Small Acts of Courage
Biography of Lidia Gawroń




Anna Burns



 
© Copyright 2021 by Anna Burns


Lidia and Antonina.
                    Lidia and Antonina

This is a biography of my grandmother, Lidia Gawroń, born on the 2nd. of December, 1900. She brought me up and was my friend and mentor. Her resilience and careful planning allowed her children to survive WWII and the deportation to Siberia. Without her, her grandchildren would not have had a chance to be born. My family owes her a debt of gratitude. I want to share the story of a life, that was both difficult and lonely but always courageous. 

The sound of his footsteps outside the window made her jump. Her hands busied themselves while she waited to hear his stumbling on the steps and then the crunch of the key in the door. She heard him swear but kept her head lowered over the sewing, piled on the lounge room table. There was no point in trying to sleep when Stefan was out. He would only wake her up with the light, the noise and his unwanted demands. This way, at least, he might be long in his drunken sleep by the time she went to bed.

She heard new bouts of swearing. His language was usually colourful, a leftover from his army days, but worse when he was drunk. She got up reluctantly and met him in the hall, watching him fumble with the keys. The pale light illuminated his shaven head as he tried to hang his hat on the hall stand. He did not hear her coming, preoccupied with the effort of standing upright, until she was only a few steps away and it was too late for his shout to be revoked. 

‘Lidia!’ her name hung in the air as she stared with total impassivity at his drunken face and he stared back, surprised to see her immediately upon his call. 

‘Don’t shout. You’ll wake the children, she said in a level voice, though she felt both fearful and enraged. He promised! But he had always made promises he would not keep. 

‘Don’t instruct me woman, in my own house,’ he slurred with belligerence. ‘Why aren’t you in bed?’ 

‘I am waiting for you to stop clanging and clattering.’ 

‘I’ll clang and clatter as loud as I want.’ 

He came close enough for her to smell the drink on his breath and she moved one step back to avoid him. He was not a happy drunk and she did not want to make him angry. As in a dance, he moved a step forward, again minimising the space she had gained a second earlier. 

‘But now that you are here you can help me with the boots.’ He pointed at the highly polished army boots he was fond of wearing. Her level of tolerance was particularly low this evening. Earlier on in the week she had a visit which changed her thinking and helped with a decision she had not yet shared with him. 

It had been her washing day and with sudsy hands she opened the door to insistent knocking. Her apron was wet and she was in no mood for a friendly chat with anyone. Her unexpected visitor was an agitated young woman in a bright summer dress and a hat that had seen better summers. She was shifting her handbag from hand-to-hand. And she was pregnant. Several months already. It was that fact which made Lidia stop from unceremoniously closing the door. She had guessed immediately who was her visitor, but the pregnancy gave her an unpleasant shock. 

‘What do you want?’ she asked impolitely. 

‘Your husband…’ the woman started. ‘I am pregnant to your husband.’ 

‘That’s evident.’ Lidia couldn’t help herself. ‘But this is not my concern.’ 

‘He won’t give me much money and I need to buy things for the baby. He said to come to you if I wanted any.’ 

The ridiculousness of the situation was not lost on her, but Lidia tried to maintain her composure. 

‘Stefan spends his money. Always had. You should have known that. You should have known what you were getting into with a married man. Now you have to fix your own problems.’ She felt justified in moralising. This strumpet had the audacity to make requests. Lidia had to stop herself from pushing the woman off the doorstep. 

‘I won’t give you any money. Don’t even think it. And I will ask you to leave. Have you no shame?’ 

The woman’s brightly painted lips turned into a nasty sneer. ‘He told me you were a cold fish and tight with your money and that I wouldn’t get anything. Anyway, I have his baby. And he sleeps with me.’ She said this with spite, as she moved away from the door. 

And look where it got you, Lidia thought. 

For the next few days, she ruminated over the news. It was well known that Stefan was unfaithful. Even early in their marriage when she was pregnant with Ada, their first child. But he managed not to get any of his previous lovers pregnant. He was getting careless. In some way the news didn’t make things worse. It made her think that perhaps there was finally a way out of this marriage. 

‘So, help me with the boots.’ His voice boomed in the small space. 

‘They’re yours, take them off yourself. If you weren’t so drunk it wouldn’t be such an effort.’ 

‘You take them off and then we can do something else.’ 

She flashed him a look of distaste.‘No, we won’t do that. I told you, you won’t touch me again. Ever.’ She was emphatic about that. ‘Not when you’re drunk not when you’re sober. Ever,’ she reiterated, her green eyes shining with defiance. 

He leaned closer so that she felt his suit buttons pressing into her, and hissed, ‘You are still my wife and you will do what I say.’ With this he tugged at the front of her dress. She felt blind fury flooding her. She wanted to pummel him with her fists and wipe the smirk off his face. But she knew the consequences. She was a small, slim woman, barely five feet and he had become stout and heavy. Without thinking, she reached behind her. Her fingers encountered the wooden umbrella stand. Pulling away from him for a second, she felt for and found, a handle of his umbrella and held on to it firmly, then swung it over her shoulder and onto his head. The umbrella was big and heavy with a large wooden knob at its end. Stefan stumbled backwards surprised and in pain, holding onto his forehead where a trickle of blood appeared. Lidia was still brandishing her weapon, ready to strike again should he try to retaliate. But he only steadied himself and looked at her in amazement. 

‘And what’s more, I want you out of this house. It’s over. Starting tonight. You can go to your lover and live there. She will need you now, with a baby. We don’t. You can come back tomorrow and get your things. I’ll pack your shirts and your suits. Get out now before I hit you again.’ 

