Saturday, February 8, 2014

Chapter 12

My grandfather was right, of course.  It weren't feelings of friendship toward Polish people that drove the Red Army to "liberate" Poland, and it wasn't about liberation at all; it was a calculated move by Stalin to expand the Soviet empire westward. He (Stalin) must have long expected this outcome - rubber-stamped by the Western powers in the Jalta accord - because whenever an occasion arose to weaken Poland, he grabbed it. Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east mere 15 days after the German invasion on September 1, 1939. Thousands of Polish POWs taken during that invasion -  mostly army officers, but also landowners, priests, and intellectuals - were summarily murdered in the Katyń forest. Years later, when Polish resistance fighters took to the streets of Warsaw to liberate the capital right before the expected arrival of Soviet troops, the Red Army halted its offensive at the other bank of the Vistula river, patiently waiting for the Germans to come back in force and level the city. The fewer of those feisty, young, Polish patriots, the easier it will be to subdue the "Soviet-liberated" country.

It wasn't until much later when I pondered how my Grandpa knew these things. How everybody in Poland seemed to know these things. This clearly wasn't the officially sanctioned version of history. References to Katyń* or to Soviet complicity in the tragic end of the Warsaw Uprising were nowhere to be found, except in the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe, and books smuggled from Western Europe - both suppressed and dismissed as anti-Polish propaganda of the "old regime". I doubt that Dziadzio Miecio had access to either, but the oral versions persisted: in discussions at the dinner table, in prayers and songs at church services ("Before your altars we beg you, oh Lord, return our free fatherland to us."), in occasional graffiti ("We will avenge Katyń") painted at significant risk and hastily erased the next day.

Now we are back at Jurek's home, where his much older sister prepared a simple dinner for us: potatoes with skwarki (fried bacon bits) and white borscht. She's a small, wiry woman of indeterminate age (probably over 80). She looks old and frail, and, like with all old people in villages, her body is permanently bent at the waist at almost 90-degree angle (the truest meaning of "back-breaking labor"), but seems to have a lot of energy left. When she walks - with a cane - she walks briskly, and likes to giggle and drink vodka like a young gal.

"Tell him your secret", her brother tells her with signs of amusement in half of his damaged face.
"What secret?"
"Why, what keeps you going all these years."
"Oh, that. That's no secret. I tell everybody it's  kerosene. I hold my nose and take a big spoonful of it every morning. It has to be pure, though."
Jurek laughs. "That's true. She's been doing that for years. Just don't smoke when she's near, or you will both go boom! Even the Grim Reaper stays away."

It is Friday and on Saturday there will be a big dance party at the local fire station.  All people in the village seem excited about that, although with an underlying worry, especially among the older generations.  This is the only fire station for several surrounding villages, so there will be an influx of "outsiders", and that's asking for trouble.  It is hard to believe how tribal these villagers are. To me they all look, talk, and behave the same, but to them a person from another village is like an alien - difficult to understand and threatening.

Lots of cheap wine will be consumed - vodka being more expensive - and this will lead to boasting and quarrels. Over girls, mostly. Planks from fences will be torn out and broken on the backs or heads of young, drunken men by other young, drunken men. A few ribs will be cracked and front teeth knocked out (to be replaced by golden ones, for those who can afford them; teeth, not ribs, of course). I'm too young and from too far away a planet to be viewed as competition by any of these young studs vying for female attention, so together with other kids I can safely watch the dance party from afar (there is an entrance fee I can't afford), until I get bored and go to sleep in Jurek's house, missing the smell of dry hay.

*The mass graves in the Katyń forest and the evidence of massacre were uncovered by Wehrmacht after the attack on the Soviet Union in Plan Barbarossa. They were dismissed by Soviets as Nazi lies. Whenever Katyń was mentioned in the official history, the Germans were accused of this atrocity, but the preference was to avoid this topic altogether, as it was clearly difficult to explain how the German troops could have operated so far east so early in the war.  It wasn't until 1990's when the Soviets finally admitted having perpetrated this crime.

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