The Matljary Diary

J.P. Stern

In the High Tatra Mountains above M., 28.x.1944. Anniversary of the Founding of the Republic. The fifth under German occupation, and we pray it may be the last. We’d been promised reinforcements today, waited all day, at last they came. What a crew – worse than useless. As far as I can tell they are Prague coffee-house Jews, the lot of them. They all speak Czech – of sorts (!). It does seem to have taken them a long time to discover their patriotic vein … Heavens, what specimens! You only have to look at them to see they don’t know one end of a rifle from the other – a game of chess or rummy seems to be the only kind of exercise they’re used to. Still, now they’ve come to join us, we must make some use of them. Better late than never, I suppose.

29.x. They all turn out to be university graduates, of course, except the one who was chef at the Hotel Pariz. We put him in charge of the cookhouse straight away, and I must say you certainly can tell the difference. What are we going to do with the rest, I wonder. Most of them are lawyers – what else! – but there is a real doctor among them, too, and he’ll come in handy soon; we’ve been without an MD so far. Among the lawyers there is one, Dr F.K., they all seem to look up to – very quiet, though.

30.x. As I expected, the language question is proving troublesome and is aggravating our relations with the new lot that arrived two days ago. It’s bad enough their talking nothing but German among themselves – they also organise reading groups and read German poems and stories to each other, and our chaps are furious. You can hardly blame them – after all, we’re here to fight the Germans, not to fill our minds with their nebulous Teutonic poetry! I had to say something to Dr K. about it, simply because he seems to be the most sensible one among them – also he seems to be fairly old, though he doesn’t look old at all – and he said he well understood why we were angry and he hoped we would bear with them. He then added that some people could not live without literature – people who hadn’t much else in life, so to speak – and he thought that as long as these reading sessions didn’t interfere with people’s ordinary duties, we should let it pass. Fair enough, I suppose.

Somebody said Dr K. isn’t really a lawyer at all but an author. In German of course.

31.x. This rumour about Dr K. being an author turns out to be a lot of nonsense, as I expected. I asked him point blank and he admitted that he has hardly published anything. How can you call yourself a writer if all you’ve done is a few stories about animals and that sort of thing. (We read some La Fontaine at school, the year before the Germans closed all our secondary schools, but that was in verse.) In fact he worked in an industrial insurance office – bilking the workers of their rightful insurance money, I don’t doubt. Still – he doesn’t look like a capitalist hyena to me. As a matter of fact everybody seems to like him – I mean our chaps too – and since he is not very strong, everybody offers to help him, with the lugging of provisions etc. (They’re none of them very strong, this ‘Anniversary Crew’, as we call them, worse luck! You don’t grow muscles by moving pawns across the chessboard ...)

I’ve noticed he doesn’t even keep a diary, though he seems interested in the fact that I do.

I.xi. 1944. There is no doubt that Dr K. is proving a useful addition to the camp. It turns out that he knows the region well – seems to have spent several months in hospital in Matljary; and even though it’s years ago (well before I was born, I believe), he seems to remember the region quite accurately. Of course we have our Slovak liaison men who come over from the next camp and know the mountains like the back of their hand, but they’re not always around. Besides, Slovaks are a bit funny, as we know to our cost: look at what happened in ’38 and ’39, when they left the sinking ship and set up a state of their own, with Hitler’s blessing. And whatever you may think of this new lot – though they’re not exactly a heroic breed, they won’t go over to the Germans, that’s for sure! Poor devils, most of their relations are in German camps anyway.

2.xi. Shared the late watch with F.K. I asked him how to he came to join us. At first it sounded like the usual story. Says he was in his lodgings in Prague one morning, still in bed, when a couple of uniformed men came into his room to arrest him. Sicherheitsdienst, I imagine, he couldn’t remember their insignia (typical!), only that their uniforms were black and had pockets everywhere. He says he asked them their names (!), as if that was likely to cut any ice with the SD, and told them that they had no right to be in his lodgings, and that he had done nothing wrong, nothing that could give them the right to arrest him. He seemed at first to think it was all a joke – one of the men looked familiar, like one of the porters from his insurance office. It was a most peculiar story – I asked him whether he had forgotten about the German occupation. He said no, he remembered it all right, but that it took him some time before he realised that they really had come to take him away. Apparently he thought it had all happened before, though the way he said it I couldn’t make out whether in reality or merely in his imagination. (He does seem to be a writer after all, lots of imagination and a bit slow on the uptake, I suspect.)

3.xi. First lot of snow. We spent the day improving the bivouac, sawing and piling up firewood. The sun came out at about noon and I got everybody out of their tents to do some exercises. I wonder how we’re going to survive when the real winter comes, with this new lot to look after.

4.xi. F.K. told me that once he realised these two men had come to arrest him, he made up his mind to try to get away. ‘Not like the last time,’ he said (?). He quite simply pretended he had to go into the next room to get dressed and somehow managed to slip out of the house by the back stairs – a miracle he got away with it. After that he made his way into the Slovak mountains with the help of our underground network, the usual story.

‘Not like the last time.’ I couldn’t make out what he meant by that, and so I asked him. It seems he was referring to a story he had written years before, which also began with a man being arrested. But in the story the man more or less accepted his fate, and although he was left at liberty, he actually started looking for the court of law that would be prepared to try him. Like a mouse looking for the cat that will eat it up! It sounded a most peculiar story, and I told Dr K. so. After all, he himself had said the man was innocent, that somebody had been spreading lies about him. I got a bit worked up about this – it seemed like a complete non-sequitur – I had actually forgotten that what we were talking about was only a story. What could be more absurd, when you think of it, than arguing about a piece of fiction that wasn’t even published, for God’s sake. In our situation, with the German line in the Ukraine collapsing, and the Germans retreating westward and likely to run into us any day.

Yet I can’t help feeling that this peculiar story is connected with our situation. And so, when he said, ‘You’re quite right, it was only a story, and not a very clear one at that’ – I didn’t want to hurt him and so didn’t rub it in that the thing hadn’t ever appeared in print – when he said that, I felt that I had somehow missed the point, and that he had really meant to say something quite different.

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