Lessons From the Darkness by Helena Janeczek

Translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall.


They caught her because she made a mistake. For months she had sailed right through their nets with her false passport, her bleached hair, her little heart-shaped medal reworked as a cross, her Polish spoken like a Pole and even her school-taught German spoken badly as only the Poles in Silesia did. She came from a home where you ate ham and didn’t speak Yiddish, and although that home was right in the center of town with other Jewish homes and businesses, and although Yiddish made it easy for other Jews to communicate with the Germans even as it made it easy for the Poles to pick them out by their accents, she’d been the only one, along with two other girls, to attend the town gymnasium for girls and not the Jewish school. She had acquaintances and friends both male and female among the Poles, an outside world in which she knew how to move and that was willing to help, somewhat. A week after she escaped she went to her best friend’s house; Nelly, the daughter of one of her father’s colleagues, was Austrian but raised in Poland, and now lives in Vienna. She helped to peroxide her hair, maybe it was even Nelly who had the idea, only the hair, besides blond, turned lank as a mop and spongy as rubber and she burst into tears when she saw herself.

Outside the ghetto, they went around in patrols, it wasn’t easy to get past. I found a good spot, but even there I saw a cop.

–A cop?

–A German, a guard. He was looking the other way, except I was afraid, I wasn’t sure if he had seen me or not. So I went up to him and said, so tell me, what’s going on here?

–In German?

–And in what other language?

–My god.

–He said, there’s something we have to settle with the Jews. Then he let me by. He looked the other way, on purpose, I’m sure of it now, write that down.

That evening my mother went to hide with her first great love Zbigniew, and she spent the night at his house in spite of his anti-Semitic father.

I don’t know exactly why their romance came to an end, but after the war Zbigniew wrote to her and sent her necklaces and masks from Ghana, where he had been posted as a surgeon, and now that he is dead and the east/west borders are open, his son has come to Germany several times to make a little money, staying with my mother, whom he called, beginning when I have no idea, Aunt. Maybe things came to an end between them because she understood that all those Polish songs he knew how to sing and still sang, the sentimental ones and the smutty ones, were not enough; that it was no good being moved by the notes of Chopin, although she is still moved by them today, that ham and an indoor bathroom, tennis lessons and the custom of bringing flowers when you are a guest were no longer enough, they no longer meant anything. If she must stick with the Jews, then coercion had better become choice.

Inside the ghetto–at the heart of Zawiercie surrounded by a wall, the center of town where her house and the houses and shops of the other Jews stood and where all the Jews who once lived outside and in nearby towns had crowded in–my mother had met my father, son of a large Orthodox family of tradesmen wealthier than her own, a family where his mother was in charge of wholesale sugar operations and somehow when the seven children came home, there were meatballs in huge casseroles kept warm in the oven, and each one dined on his own and whenever he felt like it.

Zbigniew was gallant as all Poles are, even today when they meet a woman they’ll kiss her hand, and he must have enjoyed walks in the countryside and probably music and poetry, and my mother liked all this, not because it spoke to any passion of hers, but simply because that was how love was meant to be. My father instead, was out playing ball rather more often than in the classroom during his “school” years, and his own mother despaired because she didn’t have time to keep after him. He was out and about wherever and whenever he pleased, and sometimes he came home black and blue because he’d been in a fight, and his mother was furious. He had a crooked nose (some days it gave him trouble breathing) that testified to his youthful brawls.

In his last year of school, just to spite the conceited brat at the top of the class known in my father’s tales simply as kujon (grind, nerd), he started studying, and making a desperate effort, managed to get the top school-leaving marks in the entire Voivodeship. The news made the paper, and so my mother learned of the existence of this kid, five years older than herself, and decided he might be interesting.

They met and became a couple in the ghetto, in part because my father seemed the right man for the time and place, a place from which you only went out to work in German factories, guarded by dogs and Germans.

He knew Hebrew and Yiddish, the prayers and just enough of the Talmud, and to other Jews he appeared one of them, not slightly suspect because he wasn’t able to speak their language; he knew Zionists and Communists and the Socialists of the Bund, he knew the art of distilling illegal vodka and the black market in general, and he had broad shoulders and big hands, like the slightly smaller ones I inherited, he had the heft and the stride of a man who knew how to attack and to defend himself, and a reputation for courage and intelligence. It also turned out he could sing nicely, and he was happy to sing for my mother although flowers and gifts were out of reach, and he could even discuss books, those books he devoured, and when they escaped from the ghetto, my mother on her own and at the very last minute, my father before her with a trail of younger brothers and nephews, I believe they were in love.

