Behind the Iron Curtain
For many decades the imperialists spoke of a barrier between Free World and Eastern Block. A journey to Poland summer 77, a realistic account of people's countrylife: everyone communicating with everybody, happy, natural life, even if somewhat poor.
Behind the Iron Curtain
Fernando García Izquierdo
The century was well advanced when I crossed the Iron Curtain for the first time. No need to go now in great detail about what that crossing represented for me: it did mean a lot. There was at the time a world conflict, called cold, but nonetheless quite destructive, which lasted altogether forty-seven years and, in fact, represented the struggle for survival of a new system of society, called communism.
Even as I drove towards that ‘curtain’, with Nicky by my side, I felt deep in my heart - what a great adventure it was, entering the so-called ‘Eastern Block’! almost as if I were stepping into enemy territory in time of war, Cold War indeed!
I was born in Spain where there was a very hot and very real war which caused a million dead. The then visible head of fascism in my country had called for the extermination of the communists. I remember hearing the monster on the radio, ‘Tenemos que extirpar el virus marxista.’ It is not surprising therefore that, at a certain stage in my career through life, I felt the need to go and see for myself what that virus called ‘marxism’ actually was, empirically, so to say.
Some of my readers may not know what the expression ‘iron curtain’ means; for it is no longer used. It was coined by that great humbug called Churchill, just when the war against fascism had been won by the peoples of the earth and a new era of peace and civilisation was about to commence. He had been sent packing by the British electorate, and his pal Truman, who had been made president of the United States of America, finding him out of employment, I suppose, invited him to spend a few days in the State of Missouri, where the two men spoke of the wealth of nations, capital accumulation in the west and all those things named finance and freedom and democracy. Old Sir Winston, whose hands were not so clean after long years of soldiering in India, South Africa, Ireland. Greece, etc., spluttered at the meeting that the Soviet Union and its Satellites were dirty and were to be cut off normal commerce among civilised nations, henceforth. He called it building ‘an iron curtain’.
Be that as it may, there we were (my wife and I) driving along the highways of the west and on, through Helmstedt the frontier town, into communist Germany, first, and farther east. We had our camping gear with us, and plenty of Coca-Cola and tinned food, so that we wouldn’t starve; we could stop wherever we wanted for the night, and on again.
On the third day of our adventure we arrived at Nojewo, the village of our destination. The reader need not search for this village in his or her map. It will not be found easily, in any case, not even in a Polish map. It is situated in the centre of a province which the German Nazis transformed upon occupation in the thirties into a lander of their own, so-called ‘Posen’. The way to reach the village is to head for a small town called Wronki and drive south, about fifteen miles on the local road and there it will appear, a mere hamlet, to tell the truth. It doesn’t even possess a little church, which for such a catholic country is quite surprising.
I have forgotten to say that, in the place near Paris where we lived, we had a lovely neighbour, called Frannie Nowasick, born in Nojewo at the beginning of the century, who had emigrated, in the period between the two world wars, with hundreds of thousands of her starving compatriots, to northern France, there to earn a living in the mines. She was now a widow, who having heard we planned to drive east, asked us please to visit her younger sister Aniela, and perhaps take some ‘cadeaux’ over. We were surprised and pleased, a fortnight or so after that, to receive by post a formal invitation to stay with the family. That turned out well for me, for I had decided to go into ‘communist territory’ in order to live in the land with the people, away from the madding crowd. I shall add that, my wife being a teacher of languages, and being myself keenly interested in the field of foreign languages, we went into Poland already with a modicum of the Polish language (which we learned in three months), and now carried with us the necessary dictionaries and grammar books. A devilish language, Polish, if I am allowed to say so, with declensions and conjugations hard to disentangle for a new student; therefore we learned by heart quite a few essential nouns and adjectives and a number of verbs to be utilised exclusively in the infinitive form, and hoped for the best. At least (this we found later) Polish is a wonderfully clear language to the ear and easy to write.
