Katarzyna Suchodolska (1st place. Creative Nonfiction. Spring 2012 Writing Contest)
“I will laugh at your funeral,” she used to say, her voice trembling with fury, her face red and tense. My grandmother, she said it countless times over almost 60 years of her marriage, but that sentence, that terrible pledge never quite lost its fury. I can still see her fiery eyes and her tiny figure intensely gesticulating in a flowery dress, pacing through their tiny kitchen. My grandfather would sit, silent and calm, at the table. Crochet cloth, porcelain cups, a slice of lemon Bundt cake and sometimes me–the only witnesses to those fights.
He would slowly finish his cold, black coffee, look for cigarettes and leave to have a smoke on the stairway. Sometimes on the way to the door he would say something back, then quickly apologize to me, and close the door quietly. “I will laugh at your funeral,” my grandmother would scream as if he could hear her through the thick walls of their apartment.
It wasn’t true.
When my grandfather passed away in 2002, many years after I first saw them fight, she was in pieces. It took her a long time to get back to her old powerful self. The woman who filled each and every room she entered with enthusiasm, laughter, cookies, and hot tea was gone for a long time. I could never quite understand how their lives were so strongly intertwined with love and resentment.
We now sit together, Babcia and I, with the same porcelain cups filled with dark, cold coffee. It’s a different kitchen, a different set of minds; we laugh, we talk. My grandfather is gone 10 years now, yet I get a rare chance to discover a piece of him and her that I might have missed. I get to hear the story of how they had to fight for each other, despite the odds, the war, the world.
They met in 1942; my grandmother was just 14 years old. She smiles that she was just a child and how at first she would hide under the wooden table in the kitchen whenever he came over. It’s the sad smile of a child who used to hide under the same table before because of bombs, shootings, and executions on the streets of her hometown, Łuków. They met in 1942; my grandmother was just 14 years old and she had already lived three years under the German occupation.
“We all grew much faster. Now 14-year-olds are children, babies; we were already adults struggling and fighting,” she says and I wonder how she must have looked at me when I was 14, focused on my tiny childish world: critical or envious? I remember one cold and snowless winter morning when she came to pick me up; my hamster had died the night before and my eyes were still red and puffy from crying over the tiny animal. She tried to comfort me, and when it failed she asked: “Would you rather see me dead?”
She brings pictures of my grandfather from the time they started dating: 7 years older than her, he was tall and handsome, wearing leather cavalry boots and smoking hand rolled cigarettes. “He was only one of my many admirers,” her face lights up with the same bright smile as when she talks about her young doctor flirting with her before removing her cataract.
She recalls the rumors of 1944–Polish and Soviet armies were coming to liberate them; the news was spreading quickly across towns. “We could hear the battles moving closer and closer,” she says calmly, but later confesses the mix of nervousness and excitement that those days were filled with. The German soldiers felt the anxiety and tension as well. Some were packing to move west and the main road was filled with military trucks: no more Deutschland, Deutschland über alles. They had all tranformed into hungry, exhausted boys just trying to make it home. Some stayed and wanted to rule until the end; a group of 20 underground Polish soldiers were executed by the Nazis just few days before the military front reached Łuków.
In 1944 my grandfather was already a part of AK–Armia Krajowa, the dominant Polish resistance movement. He told my grandmother to leave the town for few days to avoid the violence that would take over Łuków once the front finally moved in. Her mother gathered their belongings and they left to some distant family further in the countryside. They came back a week later to a bomb on their porch and three containers of mustard gas in the garden. “The whole garden was destroyed,” she says, “the entire luscious summer garden.”
Soldiers were streaming into town. “We all greeted them with what we had,” she smiles at memories of neighbors frantically searching for strawberry kompot in their cellars, ripe tomatoes in their gardens or even just flowers to offer those good Polish boys with a Russian accent. “But the excitement and thrill were interrupted by your grandfather being drafted to the army,” my grandmother says and I can hear her voice get more animated as we move closer to the heart of her story.
She was 16 at the time, going to school during the week and taking the train every Saturday to visit my grandfather 60 miles south, in Lublin. She would often go with a good friend of his, Lolek. “He was soon shot–he might have been collaborating with Germans–so I just kept going by myself,” she now talks about it with no emotions. How many deaths one must survive to gain that neutral tone?
One day she received a letter. “Not even a letter, a brief note on a scrap of paper,” she corrects herself, “a brief note that read I love you, no one will ever love you as much as I do, I will never see you again.” My grandfather passed away when I was 17; I had never heard so much affection towards my grandmother from that stoic man. I wish I could ask him to talk about that love.
“So I jumped on the train and went straight to Lublin, to find him, to find my Zdzich,” she says, still emotional after 60 years. No one knew where he was; once you were taken by the communist secret police you weren’t found easily.
