Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Lost & Found

May 18, 2005 (Rzepnik)

The weather is mud. The less said about that, the better. But I feel like complaining. The weather is mud. A constant gray downpour and everything sliding out of itself.

We finally set out for Wislok Wielki, though, Sarah and Nasim and I, at mid-day today. We had chocolate to fortify us, and Irish music to go with the rain. En route, we passed through the village called "Lower Will," and passed the turn off to "Higher Will." We passed several old collective farms, or "PGR's." It's strange to be driving through the countryside and suddenly come upon the kind of gray concrete apartment blocks -- housing for the farm workers -- one sees in the cities. Some of these are still inhabited, as the people living there have nowhere else to go, even if there's no longer work for them here. The farm buildings themselves -- also gray concrete monoliths, with rusting metal window frames and broken windows -- stand abandoned, usually on the opposite side of the road. Lukasz tells me that the communists didn't try to turn all the farmland in Poland into collectives, as they did in other "satellite" countries, because attachment to the land here was too fierce. It was only in those villages, like Wislok Wielki, that were "purged" of all their inhabitants, that collective farms were established. And Lukasz tells me they were doomed to fail. People were brought into these villages, to work the collective farms, from other parts of Poland. He says these were people who'd never owned land of their own, who were "the dregs of society," layabouts and thieves and drunks. I love the stories and histories Lukasz tells me, but Sarah says I should talk to other people, too, because Lukasz's versions are Lukasz's versions.

Wislok Wielki is situated on the river Wislok, near Poland's border with the Slovak republic, in the Beskid Niski, the lower Carpathian mountains, on the northeast edge of Jasliski Park Krajobrazowy, the Jasliski "landscape" park. It's about an hour's drive from Rzepnik, and I was surprised at how quickly we seemed to arrive. Maybe because it doesn't seem so far away to me as it once did. Only a few years ago -- six years ago now -- I could hardly believe it existed. Before that, I had been convinced it was a vanished place, no longer on any map -- if it had ever been on any map, if it had ever really existed at all. And arriving in Wislok Wielki still feels to me like arriving in another world.

There's this beautiful kind of emptiness -- at least, I find it beautiful. Sarah says that knowing so many people once lived here and were forcibly "removed," most of their houses long gone and the fields gone back to meadow, would make it too difficult for her to live here. Haunted and sad, yes. But I find it peaceful, beautiful, even in the rain. Mist hung along the hillsides and in the valleys, like shreds of veil; the pine trees growing so thick and so dark they looked almost black; bright yellow flowers -- marsh marigolds --blooming along the riverbanks; the river flowing swiftly, glassy green-brown. The village where my father's mother was born.

We drove over the bridge, past the old collective farm buildings -- firewood cut and stacked along the wall of one of the enormous concrete barns, so someone must still be using these facilities -- and past the green Wislok Wielki sign. We stopped first at the priest's house, next to the old wooden church, but there was no answer when we rang.

So we drove straight into town to the town's one shop, where we used the restroom and bought Nasim an ice cream. The shop is always dim inside -- I suppose they're saving electricity, even on rainy days like this -- and there were a few men drinking beer at a little table when we walked in, as usual. The last time we were here, a kind of cafe bar was being added onto the building, but that side of the building was closed, and looks as if it's only opened for special occasions. Sarah asked the proprietors some questions, and they told her there was to be a mass at 6 p.m., so the priest would be at home later ...

Then we drove toward Anna's house, just across the road from the village's one bus stop. Sarah and I met Anna Opryszko the first time we ever came to Wislok Wielki, and she seemed already ancient then. Last year when we were here, we figured Anna must have died when we saw the for sale sign on her house. But today there was a tiny female figure standing out on the second floor balcony. She was wearing slacks and a headscarf and her face, from that distance, could have been the face of a young or middle-aged woman -- dark skin, sharp blue eyes. "Is that Anna?" Sarah asked. "In slacks?" I asked in reply. So we got out of the car and Sarah called, "Pani Anna?" And the man who'd been cutting the grass in the yard stopped swinging his scythe as we approached, set it carefully aside when he saw Nasim. And Anna came down and, yes, she remembered Sarah -- she's adored Sarah from the first time she met her, six years ago now, when Sarah was breast-feeding Nasim in the car while Lukasz and the priest and I talked to the oldest woman in Wislok Wielki, Anna having been, then, I suppose, the second oldest woman -- but no, she shook her head when she looked at me, she didn't remember me at all. Of course, Sarah can speak Polish to her, and I can't; and Sarah says Anna is terribly lonely, just needs someone to talk to, and Sarah gives her lots and lots of attention.

