A loud sound jolted me awake and I ran into the kitchen to see what happened. It was a bowl crashing to the floor.
“Sorry to wake you,” my mother said. “I was just trying to reorganize these cabinets.”
I growled and went back to bed. Saturday is the only day of the week I get to sleep late. No matter how hard I tried, though, I couldn’t doze off again. I just hid under the blankets for a long while thinking about what my parents had discussed last night…war. My history teacher had told us that the Great War was also nicknamed “the war to end all wars.” I hope that’s true, but after seeing my father’s face last night, I wonder if it is. I heard a floorboard creek and pulled down the blanket to see my mother standing there. She sat on the edge of my bed
“I have something very important to discuss with you,” she said before repeating what I had overheard she and my father discussing last night. “We need to prepare, just in case. I need your help next week to reorganize the kitchen pantry and closets to make room for emergency supplies and then we’ll quietly go about purchasing supplies without drawing attention to ourselves.” I nodded in agreement. “You should get dressed. After lunch we’re going to Uncle Jozef’s house for the birthday party.”
I'm surprised anyone heard the doorbell. We could hear the noise of the party as soon as we reached the front steps. Aunt Rose opened the door with a big smile. “Come in. We were wondering when you would get here.”
“Hello, Rose,” Mother said, kissing her on the cheek and handing her the tin of cookies. “You know that yellow dress is one of my favorites.”
Rose gave me a big hug. “Helena, don’t you look lovely in that blue blouse.”
“Thank you, it was a birthday gift.”
“You're all growing up so fast. I can’t believe my little Viktor is eight years old already. Come in, come in, everyone else is here.”
The greetings always seemed to take forever. Uncle Jozef, my father’s younger brother was the next to greet us and then Father’s parents, Andrej and Emilie, Em for short. The other guests were all friends and Aunt Rose’s family. And weaving among the adults were Viktor and his friends, treating the crowd as a giant maze formed for their amusement. My father managed to grab Viktor to wish him a happy birthday but he soon wriggled away to catch up with his friends. There aren’t any girls my age so I stayed close to the women, who always seemed to gather in the kitchen. They mainly discussed children and cooking, so the conversation didn’t hold much interest for me.
The men are in the den, sitting in a tight group with my father and Uncle Jozef at the center. They were speaking in low voices so I wasn’t able to hear what they were saying. I know that my father wanted to speak to Uncle Jozef and Grandpa Andrej about the failing talks with the Germans, so I assumed that’s what they were discussing. There wasn’t any of the normal joking among them, and they all had concerned looks on their faces. My mother noticed me trying to overhear the men’s conversation and gave me an assured smile. She knew I was worried.
“Why don’t you make some potato pierogies for dinner tomorrow night? We’ll stop at the market after church,” Mother commented.
“That’s a good idea. I haven’t made them in a long time. Maybe we can make a pot roast?”
“Your father will like that. And Max will be joining us. I’m sure he’ll enjoy a home cooked meal. I’ll bake a cheesecake.”
I nodded, feeling a little more relaxed now, and went back to helping the women set out the buffet for supper. There are too many guests for a sit-down meal. One small table was set up for the younger children, and I began serving them. Hopefully they’ll sit still long enough to clean their plates. The men descended on the buffet like they had been starved all day. They filled their plates and went back to their chairs to finish their top-secret discussion. Now the women can make their plates and enjoy a quiet meal in the kitchen.
As usual, Aunt Rose went overboard with the birthday cake. Viktor is their only child, and he’s spoiled. The cake was made at a local bakery that’s well-known for its wedding cakes, but they always overdo the frosting. Aunt Rose brought out the cake with its burning candles as everyone sang “Happy Birthday.” Uncle Jozef tried to keep Viktor in his seat. After the song was finished, Viktor made a wish, blew out the candles and then promptly dragged a finger across the cake to get a taste of the frosting.
“Oh, Viktor,” Aunt Rose cried. “You couldn’t have waited one minute for me to slice the cake? Now you sit there quietly and wait. Jozef, hand me the knife.”
Aunt Rose was horrified, but Uncle Jozef tried to hide the smirk on his face. Viktor had a smug little grin because he knew his mother wouldn’t stay mad at him for long. He did sit quietly and waited for his piece of cake. Aunt Rose cut slices for his friends first so they could go to their little table and eat while the adults had cake, coffee, and enjoyed the other deserts that the guests had brought. I don’t really like frosting, so I went straight for my mother’s cookies. A few cookies with a cup of tea and I’m happy.
I was glad when the party ended. It’s nice to see the family, but I needed some fresh air. My parents and I walked the seven blocks to our apartment in silence, enjoying the last remnants of summer warmth. Others were out also enjoying an evening stroll. The streets are well lit, and I always felt safe, even after sundown. This section of the city is safe, and it’s rare that anyone has to worry about being robbed or attacked. It isn’t unheard of, so we still had to be alert, but I didn’t feel nervous. As we arrived home, I noticed Wanda looking down from her window and I waved to her.
After Sunday church services we always liked to take the long way home. Many of our neighbors did as well. As we strolled through the park, and then along the surrounding streets, everyone smiled and nodded at each other. As we were getting close to home, my mother told my father than she and I would stop at the market to buy what we need for dinner. My father wanted to stop at the newsstand anyway to pick up the Sunday newspapers so he said he'd meet us at home. Most businesses are closed on Sunday but there is one Jewish-owned market two blocks from the park that's open on Sundays. We shop at that market only when we need last minute items because there is a larger market closer to our apartment.
