Greg Dinner grew up in Colorado, studied in New York, Paris and London before moving to Los Angeles to work in film. In 1984 he resettled in London, working for more than thirty-five years as a film and television executive, produced screenwriter and lecturer in film and ethics at several film schools throughout the world. His third novel, A Requiem for Hania, is inspired by a true story of the Warsaw Ghetto, set in Warsaw over three generations from 1938-2012. A member of BAFTA, the WGA, the WGGB, PEN Ireland, Greg now lives in the West of Ireland.
Two Excerpts from ‘A Requiem For Hania’
By Greg Dinner
That next night explosions could be heard throughout the city, with bombs dropping from an air raid by the Soviets. Bombs fell on much of the Ghetto, particularly around the area of the prison. The Germans claimed little damage had been done, but Yitzhak said there had been damage to airfields and the train station. It did not stop the deportations.
At the beginning of October, following another Soviet air raid when the Ghetto was quiet, Hania left the confines of the attic while her mother slept. She intended to forage amongst some of the furniture and personal items that had been thrown out onto the street, hoping to find anything of value she might sell for food, before the Germans or Ukrainians or Polish Police ransacked the goods first, as they usually succeeded in doing.
She found little of interest and started back to the adjoining building when she saw groups of Ukrainian Auxiliary Police starting to blockade a nearby street again. She quickly ran into an adjoining building where she knew she could enter into the attic passageway network. She saw only a few people but warned all to hide: another Nazi roundup was beginning. She warned those in the attic what was happening below, then went to sit quietly with her mother.
Zivia was not there.
Hania looked around the room.
Zivia was not there. Not there…
Yitzhak climbed in from a side passageway.
“My mother: she is not here. Where is she?”
He looked at her, his brow furrowing.
“She went to the room behind the panel in your apartment. She said you had told her to wait for you there.”
Hania stared at him, taken aback.
She did not finish her sentence. She turned and rushed over to the crawl space back to her building. Yitzhak grabbed her arm.
“You cannot go out. The Germans have closed off the street.”
She pulled her arm away, stared at him for just a moment, then turned. He knew she would not listen.
“Hania… if they search the houses, stay in the hidden room with her. Do not come back here. Do you understand?”
She nodded just slightly. One of the men in the attic stepped forward to stop her, but Yitzhak shook his head. The man looked at Hania, then helped her into the under the floor crawl space, and crawled in after her.
Hania inched her way to the attic of her own building, the man following. Once there he lowered the ladder for her. She climbed down. He pulled up the ladder and closed the hatch behind. Hania stared at the ceiling. The only reveal was the small catch, barely visible.
Her heart beat heavily against her chest as she hurried down the stairs to her apartment rooms. She heard heavy footsteps on the stairs below. She knew they were searching. She ran into the apartment, closing the door behind her. She pulled back the panel fronted by the sink and hurried inside, then closed it behind her, hearing the latch catch.
Her Mother was not there. The room was empty.
She did not know what to do. She did not know what to feel. She heard voices in the outer room, searching. Searching. What to do? What to do?…
She sat on the bed, feeling ill, terrified. The voices grew quiet. The sound of heavy boots descending. What to do?
Hania pulled aside the small peep space from one of the wooden planks over the window and looked out. Several hundred Jews stood in rows in the courtyard, guarded by soldiers. A Ukrainian Auxiliary with a list checked through names. Men. Women. Children.
Hania looked at faces. A few she recognized. Most she did not. She let her eyes scan one row, then the next, then the next.
And then she saw her. Her shoulders slumped, her face expressionless, a shawl around her shoulders, her Mother stood at the end of one of the rows. Stood without expression. Or hope.
“Mama?,” Hania gasped, wanting to scream. Whispering. “Mama?”
The Auxiliary marched up and down the rows of broken people, marking off names, calling out names. He stopped beside Zivia Stern. From the blocked window far above Hania could hear him yell at his mother.
Her mother mumbled a response.
“Your daughter. You have a daughter?”
Hania saw her mother stare straight ahead.
“Where is your daughter?”
Still her mother said nothing.
