The roof boards of the barn were rotten, and the repairs were continuous. There was never enough money to replace the roof or tile it or patch it with zinced iron sheets and the wars had dispersed the thatchers. Finally, my father fell through the roof of that barn in another fruitless effort to save money. The fall broke his back but did not kill him. When he did not come home for his evening meal, I went looking, and I found him on the floor of the barn, unconscious, but breathing. With neighbours, I brought him home tied to a door, and ran for the doctor and the priest. My father lived fifteen more days, but never spoke again.
When he died, of pneumonia or of pain, my schooling was over. The estate would let me stay in the caretaker’s house if I took on his responsibilities, but that was an unendurable choice. I had no money. I had no family; my father’s shame at my mother’s desertion guaranteed that. Most of our household was not mine, and was left behind. After the short, cold funeral, I sold what there was to sell. I kept my father’s Sunday suit and shirt, his best boots, and, in a sack, what things I could carry away to support me in my new life. My principal legacy was my mother’s photograph. When I was packed, I walked into Lodz and presented myself to Photographer Grabowski, the only photographer I knew of, the man who made my mother’s photograph.
I stayed there almost three years, working at my pathetic apprenticeship, sleeping on a palette in the back of the shop. I stayed through several governments, two currency crises, and a coupe. And, in the early evening of a Saturday in May 1926, in the shadow of revolution, I left Photographer Grabowski and his studio. I left Lodz. I left Poland. I left with a small package of my things, and I left with a priceless camera, strapped in its case under layers of my clothing. That night I had no home but my boots, no family, no friend, no work, little money, no future in Poland. I carried my life on my back. I was seventeen, a thief, light as smoke, and free.
The camera was a Leica. By its three-digit serial number (456) I know now it was made in 1925, the first year that camera was available to buy. The nickel-plated lens was an Elmax 3.5/50, the original lens for the Leica I. Designed by Oskar Barnack at Ernst Leitz Optische Werke for the mountain climbers who made a cult of themselves in Germany, the Leica’s lens collapsed into the body of the camera for safe carrying.
That made it easier for me to conceal under my layers of clothing.
The Leica had a viewfinder but no rangefinder. The photographer estimated the distance to the subject of the photograph and set his focus and aperture and exposure time accordingly. The focal plane shutter had speeds from 1/20 to 1/500 of a second, and a setting of Z for Zeit, the German for ‘time’, when the photographer would hold the shutter open for longer. If the camera was on a tripod, that was useful in poor light.
Barnack’s camera was ingenious. For film it used the roll film manufactured for movie cameras, cut into short strips and, in perfect darkness, rolled into small canisters, one on each side of the camera, where it would advance from the full canister to the empty one. The image on the negative was small, 24 mm by 36 mm, but it was twice the area of a film stock image. The film stock was of high quality, and Barnack would use twice the surface a movie camera did, producing a larger, better negative. Nevertheless, the frame of a particular image was no larger than a substantial postage stamp. The photographer would need an enlarger with lenses of a quality to match the camera lenses to make prints. And such a small negative needed a very good quality lens, with excellent glass, clear, ground with great care and assembled carefully, without the small flaws that would be acceptable with a much larger negative. After first using various cine-camera lenses, Leitz built a special one for the Leica, the Elmax, which the company continued to improve on over the years.
This camera was an elegant machine, worth stealing. I would never be able to explain how I came by such a camera.
But circumstance conspired to protect me. The camera had already been stolen. It came to the photographer in the company of a stranger, a Russian-speaking Pole, stocky, with a round open face, who arrived speaking German. His hair was white-blond, en brosse, and he was twenty-three or twenty-four. He wore a dark gray boiled-wool overcoat with a belt, and a dark blue fedora with a satin hatband. The hat was in need of blocking, which lent it an artistic air. His coat collar was turned up but even his scarf did not conceal the soiled disaster that was his shirt collar. His gray flannel trousers and black boots were smeared with mud carelessly brushed off, and he had obviously slept in his coat. He was a charmer, but a dandy fallen on hard times.
He walked into the shop early on a Tuesday, carrying a canvas rucksack with leather straps. He greeted Photographer Grabowski politely, asked enough to determine this was indeed the photographer’s shop, and paused. Stooping, he unbuckled his sack, drew out the camera in its case, and laid it on the studio counter. Gently, he unfastened the buckles and presented the camera. After allowing time to admire it, he offered to sell it to Photographer Grabowski. He needed to raise the fare for the train to Germany. There was a family emergency and he knew no one in Lodz. I watched and listened until Photographer Grabowski stopped the conversation and sent me on an errand for extra chemicals. No one was more transparent to the world: my errand was foolish, and Photographer Grabowski’s temptation was obvious in his face and his manner. The previous summer the new Polish złoty had declined in value precipitously, setting off a tariff war with Germany. In our financial state, purchasing such a camera was honestly impossible.
When I returned with the sodium thiosulfate, the camera was there in the studio, and the camera thief was gone.
So the first circumstance was simple: Photographer Grabowski could curse my treachery, he could report the theft of a few złoty from the cash box, which, with no shame, I had taken, but he could never denounce me for the theft of a camera which he had so obviously come by in black-market circumstances. Stalemated, he would raise no alarm.
What happened next provided me with the inspiration and the cover for my theft. Even if there had been an alarm, it would have been drowned in all the alarms that sounded that week.
Our camera thief paid his visit to the studio on Tuesday, May 11, 1926. I could have left the camera alone, and gone on with my small life after that, working in the studio in exchange for some food and shelter and cigarette money, and if I was lucky and the year was good, a new suit of clothes. I could have continued to live in envy and regret. But, the day after our German left the camera on the counter, the Polish world turned inside out.
The night of the eleventh, members of the garrison of Warsaw rebelled, pledging allegiance to the war hero, Marshall Józef Piłsudsk and against a one-day old coalition of Christian Democrats and Agrarians. By the morning of the twelfth, Piłsudsk had organized them as a force to replace the government. That day and the next, units of the army loyal to the government and socialist units loyal to Piłsudsk skirmished in Warsaw. By the fourteenth, in support of Piłsudsk’s rebellion, the Railwaymen’s Union struck the railways and cut off government reinforcements to Warsaw. Nothing could move. With that, the government capitulated, and Piłsudsk endorsed a new one.
The fighting killed hundreds on both sides, and the strike froze communications. No authority had any footing. No one challenged a boy on the road. I did not understand what happened, but I understood I was invisible. I could walk north without risk of arrest.
I could walk to Gdańsk.