Donald Freed
International Playwright
and Master Teacher

Warszawa Tango

August 23, 1940


Father Czerniecki was running again. Wearing a light brown sweater and a pair of worn, beltless, blue wool trousers which he’d cut off just below the knee, the priest stepped out of his small hotel on University Street and inhaled the petrolled mist. He looked at his watch. Exactly 7:00 a.m. Right on time for his ritual morning dash to Cecylia’s shop, which was part of his preparation for SOE camp, along with lifting a pair of twenty-five-pound barbells he’d borrowed from one of Peter’s rugger friends. He tied the legs of another pair of trousers around his waist, rolled his socks down over the tops of his old track shoes, and, after marching in place to warm up, set off down the street. He was running at full clip even before the short road turned onto Tottenham Court Road, and, exhilarated, hit his stride right in front of the Dominion Theater, just after Tottenham Court became Charing Cross.

The Indian Summer day surprised him. Puddles revealed it had rained the night before, and the priest, feeling the early sun’s warmth, watched its sharp, yellow rays move along with him, burning through the fog in patches. He was moving well, and with his face pleasantly cooled by the wind, he hardly noticed the sweat rolling down his back and soaking his sweater. He felt free, his body galvanized with effort, a body he recognized from his college athletic career, when all its parts were specimen quality and tuned in perfect unison. He felt excited and adventurous, but most of all free.

At the same time, the priest did not want to feel this way and was scandalized by own his emotions, which, given the gravitas of the times, he wanted to deny. The “Phoney War”—“Dziwna wojna” to London Poles—had been over for almost two months, with no major military operations launched on the Continent for almost a year. But now, he noticed, a new uneasiness had descended on London, an overlay of tension so static it almost crackled in the air. Running past the charming bookstores and old historic theaters that constituted the city’s cultural hub, it seemed their big windows looked, not like windows, but rather like huge, watchful eyes that never blinked. The British now knew that, although Hitler’s long view was Russia, his eyes had turned toward England; Just last week he had declared a blockade of England’s waters and Luftwaffe Stukas were already dropping bombs on airplane factories and convoys in the Channel. The British also knew that their Prime Minister, who was trying to toughen them with fiery speeches, expected the worst and was preparing for a land invasion. Weeks earlier, Cecylia’s MI5 sources had reported as much, and since then, over tea and slices of her famous babka, the two talked every day of what the implications for Poland should the Führer succeed in occupying England.  

The priest brought himself to a sudden halt, his hands on his knees, his chest heaving. What did people think he was about, this madman running through their sedate neighborhood in what appeared to be golf knickers. He told himself his euphoria was unseemly, and that he must be more circumspect in his behavior, more careful not act out of concert with the tenor of the times—and maybe stop running altogether. He thoughts were almost always of the war and of the sadness in the upcoming tomorrows, but he warned himself that he must never act as if there were no tomorrows, no one staring into the muzzle of a gun or hanging from a gibbet for all to see, no torture, no one crushed in this terrible war. He wiped his face with the tail of his shirt. Tomorrow he would wear regular trousers.

Starting off again at a slow trot, the priest was soon almost half-way to the Apollonaire. Suddenly, as he slowed for his turn-off at Earlham Street, he was almost mowed down by a large cordon of helmeted men from the Observer Corps, carrying binoculars around their necks. One had only to look at the “spotters’” resolute expressions to know that the country was on high alert. The priest, having leapt onto the sidewalk, waited till they passed and then ducked into a tiny nearby mews. Hiding in a doorway, he pulled a belt from his pocket, untied the good trousers from his waist, and, slipping them on over his cut-off ones, headed up Earlham Street.

He had been taking the same route every day for over a month, and if he wasn’t filing away everything Cecylia was telling him as he strolled along, he was comparing the typography of the shop signs along the way. There was Pearson’s Book Store, he thought—his favorite typeface—and next to it, Librairie Francaise, and then Harris and Sons Bookbindery, and next to that, Putnam & geary books. “geary” made him think of “Guerlain,” and then of its most famous fragrance, “Jicky,” and then of Cecylia, trying to buy a bottle and comically mistaken for his wife by the salesman behind Harrod’s perfume counter.

