June 1, 2023

Whispers of Defiance

A prelude to my novel, this story gives a glimpse into the daily reality of Poland in the first months of the Second World War. Amidst a world consumed by darkness, a quiet murmur of hope emerges.

October 1939

The prison wagon was overcrowded with Polish soldiers. They were held in the dark as to their destination. Having been passed from the hands of the Russians to the Germans, they wondered which of the two evils to fear more.

Sebastian shut his eyes, trying to catch up on the rest and sleep he had been deprived of in the previous days. Slowly, the continuous murmurs faded away, and he saw once again his hometown, Warsaw, the loving faces left behind…

“Can I have your attention for a moment?” The vibrant and sonorous voice unexpectedly pulled Sebastian out of his dreams. Only a second was needed to understand the surroundings once again. He carried his eyes towards the sound. In the center of the wagon, a young man of around twenty-five, had risen to his feet and assumed an attitude for delivering a speech. Noticing his audience had somewhat decreased the background noise, he carried on, in a clear yet discreet tone.

The man was an officer in the Polish Army, who thanks to a uniform swap managed to camouflage as a private and qualify for the prisoner exchange. Bored by the prelude of technicalities, Sebastian was just about to drift back to sleep, when a word caught his attention. Escape. Jumping out of the transport. Finding a way back to the army. A group of soldiers were determined not to give up the fight.

A meaningful pause followed, as if the man was curious to distinguish the variety of reactions. First, a uniform silence subdued the crowd, until at last a few bolder individuals started whispering amongst themselves. It was still difficult to tell if they were voicing approval or criticism. Sebastian kept his eyes fixated on the lieutenant, eager to hear more about his plan.

“The reason I’m announcing it so openly is that we need your agreement before beginning. Whoever would like to join us is welcome. We know that our escape will not go unpunished, and those who remain will have to suffer the consequences. Which is why it is only fair for us to wait for unanimous approval before moving another step forward.” The speaker’s manner, which at first rang confidently and authoritatively, was now oddly colored with humility. Despite his superior rank, he made it clear how every man’s voice held value to him.

“Do you really think you’re smart enough to get away so easily?” someone protested.

“Maybe it’s worth the risk,” another added.

“This is suicidal!”

“Sure, just run away and let the rest of us be shot.”

Soon enough, every possible opinion was voiced out loud, in an argument getting out of anyone’s control. Was the lieutenant beginning to regret his attempts at reaching a democratic decision?

Those strongly opposing the endeavor swiftly united in a group, making their position clear. The young officer did not seem to lose faith, however. He addressed his opponents with great respect, clearly laying down all his reasons and motivations. Strongest than anything was his emphasis on the Germans’ desire to subjugate the Polish people. A life of slavery awaited them if they did not act now.

His powerful rhetoric was not overlooked, and sooner than Sebastian had expected, the man had succeeded in converting most of the passengers to his plan. Those skeptical about escaping themselves at least did not try to prevent the rest from acting.

Sebastian moved in closer to hear the plan being detailed. The calm manner in which it was outlined gave the impression it was the simplest of actions, rendering any concerns unfounded. A window, about three meters above the ground, could easily be reached by joining forces. Two men would lift a third up in the climb, and then the next would come to help them out. The exits had to be spaced well to avoid catching the guards’ attention. Jumping out of the moving train still appeared less threatening than remaining a prisoner.

The action had started, a few managed to make it outside. Who knew if they had landed safely? Was the method reliable? The answer remained unknown until one’s turn arrived. Sebastian, mentally preparing for his leap, decided in his final moments to exchange a few words with the escape initiator. No matter how the events would pan out, he needed to express his gratitude.

“Thank you for everything Lieutenant,” Sebastian started uncertainly.

“Thanks for playing along young man. Whatever you decide to do next, your help is already deeply appreciated.”

“I don’t intend to stop here. I’ll return to our army as well, wherever I find it.”

“Then perhaps we’ll cross paths again. Flew out of my mind to introduce myself – Jan Kozielewski.”

“Sebastian Wysocki.”

“All the best on your journey Sebastian.” After encouraging him with a strong handshake, he pointed towards the window. “You’re up next.”

