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All That Was: Chapter Forty-Three - Fighting On

...We all fell instantly in love with our rustic hideout at the foot of Mont Blanc. The roomy cottage was fully equipped, including even linen. It stood in an overgrown, sprawling garden by a brook. Wedged in between mountain chains I felt magically transported into a heavenly kingdom.

Our holiday routine guaranteed maximum relaxation. In the mornings, in perfect weather, we would climb the steep winding path to the nearest plateau, where cattle grazed for up to six months of the year. As we approached, we could hear the chime of little bells tied to the beasts' necks. A divine music to our city ears!...

Lusia Przybyszewicz takes a break from her studies in Paris for an idyllic Alpine holiday with friends. Lusia's story of her wartime ordeal in the Warsaw Ghetto, of working as a slave in a German hotel, and her attempt to re-build a life after the defeat of Nazi Germany is a work of high literary merit which deserves to be read and re-read.

Copies of the book All That Was are available from Lusia at PO404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 plus postage).

I returned to Paris from our wonderful spell in Nice feeling healthier and wiser. The long illness must have sobered me up and curtailed my former enthusiasm for late nights of perpetual levity. I realized that I needed a change of pace if I were to focus wholly on my studies.

Unwittingly, Christiane encouraged me to forsake the flurry and passion of the theatre scene the night when, out of the blue, she barged into my dining room, jumped into bed with me, and attempted to fondle me. In spite of my open-mindedness towards homosexuality, I found her advances repulsive and her intrusion a betrayal of our friendship. I told her so in no uncertain terms and sent her on her way.

For the duration of the second school term I adopted a more sedate life style, more in keeping with my ultimate goal of gaining a diploma at the school. Besides, I had not yet fully recovered from my ailments; the course of injections was to continue into the summer.

I maintained my association with the Polish Student Centre, but I spent most of my leisure time with the Hepners. They were now my adopted family. Their home became my sanctuary - a tangible link with my untroubled, blissfully happy childhood.

The tragic loss of my parents and Bolek had left me bereft, not only of the three people I loved most in the whole world, but also of that special feel of our Jewish home life. The hurt created a void that remained within me throughout the war years; it went on tormenting me like a nagging pain would. I did not dare to speak to anyone about it. Instead, I learned to bury it at the back of my mind and live under an assumed identity.

Being with the Hepners allowed me for the first time since the war ended to be myself, to redeem my roots. My only chance of restoring a sense of kinship and wholeness of being hinged on their moral support. Mutti's love and compassion made it happen.

She was an intuitive listener - perceptive and sensitive. As the wife of an Orthodox Jew, mother of four, a housewife-cum-linguist, she was preoccupied with translations of scientific manuals and journals. In spite of such a busy life, she always found time to care for the dispersed flotsam of the Holocaust - people like myself.

I felt more at peace and less distrustful of the human race when Mutti was about. Mellowed under her spell, I reached a turning point in my search for redemption. In hindsight I know how irksome my progress had been, but I firmly believe she paved the way to my future. I salute the memory of my guardian angel!

Notwithstanding the above admission, it must be said that beyond the Hepners' comforting haven I remained incapable of sustaining any such generosity of spirit. My own war experiences taught me that there was no better way to avoid being hurt, than to remain aloof and vigilant, always on one's guard. Born out of that ghetto mentality came my unflinching determination of never again allowing myself to become a victim of anti-Semitism.

In such a frame of mind, I did not feel disposed to broadcast my Jewish identity to the world at large. Such a confession, I believed, would have amounted to a form of masochism, inviting only more abuse. Why should anyone be so foolish as to risk further punishment for crimes not committed?

Obviously, I could not rid myself overnight of the anxiety and suspicion nurtured for years. Post-war Paris, with its aftermath of Nazi occupation, was probably not the best place to enhance the healing process.

As I reflect on the subsequent turn of events, I must conclude that living in the relatively prejudice-free Australia and learning to embrace its relaxed lifestyle had the most powerful and healing impact upon me. Indeed, I felt safe the moment I landed in this country in April 1947. My confidence and self-esteem have grown ever since.

In 1961 our six-weeks stay in Israel completed the healing process. Experiencing the miracle of a Jewish State, our own country, with its own language, where every previously down-trodden Jew could live in peace and dignity, affected me deeply. Like thousands of others, I felt gratified that the untold tragedy of the Holocaust was not entirely in vain. With this new awareness, and bolstered by the love and warmth of our Fragman family members, my tribal, 'visceral' Jewishness burst forth in torrents and overwhelmed me with pride.

The Hepner children were by nature scholarly. The twins' comprehension of mathematics and sciences seemed limitless. In 1946 they were both pursuing ambitious university courses: George ended up as a Research Fellow at the Institut Pasteur, and Marianne obtained a position of Head Statistician of a government department.

