My earliest memories always include the Lodz apartment and the inner courtyard. These European urban courtyards are where kids play, similar to our suburban backyards. As you might have seen in the picture of the front of the building in the previous chapter, there is a tall gate at the entrance to the four building, rectangular complex and you would enter through a high tunnel-like entrance. The tall gate looks like the gates to the scary castles in horror films, and there is a built-in small door for normal use.
The stairs to our apartment were in the far right corner of the courtyard. We had a cellar in the left front corner, a much-appreciated convenience. We did not have a garage because very few people owned a car, especially in the cities. There was a chute at the front of the cellar with a big opening. The chute’s door opened to the inside a rested on the floor creating a 45 slope. Horse-driven lorries like modern day flatbed trucks, would drive into the yard. The driver would expertly back up the horses and lorry to the cellar opening and start shoveling coal, wood, or potatoes down the slope into the cellar. The dry, chopped wood came in small 2″ by 2″ by 10″ pieces, perfect kindling fire-starter for the furnace. The coal was delivered in fist-sized chunks, very black, as coal would be. The potatoes were light yellow and of all sizes. We always had three piles in the cellar, each about four feet high, nicely separated. My dad, and sometimes me, when I was older, we would bring the coal, wood, and potatoes to the kitchen on the fourth floor in buckets, every day – it was a man’s job. If this does not build a strong character, I do not know what would. You would think I would have bigger calves after walking up all those stairs instead of my skinny legs.
I was about six, my brother Jan has yet not been born, when a big event happened in the courtyard involving one of the large horses. You have to realize, that most of the horses were big draft beasts, like my brother’s horse Troy. The streets in Lodz and in the courtyard were covered with cobblestones. Practical for building barricades during revolutions, and very long-lived, the cobblestones were quite slippery when wet. A horse slipped while entering the courtyard and broke its leg. A horse with a broken has a 10-20% chance of survival today. In 1953 it could not survive the accident. While a broken leg is easily treatable for humans, it’s often a death sentence for horses. That’s because horses have so little soft tissue in their legs that the bone often tears through skin or cuts off circulation to the rest of the limb, leaving them prone to infection. I was in the yard looking at the brown horse lying on the ground on its side. It was not moving – now I realize that it must have been in shock. There were many onlookers. There was no police in Communist Poland only the People’s Militia. Same function, different name. A militiaman came in from the street, had a short talk with the driver, pulled out his gun from the hip holster, and summarily shot the horse in the forehead. It was the first time I saw death.
The second time I saw someone deceased was when I was in second grade. I was an active child, talkative and a bit boisterous. There was a blond girl smaller than most that I found irritating and for some reason did not care for. Like most of the girls in my class, she was blond, had two braids and wore a smock, a navy blue coat similar to a lab coat, over her clothes. I was not a violent child, rather gentle with an easy smile. I was often punished because I talked when asked not to, or made the class laugh with some silly joke or funny face. Hurting others, especially girls, was just not my thing.
We used ink and a dip pen when learning how to write (see image). Ballpoint pens were not available until I was in fourth grade or 11 years old. There was an inkpot in the middle of each two-person desk. I do not remember why I did it but I threw an inkpot, luckily empty, at the little girl. I thing her name was Helena. The inkpot hit her on the head. It did hurt but there was no damage. I forgot about it until a couple of weeks later when Helena died. Was it an accident or an illness? I vaguely remember rumors about a pot of boiling water falling on her. On the other hand, maybe I am confusing memories with the death of my mother’s four-year-old brother who pulled a boiling pot of water on himself in my grandpa’s store and died. In a bizarre twist of child rationality, I suddenly felt very guilty about Helena’s death, as if it was related to that inkpot I threw at her. Cause and effect? Strange. The whole class went to the funeral and I saw a tiny white coffin being lowered into the ground. I was very sad. The sense of guilt and a few nightmares lasted for a couple of weeks until replaced with just an unpleasant memory.
The third time was a year later, when my mother’s father, Bronisław Potocki, died. He did have a small store where he sold groceries but also booze. One of his specialties was to mix “spirytus” with juices and other ingredients to create custom bottled drinks. Spirytus still exists today. It is thought to be the strongest commercially available spirit in the world. Many retailers say Spirytus should never be consumed neat, and should instead be used as a base for liqueurs and other infusions. Lately, UK authorities have raised concerns over the labelling standards of the 95% Spirytus Rektyfikowany (still a product of Poland), three months after the death of an Australian teenager who drank three shots of the spirit. As you would expect, my grandpa died of jaundice caused by a total destruction of the liver by cirrhosis. I still remember his large yellowish, pale face, with large black circles under his eyes.
Bronisław or Bronislav means famous at arms; all Slavic names have clear meanings. He was a big man, over six feet tall but not fat. My brother and I probably got our heights from him, as my parents were not tall. I saw him lying in bed after his death, still in his striped pajama, when we went to pay our respects right after he passed away. I did not understand death but I understood that I will never see him again and that saddened me. He was always very gentle and nice with me. Not like grandma, Bronislav’s second wife, who was stern, always serious, the face in a permanent scowl, and a no-nonsense woman. She was an excellent cook and took amazingly good care of the household and the children during very difficult times. I do not remember her first name because we always called her “Baba Yaga”, which means witch. It was certainly unkind but believe me the looks were there, including the thin, long, slightly crooked nose, small dark eyes, and dark hair pulled back into a severe bun.
I was very proud of the whole funeral experience – the walk behind the hearse from grandpa’s apartment to the cemetery with the beautiful horses and the glass carriage, the full catholic service, and the animated and delicious wake dinner – all very new and interesting. I was so proud that I announced to my pals, “Ha! My grandpa died and yours did not!”
I learned how to ride a bike in the courtyard, before I was in school. I don’t remember training wheels – that must have been a later invention. My dad stuck a long broomstick behind the seat and walked fast behind me, holding on to it, as I pedaled. He let go of the stick for a few seconds from time to time to let me learn how to balance on two wheels. After a day, I was riding the little bike around in the courtyard by myself. I did not ride in the street, way too dangerous with horses, tramways, and a few cars. My dad would bring the bike to one of the nearby parks – park Staszyca where I would ride in the alleys.
There was a large hill in that park. In the winter, when I was already in school, probably in third grade, about 9 years old, I would go there to slide down on the packed, hard snow, really more like ice. We went down on sleds or sitting down on the slope on the summit and pushing of. One day, wearing my new navy blue sweat pants, I spent several hours sliding, mostly on my knees. On my way home, I realized that I have worn out large holes in the pants, on the knees. Boy, did I get in trouble! “Ruining your new pants! What were you thinking, you ungrateful child!” My mother was devastated. To my surprise, my father was mad but also found it funny and I did not get spanked.
I was however spanked really well the day I played a prank on my dad. The long hallway from the apartment entryway from the stairs to the kitchen was dark and had a 90 turn in the middle. My father typically came home after dark, especially in winter. There were no windows in the hallway and he never bothered switching on the one light hanging from the ceiling. I came up with the idea that it would be funny if I scared my dad as he entered the apartment. In the pitch-black corridor, I hid behind the bend and ran out screaming as he turned the corner. He dropped his satchel and jumped back – he looked bewildered. I ran away into the apartment. He chased me around the dining room table and the large sofa in the living room, my bed. On the way, he grabbed the whip he used to spank me. It was a thick belt, no buckle, folded in two and cut in the middle. It was about a foot and a half long, with four leather strips, and it was called the “Discipline”. He caught me quickly, lay me down on the sofa on my stomach, and whipped me on my behind a few times. It was strong enough to leave a few red welts for a few days. I did scream but I did not cry maybe because I felt guilty. I understood that scaring him when he came home tired and hungry, was probably really bad timing and unnecessarily cruel and mean. An hour later, I apologized and we hugged.
Sometime later, a few days or a few weeks later, I decided that the “Discipline” had to go. Before school, after my dad was long gone and my mother was busy in the bedroom, I snuck into the kitchen, grabbed the “Discipline” of a high hook after climbing on a stool. I opened the furnace little door and tossed the offending instrument into the roaring fire. I do not remember ever talking about it with either of my parents. I still got spanked but now they had to use their hand. I have to admit that I never resented my parents for my corporal punishment. Most of the time I knew that I deserved it.
Spanking does remind me of the spectacle in the courtyard provided by Mr. and Mrs. Schultz. Mrs. Schultz was the concierge for our buildings. She often chased Mr. Schultz around the courtyard hitting him on the back or head with her witch’s broom followed by her black and tan German shepherd. She was yelling, calling Mr. Schultz a drunk and a good for nothing. The dog barked and nipped at Mr. Schultz’s heels. Mr. Schultz was a mountain of a man with a huge mustache, while his wife was tiny. This happened about once a week. These brooms were cheap and very effective for sweeping the streets, the yards, and even the freshly fallen snow. The street sweepers were still using those 20 years later when I lived in Paris. A funny thing I saw last time I was in Paris, recently, was that the street sweepers are using identically looking brooms but the twigs made of green plastic – plastic twig imitations. Maybe they are more eco-friendly than real twigs. Who knows?
In my very early years, when I was three or four years old, we spent our summer vacations as a family on the Baltic coast, in Gdynia and Międzyzdroje. The beach was nice and I loved the waves and the sand. I would dive head first into an approaching wave, then immediately stand up and ask my dad, “Did you see my butt or my head, or was I really deep underwater?” Of course, I repeated this exercise many times, until my dad got tired of answering, “Yes, you were underwater” and left alone me to my antics. I never feared the water. Swimming came to me naturally. I was fond of building sand castles with moats and towers. Children under five typically swam naked. Girls did not wear bras until six or seven. It was a way to get as much vitamin D as possible during the short Polish summer.
In winter, we went to Zakopane in the alpine Tatra Mountains, the Polish Aspen, close to the border with Czechoslovakia, in the South of Poland. “Zakopane” means “buried under” like under the heavy snows during the long and cold winters. We often visited a lake high in the mountains called Morskie Oko or Eye of the Sea. The first time we vacationed in Zakopane, we had a mix-up. My dad arrived ahead of us, a day early. When my mother and I showed up at the hotel, she could not find a reservation in our name. It took a few hours of waiting around until my dad showed up. He made the reservation in the name of Szary. There was a bit of a row and the word “idiot” came up a few times. Anyway, we quickly settled in and enjoyed the beautiful mountains. We saw several shows performed by the Polish mountain men called Górale singing, dancing and reenacting fights with their canes, called ciupaga, that doubled as axes. We visited several caverns and it was the first time that I remember being really scared in the dark corridors and walking next to bottomless pits that seemed to go all the way down to the center of the earth. Moreover, a few youths, who walked behind our group, were making scary noises while we wondered in the caves. I did have a good time in Zakopane, as there was a lot of sledding. In fact, my dad often pulled me on a little sled when going for walks in town.