179 / 365 – Aid/e

FRED VANEK

This aide is kind to me, Karen. Sometimes she leads us in singing songs. I don’t know all of the songs. I didn’t listen to the radio much when I first came over. The music was so strange, and the language too. I struggled all day to speak English, so I didn’t want to hear more of it at night. But she lets me sing Czech songs too, sometimes. Nobody ever joins in, but Karen tries, or pretends to try. “I can’t remember those words!” she says, but she tries.

There was a girl like her, when I was making my way back, during the war, coming back from Russia to Czechoslovakia. Mostly I traveled at night, tried to keep to woods, away from towns. But I had to beg from strangers, for food, sometimes for water. When I was still in Russia, and Poland, I couldn’t believe how generous people could be, me wearing a German uniform. I didn’t speak any Russian, but they gave me a little bread, even sometime a little sausage, and nobody had any meat in those days. I couldn’t believe that people would share with a soldier wearing a uniform of the country that had destroyed their country. But they did. That’s what poor people do. They see you need something, and they share, even if it means they didn’t get a square meal.

I think I was in Poland. The family spoke Polish, and I could speak a little Polish. In the army, we used to call the Poles dogs, and even my father didn’t like dealing with them much. There was a small farm, that looked like it was in better shape than most of the farms there. The house was painted. I had been in the barn overnight and there were  a lot of animals. There was a quarter moon, plenty of light, and I had gotten water from their well and retreated back to a grove at the far edge of their pasture. I was hungry, but I had also heard cracks of guns going over here and there nearby and I wasn’t sure where to go. In the morning I heard a sound and I looked and there she was, this girl, coming across the pasture with a cloth in her hand. She came straight to where I was. I hid back behind some shrubs and she called to me softly, “Soldier, soldier. Are you still here?” Then she said it in German. I thought it was a trick. Why would a Polish girl help a German soldier, after all we had done to their country? There was no way she would know I was Czech and I had been forced into the army. But people were like that. I thought the same thing, too, when I was passing through that part of Russia that had once been part of Poland and where all the Poles lived. They helped me out, too. Even Russians. People had more sympathy that you were starving than what terrible things you might have done in the past to survive. An old man said to me once, when he was sharing some potato soup with me, “Everybody who has survived has done some terrible things.” It was like being forgiven by Jesus, that’s how I felt when he said that. It lifted this burden I was carrying on my back. People were so kind, like this girl in Poland. She gave me some bread and it was warm and fresh. I hadn’t had fresh bread in … it seemed like years. And there was butter, and I hadn’t had that either. She sat with me and smiled and I had that bread. It was one of the happiest days of my life. I felt like I was going to make it home, and survive, and this was the best food I had tasted, and all because of this kind girl.

Sometimes when I am with Karen, I think of her. It’s almost like she is here with Karen. It’s funny how that happens. People are more than just the body that is sitting with you, smiling at you, talking to you. Sometimes I talk to people and I feel like I am also talking to other people I’ve known before, as if they’re all present in this one woman. I know it sounds crazy, and everybody thinks I’m crazy. That’s why they make me live in this place. Everybody except Finn. When I say crazy stuff like that, he smiles. I ask him if he thinks I’m crazy and he says, “No. Sometimes I think you see things that I don’t. And even if they’re not real, it’s good to think about.” Finn is my friend. Like Karen. They are good people. Really, all the friends I have.

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