My Grandfather and I became friends before my fourth birthday. I have been said that he met me before, just after I was born, but this is something I cannot naturally remember.
My parents lived and worked in Warsaw. My mum was Head of Polish Female Scouting Association for two consequent turns, and my dad occupied a managerial post in the Polish Ministry of Religious Denominations and Public Education. World War II broke out when I was two years old. Two years later, my sister Teresa was born, and the following year, my parents decided to move to Cracow, as living in Warsaw had become too dangerous. For the time of our moving house and starting a new life in Cracow, they left me with my granddad.
My Grandpa was seventy-seven and I was almost four years old. Yet, I cannot remember even a single situation in which he would betray any hint of impatience with me. I was enchanted with his studio, attached to his small double-room flat. I adored sitting there and I kept looking at his sculptures, even though I was a little intimidated by the huge posture of „Aquarius”, looming over the host of his other works. Granddad still worked on new sculptures despite his worsening sight and loss of physical strength. His age rendered it too difficult for him to handle such materials as wood, let alone stone. Of course, at that time I was unaware of these facts. Granddad would let me watch him work and I did it with awe. I saw him take a lump of clay, which he stored in a wooden box by the wall of the studio, and shape it into a human posture. I was silent and virtually breathless. I was happy to have him so close to me, since I knew he could protect me against „Aquarius” in case he decided to hurt me.
Indeed, Granddad had a chance to protect me, but it was not against „Aquarius”. It was a completely different, but a truly horrifying situation.
It was a lovely September day. As usually, we walked after breakfast to the nearby district of Salwator. There is a hill there, with the famous Kopiec Kościuszki (Kościuszko Mound) on the top. At that time, the place was partly occupied by a small German military unit. We walked slowly. I used to pick up chestnuts and Granddad would put them into his bag. He believed that chestnuts could alleviate rheumatic pain when placed under the mattress. He would sometimes take miniature easels, paints and a folding stool with him. He would then paint some autumn watercolours. He gave some of them to me. Others went to my sister many years later.
One day, we had almost reached the top of the mound, when the gate opened and a German officer left the barracks. He was moving fast, taking no notice of an old man with a small boy. When he was passing by, I started throwing my chestnuts at him. One of them hit him in the arm. This was a time when even four-year-old boys realized that Germans were enemies. The man stopped, unlocked his holder and pulled out the gun. Granddad put me behind his back and covered me with a tail of his wide loden coat. He said something quickly and emphatically to the officer. He was fluent in German since the time he had been a frequent visitor to the court of Emperor Franz Joseph. The German officer laughed loudly, hid the gun and left.
– Don’t you ever provoke them! – said Grandpa with harsh voice. – You are too small and too feeble for that.
– What did you tell him? – I obviously wanted to know.
– You won’t understand. I will tell you when you are twelve.
Just to complete this story, let me add that I patiently waited for eight years to finally ask Grandpa again about his reply.
Grandpa lowered his head and said:
– I lied to him. I said, don’t you shoot. He will grow into a brave German soldier one day.
Grandpa used to take an apple for our walks to Salwator. This was my brunch and I was expected to eat it. Grandpa cut the apple into quarters and watched me eat this portion of vitamins until the very last bit.
Beef broth was a standard lunch soup served almost every day. It was cooked by Ms Józia, Grandpa’s housekeeper. She somehow managed to get the meat in the market square Na Stawach, which was located just next to our street. My being choosy was not tolerated. Grandpa kept repeating:
– We are under occupation, this is war... Thank God, we still have something to eat.
Yet, sometimes he did complain:
– Oh, this beef today could well serve for shoe soles rather than for food.
Having said that, he started portioning the meet carefully on my and then on his plate. He watched me start eating and then he started his dish. We also had milk. Some women from near-by villages brought it to us.
In the living room, there stood a table with a beautiful, French-polished gramophone in a glossy, wooden chassis. Grandpa noticed my curiosity one day, and said:
-This is occupation, we are enslaved. This is not time for music. We will listen to it when the war ends.
Two or three weeks passed and my stay at Grandpa’s came to an end. Mum took me to the rented flat in a different part of Cracow. I came home, but I always awaited those days when either of my parents could take me to Grandpa’s.