When we arrived at the village, it being nearly harvest-time, and the family we were visiting being in the main farmers and farm-hands, the place was at that hour deserted; not only the house, which was open to whomsoever wished to go in, but practically the whole village. However someone must have seen us and run to the fields to tell, for Aniela quickly appeared all excited and out of breath; and we began the usual formal rite of presentations, calls, smiles, kissing one another and so on. And I need not emphasise that my spirit fell to the ground seeing I understood not a word of what the other party said.
The rest of the family arrived in pairs or one by one. We had dinner when all the sons and daughters (and some other relatives besides) were there.
Valenty Bilski, the old father, had worked in his youth in France, but had returned to the old country with some money and bought a farm in Nojewo, where he met Aniela, who in turn was the owner of a piece of land, her brothers and sisters all having left in order to live abroad. Valenty had been clapped into a concentration camp in 1939, with the German occupation, leaving Aniela to fend for herself, until with the liberation by the Red Army, land and freedom were restored, and the couple lived happily thereafter. Zygmunt, Begunia, Ala and Ryczu soon came to constitute little by little a numerous and very happy family. During the evening of our arrival the elder son’s wife Lidia and their little daughter Anya also came to have dinner with us. As well as Marian, the elder daughter’s fiancé and the boyfriend of the younger Andrej.
The eighteenth century writer Laurence Sterne said that a person ‘who interests his heart in everything and has eyes to see what time and chance are perpetually holding out to him as he journeys on his way’ is a trully sentimental traveller.
Very well! (I say) but what about the one who remains in his (her) place and watches the travellers passing by? In the Polish village of Nojewo that first evening, and many evenings thereafter, we all wanted to know, we who reached the village and the people who were there. And we talked. There was communication.
When I was a school boy I used to play football with my friends of the road outside Madrid, stopping the game now and then to watch the vehicles pass by. Once two Englishmen, riding big motorbikes, stopped to ask for some directions. That was for us divination. We asked them about London. Whether there were illuminations in the streets? what did the English eat? did the children in that faraway country play football with ragballs or were there cheap rubber ones in the shops?
The same all over the world, I suppose: we all want to know. One of the Londoners sent me (as he had promised) a postcard, of the London I was dreaming of, which I still have. Leslie Roberts is the name, Leytonstone.
In Nojewo that night, and many nights after that, our new friends wanted to know about the world, which many had not seen. The country where we lived. Were there beautiful street-lights? It is always the same.
Someone asked Nicky about Galeries Lafayette. Was it true all that about the neon lights? the abundance and variety of goods on the shelves? and what about some establishments being open till so late at night? and whether people moved about purchasing what they liked? was there plenty of money in France? And my wife was telling them in reply, quite candidly, all she knew about the affluent Parisian people, even the Renault workers having access to all kinds of commodities, of course you could buy everything over in France. And I put in, to add a little malice to a fantastic picture, that the streets were so full of vitality that you could stroll in them at night, till almost daylight, and would be all the time freely sollicited by streetwalkers, at all hours. ‘Streetwalkers,’ Ala, the younger sister, asked, ‘what is that?’ She was twenty and worked in a office in Samotuly, a market-town. Ryczu, a youngster of nineteen, had hardly ever left Nojewo, unless it was to go to one of the nearby market-towns or the capital of the region, Poznan. He was the one left to help his parents on the family farm; for two of the others worked in the collective farm.
When we woke up the next morning, and went back to the main room for breakfast, several members of the family were there to wish us ‘good morning’. There was a surprise for me, for I am very timid regarding what I think may be dangerous (new) food. Aniela had gone out into the woods at six to gather wild mushrooms. She had prepared some wonderful omelets which I ate with apprehension. I couldn’t help it. And we all drank tea from the samovar, and helped ourselves to wholemeal bread and homemade sausages. Also homemade jams of all sorts, and milk and honey. I frankly had not eaten so much and so healthy a variety of natural produce in all my life. And that was our daily breakfast, ‘petit déjeuner’ they say in France.
