(Translated by Valerie Blonski and Rita Clement)
Franciszka was born in 1906 at a time when Poland did not exist on the map of Europe. This World War Two memoir is a little different in that the recollections begin in 1911, taking us back to that time, to Franciszka's earliest memories of her life at the age of five, before even World War One had erupted.
When I awoke, it was still dark. I heard a commotion in the kitchen. It was my mother who was already up and preparing breakfast. I wanted to be near her but she was already occupied with my younger sister, Hela, and my second sister, Mala, who was still an infant, so it was difficult for my mother to give me much attention. I was five years old then.
The family was sizable. My father had four children from his first marriage although they were older and attending school. There was plenty of work for my mother. We lived in a small house with quite a large garden where I liked to play with my girlfriends, who were mainly Russian. My parents had moved to Russia from Wilenszczyzna (the Wilno region), from the small town of Zahacie, where I was born. I knew this this only because my mother had told me.
We settled in a small city, Kolpino, not too far from St. Petersburg. My father worked in a church as an organist. Sometimes he took me with him because I liked to hear him play. There were a lot of Poles in this city, mostly they had come looking for jobs. One of those families had two children, including a girl who was just one year older than I. We often got together and always celebrated the annual holidays together too.
My oldest stepsister, Irene, finished elementary school and remained at home. We did not have the financial means to send any of the children to get a higher education. So she gathered a group of Polish children together and taught them at home. I was very interested so I sat in a corner, observed and listened, and quickly learned the alphabet. My sister allowed me to join the group of school children and I was very pleased and proud. Time flew by, I learned a lot and my mother did not have to bother with me.
One day while we were sitting at the kitchen table, my younger sister became very cranky. Mother wanted to appease and calm her and brought her what she wanted. In front of me sat a cup of tea which mother accidentally knocked over and the very hot contents spilled on my side and hand. They took me to the doctor who bandaged the scalded skin. For a long time I was very ill; the burn did not want to heal. It became so infected that the doctor suggested it might be better to have the hand amputated. My mother burst into tears and said that she would never agree to that. The neighbours came over and grieved for my arm together with my mother. One of them advised her not to remove the bandages as the doctor had directed but rather to first soak them in warm water until they fell off themselves and then to sprinkle them with potato flour once the wounds had dried. My mother did this every day and it began to feel better. My fever abated and in two weeks everything was fine although it took a long time for complete recovery and the scar has lasted to this day.
Quite often I went with my girlfriends to the street to watch the people walking by. One very petite lady, whose age I could not guess, interested me because she always carried water from the river - two pails over her shoulder on a wooden contraption called a koromysle. This was how she made a living. All day long she went back and forth to the river for water. Often, during the day, a beautifully dressed little girl kept her company. This was her daughter and poverty was the life that fate had dealt her. There were no plumbing systems back then so people used the water from the river which flowed down the centre of the town, dividing it into two halves. We all lived on the south side - the poor side.
My stepbrothers, Zygmunt (the older one) and Beniek, had finished school and were looking for work. My mother's brother worked at the railway station and because of his influence, my brothers obtained jobs in the telegraphic field. The railway authorities were looking for volunteers in their field to go to Moscow. Zygmunt was quiet and preferred to stay put but Beniu was very ambitious, looking for a career, so he volunteered and left for Moscow shortly thereafter.
In those times, many people had illnesses - typhus could spread rapidly. A letter soon came from Moscow from a lady with whom Beniu boarded. She mentioned that he was in the hospital. We were all shocked but no one knew what had happened and it was decided that someone should go visit him. Two days later Irena and I left for Moscow.
Along the way, I observed the streets and houses in Moscow. They were different from the ones in my home town. At one point, we passed by a large, open plaza where I saw a huge bell, a carkolokol, which hung high above. People were walking under it without fear but I felt quite apprehensive when we passed near it.
The landlady where my brother lived told us that during the epidemic, my brother fell victim to typhus. She took us to the hospital to see him. He was very weak. Later, my sister went to the railway authorities because she wanted to take him home but the doctors there said that, in his condition, this would be impossible. We visited him for a while every day. Quite often, for the rest of the day, the landlady's daughter and I toured a section of the outskirts of the city known as the Zielonaja Roszcza. During one of these adventures we visited a convent. At the time, there was an Orthodox wedding ceremony in progress. I looked with amazement at the bride, at her beautiful gown and the glistening tiara she wore on her head.
After 3 weeks, my brother died and the railway authorities arranged for his body to be transported back to Kolpino. My sister and I left as well. The funeral was very sad. Everyone was quite depressed because a young, handsome and able youth, only 21 years old, had been taken from us. My younger sister, Czesia, arrived from St. Petersburg, where she worked in a sewing school as an apprentice. I was seven years old at this time and although I felt sad too, I did not fully understand what was going on.
Our family had another baby - this time a boy. My father was delighted and was enchanted by his little one, although I wondered what he saw in him that was so wonderful.
