The Nazi Concentration Camp Experience in a Biographical-Narrative Perspective
This book is rooted in the author’s experience as an interviewer and researcher in the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project – the biggest European oral history project devoted to a single Nazi concentration camp system, realized in the years 2002/2003 at the University of Vienna. Over 850 Mauthausen survivors have been recorded worldwide, more than 160 of them in Poland, and over 30 by the author.
The work offers an in-depth analysis of Polish survivors’ accounts, sensitive to both, form and content of these stories, as well as their social and cultural framing. The analysis is accompanied by an interpretation of (Polish) camp experiences in a broader biographical and historical perspective. The book is an interpretive journey from camp experiences, through the survivors’ memories, to narratives recalling them − and backwards.
II. Zygmunt Podhalański
Zygmunt Podhalański was born on 3rd January 1921, near Nowy Sącz. Before the war, he had completed his grammar school, passed the high-school exit exam, and been accepted into the University of Technology in Lwów (presently, Lviv in Ukraine); however, the outbreak of the war shut the door on his studies. He joined the September Campaign of 1939; demobilised, he returned to Nowy Sącz and became involved in conspiratorial activity. He worked with the Baudienst (construction service), and studied economy for a year. December 1942 saw him arrested; he was gaoled in Tarnów and from there, in February 1943, was transported to Birkenau and, subsequently, to Auschwitz. Directed to Mauthausen, he was next moved to the Linz I subcamp, where he worked at a steelwork. In the Linz III subcamp, he was employed on the construction of a windmill in a quarry and in clearing the city of debris. After the liberation, he remained at a transit camp in Linz, where he organised education for Polish children. After his return to Poland, he ran a printing business in Katowice, which he eventually had to wind up due to the pressure exerted by the communist authorities. He moved to Nowy Sącz again, where he joined a printing cooperative. He practised social work for many years, also managing a folklore ensemble and a film club, among other things. Mr Podhalański has been a very active member of the former war prisoner and disabled war veteran milieus.
I had two meetings with Mr Podhalański: in February 2006 and again a few weeks later, both times at his home in Nowy Sącz. Our first conversation produced a biographical account, which was also audio-recorded. This recording, running almost three hours, has been included in the International Slave and Forced Labourers Documentation Project, focusing on the vicissitudes of the lives of former Third Reich slave/forced labourers, and on the stories told about them.
I originally received Zygmunt’s contact details from a colleague of his, who is the Polish representative to the Maximilian-Kolbe-Werk, an association that extends support, in a variety of ways, to former concentration camp inmates. My Interviewee managed the association’s branch in his region, the area of the former Nowy Sącz Province (Voivodeship). However, the institutional or formal context of our first contact, over the telephone, soon took second place. Curiosity and a willingness to meet took primacy: on the one hand, the will to tell his story, and on the other, to listen to it and to have it recorded. Zygmunt was happy that I could visit him and talk to him. It was completely at my discretion to fix the date and time of our meeting.
When I knocked at his door on a drizzly February day, one of his close relatives opened, inviting me straight away to the upper floor of their rather small house. At the top of the steep stairway I was welcomed, with a vigorous handgrip, by a smiling, rather short, elderly man. He was waiting for my arrival. Having expressed ←249 | 250→his apologies for not walking downstairs to greet me, as taking these steep steps would cost him great effort, he asked me to follow him into his small dwelling – arranged as a standalone unit in the house’s expanded attic. He wanted to show me his place, to credit him with it – he built it on his own, and has lived there ever since his wife’s death. There are two small rooms, one a workspace, equipped with an old desk, a computer, a multifunction printer (with a scanner and fax machine), and with bookcases filled with documents, photographs and books, all arranged in order. The other room is a bedroom and living room in one, cosy and timber-clad, with a small table in the middle, and numerous ornaments featured on the walls – Catholic religious symbols included. There is also a small bathroom and a kitchenette with a fridge and a gas cooker. Great order prevailed in this world indeed; each thing occupied its own, specially prepared place. All this gave me the impression of a cabin in a safe ship.
There was quite a youthful dynamism, typical of an athlete, in the way Zygmunt behaved. He moved quickly around his private space, talking vividly, showing me various objects on the walls. But the visit was not merely a guided tour: I talked about myself too, about what I do, the KARTA Centre and the project aimed at recording the biographical memory of former camp prisoners and coerced labourers, which provided the direct impulse for this visit. My Interviewee listened to me with much interest. My impression was that he had an excellent understanding of the idea for such recordings, for the recording of (a) memory; he would not inquire as to what it is for, for whom, or with whose money. I am pointing this out, because I have many a time quite clearly had to respond to such questions in similar situations.
It was not easy to switch from such a dynamic interaction to a quiet talk. The coffee he prepared for me and the tea he had made for himself enabled helped us to take our seats at a rather small table, opposite each other. My host treated me to an exquisite walnut cake which he liked very much, as he told me straight away, and he often bought himself a piece on Sundays (our meeting was on a Monday). It was only at this point that I could take out my recording device and start the actual interview, or rather make an attempt at initiating the biographical story we had agreed beforehand to unfold.
The very act of the overt switching on of the recording equipment modifies, be it for a moment, the mutual interaction (usually not for too long, as the device normally ceases to be the focus of attention as the talk/story proceeds). The meeting and the conversation gain a new context, being turned into a recording, investigation, interview, piece of documentation, etc. This moment, when the situation is redefined, commutated, needs familiarisation – particularly challenging to the Interviewee, not quite accustomed to this new role. This getting used to the interference of the microphone becomes an integral part of the interview. This moment can be neglected (but not erased!) while analysing the recording; otherwise, one can pause at it for a while, paying attention to the process of the emergence of an investigated individual, a witness. Here is a transcription of the first segment of my interview:←250 | 251→
[PF] I would first like you to introduce yourself, sir. Please tell me your first name, surname, date and place of birth.
[ZP] Uhmm… How about the stipulation as regards the [personal] details? [laughs]
[PF] [laughs] This is not to, // not to be used in evidence.
[ZP] That’s no big deal, go on use it! I am Zygmunt Podhalański. Zygmunt Podhalański, ’cause I have to say this, like, clearly enough, for sometimes someone would say this in a way that… Well, I am a man of [Nowy-]Sącz [area], though I was born in the village next to it. Because I was born at the time my mum worked there. She didn’t make it back home on time and delivered me in the village, twenty kilometres from here. I arrived [here] after I was born.
The tension triggered by the new situation is discharged straight away with a smart joke, which separates the interview being recorded from the other part of the meeting, the preceding free conversation. This joke also indicates certain distant contexts, which the specific situation of our meeting could have evoked. For one thing, there is an awareness of the legal protection of personal details; for another, there may have been associations with the word ‘recording’, the word being present in the contemporary mass media in phrases such as ‘recording from a hiding place’, ‘incriminating recordings’, and the like. Zygmunt’s laugh and his phrase, “That’s a no big deal, go on use it!”, show a distance toward such associations, and his considerable trust towards me, and likewise toward himself, given the interview situation. My Interviewee has thus anticipated not so much the course of our interview but, rather, his position within it: his assumption is that he will control his own story as it evolves. The course of this story is imaginable, somewhat schedulable, and so he can sign it before the blanks are filled in. His certainty was also due to the fact that, as I learned only later on, a few years before we met, Mr Podhalański had written down his reminiscences, mainly wartime ones. He did it ‘just for his kids, as a private venture’, and did not want to give me access to this work in its entirety. He suggested to me that he would select some fragments of it and have them rerecorded on a CD or send me them as an attachment to an email. The whole text, featuring scanned photos, documents, letters, and the like, was originally written on a computer and was saved there. This fact becomes of importance when it comes to analysing Zygmunt’s oral account.
One of the first sentences uttered as part of it, uttered right after he literally introduces himself and opening the ‘narrative proper’, is the simple declaration: ‘I am a man of [Nowy-]Sącz’. This concise and content-imbued piece of information links this Interviewee’s identity, his self-definition, with the particular place, the locality and space. Apparently, he is not a Pole, a mountaineer258; not a soldier, veteran, camp survivor, or disabled war veteran: he is, simply, ‘a man of Sącz’, the town and region. Such an identification – apparently, the simplest of all, plain and ←251 | 252→neutral – calls for a distance which would allow us to see this locality as a certain homogeneous whole. His attachment to the land, to that physical fragment of the world is additionally emphasised by the history of his own birth, also made part of this autobiography. The family story is inbuilt into the autobiographical memory and is, in fact, inseparably interwoven with it.
In many accounts, their first section, being a free narrative, the whole pre-war period appears reduced to just a few sentences. Regardless, however, of the earlier talks and requests for telling the entire story of one’s life, the memory only evokes a few landmarks in the pre-war biography, and forthwith departs from them as it strives to tell the story of the events of importance. So it is with Zygmunt, although the pieces of information he drops in, as if in passing, appear to be of extreme importance for the reading of his later, wartime and post-war, experiences.
In Sącz, my father worked as a manager of the Group Farming Depot warehouse, // there was such a warehouse in Jagiellońska St., in our town. Till the year ’35. I attended a primary school, then a gimnazjum [junior high school], then, a liceum [grammar school]. The thing being, in ’35 … we moved, as my father eventually // retired and opened … a shop of his own. We moved at that time to another address, and there we lived till the year ’39. I passed my matura [high school finals] in ’39. Afterwards, I pass my exam for, // to the technological university of Lvov. In the meantime, [I] work[ed] for a month – they enrolled us at the Labour Corps near Łomża, where we constructed the defences. Once I returned from there, I got to join the military, and commenced my military service on 15th August.
The main points of his own education, the reference to his father and the shop he ran – without evoking specific scenes or events, without zooming in on individuals or places, with no mention of the mother, brothers or sisters: this is only an incomplete biographical note, made up from the standpoint of his later, and subjectively more important, experiences, one that merely introduces the listened to the narrative as such, the of which plot is struck up as the war breaks out:
I was here then, we patrolled [Nowy-]Sącz. I then received an order to leave. I left, and was supposed to report to Kovel. I did report to Kovel. From Kovel, I was redirected to Sarny. Then, our ‘friends’ from the East came in, so I fled back. In a miraculous way I managed to get through, and, various things, like… There were very many, those ordeals.
From this moment onwards, his account becomes denser, turning into the wartime story of its narrator’s experiences, his own adventures. He is the central character of these adventures, or, as he calls them, these numerous ‘ordeals’. History as we know it based on historical books and textbooks is rarely evoked here (contrary to many other accounts); it is almost ousted from this story, brushed aside, becoming merely a background for the story. That this history is approached in this way does not mean that it is of no relevance; what it means, instead, is that my Interviewee approaches it as a given and obvious history, one that does not require additional ←252 | 253→clarification. He assumes that we operate within a shared space of communication, both of us having a basic knowledge that does not require verbalising, which is transparent; all in all, it forms the minimum without which the story would not be comprehensible. There is even more to it: the narrator assumes a minimum of a common and concordant interpretation at the moment he mentions – not quite seriously – the entry of the ‘friends’ from the East. He is giving me a wink, for we do understand each other. Mr Podhalański treats me seriously – not like a school student who has to be told that World War II was kicked off by the attack on the Westerplatte peninsula on 1st September. This is not a joke: so many former camp prisoners, when recorded today, say this, melting their individual experiences into a generalised historical narrative.
These numerous adventures, ‘ordeals’, call for some common denominator, to be somehow gathered and put together, to form a relatively coherent story. Already this first fragment signals the need to have this autobiography consolidated, through interpreting the personal experiences in terms of ‘getting through in a miraculous way’. More such descriptions will occur: integrating, adding a common meaning to the various episodes.
Meanwhile, his memory evokes the first specific, distinct image included in this narration: the moment Zygmunt comes back home from the warfront, after the 1939 defeat. The return takes place in November – which is, as it appears, yet another bracket that makes the story cohesive, adding a metaphysical aspect to it.
I returned home, which was in November too. That November for me is a… it’s a… // I volunteered in the meantime still, when [General] Kleeberg marched toward Kock, then I signed up there. There were a few of us. We were in Lublin province at the time, and well, a captain, like, called us and says, ‘You know what, boys, there’s no point in you going with us. Off you go, go home.’ They took the uniform[s], they took the arms from us, and they sent us back home, for he [= an officer] says, ‘You’ll be of more use at home than to here.’ And that’s how I returned on a bike, back here, to Sącz.
Kleeberg, Kock – the words known from history textbooks. They are referred to here as the narrator intends to set his personal experience within a broader historical context, but the concreteness of one’s personal experience no more fits the textbook. It does not matter to what extent this constructed citation renders the real words that were uttered then. What matters is that it renders their sense, or meaning, allowing us to interpret the experience being referred to. Amidst the grandiloquence of phrases about a heroic struggle in defence of the homeland, we encounter the trace of a real, mundane situation: since the venture ended as a failure, now the time is to save one’s skin, as long as possible – give back the uniform and the arms, get on a bike and ride back home. The anonymous captain, with the order he gives to get back home, is an important element of the reminiscence: he has taken away the burden of responsibility, and enables Zygmunt to feel all right today while thinking of that distant situation.←253 | 254→
An initial involvement in the conspiracy is the next point in this autobiography. This reminiscence also shows no trace of a romantic interpretation, of making some difficult decision: the language he uses offers no bombast whatsoever. There are, again, banal everyday realities, evoked with the use of simple words:
Well, and here in Sącz, it really didn’t take long as I’d already met a mate from Kraków – he was a brother of one I just mentioned – Czerniak [surname], Staszek [first name; diminutive of Stanisław]. He was, // he studied at that time. … Studied law then. He studied as [= to be] a lawyer. He suggested to me that I join an organisation, like, the POZ [abbr. for Polish Armed Organisation (PF’s note)] ‘Racławice’. Whether I would try and set it up, together with him… I’m saying, ‘Good, we’re going to do it together, to work. But, what’s the exact point?’ And, this is how we started that work, in this… I was confirmed by oath on January 10. The group was already larger at the time. And, well, I distributed [illegal press (PF’s note)], let us say it, on my way… And I sometimes went to Warsaw, and so forth.
Such un-martyrological biographical memory of participation in the underground movement during the war is characteristic not only of this particular account. Instead, it is in fact the dominant mode in which his whole biography is evoked: namely, through interactive processes. Zygmunt quotes the name of his organisation, which somehow sets and embeds this image in a historical context (although we cannot be certain whether this Interviewee was aware of it at the moment he became involved). Some reminiscences lack this element, or it clearly appears added from the resource of later-gained knowledge, rather than from the actual memory of the experiences in question.
The word ‘Warsaw’, used here to mark a certain general category of reoccurring incidents, Zygmunt’s travels, triggers a very specific and distinct image of a certain situation:
I can remember one such ride. I was told to report at Wilcza St., with the watchword. And there I got … the newssheets, so called at the time, that is, Polska Żyje [‘Poland Is Alive’], and the ZWZ [Union of Armed Struggle] bulletins. Well, and I got on the train, got my ticket. And, what I always say is one thing: that personally, as for myself, I don’t know how come I am alive at all. Between you and me, the fact that I live, I just don’t know whom to thank [for it]. This might be a particular incident, another lucky incident, one more lucky incident. But I have had too many of these incidents.
The lively micro-story of the journey and its accompanying adventure, struck up a moment before, is suddenly suspended, since the episode is soundly related in the man’s memory with its interpretation. This evokes incident and miracle, being apparently an instance of both of these. This single miracle recalled, it triggers the images of the following ones; hence, a digression starts here which runs for a few minutes and is composed of stories of earlier occurrences which have been remembered together, as though they were perceived through a single interpretative filter. Let us first follow the first story:←254 | 255→
We went to Warsaw, that was an interesting situation. I took all those things, put them into the suitcase, underneath. There was one pistol, some cartridges. I cannot remember exactly now, I think there were two boxes of cartridges. I put my gear on the top. I put the suitcase on the… I sat down – I had my seat reserved, so I got on the train, and off we go. Somewhere, I think it must’ve been near Radom, two civilians entered, that inspector and a military policeman, and started checking all those seated on the train. They scanned everybody’s luggage, one by one… // Ticket, identity card, Kennkarte. … They checked the baggage, opened it, what’s inside there, etc. And everyone [like this], one after the other. They approached me, I’m giving them the ticket and thinking, now that’s the end. Initially, I thought to escape through the window somehow, but say to myself, ‘It won’t work, ’cause the window’s closed, I cannot jump out.’ I was sure that there would be nothing anymore… As he took that ticket from me, one of them says, ‘Shall we go, sir’. They left me and went away. And I wasn’t checked. Everybody was checked in the compartment. Then I could see them lead a few individuals from the third or the fourth one. But I arrived there. I went to Tarnów on this train. I want to get off the train at the Tarnów station, for what I needed to do was to change for a train to Nowy Sącz, and it appears that the train is covered. There’re soldiers standing at the one and at the other side, and they’re checking all those exiting, what they have, what they’ve bought, what they carried, and so on. As I wanted to disembark, I had to get off in the direction where they stood. I don’t know what sort of an inspiration fell upon me… I grabbed this my suitcase and without pondering much – there was the Bahnschutz thing, that is, the rail guard – I went there at once. Then, nobody would halt me as I walked, for I was going to the office. I put that suitcase on the table in front of them and start explaining to them that I had had two suitcases, that someone had stolen one from me. I’m showing it to them and say that I’m just left with this one, and what is more, not gestohlen [German, ‘stolen away from me’ (PF’s note)], but verdiebt [grammatically incorrect verbal formation based on the German noun Dieb = ‘thief’ (PF’s note)], for Dieb means thief, so: ‘Die haben mir verdiebt’. ‘Verdiebt? Was heißt verdiebt?’ I’m explaining to them, to the right, to the left [i.e. in a variety of ways]. They were playing some card game, enraged at me having interrupted them. At last, that one says a Dolmetscher [interpreter (PF’s note)] needs to be called, this and that is what we need. And I’m looking aside through the window and can see they’re already drawing down, that this … // Because the train has already left, so they’re drawing down all those people. I grabbed that suitcase, waved my hand, and fled that train [laughs]. And then I did not get off the train in Nowy Sącz, for I’m saying there might be the same situation, but escaped one stop before Sącz: Jamnica. And I jumped out there and went away. I walked home on foot then. And, I say, what, there’s nought like luck. Of such accidents, I had so terribly many that…
Let us see the earlier fragments of this account, interpolated, as I have mentioned, as a digression to the story I am quoting. The memory, activated by the reminiscence of a single ‘lucky coincidence’, had instantaneously found access to many other such incidents, which it grouped within one set – under a shared ←255 | 256→interpretation, which has made them similar to one another. The similarity does not, however, lie in the course of those events, so different as they are, but in the sense or meaning that the narrator adds to them when interpreting his biography.
For it was in 1939 too, when we were… There was an incident when during the bombardment in Chełm, I lay down against a wall, somewhere within the limits of the railway station, and a bomb which fell on the other side of the street bumped against a house and fell right next to me, not exploding [laughs]. What an exit I made there, how pale I was when I jumped out… // Well, I wasn’t sure what had happened, then, // I’m thinking to myself, what’s happening, as I’m alive. I just stood up then already, and watched two Polish planes flying, and the whole battery of our ack-ack was firing at them, so I left the place.
Then, in Kovel, as we were directed to Sarny, the train was attacked, halted, and as we returned, we were attacked on our way back, // halted by those // Ukrainian nationalists. They mortared us. I had a… // I operated a machine gun – I only had enough just to give it the [cartridge] belt. We fled there, I started to search how to get away. I reported that I’d turned up. They told me to escape, at once. I went to such, // to such Sir-and-Madam. …Well, and once I was there, it turned out that three wearing red armbands had come there: the Militia. Obviously, ‘Your ID!’, and so on. I produced all that. They’re saying, ‘Now, you’re coming with us. We shall help you go home.’ But when I saw what they were like, then I’m saying, ‘Good, but I’ve got some more luggage in the room next door. Let me then take it.’ I went to that room. Luckily, they didn’t follow me. I jumped through the window, sat on a bicycle I had there at the back, and I fled. I went toward, // in the direction of the Bug, and there, in Dorohusk, is a bridge. I’m coming up to that bridge and see that a mass of people is standing there. It turns out the Germans, German tanks, are already standing on the other side. And, well, now, either stay here, or there. Fortunately, I hid the uniform and everything beneath – I covered up, // I had a capote of a sort, which I had got there. I had a rifle fixed by the bike. And at the back, behind the belt, I had a revolver. And the Germans stood there, and, to everybody, one by one – the military men, move aside; those who had a gun, move aside. And I am going, like that, with my heart in my mouth. That German caught me, pawed here on the front, and pushed me forwards. I was still naive then. As I passed by and saw those who’d been shot by the firing squad under the bridge, who had had arms with them, then I, well, almost fainted, yes.
I afterwards returned via Chełm and so it went for the whole time, and I for instance went through that village, in the forest I walked through, like, a road, saw carts smashed, people killed, horses killed. But I, well, walked on quietly, for, I say, // there were no more air raids, nothing. As I only walked on a bit – a house in the village, that is, this was not a village, just some three, four houses. A woman, as she saw me… ‘And you, where are you coming from?’ I’m saying, I’m walking from that place. And she, ‘But mister, this road is full of mines!’ For everything had been blown up on the mines, the various things that I had seen then. Then, well, you’ve got yet another instance of luck, of sorts. To say nothing of it that, for example, that while still going that way, we were shelled by German tanks near Rzeszów. And there too, ←256 | 257→in some miraculous way, I managed to crawl into some dugout. And what I’m saying is, and the same thing [was] there too.
The phrase ‘the same thing there too’ puts an end to the digression (using Schütze’s analytical language, I prefer to label this passage more precisely as so-called background construction); now, my Interviewee resumes the thread of his journey from Warsaw to Nowy Sącz. This entire digression covers the images included by the narrator as part of a series of lucky incidents, uncanny cases, coincidences, miraculous occurrences. These constitute the whole story about the experience of the first weeks of the war. These are the ‘ordeals’, the numerous incidents Zygmunt mentions at the very beginning of his account. And, as in the beginning, the historical events form but a bleak background for his own adventures. A collective trajectory of the outset of the war forms the scenery of the story. It belongs, mostly, to the context of the conversation, to the assumed knowledge of the partners in the interaction. The collective experience of the beginning of the war – the bombings, mass evacuations and returns, fear, deaths – have disappeared from the foreground also because the narrator avoids presenting his personal lot as an individual trajectory which might be made part of those experiences: helplessness, impotence, determination by the overpowering external circumstances. Instead, he builds a story of his own resourcefulness, inventiveness, and adroitness.259 This resourcefulness comes as a response to the collective trajectory, and a means of avoiding the individual one.260 These qualities fill each of the episodes Zygmunt has evoked but not worded explicitly: these are not what an interpretation of the individual experiences is built upon. The thing is, there were ‘too many’ of them for them to be subject to a simple rationalisation. Metaphysics comes to the rescue, helping consolidate and add meaning to these incidents: happiness, miracle; yet, this category ultimately remains impenetrable, so a mystery, some intriguing secret, remains. And this is what this autobiography is built upon.