Which is at least partly why, from the first time we met her, I've wondered if Anna's claims to remember my grandmother's family and where they lived are, in fact, true. Or if she's only humoring us so that we'll stick around a little longer ... ? Nasim, knowing I don't understand Polish and maybe sensing my frustration at not being able to catch what was being said, whispered in my ear, "She keeps saying the same thing." Maybe just an addled, lonely old woman. She asked if we wanted to see the Bakisae family lands; she directed us first down an unfamiliar side road, pointing out plots of land and even one old wooden house, still standing, places we'd never seen before, saying that one family member lived here, and another there, and oh they owned a lot of land, my grandmother's father was a kind of "chief" of the village. I was getting skeptical, then, until she led us back to that same field we've visited a half-dozen times, the first place she told us was my grandmother's family's land, a big open meadow next to the river, where we've had our ritual picnic each of my three previous visits to Wislok. Maybe I'm just choosing to believe it's" our land," because I'm already in love with it; but maybe it's true. Standing there in the road, I had the strongest sense that my grandmother had been there, in that meadow, that it had been her meadow, and she wanted it back. And no sooner had that last thought crossed my mind, than Anna turned to me, gestured toward the meadow, said something that Sarah translated as, "She says you should buy the land." It's not privately owned now, which means it's owned by the government, which means one could try to reclaim it, if one could figure out how that's done. But all I could do, at that moment, was turn again to face the meadow and the hillside that rises behind it -- "That's your hill, too," Anna said -- and hope that no one saw that I was crying, though no one would have minded, I know.

Then we drove Anna, as always, to the church, climbed up to the cemetery so she could kneel at her husband's grave and sob. He's been dead since 1995, which seems not that long ago to me, but Sarah says it must seem like an eternity to Anna, who seems so alone. Her husband was taken away during the war, she's told us, and forced to work in Germany; when he came back after the year, he was "removed" with other Lemks, and imprisoned for five years. Anna's keening reminded me of the way my godfather, my great-uncle Paul, keens sometimes, saying, "Oh honey, life is hard, life is hard." Sarah held her for a few minutes. Nasim and I walked on; Nasim was marveling at all the snails on the path; I was noticing how many small graves, children's graves, were in the cemetery. Thinking that we've lost count, again and again, of how many children my grandmother buried. I also noticed that Anna had a key on a cord worn around her neck, and remembered my father telling me that his grandmother, Justyna, wore such a key, and never took it off. He suspected it opened the trunk where she hid her "hootch." I asked him once if his stepfather had been an alcoholic, and he looked at me and shook his head and said, "Oh honey, it was the only way they could get through a day."

After we dropped Anna off, we went back to the priest's house and tried again. This time, the priest -- sporting a two-day beard, a cardigan and rubber slippers -- came around from the side of the house said, Dzproszem, and motioned for us to follow him. Not into the house, as it turned out, but up the hill, in the rain, to the church. He remembered who we were; he's been in touch with Lukasz's father, saying he had some picture he wanted me to see -- a poster that Michal would give me later, of a painting of the Madonna and Child from the Wislok church, with a bullet hole in the center. So we hurried to keep up with him.

Poor Sarah, trying to translate while the priest talked non-stop and I wanted to know every word he said. And Nasim, though she surely must have been bored by then, just kept reading the book she'd found in the backseat of the car. The priest was showing us the church, how he'd recently had the original wooden facade restored, so it would look like it had looked fifty years ago, before the wood had been removed and replaced by some kind of aluminum siding. (To "modernize" or erase the past, or both?) The interior walls, also wood, have been painted and repainted, I'd guess, over the 150 years the church has stood on this small, steep hill. The wooden domes are orthodox, eastern; the white bell tower in front of the church seems more catholic, and more recent. The whole effect is somewhat confused ... eastern and western icons, etc.. -- and even the priest is confused. White ribbons hung like streamers from one point in the ceiling -- a point at the top bar of a set of bars on a window in a painting of the Virgin Mother surrounded by the apostles, Mary with one hand on the head of a bizarre-looking statue with a man's face, woman's breasts, a dog's body -- and attached to different points on the walls, giving a May Pole (i.e. distinctly pagan) effect. The only explanation the priest offered was that the local schoolchildren had made the ribbons ...