‘You don’t mean it?’ he said stunned. He appeared to be rapidly sobering up. All his lies, indiscretions, all his raging and bravado had finally come to this end. His wife had thrown him out of the house in the middle of the night. And he went.

*****

The next two years were bliss without him, in spite of the worsening news in the papers about Poland’s economic situation, which would most likely lead into a financial slump. The reports about Germany’s military mobilisation and Hitler’s increasing power were also disquieting. But Lidia had more pressing financial problems of her own. The wooden house, in which she and her three children lived, had rented apartments. The rent provided a comfortable income, but now with Stefan gone, she had to consider her future more carefully.
The land on which the house stood, was hers, and in part, compensation for Stefan’s war efforts as a soldier. They weren’t poor. She still had the doona shop. The high quality of the finished articles made them popular with the local housewives. There was always an increase in orders before winter. The shop also sold fabrics. Bales of materials stood against the walls and lay on the broad counter. 

But running her small shop had its troubles because, periodically, the supplies were low and she had to send Stefan with orders to the major cities. This was never a good thing since he would forget to pick up the orders, take days longer to come back and sometimes, spend all the money she had given him. Not only that, but in his search for watering holes, both below and above ground, such as the infamous Warsaw underground beer cellars, he would come home followed by a string of IOUs that he had incurred while away. On one occasion only diplomacy on her part convinced an irate creditor to let her pay off Stefan’s debt instead of losing the house. 

She saved where she could, wanting her daughters, Ada and Barbara, to be well educated and further their particular talents. Ada was a gifted designer. She had an eye for colour and feel for texture. Barbara, on the other hand, had a way with words. She was as original and creative in her writing as she was impractical and romantic in life.

To create a balance in her own life, Lidia developed an interest in gardening. With the second house almost ready for tenants, she could plan what to do with the remaining land, which stretched for two blocks between two streets. She had built a chicken shed, more for amusement than necessity, though fresh eggs could be shared with the tenants. The trees in her orchard were already big and she had plenty of fruit in autumn. That too, she shared with her tenants, one of which was a horticulturalist and she became his eager student. 

As always thorough in her tasks, she took to propagating, sowing, and grafting in an effort to make her garden more productive. After a short while she could grow anything, she chose. Soon the vegetable patches were full of carrots, lettuces, beets and rows of lush, red tomatoes. But her favourites were flowers. She grew pink peonies in the front garden. Their magnificent frilled petals resembled roses. There were also geraniums, blue cornflowers and her best – the irises. They grew along the driveway. In early summer, when their bloom was at its best, people would stop in the street to admire their beauty. She had no problem finding tenants. 

Her separation from Stefan gave her space and freedom. Her mother, Antonina, worried. ‘How will you manage without a man and his financial support?’

‘Much better. The one drain was his spending. I never knew what he would do with the money. It was impossible to plan or save. And now with the share market crashing, everything is going to be much more difficult. With him gone it’s so much quieter now. You can move back with us. They talk about war with Germany so it will be safer together. How will we survive if that happens? I don’t want to live the way we did during the last war, in Russia. All that constant moving, the soldiers and the hunger. How would the children cope?’ It didn’t bear thinking. 

Though not living at home, Stefan visited. In time, he brought unwelcome news.

The Army Intelligence is telling us that there is going to be war with Germany. They are starting to call up men from the Reserves. I will be going soon. I’ll try to help anyway I can but that may not be much. Particularly when we are in action. You should move out of Brest into the country. It’s easier to hide in the forests and more food there.’

They were sitting at the table facing each other. He looked around the familiar surroundings, and something like regret registered on his face. ‘Store food,’ he continued. ‘Money is going to be worthless when the Germans come. You might need basic provisions for a long time. I have to go,’ he said, standing up with reluctance. ‘Look after our children.’ 

She noticed how tired he seemed and older than his forty-seven years. A man his age should not be preparing for war, but neither should young boys, she thought. He left hastily, without looking at her, his jaw clenched and the lines around his mouth deeper. 

Acting on Stefan’s instructions, she and Antonina started their preparations, purchasing flour, sugar and all the other staples, storing them in the cellar, next to the preserves. When the Germans finally crossed the Polish border, the Polish Government kept the event quiet. The rumours about sightings of trains full of wounded soldiers had been spreading for several days before the radio announced that Germany had declared War. By then it was all too late. The lightning air attacks, destroying Polish planes and hitting the major towns, made mockery of any attempts at self-defence. Polish soldiers, where possible, were escaping over the borders, hoping to regroup in other countries and from there fight the Germans. Brest was taken, after a brief bombing, and soon, German soldiers were marching through its streets. 

Brest Fortress had also fallen under German attacks and Stefan and his unit were taken prisoners. There was fear of what the Germans would do once they were in power. The speculations were endless and fruitless. Yet, apart from the presence of their kubel wagons, armaments and men in the streets and around the office buildings, nothing else seemed to have changed. In fact, when the Germans took over the town, order was restored and the bombing stopped. The schools reopened and children returned to their education. Everyone went about their business, hoping that this was the worse they could expect. The men with guns and blue-grey uniforms did not seem threatening or interested in the local population. They seemed good natured. Their war was progressing well, without too many casualties. It appeared to be such an easy task. But the people watched and waited for signs of change.

Within days of entering Eastern Poland, Germans declared their lack of interest. On the 17th of September, 1939, the Soviets marched into the region and began, what was a thinly disguised occupation of Poland that lasted well after the war. German prisoners were passed on to NKVD operatives – Stefan among them. The secret treaty between Stalin and Hitler made the Russians feel safe. 

