Second Inspector Stanislaus Kowalski approached the ghetto gate, as he did every Friday evening, carrying a burlap sack. He walked casually up to the young police constable on duty and waited for Maciek to recognize him.Maciek was no longer under Inspector Kowalski’s command. He one of the Polish State Police on temporary assignment to guard one of the twenty-two entrances to the Jewish ghetto, but he still respected and obeyed his former commander. Even so, Kowalski didn’t depend on Maciek’s loyalty alone to help him get into the ghetto every Friday at suppertime.

“I’ll have to look inside that, sir,” Maciek announced in a loud, officious voice but he winked at Inspector Kowalski as he said this.

Kowalski opened the sack and Maciek shifted his rifle to his left arm while rummaging with his right hand through the sack. He looks like me fifteen years ago, Kowalski thought, as he watched Maciek pocket the half dozen packages of cigarettes he found. There was also, as there was every week, a plucked, raw chicken at the bottom of the bag, which Maciek understood was to be left there.

“Got a nice Jewess on the inside, sir?” the soldier asked with a friendly leer. It wasn’t unusual for high-ranking police officers to come and go from the ghetto at night. They paid their visits to Jewesses desperate to get more food for their families, or, lately, to keep them from being taken in the deportation trains. This latter favour no officer could really supply, but then who cared? It wasn’t as though a Jewess were in any position to make reprisals for a broken promise. Some of them were high class, too - respectable women: modest matrons and demure daughters who wouldn’t have dreamed of taking a lover in the old days.

“A real beauty,” Kowalski grinned back at the eager boy.

He wasn’t lying. Victoria Frimml was considered beautiful by most people who knew her. She didn’t look too Jewish, any more than her husband, Benjamin, did, except that they both had dark hair. Victoria was thin and lanky. Kowalski had no real interest in any woman but he did think she’d look all the better for some meat on her bones. Well, there wasn’t much chance of her or Benjamin getting much plumper now that they had to live in the ghetto.

For years Kowalski had gone to the home of his best friend and his wife for Friday night dinner. Benjamin Frimml was formerly Police Corporal Frimml, Kowalski’s assistant and confidant. Now Frimml and his wife were just two more Jews in the ghetto - two more waiting to be taken away, deported. But the tradition of Sabbath dinner continued even though the Frimmls had lost their house and were crowded into the ghetto with the rest of Warsaw’s Jews.

Corporal Frimml and his wife used to serve Kowalski huge meals on Friday night. Now if Victoria wanted to cook a chicken she had to depend on their old friend to bring them one from the outside. Otherwise they would have to eat what the Frimmls could buy, and that wasn’t much anymore. The new tradition was that Kowalski brought the chicken and Victoria cooked it while the men exchanged news of the week before dinner.

“They don’t expect much, do they?” the young soldier said with a chuckle and waved Kowalski through the gate with a brief swing of his rifle.

They don’t expect anything, Kowalski thought, as he went through the gate in the wall that kept the Jews separate from the decent Poles of Warsaw. They never ask me for anything. That’s Benjamin - too proud to ask. Even the chicken I bring for Victoria to cook us every week, even that makes him uncomfortable.

But tonight I’m bringing them something else, something they can’t refuse. I’m bringing them the truth. I’ll tell Benjamin and he’ll help me work out a plan to save them. Benjamin’s smart. He’s smarter than me. Together we’ll work out some plan. I can’t let Benjamin die. I love him. He’ll never know how much I love him. That’s for me to know and keep secret.

Victoria let him into the Frimml’s dingy, two-room apartment and squealed with delight to see him. They hugged and kissed first before Kowalski handed over the sack. Victoria chirped with delight, feigning surprise as usual, and gave him another peck on the cheek before retreating with her prize to the kitchen. “Now you boys have a nice gossip while I get supper ready.”

Frimml and Kowalski sat in the other room of the apartment. It served as living room, dining room and bedroom. There were four other such apartments on this second floor of what was once a grand house. Four families shared the toilet on the corridor. Victoria considered herself lucky to have her own tiny kitchen, which she shared only with the cockroaches.

In the living room/bedroom were the few pieces of furniture the Frimmls hadn’t sold: a solid dining table of carved oak surrounded by six matching chairs, and a bed, also old and expensive. The room wasn’t really big enough to hold even these few remnants of their old life.

For a while they did gossip, in the sense that Kowalski brought his friend up to date on the latest doings in Kowalski’s unit. Frimml always wanted to know what was going on. Kowalski figured it helped make him still feel like a policeman and not a loathed outcast.

