čtvrtek 16. května 2013

Tribute to Muška

All Goes Wrong

Muška, 1938, Kolín (Czechoslovakia)

There are names that will never cease to fascinate me. Muška - Little Fly (her original name was Karoline Weigner). That of Muškas is precisely one of them.I would picture her as a petite, fragile girl. That was my very first image of her. Zuzana talked about Muška most often. These two girls would uplift each other on their way through life. When I see them in photographs, they always stand next to each other, like sisters. 

I can only speculate about Muška’s  experiences. Although there is tangible evidence – school report cards, signed forms, train passes – these are mere fractions of her story.

Zuzana, Muška, Věra and Edita, Czech girls in Denmark during wartim

The town of Kolín. An apartment overlooking a quiet road. Muška knows exactly where her place is and where it will always be. Family – school – family – life goes on in its repetitive cycle. Muška is the one who stands apart, unlike her older sister Máša. Her radiant, sociable sister is passionate about theatre and has lots of friends. One can only admire her and bow one’s head. Life just goes on around Muška and she goes with the flow. She goes to school; when she has to leave it, she enrolls in the aliyah school. She is too weak to resist; in fact she is happy she will get away. She is leaving her home which does not feel like home at all. Perhaps it is good that she is going so far away from her father who neglects them, and from her constantly miserable mother. Muška is happy about going with Zuzka and others. She could never do this alone, ever. Loneliness scares her. Occasionally, she has moments when she wonders what would happen if she ceased to exist. In fact, she thinks about this quite often. Noone would miss her. Noone would even notice that she is not here.  

When they are on the train to Denmark, she watches the girls sitting across from her. How she longs to be just like them. Chatting away, laughing. She views herself as impossible, awkward, not knowing what to say and how. They spend one night in Copenhagen and they continue to Næstved. The little piece of paper in her hand says: the Kehlers. She asks for directions and eventually finds an impressive villa, knocks on the door, holding her breath. The door opens and out comes a gentleman and a lady with two children. They all rush to her, asking her all kinds of questions. She does not understand anything; she can only make out one or two words sounding like German: “food,” “journey.” She watches these people trying to help her and realizes that this might be the first time that strangers have attempted to help her. She is happy to see their little children. Lisa is three, Knud is five. She feels so at ease around them; she understands their world so much better than that of adults. When she first held Lisa in her arms, all she felt was closeness and pure joy. There was no need to speak, they just held each other. She knew this was her world.

A year has passed quickly, followed by another, then another one. Muška prefers not to think about her home in Kolín or what is happening there. She is too shy, too ashamed. Her foster parents ask her: “What about your parents?” She does not want to talk about them; there is no point. She thinks of Mommy who wipes her hands on her apron, looks down and sits at the kitchen table. It is evening and again  father is not at home. Mommy looks out of the window, silent and yet telling so much. So many times Muška wanted to grab her hand and say: “Mommy, dear, we have to leave him.” But she was never able to do so. She was too weak. Only Máša managed to escape; she got married and moved to Brno. Hopefully she is doing fine. At least, someone.

But Muška is in Denmark and things are very different now. The postman comes every other day. She never asks him, knowing that no more letters from Czechoslovakia are going to arrive. She has been waiting for so long, thinking that perhaps it was due to censorship. Perhaps the Nazis are retaining all the mail from Czechoslovakia. Perhaps…

She thinks of 1945 when she left Sweden and returned to Czechoslovakia. She could have stayed, nothing would have changed. She could have stayed with the Swedish family as a governess but she wanted to go back home. To see things with her own eyes. To find out what had happened. To see and to understand. 

