Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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A bit of Olszewska family lore: It is 1945.
The Nazis are still everywhere, made murderous
by their losses. Grandma Olszewska has escaped
from the work camp near the Czechoslovakian border,
where she and other Polish women stitch uniforms
for the German Army. Her best friend is the mistress
of the factory manager and he has given them civilian
clothes and two train tickets. They are walking
to the station in thick woolen dresses, two pretty
young women, extremely thin. They do not speak.
A few hundred yards from the station they pass
an officer of the SS. He is on the other side of the street.
“His uniform was very crisp, and he wore a hat,”
Grandma Olszewska says. “They all wore hats.
He was looking at us steadily while we walked.
His eyes were just under the brim of his hat.”
She pauses. She has told this story many times.
It is, in some sense, her only story. “I thought
with one word I would be dead. That’s how it was
then, at the end. So I made a decision.
I was determined to face the man who was going
to kill me. I turned my face up and looked him
in the eyes. My family was dead already.
In a few hours everyone in the camp
would be dead. We knew that.”
Grandma Olszewska does not say anything
about this look. She does not speculate
as to what might have been going through the mind
of the German officer. It is possible he was tired,
or even embarrassed. A man can run on hate
for only so long before embarrassment sets in.
But this is the end of her story. She doesn’t say any more.
What else is there to say? She lived, while others died.
So we leave her there, back in 1945, a young
woman hurrying toward the train station,
though tonight she is an old woman, slightly feline,
her cheeks puffed and reddened by vodka.
She lives in the city of Wroclaw, once a German city.
The buildings are damp and stained with ash,
tired-looking, and down below are the streets
where the Russian tanks lived ten years ago.
Grandma Olszewska is smoking long, thin cigarettes,
staring out the window into the night,
and her reflection is staring back,
lit by the glow of the lamp on her bed stand.