They sipped vodka as they talked. Kowalski nursed a few millilitres in the bottom of his glass and brought the glass to his lips every now and then to make Frimml think he was, indeed, drinking.

“Let me bring you some more vodka next week,” Kowalski pleaded with his friend.

Frimml made his habitual half-smile. “I wouldn’t think of it. You’re also low on rations on the outside.”

“A policeman can always get vodka. Please, Benjamin. Let me do this for you.”

Frimml only widened his smile. “I wouldn’t let you bring the chicken if it weren’t so important to Victoria.”

Kowalski looked down, avoiding his friend’s eyes. Benjamin understood that gesture meant Kowalski wanted to talk of something serious. He took another sip of his vodka and leaned forward to listen.

“Benjamin, I found out where the deportation trains are going,” Kowalski said, lowering his voice.

“About that, you don’t need to whisper, Stanislaus. We know.”

Kowalski was shocked. As far as he knew, the death camps were a dark secret. Very few who weren’t directly involved were supposed to know, but Kowalski had overheard fellow officers talk about it. “You know?”

“Word gets around,” said Frimml, casually. “We’ve known for a couple of weeks now. I didn’t want to upset you by talking about it. There’s nothing you can do.”

“Don’t say that! I’m going to get you out!” Kowalski cried out. Then he added, “You and Victoria.”

Frimml remained calm. “I don’t think so. When we first found out, I tried to think of a way you could get us out of the ghetto. I stayed up nights, thinking. Anything you tried to do would get you in trouble. You’d be ‘deported’ yourself in the end.”

“They’ll take you away and send you to the camps. You’ll die there. I can’t let that happen.” It was Kowalski who sounded desperate, not his doomed friend.

Frimml took another drink of vodka. That’s when Kowalski noticed that he had been drinking this evening as he used to, as though he had as much vodka as he wanted at his disposal. Not at all as though he were saving any for later.

“If we only died there, we’d be lucky,” Frimml remarked and took a gulp of his drink, “Vicki’s so beautiful. They wouldn’t kill her right away. They’d use her first.”

And you, too, thought Kowalski. My sweet, lovely friend. Yes, they’d use you. And you know it.

“I can’t happen,” breathed Kowalski, “I won’t let it happen.”

“It won’t happen. I’m not going to let my wife suffer that. I have a plan.”

Wild hope filled Kowalski. “I knew you’d think of something. You’re so smart!” In the privacy of his thoughts he added: And beautiful. How can I help but love you? You’ll find a way to save alive. Because that’s all that matters. I’ll never have you but you must stay alive. And your wife, too, for your sake. Because you love her.

“What plan? Can I help?”

Frimml picked up the vodka bottle and refilled his own glass. Then he poured vodka into Kowalski’s glass, emptying the bottle. “That’s the last of it,” he muttered to himself as he set the bottle down.

Then he spoke to Kowalski, “Yes, you’re going to help.”

“Tell me! How? When?”

“After dinner I’ll explain it,” Frimml assured him. Then he stood up, took Kowalski by the arms and eased him to his feet. Still gripping Kowalski’s arms, he looked straight into his friend’s eyes and said, quietly, “We’ll have a nice dinner. We’ll have wine. I was saving it for a special occasion. Then I’ll tell you the plan.”

These days Kowalski only ate a token bit of the food served him on Friday night dinners. They always ate sparingly, knowing the leftovers would feed Benjamin and Victoria Frimml for a couple of days afterwards. So Kowalski was astonished to see Frimml shovel big chunks of meat into his mouth that evening.

This was so out of the ordinary that Kowalski had to blurt out, “You’re hungry tonight, Benjamin.”

“Tonight is special,” said Victoria. She leaned to kiss her husband. Frimml shifted his face as his wife’s lips came near. They kissed full on the lips, long and hard as though Kowalski were not in the room. Then, they broke off.

“Tonight is special,” Frimml agreed, his eyes still locked on his wife even though their lips had separated. Then he gave his head a little shake, and turned back to Kowalski.

“You eat up, too, Stanislaus. I want us to have a good meal for once. Eat. I don’t want any leftovers tonight.”

This had to do with the escape plan, Kowalski decided. His friend was smart and he had a plan. Kowalski played along. “So where’s the wine? You promised me wine.”

Frimml took another big bite, chewed, and swallowed before answering. “So I did. After we eat, my friend.” He looked over to Victoria, meeting her gaze yet again.

At length there was nothing left of the chicken, bread and potatoes. In other days Victoria filled the table with goodies but these days she tended to serve spare portions of even the potatoes and bread. Except for tonight. Tonight she had been lavish even though the fare was plain.

