He grew up in Poland, a Catholic childhood with a proclivity for stoicism; pious, ascetic, the gift of intellect and his rock-hard work ethic defining an otherwise ordinary life. He would go on to emigrate and assimilate and father children and achieve the American Dream, pulling so hard on his bootstraps that he had the luxury of losing tens of thousands to Bernie Madoff without it mattering at all, so many years down the road.
But first came the war.
He left home.
He joined the Polish army.
He defended his country with honor.
He was captured by the Russians.
A prisoner-of-war, a hostage, an object as autonomous as a classroom pet constantly harassed by overenthusiastic schoolchildren. A prisoner-of-war, collateral, a dead man walking at the mercy of the Allied Powers, a life in the hands of those who do not regard it as such. A prisoner-of-war, a scapegoat, a pawn in the geopolitical chess game between Freedom and Fascism.
He was really just a math professor from Warsaw.
A prisoner-of-war, he was held with soldiers from all over Europe. A prisoner-of-war, he lived with them in squalor and learned their mother tongues. A prisoner-of-war, he spoke Polish and German and Russian by the time he escaped, only to be recaptured by the Americans and thrown back into captivity.
It was his brain that saved him.
While loose lips were sinking ships
and babies were storming French beaches
and nations were choosing guns over butter,
he was fighting to stay alive.
He translated for American guards, babies themselves with no stake in this war, deciphering a cacophony of language from dozens of different origins which must have echoed throughout their prison like the pounding of waves. A postmodern town crier in a cellblock of strangers, he relayed messages from the inmates and communicated directives from their captors; he was too useful to kill.
They paid him in cigarettes.
He traded cigarettes for privileges
for anything to help him hang on
for even one more day.
So when he was released, when the world was once again safe for Democracy, when he moved to Austria, when he met a nice Czech girl, when he proposed by the fountain where Sound of Music was filmed, when he took her through Ellis Island, when he built a family in America, when my mother was born, he already knew how to speak English.
But – for as long as I knew my grandfather – he never did smoke any cigarettes.