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My grandfather grew up on a chicken farm outside of Krakow, Poland. He passed away a few years ago at the age of 82. A few days before his passing on, due to an aggressive form of stomach cancer, he sat me down next to him in his old rocking chair and said in his familiar polish accent “After I took the boat to New York, I promised to leave this story behind”.
He didn’t look up as he spoke to me, simply staring into his cup of black coffee. “It’s been 70 years….and I must tell someone before I meet God”
“I was born in a small, quaint, empty town, which despite the Nazi occupation, still functioned. We lived in this two-bedroom farmhouse, my father, mother, and my brothers Michal and Igor. I’m sorry, you never got to meet any of them. Anyway, Michal and Igor were twins, identical twins actually, and we had heard rumors of the Nazi fascination with identical twins. This forced us, and we already lived in a secluded part of the countryside, in the last occupied house in the town, to be even more reserved. In order to not go into the occupied towns, we basically ate only chicken, and eggs for every meal, and whatever Mama could gather from the garden. It was lonely, but we survived. “
“The only two things which were really hard on me were the fact I had to sleep in the basement, due to Michel and Igor being toddlers, they required my father and mother’s attention. The basement was cold, with only a small window and moonlight was the only light I got. Because of this, I always delayed going down there until I was absolutely exhausted, so I wouldn’t have to lie there awake. On the nights that I couldn’t manage to sleep, I would look out of the window, which gave me a small view of the garden and the large abandoned water well. This was my daily activity throughout those lonely war-torn nights. In general, it was boring and uneventful, but occasionally I would catch a glimpse of a family, or even just a man, or two lovers, sneaking their way through our garden up to our front door. They always looked rushed and frightened, and sometimes wore tattered uniforms. What would follow were horrible sounds of banging and pleadings for whoever lived here to open up, followed by an argument between my Father and Mother over whether we should let them in.”
He moved in the chair to adjust himself
“You see son, we didn’t know it, well I at least didn’t, that we lived fairly close to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, and those people were escapees”
“Well did your father let them in?!” I asked impatiently.
“No” he said “It would have been a death sentence for them as well as for us. The Nazis didn’t like Poles, but they tolerated us, and it was easier to hide Michal or Igor than an entire family. My father did what he had to do in order to keep his family alive. As the war went on, less and less people began showing up in the middle of the night. Only our chicken and vegetables began to disappear. Losing our only supply of food would not have been possible, and at this point my father knew it was probably the escapees, so he built a fence around our property. Despite this, the chickens continued to disappear. They weren’t killed, they were simply, gone. Just vanished from their cages and pens.”
“One night I decided to stay up myself in order to see if I could find out the answer. I battled my tiredness until the wee hours of the morning, and despite the poor lighting and rain, I caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a human figure run across the garden. I rushed upstairs to tell my father and he ran outside with a knife, the best home-defense weapon we could afford, but we found nothing. No one.”
“The next day we did find something though, footprints, leading from the chicken cages, to the water well. They were made in the wet mud from the rain, and they were of bare feet. No shoes. No socks. Just feet. My father had mercy on the man who was trying to find refuge and left him a note, indicating that he had 2 days to leave and then he would begin to seal the well”
I waited impatiently for my grandfather to tell me the fate of the man.
“The following night, I conjured up the idea to take a blanket down the well to the man since winter was creeping in. I waited until my parents were asleep and I snuck outside. I shouted down the well something friendly, indicating to the poor man my intentions were benign, and I began my descent, hands and feet clinging to the pegs which were attached to stones. As I was approached the bottom, I smelled something absolutely horrific, and I pulled my father’s flashlight from my pocket and tried to shine it on the man, coming to the realization of just how large this well was, since it used to supply water for the entire town and its families. Families which no longer remained.”
“But I found no man, only…..a hole. A hole in the stone, where the wall of the well had collapsed, opening up to some type of crevice. Only 2 meters wide, and 3 meters deep and tall, inside sat not a man. Inside was a family, with only a skeleton like creature as the only survivor. The light reflected off of his sunken eyes, and grayish skin. Face covered in blood, with chicken carcasses scattered around. A pile of decomposing chickens, next to a woman, a son, and a daughter, the children who must have been barely 5 years old. And they seemed to have been dead for weeks. The man, if he even could be called that, just stared at the light, and I stared back, incapable of breaking his stare. I did not feel threatened by him for he lacked any sense aggression. He simply sat there crouched over, without a sound, next to the putrefying body of his loved ones, and chickens he could have only been using as his source of water, as their meat was not eaten.”
“He was empty, devoid of whatever in us makes us human. He should have realized his family was dead long ago, but he was still bringing food for their corpses. He couldn’t accept it. He did finally turn his head though, when I shined the light back onto the corpse of his daughter. He stared at her, and sat down closer to her, and continued to stare”
“You can leave now, I’ll open the gate so you can escape. My father will seal the well in the morning ” I said to him. “Please leave now” My young voice and advice didn’t seem to have any effect on him.”
“At this moment I decided it would be better for me to just climb back up the well and leave, hopefully the man would follow and escape. As I began my climb I shined the light on him one final time……”
“What did you see Grandpa?” I shuttered
“A tear fall from his eye, he had become a man once again. He broke free from the delusion, only when he saw the body of his dead daughter, which had been hidden by the darkness. He realized he had been bringing food, not to his family, but to corpses”
“That night it rained again, but I found no footprints leaving the well in the morning when my father sealed it”