Hey there! This is my first Pianist story, 'The Idiot, Fiodor Dovstoiesky', it's just about a day of Henryk's life in the ghetto. Enjoy! =)
I glance around the living room, still half-asleep. Wladek and Papa are sleeping in their little beds, while I am wide awake. I know none of my family members will start with their day to day affairs until at least seven o'clock. I look at my worn leather belt watch, from the old times in which I was a writer. But now I know I can't do that for a living, I sell my books down in the streets. It feels like a sore pain in my chest whenever I sell one of them, my companions in dreams and adventures since I was a kid, but I don't know better than that. I sell very little anyway, and Mama and Papa need every single zloty me and my siblings earn from our jobs to keep on living.
Half past six.
I will never admit it, but I feel lucky about having a pianist brother. Were it not for Wladek, we would have very well starved to death by now. He's the one who brings real money to the Szpilman household, even if I don't like it. What does piss me about his job is the fact that he plays for the ghetto parasites, those who profit themselves from smuggling and don't give a damn about poor peoples' suffering. I always feel how my teeth clench and my knuckles go white when I see one of those so-called rich Jews walking around the ghetto, their heads up in a superiority menace and their eyes practically smirking at beggars for being poor.
Papa says it's because I'm a Socialist, but I can't help it.
I slowly get out of my bed and change into my usual outfit: a worn shirt and suspender pants, along with my always-present brown cap. Back when we lived outside the ghetto, I used to wear my hair well combed and with hair gel, but now I'm just a poor bookseller I wear what I can.
I look outside, it seems like it's going to be a cold day. It's January 1941. We've been trapped inside this mousetrap for three months. I sometimes think we will never leave, we will never trespass the ghetto's walls again. If only I had known...if only we had left Warsaw in time. That would have given us time. We would have gone to the north and we would have taken a boat to England. Wladek and I can handle English, and the others would learn quickly. We would live in peace, not in this hell we call our everyday life.
My stomach roars, but I prefer not to eat anything and save it for my family, they need it more than I do. I'm the youngest man in the family, after all. I'm twenty-four and I'm not growing. I might pluck some bread from a street baker later on. And of course I will not use my money to buy food for myself. I already gain little money – three zloty or less a day, probably – and I don't want to waste it on bread only I will enjoy.
I get the basket I use to carry all of my books, with exception of one of them: The Merchant of Venice. Why? Because it was the first Shakespeare play I ever read, back when I was thirteen, and because our situation – the situation of Jews oppressed by Nazis all over Poland and Germany – is very well described in one of Shylock's soliloques. I know it by heart from reading it so many times. As I look at Shakespeare's portrait on the old cover of my eleven-year-old paperback, I smile.
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?
Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions;
fed with the same food,
hurt with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases,
heal'd by the same means,
warm'd and cool'd
by the same winter and summer,
as a Christian is?
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest,
we will resemble you in that.
As I finish humming the soliloque once again, I, Henryk Szpilman, realize something. We must revenge. Jews must rebel against Nazis, take what is ours back and bring peace and equality back to our country. They are invasors, after all. They've wronged us for a year now, and I suspect they still will until someone stops him. And why shouldn't that someone be us, the Jews?
I shake my head. The part of me who's into politics and longs for the Jewish liberation, the one that usually gets me into trouble, tells me to do something about this oppressive situation, but my poet, writer part tells me war won't be eradicated with more war. As the two sides of my personality battle for a certain idea inside my brain, I try to focus on getting some of my books inside the basket. When I'm done, I grab hold of it carefully. It's heavy and too big for a single person to carry it, I don't know how I'm going to reach the big ghetto without any help. Wladek usually helps me when he finishes working at Cafe Stuzka, and every night tells me to wake him up in the morning to help me carry the books to the place I usually stand at. But I just don't want to bother my older brother. It's fun to think how he was the one who protected me back when we were kids, when now I'm the tougher one, while he's just a silent man who tries to play piano for a living.
I grab my jacket and my scarf from the chair I use as a hanger. I have a pair of gloves, but they're torn and some of the fingers are broken. Mama told me Halina and her would mend them in no time, but for the time being I have no gloves to wear for a tough day in the outside. We've never been through such a hard winter, without our usual coats, hats, gloves and scarves. The girls even have to share a coat, since Halina's got stolen from her hands by a beggar when she had taken it off in the entrance of a shop. Regina always scolds her for being so absent-minded, while Mama just sighs and says we'll save up some money for a new coat.
I'm about to start a long journey to the big ghetto. I try to catch a good hold of the basket, but it's hard. I hear the books inside moving slowly. I hope they aren't too noisy, because I don't want to wake up my family. As I approach the front door, I hear a voice that I immediatly recognize.
