about it. The
relief of physical distress does cause a resurgence of determina-
tion, a reassertion of the will to live. In Jane's case, because she's
so young, we have to reckon with the survival instinct. Even if
she's intellectually prepared to die, even if she expects it and
wants to get it over with, she may not be able to suppress the
instinct to survive. It's a powerful force. There must be a lot of
it left in her young body, and it could speak to her more loudly,
more compellingly, than her intellect."

    "Then we must bring her back to reality," Victor said firmly.
"We must tell her she is dying. Shall I do it, or would it be better
if you did?"

    "No, we needn't force the issue. You don't confront a patient
with such information when she's not ready. She's already shown
that she can accept death. This is something temporary—a change
between yesterday and today that might be reversed again be-
tween today and tomorrow. Or even within an hour or two."

    When Victor returned to Jane's room and asked how she was
feeling, she replied simply: "Happy."

    Happy? What a word to use in the circumstances. And yet
she had used it repeatedly, at Dairy Cottage when she was out
of pain, and at the hospice once the pain was brought under con-
trol. She had used the word to describe her own state of mind,
and urged Victor to share this with her. He pretended that he
did—of course, he would do anything to make her happy. If she
was happy, then so was he, or so he said, for the word meant
nothing to him.

    He couldn't fool her. Jane told him, "Dad, you're just saying
it. That's no good. There's only one way I know how to make
you accept it—by a dialectical discussion."

    He had never before talked to her frankly about his own atti-
tude towards death, not in all those months when we thought of
little else except her dying. 

    Once Dr. Sullivan had told her the truth, Jane began to turn
the tables on her father. She was trying to tell him, first at Dairy
Cottage and now at the hospice when the lines of communication
were reopened between them, that he was hiding something.
"You must have faced death so many times, Dad," she began
carefully as he sat by her bed. "You should be able to take this
thing that's happening more easily than the rest of us."

    Victor guessed what she was leading up to and gave her a
studied, factual answer. "Yes, I suppose the first time was when
I was about sixteen on the Russian-German front, after I got away
from Siberia. I'm sure I've told you about it."

    "No, Dad, you haven't," Jane said, watching him. "You don't
talk much about that time. I wish you would. What did happen?"
Should he tell her the full story? He had given her snatches of
it over the years—his childhood in Poland, his wanderings during
the war, the loss of his family, his escape from Russia—but always
leaving out some important details. Now she had asked a specific
question and he had to answer it.

    "It was the summer the Germans attacked Russia, and by then
I was right in the middle of it. I was on my own, the rest of my
family had been swallowed up by the war." He fell silent again.

    "You were at the front?" she asked quietly.

    "We were just behind the front, on the Russian side, mostly
women, old people and youngsters like myself. We were driven
like cattle, usually on foot, from one place to another, to dig
anti-tank trenches which were supposed to stop the advancing
Germans. But this time they loaded us into these carts because
they were in a hurry to build a huge network of earth defences.
We had driven past an army unit that seemed to be re-forming
for the front, when suddenly all the soldiers dropped what they
were doing and ran to take cover wherever they could. In less
than a minute everything was still except for the horses prancing
about and neighing. Then we could hear it . . . the drone of an
airplane, not the powerful roar of the jet that your generation
is used to, more like the sound of a motorcycle combined with
the buzzing of a bumblebee, and perhaps overlaid by a lawn-
mower motor."
"
    It's hard to imagine," she prompted him. "I'd like to know
how it felt—to hear the sound of a plane about to bomb you."

    "Our cart and the tractor pulling it were the only things that
kept going. We'd already moved well past the soldiers, but our
driver must have decided to get even further away from them
before the planes began bombing the troops. So the cart shook
more than ever, but we didn't mind. We were looking up into the
sky—at least I was, but I couldn't see anything. And tlien, in the
distance, where the troops had been, I saw showers of earth being
thrown up into the air, mixed with the debris of carts, trucks,
men, horses—and only then came the explosions, punctuated with
bursts of machine-gun fire which got closer and closer.
"We could see bullets kicking up the dust on the road a long
way behind us. The driver took one look, cut the engine, and was
off the tractor and into the ditch by the roadside almost before
any of us had managed to get out of the cart. All the others fol-
lowed him, but I thought I could do better. The ditch led to a
culvert just a little way along the road, and I figured I was small
enough to get right inside it. I stuck my head into the opening,
but the rest of me was too big, and I was still struggling to push
my way in when I heard more bombs, much louder, and at the
same time I felt as if I was being beaten by powerful fists. Stones
and clods of earth struck all over my body, but my head was safe.
It lasted only a moment. I could hear cries and moaning. The
plane had gone. I pulled my head out of the culvert and looked
around. There wasn't much left of the tractor driver and one or
two others. I was weak with fear, with a kind of delayed panic."
Victor stopped abruptly. It was years since he had thought about
that day.