The Ukrainian Auxiliary pulled out his pistol.
“I said, where is your daughter?”
Her mother said nothing, but stared straight ahead. The Auxiliary started to raise his gun.
“Mama?” A voice near the building entry. “Mama?”
The Auxiliary turned as a girl slowly pushed over to Zivia, and stood beside her. A girl with one damaged leg, with its carved wooden calf and foot, who needed a stick to walk.
Hania felt a scream in her throat lock there. She could not breathe. She could not swallow.
Alicja took her place beside Hania’s mother. Zivia looked at her, then nodded, just slightly, at the Auxiliary. He hesitated, then shouted for the columns of people to march out to the street.
Hania stared in shock as the guards hurried the people away.
“No,” she said, over and over. “No, no, no, no…”
Hania wanted to die. Hania was ready to die. She took a breath, struggled to breathe, struggled to move.
Then she moved. A step. Another. She hurried.
Hania unlatched the false panel and pushed it aside. She ran into the front room, then out of the apartment. She stumbled. She hurried. She tripped on the stairs and fell. One step, two steps, another, another.
The ground floor; she quickly moved to the front entrance. Went through the door.
Rows and rows of people, hundreds, marching away, up the street. Hania hesitated, looking for her mother, for Alicja.
“Mama?,” she cried out, but if anyone could hear above the shouts and orders of the police, no one responded. “Mama?”
Hania ran alongside the columns of people, looking in the rows for her mother. She could not see anyone she knew. Jews looked at her, and away. Still she pushed forward, pushing some aside, desperate. Desperate.
A hand roughly grabbed her shoulder. An Auxiliary Policeman pulled her sharply towards him. Stared into her face with hate.
“Get in with the others. Walk!”
He pushed her to the end of a row of people. He walked beside her, forcing her to stay in the row he marched beside.
It took almost an hour to reach the Umschlagplatz. Several thousand people were penned in, others immediately shoved into cattle train transports as they appeared. Wives were separated from husbands. Families torn apart from one another. Some people screamed. Some cried out for their loved ones. Some tried to run away and were shot. Others collapsed and were beaten. Hania was pushed to a pen on the next door grounds of the former hospital that served as a holding area and told to sit. Her Auxiliary Policeman disappeared. She looked all around for her mother, for Alicja, but could not locate them. They sat for an hour, two, three. No food, no water. Finally they were allowed to stand, to mill about, just slightly.
Hania pushed through people, searching, searching for her mother. She saw a few faces she knew. Some faces from her factory. One of the men who she had seen in the attic. A family from another building. Josef Schipper the mechanic. She pushed through, desperately searching.
She pushed into the main yard, still searching.
And then she saw her mother. And she saw Alicja, still at her side. They were in a crowd of a hundred or so people herded towards a cattle car.
“Mama!,” Hania shouted and pushed through crowds of people.
Hania pushed towards the train wagon and heard a male voice scream at her to stop. She did not stop.
Her mother was being pulled up into the transport, helped by Alicja.
“Mama!,” she shouted, terrified.
As her mother started to disappear into the train, she turned. She gazed around, as if she heard Hania. Hania saw her eyes drop, her gaze drop, as Zivia turned away again.
Beside her mother, Alicja. Alicja turned. Gazed around. And her eyes met Hania, standing in the yard. And she saw her. And their eyes locked.
Hania could not breathe.
Alicja stared at her, stared at her friend. She shook her head, just slightly. Shook her head no. And her face said: I understand. And her eyes said: it is so. And her body said: it is time.
And her lips formed a single word: live.
Then she, and Hania’s mother, Zivia Stern, were pushed inside, as the guards closed the train transport door with a loud bang. And locked it.
Hania, cold, motionless.
Hania, without life.
Avram Neverly-Baron, the conductor, was the last to go.
A sense of uncertainty from the audience. A slight sense of confusion.
And once Neverly-Baron had disappeared, from the shadows, two stage hands carried a high seat and music stand onto the stage, then disappeared. After a moment, just at the wing, Aga and others made out a wheelchair being pushed to the edge of the stage. From it a person stood. Turned to say something to the person pushing, then started forward towards the bench. Slowly. Step by step, led by a walking stick. Step by step. Tap. Tap. Tap…
Aga knew. They all knew.
