"If you have two Poles you will have three opinions."
Piotr Zalewski, my grandfather, was quick to take up arms against the Germans
when they invaded Poland
on the eve of World War II
. He joined the light mounted artillery
; his heavy machinegun was kept disassembled and strapped to the back of his horse. When suppressive fire was needed he would dismount, quickly put the gun together, and fire. This lent itself rather well to guerilla warfare and as Poland crumbled to Hitler
's tanks my grandfather and his division would lead the enemy into ambushes and traps in a desperate attempt to drain Germany's human resources. During this short period he garnered quite a few medals and made a name for himself as a fearless warrior, on one occasion cornering a force of 200 Nazi soldiers in a box canyon and slaughtering them all from the canyon walls.
Poland was not able to withstand the assault, though, and Piotr was forced to retreat underground. For the remainder of the war he bombed bridges, sabotaged trains, and lead kidnappings of select SS officers. Tribunals composed of high ranking Polish military would hold sub rosa trials for Nazi officers, occasionally with the bewildered, kidnapped officer present, sentencing them (usually to death) and leaving small strike forces, like the one my grandfather lead, to enact the execution. Over the course of six years he worked like this, always under the cover of darkness, always looking over his shoulder for the enemy that never came. Under extraordinary circumstances men become brothers and Piotr, entering the war with a rifle and a name to make, left with men closer than family and a lifetime of stories.
It was inevitable that the group my grandfather fell in with would separate and that they did, but never in the way Piotr would have expected. With Russia running the country most of the men joined the Communist party, pledging themselves to the USSR and moving to Moscow. Only my grandfather stayed in Poland, steadfastly resisting the lures of the party. All his friends were promoted, some to general, and he knew that a life of great power and authority waited if only he would sign away his morals and love for his homeland. A few pen strokes could have guaranteed a college education for each of his three sons, a fine house wherever he chose, and many men under his direct command, but he died in 1989 a colonel in the Polish army, a poor man but proud.
He looked upon his old friends with contempt, their unanimous decision to, as he saw it, defect to the enemy damning them forever. They had abandoned their country. Political allegiances, though, could not keep him from wanting to sit down and have a drink of vodka with his war buddies for old times' sake, even if they were filthy commie bastards; it was 1975 and had he been able to make the trek to Moscow to see them he would have, but an encroaching cancer kept him at home. He sent my father, Ryszard, in his stead.
Armed with a relatively thorough working knowledge of Russian and a little book with the names, numbers, and addresses of several important Kremlin officials, what remained of my grandfather's war posse, my father took the train to Moscow, arriving in the bitter cold of a Russian winter. Plodding through the thick, blanketing snow, he stopped at a bar to warm himself with liquor. Before long he was in the company of several jolly, half-drunk Russian men bundled up in furs and heavy clothing, singing raunchy bar songs through slurred tongues. My father played along; it kept the cold away.
The drunken reveling soon settled down and the men began conversing earnestly in that drunken philosopher sort of way. It was not long until the topic meandered over to my father's funny Russian accent. Polish, to Russian ears, sounds clipped and short; the sounds of the Russian language are very long and my father, despite his grammatical accuracy, pronounced them in a way the other men found fascinating and hilarious.
"Where are you from, friend?" one asked. He leaned forward, supporting himself on the table with his elbows, his nose bright red from the alcohol.
"Poland," my father dryly responded. He knew something was going to go wrong. Ryszard is a man of fiery temperament; to this day he boasts of his extensive criminal record, with everything from aggravated assault to vagrancy in almost every country in Europe. There are no major crimes, like murder, rape, or grand theft auto, but smuggling, assaulting police officers, you name it and he's done it. With a group of drunk, diehard Russian patriots sitting across from him his danger sense was going off.
"Poland?" the Russian sneered. He extended one palm and drove the thumb of his other hand into it, grinding the invisible contents of his hand like with a pestle and mortar. "Russia could crush Poland like an ant."
My father coolly finished his shot of vodka and stared at the offending Russian. He calculated, sized him up, noted how drunk he was, how drunk his opponent was, and, in the heat of the moment, his country's honor at stake, rashly threw away any consideration of the consequences and acted.
Ryszard Zalewski calmly stood up and delivered a powerful blow to the Russian's face.
Within minutes the ensuing bar fight spilled into the streets, a huge brawl straight out of a spaghetti Western: chairs flew, bottles were smashed, and my father was hurled out the window in the grip of the suddenly very sober Muscovite. Soviet police arrived surprisingly quickly and demanded to know who was to blame. All fingers pointed to my father and he was carted away to the police station, realizing, in the paddy wagon, that he probably faced time in Siberia for this. He was a foreigner, a Pole, no less, who had attacked, without provocation (as all the Russians had said), a member of the Soviet military. Things did not look good.
He was searched upon arrival at the station and the sergeant happened upon the little book with the names, numbers, and addresses of my grandfather's friends. All Kremlin officials. All well known in Moscow and a great deal of the USSR. All with the authority to have the sergeant's balls if he ordered the son of their beloved war friend to work to death in the frozen north.
Later that day, Ryszard Zalewski was led to the border of Russia and Poland. He was accompanied with a small escort of Soviet soldiers and one military official. The official had a quick word with the border officers, too quiet and far away for my father to eavesdrop. Then, with a cue from the official, my father was hauled over the border proper and told never to return. He was banned from reentering the Soviet Union for as long as he lived and it remained.
My father has always said that aside from raising me, this is his greatest and fondest achievement.