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American Creative Nonfiction

As the fourth son of a fourth son, by the time I met Pop Pop, he was a fragile old man, bent at the waist, eyesight and hearing failing. My memories of him are limited to the seven years he and I occupied this earth together, but I remember very clearly the nights when he would sit by my bed and tell me tales of the Old Country in a thick accent and broken English. I make this point because it’s with this memory in mind that I tell you about the day I found his old computer, which housed treasures from the past and secrets I'm sure he thought had long been forgotten. 


It was stashed at the bottom of a steamer trunk where Pop Pop kept the family heirlooms and keepsakes, most of which dated from before the War. The computer was an odd find among threadbare Polish quilts and framed yellow photographs. It sat silently under an archaic Torah, its pages crumbling from years of disuse. 


As I pulled the computer out of the trunk and set it on my desk, I discovered the hunk of junk was a Commodore 64, named for its 64 kilobytes of RAM. With a rubbery keyboard, blocky graphics, and distinctive beeps, the computer had far less processing power than a cheap burner phone I could buy with pocket change from a convenience store. As a child of the 90’s, I was used to computers with graphics and pictures and video on demand. I knew Pop Pop’s computer was state-of-the-art in its day, but the day I found it, it was as if I had happened upon secret cave drawings or Egyptian hieroglyphics. Though the hard drive didn’t have much on it, what it did have was Pop Pop’s authentic life history, saved in PaperClip, an ancient word processing program. Useless in its archaic form, I googled how to export the 1’s and 0’s to something legible, saving the files in SEQ format, then converting them to Word.


I opened the first file and began to read. I was familiar with our family's legacy—or so I’d thought. I could recite verbatim the accepted story of how Pop Pop met Mimaw and how brightly the sun shone when Uncle Solomon, my grandparents' oldest son, was born. He was the first of our family to enter the world in a country not named Poland. What I didn’t know—what hadn’t been shared—were the stories of Pop Pop escaping the Warsaw Ghetto, and the real story of how he met Mimaw. Every grandchild thinks their grandfather is a hero, but mine, an old man with a broken-down body, really was.  


I decided to print out his stories on the old dot matrix printer he kept in his garage. Watching the printer head swish back and forth, I smiled as the fusty old man I knew disappeared into a swashbuckling scoundrel.


From the framed pictures in the trunk, it was clear Pop Pop had always been tall and striking. Celebrating his 90th birthday, he sported a full head of hair, his black curls frosted into silver. His hazel eyes, more gold than green, were framed by long, curly lashes. He was blessed with a full mouth, high cheekbones, broad shoulders, and a narrow waist he kept trim by walking dozens of miles each day. Mimaw often said he was the most handsome man she had ever met. 


Luckily, some wives of German soldiers thought so, too. 


After being forced into the ghetto, Pop Pop knew the Nazis would deliberately limit food supplies to weaken the Jews. Savvy and shrewd, he knew he needed to establish a smuggling network if he were to feed the starving inhabitants trapped behind the Nazi barricades. As leaving the ghetto meant death or worse, Pop Pop used a charm offensive to convince fraus and fräuleins to assist him in his noble endeavor.


I’m not sure how long I had allotted to cleaning out Grandpa's house, but I quickly understood it would take much longer than I had imagined. His stories leaped off the page and kept my attention without fail. I wasn’t surprised by how easily he convinced the local women to assist him, but I was amazed at how this man, whom I only knew as Pop Pop, was able to charm the men as well.


He pleaded with local religious leaders to do their Christian duty and to be Good Samaritans, he blackmailed errant husbands and duplicitous politicians over their secret, tawdry lives, and he bribed police officers with money he’d pickpocketed from Nazi guards. Before long he had regular supplies of bread and fish flowing into the ghetto, keeping men, women, and children alive—all who most assuredly would have perished without his help.


The fact I was least prepared to uncover was my grandfather’s friendship with one of the guards. In the beginning, the relationship seemed as if it mirrored the others—transactional with a purpose. In short order, however, I could tell the two men had become friends. I found it hard to imagine how a Jewish prisoner and a German guard could become close, but through the words hidden in the computer hidden in the trunk, that conclusion was inescapable.  


To add to the intrigue, the guard's name was Viktor—just like mine.  Was I named after this German guard?  The more I learned about both of them, the more I hoped it was so.


A young man like Pop Pop, Viktor had grown sick at heart over the barbaric treatment of the Jews. Viktor had lost faith in Hitler and the Fatherland along with his fear of his fellow Nazis. Pop Pop wrote that Viktor often said, “There are a lot of things in life worth living for, but the important things in life are worth dying for.”