AFTER THE WAR
There was no chance for our coming back to Warsaw. Our Warsaw flat burnt out completely during the Uprising. But we had another flat in Cracow, located on the second floor of the same house where Grandpa had his studio.
The Germans who lived in our flat during the occupation left in panic when the war was almost over. Another moving house and I found myself again close to my Grandpa.
My afternoon visits to his studio and his flat became a regular ritual. I was two year older than before, but still a child. So I felt I was privileged enough to pay him a visit without prior notice. Grandpa had nothing against that, and I think he quite liked them. He was almost eighty and still an active sculptor. He read some Polish and French texts, though not German or Russian, which he disliked. But first and foremost, we listened to music. Grandpa had a pretty collection of records published by the company „His Master’s Voice” (HMV). Firstly, he started the gramophone himself, but when I was eight, he taught me the simplest operations: to wind up the spring without destroying the mechanism, to change the needle – taken out of his large spare stock – and to place the arm properly to avoid scratching the record. He sat comfortably in his cosy armchair and kept listening, often with his eyes half closed. We listened to opera and operetta arias sang by the best Italian soloists as well as to some smaller piano works performed by outstanding artists. This was the music of his generation. These musical siestas of ours lasted for years. Once, when we finished listening to „Minuet” by Paderewski, performed by the composer himself, he laughed and told me a story of a young man who lived in Cracow before World War I and who was named Paderewski, since he resembled the composer a lot. In fact, he deliberately pretended to look like him. He had his haircut done almost identically and wore similar clothes. One of the colleagues of that young man spotted him once standing in the middle of the Cracow Market Square and looking up to St. Mary’s Basilica tower.
He came from behind, patted him on the shoulder and cried: „How are you Paderewski?” The patted man turned back and the colleague was stunned to find out that he was standing face to face with no one else but the world-renowned pianist. Grandpa saw all this personally and after all these years he could not help bursting with laughter any time he remembered the whole situation.
– You should have seen the guy run away! I was sure he was going to hurt his legs on the cobblestones. But Paderewski wasn’t running after him at all.
Grandpa had quit smoking forty years before, and he took pride of his success for all his later life. And to prove that you do not have to be an addict and still enjoy a puff, every day at 5 p.m., he would open a tin box with cigarettes, cut one into two halves, install one half into a glass cigarette-holder and smoke it. He smoked slowly and he breathed in the smoke rather deep. Then he belched out a huge cloud of smoke. This was a short ritual, as the half-cigarette did not last long. The second half was meticulously spared for the next day. All over these years, I never saw Grandpa smoke any other time of the day than 5 p.m. This example of invincible human will helped me in my life, when, after many years of my being a tobacco addict, I quit smoking radically. Yet, I am afraid my will is not as strong as my Grandpa’s was, and I am not ready to experiment with a five-o’clock puff on my own.
After some time, Grandpa taught me to play chess. In fact, he taught me the rules and moves and from time to time, we played. He kept winning, I kept losing and everyone was happy. My satisfaction stemmed from the fact that we used the same chess set that Grandpa used when playing against Piłsudski during his visits to Grandpa’s studio as a model.
I think I was in the fourth grade of my primary school when our form teacher, whom we liked a lot, took us for a visit to the National Museum in Sukiennice [Cracow Cloth Hall].
When we got there, we stood for long looking at „Hołd Pruski” [Prussian Homage] and the form teacher praised Matejko as the most famous Polish painter. In the next lounge, I stood face to face with Chełmoński’s „Four-in-hand” in stampede and I was nothing but flabbergasted. This painting kept coming back to me in my dreams! One day, I just could not help it and I asked Grandpa in a naive way if Matejko had really been a better painter than Chełmoński. This was the first time that Grandpa rebuked me:
– Is everything all right with your eyes?
After a moment, when he realized I might engage into some unnecessary argument with the teacher, he added:
– When someone asks you, which is tastier – Greek-style fish or Italian ice-cream – do not answer. Stupid conversations are a waste of time. The best thing you can do is say that you are ignorant in the field of cuisine.
Grandpa passed away in March 1956. I was a first-year university student then. I was coming back from my military instruction – worn out and hungry. I walked up the stairs, making a lot of noise wearing my military boots. When I reached the door, my mother opened it and put her finger to her mouth. It instantaneously came to me that Grandpa passed away.