Saturday Storytime: Count Poniatowski and the Beautiful Chicken

Elizabeth Ziemska was nominated for a Shirley Jackson award for her story “A Murder of Crows”. Unfortunately, that story doesn’t seem to be available online. I don’t think anyone will be disappointed with this one, however.

In the hospital where he stayed for two weeks while his bones knit, my father’s already somber mood descended into melancholy retrospection. Why had he survived the accident? Was it a coincidence that the driver was German? Was it some sort of sign? Although he had worked hard his entire life, was his real work about to begin?He made a mental inventory of his accomplishments: immigrating to a new country: check. Successfully raising not one, but two, families: check (though if he were entirely honest with himself, one more successfully than the other). Building a career in his profession (as opposed to driving a cab, or running a candy store, like many other immigrants must do to survive): check. Was this enough to constitute a successful life? Surely there were other things he could have done, could still do, now that he had been spared, once again. Every night before he fell asleep he tried to work on a list of future accomplishments, but he could never get beyond item # 1.

The youngest of five brothers, my father was just three years old when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, but he remembered the day his family hid in the basement of their apartment building with great clarity. Polish fighters had managed to keep the Germans out of Warsaw for eleven days of a siege before they ran out of supplies. Panzers broke through fortifications and rolled down the streets while German soldiers swarmed the city, going door-to-door, looking for Polish soldiers hiding among the civilian population.

My father’s oldest brother was at the age when little boys fall in love with war. In the family’s rush to get downstairs, no one noticed that he had brought his favorite hat into the basement, the one that superficially resembled the square czapka with the scarlet band of the Zandarmeria, the Polish Military Police. When the gun shots, the screams, and the smoke had cleared the Germans discovered that their fugitive Polish soldier was just a ten-year-old boy.

Out of the hospital and recuperating in his tranquil blue apartment, my father took his pain pills and reviewed what he knew about the sequence of events from the German invasion of September 1, 1939, to the partition of Poland, just one month later, by Germany and the Soviet Union. He confirmed that nothing could have been done in those thirty-odd days to prevent his brother’s death. Really and truly the only way to undo that past event was to prevent World War II, the first and only item on his To-Do list. And if the turning point of the war did not exist in Warsaw in 1939, he would have to look for it elsewhere.

My father is an engineer, not a historian. He spent six months at the Tennessee Valley Authority Reactor Facility, reworking the electrical grid to harvest the nuclear energy more efficiently. He can track the path of an electrical current through conductors and resistors. He understands the laws of cause and effect. He was convinced that there was a specific moment, a prima mobile in the timeline of Polish history that was responsible for the sequence of events that occurred in the basement of his childhood apartment building. He started reading history books. It was not long before he found what he was looking for.

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Saturday Storytime: Count Poniatowski and the Beautiful Chicken