The Replica City
Edwin’s train arrived below ground, pulling into a narrow slot and letting loose streams of passengers. Once a month for the past five years he’d come, and it was during his second journey that he’d begun to see his parents on the platform.
A passing crowd of travelers would leave a space, and against the bare concrete surface, the outline of two figures would remain, like shadows without much substance. Each time he came to Warsaw, they filled with detail and gradations of black and white, resolving into sharper focus, as if the accumulation of journeys had adjusted individual lenses on a private telescope.
They resembled the couple on the postcard he’d found at the Olimpia flea market one Sunday morning. It had been taken at the old train station, the one that had burned down in 1939, and showed a man in his late thirties, a woman several years younger—much younger than Edwin was now. She wore a dark hued suit, tailored and belted to fit snugly like a uniform. Heels and a hat, a fedora that shaded a pale face. Her companion—also well dressed—had his head down, studying a printed railroad timetable next to a locomotive spewing steam.
Today, they were in the usual place, standing to the side of a kiosk plastered with colored posters and official notices. Edwin squeezed his eyes shut and counted to ten—a game he played with himself. When he opened them, his father was still there, glancing down at the tips of his shoes, frowning. His mother gazed up into the windows of Edwin’s car, then checked in her bag as if she’d misplaced something. Before looking up again, she hesitated. Beams of light from above showed her cheeks wet and shining, as if rain had fallen through layers of concrete and steel.
She was the one who searched the cars as the train pulled into the station. But her gaze never stuck on Edwin; it passed through him as if he weren’t there.
His father seemed impatient; he shook his head, and his mother took a last look in the train car and followed his father as he walked away. From somewhere beneath the car, steam rose, which was of course odd as the train was powered by electricity. The steam condensed on the windows, and water droplets streaked across the surface like tears. Perhaps that was why his mother’s cheeks were shining, Edwin thought, wishing he could comfort her. He stood, took the weight of his suitcase from the overhead bin, and moved down the aisle. When he reached the platform, he joined the queue headed for the stairs.
In the main hall, his parents were motionless before the giant arrival/departure sign that no longer clattered mechanically but was electronic—digital, in fact—and silent. The names of Poland’s major cities were displayed there: Cracow, Lublin, Lodz. Some, like Gdansk and Wroclaw, used to be called by other names, and had been changed—perhaps to facilitate a process of forgetting. Others like Oswiecim, Brzezinka, and of course, Treblinka, weren’t there at all—those place-names had been shrouded by an enormous length of death that trailed like a wake across a sea of ashes.
Edwin had learned his parent’s habits; as usual, they spent time gazing up at the sign. He’d given up trying to gauge which train they were looking for, whether they were continuing their journey or had ended it and were meeting some other traveler. His mother looked over her shoulder in his direction, and even though she never seemed to see him, Edwin couldn’t stop from raising his eyebrows and smiling. But her gaze went past him, and he turned away, leaving the station by the side exit to set off for the shining group of buildings across the street.
After an afternoon of meetings, he decided to walk to his lodgings in the Old Town. He took his time, comparing certain neighborhoods with the way they appeared in his collection of black and white postcards—all taken before the city’s destruction seventy years ago. It was often hard to tell the difference; the oldest districts were careful replicas of what had once been.
Except replicas were not the same as originals though; the new buildings were clean and shining, without blemish or layer of soot. Beneath their surfaces, wood from younger trees supported modern steel and plastic. Ducts and pipes ranged many meters behind the facades, and electrical wires spread like tropical vines. The city that had once used human energy to cart buckets of coal and water and waste relied on modern technology to conduct heat and power, and remove sewage.
Around the Castle Square, it was too early for the bars to fill, and too late for the musicians and jugglers to attract crowds of tourists. He checked in, and showered before going to dinner. At a small restaurant, the owner seated him immediately at a table with a view of the Old Town Square. For ceremony and politeness, Edwin accepted a crystal glass of vodka, served with a bowl of pickled cucumbers that left his mouth tasting of nickel.
The owner seated a couple next to him. They were Americans—he could tell right away by their clothing and the way they stared openly all around and kept smiling. To make room for the woman, he pulled his table to one side, nodding his head in acknowledgement of the man.
After a few minutes of studying the menu and whispering, the woman caught Edwin’s eye. “Excuse me,” she said in English. “We’re not from here, and—”
“Of course, how can I help?”
“Yes! My husband didn’t want me to bother you, but I just knew you spoke English. The hotel recommended this place, and we don’t understand the menu.”
“If you like, I could suggest some things.”
Edwin signaled for the waiter. After determining the degree of the couple’s hunger, he ordered roast duck with baked apples and potatoes for them, along with a reasonably priced bottle of wine. The couple asked that he stay and join them, and he agreed, angling his chair toward their table, and nursing a second cup of coffee while they ate. They were young, recently married, and on a tour of Europe.
“Everyone asked us, why go to Warsaw?” the husband said. “We came from Prague on the train. Last night.”
“Ah, the overnight train, I ride it myself. I like to sit up all night in the compartment,” Edwin said. “You’ll want to see Kracow too.”
“And you’re American?” the wife asked. “You sound British.”
“I grew up in London. Now I live in Virginia.”
They wondered why he was there, and he explained his job—advising Eastern European hotels on how to attract American guests. “It was something to do after retiring from the diplomatic service,” he added. He was the father of grown children who only needed him in the periphery, and the widower of a beloved wife whose death had surprised them both. “Money isn’t an issue; I work because I like the travel and the people I meet along the way.”
He thought for a moment, gazing into his nearly empty cup. Something about the young man and woman made him want to say more—a thing he’d lost the habit of doing. “There’s something else,” he began. “I was born here, in Warsaw. My parents—well, it was during the war, I was sent to England.”
“And your parents?”
“Disappeared—I never saw them again. My father was involved with the Polish government, the Resistance. I suppose it’s safe to assume the Nazis killed them both.”
The young couple glanced at each other open-mouthed. “That’s horrible,” the woman said. “We’ve heard stories, and of course we saw Schindler’s List.”
Edwin smiled. “I was too young to remember that time. In fact, I don’t even remember what they looked like.”
“Won’t you let us buy you something—a brandy?” The husband waved the waiter over and Edwin ordered. “Have you ever tried to find out what happened to them?” the husband asked. “It must be hard not to know.”
“Yes. I’ve tried, searched archives, police records—without much success. All I ever found was the testimony of a man who knew my father. He claimed to have seen him along with my mother at the Umschlagplatz—that was the railroad terminus; from there, Jews from the Ghetto were taken to Treblinka—the place where they were killed.”
Since childhood, he’d had a particular image of the two of them, carrying battered suitcases that they wouldn’t need, his father weak and hollow-cheeked from hunger, his mother a slim, defiant wraith. Without success, he’d struggled to replace it with the image on the old postcard from the train station.
“Were your parents Jewish?”
The woman pushed back from the table. “How can you come here? I could never—” For an instant, a struggle played out around her eyes and mouth, a struggle, Edwin thought, between anguish and compassion. Then her brow smoothed. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“No, that’s quite all right. I only returned here six years ago, when I was already sixty-five. Never once in all those years between. But it’s become somehow comforting; I think of them often, being here. More often, it seems, as I get older—yes, another brandy, please. It’s hard to explain.”
They talked more about Warsaw, how it had changed. Edwin told them some of the old stories he’d heard from others, about the city before the war, and after.
“It’s true, when they re-built the city in the Fifties, they studied a series of eighteenth-century paintings by an artist named Bellotto. He’d painted Warsaw in extraordinary detail, and the architects relied on his vision for the arrangement of every brick. The Old City, the Royal Castle—all copied from his work. The funny thing is that some of the paintings weren’t done from real life; they were of an imaginary Warsaw, a Warsaw which might have been built.”
“Why?” the man said. “Why was it so important to re-create the past?”
“When something precious is taken from you, you want it back, one way or the other.”
Later that night, Edwin went for a walk. His head and feet were heavy with brandy, and the cooler night air, damp with smells from the river, refreshed him. A pleasant encounter, he thought, remembering the American couple’s concern and kindness. Perhaps, before he left, he’d see them again.
Then, against the stones just ahead, high heels tapped, and there was a cough, a familiar cough, and he stopped and rocked back and forth on his feet in the darkness. His parents were there, walking arm-in-arm. They were without their suitcases; both wore fedoras and belted trench coats, and his father exhaled a plume of smoke and threw a cigarette away to one side. In all his journeys to Warsaw, Edwin had never seen them outside of the train station. He began to follow at a discreet distance, an echo in pursuit of footfalls.
As his parents turned to the right down the Royal Way, a greater density in the surfaces of the buildings and the earth made their voices audible. His father spoke in Polish. Let’s go this way, he said.