We worked in the fields with our friends, the parents and young Ryczu, specially. Voilà a tall handsome boy of nineteen, full of life, who was a wonderful motor-mechanic, besides. At times some other members of the family helped too. At harvest-time we came down with the women to tie the sheaves and build the stacks of wheat on a rather inclined terrain, not too large though. (‘It’s great fun!’ Nicky exclaimed.) For we talked and laughed and sang while working, and when we rested to have a drink or a bite of something, we talked and learned little by little a bit of Polish: Valenty’s French came back and he helped us tremendously.
I thought of the days long long ago when I went to my mother’s village, also in the summer, and became a farm labourer with my uncles and cousins. Ryczu was my inseparable companion now. He wore his blond dishevelled hair long, like any youth in the west. And it was of the west that he always engaged in conversation. ‘Yes, it’s true,’ I told him. There were long dual-carriage highways, with three or four lanes either way. Could anyone drive a lorry for big corporations? How much did a driver earn? Of course, I always replied yes! What could I have said? All was true. A driver? Naturally, you were free there to choose, to go drive those trucks all day if you chose. The corporation would like that. The roads were full of gigantic trucks, and probably the drivers earned a lot. At times it seemed to me that was his greatest ambition in life, to join a transport corporation as an international driver, move about, see places, be free. (I learned much later that his dream was fulfilled; that he became a ‘routier international’; that he criss-crossed the net of European highways from north to south, from east to west. I had thought to myself: ‘Will he have been able to see Lisbon, Paris, Vienna and other beautiful places?’ I had heard him sigh so deeply, then, in the fields of the family farm! For not long ago, Paulette, Frannie Nowasik’s daughter, her mother having passed away, told me he had died in a hospital in Hamburg, not yet twenty-five. I think she said of aids.)
When I really examine my feelings, look deep into my heart now (and probably I thought the same thirty years ago) I feel pity for my Polish friends and the people of central and eastern Europe generally. It has been known for a long time (Dickens already points it out) that we are poisoning the very air we breath. And yet, our betters talk to us of progress, industry, innovation, capital. They have always done so.
I am plainly convinced that with the Russian Revolution an attempt to a new era of history had been tried, had commenced. In my younger years, simple as an outsider, I had hoped (when I crossed that border at Helmstedt, for instance) that I would be seeing the Holy Graal, surging from where life is fermenting in the planet. What a pity.
I had my dollars, travellers’ cheques, banknotes of the free prosperous world, franks, marks and pounds… What right did I have to enter (as I thought) the land of communism, a supposed new society, to live with the people and become a judge? to judge anything, any aspect of what I was seeing, imagining, dreaming… were they doing this or that successfully or unsuccessfuly, or what did I know? I am today crying over my keyboard as I try to write about the Nojewo I saw.
Nicky wanted us to go to Poznan to buy a collection of records, music by Chopin and others, and I remembered we had to get more local currency, zloty. As we sauntered along a narrow silent lane, having parked the car round the corner, I heard a military march. We came out into a tree-lined avenue and there we saw a colourful parade of majorettes in mini-skirt, complete with golden batons and white gold-trimmed top-hats. They all were pretty and, allow me to use this word, natural. More natural and fresh-looking than ever I had hoped to see in a crew of girls performing this hundred-percent American-art.
We got the records and went for the zloty.
When we came (speaking French) out of the official exchange bureau, having sold some foreign currency, a tall cheeky-looking fellow approached me to ask if I wanted to sell my franks, or dollars for that matter, at the greatly advantageous rate he offered. I said I’d never in my country exchanged money in the street. ‘Oh, these things are better organised in France,’ he grinned. ‘In this country Party robs you in the exchange.’ ‘Ah yes, I agree,’ said I, ‘much better. You ought to see the pavements of Boulevard Saint Michel at midday crowded with smooth-going exchange joints full of business one and all.’ ‘You see,’ the fellow said in conclusion, ‘freedom of choice.’
We went on, looking for the cathedral now, to be able to admire works of art, as we were wont to do when we first visit a city. We pushed the door open when we arrived and stepped in. My eyes at once were gladdened by the sight of three birdlike creatures in black, perched on the right side of the last row of benches. They were seminarists in long robes. Had they just been two (instead of three) I would have thought my eye-sight was failing and that I was seeing double. They were identical in their ‘soutanes’, pale faces and white hands, which were placed together, in an attitude of fervorous prayer.
