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240 pagine
3 ore
Sep 23, 2020


John Zobrzynska arrives in Poland as a celebrity subject in the TV series A Life Revisited, hoping to trace his Jewish roots. With the help of his researcher, to whom he becomes increasingly emotionally attached, he follows the trail that leads to the horrors of Majdanek, a WW2 concentration camp, and to a family member who uncovers the secrets of his past. But his longed-for sense of security is threatened by the appearance of a former camp guard, forcing John to face a chilling ultimatum. Will duty to his family or desire for happiness with his new love prevail?
Sep 23, 2020

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Majdanek - David Gibb



She supported herself on one elbow in the king-sized bed and scanned the hotel room. It was spacious, with a red leather chesterfield couch and matching armchair. By one wall stood an elegant writing table with its chair, and dotted around the room were several occasional tables on which lamps rested. Rich curtains hung to the thickly carpeted floor. The room, in an expensive London hotel, was tastefully furnished but there was nothing of hers in it. It felt devoid of emotion, soulless almost. Her eyebrows lowered into a troubled frown and she lightly bit her lower lip. The same hotel. The same room. Familiarity, he had said, would make it less impersonal. She remembered that at first, over a year ago, she had thought of bringing a photo of the children with her to place on the bedside cabinet but had then dismissed the idea. She had this irrational fear that she would leave it behind by mistake, that her whereabouts could then be traced. Ridiculous, she knew, but it highlighted the innate tension she felt, the fragility of her situation, the concern she had for her children.

She got up, slipped on a silk dressing gown provided by the hotel and walked to the fridge. She took out a half-consumed bottle of wine and carried it to a low table by the couch. She filled the two glasses that they had used earlier.

He came out of the en-suite bathroom to see her there. ‘Oh,’ he said, half-surprised, half-disappointed. ‘You’re up.’

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘Felt like a drink.’

‘Not coffee then.’

‘No. Come over here.’

‘Just a minute.’ He put on a dressing gown himself; he would have felt absurd sitting naked on the couch. He was intrigued yet concerned about what she might say.

As he sat down beside her, she took his hand in hers. His concern rose. ‘It may seem a bit strange talking to you like this, John, but you know the work I do for television?’ Instead of speaking to him now, she could have written everything that she was going to say in a letter. Perhaps distance would have been better but somehow she felt that that would have been wrong. She needed to speak to him face to face, now and not later, and not communicate with him in writing from some faraway location.

‘Yes,’ he replied, and his concern changed to a feeling of absurd anticlimax. He feared she was going to say something serious about their relationship but it was about TV. He was relieved and yet irritated. He wanted to hold her in his arms in bed, not discuss this. After all, they had only one precious night a week together.

Nevertheless she persisted. ‘Well, we’re looking at a series of programmes that help people to fill in the missing parts of their lives.’


‘People in the public eye. And you’re one of them, John. All those news programmes abroad you’ve done on television. All those interviews.’

He looked at her questioningly.

‘You’ve heard of the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are?’ He nodded. ‘Well, we want to do something similar. We’re thinking of calling ours A Life Revisited. Perhaps we’ll find something a bit catchier later. We’re outsourcing this to a company that’ll do the research and the filming. I’ve already spoken to my colleagues, John. We’ve got a number of people in mind. You’re one of them.’

‘I’m not an A-list celebrity, though. Lucy, it’s six in the morning and you’re going into detail about a television programme that I could appear in. Yes, I do find that a bit strange. Don’t you want to go back to bed? Can’t we talk about this later?’

But she had broached the subject and had to go on. She knew she must talk about it now. It soon wouldn’t be appropriate, wouldn’t be possible even, she suspected. ‘Not now I’ve started, John. I needed to mention it to you some time anyway.’ She ignored the query in his look. ‘No, you’re not a celebrity. Probably better that you’re not. But that’s not important. You’re well known. And you work for TV as well. TV brought us together, John. It would be good to talk this through now.’ She almost gabbled her words, so keen was she to explain her point.

She could see that he wasn’t convinced. ‘But perhaps you need something like this. The woman fronting this for the film company is Sarah Marchant. I know her well. She’s discreet. And good. What do you say?’

‘What do you mean need something like this, and that she’s discreet?’ he asked.

‘Those years in the children’s home. The abuse you suffered. Perhaps you need to work through it.’

Mention of the home always cut him to the quick, however hard he tried to fight off the feeling. Like all victims of abuse, he wasn’t able to control the deep hurt and sadness of his memories, not even as an adult his age.

‘John, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you but those years have affected you badly and they will always have an impact on your personal relationships.’

‘What are you saying, Lucy? That I need to work through years of abuse to improve our relationship? And on television?’

‘That’s distorting what I said and you know it. All right, forget about any catharsis then. You’d be an ideal subject. It would make compelling television.’

‘But at what cost to me?’ he asked.

