from Grey Dawn (a novel)
The Girl Who Couldn’t Save Warsaw
Carbeth (near Glasgow) 1947
Fiona and Sandy are spending the weekend about ten miles outside Glasgow, in a hut owned by a friend of her uncle’s – just one of many on the Carbeth estate, at the foot of the Campsie Hills. The first of these were put up back in the 1920s, and over the years the place has developed into an informal community of about two hundred huts, providing modest summer-houses for folk from Glasgow.
There is no running water, and no electricity of course, but even so Sandy’s younger sister, Mary, comes out for a visit on Saturday morning. She immediately joins in with Fiona, who is scrubbing the bare wooden surfaces that surround the windows and the sink. Then, after a cup of tea, the the two women decide to visit a neighbour from Glasgow who has also got a hut. Sandy gets up to see them off and, standing at the door, notices their other visitor,
Jozef – a Polish refugee – walking along the lane at the bottom of their track. He is wearing a peaked cap, which somehow makes him look younger than his twenty eight years, and when Sandy gives him a shout and a wave he sees the other man’s face light up as he waves back.
Fiona adds a wave of her own, then turns to Sandy and says, “We’ll only be about an hour, okay?”
“That’s fine.” Sandy says, then he adds for Mary. “And don’t go asking Mrs Davidson for sweets again.”
“That was years ago.” Mary protests, but she is smiling when she adds, “Still, if I do get any, I’ll no be sharing them with you.”
“You will.” Sandy replies, charmingly.
By this time Mary has started off down the path with Fiona, so she just turns and puts her tongue out, but does it so quickly that the effect is feline, rather than vulgar.
Sandy stays at the door, resting his gaze on the dozens of small trees which have grown up round the hut. A lot of them are still in leaf, though it’s a motley collection of withered and dried out leaves – as dry as plaster, and covered in the kind of colourful mould you get on old plaster, too. Still, with the sun on them they look fairly cheerful. And even where the sun can’t penetrate, that’s still impressive, because the latticework of overlapping branches goes right back as far as the eye can see. Endless nature.
Aye, that’s something you’d never get in Glasgow.
He closes his eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun on his face, and they remain closed until he hears Jozef opening the gate in the low fence that goes round the wee plot in front of the hut.
“Jozef.” he says, with a relaxed smile. Then he adds, “The other two are off on a visit, by the way.”
Even as he is saying this, though, he sees that Jozef’s happy expression has gone, and been replaced by one which could only be described as ‘shell-shocked’.
“Yes, they said this.” he replies, in a flat voice.
“Right well, let’s sit out here, eh?” Sandy suggest, completely thrown by this sudden change of mood. Then he adds awkwardly, “I’ll fetch a couple of beers from inside.”
“Yes, thank you.” Jozef says, even though Sandy has already turned to go back into the hut. He stands there for a while, then noticing a bench beside the hut, on the bit of grass which passes for a lawn, he goes over and sits down.
When Sandy comes out again, holding a couple of bottles, he finds Jozef staring blankly into space, so he decides he is going to have to say something.
“Are you alright, man?” he asks, sitting beside him and putting the beers down on the grass. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Oh, you have that expression, too?” Jozef asks, with a pensive smile. He still seems miles away, but then he adds, “Yes, I have seen a ghost – the ghost of a young girl.” Then he just looks down and shakes his head.
Sandy is at a loss for what to say, so he looks down as well, and sitting there side-by-side on a hard bench, he can’t help feeling like he is back in church.
“It was during the siege of Warsaw.” Jozef starts abruptly without looking up, “and I only saw her briefly, but she was wearing a cotton dress with thin blue and white stripes. A very simple dress, down to her knees, and with short little sleeves .”
Sandy realises he is describing Mary’s dress, but still can’t think of anything to say.
“And she had her hair in a side parting.” Jozef continues. “But she was younger than your sister – only about thirteen.”
“And this was in Warsaw?” Sandy asks. Then, having broken his silence, he takes this opportunity to open both the bottles and put one on the bench beside Jozef.
“Yes, in September, when the Germans invaded us.” Jozef replies, briefly looking across towards Sandy. “She was with about a dozen other children who were helping dig an anti-tank ditch in a park. I was with my unit, and we were moving up to reinforce a crossroads, so I only saw her as we passed. But still, I have remembered always that moment.”
He pauses, absorbed again by his memories. A magpie flutters down from the felt roof of the hut and lands on the grass. Somewhere in the woods behind them, the sound of a dog barking.
“It is strange,” Jozef says now, obviously distressed, “that I think back to her often, when I have seen much human tragedy since then. Perhaps it is because she looked so happy – because she had no way of knowing that what was going to happen next would make happiness a very distant memory.”
Then, making an effort to contain himself, he looks up at Sandy again and adds,
“It was a wide ditch, and she was up to her shoulders in it, working enthusiastically with her shovel. I even noticed the way her dress stretched round her little tummy – perhaps because that was the only curve on her body – but also because it suggested a child who was well-fed. And happy. Yes, I have said this already, but this is what disturbs me most when I think back on that scene – that she could look so happy and confident. They all did.” And now he laughs quietly, as if mocking himself. “I think they really believed, despite the hundreds of German tanks pouring into Poland, that their ditch would be enough to make a difference. And, of course, it wasn’t. Not that the tanks were what finished Warsaw. They were useless for street fighting. My unit disabled one with just a stick of dynamite. No, it was the Luftwaffe dropping their incendiary bombs, and the hundreds of guns all round the city which rained down shells upon us – until, before the end of that terrible September, they had made Warsaw into a living nightmare. Everywhere burning, and the dead left where they lay in the streets.”
He has gone back to staring at the grass, but now he looks over at Sandy again to see if any of this is making sense, to see if it is possible to explain such a thing to another human being.
“She was before all that, Sandy. Do you see what I am saying?”
Sandy manages a slow nod.
“That is the unbearable thing.” Jozef continues, staring straight ahead now, but with a desperate tone in his voice. “She believed – we all did – that we would get back to living once more as human beings. To sit at the dinner table with your family. To turn down the blankets on your child’s bed. To look out into your courtyard and see this girl playing with her cat.” Then he adds abruptly, “And she was wearing sandals. That is another detail which has stayed with me. Defending herself against the blitzkrieg in a pair of sandals.”
Looking down, he seems to be surprised to find the bottle of beer beside him, but he takes a drink from it anyway.
“So, we drove past.” he adds, his voice wavering and his eyes occasionally flitting across to Sandy, who has gone back to his church-pew pose. “And when she saw us, she looked up and smiled. She smiled. She was expecting praise. Of course, and why shouldn’t she? The grown-ups had asked her to help defend the city. They must have told her that the city could be defended. They probably told her that powerful allies had promised to come to her aid. Perhaps they believed it too. But this was before we discovered how ruthless the Germans were, how pitiless the fate they had planned for us – back when it was still possible to believe that good people could stop bad things happening. And she was a being a good girl, Sandy, so why shouldn’t she be rewarded? Just a smile and a few kind words.”
Suddenly, Jozef puts a hand to his mouth and turns away, his face twisted in pain, as if he could be about to start crying. He doesn’t, but he can’t help seeing images of what her actual reward must have been – the suffering she must have witnessed in those six long years of occupation. If, that is, she didn’t die horribly just after he left her.
So many bad things have happened. Things which are impossible to bear.
Eventually, he composes himself and picks up his beer again but, apart from a brief apologetic glance, he still avoids looking at Sandy.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I cannot help thinking that what we like to call ‘insanity’, the insanity of total war – that this has become our natural condition now. We are still ape-men, Sandy, but now we can fight with high explosives and also the hydrogen bomb.”
“Aye well,” Sandy says, “there may be some truth in that.”
These words hang in the air for a moment, but then Sandy adds awkwardly, as if he has decided his comment needs some justification,
“I mean, there was only twenty years between the last two wars, which is no exactly a long time, but now things are hotting up again after just two.”
“We must do everything we can to avoid another war.” Jozef says quietly.
Silence again, as Sandy tries to find a suitable response, but Jozef speaks first.
“And yet…” but then he falters, not wanting to follow his thoughts to their logical conclusion. “And yet, this was the attitude which led to war. This was the essence of Appeasement.”
“Aye, I know.” Sandy replies, and it is obvious from his tone that he has wrestled with this contradiction before.
“This is the worst thing,” Jozef adds, more philosophical now. “That we cannot stand aside from such violations. If they hurt and kill our children, we must do the same to theirs… or at least be willing to.”
“Aye, it’s a tough one.” Sandy says, talking slowly, looking for the right words. “See, even with the best of motives… well, there’s no point being a good person, or even a good socialist, if you cannae find some way that… well, some way that works, when it comes to stopping madmen like Hitler and Franco.”
Jozef looks over at the magpie, which is strutting about on the grass and poking fallen leaves with its beak, then he takes another swig of beer before adding,
“There is something, which I find gives answers for this problem – and that is boxing.”
“How’s that, then?” Sandy asks, more relaxed, now that the other man is being less emotional.
“Well, as a boxer you learn how to break a man’s nose or smash his jaw bone up into his brain. This is violence, for sure. But at the same time you are learning how to control your violence – to use only what is really needed.”
“Right, I’m with you now.” Sandy says. “In fact, that puts me in mind of this guy I used to know who was a boxer – got as far as the Western District Finals back in 1922, so he did. But, anyway, one thing he always said was, “There’s nothing more dangerous than a man who doesnae know how to handle himself in a fight.” You know, some guy who – maybe there’s a wee bit of argy-bargy – then next thing you know he’s pushing a broken bottle into somebody’s face.”
“Yes, control.” Jozef says. “This is what is needed, for sure, when it comes to violence. “Control your anger.” they always said to us in boxing, “Don’t let your anger control you.”
“Aye well, that’s good advice too.” Sandy says, leaning back on the bench, which gives slightly as its feet sink into the grass. Then he adds, “Of course, all this would be a lot easier to sort out if we were living in a socialist world, instead of a world based on greed and competition.”
“Yes, but we have to get to that New World, Sandy. We are not there yet. So, until then… well, we must accept at least the possibility of violence. And we better hope we do find some way to keep that violence under control, because soon – once Russia gets the hydrogen bomb – another war would only mean one thing. Annihilation.”
Sandy replies to this by just raising his eyebrows and taking a swig of beer.
Then, in the silence which follows, Jozef continues the conversation inside his own head,
So, is this my definition of what makes a civilised man? Not a refusal to kill, but an ability to control your killing – a measured response. It doesn’t sound very idealistic. But then, look where idealism lead the German people. And yet, there is an ideal behind the pragmatism – a genuine desire for the well-being of all, which comes from a realisation that other people’s suffering is just as real as your own. Except that, at the same time, we must still be willing to inflict such suffering – to go to war, even though war is the ultimate proof that civilisation has broken down – realising that war is not the worst thing which can happen in this world.
He is just starting to wonder if this paradox really is all he has got to show for so many years of bitter experience, when Sandy says, in his slow thoughtful voice,
“Aye, the old hydrogen bomb – it’s a big responsibility, eh?” Then he adds with a smile, “So, what do you reckon – can we handle it?”
“You and me?” Jozef laughs. “Perhaps yes. Our fellow ape-men – I sometimes doubt.”
Mick Parkin © 2008