Readers of my Memoirings may find that I’ve written before about some of the events I mention in this piece from 1993. Yet it’s a different take, in a different context. & I can’t say that I actually remember any of it, I only remember different tellings of it to myself &/or others, some of it in writing, some more from My Mother’s Memoirs than from my own. & each telling is different…
(“Niemcy” [pronounced nyemtzi — the i short, as in hit], in the text below, is the Polish word for Germans.)
From 1993, on 1939-40: BRAVE
I don’t know if I went for the heroic from my earliest childhood because I couldn’t cope with the pain and confusion I had known since the first moment of heartbreak and sex-collapse and betrayal I remember, somewhere in transit between Warsaw and Moscow, when both my parents screamed abuse and threats at me in my cot when they caught me delightedly stroking my little hard-on and destroyed not only that moment’s sheer delight but also the security I had in feeling they loved me, and frightened me, telling me it would turn black and fall off, and I hated them, and I loved them, and I needed them to love me, and began learning secret wiles. I learned their loving me was not unconditional, which meant I could no longer be me. I loved stroking my little hard-on, now I had to repress. I didn’t want them to catch me again, and I didn’t want it to fall off or turn black. It’ll turn black, it’ll fall off, I won’t be able to do number two any more. I had to stop being me, had to become someone they would love, do the things they liked praising me for, not do things they would stop loving me for. I learned to watch their faces, listen to their tone in advance, to interpret, not to be taken by surprise.
The first most important thing I learned was to be brave. They kept telling me I had to be, and praising me when I was. When we left Warsaw in a hurry, and I had to leave behind all my toys and the new electric train my father had brought me from London for my birthday, which ran on long tracks on the thick carpet in my room, they told me we’d be coming back in a couple of weeks, and it all seemed like a kind of adventure. But after weeks on the road in the car my father had somehow managed to get on the very day we left after the Polish army confiscated the new car he’d bought only weeks before, and almost every day the German planes flying over the road and dropping bombs on the convoys of fleeing vehicles, and Father would pull up and we would run to seek shelter, behind road embankments, wherever, I decided I’d had enough, I wanted to go home. In a restaurant we stopped at I cried and cried. My mother talked and talked at me, but I refused to give up. Then she told me that my father was brave, and he was saving us from the Niemcy, and that she loved him so because he was so brave, and she told me that she was being brave too, that she kept wanting to go back to Grandmother, and she was worried about her, but she was being brave, to help save me, and she loved me, and I loved her and I should be brave too, it would help us all. I stopped crying, and decided to be brave, not as a wile, not for their approval, but because I understood, and I didn’t feel betrayed, didn’t feel their love was conditional on how I behaved or what I did, until that moment when I did, and then I also began my life-long course of self-betrayal, with all the consequent frustration and guilt and shame with regard to my own self-esteem, which were a constant companion whenever I wasn’t enthralled into a heroic story or any of the other options I’ve mentioned.
I was brave most of the time during our flight from Warsaw. Even when Father left us in Lemberg, after the Russians came and occupied it, and he wanted to get away from them too, and we were going to try to get to Lithuania, but the night we set out the car wouldn’t start, so we stayed, and a few days later he sold the car and decided to go on to Vilna by train, by himself, to see the lay of the land and try to get us across. Two weeks later two strangers arrived and said that Father had sent them to help get us across the border. We took the train that night, I and my mother and my nanny and the two strangers. We traveled all night until we arrived at a small city near the border, spent a night in a small hotel there, and next day started out on a sleigh towards the border. Father was waiting for us on the other side. Then there were Russian guards with rifles pointing at us all around us, and after some time we were imprisoned in a barn, with about three hundred other people. I was sick, I was running a high temperature. There was no medical care, no food, no drink. My mother had some condensed milk and chocolate in her suitcase. The Russian soldiers searched us every night, but they didn’t find any of the diamonds or gold pieces my mother had sewn into her buttons and girdle and into the lining of my fur coat and my quilt. One day when we were standing in the fenced enclosure outside the barn my mother gave me a piece of buttered bread and told me to eat it with the buttered side down so nobody would see that I had butter on my bread. I didn’t know how she obtained it, but I knew enough to obey and maintain secrecy. After a week we were released. My mother found a hotel room for us, and after some time made contact with other strangers who agreed to smuggle us across the border for a large amount of money. They decided to wait for New Year’s Eve, when the Russian soldiers would be drunk. It was cold, the snow was a foot deep, I trudged between my mother and my nanny, holding their hands, until we reached a sleigh outside the town. The sleigh could only take us so far, then we had to walk again. It had got dark, and there was a full moon. One of the strangers carried me on his back, because the snow was too deep for me. I didn’t like being on the stranger’s back. After some time I started crying. Dogs started barking, and our progress stopped as we all quickly hid. The strangers were angry at me, and my mother whispered to them, and to me, and I resolved to repress my crying. After a long cold time in the snow we started again, and this time we got across the border.