My second conversation with Dan was of a different sort; he talked about himself. He said that he had been in very difficult straits, but thanks to Korneichuk, he was now in a better position and not afraid anymore. And he said that my situation was really entirely analogous to his. He also said that he was well aware how dangerous my situation was and that of course I should go with him to see Korneichuk. Korneichuk was at the Hotel George. We waited for a long time in front of his room, his suite; then out came two very good-looking ample-bottomed girls, and a little while later he invited us in. He was wearing silk pajamas, acquired in Lwów of course, and a lot of cologne. He had the charm of a waiter. There was really no conversation. He was obviously tired, but very cordial. He said that comrade Dan had told him about me, that elections would be held soon, there would be a large meeting, and that he would be very happy if I were on the board and so forth. Small talk, very brief.
But I forgot to tell you about the worst of it at The Red Banner. There was a purge of the staff. There were a bunch of ex-Trotskyites there, not to mention Dan. They didn’t touch a hair on his head because, and I have certain reasons for thinking this, he had sold out; that is, he was protecting himself, he had an agreement with the NKVD that he would report to them. He probably said the best possible things about everyone. I’m even sure of that. But one day a group came to the editorial offices—two or three people, one of them a good-looking redhead but a forbidding girl. They were professionals who had come to question the staff. Everyone was there. They asked the questions, and everyone had to speak about himself, tell his life story. Everyone was seated; the room full of inquisitors and eyes. That was the only time that I engaged in any self-criticism. I played it like an actor, knowing that I was playing for my life and Ola’s. There had already been a purge. One ex-Trotskyite had been thrown off the editorial board and had been immediately arrested afterwards. I played it like an actor, splitting myself in two. You’re there, it’s your turn in five minutes, and during those five minutes you have to split yourself into two distinct entities. Like a guillotine. You have to sever one part from the other. And you have to feel that split within yourself because otherwise it doesn’t work and you foul up. The inquisitors have excellent eyes and sharp ears. I remember glancing at my watch and saying to myself: I’m going to have to talk in five minutes. And during those five minutes I had to perform inner surgery. I really could feel something tearing apart inside me. The actor, Aleksander Wat, was there, and I was also there in the wings, an eye that watched that actor move, speak—his gestures, intonations, everything. Later, when I went back home to Ola, I was covered in sweat; the sweat was still pouring off me. Apparently, I had played the part brilliantly. I admitted that I had said that there was a dictatorship, terror, and fear in the Soviet Union, that everyone lived in fear, but now I had come to see the error of my ways. Terror—why the very ideal. And I said that now I understood the wisdom of the policy that had anticipated the current situation with scientific accuracy. For the love of God, I said, how can any of you have any doubts; after all, this city is full of Soviet people and we’re in daily contact with them and I’ve seen for myself (of course I used more sophistry here) that there’s not even a hint of fear in Soviet people. It’s just the reverse; what’s striking about them is their independence, their spontaneity, their initiative. And it was then that I brought in that scene in the courtyard when the officer had made his decision without the slightest hesitation. “You want a horse? You’ll get one!” I played on them, I blackmailed them, I let them know that if they doubted my sincerity, that would mean that they weren’t sincere themselves. No, they didn’t throw me out. But one of the main communists on the editorial board did nod his head and say: “Yes, yes, your self-criticism was convincing, but you left out one thing you shouldn’t have—your friendship with Stawar.” But I still felt that I was out of trouble, that I had saved myself for the while.
They printed it, but they did fiddle with it a little. I have to say that it was done delicately, but the changes were crucial. After the war I somehow managed to get hold of that issue, and so my memory’s been refreshed on the subject. They threw out a couple of sentences, added a few words here and there, and made some of the adjectives stronger. Though the truth is that even in that form, it’s not a scandalous article. What’s in it? I describe on the one hand the old bourgeois society (which I don’t call bourgeois), that mourns Poland’s tragedy, and on the other the workers and so on who are building a new life. As I say, I tried to do this with a certain dignity, but it was those changes and cosmetic touch-ups that made the article very unpleasant. There’s no abuse in it, no elegiac, mournful tone, though there is some estrangement, an a priori attitude. You know what I mean. Meanwhile, they added some very strong adjectives where I described the people building a new life. And that caused an absolute shift in emphasis. It made me very ashamed. Poland was undergoing a tragedy, and there I was taking the grand tone. I had written from a bird’s-eye view, all a literary trick, but they had stepped up the grand tone. The new adjectives, a few sentences thrown out, and a couple of words changed nearly made this sound like contempt. A very sorry state of affairs. I would have protested in People’s Poland—I did protest in other cases—but I didn’t even think of protesting or sending in a correction in Lwów.
“What is it, your birthday?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m not saying.”
