Prologue - 2011 - Montana, USA
An old stuffed bear took up most of the room in the small wooden trunk. Its honey-colored skin was a soft mohair fabric worn smooth by years of grubby manhandling, and it stared back at Alice with mismatched glass eyes that looked something like a friendly wink.
She wondered what stories it would tell if it could.
Alice sat back on her heels on the braided rug that covered much of the warped attic floor. The morning sun came streaming through the dirty window, catching on dust motes like tiny dancing flecks of gold. Apt, she thought, if her ancestors were miners. But they weren't - they were ranchers. What little she knew about them, anyway.
The trunk belonged to her Grandma Rose.
Alice was pretty sure Grandma Rose was born around 1938 somewhere in Europe - England, most likely - and then moved to the US before she was 10. She'd settled here in Montana and eventually married a cowboy named Sam Archer. Alice didn't know her maiden name; she'd died when Alice was just a little girl.
Sam and Rose only had one child - Jensen Archer - and he was Alice's dad.
The house had been built by some distant relative before World War II and had been in the family ever since. It was cattle and horse country out here, but Alice's dad had decided he was no cowboy. She thought there was probably a teacher or two somewhere in the family tree, because Dad had gone away to university and become a college professor instead. After Grandpa Archer moved to a nursing home, the house had been rented out to the family that worked the ranch for them. Now Alice's dad was finally selling the property, and there was more than seventy years' worth of clutter to wade through.
Alice was supposed to be spending her summer working on her thesis on twentieth-century Poland and corresponding themes of loss and recovery in the poetry of Wisława Szymborska. But her dad was certain that she could do that and still work her way through the attic, deciding what could be left for an estate sale and what personal items might have sentimental value for the family.
Sure, Dad. Thanks for the vote of confidence. Maybe she could multi-task, she thought. It shouldn't take all her attention to sort through random keepsakes and dismiss whatever wouldn't mean anything to later generations.
Resolved to work quickly, Alice picked up the bear and settled it on her lap before reaching into the trunk. Her hands sifted through more 'treasures' inside - a red knit scarf, a pawn ticket, a compass, some medals on faded silk ribbons, a Monopoly card... A Monopoly card? She gave the bear a puzzled look but he remained as inscrutable as ever. She set the card down to pull out a yellowed sheet of lined paper next - heavy pencil strokes in a child's uneven scrawl. It was dated December 3, 1945, and the title of the page read Who Am I? It began -
My name is Roza Podlacki and I am almost eight years old. I was born in Poland, but I live with my Uncle Jarek and Nils-the-Bear in England now. I came to this country with the Kindertransport...
"Are you Nils?" Alice asked the complacent creature on her lap, stroking the top of his fuzzy head. And Roza Podlacki? Must be Grandma Rose, she thought. The dates seemed right. She must have been born in Poland, though. Not England. Huh.
Alice placed the school report in a small plastic crate she'd decided would hold her pile of items to keep for her dad or to mull over later, and then she picked up the compass and idly turned it over. Her thumb brushed over etched lettering on the back, and she leaned closer to read a surprising engraving there: Made in Stalag Luft III. Patent Pending.
"What have we here, Nils-the-Bear?" she asked, curiosity making her forget all about her thesis.
He just stared back companionably, eyes full of secrets.
The stuffed bear, Jarek thought worriedly, was a mistake. She's probably too old for such things!
To be fair, he hadn't been close enough to a child to have any sort of conversation with one for almost five years now. He was a little out of his element.
Jarek paced nervously in the drawing room of the sprawling old Regency house in Hereford that now served as a Quaker orphanage. He'd written to them first, of course, and explained his intentions. They'd replied, inviting him to 'present himself' on this date, and promising nothing more than that.
Five minutes ago, he'd shown up on their doorstep as directed, introducing himself to the housekeeper with a simple "Flying Officer Jarek Podlacki, ma'am." She'd steered him toward the parlor with a peremptory wave of her feather duster and he'd been left alone ever since.
Those five minutes passed slowly. Freezing rain drummed against the windowpanes. He frowned at the bear, and its glinting glass eyes stared back unhelpfully. Jarek grudgingly tucked it back under his arm.
He felt self-conscious, and his shoulders twitched in the RAF uniform that used to fit him and was now too loose. He wanted so badly to make a good impression, and had so little to offer. A rough cough rattled his ribcage, and he pressed his arms against his chest to try to muffle it.
Small waves of heat curled toward him from the fireplace and he stepped closer, holding out his hands and dripping on the hearthrug. There were candid snapshots in cheap frames scattered across the mantel showing boys and girls of various ages. Some featured children gathered around an enormous Christmas tree, tearing into gift-wrapped presents with glee. In others, children with ruddy cheeks and animated faces played outdoors, laughing in the sun.
Was it right to take Rosie away from this? She was family - but could he really give her a better life than what she had here?
His gaze fell on a photo of a vibrant little girl with black hair pulled back in thick braids, and dark, intelligent eyes. She was curled on a window seat, holding a book. Her expression said, "Hurry up and take the picture! I want to read now!"
Could that be - ? His fingers reached out toward the picture, wanting to draw it closer and study every minute detail.
Behind him, he heard the dignified tap of sensible heels on hardwood floors. He straightened painfully and turned.
A woman paused at the bottom of the staircase, severe and unyielding, from her iron gray hair pulled back in a bun, to her mouth set in a thin line, down to her practical Oxford shoes. By her pose, one hand draped regally across the smooth, polished banister, Jarek knew that she must be Mrs. Darcy, the matron. Headmistress? Whatever her title - she was the one he would have to convince of his worth. Even her expression was closed, forbidding, and Jarek suddenly remembered that the Quakers were pacifists. Perhaps she wouldn't look favorably on him for wearing a military uniform. But this was the most respectable clothing he had; he couldn't show up in the overalls he wore to the factory every day, or the sole frayed shirt and trousers he had carefully folded away back home. This was too important.
He pulled back his shoulders, determined not to let her see the broken man he saw when he looked in the mirror, and took a step forward. Before he could offer his hand, though, a sudden clatter of footsteps echoed down the stairs.
Mrs. Darcy turned. "Rosie. I told you to wait -" but she was fighting an indulgent smile and Jarek realized that her stern demeanor wasn't a permanent state; it was only for him. She turned back to him and her expression softened. "My apologies. I wanted us to have a few minutes alone before you were introduced, but you'll find she's a curious little urchin who likes to make up her own mind about things."
She stepped aside, and Jarek drank in the sight of the little girl, seven years old and small for her age, with big eyes and tousled black curls.
The little bookworm.
Rosie had stopped, frozen in mid-step. She sat down slowly on the bottom stair, hugged her skinny arms around her knees, and her eyes seemed to grow even bigger. "Papa?"
Jarek's brow crinkled in confusion. His English had been rudimentary at best when he'd joined the all-Polish 303 squadron in the RAF in 1940. He'd picked up enough to become fairly fluent since then, surrounded by Brits, Canadians, Americans, Australians, and all of Britain's other allies in the POW camp who'd found English their common denominator. None of those men spoke of 'papa' in their daily conversations, though.
And in Polish, 'papa' meant the tarpaper used for roofing.
Mrs. Darcy, however, understood. With a soft touch on Rosie's shoulder, she gestured for the little girl to take off the locket she wore around her neck. Rosie handed it to her carefully, and Mrs. Darcy thumbed it open and passed it to Jarek with a meaningful look. "This is the only thing Rosie brought with her on the Kindertransport from Poland."
Jarek cradled it in his palm as gently as if it were a butterfly with a broken wing. There was a small portrait on each side; two faces he had not seen in six or seven years. And would never see again. The right side showed a small woman with thick, dark hair tucked behind her ears and kind eyes framed by dark brows. On the left side, he saw a young man in need of a haircut, eyes shining, dimples flashing as he seemed to be trying not to laugh.
"'You look very like him, you know," Mrs. Darcy murmured. "We've always assumed these are Rosie's parents. We told her this is her Papa and her Mama."
"They are," Jarek whispered. "They are her Tata and Mama," he added, using the Polish terms. "Józef is - was - my brother. And Sara, she was his wife." When he looked up again, his eyes were wet.
He knelt to give the locket back to Rosie. "Jestem waszym wujem," he told her, his voice breaking a little.
"She doesn't speak Polish, I'm afraid." Mrs. Darcy gave a small shake of her head. "Rosie's been in England since before she was two, I believe. I doubt she remembers anything."
"No? Of course, no." Jarek settled the thin chain back over Rosie's collar. "Your Tata, your father? Was my brother Józef. My name is Jarek."
Rosie looked into his eyes for such a long time that Jarek wondered if she could see all his secrets, see all the way into his damaged soul. But whatever she saw didn't seem to frighten her. She climbed to her feet and pointed at the furry stuffed animal that was still wedged under Jarek's arm like a rugby ball.
"And what's his name?"
Apparently, introductions were needed all around.
"This?" Jarek grabbed by bear by the scruff of its neck and tilted it up to face her. "This is... Nils. Nils-the-Bear." He swallowed nervously. "I thought. Perhaps. If you agreed to come with me, you might be missing your friends here and want to have a friend to take with you."
A friend... someone who is always be there to support you, even when you don't realize you need it.
Until it's too late...
Jarek's chest felt tight.
Rosie stepped closer, looked the little bear right in its shiny black eyes and took hold of its embroidered paw. "Nice to meet you, Nils-the-Bear. I'm Rosie." Then she took the bear from Jarek and tucked it into the crook of her elbow, just as she had seen her uncle carry him.
"Her parents?" Mrs. Darcy asked, very softly.
Jarek shook his head.
He had the last letter from his brother indelibly engraved in his memory.
9 August 1939
Zbąszyń deportation camp
I have no words for what is happening.
My Sara is gone. Typhus, they tell me. There is not even the most basic medicine here that could have saved her. We are lucky, they say, that tonight there is straw on the stable floor where we sleep, and there is some dry bread to eat. But Roza cries for her mother, too young to understand.
I do not understand, myself.
Our landlord from Leipzig is here with his family, too. He has news of an organization that is trying to save the children. A train that will take them to the coast, and a ship, and on to England. Roza is not old enough, but if Moshe sends his children away, they will lie and say she is their cousin and he thinks the organization will let her come with them.
Lying is a small price to pay for freedom.
They won't find Jewish families for most of the children, I know. I tell you this - if she would be safer never knowing our family is Jewish, I would rather that it stays secret than she live with such abuse and fear.
Jarek - war is coming. Of this, I am certain. Don't fly off and get yourself killed. Stay alive. And one day, if I cannot return to Roza, find her, if you can. Take care of her for me, and keep our secret to keep her safe.
I don't think I can bear to let my little girl go. But I can't protect her here.
The letter ended there. The page, torn and stained, had been included in another note from the landlord's wife: the last letter he ever got from Zbąszyń. It said briefly that the children were gone. Safe. But her husband and Józef had both been taken away. She said that she was afraid.
The letter had taken months to reach Jarek. By then, war had been declared and his parents were dead, too.
He'd never found out what had happened to Józef.
Jarek pinched the bridge of his nose, pressing back the tear that threatened. Then he straightened and reached into his jacket to take out an envelope, passing it to Mrs. Darcy. "You will want to see my papers, I think."
She nodded and quickly scanned his National Registration Identity Card, proving his name and that he had a permanent address. A copy of RAF Form 1394 confirmed his honorable discharge with the reason given: "failing to fulfill Royal Air Force physical requirements".
"I have a job," Jarek reassured her, hoping she wouldn't linger over the suggested disability. "I will provide for Rosie; give her a good life. You have my word."
"You know? I think you will."
Jarek thought her lip trembled, just a bit, and he realized that this was a woman who cared for her little ward very much.
Mrs. Darcy turned to Rosie. "Do you want to go with him, child?"
"Yes, please!" Rosie tugged on Jarek's hand. "Do you have a motor car? Will we take the train? Where will we live? Can I bring my crayons?" She bounced with excitement, and Jarek smiled so broadly his dimples unexpectedly appeared.
"Yes, very much like her father," Mrs. Darcy said softly, almost to herself, and she knelt to kiss Rosie goodbye.
It took two trains and then a very long walk to arrive at their new home. Rosie was excited - whether she was going to live in a castle like a fairy princess or in a tree like a character in Winnie the Pooh, it didn't matter to her. It was all a fantastic adventure. Mrs. Darcy had packed her crayons and notebook to keep her amused on the long trip and sandwiches to eat on the train. Right now, Rosie was warm and well fed, and getting sleepy curled up next to "Wujek", as Jarek had told her to call him. He called her ‘kochanie’ – which he explained meant sweetheart in their homeland.
He woke her when the train rumbled to a stop in a quiet station on the outskirts of nowhere. The rain had gradually turned to sleet and then snow during their journey, but it looked now as if the sky was clearing and the clouds were finally drifting off to the east. Rosie clung to her new best friend, Nils-the-Bear, with one hand and Jarek's hand with the other, while he carried her cheap, cardboard suitcase with everything else she owned.
They walked briskly at first along the edge of the road, and that kept them warm despite the chill as night fell. At first, Rosie had to skip to keep up with Jarek's long legs, but she laughed as she did, so he didn't slow down. Not right away. After a mile or so, his stride started to falter, limping, and she could walk at her normal pace. Then he led them off the gravel, cutting through a small patch of walnut trees that lined the road.
Rosie was delighted to find large nuts crunching under her feet. She stopped to pick up two of them. "Can we take some back with us?" she asked, holding out her hand.
Jarek shook his head. "Leave them for the squirrels," he told her with a gentle touch on her closed fist. "They will have a hard winter this year. It isn't good, being hungry."
"Oh. Alright." Rosie opened her palm and let the walnuts tumble back to the ground. "This is for you, Squirrel Nutkin," she called back over her shoulder as they emerged from the grove. "Don't forget to share with your brother Twinkleberry!"
Then she looked up and stopped in her tracks.
"So many stars!" Rosie tugged at her uncle's hand, drawing him out from under the trees. "Just look at them all!" Her voice was hushed with wonder, her face upturned as if the sky was made of velvet and she could feel its soft caress on her cheeks.
Jarek gazed down at her sparkling eyes, feeling more awed by the little miracle holding his hand than all the constellations in the heavens.
"Have you ever seen so many stars, Wujek?" she persisted, letting go to toss her arms out wide and pirouette on the grass like a figure skater. "I think there must be ten thousand!" That was her favorite number - ten thousand.
Jarek smiled and obligingly looked up. And shivered then.
He remembered a night sky like this. A frigid night pierced by air raid sirens, and the sudden darkness as all the searchlights were extinguished. The stars came out of hiding then, stars he hadn't seen in years, peeking through the inky black until the sky was almost bright with their glow. And then came the rumble of bombers overhead, as if they were coming to liberate the sky. He'd felt the deep yearning to be back in the air again, remembered almost shaking with the desperate want to rejoin the fight.
He remembered years behind prison walls, and the bitter taste of helplessness. And later - the adrenaline-fueled flare of hope filling his chest and then…
Secrets revealed and heart-numbing fear and the shattering crack of a gunshot...
"Come now, kochanie," he said, his voice catching. She skipped back to his side, and slid her hand back in his, and it was warm.
Up far ahead, bright lights seemed to be trying to erase the black night like an eraser on a blackboard, turning everything above a cloudy slate gray. When they got closer, they could see the source of the light coming from a compound, illuminating the empty wooden guard towers, two or three stories tall, perched on spindly legs. Snow glistened on barbed wire that circled the camp like a cheap necklace.
Jarek shuddered, and Rosie tucked herself tight against his side. He put his arm around her and held her close. They made their way through the main entrance, Rosie trying to sound out the words on the big sign on the gate.
National Assistance Board - Northwick Polish Hostel.
Home, it turned out, used to be a prison camp that held captured German soldiers during the war. Now the war was over, they'd all been sent back home, and the facility had been put to use housing refugees.
Jarek and Rosie's unit was a corrugated asbestos hut with funny shaped walls like half a barrel, lying on its side, so everyone in the camp called their new home a 'beczka', which was Polish for barrel. Jarek and Rosie had just half of one to live in; Pana Maciejewska and her teenage daughter lived on the other side, separated by a brick wall down the middle. Each side had a door and two windows. There was no indoor plumbing, but an unheated brick washhouse shared by a dozen other displaced families was nearby. They did have a round iron coke-burning stove for cooking, whose lingering heat also helped keep the room warm in winter.
Not very different from Stalag Luft III in many ways, Jarek thought. But Obóz huts here had only two twin beds per room, hidden from the 'living area' by a privacy curtain. Much better than the eight narrow bunks crowded into a fifteen-by-fifteen foot room that he'd endured for years. They also had a chest of drawers here with a mirror hanging over it. And a radio, too - one that was completely legal and store-bought, not cobbled together with illegal parts. There was even a folding table and chairs where Rosie could do her homework after dinner, like she was doing now, sitting next to Nils-the-Bear whose opinion she sometimes sought.
They didn't have a phone, of course, and one evening in November there was a knock at the door.
Jarek assumed it must be Mrs. Maciejewski, in her colorful babushka and apron, with yet another bowl of steaming sauerkraut to bestow upon them in her motherly quest to fatten him up. He hadn't the heart - or maybe the stomach - to tell her that after sauerkraut every day, and almost no other vegetables for all the years he'd been a POW, he couldn't stand the thought of it now. He accepted her kind gesture for Rosie's sake, and because it made Mrs. Maciejewski beam with pleasure. And if the smell made him lose his appetite while Rosie dug in with relish, well, he'd wake up with hunger gnawing at his belly. It wouldn't be the first time.
But this visitor wasn't his neighbor: it was a stranger. She was petite and dressed for business in a fitted navy gabardine suit under her open coat, with perfectly coifed blond hair that shone like corn silk.
She craned her neck to look up at him. "Jarek Podlacki?"
Jarek looked down at her, past her, and then around uncomfortably, before settling back on her. What could such a woman possibly want from him?
"I'm Julia Skalski, with Dziennik Związkowy, the Polish Daily News, in Chicago," she said. "In the U.S.A?" she added with a friendly smile when he continued to look confused.
Jarek just stood there looking worried, his big body instinctively blocking the doorway as if to protect Rosie.
"May I come in? I have something I think is yours that I’d like to return to you, if I may.”
Jarek could fit everything he owned in the small locker under his bed, so he doubted that he could be missing something and not realize it. But he shook himself a little, nodded sheepishly at his bad manners and stepped aside.
Rosie was swinging her legs under the table, hunched over the lined paper, with the tip of her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth. She looked up brightly at their uninvited guest. “Hello!”
Julia smiled at her, and her eyes danced when she saw Nils-the-Bear propped on the table across from Rosie. She came closer to see Rosie’s homework. "Hi! What are you writing?"