My grandmother is 84 years old now and still everything has to be done the way she wants, even when I insist I know how to pick myself a new dress. I can only imagine her as a passionate teenager, long blond hair tangled by the wind as she marches alone across an unknown city, determined to find her lover. She does have a charming way of adding more drama to her stories, but how much more drama does a war story need anyway? I let her talk and tell the story the way she wants. It’s her love and her glory.
“…I went to Lublin every weekend. E v e r y weekend, can you imagine? A 16-year-old girl I was, and I had to do all of my homework on Friday to go Saturday morning. I was really grateful to my mother; she knew how much I loved him and she let me go. His mother never went. His sister never went. I went every weekend.
I walked across the town and tried to get into each and every building with the soldiers in front of them. Of course, it wasn’t easy, what do you think? I carried a picture of him and showed it to everyone inside, but no one, no one knew anything. I felt lost.
One day I wandered into a closed street with Soviet soldiers standing guard. Residents needed a special permit just to go through, but I told the guards that the main commandant had asked me come that day. I didn’t know his name, I didn’t even know if he would know anything but I had to try. What other choice had I? They finally let me in, laughing, thinking that I was probably a prostitute picked up by the commandant on the wintery streets of Lublin. What else would a teenage girl be doing in the NKVD?
I find the commandant, a skinny, very polite-looking Russian sitting upright in his leather chair. Curtseying and bowing I try to tell my story, my love, my loss. He knows about your grandfather; the moment I say his last name he smirks. “He was here, that love of yours, he sure was, but they moved him to the Castle, there is nothing we can do now.” Now that I think about it, he might have looked a little bit like Vladimir Putin.
The Castle, oh, the beautiful medieval Castle. The Castle was an infamous prison during the Occupation, and now continues its function for the Soviet secret police. We all heard terrifying stories of everyday executions. We have to go back to Lublin one day; I’ll show you where everything happened. I’ll show you where I saved your grandfather.
Three packages of cheap cigarettes and my tearful story help me get through yet another army of guards, to the Polish military prosecutor. I bring a heavy package of dark, sturdy fabric, the only possession I owned that seemed worthy of being a bribe. Buying one’s life with a piece of fabric, can you imagine? But the prosecutor, a good Polish Jew, middle aged, very elegant, just laughs, “Keep it for the wedding; once we get your boy out he will need it for his suit.”
“You better get him a care package, they’re all hungry over there,” his voice changes quickly, not laughing any more. He advises me to get letters of support from the Jewish community, testimonies that he was indeed a good man, a loyal citizen, an honest person. I think people were just better then, more helpful, so many good people along the way.
He writes me some permits so I can get to the Castle with a Parisian bread roll with a tiny “I love you” scribbled on top of it. Soldiers, soldiers, soldiers everywhere; some would let me pass, some would try to take the bread and ask for more cigarettes.
Your grandfather wouldn’t talk about his experience in prison for a long time. It wasn’t until a few years later when he recalled broken windows in his cell, icy wind piercing through the light summer uniform he was then wearing. He was staying next to the death row cells: a never ending stream of voices cursing, crying, begging, pleading guilt or innocence or everything at once. There was no schedule, he said, everyone and each of them could end on death row any day. The sound of guards’ heavy boots stopping in front of your cell was worse than the lament of half dead people.
He thought he was dying. One night he dreamed of the Virgin Mary coming to his cell, light glowing from her pale palms. “You will not know hunger anymore,” she whispered softly and he almost let go of the small piece of life left in his body. The next morning, the guards gave him the roll, few days old already, with my love confession still written on it. He shared the roll with other inmates, but they couldn’t share hope. He was the only one of 10 men from his cell who survived.
I collect over 300 signatures from old neighbors, colleagues, friends and 30 detailed testimonies from the Jewish community. It was enough to free him few weeks later on a cloudy March Sunday, it was Palm Sunday, I remember that day, people with willow branches coming from the church.
I can’t recognize him at first, no one can. Swelling from regular beatings and hunger transformed him into a ball, a human ball of misery. We walk slowly to a friend’s apartment a few blocks away from the Castle; the fresh air, the flowery perfume of women passing by, the spring sun, it all brings him to life, to me. He would later talk about dead bodies being thrown into the moat; the entire ditch filled with corpses.”
My grandmother sits silent for a brief moment. Does she think about the joy they felt when reunited? The moment they finally arrived at a safe place and my grandfather changed his clothes and left his uniform on the stairway, before he entered the apartment? Later that night someone will burn it in the backyard, but my grandfather will always carry the scars made by body lice living in his legs for months. Does she still think about those scars?
I dare not speak for fear of destroying the moment. We hear the recorder humming softly on the table, the water simmering in the kitchen, the birds trying to reach us through the window. Time slowly disappears and we’re left in silence with the pictures of them, laughing, in our hands.
Babcia Project: I Will Never See You Again
Katarzyna Suchodolska (1st place. Creative Nonfiction. Spring 2012 Writing Contest)