But when the German soldiers left and the prisoners held in the citadel were handed over to the Soviets, Lidia knew in her heart that Stefan was in danger. He had been too patriotic, too willing to risk his life for his country. From his early days he was always involved in any political group which promoted Polish independence, whether through membership in the Bartosz Leagues or Polish Legions. But it was his involvement in the Russian War of 1920 that would do him most harm. The Soviets still smarted from the defeat. She had seen how the Bolsheviks treated their own, during the Great Revolution: deporting trainloads of people to hard labour in Siberia or starving whole towns. They were ruthless and cruel and now Brest was in their hands. 

She worried about Stefan, not out of love but loyalty. As a husband he was without a doubt a bad one; as a father he was harsh and strict. Yet even when they were no longer together, he did look after them. But now he was imprisoned and she could do nothing for him in return. Soviet intelligence had him for questioning. There were terrible stories of what they did to men in Kiev and other places, on their way to Poland.

She went to see him at the Office of Inquiry. They would not let her in. Their children stood outside the windows and through sheer luck were able to see him. She brought him warm socks, underwear and some food. She was allowed to leave the articles behind. Whether he got them was another matter. 

A day after her visit, long trains of cattle cars with barred doors and windows left Brest station carrying hundreds of men. No information about their destination was given. The carriages were full of soldiers, army personnel, policemen, public officials and intellectuals. It was as if the town was being cleared of men. To the Soviets they were undesirables because of their nationality or affiliations. There was despair on every street. The reports differed as to their destination but hard labour in Siberia or Murmansk seemed most likely. September was still too early for the Army issue of winter coats and the soldiers left for sub-zero conditions in summer uniforms. 

When a few letters from him arrived, he seemed greatly changed. His whole concern was for her and the children. He wrote little about himself or his conditions. It was likely that he didn’t know what were his prospects. But at least he wasn’t far, near Smolensk. Much better than Siberia. The family replied immediately, but no responses came after April of 1940. 

Ten days after the surrender of the Brest Citadel a soldier delivered Lidia a grubby square of paper, dated January, 19th, 1940. It was addressed to Stefan, and signed with flourish in an indelible red pen. It stated that her property had been nationalised.
‘It means that the houses are no longer yours. They belong to the State,’ the soldier explained.

‘Which state?’

‘Well Russian, naturally. Property now belongs to the people. No one can have more than anyone else,’ he recited a well-worn formula. ‘Only the rich kulaks have more and we know what to do with them.’ 

There had to be a way to fight for her rights, her hard, tireless work.

‘You can get compensated for the property if you go to the Central Office,’ he added. 

Her relief was short-lived when he told her how much she could expect.

‘But that’s not even a tenth of what the houses are worth.’

‘There’s a war on,’ he said, as if that explained everything. 

As soon as she closed the door her body started to shake uncontrollably. What would they do now? Some of the tenants had already left and there was less money coming in. What would nationalising really mean? Would they have to move out? Antonina found her pacing the kitchen in a state of agitation with tears streaming down her face. 

‘What has happened to you?’ 

Lidia could only sob out, ‘We have nothing. Nothing to live on.’ She felt such deep anger for losing the houses. She had spent so many hours on finishing the second one. All the spare money went into it. They were going to be her children’s security.
‘What do you mean we have nothing?’ 

Bolsheviks have nationalised the houses. We can get compensation but it’s so small it’s a joke.’ She banged the table with such force, that the crockery laid out for dinner, jumped and rattled. She was in a blind rage. If they were bombed there would still be the land left and she could rebuild, knowing that at the end, there would be another house for them to live in. Now they had nothing. So, when the children came home from school, she told them the news pretending that they would still be alright and that she knew how she could make it that way.

At the Central Office she had to wait with others who found themselves in a similar situation. The Soviet official behind the desk told her that her property was no longer hers and that she would have to pay rent for the rooms her family occupied and any empty rooms would be confiscated and rented by those in need. 

We are at war and we all have equal needs,’ the official instructed. 

I bet you think you are more equal than some, she thought but did not dare say it. Equality for all. Where was her equality, her children’s rights? These laws shouldn’t even apply to them. They were Polish citizens and yet the land was not theirs. The Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact made sure of that. Slowly, things of value were sold for ready cash. It was all so familiar. 

More bad news circulated in the shops, in the doorways, in the street. After the men, now whole families were being deported. Speculations were that they were deported to Gulags, in the far north of Russia, or Iran. She started preparing herself for that eventuality.

Escorted to the trains by armed soldiers, women and children were packed, sixty to each carriage. The trains stood on the siding until nightfall and then departed with its terrified cargo in the direction of Russia. The deportation was systematic and deliberate.

Lidia fretted. She had three children between twelve and seventeen and an old mother, nearing seventy. The weight of the responsibility paralyzed her. She was forty years old and though practical, not used to living in harsh conditions. How could she keep them safe; and, safe from which horrors in particular? How could she plan for the unknown? 

The children’s rucksacks were packed and ready. They contained all the necessities, so that when the soldiers came, like scavenging wolves in the night, everything would be close at hand. She secreted some valuables in the lining of their coats, though from experience she knew that in times of hunger, food or clothes were better articles of barter. She listened carefully to Antonina’s advice, since her mother remembered well their last stay in Russia and the deprivation it brought. They talked at night when the children were asleep so as not to alarm them with their fears and misgivings. Sometimes they sat silently over their sewing, and some nights, overtaken with despair, said the rosary and waited for the sound of soldiers' boots at the door. 

