The Polish experience #3

The Czeczots welcomed me with open arms. Their status had fallen since the Communists had arrived in Warsaw. They were forced to share their traditional large high ceilinged comfortable traditional apartment with an unknown Russian family. Jacek's father was a known journalist who had somehow escaped the Warsaw ghetto through the sewers but would not talk about how he got out, obviously having contact with the Polish resistance. His wife, Barbara, was forced to go out to work as a telephonist starting at 8.00 am, with a 10 minute coffee break at 11.00 am and back home by 3.30 pm to prepare the main meal of the day to be eaten at 4.00 pm. A meal I missed as I would always be out at that time. I do recall one wonderful dinner in a traditional restaurant I had: roast duck with cherries - orgasmic. I also remember the only private enterprise the Communists allowed in Renyk (the old town) - delicious ice cream sold from a stand on wheels.  My hosts would eat borscht and charcuterie for supper with scrumptious rye bread around 8.00 pm so I would join them before they retired early to bed with a mug of hot milk or cocoa. Early to bed, early to rise. They worked to live.

They had a beautiful large tabby cat called Kotkabilinska.  Somehow her portrait was on crude printed coloured postcards all over the city staring out and 'miaowing' at me as I paced the streets of Renyk. Warsaw had been completely bombed during WW2 but had been carefully lovingly rebuilt and restored to its former glory architecturally, but not culturally, as the city had had the largest Jewish population in Eastern Europe thus being the capital of culture.

My female companion was Jacek's girlfriend, yet another Barbara, who was an aspiring actress and went to film school. Somehow she spoke Italian but no English so she was able to translate when she took me to the moving museum of the ghetto. I recall she became very emotional when she read a poem written in pencil that had survived the ghetto having been smuggled out in a metal milk urn. Yet again, all the captions in the showcases were in Polish and Russian. There were several glass showcases of luggage with Jewish surnames stamped on them, another one full of human hair used in the camps for filling mattresses and pillows, another one full of spectacles, another one with shoes, the list goes on and the images are forever engrained on my mind, frozen in time. Another room devoted to German propaganda films of the camps and the Warsaw ghetto with streets strewn with the dead who had died of starvation and dysentery and 'the walking dead,' those barely alive staring into space. Other documentary films were from the American soldiers who had liberated the camps and narrated them with their shocked first hand commentaries. I believe Capra, the film maker, was one of the photographers. But what I remember most was the thick guest book at the museum exit on a music stand. I spent more than an hour standing reading all the entries by Poles who had escaped to America and had come back to visit their Motherland decades later. Their comments brought tears to my eyes. I recall one simple word standing alone on the page.


Jacek's father gave me two gifts to remember him by. A Jewish watercolour on A4 paper of a shtetl boy killing a cockerel, painted by a friend of his who had survived the ghetto and a strange elongated wooden cooking spoon which I still have to this day in my kitchen in Brighton. When I look at the spoon by my sink in a jar I think of their warm hospitality and their warm smiling faces despite their inflicted hardship by both the Germans and the invading Russians.

Never again!

Written on the flight from Pafos to London Gatwick on 27/1/17. Updated in Hostal Jayma, Salabrena 15/2/17.


Poland by James Michener.
Ruth Ellen Gruber - Jewish Heritage Travel 1992. Poland chapter.

Warsaw ghetto - Google

The Warsaw concerto by Richard Addinsell

Dangerous moonlight 1941
The pianist 2002
Kanal by Andrzej Wajda 1956 about 1944 Warsaw uprising and escape through the sewers

The Polis museum in Warsaw

Wikipedia - Shtetl