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 to be even more reserved, even though we already lived in a secluded part of the countryside, in the last occupied house in the town. In order to avoid going into the occupied towns, we basically ate only chicken and eggs for every meal, and whatever else Mama could gather from the garden. It was lonely, but we survived.
“The thing that was most difficult for me was 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 the 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 there 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, at least I didn’t – that we lived fairly close to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, and that 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 Michel 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, fewer and fewer people began showing up in the middle of the night. That’s about the time our chicken and vegetables began to disappear. Losing our only supply of food would not have been tolerable, and at that point, my father suspected it was 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 two days to leave and then he would begin to seal the well.”
I waited impatiently for my grandfather to tell me about the fate of the man.
“The following night, I got 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 something friendly down the well, indicating to the poor man that my intentions were benign, and I began my descent, clinging hand and foot to the pegs attached to the stones. As I neared the bottom I smelled something absolutely horrific, and I pulled my father’s flashlight from my pocket to try and shine it on the man. It was then I came to the realization of just how large the well was, having been used to supply water for the entire town and its families in the past. Families which no longer remained.
“But I found no man, only a hole. A gap in the stone, where the wall of the well had collapsed, opening up to some type of crevice only two meters wide and three meters deep and tall. Inside sat not a man, but an entire family, of which only a single skeleton-like creature survived. The light reflected off of its sunken eyes and gray skin. Blood covered its face, and chicken carcasses were strewn everywhere – a pile of decomposing poultry beside a woman and what I suspected had been her son and daughter, children who couldn’t have been much more than five years old. And they seemed to have been dead for weeks. The man, if he even could be called that, just gazed at the light, and I stared back, incapable of breaking his stare. I did not feel threatened by him, for he lacked any aggression whatsoever. He simply crouched motionlessly, without a sound, next to the putrefying bodies of his loved ones and the chickens that must have been his source of water, as their meat was uneaten.
“He was empty, devoid of whatever in us makes us human. He should have realized the members of his family had died 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 shone the light back onto the corpse of his daughter. He stared at her, and then sat down closer to her, and continued his vigil.
“’You can leave now,’ I said to him. ‘I’ll open the gate so you can escape. My father will seal the well in the morning. Please leave now.’ My young voice and advice seemed to have no effect on him.
“At that moment I decided it would be better for me to just climb back up the well and leave, and hoped the man would follow and escape. As I began my climb, I shone the light on him one final time.”
“What did you see, Grandpa?” I shuttered.
“I saw a tear fall from his eye. He had become a man once again. He was only able to break free from the delusion after seeing the body of his daughter, which had until that time been obscured by the darkness. He realized then that he had been bringing food not to his family, but to corpses.
“That night it rained again, but in the morning when my father returned to seal the well, I found no footprints leading out of it.”
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