The man with the walking stick that led him with a tap, then another, along the stage, tapping until he came to the bench and sat down, putting some papers onto the music stand before him. A spotlight illuminated the very tired, pale, drawn face of composer Pawel Weisz. He looked at the audience, one and all. He seemed to hesitate then seemed to look directly towards Aga. Perhaps he did. He nodded, just slightly. And then he spoke.
“The poet T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month. After many cruel months, I have come to the conclusion that he may have been right. My doctor said: not tonight. I said: I will go and offer up two free tickets to you if I should win the next game of chess. I won. I cheat.”
Pawel smiled, gently, and there was quiet laughter in the audience, both pleased that he was there and saddened at his illness.
“It pleases me to have you all here this evening. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I have been on a difficult journey, as Avram said. My eyes I thought were open. But they were not. They were closed. I realized then I did not want them to open. I was afraid to see. Afraid to know. But there were things I had to know, just as this road I have had to take has been necessary. And painful. So: I now I am an old man. Not so old, yet older than I realized. So much not realized. But now understood.”
He hesitated. Continued. “I heard in my head the music. I heard the story. And I knew that once more, perhaps one last time, this time, I had to tell that story in the only way I knew how. I had to speak. For me, that speech is in musical notation. In every note. Cadence. Arpeggio. In the phrases, the themes, the instruments playing words that I cannot say with my voice. I can say this only with my heart so that you too may hear, may listen. The music for me has been all. The love. The pain. The loss and the tears. The sadness and the joy. They come together as one, hand in hand.”
Pawel hesitated here again, gathered his thoughts. Stared at his pages on the stand. Absolute silence in the auditorium. Every word, every breath, seemed like balm, like the whispers of a lover, a friend, a teacher. The words, like the music, spoke from the heart and to the heart.
He took a deep breath, and read again. “I sat down and wrote my prelude. Trisagion. It is a hymn. A beginning. It was there, inside of me. Then the first movement. I cried. The tears spoke to me. Lachrymosa. The tears. The music spoke my name, before I knew. Before I understood. A lament. So much lost. So much unknown. So much learned. I needed also to say what I had felt, once, early on. That I had given up. I had run away. The anger. The fury. And thus the second movement. Movement of fury. Who I had been, then. And why. This too I found within me. The music. I needed here to create afresh. To struggle against confusion. To imagine chaos. I too needed to hear. I too needed to listen.”
Pawel rested a moment. So tired. So very tired. Catch his breath. Find his words. Difficult words said to all. Said to one.
“I did not want to go on,” he said then. “But I saw that I had to. I saw because you came to tell me that I had to go on. I had to bear witness. I had to know. It had been a search. And so a third movement, sacrifice. A movement that spoke of so much sacrificed in the desire for understanding. The need for that understanding. You had come to know when truth came knocking at your door. As in time you would come to find me. And knock as well. The journey for all of us was not simply a journey of the past. It was of the present. A journey that was, if I can say, a love story. A story of lovers desperately reaching for one another. The world can be so hard, so cruel. The pain so real. Such a sacrifice made. But the sacrifice was a gift, my friends. A gift to me. And to you. I was once wrong. So now I beg forgiveness. Understanding. My music is my supplication.”
“I had my three movements, but I needed a fourth. An ending. A conclusion. Where I might go. Where I had been. Reflection. I knew there was something else I needed to say. Something tied within me. My soul. I did not know where to look. I could not hear the notes in my head, my heart. I found myself lost. How to find myself? How to come to the end of this story that has so badly needed to be told, this story tonight. I heard nothing. I did not know where to start. Or where to finish.”
Pawel sighed. Aga was close enough to the stage to see the real hurt in his expression, the real pain. He looked at the audience, away for a moment, then back. The entire large auditorium was silent. He stopped reading his notes, and spoke to them, to each and every one of them.
