The Box of Life
The city of LVIV (formerly Poland until the Nazi invasion). Now Ukraine, USSR.
‘Take this and hide it.’
Father presses a wooden box to my chest. The box I was forbidden to touch when I was a child. It has our family crest of three crowns, inlaid into the lid: the mark of the Polish aristocracy. Once it was a symbol of pride. Now it is a death sentence.
‘Take it to our crypt. I have planned for someone to meet you there. Come back for the box when the war’s over and you are certain it’s safe. Now get out of here… now!’ Father yells. ‘You must live…’
Boots pound up the marble stairs to Father’s office. ‘Run and don’t look back,’ he says.
I push the box back into my father’s hands, ‘Come with me,’ I plead. The men in our family never plead. I expect to see disdain, but his eyes glisten. I can’t bear to leave him. Soldiers crash through the reception door. Murderous, demanding German voices clash with the terrified screams of Father’s secretary.
I jump as a gun fires. A single bullet rips through flesh. I hear pattering; the sound of Mrs Nowak’s pearls as they scatter across the floor. Thud! She falls. Terror stops me from crying out, but the noise of the gun still rings in my ears. It reverberates through my bones; my body trembles.
Father remains composed. His fine cheekbones and his angular chin, proud and defiant above his starched white collar and brown silk necktie. My Father. Lawyer. Count. He is unshakeable. Unbreakable.
Menacing footsteps, closer. ‘Mikołaj, this is my last order as your Father. I insist you leave. You must live and carry on our family name. Revive our fortune. Do it out of respect for your Mother’s memory. Do it for me. Now RUN!’
‘But… I…. Father.’ Tears stream down my face.
Dragging my eyes from him; I take the box and edge towards the window and the fire escape, slipping out into smoke-filled muggy air. The office door flies open. I duck out of sight. But I watch.
Father walks towards the door. A giant. He’s immaculate in his dark brown pin-striped suit, leather shoes shining. His back is poker straight, his chest broad and strong. The walnut clad castle is his last stronghold within the crumbling city named ‘Life.’ But now, it reeks of death. Streets run red with rivers of Jewish blood, political prisoners and now that of the bright minds of the university. Massacred in thousands.
A gun fires.
And father crashes to the floor.
The sharp twang of cordite smoke hovers over him.
I ball my body around the box. My face screws around the cries desperate to escape. Fear freezes my heart. I must live. I must live. I must live. I try to fill my lungs, but I can’t. Then my heart erupts into life as leather boots stride towards my hiding place.
The soldier is so close I can hear him breathing, and the sulphuric odour of gunpowder clings like death itself to his pressed, grey uniform.
‘Durchsuche das Büro. Ich möchte eine kleine Holzschatulle mit einem Wappen,’ the officer commands. I understand little German. Latin and French were on the curriculum at my boarding school before the Soviets closed it and replaced it with their hell-hole, and we were forced to learn Russian. I could just about make out the words: search, office, and box.
They want the box.
Soldiers tear through Father’s ordered office.
The metal fire escape sways on a few remaining bolts as I slide down one step at a time. I reach the ground and glance up to the window. Glaring straight at me is the German Officer.
‘Hör auf, Junge, oder ich schieße!’
Bullets cut through the thick air-hunting me! They rip through trees; splinter fences. I keep running. I duck as metal sparks off the street sign above my head, but I keep running. The main street opens up ahead. A woman staggers in front of me with torn clothes. She is screaming. Her nose is bloody. Boys, the same age as me chase her with home-made clubs. Want to help, but have to run. Have to live. I jump over the body of an old man who’s clutching a paper to his chest. He lays in a pool of blood that seeps from his head. Leaping over a mountain of rubble I skid down the other side. Grit stings my eyes and cuts my knees. Scrambling to my feet, legs like rubber, adrenalin drives me on to the cemetery.
I hear the splutter of a motorbike, followed by another. The smell of petrol is so strong I can taste it.
‘Stoppen Sie diesen Jungen. Er ist ein Verräter der Riecht!’
I dart into an alleyway, slipping into the carcass of the old chocolate shop. Glass like diamonds are scattered across the floor. I slide through a back door, clamber over the wall and make it on to Steep Hill; the final climb towards the cemetery.
Swirling ironwork mark the entrance to the cemetery. I recognise the sign of the Polish resistance scratched into the paint. Shining black statues cradle the graves of dead citizens of Lviv. I was once terrified of this place and imagined it to be the domain of vampires. Now I see beauty in the stone angels and skulls which guard the memories of Lviv; the beating heart of the city. They weep for the souls that the Nazis rip from the living, but I know their tears will restore it. She will be free and I must help.
I search for our crypt. The only family property that was not taken by the Reicht. I hear Hitler is superstitious. Perhaps disturbing the dead - even for the Devil - is a step too far. I find our tomb next to a tangle of roses. It has imposing columns and our family crest engraved on the arch. It looms over the other graves.
‘Mikołaj Zadlowski?’ A voice whispers from the shadows.
‘You have brought the box?’
‘Yes,’ I pull it close to me; my eyes alert for witnesses.
‘Show yourself,’ I say, mustering a voice to replicate Father’s authority. My thirteen-year-old version sounds ridiculous.
Small fingers curl around the black column and a girl follows, stepping out from the shadows of the crypt. She has black hair, violet eyes and a small mouth. A smile teases the corners. Her delicate fingers follow a line carved into the masonry and something extraordinary happens. The budding roses snake up the granite and bloom. They release a scent which sweetens the acrid bitterness of the smouldering city below. The perfume reminds me of the home we lost. My throat tightens. Honeysuckle and jasmine coil around each other and their yellow flowers burst open. I gawp. Then reach to touch them to check if they are real and snap my hand away as a straggly haired creature darts between my legs. The girl smiles, ‘Excuse my goat; he’s nervy.’ The goat has matted grey hair, a broken horn and devilish rectangular pupils.
She extends her hand, ‘My name is Janina. But you can call me Nina.’ I don’t take it, and scrutinise her through narrowed eyes.
‘I’ve been sent to help you escape,’ she says. The thin, pale girl looks younger than me. How the hell did Father expect a girl and her pet goat help his son survive the Nazis?’
 The city of Lviv was named after its founder’s son, Lev. His name means heart or life.