A woman came into the church at that point, needing the priest for something, so he left us alone there for a while. When he came back, again talking almost non-stop, he led Sarah and I up a ladder into a loft, which he's made into a kind of museum. On one wall hung traditional garments brought back by some Lemks -- my grandmother's tribe --who'd gone to Ukraine during the purges. On the other side of the loft, there were the few documents of village business he'd been able to preserve -- things he'd found in the attic. He told us that when the communists had come into power after the war, they'd burned almost all the local records. One document he'd preserved was a reprimand of a local Jewish man, Fisela Wrobla, who'd been selling alcohol illegally. A word that looked like a Polish equivalent of "prohibition" was written at the bottom of the document. The priest laughed and said "Al Capone!"

I was surprised to hear there had been Jewish families in Wislok. The priest shrugged -- "Here as everywhere in Poland." So Gypsies, Jews, Lemks and Ukrainians had lived together in Wislok, along with a few -- "not many" -- ethnic Poles, who followed the pope, then as now, the Roman Catholic church. As best I could understand, since there was only one church in this village, everyone worshipped here together, thus the mix of iconography. The priest told us that, between the two world wars, the Lemki -- who were the majority here, I think -- were shifting from Greek Catholic ("Orthodox") to Ukrainian Orthodox, changing faith. I assume this coincided with the Ukrainian separatist movement Lukasz has told me about, when Ukrainian fighters in the mountains recruited Lemks, who spoke a Ukrainian dialect, to their cause. It was after that rebellion was put down that the purges began.

There were 4,500 people living here before WWII and "Operation Wisla" in 1945 -- the forced removals -- mostly Lemks and Gypsies and Jews and Ukrainians, and the few "ethnic" Poles; and now there are 250, including five of the "old families" who returned after Stalin's death. The whole history of the place seems complicated and dark; there's much that's simply not known, and may never be known. It seems to me the whole village was "disappeared," much like my disappearing grandmother. Disappearances inside of disappearances inside of vanishings ...

The priest wants to put me in touch with some other Americans who've been to Wislok recently, searching for their "roots." I get the distinct sense that he thinks, together, we might be able to reconstruct some of the history of this village. There's also a priest in a Slovakian village who might know more, and there's a Lemk community in the nearby town of Comancze, which wasn't purged, and an old woman in the next village ...

But this was enough for one afternoon. My feet, in my thin, wet boots, were numb from the cold, and I could tell that Sarah was exhausted, and Nasim, bless her, was finally getting a little restless. It was twilight by the time we left the church, and Wislok Wielki, and started the long drive back to Rzepnik.



May 19-20, 2005 1:15 a.m. (Rzepnik)

Maybe a story of disappearances, what's disappeared, and who, and do I have a right to call anyone back, to try to call anything into existence again? My grandmother disappearing, disappearing all her life, then her life disappearing, too. This whole country disappearing behind the iron curtain before I was born. The whole village of Wislok Wielki "disappeared" just after the war, Operation Wisla. Even the priest doesn't know where they went, the thousands of houses that stood there, gone. And how people seem to look at me here, now I've come, as if I've appeared from some future or some past and maybe they're glad I have, maybe I have work to do. But it may be written on water, too, the story I'm trying to tell. May disappear as it's being told, as it's being written, seems to go on and on like a river, and a river never turns back. Now I can hear all the streams moving swiftly, some night bird calling, invisible.

