Theirs was the generation who fought so that we might explore our heritage of freedom without want in a relative peace. The great majority of them have left us now, but what would they have made of the current America? Would they be proud? Understanding? Sad? Would they recognize our struggles as extensions of their own? On this Veteran’s Day 2011, a salute to two soldiers through whom much life was generated, recalling the day when their own lives were first joined.
~ BISIA ~
A stinging snow had been whipping out of the east all day reducing Lublin to a cauldron of white. Now as Bisia huddled alone outside town attempting to hitchhike south to Krakow as per her orders, along with the toe-numbing cold came a sense of hopelessness, both in her own prospects for a ride, and in the plight of Poland’s future.
The Polish Home Army had been forcibly disbanded in November 1944 as the Soviet Red Army swept west pushing the Germans back toward ultimate defeat. Now under Soviet control Bisia’s unit had been re-assigned to the newly created Berling Division, commanded by the Polish General Zygmund Berling. After two months of tank training near Lublin, she had a short period to report south to the front for assignment.
As the sky slid from a brutish gray to an encompanssing black, Bisia pulled her coat in tighter, then began walking back to the city through the wind-blown snow with her head down, beyond weary, arriving a little past 6 p.m.
I knew that my sister-in-law Gusia and our friend Olga Wiktor, whose husband had property not far from our home in Lesko, were in Lublin at the time, because it was not along the front lines. So I headed to the Artist’s Cafe which was where I knew Gusia would probably be.
The Artist’s Cafe occupied the first floor corner of a gray stone building at 1 Peowiaków Street a few blocks north of Plac Unia Lubelska, the main plaza in town named for the union of Poland and Lithuania in 1556. The cafe was run by a group of movie and radio artists who had no work because of the war. So they banded together to run this small cafe.
The frigid wind whipped her hair as Bisia pulled open the heavy wooden door from the street. Then, as she held aside the woolen blanket that helped insulate the inner room, she entered the cafe proper where the clink and clatter of piano and conversation mingled with the cigarette smoke hanging like a cloud from the ceiling.
Shaking the snow from her shoulders Bisia scanned the room and saw Gusia and Olga sitting together at a table on the right with some strange looking men in very odd looking uniforms. She gave them a little wave. On the small stage to the left a man was singing, accompanying himself on piano.
“Bisia, what would you like for me to sing for you?” he asked as she came in.
As she unbuttoned her coat, Bisia recalled her cousin, Henris Rostworski, who was in an officer’s POW camp in Germany. He was a writer, and one of his letters from this camp was a poem which they had put to music. It was called “A Letter from the Prisoner of War Camp.” This is what she asked him to sing.
~ ISHAM ~
Isham sat listening to the music as Billy spoke with the two Polish women who had joined them at their table. Then she walked through the doorway. Her hair was pure black and rolled off a full, oval-shaped face from which two piercing brown eyes took in the room. A centering widow’s peak added to the look of a bird of prey. She wasn’t tall, in fact, rather petite, but she walked like there was no one above her. She was the most beautiful woman Isham had ever seen.
Having recently escaped from a German POW camp, American army lieutenants Isham Reavis and Billy Ferenz had only been in Lublin a few days as they headed east in search of an American mission of any kind. Captured independently the previous September, they teamed up to escape during a forced march between POW camps in January. Now in Lublin and free, they remained uncertain where best to repatriate with American forces. The day before they had met some local people who had brought them to the cafe tonight. It was there that they’d been approached by two Polish women who spoke a little English.
As she came in the café, the piano player exchanged a quick greeting after which he began a new song. She gave him a little salute, then, began heading toward their table. The way she carried herself: straight, high, proud, almost daring, had Isham thinking, “That’s the one for me.” He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
~ BISIA ~
“They’re escaped American POWs looking for whatever food and any assistance they can find,” said Gusia when Bisia came to the table and inquired about the company. And since Gusia and Olga both spoke a little English – in fact Olga had spent some time before the war in the U.S. because her father had sung tenor for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City – they sat with the two Americans to see if they could help them.
“I thought you were on your way south,“ Gusia said as Bisia drew up a chair from an adjoining table.
“Trying, but there weren’t any rides coming. But I’ll tell you, Gusia, my heart isn’t it. I’m glad I didn’t get a ride. Makes me think I shouldn’t even go.“
“You’re considering not reporting? I haven’t heard from Adam, but he never talked about not going where he’d been ordered. You’re really thinking this? I mean, what would you do? Where would you go? You know what they would do it they caught you?“
Major Adam Winogrodski, the man Gusia referred to, had been Bisia’s commanding officer in the Home Army OP-23 unit based out of Sanok before it had been disbanded by the Soviets. Over time, Adam and Gusia had begun an affair while her husband, Bisia’s older brother Stas, was away serving with the English army in the west. It was a complicated world, with everything, including morality, torn from its moorings. Now, Adam, too, had been re-assigned,and was away from Lublin at the time.
