When I woke the next morning, Mother and Max were already eating breakfast. Father had gone down to the newsstand in search of another newspaper, hopefully one with more details than yesterday's.
“I hope you father gets back soon so he won’t have to rush to get ready for church,” Mother said.
It was the first time since August that we’re attending services, and she’s really looking forward to it. For Max and me, church is more of a social affair than a solemn time. It provides an opportunity to see friends who we only have a chance to visit with on Sundays. I know Mother has been feeling very isolated over the past few weeks, and she’s looking forward to seeing all of her friends as much as we are.
Just as I sat down, Father walked in. “Oh good, you’re back. Have some coffee, and then we need to get ready for church,” she said as she filled his cup. The newspaper appeared to be thicker than the one he had yesterday.
“About church,” he said. “Since it isn’t far from the newsstand, I walked past to make sure services were being held today." He paused, taking a deep breath. "The doors are locked. There's a sign posted, in Russian, that all places of religious worship are closed.”
“Closed!” Mother said, dropping into her chair. “Why would they close the churches?”
Max jumped in. “It’s the Communists. The official state ‘religion’ in the Soviet Union is atheism. They discourage, sometimes forcefully, the religious practices of all believers, as they call them. I remember reading that after their revolution, many bishops and priests were killed, and many more were persecuted. Church property was confiscated and destroyed. Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques as well, all religions.”
“It’ll be okay, Zofia,” Father said reassuringly. “They can’t take away our faith simply by closing a few buildings. Maybe you and your friends can organize a weekly bible study disguised as a luncheon. I’m sure we can figure out something. This isn’t the first time in history that one group of people has tried to suppress the beliefs of another. The latter group usually finds a way to persevere.”
“I guess so,” Mother said with a sigh. “Maybe we can go visit Jozef and Rose after lunch, and Rose and I can discuss this.”
I’m not in the mood for visiting today. My mind was still taking me back to yesterday afternoon with Peter, and I also wanted to make sure I was ready to go back to school tomorrow.
“Would you mind if I don’t go with you to Uncle Jozef’s house?” I asked. “I have some things I want to get done to be ready for school tomorrow.”
“I think that’ll be alright,” Father replied. "Max, are you coming with us?”
“Yes. I need to speak with Uncle Jozef about a few things.”
After lunch, they left. “We won’t be gone long,” Father said as he closed the door. I finally had the apartment to myself again. I peeked out the window, watching them walk away. As soon as they turned the corner, I ran downstairs and across the street to Wanda’s building. Her mother answered the door. “Why, Helena, it’s so nice to see you. Please come in.”
“Thank you. I just need to speak with Wanda for a moment.” Wanda came out from her room. “Helena! I thought that was your voice. Can you stay for a while?”
“Actually, I can’t. My parents are out, and I shouldn’t even be here. I just wanted to let you know that Max will walk with us to school in the mornings. With university classes cancelled, he’ll be working at my uncle’s law firm and has to walk in that direction anyway.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea,” Wanda’s mother said. “I’ll feel a lot better knowing you two won’t be walking alone. You had better get home now before your parents return and you get into trouble.”
“Yes, I should. Wanda, we’ll meet you out front in the morning.”
“Ok, see you then,” she said with a nod.
I ran back across the street. I didn’t really have much to do to get ready for school tomorrow. I just wanted some time alone. I turned on the radio to listen to a little music and relaxed on the sofa, making sure to listen for my parents coming up the stairs.
Finally! Monday morning arrived. Time to go back to school. I was awake, dressed, and ready to go early, so I just sat on the sofa, staring at Max as he slowly drank his coffee and re-read the weekend newspapers. He glimpsed over at me, knowing I was eager to go.
“We can’t leave early or we’ll miss Wanda,” he teased.
“I know. I’m just excited to see my friends.”
He nodded, finished his coffee, and went to get dressed.
Wanda was waiting in the doorway of her building when Max and I walked out. She ran to hug me.
“I’m so excited to be going back to school,” Wanda exclaimed. “Not just to be at school, but after several weeks of being more or less trapped in that apartment, I’m just glad to be outdoors and around other people. I know my parents love me, but there is such a thing as too much.”
