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All That Was: Chapter Twenty-Four - Keep On Keeping On

... One morning Frau Hagemann handed me a tray with two cups of tea. They looked identical. She explained that one of them contained a laxative. I was to deliver this cup to a guest in room five. The other cup contained a calming potion for a nervous wretch and was to be delivered to room nine. Needless to say, I accidentally got the cups mixed up. My oversight resulted in the nervous fellow developing diarrhoea on the train to Berlin and the other poor soul remaining constipated...

There are high comic moments amid the drudgery of wartime "slave'' labour in a German hotel for Lusia Przybyszewicz. Lusia's considerable literary and narrative skills enable the reader to live alongside her through the horrors, fears and humorous moments of World War Two. Her book All That Was is available from her, PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

Throughout winter 1944 there seemed to be no end to our daily chores at the Hotel-Gaststatte 'Am Hochenstein.' The establishment was bursting at the seams with ever increasing numbers of guests checking in. The influx had a direct link to the relentless bombardment of many major cities in Germany. The carnage brought about by the persistent Allied air raids forced many German war industries to relocate to smaller towns, shifting their employees with them. In consequence our hotel's resources, human and otherwise, were stretched to the limit.

In the midst of the clutter, rumours began circulating that the Volkswagenwerk was involved in some secret weapon manufacture, but we never learnt for certain whether this was true.

Our long working days began and finished in the dark. Fortunately for us the savage onslaught from the air eased considerably in the inclement winter conditions. Until spring 1944 K.D. F. Stadt seldom found itself under the path of the Allied bomber formations, so that our sorties to seek protection in the inhospitable, snow blanketed woods were infrequent.

The lull in the bombing offered the little Winfried a unique opportunity to play out of doors. Sometimes Giesela and I were assigned to take the child for a toboggan ride in the snow. Such indulgent moments inevitably evoked in my mind my Christmas holidays at Zakopane and all the happy memories they entailed.

In contrast, my two health-related experiences in the course of winter '44 bring to mind some lugubrious moments.

An acute toothache plagued me already for some time, but because of my deep-seated fear of dentists I procrastinated in seeking treatment. Eventually the Cheffin sent me to see the local dental surgeon. As befitting a confirmed Nazi, he treated me with all the contempt reserved for the 'Polish scum'. Unmoved by my pleas, he ordered his nurse to hold me down, and then, totally ignoring my screams of pain, extracted the offending tooth without anesthetic. The horror of this ordeal is still with me some fifty years on.

In quick succession followed a loss of hearing in my left ear. I was alarmed! Aware, that in general my boss had nothing but disdain for sickness or weakness of any kind, I pleaded with her for some days before she reluctantly acquiesced to my request to have it investigated. Then to galvanize her into some sort of action I reminded her of the rights of access an employee had to the Krankenkasse (health insurance).

Medical services at K.D F. Stadt were only very basic. If one had any serious health problem, one had to go further afield. Seeing that the nearest ear, nose, and throat specialist resided in Braunschweig, I would be obliged to travel by train if I were to seek his help. At that point the red tape Nazi style intervened; as a Pole I could only make such a trip with the granting of a specific permit and in the company of a German national.

Frau Hagemann hit the roof at the very prospect of having her working schedules disrupted for several hours by the absence of two members of her staff, especially for such a seemingly fickle reason. She finally allowed me to go, but on condition I travelled alone in the same way an ordinary German citizen would. According to her I looked just like any other 'Deutsches Madchen'.

I swallowed this dubious compliment and departed the following morning from the Wolfsburg railway station with my 'P' hidden from view. I must admit that I rather enjoyed the challenge. At the other end of the journey, just before entering the doctor's surgery, I again revealed my 'P'.

I found the waiting room packed with sullen looking patients. There was no receptionist. As an unwelcome Polish intruder, I tried to keep out of their way, staying in one corner of the room. It did not matter that some patients arrived after I did; I knew that I would be expected to wait for my treatment until the very end. In the meantime no one acknowledged my presence. I could discern an overt hostility in the attitude of everyone present, which left me very ill at ease.

At short intervals the loud bang of a door being slammed somewhere in the inner sanctum of the surgery could be heard. Following it, the gruff voice of the doctor called out: 'nachst' (next).

My turn came at last, in the late afternoon. After the usual 'Heil Hitler' greeting an elderly medico in white and seated at his desk addressed me with the disrespectful 'du.' I was told to sit down in the chair facing the desk. He stood up, quickly examined my ear with his instrument and then proceeded to wash it out with a syringe, leaving me to hold the basin. Miraculously my hearing was restored.

With much scorn he diagnosed 'dreck' (filth) to be the cause of my problem. He added that this was consistent with his view of creatures of my ilk. He then sent me on my way.

