Marie’s New Coat

I’ve had a bunch of posts for the long-discontinued Sweet Saturday Samples bloghop sitting around in my drafts folder since 2012 and 2013, put together and scheduled well in advance. That hop seems to be on permanent hiatus, but I wanted to move them out already.

This post was originally scheduled for 31 August 2013, and comes from an older, unedited version of this WIP.

***

This week’s excerpt comes from a hiatused WIP called The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. The book follows a group of young Shoah survivors returning to the world of the living and trying to navigate their way through the early postliberation years. This particular scene takes place in Budapest in November 1945, shortly before nine of the characters are to be smuggled across the border, with another going on a train with their pet mouse and rabbit, before the Soviets completely take over.

While they were at a furrier’s on the famous Andrássy Út recently, the hopelessly smitten Artur secretly bought a fur coat for his crush Marie after he saw her admiring it. Marie’s main character trait is how sweet, innocent, and naïve she still is, even after everything she’s gone through. Just as she truly believes her entire family might still be alive, she really has no idea her secret admirer is so close to her. And Artur is afraid to tell her how he feels.

***

The next day, while Csilla was cutting up a blanket and starting to fashion it into a coat for herself, a knock sounded on the door.  Half-fearing it was someone from the authorities who’d discovered their plan, or someone who’d found out there were fourteen people living in an apartment meant for only four at most, she tiptoed to the door and looked through the keyhole.  A strange man was standing there with a box.

“I work for Szűcs Furs on Andrássy Út and was asked to deliver this package to a young woman living in this apartment.  I didn’t want to send it through the mail for fear the Soviets might confiscate it for their own.  Is there a woman named Maria in this house?”

“We have a Marie, if that’s who you’re looking for.  Her surname is Sternglass.”

Marie came up to the deliveryman. “Yes, that’s my name on the package.  Who is it from, and who would know that my middle name is Zénobie?”

“There’s a note inside the box that might explain it.  Enjoy the gift.” He tipped his hat and went back down the stairs.

Marie carefully opened the box and saw a note on top, written in Hungarian.  Her command of written Hungarian was even weaker than her command of the spoken language, so she called Eszter over to translate it.

“It says, ‘To the beautiful Marie from her secret admirer.’” Eszter gave Artur a meaningful look out of the corner of her eye. “I wonder who could have sent it, particularly since you don’t know anybody outside of our own little group.”

“This is so exciting!  Maybe it’s a handsome young fellow who saw me in the street the other day, or any time since we’ve been here!  I hope he’s tall, dark, and handsome.  It would be so romantic if he were a sophisticated man of the world as well.  Someone who’s my age would never be so romantic and thoughtful.  I bet it’s an older man.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Eszter said, giving Artur another furtive look.

Marie pulled away the tissue paper. “What a beautiful coat!  I think I was admiring this coat yesterday more than any of the others!  It stood out in the store because it was so exotic.  None of the other furs had prints or exotic colors.  Is it leopard?”

“The furrier told me it was ocelot when I admired it myself,” Mirjam said. “Looks like whoever is secretly admiring you wants you to keep warm as the winter begins.”

“Oh, if I only knew just who this suave mystery man is, I’d kiss and embrace him right now!  I hope it really is someone tall, dark, handsome, and older, not some middle-aged ugly fat social reject.”

“That is a beautiful coat,” Aranka said. “You’ll surely stand out when we get to Italy.”

“Pierre will be so happy and surprised when he sees me again and sees I’ve become a young lady, someone old enough for furs and such a beautiful elegant coat.  If my mother and sister are still alive, they’ll be so happy too, and impressed I caught the eye of this mystery man.”

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Top Ten Tuesday—Books with sensory reading memories

Top Ten Tuesday, formerly hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Books with Sensory Reading Memories (i.e., linked to very specific memories).

1. The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse. I was reading this when my family left NY in August ’96, and it went into storage at my maternal grandparents’ house with almost everything else we owned. When I picked it back up in 2003 or 2004, I kept the bookmark in the place it’d been all those years ago, as a reminder of that depressing time.

Interestingly, that bookmark is one I left in a library book about Tad Lincoln, and got back when I checked the book out of the library again at thirteen. I knew that was my bookmark, and no one had taken it in all those years!

2. The Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu (Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation). This was one of the few things I had during my junior year of high school, 1996–97, while we lived with my paternal grandparents. My relationship with that book of ancient Chinese wisdom was forged in fire. It got me through a lot of tough times. Just smelling the pages takes me back to that dark period.