When the soldiers came for them one night, in their shabby, ill-fitting uniforms, the women were not surprised.
‘You have two hours to pack. We will be back to take you to the train.’ 

‘But what shall we take? Where are you taking us?’ she asked but there was no answer. She thought perhaps the soldiers had no idea where the Poles were being taken. 

The soldiers pushed past her into the corridor and then into the rooms. They opened the wardrobes and poked inside with the butts of their guns to make sure no one was hiding inside. They emptied the drawers of the desk onto the floor and dragged the bedding off the beds. She watched with mounting despair, knowing that time was passing and the mess would make packing more difficult. 

They scrambled through the articles, strewn on the floor, for bedding, shoes and coats. Antonina busied herself in the kitchen packing provisions. Lidia supervised the girls, who were sobbing and unable to think. They filled the trunk with what they could. Nearly ready, they walked around the familiar rooms, silently saying their good-byes. Would they ever return? Even if it was no longer theirs, this was the only home they had known. The picture on the wall, the piano in the corner, the old rocking horse; all held memories. Joe was confused and fearful as he watched the women in his household try to come to grips with the enormity of the situation they were facing.

Lidia walked around the house feeling physically ill, as if she had eaten something rotten that was turning her stomach. But there was no time for self-pity. They were ready when the soldiers pounded on the door. She crossed herself before opening. God willing, they would survive. Two hours was not enough to prepare for the rest of her and her children’s lives. 

It was an April night of 1940, that they walked to their misery and pain. The night was warm for this time of year, an early spring. Each one of them tried to remember as much as possible, for the future, when their only home would be a memory. The orchard was in first bloom. A few windows in the street were lit, illuminating the dark pathway. They walked in silence: the girls close together crying quietly, the two women, grim with determination. Between them they carried the heavy trunk, but they did not complain, in case the two soldiers walking behind them overheard. Joseph, her young son, bewildered by all the proceedings, stuck close to her, bravely facing the night and the heavy knapsack he was carrying. He was just thirteen. Antonina was keeping pace. Her head held high, blinking away the tears. Lidia tried not to feel anything, revising in her mind all the provisions they were taking with them, as if it mattered. 

They travelled for two weeks in a packed cargo train with barred windows and a hole in the floor for a toilet. Death raged amongst the children and the old. There were soldiers with guns guarding their charges and doling out water and food sporadically. The rations were meagre for so many – a thin soup and some bread. 

When they finally arrived beyond the Ural Mountains, in Siberia, in Kazakhstan, they were left at a collective farm. The deportees were there to replace the Russian men, who were in the army. The resettlers were prisoners. They had no rights, no country, no home. The women and the children worked each day until late at night, planting, ploughing and harvesting in exchange for food. Stalin’s motto was: no work, no food. For a while Lidia worked at the Supply Base, milking cows.

The work at the Base is relentless but stable. Each morning when she opens her eyes it is still dark. Later, the room will be just grey. She gets up feeling tired and aching in every bone. On the days after the snowstorm they spend a good part of it digging a tunnel in the drifts to the windows. Sometimes their neighbours have to dig them out from the outside. The door, which opens inwards, gets snowed up to the top and the five of them can’t shovel the snow aside. 

They rely on a small kerosene lamp for light, which starts smoking within seconds of being lit and the oily smell hangs in the air making Lidia nauseous. For breakfast she has some leftover barley cakes, made the night before. In winter, there is little variety in their meals. Mainly potatoes, which they picked in autumn, and heads of cabbages which are stored in the corner of the room with a bag of millet. The cabbages are wilted and shrivelled but still good for another month. 

She dresses quickly, not to lose any heat, in a room where her breath makes white clouds of condensed air. For a moment she lingers on the edge of the bunk, fully dressed under her thick nightwear, before pulling on her fufajka, a thick, wadded jacket, then the boots, her hat, ear muffs and gloves. 

The Supply Base is not very far from their hut. But then nothing is far from anything else, except the birch and fir forests around her real home. The long, whitewashed cowshed is cold. She feeds the cows, throwing dry grass into their troughs and lines up the pails. The cows know her and low gently as she approaches. Their bodies fill the space with relative warmth. Their udders keep her hands from freezing.

She could sleep for months but this job provides steady money and they can buy additional food at the market. She is tired of scheming to increase their provisions and protect the children from danger. And now the Soviets are offering full citizenship to the Poles, promising better living conditions if they accept. She knows what that means. If they change their national status and God willing, the war ends, they won’t be allowed to go back to Poland. She tried to explain this to the other women, but they believe everything the Soviets tell them. Everyone wants more food. 

She is sure that the job promised her in the town’s Bank, because she can read, count and is honest, won’t come since she refused the Soviet passport. When given promises of better life and conditions, she just said, ‘We live well in mother Russia as it is. How much better can it get?’ But the official behind the desk knew just how much better it could get. He was putting pressure on her, as instructed. The Soviets wanted to make sure that their workforce would not diminish while they were losing soldiers at the Front. 

All the time she worries. Joseph, her youngest, works hard in the fields like a man. In summer, helping with the harvesting or with the cattle at the Base. Antonina has become much thinner. She now stoops when she walks and she complains about her health. She has pains in her joints and spends days on the bunk trying to keep warm. Her own hands have become bony and rough and her once well-groomed hair is now grey and wiry. 