The experiences of the first weeks of the war, as Zygmunt evokes them, can also be read in terms of the encounter with the two occupiers of Poland. The Germans are remembered unambiguously – they have the tanks, wear uniforms, are set in their roles, not hiding their real intentions – but what the Russians intend to do is unclear and needs being recognised, deciphered, their false mask uncovered: ‘when I saw what they were like…’. Both are successfully bamboozled, at this stage of the story (and, of the biography).
The period of his involvement in the conspiracy becomes dominated, in the unrestrained narration, by the above image of travelling by train. As the memory is focused on specific details, a broader background is not evoked; we will find no ←257 | 258→description of ordinary daily life under the Occupation. No assessments or commentaries accompany these narrative sequences. What we come across, instead, is another overshoot – forward, this time – to another detailed story, which the memory has juxtaposed with the others.
And this is still nothing, for I was arrested on 10th December 1942. Because still before then I escaped, but, well, returned, as my father let me know that the action had ended. I was hiding, here near Sącz, in a village. I returned, and was arrested, in December. Theoretically, I could’ve still fled through a gate, and even wanted to flee, but they warned me that they’d take the whole family. I then said, well, that this wouldn’t make much sense. They set a dog on me, but because I am not afraid of dogs, I stroked the dog, and the dog sat beside me [laughs], and we walked together. And that Gestapo man who convoyed me was staring so much, that the dog which was supposed to do me in, // to jump onto me and so on, but it somehow completely, you know, // laughed it off.
Although heralded as yet another awesome lucky incident, this episode would not lead to a happy ending, in contrast to the previously reported ones (including the would-be arrest, referred to as a digression). The dog being greeted is successfully immediately tamed, but this cannot fundamentally change the situation. It simply sets a turning point in this biography: a trajectory is being entered, a series of experiences that are not to be evaded or avoided, by any means, has begun. A chance to dodge still appears – as a potential, theoretical option, but is, rather, a later commentary to events than a choice he could really have made at the time. The threat that his family could be prosecuted was treated by the Interviewee as a sufficient warning: ‘this wouldn’t make much sense’. The price for all these escapes and adventures now becomes too high. Interestingly, these new experiences are also reflected in the way he speaks: the narration slows down, as if more ponderous, drearier. Only the reminiscence of the tamed dog revives it and adds dynamism to it once again. The Interviewee’s laugh, which can clearly be heard as he recalls this scene, emphasises even more the contrast with the surrounding scenery of the events. This contrast was probably of importance for the memory of the event, intensive as it is. Along with the very few other events in the narrative so far, such as his birth and oath, this event is marked with an exact date; this moment sets one of the limits in his biography.
And then, the interrogations started. These interrogations, I’ve described many of them, for it’s hard to talk about them. The fact is, indeed, that I ate nothing for three days …, as they gave me nothing to eat, so as to tenderise me. I sat, handcuffed, in a, sort of, latrine [t] here. I was there twice anyway, ’cause afterwards, as I was back too, they locked me up in those same latrines. It’s just that I was not handcuffed this time, but then, I was. My hands and my feet, so. I was kept there for three days. Three days after, they took me from there to interrogate me. And, the beating, including the // the nails… the hammering under the nails. Well, whatever they only could.←258 | 259→
Talking about the suffering one has incurred is a tough thing – not only in an interview situation. It is tougher indeed than with regard to any other feeling or sentiments, although the suffering is what so strongly sticks in one’s memory, self-image, and internal self-narration. It is perhaps easier to express through a text, relating to a deferred, imagined reader, rather than a living and reacting human sitting opposite to the teller. This is why Mr Podhalański now refers me to the articles he had published in the local press. But in those recollective texts he also refers to the events and facts, rather than his own feelings or emotions. Like the sentences he has just quoted, which he would not abandon in his account, in spite of having referred to a written text. He would not go deep into the details of how he was tortured, confining himself to enumerating some examples. He has had his fill of distancing himself from those painful experiences: he is willing to leave this territory and head instead toward the events from another, post-war, phase of his biography, the scene of which was exactly the same – a circumstance he deems to be a paradox and a black joke of history. Not that the very ‘longue durée’ of the venue (of any such venue) is paradoxical, however:261 what is paradoxical is that he was kept prisoner there in two very different phases of this durée/term – in both cases, for having allegedly posed a threat – as a very broad concept – to a forcefully established order. The digression made by the narrator is also a good example of how unchronologically a memory can operate, linking the experiences into sequences that are not linear, adding a shared meaning to them within an autobiography.
Even in such a dramatic situation, this man tries to find a space for the experiences that were his own, that he could influence, as he was their subject. It is as if he creates the second stratum of the story of his stay in custody and the interrogations:
So, the first day, I managed to weasel out. I started quoting the names of some people I knew from the cemetery. They wrote those names down, and eventually brought me out. … Next I was given some coffee, a milk-based one, and some piece of bread. I ate [that], after all, just to have eaten something. But I, well, went to the cell and it turned out that in the cell next door, they had put my, // that colleague of mine with whom we had worked together. So he was there, put in the cell next door, well, and there was such a, they called it a horse, and so I called it that too. The situation was that there were those curtains by the windows. You probably know what I mean, as you’ve got the window, so to prevent you from getting out, there are planks there. But you could open the window, take something and throw it out there. And so we were throwing our messages out there, or by knocking doing this, you know… And I managed it, I threw it there every once in a while. And I said what I said, and he told me what he told me. For what I’m saying is that this is not going to end.←259 | 260→
The following account, covering his stay at the Gestapo prison, merges the two layers of that experience into one. My Interviewee now reports on it in terms of a game played between him and the other prisoners, on the one hand, and the Gestapo men, on the other. While the final outcome is virtually prejudged, what the narrator holds important is those petty skirmishes – cheating the enemy for a while, discrediting them (be it in his own perception), bothering and troubling them:
Well, and then, interrogations lasted for two weeks. First, they bruised me for having given them the names of individuals who were dead, that, what I think at all, and so on. And then, we started blaming one another. That I know nothing, ’cause… And he didn’t know anything either. And so, once you couldn’t bear it any more, you would say that that one had told me that. And then I said to him, then he’d own up, that what I’d told. And I owned up on what he told. And this is how it all began to dovetail. And that was right before the holiday [Christmas]. They always did it the way that once they stopped interrogating, you would be put standing against the wall, facing the wall, and, well, waiting till they came and you were taken away, and led forth to the prison. ’Cause then, you had, to the prison, after all, to make it some 150 metres, walk down the street and so on. I stood like that and I don’t know, again, what it was that tempted me. At one point, I spotted a shadow and I pulled my head back, and that SS-man banged his fist against the wall. But, with such a horrible, that… And, he shouted so… He grabbed a pistol, and came toward me. He was halted by the other one, who stood there, next to him. What is, // what is he doing that the interrogations have not finished yet? They stopped him, and he beat me around the face with the pistol butt, so I all my teeth here were knocked out. This was my only pleasure, let’s be frank to each other, for Christmas.
These events are reported on in a reserved manner, with a sense of humour even. There is not a single trace of references to struggle, the Homeland, Poland; there is no pathos. It is difficult to identify any straightforward interpretation of those events. It is hidden in the form in which they are evoked by memory, in an attempt at to build with another chapter of the character’s adventures with them, although these adventures now, after the pause of December 1942, take place in completely different social worlds.
Although this is an unintended aspect, the story being developed is a male story. This is not just because no females have appeared so far (apart from two images: a mother delivering a baby and a person encountered coincidentally in a bombed-out settlement): the story permanently uses the image of a tough, strong, brave and undefeatable man.262 These attributes also turn out to be valid when an image of him, lying on the cell floor, beaten senseless, is evoked:←260 | 261→
I recovered, incidentally, and then the mates in the cell with me woke me up and got me fixed. You know with what? You wouldn’t even suppose it – even when they stuck a piece of cigarette into my mouth and lit it, they couldn’t get me fixed. But once I breathed in, I choked, so that I got over it.
Endurance and a bitter sense of humour also appear in the scene of the prison Christmas Eve, which emerges as the narrator continues. There is no room for tenderness, the sense of loss of a sacred time, longing for home. There is, instead, pain from the wounds of knocked-out teeth, caused by cabbage acid, and there are follow-up interrogations. This manliness is one of the ways in which a meaning is added to this biography.
And so, as I’m saying, we got then – the day was somehow extraordinarily good – a sauerkraut soup was [served], which I couldn’t eat, because of my teeth, it was so awfully stinging, for the acid there was, so I had a Christmas like, you know… // My whole joy, that was. And still, two, // I was called in twice still, but that was ending somehow mildly, in a way, relatively. When I was taken to the prison in Tarnów.
The imprisonment in Tarnów completes the stage of Zygmunt’s biography, which directly preceded the concentration camp period. His stay in the gaol, short in calendar terms, turns out to be extremely important capital once he is put in the camp. Crossing the gate of a kacet with such a wealth of experience deeply informs the way in which he experienced the camp’s reality, which, even at the first contact, does not seem as awesome to him as to most of those who were put into it directly from a relative Occupation-time freedom.
The detention, interrogations, imprisonment in the gaol and in the camp – all these are undeniably the experiences of an individual trajectory, which are evoked in different ways by the memory of those who have gone through them. Zygmunt Podhalański’s memory builds images by means of contrasts, identifying bright spots, footholds, amidst the gloomy and painful experiences, including those of the camp:
We were taken from Tarnów to Birkenau, to Brzezinka. And there, as we just arrived, it was February. Just, mind you, a period more-or-less like this one, and there was a similar temperature to what we have today. Such a, slush, as if, snowing, as if. They drove us through in there… // There’s just one thing I say, I am always grateful to all those who have helped me, and I especially find that people are really good, for they didn’t have to, did they. As we were passing through there, being beaten, chased, … all these well-known things, after all, so there’s no point telling. But, of, such, more interesting things… Someone there shouted, ‘Never tell them you’re a student!’ Someone there must’ve known me, when he saw me. ‘Quote your profession!’ … Because I had dabbled in radio before the war, ‘Electrician’, I told them. When they asked me what I was by profession, I became an electrician. This became true later on, in a different manner, by the way.
These ‘well-known things’ about which ‘there’s no point telling’ will reappear in the narrative in a moment; they remain side-tracked for the time being, so as to fit ←261 | 262→the finding that ‘people are really good’. This comes as a very strong interpretation of a piece of advice given by someone: perhaps this advice really did save his life. It certainly helped him cope with the trauma of the camp initiation, and prevent the exact opposite thought: ‘people are really bad’. One would have found it much easier to comment on his or her stay in a concentration camp by reference to the latter statement; this is particularly true for the beginning of the stay, with the collectively experienced violence, impotence, obedience, and helplessness.
We came in to take a bath, a vapour first. You had to strip naked. And we all had lice, after all, a fucking lot of them. So, we had to strip naked. [Going] to a sauna, like, there was something like a sauna there. And then they drove us away from it… and still before then, they cut our hair, they sheared it all off, completely. And then, to that sauna. From that sauna, we went on to be put under a cold shower. From that cold shower, naked, out into the open, and we waited till the morning. Half had already collapsed by then. So, there was no chance to survive.
This scene is common to almost all the camp narratives, and is described in a similar way everywhere: it appears as a collective experience, to the extent that it has been memorised through the same images, as if contact with the camp thwarted one’s ability to experience the world individually. However, this collective experience soon comes to an end in Zygmunt’s narrative. The pattern of narrating the consecutive stages of becoming an inmate, characteristic to the survivors, is broken in this particular account. This manifests itself in the way in which his personal experiences are reported on (the narrative ‘how’), and is rooted in the experience itself (the narrative ‘what’); therefore, instead of a routine description of the quarantine, as a subsequent grade of sucking the prisoners into the camp universe, there appears a completely different image. And this is the only possible option, since we are dealing here with a borderline experience whose symbolic potential is huge. As the image comes again into my Interviewee’s mind, the pace at which he speaks decelerates, his voice lowers, the rhythm calms down. The narrative grows more solemn, an effect that is emphasised by the steady sound of the ticking clock. The narrator’s interpretation – with regard to the recorded sound rather than a mere transcription – would not ignore those extraverbal meanings:
The quarantine was supposed to last two weeks. That quarantine took various twists and turns, ’cause when it was regular, you would exit that barrack, sit out there in the, // in the cold, and you’d go back in there. But well, more and more people were ailing. Well, myself included. I started hallucinating in the night, all of a sudden. … That day I bore it somehow, laying low for some time later on. The following night, I had a dream that… // Well, I’m not sure if I can put it like: that was a dream. In any case, I was in a beautiful park, with flowers, trees, birds. And so I walked through that park, and at a certain moment, a whirlwind rose, the trees started breaking, and I, as I was trying to shove that away from me, I hit [myself against an object] and, it turns out, I felt something cold. I woke up, and I’m lying on a stack of corpses. For it turned out that … I had died that night. At least, this is what they declared. I was stripped ←262 | 263→naked. This was done in the way that those prisoners were put so as to form the heaps … – two of them, two, two, two. I was, fortunately, on the very top. I struck and fell down the pile. But, naked. I am looking around, like, and can see that there are those clothes of ours lying against the wall, so I dressed myself a bit with what I could find there. Whether all those things were mine, I don’t know. In any case, there was a number on the trousers and on the shirt, so that I managed, and the rest was not, // that was not mine. I just dressed myself, it was morning already, the Kommandos were going out to work, I could hear a pistol firing, I was hit with a truncheon on my back, someone grabbed me by my collar, put me in the line and together with those going out to work… They pushed them forth, and I ended up among them…
This is a complex construction of the memory – evoking not only past events but also the contents of dreams he had at the time. In fact, one cannot be certain whether it is really dreams that are being referred to, when their image is as clear as the image of those events; hence, these ‘dreams’ form an integral part of the experience. They are no less integral than the image of himself as seen through the eyes of the others; those others are, this time, other inmates, since it is they who found or even officially declared, by remarking in the camp documents, that Zygmunt Podhalański was dead. They were probably not even aware of his name, just seeing yet another, nameless corpse marked with a number. They stripped the body naked and threw it onto the heap of corpses (arranging them in twos, in each layer, which my Interviewee tries to show by making a gesture). All these three dimensions of memory – the memory of the experiences he has been through; the memory of his dreams; and, the imagined consciousness and imagined action(s) of the others – all contribute to a ‘consolidated’ meaningful image of experience. The experience is of a very special kind: it is a resurrection, but an ordinary, camp-like one, which is encountered in many an account. It would not lead to a liberation, purification, or salvation; it is, more than anything else, an awakening in hell – if we are to continue along an eschatological track. Yet, the awakening is not complete. The sequence of the subsequent images is torn, discontinuous, not allowing us to reconstruct the course or chronology of the events it is meant to evoke. But this apparent disorder says something important about the experience, which is not easily subject to narration. A state of sickness, unconsciousness or senselessness, broken/torn contact with reality, is described.
The weather was vile, there was mud… I always remember that mud, and mud, and those corpses, in that mud. … I worked constructing the barracks the whole day. I carried some barracks, or parts of barracks. And … [it was in] the evening, already in the dark, as we went away from there. And instead of getting back to Birkenau, we were taken to Auschwitz. There, at block seven, I remained, // I went. I can remember one thing, that for a good job we got … a piece of some sausage, but I couldn’t even touch it. I put it into the straw-bed in my place. … I was only drinking and drinking. … I was losing my consciousness this way and regaining it, losing – regaining. At last, I decided in the morning that I’d go to see a doctor. … I knew I had typhus, that those ill with typhus fever wouldn’t be retained, but get an injection instead, because… well, ←263 | 264→they were all saying it there. I decided I’d go there. I joined a queue, a long one. I stood in front of that Krankenhaus, in front of those doctors. I’m standing there, and, at one point, someone’s grabbing me from the back: ‘Zygmunt, what are you doing here?’, I’m saying, ‘What a claptrap.’ I’m turning back, and there was a merchant, like, he had a shop in Sącz, in the market also. It’s just that he’d been arrested earlier still. And I’m saying, what a stupid question, for, what’re you doing here? I’m looking around for him, but he’s not there. But, did I dream it, or what? I’m still standing there, and that happened slowly, as that queue was long. It’s hard for me to say if that took a minute, or five minutes, or ten minutes. A moment later, someone grabs me by the neck and says, ‘You get away from here, I’ll [take] you…’ It turned out that my mates, from the first transport still, among others, caught me, dragged me out somewhere edgeways, at the back, to the doctor. That doctor only told me to lift my shirt. As soon as he saw that rash, those pimples, he asked, ‘Had any lice?’ ‘I have.’ He said, ‘Go away, now!’ ‘Influenza’, he wrote on that, and then I know that it was doctor Fajkel of Kraków. And, to the hospital, quick. There I lost my consciousness, which I regained two weeks later. The thing being, I was conscious twice during that time. Once, when I remember that someone – I suppose that was doctor Kłodziński, but he didn’t want to own up to it, as we talked later on – he carried me on his back to an attic and there he placed me into somewhere, covered with a blanket. And I can remember that jersey, and can remember him carrying me. The other time was when I was getting my injection, and then I asked if I really must die. Those were just moments, strokes, like, of consciousness, as if.
Two weeks later, I came round. They came to see me, then I could remember nothing. … It later turned out that they had made some injections, specially for me, some tests, etc. … I know that these pills which they gave me were taken away by those mates of mine, the doctors, and they’d bring instead… Then on, he said to me, ‘Any idea how much you’ve cost me? I had such a cute diamond and I had to give [it away] for the injection.’ Well, but I was told that [laughs] by a colleague long after the war, for he says, ‘You wouldn’t know what you were gabbing.’
Again, the narrator’s memory has conglomerated several layers into the course of events being narrated on – including what happened, what seemed to be, what the others knew and said (while in the camp and later on), and the post-war reprocessing of those experiences. This last element – the work on this fragment of camp biography, undertaken by the drama’s actors, determining a shared image of events, common meanings and interpretations – is reported on with a smile, if not a laugh at times. Laughing enables the narrator to distance himself from his extreme experiences: gliding along the border of life and death; the choice of a death which would put an end to the suffering; an incidental salvaging. Thus domesticated, the experiences can be integrated with the rest of the story, which can now be constructed further.
This story moreover links the before-the-camp phase of Zygmunt’s biography with the camp period. The state of ‘death’ he was put into after his arrival at Birkenau and then in Auschwitz is primarily a consequence of his imprisonment ←264 | 265→and the torments he suffered during the interrogations, rather than of what he went through during his first few days as an inmate. This continuity occurs at the level of social bonds: all of a sudden, his friends, arrested a little earlier than him, come forward and give him hints; a doctor also appears (who later on becomes a known individual among the prisoners). Support of this kind would have been rather extraordinary for a new prisoner, bewildered and paralysed with the clash against the kacet’s reality; but my Interviewee is not completely an ordinary Zugang at that moment: his earlier experiences in the conspiracy and imprisonment, although they had nearly brought about his death, make it easy for him to soon break out of the extreme oppression, apparently a deadlocked situation. He manages to enter, or rather, gets drawn into, a network of informal relations already functioning in the camp – the institution’s unofficial ‘second life’. As it turns out, it is apparent that everybody who entered the camp had the same sentence imposed upon them by fortune: some knew their way around, ‘somewhere along the edge, at the back, to the doctor’. This is the narrator’s first time in a concentration camp, but he learns its rules fast, supervised by the experienced teachers and guardians, his colleagues. He is initiated straight away into the totalitarian institution’s second life. This is evident in the way he narrates, avoiding generalised descriptions of what the camp looked like, how it was constructed, or how it functioned. Instead of describing the camp ‘in general’, reporting knowledge on it, we are straightaway introduced to the biographical details which compound the image by unveiling the less obvious dimension of the camp, its second bottom.
They put me into a job with … the dentists. I worked with them as a, sort of, assistant, like disinfecting the tools, and stuff. And there, let’s say, they brought some soup for me. And my duty was, in turn, to go do business. … I remember, I once carried the sausage to someone, for they’d pay you something for those teeth, and again, some piece of sausage, or something. You had to carry it somewhere, but that implied a risk.
The experience of the camp trajectory soon produces a space for his own initiative, resourcefulness, adroitness, and calculation of decisions. Even (not) being included in a transport to another camp is narrated as an occurrence dependent on the narrator and constructed – along with so many elements in this autobiography – upon the exchange of sentences, a dialogue, which is being (re)constructed. Here, the dialogue is with his fellow inmates, but with himself too, to an extent:
And there I endured things and got to know I was to go to a transport. I learned I was picked for Mauthausen, as an electrician. With me, they even wanted to… They said thus: ‘Don’t you be stupid, don’t go. Why go there, they’ll fag you out, won’t they. You’ve just been cured. We’ll get your appendix operated on and you will have … your trip postponed, and then we’ll see to it somehow.’ I say, ‘You know what? I’d prefer to go, for if they dispatch me right now, I’ll get an extra wound then.’ … And I decided that I would go, anyway. ‘We’ll see what’s there.’ And this is how … my first two camps: Birkenau and Auschwitz ended.←265 | 266→
The sentence “We’ll see what’s there” sounds extraordinary in this context. Although quoted as a citation from the biography, it seems rather to belong to an autobiography that regains its earlier form, becoming once more a story about the adventures of a central character who looks to future with curiosity. This is confirmed by the next sentence, which closes his stay at Birkenau/Auschwitz in a way that seems to signify the end of a chapter or episode, a little story, rather than a traumatic experience of one’s life. One story is ended: another one can now begin.
There are quite a number of these subsequent episodes. They are arranged roughly according to the chronology of the events they concern. The first tells us about the transport from one camp to the other: from Auschwitz to Mauthausen.
We travelled all the way to Austria rather comfortably, as not in those cattle cars but in regular ones. Senior SS-men, sort of, or soldiers, or gendarmes, escorted us. There was a small group of us, somewhere around twenty people. On the way, some Czechs [were] added to it. I am very grateful to them, for we had to be put up for the night in some barn, and as we lay down on that straw, it turned out that among that straw there was bread, cut into slices and inserted there. ’Cause there, as they did the transports, it was via that very place and they’d often done it at that farmer. And there, the people put bread inside it. So we did not suffer enormous hunger there.
This is not a typical reminiscence of a trip between two concentration camps, residing in the collective memory: this is an instance of individual autobiographical memory which presents the journey as a time of ease, with the roles becoming slack – at close range, as a small group, the overseers seem to be less threatening. Again, we are offered a toehold for the formulated thesis earlier, whereby people are good all the same, for which gratefulness is owed to them. The reservation, already known to us, that the car was ‘regular’ and comfortable, rather than the cattle cars, indicates that, given the situation, the trip as a whole was something rather abnormal – versus the collective concept: it was a privilege, or luck, that calls for additional explanation.