3. Anything by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, my favourite writer and one of my heroes. Each and every book, story collection, play, or prose poem takes me back to the time I first read it.

4. The Play of God, Devi Vanimali. I read this beautiful book about Lord Krishna in summer 2002, while my parents and little brother were at Cape Cod. I was sick to death of that place, and decided to stay home. It was so hot, I had to go into my parents’ room for the AC unit at night. We didn’t have central AC.

5. The Lives of John Lennon, Albert Goldman. This book is absolute garbage, but I have so many memories of being a naïve 14-year-old who believed everything she read, and eating this crap up every time I went to a library or bookstore, until I finally checked it out in late ’94 to finish reading it at my own leisure.

6. Upon the Head of the Goat, Aranka Siegal. Not only was this the book that started my Magyarphilia, but it was one of the books I read that spring of ’95 that awakened my Jewish soul. When Piri and Iboya are being threatened by anti-Semitic bullies, I felt afraid and threatened myself.

7. Pretty much any book I read during the 11 months I couldn’t walk, from August 2003–July 2004. How could one not remember being so immobile and helpless?

8. Related to #1, pretty much everything by Hermann Hesse. I have so many memories of the first time I read each of his books, starting with Demian at age 14–15. He was the first real adult author I read, and became my next-fave writer.

9. Beatlesongs, William Dowlding. My receipt from June ’94 is still in it. That was a very happy trip to Borders. A TV in another room upstairs was playing Help!

10. Isabella: From Auschwitz to Freedom, by Isabella Leitner (originally published in two volumes, Fragments of Isabella and Saving the Fragments). Hands-down the most haunting, memorable book I’ve ever read. It was only upon rereading it as an adult that I realised how sparse the supporting details and backstory are. It’s driven by emotions, this story of four (later, sadly, three) sisters who survived for one another, because of one another.

I’ve since listened to, watched, and read a number of interviews with Isabella and her surviving siblings (now all deceased). They filled in so many blanks I was curious about, and often left me wondering why some pretty important details were omitted, like the fact that there were twin boys who died at eight months, not just five sisters and a token brother.

Meet some of the people in my alternative history, Part III

Here are a few of the other real people who appear as characters in my alternative history, whom I haven’t already featured. Not everyone is from the Russian Imperial Family!

Captain Aleksandr Aronovich Pecherskiy (22 February 1909–19 January 1990) was born in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, and grew up in Rostov-na-Donu. He earned a diploma in literature and music, and worked as an accountant and manager of an amateur musicians’ school, and as an electrician at a train repair plant. He served in the army from 1931–33.

The day the war began, he was drafted as a junior lieutenant, and served with the 596th Howitzer Artillery Regiment. In autumn 1941, he saved his wounded commander from capture, but didn’t get any medals for his bravery.

He was captured in October 1941, and suffered with typhus for seven months. He and four other POWs escaped, but were recaptured that same day. They went to a penal camp and then a POW camp, where it was discovered he was circumcised. He admitted he was Jewish, knowing he’d be whipped for lying.

Severe punishments and several other POW camps followed. He ended up in Sobibór, where he organized and led the revolt and mass escape of 14 October 1943. After serving with two partisan groups, he reunited with the Red Army, and was promoted to Captain. He was wounded in Latvia in August 1944.

During the last years of Stalin’s reign, he lost his job, was briefly arrested, and was unable to find new employment. The Soviet government prevented him from testifying at several trials of Nazi war criminals abroad.

For his courage, he has received four medals (two posthumous), and many other awards and honors.

In my alternative history, Captain Pecherskiy and 50 other Jewish partisans, mostly escapees from camps and ghettoes, arrive at the Aleksandr Palace in September 1944 to petition Aleksey and Arkadiya to create all-Jewish regiments in the Imperial Russian Army. He becomes commander of an eponymous infantry regiment, and receives many medals and honors after the war.

King Mihai (Michael) of Romania (25 October 1921–5 December 2017) was the last king of Romania, and the last true surviving WWII head of state. He was the son of the repulsive King Carol II and Queen Mother Elena (née Princess Eleni of Greece and Denmark); grandson of King Konstantinos I of Greece and King Ferdinand and Queen Marie of Romania; great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria and Tsar Aleksandr II; great-great-great-grandson of Tsar Nicholas I.

Soon after Mihai’s birth, his sleazy father was embroiled in yet another scandalous relationship, and renounced his claim to the throne. Mihai became king in 1927, after Ferdinand’s death, with a regency including his uncle Nicolae.

Carol returned to Romania in 1930, and refused to reconcile with his wife. He forced her out of the country and only let her see Mihai a few months a year, on his own terms. After Carol abdicated in September 1940, Mihai became king again.

Mihai frequently suffered bouts of depression, feeling he were too young and inexperienced to be king, and upset at being treated like a pathetic figurehead by the ruling fascists and Germans passing through. His mother provided teachers to shape him into a strong, active king, and urged him to depose the fascist Prime Minister Ion Antonescu.

She also made him to understand he had to take a stand against Jewish deportations, or risk going down in history as King Mihai the Wicked. He listened to his mother (who posthumously was honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations).

In June 1944, Mihai began secret talks with members of the opposition, to discuss overthrowing Antonescu. His successful coup in August turned Romania to the Allies and shortened the war by as much as six months. Sadly, the Soviets forced him to abdicate in December 1947.

In 1948, Mihai married Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma, with whom he had five daughters and enjoyed 68 years of marriage.

In my alternative history, Mihai and Nicolae secretly come to Russia in June 1944 to discuss the planned defection and overthrow of Antonescu. He returns in August for the belated baptism of Aleksey and Arkadiya’s surprise fifth child Shura and their nephew Oleg. It means a lot to him that Aleksey, who also came into a throne at a very young age, says he believes in him. Good kings are gradually made, not instantly created.

Juno Beach and the Jewish Hospital of Lublin

Calm after the storm, Copyright Jebulon

Juno Beach is one of the five beaches which was used for the heroic Normandy landings of D-Day, 6 June 1944. The battles were mostly fought by Canadians, with some British support, and servicemen from the Free French Forces and the Royal Norwegian Navy.

The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division got further inland than any other landing force.

Copyright Nitot

The main objectives were to seize the Carpiquet Airfield, cut the Caen-Bayeux road, create a link between Gold and Sword Beaches on either side of Juno, and reach the Caen-Bayeux railway line by nightfall.

Germany’s 716th Division and 21st Panzer Division put up a brutal fight, due to preliminary bombardments’ lacking success. Bad weather also delayed the first landings till 7:35 AM.

The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles were among the companies who suffered devastating casualties during the brutal first minutes of the first landing wave.

Copyright Ordifana75

Juno was initially code-named Jellyfish, since the British beaches were Swordfish and Goldfish (shortened to Sword and Gold). It was changed because Winston Churchill felt Jelly a highly inappropriate name for a place in which so many might be killed.

Copyright Joestapl

Though none of the objectives were achieved, the Juno Beach landing ranks up there with Utah Beach as the most strategically-successful of the five D-Day landings. In spite of the terrible early casualties, most of the coastal defences were cleared within two hours.

Only the equivalent of one full German battalion remained by nightfall. The Canadians also destroyed or captured 80% of the Germans’ divisional artillery.

Those who want more details on the order of battle, preparations, preliminary bombardments, and the landings can check out the links and books listed at the end of this section. I don’t want to go back to routinely having posts over 1,500 words!

Copyright Jebulon

My character Yuriy Yeltsin-Tsvetkov is among the Canadians landing at Juno Beach. Since he’s a medic and not initially allowed to be armed, making it all the way across the beach and into town safely is a much more perilous ordeal.

The day after the invasion, Yuriy returns to the beach to catalogue and bury the dead. Strewn among the dead are a few who haven’t succumbed to their wounds yet, including one guy who played dead because he was confused and scared, and made his own tourniquet.

The entire beach is pervaded by an eerie, unnatural silence, as though yesterday never happened.

Further reading:

The Juno Beach Centre
Juno Beach – The Canadians On D-Day
“No Ambush, No Defeat”
“Canadian Participation in the Operations in North-West Europe, 1944: Part 1”
Valour on Juno Beach, T.R. Fowler, 1994
D-Day: Juno Beach, Canada’s 24 Hours of Destiny, Lance Goddard, 2004

The Jewish Hospital of Lublin, on 81 (formerly 53) Lubartowska Street, was inaugurated in 1886. The two-story building in the Old City was designed by architect Marian Jarzyński in Neo-Romanesque style.

Initially, it had 56 beds, but grew to 100. By the 1930s, it was Poland’s most modern, state-of-the-art hospital. It was well-known outside of Lublin, and employed many renowned specialists.

By the 1930s, the hospital also had a stable, three guesthouses for patients’ loved ones, a mortuary, a cellar, and a synagogue.