She also worries about Ada, her oldest. Ada works with the other girls in the forest cutting trees for winter. The girls are young, around nineteen and had never chopped a single tree in their life. Each day, the Foreman selects pine trees to be cut. After felling the trees, with old, long and rusty saws, the girls clear the branches and cut the trees into logs. Apart from the back-breaking labour, there is always the danger of a falling tree maiming or killing them. To earn their food rations, each group of 3 girls has to meet the quota and only then are they brought back to the collective. Ada comes home too exhausted to eat and just falls asleep on the bunk. 

Lidia stops and dry sobs wrack her body. What would happen to her children if she got sick? The thought terrifies her. They would never go home and she would lie in a foreign and detested country, in an unmarked grave, in some desolate place where the wolves dig up the dead. She stops. Such thoughts are not healthy. She knows of women who have gone crazy. It must not happen to her. 

The milking done, she picks up the pails one by one, and empties them into large, aluminium vats. 

In 1943 the Soviets allowed able bodied Poles, who found themselves in Russia, to take up arms against the Germans. The Soviets would provide the weapons. A Polish Army was being formed in Sielce, under Soviet auspices. The announcement gave Lidia sleepless nights deliberating what to do next. She would rather be dead than see her girls leave for war. But they would be marching to Poland and the army must be fed. They would be among their own. 

Their knapsacks were smaller this time, with one change of clothes and food she had carefully saved. They would be travelling for weeks before they reached Sielce, way on the other side of Russia. Only God knew how they would fare without her. 

When the locomotive finally pulled out of the station in clouds of black smoke, amid shouts and farewells, she felt heavy like a stone, empty of feelings, as if some part of her had died, but she could not tell which. Only terror of what she had done raged in her mind – now that it was too late to change anything. Her girls had gone, young and innocent, and she was not sure if she would ever hold them again in her arms, her best, her own.

Too soon they would grow into women, into strength, among the dead and the dying, among the bombs and exploding grenades. Looking at the disappearing train, she was not sure she could bear being without them. 

She now worked at the General Store, and as she pored over the columns of figures, adding and subtracting, she thought only of the girls. Daily she waited for their letters and listened for any news. But for a long time there was none. Days passed and her grief kept her awake at night. She tried not to imagine the worsther daughters killed in combat, and she not knowing about it for weeks.

Months after the girls had left, in the midst of a severe 1944 winter, Antonina died. It was her second bout of pneumonia and her emaciated body had no resistance. Their food rations had been cut because she could no longer work and that only left Joseph and Lidia to qualify for the rations. She watched Antonina sit near the stove sucking on icicles to dull the hunger. Sometimes her mother slept for hours and each time Lidia feared that she would not wake. One day she didn’t. 

She gave Antonina’s things to the coachman, who brought mail and supplies to the collective, in exchange for bringing her mother’s body back from the hospital. It was sewn into a sheet. There were no coffins. The wood was needed by the living. She and Joseph put Antonina’s light remains on a sleigh and pulled her for three kilometers to the small cemetery outside the settlement. 

The weather had turned and the sleet, which started to fall in the afternoon, made the road slippery. It was dusk when they reached their destination. Lidia had already made provisions for the grave to be dug. She had chosen the spot herself. She looked hard for the newly turned soil but only found a shallow hole chipped in the rock-hard earth. The grave digger was unhelpful when asked about the grave. He stood in the door of his hut quite unwilling to venture into the cold.
‘It’s over there,’ he pointed in the direction she had come from. 

She had to persuade him with promises of food to make him come out and see that there was no grave. Standing over the narrow slit in the earth, she was ready to weep. The grave digger scratched his head. ‘There was a rushed burial last night. Maybe they took your grave instead. People don’t care anymore.’ 

All three of them chipped in turn with an old pick at the frozen soil, to widen the opening, but the grave digger gave up first. In the end they buried Antonina sideways and placed a birch cross on her grave, then looked for rocks, to stop the stray dogs and wolves from digging. 

In grief and despair, after her mother’s death, Lidia recited the rosary. It did not bring her solace but kept her from going crazy. She could see no improvement in their current situation. There was gossip that they might be resettled to Ukraine, but it would probably be after the summer harvests and the autumn planting. They would have to survive this winter first, and it would be bitter and hungry. 

With superhuman effort, for Joseph’s sake, Lidia tried to go on. At forty-four she felt like an old woman. She was thin and her hair had gone grey. A bout of kidney infection, for which there were no antibiotics, left her feeling constantly ill and exhausted. When Joseph was out in the evenings she sat staring into space. 

Pain and loneliness were with her from the time she discovered that she was adopted. Her carefully constructed reality fell apart when she was twelve and she somehow failed to put it back together. Antonina and Bazyli doted on her because she was their only child. Whatever she wanted she was given. Her clothes and toys were always new. She wore dresses made from the best fabrics. The softness of the fabric matched her brown, beribboned curls.

She could see clearly now that she was spoiled. Her own children, by comparison, were never allowed as much. She even had a French governess because when Bazyli had asked her if she would prefer French or an English one, she chose the French girl because she liked the sound of ‘Papa’ better than ‘Daddy.’ 

Papa had a stylish beard and bushy eyebrows. He also had a moustache, which was long and fine. He was gentle and warm and smelled of tobacco. He always had time to play with her. Sometimes she was allowed to visit their shop. It was full of unusual foods, cheeses and hams, sausages, hanging on long rods, and pickles in jars. By the time she was twelve she had tasted delicacies from different countries and was able to tell, with her eyes closed and without fail, the difference between black and red caviar. 

Her father was older than her beautiful mother. He was courteous to her but not without some humour and lightness in his compliments. It seemed to Lidia, at twelve, that her world was perfect and nothing would ever change it. But Antonina worried about her daughter’s health. Lidia caught colds easily and was a fussy eater. 

