Zenon Bernatowicz. Photo from family album held by his niece Irena Szadura
No record exists today that shows how Polish Red Army mortar man Zenon Bernatowicz felt as he woke up on the last morning before he was fatally wounded, Tuesday, March 13, 1945. Nothing tells of whether he was stoic, angry, sad, or frightened just before he was shot up in the fighting within the outer German defenses of Kolberg, a city that briefly harbored some 85,000 evacuating German civilians and 3,000 garrison troops. All we know is that he was badly injured in the forested resort area called Maikuhle (or Załęże, in Polish), where the fanatical Volkssturm, a German civilian militia raised at the behest of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebels, fought intensely.
During the weekend before Zenon was shot, his unit, the 2nd Battalion 16th Infantry Regiment, a part of the 6th Polish Infantry Division of the Red Army assigned to envelope and attack the city from the west, had joined forces with the 1st battalion along the Baltic Sea coast. They had met stiff resistance from the Volkssturm among the gravestones within the city’s cemetery. No doubt that the shooting match against the volunteer defenders, composed of Germans, both local and displaced from elsewhere in Pomerania, seemed ghoulish to him. Still, the Polish Red Army units were making significant progress against these poorly trained irregulars on Mar. 13 in front of the Kleist redoubt. Indeed, by the time the Soviets took the Kolberg, quickly rechristened by its Polish name of Kołobrzeg, 60 percent of the city’s civilian German fighters would be killed and more than 80 percent of their homes and businesses destroyed.
I guess it’s safe to say I’m something of a procrastinator. After a 17-month post-Sochi Olympics slump in writing, during which a nearby country was invaded and paid work came and went, it took a writing contest to get me back on the computer. Not even my family moving from the Eurasian side of the new “Iron Curtain” in Belarus to western Poland had been so successful.
Marina and the kids back in Belarus. Photo by Ben M. Angel
So, it’s been awhile and I have a lot of new observations. Some of them I might now write about as my personal hopes quietly fade of ever visiting a Russia governed by sane leadership again in my lifetime. Indeed, we are here in Lower Silesia today, now, rather than waiting for something drastic to happen back in Minsk, in part because of the nagging sense that we’d have better success in settling in Poland as immigrants rather than as refugees.
Albina at the kitchen window with her copy of “Yozhik v tumane.” Photo by Ben M. Angel
My daughter and I, and shortly after, her mom, sat down in the first minutes of the televised Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, and watched the dream sequence of the little girl who, before falling asleep, had been reading about the “alfavit,” or the Russian ABCs. From ancient monks to helicopters and other traces of Russian greatness left upon the world, artistically stylized images went past on the screen. When the seventh letter arrived, both Albina and I were surprised, as the selection of a Russian image for the Russian letter “Ё” or “Yo” was revealed as “Yozhik v tumanye,” or “Hedgehog in the fog.” Continue reading
Marina and Albina decorating the tree. Photo by Ben M. Angel
One thing that makes Belarus unique among former Soviet countries is that, having such a large amount of its post World War II population Catholic, it maintains Western Christmas as a holiday. This doesn’t occur in Ukraine or further east in Russia and Central Asia, where Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) is a direct replacement for Santa Claus. In this country, as a result, both the Western traditions of gift-giving on Jesus’ birthday, and the former Soviet traditions of gift-giving to celebrate the New Year, are followed. Continue reading
Ostrovets bus station before the bus leaves. Photo by Ben M. Angel
I don’t normally talk to many people these days. Most of the people I run into speak a much more advanced form of Russian than I, embarrassingly, am able to remember from my university studies. But of those that I do speak with in English, most ask me, usually as small talk, how long it takes to get to Minsk from where I am living in Belarus. A lot is involved in describing this, though, much more than a person can easily keep interesting in a simple conversation. For that reason, I decided to put to written words what it is like to travel from Ostrovets to Minsk and back.
For those who are not all that strong on the geography of Grodno Oblast, much less that of Belarus, Ostrovets is the most easterly district (“rayon”) center of the northwestern administrative region of the country. It sits all of maybe five kilometers from the Minsk-Vilnius train line, not far from where it crosses the Belarus-Lithuanian border. It is surrounded by a mix of farmlands and forest, the occasional lake, and villages with churches that serve as relics of better times in the region’s history.
Baby Ben at home. Photo by Ben M. Angel
Four and a half years ago, about 12 hours after Marina gave birth for the first time, Albina was brought to her mother for the first time to learn to breastfeed. Marina was concerned that she hadn’t quite got the hang of feeding on the first try, but there would be plenty of time to try to learn. More disconcerting was her having fainted during blood tests, apparently the result of her right kidney not working properly during her late pregnancy. The dietary recommendations seemed a bit odd to me… particularly the one suggesting that she could have green apples, but not red ones (to this day, I’m still not sure of the logic behind that one).
At the time, it took almost a full day for me to compose and send off the electronic announcement that all had gone well. As in Baby Ben’s birth, congratulatory responses came back almost immediately, the first of which arrived from both future godmother Lena Hrambouskaya and Grammy Ro. A few hours later, Albina began successfully to take in milk, but her mother wasn’t yet stable enough to spend much time with her.
The skies above the Ostrovets Regional Hospital at the start of Marina’s labor. Photo by Ben M. Angel
After five days in the Ostrovets Central Regional Hospital, my wife Marina called to say that she was in labor. The time on the phone clock showed to be around 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 4. The skies partly filled with mostly stratus clouds that had been moving by very fast across the skies since the start of the morning, when I took Albina to her nursery school.
When talking to her, I found it hard to figure out what to say to Marina. What are the right words to say to someone you admire when she is about to go into what is perhaps the hardest physical stress that she is likely to ever go through in her life? I struggled even to find an old favorite, the old “Ne pukha, ne pera,” or the Russian version of “Break a leg,” that stage actors would tell each other before their most important performance of a play that they are in.