Muška in Sweden, 1944

At the train station in Prague, she does not know where to go. Of course, she knows her way around but to whom to go? Whom to ask? Thousands  of people  on their suitcases, sitting, waiting, and still waiting. Someone advised her to go to the Red Cross office. The office is in a large theater building. A large theater hall with long corridors. The walls are covered with lists. Long lists are hanging everywhere. New lists are being added. There is no end to it. Someone’s hands keep adding new lists. Muška follows the column of names with her finger. Some are crossed out, some added in haste. She reads carefully: Weiniger, Wertheimer, Abeles, Rosenkranz, Petschek, Petschek. A whole family, one name after another. The whole next-door house in Kolín. Weigner, Weigner, Davidová, née Weignerová. Shereads again and again She can no longer see the names. She has noone, noone in the whole world! The names on paper are saying it out loud. She could not stop the tears running down her cheeks. In that moment, she felt that this was the end. No matter how she hated Kolín, no matter how she hated the weakness in her family, no matter… She would not want this to happen, to be alone, with just those names for company. She did not want… She could have felt angry for what her father had done to them but… She remained silent. Silent in herself. She finds a bit of room and sits down in the corner, with her head on her knees, silent. She cannot cry anymore. She is now completely alone.

Yes, she still has Zuzka and her husband Arna but they have each other. They have found an apartment and are furnishing it. They do not even have a bed but they have each other. I have noone!

Summer 1945 feels like bitter irony. Muška hates this summer, resenting all those enjoying themselves, resenting the shining sun. She has no reason to laugh, she has to support herself. The Jewish Community gave her some money to get her over the first weeks. She has had a coat and skirt made. She has found a place to live. Slowly she is learning to live this new life. She is on her own. One day she opens a newspaper with a job ad: “Looking for a governess. Two foreign languages required.” These sentences immediately cheer her up. This must work out! 

The ambassador’s residence is in a two-story villa. A polite doorman welcomes her:  “Come in, Madam.” She climbs the stairs. A soft, dark carpet leads to the drawing room. “I have read your references and I think they suffice. Gunesh is three years old and I am sure you will get on fine. When can you start?” the ambassador asks.

This is like a dream. Muška walks out into the fresh spring air, goes down the street and thinks: Tomorrow, tomorrow!

She has only brought a small suitcase with her. She packed her things the usual way: a comb, a belt, a pair of shoes, two dresses, a pleated skirt, two blouses. All her worldly possessions. She makes herself at home in the residence. There are three children: Gunesh, the youngest, his sister Laila, and young lady Aisha. Gunesh is her giggler. They go for walks together, ride the trams. She feels like a young mother, proud of her boy. They went downtown the other day, had ice-cream and looked out of the window on the first floor. People were rushing to work, checking their watches nervously when trams were running late. She had all the time in the world. With Gunesh she can do anything. She is the mistress of her time. This suits her just fine.

Muška with Gunesh, Prague, 1949

Once a week she has a day off. She pops over to Zuzka’s, who is run off her feet, washing diapers, feeding the little one, cooking lunch. It is her routine. Muška sits in the kitchen, never finishing her cup of coffee. She listens, watches Zuzka cope with everything. She has always admired this confidence of hers. Now Muška is confident, too. She has a good job, a decent place to live. What else could she ask for? Perhaps getting out of Czechoslovakia, going to America to see her aunt. She has enrolled in English classes, bought two textbooks, a dictionary and a notebook. The beginnings are hard, new vocabulary is getting mixed with Danish and German. It is a bit of a mess but also fun, learning something new. Aunt from America writes impatiently: “When are you coming?” How to explain that it is not so easy to just pack up and leave. Everything is much more complicated. She needs a travel permit, a passport, another permit, forms, guarantees. And connections, of course. But schmoozing was never Muška’s strength.  Just flatter the official, give him a coquettish smile! No, she could never do this, even though it is the only way to improve her circumstances.

Last week the ambassador invited her to his study. It was evening, the room was dark, lit just by a streetlamp. He sounded unusually serious. “We have to leave; soon we are going away. Perhaps you could come with us?” Is it a question, is it an offer? She felt like exclaiming: “Yes, of course!” She was touched by someone’s caring, willing to help her. She could hardly go to sleep that evening. Is this even possible that this is  happening? In the morning she sees the preparations, the ambassador’s wife is directing everything as usual; the ambassador has left, all this was too unnerving for him. In a day or two they will be gone. She will be as free as a bird, flying out into the world.

