The Other Girl, p.1Pam Jenoff
One woman’s determination to protect a child from the dangers of war will force her to face those lurking closer to home...
Life in rural Poland during WWII brings a new set of challenges to Maria, estranged from her own family and left alone with her in-laws after her husband is sent to the front. For a young, newly pregnant wife, the days are especially cold, the nights unexpectedly lonely. The discovery of a girl hiding in the barn changes everything—Hannah is fleeing the German police who are taking Jews like her to special camps. Ignoring the risk to her own life and that of her unborn child, Maria is compelled to help. But in these dark days, no one can be trusted, and soon Maria finds her courage tested in ways she never expected and herself facing truths about her own family that the quiet village has kept buried for years...
From the international bestselling author of Kommandant’s Girl comes a searing historical companion novella to The Winter Guest
The Other Girl
About the Author
As a train whistle cut through the darkness outside, Maria closed the book she had been reading and wished for the silence of snow. She nestled deeper into the window seat, which she had discovered buried beneath a pile of boxes in the attic shortly after she had come to live here, and pressed her forehead against the cold glass.
Her eyes traveled out the window to the field of stars above. Could Piotr see them as well? She quickly hoped that he could not. There had been no letters yet. It gave her comfort, though, to picture him indoors somewhere, safe and warm, however unlikely that might be. For him and the other men, the late onset of winter was surely a blessing.
From the room below, snores rose, loud and persistent. Through the rafters, she could see Piotr’s father in the rocking chair with his head tilted back, mouth agape. The house, with its wide-beamed oak floors and high ceiling, should have been lovely. But it was missing the decorative touches Maria had taken for granted growing up, and the result was a lack of warmth that would always make it somehow short of home.
But it was home now. Resigned, Maria turned down the lamp. She descended the ladder and tiptoed toward the bedroom she and Piotr had shared. She had moved in the same crisp October day that they had married in the parish church, the occasion marked only by a bit of sweet bread at the end of supper. Scarcely a month later, Piotr had received orders to report. Call-ups had been rumored for some time and he had taken the news stoically, packing his rucksack as though going hunting for the weekend. He’d been gone nearly three weeks now, leaving her a stranger in the cold, spare house.
Did his parents mind that Maria had stayed on? It was not as if she had another option. The Adamczyks were distant, though not unkind. Piotr’s father labored long hours and came home to eat wordlessly each night before falling asleep in his chair. All day long his wife moved from one household chore to the next without pausing. When Maria tried to help, Pani Adamczyk deemed her work unsatisfactory and waved her off.
So Maria tried to stay out from underfoot and filled her days with knitting and other small projects. Not that she altogether minded being on her own. She was an only child—or had been since her brother, Marek, died when she was two—which was unusual in these parts where most families were large. She missed having purpose, though, as she had when she was a teacher. The school had been closed by order of the Government General in Krakow. War had nipped at the edges of their tiny village, Biekowice, changing little things first, like the requirement of registration cards. Later had come the food requisitioning that left the market so bare. Piotr’s family had not been affected as badly as most—the farm produced enough simple fare to keep their stomachs full. But she could see the hunger on the faces at market, the obsession with whether there would be enough to eat. There were bigger changes, too, that Maria could not explain as clearly: a quiet desperation, neighbors who had lived alongside one another for generations eyeing one another with suspicion.
As Maria passed through the kitchen, she noticed that the leftover potatoes from dinner were sitting out, an unusual slip in the fastidious Adamczyk household. They couldn’t afford to have food spoil, but perhaps Piotr’s mother was planning to make something from them this evening. Maria walked toward the bedroom her in-laws shared and tapped on the door, which was ajar. “Pani Adamczyk, would you like me to put the potatoes away?”
Piotr’s mother was sitting on the edge of the bed, hunched over and facing the far wall. Maria stepped closer. “Pani Adamczyk?” she repeated softly when no response came. The older woman lifted her head, silhouetting in the lamplight the square jaw and broad forehead so reminiscent of her son, features that were better suited to a man. Closer, Maria saw that the older woman held with shaking hands a photo of Piotr as a boy. Though cold and unemotional on the surface, Pani Adamczyk missed her son.
Maria reached her hand out tentatively. “I’ll take care of the food,” Pani Adamczyk replied tersely before Maria could touch her shoulder to offer comfort. She did not want to share her sadness. “Now if you’ll just give me a moment...”
As Maria retreated from the room, she was reminded of the sorrow that had colored her own childhood after Marek died from the grippe. Her parents continued to speak of the ten-year-old they had lost as though he might walk in the door at any moment. Marek had been brilliant. Marek had been beautiful—and funny, and kind, and on it went. It was clear that Maria could spend her whole life trying to compensate and never be close to enough. Many times over the years, Maria had wished she could, if not replace him, at least share in her parents’ memories and loss. But her brother was a stranger to her, no more than a shadowy image beyond the photographs and the occasional game in which she imagined him there playing dolls with her.
Here, she knew Piotr and might have shared in his mother’s missing him. But no one had spoken of Piotr since he had left—it was as if he was already dead. Maria hesitated at the bedroom door, considering whether she should tell Pani Adamczyk that she was pregnant with Piotr’s child. But she was not sure whether that would make things better or worse, so she left.
Maria recrossed the great room where Pan Adamczyk still snored. She walked toward the door, then pulled her coat from the hook and slipped outside, eager to escape the house for a bit. The mixed scent of coal smoke and manure rose to greet her. She shivered at the unexpected bite of the wind. A kind of warmth had lingered in the afternoons this December, a false promise to stave off winter. But with the sun down, the cold was unabashed, with a crispness that caused her breath to form puffs in front of her.
Maria looked upward as she brushed her hair from her eyes. The sky was muted now, and clouds obscured the stars she had seen from the loft. She wondered again where Piotr might be, whether he had shelter or was sleeping out in the cold. Her concern for him felt real but distant. Should she be sadder about Piotr’s absence, like her mother-in-law? Maria scarcely knew her husband, and his touch was still that of a stranger. She hadn’t had time to decide how she really felt.
In fact, she hadn’t wanted to accept Piotr’s proposal at all. She smiled, remembering how he had begun finding excuses to come by her father’s stables. The sudden interest of a boy she had known vaguely since childhood had surprised her. Now she glanced back at her reflection in the front window of the house quizzically, wondering why he had chosen her. Though she had Mama’s high cheekbones and delicately sloped nose, it was as if Papa’s pale coloring had put a dull filter atop them
Maria’s hand traveled reflexively to her stomach, and a flicker of warmth and excitement passed through her. She had only been early on in her pregnancy so had not told Piotr about the child before he had left. Not that she thought he would have been upset. She had mentioned starting a family once in passing. “When we have children... That is, if you want them...”
He’d shrugged and said, “I suppose.” To him, a wife and children were like livestock or other belongings one simply had. It was his indifference to the idea that had stopped her from sharing the news with him. He would know, she had decided, when he came back. He had to come back. It was not a particular emotional attachment to him. Rather, she could not imagine what her life might look like if he never returned.
That she was pregnant was not surprising. Piotr had come at her nightly without fail. Sometimes in the pale gray of early morning she had found him lifting her nightgown a second time or even awakened groggily with him already inside her, his movements building to a rough, repetitive thump that had made her cringe and hope that his parents would not hear. It had not been his desire for her, she suspected; sex had been a new toy to him and he simply could not get enough of it. Maria had found it mildly interesting—perhaps she might even like it one day if he would slow down.
Was it supposed to be more? Maria’s mind reeled back to a day many years ago when she had accompanied her father on an errand to Krakow. As they’d passed through a busy commercial neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, she had glimpsed an older boy with dark eyes leaning out a second-story window. Their eyes had locked and he had taken her in with a long soulful look that had seemed to pull at her insides beyond anything her twelve-year-old mind could comprehend. With Piotr, she had felt nothing like that tug.
Her mother had sensed her uneasiness the night before the wedding. “Love grows,” she’d offered unbidden as Maria had packed for her new home. But with whom? she had wanted to ask, thinking of the stack of letters she had found years earlier buried deep in her mother’s cedar chest. They had been written in a flowing script that was not her father’s and they had spoken words of love to her mother, painting a picture of a vibrant and adored woman Maria did not quite know. The letters, signed only with the initial “J,” had seemed surreal. Maria had gone back a second time weeks later to reread them and try to understand. But when she’d looked in the chest, they were gone.
She wished that she had asked Mama about them before leaving. Her eyes traveled across the village, which sloped at a crooked angle below. She glimpsed her childhood home on the far edge, the familiar yellow light burning behind the curtains in the window. It was smaller than the Adamczyk house, but it had been cozy, with something delicious usually cooking in the oven and Papa’s violin music enlivening the long winter nights. A wave of yearning washed over her. Despite the sadness that had seemed to swallow her mother over the years, Maria had been happy at home. She had not wanted to accept Piotr’s proposal or leave at all.
But that had all changed a few months earlier, before the wedding. One evening when she had been out tending to the livestock, Maria had noticed something odd at their neighbors’ house: the front door was ajar and no lights were on, even though the sun had set. “Something must be wrong at the Bukowskis,” she had told her father breathlessly when she had gone back inside.
Maria had described to him what she had seen. An unusual expression had appeared on her father’s face and she’d wondered if it had been a mistake to say anything.
The next morning, she had awakened to a clatter and run to the window. Police were at the Bukowskis’ house. She had heard glass shattering inside, then a piece of a chair had sailed through a broken window. Maria had begun dressing to go find her father. As she’d reached the top button of her blouse, her hand had frozen in midair. She’d suddenly recalled a day weeks earlier when she had been passing through the village and had seen her father talking to a policeman in an alleyway, heads close.
Alarmed, she had hurried to him. “Papa, is something wrong?”
He had waved her off. “Everything is fine. I’ll be home shortly.” She had turned and started to walk away. Then she had stopped again and looked back slowly over her shoulder with a sense of unavoidable dread. The policeman had been handing money to her father.
Remembering the exchange as she’d watched the police raid the Bukowskis’ house, Maria’s heart had raced. They had appeared too quickly after Maria had told her father about the house for it simply to have been a coincidence.
She had waited until the police had gone, then stormed to the yard where her father stood. His fingers, which had always seemed magical for the music they could make, had been jamming money into his pocket. “How could you?” she had demanded.
He’d looked at her levelly. “We must protect ourselves in these times.” He had not tried to deny what he had done.
“By staying out of things,” she’d countered. “Not by bringing trouble for others.”
“Don’t talk about things you don’t understand.” He’d turned back to chopping wood.
The next day she had agreed to marry Piotr. There weren’t so many options for young women, especially with all of the men called up to the front. And knowing about Papa’s betrayal, she could no longer have remained at home. Within the week, she had left her parents’ house for good. They had not come to the wedding, nor spoken to her since. Though her mother seldom left the house anymore, Maria had hoped that she might bump into her father in town. It would be worth the awkwardness to see him once more. More recently others in the village had disappeared, though, and she wondered if her father had something to do with that. Her anger and betrayal rose once more as she remembered. Perhaps it was for the best that they did not meet again.
From behind the woodpile came a shuffling sound, jarring Maria from her thoughts. She jumped and, recalling stories of wild animals, lifted the ax that leaned against the side of the barn.
A child, no older than ten, appeared in the moonlight. Maria lowered the ax. “Hello,” she said softly. Though the child’s hair was hidden beneath a cap and the scrawny figure was nondescript, her delicate features marked her as female. “Are you lost?” Maria did not recognize her from the school where she had once taught. “It’s all right,” she said when the child did not answer. The girl’s eyes darted back and forth, as though seeking an escape. “What’s your name?”
“Hannah.” The girl faltered, seemingly waiting to be told she was wrong. “Hannah Stein.”
“You’re a Jew?” The girl nodded. There were no Jews in Biekowice, but Maria had seen them on the trips to Nowy Sacz with her father. Nothing about the girl’s appearance, though, would have given her away. “You’re not from these parts.”
“I’m from Lipnik.”
Maria recognized the name of the village to the east, no bigger than her own. “That’s nearly forty kilometers from here.” She noticed then the girl’s tattered shoes, little more than remnants of leather.
Maria pulled the child into the shadow of the barn. Hannah winced, retracting as though Maria’s hands were fire against her skin. How long had she been there? Her face was a ghostly white. Maria looked over her shoulder toward the house. She could not bring the child inside.
“Wait here,” Maria instructed, guiding Hannah back into the shadow of the woodpile. She slipped into the house, strode quickly to the kitchen and looked around for something warm to feed the child. Finding nothing, she grabbed some leftover bread and milk, and a few of the now-cold potatoes, hopin
She returned outside and handed the food to Hannah, who gobbled down the bread, potatoes and ham indiscriminately, too famished to notice or care. “What are you doing here?” Maria asked as the girl ate like a ravenous stray.
Hannah swallowed the milk in a single gulp. “The Germans. They said they were sending us girls and boys to a camp.” Maria shuddered. She had heard about the Germans relocating Jews to central areas, but the idea of taking children without their parents seemed unthinkable. “The train cars were awful, though, like the kind they use for cattle. When I saw those, I knew they were lying.”
“So you ran.”
Hannah nodded. Maria marveled at her bravery. “Why didn’t you go home?”
“I didn’t want to get my family in trouble,” Hannah replied. “I can manage on my own. I was told that there are people who help the Jews.” Her eyes met Maria’s. “There are, aren’t there?”
Maria tried to formulate an answer. Most villagers were just trying to survive. They were not complicit with the Germans like her own traitorous father, but it was hard to imagine them risking their own lives for a person they didn’t know, let alone taking in a child. “I don’t know about that,” she replied evenly. “In any event, we need to find you somewhere to stay for the night. Then first thing in the morning we can take you home.”
“I’m not going back,” Hannah blurted. “Ever.” Her voice was flat yet resolute.
“What about your parents? Surely they are worried...”
“Not my father,” Hannah said, her eyes clouding. She winced, reliving something unspeakable, and in that moment Maria saw all the suffering the child had faced. “He’s the reason I had to go.” Hannah’s face seemed to close and she wrapped her arms around herself protectively, as if imploring Maria not to ask further questions.
The Other Girl by Pam Jenoff / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes