Friday, September 12, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Seven

The next morning I was awakened by the smell of eggs cooking. My nose led me straight into the kitchen where Father and Max were already at the table. “Good morning, sleepyhead,” Max said with a smile. “I thought I might get to eat your share of the eggs.”

 “There’s no way I'd let that happen,” I replied, poking Max in the arm before I sat down.

“Don’t worry, everyone gets their share,” Mother said as she began dividing up our little feast. “Six eggs split between four people isn’t much, but it’s still a treat.” Mother had scrambled the eggs with a little salt and pepper. Combined with toast and jam and a cup of tea, this is the best breakfast we’ve had in weeks.

After Father finished, he put on his jacket and with briefcase in hand headed toward the door. “Even with the Russians in town, there are numbers that still need to be crunched,” he joked. Accountant humor, not very funny. “Go outside only if you have to, and be careful. We don’t know what the situation is out there yet. It’s probably best to keep away from the town square. Have a good day.” He looked over at Max and added with a smile, “It’s good to have the family together again.” Just before he closed the door, he popped his head back in, “Zofia, you should take down those dark window coverings. It looks like we’re trying to hide something.”

“So Max, why did you leave the farm when you did?” I asked as I helped Mother clear the table.

“Three days ago we began hearing the sounds of an army mobilizing. No artillery or guns, but tanks, trucks, and the sounds cavalry and infantry soldiers make when moving in large numbers. We thought it was strange that the sounds were coming from the east, moving toward us, and that the army didn’t seem rushed. Szaja had a small telescope from his son’s old astronomy kit. I climbed to the top of the silo to get a good look at what was going on, and there they were, the Germans retreating westward. We were cautiously optimistic, wondering if the Polish army had managed to negotiate a peace agreement. There was no news on the radio so that was our best guess. Since it was getting late in the day, I decided to stay one more night to make sure none of us was in danger from the retreating Germans. I helped Szaja with some of the more difficult chores, hoping their sons would be home soon to help their parents.”

“It was very quiet the next morning. I thanked Szaja and Hulke for their kindness, and I promised to try to stop by for a visit as soon as I was able. Hulke gave me a kiss and a hug and handed me the food basket. I decided to follow the tree line along the woods I had come through before in case I needed to take cover, but the day continued to be surprisingly quiet. That’s probably why I was surprised when I first got a glimpse of the Soviet flag flying over our city hall. Night was beginning to fall, so I decided spend the night outside of the city. By yesterday morning, though, there appeared to be Russian patrols along all of the roads leading into the city. I spent most of the day waiting for a chance to slip past them. That’s why I arrived so late in the day.”

“We’re just glad your home,” I said, taking Max’s hand.

“Well, I’m going to wash up and get dressed,” Max said as he stood and stretched. “I need to check and see how my friends are doing, and I want to see how things are at the university.”

“Can I go with you? I want to visit Maria to make sure she’s safe, and I want to walk past my school to see if classes might begin again soon.”

“Sure, I guess that’ll be fine. We can make the rounds and check in on everyone. Come on, let’s both get ready.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Mother said. “I don’t know if I want the two of you roaming around the city when we don’t know what the Russians are up to.”

“We’ll be careful,” Max assured her with that smile she couldn’t say no to. He kissed her on the cheek.

“Well, okay, if you promise to take care of your sister.”

“Mother, I can take care of myself.”

“Don’t worry, little sister. Just hold my hand, and you’ll be fine,” he joked, patting me on the head.

I swatted his hand away. “Let’s just get ready. It’ll be good to get some fresh air, even if I have to spend the day with you.” I punched him in the arm and ran into my bedroom before he could catch me.

I dressed quickly, excited to see Maria. Her house is close to the town square, so I was a little worried. That’s where most of the disturbances have occurred. I already had my jacket and hat on when Max came out from his room. “So I see you turned my room into a warehouse while I was gone.”

“Sorry about that,” Mother said. “We were buying a lot of supplies during that first week you were gone, and that was the only place to store the overflow from the kitchen. While you’re out, I’ll rearrange the boxes so I still know where everything is. Here, take some extra money with you. If any of the shops have reopened, you can use it to buy more food and supplies.” With that she kissed each of us on the cheek. I heard her whisper to Max,” Keep your sister safe.” “Of course I will,” he whispered back.

As we stepped out into the street, I took a long, deep breath. Ah fresh air, with a hint of autumn. Hopefully things will settle down soon, and we won’t have to spend so much time indoors, especially this time of year when the weather is so enjoyable. I took Max’s arm, and we began walking toward the town square. We’re both curious to see what's happening there, but knew that Mother would be very worried if she discovered we had gone there. I was surprised to see a large number of people out and about. No cars, though. Everyone is on foot or bicycle. I was never able to master riding a bicycle on cobblestones. It always made me feel like I was inside a rattle.

We returned the nods and smiles directed toward us and stopped to exchange pleasantries with some neighbors. As we approached the square, I saw Russian soldiers patrolling some of the cross streets. There weren’t any sounds coming from the square that would discourage us from continuing in that direction. I tightened my grip on Max’s arm, and he placed his hand on mine as we got closer. We stopped as it came into view. There’s that Soviet flag atop the city hall that Max had mentioned. The square is crowded with soldiers, horses, tents, trucks, and jeeps. The only locals I see are doing what we’re doing, keeping to the fringes of the square in the hopes of not being noticed. Max observed that there weren’t any tanks.  

"They’re probably positioned outside the city where they can be easily mobilized, if needed,” he said. “Do you know what happened to those shops?” Max asked me about the stores that had been vandalized.

“We heard that the Germans destroyed all of the Jewish-owned businesses located on or near the square,” I replied. “They even evicted the Jewish residents living above the shops so the officers could move in to the apartments. They were evicted in the middle of the night, forced to leave with only what they could carry.”

“Before the invasion we had heard rumors of situations like that happening in Germany and Austria," Max said. "I guess the rumors are true. I know that we Poles have no reason to trust the Russians, but I have to imagine that the Jews would prefer having to deal with the Russians than the Germans. Unfortunately, the Russians don’t care who they harass. Let’s walk off to the left here, and we’ll go over to Maria’s house.”

We turned and hurried along to get off the square, walking past some shops where the owners were trying to clean up the mess from the past three weeks. It doesn’t look like any stores are open yet, at least none directly on the square.  As we turned on to Maria’s street, we noticed some rubble from those first days of the invasion but none of the buildings seem to have suffered major damage. We entered the building and Max released my arm as I made a run for the stairs. I anxiously knocked on the door.

“Helena!” “Maria!” we yelled at the same time, bouncing up and down as we hugged. “It’s so good to see you.” Max made it up the stairs and laughed at us.

Maria’s mother invited us in. Max said that we can only stay a few minutes because we have a lot of other stops to make. They sat in the kitchen exchanging news while Maria and I went into her room.

“Did you see that the school was damaged? I asked. “My father and I stopped by a few days ago. Have you heard anything about when classes might begin? Have you seen Tomas?”

“I haven’t heard about school yet," Maria replied. “Tomas is fine but his family got word that two of his cousins were killed in the fighting.”

“Oh no, that’s terrible. We were so excited that Max was able to get home safely that I forgot about the other soldiers.”

 “One of my father’s three dry-cleaning stores was vandalized so he's there now, cleaning up,” Maria said. “The other two stores should be open today or tomorrow now that the electricity is working again. He plans on approaching the Russians to offer them dry-cleaning services. ‘'They’re here so someone might as well make some money from them,' he said."

Max knocked on the door. “Time to go,” he said. Maria and I hugged. We each promised to call the other one if we heard about school.

Max and I decided to check on my school next since it’s on this side of town. When we arrived, it was obvious that a lot of cleanup had already been done. New windows were leaning against the building ready for installation. I waved at one of my teachers whom I saw just inside the front door. He was putting up a notice: Classes will begin again next Monday.

“That’s good news,” I said. “I look forward to coming back.”

“We’ll see you next week then,” he said with a smile.

We continued along on streets that run parallel to the square. Max has two friends from the university, brothers, who had joined the army with him, and he wanted to see if they’d returned home yet. He introduced himself to their parents.

“We haven’t heard from them yet”, their father said.

Max assured them that the last time he saw them they were both safe. Their mother started crying and hurried back inside the apartment. Their father thanked Max for stopping by.

“I can just imagine what you, Mother, and Father were going through, worrying about me,” Max commented.

I took Max’s arm again. “Father kept telling us not to worry, that you were too smart to get injured or captured,” I said. “He was right.”

We continued toward the university. “I know some people at the university who will have news,” Max said. “They have contacts in the resistance who always seem to know what’s going on. The last time we were all together we agreed that we would try to meet every day on the second floor of the library.”

As we approached the campus Max commented on how empty it looked. The buildings don’t seem to have suffered any damage. It’s a beautiful campus, with its ivy-covered buildings and large trees. I haven’t decided yet if I want to apply here, maybe earn a degree in education. More and more young women are attending college now, but I don’t know if my parents can afford it.

“The library is over that way, at the end of the path,” Max said.

I noticed that he was limping on that bad ankle.

“Are you alright, Max?”

“Oh, my ankle. Yes, I’m fine. I’ll elevate it later when we get home. First things first, checking in with friends and getting information.”

Even for a library, it was quiet as we climbed up to the second floor. So many books! I just wanted to slip off into the corner with a huge stack of history books. At the top of the stairs, we turned left and then headed to the far corner. I thought I heard whispering, but it stopped as we approached. Max peeked around the corner of the last bookshelf, and a huge smile appeared on his face.

“Hello, boys. Good to see you all,” he said as the group stood to welcome him home. Max was as glad to see all of them as they were to see him.

“And who is this lovely young lady?” one of his friends said as he took my hand.

“This is my sister, Helena. Helena, this is trouble, uh, I mean Peter,” Max said with a smile and wink. “You might want to wash that hand if he ever gives it back you.”

Peter is very handsome and I felt my cheeks blush. “It’s very nice to meet you, Peter,” I said bashfully as I tried to take my hand back.

Peter was still staring at me when Max said, “Alright, alright, that’s enough of that. Helena, why don’t you go find a book to read while we talk?”

“No! I’m old enough to hear what’s going on. I’ll just sit over here and listen,” I said as I walked over to an arm chair near the window.

“She has spunk,” Peter said. “I like that.” Max put an arm around Peter’s shoulder and steered him towards the group.

I settled into the arm-chair, but quickly realized that I was too far away from Max and his friends to hear most of what they’re discussing. I was determined to stay anyway. There were a couple of books on a nearby table so I picked one up to read. Shakespeare, great! A writer I always have trouble with. The other books were also by Shakespeare so I’m stuck. Romeo and Juliet seemed like my best option, so I took a shot at reading that again. After a few minutes. I heard footsteps on the staircase and I tried to hide my face behind the book. I peeked over the top and noticed that Max and his friends were signaling to each other to be quiet. My jaw dropped when I saw who was coming.

”Uncle Jozef?”

“Helena? What are you doing here?” Before I could respond, Jozef looked up and saw Max, so he hurried over to welcome him home. I could tell from their gestures that Jozef was angry at Max for bringing me along, but Max told him it was okay as he signaled me to sit down again. This time I decided I wanted to hear what they’re discussing, so I moved the chair closer. “Don’t worry. I’ll be quiet and not repeat what I hear,” I assured them.

Apparently all I had missed before Uncle Jozef arrived was Max telling them about his experiences. Next up was the status of the other members of the group. Several were not in attendance but had been at the meetings last week. Of the six who had gone off to war, Max is the only one who’s returned so far and there was no news about the welfare of the other five.

“Hopefully we’ll hear from them soon,” Max said. Max asked about the university, the professors, and whether classes might begin again.

"The Germans had taken over the campus to use as housing for their troops,” Peter explained. “While doing so, they rounded up all of the professors who were on site that day, put them in trucks, and drove them out of the city. None of them have been heard from since. Their families camped out in front of city hall in an unsuccessful attempt to get information.”

What do the Germans want with the professors? I’ll ask Max later.

“My contacts have heard of Germans closing churches and rounding up, or in some cases killing, the local clergy and nuns in other towns,” Uncle Jozef said. “During the short time the Germans occupied our town, they didn’t have time take any action against the churches. Since the Soviets don’t recognize most organized religion, we’ll have to be alert to any action they might take against the churches.” Everyone nodded.

Jozef sipped his coffee and continued, “During their short occupation of the town, the Germans seemed to be focused on eliminating the local government, silencing the academics, and, just as they’ve done in other countries, isolating the Jews from society.”

Max patted one of his friends on the back.  “Time will tell whether we’re better off with the Soviets occupying the city,” Max said. “They don’t really distinguish between Jews and non-Jews. They dislike everyone who doesn’t agree with their politics.”

Jozef looked at his watch. “I’d better get back to the office. Let’s continue our meetings, but remember to keep a low profile outside of this room. The resistance movement won’t be successful if the Russians know our every move.” He stood to leave. “Max, stop by my office after lunch tomorrow. Since you don’t have any classes, I'm sure I can find some work for you,” Jozef added with a wink.

He turned toward me as he walked away, placing his forefinger to his lips as a reminder to me not to mention the meeting to anyone. I smiled and nodded.

One by one Max’s friends headed toward the stairs, carrying book bags so they looked like students coming to the library to study. Max signaled to me that we should leave. Peter walked out with us.

“So, Max, why did you let me think that your little sister is a little girl?”

“To avoid the exact situation I think we’re about to deal with,” Max said as he put his arm around my shoulder. I rolled my shoulder to break his grip.

“Peter, what are you studying at the university?” I asked, leaning over to see him past Max.

Peter gave Max a push forward so he could step in next to me. “I’m also studying law. I’m not as lucky as Max here is to have an uncle paying his tuition and ready to hire him when he graduates, but I think I’d rather work for the government as a prosecutor. Maybe Max and I will come up against each other in court, and I can teach him what it’s like to beaten by a real lawyer.”

“That’ll never happen,” Max said as he stopped short and we bumped into him. Max is now between us again.

“This is my turnoff,” Peter said. “Helena, would you like to meet for coffee sometime?”

“No,” Max replied. This time I pushed him.

“Yes, Peter, I'd like that very much.”

“Wonderful. I’ll call you later in the week.” He turned off at the corner and waved back.  “Have a nice day.”

“Bye, see you soon.”

Max was standing ahead of me, smiling. “I didn’t know you were old enough to date. I wonder what Mother and Father will say.”

“They won’t say anything until I tell them. You won’t say anything, right?”

“Well, okay I guess,” Max said, presenting his arm for me to take. “Let’s get home. Mother will be wondering where we’ve been all day.”

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