This book is the poignant conclusion to the three-part memoir recounting the author's harrowing WWII escape from occupied Poland to America.
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About the Author
Julian Padowicz holds a degree in English Literature from Colgate University. He has been a documentary filmmaker and producer of audio tapes for most of his adult life, and has won a Golden Eagle Award for his educational film, The People Shop, from the Committee on International Non-Theatrical Events. He lives in Stamford, CT, with his wife.
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Loves of Yulian
Mother and Me, Part III
By Julian Padowicz
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2011 Julian Padowicz
All rights reserved.
Whenever Mother addressed me in French, I knew it was for someone else's benefit. I was eight and a half, and I understood these things. We were Polish, and what we normally spoke to each other was Polish. But Mother's new friend, M. Gordet, with the pomaded-down black hair and the mustache, who had bought the bottle of red wine at dinner last night, was sitting on Mother's other side now, and she was telling him about the book she was going to write about the two of us, once we got to America.
The three of us were dangling our legs in the pool that the sailors had erected on deck that morning. They had assembled a large wooden frame, draped a tarpaulin inside it, and pumped in seawater. Because it was July and we were getting closer to the Equator every day, the makeshift pool was a very welcome relief, but the problem for me was that there was no shallow end.
"It is so hot Julien," Mother had just said to me in French. "Why don't you get into the water and swim?"
"B ... but there is no sh ... sh ... shallow e ... end," I answered. "I don't k ... k ... know how t ... t ... to swim." I was stuttering badly again. I had just acquired the stutter in the last two or three months, and sometimes it was worse than at other times. But I had been, in a way, sick.
This was nineteen forty, the war had been going on for almost a year, and I had gotten sick in Hungary three months before. Before that, Mother and I had escaped from the Bolsheviks who had invaded the eastern part of Poland where we had gone when the Germans had attacked from the west. And, in Hungary, I had done something very bad. Except that I couldn't remember what it was that I had done.
I knew about the man down on the floor of his shop where, Mother had explained to me, I had tripped him on purpose. Mother wasn't supposed to explain that to me, the doctor had said, because it was best for me to remember it on my own. The reason that I could not remember it yet, he said, was that it was so upsetting to me that my mind didn't want me to remember it. There had been several weeks following that happening when, apparently, I had lain in bed and people had had to feed me, but I could remember just bits of that. And when I was well enough to get out of bed, I had begun stuttering.
The doctor had said that, eventually, I would probably remember everything, but it would take time. And when I did, the stuttering might well go away. But my stuttering really embarrassed Mother in front of other people. Many times she had told me to think of what I was going to say before I opened my mouth and then just to say it. But that's not the way it worked. I knew very well what I wanted to say, but, for some crazy reason, I just couldn't say it. Once she had even started really yelling at me to stop doing that, as though I was doing it on purpose, but I knew that she was just trying to help me, so that didn't work either.
Then, when we were in Lisbon, just before getting on the ship, she had taken me up to our hotel room after lunch and said, "You can't go on the ship talking like that," and, in spite of what the doctor had said, she had gone on to tell me what I had done in Hungary, in the hope, I expect, that, once I knew, I would stop stuttering. She told me that, while we were staying with Count Baresky, I had become great friends with his chauffeur Carlos, who had taught me to use tools and even to shoot a gun. That part I remembered. But then she told me that Carlos, who turned out to be a crook like his employer, the count, had had an argument with a shopkeeper over some merchandise that had been stolen, and I, in order to show off to Carlos, had stuck out my foot and tripped the shopkeeper on purpose. Then she had sat there looking at me, and I knew that she was waiting to see if I would still stutter. And when it turned out that I still did, I heard her say, "merde," under her breath, which I wasn't supposed to hear. So now I knew what it was that I had done, but only from Mother's telling me and not from remembering it, and I still stuttered.
Mother and I were Jewish, but, because the Nazis were hunting and killing Jews, we pretended to be Catholic — which delighted me. Kiki, my governess before the war, had been Catholic, and she had said that, if I wanted to go to Heaven someday, which was where she was going when she died, I would have to become Catholic like her. Kiki had been my entire world, ever since I could remember, because Mother and my stepfather Lolek were very busy with travel and cocktail parties, and, on the rare occasions that she took a day off, I was inconsolable. So the idea of spending a whole eternity away from Kiki was something too horrible to even contemplate at the time.
Exactly where Jews went after they died was a question to which Kiki did not have a ready answer. Bad Jews, she said, went to Hell just like bad Catholics, but where good Jews, like my late father, went, was part of the Great Mystery.
