By William Markiewicz
Looking recently at my old paintings from Europe brought back memories linked with some of the portraits. Their stories seemed to me interesting enough that I shouldn't keep them only for myself.
Unfortunately I can't give his family name even if, as readers will find out, it has an important place in history. Janek was born either in Westphalia like his parents or in France. He had some German blood, I am not sure from which side. In Polish he spoke correctly; in French, like a Frenchman. During the war, when he was 8 or 9 years old, his father sent him to the Hitlerjugend. Janek told me how the whippersnappers of his age sliced each other to death with duelling swords. He had a hard school in the Hitlerjugend. He didn't talk about it much and asked me for discretion, which I keep … He was a passionate Polish patriot and once, during a discussion with colleagues about European federalism, he lectured: "Boleslaw the Valient (10-11th century) was a federalist?! Sobieski (17th century) was a federalist?! Federalism is a Jewish invention!" Despite his fierceness, Janek was sentimental. I was one of the few who was aware of it and that's why we were friends. Janek loved girls and it was reciprocated. He told me how the most sophisticated women became prostitutes in his bed and I believed him because Janek had no imagination. He got together with a very beautiful French girl; she helped him financially while he studied, and then they married. When the war in Algeria broke out, Janek was drafted. He told me about savage battles and I could imagine Janek in action. When I met him after the war, all his life was on a downward slide and probably never recovered. While he was on the front lines his wife had left him. Not knowing the facts, I can't blame her. Janek could be impossible to live with. Coming home in his tattered uniform, sick and wounded, he found the apartment padlocked and had to go to a hotel. The army left him with black memories. Somebody made a Jew of him saying that his name sounded like 'Moses." I'm sorry that I can't quote his name so the reader would understand what an absurdity it was. Anyway, this Nordic from the Hitlerjugend collected bullying for 'Jewishness.' I didn't ask him who set him up -- Pole, French or German -- the French army is pretty multicultural. It was tragicomical coincidence that a real Jew, a neighbour of his parents, was serving with him in the same unit. Both mothers were friends and both wept about the fate of their sons, the true and the fabricated Jew. I lost contact with him for a year and when we met I realised he'd never recover from that trauma. By chance I saw him on the street one night, walking with a bunch of hoodlums. He himself seemed under the effect of alcohol or drugs. He exuded cynicism. I felt we had nothing more in common; that I could do nothing for him, and I remained unnoticed..
Esteban is a Spaniard of Catalan mother and Andalusian father. He grew up in a small Catalan city. He came from Barcelona to Paris with dreams of journalistic glory as an envoy of a literary magazine. He had the great sensitivity of a writer but for success he lacked two basic qualities: education and money. In Barcelona, the magazine published his rubric a la Dear Abby which he surely handled well because he knew how to dig into life situations and his religious morality concorded with that of his society. But he had ambitions for larger horizons and so he found himself in Paris. His task was to interview various stars of song and TV but he didn't yet know enough French. He gave me his short stories to read, one of which made a deep impression on me. It spoke of a young painter who, after a conflict, left his family home and his little town and ended up in Barcelona with just a small sum of money. On a street corner he noticed a young attractive prostitute and with youthful carelessness he decided to spend his last penny on her. In the hotel room they had a friendly conversation and he told her his story. She told him, "My history is somewhat similar to yours. But for me it's too late. Go back home to your father and mother before the Moloch of the big city also swallows you." It was so warmly said and in such simple language that I felt the situation as if I were there. I said to Esteban, "I am impressed, you are a Spanish Balzac of simple things." I should not have told him that. I wounded him by saying that he wrote about simple matters. To show that he could write about extraordinary matters he started to write cheapies about love and murder and he couldn't understand why I didn't like them. He probably suspected me of jealousy. Esteban's story, unfortunately, is also a story of defeat even though he resisted with admirable stubborness. His youth let him survive the Parisian winter which is stern though without snow. He would leave my place late in the evening, I didn't know why he wore such a sour expression. Well, he was spending nights under the sky in some warm sewer among bums and degenerates. He knew how to keep the secret to himself. My wife remarked, "Why does Esteban stink? Doesn't he change his clothes?" Once she encountered him on the street in this condition and told him, "Esteban, either put yourself together or go back to Spain." He stayed with us for a few days, then he found work and a place to live. He became a cleaner at some public swimming pool. At the beginning he still got letters from his editor but finally lost contact with his magazine. He was passing through life, always with his Chaplinesque smile, though he was no longer the same Esteban. He became sort of a cynic, he probably lost his religious morality, a dangerous step for a simple man. He claimed that he was satisfied and perhaps he really was. He'd say, "If I were offered an editorial position in Buenos Aires, I'd tell them to keep it for themselves!" He claimed that he didn't want to lose contact with Europe but what was this Europe for him? Late at night after work, onion soup in Les Halles then -- if he didn't have a girlfriend -- a prostitute. He eventually went to Spain with some money and got married.