Sarah and I took part in a crazy reading in Krosno this evening, in the new "salon artysteka" of the public library. A beautiful room full of beautiful sculptures, reached by passing through the usual dismal passageways, always a surprise, these interiors, which I think of as metaphors for the inner life, how the inner life has been protected here. But the discussion after the reading degenerated into some kind of battle about local arts-politics, and it went on and on until I thought my head was going to explode. It terrifies me now when I hear people talk about "patriotism," about "national identity." Don't they remember the Nazis? I thought there was something on the brink of real madness, real insanity, in that room. What was that gorgeous 94-year-old woman trying to say about going to heaven? What was Michal trying to say about toilet brushes? What was anyone? And why didn't Wacek or Jan put a stop to it? Afterwards a bunch of us went to a cafe on the main square, sat downstairs in the cellar, eating and drinking and smoking and talking, laughing about it all, until the rooms around that room where we sat went dark, and we knew it was time to go.



May 20-21, 2005 12:30 a.m. (Rzepnik)

Last night, after what had seemed like an eternity of rain and mud, the sky cleared and the temperature dropped.

Sarah lit a fire in the big room, so it was warm when we all fell asleep.

This morning, I woke to hear Sarah and Lukasz talking, Lukasz packaging seeds somewhere in the vicinity of my bed. I rolled over and went back to sleep. He was gone when I finally got up, and Sarah was having a much-needed, much-deserved lie-in. So I made my coffee quietly.

After she got up, we had a whole morning and afternoon to ourselves here in Rzepnik, blessedly peaceful. Sarah made us the most delicious slow-cooked porridge for breakfast. There was time to talk and listen to music and time for me to take a nice vigorous invigorating walk up the hill. The sun even peeked out from time to time, so we ate our lunch on the bench outside, in front of the house.

Later, we went to see The House -- the house Sarah and Lukasz are building on a hillside just down the road, in a spot overlooking forest and valley, facing a big dip of a meadow, like a bow full of wildflowers. How to describe this? How to describe anything? It's A House. Sarah and I climbed the gravel road up the hill and there it was. Lukasz salvaged the wood from an old Jewish Inn; thick rough beams he's caulking by hand with moss and a mixture of mud and sawdust. The local carpenter they've hired -- "You're born to do something," he says, "You have to do what you love, then you'll do it well" -- was putting in the wooden frames around windows. He proudly showed us the beautiful front door he'd made, embedded with brass studs, a magical door. A magical house with a peaked red roof, like a Chinese pagoda. Everything will be made by hand, and with love.

Early evening, after Sarah and I returned from a trip to Krosno, we picked Lukasz up at The House to bring him home for dinner. We agreed he looked incredibly handsome. And when we came home, and were unloading the groceries and getting the front door open, we told him so. And he told us we both looked incredibly beautiful, too. None of us knew why this was true. I said maybe it was because we were all so happy that it wasn't raining. And then Lukasz turned, with a Lukasz look in his eyes, and said, "The world is strangely transparent!" And Sarah and I cracked up.

But he was right. I went into the house and decided to immediately take the wet laundry out to the clothesline in the meadow. And when I opened the door, I called to Sarah, "Come and look at this light!" It was suddenly golden, transparent, every tree lit up; the church on the other side of the meadow gleaming behind the scaffolding. I ran up toward the high end of the meadow with the laundry in my arms, saying, "Look, look!" Sarah was laughing behind me, "Yes the laundry line is the place to be right now." It hangs between some trees at the edge of a little ridge, a stream running just below. And this strange, transparent golden light was filtering through everything. I could almost hear it, it sounded like chimes. I hung up my pyjamas and my pyjamas glowed. I hung up Lukasz's socks and Sarah's underwear, too, and thought all our garments were becoming magical. In the morning everything will smell like sunlight and fresh air and the green meadow. And then we'll get to put that light, the whole meadow, onto our bodies. How will we not be even more beautiful then?

I was so happy that I took a big hot bubble bath, burning a stick of incense and reading Sappho while I soaked. Then I was so happy that I did some of the washing up at the kitchen sink, while Sarah prepared some beautiful salads. We cleared everything off of the table but the flowers and the food, opened the good bottle of wine we'd picked up in Krosno, and celebrated being here, on this strange earth, at this kitchen table, together. I love knowing that I will know these people for the rest of my life. I love knowing that, in a few minutes, I'm going to tiptoe in to my bed in the big room, next to my friends' bed, next to the fire. Lukasz said he's going to dream about cutting the grass. Sarah and I may both dream of the horses we'll be riding tomorrow, across our beloved Carpathian meadows.


May 21, 2005 1:30 p.m. (Pole Surowniczna -- "a sacred place" for Sarah)

Yesterday, the sun came out long enough for me to take a walk up the hill in Rzepnik. I looked down one muddy lane, curving into the woods, wildflowers blooming in the grass, and I thought of my father; I suddenly felt his presence there. He comes back to me sometimes like this; I can feel the weight of his voice in the air; I feel I can feel -- more than hear -- him speaking to me. This was the first time in more than a year.

This morning Sarah and I drove to Lipowiec, to the stables owned by Lukasz's friend, Pan Kusnierz. Sarah chose a short-legged, stout, sturdy looking horse called "Professor," because she hadn't ridden in 20 years, but I wanted a view, so I insisted on the long-legged Fanaberia. Too late when I realized that, of course, "Western" saddles aren't used in Poland, even on trail rides, so we would be riding "English." Too late to confess I'd never been in an English saddle in my life, until I'd mounted the horse. And Fanaberia -- whose name means something like "flighty" -- keeps wanting to dip her head for water, grass, a passing low branch. And the first time we all broke into a trot, I thought I'd fly right off of her back. Sarah called out instructions about holding on with my knees, rising in the saddle in rhythm with the horse's gait. And what should have taken days or weeks or months to learn suddenly felt as natural to me as walking with my own feet on the earth, as flying, if I happened to be a bird. Or a little bit of both.

Between heaven and earth. All morning we've ridden across high meadows full of wildflowers, over the mountains, through Jaslisko, Posada Jasliska, to Polany Surowiczne, laughing Magda on her long-legged horse in the lead, the drunken Polish guy -- who was already one-eyed, red-faced drunk when we arrived at the stables before 10 a.m. -- bringing up the rear of our little entourage, though he keeps wanting to gallop his horse. "It's a horse, not a machine," Magda tells him, and shakes her head.

So at mid-day we've come to Pole Surowniczna, gathered around the bonfire; the bottle of vodka and a single shot glass are being passed around; kielbasa is roasting over the flames. Across the pasture, we can see the wooden lodge where Sarah and Lukasz were stranded by a rainstorm for several days on their very first "date." Our horses are rolling around in the mud, cooling off. The "last cowboy in Poland" has tuned his guitar and is singing a song about whisky and beer. I've said "no thanks" to "drippings" on bread, but yes to a shot of vodka, so as not to be "unsocial," as Pan Kusnierz said, and I've stuck two pieces of Kielbasa on the end of my skewer and am waiting for them to get crisp.

I've been thinking again how impossible this is, how magical, that I'm here at all. I've been thinking about Pawel, the Bulgarian man I met in Basel ten years ago, the first person I ever talked to who'd ever actually been to the Carpathians. And he'd only passed through, on a train in the middle of a thunderstorm late at night. He told me he didn't believe in ghosts, but that the landscape seemed truly haunted to him. And maybe it is. Full of ghosts and absences. On the road to the stables this morning, little chapels where Lemk houses once stood.

Everything disappears. Nothing disappears.


May 21-22, 2005; 1:30 a.m. (Rzepnik)

Riding back in magic light, at a high trot across the high meadows, gold beneath us -- the golden fields -- and gold above. The whole gold-green world.

Thinking this: did she ever exist? There is no record of my grandmother's birth or baptism, or of any of her marriages. No record of immigration. No record of her death or where she was buried, or what name she was buried with. Did she ever even exist? How completely a woman, her whole story, her whole history was erased.

And thinking this: how I had to come back here, to the Carpathians, to catch up with my own soul. How I felt it fly back into my body here, after a season of grief, last spring. How I'd been terrified of losing some love I'd never really had. How I'd mistaken that terror for love, brutality for strength. How close I came myself to allowing myself to be erased.

Today, I peed in a patch of marsh marigolds and then washed my hands in the river, so clear and cold it stung.

And after we'd led the horses, bareback, back into their stalls, Pan Kusnierz -- we could be related, the name is like "Kushner" when said out loud -- stared at me hard and nodded his head, saying, yes, we should go to the Kermesz in Olchowiec. Saying the mass would be sung in Ukrainian; saying, "Your grandmother prayed this way."

This is the way my grandmother prayed.