I was so mollified with the result that his insults carried little weight. Besides, I felt that he was basically correct in his diagnosis. In my case the accumulation of dirt in my ear must have been a professional hazard. I returned to K.D.F. Stadt the way I came - with my 'P' hidden from view. At the hotel I faced some more derision from the Cheffin, when I explained the nature of my ailment.

Light relief from our dreary existence came only in the evenings. One at a time we met up with our 'beaux'. In between dates we sought diversion by playing pranks on one another.

S. was often the object of our jokes, because she bragged endlessly about the gifts from her Paul. Once R. and I sewed up the sleeves of the nightie he had given to her. Before S.'s return we also removed the blackout from the window. This forced her to put the garment on in the dark while we pretended to be asleep. It was a scream to hear her fumble in the night for the elusive sleeves of her nightgown.

Another time we turned the wardrobe around and pushed the door against the wall. When S. returned to our room it was dark. She groped in vain for the door handle.

Before their evening outings S.'s Paul had a habit of whistling the Marseillaise downstairs in the street to let her know that he was waiting. On the appointed evening it was pouring with rain. Feeling particularly mischievous we decided to play a trick on the couple. We shared our plan with the Cheffin, who always liked a good laugh. She gave me permission to go outside. I stood in the rain and whistled the tune. S. came down all dressed up, only to find that her date was not there because of the weather. After her initial fury subsided, we all laughed ourselves silly.

My own adventures were occasionally spiced with a touch of danger. One morning, Agnes, Frau Hagemann's cranky sister, asked me to help her move the enormous cauldron of boiling summer soup downstairs into the cellar. She planned to serve it chilled for dinner. We were obscured from one another by clouds of steam as, from opposite sides, we lifted the cauldron by its scorching handles.

Agnes was much taller than I. She began to descend backwards down the steps. Very awkwardly, I tried to follow her down forward. At each step I bumped the burning metal with my knees. Owing to my short arms the heavy cauldron inevitably tilted towards Agnes. In a fraction of a second, it seemed, the hot broth spilled all over her arm, scalding it severely. She uttered a scream. I was very upset to see her in pain and tried to help, but Agnes would not let me touch her, hinting that I burned her deliberately. I spent a few very uneasy moments before finally convincing her, that her suspicions had no foundation in fact. Agnes could not use her arm for several days.

The most hilarious incident I recall revolved around the humble tea. One morning Frau Hagemann handed me a tray with two cups of tea. They looked identical. She explained that one of them contained a laxative. I was to deliver this cup to a guest in room five. The other cup contained a calming potion for a nervous wretch and was to be delivered to room nine. Needless to say, I accidentally got the cups mixed up. My oversight resulted in the nervous fellow developing diarrhoea on the train to Berlin and the other poor soul remaining constipated.

I was lucky that my Cheffin had a remarkably good sense of humour. She arrived in the kitchen the day after the event looking angry and began to admonish me. But as the details of the incident unraveled, they sounded so droll that she could not help herself and burst out laughing. General mirth followed. Yet again my carelessness went unpunished.

My scant sewing skills came to haunt me when I attempted to restore an old pair of men's woolen gloves I found lying about in the Gaststatte. I determined they would make a useful addition to Marcel's gear in spite of a few signs of wear and tear in the fingers. I washed, dried and mended them with loving care and finally presented them to my idol one evening. He was very grateful for the gift, but to my surprise I noticed that he never wore the gloves. One evening I summoned enough pluck to query him about it. After a long pause he explained, with his most winning smile, that in my eagerness I had sewed the fingers together.

On March 26th, 1944, I was twenty-one. I remember that morning very well indeed. I had just completed my cleaning procedures of the eleven toilets and was about to join the sisters for breakfast. Frau Hagemann came into the kitchen to wish me a Happy Birthday. She gave me a packet of 21 cigarettes for the occasion. I felt quite impressed by her gesture, but, in view of our clandestine activities in the cellar, I felt also a little remorseful. Such is life!

With the advent of warmer weather even our restricted existence received a boost. We discovered a long canal linking Wolfsburg with the important waterways that carried cargo north. The grassy banks of the canal became our sunbaking territory on Sundays. Furthermore, we entered into negotiations with the Flemish skipper of a large barge. He agreed to let us stay on the barge whenever it was anchored nearby and not in use. This enabled us to sometimes hold small gatherings there and enjoy the peace and relative isolation of this unusual location. With a little imagination, the gentle swaying of the vessel made us feel we were at sea. The sensation was wholly uplifting.

That spring we made a discovery of a different kind. One day the cross-eyed little Winfried came into the kitchen with his mummy. Out of the blue he asked her why Bruno, a guest at the hotel, was wearing his daddy’s pyjamas. We pretended not to hear anything. She turned crimson and led the child out the door.


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