First Assignment

(English translation of the Danita's Polish transcript)

I loved sitting on the green velvet parlor couch that mummy rescued from a neighbor's bombed out house. The neighbors had survived as had most of their possessions, but had chosen to move to the English countryside. Mummy agreed to remove their furniture and store it in our house. The couch had been covered with cushions and bedding, then stored in the basement, which had escaped the majority of the destruction. 

I'd listened to the children of London speak about a gentleman who was ferrying London's youth to the Irish countryside for the duration of the war. He was also known to have quite a large stash of chocolate, which he doled out to the kids he ferried to Ireland. To a child facing trauma, adults often offer sweets and despite the bombings and destruction, the rest of us London kids were extremely jealous about the chocolate. 

This same gentleman and his family, my own grapevine told me, were documenting and removing valuables from the bombed out sections of London, then transporting the valuables north of Hadrian's Wall. 

I had thought the valuables transport a marvelous idea. I immediately ran home and told mummy. Wiping her floured hands on her apron, she'd turned to me. Mummy had been surprised, pursing her naturally dark red lips as she went to the teapot and poured a cup. Then she smiled and agreed with me as she handed me a steaming cup of tea. 

So in between air raids, I had found myself going around London searching for the Searchers themselves.  

One chilly autumn day, noted for both its crispness and the unusual absence of wounded from the nighttime bombings, the objects of my search--the Searchers themselves--presented to me a terrified young boy, appearing to be not much older than myself. Later I was to learn he was nearly fourteen years of age; starvation and terror had taken its toll on his body. He spoke only Polish and I remembered wondering just how the Searchers had known to hand him to me. 

"What am I going to do with him?" I'd asked the taller of the two men. 

He smiled down at me. "Coxey," was all he replied. That told me all I needed to know. Noting my expression, he also added, "Careful of the facial movements."

I nodded dumbly. What else could I do? Unexpectedly, I had just been handed my first solo assignment from the MI5. So the Searchers themselves were helping with the effort in more ways than one!

"Will do," I said as authoritatively as I could. Careful to keep my expression bland, I gestured for the terrified young boy to follow me. He hesitated a few moments, and the shorter Searcher smiled gently at him, then nudged him forward. 

The taller man smiled at me again, then reached inside his coat pocket. I noted the glint of silver on brown. My child's brain, ever noted for its predilection towards sweets, noted the taller Searcher held in his hand not one, but two Hershey's chocolate bars. 

My mouth, and the mouth of the young boy, I noted with glee, watered at the sight of those two chocolate bars. My childhood dreams were coming true: chocolate would soon be in my hands!

I reached for the chocolate and taking one for myself, proffered the other one to the young boy. His dark eyes flicked back and forth from me to the taller man. He's hungry and he's been taunted with food before, from where he came, I thought suddenly. 

The taller man smiled widely at the young boy, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "Take it," he said gently, nodding his head towards me. Unsure of the tall man's command, the boy hesitated then took the proffered candy bar from me. He made motions to open it, then put the Hershey's bar inside his pocket and patted it. 

"Thank you," I said to the taller man. 

"Not a problem," he replied. 

"Thank you," the boy said, startling the two men and myself. The shorter man asked, "Do you speak English?"

"Do you speak English?" the boy repeated, smiling at the two men. "Thank you," he repeated. The two men smiled and nodded. 

I motioned for the boy to follow me. Upon reaching my street, his eyes widened at the destruction but he kept silent. 

My mother had the front door open when we turned into our yard. "Hello,  Zane. Welcome to our home, and welcome to our country," she told Zane in Polish. 

"Hello, ma'am," he replied also in Polish. Even at my young age, I knew enough about meeting new people to understand that Mummy and Zane were saying hello and welcome.

Mummy saw us into the kitchen where she noted the chocolate bar in my hand. Zane took out his chocolate bar and looked at it. Mummy saw him. "Zane, did you want to eat that now? We've plenty of food so don't worry."

"Yes, I haven't had chocolate in years. But I think I want to save it for later." 

"I have some meat and potatoes for you to eat now," Mummy said, knowing how scarce food was in Poland. At the time, I didn't have any idea of what Mummy and Zane were saying, so I sipped the tea that Mummy had set in front of us. 

"Real meat? Really?" 

Mummy smiled. "Yes. Real meat."

"Thank you," he told her, smiling hugely. This phrase I could understand, for Zane spoken in English. 

Mummy looked surprised. "When did you learn to say some words in English?"

"When did you learn to say some words in English?" Zane repeated. Mummy smiled, then turned to me. "He's a budding linguist."

"I'll watch what I say to him, then," I replied, sipping my tea. Mummy set plates of food before us. He picked up his fork and started to eat. 

"Slowly, else you might end up sick," Mummy said in Polish. 

