Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Five

“It’ll be good to get back to work,” Father said at breakfast. Even though most of the city had been shut down for the past couple of weeks there was still plenty to do. Hopefully other businesses would begin to reopen. Until he knew it was safe to be outside, though, he wanted Mother and me to stay in the apartment unless he’s with us. He kissed each of us on the cheek and left for work. Mother decided that we needed to catch up on some sewing and mending. She rummaged through the dresser drawers and closets looking for any clothing with holes, loose or missing buttons, and loose threads. The pile ended up being larger than I expected. It’s a nice sunny day so we sat near the front window where the light is better. We took a short break for lunch and to stretch our legs, but that’s what our day was…sewing.

We were both startled when the phone suddenly rang. We stared at each other until the second ring in case we had imagined the first one. At the sound of the second ring, my mother jumped up to answer the phone. “Hello?” she inquired. “Alex, is that really you? Helena, it’s your Uncle Alex calling from London!” I ran over and we both held on to the receiver.

“Hello Uncle Alex!”

“Zofia, Helena, it’s so good to hear your voices. How are you? How is Michal? Is he home? Max? How is Papa? I’ve been trying to reach you for days.”

“We didn’t even know the phones were working again,” Mother said. “We’re fine, so excited to hear your voice. Michal went back to work for the first time today. Papa is fine. We saw him yesterday. We were also able to visit with Michal’s brother Jozef and their parents. Everyone is safe. Max joined the army, and we haven’t heard from him yet. Now that the fighting is over we hope to hear from him soon. What have you heard? Without the radio and newspapers, we can’t get any news.”

“The Germans have taken over the entire region around the city,” Alex said. “The Polish army won some small battles, but for the most part was continually beaten back. They're trying to rally, but it doesn’t look good. It’s too soon to know yet how England and France will be able to help, and no one knows what the Russians are up to. ‘Don’t trust the Germans’ is what we’re hearing. They're not the same Germans our parents remember from the Great War. In their minds, anyone who isn’t of German descent is a lesser human being, and they don’t care what happens to them.”

“Yes, we saw that when the Germans entered the city. Many people were killed or injured and we’ve been hearing sporadic gunfire since, mainly on the other side of town, behind city hall. Hopefully the businesses and markets can reopen soon. We purchased a lot of supplies, but without meat, dairy, and fruits and vegetables it’s difficult to put together a good meal.”

“Good, you have supplies. That was smart planning. It’s so good to hear your voices. Let me go before we get cut off. Maggie sends her best. She’ll be very happy to hear that everyone is in good health. The twins are doing well--three years old and into everything. I’ll try to call again soon, and when I hear that the postal service is running I’ll send you a package with supplies and newspapers. Give Papa and Michal big hugs for me. I love you all.”

“We love you, too!” we both shouted.

“Take care of yourself. Bye.”

Mother was ten feet off the ground after she hung up the phone. She grabbed me around the waist and began spinning us around the floor. We were laughing so hard we tripped over the coffee table and landed on the sofa, still laughing. Just then, Father walked in. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“Alex called! The phones are working. Oh Michal it was so good to hear his voice.”

She ran over to hug him and hit him so hard that he smashed against the door. He began laughing, too.

My mother and her brother, Alex, were very close when they were growing up. She said that they had a special connection, like twins, even though he’s three years younger. Through most of their childhood, both of their parents had jobs so Mother and Alex spent a lot of time alone together. Shortly after my parents married, Alex went to the local university to study English literature. On the dean’s recommendation, Alex was awarded a full scholarship to Oxford with the promise of a teaching position after graduation. Mother said that her heart almost broke when he left for London. They write letters weekly, but she especially loves it when he telephones so she can hear his voice.

“I have to tell my father that Alex called. Can we go right now?” she pleaded with Father.

“It'll be dark soon but I suppose we can take a quick walk over to this apartment. Helena, will you be alright alone for a little while?”

“Yes, Father, I’ll be fine. Go. I’ll watch over dinner.”

They hurried out the door, and I was alone. I didn’t feel scared; I was actually relieved to have some time to myself so I can sort through my thoughts of what’s been happening to us. It’s so quiet, quieter than it’s been for more than two weeks. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but at least for now, it means people aren’t shooting at each other. I thought back to the discussions we had in school about what the Germans were doing. I still don’t completely understand why some men feel the need to conquer other countries. They do it in the name of their homeland and the people they rule, but I think it might just be ego. I wondered about the many millions of people who were repressed, tortured, injured, and killed throughout history all because of the male ego. It’s no different than a bully harassing a weaker child.

Unfortunately, in the situation being played out now, Poland is the weakling. Poland became an independent republic again just twenty years ago and hasn’t had enough time or resources to build an army to protect itself. Maybe our leaders believed that Poland would finally be left alone to make its way into the future. Maybe they thought that the League of Nations would put a stop to Germany’s recent aggression. Maybe the Poles need to take control of our own destinies and not rely on our leaders.

My parents returned home after only being gone twenty minutes. “That was fast,” I commented. “How is Grandpa Nick? Does he ever plan on getting a telephone installed?”

“Your grandfather is fine and he'll probably never get a telephone. ‘Who would I call?’ he always says. He's very excited that we heard from Alex. I think in a couple of days we’ll bring dinner over to his apartment and spend the evening there.”

Just as we were finishing our dinner we heard gunfire again, this time a little closer. Father thought that it might be coming from the town square. At least we’re inside for the night. Hopefully whatever was happening outside stays away from my family. It was difficult to sleep that night. There was sporadic gunfire throughout the night and I also heard some screaming. I guess we'll have to wait until morning to find out what's happening.

I woke the next morning to find Uncle Jozef in our apartment. Because he lives closer to the town square, it’s easier for him to get more news. “The Germans are evicting the wealthy Jews who live around the town square and pillaging their shops and offices. The Jews were told to go find housing in the Jewish district, so they took whatever they could carry and fled in that direction. As they did so, some of the soldiers, who had been drinking, decided it would be fun to use them as target practice. Luckily, they were too drunk to hit anything. In addition to the inns that the Germans have commandeered, the officers are moving into the nicer apartments. They've also moved into the offices and raided the shops of all merchandise.”

“The damn Jews again!” Mother exclaimed. “Pardon the language but who cares what happens to the Jews as long as the Germans leave us alone.” She hurried off into the kitchen to get more coffee.

I was always puzzled by her feelings toward the Jews. To my knowledge, my mother has never known, and does not now know, any Jews by name or had more than incidental contact with them. How can she have such strong opinions about them? I’ve heard my grandparents, her parents, make similar comments, but I don’t know if they had ever been wronged by any Jews. I know my mother is not alone in her feelings. In school we learned that during the last war many Jews were accused of spying for the Germans. Maybe that’s where it comes from.

Jozef had also spoken to his law partner whose son-in-law, an officer in the Polish cavalry, had escaped from the Germans.

"The majority of the Polish armed forces are regrouping around Warsaw to protect the capital from falling to the Germans," Josef said. "The western portion of the country is considered lost for now, and we have to make a successful stand at Warsaw if we have any chance of repelling the Germans from Poland.”

There are also rumors that we have to watch for an invasion from the east by the Russians. The Russians have a long history of mistreating the Polish people without provocation. They call themselves Soviets now but as Grandpa Andrej likes to say, “Once a Russian, always a Russian.”

Father and Jozef got ready to leave and go to work. “Father, is it alright if I run over to my school to see if there are any notices posted? I want to make sure I know when classes begin again.”

“Tomorrow is Saturday,” he replied. “I’ll walk over with you tomorrow morning. We can also check to see if any of the shops are open so we can purchase more supplies. I really need to get to work now.” And with that Mother and I began another boring day trapped in the apartment.


Saturday morning I hurried to get ready to go out with Father to visit my school. Mother didn’t want to come with us. Maybe she needed a little alone time like I did the other day. I hope we run into some of my friends. I’m anxious to know if they’re safe, but Mother doesn’t want me to tie up the telephone line with local calls that aren’t emergencies.

When we arrived at the school, the front windows were shattered, the result of the building across the street being hit by a missile. As we stepped through the door we noticed that wasn’t the only damage. It looked like someone decided to destroy some of the furniture and books. The headmaster’s office seemed to be the center of the attack. Father commented that that made it look like the culprits were students. We heard some movement near the front door and I grabbed his arm, and we both breathed a sigh of relief when we saw that it was my friends Anna and Katharine and Anna’s father. It’s so good to see them. We all compared notes about our lives since the invasion, and the stories sounded very similar.

“I guess you’ll have to wait a little longer for school to being again,” Father said. “Looks like they have a lot of cleanup and repairs to take care of, and we still don’t have electricity.”

“I guess we should check back in a few days,” I said.

Father and I cautiously approached the town square. That’s where the largest shops are located but also where the Germans have set up their home base. Father peeked around the corner of a building and quickly pulled back.

“German soldiers, no one else,” he said.

We decided to walk around for a while. There are other shops scattered throughout this section of the city. We came across a hardware store. The owner was there, sweeping up, and he allowed us to enter. We found two boxes of matches and one box of candles. Father noticed a piece of wood about the size of my broken bedroom window, so he bought that, as well as a box of nails and a hammer. Next we came across a newsstand that was open but, of course, didn’t have any current newspapers. Father decided we needed a treat and bought three chocolate bars. He earned a kiss on the cheek for that.

