Corrections are welcome.
Smile, think, read, make friends – my childhood.
When the pupil is ready, the teacher will come.
Dziwna jakaś – ona się cały czas uśmiecha.
Every day, first thing in the morning,
I smiled, and then smiled again, and then began to think and didn’t stop until I went to bed. And then I smiled again to my thoughts and fell asleep. My mummy told me that I was always smiling in my sleep, too. I asked my brother to check if it was true, but he said there was no need to – I did smile, he saw it every night. That’s why everybody called me
Uśmieszka. (uśmiech – a smile)
I stumbled across Radio Svoboda – Liberty – it was mercilessly jammed by the Soviets, but I managed somehow.
Imagine only: The Soviets said Brezhnev (the Soviet communist party leader) was very good, almost as good as Lenin who was the greatest, the Americans were very bad, because they bombed Vietnam with B-52 and napalm, and the Chinese were bad, because they misunderstood Marx and Lenin. The Americans said Brezhnev was bad, and the Chinese were bad because they both wanted to destroy capitalism and freedom. The Chinese said Brezhnev was bad, because he didn’t agree with a guy called Mao, and the Americans were even worse, because they bombed Vietnam, wanted to destroy communism in China, and supported Taiwan. And all of them said it in Russian, the language I happened to be learning of my own free will. (Russian was compulsory in Polish schools, but for much older children. Hardly anyone liked it.)
And at school, they said (in Polish) that our Party Leader (Gomułka and later Gierek) was good, but Brezhnev was better, and the Church was bad.
My mummy said that the Church was very good, Gomułka was bad, but not as bad as Brezhnev who was almost as bad as Stalin and Lenin. Когда Ленин умирал так Сталину приказывал: Хлеба вволю не давай а сала не показывай. That’s what my mummy taught me – we had a good laugh. She knew how to tell a story. My mother was very old and wise; she looked like My Granny.
Lenin and Stalin were the worst, she told me. Stalin killed thousands of Polish officers in Katyń. He sent everybody to prison and made millions of people die of hunger. And then he died, but prisons are still there. Stalin was as bad as Hitler. The conclusion was somewhat unexpected, because the Soviets, the Americans, the school I was sent to, and my mother agreed for once: Hitler was bad. I don’t remember the Chinese mentioning him, but they said the Japanese were devils because they raped women and children in Nanking and killed many Chinese and Korean people.
I already knew a thing or two about Japan. My brother had some Japanese stamps and postcards and they looked damn pretty. ‘This is Osaka, this is Yokohama, this is Tokyo. And this is Kyoto’ he told me, and he stared at Kyoto for a long time – he was smiling, with his eyes only. He was a silent type, he usually kept himself to himself. I thought Kyoto was the name of the girl in the picture – she was beautiful and wore a colourful, unusually appealing dress. (I now know she was a maiko, an apprentice geisha.) ‘She’s poetry incarnate,’ he said suddenly. ‘Guns are for boys, poetry is for girls,’ he added and looked at me approvingly. That meant that he was glad I read poems – my brother read crime stories mostly.
He said that ‘Siedmiu samurajów’ – a Japanese movie – was the best ever (many years later I discovered that he meant ‘Siti-nin no samurai 七人の侍’ by Kurosawa Akira黒澤明).
Ania, my best friend, a classmate of mine, whose father was a sailor, had a Japanese doll that could pee when you tickled her bellybutton. The doll was a great hit in our class. She had a serene face with slightly slanting eyes, long black hair, and wore a kimono. She smiled mysteriously at her inner thoughts and mockingly, and at the same time invitingly, at the viewer. A real piece of Art. We called her Siku-siku (Pee-pee in Polish). Siku-siku had a pussy under her belly between her thighs, just as we girls had – our dolls had none. Her pussy wasn’t just a bump wih a slit, there were two pink petals inside the slit. It looked like a blooming flower*. The doll’s real name was お死に – that was written, or rather painted, on the beautiful box she was kept in.