I met her in Paris where she worked as a maid. She was a peasant from around Burgos (northern Spain). Her mother died early and her father and stepmother treated her inhumanly. When she was five years old they sent her to a convent. There she wasn't handled with silk gloves either; Spain was simply a hard country where the strongest survived. Five year old Carol scrubbed the convent's floors and washed clothes from morning to night. She stood on a chair raised up on blocks of wood so she could reach the huge wooden washtub. The Mother Superior became aware of her smartness and said, "You should learn and you'll rise above your condition and above others." Thanks to the Mother Superior's help and her own early awareness, Carol learned a lot in situation where others continued illiterate. During the Civil War in Spain, Burgos was a military base for Germans and Italians who liked this little blondie and offered her candies. They were among the few besides the Mother Superior who showed her some warmth. She always kept good memories of them -- plus fascism which she later lost. She didn't grow up and probably because of a hormonal disturbance provoked by hardship and malnourishment, her proportions were ungainly -- short body and long face, her skin pale and blotchy. In one word, she was ugly in spite of lively clear eyes and blond hair. She could get work only as a maid and the boys hissed at her. As a good Spaniard with an instinct for self defence she became stinging like a wasp and aggressive as a panther. Because the convent had been her only home and the Mother Superior her only mother, she never missed Sunday Mass but she wasn't a devotee. Her life attitude was pragmatic in the Spanish way. I met her boyfriend, a Croat; they seemed a merry good couple. He probably would have married her but he was frank with her. She was too ugly to be presented to his family. They ended like dog and cat. She left Paris to settle in Madrid. From this period began, for us, the most interesting chapter of her life. At the age of 50, Carol apparently finished her PhD in French literature at the University of Madrid. I knew that in Paris she had sometimes frequented the Sorbonne as a noncredit student but I never thought it was something serious. In this period she also lost her fascism; at the Spanish university there was a passionate debate about why Spain lost her glory so quickly after chasing away the Moors and the Jews.
I lost contact with Carol even though she was as loyal as a sister to me. Somehow I learned that she found somebody who knew how to appreciate her.
Wlodek was born before the war in a Polish prison. Mother-- a Jewess -- was an active communist and named her son for Lenin. Father -- probably also a Jew -- fell in some military action before or during the war. The Russians, when they entered Poland, deported her and the child to Central Asia and there she stopped being a communist. By profession she was a nurse and when she protested that Uzbeks and Kazakhs were injected one after another with one unsterilized needle, she got the reply: "They are animals. Nothing will happen to them." She wrote a protest to Moscow and was told "We washed the windows with your protest. Shut your big mouth or you'll go where nobody returns from " They ended in Paris, mother a passionate anti-Communist and son -- a Trotskyist. He would return home bloody from streetfights. He had a notable talent for painting but between ideology and a mother who handled it wrongly, nothing came of it. A group of French aristocrats became interested in his talent and even financed him for a period of time but they had a poor attitude to art and finally everything broke with politics. Wlodek was vegetating -- tall and skinny, he looked like Don Quixote. Leaving Paris, I lost track of him.Back to the index of the Vagabond