Only Eli elected to work for a time in the family's fur business, together with his father and their extended family in England and Holland. He spoke seven languages. He eventually established his own bank in Switzerland.
Michael and I were dazzled and inspired by the family's brain power and their unique capacity for learning. Michael was preparing for his French Baccalaureat, with the view of studying law. In the Hepners' household he invariably found the intellectual stimulus and support he sought. I helped him prepare for his Bac exam in Polish and both of us were coached in science and maths by the brilliant twins.

About that time I met Kali at the Polish Centre. His slight stature and typically Semitic features reminded me a little of Jojo, yet there was a fierceness in his gaze that overshadowed the gaunt physiognomy and claimed one's attention.

During a series of lunches with Kali, I learned that in pre-war Poland he was considered a persona non grata; he was not only a Jew, but a staunch Communist as well! He was arrested and incarcerated at Bereza Kartuska, the notorious Polish detention camp for such offenders in northeastern Poland (South of Bialystok). He eventually managed to escape.

Before making his getaway, he wanted to marry the woman he loved. Unfortunately, the union was doomed from the start because his prospective bride was the beautiful daughter of the local rabbi. Kali's political leanings, combined with his lack of any religious commitment, made such a liaison inconceivable.

He arrived in Paris sometime in the 1930s, broken-hearted and penniless. As an illegal immigrant, he was compelled to live in hiding for a considerable time. He made his living as a chiffonier and simultaneously studied engineering. He gained his French citizenship just in time to be conscripted and sent to the front to defend France in the Second World War. He ended up as a prisoner of war. The Nazis put him to work in a quarry. He emerged from the ordeal physically and mentally scarred.

He returned from the war with his quarry mate, Alek, who had suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Nazis and had since become an aeronautical engineer. The two of them, dubbed 'les deux', appeared to have a lot in common. They were usually seen together.

Summer was just around the corner, and many of my friends were already preparing for holidays. The young Hepners, Michael, and several others were heading for the French Alps, where in the less auspicious times they had sought refuge from the Germans.

By coincidence, Marysia and Miecio were hoping to head in the same direction, provided they could find a few more participants to share the expenses of renting a farmer's cottage, at the village of Champagny-le-Bas, in Savoie.

Anxious to share in the fun, I immediately put two and two together by inviting Kali and Alek to join us. Laure, who was trying to complete her law degree at the Sorbonne while living with her mother in very modest circumstances, became another contender.

In the light of new problems and frustrations that I subsequently had to confront in the autumn 1946, in retrospect, that summer break stands out as the ultimate treat of my two year stay in France.

In accordance with our respective bookings, our two groups set off from Paris separately. The five of us were the first to arrive. We all fell instantly in love with our rustic hideout at the foot of Mont Blanc. The roomy cottage was fully equipped, including even linen. It stood in an overgrown, sprawling garden by a brook. Wedged in between mountain chains I felt magically transported into a heavenly kingdom.

Our holiday routine guaranteed maximum relaxation. In the mornings, in perfect weather, we would climb the steep winding path to the nearest plateau, where cattle grazed for up to six months of the year. As we approached, we could hear the chime of little bells tied to the beasts' necks. A divine music to our city ears!

On the plateau the milking was in full swing. The shepherds, stooped on their stools, their bodies propped sideways against the flanks of the bovines, were carrying out their daily routines. We were mesmerized by the speed with which their nimble fingers extracted streams of milk from the bulging udders. Before our eyes, pail after pail filled to the brim with the creamy fluid. All the while, the rest of the herd awaited their turn unperturbed.

Around us, a fusion of colours - brown hide, green pastures, white peaks in the distance and blue sky above. It was a scene to behold! The same milking procedure was replayed in a more mellow setting at sunset.

After months spent in the mountains, the shepherds seemed to relate better to the cattle than they did to humans. Clearly, the long isolation turned them into bashful, uncommunicative creatures.

On our return to the village I enjoyed running down the mountain path at great speed, my rucksack filled with bottles of milk flapping on my back. Often the vigorous shaking turned the rich milk into butter by the time I reached home. Other foodstuffs were supplied by the locals.

To ensure the smooth running of our household, we set up a roster. The men helped with shopping and some of the more physical endeavours, but, typically, the actual cooking was left to the women.

In the leisurely afternoons we had easy choices: long siestas somewhere in the shade, soaking in the brook, read, or take a stroll. After dinner we generally stayed indoors and played games before turning in. Outside, the pitch black village was very still.

My culinary duties became the only point of contention. I resented being saddled with meal preparation, mainly because I did not know how to cook. Moreover, I resented Alek's constant derisory remarks on that very topic, which one lunch time had resulted in disaster.