* I wondered why it was so, of course. I investigated my little flower thoroughly. I soon found what I didn’t look for: klituś-bajduś – my clitty – and what it was there for. I hastened to share my secret joy with Ania. She already knew and was surprised I didn’t know. We had a good laugh. I was a late comer, as it were. Or were we both precocious? Nature revealed another of her unexpected miracles. ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.’
I heard China mentioned for the first time in ‘Słowik’ (‘The Nightingale’), my brother read it to me. He bought the book for my fifth birthday. ‘You’re a big girl now,’ he said. ‘Soon you’ll be able to read books yourself.’
He showed China on the map.
‘See, it’s as big as America or Canada, but not as big as Russia. Russia is the biggest, but they have plenty of other countries under them. Some lands, that were once in Poland, are under Russia now, too. And here’s Poland. We’re a small country. But some countries are much smaller – this is Denmark; Andersen, the good-natured fellow, who wrote the book we’re reading now, was Danish. And this is Hungary, they’ve always been our friends. Stefan Batory, our king, came from Hungary. We chose our kings ourselves. Władysław Jagiełło came from Lithuania. Here it is, it’s very small, they are under Russia now. Many Poles live in Wilno (Vilnius), Lithuania’s capital. We once were a very big country together with Lithuania. We even conquered Moscow, the capital of Russia, for a very short time.
‘Now, there are two Chinas. This is the other China – it’s an island, Taiwan. There are two Germanies and two Koreas, too. There was a big war, and everybody killed everybody, that’s why.
‘And this is England, they have a queen there. The Beatles are from England.’
My brother knew plenty of interesting things because he read BOOKS. He went to the library and borrowed them.
Later, I got a Chinese fountain pen that was very pleasant to the eye. I only used it to write my diary and my own stories. It was a special pen with a name – Shi – it sounded like an invitation to joy, almost like Ania’s Siku-siku doll, but in a coaxing rather than alluring way. My brother gave it to me, out of the blue. ‘You deserve it,’ he said.
It was very expensive.
I knew that there was a big shot in China called Mao who ordered everybody to be cultural – many city people were sent to the country to learn what it meant – and that their capital was Peking that was ten times as big as Warsaw. There were so many people in China that it would take hell of a lot of time to count them all.
I liked Swiss cheese, too – we called it Chinese ham, because it was yellow.
The American president told everybody to work very hard and go to the Moon before the Soviets steal it. He was later killed by a Soviet spy.
Some American westerns I saw on TV at Ania’s home on Sundays were not bad. Elvis Presley could sing and dance beautifully. The Beatles were wonderful – I knew they were from Liverpool and not exactly American, but they spoke the same language, so it made no difference.
My mummy told us about Dżon Amerykan who went to America before the war and later came back and bought a lot of land from a count in their village. He said that everybody in America had a car because it was a big country where everybody was in a hurry to make money not to waste time and make even more money. He came back because he promised he would marry a girl in a nearby village – they were in love. At the end of the war his wife and children were killed by the Germans – somebody must have told them they were Jewish. They didn’t kill Dżon Amerykan, he was away when they came; he was Polish, and they didn’t bother to look for him, somehow. The Germans killed everybody who hid and helped Jews on the spot. Two weeks later the Soviets came, he was arrested at night and was sent to ‘the white bears’ (Gulag) with many others, because he was a кулак (lit. fist, he had too much land) and had been to America.
There were many Jews before the war in Poland. Almost all of them were murdered by the Germans in ghettoes and concentration camps. The Germans killed many Poles and Russians, too. My father was in a camp in Germany, but he survived. He was liberated by the Americans at the end of March in 1945. He was half dead and was sent to France where they cured him. In 1946 he came back home. He was arrested by the Soviets and sent to Gulag, because... he had been to Germany.
The Russian poems and stories I read were not bad at all – I’d say they were the very best. Белеет парус одинокой В тумане моря голубом!.. still brings tears to my eyes.