Rosie moved her arm so the woman could see. The title of the paper was Who Am I?
My name is Roza Podlacki and I am almost eight years old. I was born in Poland, but I live with my Uncle Jarek and Nils-the-Bear in England now. I came to this country with the Kindertransport.
"Look, Wujek!" Rosie turned the paper so her uncle could see it. "I'm drawing a picture of the boat, too. My teacher said Kinder means 'children' and ten thousand children came to England on the Kindertransport. But I can't draw that many." She stuck out her lower lip.
Jarek leaned over her to rub the back of her shoulder and give her an encouraging smile. "They didn't all come on one boat, Roza. They sent a new boat almost every week to save the children, from Krystallnacht right until the day war was declared and they had to stop. Besides, you don't have to draw the children on the deck. Perhaps they were inside because it was raining."
"I can do that!" Rosie grabbed a black crayon and began adding bold, dark thunderclouds to the sky. Jarek straightened, his hand lingering on her shoulder, and turned back toward their visitor.
"Kindertransport is a big word! She's a very bright little girl," Julia said, impressed.
Rosie heard that. "I like knowing things," she said matter-of-factly, switching crayons again.
"Me, too." Julia smiled. “You know, I'd like to find out more things about you. And your family here."
“Why?” Rosie put down her crayon, curiosity overriding her passion for coloring.
"Well, as I said, I write for a paper in Chicago. The Polish Daily News,” Julia explained, and turned to face Jarek. “Our readers are all Polish immigrants, anxious for news about our people, all over Europe. Especially now." Her gaze swept their small, drab accommodations and then settled on Nils-the-Bear, balanced haphazardly on the table. She set her purse beside him to prop him up better. "Our weekend edition is very extensive, full of feature articles. Like a magazine. I'd like to tell our readers the story of some of the displaced Polish families here."
She sounded friendly and sincere, but her words sent a small chill down Jarek’s spine. "I'm sure you can find other 'displaced' families in the camp who will be happy to talk to you." The word 'displaced' tasted bitter on his tongue. "Our story is no better than someone else's story."
In the uncomfortable silence that resulted, Rosie piped up, oblivious, “What did you bring? That belongs to Wujek, I mean?”
Julia looked a little embarrassed as she opened her purse and reached inside. "To get some ideas about which families to talk to, I went to the pawnshop in town first,” she admitted. “I thought there might be a human interest angle, reading about family treasures from Poland that had been exchanged for necessities in their new lives here.”
Then she held out what she had fished from her purse: a pawn ticket and something else still hidden in her closed palm.
"The shopkeeper's name is Mr. Hawkins. And one of the stories Mr. Hawkins told me was about a tall, lanky young man in an RAF uniform who came into his shop one day, looking for used toys for sale. There wasn't much of that sort of thing in the pawn shop, Mr. Hawkins said - he dealt more in watches and jewelry and china. Things like that. But he had an antique dollhouse he thought the soldier might consider. So he started to lead the customer toward the back wall, until he realized the other man had stopped, and he turned around to see what had caught the soldier's gaze."
Julia paused in her story, and nodded when Jarek couldn't help glancing across the table at Nils-the-Bear. "It was a stuffed bear, up on a high shelf over the manager's head. It had been sitting there for several years just collecting dust. But that bear happened to be right at the soldier's eye level. Almost like it was meant to be, Mr. Hawkins said."
"It was meant to be!" Rosie picked up Nils and hugged him against her heart. "Wujek and Nils and I were meant to find each other and be a family and live happily ever after."
Jarek said nothing, but his eyes glistened.
Julia opened her palm and revealed a bronze medal shaped into a six-pointed star. It was attached to a blue and white striped ribbon; a narrow bar clasped across it was embossed Battle of Britain. "The manager said the soldier pawned this medal in exchange for the bear. Mr. Hawkins explained to me that this clasp on the ribbon here means that the man had flown combat missions over London in 1940 and 1941, risking his life to defend England from German bombers. So I asked him to look through his records and come up with your name and address for me." She looked at Jarek hopefully. “I thought perhaps you could tell me something about protecting England during the Blitz and how you find yourself actually living here, now, in peacetime?”
Jarek said nothing, jaw tightening, his mood darkening. She wanted a feel-good piece for her Sunday magazine, not his story. He'd fought for England’s safety, and lost his own country in the process. Now he had next to nothing, a 'displaced' refugee. Resented by growing numbers of citizens who taunted him as he left the factory each day, shouting that English jobs should go to English men. Poles go home.
No, he didn’t want to talk to a reporter.
Julia seemed to sense his reluctance to talk about his current life. “Maybe we could focus on your military service? I think the Polish RAF deserves a lot more credit for what they did in the war, don't you? I know our readers would be very interested in that story."
Jarek's pulse started to race. She couldn't know... no one knew what had really happened, what it had cost for him to be here today. Suddenly, his lungs felt tight. His heart began pounding so hard he was afraid everyone could hear it. He shut his eyes, made his lungs expand and held his breath. Repeated to himself: She doesn't know anything. I'm alright. Rosie's alright. We're safe.
When he opened his eyes again, he saw both curiosity and concern in Julia's face. "I’m sorry," Jarek told her. “But – no. I have nothing to say.”
There was a scraping sound, chair legs dragged across the floor, and then Rosie was standing at her uncle's side and taking his hand, tilting her head way back to see his face. His expression softened as he met her gaze and his heart rate began to settle.
“Of course.” Julia pulled out a business card. "Please call me if you change your mind, Mr. Podlacki. I'll be here this week, talking to other families, but you can call or write me any time. If you ever want to tell me your story, I’d like to hear it."
Jarek took the card to be polite, and walked her out. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but the only story I am going to tell tonight is about an enchanted princess on a glass mountain.”
Rosie squeaked, “Yay!” and wrapped her arms around him in a hug.
Jarek shut the door and then lifted Rosie off the ground and hugged her back.
She kept the darkness at bay.
There was a light touch on his arm, and Jarek sat bolt upright, flailing. His heart was racing and he couldn't speak; it was like trying to talk with a mouth full of sand. He felt his knuckles connect with something soft and he flinched, recoiling until he felt the wall against his back.
"Rosie?" he forced out in a whisper. His eyes shot open, but everything was in shadow.
"Shhh, Wujek... it's alright."
That was so wrong. She shouldn't be taking care of him. "O mój boże! Did I - did I hit you?" He reached out a trembling arm.
"No." Rosie climbed onto the thin straw mattress to curl up beside him. "You clocked Nils-the-Bear. But he forgives you."
Jarek felt a fuzzy paw patting his shoulder. "Oh, good. That is good." He wrapped one long arm around Rosie and pulled her tight while his eyes adjusted to the darkness. "What is wrong?" he asked, when his stuttered breathing had evened out. He touched her arm. "Why are you up? Did you have a bad dream?"
"I think you did, Wujek. You were calling for someone. Someone named Jensen?"
"Who is that, Wujek?"
He didn't answer. Heartache turned literal; his chest hurt and it felt like he couldn't get enough air in his lungs. A coughing fit threatened. He recognized the signs and closed his eyes, concentrating on relaxing the muscles around his ribs, feeling them slowly expand.
"Who's Jensen?" Rosie repeated, in the way of persistent children everywhere. "Is he a friend of yours?"
"Yes." Jarek opened his eyes and gave her a weak smile.
"When you were in Poland? When you were little? Like me?"
"No." Jarek started stroking her arm again, hoping the gesture would help her grow sleepy. "I met him... He was... a lieutenant in the RAF. A pilot in the war. Like me. But from Norway, not Poland."
"Oh." Rosie yawned. "When I have a bad dream, you tell me to think happy thoughts."
Jarek nodded, murmuring yes. "Tak".
"So. Tell me and Nils a happy story about Lieutenant Jensen, to chase the bad dream away."
"Tell you a story?"
"Yes. And make some hot milk to help me go back to sleep."
"Yes. With chocolate!"
"Of course with chocolate." He pushed back the blankets and shuffled in his wool socks across the cold concrete floor to the black iron stove.
Rosie wrapped herself in her blanket, settled Nils in one folding chair, and pushed another chair across to the stove, while Jarek took down some chipped teacups and a battered saucepan from a cupboard. "Tell me a funny story," she demanded, climbing onto the chair and waving a wooden spoon at him like a royal scepter. They were in England, after all. And because Jarek could never refuse her anything, he tried.
"Yes. Alright." He thought for a couple minutes, grateful that Rosie was patient. Nils was, too. Finally, Jarek cleared his throat. "I will tell you how we met," he decided. That was a safe memory.
"You know," he began, pouring the milk into the saucepan and lighting the stove. "You know that in a war, sometimes one side captures men on the other side. You understand this? And because they don't want them to fight anymore, they lock them up."
“Like when we play Capture the Flag in school! At play time!” Rosie's face lit up in understanding. “I’m fast. They never catch me!”
"Yes. That's right. Well, not everyone is as fast as you, kochanie." Jarek smiled and felt his tension start to ease. He could do this. "And the prisoners, of course, don't want to be locked up. They dream of the day they can return to their families and friends. So - they try to escape."
"Were you a prisoner? Did you try to escape?"
He chuckled. "Many times. So many times that the Germans built a special camp for all the worst troublemakers - a camp they... meticulously? Is that the right word? Meticulously designed and constructed. They said that no one would ever be able to escape from Stalag Luft III. All the most... incorrigible prisoners were sent there."
Rosie passed him the powdered cocoa and a spoon. "And that's where you met Lieutenant Jensen? He was - incorrigible - too?" She pronounced 'incorrigible' with a Polish accent, echoing his.
"Oh yes. Yes, he was. Our first day there -" Jarek paused to measure the cocoa and then the sugar very attentively - an unconscious habit from the days of waiting eagerly for the next Red Cross packages to come, a time when such luxuries were too precious to risk wasting a speck. "Our first day there, hundreds of prisoners, from every Allied country you can think of, were brought there in trucks from other camps. And as we were arriving, many Russian prisoners were leaving. The Germans were using them as forced labor, to cut down trees. The new camp was in a clearing in the middle of a big forest, you see."
Ingredients added, he positioned Rosie's chair a little closer to the stove so she could stir the hot chocolate as bubbles appeared.
"Some of the Russian prisoners were wearing heavy coats and old fur caps, and they carried axes and shovels. I watched carefully, waiting for a good moment when the Germans weren't looking, and then I jumped in the line with them. I had a cigarette to trade with one of the prisoners, and he gave me his ax. Another gave me his hat."
"But - weren't you wearing your uniform, Wujek? Wouldn't the Germans see?"
When Jarek's plane had crashed a year before, his flight suit had been too blood-soaked to be salvageable. But he didn't tell Rosie that. "No, just pants and a sweater. I thought perhaps I could pass for Russian. And although they were prisoners, too, they had to go outside the gate to return to their compound. If I could somehow make it to the forest before then, I thought, anything could happen!"
The smell of hot chocolate filled the room, and Jarek turned off the burner. Rosie climbed down and dragged her chair back to the table, where she took her seat next to Nils-the-Bear. Jarek stood beside her and poured the frothy liquid into the first dainty cup Rosie held steady for him. "The Russians all came to a stop while the gate was opened," he continued. "Then, before we began to move out, I was surprised to find that another one of the new prisoners had fallen in line, right behind me."
"Lieutenant Jensen!" Rosie clapped her hands together gleefully.
"That's right. We were all huddled close together, four across. I felt a tap on my shoulder and then heard him whisper, 'Do you know any Russian?'
"Without turning around, I shrugged. 'I know just one phrase,' I told him." Jarek finished pouring Rosie's drink and began pouring his own. "я тебя люблю." (ya tebya lyooblyoo)
"I heard him repeat it to himself, but I didn't want to turn to look at him. It might draw attention from the guards. We began to march slowly toward the open gate. After a minute I discovered he had changed places with the Russian who had loaned me his hat, and now Jensen was marching at my side."
Rosie took a small taste, then blew across the surface and set the cup down. "What did Lieutenant Jensen look like?"
Jarek smiled, setting the saucepan back on the stove. He had already discovered that Rosie liked stories with dashing young heroes or heroines and she liked to draw pictures to illustrate stories she made up. He could see that she was already spinning stories in her head of a daring young Lieutenant.
"Well, he was smaller than me -"
"Everyone is smaller than you, Wujek!"
"Really? Are you sure?" He picked her off her chair and lifted her high overhead until she squealed. Then he set her down and nudged her chair closer to the little folding table, taking his seat across from her. "He was handsome like a prince, is that what you want to hear?" he teased. "He was wearing a borrowed coat that was too big for him, and a stolen knit cap, too. All I could see was that he had bright, intelligent eyes. Always thinking, always plotting, that one!"
Rosie set an empty teacup and saucer in front of Nils-The-Bear, and looked at her uncle expectantly. Jarek clapped a hand on his forehead in melodramatic apology and quickly rose to get the saucepan and fill another cup.
When he sat back down, Rosie wrapped her hands around her cup, and leaned forward to blow across the skin of the hot chocolate again. "Then what happened?"
"Then the Germans started looking more closely at the prisoners marching toward the gate. They were specially trained guards, alert to any escape attempts. They had pitchforks they used to stab at the evergreen branches on the trucks from the trees they'd cut down. In case any of the new prisoners had tried to hide there," Jarek added with a smile, remembering how comical the new arrivals had looked, crawling out and slinking sheepishly back to the others.
"One of the guards stopped our group and started inspecting all the men. The Russians were muttering among themselves, and - maybe in an effort to blend in - Jensen pretended to engage me in conversation.
"'я тебя люблю,' he said.
"I was startled. I tried to signal with my eyes that he should stop talking. The guard came nearer, and Jensen cleared his throat, and then tried to act normal and he repeated, like we were having a conversation, 'я тебя люблю.'"
Jarek brought his teacup up to drink, so tiny in his big hands that it didn't hide his grin. "The Germans pulled him out of the line, and then me, too, because he had been talking to me. Unfortunately for Jensen, the guard spoke better Russian than either of us."
"What was wrong? What did that mean? Ya tebya lyooblyoo?"
"Jensen asked me that, as they hauled us away. So I told him. 'It means, I love you.'" Jarek shrugged. "I told him I wasn't planning to use it, myself!"
Rosie giggled into her cup. Not long after, when Jarek tucked her back into bed, she wrapped her arms around his neck and whispered into his ear, "Ya tebya lyooblyoo, Wujek!"
He stilled for a moment, distant and lost, so long that Rosie drew back to give him a puzzled look. He noticed her stare and blinked away the past. "It's better in Polish, kochanie. Kocham Cię!'
"Kocham Cię, then, Wujek!"
"Ja też cię kocham." I love you, too.
His broad hand brushed a stray hair away from her face, and he dropped a soft kiss on her temple before straightening and turning out the light.
The next morning, as Jarek was buttoning her into her coat for school, Rosie was apparently still thinking about the failed escape. "Did you get into lots of trouble? When you tried to run away?"
"Nie - just a week in the cooler. For each of us," he told her, tying the strings to her knit hat under her chin.
"The cooler?" Rosie's face scrunched up in a perplexed frown. "Like - a big fridge?"
"No!" Jarek laughed. "It's just a separate cell... a room, solitary, where they locked you up for punishment. You had to stay in the room, all alone - you couldn't go outside, or eat with your friends, or anything."
"That would be awful! Were you very angry at Lieutenant Jensen, for getting you caught? Or was he very mad at you for teaching him the wrong thing to say?"
What Jarek remembered was that for his first week at Stalag Luft III, it turned out that Jensen was the only person he could talk to.
The only one.
In his early days with the Polish Air Force, Jarek was gregarious. A chatterbox. He was young and foolish and liked to talk, and tell stories, and laugh and drink and throw his arms around his mates' shoulders. Just like most of the other young Poles who'd escaped when Poland fell and had made their way to England where they could rejoin the fight. Living among the reserved Brits had felt like a shock of cold water when he first joined the RAF. But his squadron was made up almost exclusively of expatriates from the Polish Air Force, and among his own people, he'd remained his talkative, friendly self.
So he talked to Jensen. They couldn't see each other, but their cells shared a common wall, and there was nothing else to do but get to know each other and tell each other stories.
They didn't talk about being prisoners, not then. They talked about home.
At least, Jarek did. Jarek told him he was from Frampol, Poland. As a child, he said, he was always outside, climbing trees so high he could touch the sky. Fashioning bed sheets into parachutes and jumping off the roof. When he wasn't reading poetry.
Jarek sprawled on the floor of his cell, flattening his shoulder blades against the thick concrete wall, and tucking his hands behind his neck, elbows flared out like wings. "The farmers who came to trade in my village always said it was a shame that someone my size wanted to go to school and read poetry and study. Do you have the phrase "mieć głowę w chmurach" in English? To... to 'have one's head in the clouds'. Yes?"
From Jensen's cell, only silence.
"Everyone always said I had my head in the clouds. Always daydreaming. But one day I saw a plane make an emergency landing in the pastures outside our village! The plane had an open cockpit. The pilot's hair had blown in his eyes and I knew he had been sharing stories with the birds and exploring the inside of a cloud! And I knew from that moment that one day I would see the inside of a cloud myself."
Jensen didn't respond in kind, not then. He spoke very little, in fact. Later, other prisoners who'd come from Jensen's last prison camp told Jarek that Jensen was that way with everyone. He just didn't like to get close to people. But that first day in the cooler, Jarek hadn't talked to anyone else in the new camp yet; he didn't know anything about Jensen.
Alone in his cell, he pondered Jensen's silence and wondered what expression might be on his face if Jarek could see him. Probably mocking.
Jarek was used to being teased for being a romantic. It didn't bother him - he was certainly too big for anyone to bully. Still. He stopped himself with an effort from waxing lyrical about the 'vast embrace of the sky' and with an embarrassed chuckle, he'd turned to more mundane topics.
"My father - he was a teacher. But he was fiercely patriotic: he fought in the Bolshevik War in 1920. Was so proud when I was accepted into the Air Force Academy in Dęblin. My mother - she was a gentler soul. She gave me my love of poetry and nature. And, it must be said, I get my nose from her, too," he added sheepishly.
"And what of you, Jensen? Where are you from?" Jarek hadn't heard him speak enough to make a good guess, but he took a stab at it. "Denmark?"
This was good. After prolonged silence from the adjacent cell, he had coaxed two syllables from his neighbor. Maybe they would become friends yet.
Jarek's fingers had fallen still, tangled in the strings to Rosie's cap, as he was lost in thought. She wrapped her small hand around his to get his attention back. "Was Lieutenant Jensen mad at you?"
