Part Two: The Aftermath
I. Hosenfeld gazed at the sky above him. It was grey and laden with heavy clouds. They seemed motionless, looming over them. Soon it would rain. With a sigh he lowered his eyes. The view around him was bleak. A row of identical grey rectangular buildings, muddy ground, the great gate in the distance. And now he was seated on a dirty wooden bench, with a bowl in his hands. Its meagre serving stood untouched and had since long gone cold.
"Hey, Herr Hauptmann, eat something. They will have us breaking stones again in a few minutes or so", the captive next to him said.
Hosenfeld ignored him. He had no appetite. He did not care to eat. He did not care if he died in the next hour. What was the meaning of this life? He was a prisoner in a Soviet POW camp, and he would probably be for the rest of his life. Twenty-five years of hard labor: that had been his sentence. But he was certain he would not live that long.
When first he and the Wehrmacht company he was leading were captured by the Red Army, he retained some small hope that he could perhaps find some help. He hoped that Hanna would follow his instructions and flee, taking his diary with her. If at some point she made contact with some of the people he mentioned in the diary, then perhaps they would try to look for him, the people he had helped would not forsake him…
Often he thought of them. Every soul he had rescued during the war. He could remember their faces, their names, and their stories. But there was one he thought about ceaselessly. Hanna. She danced in his dreams every night and in his waking thoughts every day. He deeply hoped she had survived. He liked to imagine her happy and smiling, and teaching in a school again. Sometimes, just before sleep, he would close his eyes and conjure her form in his mind. He would try and remember every little detail of her face; how her eyes shone when she looked at him, how her eyebrows arched up in question when she was curious about something, how her lips curled when she smiled at him… And he would remember her delicate curves that he had only stolen brief glances at. Did she know how that yellow flower dress accentuated her small waist? Did she have any idea how mad with desire her round breasts made him?
But his thoughts of her were not only a man's lustful thoughts. Above all he missed her voice, her compassion, her understanding, and how she tried to be close to him, even though he did all he could to keep her at a distance. He regretted that now. He wished he had opened his heart to her, he wished he had told her how he felt. Then at least once in this lifetime he would have tasted her lips. But he had done nothing of the sort. They had parted in bitterness. That memory cut him like a knife every time. She was so hurt and disappointed… She had thought her love was unwelcome, she had thought he rejected her. But how far from the truth was that! He only wanted to spare her the pain of separation, the addition of another grief in her soul. He thought it would be better this way. He thought it would be easier for her to let go and forget him if she believed that he did not love her back. But his choice had resulted in an exchange of horrible words between them, and he deeply regretted that. Hosenfeld shuddered every time he thought of those moments, and how much they had hurt each other, when all they needed was love and comfort. In time he came to fear that he had completely alienated her, and that in turn he had condemned himself as well. What if she decided to throw his diary away? What if she never made contact with the other people he had helped? She was the only one that knew his name; so, in truth, she was his only hope.
At first he had tried to cling on to that hope, and every day he waited for news that someone might be looking for him. He was waiting for a miracle. But miracles did not happen in real life. Soon enough he along with the other German captives were taken away from Poland, and after endless miles they ended up in a POW camp in Stalingrad. During the first months of his captivity Hosenfeld had kept track of time. He even asked for a notebook and a pen, intending to continue keeping a diary, but his request was rejected and laughed at. But as the time passed and the conditions of his captivity worsened, he began to lose heart. The passing of time became blurry and meaningless. Months turned into years, and his physical and mental state gradually declined. The daily labor was heavy, and the abuse by the guards heavier still.
"No dawdling, you German swine!" a guard barked at him, and pushed him to the ground. "You lazy scum! Back to work!" He hit him with a club to make his point clearer.
Hosenfeld winced. His right shoulder had taken so many hits that it was in a state of constant pain, and would soon render his whole arm useless. He tried to get back to his feet, only to be kicked in the side by the abusive guard. The air was forced from his lungs, and he remained on the ground.
The Russian laughed. "Not so tough now, are you, you fucking Nazi?"
Hosenfeld's face grew grim. "I'm not a Nazi", he uttered through clenched teeth.
The guard bent over him. "Hm? What was that? What did you say, you pig?" Before Hosenfeld had any chance to react the burly Russian grabbed him by the collar and struck him hard across the face. "You are all fucking Nazis", he went on, his voice lined with hatred.
Hosenfeld's vision darkened. Blood ran down one side of his face, adding to the dried blood that was there already from previous beatings. Just kill me, he silently wished.
"You thought you would just come and take great Russia, huh? Now look what you get!" the guard said with a cackle and kicked him again, and then spat on him. Hosenfeld groaned and coughed up blood.
"Comrade Morozov! That will be enough!" an officer's voice was heard, and immediately the one named Morozov abandoned Hosenfeld and stood to attention. "Bring this prisoner into the entrance hall. Now!" the higher-ranking officer issued an order.
"Yes, comrade Major Arshavin!" the burly guard replied.
Arshavin then turned to Hosenfeld. "Your name is Hosenfeld, is it not?" The German managed a weak nod. "There is someone waiting to see you."
II. In bonds Hosenfeld was led to a building by the front gate of the camp. The guard unlocked the door and pushed him inside. "Now we wait, you filthy Nazi."
Hosenfeld said nothing and hung his head. His breathing was still labored, and his side ached during every inhalation. Who knew now what new punishment the Soviets would visit upon him? He had been unproductive lately, as the guards had decreed. The overseeing officer, the one called Arshavin, had not struck him as particularly cruel or unreasonable, but he usually turned a blind eye to the guards' abusive behavior. Certainly he was not worse than his Nazi counterparts had been during the war.
Sure enough, the door on the other side of the room opened and Arshavin walked in. The Soviets exchanged some quick words that Hosenfeld failed to understand. Then the officer went and stood in the doorway. "Come in Mrs. Bernstein", he called.
A young woman stepped in. "Thank you, comrade Major. Oh, and it's miss, not Mrs."
Arshavin chuckled. "I would gladly make you a Mrs. were I not married already." Then he gestured towards the prisoner. "This is the one called Hosenfeld. Is this the one you were looking for?"
Hosenfeld caught his name in the dialogue, but did not lift his eyes. He felt numb, his head still ringing from the blow he had taken.
The woman walked forward until she came and stood before him. "Could you please leave us alone for a moment?" Her voice was low and slightly tremulous.
"It's not advised, for your own safety, miss", Arshavin replied.
"I will be fine. Don't worry. Thank you, comrade Major."
The officer grudgingly nodded his consent. "Alright then. We will be right next door…" he said and threw a warning glare at Hosenfeld. Then Arshavin and Morozov stepped out and closed the door.
The room was dark and lit by a single lamp that hung from the ceiling. The sickly yellow light cast angry shadows on both their faces. The woman spoke quietly. "Wilhelm…?"
Hosenfeld slowly brought his eyes up to her. In front of him stood a beautiful, dignified woman. She was dressed in a dark green suit and wore a matching hat on her shiny reddish curls. There was something familiar about her. Her eyes were warm and hazel in color, and her eyebrows arched…
A gasp escaped his lips. His eyes widened and his heart raced. It cannot be, I'm delusional, he thought.
"Wilm? It's Hanna", the woman softly said.
Her name sounded almost foreign on his lips after all this time. He kept staring at the woman in shock and disbelief, half believing that he was the victim of a cruel trick his troubled mind was playing him.
But it was no trick. Hanna searched his face for signs of the man she remembered. To say that the sight of him broke her heart would be an understatement. The man standing in front of her resembled nothing the proud officer she once knew. This one here was battered and wounded and filthy, scrawny and weak, a shadow of who he once was. A cruel mockery of fate, all at once to shatter the image of him she had cherished in her heart for all these years.
Hanna, holding her breath, took in his appearance. He was dressed in filthy rags, his hair – what had happened to his neatly combed blond hair? His hair was long and dirty, blood and mud caked in the tangles. A messy beard accompanied it. And his face, bloodied and bruised, so hollow, so pale, so drawn, so devoid of life… Were it not for his brilliant blue eyes, she would not have recognized him. But his eyes too were lifeless, as if he had abandoned all hope. This was a man that had forsaken all bonds with life and simply waited for Death to visit him.
"Wilm?" she whispered his name again. Tears now were in her eyes, testimony of her heart's bitter lament. Her insides were torn in protest for what had been done to this man, and it took all her willpower for her to retain her composure. "Do you remember me?"
"Hanna", he rasped, and a small light flickered in his eyes.
"I'm here for you, Wilm. I'm here to take you away from this horrible place", she told him, an unsure smile playing upon her lips, contradicting the sadness he could clearly read in her eyes.
"I will tell you everything later. Let's go, Wilm, please. Your friend, the pianist, Mr. Szpilman, is outside, waiting in the car. Do you remember Mr. Szpilman?"
Hosenfeld's foggy mind cleared a bit. "The pianist… yes."
"See? He never forgot about you either."
Hosenfeld could only stare at her dumbfounded. The miracle he had been praying for had just come true, and he was still unable to quite grasp it.
Hanna then turned and knocked on the door. Arshavin opened. They spoke quickly, and she passed a file to him. He went through it, carefully looking at all the papers. Then he came and unshackled Hosenfeld's wrists. "Well then, German, this is your lucky day. This kind lady here says that you helped many people in Warsaw during the war, and she has all the proper documents to prove it. Authorization for your release is already given by comrade Ivanov. It seems that the days of imprisonment for you are over. Can't say that we'll miss you. You've always been a pain in the ass. Off you go now, and good luck… Though what kind of luck awaits a former Nazi officer I know not. It's a new world, German, a world of communism where you don't fit. Pah, what do I care anyway. Go now. Morozov will escort you to the front gate", Arshavin said with a side smirk, crossing his arms over his chest.
Hosenfeld could barely register the words he heard. He could barely register what had just happened. One moment he was in the camp with the other inmates and it was a day exactly like any other, and the other moment Hanna was standing right in front of him, and he was freed from captivity. But the guard pushed him forth, eager to be rid of him. Hosenfeld only muttered, "I'm not a Nazi", as he exited the building, and along with Hanna followed Morozov to the entrance of the camp. The heavy iron gates opened. After more than three long years of imprisonment, he was finally free.
III. When Hosenfeld awoke, he found himself lying in a sofa. The last thing he remembered was getting into a car and being greeted by a smiling Szpilman, whom he would have never recognized in a million years. He looked so young and proper now, nicely dressed in a grey suit, his dark hair glistening and his face clean-shaven. Hosenfeld only remembered the shabby, bearded man he had once found hiding in the ruins of Warsaw. And then Hanna had gotten into the car, and she and Szpilman conversed in low tones. He remembered nothing else and thought he must have fallen asleep.