Father was struggling to find steady and reliable employment. Meanwhile, people in town were very nervous, as if they could sense that something significant was about to occur. One day we heard the siren of the ambulance as it drove down the street in front of our house. Shortly, the noise stopped but an hour later, the same thing happened, then over and over again. My parents awoke early in the morning and I awoke also. I heard someone entering the house and people speaking quietly to each other. Later, once again, you could hear the wail of the siren in the distance. In the morning the news circulated around and everyone was shocked. A lot of people got sick instantly and some didn't even make it to hospital, dying on the way, taken down by high fever and severe pain. By noon the news had got around that there was a cholera epidemic. People began to die like flies. After a few days, my brother Zygmunt returned from the night shift at work. He came into the house and dropped on the bed. My mother took him to a separate room, closed the door and told everyone not to enter. She sent my sister, Irene, to buy a bottle of alcohol (spirits). As soon as mother had the spirits she took them in to my sick brother, along with a cup of hot tea. We waited for some news and when mother came out of Zygmunt's room she told us what she did and what the outcome will be. She told us all not to tell anyone that he is sick at home because if the authorities found out he would be taken to the hospital. After three days my brother came out of the room, feeling better. Mother had rubbed his body with the spirits and together with drinking hot tea, he began to sweat and was cured. In the city, many people died, but none of the alcoholics who slept in the park shared their fate.
Available jobs at this time began to disappear. My father's wages became greatly diminished and it became difficult to pay one's living expenses. The priest at our parish recognized the situation and offered us a place in his manse (the priest's residence). The house was very large with a huge garden in the center. My father and mother decided to take advantage of this. While most of our family lived at the presbytery, Zygmunt and Irene, who were both working, rented a room close by from a Polish family. This family had their own large house but their family was also large - two adults and seven children.
My girlfriend's (Jadzia Kosteczko) parents subscribed to a Russian-language magazine. Because she was older than me, she went to school and could read Russian. She showed me the magazine, titled Swietlaczok (Light). It had illustrated articles and I liked it very much. I would listen as she read it to me. I quickly learned the Russian alphabet and slowly began to read. Jadzia gave me one book to keep and I always carried with me.
At the priest's house, there was a huge, brown-coloured dog with large floppy ears. His name was Kado, he was very nice and he always kept me and my sister company. One evening we were in the kitchen. I was standing in front of the dog while sister was behind. She pulled the dog's tail and he bit me on the face. I had two teeth marks on my cheek and when they healed, the scars remained visible for a long time.
One month later I started Russian school. The teacher asked me if I understood anything. I was confused and frightened. She showed me the alphabet and asked me again a few days later. I don't remember what I said but I was still frightened.
The parish children came to the school for catechism. In a short time, they would be making their first confession and taking their first communion. I was too young but the priest told my mother that I had been accepted as had been my sister Hela. I was seven years old. Two months later there was a high mass at the church. The girls were all dressed in white and walked in rows to the altar - I felt fortunate and happy to be there with them.
In the spring of 1913, the Russian Czar arrived for a visit. As the time came near there were crowds of people in the streets, all trying to get close to the road to get a good view. By noon the head guard led the way followed by a big beautiful coach, pulled by three pairs of horses, in which sat the Czar, Czarina (his wife) and Czarevitch (his son, the heir apparent). Everyone applauded. This was an important day in the city.
During these times, many Polish people began to return to their home provinces and counties as there were fewer and fewer jobs available in this district. My parents received a letter from home, from my father's brother, inviting us to return. My parents decided to return, leaving me with my sister, Irene. I didn't feel good about this change. Zygmunt and Irene went to work every day while I went to school. The landlord's children teased me and chased me down the streets. I was so scared but that's how the days went by. School was not so great either as the teacher never gave me a good word and no matter how hard I tried, my work was never acknowledged.
A few months went by and Christmas was near. The children at school were to perform in a play. Everybody waited for this day and at last it came. The school was full of people. A lot of parents came to see their children on stage. After the play, the teachers from the different classes gave speeches, following which the children were given presents. I wanted to go home but the teacher said "you have to stay to the end." All of the presents were already handed out before it got to my turn so the teacher called me to her just to say that there was nothing left for me. I felt like someone had kicked me in the head and I don't remember leaving or returning home.
I became ill and was unconscious. When I finally awoke, I looked around and was confused as this was not the room where I lived with my sister and brother. I recognized the kitchen though. It was Jadzia's. I felt very good and lucky that I didn't see the children who had been teasing me. A moment later Mrs. Kosteczko came in and asked me how I felt. I answered "very good." She told me that I had been there, very ill, for two weeks. I asked if I was to return to to my sister's but Mrs. Kosteczko said no, for now I would stay with them. Still I was ill, felt bad, and didn't go to school. I read books, which they had lots of. When Jadzia returned from school she spent a lot of time with me. I learned a lot during my illness, the time was not wasted.
A month later my mother arrived from Wilno province where my father had found employment. This was a pleasant time for me and after a week, maybe longer, my mother took me home. I said my farewells to Jadzia, her parents, her brothers and sisters, and the town of Kolpino. Zygmunt and Irene remained in Kolpino, Czesia was still apprenticing in St. Petersburg, while the rest of our family had returned home.
After I arrived at my father's, I noticed we were in the small town of Prozoroki. There was a church and a manse with a huge garden. On the corner of the street was the organist's house. This is where we lived. The neighbourhood was very pleasant, with a beautiful field and a few small woods. It was now spring; everywhere was green with lots of flowers in the meadow and in the woods. I met a girl from town. Both Poles and Jews lived in town but during these times there were no differences. We all played together. Later, we went to the woods for berries.
And in the fall we went for mushrooms. After my sister and I awoke on those fall mornings, we would go to the nearby woods and bring home a lot of nice prawdziwych (borowik) mushrooms.
