In the third and fourth grade, I was in love for the first time, puppy love or at least a strong attraction to a girl in my class. Her name was Ewa (Eve) and she was a tall, blond, skinny girl with two braids and a navy smock. She had a very nice smile even though she missed a few of the baby teeth for a while. I loved to be with her and she laughed at my silliness. She lived around the corner, near my apartment, and we often walked together to school. The school was three-quarters of a mile away and the walk took about 15 minutes if we did not loiter. I did visit her in her parents’ apartment sometimes. We were also together in the Scouts version in Communist Poland called the Red Pioneers. Our relation was very platonic – there was no holding hands or kissing – we were simply too young yet. I was very fond of her and she was the only person I regretted leaving behind when we left Poland for Israel in 1957.
They did not want me in the Red Pioneers. My mother had to come and plead with the director. My school grades were always excellent, 5 out 5 in the Polish elementary school grading system, in all subjects. Except behavior: that was often a 4. My parents were called to school for a chat with the teachers a couple of times a year. As I mentioned before, I was talkative and loved to make other kids laugh. That’s all. There were no fights, vandalism, drugs, or anything serious. You could not be in the Red Pioneers when you had a 4 in behavior. The Party would not allow bad cadre. My mother prevailed, I promised to behave. And I did behave for a while, knowing that if I did not I would not be able to spend time with Eve and have fun doing Pioneer stuff. Motivation.
I did not believe in storks bringing babies. I did see my mother pregnant with my little brother. I felt him kicking inside her big belly. I did not believe that a stork was involved – there were none in the city. I developed my own human reproductive theory that I shared with my pals. It went like this: The parents get a seed, probably from a doctor or the pharmacy. The father pushes it into the mother. The seed grows into a beautiful babe. I did not yet have a clear idea how the pushing part worked and did not relate it to the male and female genitalia. I did see a vagina a couple of times when playing “doctor” and “show me yours and I will show you mine” when I was about seven years old, with a neighbor, on the second floor across the courtyard. It was then only curiosity. Anyway, in my mind, these organs were only needed to urinate.
I was raised as a catholic and as a child; I went to Catechism, what you would probably call Sunday School. What I learned prepared me for the big event in a young Catholic’s life – the first communion. On one special Sunday, all of the children in my group, in beautiful white shirts and navy pants for the boys and long, white dresses for the girls, walked slowly holding large candles into the huge cathedral in a solemn procession, while the parents (my mother) observed piously. The ceremony went well in spite the giggling, except for a small unfortunate event that happened after the ceremony. The whole, new communicant class of about 50 kids had their group picture taken behind the church. I am the only kid in this solemn picture with a silly grimace, at twisted mouth. It took a long time for my mother to forget about it. At least my individual pictures from the ceremony were normal.
I ran away from home twice – once in Poland and once in Israel. Both times, there was no intention in my mind to actually stay away from home forever or even for a long time. I was not mad at my parents and unhappy or depressed; maybe a little bored and restless. My sudden decision to go was a lot more like the Australian aborigines walk-about. The fugue was never preplanned. It was always a spare of the moment decision. I had no goal when I set out on my treks and the trip itself was the experience I enjoyed.
The first time it happened, my mother sent me out to buy a loaf of bread. I must have been about seven years old then. I bought the bread and suddenly had a crazy idea: I bought a one-liter bottle of fizzy lemonade. The idea was that with the bread and the lemonade I would have enough to eat and drink for a while and I could set out on a trek.
After leaving the grocery store on a sunny summer mid-morning, I continued walking as if I was going to school. I had a large bag over my shoulder, with the loaf of bread and the lemonade. I knew that walking in the direction of the school I would eventually end up on the outskirts of the city and I could follow the big road that led to Warsaw, the capital. I don’t know why Warsaw but it sounded like an exciting idea. I walked for a few hours sitting down from time to time to munch on a bite of the hardy polish bread and drink a bit of lemonade. After a while, I got tired of walking and jumped on the back of a passing peasant’s horse-drawn v-shaped utility cart. The old farmer let me hitchhike for a few miles until we got to his village. I said I was going to visit my aunt. I know he did not believe me.
