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All That Was: Chapter Five - More School

“Our History professor, G., had constant trouble with an ill-fitting upper denture. In the course of animatedly discussing the Crimean wars, he would suddenly catch his set of teeth in flight and push it back into where it belonged. At such moments we would unsuccessfully endeavour to suppress convulsions….’’ Lusia Przbyszewicz recalls with with amused affection some of her teachers.
Lusia’s happy schooldays were soon to end when Nazi troops marched into Poland. Her gripping life story, All That Was, can be obtained from PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Australian, plus postage).

I remained a student at Orzeszkowa for 10 years. September 1939 was my final year there. Because the Germans closed all the schools soon after their invasion, I was not able to complete my Matura (H.S.C.) at that time. I eventually sat for the exam at the clandestine school in the Warsaw Ghetto. More about this later.

Looking back now, I realize how very fortunate I was then, to find myself with the same group of girls, throughout my formative years. Those memorable schooldays gave rise to life long friendships.

The staff at the school was very permanent. I can recall only one change of the Headmistress about a year before the outbreak of war.

Our teachers were mostly middle aged, of both genders, and very well qualified. On the whole, they were an immensely dedicated lot of people, even though their delivery of course varied greatly.

We were required to study all the subjects offered. After the Junior Exam, we could change the emphasis between Humanities and Sciences (according to the intelligence test results), but no subject could be dropped altogether. Latin and French or German were also compulsory.

Our studies were coordinated. Studies of Polish Literature, for instance, coincided with the European literary trends of the same period. We studied Polish and European History simultaneously. We were introduced to the works of Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, etc, in Polish translation. The subject called 'Latin,' included Greek and Roman Mythology as well as early Roman History. I can still recite some Horace or Cicero in Latin and remember sweating over translations of Livius or Tacitus into Polish.

We learned French by the direct method. If one uttered one word of Polish in the French class, one was reported to the Headmistress. Accordingly, our matriculation students of French were able to attend French universities, and many did.
In the case of Jewish students who were often persecuted at Polish schools of learning, learning French was of the essence.
We had frequent class tests, always marked from one to five. Five corresponded also to Very Good on the annual report. This report was issued with great ceremony at the start of summer holidays in July. The other less desirable alternatives were Good or Satisfactory. Below that level, even in one subject, a student would have to repeat the year. Less than Very Good for Conduct was totally unacceptable!

To maintain discipline at all times, each of us was issued with a black notebook in which the teacher reported to our parents the various misdemeanours we committed. Parents had to sign each one every time.

Parents were expected to attend special sessions (konferencja) with teachers, several times a year, to discuss their darlings' progress: a matter considered of paramount importance.
Occasionally, before Mother returned from such a 'konferencja,' I would delay the dreaded moment of truth: I would lock myself in the toilet to let her cool off a little before she let her wrath descend upon me.

A typical school day started with prayers in the gym, followed by an inspection of our general appearance as we filed past on the way out. The emblem and number of the school was attached to the left sleeve of the uniform and of the overcoat. It was blue in the Junior School and red in the Senior School. To display an old red and grubby emblem on one's sleeve, after a long spell at school, gave one the most sublime sensation. This was a symbol of maturity and experience in the eyes of boys.

For health reasons, there were short breaks during lessons. We would step out from our desks and do some stretches with the classroom windows wide open. The teacher, who either counted or clapped hands, controlled the timing and movements.

Once a week we had a Conduct Class with the form Mistress. This was designed to 'uphold the high moral standard of the school.' From time to time, Class Prefects were elected at such occasions.

A male teacher taught us the Jewish religion once a week. Unfortunately, he never won our respect, and so I learnt nothing of use from him.

My relationship with the other girls remained at the core of my long and eventful school life. Though in the beginning my peers took very little notice of me, the situation gradually improved.

By the time I reached middle school, I had become a very popular member of the class. Of course, I remained always the smallest, but my notoriously sharp tongue and a great sense of humour won me respect and admiration. My friends had also discovered that I had an exceptionally good ear. Since most of us loved classical music, I became a kind of expert to be consulted on the subject of recognizing tunes or naming composers.

Academically, my work improved in some areas. I excelled at Biology, especially at preparing slides for the microscope. I enjoyed Chemistry more than Physics; I loved Ancient and World History, excluding Poland. My country's history of endless invasions, divisions, and uprisings confused me. Algebra was well within my grasp, but Geometry certainly was not. I generally attained higher grades in French and Latin than in my native Polish. The onerous task of unravelling its grammatical complexities was bad enough. To boot, I often grew tired of 'the splitting of hairs' perpetrated on our literary masterpieces, and I felt usually inept in the search for patriotic fervour and martyrdom in every line of poetry.

My successes or failures hinged also on the way a subject was presented. Invariably, we all found our Geography classes boring. They mostly amounted to learning paragraph after paragraph from the manual. Just for the fun of it, we used to learn off by heart some slightly bizarre extracts from the textbook and recite them word for word in class when the teacher asked a general question. It sounded quite odd. I have never forgotten the bit about 'the antelopes hopping from dune to dune, in little herds'. Naturally, the Geography teacher was subjected to many pranks.

Whenever she felt particularly annoyed with us and all set for a counterattack, she would firstly take off her pince-nez and place it on the table. Carried away one day, she banged the table to make a point and smashed her glasses. She ran out of the room with her hand bleeding profusely. I wish I could honestly say that we felt truly sorry.

I was pretty good at imitating her facial expressions. Her uncommon features were exacerbated by very crooked upper teeth that stuck out of her mouth. On occasions, these protruding teeth caused her to spit a little. Girls in the front desks talked of bringing umbrellas. Often, when speaking on matters geographic, mid-sentence, she would suddenly rebuke a student. For instance: 'Giraffes, Janka stop talking, have very long necks.' The class was in an uproar.

At times our mentor would use the physics lab projector to show us some pictures of distant lands. As soon as the room was blacked out, we felt free to eat and play up. During one such session, one of my mates, Lillian, accidentally fell off her chair, crashing to the floor. Alarmed by the racket, our poor teacher turned on the light. There was Lillian, lying on her back, legs up in the air, half-eaten banana in her hand. She lives in New York now.

Our History professor, G., had constant trouble with an ill-fitting upper denture. In the course of animatedly discussing the Crimean wars, he would suddenly catch his set of teeth in flight and push it back into where it belonged. At such moments we would unsuccessfully endeavour to suppress convulsions.

The Physics professor, S., was both very intelligent and handsome. Like most teenagers, we thought we were in love with him. One girl felt passionate enough to place a note that said 'I love you' in a box of matches he always kept in the pocket of his lab-coat hanging on the wall. The expression of utter contempt on his face, when he saw it, made us all feel very embarrassed. He made no comment and consigned the note to the garbage bin.

Our Form mistress, Mrs H. also taught us Maths. Though the most lovable of human beings, she was unattractive as well as short-sighted. Her pince-nez did nothing to mellow her countenance. Adding insult to injury, nature endowed her with legs like telegraph posts. She strove tirelessly to impart her knowledge to us. Sadly, she never quite managed to stoop to the level of the less mathematically minded. Moreover, she gave explanations in convoluted Polish, so that only the brightest amongst us caught on to what she was saying. The rest of the students, like me, remained in the dark forever.
The Biology teacher, Mrs M., sought to inspire passion for her subject: 'Carry high the Biology flag' (standard) she would echo before our school holidays. In summer, it meant collecting all kinds of specimens in the country. These were to be subsequently either dried or stuffed or preserved in bottles, depending on the species. This was also the time when holiday accommodation was needed for the school's demonstration animals.

One Christmas time, devoted as I was to Biology and Zoology, I volunteered to take a white mouse home. On seeing it my Mother was lost for words. It had to be a combination of terror and rage. I guess she had probably never seen a mouse before. After her initial shock, she and the maid prepared a home for the mouse in a basket and put it out on the balcony. It was snowing at the time. The poor thing was running round and round along the edge of the basket: it resembled a rolling snowball. It nearly perished from the cold. I protested vigorously.

My detractors immediately put a new strategy into effect. The mouse was placed on the dining room floor in a sealed cardboard box. Holes pierced the box to allow the mouse to breathe and a dish with milk was placed in it. The mouse upset the milk, leaving a greasy stain on the parquet floor.
At once, another alternative was found, which involved locking the mouse into an old canary cage on top of the kitchen cupboard. It escaped instantly. Mother and the maid, standing on stools at each end of the cupboard, waved their broomsticks and tried unsuccessfully to direct the mouse back to the cage. It vanished down the wall and was eventually found drowned in a pot of Mother's home-made jam.

