Roma Ligocka

Photo by P. Piotrowski

Roma Ligocka

The Girl In The Red Coat

Read by Marta Meissner, recorded by Radiofonia Association
English translation: Margot Bettauer Dembo, QPD quality paperbacks Direct London

It is always cold in the ghetto, ice cold, inside the house as well as out. Inside there’s only one kitchen stove for all of us and almost no coal. Outside, snow blankets the ground. There is no summer in the ghetto, no seasons at all, and no sunlight. Everything is dark and grey, always.

The ghetto has four large gates. We are not allowed to pass through these gates. It’s absolutely forbidden. A tram runs on the main street, the number three. We are not allowed to get on to it. That’s why it makes no stops here in the ghetto. It simply goes right on through. The people sitting in the tram stare at us through  the steamed-up windows. A boy throws a few loaves of bread out of tram window; they fall at our feet.

We stand on the street, freezing. Many, many people. There are people everywhere. Some have large dogs, and carry guns, and just watch. They shoot at who they want to, maybe at me too. We’re the others. The Jews. We have to wait all the time.

The people with the guns have gold buttons and black shiny boots that crunch in the snow when they march by. But mostly you can’t hear that because they are constantly yelling and shouting. They yell, we obey. Anyone who doesn’t obey is killed. I know that, even though I’m still very little. So little that I reach only up to the knees of the men in the shiny boots. When one of them comes near me, and I hear the black boots crunching and see the dog with the sharp teeth panting right next to my head, I feel even smaller than usual. That’s when I try to make myself invisible. Sometimes it actually works, and I dissolve in the icy wind and the yelling, and my grandmother’s cold, thin hand. She holds me tight, but I’m not there any more.

Grandmother is always there. When the waiting is over she takes me back into kitchen, then takes off my red coat. It’s beautiful coat made of soft red wool, and it has a hood. She sewed it for me herself. With her thin cold hands Grandmother warms my feet; I can’t feel them any more. She sets me on top of the table while she stirs a pot on the stove. Then she comes back with a bowl of steaming porridge that has little lumps swimming in it. She tries to feed me, but I turn my head away. The porridge is disgusting, the lumps, revolting. I don’t want to eat it. I feel sick. The other people scold me. The hot kitchen is full of noisy strangers with sweaty, smelly bodies. One of the men grabs the bowl from Grandmother’s hand and swallows the gruel in one gulp. My grandmother doesn’t say anything. She sits down at her sewing machine again and clatters away. I’m glad the man ate the disgusting stuff. Lucky for me there’s nothing left now.

English translation: Margot Bettauer Dembo, QPD quality paperbacks Direct London

Roma Ligocka

(b. 1938) – a painter, writer, and columnist. Born in Krakow to a Jewish family. She survived a part of the war in the ghetto, which she managed to escape from, to hide away with a Polish family later. Her book Dziewczynka w czerwony płaszczyku (The Girl in the Red Coat, 2001) won worldwide renown, and Hollywood purchased its filming rights. She was inspired to write it by the film Schindler’s List, in whose protagonist she recognised herself from many years earlier. The autobiographic novel is a highly emotional description of life in Podgórze ghetto and Krakow under Nazi occupation. The author also describes her post-war life: studying at the Academy of Fine Arts, the life of the Krakow bohemians, friendships with Piotr Skrzynecki and Ryszard Horowitz, and relations with her cousin, Roman Polański. (ms)

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