"No," Jarek reassured her, collecting his emotions first and then standing to gather last night's teacups, setting them aside with the saucepan to wash later. He would have to go outside to get water from the taps located across the camp, so he'd left them on the stove after their midnight tea party. "We weren't mad at each other. In fact, when we got out of the cooler, we found out we were to be roommates in the same hut. We even shared the same set of bunk beds."
She opened her mouth to ask more questions, and he silenced her with a fingertip to her nose. "There's a story about those bunk beds. Be a good girl, and maybe I will tell it to you one day. But it's already half to the eighth; we need to be going now or there won't be time to stop in the kantyna for breakfast."
Rosie pulled the curtain closed that hid their beds and grabbed her schoolbooks. "I'm ready, Wujek!" He heard her muttering 'bunk beds' under her breath, too, committing it to memory, and he knew she wouldn't forget. Sometime, she would ask for that story, and he would have to find a way to be strong. To tell her the little anecdotes, for there were good memories, too. He needed to learn how to hold onto them without feeling like he was falling apart.
Until the reporter had visited with questions about their past, Jarek had been fairly successful at burying the memories he didn't want to think about. Like all POWs in the RAF back from the war, he'd been required to talk to a psychologist at Cosford – a grueling, intrusive interview. Jarek had had nothing to say and the doctor plenty – lecturing about probable nightmares, grief, and guilt, before he finally gave up and just warned Jarek not to be surprised if healing emotionally turned out to be harder than healing physically.
Jarek had just tuned the man out. He had far more important things to think about. He was finally discharged after months in hospital. There was nothing they could do for his damaged lungs, but his frostbitten feet had recovered enough that they hadn't had to amputate after all.
He was free, and the RAF couldn't tell him what to do or think any more.
He had a new mission. Find Roza. Find Rosie, get a job, and make a home. He couldn't afford to let himself think about anything else.
The search had kept him occupied for weeks. Toddlers had been rare on the Kindertransport, and the few who were that age usually came with siblings. Rosie had arrived in England with the landlord's children, but apparently she was soon separated from them. The Red Cross had been able to confirm that Rosie had gone to a foster family in London, and there the trail had ended.
She'd disappeared from the system sometime in 1940 while Jarek was flying over London, on patrol in his Hurricane.
Jarek would never forget looking across the sky above London's docks, the chill of seeing dozens of German bombers and their fighter plane escorts approaching fast in attack formation. He’d flown with reckless abandon that day, diving at the heavy Dornier bombers, close enough to strafe the cockpits before pulling up, relying on his teammates in the 303 Squadron to keep the Messerschmitts off his tail. There was nothing he wouldn't do to keep the air over Rosie safe. Wherever she was.
That winter, it seemed at times like all of London was on fire. Jarek heard that hundreds of thousands of children were being evacuated to the countryside; he'd prayed that Rosie was among them.
Five years later, the Red Cross couldn't tell him. There was no record of what had become of her. He went to one organization after another, and finally met a miracle worker named Ann in an organization called the Refugee Children's Movement. She tracked down paperwork that had been lost and located a Roza Podlacki at the Quaker orphanage in Hereford.
Now, they were together, finally. They had a home. He had a job.
He should feel safe.
But ever since the reporter’s well-meant questions, his war memories had turned insidious, like the tunnel sand that had to be shoved out of sight into an attic groaning with the weight. Julia Skalski had poked a crack in that ceiling, and specks of sand were starting to trickle out.
His guilt about Jensen weighed heavier each day, and the crack deepened.
Jarek liked to be outdoors under the canopy of endless sky.
On his days off, even when it was so cold the toilets in the unheated washroom froze, he didn't like to stay indoors. The Resettlement Camp was still surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, but the German POWs were long gone; no one guarded the wire now. The residents could come and go as they pleased. And on the weekend, it pleased Jarek to walk the two-mile shortcut across pastures and the small walnut grove to the village, and buy a loaf of sweet challah bread at the bakery.
And if he unconsciously walked a little faster as he passed the watchtower, his long-legged stride making Rosie trot to keep up with him even with his slight limp when his joints stiffened in the cold, she never complained. She did, however, tug at his sleeve. "Wujek," she said reproachfully, "you never finished telling me the bunk bed story!"
"The bunk bed story?"
"Yes! Lieutenant Jensen and the bunk beds!"
"Oh! That bunk bed story!" He had prepared for this moment, reminded himself to focus on the specific anecdote and not let his thoughts wander to the tragedy that lay at the end. "You will remember," he began, "that the kriegies were always looking for ways to escape."
"That's what we called ourselves. The Germans called us 'Kriegsgefangener'. That's too long, nie? So we called ourselves kriegies." Jarek had decided after the last talk that he wouldn't use the word 'prisoner' if he could help it. He must remember that Rosie was still only seven, and he should be more careful in how he answered her questions. He couldn't hide the war from her, but perhaps he could shelter her from some of the horrors a while longer.
Rosie nodded, filing away another new vocabulary word.
"And we called the Germans 'goons'." Jarek grinned. "The watchtower was the goon-box. We had a secret organization in the camp, headed by an officer whose code name was Big X. He had to approve everyone's escape plans. One day, he came up with a crazy idea for a huge escape..." He stopped talking, felt his breath start to stutter as other memories washed over him.
He didn't think it would be so hard - calling to mind amusing incidents from camp. But the tunnel...
Rosie took his hand and they walked in silence for a minute. Then Jarek squeezed her hand and continued. "Hundreds of soldiers breaking out all at once. Can you imagine the chaos?" He shook his head and a corner of his mouth curled up in a semblance of a smile. "Now, every kriegie on the Escape Team had a specialty, you understand? Some were good at sewing, like Mrs. Maciejewski, yes?"
"Oh yes!" Rosie beamed. "She says I can wear the Strój Krakowski dress she brought from Poland, the one her daughter outgrew? For the Christmas pageant!" Rosie had already tried it on, and she especially loved the black velvet bodice embroidered with beads and sequins. She held Jarek’s hand over her head and twirled merrily underneath it.
Jarek felt his heart lighten and his smile broadened, remembering how she had danced in it for him in their beczka. "So the men in the camp who had been tailors before the war, they made costumes for disguises. Other men were good at drawing, like you! They made forged papers - travel permits and tickets. My specialty was tunnels. Over the years I was a kriegie, I dug nineteen different tunnels!"
"Like The Wind in the Willows, Wujek? Like Badger and Mole? Mole liked Badger's home. He said when you're underground, you always know exactly where you are. Nothing can happen to you, and nothing can get to you!"
Nothing can happen to you. For a moment, Jarek felt his vision go dark, his throat tight, fighting to breathe when another tunnel collapse had buried him alive, and only the desperate digging in the pitch black by the POW wedged at his feet had pulled him free.
His shoulders twitched as he threw off the memory and forced himself to focus on his niece. He realized they had stopped walking, and she was looking up at him patiently. "How do you remember so many things in your books?" Jarek forced a grin, tugging her braid.
"It's because I'm clever. That's what my teacher says." Rosie tossed a careless shrug.
"Yes, you are! But no, I didn't like the tunnels. I like the sky." He tilted his face up, felt the feather-touch of wind brush along his cheekbones, and his breathing grew calmer. They started walking again.
"But the Germans wouldn't let me go up in the sky any more, and it turned out I was good at the tunnels," he explained. "Jensen said it was because my shoulders were so big. He said if I could fit in the tunnel, then they knew that anyone could!"
Jarek remembered that day with an unexpected rush of warmth. Jensen had just gotten a package from Montana, and he was more emotional than Jarek had ever seen his stoic roommate.
"Takk Gud!" Jensen murmured, holding the package reverently, not even opening it.
"What is it?" And more to the point, since neither of them could see inside it yet, "What does it mean?"
"My parents!" Jensen's fingers shook as he tore open the box, careful to set aside the string and brown paper. Nothing went to waste in Stalag Luft III. "They got out of Norway. They're with their cousins, in America – Wolf Point, Montana. They're safe!"
Jarek knew Jensen had been worried, though they rarely spoke of it. Everyone knew about prisoners who'd escaped from other prison camps and later discovered their families had been executed by the Germans in retaliation. Jensen had prayed that his family had made it out of occupied Norway, out of Hitler's reach, but until now, he hadn’t known for sure.
"Montana!" Jarek would have pulled Jensen into a bear hug and danced around the room with him. But he knew his Scandinavian friend was too reserved for that. Still, he couldn't help grabbing Jensen's shoulder and babbling. "After the war, you will go there and become a cowboy, yes? I have seen some American cowboy movies. When our squadron was based in Northolt, we saw them. Stagecoach. Destry Rides Again. Do you think it is true that Jimmy Stewart is really in the Air Force? Will you have horses in Montana?" Jarek was as excited as a little boy. "I love to ride horses!"
"My parents' cousins have a ranch, yes." It was unusual for Jensen to reveal so much, but he was particularly happy and expansive that afternoon. "You love horses, eh? I thought you loved flying?"
"I love everything outdoors under a vast sky!" Jarek proclaimed, throwing his arms out wide.
"A vast sky, huh?" Jensen raised an eyebrow. "Tell me that's not from another poem!"
Jarek grinned, for it wasn't the first poem he'd inflicted on his roommate. But this one felt more personal than the others - it was one he'd thought of often since the war began and since he'd been captured. He muttered a moment to himself in Polish while he worked out the translation. Then he quoted a piece of it:
'In the evening, under a vast sky,
under sharp stars,
a sky spreading righteously
over what lasts
and the lazy river of remembrance...'" 1
Jensen shook his head, unable to hide a smile. "And yet, you spend every day underground, like a birch mouse in winter."
"I hate it," Jarek confessed with a shudder. He'd never admitted that before, never told anyone else. "But every second, I am telling myself, I am digging my way out!"
"And they will all follow behind you, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin!" Jensen teased. "With those shoulders, they know if you can fit, anyone can!"
"What about you?" Jarek asked, only a hint of playfulness in his voice. "Will you follow me out the tunnel?"
Jensen shook his head. "You know me, Jarek. That's not my style. I'm better alone."
Rosie began to skip alongside her uncle, and tugged his hand again to pull him out of the reverie that had started with a fond smile but ended in a gloomy cloud. "What was Lieutenant Jensen's specialty?"
Jarek thought a moment. "You know, Jensen did not want to be on a team. He was a very private person. He used to say that he did not like to take orders, and he did not want to depend on other people or have other people depend on him." Then Jarek laughed, surprising himself. "He really was very good on his own. No one ever knew what he was going to think of next! One time, he stole a German uniform from the laundry and he practiced imitating a certain guard's posture and walk, and when he was ready, he pretended he was the guard and just walked right out the gate!"
"He got away?"
"He would have. Except that the man he was impersonating was coming into the camp the same time Jensen was walking out of the camp, and so it was noticed. We could hear the Unteroffizier's indignant squawk all over the camp! He honked like a goose!"
"So what happened to Lieutenant Jensen?"
"He got the cooler! Of course."
They reached the cemetery outside the village. Rosie picked up a broken branch off the ground and skipped along an iron gate that enclosed the graves, making a rattling sound as she strummed the iron bars with her stick. "Tell me another one."
"Let me see. He dug his way under the fence like a little mole, pushing the dirt behind him as he dug, and poking a pipe up through the ground every few feet so he could breathe. It was so cold, though, that his breath turned to steam, and one of the goons saw the little clouds of air popping up from the ground outside the wire and went to investigate."
"Oh no! What happened?"
"Cooler!" Rosie and Jarek said the word at the same time, and she giggled.
"Another time he pretended he had head lice, because the delousing showers were outside the wire. The Germans were very afraid of lice, you know," Jarek told her, making a silly frightened face. "If anyone was suspected of having lice, the entire barracks had to go to the de-lousing block. Jensen got someone to create a diversion for him, and he slipped into the woods."
He sighed. "But he was caught."
"And his friend who started the diversion?"
Rosie took a long look at her uncle's face. "You, Wujek?"
He nodded. "Cooler." But he was smiling.
Rosie tossed away her stick as they left the cemetery and reached the road. "But what about the bunk beds?"
The cold air made Jarek's chest feel tight. He coughed, trying to open up his breathing. Then he began. "Ah, yes... that was for my tunnel." He stopped, and pointed to the bakery more than 100 yards away. "You see how far that is? That is how far we had to dig the tunnel from hut 104, under the inside perimeter wire. The tunnel went past that, under the hospital quarters, under the cooler, under the outer barbed wire fence. Over three hundred feet to the forest!"
"And you had bunk beds in the tunnel?"
"No, you little minx!" Jarek tugged one of the braids that hung from beneath her cap. "We needed wood to shore up a tunnel that long, so the sand on top of it wouldn't make it collapse. We stole slats from under the mattresses in the huts. We were building three tunnels all at the same time, in case the Germans found one of them. We called them Tom, Dick and Harry, so that no one would ever say the word 'tunnel' where a ferret might overhear. So you can imagine, we needed a lot of wood for Tom, Dick and Harry. Over four thousand bed boards went into our tunnels!"
Rosie gave him a puzzled look. "You had ferrets in your camp?"
"Not the furry kind." They came upon the road, and Jarek checked both ways before leading Rosie across. "The weasel-faced Germans who would sneak around trying to catch us doing something against their rules."
They reached the pavement in the village, Jarek taking the outside to shelter Rosie from any traffic. "And although Jensen was a - a lone wolf? Yes. A lone wolf. He preferred to escape by himself. But sometimes things he did to help himself would help us, too. His German was very good, you know. He made friends with one of the ferrets, and always came back from his chats with Werner with some information to share with the Escape Committee.
"Werner had beady black eyes and a pink nose and whiskers. I don't think he ever knew we called him a ferret!" Jarek wrinkled his nose. "But he wasn't a bad man. Sometimes I would overhear them, when Jensen bribed Werner with some chocolate inside our room. One time, he told us when the guards' gate passes had been changed and they needed a new stamp on the back. Werner had no idea Jensen had pick-pocketed one for our forgers to copy! Another time, we had some carpenters among the pr- among the kriegies - making copies of rifles with wood and shoe polish, to go with the Unteroffiziers' uniforms the tailors made. So someone could try to escape as a guard, yes? And Werner mentioned to Jensen that they were going to stop carrying rifles and start carrying pistols. That news was just in time. If we sent someone out dressed like an Unteroffizier with a rifle, he would have been spotted right away!"
"So Jensen didn't want to be on the Escape Team. But if he got something to help himself, he didn't mind sharing it."
"So - how did collecting bed boards help Jensen's escape plans?"
"It didn't." Jarek cocked his head, thoughtful.
"So maybe he wasn't the lone wolf after all?"
Jarek was spared answering by their arrival at bakery. He opened the door and held it while Rosie ducked under his arm to go inside and press her face against the display glass. The confectionary treats looked so delicious. But they were na raszynie - on ration coupons - and they couldn't spend the last of the week's coupons on something so impractical. It was enough of a treat to get a sweet braided challah.
Rosie handed over the coupons and coins, as that was her job. Jarek took the loaf, and they turned to head back out into the cold December air.
"But what about the bunk beds!"
"Ah yes." Jarek was smiling now - a rare flash of dimples. "Jensen did help us," he admitted. "Every bed donated a board or two. Jensen volunteered to help collect them in our hut, filled up his arms, and then decided that he could carry more, so on his way out, he reached over and grabbed just one more board from under the mattress of the nearest top bunk."
Jarek rubbed his shoulder. "It was my bunk. And when I climbed into bed that night, after digging in the tunnel all day -"
Rosie's eyes grew big and round, and her hand clapped over her mouth.
He nodded. "My bed collapsed. I fell through to the bed below me. And it collapsed. And I landed on Jensen's bed. And it collapsed! And I ended up on the floor!" He threw back his head and laughed.
Rosie giggled into her fist. Jarek broke off a piece of bread to eat as they walked. It would be a shame not to have some while it was still hot. He handed the first chunk to Rosie and tore off another for himself. "We both slept on the floor that night!"
Hanukkah came and went unnoticed in the Polish Resettlement Camp in Northwick in 1945. Nearly all the refugee families there were Catholic. Rosie had no idea that her family was Jewish, and Jarek had no intention of telling her.
She knew, of course, that she'd come to England on the Kindertransport, but she thought it was an effort to rescue any children in the path of war, too young at the time to know better. Her mother had died because she'd become sick; people do sometimes get sick and die, Jarek had explained gently. Other people died in war. His own parents had been killed in the bombing when Germany invaded Poland, no distinctions made between Aryans and Jews. And Jarek just let her think her father had died the same way.
He didn't know, himself, what had really happened to Józef. What he did know was that his brother was taken because the Germans had found out he was Jewish, and he was never heard from again. And Jarek would never risk anything like that happening to Rosie.
What had Józef said in his last letter? Lying was a small price to pay for freedom.
So Jarek pretended they were Catholic, like everyone else in the Resettlement Camp, certain in his heart that it was what his brother would have wanted. Rosie went to school with all the other Obóz children at Our Lady of Częstochowa Catholic School. She seemed happy enough there, and chattered about what she was learning and games that were played and about the other children, some of whom were struggling to learn English. But her closest confidant was still Nils-the-Bear.
One morning as Christmas approached, an enormous evergreen tree appeared mysteriously outside the ewidencja, the main hall in the center of the camp. The children grew even more excited about the coming holiday, and began working on ornaments. Rosie was delighted at the prospect - some children could sing like angels and would be featured in the Christmas pageant, but this was where her talents shone.
Most of her class was content to make colorful construction paper chains, but not Rosie. She'd brought home a dozen eggs to decorate that she'd hollowed out at school by blowing through a hole punctured with a darning needle.
Jarek was stretched out on his bed with his leg elevated; one of those seemingly random days when his bad foot swelled and lowering it ignited a burning sensation from his ankles to his toes. Reading a newspaper was a workable distraction. From time to time, he glanced up to watch Rosie work on her project at the table, and he felt such a fierce, glowing pride that it made his heart ache.
When Mrs. Maciejewski arrived that evening with the promised Strój Krakowski costume for Rosie, Jarek rose to his feet, towering over their diminutive neighbor, and took the dress from her with a grateful smile. He hung it beside his RAF uniform, and then ducked his head, burying his face in his sleeve as an unexpected cough rattled up from his chest.
"Thank you, Jarek. Now you - go back to your reading!" She shooed him away as if he was inconsequential to her visit and turned to Rosie. "Those wydmuszki eggs are so pretty, Roza! My Gabryjela could not make anything so nice, even now at eighteen!"
Rosie beamed and beckoned her closer to show off her work. The egg she was working on had a dark green pine tree painted against the pale eggshell, and Rosie was adding colorful dabs of ornaments. When Mrs. Maciejewski lowered her head closer, Rosie whispered in her ear, but Jarek could hear her all the same. He pretended not to.