Zane slowed down his eating. I deduced that mummy had told him to slow down his eating. 

After he had finished eating, Mummy refreshed our tea, then began to ask questions. She hated to be brusque, but the information about the SS was needed quickly. He seemed to understand this and he began his story: 

"Your story?" she asked, again in Polish. I knew that someday I would get the story, maybe in translation as his story unfolded, maybe not until I was grown up. I merely sipped another cup of tea and listened to flow and ebb of the Polish language. 

He took a deep breath. "My parents were killed in one of the ghetto raids. Hitler himself received me after their deaths. He said my parents had been brave. I knew what he meant: he thought my parents were dedicated Aryans."

"Your parents infiltrated?" 

"Yes. My mother was sixteen and my father seventeen when I was born. When Hitler came to power back in Thirty Three, my parents decided to help all they could. Not being able to get out of Germany, my parents instead enlisted in the Youth Party and passed themselves off as Aryan. I was also enlisted in the Youth Party and I had to wear their uniform. I remember being upset about that. I couldn't see why we couldn't go to the synagogue any longer. But my parents told me that an inside track with the Youth Party would be of greater benefit. Later, I had to agree that Nazi Officers were more than willing to stop and sign an autograph for a young boy dressed in the Youth Uniform."

"And your parents felt that getting the names of high-level officers would further help stop the Nazi's," Mummy said, wonder in her voice. I had caught the wonderment in her voice and myself wondered what was being said. 

Zane nodded and smiled. "Yes. Sometimes I wonder what those officers were thinking. Here they were, Nazi officers trying to hide from the British and the Americans, yet they would sign an autograph and tell where they would be next if the person asking was dressed in the Youth Party's uniform." 

"Overconfident, weren't they?" Mummy asked. 

"Agreed. Over the years, I've collected quite a large amount of names. I saved the autographs and managed to carry them out in the wooden box I took with me."

"The names are in the box? We didn't find anything in the box," Mummy said, quite surprised but her voice held a tone of disappointment. I raised my eyebrows in a silent question. She looked at me sideways then turned her attention back to our visitor. 

"Yes. You didn't lose the box, did you?" he asked, worry creeping into his voice. "I had been told that if I had any information to send, I was to send the information to the art gallery in Chelsea as soon as I arrived in Stockholm." 

"No. We didn't do anything with the box. It's sitting on a mantel elsewhere. Rather, we thought it a beautiful work of Russian lacquer with the lid inlaid with cherry amber."

Zane laughed. "That is correct. I hollowed out each piece of wood used when I made the box.."

He paused in his narrative. I noted the understanding which dawned in Mummy's eyes. "Then stuffed the secret compartments with your information. Very clever."

"Correct again. Each panel of the box is designed as a secret compartment. You've only to pry apart each panel to get the information contained inside. I also managed to get more disturbing information about the types of gases they're using in the concentration camps."

Mummy looked away at this comment, tears in her eyes. I put my tea cup down, the last sip still in the cup. I leaned forward, and felt a worry line creasing my forehead. 

He continued. "From several officers, I was able to obtain detailed information about the location of the concentration camps. That will help?"

Mummy looked away. I noted Zane's last statement must have contained something revealing. "Yes. We have been trying to locate the concentration camps since we first learned of their existence." 

"For that, I am glad. I am glad I helped. I did not know the value of the information I carried. At first I tried to tell my parents about the names of the Nazi officers but they shushed me, saying they needed to keep a low profile. But they did tell me to keep my information in a safe place and that someone might one day ask me certain questions and I was to follow the instructions I was given."

"You did very well. Tell me, how did you come up with the idea of the lacquer box?"

Zane smiled. "I've always been interested in the fine arts. The box is actually made of birch wood instead of papier maiche. I learned how to make a lacquer box from a man whose son had been killed by the Nazi's early in the 30's." Zane's voice had gone soft.

He continued, "By that time, you might know, more than a quarter of the German Jews were eating out of charity kitchens, and their livelihoods taken away. My friend's son had served his Jewish friends a wedding dinner. The Nazis found out and a few days later, the apartment was riddled with bullets."

More tears slipped from mummy's eyes and I noted tears in Zane's eyes. At this point, I understood that something sad was being said, but despite my eyebrow acrobatic attempts at enticing mummy to translate, I could only gather that someone had died. 

"And the amber?"

"I thought that if necessary, I could use the amber to buy food and transportation if necessary. It's large faceted cherry amber pieces, enough for a necklace."

"We hadn't thought about the amber as jewelry."

Zane looked down a moment. "Actually, the amber was my father's idea. Said to buy enough cherry amber to make into a necklace." 

"Your parents told you what might happen to them if they were discovered?"

"Yes. They were very upfront about things concerning the Nazis. They even told me there were other young boys doing as I was: collecting Nazi autographs."

