The red-haired Polish teacher, Kasia, stood up at the front of the room in chic white pants with the white chalk in her hands. Today we would talk about food, she said. Pomodory: tomatoes; ziemniaki: potatoes. Zupa szczawiowa: sorrel soup. Kurchak: chicken.
Even cooked, kurchak takes the verb of living things: things that are—or once were—living.
That verb form is called zywotny, verbs of the living. And there is niezywotny, verbs of the never-living, of the inanimate world: rocks, plastic cups, linoleum floors like those under my feet in the boxy 1970s building. Kasia wrote the two words up on the board in her cursive.
I felt old to be in a classroom with my ever more wrinkled hands folded on the rickety desktop that stuck up from the side of a metal chair. Sometimes dreams are born early, in the inner ear, but happen only later. My father always told me Polish was not a practical language, as he listened to my grandmother Sabti speak to my mother in words he couldn’t understand.
“Zycia,” Kasia proclaimed, turning to face us with a serious expression, the five undergraduates in the room and me, seated at our portable desk-chair seats, pronouncing the word for “life.” Our desks slightly angled down as the screws had loosened over time, so we supported our Polish books on our knees.
“Zycia,” repeated Kasia. “The root is zyć.” That’s pronounced zitch.
To live, to last, to exist. Derivative words unspooled on the board. “Spozyć”—to eat. Consume. “Pozyvić się”—that sounds like pozivitch-shem, the wiggle under the e meaning you say the m with your closed mouth in the shape of a kiss—to nourish oneself. All these words aligned in a vertical column on the board over the erased traces of Russian words from the previous class.
Pozyvić się also means: to survive. To live, in other words, you have to eat. All the words are related. Pozywienie is food, the life root so visible within the word. Sklep spozywcym: a grocery store, with its zyw, its pulse, its life root tapping down through the everyday world of shopping.
In other words, Kasia was saying, as if whispering it directly to me alone, her red hair shining as if in proof, her yoga-toned muscles flexed: people in this language are still alive. Know it: Poland today is full of people who have never stopped eating, consuming, spending, using up; they shop at grocery stores, today, this very day. I sat in the hard-edged chalk-dust classroom with these five spring-blooming kids, while even now people were laying down their złotys, crinkled bills on counters in grocery stores, and cooking in kitchens. It struck me oddly just then that it could after all be so, all those phrases echoing in my ears. There are people in Poland alive. Zywotny, niezywotne: the living and the not living. From within the zyć life root words that clarity rose up like a slap.
Of course, we all knew. I knew, my mother and my grandmother, Sabti, knew it, how could it not be: you could read about it in the news. At the same time it had always been as if, on some other, truer lifeline, Poland simply ended on the day that Sabti and my four-year-old mother Stefciu left it with so many other Jews who had survived the war by hiding in plain sight, left it there just like that, telling no one where they were going, the false papers stuck in the décolleté of Sabti’s blouse and the other real papers stuck under the train compartment’s plush carpet. That was just after “liberation” from the German occupation by the Russians in 1944. “Taking the train to go skiing in the mountains,” Sabti had told her tiny daughter with the curly blond hair that had helped save them, the pretty little face and ease with languages, and little Stefciu asking her over and over, “But, Mommy, where are the skis?”
Sabti answered, “Don’t worry, they will take care of the skis when we get there.”
In some other, truer part of the multiverse it was clear to me, as it always seemed when Sabti spoke of that place of her childhood, that Poland ended on the day their train pulled out of Łodz station, its wide iron arches echoing those of the Gare du Nord where Sabti and Stefcia would disembark in Paris. Croissants and coffees would appear as if in a movie, and here were the bustling travelers and a mother and little child with their one small suitcase, plus, inevitably, three or four pekeles, bags and purses, snacks, supplies, pozywienie—if we may say so, the food of survivors. Jam and pierogi, and later I would hear about the strict French schoolteachers, who would go on to scold little Stefcia about her habits with food: when she hid her crusts of bread under the cafeteria armoire at her boarding school so she wouldn’t have to eat them, obscured them until they were discovered when the rats came.
“Mommy, why am I not allowed to study the Catechism?” she asked Sabti when she was studying at the École Sainte Marie in Valmondois. She got sick there, so sick that Sabti and Saba had to bring her home from the boarding school, to their pension, to their little hotel room in Paris. In other words, the whole scene, the whole world, the story would pick up again in Paris, under the bright lights—and Poland would go dark, dark. Black and unmoving like a rock. Inanimate as a pile of dirt.
Then, with teacher Kasia’s fluid script, for the first time it would wake up again—like a child stretching out after a long dream in the car, yawning, reaching her hands to the sky and opening her eyes. The child would ask right away for something to eat. Poland just so would wake up once again into my world, and turned out after all to have been in some sense alive all along, in a way that could not stop surprising me every time I heard the words: zyvotny, the verbs of living; zyv: the actions of life. People shopped in grocery stores, struggled, received rations, exchanged on black markets in the Soviet days—still, nourishing, lasting, enduring, with their potatoes, tomatoes, and every possible kind of soup. Chickens first alive and laying eggs and then in cutlets. People eating, things eaten. You could meet them, and you could learn what they ate, how they lived, lived, and lived on without us. You could marvel at their red hair. You could feel the livingness of life itself: ever consuming, and consumed.
M. Bela Sas is a writer and teacher living in Berkeley, California. Her writings have been published in Sanskrit, North Atlantic Review, Portland Review, Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, Humans of the World, Meow Meow Pow Powand others. She is finishing a book of literary nonfiction, Finding Zbaraż. You can reach her at email@example.com.