‘She eats like a bird,’ Lidia heard her mother say with concern. ‘I hope she doesn’t get tuberculosis. There is a lot about.’ 

Annoyed and jealous, Antonina’s cousin, Marcela, said spitefully one day, ‘You shouldn’t worry her so much. You’re not even her daughter.’ 

Lidia could still remember the cold dread she felt at those words.
‘What do you mean I’m not her daughter? I have always been her daughter. She calls me her daughter. And so does Daddy. Why do you tell such lies?’ 

Marcela went on regardless. ‘They only call you their daughter, but Antonina isn’t your mother. She is no one’s mother. They couldn’t have children so they adopted you. They got you from some poor miner’s wife who couldn’t keep you because she had too many children already. You were a twin and the other one died, so they got rid of you. You don’t belong here, so don’t give yourself all these airs. You’re a nobody.’ 

The idea tormented her for days. If her parents were not her parents, who were her parents and would they come to get her? Who was her mother and what kind of woman was she if she could give away her child?

The speculations made her listless and morose and this only worried Antonina more. Finding out the cause, Antonina convinced her that she was loved and wanted, because they had chosen her especially. But the uncertainty of her birth cast a dark shadow on her life. 

Misery likes company, and a year later Bazyli died from a sudden heart attack. Both her mother and she were broken hearted. Antonina was not used to doing business or managing a shop. Bazyli’s business partners, saw an opportunity to rob his wife and child, and took it. A number of false IOUs were presented. Antonina sold her share of the business at a loss. Their life style changed overnight and the governess had to go along with the shop, the house and most of the money. 

Following the tragedy, Bazyli’s friend from his army days, invited them for a holiday to his house in the Caucasus. The First World War was just about to break over an unsuspecting Europe, when Antonina and Lidia decided to leave for their holiday. They were unprepared for the German invasion of Russia. Then, in 1917, the Russian Revolution engulfed the country. They had not planned to encounter hunger, civil strife and danger, when they embarked on their holiday.

To escape the terrors, they moved from town to town and village to village, away from the fighting. They traveled by trains packed by escaping civilians, soldiers and the wounded. Antonina made them move as the conditions deteriorated. Lidia’s Russian, which was good to begin with, gained fluency during these travels. How useful it had become now, in Siberia. 

In the end they found themselves in Murmansk, where the Arctic railway was being constructed and a small settlement of officials, escapees, and émigrés had formed. Here, Lidia had a chance to complete her last year of schooling and join an amateur theater. 

Though not the main character, she was most amusing. She smiles now remembering the part she played of an uneducated woman seeking her injured husband’s wages, from an official, who was about to host a ball. She wore a skirt overlaying several long, drab petticoats and carried a faulty umbrella. Whenever she reached for her purse, hidden beneath the petticoats, the umbrella would open. Her seeming consternation caused uproarious laughter. People came to see her night after night. 

When the war ended, she was seventeen. Their holiday had lasted four years. They came back with no money. However, Antonina still had some land, which she sold and they relocated to Brest. For a while they lived modestly, just the two of them. Gradually Antonina re-entered society and eventually remarried. 

Maks was ten years younger than Antonina and less dependable. It wasn’t long before he began to pay Lidia complements, seeking her alone and making physical advances. He even suggested that they run away together. They were young. Her mother loved them both. She would forgive them. She would give them money and they could live comfortably at her expense. Lidia avoided him after that. But Antonina was an astute woman. Seeing the problem and wanting to protect her daughter, she ended the marriage and bought Lidia a wooden house on a sizable piece of land. 

Lidia was particular about those who rented her apartments. As a single woman she needed to protect her reputation. There was no one in particular in her life. She liked it that way and the episode with Maks did little to make her trust men better. 

In 1920 everything changed when a wounded soldier, moved in. He had been concussed in the Dnieper offensive and had spent some time in Warsaw’s Army hospital. Still unwell, he kept to himself and she saw little of him. He was of no interest to Lidia until he became bed-bound. In the absence of his family, she tended to Stefan’s needs out of the goodness of her heart. She had plans to marry, but not yet. She was looking for someone she could trust; feel comfortable with, someone with subtlety and intellect. An avid reader, she wanted to share her observations. Stefan, though educated and from a good family, did not attract her as a possible partner. He was moody and at times bad tempered. He drank too much for her liking. 

When he became delirious Lidia contacted his sister in Warsaw. The two women, on meeting, liked each other and looked for the best course of action to improve Stefan’s health. But it soon became evident to Maria, that Stefan was smitten. He even asked her to intercede on his behalf. He called Lidia his guardian angel, who had saved his life and sanity. She did not, could not know what his life had been like; fighting for years in different wars, the horrors he had encountered. He was ready to settle. This place seemed to be what he needed and the attractive, practical young woman, so full of determination, a perfect partner. 

Lidia refused his proposal and he threatened. Not her life but his. He said that without her his life was pointless. He needed stability and love. If she would not accept him as a husband, he would shoot himself, and he showed her the pistol which he kept at his side. She could see by the intensity in his eyes and in his taut, serious face that Stefan meant it. He gave her time to reconsider. She did not love him but feared for his safety. Emotionally unstable and unwell, his threats were repeated to his sister, who pressed her brother’s case. Antonina also did not object. Under pressure, Lidia relented. They were married on the 20th of June, 1921. It was a summer wedding, she was twenty-one and he eight years’ her senior. The marriage didn’t lead to bliss, but to the birth of three children and misery.

