Before the Second World War, the population of Maków-Mazowiecki, a small farming town about 80 kilometers northeast of Warsaw, was 7000. Just under half of the population, or about 3000 souls, were Jews, living in a ghetto on one side of town. After the Germans came barreling through on their machines of terror and murder, all of the Jews were rounded up and sent to camps. The town’s large Jewish graveyard was ransacked and its gravestones were used to pave the sidewalks.
To pave the sidewalks.
Today, a bus station stands where the Jewish graveyard used to be. It is not clear from our questioning what happened to all the interred remains, if the Germans dug them up and desecrated them, or if they were simply left in place (90 percent of the town was destroyed when Soviet forces retook this area).
But in the 1980s the town erected a monument made from headstones that had been saved from the sidewalks. It stands like a pyramid looking over the cracked and uneven payment of the bus station. A simple plaque reads, in Hebrew and Polish, “Nasze slonce zgaslo nagle i ciemnosc w poludnie nastala” (Our sun went out suddenly and the sun set in the middle of the day.)
Later we learn that the famous American naval admiral, Hyman Rykover, was born in this little town in 1900.
* * *
We ask Leopold Damiecki, the local centenarian we have come to meet, and a lifelong resident of neighboring Chodkowo-Kuchny, if they knew at the time that the Jews were being rounded up and what was happening to them, or if they only found out later.
“We knew about the German camps and the Russian ones during the war, as everything was going on,” he replies. A look of deep anguish overcomes him, and he wipes his face with his hand. A long silence follows.
It is a rare moment of darkness during the hours we spend with Leopold and his family in their bright, airy new home in Chodkowo. Until rather recently, Leopold and his wife of 70 years, Rozalia, lived in the 130-year-old family home that stood next to the one we are in now. Still standing is a similarly aged brick outbuilding that served as Leopold’s butcher shop until his retirement. In a land and a life wracked by decades of war and communism, working as a butcher was probably one of the more stable professions one could have (“We ate better, more often,” Leopold says). But still, one would have to play one’s cards right, because it would also be easy to end up on the wrong side of things.
Leopold hardly fits what might be the stereotypical image of a butcher. He is small and trim, but also very vibrant and lively. All his life he has loved music and the good life.
“I did not like studying very much, but I liked music and theater,” he says. “I was part of every school play, I played in school orchestras. Things like books did not interest me very much.”
It does not take much coaxing for him to bring out his trumpet (or an aged, foot-pumped accordion) and impress us with a few tunes. When we ask what is the secret to living to 100, he has a ready answer: “Everybody keeps asking me about that secret. Once a pharmacist asked me for some kind of longevity program. And I told her: ‘Pani magister, [a Polish honorific for pharmacists], you need to eat well, help yourself to vodka sometimes, and from time to time have relations with women.’ …I only eat lardy meat. People say it's not good for you, but I have absolutely no taste for lean meat! I like fatty meats better to this day. And I like to drink a little vodka sometimes. When I was thirty or forty, I drank it quite a bit.”
Leopold’s great-grandson Marcin seems a bit uncomfortable translating this and other saucy parts of his great-grampa’s interview for us. All the more so that his great-grandmother Rozalia, also born in 1917, is asleep in the next room. Rozalia’s health has fared less well than Leopold’s, and she can only muster strength for a short couples photo session, tenderly embraced by her husband.
“We went to school together, but she didn't like me then,” Leopold says, when asked how they met and got married in 1941. “Under the Germans, we had to go to Płoniawy for fingerprinting [for ID purposes]. My future wife was working for her brother at a neighboring meat shop. She came to ask me to come slaughter a pig for her brother. So she joined us on our cart and rode home with us. I liked her so much that I thought: ‘That's one fine woman.’ So little by little we fell in love. She is from Płoniawy, and I am from the village to the north, Bobino Wielkie.”
After the war, Leopold served for 15 years as the village’s senior administrator. He got the job through a village vote, he says. “‘Do you want to be the head? We gotta pick one.’ There was a gathering. Who wants to be the head? You? Here, you go. So I stayed that way for thirty-two years.”
This region was only barely, and technically, part of Russia at the time of Leopold’s birth. Eastern Poland and Warsaw were absorbed into the Russian Empire at the time of the Second Partition, in 1793. Ruled as a semi-independent duchy, Poland in fact received a better deal (no serfdom, freer laws on assembly and representation) than did Russia proper – which led to a certain amount of resentment among those yearning for a parliament in St. Petersburg and an end to serfdom.
Poles meanwhile chafed against their status is a dominion, particularly in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The country was taken by German forces in the First World War, and remained so up through the Russian Revolutions in 1917. It gained de jure independence from Russia in 1918, thanks to the Treaty of Versailles. But this was reaffirmed in fact when the young state defeated Russia in the 1919-1921 Polish-Soviet war that also played a bit part in staunching Lenin’s European ambitions.
Overrun by Nazi Germany at the start of World War II, Poland was swept into the Soviet orbit through rigged elections, and was not a truly free and independent country again until the electoral victory of Solidarity in 1989-90.
Leopold seems to have few regrets when he looks back over the history of his life. “When I was younger, I had better sight, better hearing,” he says. “And I didn't have it too bad under the communists, or the Germans. I could always find work and was always in demand. Make some smoked meat, this, that… My whole life was normal, really without extraordinary stuff.”
Which may be one of the greatest understatements we have heard these past three weeks.
Our time in Poland is relatively short, but it is plenty enough to revel in the oversized portions at every restaurant we frequent, to sample fine local beers (Misha is particularly enamored of a non-alcoholic brew with undertones of fir), to enjoy the half-day afforded us for roaming the old town in Warsaw, including a visit to our first Starbucks in three weeks (and, surprisingly, to the cathedral where Frederic Chopin’s heart is buried), and to jump rope in the city’s central square while a trumpeter played an hourly fanfare from a central tower.
We also apparently owe the Polish state a few Euros, as we were running a bit late to catch our train to the plane and were forced (for lack of a payment-receiving conductor) to ехать зайцем (“ride like a hare,” or without paying) on a city tram for about half a mile.
We’ll make it up next time.
Special thanks to Stepan Serdiukov for his translation of our interview with Leopold.
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