Early in the fall, my sister Czesia arrived from St. Petersburg. We were elated and wanted her to remain with us. She soon met a young man; he came over often and spent time with her, but after a couple of weeks, Czesia decide to return to St. Petersburg, and so she left.
People foresaw the coming of war. They said the Germans will come. Winter came and the children went to school but my mother took me to St. Petersburg. In the suburbs was a small station - Farforowskiy Post - where my uncle, the train traffic controller, lived. He had a nice government-owned residence. He was single, living with his mother (my grandmother). I didn't like her and felt that she didn't like me either.
Grandmother loved my cousin, who was a year younger than I, instead. He became her favourite.
Time passed and my mother prepared to leave. I was very happy that we were finally leaving to go back to father. But this did not happen. One day, my mother told me that I was to remain; my uncle would send me to school. I would benefit more here than at my father's place in Wilno province where there were only two classes of school. I worried and I cried. I was afraid to stay with my grandmother but unfortunately my mother left me. All day, I hid in the corners and cried. My cousin Czesiek (Chester) cheered me up and said that everything will be OK. He had lived with his grandmother from the time he was small, loved her very much and felt good.
In the evening my uncle returned from work. When he was at home, I felt better. I liked him. He was good and understanding. A few days after my mother left, we went to St. Petersburg with Czesiek. We came to a large building; this was the Polish school, St. Katherine. He took care of the formalities and both Czesiek and I were enrolled in school.
Every day we rode for about 10 minutes on the train. Once in St. Petersburg, it was another 10 minutes on the streetcar before we arrived at the school. At this school I felt very good and progressed in my studies. The teachers were pleasant and kind, and always willing to help us learn. They took care that the students would benefit.
A year passed quickly. I passed into the next grade with good marks. I started another year, reconciled with the fact that I had to be here and go to school.
Everywhere it was already known that the Germans had occupied Polish soil and may perhaps go even further, into Russia. German planes flew over St. Petersburg and the surrounding area, dropping bombs. It was ordered that there be no lights at night, so it was dark. Because the winter was bitter cold and lots of snow had fallen, it made it difficult for the Germans to calculate. Bombs fell into the snow but did not explode.
All day trains passed our station filled with soldiers. War had begun but here in St. Petersburg and the surrounding areas it was calm. However people worried with all that was going on. They made a point of collecting food staples. My uncle, because he was a railway employee, had the opportunity to travel on the trains and so he left for southern Russia where it was easier to find food. He brought home a good supply.
It was getting crowded in St. Petersburg. I even saw a lot of Chinese people, both men and women, on my way to school. With so many people around, it was difficult to get to the train and difficult to get inside the car. People were travelling in all directions. One day on my way home from school, as happened frequently, I could not get a spot inside the car and had to ride outside (ploszczadce). The weather on this day was extremely cold and when I returned home I took off my boots, but could not feel my feet. They were frozen and all white. After warming them up they became red and I suffered greatly as they hurt while defrosting then after that they itched.
Time passed quickly and by the spring of 1917 (a spring to remember), I was twelve years old. I was riding with my cousin on the train. When we came to Nikolajewskij Wokzal station, we noticed an unusual commotion. Everywhere people were rushing. The trains overflowed with passengers. You could see panic. We went outside. The streetcar was close to the train station and we got in. Shortly after the streetcar began to move and we were on our way to school. On the way we began to cross a bridge over a canal and the streetcar slowed down. There were a lot of bars on this canal and lots of people on both sides of it. At the bottom beside the bars was a young person who wanted to jump off the bridge. Armed military policemen shot at him. I was very scared. After a while, the streetcar crossed the bridge and turned to the right alongside the canal. Screaming started on the road and a mob of people stormed our streetcar. Wood was thrown at the streetcar, shattering the windows. I was covered in broken glass. The mob commanded all of us to empty the streetcar but I couldn't move. Some man took me by the hand and escorted me outside. I stood with my 8 year old cousin at the edge of the canal, not knowing what to do. The others who had left the streetcar had quickly disappeared. The two of us started walking towards school as it wasn't far away. The streets were empty. On the way we passed by a jewellery store whose windows had been smashed. On the sidewalk a variety of small pieces of jewellery lay strewn about. We crossed to the other side of the street and didn't look back.
When we arrived at school we found the doors locked. No one answered when we rang the bell. We could hear screams and gunshots far away so we headed down a side street in the direction of the station. We were almost there when we heard footsteps - a moment later a cavalry squad, armed with swords, passed by us on the road. We crouched down on the sidewalk but they didn't pay any attention to us. At last we arrived at the train station. The doors were closed. A few people milled about. Some clerk asked us what we were doing there. We pleaded with him to let us in so that we could go home. We gave him our names and mentioned that our cousin was a cashier at this station and that he could check that out. He left but returned in a few moments and let us in, telling us to go straight to the train and sit quietly. He pointed out which train car to go to and we obeyed. Once inside the car, we finally felt certain that we would get home. You could tell by the number of platforms that this was a huge station. We could still hear the noise and gunshots coming closer. Then came the sound of glass breaking as the windows were shot out by bullets. So again, we hid, this time under a bench, lying quietly. The shooting continued for a long time and we stayed under the bench. We could hear someone running away, escaping. It was not until later in the afternoon that the train finally began to move. It left the station into the open. We then sat back down on the benches in the train car. No one else was there. We wondered whether the train would stop at our station. It did, we got off and ran quickly home. My uncle, already home from work, had been worrying and wondering where we were. We told him about our unusual adventure and that was the end of our trips to school.