"See that dark blue egg over there?" Rosie pointed. "I'm making that one for Wujek to keep, for Christmas! It's supposed to be the color of the sky at dusk. You know, when the moon is hanging there like a shiny sixpence, and all the stars are starting to come out, but you can still see the clouds, too. I'm making it like that for Wujek because he likes the sky best of all!"
"Second best of all, I think," Mrs. Maciejewski whispered back, smiling at the little girl. "You will want to coat it in nail varnish so it will keep forever then. Do you have nail varnish?"
Rosie shook her head, looking down at her fingers.
"Does your Uncle Jarek have nail varnish?"
Rosie burst into giggles.
Jarek looked up from his reading - a copy of Dziennik Związkowy that Julia Skalski had sent in hope that he would one day reconsider an interview. He gave the two conspirators in his room a deliberately suspicious look. "What are you two talking about?"
Mrs. Maciejewski straightened with a wink at Rosie. "I forgot to bring the little apron that goes with the dress. Rosie, skip next door and tell Gabryjela what you need, would you please?"
"Of course! Be right back!" Rosie wiped her hands on her skirt, while Jarek rolled his eyes at her, and she dashed out the door.
Mrs. Maciejewski turned toward Jarek. "I have been wanting to ask you about that cough, young man. Have you been to see a doctor?"
She was standing, so he climbed to his feet, too, wincing slightly as he shrugged. "Yes, I saw a doctor. Many doctors. When I was discharged from the RAF." He could hear the light whistling sound as he exhaled, knew she could hear him wheezing, too, and that she wouldn't be satisfied with his answer.
"And? There is nothing they can do." Chronic respiratory disease, they'd told him. Digging in a narrow two-foot by two-foot tunnel, beset by cave-ins, daily for over a year? They couldn't tell him what long-term effect that could have on his lungs. No one had ever done that before. So they'd been more concerned about his severe frostbite - that was something they could do something about. There was vascular and nerve damage that couldn't be repaired, but after four months in hospital, they'd saved his foot. Now Jarek could even walk without a limp - at least when it wasn't cold and damp.
The cold damp seemed to make his cough worse, too.
"Doctors!" Mrs. Maciejewski threw up her hands. "Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, you will come for Wigilia dinner! And later this week, I will give you a jar of goose fat, and you must drink it down! My father shoveled coal in a steel mill back in Poland, and he swore by drinking melted goose fat and also rubbing it on his chest. For the congestion."
Jarek raised a hand. "No, please, Mrs. M! There's no need..."
The door opened with a bang and Jarek was relieved to be saved from further scolding. Rosie was back, with a paper bag in hand and an exaggerated wink at their neighbor that Jarek couldn't help seeing.
Through the open door, they could hear carolers beginning to make their way through the camp.
"And another thing," Mrs. Maciejewski complained as she made ready to take her leave. "That Cicha noc, święta noc! Silent Night, Holy Night. But the words are all wrong! 'Holy infant, so tender and mild'? My roast goose is tender and mild! Not the Christ child!"
"It's to rhyme," Jarek pointed out mildly. "The Polish words wouldn't rhyme in English." He took her elbow to help her down the short stoop. To be honest, he wasn't even sure he remembered what the Polish lyrics were, but she didn't need to know that.
"I will see you tomorrow for dinner!" she called over her shoulder as she rounded the beczka toward her own door.
She really was a kind-hearted woman, Jarek mused as he sat back on his bed and stretched out his legs. Someone who had a need to be taking care of others. It would be hard for her when her daughter got married, and she would be alone.
"Wesolych Swiat!" Rosie called after her. "Happy Christmas!" She turned to Jarek. "Tell me a story about Christmas when you were a kriegie?" She put on her most beguiling smile.
The question took him by surprise, and he answered without thinking. "Every year in camp, someone would say, 'This year, the war will be over and we'll be home by Christmas'," Jarek said wistfully. Then he caught himself and quickly ransacked his memories for a more cheerful answer. "One Christmas, we made raisin hootch - that is, raisin wine!" Then he thought - what happened next was certainly not something he could share with a seven-year-old girl! He thought another moment, and then his eyes lit up. "I do have a story about Christmas carols."
"Tell me!" Rosie said, putting her bag on the foot of her bed and then sitting next to Jarek on his. "Is Lieutenant Jensen in it?"
He pulled her closer so she could burrow under his arm. "Lieutenant Jensen, Lieutenant Jensen. I think you're a little bit in love with Lieutenant Jensen," he teased.
"Well, he is in all your stories, Wujek!" she answered reasonably.
He tilted his chin, thinking. Then he felt her bump her shoulder against him, and he began.
"This story is about my tunnels. We were still digging all three - Tom, Dick and Harry - at this point. And you see, the air gets so bad in them... well, it made us sick. We couldn't dig any further without fresh air. So I went to Big X, and he got a very smart Australian fellow named Coburn to design an air pump out of things we had around the camp. They made the bellows out of a couple kit bags, built the valve box and frame with wooden bed slats and old boot leather, and an intake air pipeline out of tin cans. But it all had to be hammered and pounded together, and the noise would draw the attention of the ferrets. You remember the ferrets?"
"Oh yes!" Rosie had never in her life seen a ferret, but she made an exaggeratedly fearsome weasel-like face, and he tapped her nose lightly with his knuckles to make it go away.
"So. We were using the camp library as a workshop. Jensen was outside, just doing whatever Jensen did - nobody ever knew what Jensen was doing - and he saw a ferret coming. And he immediately started singing Christmas carols, as loud as he could. And he grabbed a few other kriegies who were walking by, and made them join his chorus. By the time the ferret came over, Jensen was conducting a dozen Christmas carolers underneath our window." Jarek laughed. "The ferret never heard our hammers at all."
"But I didn't tell you the most funny part!" Jarek added, smiling widely, dimples deep. "It wasn't even Christmas! It was the middle of summer. I think they must have been the only songs that Jensen thought all the other kriegies would know! And the goons never suspected a thing."
Rosie fell off the bed laughing. "You were lucky Lieutenant Jensen happened to be right outside your window!"
"We were lucky he had such a good singing voice, too," Jarek chuckled. "I liked listening to him, and he attracted a crowd to sing along. After the ferret left, one of the squadron leaders in our camp who'd joined the chorus even knocked on our window to ask us to keep the noise down - he couldn't hear himself sing! He had no idea what we were doing - he just liked singing!"
Rosie was still giggling when she got up off the floor to put away her craft project, and then started singing Cicha noc, święta noc as she went along. A little off-key at times, just like all the Podlackis. Jarek enjoyed every wobbly note.
But that night, after he turned out the lights so they both could go to sleep, he lay awake a long time thinking about the last thing Rosie had said.
The next day was Christmas Eve - a holy day here that his family had never celebrated when he was growing up in Frampol. Later, in his years with the Polish Air Force, then the RAF, and eventually as a prisoner of war, it was a holiday they observed, but it had never involved all the intricate family customs that surrounded him in the Resettlement Camp. Fortunately, Mrs. Maciejewski knew that this was the first Polish Christmas that Rosie would remember, coming from the Quaker orphanage, so she was more than happy to explain every custom without waiting for Jarek's input. Her daughter Gabryjela, tall and blond and pretty, flashed her sparkling engagement ring as she welcomed them inside for Wigilia dinner.
"Who's the extra place for?" Rosie asked, when she entered the Maciejewski side of the beczka and counted six chairs. "You, Gabryjela, Wujek, me, Nils-the-bear, and one more!"
"It's a tradition," Gabryjela told her, "to set a place for an unexpected guest. We say, 'a guest in the home is God in the home.'"
"And it reminds us," Mrs. Maciejewski added with a hint of sadness, "of family and friends who could not be with us. You can think of your Tata and Mama being here with you in this way."
"And Wujek can think about Lieutenant Jensen," Rosie declared, setting Nils on his folding chair.
Gabryjela looked up from arranging the silverware. "Who is Lieutenant Jensen?"
"He's Wujek's best friend. Like Nils-the-Bear is my best friend!"
Mrs. Maciejewski glanced at Jarek, a wordless communication that he had no trouble interpreting. Is he here in England, too, without his family? We could have invited him...?
Jarek gave a minute shake of his head. He couldn’t speak past the lump in his throat.
Mrs. Maciejewski sighed, her ample bosom heaving, and then she steered the mood back to happier news. "Perhaps next year the empty chair will be for my Gabryjela, because this is her last Christmas in this home. We have made her a beautiful white wedding gown out of parachute silk, and in two weeks she is marrying her Anton! Next year she will have Christmas in her own home!"
"Mama, don't be silly!" Gabryjela stopped lighting the candles on the table to wave a dismissive hand. "You know you will have next Christmas with us! Not here alone!"
Mrs. Maciejewski beamed. "Yes, Alright. And you - " she turned to Jarek. "When you come to the wedding, you must remember not to sneak out early! You think I don't notice? You don't come to Mass every Sunday, and when you do, you always leave before Holy Communion!"
Happily, she didn't wait for excuses, and began serving dinner. More courses of food than Jarek could imagine later, they finally returned to their side of the beczka. Rosie seemed uncharacteristically shy as she reached under her bed for a small package. "I made this for you, Wujek," she said, holding it out tentatively.
He sank down on his mattress and opened it slowly, savoring every piece of the experience. The heft - as light as a handful of flower petals. The sound of the paper crinkling as he unwrapped it. Then the bright jolt of blue when he saw the painted egg, as vivid as the sky the first time he had ever taken a plane up into the clouds.
He cupped the back of her neck and pulled her closer to place a kiss on her temple. "This is - the most beautiful thing I have ever owned," he said, completely honest. "It reminds me of a poem I love - that I will always think of when I look at this. It is called Niebo. The Sky."
"Will you teach it to me, Wujek?" Rosie asked, snuggling closer.
"In Polish, or in English?"
She thought a moment. "My brain has room in it for both," she decided.
"Just the beginning of the poem tonight then," Jarek said. "Let me see -
Od tego trzeba było zacząć: niebo.
Okno bez parapetu, bez futryn, bez szyb.
Otwór i nic poza nim,
ale otwarty szeroko.
We should have started from this: the sky.
A window without a sill, frame, or pane.
An opening and nothing more,
but open wide. 2
"I like that!" Rosie said, stretching out on Jarek's bed and lying with her head on his legs, tilted to look out the window. "The sky is a window, open wide. We could go through it to places far away. Somewhere new and magical! Someday..."
He didn't answer, his fingers idling carding through her hair.
"Can we go outside tonight, when we go to Midnight Mass, and look for constellations again? I bet I can find the one you taught me last time! Wielki Wóz - the Plough!"
"If you are still awake at midnight," he murmured, hoping she would fall asleep instead. "But first, I have a present for you."
Rosie sat up with a delighted squeal.
Jarek hoped he had gotten this right. Mrs. Kuryłowicz, whose laundry he helped carry every weekend, had surprised him with chocolate to put in Rosie's shoes for Dzien Swietego Mikolaja, St. Nicholas Day, on December 6th. So he'd gotten lucky and had that unanticipated Catholic tradition covered. He also remembered the photos on the mantel at the Quaker Orphanage of children unwrapping presents, and had worried that Rosie might be expecting something more. But his pay packet didn't go very far. He hadn't even saved enough yet to buy her a new anorak, and she was close to outgrowing the one she had.
There was so much he didn't know: about the customs here. About raising a little girl.
He could only do his best, and hope it was enough.
"A present! Where is it?" Rosie jumped off the bed and started searching around the room.
Jarek pulled out the small locker under his bed. He knew Rosie had never seen what was in it.
He opened it. And so, so carefully, he pulled out a long scarf, hand-knit, dark red with navy trim.
"It's beautiful!" Rosie came forward to run her fingers along the pattern. "Who made it?"
He didn't answer for a long minute. She waited, not moving except to stroke the soft yarn.
"Mrs. Jensen made it for her son," Jarek finally said. "I still remember when he got the package. All the way from Montana! Until that box came, he didn't know that his family had made it to America." Jarek kept staring at the scarf. "Jensen didn't smile a lot. But he smiled that day. She made it in the colors of Norway's flag," he added, and then he couldn't talk any more past the ache in his throat.
Couldn't explain that Jensen refused to wear the scarf around camp, no matter how cold it got, because he was saving it. One day, Jensen said, he would break out and wear the scarf as part of his disguise as a civilian. And he didn't want any of the Germans to associate it with him, so he kept it tucked away behind a false panel in their hut.
"So - why do you have it?" Rosie asked, always curious.
Jarek didn't answer, and she looked at him, a thoughtful expression on her face. Then she started to push the scarf reluctantly back in the box, but Jarek stopped her and wrapped the soft wool around her neck.
"It is yours now."
"I don't think I will see Jensen again, to return it. He -" Jarek swallowed. "He used to listen to me talk about you. I think he would like it if you wore it." His voice cracked.
"You told him about me?" she asked, her voice very small.
Rosie took Jarek's hand in both of hers, and he bowed his head. She leaned forward to kiss him. He hoped she wouldn’t notice that his cheek was wet.
The week after Christmas, Jarek lost his job. Now that the war was over, it seemed that all of England wanted the foreigners to just go back where they came from, and they certainly wanted their own returning soldiers to have first crack at any jobs. Bold graffiti was scrawled outside the factory walls proclaiming "Poles go Home" and "England for the English!" The Trade Union Congress passed a new law that Poles couldn't be in the union, and all the chemical factory workers in the Resettlement Camp lost their jobs. The National Union of Mineworkers was the only exception - the shortage of men available and willing to work underground was so severe that the Union made a deal with the government to allow ten percent of the mineworkers to be Polish. In exchange, the government reduced the workweek for miners to five days instead of six.
Jarek held the papers in a shaking hand: the envelope from the factory that contained his termination notice and the flyer his boss had handed him with a sympathetic look - a flyer that offered an opportunity in the iron ore mines up north. Jarek's stomach churned. He couldn't take Rosie with him there. And he couldn't bear to send her back to the orphanage.
Mrs. Maciejewski, he felt certain, would take her in during the week. With Gabryjela moving out to be married, leaving their neighbor alone, she might welcome the company on school days, especially if Jarek paid her for Rosie's food and a little extra besides. Yes, he thought to himself. She was a good-hearted woman and lonely now. She would help.
Meanwhile, Monday through Friday, starting every morning at 6 am, he would be drilling iron ore in a damp, old-fashioned pit at the Irthlingborough Mine.
Jarek's stomach lurched. He went outside and threw up.
Then he told his boss he would accept the position offered in the mine. He had to provide for Rosie. That was everything: getting her out of the Resettlement Camp one day, out where she could go to art school or to college and do anything she wanted.
Jarek didn't expect Rosie's reaction to the news. She had been so willing to come away with him just a few months before, so brave in leaving the orphanage and everything she knew behind. But now? She cried. Not big, gulping sobs, because she'd seemed to learn stoicism from her uncle. But her chin trembled and she wiped away a fat tear with the back of her hand.
"Don't be sad, kochanie," he comforted her, crouching down to be at eye-level. "Nils-the-Bear will keep you company. And do you know? I never told you this, before, but he is a magical bear."
"Yes. When you are asleep, he can take your thoughts, happy or sad, and all your wishes and he can send them through the sky. Remember - the sky is just an open window. And he can listen through that window to my thoughts and wishes for you, and whisper them to you."
"Really?" Rosie picked up Nils and gave him a hug, burying her face in his soft shoulder. Her voice was muffled, but Jarek could hear her forlorn, "But I don't want you to go."
He kissed the tears off the corners of her eyes. "I will be back before you can miss me. And you will be a good helper to Mrs. Maciejewski, yes? I know you will. Because you are such a good help to me."
She sniffed and wiped her nose, and they sat quietly together a long time, until she fell asleep in his arms.
The hard physical labor in the mine wasn't as bad as the memories it triggered.
Sometimes, deep underground, Jarek caught himself listening for that familiar, ominous creak, the groan and crack that never came in the mine, the sound that meant tons of dirt was about to splinter the slats of wood holding it back, and sand would flood the tunnel like an avalanche, undoing days of grueling work and risking lives.
It was safe here, he forcibly reminded himself, setting down the heavy pneumatic drill and wiping sweat off his face with his discarded shirt. He could sit side-by-side with Kazimier and break for lunch - a luxury he never had when digging 'Harry'. He almost didn't mind the rats.
At the end of his shift, he'd climb up the same 147 steps every day and feel his lungs straining; he could hear the faint whistling sound when he started to wheeze, but at least the air seemed cleaner here. He didn't climb out of the mine retching green vomit until his stomach was scraped empty or lie in the dark afterward pretending he didn't have a migraine. Not like he had in Stalag Luft III.
It was much better here.
Until the day there was a power failure.
The lights in the mine went out and Jarek was blind. It was as if he was back in 'Harry', wrapped in cloying darkness that felt like being buried alive. Air thick and choking. He felt a panic attack coming on, wracked with a desperate need to get out, to claw with his bare hands if he had to. Over the sound of his frantic pulse pounding in his ears, he could just make out the murmur of voices, and he struggled to remind himself where he really was. He wasn't alone. There were other workers down here. They weren't afraid. There was nothing to be afraid of. He had to get control of himself.
The cadence of his heartbeat thumped loud, loud, echoing a poem that he used to recite to himself in 'Harry' while he dug, and now he clung to it like a prayer:
Nie muszę czekać na pogodną noc,
ani zadzierać głowy,
żeby przyjrzeć się niebu.
Niebo mam za plecami, pod ręką i na powiekach.
Niebo owija mnie szczelnie
i unosi od spodu.
I don't have to wait for a starry night,
I don't have to crane my neck
to get a look at it.
I've got the sky behind my back, at hand, and on my eyelids.
The sky binds me tight
and sweeps me off my feet. 2
Jarek felt Kazimier's steadying hand on his elbow, and he realized that he was shaking, hard. And that he'd been mumbling the lines of the poem in Polish.
It was the same poem he was teaching Rosie. Thinking of Rosie helped him pull himself together. He nodded, murmuring, "I am alright," and Kazimier backed off. He knew better than to ask Jarek what was wrong.
Jarek had learned not to let anyone get too close, after Stalag Luft III. After Jensen...
Kazimier lit one of the candles they always had handy to test for carbon monoxide. It stayed lit, and Jarek knew that the air was fine. He was fine.
Then a bat swooped past and Kazimier flinched and dropped the candle. It sputtered and went out. And in the fresh fall of darkness, Jarek remembered the tunnels again.
He remembered a fat lamp knocked askew in a sand slide, splashing flaming oil in an agonizing arc across his knee. He remembered crawling out of the tunnel, limping back to his room and Jensen yelling at Big X there. Big X, with his scarred face pulled in a perpetual scowl that intimidated everyone else in the camp: everyone but Jensen. Jensen railed at Big X because he'd authorized the Escape Committee to steal all the burn jelly from the camp hospital to make a mimeograph machine for maps. There'd been no burn jelly left to treat Jarek's injury until the next Red Cross shipment a week later.
