Yesterday we ran into L. on Boulevard Saint-Michel. We had been walking behind him for several minutes without recognizing him, but were made edgy by the distinctive three-quarter time of his limp. We had walked behind him once before. In early summer this year, in the countryside outside Madrid. Now he stopped before a shop window, and we recognized his face. On the left side of his forehead, just below the hairline, he had an incredible scar. He stood there, with this hole in his temple, in the middle of the colorful Parisian winter-evening throngs, like one risen from the dead, like the captain of a ship of the dead. People like him wear their own legend like a heraldic crest wherever they go. And whenever we see such people, their external appearance reminds us of this legend.
Severely wounded in one of the battles around Belchite and bleeding to death surrounded by his friends, he had asked them, instead of taking him at once to a doctor, to take him first to the Commissar of his brigade. They gave in to his request, the way one gives in to the dying, even though it meant a half-hour detour. L. told the Commissar, of whom he was very fond, that he had wanted to tell him once more that he loved the Party.
"Why do you say you loved it? You'll go on loving it." – Probably it was this detour that saved L.'s life.
Now, seeing us, he opens his mouth, the strong teeth. There are embraces, laughter, astonishment. "Have you ever heard of a thing like that going right through your head and you stay alive?" – We heard this, like so many other things that year, for the first time.
We slowly go up toward the Luxembourg Gardens. Any talk had fizzled out with the first joy of seeing each other again. We are all silent together about the same thing.
Back then, in early summer, the two of them were walking ahead of us, L. and his Commissar, the same one to whom they had carried him, bleeding, back then – over two hills, along a small river. A division at rest in a gully was practicing firing machine guns. In the shade of some bushes sat two groups composed of a mix of Spaniards and Poles; the focal point of each group was a book. They were learning the Spanish alphabet. A naked youth with scraggly wet hair, the youngest in the Polish Brigade, was lying under a tree. L. upbraided him as he passed because he was always swimming instead of joining the others in studying. The youth squinted after the Commissar, who was probably smiling. The Commissar was a tall, raw-boned man with a long, angular face. He didn't turn to look at us, but we saw the glow of his face reflected on all the other faces wherever we passed, an intense, happy attentiveness.
Suddenly the Commissar extended his arm pointing at a little white corner of an envelope in one of the men's breast pocket. "Did she write at last?" The man he'd asked was as tall as the Commissar, perhaps fifteen years younger. He unfolded his letter and pointed to a section that obviously upset him considerably. L. left the two alone and came over to us. He said, "The one with the letter is a Silesian, a painter. In our group here, besides the Poles and Spaniards, there are Silesians and Jews and Ukrainians. That little Jew over there was a tailor in Lemberg and has six children. Over there, those are four miners from the Dombrowo Basin who all joined up together. That one there is a Ukrainian farm boy who ran away from home; he had heard road workers talking about what was happening here. We're going to change over to giving commands in Spanish from now on. We were deployed wherever the fighting was most severe. Why is the Brigade called Dombrowski? For the Pole Dombrowski who fought in the Commune for the workers of Paris."
We came to a group being instructed in the use of gas masks. The Commissar was called away. Now the Silesian joined us too. L. went on: "Our Commissar is the right man for the right men. I don't think he's ever left us, even for a minute."
The Silesian said, "Not for a minute."
L. said, "When things get tough, he knows how to get every last bit out of us. When you yourself don't think you have anything left in you, he always gets something more out of you. And he explains the most difficult thing in such a way that even the young boy over there can understand."
The Silesian said, "At night when you can't sleep and you toss and turn, you hear his voice, 'Well now, Stanek, what's bothering you?' Then Stanek talks a little about his wife or his girl, and after that it's better again."
It occurred to me then how rarely it happens that two men are in total agreement about the reputation of a third.