“You have come to celebrate the birthday of an old man, even now older. I wanted to present you with this work, this work that is my life that I had so missed, and then found. But I was unsure of how to bring this to a close. That had never happened to me before. And then… and then. I knew how the work needed to end. It had in fact ended a long time ago. Eliot also wrote ‘In my beginning is my end…In my end is my beginning.’ My own ending tonight is therefore also my beginning. A movement of love that I first began to compose some forty years ago and to which I needed to now revisit, having never done so before in all the music I wrote. Remembered. Felt. I once thought it was written for one—boy–alone, never heard. But it was not. It belongs to the many. To you. To this greater composition you hear tonight. I returned to that composition, made some changes, some additions and in doing so I found my fourth movement. That has been my journey. It has been a long, difficult journey. My journey of loss. And light…Thank you all for coming. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
Pawel pushed himself off the stool. He tapped his way with his walking stick to the edge of the stage, where his wheelchair waited to be pushed away. The applause was loud and real. The spotlight faded out. The stool was left before the audience. The dim stage lights came up, casting shadows. The solo pianist appeared and sat down at the piano on one side of the stage. On the other the guest violinist. The only musicians, with an empty stool between them. All that remained.
On the screens behind, two photographs were projected onto the side screens, one on each: on one a photograph of a small child, a young boy, staring at the camera, with such a serious expression. A small child with green eyes. At the other side, that child now a young man, sitting at a piano, still with the same serious expression. Then on the middle screen a third photograph projected. A photograph that meant almost nothing to the audience, nothing to almost all the audience there, save two. The photograph was of a young girl, smiling, her head resting on the slightly older girl beside her, and between them a push buggy for a small child. A photograph from a summer’s day in the Krasinski Gardens, so long ago, many lifetimes ago. A photograph lost, and rediscovered.
Aga winced not with pain, or anger, but with longing. She glanced at Beniamin, but he did not look at her. She lowered her eyes, then looked back at the screens. Even before the music began, she could hear it. She understood that music, that song. The song sang to her from the past. Silent. Haunting. It was the music they all heard that evening.
The photographs disappeared, and a title appeared simultaneously on all three screens: Fourth Movement it read, then disappeared. After a moment, ‘Yeshu’a: The Journey of Loss and Light’.
The titles disappeared.
There was absolute silence in the large auditorium.
And after a moment the pianist began the final movement of the work. He played a short introduction, gently playing a few notes that spoke from the heart. Leading. Beckoning. Calling. Then after a moment the young woman put her violin just below her chin, breathed, and played.
She played for Pawel. She played for Robert. She played for all those who came before, and who came after. She played such music, such sadness but with such generosity of spirit that all were moved. All humbled.
Aga felt Beniamin’s hand holding her own. But she did not look at him. She looked up at the stage, but did not see the musicians. She looked up, and beyond, into the faces of all who were, of all she was as well. And she knew herself now. She knew who she was. Not who she had become. Who she was.
Within that final movement came notes that spoke words, spoke the story, the story of loss and pain, the words that spoke of the soul and of humanity. Part lullaby, part love song to the many, part lamentation for those lost. Painful, emotional, unlike anything Weisz had written, the movement took the four notes and transposed them into a cry from the heart, speaking to the one and to the many.
The music spoke to the audience and beyond, reminding each person of the story within each person’s heart. The story of what it meant to suffer and to survive. The story of what it meant to be alive. The centre of the movement was the sound of the violin, aching, crying, reaching to every single heart in that room with a spiritual ache and loneliness that most had known but few had known how to articulate. In its language were the faces and tears and laughter and undiminished hopes of those from the past calling out, reaching out, remembered, whispers of the heart. In this work, this musical gift, Weisz spoke to each of those now in the audience. His music spoke of longing. It spoke of love. It spoke of loss. And it spoke of grace…
When the movement came to its end, the violin played alone, playing finally first one high note, then rising to another, holding that note as triumph: triumph of the human heart, of life over death. Of love. And with that note, the music stopped. The lights went down, and the following title appeared on the middle screen only. Opus it said. Then: A Requiem for Hania.
White letters on a black screen. A Requiem for Hania.
A prayer for a life lost. And for many, lives found.