harrigan: (war big bang)
harrigan ([personal profile] harrigan) wrote2011-06-23 10:55 am

UVS - chapter 2 of 4

Under a Vast Sky
link to masterpost: here.

Jarek liked to be outdoors under the canopy of endless sky.

On his days off, even when it was so cold the toilets in the unheated washroom froze, he didn't like to stay indoors. The Resettlement Camp was still surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, but the German POWs were long gone; no one guarded the wire now. The residents could come and go as they pleased. And on the weekend, it pleased Jarek to walk the two-mile shortcut across pastures and the small walnut grove to the village, and buy a loaf of sweet challah bread at the bakery.

And if he unconsciously walked a little faster as he passed the watchtower, his long-legged stride making Rosie trot to keep up with him even with his slight limp when his joints stiffened in the cold, she never complained. She did, however, tug at his sleeve. "Wujek," she said reproachfully, "you never finished telling me the bunk bed story!"

"The bunk bed story?"

"Yes! Lieutenant Jensen and the bunk beds!"

"Oh! That bunk bed story!" He had prepared for this moment, reminded himself to focus on the specific anecdote and not let his thoughts wander to the tragedy that lay at the end. "You will remember," he began, "that the kriegies were always looking for ways to escape."

"The kriegies?"

"That's what we called ourselves. The Germans called us 'Kriegsgefangener'. That's too long, nie? So we called ourselves kriegies." Jarek had decided after the last talk that he wouldn't use the word 'prisoner' if he could help it. He must remember that Rosie was still only seven, and he should be more careful in how he answered her questions. He couldn't hide the war from her, but perhaps he could shelter her from some of the horrors a while longer.

Rosie nodded, filing away another new vocabulary word.

"And we called the Germans 'goons'." Jarek grinned. "The watchtower was the goon-box. We had a secret organization in the camp, headed by an officer whose code name was Big X. He had to approve everyone's escape plans. One day, he came up with a crazy idea for a huge escape..." He stopped talking, felt his breath start to stutter as other memories washed over him.

He didn't think it would be so hard - calling to mind amusing incidents from camp. But the tunnel...

Rosie took his hand and they walked in silence for a minute. Then Jarek squeezed her hand and continued. "Hundreds of soldiers breaking out all at once. Can you imagine the chaos?" He shook his head and a corner of his mouth curled up in a semblance of a smile. "Now, every kriegie on the Escape Team had a specialty, you understand? Some were good at sewing, like Mrs. Maciejewski, yes?"

"Oh yes!" Rosie beamed. "She says I can wear the Strój Krakowski dress she brought from Poland, the one her daughter outgrew? For the Christmas pageant!" Rosie had already tried it on, and she especially loved the black velvet bodice embroidered with beads and sequins. She held Jarek’s hand over her head and twirled merrily underneath it.

Jarek felt his heart lighten and his smile broadened, remembering how she had danced in it for him in their beczka. "So the men in the camp who had been tailors before the war, they made costumes for disguises. Other men were good at drawing, like you! They made forged papers - travel permits and tickets. My specialty was tunnels. Over the years I was a kriegie, I dug nineteen different tunnels!"

"Like The Wind in the Willows, Wujek? Like Badger and Mole? Mole liked Badger's home. He said when you're underground, you always know exactly where you are. Nothing can happen to you, and nothing can get to you!"

Nothing can happen to you. For a moment, Jarek felt his vision go dark, his throat tight, fighting to breathe when another tunnel collapse had buried him alive, and only the desperate digging in the pitch black by the POW wedged at his feet had pulled him free.

His shoulders twitched as he threw off the memory and forced himself to focus on his niece. He realized they had stopped walking, and she was looking up at him patiently. "How do you remember so many things in your books?" Jarek forced a grin, tugging her braid.

"It's because I'm clever. That's what my teacher says." Rosie tossed a careless shrug.

"Yes, you are! But no, I didn't like the tunnels. I like the sky." He tilted his face up, felt the feather-touch of wind brush along his cheekbones, and his breathing grew calmer. They started walking again.

"But the Germans wouldn't let me go up in the sky any more, and it turned out I was good at the tunnels," he explained. "Jensen said it was because my shoulders were so big. He said if I could fit in the tunnel, then they knew that anyone could!"

Jarek remembered that day with an unexpected rush of warmth. Jensen had just gotten a package from Montana, and he was more emotional than Jarek had ever seen his stoic roommate.

"Takk Gud!" Jensen murmured, holding the package reverently, not even opening it.

"What is it?" And more to the point, since neither of them could see inside it yet, "What does it mean?"

"My parents!" Jensen's fingers shook as he tore open the box, careful to set aside the string and brown paper. Nothing went to waste in Stalag Luft III. "They got out of Norway. They're with their cousins, in America – Wolf Point, Montana. They're safe!"

Jarek knew Jensen had been worried, though they rarely spoke of it. Everyone knew about prisoners who'd escaped from other prison camps and later discovered their families had been executed by the Germans in retaliation. Jensen had prayed that his family had made it out of occupied Norway, out of Hitler's reach, but until now, he hadn’t known for sure.

"Montana!" Jarek would have pulled Jensen into a bear hug and danced around the room with him. But he knew his Scandinavian friend was too reserved for that. Still, he couldn't help grabbing Jensen's shoulder and babbling. "After the war, you will go there and become a cowboy, yes? I have seen some American cowboy movies. When our squadron was based in Northolt, we saw them. Stagecoach. Destry Rides Again. Do you think it is true that Jimmy Stewart is really in the Air Force? Will you have horses in Montana?" Jarek was as excited as a little boy. "I love to ride horses!"

