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All That Was: Chapter Nine - And They All Came Tumbling Down

“One day, as I was picking blueberries, I remember stumbling upon some particularly large ones strewn all over the path. I promptly added them to those already in my basket. On my return home, the horrified Frania advised me they were goat droppings…’’ The teenage Lusia Przybyszewicz relishes life, but there is a growing uneasiness in Poland because of developemtn in Germany.

Lusia’s wonderful and moving book, All That was, can be obtained from PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Austrlian plus postage).

When Marshal Pilsudski died in 1935, a great national calamity struck Poland: no one of his stature could be found in the upper echelons of the governing body to take his place. He was mourned by everyone, including the Jews whom he had always protected from the deep-seated hostility of the Poles.
For an entire month, all school children in Poland wore black arm bands in his memory.

As we soon found out, his loss had profound repercussions for the Jewish community throughout the land. His successor, General Smigly-Rydz, showed no commitment whatsoever to curbing the inherent Polish anti-Semitism.

President Moscicki, a scientist, was too weak politically to intervene. Without any 'buffer', a new anti-Jewish law was rapidly brought in. Jewish butchers were forbidden from practising the kosher method of killing animals by stunning them first. All of a sudden, this was considered to be a cruel practice, and it was ordered to be discontinued at once. This decision outraged the huge Jewish population. In protest, we all stopped eating meat.

I remember that Mother went to special cooking classes to learn how to prepare vegetarian meals. At the same time, she was also introduced to a new fruit called grapefruit, developed by grafting lemon with orange.

The Polish authorities were eventually forced to abandon this discriminatory law on economic grounds. Thus, we all resumed eating kosher meat and embraced the grapefruit.
To prepare the grapefruit, Mother learned to cut off the top of the fruit and fill the centre with sugar. Extracting the flesh through the opening at the top became quite a feat.
Apart from the unhappy episode with the kosher meat, I remained blissfully ignorant of any possible threats to our security or of Hitler's evil designs. Barely a trickle of the turmoil in Europe in the thirties filtered through to my sheltered world.

The grownups did not discuss any matters of substance in their children's presence. Our days continued to be filled with school work, fun time with friends, outings with the family, and exciting holidays.

In between times we spent at Zopot and Koberowo, we had other summer holidays at Wisniowa Gora (Cherry Mountain). This was a picturesque village in the neighbourhood of Lodz. We stayed in a simple wooden dwelling with Mother and our dear maid, Frania.

We cooked in a kitchen not unlike the ones used by the early settlers in Australia. We, the kids, especially loved exploring the mysterious cellar which we entered by lifting a trapdoor in the kitchen floor. Then, in complete darkness, we negotiated the rickety stairs. All the perishables were kept down there. Local vendors sold the most scrumptious blueberry turnovers which they displayed on huge trays precariously balanced on their heads.

The beautiful forests were one of the main features of the Polish countryside. They remain a part of my cherished memories from this time.

During my summer vacations, I was very fond of losing myself amongst the thick vegetation of the undergrowth. Sometimes I walked through it, and at other times I lay on the springy emerald moss to contemplate the sky through the canopy of gently swaying tree tops. I felt very much at peace in this private world of mine.

The variety of trees was extensive: majestic old oaks, beech trees, poplars, chestnuts, linden, willows, alders, and many others. By far, the biggest forests consisted of pine and fir trees. In these forests, the shady paths were covered with needles and cones, and a pungent smell of sap permeated the air. At the ground level, I found tiny runners of blueberries, cranberries, and wild strawberries. There were also many species of mushrooms, each one to be cooked according to a special recipe. The poisonous one, muchomor (toadstool) with its pattern of white spots over a bright red cap was the most beautiful.

One day, as I was picking blueberries, I remember stumbling upon some particularly large ones strewn all over the path. I promptly added them to those already in my basket. On my return home, the horrified Frania advised me they were goat droppings. That was indeed a good lesson for an ignorant city girl!

Often the forests would open on to a clearing overgrown with blue heather.

Birch woods throve in damp locations. They always stood out because of their white bark and the very soft green of their leaves. Occasionally, amongst the many ferns sheltering around the base of the trees, a harmless green snake would sneak silently through. These snakes never failed to startle me.
I spent several summer holidays at Ciechocinek, an elegant, sophisticated health resort on the Vistula river south of the city of Torun. Here, Mother took her cures in the fully equipped spas. I remember being very impressed on seeing her immersed up to her chin in a tub full of warm mud. That was her daily routine.

