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"The Victory is a rather gentle novel, understating its points if anything, letting the reality behind the events shine through to the reader." --Polish Review
The Victory picks up the story with the advance of the Red Army in 1944. The narrator and his mother move to yet another town, and the boy, aware he has been tainted by the war, fights to reclaim his Jewishness. Through the boy's straightforward observations, Grynberg portrays the despair of Polish Jews in 1945 as they confronted the horrors of the past and the agonizing choices of the present.
My father ran to see the squire, bribed the gendarmes, and did all he could. The squire pleaded with the Germans that Father was indispensable on the estate, and, if they really cared about the prompt delivery of all those quotas they demanded, they should allow Father to stay on the estate for as long as possible. So Father continued to run the dairy and helped with the accounts as before, the only difference being that now it was always Father who owed the squire, not the other way around. This arrangement held good for a year.
The squire helped us this way as long as he could. When nothing more could be done, Father loaded part of our bundles on a cart that he had borrowed from the squire-part of them, for he had left most valuable things with the squire and other people for safekeeping-and we set out for the little town in which my mother's family lived and where my paternal grandfather with his family had already been resettled from a neighboring estate. There we made our home in one room of a tenement that belonged to Grandfather. Both Father and Grandfather had to go out every day to break stones on the highway. But things got worse when the Germans started sending people to a camp near Wegrów. It all began with flour and sugar.
A certain quota of flour and sugar had been allotted to the shtetl, and the task of the local Council was to distribute the flour and sugar on rations. But there wasn't enough flour and sugar even for those who had ration coupons. So first come, first served, and those who came later were left with their coupons but no rations. After a while it transpired that those who paid the cash equivalent of a certain number of coupons always arrived in time, and those who had no money came always "too late."
Father had money, so everything was in order, until the Council sold half of the sugar quota in Minsk Mazowiecki and half the population, defined as "less needy," did not get their ration coupons at all. We found ourselves in that category. Father went to see Nusen, who was chairman of the Council, to clarify the matter. While there, he noticed behind the glass of Nusen's sideboard a whole batch of undistributed ration coupons.
"Why didn't you give me any coupons for sugar?" asked Father.
"Because there is no sugar; they only allotted half the quota."
"So why did they give all those coupons?" said Father, moving nearer to the sideboard.
"Which coupons?" Nusen wondered.
"These!" said Father, reaching for the batch behind the glass.
Nusen rushed at him to get it back, but Father ran out with it into the street. Nusen followed, but Father ran straight to the Polish police, to Laskowski, who was in charge, and handed him the coupons. This forced Nusen to give Father our coupons and to make sure that we got our rations, and Laskowski told Father that he had acted correctly. But, when the Germans demanded from Nusen an additional quota of men for the camp at Wegrów, he put Father's name on the list.
While Father was in the camp where he dug ditches by the side of the road, we fell ill with typhus. As soon as he heard about it, Father started to look for ways of escape. One day the German supervisor noticed that in some places Father was digging deeply, as he was supposed to, but in other, less visible places, he had barely scratched the surface.
"Komm hier!" the German called, and, when Father approached, he struck him with a riding crop that had an iron knob at the end.
"Is this how you dig?" he shouted.
Father returned to his ditch and started digging as deeply as he could as long as the German was looking. But, as soon as the German walked away and a Polish policeman replaced him, Father pressed his hands to his stomach and said that he got diarrhea from fear of the German and needed to go in the bushes. Since the bushes grew all the way to the forest, Father went and did not turn back but hid in the forest, and the following day returned home to us.
Father hired a cart from a peasant, put Mother and me on it, leaving my little brother, Buciek, at Grandpa's. He drove us to the hospital. He did not take us to Minsk Mazowiecki where they simply let the sick lie unattended until they died but to a real hospital in Wegrów. He did not ride on the cart but walked beside it, helping the horse. At that time he was already sick, too, so, when we arrived in Wegrów, he was laid up with us.
Father was still sick when Mother and I recovered, so we returned from the hospital without him. Then it turned out that our room had been taken by someone else, and Chairman Nusen allotted us a place in the barracks, with the poor people. When Father came home from the hospital, he was very thin and could barely walk but went to see Nusen the same evening.
"How dare you? You allot to some strangers a room in the house that belongs to my father and make my wife and child who have just recovered from typhus live in barracks with beggars!"
"And what are you thinking of?" replied Nusen. "You escape from camp and I have to answer for it? You're lucky not to have been caught. You and your family aren't on the list of residents anymore. How was I to know they would come back from the hospital? Do many people come back from there?"
Nusen had a wife, Frymka, who was older than he, and he always did what she told him to. He also had two pretty and well-nourished children, who both wore white tights and long hair, so that one could not tell which was a girl and which a boy. "Why did you send me to camp?" Father persisted, though he felt his case was shaky.
"And whom did you expect me to send? I sent everybody who's fit for work. Would you have wanted me to go myself?"
"Why didn't you send those knaves with wooden clubs, those criminals who are serving here as your police?"
"Don't you meddle with my official duties!" shouted Nusen, and banged the table with his fist.
At that moment Father noticed that, under the table, covered with a long cloth, lay a neatly severed head of a black heifer. For fat Nusen was a butcher who had his own butcher's shop before the war and later ran illegal slaughter with other butchers and some cattle traders. This was well known.
"I won't meddle with your duties if you allot me and my family a decent place to live," said Father calmly.
"And if I don't?"
"If you don't...." Father bent down and pulled the severed head from under the table by its ears. In addition he gave Nusen some amount of cash, and we could live like human beings again, although our names did not appear on the list of the shtetl's residents.
But this did not last long either. Toward the end of the summer, the men rushed out more frequently than ever to read official announcements posted in the market square and returned home with anxious eyes. During muffled conversations at home, plates slipped out of women's hands. At the gray hour of dusk, the women wrapped themselves in large woolen shawls under which they had hidden little bundles and sneaked out to the houses of their fair-haired neighbors.
In the autumn, squeaking carts borrowed from peasants and loaded with pillows and eiderdown set off in the direction of Stanislawów. Once again we rode on the cart, while Father walked alongside in his high boots, occasionally pushing the cart with his shoulders, which were always slightly uplifted as if bearing an invisible burden. His brows were frowning and seemed even thicker because of it, the blue shave shadows on his cheeks reached almost to his eyes, and in the September sun his thick, stiff, and unruly hair glistened with purple.
It is hard to tell how much Father knew and how much he only guessed. In any case, he had never trusted anybody very much, least of all the Germans, and had faith only in himself. Therefore, in Stanislawów, which, as it transpired, was not to be our destination but only another stage in our destiny, on that night when it was learned that the next morning entire families were to turn up with hand luggage no bigger than they could carry, Father decided that we wouldn't turn up anywhere anymore. Whoever was able to do so would run immediately to the countryside, and whoever, like grandparents, was unable to run would go into hiding with Gentile friends to sneak out into the country later under cover of night, and, in the country, we would somehow manage. For we were country folk and we knew that, no matter what, one does not perish so quickly in the country as in a town.
We went to bed without undressing, on the contrary, putting on as many clothes as we could. Mother woke me up so early that I felt as if I had only just closed my eyes. The windows were covered over with blankets, and candles were lit as if it were the Sabbath. Mother lifted me from bed because I was unable to get up by myself. She cried as she put my shoes on. Father was busy tying small bundles. Buciek, wrapped in a blue blanket, was still asleep. He could not run either. He was to be left for the time being with people who had many children of their own. He was only eighteen months old and they could say he was their child. But at the last moment Mother changed her mind and did not hand Buciek over to the woman who came for him, and all four of us sneaked out of the house.
Day was beginning to break when we were running along a gray path toward the fields. From all over the place one could hear stamping, knocking, even shots. The shots became more frequent while we were crossing the field. Mother ran with Buciek in her arms, cradled in a big woolen shawl that she had tied around her, and Father was carrying me on his shoulders. Then Mother stopped, and so did Father; now he carried Buciek, and I ran next to him holding his hand. Then Mother stopped again and, breathing heavily, took Buciek from Father, and Father again took me on his shoulders. But Mother turned back with Buciek in her arms, and Father and I reached the countryside without her.
The next time I saw Mother she was sitting in the middle of a room in Gleboczyca, at a peasant's where we had found shelter. She was wearing the same big woolen shawl, but Buciek was not cradled in it now. She was sitting on a stool, in the middle of the room, and smiled when Father brought me in.
"Where is Buciek?" I asked at once.
"He's not here," she replied.
"Where is he then?"
"He's not here."
"Don't worry your mother," said our hostess. "You can see she's tired. If you keep pestering her, she'll go away and not come back at all. You'd better go out and play in the yard."
"But I want to know where Buciek is!" I cried.
Life was good in the country. The country meant an open space, not meeting people one did not want to meet, and only seeing those who were waiting for us in secluded cottages, who gave us food, allowed us to stay the night, knew us. When a stranger had been spotted, we locked ourselves in a spare room where there was rarely anything except a bed-one but big enough that we could all sleep in it-and the door to such room was usually camouflaged on the other side by a large wardrobe.
One day, while we were still in Gleboczyca, Aunt Itka appeared at the farm. Then we learned-not from Aunt Itka but from the farmer who did not tell her that we were there-that Grandfather and Grandmother did not want to hide and had gone to the train. They said they were too old and felt it was undignified for them to wander around homeless and hide with strangers. Grandfather was a Talmudist, known as a man who would not talk to just anybody. Being a Talmudist was not a profession, one did not make any money out of it; therefore, he had little need for people. A Talmudist, Mother explained to me, is a man who wishes to be wise. He had quarreled with Father, not because Father had started his independent life by shaving his cheeks and getting into business with a squire of his own but because he married a girl who was the best looking but also one of the poorest and who, as everybody around said, did not really want to marry him. Neither Grandfather nor anybody else of his family came to the wedding, and he did not set foot in our house until I was born. Grandfather was not interested in other people and their affairs. On the very occasions when he consented to see someone, he offered good advice, brief and very wise, but of a kind that mostly could not be accepted. In Stanislawów, when Father had said that we wouldn't let ourselves be taken anywhere else and had arranged a hiding place for them, Grandfather did not comment, and everybody was convinced that he had agreed. But he went to the train, along with Grandmother and my slightly retarded Uncle Meir and Aunt Rivka, who could have escaped as Itka did but did not want to leave their old parents and poor brother. I don't believe Grandfather had any illusions about the destination of that train. But he also knew what lay in store for those who would escape. He knew everything about human beings, or at least everything that was important, for he had never been interested in their small everyday affairs. He also knew that the human world existed on the basis of a certain covenant whereby certain conditions have been established, and if we ever break them ... so he went to the train to die voluntarily like a human being. He did not tell us anything, he was too wise for that. Perhaps he was afraid to tell. He wanted us to run away just in case. He was wise.
Our peasant also learned from Itka that Nusen and his wife were in the vicinity and that they had escaped from the train without their lovely children. When Mother heard this, her face began to tremble and she buried it in a pillow, but her shoulders and her back continued to shake.
She had wanted to save Buciek. She had wanted to go into hiding with him but was told that this wouldn't do because Buciek might start talking or crying. Therefore, the peasants hid her alone, and took Buciek to the cottage. Buciek was lovely, with large blue eyes. He seldom cried but liked to make noise when playing. He liked to imitate an airplane.
Mother heard them coming. She was hiding in the loft in the hay, next to the stairs, and could hear everything.
"Whose child is this?" they asked.
"Come on, too good looking to be yours," said one of them.
"And circumcised at that," said the other.
Buciek did not cry. He didn't seem to be afraid. He only looked at them with those large blue eyes, making them laugh. They showed him to each other while taking him away: "What a lovely child." They did not do any harm to the hostess because they were in such a good mood. Mother could not conceal a certain pride when she told us about it.
"Maybe one of them has kept him," she said. "Maybe they didn't do him any harm?"
We remained at Gleboczyca until the middle of the autumn. We might have stayed longer, but a Commission showed up in the vicinity. At first the farmer wanted us to hide in the barn where Aunt Itka had been hidden, but Father said it was not a good idea for everybody to be in the same place. Besides, a barn was not a good hiding place, he said, and it would be better if the farmer told Itka to flee while she could, as she was alone, and it was easier for her to get away.
But Itka was afraid to get out and remained in the barn, while we hid in straw on the loft over the cowshed. The cows were making a noise below us, which made us feel better and made it not so easy to hear us up there.
Excerpted from THE JEWISH WAR and THE VICTORY by HENRYK GRYNBERG
Copyright © 1993 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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|The Jewish War|
|Afterword to The Victory||151|