On 27 March 1942, the occupying Germans took the most seriously ill patients to the Jewish cemetery and murdered them. The other patients and medical staff were murdered in Niemce forest. For the rest of the war, the building was a Wehrmacht hospital.

In 1949, the building was given to Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, and started a new life as an OBGYN clinic.

The building today, Copyright Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Source

My character Inessa Zyuganova is taken to this hospital by her expatriate cousin Matviyko after she and her children escape the USSR in June 1937. While they were wading across the creek-like River Bug which forms part of the border between Poland and Belarus, the NKVD shot Inessa in the leg.

Vitya Zhirinovskiy, her old friend Inna’s little brother, shot all five of the NKVD goons to protect his baby Damir, whom Inessa has been wetnursing. At the hospital, he has to be reassured no one’s going to circumcise Damir!

Lublin is the closest major city to border town Włodawa, and Matviyko previously took his youngest child Maja there for heat rash during a summer holiday. He prefers Jewish doctors to Christian doctors.

Drancy

My IWSG post is here.


Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B10919 / Wisch / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Drancy was an internment camp in a northeastern Parisian suburb of the same name, in use through 20 August 1941–17 August 1944. It began life as La Cité de la Muette (The Silent City), a luxury high-rise, U-shaped apartment complex, among the first of its type in France.

Instead, it was taken over as police headquarters at the start of WWII, and then turned into a transit camp. An estimated 70,000 people passed through during its four years of operation.

Only 1,542 survivors were found when the Allies liberated it.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B10920 / Wisch / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Over time, Drancy grew to include five sub-camps. Initially, it was run by French police, but the Germans took over on 3 July 1943. In spite of the change in command, French police continued to arrest people and bring them to Drancy.

The vast majority of detainees were Jewish, but there was a very small percentage of political prisoners. Most of the latter were in the French Resistance.

Drancy was only designed to hold 700 people, but it housed 7,000 at its height. Many survivors testified to the brutality of the French guards, and how children were immediately separated from their families.

Some Drancy prisoners were killed in retaliation for French attacks on the occupying Germans.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B10917 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Sixty-eight of the seventy-nine deportations of French Jews (with a small minority of political prisoners mixed in) set out from Drancy, starting 27 March 1942. All but six went to Auschwitz. The other destinations were Majdanek, Sobibór, Kaunas, Tallinn, and Buchenwald.

Of the 73,853 known deportees, 46,802 were gassed upon arrival. Only 913 women and 1,647 men were known to survive by 1945.

Copyright Reinhardhauke

Famous internees included artist and writer Max Jacob (who died in Drancy), Dutch painter Max van Dam, writer Tristan Bernard, choreographer René Blum, and German artist Charlotte Salomon.

After the war, survivors filed charges against fifteen of the French gendarmes who ran Drancy. Ten were put on trial, three of whom fled before proceedings began. The other seven insisted they were just following orders, in spite of the numerous testimonies about their brutality.

All ten were found guilty, though the court ruled they’d been rehabilitated by “acts of active, effective, and sustained participation in Resistance against the enemy.” Two of them were sentenced to two years of prison and five years of national indignity. After one year, they were pardoned.

Copyright Ykmyks

In 1976, sculptor Shelomo Selinger (now 89 years old), a Polish-born Shoah survivor, unveiled a three-part rose granite memorial which was two years in the making. There’s also an authentic railcar on permanent display.

Disgustingly, on 20 January 2005, anti-Semites set some of the railcars on fire and left a tract with an swastika, signed “Bin Laden.” On 11 April 2009, a swastika was painted on the remaining railcar.

Source

Source

My characters Darya Koneva and Oliivia Kalvik are taken to Drancy after participating in an anti-Nazi protest in Paris in October 1942. They’re among the very small minority of non-Jewish political prisoners.

During their three weeks in Drancy, Darya and Oliivia sleep on wet straw and a hard wooden mattress, with only a thin blanket, and eat lousy rations. Drancy makes Darya long for her early years in a Lower East Side tenement.

As soon as they get the opportunity, they volunteer for transport to the mythical Pitchipoi they keep hearing about. On 4 November, their journey to Hell begins, and they discover Pitchipoi doesn’t exist. Auschwitz is referred to as not-Pitchipoi, Planet Pitchipoi, and Pitchipoi 99% of the time, both in the text and Darya and Oliivia’s speech.

When Darya’s future husband Andrey asks about this, she says it’s her way of dealing with that ugliness and evil. If she doesn’t use the real name, she won’t be confronted by cruel reality.