What Do We Talk About at the End of Our Lives?
The last conversation mattered the most
He was slumped over in his chair, with his head tipped down as if in prayer, eyes peacefully shut. His well-worn book of daily meditations lay open face down in his lap, held in place by his frail and deeply veined hands folded on top with reading glasses under the crook of one finger. From the doorway, I couldn’t tell if he was breathing or had peacefully slipped away. I probably wished he had just let go while sleeping.
I tiptoed into the room across the carpeted floor and put my arms around his bony frame, gently kissing the top of his head. He straightened up, opened his eyes and gave me a wide smile. He was always glad to see me, and soon we resumed the conversation where we had left off before.
“You should have asked me that question years ago when my memory was better,” was his first answer. But I persisted.
“So how did you feel?”
“What was it like?”
“Why did she think that?”
“When did it happen?”
The nudges jogged his memory, and I listened.
Until our last conversation, I could have easily summarized my father’s life in a few sentences. The trajectory of his life dramatically altered on September 1, 1939 — the day Germany invaded Poland. He was eighteen. Until this life-altering event, he lived in Warsaw where he was born, dreaming of studying chemistry at university, pursuing a promising track career and spending time with his girlfriend. It was an ordinary life with childhood friends, favourite teachers, church on Sunday, and summer vacations in small cabins in the countryside near Warsaw to escape the heat.
He fought in the Warsaw Uprising, the most significant military resistance movement during World War II, to liberate Warsaw from German occupation. Taken captive when the Polish Home Army surrendered, he was transported to a prisoner of war camp.
He never returned to his beloved Poland because it became part of the Communist Eastern Bloc. He immigrated to Canada, married his Polish sweetheart, who had arrived one year earlier, and they got on with life. Aided by the random kindness of many people, my parents focused on creating a new life in their new country and paid it forward, helping others their entire lives.
And that is the story I knew when we began our last conversation; the rest I heard for the first time.
I learned about my father’s life during the five years of the German occupation of Poland. He recalled the clandestine preparations of the Polish Home Army for the Warsaw Uprising. Street-to-street combat lasted for sixty-three days; my father described what it was like evading the Nazis through the city’s sewer system. The Poles expected help from allies, but the Red Army sat on the other side of the river — one of the infamies of the Second World War — enabling the Germans to regroup, defeat the Polish resistance and destroy the city in retaliation.
We took turns reading manuscripts and books I brought: 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed, 6,000 badly wounded, a fifth of the civilian population perished in mass executions carried out on the streets, German house-to-house searches found Jews hidden by Poles, and the rest of the population — keep in mind 400,000 Jews had already been herded first into the Warsaw Ghetto and then sent to extermination camps — was placed in railway boxcars and taken to concentration camps or escaped to the countryside. My father was among 15,000 POWs. A thriving city in 1939 of 1.3 million was decimated.
My father was interned at Stalag 344 Lamsdorf, a large and notorious prisoner of war camp. He arrived there on October 3, 1944, the day after the Home Army surrendered. The stories of his POW experience, while riveting, did not involve mistreatment.
He did not smoke, so he traded the cigarettes that came in a Red Cross package from Canada for sausages the German guards had. There was a sleepless night when the POWs poured too much instant Nescafe, which came in the same Red Cross package, into their tepid water. There was the story, one my father found amusing, of the POWs forced by the guards to search for the wooden furniture they had burned the night before to keep warm. My father spent a total of three months at Lamsdorf, far less than thousands of allied POWs, many of who were interned since the first battles of the war.
On December 27, 1944, with the Red Army closing in on occupied Poland, the Germans began emptying Lamsdorf and dozens of other camps. There were rumours among the internees they were being evacuated to other camps where a worse fate awaited them or used as leverage by the Germans in some future peace deal. No one knew.
Thousands were force-marched west toward Germany in horrific winter conditions.
At the outset, my father’s group comprised of two hundred POWs. Upon liberation by the American Army on April 7, 1945 (he was precise about all the dates), he said, “maybe thirty survived.”
They marched single file for many kilometres a day on country roads through villages, always avoiding towns; the German SS guards shot anyone who stepped out of formation; some died of the bitter cold, disease or exhaustion. They slept in barns or out in the open and relied on scrounging or food handouts from the local population left at the side of the road.
My father slept in his boots. It was too cold to take them off, and he was unsure if he would ever get them back on his sore feet.
One hundred and one days later, the SS guards simply deserted. In the middle of the night, the POWs realized their guards had gone. They quickly set up posts on the perimeter of the farm where they billeted for the night, with my father and one other guarding the main road. Before dawn, the Americans arrived, almost mistaking them for Germans.
“I finally could take off my boots. My socks had completely disintegrated. They gave us clean clothes.”
We spent many of our visits reading the memoirs of British soldiers and airmen who had been at Lamsdorf and were also part of what became known as the Long March or the Death March. With his eyes glued to the computer screen, we went on virtual tours of the Warsaw Uprising Museum and examined the Polish Central Prisoner of War Museum’s online records.
He was amazed he could read the letters he had written to his mother, who had been taken following the Uprising to Ravensbruk, a concentration camp for women. The letters were returned to him undelivered because she perished, and he had donated them several years earlier to the museum—and there they were on its website. With the help of google maps and online archives, we could approximate the route from Lamsdorf in western Poland, through Sudetenland (which was the northern part of Czechoslovakia) to Bavaria. We estimated he walked 800 kilometres.
My father was the most optimistic person I know. I always assumed he was this way because he was given a second chance. But our end-of-life conversation put a whole different light on his life. Why had he never talked about this? I wondered, what is it about the human spirit that allows some to overcome traumatic events? Why are some resilient and others not?
Early one morning, just before dawn a few months before his residence went into pandemic lockdown, my father closed his eyes and took his last breath. He may have died of natural causes. He may have died to spare me the anguish of having a parent I could not visit for months. Or he died because his life was complete, all his stories were told, and our last conversation was finished.