As Viktor delivered his final food parcel to Pop Pop, he suggested that the time to escape the Warsaw Ghetto was imminent. Rumors ran rife of a Jewish uprising. This did not surprise Viktor, as he had helped arm the Jews who eventually rioted in a futile attempt to prevent the continued deportations to Nazi-run death camps.


“We must leave now,” Viktor said to Pop Pop. “One of my girlfriends runs a nightclub in Berlin. It’s 500 miles due west, but no one will expect us to run into the heart of Germany. We will be safer there if we catch the morning train.” 


“No trains,” Pop Pop replied. “I will never set foot on one. Let’s steal motorcycles instead.” 


As I read Pop Pop’s words about the escape, I was struck by how he described the night. He remarked about how amazing the Polish landscape looked bathed in moonlight, how peaceful and serene the cool breeze felt. I had to imagine it was his remarkable ability to see beauty in a world that was so awful that gave him the strength to defy the Germans and put his life on the line for others. 


“I expected to die,” Pop Pop wrote. “Not just that night, but every night since I had been forced into the ghetto.”


The words were jarring about a time decades before I existed. I couldn’t help thinking about how unlikely it was that I would be in America, the fourth son of a fourth son of a man who should have died in Poland or Germany. 


Pop Pop didn’t because of Viktor.


Viktor had been killed in Poznań when the two men had come across a squad of German troops separated from their battalion.  


The Nazi soldiers who the two men encountered were low ranking, with no one to give them orders. They didn’t ask my grandfather or Viktor any questions before pulling out their lugers and pointing at the escapees, two apparent deserters dressed as civilians riding on motorcycles. 


At a time when a wise man would have run, Viktor turned his bike towards the soldiers and drove directly towards them. The memory of Viktor’s bullet-riddled body falling off the BMW at the soldier’s feet appeared to have haunted Pop Pop throughout his life. Viktor’s death was the last thing my grandfather saw before making his way to safety in the woods, his eyes blinded by tears. 


“Viktor not only gave me my life—but the love of my life,” Pop Pop wrote. “When I see him in the next world, I don’t know which to thank him for more.”


What came next was the part of the story he had sanitized for me all those years ago when he tucked me into bed and told me stories about how he met Mimaw. I wasn’t mad about the white lie—I was just glad I learned the truth. 


Mimaw was neither Jewish nor Polish. It was true she was one of Viktor’s girlfriends, a showgirl who strutted and sashayed across the stage, her sultry body teasing rows of Nazi officers. When Pop Pop met her backstage to obtain his forged credentials, his jaw dropped. Covered in road filth from head to boot, he stank of mud, blood, and smoke. Mimaw was bedecked in white silk and rhinestones—and smelled of vanilla and spring air. She broke into a smile when she saw him, embracing him affectionately, ruining her dress in the process.


This surprised him, as Pop Pop had expected tears. He’d informed her of Viktor’s death as she was about to take a curtain call. She waved the stage manager away, wanting to know everything, and then she stoically walked towards center stage to take a bow. Her strength matched that of Pop Pop's and in an instant, I loved her even more.


Wiping my own eyes, I folded the dot-matrix printer paper in half, tucking it back into the trunk. There I found a large manila envelope that I had neglected to see earlier. Taking out the envelope, I undid the clasp and slid out a black and white glossy photograph of Mimaw on stage, festooned with ostrich feathers and long black gloves. I turned the picture over to see it had been kissed with red lipstick, faded over time. “To my Liebchen,” Mimaw had written in her spidery scrawl. 


Along with the photograph, the envelope contained a set of keys for a Zündapp KS 750 motorcycle—used primarily by the German military. It occurred to me that Pop Pop did not procure motorcycles from peaceful farmers. He stole them directly from the Nazis themselves. 


Smiling at Pop Pop besting Nazis and marrying German showgirls, I clicked through the other computer files to read more about Pop Pop’s adventures, ones seemingly bigger than one lifetime or a Commodore 64 could possibly hold. 

February 07, 2024 23:15

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5 comments

Brittany Jung
22:59 Feb 12, 2024

I genuinely loved reading your story and the perspective it offered. It is beautiful to discover the past and how truly impactful those who came before us have been. Well done.

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John Rutherford
11:53 Feb 12, 2024

Interesting story.

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Tom Skye
15:47 Feb 11, 2024

This was a beautiful read. Crazy times people experienced! I also had a commodore 64 growing up so there was an added element of nostalgia for me. Great work. Thanks for sharing

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Alexis Araneta
04:43 Feb 08, 2024

Oh, Christina! This was lovely. Indeed, sometimes, it just takes one person to change the course of history. Your descriptions were really beautiful. Great job !

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Mary Bendickson
01:35 Feb 08, 2024

So often we make the mistake of thinking elderly people never lived as daring young people. Thanks for liking my 'Another Brick in the Wall'.

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