The following is an extract from a conversation I recorded in 1939 in the outskirts of Poznan, Poland. At the time, orders to go to the front-line had just been given and despite being conscripted as a Grenadier in the 3rd Battalion, I immediately fled from the camp.
Being an aspiring journalist, I was in the habit of carrying a recorder with me, filling countless tapes with conversation, which I felt would, at some point, be of meaning. Due to lack of resources, I recorded over many of these tapes as the years passed. The conversation I am transcribing below is one such instance.
I have rewritten it, remaining as faithful to the recording as possible. I have chosen to not recreate the missing minutes from memory, as genuineness is more important than completeness at this stage. My only editorial imposition is the fabrication of my interlocutor’s name, as well as the names of those discussed, for the sake of their privacy.
Poznan, 1939, Afternoon
Cezar Wozsliew: My mother used to say the same! She would always be knitting sock after sock, and make me wear them all together. I kept telling her to just knit one pair of very fat socks, but she believed that having multiple layers was more efficient. Anyway, I’m grateful to her all regardless. If you could see how many of my comrades have lost fingers and toes due to frostbite, whereas my feet rarely even got wet! Thankfully I was given boots 3 sizes too large, which accommodated for all the socks!
Babcia Jadwiga: All mothers are the same, aren’t they? I would also knit for hours, the needle piercing my flesh. I still have the marks, you know. Here, do you see them? I would always sit by the window, competing with the drops of the rain. Would my stitch find its end before the drop met the window’s ledge? First for my husband, then for his son. My husband made it back. His medals, of all colours and shapes, cover the wall above the fireplace. Those pieces of bronze even outlived our son. No matter how warm the socks are, it might just not be enough. They tell you that it is, so that mothers who knit socks for their sons make it through the night. My son’s boy would now be your age and I would not be here. I would be by my window. At least, I am not in that state of constant restlessness. To have gone through the greatest sorrow of them all... You are certain that nothing can exceed this pain and that everything will be a bit more tolerable. Yesterday, I even had a dream. Are you dreaming, my dear boy?
Wozsliew: [Pause] I am, but I try not to. I have a fiancé, you see, but it has been nearly a year since I last saw her. We had bought an apartment in Gdańsk, just two weeks before I was conscripted, and she went on ahead to make sure everything was in order. She’s a secretary as well, and her job was starting, so she couldn’t take the time off to come see me at the camp. Her parents live in Reszel… you know Reszel? They needed financial support; her father is old, and the shop they own no longer makes much money, so she had to work all day and night. I wouldn’t want to stop her from working just to see me. Łucja, her name is Łucja [Tn: Łucja means ‘bright’ in Polish]… you cannot imagine how bright her smile is! I dream about her every night. Always the same. The walks we took down the streets, the way the light would hit her face as she dragged me along, turning every so often to laugh for no reason at all. It’s these moments that stay with you… the ones you’re not even sure happened. I can’t remember my first night with her… nor the day we met. They’re just a blur in my memory. But I can hear her laughter and see her smile every time I close my eyes…
Babcia Jadwiga: Łucja, you said? Such a beautiful name! Why don’t you write to your girl? It would be good for her, good for you, too. When my husband left for the front, I was only eighteen years old. Imagine that, we had been married for two weeks and I had to wait for him for almost two years. But I wrote to him once a week. It was a small ritual of mine, like the socks, if you’d like. I would take pages from old school notebooks and once filled, I would fold them in four so that they could fit in those tiny envelopes that our village’s shop would only sell. I would describe every moment of my week, and like that, I could imagine that he had spent them with me, that they somehow became a common memory of ours. I expected my letters to soothe his soul, as well. And they would have, if they ever reached him. But I was very young and had never sent a letter before – did not really know how to do it, either. So, on the back of the envelope, I would only write: For my husband, in the front of Przemyśl. Then, I would sign with my name, Jadwiga, and drop the letter in the letterbox that used to exist at the end of the village’s road. At least, I must have made the poor postman laugh. And you, oh you have the great honour of talking with the woman that made a postman laugh amidst the war that would end all wars.
Wozsliew: [Laughs] You’re not wrong, Grandma, don’ t worry, I write to her often enough, and she responds too, so I must be doing something right! But to tell you the truth it’s not the same, writing a letter, and speaking to her. There’s only so much one can put in writing, and some issues are too important to be broached on paper. There’s always the danger of misunderstanding, you see, and it’s hard to communicate when you can’t see the other person’s reactions. Perhaps that’s the hardest. The more I feel I need to talk to her, the more forced I feel my letters become. And this satisfies me even less, so the need to speak to her becomes even greater.