    "I know," Jane said after a pause. "I think I know the feeling.
It used to come to me in the hospital. It was the operations. I
could take that. But after the operations, it would get to me. I
used to think, 'Am I ever going to escape from this?' And I'd be
scared, panicky, and feel weak. I was weak, I wasn't eating very
much."

    "You're not eating much these days, either. But you're not
scared. At least, you don't seem to be." He looked at her. "Are
you?"

    "No, Dad," she said. "I'm not scared now and I hope I can
stay unscared—if you help me. You helped me so much, at Dairy
Cottage, when they first told me what was happening, and you
just sat there and talked and talked to me."

    He touched her hand. "Jane, you were ready for it. You'd
lived with it for months and you needed no help from me. I was
talking to help myself more than you."

    Victor felt unsure how to continue, sensing that something was
still missing from their conversation. He had deliberately avoided
talking of his own feelings about dying in his recollection of the
bombing incident. Was that what Jane had wanted to hear?
She might have been reading his thoughts. "But why were you
at the front at sixteen? "

    "What you have to understand, Jane, is that I had lost every-
body, everything. When the war started and the Germans in-
vaded Poland from the west and the Russians from the east, it
wasn't just a war of soldiers. Everybody was on the move, whole
populations were being shifted from place to place, or what re-
mained of the populations after the troops had done their work.
That's how I found myself in Siberia. But I escaped. I wanted to
get back to a place where I belonged, where I could recognise the
people, the buildings, the mountains in the distance. I was trying
to get home to Poland, even though I knew that by now the
Germans had driven most of the Jews off to concentration camps
and imposed a regime of terror on the country. All this meant
nothing to me compared with my urge to get back home, to find
my roots again. I wasn't considering the danger. I suppose I even
thought it exciting in a way—I'd join the partisans, be a hero. It
was unrealistic, I suppose, but it was what I wanted, what I
needed."

    Jane thought for a while. "So you weren't running away from
something, you were running to something?"

    "It must have been six of one, half a dozen of the other. It
wasn't just my own family I had lost. When the Russians put me
in the prison camp, the people who had befriended me were
finished off either by the Siberian winter, or the starvation diet,
or the heavy labour or disease. And then, when I was let out of
the prison camp—they said there had been a mistake, I was too
young—there was the typhus epidemic. People were dropping
dead like flies. That's when I decided I'd had enough."

    "To have had death all around you like that, when you were
sixteen, must make you think," she prompted him again.

    "It certainly makes you run," Victor replied. "First I was run-
ning towards the front to get across it and make it back home,
but that bombing raid changed my mind. I turned away from the
Germans and went back into the interior of Russia.""

    "Was that when you met llya Ehrenburg? "

    "Yes. I made my way from the front all the way to the Volga,
to Kuibyshev, which was where the whole Soviet government
had retreated because the Germans were advancing on Moscow.
And Ehrenburg had retreated with them, because he was one of
the top Soviet writers, part of the government elite."
"You never told me much about that. I only knew the part
that was published in the history of the Guardian. At the school
where I was teaching, one of the other teachers who had read the
i book wanted me to give her all the gory details. It was quite
embarrassing. I couldn't tell her that my father never talked
about the past to us, that he had some kind of guilty secret." She
smiled. "Did you have one?"

    "You know the story, you've heard it all before."

    "Only in bits and pieces. I'd like to hear it properly."
He still hoped to escape her questioning, but she wouldn't let
him. She had once told Victor that the Ehrenburg story might
contain a key to something he was trying to hide. He had brushed
her off then. He couldn't do it now. "You really want to hear it
all again?"

    "You know I do. Dad—how, when, why, everything." 

    He took a deep breath. "In the winter of '94'-42, by the time
I got to Kuibyshev, the town was full of evacuees, refugees, and
troops, with thousands of people seeking shelter and hundreds
huddling every night on the concrete floors of the main railway
station, especially those whose status was somewhat dubious, like
mine. If they'd found out that I had escaped from Siberia, I'd
have been for it. I'd managed to get some false identity documents,
and I was living from day to day, hand to mouth, as best I could,
but even then I kept up my interest in what was going on. I read
the papers which were pasted every day on the wall outside the
station, and sometimes I managed to find a magazine. That's how
I came across a piece by Ehrenburg one day, with a Kuibyshev
dateline, so I knew he was there, and straight away I decided I
would try to meet him."

    "But why him?"