That was my childhood opinion about the global political situation. And I MEAN global – I knew all the countries in the world and their capitals, all major islands, rivers, lakes, and mountains. I would recite them to a granny who gave me apples for free; she didn’t mind listening, because she was hard of hearing.
I thought that some books were very good, some not so good, and some were bad, and shouldn’t be printed at all, but somehow they were.
And that some grown-ups were somewhat odd.
But luckily, some were all right.
My mummy who believed in God with all her might, but didn’t mind my not believing in him, even though I was a child. She went to Church twice: once for herself, and once for me.
My mummy knew plenty of poems from her school days by heart. She would curtsy like a little girl and recite ‘Powrót taty’ (Daddy’s Return) by Adam Mickiewicz to us. It was very long – how on earth was she able to remember it after so many years? Her riddles and maths problems that her father had taught her when she was a child were not easy to crack – most of them were short poems, too.
She often asked me to read the Bible to her, her eyesight was poor. Her favourite book was Hiob (Job). She once lost everything, too. But she never doubted her God and He didn’t desert her.
My brother, who wasn’t exactly an adult, but he behaved like one. He was seven years older than me. ‘You yourself decide when you’re an adult,’ he said. ‘Anyway, who are adults? Most of them are fools. I’m nobody’s fool.’
My brother knew how to make a pistol, a real one, it was dangerous. We would go to the nearby pond to dig German bullets left there during the war. ‘You’re my sister,’ he said, ‘you should know how to shoot, too. If somebody ever tries to hurt you, I’m gonna kill ’im.’ And he meant it. Some boys bullied girls and younger boys to squeeze whatever money they happened to have from them or just for fun. Some of them were several years older than my brother, but they left him, me, and Ania alone. They knew my brother could be violent, if necessary. He was not cruel, he administered justice.
We would go to the woods together to pick mushrooms and gather hazel nuts – we would then play poker with nuts instead of money. We had no money, anyway; we sometimes had hardly anything to eat.
I admired my brother immensely – not because he had a pistol he made himself and taught me how to shoot – but because my brother was a millionaire:
he had read one million pages.
It was him who taught me how to read Russian letters. He would read aloud Chekhov’s stories to me. They were hilarious, and somewhat sad, nonetheless.
Pan Staszek, Ania’s father, who gave her the Siku-siku doll that he had won at cards from Makoto, a Japanese barman in Holland, whose hobby was to create unusual toys. Ania’s father liked to have a drink or two and then sang naughty songs; pani Emilia, his wife, tried to stop him: ‘The children are listening!’ ‘You’d rather they were deaf?’ he winked at us, and went on roaring with his gargantuan voice. Ania and I giggled and winked back at him. I’m not sure we always understood everything, but the overall meaning was definitely clear. He was quite good at singing, he wanted to become an opera singer when he was a boy.
His idea of happiness was perfect: jokes and more jokes. Mostly about sex, and even more sex. The jokes were playful, not rude or obscene. Everything he did was playful – he didn’t walk, he danced.
He invented funny nicknames on the spot. They were not jeering, always tender and pleasant to the ear. He said Macipinka instead of Calineczka (Thumbelina), for example. Uśmieszka, my nick, was his idea, too. His given name was Stanisław, he would spell it Stań i sław. They are untranslatable, you have to know Polish. He himself was Phi-Staszek (phi – nothing important, Stanisław – diminutive: Staszek). Ania was πAnia (she liked maths) or ł’Ania (lit. doe – female deer, he meant ‘ładna Ania’ pretty Ania, she was graceful indeed, a real femme fatale, she sometimes spoke very fast and was prone to skipping half of the syllables).
His stories about people he met during his voyages always made us laugh. You never knew whether they were true or not, they were different each time he told them.
‘People are the same everywhere,’ he once said. ‘They need love and they suffer.’ He looked at me, his eyes were sad, even though he was smiling. I shuddered, it was so unusual for him. ‘Take it easy,’ he added, when he noticed my surprise. ‘The sun shines for everybody. Be it East or West.’