Frania still used to come with us. She occasionally preparedmeals, although we generally ate at restaurants. Her main role was to watch over the children. Bolek and I would 'swim' in the superbly appointed pool in the section reserved for children. Before we were released into the pool area, we had to shower and wash our feet with the help of special attendants of the complex.

The pool area encompassed a bar,a fine restaurant, an orchestra, and a rotating dance floor. Young and old alike were very well dressed. The town itself resembled one vast parkland. Multicolored, exquisitely patterned, specially cultivated carpets of flowers were everywhere. Pansies, lilies-of-the-valley, carnations, roses: they all filled the air with their distinct, magnificent scent.

Perfumed white and bluish lilac trees lined the avenues. One centrally positioned flower bed served as a huge calendar. The dates were changed daily by repositioning the flowers. I have never since seen a place like it, not even in Switzerland.

The fact that we always had to appear elegantly attired galled Bolek and me quite a bit. The afternoons were given to cultural pursuits such as open air concerts or art displays. This meant that we had to change clothes often, at least twice a day. Obviously, opulence was the key word at Ciechocinek.
I believe the resort is still quite famous in post-war Poland for its mineral salt deposits and hot mud springs.

We spent the winter school holidays skiing at Zakopane in the Polish Tatry, along the southern border with Czechoslovakia. Before 1939, Bolek was still too young to come along. My first such an expedition with Mother at Christmas time took place in the early thirties. This trip stands out in my memory as particularly adventurous.

Right from the start, on the very first morning, my cowardly nature refused to let me launch myself down the mild beginner's slope. After Mother had equipped me with all the appropriate gear and the best pair of skis money could buy, she became exceedingly annoyed with my reluctance to engage in skiing. Inadvertently, she pushed me forward and sent me into a slide down the hill. A photographer at the bottom of that hill captured perfectly the expression of terror on my face, with the skis pulling my legs apart, my arms outstretched, and the stocks limply hanging from my hands in mid air.

Mother instantly realized the danger and set off at full speed on foot down the hill. She was wearing rubber boots pulled over her high heeled shoes, a black astrakhan fur coat and a matching fur hat. In that attire, she slithered down the hill to the rescue. Miraculously, we both reached the bottom of the hill at the same time. She caught me just as I was about to fall.

One fine day, we both set off in a hired, horse-driven sledge, up a mountain, to a lookout. As was the custom, a goral (highlander) led the horse up the steep, slippery roadway, while Mother and I sat comfortably in the sledge, a fur rug over our laps. According to custom, the goral wore a white, richly embroidered traditional costume, including a black hat. It was a sparkling winter day. A thick white blanket covered the landscape. Unfolding in the distance, we finally glimpsed snow-capped tops of the mountains chains. It was a truly breathtaking spectacle.

Sadly, because of the brief winter daylight, we had to begin our descent pretty early. At that very moment, to our horror, the goral discovered that the brakes on the sledge were failing. He explained that to continue with us on board the sledge on the downward slope would be very dangerous. He asked us to climb out of the sledge and inch our way down the hill as best we could.

The goral, meanwhile, was straining his muscles to the utmost in his effort to restrain his horse 's downwards thrust. It was not an easy task! Mother and I were thus left to cope with a potentially perilous descent.

For me, going down the hill was a relatively easy task, in spite of my slippery rubber boots which were not designed for this kind of challenge. For my mother however, who was lacking in any athletic skills and was dressed in exactly the same fashion as at my ski launch, the prospect was insurmountable. In desperation, she sat down on the path. In her astrakhan fur coat, she literally slid all the way down. This incident was such a farce, that whenever it was mentioned back home, we were in stitches. At school, I recreated the adventure in my Polish composition class. My story was entitled A Holiday Adventure'. For once, I scored the highest mark in the class.

Another expression of my winter sporting prowess, my favourite, was a practice called 'skiring.' Very similar to water skiing, it consisted of holding on to a rope attached to the back of a horse-driven sledge, going apace. Spurred on by the goral, the horse trotted along, now and then dropping dung in the middle of the road. The little bells attached to the horse's mane tinkled merrily all the way. With Mother seated inside, I slid along behind, always mindful that I had to part my legs in time to miss the dung.

Over time I mastered skiing, and I could do all kind of tricks including even 'christiania.'

Chairlifts did not exist in those days. Instead, we were taught a special technique of climbing up the slopes by twisting our skis outwards. Generally, the snow was very, very deep, and this would have probably made cross-country skiing hazardous.
One Christmas, our friend Sala and her son Stefek joined us at Zakopane for the duration of the school holidays. When our three weeks of fun were over, the four of us returned to Lodz by train. We shared the same sleeping compartment. The two mothers slept down below, and Stefek and I occupied the two upper bunks.

Accidentally, I turned off the light switch directly behind my head. The mothers were just getting ready for bed. In the darkness, a commotion ensued. I was told to turn on the light again at once. By mistake, I pressed the emergency button. Before we knew it, a railway attendant entered the compartment. He switched on the light, and, to everyone's horror, discovered two screaming, naked females. It took a long while to pacify my mother after that 'faux pas.'
One winter, probably in 1937 or 1938, Koberowo took off to Zakopane for the winter break. I believe this was my last fling in the snow before the outbreak of war.

We were all a little older by then, and this meant that boys and girls began to see each other in a slightly different light. I met my first 'boyfriend' there. His name was Sevek.

For quite a while, back in Lodz, he and I walked together every Sunday morning along the 'deptak' in Piotrkowska Street, where I used to walk with my father in my childhood. This pastime was considered very trendy amongst the teenagers of our era.

To my detriment, I was so terribly shy that I never quite knew what to say to Sevek during those leisurely walks. I was very naive and trusting. I invited my then close friend Ivonka to help me out with conversation. I learnt my lesson: in no time at all, she had pinched him from me, thus acquiring a new boy- friend.

In 1977, I revisited Zakopane with my son Claude. As it was in summer, we were driven by a goral in his fiacre. All the old memories raced through my mind.

In 1936, I was 13 years old. This called for a very special birthday party, even though there was no mention made of a Batmitzvah. (It was not practiced in those days). Thirteen-year-old blackberry wine, that Mother had made at the time of my birth, was brought out from the cellar for the celebration. Twenty-five girlfriends shared the festivities with me in our Wolczanska Street flat.

With Frania's help, Mother prepared a great feast.
Torts in those days were made with a dozen eggs each. All the beating was done by hand. This was a task that took much energy and required ages to accomplish. Consequently, on all of our birthdays, Mother was, as a rule, very cranky. I can still see her seated on the wooden stool in her favoured corner of the kitchen by the ice chest. She wore her working dressing gown and bonnet and held a large bowl of cake mixture between her thighs. She stirred it vigorously with a pastry fork for hours on end. It was most unwise to address her at such times.

After my numerous guests had departed, all the Przybyszewicz relatives gathered for dinner. My parents' gift to me was a portable gramophone with thirteen records of my choice. They included songs by Tino Rossi, foxtrots, languid Polish tangos, and Lambeth walk, which was just coming into fashion. We all danced it that day, in pairs, holding hands. My young brother, a talented dancer, excelled himself.

Already in 1937 and especially in 1938, an uneasiness began to be felt throughout Poland because of the developments in Germany. On 12th March 1938, the Nazis carried out their Anschluss of Austria, which culminated in the triumphant visit of Hitler to Vienna. This provocative act was followed on the 3rd of October by the official annexation of the Germanic part of Czechoslovakia known as Sudetenland.

The smug Poles contributed further to the dismembering of their neighbour by grabbing a slice of Silesia considered ethnically Polish. These early German conquests followed Hitler's evil plans precisely. They were clearly outlined in his book 'Mein Kampf, written in 1924, when I was one year old. Amazingly, not many people in the Western World took the book seriously until it was too late. The Allies resolved to challenge the Fuhrer only after he snapped up Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

In 1938, Father went on a business trip to Berlin. When he returned home, he seemed a little uneasy with the developments.

Our foreign minister, Beck, set off hunting with the fat Goering to the famous Polish forests around Bialystok, near the Latvian border, where wolves and bears used to roam in abundance. This was a diplomatic move designed to appease public opinion. There were rumours that the whole 'Polish Corridor,' the area between Germany proper and Prussia, which included Gdansk and Zopot, was entirely bedecked with swastikas. The many Volksdeutschen (people born in Germany but living abroad) who were living in Lodz, became very vocal all of a sudden. Our family received regular feedback about any such events from Adolf Brauner, himself a Volksdeutsch.

I believe my father befriended Adolf Brauner when he was still in his teens. Father found Adolf his first job as a lift boy in the building where the office was, with the obvious intention of helping the young man further a career in the textile industry.
Until the Nazi invasion, Father was the managing director of the textile firm Hirszberg and Birnbaum, situated on the 3rd floor of 96 Piotrkowska St. (Erna K.'s father's empire had its office on the 2nd floor). The young Brauner quickly rose in rank, always with my Father's support. Throughout his life, Adolf remained a devoted friend of the family. He eventually married a Jewess. Their only son Gerhard became a brain surgeon in post-war Lodz.