I was of course devastated. Facing my Biology teacher with such news on the first day of the new term became yet another trial of my childhood.

The Latin teacher, Miss W., was a spinster, who, to make things worse, walked with a limp. She had apparently lost the toes of one foot in an accident. The more malicious amongst us claimed that a tram ran over it. As is often the case with brilliant classical scholars, she showed us too much indulgence. Whenever she was in charge, we knew it would be relatively easy to play truant.

Often in class, when we were required to recite by heart some extracts from Latin masterpieces, we would stick the texts of long Odes and Sonnets to the wall of the classroom recess and read them fluently, looking sideways.

We had two teachers of Polish: one, Mrs L., a very elegant, sophisticated lady of the world. She espoused a very much down to earth approach to her subject. My association with her extended to the Warsaw Ghetto. The other, Mrs S., had a rather ephemeral quality about her, which in our minds made her resemble Hamlet's Ophelia. She was a beautiful creature. The mane of golden locks sweeping over her shoulders inspired awe. She spoke and read Polish with an attractive musical Galician accent. During poetry lessons especially we all seemed transformed into supernatural beings floating in space.

I believe that during the war, she and her husband (a high ranking officer in the Polish army), experienced great misery at the hands of the Soviets, when, together with a small Polish contingent, they were cast away in impenetrable forests, in the midst of a Siberian winter.

Our French teacher, Miss K., another spinster who passed her prime, held high qualifications from Montpelier University. Tall, thin and stooped, she often gave vent to her sarcastic tendencies. She never forgave my very good friend Erna, who happened to be wealthy, for arriving at school in a chauffeur driven car, while she, Miss K., had to walk to school. Her mean little remarks were reflected in the mocking eyes that glared out of her spectacles. We rather feared her.

I did not particularly enjoy Gymnastics. Our teacher, Miss Sz., was an austere, extremely fit specimen, who put us through our paces with military precision. She personally supervised each girl's progress: be it working out on the bars, performing acrobatic feats on the ladders, or turning somersaults. You had to get it right, no matter how long it took. I used to be terrified of the vaulting horse. To hop over it with my short legs was a daunting experience.

We would generally make all possible attempts to be excused from Gymnastics, by acquiring a certificate from our school doctor. Changing into and out of the gym garb was a particularly unwelcome imposition, more so in winter.

We also played ball games in the gym. The most popular ones were net ball and 'Narodowka.' The latter consisted of attempting to wipe out the members of the opposing team by rapidly passing the ball between the captain and one's own team over the other's head. Any player hit by the ball, had to step out.

Our curriculum included a class called 'Roboty' (Craftwork) which offered a great range of skills to be acquired, from crochet to woodwork. Glasswork was my favorite. At home I had quite a display of my own little pictures painted on glass, which I also learnt to cut.

Any handiwork such as embroidery and crochet was usually executed by the maid, since neither my Mother nor I showed the slightest aptitude for it.

In Poland, Sport in general played a much smaller role than in the Australian schools. We did not compete with other schools nor did we have school teams. Once in a while we would go to the Lodz sports grounds to practise running, 'power' walking, discus throwing and high and long jump. I was an excellent short distance runner and a fair 'jumper.' My discus performance was abysmal.

We went rather reluctantly to the Y.M.C.A. indoor swimming pool on occasions, to practice the breaststroke we had learned on the gym floor. There was a sign by the entrance that said: 'Access forbidden to Jews'. (Zydom wstep wzbroniony). In the winter we had to dry our hair over the central heating before leaving.

We used to make numerous excursions to the country, often of a few days duration. For instance, our Geography curriculum required that we learn to carry out surveys of the terrain. On such assignments, each girl was equipped with a kind of wooden tray suspended from her neck, on which she carried paper, pencil, compass, ruler, and all the other measuring devices. We had to produce maps or graphs at the end of our training. I am not quite sure what I really learnt from all this, but it was a lot of fun.

We usually had to reside in simple huts and share meals with our teachers. One dinner time, a girl who was trying to impress us with her excellent table manners, applied knife and fork to a dry biscuit. Pieces flew out of her plate, and one hit the Maths teacher slap in the face. We loved it!

