My Mother's Secret(4)
Author:J. L. Witterick

    “I’m too embarrassed,” I say sheepishly.

    “Do you want to know the truth?” She pursues this further. “I thought you told me that what you liked most about him was that you could talk about anything.”

    She is right.

    I need to speak to him.

    • • •

    CASMIR IS AWAY IN GERMANY and will be coming back later in the week. We had planned to have dinner at the restaurant that has become our regular place.

    I decide that will be a good time to be up-front about the situation.

    Right away when Casmir sees me, he knows something’s off.

    That happens when you’re close to someone.

    He waits until we’re at the restaurant to ask me what is on my mind.

    I choose my words and speak slowly. “Ferda tells me that you’re engaged to a girl in Germany. It surprised me.” I can’t look at him when I say this.

    He has been watching me seriously, but then quite unexpectedly he changes his expression completely and lets out a chuckle. Quickly he adds, “I am not making light of this, Helena. It’s just funny that Ferda knows that I’m engaged before I do. Is there a date for the wedding too?”

    I look at his boyish grin and then burst out laughing. It feels like old times.

    Casmir explains that his father wanted him to meet the daughter of a good friend of his, and so he did. But he had no intention of pursuing it further than that.

    “She’s not as pretty or as smart as you, Helena.” How does he know exactly what to say? Am I that transparent? Regardless, transparent or not, I am too happy to care.

    • • •

    THE NEXT DAY, Ferda is fired.

    I didn’t know Casmir was that angry.

    Chapter 12

    In June 1941, Hitler breaks his pact with Stalin and the Germans move to our side of the river. It seems like we have gone from bad to worse. The Nazis start persecuting the Jews just as the Russians did to the Poles, but they don’t discriminate. They treat all Jews, rich and poor, equally badly.

    We notice how the Germans start by denying Jews their ability to work and shop. It then moves to their loss of freedom, when all the Jews in town are imprisoned in the ghetto.

    At random, Jews are selected to be executed, and this creates terror among their population.

    I wish I could wipe out the images of children crying as they are pulled from their fathers’ arms, of old men struggling as they are made to dance with shots fired at their feet, of soldiers laughing as they take what they want from stores without paying.

    I don’t want to see the cruelty of men, but it is impossible not to witness such brutal acts on a daily basis.

    How can people do this to each other?

    Chapter 13

    Casmir is the light that brightens my world, which is becoming darker by the day.

    If he is ever afraid, no one would know.

    People gravitate to him, to his charm and his lightness, so rare in these times.

    Casmir finds out that the local German commander is recently married and has a wife in Germany. Cleverly, he arranges for a car to pick her up and drive her to Sokal for a visit. Casmir’s father owns the hotel in town. In her room, there are flowers, chocolates, and wine to make sure she is happy when she sees her husband.

    The commander is elated to see his wife and ever so grateful to Casmir.

    From there, it is effortless for Casmir to become good friends with the man who is the most feared in Sokal.

    Chapter 14

    It has been four years since I have been seeing Casmir, but it feels like I have known him all my life. He has a way of making me feel safe and happy—something I have never known before.

    When I am with him, everything else fades away. The world is a good place, and there is no war to think about. There is nothing except the face of the man I love.

    One day, we are at our regular restaurant and have just finished dinner when he says, “My father is ill, Helena. He needs me in Germany. I have to move back.”

    Every part of my body is shouting, “No, don’t go!” but I sit there in silence.

    I start crying, and I hate that.

    He says, “Come with me, Helena.”

    He thinks that should make me stop crying, but now I really lose control.

    I’m not pretty when I cry this hard, because my face gets all squished up. My nose is red and my eyes swell up, but I can’t help any of it.

    I want to go with him more than anything, but I can’t.

    I can’t stop crying because there’s so much to say and none of it can be said.

    In our small house and shed, my mother and I are hiding two Jewish families!

    She needs me to help buy the food, so it isn’t obvious that we are feeding many people. I can’t imagine leaving her with such a large responsibility.

    At times I resent that she has hidden these families. There are nights when I wake up sweating with nightmares of German soldiers breaking down our door. I cannot be truthful with Casmir, and that is very hard.

    Whenever I feel this way, I think of the day we heard it—unbelievable sounds from the ghetto where they were keeping all the Jews from Sokal. There were gunshots, screaming, and explosions.

    It makes me shiver. I know why we had to do what we did, but that didn’t make it any easier.

    I dare not tell Casmir about my internal conflicts.

    I say, “I love you more than anything, and I would go if I could.”

    “I don’t understand,” he says.

    I say, “I can’t leave my mother.”

    He replies with relief. “Is that all? My father has a big apartment for me, and she can have her own room with us.”

    Not workable, I think, and I scramble to make something up. “She feels safe in that house and doesn’t want to leave.”

    The thing with a lie is that soon more become necessary to cover up the ones before it. And so I continue with, “After my brother is married, she will live with him.”

    It’s hard to think clearly when you’re this upset, so I don’t even know if anything I am saying makes sense.

    In any case, Casmir is just as upset as I am, so he doesn’t question it.

    “When do you have to leave?” I ask.

    “By the end of the month,” he replies.

    “So soon?” It was the response that I would have had, no matter what the answer was.

    He says, “I will come back to see you when I can.”

    All of a sudden, the realization of what I’ve done hits me.

    I feel myself panicking.

    I want to say, “Take me with you, forget what I’ve just said,” but I know I can’t. The thought of being away from him is unbearable and I start to sob uncontrollably.

    What he says next catches me completely by surprise. ”Helena, let’s get engaged.”

    Did he plan on asking me all along, or is he reacting to the distraught girl in front of him?

    “Really?” I say, my voice cracking as I try to suppress a sniffle.

    “Really is not an answer,” he says.

    Even now, he is the Casmir that makes everything better.

    “What will your father say?” I ask timidly.

    “It doesn’t matter,” he says in a dismissive manner. “He’s old and tired now. He won’t make me repeat his mistake.”

    “What mistake?” I ask.

    Casmir says, “I never told you that my mother committed suicide, Helena.”

    I am taken aback by this.

    “When his wife found out about my mother, she threatened to divorce him if he kept seeing her.

    “So he told my mother that he had to end the relationship. After she died, he never forgave himself. In a letter she left for him, she made him promise to take care of me and told him that she would always love him. It was then that I was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland.”

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