One more stop, the church. We wanted to see if there would be services tomorrow morning. As the church came into view it appeared to be unharmed. I had to smile when we stepped inside and saw that the beautiful stained glass windows were intact.

“Ah, more curious wanderers,” the priest said as he approached us. “It’s good to see you. Parishioners have been stopping in, two or three at a time, making sure our church was still here. Services are planned for tomorrow morning, if things are quiet that is. God wouldn’t want anyone putting themselves in danger just to come hear me speak,” he said with a wink and a smile.

Father shook his hand and said “Thank you for that, Father. We'll try to be here tomorrow morning. Bless you and be safe.”

When we arrived home Mother seemed relaxed. I guess she did need some alone time. She had heated up water on the stove so she could soak in a warm bath. It’s amazing the power of a good bath. She already had lunch set on the table. She opened up a jar of peaches as a treat and laughed when she saw that Father bought chocolate bars. “Great minds think alike,” he said with a smile and gave her a hug.

As we were eating our lunch the lamp on the corner table suddenly came on. “Electricity!” I shouted. Father jumped from his chair to turn on the radio. “News!” he shouted.

We huddled around the radio as he tried to tune in a local station. There was nothing but static. He looked relived when he finally found a BBC broadcast. Warsaw is under heavy attack by the Germans, and the Polish army has positioned all of their defenses in and around the city. The British Air Force, the RAF, has been bombing targets in Germany in an attempt to draw their focus from Poland, but that had little effect. The broadcaster listed some of the Polish cities and towns that the Germans already occupied and mentioned something about the Germans and Russians having signed a pact that divided Poland between the two countries...again.

That's it, the latest news. The broadcast confirmed what Uncle Jozef had told us yesterday, but somehow we felt better knowing that our allies were attempting to help us.

“What's that pact the announcer mentioned?” I asked.

Father said that he had heard rumors about such a pact but he and his friends had shrugged it off, thinking that the League of Nations would stop it from being enacted. With the rumors about an invasion by the Russians, he wondered whether they can be stopped either. “Once again the Germans and Russians are making a Poland land-grab while the world sits by and does nothing,” Father said.


The city was quiet when I woke the next morning so Father decided that we should attend church services. As we were getting ready, though, we heard a loud commotion coming from the town square. It was the roar of many trucks but Father said that the sound appeared to be moving away from the city, towards the west.

"Maybe our soldiers finally mustered enough strength to force a German retreat," I said.

“It can’t be that simple,” he said. He turned on the radio but there weren’t any reports about what was happening.

“This is strange," he said. "We should stay indoors until we know what’s happening,”

Mother dropped into the arm chair. She was excited to be going to church, not just for the service but to see her friends. Instead, we just sat there listening to the fading noises. We could see our neighbors peering from their windows with puzzled looks on their faces. Now what?

After a while, that same roar that had disappeared to the west of the city was heard approaching us from the east. Is it our army or the Russians? We weren’t hearing any bombs or gunfire. You could cut the suspense with a knife.  Then we got our answer…breaking glass. It sounded like windows were being smashed along the streets leading into the city center.

“The Russians,” Father said, hanging his head.

Mother pulled all of the blinds shut and then grabbed some dark tablecloths from the linen closet to place over the curtains so no one could see we’re here. Father grabbed the piece of wood, box of nails, and hammer and quickly repaired my bedroom window, trying not to make too much noise with the hammer. After they both finished, neither seemed able to relax. They paced, mumbling to themselves. Mother locked the apartment door as she gave me a weak smile. She didn’t want to scare me, but I’ve never seen them this nervous.

We spent the rest of the afternoon listening to the radio, hoping to hear whether the outside world knows what’s happening to us. Finally, by late afternoon, we heard the report that the Germans had peacefully retreated from the region around our city and the Russians had moved in. That's it, the entire report. We already knew that. Father turned off the radio as we heard soldiers marching up our street. He joined Mother and me on the sofa, sitting between us with an arm around each of us.

“They’re just letting us know they’re here,” he said.

Thankfully the soldiers passed without starting any trouble.

We weren’t very hungry that evening, so we just had some toast and tea. It’s nice to be able to make toast again now that the electricity is turned back on. As we were eating, we heard someone moving around in the hallway outside our apartment. Suddenly someone was jiggling the doorknob, trying to open the door.

“Go into the bedroom,” Father whispered.

Mother grabbed my hand, and we went to hide as Father grabbed the hammer and moved near the door. Mother and I peeked out from the bedroom. We could hear the person fidgeting with the lock, and she pulled me close. Suddenly the doorknob turned. Father raised the hammer as the door opened and prepared to bring it down on the head of the intruder when he yelled “Max!”

No comments: