There will be a war – August 25 1939

“There will be a war.  I am telling you Hitler means business. He will attack soon.  I picked up a program on our short wave radio last night and heard parts of his speech.”  My father was speaking on the telephone most of the morning.  He was not happy and the annoyance in his voice penetrated into my consciousness. I hated to hear when his voice changed in that way, unlike my mother’s voice which usually became very loud and hot when she was annoyed, his became quiet and cold.

I was in my room sitting on my bed leaning against my large stuffed dog trying to concentrate on the book I was reading.  The day was really hot and because I was wearing my coolest and thinnest dress, the wool-like material of the stuffed animal felt uncomfortable.

Why weren’t we going to the river as we planned? I wondered.  When mother left for work that morning she clearly said that because of the hot weather we will be taking the boat out. I glanced at the small bag containing my bathing suit. I was ready, I thought, and immediately begun to worry that if we did not leave soon, it may become too late and in the words of the grownups, “it would not be worth the effort.”   I folded the page in my library book, forgetting that I should not do it and begun to listen carefully with the familiar feeling of anxiety building up in the space above my stomach where I was sure that my heart must be.

“ They are broadcasting it every night and beaming it at us”.  He has just dialed another number and was continuing what seemed to me was the same conversation except his voice now was sounding just a bit more tired and edgy.

“The madman is on a rampage.  He says that he needs “Lebensraum” and intends  to occupy Poland  to get it.  That is just what he said.  First the Corridor and then the rest.”  Suddenly quiet he paused for a moment lit a cigarette and with the receiver suspended on his shoulder listened for a while.

“O Yes, he did say when, he said that he will do it very soon so that he can finish the job  while the weather is still good. The bastard said so.  Yes, Edek, he was speaking in German, and yes, I did understand him. Ala heard him too.”

I got up and stood at the entrance to the living room, darkened by the heavy, wooden window shutters which were half-closed to keep the sun away. I heard the name of Uncle Edek who was really not my uncle at all, but wanted me to call him that. I liked Uncle Edek and specially liked it when and they joked together. Now I was surprised by the seriousness in my father’s voice.  He definitely was not happy. It was a very hot day and I knew how he hated hot weather, unless of course he was sailing our small boat on the Vistula. I saw him wipe his forehead with a large white handkerchief and sensed just how hot and uncomfortable he was.

“Yes, I have been on the telephone all morning and had already called Marek and Joe. They all said just like you that I should not take the crazy maniac’s propaganda speeches seriously.  No, I don’t agree. This was not another propaganda speech it sounded more like a declaration of war. Hitler is on every night and they beam it at us. Of course I know that England and France will declare war if Hitler invades Poland. No, I don’t think the guy is bluffing. I think he wants war, is ready for it and may start it as soon as Monday.  “Why don’t you come here to-night with Rega , I already asked Joe and Marek and they will all be here with their wives. I will find the station and you will hear it for yourself.  Yes, come before nine o’clock, O.K.  See you later,” he said and put down the receiver which was now wet with perspiration.

I was listening now very attentively and watching my father’s face carefully.  Although he still was annoyed I now became quite happy.  I understood from the conversation that we will have company that evening and that made me just a bit happy.  I liked company evenings because my mother liked them and was happy whenever her friends came to visit and when she was happy, so was I.  This time I also knew that since the room with the hidden short wave radio, where everyone would be, was next to mine, I would be able to hear everything, and perhaps understand what is really going on.

The clock on the wall now showed one o’clock.  Any moment now Tusia would be asking me to come to the kitchen and have my lunch and after that it certainly would be too late to take the boat out.

While putting  the bathing suit back on the shelf in the closet, I noticed the new school bag which was standing there. Well, I thought` instead of going to the river I could concentrate on preparing it for my first day in the new school  on Monday.

But what about the War I just heard about, did I hear it correctly that it may start on Monday? Was War more important than school?  l wondered.

The word war which I heard used so many times that morning kept reverberating in my mind and as usual the way many words did, it changed itself into a song. “ War, War, what kind of lady are you that so many beautiful young boys are running after you?” No, I decided, this War that was coming was not like the other ones from history books and songs, this one was going to be real and very bad.

Holding my new school bag, smiling to show him that I was not disappointed about the boat ride, I approached my very tired and uncomfortable father on the sofa.

I wanted to ask him what he thought I would need to take with me for the first day of school.  I needed his reassurance that everything was going to be all right and that life would go on as planned.

“ The teacher will tell you, when you get there” he said, without the smile he usually had for me. I stood next to him hesitating and looking into his face. I had a distinct feeling that his dark thoughts somehow concerned me.  Something that terrible man Hitler said on the radio the thing which upset him so much was about me. It was just for a fleeting moment and yet I sensed that he was afraid of something. I hesitated for a little while and kissed his cheek which was wet with perspiration.  A minute later he looked at me again, smiled and said, ”OK let’s look at that new school bag.”

My mother came home soon after, hot and tired but very pleased with herself. She sat on the sofa next to her tired and unhappy husband and removed her large white straw hat. “It is beastly hot outside” she said, and then looking into his face, with concern, asked,  “What happened? Are you all right?  Is there something wrong?”.  “No”, he answered “I am just very tired. Why are you home so early?”

“Oh you will be very proud of me when you hear what I did today. After listening to the madman last night I decided to do some war preparations of my own.”  She looked at him with a smile and continued, ”You know everyone is now talking about the war and predicting that it may even start next week.   So, I left work early and did something about the situation immediately. You know that the manager of the large grocery store is my friend, so I went straight to her store and asked her to deliver enough flower, sugar and oil this afternoon to last us at least six months, not the three months the Government spokesman said today that it would take us to defeat Hitler if he should dare to attack.”

“And”, she continued  “I also asked Jan at the office to make us two large wooden boxes for the provisions which he promised to deliver in one hour”

She stopped and waited for his approval.  He looked with a smile at her flushed face, now turned toward him, waiting for his praise.

“Yes”, he said  “I am proud of you. By next week it may be too late.  It was a very good idea to do it now while it was still possible. Yes”, he said now smiling broadly at her, while kissing her wet forehead. “you were smart, as usual while the others talked you acted”.  I stood next to my opened schoolbag  unnoticed,  listening to her story, and being very proud of my mother.

“But why didn’t you take the boat out, it was such a perfect day, the last day of your vacation and you promised Irenka that you will.?.”  My mother asked noticing me standing near by.

We did not go on the river” he answered, because I spent the last day of my vacation on the phone speaking to our friends about what we heard last night.   I invited Marek, Joe and Edek to come tonight with their wives and the six of them are coming at nine to listen with us to the madman”.

I greeted the guests when they arrived that evening, and soon after was told to go to sleep. I did not, determined to hear all that was taking place, I quickly put on my pajamas and then very quietly took up a place standing at the door to my room.  Exactly at nine I saw the four couples sit down around the radio become quiet and completely absorbed.  They did not notice me or if they did, no one said anything.

“Ich mach Das shell” screamed an ugly voice and then went on screaming angry words which made the radio make crackling  sounds for a long time with its red lights blinking and crackling all the time.

I looked from one face to the other and knew that they all understood what was said.  When the voice stopped and a very long and loud applause followed they looked at each other aghast and then with relief at Edek who pulled his hair to his eyebrow and gave them a funny Hitler imitation. “Shell, Ich mach das shnell” he repeated.

Their smiles vanished when the thunder of “Hail Hitler’ filled the room unchecked by the crackling of the radio.  The radio was shut off and I quickly disappeared in my room and got into my bed, not sleepy at all and with complete attention, which I normally reserved for teachers, decided to listen to everything that was being said as hard as I could.

Edek, what do you say now?”  My Father’s voice broke the silence.” You heard him yourself and your German is excellent.   What now?  Don’t you think that he will strike soon? “  The conversation involved all of them now.

“What about England and France?  asked Marek “  They signed a treaty with us and must declare war if he attacks us. Germany can’t fight the whole world.

” And what about Russia?” added Joe. “Stalin has all the power now.  Tell me do you think that Hitler will be able to overpower  England, France and Russia too.”

“ No, I don’t think so ”, he responded after a moment of thought  “but did you hear that Hail Hitler. How many people do you think were there?  A million? “

Tusia wearing her pretty white apron and hat served tea and my mother was as usual complemented on her delicious cakes filled with the jelly she made from rose petals.  The conversation now concentrated on the New York World’s Fair, The  couple everyone knew who went to America leaving their children with their grand-parents just a month before, and on the question as to whether or not they would return or if somehow, they could arrange to have them join them in New York.  Getting away from Poland, if at all possible, became the subject.  Should they? Where to? How? When?  Suddenly the subject became Jews.  With voices raised they shared with each other the terrible stories of what was happening to Jews in Germany Austria and Czechoslovakia. Marek had read Hitler’s book called Mein Kampf and said that he was very frightened.  Being married to Non Jews doesn’t help, he said and Children who are even ¼ Jewish are not treated as members of the Aryan Race and are considered Jewish.

Everyone spoke at once and everyone seemed very excited which I easily understood because I knew that all the people in the room were Jews or were married to Jews. And because of it, all their children including myself  were suddenly guilty of not being Aryan and were not safe any more.

Wide awake, I suddenly understood why my father was so upset when he spoke on the telephone that morning and now I too became upset. When the grownups were talking about the war I was able to hear a sound of fear I have never heard in the voices of grownups before. They sounded powerless and that frightened me and made me feel sorry for them and then. Suddenly tears filled my throat and wet my pillow.

Good-byes were said, Tusia cleared the dishes, and all became quiet.

I tried to fall asleep but the thought of Zosia, and her two little brothers being with the grandmother she did not like very much, far away from her parents made the space where my heart was, beat so hard that it pushed more tears into my eyes.

I almost left my room to ask my daddy about Zosia but decided not to do it because I sensed that he was upset enough. I will try to find the word Aryan in the big  encyclopedia when I wake up next morning I decided.

Categories: CHILDREN AT WAR

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