Carefully following instructions from his comrades, Sebastian let himself be lifted by the feet, then, catching hold of the tiny windowsill, pulled himself up to the exit. Crouched in the frame, he glanced outside to assess the surroundings. Right beside the railway, the forest provided a sure hiding place to retreat into. The speed was perfect, there was no time to lose. He swung himself out through the gap, and, shielding his head in the jump, landed on the moss with a forward flip.

He brushed off the sensation of shock, the pain emerging in his neck, and without delay ran at full speed to the forest shelter. He gave up on trying to find any companions. From the moment he had decided to risk the escape, he knew it was meant to be a solitary endeavor.

He struggled to figure out his geographical location. Knowing the final destination would have helped in making a guess. Only the area’s topography offered a hint. It was a flat landscape, surrounded by fields, but that could describe most of the Polish countryside. One thing he was certain of, he was aiming for Warsaw. There he would probably hear about the military situation, how he might rejoin the forces. Safety was not the final end of the escape, but a transitionary phase, a means to reaching a greater good. Perhaps in Warsaw he would even get the chance to contact the loved ones he missed…

Already dreaming of reunions, Sebastian made his way across the autumn-combed forest, flooded by a gold and red harmony. The scent of humidity indicated a recent rainfall, which along with the darker soil, gave reasons to believe new mushrooms had sprung. It was still early morning, so perhaps not much of the overnight appearances had been collected already…

Sebastian tripped over a tree root. That was perfectly timed to wake him from the daydream. Bringing himself back into reality, he blushed slightly, embarrassed at having allowed such a loss of focus. A child even understood it was not the moment for mushroom gathering. Unless… Perhaps forest strollers engaged in that morning activity were his hope for finding a way out of the labyrinth.

Continuing along the path, he kept his eyes open for wanderers, not even asking himself whether strangers could be fully trusted. It flew out of his mind that he was a fugitive prisoner of war. He was reassured by being back in Poland, walking on safe and friendly ground. Little did he suspect the turn taken by events over the past weeks of war…

At last, he distinguished two figures at about twenty meters distance. Definitely mushroom foragers, judging from how they diverged off the beaten path, towards the bushier territories. Sebastian took a few discreet steps in their direction and stopped for a second to catch words from the conversation. They were speaking Polish, all was well. Without further hesitation, he ran forward to catch up with them, but stayed on the main path. Upon reaching their level, he glanced sideways to assess whether it was safe to approach them. A middle-aged couple, joyfully chatting about, the man carrying a basket overflowing with gathered mushrooms. How could they be a danger to him? Anyway, the sole hope for finding a way out was in random passers-by. These two were probably as trustworthy as one could find. Sebastian took the risk and addressed a cheerful greeting in their direction. “Good gathering this morning?”

Startled, both jumped in surprise, and turned from the forest depth towards the voice that had emerged out of nowhere. The man who was further back at first, jumped forward and placed an arm around the woman’s shoulder. He seemed to be preparing to defend both of them if the need arose. Sebastian wondered what was causing their dismay, until the woman’s gaze, scrutinizing him from head to toe, reminded him he was still wearing his uniform, worn and torn by the tribulations of the past weeks. He lifted his arms up in a gesture of surrender and came a few steps closer.

“I’m not a deserter if that’s what you’re thinking,” he whispered. “I just escaped from a German war prisoner transport. I need your help. Please, if you care about Poland…”

“All right, all right, this isn’t the place for such confessions,” the man interrupted him, alertly examining their surroundings. He was wearing a long raincoat, which he removed and handed over to Sebastian. “Put this to cover up that uniform of yours. If you follow us home, we’ll give you some civilian cloths to change into.”

“And you’re probably starving, aren’t you?” the woman added. “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure to sort that out as well.”

Unable to find appropriate words, Sebastian only managed to produce a faint smile and nod. Both were forcing themselves to hide a trembling in their voices, which still came out uninvited. The danger they were facing in helping him appeared much greater than Sebastian had initially guessed. As the man led the way, his wife vigilantly inspected the area, as if she feared the trees were eavesdropping. Their anxious attitude was giving away glimpses of the entire nation’s spirit. Sebastian tried to read between the lines for an answer to his burning question. As his guides’ behavior suggested the worst scenario, he quickly decided to shrug off the emerging hypotheses. Soon enough, he would receive a clearer picture of Poland’s current position.

As they reached the edge of the forest, a small cottage emerged at the end of the path. The unsteady silence remained upon them all, even as the woman opened the door. Once they were inside, Sebastian sensed a sudden relief take over.

“I’ll get you something to eat, dear boy,” the wife said. “My husband will find clothes for you. Sorry, I didn’t even introduce myself in all that fuss. Teresa.”

“Pleased to meet you, I’m Sebastian,” he replied.

“Stanisław,” his host said, passing him an outfit and shaking his hand warmly. “You’d better get changed, then we’ll get rid of that uniform. There’s a basin of water if you want to refresh your face as well.”

Sebastian hesitated a second, then retreated to the room Stanisław had gestured towards. How did they intend to get rid of his uniform? And why? Perhaps he had not made it clear enough that his intention was not yet to abandon the fight. Surely, they understood the local situation better, and soon it would be made clear to him. With every minute carrying a new cue, the picture that Sebastian was painting in his mind grew darker.

Sebastian quickly washed his face and shaved. All traces of untidiness, those hints of recent imprisonment, had to be erased. Having restored himself to a presentable appearance, he followed Teresa’s invitation to the kitchen table. She placed in front of him a glass of warm milk, some bread, and a plate of scrambled eggs. The past hours’ eventful stress had crushed his hunger to the background, but it immediately resurfaced as he began eating.

However, he did not allow himself to get distracted again. “Where are we, exactly?” he asked between two mouthfuls.

“Just outside of Radom,” Stanisław replied. “Can I ask where you’re headed next?”

“Wherever the Polish Army is fighting at the moment,” Sebastian replied determinedly.

He was so immersed in his meal that it took him a moment to notice their reaction. Another dead silence had fallen over the room. Sebastian raised his head from the plate to read his hosts’ faces. They were looking at each other confusedly, as if they shared a gloomy secret and were trying to agree on what to divulge.

“Any chance you know where that would be?” he insisted.

“You don’t understand… There no longer is a Polish Army. We were forced to capitulate.”

Sebastian gripped his mug tightly; afraid it would drop from his hands. He stared blankly at the wall ahead. Everything was suddenly crystal clear, each puzzle piece forced into its place.

“The Germans and Soviets divided up our country, wiped us off the map…” Stanisław continued.

“Warsaw…” Sebastian gasped.

“Under occupation, submitted to German authorities,” Stanisław explained. “I know this is a shock, but you had to find out, sooner or later. Tried to break the news in the safest way, far from unwanted observers. Lucky you ran into us instead of being unexpectedly surprised by the enemy.”

Interesting choice of words. Sebastian hardly considered himself lucky. Perhaps a few days under the new order would prove to him he truly was fortunate. Amidst the confusion of an entire world falling apart, Sebastian distinguished at least one certainty. “I shouldn’t stay here any longer. I’ll get started on my way to Warsaw.”

“Please, don’t feel you have to run off immediately,” Teresa intervened. “Stay safe at least for a moment and get some rest.”

“I can’t put you in danger any longer. I can guess you’ve already gone well beyond what is safe. Thank you for your hospitality, but it will have to end here.” His words were resolute and definitive. The couple knew there was no use trying to dissuade him. Sebastian’s mind was set, he sounded as if his honor fully depended on a prompt departure.

“Do you even know how you’ll get there?” Stanisław asked skeptically.

“I’ll walk. If you could just give me directions.”

“At least take our bike, we don’t have much use of it anymore.”

Sebastian knew he was twisting the truth and underestimating the gift’s value. Yet, not daring to argue, he accepted the generous gesture. His hosts displayed a stubborn determination to support the cause, despite claiming it was already lost. Beyond their explicit statement of the situation, Poland’s capitulation, a second depth appeared hidden. Perhaps hope still existed, the combat was not fully over. Were they hinting at his responsibility to pursue that initial will to act?

There was no time for stops along the road. Sebastian arrived in Warsaw that same evening. Having been warned before departing about the enforced curfew, he had to think quickly about a safe place to go. As much as he missed his family, visiting home was initially too risky… Being the eldest of four children, he did not trust the youngsters to understand the gravity of the situation, the need to remain silent about his presence. He had to regularize the situation before materializing in front of them as a fugitive war prisoner.

His mind then flew to the one person who made him feel safe and at home. Irena. He had to return to her life so they might once again support one another. They both needed each other equally to continue existing, to safely navigate across the bewildering reality. Perhaps the first step required Irena to assist him in the delicate situation, but he rejected the idea of that being humiliating. He was ready to reveal his vulnerability, wholeheartedly trusting her with his weaknesses.

It took great effort to remain indifferent to the Nazi German uniforms crowding the streets. His heart broke at every step. Only a few weeks had gone by since his departure, and already his hometown was radically altered, utterly subjugated to the occupying force. Buildings silently told the stories of past bombings. Unspoken agitation reigned across the people, living in perpetual frailty. No one ever knew what new abuses and violence the next day’s regulations would bring. The worst was always to be expected. Such a strain of dark uncertainty became unbearable after only a few days. Varsovians were tortured by the inability to grasp even a glimmer of light.

Sebastian arrived at destination, and before he had time to change his mind, he knocked on the door vigorously. An immense relief came over him when it was Irena herself who opened. Then, as he rediscovered the features of his beloved’s face, he was struck by guilt and shame. With disturbing accuracy, she reflected the spirit of the city, lost in grief, robbed of freedom, mourning the past. Still, across all the terror, a barely noticeable sparkle appeared, the refusal to surrender. He took Irena in his arms, attempting to whisper a few comforting words or sounds, not knowing how to articulate his apology. They were both about to yield to a prolonged, tearful reunion, when suddenly, Irena’s alertness returned, and without a word she dragged Sebastian inside and shut the door. He was not yet aware of the ever-present dangers of observation by malevolent eyes, followed by denunciations to the Gestapo. Irena did not have to think twice to understand that Sebastian was not living in compliance with the authorities. Which meant it was best to confine their conversation to the relative safety and privacy of her home.

“Sebastian, darling, what on earth are you doing here?”

“Are you alone?”

Irena nodded. “Mom has a shift at the hospital, my brothers are in the countryside…” Sensing that he was dropping off his feet from exhaustion, she led him to relax on the living room sofa. She took a seat beside him, and holding his hands, patiently awaited an answer, smiling encouragingly.

“I was taken prisoner by the Soviets, then through an exchange got handed over to the Germans, and finally escaped the train transporting us to camp.” He recounted his trials, taking care not to omit a single relevant detail, as a deep desire was growing in him, to share everything with Irenka. By the time he reached the end, tears were flowing down her cheeks, in an unstoppable cascade. He wiped a few drops from beneath her eyes. “I’m sorry, Irenka, I didn’t want to bring any trouble. But I had to see you, I want to be in your life again, to help you get through this.”

“Please… don’t apologize,” she articulated, bringing her shaking voice into order. “It’s just that you reminded me… Dad…”

“What happened?”

“From all I know, he was also in the hands of the Soviets. We even received letters. But who knows what they’ll do to him next? Given his rank, he’ll hardly receive light treatment…. I have this awful feeling…”

“Mayor, lieutenant or private, he’s a prisoner of war. There are rules and standards to follow in that area.”

“Are there really?” Irena’s voice was tainted with bitter disillusionment. She gazed at him with hopeless eyes, seeking solace she knew to be unreachable. “And who’s going to make sure they’re kept? I’ve seen enough in the past month to lose faith in any… respect of human conventions.”

Sebastian did not question her statement. Undoubtedly, her eyes were more fully open to the new order enslaving them. They waited a moment longer in silence, the shadows of unknown fates lurking over them. At last, Irena spoke up, quietly, as if she feared breaking an invisible presence by speech. “How can I help you?”

“I don’t want to endanger you Irenka, but…”

“No need for silly remorse. Just get straight to the point.” She became oddly cold and business-like.

“I don’t know if I can continue to live in Warsaw… under my current identity.”

“No, you can’t for a while, that’s certain. We’ll have to find you a safe address, and documents with an assumed name,” she appeared to be thinking out loud, not expecting any interference from Sebastian, who patiently waited for her to invite him into the scheme. That did not happen, as she carried on muttering indistinct words to herself.

“How can we even do that?” he interrupted.

“You know what, darling, you need some rest,” she rose up, abruptly awakening from her deliberation “How about you get to sleep, and we’ll figure something out tomorrow?”

“Are you sure I can stay here?”

“You don’t think I’ll let you go wander out into the street after curfew, without any legal papers? My brothers’ room is empty at the moment, so there’s plenty of space.”

The offer was non-negotiable, so Sebastian gave in. As he retreated to bed, he could not let go of an overwhelming curiosity, trying to discern the source of Irena’s excitement. Without any doubt, a plan was burgeoning in her mind, and she was playfully concealing it. Was a dramatic reveal about to ensue?

Deep and uninterrupted sleep… He had underestimated how loudly his body had been calling for it. Rejuvenated with fresh energy and boldness, Sebastian was prepared to face any obstacles fate had reserved for him. Whistling carelessly, he joined Irena in the kitchen. Without uttering a word, she kissed him on the forehead. Then, smiling mysteriously, she placed a cup of tea on the table, and next to it, some neatly folded papers. Intrigued by her manner, he reached out to examine them. He was taken aback to discover that she had handed him a solution to his uncomfortable situation. An identity document, carrying his photograph, with all the legal seals, written out for a fake name, but bearing every sign of authenticity. The other paper was a birth certificate matching the assumed identity.

“Irena… how…”

“As you can see, my artistic skills have not declined in the least. Good thing I always keep a spare photo of my love,” she sat at the table, right next to him, and continued eyeing him mischievously. Sebastian was growing a little annoyed by her little game, afraid mainly that she was involved in a dangerous activity.

He took a deep breath to master the overflowing frustration. Surely, she would not delay explanations any longer. He decided to play along with her joke. “I don’t doubt, you’re as talented as always, but how did you get the proper paper, seals… This is a perfect forgery!”

“Let’s say I’ve had to redirect my abilities towards a new area… Underground work.” Noting with satisfaction that Sebastian’s jaw dropped in amazement, she carried on. “Now, to the point. The Polish Underground has just provided you with fake identification documents, and we’ve also found you a safe apartment to stay in while you blend back into daily reality… I see you’re surprised, asking yourself when I managed to do all this? Well, I stayed up most of the night, hard at work… Anyways, now that you’ve heard about this… secret organization, there are two options – I can either shoot you or rope you into the conspiracy. So, how do you feel? Ready to make an oath and join the Resistance?”

Despite her pretending to take on a grave and solemn attitude, Sebastian clearly read laughter behind the cover. Slowly, he went beyond her tone, and began to process the content of her speech. Finally, understanding the new revelation, he became even more upset at Irena’s lighthearted approach.

“Irenka, do you realize the danger you’re putting yourself in…”

“Darling, please. Don’t teach an eagle to fly,” she took his protective remark without a shade of resentment. “You may be incredibly competent as a soldier, in open armed combat, but this conspiracy work is a completely new skill to grow into. And if you don’t mind, maybe you can learn from me?” The suggestion carried a shy uncertainty, despite her conviction that Sebastian’s love and faith would disperse any reservations.

He was moved by her honesty, as well as the desire she displayed to move on together along the troubled road. “So, you think I have the potential to join?”

“I couldn’t even dream of a better helper. You’ll see, the two of us will make a great team.”

As he reached out for an embrace, Irena moved to sit in his lap. They stayed locked in each other’s gaze a moment. Forgetting about the horrors outside of their bubble, enjoying the fleeting happiness… Just a little longer…

The atrocities of the war had not diminished in the slightest. In fact, they were unceasingly growing, in number and intensity. Yet, Sebastian was now aware of a novel world of possibilities, which a few minutes earlier, had existed in his mind as mere assumptions. Intuition, combined with a knowledge of his country, had not failed him. The beliefs that had pushed him through his journey, even after learning about the Polish army’s defeat, were well-grounded. The nation was not ready to surrender and acknowledge the occupying force’s authority. A faint sunbeam broke through the clouds, providing just a modest step out of obscurity.

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