Otherwise, throughout 1938, our life changed only for the better. I had one more year of school before sitting for Matura (H.S.C.). Bolek became an outstanding pupil at his private Jewish Primary School that Mother insisted he attend.
I remember going to his school concert to see him dance the famous Sailor Dance with an adorable little girl on each arm. The girls, twins, wore fairy-like identical dresses, and Bolek wore a sailor suit. They step-danced to the very rhythmic catchy tune and received tumultuous applause from all the assembled parents.

In spite of all the ominous signs, Father must have felt confident enough about the future, for he chose that very year to purchase a property at Julianow. This area could be best described as the 'Vaucluse' of Lodz.

Father's school mate and his wife, Bronek and Sala, and their two children, Stefek and Bela, already lived in their own house in the same street. The long-standing friendship between our two families might have also prompted my dad's decision. After all, it was no secret that our respective parents were hoping to see me and Stefek betrothed some day. As is often the case in such situations, Stefek and I did not get on at all. Bela, the eldest child, was not endowed with much beauty nor intellectual prowess, but she was a brilliant pianist.
Father's plot at 19 Przyrodnicza Street is situated almost opposite their former house. Father's dream was to eventually have a villa built on his land, where we would all live. We used to talk about it quite often at home. When Claude and I visited Julianow in 1977 and again in August 1997, we saw a villa standing there. It was not unlike the one in Father's dream. In those days, it belonged to some Polish Government official. To me, this injustice was, and remains, an outrage.

The summer of that year we spent once more at Koberowo. Bolek came with us, though Mother also dispatched his current nanny with him to make sure that he was well looked after.
About that time, Mother won some money in the national lottery. There was much excitement, but the amount that she won was never disclosed in front of the children. It must, nevertheless, have been substantial, because it was decided that we should move house once again. This time my parents' choice was a palatial style apartment at 53 Aleje (Ave.) Kosciuszki. As usual, it was located on the third floor. We were only a block away from my Gymnazium.

The buildings boasted a lift, a marble staircase, and central heating throughout. Inside, heavy thick glass double-sliding doors connected all the rooms. We had two balconies. A sunny recess off the dining room served as an indoor garden for exotic plants. Water dripped from a tap (concealed within the open jaws of a lion) into a little fountain beneath. The 'salon' featured a beautiful large stained glass window imported from Dresden. Through this window, the sunlight diffused gently, like in a cathedral.

Except for the new divan on which Bolek slept, the furniture remained the same. I remember a night lamp he built and installed himself. He loved and understood things electrical from a very early age.

The two main bedrooms were reserved for my parents and me respectively. They both looked out on to the avenue. The maid's quarters were at the end of the long corridor, leading to the bathroom, kitchen and the tradesmen's staircase. There was also a guest shower and toilet in the front lobby. Highly polished parquet floors gleamed throughout. The traditional courtyard included a small garden to be shared with other tenants. A long driveway linked it to Wolczanska St., exactly opposite Kopernika St., where babcia Przybyszewicz used to live. This was only a few doors from our old address. (By August 1997 when we visited the area, nothing had changed.)
By the time we moved into our new apartment, I was the very proud mistress of a little, cuddly, light brown Pekinese called 'Cherry' which I walked daily in the garden. It loved cream cheese as well as carrots cooked in butter and sugar (according to the Jewish custom). I was so crazy about my doggie that I often ignored my entire family. I loved walking this cute bundle of mischief in the park. It was always on a leash, and it looked very snug in its woollen coatie on chilly winter days.

On one occasion, when we were having lunch, it suddenly emerged from the dark corridor into the dining room and looked directly at the grandfather clock as if it were checking the time; it then promptly withdrew, followed by peals of laughter.

The two canaries and the aquarium with gold fish were still with us as well.

The New Year 1939 brought with it renewed fears of the German threat. Large billboards appeared in the streets of Lodz, signalling the absolute commitment, preparedness, and determination of the Polish Armed Forces to stop any aggression. Some of the slogans rhymed and were usually accompanied by pictures of tough, muscular, uniformed lads in war-like postures. There were also frequent radio transmissions from the army chief, Gen. Smigly-Rydz.

At school, in Assembly, we sang specially created new songs about the army chief. Foreign minister Beck busied himself in needless discussions with his German counterpart, von Ribbentrop. Our president Ignace Moscicki also made several attempts through the media to contain the growing uneasiness. At street corners, urchins enjoyed a roaring trade selling cleverly designed folding leaflets which, with a flick of the finger, transformed the picture of Hitler into that of a pig.
When army manoeuvres were held in the vicinity of Lodz, school children were invited to cheer the soldiers on when they returned to barracks. We massed along the two sides of Piotrkowska Street, and we applauded with offerings of flowers. I remember an occasion when a soldier, from one of the trucks, threw a flower back right into the face of our dear but unattractive Maths teacher. He called out mockingly: 'This one is pretty and in need of a flower.' We all felt embarrassed for her.

During this time, more and more Polish Jew-haters came out of their closets. As I was setting out from school one day on an excursion with our teacher of Polish, I vividly recall some louts yelling at us: 'Down with the Jews!' We walked past them in pairs, without a word.

In the Lodz Council Chambers, the Christian Councillors would often beat up their Jewish counterparts or throw pieces of furniture at them. Hence, a local joke emerged: 'Q: what is it that has four legs and flies? A: ‘A chair in the Council Chambers'.

Frania, our very dear friend and maid of six years, left us about the time we moved house. All of us, especially Bolek and I, felt very close to her. She understood us well and she never told Mother of our misdemeanours. Sometimes, she watched me heat the thermometer against the central heating to pretend I had temperature so that I would not have to go to school. The real reason that I did not want to go was generally the threat of a maths test.

On other occasions, with Frania's cooperation, I would pour some awful medicine, that I was supposed to swallow, down the sink. She also witnessed our silly phone calls to strangers (very 'in' in my days), the most notorious of which was the one to the Fire Brigade when I told them that 'my heart was on fire'.

If we became too much of a handful for her, she would tell us off. For instance, she forbade us to throw potatoes from our third floor balcony at the passers-by down below.
I believe Frania also helped to relieve my mother's sense of guilt by listening to her outpourings. That would generally occur after Mother smacked me in a fit of temper.

Like most Polish peasants of her generation, Frania was illiterate. I used to write the letters to her family in the village. Once a month, she would dictate about a page of news, consisting of one very long sentence. All of her statements were linked together with the help of 'and'.
Our new maid seemed polite but detached. I don't remember her name. Her true colours were only revealed when Mother, under the German threat, became powerless to get rid of her.
Due to the political uncertainty, Koberowo settled for the summer holidays at the village of Barkowice Mokre on the river Pilica half way between Radom and Lodz. It stood in the midst of wheat fields. At that time of the year, the fields were golden, as in Van Gough's paintings.

Bolek was now ten years old, and he went with us to Koberowo. I was sixteen. We all played many hide-and-seek games amongst the crops in well- hidden furrows. Here, many new romances sprung up. Mr. Kober had a difficult job watching over us.

The memory of the heavenly blue cornflowers and crimson poppies scattered amongst the tall wheat is still with me as is the sweetish taste of raw wheat grain or the bitterish flavour of poppy seeds. The adjacent fields were covered in pungent yellow lupins, to prepare the soil for the next year's crop.
In that last summer of peace, we swam daily in the river. Pilica's current was very strong, and many of us preferred to float on our backs with the current. It would carry us at great speed. We would get out of the water somewhere along the bank, run back to where we started from, then do the trip all over again. It was a most exhilarating experience.
The same group of friends were there, and our kinship as strong as ever. Not for one moment did anyone of us have the slightest suspicion that Koberowo with all its magic was about to end forever.

On 22nd August, without any warning, Mother came in a taxi from Lodz to take us home at once. Her sudden arrival was prompted by the latest news bulletins forecasting a German invasion at any moment. Children's security was at stake and that would never do! She tried very hard to appear relaxed so as not to convey to us the fear that she felt. The ability to conceal her feelings, however, was never her forte. Though we were delighted to see our mum, we were both confounded by her decision. After all, there was still a week or so to go to the end of holidays: our school year used to start on the 5th September.

We hurriedly packed our innumerable articles of clothing into suitcases, and our huge, seemingly bottomless bag (referred to by our friends as 'the Przybyszewicz Sausage'). Before we left, to keep us happy, Mother reluctantly agreed to walk with us for the last time through the fields we so loved.

As always, she wore high-heeled shoes. The stylish dress, designed to screen her white skin from the sun she abhorred, enhanced the deep blue of her eyes. That image of my mother on the last day of our final pre-war holidays will stay with me for ever: she walked in the greatest discomfort across the many furrows, her coiffed chestnut hair fluttering in the breeze, desperately trying to look as if she were enjoying it.
On our return from the walk the taxi was waiting. Our last tearful farewells were exchanged. We loaded the boot with our luggage. As soon as the three of us bundled together on the passenger seat, the taxi doors slammed shut, and we were off.


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