“You haven’t been outside at all?” I asked.
“A couple of times, but my mother is very nervous about going out, and my father humored her requests to keep me indoors.”
“Well, it’s good to see you, too,” I said and we locked arms as we walked.
“Wanda, your father works at city hall, right?” Max asked.
“Yes, he does. He manages the records room. He says it’s not very exciting, but not many people have the patience for all of that paperwork, and he feels pretty secure in his position.”
“The Germans and the Russians kept him on staff?”
“Yes. My grandparents, his parents, had emigrated from Ukraine shortly before he was born, so they spoke fluent Russian, which they taught him. His father worked in the import/export industry and so also knew German, which he also passed on to my father. I guess both the Germans and Russians see some value in that. My father is just glad to still have a job. Most of the employees at city hall were immediately fired, or worse.”
“He must overhear a lot of interesting news,” Max commented.
“I don’t know,” Wanda says with a shrug. “He hasn’t mentioned anything to me.”
We saw a large crowd of students up ahead, in front of the school. “Bye, Max,” Wanda and I said at the same time and ran ahead.
All of the girls were hugging, and the boys were shaking hands. It's wonderful to see everyone again. “How are you?” “How is your family?” “I’m glad to hear that everyone is safe.” “I’m so glad to be back at school.” We were all asking the same questions, and thankfully, most of us had the same positive responses. I’m sure that there were a few fathers, uncles, and brothers who may have been killed or captured during the invasion, but for now everyone seems happy. The vice principal appeared in the doorway and waved us in. Just as we began to file in the door, I saw Maria and gave her a big smile and wave. I’ll see her before second period.
At the end of the school day, my friends and I were all out in front again, catching up. Wanda was standing nearby, constantly checking her watch. Her parents insisted that she come home right after school, but I knew she didn’t want to walk home alone. I nodded at her, acknowledging that I knew she really wants to leave. Just as we turned to walk home, a jeep full of Russian soldiers came speeding up the street, sending some of us leaping for the sidewalk. One girl tripped over the curb and had to be helped up, her knee bleeding. Damn Russians!
“Sorry I had to ask you to leave,” Wanda said. “My mother will be worried if I don’t come straight home.”
“That’s okay. Why can’t they lighten up the rules a bit, especially if they know you’ll be with a group of friends? We’re old enough now for our parents to begin treating us more like adults.”
“I know. You’re right. It’s worse now with the Russians in control of the city. Maybe if we make plans for a specific outing I could get my mother to agree to let me go. Let me know the next time you have something planned.”
“I’ll do that. It’ll be fun to have you hang out with us.”
We arrived home, and we each turned into our respective buildings. I had a lot of homework to do because the teachers want us to try to make up for all of the time lost while the school was closed. Mother had cookies and milk waiting for me. I’ll never be too old for cookies and milk. It took me the rest of the afternoon to finish all of the homework. After dinner we listened to the radio for a while, catching up on what little news the London station had to broadcast, and then Father switched to his favorite classical music station. It had been a long day, and the music made me sleepy, so I turned in early.
And so went the rest of the week, minus the speeding jeep. My parents said it was okay for me to meet with Maria and Tomas on Friday afternoon. I was surprised that Wanda’s parents gave her permission to join us, but I was glad they did. It’ll be good for Wanda to get out more. We walked toward our favorite café near the park. If it appeared safe for us to be there, we’d stay. If not, we’d find somewhere else to have a snack and hang out. I hadn’t been near the park for several weeks and was very happy to see that, aside from a few store fronts that are still boarded up, it looks much like it had before the war started. I noticed several Russian soldiers patrolling nearby, but they didn’t seem to take an interest in much of anything.
“This is a lovely spot,” Wanda said, surprising us by speaking first. “The park is beautiful in the autumn, especially on a sunny afternoon like today. Is this your regular Friday afternoon hangout?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Unless the weather is bad or the city is being bombed, this is where we like to come. It’s fun to watch people going about their business, not knowing they’re being watched.” Maria knew I was attempting a joke with the bomb comment, but all she could manage was a smirk. I guess it wasn’t funny.