From the village, the wide road continued to Warsaw. I was sure of that because it said so on the road signs. The remaining distance to Warsaw was 130 kilometers (about 80 miles). Of course, I had no idea that it would take an adult walker about 30 hours to reach Warsaw, not including stops. I was not thinking that far — Warsaw was just a vague destination. Poland is known for its magnificent forests, some of the last original primeval European jungles. There are bison, deer, wolves, bears, lynx, and wild boars still roaming in these forests. I was walking in the middle of a forest and I was a bit apprehensive. Huge, old trees stretching deep on both sides of the road and what looked like forever in front of me. Luckily, after about an hour, the woods ended and a beautiful open countryside opened in front of me. Freshly harvested barley fields with enormous haystacks every 100 feet or so. It was getting dark and I was getting sleepy and tired. I could not climb on top of the 12-foot stacks so I lied next to one and dozed off for a while. I woke up after the uncomfortable nap and continued walking. It was probably 9 pm and it was dark. The moon was bright and I saw a small town in the distance. When I reached the town, a very light drizzle or heavy mist started. I was really exhausted by then, need to lied down somewhere, and sleep. I only found a small fence, a poor protection from the drizzle. I squeezed myself against the fence lying on my side fetus-style with the bag over my head. I think it was the most uncomfortable one-hour snooze I have had so far in my short life.
When I woke up, I decided that my walk bout had to end. It was about midnight by then. I realized that I was in a town called Głowno, which now I know is about 18 miles or 28 kilometers from my home. I did see signs leading to the train station. I reached the station in about 15 minutes and waited for the train to Lodz. I did not have any money left because I spent the rest of the change on the lemonade bottle. I sat on the bench by the tracks, took some bites of bread and thought of a way to ride the train without a ticket. I knew that like on the tramways in the city, a controller would be checking everybody’s tickets. When the train arrived, and it was quite full of people, I went directly to the bathroom and spent the return to Lodz locked in there.
I got to Lodz without a problem. Only once someone knocked on the restrooms door. When I got off the train and tried to leave the station, my plan failed miserably. The passengers had to go through gates and show their tickets to the railroad employees. A seven-year-old boy at 1:30 am at a train station stands out. The employee did not believe that I was coming back from my aunt’s in Warsaw and that I lost my ticket. A militiaman approached and led me by the hand to the police station that was part of the big Lodz train station. I sat in a room among the militiamen. They figured out my story pretty quick and in about an hour my dad walked through the door. He was so happy that I was in perfect health, and that nothing happened to me, that he just hugged and kissed me. At home, my mother did the same and although we talked about it, they understood that I was just me and that I did not do it because of anything they did to me.
During school vacations, we rented a comfortable apartment in a farmhouse in the countryside, not far from Lodz. It was conveniently located; close enough the city to allow my father, who was working, to come and visit and spend a few evenings and nights with us, as well as Sundays. The rooms were large, bright, painted white, and the big windows let the light breezes in. The summers were warm and mostly sunny. The farm was in the middle of vast fields of barley and wheat that grew as high as my head. There were wide grassy meadows, some covered with purple heather and red poppies. The farm had a few animals, a couple of cows, a horse, a pair of goats, a dog, egg-laying chickens, geese and ducks. It was a carefree life for a few weeks. I loved the smell of hay. My mother took me from time to time to a milk farm. I tried cow milk directly from the teat when the farmer sprayed it in my mouth: It was warm and not as good as the cooled down, filtered fresh milk after about an hour. The fresh butter and white cheese were very tasty.
There were no other kids. This did not bother me. I was a very social child but I could also have fun alone – I learned very early how to be my own best friend. I still am, today, in my early seventies, but I did not talk to myself then – now I do all the time – I even tell myself joke I did not know. I read a lot from a very early age.
Most days, if my mother, or sometimes father, did not have other plans for us, I set out alone to explore the fields, meadows, and white birch tree woods. There were streams and ponds to dip in. I caught lizards and frogs. I played with reptiles and insects as if they were toys. I was not a cruel child and never thought that a frog or a grasshopper felt pain. I invented a game with the frogs. I would fashion a long straw from a wheat stalk. After I had caught a big, fat frog, I would insert the straw into the frog’s anus and blow it up to about twice its size. I would let it go on the pond and see it jet around as it forcefully expelled the air from behind like a jet. Early aeronautical experiments. I would catch large grasshoppers, large ants, and all kinds of beetles and butterflies. I would tie a thin string to their neck and have them flying around me. Sometimes I brought my captives to the house and kept them in a large glass jar.
I walked around in apple, pear, and cherry orchard, climbed on the trees, and ate the fruit when ripe. I learned the hard way that unripe fruit does not taste good. Sometimes I would find a bird-nest with some multicolored eggs and bring it home to show my mother. She had a native knowledge of plants and mushrooms. After a rain shower, we would go into the woods to collect mushrooms. She would use them fresh in different recipes and also string them and hang them to dry from the ceiling. Scrambled eggs with mushrooms and bacon chunks was one of my favorite meals. In the forest, my mother taught me how to use ants to create a common cold remedy. There were many large mounts, about a foot high and two feet wide. Those were nests of big, brown, shiny ants. The ants responded to any disturbance of the nest by not only biting with their large pincers but also spraying formic acid. Formic acid is produced by ants and is sprayed as a deterrent to predators. When ants are threatened they will spray the formic acid, which has a very strong smell. We would spread a handkerchief (we did not use Kleenex — it was not invented yet) on the nest for about 10 minutes. When we took it back, it was impregnated with formic acid. You could smell it and the strong smell would open your breathing passages and clear the sinuses. A natural form of Vicks.
Recently, I saw a documentary where crows and rooks learned that formic acid will get rid of parasites and fungus. The birds would sit on a large and nest and spread their wings low, touching the nest. After a few minutes they are sprayed with formic acid, and disinfected. What smart birds!
In second grade, I was sent to a month-long summer camp organized for the kids of Lodz Opera artists and employees — my dad was a tenor and sang in the Opera. It was somewhere south of Lodz, about two hours by bus, in the middle of the countryside. I did like the time I spent at the camp although I did get in trouble. We were organized in squadrons and for a week, I was a member of the penal squadron. I do not remember why exactly, probably the usual talking and clowning when I was not supposed to. After a few days, I was the only member of that squadron. During morning muster, I would walk up to the camp leader with the other squadron leaders and announce, “Penal Squadron, members – one, all present”.
I was growing up and with my pal Tadek (Thaddeus, Tdziu), we did “bad boys” stuff. When we had some change, which was not often, we would buy matches. We set papers and twigs on fire in the park and pretended that it was a campfire. We played with homemade “bombs” or crackers, which consisted of a key, a nail, and a long piece of string. These were big, old-fashioned keys with a hole at one end, about an inch deep and 1/8 of an inch wide. We tied the head of a big nail to one end of a three-foot string and the other end to the head of the key. We scraped sulfur from 4 or 5 matches into the key. The nail was pushed into the hole, blocking the sulfur. The device was swung overhead and when the head of the nail hit the ground – the sulfur exploded and made a loud noise. It was a lot of fun but not really smart as sometimes the key shattered into pieces.
Tadziu and I collected cigarette butts and smoked them but not too often. A few times, we bought a bottle of beer and shared it by our “campfire”. We wore “student” hats like the one I am wearing in the class picture. I am the boy, with the hat, on the right. Tadziu is behind me, on the left. Notice the smirk on my face – I thought I looked so cool with that hat!
This brings us to my eleventh year and the last year in Lodz. Before the end of the school year, we left for Israel – the Promised Land.