"Were all of those boys helping the Allies?" Mummy queried carefully. 

"Probably not," he replied. "Some, like me, were young spies in disguise."

"Did you know any of the other boys who were helping the Allies?"

"No. My parents made sure of that. The less I knew, the better was their mantra."

"They were correct. You know what would have happened."

"I would have been killed outright. As it was, I knew I was taking a risk. When I was called into Hitler's presence, I thought I would be killed, he studied me for so long."

"What do you mean?"

"I walked into the hotel room where he'd set up a temporary office. He sat behind a desk, and looked at me for the longest time. I swear, I thought I had been discovered and that Hitler was going to use me as an example to other Youth Party members."

"But he didn't."

"No. He said that he didn't know what to say to me. And that the only thing he could think of was that my parents were patriots, and they were brave."

"They were," Mummy said softly. 

"Agreed. But not patriotic and brave to the cause Hitler thought."

"Your parents were dedicated."

"Very. When you take apart the panels in the lid, save the photos underneath."

"Oh?" Mummy asked, her eyebrows raised in question.

"That panel contains a few photographs of my parents and our family."

"You were an only child?"

"Yes. I brought their wedding picture."

"We'll save that." 

By this time in the dialogue the tea had gone cold and Mummy stood up to put more water on the stove to boil. I watched her heels click on the floor and from the set of her shoulders, I knew she was very upset but was trying not to show it. Zane was looking at me, his own eyebrows raised in question. 

Since we couldn't speak the same language, I hugged myself and mimed crying. He nodded, understanding that I was saying mummy was crying inside but was trying to be strong for our sakes.

From the stove, mummy said, "Yes, Danita. I'm very upset about what I've been told." She said something else in Polish. Zane said "Yes."

How does she do that? I wondered. How do mums seem to know what you're thinking, even when their backs are turned to you? I spared a glance towards our visitor. I thought she must have repeated her statement to him but later I found out that she'd just asked if he wanted more tea. 

Mummy stood watch over the tea pot until the whistle blew. Zane and I merely sat at the table. I was looking wistfully at my chocolate bar, alternately wanting to stuff it down my throat greedily, and wanting to save it for another day. He smiled at me. His teeth had been well taken care of by his late parents. Zane patted his pocket again where he'd replaced the chocolate bar the taller Searcher had given him. 

He smiled at me. I knew from his smile that he too was alternating between wanting to eat the Hershey's bar and to save it. Decisions! Finally, I made my decision. Slowly I pulled the Hershey's bar towards me. I unwrapped the top third of the bar, broke off three of the rectangular blocks and laid one piece by mummy's tea cup. The second piece I put in my mouth. The third piece I offered to Zane.

He smiled. Shyly, he reached out and accepted the proffered chocolate. "Thank you," he said, putting the chocolate into his mouth. "Mmmm."

Regardless of the language barriers, I understood what he meant perfectly. "You're welcome," I replied. Even in the short time I'd known him, I knew he would learn this phrase quickly. 

The tea having been brewed, Mummy returned to the table. "Why Danita! Thank you!" Mummy fingered the chocolate. She too hadn't tasted chocolate for some time. Her chocolate torte cake that she had made for my fourth birthday was the last time she had tasted chocolate. Finally she picked up the piece of chocolate and put it into her mouth. "Mmmmmm," was her response. 

"I think the three of us are in agreement that our Searcher friends get a well deserved thanks," I commented. 

"Very true. He won't tell anyone where he obtained the chocolate. He's very much in demand around London and not only with the kids he's ferrying." Mummy translated this into Polish and Zane laughed loudly. Mummy and I joined in. 

Laughter felt so good. 

Some time later, after our visitor had left for the Irish countryside with the taller Searcher, whose name is Jonathan my mum informed me, Mummy sat down with me on the parlor couch.

Jonathan and his brother in law would stop by in the morning to catalog and transport our neighbor's belongings, for the parlor couch held the family's flat silverware and precious jewelry stitched into the cushions. Try as I might, I couldn't detect the jewerly and silverware through the thick cushions. 

Jonathan had left several chocolate bars with us. Mummy sat on the couch, staring at the small pile of chocolate bars.

"You know, Danita, Tallulah was very prescient."

Now mummy had me confused. "What does prescient mean? And who is Tallulah?"

"Prescient is knowing something before it happens. And Tallulah worked for Jonathan and his brother in law. Before she died, she stocked up on chocolate bars."

"I'm glad she did. They're very good." 

Mummy smiled a wan smile. I wanted to know what she and Zane had said, but I knew better than to try to get the information out of her. Mummy would tell me in time. "Yes. But I think I'm going to save these for later."

"Good idea. We can share the rest of my chocolate bar tomorrow."