Halloween in Poland
How unsaintly on All Saints' Day to deny the cemetery even one soul, let alone that of a young Pole hell-bent on observing Halloween.
Zosia knew her refusal to go with her family to the famous old cemetery of Powązki would cause a ruckus once dziadzio (her grandfather) arrived. “He‘ll be furious,” her mom said, shaking her head. “Rest assured he‘ll get all worked up again.” Dziadzio was still sore about Zosia‘s decision to go abroad without consulting him. “She‘ll leave and never come back,” he had pronounced emphatically when he heard.
When he heard that Zosia planned to go to a costume party, her father, Jerzy asked: “Are you crazy? You can‘t do this to him!” The old man and babcia came to the capital on All Saints Day every year and led the entire family to Powązki to pay tribute to long-deceased family members – people Zosia knew only in sketchy details.
“Don‘t spoil your grandparent‘s special day,” Agata told her daughter, but lovely Zosia had made up her mind. “We go there with our long sad faces,” she told her mom. “My friends all think we‘re mourners.”
“Humor dziadzio just this once,” her mother urged. But Zosia still refused, telling her mother that the lugubrious cross-town trip on metro – from the family flat in far south Kabaty, past the gleaming towers of centrum, to the old cemetery in far northwest Warsaw – was “a complete waste of time.”
Flower stalls and candle sellers always lined the street on the short walk from metro to the cemetery gate. The family arrived just before twilight and strolled with the crowd, admiring vast tapestries of mums, roses, lilies and carnations on both sides of Powązkowska. They waited always for Babcia Olenka to wrinkle her nose at arrangements that struck her fancy.
“Just cut today,” she would say, or “Not today” with a barely perceptible nod. “Can babcia really tell?” Zosia‘s impish brother, Tomek, whispered once to his mother.
His mother, Agata, a petite woman with perfect posture, whispered back: “She can spot a drooping head … and doesn‘t want yours to droop either.”
To this Tomek gave a jack-o-lantern grin and turned to see if his sister heard. But Zosia was several steps back, lost in a world of her own. Her shoulder-length hair hid the wire that connected her earplug and iPod. Ever alert to his sister‘s imperfections, Tomek tuned up with amplitude when he saw what Zosia was doing.
“Zosia‘s got that thing in her ear!” he blurted.
Whirling around, Jerzy saw Zosia fumble too late with the earpiece. “ZOOOsha,” he scolded. He and Agata both winced, knowing that a heavy ax would soon fall. For an instant Dziadzio Lucjan glared like ice pack-bound walrus. When he saw the earpiece, the two gleaming tusks of his bushy mustache curled behind a low guttural woof—
“Take that damn thing out of your ear!” he barked. “You will not go traipsing about Powązki in a stupid state.”
Zosia unplugged without a quibble.
On that occasion, as on all others, the family had performed a ritual of its own at the last stall before the gate. First, Dziadzio Lucjan spoke like a long-time friend to a prune-face woman who sold flowers there.
“Made it one more year,” he would say … or, “Back again from coal country (meaning Katowice).”
Bunching her heavy coat against the November chill, the blossom peddler‘s bonhomie always coaxed a leathery smile to the old man‘s face: “All times are good when old” … or, “Can‘t shop for flowers with coal dust in your eyes.”
Then, while Babcia Olenka selected the wreath, Jerzy, a rail-thin, bookish sort, would hurry to the candle-seller across the street to buy a box of votive jars. Indelible sights always marked the route along the Avenue of the Meritorious inside the gate: a widow kneeling at the foot of her husband‘s grave, parents whispering to a wide-eyed child, young couples staring into the autumn mists and holding close. Every year Dziadzio Lucjan would say without fail: “Tonight, even the Grim Reaper leaves death‘s door cracked open a bit.”
Babcia Olenka often would add: “Children, this is where we renew our souls.” Instead of gloom the mood was one of subdued celebration in which acts of caring, kindness and love were remembered with deep gratitude: parents who scrimped and saved to send a son or daughter to university, the tender mercies of a caregiver, poets whose vigils in the long dark years of foreign rule gave tonic to the nation‘s soul, and gratitude always for the valor of lives sacrificed on the altar of freedom – lives lost during great revolts, the Nazi-Soviet invasion, the Warsaw Uprising and in the long lonely struggle against godless communism.
Many candles always were lit at the graves of famous Poles: Boleslaw Prus, whose novels of acid realism shocked many at the turn of the Twentieth Century; Wladyslaw Reymont, Nobel laureate in Literature in 1924; Marian Rejewski, the mathematician who broke the German code and shortened the war; Jan Zumbach, who epitomized the courage of Polish pilots in the pivotal Air Battle of Britain; Wladyslaw Szpilman, subject of the Oscar-winning film, “The Pianist”; and Irena Sendlerowa, the Catholic social worker who saved 2,500 Jewish children from the Holocaust.
To the celebrants no spot was more sacred than the large granite cross near the center bearing the simple inscription “Katyń—1940.” It stood as a grating reminder that thousands of Polish officers, prisoners to a man, had been brutally murdered on Stalin‘s command—part of his ruthless plan to liquidate anyone who might resist the Bolshevik system. Toward that end, massive numbers of Poles – lawyers, engineers, physicians, teachers, professors, shopkeepers and elected officials – had been deported to Siberia in 1940-41 where most died from forced labor, starvation and neglect. The deportees all came from “The East” – a vast area the Soviets seized in 1939 and gained permanently at the Yalta Conference in 1945.
To Dziadzio Lucjan and countless other Poles the Katyń marker bore witness to all Stalin‘s crimes against the Poles. He and Babcia Olenka had aunts, uncles and cousins among the deportees who disappeared without a trace. “We‘ll never know where they lie. Stalin did these things,” Dziadzio Lucjan would say, shaking his head.
The old man had first come to Warsaw in 1981 as a member of the coal miner‘s strike committee. Cardinal Glemp, the Primate of Poland, had asked the committee to lead a procession through Powązki to the Katyń Monument on All Saints‘ Day. The experience made such a deep impression on him that he began coming back after Jerzy and Agata began living in Warsaw. He often vowed that the family would keep coming back until “the Russians make a profound apology for what they did.”
In the twilight, with light from the candles flickering on his ruddy face, Dziadzio Lucjan had seemed larger than life to Zosia. If he talked too much, his words could still inspire—especially when he spoke of his generation‘s struggles to restore freedom and independence to the stateless Poles. Over and over he drilled his clan: “Children … know what it means to be a Pole!” Lately Zosia had begun to ask, “What‘s so different about being a Pole? I don‘t get it.” She mentioned this to her mother and got a startled look of dismay.
Jerzy and Agata fretted for days about how to tell Dziadzio Lucjan that Zosia planned to skip the annual trek and go to a Halloween costume party instead.
“He‘ll call it a mortal sin,” Jerzy grimaced.
Agata sighed: “He‘ll call Halloween a barbaric American rite.”
“She‘s confused about the day,” Jerzy mentioned. “I told her Halloween is the last day of October; it has nothing to do with All Saints‘ Day.”
“What did she say?”
“It doesn‘t matter. She thinks Americans have costume parties all the time. They borrowed All Saints‘ Day and changed it into Halloween, according to Zosia.”
“Wonder where she got that from?”
“She also says the Poles need to lighten up … that Americans use their imaginations and don‘t need wander around in creepy cemeteries.”
“I need to have a heart-to-heart talk with her,” Agata said despondently. “She used to confide in me … 'Mom, what do you think about this? What do you think about that?' But not so much any more.”
“Maybe she‘s exposed to too much pop culture.” Recently both parents had begun worrying that Zosia had overdosed on American fare.
Her zest for the language had been obvious as a child: they scattered words like bread crumbs and the eager duckling swam over to peck them up one by one. In her teens Jerzy had invented “Gotcha,” a game in which they tripped each other up with new words, mostly slang heard on American sitcoms. Jerzy had barely closed the door one recent evening when Zosia shouted “juiced.” It stumped her father completely.
“That‘s a 'Gotcha,” she chortled, her bright green eyes dancing. “Like it?” she asked. “Means eager to do something—like learning new words.” As a career translator at the Foreign Ministry, Jerzy was delighted with Zosia‘s excitement but wanted to see her emphasize words that would be more useful academically or professionally. “I guess she comes by it naturally,” he told himself. “But juiced … maybe in the long run it won‘t matter.”
“It‘s that stupid soap opera,” Agata asserted. She had seen 'Dallas‘ when Zosia was a child. Zosia heard about the show during her first year at Poland‘s venerable Jagiellonian University in Krakow when a friend advised,
“You‘ve got to watch it … you‘ve never seen anything like Dallas before.”
During break Zosia and Agata rented a few episodes and watched them, feeling wicked, during the day. In her twenties, Agata had performed bit parts in theater and television, pitching herself as the perfect Tinker Bell. She knew the formula for soaps: upscale lifestyles, steamy “will she-won‘t she” amours, cliffhanger endings and other audience manipulation gimmicks. While Zosia pooh-poohed a lot of it, her mother could tell she was hooked by the glitter. It made her wonder how much of Krakow‘s serious culture was rubbing off. Once or twice she felt like switching the set off and marching Zosia straight to a museum. But the more they watched the more an unsettling image appeared: it was Zosia at toddler stage being charming by a cobra. Zosia kept reaching for the cobra as it weaved back and forth. The scary undulation scene had crawled in the back of Agata‘s mind and no matter how hard she tried couldn‘t be shooed off. Once it appeared, Agata became more and more annoyed with quips Zosia made while watching the show.
“What happened to our great estates?” she would ask. Or, “Poland could use a few ranches like that!”
One expression in particular irritated Agata more than any other: “That‘s soooo American!” Her daughter limned it with conviction even though she barely knew the U.S. at all. It became a mantra soon after slouching “Mike” started coming around. For Mike and Zosia the phrase invoked admiration for the drop dead dramatic: Clint Eastwood saying “Go ahead, make my day” … or Jack Nicholson‘s grand entrance as the Joker in Batman. Such moments caused expectant looks and knowing nods; then the harmonized chant would whistle like steam from a kettle—
“That‘s soooo American!”
An “ugh” mantra also got invoked after unpleasant surprises like the ending in the “Planet of the Apes” sequel when the notorious ape, General Thade, appears in Old Abe‘s chair at the Lincoln Memorial. On these occasions, the kettle hissed—
“That‘s sooooo Mexico!”
On Mike‘s first visit Zosia had introduced her stoop-shouldered friend as “an Americanist,” a portraiture that made her mother huff, “Whatever that means.” Mike had been to America once – on a business trip with his father the year before. It made him something of a guru to a small, somewhat isolated group at Jagiellonian that hung out to discuss American films and music. They were isolated because America‘s golden glow had faded for many students. But not for Zosia: she had joined soon after arriving and Slouching Mike had taken her under wing.
The Americanist had rubbed Agata and Jerzy wrong from the first. For starters he dismissed his given name, “Michal” (MEE-hal). “It‘s too hard,” he proclaimed, “for most Americans to pronounce.” He offered this with a toothy grin and, “Call me Mike.” Such proclamations were issued from a nice leather sofa Zosia‘s parents had just bought. Lolling there in his “I Love NY” cap, Mike schooled Zosia on the esoterica of Corvette transmissions, frothy “Boy Band” tunes and cool American ringtones for mobile phones. Zosia often shagged cokes and Cheese-Bits while her parents bit their tongues. They gave the canon and novitiate a wide birth because it seemed the right thing to do. “She‘s got to try her wings,” her mother would say.
Jerzy blamed the Halloween fiasco entirely on reclining Mike, mainly because their costumes had been posted to him in Zosia‘s care. As the day approached when Dziadzio Lucjan and Babcia Olenka would arrive, he dreaded the thought that his father might see them sporting their gaudy attire. After trying on his costume in Tomek‘s room, Mike had sauntered out with an oafish grin as “Long Arm of the Law.” His ridiculous arms reached down to the shins, and his ears stuck out like a homeless dog‘s below the brim of his over-sized cowboy hat. His ribs were pinched by a white satin vest with a tinsel badge. His plastic pistol lent all the authority of a rodeo clown. Zosia‘s outfit was anything but lame. Her parents were mildly shocked and “Elvis,” their fuzzy mutt, gave an aroused bark when she appeared. There she stood in a “Rhinestone Cowgirl” mini dress that dramatically accentuated her narrow waist and lanky legs. A bolo tie with one large rhinestone dangled “South of the border,” as Mike japed, or alluringly in her cleavage; and a small silver lasso dangled from her belt. How bizarre: a shimmering rockette paired with a gunfighter with arms from the freak mirror at a sideshow.
Their plan was to go to Mike‘s parents‘ flat to change and on to the costume party from there and perhaps do some trick or treating along the way. Tomek begged Zosia to take him along saying: “I can wear my pirate costume … pleeease.” He nagged and nagged until Zosia snapped: “Cut it out Tomek. The party lasts too late and there‘s no way we‘re taking you. That‘s final … got it!”
Agata was so taken aback when she saw the outfit she told Zosia, “Darling, I really don‘t think you can wear that on metro. And to go knocking on strange doors … you really, really shouldn‘t.”
“Oh, Mom, people all know it‘s a spoof. Lots of kids are doing this.”
“What do you think Dziadzio Lucjan will say?”
“He doesn‘t have to see me Mom.”
That thought had already occurred to her mother. The day before, she and Jerzy had discussed breaking the news of Zosia‘s absence to her grandparents over a nice meal from which she – and most certainly the great recliner – would be excused. “Let‘s do obiad,” Jerzy had urged. For centuries obiad had been the big meal of the Polish day, served at two p.m. or even later. In the new nine-to-five workplace, obiad was observed more and more on weekends and special occasions. Few had time to prepare the sumptuous dishes that made tables groan, or to savor a meal in the relaxed manner of old. But Jerzy and Agata knew the grandparents would be pleased no end by an obiad in honor of their once-a-year visit.
“Nothing too fancy,” Jerzy said. “Pierogi, relishes and cheese … some cabbage and meat. His liebfraumilch—that god-awful stuff.”
“Your mother always says, 'A good appetite needs no sauce.‘
“The more I think about it, this could work,” Jerzy enthused.
“And what would the Americanist say?” Agata queried with a laugh.
“Chill out man!” the couple trilled in unison.
And so the obiad was on. Two days before their arrival, Babcia Olenka had called to say she and Dziadzio Lucjan would arrive at Centralna, the main station just before noon and take metro to Kabaty on their own.” She suggested a light lunch on arrival because Dziadzio Lucjan would want to take a short nap before going to Powązki. “We‘ll have something special when you arrive,” Agata promised. By noon that day the meal was almost ready in their seventh floor flat: the dining room table had been set with finest crystal and china; relishes, cheeses and fresh-bought bread were laid out; pierogi wrapped in delicate, paper-thin dough waited to be stir-fried, a meat casserole sat in a baking dish on top the stove, and a bottle of liebfraumilch was chilling in the refrigerator.
An elegantly-framed portrait of Pope John Paul II on the cherry buffet gazed serenely over the reunion table. It bore a personal inscription to Jerzy and Agata arranged by higher-ups at the Ministry.
But alas, domestic peace often is won from many little truces after which the white flag never is raised, contested ground never yielded, control never ceded; misadventure then hovers at the harbor‘s edge, a leering brigand, awaiting one nervous tick, the sideways grin, a slip of the tongue. Whereupon happenstance seizes the rudder with its unruly hand, steers toward spray-sweating rocks rising in the gloomy night; then, in the flicker of an eye the most tranquil sail becomes a desperate run through Drake Passage. With such a twitch the cosmos burps and a blown tire wobbles toward the catastrophic pile-up, a single match sets the raging crown fire, mere water vapor condenses and a mighty hurricane is spawned. Who could have known that such a twitch would come from such an unlikely source – that an aggrieved imp, all but forgotten in the reunion bustle, could cause the winds to billow and the waves to crash? Later his parents would wonder whether happenstance or spite placed their imp on his scooter, the little mutt, Elvis, panting at his side, when Dziadzio Lucjan and Babcia Olenka emerged from the metro bunker. After his grandma‘s warm hug and his grandpa‘s ritual hair-mussing, the angelic one pulled the pin and tossed his grenade …
“Did you hear Zosia‘s not going to Powązki? She says her mind‘s made up … she might not go again … ever.”
Blinking at the above ground light, the old walrus stared in stupefaction.
Pondering the imp‘s alarm, his first thought was, the little twit … babbling away about something he’s gone and made up.
“Are you sure about that son?” he asked, running a small comb through his drooping mustache.
“It‘s all set. She and Mike are going to a Halloween party tonight. Tata told them Halloween was yesterday, but they‘ve got costumes and all. Zosia‘s a cowgirl ...”
“The hell you say,” the old man muttered. Turning quickly to Babcia Olenka he growled, “Come on—let‘s get up there and find out what in tarnation is going on.” A yapping Elvis ran ahead as Dziadzio Lucjan strode off toward the high rise less than a quarter mile away. Babcia Olenka trotted a few steps behind and Tomek trailed behind on his scooter weaving tight but expectant circles.
The old man entered the flat as if he had dynamited the door.
“What‘s this I hear about Zosia?” he bellowed. Jerzy looked up, dumbfounded, from loading a Gorecki symphony into the stereo tray. “I hear Zosia‘s backing out,” his father added threateningly. Babcia Olenka seemed stricken and Tomek gaped from behind her, barely visible. Elvis yapped nervously at Dziadzio Lucjan and the noise brought Agata hurrying in from the kitchen.
“Stop that damn dog,” the old man ordered.
“Tata please … be calm,” Jerzy quavered ruefully. Just then Agata caught sight of her skulking son – “You little devil. You told him didn‘t you?”
“They saw me down at the tube … I thought they knew,” he parried suspiciously.
The battle was thus enjoined. Agata‘s accusation of Tomek told the old man all he needed to know: indeed Zosia did not plan to go to Powązki; a family tradition broken not once in memory was imperiled.
“Just tell me one thing: where‘s Zosia?” the old man pressed her parents. “I want to hear exactly what she‘s got to say for herself.”
But Zosia had long since taken flight, anticipating that her grandfather would make precisely this demand. By late morning she had gone to Mike‘s parents‘ flat and dropped off their costumes. From there they had taken the tram to Galeria Mokotow, a large American-style shopping center, to while away the afternoon before going out for the Halloween party.
“Tata we think Zosia‘s gone shopping.”
“Is she coming back or not?”
“We‘re just not sure.”
“This beats anything I‘ve ever heard,” the old man foamed. “You‘ve lost all control over your own daughter.”
“Lucjan, please don‘t say things like that,” Babcia Olenka blurted. “You have to calm yourself. You need to go in and relax before we go out.”
“Relax my eye – not when we‘ve got a mess like this to deal with.”
Still wiping her hands on her apron, Agata shook her head and started back to the kitchen just as Tomek piped up …
“Let me go find Zosia.”
His mother whirled around with a sharp rebuke: “You‘ve done quite enough young man.”
But the old man had locked on and wouldn‘t let go. That he was a fighter anyone who knew him had not the slightest doubt. He had spent his life in the Silesian coal mines, starting as an electrician stringing lights in tunnels. The Wujek strike became the defining moment of his life. Nine coal miners were shot and killed there on December 16, 1981 only three days after the government declared Martial Law and made mass arrests of Solidarity leaders. At Wujek a brawny Lucjan had served on the strike committee and set up its main radio station which government jammers repeatedly cut off the air. Each time he was able to get the station back in operation – often within less than an hour – using wire for the antennae, nine volt batteries and other simple equipment. His courage had earned him a three month prison stay in the spring of 1982. The local papers had mentioned all this at his recent retirement. Who could blame him if he waggled his tail feathers a bit?
Agata‘s rebuke of her son might have ended it, but Dziadzio Lucjan was determined to see it through.
“You made one helluva mistake letting Zosia start down this American road. Whoever heard of Halloween in Poland? If she had her way some Elvis Presley freak would be parachuting into Powązki tonight. Mark my words, she‘s chasing a rainbow and we‘re going to lose her …”
When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, relaxed labor market rules and low wages at home had triggered an exodus. In the years that followed, rising Polish wages brought a few back but most were gone for good. The old man had gotten it fixed in his mind that Zosia would go too.
“Going to America is not just a whim Tata,” Jerzy said soothingly. “Zosia is very serious about getting an MBA.” To this the old man bared his leftist fangs, “MBA … what the hell good is that? Something else Wall Street conjured up to replace honest work. She needs a real job. Become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer – not someone who conjures up bubbles that wreck other peoples‘ lives.”
As the barrage continued, his shell-shocked family stood by waiting for it to subside. Suddenly a flush came over Agata that swept away her customary restraint. Her spine stiffened just as it had on center stage when she blew the Golden Horn, the Polish nation‘s symbolic call to arms.
“Tata, Zosia is now eighteen,” she said sternly. “She is not a child or an adult, but she is old enough to explore certain things on her own. Let her have her little rainbow. None of us know where it might lead. We certainly know Halloween has no place here. But if we don‘t let her try her wings, how will Zosia ever know what All Saints‘ Day really means – or what it means to be Polish either?”
There was nothing more to be said, and the old man seemed to admit it by running the comb through his gleaming tusks once again. He was somewhat pacified but not completely mollified either. The domestic peace, as fragile as the flowers of Powązki, was restored; they consumed the obiad in an atmosphere of unsettled truce. No one knew for sure whether intervention by the imp had been a random twitch or a sharp stick precisely poked.
That night, Jerzy put his book down and turned in bed toward Agata—”I thought about what you said earlier. Do you think Tata gets upset because deep down he‘s afraid Zosia won‘t be Polish enough?”
Snuggling under Jerzy‘s arm, Agata thought for a moment and said: “I think her confidence worries him because he doesn‘t know where it might lead.” As an afterthought, Jerzy added: “Thank God Tata didn‘t cross paths with the Americanist.”
Turning out the light, Agata smiled inside before wryly telling Jerzy: “I doubt that slouching Mike‘s shelf life will last to next Halloween. She won‘t be juiced about him much longer.”