THE NOOSE TIGHTENS
The invisible loop was getting tighter and choking the last vestiges of freedom and democracy. The system based on fear, suspicion and lies, kept gnawing the moral roots of society. The prominent national literary and intellectual figures offered their services to the regime with the enthusiasm of the newly converted. A novel like "The Ash and Diamond" written by one of them, * with great literary talent and even greater mastery in twisting the truth, had much greater propaganda value than a thousand speeches and placards extolling the achievements of the "People's Republic of Poland" (PRL). More and more people were disappearing, often without a trace. There were only terrifying rumors of what went on in Koszykowa street or in the Mokotowskie Prison.
Once, early in the morning, I was waiting for a streetcar at the far end of Grochowska street in the Praga suburb. As usual I stood a little to the side, not visibly committed so I could depart without attracting attention by stepping out of the queue. There were a few people waiting, among them a middle aged woman very poorly dressed who, as drunks often do, was holding the lamp post for support. The presence of a drunk woman at the streetcar stop was not very unusual then, even in the morning, but something did not seem to fit . I watched as she made the last few steps toward the lamp post; she staggered a bit but it was not a drunken sway, rather the strenuous effort of someone deathly tired. I knew that she would not reach the streetcar on her own. I moved close to her without attracting attention and in low voice asked if there was anything wrong and if I could help. She looked at me for a few moments in silence; there was fear and distrust in her eyes. "From prison? " I asked. It reassured her a bit. "Yes, from Mokotowskie. They let me out this morning" she said by way of explanation. And then a little more trusting: " Would you please help me to the streetcar? I have to go there...."
I went with her. I understood from what she said that she had been traveling since dawn from the distant Mokotow area of town to the eastern edge of Praga on the other side of the river, depending only on the kind generosity of streetcar conductors for she did not have a penny and was driven by only one overwhelming need: "To get there." She did not confide in me but it was easy to guess that she had a message to deliver from someone in prison. When she was silent, which was most of the time, her lips moved as if she was repeating something she was desperately afraid to forget. We came to the end of the streetcar line and started walking in search of the little street she wanted to reach. Her walking was so slow and painful that it was nearly noon by the time we neared her destination. A few times I suggested she let me deliver her message while she waited on a sidewalk bench, but she would not hear of it. "I have to do it myself" she said firmly and I understood. On the corner of the street she so desperately sought I let her go on alone, promising to wait for her there.
It took about an hour for her to return. She looked relieved but all the driving force of the promise made was gone now. "What's next?" I asked." I don't know" was the answer and I could see that she had no energy left to care. Did she have anybody in town, family, friends? She did not. I knew that she had not eaten since the previous day so I took her to a little restaurant near by. All that she could take was a small roll with butter and a glass of warm milk. I was in a dilemma, I could not just abandon her but I had nowhere to take her, living as I was practically on the street, having meals on park benches and looking for a place to sleep every evening. There were no social agencies then including the Red Cross ** that would help a political prisoner just released from jail. Luckily I remembered Caritas Academica with its office at St. Anne's by the street called Cracovian Suburb. I had not been there for quite a while because it was not very "healthy", to be associated with a person like myself and I did not want to endanger that very much needed but already vulnerable institution. This time I had to seek their help. I took my temporary charge by streetcar all the way to Warsaw proper again. Not knowing how things were at St. Anne's and hoping someone was still in the office, I left my charge in the empty pew of the former Nuns of the Visitation church and went on foot to nearby St. Anne’s. The secretary was there alone and was glad to see me again, but did not question my long absence. I explained my problem. She was very moved by the plight of the poor woman, but, like many older people, was cautious and afraid of possible provocation. She was a good person who occasionally mothered us, and I would have eventually convinced her, but it was getting late and I feared that the church would be closed leaving the sick woman on the street. Luckily, as I was getting a little desperate Czesia Popiel appeared. I did not have to convince that girl. If God himself was looking for the best person to help he probably would have picked Czesia. We both went to the other church and found the poor woman asleep in the pew. Czesia took over from there.
It was spring of 1949. Poland had endured nearly five years of People's Democracy and the economy of the country was no better despite all the greatly publicized Reconstruction. The economic blunders were still blamed on wartime destruction and of course on the sabotage by Spiteful Reactionary Gnomes who would be ceaselessly exterminated.
Secretly leaving my home town for the last time I could not even dream of using public transportation. It was a beautiful May morning that Ascension Sunday and there was as yet no one to be seen on the banks of Liwiec. I crossed the bridge and took the sandy cart road towards the village of Krypy turning left where a winding field road led toward the ancient town of Liw. About a kilometer past the village there was a slight rise of the ground. I stopped there and looked back. In the brilliance of the morning sun all my home town was clearly visible. There was our XVth century parish church with its two belfries, the cobble stoned market place... and it seemed that I could also see between the trees a reflection of the sunlight from the roof of my home. I stood there among the green fields, more lonely than ever, and gazed.... The gentle breeze brought the familiar sound of church bells... like a handshake for the road...
It was late afternoon when I reached Kaluszyn. I knew a couple there and counted on staying overnight at their place. >From a busy main street, which was simultaneously the highway to Warsaw I turned into a side road leading to my friends' home. Suddenly, there was an uncanny stillness there - nothing moved on the little street.... In a moment I knew.... Spread-eagled across the street lay the body of a young man. From under the torn and bloody shirt on his chest a small religious medal on a string sparkled in the sunlight. Swarms of flies were crawling over the bloody wounds of his chest and his dead staring eyes.
I knew who he was. They called him Gajowiak.***
His partisan band, one of the last, had been destroyed a few days previously
by a large force of military units of KBW 81 although
he had managed to escape. They had probably caught him alone at the end
of his strength, and now his dead body was dumped in the dust of the street
as a warning to their enemies and the glory of People's Democracy. When,
without losing a step I passed the desecrated body, for the first time
in my life I felt naked and unmitigated hatred.
81 Parallel to the regular
army there were full strength KGB (Corps of Internal Security) military
units, not unlike German SS. Same as UB or Bezpieka except organized
into large, mobile, highly politicized, military type units.