‘There’s always a cost, John, in matters like this. And then there are those first four years of your life in Poland. They’re lost to you but they keep resurfacing to haunt you. You’ve never searched out the truth there. I just don’t understand why. I would’ve done.’

‘I’ve told you,’ he replied. ‘I’m scared of the demons there. I just can’t deal with it. Better to leave well alone.’

‘But a doctor will tell you that a wound thinly skinned is still a wound, John. You have to resolve it. For your sake.’

‘Perhaps I don’t want that part of my life opened up for all to see.’

‘I’m sure you’d have some editorial rights about what’s included.’

‘Do you really think so?’

She screwed her face into a smile and shrugged her shoulders.

No, probably not, he thought. ‘I can’t give you an answer right now, Lucy. I need to think it through. Do I want it? Could I bear the intrusion? It would be invasive almost. And I would need to speak to this Sarah Marchant.’

‘What about if I get Sarah to write to you in a few months’ time? Give you a chance to mull it over.’

‘Yes, you can do that,’ he said, more in order to escape from the decision than to confirm it.

And these words gave her some hope. Perhaps he was coming round to the idea. She knew, though, that what she was now going to say would rock him, set him back. He’d probably throw the television idea back in her face. She should have mentioned the programme before. What a fool I am, she thought, but she had to go on. She took a deep breath before continuing.

‘John, I’m sorry but this can’t go on.’

The words shocked him in their abruptness and they shocked her too. They were a bolt out of the blue. Yes, the two had quarrelled before, even separated, but he knew for sure that each time this happened they would return to each other. But this felt patently different. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Surely the words are clear.’ Again she was stunned by her own brusqueness.

‘No, it’s not that. It’s why are you saying this to me? Why now? I know we’ve had our moments but there’s been no argument this time or recently. I don’t understand.’ A feeling of desperation crept over him. This was more than just a step farther than before.

She shifted her position on the couch uneasily and let go of his hand.

‘What does this mean?’ he asked again.

‘We meet once a week in this hotel, in this same room. The relationship’s going nowhere, John. It feels so empty. We’ve spoken about this before.’ She looked around at the room.

He followed her eyes, listening to the hum of the Marylebone traffic through the double-glazed windows, and recognised what was going through her mind. ‘And whose fault is that?’ he asked.

‘Fault, John? Why must you reduce everything to fault?’

‘Lucy, you know what I mean. Fault. Responsibility. Call it what you will. All right, let’s look at this. Here we are facing each other on the same couch a foot apart but with some huge invisible barrier between us.’

‘You don’t need to be so dramatic, John. It’s easier to talk like this.’

‘Easier for whom? For you, Lucy?’ he retorted bitterly. ‘Let’s face it, everything has always been on your terms.’

‘That’s not fair.’

‘I agree. It’s not fair of you.’

‘Oh, so clever with words, John.’

He realised that he had to row back; this was going to end in a huge quarrel. He didn’t want that. ‘Okay. Let’s agree to talk and not argue.’

‘Well, that’s what I’ve always wanted, John.’

Not the words he hoped to hear but he decided that he had to hold back, and anyway, in his heart of hearts, he knew that he wasn’t always in the right or she in the wrong. Enough, he reminded himself. Don’t go down that road; it’s self-defeating. ‘Lucy, let me put my side of things. Okay?’

She nodded.

‘We met a year ago. We liked each other; we were attracted to each other.’ He didn’t look for confirmation from her but continued. ‘You’re so much younger than me.’

‘I don’t know what that’s got to do with it,’ she interrupted.

‘All right. Forget that. I wanted to see you more than just once a week but you didn’t think it was right for me to come to your home, to spend nights with you there.’

‘Why must we go over old ground?’ she remonstrated. ‘You know why. Simon and I had just separated. I wanted the children to feel safe and secure. God knows, it was difficult enough for them. And I had no real idea what damage the break-up had caused.’

He sat back on the couch. What she said was true but it wasn’t the whole picture. ‘I asked you to see me at my place. You refused; said it would be unequal. You were the one who suggested a hotel. No territoriality, you said. You decided that a hotel was the best. One night a week while your mother babysat. I had no choice in the matter.’

‘Yes, you did. You could have said no. In a way this has suited you, John. Regular meetings without any responsibility.’

He was stung. ‘That’s just not fair. You had the power; you decided what would happen. I just followed.’ But deep down he knew that what she said was true also.

‘No one’s totally right or wrong, John. No one’s a winner in this. Yes, I have my difficulties: Simon; the break-up; making sure Jack and Emily survive this.’

‘So what are you proposing?’

‘We have to stop seeing each other.’ He looked as if he’d been slapped in the face but she continued. ‘And, anyway, Simon feels that it would be good to get back together again. Good for us. Good for the children.’

‘Ah, now I see,’ he said bitterly. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

‘You’ve already spoken to him, made your choice then.’

‘Yes, John,’ she replied unhappily. ‘I’m afraid I have. I know it sounds brutal.’

