Nowolipie and The Finest Years

Józef Hen
Nowolipie and The Finest Years
  • W.A.B.
    Warszawa 2011
    480 pages
    ISBN: 978-83-7747-538-6

For many years Józef Hen has deservedly won acclaim as an excellent novelist and writer who often describes extremely dramatic events or episodes from the past with zest, verve and humour. So he has done once again. Nowolipie and The Finest Years are both autobiographical stories. Here he describes growing up in Nowolipie, a Jewish quarter of pre-war Warsaw, the brief defence of Warsaw against the German invasion in September 1939, and his own wartime experience of wandering as an exile in the Soviet Union. In his wonderful, colourful anecdotes, the childhood and adolescence of a Jewish boy, son of the owner of a plumbing business from Solna Street, taking root in the Polish world – which was multicultural, friendly and attractive – seems almost idyllic. And only the elegiac endings of the autobiographical episodes, from which we discover the later fates either of members of the large family, or of teachers, neighbours, contemporaries, girlfriends, first loves and other friends, holiday playmates and companions in youthful initiations into eagerly awaited adolescence – fates which are tragic, or lost in the darkness of the unknown, boding the worst – change Hen’s cheerful  account into an epitaph, and the Polish-Jewish world, irrevocably vanished into the past, becomes a metaphor for the fates of city dwellers in this part of Europe.
The title of the second story turns out to be misleading, but free of bitter irony; the finest years are the ones spent as a refugee, a time full of adventure while drifting as an exile during the war. This is a life full of dangers, but also enchantments and thrills, which he lived in occupied Lwów and its vicinity, and later in communist Russia as it waged a deadly war against the Germans, first as a survivor of the Holocaust, then a student at a Soviet school, then a collective-farm worker, and finally a Red Army soldier. Hen writes with philosophical humour about growing up to the level of his own knowledge, and about tilling his own small plot in hard and tragic times, but in the process he never slips into misanthropy. On the contrary – hostile to stereotypes and narrated with gusto, imbued with social and sensory details and full of delicious digressions, his stories tell us about the triumph and beauty of life.

- Marek Zaleski

And now about Spencer Tracy. As I’ve already said, I met him right at the start, when it was still spring. I was standing on the highway, winding its way among the folds of black earth, with two heavy metal bars crushing my shoulder. I tried signalling to the lorries that kept clattering and wobbling past me, but not one of them would stop. They were always in a hurry, the bastards. So off I went, with the bars on my shoulder, worrying about my Warsaw shoes, which were getting worn out on the stony road. And just then, as I was thinking to myself how ruthless and unfriendly the world is, and that being the way I am I will never be able to cope with it, just then an old ZiS truck stopped beside me, putting on the brakes without any rasping or squealing, and out of the cabin Spencer Tracy stuck his golden head. It was a good, manly face, with strong, coarse features that inspired trust, grey eyes with fair lashes and brows, and an inquiring look which, despite a smile, was also slightly concerned. It was him! It really was him! Here, on this road! Of course it’s impossible, I know that. But what if, eh? ... Maybe it was a new role, a new incarnation? Never, what an idea! I realised it was an ordinary driver, the man who leaned out to me, a Russian, and yet, although I was just me, he invited me into his cab, and suddenly I felt safe, I was wrapped in calm and the sort of confidence that Spencer Tracy exuded. He drove his three-ton lorry cautiously, carefully avoiding the potholes which his speeding colleagues usually failed to notice, smashing up the undercarriage as well as their own kidneys. He was called Khokholov, which he pronounced ‘Khaa-khlov’.
‘Zakurit’ jest? - Got a smoke?’ asked Spencer Tracy in the husky voice of Spencer Tracy, so the fact that he spoke in Russian was irrelevant.
I told him I didn’t smoke, and I was sorry. To which he said nichevo – never mind, (it’s all right – Spencer Tracy would have said), pravilno – you’re right not to. Quite different from the young fellow with the snub nose yesterday who before inviting me to board his lorry, asked the same thing: ‘Zakurit’ jest?’ and when I said I didn’t smoke, he shouted: ‘So what the hell are you alive on this earth for?’ And so in passing I discovered – a person will always learn something in the Land of Soviets – what one is alive on this earth for, or at least what he was alive for.
If someone who had read up the leaders were to hammer away at a driver that he was alive to build socialism, he’d look like a fool. On this road you never heard any of that empty talk, no one used any fancy propaganda, there was no competition or any of that stuff; just occasionally, when something got destroyed or when Engineer Brzozowski, the skinny stickler who was as stiff as a poker, reported that they’d pinched something again, our section head, Vasil Lakhov, a Komsomol stripling in a green traditional Russian shirt, would get flushed cheeks and shout that it was ‘bezobraziye’ – an outrage, and that they should be punished for destroying Soviet property. The word ‘Soviet’ had no ideological shade of meaning – it just meant pro-state, public property. The road was built of stones, sand and tar – not out of words.
The next day, or maybe two days later, Khokholov happened to stop beside me of his own accord as I was walking along the verge with more metal bars on my shoulder. He opened the door wide and asked: ‘Shall we go?’ He remembered me, because although a lot of folks drifted along the highway, I was the only one who paraded about in a dark-blue high-school uniform. How could I explain his liking for me? Maybe it was that he sensed something in me, in my attitude towards him. It radiates between people, not just between man and woman; the war had taught me that disinterested male friendships can arise, with loyalty, devotion, usually with admiration. ... Friendship with Khokholov did not demand any conversation, he was not effusive, more like the silent type, well, like an Anglo-Saxon, or maybe a reserved inhabitant of the taiga – no, I don’t even know where he was from, whether a Siberian or from the Ukraine; these drivers (‘the motorised column’ as they were officially called) were a hotchpotch from all over the Union, generally Russians and Ukrainians. They lived in barracks at the base, some were quartered in Jewish apartments in Busk or in Yarychev, they lived there for as long as they were needed on the building site, then along with all the lorries which had survived the hurricane driving over the potholes, they were tossed to some other end of the vast Union, and so they wandered from one section of road to another, from billet to billet. They had nothing of their own, apart from a balalaika or sometimes an accordion. Some of them had to make do with a mouth organ. I don’t know if my Spencer Tracy had a family, perhaps he did, I don’t know if he drank, perhaps sometimes he did, and I don’t know what he thought about it all, because although we did occasionally exchange war bulletins (the Germans are in Denmark and Norway, the battle of Narvik, the Germans are in Belgium and Holland, the Germans are in Paris), we made these comments guardedly, in monosyllables.
Now, years on, I could have embellished a little, thought up some catchy dialogue, but somehow I don’t feel the need. Of course, I told him this and that about myself, although that doesn’t mean he asked any questions; whether from Texas or the taiga this sort of taciturn guy is happy to listen, and nods understandingly, but doesn’t poke his nose into other people’s business. I did mention my parents (saying that they had stayed behind in Warsaw), and talked about the high-school uniform: what the dark-red stripe meant (that I was in the upper school already), and a little about how things were at home. I finally summoned up the courage to tell him there was an American actor, an “artiste” as they say in Russian, called Spencer Tracy who looked very like him. He responded with a smile – Spencer Tracy’s smile. He may not have believed me at first – maybe he reckoned no great actor, especially an American one, could have a Khaa-khlov-style mug. After a while he asked: “A good artiste?” “Very good.” That was all right. If he was good, there was no problem. One day he went back to it. He was curious to know what sort of roles did my... how do you say? Spencer Tracy, I prompted him. Well then, this Spencer, what does he play? I mentioned a few films: Captain’s Courageous, based on Kipling – he played a fisherman, Boys Town – he played a priest, Fury, the classic film by Fritz Lang. And there’s a comedy, I added – Taxi Talks, in which Spencer Tracy plays a taxi-driver. ‘Shafior? – a driver?’ he said in amazement. ‘Yes, shafior,’ I confirmed. Khokholov laughed his nice, Spencer-Tracy laugh.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones