Jana Prot, born in 1926
Fragments of Memories
A Remembrance of Stefan A. (1939-1944)
My friendship with Stefan A. began during a vacation we both spent in Pionki. Irrationally, it seems as if we had known each other for many years, but in reality we only spent the last summer before the war together, in 1939, and a few short Christmas and Easter breaks in 1937 and 1938. I don’t remember what he looked like—I think he was broad-shoul- dered, stocky, his dark eyes set in a face with prominent cheekbones. Older than I by four years, he was already attending the Rejtan Lyceum in Warsaw. I was impressed by the friendship of a boy who wore a red, and not a blue, emblem on his jacket sleeve. We spent the vacations riding bikes to ponds, to the Kozienice Forest, or sitting at home and reading everything that fell into our hands. I tried—unsuccessfully—to get through Conrad’s Lord Jim. We read Carrel’s Man, the Unknown, Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, and I even got to Zegadłowicz’s Zmory [Nightmares]. This last book was one of the few that my father had moved to another shelf and forbade me to read. It didn’t help much.
…“emblem on his jacket sleeve” – a red emblem was worn by students attending lyceum, the last two years of secondary school, while a blue emblem was worn by students in gymnasium, the first four years of secondary school.
My endless conversations with Stefan, our discussions and arguments, picked up even more after Stefan’s cousin, Henryk, joined us for the last month of vacation. Both my summertime friends picked on me, supporting each other’s efforts. They said I was inexperienced (and to this day I really don’t know what experiences they were thinking about), that I attended a stupid school (which was the truth), and that I didn’t know anything about politics (which was also true). So they explained to me what the right wing was, as well as the left, and what the ONR and the Falanga were. Of course, not all our conversations were serious. They also told various jokes and anecdotes from school.
ONR, Falanga – the ONR (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny) [Radical Nationalists] was a right-wing party. The Falanga party was an extreme right-wing spinoff of ONR.
We already had plans for the future. Stefan, during some trip to the Kozienice Forest, told me, “Next year I’m going to graduate, then I’m going to university, and then I’m going to marry you.” I had to refuse, as I had just decided to become a nun.
The end of August 1939 was approaching. Henryk was getting ready for his return home to Volhynia after being summoned by his father, because “the times were uncertain”. (Henryk was deported by the Soviets to the east with his whole family in 1940. All trace of him disappeared.) My younger brother, Tomek, and I were supposed to return to Warsaw after August 20. One evening, right before the end of vacation, we sat on the terrace in the dark, looking upward, looking for shooting stars, everyone trying to be the first to make their wish. And then—was it because we were looking up at the sky, or maybe because we were surrounded by an atmosphere of uncertainty?—we started arguing about the existence of God. Stefan said that God didn’t exist because his existence was impossible to prove scientifically. Henryk supported his argument but not very enthusiastically. I, in turn, opposed them vehemently, “God exists, he created us and the whole world. He sees everything and takes care of everything…” None of us wanted to back down, and Stefan finally gave up and said, “Oh, why are we arguing with you? You’re too young to understand. Wait until you’re sixteen—by then you’ll certainly not believe in God. Let’s bet on it.” And so we bet on the existence of God. And then the war broke out.
I turned sixteen on February 8, 1942. I lived near Wilson Square. Mrs. K., with whom I was living at that time, threw a little party. A few of Zofia’s and Krysia’s (Mrs. K’s daughters) friends came, the gramophone was playing “J’attendrai le jour et la nuit, j’attendrai toujours ton retour.
. . .” [I will await day and night, I will always await your return]. It was evening, past curfew, I think, when the phone rang. Zofia called, “Jana, I think it’s for you.” I got puzzled and worried—after all, nobody ever called me, and nobody should be calling me now. I lifted the receiver. A familiar voice said, “Jana, so do you still believe in God?”
I never learned how Stefan found me, just as I never learned how he had found me that terrible night on September 25, 1939, in a cellar of a bombed-out building at 9 Czacki Street, in darkness, lit up only by the burning houses on Świętokrzyska Street. We later lost touch, and I hadn’t seen him since the end of 1939.
After that first telephone call in years (on my birthday), he called me every few days, always in the evening. Our conversations were careful and banal. His name was now Marian; he worked as a night watchman in some factory. Zofia and Krystyna pestered me with questions, “Why didn’t you say you knew a boy? Why don’t you invite him?” I avoided the subject as much as I could, and then the calls stopped, because Stefan had changed jobs. Over the next few years, we saw each other a few times, always only in the street, always in the evening, just before curfew. In the dark it was safer, the streets were full of people hurrying home; nobody paid any attention to us.
I don’t remember how many of these meetings we had between the winter of 1942 and the summer of 1944. I don’t remember exactly what was said or when, either. I successively found out about his father being shot in the street, his mother dying of typhus, and his girlfriend—his first girlfriend—being taken to Umschlagplatz and pushed into a railroad car.
His sisters went over to the Aryan side; they had false papers. It didn’t help much. The older one worked as a servant. There was a search of the apartment, nothing was found, but right before leaving, a Polish policeman took a good look at her and asked, “Are you a Jew?” Surprised and horrified, she admitted it. The younger one lived with people engaged in resistance work. Their illegal printing outfit was discovered by the Gestapo, and the residents were dragged to the courtyard and shot.
The conversations with Stefan filled me with horror and confusion. My own fate was hard to take; fear and uncertainty followed me throughout the occupation. I asked, but I couldn’t decide whether I really wanted to know. I suspect that I was the only person with whom he could openly talk at that time, the one he could—or rather had to—tell things, the only one who “knew”. I, too, knew that Stefan understood my fear, that with him I didn’t have to pretend I was someone I really wasn’t. The infrequent and short meetings were both a burden and a relief.
At the end of July 1944, the streets were filled with throngs of people. German military convoys were rolling in disorderly fashion through Jerozolimskie Avenue from the Poniatowski Bridge—cars, horse-drawn carts, Tatars on their little horses, hapless ranks of people who seemed more like refugees than soldiers. The atmosphere was of excitement and expectation. It was warm, there was a light drizzle. I was walking along Koszykowa Street in the direction of Trzech Krzyży Square. I was wearing my new black raincoat. I was not afraid—what a new and strange feeling that was! Suddenly, someone grabbed my arm—it was Stefan, whom I hadn’t seen for several months, with a beaming expression on his face.
“Jana, look what’s happening! I can’t believe it; it seems we’ve both survived. Wait . . .” He ran to a stall selling flowers and came back with two bunches of fragrant pea flowers. We walked over to Jerozolimskie Avenue. “My love, I have to go,” he hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. “See you later.” I never saw him again. Searches through the Red Cross yielded no result.
Father’s Friend (Summer 1942)
It all probably happened at the beginning of the summer in 1942. I was with my mother; we boarded a suburban train. I don’t know whether it was the one going across the Vistula toward Otwock, the EKD going to Pruszków, or some other one. After a perhaps forty-five-minute ride, we got out at a little station and walked to a big white house surrounded by a large garden. I remember a meadow behind the house, a gate in the fence that surrounded the garden, and a tall, good-looking lady with blond hair pinned up in a large bun in the back of her head. After a short conversation, my mother left, while the lady turned her attention to me, kindly, and without asking any questions. She showed me the house—nobody lived there besides her, as her husband was in a prisoner-of-war camp. I was to take a room upstairs—yes, my own room! There were bookshelves everywhere, I could read anything I wanted, and if I felt like it, I could help in the kitchen and in the garden. I felt as if I had been transported into another time; suddenly everything was like before the war—the house, the garden, the books, the pleasant lady, unrestrained conversation. I became a regular sixteen-year-old girl, not an adult constantly forced to make independent decisions.
The EKD (Elektryczna Kolej Dojazdowa) was an electric commuter train.
Evening came, and the lady of the house announced that there would be guests for dinner—three gentlemen. We set the table—a white tablecloth, pretty plates, and a vase with flowers. The guests arrived punctually. They were slim men, about forty years old. They carried themselves straight, and one of them wore military officer’s boots. They clicked their heels while greeting us, after which they stood at their chairs, waiting for us to sit down. I had no doubt, I knew who these gentlemen were.
I brought the soup from the kitchen in a tureen and was introduced to the guests. “This is my friends’ daughter, Janeczka Prot, who will stay with me several months. I’m not going to be as lonely, and maybe she’ll help me a little.” A flash of interest ran through the oldest guest’s face. “Prot? Was your father’s name Jan?” “Yes.” “Oh, I knew him back in the army. What a nice man,” he said with enthusiasm. “Yes, we later used to meet in Warsaw, he would come on business. Where is he now?” “I don’t know, he didn’t come back from the war,” I replied curtly. All those questions didn’t foreshadow anything good. “Oh, what a shame, we liked each other a lot . . .” Then he looked at me carefully. “So, you must have terrible troubles now, right? Because you’re really Jews…”
And thus fell that terrible word, the taboo word, the insult, the word that couldn’t be used in normal human relations. Silence fell. My spontaneous reactions were then already extinguished. I didn’t get mixed up, didn’t blush, didn’t answer. I looked dully into my plate. Our hostess interrupted the silence with some neutral remark, and a banal conversation ensued in which I did not take part. I took the dishes to the kitchen, said goodnight, and went upstairs with a book. I was awakened early in the morning, “My child, I am terribly sorry, but you’ll have to leave today.”
I don’t remember anymore. I don’t know how I got back to Warsaw; I don’t know where and to whom I went.
I can’t place this event in time. I don’t remember where I was immediately before and after, but I can see this short day clearly, like a crisp photograph. I don’t know what the name of the lady of the house was, nor the town where I spent those twenty-four hours. I don’t know the name of the man who used to know my father, either. I wish to dedicate this short tale to human stupidity.
An Encounter (Spring 1942)
One Saturday after school I came home to get my backpack, put on my old ski boots and a shawl on my head, and took the streetcar to the last stop in Bielany. From there I walked along a path I knew, toward Wawrzyszew and Wólka Węglowa, diagonally across a gray muddy field or pasture, scattered with melting snow. I avoided the larger roads on which one ran into peasants’ carts, drawn apathetically by skinny horses, or peasant women, wrapped in shawls, carrying milk canisters on their backs.
Finally, after a two-hour march, I came to the village of Laski—shabby cottages, fences, mud—and went out on to the road. That route from Laski to Izabelin was paved with large round cobblestones. In the holes in the road and along the pavement there were dirty puddles and remnants of melting snow. The sun was setting, the cold wind chased away the gray clouds. I was walking along briskly, hunched down, because I was cold. Just before the road took a right turn toward the Home for the Blind, I lifted my head. In front of me, in the middle of the empty road, stood a tall, destitute woman. She seemed huge in front of the setting sun. Her black, matted hair fell down below her shoulders. She was barefoot. Her dark, tattered rags blew in the wind. She held two incredibly skinny children by the hands. One of them had long, tangled hair. The woman and the children looked straight ahead. Their black, expressionless eyes seemed huge in their shrunken faces. Not a word was uttered. After a moment the woman moved, jerked the children along, and disappeared among the trees of the wood that extended on the left side of the road. Could I have imagined seeing them? Did they really exist?
This story was submitted by the author in English.