And I said, “We don’t go out, especially at night.”
“You absolutely must come.” He made us promise to come.
A couple of days later I was in the union where I still had some unfinished business. Later that evening, around five or six, there was to be a poetry reading—Leon Pasternak, Stanisław Lec, a few others— but it was Lec and especially Leon Pasternak who urged me to go to the party.
And so we went. Daszewski arrived. Ola wasn’t sitting with me, and Daszewski took Ola—he knew that if she was there, then I’d be there, too—he took her, Peiper, and Broniewski’s wife, Marysia Zarembińska, out to the theater’s black limousine and brought them to the club. The reading was over. I looked around for Ola; she wasn’t there. They told me that she had gone on ahead with Daszewski and had left word for me to follow. And so of course I followed. That was a foregone conclusion since Ola was already there. Then Dan grabbed me. He was very pale, and he said several times, with great emphasis, “Aleksander, I beg you, don’t go to that bar!” I had suspected I would be arrested; I imagined that they would come at night, drag me from the house, search the apartment. It never entered my mind that it would happen in a bar. And so I glanced over at Dan in surprise. Why was he insisting so vehemently, I wondered. Was he concerned about my reputation with the authorities; was he watching out for me, trying to keep me out of trouble? And so, because he made such a point of it, I am absolutely convinced, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Dan knew about it, meaning that Dan had been assigned to me. But still he was favorably inclined toward me.
And so I went to the restaurant. There was a private room for the party. Who was there? The Broniewskis; Leon Pasternak (his wife was an actress who used to play theater); the Szemplinskis (Szemplinska and her husband, an athlete who, by the way, conducted himself splendidly); Peiper; Balicki, the actor, and his brother, who worked in publishing; Siemaszkowa, a graphic artist who became known after the war—she illustrated children’s books; and Wojciech Skuza. The Sterns had not been invited, but they were there in the restaurant. We were all at a very large table in that private room. There was another smallish table in one corner of the room. After a while a tall bald man came in and sat down at that table with an actress from the Polish Theater who was known for whoring with the Soviets and everybody else, a good-looking blonde.
Daszewski was distracted, nervous, in a state of excitement. He was constantly moving, making the rounds, asking if people had enough or wanted anything, saying he’d order this or that. A sumptuous feast. “A feast in time of plague.” Two or three times I asked Daszewski, “Come on, tell me, what’s the occasion?” And he would rub his hands and say, “You’ll see! You’ll see!”
At one point he was talking with that actress and the Soviet. Then he turned to us and said, “With your permission, a well-known art historian would like to join us.” A tall, thin Leningrader, one of those thin Russians, wearing a shapeless suit. A dry face, a bit consumptive-looking, a very caustic expression. With your permission, an art historian very interested in literature who would very much like to meet you and so on. And so everyone said, Of course! He sat at one end of the table, with a door covered by a curtain behind him, the actress on one side of him, Skuza on the other, the Broniewskis a few places from him, and me at the opposite end of the table facing him.
There was so much talk I couldn’t hear a thing. At one point there was an unpleasant exchange of words between the Soviet and Władek Broniewski. I could see Broniewski clenching his teeth, talking through his teeth. Now their conversation had started to turn nasty, really nasty. I could see Skuza lean in front of the Soviet and say something to the actress. And the Soviet slapped Skuza’s face and yanked the table-cloth—everything went flying, bottles, glasses, plates. (My memory is eidetic in this case, I’m not telling you anything but what struck my retina.)
That was probably a signal, because just then two short, athletic, square-headed types wearing dark blue suits came rushing out from behind the curtain. There was something dancelike, almost slow motion about the way they burst in, and then they began throwing punches left and right. I saw one of them struggling with Szemplinska’s husband, who was giving him a good drubbing—her husband was an athlete, a boxer, I think. Just then I was struck in the teeth and fell to the floor. Such a strong blow that even though I had fantastic teeth, hard as oak, I had a loose tooth for eight years after that. It came loose right away, but it didn’t fall out. My nose and teeth were covered in blood. Then I blacked out. In despair, Ola poured water on me. I didn’t know what was going on. She wanted to drag me out of there. A total panic—people were shouting in the other rooms, but no one was being let into our room. The door was locked, and it was only then that I saw that those two boxers were on the floor dead drunk, pretending to be drunk. They were lying on the floor pretending to snore, their eyes closed.
Ola saw Władek Daszewski slipping away and grabbed him near the cloakroom, saying, “Władek, what’s going on here?” But he—all he could think of was getting away. He didn’t answer. He grabbed his coat, which the attendant had ready for him, and flew out the door. But then Ola saw police on the stairs, the entire staircase lined with police, and they had let Daszewski pass. A moment later the police came into the restaurant and allowed no one to leave.