He tried to move and sit up now, but his body ached. He had forgotten how it was to lie on soft pillows. He looked around, disoriented. A horrible headache threatened to split his skull in two. And Hanna, where was she? "Hanna…" he weakly called her name.
Soon she came in from the adjoining room. "I'm here, Wilm. How are you feeling?" she said and knelt by his side.
He blinked a couple of times. "My head hurts. Where are we?"
"We are in an inn, a few kilometers north of Stalingrad. Władek has gone to get us some dinner", she replied.
His eyes wandered around the room before finally settling on her face. "Hanna… can it really be you?"
"Yes, Wilm", she said warmly and took his hand. Immediately he flinched, pulling away from the contact.
Hanna looked at him with concern. Who knows what torture he has endured… I must be very careful, she thought.
"Perhaps you would like a warm bath? I have some clean clothes for you", she spoke calmly.
A bitter smile rose on his cracked lips. Who could have ever guessed that a day would come when their situations would be reversed? He felt so helpless and at the mercy of his rescuer. Is that how Hanna had felt, so long ago, when he first found her? Hungry and cold and exhausted, wronged and abused, at the mercy of the powerful. Like a scared mouse she had been hiding… He tried to unearth those memories, but his mind was hazy.
Her voice brought his attention back to her. "Yes…" he sighed.
"I will help you, if you wish", she offered.
He nodded. Hanna helped him to his feet. Slowly she walked him to the bathroom and filled the tub with warm water. Hosenfeld tried to remove the ragged shirt, but with his wounded right shoulder the task proved impossible.
Hanna saw his distress. Slowly she reached out and lifted the shirt. He did not resist. She inhaled sharply when she saw his chest and back. There were scars, cuts and bruises everywhere, and some of them seemed quite recent indeed. Her brow trembled in indignation. "Wilm…" she uttered his name, not daring to touch him again, for fear of hurting him.
He looked at her in sorrow and shame. A single tear ran down his cheek, marking a clear path on his dirty skin. "I'm sorry, Hanna…"
His inexplicable need to apologize clawed at her heart. He felt so ashamed of himself, of what had become of him, robbed of all human dignity. He reminded her of herself when she was hiding in the ruins of the mansion, when Hosenfeld found her and saved her. A miserable existence, weak and trembling, begging for scraps of food and pity.
She shook her head. "No, Wilm, I am sorry. I am sorry I couldn't come for you earlier."
He cast his eyes low again, and tried to remove his torn trousers. The rusty belt buckle was stuck. Hanna hesitated. "Please, help me", he asked of her in a low, defeated tone, avoiding to look at her.
With tears in her eyes she removed his trousers, her fingers trembling as she exposed his nudity. This was not at all how she had imagined the first time she would behold his naked form to be. All she could feel now was pity and sorrow for him, and hatred towards anyone who could ever subject such a kind and noble being as Wilhelm Hosenfeld to so much abuse and humiliation. She avoided looking at his front, not wishing to add to his discomfort and shame. He deserved respect, he deserved to be treated with dignity.
Unable to look at her, he stepped into the bathtub and crouched low. Hanna rolled up her sleeves and knelt by the tub. She took the washcloth and the soap and made some foam, getting ready to bathe him.
"I wish I was dead", he said out of nowhere.
Hanna froze. "No, Wilm, no… Please don't talk like that. Once I too was alone and despondent, don't you remember? But you saved me… You ignited in me the will to live. Please don't resign now… Let me help you, as you once helped me", she told him tenderly.
She made to touch his cheek, but once again he flinched. Oh God, what have they done to him that even the mere suggestion of the slightest touch scares him?
"Forgive me, I didn't mean to scare you", she said. He nodded without meeting her gaze. "I have the washcloth here. Do you want me to help you?" she decided to ask him before doing anything at all. He nodded again.
She began with his shoulders, being especially careful with his right one. She had noticed how it hurt him whenever he tried to use his right arm. Then she washed his neck and went up to his hair and head. Then he seemed to relax a little, and he leaned into her touch. She took her time washing his hair, glad that he seemed to enjoy it somewhat. Then she washed his face, and when he opened his eyes his face had a little something of the beauty and charm it once had. Hanna could not but smile at the remembrance.
"You're smiling…" he noted, and inadvertently smiled back a little.
Her heart fluttered. Holding his head as she was, she leaned close and kissed his brow. She heard him releasing a shaky breath. "All will be well", she whispered to him. "Just trust me."
"I do. I always have."
She looked at him and smiled again. Then she went on with her task, scrubbing his back, his chest, his arms and then his legs. He was injured almost everywhere, but the physical ailments did not worry her as much as the mental ones did.
"I'm sorry you had to see me like this, Hanna", Hosenfeld said.
"None of this is your fault, Wilm. But all that matters now is that you're alive", she responded. "Come now, let's get you dry."
He rose and she draped a towel around his shoulders. Then she took him to the bedroom. His eyes fell on the full body mirror that was in the corner. Slowly he approached it and stood still for a moment. Then he dropped the towel, and his reflection made him shiver in shock and disgust. His body was a detailed map of the abuse he had received. Hanna watched silently from a distance, her heart heavy with sorrow.
He brought his left hand to his chest, then to his right shoulder, and to his face. He had not looked in a mirror in more than three years and now he barely recognized himself. A wave of despair and shame washed over him, and he dropped to his knees. Immediately Hanna was at his side, but he held his arm out, gesturing for her to stay away. His breathing came uneasy, and his shoulders shook.
To see him cry made her heart bleed. She wanted to help him, but she had no idea how to handle the situation. Then she remembered how he had treated her when he first found her. He had kept his distance, spoken little, and only made sure that she survived. She thought now that perhaps it would be prudent not to overwhelm him with affection, but to allow him some space to come to terms with his new reality.
She retreated towards the door. "I will leave you to have some peace and quiet now, Wilm. I will be in the next room. Władek will be here soon, and I'll set the table. If you need me, just call me."
He nodded without looking at her. Hanna closed the door and went to find some plates and cutlery. She mechanically did the task, but her thoughts were constantly turned to Hosenfeld. And, if she were to be frank with herself, she was in no little amount of shock either.
When she and Szpilman set out from Poland to retrieve Hosenfeld, Hanna did not really know what to expect. She had a vague idea of what POW camps were like, after seeing and speaking with some fellow Jews and Poles that had been freed from the concentration camps post-war. But she had believed that conditions in POW camps would be more humane compared to concentration and extermination camps. She had hoped that the prisoners would not be mistreated or abused, but clearly she was wrong. The Soviets hated the Nazis, and they saw every German as a Nazi. It made no difference to them if the prisoner was an SS fanatic or a plain soldier of the Wehrmacht. To them they were all the same, filthy Nazis that deserved to suffer and die for the crimes they had committed. And who could really blame them after the bloodshed of the Second World War?
The creak of the door opening interrupted her thoughts. "I will need some help with the buttons…" Hosenfeld stood at the doorway, looking at her. He looked calmer now.
Hanna smiled. "Of course", she responded, and quickly went to help him. She noticed how he held his breath as she was buttoning up his shirt, and she hastened her movements, thinking he might feel agitated.
"This hair and beard must go", he said quite unexpectedly.
She smiled up at him, glad that he seemed to have rediscovered a sliver of his old self. "Indeed. Will you go and wait for me in the bedroom? I will get a razor and scissors."
A couple of minutes later she draped a clean towel around his shoulders and decided to start with the hair. She ran her fingers through his blond strands, contemplating how much to cut them. Hosenfeld closed his eyes and sighed in contentment. She noticed his reaction, similar to earlier when she washed his hair. He likes it when I touch his hair, she thought, and a pleasant shiver ran down her spine.
"Cut it short", he murmured, not opening his eyes.
She started doing so, and soon he was rid of the messy strands. Next she went and made some shaving foam, applied it on his jaw, and carefully used the razor to shave away the beard. Her delicate fingers cradled his cheek while she worked, and inwardly Hosenfeld wished this silent and intimate ritual to last forever.
"Well now, I think we are done. What do you think?" she asked.
He washed his face and took a look in the mirror. A small smile brightened his features. "Thank you", he said.
Hanna looked at him, and he held her gaze. Without the beard and the long hair he looked a lot more like his old self, like the man she remembered. But she could clearly see now the lines on his forehead and in the corners of his eyes, making him look older than he truly was, testament of the hardship he had endured. And his face bore still the marks of abuse. The left side was badly bruised around the temple and there was a deep gash there that would surely take a long time to heal.
But to her he was beautiful.
Then the sound of keys turning in the lock was heard, and the front door opened. Szpilman walked in and placed a large bundle on the table. "Hello! Anybody here?" he called in a lilting tone. Hanna and Hosenfeld emerged from the adjoining room. "Dinner has arrived. And look", Szpilman said and held up three rectangular pieces of paper. "I have procured train tickets! Tomorrow we can go home." Then he turned to Hosenfeld. "Herr Hauptmann, you look so much better. How are you feeling?"
Hosenfeld gave him a strange look. It felt weird being called by his rank. What was the point of it now? And Szpilman looked so different, so elegant. Everything about him spoke of quality, refinement, and class. He noticed his long fingers as he undid the bundle and took out the roast chicken, and then he glanced at his own calloused and wounded hands.
"Szpilman… thank you", he uttered. "You and Hanna, you saved me."
"It wasn't only us, Wilm", Hanna said as she took to carving the chicken. "There's many people back in Warsaw that made your release happen. We all worked together. We owed it to you", she narrated and smiled at him warmly.
Tears brimmed in Hosenfeld's eyes. A warm feeling was born inside his heart. Suddenly he felt welcome and loved, and that there were people that cared for him, that he was not lost and lonely anymore.
"You did all of this… for me", he whispered hoarsely.
"Of course", Szpilman smiled. "Eat now, Herr Hauptman, aren't you hungry?"
"Wilm… Please, just call me Wilm."
Szpilman nodded, the smile never leaving his face. Hanna passed Hosenfeld a plate, which she had overstuffed with chicken, potatoes and cheese. The wonderful smell of the roast assaulted his senses. When was the last time I had a proper meal? He wondered. Back in the camp they were only given some miserable porridge or soup, and slices of stale bread.
"How about some wine?" Hanna suggested. "Isn't this the greatest celebration or what?" she laughed.
"Of course!" Szpilman agreed.
Hosenfeld could only smile. Hanna passed him a glass and they toasted to his release and to the happy years to come. The three of them enjoyed their meal and held some light conversation all the while. Afterwards Szpilman suggested they took some rest, and tomorrow they would be off to Poland.
IV. The journey to Warsaw was several-days long, and they had to spend the nights in the quite narrow and uncomfortable train bunks, but none of them minded it. None of them was a stranger to hardship, and this was nothing compared to what they had lived through.
And when at last they reached the Polish capital, Hosenfeld was quite exhausted. Szpilman drove them to the southern outskirts of the city. During the ride Hosenfeld gazed outside, his eyes glazed over with unshed tears at the sight of Warsaw. The largest part of the city lay still in ruins, but here and there he could see masons and carpenters working, removing rubble, rebuilding and repairing what could be repaired. But as they moved away from the city center the view became less depressing, as the suburbs seemed to have been less touched by the violent razing the Germans had effected in late 1944.
At last the car stopped outside a bakery. "We are here", Hanna said.
They moved out and Hanna walked into the bakery, followed by Szpilman. Hosenfeld hesitated, but Szpilman turned and gestured for him to come.
"Good morning Mrs. Abramowska", Hanna greeted the shopkeeper.
A plump woman in her fifties with a kindly face stepped from behind the counter and wiped her hands on her apron. "Hanna, my dear girl. You returned I see… Welcome, welcome back." She gave her a quick hug. "And Mr. Szpilman I see, what an honor to see you in our humble bakery. I've always listened to you on the radio."
"Thank you, madam", the tall man said with a smile.
"Mrs. Abramowska, this is our friend I told you about…" Hanna said, and stood aside, allowing the woman to take a look at Hosenfeld.
Hosenfeld stood a little nervous, but his military training prevailed, and he bowed his head and said, "Madam."
Mrs. Abramowska gave him a good look all over. Acutely aware of his miserable condition, Hosenfeld kept his eyes low. "So this is the German…" she said.
"He was a prisoner of war in Stalingrad for over three years", Szpilman said.
"You may remember his name, Mrs. Abramowska. He's Hauptmann Hosenfeld, the Captain who helped many of us Jews during the war. Now at last we can repay him the kindness", Hanna pointedly said.
"A kindness that wouldn't have been necessary if the Nazis hadn't invaded Poland in the first place", the baker said sharply, her eyes never leaving Hosenfeld. A shiver ran down his spine, for the woman's words had rung true. Then she waved her hand in the air and walked back to the counter. "Ah, no matter. The arrangement remains as I promised you, Hanna. It's the least I could do for your dear mother. You may take him up in your apartment and I'll make sure prying eyes stay away."
Hanna thanked the lady and the three of them moved to the back of the bakery and then up a narrow staircase that led to an apartment. Szpilman helped them settle and then left, promising to be back later with clothes and other items of daily use that Hosenfeld would need.
Hanna's apartment was small, but it was warm and welcoming. To Hosenfeld it looked like a little palace.
"Forgive my landlady", Hanna began. "She's sometimes curt with words but she's a good-natured woman."
He nodded and lit a cigarette. "She's Jewish?"
"Yes. She knew my mother before the war. When I found out she had escaped persecution I came to find her, and she allowed me to stay in this apartment. In turn I help her in the bakery. She's on her own now… Sadly, her husband did not survive the camp, and they had no children", Hanna narrated.
Hosenfeld sighed. "I don't want to be a burden to you, Hanna. Or to Mrs. Abramowska. Perhaps I could stay with Szpilman…"
"You could never be a burden to me. And don't worry about the landlady", she replied, while preparing some tea. "And, what's more, I don't think Władek's wife and two children would much appreciate the inconvenience. Me, on the other hand, I live alone."
He glanced at her hand. There was no wedding ring there. "You're not married, then?"
Hanna stood still for a few seconds, avoiding to look at him. How could she tell him that her heart never softened for another man but him? That was her own burden to bear, her own pain, her own secret, and she would keep it to herself.
"No, not married. I guess I haven't yet found the right man", she belatedly answered.
He looked at her profile as she stirred the tea. "You're young, you have your whole life ahead of you", he said, and there was a hint of sadness in his tone.
"I only pray for peace", she said.
Hosenfeld nodded. Then he sat at the table and looked around. Clean white tablecloth, a flower vase on the table, a porcelain tea set waiting to be used, a basket of fresh fruit in the corner.
"You have a beautiful home", he said.
She smiled and poured him some tea. "I do what I can to keep the gloom away. There's plenty of that over Warsaw still."
He took a few sips, allowing the hot beverage to revitalize his senses. "And do you work as a school teacher again?" he asked her.
"Oh… you remember that?"
Their eyes locked. Hosenfeld gazed at her with admiration, and she felt a blush creeping up her neck.
"Well, no… I haven't had the chance yet to apply to a school. These first years have just been about survival. Our lives are far from what you'd call normal. But perhaps I could apply for a position in the local school, when summer ends", she replied.
"Summer… What year is it?" he looked puzzled.
"It's 1948, Wilm. You've been gone for more than three years", she said, her voice low and emotional now.
His eyes looked distant, as if he was lost in thoughts and memories. "Three years… Three years a prisoner in Stalingrad", he murmured as if to himself.
"It's over now."
He sighed heavily. "But is it, really?"
Suddenly he felt immensely tired. His shoulder ached and his head felt light. He stood and walked out of the kitchen. Hanna watched him with sorrow, not knowing exactly what his words meant.
V. Hanna was awoken by the sound of gasping and incoherent speaking coming from the living-room. Immediately she jumped out of bed and rushed to where Hosenfeld was sleeping in the sofa. He was asleep still, but there were beads of sweat on his forehead and his face was contorted in agony.
"Wilm, Wilm wake up!" she called to him, bringing her hand to his cheek. His skin was burning. "Wilm!"
His eyes fluttered open, and he looked at her in confusion, seemingly not recognizing her. He took a few uneven breaths, gasping for air, and then he closed his eyes again.
For the rest of the night he slipped in and out of consciousness. Hanna had brought a cool compress to apply on his forehead, and for a while his sleep seemed calmer. By dawn Hosenfeld opened his eyes and saw Hanna sleeping in a chair by his side.
She woke up at once. "Wilm! How are you feeling?"
"I don't know", he sighed.
She stooped over him. "May I?" she asked before touching his forehead, and he nodded.
"You have a fever. I will call the doctor."
"Hush now. Just rest."
A while later the doctor came. He was a tall man in his sixties and looked quite professional and dignified. He examined Hosenfeld thoroughly. Hanna stood by all the while and watched, her face a mask of concern. When at last the doctor was finished, he said, "I fear that your husband suffers from septic fever." Upon hearing the word husband Hanna and Hosenfeld exchanged an uncomfortable look, and Hanna made sure to discreetly hide her hands behind her back. "He will need lots of fluids, medicine and bedrest, and if his condition will not improve you must go to the hospital", the doctor went on.
"But how, doctor, why?" Hanna wondered.
"Some of his wounds are ulcerated, and some are infected. The one in his right shoulder looks especially bad."
"But he seemed alright a few days ago…"
"Wounds don't fester in a day, madam", he said, and then turned to Hosenfeld. "How did you acquire so many injuries, sir, if I may ask?"
"I was… a prisoner of war… In Stalingrad", Hosenfeld replied.
"And you are German", the doctor said, easily noting the accent in his broken Polish. Hosenfeld nodded. "The public sentiment towards Germans is quite unfriendly, I must warn you."
"But he is not a Nazi, he helped many people, Jews included, during the war", Hanna intervened.
"That may well be so, but in the eyes of many he is still the enemy." He then gathered his stethoscope and took his bag. "Well, then. That will be all for now. Here is the prescription", he said and handed the paper to Hanna.
"Thank you, doctor. If I may accompany you to the door?" she offered, and when they were out of Hosenfeld's hearing range, Hanna asked, "Tell me, doctor. How bad is it?"
The doctor cleared his throat. "The recuperation will be long. If his heart remains unaffected, he will live. Otherwise things might be truly difficult. You have to make sure that he takes the medication as I have prescribed. And do not forget to change the dressing of his shoulder wound every day."
"Yes, doctor, of course."
He then made to leave, but halted. "Also, if I may add, he seems to suffer from depression. Medical research considering mental ailments is still inconclusive, so… I can only advise you to give him all the support he needs."
Hanna knit her brow in worry. "Yes, doctor", she said. She then paid him and the doctor left, wishing her the best.
VI. The week that followed was torturous for both Hanna and Hosenfeld. He was often feverish, his sleep was disturbed, and he would often be awakened by nightmares. A lung infection had developed due to his constant bedrest, and Hanna had to call the doctor again, who made some changes to the prescribed medicine. Hosenfeld's waking moments of clarity were few, and he barely spoke to Hanna during them. She had decided to move him to her bedroom, wishing to make things more comfortable for him. She had taken to sleeping in a chair next to him, fearing that the worst might happen if she was too far from him. Exhausted by sleep deprivation she was, but she did not care. All she cared about was him, and she had dedicated all her efforts and energy to his survival. She made sure he took the medication, she changed the bandages, she cooled his burning body with compresses, she fed him and cleaned him, putting her own needs aside. And Szpilman visited often and helped his friend, so that Hanna might have the chance to take a bath or go to the market.
But after the first week had gone by Hosenfeld's fever started to break. The quality of his sleep gradually improved and he slept for more hours in a row. When he was awake now he seemed more oriented, and he was more receptive to food and water. And his shoulder wound looked better, and the bandages came out cleaner, and pus stopped coming out from it. His cough still persisted, but he was able to move a little now and the wheeze in his breathing had subsided.
One such morning he woke up and realized for the first time that he was lying in Hanna's own bed. She was seated in a chair, reading a book and drinking coffee.
She closed the book and looked at him. "Wilm, you are awake."
He sat up. "Am I in your bedroom? In your own bed?" he asked, his brow furrowed.
Hanna smiled. "Yes. I wanted you to be comfortable. The sofa was far from ideal."
"But you… Have you slept at all?"
She shrugged. "A little, when I could."
"How long have I been sick?"
"It's been about two week now, I think. But you are getting better with each passing day, as you see", she replied and gave him a smile.
Hosenfeld studied her face and could clearly see she was tired. "Hanna… you shouldn't have gotten into so much trouble on my behalf", he began, but she waved her hand dismissively.
"Nonsense. I will hear no more of this."
"I've been a burden to you all along", he went on, sorrow and shame drawn all over his face.
"Wilm, stop it, please", she said quietly but in a firm tone. "Stop trying to push me away."
The look in her eyes was intense, and he stood at a loss for words. Memories of their past time together came flooding in his mind. He remembered how she had always tried to be close to him, and he would not let her. She had even confessed that she was in love with him, but he had only told her to forget him and go on with her life.