He knocked on the door of number 15, waiting for Cecylia’s famiiar footsteps. She was proving an excellent teacher, he thought, a perfectionist, but a patient and indulgent one. Last week she had told him how his progress pleased her, which, in turn, pleased him as well. Hurry, hurry, he thought, his sweat turning cold in the balmy air. He was deriving immense satisfaction from his studies, made all the more rigorous by Sikorski’s earlier admonitions: “If you are discovered, no one will miss a well-known American priest,” the General had said. “And you will not be able to speak freely around Warsaw unless you start perfecting a proper accent.” But Father Czerniecki was determined to speak Warsavian as freely as Sikorski did, and he had no intention of allowing himself to be discovered.

The day was surprising indeed. He was happy to be alive, happy to be finally preparing for something he’d been destined for his whole life, happy to be listening for Cecylia’s steps. He was in a strange city, a long way in more than just miles from Milwaukee and St. Casimir’s and Pine Lake, and it seemed like he’d been gone for years. But here in London, thanks to Cecylia, he had been absorbed into a friendly international circle of intellectuals and cosmopolites and, more importantly, a multi-national grid of spies and patriots whose existence buoyed his spirits unlike anything he’d ever known. The priest, peering through the door’s tiny window, knocked again. Sharing secrets with Ignacy’s “cabinet,” as well as with intelligence operatives and high-level military, he now felt an initiate in some worthy global imperative. He did not miss Anna and his family and parishioners nearly as intensely as he had in his earlier trips to Poland during WWI—when all he had to do was deliver checks from Polish-American donors—or during his many visits to Rome. It was not that he had forgotten his roots or loyalties, but having been vetted for a dangerous foreign assignment by Poland’s government-in-exile, he had become a citizen of the world. This recognition cauterized his sense of scandal. Finally footsteps and he sighed with relief. He was not “happy,” he was content, pleased to be doing what he considered God’s will.

“Ach, moje najbardziej zaangażowanych studentów,” (“Ah, my most committed student), Cecylia said, stepping back from the door to let the priest in. “I’ve already put the kettle on.”

“Mój ulubiony professor.”(“Ah, my favorite professor.”) Father Czerneicki bowed slightly. “And I’ve brought you this.”

“Russian caravan tea, but how…?”

“A gift to you from General Sikorski.”

“How thoughtful.” She took out something from the closet, and he did not startle when they kissed each other lightly on both cheeks. She left the foyer so he could change into the clean shirt she’d handed him, and when he walked into the shop proper, he noticed her face had become somber. “I could not go to the hospital yesterday. A contact from Portugal arrived. How is the Maestro?”

“I spoke with the doctors. His heart is in very poor shape, they doubt he will last much longer.”

“I will go this afternoon, right after you leave.” Cecylia, he noticed, seemed to will the seriousness from her face, but with no little difficulty. “So, shall we get started?”

Following behind her, the priest stared at her single blonde braid, seeing it untied, the waves falling forward hiding her face as she knelt in the early dark to throw kindling into the fireplace. As they moved from the faded light of the shop proper into the shadows of her study, he heard again over the years the shrieking of his little sister, Anna, as he grabbed her braids like the reins of a horse to tease her and then galloped around the house. The memory returned him to himself and to the reason he was there and he took his regular chair.

 Cecylia cut the string on the large flat package on her desk. “And Georges has brought us both a gift,” she said, her mood lightening.

The priest doubted Georges had intended the present for “both“ of them. “The records you asked him to find?”

“All the wonderful old tangos. He may drop by later,” she said.  Hanka Ordonowa singing ‘Tango Hiszpanskie’ and ‘W te noc upalna,’ Krukowski’s ‘Ty albo zadna,’ and Witas’ ‘Maruschka.’ Oh, and here’s the very passionate ‘Tango Notturno by Pola Negri.’”

“Hitler’s mistress, it’s rumored.”

“Yes, only rumored. Whatever her love life, her rendition is arguably the finest. She and the others are all Warsavians, so you can sing and practice at the same time.” She gave him what might have been a playful smile, but he wasn’t sure. “The Maestro always said you were blessed with perfect pitch and a performance-level baritone.” The priest shrugged at the flattery and moved toward the dying fire.

“It was cold when I got up, so I lit a fire.”

“It’s still chilly in here,” he said, picking two logs from the pile stacked against the chimney. When he placed them on the fire, he had to jump back as orange and red sparks flew out into the grey light.

“Careful, you’ll set your best trousers on fire,” Cecylia said, rolling out the Victrola. “How is Peter’s accent coming along, by the way?”