Suddenly the Silesian began to speak rapidly: "Right at the start, when I joined up, I was wounded in the head. Not seriously, but I was so worried. About my eyes. I'm a painter. I'm really ashamed to admit it, but I didn't want to keep going, I was too afraid. So I go to him, to the Commissar, I tell him that I would like to go home. I'm really ashamed about this, and I told him that suddenly I couldn't go on, and so forth, that I was a painter. Even back then he already liked me quite a bit. He listened to it all. Then he said, 'If you really feel like that, then go home. But wait a while. In my own case I found out just what it is, this being afraid. If you're afraid of something, whether it's dying, or losing your eyesight, or something else, it always means that you're afraid in general. Afraid that the whole thing could come to a bad end. But if you are totally convinced that everything will turn out well, if you are, so to speak, certain of victory for the operation as a whole, then usually this partial fear disappears. A small fear that you definitely cannot overcome always means an overall fear.' So, then I waited patiently some time longer. Whenever fear overwhelmed me, I said to myself: 'Come now, that's impossible, you can't be having any doubt that the whole thing will end well. You certainly don't doubt that.'"
L., who was also hearing this story for the first time, said: "You don't think of your eyes anymore now?"
A farmer with a mule came walking through the evening countryside. Over the back of the mule hung a braided, four-sectioned saddlebag. L. said, "We often carried our wounded off the field in bags like that."
The Commissar caught up with us. He still had the letter in his hand. We heard, ahead of us, a beautiful song coming from a group we could vaguely make out through some sparse bushes ahead of us. When we reached them, they all crowded together and sang three songs for us: a Polish one, a Ukrainian one, and a Spanish one. The man who sang most beautifully was the one who sang first by himself. He was a short Ukrainian with round blue eyes and when he sang, he frowned and put his hand upon his heart.
We mentioned none of this as we were going up the Boulevard Saint-Michel. Then L. said, "Do you still remember the little Ukrainian who sang so beautifully? He was killed. The Silesian, too, the one who received the letter back then. Do you still remember? But our numbers are complete again. That boy who went swimming back then instead of learning Spanish, isn't our youngest anymore. They brought us one who claimed he was seventeen, but I think he wasn't even sixteen yet. That boy had ridden from Poland all through Europe and all the way to Paris as a stowaway between the wheels of a train. They found him unconscious at the Gare Saint-Lazare and put him into an institution. After a few days when he had perked up somewhat, he ran away. He again rode between the wheels of a train as far as the Spanish border. He climbed over the mountains in the winter. Then suddenly, when he looked around on the other side of the border, he began to realize he was in the wrong Spain, in Franco's. So he climbs back over the mountains again into France. Then he makes the trip a third time. – This time they send him to us, to his family, to the Polish Brigade."
We ask: "And the Commissar?"
"Always the same. When I was so seriously wounded, they said that I made my comrades take me to him. I still can't quite imagine that I won't be seeing this man so soon again. Yes, I cannot actually believe that I won't be seeing him again in a few minutes. If I really believed that I wouldn't be seeing all my people again tomorrow, I'd start crying on the spot. But even now I can't conceive of such a thing." He shakes his head. He still has the tonsure on the right side of the back of his head. He laughs, "Teruel was captured without me."
We said, "But not entirely without you. After all you left many a thing there."
He thought that over for a little while. Then he said joyfully: "For sure. Some part of me must have remained back there in the Brigade. What a lot of things come together to form the spirit of a brigade. That clear, conspicuous posture, for certain. The determined fighting spirit, for sure. But also many details that you forget right away. Individual words that made rings like little stones in the water." – Suddenly he says, maybe out of an abrupt need not to have to talk anymore: "Don't miss your train on my account. We met up again, that's the important thing. Ah, what a good feeling it gives you, meeting one another again."
We caught sight of him then once more from the bus. He was making such slow progress that it seemed almost as if he were standing still in the middle of a very restless, colorful, somewhat gloomy crowd, whose focal point he was for us.
Editor’s note: A feature film adaptation of Seghers' 1942 novel, Transit (also translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo) has recently been released. See our Contributors page for more.