Sometimes we travelled to other Polish cities to enhance our knowledge of their historic and cultural heritage. With that objective in mind, we visited Krakow, Wilno (Vilna) and Warsaw (Warszawa). I remember the commotion in the Vilna cathedral, when the dux of our class, Hania S., a girl suffering from a weak bladder, wet her pants. In Krakow we visited many architectural treasures, amongst them: Wawel, the former capital's 12th century royal castle, the Cathedral of St Wenceslav with its many relics, the magnificent church of Our Lady and of course the famous salt mine Wieliczka nearby. I returned there with Claude in 1977 and again in 1997.
There followed a week-long excursion with my school to Warsaw one year. My schoolgirl's wicked mind recorded chiefly the unforgettable adventures associated with that expedition. I recall how, during a visit to the Art Gallery, with its endless pavilions, we became tired and bored after some hours of viewing Great Art. We decided to gather in the lobby downstairs and wait for the teachers to come down. After some considerable time, to our great relief, the Biology and Latin teachers appeared at the top of the marble staircase. All of a sudden, Miss W. somehow tripped on her toeless foot and grabbed her companion's arm to maintain balance. In a split second there they were, tumbling together down the whole flight of stairs. We all stood at the bottom as if glued to the floor, taking in this extraordinary scene. No-one budged and no-one helped them. They both got up from the ordeal miraculously without any broken bones, and we filed out of the Gallery in ghastly silence.

Early the following morning, some girls, for sheer bravado, bought a packet of cigarettes at a street kiosk. Their awkward attempts at smoking caught the eye of a Warsaw school inspector, an obviously early riser, who lived opposite our quarters. There was much to-do before the ones who owned up to the errors of their ways were dispatched on the first available train back to Lodz.

Because of the unfortunate geographical position, Poland felt always threatened by her neighbours. We were expected to maintain eternal vigilance. Military prowess was encouraged also in schools. We had special classes to learn how to handle rifles and shoot at targets. We would lie on our stomachs on the gym floor, aiming to score a bull's eye placed in front of the stage. My scores used to be quite high.

In the final school years we were also given a few days practice in hospital routine, which included general nursing duties. Those amongst us who could bear it, were free to observe operations in the operating theatre. I didn't! One of the girls passed out during an appendix operation and had to be carried out on a stretcher.

National holidays were given great importance. Schools were compelled to march for all kinds of reasons: commemorating defeats, victories, independence gained or lost, uprisings and so on. Moreover, we celebrated Army Day, Air Force Day, or the return of soldiers from manoeuvres.

All this was great, because we would miss school.

As I was the smallest in the group, I always marched in front. One Air Force Day I led the school, carrying the school flag in a special holster. True to the occasion I became all but airborne as it flapped in the wind high above me.

The schools' assembly point was the same Lodz cathedral where I had been a frequent visitor in my babyhood. It was from this cathedral that all the national pageants commenced. Before each parade, we had to endure the most thorough inspection of our general appearance: berets worn at the correct angle with not a single hair out of place, and flat, highly polished brown shoes were a must!

At last, at the sound of the teacher's whistle, dapper and excited, we set off in military formation along the length of Piotrkowska Street. About half way, there stood a podium on our right where our Mayor Hauke-Nowak was receiving the Salute. Upon reaching the podium, we all had to turn our faces to the right. Music was provided by military and school bands which were also part of the procession.

It seems inconceivable even now that on this memorable Air Force Day, Stefcia W., normally a very responsible, serious minded student, (who due to a hormonal imbalance was showing signs of hair growth under her chin), passed the inspection wearing low heeled shoes instead of the regulation flat shoes. Disastrous consequences were to follow.
For a while, we marched along in silence to the rhythm of the band. Some schools marched ahead of us, others further behind. Crowds of spectators lined the footpaths. We were strutting confidently, when, without warning, Stefcia's ill-fated right heel got stuck in the tramline. Startled, she stopped and did her best to extricate it by pulling her foot this way and that, but to no avail. As she stopped, so did we. And the entire procession behind us came to a halt. Meanwhile those ahead of us, oblivious, marched on. The band, taken aback, stopped playing. Stefcia was in tears, as she continued her struggle with the offending shoe.

At last, our teacher, who was about to have an apoplexy attack, hissed into Stefcia’s ear: ‘Get your foot out of the shoe and then pull.’ So she did. She was instantly rewarded. The parade resumed, but it was in disarray as we ran to catch up with the lot in front of us, in time to turn our faces to the right. Stefcia was suspended for a while after that episode.


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