I stood in the back of the old wooden church, next to Justyna and Marya. Squares of gold and green and red and blue light shone through the stained glass windows, fell across the Madonna and Child. A simple painting; perfect squares. From the front of the little church, near the altar, deep sweet voices rose. Singly, in chorus, then singly again, and the voice of the priest from behind the altar which makes him invisible also rose. Dark notes; the human voice. Not "angelic" but full of earth. Sarah says the sound is "horizontal," the notes coming straight at your body. More solemn than holy. More holy than sacrosanct. The priest shaking the rope of golden bells.

I stepped outside and climbed the hillside, green, of graves to the very top. The child's grave in the topmost corner there; no stone, just a plain wooden cross. And paper narcissus everywhere; white paper narcissus on long, slender stems growing in bunches, wild, like clouds.

Down in the meadow, around the bonfire, sparks flying up against the full moon, I stood among friends, a conversation going on in four languages -- English, Polish, German, French -- and only four of us standing there.

And then in the room where the dancing finally began, the Lemks from L'vov with their gold and their silver teeth were singing and clapping and stomping their feet. Gabriel said to me, "You see, it's the old people who know how to have a good time."

Sarah danced in a crowd of the young and I sat on a bench against the wall with the gypsy mother, just to be near her, just because I was glad she was there. This year, she was wearing a sheer yellow scarf on her head, a glittering emerald green vest, a black skirt with gold threads woven in, a white apron embroidered with flowers, even gold socks. She's as astoundingly beautiful as ever; her face is brown; her eyes are blue. She muttered to me -- in what language? -- I nodded my head and said "tak" and she shrugged, then laughed and lit a cigarette. I gave her the little ashtray that Andrew gave me, that I've carried for years in my purse, because I wanted to give her something and she loved how it clicked when it opened and closed.

We drove back to Rzepnik at midnight, moonlight on everything, silver milk. How the world shines and shines in its mystery. How I'll never be lost again.


May 22, 2005 (Sunday, Rzepnik)

Mud is the price we pay for these flowers.

In spite of the warm bath with salts I took before going to bed, in spite of the fact that I somehow miraculously wasn't sore after all day on horseback and my baptism-by-fire of learning to ride English (or would that be "Polish?") in the first fifteen minutes on Fanaberia (and why did I choose a horse whose name means "Flighty" anyway?), and the shots of vodka at the mid-day bonfire and the beer I spilt half of at the Kermesz, I wasn't able to sleep much and woke almost as soon as the sunlight came streaming into the seed room this morning, a Sunday morning in the Carpathians so beautiful that it was breaking my heart to be leaving even before I had my coffee.

So I had my coffee outside on the bench while Sarah and Lukasz came to -- which involved Lemki music played loud enough that I could hear it, too, which added to the heartache. And then everyone was arriving for mass at the church across the meadow, the tone-deaf bells were clanging and Sarah was saying, "Stay one more day," and I was packing and feeling like singing and crying at the same time.

And there was Kaszyk in his Sunday best at the end of the driveway, waving hello. "Dobre," I said, and got into the car. And then we were flying to Krosno.

And at the bus station, Lukasz ran to buy my ticket and Sarah and I ran to the shop for a roll. And standing in line at the till, I grabbed Sarah and said, "I love you," but what I meant was, "Thank you," but what I meant was, "I love you." And an old lady cut in front of us to buy some vegetables. And then we were chasing my bus to Krakow across the parking lot. And then standing there kissing, the three of us, and then waving and blowing kisses as the bus pulled out of the parking lot.

It was a long, hot, lurching ride to Krakow, then I panicked a little, finding the train to J-S, a train I'd never taken before, to the station nearest Maczki, where Jozef would be picking me up. And the train was packed, but I found a seat in a compartment with a lot of young people -- better that one than the compartment occupied only by one man sprawled out across half the seats, who looked -- and smelled -- as if he'd been sleeping there for days -- and two of my seatmates, who spoke some English, assured me that I was on the right train. And when we stopped at Jaworzno Szcakowa -- I was crying over my book -- they let me know this was the place and helped me get my suitcase down from the rack.

