M. Bela Sas ~ The Verb of Living Things

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 mbsas@berkeley.edu.