He was the only grown-up person who treated us, the children, as equals. He never pretended he was wiser just because he was an adult. He didn’t order, he asked. He always remembered what he promised. He didn’t look for lame excuses. We (Ania and me) were not afraid or ashamed to tell or ask him anything. We knew he wouldn’t laugh or moralize, he would try to answer to the best of his ability, help, if possible, and keep everything to himself, just as we did. That made all the difference. Ania was really lucky she had such a father, and I was lucky I had a friend who had such a father. He was probably the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met. No, he was not educated more than just an ordinary person, no, he didn’t read too many books or something. Now, when I think of him, Santiago, the old man, I mean the fisher form ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ comes to mind. No, Ania’s father wasn’t old and he didn’t teach us how to fish, but he was reliable and really knew what to be a friend meant: to think about your friend’s needs even before she herself realizes them. Age didn’t matter. We loved him, because he loved us. I had two homes: mine and Ania’s, Ania had two homes, too: hers and mine. I had a sister I didn’t have, and she had a sister she didn’t have.
Ania’s family were not exactly rich, but they were well-off, relatively – under communism almost everybody was rather poor. Pan Staszek smuggled things from abroad that could be sold at exorbitant prices – just anything from the West: Beatles’ records, jeans, perfumes, women’s panties, and so on. It sounds funny now, but then it wasn’t. What a world we lived in!
Pani Maria who didn’t mind my reading books during her classes; she would wink at me and sometimes brought me geography and astronomy books, when I asked her a question she couldn’t answer.
An old granny who gave me apples and carrots from her garden for free (she sold them to others) and told me many a true story. She was almost eighty, but she could read newspapers without glasses. She was hard of hearing, though. Her eyes were blue, blue, like the sky on a sunny day. Her face was a practical joke of a good-natured goddess – wrinkles all over, with eyes of a child. We sometimes went together to the local market to sell her apples and vegetables. She lived alone. All her family were killed during the war.
A homeless guy who would read French books in the nearby park. He would call me, ‘Viens ici, fillette’ and would recite a poem or two by Jacques Prévert and then translate them to me. He was huge and looked like a gangster from an American movie, but his smile was very gentle and came straight form the heart. He told me my real name was Moniche, and that I should always be true to myself. He would sometimes drop in and my mummy would give him some food.
I once told him I would read all good books in the world. He smiled and said that I wouldn’t be able to do so, because some really good books were prohibited by the government. I had nothing against the government, I knew no one personally. They promised they would build communism, and if everybody worked hard, Poland would be a country where everybody would be happy and all. And he wouldn’t be homeless. Why would they prohibit good books? I remember him laughing heartily at my words, tears came to his eyes, that was very unusual for him.
One day he brought two huge suitcases full of French books, most of them Maigret by Simenon and other crime stories. He said he didn’t need them any longer. I never met him again, he disappeared for good. I kept going to the park for a long time, but he didn’t miraculously reappear.
I’ve never forgotten him – c’est triste d’oublier un ami.
And I thought that there was no god, even though my mummy told me that there was one, and only one, but there were three of him in one. I asked my mummy how she knew that god was a he, and she said that everybody knew that. And I thought it wasn’t fair.
I wondered if the Earth was really going round the Sun as I read in a book, where the Sun took its shining from, and how much time it would take to count all numbers. Questions kept popping into my head one after the other: What if I fell from the bridge I was standing on, and the Earth disappeared suddenly, where would I fall? And if the time stopped, would people go on growing older? Why the sky was blue, and the grass was green and not the other way round? Why the bottles on a shelf in our kitchen kept standing there and didn’t jump off of their own will?
I did like to read about fairies and such stuff, but I knew they were just that, imaginary. The real world appeared much more mysterious and full of puzzles. Everything just seemed to be one huge, immense miracle.
Why some people were sometimes bad, and some were sometimes good, and how it would be if we knew when we would die.
And I never picked up flowers lest their faith in life should leave them.