We had entered the place with the sole purpose of sightseeing, of course, but were all the same surprised to see that in such a catholic country no holy mass was being celebrated and in fact no one was to be seen there, apart from the three scholars on their knees on the last row of benches.
Not five minutes had passed, however, and we still were viewing and admiring statues of christs, virgins and saints, when we perceived at some distance the sound of voices, like of someone murmuring. On entering a small profusely ornamented chaple, on the left side of our aisle, we saw an old priest in soutane talking in an undertone to about a dozen rather ancient people, fewer men than women, I reckoned. I thought I recognised the ecclesiastic: a round reddish face, narrow brow full of wrinkles, narrow blue eyes, mean little mouth and that white crop of hair on top. I am sure he was dribbling. Of course I wouldn’t have been able to understand his discourse, even if he had been shouting. But it hurt me that the old chap pretended not to notice our presence and at the same time stopped the sermon short; while we, on purpose, took some time to admire the chaple before going out. At any rate, we never heard the continuation of the priest’s sermon.
It rained cats and dogs the whole afternoon and we drove back to Nojewo with only one screenwiper. The one for the driver broke down. Imposible to get a Peugeot spare part if we cross Poland from east to west and north to south. I had been warned by my garagist about that. So what was to be done?
The following day was a Saturday, and Ryczu offered to help. Soon Marian (his elder sisters’ fiancé) and Andrej, Ala’s boyfriend, joined in the operation. Believe it or not, they solved the problem. A spare part was manufactured. The three worked all that day, and the missing part came out of a small metal cylinder, the three labouring hard, first at the lathe, and then with other tools: and the broken windscreenwiper was repaired.
Ryczu was his father’s farmhand there, and Marian was also a private farmer in Wróblewo, and the other young man was a worker in a factory or big garage, I’m not sure. We got to know the three and some more youngsters well that summer. We gathered white cherries (it was the first I saw such fruit) in an orchard. We also went with the young people in the woods: there were many birch-trees almost everywhere. One Saturday we walked among the silver birches as the sun rose. I remember we had a bathe that morning in a lovely small lake, surrounded by the lofty trees. (‘Swan lake,’ I thought to myself.) All the young people from the extended family were there, men and women. I felt old, by the side of the fresh, athletic youth, even as I looked at Nicky, swimming in what was rather shallow water.
I can still see with my mind’s eye that chunk of forested land we crossed, going back to the farm, everybody keen on teaching us the language as we strolled along (some even making a special effort always using the infinitive, and avoiding that terrible complication of declensions and so on.)
If I had to describe these promenades through the forested land, with the sun’s rays filtering through the healthy young silver-coloured trunks, I would simply use one word: idyllic.
One day I did not go out to the fields with Valenty and the others, harvesting, my lovely wife being in the party of farmhands. The wedding between Marian and Bugunia was to take place in a few days. There were to be previously some parties, mostly young men. Ryczu was to stay home all day transforming an old abandoned stable into a celebration-room, and I offered to do the job myself. He was an indispensable worker, driving the tractor and in fact leading the work in the fields.
I was, in consequence, alone in the farm with a brush in my right hand and a pot of paint in the other, taking a pause from my work, looking at the lively courtyard (lively because it was full of domestic animals), when a man on a motorbike suddenly made his appearance with great noise. He put the brake on (just where we parked our car), jumped upon the muddy ground and cried, ‘Good morning!’ Not being usually a quick fellow, all that took me by surprise. ‘Good morning, sir,’ I answered,’ how do you do?’ We went on talking in English, he asking about ‘the others’ and so forth. Suddenly, the man exclaimed, with a strange grunt, in Polish what I took meant awakening from a dream. And I no longer understood him.