Jensen had been as livid as the burn on Jarek's knee.
Being reminded of Jensen was worse than memories of the tunnel. Grief and guilt lay on Jarek heavily, like the sand that was always threatening to swallow him alive in his dreams.
Jarek doubled over in a paroxysm of coughing. It felt like something was scouring his lungs raw, and when the spasm was over he spat wetly into his sleeve. Then the lights in the mine came back on. His sleeve was damp and Jarek looked down to discover that the stain was bright red.
Every day after, though, Jarek forced himself back under the earth and tried to pretend he could live with the memories.
Every day, his cough grew worse.
And so did the nightmares. Nightmares of being trapped in the tunnel. And nightmares of what had happened after he and Jensen got out. Both left him wracked with pain, weak and trembling.
But at least they didn't wake up Rosie here.
In winter, it was dark when Jarek left for the mine, dark when he returned to the dormitory hours later, hungry and stiff. The light in his life came from his weekends home with Rosie.
That was the last place he was expecting trouble.
Jarek saw the man's shadow, stretched long and thin, before he saw the stranger actually waiting outside the front door to their beczka. The silhouette, black as iron-ore against the sun-bleached concrete walk, wasn't the squat shape of Mrs. Maciejewski, or of Mrs. Kuryłowicz, who sometimes came by with warm chrusciki under a tea towel, those delicious fried sweet cookies dusted with sugar that Rosie called "angel wings." Nor did the shadow have the crooked angles of old Mieszasław Pruszyński with his stooped posture and his ebony cane, come to bark at Jarek to put his young muscles to use helping with the weeds in Pruszyński's vegetable garden.
No, this dark shape stood tall and straight, and reminded Jarek of the Luftwaffe guards in Stalag Luft III, the ones who took their soldiering seriously. Who couldn't be bribed or tricked; the ferrets who sometimes crept up on you unawares or the hundfuehrers who paroled the camp with snarling dogs straining at their leads.
Jarek turned the corner and saw the uniform first. Not German. He’d known it wouldn't be a German uniform, and yet his heart had still fluttered in his chest like a trapped bird.
"Flying Officer Podlacki?" the man asked. He gave a tired sigh. "You have been a hard man to find."
"It's just Podlacki, now." Jarek inspected the man - short battle dress jacket, twin bands on the sleeve that identified his rank in the Royal Air Force.
"Lieutenant Francis MacKenzie," the young man said, holding out his hand. Jarek took it reluctantly. "With the Special Investigation Branch of the RAF."
"Investigating what? I've done nothing - "
"No. Please." Lieutenant MacKenzie swept off his cap, and his red hair and freckles made him look younger than he probably was. He sounded slightly awed. "You're something of a legend, escaping the prison camp near Sagan. A hero -"
"I'm no hero!"
"I'm sorry. Let me try again." MacKenzie stopped to pull himself together, apparently marshaling his thoughts. "I want to speak with you, Mr. Podlacki, because you're a survivor. A witness. You probably know, the United Nations War Crimes Commission is doing nothing about the murder of our officers from Stalag Luft III. So the RAF is conducting our own investigation, and we need your help."
Jarek paled, his face gone the color of chalk. "I don't. I don't want to think about that any more. It's over. I can't - "
"Flying Officer Podlacki." MacKenzie tried the military rank again, determined. "This isn't about you. This is for the men who never made it home. This is about a search for justice."
Jarek closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Men you lived with. Men who worked shoulder to shoulder with you on the tunnel."
Jarek said nothing. Couldn't speak. He stumbled past the man and tried to unlock his door, but his hands shook too badly.
"Wasn't there even one of those men worth a few minutes of your time now? To identify his killers, so he can rest in peace?"
Jarek's shoulders slumped, resigned, hands dangling at his sides. He'd been naively mistaken to think he could hide from this forever. He was perhaps luckier than he deserved that MacKenzie had come before Jarek had picked up Rosie. He couldn't face her knowing, or her questions if he'd tried to send her away.
Jarek made a conscious effort to steady his hands and then opened the door. "Come in." He gestured to MacKenzie to sit, and took out a bottle of vodka and two glasses. He tilted the neck of the bottle toward the other man, but MacKenzie raised his palm and shook his head.
Jarek's hands started to shake again as he poured himself a finger and swallowed it down. "What is it you want to know?"
MacKenzie set his briefcase on the table, opened it and pulled out a folder. "We have testimonies that pin the Stalag Luft III atrocities on specific Germans. We also have some recent photos of men who claim different names, men whom we have in custody, suspected of being those same German officers."
He stopped, seeming to notice the glass trembling in Jarek's hands. "You knew, didn't you? I mean, you've heard about the massacre after the escape from Stalag Luft III?"
"I." Jarek cleared his throat. "I was told that only three men got away. I heard rumors, when I was in hospital. That everyone else who got out was executed. I didn't know... if it was true? How many...?"
"Seventy-six, we believe, escaped before the tunnel was discovered." MacKenzie took a thin spiral notebook from the folder, but didn't open it. "Hitler was enraged," he added. "He called for a Grossfahndung - a manhunt - but you knew that, didn't you? You knew that was part of Big X's plan all along, that the main purpose of getting out so many escapees at one time was to send the Germans into a state of panic. To pull their resources away from fighting our armies and occupy them hunting escaped prisoners instead."
Jarek nodded. He stared into his glass.
"It did work, you know," MacKenzie shared, sounding sympathetic. "If you wondered. It's been reported that over 40,000 men of the Landeswacht were diverted to tracking you lot down. Think of all the factory hours that the Germans lost by pulling those resources to hunt all of you."
Jarek took a deep, shuddering breath and poured himself another drink.
"Hitler was so worried about the risk of a mass escape that he issued the Kugel Erlass - the Bullet Decree," MacKenzie told Jarek. "In effect, it said that all British and American escapees who were re-captured should be delivered to the High Command to decide whether to turn them over to the Gestapo or return them to the prison camp. Prisoners of all other nationalities - " MacKenzie paused, then reached for the bottle, poured himself a drink without asking and tossed it back before continuing. "Prisoners of other nationalities were to be reported as 'escaped and not captured' and then taken in irons to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. There, they were to be shot, or starved and worked to death."
Whichever was more convenient, Jarek thought bitterly.
"Possibly Hitler singled out our lads and the Yanks for better treatment because we held German POWs in our countries and he feared reprisals. Who knows what that madman thought? But the edict went out. And after that? After that came the break-out from Stalag Luft III. The greatest escape in the history of the war." MacKenzie twirled his empty glass in his hand and then set it down. "You know that only three men made it - they reached Allied lines. You, a Dutchman named Vink, and a Dane named Christiansen." He flipped open his notebook. "Fifty urns were returned to Stalag Luft III, with the cremated remains of the men who were executed."
"Fifty?" Jarek should have been appalled. Instead, he felt hope curl through him, like smoke from forgotten embers that refused to die.
He'd believed them all dead. His heart began to beat faster. If some had survived...
"Another nineteen, almost all American and British officers, were returned to the camp alive. It seems that Goering talked Hitler down from his original order to kill them all. They settled on fifty executions, and stayed close to the original Kugel Erlass in deciding whom to spare."
Only Americans and Brits... so Jensen... Jarek's hand tightened on his glass, so hard it almost broke. Then he realized. The numbers didn't add up yet.
"Four men who made it out the tunnel are still missing," MacKenzie admitted. "We don't know what happened to them. It's most likely they were shot actually trying to escape, as opposed to the men who were executed in cold blood after they were already in custody. Maybe, since they weren't part of the execution order, there were no orders to cremate them and deliver their remains back to Stalag Luft III.
"Or they may have been caught and taken to Mauthausen or another concentration camp, according to the Kugel Erlass. If so, per the decree, the Germans didn't notify the Red Cross or anyone if that's where they ended up."
"They might have survived?" Jarek asked, hope tearing open now like a raw wound in his chest. He coughed into his fist.
"If they had..." MacKenzie shook his head. "As the Allies advanced, the Germans closed down the camps that were in danger of being liberated, and the SS took charge of the prisoners. They sent them on forced marches to new locations, and many of the men died or disappeared on those treks." He sighed. "We haven't matched the names of anyone who survived those marches to the names of the officers who went out the tunnel in Stalag Luft III that night. I'm afraid - I'm afraid we have to assume the missing men are dead."
"Do you..." Jarek had to ask. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Do you know who - who survived?"
"I have this." MacKenzie flipped the notebook open to a page filled with names written neatly in blue ink. "These are the men we're interviewing - the ones who were involved in the manhunt after the escape and made it home after the war. The men who we think - we hope - might be able to identify some of the Germans we have in custody."
There were less than two dozen men on the page.
Jarek found his own name, third from the top.
He read each other name. Twice.
Jensen's name was not on the list of survivors of the tunnel escape attempt.
In the end, Jarek hadn’t really believed it would be.
Then he took another drink and for the first time since that fatal night, he told his story.
After months of digging, spending hours every day trapped in a tunnel barely wider than his shoulders, after clawing his way forward with a bowl at first, and then tools as they were engineered out of metal scraps, Jarek was finally a short vertical shaft away from freedom.
He could smell it: the cold crisp night air. Snowflakes fluttered down the shaft and he caught one on his lip. It tasted like freedom. Soon, he would climb out of this tunnel and never look back.
But first, he waited. Someone had to sit at the bottom of the shaft and reel in the rope, pulling the trolley along its wooden track. The flat panel trolley carried the men on the Escape List, each one balanced precariously on his belly, head tucked down, rolling through the tunnel as Jarek's muscles hauled them the last hundred feet underground. One by one, the officers ahead of him on the list would emerge into the exit chamber and then would crawl past him and up and out into the darkness.
There were two hundred twenty names of prisoners on that list - men who were cleared to go through 'Harry' that night. The first seventy were the POWs who had the best chance of success - the ones who spoke German, the ones who had evaded capture the longest on previous escapes, and the ones who'd contributed the most to this audacious undertaking. They were given forged identification papers and travel documents, disguises tailored from blankets and old uniforms dyed with ink or boot polish, and small amounts of money pick-pocketed from the goons or traded for cigarettes.
The other prisoners who'd helped with the escape drew lots for the rest of the places on the list. Those 'hard-arses' had little more to count on than their own determination to create as much chaos as they could, to keep the German forces engaged in hunting them down instead of preparing to defend against the Allied invasion everyone believed was coming soon.
Every prisoner on that list, no matter his position, dreamed that with a little luck, he might truly make it home. "Hit a home run," the Americans had called it. Now they were all calling it that.
Twenty. Jarek was number twenty on the Escape List.
After the first nineteen slithered through, another brawny prisoner on the Escape List would take Jarek's place in the exit chamber and haul the next twenty through before turning over the job to his replacement.
Jensen sat huddled beside Jarek in the bottom of the shaft, shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee. Jensen, who hadn't served on any of the Escape Committees, had been granted slot number one, first man out ahead of everyone else, because of the sacrifice he'd made. But because of what he had done, it turned out he couldn't go out first after all. He could hardly walk.
Jarek's voice caught; he stopped and wiped a trembling hand over his face.
MacKenzie picked up the bottle and splashed more vodka into Jarek's glass. He gave Jarek a moment to compose himself, and then he had to ask. "Who's Jensen? And what was it that he'd done?"
Jarek tossed the drink back, and began again.
Each of the prison blocks held a washroom, a coal stove for heat and cooking, and eighteen sleeping rooms, each crowded with bunks for eight men. Every hut also had three tiny rooms that fit only two men in each - and it was a rare privilege to get assigned to the comparative privacy of one of those.
As they got closer to breaking through to the surface, the key men on the Escape Committee were transferred to those rooms. Men like Smisek, the head forger, who needed the isolation and quiet to put the finishing touches - date stamps - on all the travel permits as soon as the final decision was made on when to open the tunnel and break out.
Jarek wasn't sure why he'd rated the promotion in accommodations. He just knew that it had come at the end of a very bad day - a day when 'Harry' had another cave-in - half a ton of sand had fallen with a deafening 'whoomph' and pinned Jarek to the tunnel floor. It had taken an hour to dig him out. The only reason he'd survived was that he'd been able to claw through the ground beneath him and unearth the air tube made of condensed milk cans that ran underground below the trolley tracks. Fingernails broken and bleeding, he'd managed to unclog it and breathe through it until Makoare, the big Maori New Zealander who worked the tunnel behind him filling sandbags, was able to dig him out.
Jarek had been as wobbly as a newborn colt when he'd been helped back up the ladder and through the trap door, and he must have passed out right there on the hut floor, because he dreamed he heard Jensen's voice, and Jensen wasn't on the Escape Team; he had no reason to be there. When Jarek came to, Big X was towering over him, checking on the tunnel's progress. He wouldn't let Jarek leave hut 104 until he could walk on his own, so the goons wouldn't suspect anything. Jarek sent the next couple hours waiting for the dizziness to pass, regaining his strength and using the time to braid string from Red Cross packages into rope for the tunnel.
By the time Jarek could stay upright again without buckling, he'd found his gear had been moved out of the regular barracks, and into a little two-person room, barely bigger than a train's sleeper car. Jensen had the other bunk, and Jarek had no idea how he had finagled that, but he was still coughing so harshly he couldn't ask. Maybe Big X decided Jensen needed extra privacy for those clandestine meetings with Werner.
Not long after, Jarek found Jensen pacing in their tiny room after a surprise summons from Big X. Nearly everything was in place by then. According to their primitive surveying tools, the tunnel was almost to the tree line. Another day or two, and then it was only a matter of digging the final upward shaft, shoring up the walls along the distance, and waiting until the moon waned to total darkness. Time was the biggest hurdle now - that and one more major obstacle.
No one really knew where to go once they hit the forest. The prisoners had arrived in a convoy of dark, covered transport trucks, and they hadn't seen daylight until they were securely behind barbed wire. Where were the roads? How would they get to Sagan - the nearest town? To the train station? Where were the armed roadblocks to avoid? They had maps of Germany and the rest of Europe, silk maps provided to each airman flying over Europe. Most had been confiscated when they were captured, but it only took one or two - smuggled in, copied painstakingly on paper, and then two hundred twenty duplicates produced on a makeshift mimeograph machine. The men had maps - each prospective escapee knew where the borders were, the rivers, the towns.
They just didn't know where Stalag Luft III was in relation to those.
On this particular day, two to three weeks before their target date, Jarek had limped stiffly into their hut, shivering and still wet from showering off the mud from another day spent digging in 'Harry'. He found Jensen nearly bouncing off the walls, hand scrubbing the back of his neck in agitation. Jensen whirled around at the sound of Jarek's entrance.
"Can you believe it?" he fumed. "Big X wants me to break out. Check out the lay of the land and then! And then! LET THE GOONS CAPTURE ME! On PURPOSE! So I can draw his Escape Committee pretty little maps when I get out of the cooler." He tossed his arms up in disbelief. "If I get out of the cooler! Hell, if that rat bastard Scharpwinkel in the Gestapo gets his hands on me again, I'll be lucky to live long enough to make it to the cooler!"
Jarek couldn't argue with that. With Jensen's record for escape attempts, it was something of a mystery around the camp why the Kommandant hadn't decided to just pull out his sidearm and put him out of their collective misery. But actually, the Kommandant wasn't a bad fellow. He was Luftwaffe, German Air Force, and an officer and a gentleman. It was the Gestapo that was the risk. If Jensen was turned over to the Secret Police...
Jarek shuddered. He couldn't blame Big X for asking. It was going to be impossible enough to get hundreds of men out, without sending them out virtually blind. Anything extra to give the prisoners a fighting chance...
But he certainly couldn't fault Jensen either. If Jarek had one chance at freedom, and someone suggested that he surrender that chance to help a fool's mission? One that was likely to fail anyway? And risk torture or death in the process?
"When I get out, I'm not stopping for anything," Jensen continued, mumbling to himself. He resumed pacing, despite the close confines of the drab, small room. "It's too soon right now, anyway. Got to wait for a night with no moon..."
He never was one for doing something just because someone higher up told him to. Jensen always had an escape plan he was working on, and it was always simple and elegant. And solo. The more people were involved, the more complicated it was, the more could go wrong, he always said. Jensen worried about himself and no one else, and maybe, Jarek thought as he sank into an exhausted slumber, maybe that's why Jensen was more likely than anyone else to succeed.
The next few days were a blur. Jarek was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open to eat. He was marginally aware that more of the pooled Red Cross packages were coming his way - whatever chocolate bars didn't go as bribes or barter to the goons went to the men breaking ground in the tunnel. He knew he needed the calories - and he didn't have the energy to argue.
Something ominous, though, hovered at the edge of his awareness. A recent sense that he was being watched. He thought the ferrets were sneaking furtive glances at him, caught them whispering to each other and then looking quickly away. As if they were the ones with something to hide and not him.
Jarek's thoughts sputtered and spun like a shot-up propeller. Had he given anything away? Tunnel dirt looked very different than the soil that covered the camp. He worked in his long johns precisely to keep the incriminating mud off his clothes, but had he somehow tracked some out? Or left tools where they could be spotted? Failed, even once, to camouflage the trap door?
God! Maybe the goons knew everything! Maybe they were already planning to lie in wait and shoot each one of the escapees, one by one as they emerged from the tunnel!
He was sitting on Jensen's bunk, head in his hands, when Jensen came in, sat down beside him, and listened to him rant. "You're an idiot," Jensen finally said fondly. "Our men would hear the shots and stop coming out." He put a hand on the back of Jarek's neck and kneaded the tense knots there with his thumb. "I know you haven't given anything away."
"Maybe they've noticed the food. I am eating more than my share."
"You're a moose. Of course you eat more. They wouldn't notice something like that." Jensen stopped massaging Jarek's neck, his hand lingering on Jarek's shoulder. "Which ferrets were talking? Werner? Willem?"
Jarek nodded mutely.
"I've got a little blackmail ammunition on Werner. Been saving it for the right occasion," Jensen said. "I'll talk to him. Find out if they really are watching you." He stood. "Get some rest. You need your strength." He walked out and when he left, the room felt colder.
The next day, Jarek dug. He dug until the blisters on his hands broke and bled, with filthy men behind him loading the dirt onto a trolley and sending it back three hundred feet to the entrance shaft. He dug to the cadence of favorite poems, and when those were exhausted, he counted as he shoveled. Counted the hours to go, then counted the minutes. Less than a month to the dark of the moon and freedom.
Two days later, Jarek didn't see Jensen when the men in their hut gathered by the cook stove for dinner. He asked Coburn, who said the last time he’d seen Jensen, he was on his usual rounds, chatting up the goons for any new rumors or gossip. But he should have been back by now. LeBeau, the nearsighted little compass-maker, told Jarek he'd seen Jensen walking the circuit inside the perimeter wire with Big X.
