LAND MINES

 

by

 

Renate Krakauer

 

 

 

When Papa shouted, his face got red like the flames in the wood stove when they whooshed and flared up. Even his thick black hair seemed to send off sparks. I’d crawl into a corner so he wouldn’t hit me. When he yelled at Mama during the night, my heart would pound and I’d pull the blanket over my head.

At other times Papa could be really nice. He laughed and joked with the men and women at the little round tables in our store. He often called me over to show me off.

“Can you believe I have such a beautiful daughter, an old goat like me?” He didn’t look like a goat to me. He was tall and straight and walked like a soldier. But I basked in his praise. It was like the sun breaking through storm clouds.

Mama used to bring food on big plates and bottles of vodka or pitchers of beer to the tables. The Russian soldiers often called her over for refills and would try to get her to linger. With her long wavy blonde hair, blue eyes and lithe figure, she was the most beautiful woman in the world to me. When he saw Mama spending too much time with the Russian soldiers, Papa would go over and sit with them. Then they would reminisce about the war and shout, “We showed those Nazis!” They toasted each other, clinking their little glasses, “Nasdrovye!” and throwing their heads back to down the fiery liquid. In high spirits, they refilled their glasses and drank again. An uneasy hush fell over the customers at the other tables when they got too raucous.

My best friend at that time was Halina from next door. I was an only child and she was the older sister I never had. In the village where I lived for two years during the war with my foster mother, Irina, and her two teenaged sons, I was the baby they either spoiled or got annoyed at for being a pest. Even though Halina was a head taller than me and nine years old and I was only five, she played with me – hopscotch, hide and seek, skipping rope and games of bouncing the ball. She introduced me to adventures like stealing gooseberries, currants, radishes and carrots from the neighbour’s garden. When the owner, a crotchety gray haired woman, caught us and shouted from her window, we ran away laughing.

One rainy day Halina suggested that we explore the attic above our flat which was over the store. I sensed that Papa wouldn’t like us to be going up there, but I didn’t want Halina to call me a “baby”, so I tiptoed behind her up the three flights of stairs. Halina hoisted me up the little ladder that led to the trap door. It was gloomy and dusty and the rain drops drummed a steady patter on the roof. While Halina rummaged around in the old clothes in the trunks and wardrobes, I picked my way over broken bits of furniture until I saw something metallic and wiry sticking out from under a pile of rags, boards, and bits of plaster.

Halina, come see. What’s this?”

The round, gray object looked like a beat up old frying pan. “I don’t know, but I think we should show it to your parents.”

“My Papa will get mad at me for playing up here.”

“I’ll tell him,” Halina said, tossing her head back as if to say, “I’m not afraid of him.”

We trooped downstairs and Halina told Papa what we’d found. I stayed safely behind her.

Papa’s mouth turned down, his eyes got hard and he said to Mama, “I’m going upstairs to investigate. Keep the girls down here, Hanna.”

Halina and I crouched at the foot of the stairs waiting for Papa. I pressed myself so close to my friend that I could smell her musky perspiration. Specks of dust floated and glittered in the rays of sunlight just emerging from behind the clouds and coming in through the stairwell window. When Papa came down, his face looked very grave.

“It’s a land mine,” he told Mama. The adults moved away from us and lowered their voices.

“What’s a land mine?” I whispered to Halina.

“It’s something that bad people hide so you’ll step on it and it’ll blow you up,” she said in a superior tone.

“Who put it in our attic?” I felt a shiver of fear at the thought of being blown to bits.

“Must have been a German. They left lots of them around here.”

After a few minutes, Mama came over to me and said, “How would you like to stay at Halina’s house for a few days? It’s too dangerous for us here until we get someone to take away the mine.”

I clasped Halina’s hand. “Oh, yes! I’ll stay with Halina! But where will you and Papa go?”

“We’ll be at Uncle Jacek and Aunt Sylvia’s until it’s safe to move back. Now let’s go pack up a few things for you to take.”

I was glad that I didn’t have to go with my parents to my uncle and aunt’s home. They didn’t have any children and my aunt watched my every move to make sure that I didn’t break any of her china figurines.

Halina’s mother was a cheerful woman with a big bosom covered with a spotless apron and hair in a neat bun at the nape of her neck. She welcomed me with a big smile and a hug. “You can sleep with Halina. Put your things away, and then you girls can wash your hands and faces for dinner.”