I don’t know whether my mother knew how to find him, or how much he counted in her decision to escape.  Less than her parents, less than her mother, that’s for sure.  In the end, I suspect, the only thing that really counts is the force of one’s will to live, and the force, more than the will, is different in each of us.

But I can imagine my father’s heated remarks, his “they’re going to murder us here, what are you waiting for?” and his defense of the every-man-for-himself principle, his advice to drop all hesitation or scruples dictated by good manners. In any event, they found each other outside, and fled together.

When they captured my father’s brother Jossele, his niece and I can’t recall who else, they were hiding in another house. They decided they could no longer stay together as a group, that everyone had to fend for himself: my mother, my father, the oldest among his nephews, Mietek, while Benjamin, who was too small, was entrusted to some shepherds up on the Tatra mountains. The shepherds made him sleep in a dog hut, but it seems that when my parents went to find him after the war, he didn’t want to leave his sheep and wept bitterly.

The others died, Mietek and Benjamin’s parents, my father’s parents, all six of his siblings, his aunts and uncles and many cousins, first-, second- and third-, as did all my mother’s relatives and her brother, father and mother.

While she was in hiding, alone, my mother learned, how I don’t know, that her father had not been sent to Auschwitz. Or perhaps he was sent there, this part I can’t remember, in any event he, as the manager of a glass works that still exists today, proved to be indispensable to the work of the factory and so they moved heaven and earth to get him back. They put him in lodgings behind the glass works, and there he lived and worked; obviously he could not go out, and my mother knew that too. At a certain point, via an esteemed colleague of her father’s she received a letter suggesting they meet. This colleague took her to the meeting place, where instead of her father she met the Gestapo. They caught her because of a stupid mistake, she says, telling me for the first time the whole story on our visit to Poland. How could she have trusted that man?

She often complains she’s a babe in the woods, that she trusts people too much. Last week tragedy struck: they stole her carpets. She called me in the morning and I didn’t answer because I was out buying cigarettes; she called again a few hours later and the line was busy, tried again, sent me a fax urging me to call back immediately, called the porter’s number downstairs asking her to ring my bell, left the same request on the voice mail of my neighbor across the hall.

When she finally got me on the phone she informed me, voice croaking like a death rattle, that she could have died (but she wasn’t dead), and when she did die I would be unreachable because I’m always on the phone, and she went on, raising the volume as always when making a scene, and I too (recalling other false alarms I’d received via the intercom) shouted at her to stop making a fuss, and that was when she told me about the carpets.

It seemed she had arranged to take them to the storeroom downstairs because they had to refresh the wall-to-wall, and that night, for reasons unknown she woke up and went down to see if the rugs were there, and they weren’t–and when she leaves a message I must call back immediately–and I shot back that last night I had come in late and this morning I’d gone out to do the grocery shopping, and then I would have replied to her messages and even called her, and while I was talking I realized that her first message preceded  the discovery of the theft but now she was about to ask me where I was last night and with whom, and why I don’t call my mother before calling other people, and so I suggested we might, this once, suspend the mother-daughter psychodrama and think how to proceed.

She whimpered something about insurance, and almost keening now, told me how sorry she was about those rugs “they were supposed to be yours one day, I always trusted that woman, I’m a babe in the woods,” that she had watched her load them into the elevator, it was a great personal let-down, “to me who trusted her and cared for her, for her and her brother who seemed so kind and affectionate, who sent me postcards from Poland–me who always defended the Poles, not like all those Jews who say they’re worse than the Germans–but it turned out she was sly and deceitful, the two of them are a real band of thieves” because the other day when she’d telephoned at 2 pm, the woman was still in the apartment although she usually left earlier, which meant she was waiting for her brother, who gets off duty as a doorman around then, waiting for him to come and take away the carpets, and then she realized she didn’t know where she lived, or him either, “you go and trust them but prosperity is a toxin that corrupts everyone, every one of them, and those rugs had real sentimental value” all this said in a grief-stricken, choked-up, hard, cold, teary, scratchy voice, one long rant punctuated with barbs against me.

I went so far as to observe, nastily, that when you’re wealthy you risk being robbed. Afterwards I called her back at least three times to see how things were and whether there was any news, knowing she wouldn’t call me.

But I wasn’t able to feel sorry, because I couldn’t understand where the line between truth and falsehood stood, how much was the usual farce in which I played the part of the worm and she the saintly mother, how much the usual outburst of aggression against the usual target, how much she really minded about those rugs, how much it was their sentimental value and how much the material, how much it was the woman and her brother that distressed her, that woman of whom she’d once said, “you see, not all Poles hate the Jews, my Stasia for example adores me” in a way that made it clear she was quite different from those other Jews.