She acts as though everything is fine too when she speaks to me, but how can it be? She will barely be getting by without me to help with the bills, and her parents don’t make enough to send much support. But she doesn’t want to upset me, the same way I don’t want to upset her. So we carry on sending each other letters, knowing that we’re conversing with a wall, and that any response we get is simply what the other believes we want to hear. Still… there is some solace in all this. It’s not the contents of the letter that I look forward to nowadays, but the letter itself. The thought that she sat down and made up a story to keep me happy. I’m sure she feels the same. That’s why we keep it up.
Babcia Jadwiga: Look at you, all romantic and poetic all of a sudden. And why not be, you’ll ask. Oh well, I cannot answer to that. Or rather I cannot give you an answer that will make any sense to your young head, up there in the clouds, right now. But I shall say that one thing to you and your little machine there and listen to me carefully – the sky is vast, boy, and roads with no ends are not to be walked for long.
From my house, you can reach the other side of the village through two paths. The first is the peripheral road, this is the one you must have taken from the front, this big road, with oaks on its sides. Some people say that if you walk on it for a moon, you will arrive to the capital, to the big city. I am not sure about it, a whole month sounds too long, but it is a very big road, a vast one I could even say. But do I ever use it? No. I like this other path, through the narrow cobbled streets of our village. I walk down those streets and I pass by the church and the seamstress’s shop. And the building of the village’s council – both the old and the new – and the house of my friend, Anastazja, who also lost her son in the war. And each one of those places makes me feel at home. They are small ends in themselves, which I would not have achieved, if I have chosen the other path, where I would only have vastness look back at me. Vastness is tiring.
Wozsliew: Perhaps you are right. I have found myself feeling like that in the past few months. But it is not the vastness which is tiring. It is the emptiness, walking down a path with only trees for company, and knowing that somewhere, albeit far in the distance, there lies a cobbled street with shops and houses. At the same time however, once on the path, this ‘big road’ you speak of, it is hard to stray. And even harder to change direction.
You see grandma, I’ve already said my farewells. I have chosen this road, and not the cobbled alleys. I cannot simply return empty-handed; to admit defeat to the difficulties of the path I chose. It would be an insult to the ones I left behind. It would be an insult to their farewells, the force behind their commitment. Perhaps I should not have taken this ‘road with no end’. But sometimes one wishes to avoid the end. Sometimes the end itself is destructive… I don’t know. But then again, what else is left if there is no end?
Babcia Jadwiga: You’re left with the road itself. I don’t say it’s nothing, but … Actually, you might understand, I might have misunderstood you. I mean, you left the war. Maybe you’re not chasing an empty road after all. Maybe you wanted to be closer to your cobbled street with shops and houses. You said your farewells, but I don’t think that you intended for them to be conclusive.
[She starts humming this old Polish song, her eyes lost amidst the skyline of the big road:]
Hej, tam gdzieś z nad czarnej wody
Wsiada na koń kozak młody.
Czule żegna się z dziewczyną.
(Somewhere from beneath that black water
A young uhlan mounts his horse
He tenderly bids farewell to his girl.)
Do you know the song? It’s about a lancer of the old Polish cavalry. He’s going to the war and says goodbye to his girl for the last time. He shares his sorrow with the falcons, and he invites them to fly past the mountains, the forests and the valleys to spread his pain everywhere. And from the falcons, those beasts of nature, he only asks one thing, to be buried by his dear girl, once dead.
People would sing this song every time soldiers left our village. They did it before your war, too. I don’t know if they could hear the words in it. I doubt it. Because how could they listen to those words and still utter them?
I never asked you why you left the front, but if you did not want to become this lancer, then I understand.
Wozsliew: I do not want to be this lancer… you are right. But I did when I left. That’s the issue. My girl wanted to bury a hero, not to greet a coward. I haven’t told her yet. I haven’t told her I deserted. I stole some army stamps before I left, and post her letters with different return addresses across the border, as though I was at the front. My family must know, the army sends out a declaration, condemning the deserter for his actions, and asking his relatives to turn him in if they are housing him. I don’t know if they have told Łucja. I dare not ask. My mother asks as though all is fine in the letters, so I cannot tell. Maybe she hasn’t even told my father. He can’t read nor write. It would upset him greatly… he used to be a war hero himself you know. He was awarded the Virtuti Militari [Tn: Polish medal of honour] for saving his squadron from enemy fire when they were ambushed.
I cannot return home, and I cannot return to the army. In the one I will endanger my family, and bring shame upon their name, in the other I will face the consequences of my actions, and, call me foolish, but that, I am not prepared to do yet. I keep hoping the war will end, while I am hiding out here in the villages, and that somehow everyone will forget about this and I can return to Łucja, and we can start our life in Gdańsktogether. Start a family, and put this all behind us…
Babcia Jadwiga: Good things happen to good people. And to those who are decided. I can see the first in your eyes and I can hear the latter in your words. This war will end – you see, that’s the only good thing about wars, they always end. You’ll find your way back to Gdańsk, you’ll start this family. And you should not worry about your girl, your parents. Yes, maybe they would have preferred to greet a hero than a coward, but either of these greetings is preferable than a burial – hero or coward. Trust me.
