The First Christmas

My grandfather’s story continues this week with their arrival in Poland in December 1943.  They spent almost 3 months on the train from Ukraine and their arrival into the city of Lodz, Poland is one of great remembrance for my Opa.  This year marks the 70th anniversary of my Opa’s arrival.  Every time December rolls around I think of what it must have been like.  The following is a conversation between my Opa and I in his house here in Winnipeg.

So here it is…

The First Christmas

The Christmas tree always seems to center the room.  “It is a good tree Opa,” I say examining the nearly eight and a half-foot evergreen.

“Yeah, my big guy you picked another good one,” replies my Opa.  He sips his hot chocolate examining my choice of Frasier Fur.

The tree is bare for now, but tomorrow my grandmother will begin the almost painstakingly slow process of lighting the tree, and dressing it with priceless ornaments she has collected over the years.  The collection of boxes, still in their original packages rests in piles next to the organ.  Most of the decorations are from a little shop in Rottenburg, where my Opa used to take my Oma every year.  The tree, for my Oma is the crown jewel in her preparation for the holiday season.  She bakes up a storm, full of various kuchens, gebäck, and brote.  There are wreaths that hang on the door and around the outside lanterns.  The staircases are garnished with holiday garlands and the tables are always decorated with lace doilies, table clothes and candles.  Her ‘winter birds’ have extra seed and the squirrels are treated to an assortment of crushed walnuts.  Her hot chocolate is never in short supply and in the evenings the rooms are treated to the aroma of cinnamon sticks and fresh cider.

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But her tree, there is no Christmas without it, it is something simply exquisite.  The decorations are balanced, color coordinated and rotated between years.  The only decorations that are regular are the ones us six grandkids made for her when we were small.  They hang in the same place, at the bottom of the tree kissing the tops of the intricately wrapped presents.  There is always an argument where the tree will be placed, but in the end it always centers the bay window that looks out onto the front street.

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Tired from carrying and placing the tree in seven different locations within the living room I sit down and sip my hot chocolate.  I sigh while doing so, causing my Opa to laugh.

“That will make you think twice about picking out a tree next year.”  He says smiling.  He coughs and using his handkerchief wipes his lips.

“Yup, I think I am retiring after tonight.”  I respond.

“It’s a good tree.”  He says.  I can hear my Oma’s advent gift hard at work blending in the other room.

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“Do you think we’ll have to buy new lights this year?”  I ask nodding at the heap of tangled wires next to the tree.

“I hope not,” he replies, “your grandmother already scolded me for putting them away like that last year.”  He smiles.  A gust of wind blows against the side of the house, the whistling echoes through the chimney in the family room.  Above the whistling wind my Opa speaks up, “I remember when we arrived in Lodz that was the first time I ever saw Christmas lights.  Actually that was my first Christmas.” He says.

With off the cuff comments like this I feel that I get an insight into how my Opa thinks and lives his life; something is on his mind.  I shift myself in the couch and sitting in the corner I now stretch out my feet.  He sits on the couch to the left of my sofa.

“The streets were so clean.  We arrived at night and it was cold, but the street lamps and twinkling little lights were so welcoming and warming.”  He says.

“You were fifteen, yeah?”  I ask.

“Yup,” He responds.

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“You must have been excited to get out of that train car.”  I say.

“You bet Mike, you have no idea what the lice was like, unimaginable, it was horrible.”  He laughs with this memory and sips his hot chocolate.

My Oma enters the room with a spoon and some sort of dough interrupting our conversation,

“Michael, come now and try this.”  She says.

I sit up and take the dough she has on the spoon and toss it into my mouth.  “Smechts?”  She questions.

“Yeah, is that kriststalla dough?”  I ask in response.

“Yup,” she says and returns to her kitchen.

“How’s the university project coming?”  I ask, turning my attention back to my Opa.

“Good; were back on track, after shipping the workers proper tools and boots.  Can you imagine they didn’t even have proper work clothes and equipment?”  He says shaking his head.  He adjusts his glasses and continues, “But, Moscow in November and December is terrible.  Its dark earlier then it is here and there is not enough heat; it is just horrible.  It’s a lot nicer in spring, ah?”  He asks.  I nod in response.  “Don’t worry,” he says, “we’ll go back and then we we’ll head to Leningrad, show you the hotel we built, then head back south and go and visit our home, yeah?”

“Don’t have to convince me,” I say.  There is something about Ukraine and Russia that is mysterious and all encompassing.

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“Oh that reminds me; Igor wanted to give you a present.”  He says. Quite awkwardly he gets up and disappears into the dining room.  Igor was my Opa’s bodyguard when we travelled overseas.  He was a born again Christian, who gave up the life as an enforcer in the Russian mob and began working for my Opa.  He was tall, broad shouldered, bald and could hold four suitcases at once.  As an enforcer he looked the part, but he was the kindest and most soft-spoken man.  He always met us at our gate and had our car waiting.  No airport security would stop him.  My Opa returns with a bottle.

“He said it was the best Cognac in Russia.  Put a little in your hot chocolate, I won’t tell your Oma.”  My Opa says passing me the bottle.

I laugh.  He sits back down, picking up his cup of coco.

“After we had run out of food on our trek, the train stopped in this little town called Nikolayev.”  My Opa begins again.

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I love how he just picks up our conversation from where they left off.  I always feel that our conversations are a running story.

“The town was deserted; Commander Frels and the conductor would give us an hour to scrounge up food and provisions before taking off again.  On the opposite track at the main station there was this car with a big vat.  Your father and I slowly encircled the container.”

I have stopped correcting my Opa on this error for I know he means my Grandfather on my dad’s side.

“Curious I climbed on top of it to try to see what was inside.  I couldn’t tell.  Your father found a nozzle at the bottom and turned it and would you believe it, out pours cognac.  So we just put our mouths below the spout and turned.  It was fantastic.”  He chuckles as he sips his hot chocolate and peers past the tree and out into the darkness.

Though I have heard these stories before, I love them.  It puts my Opa into context.  When I think of him now or perhaps years later once he has shuffled off this mortal coil, I won’t think of him individually, I will think of a curious young boy putting his head underneath a spout full of cognac.

“Another town we stopped in, we discovered a train car stacked to the brim with brand new German bicycles.  A couple of us rode into the small town.  The town was located near a collection of small hills.  The hills were then divided by a river.  We rode up to the top and then would race down.”  He coughs again and while finishing his sentence he reaches for his glass of water on the coffee table.

I used to love doing that at the park by our house when I was small.  My step brother and I would ride our bikes to the top and then race down.  That combination of the wind in your face and a fear of crashing was such an adrenaline rush.  I categorized that same feeling with jumping over really large puddles in the spring time and swinging to the maximum height on the swing set and then jumping off to see who could leap further.

“On the top of this one hill,” my Opa continues.  “We could see a collection of Russian tanks across the river on top of another hill.  We rode our bikes in circles waving our rifles at them and in turn they would fire shells at us.”  He chuckles, “but they were only those T-34s, and their shells couldn’t reach that far.”

“Weren’t you scared?”  I ask, trying to invoke another known response.

“No but, after about half an hour, a couple heavy-duty IS-2s showed up and we then decided it was best to head back to the town.”  He replies.

At fifteen, I was trying to pass my drivers permit; my Opa was dodging tank shells.

“These towns were quite eerie Mike.  They were empty, no one was there.  It was like a ghost town.”  He continues.

My professor, Dr. Chatterley tells our class that these ‘ghost towns’ were quite common during the war.  So much like ghost towns, if you went into the houses, the tables were still set and the food was left on the table.  When the Germans invaded in 1941, they brought German settlers to populate this new conquered land.  These houses and farms that were given to the new settlers were stolen from Ukrainians, Poles and Jews.  Some of the new settlers even used the previous owner’s fine china and silverware.  Now in the time of the retreat, the German settlers were amongst the travelers that occupied the train cars with my Opa.  With the rightful owners now elsewhere, living or dead, the towns lay vacant.

My Opa continues, “Streets were empty, no one was in the houses, cows were still in the barns, goats still in the field.”

My Oma enters into the room with a plate full of assorted cookies and rests them on the coffee table.  Ginger snaps, hazelnut squares, peppermint cookies and ‘church windowed’ delicacies spotted with different colored marshmallows and coconut are neatly showcased on the plate.

After taking a few back to the couch Opa continues, “We brought back a goat, which we shot, for my mother.  She went into her suitcase and pulled out an axe to prepare the goat.”

That always seemed funny to me.  Some people when preparing to leave their home pack clothes, pictures, utensils etc; not my Great Grandmother she packs an axe.  To me she seemed like a thinker, always practical in her decision-making.

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“I remember we had tied the goat to the back of my bike and we were riding down a side street of the little town.  All of a sudden, just before I am about to turn onto the main street, I hear my name being called.  ‘Harry, Harry’, I turn around and do you believe it, it is my sister Anna riding in with her family on a wagon.” Excitement has filled my Opa’s words.

“How did she find you?”  I ask.  Knowing this story, my response is controlled.

“You know, I have no idea, but that was her, somehow she always found a way.”  My Opa responds.

For me, sometimes I like not knowing the entire story, in instances like this, for how my aunt found and caught up to her family is truly remarkable.  It allows my imagination to run wild and create a story in my head for how things unfolded and what kind of person she was.

“So now my mother, not only got a goat, but she also got her eldest daughter back.  She was so happy.”  Opa says.

“What happened once you reached Lodz?”  I ask.

“We were given fresh clothes, hot meals and received our German citizenship papers.  I remember staring at the little folded ID card and wondering if this would last.  I had said to my father, months after the Germans occupied Nikopol that ‘the Germans were there to stay.’  He replied by telling me ‘that they wouldn’t last.”  I didn’t really like entertaining the thought that it wouldn’t.  I thought that the Germans would win the war and we would live happily ever after.”  He says.  “This retreat was just a temporary setback.”

“Where were you housed while you waited for your German citizenship?”  I ask.

“We… were placed in a resort that was vacant called Whalthurst.”  He replies.  His voice is timid in response to this question.

I don’t tell him that the resort he stayed in used to be a Jewish resort town and that the reason it was vacant was because all the inhabitants were gassed and put into ovens south of Krakow.  I don’t tell him partly because I don’t have the heart to upset him, but also because of the sudden stress in his voice, I know he already knows.  The more and more that I study this subject and talk with my Opa, it is becoming clearer and clearer that everyone knew what was going on, they just chose to ignore it… The silence in the room after this question is the clincher for me.  I am beginning to realize as well that these recognitions or discoveries and links between history and my Grandfather’s history are beginning to take its toll on me.

The blender in the kitchen has fallen silent and my Oma finally enters the family room and sits in a chair across from me examining the tree.  “I can’t believe you convinced me to buy such a large tree.”  She says.

“You didn’t need convincing Oma.”  I say smiling.

“I thought we usually get a Noble Fir?”  My Opa finally says.

“Nope, Frasier Fir,” I say.

The wind heard across the house continues to whistle.

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