    "Because he'd been my hero for years—well, since about twelve
or thirteen, I suppose, when I read his novel Julio Jurenito"

    "So that's why you tried to get me to read it. I wish you'd told
me. If I'd known, I might have got beyond the first few pages."

    "That was during your anarchist period, Jane, and I knew
better than to try to persuade you to do anything. I just left the
book lying around hoping you'd recognise Julio Jurenito as a
fellow anarchist and get as much out of it as I did during my
anarchist period." 

    "You didn't guess I'd see what you were up to?" Now she was
smiling. "You always did think I wasn't as clever as Richard."
He ignored that. He wasn't about to discuss sibling rivalries
at this point.

    "Yes, Jane, you were a late developer." He echoed her banter-
ing tone. "I must have been only about twelve when I became
an anarchist. I don't think you got to it until your middle teens,
by which age I was well beyond that phase. But I remembered
the impression Julio Jurenito had made on me, like opening the
door into a new world. I felt Ehrenburg was a kindred soul, some-
body who'd understand my predicament, help me, maybe even
get me some better place to sleep than the railway station. So I
tracked him down and went to see him."

    "Just like that?"

    "Yes, just like that, in rags, dirty, very much the street urchin
in a great big army overcoat, the bottom cut off with a knife to
stop it trailing on the ground. The edges were ragged because
I had no scissors. For boots I cut up some car tyres, bound them
together with string and rags, and stuffed the inside with bits of
felt."

    Jane looked at him incredulously. "That was your own inven-
tion?"

    "No, it was a fairly common type of footwear then for down-
and-outs. I'd got his address from the city address bureau, prob-
ably the only by-product of the police state that helped the
citizen. You just went in, filled out a form with the name of the
person whose address you wanted, and they gave it to you."

    "And you were allowed in to see him like that, rags and all?"
"He was out the first time I called, so I went back in the eve-
ning, said I was an admirer of his books, and he came to the door
to see me. He asked me where I was from, and I said I was a
refugee from German-occupied territory, all on my own. He
wanted to know my age. I suppose he took pity on me, because
he invited me in. My heart was beating so fast, I can still remem-
ber it. He was at the height of his fame—his books, his articles
were everywhere. He was the great German-baiter, the man
whose writings kept up Russian spirits at the time when they
were suffering the most disastrous defeats of the war, and here
was I being received by him, in the most luxurious apartment I'd
ever seen."

    "So he wasn't an anarchist any more?"

    "He asked me what books of his I'd read, and I blurted out,
'Julio Jurenito." He went silent, quite rigid, for a moment, as if
I'd said the worst thing possible, which of course I had. He wrote
that book soon after the Revolution, long before Stalin had fin-
ished off all the anarchists, and it wasn't something he wanted to
be reminded about. It must have been purged from all the libraries
and burned by then. He probably didn't even have a copy of his
own. In a way, that book stood for everything that Stalin had
suppressed."

    "So you started off badly with him?"

    "No, quite the contrary. Politically, it was the wrong thing to
say; but personally, after that moment's silence, he warmed to me
as if I was his long-lost son. It was obviously a book he cared for
a great deal, more than the political hackwork he'd been doing
in recent years. He'd put a lot of himself into that book, but
probably no one had dared to mention it to him in years. It would
have been dangerous if anyone had overheard him talking about
it."

    He went on to explain how Ehrenburg got him some clean
clothes, a place to live in, and a job as apprentice at the railway
engineering works. They met once or twice a week. Victor told
him the story of his life, carefully censored, though, because he
had learned to distrust even his best friends. He even mentioned
his secret ambition to be a writer, not just any writer, but one as
influential as Ehrenburg. His benefactor smiled tolerantly, en-
couraged him to talk, told him something of his own life and
struggles—not too much, though, because he wasn't taking any
chances either. But before long the confidence, the intimacy
which grew between them, made it possible for Ehrenburg to
broach a subject more dangerous than any they had discussed
so far.

    "If you really want to be a writer," he said, "then you should
be making some decisions now. You're Polish, you were born
there, you went to school there, that's the culture you've ab-
sorbed. To be a Soviet writer, you'd have to start all over again,
and you'd find it difficult. For you, this is a strange, foreign
country . .."