"What did you do… What did you after we last saw each other?" he asked with some reluctance in his voice.
Hanna turned her face and looked outside the window. The summer sun made her hazel eyes glow like embers. Her beauty spoke right into Hosenfeld's heart, and he slowly began to realize how much he had missed her all this time that he thought she had forgotten about him.
"When we last saw each other… That dreadful day you left…" she sighed. "I read your diary. I read it many times. I think I knew some passages by heart in the end", she said with an absent smile, her face still turned away from him. "And I followed your instructions. I listened to the radio, and when I heard the news that the war had ended I left your apartment. I only took some clothes and food with me, and a few of your things." At that she lowered her gaze. "Always sentimental, me. I refused to part with you completely. So I decided to take you with me." She stood from the chair and went to the closet. From there she retrieved a brown leather satchel. "Here", she said and passed it into his hands, and sat on the edge of the mattress.
Hosenfeld recognized his old satchel. He undid the buckles. Inside he found his diary, his pen, his snuffbox, the photograph of his family, the telegram with the news of their demise, and an old shirt of his. "You've kept all these?" he uttered in astonishment.
"It was all I had left of you, Wilm. I didn't simply keep them. I cherished them." She turned to look at him, and tears were in her eyes. Quickly she wiped them away. "Oh, forgive me, I'm tired. I shouldn't be talking about these things now. I should rather go and make you some breakfast, hm? How about that? Come to the kitchen when you are ready", she spoke hurriedly and vanished from the room.
Hosenfeld was certain he could hear her cry. It was heartbreaking to know that she had clung to his memory all those years, and without even knowing that he was alive. The depth of her feelings made him shudder. What did I ever do to deserve the love and devotion of this woman? He wondered. And then the bitterness and hurtful words of their parting came to his mind.
With a sigh he rose from the bed. At first he felt a little dizzy and his steps were shaky, but he did not want to lie in bed anymore. He wanted to be close to Hanna. He did not wish to waste any minute of the time they had together. Slowly he walked to the kitchen, and decided not to speak of sorrowful things. It was summer, and they were alive.
VII. Hosenfeld was dreaming. He was back in the Soviet POW camp in Stalingrad.
It was a bleak day in winter and it was snowing heavily. He stood in line with the other prisoners, shivering from the cold. He was only wearing a pair of trousers, and was naked from the waist up. The guards inspected the captives, clubs in hands. They had rounded them up for a forced march.
"March, you Nazi pigs!" Morozov barked.
The prisoners started moving slowly. "Faster!" another guard yelled, and hit the man in front of Hosenfeld. The man dropped to his knees, and Hosenfeld bent to help him up.
"He's hurt, he can't march", Hosenfeld said to the guard.
"What do you think you are doing, you fucker? You dare talk back?" The guard came and grabbed Hosenfeld by the collar, removing him from the line. With a forceful push he threw him on the ground. "Morozov, take him! He's all yours!" he called to the other guard. "And you, stand up! Back in line!" he shouted at the prisoner whom Hosenfeld had tried to help.
Morozov came and stood over Hosenfeld, threateningly waving the club he was holding. "You say he's hurt, huh? Now you'll see who's hurt!" He punched him in the face. "The Nazi officer, aren't you? Always causing trouble, aren't you?" He kicked him in the leg. "Who do you think you are to defy our orders?" Another kick followed. Hosenfeld gasped in pain and tried to protect his head just as Morozov was about to strike him again. The metallic cap of the baton came in hard contact with his right shoulder. A cracking of bone was heard, and a deep gash was now where the club had met the skin. Hosenfeld nearly fainted from the excruciating pain, and blood ran on his chest. "You useless swine! Always trying to help the others, are you?" He grabbed him by the hair and punched him again. "Who do you think you are? You are not an officer here, you are a maggot. You are nothing!" He kicked him in the stomach. "You fucking Nazi! We should just kill you all", Morozov went on with his abuse, and kicked him in the side. "We keep you here and feed you and for what? Filthy Nazis", he spat on Hosenfeld, and then he undid his trousers and urinated on him, an act that produced a round of loud laughter from the other guards. Hosenfeld shivered on the ground, pain racking his body, debilitated and humiliated. He was forced into submission, he dared not fight back, lest the rest of the guards join in the abuse. He could not even cry, his eyes were dry. He just hid his face and did not dare move at all, waiting with dread for Morozov's next act of abuse.
Then another voice was heard from a distance. "Hey, comrades, boys, what's going on here?"
The guards stood to attention. "Comrade Major Arshavin!" they spoke in unison.
"This one caused trouble again, comrade Major! He interrupted the marching order", Morozov said, and with the tip of his boot pushed Hosenfeld.
Arshavin glanced at Hosenfeld in disdain. "Hm. You again. You never learn." Then he turned to the guard. "Take him into solitary confinement. And the rest, resume the march", he gave the order and walked away.
Hosenfeld was dragged into a dark and narrow cell. The heavy iron door closed behind him and the lock turned. He was all alone, cold and desperate. He crouched in the corner and sobs shook his body.
"No... no… no more", Hosenfeld cried in his sleep.
"Wilm… Wilm… wake up", Hanna's voice softly called to him.
"Stop… no more… please", he went on, his body jerking and thrashing now.
"Wilm!" she tried to take his hand and pacify him, but he awoke with a start, and in his dreadful confusion he grabbed her wrists and pushed her on her back, pinning her down.
Hanna gasped and her eyes grew wide. He was on top of her, staring down at her in anger and bewilderment. "Wilm… it's me… Hanna…" she whispered, terrified.
He was still for a few moments, his mind slowly clearing. And when realization dawned on him he immediately released her wrists and jumped from the bed. "I… I hurt you…" he rasped.
She sat up and tried to regain her composure. "No, I'm alright… You were having a nightmare, Wilm. You cried in agony, and I was worried. I tried to wake you up, but…"
He collapsed on the edge of the mattress and hung his head. A long stretch of silence followed. Then slowly Hanna came and sat next to him. "Wilm?"
He turned to look at her, his gaze haunted. "These nightmares... They never stop", he whispered.
"The camp? The abuse?"
Tears brimmed in her eyes. "I want to help you Wilm… but I don't know how", she uttered.
He looked into her eyes, and they were full of devotion and regret. It broke his heart to cause her such sadness. He reluctantly brought his hand to her cheek, his fingertips touching her skin with uncertainty. Her lips parted at his unexpected gesture, and she held her breath. "You are… You are helping me", he said.
A tear ran down her cheek, wetting his fingers, and he gently wiped it away. "Don't cry for me, Hanna."
Overwhelmed by emotion, she drew him into a hug. He froze at first, the feeling of being held so close by another human being almost foreign to him, but she tenderly stroked his back, and slowly he relaxed and brought his arms about her, closing her in his embrace. He breathed in her scent deeply, and his hands glided over the curve of her back. Long-forgotten sentiments awoke within him, and he felt his heart beating faster. Hanna clung onto him as if she feared he might disappear into thin air at any moment.
"I've missed you, Hanna. God only knows how much I 've missed you", he whispered to her and kissed the top of her head.
"Wilm…" she breathed his name, burying her face in the hollow of his throat.
"Stay with me the rest of the night, please. I want to hold you in my arms, I want to feel you close", he told her in a hoarse voice.
She broke the embrace and drew back a little, taken aback at his unexpected request. She looked at him in doubt and uncertainty. What did he really mean? What did he want from her?
Seeing her wavering, he realized his mistake. "I didn't mean… I'm sorry…" He cast his eyes low and was silent for a while. Hanna did not speak either, unsure how to handle the situation. "I didn't mean to offend you. I was just… overwhelmed by emotion, I wasn't thinking clearly. I almost hurt you earlier, it wouldn't even be safe for you to be close to me. Will you please forgive me?" he spoke in a voice lined with shame and regret.
She slowly rose from the bed. "Of course, Wilm. We need not think of this anymore. You should get some more sleep", she replied, trying to keep her voice even. She then went to the window and drew the curtain a little. "It's almost dawn. I will go down to the bakery and help Mrs. Abramowska prepare the dough."
Hosenfeld watched her figure retreat, and inside he felt empty and hollow, as if he had just lost the only thing that kept him alive.
In the days that followed neither of them spoke of the incident.
VIII. Szpilman rose from his chair. "Well, my dear friends, I'm so grateful for this fine dinner and conversation. I do hope to see you soon, and you are invited in my house when Wilm gets well enough. It's time you met my wife and children, wouldn't you say?" he spoke merrily.
"Definitely, Władek. I'm looking forward to hearing you playing the piano", Hosenfeld replied, raising his wine glass to his friend.
"Thank you for coming, Władek. Your presence is always welcome, and I cannot thank you enough for your support all this time", Hanna said.
"Don't say that again, Hanna. Herr Hauptmann here saved me, too. Have I ever told you that he brought me jam one day? Jam, do you believe it? Jam!" Szpilman said.
Hanna laughed. "Oh, I do believe it, for he brought me jam too! But there were some heavy artillery bombings that day, and the jam spilled on the floor. Do you remember that day, Wilm?"
Hosenfeld hung his head in modesty and smiled. He never felt very comfortable with appraisal. "Yes… How can I ever forget", he said. It was the first time I held you close, and you trembled like a scared bird at my side…
"We do have quite a few memories from those days, don't we now? But I shouldn't be keeping you any longer. I'm sure Wilm needs his rest, and my wife will be wondering why I'm late. I bid you good night, my friends", Szpilman said, and Hanna escorted him to the door.
Then she came and began to clear the table. "Let me help you", Hosenfeld offered.
Hanna smiled and shook her head. "There's no need, Wilm. You still haven't recuperated completely. Go and rest in the living-room and I will join you shortly."
He sighed but did not want to argue with her. And he still was not feeling that strong. He was still a far cry from his old self. His sleep would often be interrupted by nightmares, and the cough still persisted, although it had now become dry. And his right shoulder still pained him whenever he moved it. Hosenfeld had come to believe he would never regain full use of his right arm.
A little later Hanna came into the living-room. She saw that Hosenfeld was smoking a cigarette and writing in his diary. She set down on the table a tray with two glasses and a bottle of wine, and sat in the armchair.
Hosenfeld looked up from his writing. "I thought Szpilman had drunk the whole bottle", he remarked and smirked.
"There's still a little left", Hanna said and poured him a glass.
"He's a good man, the pianist."