Afterwards we became great pals. And he related his story. He was Australian (indeed as I was), and had just come from New South Wales. Aniela and he were engaged to be married when nazism triumphed in neighbouring Germany, in the thirties. Before the invasion Mietik (that was his name), who was of the Hebrew religion, escaped for his life without saying a word to anyone. Finally he landed in Australia, where he married a Scottish girl and had a family. He never even sent a card to his adored fiancée back in the home country, forgotten for evermore; and had never had the time or inclination to return, until that very day, not even for a visit, as he was doing now.
The Bilski family killed their fattest pink pig that summer, some days before the wedding. The reader should have heard the poor fellow’s shrieks as he was forcibly led to the place (he guessed) of martyrdom. They lasted a long time those cries. I heard them from my bed, as I got up in the morning. The slaughter of an innocent! He was already dead when I saw him. A family affair that then lasted the whole day. Nicky and I watched the lot, working with some help from outside, labouring hard and some of them with their hands smeared with blood: the butcher himself, all the women of the family, going in and out of the farmyard, always with buckets and containers, sometimes knives and other instruments, spices and so on.
About the butcher, I should say that he was red-complexioned and very fat, with tiny blue eyes very close together in his round jovial face. He more than anybody else was in possession of a collection of big kitchen-knives and other terrible instruments. He wore a beige short-sleeved shirt and large trousers which he held in position by means of a pair of broad fairly clean braces. He had nailed, with Ryczu’s help, the body of his victim on one of the walls of the farmyard, and though a big bucket underneath was full of bubbling blood when I arrived, the muddy ground was then turning dark-red from black. The belly of the poor pig was slashed open, from top to bottom, and all the innards had already been taken out. It must have been a real butchery.
The big pot-bellied hangman ended up absolutely covered with blood, even his broad braces, and his apron, which must have been black when he started, had become red. And his ‘lenina’, or proletarian cap, which had attracted at once my attention because I also possessed one (which I had bought in Poznan, all green and velvety) looked dirty and ugly. But never mind his appearence, he was very nice; he acknowleged me with a broad smile, probably wondering who this funny-looking element was doing there, so different from the others.
To close this bloody chapter, let me add that the women of the family, with the help of Ryczu, produced those days an abundant array of sausages, which the Poles adored, and for which they use one magic word: ‘kielbasa’, or some thing of the like sonority.
Bugunia’s wedding was not the only one to be celebrated that summer in Nojewo and surrounding villages. Lidia and Zygmunt took us to another one which took place nearby. We had become quite intimate with this lovely couple, despite the difference of age. I say ‘lovely’, but also intelligent, friendly, natural and very handsome, both of them. He was an agronomical engineer in the collective farm nearby, and she was a dental assistant. He took us in his ‘Lada’, only to wish happiness to the (for us unknown) wedded couple. We soon left, however, and I wondered whether our friends had just wanted to show us what the word ‘community’ meant in their country. For I thought during those few minutes that I was seeing a representation of ‘Camacho’s Wedding’, which Cervantes thus describes in his book: ‘In short the whole provision was indeed country-like, but plentiful enough to feast an army.’ It was a village wedding too.
I did not see any army exercises in Poland, by the way, as I had seen in Spain, long ago. Never mind, in this wedding near Nojewo where our friends took us, the guests were legion. It was being celebrated in the open air among trees and many lights were flickering between leaves and branches: this was what made me think of don Quijote and Sancho (the abundance of trees) when we entered uninvited in the midst of a large crowd celebrating: so many tables all around, under so many leafy trees. The people, it seemed to me, were in a state of absolute felicity: talking, eating, drinking, dancing and singing. The sound of conversation in Polish already sounded to me quite familiar.
As for our friend’s wedding ceremony, it took place in Poznan. There were two, I remember, the first one was at nine in the town hall, and the other much later on in a big church. The Poles attached great importance to such things. I could not conceive why, in a communist country, there was the need for a religious ceremony. Let me add that in the civil one the Mayor married the bride in bright sky-blue; while before the old priest, later on, she was in a long white dress with a trail, a long veil fixed on top with the help of a golden crown and long gloves, with which she held in her hands a multicoloured bunch of flowers.