The question had not stayed long unanswered in my own mind. When Kiki and I had to go someplace far, such as to visit my cousin Fredek, we took a trolley, and on warm summer days, Warsaw trolleys had an odor that wasn't altogether pleasant. One of the fixtures on these trolleys was the black-coated, black-hatted, bearded Hassids, to whom Kiki referred simply as Jews. I came to associate these long-coated, long-nosed men with the trolleys, and, in my five- or six-year-old mind, I had come to see good, dead Jews, like my father, riding these sweaty trolleys into eternity.
In order to avoid such a fate for myself, I had taken to learning the Catholic prayers that Kiki taught me so that God would have mercy on my soul and so that someday I could get baptized and join her in Heaven. Kiki had also explained that the reason that Jews were barred from Heaven was that we had cruelly nailed God's son, Jesus, to a cross many years ago, which, I realized, meant that He couldn't get food or anything to drink and must have starved to death — to say nothing of the embarrassment of soiling his loincloth.
My mother and my stepfather, Lolek, did not dress like the Jews on the trolleys, and spoke and ate like everyone else. We had lived in a beautiful apartment in Warsaw where Kiki and I slept in the same room. But, when the war began, the previous September, Kiki had gone back to her own family in Lodz. Losing Kiki had been very hard for me, at first, but now it was almost a year since I had seen her, and I had gotten used to it.
"Of course he can swim," Mother was saying now to the man with the mustache, M. Gordet. "He and his governess spent every summer before the war in Yurata, the most expensive summer resort in Poland, where they had the bay on one side and the Baltic on the other, both within walking distance of their beautiful hotel, and swimming instructors and everything."
This was all true, except for the fact that I had never had any swimming lessons. Kiki and I had these inflated floatation pillows that we strapped to our waists and mimed people we had seen doing the breaststroke, but in only half a meter of water. But I had become accustomed to Mother telling stories that weren't always true. When we were living with the Bolshevik Russians, and there were shortages of everything, including food and firewood, she had often gotten them to help us by making up a story — usually about me being sickly or even sick.
Mother was very beautiful. Her name was Barbara, and before the war all her Warsaw friends had called her, Beautiful Basia. She had a round face, darkly blond hair, which I now knew wasn't really blond, but brown like mine, and large, round, brown eyes. She had even had a "screen test" a few years before, in Warsaw, to see if she could be a movie star, but nothing seemed to have come of it.
Now she turned back to me. "You see how the others are swimming, don't you? See how they move their arms and their legs?"
The people she was pointing out were doing what Kiki and I had done, wearing our floatation cushions. We had called it, "doing the frog."
"Just do the same thing they're doing, and you'll swim," Mother said. "If they can do it, so can you. And if you have any trouble, M. Gordet, here, is an excellent swimmer, and he'll, of course, pull you out, won't you George?"
Then, turning again to M. Gordet, she said, "The first thing I'm doing when we get to Rio will be to hire a good governess for him, to give him some routine and some discipline again. He was brought up so well in Poland. He had such beautiful manners, but with the war, he's become very undisciplined. Just a few weeks ago, he even yelled at me."
The incident she was talking about in Lisbon was after she had yelled at me first for breaking a porcelain figurine that one of her men friends had given her, when it wasn't me who had broken it. But I had learned that Mother would often talk about how bad I had been to her in order to gain people's sympathy. And since my protest would just cause her to say, "You see what I mean?" I didn't say anything and hoped she would forget about my going in to swim.
Then she turned to me again. "Go ahead, get in," she said. "M. Gordet and I are right here."
I wasn't at all sure that M. Gordet could even swim — I hadn't seen him in the water yet. He had a nice tan and fair muscles, but I wondered how he would feel about getting his hair wet.
"Go ahead," Mother said.
I lowered myself into the water, took a deep breath, released the board I had been sitting on, and began to "do the frog."
And I swam. I did, indeed, swim. And, as I slowly breast-stroked my way the length of the little pool, keeping within reach of the side, I was suddenly very excited and aware of several things at the same time. One was that, in finally learning to swim, I had passed onto a new level of maturity. Another was that I had made that passage by myself, without the elaborate swimming lessons that I had seen older children receiving from swimming instructors on the bay side of the Yurata resort. A third was that my poor Kiki, who had been my constant companion until the war began and then had to go back to her own family in Lodz, most certainly had not had the opportunity to learn to swim under the current occupation of our country by the Germans. This meant that I had undoubtedly passed her in that area of development.
