By Ewa Mazierska
Grandpa was a hero and a martyr. During the war he fought with the Nazis, was caught by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp, where he spent well over two years. When the war was over, he struggled with the Polish communists. This, however, did not prevent him from having a career as he was arguably the best specialist in shipbuilding this side of the Berlin Wall. He travelled extensively and not only to the fellow people’s republics, but also to West Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, the U.S. and South America, where he advised local specialists on ship construction. Apparently he earned for Poland millions of dollars when the western currency felt more mythical than real. He spoke four languages and knew how to handle a polite conversation – if he wanted to. He also managed to get possession of a huge house in Sopot, built at the beginning of the twentieth century in a unique ornamental Sopot style, with an enormous park, located several hundred metres from the beach.
Before the war this mansion belonged to Herr Grabner, a rich German industrialist and a Nazi. In one of the desks there were some old photos of him and his family: his wife, two children and two dogs. When I was a child, I liked to look at them. They might all have been Nazis, dogs included, but they seemed to be somewhat nicer, gentler people than us. One could sense that they loved each other. On top of that Grabner senior was very handsome; he was in fact my first childhood crush. I pinned his picture to the wall above my bed and he stayed there till I was thirteen or fourteen. In one of the pictures all four of the Grabners were playing musical instruments and I found it amazing. What I would have done to be a part of such a family! I, for my part, had to play music on my own, as nobody else in my family was musical or even sympathetic to my desire of becoming an artist.
Often Grandpa told me and my brother that he was living proof that if one strives for something, one gets it, no matter what the obstacles. This was even how he described the concentration camp – as a place where most people did not give a shit. His own brother did not try hard enough, so he was sent to the gas chamber. The rest of the family did not exert themselves either, so we did not achieve as much as Grandpa. We were also spoilt by receiving too much: from the state, from Grandpa and from fate.
In particular, we did not need to buy or build our houses; we were just born into the mansion. Grandpa’s only flaw was his infertility – most likely the result of exposure to some dangerous chemicals in the camp. But even this flaw he turned into an advantage by making a noble gesture and marrying a woman with a child out of wedlock. This child was my mother. She did not know who her biological father was, because, til her twenties she was made to believe that it was Grandpa. Later he told her that her real father was a Croatian man, whom Grandma met during the war. Being a fascist and a Slav, in Grandpa’s view he was pure scum, unlike the Grabners, who might be Nazis, but knew how to stay faithful to their ideals and live in style.
The story of my parents, my brother and myself confirmed Grandpa’s diagnosis – we were not strong, we were not brave, and dirty Ustashi blood flowed in our veins. Inevitably, we did not flourish, but were dying out. First went my grandma. I do not remember when it happened, as I was only five then. My mum told me that she suffered from leukemia and her death was very long and painful. At the time there were no hospices in Poland, so she stayed at home, crying, yelling and betraying family secrets, as in a Bergman film. Then my parents divorced, because my mother had chosen the wrong man. If she had followed Grandpa’s advice and married his candidate, things apparently would have been different. After the divorce our parents divided their apartment and we moved back in with Grandpa. The small flat which my mum received after my parents split was rented out, to help with our expenses. This was because my mum earned little and our father did not want to support us, in part because he had a new family.
My mum died in her mid-forties from heart failure. My brother and I were students then: Robert in sociology, I in music. Because Robert was older than me and a man and very keen to move out, he got the small apartment. There was no place for me there and I was expected to stay and look after Grandpa and the house. Maybe it was the reason I was single – I could not bring men to Grandpa’s house. There was no official ban, but the awkwardness of introducing somebody to Grandpa and paying the price for allowing a stranger to invade his territory was too high. For this reason I also rarely visited other people.
Despite that, I managed to have some friends and even lovers and, as I learned to believe that my blood family was doomed, I was easy to please. After my studies I was lucky to get a job in the philharmonic orchestra. It paid little, but I liked to play with other people. I also befriended some local jazz and rock musicians, and sometimes played with them. They respected me and that was enough to make me content most of the time. Grandpa did not approve of my being a musician, but neither did he criticize me. I earned my living, and by this point he depended on me, so he made an effort to be on good terms with me.
Although my brother had his own apartment, he was far from happy. He had a hard time keeping things: his job, money, (male) lovers. Everything eluded him, because he was always in the wrong place, waiting to get something better than what he had. When his regular boyfriend returned home earlier than expected, he was with another man. When somebody offered him the chance to earn some money, he didn’t take it, because he was expecting something bigger. Often I had to help Robert out, because he was in a mess. Although I tried not to think about it, I knew that he would die before he got old and it would be even better for him this way. The only question was how it would happen. It turned out that he was knocked dead by a car. When it happened, I was obviously heartbroken, but with an awareness that it was a good death. My brother managed to slip into a narrow space between an accident and a suicide; he avoided the pain and humiliation of being an old loser, as opposed to somebody who was still looking for his place.
Grandpa did not like Robert, because he ignored Grandpa’s requests to work on the house and rarely visited him, therefore he was not particularly moved by his grandson’s passing. Moreover, Grandpa drew some satisfaction from having his theory proved, that if one does not care about his life, he will lose this precious gift prematurely. When he said that I was about to reply that clinging to one’s life at all cost is selfish, particularly if this life has no value to anybody but its possessor – better to vacate the space for somebody else. But I never said things like that. I lacked the courage to confront Grandpa.
After the day Robert died Grandpa’s care for himself became obsessive, as if our disappearance was for him a sign that he could and should carry on forever. He started collecting secrets of longevity, such as stories about whales, who not only live long, but avoid cancer, and he tried to adopt a whale’s diet, every day eating plankton for his breakfast and supper. At the same time he needed me to live too, to have a reason to carry on with this race. This was a catch 22 situation – if I died before him, he would win, proving that I neglected this precious entity, my life, but there would be nobody to congratulate Grandpa on his victory. This was also a reason I did not want to live for very long, because if I did, I would prove that I was like him, cherishing life itself: the shell, rather than its contents.
When Robert died, I moved into the small apartment. It would have been more rational to put Grandpa there and for me to stay in the large house, and even better to sell the house so there would be plenty of money for everything we needed, but this was out of the question. The house was Grandpa’s and he did not want to part with it, at least not as long as he was alive. Indeed, he did not want to part with me, but I wanted my own space. Plus, the flat was closer to my work than the house was.
Keeping the house caused a lot of problems as it aged rapidly and even minor renovations cost a fortune. Grandpa paid for them from his savings and his substantial pension, which included all possible extras for war sufferings. But I had to take care of organizing the workers, and did most of the cleaning and keeping the garden in order. Grandpa regarded this as investment in my future, as the house was meant to pass into my hands, ultimately. I also initially thought that this work was all worth doing, but with the passage of time I started to see the house as my curse. I was losing my youth and damaging my hands, which were my most precious possessions, serving Grandpa and his house.
After a certain moment every time Grandpa phoned to inform me that something should be done to the house I was on the verge of refusing. Eventually I told him that I’d had enough and, to my surprise, he reacted with understanding, even mild acceptance. He said that he wanted to review the situation with the house, but for that he needed an extra year, not least because he wanted to spend the next Christmas there. It was almost amusing given that, since the loss of my mother and brother, Christmas, followed by Easter and All Souls, were the most miserable part of the year, for me, as the holidays involved moving to Grandpa’s house for some days, but not sharing meals, because, irrespective of time of the year, Grandpa followed his ‘whale diet;’ during these times we talked little, because there was little to talk about, and we did not pretend that there was more to say than there was.
Hypocrisy requires a fair amount of good will, which we both lacked by this point. Moreover, at night the house was haunted. Even when my mum was still alive, after midnight the stairs creaked, water dripped from the tap downstairs and moaning could be heard in the attic. But back then I wasn’t scared, because Mum was always nearby and – if I insisted – she would go downstairs or upstairs to pacify the ghosts. Now there was nobody to protect me. Grandpa himself, with his thin frame and hollowed cheeks, looked more like a skeleton than a human being, and I was more frightened to bump into him than Herr Grabner.
Shortly after Grandpa promised to make a decision about the house, I met Daniel. It was at a party after a gig, where I’d sessioned for a rock band, because their regular violinist fell ill. I was not particularly keen to go to the party, but the invitation was a form of payment. Daniel was a friend of the guitarist and he himself played guitar in another band, one of those which are always nearing breaking through. He was a loser, more or less, as proved by the fact that all his life he’d lived with his mother. He scraped together his living from gigs, helping out at recording studios, as well as polishing wooden floors. The machine he used for that was his most precious possession. He told me all of this the first night we met and I found his sincerity touching, although perhaps it only meant that he did not care about impressing me. Well, few men ever did try to impress me, so he was not different from others in this respect. But still, I appreciated his openness. Daniel, by contrast, seemed to be impressed by me, largely because few classical violinists ventured into rock.
We met the following week, and then kept seeing each other practically every day. And yet, he did not propose to move in with me. After a month or so I asked him whether he wanted to, but he said ‘no’, explaining that once he left his mother’s apartment, he wouldn’t be able to return. And moving out was not easy, as he kept his machine for polishing floors in her cellar along with other equipment – stuff which would not fit in my tiny flat.
