September 1943

Wspomnienia Franciszka Matysiaka cz. 2

Teresa Jabłońska-Matysiak

How did one travel long ago to Bagdad? Our transport column was to depart at 5.00 a.m. It’s destination, if I can say so, was “more or less” known – Iraq. I close my eyes and I feel the climate of the film where I’m playing the part of “The Thief of Bagdad”. I dream all night about the “virgins of Seraglio” and in the morning wake up usually drenched in sweat at the temperature of 70 degrees C. I turn on the lamp, as yet, not Aladdin’s lamp, but a simple a 50 VAT “Osram” or “Tunsram” – the names of these electric lamps have always annoyed me, and I see that it is three o’clock in the morning, too early to get up and too late to turn over and go back to sleep and continue dreaming about houris with veiled faces and the mysterious Bagdad. I see that the travelling companion who lives with me in the same tent has sat up in his bed, Arabian style, and is rhythmically rocking to and fro like a palm tree leaf in the wind, awaiting not for the call of the muezzin, but the honk of a car. Thus the climate and feeling of the future conditions is brought to perfection, and we feel that the only thing missing is the lamentation of 35 wives of a harem, when their master and ruler departs, and the obsequious assertions of the harem guardian. It so just happens that both of us are single men, although, I suspect that in the near future my companion intends to change this generally respected and accepted vocation of an “old bachelor”. This unexpected trip has slightly ruined his plans. However, having in mind the proverb that “there is no wrong path to my sweetheart”, we can safely say, that travelling via Iraq, he will reach the heart of his chosen one. Finally the moment arrives, that burdened like Arabian mules (here, I have in mind, the pleasant four-legged animal and not a person) canteens, water-bottles, flasks, etc., we luckily land in a square where the drivers of elegant “Fords“ await the signal to depart. Those comrades who are both departing and bidding us farewell are standing by the cars, English drivers are smoothening their cheeks with the final strokes of their razor blades, mess-room service with lorries loaded with provisions and a few local citizens, I have no idea whether by accident or especially for this purpose, gathered so early in the morning, but bidding farewell with such grief and sadness. One of my colleagues, for the matter of that, a kind-hearted person, who thanks to the goodness of his heart, “shoved” me onto the first transport sacrificing his seat on my behalf and deciding to stay on for a few more weeks till the heat-wave in Iraq passed, humoured us with his jokes, forcing a protective cover on one of my friends watches so that “God forbid it wouldn’t get dirty”, solemnly kisses both cheeks, asserting that he will never forget this till the end of his living days. He can be sure of one thing – neither will I. We finally take off – the trucks are overloaded, as the division chief says, “precisely as they should be”, swaying up and down on the bumpy road, and we – happy as larks – bump our heads on the cabin walls with pounding hearts awaiting to see the sights, eager for new experiences during a trip that will last a few days. On the way, we join a convoy of other divisions and following a short break in a “disciplined order” stretch out forming an autocade along the road. We observe the people walking to work, passing our trucks, and on all the faces we always see the same kind smile and hear greetings shouted and wishes of bon voyage. We pass numerous orange and lemon groves on the way, organized country farms, and what is even more important for us – the green, as in a few dozen miles we’ll enter the Transjordan dessert. Our colleagues, who had already travelled along this route, keep scaring us talking about the abysmal boredom and emptiness. The journey itself, although it lasts about a week, is a slow one, but it could be travelled in a shorter time, however, with a damaging effect to the machines and harrowing to the people. The trucks, after crossing the Palestinian border, begin to climb the steep Transjordan slopes of the meandering serpentines. But, although the views are not a common everyday sight – a naked and rocky landscape – our thoughts soar towards our mountains, so different and much more charming. Quite an extraordinary event occurred during the trip. One of the drivers suddenly swerves off the road and lands in a sandbar. - You probably fell asleep at the wheel? - No. - So why? - It seemed to me that the road turned off to the right. - Maybe you had a drink? - No. I can “exhale”. And, as to confirm what he just said, he inhales a huge amount of air into his lungs and blows it straight into the face of the nearest standing officer. On the completion of this experiment, each and every one of them stated that the driver was not drunk and the incident was caused by a “mirage”. Everybody was overjoyed and pleased as this was not an everyday phenomenon, thus everyone helps to push the truck out of the sandbar. The driver pleased at having caused the accident proudly looked at his companions. He will have a real adventure to talk about for a long time on returning to Poland: “how, during the trip –y’all – I was dazed and hazed”. After such a short break we continue our journey in a much improved mood. During each stop we consume huge amounts of water and tea. The temperature keeps rising with each kilometre of the road, but no one complains. Many soldiers have already been on the “Midlist” for 2 and a half years and just do not feel the heat any more. High spirits and songs accompany us along the whole journey even when we entered the “Devil’s Kingdom”, as the Iraq dessert was called. Enormous black rocks with smoothly polished surfaces lay all over the vast space as if they had fallen with the rain or had been placed there by a human hand. Waste land – nothing can grow there, nor roads or settlements can be built. Not a free inch were you could place your foot down. The rocks lying next to the road are used for repairing the road or maintenance. Small open spaces thus form where workers place barrels with pitch and oil or build tents in which they live. And to think, that this is a country that possesses an invaluable treasure – naphtha. On the sixth day of the journey we arrive to our destination – where as far as the eye can see there is nothing else except tents, tents and tents. September 1943 The Scorpion So much has been written and said about it that probably there is not much to add. However, because of being a dangerous creature, especially to those in the dessert, it would do no harm to say a bit more about it. Scorpion (Escorpius italicus) belongs to the arachnid family. It is poisonous. It has to be destroyed. It creeps up unexpectedly – such a modest and grey creature – as if completely harmless – and in no time it injects a drop of its venom into your body. Quite recently it came to our tent. At high noon. Sat at the edge of the bed, took off its helmet, wiped the sweat off its brow and having a dry throat asked for some water, and began to say: – Gentlemen, have you heard that it’s really going to get worse with our chow. It is being said that the Germans are sinking all our supply ships. Our meat rations have already been cut. - Well, it’s probably because meat in such heat is not that healthy. - I don’t know – continues the scorpion. – But what will happen when we run short of everything… in the dessert?… - There are enough local sheep – says Wojtek, sitting in his corner, and he turns towards the “wall”. This doesn’t “catch on”. All of us have just eaten lunch and in the dark depths of our knapsacks there still lie untouched food cans from the canteen with which, really, there’s not much we can do. The comer begins a different tune: – But in Teheran, amongst our civilians it is already bad – they are simply starving. Kozura, who has just woken up, sticks out his dishevelled hairy head from under the mosquito net: – How do you know, sir? I have a wife and children, but she writes that till now, they have all they need, that care institutions are prepared. – Me too, me too – says the scorpion nodding his head sadly. – My wife also doesn’t write anything about this, because it’s forbidden. But right now, there’s this Kowalski from the fourth fleet company who got a letter from his sister, through a friend. I read it myself. Kozura suddenly becomes gloomy. The venom begins to take effect. The guy, after a while continues: – Yesterday, I was passing the “Pips” camp [trans. note: the women’s camp called “Pestki” = “Pips”]. Our gals are going to complete waste, they wander around all night with various ranks. And all of them so young. Whatever will they grow up to be? What kind of wives, mothers? Suddenly Wojtek sits up on his bunk, as if he suddenly felt the prick of a needle. – What rubbish are your talking, Scorpion? He rebuts acutely forgetting about the distinctions of the speaker. – I know best what’s going on there. My fiancé is with the P.S.K. [trans. note: Pomocnicza Słuba Kobiet  Women’s Auxiliary Service = “Pestki”]. She was a member still in Poland. We intend to marry after the war. That’s where they teach our girls none the worse than some time ago in Poland. Discipline and care... And each one of them pays notice to their reputation nowadays even more than when they were in Poland. Finally the austere camp life leaves less time than at home for amours. Of course, there are exceptions, because there just have to be in such a numerous group. But as this is taking place in the dessert, in view of human eyes, thus the malicious gossip about everything. This is the way of gossip and you are doing nothing else than spreading it. The scorpion smiles mildly but with a sense of superiority. - Of course, because you are in love and you perceive everything through your own feeling, and not what really is, but what you would like to see. But I’d say you should better listen to what strangers say. Wojtek nervously lights a cigarette and quickly leaves the tent (most certainly for a pass). This guy has already received an injection [of venom]. The guest settles down on the bed more comfortably and drinks the rest of cold water and sighs: – The heat is getting worse. Whatever will it be next? Now it’s not only more difficult to do something but even more difficult to think. The mind just cannot function any more in such heat. That’s why they said they would take away the club tents from us and give them to the commanding officers, as no one was going to the club anymore because of the heat. No talks any more as there is no time for talks. During the day it’s too hot and when night falls, it’s too late. I am beginning to feel strangely miserable. I feel as if I have been poisoned, too. Maybe the story about the club tent is true, especially as we haven’t seen our educational officer for the past several weeks. A lively discussion continues for a long time after the scorpion leaves the tent. Wojtek has just returned, angry because he didn’t get his pass. The venom is working. Thoughts sway away from the correct route and sometimes wander towards wild lands when there in no one at your side who would correct their paths in the right direction. We sit in the tents for too long, do not read enough and talk too much. But, for the scorpion, there is a FLIT (trans. note: a German pesticide brand name): an animated logical word that straightens the incorrect paths of human thoughts. Common sense. September 1943

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