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The Chosen

A bit of Bereza family lore: It is 1945. The Nazis are still everywhere, made murderous by defeat. Grandma Bereza has escaped from the work camp near the Czechoslovakian border, where she and other Polish women stitch uniforms for the German Army. Her best friend is the mistress of the factory manager; he has given them civilian clothes and two train tickets. They are walking to the station in thick woolen dresses, two pretty young women, extremely thin, Poles. They do not speak. A few hundred yards from the ticket booth, they spot an SS officer on the other side of the street.

"His uniform was very crisp and he wore a hat," Grandma Bereza says. "They all wore hats. He was looking at us steadily while we walked. His eyes were just under the brim of his hat." She pauses. She has told this story many times. It is, in some sense, her only story.

"I thought with one word I would be dead. That's how it was at the end. So I decided. I was determined to face the man who was going to kill me. I turned my face up and looked him in the eyes. My family was dead already. In a few hours everyone in the camp would be dead. We knew that."

Grandma Bereza says nothing about the look they exchanged. She does not speculate as to what might have been going through the mind of the German officer. It is possible he was tired, or even embarrassed. A man can run on hate for only so long before embarrassment sets in. Her story, in fact, is over. There is nothing more to say. She lived. The others died.

So we leave her there, back in 1945, a young woman hurrying toward the train station, though tonight she is an old woman, short of breath, her cheeks flushed by vodka. She lives in Wroclaw, once a German city. The buildings are damp and stained with ash. Down below are the streets the Russian tanks occupied a decade ago. Grandma Bereza is smoking long thin cigarettes, staring out the window into the night, and her reflection is staring back at her and she feels precisely as she did then. She is proud of her courage and sorry to be alive.