    What Ehrenburg was trying to convey was that Victor should
get out of the Soviet Union—and in time he told him how it could
be done. The Poles who had been taken prisoner and deported to
Russia at the beginning of the war, at the time of the Stalin-Hitler
alliance, were now being released from the camps to join a new
Polish army, which would fight at the Russians' side against their
common German enemy. A small Polish air force unit was also
being sent to England, so that its men could replenish the Polish
squadrons which had lost so many of their pilots during the Battle
of Britain. Victor must join this air force unit; but it wouldn't be
easy. He should present himself at the recruiting station, say that
he wanted to volunteer for the air force, and be ready to answer
their questions. Ehrenburg had evidently made it his business to
find out what these would be. They would ask Victor if he had
any air force connections, or any flying experience, and since
this was unlikely at his age, he should say he had belonged to a
special Boy Scout troop which had done some glider flying. But
first he must go to the library and find out as much about gliders
as he could. They were also giving preference to people who
knew English, so he should get an English phrase book, learn
some sentences by heart—words of greeting and a few obvious
expressions—and just spout them at the recruiting officer. The
chances were that the man probably knew even less English than
he did.

    Then he came to the most important point. "You're a Jew, and
some of these Poles are very anti-Semitic. They see this air force
unit as an elite formation, and they're unlikely to take many
Jews. So you'll have to change your name. Otherwise, they might
tumble to it straight away."

    Victor did exactly as Ehrenburg told him, and it worked.
Within a few months he was in England, with a brand-new Polish
name, dutifully attending the Catholic church parade every Sun-
day and stealthily observing his companions to see when they were
crossing themselves, so that he might make the right movements
at the right time.

    "But once you were in England," Jane said, "you could have
dropped the pretence, couldn't you? "

    "That's easier said than done. It's probably difficult for you to
imagine the gulf between Pole and Jew in Poland, Jane. A Polish
Jew isn't a Pole, he's a Jew, a lower being, and here was I mas-
querading as a true-blooded Pole, accepted as such, listening to
jokes about Jews and downright obscenities, and remaining silent.
You asked about my guilty secret. Well, there it is."

    "Yes, you told me something about it, once, the bare facts, but
I didn't understand how difficult it was. So that's what you were
running away from?"

    "I suppose you could call it that. In a way, I had to change
my whole identity, to live a lie, but without the good reason that
some of the Jews had in Europe under Hitler. They did this kind
of thing to save their lives and those of their families. I suppose
I can blame it on my youth, my immaturity, my loneliness. I was
on my own, had no one to confess to, no one to ask for advice.
And then I got in deeper and deeper. I made up supporting details
to strengthen the main story, so that when people were exchang-
ing reminiscences, as we often did in those days, I could speak up
with the others. When I was discharged from the air force after
the war and joined the BBC, I thought I might somehow shed my
false identity, but it didn't work out like that. I'd kept up with
the people I'd known in the air force, and made some friends by
then, and I decided I couldn't suddenly turn to them and say,
'You know, I'm not the person you think I am, because I'm a Jew.'
You probably think I could have done it quite easily, and maybe you're right, but you did not grow up as a member of an oppressed, despised minority. Experience can
enlighten—or blind."

    "No,     Dad,     I    don't    condemn    you.    And     I'm    glad,     very    glad,    that you're telling me all about it. It means a lot that you're opening  up to me like this."

    "It  probably  helps  me  more  than  it  helps  you.  I  don't  think  I've ever talked like this, not even to your mother. I did tell her a little, many years after we got married, and she said, 'How awful that you suffered over this all these years.' But then she's not Jewish.
You're at least half a Jew. She was very sympathetic, but I don't
think she quite understood. It didn't matter to her at all that I
hadn't said I was Jewish when we got married. But it mattered to
me that I hadn't spoken about it either to her or to you and
Richard when you were growing up."

    "You did tell us something."

    "Yes, but it wasn't until you were in your early teens—and even
then all I said was that my mother was Jewish. Talking about my
mother was a deliberate first step in trying to bring out the whole
truth, gradually, little by little. I was testing your reactions,
Mum's, Richard's . . ."

    "Mum was right, it was a lot of fuss about nothing, that part
of it, at least to us. But what about your own family in Poland?"

    "They're dead." *

    "Yes, I know about your immediate family, but what about the rest."

    "Every one of them. Mother, father, brother, sister. Uncle
jaunts, cousins. Everybody. I tried to track them down after the
war. It was no good. Friends of the family, even acquaintances,
couldn't trace a single one. School friends-all gone. I did make
contact with a teacher. He'd always said I'd go a long way, only
he didn't know which way, to the good or to the bad. It was
family joke. But he wasn't Jewish. The Jews were all dead. . . .
He paused. Talking about the dead, about the people nearest to
him who were lost in the Holocaust, came too close to his own feelings about death.

    "Six million? " Jane prompted him quietly

    "Six million." 

    She shut her eyes and said nothing for so long that he assumed
she must have fallen asleep. She must be exhausted after such a
long talk. Victor was rather relieved. It was a painful subject
even now. He gently released her hand and walked to the window.
When he turned back, her eyes were on him, wide open.

