The chapel was dark; the only light came from the candles in front of the picture of Madonna. But light occasionally shone on the ex-votos (offerings) hanging on the walls of the chapel. These were the offerings brought by people for blessings received. The offerings consisted of model reproductions of healed parts of the body, crutches, plaques, jewellery and rings adorned with rugby’s, emeralds, pearls or diamonds. A number of rings were strung together on chains or straps of leather. These rings caught my attention and brought some unwanted memories… I began to feel irritated, and already regretted coming here. The country of my youth was not a happy place. I left it a long time ago and lived overseas to try and forget all the broken dreams and hardships I had endured there. I was still an angry woman, and I had avoided all emotional entanglements. But all of a sudden, a school friend found my address, and wrote to me begging me to come for a visit. She seemed quite desperate, and it concerned her brother Anton. I tried to find a valid excuse not to visit, but I finally yielded to her pleas. And there I was in a chapel, waiting for her, while staring at those rings which were strung together. I started to remember those days which I wished I could wipe from my memory.
It was the time of the Warsaw uprising. Our suburb was called, Ochota, and from the beginning of the insurrection it was always under heavy artillery fire from German troops. Insurgents were fighting in the streets and buildings that they occupied, but it was a losing battle, especially when enemy planes began to bomb our suburb. Our block of flats constantly shook, and the sound of gunfire was deafening. Warsaw was burning; and there was fire and smoke encircling us. We prayed (in the cellars) for a miracle to happen, but alas, more and more wounded Polish soldiers were brought back for us to tend their wounds, or bury them in the back yard of our building.
On the 4th of August 1944, both German troops and the SS. Kaminski
Brigade occupied our suburb. Not many people know of the Kaminski Brigade. This brigade was created by the Germans, and consisted mostly of Russians and other soldiers of fortune from various nationalities. The brigade had a bad reputation from the start; and this was due to a lack of discipline, as well as the atrocities which they committed. But the brigade was useful in so called, “hot spots,” as they were mostly used to liquidate the civil population.
As we sat in our cellar, we could recognize them coming by the noise of their gunfire (which grew louder and louder) until finally we heard their shouts and screams, “Raus, alles raus (All out).” They rushed from flat to flat kicking in the doors, and now they were at our staircase. They descended into the cellar and began prodding us with the butts of their rifles. The staircase became crowded with disorientated people. Children cried, women wailed, and nobody knew what to do. Suddenly, a rapid series of shots were fired. It came from the other cellar where the wounded were left. We all rushed to the entrance door to escape the same fate. I was out in the open, and could not believe my eyes. There was no more street or houses. All that was left was a heap of rubble. There were ruins everywhere; wherever I looked I saw the burning skeletons of houses, overturned trams, smashed cars and dead bodies.
We were ordered to walk towards the street of Grojecka which was in ruins. More and more people came out from ruined houses, and were also being prodded by soldiers. The Kaminski soldiers surrounded us. They were given permissions by the Germans to do anything they wanted with us. As we walked, we formed tight groups; families together, the children with their parents, the mothers and daughters with their arms around each other. Suddenly we were accosted by the soldiers. They snatched our suit cases; they demanded watches, jewellery and most of all, they wanted rings. They were all drunk, impatient and aggressive. There were screams, shouts, cries. An elderly woman cried in agony as a soldier cut off her finger to remove her ring. A young girl was raped on the side of the road as her mother kept screaming for help. A young man was beaten up while trying to protect his wife; he finally fell down and was shot in the head.