A fourth realization did not occur to me till a few minutes later, when M. Gordet suggested that the three of us had had enough sun for one session and should go inside. And that was that, with fresh ocean water being constantly pumped in and out of our makeshift pool, I and my fellow swimmers were, in a sense, swimming our way across the Atlantic.
Our ship was taking us not to America, which was our final destination, but Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We had left Lisbon, Portugal a few days earlier and would have to wait in Brazil until we could get a visa to the United States under the Polish immigration quota. But, at least, we were putting an ocean between ourselves and the war in Europe. And when we finally did get to America, which was a very big and very rich country, Mother would get to write her book, and we would become American and rich again.
We had been rich before the war. My stepfather, Lolek, had owned a shirt factory, and we had had a big apartment in the best section of Warsaw. But when the Germans had started bombing Warsaw, on September first, Lolek had gone into the army, Kiki had gone back to her family, and Mother and I had gone to a farm in southeastern Poland to get away from the bombing. Then the Bolsheviks had suddenly invaded from the east, while our soldiers were busy fighting the Germans in the west, and we had spent six months living with the Russians. The moment they arrived, there was almost no food in the stores and no firewood, and people would be detained for questioning and then disappear without a trace. So Mother and I had escaped over the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary, walking eleven hours in the snow, after our hired guide had abandoned us, and everyone called it incredibly courageous on Mother's part, and a miracle that we had survived.
Of course, before our escape, everyone had told Mother that she was crazy. Yes, people had escaped that way, but they had been strong men, not women with children, and it had been before the mountains were covered with snow. But Mother had just laughed at them, as though they were saying silly things.
That escape was what Mother's book was going to be about, along with stories about how brutally the Germans treated people in the part of Poland that they occupied. We couldn't talk about the book while we were still in Europe because the Germans, who had spies everywhere, didn't want Mother getting to America, which wasn't in the war, and writing her book. But right now, we were very poor.
Not because she expected to need them, but because of the falling bombs, Mother had wrapped up all of her jewelry in a blue pillowcase when we left Warsaw, and packed them in one of the suitcases we brought with us. We had not expected to be gone long, since Poland had a mutual defense treaty with Britain and France, and the two of them would surely push the Germans back into Germany in a matter of weeks. But that hadn't happened, and Mother had had to start selling off her jewelry for us to live on and to get from one place to another. The guide who was supposed to lead us across the Carpathians had been paid from the proceeds of the sale of some of that jewelry, and Mother had sewn the rest into the lining and buttons of our clothes before our mountain adventure.
But travel through Europe on a Polish passport was both hazardous and expensive in nineteen forty, and our often urgent financial needs made it a definite buyer's market in diamonds. Our supply of precious stones was being quickly depleted. Our challenge at this point was to reach America, where Mother could sell our story to a publisher, before the supply of jewels ran out altogether.
Not only did I understand all this very well, but I must have actually understood it somewhat better than Mother, because in Lisbon she had gone out and bought a new bathing suit and three new outfits, including a long evening gown, that she said were just for the ship, which would only be a two-week trip. All I had gotten for the trip, and all I needed, was a bathing suit, and I could have even done without that, and just worn my brown shorts. She had said that it was important for her to look nice, but she didn't really need new clothes to look nice. Nor did she need to go to a hairdresser in order to have her hair washed, since you could buy shampoo at a pharmacy. I understood that women were more concerned about their looks than men, but we were running very short on finances, and who knew how long we would have to wait for our turn in the Polish quota for immigrating to America.
Of course, I also understood about temptation. I knew what it was to see something in a store window that you wanted to have. I, of course, had never had the opportunity to just walk into the store and buy what I wanted, but for somebody who did, I could well see how that might be hard to resist. And my mother just didn't seem very good at resisting that kind of temptation. Mother could only speak a few words of Portuguese, which was what they spoke in Brazil, and she couldn't type or cook or drive a car or even sew — I could sew buttons on better than she could — so I didn't see any way for more money to be coming in until we got to America and she got to write her book. So it might well be up to me to make sure that our funds lasted for as long as it took to get to America.
"He's very sickly," I heard Mother saying to M. Gordet, as he helped her to climb down from the swimming pool on the ladder that was nailed to the side. Mother had on open-backed shoes on very high wedge heels and I could tell she was going to have trouble. Of course, I also knew she was talking about me again, and I dearly hoped she wasn't going to tell him about the problem with my memory and what I had done in Hungary. I was relieved to hear her say, "He's just gotten over scarlet fever. He caught it in Barcelona, where there wasn't any medicine, and I didn't know if he was going to live."
Excerpted from Loves of Yulian by Julian Padowicz. Copyright © 2011 Julian Padowicz. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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