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All That Was: Chapter Twenty-Five - Blueberries And Bedbugs

...In the kitchen we adopted the habit of smashing a piece of crockery of appropriate size whenever we heard the news of a village or town being liberated.

Owing to the prevailing notion that the Poles were intrinsically devoid of any work ethic, the breakages were attributed to our general clumsiness. The evidence was there for everyone to see in the increasing number of teacups with missing handles. They would spring up in great numbers on the kitchen sink after S.'s washing up routines...

Allied troops are making major advances after landing in Normandy. Lusia Przybyszewicz and the other Polish "slaves'', while working in a German hotel, continue to resist the Nazis in subtle and amusing ways.

Lusia's wonderful autobiography All That Was is not only a very good read: it is an expression of the human will to survive, and even thrive, during the direst circumstances. The book is available from Lusia at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

In May 1944 the great Summer Offensive began in Italy. All rail transport south of Florence was destroyed, the Polish contingent captured Monte Cassino on the 18th, and on the 4th of June Rome fell to the Allies.

This was followed on the 6th of June by the beginning of the Anglo-American invasion of Normandy, where every inch of the territory, especially at Caen, was won at a dreadful cost to human life.

In spite of this most horrific blood bath, the news was monumental. Very soon it became clear to us all that henceforth, the initiative for the outcome of the war had shifted and now belonged to our side. With this conclusion there arose a genuine glimmer of hope that the nightmare of the years spent under Nazi rule might perhaps vanish and that we would be free one day.

After all we had been through since September 1939, the very idea of freedom was at first hard to believe in.
Albeit deep down we felt ecstatic, outwardly we could not risk to show any such emotions. Spurred on by Goebbel's warnings about traitors in their midst, the Germans around us were becoming increasingly touchy and distrustful. Signs warning that 'der Feind hort mit' (the enemy is listening) appeared in many places.

I was scared but still determined to hear the news on the radio. I took very special care not to be caught listening to the broadcasts from London about the Allies' unstoppable progress. Their every gain, however small, gave us all a new thrill.

In the kitchen we adopted the habit of smashing a piece of crockery of appropriate size whenever we heard the news of a village or town being liberated.

Owing to the prevailing notion that the Poles were intrinsically devoid of any work ethic, the breakages were attributed to our general clumsiness. The evidence was there for everyone to see in the increasing number of teacups with missing handles. They would spring up in great numbers on the kitchen sink after S.'s washing up routines.

Most of the damage was indeed genuinely accidental. However, after the Cheffin directed that the three of us were allowed to drink only from those cups (Tassen ohne Henkel), we made sure that all the cups would gradually lose their handles and thus the indignity be suffered by all in equal measure.

In those heady times nothing seemed impossible anymore. We were forever scheming or plotting some new mischief, either with Marcel and his mates or by ourselves. We were just embarking on the spring cleaning at the hotel when a wicked idea struck me: we would introduce bedbugs into Frau Hagemann's spotlessly clean bedroom. I was aware that in warm weather the French camp suffered from an infestation of the revolting insects. I therefore enlisted Marcel's cooperation. He willingly supplied me with a matchbox full of the creatures. At the earliest opportunity R. and I let the bugs loose under the mattress of the double bed in the main bedroom.

The result was swift and successful! The Cheffin rushed out of her apartment the following morning showing all the signs of an impending apoplexy attack. She had never seen anything like it. She could not fathom how the horrid insects found their way into her quarters. We thoroughly enjoyed every moment of her outburst, but our antics had their consequences; in the end, we were told to carry out most of her bedroom's contents to the backyard. There we washed and scrubbed until we rid the stuff of the insects.

It is sometimes difficult to conceive that the war raged on, simultaneously with our unremarkable life of domestic trivia. On 20th June, 1944, the Russians attacked all along the Central Front. By the 4th of July they had crossed the Polish eastern border and commenced their assault on East Prussia. Now for the first time the Germans were forced to defend their own fatherland as well as their occupied territories in the West. The summer day and night air raids over the Reich were again reaching their peak. They made yet another significant contribution to the general disruption of everyday existence.

There were two very welcome diversions to my daily tasks during that July.

One morning, the Cheffin dispatched Gita, Giesela, and me, on our bicycles, to the forests in the country to collect blueberries. The expedition took me back to my pre-war jaunt into the woods at Wisniowa Gora, where, mistakenly, I picked up goat droppings from the ground and added them to the real berries in my basket.

This time we were furnished with open tins dangling from our necks by a loop of string. With both hands free we could quickly pick tinfuls of the luscious fruit from the tiny bushes.

We collected within a few hours a bucketful of fresh blueberries destined for the Cheffin's conserves. We returned from that expedition with black lips, teeth, and hands.

Later in the month I travelled by train with Gita, our principle cook, to her family home. Her parents had a fine property in the country near Fallersleben, which included a large orchard. The two of us were to pick plums, pack a couple of cartons full and bring them back to the hotel. We stayed overnight at the homestead.

Gita's parents, simple country folk, were convinced that the Fiihrer brought them stability and prosperity following the decadence of the Weimar Republic. They held him in awe.

As I possessed detailed knowledge of the recent German defeats, their ignorance of facts, apparent in the course of conversation at the dinner table, was staggering. They did not seem overtly concerned about the final outcome of the war. Maybe their reticence to discuss the truth was imposed by my presence. In any event I judged it imprudent to say very much, conscious of being constantly watched. Considering the circumstances, I found them, on the whole, to be hospitable and polite, in spite of being addressed with 'du'.

As the family could rely on their own produce, they lived better than city folk. Gita's father instructed us how to pick the ripe and juicy fruit without bruising it. Next morning we packed the plums into boxes and boarded the train for home before lunch.

In the hotel kitchen, before the jam making routines commenced, S. could not resist the temptation. She stuffed herself with too many dark plums and became violently ill and constipated (kein Stuhlgang) for days. We all teased her.

That summer I also helped in the preparation of home made cherry brandy. Just like our dear Frania in Lodz we spent long hours removing pips from myriads of black cherries. Our only tools were hair pins. Because of our Cheffin's superstition, girls who had their periods were excluded from doing the job for fear of adversely affecting the end product.

My recollections of the summer of 1944 would not be complete without the mention of some other extra-curricular activities in which we engaged.

As my familiarity with the lives of our more permanent German guests grew, I began to learn a great deal more about their background, their problems and their views. Many of the guests seemed to be perfectly ordinary people, not especially astute. Decent human beings, they regarded the web of lies, catastrophes and deceptions in which they were caught up to be beyond comprehension. The best and safest option they chose was not to question or pass judgement, but rather to follow their Führer's pronouncements with a sheep-like complacency. Surely the Fiihrer knew best! I came to know one serviceman's very docile, devoted wife quite well. She stayed at the hotel for several months, together with her two young school children, awaiting her husband's return from active service.

Every evening before bed time, when the children were already in their night attire, they would kneel by the side of their beds to pray. They always finished by beseeching God to safeguard their Führer, then their father and their mother.

I often witnessed this mind-boggling scene, because the trusting woman hired me to coach the children in the evenings in arithmetic and basic geography (my two worst subjects!).

Our lessons usually took place after dinner. I muddled through in the same way I used to in the Warsaw Ghetto when I taught maths and Hebrew to Hilus and Mendus. This time, of course, I was obliged to talk to the children in bad German.

The more I learned through conversation or plain snooping about the inner thoughts and hopes of the many guests whom we had reason to resent, the greater my urge became to use that knowledge to our own advantage. After toying with the general idea for a while, in consultation with S, we finally 'hit the jackpot', so to speak.

Our strategy consisted of slowly introducing S. to the hotel's clients as a long-standing Polish expert fortune teller. Then, with the information I was able to supply, she would have no problems at all telling the gullible victims what they wanted to hear.

Our latest scheme worked like a dream for some months. S. was excellent in the role, in spite of the fact that half her German was pure Yiddish. She usually carried cards with her, but she was equally convincing when reading from a hand or tea leaves. We shared the proceeds of this daring project.

On one occasion I felt bold enough to actually go to a German hairdresser to have my hair done. Such visits were strictly forbidden to the contemptible Poles. For this rather cheeky adventure Giesela offered me both help and advice.
I purchased the notorious daily newspaper called 'Volkischer Beobachter' (beobachten - to watch), full of the most outrageous Nazi propaganda and therefore popular with the masses. I chose it because of its size. I arrived at the hairdresser's with the newspaper under my arm. After we had exchanged our 'Heil Hitler' greetings, I sat down in the chair and told the girl in my best guttural simulation: 'Forner einschlagen, an den Seiten einschlagen, hinten (ei)ne Rolle,' (at the front, sweep up; at the sides, sweep up; at the back roll up.) This was my customary 'Arian' hair-do in Germany. After that major exertion, I did not say another word.

I opened up the huge newspaper and became engrossed in it. I was sheltered from the outside world by its two pages, the way the proverbial Englishman does in the luxurious armchair of his exclusive 'male-only' club.

When the girl was finished with my hair, I paid her. We both muttered another 'Heil Hitler,' and I was gone.

I was delighted with my ruse. Giesela was also happy with the outcome.

In the evening, Marcel found me looking particularly glamorrous with my new hairdo. We were both hugely amused.


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