Saturday, January 4, 2014

Chapter 7

It is summer, so I'll be accompanying my grandmother to her village.  She goes there every year - the only one of three sisters who had left the farm. Perhaps out of the obligation to her aging parents, or to help her younger brother establish his footing in farming. Or simply because, having no job in the city, she has nothing better to do.

It is only 100 kilometers, as the crow flies, from Warsaw, but it is quite a trek, requiring at least half a day. First we take a tram to the train station, which is quite a distance from the tramway stop. After two hours on the train we arrive in the city of Dęblin, where we carry our heavy suitcases a mile or so to the bus station. There we wait for the bus to the town of Gniewoszów. May be an hour or more of waiting, but there is a tiny kiosk right by the station, selling newspapers, cigarettes, candy, soap, batteries, postcards, etc. It is where my grandma's sister work, and, if we're lucky, it will be her shift, so she will let me sit inside, watch her interact with customers, and even pass on to her packs of cigarettes from the shelf behind. It is a great way to kill time. I think I want to have my own store when I grow up.

From Gniewoszów, a tiny town that used to be a Jewish shtetl before the war, we have to walk a few miles to Regów Stary, the village where Babcia Bronia grew up.  It's a scenic walk, along a dirt road with giant puddles after a rain, bordered by willow trees and fields on the one side, and a tall, grassy dike on the other.  The village - and other around it - lies on the floodplain of the Vistula river, and the extensive system of dikes, two or three meters high in most places and several meters wide at the base, is the only thing that stands between the river, swollen with melted snow in springtime, and the hundreds of farms eking out meager existence along its banks.

Soviet-style collectivization never took hold in Poland. Perhaps because, by the time Poland became a Soviet satellite after the war, it was already pretty clear what a disaster that had been in the Soviet Union itself, resulting in terrible famines that took the lives of millions of peasants, while failing to make Soviet agriculture efficient enough to feed the rapidly industrializing state.  Perhaps because Poles were reluctant to embrace the ideals of communism, so the newly setup puppet government felt is had to strike a delicate balance between appeasing Stalin and avoiding popular uprising, what with many resistance groups refusing to disarm after the war and making trouble in forests and villages.

There were, of course, attempts at promoting collectivization through the establishment of PGRs (State Agrarian Enterprise, modeled after the Soviet kolchoz) on lands bought or confiscated from individual farmers, and the promotion of farming cooperatives, which farmers could join voluntarily, receiving subsidies and preferential treatment from the state. Those efforts met with indifference or hostility in Polish countryside, where land ownership was something Polish peasantry dreamed of for centuries, having had to work the fields belonging to aristocratic landowners. The communists knew that the best way of winning the staunchly religious and conservative peasants to their side was through land reform - breaking the back of the patriotic and anti-communist Polish gentry by carving their land holdings and handing parcels of 12-20 acres to the peasants. That was their trump card and they played it well. Interestingly, they did not touch the lands belonging to the catholic church - allegedly on Stalin's insistence...

As usual, we find the fenced-in area with farm buildings (house, barn, stables, pigsty, chicken coop) completely deserted, with everybody working the fields. The house is locked with a latch held by a piece of wood - not to prevent theft, since there is nothing to steal, but to keep the animals out - so we can leave our heavy luggage and go in search of them.

The family we're visiting has seven members: my great-grandparents, their son (my grandma's much younger brother), his wife, and their three kids: two boys - one slightly older, the other slightly younger than me - and the much younger girl. They share a log house; in the US it would be called a cabin: two square rooms, each with a wood-burning oven, separated by a tiny mud room and a pantry behind it. There is no plumbing or electricity - the latter will be added several years later, while plumbing will wait till a new, brick house is built in the 1980s.

My great-grandfather built that house himself, with notched logs locking into one another in the corners. Hemp fibers mixed with clay have been used to fill the cracks. Rough plaster, painted very pale aquamarine blue, covers the walls on the inside.  The room my great-grand-parents occupy is very sparsely furnished: one bed with a straw-filled mattress; small wooden table; three chairs; large commode. There are two metal buckets: one with water, one with food waste (to be fed to the pigs).

There is no room for us to sleep there - Granny and I will sleep in the barn, on top of the pile of hay taller than a grown man. I'm actually relieved no to have to sleep in that house. It's the flies that bother me. They are so many, you can't chase them away. They keep landing on my face and arms, drinking my sweat. Their tiny feet seem itchy somehow. You have to watch your spoon while eating, lest you will swallow one of them caught in your soup.

Next day I will go to war with the flies.  Armed with a folded newspaper I will swat at them every time they try to sit on the walls or the furniture. They are not easy to kill - many manage to fly away before the newspaper finds them - but I quickly perfect my technique and pretty soon their squashed bodies start covering the floor.  I'm no longer satisfied killing singles - I pump my fist only when I get two or three at a time, a feat that becomes more difficult as their numbers dwindle. Soon there is only one or two left flying. I'm proud of myself, although I know how futile this is; once people start opening the doors, the flies will again fill the room.

My great-grandmother is not too happy with my handiwork, seeing the walls covered with bloody splotches, and dead flies covering the floor. I make a mental note to limit myself to killing only those on the furniture, where their blood and guts are less visible. And sweep the floor.

One summer we bring a can of Azotox - spray insecticide produced, incidentally, in the large chemical plant up the river. This stuff robs me of the pleasure of hunting and killing the flies, but it is remarkably effective. We close the windows and door and spray it liberally in the air. A few minutes later all the flies are dead, littering the floor, but no splotches. I ask about spraying this in the pigsty, where the dense carpet of flies covers every inch of the walls and ceiling, but receive a firm no; my great-grandparents are concerned about this poison harming their animals.

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