The sharp smell of autumn permeated the garden that September day in 1993.
Dad and I were digging the potatoes from their warm hills and laying them on the ground to cure. The carrots could wait for another week before they would need to be gathered and gently washed. The drying vines of the peas and beans on their trellises made mouse-like skittering noises as they rubbed together in the stir of air.
At first we chatted and laughed in the warmth of the day. Soon our words gave way to an easy, comfortable silence. Lost in my own thoughts, I already tasted the sweet bounty of our garden.
Neither of us was expecting to hear those leafy whispers among the trees.
A sharp breeze, reminder of colder days to come, made its way over the fence to breathe a message among the dead, fallen leaves. For a single moment, I took pleasure in the crunchy, rusting noises as the leaves caught in crevices of the land forming ink blot patterns. Abruptly, my father struggled to his feet, dropped the garden fork, covered his ears and in a voice shaking with dread, declared “No, no, I can’t stand that noise. It sounds like clacking of the people’s bones.”
I stood, holding my breath, and stared into his eternity. When I could breathe again, I asked “What are you talking about, Dad?” But somewhere deep in me I knew I didn’t want to hear his answer.
“The dead leaves; that noise”, he said. The people and children made that noise when they were walking. They were so thin, their bones made that noise when they walked. I heard them from a long way when they came into the camp for food. I hate hearing their bones now” he said, his voice trembling.
My dad hadn’t talked of the war for a long, long time and never about this chilling memory. In my everyday world I had forgotten this man’s wounded soul and the nightmare shadows in his sad, blue eyes. For a while I didn’t have any words for him and, as I had learnt to do in other times, I prepared for my journey into his dark night of things past. I made the choice to share his intimacy. I knew that I would be changed; I would never enjoy the sound of rustling leaves again.
But that would come later. Now, I would become part of his dark places. I shifted my feet on the soft, rich soil that now felt like quicksand and asked him softly, “what happened dad?”
In a terse voice, he said “I made it to Buzuluk where the Polish Army had just left.
The Red Cross and the Czech soldiers were there. They had food for us. We were so hungry. There was so much food on the tables and real cigarettes. I could smell them – not those terrible Russian horkas. They were on a white tablecloth. I touched to see if he dared. A few ragged souls rushed past him to the table making small, whimpering sounds as fell on the offerings. Soon they were writhing and twisting on the ground, the fatal effects of normal food in a starved body. “No one could help them. Why did those soldiers, in their clean uniforms with real leather boots, do this to us?” he asked.
“I suppose they didn’t know, they thought they were being kind, dad” I replied.
In a flat voice he said “maybe.” Still, after all these years he needed an answer to this unintended cruelty and then, perhaps, its memory would be at rest. He described mounds of rich brown meat on china platters. He hadn’t seen china plates for so long.
“They looked so beautiful on the tablecloth, I remember home” he said. He tried to remember what this meat might taste like but the smell was sickening. Next to the plates of meat were fruit and bread. He looked around quickly and then slyly stuffed the soft pieces into his pockets, to be eaten slowly and savored, later in private.
Then came that sound. Long before the lines of children, women, men, and the old were seen, he heard the noise; a hollow, rattling, dry, dead noise. It made him shiver and he couldn’t stop even when he saw them filling the horizon. “They were so nieszczęśliwe (wretched), like noise cienie (shadows). They were skeletons with all their bones sticking out. The poor children; like shriveled leaves swaying in the breeze.
They could hardly stand. There were so many of them and I looked like that”, he said in a hollow voice. He explained they were the survivors from Siberia, the Nieludzka Ziemia (Inhuman Land) and were all going home to freedom. He stopped for a few moments, his harrowed gaze looking far into the distance of this abyss. He drew a long, deep breath. Abruptly, he jabbed the tines of the garden fork into the ground as if breaking the bitter tendrils that held his past, saying “We’ll finish the potatoes tomorrow.” He had returned to his second life again. I had my father back. It would be another four years before I would travel on this dark journey with him again; it would be the last time.
Autumn would never be the same for me.
Conversation with Maria Jakubowska (nee Filipek) at her home in Iwierzyce, October 17, 1992. The verbal translation from Polish to English by Wacław Filipek.
My father and I traveled by car with Kazimierz (Maria’s son) from Rzeszów to Iwierzyce early in the afternoon. Auntie Maria was outside the farmhouse to meet us when we arrived. She sent Kazimierz to the house and led my dad and me to the small vegetable garden at the side of the house. She knelt down amongst the carrots (they didn’t grow leafy veggies as the fallout from Chernobyl affected them but not, apparently, root vegetables – likewise, all the milk was boiled first before using); she looked around twice. We knelt in front of her. Auntie Maria started talking to my dad. My dad said that his sister wanted us to know what happened to Joseph (1)
(their younger brother). The following is the translated version of Maria told my dad.
