Saturday, February 14, 2009

DBTL 14: The Wild Wild East

Lomza, Polish Commonwealth
12 August 1944

Lt. Karol Wojtyła of the Polish cavalry was having dinner in the officers' mess when he saw his friend Wojciech Jaruzelski amble in. Wojtyła waved the younger officer over.

"Where have you been hiding out?" Wojtyła asked.

"I was visiting with Anna," Jaruzelski confessed.

Wojtyła chuckled. "That's the third time this week. Are you two becoming an item?"

"Not if her father has anything to say about it," said Jaruzelski.

"Ah, forbidden fruit," Wojtyła said knowingly. "How does the rest of her family feel about you?"

"Her brother Stanisław likes me well enough," said Jaruzelski. "In fact, I spent the afternoon with both of them."

"Providing cover for both yourself and Anna," Wojtyła commented. "Very sound tactics. I've taught you well, young squire. Was Stanisław actually present at all during his sojourn with the two of you?"

"The whole time," Jaruzelski said with a small sigh. "He might like me, but he insists on observing the proprieties."

"Such is life," said Wojtyła.

"Mind you," said Jaruzelski, "there were compensations. Stanisław is a veritable font of gossip. If it's happening anywhere within fifty kilometers of Lomza, Stanisław knows about it. For instance, did you know that the Koczanskis are planning to move to Białystok?"

"You don't say," said Wojtyła dryly.

"According to Stanisław, Andrzej Koczanski has been hired as a machinist's assistant at the Garden. Good money they pay at the Garden, Koczanski is a lucky man. Stanisław also told me that the Nasos are planning to torch a wheelwright's shop in Yedwabne tonight."

Now Wojtyła frowned. "And how would Stanisław know what the Nasos are planning?"

"He keeps his ear to the ground, that's all," said Jaruzelski. "He knows people."

"People wearing black shorts?" said Wojtyła, his frown deepening.

"Well now," Jaruzelski said, "I'm sure he's not a Naso himself."

"I should hope not," said Wojtyła. "What's the point in going to all the trouble of beating the Brownshirts if they're just going to turn up again in our back yards? Have you told Colonel Lasky what the Nasos are planning?"

"What could he do about it?" Jaruzelski pointed out. "If he sends some troops to Yedwabne, the Nasos will just keep out of sight, and wait until tomorrow night to torch the Jew's shop." The younger man shrugged. "It's not our problem."

Jaruzelski continued to chatter, but Wojtyła heard none of it. He was turning over his friend's words in his mind. The worst thing was, Jaruzelski was right. Colonel Lasky could send a hundred men to Yedwabne and accomplish nothing.

But Wojtyła wasn't ready to dismiss the Nasos. Like many young Poles, especially in the Army, he had always idolized Marshal Jósef Piłsudski. When Piłsudski said that anti-Semitism had no place in a great nation, Wojtyła took his words to heart.

One man could not change the hatred in millions of hearts. However, Wojtyła realized, one man could act effectively where a hundred men would be helpless. And just like that, Karol Wojtyła knew what he had to do.

Yedwabne, Polish Commonwealth
12 - 13 August 1944

Moshe Abramowitz was awakened in the dead of night by the sound of voices and the smell of smoke.

"Hey, Jew-boy, rise and shine! We got a little present for you!"

Abramowitz exhanged a glance with his wife Manya, likewise awakened by the tumult outside their shop. The wheelwright looked down from the window of his bedroom to the growing crowd outside.

No, he thought to himself. Crowd is the wrong word. Mob would be more like it.

At least a dozen men, most of them wearing Naso uniforms or armbands, most of them holding torches aloft.

"Come on out, Jew-boy!"

"Stay here," he told Manya. Quickly donning a pair of boots, Abramowitz hurried down the stairs to his shop, and out into the street to confront the mob.

"What do you want?" he said.

"We want you to get the hell out of Poland, you Yid bastard!" bellowed one of the torch-bearing men, a heavyset man in full Naso regalia. The others chorused their agreement. "We'll give you one minute for a head start, then we take care of your shop!" Another chorus of agreement, accompanied by enthusiastic waving of torches.

A shot rang out, and the ringleader's torch was torn out of his grip.

"Do you think you've got enough men to handle one Jew?" a voice rang out. "After all, there's only fourteen of you!"

As one man, Abramowitz and the Nasos turned to see the dark figure of a man silhouetted against the flank of a white horse. He was dressed in black from head to foot, and his face was hidden by a mask. Both hands held pistols, and both pistols were pointed at the Nasos.

The ringleader's words were threatening, but Abramowitz could hear the fear lurking beneath them. "Butt out, stranger. This is none of your concern."

The masked man took a step forward, and the Nasos shrank back.

"I've made it my concern," the dark figure said in a voice that was low and menacing. "My first shot was a warning. The next one will be fatal. If any one of you thinks he's man enough to stand against someone who can fight back, go ahead and try. Otherwise, you'd better all crawl back under whatever rocks you came from."

Abramowitz could see sweat running down the ringleader's forehead. The frightened Naso glanced to his men, but none of them seemed inclined to test the stranger's claim.

The masked man took another step forward, and one of the Nasos broke and ran. He was quickly joined by the rest of the mob, until only the ringleader remained.

"You may have won this round," the Naso snarled, "but we'll be back."

"The next shot," the stranger repeated, "will be fatal." He pointed one of his pistols at the Naso, and the uniformed thug turned and ran after his men.

Abramowitz watched the last Naso pelt away, then he turned to face the masked man. "They'll be back," he said.

"So will I," said the man in black, as he holstered his pistols. Hanging a small object from the sign above the shop's door, the stranger turned away. A sharp whistle brought his mount to his side, and he vaulted effortlessly into the saddle. As the horse reared back, the rider cried out, "Hajo, Argent! Away!" and a moment later he was gone in a cloud of dust.

Manya emerged from the shop to join her husband. "Who was that masked man?" she wondered.

Moshe Abramowitz shook his head. "I don't know." Taking down the object the rider had hung from his sign, he added, "But he left behind this silver cross."

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