But the quai at Jaworzno Szcakowa was mostly deserted, no sign of Jozef, and it turned out to be one of those stations that doesn't look like the end of the world, but like 20 years after the end of the world. Grim and deserted and where was Jozef and was this the right place, after all, and where was a telephone, at least? Finally, after dragging my bags downstairs into a tunnel and back up again into the street, I found a man who spoke no English but was able to point me toward the "kasa" -- a dark room where a middle-aged woman sat behind a ticket window and two men with bruised and battered faces -- one had a black eye so black and blue it was swollen shut -- were staggering around, finally settling on one of the benches. Lukasz told me that the unemployment rate in Poland is "officially" at least 20%, and actually much higher, as anyone with a garden is considered a "farmer" and not counted among the unemployed, so what a lot of these guys seem to do is drink and fight and drink some more and while I'm sympathetic I wasn't relishing spending the night there with them on the bench. And my phone card didn't work in the pay phone and my cell phone battery was dead and the woman at the ticket window couldn't understand a word I said. So I did what any Woloch woman would do: I got Dramatic. I wept. And the woman at the counter relented and let me slip my cell phone adaptor through the ticket window and plugged it in so I could make a call. Which didn't go through. But a few minutes later a young woman walked into the station and the pani at the counter asked her to please speak to me in English and this woman called Jozef's cell phone from her cell phone and found out he was stuck at a railroad crossing waiting for a very long train to pass and he would be here any minute. And then he was.

So I spent a lovely evening in the garden of the house at Mazcki, with Cecylia and Jozef and Karolina's grandmother and two of Cecylia and Jozef's friends, their friend Ewa doing all the translating, and eating and drinking and admiring the flowers.

In the morning, Jozef will put me on a train in Sosnowiecz and I should be in Warsaw by noon, which is going to seem restful, I think, after all the excitement of the past week.


May 23-25, 2005 (Warsaw)

Last days in Warsaw, at least for a while.

Monday evening, I took bus #117 to visit Irena. We were moving down ulica Madeleinskiego when the bus lurched to a stop. Blue lights flashing, police. A body in the street covered with a black plastic sheet. No one else even flinched, it seemed to me. Sixty years ago, there were makeshift graves on the sidewalks, in public gardens, in alleyways. The horror of what we get used to, I guess. The bus lurched forward again.

Irena made dinner -- a salad and spinach with eggs from a chicken she "knows very well." We talked and talked and talked and drank white wine and I missed the bus back. So she put me into a taxi, telling the sullen driver to take good care of her friend.

On Tuesday, I wrote in "my" cafe --"Do you have enough light?" "Is the music too loud?" I ran into Zofia in the hallway, coming out of the elevator, and she gasped. Later, she brought me another pair of earrings before she went out.

I stood in the kitchen talking to Krzstyof, who told me more about Operation Wisla, the secret assassinations, who would have wanted my grandmother dead? He suggests I find someone to help me do research and Richard agrees and I think I have. We talked about psychological torture, the kinds of tactics the Soviets used -- moving mountain people to the plains, and those from the plains to the mountains, in order to break their bonds with the land, in order to invert the ancient hierarchies, making the weakest among them the "chiefs," setting people against one another so they'd never rise up together against their oppressors. Die in misery. And many have.

On Wednesday evening, Irena took me to Aurora -- a club owned by some of her friends who also publish philosophy books. Really, it's a compound of clubs and cafes, all in industrial-type temporary buildings in an open courtyard that will be a subway station some day, as soon as the road authority gets around to building it. ("But that's at least 10 years away," Anna shrugged.) It reminded me of downtown L.A. We ate in "the garden," which means at a long wooden table outside, in the open space. Then Irena and I had a drink in another of the clubs, where flamenco was being played. She carries her little dog Mishka everywhere she goes, sets her down, lifts her up with one hand. Everyone thinks the dog is adorable, wants to pet her, but Mishka growls.


May 26, 2005 (Warsaw)

Who would have wanted her dead, and why?

Evil exists and it often prevails. The bullies, the tyrants, the murderers win. That's what I've been learning all this past year that I didn't want to know.

Thursday: Corpus Christi. A quiet, quiet day because it's a holy day all over Poland. "Body of Christ." The few people out in the streets carry bouquets of flowers and are dressed in their Sunday best. All the shops and cafes and businesses are closed. The streets are empty and hushed. I notice a shrine has been erected on the sidewalk on ulica Poznanska. I'm on my way to Sergio for a final massage, "something special" involving honey that will take two hours. Later, walking home, I'll hear the priest's voice chanting, echoing; see the procession moving away down a side street. I think I was in Krakow last year on this holiday; I remember watching such a procession from the window of my hotel room there.