My mother worked through her mental grocery list as we approached the market. It was crowded so she told me the few things I needed to gather and she went off in the other direction to find the other items. I’ve always felt a little out of place here. I know most of the other customers are Jewish. A few were speaking Polish, but many speak Yiddish. It sounds similar to the German I learned in school last year, but I don’t know enough German to even attempt to understand it. I found the sugar and tea. As I turned the corner, I came face to face with one of the dark-haired girls I saw in the park the other day. She’s a pretty girl, about my age.
“Pardon me,” she said and hurried along.
“No, pardon me.” I turned to watch her walk off. She peeked back nervously when she realized I was looking at her. I grinned and then she was gone.
“Did you get everything?” my mother asked. “Helena, what are you looking at?”
“Um, nothing. I was just looking for the cough drops. I think they’re in the next aisle.”
We found the cough drops, and by the time we approached the cashier, the store had emptied a bit, so we were able to check out quickly. When we stepped out of the store, Mother asked me again what I was looking at. I told her about the dark-haired girl I had seen twice in three days. I told her what had happened at the park on Friday.
“Jews probably,” my mother said. “I don’t know any personally, but they seem polite enough. They’re just different from us and usually keep to themselves. What did she say to you?”
“Nothing. We bumped into each other coming around the corner. After she passed me I wanted to tell her how much I like her curly hair, but she hurried off too quickly.”
“But you have beautiful hair. Anyway, it’s probably best that you didn’t speak to her. Someone we know might have seen you. It’s better that they keep to themselves. This market has good prices, but I’m glad we don’t have to come here very often.”
When we arrived home, my brother, Max, was already at the apartment. As we unlocked the apartment door, he and my father were in the middle of heated argument. As soon as the door opened they stopped shouting and jumped up to help us with the grocery bags. Max kissed Mother on the cheek and, with a wink, ruffled my hair. Mother and I looked at each other, puzzled by their behavior.
“What were you talking about?” I asked.
“Nothing important,” Max said. “How was your first week of school?”
“So far so good. I have a history of ancient Rome class for first period, so that’s a good way to start the day.”
Max grinned and shook his head. He doesn’t understand my interest in ancient history either. Max is studying law. Uncle Jozef’s firm is paying his tuition in exchange for his promise to work at the firm after he graduates. Until recently, Max lived at home but with his busy schedule this year, he’s been trying to find space in the dormitories or with friends. He hasn’t found anything yet, so he’s sleeping on sofas for now. We don’t see him as often, but he promised to try to make it home for Sunday dinners.
“How are your classes this semester?” I asked.
“There is a heavy focus on contract law this semester and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Mother and I began making dinner. Father and Max were sitting in the living room listening to the news on the radio. It’s obvious that my father is upset about whatever he and Max had been discussing. I just kept my head down, focusing on the pierogies. My mother already had the roast in the oven and was working on the cheesecake.
You could cut the silence at the dinner table with a knife. Max usually talks our ears off, barely finishing his dinner before it gets cold. Tonight, nothing. After I cleared the dinner plates, my mother brought the cheesecake to the table and began slicing it.
“Okay, you two, what’s with the silent treatment?” she finally asked.
My father and Max just stared at each other and then my father blurted out, “Max is dropping out of school and joining the army.”
Max sank back in his chair.
“Why would you do something like that with all the talk of war?” Mother yelled pushing the cake across the table. “You should stay in school where it’s safe! When did you decide this? Why didn’t you discuss it with us first?”
“The war is exactly why I’m doing this,” Max said. “It’s coming, very soon, and Poland will need as many soldiers as will step up. I met with Uncle Jozef last week, and he supports my decision. I knew I couldn’t speak to you and Father about it because you would just try to talk me out of it.”
“Of course we would try to talk you out of it!” Turning to my father she asked, “Your brother knew about this and didn’t tell us?”
My father didn’t know how to respond, and we sat there in silence for a moment. Mother was beside herself. She couldn’t sit still any longer and hurried back into the kitchen, tugging at her apron, pacing. Father still hadn’t spoken.
“Max, I’m scared for you, but I think what you’re doing is a brave thing, and I support your decision,” I said. “When do you report for duty?”
He gave me a little smile and said, “Tomorrow”.
“Tomorrow?” Father yelled as he stood and also began pacing.
“Yes. Three schoolmates and I report to the training center first thing tomorrow morning. We're assigned to the infantry. Some of the other divisions require more specialized training and there just isn’t time for that.”
“Have you ever even held a gun, let alone fired one?” my father asked.
“Not since I was fourteen and I went on that hunting trip with Wlady’s family. I have to do this. We have Socialists to the west, about to invade our country, and Communists to the east who would like nothing better than take over all of Poland if they had the chance. It’s time for the Poles to stand up and fight.”
Mother turned and looked at Max, tears in her eyes. She rushed over and hugged him. “I know you’ll be a brave soldier but promise me something…if the battle can’t be won, run and hide. Do what you have to do to save yourself. We couldn’t bear to lose you.” Max had tears in his eyes and stood up to give her a huge hug. I hurried around the table to join in. Father was sitting on the sofa, clearly upset and unable to move.
“Okay, that’s enough of that,” my mother said after a moment or two, wiping her eyes. “Let’s enjoy our dessert. Michal, please open a bottle of wine. We’re sending our son off to war.”
As I lay in bed that night, I couldn’t help replaying Max’s departure in my mind. Father hugged him tighter than I’ve ever seen him hug anyone. Next Mother said goodbye and handed Max a bag of sandwiches to take with him the next day. I gave Max a huge hug. “Write to us,” I said, “or else.”