Halina’s home was like a picture out of one of Mama’s magazines. The wooden floors gleamed where they weren’t covered by rugs. Pools of sunlight from the front windows, which were framed with forest green velvet draperies, lay on the heavy dark furniture. There was a lovely fragrance from the lilacs in a crystal vase sitting on a lace doily on the dining room table, which blended with the smell of floor wax.

There were separate rooms for sleeping, cooking, eating, bathing and just sitting around. We had only two bedrooms in our flat and we ate in the kitchen. In my foster home in the village, there was the room where we all slept and the room with the wood stove where we ate, washed and played when it rained or snowed. The bathroom was outside.

Halina’s bedroom looked like the picture in my fairy tale book of the princess and the pea. A puffy white duvet with embroidered flowers covered the bed. A whole array of dolls leaned against the matching pillows. I averted my eyes from the crucifix over the bed that was like the one at Uncle Jacek’s apartment that triggered Papa’s bad temper.

Walking home after our last visit, he had barked at Mama, “The war’s over! Why does your brother have to display that thing in his house? He’s a Jew just like us. Who does he think he’s fooling?”

Sh! The child…..It’s Sylvia, not him……..”

“So what is he – a piece of dirt under his gentile wife’s boots?”

“He doesn’t want trouble. Poland is still a dangerous place for us.”

“He’s a coward, that’s all. He saved himself by marrying her and now he’s her slave.” Then he had loped away, leaving Mama and me trying to catch up.

When I asked Mama why Papa was so angry, she just dabbed at her eyes with a hankie and said, “You’ll understand when you get older. Papa gets easily upset. After what we’ve been through.” And then she just shook her head sadly and tightened her grip on my hand.

When we got home that day, no-one had talked at the supper table. I had kept my eyes glued to my plate and ate what was piled on it without protest. I couldn’t wait to escape before the shouting began again. But it didn’t and soon Mama and Papa were talking about something else as if nothing had happened. They were always surprising me like that. I never knew what to expect.

But at Halina’s house, it was lovely and calm. Mr. Pawlowski sat at the head of the table. He wasn’t as handsome as Papa who was tall with strong shoulders and arms and had thick wavy black hair swept back from a high forehead with a widow’s peak. Mr. Pawlowski was short and slight. He wore wire-framed glasses and had sparse hair combed over to one side. But his brown eyes were kind and he had a gentle smile. Before eating dinner, he led the whole family in a blessing to thank Our Lord for the food on the table. Then everyone ate at a leisurely pace, one course after another, which Mrs. Pawlowski kept bringing in from the kitchen. Halina helped her mother feed Stefan, who babbled happily in his high chair. The conversation meandered like a brook and not like a raging river as it did in my home. And no-one ate with Papa’s concentration and ferocity, as if he was afraid his food would disappear if he didn’t finish it quickly.

That night Halina asked me, “Do you want to choose one of my dolls to sleep with?”

I was struck with awe at the array of beauties on her bed. “I can’t. There’s too many to choose from.” The dolls wore delicate handmade dresses, lacy undergarments and knitted sweaters, which were nicer than any clothes I’d ever seen. “Anyway, Rutka will be jealous.” My own doll, Rutka, looked so poor and plain in this elegant company.

“Why can’t you sleep with her and with one of mine, too? She’ll like having a friend.”

I reached out for Magdalena, the prettiest doll with blonde curls beneath a frilly bonnet, fully expecting Halina to tell me that I couldn’t have her. But to my relief, she agreed. That night I fell blissfully asleep next to Halina with one doll on each side of me.

Next morning no breakfast had ever tasted as good to me as the one at Halina’s house: hard boiled eggs, crusty white buns with butter and jam, and cocoa. At home it was soft boiled eggs with the white runny stuff that looked like snot and made me want to vomit. The bread at home was always rye or pumpernickel fresh from the baker, cut in thick slices and slathered with sweet creamery butter or cottage cheese. If I complained or didn’t eat everything put before me, Papa would call me an ungrateful child and lecture me on how he and Mama had had nothing to eat during the war. Sometimes I’d just put food in my mouth but wouldn’t swallow. Then he’d fly into a rage and spank me.

After breakfast, Mrs. Pawlowski took us to the market – Stefan in his pram and Halina and me with our baskets. The market women all knew her and at each stall they spent a few minutes chatting.

