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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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In Poland

Max Rosenbloom, '32

The Magpie, June 1931, v. 32, n. 2, p. 75.

Unable to linger in Czechoslovakia, we boarded an international train for Poland. Every stop in our tour thus far had been ex itinere; our destination was an insignificant village in Poland, called Rohatyn. Now we were headed there on an express train; but since no expresses stopped at that town, we were obliged to alight from ours at a town called Chodorow to change to a local. At the station we were informed that the last local for the day had already departed, and that the next one would leave on the following morning. But we could not wait that long. The only other mode of conveyance was the wagon.

The wagon was the taxi of Poland, except in the very large cities. For long distance transportation a certain type of wagon was employed, similar to a hay-wagon, but composed of interwoven, strong vine branches. There was but one seat, and this was for the driver. Passengers were obliged to sit on straw placed on the floor of the vehicle. This seat was not in the least comfortable for such a long distance as our journey covered; but no more suitable means of travel was available, and besides, it could have been worse.

Therefore, we obtained a wagoner. First, he drove us to his own stables to change horses, for he could not compel the same one that he had been using all day to pull the wagon on the long drive. A fresh animal was attached to the wagon. The sky was becoming darker every minute. The driver wanted to start before nightfall. We had proceeded but a short distance when I noticed that behind us, racing wildly to overtake us and neighing fiercely, was a colt—as young a one as I had ever seen. When it caught up to us, the driver stopped the wagon, and, swearing in Polish, jumped from the vehicle and commenced to hurl stones at the little animal, but this act did not even cause it to budge. He then apologized to us and explained that the colt had escaped from the stall to join his parent and he, the driver, had thrown the missiles at the animal to chase him back.

As it was too late to return the colt to the stable, it had to be permitted to trot along behind us. I enjoyed looking at the animal, but my joy was short-lived, for I remembered that this was to be a long trip and the colt would have to run the entire way. I gazed at it for hours at a time. Then, to make matters worse, rain began to fall. As there was no cover on the wagon, we used horse-blankets to protect our bodies. But this was not the thing that troubled me; it was the little creature running behind us in the slippery rain. In spite of the bumps and squeaks, I fell asleep.

When I awoke on the following morning, the rain had ceased. Then I thought of the colt and turned about to see it trotting along at the same pace it had used through the night. I believed that there was something supernatural about the entire affair. The driver had not slept at all, but did not seem the least bit tired.

* * *

The house was small and typically rural. There were two bedrooms, a kitchen, and an attic. The rooms had the bare ground for a floor. Almost all the houses in the town used a similar means of thrift. Of course, there was no grass. The ground was very hard and was swept with a broom made by tying together a number of twigs. Water was frequently sprinkled on the ground to prevent it from cracking.

* * *

In the center of the village was the market. This was a big lot on which were numerous wagons, all filled to the brim with big red cherries. Around the edges of the lot were peddlers selling pots and pans, but excluding these, the cherry vendors composed the entire market. If one wished to buy some of this fruit, he had to bring his own paper. This was so, no matter what one bought. Once I purchased a pound of butter that was wrapped in a big leaf.

This village had been a moderately large, flourishing community before the war. But during the war a very important battle between the Russians and the Austrians had been waged in the vicinity. The Russians defeated the Austrians. The latter retreated and the victors followed them. Rohatyn was one of the towns that they passed. They burned, or in some other manner destroyed, everything that they beheld. The poor inhabitants wept for joy when the invaders finally evacuated the village, leaving savage destruction in their wake. The town was never rebuilt, for the newly-established republic was very poor.

Wherever I went, I saw deserted houses, riddled with shell holes and about to collapse. It was a depressing sight. There was one barber in the town who had a small shop. One day I went to him for a hair-cut. All his mirrors were cracked, in some, only pieces remained. I asked the reason for this condition. He answered that the Russians had broken them when they had invaded the village. He was too poor to purchase new ones, and the customers did not mind.

Across the road from us was a house in which a shoe-maker dwelt. The house appeared like a barn from the outside, because of its straw roof and scarcity of windows. It was similar to the pictures we often see of the huts of African tribes. However, the interior was quite comfortable.

* * *

On Sundays, the inhabitants of the little town would all dress up, though they had no place to go. They all did the same thing—walked to the railroad and back. The men would tip their hats to the women as they passed. I didn't wear a hat and so didn't get the exercise.

On weekdays, the boys spent their time playing soccer. The adults went about their business. What amused me most was the manner in which most of the peasants were clothed. They were always barefoot, but their heads were heavily covered with many yards of cloth, resembling turbans.

As for the young men, all that seemed to worry them was where and how they were going to obtain the money for their next package of cigarettes. They smoked profusely and often had meetings, when they would sit on benches and talk over war experiences. I listened to many horrible, though fascinating, tales. I noticed that one of these men had extreme difficulty while speaking. When he spoke, the words that he uttered came out of his mouth as though his tongue were caught between his teeth. I asked my uncle, who was with me, why the man spoke that way. Everyone became quiet while he informed me that I would not understand. But that only served to make me more curious, and so I insisted. The man bade my uncle go ahead and tell me, as he didn't mind. He assented.

He explained that this man had been very young at the start of the war—about seventeen. His father had been killed in the first campaign against the Russians. His mother had become ill and he alone was obliged to take care of and support the other children in the family, who were all still very young. Then he himself was summoned to report for service. He couldn't fling from his mind the thoughts of what would become of his own stricken family while he was gone. Suppose he was killed in the war! The thought struck him a powerful blow and he became bewildered. He grew temporarily mad. What was he to do? With a curse, he swore that he would not be compelled to fight. He was frantic, until one day when he was alone, and when his disordered intellect was in a deep state of coma, he grasped a hand-saw about six inches in length and severed all of his teeth at the gums!

Of course, he was then free. A man with such a serious disorder was unfit to serve in the army. He and his family were saved, but his own life was ruined. He could neither eat nor speak normally.

Every one had been very quiet during the narrative. He himself had had his eyes shut, and I saw tears. I was curious to know what his mouth looked like. I asked him to show it to me, supposing that I would only see sawed-off teeth. He hesitated. Then he opened it.... I screamed! My uncle took me home crying. I was ill for a week after the experience. I will remember the sight of that mouth all my life. Words cannot describe the seemingly fantastic picture, but just to give an idea, I'll say that many bluish veins ran from the gums to other parts of the mouth. It was horrible, unbelievable.

We remained in Poland about two months. Then it was time to leave. But we were not yet leaving Europe; not by any means. We left Poland on a train bound for old Vienna.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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