"Do you feel like a queen yet?" Sergio asked. "Do you feel like Cleopatra?" And I had to laugh and say that I did. He was lifting the honey from my skin with the palms of his cupped hands -- "to bring up the blood, get the toxins out." And it left my skin feeling like silk. Quite a feat, given the Carpathian rash that's been plaguing me for a week.

Krzyszytof arrived while I was sitting on the stoop outside of Richard's building, trying to write down some of the things that the three of us had been talking about a few days before. He brought me a cd of Polish music. We went upstairs and opened the white wine and sat on stools in the kitchen and talked, Richard perched on the edge of the counter. An intense conversation that continued over dinner at the Mexican place -- one of the few places open; American-owned, of course. We talked about politics and history and justice and love and power. I was feeling a little tipsy. I've been feeling a little overwhelmed.

There are times when I understand completely -- or almost completely, because there's so much I haven't been told, so much that I don't know -- why my mother always says that her father never wanted to go back to Poland, kissed the earth of America. And not because the restaurants never close. But because the sense of its terrible history is so close to the surface here. I keep thinking about that body in the street I saw from the bus. And what I read in one of Richard's books, about the makeshift graves for soldiers all over the sidewalks of Warsaw during the war.

After dinner, we walked through the warm spring night to the park near the American embassy, to see the exhibition displayed on the fence. Posters of heroes and heroines of the Polish resistance, the underground, imprisoned or murdered after the war. But why, why, why I kept asking Krzys and Richard; these were people who'd fought the Nazis, the Germans, and the Nazi's had lost? Because new tyrants came into power. Because these were people who loved freedom, who were dangerous and brave. Knew how to hide in the woods, how to make bombs, were willing to fight for what they believed. Some were killed in prison. Some were released after Stalin's death, "showing signs of mental illness." Some were assassinated in America by agents of the KGB. I said I thought these posters should be on billboards, looking down at us in the streets.

In 1949, in Detroit, who might have wanted my grandmother dead? Or why might she have wanted to kill herself? I've always thought it was just her hard life, the children lost, her poor choice of husbands -- the last "the Russian," all we know of him -- but now I'm not so sure.

We walked back to ulica Piekna. I kissed Krzysztof goodbye. I wouldn't want any life but this life. And I want her story told.

4 Comments:

Blogger lindell said...

You open a door to a much needed lesson about polish thanks to your personal search others are learning as well, I think we should give love , happiness, and people with good heart because just like there galazies where the there is no light ,there are also plaes like our own where there is light as long as it remains os in our hearts as well

Linell

12:37 PM  
Blogger plnelson said...

I'm thoroughly enjoying this blog. It's a diary, but "literary" - well written, colorfully expressed, compelling, moving.

I collect diaries from the 19th century. I prefer ones by ordinary people - farmers, farmers' wives, clerks, teachers, and others who are not statesmen or generals or captains of industry. The details of their lives - a fence mended, some corn ground, the weather, the first frost - seem trivial compared to jetting across the world or meeting with scholars, but each detail is like a drop of color in a pointilist painting and, page after page, a richly-textured picture emerges.

My journal is more like yours - the work of someone consciously writing, reflecting, zooming in and out of the big picture. And I do my best writing when I travel. My journal is written to be read, but no one reads it because I keep it private except when my wife sometimes asks me to share excerpts with friends or family.

She has suggested I keep a blog, but that would constrain me. I would find it hard to say what I felt. Not because I feel angry or because I insult or criticize people behind their backs; to the contrary: my journal is often filled with warmer feelings than I care to express in person.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Julia said...

I loved your article on Wislok Wielki, which is where my paternal grandparents were from. Do you have an address to contact the priest there to try to learn more about them? Thank you. Julia

8:25 AM  
Blogger Julia said...

Loved your Lost & Found article of 5/2005, especially regarding Wislok Wielki, which is where both of my paternal grandparents are from. Do you have address for the priest? I would like to get info on my family (if there is any). Thank you.

8:25 AM  

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