I tried to hide Grandpa’s existence from Daniel and vice versa, sensing that they would not be to each other’s taste. However, it was difficult as Grandpa made constant demands on me, and then he fell ill. I had to move back in to look after him, as it was impossible to combine my work with nursing duties. It was then that I decided to invite Daniel round. Understandably, Grandpa was not impressed, as he’d been unimpressed with my father, my brother’s lovers and my previous boyfriend, finding all of them decadent. He did not ask me to break up with Daniel, but told me that he was a gold digger, who would bring me bad luck.
Similarly, Daniel did not like Grandpa and told me that it was obscene for an old man to have such a mansion for himself, when it could be converted into a luxurious hotel — making me a rich woman. He also fell in love with the garden sheds, imagining that one could be used as his workshop, where he could play with the wood, while another could be transformed into his music studio. I told him that Grandpa would not accept any of his ideas and, to fulfil them, we’d have to wait for Grandpa’s death, which might be not so far away, as he was over ninety by then. But Daniel replied that we weren’t young either and the old man was sucking the life out of me. This was true, but there was nothing we could do about it. ‘Yes, we can,’ Daniel said.
It did not take much time to realize that Daniel wanted to help Grandpa to leave this world. I tried to dissuade him, arguing that after the next Christmas Grandpa and I would discuss selling the house. Daniel seemed to accept my argument, but his behaviour changed. When we met up, he was distracted and his thoughts were dominated by the house rather than me. I knew that Daniel was not a gold digger in an ordinary sense, as when we had met, he did not know that I might be an heiress. But the wealth awaiting me affected our relationship, confirming my view that the house was a curse. Then, a set of the keys to Grandpa’s house went missing from my desk; I knew that Daniel had taken them. But I did not ask him about it, maybe because I was too scared to intervene. Plus, what I was meant to do? Inform Grandpa or the police that my boyfriend was about to kill him?
And then the ‘day of reckoning’ came, but it did not happen the way I expected. Late in the evening I got a telephone call from Grandpa asking me to come to the house immediately. When I arrived, I found Daniel lying on the floor, dead. Grandpa told me he shot him. He gave me the missing set of keys and told me not to reveal to the police that I knew Daniel. He was meant to be an ordinary burglar whom my brave grandfather caught by surprise. There was an interrogation, which proved that Grandpa acted in an excessive way and that he possessed an illegal weapon. Nevertheless, due to his age and his heroic past he was not charged with manslaughter. The local newspapers wrote about his bravery, often in the context of the vulnerability of old people, abandoned by the state and selfish relatives. Daniel’s death moved few people; even for his mother it was nothing more than fate fulfilled. I should have been heartbroken, but I was not, as I felt that he betrayed me, as had Grandpa. Both treated me merely as an accessory to their grandiose plans.
When the whole affair was over, Grandpa said that we would carry on like before, but I would eventually pay for what I did. Even if he hadn’t said that, I would have known that I lost the house. I did not mind it; it even felt good. The only thing that puzzled me was who would inherit it now.
Normally people who have no heirs pass their wealth on to the church or animal sanctuaries or a charity. But Grandpa was an atheist, disliked animals and was scornful about charities. The puzzle was solved earlier than I assumed, as the ‘accident’ with Daniel took its toll on Grandpa’s health. He died less than a year after, a couple of days before his ninety fifth birthday. It turned out that he had bequeathed his house back to its original owners: the Grabner family. Of course, Herr Grabner the Nazi was dead, as was his son, but his grandson, named Alex, was alive, living in Hamburg and relatively easy to track down.
Alex Grabner wanted to meet me, to find out why Grandpa disinherited me. He was in his early fifties, divorced with two children and he looked similar to his grandfather. He was a nice man, so I told him all about Grandpa, and gave him the old photos of his family which, after Grandpa’s death, I took to my apartment — strangely regarding them as the most precious souvenirs from my childhood. Alex was very grateful that we did not destroy them and particularly that I did not do it out of anger at the injustice that happened to me.
Alex, on his part, told me about his family. His grandfather was indeed a member of the NSDAP, although he was not a hardcore Nazi and was into music, playing piano and violin. Alex’s father, like my grandpa, was an engineer, built ships, and had visited Gdansk and Gdynia in relation to his job. It was not unlikely that he met my grandpa. He also played music on many instruments, and in fact, during the 1970s had his own studio, producing electronic music. Alex was an engineer too, but he moved to electronics, as did many Germans of his generation. He was the first of the Grabners who could not play any musical instrument. I told Alex that his grandfather was my first love and he found it very amusing. We talked about it over supper in the Grand Hotel, where many famous Nazis stayed and where, perhaps, Herr Grabner held his business meetings. It felt surreal to travel so far back in time, yet liberating. The past was close to me, it was in the air and on Alex’s face, but for the first time it was also just history, not a yardstick with which Grandpa measured my achievements.
Copyright Mazierska 2019