I walked as if I were in a dream, trying not to look up and not to feel anything. But now it was my turn. A soldier pulled me roughly to the side, “Give me your watch,” he demanded. I took it off my wrist, and handed it to him with a smile. He looked at me, with his small slanted eyes trying to focus. I felt sick in the pit of my stomach, but I kept smiling and he looked puzzled. “Off you go,” he shouted, and waved me on. I moved quickly away. After a while another soldier grabbed me by the shoulder. “Come on, girl, let’s have some fun,” I laughed and pretended to be carefree. The soldier was bragging, and started to show me his loot. His fingers were covered with rings, and his pockets were bulging with watches and jewellery. While I was pretending to admire his rings, three more soldiers joined us. One must have been of a higher rank, because they all mockingly saluted him. I looked at him and thought I was still in a dream. “Anton,” I exclaimed in disbelief, “Is it you?” The man was swaying, he was drunk, or maybe he was on drugs. He stared at me and seemed a bit confused. “Ania? What are you doing here?” I did not answer, but the soldiers grew curious and wanted to know what all this was about. He said something to them in Russian, and they walked away to look for new victims. Amidst a crowd of frightened people who were walking past, being constantly robbed and assaulted, I was left with Anton.
“Anton, Anton,” I repeated and burst into tears. “Why are you here? Why have you done this to all of us? Your mother prayed for you till the day she died, and your sister Hanka is still waiting for you.”
He laughed, “Let her wait, she was always a goodie goodie, and I was always a bastard. I ran away because you all wanted nothing to do with me.”
“We only wanted to be proud of you,” I protested. But he shrugged his shoulders, “Never mind. I’m a dead man.” He took a chain of rings from his pocket and tried to hand it to me. “With these rings, I wed you,” he laughed like man possessed. “Remember, how once you refused a ring from me; maybe now these rings will save you. My comrades are a very lusty and greedy bunch.” He laughed this horrible drunken laugh. When I refused to take them from him, he threw them on the ground and turned away.
I picked the rings up from the ground, and moved on crying loudly, feeling angry and humiliated to the core of my being. This was my, “Golden boy,” the one who was my first love. But he had such a difficult character, that even his own family could not tolerate his behaviour. Hanka, my best friend, shared her family unhappiness with me and tried to warn me about him. But I was young and very much in love. I had tried to put up with his cruel, thoughtless manners, but I refused to marry him. He left me, never to return.
I distributed rings amongst the greedy soldiers and reached a camp called Zieleniak, without being molested. But I was still afraid that Anton might find me there, so I followed the examples of other women (and girls) and smeared my body and face with thick, black mud, and tried to dig a hole in the ground so that I could hide away. Away from him, and away from all the cruel men.
Thirty years had passed since that day, and suddenly I had received a letter from Hanka. She wrote that Anton was jailed for many years, but then he started a new chapter in his life, only this chapter was going to be a short one. He also did not have much time left. She wished for me to come and visit for the sake of our friendship. We were bonded to each other. I owed it to her, and Anton begged her to persuade me to come and see him. She insisted that she would never forgive herself if she failed in her pleas. Anton was a dying man, and she felt desperate to fulfill his wish.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and there was Hanka smiling at me. We cried as we embraced each other, and joked at how age had changed our appearances. We left the chapel and walked along the walls surrounding the abbey. Hanka explained that her brother had stayed with monks for many years; doing odd jobs for food and shelter. He was happy with the monks until he developed a cancer of the lungs. He was now in the last stage of his illness. He was not sorry for himself, but he had many debts to repay, and I was one of them. He had wished so much to see me before he died. As we talked about the past, she recalled his tortured and unhappy life. He never grew up, and thought that he would only succeed in life if he played the role of the bad guy.
I did not recognize him. That gaunt, bald man was not my golden boy; he was not my first love. He could hardly talk, but his eyes spoke volumes when he looked at me and whispered again and again, “Forgive me Ania, please forgive me.” I cried, we all cried for our sad youth, for things which never happened, for lost dreams, but the tears brought some relief for me. For all those years I had been nourishing my anger and resentment, and never let them go. It was my mind which created and fed these feelings to me, and now, facing Anton, I realized how pointless it was. I was hurting myself for a past which was dead, and never to return. In fact, I was the one who had never grown up.
“Aton, I’ve forgiven you,” I assured him again and again. I walked out of the infirmary feeling happy and free. I had this wonderful feeling of lightness, as if I had been carrying a heavy burden from the past, which had been miraculously removed from my shoulders.