She often sat reminiscing now that Antonina was gone. Joseph was rarely home: either working or out with other boys in search for food. The year of 1944 continued to be a bad year. All the Soviet newspapers and communiqués heralded the discovery of mass graves in Katyń Forest and blamed the Nazis for the atrocities. But neither Lidia nor the Polish community in Kazakhstan had any doubt that the NKVD and the Soviets had killed the thousands of Polish officers incarcerated in Katyń’s POW camp. She knew for sure, from the address on his letters, that Stefan had been there, just kilometers from Smolensk and Katyń. She wept for him and her compatriots so brutally slaughtered.

She felt no special, personal grief for Stefan, though he should not have died like that and be buried in a mass grave. She could still see him before his departure for the Army with his face grim and set, full of concern for their welfare. He gave her all the money he had and a list of instructions. He was clean shaven and his thinning hair cut short. He seemed distracted and sad to leave them. He hugged the children. Barbara cried the most and held on to him. As he walked away, his shiny army boots made a hollow sound along the corridor. 

Marriage. She had imagined it differently. She was naïve and innocent. There was little talk, in proper circles, on the subject of sex and the expectations of men. Women discussed births and the problems specific to their gender, but hardly ever gave each other instructions or warning about the sexual nature of their relationships. Antonina made some brief comments, which proved highly inadequate. Lidia knew Stefan for a short time only. He occasionally kissed her hand and was charming, though quite morose and intense. It was not surprising that the married life she embarked on brought her pain and humiliation. 

Too inexperienced to understand his needs, she found his demands frightening and unnatural and the sexual act unpleasant and painful. She did not know him well enough for such extreme intimacies. She felt uncomfortable with her own exposed flesh and offended by his urges. He was older in years and his experiences in the army had made him weary and spent. 

When she fell pregnant Lidia discovered the extent of her misguided expectations. One evening, while walking past a bridge, she heard laughter in a punt below. Leaning over the rail she looked into the darkness. She saw Stefan, quite drunk, in the arms of a woman. Another couple in his company was engaged in a passionate embrace. She felt anger and loss. She wanted to kill him and herself. She had suffered all his humiliations because she was brought up to be a good wife but he was not a good husband.

‘Men are like that,’ Antonina said to her distraught daughter. ‘He probably finds you less attractive now that you are pregnant. There are women who will take advantage of such a situation and men are not choosy. You can’t kill yourself; you have the baby to consider. When the child is born things will change. You mustn’t mind. He will come back with his tail between his legs. You’ll see.’ 

Lidia did not believe any of it. What was clear was the fact that fidelity and their family honour were less important to Stefan than they were to her. First Ada was born then Barbara. They were two years apart. Stefan’s parental skills had not improved. He wanted a son and not two daughters. When Joseph was born, Stefan did not know for three days that he had a son and no one told him.

His favourite form of punishment for the children was belting their bare bottoms, because it hurt more. He beat Ada because she was often ill and he terrorized the house with frequent shouting and drunken rows. Lidia’s refusals to sleep with him met with rough, unrefined language and then the children were more exposed to his rage. He expected her to act more like a loose woman than a wife. She hated the abuse and the beatings. She learned to hide her bruises, hoping that none of the neighbours heard his late night ravings. 

Outraged at the gossip about his womanizing she shouted at him one night, ‘The time will come when you will howl at the moon to be with us and we won’t be there.’ But he only looked at her with disdain as he headed for the door. She hoped then, that something awful would happen to punish him. Now, years later, he had been punished and she felt pity for the suffering he must have endured.

*****

Soon after the harvest, when the last potato and beet were planted, they were shunted with many others, by trains, to collectives in Ukraine. She was pleased, because it was closer to Poland, though it meant starting all over again and leaving Antonina’s body behind. 

After their arrival, the winter set in quickly and she had little time to store any food. Soon, the scrapings at the bottom of the bag, once filled with their monthly ration of flour, were almost gone. In winter there was little fodder for animals, nothing was growing in the forest and wild rabbits were hard to catch. With only two of them working, the rations were meager and so they waited for new rations. 

When Joseph finally went to receive the 20 kilos of flour, they thought that their troubles were over. They had some small, shriveled potatoes, already sprouting, and a handful of millet. But he came back from the collective, a lot later than she had expected, in tears and distraught. 

For a while now he had been showing no emotion. But as he stood at the door, uncontrollable sobs were shaking his body.
‘I am so sorry mum. So sorry. We will surely die now.’ 

‘Have you got the flour?’ she asked then. 

‘We got our share, but on the way back they were shouting, “Fire” and I went to help. There was no fire, and when I came back, there was no bag. What shall we do now?'

‘Jesus Maria,’ she whispered, crossing herself. 

In the following weeks she sold or bartered whatever she could for some dark, hard bread. They savoured the slices, breaking them into smaller pieces so that they would last longer. She scraped the dust from the bottom of the flour bag into hot water to give it some taste. They ate tree bark and grass, cooked to a pulp. They ate shriveled potatoes. At first peeled and grated into flat cakes then the peelings themselves. But the hunger did not go away. She kept tightening her belt and tried to eat as little as possible so that Joseph would have more. In the end there was no food and nothing to bargain with. To make the water more like soup she cooked her leather belt. The water had a dark brown colour but the pieces of leather she had cut into strips were tough and hard to chew. 

At night, doubled over with hunger, she prayed that they would somehow survive, that God would not let them die. She wanted her son to live, to see his sisters again and to go back to their country. She prayed and went through the motions of living. As if in answer to her pleas, a minor miracle took place. 