I turn around to find my brother Wladek with his green eyes wide open. His big hook nose lets out a heavy sigh, with the help of his mouth. He blinks a couple of times, and then yawns quietly.
"Go back to sleep," I hiss.
"I'll help you," he says. "You know it's too heavy for you to carry it all the way to the big ghetto."
"I've done it plenty of times," I answer, feeling rather offended. "I can handle it by myself."
"Hold on," Wladek doesn't seem to hear me, because he jumps out of bed and gets himself dressed into a shirt, pants, tie and his coat. He's lucky, he has a coat. I just have this stupid jacket. Oh, and look at that ridiculous tie. He wears it because the parasites of the ghetto want him to. Pathetic. And look at that hat! Does he want to pretend he's still rich or what? I think Wladek hasn't quite assumed we're poor now because –
"Ready?" my brother asks, grabbing hold of one of the sides of the basket.
I just grunt and nod. "But be quiet. I don't want Papa and Mama to wake up."
Wladek nods and smirks as we walk out of our house, "Sure thing, Henryk."
I must admit, my brother does help when it comes to carrying the book basket to the big ghetto. Well, four hands are stronger than two. Not that I'll tell him anyway.
"Thanks," I mumble as I open the basket.
"You're welcome," Wladek answers. "Do you want me to stay for a while? Yehuda's house is just ten minutes away from here and he expects me to be there at eight."
I shake my head. My brother has done enough for today. I'll spend the next nine hours standing in the snow, with two copies of random books in my hands, yelling for the public, "Dovstoieski! Shakespeare! Tolstoy! Kafka! Dickens! Dante Alighieri!" without anyone really paying attention to me, except from one or two wealthy teenagers and a couple of girls who would smirk at me – the bravest ones daring to wink an eye at me. Only a couple of elder men would approach and really pay attention to my books. Most of the days I didn't sell anything. Other times, I sold one book or two, although this was really rare. Selling three would be a of miracle. I'd never sold any more than two books the same day, and this had only happened once, one of the first days in the ghetto, after I quitted trying to get a good job and started sellings my books in the street. I firstly started in our ghetto, the small ghetto, but then I realized all of the small ghetto citizens travel around the big ghetto daily, whilst in the big ghetto there are many more inhabitants – usually poorer, but who says poverty denies literary hunger? – and I thought I would sell more books by travelling there every morning. I was partly right and, after three months, I was surprised to see I had only sold eighteen books. I had imagined I would ultimately run out of books, but seeing I've sold an average of eight books per month and considering the collection of more than two hundred books by joining all of our familiar cooking books, novels and essays (plus the books I've stolen from here and there), I think my bussiness will be running for a while until we get out of books. Still, I can't help but worry someday I'll run out of books and I won't have anything to do for a living.
I see a wealthy man approaching me, so I start yelling again.
"Dovstoiesky!" I cry. "The Idiot, by Fiodor Dovstoiesky!"
It's now five o'clock and I've only sold one book in ten hours I've been standing here. Fantastic. And it had to be The Idiot. I should have just torn the title off and stuck it to my head. I'm just an idiot for standing here doing nothing for hours, while I could be helping my family out of our pathetic situation. I grunt as I hold two new books in my hands: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri and The Prince by Nicolas Maquiavelo. Pedestrians don't even glance at me, even though I yell the titles and a variety of authors I have in my basket.
At twelve o'clock, for a so-called lunch, I plucked a glazed croissant from the baker in the other side of the street, not having any money with me. After enjoying a brief but stomach-fulling meal – over the past months I have learned to fill myself with as little food as possible – I went back to selling, and I finally found a young man, around the age of twenty years, who bought my The Idiot copy for three zloty. And that's all I've done for today.
I hold the books in my hands, wondering if any citizen of the ghetto will ever notice I'm standing there. Doesn't seem likely.
I watch how a familiar figure approaches me, waving in the middle of the crowd. I raise my hand too. It's Wladek. He must be done with his job for today, so I guess we'll be heading back home for diner.
"Hello, Henryk," he greets me as I place the two books inside the basket.
"Hi," I answer coldly. I bet he's been feeling warm all the day long, inside that lame cafe, while I've been freezing in the snowy street for hours without complaining.
Just as we always do, each of us picks up a side of the basket and we start carrying it back home in silence. None of us speaks, we don't need to, I don't want to. I just look to the front to make sure I don't trip over a dead corpse or get pushed by the flow of passengers and pickpocketers who are so usual in our ghetto.
"Have you sold anything today?" Wladek asks finally.
