Ania Bielecka trailed after her parents, savoring the marvelous beauties of Planty Park in the balmy summer morn. The sun filtered through the mighty birch trees, and sniffing the air, she detected the faint aroma of newly baked pretzels sold close by. Flowers carefully cultivated grew in plots and fringed the pathway from the park to the Main Market Square in the center of the city, where they were heading. Krakow was nicknamed “Little Rome,” for its numerous churches and though there were a couple situated closer to their cottage, it was her parents’ preference to attend Mass in St. Mary’s Basilica.
“It may be summer, but I can feel autumn in the air.” Papa observed off-handedly and Mama’s head bobbed in agreement.
On entering the square, which was customarily teeming with life, Ania could almost imagine the war had never happened. In regards to architecture, their beloved city had largely remained unaffected by the Nazis.
The same cannot be said about the citizens. Ania frowned, but kept her thoughts to herself. Their part of Poland had been liberated by the Nazis’ stronghold in January, only to be replaced by a Soviet stronghold. Their Communistic grip tightened like a noose with each passing day.
Ania’s attention was piqued on hearing commotion in the center of the square, where the famed Mickiewicz monument once stood. Constructed in honor of Poland’s famed poet, the bronze statue was unveiled on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. Following the German invasion, the monument was dismantled and its whereabouts were currently unknown.
A large, boisterous crowd was forming.
The hair on the back of her neck stood on end as she and her parents wove through the throng of people. An audible gasp escaped her at the gruesome sight. Papa curled his arm around Ania’s shoulders, trying to shield her from looking. Mama crossed herself, uttering breathless prayers.
A golden-haired woman, resembling Marlene Dietrich, lay sprawled out, her expression frozen in place, her unblinking eyes were unfocused. But Ania felt the woman was staring directly into her soul. One side of her head was caved in and blood congealed near the wound. The simple gold band glinted on her ring finger in the sunlight. Oh God, she’s dead! This wasn’t the first corpse she had encountered. There were many she crossed paths with in the course of the war. However, with the Nazis banished, she had believed life would return to normal.
“Mother!” A youthful, feminine voice wailed.
“Did you hear that?” Ania looked around, but neither of her parents answered her. Papa drew her closer, and now her mother clung to her other side.
The crowd parted like the Red Sea and a girl Ania’s age dashed to the corpse.
The girl scooped up her mother’s stiff body, and cradled the woman in her lap.
“Oh God, Mother!” She cried.
Ania instinctively moved forward, but Papa pulled her back, murmuring, “Don’t look, Ania.”
“But—” She had begun to protest.
Her parents tugged her on, ushering her towards St. Mary’s Basilica. They were determined to avoid the dead body and the crowd, not that she could blame them.
However, Ania was unable to shake off what they had witnessed and as they entered the church, she cast a backwards glance at the girl and her mother.
The priest led the parishioners in prayer, but Ania’s eyes remained opened and her head was raised. The door to the church was closed, yet a couple of windows were open, and she could still hear the girl crying and the noisy onlookers. The priest said nary a word about the dead woman, as if nothing peculiar had occurred. Such was his practice during the war. When there were arrests, shootings, or cattle cars full of Jews carried off to the camps, he continued with his prayers and sermons. She and her parents followed the priest’s lead, never once questioning him.
But now, something about this incident sunk its claws into her and wouldn’t release her. I can’t just sit here and pray. She had done that far too often in the past, preferring the safety of the church sanctuary or her family’s cottage, rather than stepping out in the faith she professed to have.
Convinced her parents were lost in prayer, Ania quietly rose to her feet and slipped out of the pew. On noiseless feet, she departed from the church.