Tuesday, February 3, 2009

DBTL 12A: Białystok - Reel One

Everybody Goes to Fatty's

Białystok, Belarus Devo, Polish Commonwealth
22 April 1944

Everybody needs a hobby, some constructive way to spend one's leisure hours, however many or few those might be. Hermann Göring's hobby was a bar in downtown Białystok called the Flying Deutchlander. When he had come to Białystok four years earlier to head up Poland's experimental jet plane program, Project Octopus, he had found the perfect spot to relax: not too rowdy, not too quiet, and they always had some Jack Daniels on hand. He grew to like it so much that he finally bought it, after which the staff had insisted on renaming it. As the bar's Jewish pianist Shlomo Kaminski had explained, what was the point in working for a big shot if you didn't let everyone know it? And without question, Göring was the biggest shot in Białystok.
"Not that that's saying much," Göring pointed out.

"No, really," said Shlomo, "you're easily the heaviest man in this part of Poland."

Göring had laughed and agreed to change the bar's name. However, he refused to let the bar be called Fatty's; the final name was a compromise. The bar staff had the last laugh, though, because the bar was Fatty's to everyone in Białystok.

Göring had also had a jukebox imported from America, and he kept it topped off with a steady supply of the latest tunes by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Shlomo regarded the jukebox with disdain. "Boss," he said, "the trouble with you is, you're just too Americanized."

"Not Americanized," Göring countered. "Californicated."

But one night, sitting within his office behind the bar, Göring found his contentment suddenly shattered by the sound of Shlomo playing the one song he had been expressly forbidden to play, "Red River Valley".

Göring had stormed out of the office, intending to beat Shlomo to a pulp and kick his sorry Yiddish ass out the door and all the way to the next devo. He was brought up short by the sight of a woman standing by Shlomo's piano and softly singing along.

It was Ingrid.

Just like that, eight years fell away, and the two of them were newlyweds, just come to America for Ingrid to film an English-language version of Munkbrogreven. They had gone driving, and found a honky-tonk bar in Pasadena where they slowly danced to the strange cowboy music on the jukebox. That had been before the fights, before the accusations.

Before the divorce.

"Don't be angry with him, Hermann," she said. "I told him to play it."

"What are you doing here, Ingrid?" he asked.

Before she could answer, the bar was suddenly deluged by half a dozen thugs in the uniform of Boleslaw Piasecki's National Socialists, singing the "Eligiusz Niewiadomski Song":

"Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale
A tale of the fateful shots
That killed a traitor President
And made the Yids kerplotz"

Frowning, Shlomo Kaminski began pounding out the Commonwealth Anthem on his piano, which was soon taken up by most of the people in the bar, drowing out the Nasos. It was, Göring knew, an adaptation of an American song:

"This land is your land, this land is my land
From Wawel Castle to the southern highlands
From the Pripet Marshes to the Baltic waters
This land was made for you and me"

Ingrid peered uncertainly in the direction of the Nasos. "Who are those men?"

"Those are the local Fascists, the Blackshorts."

"Blackshirts?" questioned Ingrid.

"Blackshorts," Göring corrected. "All the shirt colors have been used up by Fascist groups in other countries, so they had to settle for wearing black shorts. They're the usual crew of anti-Semitic ultra-nationalists. They hate the Commonwealth, and the devos. They want to re-centralize Poland and disenfranchise the other nationalities, especially the Jews. The local Naso bigshot is an ugly customer named Leonard Kosnowski. That's him on the right."

The ugly customer in question chose that moment to half-stalk, half-stagger over to Göring.
"What the hell kind of place are you running here, Göring?" Kosnowski demanded. "You've got Jews behind the bar, Jews behind the piano, Jews in the woodpile!"

Göring glared at the Naso leader and used his height and bulk to loom over the other man. His voice low and menacing, Göring said, "Kosnowski, in my bar, I decide who is a Jew."

The Naso took an involuntary step back. Then, muttering profanities under his breath, he slunk back to his corner of the bar. A curt order to the others, and they left the bar in a group.

"They'll be back," Shlomo pointed out.

"I'll be waiting," said Göring.

There was a strange dreamlike quality to the next hour, as Göring introduced his movie-star ex-wife to various friends and co-workers from Białystok and Project Octopus. He had retreated to a place behind the bar and stood observing while Shlomo led a group including Ingrid in a round of songs.

The sound attracted Captain Lavrenti Romanov, who had been trying his luck in the game room. Romanov had been appointed Prefect of Police for Białystok by the government of the Belorus devo. Göring had found him to be pleasant, affable, and thoroughly corrupt. Romanov took his monthly bribe from Göring in the form of a three thousand złoty gaming chit. He usually went through it in less than a week.

"Is that who I think it is?" Romanov asked, as he seated himself in front of Göring at the bar.
Göring nodded.

"What on Earth could she be doing in a backwater like Białystok?"

"I never got around to asking her," Göring said.

"If I were a gambling man," said Romanov, "which of course I am not, I would wager that her presence here has something to do with the rumored arrival of her countryman Raoul Wallenberg."

"I thought Wallenberg was in the custody of the NKVD," said Göring.

"He was, for a short time," said Romanov. "However, he escaped recently. Needless to say, our Soviet neighbors are anxious to get him back."

Göring was familiar with Wallenberg, as who was not? Although he seemed nothing more than an ordinary Swedish businessman, political prisoners had a habit of escaping, and dissidents of vanishing, whenever he was in the neighborhood. The NKVD had finally gotten fed up, and on Wallenberg's last visit to the USSR, he had been arrested for espionage, sabotage, and general anti-Soviet behavior.

Göring said, "I wouldn't think there was much chance of the Commonwealth handing him back to the Russians."

"Then you haven't been following current events lately," said Romanov. "I'm disappointed in you, Hermann. You're usually so up-to-date."

"What current events am I missing?" Göring inquired.

"Trouble in Lithuania, same as always," said Romanov. "President Smetona's illness is growing worse. Lithuania is a powderkeg, and it grows more unstable as Smetona gets weaker. There could be a civil war, and that would almost inevitably draw in the Commonwealth and the Soviet Union. What price the freedom of one man if it could buy a few more months of peace? Thus, I have orders from both Brest-Litovsk and Warsaw to have Wallenberg detained if he should appear in Białystok."

"That doesn't explain what Ingrid is doing here," said Göring.

"Of course it does," said Romanov. "In Białystok, everybody comes to Fatty's. If Wallenberg has come here, sooner or later he will show up in your bar. And then..."

"And then?" said Göring.

"And then he will be a guest of the Belarus devo," said Romanov. "Unless, of course, you should choose to intervene on his behalf."

Göring shook his head. "I stick my neck out for nobody."

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