Mrs. Pawlowski said, “This is the daughter of the Tulchinskys, the Jewish people with the store. She spent the war years with a village family.”

The market women made clucking sounds and patted me on the head or pinched my cheek.

“She’s staying a few days with us until they find someone to remove the land mine in their attic.”

One market woman nodded and said, “There’s lots of land mines on the road to town. Every time we come, I feel like I’m taking my life in my hands.”

That afternoon Halina and I played dominoes and checkers at the dining room table, even though the sky was ceramic blue and the sun was golden. Her parents didn’t make us play in the fresh air like mine did.

Three days later Mama came to get me and hugged me so tight that I could hardly breathe.

“How I’ve missed you, darling!” she said.

“I’ve missed you, too.” I squirmed and looked at my feet. I was sure that if she could see my eyes she’d know I was lying. I wished that the Pawlowskis could adopt me.

“Thank you for taking care of her,” Mama said to Mrs. Pawlowski “Say thank you, Mirka.”

“Thank you. I had a very good time.” My eyes began to water.

Halina stepped forward holding Magdalena. “Here, you can have her.”

My mouth opened in a soundless “Oh!” and my arms reached out with longing.

“She can’t take such a beautiful doll from you, Halina. It’s lovely of you to offer,” Mama said.

“It’s a present, Mrs. Tulchinsky. I have lots of other dolls. Anyway, I’ll soon be too old for dolls.”

“Please say yes, Mama!” I pleaded.

“All right, then, we accept. You are a very generous girl, Halina.”

Mrs. Pawlowski beamed and I clasped the doll to my breast. “You are my best friend forever,” I whispered to Halina.

“We enjoyed having you with us, Mirka,” Mrs. Pawlowski said, her smile lighting up her blue eyes as she gave me a big hug. “Come again, soon.”

Back home Mama left me in my room to unpack my few belongings while she went to work in the store. My little bedroom was so bare. The bed was pushed against the wall and covered with an army surplus blanket that Mama had dyed navy blue. A wooden chair stood beside the bed so I wouldn’t fall out at night. There was a plain wooden dresser against another wall. There was no embroidered duvet on the bed, no flowers in vases, and no rugs on polished floors. I placed Rutka and Magdalena on my pillow and sat on the bed until Mama called me down for supper.

Toward the end of summer, Halina went to visit her aunt in the country and I had no-one to play with. I missed her and I began to miss my foster mother and brothers again. There was nothing to distract me from my loneliness.

“Go outside to play but stay close to the store,” Mama said every day.

One day I was sitting on the front steps, bored, and just watching people passing by, when I saw Stashek approaching with his herd of cows.

Stashek, where are you going?”

“To the pasture.”

“Can I come, too?”

“It’s too far for you.” He flicked his switch at the cows, urging them on.

I watched the cows ambling by, swishing their tails. As the last cow passed, she turned her head slowly and gazed directly at me with her soulful brown eyes. She gave out a low mooing sound, like a clear invitation for me to join her. I didn’t like playing outside alone; I didn’t like Papa yelling at me and spanking me. I decided to follow the cows. Maybe they’d lead me back to the village. Soon I was hopping and skipping beside the lumbering rump of the last cow with its brown coat and large white patches like spilt milk. I gave her bristly hide a friendly pat.

When we left the boxy stone buildings and the bombed out rubble of the town, the cobble stoned street turned into a dirt road. I breathed in the fragrance of the fields and the pungent odour of the cows as my feet stirred up dust on the road. I hummed and sang little songs to myself, expecting to see the familiar cottages of the village just around the next bend in the road. My eyes roamed the fields to make sure I didn’t miss the two boys if they were running around with Bobo, their big black dog. Bobo especially would be happy to see me. He’d probably lick my face all over with his rough tongue.

The sun was blazing high in the sky and I was getting hot and tired. My dress was sticking to me, I was thirsty, and my head was beginning to hurt. I sat down to rest my sore feet and to shake out the sand and stones from my sandals. Meanwhile the herd kept plodding on. I put my sandals back on and ran to catch up with them. Suddenly nothing looked familiar any more.

Stashek finally led the cows into a field near a river. Staying well away from them, I crept down to the riverbank, cupped some water in my hands, and drank. Then I splashed my tired, dusty feet in the river. Feeling refreshed, I sat down beneath a willow tree to rest, watching the cows graze and waiting until I could follow them back to town.

The next thing I knew a man’s voice was calling, “Mirka! Wake up!” I opened my eyes and shivered in the cool breeze coming off the river. Above me stood Mr. Pawlowski against a backdrop of black sky filled with pin pricks of stars and a lemon yellow wedge of moon. His face looked stern above his thick sweater, but his eyes were warm.

“Come, Mirka. Your parents are very worried about you. I must take you home at once.” I rubbed my eyes and tried to remember how I’d come to be here under a tree. Where were Stashek and the cows? And what happened to the sun? When Mr. Pawlowski picked me up and bundled me into his cart wrapped in an old blanket reeking of horses and hay, I dozed off. The jolt of the wagon as it came to a stop in front of our store woke me. People were gathered around Mama and Papa at the entrance. Mr. Pawlowski handed me down into Mama’s outstretched arms. I put my heavy head on her shoulder.

“Where have you been? Didn’t I tell you to play near the house?” Mama’s shrill voice jerked me fully awake.

“I…I…. just followed the cows,” I mumbled, snuggling my head against her neck.

Papa grabbed me away from her and carried me with flailing legs into the house. His face was grim, his mouth a straight, tight line and his eyes flashed anger. By now I was trembling with fear.

Once inside, Papa sat down on a chair, laid me over his knees and pulled down my panties. Smack! Another smack! And another one! I began to scream in pain and outrage, my backside stinging. Soon the walls reverberated with my shrieks.

“That’ll teach you to run away! Don’t you ever, ever do that again! Do you hear me?”

“Mama! Mama!” Hot tears were streaming down my face.

“Calling for Mama won’t do you one bit of good!” Smack! “You have to be taught a lesson!” Smack!

Mama’s voice sounded far away. “Enough, Marek, enough! She won’t do it again!”

Papa finally let me go and I crumbled to the floor. Mama picked me up and carried me upstairs to bed as I hiccupped a few last sobs. From my room I heard Papa stomping out of the house and slamming the front door.

“You must be hungry,” Mama said as she sat me down on the bed. My sore bum didn’t prevent me from polishing off a thick slice of buttered bread and cheese and a cup of cocoa.

“Do you know what happened to the cows you were following?” Mama asked.

I shook my head. What did I care about those stupid cows? It was their fault that I got spanked especially that last one with the big, brown eyes that invited me to follow.

“They were blown to bits by the land mines. It was a miracle that you weren’t hurt.”

I was too focused on my own pain for this information to register. Instead I said, “Papa is mean! I hate him!” Tears spurted out of my eyes again.

“You mustn’t say that. He loves you very much.”

“Why did he hit me?”

“He was just so relieved to see you safe. He lost so many people from his family in the war that he was frantic when he thought we might have lost you, too. You’ll understand when you grow up.”

Then Mama took away the empty plate and cup, led me to the bathroom to wash up for bed, and helped me into my nightie.

“Go to sleep, sweetheart.” Mama pulled up the covers and kissed me good night. I closed my eyes, breathing in the faint fragrance of her perfume that was like the flowers at Halina’s house.

Before I fell asleep, I wrapped one arm around Rutka and the other around Magdalena, and whispered, “I’ll never spank you! Even if you’re very naughty.”

That night, I woke up screaming.

Mama ran in and held me, “What’s the matter?”

Through my sobs, I blubbered, “There’s a mine!”

Sh, sh, there’s no mine.” Mama patted my head and stroked my back, but I would not be consoled. She turned on the overhead light.

“Look for yourself,” she said.

“Under the bed,” I whispered.

Mama lifted me off the bed to kneel beside her on the floor beside her and look under the bed. “See? There’s nothing there.”

She tucked me in again with Magdalena and Rutka.

“Don’t be frightened. I’m just next door. Chase away that scary dream and make up a nice one instead.”

And so I did. In my imaginary world the Pawlowskis had adopted me and I was their little girl. Halina was my sister and we slept together in her bed under the puffy duvet. Mrs. Pawlowski made all my favourite foods and never made me play outside by myself. Mr. Pawlowski took me on his lap in the big armchair in their front room and told me stories. And there were no land mines.

As I added details to my imaginary world, the real world faded away and I fell asleep.

 

 

 

 

 

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