The following scene is the entrance into the Mauthausen camp area and quarantine once again, which is now described as an exemplifying the camp routine – not quite worthy of our attention, except perhaps for the moments of deviation which form the distinguishing marks of this experience:
We arrived at Mauthausen. They, naturally, drove us through, with rifle butts and things, barking, yelling, as always. They pushed us forwards… As we saw that castle, the area was beautiful, what the castle looks like. I’m not sure if you saw those pictures from Mauthausen? There is where they drove us to. And there, after all those regular things, I received a new number, new everything, and, to the quarantine. In the quarantine, you’d stay seated on the field the whole day, but it was the summer already, so there was no problem anymore, you’d stay there seated. The thing being, our heads were getting swollen, for was the sun shining, so, for those sensitive, their heads were bloated. I haven’t learned till this day what the reason for those heads being puffed up was. And then, as you went into that room, you actually walked in twos. You had to ←266 | 267→turn like this, and lie down like this. We lay down one next to the other so tightly that if you happened to have to go out in the night, then you stayed stood up when you went back, for you had no place where to lie down.
One such distinguishing mark is the view of the Mauthausen camp and its location at the foot of the mountains. For some inmates, this added to their humiliation, and they felt mocked. Others saw Mauthausen as a formidable fortress, an impregnable fortified castle. For the very few, Zygmunt Podhalański among them, it was a beautiful place worth seeing. And this is perhaps not just his perspective today, since he was already so seasoned when he entered that camp: it is thus possible that he could spot what most of the others could not. He was able to overcome his horror and stupefaction that, as a rule, overweighed the less experienced newcomers when confronted with that universe. Also, we find the pain and suffering caused by the exposure of bareheaded to the sunshine reported on in a rather untypical way – as a curiosity, a biological puzzle, rather than a traumatic inmate experience. Apart from the adventure story convention in which this narrative is set, the memories written down by the narrator have probably made this distance easier to gain. Not just the very final product – a piece of paper with words but, rather, the very process of recalling his own experiences and rendering them subject to narration. Once conducted, the process leads to the crystallisation of such ready-to-(re)use, distanced narrative sequences.
The following episodes are also the same, constructed around his subsequent jobs (Kommandos) within the camp and the traits that made the subcamps where my Interviewee stayed distinctive. These venues are not discernible as much by their physical traits as by the way they were experienced by the narrator, whereas the narrative is maintained throughout in a chronological order:
I was taken to the block and went to work in a quarry. There, in Mauthausen, to carry those stones. So many corpses fell down in there… They had three days of leave, it was said, if he killed one of them, for either he’d take a cap from him, throw and shoot him dead and said that he wanted to flee, ‘cause he shot at his back at the rear. Or, he’d knock him down, then he [= the victim] would go down with that stone, for he’d taken too small a stone. I was rather strong, so in this respect it was not a problem for me. I came along but wanted by all means to quit, so I went to the doctor and told him the following, that I’ve heard I am to be assigned for some transport again. I approached him, saying, ‘Doctor, I’d prefer, if anything, to stay here, for I’m already acquainted with my mates here.’ ‘No, you’re going to join that transport at once.’ I then learned that the transport was going to Linz. They’d basically pushed only the Poles there. That was Linz number 1. The Kommando of Linz. That was, in fact, // that was a rescue for me at that point. He saved my life. He was a Poznań man. I met him on occasion later on, when we were back.
It becomes apparent once again how he regains control over what he is experiencing, although this is a camp experience. Again, a space appears for individual choices, assistance provided by a biographical carer, and a lucky coincidence. Characteristic ←267 | 268→to this narrative, a dialogue appears, along with a distance emphasised by the meeting many years afterwards, in completely different circumstances.
Why the transfer from the central camp of Mauthausen to the Linz I subcamp 263 has been interpreted in terms of a rescue, we learn based on the subsequent close-up:
That was a camp in which, // in which you could survive. There was not much screaming by the Rapportführer, who chased us to beat and kick us, and so on, but never did any harm to anyone. He would shout for a while, and that’s it. The Lagerführer there was busy with the construction work around his own house. He quit caring about anyone doing anything out there. We were working at the Hermann-Göring-Werke steelworks, that’s what it was called. This is at present the Alpine steelworks in Linz. The labour was hard there. … But anyway, whatever the case, when back from the work, we had meals for us prepared on the table. Some dinner to eat. Once a week, there was some extra so-called milk soup, which … was subsidised by the steelworks. So, I say, ‘Here’s an opportunity to survive.’ There wasn’t such a big problem. Well, it was hard, for, on going there, you had to take a bag of cement with you, on your shoulder. You’d go up there some four-and-a-half kilometres, small rocks under your feet. … You’d go out by the Danube; you had to carry a little bit of the stuff. And on your way back, you’d take a stone and with that stone you’d go back, so you wouldn’t walk with your hands empty. Those SS-men who were there were passing the time. Luckily, they swapped over sometimes. … For instance, one time they tricked me and made me lay three bags of cement and I had to carry that. I had one bag on one hand, the other bag on the other hand, and one bag athwart. And this with the warning that if I tip over, then they’ll kill me. I did make my way up somehow. Those of my mates who were walking beside me supported me ←268 | 269→to prevent me teetering. And, I made it all the way up. Because I made it, they let me take a rest for some two or three hours. But what I’m saying, in spite of all that, this, this wasn’t… // that was still a…
Although constructed as an objective image of the specific place (even being referred to with its historical as well as its contemporary name), this fragment is, rather, a blend of reminiscences about the various experiences remembered. These experiences are evaluated contradictorily, which makes it difficult for the narrator to assume an unambiguous attitude toward this particular stage of his path as a camp prisoner. Mr Podhalański weighs these contradictory elements against one another, ultimately arriving at a relatively positive interpretation. The narrator, on being charged with a triple load of cement, rushed and goaded with the threat of death, which, with a different interpretation of the episode could have been described (as in many other interpretations) as acts of cruelty, torment, the way of putting prisoners to death – here becomes a ‘trick’, a practical joke. The moment of relaxation offered after that ‘trick’, the better food offered to foundry workers264, the Lagerführer being focused more on the construction of his own house rather than on policing the camp, the Rapportführer who screams but does so mostly for the sake of appearance – all this should be considered as more important in the interpretation of his time at Linz I. The bombings he experienced there are also important: in the prisoners’ accounts, they characteristically tend to be evoked as moments of fear, chaos, reinforced threat, but also, as a change in the camp routine, relaxation from work, satisfaction with the destruction of the Germans’ military capacity, a hope for their defeat and for an end of the war:
But another thing commenced. The year ’44 was nearing. The bombings started. We always escaped to a sort of shed that was there at our place of labour. A barrack was there, and we stayed sitting there. We were satisfied, as they were bombing somewhere out there, at the factory. They threw bombs down, sometimes it was just the planes flying by. And we had a break from work and could get some rest then.
One of these bombings has been remembered and reported in a particularly detailed manner: this is one of the most incisive experiences. Not just camp-related experiences but biographical ones, in general; one of those most haunting and memorable of all.
And, well, that was, I should think, July 25, but I find it hard to tell the date exactly at the moment. In any case, that was in the summer. In the morning, at the assembly we did get up when … a plane came flying by, probably an American one. The fighter was nose-diving above us, like this, it flew past, as we were standing, and flew further ←269 | 270→up. We fanned out but returned back into that… Well, and we went to work. The alert [was on,] on that day. And instead of going to that shed, where we always stood there, we returned. They told us to withdraw into the camp. So, on the double, we ran that four-and-a-half kilometres to the camp, so as to, // for there, in the camp, we had such, as if, shelters … erected. They were dug up pits – we did it covered with beams, with heaps of gravel on top. And so, against the splinters that were flying, it was very comfortable. Each time the alert was on, … you would stay there. And I always stood by the exit, as I was always afraid that it would fall. For it is all beautiful and nice when there’s splinters flying, but should a bomb hit in here, then I say, ‘This is going to break down and everyone’ll get buried beneath.’ Therefore I always stood so I could be near the exit.
And now… a rustle, bombs are dropping. You can hear the planes from afar. And, that’s such a heinous boom. Well, it’s been stated that two thousand planes were there at that time. I’m not going to exaggerate, but they flew toward Linz and laid a carpet over it… So, up from the mountains, heavy air-defence artillery stood there, then we had light artillery, which was on the Danube and around the steelworks. Then there was our camp. Then there was the steelworks and the open-hearth furnaces. And, bombs were thrown out of that mountain. There were bombs going one beside the other, till it reached our camp. In our camp, they flew by. One, // one [bomb] site got merged with another. Naturally, all those that were… // all these who were there in those… one bang of the bomb, the other one, and all that got broken down in this way, and covered those people up. In our place, it hit from one and from the other side, and it caved in at the centre. The thing is, when the bombing started, then I moved away from that exit, as it was right beside the barrack and the planes were being blown in that direction. So I kept away … and, like, kneeled down sideways. Suddenly, I feel that there’s something coming down on me, so… // but not earth, but people. I pushed myself away and tried to jump out. I go out, and see that there’s nobody around. A moment later, a few people crawled out, two more. It turned out that both were hurt. And we escaped. Not looking at the time anymore, as the wires knocked about… everything, completely. There are no barracks… there was nothing. All was … cut down. Only some were fleeing, who had survived in the other barracks out there. There was a rather small group of us anyway, just above a hundred. And we started escaping toward the Danube. We ran through there, escaping from that… for, those bombs, splinters. You would lie down inside some pit, and thus we waited for some time, and we say after that, ‘What should we do? Escape? Where to?’ Everything’s knocked about. We started getting back again and pulling out those who still remained alive somewhere out there, under the debris. …
Nothing, literally, happened to me. Could’ve, could’ve been pretty bruised at least. There were, in that, 146 people got killed, in that, our… … They were on [i.e. members of] the Straßenbau Kommando, there was such a Kommando for building the roads. And they observed all that from above, looked what it was going on like. And we, at the place, down there. We pulled out those people who are… well… the hands, the legs separately. The SS-men who were in such booths – they’d always go into such concrete booths – yes, those survived. Why? Because the bunkers got overturned, but, ←270 | 271→shielded with concrete, they endured somehow. They got out of there. A committee arrived from Mauthausen, screaming started. First of all, our Rapportführer got a good walloping, as he had let, // admitted that we all escaped from the camp. He says – for I could hear them, I knew German – that he believed that all those who were alive would return. And indeed, all of them did. So, it was concluded there. But the camp was finished. There was nothing to come back to. Everything, whatever was there, this was all completely destroyed.
The survival of a concentration camp and the survival of a bombardment are each a borderline experience.265 Both overlap in this particular account. The experience of the bombing appears more condensed, short-lived, and quick. This implies a dense narration, but the speed and uncanny nature of the events recorded at this point makes the narrative chaotic, fragmentary, and piecemeal. The world which is described is subject to destruction and transformation, and becomes atomised. Not only the material world, but also the social universe of the camp. The established camp positions, hierarchies and roles are called into question – to an extent, since the SS-men can hide in more solid shelters. Falling by force of gravity, the bombs reach, on an equal basis, the ordinary inmates, prominent persons, kapos, the camp crew, civilian employees in the factories, etc. The camp space is annihilated. Those who scampered off or hid, stampeded, are now returning. The camp, their curse, appears under the suddenly-changed circumstances to be the only possible refuge; the only assured landmark, of those then accessible. The intuition of the SS-man who had let the inmates scatter turns out to be apposite: everybody has come back! But what they are back to is, rather, an idea of the camp; the camp as an interactive space, a social universe, rather than the barracks and the factory encircled with a barbed wire. Of these, cinders remained: this was all completely destroyed. As for the bombardment experience that Zygmunt evokes, there is something of a spectacle to it: he is an actor and a spectator, simultaneously. He is distanced enough to take note of the presence of those viewers who coincidentally had a completely different vantage point, and thus whose perception of the entire spectacle was different.
With all its uniqueness, the experience under consideration has also been made an integral part of this autobiography. Nonetheless, contrary to many other parts of this narrative, no comment is uttered that would interpret getting out of trouble in terms of a lucky or miraculous incident. Still, there remains another trace, or ←271 | 272→interpretative hint: the astonishment with which the Interviewee emphatically states that he has not been harmed or hurt. While listening attentively to his voice, recorded on a CD, we can be completely certain that this is yet another miraculous case – of which there were so many then.
The physical destruction of the camp implies the transferral of its inmates to another one. This subsequent camp, now the fifth in my Interviewee’s prisoner career, is called Linz III.266 Again, we receive no generalised description of the place – instead, there is a rushed juxtaposition with the earlier experiences: “Linz III was when we got into; it was very much like Birkenau: dead corpses and stuff, and so forth. Same things again”. But the narrative will not follow this track: on the contrary, from this point onwards, it distances itself from those images, focusing instead on the character’s new ‘adventures’. Before this is the case, though, an important introductory remark is made: my Interviewee now reflects upon his camp adaptation at that moment:
You had it all mastered then already, up to the point that you knew what to do, where to do it, and how. For, once you had got your practice, in terms of you can do this, you can’t do that, never barge in there, ’cause there’s no point…
As it thus turns out, it is not just luck, but what you have ‘practised’ and ‘mastered’ in terms of camp also belong to the later interpretation of survival. Still, mistakes or unwise moves happened; in such situations, someone with a still-greater experience appeared to help find an emergency solution, before oppression followed:←272 | 273→
And I stopped working at breaking the stones; instead they took me as an electrician to work on the construction of a high-voltage line, by the Danube. Just figure it out, I was younger than you, I don’t know how old you are, and I had to be building a high-voltage line. That is, mantle the climbing irons and assemble everything high up there. I mantled the climbers and tripped up at once, as I was making only my first steps. Fortunately, we had a Spaniard, like, as the Vorarbeiter. When he saw this, he approached me, ‘Bist du Elektriker?’; ‘Nein, ich bin Student.’ He grabbed me, drew me in there… and gave me some engines to clean. ‘Don’t you show up in here.’ Well, what could I do then… [laughs] Everything depends upon the people, always. That was where I started working.
This fragment also shows to us an interactive nature of the testimony or, in sociological terms, interview situation. The listener – that is, me – is pulled into an unconstrained narrative, and becomes part of the story. The narrator reminds me that it is not the old man sitting opposite to me who is the actual protagonist of this account: the central figure is the young man aged twenty-plus, the age he was then, who had no idea of the work of an electrician, just like me today. This guiding indeed made it easier for me to grasp what sort of a task, undeliverable by him, my Interviewee was faced with.
And this was not the only ‘screw up’ by the central character/narrator.
There was a moment when I, then already an electrician, miscoupled something and the pump, instead of drawing in that direction, landed in the centre and flooded [the area]. But I was saved by those real electricians. As he grabbed me by the collar, I didn’t know where I would finally be put, but I managed to get out of that.
I also managed to exit at the moment there was a bombing and I leaped out too early to hide, and someone suddenly started shooting at me, but I crawled in between, sort of, two walls. And then everybody forgot that I had hidden there, in that hole. But, I say, those were moments, sometimes, very merry. After all, once you’ve been through these times, had your mates there… There was a moment when I, when working – for I worked there later on, building, sort of, concrete airbricks – and there, you laid down those cement bags together. I made myself a hole under these bags. You could enter there, and a rest a little bit, at times. No one went there. No one squealed on me, that I, let’s say, had goldbricked in there.
There was a moment when the following was said, namely who can make any flowerpots for that Lagerführer who was building that house. I came forward, I had always had this tendency; … a vase, why not do it? I can do it, can’t I? As I made it, then I was on the open sea. I went to the carpenter, I ordered the pattern defined for me. I drew the pattern myself, for there is no problem. I returned the flowerpots, like that. If he liked it, then he says there are the shapes he would like to have. I said that I’d make such shapes. And I got down [to it]. I sculpted the leprechauns for him, like hell. [laughs] And there always was some little bit, half a loaf of bread, or there always was something as an extra.←273 | 274→
One image triggers the other in the memory, and so on and so forth – all of them belonging to an unofficial camp narrative, building up a private story of that experience, with shrewdness, astuteness, bravery, and a risk-taking attitude as its central traits. Instead of a dominant and collectivising totalitarian institution, the adventures of the central character remain in the foreground of this narrative. One of these adventures was the provision of unique and exclusive services to the members of the camp’s SS crew: flowerpots, leprechauns – adding to the improvement of this prisoner’s situation. Along with a number of other camp narratives, this particular one acquaints us with yet another dimension of the camp interactions: the informal patron-client relations between the supervisors and individual inmates. The effect of such relations was obviously broader, as such a privileged prisoner could improve the situation of his less clever companions. Also, he had more to offer on the camp’s ‘commodity/service exchange’, thereby reinforcing this informal situation. Let us also take a look at the leprechauns and vases, which were added to the décor in the houses or villas of the SS-men or their families. These were no warfare or warfront trophies, although their psychological status – so to put it – could have been similar. For us, it seems essential that those objects were not purely practical, portable in the pocket, or easy to convert into cash, so that the gain could be enjoyed without recollecting its embarrassing source. These were ornaments, things of artistic value for those who commissioned them, designed, matter-of-factly, in order to be displayed and enjoyed in a house or garden, rather than being kept in a cellar or attic. It may thus be supposed that the user could show such a leprechaun or flowerpot off before his (or her) guests, SS colleagues – if the object ordered for was meant as an accessory in the official villa that stood not far from the camp, or to the family’s friends – if it was destined for was somewhere else, possibly the family home somewhere far away in the Reich, in Germany, or Austria. If we see the prisoners’ arts-and-crafts find their way to their salons, elevated, apparently the system of unofficial, informal relations – including between the high-ranking functionaries of the totalitarian camp institution and the ordinary prisoners – was an integral part of that world. Leprechauns and vases made by the prisoners of the kacets where SS-men did their service apparently did not trigger much astonishment, and certainly did not cause condemnation or disapproval of their owners, be it from their family members or acquaintances, or, even less so, by their fellow workers. After all, many of them had their own service providers, craftsmen or artists, among the inmates. Some of these functions – gardeners, grooms, hairdressers – belonged in any case to the official order of the camp (which is not to say that specific commissions were included in this official framework).
The approach offered to us by this fragment of the narrative shows a more general phenomenon: the entire differentiation between official and unofficial, formal and informal relations and systems, which forms part of our (sociological) interpretation of that universe, but not its obvious element, appears to be much more complex than when seen from afar. The social relations, which – to use Goffman’s concept – we may call the second life of a totalitarian institution, penetrate it ←274 | 275→thoroughly, across the division into (the) perpetrators and (the) victims. These relations involve both parties, manifesting themselves not only in the forms of religious or cultural life of the inmates, or in ways to ‘arrange for’ extra food.
Still, the services referred to in the above-quoted fragment are (normally, though not always) additional activities. Zygmunt’s basic duty is always his regular work with the Kommando, the working group. One such group in Linz was the Kommando that cleared the debris caused by the Allied bombings – those sparse effects that proved removable.
Later there was a situation that, once they bombed Linz, … they took us to clear the debris. I realised then how the Austrians treated us. We entered the town, went down to the cellar and there, in that cellar, // well, they had jam preserves, and, among other things, I found a small box in which there was jewellery. … My buddy says, ‘Take it, hide it, hide it.’ ‘No way!’, I say. I went upstairs and there was one SS-man standing there, and I say, ‘Hide it, ’cause this is going to be… Perhaps this’ll be…’ And the Austrians who were standing saw that. And I heard them say, ‘Those are no thieves, are they.’ Based on that, they, simply… // they believed those were the people … whom they … had brought along as thieves and so on. They confirmed this to me later on again … but that was later already, // some young Hitlerjugend boys came up to us. We talked to them, they…. They were shocked by the conversations with us, that… // they started talking completely normally.
The recollection of the work removing debris from the town gives us no insight into the course this work took, the appearance of the destroyed town of Linz, and the scale of the destruction. Let us leave these questions aside, though, and follow the Interviewee’s focus – the discovery, or, in fact, the several discoveries he refers to. A treasure found in the cellar of a bombed house, amid the jam jars, a box with jewellery, is just one among these, the most literal manifestation. It is only a curiosity, out of which there came a real discovery, which was a cognitive shock for the coincidental bystanders – the locals of Linz watching the work done by the prisoners driven to that place from the nearby camp in order to remove the debris in the town after the air raids. The Linz III camp was located very close to the town’s limits, in kilometre terms. Yet, if estimated in terms of human distances, it would appear enormous. For the ordinary Austrians (and Germans) inhabiting their cities, towns and villages, the universe behind the barbed wire was extremely distant and they would prefer keeping themselves at a distance to it. They often read in the press or heard on the radio – many of them perhaps even hearing it at rallies and in the speeches delivered at such assemblies – how dangerous the inmates were, and how menacing to the social order. Being in a camp and doing hard work were meant to be the best ways to improve the characters of all such minacious criminals, to rescue them and offer an efficient solution for the righteous and pure citizens of the Reich, who happened to remain where they normally resided. This strong ‘sanitary’ propaganda proved efficient for quite a long time: there were no crevices which would help undermine it in any way – up until the moment when those imagined prisoners, modelled in the propaganda, clashed ←275 | 276→against the real ones who worked in the bombed city amidst its dwellers and in front of their eyes. The clash must have been impetuous, if it triggered so strong a cognitive dissonance in the latter. My Interviewee was observant enough to see himself through the eyes of the onlookers; based on the sight he caught, he found that ‘they believed those were the people … whom they … had brought along as thieves and so on’.
This recollection is powerful and the memory follows it, establishing – once again – its own sequence of events and evoking another cognitive shock – of the other Austrians or Germans. This occurred in a different moment, in the stated ‘afterwards’, which confirmed these careful observations of social interactions made while clearing Linz of debris.
The meeting with the Hitlerjugend boys he recalls could have been even more shocking an experience, for both parties. Hitlerjugend youth underwent powerful, and methodical, indoctrination – more powerful than the average dweller of the Reich. However, the conversation they coincidentally had with the prisoners was probably more involving than the role of bystanders played by the inhabitants of Linz.
There is one more image of a German who is converted, or ‘under conversion’, but nonetheless remains within his role. My Interviewee has preserved him in his memory, right alongside the two preceding cases, as the last fragment of a three-section sequence, consolidated with a common meaning:
And then on, there were, there were such Volksdeutschs who came from somewhere in Romania. I can recall such an accident too. [laughs] The Americans were throwing about those leaflets in which they coaxed the Austrians into surrendering. They even said where they were already, where they were moving forward. And so, I could see… // I had, like, an SS-man there, who, // some poor thing from somewhere, // he was a Romanian. And I was getting cigarettes already at that time, for you could receive parcels and the families sent [them] along, so in that parcel I’d always have some zwiebacks, I’d have marmalade and a packet of the shags [i.e. shag tobacco]. … Well, and I received those shags. And that one came over to me: ‘Hast du Zigarette?’ Then I took away, and gave him that cigarette. And it was him standing sentry, … when those ones threw down… those planes flew by and those leaflets were dropped down. And I’m looking, one of them fell right before the borderline, // behind his… in the shrubs over there. And I’m thinking, shit, how can I get to that, to read it. And I went on, and reported to him that I’m offering to carry the boilers myself. He says, ‘OK then, go.’ I went up there, I put a stick into my pocket. I came back. Passing by him, to report that I was back, he lent toward me: ‘When you’ve read it, give it to me.’ [laughs] // There are things that, in the worst situations…
This episode is yet another adventure of this character/narrator, who represents himself as a shrewd and daring prisoner who knows how to bamboozle a silly SS-man of whom he speaks with indulgence. But once again, as was the case with a few of the preceding passages, let us pay attention not to the form of this story (which remains constant, and is characteristic to the entire first section of ←276 | 277→this narrative) but rather, to its content. This content, once again, sheds light on the social relations within the camp universe. This is done, naturally, indirectly, through the ideas of the relations (some) of their participants have developed. There is a cigarette, and an American leaflet dropped down shortly before the camp was liberated, when the course of events was a foregone conclusion, and the climate inside the camp much less restrained. These objects appear to link the prisoner with the SS-man watching him. The way Zygmunt quotes the SS-man, the pitch of his voice, the whisper with which he imitates his real request for being allowed to read the leaflet, make one absolutely certain that both men were searching for news that the war had ended – although it might seem that only the prisoner has kept his role here. Also, the cigarettes requested from the prisoners (rather than pilfered from their parcels, as before) testify to the strongly changing roles. Now, it cannot be said for certain that they were never completely determined, whilst always created (and not merely role-played) by the specific living individuals; on both sides, to be sure.
The close-up on the ‘poor thing from Romania’, an SS-man asking the prisoner if he has a spare cigarette for him, is interpolated with a digression on cigarettes. Cigarettes and smoking are permanent motifs in the narratives of concentration camp survivors, including in their published memories. This thread appears, as a rule, in a different context than here, though: examples are quoted of inmates driven to death of hunger because of smoking, as they gave up their measly portions of bread for a piece of cigarette. Another frequent motif is treating them as the camp currency, with food being bought for the cigarettes received in parcels. This latter motif appears in Mr Podhalański’s account too, but the whole image is more complex. It does not refer to the camp itself but the memory combines it with an earlier series of interrogations and resuscitation with the use of a cigarette:
My parents knew I didn’t smoke but I learned how to smoke when in prison, for then I had to. … I would have to have a flashback to how I was resuscitated at that time. As I was led out to be interrogated, they then said, ‘That was a cigarette you got from us!’ And that cigarette was a butt thrown-away, with some scraped off knots added to it, and this all wrapped in a piece of paper. And that was a cigarette. And I got beaten so many times, then I purposefully threw myself onto the ashtrays. As I was falling, then onto that ashtray, so to catch a few. That taught me, ’cause afterwards I went and smoked in there. This is how I began to smoke. As I wrote in one letter, for that was not allowed – you had to write using a sort of cipher, that ‘Stasiu [dimin. of Stanisław] urged me to do so’ – my second name is Stanisław – that he was very happy as he had got a packet of cigarettes. And, well, I got some cigarettes, but, some sort of, Egyptian or something. They instantly took it away from me, so in the next letter I wrote it the way that he said he had got the shags. Those shags could be split into four and still you could feel it even after.
This story offers us, also, a close up on two key camp institutions whose role was often crucial for the inmate’s rescue; what I mean is parcels and letters. This close up is of value, as it provides a concrete narrative instance. The narrator evokes ←277 | 278→two letters with a ciphered message for his family and two parcels containing cigarettes, among other things, which were sent by his relatives after they had properly deciphered the contents of these messages.
My Interviewee made use of the ‘shags’ as a currency in the camp ‘commodity exchange’ or in his contacts with the SS-man, and smoked them from time to time, although he had been a abstained from tobacco before his arrest. This reminiscence has a positive undertone, some warm timbre to it, better audible in the sound recording than legible in the transcription. In this way, the reminiscence makes somewhat ambiguous the otherwise frequently duplicated and preserved image, whereby the tobacco addiction infallibly led camp inmates to self-annihilation.267
The experience of the bombings stands at the centre of my Interviewee’s camp recollections. His memory evokes the subsequent related situations – no longer with air raids, destruction, and chaos at their centre, but rather camp anecdotes built on their remnants, which belong, on an equal basis, to the individual as well as collective memory of the former inmates of the subcamp concerned. The narrator classes these as ‘things that, in the worst situations…’, never offering us a completed interpretation:
The bomb fell down, literally, …away from where we were… // the barbed wire which was there, such a, double – away of that, who should know, from us, from the building, from this our barrack, who knows, twenty metres, perhaps. Well, but it didn’t explode, so they took that bomb and placed it before our barrack where we were, with the inscription that this is a gift from our friends from America. And that bomb was standing there and our men, // whoever was walking by that place… They carried it away three, four days afterwards, for they saw that it did not impress those who were walking past. As they carried it, it exploded. And killed all those Germans who carried it [laughs], those sappers there. And if it were, // had exploded there where we were… After all, there stood a few thousand people, near them. If it had exploded there, there would’ve been a massacre, wouldn’t there. It transpired that it did explode, but exactly at the moment they carried it. We learned [about it] later on.←278 | 279→
The same thing happened when they took revenge against us, as the Poles bombed Linz. We didn’t even know. There was an alert on. At some point, planes flew past – the alert was recalled. The people from Linz went into, sort of, grooves in the mountains. We also walked into those afterwards, to those grooves. And, on the way back there, once the alert was over, well, then go back… At that moment, they turned back and bombed the city. A whole lot of people were killed. One of the planes was knocked out, and it turns out it was a Polish plane. The Germans rebounded on us, that our planes, that these were Poles, that how could they, [attack and kill] the civilians! Well… but what can you do. This is what the life was then. And that’s the reason I’m saying it. These things are not to a story be told, you’d have to have been through it. I always explain to those I talk to that to tell is one thing, for it’s an image one is watching, like you would watch – let’s say, for instance – The Battle of Grunwald268, seeing the image; whereas, when you’re inside of it, then this looks completely different. You feel completely different [about it].
Once again, we encounter some unbelievable incidents, or miracles – or both, combined: miraculous incidents. A ‘smart’ bomb that knows when to explode to kill the Germans but save the prisoners is something of a poetics of irony and the grotesque; the association it brings to one’s mind is one of Andrzej Munk’s film Zezowate szczęście (Bad Luck, 1960), rather than the ‘typical’ testimony of a camp survivor (if any such thing exists). The second scene is an anecdote of a different category; combining it with the first is completely fair for the narrator. His memory has assigned similar meanings to both incidents – and they are both interpreted as camp propaganda, building on the bombings. The fact that the misfired bomb is defined as ‘American’, while the fighter pilot is described as ‘Polish’ is of essence for the camp interactions at that specific moment and, in any case, for how the crew behaved. Perhaps the inmates had their own definitions and interpretations of these, which, even though, unlike the SS-men, they could not impose them, they still had a bearing on their situation, offering many of them hope for imminent liberation.
Added to this is a meta-sense or a meta-meaning, and a meta-interpretation that consolidates both experiences, one that constantly returns in Zygmunt Podhalański’s story. At this moment, it is expressed directly, in a suggestive comparison of memory and narrative in the image of those occurrences. However meticulous, exact, accurate, true – like Jan Matejko’s paintings – an image remains flat and lifeless, merely pretending to be as deep and multidimensional as the reality. My Interviewee has for a little while stepped out of the current narrative of incidents/ occurrences and pauses at his own afterthought in order to clearly stress the difference between what constituted the there-and-then experience and the subsequent memory and narrative about it: the impassable border between biography and autobiography. This ‘turning toward himself’ seems to me even ←279 | 280→more noteworthy in that it far exceeds the typical (and no less important) conclusion that ‘these things are not a story to be told’.
Such a reflection breaks the reminiscence-based thread of the narrative being spun only for a while. Its main current is resumed again very soon. At this point, the memory evokes the labour at a mill grinding the stones that were excavated in the nearby quarry (the so-called Steinbrecher). Such facilities were present in the Mauthausen subcamps, where stones were not only excavated but also machined, cut and polished for use in construction.
There was not much you could do about that engineer. And, the moment came… What was that Steinbrecher all about? It was as like a coffee grinder, but a two-storey one, tall, made of planks. And that shaft was supposed to be revolving, like in a grinder. And you were to throw the stones in there. … It was all already installed on the bottom level, you now had to let that cog in. … I don’t know what to call it, // well, but what you had to do was to put it inside there, and it was meant to be spinning. And it entered to that engineer’s mind that we were to manually drag that up, on, like, Flaschenzugs. Twelve such were supposed to be put up there. Everybody was to be turning it, lifting it up, and letting it down inside.
This description of the operation of this device, which is compared to a coffee grinder, does not follow from Zygmunt’s need to share with me the technological intricacies or details of the work he performed. This is just a point of departure for evoking a subsequent adventure survived, as usual, by the protagonist through miracle, luck, and/or chance. This image is vivid and worth quoting at length, although its colours appear somewhat less sharp in the transcribed version:
And I’m saying again, I had a real lot of luck. This might be called a miracle, or whatever it was, and so on. It turned out that in that Kommando, there was one such who, once he saw a Pole – he could speak Polish – so he asks me where I’m from. I tell him that I’m from Nowy Sącz. ‘And what’s your name?’ ‘Podhalański.’ ‘Then, I definitely know your father.’ For he frequented… I played at the Imperial [restaurant] there, I was a musician. I was in his good graces, as it were, or whatever. And as I saw what that was, then I approached him and say to him as follows, that this is quite a great risk, what he’s doing, ‘cause if a single hook comes off, then it’ll rip off the subsequent ones, as they won’t bear it. Suffice it for something to happen to somebody, someone hits, and if one side falters, then it’ll smash everything at that very moment. He said to me, ‘Come back, that’s none of your business.’ But I say to myself, ‘Shit, as to making them aware, that’s what I did.’ I went to the smiths who were there, and say to them, ‘Listen, that ought to be done in a way so as to get broken.’ And they [said], ‘What’s the problem?’ [laughs] And it turned out that I only managed to shout that they were coming off, as one hook came off. And once one hook got came off, then all of them were done. They somehow banged on that hook… I don’t know how they did it, as the hook was broken, how they put it on. Obviously, the Gestapo instantly came over: ‘Act of sabotage!’ That engineer, readily: ‘An act of sabotage! They did it on purpose!’ They put us all into a car. And that one came up, // that one of mine, and he says ←280 | 281→it like: This is not true, this was not an act of sabotage. ‘And even if it was, then it was not because of them, since this one here’, now he pointed at me, turned up to meet me and said that this was, // there’s an imminent danger, that this might come off. And once it comes off, then it would cause, like… // As he said it to me, that’s exactly what happened. I wanted to leave the engineer uninterrupted. But, once the engineer said so, then, what could I have said? [laughs, ironically] And three days he survived, as he was taken on to, // to Mauthausen. And in Mauthausen, they well knew what a rogue he was, and so they clubbed him to death within just a day. So, he had a quick finish…
This strong, manly narration about an act of sabotage featuring the central figure/ narrator as the lead is very reminiscent of the stories of the activities he had participated in with the underground movement, before his arrest. The conclusion is more powerful, though, as the rules of the world in which this act is set are severer. There is no room for scruples when the situation calls for resolute action, for a good cause, after all: eliminate a civil engineer, one of the camp tyrants. No hesitation, and no doubt indeed. This action is completely within the limits of the camp morality. Or even more than that: it may be a feather in one’s cap, an instance of bravery, virtue, struggle with the enemy under the specific circumstances. This is perhaps why he remains the central figure of this story – although the tragedy’s final act takes place beyond the narrator’s scope of experience (some other people inflicted death, ‘clubbed him to death within just one day’). Based on the background construction, which is meant to explain the main thread (which is done quite partially, to be frank), we can learn of a fragment of Zygmunt’s pre-camp biography which has never came forward before at all: his job as a musician at the ‘Imperial’ restaurant in Sącz. This motif will be resumed as our conversation continues.
Meanwhile, the unrestrained narrative proceeds: there is a follow-up to this apparently concluded story. The mask of technological competency, qualifications as an engineer, and presence of mind used in the camp game encounter a very serious response. Hence, the need to play the role up, although it has unexpectedly become tougher and tougher, causing the protagonist a fair bit of trouble:
But there was a different misfortune. Because it turned out that there was a civilian, Polier. The one who was to rebuild it. He came over to me and says, ‘Du bist kein Elektriker. Du bist ein Bauingenieur.’ [You are not an electrician. You are a construction engineer. (PF’s note)] Goddamn it all! [laughs] And I became // and I became such a Vorarbeiter who was to supervise that building site. That cost me, what? My health, ‘cause, simply, at that time, in the year ‘44, in the winter, I had to sit there, upstairs, watching whether an SS-man or whoeverwas coming. And they were sitting and warmed themselves at the [bon]fire down there. They say, ‘You are the youngest, so you can mind it. And we’ll be busy doing these things.’ And so we were waiting. But everything would have been nice and beautiful were it not for the fact that what I said… Because I had my plans… for I had already done something previously, that was relatively simple, that this needs being done, that cleaned, that, hanged, there… So, that labour was proceeding. It couldn’t go on too long, ‘cause I’d have got in their ←281 | 282→bad books, wouldn’t I. The following day, we were to set about dragging in the… The problem sometimes had to be solved. How to drag it in? And, second: What to do next? But I didn’t have the slightest inkling at that moment of what was to be done in a contingency. And so I kneeled down before this, and said, ‘Well, end of story.’ I had, in fact, prepared a… I had such a black costume made, for I took into account that if I’m ever to flee… Because our territory was already under threat at that moment. We didn’t know, but the parcels stopped coming in, this meant that all that had already come to an end. I say, I’ll jump into the Danube some day, and when I grip some… There were perpetually some planks, beams were floating, after those bombardments. I’ll grip it, and float downwards. I’ll perhaps land down somewhere in Yugoslavia, or hide someplace elsewhere. This is how I was prepared, and so I say that we’ll see tomorrow what’s going to happen. If not, then I’ll try to do something. They’ll certainly not reach for my ones [i.e. relatives, family], ‘cause the Russians have now sure come onto this side, here… So, now I can afford it, as I won’t expose anybody. And still, during the bombing, I could’ve been killed. Well, and we went up, we’re looking, and that’s not there. The whole shed’s been smashed. It turned out that in the night, the Englishmen applied such a… // the flights of the sort that there was one plane flying, dropped one bomb and flew away. I don’t know whether it had any other [bombs]. In any case, with those bombs… We didn’t know then that they had bombed the bridge in the night. How could they damn know that there was a bridge? Well, that could’ve been luck. The same thing goes for here. We’re coming over, looking, and a bomb’s sticking inside, all that bloody shit tumbled down. [laughs] It then turned out, for two months, or three, that each time I came to the point of letting it down, then I was helped by the Englishmen. A bomb was always dropped, and always destroyed it. And you could do [it] anew.
This is an intricate story about his privileged function in the camp: one that is placed high on the ladder of the camp hierarchy and thereby supersedes the image of the prisoner as victim, as functioning in the collective memory – too high indeed to be left uncommented on, or completely unexcused. His very casting in this role is shown as completely independent of the protagonist’s will. On the contrary: it appears as a necessity imposed by the circumstances, a price paid for the courage shown in the very recently reported sabotage action. It later arises that this function was not a privilege but, rather, an onerous and stressful type of service, which involved being on watch, so that the subordinate inmates could quietly pretend that they were doing their assigned labour, the protagonist-narrator being responsible for their performance. The overall situation was already viewed then as hopeless and it was appropriate to take to flight. Yet, assistance from the heavens came at the eleventh hour. From the skies, to be sure – the British bombers postponed the date of completion of the construction, supporting the actors/prisoners in this whole construction masquerade. However, the intervention from the skies is not sufficient for my Interviewee to grasp and interpret all these construction-related experiences. This purpose is served by a meta-story, which can refer to a higher-level vertical dimension: the heavens. In fact, the reference is made at the ←282 | 283→very beginning of this extensive engineering story. The narrator unfolds it in an open-ended manner, emphasising that this is basically one of the options with which to interpret his experiences, rather than an obvious truth about them: “I had a real lot of luck. This might be called a miracle, or whatever it was, and so on”. In this somewhat witty and distanced fashion, the listener/reader is invited to make an effort to interpret the autobiography and comprehend – to the extent he or she is able to, or to the extent it is possible at all – the experiences of the biography.
And, this is where the unrestrained camp story starts to draw to a close. Starts to, as there remains one more episode, which reappears in most accounts of the survivors from Mauthausen and those numerous Mauthausen subcamps where the inmates worked in the drifts or grooves. This episode reappears in several variants – sometimes as a generalised knowledge, probably gained after the liberation, in some cases quite a long time afterwards. Or, sometimes, as in this particular case, as part of an individual camp experience (always forming part of the fate of the prisoners at large who survived till the end).
Well, and as it turned out that there is, // there already was, such a, signal that the American army is getting near, then they said that we should go out, for we’d be fired at; that, given this, we’re going to these drifts. That’s where we’ll hide. I was surprised, for in the night, those who had remained from Linz I – they were taken care of by that Rapportführer who was at our site at that time. And that was but one block, one barrack in which we dwelled. There, he came in the night, and took several from there, and off they went. Once they had come back, I asked what he wanted. ‘Ah well, nothing, nothing. You shall see, tomorrow.’ It turned out that in the morning, they led us away from the camp. That was a few thousand people. The SS-men at the side, we inside. We were led into there, to those drifts. We came up there. We’re watching, and all the entrances have collapsed. Everything… the entrances blown up, buried. You wouldn’t tell what… You couldn’t enter inside. I saw their annoyance, some consulting, some, whatever… In the end, it was resolved that we would come back again.
The differences between the accounts of the former inmates who tell stories about these events also appear with respect to the course they took. Based on Zygmunt’s report, we would not be able to tell straight away with what purpose in all these prisoners were driven to the drift right before the liberation. Yet, the context of a generalised story of the last days in those camps, as well as the context of the inmates’ individual narratives, suggests that this was to do with the SS’s plan to erase the traces of the camp at those last moments. Not so much the material as the human traces: the prisoners were to be driven into the drift, the explosives detonated, and the victims covered up inside the rocky tunnels – together with their memory.269←283 | 284→
At last, the narrator depicts a picture of his last camp experience – the scene of liberation, being one of the key scenes in any survivor’s recollections. Once again, his story differs from the few dominant patterns in the presentation of this scene which reappear in the accounts of the Mauthausen camp system. This Interviewee’s story differs as it follows the specific lines of his memory of that particular experience, although – as we have seen many a time – this explanation is insufficient: the interdependencies between experience, its memory and the narration of it are more complex.
On our way back, we were passing a bridge on the Danube when a plane came past. You could see, apart from these English signs, there was, moreover, the Polish checkerboard on it. It was nose-diving above that bridge, as we were walking there. Those Germans… everything [= all] jumped in… You could even see the pilot who was even waving his hand in there. And at that moment, as those our men fell upon these soldiers, they then disarmed them instantly. One managed to escape. Thus, he only shot himself at the head, and fell into the Danube. And the rest, we all returned to the camp, now without those, those… [SS-men (PF’s note)]. There was nobody. And in the camp, there was nobody. Now, a moment followed that we were thinking that the Americans were sure about to enter. But, somehow, you could see no Americans. So, you had to man the positions – those German ones, in order to keep watch. They positioned me, damn it, with a rifle on that turret again. There was a group of Germans passing by, started shooting, we almost broke our legs, to flee from that place. [laughs] I think, ‘Idiot! You’re shoving upwards, instead of sitting downstairs!’ So, I sat at the back, then I moreover covered myself, I was already sitting downstairs then. But, fortunately, they were escaping, so that only and exclusively such groups were passing there and they didn’t want to encounter us. And after three… [days (PF’s note)]. That was on the second – this was coincidentally my name day – the second of May, as we liberated the camp. And the Americans only entered on May the fifth. So, for three days we actually, like, struggled, or something like that. I had a mate who was a good Pole, he was a burglar who robbed things. He said, ‘I am a good Pole, as I stole things in Germany and sold them in Poland.’ [laughs]. Well, so he… among other things, right after we returned, opened all these locks which were there. So we had some food and we somehow endured those three days.←284 | 285→
So, when was the Linz III camp actually liberated? All historical studies, and the official website of the Mauthausen Memorial (covering all the Mauthausen subcamps) give 5th May 1945, the date the U.S. Army arrived. The above-quoted account specifies: “the second of May, as we liberated the camp”. Who is right, then? Is it the former inmate, with his (otherwise quite exact) memory of his personal experience, or the historians researching the history of the subcamp? The dispute is actually apparent, and both parties to it can retain their own liberation credit270 – if we agree that the liberations of such camps were not always work so clear cut, being, in some cases – including the one in question – a process, a series of multiple events taking place at various locations, or stages. Mr Podhalański sheds light on just one of them – the one in which he himself acted. The role he assumed was, typically to his story, one of the central, if not simply the principal one.
There is a detail in this reminiscence that unveils to us the influence of a collective – or, more strictly speaking, national – consciousness as to what becomes registered and solidified in the memory (and, further on, in the narrative). Only a Polish prisoner could spot and interpret a white-and-red checkerboard painted on the plane’s body as the plane as being operated by a Polish pilot, who, moreover, was waving his hand through the plane’s window, and which simply confirmed that he was a Pole. It may be plausible, albeit rather astonishing, in any case, that the Polish checkerboard symbol was clearly visible on the plane, and a Polish soldier was its pilot. For the purpose of my investigation, however, it is not quite important who really was at that moment in the cockpit, at what height, and how clearly he could be seen with the naked eye from the ground. Of much greater importance is the experience of liberation that Zygmunt Podhalański has shared with me. An integral part of this experience is the Polish aircraft and the Polish pilot greeting the prisoners as they are liberated (with help from him, under Polish direction).
The last days and the last hours of the camp, as shown in the above-quoted scene, were a time of chaos: SS-men fleeing, the precarious seizure of control over the camp space by a group of prisoners, management of the catering, waiting for the approaching Americans. For my Interviewee, it was a time of fervent activity, seizing the initiative – ‘struggled, or something like that’ – and which was obviously fought within the enclosed space of the camp. There is no world existing ←285 | 286→beyond its limits, as yet. A Polish criminal, who is disdainfully called a ‘green corner’ in the camp nomenclature271, suddenly becomes an ally – a smartass countryman, dodger, a Juraj Jánošík who robbed the Germans and sold the loot to his compatriots. He is a ‘good Pole’, and how essential his thieving skills are now! They are key, one could say: he needs no key to open the storerooms so that the liberated/non-liberated inmates be provided with food until their liberators appear from the outside, from beyond the camp universe. Without them, the process of (self-)liberation would not be concluded. The whole situation constructed in this image of memory has something of a carnival to it; thus, such a redefinition of the roles, or sudden twists, ought not to be surprising.