In the morning Muška is ready, all her things packed, her suitcase by the door of her room. She knocks on the ambassador’s door. Silence. Once more knock, this time a bit impatient. She gathers all her courage and opens the door. The room is empty. The desk is empty, the ashtray clean. Everything is perfectly tidy. She runs down the corridor, rushes down the stairs. The doorman, as composed as ever, is there. “Where are they?!” Muška asks. He sounds evasive, not wanting to talk. “Where are they?!!” Muška shouts, not knowing where the angry voice has come from. The anger wants to come out. Why have they left without her?

She began to write letters, one each day. She put paper in the typewriter, straightened it and began to type, quickly, with two fingers. One word, then another, and another.

“Dear Zuzka,
I have tried it again. There was noone, I had the place to myself. The gas would not come on. Please pick up my coat from the drycleaner’s and keep it. Here is the receipt.”

“Dear Zdenka,
keep the money in the envelope. Please, return my train pass.”

A tidy table. A tidy life. One morning she sat down in the fancy kitchen at the embassy, turned the oven knob and waited. The heavy, sweet smell began to fill the room. Gas.

In the morning the cleaning lady unlocked the door and smelled something strange. She wanted to peek into the kitchen. She had to push the door hard. Once it flew open, she saw the girl. She was lying on the ground. “Pepa! Hurry!” she called for the doorman, frightened. “What’re we going to do?” Let’s wait, we have to tell someone. The secretary is coming in half an hour. Before the secretary can come upstairs, the doorman breaks the terrible news. What are they to do? The secretary knows immediately. This shouldn’t  have happened, this may cause serious trouble. A dead young girl in their house? That would be a scandal; that cannot be. “Carry her to her room!” he commands.

For three days Muška was lying in her room. She was on the other side already, overhearing the noises from a distance. The ambulance siren -- then silence.

Muška’s letters fell into my lap from her folder in the Jewish Museum. I had very little time that day. Half an hour perhaps. Once I opened the letters, time ceased to exist. I was holding her farewell letters. Her cries  for help, which she did not want to be heard. I was holding her words, feeling her fingertips typing them. I could not read on. I put the letters back in the folder. So much sorrow in those rational sentences. I could not bear so much determination. After a week I talked to Zuzana who told me how the embassy staff let Muška die alone. I felt so angry. Once Muška’s life gained meaning, when she finally had a chance to leave, everything went wrong in a single moment. I was so angry at the people who failed to help this fragile girl, angry at their disgusting hypocrisy: for them she was just a street girl.

A few weeks later I went to Kolín to a gathering of transport survivors. 2200 Jews from Kolín had died. If I put it cynically, those people were killed by what was being made just a few meters from their homes. Zyklon B from the Kolín chemical factory was used in Auschwitz to destroy theirs and thousands other lives. On my way from the station, I am passing by crowds of people who are all heading to one particular school in the suburb. In this building the Jews from Kolín spent their last moments before being taken east. All the narrow corridors were crowded then. Today the building is also packed. Children are reading out the stories of individual Jewish children from Kolín. “My name is Ervín and I am eight years old,” a boy reads aloud, he might just be eight himself. Perhaps he realizes now that his life is merging with that of Ervín’s years ago.

Journey to former Muška´s home in Kolín

A commemorative plaque is being unveiled; the rabbi is carrying the Kolín Torah. The crowd moves on, I can hear a mixture of languages: Czech, German, Hebrew, English. We meet again in the cemetery. I look at the shiny black surface with Muška’s name: Karoline Weigner.  I must bow. I pay my respects to a girl who could not really get away.

This story is written by Judita Matyasova
This story is excerpt from my Czech book, which will be published in autumn 2013. For more details have a look on my website: www.czechsophieschoice.com

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