And what was more I couldn’t understand how they could possibly have robbed her, she who always asked you where you’d been and with whom, who’s that, what does he do, what do his parents, wife, husband do; she who was and is constantly suspicious of my friends and of her friends, not to mention others, employees, acquaintances; who never takes at face value what anyone says to her, who isn’t the least bit trusting. And  I couldn’t understand, as I’ve never understood, if that suspicion of hers, that tendency I call paranoia (keeping my distance, because it has made my relations with her so difficult and given her some unpleasant experiences too) was due to her escape with the fake passport, the cross around her neck and blond hair, to people like that colleague of her father, or rather from the weight of accumulated prosperity, her position as the boss of a company, because it’s a common tendency in the wealthy and powerful, you don’t need the final solution to bring it out. In short, I wasn’t able to feel sorry.

And yet she had been robbed and cheated other times, whether a lot or a little didn’t matter. And she had trusted Stasia and liked her. And she felt bad because she liked her. And she felt bad about the carpets because they were her one great passion, and because she’d bought them when my father was still alive, and had intended to leave them to me. And she felt bad about how much they were probably worth today, those rugs from the Caucasus, bought for not much money. And about the insurance, from which she’d get nothing. And about the anti-Semitic Polish people, toward whom she felt affection, despite everything. Understanding all this, I, too, felt sorry.

If there was one thing that stood out from the anonymous wealth and elegance of a house that contained nothing not chosen for its wealth and elegance, I thought angrily, a house without anything that represented history or memory, it was those goddam carpets, and they had to take them, as if it were not enough that they’d already taken everything. And maybe those rugs, for me merely beautiful things my mother had bought, might have offered a new beginning, might be mother’s rugs, and then grandmother’s rugs, moving forward in space and time, a trace of continuity.

The next day we made up, me expressing regret, she sounding quite untroubled, saying, “never mind about the carpets, real loss is a whole other thing,” and at either end of the phone line we fought back tears thinking of my father. I saw that her faltering voice, firm at first, then emotional, wasn’t that of a well-off bourgeois woman so much as someone pretending and trying to be one. For a moment she was lost, not only because some rugs had been stolen, but because she’d been shorn of her role and the fiction didn’t hold, but then it occurred to her that it was just fiction, that she possessed no family treasures and nothing of sentimental value, and so she pulled herself together, decided it was no big deal, and returned to being a lady.

The carpets, however, had not been stolen. The following day they turned up inside the apartment. Stasia had not put them in the elevator. My mother no longer even trusted herself. It was better to cry wolf over and over again rather than risk a single false step, one fatal error.


It’s so obvious in a certain light. Parents know that children will make mistakes and they must be taught not to. Some, though, seem to know that one can learn from error as well. Others pretend that’s not the case, and yet they also know it because it has happened to them.  My mother, however, knows that if you make a mistake, you can be obliterated. And so she must not only teach her daughter not to make mistakes, she must actively prevent any. My mother can never give up her parental role so long as I commit errors. And I will always be making mistakes, whether merely in her eyes, or in truth, just as she, despite everything, will too. The resulting feeling of helplessness only feeds her zeal and fury. So my mother doesn’t teach, she drills.

Drilling differs from teaching in that the lesson learned must become a reflex. Every time I made a mistake, real or supposed, my mother would come back at me, and still does. They might seem to be insignificant things, like the fact that when I’m cooking I don’t immediately replace the jar tops or close the cabinet doors (or any other carelessness or inattention on my part), but postponing or forgetting the least thing can prove a very grave mistake. Drilling encompasses the use of violence as training and as punishment, and my mother certainly did yell, taking off from the offense at hand, the potatoes that when I came back home I had not put on to boil, and heating up to shriek that I could not be relied on, I only did what I felt like, didn’t give a damn about anyone else, selfish, that’s what you are: a filthy, revolting egotist.

She never hit me, not even a slap. But in a film once I watched an American Marine sergeant drilling his charges by shouting “piece of shit” and “asshole” and other such niceties over and over again. It helps to make the object feel he is a piece of shit, thus easy to mold.

My mother, who is a lady, only rarely and in her greatest fury lets fly some vulgar insult, something that unfortunately happened often to my father and me when we battled with her. She would then act mortally wounded, gaining points. She didn’t in any case need obscenity, but relied on lighter, more targeted blows, for she knew her victims well. And it’s never the single word that counts, but the full force of the blow, the gestures, tone, timbre and impact of the voice, the expression, eyes wide and mouth hard, pursed.

The goal of the drill is to break the trainee’s will, because otherwise he may even obey, but obedience will not be in his blood when the instructor is no longer there. It’s vital to achieve that goal. The instructor must be frightening, must supersede the fear of the enemy in the trainee’s heart. The instructor instills fear by delivering orders. He must paralyze the trainee’s doubt, his every feeling and will. The will can be conquered in many ways. You need not respond to an error the first time, as the trainee expects, but merely launch tiny messages perceptible to the other, thus heightening the tension and the fear. First you see how indirect signals work, and when the time comes to strike, the other is already weakened.

