Through My Father’s Eyes: September 1st, 1939
by Courtney Nora Braun
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie….
W.H. Auden, September 1, 1939
I can only snatch shadows through my father’s eyes, crystallized memories for
him to walk through and describe. It is only through his mind’s eyes, can I
probe for relics of lost faces, rooms, scents and sounds, he could have
registered in passing but forgot soon after, for no better reason than, it was
After all what is commonplace, other than walking routinely through the familiar signposts of life in the present? The noisy chug of the trolley car picking its way through the Warsaw districts, the clinking of pots and plates, as his mother prepares breakfast, the boisterous morning protests of his younger brothers, the rustle of fabrics stacked upon shelves as he brushed past to say hello and goodbye to his father, busy tallying up the inventory and tinkering with the cash register to prepare for the day’s customers…. My father, his son, had to press his arm, talk loud for his father was deaf, hooked up to an awkward forerunner of the hearing aid.
He was late for a new class… As he left, he adjusted his yarmulke, removing it from his thick wavy hair, replaced it with a fedora, the heavy glass door banging…. Behind, his mother was sweeping the worn floorboards and tidying up to open their store.
In an afternoon, as regular as any other afternoon, believing in another afternoon likewise to follow, my father focused on the next step of his future. My father was 20, early, and shyly took his place in line with the growing throng of anxious applicants in the courtyard, waiting to enroll at University, the Polytechnic Institute of Warsaw, on the first day of this September. It accepted a larger quota of Jews, than the University of Warsaw…. As he stood, maybe he browsed through the Polish language course catalogue, nervously re-arranged his requisite documents, or half-eavesdropped on the swirl of idle chatter in Yiddish and Polish between his potential classmates….
So fast, so slow… momentarily, he daydreams, loses track of the time, forgets the anticipation over the still shuttered door, the erratic weather on the cusp of fall, the worries about whether he’ll be accepted, can he compete with his potential classmates.... the chatter stills.
Heads turn upwards to find the source of a growing whine droning across the skies of Warsaw. Before his eyes, people are leaping around the cobbled square, in a manic dance of reckless hide-and-seek, the wild in their eyes…. The loud whistle of airborne shells eclipse wits as the outlines of distant buildings instantly dwarf into rubble – exploding statues of form and structure. Swiftly, the outer skyline of Warsaw (until today, fondly called the “Paris of the North”) fills with smoke and hungry orange flames. He pauses, standing within a district gripped in pandemonium air-raid sirens, screams, confusion, escalating hysteria.
It was only a matter of time for the Germans to act, gossiping Warsovians speculated in the last weeks of August. Some were reassured of their fragile safety by the August 23rd treaty between the Germans and Russians (formally known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact)… Regardless of his place in line, my father fled the Polytechnic and, instinctively ran -- ran fast, jumping on the back of the nearest tram home… Home…. Where else could he go, what could he do, but to charge back to his father’s store, the little apartment behind…
Home….what would he do….? to his father’s store, in the poor Jewish section, rushing in, disrupting the clusters of customers, he grabbed his father, and begged him. No, told him loudly, he needed money. He needed money to leave, he needed money, could he please have money, so he could leave…. He had to leave…
His father, oblivious to the commotion outside, perhaps annoyed at his son’s outburst, maybe muttering to himself, paced to the register, punched some buttons, and gathered a handful of bills, zlotys, and pushed it into the sweaty palm, just to be rid of him. His son scared away many of the morning’s customers, who rushed out of the door, as he was pushing his way in…
There is no mention of a hug, a kiss on his mother’s cheek, just the bottled scab of guilt finally yawning open at age 80; the now, never ending regret of begging his father for money while not realizing that he would never see them again …
With cash in hand, my father frozen in a past-present gallops out the door, forgetting to close it, jogs to catch the nearest moving trolley, holds his breath until it screeches to a stop at the train station… The central Warsaw train station; where the tracks lay along the modern new bridge spanning the Vistula. He pushes his way in line, along with the crowd, towards the kiosk, buys a ticket, fast, choosing a destination as far as he could go….
The train blew a whistle as it jerked out of the station, no seats to be found…. It was hot…crowded, people were sobbing at the sights from the window. Little did anyone have time to wonder whether another train would follow. As a leftover to the commonplace, a hope to the return to familiar rhythm of stability, many likely expected the uproar to be temporary, but as he stood, perhaps, balancing against others, his face, his face when he touched it, to his surprise, was wet....causing him much later to poignantly wonder, ”I don’t know why I cried, but I did.”
Or should it be said, instead -- did anyone think, or imagine on this first day of September, 1939, this could be the last passenger train ever to leave Warsaw ...?
“….Gazing out the window through a mist of stubborn tears,
Before I’m dreaming about Warsaw and the Vistula;
I’m so sad, I don’t know what is wrong with me.”
Pola Braun, his cousin, her family once a member of the Polish elite, the intelligensia, now, struggles in her thoughts to retain her optimism for a future of freedom…
“Just yesterday, drinking black coffee,
Black as my unbearable thoughts,
Someone pleaded: “Give me a letter to Warsaw,
But hurry, I’m leaving today.”
It is now 1943, four years later. Pola is writing poems and songs, imprisoned in a Lublin concentration camp Majdanek...; my father is hidden in the mountains of Russia...
“Warsaw, what shall I write you?
Warsaw in ruins, Warsaw covered in blood,
Will I ever again hear the rhythm of your streets?
My native town, how sad I feel.
Warsaw, my dearest,
Is your song now a bullet’s whistle?
Proud city, endure your chains,
Place my letter next to your heart!
I yearn to fall upon the ruins of your streets,
Kiss your walls and embrace them warmly,
My loving hometown,
City of my youth and first trembling…
Oh, to return someday to Theater Square
On the first sunny day of freedom!” *
Reading her poem six decades later in a post 9-11 climate, who could not better grasp how keenly she felt, the silent grief my father carries for the days before and, after, when everything they knew, everything their family and friends knew, changed instantaneously upon the menacing drone of foreign propellers criss-crossing the skies of Warsaw on the last sunny day ...of freedom?
I, myself, can only imagine this day, decades later, gathered from fragments of conversations with him later in his life. I wasn’t there of course. My original intention was to dig through his memories for background information on my cousin, whose life’s details were scattered as her fine as her ashes blew across the fields of Majdanek for so many years….
On the other hand, as a writer I can’t help it if my father unwittingly snuck, himself, into the story for, if it wasn’t for him I could not probe the past of his youth, seeking the before, rather than the later after…. After all, he is the closet relative to her, who survived, carrying with him the cherished memories of her and her family….
I decide to test some of what I’ve learned and collected, in the last week or so of October 2006. I’ve spent so many weeks and months, over a year in fact, researching the background and era of my cousin, so focused on her as a fellow performing colleague of “The Pianist,” in the most upscale café of the Ghetto, after discovering by accident, it was she who was my lost relative who “sang to the Germans.” Yet, I can’t seem to start writing.
Suddenly, my father’s story, instead, starts to flow from my pen -- his very astounding version of what I believe is September 1, 1939….
One evening he is visiting my home. I ambush him, shyly asking if I could read aloud my account to him -- I tell him it’s short, chuckling to myself. He is still modest after all these years. I am a little fearful as to how he will react. As I read this chapter, I begin to sense he is rather unnerved to be the unexpected prey of anyone’s literary observations. In his lingering dense accent, what can he say other than trying to dismiss it in a complementary way as “poetry.. --very nice,” but, it didn’t quite happen like that ....
He pauses, speaking quietly of his father’s reaction to his pleas for money when he barged into the store that day -- almost as an afterthought, he tells me his father had no money to give him, he “had no customers.” I am bewildered. Why was this this detail absent before, I wonder to myself. He changes the topic.... It is getting late.
I discern in his own awkward way, I’ve been bestowed with some rare credit. As American-born, it goes unmentioned, but I have had to make an effort to bridge our cultural gaps and grapple with his, or should I say our, very foreign, vanished heritage....
What else can I say, other than, he’s let me tip-toe around the rooms of his commonplace days in an effort to reassemble the details of Pola’s life….
I can only yearn, in the meantime as I write, to have time to make the right corrections in his story, only surfacing and coagulating in bits and pieces in the last several years. In just a few months, he will turn 88. I am a member of the Second Generation, after all, and frankly -- as the original witnesses disappear -- we will be called upon to share their stories in an effort to safeguard a brighter future for those who follow...
CB © 2006
*Translation from Polish by BARBARA MILEWSKI, Swarthmore College
Poems of Pola Braun in Polish and Hebrew
Last updated May 11th, 2007