“He’s not happy with his teacher,” the priest said, sitting back down. “But he’s doing well. Of course, we speak only as one sophisticated Warsovian to another.” The priest chuckled and watched as Cecylia put on one of the records, humming along. “Stanislawa Nowicka and ‘Tango Milonga,’” she said, her foot making little sliding motions on the floor, “the star of cabaret Morski Oko, but years ago.” The priest closed his eyes and leaned forward as Cecylia put her finger on her nose. “There are no nasal vowels…listen…especially in word-final syllables. ‘Tango milonga, jak dawniej, grajcie mi znów,’” she sang softly, “’Zabijcie tę dręczącą ciszę….Watch my lips, please,’” she said, finishing the next few bars.“Notice there is no palatisation of (€) and (e) sounds in ending syllables. Here, I’ve typed out the lyrics. You can sing along with Stanislawa, the ‘Queen of Tango,’” and she started the record over.

“It’s time to play Pola Negri,” the priest said after several records.

“I was saving her for last. I was afraid that when you heard her, you might be lured into actually dancing.” At this, Cecylia winked and her face turned comically grave. She froze in a tango-like pose, head to the right, her right arm held out stiffly, right foot thrust forward, left arm around her invisible partner’s neck. She could not stay that way long for laughing.

“Dancing? Well, some other time then,” he said, his hand adjusting the Roman collar that was not longer there.

“Perhaps next week—I should stop playing the clown now.” Cecylia took a deep breath and, sitting down at her desk, looked at the priest intently. “What are we to do about our dearest Ignacy? Tell me. He has been like a father to me, Bronek.”

“To me as well. I sympathize with how you feel.”

“No, it’s more than that, what I mean is that he has been my father. All these years. I can’t imagine…I…,” Her voice broke.

“If God is calling him, Cecylia, God is calling him.” The priest put his large, delicate hand on her arm. “He will always be with us, you know that. We need only think of him. You must be strong.”

“I am strong in life and in my work because of him. How will I continue?”

“Well, you must,” he said, now patting her arm. “We all must.” Suddenly, the priest paused and smiled at some inner thought. “When you didn’t come yesterday, he gave me a message. You know how wry he is. Well, he told me to tell you he refuses to die unless you promise him you’ll go on just as you have without him.” With the flicker of a smile, she gave out a little hiccup and then covered her eyes with her hands. He heard a sob, just one, and then, holding her shoulders with outstretched arms, shook her gently. “You mustn’t.”

“I’ll give him my promise this afternoon,” she said, wiping her hand across her wet cheeks. “Ach, I almost forgot, there is something I must speak to you about.” She took a pencil from a battered silver vase and began tapping it idly. “Your will. Have you had one drawn up?”

“My will?” The priest’s face was a question mark. “I…no, it hadn’t even crossed my mind.”

“Well, you must draw one up as soon as possible. It is no small detail.”

“My will.” He picked up a pen from Cecylia’s desk as if he were going to write something down. “But why?”

“None of my agents must die intestate. It is my responsibility to protect not only them, but their families. In life…and in death.”

“But I have nothing to leave.” He was fixated on her tapping pencil but then noticed that on her desk were now two gold-framed photographs, each of a uniformed officer on horseback. One was her husband, but who could the slightly younger man be?

“Nothing?” she said, giving her pencil a loud tap to regain his attention.

“Nothing.” The priest raised his hands, holding them palms up.

“But I insist. All of my agents must have a will.” Her words were clipped, her voice thin.

“Well, I cannot give away what I don’t have, can I?”

“Not even something like this?” she said, holding up her pencil. “I am adamant, so don’t be difficult.” There was an edge to her raised voice.

The priest slammed the flat of his hand on her desk and she startled. “And don’t use that tone with me,” he said and stood abruptly to leave. “It’s disrespectful.”

“Disrespectful? You are under my supervision and no longer a priest, at least outwardly. As your agent-handler, I may speak to you in whatever tone of voice I choose to.” Frowning, she stood as well.

“And you would talk to a friend like this? Someone you’ve led to think you respect?” His voice was angry, but there was hurt, too. “I think you owe me an apology.”

 “No personal effects?” she said, ignoring his demand. “Absolutely nothing of sentimental value?”

