It’s 2005 and I’m staying with my grandparents in their Warsaw apartment for the summer. I’m in my second year of university and this is all a bit of an experience for me. I had not been back to Poland since the third grade. Growing up, we never had enough money to make regular trips here from our home in Winnipeg, Canada. For much of my life, my grandparents had just been voices inside a phone.
It’s sometime in the vicinity of noon. I get out of bed and head to the kitchen, where my grampa is sitting at the small table. There’s a bottle of cheap vodka on the table, along with two shot glasses. He’s drinking a beer.
“There’s beer for you in the fridge,” he says as I walk in.
At this point I’ve been staying with them for a few weeks. Grampa likes to have a few, and many evenings he’ll produce whole bottles of vodka from hidden places around the apartment; like some beautiful booze magician. I grab a beer from the fridge as he fills my shot glass. He doesn’t generally get going this early. At this point in my life, he absolutely had me at “day drinking,” but I figure I should inquire about the occasion anyway.
“This is the day they took me,” he says, his voice breaking a little. He downs his shot and stares out the big kitchen window for a while. We proceed to get hammered in the kind of silence that comes into being when two Slavic dudes don’t want to talk about their feelings.
My grandfather was 7 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland. He was around 13 when he was picked up by German soldiers with his brother and sister to be shipped off to Auschwitz; probably as part of a reprisal action after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. He was lucky in some ways, with it being so close to the end of the war; liberation wasn’t too far off. Not being Jewish helped, I imagine. Our people weren’t marked for immediate extermination; there was work to be done and it was up to Slavic hands to do it. The Nazis were taking the scenic route with us.
I’ve only heard a small number of stories from his time there. To be honest, grampa’s always been a champion bullshitter. On a visit to Poland when I was 8, he took me on the train to meet up with the rest of the family on the Baltic Coast. They had gone in the car, but since I often got car-sick, I went with grampa. As we passed the big Teutonic castle in the town of Malbork, he got to work with one of those “Did I ever tell you about the time…” stories. When we got to where we were going, I was completely dishevelled, missing a shoe, and spouting stories about how grampa heroically fought against the Teutonic Knights, only to be captured and imprisoned at Malbork castle where he planned his daring escape. He wasn’t allowed to watch me for a while after that.
On the few occasions that I’ve heard him talk about it, he’s approached his experiences in Auschwitz with the same love of “storytelling”. It’s a little hard to tell what’s fact and what’s part of grampa’s habitual embellishment. There were some boozy evenings where I’d hear how an angry guard was after him, but he could easily hide among the prisoners using the latrines, on account of everyone having the same haircuts and uniforms. Then there’s the story of how he shared a bunk with a dead guy for a while just to get his rations.
“But then he started to smell bad, so I rolled the bastard off,” he’ll finish, with a smirk.
It’s so damn morbid, but I’ve heard that story more than once, so it must be one of his favourites.
In general, he seems to really like the ones where he outsmarts everyone and comes out on top. There’s a kind of pride at having gotten one over on the system. He’s lived his life like that. There are pictures in the family albums from his days in the seminary, and there’s some seminary property kicking around the apartment too. After making a career-change, he ended up a government functionary in the post-war communist regime. According to him, his work involved the administration and distribution of housing for members of the military. According to everyone else, a lot of office supplies went missing. But he also used his position to help the family, scoring a couple of humble, but well-located apartments that my family still lives in today. Despite his issues with the communists, he seems to be pretty proud of the work he did there. We were sharing some beers a few years ago and he bragged about how he found an apartment for none other than Wojciech Jaruzelski; Poland’s final communist leader whose claim to infamy was the declaration of martial law to quell revolts in the 80s. I have no way of verifying this.
Being around grampa isn’t all charming tall-tales and hilariously-misplaced seminary property, the camp had other effects on him beyond a tendency toward graft and kleptomania. There was nobody there to handle the trauma when he walked out of the camp; still barely a teenager. Psychiatry wasn’t much of a thing yet, and there was a war on, so these kids were left to deal with their experiences on their own. At some point, his brother and sister started drinking. They didn’t stop until only grampa was left.
His Auschwitz Cross sits in a glass display case in his room alongside a piece of prisoner’s cloth with the letter “P” on it. It stands out among his other medals from the days of socialism (he was a hero of socialist labour, he’ll have you know). It’s a stark, grey thing, bearing the letter “P” in a red triangle and decorated all around with textured barbed wire. They were awarded back in the 80s to Polish survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. He’d often pull it out to show visitors. Being a survivor is an important part of his identity. It’s always lurking at the edge of any conversation. His sense of humour, likewise, often comes back to Auschwitz. A few years ago, I was moving to Berlin and my wife and I flew to Warsaw first to visit the family. We had planned on taking the train to Berlin from there. When this came up in conversation, grampa chuckled and said “I took a German train once.”
In a way, he keeps taking that train over and over. He regularly gets letters to participate in anniversary and memorial events for survivors. I haven’t been around for one of these myself, but my aunt told me about one year she and my uncle went with him. He insisted on a wheelchair so he could chill out and work on the bottle he brought for the occasion. They wheeled him around Auschwitz while he drunkenly shouted “Shalom!” at passers-by. There’s a good chance this was him on his best behaviour.
“She’s a Jew,” remarks grampa with full confidence, pointing at the news lady on the TV.
I’m not even sure he’s listening to what she’s saying. It’s not important. He doesn’t need a reason to go on an anti-Semitic tirade.
“That’s what you said about the other news lady,” I helpfully remind him.
We’ve been day-drinking again.
“All of them are Jews,” is what he settles on.
He’s got a full salvo of ethnic slurs armed, loaded, and on standby for just about any occasion. He’ll often make serious misuse of that wonderfully creative mind he’s got to come up with the most heinous things not worth immortalizing here. He’s a fervent supporter of Poland’s far right Law and Justice Party and a long-time listener of Radio Maryja, a far-right, religious, radio station that spreads ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. He’s become an awful lot like the people who put him in Auschwitz.
The trauma and adversity of the camp didn’t turn him into a hero, or even a particularly sympathetic figure. Over time, he’s become an increasingly detached, unpleasant, and desperate man. He’s a far cry from the dad my mom knew growing up. According to conversations I’ve had with her, he didn’t drink so much in those days. When he did, she remembered him as a jolly guy who told jokes and gave her money. At 88, he now barely interacts with the family. There are no more tall-tales over shots of vodka. He’s become a spectre fuelled by a spiteful futile hatred of everything and everyone. Both as its victim, and as its supporter; fascism has ruined his life and adversely affected generations of people around him.
He still lives together with my grandmother, but they haven’t been a couple in decades. She’s younger by five years, but often tells me she remembers everything from those times. She didn’t go to a camp. She lived in the city with her mother, who supported them by cooking for the occupying soldiers. They were difficult and terrifying times for a child. One of her stories is from the end of the war, when she got caught up in a bombardment of some kind. A German soldier ran up to her, put his own helmet on her head and told her to run. It wasn’t enough; she’s still afraid of the Germans.
“Your grandfather was such a good-looking guy,” she says, with a reluctant smile.
I feel like she’s grasping at some distant time when he wasn’t the way he is.
“He was very popular with the other girls, and I was surprised when he was interested in me,” she explains.
We’re having some afternoon tea at the kitchen table while she works on a crossword.
“You know, I really thought I was spiting at all of the other girls when I started dating him,” she says, beaming. She takes a sip of her tea and her face takes on a more distant expression as she stares out the kitchen window.
“It turns out I only spited myself.”