Pytor flicked his lighter several times. He had neglected to completely load it with fluid. His hand shook slightly. He sensed his seatmate was watching. What a fool he was. He stopped and with an embarrassed grin tapped out a cigarette and offered it to her.
She nodded and took it. She fished out matches from her purse and with one strike lit hers and then his. She inhaled deeply and blew out the smoke. “First time you are travelling to Berlin?” she asked.
He hesitated then decided to answer. “Yes, I’m going to a conference.”
“You will enjoy. Berlin is a beautiful city.”
As he drew on his cigarette, a high pitch whistle sounded. He lurched forward. The air brakes were released and the train began to move. He looked past her through the window and saw the station slide by. Raindrops soon pelted the car.
“So you’ve been to Berlin?”
“Many times. I am the secretary for Gesellschaft für Musik und Literatur für Czechoslovakia, the Society of Music and Literature for Czechoslovakia. I travel all over Eastern Europe as well as Paris. It’s the people that are ugly and getting uglier.”
She reached for his newspaper and held it out. “Der Sturmer is filth. Every word of it is a lie, but because it’s in print, people accept it as true. Hitler and Goebbels are geniuses in making people believe shit is spun gold.”
He glanced around the car. Hopefully no one else heard. “You are certainly opinionated pani…?”
“Katalyna Paternoskov and I am not a Mrs. Well not in the normal sense. I am a free thinker and marriage is not free. Is that not so…pan?”
He felt a headache coming on. He pinched the bridge of his nose then rubbed his forehead. “Pytor. My name is Pytor Raskowsky. I am a professor of music at the University.” He remembered the flask of vodka, and became very thirsty. He envisioned a very long trip.
“Very nice to meet you, Pytor. Your response?”
“You want an answer?” he asked.
Her eyes sparkled and she wore a small smile. “Yes, Professor, I do.”
“Marriage is like ---breathing. It is what two people do to raise a family. Otherwise as everyone knows there would be chaos.”
“So marriage is only important if there is a family? What if it is decided that you don’t want children. What then?”
His finger traced the outline of the flask in his coat pocket. “Then… I don’t know. It’s not right and it’s never been right. It is the order of things. A man living with a woman must be married. Every religion Christianity, Judaism, Mohamadism, all follow that principal. It is what God wants.”
“Ah hah. So now you bring in God,” she said. “When you’re stuck for an answer you answer with, it is what God wants.” She sighed. “So predictable.”
Her hands jabbed the air and her voice rose. “God is not involved. God is not looking down from the heavens. God…”
“Pania Paternoskov, I mean Katalyna, please lower your voice. This is a discussion between us alone not the entire train.”
His rebuke caught her in mid point. Her hands dropped to her lap.
“No one has…” she looked at him with a mixture of frustration and humor. “Ach, if you don’t want to talk go read your filthy newspaper.”
“Thank god,” he thought. Der Sturmer may be rot but at least it would be quiet. He unfolded the paper. The headline in German read Jüdische Verschwörung , um Nichtjuden zu töten Jewish Plot to kill Gentiles Uncovered. He felt a knot in his stomach and his mouth went dry. He began to read.
“You must think I am crazy. I can assure you, I am not,” she cut in. “I am normal---as normal as one can be in these times. The world has changed.”
He wanted to ignore her to be left alone to digest this evil. Surely, this couldn’t be widely read or believed. There had always been crackpots who made wild accusations against the Jews. The Elders of Zion was popular during the Russian pogroms in the late 1800s. It accused Jews of drinking non- Jewish children’s blood during Passover. Most, regarded that as stupid and untrue, but there were others…
He turned towards her. “You were saying about the times?”
She stared back. “The times, dear professor, are not ours.”
Something about her voice had changed. There was softness to it almost wistful. He put the paper to the side. It surprised him to feel relief. In an instant the ugliness of Der Sturmer was pushed aside. “Things haven’t changed so much. Our peasants remain our peasants. Their lives little different than in Wladyslaw Reymont novel Chlopi.”
She smiled. “Of course you would know of Reymont. The pride of Poland’s literature 1924 Nobel Laureate.” Her voice deepened. “Heavy, dry, and religious. Myself, I like George Bernard Shaw. You laugh when he bites. He is much more clever.”
The newspaper on his lap slipped to the floor. He bent down but decided to leave it.
She motioned toward it. “You don’t want your paper?”
He hesitated, “It belongs there.”
Their eyes met. She retrieved it. “It would be bad manners. Better to put it between the seats.”
“Can it be true? He pointed to the headline. “Do people really believe this?”
“Oh professor, open your eyes and ears. The sounds of German marching boots are all around.”
“I can’t… and shook his head.” He decided to have a drink and took out his flask. He looked over at Katalyna. “You want?”
She glanced at her watch. “It’s still morning.” Then she shrugged. Oh, why not?”
“Na Zdrowie, cheers,” she said her hands clutched the container and took a swig.
She wiped her mouth with a tissue then returned the flask. He took a gulp. The vodka warmed him. He screwed the cap back and slipped it into his pocket. He squeezed his eyes shut. The train would be at the border in sixty minutes.