"Indeed he is." She then glanced at his diary. "I hope your entries these days are happier that what they used to be…"
He nodded. "You know, I had asked the guards in the camp to give me a notebook and a pen… They refused. They ridiculed me for that", he said, his gaze growing a bit distant. "I never asked again. And what was there to write anyway? Every day was exactly the same as the one before, and as the one that would follow… Just heavy labor, they had us break stones and then carry them. For what purpose I don't know to this day. Or perhaps there was no actual purpose at all. Perhaps the only purpose was to exhaust us, to break our spirits…"
He had started speaking about his experience in the POW camp for the first time since they had rescued him, and Hanna listened to him intently. They had not touched the subject of his captivity ever since the incident with the nightmare, when Hosenfeld had nearly hurt Hanna, and things between them grew more complicated afterwards. But now he had started speaking without a prompt. Hanna almost held her breath, and did not wish to interrupt him.
"When I first came to Warsaw I helped organize a POW camp in the outskirts of the city. I wasn't the one responsible for its function, but I was involved in some directives. I never ordered anyone to abuse the prisoners…" he looked down and flexed his fingers nervously. "But in Stalingrad… what they did… Arshavin usually pretended he saw nothing."
He took a shaky breath and looked away. Hanna rose from her seat and came to sit close to him on the sofa. "What did they do, Wilm?" she asked, her voice almost a whisper.
He stood motionless for a while, his mind lost in horrid memories. "In winter they would wake us up in the middle of the night, and they would march us naked in the yard. In summer they would make us work without a break during midday, under the hot sun. If we did not comply or fell out of line, they would beat us. They had these clubs, these batons with metallic caps at their ends…"
Hanna made to touch his hand, but he flinched from the contact. "I'm sorry", she uttered. "I didn't mean to…"
He drew a shaky breath. "I know. It's just…" he shrugged. "I guess it's an instinctive reaction, after all the beatings", he said, avoiding her eyes.
"Does every touch scare you?" she asked him carefully.
"No, when I expect it, I can handle it." He then grunted and ran his hands through his hair. "Dammit, Hanna, look how pathetic I am. My mind is all messed up. I can barely dress and bathe on my own. I'm a disappointment, I'm weak. I'm not who you remember", he turned to her with these last words, and his eyes had teared up.
"You are the kindest and most noble man I've known, and that's all that matters to me. Yes, you are different, but so am I. You are a victim of war, Wilm. But I am, too. And Władek, and all those other people you saved. We lost our families, and we nearly lost our lives. But we survived. And do you know why we survived? We survived because we helped each other. It is our duty now to pick up our pieces and go on", she told him fervently.
"Do you think it's possible… to go on?"
"I don't know. But I'm willing to find out."
He reached out for her hand, and she gladly took his. "Your thirst for life has always been so impressive, so inspiring. So captivating", he said in a deep voice. "In my thoughts I liked to imagine you happy and smiling, living a good life."
"You thought of me?"
Their eyes locked, and quickly tension arose between them. Their fingers brushed in a clumsy caress, their bodies awakening to their proximity, long-suppressed feelings stirring now.
Hosenfeld leaned towards Hanna, his eyes dancing between her eyes and lips. She looked at him with anticipation, her heart racing.
But then the memory of the unfortunate night in her bedroom flashed in his mind, and he withdrew, letting go of her hand. Hanna looked instantly crestfallen.
"That night… when I awoke from the nightmare…" he began, reluctance evident in his tone.
"I thought we agreed to forget about that night", she said.
He shook his head. "No. I need to say this. I cannot keep it inside me any longer", he said, his voice steadier now. He turned to look her straight in the eye. "That night I was overwhelmed by my emotions. They overrode my reason. I wasn't thinking clearly, I wasn't thinking at all. The thought that I could have hurt you worse is killing me, Hanna." He paused and drew a shaky breath. Hanna watched him in silence. "And then, what I asked of you… I didn't mean to offend you, or take advantage of you."
"I know, Wilm", she said. "But I know this already. What is it you really want to tell me?"
He tried to steel his resolve. "The truth is that I yearned for you. To my shame I admit that. My heart and my body yearned for you that night, and so many nights before, and…" he said hoarsely.
"The memory of our parting in 1945 haunts me, Hanna. I know I had led you to believe I didn't feel for you as you felt for me, but it was not true. I thought it would be easier for you to forget me if you thought… if you thought I didn't love you. That's why I kept you at a distance. Every time we spoke I was afraid you'd be able to read the truth in my eyes. But I knew there would be no hope for us, and by the end of the war I'd be either dead or captured. So I avoided you… God knows how many times I had to keep myself from coming to you at night, god knows how many nights I spent sleepless and agitated, forcing myself not to act on my desire. I was madly in love with you, Hanna. I've been in love with you all these years. I never forgot you… Your memory was my sole companion in the darkness of my life, when I was in Stalingrad. I had abandoned all hope of ever seeing you again, but my love for you never faded." Hosenfeld spoke from his heart and then fell silent.
There were tears in Hanna's eyes. "I wish you had told me the truth back then. I wish I didn't have to pass so much time in the bitter agony of your rejection. In my heart I denied it, but your words cut like a knife. And, despite all that, I loved you all along. I looked for you, I found you, I managed to achieve your release", she said, her voice filled with tension. "But I do regret the words I said to you when we parted. I told you I never wanted to see you again…" she wiped her tears hastily. "It was horrible of me. I curse the moment those words left my mouth. But my punishment came in the days that followed. Oh, how devastated I was, not knowing what had happened to you, condemned to fight my demons of remorse in the solitude of your apartment, where even the walls reminded me of you."
He looked at her with pain in his eyes, but she glanced away, unable to meet his gaze. Silence fell between them. Neither of them knew what else to say. What were they to make of feelings confessed only too late? How were they supposed to handle each other's presence now, after so much had happened and so much had changed? They themselves had changed almost beyond recognition. But their stubborn hearts still persisted in their call for each other, deaf to the voices of reason that created a rumpus in their heads.
The silence stretched on, until the atmosphere in the living-room became stifling. They were both immersed in their own troublesome thoughts and complicated emotions, struggling blindly to untangle the mess of it all. Hosenfeld stared at his wine glass and Hanna stared at the wall. In the end she stood and left the room.
IX. A few days passed during which neither Hanna nor Hosenfeld spoke of their last conversation. But in the end the silence grew too heavy, and he could take it no longer.
He walked into the kitchen and found her cooking dinner. "This smells nice", he began.
She smiled without looking up from the pot. "It's chicken soup."
He walked closer to her. "Hanna… can we please forgive each other?"
She paused stirring the soup for a few moments. "I need some time to think, Wilm."
"Why must we keep hurting each other? I can't bear to see you sad, and to know that I'm the cause of it."
"It's always about you, isn't it?" Hanna huffed in rising irritation.
Hosenfeld was taken aback.
"You are laden with remorse and come to me now, and expect me to forgive you. And that's so easy, you know? I can just say the words and you can feel fine with yourself then. But what about me? Who will ever forgive me when I cannot forgive myself?" she cried.
"Do you think it's easy for me, managing all this? Do you think I can simply say 'Alright Wilm, let's forgive each other', and then magically everything will be fine?" she went on.
"No, I didn't mean…"
"Oh you didn't mean it. You never do!" she snapped. "Do you have any idea how difficult these years have been for me? It's not only you who has suffered, or who has nightmares! And do you know how difficult it is for me even now? Trying to keep this house, to work in the bakery, to care and provide for you?"
"I know your suffering… and I never wanted to be a burden to you, Hanna", he said defensively, not expecting this attack from her.
"And suddenly you decide to tell me that you love me, and I realize I've spent more than three years of my life believing a lie! I strove so hard to convince myself that it was all in my head, that you felt nothing for me, and now you come and turn my life upside down again?" she spoke on, pouring out her heart's tumult.
"But you deserved to know the truth. I shouldn't have kept it from you… It was a mistake, I know, but…"
"Damn the truth!" she shouted, hurling the ladle angrily on the counter. Hosenfeld flinched at the sudden, violent movement.
"And what am I to make of it now? What do you expect? Hm?" she spat those words at him, glaring at him in rage.
"I expect nothing. I don't deserve your love… I'm a shell of the man I was. I don't deserve you."
"Enough of this!" she yelled. "Enough with your self-pity! I can't take it anymore, do you hear me?" Hanna was furious, her hands balled into fists.
Fear flashed in Hosenfeld's eyes and his heart began thumping hard. Sweat broke on his brow. Suddenly Hanna's voice became distorted. Confusion arose in his mind, and the boundaries between what was real and what was not became blurry.
"Enough!" Enough, you filthy Nazi! "Stop feeling sorry for yourself!" You miserable swine, you deserve to die! "You're not the only one who's suffered!" Now I'll make you suffer! "But now you must face the reality!" Now you'll see what discipline means!
Such words rang in his ears, the voices of the abusive Soviet guards blending with Hanna's voice. He dropped to his knees and shut his eyes tight, shaking, and brought his hands up to protect his head from an imaginary beating. His breathing was quick and shallow. "No… please, no…" he begged in a trembling voice.
It took Hanna a moment to realize what was happening. She saw him shaking in fear, cowering before her, trying to cover his head, and she knew then that in his mind he was back in the POW camp in Stalingrad. He was having a post-traumatic episode, triggered by her aggressive behavior. All her rage flew out of the window and a cold wave of remorse washed over her.
"I'm not a Nazi… Please, no more", he uttered.
A lump in her throat threatened to choke her. Carefully she knelt next to him. "Wilm… It's just me, Hanna."
For a few moments he did not move, he did not react. His gaze was empty, his eyes fixed on the floor. He was just there, lost in his mind's labyrinth, quivering and breathing hard.
"I won't hurt you, Wilm. You are safe. You are at home", she spoke softly.
Slowly the fog in Hosenfeld's mind began to dissolve. He lowered his hands and turned his face towards the voice. He saw Hanna looking at him with concern. She made to touch him, but he drew away, his breathing still irregular.
"You are safe, Wilm", she repeated. "No one will hurt you. It's just you and me here."
"Hanna…" he panted. "I thought… For a moment I thought I was a prisoner again."
"I know, and it was all my fault. I'm so sorry, Wilm", she spoke remorsefully, tears streaming down her cheeks.
"Oh, Hanna", he breathed, and drew her into a strong embrace, releasing all the tension that had gripped his heart.
She held his head, running her fingers through his hair. "You were right. Why must we keep hurting each other? The hurts we have suffered are already too many", she whispered, and kissed his temple.
"Hanna…" he spoke her name again and held her tightly.
"It's alright, Wilm. All will be well", she soothed him, stroking his hair.
For a while they stayed there, locked in each other's embrace, until Hosenfeld calmed down, and the effects of the episode passed. He drew back a little and held Hanna by the shoulders. "Thank you", he told her.