I had just finished making the soup when I suddenly spotted Alek standing right behind me. With a smirk on his face he was staring at me. In my rage I accidentally knocked over the heavy pot, spilling the contents all over the hissing wood stove. As if that event in itself was not distressing enough, Alek proclaimed his gratitude at having been spared the eating of the soup. I could have killed him.

He and I recalled this incident a few years ago, when I visited him and his French wife at their exquisite villa in Cesarea, Israel.

By contrast, Kali liked me a lot. Retiring and sometimes despondent, he was attracted to what he perceived to be my vitality and energy. I was not quite ready for his attentions and tried to dodge the subject whenever it cropped up. But Kali would not be put off lightly. He persisted. In the process I realized that, shaken out of his lethargy, Kali could make an understanding and compassionate companion. Being with him seemed to lighten the lingering yearning in my heart.

Our surroundings provided every opportunity for airy-fairy pursuits. And so we developed a habit to meander amongst the hills together, forever talking. Our war experiences were dissimilar, but they nevertheless bore a common thread. We both knew about dispossession, alienation, and loneliness. The closer we felt to each other, the more obvious it became that Kali sought in me the reincarnation of his lost love. In my own way, I harboured similar fantasies about him. We were immersed in the holiday spirit, and our mutual fascination thrived amidst the splendour of the scenery. For me, our bond was marred mainly by his diffidence in the presence of others.

Whenever we met up with the Hepner crowd for hikes or picnics, Kali kept aloof. He seemed unable or unwilling to join in. Merry-making was not his forte. Even though Marysia and Miecio were both of a more sedentary disposition, they usually participated in our combined escapades. Otherwise, instead of exerting themselves with mountain climbing, they preferred lounging about in the garden or cooling off in the brook.

On our outings Alek invariably stood out as the most gregarious. People were instinctively captivated by this dark, handsome and contentious individual. Laure, who joined us briefly, shared his political views and seemed captivated by his wit. Almost instantaneously the two of them found a common language, and their friendship blossomed.

Before long Laure, Alek, Kali and I became an inseparable foursome. We divided our time between heated exchanges and exploratory walks. Always keen on making the most of our vacation, we could not miss one last attempt at genuine mountaineering before returning home. Our choice, a five-day trip to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi, the peak adjacent to the Mont Blanc, certainly fulfilled our expectations.

We set out from Champagny-le-Bas at dawn one morning, carrying with us all the necessary gear for roughing it in the mountains - everything, that is, except for a tent. On our way to the summit we slept nights up high, buried in piles of straw in the stables reserved for mules. At dawn we washed, in freezing conditions, in the cattle troughs. Most invigorating!

Surrounded by a breathtaking panorama, we kept climbing ever higher. One noteworthy feature of our expedition was scrambling up the glacier, above Chamonix, to visit the famous hut cut out of ice.

While the long days spent together trekking at the top of the world strengthened our friendship, inevitably, they also laid bare our foibles.

When Kali and I were alone together, he impressed me so much with his humanity and his intellectual prowess; yet, when the others were around, he promptly withdrew into his shell. He invariably kept the rear along the mountain path. Sometimes he disappeared from sight altogether. In the mornings he delayed us with his long shaving sessions. 'Tu te rases et tu nous rases, (You are shaving and you are boring us) was Alek's standard comment. (In French, raser means both 'to shave' and 'to bore'). Throughout the tour the contrast between the wholly introverted Kali and the often overbearing Alek could not have been more striking.

As the situation was becoming a little awkward, I felt a sigh of relief when we reached our target. Amidst the general jubilation, some temporary balance to our relations appeared to be restored.

We were richly rewarded for the strain of the final assent, by the awesome sight of the unending chains of snow-covered mountains that gleamed in the sun. The Mont Blanc crown, clear of cloud, dominated the landscape. Then, from a 'col' beneath the Aiguille du Midi, we had to take a cable car (teleferique) to the summit. We were overjoyed to reach the top, celebrating our feat with drinks. I still cherish the photos from that trip.

Another expedition, the biggest we made together with the Hepners, took us from Chambery to the magnificent Lac d'Annecy, set among high mountains. It owes its freezing, crystal clear water to the melting snows. In those pre-development times, the banks of the huge lake were free of human habitation so that nothing man-made interfered with the glory of nature. As we were unable to swim there, we hired a boat to better contemplate the stillness and the uniqueness of this wonder.

For some reason we had to stay overnight at Annecy. The accommodation in the township was so scarce that we were lucky to secure a single room with one bed in a small hotel. With no other option available, we decided to ignore the regulations which forbade multiple occupancy and squeezed into the room in a highly conspiratorial fashion. We somehow managed to sleep in there, packed like sardines and left undetected in the morning.


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