In the meantime, though, how are you going to spend your time? How are you surviving? Have you thought of approaching a craftsman? These days, they need young men more than ever, as most of them have left, so they would appreciate an extra hand without asking many questions. I cannot guarantee about the money, but they’ll probably give you food, a place to sleep at night. You’ll also have something to keep you busy. Otherwise, if you do nothing all day, you’ll only think of Łucja and how happy you could be… Comparisons steal the joy of the moment, which might not be abundant, but can still be discovered in the most unexpected of places, in the most hopeless of times.
Wozsliew: I had not thought of that, but a craftsman sounds like a good opportunity. So far I have been supporting myself by doing odd-jobs here and there, and with some money I had saved from before the war. I can cut wood quite well, my uncle’s a lumberjack, and in the summers I would go to the mountains to help out with the work, so I’ve got some experience. Can’t say I have much talent for anything more artistic though, I was always clumsy with my hands.
But I haven’t kept idle. I’ve been writing quite a lot, describing the effects the war has had on the communities I’ve travelled through. At least it’s some contribution to the effort. It will show the world the spirit of the Polish people, and how they carry on living in the face of such adversity. It feels ironic for me to be saying this, considering what I have done. I’ll send the texts in with a pen-name I guess… I don’t think many newspapers would be interested in publishing the works of a deserter.
Babcia Jadwiga: But my dear boy… We have far too many stories about the heroism and the perseverance of the Polish people. Do you want to know something about our real spirit? Then, you should wait till the war advances, so that you can really see its morbid impact. Everyone is always hungry. The poorer you are, the hungrier you get, and with the hunger comes irritability. Nobody ever laughs. And if someone laughs, it feels like a mistake, and silence is immediately restored. People mourn for their own death, which is yet to come. It becomes difficult to think clearly, yet you need to think clearly to work out how to survive the next day, how to get food. And these thoughts bring an unbearable fatigue. A fatigue that transcends tiredness and permeates your sinews and bones. As your limbs get ever lighter, they feel progressively heavier with each new day. You are a writer, right? These are the stories that should be written, these stories should get to the newspapers. The stories of the people, whose life becomes cheap and their death completely free.
Wozsliew: Your words give me courage Grandma - that I am not just turning to excuses and wasting away, that I am doing something of value. You are right about the hunger, and the poverty, and the fatigue. The fatigue especially. I cannot remember the last time I saw a man who seemed like he had slept a good night’s sleep. Our people seem to have developed permanent shadows beneath their eyes. And it is not just the lack of food or work, or fear for friends and relatives on the front. What I have seen is utter desolation. People waking without knowing why they are awake, retiring to bed without knowing why they wish to sleep. Such is the nature of war, that the future becomes impossible to accommodate for. And after all, what do we live for, if not the future? It certainly isn’t the present. At least, I hope it isn't, for life would truly be futile then. And if we have no future to think of, and no present to enjoy, we while away remembering the past, the days of sunshine and laughter, which somehow seem to still be alive. Growing stronger and fonder as each day progresses… It is funny. I always used to hate history at school, finding it dull and dry. Why bother with something that is already gone, and will never change? I used to complain. But history is constantly evolving, constantly changing in relation to the present we are living in.
I will continue my writing, and who knows, perhaps one day it will help create the history books that my children will study, and their children in turn. Living then in a Poland blessed with peace, and looking back on the sacrifices their country suffered in its fight for dignity and survival. Yes, that is something I can do, and do with my head held high...
Babcia Jadwiga: You sound like an educated young man. You must have been to the big university, in the city, haven’t you? To be honest with you, my years behind a school desk can be counted with the fingers of the one hand. I remember the chalk moving, the teacher’s calligraphic handwriting, but the content of the board has long been forgotten, if ever remembered. Now that I have so much free time and I sit and think about those old times, I realise that I might have actually wanted to remember something from that board. The past … Full of moments … It contains the entity of our life. Those moments have such a tremendous power on us, they can make us toss and turn at nights in a widening gyre. And the only consolation that eventually closes our eyelids is the future with its capacity to bring other moments, new moments, which will make up for the sleepless nights.
A future accompanied with the need to live and to create, despite the excruciating circumstances. That’s youth for me. But youth is not exclusive to the young, neither is rottenness to the old. I think that ultimately, this world runs by the ongoing battle between people that encompass youth, curiosity, passion against all those that it seems youth had never happened to them, men covered with graves’ dust. The war will end, but this battle will not. Some of these men will sign treaties with names of faraway cities, giving an end to this distorted game, which has no real winner. Some will construct the bright fable that we shall narrate instead. Others will attempt to impose a collective oblivion, a wide-spread lethargy. Peace might prove to be hollower than how you imagine it. Yet, again, from somewhere you shall start.