‘That sounds almost flippant. Or matter-of-fact at least, cold. We’ve been together for a year. You told me everything was finished with your husband. And now this. A year, perhaps even possibly a life together, just dispensed with in a couple of sentences. Is that all I’m worth?’ He shook his head in disbelief. ‘I can’t stay here any longer.’

He got up to get dressed without saying another word.

‘John, let’s not make this any harder than we have to.’

But again no reply.

There was silence for the next ten minutes until he was ready to leave. Then, with a disapproving look on his face, he made his way towards the door.

She said nothing.

He turned to face her. ‘You abandon me after coming to a secret decision with your husband about getting back together again, and then you offer me some slot in one of your television series. What is this? Have you any idea how I feel?’

‘John, I’m really sorry.’

‘That’s what they all say,’ he replied, turning again to leave.

* * * * *

As he made his way back to Regent’s Park station with traffic hammering past him, he pored over Lucy’s words. The children’s home; the abuse; those early years in Poland that he couldn’t even remember. Yes, he was affected badly by them and perhaps these had contributed to the failure of their relationship, he had to admit. But only contributed. There were also the factors that he had spoken about with Lucy not even an hour ago. When two people beyond a certain age come together, he thought, they bring with them their baggage: Lucy’s past marriage; his childhood years. Perhaps he needed to meet a woman who was free from all of this, but that would happen by chance and not design. Anyway, how was he going to rid himself of all these insistent thoughts about his own childhood? Lucy had talked about his suffering in the children’s home here. He had used the word ‘demons’ to describe his anxiety about his early childhood in Poland, and yet he had agreed, somewhat submissively he now felt, to her setting up a meeting between him and Sarah Marchant. If I feel like this, he asked himself, why on earth would I want to be the subject of a television programme? He consoled himself with the fact, though, that Lucy would now probably not go ahead with this. At least he was saved from having to make yet another difficult decision.

He was just about able to put a lid on his past but he couldn’t escape from the present, he acknowledged. He wasn’t a man without constancy yet his life was punctuated by a number of relationships that had never developed into anything long-lasting: no shared home; no children; no enduring love. He wasn’t too old though, he felt, for something to transform his life completely. But at that moment the stream of people up and down the steps of the Underground station broke into his reverie. Better to focus on everyday realities, he decided, as he manoeuvred his way down past bodies, trolleys, umbrellas. Let the future take care of itself for the moment, he thought.

Chapter 1

The metal letterbox made enough sound for him to realise that something had landed on the hall carpet. He left the front room where he’d been preparing for one of his programmes and picked up the envelope. On the back was the name of the sender, Films for Television. He raised his eyebrows and scratched the nape of his neck in anticipation. Come on, he thought. Just open it.

He saw that the letter was from Sarah Marchant. So Lucy had got in touch with her, he said to himself. ‘Dear John’, it read, ‘Lucy spoke to me some time ago about you appearing in one of our programmes. She asked me to hold off for several months, which I’ve done. I hope it’s okay to contact you now. I’m writing to you as the representative of Films for Television. We are a group that has been commissioned by an independent television company to produce a series about well-known people and their lives, and have great pleasure in asking you to be the subject of one of our A Life Revisited programmes which we will be showing next year. These programmes detail the lives of our celebrity subjects and reveal truths as yet unknown to them from our research. They’re our response to the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? series. We are enquiring now so that we can engage in the necessary research if you agree to appear.’

The letter went on to say that he had been chosen because he was well known for his interesting career in broadcasting. ‘Your tireless quest for the truth in national and international politics makes you an ideal subject. Naturally, we would be using to some extent your professional work on television as a backdrop. At the same time, we feel that our audience would be fascinated most by your early life. We are convinced also that you would want to uncover areas of your life that have hitherto been hidden from you.’

His expression changed instantly to one of concern and doubt. He had been born Janusz Zobrzynska in Lublin, Poland, in 1941. In 1945, through a church charity helping refugees, he, with his birth certificate, ID card and precious little else, had been sent with other children to England. That’s what officialdom here had told him. He had no idea to this day how these precious documents had been saved and secreted during the war years. England at that time was in a deprived post-war situation. There were few families wishing to foster or adopt refugee children. ‘Hard enough to look after our own children let alone care for others’ was the unspoken response. It was a children’s home then. There he became John and not much else.

At this point he walked into his front room and sat down on the settee. He gazed out abstractedly to the common that faced his house. The trees were bare skeletons in the cold light of an early February morning but so beautiful nevertheless, he thought. No leaves but the perfect structures of trunk, branch and twig. He saw them as metaphors for what faced him. The trees’ skeletal forms without the concealment of foliage seemed to him to reflect how he might have to bare himself in such a programme and face fundamental truths. His right hand went to his mouth as he mused and then he shook his head to return to the reality of the moment. The programme. The letter. His life.


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