An adolescence spent running all over Europe

Note: This is edited down from a 1,774-word book review I originally wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2004–06.

This memoir by Maia Wojciechowska is the story of how she, her mother, and her two brothers spent the first half of WWII going from country to country, while her father was with the Army as a pilot and waiting for the safest moment to join them. Several scenes inspired things in my books, like their escape on the train on the first day of the invasion of Poland, and when they’re smuggled over a border in potato sacks in a truck.

On 1 September 1939, Maia hears and sees planes flying overhead, and thinks one of them may be her father. She’s happily running along with her new Doberman puppy and is heartbroken when her dog is suddenly felled by a bomb. This makes her very angry at the Nazis, a hatred which lasts the entire rest of the war.

Maia’s mother decides to leave for France (where her husband has already left for) with her three children—Zbyszek (Zbigniew), Maia, and obnoxious little Krzys (Kryzsztof). But the train, one of the last few allowed to leave Poland, is constantly being stopped because of the incessant bombs. Outside, large groups of people are fleeing on foot. Zbyszek and Maia laugh about how much the train will stink if it’s hit by a bomb, since the last thing a person does before dying is defecate.

Eventually, they have to get out and start walking too, since the tracks are destroyed by bombs. During one air raid, Maia gets in a lot of trouble because she stands right out in the open as a plane drops bullets and smaller bombs, and keeps flying right over her as she stands there calmly. After this, they board another train which also eventually gets stopped because of more bombed-out tracks, but when they reach Łódż on foot, they’re able to board a train that takes them to France, where they previously lived for a year.

They live in several places in France, both before and during the Nazi occupation. For awhile, the children play war with their new friends, also refugees from Poland, including twin boys. They have stockpiles of weapons, which they found abandoned by the French army, and pretend to die from being shot at, after they spend the more important parts of their meetings discussing how they’re going to exact revenge on Germany and France and how they’re going to save Poland. The twins like to pretend to die in one another’s arms.

When all the other Polish families are evacuated, Maia and Zbyszek sneak a machine gun and ammunition into their apartment to shoot the oncoming Germans and the traitorous French who are hugging them and giving them flowers, but their mother sees the gun and wrestles it away from them. Maia also gets into trouble at school, once when she beats a boy who tried to lift her dress and another time when she pretends to not understand French, till she gets the principal as her teacher, who knows from her mother that Maia knows and understands French quite well.

Maia barely goes to school at all, since she’s constantly playing hooky, staying home with colds, or being punished by being made to stand behind the blackboard or outside because she won’t talk. Several schools throw her out because she’s absent so much, and because she refuses to participate. Maia and Zbyszek swore an oath to never speak to a French person for the duration of the war, nor to speak French, and they’re keeping to it. Maia only breaks it when their mother is briefly arrested after they arrive in Vichy France, and she asks how long she’ll be in there.

During the time in France, they also live in the same hotel as a mysterious and somewhat creepy older woman, who tries to seduce the confused Zbyszek.

Maia has her share of unthinking moments too, like when they’re going to Spain and she’s entrusted with a hatbox containing a teddybear stuffed with money and jewels, totalling more than $4,000. The money and jewels are from fellow Poles in Lisbon, who want to send packages to their relatives back home. Everything is going according to plan, until she loses sight of her family at a train station and gets on the wrong train. It’s going to Madrid too, but won’t arrive at the same time, as Zbyszek tells her as he runs alongside the departing train. Maia begins talking to a man sitting next to her during the ride, and when she gets off and rejoins her family, her mother is angry and horrified that Maia somehow let him make off with the teddybear without her realising it. He opened the window so she could exit faster, and when she turned around to introduce this handsome stranger to them, he was gone.

Eventually, the family are leave France for Portugal. However, this is only temporary, and they soon fly to London. The father joins them at this point, and it’s hard getting used to him being back in their lives and to living in a strange new place, with new schools, new people, and a new language. Maia proudly tells anyone who tries to speak to her that she’s Polish and doesn’t wish to learn English. The moment she left France, Maia went back to speaking French. There’s no more reason to keep the pact outside of France, and she’s not speaking French to actual French citizens. However, she still doesn’t want to speak English, and settles on a Catholic boarding school where everything is taught in French.

On the ship to America, which takes off in November 1942 after a lengthy delay, Maia gets the idea to commit suicide romantically, since she’s in the midst of unrequited love, and decides she’ll die by the cold winds. She desperately loves a handsome young soldier, and the night before they’re to reach America, where her father has been assigned a post in Washington at the Polish Embassy, she goes on deck and ties herself to a post with her scarf. She would’ve taken her clothes off to be even more romantic, but she doesn’t like her body.

Zbyszek comes upon her standing on deck at dawn, having read her suicide note, and laughs at her plan. “Are you going to freeze your ass off?” Maia abandons the freezing to death suicide after he laughs at her and volunteers some information which deeply shocks her, and she goes back down to her private cabin. It’s coming up on five in the morning, when they’re due to dock, but she doesn’t want to be among all the other people coming up to see New York as they slowly come in for their landing. Just like everything else she’s done over the past three years, and her entire life before that, she wants to be different.

I really love Maia because she’s her own person and a tomboy, not a docile girly-girl who stays out of trouble. Like many tomboys through the ages, Maia wishes she were a boy, because of the freedom and increased opportunities available to boys. She doesn’t get along well with her mother either, which I also relate to.

WeWriWa—Taken to the operating room

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I decided to switch back to Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, the fourth novel with my Russian characters, because the subject of Chapter 41, “A Modern-Day Greek Tragedy,” is now very timely and relevant. It’s September 1949, and 20-year-old Bogdana knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that she became pregnant when her 35-year-old secret boyfriend, his nephew, and their roommate assaulted her six weeks ago. Without a job, and afraid to ask her parents for mystery money, she took matters into her own hands.

Bogdana began bleeding profusely when she used a sharpened piece of hanger, and she called a cab in desperation, asking for her friend Achilles and intending to see the radical Dr. Scholl. She fell unconscious shortly after she crawled out to meet the cab, and Achilles sped to the underground clinic.

Achilles runs down the stairs, almost tripping, his shirt soaked with blood.

“What happened?” Dr. Scholl asks as he appears in the hallway with a stretcher.

Achilles sets Bogdana onto it and divests her of her handbag. “Six weeks ago, she was violated by three so-called men, and came to see you the day after. I doubt I’m wrong in guessing she tried to give herself an abortion. She must’ve called me when she realized something had gone very wrong.”

Dr. Scholl pushes the stretcher into the nearest operating room. He scrubs up and puts on rubber gloves, then starts a saline IV in Bogdana’s right arm.

“Open the refrigerator and hand me one of the blood bags on the top shelf,” Dr. Scholl says. “There’s no time to find out her blood type, so we have to play it safe with O.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

Achilles complies, and Dr. Scholl starts a second IV in her left arm. The final step is putting a mask over her face and starting the administration of anesthesia.

“She’s already unconscious,” Achilles protests. “Isn’t that a little unnecessary?”

“This is in case she comes to herself during the procedure. Better safe than sorry. It’s more effective than giving her a strong pain relief drug like morphine. I’m not trained in anesthesiology, but I’m familiar with the basics for emergencies.”

“Do you need any help?” Achilles asks as Dr. Scholl moves Bogdana’s feet onto the sock-covered footrests. “I’m a med student, and hoping to become a doctor like you.”

WeWriWa—The cab arrives

weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I decided to switch back to Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, the fourth novel with my Russian characters, because the subject of Chapter 41, “A Modern-Day Greek Tragedy,” is now very timely and relevant. It’s September 1949, and 20-year-old Bogdana knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that she became pregnant when her 35-year-old secret boyfriend, his nephew, and their roommate assaulted her six weeks ago. Without a job, and afraid to ask her parents for mystery money, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Bogdana began bleeding profusely after using a sharpened piece of hanger, and she’s unable to extract it. She called the cab company and asked for her friend Achilles, the only person who knows her secret besides the radical Dr. Scholl and uncommonly liberal priest Father Spiridon. Achilles is a med student and very young widower with a toddler daughter.

Bogdana struggles to lock her door in her kneeling position. The keys slip out of her hand after she’s finally accomplished this, and she barely remembers to retrieve them and put them back into her handbag. She crawls to the curb at the sight of the approaching cab, the pain growing stronger and more unbearable every second. Her insides feel on fire, and the blood still hasn’t stopped. It’s all over the sidewalk, in a trail leading back to her apartment.

The moment Achilles pulls to a stop, Bogdana slumps over and passes out. Achilles pushes his door open and runs to her side.

“Bogdana, can you hear me?”

She remains slumped over, her legs covered in blood. Achilles goes into the trunk for his emergency medical bags, whose contents include a Kelly pad.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

He unfurls the rubber sheet across the backseat, picks Bogdana up, sets her on the sheet, and speeds to Dr. Scholl. Time is of such essence, he damns the consequences of being seen going directly to the clinic.

Achilles squeezes into a parallel spot about ten feet away from the clinic, barely missing nicking the other cars, and takes Bogdana out of the backseat. He closes the doors with his hips and runs towards the clinic without locking up.

“Is Dr. Scholl in?” he shouts as he runs inside. “There’s a very serious emergency. I think she tried to give herself an abortion.”

The receptionist turns white at the sight of the unconscious Bogdana in Achilles’s arms. She picks up the phone and repeats the information.

“You can go right down to the basement. He just finished with another patient.”

WeWriWa—Bogdana’s desperate act

weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I decided to switch back to Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, the fourth novel with my Russian characters, because the subject of Chapter 41, “A Modern-Day Greek Tragedy,” is now very timely and relevant. It’s September 1949, and 20-year-old Bogdana knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that she became pregnant when her 35-year-old secret boyfriend, his nephew, and their roommate assaulted her six weeks ago. Without a job, and afraid to ask her parents for mystery money, she’s decided to take matters into her own hands.

Peppermint is Bogdana’s cat.

After spending several hours bending an old, already-bent hanger back and forth until it finally snapped, Bogdana then moved to unstringing it just as painstakingly and slowly. Finally, she spent several more hours bending it back and forth again until a suitably small piece broke off. The final step was sharpening one of the ends with the never-used whetstone her parents insisted she have.

Now, as dusk approaches, Bogdana steels herself and has a seat on the floor. She figures this can’t be harder than when she douched with Lysol. There’s nothing on hand to numb the pain, but it’ll be over quickly.

Bogdana guides her sharpened piece of hanger into her body, taking deep breaths. She yelps when it hits something she assumes must be the cervix. After taking a few more deep breaths, she wiggles it around until she discovers a slight opening. Victory achieved, she pushes it through.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

Searing pain rips through her, from a place she can’t be sure of. The intense pain is accompanied by a warm, wet, sticky gushing down her legs. She tries to pull out the instrument, but can no longer reach it. Panic sweeps through her as she tries again and again to get even a toehold of a grip. She has no pliers of any sort, so she can’t extract it the hard way either.

Bogdana suppresses her urge to scream and alert her upstairs neighbors to what’s going on. She crawls over to the phone, pain still holding her in an iron grip, and calls the cab company. In a shaking voice, she asks for Les Medved, and gives her destination as a random address near Dr. Scholl.

During the next ten minutes, she breathes deep and clenches her fists and toes to try to distract herself from the agony. All the while, blood continues gushing down her legs and forming a pool on the carpet. Peppermint pads up to her, then skits away at the sight of the blood.

Vintage war posters and ads

Since I ran out of time to put a proper post together, here’s some of my virtual collection of vintage war posters and ads. Most of them are from WWII.

I’m not so sure 90% of all athletes in any discipline would do that today, at least not in North America. So many people have no conception of what it’s like to have a  war on one’s own soil, or very close by.

Homefront services and sacrifices also seem a distant concept to many people who’ve lived their entire lives with the luxury of never having a war on their soil or in a nearby country.

Because we all want pilots high on drugs!

Usually these anti-VD ads tell men to stay away from a certain kind of woman! I also love how my iPhoto is asking me if two of these guys are Tsar Aleksandr III and Jack Dempsey.

Is that Lucille Ball on the top right?

I wonder if there were any ads telling vegetarians they were unpatriotic for not having these surplus fats to give to the war effort. We were a small minority in the West in this era, but we did exist.

How many 50-year-olds or even men over 35 responded to this ad? From what I’ve seen, the vast majority of guys who enlisted were much younger, and older guys who were legally obligated to register for the draft were rarely called.

Things that come across so much differently in the 21st century! Though this ad seemed to have its heart in the right place. If only they’d slightly reworded it, like “I’m Indian, but my heart is Canadian.”

Very interesting juxtaposition of ads!

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