They led Edwin to the right again down a side street, walking back in the direction of the train station. His mother looked over her shoulder, and spoke to his father. Someone’s there. Edwin froze; his father turned around, his eyes moving all around the place where Edwin stood. His father’s hands went into the pockets of his coat, and he raised his head as if he were sniffing the air.
Edwin stepped forward. With his head down, he walked around them both, at the last minute looking up to catch his mother’s gaze. Her head turned, her eyes tracked his passage, like someone recently blinded who hears footsteps and must try to fill in what’s there from memory alone.
Edwin knew where they were going. An address that, seventy years ago, had been written on a scrap of paper and pinned to his clothing before he was put on the train. He would lead them, show them the way that all three knew very well. They passed through the park; ahead, the spire of the Palace of Culture and Science loomed with its giant clock, beyond it the new hotels. At the station, they crossed beneath Jerozolimskie Street, passing a pair of policemen in soft caps and military fatigues who swung truncheons around their wrists and looked at Edwin with raised eyebrows. It was late for a man to be walking alone.
The three of them continued past the huge Marriott as if it wasn’t there. His parents were just behind him; he imagined pushing ahead under their watchful attention.
At the next intersection, he turned left. Midway down the block, there was a four-story townhouse made of yellow brick. He walked past it, stopped and turned.
His mother still held his father’s arm; as they neared the townhouse, their pace slowed. They came to a halt and froze, as if stunned by the dark house and the plantings of tulips in the center of the street where the trolleys used to run.
It’s just as it was, his mother said, looking up. His room—right there.
Edwin saw the dormered window, the gutters stained bluish-gray. Two more memories had joined him: one the sound of an air-raid siren, a wail he’d recognized years ago while watching a documentary film. The other was the bustle and coo of pigeons. He glanced to the right; his mother was there, her eyes shining. His father stood to his left, and it seemed as if all three of them exhaled at the same moment.
They were held in the periphery; he wished he could touch them, let them know he’d survived, that they no longer had to haunt the station, waiting for a train to arrive, to depart. They must, he thought, feel so lost in this future they weren’t a part of, in this city of finely wrought replicas. For a moment, he closed his eyes and sobbed—an old man’s sobs from long ago.
When he looked again, he was alone.
The next morning, he made the call from the telephone in his room.
“Bill—it’s Edwin…Yes, fine. I have to talk to you about something. I’m thinking about leaving—retiring, I suppose. No, no—I’m fine. It’s not that…I appreciate that, Bill, but I should be clear: I’ve decided; I’ll send you something formal in the mail…Yes. I’m going to move closer to my son and his family.”
Three days later, his work done, he returned the key and checked out of the hotel, ready to retrace the route to Prague, to Frankfort, and home. There’d been no further sign of his parents, but of course he hadn’t been to the station. He took a cab there, unperturbed by the extravagant fare. After boarding the train, he found his compartment occupied by two young women who struggled to stuff big backpacks into the overhead bins. The door was locked—an accident, he was sure—so he remained in the corridor and looked out of the thick Plexiglas panel onto the platform.
A few travelers hurried along, their faces turned up to peer into the cars and then down to check their watches. The doors hissed shut; there was a metallic clang, and the car jerked forward and stopped. No one remained outside except a conductor who spoke into a bulky walkie-talkie and then shifted the top end close to his ear.
Edwin reached into his suit pocket and touched the old postcard, feeling the blunt corner, imagining the foxed surface. Could it be that he’d never see them again? Perhaps they really were lost in the new section of the city, unable to find their way back.
Have you ever tried to find out what happened to them? the American man had asked last night. It must be hard not to know. Edwin saw the wife’s face—a pretty face caught between two things.
A different image arose, a photograph, but not one bought at a flea market or printed on paper, not faded to black and white. It was a gift, one of many given to him by his son. It had appeared across the silvery screen of his computer and showed his eight-year old granddaughter, a little girl who had Edwin’s straight, thin nose and broad cheekbones—features that on her were lovely. Perhaps in all the time he’d spent searching archives and old photographs, he’d missed something. But it wasn’t too late to search elsewhere.
The train began to move, and he shook his head. It was to be a farewell.
But then, as he turned back toward his compartment, the sudden, mysterious gout of steam appeared, droplets of water streamed down the window, and there they were, standing side by side. His father had his hands in his pockets, and he met Edwin’s gaze with a nod. His mother waved a handkerchief, her face half full of grief, half of joy.
An earlier version of this story was published in Per Contra, Fall 2012.