“You talk about sentiment? No, nothing of sentimental value… I gave that all away before I left.” He turned to go, then stopped and shook his head slowly. “And I was impressed with you…how you valued personal bonds. How foolish of me.” He continued toward the door then stopped again. “May I assume we have a lesson tomorrow, or would you prefer I find another teacher. I doesn’t really matter to me.”

Tears were welling in Cecylia’s eyes as she moved quickly from behind the desk. Putting both her hands on his cheeks, she kissed him fervidly on the mouth, and just as quickly stepped back. “I am sorry,” she said, her hands dropping limply to her sides. “Forgive me.”

“There’s nothing to forgive. You’re upset about Ignacy.”

“I confess I am not myself these days”

“Well, I have something to confess, as well.” The priest handed her his handkerchief, and, wiping away her tears, she stared at him.

“I actually do have something of sentimental value. Gruby.”

“What is a Gruby?”

“My dog…Gruby. But Anna has already promised to take care of him, if anything should…happen.” He watched as the corners of Cecylia’s lips turned slowly upward.

“And something else,” he said, pausing for enjoyment and effect. “I  own something.”

“Ach, so you do need a will.”

“I wouldn’t go that far, but I do own a car. Bought it in the Golden Age of Dodge eleven years ago. But the transmission’s on its last legs and the radiator leaks rusty water.” He was suppressing a grin. “And the windows only half way up.”

“Well, you look like you have eaten the proverbial canary, Bronek, I must say,” Cecylia said, her smile as enigmatic as his.

“What on earth? Do you hear that scratching at the door?” As he spoke, the priest was hurrying out of the study, Cecylia right behind.

“It is probably Georges.”

“Scratching like that?”

Cecylia stepped gracefully in front him and, as she opened the door, a German Shepherd leaped up and put its front paws on her shoulders.

“O mój Boże!” Cecylia cried, trying to maintain her balance. Georges was tugging on the leash, but no amount of effort could stop the dog from lapping her face with its slobbery tongue. In one motion, the priest grabbed the dog’s paws, set them backdown on the threshold and, pulling Cecylia inside, slammed the door shut. Immediately, there was a light knock “He’s very friendly, that’s all.” They could hear George’s voice, punctuated by barking. “He’s excited to meet his new mistress.”

“New mistress?” Cecylia, raising her eyebrows, looked at the priest.

“Hold him back will you,” the priest said, “then I’ll open the door.”

“He’s under control, I assure you. Calm as a kitten now.”

“We’ll see.” The priest opened the door slowly and George entered with the dog, straining at his collar, but much calmer.

“You said ‘new mistress.’ You were not referring to me, were you?”

“Cecylia, my dear…remember? This is the dog I said I was going to buy from the gentlemam I mentioned a few months ago. The breeder? Who belongs to my club?”

“You mentioned I needed a watch dog, but you never said you would actually get one for me. At least before asking me.” She looked at George who appeared confident and chastened at the same time. “I do not know what to say.”

“Cecylia has no time to take care of a big dog like this,” the priest said, his voice firm. “He has to be….”

“She,” Georges interrupted.

“She has to be trained, walked several times a day. And who could afford to feed this, this horse?”

“She’s already trained….”

“I’m sure,” the priest said sarcastically.

“…and I’ve arranged for my valet to walk her.” George unhooked the leash from the dog’s collar and the three watched as she raced into the study. “Lily doesn’t eat all that much.”

“Lily for that, that….” The priest took the leash from George’s limp hand.

“My mother’s name. But of course, you can give her another name.”

Cecylia barely heard him, as she and the priest were already chasing after the dog. “I must be going, Cecylia,” he said, tagging behind them. “I have a lunch at the club, with Count Upanski and his wife. Cecylia?”

Standing with the priest near the fireplace, she looked up and smiled at him. “Lily” lay curled up on the rug in front of the fire, already sound asleep.

“I still don’t know what to say, George. You can not just leave her here.”

“Just keep her for tonight, you’ll see. She is the perfect dog for you. She will keep you safe.  If you’re still against the idea, I’ll take her back tomorrow, alright? But I cannot be late for my appointment.”

“Tomorrow, George, I will expect you tomorrow morning,” Cecylia said.

When he had left, she and the priest, spent some time simply staring at the sleeping dog.

“Well, the whole thing impossible,” he said.

Cecylia held her hand against her mouth in thought, looking down at the dog. “Xenia,” she said finally. “Yes, Gudunov’s heroine. Xenia.”