The spring came early that year and the snow started to melt. Large patches of bare ground appeared almost overnight. She felt hopeful because under the snow they could find frozen berries in the forest and grass roots in the fields, and sometimes, potatoes buried deep under the soil. 

They went looking for roots, carrots or beets, left somewhere in the ground. The vegetable patches were empty. But in the wheat fields, inside the circles of melted snow, they found grains, some already germinating. Like birds they picked them one by one, hiding them in the palm of their hand. When they had enough, they cooked the grains in a thin soup. This daily ritual of picking allowed them to survive until the next ration was issued. When Joseph went to sleep, she knelt next to the sack of rough millet, full of grits and husks and held it, crying silently with relief.

*****

When the war finally ended they were allowed to return to Poland. The family briefly reunited. Her girls were both married and with babies. Ada and her new husband, Antoni, demobilised from the army, had enough of the carnage. They were making plans to emigrate to Australia, a feat they accomplished in 1948. It would be years before they would meet again. She finally came to visit them in 1956, for the Melbourne Olympics, and stayed.

*****

The drive to Prince Henry Hospital, in October 1970, was inevitable. Lidia had felt ill in the preceding months. Her kidneys no longer removed toxins from her body and her headaches were constant. She knew that the illness had run its course. She was sure that was what the doctor was saying to Ada and Barbara outside her bedroom door. 

Barbara flew to Australia to be with her mother at the end. Lidia’s health was rapidly deteriorating, more so, when she received the news that Joseph had died in a car accident. He was thirty-nine. What caused him to run off the road and hit a solitary tree, was not known. His weakened heart or diabetes might have been the cause. He was on the way to visit his children at the summer camp. His death brought Lidia unspeakable grief. He was her youngest and they were always close. After that, she gave up her fight for life and no ministrations could stop the progress of her illness. In her heart, she had already decided that her next hospital stay would be her last. She needed to put her thoughts in order, set things straight and leave with little fuss. 

After settling down in her room she said good-bye to the worried faces around her, then lay quietly on the pillows and waited. She was going to release her life like one releases cooped up birds into the light. She knew it was going to be hard. Not the letting go but the fight with the memories which assailed her now, when she least wanted them. 

They bring a cup of tea, she drinks slowly. They take her pulse, measure temperature, smile and leave. She breathes a sigh of relief. 

Over the years in Australia, she had made a few friends but saw them rarely because of the distances and lack of time. The women she knew were elderly and like her, widowed. They had come to Australia to visit their children and then stayed. They met infrequently but at least they were of an age and could share memories. They could talk and not feel so alone. But for the last few years she felt her isolation and her age weigh her down. Sometimes she sat in the garden, looking at nothing. 

Her weekends were no different from other days. She read a lot to escape boredom. There were stories she could not share with her granddaughters in a language she had not mastered. She tried to learn it, filling exercise books with English grammar but it was no use. At her age it was hard to remember new words with strange sounds. When her granddaughters were younger she tucked them into bed. When they were afraid, she quelled their fears with her soft hands and her broken words. But the words had dried up and as the girls grew, there was no longer a need for her to get up early, to care for them. They moved in their own circles, foreign and remote.

When the war had ended and she got back to Poland, she knelt and kissed the ground. She was allowed to survive where others had died far away from their home. Antonina was buried in exile and now it would be her turn to die in a foreign land. As an accountant, for years she worked over rows of figures, neatly drawn in rubrics. It was all so predictable so perfectly logical and verifiable. Yet her life had been erratic, unexpected, defying her careful planning. 

She has visitors. First one then the other daughter. They come and fuss with her pillow and bedclothes. She says little and lets them get on with the job. They feel and look awkward, avoiding her eyes, trying to sound cheerful.

They mirror aspects of her; their duty to the family is unquestionable and all consuming. Ada, at least, through her work and her designs had gained recognition for her efforts, achieved a social standing. With her husband they have created a successful swimsuit enterprise, called simply ‘Ada’. His business acumen and her talent made for an effective partnership. Barbara, on the other hand, seems lost in another unsatisfactory relationship. 

When her granddaughters come to visit, they eye her cautiously. They stand around not knowing what to say. In awe of her. Afraid of her stillness. It was she who always fussed with their breakfast, made their lunch, made sure the uniforms were pressed. It was she who complained about their rooms and manners, their friends. Rarely smiling, small and corpulent, white hair pulled in a severe bun; she administered to their needs. She wanted to be useful.

In her sleep she feels free and light. The burdens shaken off her shoulders. No longer responsible for anyone. She wakes to the sound of dishes being shifted from the trays but she wants nothing to eat. Her body is too tired for such efforts. She even drinks through the IV drip.

Her hardest memory, kept deepest in her heart is her son. Dead and buried without her, unable to hold him one last time. Her soul died with him and only the body functioned at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Her voice came to her from a distance and the words were strange. She waited for the evenings so she could go to her bed and think about him. Examine the pain, the loss. They were hers in his absence. She would wake with an overwhelming feeling of foreboding and grief. She dreamt of calling him while walking in the snow. But he would not come. 

She has visitors again but keeps her eyes closed. They speak in undertones, sifting words carefully. Her hands, small, square and practical, lie on the cover. The transparent skin reveals thin blue veins and discoloured patches where the needles have pierced too many times. Someone touches her hands gently and with love. Holds them. Someone kisses her. She hears them leave but keeps her eyes closed and waits. 

It is shortly before four in the morning that the night duty nurse finds her unresponsive and telephones home. It is the 29th of October, 1970, that Lidia’s life finally ends.



Contact Anna

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher