Thursday, February 25, 2010

Adventures in the Polish Underground

When my grandfather got out of the army (actually, after he escaped from Siberia), he returned to Poland where he joined the Polish Revolutionary Underground (to free Poland from Russian control). This is how my grandfather described his first assignment as an 'agent' for the Polish underground:

"One morning, I was summoned to the Bristol Hotel. This, to be frank, was a place ordinarily a little out of my class. Its lobby, I saw at a glance, was so densely populated with Czarist agents, you could throw a stone in any direction and not hit one person who still spoke Polish, let alone Yiddish. My assignment was to make contact with someone holding one end of a broken match; I would carry the other half. After confirming that our pieces fit together, the man was to say to me in Polish, 'Excuse me, sir, can you give me a light?' To which I was to reply, 'What brand of cigarettes, sir, do you smoke?'

"It did no good to point out that such a dialogue would be hard to mistake for a casual exchange between two normal human beings. To make things worse, I had been given a piece from the wrong match, meaning that both of us would arrive carrying a half with no head on it. My handler agreed there may have been a slipup, but it was too late now to alter the arrangements.

"So picture, if you will, two shabbily dressed strangers circulating in the crowded lobby of this elegant hotel, stooping over from time to time to gaze at what another person may be holding between his fingers.

"After sweating through I don't know how many minutes of this little minuet, my contact and I finally noticed each other's peculiar behavior and sheepishly flaunted our headless matches. We then recite our stilted passwords and manage to walk out together, all without for one moment arousing the suspicions of our excellent police force. Or, at least, without being arrested on the spot."

Having thus met his 'handler,' my grandfather received his first assignment:

"In the street, my fellow-plotter, a jittery young man with bad skin, kept looking over his shoulder. Half a block away, feeling it finally safe to talk, he said, 'Are you prepared to go on a mission?'

"At first I wondered if this were yet another password, or possibly a trap. But he repeated himself so impatiently that I assumed he wanted a straight answer, which was, 'I don't know. What kind of a mission?'

"He yanked me into a doorway. 'I can't tell you.'

"'Then I'm not going.'

"'Delivering supplies,' he said grudgingly.

"'Supplies of what?'

"Scowling with annoyance, he mumbled, 'Ammunition,' in a tone that let me know I had no business asking such an idiotic question.

"You might say that this task should have sounded harmless enough to someone of my background. But I knew of several comrades who were arrested while transporting such goods, and with very little fuss, sentenced and shot.

"But my contact allowed me no time for reflection. He snapped, 'Wait here,' and vanished across the street.
Trapped, I loitered in plain sight of the Bristol, straining to look invisible and braced, at any moment, for a heavy hand to fall on my shoulder.

"Instead, I saw a tall young woman make her way daintily through the traffic. Flustered, she stopped near me and looked around. This, I assumed, was my new contact since one would had to be blind in both eyes not to have spotted her instantly as a man in a poorly fitted horsehair wig. Nor was he too cleanly shaven.

"I tried to lose myself among the passing pedestrians, hoping this person would not be able, in his pavement-trailing skirt and high-heeled boots, to follow me.

"But the creature in the wig, having spotted me and caught up with me. Smiling through smudged lips, he motioned coquettishly with his finger. Resigned, I allowed him to capture my elbow and summon a droshky. We climbed in, and he directed the driver to a certain number on Shliska Street. The driver cracked his whip, giving no sign of having noticed that his orders came from a woman with a rather hairy voice.

"We pulled up at a shoemaker's cellar where my guide/contact, with all the nonchalance of a commercial traveler on an expense account, ordered the droshky to wait, just as though we had not been warned time and again that some cab men also served as police informants.

"A minute later, I staggered back out into the street hauling two valises so heavy one of the handles promptly came off in my hand; my load crashed to the pavement.

"At this, the shoemaker turned white and then became hysterical. Hopping up and down, he cursed my clumsiness and consigned me to the seven depths of hell. I realized I was not carrying mere bullets but a more nervous kind of merchandise, like dynamite or even homemade bombs, the kind we cozily call 'dumplings,' some of which had been known to go off at inconvenient times.

"Still in his wig and padded dress, my guide ordered our driver to take us and our luggage to a windowless shack deep in the woods outside the city where, to my relief, a refreshing businesslike couple took delivery of the goods."

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