Our tea and biscuits arrived. During the past month, Maria turned sixteen and Tomas turned seventeen, so I proposed a toast to their birthdays. Tea isn’t for toasting, but when you’re sixteen, you have to improvise. We gently clinked our cups and took a sip. We chatted about the events of the past few weeks. Maria’s family received word this week that one of her cousins was captured by the Germans and was transferred to a POW camp in Germany. Tomas’s uncle was a colonel in the infantry. He suffered serious injuries but, with time, is expected to make a full recovery. I told them the story about how Max survived.
“Max actually lived with Jews!” Maria exclaimed. “That must have been terrible.”
“Not as terrible as the fighting and being killed or captured,” I replied. “He said they were very nice people. He thinks they liked having him there since their two sons were off at war. Maybe they hoped that if their sons needed help, someone would take them in.”
“I can’t imagine spending that much time around Jews,” Maria continued. “My father says they're filthy and deceitful. If a Jew ever comes into one of his dry-cleaning stores, he charges him more to clean his clothes because they’re disgusting.”
“Do you actually know any Jews, Maria?” Tomas asked.
“No. And I wouldn’t want to.”
“How can you assume that all Jews are like that when you’ve never even met one?” I asked.
“My parents hate Jews. My grandparents hate Jews. They must have a reason. Besides, look around at the shops. The only shops the Germans destroyed were Jewish-owned. When that many people hate the Jews, there must be a reason.”
I guess Maria has a point, but it still doesn’t sound right to me.
“My mother’s brother married a woman who is half Jewish, and she’s always seemed very nice,” Wanda commented.
“Her Polish blood must be stronger than her Jewish blood,” Maria said.
Tomas made a face. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It makes perfect sense to me. My father told me that can happen.”
“Okay,” I said. “This conversation is getting a little strange. Maybe we need to switch to a new topic.”
“I have one,” Tomas said. “My uncle has a movie projector and a nice collection of movies that he purchased this summer when he was in Warsaw. He’s having a party next Saturday night, and he said I could invite some friends. We can watch movies, make popcorn. It’ll be fun. Would you all like to come?”
“Movies!” I exclaimed. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie. I’ll have to check with my parents, but I’m sure it will be okay as long as Max or my father can walk me there and back.”
“You won’t have to walk back that night,” Maria commented. “Tomas’s uncle lives near me so you can stay over at my house.”
“That sounds like fun,” Wanda said. “I’ll have to ask my parents, though. They'll want your uncle’s name and phone number, if that’s okay.”
Tomas scribbled his uncle’s name and number on a napkin and handed it to Wanda. With that, we finished our tea, and it was time leave. When the check arrived I grabbed it. Maria and Tomas seemed shocked. “My treat,” I said. “Happy birthday.” They both smiled and thanked me. Wanda and I walked off in one direction, Maria and Tomas in another.
“That was a lot of fun,” Wanda said. “You’re right. I do need to get out more. I hope my parents let me attend the party next weekend. I wonder what movies they’ll show.”
As I stepped through the apartment door, my mother was standing right in front of me. “Where have you been? I thought you were coming straight home from school,” she yelled.
“I was at the café with Maria, Tomas, and Wanda, our regular Friday afternoon get-together. Now that we’re back in school I thought you knew that I’d be there. You gave me permission to go.”
“Oh yes, I forgot,” she said, smoothing her apron. “I did say it was okay. Sorry.”
“I should have reminded you this morning. I’m sorry you were worried about me. I’ll make sure to let you know whenever I’m going out.”
She gave me a big hug. “I’m sorry I yelled. I was just worried. You’re a responsible young woman, but there are a lot of things in the world that are out of our control, and we have to be doubly careful nowadays.”
I gave her a kiss on the cheek and we walked into the kitchen to begin preparing dinner. “Speaking of going out,” I said. “Tomas invited Wanda and me to a party next Saturday at his uncle’s house. It’s a movie party. He’ll be showing some movies and making popcorn. It sounds like fun. If Max or Father can walk us over there, Maria said we could spend the night at her house.”
