My Father’s Family

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At the beginning of our friendship I did not know Ben’s parents, and he never talked about them. After knowing him for two years, I went for a holiday to the same place in the country where they used to have a villa. I stayed in a guest house, and he stayed with them.

They had a very big villa-estate there, two houses, one of which they occupied, and the other they would let to a few tenants just for the summer, they were only summer flats (no heating). There was also quite a large piece of land with nice forest in it and a tennis court, and young people from all the houses in the vicinity used to come and play tennis there. They hired it out by the hour, and his mother took good care of this business.
Well, that summer I first met Ben’s parents and his whole family. I was not a very good judge of character then and it took me a long time to know them. They were very different from my own family.
They were already quite old by then, I really don’t know how old, but at that time they looked to me in their sixties at least, yet during all the years I knew them I never noticed any change in them.
Ben’s mother was born in Cracow, and like all Jews from Galicia spoke Polish very well, but with her husband she most of the time spoke Yiddish, and to the children she spoke in Polish. Ben’s father did not speak very good Polish, though it was not too bad, and he also spoke to his children in Polish. I liked him, he was a very goodhearted man, and I think he had the best heart in the whole family. I don’t think he had any education, probably some 2 or 3 classes in some Russian high school, that was probably the most, and his wife about the same. But they gave their children an education, and I must praise them for that. Ben’s mother also had all the characteristics of Galician people: she did not trust anybody or anything, she was always suspecting everybody of being dishonest, of wanting to cheat her, especially her house-maid.
They had a very big flat in Warsaw, which they still had from before 1914, about 9 or 10 rooms: a dining room, a master bedroom, a salon, five children’s room, a maid’s room, a bathroom, etc. Ben’s father had been a businessman, importing some textile materials, but at the time when I met them he did not have any business and did not work, the lived from income from the country estate during the summer and for some time after the summer, and later their children kept them and the estate. They also rented some rooms in their flat, because all the children except Ben were married, and the rooms were empty, and they were very careful for Ben not to get married, or to marry very rich, because he was giving them almost everything he earned.
She had to keep a maid all the time, of course, but the first thing I noticed when I was first invited there was that everything in the house was locked, even the food. She was afraid that the maid would take a slice of bread too many. This was something I could never get used to – we did not have a maid at the time, as a matter of fact all the time since the war started, but I still remember from before the war, that we had a maid, it was Michcia, whom I mentioned before, she was just like one of the family, and the food in our house was never locked, she could choose whatever she liked to eat, my mother never said “This is for us and this is for you”, but Ben’s mother used to give her only what she thought she ought to give her to eat, and I would say it was not enough, and the rest was carefully locked up, and she always kept the keys on her. I could never get over that, and later, after we got married and after your father’s success, when we had 2 maids in the house, she would try to influence me that I should lock everything up. I never agreed and I don’t think she had a good opinion of me, she probably thought that I was throwing away her son’s money, even though I worked all the time too and what we earned belonged to both of us, but that never occurred to her, and strange, it started to show on her son too a short while after the wedding, but of that later.

They were not very religious, but they kept traditions and the father used to go to the synagogue for holy days, but I heard that they were much more religious earlier in their life.
On big holidays the whole family used to come to dinner, which was not very plentiful and I seldom had a chance to eat as much as I would like. I got my plate and I had to be satisfied with it, for her own children there was always more. But I should not be so critical, in those times I was already not starved, but it is the way I felt, and I felt it many, many times, before and after we were married. My mother was so different, everything that she had she would willingly share with anybody. Whoever used to come to our house, in good or bad times, felt at home at our place. In the wartime, when it was so bad, there was always somebody staying with us, her brothers or sisters, they did not go to anyone else, only to my mother, her heart and all her possessions she shared with them. When my brother got married and his wife used to come to us, she felt at home – she wanted to eat, she ate, she wanted to drink, she drank, she would not think of any other way and none of us would, but I would not do such a thing in Ben’s house. I never felt at home there. There was always a wall between me and his mother.
However, other members of his family were quite close to me. His father used to stay at our place many times, in the years when they gave up their flat and moved altogether to the country estate, and so did other members of the family who did not live in Warsaw.
I also could not get used to the way all children and in-laws had to greet her. When we arrived to their house we had to kiss her hand, then her wrinkled face, and then her hand again. I nearly got sick every time I did it, but I could not rebel, I had to be the same as all the other children. She was of course much older than my own mother, but I never saw her nicely dressed, always in long, dark, mostly black dresses, even ar times when the women used to wear skirts up to their knees. She was old, of course, but she made herself look older. She just looked like a very old Jewess.
Ben’s father had absolutely white hair, and they said he had been quite a handsome man, and I can quite believe it. They both had good manners and were quite cultured people.