In the meantime, while these things were happening in the provincial capital (I left before the ceremomies were over), in the village there were celebrations of another type.
I recall having seen popular marches traversing for hours all the streets and lanes of Nojewo (I say popular for the music certainly conveyed a feeling reflecting the traditions of the people) and a long row of animated men, women and children were seen, preceded by a not very professional band. A tall drummer was leading the parade, a big baton in his right hand which he continually banged on an enormous drum, hanging on the side with straps; then came a man with an accordeon which he carried also with straps, resting on his fat belly; and there followed a thin fellow blowing on the saxophone (I try to remember there was also a violin player.)
When the newly married couple came back to Nojewo, there was a great hullabaloo of well-wishers. Then all the wedding guests were lined up together, along a long hedge of trees, for a panoramic photo of the occasion. It was taken by a professional photographer who had lived in communist Germany and brought back a big camera made in Jena.
I also took a snap with mine, but much though I went backward retracing my steps I could not get them all in one picture. Nevertheless I have counted, in this one photo, between one hundred and one hundred and fifteen persons invited to the wedding. Now, if I have counted over one hundred, there must have come to Marian’s and Begunia’s wedding dinner easily one hundred and fifty, seeing the professional guy made a much wider photo.
When the people dispersed in the sunshine and everyone began chatting, congratulating and kissing the bride once more, there was a show of vitality that I liked. There was colour too. Among the youngsters’ attire, specially, you saw a great variety of styles and hues. There were elegant dresses among the women, young and old, even if my preference went to the young ladies, in their new ankle-length dresses. Ala was in canary yellow, Lidia wore a long orangy satin dress shining like the sun, perfectly fitting her body. The men too. Brand new, bright suits, all of them with large bow-ties, sometimes with designs and queer patterns, polka dots in one case at least. So modern, those long-hairs, like in the West. Nobody could have said that there was no freedom of choice in Poland!
The bridegroom’s father, Casimir, although respectably dressed in black, in his quality of mayor in a municipality (Wróblewo), wore a large waistcoat of silvery hue and flower-patterned. I observed all this because he danced with my wife, after the meal.
At mid-afternoon the village assembly-hall was full of animated noisy people. The dinner was about to commence. I observed, as I entered the hall, that the tables were all laid with crockery, cutlery and, specially, several hundred glasses that seemed, to me, made of pure crystal. I say ‘specially’ because of what I am going to relate now. I thought there were no more glasses left in the village. During the days preceding the wedding, whenever a person of the strong sex entered a certain house in the village, he was invited to drink a glass of vodka and then had to proceed to smash the glass against a wall, the floor underneath literally covered with bits of broken glass.You could be seated at a table facing the windows and the street or, the other side, facing the entrance and some large paintings of no great artistic value. I was near the windows, facing the crowd. There they were, the bride and bridegroom and persons of quality, such as the respective parents of the newly-married, godfather and godmother and several others. A handsome wedding-cake, lofty and large, was standing nearby.
Aniela was quick to change her place, moving to the other end of a long table. In conversation with the bridegroom’s mother, she was thanking God for the success of the celebrations these days of clear weather and excellent sunshine. And Maria, Marian’s mother, very seriously advanced the opinion that it was due to the change of moon. The husbands, in their turn were talking about the harvest. And so on.
No need however to go into a detailed description of the number and the quality of the many guests attending the celebration, or the beauty of the young women, all so natural and free, all pretty, always fresh and rosy-cheeked, the majority without much make-up.
Nor shall I try to describe the food and drink, the superabundance of everything in this respect, vegetables and meat. Not for nothing had we sacrificed that beautiful howling pig which I saw nailed to a wall three days ago, the largest in the pigsty. And there was a considerable amount of puddings too, sweets of all kinds, very much like those you see at a British child’s party, jellies of all colours and consistency, blanc-mange and so forth.
There were as well some speeches, as is usual in celebrations of this kind. The first to speak was of course the bridegroom, red-faced and rather fat, still with that immense white rose in his left lapel and his white bow-tie. His speech was short and, as far as I am concerned, could have been in Chinese. Not only was he mumbling but I, even at that stage, understood Polish only when my interlocutor went very slowly and voluntarily distorted his own language to try to make it clear to me. And the same when other speakers took their turns. I think I had already drunk too much, in any case.
One person I did understand (I’ll explain why) was the priest who sanctified the union, and I recognised him at once. For I had seen him in the cathedral, poisoning the sheepish old people whom I saw, sitting at his feet, the day Nicky and I went to Poznan. The reverend ecclesiastic spoke mostly of himself, making a show of humility, as the confirmed hypocrite he was. He had just had a most successful holiday in the Free World, he said.
‘Don’t be afraid!! There is money, I tell you my dear parishioners, plenty of it. My recent journey took me to Frankfurt and I shall explain,’ he went on, his round red face glowing with enthusiasm, ‘that the trip was a success. I managed there to exchange my zloty, plenty of them.’
‘Some amongst you, my dear children,’ he went on, speaking with an affected drawl, ‘know I was born in Pszczyna. I could not fail, in consequence, to pay a visit to the descendant of the Junker of the Castle. My parents were the butler and the housekeeper of the Seigneur of Pszczyna in times gone by. One of the oldest families in Europe, I’m telling you.’
I was accompanied at table by Mietik, the Australian Jew who was, like myself, laughing between the teeth. It was thanks to this Australian, who was translating simultaneously what we heard, that I understood all. At any rate, the priest spoke very clearly and calmly.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he solemnly began, ‘I’am going to touch, my dear parishioners, on one aspect of the trip which has a lot of relevance with this very correct, very catholic wedding we are celebrating here today, God Almighty be praised for it. Don’t be afraid, my loving brothers and sisters, to venerate God and mention the word Freedom. I have been in the Free World for over a fortnight, wonderful, to be sure. Not surprising, therefore, that my apostolic mission should have taken me to Frankfort, for I had to pay my respects to the descendant of the Princes of Pszczyna, a most important banker in Frankfurt. I was so pleased, my dear parishioners, what happiness! Pleased with the reception I received from the honorable man. A gifted banker, I’m telling you. And a real gentleman. Much respected in the realm of finance and society in general, not only by his compatriots, I mean, but by the Americans too: the things he does to contribute to the succesful employment of capital and the development of the Free World!’
‘To make a long story short,’ the reverent old man concluded, narrowing his blue eyes and passing a well-ironed white handkerchief over his purple mouth (his lips were moist with spittle), ‘that very respected honoured banker took a liking for me; he embraced me and often said that we must be related in our ancestors… and guess what? he placed a large Mercedes at my disposal for those days, and listen to this!, with a chauffeur, nothing less. You cannot imagine how many places I then saw of that clean and superbly rich and prosperous country. I saw places, my word! The beautiful surroundings of that capital, and the city itself, the opera house, the palaces where the aristocracy (I was told) used to celebrate, and still celebrate those splendid musical night parties.’ He cleaned his lips of spittle once more. ‘Last but not least, they took me to visit the stock-exchange in action one morning! What a divine moment! I had hoped that, at least once in a life-time, I might enjoy such an experience’.
At midnight the festivities in the Nojewo municipal hall were still going on, but at a greatly reduced pace. My wife had left long ago, as most women had. Some of the strong handsome youngsters of two or three hours earlier were now absolute wrecks. Some of the oldies too were dead drunk. The first to fall down had been Heinrik (married to Barbara, Marian’s sister), whose nice face was smeared with all sorts alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. I felt pity for him, such a handsome guy lying unconscious under a table. Ryczu and Andrej were not in a better shape. And I saw a man whom I particularly liked unconscious on a bench, sitting like a statue in a corner. It was Franek, Lidia’s father, the only real communist I met that summer, as far as I could at first sight determine. Some five years older than myself, he was definitely a knowledgeable person. He was politically conscious and I don’t think he had ever ‘been afraid’. On the contrary.