Victoria cleared the table and brought back from the kitchen two glasses half-filled with red wine. She set them on the table and then stood back looking seriously at glasses, as though they were some ceremonial objects.

“I lied to you about the wine, I’m afraid,” Frimml told Kowalski. “There’s not enough for you. Only for Victoria and me. But we want you here with us when we drink it. Don’t we Vicki?”

Victoria Frimml nodded slightly. It filled Kowalski with dread.

“You drink first, and I’ll stay with you. Then I’ll drink and Stanislaus will stay with me,” Frimml said to his wife.

Tears filled the woman’s eyes. “Now?”

Frimml stood up and stayed where he was at the other side of the table. “Now. It’s time.”

Kowsalski’s dread immobilized him. He wanted to shout, “Wait, what about the plan?” But he couldn’t move or speak. He sat watching his friend and his wife. With great deliberation, Victoria picked up one of the glasses and downed the wine in a single gulp.

“Good,” Frimml said, “now let’s go lie down. Stanislaus, if you’ll just wait. This won’t take long.”

The husband and wife moved slowly towards the bed. Frimml lay down first, flat on his back. Victoria snuggled beside him, curled against his body. He moved one arm and encircled her with it. They lay together without moving and still Kowalski did not know what was going on.

After a time, Frimml gently dislodged his arm from under his wife’s neck and sat up. He opened one of her eyes and then eased it shut. (Her face had been buried into his side, so until then Kowalski hadn’t known her eyes were closed.) Then Frimml lifted her thin wrist and held it.

Then, Kowalski knew. He’d been stupid with fear until then, or maybe he just hadn’t wanted to believe. He jumped to his feet and screamed, “No! Benjamin, no!”

Frimml bent over his wife’s face and kissed her forehead. “Wait for me, Vicki.” Then to Kowalski he said, “There’s no other way, my friend. My dear friend. Victoria’s so beautiful. I couldn’t let her suffer what would come. And I’m not going to leave her alone. We’ve decided to escape together.”

“No!” Kowalski lunged forward and grabbed Frimml in his arms. “No! Benjamin, I won’t let you!” Frimml was as calm and kindly as a man comforting a distraught child. He held Kowalski close. “You wouldn’t have me leave Victoria alone, would you?”

Kowalski fell crying onto his beloved friend’s chest. “You had a plan. You said you had a plan.”

Frimml caressed Kowalski’s hair. “This IS the plan. I waited and watched to make sure Victoria got away safely. Now you do the same for me. I sent her on ahead, that’s all.”

“Don’t do it, Benjamin,” Kowalski sobbed. “I love you.” He blurted the secret out. Even in his distress he shuddered at the enormity of what he had let slip. He squeezed Frimml more tightly, then suddenly pushed his friend away and dove for the remaining wine glass. Don’t let him get it! Don’t let Benjamin drink it! He knocked the glass over, spilling the poisoned wine onto the big oak table.

Frimml was only an instant behind him. He shoved Kowalski aside, bent down over the table and started licking the spilled wine. Kowalski grabbed him from behind, trying to pull him away but Frimml, despite the privations of ghetto life, was still a sturdier man than Kowalski and stayed by the table, chasing with his tongue every drop of the spilled liquid he could see. Then, with Kowalski still clinging to him, he straightened.

“I love you,” Kowalski repeated, his grief pushing aside any shame.

Frimml turned around and faced him. “Come sit with me.” He took Kowalski by the hand and led him towards the bed where his wife lay waiting for Frimml to join her. Kowalski let himself be taken. Frimml lay down on the bed, still holding Kowalski’s hand. “I love you,” Kowalski couldn’t help repeating. What was there left for him to say?

“I know,” said Frimml. “My dear friend, how could I not know?” Frimml drew Kowalski’s hand to his own face and kissed his friend’s palm. He continued to clutch Kowalski’s hand. “I sent Victoria ahead so I could tell you this without her ever knowing. Why should she know? It would only hurt her.”

Kowalski sat down with Frimml and pressed his free hand against his friend’s face.

“She’s the only woman I ever loved,” Frimml confessed. “I was a good husband to her. But there was always you. I love you, Stanislaus.”

Tears, too many for his eyes to handle, pressed from behind Kowsalski’s eyes, throbbed in his head and filled his throat.

“I didn’t want to leave without telling you the truth. I couldn’t tell you before but now I can because now it doesn’t matter anymore.” said Frimml and then closed his eyes. He held tightly to Kowalski’s hand. Then, after a moment, his grip loosened.

“It matters,” Kowalski choked, “My Benjamin. My love. It always matters.”


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