Jarek cringed. Only Jensen in the entire camp had the audacity to stand up to X. Jensen would defy anyone in order to do what he thought was right, and Jarek sighed. "What were they arguing about this time?"
LeBeau laughed. "Oddly enough, Jensen was doing the talking and Big X was just listening, not giving orders. They kept their voices low; I couldn't hear a thing."
Jensen finally turned up in time for evening appell; Jarek saw him coming from the direction of the chapel.
Roll call finished, and Jensen fell in beside Jarek as they returned to their hut. Jarek reached into his jacket, pulled out a small cloth bundle and set it on Jensen's bunk. "I saved you dinner," he said, setting aside the two slices of bread - no butter - and the potato and sauerkraut. Then he pointed triumphantly at the pièce de résistance. "Look! Minced horsemeat!" He straightened again, one hand on the small of his back as he groaned, but his smile was wide like a pleased child. "It's been - what - three weeks since we've had meat?"
Jensen sat down beside the food and folded the cloth back up without taking any. At his roommate's puzzled look, he tugged Jarek's sleeve to sit next to him. "If I break out tonight," he whispered, voice low and urgent, "would you come, too?"
Jarek blinked. "What? Where?"
"Come with me!" Jensen repeated, glancing around nervously, although they were alone. You could never tell if a ferret might have crawled under your hut trying to listen in. "Out! I've been testing the wire - I've found a blind spot where the goons in the tower can't see." He nudged forward the copy of the large Bible that he'd carried with him out of the chapel. The cover fell open and then Jarek could see a compartment had been carved out of the thick pages, a niche that hid a homemade wire-cutter.
Jensen put his hand on Jarek's knee. "You know the odds. Two men? Or two hundred? Two hundred is crazy, Jarek. But one or two men? Two men can do this."
Jarek stared at his friend. Jensen was right. Two had a chance. With a little judicious switching places in line by the other prisoners during the morning headcount, like a folk dance back home? They might not even be missed by the guards for a day or two! It had been done before. Successfully. And the cloud cover should be complete that night - no stars or moonlight to give them away.
Jarek had two hundred nineteen men counting on his strong shoulders and tunneling expertise. And he owed them, too. Colin Pleasance had spent an entire month painstakingly getting every detail right on the yellow Urlaubshein form that would give him permission to cross frontier check points. Rex Moore, the lead tailor, had sewn him a laborer's jacket out of a heavy wool blanket. Hundreds of other prisoners had contributed to his tunnel in one way or another. He couldn't abandon them now.
He shook his head, and Jensen didn't even look surprised.
They weren't at all alike, but they had learned to understand each other. Jensen - he'd always been a loner. Jarek - he actually played on a rugby team in camp when tunnel work was shut down, or when he needed to make an appearance so the goons wouldn't wonder. He was a team player, and Jensen didn't need anyone. Jarek admired that strength in him.
Jarek was also, like many of the Poles, a big, open-hearted bear of a man who wore his feelings on his sleeve. Jensen, with his famous Norwegian reserve, was not. So in spite of the urge to wrap Jensen in a farewell bear hug, Jarek kept his distance. Then, impulsively, he reached for the Monopoly game in the corner of the room that had been abandoned after morning appell. Plucking out the Get Out of Jail Free card, he pressed it in Jensen's hand. "For luck," he said, with a dimpled grin. Jensen took it, and they clasped hands around it.
In the morning, Jensen was gone. He'd slipped out so silently that no-one in the prison block had heard him go.
Two days later, he was back, the Germans manhandling him out of their staff car. It was Scharpwinkel, Jarek saw - and his goons. He recognized the Gestapo chief by the ragged scar that ran from ear to jaw, remnant of an old saber wound that he wore like a badge of honor. Their limp prisoner, Jarek almost didn't recognize. Jensen couldn't walk. Jarek couldn't even tell if he was conscious. Both of his eyes were swollen shut.
Kurwa mać! Jarek rocked on his heels, practically vibrating with the urge to take Scharpwinkel apart with his bare hands, as Jensen was dragged to the cooler. But there was nothing he could do.
Nothing but go back down the tunnel, while the preparations for the mass escape continued.
It was the first of three moonless nights, two weeks later, when the Escape Committee finally decided it was time. They would open the tunnel the next night. The prison artists worked feverishly to stamp all the forged train tickets with the correct travel dates. Jarek was slipped his new identity papers with a deft sleight-of-hand as he entered his hut after evening appell.
He was just sliding them into the false panel in the wall of their hut when Jensen hobbled in, his time in solitary finally over. Two weeks in the cooler, and the swelling had gone down, the bruises faded from his face. But when he eased off his shoes, the soles of his feet, which had been brutally beaten by the Gestapo, reminded Jarek of raw meat.
Jarek dropped his papers in the hidden compartment, and felt the soft red wool of a hand-knit scarf catch on his fingers as he withdrew his hand. He looked down at it, then at Jensen's feet and finally met his eyes.
"You. You knew you would be back. You let yourself be caught," Jarek managed to sputter out. "Why?"
"Big X promised me first slot on the Escape List. First man out!" Jensen settled gingerly on the bottom bunk, now supported by ropes instead of the missing beech wood boards. "And a first class train ticket all the way through to Paris. He even threw in a contact in the French Resistance there."
Jarek stared at him skeptically.
"Hey. If you're going to forge a train ticket, might as well forge a first class one!" Jensen tucked his hands behind his neck and lay back, seeming relaxed and confident. "What is it the Americans here say? 'Easy as pie?' I'll be riding in comfort all the way back to England."
"Pie is not easy," Jarek grumbled. Something about Jensen's explanation didn't ring true and he wasn't going to let Jensen off the hook. But Jensen lay still and when he closed his eyes, he suddenly looked weary and almost frail. Jarek didn't have the heart to browbeat him anymore. So he climbed onto the upper bunk and sprawled his weight across the thin palette made of wood shavings and tried to get comfortable.
It didn't work. He tossed and turned and the bad feeling in his gut didn't go away, and finally he sighed. "Jensen?"
"It was worth it, Jarek." Jensen told him, just as softly. "Trust me. It was worth it."
"So, are you telling me that your suspicions were right? That's not why Jensen changed his mind and did what Big X wanted?" MacKenzie asked. "Then what was the reason?"
There was no answer, and he finally asked again, "Jarek?"
Jarek just stared at the back of his hands, seeing nothing. Then he slowly raised his head and continued the story.
In the morning, Jensen limped back from the showers with a towel still wrapped around his neck and a thoughtful expression on his face.
Jarek knew something was up. Jensen was an enigma to everyone else, but Jarek knew him better now. Or he thought he did. "What is it?"
"I've decided. I'm going to shave my head."
"You heard me. It will make me look more like an old man. No one who's looking for escaped prisoners would give me a second look."
Jarek figured it was because Jensen couldn't walk without a pronounced limp. He'd have problems trying to pass as a foreign laborer. But his German, like his English, was excellent. He was probably right - an old man with a limp was less likely to raise suspicions. It was a good plan, Jarek had to admit it.
The camp had a barbershop, where kriegies trimmed each other's hair in exchange for a few cigarettes. Jensen had been a regular customer, preferring to keep his hair short like a hedgehog, as Jarek jokingly called it, and he was a master at cigarette currency exchange. But this time, Jarek put a hand to Jensen's shoulder when he moved in that direction.
"I'll do it," he said. "In here. You don't want the goons to notice a big change."
Jensen glanced out the window, then looked up to meet Jarek's eyes, and nodded. He took a seat. Jarek settled his palm on the nape of his neck, and Jensen closed his eyes.
When the transformation was complete, Jarek sent word to a 'penguin' - one of the hundred or more kriegies who'd been smuggling sand out of the tunnel via socks hidden down their pants legs. Most recently, they'd been storing it underneath the risers in the camp theater. By the time Jensen had brushed the stray hairs off his scalp and tried on the new 'civvies' that Moore, the chief Escape Committee tailor, had whipped together for him, the penguin had returned with a cane from the theater smuggled out the same way he'd smuggled sand in.
Jarek studied Jensen as he moved across the room, getting used to the cane and the clothes and the wooden clogs that had been delivered with the costume.
Jensen looked down at the new/used footwear, then slowly up to the small shaving mirror and finally turned to see his faint reflection in the hut window. "It's like looking at my father," he said, his expression a mix of awe and amusement.
"You're close to your father?" Jarek asked, missing his own with a sudden pang. He busied himself putting away his shaving kit.
Jensen turned away. "My father and I - we aren't good at showing what we feel. I think... I would like to think he's proud of me." He blinked, like he'd surprised himself showing any signs of vulnerability, and huffed a rueful laugh. "Got shot down so early in the war, it's not like I ever had a chance to bring glory to the name of Jensen."
Jarek's hand started to reach for Jensen's shoulder, but he pulled back before Jensen could shy away. "We'll be famous, after tonight," he said lightly instead. "Hundreds of POWs escaping from the famous Stalag Luft III, the most escape-proof prison camp in the Luftwaffe? They'll have a parade for us when we get home!"
Home. As soon as Jarek said it, he froze. Norway was occupied by the Germans, and Jensen's family had emigrated to America. Where was home for him? And Jarek? He already knew that his village had been almost wiped off the map in an early bombing run. He had no home.
Jensen cheerfully poked Jarek in the chest, distracting him from his somber train of thought. "Children will be stopping us in the street to ask us for our autographs!"
A grin slowly spread across Jarek's face.
This was really happening.
Maybe they all really did have a chance, since Jensen had brought back that desperately needed Intel. The Escape Committee now had the latest train schedules and road maps. They knew now where the Oder River flowed, eight miles away. They knew that mountains lay between them and the Czechoslovakian frontier, sixty miles south. Most important of all, they knew how to reach the Sagan train station that led to Breslau, Frankfurt and Paris.
The train station was only a few kilometers away through the forest and then a short distance down the road. As lame as Jensen was, he could make it that far, Jarek thought. Even as slowly as he moved, as long as he was first out of the tunnel, he could make it to the train station under cover of night.
"This is still a crazy plan." Jensen wrapped his scarf around his neck as a finishing touch and inspected his disguise. "Two hundred or more prisoners loose on the countryside all at once? The Krauts will go nuts!" Jensen grinned with mischief, his eyes bright. "But you know what? You and your incredible tunnel? I think it could really work."
Jarek should have been pleased. Reassured by Jensen's vote of confidence. It was just... it was one hundred eighty degrees different from what Jensen had said the day before he escaped.
And if anything went wrong? There was no way Jensen could make a run for it.
MacKenzie drained his glass and poured another. He had long since stopped trying to take notes and was just listening, rapt. "Something did go wrong?" he suggested heavily.
"Yes. Something went very wrong."
Jarek and Jensen were deep in the tunnel, alone at the bottom of the ladder that would lead to freedom. Jarek was there because he was in charge of the exit station, the last hauler on the line, and as Chief Tunnel Engineer, he had the honor of breaking through to the surface. Jensen was right at his heels, first man on the Escape List scheduled to go out. One hundred feet further back in the tunnel, Big X and Scott, his second-in-command, waited in the small underground chamber they called Leicester Square, where POWs would slide over from one trolley line to another. One hundred feet behind them, another pair of escapees waited in the chamber called Piccadilly Circus. One hundred plus feet further back, over two hundred men were crowded into the prison block, waiting restlessly for their numbers to be called.
It was 9:30 at night. The tunnel was lit with electricity, courtesy of stolen wire and tapping into the German circuit board, but the top of the ladder was in darkness. Jarek punched up with the hand-carved wooden trowel, flinching to avoid the cascade of dirt. There was no other sound in the tunnel, just the scrape and thrust of wood against frozen earth. On the fourth stab, there was suddenly no resistance and Jarek almost lost his tenuous balance on the rung. A chunk the size of his fist caromed off his face and he caught it in the crook of his arm. Wedging the trowel in the wall of dirt beside him, Jarek turned the sod slowly in his hands, exploring what his eyes could barely see. He felt thin, cord-like, twisted roots, and when he turned the sod over, it was covered with green blades of grass, wet with melting snow.
They were through!
"Jensen!" he hissed and let it drop, ironically reminded of the last time he was in the air, flying escort on a mission to bomb the railroad station at St. Omer, back in 1942. He'd felt the same moment of triumph then, watching the bombs fall, until the Focke-Wulf jumped out of the clouds and shot up his starboard aileron and wing tip, and he went down in a cloud of black smoke.
That was the beginning of his journey as a POW. This, Jarek thought, climbing up the final rungs to poke his head through the opening, marked the end of his time as a POW. After the first nineteen men made it out the tunnel, it would be his turn. Too tall to try to pass unnoticed where any Germans might be on alert, his plan was to travel cross-county: hide during the day and travel at night until he found some friendly allies. For some reason, old people and widows with young children always seemed to love him, and he felt certain that if he could approach without endangering them, he would find people in occupied countries who would help him.
Eyes closed, he briefly savored the soft kiss of cold, damp (fresh!) air across his cheeks, and he tilted his face up to the heavens before opening his eyes. The sky was filled with stars! Then he looked around, and his heart plummeted.
"Jarek?" Down below, Jensen sounded impatient.
The ladder was twenty feet long; Jarek leapt the last six feet to the bottom and sank down on his haunches, eyes wild like a trapped animal. "We're thirty feet short."
"I don't know how! The tunnel is thirty feet short. We're past the goon tower and the road, but we aren't to the trees."
Maybe it was a triangulation error: their primitive surveying equipment not quite up to the task. Maybe some of the diggers in the rotation had pushed the underground passage just a fraction to the left or right instead of true as they scraped the sand away. There was no way to know for sure. What Jarek did know for sure was that 'Harry', following a straight line, should have taken them three hundred-thirty-eight feet straight out from hut 104: under the warning wire, the perimeter wire, past the camp hospital, the cooler and practically right under the sentry tower, then beneath open field and a road and more snow-covered field to emerge above ground, finally, inside the forest.
Instead, 'Harry' had somehow veered off-center and popped up thirty feet short. Between the road and the trees, in the middle of pristine white snow.
Jensen ran his hand nervously over the stubble on his scalp. "Well, you're the Tunnel King. How long will it take to dig another thirty feet?"
"Three - four days." Jarek squared his shoulders, then slumped again. "Jensen, we can't. All the travel papers are dated. It must be tonight."
"Okay." Jensen thought some more. "Okay." He crawled over to where the flat trolley he'd arrived on was waiting to be sent back to Leicester Square, and he called out through the narrow tunnel. "Send down forty feet of rope!"
Understanding slowly dawned in Jarek's eyes. "A rope. We can set up a signal from the trees!"
Someone relayed the instructions back from Leicester Square to the trolley exchange station at Piccadilly Circus, and finally back to the chamber at the bottom of the entrance shaft.
Five minutes later, the trolley rolled into the exit chamber with Number Two on the Escape List stretched out on his stomach to fit through the two-foot by two-foot tunnel. It was Big X himself, with a coil of rope looped around his torso. They quickly filled him in.
"The goons are watching the camp, the perimeter fence. They aren't looking this way," Jensen added when Jarek finished explaining the situation. "We'll have to time it so the men get out whenever the sentry has gone past and the searchlight isn't heading this way. But someone manning the rope in the woods can signal when it's clear."
"Yes. It could work. It has to work." Big X nodded approval, and he ducked his head to wriggle out of the rope.
"I'll take it." Jensen grabbed the coil of rope, and started to anchor it on his shoulder.
Big X gave him a grim look, the twisted scar across his eye making him look even more fierce. "Jensen, you can't. Your feet - you'd be out in the open too long. We can't risk it."
"I've got it," Jarek said quietly, firmly, taking the rope from Jensen without meeting his eyes. Did Big X mean not at all? That Jensen had to stay behind, because he wouldn't be able to make it across the field before the searchlight swept back?
Big X clapped his shoulder. "Good. We need a fast runner out there. Take the rope and tie it off, and give it a solid jerk two times whenever the coast is clear. And for god's sake, be careful."
"Roger." Jarek slapped one end of the rope in Jensen's palm and closed his fingers around it, then disappeared up the ladder.
From just under ground level, he watched the pool of light sweep across his line of sight, and then he inched further up to watch for the sentry. They were in luck - it wasn't one of the hundfuehrers with the vicious attack dogs. It was Steiniger, a weary veteran of WWI who was too old now to serve at the front. He tramped past with his hands tucked under his arms to keep them warm, cradling his submachine gun against his chest.
When Jarek decided he was out of earshot, he planted his hands on the wet snow and launched himself out of the tunnel and across the field, unspooling the rope as he ran.
There were no gunshots. No shouts. No alarms.
He crossed the tree line and fell to his knees behind a big pine, chest heaving. A rough cough rumbled up from his lungs and the effort to hold it back felt like he was being stabbed in the ribs. The searchlight swept past while he was curled on the ground, trying to stifle the cough. By the time he could breathe again and had the end of the rope wrapped around the tree trunk, he had to wait for the searchlight to pendulum back. As soon as it was gone again, Jarek gave the pre-arranged double tug.
Big X came out first. His disguise was one of the most intricate Moore had devised - gray suit, business man's overcoat, even a fedora. His papers identified him as a middle-class Frenchman. He crouched beside Jarek waiting for Steiniger to stroll past. When the coast was clear, Scott, the head of the Escape Committee's intelligence team, came through. Most of the men were planning to travel in pairs, wanting the security of knowing someone would be watching their back.
"What about Jensen?" Jarek hissed as the two men made ready to start cutting across the forest toward Sagan.
"He's taking your place at the ladder," X said, as if it was obvious. "Someone has to explain to each person coming through the tunnel about the signal rope."
"But - "
There was no answer. The two officers were gone.
The next man across was Graham, the wiry South African kriegie who'd supervised the stooges - the prisoners who monitored all the German guards' movements and raised the silent alarm when trouble was near. Graham wore a uniform dyed with blue ink, with the lapel modified and civilian buttons replacing the military brass. He was joined by the Lithuanian POW who'd tirelessly worked the manual air pump so many hours, now disguised in similar attire.
And then the stillness was cracked wide open by a low, pained moan rising quick and shrill into the recognizable wail of the air raid siren. All the lights shut off, a chain reaction as a German manually flipped switch after switch in the kommandantur. The searchlights outside the camp snapped off. So, too, Jarek knew, would the lights strung inside the tunnel, feeding off the same circuit board.
He couldn't see the hole in the ground, couldn't see anything in the sudden darkness. He grabbed the guide rope in his hand and flew across the field so fast the rough fibers scored a deep abrasion across his palm. At the mouth of the tunnel he plummeted feet first down the ladder, crashing into Jensen who was fumbling in the dark for a fat lamp - one of the round cigarette tins that had been filled with boiled margarine. "C'mon!" Jarek felt around in the blackness for Jensen's arm. "We can get dozens out while it's dark!"
Jensen lit the bit of pajama cord they used as a wick, and then their eyes met in the flicker of the dancing flame.
Jarek grabbed his shoulder. "Go on!" he said, pushing Jensen toward the ladder. "In this blackout, you can make it to the trees!" Even lame, Jarek thought. Jensen could make it across the open field without being seen, as long as the searchlights were out.
It might be his only chance.
Jensen needed only a second to process his options. Then he set down the lamp and clapped Jarek on the shoulder. "Okay! Let's go!" He scrambled up, using his arm strength more than his legs to lift himself up the twenty feet ladder and catapult himself through the opening at the top.
But Jarek wasn't right behind him. He signaled with a tap of the trowel on the rails for the trolley to start down again and in a moment, muscles burning, he was hauling the rope that led to the next person scheduled to get out. Big X was right - someone had to pass instructions on to those who would come after. And they had procedures to follow. They'd gotten this far because everything was scrupulously planned. Jensen had finished his part, providing Intel to the mapmakers. Jarek still had a job to do - to man his station for the first twenty prisoners, and then turn the responsibility over to the Maori Porokoru Patapu Makoare, who would shepherd the next twenty.
After Jensen left, and he was alone now in the tiny alcove, it felt to Jarek as though the silence had weight, and every little noise seemed magnified precisely because he had to be quiet. Jarek thought he could hear the sand trickling down the walls of the tunnel. He could hear the faint clatter of the trolley wheels along the wooden track. He could hear his own hoarse breathing.
Shadows swayed and dipped like dancers on the damp walls. In the distance, Jarek could hear bombs falling, echoing like thunder on a summer night. The click-clack of trolley wheels grew louder, and Ashley, the slightly-built mastermind whose 'penguins' had carried fifty tons of dirt out of the tunnel, emerged.
Jarek filled him in. "We're thirty feet short of the woods. Don't ask. The searchlights are out. Go now!"
Ashley paused only long enough to shake Jarek's hand with both of his own. Then he picked up his makeshift briefcase and clambered up and out.
Instead of getting out a man every minute or two as originally planned, they were lucky to get ten out per hour. The long stretches of trying to be quiet, to listen for any signs of trouble above, were unnerving. Jarek's jaw ached from the tension.
Smisek, head of the forgers, rolled in, followed by his escape partner, the red-haired Dutch flyer Van de Boessche, who'd fabricated so many tools for the Escape Team out of scraps. They scampered up the ladder and disappeared into the night. Next man on the list was Coburn. No one was willing to travel with him and his ridiculous valise. He was planning to travel by train as a salesman and he insisted on having something that looked like a sample case. No one would suspect such a clumsy-looking figure of being an escaped prisoner, he said.
The problem with the sample case was, it got jammed against the shoring frames of the tunnel, and when Coburn tried to get it loose, the trolley overbalanced and came off the rails. The tunnel was so tight, it wasn't possible for a man in transit to get the trolley back on track. Jarek had to belly crawl along the tunnel floor and get Coburn to do a push up on fingers and toes, so he could wrestle the trolley back onto the rails underneath him. There was no room to turn around; Jarek had to scuttle backwards the way he'd come until he got back to the exit chamber, where he could sit up straight, and haul the trolley forward again.
Then the empty trolley was reeled back in by someone in Leicester Square, while Jarek shoved Coburn up the rabbit hole and hoisted the sample case up after him. Suddenly, the lights in the tunnel flickered back on. The air raid was over, and Jarek blew out the small fat lamp. Back to the rope! He hoped someone had stayed to man it!
Finally, Makoare rumbled in, his burly shoulders as broad as Jarek's and nearly skimming the narrow walls. Jarek filled him in, and got the same incredulous wide-eyed stare at the news that 'Harry' was short, the same quick resolve to fall in with the new plan. There was a reason these men were picked in the first group. They were selfless and solution-oriented, focused on the big picture, and kept their heads in a crisis.
Jarek felt the cold air tingling on his face as he climbed the ladder, arms aching. He was on his own now. For the first time in years, he was completely independent. And alone.
No one counting on him.
No one to lean on.
He waited at the top of the ladder, head down, for the quick double tug that would confirm the sentry had gone past. The rope tightened, jerk-jerk, and Jarek reached above ground, planted his bare hands on the snow-covered grass, and pressed himself up and out of the tunnel. His legs were stiff after being curled in the tight confines of the tunnel, but he forced them to move.
It was still a shock, coming out of the tunnel again, to see the guard's tower so close and the pine trees so far away.
It was a bigger shock to see Jensen manning the rope when Jarek reached the woods.
"What are you -"
"What does it look like I'm doing? Get down!" Jensen pulled Jarek into the trees as the searchlight started its arc toward them again. Jarek looked back across the field. The white rope was camouflaged against the snow, but there was a noticeable trail of footprints now. Thank goodness the guards on the watch tower were focusing their attention inside the camp. Their field glasses were trained on the perimeter fence, and Harry's opening was well beyond that.
They'd been lucky so far. The searchlight's broad beam swept past, and Jensen tugged the rope again. LeBeau, the little French compass-maker, popped up like a mole and then he scampered across the open area and skidded to a halt.
LeBeau had seen Jensen talking to Big X the night of his ill-fated escape. Maybe he understood the sacrifice Jensen had made, because he said quietly, "I'll take a turn on the rope," nudging Jensen off. "Go!"
Jarek clasped his hand in a heartfelt handshake, and then grabbed Jensen's elbow and pulled him deeper into the forest to the echo of LeBeau's "God speed, mes amis!"
The two men kept low and close to the trees, Jensen leaning heavily on his cane. They moved slowly and stealthily for the first hundred yards into the woods. Another pair of POWs passed them in the dark, moving fast. Then it was silent and black again. The night had been chosen because it was moonless; and when Jarek felt they were far enough away that it seemed as dark as the tunnel when the lights were out, he risked pulling out the compass.
That was a triumph of ingenuity, as so much in this escape project was. It took an entire day to make each compass. The case was constructed from a broken gramophone record, melted and molded into shape. A sewing needle had been dipped in luminous paint that a scrounger had scraped off the clock dials on the Kommandant's own alarm clock. Who knew how he had gotten his hands on that! The glass came from broken windows and a little glass-blowing set-up LeBeau had invented. Best of all, each compass had 'Made in Stalag III' carefully engraved on the back. Whimsically followed by "Patent Pending."
"This way," Jarek gestured, pointing north. "The train station is just a kilometer or two away now." Get Jensen to the train, he thought, and then get as far away from Sagan as he could on foot before daylight.
"Jarek. Stop. I can't."
It was too dark to see Jensen's face, but Jarek could hear the strain in his voice. "Your feet?"
"I'm sorry." The cane Jensen carried to improve his cover might have helped once they were in civilization, but his soles were too shredded to travel any sort of distance. Especially on this terrain. It was clear Jensen simply couldn't stay upright any longer.
"I'll carry you."
It was simple to Jarek. A problem presented. A solution proposed. Just like every other problem the Escape Team had overcome over the last year.
Jarek was disguised as a Hungarian laborer - Germany was flooded with foreign workers - so he had no suitcase or briefcase to encumber him. But he knew, too, that he'd grown lean with hunger. They all had. He might be one of the strongest prisoners in the camp - but that wasn't saying much anymore. He was far from what he considered fit. How far would he be able to carry another man?
Jensen seemed to read his mind. He shook his head. "No. You go on..."
Jarek shook off his doubts. It didn't matter. He had to try - because he wouldn't accept the alternative. "And if I go, you will what? If you can't go forward, then you can't go back. You will just sit here until the goons discover the escape and send the dogs out to hunt you down? Dogs they have trained to go for your throat?"
Jensen gave a rueful smile. "I guess that doesn't sound like a very good plan, does it?"
Before he could object further, Jarek had Jensen slung across his back, like a child clinging to an indulgent uncle. Jensen hooked his cane on the crook of his elbow and held on as Jarek started staggering through the dark trees.
Dawn was rising when they emerged from the woods, and Jarek set Jensen down so he could resume his old-man limp the rest of the way down the road. By the time they reached the train station, though, it was too late. The train Jensen had a ticket for had already left. The station was filled with other escaped prisoners who had missed their trains to Breslau or Berlin: anywhere far away where they could disappear into a crowd and begin to work their way back to England. Big X and Scott were there in the station. Ashley. Coburn. So many familiar faces, all pretending they didn't know each other. Those who had sufficient reichsmarks in hand to buy new tickets and whose German was fluent enough to make the transaction were waiting for a later train.
Jarek didn't have enough money or enough skill at German to manage the trains.
Jensen pulled him into the shelter over the subway stairs that led underneath the train tracks to the platform on the other side. Here, they wouldn't be seen. "You've got to leave me here, Jarek. Go cross country. I can't - I can't go that way."
"No! We should stick together." Jarek's mind raced. "We can both get on the next train. Wherever it's going. When they come through to check the tickets... we will just slip away. Jump off."
"That ends up with the same problem, Jarek. I can hardly walk." Jensen leaned on his cane for emphasis. "I can - I can get the next train to Frankfurt." Jensen had obviously memorized the train schedules and fares when he was on the loose two weeks ago. "From there, I can make a connection to the train to Stettin," he decided. "There are Swedish ships in that port. Neutral ships. I can stowaway."
"I don't - "
"I know you can make it cross-country, Jarek. You did it before, when the Soviets invaded Poland. Remember? You told me you escaped through Slovakia, Hungary... let me see... " Jensen ticked them off his fingers. "Yugoslavia, Italy... France to Marseille and then to Gibraltar, before you finally got to England and joined the RAF."
"You were actually listening? I thought you fell asleep when I told you about that. I could hear you snoring."
Jensen shrugged. "We were in the cooler. It was too uncomfortable to sleep. What else was there to listen to?"
"I still think we should stay together." Jarek didn't trust that Jensen would stay safe, unable to run if things went pear-shaped. But what could he say to convince him? "I know you always prefer to be alone," he tried, remembering all the other escape attempts. "But I need you to have my back. And I'll have yours."
Jensen shook his head vehemently. "Jarek, that's - you can't. You can't count on me to have your back. And you can't let yourself get caught!"
"I don't care about me - " Jarek blurted out, waving a hand impatiently.
"You have to!" Jensen grabbed his coat lapels, pulling him close so he could keep his voice down. "Listen, Jarek. You have to worry about getting caught. You cannot be captured. The Germans - they have new orders. I heard this from Werner just before I went out through the wire." Jensen let go of Jarek's coat and looked around to make sure they were still alone. "The Germans are running out of fuel," he explained, voice low and urgent. "They're getting desperate. They're building massive underground fuel production facilities, and they have a plan for slave labor.
"Jarek, Werner told me that Hitler's ordered the SS to pull all the Jewish POWs out of whatever camps they're in and send them to a concentration camp in Berga to work on this. Work them to death, Werner said."
"But they don't know - " Jarek's heart hammered in his chest, and he felt suddenly short of breath. He hadn't told anyone. Anyone. Not even Jensen.
"Jarek, they do. They know." Jensen grabbed him again, made him look him in the eyes. "They don't care if you're religious, or just have a Jewish name, or hell if they only suspect you're Jewish. They don't care, Jarek. They don't care." He let go and sagged back, leaning heavily on his cane. "They just follow orders from a madman."
Jarek's eyes searched Jensen's, and he saw the hesitation there, the moment when Jensen looked away as if he couldn't bring himself to say any more. A muscle in Jensen's cheek jumped as he seemed to find the resolve to say the rest, and he brought his gaze back up, held Jarek's look. "Werner told me. Jarek. Your name is on that list."
Jarek found it hard to swallow as the pieces of the puzzle fell jaggedly into place. He clutched at Jensen's arm. "Is that - is that why you agreed to scout for Big X, and get yourself captured? Because you knew they'd be coming for me?"
In the distance, a new sound emerged, growing louder, rhythmic and hoarse, like a big dog panting.
"Jarek, please. A train is coming now. Let me go."
Jensen pulled away roughly, and in seconds had transformed himself into a old man, shoulders hunched, looking small and frail, leaning heavily on his cane. He started making his way carefully down the stairs that led to the ticket office on the platform. Jarek watched him go, then bounded after him to thrust a fistful of reichsmarks, all he had, in his pocket. "For the ticket. For a bribe. Hell, in case you need a safe place to stay and the only option is a whorehouse in Stettin," he said, trying hard to smile. "Just - be safe."
He turned to jog back up the stairs, but before he could take a step, Jensen was taking off his scarf and winding it around Jarek's neck. "You'll need this more than I will. You can give it back the next time you see me!"
A stranger entered the stairway, heading toward the ticket office. A young woman. Not a stranger - Jarek recognized her as the censor at camp who read all their mail. He shrank back into the shadows and tried to look shorter, and she passed him without a second look. She even offered her arm to Jensen as he limped up the stairs. Jarek gave a sigh of relief that Jensen's disguise was holding up so far.
Jarek didn't look back when he returned to the road, and tried to melt into the countryside.
He was hidden in the trees when he saw an open German staff car come speeding down the roadway toward the train station. The officer inside looked like pinched-face Scharpwinkel, but of course, Jarek couldn't be sure. And he didn't dare turn to watch as it passed him.
He didn't even look back when he heard shots fired. But his eyes filled with tears.
MacKenzie listened to the whole story, finally nodding. He told Jarek that Scharpwinkel was one of the war criminals on his list: the vicious head of the local Gestapo who was reported to have personally executed at least six of the escapees. That was what he'd come for, MacKenzie said. To find someone who could identify any of the names on his list from a set of photographs of suspects they had in custody.
Jarek looked at the photos dully, paled as he recognized a face he saw in his nightmares.
MacKenzie picked up the photo Jarek had frozen on, studied it, and then set it back in front of Jarek. "We arrested this man because the description was so close," MacKenzie explained. "We knew we were looking for a man with a scarred face. But many men in Europe carry scars these days. He claims he's a French national, employed buying wine for the officers' mess in occupied Hamburg. Are you sure this man is Scharpwinkel?"
Jarek nodded, certain. "What will happen now?" he asked heavily.
"You will know," MacKenzie said confidently, passing Jarek an affidavit to sign. "It'll take time, I can't deny that. Perhaps even a year or two. But these men will come to trial, and it will be all over the newspapers when they do. The whole world will find out the truth."
"And the families of the men who died?" Jarek read the statement, signed it and set down the pen. "Do they know?"
"They will, when it hits the news. Everyone will know that they've been avenged. That justice has been served."
Jarek remained sitting a long time after MacKenzie left. The thought of Jensen's parents opening a newspaper or magazine and reading about the tragic escape and cold-blooded murder made him feel ill.
Someone should tell them. Quietly. Personally. Respectfully. Jarek remembered Jensen, in that rare moment of honest vulnerability, admitting that he hoped his father was proud of him. It was important to Jarek that they find out the truth. That someone tell them not how Jensen died, but how he lived. That the price he'd paid hadn't been for nothing.
Taking a deep breath, he came to a resolution. I have told the story once. I can tell it one more time.
He thought a moment longer.
Perhaps two more times.
He went to the ewidencja hall in the center of the Resettlement Camp where there was a phone, took a deep breath, and called Julia Skalski. "You once said if I told you my story, you could help us? If you will wait until the fall to publish it, I have a deal to offer..."
They spent a long night on the train, Rosie curled up on the seat with her head on Jarek's knee, his coat easily covering her like a blanket. Jarek sat upright, couldn't sleep, and tried to keep his occasional coughing from waking her. One hand idly stroked her hair, and that helped calm him a little, but he was still anxious.
It was more than one thousand miles from Chicago to Montana. Too much time left to his own thoughts. Was he making a mistake?
The Polish Air Force Association had helped with the boat tickets across the Atlantic, and Julia Skalski had kept her share of the bargain and triumphantly produced an organization of Polish immigrants in Chicago to sponsor them, for it wasn't possible to emigrate without that. Now they were coming to America – but he wasn't having second thoughts about that.
It was meeting Jensen's parents.
He hadn't even told them he was coming. He tried to imagine what their reaction had been when they'd first learned their son had been captured. And then to hear nothing of him after the escape, even after the war ended. What would the RAF have told them? Would Jensen’s parents still hold any sliver of doubt, or had they accepted, as Jarek had, that he was gone?
Jarek didn't want to cause them more pain. But he was afraid that the news would come out, in radio or newspaper reports on the war crime trials. If they were destined to learn that their son had lost his life, Jarek felt he had to tell them more than that. He had to explain that Jensen had sacrificed his own best chance at freedom, so that Jarek and dozens of others could escape.
Rosie knew nothing of this. She was simply excited about the new adventure.
"It will be very, very different in America," Jarek had told her on one of their last nights in their beczka. He tucked her in, tugging the satin edge of the blanket up to her cheek the way she liked it.
"A new start?" she asked. Her hair was loose and fanned around her head on the pillow like a halo. "Like when you came and found me in the orphanage?"
"Then I have two requests," she said solemnly, rolling onto her back and holding up two fingers with her left hand, ticking them off with her right. "First," she said, "Nils-the-Bear has to come with us! He likes adventures, too!"
Jarek smiled. Rosie was eight now, and wasn't that too old for stuffed animals? But if that was the most important item that she wanted to take with her on their journey, they could find a way. Maybe, Jarek thought, it was having such a 'friend' that made her able to face the world so fearlessly. He knew a little something about the value of friendship.
"Of course! And your other wish, Your Highness?" he asked, bowing slightly.
She took a deep breath, like it was a request she had thought about for a long time, an important one. "Would it be alright if I called you 'Papa' when we live there?"
His eyes flashed sudden tears. "I. I don't want you to ever forget your real Tata and Mama, kochanie. They loved you very much." His hand trembled a little as he tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear.
Her fingers closed around the locket she wore always, even when she slept. "I have Tata and Mama, here. And you could be my Papa. Different names – see?" she said, blinking earnestly. "I promise I won't ever forget them." She opened the locket and turned it around to face Jarek. "You make me remember Tata, Wujek, every time you smile."
He did smile then, dimples carved deep and eyes filled with emotion, and when he caught his reflection in the mirror over their dresser, he knew she was right. For a moment, it seemed as though it was Józef gazing back at him. And his brother looked content.
The train pulled into Wolf Point, Montana, late on a Saturday afternoon. They were the only passengers to disembark - Jarek grabbing their pair of suitcases, and Rosie clutching Nils-the-Bear to her chest. It was cold for September, and Jarek knelt to button her coat and knot her scarf around her neck. She looked up at the sky and her mouth formed a perfect 'o'. "Look how big the sky is here, Papa," she said, trying the new name on for size. "It's so blue! And it goes forever! Is it really the same sky as back home? I mean, back in England? It looks so different!"