    "That's what you've been running away from, Dad," she said
softly. "The six million."

    He thought about it. "I suppose I was."
There was another silence, and then Jane said very gently, "You
still are."

    He stared at her angrily. "But I'm not, Jane. I'm not making a
secret of it any more, you know that. It's all in the history of the
Guardian, you said that yourself. And I certainly take every op-
portunity now to make it clear that I'm a Jew. What do you
mean, I'm still running away from it?"

    But Jane wasn't ready to answer that one yet. She was very
tired, yet still refused to give up. It was obviously important to
her to have it out with him. She pressed him to talk more about
his past—which was part of her past, too.

    So he talked about the camps in Russia again. Two million
people had been deported to Siberia at the beginning of the war
when Stalin had first "liberated" the eastern half of Poland and
mounted a vast police operation to remove all the Poles, Jews and
Ukrainians who were likely to resist. Young men were rounded
up in police raids, families were roused in the middle of the night
and loaded into cattle trucks. After as much as a month in a
locked truck, they would be set down somewhere in the Siberian
wilderness and told to make a new life there. Not everybody even
survived the journey.

    He spoke about the millions of slave labourers from Russia,
Poland, the other countries conquered by Hitler, who were moved
around Europe by the Germans and then left stranded in the
West, fearing to return to countries taken over by the Com-
munists

    He wasn't iust rambling-. He was trying to put her own life in
historical perspective, to conjure up for her the suffering and the
sacrifice and the toll exacted by the war, the movement of millions
of people across borders, the separations, the reunions, the heart-
ache and the joy—and, yes, she had made him talk about the dying.
The dying he had seen in the Russian camps. The men and women
of the Resistance in western Europe just wiped out. The pilots in
the Battle of Britain, young and vibrant in the day, dying in the
night. The armies moving across Europe, leaving a trail of destruc-
tion behind them, the countless dead, so many, so young, as young
as she, often younger . . . He hoped that this would somehow
make it easier for her to accept her own death, put it into some
kind of human context for her.

    "Six million," Jane said again.

    Were they at cross-purposes? Why did she keep coming back
to the six million, to his own life, his own past? At first the reason
for her dogged persistence eluded him, but in the end he recog-
nised the pattern. She had set out, as in so many of their other
talks, to help him come to terms with what was happening to her.
But he could do this only if he first came to terms with himself.
He had to face the truth about himself, to come out of hiding.
She was using her death to ask questions and to get at the truth
of his life in a way she could never have done before. He would
not have let her.

    She knew that throughout her illness he had avoided the real
issue because he could not come to grips with the question of
dying: he could not come to terms with her death because he
hadn't been able to face the prospect of his own. He had been
running away from it ever since the war when he first denied his
Jewishness, his kinship with the six million. But she had led him,
step by step, to confront the truth.

    "You wanted to learn my guilty secret. Now you know."
She looked up at him sympathetically. "It was you who needed
to know it, Dad."

    At last Victor was free to talk about it. He no longer pleaded
his youth and immaturity. Now he recognised his real motive.
During the war, so long as Hitler remained undefeated, he was
afraid there was always the chance he might be captured by the
Germans and killed if he was identified as a Jew. After the war,
when the first detailed accounts of the horrors were published,
when he saw the first pictures of the skin-and-bone bodies heaped
in the concentration camps, he thought not only of the past but
also of the future. If it happened once, it could happen again.
Better safe than sorry. He had no family ties, no links to his past,
no home to go back to—nothing that made it necessary for him
to resume his identity. So he stayed as he was.

    "It isn't just that I lived a lie all those years. It's that I didn't
admit it even to myself. Well, I have now, Jane." He looked at
her. "Thanks to you."

    Jane returned his look as if to ask, Did he really mean it? Then
she smiled at him with a satisfied expression. She had obviously
succeeded. Finally she could rest. She dozed off, leaving Victor
still thinking about their conversation. She had shown him some-
thing he had never reasoned out for himself: that he was very
afraid of dying, and that so long as he remained afraid for him-
self, he would be afraid for her. But she could retain her serenity
about her own death only if she could make him share in it. At
last he was no longer afraid, because he had faced the truth.
 

* Web Editors Note: Victor was in fact incorrect. His sister Rut had, unbeknownst to him, survived the Holocaust.   The families were re-united in 1994.  See http://www.zorza.net/memoirs.html
 


 

Copyright Victor and Rosemary Zorza, 1980.
Web version Copyright Rosemary Varney and Estate of Victor Zorza, 2000
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