« 8 - Time For Thailand | Main | Beetles »

All That Was: Chapter Thirty-Eight - Nogent-Sur-Seine

...My hosts' family comprised two adults and three children. I no longer remember their surname. They all lived in an old tumbled-down cottage. At night they shared the limited space with an assortment of poultry and a couple of goats. In the daytime the animals were let out into the small farmyard next to the vegetable enclosure.

Pork meat was considered a luxury, and it was reserved for important festivals only. Two pigs would be slaughtered each year - one for Christmas and the other for Easter. The leftover meat remained marinated in big earthenware pots.
The centre of all activity was the kitchen, the main features of which were a cast-iron wood stove by the wall, a trestle table with a long bench on each side in the middle of the room and an old-fashioned kitchen press in the corner...

Lusia Przybyszewicz begins a new job teaching the children of Polish refugees in Nogent-Sur-Seine.

Lusia's wonderful book, All That Was, an account of great wartime suffering and of the return to peacetime after the downfall of the Nazi regime, is available from her at PO Box 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

The contrast between the eternal splendour of Paris and my latest destination could not have been more striking. A suffocating dullness pervaded the place on this hot summer day.

I searched in vain for some point of interest in the landscape. I trudged with my suitcase along the dusty, practically deserted streets. There was no sign of what one might call the centre of town. I found a few scattered shops, the post office, the chemist, the primary school, and the inevitable War Memorial near la Mairie. I saw a church in the distance. Beyond these, lay the residential area.

Plots of cultivated land created a pattern on the dead flat countryside. Thanks to the proximity of the river Seine, a splash of luscious vegetation along the banks gave a welcome relief to the monotony.

The state of the houses around me gave a good indication of the prosperity and of the lifestyle of their owners. Though farmhouses or modest working class dwellings seemed to be the norm, one could see the occasional imposing mansion standing in splendid isolation behind high walls. Luckily, the distance was not great from the station to the abode of my Polish hosts.

During my summer vacations before the war, and even during the war, I had often come into contact with the Polish peasants, so I knew more or less what to expect. Indeed, things had not changed much even in France.

My hosts' family comprised two adults and three children. I no longer remember their surname. They all lived in an old tumbled-down cottage. At night they shared the limited space with an assortment of poultry and a couple of goats. In the daytime the animals were let out into the small farmyard next to the vegetable enclosure.

Pork meat was considered a luxury, and it was reserved for important festivals only. Two pigs would be slaughtered each year - one for Christmas and the other for Easter. The leftover meat remained marinated in big earthenware pots.
The centre of all activity was the kitchen, the main features of which were a cast-iron wood stove by the wall, a trestle table with a long bench on each side in the middle of the room and an old-fashioned kitchen press in the corner.

I arrived on a Sunday, and I was warmly welcomed into the fold not only by the hosts, but also by several representatives of the Polish community from the neighbouring villages. The sight of their jovial, weather-beaten Slav features felt reassuring. Their delight at meeting me was obvious. And no wonder; they had at long last secured the services of a Polish teacher for their children.

As a gesture of appreciation, the visitors brought along various food items from their farms. Their contribution complemented the typical Polish country fare, prepared by the hosts.

We enjoyed a wonderful feast, seated around the table of the modest kitchen. Many toasts and general cheering were offered to honour 'Madam Teacher' (Pani Nauczycielka). Vodka flowed freely. According to tradition, the contents of each liqueur-size glass had to be downed in one gulp.

I did my best to fit in, eager to show my gratitude for their great hospitality. And yet, though deeply touched by it, I felt a little uneasy in my mind. Would I really be able to meet the community's expectations? I deplored the thought of letting anyone down, but at the same time, I could not help feeling ambivalent about playing this new role.

By dusk the festivities had come to an end. The neighbours left for home to prepare for the chores of the week ahead. My hosts escorted me to my rented accommodation in the town.

My new landlady was a very pleasant, middle-aged French 'vieille fille' (spinster). She lived all alone in a neat white cottage within a garden setting. She showed me to a large and cheerfully furnished room, provided with a separate entrance to the outside as well as the use of bathroom facilities. We agreed that I should share my meals with the Polish hosts.

The set-up suited me fine. My wages from the Polish Consulate were perfectly adequate to cover my expenses, as long as I stayed at Nogent-sur-Seine. Besides, in the role of a 'Political Refugee' of Polish descent I received some financial support from the Polish Red Cross. All matters considered, I felt that I surely deserved a pat on the back for having successfully crossed my 'first Rubicon' in France.

