When I think about Adela… I think about Andzia, Saodat and Saryu. And about raspberry juice

by Krystyna Krauze, directorPrague, Czech Republic, 2012

When I think about Adela, I get into a state of blissful nostalgia for a world that has irrevocably passed and was suddenly swept away by gales of history. I feel the heavy breath of still July air, the smell of ripe cherries and apricots laid out in epergnes that remember better times with playful and light shapes. Undressed goddesses encourage me to reach for the lush fruits of nature, which want to reward us for the time of cold and rain when we were eagerly looking for the first signs of the approaching spring. A spring that galloped away in the sound of twittering birds, busily searching for partners for their summer days. Uncertainly pushing out swollen buds, it exploded suddenly with the fury of greenness and colourful flowers. And summer is already here. Heavy and hot – soft, devoid of the sounds of hard work. Huge jars of stewed fruit and liqueur placed on window sills lazily admire themselves in the window panes. In the dimness of drawing rooms protected from the heat of outside world with heavy curtains, the white of lacy tablecloths arranged evenly on massive tables stands out. This was the world where Adela was the undisputed queen. In my youthful imagination, she was round like a ripe pear, stocky like an oak tree, talkative like a mother hen and present in every corner of the apartment described by the author of The Cinnamon Shops. Thanks to her, this idyllic world teemed with life and functioned perfectly like the Patek watch of my Grandfather Longin. And suddenly, this ideal picture of the old time also crumbled: this time quietly and with surprise. After many years, I took up the required reading and read with bafflement: “Full of huge wardrobes, deep sofas, pale mirrors and tacky fake palm trees, our apartment was falling into neglect as a result of the tardiness of mother spending her time in the shop and the carelessness of the slender-legged Adela, who, unsupervised by anybody, spent her time on extended toilet activities, leaving traces everywhere in the form of brushed out hair, combs, discarded shoes and corsets.” So that’s how it was… Adela was the figment of my imagination, looking for certain fixed rules of existence. The Adela who, like Master Grisha from Okudzhava’s song, was supposed to be the guarantee of duration and the functioning of a complex organism inhabited by members of Schulz’s household, suddenly turned out to be a person who was too complicated to ensure the security of this image. She was no longer a warm matron, soft in touch, who can be entrusted with any youthful secret. Abruptly, she turned into a mysterious chimera who spread her tentacles throughout the entire house, from the cellars to the attic inhabited by birds and who cast a spell on poor Father. What was the new Adela like? Why did she need shoes and corsets if the old Adela was deprived of any erotic colouring by the indestructible column of order? Who was seduced by her legs in silk stockings? Who took off these shoes from her slender feet? Who undid the hook and eye of her corsets with fingers sweaty from exasperation? Father? Shop assistants? Or a clerk from another part of town cheating on his wife? What were her purposes when she claimed power over Bruno’s imagination? Suddenly, my thoughts started to expand in ever widening circles, Adela was assuming traits well known from the novels of Nałkowska, Rodziewiczówna and Samozwaniec… At one point, I sobered up: “Stop!” I am a documentalist; I work with reality and not with imagination. I work with an image, not with a description. I started to look for traces of people resembling Schulz’s heroine in my memory and in every-day life.

“Adela left for America. It was said that the ship on which she sailed sunk and all passengers died. We have never verified this gossip; there was no more news about the girl. A new era started: empty, sober, without joy – white as paper. The new servant, Gienia…” And now, when I think about Adela, the first word that comes to mind is: servant. And when I think “servant” a whole series of family stories about Manias, Józias, Kasias and Wiesias who marched through one-hundred years of Grandma Wanda’s life comes to mind. The most prominent is Adela. A Ukrainian girl who saved her Polish employers leading them across the border to General-Gouvernement. This is how they escaped from the estate located near Lviv, seized by the Soviets. In the occupied Warsaw, they found modest shelter in the house of their relative, and sipping their tea every day, they devised plans about going back to the Polish eastern frontier and listened to the news from the front lines of a fighting Europe. Unfortunately, there was no room for Andzia in the host’s apartment, yet thanks to social contacts and human solidarity, she found a roof over her head with the wife of an officer who was locked in an Oflag from the beginning of the war and her two children. This was Grandma Wanda, who, absorbed by various activities enabling her survival in the occupied capital, entrusted Andzia with the fate of her children and the apartment. Andzia returned the favour as best as she could. The children loved her boundlessly. She participated in their games, arguments and, being Orthodox, she prepared them for the Catholic first communion. She spent a few years with her new family, from time to time remembering with sadness the beautiful meadows in the bends of the Dnepr River. Sporadically, she would sing melodic dumkas and tell stories about her distant relatives left in some village. She was an orphan, brought up by her aunt who gave the sixteen-year-old girl up for service a year before the war… And suddenly, again in the summer, the uprising started. On the first of August, Andzia with the nine-year-old Marysia was visiting friends in Mokotów. Fighting made it impossible for them to return to Śródmieście, where Grandma Wanda was left with the other child. And so, the Ukrainian girl lost in the insurgent city, became the only carer of my future mother. I cannot imagine how they managed to live for several weeks without any money. After a month of fighting and a few days spent at the Pruszków camp, they set off on a journey into the unknown in a cattle truck. After a while, the train stopped at the station in Skierniewice – the dead and the sick were carried out. In the doctor who tended to sick, Adela recognized a family friend and started to beg for help. She knew that the family of her employer lived in the town. Doctor Stawski only managed to get Marysia out, who was taken to the house of her grandmother and my great-grandmother. Andzia travelled further – nobody knew that the final station had the ominous name: Ravensbruck. This was the time when Marysia saw her rescuer for the last time; after the end of the uprising, she met with her mother and brother, who were lucky to have survived this hell, and directed their first steps to… Skierniewice. After the war, the family settled in Gdańsk and it would be possible to end this sad story here, if it did not get any sadder… In the autumn of 1945, Grandma Wanda received news that some relative of her died in a hospital in Gdańsk. She had an address with her. It was… Andzia. The girl survived the camp, where she became one of the guinea pigs, a victim to minds overcome with delusions. After the liberation, having travelled across half of Europe, she reached Skierniewice searching for her beloved Marysia. There she learnt that the girl moved to the north with her family. She received the address of Grandma Wanda, and, as we know, she went to look for her. Unfortunately, she did not reach her destination… When she got out at the Gdańsk station, she was grabbed by a crowd of drunken soldiers in Soviet uniforms. I guess I do not have to describe what happened. I sometimes wonder how cruel fate can be towards people debased by life? Where there any Ukrainians among the rapists? What was she thinking about? Andzia died a few days later. Somebody found a piece of paper in the pocket of her torn jacket and notified Grandma Wanda. And another strange thing: none of the women from our family has ever appreciated what they owed to a simple Ukrainian countrywoman. When I asked questions about her, I would hear time and time again: “She was our servant. A very devoted servant…”

“(…) picking up Adela’s slender shoe with horror, he said as if enchanted by the glittering, ironic expression of this empty shell made of wax: Do you understand the atrocious cynicism of this symbol on a woman’s foot, the provocation of her promiscuous steps on these invented heels?” – I hear the clatter of Saodat’s heels just now; she is walking up the stairs of a Prague fin-de-siècle townhouse. In a moment, she will ring the doorbell and smile with her wide, Uzbek smile. Her tawny and open face, full of life, is in sharp contrast to the subtleties of the violet shoes on her corpulent feet. “Izvini, Kristinoczka, ja iz raboty idu.” After a moment, her transformation is complete: the grey two-piece bought in a chain store and patent leather shoes are put in a plastic bag. Saodat, wearing a stretched tracksuit and worn sneakers, climbs up the ladder and starts washing the windows. With the skill of a professional, she hangs the sponge and the cloths around her neck. With sweeping movements, she washes the dirt of the city from the windows. Over her shoulder, she is recounting the stories from Central Asia heard on Radio Free Europe. She is fifty-four, has a Ph.D. in economics and a loan from a bank. Fifteen years ago, she took her small daughter and ran away from Tashkent with a single suitcase. She left her lazy husband, who never loved her, because he missed his first wife, who, being Russian, preferred to run away to Petersburg when the situation in the crisis-stricken former republic of the USSR started to be unpredictable. She left her parents, who, even in her childhood, were unable to provide her with tenderness and security, because she was the third daughter out of seven siblings. Five sisters; the last child was a boy and he became the heir to the entire property and the apple of the family’s eye. She left her work in a research institute when the subsequent, ever-changing managers were unable to value her work and the precision of her scientific analyses. She left for the unknown, as many people from her environment, hoping for a better future in Central Europe. Diplomas turned out to be of no use – the only work that she was capable of doing for years was cleaning and taking care of other people’s children. And one day, on a recommendation by some friends, she rang the doorbell to my place, in worn tie-up shoes and a shabby jacket with wadding. She melted into the house full of old furniture, which, after waxing during her presence, would shine with new lustre, effusing order and harmony. Over the course of time, she became the confidante of our sorrows and joys, a fragment ordering the chaos that surrounded us. She dreamt of going to the cinema once, and of not running from one job to another. But she has not been able to go to the cinema for years. And suddenly, in a fit of despair, when she lost most of her clients during the crisis and had to spend days and nights in the house of the drug-addicted lover of a rich businessman, she felt that she had to do something with her life. She bought turquoise high-heel shoes. I looked at her, with terror and certain repugnance, swinging incompetently in the new shoes and admiring herself in the mirror. “Saodat, why did you buy these?” I asked. “What do you want to change? Is there a new man in your life? But there are other ways…” I thought that I was entering a sphere of intimacy which she reserved only for people closest to her. Nothing of this kind. She explained calmly that even she has moments of weakness. She has never bought anything impractical, so this moment has arrived. After a week, she stopped twisting her ankles and sliding on the high heels; after two weeks, she asked for a raise, and after a month, she informed me that she got a job as an accountant. She stopped coming to clean; the apartment no longer bore the signs of thorough cleaning. And yet she came back… Half a year passed and she called me: “Kristinochka, I bought an apartment. I have to have something of my own in life. They gave me a loan and I have to do some cleaning to repay it.” And nowadays, I am visited not by a suppressed victim, but a self-confident heroine of every-day life. She comes straight from the bank, where she was promoted to the position of a stock exchange analyst. Her arrival is always preceded by the clatter of high heels on the stairs. And this is the modern truth about shoes, dear Bruno… I do not want to rob you of your illusions…

