I am fascinated with my earliest conscious childhood memory. As l am getting older, images and impressions come back to me from so long ago that they seem to be almost like a fairy-tale.
I was born and spent my childhood in the Old Castle in Żywiec. This building, monumental and beautiful in its proportions, keeps recurring in my memory like an obsessive dream. The Old Castle is situated in an extremely picturesque park composed very exquisitely of a great variety of trees, shrubs, flowers and grass. I see white narcissuses in the green grass bathed in the spring sunshine. The grass has a peculiar colour: from last year’s unknown brownish sward sprout blades which in the sun radiate the green colour impossible to reproduce even using the best paint in the world. Against the ephemeral greenness of the grass the narcissus seems to be a cosmos of delicacy and good taste. In a more neglected section of the park, away from the Old Castle, l would find jonquils (narcissus jonquilla) alluring one with their yellow colour. Flowers in hand, l return to the Old Castle whose structure is impenetrable and mysterious. The facade of the Old Castle in no way presages the sophisticated colonnade and arcades of the courtyard. Part of the arcade is basking in a dazzling sun, the rest is immersed in shadow. Narcissuses in hand, l enter the delightful part of the shadow, my parents’ flat. Crossing the border between the sunny and shadowed part of the courtyard, l hear a mysterious rattle. It is not coming from the Old Castle or the Park. The rattle rattles and gurgles. The sun is shining. There are some clouds in the sky. In the shady side of the Old Castle l climb the stairs and can hear music played on the gramophone. The disquieting music drowns out the gurgling and droning l have never heard before. The mysterious music is forced to retreat by the persistent rattle. My beloved Mother opens the door of the flat, l can see a huge room with white curtains. Coming out of the shade, l am dazzled by the windows which despite the curtains shine like search-lights. Holding the bunch of narcissuses in my hand l come up to the chest of drawers with two gypsum — cast figures of cats a white one and a black one sitting on top. There is no vase there, so l put the bunch of flowers on the chest between the figures of cast. The mysterious music reaches the finale, l can hear singing and rhythmic kettle-drum beats, the choir reaches crescendo.
At the same moment the rattle, gurgling, droning bears fruit. It turns into a whistle. It isn’t a small whistle, but a great, a very great one. The whistle turns into a terrible explosion which lasts for a fraction of second. Then there is silence. Complete silence that is ringing in my ears. l can’t recollect when an intervention by supernatural forces takes place, l seem to hear music, see the bunch of narcissuses on the chest and suddenly it all disappears. l wonder if it disappeared before the whistle or after it. Before, during or after the explosion. The gypsum – cast cats, white and black, will have disappeared before the explosion, while the whistle lasted and the flying Valkyries were singing.
It thundered, it whistled, it went bang. The bunch of flowers, the two figures of cats, one white and one black, are no longer on the chest.
But persistent music continues. It is so obtrusive that like a cliche it sticks in my consciousness.
I smell an awful stench.
Now, fifty years later, l regard that event as a natural intervention by supernatural forces. The mysterious rattle, bubbling and gurgling were sounds emitted by a funny Russian bi — plane of the cuckooroosnick type that dropped a bomb on the Old Castle. The Old Castle was converted to the local headquarters of German troops — It was the only bomb dropped on Żywiec during the Second World War. The music was an enigma. Years later l guessed that it was “The Valkyries” from Richard Wagner^ tetralogy played on the gramophone by some lover of the Nibelungens.
A bomb splinter of the size of a pretty big loaf of bread with its crumb and part of the crust torn out flew in through the green door l had just passed through, destroyed the cat figures and the gorgeous bunch of narcissuses and quite noiselessly got embedded in the feather — bed on my parent’s bed daintily made by Mother.
The high temperature of the splinter made the feathers burn and l associate that stench with the laudable efforts of the Soviets and Allies in the Second World War.
The only bomb dropped on Żywiec by a Soviet bi-piane, whose shadow l saw passing over the grass outside the window, destroyed my beloved cats and the bunch of narcissuses l had patiently gathered, and presented me with the unforgettable stench of smouldering feathers.
Now l know that the bomb splinter must have missed my head by millimetres, but l felt no blast or heat. It all took a tiny fraction of a second.
The whistle and explosions was followed by silence and the first sound l heard was Valkyrie’s laughter.
In the Second World War almost fifty million people were killed, thousands of towns were reduced to ruins, over the fertile fields of Europe first rolled German tanks and then American and Soviet ones, the latter followed by horse — drawn wagons driven by men with Asian faces.
The Old Castle housed a Soviet headquarters and from dawn till dusk wooden boxes would be knocked together in which to take away the loot: the Habsburg’s furniture, grand pianos and china.
Fighting Europe suffered well — known material and spiritual losses. The greatest loss in Żywiec was the fact that one invader was replaced by another. But while the German soldiers billeted together with their headquarters on Habsburg’s Old castle were clean and noisy but listened to Wagner”s music, the Soviet soldiers, mostly Asians, were gruff, sullen, smoked reeky shag and from early morning regaled themselves on moonshine vodka. One day, by order of their podgy general, on whose chest like armour hung rows of medals, we had to move out of our flat in the Old Castle. The vast, brightly lit room, from which my pats sitting on the chest quite mysteriously disappeared and the bunch of magnificent narcissuses vanished into thin air, was taken over by provident homunculi and turned into a store for grand and cottage pianos, patiently awaiting their turn to be packed in wooden boxes and shipped by platform car beyond the Ural Mountains into the splendid steppes of Kazakhstan. As a result of the Second World War started by completely irresponsible Hitler and Stalin, l lost two beautiful gypsum – cast figures of cats and a bunch of narcissuses I had gathered with my own hands.
I came to the conviction that a material object can disappear, vanish in a twinkling, but as a rule attendant upon it is a persistent stench.
In my conviction the victor of the second World War is Wagner i.e. his music. After many years, having understood that The Valkyries, was the musical background for the disappearance of cats and narcissuses, l am coming to the conviction that it all must have happened to infect me with the majesty of the Tetratolog’s sound.
The real victor of the herculean struggles of Europe, Asia and America remains Richard Wagner with his mysterious and very noisy music.
written by night, 25 February 1995
Translated by Henryk Holzhausen