The View from 16 Podwale Street
By Paul Alan Fahey
July 8th 2012
Era Historical 1930’s/ Lesbian
Publisher: JMS Books LLC
April 1939. Warsaw, Poland. To the casual observer, the houses on Podwale Street look very much alike. Yet at 16 Podwale, nothing is as it seems. Within, the walls hold many secrets that could destroy the lives of its inhabitants as they witness the city’s ever-mounting tide of Nazism.
Wealthy recluse Elwira Malinowska is more an observer than participant in life. In her seclusion at 16 Podwale, she watches the world pass her by. Then Raz Zielinsky comes to work as a housemaid for her father, and Elwira’s life is suddenly divisible by two -- the time before Raz and the time after.
Years pass, and the women become lovers. They depend on each other. Elwira is Raz’s protector, and Raz is Elwira’s conduit to the outside world, where people speak of nothing but the continual threat of war with Germany.
Elwira, a steadfast Catholic, believes Pope Pius XII will intervene to save Poland from the rumblings of a maniac and an imminent invasion. But when the Pope fails to mediate peace and the political situation worsens, Elwira and Raz plan their escape to freedom.
Will their plan succeed? Or is it already too late?
This was a very unique and different story for me. I loved the writing, the flow of it, the descriptions of WWII Poland---pre-German invasion, and the characters. It’s not the usual fare. And although not overtly expressed, I enjoyed the subtle way both characters were shown to have a lesbian relationship. It actually fit the characters, who they are, and the time period.
The blurb pretty much expresses what the story is about so I’ll go from there. I thought Elwira and Raz have an interesting relationship. On the surface, and to some degree in their day to day life, they don’t have equal standing in the relationship. Raz often reminds Elwira that her status is that of house servant even though in private they are lovers. Although Elwira disputes it all the time, she’s still a very proper woman of her station and still treats Raz as a servant, at least on the surface. Part of it is appearances for when she has callers, but mainly it’s because she’s totally dependent on Raz for various reasons, including having a disability that keeps her from going outside during the day.
This is an interesting dynamic to me because emotionally, physically, and probably even financially, Raz could survive without being dependent on Elwira for a roof over her head and a job. However, she feels loyalty towards her and will not leave even though Elwira’s not wanting to face reality might ultimately cause her great harm. They’ve just established a working relationship in which they have a loving, supportive relationship but within those parameters.
While I felt the relationship was a good part of the story, much of it is also about the time period and how Elwira and Raz try to keep functioning in a politically turbulent and quite dangerous time. One of the strong themes is Elwira’s total belief in the Pope and that he will save Poland from an invasion by Hitler and the Germans. She’s very innocent and somewhat naïve as she disputes warnings from outside callers and Raz that the Pope really has no ability to affect the political scene. Her Catholic faith is strong and very important to her and she feels her belief will save them.
Raz is not as believing as she goes out daily for shopping and other errands and hears the constant gossip and chatter of impending war. She’s also well aware that she and Elwira, but particularly Elwira due to her “disability,” will be subject to a particularly bad fate if Poland falls to the Germans and Hitler. People like them, who love the way they do will not be spared. Much of the story is Raz trying to convince Elwira that maybe they should think about leaving before any invasion, while Elwira stalls, holding on to her tradition, family home, and religious belief. It did create a great tension and impetus to keep reading to see the outcome.
Then there are the two regular gentleman callers who don’t exactly try to woo Elwira, but visit with her and talk in a “gentile” way about the current events. One of them has told Elwira that he is very concerned and has a contact who he can pay to get him and his pregnant wife out. They gain her confidence and she starts believing in their concerns for her welfare. What happens ultimately is not what one would expect.
The only thing about this story that I felt was not explained was how the two gentlemen even knew Elwira and why she would allow them to visit when she clearly was in love with Raz and felt she could not live a normal life. Other than that…
This is well worth the read. I highly recommend it if you’re looking for an ambient period historical from an interesting time and place.
Heat level: 0
Grade: 4 ½ Stars