The situation became worse and the revolution started. We stayed at home with my grandmother all the time. In her eyes, I couldn't do anything right. It was a relief when my uncle returned from work. He brought news. People went to the surrounding areas to find food staples as there was a great shortage of these in the large cities such as St. Petersburg. Some people moved to the outskirts where living was easier. Next, news arrived that the city was to be called Leningrad. The Czar's followers fought the revolutionaries. The Czar left his residence together with his family. The revolutionaries took over the Czar's Selo. Times were hard and there was fighting, killing and dying everywhere.
Later that spring army troops cleared the fields around Leningrad of unexploded bombs, of which there many. One day, my former landlord from Kolpina came to town. He had lost his job and wanted to go to Wilno province to see his family and stay there for a while. My uncle arranged with him for me and my cousin to go with him. His family didn't live far from mine so he agreed and we went. We left in mid-April. My cousin was sad to leave his beloved grandmother but I was excited. We had sufficient money and food to get to the river Dzwina. This was the border with the German-occupied lands on the other side of the river and we were detained there. We stayed in someone's house for the night. The next day we noticed that all of our food was gone - someone had taken it. Our money was hidden on us and it was all we had left. The landlord led us to the German outpost. When our train came, we went to the clerk who looked over our documents but turned us back. We had no choice but to return to the house for another night. My cousin begged me to return to grandmother's place but I would not agree to it, even though we had no other options. So I stayed and I cried.
The landlord then told us that there is another, illegal, way across the border. There is a person who takes people across a swampy place to the riverbank. Another person then takes you in a boat to the other side of the river. But this option will cost you. Our acquaintance asked how much. We managed to come up with the rather large sum. The next night, before dawn, we went along a rough and swampy road and, after great difficulty, reached the riverbank. The second person was waiting and ferried us to the far bank. When the morning light came, we saw a city. Getting closer, we saw that it was Polock, a small city on the river Dzwina.
We walked along the roads. Everywhere the streets were empty because it was still early morning. We came to a church, entered and met the priest. He wanted to know where we came from so we told him our story. He took us to his manse where we had a good breakfast. Later, he pointed out the correct road to take and we set off near noon. My aunt lived about 40 kilometres away in the town of Zahacie. And we walked and walked. I was very tired but kept going. After it got dark, we kept going. Finally, when we were truly exhausted and could go no further, we noticed a barn near the road. We went in and headed straight for the pile of hay in the corner. I dropped down but didn't feel a thing - I fell right asleep.
Our acquaintance's voice woke me up the next morning. He called for us to get up and get going because it was getting late. But I couldn't get up as every part of me ached. However I knew I had to, otherwise I would be left behind. We had nothing to eat but went on anyway. At the crossroad, there were arrows to places and the distances. We noticed that Zahacie was just 17 km. away. I was excited and thought to myself that I must continue and my aunt will take care of me. I remember arriving at my aunt's house and her greeting us but I felt detached and a bit woozy.
When I awoke I noticed that I was in the kitchen near a huge stove. A moment later my cousin entered and when she saw that I was up, called my aunt. My aunt came in and asked me how I felt. She said that I was very ill with the mumps. I still had some swelling but no fever. A few days later I was able to walk around. In the meantime, Czesiek had left to go to his parents. My aunt said that I would go when I felt better.
The Germans were in town, billeted in private homes. Some lived at my aunt's house and occupied the largest room. I visited with them because I had learned German in school and sometimes could respond to them. They liked me and offered me bread. It was very delicious but they put some strong cheese on it so I took it off in such a way that they wouldn't notice.
Two weeks later, my uncle and I went to my parent's place. On the way, I observed the surroundings which were turning green everywhere and the first spring flowers glowed in the sun. It wasn't too far from my aunt's to my father's so we arrived quickly. They greeted us, especially me, after such a long absence. My sisters and brothers had grown up. It was hard to recognize them. My girlfriends came by too and we celebrated together.
The days passed fairly happily. At home, there were a few books, so I read. Vacation was nearing. My sisters and brothers would soon have a holiday break from doing homework. I became friends with a Jewish girl "Chasia." We would meet at either my house or hers. She was my age (thirteen years-old) and had a sister two years older. She was interested in boys but there were hardly any in town.
Winter was coming to an end but we could still go sledding on the hills, riding the sleds down and then pulling them back up to the top. One family, the Dabrowskis, had fled Russia and settled in our town. There were the parents and two children. The oldest boy was maybe 13 or 14 years-old. All the girls kept their eyes on him. They all liked him, including me, but I had no chance. When we played in the snow I would sometimes throw a snowball at him but he would not respond. He only had eyes for Renia, one year younger than I.
The spring of 1919 arrived. People had had enough of the Germans and their governing authorities. People always complained that we had to give the Germans everything we had. Sometimes we suffered shortages of food, especially during the season before the harvest.
One morning everyone was immensely elated because we awoke to find that the Germans had disappeared. For the time being, there was no governing authority in the region until the news arrived that the Bolsheviks were coming. News also arrived the the Czar and his family had been shot and killed in Ekaterinburg. There was great panic as everyone wondered what would happen next. So the Bolsheviks came and went. They said that they were chasing the Germans. They left behind a new government which wasn't that good for the people but we had no choice and had to reconcile ourselves to the reality. Once again, the people were oppressed. Now the Bolsheviks took everything. They carted off to Russia wood from the forests and furniture from the furthest regions of Poland. Their trains were filled with all kinds of wares. People could only mutter under their breath and wonder what would become of all this. No one foresaw anything good.
A few Bolshevik party members arrived from Dzisna, the district administrative centre which was 40 km. from Prozorek. They called the people to a meeting of the community council and appointed a few people to some posts. They opened an office in the community and now the people were definitely frightened. News arrived from Dzisna and surrounding areas that arrests had been made. The Bolsheviks carried out the trials themselves and executed a few prisoners. Our Parish priest left town and the Bolsheviks immediately went looking for him. They asked the church members, including my father, the organist, to tell them where the priest was hiding. My father said he knew nothing but they did not believe him and arrested him. In the community administration building was a place similar to a jail. That is where they put my father. The next day my mother and I, together with the family, went to this office. We asked for permission to see him. They allowed it and in a few minutes we were with him. We were all stunned because overnight our father had turned completely grey. Three days later they freed him while the others were taken elsewhere. We now lived in fear.
My father received a letter from my aunt Irene in Kolpina. She informed us that my sister, Czesia, got married and had a baby a year later but she herself died as a result of the childbirth. Once again we suffered with the loss of a family member. She had lived such a short life and left behind an infant.
Times were hard. From all over came only unpleasant or sad news. The Soviet army moved westward - it was said that they were heading towards Warsaw.
One morning a stranger came by - a Soviet soldier. He remained with us for a long time - told us where he had been and what he had seen. My parents were cautious because they did not know who he was and what he wanted to find out from us. He didn't insist on getting information but from time to time he threw out a word which might have an important meaning for us. He said that he would visit us again in a short time, on his way back.
We then heard that Jozef Pilsudski had taken over the Polish government and people whispered that shortly everything would change for the better. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks continued to carry away to Russia whatever of value they could get their hands on.
A few months went by. News arrived that there was fighting near Warsaw. In time, ordinary wagons full of the injured and wounded came to town and when they stopped, one could hear the moaning. Some pleaded for water - the scene was horrible. A lot of the healthy ones were also returning from the front on foot and in disarray. One of the Bolshevik soldiers dropped by our place and approached us to ask for a bite of food. My mother gave him what she could. He told us that he had been near Warsaw and that everything was fine. They had suddenly attacked the Poles from the rear and crushed their army - many were killed and wounded while the rest fled back in a panic. During this time we received no official news but sometimes someone would know something and inform us of what was happening at the front.
The summer of 1920 was nearing and we heard the echo of cannons firing. Despite everyone's fear of war, we listened, waiting for the sounds of bombs exploding and gunfire to come closer. That time came. One afternoon we saw a plane circle the city a few times and then fly off. In town a few army units were billeted in private homes. Three Bolshevik soldiers were living in our house, occupying the largest room. They had a radio and up-to-date news. Of course they told us nothing but my mother accidentally overheard that the enemy had occupied some place only a few kilometres away. My mother came to our room and told us about the captured locality. All were greatly frightened. After a short time, one of the soldiers came to us and said that the place with the same name is quite far from us. He also added that it was not wise to speak so carelessly about them being already captured. This kind of talk could result in unfortunate circumstances. My mother and father became scared but nothing came of it. These soldiers were very pleasant people. One of them was a Latvian medical doctor and his two friends worked in an office. We noticed that they were packing - taking various things out to their car. Two days later they drove off.
Various small army units passed through town. They were saying that a change has come and they were allowed to return home. But we knew from the sound of the gunfire that these soldiers were telling us something different from the reality. We could only wait. Once again, the unknown soldier who had visited us before, came by and reminded us of what he had said. They are heading towards Warsaw. We were no longer afraid of of him and tried to convince him to stay. He replied that he would like to, but couldn't. He had to return but would not tell us why. He told us of how he and the Bolshevik army had been attacked by the Poles near Warsaw. The Bolsheviks thought that they had the upper hand but because they were attacked from both flanks and the rear, they didn't know in which direction to flee. Then he said that the Poles would be in town shortly, and he left.
Usually everybody drove their cows onto the road and two shepherds would steer them across the fields to the forest. But now, because the situation was very unsettled, there were no shepherds. Each farmer fed his own cows himself, bringing in hay for them from the fields. It was a sunny day, a Sunday in the early afternoon, when my brother and I took a cow - led by a rope - passed a couple of houses and into the meadow. There was a ditch and a couple of trees. We let the cow off the rope and she walked off to feed on the grass. I sat under a tree because it was too hot in the sun. My brother found a small sword and played with it. A plane flew over and started to circle the meadow. I told my brother to drop the sword because it reflected the sunlight. He dropped the sword but a few minutes later someone started shooting in our direction. Quickly, we got the cow and fled home. The shooting soon stopped.
It was quiet just before sunset when three horsemen appeared and slowly came nearer. We couldn't tell who they were and when they came closer, we could see that they were carrying rifles. Then we saw that they were Poles. Everyone came out of their homes to greet them. They asked if there were any Bolsheviks around. We replied that as of a few days ago there were none, however they remained cautious. Slowly they continued forward, telling us that the Polish army would be arriving the next day. We rejoiced!