"My parents' cousins have a ranch, yes." It was unusual for Jensen to reveal so much, but he was particularly happy and expansive that afternoon. "You love horses, eh? I thought you loved flying?"

"I love everything outdoors under a vast sky!" Jarek proclaimed, throwing his arms out wide.

"A vast sky, huh?" Jensen raised an eyebrow. "Tell me that's not from another poem!"

Jarek grinned, for it wasn't the first poem he'd inflicted on his roommate. But this one felt more personal than the others - it was one he'd thought of often since the war began and since he'd been captured. He muttered a moment to himself in Polish while he worked out the translation. Then he quoted a piece of it:

'In the evening, under a vast sky,
under sharp stars,
a sky spreading righteously
over what lasts
and the lazy river of remembrance...'
" 1

Jensen shook his head, unable to hide a smile. "And yet, you spend every day underground, like a birch mouse in winter."

"I hate it," Jarek confessed with a shudder. He'd never admitted that before, never told anyone else. "But every second, I am telling myself, I am digging my way out!"

"And they will all follow behind you, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin!" Jensen teased. "With those shoulders, they know if you can fit, anyone can!"

"What about you?" Jarek asked, only a hint of playfulness in his voice. "Will you follow me out the tunnel?"

Jensen shook his head. "You know me, Jarek. That's not my style. I'm better alone."

Rosie began to skip alongside her uncle, and tugged his hand again to pull him out of the reverie that had started with a fond smile but ended in a gloomy cloud. "What was Lieutenant Jensen's specialty?"

Jarek thought a moment. "You know, Jensen did not want to be on a team. He was a very private person. He used to say that he did not like to take orders, and he did not want to depend on other people or have other people depend on him." Then Jarek laughed, surprising himself. "He really was very good on his own. No one ever knew what he was going to think of next! One time, he stole a German uniform from the laundry and he practiced imitating a certain guard's posture and walk, and when he was ready, he pretended he was the guard and just walked right out the gate!"

"He got away?"

"He would have. Except that the man he was impersonating was coming into the camp the same time Jensen was walking out of the camp, and so it was noticed. We could hear the Unteroffizier's indignant squawk all over the camp! He honked like a goose!"

"So what happened to Lieutenant Jensen?"

"He got the cooler! Of course."

They reached the cemetery outside the village. Rosie picked up a broken branch off the ground and skipped along an iron gate that enclosed the graves, making a rattling sound as she strummed the iron bars with her stick. "Tell me another one."

"Let me see. He dug his way under the fence like a little mole, pushing the dirt behind him as he dug, and poking a pipe up through the ground every few feet so he could breathe. It was so cold, though, that his breath turned to steam, and one of the goons saw the little clouds of air popping up from the ground outside the wire and went to investigate."

"Oh no! What happened?"

"Cooler!" Rosie and Jarek said the word at the same time, and she giggled.

"Another time he pretended he had head lice, because the delousing showers were outside the wire. The Germans were very afraid of lice, you know," Jarek told her, making a silly frightened face. "If anyone was suspected of having lice, the entire barracks had to go to the delousing block. Jensen got someone to create a diversion for him, and he slipped into the woods."

He sighed. "But he was caught."



"And his friend who started the diversion?"


Rosie took a long look at her uncle's face. "You, Wujek?"

He nodded. "Cooler." But he was smiling.

Rosie tossed away her stick as they left the cemetery and reached the road. "But what about the bunk beds?"

The cold air made Jarek's chest feel tight. He coughed, trying to open up his breathing. Then he began. "Ah, yes... that was for my tunnel." He stopped, and pointed to the bakery more than 100 yards away. "You see how far that is? That is how far we had to dig the tunnel from hut 104, under the inside perimeter wire. The tunnel went past that, under the hospital quarters, under the cooler, under the outer barbed wire fence. Over three hundred feet to the forest!"

"And you had bunk beds in the tunnel?"

"No, you little minx!" Jarek tugged one of the braids that hung from beneath her cap. "We needed wood to shore up a tunnel that long, so the sand on top of it wouldn't make it collapse. We stole slats from under the mattresses in the huts. We were building three tunnels all at the same time, in case the Germans found one of them. We called them Tom, Dick and Harry, so that no one would ever say the word 'tunnel' where a ferret might overhear. So you can imagine, we needed a lot of wood for Tom, Dick and Harry. Over four thousand bed boards went into our tunnels!"

Rosie gave him a puzzled look. "You had ferrets in your camp?"

"Not the furry kind." They came upon the road, and Jarek checked both ways before leading Rosie across. "The weasel-faced Germans who would sneak around trying to catch us doing something against their rules."

They reached the pavement in the village, Jarek taking the outside to shelter Rosie from any traffic. "And although Jensen was a - a lone wolf? Yes. A lone wolf. He preferred to escape by himself. But sometimes things he did to help himself would help us, too. His German was very good, you know. He made friends with one of the ferrets, and always came back from his chats with Werner with some information to share with the Escape Committee.

"Werner had beady black eyes and a pink nose and whiskers. I don't think he ever knew we called him a ferret!" Jarek wrinkled his nose. "But he wasn't a bad man. Sometimes I would overhear them, when Jensen bribed Werner with some chocolate inside our room. One time, he told us when the guards' gate passes had been changed and they needed a new stamp on the back. Werner had no idea Jensen had pick-pocketed one for our forgers to copy! Another time, we had some carpenters among the pr- among the kriegies - making copies of rifles with wood and shoe polish, to go with the Unteroffiziers' uniforms the tailors made. So someone could try to escape as a guard, yes? And Werner mentioned to Jensen that they were going to stop carrying rifles and start carrying pistols. That news was just in time. If we sent someone out dressed like an Unteroffizier with a rifle, he would have been spotted right away!"

