A writer departs …. Does she?

We were siting around a conference table talking business when a cell phone rang. Andrzej pick it up, greeted the caller who turned out to be our mutual friend, and listened for maybe five seconds before his face went gray. I instantly realized the news. So when Andrzej turned toward me and whispered “Mrs. Janina has passed away this morning”, I was already prepared to hear it. Yet, it was the spoken confirmation of the bad news that made it irreversibly tragic, hit hard and produced a lump in my throat.

The third person in the meeting was aware of Mrs. Janina but never met her or had any emotional ties to her. Yet, she too was visibly shaken, trying to remain calm after the announcement of Andrzej. Such is the power of words which can cross the tees and dot the facts of our lives.

It so happened that for the last few weeks I have been immersed in re-reading Mrs. Janina's book “Winter in the morning”. Every morning and every evening a new section of this harrowing and so very moving account of a young girl's survival in the Warsaw ghetto and beyond assisted me in greeting the day and departing to sleep. Were the borders between literature and my life blurred? I can't say they were, but the impression produced by the book has been huge. So vivid, so powerful, so shocking and so telling were the scenes I was reading that the situations they described kept returning as flashes throughout the day. Such is the power of words, which can be the guardians of our decency and the watchdogs of our sins.

For example: at one point in the book Mrs. Janina quotes something she wrote in 1942 and shared with others cramped for days in a hiding place on the Aryan side of the ghetto wall. This Umschlagplatz real event based scene ends this way:

“For a while he could not bring himself to start, his fingers trembled. Then, suddenly, he played. It was a subtle, inspired music which sounded like a prayer, like a mighty call for help to God himself. The condemned and the butchers held their breath. They all believed the life of the gifted child was going to be saved. The boy knew it, too, and smiled. He finished with rich powerful chords of thanksgiving. There was silence again. The boy waited. The listeners waited, too. Commandant Brandt stood numb, spellbound. Raising himself, he glanced at his watch and pointed at the boy: “Same time tomorrow,” he said with a spark of amusement. “He'll play in Treblinka.” And, as if to himself, he added, “Pity!”

Those who master the words and through them offer us insight, remembrance, warnings and hopes are with us forever. Such is the power of words.

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