The next day, the Polish army did arrive. Some of them stayed while others moved on. Now there was a lot of traffic. They told us their stories and we told them ours. They too were billeted to private homes. This time two stayed with us in the smallest room at the side of the house. They were not around during the day as they went to work at the outpost which they'd set up in the priest's manse, yet still there was no priest.
One morning my sister, brother and I went to my aunt Kamila's house. She lived on a small homestead in Kanury, some 10 km. from Prozoroki. She always greeted us warmly and offered what she could. My cousin Czesiek, and his sister Wela, were also happy to see us. At this point in the summer the blackberries and raspberries were ripe. By their fragrance, you could tell where Kanury was. The homestead belonged to my mother's parents and had been in the family a long time. We visited often.
Because the Polish army went deep into Russia, a lot of people from there, came here. One of them, a pleasant and happy young girl named Zosia, came to live with us. In the late afternoons, young people would gather at our place. We spent time together talking and singing. Even though I was younger than her, I kept company with Zosia. My girlfriend Chasia joined in with us too. But Chasia's sister Liza was too busy flirting with the boys to spend time with us.
We worried when the army left town. They told us that they had to move on to another outpost. People began to whisper that this is something bad. Many people left. Our Zosia also left in the direction of Wilno - somewhere there she had relatives. My father had an acquaintance who had two boys in the army. They came to visit their parents and urged them to leave because there could be a change for the worst. So we all agreed to leave together. They had a huge wagon with two horses and we soon left. Once on the road, we learned that our town had been re-occupied by the Bolsheviks. We couldn't understand this kind of politics and continued on the road some 500 km. to a place called Molodeczno where we stopped. They told us that the Bolsheviks would not come here. It was a sad time for all of us. The people in this town looked upon us disapprovingly. We, the children, were not allowed to stray far from our parents who were afraid that we might be assaulted. We lived in a camp. During the day it was warm but the nights were often cool. Two weeks like this went by. Our food staples were diminishing. One of the acquaintance's sons arrived. His place was not far away. He had a walk all around, had a good look and took stock of the situation. When he returned he said that we would leave after dark, and so we did. We moved on cautiously, buying some food staples along the way. At one estate the people were fairly wealthy and took us in willingly. We had there, for certain, good times, room and board and fun. They had a grand piano which my father played while I sang. They enjoyed this and let us stay for a few more days. As we were leaving they made sure that we had sufficient food. We were very touched by their caring and generosity.
We turned around to go home and after another two weeks on the road we arrived at our house in Prozoroki. There were no Bolsheviks. We felt fortunate to be able to return to our home but when we opened the door we were greeted with a huge mess. You could tell that the house was well used and left dirty on purpose. However, this did not bother us and we simply sarted to clean up, rejoicing in the fact that the Bolsheviks were gone. Each day brought more changes. We learned that the border was to be about 20 km. away from us and that the war was over.
A new priest arrived at our parish - he was young and quite pleasant. He came by to visit and spoke with my father. He appeared to be a man of action and asked my father to advertise and assemble young people for a choir. Before long, many enrolled. My father did most of the work in preparing them. It was mid-summer and every Sunday he played and the choir sang. A lot of people came to the church. Two weeks later father wanted to practice with me as he wanted me to sing a part of the Mass, solo. It wasn't too difficult to learn. He taught me the lessons at home. During this time we had loaned the use of a grand piano. Finally one Sunday father told me that I was going to sing. I was a bit uncomfortable with the idea but I had to obey my father. I sang pretty well and everyone liked it. Now every Sunday Mass was accompanied by singing and the parishoners got ready for Mass on time and with enthusiasm. The following week the priest visited us once again. I was in the other room and father called me in. I noticed that the priest was watching me. I came closer to him and he handed me his hand. When I went to kiss his hand, he stopped me and pulled his hand away. I was frightened and confused by his action. My father had always told me how to behave in the presence of a priest. I stood there, unsure of what was going on. The priest told me to sit. I looked at my father and he smiled so I sat down. The priest told my father that I sing well and that it would be beneficial for me to receive further training. After a while, he said that he wanted to ask a favour but added that he would whisper it in my ear. At that moment I felt myself blush and turn red and he whispered to me that he wanted some honey. I repeated this to my father. I don't remember how I left the room - I felt very strange. Two days later I met the priest in front of our house and again he didn't let me kiss his hand. He spoke to make small talk and talked to me about many things, but even more so I felt strange. I didn't know how to reply and how to address him in a proper manner. He left our parish after a short while, telling us that he had been transferred to Dzisna where he would be working with high school students.
Before he left, the priest proposed to my parents that he would be most willing to find an opening for me in the high school and that my parents wouldn't have to pay for my schooling. Of course my father was delighted and thanked him. I too thanked him but felt that it was better not to go. The priest told me that his sister was in that high school. She was studying there and that it would be good for me as she could help me out. And so he left. In his place came an elderly priest, very dignified, but he wasn't much interested in improving things.
A new person came to live with us. This time it was an older lady, Mrs. Korczak-Strus. She had no family of her own, just a brother and two nephews (her sister's children). The brother and his family were to arrive later. She fixed up a corner in a large room and spent her time reading. She was not very talkative so no one bothered her. One day she turned to me asked me what I do all day long. I didn't know what to say because I just spent time with my family and played with my girlfriends. She asked me if I wanted to take lessons from her. I agreed to that and started a new adventure in my life. Every day after breakfast, she sat with me and gave me lessons in current events (about everything) and French. She said that from this point on we will speak only French. I found this hard as I couldn't understand anything she was saying to me. She persisted even though she knew that I could not understand. She started using gestures. I spent three hours at each lesson. As soon as I finished, I fled into the garden to be in the sunshine and with my family. A couple of months passed by and even though I was dissatisfied with the process, I had benefitted greatly. She also taught me some manners; how to behave in the company of others. I didn't know why she did all of this for me. Maybe her lonliness troubled her, so she picked on me. I spent more and more time with her. She said I was grown up and I shouldn't be playing with little kids. Soon she received a letter and was elated when she read it. Her brother and nephews would soon be arriving.
Spring passed but I always had lessons with Mrs. Korczak-Strus. I noticed that it was becoming easier for me to understand what she was saying in French so I started to respond. She corrected me continuously. Even throughout the whole day she always spoke French to me. One afternoon, our new guests, the brother and one of the nephews, arrived. My teacher greeted them with delight.
Her brother was middle-aged, chubby and an invalid, with only one leg. He looked very distinguished and pleasant. The nephew was 25-30 years old, tall, slim and very handsome. Two days later, Mrs. Korczk-Strus and the nephew left for Wilno. The nephew was going to drop her off to visit with more family and return.
My father spoke to Mr. Korczak-Strus. He told us how he got across the border with the help of smugglers, of which there were a lot of near the border. It cost him a lot but he was satisfied with his choice. He had spent a long time in Kaukaz (the Caucasus), where he had been one of the owners of a mine in Baku, but he had to leave everything behind in order to flee and save his life. It was at the mine that he lost his leg in an accident. His wife and two daughters were expected to arrive at our house shortly.
Because my teacher had left for Wilno, I once again had a lot of free time. Although I promised her that I would practice and read a lot, this didn't go well. I preferred to go to my girlfriend's house and spend my time outdoors. The weather was splendid and sunny. It was a shame to waste each day studying. I promised myself that I would catch up in due time.
For now we had peace and quiet. The civil servants returned to their jobs and life began to return to normal. People breathed a sigh of relief after those hard times. However, smugglers still worked at the border to get people across, mainly from Bolshevik Russia into Poland, and at the same time they smuggled various goods to both sides.
One day, Mr. Korczak stopped me and indicated that he wanted to talk. He sat me down then asked how I had spent the last couple of years. I told him about my experiences. He asked if I would like to further my education. I said yes, but this wasn't easy as there was no school here and I could not go anywhere else because my father could not afford it. Many days I would spend an hour or two chatting with Mr. Korczak.
His nephew Paul, returned with his brother Victor. Victor was in the army and came to see his uncle and to help Paul with the baggage which had arrived in a few huge crates. They had enough work there for a couple of days. Their uncle just sat and watched as he could not help. Soon enough, shelves had been erected on the walls and stocked with inexpensive goods for the people to buy. On the floor sat a few bags of rice, salt and other bulk food staples. For at least the foreseeable future, we would not be running out of staples!
My mother now received a sufficient supply of rice and salt. Of course she cooked for and took care of our guests. They were thankful but made their own meals on their own small stove and organized themselves in such a way that they lacked for nothing. Time passed quickly and I continued chatting with Mr. Korczak and Paul, although Victor had returned to the army.
My mother's cousin also had not long ago crossed the border with his family. They settled in Wilno and their children were able to continue their schooling. The cousin now came to visit because he had inherited some fields and a house. We learned from him of my uncle's death (the uncle in St. Petersburg). After Czesia and I had left, he got married, had a baby daughter and again left on the trains to go south but when he returned he became gravely ill with typhus and died. His wife and daughter moved to Swiecian, near Wilno. Grandmother stayed for a while with her brother but she died too.
We received a letter from someone who wrote that we are related to her husband, who died in Russia, and that she and her daughter had returned to Swiecian - it was the same person that my mother's cousin had told us about. This lady wrote that she knew from her husband that there is an inheritance and that her daughter has a right to recieve her share. She further mentioned that she had spoken to a lawyer and could take the matter to court if need be. This worried all of us because in Kanura lived our aunt Kamila with her husband and two children. There was not much to share. The whole property consisted of 45 dziesiecin (one dziesiecina - an ancient Russian measure - was equal to about 1.1 hectares) and was already divided into three, sandy and not very fertile, parcels. As a result, it was very difficult for my aunt to thrive on that homestead. But, her husband knew how to graft fruit trees and every spring he went to work so that they could eke out a simple life. My parents helped them a lot. Every year my father received a portion of the donations to the church, which came in the fall (harvest time) in the form of grain and other bounty. When my father visited aunt Kamila, he would leave a portion of these donations with her.
We replied to the letter and shortly she sent an invitation for me to come visit. I left a couple of days later. The distance was not far - I had to make only one change of trains.
When I arrived at the small town of Swiecian, I easily found the place where she lived. My knock on the door was answered by a middle-aged lady whose best years had past. She was my uncle's wife and had a pretty 3 year-old daughter. She asked me about my family and the inheritance. I told her everything. She said she had nothing. At one time she had been wealthy but today she lacked the means to keep herself and her child. After almost a week I said my farewells and returned home. A couple of months later (in the spring of 1921) we received another letter from her informing us of her daughter's death. Our correspondence ended on this note.
Meanwhile, our tenant, Mr. Korczak, had a good business going, selling a lot, emptying his shelves and restocking them. People came and bought as there was a shortage of everything and he was able to supply the need.
One nice afternoon my sister Hela and I decided to go to the meadow. We picked wildflowers, the sun was warm, birds were chirping and all this made us very happy. When we returned home we noticed that new guests had arrived. They were Mr. Korczak's wife and two daughters - young, very pretty and shapely. I looked at them with admiration. Mr. Korczak told his wife that his sister had given me French lessons. She smiled and spoke to me a few words of French. I don't know if what I answered was correct. From then on both she and her daughters spoke to me in French, and so my lessons carried on.
A chilly fall arrived (1921). I spent more time at home reading the books which the Korczak ladies lent me. I also noticed that I was now a grown-up. I accepted this but with fear. I would hide some of my lingerie in the attic until my mother found out and asked me about it. I answered that I must be sick. She asked me why I thought this. I answered because I hid my underwear in the attic. She explained menstruation to me and I calmed down.
Time passed and the spring of 1922 approached. Paul and his uncle decided to go to Wilno to visit Mr. Korczak's niece. As the day of their departure approached I received an offer to join them. Once there, they would endeavour to enroll me in school. Mr. Korczak discussed this proposal with my parents who were captivated by the plan. My mother received a few pieces of material from him and sewed me a few necessary garments. I myself was not enthusiastic with this idea. I thought that again my parents were pushing me out the door, but I kept mum.
In mid-April of 1922 we left for Wilno. Paul planned to drop us off in Wilno then continue on to Warsaw to his mother's. We arrived too late at night to go to the niece's home so we stayed in a hotel close to the train station. Paul left us there to continue his journey, promising that he would return in a couple of days. Mr. Korczak ordered supper which was delivered to the hotel. Everything was tasty but I had no appetite. There was also strong liquor. Mr. Korczak drank and talked me into drinking. It tasted good, some kind of liqueur. He looked at me strangely. I did not like this. He told me that I was pretty and different from my sisters and brothers. We sat together a long time while he drank more shots, but I declined any more. Finally, he said it was time to go to sleep. There was one bed and a couch so he took the bed and I laid on the couch. I was just starting to fall asleep when he called to me and asked me to bring him some water which was in a carafe on the table by the couch. I came with a glass and he asked me to sit on the bed. I didn't want to but he pulled me by the hand and I sat down. I don't know if he was tipsy but he started to compliment me. He was still holding my hand and pulled me closer to him then kissed my face and hands. He held me firmly so that I was half sitting, half laying. He said if he was ten years younger, he would take me for his own. He kissed me some more but I felt indifferent. The thought came to me that if this had been Paul, I would have reacted differently! Finally, he said that I was very young and let me go. I returned to the couch wondering what to do next. Perhaps I should return home, but at last I fell asleep.
I arose early the next morning. Mr. Korczak told me that we would be going to his niece's. He spoke to her on the phone and arranged for me to stay with them. Again, I thought that everything might turn out fine. We arrived around noon and his niece, Mrs. Dola, a young and pleasant woman, and her husband, greeted us warmly. Her husband, a captain in the army reserves who worked in an office, was more formal but also pleasant. They were very kind to me. They had a five year-old daughter. We got along and soon after we went for a walk. Mr. Korczak returned to the hotel.
Paul returned a couple of days later and visited with his uncle and cousins. I didn't feel comfortable in his presence, noticing that he wore a strange smile. Meanwhile Mr. Korczak let me know that he was arranging for me to attend school. While living with Mrs. Dola, it was expected that I would care for their daughter and watch out for their home in my spare time as well as during the evenings when she and her husband would go visiting friends or attending social events.
Time passed like this and soon a month at Mrs. Dola's had gone by. I was very friendly with her daughter, little Gracie (Grazyna), with whom I spent a lot of time. One Sunday the entire household went for a walk. We toured Zamkowa Gora. I liked it there very much as I was able to observe Wilno from a high perch in the church steeple. Not long after, the family got busy preparing for a small party which was to be held at their home. They had a male domestic worker who helped a lot. I, on the other hand, looked after Gracie, taking her for walks. She did not attend school yet although she would be attending kindergarten the following season. The day of the party was full of action as they made final preparations for the arrival of their guests. It was still daylight when they started arriving. A few army men came with their wives and Mr. Korczak and Paul came too. Mrs. Dola had me sit at the table with the adults although I felt quite uncomfortable. However, as everyone sat down, I was able to relax. By watching the others, I knew how to behave so as to not embarrass Mrs. Dola. Everything went well. Mr. Korczak asked me how I felt, if I had gotten used to being here. He mentioned that he would soon be getting a reply regarding my application to school. I thanked him for his efforts.
A week later a big change came in my life. Paul took me to Mr. Korczak's hotel where I met his wife and daughters. We all went to the restaurant for a meal. Mrs. Korczak asked me if I was homesick and explained what my family was up to and that they were waiting for my return. A few days later, Paul arrived with his uncle to let me know that the school would be accepting applications in two months. They recommended that I return home and later re-apply to the school with father or mother. Shortly, I left for home.