On Monday morning, I grabbed the Polish Elementarz (First Reader), supplied by the Consulate, and reported quite early for breakfast with the host family. The lady of the house was just in the process of shooing her menagerie out of the kitchen into the farmyard. The ear-shattering cacophony of the protesting birds was barely over when she turned her attention to the children to get them ready for their daily routine. I remember best the eldest girl. She was thirteen and old enough to help her mum with the younger offspring.

At that early hour the husband was already working somewhere in the fields. When some peace was restored, the five of us sat together to breakfast. Invariably, during the meal some stubborn chook or a very determined goat came in again, and the process of shooing them out recommenced.

After a few days the novelty of my new situation wore off. I felt quite at home with all the goings-on and slowly adapted to the new ways. During summer school holidays in France the Polish Community was given access to the school buildings.

At first we held our lessons in the same classrooms where the children normally studied their French curriculum. I soon discovered that they all spoke French better and more correctly than they spoke their native tongue. The pupils ranged in age from six to fifteen or so, yet there were not enough of them to warrant placing them into separate classes. I also had to consider the time factor.

After telephone deliberations with my superiors at the Consulate in Paris, it was decided that I must cope with what we now call a 'composite class'. It was not all that easy to design a curriculum for this class. I had to spend some time working out a system which gave each child equal access to learning Polish at his or her own level. I was restricted to the one and only 'elementarz.'

Still, I thought to myself, it was not the first time I was faced with what one might call an 'educational challenge.' I recalled again my efforts to teach Hebrew, which I did not know at all, to Hilus and Mendus in the Warsaw Ghetto. Even when I taught them maths, I sought their father's assistance. There was also the time when I taught the cursed geography and maths once again in K.D.F. Stadt to two young students who aspired to a future in the Hitler Jugend.
On this occasion I could at least claim some knowledge of the subject. I concluded that I had really nothing to worry about, and I pressed ahead with confidence. I divided the children roughly into two groups. At first, I had to rely heavily on French to make myself understood. This meant, basically, introducing Polish to these children as if it were a foreign language. My method seemed a little bizarre, but it worked - provided I made sure that each group had its turn at reading and writing. In that way we plodded along nicely.

An inspector from the Consulate paid us a visit. He was happy with my work. From time to time I was required to present myself in person in Paris to learn of some change in the policy, but these changes usually did not amount to much.

Once a week we had religious instruction. After my initial hesitancy to intrude into such a sensitive matter, to my amazement I found religion much easier to teach than the Polish language. There were two main reasons for this: firstly, these children had been raised in the Catholic faith from babyhood. Some of them had already had their First Communion, so that the principal tenets of Catholicism were ingrained in their hearts and minds. Secondly, I was so ably drilled by the Polish Babcia in Warsaw that I could fill most of the gaps in their knowledge of Catechism.
However, to help them to understand it in Polish was a challenge and required a subtle approach on my part. When it came to teaching the children the Lord's Prayer, 'Our Father...,' in Polish, I rehearsed it with them over and over again until their delivery was flawless.

I was often invited to lunch at the homes of other Polish families. Both the respect for the teacher and their traditional hospitality were outstanding. I usually had some classes in the afternoon, followed by a break in my private quarters. In the evening, I returned to dine with the host family. Father was home by then, just in time to help chase out the animal assortment. The animals were accustomed to being inside for the night, and they kept trampling noisily in from the yard. On many occasions however, especially when it rained, we had to tolerate the 'blessed togetherness'. At such times I did my best to conceal my horror and revulsion at the invasion, let alone the odour.

Apart from my work, some negligible social activity, walks by the river, and reading and writing long letters to my beloved, there was not much else for me to do at Nogent-sur-Seine. Free time weighed heavily upon me. My heart ached for Marcel, even though every single day he wrote to me from Bordeaux.

Each lunchtime a voluminous love-letter was waiting on the ledge above the iron wood stove. As I came into my hosts' kitchen, my eyes first focused on that spot. As soon as the meal was over I rushed home to read and reread his epistle in the privacy of my room.

Throughout that long summer 1945 Marcel just lingered at home. He was lost for anything to do, waiting in vain for some communication from the Education Department.

Like me, he could not bear our separation and yearned for us to be together again. Neither of us could fathom how to achieve such a miracle. Until something changed for the better, our only option was to continue writing to each other. This we both practised in the most prolific way.

Meanwhile, autumn was fast approaching, and with it the new French school year was about to begin. We had to vacate the premises of the state school. Just before the new contingency plans were put into action, a disturbing incident occurred in the classroom, involving the father of our oldest teenage boy.

One day, this powerful-looking man burst into our school unannounced. We were in the middle of a lesson. He was shaking with anger, obviously directed at the boy. I had forgotten what the problem was, but I had to use my 'authority' to stop him from beating up his son there and then.

The children were usually very well behaved, but now they were petrified. They looked to me for protection. I had no choice but to let the man unburden himself in the kind of Polish that is not fit for translation. After he had calmed down a bit, he agreed to leave the room only on condition that I would deal appropriately with the boy. Incidentally, the boy was almost as big as his dad. But I promised everything, just to get the father out of sight. I eventually asked the leader of the Polish Community to sort the matter out.

We had to move our classes to private homes, where, after school hours, they were held in rotation. I acquired a bicycle to do the rounds. My cycling skills, which were still in their infancy during my shopping sorties at K.D.F. Stadt, improved beyond measure at Nogent-sur-Seine.

I travelled extensively every day along the fantastic French regional roads from one village to the other. The countryside was much prettier than the dreary town, and the air exhilarating. I sang as I glided along at great speed, often letting go of the handle bars altogether. Traffic was almost nonexistent. Sometimes the occasional military truck full of American soldiers went past, going God knows where, or a farmer could be seen transporting produce.
I had a basket attached to the carrier at the back of my bike. In it I carried all the food offerings from the grateful Poles whose households I happened to visit.

On my trips to Paris to call on the Consulate I brought gifts of eggs, butter or cheese and the like for Mrs Taub. She received them most thankfully, for in the capital such items cost a fortune on the black market.

I gradually became well known also amongst the 'upper echelons' of the Nogent-sur-Seine French society. At each local or national celebration I was invariably to be counted amongst the 'dignitaries' assembled in the vicinity of the War Memorial. That was the spot where le Maire gave his address, and the national flag was raised or lowered according to the circumstance. I was reminded of my school days in Lodz, when on the appropriate occasions schoolchildren were marching to the sound of military bands.

Another distraction to my daily routine: a gorgeous black kitten, given to me by my landlady, occupied a special spot in the corner of my room. Once it came to be house trained, it became a playful companion. I spent many happy hours watching its antics.

That summer R. came to stay with me for a while. Her much celebrated marriage to Paul at K.D.F. Stadt folded within a few weeks, after they had reached Montargis. Paul's mother was totally hostile to their union. Moreover, Paul discovered, he could not become a policeman if he married a foreigner. Since becoming a policeman was his ultimate goal in life, there remained but one option!

S. visited her Paul's place in Paris only once. His mother put her off immediately by telling S. that he had joined the Foreign Legion. S. just fled. At that stage, the sisters contemplated emigrating to Palestine.

My recollections of Nogent-sur-Seine would not be complete without recounting the social highlight of my stay there.
One Sunday I was honoured with an invitation to lunch at the mayoral mansion. I set out all dolled up for the occasion and a touch uneasy. On my arrival I was introduced to a refined gathering of the distinguished members of the community, such as the chemist, the local doctor, the bank manager, the headmaster, and the postmaster. Except for the Polish maid, I was the only woman present.

The table setting seemed the most sumptuous I have ever seen. In front of every participant rose a whole pile of plates, ranging from the biggest at the bottom to the smallest at the top. Several sets of silver cutlery, designed to cater for individual courses, rested on the very French porte-couteaux. This display of lavishness was rounded off by embroided, starched linen serviettes and several crystal glasses in different shapes and sizes.

I did not have a clue how to make use of all the grandeur, and, consequently, I felt exceptionally nervous. Very much aware that the French way at meal times is to appear engrossed in meaningful conversation without unduly concentrating on the eating process, I tried my best.

I held my ground bravely throughout the innumerable choices of hors d'oeuvre which the maid brought in one by one, beginning with three immaculate radishes on the smallest plate. My conversational skills sparkled right through the soup course. Half-way down through the array of plates, which the maid kept patiently clearing away, came the fish course.

Before consuming our Friday carp in Lodz, Frania always removed the bones to avoid the danger of a bone accidentally stuck in the children's throat. But this French specimen of fish was full of bones. After my first mouthful I realized the dilemma facing me - I could either carry on with witty exchanges and risk choking on the fish bones or simply give up one of the activities. I chose the latter.

Feigning to relish my fish, I was able to focus attention on the topic of discussion. I admired with envy my table companions, who adroitly probed the flesh and placed the bones to one side of their plates without interrupting the flow of their conversation.

For me it was a humbling experience indeed.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.