My Childhood Years 1908-1914

Since the construction of the Polish church and of the continuous conflicts with the Rusyns, I began to understand that we Poles were not the same drop of water, as I originally thought.
I started school in the first grade just when the construction of the church begun. All the children after school had a fantastic entertainment. I did not even have time to eat. We would run on the scaffolding, carried one brick at a time or looked for beautiful smooth shells in the sand.
My childhood years, outside the school lectures, were spent on various games and pranks. I would ruin my shoes on sledding or sliding on ice on the pond. In the evenings I would do my homework and then read books full of war stories or children’s fairy tales.
One day my father was going to see the mayor in some matter and he took me with him. In the mayor’s house entrance hall, a large picture of King Jan Sobieski with his winged hussars at Vienna was hanging on the wall. I liked this picture so much that I could not take my eyes away. After returning home, I asked my mother,
“Mom, who was this Sobieski?”
My mother was trying to explain as to a child that he was a Polish king who fought the pagan Turks.
“Where is Vienna?” I asked.
“How do I supposed to know where? Go and ask Mykola Onysko, because he served in the army in Vienna. What came over your head that you are asking about Vienna and Sobieski?”
“I saw a painting of Sobieski at mayor’s Chorny house.” (Mayor Tomas Marciniszyn had the nickname Chorny or Black, with which he was known in the village. I do not know, however, where it originated from?)
My mother would often sing a song about Sobieski while sewing. I remember one verse to this day.

“A wtem słyszy głos z obrazu powstań na kolana.
I idź sługo najmilejszy na Turka pogana.”

[“And suddenly he hears a voice from the picture, raise up from your knees.
And go my dear servant against the Turk gentile”]

Childhood years alongside parents were so good and beautiful but we come to really appreciate them later in our life. Our time was spend carelessly and it was a wonderful and glamorous child’s dream. These years will never fade away in the fog of old age.
When my sister Catherine was in the third grade, she could draw vases with flowers or hens with chicks, what I unfortunately could not yet do. I would often sneak into her notebooks and tore pages out that I liked. Because of this she would fight with me several times a day. Although I was three years younger, I would engage in fighting without much hesitation. When I needed help, I would ask my allies Piotr (Peter) Medynski or Piotr Osadcia and then it was a real war. Catherine also had good friends such as Hania Nowak, Maria Jaremko or Hania Ksenczyn, so our battles were quite often very fierce. We would be in real trouble when all of a sudden my father the arbitrator walked into the house. Then the warring parties would hide under the bed or behind the fire place. As it would always happen, Catherine would receive more punishment just on the account that she was older.
My younger sister, Anna did not take partake in any fighting or playing, yet. She sat quietly with her toys and watched what was happening around her with her black eyes. I never bothered her. She had black hair and looked like a little gypsy girl and I always liked her.

We had a custom in our area that on Christmas Eve children would bring their aunts or neighbours some food for the Christmas Eve supper. For that, we would normally get few ‘grajcars’ (pennies) for some candies. Catherine would distribute the most of this food and of course would get more pennies which I also really liked. I was very jealous of that she had more and I would spy on where she hid her money? I secretly saw her making bonnets with these coins for her dolls. Such bonnets were worn by older women at that time. The makeup of such a bonnet was similar to the policeman’s hat but without the visor and it was framed with a white or red lace. In order for the bonnet to sit appropriately, a ring made from wire or wood was inserted and Catherine used her pennies for that purpose.
I would often ask her to give me a couple of pennies for the candies but Catherine was very stingy and would not give me a single penny. Knowing the secret where the money was hidden, I waited for an opportunity to pinch portion of her treasure. One day Catherine put her dolls down as if to sleep, told them not to uncover themselves because it was very cold outside and went to play with Hania Nowak. I took the dolls and cut off their heads, took out the money and immediately ran to Szulin’s store to buy some candies. The operation went well and I was eating the candies which fell to me as if from the heavens. When Catherine returned and saw that I had candies, began to fawn so that I would give her some but I wouldn’t budge. She soon guessed, however, where I must have gotten the money for these candies. She ran to her dolls and to her surprise found them all without heads.
“I wish you were dead, you bastard, you are eating candies bought with my money!”
All her dolls had names.
“Look mother, this murderer cut out Jadwiga’s and Maria’s heads and bought candies.”
I got some beating from my mother but I wasn’t angry, because Catherine also got some, although she didn’t do anything wrong.

One day our parents went to their friends for christening and left us at home. Catherine, being the oldest was left in charge. She invited her girlfriends and we started playing some stupid game.
Catherine was playing a role of my mother. At the command of the mother I had to be sick. Hania Nowak was the doctor and had her dispensary above a large oven.Catherine hauled me off on a small stool around the table to the doctor by the stove. I of course had to groan ‘oh it hurts, it hurts.’ Mother would say, ‘be quiet my son, the doctor will give you some good medicine.’ Above the oven was a pan filled with flour. Doctor Nowak put some flour in a cup and mixed it with water. It was a mush, something in the form of a screed that weavers used when making canvas. Mother says, ‘son drink this because you are very sick.’ I tasted this medicine, but how could I drink this vile leaven? ‘Drink, or you will die.’ I willingly or not drank a whole cup of this concoction. Maybe half an hour later I got real stomach pains and I began to scream. Dr. Nowak got scared, collected her belongings and fled to her house. Catherine started crying because she did not know what to do now. I was writhing in pain until our parents returned. My mother looked frightened, not knowing what happened to me so suddenly. When she found out what type of medicine I was administered, she made some chamomile tea and told me to drink it all. This tea broke my pain but I had diarrhea for the next three days. Catherine obviously received a solid beating from our father, and Dr. Nowak did not show her face at our house for the entire week.
Another time we broke a beautiful framed picture of Virgin Mary hanging above our parents bed.
Childhood years were full of exciting events.

Christmas and Easter holidays were always something that words cannot express. We all waited for the first star on Christmas Eve with bated breath. Mother baked, cooked and cleaned in preparation for this holiday celebration. During that day I was essentially always polite, because my mother constantly admonished us that we must not fight today, because if you do, you will be beaten every day for the entire year.
Dear God what we didn’t have during that day?
Our mother was baking cookies, makowniki (poppy seeds cakes), croissants, dumplings filled with plums, figs, poppy seeds and others with apples. There was fried fish, cold marinated mushrooms, hot cabbage rolls and other food probably as many varieties as there were Apostles. Christmas Eve dinner was always meatless, but I do not think that anything was missing.
Older folks cheered while liberally drinking premixed vodka with variety of juices. Children were given tea, spiked with a bit of fragrant rum. Later in the evening, uncles and aunts would come and with an old Polish custom were greeting with a song, “Wesoły dzień, wesoła nowina gdzie się narodziła mała dziecina” (Happy day, happy news where little baby was born) and ending by wishing for the owner a harvest of at least one hundred meters of wheat. We would kiss our guests hands, as was our tradition and for that there was always something that fell into our pockets for candies.
Before supper we would all kneel to a common prayer. Our father would then share a thin white wafer with our mother and guests, not forgetting the children. We then ate all the prepared meatless dishes and treats with ravenous appetite. After dinner some merry conversation and then caroling would begin. We as children were having all sorts of fun and could do anything we wanted in the full sense of the word.
On the table was a layer of scented hay covered with a white cloth, and as was our tradition the whole room was lined with a thick layer of straw, which for us kids, was the greatest joy. In the corner behind the table was a golden sheaf of wheat as a symbol of the agricultural state.
All the children would wait impatiently for the arrival of the three kings with Herod, gypsy and the Jew. Our hearts would beat with joy when the bell announced that the whole ensemble was coming. They would enter the house with a song, “Trzej królowie jadą z wielką gromadą a skąd, a skąd” (Three kings ride with a great throng from where, from where). Then they would sing some carols, followed by the devil or a bear jumping around, various jokes by the Jew and the gypsy filled our hearts with joy and curiosity. Cashier and the Jew would then collect some money in their hats. Departing they chanted, “Dowidzenia już idziemy, za kolędę dziękujemy, na drugi rok znów przyjdziemy, jak doczekamy” (Goodbye we are leaving, thank you for the Christmas carols, we will come again next year, if we are still alive). Then the fraternity of boys and girls would go out caroling.
The holidays lasted for three days. On the second day two groups would go out caroling, one group of married men and another of young women. Older church brothers or sisters would make various receptions for the carolers. Such caroling lasted for two evenings and very late into the night because the richer hosts would often invite the carolers inside for drinks and snacks. Our Polish folk traditions were so delightful and entertaining, that any one who experienced them would have good memories to the end of his life. I know I had.

Today, as I wrote these words in 1956 not only as an adult, but as a man who saw most of the world, I can say without any exaggeration that not many can boast of such beautiful traditions. There are many countries with very nice traditions, but they are more materialistic or business in nature.
I will never forget that with which I grew from the cradle through the childhood years even after the war drove me so far away from my native country.

I remember one special autumn evening, the St. Andrew’s fete. Adolescent girls believed that St. Andrew as the patron to young girls would allegedly find fiancés for them during that evening. It had to be staged in dark chambers with low candle light and secrecy where these girls would carry out some mysterious boding. On one such St. Andrew evening, my sister Anna and a few of her girlfriends locked themselves in the chamber and there they were performing some strange magic. First they baked some small pancakes, then they covered a small stool with a handkerchief where they placed these pancakes side by side. I, of course, was spying on them, but I was soon discovered and pushed out into the hallway. I then went into the pantry, where a small round opening leading to the chamber was made through which cats would go through for mouse patrol. Through this opening I saw all this hocus-pocus. When the pancakes were ready and placed on the covered stool, they called a dog and whose pancake the dog ate first, that girl would allegedly get married first. They called in our voracious dog Micas, who with one swoop of his tongue and there was nothing left on the stool. There was no prediction made who will be the first or the last. Through the opening, I began to make fun of them, that they will have to be married all at the same time.
That evening, every girl was asking St. Andrew to let her dream about a boy which was dear to her. It would seem that during that night St. Andrew had at his disposal thousands of girls, who as directed by the dogs had to bring them good tidings.

Jan Domański

Translated by John Janiga

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