Our father’s sister, Maria (2), was 88 when she died. She died the day Krystyna (Maria’s daughter) was born (3). I inherited Jakubowski land (4). Our mother gave Jan (5) a house on Filipek land (6). Uncle Jan sold the house (7) so now does not have any right to claim the Filipek land. But, I, being a Jakubowski by marriage, cannot claim the Filipek land either (8). Jan wants to buy his house back but the owner wants the same price as Americans would pay – $50,000.00 US dollars. If Jan was able to buy his house back, he would be able to claim the Filipek lands. No one seems to know if the original deeds still exist (have to check out land titles in Rzeszów). With the intense fighting by both the Germans and Russians in the area during WWII, it may be that the land grants, which were registered in Iwierzyce, were destroyed.
When the Germans invaded the area and heavy fighting (bombardments and battles) took place, Auntine Maria, Joseph, Jan, me, and my mother and father, took the cows and escaped into the forests to the south, 30 km. from Iwierzyce (9). Sometimes we hid in the forests around the farm. The Germans traveled the roads in three’s on motorcycles with sidecars and machine guns shooting anyone they came across.
The Germans came to the (Filipek) farm (10) and knew that father owned the farm and demanded he present himself to be taken for slave labor. I told the Germans that my dad was not there and that the two elderly people (my mum and dad) in the house were just farm labourers and did not live there. My mum and dad had to live away from the farm for days at a time and had to sleep in the forest. As most families had to give up a person or persons for slave labour, the family had to make a choice; Joseph, then 17, was sent as slave labour (see the Red Cross report for Josef’s internment).
The Germans blew up the house and a German named (?) (11) took over the farm under the German plan of re-settlement. We, the family, had to work for the German who had taken over the farm. The work was very had and we had to live in a labourer’s cottage. When the Russians came over the border, the battles started again and the family had to run to safety. After the Russians came, they took all the land in the district and took all the livestock, crops and what was left after the Germans left. The early years after the war were very hard and we were very hungry.
This is the end of the conversation as Kazimierz came over and said it was time to go back to Rzeszów. I am sure that my dad and his sister had other conversation but my dad would not tell me anything else.
About two weeks later, with dad translating, Kazimierz told me that when he was a child during the 1950’s and early 60’s he remembers their house being set on fire and burnt to the ground on three different occasions. I asked him who did it. He stated he didn’t know but it was the communists (have since found out from Majek – a family acquaintance in Edmonton, that in the southeastern area of Poland – formerly Galicia, the Ukrainian freedom fighters raided often during the 1950’s. Kazimierz wouldn’t tell me anything else (12)
(1) Joseph Filipek was taken by German soldiers for mandatory labour in Germany from April 10, 1940 to May 9, 1945.
(2) Krystyna was born in 1954. My father’s auntie Maria inherited the Filipek land after her three brothers left to emigrate to America and Chechoslovakia. When dad’s family had to return to Iwierzyce from Moravia in 1934, dad’s father took over the land from his sister Maria, but she was still in change of the household. She was very religious and went everyday to the monastery in Sędziszów; she always gave half the harvest to the monastery.
(3) Land inheritance is patrilineal – inheritance passes through the male line.
(4) Maria was married to Władysław Jakubowski who was a farm labourer either on Filipek land or in Bystřice
before WWII, where he came from. He was given some of the Filipek land after 1945 either when the Russians took over the government of Poland or took over the ownership of what was left of the Filipek lands on his marriage to Maria (my speculation at this point.)
(5) Jan is the youngest brother of Maria and my dad.
(6) Just down the lane and west of Maria’s house, in the lea at the bottom of the hill. Before WWII, the original Filipek house was quite a way north of the present cottage that Maria lives in now. Kazimierz stopped by the laneway to the original Flipek house but he would not take us to the property as he said it was private now.
(7) At the insistence of his wife.
(8) This puts dad, as oldest sibling, in the position of inheriting the land as Stanisław, the oldest brother, died in 1970. My father gave his land inheritance to his sister.
where Maria might have first met her husband (or, he might have been working for the Filipek family as my dad maintains.)
(10) This was a large two story house with 15 rooms (according to my dad.)
(11) Not known as dad did not understand and Maria would not repeat the man’s name.
(12) Poland had just won independence when we visited and the family was very careful about what they said and where we talked. There were many people who were and reported any suspect conversations to the local communist cadres. Each time we visited with Auntie Maria and were sitting around talking, an old woman who tended a cow, would come and sit under the window to listen to our conversations.