When I hear the buzz of a fly, the image of Adela appears again. When I met with Schulz’s prose for the first time, this has been the conditioned reflex for me. I am waiting for the quiet monotonous buzz to be joined by the swish of a fly swatter piercing the air and the figure of the goddess to emerge from the dark room. But right now, I am sitting in a guesthouse on the north-eastern edge of India. The flies are the same as in Europe. Maybe a bit smaller. I am staying with a middle-class family, which, by making some of their rooms available to tourists, is trying to deal with the crisis. In the evening, during dinner, I have to participate in the presentation of an entire regiment of household members, relatives and neighbours. The same questions are asked: How are you? What’s your name? This is the extent of the knowledge of foreign languages of my hosts and their relatives. They are nice, open and curious of the world. Only one person has not been introduced to me: a slender girl with beautiful, roe deer’s eyes and a sad smile. Judging by appearance, she must be fourteen. She is standing in the corner and looking at me with true admiration. She is the only one who does not eat the dishes that are forming a colourful pattern on the table. When the feast is coming to an end, my curiosity wins. “Who is it?” I asked the sister of the head of the family, a pregnant woman around thirty, expecting her third child. She hopes that the entire pantheon of Hindu gods will bless her and that she will give birth to a long-for boy, who will ensure happiness and welfare for the family. “This is nobody. A servant,” I hear from the mouth of an English teacher, educated in a Catholic college. For the next couple of days, I look at the life of the family and the role of the girl-servant, who really wants to be called “Daisy.” The neighbour of my hosts tells me her story, because “Daisy” does not speak any English. Her real name is Saryu; she comes from a village distanced from Jodhpur by several hours of driving in a rickety bus. Her father, a farmer, ran into debt as a result of horrible drought which descended upon Rajasthan at the beginning of this millenium. Wanting to get rid of creditors, he sold the girl to some people who, making settlements with my hosts, transferred her further. She has not seen her parents for several years. One day she was visited by her brother who informed her that her father died. Her mother – a widow, sold everything to repay debts and now she is drifting somewhere as a beggar. I thought that nowadays such stories are impossible, but still… Saryu does not know how to read or write, but I know that she is clever and intelligent. In the morning, she quietly knocks on the door of my room and when I open it, she is already gone; on the marble floor, I find a cup of coffee and a newspaper. Then, she brings me breakfast to the terrace, and when I am devouring the first bites of chapatti and bhaji, she stealthily reaches for the paper that was set aside and pretends to read it. She is making very serious faces, as if she was pondering on the fate of Indian economy or the tight relations with Pakistan. The poor thing does not know that she is looking at a supplement with horoscopes and singles ads. It is a pity, because I would like to know what kind of future awaits her… In this world, she has no chances to possess the influence of commanding Adela even partially. She is not going to shake her finger at her master or give him withering glare. “Unfortunately, Adela” father used to say “you never had understanding for the things of higher order. (…) Adela gave him withering glare and turning to mother, she said in agitated voice, unintentionally shedding tears of irritation: “He is taking away all our juice! He carries all the bottles with raspberry juice that we made this summer out of the house! And he wants to give it to these good-for-nothings to drink! And, what is more, he is showering me with impertinencies” Adela cried loudly. (…) “In any case,” said Adela “I will not give the juice away. I did not spoil my complexion in the kitchen making it, so that these good-for-nothings could drink it.”

And this is how we get back to sultry days, full of sweet smells of fried preserves and juices. And at this very moment, when my mouth is filled with the sweetness of fragrant raspberries combined with sharpness of Tabasco sauce, which I am consuming in a mixture bearing the special name of “mad dog”, I am also thinking about Adela. I feel as if I was one of these good-for-nothing who stealthily went to the larder bravely guarded by this spitfire. Thanks to her, this moment has even more of the mysterious, forbidden taste. It allows me to dream for a little while about the summer silence in Drohobych and the genius of the man who implanted this boisterous girl into my life.

Jodhpur - Prague 2012