How different this story is from the images that are well known to us and which feature passive, hungry prisoners, scared till the very end, waiting for their liberators who appear as arrivals from a totally different world. Once their tank, on a deus ex machina basis, has crossed the camp gate, they are welcomed with shouts of joy and the singing of a national anthem. Another, no less traditional, variant which is graspable in memories and accounts, are when the shouts and expressions of joy of the others are heard: the story-teller is lying down totally weak on a plank bed in a barrack, waiting for any help to come, or just desiring to quietly slide beyond the edge of life.
Zygmunt Podhalański’s account tells of no American tank, no cheering in honour of the liberators, no national anthem being sung. There is not a single, symbolic moment of liberation. The chaos of the last days behind the camp barbed wire smoothly turns into the chaos of the first days in the freedom. But this state of affairs would not last long: my Interviewee soon finds a point of reference that sets some order, and a meaning alongside it, for the actions taken at that time.
Later, we left there. I spent a few days in, such a, hunting lodge, where we stayed for a while… But, sitting around like that was a stupid thing too… They made up that camp, a common one for us. That Polish Camp 62 in Linz. And there, they came over to me and said, ‘Come, we’ll go there, ’cause what should we be…’. Well, and we moved into there. I’ve managed to get that striped clothing, the one I had, burned. There were not so many lice, but there were quite a lot of fleas. The Americans still disinfected us with DDT, they sprayed it everywhere, wrote down things. And well, we remained in that camp. More and more people started coming in there. Well, and, among others, likewise those from the [coerced] labours, // who had been on the labours. With their children. And the thing about that, for those children, something… somehow get the ←286 | 287→time organised, for that, such a, chase on this… then, they’d be busy doing something, would make some… Something might happen to someone. So, we organised a school.
This fragment of the narrative may be astonishing. Zygmunt has made us become accustomed to stories of various happenings, the unheard-of adventures to which he was a central figure. One would expect, then, that with the several months in the camp over, he would make intensive use of his regained freedom and, like many of his camp fellows, start to cope with the state of overwhelming anomie, which was broken by existing rules and new ones that had not yet emerged. The bombed and partly deserted nearby town of Linz additionally provided excellent space for new adventures. Yet, his experience proves to be completely different. What he needs is to ground his actions upon some externally determined order, within some institutional framework. Contrary to a number of freed former camp inhabitants, he feels no aversion, disgust or anxiety about the camp – the notion as well as the actual institution. He reports at a transit camp for Poles – not only to wait till transported back to Poland, but primarily, to work there and to proactively shape the space of social interactions. The children arriving there become an important subject; they had accompanied their parents during their coerced labour in the Reich, while some of them may have been war orphans. It is them my Interviewee now centres his actions on. It is an important moment in his biography, with essential changes taking place, visible also in the construction of his autobiography. The central carefree character disappears. The story now lacks its previous zest: it is more serious now, other people becoming more significant.
If we were to apply a Schützean analysis, this particular moment in Zygmunt’s biography being quite attractive for such an approach, we could say that what we are now facing is the protagonist’s biographical transition, his metamorphosis. The disappearance of the earlier collective and individual trajectory of the concentration camp experience (against which his own resourcefulness and shrewdness have always been juxtaposed) becomes a moment in a completely new biographical phase that becomes reoriented toward the new values: caring for others, community service. A new biographical action scheme appears,272 unlike that of the pre-war period, once this transition has occurred. The camp experience, reported in a rather light-hearted manner, turns out to be very deep and key for this reorientation, although this has not been expressed directly: we learn about it through our analysis of the autobiography, rather than the narrator’s own commentary.
Also worth noting is the fact that after the camp was liberated, in May 1945, Zygmunt turned twenty-four. His age is an important and reinforcing context of this character’s biographical metamorphosis, the moment he enters into a mature age – no longer an adulthood forced by the Occupation and the camp, into which he has so far been cast. Another event which, apart from his involvement in the ←287 | 288→establishment of a school for Polish youngsters at the transit camp in Linz, ushers in a new biographical process is meeting his future wife, the first and wife that Zygmunt Podhalański had throughout his life, to whom he was married for several decades. This first encounter occurred before the camp was liberated. The memory, however, associated it with a different, post-camp experience and made it part of another phase of his biography. Hence, the related reminiscence appears only now in this narrative, although at the level of the events it evokes, it mainly complements the camp (or even pre-camp) story:
Meanwhile, added to all that, … I met my future wife. She was in Linz too. In, such a, subcamp of Mauthausen. She was, // was active with the AK [= Home Army] in Silesia. I by the way have even got a book here on the activities of that, // her organisation there. She is mentioned there, among others. She was arrested and sentenced to death. She was, moreover, transported, together with her female friends, to Moabit,273 to Berlin. This train was bombed on its way. The documents, among other things, were bombed. And those Germans knew about it, that they were prisoners, but well, there was no documentation: who? what? what for?, etc. And they [said], ‘Us, for nothing, ’cause they threw a piece of bread to them, to that one, there, // the camp … that was near Katowice, Mysłowice. They took us, but were to release us. And now we can see they’re taking us, // transporting us to the [coerced] labour, or what.’ And, somehow, you know… They spoke German, and they were moreover from the area of Silesia, so they were sentenced, being German citizens then, to a regular, what’s it called… And well, they detained for some time, and took them to Mauthausen, as … this was then the only option, to have them there. And there she was. I met her, for I was sent to that camp a few times, when something had to be done with the electricity. I had already learned enough to conduct the wires, or something like that, that much I could do. That was not a problem, all the more that, I say, even before the war did I do this, with radio sets……
Well, then, since I knew these things, then I was going there, and I met her. She worked in the kitchen. She slipped me some grub there on the quiet. It sometimes happens that you’re lucky, with someone giving a hand. For she’d always, something, there… // she’d offer a piece of bread, or something of the sort. And just as we came out of the camp, then I went there, to that squad of theirs there. Because she was [first] in Mauthausen and then she was moved there, to Linz. ‘Is she alive, or not?’ For you had to take into account… Well, and from then on we stayed together.
For former prisoners and coerced labourers working in the Third Reich, who right after the liberation did not return to Poland but spent a few (in rare cases, a dozen or so) weeks or months in various transit camps, this story of a camp, or post-camp, romance is a well-known scenario, even if it does not always end in a lasting marriage. The landmarks of the wartime biography of his wife, outlined in the ←288 | 289→background of my Interviewee’s own story, show a shared space of experience between the husband and his wife: conspiratorial activity, arrest, imprisonment, transport – and, concentration camp. It turns out that before their paths crossed, they were similar – at least in a few points: it suffices if they are the landmarks, for the memory and for the awareness/consciousness, including the consciousness of the national component, so to put it. Instead of a private, ordinary story about meeting a beautiful woman, falling in love, etc., what comes to the foreground is a heroic-and-martyrological story. But the latter does not completely cover the former: we can access it more through the sound recording than the transcription. Hearing the way he phrases such as “Is she alive, or not?”, or, “for you had to take into account…” are expressed, we are somehow getting closer to the importance of the question my Interviewee asked himself at that moment. Whether the wording was exactly this, or something else, is unimportant. Of essence is a trace of that sentiment which, in spite of death-rate statistics, would not really have let him contemplate that she could be dead. Such a disregard, acting, in that very specific moment, contrary to a calculation, has let them stay together; similarly to their earlier parallel paths that preceded this stage.
This story also contains a trace of yet another meta-story, which blends the individual experience with the broader context of Zygmunt’s own philosophy of being saved, as revealed many times in his narrative. The piece of bread, ‘or something of the sort’, he received from his future wife when doing electrical jobs at the camp where she was imprisoned becomes another instance that confirms the general rule whereby ‘it sometimes happens that you’re lucky, with someone giving a hand’. This sentence, uttered in this place, is something more than merely an empirically-confirmed rule or social law: it is a fragment of the survivor’s credo.
The work ‘with electricity’, mentioned by him during the story of how he has met his wife, once again leads the narrator’s memory back (against the main line of the story), to his pre-war experiences. Their purpose is to explain why an electrician’s job ‘was nothing of a problem’ for him. The digression on the ‘radio sets’ brings back, for a while, the adventures of the earlier period:
If not for the war, I would’ve probably invented a transistor. For I had got as far as making a sort of transistor, for which they wanted to pay me 120 zloty. This was big money for me at the time before the war. That was the year ’39 already. I had the satisfaction that I walked with the set to the bank of the Danube, drove a nail into the ground, the earphones, and put [it] on a plate, and together with my friends we could listen, as I had an amplifier. It only had one shortcoming, that, damn, the batteries got exhausted very quickly. … But we already had a portable set, the one like some, those ones, have today, so to put it. He wanted to buy it, and the damn thing [i.e. the opportunity] was gone, I didn’t sell it, for, as I’m saying, it was such a one that no one had one like it. And they followed me everywhere and asked what’s it like. But I was saying that nothing, I’m not going to reveal any secret. This is my secret. I said, ‘I shall patent it, end of story, ’cause it is, after all, my… // Only that it needs to be refined.’ Well, and once I was back again in year ’39, then I put it into the cellar, buried that in ←289 | 290→the cellar. Later on, they filled it with concrete in there, and that was the end of the story. But had I sold that, instead, I would’ve at least have had money. But it couldn’t be helped, could it.
This digression has no continuation, it is a dead end. This is not to say it is unimportant in the map of memory. The concreted radio is, namely, a trace of non-materialised, just potential, imagined experiences, which may be elements of self-definition, constituents of identity.
But let us resume the main line of Mr Podhalański’s narrative, following him as he proceeds, continuously constructing the subsequent images. In spite of the numerous digressions, comments, turns, he does his best to control the course of the narrative being built. One of the ways of not losing this control is to condense an entire fragment, or stage, of his biography into one expressive image. This density, narrated through a distinct example, is also a crosscut of the memory, not only of the narrative:
She [i.e. his future wife (PF’s note)] was helping me with the books, the printing process, the polygraph. There was, like, a crank-operated polygraph, with the ink. We printed these books. Of the relevant examples… I lectured in physics, mathematics, and English. By the way, I learned my English a bit during the war, in the first, second year, for a wife of one of my colleagues spoke good English. And soon afterwards, they created courses in English for those who would like them. I started attending those courses, and what I heard at that course, I transmitted to the kids. And, well, there was a moment when I’m sitting in the classroom, and there were sixty of them, of that small fry, and I explain that and this to them, and that – the things I was capable of. Suddenly, I look and see – there’s three Americans coming in. “Well then, I’m done”, I think. I look at my watch, it’s still ten minutes that I have to stay there. ‘If he comes up to me and says [something] in English, then I’ll understand nought of it, all the more that he’s an American, then he’ll be speaking with a completely different accent. And I shall completely, // I’ll disgrace myself, before all those young men.’ … I remembered at that point, when I was on the train, when you would expect them to be inspecting around. My back [was] wet [with sweat], everything… I was completely lifeless, simple… When I finished, they come over to me and say, ‘Hey you Pole, done a good job [recording unclear].’ It turned out that [they were] Polish [laughs], just… Americans, but of Polish origin. And they, to me, there… Let’s be frank to ourselves, once we went [out to socialise] then on, then we had a blast till, // till the morning. Satisfied, stories told all around…
An Occupation-time adventure juxtaposed with a class in English given to a group of Polish children in Linz – apparently, mutually incomparable experiences – shows how seriously he approaches his new role as a teacher. It is not that important whether the two events were linked in the course of the latter two or rather afterwards, as its ex-post interpretation. The assumption of the role of student is treated no less seriously; it cannot be otherwise, since every time it precedes and validates the role of teacher.←290 | 291→
It is clear that the social world of the transit camp is jerry built, thoroughly makeshift (after all, it was established as such). However, this stopgap does not necessarily imply the abrogated responsibility of the actors, provided that they felt responsible, like my Interviewee, being strongly involved in their temporary roles as students, teachers, patrons, editors/publishers of books printed with a polygraph (copying machine), socio-cultural animators or managers (to use today’s nomenclature), etc. There were probably many more such exchangeable roles to assume. The transit camp was not meant to be merely a place where the former camp inmates were to wait for transport back to Poland (or in the opposite direction) but an ersatz for the ordinary world – particularly for the children and young people who had been deprived by the war of their time for learning or studying, amusements, and personal development. Some, Zygmunt Podhalański and his wife among them, wanted to make up for this loss instantly, and they did so, with full dedicated. There is an adventurous layer to this mini-story, too. The plot is struck up, followed by increasing tension, a climax, and a happy resolution: the protagonist crawls out of the woodwork, unembarrassed, and encourages us to perceive the whole event with a pinch of salt.
The following reminiscence around which the Interviewee’s memory becomes focused is about his return to Poland. Similarly to many other accounts, a choice appears, with its implicated dilemma: to come back home, or, to go to the West? Express invitations can be heard from both sides; apart from the encouragement to choose the most appropriate destination, words of admonishment resound a warning against choosing the opposite direction. But, how to discern things at this biographical crossroads? There and then – without the later-gained knowledge that one stood at such a crossroads, but usually with a strong sense that somewhere, behind one’s back, in the background, some drama of crucial importance is going on.
Later on, there was the question of, exactly, the return. So, some would be coming over from the West, saying, ‘Don’t you come back, ‘cause they’ll arrest you.’ Others were coming from the East: ‘Listen, our country needs to be rebuilt. You need to go there.’ Well, and you were in a fix then, because those ones were arrested, others killed. That was a tough decision. At some point, they had the radio activated. There was no transport at that time, and you could not get out. They arrived on airplanes to take the French, others… // cars arrived. Well, the Czechs went on foot. The Russians, fearful, as they were picked up and pulled out, with beatings they take them out and back there. They took them into that Russian zone, as it was near Vienna at that time. And us? We were, for the time being… To go such a good way on foot, through the mountains, that wouldn’t make the slightest sense. All the more so given that, [as] I’m saying: the propaganda varied. At last, the first transport was set to go. My future wife, for we were not a married couple then as yet, says the following thing: ‘You know what, I’m going to go. Being a woman… // I’m not under as much of a threat as you might be. If it turns out that it’s possible, then I’ll let you know on the radio, for you to come back. If it turns out not to be, then I shall find the way to get across ←291 | 292→afterwards.’ And that’s what we agreed. In November, I got the message to come back all the same, that my parents were waiting, after all, and so forth. Because she had already managed to communicate with my parents here… // that, all the same…, that nothing would happen to me.
Since none of the emissaries coming from the opposite directions turned out to be completely credible, some, like Zygmunt and his future wife, endeavoured to delay their final, ‘very tough’ decision on where to go; they instead make a temporary decision, with a removability clause appended to it. A risky initial reconnaissance – a trip from Poland back to Linz would have been a daredevil venture274 – was to be decisive as to the ultimate choice. Given the fast pace of this fragment of the narrative, it is easy to overlook what was decisive – and probably had the final say in this case – about their return to Poland: their nearest and dearest who were living and waiting for them, in most cases, their parents.
Of all the journeys in one’s lifetime, the return, the way back, from the camp is usually – along with the transport in the exactly opposite direction – recorded the most strongly in the memory. My present Interviewee is no exception to this rule.
Well, and I was on my way back. The thing is, right at the frontier, [they stopped] me there… So, I was done about my return. [laughs] Fortunately, they released me, somehow.
Following my slightly directing question – “And, how did you travel back from the camp: by a transport, or on your own?” – which was not meant to reveal the details of that journey but, rather, to sustain my Interviewee’s unrestrained narrative (which begins to accelerate at this moment), Mr Podhalański constructs an expressive picture of his way home:
There was a transport, which supposedly came to take the sick. I had, you know, rather good connections there again, for everybody knew me at the camp. Anyway, there was quite enough space. These were freight cars, lined with straw. There was, like, an oven in the centre, so you could boil yourself a tea, or something like that. It took us two weeks to travel from Linz to Międzygórze, there’s that border checkpoint, via Prague. There, you could not come out. Międzygórze, or Międzylesie, I will have to check it with that slip of paper, as there are the two localities. Once I came there, well, they took, // detained a few of us. Interrogations, this, that, began. They didn’t ask me about that school, they only asked about the time of the occupation, and so on. I say, I was in the camp. ‘What were you guilty of?’ I say, ‘What do you mean, guilty? I was ←292 | 293→guilty of being a Pole.’ And, with the obligation that I was registered in Nowy Sącz, they let me go at last.
We would not guess based on this account whether his ‘good connections’ in the transit camp were necessary, or whether he just used the opportunity of some available space in the wagon provided. An opportunity to return was created, after all, for all those who wanted to get back home – even if not at that particular moment, with this specific train for the sick. My Interviewee has just begun a story about a new adventure. Such narration requires that he be positioned in the centre of the occurrences he describes, ascribing to himself a possibly most active participation. There is a noteworthy small detail, which very rarely appears in such accounts: the journey back was made in a freight car. It may be presumed that this was not a unique means of transport in these post-war realities. My Interviewee mentions it in a purely informative, descriptive way; but since he does so, the question arises as to why his peers have almost never mentioned such a fact. At least some of them must have travelled in similar (or, perhaps, even worse) conditions then. The reason might be that being transported to a camp in a ‘cattle car’ is part of the experience’s collective memory, in which an individual experience can be inserted. For a change, the return to Poland is a story of victory – and a thing like a ‘cattle car’ would somehow not suit it. Sometimes, however, as in the account under analysis, the survivor’s private memory cannot be made part of the functioning patterns; it can be found contradictory to them, if anything. This individual memory evokes, it appears, a ‘rather comfortable’ journey, in a ‘regular’ wagon, to the camp in Austria, and the way back in a freight car with straw on the floor.
There is no symbolic gesture or image with which this narrator marks the moment of his return to Poland. He cannot even fully remember the first town in which the train stopped. In contrast, the situation of halting and interrogation is distinct and significant – quite typical, in fact, to those returnees who hung about before finally making up their mind to go back. The new authorities decided if the period between the liberation of a camp and the ex-prisoner’s return was suspiciously long. Not only could a late return be suspicious: the reason, now redefined, for arrest and imprisonment at the camp was also taken into account. In the narrator’s case, the reason was obvious. Obvious enough for him not to quite comprehend the question he is asked. The answer is easy: he ended up in the camp as he was a Pole. Thereby, he identified his national identity with involvement in underground activity, struggling against the occupying power; the price he paid for this activity was prison and the camp. He is not yet aware that his understanding of Polishness, the patriotism which developed before the war, was now deprived of official empowerment. A different version of Polishness than the one he fought for and was put into a kacet for had been victorious. He will still experience it, several times. For the time being, he may continue his journey back home – or rather, a story of it.
But the transport that had been supposed to go to Kraków had already gone, and you stayed there, it had a twenty-four hour delay. Then, I waited for some trains to go in ←293 | 294→that direction. And, on my way back, I naturally got that border-crossing evidence, I got one hundred zloty, so I also say to myself, ‘I’m a rich boy.’ At last, there was a train, which I got on in Nysa. Even there they carried tea around, so I’m saying, I’m going to order some of that tea. ‘How much?’ ‘70 zloty.’ [laughs] And I readily gave over my money. That was worth the one hundred zloty I got at the border.
This micro-scene featuring a glass of tea costing 70 zloty is another deviation from a typical return story. The amount of 100 zloty is indeed often mentioned: this amount was received by former prisoners on their return to Poland, after crossing the border and registering with the State Repatriation Office. A concrete image exemplifying how this money could have been used, and additionally defining a low value to the amount, is rather rare, however.
This comes as yet another disillusionment making larger the gap between the return experience and my Interviewee’s earlier ideas and expectations with respect to the country he had decided to come back to. This adverse difference, the disappointment, is prevalent for the climate of the entire journey being reported. Yet, there is a hint of humorous distance to what is being recollected – after all, these adventures happened years ago:
Well, and so I was back. I’ve arrived in Kraków and now, you need to get to Sącz. But, how? It turned out that the bridge, // that the tunnel has collapsed and the trains are only going … // You can get there, but only via Chabówka. But the train [goes] once a day there, somewhere some train of a sort could be caught. I went to ask where they depart from. ‘From Płaszów [an area within Krakow]’. From Płaszów, OK, from Płaszów. But how to get to Płaszów? Got no money. There were hackney coaches, but I’m asking if he would take me. And I had with me a really rather big bundle. For we were getting there those UNRRA parcels. So, they had sewn it round for me with blankets. I had, almost three such cases that I pulled about, and a small bag for food. And I say to myself, ‘How to get with this to Płaszów?’ Lastly, I caught a, the one… Would he fetch me, for the cigarettes? I had my cigarettes, but of those cigarettes, I had two packs perhaps, and the rest was in those packages. I would have had to … cut it open to get to them. And I say to him that I’ve got two packets. ‘Ah, then I can only transport you to Podgórze [a district of Krakow].’ That train’s route included Podgórze. I say, ‘Well, good then, but, is the train there?’ ‘Yes, it stops there, it arrives there.’ Well then, good, then I’m going to Podgórze. I’ve come to Podgórze – there’s no one there at the station. Bloody bad. I went to the stationmaster, to ask, and he says, ‘Well, there’s a train going through here, and stopping.’ It will be somewhere there… It was eight or something, the evening – it was dark already when I arrived there, cannot remember the time. ‘But’, says he, ‘will you get in?’ I say, ‘What do you mean, get in?’ ‘Well, then you shall see when it is here.’ Oh you should’ve seen that train arriving. The freight cars and the passenger carriages. That is, on the roofs, on the buffers, … the people were sitting everywhere. There was a freight car, and so they sit, // the people sit in the open doors, their legs loose. … Inside there, inside the carriage, it was dark. Outside there, I still could see those people. There was a light bulb, it was only just lit, on that station, a stop [it was], sort of. What should I do? I’m not going to get on, I’ve got no chance to ←294 | 295→get to Płaszów, as I have nothing to offer in exchange. The only possibility: go, forcefully. And, not thinking too much, I caught one parcel, through that door, // the gate, it threw [it] inside there, the second, the third, I jumped in myself, and, to the corner! And there, in the dark. What I then heard about myself, about the boorishness, about everything else, I wouldn’t hear it ever in my life. I said nothing, I just snuggled in that corner. I say, ‘Nothing, not a word!’ They were swearing, I don’t know, all the way to Chabówka, I suppose, more and more silently, more and more silently, to be sure. There was nothing to harm them with, because all that was very soft. Those were [i.e. It was so because of] the blankets, stuffed so thickly, this is what I had managed to carry from those, there… Nothing happened to anyone there, although they shouted, ‘He broke my leg!’, ‘He cracked my head’ But later, it somehow turned out later on that I didn’t fracture anyone’s head, or leg. And, as a final result, that faded away, and the folks fell asleep. Only from time to time someone honked, and suddenly, I can hear a voice, like, saying, sideways: ‘Do you know that Podhalański has survived?’ What’s that? Is that something about me? It says, ‘And how do you know, madam?’ ‘Well, you know, don’t you, that I work at the post office. There was some lady calling up, some woman from Katowice, and she said to Mr Podhalański’s father, whom we had already called in, that his son has survived and is due to come back here.’ ‘That means, he’s alive?’ And there, discussion started on my having been arrested, etc. And thus, I’m waiting, waiting, waiting – and am saying at a certain moment, ‘In that case, I apologise to all of you together, but this is, specifically, me, at this moment.’ ‘Is this you?!’ At the stop, they carried my luggage away, everything, so that I get back [home]. … Obviously, a hackney came along at once, took me, for I’m saying that I’m not paying anymore. Then, they’ll pay [for] me there. And so I returned home.
Also this story of his return home comprises the reminiscence of an episode which transgresses a typical communication situation as otherwise happening when travelling. Here, the narrator, listening to ordinary chitchat on the train – probably, similar to many other conversations that were audible in this very crowded place – suddenly, and most unexpectedly, switches from one role to another. From a ‘churlish’ passenger, forcing his path through with his bundles where there is no more room available, he all of a sudden becomes the long-waited-for ‘our’ hero who has been lost and found. And, it is for him to resolve at which moment the turn of the plot is to occur. He lingers in order to be capable of secretly attentively listening to a biographical story of himself, constructed by the local community who instantly, through communication of this kind, filled the space after the absent man was gone. Due to the lack of other data, this story is also based on concepts or ideas; hence, death, being lost in a prison or camp, being a rational option at that time. The great astonishment of a female passenger: ‘That means, he’s alive?’ is to be explained in these terms.
Zygmunt’s account of his post-war biographical experiences is not as coherent and continuous as the one regarding his wartime vicissitudes. To be continued, it needs ←295 | 296→the support of some questions. Some of them can trigger the subsequent images, consecutive stories; some are responded to with short, to the point answers. The previous section of his narrative, long and unrestrained, was easier for him as it had its preconstruction in the form of reminiscences written down a couple of years earlier. My Interviewee’s memory has already made an effort to set the experiences in an order, systematise them and tailor them to the narrative line. The effect of this effort was a textual utterance; now, a sound recording of an oral story has been produced. Although the forms framing the voice were completely different in these two cases, the situation of the communication being dissimilar – now, that earlier effort could, and indeed has been, used. This occurs quite unknowingly, since each subsequent biographical story reaches back not only for the experiences it evokes but also to the preceding stories. It so happens that – although certainly not in this particular case – the survivors tend mechanically to reproduce their established, petrified and long-dead story. There are some, however, who are moved to tears every time they report their story.
There was one more reason for why we have changed the situation of our communication. At this point, rather than remaining seated at the table and talking, Mr Podhalański preferred to be walk around the room, fetching some photo albums and getting the photographs out. Short stories develop around these photographs too – inspired by them or, additionally, by the questions I ask in relation to them. This intermediation essentially modifies the entire interaction and, quite obviously, informs the content and form of the sound that has been registered, thus shaping the testimony now available in our archive.
The intercourse with this second part of the account is not as comfortable as the analysis of the first. The listener (and transcript reader) easily gets lost amidst the chaos of fragments, digressions, excursions. The narrator has ceased ensuring that the images he evokes alternate, form an unfolding, densely-woven story. This constructional task is now assigned to the researcher, who finds it all the more difficult now that he or she has to tackle it on their own: the Interviewee, when inquired, only gives fragmentary suggestions. He does not care about the final outcome. Zygmunt’s attitude to what he states in the second part of our meeting is well illustrated by the passing remark he makes at some point: “But I’m not sure if you’re still interested, because that was the later period, after the war”.
Let us all the same make an effort and identify the main threads of this piecemeal autobiography. An important guideline for our exploration is the following fragment, appearing in the final section of the first, unrestrained part of the narrative:
Later on, I was obliged to get my residence registered. But that, it is a completely different story, in our [i.e. Polish] territory. I reported, for I had already had one completed, during the occupation. The first year in Economy completed, with that Higher Economic School. I reported for year two, and was accepted, obviously. But after three months, the Rector called me in and says, ‘I am really sorry for you, but you will unfortunately have to leave. We have got a memo that we’re not supposed to have you [with us]. You are supposed to register for residence in Nowy Sącz, rather than ←296 | 297→staying in here.’ After that, I reported once again, for, the Thaw… I reported once again, and, the same situation. I reported to get a passport – there’s no, // no way for me to get a passport. This was all improved only in the late sixties, when I even received a passport for those People’s Democracy countries. Only later on, when I had already retired, I got my passport. I could even go to the West then. The thing was quite plain, for if he flees, then we would not have to pay [him] any retirement pension. I can comprehend it quite well. [laughs]
The leitmotif here is a series of odd episodes and incidents of harassment that Zygmunt encountered after the war – right after he had returned from the camp and, later, over many subsequent years, in various situations, well after he retired. His retirement opens another stage in his biography.
Zygmunt’s parents lived throughout the war in Nowy Sącz; hence, he returned from the camp to his family home, quite literally so. But the fact that he was about to return, and even finally reached his destination, does not mean that he could settle in that house as a resident. Before the end of the war and his arrival, there were changes that he would not have expected. Yet, he kept his wits about himself as usual, once again proving how resourceful and resilient a man he was. As we learn, he ascribes similar characteristics to his parents; these traits must have been an important element in the socialisation of their son. This is what we can learn, in any case, from the account which not only constructs an image of Zygmunt returning home but now also familiarises us with certain hitherto unmentioned events that took place before his arrest:
My parents survived the war also because of this – I say that everything was just as well and lucky. My parents had a shop in the market square. In the year ‘39, during the war, they were selling all the goods they had in stock. But, fortunately, they didn’t let them go to waste but had a house built, next to it. It was almost an open-shell the moment I returned. For, any money they got from the merchandise, they loaded it into the bricks [i.e. bought bricks for this money] and were building that house. As I was back, there arose a situation then whereby I had no place where to live. The reason was that the house was partly damaged, and beside it, at that time … they started to govern, and to my room, which I had renovated for myself still during the war – they had been building that house since 1939. I made for myself, in the attic – as it is in here – one room for me. I worked, so I had the money, and besides, I could do many things on my own, and so I did. And, they put a woman with a child in there, to whom they said she’s in charge there. Hence, she was in charge in the way that she’d relieve herself by sitting on the handrail and dropping [the faeces/ urine] down, and saying, ‘The owners are here to clean up. When they were building [the house], they could have made a latrine for me here upstairs.’ And well, I got there, and there was no chance at all, I couldn’t get registered. They didn’t want me to be registered, for I have no residence, ‘cause I have nowhere to live. But, well, in the place where the house now stands, I made a dugout for myself, covered it with an awning, took a couch from the house, and off I went. I got registered thanks to my colleagues. I said, ‘What do you mean? I’ve got a flat! I don’t want any other.’ And that’s where I resided.←297 | 298→
The situation which, if reported by someone else, could have become a family tragedy – a business suddenly put an end to by the war; a damaged house; an unwelcome billeted lodger; the loss of a place of one’s own in which to live, which had once been built by the would-be dweller: all this we find here reported on with humour and distance, as yet another challenge cast to the protagonist. He would dig a dugout for himself, in his parents’ field neighbouring onto the house (today, the house where we have our conversation stands on this very site) and establish a temporary residence for himself there. Instead of animosity or despair, he expresses his joy as he has once again fulfilled his own will. A scratch has appeared on the image of the self-made man, though: instead of a commentary stating that everything had been achieved by his own inventiveness and resoluteness, an interpretation is given: “everything was just as well and lucky”.
Overlapping with this history of wrestling with the new, post-war authorities is a much more convoluted story of a bookbinding studio he ran with his soon-to-be wife shortly after the war. Zygmunt’s in-laws had in fact run the workshop before the war and managed to reclaim it afterwards – for the time being. As it turns out, involvement in the conspiratorial movement was not the only shared point in the map of this couple’s experiences, when still unmarried. Much earlier, they had belonged to similar social worlds: Zygmunt was the son of a shopkeeper; his wife, the daughter of a bookbinder. But, as there was no house to which one could return to and settle, similarly there was no business that would wait for its owners to come back and resume operations. The house needed to be constructed, while the binding machines had to be dug out of the debris.
My wife had a printing house and a bookbinder in Wodzisław Śląski. … And as we were back, then we had virtually nothing. Nor did I, as the house here was damaged, there pillaged and destroyed. We had nothing. Her, the same thing: when she was back, she had nothing. So, as I returned here, as I got in touch with her, I started travelling to Katowice, then we went there, to Wodzisław, and started pulling the machines out of the debris. And, on the basis of these machines, we made, // we established a business. … A dozen or so people were employed. We made school copybooks, and the like. Such was the company. All the brothers joined there, the whole family, there…
In that devastated world, my Interviewee did not act single-handedly. This postwar effort is depicted as a shared, family undertaking, involving both families: Zygmunt’s and his wife’s. This account shows the drive with which people got on with constructing and reconstructing, not only buildings but also social relations, community bonds – family ties included, if not at the forefront: shared efforts and work of this kind supported their integration, reinforcement, the remedying of wartime waste.
The trace imprinted by the war, particularly by the camp experiences, proves lasting. One cannot simply and ordinarily restart his or her life ‘from this point now on’, dissociating from what is past. Even if the kacet were from the ‘handheld’ consciousness by strength of will and a maximum involvement in the present, one can never fully dissociate from it. A lasting trace has remained at the physical, somatic level.←298 | 299→
In the first place, I got down to having money in some way. Since my wife, // my future wife was already running that one, and I stayed in touch with Katowice, so from there I started drawing those copybooks to Sącz, and there I opened a shop for selling these copybooks to the area of Sącz Land. You could always make some money, taking the opportunity. And, thanks to it, I had that income, of a sort. It would be hard to talk about the school still at that moment, for in 1945… I had to see the doctors for the whole of that year. Because I … had already had many afflictions, which I’ve had until now, in any case. First of all, my aorta were calcified after the typhus. The teeth, which had to be put in order. Those dentists had made up the teeth, like, on pins for me, on needles, down to my roots. But that wouldn’t stay fixed now, so many years after. Everything had to be changed. And that was not that simple. After the typhoid, all those afflictions… and, the heart. Besides, a very strong neurosis, which caused me incessant convulsions, when I was a little irritated by somebody. And so, that year was in fact not mine at all. After all, it was afterwards still repeated after the rough ride that followed. It was repeated with me. I had an infarction only in 1956, moreover. Until this very moment, after all, let me be frank, I’ve been actually living on credit, as they say.
All of a sudden, a different layer of this autobiographical story is unveiled. Or, another version of it, because instead of the post-war activities which have just been featured, we now meet the statement that “that year [i.e. the first year after the war] was in fact not mine at all”. There, one finds no adventures, or examples of personal virtue; there is no luck or miracles. There is, instead, his health, ruined by the war – physical as well as psychical. Although so different (while concerning the same stage in this biography), these stories do not cancel each other out, and instead prove to be mutually complementary. It is only the completely different narrative style used in each of them that may mislead us and makes us doubt that these are the experiences of one and the same person.
This personal tone, an ‘unguarded moment’ on the part of the narrator, and deviation from the dominant narrative form do not last long. My Interviewee resumes the method he previously applied in constructing his autobiographical story. Running and contributing to a business of his own is an important episode in this biography – the field of new clashes, grist to the mill of biographical adventures. These skirmishes and adventures somewhat resemble his involvement in the Occupation-time conspiratorial activities – obviously, without military equipment, and with reasonable proportions. And they end up in a failure too: a private workshop, rebuilt, was doomed not to survive in the new political reality, once the eradication of private enterprise began.
Everything would’ve been just all right, if not for the war of our dearest minister Minc, who declared war against industry and commerce.275 But this is a completely different story now. And all that unfortunately had to be… Well, I managed to return all that, ←299 | 300→without much of a surcharge, from there. And, on the basis of this machinery, four cooperatives were formed. Among other things, in our cooperative here, I brought the machines. I opened one of the departments with these machines.
And in the cooperative here in Sącz, I created one department. I was not supposed to work as a clerk, as a white-collar. And I only worked here as a workman. … But, I was a foreman, I had those… // I worked with a paper cutting machine. That’s what we were doing there, I busied myself with it. Not for long, after all, for I was soon made chairman of the council… … I worked for them twenty-six years. First as a foreman, then as council chairman, then I was technological manager for some period of time. Then, I was deputy president for trade. With that, I finished.
The history of the loss of his own enterprise, the result of its confiscation and its being parcelled out to a few production cooperatives, an operation sanctioned by the law, is now reported in a distanced and humorous manner. This makes it easily woven, along with the other adventures of this narrator’s life, into the entire autobiography being constructed. When more specific questions are asked, it turns out that the experience in question proves to be one of the most significant in his post-war biography:
A situation arose when they declared war on private industry and trade, then, the best way, and it was conducted everywhere, [was] that you were caught for any trifle. The surcharge imposed was so high that somebody had to… They’d take off everything he had, and that’s it. A thorn in [their] flesh was that whole company of ours, as they could find nothing. Because I was well-versed in accounting, so I kept the books where everything was balanced, to the letter. … I had everything calculated so exactly that it was even reckoned that there was 0.00001 mg of the paint needed per one copybook. Well, there was nothing to catch. So, they sent over… // First, there was one inspection visiting, they found nothing, so later, twelve of them came over. They stayed for around almost two weeks, being very picky. They found nothing. They, well, would’ve had nothing that would stick, absolutely. Every single thing was [made] so exact that you couldn’t find anything. They were inspecting, observing, for I could see, couldn’t I, that they’re observing whether there’s someone coming in, there’s someone coming out. They found nothing.←300 | 301→
At last, there came, // two, such, gentlemen came over, dressed elegantly. I had homespun clothing on, ‘cause you could buy no fabric, but their clothes were humdinger. Bright suits, the gentlemen, like, elegant ones. [They said] That they don’t believe that here, you could, // that it’s all like this, in order. This being the case, they had arrived to do a super-inspection. It appeared that this was the Head of the Inland Revenue Office in Katowice and in Kraków. Those two gentlemen came over to have us controlled. And so they sat there, the desk was with, like, a sloping roof at the top. We’re sitting, and they’re checking and checking so. They’ve been sitting one hour, two hours. One by one, everything, just everything, is in order. And suddenly, a lad comes in, one of my employees, and says, ‘Sir, a machine, for us, well you know, can we take off the parts?’ ‘Do take them off. Just give me back that broken one.’ He came in, placed a ladder and opened at the top, like, a hatch, which was almost invisible. He opened that flap and went inside. Those men, as they saw it… ‘A hidden storeroom! Yeah! Got it!’ I say, ‘Gentlemen, stop, there is…’ They started clambering up this ladder. I say, ‘Listen, you’re going to ruin your clothes, you’ll damage everything, ‘cause there’s a plenty of lubricant and oil. There are only machinery parts up there. You’ve got here on the files, everything whatever is there.’ ‘No, there’s a hidden storeroom there.’ And up they went. I say, ‘Then, take your coats.’ No. They went up there, what were they like. You should’ve seen them when they came back. That, given the whole mess around, almost made me laugh. Smudged with the lubricant, smudged with all that, for it was tight up there. Had to walk around kneeling, to be able to find anything. They went out enraged, checking nothing else, they even didn’t want me to sign anything, [saying] that they’ll have it sorted out for them. And off they went. A moment or so after, I’m getting a phone call from the Inland Revenue. There was, like, a girl. … Says she, ‘Sir, do you know that your case has been put through … to the workers’ and peasants’ committee? They’re going to compare you with a jeweller, that your turnover figures are not balanced.’ Once I heard this, then I’m saying, ‘Well, this is the end.’ You mind it, what turnover might a jeweller have per person, raw material included, and what sort of the figure could I have, with the paper? If they compare this for me, then there’s nothing left. For me, the case was simple. I only rewrote the inventory ledger cards. The workmen signed them. Stocktake – and I went and retuned the card. And had my company wound up. On that same day. And I said to myself, ‘I’m winding up.’ I convened a meeting [to tell the others] that a cooperative would be set up in this place, we had decided. We created a cooperative. …
I did it the way that I opened one [= cooperative] of my own. This range of products, raw materials that were being manufactured, needed to be completed. That one was called ‘Bracław’ [‘Bratslav’], and I opened, under my name, ‘Trzy Kotwice’ [‘Three Anchors’], thus was the business called. For two months I worked there with one binding technologist who finished off everything that there was. This we carried to Sącz, transferred in here, and sold it here in Sącz, at the shops. And we all moved, so we came over here in September. And I started working from September for this cooperative here.←301 | 302→
The way this little story is constructed is, again, typical to this entire narrative: ridiculing the tax inspectors, the artfulness of the protagonist and, lastly, a lucky way out of the breakneck and seemingly hopeless situation: although a private business is to be closed down, he and his crew can work from now for a manufacturing cooperative, using part of the former firm’s assets, doing almost the same things. This latter element is particularly worthy of our attention, as it leads us beyond analysing the form of this narrative and the external, plot-related cloak of its content. It namely reveals a crucial biographical process, entangled in the then on-going social processes.
Extermination of private entrepreneurs – who were colloquially termed prywaciarzs – is shown not as the ordinary confiscation of their property but as a process of entangling them in the new system. This game is however constructed in such a way that a robbed prywaciarz remains an important subject of the process: he is active with a cooperative, sometimes also as its cofounder, running the new business on the debris of his former enterprise. The obvious condition was that he would accept, to some minimal extent, the rules of such a superimposed game – such as by considering it to be the lesser evil, or through a willingness to save as much as could be saved, given the circumstances. Beside the economic calculation (one had to have some means of subsistence) and fear of even more severe repression, another highly important aspect of such an adaptation and fast apprenticeship in his new role as cooperative organisation worker was perhaps his attachment to the work he performed, with its daily routine, the objects manufactured. Employment with the cooperative offered an opportunity for such an elementary continuation – be it behind a new facade, in a situation now redefined from higher up. In spite of the change in the perception and experience of the social world, some managed to maintain a sense of biographical continuity: “I have always said that if there’s anything to be done, let it be done well”.
The economic thread is one of many in Zygmunt’s jagged narration about his post-war experiences. Another thread is political: his own involvement in the ‘inappropriate’ conspiratorial faction in the Occupation period and, even more so, his family members’ involvement in the anti-communist armed underground movement are now stigmatised. The stigma of being ‘bent’ or ‘unclean’ meant in this case an obligation to report weekly on a regular basis to the local authority. More dramatic situations occurred too – even the detention of Zygmunt in the same cell where the Gestapo had him interrogated a few years earlier.
And then, they came along and wanted to confine me …, as my brother-in-law was in the National Armed Forces. And, he was, // had a death sentence after the war, didn’t he. And he had a lot of luck too. …
There came almost twelve of them. They took me away. I was still at [my father’s (PF’s note)] shop at the time. They drove me out of there. Took me to that very cell. I stayed there for some time. Then, they came, took me and say that we’re going. I’m thinking, where are they transporting me to? Frankly speaking, I was a bit scared. … We’re going, and going. I’m asking, ‘Where are we going?’ ‘How’s it you don’t know ←302 | 303→where we’re going? Your home.’ I say, ‘But that’s a completely opposite direction. We’re going to the [railway] station, aren’t we?’ Well, and we returned here, home, to my place here. … They led [me] into here, // to my parent’s, and here, set up a dragnet so he [i.e. my brother-in-law (PF’s note)] be caught. But he hadn’t been here for long yet. …
My arrest also ended in a rather ridiculous way. That is, I was then so accustomed to that interrogation that I wouldn’t even pay attention to what was going on. For you would come in, repeat the same thing each time, that, where you were and what you did during the occupation. I say that, what, I was in the camp. ‘You’ve got your lists, to the camp and from the camp. Why are you following me around?’ … As I came there, then it always followed the same pattern, that he [i.e. the investigating officer] took out a pistol, put it on the desk, and, ‘Spit it out, you, son-of-a, such and such, what was it like in that time.’ And I was telling that so and so. ‘Sign it, and you can go.’ I signed. …
[This] was repeated every week. Every week, every Friday I had to report. …
And they called to come here. I had, on Friday, as I said, to report at this place. There was an incident when I was travelling from Warsaw, I arrived in Katowice, and from Katowice I quickly came here. And I was making my way, so I asked the train attendant, when I laid myself down on a shelf to get some sleep, to get there in the morning. And I requested him just to wake me up. I attached myself with a belt, so I wouldn’t fall in the night. And thus I travelled. There was once an incident that someone is pulling me, I get up and see that it’s some soldiers, damn it, with rifles. They pulled me down from there and say that I wanted to flee. ‘Where did I want to flee to?!’ It turned out that in was in Muszyna, there at the border already. Real trouble began, for I had no passport, nothing. Fortunately, the attendant was honest enough so he ran over and says, ‘I am really sorry, I completely forgot to wake you up before Sącz.’ I had a ticket to Sącz. They only watched me up to the point that I returned on the next train for Sącz. And well, I was late here. They didn’t quite believe me at first, but they must’ve communicated with somebody else, as they accepted this.
All this takes place during the first couple of years after the war, still before 1950. It is roughly in the same period that certain events of crucial importance to my Interviewee occurred. He runs a bookbinding company which is eventually turned into a cooperative productive society; gets married; starts his studies in economics in Katowice but is disqualified afterwards; and, also becomes involved in the milieu of former concentration camp prisoners:
From the very beginning [i.e. right after the war (PF’s note)] I barged into that. Once the Polish Association was set up. I registered myself at once, that I shall… … because they had requested me. We took over some of the shops here. Those houses which the deceased had donated were taken over by the Association.276←303 | 304→
And, it is then that Zygmunt finds great healing from the illnesses he has inherited from the camp, while also making use of the skills he learned during his camp labours to start building a house. This is one of the rare examples of positive camp-related socialisation appearing in an overt fashion in a former inmate’s account.
I built that house, in fact, with my own hands, mostly. I did the excavation on my own, laid the [wall] footing myself, as that’s [what] I learned in the camp. We wouldn’t have been able to afford to buy it, would we. I can remember, when we were back in Sącz, the apartment wasn’t there, there wasn’t anything. I said that you’ve got to get down to constructing, ought to do something.
Zygmunt’s unusual activity in the post-war period – otherwise, a rather frequent phenomenon among former prisoners277 – constantly came across a resistance, subject to repression. But this period is not evoked in terms of struggling. It is, rather, an attempt to adapt to a new, no less dynamic system, which is just taking shape and somehow responds to signals from the outside. Zygmunt courageously ←304 | 305→searches for his own path: not contrary to the order being imposed on society – in contrast to his brother-in-law, for instance – but alongside this order, on its peripheries (yet, within the limits set by it).
The differing social universes between which my Interviewee prevaricated at that time have been somewhat familiarised and controlled by him, perceived as local and as if not completely serious. Yet, this period was certainly not easy for this former prisoner, now a persecuted man; formerly a Home Army soldier, today, an inimical prywaciarz… Even his arrest and interrogation sessions are evoked as if they had been conducted by his school friends, now impersonating the local rednecks, legitimised by the State authority. These scenes feature no pathos of struggle for real independence, there is no ‘fight against the commies’ or being fought by them. What it resembles is, rather, a melancholic play that needs to be staged, as this is what the directives from above tell the people to do, whilst both sides approach their roles indulgently.
At last, somewhere around the middle of the 1950s, this transitional but quite crucial stage in his biography comes to an end: the time of uncertainty, flouncing about, never-ending determination of the course of a possible way in the life. These personal findings were not based upon a quiet reflection – even if there was one, we do not know about it; in fact, they stemmed from his personal experiences, which were verified as they appeared. At least, this is the way they are presented in Zygmunt’s autobiographical story.
The mid-1950s and especially the year 1956 are not a casual watershed opening a new stage in this biography. Although we learn of this indirectly, the change in the political situation in Poland, the Thaw initiated by the ruling communist party leader W. Gomułka in 1956, essentially influenced the external context of action, including on the local level in the Nowy Sącz area. For Zygmunt’s entire family this marked a rather crucial moment, as testified by the sentence interposed in passing:
Because my brother-in-law revealed himself in 1956, lived in Warsaw, and I lived at his place [when arriving to take classes as part of his extramural studies in Warsaw (PF’s note)].
The discerning element of the subsequent stage of his biography, which can be reconstructed based on the, now quite fragmentary and jagged, narrative is his involvement in ‘socio-cultural activities’ and in arts and crafts. This activity, which began in fact somewhat earlier, now becomes central to this autobiography. His basic professional work now recedes into the background. Moreover, the experience of a game played with the authorities, so important previously, has now become less, and soon fades away.
Beside this [i.e. the work in the cooperative, which he now calls ‘working for them’ (PF’s note)], I ran the ‘Lachy’ ensemble, which I had set up. … In 1956. But, there are [= were] certain intricacies. Why? Because I set up this ensemble as soon as I arrived [in Nowy Sącz, to settle there for good (PF’s note)] in the ‘50s, saw that our women ←305 | 306→were dancing some… ‘Cause an ensemble had been formed there… And I was made chairman of the council and simultaneously, with the committee, // chairman of the culture committee [within the cooperative productive society – PF’s note]. As I saw it, I say, ‘Shit, we have so many nice dances. What’s this for?’ I met my teacher, whom I know dealt with these matters. And he said to me that he had a lot of songs collected from the Sącz Land. And he has them written down. I asked whether he would be willing to manage an ensemble like this. He says, ‘Why not, we can do it.’ I called them together, and we formed such an ensemble – there, in the cooperative, at first. For the first time, our performance was [given] five years after the war, which means that must have been around 1951, 1952. We even made an appearance in Warsaw. There was trouble, though, as they were unwilling to approve our lyrics, because for instance, there was a text that ‘blessed human kindness’. ‘What sort of a blessing you’re fabricating hereabout?’, etc. That censor, here, of Sącz. But I went to Warsaw, and there in Warsaw they sorted it out for me. ‘But this has nothing to do with the Church or anything, only that the song goes like this.’ And, well, I got that approved by them. We performed in Warsaw, at the fifth anniversary of Cepelia.278 And then on, we appeared on the radio. …
We manufactured jewellery boxes, various things, those folk ones, of wood. On the other hand, among other things, at my bindery, we started producing block jigsaws and various other things that are not folk art. They thus had us switched over from Cepelia to the Voivodeship Association of Workers’ Cooperatives. And so our ensemble was transferred there. There were hairdressers too, among others. Why am I mentioning the hairdressers… For, as we were transferred there, then they came to the conclusion that the ensemble alone – this was a purely regional ensemble – then they’d join as well, as a choir, and we will be practising together. We practised together for a year, more than a year. There emerged, as it were… The origin of ‘Lachy’. But they had us returned back to Cepelia, ’cause those products we made – there were clothes pins, etc. – having reconciled all that, they let us be back again with Cepelia. Therefore, we partly withdrew the ensemble. It danced with ‘Lachy’ but at the same time, with ‘Twórczość’.279
The thing here is not to determine in detail in what ways and when exactly those artistic ensembles operated, when were the blocks or wooden jewellery boxes made, when the manufacture was done under the Cepelia brand and when it was ←306 | 307→subject to another institution – and why, or why not, just this one. I am not in a position, nor do I even endeavour, to disentangle this intermingled knot of events – not on the level of facts.
Of real importance for me is my Interviewee’s individual autobiographical memory, in which all these experiences, thus intermingled, occupy a critical place at the given stage of his life. He reports on them eagerly and with considerable emotional involvement. As he talks to me, he takes out photographs from various events that his ensemble took part in and shows me numerous wooden ornaments and utilitarian objects manufactured by his workshop, which he keeps at his home. His animation, and satisfaction illuminate these emotions related to his non-regular job:
That was a pleasure for me, that I could take for me a… // meet people. Besides, I can show you the pictures that are here, the letters I received from people… That made you pleased, that, // that you were doing something, anyway.
As it turns out, this activity was even more extensive, multidimensional and involved Zygmunt’s personal development, enhanced qualifications, and additional education:
It was only in the late sixties that I was completing, // in the seventies. I did [my studies at] the Higher School of Film in Warsaw. … I worked with ‘Twórczość’ then already, with our cooperative from here. This is a Cepelia cooperative. And I made films for them – the customs, folk arts, dances, and so on.
As this account nears its end, we learn more about his involvement and the unfulfilled opportunities it potentially offered:
I started making these films. They were interested. I created, like, a film club, ‘Krajka’ I named it. There are even press clippings. That was the thing I needed, I wanted to learn things. Well, they offered me, once I completed [my studies], that I go to the Andes to do the camerawork. But, well, I say I’m not going there, for I don’t know how my health is, whether I can stand it in those mountains, staying there. That’s for one thing. And on the other hand, I’ve got my family here, my wife, my kid, everything here. So what am I up to now, going there, making a year-long trip? ‘Cause that journey was to last for a year, more or less. So I say, ‘What for? You take an unmarried man with you.’ … I also had a proposal that I’d be paid a fee for each episode of the film, once it was done. I say, ‘No. You’d be better paying me for running this club.’
All these threads can be interpreted in terms of a biographical process of creative and active adaptation to the existing conditions. Or, as looking for opportunities for personal development within the existing confines, determined, superimposed and controlled from above. To refer once again to the notions elaborated on the grounds of Fritz Schütze’s analytic method, one may refer here to the interpenetration of a biographical action scheme and institutional patterns. One may, moreover, discern one further dimension in these (hi)stories: a trace of yet another redefinition of identity. Involvement in a folk ensemble, the manufacture of arts-and-crafts ←307 | 308→products and, the making of documentary films (on the ensemble and handicrafts) have become central to his self-definition at this stage of the narrator’s life.
The break marking the subsequent stage of Zygmunt Podhalański’s life is his retirement in the mid-1970s. This is an important point in most autobiographies of former prisoners under analysis, usually marking one’s entry into an ‘eventless’ period, where the individual’s previous activities – primarily, professional activities – fade out and are replaced by new ones. For a change, family affairs, which had been there before too, but now fill a greater space of one’s everyday experience, tend not to be willingly included in the stories so constructed. The narrative being analysed does not confirm these observations, or it does so by contrast – as an exception to the rule.
Our conversation, intermediated by the photographs, becomes reanimated at this point. The evocation of the recent experiences, from 1976 onwards, makes my Interviewee smile and show contentment. His memory produces images that are of essence for him, with their accompanying positive emotions. The photographs we are looking at support these images and emotions, which essentially focus around two main stories.
The first is about his involvement in the activities of the association of former prisoners as well as with another organisation dedicated to disabled war veterans. It must be remembered that Mr Podhalański was a member of the prisoners’ association ever since it was formed – in fact, he established its branch in Nowy Sącz right after his return. But this first engagement was aborted for a number of years, or perhaps he ended it himself, to be resumed only in the mid-1970s, exactly at the time when most other former concentration camp inmates and a considerable number of war veterans also did so. The move they made became the condition for receiving specific privileges as veterans, whilst the politicisation seemed much less impudent then:
That did not last for too long [i.e. his engagement right after the war with the Association of Former Political Prisoners – PF’s note], because the ZBoWiD was formed. They liquidated the Association, and I withdrew. I automatically got into ZBoWiD, ‘cause this, in that, but… I stopped poking around in there, as this somehow didn’t suit me. Besides, // not to mention that there I met the people with whom, well… Just between you and me, I met them in a different field as well. That was inconvenient for me. Besides, there was no time, for there were other things to do, rather than entertaining myself with it. Only after all those changes, this was the seventies, when I … was retired, so I had a bit of time. They came to me. … The chairmen were swapped. They asked me to join the verification committee, so I went to the verification committee and there, // to the board, here, of the former ZBoWiD. I started working here. And I was drafted in from there again, // again, my colleagues came over and say, ‘Go to the ZIW280, ’cause they’re quarrelling all the time, then you ←308 | 309→shall settle the folks down.’ And indeed, as I appeared there, then it somehow quietened down. And, actually, I’ve been Chairman ever since. I first chaired the club, and now I chair the branch. … That’s the seventies already… And so, I’ve actually been acting as such all the time. Now, I’ve withdrawn from the Polish Association, from my chairmanship. … I don’t know what’s going to happen, as I’m chairman of the audit committee.
One of the reasons why Mr Podhalański is reluctant about his involvement in the activities of ZBoWiD at the time when this organisation was formed, in 1949 – apart from this centralised veteran organisation being strongly politicised, and dependent on the ruling communist party (PZPR) – was the fact that its members included some people he meets from time to time ‘in a different field’. It is not difficult to guess that he means those who called him for interrogations, and carried out the interrogations. They were, namely, those ‘better’ veterans who marched under the ‘appropriate’ standard during the war. This is how their leftist devotion had been defined, in any case; hence, they were granted the power, be it locally, to summon the suspect veterans in order to interrogate them and drag them round the gaols. Once again, it becomes evident that localness and ‘familiarness’ are an important context for those interactions. The same actors are playing their different roles on different stages, which might lead to a confusion (“That was inconvenient for me.”). How could one be sitting at a meeting beside a veteran colleague who has just ordered to have one detained, conducted one’s interrogations, or inspected one’s company and wickedly charged it with a surtax? Also, there are other consequences to these close and frequent face-to-face contacts involving these same people in completely different social interactions, which were critical for determining the partners’ identities. One such effect is, arguably, the actors’ lesser involvement in each of these interactions, their being less professional in what they were doing. Also visible is the conventionality of the whole performance, since everybody reciprocally debunks the roles they acted out via the other roles they play moments later. This perhaps makes the effects of this drama, quite crucially for this particular case, less severe or painful for those who have been assigned the worst of the roles: the persecuted, the interrogated, the gaoled. Whilst assuming this dramaturgical perspective, let us never forget that what we are talking about is real life.
Zygmunt explains his reluctance to commit to the ZBoWiD in different terms: “there was no time, for there were other things to do, rather than entertaining myself with it”. Indeed, there were multiple issues he considered serious or important niggling at the back of his mind in the year 1949. Since he classed ←309 | 310→this one as not so serious, a form of entertainment, it would not fit the remainder of the picture of himself in the period concerned. This situation definitely changes upon his retirement. This is, as we have said, a completely different stage in his biography. The distribution of time he now executes is different too, which implies a change in his personal priorities. What was deemed entertainment or loss of time, now becomes an important issue in Zygmunt’s life – an essential element of his identity.
However, his activity with the veteran organisations, especially with the ZBoWiD, is shown as a duty imposed from the outside – even if it is evoked with emotional involvement, if not pride. Instead of another picture of the narrator making independent and daring decisions, we hear and read that his colleagues came and ‘drafted him in’.
What is the reason for such a sudden alteration in the way the narrative of those experiences is constructed, and in the way they are interpreted – in the way he goes through them and adds an autobiographical meaning to them? What we now encounter is his susceptibility to the suggestions and instigations of others; drifting instead of steering. We find no independent decisions or choices of his own, no shaping of the course of events. Instead, there is the pressure of friendly obligations and an inertia of the institution into whose wheels he has fallen: since there are posts available, someone has to fill them, even though they may be reluctant to do so. Even the improved situation following his taking up the position of chairman of the local branch of the Association of Disabled War Veterans is shown as a parallel occurrence which merely happened at that time – as if spontaneously, without much connection with the narrator: “as I appeared there, then it somehow quietened down”.
This alteration could be explained by the personal modesty of a man who is reluctant to make others aware of the positions he held, or what he acted as. Not because he considers such positions or functions dishonourable but because he sees nothing in them to boast about. There is no heroic adventure, no direct personal merit on his part. Moreover, joining the ZBoWiD and, simultaneously, its local authorities is in contrast to Zygmunt’s earlier reluctance to become involved in this structure. Hence, it poses a certain problem to the narrator who has to merge into a single story the varying stages in his biography that do not seemingly fit together. However, he finds a way to make his autobiography stably coherent, and preserve the integrity of his self-image unspoiled. He eclipses and belittles his own involvement, emphasising instead the instigations of his colleagues, and using the quantifier ‘former’ with respect to the institution that existed and fared fairly well at that time: “They asked me to join the verification committee, so I went to the verification committee and there, // to the board, here, of the former ZBoWiD”. To be sure, ZBoWiD was clearly not then yet ‘former’: a continually existing entity, it had recently been transformed and continued to exist for a further fourteen years. Yet, in spite of his commitment, my Interviewee does not want me to associate him with this name and the veteran organisation it denotes.←310 | 311→
ZBoWiD ceased existing in 1990; its activities have been taken over by the organisation known as the Association of Veterans of the Republic of Poland and Former Political Prisoners. In parallel with it, there operates a Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners of Nazi Prisons and Concentration Camps, reactivated in 1990. The Association of Disabled War Veterans has functioned throughout as a separate entity. Zygmunt Podhalański is not bothered by his involvement and functions on the boards of all these institutions. Furthermore, he acts as a local representative of the Maximilian-Kolbe-Werk association. As it thus turns out again, signs and names tend to obfuscate the image of real social processes and interactions, rather than help us to understand them. Such multiplicity of commitments in the apparently competitive organisations, their interpenetration, is perhaps apparently astonishing. In fact, there is nothing out of the ordinary in this; in fact, this is quite a typical situation, particularly as regards the provincial structures of such organisations.
The rather uncertain tone my Interviewee uses when talking about his engagement with these veteran organisations could as well suggest that he is not quite willing to tell much about the positions he held and their related profits or benefits, as he believes it would be more practical not to boast excessively about it. But this seems to be a red herring: the interview over, Zygmunt searched for the addresses of his colleagues – former prisoners – and we looked together through various documents related to his work in those veteran organisations (some of which, electronically formatted, he showed me on his home PC). There were many documents – all arranged in an order, collated, captioned. Among them one finds, for instance, letters from the poorest families of former prisoners for whom it was necessary to organise financial assistance, Christmas parcels, etc. This office work was performed with great diligence and in a very reliable fashion. I had the impression that for my Interviewee, this work was an important service provided to the others; one of the major tasks at that stage of his biography.
But the retirement phase of Zygmunt Podhalański’s life was not confined to his involvement in the prisoners’ and veterans’ milieus. It was also the time in which he could afford the previously impossible journeys he had planned from long ago. We were guided through them by the albums we looked at together and a carefully kept family chronicle – each volume representing a single year, containing photographs with descriptions and comments, documents, press clippings, tickets from excursions made or concerts attended. Again, extraordinary order was this chronicle’s trait: each item had its dedicated place in the album, and each album its special place on the shelf.
For many years, travel abroad was formally blocked by the unavailability of passport. My Interviewee had mentioned this earlier, when announcing the main threads of the second part of his narrative, joking that he had received his passport when he was about to retire – his possible escape abroad perhaps save some public money. He is now more detailed in evoking that situation in response to my questions, which are inspired by the photographs we look at together. Asked ←311 | 312→whether he was coaxed into joining the PZPR communist party in the period he was active with Cepelia, he responds:
Oh, and how many times was that! But there was one thing that I did – for I joined the Democratic Party. It was owing to this that I got, at all, a passport for People’s Democracy countries. In no way could I get a passport [before then]. In spite of my efforts. One colleague from ‘Twórczość’ says to me, ‘Oh how stupid you are. Join the Democratic Party, and you will get your passport without a problem. For you they’ll sort it out.’ And, indeed. I went there and I saw that all the lads [are] the same [there]. It’s the same notes that they’re playing. [laughs] So what’s the fuss. All right. I signed up. Literally, two months later, I got a silver cross of merit. For I worked here, in this, // the community [housing-estate] committee. I chaired the social conciliation board, so I had quite a lot of merits to my credit. It turns out that suddenly, they found one [i.e. a passport] for me.
The Democratic Party (Stronnictwo Demokratyczne; SD) was, along with the United Peasants’ Party (ZSL), one of the two satellite parties of the PZPR. It mainly operated in artisanal, mercantile and intelligentsia milieus. His accession to this organisation, in 1969, is constructed in my Interviewee’s autobiographical memory as a ‘join the pact’ move – an opportunistic, insincere, purely pragmatic act. There appears, let us remark, the narrative figure of a colleague who unmasks the rules of the game before the naive, ‘stupid’ protagonist. The colleague helps him see the truth and to realise that everyone (anyone who is of importance, given the context) has long been playing this game – and “it’s the same notes that they’re playing”. The last doubts are allayed and ethical defences are given an excuse: “So what’s the fuss. All right. I signed up”. There is more to it: the commitment can be interpreted today as a sui generis subversion of the socio-political system; if not demolishing it from the inside, then at least taking advantage of it and ridiculing it, although the actual incentive is purely private: it’s all about getting the passport.
No less important is one more ‘aside’ voice – of the same or some other colleague – reassuring that nothing wrong has happened, it’s all the same old way. You can even go to church as you did before. Joining the SD is contrasted with would-be involvement with the PZPR, the difference between the two organisations being emphasised. Moreover, commitment to either allows one to extricate oneself from repeated instigations to join the other, preventing such an option. The other party is, clearly, ‘the worse one’:
“Well, see what you’ve done? And now you’ve got it. Nothing’s changed, for you can go to church if you like, otherwise you wouldn’t.” As I was dragged to the party, then I said that forgive me, my dear ones, but I go to church and don’t want anyone to make a charge against me that I go to church being a party member. ‘We, to you… // You can keep going, we have nothing [against], you’ll believe it that…’ [The pronoun ‘you’ is used in plural in the original. (Transl. note)]. I say, ‘I was made a believer by my parents.’←312 | 313→
The system is operational – another of ‘our men’ is awarded straight away for his work. Some merits were identified to his credit (from an earlier period, but it does not matter), for which State decorations are owed to him. The obstacles to giving him a passport have disappeared – but this right only extends to friendly countries; the trust toward an SD cardholder is thus limited and so confined. The passport was, in any case, the actual purpose behind this whole masquerade. At last, the daydreams of travelling can come true:
I travelled a lot, the moment I managed to get abroad. As I got a permit for my first trip, well, then the first trip I made, was an excursion I made to Bulgaria. Such were the… I purchased … that excursion. I came back. To see around what all that looked like. There were many things I didn’t quite like. ‘Cause, such blasted traffic… That, that was not for me. I first had a motorbike, then I bought a car. By car, as we started travelling, then we had the whole, with my wife, our granddaughters, // then we had gone all around Europe.
We regrettably only have a reminiscence of the first of these numerous trips – and, a completely failed one, which failed to meet the tourist’s expectations, evoking instead the climate of ‘trading excursions’ to the ‘brotherly countries’, which were so popular at that time. The other journeys have not been reported here, and were not part of the recorded account. The recording only contains the rustling pages of the family chronicle I am shown. There are photographs taken on each of those trips, descriptions and notes about the places he visited. Including the Mauthausen Museum and Memorial, a stop along the route of one such family trip, made once the travellers could at last go somewhat westwards.
I was in Mauthausen twice. … By the way, I once kicked up a row that there were no Polish inscriptions. There were more Poles than any other nation, mind you. I don’t know, I didn’t pay attention later if they had rectified that or not.
This particular trip was of special importance: the Mauthausen camp is a very important point in the map of Zygmunt Podhalański’s life experiences. This was a journey of key importance for his self-definition, his individual identity. But not just the individual identity: by taking his family there, he gives a sign that he desires a family-based, intergenerational transmission of memory of those experiences. His arguing for a commemorative plaque in Polish is an act in the sphere of collective, national memory. A few decades after the war, the space of the former camp does not remain indifferent; hence, its transformations trigger such strong emotions, if they let down the expectations. This is comprehensible, and quite characteristic to a majority of former inmates – particularly those involved in the official rituals of commemoration, as activists with prisoner/veteran organisations.
Although it is not the last image evoked in our conversation, the trip to Mauthausen is the ‘youngest’, regarding the chronology of the events reported on. The final minutes of the Zygmunt Podhalański interview appear not to be leading, otherwise a usual thing, to a summation or tagline; no afterthought is given, or ←313 | 314→expressed, to the autobiographical account just concluded; not a single sentence of a general commentary is uttered with respect to it.
Our talk has been revolving around the photos and albums for quite a while now, but Zygmunt is growing more and more impatient. He cannot focus on my questions anymore, or even on the photographs he is showing me. He keeps looking for more and more of them. He walks to the next room, brings more material in, but does not give himself (or me) enough time to focus on them.
Extended stories have now been replaced by short, slogan-like commentaries; together with the photographs, they unveil the new experiences of my Interviewee, completely absent hitherto – particularly those dating back to the most remote, pre-camp stages of his biography. These unveiled episodes show how incomplete is the autobiographical story from the first part of this account. This is not a disadvantage: any narration is incomplete, as it would not map one’s life on a 1:1 scale (otherwise, an autobiographical memory would be thus imaged), but rather, construct it. It is a rare thing, though, for us to have the opportunity to see such deficiencies, gaps, empty spaces, and to try and complement them with the use of photographs and comments on them.
Now we can learn more about Zygmunt’s parents, sisters, and their wartime hardships:
One [sister] got beaten by the Germans, and died after the war. The other one died two years ago. She rode a bike [one day], when a child, and a German lashed her on the back with a staff, that instead of stopping, as she was going, and bowing, she carried on. So he beat her for that. He punched her in the kidney. She continually had problems with her kidneys [afterwards] and died in the end. There was no dialysis at that time yet. My uncle, my grandmother’s brother, was also shot dead by the Germans.
But first of all, the narrator has grown more distinctive now. Also by means of curious details, such as the fact that Zygmunt’s official, registered date of birth is different from the real one, since the vicar, also an uncle, had the date ‘rewritten in January’. An essential fact for the interpretation of his later biographical experiences is his involvement with Marian Sodality, and even more so, with scouting. Now, we can better understand our Interviewee’s pre-war patriotism and his later involvement in the conspiracy, which, rather than being based on his personal political preferences, stemmed from how his own parents understood Polishness, or things Polish:
Let me tell you something. All of them [= my family members] were Poles. That’s what they imbued me with, in the first place. But I’d rather be careful to say, this is the endecja [i.e. National Democracy followers]. ‘Cause this one was an endek [i.e. national democrat/ND follower] [pointing to a man in the picture] but this one would rather have backed Piłsudski. And this is a photo of me, from the Sodality.
No less important for the image of Zygmunt’s socialisation is his reminiscence of the methods his parents applied to control the children:←314 | 315→
You’ve asked me about my parents. Our parents loved us very much. They would never give me a beating, somehow, or something of the sort. But, when you were up to mischief, then you’d get nearly an hour and a half of a chat, that how do you love us, how you could do such a thing. I’d prefer to get a thrashing a thousand times than listen to that, how could you do it that way… ‘You cannot understand how much we have to do for you, and you’re paying us back in such a way!’
However, an upbringing based upon a sense of guilt was just one of the methods – possibly, a not-too-efficient one, as it is reported as part of a childhood anecdote. The other educational method proved much more efficient:
The comfort I had was awfully comfortable [sic], for, once the holiday came, my father would give me sixty zloty – one zloty per day – and say, ‘Dispose of it as you will!’ Then I, well, went on tour around Poland. … I would visit various cities, spending my nights at some barns. I’d return to Lublin region, where my uncle was a forester. There, I took a canoe, or perhaps a horse, and travelled further up. I saw all those forests, there, the lakes, and so on, one after another. I paid visits to everybody. Then, I was back, and still worked at the harvest. I earned my money during the harvest. You could always have your five [zloty], quite often, earned doing the work. Beside this, I got 50 grosz per each jackdaw, hooded-crow shot. And, one-and-a-half zloty for a hawk. That you would return to the forestry management, there they dispensed the money. And I returned, with one hundred and twenty zloty on me. And that was my vacation. … And that’s why I’m saying, there’s nothing that’s a trouble for me.
Zygmunt’s father endeavoured to develop his son’s technical skills in a similar way:
It all was interrelated somehow… They wouldn’t give me any toys, for that matter. Toys, there was no dice. But indeed, I could get a ball, pincers, if I needed them. What I needed, then, ‘Make it.’ But not, like, they’d buy me the stuff, so I play with it a little and turf it out. I had to make it to have it; I had to make an effort to get it. … As I told you, I made myself a radio. One radio set, another one. Then, I was taught that you shouldn’t take anything on credit. And I never took anything on credit. Because I was instructed in what the outcome of taking on credit is.
How efficient these socialisation methods have proved is testified to by the earlier Occupation and camp narrative, which we know quite well now. Now, as we look through the photographs, new threads are added to the pre-war and wartime (hi) stories – such as, for example, the banned but rather delightful engagement with a music ensemble, and ‘green’ or ‘white school’ outings.
We made up a group of four, like. Only it was bloody risky. Should our teachers, professors have known, we wouldn’t have spent but a second in our gimnazjum [i.e. junior high school]. But, you did sing a little, in this way. When we were, for example, in Zwardoń, ‘cause we had such a period that we would go, for instance, to Zwardoń281 ←315 | 316→for a month. There, you went skiing and attended your lessons. That was, like, a relaxation, as it were, and learning at the same time. … Well, and then, we would slip by and sang in a club for cash, as masked boys. … No one knew about it. Nobody would even grass on us. There were many such sorties.
Mr Podhalański considers his employment with a trade company during the Occupation to have been one more method in his socialisation:
As I was back here after September , it was already in January  that a fellow from Warsaw arrived and offered me a job as a representative of the ‘Dobrolin’ factory ….
His compulsory fire brigade service also falls into this category, along with coerced labour in the Construction Service – Baudienst, repeated hiding from arrest – for the first time as early as the beginning of 1940, in the course of the AB-Aktion. Illegal sorties to the mountains, with skis, which were then a ‘banned’ facility:
We had to hand the skis over … once the war with Russia [i.e. the USSR] broke out. All the skis had to be returned. So, I returned a pair of tacky ones, and hid a pair of good ones at my colleague’s in [the village of] Rytro. We used to go there. And then, we went up the mountains, ‘cause there were no ski lifts like there are today – besides, what pleasure is it, to go up on a lift – and we hiked through the mountains. Then, we returned, and had our skis hidden in Rytro.
There are other photographs and little stories too, parallel to these ones as they are set in exactly the same wartime period. Not as swift or full of suspense, they are more thoughtful and tougher to express – like the story of his first love:
I can specifically remember that excursion [looks at the photographs]: she was my first love. She is dead, regretfully, she perished… died of a cancer.
Or, the one about the consequences of his wife’s wartime experiences:
I only had a son. My wife could not have more children, as she had had those experiments made on her, and the effect was that, afterwards…
These last utterances do not fit this autobiography too well. They were veiled in the unrestrained narrative. They have surfaced now, induced by the photographs; yet, Zygmunt is not willing to ponder for a while over them. These are hard, perhaps the toughest experiences, which he has not managed to integrate with the remainder of his biography. They are at odds with the leading statement of his meta-story: “I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth”, which is meant to interpret and add meaning to this Interviewee’s life experiences. This sentence has alternately been an overt or hidden motto of the free-flowing narrative. It also accompanied a number of little stories or anecdotes chaotically scattered across the last section of this interview (the last-quoted sentence was stated as part of one such story). All of them together build up an adventurous autobiography, a picaresque, Good Soldier Švejk style story of the protagonist’s fortunes. Those willing to identify more literary analogies could find hints of knightly epic, a philosophical tale…←316 | 317→
In turn, a number of other micro-stories appearing in this conversation strongly contradict this pattern. Both types of anecdote, even if pushed aside (to the story’s end), shed light on the processes of autobiographical construction – on the memory level as well as on the narrative level. Such ‘scraps’ enable us to better understand the wholes from which they have been cut and rejected; these wholes are not so much literary as, so to put it, identity-related constructions.
Zygmunt Podhalański’s ‘light’ story on his experiences, particularly his concentration camp experiences, is a means of distancing himself from them and coping with them; of making himself part of the image, as an element of identity. This task, compulsory as it is, does not appear easy to deliver, if it is completely deliverable at all. Even if this narrative, when read superficially, appears light or easy, it turns out that not all the pieces of the experience have been successfully integrated within it. Some of them, perhaps the most important ones, remain veiled, temporarily covered, rather than worded or expressed. The temporariness is, in this case, not about a transient or unsteady quality; the thing is, the cover he uses is not perfectly tight. Hence, to escape from being confronted with what is hidden beneath this cover becomes the hidden engine of the activities of this man’s daily life. Such and escape cannot be inhibited; otherwise, the thoughts could turn in a dangerous direction – towards experiences he has no strength to confront.
Let me tell you something. The best thing is not to think. Be engaged in something else instead. One ought to get on and do some other things.
The account of Zygmunt Podhalański was concluded with an important epilogue. There is no definite punch line to it, for a change. There is no clear ending, the moment the recording equipment is switched off being – more than usual – the researcher’s (that is, my own) arbitrary decision. The interaction becomes chaotic to the extent that it makes its meanings comprehendible. My Interviewee has stopped responding to the questions, or commenting on the photographs he shows me. He is tired and affected now, if not tense – he would not allow himself to pause. He keeps on looking for more photos, documents. He takes a display cabinet down from the wall with awards and distinctions, shows me them with satisfaction, or even with pride, naming them one by one (“This is the Commodore’s [Cross]. This is the Knight’s, the Officer’s, the Partisan [Cross].”). So, maybe the game he played with the system in the period of the People’s Poland (most of these orders and decorations come from that time) was not just a cynical and pragmatic calculation?
As for me, I am no longer able to keep up with browsing everything that he puts on the table, especially since these things need to be removed quickly to make space for the next (and next) pictures, documents, diplomas, or objects. I would rather help him put these things in order and put each piece away in its proper, precisely assigned place, thus helping to bring our meeting to an end. This is ←317 | 318→partly successful: we close this interaction and make an appointment for the next meeting. The foothold is the pictures and documents we have not managed to see and photograph. There is also a collection of audio cassettes with accounts that he had recorded many years earlier with his colleagues in the War Veterans Association. He has been thinking for some time now about a reliable place where he could entrust this collection, for its digitisation and archiving. He responds enthusiastically to my declaration that the KARTA Centre would be interested in such a collection. We agree to meet again some time in the near future, without fixing the date. Zygmunt will prepare the recordings (he keeps them at his office, not at home), make a selection and rerecord for me fragments of his own memoirs that he once wrote down; he would not offer me the entire thing, as he deems it ‘too private’.
I look for an opportunity to visit Nowy Sącz, and to meet Zygmunt there again. Three weeks later, I come across an unexpected opportunity to go to Zakopane and to record another interview there; on my way back, I will be sure to visit ‘my man from Sącz’. We exchange email messages beforehand (“I’ve been working with a computer for, maybe, four or five years. … I have learned the skill on my own”), concretising our plan. Zygmunt is very satisfied with my offer to visit him again so soon. He offers to put me up for the night at his place, should I need it an overnight stop on my way back to Warsaw. In conclusion, we decide that we shall see what happens, as I cannot tell exactly how long my meeting in Zakopane will last and what time I will return.
On 5th March 2006, late in the afternoon, we meet again in the attic apartment of the house he had once built himself. My Interviewee was prepared for this meeting even more intensely than for the previous one. This is something that really matters for him. He wears an elegant shirt and a tie, and a pullover on top – the weather outside is extremely unpleasant on that day: gloomy, cold, wet, and windy. A supper he has carefully prepared is waiting on the table. The tableware is prepared for both of us, but I end up eating on my own – he declines to join in, excusing himself as having no desire for food. Seated together at the table, we are finally talking – but no follow-up of the interview from a few weeks ago develops. I can see that Zygmunt is not willing to resume that story, deeming it completed and concluded. I do not even try to press him, feeling that the moment is not quite right for restarting those reminiscences. I am afraid of the ambience of edginess and chaos that we experienced at the end of our previous meeting; now, I can see some anxiety and tension.
My Interviewee expected that I would spend the night at his house before I continued my trip to Warsaw. He asks me which room I would like to sleep in, and what I would like to sleep on. But I feel up to continuing my drive before the day ends, which he seems a little disappointed with, but makes no attempt to influence my decision. He recalls, with a smile, images of his own adventurous nocturnal motorbike trips between Nowy Sącz and Warsaw, which he made over thirty years ago on a regular basis.←318 | 319→
Supper over, he hands me two big wooden Cepelia-made boxes, embellished with incrustations, manufactured by the cooperative he once worked for. Not as a gift for me, though, but as an elegant packaging for the cassettes containing recordings of the memories of his colleagues, veterans and disabled soldiers. The moment Mr Podhalański hands me this collection over is extremely important for him, the climax of our meeting. He really cares that these recordings are digitised and placed in the archive. The original copies are to be returned to Nowy Sącz.
We do not reenter a camp story, staying outside of it. But my host’s camp experience remains the point of reference for this second meeting as well. We seat ourselves at the computer, and I am given a CD with a copy of a fragment of his memories. I give Zygmunt a CD-formatted audio recording of his account from three weeks ago. He mentions again the former camp prisoners living locally whom he deems worth visiting in order to record them while they are still alive and able to share their recollections.
It is getting late, and I am facing a long journey – and a rather tough one, given the weather conditions. Satisfied with the meeting, we cordially shake hands and say farewell. Actually, his handgrip is strong enough for me to wonder how come this old man is still so sturdy. At last, I depart. I reach Warsaw before midnight. The following day, before noon, I call Nowy Sącz to tell him I returned safe and sound, and to thank him once again. I know that Zygmunt Podhalański is especially eager to hear the former piece of news, as he was worried about my journey. Someone else takes the call, so I ask if I could please talk to Zygmunt.
Unfortunately, I could not. Our conversation the previous night was the last one he was to have in his life.
He had died that night, in his sleep.
258 His surname literally means a Podhale man – Podhale being the ‘Polish highlands’ region (Transl. note).
259 Cf. K. Kowalewicz, ‘Narracje autobiograficzne – zagrożenie – zaradność’, in Biografia a tożsamość … . In this context, see also: A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., pp. 123–145.
260 Cf. M. Czyżewski, ‘Generalne kierunki opracowania, wymiary analityczne’, in Biografia a tożsamość…, p. 46.
261 See M. Kula Zegarek historyka, Warszawa, 2001, p. 203 ff.
262 A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek indicates a ‘collective model of the Underground soldier, with his moral obligations of courage, loyalty, keeping silence, and commitment’, identifiable in the accounts provided by this group of narrators. However, the narrative under analysis would not fit the ‘heroic-martyrological variant of the trajectory of arrest and imprisonment’, which relates to the said collective pattern. Cf. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit.
263 Linz I: in November 1942, on an initiative of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, an agreement was signed to establish a branch of the DEST company as a slag processing plant, slag being a by-product of the Linz foundries. The agreement provided for the setting up of a labour camp by the SS, which provided the prisoners, civilian workers and appropriate appliances. A Kommando of thirty was regularly sent from Mauthausen to Linz, from mid-December 1942, to construct the camp there. On the 11th of January 1943, one hundred Mauthausen inmates were transferred to the new subcamp. From July 1943, once the slag processing started, the camp was expanded and the number of its inmates reached a maximum of approximately 950. Beginning in early 1944, Linz I prisoners were also assigned jobs at the local arms factory and steel establishment. Given the increasing number of inmates, for whom there was not enough room within the camp, it was decided, in May 1944, that an additional subcamp be built, called Linz III. On 25th July 1944, Linz I was bombed by the Allies; 73 to 122 inmates were killed, many of whom remain unidentified. Due to the destruction caused, the camp could no longer function and was decommissioned on 3rd August 1944, its surviving 631 inmates being moved to Linz III.
264 Employment at a steelworks, arms factory or workshop, supervised by civilian staff, indeed provided an opportunity for better food. The policy was to ‘care’ more for the prisoners working at such plants, so as to reduce the staff turnover while increasing the efficiency of their labour.
265 In his analysis of bombardments of urban areas as a borderline experience, Jacek Leociak points to three basic characteristics: “First of all, the fast pace and total nature of destruction, and the ensuing all-embracing chaos and havoc; second, the moment of a (horrific) metamorphosis; and, thirdly, the critical characteristic: ambivalence, a clash of ‘horror and beauty’, the experience of a mysterium tremendum.” See J. Leociak, ‘Bombardowanie miast jako doświadczenie graniczne’, in S. Buryła, P. Rodak (eds.), Wojna. Doświedczenie i zapis – nowe źródła, problemy, metody badawcze, Kraków 2007.
266 Linz III: 22nd May 1944 saw a thirty-member Kommando of inmates ordered to work at the existing ‘Camp 54’: a Linz III subcamp was to be constructed in its place. As a result of the Allied air-raid on 25th July 1944, a few dozen of the camp prisoners may have been killed. At the same time, the Linz I camp was destroyed and it was decided that all the inmates who had survived the bombardment be removed to Linz III. The maximum number of the camp’s inmates exceeded 5,600, Poles being the most numerous among them. The conditions in this hastily-built camp were much worse than in Linz I; this, given an enormous overpopulation, caused an even higher mortality rate among the inmates. Linz III inmates were mostly assigned labour at the ‘Hermann-Göring-Werke’ factory, which produced crankshafts and tank caterpillars. They also worked at slag processing, in metal establishments, in the construction of a railroad and bridges. They were also assigned with removing the effects of bombings and building air-raid shelters. Some labour Kommandos were supervised by civilian workers. The camp was overseen by 370 SSmen, while Karl Schöpperle was the commandant. From autumn 1944 onwards, the local SS crew were partly replaced by the ‘old’ Wehrmacht soldiers and, in the camp’s last days, by Volkssturm members as well. For the inmates, these changes meant an alleviation of the camp regime. Still, the inmate provisioning was incessantly deteriorating, till it suffered a complete collapse in the last weeks before the liberation. This caused a rapid growth in the number of the sick and deaths from starvation.
267 This reminiscence of smoking in the camp is not as unique as it may seem. A team of Krakow-based psychiatrists, students of Professor Antoni Kępiński, researched into this particular aspect of the camp universe. Based upon a total of 114 replies given to a ‘questionnaire-formatted appeal’, sent in the mid-1970s to 613 former Auschwitz/Birkenau prisoners, of both sexes, the scholars divided the cohort of respondents into six groups, by their attitude to smoking: (i) I never smoked, and it never posed a problem for me; (ii) I only smoked at the camp; (iii) I learned to smoke as an inmate and have been a smoker ever since; (iv) I was a smoker before, during and after my stay at the camp; (v) I completely quit smoking while in the camp; (vi) I quit smoking when in the camp, but resumed the addiction afterwards. See: Z. Jagoda, S. Kłodziński, J. Masłowski, ‘Używki w obozie oświęcimskim’, Przegląd Lekarski, 1975, no. 1.
268 The famous large-format painting by the Polish artist Jan Matejko, 1878.
269 In his Mauthausen-Gusen. Obóz zagłady (Warszawa 1979), Stanisław Dobosiewicz describes the various options of an identical liquidation action that the SS planned for the Gusen camp drifts (pp. 382–8). Among the documents quoted in this book is a record of a fragment of the testimony made by Franz Ziereis, the camp commandant: “In line with the order of the Reichsminister Himmler, following the command of Ogrf. Dr. Kaltenbrunner, I was supposed to annihilate all the prisoners. They were to be led to the tunnels, entrances of which were to have been bricked up before, with just one entrance left operational. Next, the tunnels would have been blown up, and the inmates driven into them”. This fragment is obviously part of the former inmates’ collective memory and has a bearing on their individual reminiscences from the last days before the camp’s liberation.
270 The ‘two liberations’ are not as easily ‘reconcilable’ in every single case, though. Perhaps the best-known example of such an acute conflict of memories is – or rather, was until the reunification of Germany – the liberation of Buchenwald, another concentration camp. When marching in on 11th April 1945, U.S. soldiers encountered the camp governed by resistance-movement prisoners (the SS crew had escaped before then). The legend of the camp’s liberation by communists and the history of the camp’s (leftist) resistance movement were among the essential constituents of the official memory of war in the DDR, if not the country’s founding myth.
271 The green triangle was used to mark prisoners detained in the camp for criminal offences. These were mostly Germans and Austrians, who assumed privileged positions as kapos, blockleaders, warders, etc. For the ‘red corners’, political prisoners marked with the red triangle, the ‘greens’ were a negative referencepoint. In opposition to the ‘greens’, the ‘reds’ built their camp-based identity as political prisoners. Exceptions to this stigmatising rule sometimes occurred all the same. See the account of Mirosław Celka, ref. no. MSDP_162.
272 For a concise explanation of these Schützean notions, see K. Kaźmierska, ‘Wywiad narracyjny – technika i pojęcia analityczne’, in Biografia a tożsamość narodowa … .
273 Moabit was a criminal court and prison in Berlin. The name also belongs to a district of Berlin.
274 The account of Adam Stręk, a former inmate of Auschwitz (and, later, of several other camps), as recorded within the same project, comprises a similar story of such an initial, identification-oriented journey, as well as an illegal return to the transit camp in Braunschweig and, finally, an ‘official’ return to Poland, together with his wife and her parents, former coerced labourers. See Oral History Archive, KARTA Centre, History Meeting House, ref. no. ISFLDP_054.
275 What Mr. Podhalański has in mind is, most probably, the so-called ‘commerce war’ [Polish, wojna o handel]; more specifically, its consecutive episode from 1949. It is worth mentioning that there exists a considerable collection of pieces of autobiographical material referring, in multiple instances, to similar events: what I have in mind are the memoirs submitted to the competitions held a few years ago by the KARTA Centre under the titles: Na marginesie: “prywatna inicjatywa” 1945–89 and Prywaciarze 1945–89. The latter title (meaning ‘private entrepreneurs’ – with a hint of irony, if not sarcasm, given the realities of the communist regime) was also used for a book containing memoirs and photographs from the same contributions.
276 Established very shortly after World War II and operating autonomously until integrated in a centralised structure of the ZBoWiD, the Association of Former Political Prisoners was a powerful and energetic organisation providing support and assistance to former prisoners. It ran its own retail outlets and owned real properties. As recollected by a former female prisoner: “Our Association started numbering more than seven hundred people from Rzeszów alone. We were assigned an office room, in the town’s centre; a board was formed. And, they started applying for some privileges, subsidies. We first received a licence for opening dry goods stores. We opened a few shops, in Rzeszów and in the field; a fabrics and textiles shop was made in each country [powiat]. We were receiving some apportionments with excellent commodities. So, people were queuing in front of our shops, as these were the first Polish shops with things of this particular sort. There were four such in Rzeszów alone. Our [member-]prisoners were employed with those outlets. They generated considerable profits. Part of them we had deducted for Warsaw and another part we could use on our own. A project arose for building our own house for the Association of Former Concentration Camp Prisoners where we would meet, pursue a cultural life and help one another. And indeed, our [member-]prisoners made a layout for the house. Later on, we dug the foundations, assisted the construction process and soon, within a year or so, we had a large one-storey house erected at Chopina St. in Rzeszów. We commenced our activities there. Unfortunately, the regime was changing. Our Association of Former Concentration Camp Prisoners was absorbed by the ZBoWiD. In the first years, we prevailed, but later, as people from other associations started flowing into ZBoWiD – the ‘consolidators of the people’s rule’, former militia men, UB [Security Office] men, then we withdrew from that activity. Our retail outlets were closed down soon after. Our building was taken away. And thus the operations were terminated”. Cf. the account of Stanisława Imiołek, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. ISFLDP_058 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).
277 Such hyperactivity has been recognised as a manifestation of so-called KZ-syndrome, as described by A. Kępiński and his Krakow students. See, inter alia, M. Orwid, op. cit.; therein, in particular: Rozmowa 5: O programie oświęcimskim, badaniach traumy poobozowej, o pracy doktorskiej, pp. 159–179.
278 ‘Cepelia’ was the abbreviation, and a popular trademark, commonly used for the Central Office of Folk Arts and Crafts; (since 1954, Association of Polish Cooperatives of Folk Arts and Crafts), an organisation founded in 1949 in Warsaw. Cepelia organises the work of Polish masters of decorative applied art, specialising mainly in the production of souvenirs, and arranges for the sale of these products.
279 As a fact of interest, let us remark that ‘Twórczość’ Folk Arts-and-Crafts Workers’ Cooperative, existing till this day in Nowy Sącz, has a professional website, posting a.o. pieces of historical information and a catalogue of its manufactured products: www.tworczosc.pl.
280 Abbreviation for the Association of Disabled War Veterans, a social organisation whose members are disabled war veterans wounded or injured soldiers, widows/ widowers and orphans of fallen soldiers and deceased disabled war veterans. Established in 1919, the ZIW operated as an underground organisation during the Occupation, was reestablished in 1944, and then temporarily liquidated in the Stalinist period (1950–6).
281 A village and winter resort in the southernmost part of Poland.