"Just one," I answer. "Dovstoiesky, The Idiot. Three zlotys."
I look to the front again and I can't see Wladek's face, but I know he's murmuring, "better than yesterday."
We reach the train railway. A train is passing by right now, so we're stopped by some Gestapo officials. If I hate anyone more than the ghetto parasites, that's the Gestapo. They're reckless with us, and wouldn't care less if we live or die. When we arrive, a man is mumbling to himself about how idiot Germans are. I have to agree with him in silence.
Then I watch in silence a shocking scene. Some Gestapo officials are looking at a couple of Jews with looks of grim and contempt, with their rifles in their hands. At one point, they order a young couple to start dancing to the music some street musicians are playing. They can't do anything but obey. I start to feel rather ticked off, and I feel Wladek's hand over my shoulder. I realize my knuckles have gone white.
"Calm down, Henryk," he tells me.
I shudder, but I stare at the scene. They're bringing a variety of couples to dance in front of them – to humilliate us, to wrong us. They hit them gently with their rifle as they chuckle in German, "Faster, Jew!" and they laugh at the dancing, humilliated Jews, pointing at the ones they consider the funniest. I have to close my eyes to prevent myself from yelling, screaming or punching someone.
When I open my eyes again, the train is gone and we're allowed to move once again.
When we arrive to our tiny house, both Wladek and I feel exhausted. We leave the book basket in the small, ridiculous hall and are soon met by Mama, who comes from the living room.
"Wladek, Henryk," she says as a greeting. "Itzak Heller is waiting for you."
Wladek and I share questioning glances, while Mama just shrugs and walks into the living room. We both walk inside and see Papa is standing next to the sofa, while Itzak Heller, chief of the Jewish Police of our ghetto, is sitting in our table, drinking some alcohol he's probably brought with him.
"What's happening?" I ask coldly. I've never liked Heller very much, nor do I like his Jewish Police.
"Boys, sit down," she tells us. "I'll go prepare some tea..."
Mama disappears inside the kitchen. I go to my chair and leave my hat, scarf and coat, and Wladek does the same. Then, I walk into the kitchen without even bothering to glance at Heller.
"Well, what are you here for?" I ask dryly.
Heller rolls his eyes and Papa stands there without saying anything.
"He's brought pastry," Papa tells us. "His father is back to the jewelry business... it's going well, right Itzak?"
Heller rolls his eyes at Papa, while Wladek just stands there in the doorway, not saying or doing anything at all. I get myself a glass of water from the kitchen and as I walk by Heller once again, he says, "We're recruiting people."
I sit down on the sofa and look at him blankly, stating that I don't really care about it. Me in the Jewish Police. Rather beg in the streets.
"Trains are coming from all over Poland bringing Jews from dozens of cities," he continues. "In no time, we'll be more than a million Jews in the ghetto. We need more Jewish policemen."
I look at the ceiling with a sarcastic smile in my face.
"Ah, I see," I say, my voice dripping with sarcasm. "You want me to beat up Jews and catch the Gestapo spirit."
"Someone has to do it," Heller replies, shrugging.
"But why me?" I ask. "I thought you only recruited boys from rich families. I mean, look at me, look at us..."
"Yes, I've thought of you, that's why I came," Itzak Heller replies, his brow now furrowed. "Your family could have a better life. Do you want to keep living from the books you sell in the streets?"
I take a long sip from my glass water and give Heller another long, sarcastic smile.
"Yes, please," I ask, sarcasm filling my vocal chords once more.
Heller scoffs, "I'm trying to do you a favor." As he sees I'm a lost cause, he turns over to Wladek with a persuading smile. "What about you, Wladek? You're a great pianist. In the police we have a jazz band, and I'm sure they'd love you to join them. Come on, sign up. You don't have a job."
"Thanks," my brother answers, always so polite. "But I do have a job."
Itzak Heller looks at us with exasperation written in his face. He just shakes his head and gets his cap, and storms out of our house. I sit in the sofa, taking long sips from my glass of water, while Wladek stands in the doorway. Papa turns at me and furrows his brow angrily.
"Why have you done that, Henryk?" he asks. "You shouldn't have been so rude to Itzak. He's offered you a job! Weren't you looking for one?"
"Not that type of job, Papa," I say. "Not that type of job."
Papa sighs and just walks into the kitchen, exasperated. Wladek sits next to me and stares at the wall.
"You did well, Henryk, no matter what Papa tells you," he assures me. "You're a good man, you won't go around beating up people..."
I nod as I leave the glass of water aside. I release a long, peaceful sigh.
After this conversation with Heller, selling books in the streets for the rest of my life does seem like a tempting option.