It is 1940. The six-member Przyczyński family is sent to do forced labour in Germany. They are very lucky, because all six of them – the parents and their daughters aged from a few years old to their teens – are chosen by some rich farmers who treat their captives very decently. Or at least that is how the narrator, ten-year-old Alusia, sees it. The little girl is delighted with her new situation – she has always wanted to get away from their small town to discover another world. Her dream comes true: at the Rauska estate she encounters modern gadgets, foreigners (Swiss, Ukrainian and French people who are also doing forced labour), and a different culture. So she is the only one who isn’t homesick and quite quickly comes to terms with having to work in the fields like an adult. She also genuinely adores their hostess, a beautiful, wise woman, who during her husband’s absence is coping so brilliantly with managing people and property. “The mistress” takes notice of the child’s enthusiasm, honesty and intelligence, and employs her to work in the house, teaching her various domestic duties, and at the same time showing her genuine sympathy. To the concern of her parents, whom in fact the “employer lady” also helps a great deal, Alusia grows more and more attached to Hanna Langer and never has a second thought about going home to Poland.
Alusia not only becomes familiar with German order, but also the strange rules that apply in the adult world. Although she is aware that her childhood has been taken from her, she remains naïve and innocent, even when she is witness to some shocking incidents – expressed in the simple tone of a child, they are even more disturbing. The book’s greatest virtue is the natural way the author renders Alusia’s state of mind, by superbly imitating childish language or showing the girl’s generally comical attempts to rationalise things that are incomprehensible. Never for a moment does the story strike a false note; its authenticity can also be explained by the fact that late debutante Teresa Oleś-Owczarkowa has based it on her own mother’s memoirs.
"Rauska" records the experiences of Polish forced labourers from an original perspective where, crucially, the image of the Germans is quite unlike the usual stereotype we find in accounts from the Second World War era. It is also the extraordinary story of the strength of a child’s imagination, and about being hopeful – it is about the fact that it was possible to be free in captivity.
- Marta Mizuro
Teresa Oleś-Owczarkowa (born 1948) is a psychologist who lives in Krakow. She has previously published poems and prose pieces in periodicals. Rauska is her first novel.
At the next stop I saw the mountains. Much bigger than our Castle Hill, and so blue on the tops. The train journey ended. It was a tight squeeze in the truck. People sat there silent and glum.
It’s the first time I’ve seen even Daddy looking doubtful. And Daddy’s not just very brave, he always knows what to do.
Now I was afraid something bad might happen to us. Maybe even the same thing as those people from the city in September? They were brought along in the same sort of vehicles… Maybe I’ve got it all wrong? Maybe there really is a doubtful fate awaiting us, as my aunties said?
I looked around. But all I got from looking was the same old feeling that we weren’t in any danger. Because how could we be “the flower of the intelligentsia”? We’re just poor people. Most of the women have warm chequered shawls around their shoulders. Only one is wearing an overcoat. We children aren’t any better either. Our Marysia didn’t want to go to school at all, so there’s no intelligence there.
It’s worse in my case, because I got nothing but As in second class and the teacher told Daddy I’m very intelligent. I’m glad that in the past few months since the war began I’ve hardly learned a thing, so maybe I’ve got a bit less of that intelligence by now.
I can shake off my fear. I remember well that the intelligent people looked completely different. No, no, we definitely don’t resemble those people who were brought to our Podzamcze in September to be shot!
No one could possibly mistake us for them.
Meanwhile we’ve reached Striegau. Crowded inside the lorries, we’re looking at a big square, where there’s a platform built out of fresh yellow planks. There are vehicles and wagons standing around it, and lots of people milling about. There are also some German soldiers, but they look different from the ones who brought the people to Podzamcze that time to be shot. They’re also different from the ones who came to Podzamcze at the start of the war. So many different kinds of German – who can make head or tail of them? Because at home in Podzamcze the Germans were very nicely dressed. They occupied a villa in the summer visitors’ area.
I saw them for the first time at the Marketplace, when they were filling their mess tins with food from a field kitchen, the kind on wheels. I stared at them out of curiosity, and as I’ve always had a big appetite, I was extremely curious to know what they were eating. Cousin Antek, who was with me, dragged me to the back, but he couldn’t keep me there. When one of the Germans called me over, I boldly went up to him and was happy to accept a mess tin full of goulash. Why not? The big chunks of meat were tasty and there were lots of them. The German watched me eating it up with relish and smiled. Then he handed me a flask and made a gesture to say wouldn’t I have a drink?
I nodded. Well fed, I was happy to drink the unfamiliar liquid, which was sweet and fiery. After drinking it I felt merry. Antek and I took ages to walk home, because I felt very feeble. I kept laughing, and my head was spinning.
The whole family was sitting on the veranda when Antek finally led me into the yard. I sat down by the garden gate and refused to move any further.
“I think that German may have poisoned Alusia,” Antek told Daddy.
“Holy Mary Mother of God! They’ve poisoned my child!” cried Mummy, cuddling me, but I immediately protested.
“It’s not true! Such nice soldiers couldn’t have poisoned me.”
Then Antek came up with another suggestion: “If he didn’t poison her, maybe he got her drunk?”
I was tired and I had no strength to argue with them.
Daddy told Antek to tell the whole story, and soon after he knew what had happened. I was drunk.
Daddy found it quite impossible to cope with the idea that I liked the Germans.
“You must know, my girl, that only Polish soldiers are nice and very brave,” he said seriously.
And although I listened to him politely as usual, wondering where I could have got so much boldness from, I asked: “But isn’t it true that it’s because of the Polish soldiers Daddy only has one pair of trousers left, the ones he’s wearing? Because Mummy told Auntie it’s all because of the Polish soldiers!”
Without a word, Daddy pointed the way for me: off to bed! I had to drink some bitter herbs too, just in case.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones