When you’re a child, you think that your parents are the same as everyone else’s and that what happens in your house happens in other people’s homes too. You have no way of knowing any differently.
And so, I think that everyone is afraid of their father. I think that men marry to have someone cook and clean for them. I don’t know that some men actually love their wives and their children.
My brother, Damian, and I grow up with two very different people.
My father is precise, hard, and linear, while my mother is imaginative, loving, and warm.
Both are strong.
My father is Ukrainian and my mother is Polish, but we moved to Germany, where the opportunities are better than in Poland.
My father is a machinist, and that suits him well because it requires precision and measurement—both skills he possesses in abundance.
My mother works as a cook for a wealthy German family, and we love that she often brings leftovers home for us. She brings food that we never would have tasted otherwise. Not much usually, but there are sometimes small pieces of expensive meats like pork chops and, if we’re lucky, fruits and nuts, which are luxuries for most people.
When there are leftovers, my mother puts them all on a plate for us to share. Even though we would have already eaten the dinner cooked ahead for us in the morning, it’s a special treat that we all look forward to. Typically, my father gorges himself, reaching for more even while he’s still chewing with his mouth partly open.
Once as I am about to pick up a slice of apple from the plate, my father slaps my hand. It is something that he wants.
My mother sees this and shakes her head. The next week she keeps a whole apple in her pocket and only brings it out after my father starts the loud, snorting sound that is his snore when asleep.
She cuts the apple in half and gives it to my brother and me.
I don’t know why, but I remember what happens next more than I remember how my father treats me. I can hear the words from my brother as if he has just said them: “Lena,” he says, using his nickname for me, “you know I ate so much for dinner that I really don’t want anything else. Why don’t you have my half too?”
I shake my head. “You can eat this, Damian.” But he refuses and makes me take it.
It makes the apple even sweeter than it already is.
My father, not having seen a trace of an apple for some time, asks, “Why aren’t you bringing home any apples, Franciszka?”
My mother shrugs her shoulders and says, “I work there; I don’t shop there. I can only bring home what they give me.”
My brother and I look at each other and then down because, if we didn’t, he would have seen our smiles.
• • •
TWO STRONG PEOPLE living together is not easy to begin with, but two strong people with opposing political views—that’s virtually impossible.
My father is a Nazi sympathizer, and my mother is horrified by it.
“Hitler is the answer to the problems of the German people,” my father says.
Just a few years ago no one had even heard of Hitler, but now it seems like his name is everywhere. His wave of popularity is swelling. People are poor and unemployment is high. Hitler promises better times. He tells the German people that they are superior.
“Germany will be a great power again if Hitler is the leader,” my father says. His fellow workers at the machine shop are all going to vote for him.
“If you’re German and someone tells you that you’re born superior, that would sound pretty good,” my mother says.
“Even better if the bad times are not your fault but caused by the Jewish people. It’s so much easier than trying to explain it logically.”
My mother doesn’t pass judgment on groups of people. She believes in the individual.
“Not all Germans are good or bad, and the same with Jews,” she says.
She’s outspoken and says what she believes.
They have shouting matches over this, and while my brother and I stay quiet, we don’t like what Hitler is promising. We heard Hitler speak once and saw the hypnotic power that he had over people.
He has that effect on our father.
• • •
MY FATHER DOESN’T ARGUE WITH FACTS. He makes his points with attacks on the other person.
He doesn’t fight fair.
“What do you know about politics?” he says to my mother. “Cooking makes you smart, does it?”
“It doesn’t make you blind” is what she says.
I think to myself, I will never marry anyone like my father.
I don’t know if my mother ever loved my father.
Maybe love isn’t something that people value when it’s hard just to get by.
Damian and I are constantly worried that our father, so quick to anger, will strike her in one of their arguments.
Being slight and about half his size, my mother would be seriously injured.
She never backs down in their arguments, so it is my brother and I who fear.
We want to grow up so desperately.
As predicted by my father, Hitler becomes chancellor on January 30, 1933.
Seven months later, a law is introduced to ban the formation of parties.
Now . . . there is no stopping the Nazi machine.
It may have been as subtle as the sight of a small robin sitting on our windowsill in the early days of spring that makes my mother think, This simple bird has the freedom to fly anywhere, and yet here we stay.
Or maybe it’s just what is practical. Leave when you have enough money set aside.
Regardless, one uneventful day, she tells my father that she has decided to move back to Poland. This is the same as saying she is leaving him because he has on many occasions said that he would never return to a country he felt was backward compared to Germany.
At this point, my brother is eighteen and I am two years younger, so we can make our own decision in terms of whom we will live with.
In reality, there’s no decision to make.
We respect that she stands up to my father, who promises a secure lifestyle for obedience.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s because we never felt close to our father that we embraced the values of our mother. It’s hard to say how we become the people we do. My mother believes that it comes from our choices. She says, “If you choose to do the right thing, it’s a conscious decision at first. Then it becomes second nature. You don’t have to think about what is right because doing the right thing becomes who you are, like a reflex. Your actions with time become your character.”
“If you leave, don’t come back,” are my father’s last words to us.
We don’t take much when we leave.
Fortunately, my mother has been smart enough to keep some of her earnings hidden from my father.
With her savings, my mother buys a small house with some land for raising chickens and growing vegetables in her hometown of Sokal, Poland.
Sokal is located a day’s wagon ride from Warsaw. There’s a river with majestic willow trees lining the banks that runs through town. In the summer, it has a carefree feel to it.
The people living here form three distinct communities: Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish.
The Ukrainians don’t trust the Poles, the Poles don’t trust the Ukrainians, and they both don’t trust the Jews. There exists a certain friction that has been dulled by time but is never gone.
A few wealthy families live in Sokal, but most of the people are of modest means. Just about everyone works hard for what they have.