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Sunday Journal: Sweet taste of freedom follows a harrowing escape

In September 1946, my mother, my teenage brother, Janusz, and I left Soviet-controlled Poland illegally. I was 10 and didn't know that the penalty for doing so ranged from imprisonment to capital punishment.

We joined a group of women and children and followed a leader who promised to take us to Italy, to my dad, an officer in the Polish army under British command. Our guide smuggled us across Czechoslovakia and Austria by train. When we approached the Alps, he provided a truck and gave the women Red Cross uniforms. Janusz became the driver's handy boy, and the children had to hide under our mothers' coats.

After a police inspection on one of the winding alpine roads, the truck jerked forward with a loud blow of its horn and caused me to slide out of my hideout. Snow sparkled on mountain slopes and on the road behind us, making me squint; to my left, the parting sun sat on a sharp peak like a polished orange plate. Using her arms and legs, Mother jostled me back under her and covered me with a blanket. Shaking and clammy, I curled on a corner of the blanket and fell asleep.

I woke up the next day when the truck stopped. In the morning's brilliance, the green mountains seemed to undulate. Below them, a gauzy fog caressed rows of flame-shaped trees. Groups of whitewashed houses with red roofs nested amid the trees, as if dropped at random.

"Beautiful Italy!" Mother exclaimed. The others nodded, pale, stretching their necks around.

The driver shouted, "Cheer up, ladies and gents. At last you're free!" People jumped off the truck and kissed the ground. They raised their arms and hollered, "Freedom! We're free!" As if intoxicated, they zigzagged down the road and danced. I didn't know what they meant, but they reminded me of the movie I had seen in Vienna in which wild beasts broke out of a cage and raced into the unknown. Cars dodged around us, but our group didn't seem to notice.

Mother embraced Janusz and me. She echoed, "Freedom at last, my children." I tried to absorb what was happening, but my mind tumbled and scattered.

Two dark-haired women approached us with huge trays heaped with yellowish-green, oval fruit. Smiling, they led us to a nearby inn. Janusz stayed with the driver.

"Now we'll taste the grapes, Junia," Mother said with joy. "You were a toddler when you last ate them. Before the war. And that's eight years ago." She pulled me toward her, her arm locked on my shoulders. "They look delicious. Come on. Let's follow these nice Italian ladies."

I nodded, and we entered a dark room with tables and chairs. One woman gave me a clump of her fruit and petted my hair. I told Mother I'd be outside.

I dashed into a nearby garden. Husky trunks taller than I stood in rows, entwined by profuse vines. Each pair of rows was strengthened by multiple tilted wooden stakes crossed and tied at the top.

They formed green canopies radiant against the sun, drooping with translucent grapes. I hopped along one of the "tunnels," picked grapes off the vines and gobbled them down. They burst in my mouth with a sweetness I hadn't known before. Lurching left and right, I let the cool clusters around me stroke my stuffed cheeks.

I sat on dry, rugged ground to think. The air smelled of hay. I remembered the truck's stink of benzene and laughed. So this was freedom.

Freedom was breathing fresh air without hiding. Freedom was not seeing tanks that crushed whatever stood in their way, and airplanes that roared and dropped bombs on people. Freedom was eating as many of these grapes as I wanted. No more hunger. No more freezing bones. No more guns or SS. Freedom!

We were the "other" people now, like the Schnelkes, like all the Germans during the war. And the Russians. But … was freedom true?

I covered my eyes. My head floated. Maybe I was still asleep on the truck and would soon wake up? Oh, God! I relived the previous evening's events — the policemen's voices growing louder and louder. Would they get on the truck? How did the snow disappear? Why this greenery around me? What if the vines were just a dream?

The squeaky door of the inn opened, letting out entangled voices and my mother's call. "Junia, where are you hiding, my child? Come back inside. It's time for a nice warm meal."

I opened my eyes. The grapevines around me had stayed put. I got up, and singing, I ran to Mother's arms.

Eduvigia T. Ancaya, a dermatologist and writer, lives in Valrico.

Sunday Journal: Sweet taste of freedom follows a harrowing escape 10/01/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 1, 2011 5:30am]
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