My mother is no Marine sergeant, she’s a mother. Everything she says and does comes naturally, she hasn’t studied for it. She is desperate, furious, unhinged, wounded, shocked, unable to comprehend, seized by a panicky fear she can no longer educate me. What’s more, she loves to teach and explain. She doesn’t merely call me shambolic (bałaganiasz in Polish), or schnorrer, sponger in Yiddish (on account of my less than elegant clothes), or Dreckspatz or Freßsack in German to point to my deficient hygiene or my outsized appetite, or with great Teutonic solemnity, mein Naturkind, my child of nature, my savage; she doesn’t merely warn me that man wird dich ausnehmen wie eine Weihnachtsgans (“they’ll pluck you like a Christmas goose”) but goes on and on with details and explanations.

She explains, each time from the top, always in the same way regardless of what language she’s speaking, why the lids must go back on the jars immediately, because someone like you, so untidy, cannot keep a husband, why if you stuff yourself with bread that way, you don’t taste your food and you’ll become like your friend, who must weigh 200 pounds, why you shouldn’t wear that skirt that makes your behind look huge, your yiddisher toches, your tush, why you shouldn’t color your hair, why you shouldn’t speak of certain things, why you shouldn’t trust certain people, why your mother is the only person in the world who loves you without expecting something in return, and therefore should always come first. Because your mother, deine mame or deine Mutter, your mama or your Mother depending on the moment and the mood, only wants the best for you, wants to protect you from all evils and keep you from making mistakes when she’s gone.

I’m not even sure, in these long illustrations of how one should behave both in general and in particular, that she is drilling me rather than just teaching, however much they leave me distraught. Nor are my thoughts about drilling so clear any more. Maybe there is no difference, who knows where the distinction lies, and of course it’s all too obvious that many other children had far more violent, intolerant, demanding, and unhinged parents, and like my mother, everything they did was for their children’s best, to protect them from the whirlwind, and these were parents who could never imagine the whirlwind my mother came out of alive.

My mother is like many others. Perhaps the odd one, the weak one, is me, getting upset about some rash or angry words that she herself forgets about right after she says them. My mother, like many others, would have liked her daughter to be different. But however hard she is, she didn’t teach me to prevail at all costs over everyone else. She taught me manners: in the subway you give your seat to an elderly person, on special days you never forget the greetings and presents, you get up from the dinner table to help out, if you are given a box of chocolates, no matter that it’s yours, you open it immediately and offer it to all. What difference does that make? What does it have to do with how you dress and put on makeup, how you go on a diet, how you brush your teeth and pack your clothes in a suitcase, how you tidy up the kitchen and how you behave at the table, how you send thanks for a gift and how you choose one from a wedding registry, how you save or spend your money, how you treat your husband or your friends–what do they have to do, these proprieties and many more, with the kind of mistakes you pay for with your life?

Helena Janecek is an editor, poet, and prize-winning author, and is one of several influential transcultural figures writing in Italian today, bringing a welcome depth of experience to a national literature in need of fresh inspiration. Lezioni di tenebra (Mondadori 1997, Guanda, 2011, pp 199) tells of the author’s visit to Poland and Auschwitz in the 1990s with her mother, a survivor of the camp. Helena’s Polish-Jewish survivor parents brought her up in Munich after the war, rarely speaking about their Jewishness and bequeathing such unspoken uneasiness about Germany to their daughter that she fled Bavaria for Italy thirty years ago. Her novel The Swallows of Monte Cassino, 2010, about the foot soldiers of many nations who fought at the battle of Monte Cassino, also draws on autobiography and is written in the same nervous, colloquial, engaging style.

Frederika Randall grew up in Pittsburgh and has lived in Italy for 30 years. Her translations from the Italian include fiction by Guido Morselli, Luigi Meneghello, Ottavio Cappellani, Helena Janeczek (The Swallows of Monte Cassino), Giacomo Sartori, Davide Orecchio, Igiaba Scego, The Epic Tale of the Risorgimento, Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of An Italian, and historian Sergio Luzzatto’s The Body of Il Duce, and his Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age, for which she and the author shared the Cundill Prize for Historical Literature in 2011, and Primo Levi’s Resistance, 2016. Guido Morselli’s novel The Communist comes out from New York Review Books in August 2017.

This excerpt from Lezioni di tenebra is published by permission of Ugo Guanda Editore. Copyright © 2011. Translation copyright © 2017 Frederika Randall.

Photo: Helena Janecek, Private



Published on May 2, 2017


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