When they brought me into the barracks, battered and half-dead, in my semi-conscious state I could just make out two prisoners whispering. They were talking about a gypsy girl who could get hold of food. Later I met her – everyone knew her – and everyone coveted both her and her resourcefulness. It was a question of survival, not only because of the food, but because of Johana herself. The gypsy camp was an enclave from another planet. They were able to sing their songs very softly, like the whispering of leaves, and in their melodies, which would sometimes drift around the frozen barracks on frosty nights, there was contained all the grief and hope of the surrounding Polish plain. But they didn’t take pleasure from trivial things, they weren’t stupid and naïve, they weren’t innocent children. Like animals they had sensed long before that their fate was no longer in their hands. They harboured no illusions; they just somehow kept on living. I was fascinated by the way in which they had deviated from the normal path. I had known them since childhood as gamblers, skilled handymen who could fix anything, and who would often haggle with my father and uncle over horses. In the semi-darkness of the barn the women would flash money and promises. Like everyone else, I was both afraid of them and attracted by them. On one occasion Johana came to the barracks to deal in food. She looked at me with her yellow, wolfish eyes. They glimmered in the twilight and stench of the barracks, wandered across the wooden bunks and led home, to a world of muddy spring paths along which an old cart would laboriously trundle. I loved that look in her eyes. Somewhere the yellow melted into brown and then slowly changed to green. For as long as our love lasted we only said a few words to each other. Our bodies could say far more. There was one time when the officers organised an orgy. These were strictly forbidden as a “violation of the races”, but our camp was insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and in the air you could sense the war was coming to an end. They chose some gypsy musicians and jugglers, and Johana was to choose her own partner. It was to be a handsome young man, not too remarkable, submissive. It was to be me. I knew why she chose me. We both knew it. It was the only chance to come together, to allow our bodies to say what we were unable to openly say when we met in the fields or in a large garden in springtime.
Along with an eager young man I undressed her very slowly. Beforehand, especially for the occasion, she had been dressed in French lace and a brassiere with a pattern of small flowers. Her shaved head, long neck and wily looks made her resemble one of Modigliani’s models, and everything was emphasised by an absolute calm inscribed into every movement. She was as supple as a honey comb. She only allowed us to penetrate where she really wanted, despite the presence of the SS uniform carefully hung on a chair in the corner. They even took me. I didn’t feel as bad about it as I had at first when Johana took me by the hand and said to me comfortingly, “You’ll get food afterwards. Lots of food – you’ll see.” I had thought the only thing I’d get afterwards was a rope around my neck, but she assured me that I was just as attractive for some of those Death-heads as she was, if not more so, and so they wouldn’t kill me straight away. The duplicity of the situation where I had to give myself in order to survive, to eat and be able at least to make love to the woman I was obsessed with…somewhere my soul began to search for a dual-sided distorted mirror behind it all.
During those nights she never said that she loved me or that she would like it if we survived this together, she didn’t smile, she wasn’t sad. She was just calm. This calm attracted not only me, but also the terrified, spotty youths in uniform, who, like us, were unable to escape. I think that Johana’s eyes also led them home, to the forests surrounding Berlin, to the shallow, cool lakes. At the end of it all, when no boundaries had been left uncrossed, Johana always had to summon up her strength and dance.We all waited for it, we lay on the crumpled bed clothes, hugging our knees, and longed for her dance, along with which she mumbled an incomprehensible song. The melody evoked the screeching of night owls, the hiss of a viper and the cries of the deceased struck by lightning. It was the warm breath of the marsh surrounding the camp, of frozen nests. She danced barefoot in a long, wide skirt, which kept slipping off her painfully thin hips. She was far more sensual than when the men entered her, and at that moment no-one thought of going near her hips. We gazed at her as at a cobra, a poisonous reptile, in front of which you had to be careful, and which could reveal the secret of everlasting life and eternal death.
Translated from the Czech by Graeme Dibble