“If you father says it’s okay, you can go.”
“Thank you. It’ll be wonderful to see movies again. It’s been a while. I hope Wanda’s parents let her come. You know how strict they can be.”
It was a quiet weekend. I had a lot of reading to do but I did take a break Saturday afternoon for lunch with Peter. Father was busy trying to find current newspapers. The news we’re getting over the radio is too general for him and has nothing to do with our little part of the world. He quickly realized that the print news wasn’t much better. Max spendt most of his time off with his friends doing who knows what. He’s been working at Uncle Jozef’s law firm for a week now, but I know that he’s only working part-time. The rest of his day is spent at the university library with his “study group.” I’m not sure if my parents knew anything about that. Mother is busy planning her Sunday bible study brunch with her friends. Aunt Rose and a few of their friends loved the idea but all of the planning was left to my mother. She doesn’t mind. Their first meeting is next weekend at Aunt Rose’s house.
Father gave me permission to attend the movie party next weekend. Knowing that was only a few days away made the school week go by faster. The city was surprisingly quiet, at least our neighborhood. We occasionally heard gunfire from the other side of town. Even though it’s far away, Mother still sits and worries until Father and Max return home. She tries not to let them know she’s concerned for their safety, but I think they knew. It’s obvious to me.
Saturday finally arrived. Maria and I cancelled Friday afternoon tea because we knew we’d see each other today. Surprising us again, Wanda’s parents said she could go to the party as long as Max or my father walked us there and back, and Wanda called home when she arrived at the party, when she left the party to go to Maria’s house, and when she left Maria’s house Sunday morning. They still weren’t ready to let her out into the world, but this was a step in the right direction. My father walked us to the party because he wanted to check the newsstands on that side of the town square for any newspapers he hadn’t seen yet.
A lot of people had already arrived for the party. Tomas pointed out his uncle across the room, and we waved. He was still using crutches and had to wear a back brace, but he seemed to be in good spirits. Those of us not old enough to drink alcohol yet had punch, and all of the snacks were just like the ones sold at the movie theater. I went straight for a large bag of popcorn. We finally had a chance to catch up with more friends from school. There never seems to be enough time before and after class. Tomas told me that I could invite Peter so I was keeping an eye on the front door for him. When I saw him arrive I’m sure my face lit up.
“Helena’s in love,” Maria teased.
“I am not. We barely know each other.”
Peter came over and met all of my friends. “You look beautiful,” he whispered in my ear, knowing that would make me blush. He smiled at me.
The call went out for everyone to head down to the basement for the movies. There were chairs and sofas of all shapes and sizes. Maria, Tomas, Peter, and I found a love seat large enough for the four of us. For the first time, I dedn’t feel like a third wheel around Maria and Tomas. I have my own boyfriend with his arm around me. I felt so grown-up.
There was a collective “shh!” as the lights were turned off and the movie started. The first movie was The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, followed by the musical Sweethearts with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Most of the women seemed to like the musical best. I even saw Maria tear up during the romantic scenes. I prefer the action movie with Errol Flynn rescuing everyone who needed rescuing--very exciting. He also wasn’t bad to look at. The movies are in English with Polish subtitles. I understand the occasional English word but had to rely on the subtitles. After the party broke up, Maria, Tomas, Wanda, Peter, and I walked the two blocks to Maria’s house. I’m usually not out this late, and even though it was dark and a little scary, I found myself very alert. Peter and Tomas bid us a good evening and headed home. Maria, Wanda, and I were all tired so we went straight to bed.
The next morning, I heard noises downstairs but didn’t feel like waking up yet. I kept my eyes closed and gave my legs a good stretch. I hadn’t been able to sleep this late in a long time. Suddenly Maria’s mother opened the door. “Helena, hurry and get dressed. Your brother is here to pick you up.”
“What’s the rush? I told him I’d call when I’m ready to go home.”
“Just get dressed. Something’s happened to your mother, and she’s in the hospital. Hurry.”