He shook her head. "No, don't. I should have been more thoughtful, I-"
She did not finish her words, as Hosenfeld placed a finger on her lips. "You need not say a word. It wasn't your fault."
Hanna was arrested by the sudden and unexpected sensation of his finger on her lips. The finger slowly traced her lower lip and slipped to her cheek, and then he dropped his hand.
"And you were right, too", he spoke again. "I can't be a burden to you anymore. I can't have you look after me as if I'm a total invalid. I'll speak to Szpilman tomorrow, I'll ask him to help me find a job", he said with determination.
Hanna cradled his cheek. "Oh Wilm… Are you sure you are strong enough?"
He shrugged. "I'm mostly recovered. You've been feeding me well, I've put on some weight. It will do me good to go out there and do something productive", he argued.
"But you've been seriously ill for nearly two weeks", she said.
"I'm mostly recovered, Hanna", he said again. "The cough is almost gone now. The shoulder still hurts, but I don't think that's ever going away, really."
She nodded. "Very well then. I don't disagree with you."
The sound of the boiling soup reminded them of the mundane reality. They stood to their feet, and Hanna motioned for him to sit at the table, while she retrieved the ladle, and served them two bowls of hot chicken soup, with generous slices of fresh bread to go along.
"I think it's time for me to move back to the sofa", Hosenfeld said at one point during their meal.
"No... I'd rather you slept with me, in my bed", Hanna said, her cheeks flushing a bright red, her boldness surprising even her.
Hosenfeld's spoon stopped in midair and he gave her an intense look. She did not shy away from the eye contact. Slowly he nodded then, and they finished their meal in relative silence.
X. Hanna brushed her hair and put on a white nightgown, as she prepared for bed. She remembered her invitation to Hosenfeld, and her heart raced at the thought of what might take place between them. It was mostly excitement and anticipation that she felt, and less fear. Still, uncertainty for the unknown gripped her heart and put her on edge.
The door opened then and Hosenfeld stood in the doorway, hesitating. He was dressed in plain grey pajamas. "I can still go and sleep in the sofa, you know", he said, seeing how she avoided looking at him.
For a moment Hanna considered his suggestion, but then dismissed the thought. "How much longer are we going to dance around each other, Wilm?" she asked him, trying to sound confident.
"Very well", he said, and went and hid under the covers on one side of the bed, and there he waited.
In a few minutes Hanna joined him, drawing the covers up to her neck, although it was August and still rather hot outside.
"If at some point you hear me having a nightmare, don't wake me. I don't want to be a threat to you in any way", he said quietly.
She turned on her side, her back to him. He turned towards her, and lightly placed a hand on her shoulder. "You said we shouldn't dance around each other anymore", he said.
"I did", Hanna agreed, but remained as she was.
"Can I hold you?"
Hosenfeld brought his arm around her and drew her a bit to him. He moved his face closer to her head and breathed in her scent. Her back came in flush contact with his front, and he grew hard. He felt her stiffen, and instantly released her. "I'm making you uncomfortable, this is not right", he muttered.
He stood from the bed and walked out of the room.
Hanna sat up, not knowing what had come over her. She had longed for him for so long, but now that he was here with her she cowered. Determined not to leave things as they were, she stood and walked to the living room.
Hosenfeld was sitting on the sofa, smoking a cigarette. He seemed skeptical.
"Wilm?" she called his name softly, and he looked up. "I'm sorry… Will you come back to bed?"
He smiled a little. "Hanna, you have nothing to be sorry about. I understand it's all too much for you. It is for me, too."
She walked closer to him. "I've loved you and longed for you for so long… but now I feel as if I'm getting to know you from the start, as if I'm falling in love with you all over again."
A light flickered in his brilliant blue eyes. "Come here", he said, and extended his hand to her. She took it and he drew her to sit next to him. He then brought his hand to caress her cheek. "I love you", he whispered to her. "I should be telling you every day how much I love you."
"I know that a lot has changed. The war has left scars on us both. But my only constant truth, my only compass through this ordeal, has been my love for you. I wish I had told you earlier. I wish I had told you when we hid under the desk, when the artillery blasts nearly blew down the mansion", he confessed.
"When… really?" she smiled, slightly puzzled.
"Yes. You captivated me from the start."
"Even when I was filthy and in rags and looking like a ghost?"
He laughed softly. "Yes, my dearest Hanna, even then. You were a breath of life amidst all the death, a sapling defying the cold and surviving against all odds."
Hanna smiled. "Since when are you a poet?"
"Since you inspired all those feelings in my heart."
She ran her fingers through his blond hair. He closed his eyes at the touch. "I know you like this. I've found that it calms you", she said.
"It does…" he murmured in contentment.
"I love you, Wilm. If only you knew how much I love you", she told him, her voice laden with emotion.
He looked into her eyes then, and leaned closer. Hanna closed the remaining distance, and their lips touched for the first time. At first it was a chaste kiss, just lips brushing against lips. But slowly Hosenfeld became more demanding, and wet her lips with his tongue. A thrill coursed down her spine, and her lips parted, allowing him access. Deeply he kissed her and without hurry, thoroughly exploring and tasting her, and etching the moment into his memory.
Hanna grew bolder as arousal stirred deep within her core, and she held his head and kissed him back with ardor. Too long she had dreamt of that moment, and now that it was happening at last she wanted to make the most of it, she wanted it to be perfect.
Finally they had to break the kiss, both of them panting for air and dizzy with their awakened desire. Hosenfeld leaned back in the sofa and took a deep breath, trying to calm his raging arousal. His body ached for him to go on, but he knew they should take things slow.
Hanna leaned on him, her hand on his chest. She kissed the corner of his lips, and he turned his face and kissed her properly. His hand glided down her neck and to her shoulder, playing with a curl of her hair just above her breast. Hanna's breath became more rapid, and her own hand traveled lower on his abdomen.
"I want to touch you, Wilm", she whispered, and her hand slid to his front.
His breath was caught in his throat as her hand lightly brushed along his length. His own hand cupped her breast, and she moaned in the kiss. Her voice drove him mad with lust.
"Hanna…" he breathed, and by sheer force of will he put a little distance between them. "We should not rush."
Hanna sat up, and assessed the situation. There were both caught in the throes of passion, breathless and flushed. But Hosenfeld was right. They had just shared their first kiss. They should relish that and become more comfortable with each other before going further.
"You are right", she agreed.
He caressed her curls. "I think I'd better sleep here tonight, if we are to get any sleep at all", he said, a mischievous grin playing upon his face.
Hanna could not remember the last time she had seen him so happy and carefree, and a bright smile lit her face too. "You're probably right", she said and rose from the sofa, already missing his touch. "Good night, Wilm."
"Good night, Hanna."
XI. A few evenings they spent in similar fashion. They would kiss and touch a little before bed, and then they would part. During this time their feelings and desire for each other grew more intense.
Meanwhile, Hosenfeld had spoken to Szpilman about his wish to find a job, and the pianist promised to use his connections and help him. Hanna also applied for a teacher's position in the local school and was expecting a reply any day now.
And Hosenfeld's nightmares had somewhat subsided. He attributed it to his generally improved health, mood and mental state, since he and Hanna had shared their feelings and had begun to know each other intimately. For the first time since his family's death in 1943 Hosenfeld could see a glimmer of hope, and he felt that his life might actually get better.
One cloudy morning in early September he was in the kitchen, tidying up. He tried to help Hanna around the house whenever he could, trying to be of some use and less of a burden to her. She usually insisted that he need not concern himself with chores, but he knew that deep inside she appreciated his effort.
Earlier in the day Hanna had told Hosenfeld that she would go to the market, and she would also go by the school to ask about her application. Mrs. Abramowska was also absent these days, and the bakery was closed. She had gone to visit her sister who was ill, and she would stay with her for a few days. Now Hanna was on her way home, her basket was full and there was a spring in her step. She was just about to enter the bakery, searching for her keys in her handbag, when two middle-aged women crossed the road and walked towards her.
"That's her", one of them muttered, and shot Hanna a glare.
"Shame on you!" shouted the other woman.
Hanna turned towards them, befuddlement written all over her face. "Mrs. Puchalina, what is this about?"
"Shame on you!" she said again. "Shame! To sleep with the German!"
"Do you think we don't know? You bring shame to the whole neighborhood!" the other woman joined in.
Hanna gasped, feeling ambushed and terrified. A few other neighbors heard the commotion and stepped out from their shops, and children gathered around too, laughing at the scene without really understanding what was going on.
"Nazi whore! Collaborator! Have you forgotten what they did to us? They brought war and death! They destroyed Warsaw!" yelled the tailor from the opposite shop.
"We only tolerate you because of Mrs. Abramowska, a saintly woman to take pity on you", Mrs. Puchalina said.
"Shame on you, whore!" yelled the other woman.
"No! Stop this! You are wrong!" Hanna cried, fear gripping her soul.
"You lost your family in Auschwitz and now you sleep with a Nazi? Ah yes, we know all about the German you hide in your apartment! Traitorous whore! You betray your people for the German's cock! Shame on you! But be sure I will tell the Soviet authorities all about it!" Mrs. Puchalina went on vehemently, and spat at Hanna.
Encouraged by the woman's abusive behavior, a boy threw a stone at Hanna, laughing when he managed to hit her on the head. She gasped in pain and brought her hand up to her temple. Her fingers got drenched in blood.
"We want you out of the neighborhood, whore!" the other woman shouted.
At that point Hosenfeld heard the shouting and the uproar down in the street and went to look from the window. When he saw what was happening, he immediately rushed down the stairs.
"I'm not a whore! And he's not a Nazi!" Hanna cried.
"Whore! Whore!" the children started singing in unison, and one of them pushed Hanna. She fell to her knees, the fresh produce she had just bought from the market spilling from her basket, eggs breaking and apples rolling to the gutter.
Then Hosenfeld stormed out of the bakery and ran to Hanna's side, shielding her from her abusers. "Stop! All of you! Stop now!" he yelled.
"Speak of the devil!" laughed the tailor.
"There's the Nazi! How dare you show your face!" a woman from the back shrieked.
"You Nazi pig! Soon I will tell the Soviet authorities all about you, and they will send you back to hell where you belong!" Mrs. Puchalina repeated her threat.
"Nazi! Whore! Nazi! Whore!" sang the children, and they picked up the apples and the eggs and threw them at the unfortunate pair.
"Enough of this, Mrs. Puchalina! This is Hauptmann Hosenfeld, the one who had your communist son released from captivity and got him a job at the Army Stadium. Or have you forgotten?" Hanna cried in exasperation.
"Hanna, let's go inside. Let them be", Hosenfeld spoke to her quietly, his back to the crowd.
But Hanna was undeterred. She rose to her feet and boldly stepped forth to face her accusers. "And you, Mr. Zielinski", she turned to the tailor, "Who do you think provided your Jewish wife with false papers to escape evacuation?"
He grunted and retreated towards his shop. "Ah, is that so? I didn't know…" he said grudgingly.
"Anyone else has something to say?" Hanna shouted angrily.
The neighbors shut their mouths and exchanged uncomfortable glances. The children ran away. Mrs. Puchalina elbowed her friend to walk away from the scene, and they did without apologizing or acknowledging their horrid behavior. The crowd dispersed as quickly as it had gathered.
Hosenfeld brought his arm around Hanna's shoulders and took her up the stairs and into the apartment. There she collapsed in a chair and broke out in tears. He sat by her side, soothing her while she wept.
"Why, why must people be so cruel and ungrateful?" she cried amidst her sobs.
"The evils of the war and what my people did are still fresh in their memory. Their suppressed fear comes out now as hatred. And they take their anger out on the most vulnerable targets", he said.
Hanna tried to wipe her tears, only to smear blood all over her face. Her skirt was dirty, her stockings were torn and her shoes were muddy.
"You're hurt", he said, gently pushing her hair away from the wound at her temple. "Let me take care of you, like old times", he offered with a small smile.
"Oh, Wilm… Those people won't leave us alone now."
"Hush now, Hanna. We will talk about this later. Let me clean your wound", he said and brought gauzes and a bowl of water. "It's a superficial cut, thankfully", he said as he applied the gauze. Hanna winced. "There, done. I'll draw you a warm bath now. It will help you relax", he said and walked to the bathroom.
Hanna removed her shoes and stockings. Then she glanced at her basket. At least the bread and milk had survived the ordeal, and the potatoes and sack of rice seemed to be undamaged. But she lamented losing the fresh eggs and the apples. They were the most expensive, and she had very little money.
With a sigh she stepped into the bathroom. Hosenfeld was bent over the tub, filling it with water. "Almost done here. I'll leave you to your privacy", he said and made to leave.
Hanna reached out and stopped him. "I don't want to be alone. Stay."
There was something commanding in her tone and look that left him no room for arguing.
"I've bathed you many times", she said as she unbuttoned her blouse. "Now it's your turn."
Hosenfeld watched her intently, following her every move as she removed her skirt and then her undergarments. Her movements were slow and deliberate, and when at last she was naked in front of him, he could only swallow hard, his throat dry and his heart racing.
"Just a bath", she said in feigned innocence, and stepped into the tub.
How much she has changed; my innocent girl has turned into a sensual woman, he thought. He knelt beside the tub and picked up the washcloth and the soap. Gently he washed her neck and shoulders, and then her back. Hanna moaned softly, thoroughly enjoying what he did. Hosenfeld then brought his face to hers, his mouth searching hers for a kiss.
She laughed softly. "Didn't I say just a bath? I don't remember myself ever trying to kiss you while I washed you", she teased him and he knew it.
He huffed. "Alright…"
He scrubbed her arms, and then moved to her chest. His hand glided over one breast with the cloth, and then the other. Her nipples stood to attention, and she took a sharp breath. Tentatively he washed her abdomen, and then he went back to her breasts, feeling them and massaging them through the washcloth. Hanna gasped and moaned, and turned her half-lidded eyes to Hosenfeld. She moved to kiss him, but he placed a finger on her lips. "Just a bath, as you said."
She smiled, pleased that he was willing to play her game. It was all she needed now, the perfect distraction to forget the terrible incident from earlier. And Hosenfeld seemed to know exactly where and how to touch her, so as to arouse her, but he did not linger too much on one spot. He moved down and with the washcloth ran a few times the length of her legs, until at last he reached their apex. For a split second he hesitated, but then ran the cloth over her core, softly touching her, and at once he moved up her abdomen again. Hanna gasped softly. "Wilm…"
"I'm here, my love", he spoke hoarsely in her ear, clearly affected as much as she was.
She brought her wet hands up and drew his face to her, kissing him with abandon. He kissed her back hungrily, releasing the pent-up tension. Her hands pulled at his shirt, and he quickly tossed it away. She could now run her hands over his naked flesh, just like he did. His hands found her breasts again and touched them without the interposition of the washcloth this time. They both gasped and moaned, their bodies begging for more, begging to become one.
Her fingers followed the thin trail of hair that started at his navel, and tugged at his belt. "Wilm…"
He knew what that meant, but he did not want their first time to be in the bathtub. "Wait", he said, and gently took her hand. "Sit back in the tub."
With curiosity and excitement in her eyes Hanna complied. He kissed her again, his kiss deep and domineering. She could only follow along. His hands caressed and massaged her full breasts again, and then he bent and kissed them, and took one nipple in his mouth, and then the other. Hanna gasped and panted and trembled, her body awakening to a myriad of new sensations.
His fingers then drew lazy circles on her belly, and slowly traveled lower. She instinctively parted her legs a bit, as the width of the tub allowed. Her body was tense with anticipation, begging to be touched. And he touched her, gently at first, until he made sure she was ready, and slowly he deepened the touch, the exploration. Hanna quivered and gasped as his fingers slowly slid in and out of her, giving her unprecedented pleasure. It was not long before she reached her climax, her whole body convulsing and shaking, and she clung onto him all the while. And when at last spent she fell back, he cradled her and kissed her face.
"I love you", he whispered to her.
She turned her hazy gaze to him, and found him looking at her with all the love and devotion of the world.
"Wilm… This was…" breathlessly she began.
"I know", he smiled, and then dropped a kiss on her forehead. "Finish your bath at your leisure. I'll go and make us something to eat."
She watched him leave, her heart overflowing with love for him.
XII. "I've been thinking about the incident with the neighbors yesterday", Hanna began, as she poured Hosenfeld a cup of tea and sat beside him on the sofa.
"Yes, me too."
"They won't leave us alone, Wilm. And I don't know how long Mrs. Abramowska will be willing to tolerate this. It's not fair to cause her such trouble after all she has done to help me."
Hosenfeld looked skeptical, his brow furrowed. "I'm the one who's the problem, Hanna. Their argument is with me. My presence here ignites their anger. Has anyone ever harassed you before I came here?"
He stood up and paced around. He seemed on edge.
Suddenly dark suspicions crept into Hanna's mind. "What are you implying, Wilm?"
"I think it would be better if I left", he told her, struggling to maintain a neutral face.
"Leave? And go where?"
He shrugged. "Back to Germany, probably. I have written to the West Germany Government for a military pension."
Hanna stood up and walked to him, grasping his arm. "Back to Germany? But do you even have anyone there?"
His thoughts turned to his late wife and children. "No... But there's still my parents' house in my hometown."
"You've thought this through…" Hanna realized.
He let out a strained sigh. "There's nothing for me here, Hanna. Here I will always be the Nazi, the enemy."
"And me? What about me?" she asked in a broken voice.
He turned and took her hands. "Come with me."
"And… leave Warsaw?"
"Warsaw lies in ruins. It will take decades for it to be rebuilt, if ever. What sort of life will we make here, if we stay?"
"We can try… You will find a job, and I will work as a teacher again. They accepted my application at the school", she replied.
"This is good news", he smiled at her. "But for me things aren't so fortunate. Nobody seems willing to hire a German, and a former Wehrmacht officer at that."
"But you are Wilhelm Hosenfeld! Don't they know how much you've helped the people during the war?" she protested.
He smiled at her naivety. "My sweet Hanna… I was one officer out of many. I doubt many people would remember me or recognize me today, and there's even fewer who knew what I did. I will always be the German, the Nazi in the eyes of the public. And I can't live my life in fear and shame. I've had too much of that already."
She silently listened to his words. Even though it pained her to admit it, she knew he was right.
"I want you to come with me. But I will not force you", he said.
"And how will it be for me in Germany? Will I not be the Jew there?" she asked.
"Hitler is dead, Hanna, and Nazi Germany died with him. I doubt any German these days likes to be associated with Nazism. It's the Nazis who seek to flee nowadays, not the Jews. But I understand that you feel uncomfortable about moving to the country that was the source of all the evils you endured. I cannot force you to do that", he said sorrowfully.
"Oh Wilm, you place such a difficult choice before me… And, if we went to Germany, where would we go? Where would we live?" she asked.
"We could go to my hometown, Hünfeld. It's small and peaceful – a village rather – and far from the great cities where politics are decided. You and I both will be welcome there. The people remember my family, and they will sympathize with you, they will see you as a survivor", he said, and looked at her in hopes that she would agree to go with him.
Hanna sighed and slowly stepped to the window. Outside the day was waning. For a few long moments she contemplated his words. "I can't live without you, Wilm", she uttered.
"Hanna…" He came behind her and held her by the shoulders, dropping kisses on her head.
"I spent three years of my life, wretched and miserable, looking for you. I never abandoned hope that I would find you one day. I was willing to forsake everything, if only I could see you one more time in this life", she told him in a small voice, her fingers absently drawing random shapes on the moist window. "I love you. It's as simple as these three words."
Hosenfeld closed his arms about her, his eyes tearing up with emotion. "I know, and I love you as well. Let's not decide right now. Let's allow for a few days to pass, and then we'll see", he suggested, and she nodded.
Together they watched in silence as the last light of the day faded, and night fell over Warsaw.
XIII. "How was your first day at school?" Hosenfeld asked Hanna as they were relaxing in the sofa after dinner. It was a chilly, rainy evening, and they were huddled under a blanket.
"It was… interesting. I think I felt more like a schoolgirl on her first day at school than a teacher!" she said mirthfully.
"And your class? Did the children welcome you?"
"They were sweet. Most of them were happy to begin school. A normal life is what they need now, Wilm. But to see the city destroyed… It's a daily reminded of what they have been through. A few of the children lost a parent or a brother in the war. It will take time for life to seem normal again here", she replied, looking now thoughtful.
"At least you can teach again. In your life, that must count for something, after all you've lost", he said.
"Yes, I suppose so. Though it does feel a little strange, I must admit, teaching again after all these years. I'll need time to get used to it", Hanna said.
He gave her hand an encouraging light squeeze, and then stood up. Hanna already missed his warmth, and watched him as he turned on the radio.
"I think our friend will be on soon. They play the recorded performance again around this hour, I think", he said, and tweaked the button. "Ah, there it is."
Soon the sound of piano filled the room. Hosenfeld returned to Hanna's side. "When I hear him play I always remember the day I found him", he spoke quietly. "Just like you, he was hiding in the ruins… I found him trying to open a can. I spoke to him, and he told me he was a pianist. By chance there happened to be a piano on the ground floor. I took him there and asked him to play something. He played Chopin…" Hosenfeld smiled at the memory. "His playing spoke right into my heart, and I began wondering how many talents, how many artists we eradicated in the torrent and blindness of our hatred. From that day on I visited him as often as I could, and brought him food. And I'm so glad that he survived, and that he rebuilt his life, although he lost his family, everyone…"
"I remember reading about this in your diary. You seemed so impressed by him", Hanna commented.
He turned to look into her eyes. "But I was also impressed by you. Did I not write about you in my diary, too?"
Hanna smiled. "You did… But you never wrote about how you felt for me. There were only some vague words…" she sighed. "I was trying to read between the lines, I was trying to find traces of evidence that you might have feelings for me…"
He held her closer. "After I met you, and I kept seeing you every few days, I knew deep inside me that it would be you I would leave my diary to, once everything was over. It took me long to admit to myself my feelings for you, but this didn't make them any less true. And in the end I couldn't write that I was in love with you… I didn't want you to find out, I didn't want you to love me, to waste your years loving me, grieving for me…"
Hanna kissed him. She placed her hand on the back of his head and kissed him deep, as if her whole life depended on that kiss. Pleasantly surprised by her initiative, he leaned back and allowed her the lead. Her hand traveled on his chest, down his abdomen, and to the front of his trousers. He grew hard at her touch, his breathing now erratic. Boldly she went on, and her fingers deftly undid his belt. He gasped when she circled her hand around him, touching his naked length for the first time.
"Hanna…" he breathed. "If you go on like this…"
She smiled deviously. "What, then?"
With a moan he kissed her hungrily, his hands lifting her skirt hurriedly. The flesh of her buttocks filled his hands, and he felt their glorious curve, running his hands over her hips, to her waist and back down.
Hanna panted and ground her hips against him, eliciting a groan from him. "I'm ready, Wilm", she whispered, her eyes two burning pools of liquid ember.
"Let's go to the bedroom", he said.
In a moment they were on the bed. Hanna pushed the shirt from his shoulders, and he quickly undid the buttons of her blouse. Gently he laid her down on the mattress and removed her skirt. He took a moment to admire her nude form that was always so enticing in his eyes, and then he kissed her neck and breasts, taking his time with all his ministrations, making sure she was satisfied and as heated and aroused as he was.
But Hanna was not idle either. Her hands ran down his back, tracing some of the scars here and there, and then pushed down his trousers, exposing him completely. Eagerly she touched him again, feeling him pulsating in her fingers as her movements intensified.
Hosenfeld gasped and brought his hand to hers. "Stop, stop… Or I won't last, and this will end too soon", he rasped.
She looked at him, heaving and flushed as he was, and to her it was the most erotic sight in the whole world. She knew then he was the only man she wanted to see for the rest of her life.
Complying, she removed her hand and kissed him again, drawing him into an embrace. He covered her body with his, his manhood pressed against her thigh. He held her from her hips, and slowly slipped his hand between her legs, touching her core. He found her warm and welcoming, her wetness inviting a dozen of daring thoughts in his head.
Hanna moaned and moved against his hand. "I'm ready, Wilm", she whispered to him.
"I know, my love", Hosenfeld said, looking into her eyes. "You've been ready for a long time now. Perhaps you always were. It's me who wasn't ready", he confessed. "I had come to fear and avoid human touch… But thanks to you I now crave it again."
He kissed her tenderly then, and she kissed him back, running her hands through his hair. He moved a little, sliding one leg between hers, and he shivered as their private parts touched for the first time. Hanna was breathless, her heart beating wildly. Her hands found his buttocks and pressed him against her. Hosenfeld broke the kiss to look at her, as he slowly pushed and entered her. She quivered and moaned and whispered his name, her voice full of passion and anticipation. After he had sheathed himself inside her completely, he remained still for a few moments, relishing the feeling of their first union, and allowing both of them time to adjust to the new sensation.
"Hanna…" he hoarsely spoke her name, never breaking the eye contact.
"I'm well, Wilm… you?"
"Yes… more than well", he replied and slowly moved against her.
Her eyes opened wide and she gasped. He moved again a little cautiously, and watched her reaction. She panted and moaned, her nails digging into his skin, pleasure written all over her face. And then he moved again, slowly his thrusts becoming more demanding as he picked up the pace. Hanna hooked her legs around his hips, changing the angle a little and thus deepening the penetration. It was Hosenfeld's turn to gasp now, completely lost in their passion and his mounting need for release.
But he did not want to finish before Hanna had been completely satisfied too. He brought his hand between them and touched her, while he still thrusted.
"Oh, Wilm!" She had to stifle a cry, for his ministrations soon sent her over the edge, and she violently convulsed around him, waves of utmost pleasure washing over her whole body.
Seeing her coming undone drove him mad with desire, and he chased his own climax. It only took him a few more thrusts, and he stiffened then and gasped, holding her tightly as he found his release inside her.
Sweaty and breathless they lay afterwards, their limbs still tangled. Then Hosenfeld propped himself on his elbow, so as to look into her eyes. "Marry me", he said.
Hanna's eyes widened in surprise. "What?"
"Marry me, Hanna, marry me", he said again.
"Really?" She could barely believe her ears.
"Yes. I don't care where we live, I only care to have you by my side. I only want to be with you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you", he told her fervently.
He took her hand and kissed it. "Will you?"
She turned to face him fully, and she caressed his cheek. "Yes! Yes of course I will marry you!" she exclaimed.
He kissed her then, and in his kiss was all the love he felt for her now, and all the love he had for her when he thought he would never see her again, and all the love he should have given her years ago.
XIV. It was a cold November afternoon. Huddled in her woolen coat, Hanna walked alone. The faint sunlight was waning fast. Red and orange leaves crunched beneath her shoes. Complete silence reigned.
I'm almost there, she thought, leaning on her walking stick. She looked ahead. Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three… she counted the graves. She made a turn then, and there she stopped. With some difficulty she knelt and brushed aside the fallen leaves from the grave. Upon it she placed a single red rose. A faded black-and-white photograph stood by the tombstone. Hanna looked at the face in the photograph; it was a young man in a military uniform. She felt he was staring back at her.
Be patient, my love… I won't be long now.
With trembling fingers she touched the face in the photograph. You look so young here, so beautiful… But you were always beautiful to me. Even when I took you from the camp in Stalingrad and you were a wreck of a man, to me you were beautiful.
Her eyes went to the engraving. Wilhelm Hosenfeld, 1908-1986, beloved husband and father, she read. A tear ran down her wrinkled cheek. It's been already twenty years without you... Were it not for the love of our daughter and grandchildren, I would have joined you already. Every time I look at her I see you, Wilm. The same blond hair, the same blue eyes, the same smile…
Hanna placed the photograph back to its place. She closed her eyes, and in her memory she recalled the image of Hosenfeld as he looked when she first saw him.
I will never forget how we first met. You, in your Wehrmacht uniform, so tall and imposing, and I, a Jewish girl in hiding, filthy and wearing rags. We were so young back then, Wilm. You were thirty-six and I was only twenty-four. It almost seems like a dream to me now, but it was all real, so real… How you found me, how you took pity on me, how you sheltered me… and how we fell in love.
You used to tell me that you fell in love with me from the start. But I don't think you truly loved me then. I think it was rather an infatuation, a man's fascination for the unknown. You came to develop feelings for me later, when we lived together. But you truly loved me after I rescued you from Stalingrad, Wilm. My woman's intuition tells me this is the truth.
And me? Oh, at first I was truly scared of you. But then I knew the noble and gentle man that you were, and I fell in love with you… deeply and completely and irrevocably so.
What a love we shared, Wilm! Our grandchildren often ask me to tell them our story, and they think it's a romantic war story, like they see in the films today. Romantic? I laugh. Our story was filled with doubt, pain and regret. I barely survived the war, you barely survived the camp. But we rescued each other. For a long time I thought you were my savior, until I became yours.
Hanna took a deep breath. In her mind came scenes of their shared life, when she would often need to cradle Hosenfeld and soothe him through the night, when nightmares disturbed his sleep. During all his life the traumatic experience of his captivity plagued him, although the effect significantly lessened as the years passed.
We lost each other for more than three years… And during these years the bitter taste of remorse lingered. You went off to die, and I told you I never wanted to see you again. What a dreadful curse! You should have hated me, Wilm. For sure I hated myself for a long time. And I never truly forgave myself, although you forgave me a long time ago. Now I'm sure I'll take this bitter regret to my grave.
Her hand caressed the cold marble of the grave, her fingers tenderly lingering over his name. In her mind she was caressing the man itself.
If only you were still with me! I would give everything for just one more day with you on this earth. My sole consolation now are my dreams. You visit me in my sleep almost every night, Wilm! And how you sweetly you speak to me, then, and how tenderly you kiss me, like the first time we kissed… And then I become young again, and not the wrinkly old woman that I am now.
The mournful tolling of a bell disrupted the silence. It was followed by the distant wailing of a woman.
Oh, the bitterness of mortality. Everything fades, everything dies. And you never listened. You kept smoking although the doctors said your lungs were weak. They said that smoke you had inhaled during the ambush, a short while before the war was over, had permanently damaged your lungs. And that pneumonia later, when for more than ten days you danced precariously between life and death… In the end your heart, too, was affected, and one day you collapsed in my arms…
How can it be that you lie dead in the cold ground beneath this tombstone, my love? Years passed and I never came to terms with your passing. How can it be that I still live, a ghost of the woman I once was, cursed to walk this earth for so long without you? But I know it now, I know it well in the depth of my heart: this is my curse, this is my punishment. The curse I myself spoke, and placed upon you and me, upon us both: to linger on and never see you again.
Hot tears streamed down Hanna's face, and sobs shook her frail body as she wept.
What cruel games fate plays with us! For many years we were happy together, and I almost even forgot my bitter words, until one day you were taken from me so suddenly… and I was bereft, left to wallow in pain and wither with my grief, but still not dying… I wish I had died with you, Wilm, then and there.
A cold gust of wind blew then, causing the dry leaves to swirl up in a torrent. Startled, Hanna looked up. The light of the day was almost gone. There in the distance a young man stood, the twilight playing in his eyes. He was tall and blond and handsome, and wore a military uniform. He did not speak but smiled to her warmly, and extended his arms towards her.
Hanna stood up. At once she knew. Suddenly she did not feel the cold. Her feet were light, her gait unimpeded. She flew towards the man, her reddish curls dancing in the wind. He took her in his arms and kissed her. Her heart laughed in joy, free of any burden.
I'm here, my love. The wait is over. Take me with you forever.