My Mother's Secret(3)
Author:J. L. Witterick

    I also tell him that not having to share a father doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a better relationship. “We haven’t heard from my father since we left Germany,” I say, carefully omitting the fact that my father is a Nazi sympathizer.

    Now that I know Casmir better, I feel safe enough to ask something that has been on my mind since the interview. “Why did you choose me? There were so many others.”

    “Well, if it was up to Ferda, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” he says with a mischievous smile that makes him look boyish.

    “You were brave enough to tell me the truth, and I want someone I can trust. Honesty is refreshing, Helena. Besides, you have that great smile and type like lightning.”

    He is laughing as he finishes saying this, and I start laughing too.

    Was it because he trusted me enough to reveal his darkness, or was it that I had not expected to be in the company of a man so different from the harshness of my own father, that I begin to have feelings yet unknown to me?

    Despite our different worlds, we feel closer after that night.

    Chapter 8

    I find that I now fuss about my appearance before leaving for work. I wake up earlier to make sure that my hair is in the right place. I spend a little money for lipstick, and I ask my mother if she can find any more of those beautiful dresses.

    I look forward to work and am excited when I see Casmir. At the office, we address each other politely as Mr. Kowalski and Miss Halamajowa. However, over dinner, which is now at least once a week, we call each other by our first names, Casmir and Helena.

    I can’t remember when the presents started. It’s usually when he returns from a trip to Germany. There are chocolates, books, and scarves—nothing too grand to imply seriousness, but always something to let me know that he thought of me.

    Not having much to give in return, I occasionally bring him a home-cooked German dish that my mother has made.

    “Helena, how does your mother know my favorite foods? Maybe I should be bringing her presents too,” he says playfully. Casmir enjoys those meals immensely.

    • • •

    I AM SO HAPPY, and it is an odd time to be happy.

    The world is in turmoil.

    There is news that the Nazis will soon be in Poland, and while we know it, there is not much that we can do.

    Everyone is nervous.

    Casmir is probably the only person I know who is calm about this development. His friends include Germans and high-ranking officials.

    Chapter 9

    Germany invades Poland on September 1, 1939, and it takes them just over a month to conquer the country. The ineffectiveness of Poland’s defenses leaves the population deflated.

    I don’t understand much about the war, and especially why Hitler decided to invade Poland, so I ask Casmir, who seems to know all these things.

    “Hitler invaded Poland because he thought that Britain and France would let him get away with it.”

    I say, “What do you mean?”

    Casmir makes it simple for me: “Well, he didn’t think that they would declare war over it.

    “You see, most people have until now thought that communism was a bigger threat than Hitler. For that reason, they let Germany rearm over the past few years, even though it was against the treaty for Germany to do so after the last war. They thought that a strong Germany would be a good balance to Russia.

    “Think about it; didn’t Germany host the Olympics just three years ago?

    “The world wants to think he’s a good guy.

    “Hitler is counting on this.

    “What did the British do while German soldiers were crossing into Poland? Despite declaring their support for Poland, the might of the Royal Air Force consisted of dropping leaflets asking Germany to reconsider their attack.”

    Casmir lowers his voice. “They should have been dropping bombs if they were serious.”

    I realize then that Poland didn’t have the support of the friends that we thought. How could the world have been so misled?

    Casmir continues. “Britain and France came through after the invasion and declared war on Germany, so Hitler miscalculated their response. But he’s made an alliance with Stalin to strengthen his position, and they have agreed to split Poland between them.”

    This explains why our town has Germans on one side of the river and Russians on the other.

    We’re on the Russian side.

    Chapter 10

    When the Russians first arrive, they want to assimilate their communist culture and begin arresting Polish officers, intellectuals, large-estate owners, and former civil servants.

    The Polish community is shaken, as anyone deemed a threat to communist thinking is either executed or sent to labor camps.

    Neighbors turn on one another.

    Anyone with a grudge can make an accusation that will result in an arrest.

    No one feels safe under these circumstances, and the tension is high.

    Being unimportant and poor turns out to be a good thing, as my mother and I are left alone.

    Damian is considered an essential laborer, so he is safe as well.

    Casmir is well connected and untouchable in a different way.

    This is a world where to be insignificant, necessary, or connected is the best way to survive.

    Chapter 11

    War gives you a sense of urgency about your life because there is so much death waiting for a chance. Maybe that’s why it’s possible to feel love in the midst of so much chaos.

    One day Ferda and I are alone in the lunchroom, and she says to me, “Who do you think you are?”

    “What do you mean, Ferda?” I ask innocently, even though I suspect she means my relationship with Casmir.

    She says, “You’re a peasant girl with no father and no money. Do you really think you’re suitable for Mr. Kowalski?”

    I say, “We have a very professional relationship but happen to enjoy each other’s company.”

    She says, “I never liked you, but I’m going to do you a favor and tell you a secret. Mr. Kowalski is engaged to a girl in Germany, and that’s why he’s always going there. His father knows the girl’s family, and, unlike you, she’s well educated and comes from a respectable German family.”

    I feel sick.

    I don’t know where I had thought my relationship with Casmir would eventually lead, but this news shatters me. Casmir going to Germany to be with his fiancée? Were my gifts leftovers from what he had bought her?

    He doesn’t owe me anything and I know that, but I can’t help feeling overwhelmed by this news. I keep my composure with Ferda and then excuse myself after lunch. I go to the bathroom and throw up what little I have managed to swallow. For the rest of the day, I try to focus on my work but am mindless in my motions.

    I am lying in bed, hugging my pillow and crying, when my mother finds me.

    She sits next to me and softly caresses my hair. “What’s wrong, Helena?”

    I shake my head. How do you tell your mother that if you weren’t her daughter but that of some wealthy family, it would solve the problem? No, that isn’t it. I feel sad and hollow and can’t explain my feelings.

    My mother doesn’t press further. She just sits with me until I fall asleep.

    Later that night, I tell her that Casmir is engaged to a girl in Germany.

    She says, “How do you know?”

    “Ferda told me,” I answer.

    “Is Ferda your friend?”

    She knows the answer to this question from what I have told her before, but she wants me to come to my own conclusion.

    “Do you trust Casmir?” she asks.

    “Yes,” I say, and I do.

    “Well then, why don’t you ask him yourself and see what he says?” my mother suggests.

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