The first son was Leon. He was a doctor when I first met him, had a wife, Frieda, and a son, Robuś. At the time when we were married Robuś was about 10 years old. Leon was a good-looking man, but not very tall, just medium height, he looked very much like Ben but was smaller and much thicker built, he looked already a middle-aged man when I first met him but he was probably in his early thirties.
Leon was a very nice and pleasant man and I liked him from the very beginning and he liked me too, very much. That feeling developed later on, soon after I was married, into a much deeper feeling, based on physical attraction on both sides, but neither of us let it grow.

I liked Frieda too. She was a very nice person, but very unattractive, small, fat, and not nice face, but very gay, always in good temper and good in heart. They were married from very deep love, that’s what I heard from her. She was a very rich girl when she married him, from a very good, wealthy and very well-known family in Warsaw. I net all her family later, and I liked them all very much.
We were very frequent guests at their place. In the beginning, when I first visited them still before my wedding, they lived in a huge apartment, there must have been more than ten great rooms, for just the three of them and a couple of servants, but the position was not good for the young doctor, and they moved to a more central position and took a smaller apartment. In Warsaw doctors used to have their office in their flats. Part of the flat was made only for that use.
They were very well off, he was making plenty money, besides what he got from her parents when they got married. Frieda kept a nice open house, and the house was always full of friends and family. Many evenings we spent there playing poker. Robuś was a beautiful boy, though not tall enough for his age, and was very intelligent and especially good at school. He was loved by everybody in the family.

The second was a daughter, Nata. She was about a year younger than Leon, and at the time when I first met her she was married to man by the name of Alek, and a surname finishing in –ski, changed from a Jewish surname. He had been a major in the army during the war for Polish independence, but when I met him he was just a businessman, though with a university degree, and so was his wife, but I can’t remember what degrees they finished, because neither of them made use of their degree. They both finished university late in life, during the time I was married already.
Nata was an invalid by the time I met her. I heard that she was a beautiful girl, they were in love for a long time, he was also a very good-looking man, and from a very good family.
I heard that when she was about 25, still before she was married, but they were already going out together, she fell down climbing up a mountain, and broke something in her spine. She was a long time in bed, but when she got up she still could not walk properly.
She could not walk without a stick, but she hated the stick and thought that everybody was looking at her and laughing at her, so she did not use the stick, so she therefore could not go out alone and she was absolutely dependent on her husband.
He married her after he knew that she would never walk again. I think it was wonderful of him, especially since he did not get a penny for dowry. He was very good to her, but as a woman she had no attraction for him, and she did not accept that. He had many women, but he was very discreet, however she was a very suspicious and mean person, just the same as her mother. Many times she was going through his pockets looking for love letters, when he was not at home she was always trying to find out where he was and what he was doing. As a result his whole life was a big lie. He had to lie. He had no freedom. He did not want to rebel openly, but I know. We had quite a few discussions.
He liked me very much, much more than he should, but I was just friendly to him and very sorry for them all.
Nata’s life was just a great suffering. She eventually died before the war from heart trouble, which was connected with that accident. She was suffering terribly and very long before she died.
Most of the time they were very well off. He was a good businessman and made plenty money, but he was crazy about races and poker and eventually lost most of his money. The trouble first started when he won about 1000 złoty, which was plenty money (about 5 month wages for a worker), and he wanted to win more, but he never won again. He lost thousands. His poker game was also pretty high but he was not lucky at it.

The next, Betty, was a few years younger. At the time when I was already going out with Ben, Betty got married. I was not at the wedding, I was not accepted yet. She married a man from Łódź. Nothing particular, just a pleasant man working on a job. Her parents by that time had not money to give him as a dowry, but they managed to collect a few thousand złoty from the other children, and Betty got married. That was not a love marriage, however they lived very good together. Betty was quite good-looking however also too small and too fat but very pleasant, nice and good-hearted woman. She was more like her father. She was a very different person to Nata. When I met her they already had a little boy by the name of Brunuś. He was a sick child, and they moved to the country, where the child had fresh air.

The fourth, a couple of years older than Bronek, was David, or Dodja as he was called in the family. Dodja was the tallest of the brothers, handsome and charming, but could also be mean and suspicious. He had married not long before I first met him, and his wife Hela was a very attractive dark-haired young lady who dressed very elegantly and seemed very self-centered. There seemed to have been rivalry and dislike for a long time between Dodja and your father, so he and I saw very little of them, except at the family gatherings.

Your father was the youngest. When he was born his parents had named him Benjamin, and at home and among friends he was called Beniek. But when he left high school he wanted a more Polish name, and from then on always made sure he was introduced as Bronisław, and among friends and colleagues he was BronekNext section →

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