He smiled. The sky felt expansive, embracing. He remembered then the poem he had recited once to Jensen, and his heart suddenly felt too big for his chest. "It is the same sky," he told her. "Tonight I will show you the stars here. Do you remember how to find the Plough, in Ursa Major?"
"Of course I do. Ursa Major is Nils-the-bear's favorite constellation! 'Cause it's named after him."
"Well, in America, they call the Plough 'the Big Dipper'. We'll look for it tonight. But first, we must look for something to eat and a place to stay."
And even more important - the reason why they came to Montana.
The rail station was no bigger than the hut he'd lived in at Stalag Luft III all those years - just a squat, one-story building set on a thick concrete slab, paint peeling under the asphalt shingles.
Jarek settled Rosie on a nearby bench and approached the station agent, rolling his shoulders to alleviate the crick in his neck after nearly twenty-four hours sitting up on the train. "Excuse me," he said. "Can you tell me how to find the Jensen family?" It was a small town - he hoped it wasn’t an unreasonable request.
The agent, a dwarf with a sullen expression, shrugged. "They live around here? Sorry - can't say I've heard the name." He looked from Jarek to Rosie, and when she gave him a sunny smile, his face softened. "If they're church-goers, Reverend Tollefsen would know them." He gave Jarek directions to the First Lutheran Church, just four blocks away, and sent them on their way.
First, though, they stopped for dinner at a colorful café called The Hitching Post, and then, tired and disheveled, they went in search of the church.
Reverend Tollefsen, they found, had just returned from visiting a sick parishioner. He was a tall, thin man in glasses, with a friendly smile as he beckoned them inside the rectory.
“If you please,” Jarek said with honest sincerity, “I was told you might help me find someone.” He glanced around quickly for Rosie, and found her exploring the pictures hanging on the wall along the entry way. He lowered his voice so Rosie couldn’t hear. “A Mr. and Mrs. Jensen. I have - a message for them,” he explained, keeping it simple. “It’s personal,” he added, in case the reverend offered to deliver it.
"Well, the only Mr. and Mrs. Jensen I know around these parts are Anders and Karoline Jensen," Tollefsen said, shrugging off his coat and hanging it on the antique coat rack in the corner by the door.
"A couple in their fifties? Or maybe sixties?" Jarek suggested. "Who came to America from Norway during the war?"
"That would be right." Tollefsen nodded. "Their son - "
"Please." Jarek held up a hand, glancing at Rosie, who was making her way back to them. "Let's not talk of that now." Lieutenant Jensen still lived in her daydreams, escaping from prisons and dungeons and dragons' caves. He couldn't face Rosie hearing the truth just yet. Not like this. He still hadn’t figured out what to do with her when he met Jensen's parents face-to-face.
”Well, they don't have a phone." Tollefsen scratched his jaw. "But I know they'll be at church tomorrow morning. You're welcome to join us... no? Not Lutheran, then? Alright. I'll bring them by my study here in the rectory after services.” He peered at them over the rim of his spectacles, the two weary strangers, and Jarek felt awkward and dipped his head, preparing to take their leave when the reverend suddenly asked, “Do you need a place to stay tonight? We have a spare room here you’d be welcome to.”
Jarek was saying, “We couldn’t impose –” even as he was mentally tallying the bills left in his wallet and thinking they’d have to find a market tomorrow to fix sandwiches for the rest of the trip.
“Now, now. I wouldn’t be much of a pastor to my flock, if I didn’t live by the parable of the Good Samaritan. As he helped a traveler in need, so must I. You will say yes, and my housekeeper will even fix you breakfast in the morning - a hearty Western breakfast that will put some meat on those bones! And then you can wait for Anders and Karoline in the study around 10 o’clock. Alright?"
Jarek was a bit overcome by the unexpected kindness, and just stood rooted to the floor until he felt Rosie tugging at his hand.
“The man said to say ‘Yes’, Papa!” she reminded him.
“Yes.” Jarek let go of Rosie’s hand to shake hands with the reverend. “I’m sorry. Yes. Thank you. Very much."
"Right. Now, you look like you haven’t slept in days, young man. I'll have Sylvia show you to Pastor Andersen's old room." Tollefsen smiled and raised a hand benevolently. "God kveld."
“God kveld,” Rosie called after him as he went in search of his housekeeper. Then she turned back to Jarek. “Everyone is so nice here, Papa! I think I’m going to like America!”
Despite his exhaustion, Jarek didn't sleep well. He had lain awake, restless, rehearsing what he would say. How to say it so that it wouldn't cause the family more pain. But it was important for them to know what a hero their son was. To know that his sacrifice hadn't been in vain.
In the morning, after breakfast, he carried their suitcases with him down to the office. They kept their coats on. This wouldn't take long, and then he and Rosie would be on the afternoon train back to Chicago, where he would find a job and a place to live with a good school for Rosie. And he would try… to forget? No – he could never forget Jensen. He could try to move on, though. For Rosie.
Meanwhile, Jarek sat on a hard wooden chair, hands scrubbing his knees nervously, cheap suitcases and Nils-the-Bear propped at his feet. It was as if Rosie sensed he needed support and left Nils with him to comfort him. She was circling the room, exploring everything on the bookshelves with her hands tucked behind her back so she wouldn't touch.
Voices could be heard from the hallway. A man and a woman. Too low to be understood, but Jarek thought he recognized the accent from when the Norwegians in Stalag Luft III had spoken amongst themselves.
The door creaked open and Jarek rose politely.
A small man, bald on top with leathery skin that told of years of outdoor work, pushed the door open and then paused just inside the room. His wife, round and soft like a potato dumpling, followed him in and then stopped, pressed against his side.
Jarek held out his hand, concentrating on keeping it steady. He’d forgotten completely about Rosie being in the room. "Mr. Jensen? Mrs. Jensen? My name is Jarek Podlacki. I have come to tell you about your son."
"Nils?" Karoline Jensen took a step back.
Rosie crept next to Jarek and slipped her hand in his. "Nils, Papa?" she whispered, picking up her bear by its paw.
There were more steps in the corridor, and the Jensens stepped forward to allow another man to follow them into the room. But it wasn't the expected reverend.
It was unbelievable.
It was Jensen.
They spoke at the same time.
And then, despite everything he remembered about Jensen's infamous Nordic reserve, Jarek grabbed him up in a bear hug and lifted him off his feet.
And Jensen hugged him right back.
For a long time, there wasn’t a sound in the room, until Rosie’s inquisitive “Papa?” brought Jarek back to earth with an embarrassed chuckle.
Jensen disentangled himself from Jarek's long arms and crouched down in front of her. "You can't be little Roza, can you?"
Her face furrowed in childlike disdain. "I'm not little any more. Papa had to buy me a new coat because I'm growing so fast." She looked up at Jarek, all the way up till she could see his eyes shining. "Someday, I'm going to be tall like him, too!"
“Not quite so tall, I hope.” Jensen grinned, straightened and made introductions all around.
"Your name is Nils, too?" Rosie asked doubtfully, her bear dangling from one hand.
He nodded, still smiling. “Nils Jensen, Miss Rosie, at your service!” He leaned down to shake her hand.
"Oh!" Rosie’s face lit up in sudden understanding. “You’re Lieutenant Jensen!” She quickly pulled off her scarf and reached up to try to drape it around his neck. "Papa told me this was yours. I guess we came all this way to return it to you!"
Karoline Jensen raised her hand to her mouth.
It was then that Reverend Tollefsen made his belated arrival. “I see you’ve all met,” he said, rubbing his hands together briskly. “Everything is alright?”
“Everything is…” Jarek didn’t have a word in Polish or Yiddish or English or any other language to finish that sentence.
It was Jensen this time who threw his arm around Jarek’s shoulder, and that was answer enough.
It was much too long a story to unravel in the formal study in the church rectory. They had hours before the train back to Chicago, so when Anders and Karoline offered to tuck Rosie between them in the front of their truck and take them home for a hot lunch, Jarek was happy to accept. He climbed into the bed of the pickup alongside Jensen, where they sat comfortably with their backs propped against the cab, legs sprawled out in front of them. And on the long dusty drive to the Jensen ranch (ranch! - Jarek thought, still in shock), Jarek went first. Because Jensen wanted him to, and at that moment Jarek would have given Jensen anything he asked for.
He told Jensen everything, but as abbreviated as he could, more anxious to hear Jensen's story. He made Jensen laugh when he told him about hiding in a pig sty his first day of freedom. He didn't go into as much detail when he described trying to wade through waist-deep snow in the Bezkydy mountain range in Slovakia, nearly losing his feet to frostbite before the Novaky Brigade - a Jewish resistance unit - found him.
Jarek glossed over the rest of the journey back to England and the months in hospital there. He talked more eagerly about tracking Rosie through the Red Cross. In a pause, he could hear Rosie chatting animatedly with Jensen's parents in the front seat, like they’d been friends for years. Or even like family. He caught Jensen watching him with a fond expression on his face as they both listened to her working out the funny coincidence that her bear was named Nils, too.
Jensen let Jarek ramble on about finally finding Rosie in a Quaker orphanage and then making a home for them in a Polish Displaced Persons Camp in England.
And then, Jarek had to tell him the rest. Learning that most of the captured escapees from Stalag Luft III had been executed. That a few survivors had been returned -- but Jensen hadn’t been among them.
"No," Jensen explained, when it was his turn to tell his side of the story. "They rounded us all up at the train station, but they didn't take me wherever they took the rest. I never saw them again."
"Where -" the truck clattered over a steel truss bridge, and Jarek had to stop and wait to be heard.
"The Gestapo," Jensen said when the road smoothed again. He drew up one knee, and picked at the cloth in his cheap Sunday suit without meeting Jarek's eyes. "When they were through with me, I ended up at the concentration camp at Sachenhausen."
What MacKenzie had suggested might have happened, had, Jarek realized. Jensen's name had never been given to the Red Cross. No one knew he'd survived.
But a concentration camp!
The color drained from Jarek's face. "Jensen -" Jarek didn't know what else to say.
Jensen raised his head but looked away, gaze locked on a lone tree in the distance. "It wasn't that bad," he said, but his voice sounded rough. "They put the POWs in Sonderlager A - it was... civilized. Much like Stalag Luft III. But we had to go into the main camp every week to shower. And Jarek - " His voice broke. "Jarek-"
Jarek didn't want him to go on. He’d seen the newspapers, he knew, and he couldn’t bring himself to hear what Jensen had seen there in the main camp first-hand. His vision blurred and his eyes burned. He glanced at Jensen's profile and saw his chin trembling, and Jarek shifted his weight so that his shoulder pressed against Jensen's, and they sat in silence for a while.
Finally, Jensen cleared his throat and started talking again. "In the final weeks of the war, when the Allies pushed closer and closer, the Germans panicked. They closed Sonderlager A, and other prison camps, too, and packed us up on trains to take us to the concentration camp at Flossenburg. And then to Dachau. And still the Allies pressed closer, until they drove us into the Austrian Alps. Our convoy was always just one step ahead of them, always with an elite execution squad as our shadow. Every morning, Jarek, I woke up and thought, today will be the end." He shivered, as if the Alpine cold still chilled his bones.
"The Germans' trucks ran out of fuel!" Jensen twisted to look at Jarek and shook his head ruefully. "Can you believe it? I decided then that if I was going to die, it was going to be on my terms. As a free man. So when they started us on a forced march, I made my last escape."
The pickup rattled over a rut on the road and Jensen grabbed the side panel to steady himself. "I got away." He gave Jarek a sidelong glance. “I suppose you already figured that out, huh.”
“So. I got lucky and connected with the Italian partisans, and they got me out. And by the time they got me to the coast, the war was over. I just – I never went back to England. Or Norway. I just came home."
Home. This was Jensen's home now.
“And you’re. You’re… alright? Really?” Jarek couldn’t help but remember the last time he saw his friend, barely able to hobble.
“So, I have a job where I ride horses instead of being on my feet all day.” Jensen shrugged. “It’s a good life here, Jarek.”
Jarek had to admit, it must be true. Jensen looked healthy. He had a smattering of freckles from days spent in the sun. A hint of creases at the corners of his eyes made Jarek long to see them deepen into laugh lines.
Then he coughed self-consciously. "You know," he said, "the RAF has no idea what's become of you."
"I suppose I should have told them. I didn't care. The war was over. I just wanted to forget."
Jarek nodded. All that mattered was to be with family. Home.
"I did try to find out what happened to you," Jensen admitted, leaning back and crossing his legs at the ankle. "Do you remember Rex Moore? Our camp tailor?"
"Of course I do. I remember all the men on the Escape Team."
"He's American. Lives in Indiana. He was trying to track down the 'kriegie alumni', as he called us. Somehow, he found me. And so I asked him if he knew what had happened to you."
Dust sprayed up around them as the pickup turned on a patch of dry dirt, and Jarek felt a cough tickling his throat, but he tamped it down. He really didn't want to interrupt.
"Moore told me you'd made it out. Hit a home run, he called it! But he thought you'd gone back to Poland after the war. And you know, with Poland behind the Iron Curtain now. Well. I figured that was the end of it."
"No." Jarek stared up at the cobalt-blue sky. The same sky that stretched far away over Poland, too, but he didn't think he'd ever see his homeland again.
Memories of 1939 and the September Campaign filled him with such bitterness he couldn't speak. Germany had invaded Poland and driven the overwhelmed Polish military back to the southeast corner of their country, where the Soviet Red Army poured in ruthlessly to help carve the country up. The Polish soldiers and flyers who'd fought in vain to protect their people, men Jarek had known and called friends, so many of them had been killed or captured. Hundreds of thousands of Poles had been sent to die in slave labor camps in the gulags.
And now the Allies had just given Poland to the Russians?
"No,” he said again, still watching the clouds scudding eastward toward his homeland. No longer home. “I – we cannot go back. There is nothing left for us there."
"So. What are your plans then? Are you going back to England?"
"A Polish organization in Chicago sponsored us, Rosie and me, to come to America. They offered to help me find work." Jarek lowered his gaze and found Jensen watching him carefully.
"Well, if you're looking for work..." Jensen's face took on a naive, hopeful look. "We could use another hand on the ranch. I think - since the war – well, I've changed my mind about some things."
Jarek quirked an inquiring eyebrow, as the truck pulled up a long gravel drive to a big two-story house with a wrap-around front porch and an enormous oak tree in the back. "What do you think now?"
"I think, maybe, I'm not better alone."
Jarek absorbed the words slowly, searching Jensen's eyes. And then?
His answering grin seemed as wide as the Montana sky.
Epilogue - Montana, 2011
Inside the trunk, there was a small leather portfolio, and Alice opened it with a shiver of anticipation. It was filled with loose sheets of art - a child's art. Bold crayon drawings at first: a boat poised on a curly blue sea, storm clouds roiling overhead. Next was a very recognizable portrait of Nils-the-Bear. As Rosie matured, her pictures softened. There was a quite good watercolor of the house Alice now sat in, a study in perspective against an old oak tree.
Most curious of all the pages was a charcoal sketch. Just two silhouettes, men in cowboy hats sitting on a log in front of a campfire, heads dipped low in quiet conversation. All in shadow. Two horses, unsaddled, standing easy behind them. A moon like a silver coin hanging low in the sky.
The picture touched Alice, although she didn't understand why.
As she pawed through the rest of the keepsakes again, she sneezed in the attic dust, and decided to take her finds outside to ponder in the fresh air for a while. But where?
Then she remembered: there was an old family cemetery under that giant oak tree behind the house. She didn't know anyone buried there - her parents were still alive, and her grandparents had all been laid to rest in Billings, where they'd moved when they grew too old to work the ranch. But Alice had memories of trying to catch fireflies in the yard one summer evening when she was a little girl, finding a grave marker out there for a couple named Jensen, and wondering idly if her dad was somehow related to them. Then it had gotten dark, time to go inside for her favorite TV show, and she’d never asked.
She remembered it being a peaceful corner of the property, and it suited her contemplative mood perfectly now.
The sky was cloudless, a vast sapphire blue, when she left the attic and walked out onto the creaking porch planks and down the warped steps, carrying the small crate of possible family treasures with Nils-the-Bear balanced precariously on top. It was just a short walk to the small plot of graves.
Flanking the big oak tree, Alice found a cluster of older tombstones etched with Scandinavian-sounding names of men and women and children, too, who’d died in the early 1900's.
A short distance away, under a flowering crabapple tree in full bloom, there was the marker she remembered for Anders and Karoline Jensen - one shared granite stone with both names carved upon it. She did the math. They'd each lived into their seventies, and had died the same year, like many old couples where neither partner wants to go on without his or her beloved.
On the other side of the tree sat two more smaller stones she didn't remember, set close together, stark in their simplicity. The newer stone said Nils Jensen 1915-1980. The older stone read: Jarek Podlacki 1919-1952.
She walked around the markers and read the engravings on the back. On the older stone was carved RAF, 303 Squadron. The other carried RAF, 331 Squadron. So they didn't fly in the same unit, Alice deduced thoughtfully. She wondered how they met.
If they were the men in the charcoal sketch.
Since Grandma Rose had a stuffed animal named Nils-the-bear before she ever came to America, Jarek and Nils must have met before that. Then Alice remembered the compass. Made in Stalag Luft III. She would have to research that. Perhaps they were POWs together in World War II. A tiny gust of wind sent a crabapple blossom floating down from the tree, and she moved around to face the fronts of the tombstones again, still thinking.
So young, Alice thought. Jarek was only thirty-three when he died. And then - Rose would have only been fourteen or maybe fifteen. Poor Gran had lost so much, so young, and now even her Uncle Jarek was taken from her. She had no other family - who would have raised her? Did they have orphanages out here then?
But then again - Rose had named her son Jensen. Looking at the two tombstones set together under the shade of the tree, she felt sure that Nils Jensen had taken responsibility for the young orphan girl and raised her as his own.
Alice sat down on the grass, set the bear down beside her, and stared at the sketch of the two cowboys for a while. Part of a poem from her master's thesis came to her, and she closed her eyes, letting the words wash over her.
Well, at long last.
On a certain ordinary night,
between a humdrum Friday and Saturday,
they suddenly appeared exactly as I wished them.
Seen in a dream, they yet seemed freed from dreams,
obedient only to themselves and nothing else.
All possibilities vanished from the background of the image,
accidents lacked a finished form.
Only they shone with beauty, for they were like themselves.
They appeared to me a long, long time, and happily.
I woke up. I opened my eyes.
I touched the world as if it were a carved frame. 3
Then she opened her eyes, and turned back to her little crate of family treasures to see what secrets she could unravel.