He had fought during the second world war and taken part with the Red Army in the liberation of his country from nazism in forty-five. He had, at nineteen, joined the navy in Gdynia. When the Germans invaded his part of the country, he had escaped in his Polish warship to Leningrad, where he had become a communist. He had never forgotten, he told me, on which side of the political barrier he was, as a Pole and as a man.
I couldn’t have abandoned him, for I understood right away that he was in a real pickle. There was no one of his family there to take care of him. Not many people in any way were left who weren’t drunk. So, I woke him up and offered to accompany him home. He held on to my shoulder, and we went out into the street. I would have taken him in my car, but in my present state I couldn’t have driven for the life of me. The provincial road would have taken me there in ten minutes; but as it could not be, I let him pass his right arm round my shoulder and neck, and we took a short cut through a little wood I knew well. Luckily it was a moonlit night and we trudged along the narrow path between the birch-trees. We hardly exchanged a word or two the whole trip; indeed, though he managed to move his legs and take steps, one by one, I feared he was going to collapse on me any moment. However, all is well that ends well, and I did hand him over successfully to his wife, who had come home from the wedding at ten, with little Anya, their grandchild.
I went back to Nojewo. Julianna had offered me a bed, if I wanted to stay till morning, but I couldn’t accept the invitation: Nicky might get worried, I said.
For a few moments I heard the clanking of my shoes on the tarred road till I again entered the wood. Then, full of apprehension, I heard my squelching footstep on the muddy path among the shiny silver-birches. And the moon, whose rays reached me through the thin trunks of the trees, rendered everything more mysterious, black and white. I began to think of the things that had happened during the day, and passed on to consider the recent events of my life, the ruin that my existence had become after so many years of hard work, for nothing. And I thought of the state of the world. I was not satisfied. It all had become so incomprehensible for me, of late.
‘Historical materialism’ I said to myself I know not why. It often happens to me now. I say something. What? I ask. I doubt. The things I had believed in, intellectually, without really knowing why, then, empirically, had looked different. I was very tired in any case at that moment, and wanted to go to sleep. The ideas about the existing horrors everywhere, suffering humanity, and so on, now meant nothing. Wars and destruction, yes, were there. In my head. Millions of acres of jungle, primeval land, being destroyed all over the planet. That was the prime worry. Development. I gazed at the trees right and left. I had crossed that little wood for the first time one day at dawn, with Nicky and many others, all younger than us, to go and have a bathe in a perfectly pure little lake. How would this look at night, if I turned left on that path… right on that other? Oh, I felt I was going mad… too drunk, perhaps. And then…
I frankly do not know why my thoughts went on to the Royal National Park, south of Sydney, to a period of many years past. There was a big fire, all over the Park, thousands and thousands of square acres. We crossed that forest a fortnight or so after it. Everything had been burned to cinders, hundreds and hundreds, perhaps thousands and thousands of square miles. Yet, several years afterwards, we had seen those same hills covered with lofty eucalypts which had been restored to life after an extraordinary long season of torrential rains, or perhaps it was decades afterwards. Never mind. Matter and Mouvement, that is all. Producing Life. Producing Reason. Nature will always triumph in the end.
I arrived safely back at the farm, and walked into the courtyard. Everything was quite visible, even at night, because of the moon. In the middle of the yard, our precious car which had stayed there since our return from Poznan. The Peugeot agent who had sold it to us had advised us to buy ‘beige métallisé’, and it now truly gleamed in the moonlight like gold. Beyond there were stables and sheds, one big door, and several bigger ones, a multitude of little windows. The houses I was looking at were glowing. Some of the windowpanes were broken. And there in the night, on one of the walls, I saw the bloody black marks of the big pig we had slaugtered, all to be converted in kielwasy, which had been devoured in the festivities of the day.
But what attracted my attention was a really beautiful young foal trotting and trotting round and round our poor car. I knew that Nicky would have been worried, if she had been with me, less the foal scratch it. I smile, lucky Nicky sleeping in her bed. I too would be sleeping there in a moment. There was not a sign of life in the farm. Only that beautiful foal, red-coated and with the mane and tail perfectly blond beneath the moon.