“Adam is a professional soldier,” responded Bisia. “I’m not. Gusia, I’m tired. I’ve had six years of this shit, and enough. I’m not thinking anything. Maybe that’s the point.“
Gusia was taken aback by my mindset. But mostly due to the consequences. But we all knew there was no longer a Poland as we knew it. So, you lived for the moment, because the future no longer existed. So I told her to just order another round of drinks before hearing Olga calling my name.
~ ISHAM ~
Back in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri Isham had never gone steady with anyone. In the midst of the Depression he didn’t have the time or the money to spend on a relationship. Being assistant manager of one of the fine hotels in town, he knew people at the different hotels, and through them he would get introduced to the singers and dancers working the floorshows. Most of his dates began after midnight like that, but nothing of consequence. Having one particular woman had never been a concern to him, until now.
After Bisia arrived at the table,Isham stood, looking to Olga, asking, as it were, for an introduction. After a while, she picked up on it.
“Oh, excuse me. May I introduce you to Bisia- or should I say Lieutenant Elzbieta Krasicka,” Olga said as she presented her to Isham and Billy with with an open palm.
Isham offered his hand.
“Powitanie,”Bisia said, taking it in a firm grip.
“Billy?” Isham said still holding on to her hand. “How do you say, “Pleased to meet you?”
“You want me to say it?”
“Milomi pania poznac,” he said. “Or something close.”
“Milomi pania poznac,” Isham repeated in a chewed Polish.
But all Bisia did was nod in return before turning to her sister-in-law and continue their conversation.
“What is she saying?” Isham asked Billy, who concentrated on their conversation for a while.
“Something about where she is traveling, I think. They are speaking a little too fast for me.”
“Well, break in and ask.”
“What they are talking about. Who is she? You know.”
And through the translation they found out that she was a countess who had grown up in a castle, then fought as a member of the Polish Home Army, which had recently been disbanded by the Soviets after most of the German forces had been cleared of eastern Poland. So while Isham and Billy were busy escaping from the Germans, Bisia had been sent by the Russians to train in tank warfare outside Lublin, and was now under orders to report to the front near Krakow as a member of a newly constituted Russian-led division.
“They think the Polish general is a traitor for siding with the Russians,” explained Billy. “One of her brothers was sent off, as well. But she doesn’t know where he is now.”
The 1st Polish People’s Army, called “The Berling Division” for its commander General Zygmund Berling, was formed by the Soviets in 1944 from previously existing 1st Polish Corps, and conscripts from Eastern Poland. It first fought in September 1944 in support of the Warsaw Uprising. However, due to the lack of any support by the Red Army, encamped in the Praga suburb across the Vistula River from the capital, the uprising failed, and the Germans subsequently leveled the city which Isham and Billy had seen on their travels east. Now, in early 1945 the Berling Division was assigned to the front on the Oder River in preparation for the final Soviet offensive of the war in Europe.
Isham knew of the Polish enmity for the Russians, so he and Billy told the women of their encounters with them after their escape from the Germans. And the more foolish they made out the Russians to be, the more everyone laughed.
“We’d been with them for a while,” Isham said through Billy and the women’s translation. “And went into this house where we spent the night. Remember, Billy?”
“Yep. And the next morning you said, “why don’t we burn it down?”
“And you said, “Good idea.”
“So we set the house on fire.”
“You set the place on fire? But why?” asked Gusia after translating to Bisia who shook her head and laughed, lifting her glass to Isham in recognition.
“No special reason,” he replied, nodding to Bisia in return. “Things occurred to you, and you just did it. That’s all. Something to do.”
And everyone thought that was great, especially since it was done at the Russian’s expense.
As the evening wore on they used one German word, one Polish word, one French word, and English, and communicated just fine.
When this woman walked into the cafe she looked like the one I always wanted, Isham recalled decades later. There was strength in her eyes I hadn’t seen in a woman before. Unbelieveable. When I looked at her I was looking at Poland: proud, defiant, strong, elegant, the true aristocrat. And you could see she had a job, Poland, protecting Poland. I thoroughly thought that if she were married I’d just go kill her husband. Any obstacle. And the other thing I knew right then was that I would marry her.
TO BE CONTINUED