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Innocent Fish in a Sea Full of Sharks
“KATKA!” Sister Tatiana screeched through the cold air in the walls of the Mother of God, The Queen Catholic Church in Brest, Poland. I groaned as I awakened in a dirty crowded room full of young little children, most of whom were crying because of the coldness or their starvation. I’ll admit, I was starving too, but if I cried like these little ones did, Sister Tatiana would probably throw me out on the streets, where there was no food at all. My tired blue eyes barely could open up in the candlelit church. My blonde hair was in so many knots, it could have been considered locks of ropes instead of hair. I stumbled out of the room in a tattered white nightdress, and thin socks that barely insulated any heat that my body radiated.
Sister Tatiana met me in the hallway. What a bitter old nun! With eyes like ice and a face that could turn men to stone, Sister Tatiana sometimes scared me more than the Soviet Army! I guess I understand that she is scared and hungry too, or maybe she is just hormonal, but if I wanted to stay here, I’d have to work for her. The year was 1941, and Poland had been occupied by both the German Reich and Soviet Russia for over three years. I was sixteen, the oldest out of four siblings, and after the Soviets killed my parents, I assumed the role of guardian over my three siblings. Darius, my first brother was twelve years old and is probably the most hopeful out of all us. “We will be home soon! Mama and Papa are working too! Just like us!” Darius constantly told me. I just wish I had the courage to tell him what really happened. How I could I just lie to him like this? Instead of confessing the truth, I told my brothers and sister that our parents were working for the Red Army. The thought of telling them what really happened, the brutal murders that occurred, haunted me to the point of horrifying nightmares that kept me awake all night. After Darius was my only sister Valentina, or Vali. She was 10 years and 68 pounds of pure and fiery determination and wit. Vali is the only reason why I laugh nowadays. In the worst of times, she can make them just the slightest bit better. She too is unaware of what happened to my parents, but she’s too busy coming up with plans to kill Stalin to remember.
“All we have to do is just take Sister Tatiana’s homemade porridge and feed it to him! I’ll tell you Katka, a piece of me dies every time I eat that concoction. Stalin will be gone within minutes!” Vali exclaimed to me one day in the kitchens.
I laughed so hard, my stomach ached for hours afterward. Thank the Lord Sister Tatiana didn’t hear us, that woman can’t hear a bomb exploding even if she tried. Finally, there was our precious little Alexei or Lex for short. He was only four years old, and already his short life is full of fear and pain. My poor baby brother doesn’t even remember our parents anymore. When he heard my mother’s voice, his eyes popped out of his head and a smile as wide as Sister Tatiana appeared on his face.
“Oh, my Little Lex!” my mother would say when she carried him.
Now, he stares blankly at her picture, puzzled. Alexei will never know his parents, he’ll never get to experience a mother’s love, or his father’s sacrifice to ensure a bright future. Lex lost the most, an innocent fish in a sea full of sharks.
“KATKA! Stop standing there, and do your chores, or you’ll be out on the street!” Sister Tatiana bellowed.
“Yes Ma’am,” I quietly replied.
I couldn’t argue with Sister Tatiana and go back to the little comfort I had in the crowded bedroom. Usually, sixteen-year-old women like me aren’t considered children anymore. But there was no way that I would be separated from my family. I begged and pleaded with the Reds to let me stay with my family.
“Please, Sir! They are little children! They need their big sister! My parents are dead and they have no one!” I remember crying out to General Putinov, the bulky and intimidating Soviet general. His thick eyebrows hid his eyes, and his heavy Russian accent was evident in his rusty Polish.
“Your family will survive without you. Women of your age and physique are more useful working and being call girls than watching over their filthy Polish kin.” Putinov retorted at me.
When the words hit, they stung deeply. A call girl? How could someone be so cruel? I tried to not to react, because if I did, I knew all hope would’ve been lost.
“General Putinov, please. I will do anything to be with them. Whatever it takes,” I begged.
The Russian looked at me with despise, and his goons were laughing at me behind them, probably thinking of things that shouldn’t be thought of in a Catholic church.
“You filthy Poles never give up, do you? I will allow you to stay with your family if you work all day at this garbage excuse of an orphanage. You will listen to Sister Tatiana and if you do not, there will be a train going to Siberia with your name on it’s first ticket.” Putinov snarled. His goons looked surprised at their general’s mercy. If I ever get out of this place, those fools are the first on my list to spit on.
So, I can’t escape Sister Tatiana, one mess up with her, I’m on a one-way trip to Siberia to become frozen meat.
“Sweep the floors. Wash the pots. But first, take this and go buy new rags for you and those filthy Poles upstairs.” Sister Tatiana snorted.
Did I forget to mention that she’s Russian too? She handed me ten złoty.
My surprised look of disbelief was noticed by Sister Tatiana who meanly said, “Oh yes I forgot, you Poles have never seen money before, NOW GO!”
I obeyed Medusa and walked into the chilly November air. Outside of the church, Brest was a city of Soviet flags, tanks, and propaganda. As I was walking, I felt a tug on my ripped dress and I spun around, ready to smack whatever foolish boy was behind me.
“Valentina! You scared me!” I squealed when Valentina’s sly grin met me on the side of the road.
“I’m coming with you Katka! Sister Tatiana surprisingly gave me permission when she said, ‘The less of you, the better’ so I just walked out and here I am! Darius and Lex are still sleeping.” Valentina explained, looking like a ragdoll with her messed up hair and dirty face.
Before the war started, Valentina was the jewel of our family. She had luscious blonde locks and blue eyes as clear as the morning sky. I wish I was as beautiful as her, but my mother always told me it's wrong to be jealous of someone that was younger than you.
“Ok then, let’s go the market,” I happily offered, taking Vali’s hand into mine and we strolled into the nearby marketplace where the linens were sold.
“Katka?” Valentina asked.
“What is it, Vali?” I replied. Her voice was higher than usual.
Valentina then started intensely crying, her tears dripping to the ground. I looked to where she was looking to, and my face dropped and my eyes glittered with tears as well.
In the middle of the square, a wooden frame stood with a Soviet flag waving in the wind next to it. Four nooses hung around them, and around the nooses were the heads of screaming young men, begging to live.
“Valentina! Valentina TURN AROUND!” I firmly ordered my frightened sister, who buried her head into my stomach.
I turned us around, with the złoty, and ran back up the steps of the church. Tears flowed down my face as I realized what would probably happen to my family, and all the Polish children here if the Soviets continued to occupy our home. Death would only follow us, like a shadow follows its body in daylight, hidden but visible. Sister Tatiana was there in the hallway, an angry grimace on her putrid complexion.
“WHERE IS WHAT I ASKED FOR?” she screeched loudly.
“Sister Tatiana, please understand that I couldn’t-” I almost choked on my words. The thought of what their fate was to be made me shiver. “I could not get the linens when men are hanging in the streets for all to see.” I managed, as Valentina quivered.
“You dumb, pathetic, ignorant-” the nun insulted until a hidden bravery was unleashed within me.
“YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE A WOMAN OF THE LORD! How can you speak to someone in this way in a House of God, a holy place for anyone to feel safe! This is enough!” I fought back.
Then she slapped me. She slapped me hard. A stinging pain burned through my skin.
“Get out.” Sister Tatiana calmly said. “Take your filthy siblings, and get out.”
The next day, Darius, Valentina, Lex, and I were walking on the streets of Brest alone and afraid, all because I had to open my big mouth. “Maybe we will see Mama and Papa working!” Darius proposed with hope.
We walked for hours, hoping there were scraps on the road, or maybe even a generous family would take us in and help us. My father would have known what to do. Resourceful and persistent, he could’ve helped get out of this mess.
“Katka,” Darius said with concern in his voice. “What are they doing?” I spun around to find Soviet trucks rumbling down the road. The four of us, stunned and frozen, stood idly by as they pulled over and marched towards us.
One Soviet general approached us with his guards and said, “What are you doing out on the streets?”
“We were orphans at the nearby Catholic church...we were tossed out,” I explained. I thought it was better, to tell the truth rather than lying, what could I lose now?
“Poles,” he concluded. “Names?”
What was he doing? Writing our names to be next on the four hooks in the middle of town? Maybe sending us to Siberia to freeze. Accepting our defeat, I answered.
“Siblings. I am Katka Evana Nowak. My brother Darius Victor, my sister Valentina Caterina, and Alexei Peter.”
He scribbled our names on his list and looked at us with a look different than the other Russians I’ve encountered. He looked genuinely sympathetic.
“Come with us, please,” he said quietly as his guards grabbed us roughly and dragged us forcibly to their trucks. Alexei started to wail as he was hoisted by a soldier and thrown into the back of the truck. Darius looked confused. Valentina never let go of my hand as we were hustled into the truck.
“WHERE ARE YOU TAKING US?” I screamed as Alexei cried.
“Katka!” Darius yelled for me, and in the darkness, I felt the hands of my brothers and sister hold me as we were driven into the unknown shadows of the future.
The truck drove for what seemed like days. We had no food or water, and Alexei’s consistent coughing made me fear for his health. Medicine was scarce nowadays, especially for Poles. Soon, the truck stopped, and my muscles felt like jelly. Famished, I visualized a roasted chicken with bread. The doors opened to reveal a smell of salt and wind. A bustling Soviet camp was where we arrived. We also saw Polish children being huddled in our direction. I was curious but fearful. The same general who plucked us out of the street led us to a tent where other Polish children were. We were put in a line and told to wait until our names were called.
Darius comforted Alexei as his stomach grumbled like a whale moaning in the deep sea. Valentina tried to make the best of the moment by proposing swimming in the large body of water near the camp, probably a Polish lake. “It’s November, Valentina. Sit down.” I said to her.
“THE NOWAK FAMILY! KATKA EVANA, DARIUS VICTOR, VALENTINA CATERINA, AND ALEXEI PETER!” A female voice said. We followed the young woman outside the tent, and to the dock of a massive ship, steaming in the salty wind. A man grabbed us and stamped papers and clipped them to our clothes. Mine read:
NOWAK, E KATKA
My sibling's cards also read Isfahan as we were hurriedly rushed onto the ship along with other Polish children. Before I was confused, but when I read their cards, I finally understood. We were being evacuated, out of Poland and Russia to somewhere safe. I almost cracked a smile, but then I heard little children in front of us arguing.
“Hannah!” a little boy said to his sister. “Did you know that this is the Caspian Sea? Did you? Did you?”
“No Herschel, now be quiet, we are lucky to even be breathing. We would’ve been toast had we been on the Nazi side of Poland. Jews in Germany don’t live very long. Now please shut up,” the girl, Hannah said, and they disappeared into the lower decks of the ship.
That girl, Hannah, was right. All of my Jewish friends disappeared one day after the Germans and Russians arrived in Poland. God only knows if they are still breathing.
Alexei continued to cough and his skin was paler than a vampire’s. There was no doubt that he was sick. Maybe there was help in Isfahan. The name of the city sounded familiar. In geography class when I was in school, we learned about the Middle East. Isfahan. Isfahan. IRAN! “Across the Caspian, far from Bonn, is the Iranian city of Isfahan” The rhyme never made sense since the teacher was clueless, the name seemed to make its way into my head. Were we heading to Iran? Why? Why not Siberia? Were the Soviets helping us escape the treachery of war and disease? Why Iran, I thought to myself as we continued walking up the plank.
We were led into the top deck of the ship, breathing in the fresh air of the salty Caspian Sea. Poland must’ve been an eternity away, because every single sign was written in Russian, and everyone spoke Russian too.
Darius looked at me, “Maybe Mama and Papa are meeting us there, Katka! We are in Russia, aren’t we?”
“Darius,” I quietly said. I couldn’t keep this from him, or Valentina, or even Alexei any longer. “Mama and Papa are not coming with us or meeting us in Isfahan,” I told them.
“Well, when are they coming?” Darius inquired.
“Yeah, what ship are they taking?” Valentina asked, making it even harder to confess.
“There is no ship! They are never meeting us there because they are dead! I am so sorry, I couldn’t-”
I stopped talking after Darius and Valentina broke into tears and Alexei cried because of his painful coughing. By this time, the ship was well into its journey, and the stars surrounded the Moon in a spectrum of beauty and wonder. I could still hear Darius whimper over the thought of our dead parents. Valentina just stared out into the night wind, pondering the horrors of life.
The next morning, Darius and Valentina were still in grief but showed signs of life when Soviet soldiers came around with pieces of bread. We devoured the pieces in minutes, and I hoped it would make Alexei feel a little bit better. To my horror, it did not. He would vomit blood almost every hour, crying louder and louder. Other children would stare as I would try to calm him down, but nothing would help. Finally, I tried singing my mother’s lullaby, praying that it would put him to sleep.
“Hush little boy, sleep and dream
About peace, love, and cookies and cream
May you sleep in comfort and know what is true
That Mama and Papa will always love you”
My singing might have been questionable, but it miraculously put little Alexei to sleep, and as he closed his eyes, we could finally see shoreline on the dim horizon. As we neared the coast, women came around and threw us new clothing. This new land must have been hot because what she gave us looked like desert clothing. Tan blouses and skirts for girls, and shorts and shirts for boys. They also gave us these ugly hats that protected us from the sun, and Valentina acted as if she was royalty, waving her hand in the air, and spinning around in her new skirt. The ship finally docked at a port-city that someone told me was named Pahlavi. We were led down the plank and set foot on new soil, and a new home. A man with a large camera took my sister and brothers aside, and along with a few other children and snapped a picture of them. Maybe they made the local newspaper! I laughed. Some of the children looked like little soldiers with their army hats. From there, we were led to a station where they inspected us for diseases. I was scared that they would take Alexei away, but instead, a kind Iranian woman gave him a spoonful of medicine and led us to a train. If something happened to Alexei, my world would definitely crumble beneath me. From there, we were seated and after ten minutes we were en route to Isfahan.
Night came when we arrived. To my surprise, signs had Polish written on them. Stores bore Polish names and products. Happily, my siblings and I jumped out of the train and were led into a building where all four of us shared a room. It was much better than sharing it with hundreds of other children spreading sickness. Alexei already started to look better, and a woman pulled me outside of our room to explain what was going on.
“Hello Ms. Nowak, my name is Kiana. Welcome to the city of Isfahan,” Kiana introduced. Like Putinov, her Polish was rusty.
“Thank you, please call me Katka,” I politely replied.
“Here at the Polish Refugee Camp, we will nurture and care for our occupants until it is safe for your return to Poland. Until then, you and your siblings will be fed and bathed regularly, and will also have the opportunity to continue their education at our school. They will learn basic standard subjects, while also learning about where they come from, and where they are now” Kiana explained.
“That’s wonderful!” I exclaimed. My siblings would be so ecstatic. “When do they start?”
“As soon as the last group of refugees comes in tomorrow,” Kiana answered. “I wish you and your family a good night, and again, welcome to Iran.”
I told my siblings everything, and they galloped around in joy. This was the first time since before the war that they were truly happy. With all they had been through, they deserved happiness. All they were-were innocent fish in a sea full of sharks. All they were-were children. Later I put them to bed after we had our first real meal.
And as they all snored away, I kept on thinking to myself while looking out at the stars. This could be home, I thought.
This could be home.