"So Jensen didn't want to be on the Escape Team. But if he got something to help himself, he didn't mind sharing it."


"So - how did collecting bed boards help Jensen's escape plans?"

"It didn't." Jarek cocked his head, thoughtful.

"So maybe he wasn't the lone wolf after all?"

Jarek was spared answering by their arrival at bakery. He opened the door and held it while Rosie ducked under his arm to go inside and press her face against the display glass. The confectionary treats looked so delicious. But they were na raszynie - on ration coupons - and they couldn't spend the last of the week's coupons on something so impractical. It was enough of a treat to get a sweet braided challah.

Rosie handed over the coupons and coins, as that was her job. Jarek took the loaf, and they turned to head back out into the cold December air.

"But what about the bunk beds!"

"Ah yes." Jarek was smiling now - a rare flash of dimples. "Jensen did help us," he admitted. "Every bed donated a board or two. Jensen volunteered to help collect them in our hut, filled up his arms, and then decided that he could carry more, so on his way out, he reached over and grabbed just one more board from under the mattress of the nearest top bunk."

Jarek rubbed his shoulder. "It was my bunk. And when I climbed into bed that night, after digging in the tunnel all day -"

Rosie's eyes grew big and round, and her hand clapped over her mouth.

He nodded. "My bed collapsed. I fell through to the bed below me. And it collapsed. And I landed on Jensen's bed. And it collapsed! And I ended up on the floor!" He threw back his head and laughed.

Rosie giggled into her fist. Jarek broke off a piece of bread to eat as they walked. It would be a shame not to have some while it was still hot. He handed the first chunk to Rosie and tore off another for himself. "We both slept on the floor that night!"

Hanukkah came and went unnoticed in the Polish Resettlement Camp in Northwick in 1945. Nearly all the refugee families there were Catholic. Rosie had no idea that her family was Jewish, and Jarek had no intention of telling her.

She knew, of course, that she'd come to England on the Kindertransport, but she thought it was an effort to rescue any children in the path of war, too young at the time to know better. Her mother had died because she'd become sick; people do sometimes get sick and die, Jarek had explained gently. Other people died in war. His own parents had been killed in the bombing when Germany invaded Poland, no distinctions made between Aryans and Jews. And Jarek just let her think her father had died the same way.

He didn't know, himself, what had really happened to Józef. What he did know was that his brother was taken because the Germans had found out he was Jewish, and he was never heard from again. And Jarek would never risk anything like that happening to Rosie.

What had Józef said in his last letter? Lying was a small price to pay for freedom.

So Jarek pretended they were Catholic, like everyone else in the Resettlement Camp, certain in his heart that it was what his brother would have wanted. Rosie went to school with all the other Obóz children at Our Lady of Częstochowa Catholic School. She seemed happy enough there, and chattered about what she was learning and games that were played and about the other children, some of whom were struggling to learn English. But her closest confidant was still Nils-the-Bear.

One morning as Christmas approached, an enormous evergreen tree appeared mysteriously outside the ewidencja, the main hall in the center of the camp. The children grew even more excited about the coming holiday, and began working on ornaments. Rosie was delighted at the prospect - some children could sing like angels and would be featured in the Christmas pageant, but this was where her talents shone.

Most of her class was content to make colorful construction paper chains, but not Rosie. She'd brought home a dozen eggs to decorate that she'd hollowed out at school by blowing through a hole punctured with a darning needle.

Jarek was stretched out on his bed with his leg elevated; one of those seemingly random days when his bad foot swelled and lowering it ignited a burning sensation from his ankles to his toes. Reading a newspaper was a workable distraction. From time to time, he glanced up to watch Rosie work on her project at the table, and he felt such a fierce, glowing pride that it made his heart ache.

When Mrs. Maciejewski arrived that evening with the promised Strój Krakowski costume for Rosie, Jarek rose to his feet, towering over their diminutive neighbor, and took the dress from her with a grateful smile. He hung it beside his RAF uniform, and then ducked his head, burying his face in his sleeve as an unexpected cough rattled up from his chest.

"Thank you, Jarek. Now you - go back to your reading!" She shooed him away as if he was inconsequential to her visit and turned to Rosie. "Those wydmuszki eggs are so pretty, Roza! My Gabryjela could not make anything so nice, even now at eighteen!"

Rosie beamed and beckoned her closer to show off her work. The egg she was working on had a dark green pine tree painted against the pale eggshell, and Rosie was adding colorful dabs of ornaments. When Mrs. Maciejewski lowered her head closer, Rosie whispered in her ear, but Jarek could hear her all the same. He pretended not to.

"See that dark blue egg over there?" Rosie pointed. "I'm making that one for Wujek to keep, for Christmas! It's supposed to be the color of the sky at dusk. You know, when the moon is hanging there like a shiny sixpence, and all the stars are starting to come out, but you can still see the clouds, too. I'm making it like that for Wujek because he likes the sky best of all!"

"Second best of all, I think," Mrs. Maciejewski whispered back, smiling at the little girl. "You will want to coat it in nail varnish so it will keep forever then. Do you have nail varnish?"

Rosie shook her head, looking down at her fingers.

"Does your Uncle Jarek have nail varnish?"

Rosie burst into giggles.

Jarek looked up from his reading - a copy of Dziennik Związkowy that Julia Skalski had sent in hope that he would one day reconsider an interview. He gave the two conspirators in his room a deliberately suspicious look. "What are you two talking about?"

Mrs. Maciejewski straightened with a wink at Rosie. "I forgot to bring the little apron that goes with the dress. Rosie, skip next door and tell Gabryjela what you need, would you please?"

"Of course! Be right back!" Rosie wiped her hands on her skirt, while Jarek rolled his eyes at her, and she dashed out the door.

Mrs. Maciejewski turned toward Jarek. "I have been wanting to ask you about that cough, young man. Have you been to see a doctor?"

She was standing, so he climbed to his feet, too, wincing slightly as he shrugged. "Yes, I saw a doctor. Many doctors. When I was discharged from the RAF." He could hear the light whistling sound as he exhaled, knew she could hear him wheezing, too, and that she wouldn't be satisfied with his answer.


"And? There is nothing they can do." Chronic respiratory disease, they'd told him. Digging in a narrow two-foot by two-foot tunnel, beset by cave-ins, daily for over a year? They couldn't tell him what long-term effect that could have on his lungs. No one had ever done that before. So they'd been more concerned about his severe frostbite - that was something they could do something about. There was vascular and nerve damage that couldn't be repaired, but after four months in hospital, they'd saved his foot. Now Jarek could even walk without a limp - at least when it wasn't cold and damp.

The cold damp seemed to make his cough worse, too.

"Doctors!" Mrs. Maciejewski threw up her hands. "Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, you will come for Wigilia dinner! And later this week, I will give you a jar of goose fat, and you must drink it down! My father shoveled coal in a steel mill back in Poland, and he swore by drinking melted goose fat and also rubbing it on his chest. For the congestion."

Jarek raised a hand. "No, please, Mrs. M! There's no need..."

The door opened with a bang and Jarek was relieved to be saved from further scolding. Rosie was back, with a paper bag in hand and an exaggerated wink at their neighbor that Jarek couldn't help seeing.

Through the open door, they could hear carolers beginning to make their way through the camp.

"And another thing," Mrs. Maciejewski complained as she made ready to take her leave. "That Cicha noc, święta noc! Silent Night, Holy Night. But the words are all wrong! 'Holy infant, so tender and mild'? My roast goose is tender and mild! Not the Christ child!"

"It's to rhyme," Jarek pointed out mildly. "The Polish words wouldn't rhyme in English." He took her elbow to help her down the short stoop. To be honest, he wasn't even sure he remembered what the Polish lyrics were, but she didn't need to know that.

"I will see you tomorrow for dinner!" she called over her shoulder as she rounded the beczka toward her own door.

She really was a kind-hearted woman, Jarek mused as he sat back on his bed and stretched out his legs. Someone who had a need to be taking care of others. It would be hard for her when her daughter got married, and she would be alone.

"Wesolych Swiat!" Rosie called after her. "Happy Christmas!" She turned to Jarek. "Tell me a story about Christmas when you were a kriegie?" She put on her most beguiling smile.

The question took him by surprise, and he answered without thinking. "Every year in camp, someone would say, 'This year, the war will be over and we'll be home by Christmas'," Jarek said wistfully. Then he caught himself and quickly ransacked his memories for a more cheerful answer. "One Christmas, we made raisin hootch - that is, raisin wine!" Then he thought - what happened next was certainly not something he could share with a seven-year-old girl! He thought another moment, and then his eyes lit up. "I do have a story about Christmas carols."

"Tell me!" Rosie said, putting her bag on the foot of her bed and then sitting next to Jarek on his. "Is Lieutenant Jensen in it?"

He pulled her closer so she could burrow under his arm. "Lieutenant Jensen, Lieutenant Jensen. I think you're a little bit in love with Lieutenant Jensen," he teased.

"Well, he is in all your stories, Wujek!" she answered reasonably.

He tilted his chin, thinking. Then he felt her bump her shoulder against him, and he began.

"This story is about my tunnels. We were still digging all three - Tom, Dick and Harry - at this point. And you see, the air gets so bad in them... well, it made us sick. We couldn't dig any further without fresh air. So I went to Big X, and he got a very smart Australian fellow named Coburn to design an air pump out of things we had around the camp. They made the bellows out of a couple kit bags, built the valve box and frame with wooden bed slats and old boot leather, and an intake air pipeline out of tin cans. But it all had to be hammered and pounded together, and the noise would draw the attention of the ferrets. You remember the ferrets?"

"Oh yes!" Rosie had never in her life seen a ferret, but she made an exaggeratedly fearsome weasel-like face, and he tapped her nose lightly with his knuckles to make it go away.

"So. We were using the camp library as a workshop. Jensen was outside, just doing whatever Jensen did - nobody ever knew what Jensen was doing - and he saw a ferret coming. And he immediately started singing Christmas carols, as loud as he could. And he grabbed a few other kriegies who were walking by, and made them join his chorus. By the time the ferret came over, Jensen was conducting a dozen Christmas carolers underneath our window." Jarek laughed. "The ferret never heard our hammers at all."

Rosie giggled.

"But I didn't tell you the most funny part!" Jarek added, smiling widely, dimples deep. "It wasn't even Christmas! It was the middle of summer. I think they must have been the only songs that Jensen thought all the other kriegies would know! And the goons never suspected a thing."

Rosie fell off the bed laughing. "You were lucky Lieutenant Jensen happened to be right outside your window!"

"We were lucky he had such a good singing voice, too," Jarek chuckled. "I liked listening to him, and he attracted a crowd to sing along. After the ferret left, one of the squadron leaders in our camp who'd joined the chorus even knocked on our window to ask us to keep the noise down - he couldn't hear himself sing! He had no idea what we were doing - he just liked singing!"

Rosie was still giggling when she got up off the floor to put away her craft project, and then started singing Cicha noc, święta noc as she went along. A little off-key at times, just like all the Podlackis. Jarek enjoyed every wobbly note.

But that night, after he turned out the lights so they both could go to sleep, he lay awake a long time thinking about the last thing Rosie had said.

The next day was Christmas Eve - a holy day here that his family had never celebrated when he was growing up in Frampol. Later, in his years with the Polish Air Force, then the RAF, and eventually as a prisoner of war, it was a holiday they observed, but it had never involved all the intricate family customs that surrounded him in the Resettlement Camp. Fortunately, Mrs. Maciejewski knew that this was the first Polish Christmas that Rosie would remember, coming from the Quaker orphanage, so she was more than happy to explain every custom without waiting for Jarek's input. Her daughter Gabryjela, tall and blond and pretty, flashed her sparkling engagement ring as she welcomed them inside for Wigilia dinner.

"Who's the extra place for?" Rosie asked, when she entered the Maciejewski side of the beczka and counted six chairs. "You, Gabryjela, Wujek, me, Nils-the-bear, and one more!"

"It's a tradition," Gabryjela told her, "to set a place for an unexpected guest. We say, 'a guest in the home is God in the home.'"

"And it reminds us," Mrs. Maciejewski added with a hint of sadness, "of family and friends who could not be with us. You can think of your Tata and Mama being here with you in this way."

"And Wujek can think about Lieutenant Jensen," Rosie declared, setting Nils on his folding chair.

Gabryjela looked up from arranging the silverware. "Who is Lieutenant Jensen?"

"He's Wujek's best friend. Like Nils-the-Bear is my best friend!"

Mrs. Maciejewski glanced at Jarek, a wordless communication that he had no trouble interpreting. Is he here in England, too, without his family? We could have invited him...?

Jarek gave a minute shake of his head. He couldn’t speak past the lump in his throat.

Mrs. Maciejewski sighed, her ample bosom heaving, and then she steered the mood back to happier news. "Perhaps next year the empty chair will be for my Gabryjela, because this is her last Christmas in this home. We have made her a beautiful white wedding gown out of parachute silk, and in two weeks she is marrying her Anton! Next year she will have Christmas in her own home!"

"Mama, don't be silly!" Gabryjela stopped lighting the candles on the table to wave a dismissive hand. "You know you will have next Christmas with us! Not here alone!"

Mrs. Maciejewski beamed. "Yes, Alright. And you - " she turned to Jarek. "When you come to the wedding, you must remember not to sneak out early! You think I don't notice? You don't come to Mass every Sunday, and when you do, you always leave before Holy Communion!"

Happily, she didn't wait for excuses, and began serving dinner. More courses of food than Jarek could imagine later, they finally returned to their side of the beczka. Rosie seemed uncharacteristically shy as she reached under her bed for a small package. "I made this for you, Wujek," she said, holding it out tentatively.

He sank down on his mattress and opened it slowly, savoring every piece of the experience. The heft - as light as a handful of flower petals. The sound of the paper crinkling as he unwrapped it. Then the bright jolt of blue when he saw the painted egg, as vivid as the sky the first time he had ever taken a plane up into the clouds.

He cupped the back of her neck and pulled her closer to place a kiss on her temple. "This is - the most beautiful thing I have ever owned," he said, completely honest. "It reminds me of a poem I love - that I will always think of when I look at this. It is called Niebo. The Sky."

"Will you teach it to me, Wujek?" Rosie asked, snuggling closer.

"In Polish, or in English?"

She thought a moment. "My brain has room in it for both," she decided.

"Just the beginning of the poem tonight then," Jarek said. "Let me see -

Od tego trzeba było zacząć: niebo.
Okno bez parapetu, bez futryn, bez szyb.
Otwór i nic poza nim,
ale otwarty szeroko.

We should have started from this: the sky.
A window without a sill, frame, or pane.
An opening and nothing more,
but open wide. 2

"I like that!" Rosie said, stretching out on Jarek's bed and lying with her head on his legs, tilted to look out the window. "The sky is a window, open wide. We could go through it to places far away. Somewhere new and magical! Someday..."

He didn't answer, his fingers idling carding through her hair.

"Can we go outside tonight, when we go to Midnight Mass, and look for constellations again? I bet I can find the one you taught me last time! Wielki Wóz - the Plough!"

"If you are still awake at midnight," he murmured, hoping she would fall asleep instead. "But first, I have a present for you."

Rosie sat up with a delighted squeal.

Jarek hoped he had gotten this right. Mrs. Kuryłowicz, whose laundry he helped carry every weekend, had surprised him with chocolate to put in Rosie's shoes for Dzien Swietego Mikolaja, St. Nicholas Day, on December 6th. So he'd gotten lucky and had that unanticipated Catholic tradition covered. He also remembered the photos on the mantel at the Quaker Orphanage of children unwrapping presents, and had worried that Rosie might be expecting something more. But his pay packet didn't go very far. He hadn't even saved enough yet to buy her a new anorak, and she was close to outgrowing the one she had.

There was so much he didn't know: about the customs here. About raising a little girl.

He could only do his best, and hope it was enough.

"A present! Where is it?" Rosie jumped off the bed and started searching around the room.

Jarek pulled out the small locker under his bed. He knew Rosie had never seen what was in it.

He opened it. And so, so carefully, he pulled out a long scarf, hand-knit, dark red with navy trim.

"It's beautiful!" Rosie came forward to run her fingers along the pattern. "Who made it?"

He didn't answer for a long minute. She waited, not moving except to stroke the soft yarn.

"Mrs. Jensen made it for her son," Jarek finally said. "I still remember when he got the package. All the way from Montana! Until that box came, he didn't know that his family had made it to America." Jarek kept staring at the scarf. "Jensen didn't smile a lot. But he smiled that day. She made it in the colors of Norway's flag," he added, and then he couldn't talk any more past the ache in his throat.

Couldn't explain that Jensen refused to wear the scarf around camp, no matter how cold it got, because he was saving it. One day, Jensen said, he would break out and wear the scarf as part of his disguise as a civilian. And he didn't want any of the Germans to associate it with him, so he kept it tucked away behind a false panel in their hut.

"So - why do you have it?" Rosie asked, always curious.

Jarek didn't answer, and she looked at him, a thoughtful expression on her face. Then she started to push the scarf reluctantly back in the box, but Jarek stopped her and wrapped the soft wool around her neck.

"It is yours now."

"But -"

"I don't think I will see Jensen again, to return it. He -" Jarek swallowed. "He used to listen to me talk about you. I think he would like it if you wore it." His voice cracked.

"You told him about me?" she asked, her voice very small.

He nodded.

Rosie took Jarek's hand in both of hers, and he bowed his head. She leaned forward to kiss him. He hoped she wouldn’t notice that his cheek was wet.

The week after Christmas, Jarek lost his job. Now that the war was over, it seemed that all of England wanted the foreigners to just go back where they came from, and they certainly wanted their own returning soldiers to have first crack at any jobs. Bold graffiti was scrawled outside the factory walls proclaiming "Poles go Home" and "England for the English!" The Trade Union Congress passed a new law that Poles couldn't be in the union, and all the chemical factory workers in the Resettlement Camp lost their jobs. The National Union of Mineworkers was the only exception - the shortage of men available and willing to work underground was so severe that the Union made a deal with the government to allow ten percent of the mineworkers to be Polish. In exchange, the government reduced the workweek for miners to five days instead of six.

Jarek held the papers in a shaking hand: the envelope from the factory that contained his termination notice and the flyer his boss had handed him with a sympathetic look - a flyer that offered an opportunity in the iron ore mines up north. Jarek's stomach churned. He couldn't take Rosie with him there. And he couldn't bear to send her back to the orphanage.

Mrs. Maciejewski, he felt certain, would take her in during the week. With Gabryjela moving out to be married, leaving their neighbor alone, she might welcome the company on school days, especially if Jarek paid her for Rosie's food and a little extra besides. Yes, he thought to himself. She was a good-hearted woman and lonely now. She would help.

Meanwhile, Monday through Friday, starting every morning at 6 am, he would be drilling iron ore in a damp, old-fashioned pit at the Irthlingborough Mine.

Deep underground.

Jarek's stomach lurched. He went outside and threw up.

Then he told his boss he would accept the position offered in the mine. He had to provide for Rosie. That was everything: getting her out of the Resettlement Camp one day, out where she could go to art school or to college and do anything she wanted.

Jarek didn't expect Rosie's reaction to the news. She had been so willing to come away with him just a few months before, so brave in leaving the orphanage and everything she knew behind. But now? She cried. Not big, gulping sobs, because she'd seemed to learn stoicism from her uncle. But her chin trembled and she wiped away a fat tear with the back of her hand.

"Don't be sad, kochanie," he comforted her, crouching down to be at eye-level. "Nils-the-Bear will keep you company. And do you know? I never told you this, before, but he is a magical bear."

"He is?"

"Yes. When you are asleep, he can take your thoughts, happy or sad, and all your wishes and he can send them through the sky. Remember - the sky is just an open window. And he can listen through that window to my thoughts and wishes for you, and whisper them to you."

"Really?" Rosie picked up Nils and gave him a hug, burying her face in his soft shoulder. Her voice was muffled, but Jarek could hear her forlorn, "But I don't want you to go."

He kissed the tears off the corners of her eyes. "I will be back before you can miss me. And you will be a good helper to Mrs. Maciejewski, yes? I know you will. Because you are such a good help to me."

She sniffed and wiped her nose, and they sat quietly together a long time, until she fell asleep in his arms.

The hard physical labor in the mine wasn't as bad as the memories it triggered.

Sometimes, deep underground, Jarek caught himself listening for that familiar, ominous creak, the groan and crack that never came in the mine, the sound that meant tons of dirt was about to splinter the slats of wood holding it back, and sand would flood the tunnel like an avalanche, undoing days of grueling work and risking lives.

It was safe here, he forcibly reminded himself, setting down the heavy pneumatic drill and wiping sweat off his face with his discarded shirt. He could sit side-by-side with Kazimier and break for lunch - a luxury he never had when digging 'Harry'. He almost didn't mind the rats.

At the end of his shift, he'd climb up the same 147 steps every day and feel his lungs straining; he could hear the faint whistling sound when he started to wheeze, but at least the air seemed cleaner here. He didn't climb out of the mine retching green vomit until his stomach was scraped empty or lie in the dark afterward pretending he didn't have a migraine. Not like he had in Stalag Luft III.

It was much better here.

Until the day there was a power failure.

The lights in the mine went out and Jarek was blind. It was as if he was back in 'Harry', wrapped in cloying darkness that felt like being buried alive. Air thick and choking. He felt a panic attack coming on, wracked with a desperate need to get out, to claw with his bare hands if he had to. Over the sound of his frantic pulse pounding in his ears, he could just make out the murmur of voices, and he struggled to remind himself where he really was. He wasn't alone. There were other workers down here. They weren't afraid. There was nothing to be afraid of. He had to get control of himself.

The cadence of his heartbeat thumped loud, loud, echoing a poem that he used to recite to himself in 'Harry' while he dug, and now he clung to it like a prayer:

Nie muszę czekać na pogodną noc,
ani zadzierać głowy,
żeby przyjrzeć się niebu.
Niebo mam za plecami, pod ręką i na powiekach.
Niebo owija mnie szczelnie
i unosi od spodu.

I don't have to wait for a starry night,
I don't have to crane my neck
to get a look at it.
I've got the sky behind my back, at hand, and on my eyelids.
The sky binds me tight
and sweeps me off my feet. 2


Jarek felt Kazimier's steadying hand on his elbow, and he realized that he was shaking, hard. And that he'd been mumbling the lines of the poem in Polish.

It was the same poem he was teaching Rosie. Thinking of Rosie helped him pull himself together. He nodded, murmuring, "I am alright," and Kazimier backed off. He knew better than to ask Jarek what was wrong.

Jarek had learned not to let anyone get too close, after Stalag Luft III. After Jensen...

Kazimier lit one of the candles they always had handy to test for carbon monoxide. It stayed lit, and Jarek knew that the air was fine. He was fine.

Then a bat swooped past and Kazimier flinched and dropped the candle. It sputtered and went out. And in the fresh fall of darkness, Jarek remembered the tunnels again.

He remembered a fat lamp knocked askew in a sand slide, splashing flaming oil in an agonizing arc across his knee. He remembered crawling out of the tunnel, limping back to his room and Jensen yelling at Big X there. Big X, with his scarred face pulled in a perpetual scowl that intimidated everyone else in the camp: everyone but Jensen. Jensen railed at Big X because he'd authorized the Escape Committee to steal all the burn jelly from the camp hospital to make a mimeograph machine for maps. There'd been no burn jelly left to treat Jarek's injury until the next Red Cross shipment a week later.

Jensen had been as livid as the burn on Jarek's knee.

Being reminded of Jensen was worse than memories of the tunnel. Grief and guilt lay on Jarek heavily, like the sand that was always threatening to swallow him alive in his dreams.

Jarek doubled over in a paroxysm of coughing. It felt like something was scouring his lungs raw, and when the spasm was over he spat wetly into his sleeve. Then the lights in the mine came back on. His sleeve was damp and Jarek looked down to discover that the stain was bright red.

Every day after, though, Jarek forced himself back under the earth and tried to pretend he could live with the memories.

Every day, his cough grew worse.

And so did the nightmares. Nightmares of being trapped in the tunnel. And nightmares of what had happened after he and Jensen got out. Both left him wracked with pain, weak and trembling.

But at least they didn't wake up Rosie here.

In winter, it was dark when Jarek left for the mine, dark when he returned to the dormitory hours later, hungry and stiff. The light in his life came from his weekends home with Rosie.

That was the last place he was expecting trouble.

Jarek saw the man's shadow, stretched long and thin, before he saw the stranger actually waiting outside the front door to their beczka. The silhouette, black as iron-ore against the sun-bleached concrete walk, wasn't the squat shape of Mrs. Maciejewski, or of Mrs. Kuryłowicz, who sometimes came by with warm chrusciki under a tea towel, those delicious fried sweet cookies dusted with sugar that Rosie called "angel wings." Nor did the shadow have the crooked angles of old Mieszasław Pruszyński with his stooped posture and his ebony cane, come to bark at Jarek to put his young muscles to use helping with the weeds in Pruszyński's vegetable garden.

No, this dark shape stood tall and straight, and reminded Jarek of the Luftwaffe guards in Stalag Luft III, the ones who took their soldiering seriously. Who couldn't be bribed or tricked; the ferrets who sometimes crept up on you unawares or the hundfuehrers who paroled the camp with snarling dogs straining at their leads.

Jarek turned the corner and saw the uniform first. Not German. He’d known it wouldn't be a German uniform, and yet his heart had still fluttered in his chest like a trapped bird.

"Flying Officer Podlacki?" the man asked. He gave a tired sigh. "You have been a hard man to find."

"It's just Podlacki, now." Jarek inspected the man - short battle dress jacket, twin bands on the sleeve that identified his rank in the Royal Air Force.

"Lieutenant Francis MacKenzie," the young man said, holding out his hand. Jarek took it reluctantly. "With the Special Investigation Branch of the RAF."

"Investigating what? I've done nothing - "

"No. Please." Lieutenant MacKenzie swept off his cap, and his red hair and freckles made him look younger than he probably was. He sounded slightly awed. "You're something of a legend, escaping the prison camp near Sagan. A hero -"

"I'm no hero!"

"I'm sorry. Let me try again." MacKenzie stopped to pull himself together, apparently marshaling his thoughts. "I want to speak with you, Mr. Podlacki, because you're a survivor. A witness. You probably know, the United Nations War Crimes Commission is doing nothing about the murder of our officers from Stalag Luft III. So the RAF is conducting our own investigation, and we need your help."

Jarek paled, his face gone the color of chalk. "I don't. I don't want to think about that any more. It's over. I can't - "

"Flying Officer Podlacki." MacKenzie tried the military rank again, determined. "This isn't about you. This is for the men who never made it home. This is about a search for justice."

Jarek closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Men you lived with. Men who worked shoulder to shoulder with you on the tunnel."

Jarek said nothing. Couldn't speak. He stumbled past the man and tried to unlock his door, but his hands shook too badly.

"Wasn't there even one of those men worth a few minutes of your time now? To identify his killers, so he can rest in peace?"

Jarek's shoulders slumped, resigned, hands dangling at his sides. He'd been naively mistaken to think he could hide from this forever. He was perhaps luckier than he deserved that MacKenzie had come before Jarek had picked up Rosie. He couldn't face her knowing, or her questions if he'd tried to send her away.

Jarek made a conscious effort to steady his hands and then opened the door. "Come in." He gestured to MacKenzie to sit, and took out a bottle of vodka and two glasses. He tilted the neck of the bottle toward the other man, but MacKenzie raised his palm and shook his head.

Jarek's hands started to shake again as he poured himself a finger and swallowed it down. "What is it you want to know?"

MacKenzie set his briefcase on the table, opened it and pulled out a folder. "We have testimonies that pin the Stalag Luft III atrocities on specific Germans. We also have some recent photos of men who claim different names, men whom we have in custody, suspected of being those same German officers."

He stopped, seeming to notice the glass trembling in Jarek's hands. "You knew, didn't you? I mean, you've heard about the massacre after the escape from Stalag Luft III?"

"I." Jarek cleared his throat. "I was told that only three men got away. I heard rumors, when I was in hospital. That everyone else who got out was executed. I didn't know... if it was true? How many...?"

"Seventy-six, we believe, escaped before the tunnel was discovered." MacKenzie took a thin spiral notebook from the folder, but didn't open it. "Hitler was enraged," he added. "He called for a Grossfahndung - a manhunt - but you knew that, didn't you? You knew that was part of Big X's plan all along, that the main purpose of getting out so many escapees at one time was to send the Germans into a state of panic. To pull their resources away from fighting our armies and occupy them hunting escaped prisoners instead."

Jarek nodded. He stared into his glass.

"It did work, you know," MacKenzie shared, sounding sympathetic. "If you wondered. It's been reported that over 40,000 men of the Landeswacht were diverted to tracking you lot down. Think of all the factory hours that the Germans lost by pulling those resources to hunt all of you."

Jarek took a deep, shuddering breath and poured himself another drink.

"Hitler was so worried about the risk of a mass escape that he issued the Kugel Erlass - the Bullet Decree," MacKenzie told Jarek. "In effect, it said that all British and American escapees who were re-captured should be delivered to the High Command to decide whether to turn them over to the Gestapo or return them to the prison camp. Prisoners of all other nationalities - " MacKenzie paused, then reached for the bottle, poured himself a drink without asking and tossed it back before continuing. "Prisoners of other nationalities were to be reported as 'escaped and not captured' and then taken in irons to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. There, they were to be shot, or starved and worked to death."

Whichever was more convenient, Jarek thought bitterly.

"Possibly Hitler singled out our lads and the Yanks for better treatment because we held German POWs in our countries and he feared reprisals. Who knows what that madman thought? But the edict went out. And after that? After that came the break-out from Stalag Luft III. The greatest escape in the history of the war." MacKenzie twirled his empty glass in his hand and then set it down. "You know that only three men made it - they reached Allied lines. You, a Dutchman named Vink, and a Dane named Christiansen." He flipped open his notebook. "Fifty urns were returned to Stalag Luft III, with the cremated remains of the men who were executed."

"Fifty?" Jarek should have been appalled. Instead, he felt hope curl through him, like smoke from forgotten embers that refused to die.

He'd believed them all dead. His heart began to beat faster. If some had survived...

"Another nineteen, almost all American and British officers, were returned to the camp alive. It seems that Goering talked Hitler down from his original order to kill them all. They settled on fifty executions, and stayed close to the original Kugel Erlass in deciding whom to spare."

Only Americans and Brits... so Jensen... Jarek's hand tightened on his glass, so hard it almost broke. Then he realized. The numbers didn't add up yet.

"Four men who made it out the tunnel are still missing," MacKenzie admitted. "We don't know what happened to them. It's most likely they were shot actually trying to escape, as opposed to the men who were executed in cold blood after they were already in custody. Maybe, since they weren't part of the execution order, there were no orders to cremate them and deliver their remains back to Stalag Luft III.

"Or they may have been caught and taken to Mauthausen or another concentration camp, according to the Kugel Erlass. If so, per the decree, the Germans didn't notify the Red Cross or anyone if that's where they ended up."

"They might have survived?" Jarek asked, hope tearing open now like a raw wound in his chest. He coughed into his fist.

"If they had..." MacKenzie shook his head. "As the Allies advanced, the Germans closed down the camps that were in danger of being liberated, and the SS took charge of the prisoners. They sent them on forced marches to new locations, and many of the men died or disappeared on those treks." He sighed. "We haven't matched the names of anyone who survived those marches to the names of the officers who went out the tunnel in Stalag Luft III that night. I'm afraid - I'm afraid we have to assume the missing men are dead."

"Do you..." Jarek had to ask. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Do you know who - who survived?"

"I have this." MacKenzie flipped the notebook open to a page filled with names written neatly in blue ink. "These are the men we're interviewing - the ones who were involved in the manhunt after the escape and made it home after the war. The men who we think - we hope - might be able to identify some of the Germans we have in custody."

There were less than two dozen men on the page.

Jarek found his own name, third from the top.

He read each other name. Twice.

Jensen's name was not on the list of survivors of the tunnel escape attempt.

In the end, Jarek hadn’t really believed it would be.

Then he took another drink and for the first time since that fatal night, he told his story.

continued in chapter 3 of 4 here.

[identity profile] jjinmo-356.livejournal.com 2011-07-15 12:29 am (UTC)(link)
I'm really enjoying this story. I love how you are telling it. Thourgh Jareds eyes but proded by a little girl, so not all of the horror comes thourgh.

[identity profile] harrigan.livejournal.com 2011-07-15 01:48 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you! I don't know why the story emerged in my mind that way, but it did! I'm glad it worked for you!