Jerzy Kosinski

The Painted Bird

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    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    Even the teachers ignored my refusal to learn reading and writing in my mother-tongue. I wrote in chalk on the blackboard that my language was Russian, the speech of a land where there was no exploitation of the one by the many and where teachers did not persecute their pupils.

    A large calendar hung over my bed. I crossed off every day with a red pencil. I did not know how many more days were left to the end of the war still being waged in Germany, but I was confident that the Red Army was doing its best to bring the end nearer.
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    I clutched the red star attached to my left breast pocket. A gift from Gavrila, it had Lenin’s profile on it. I now believed that this star, leading millions of workers throughout the world to their goal, could also bring me good luck.
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    All the tracks were being used by military transports, Red Cross carriages, and open cars loaded with army equipment. On the platforms crowds of Soviet soldiers and ex-prisoners in a variety of uniforms jostled along with limping invalids, shabby civilians, and blind people who tapped the flagstones with their canes. Here and there nurses directed emaciated people in striped clothes; the soldiers looked at them in sudden silence—those were the people saved from the furnaces who were returning to life from the concentration camps.
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    Mitka patted me on the shoulder and urged me to uphold the honor of the Red Army. Gavrila hugged me warmly, and the others shook hands with me in turn as though I were a grownup. I wanted to cry but I kept my face straight and laced tight like a soldier’s boot.
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    How I envied Mitka! I suddenly understood a good deal of what one of the soldiers had said in a discussion with him. Human being, he said, is a proud name. Man carries in himself his own private war, which he has to wage, win or lose, himself—his own justice, which is his alone to administer. Now Mitka the Cuckoo had meted out revenge for the death of his friends, regardless of the opinions of others, risking his position in the regiment, and his title of Hero of the Soviet Union. If he could not revenge his friends, what was the use of all those days of training in the sniper’s art, the mastery of eye, hand, and breath? Of what value was the rank of Hero, respected and worshiped by tens of millions of citizens, if he no longer deserved it in his own eyes?

    There was another element in Mitka’s revenge. A man, no matter how popular and admired, lives mainly with himself. If he is not at peace with himself, if he is harassed by something he did not do but should have done to preserve his own image of himself, he is like the “unhappy Demon, spirit of exile, gliding high above the sinful world.”
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    Thinking about it all, I admired Mitka more and more. Here, lying on a bed a few feet from me, was a man who worked for a better and safer world, not by praying at church altars, but by excelling in his aim. The German officer in the magnificent black uniform, who spent his time killing helpless prisoners or deciding the fate of small black fleas like me, now appeared pitifully insignificant in comparison with Mitka.
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    Mitka was one of the best liked and respected men in the regiment. He had a fine military record. On special Army days one could see decorations on his faded uniform which would be the envy of regimental or even divisional commanders. Mitka was a Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest military honor, and was one of the most decorated men in the whole division.

    His feats as a sharpshooter were described in newspapers and books for children and adults. He was featured several times in newsreels seen by millions of Soviet citizens on collective farms and in factories. The regiment took great pride in Mitka; he was photographed for the divisional newssheets and interviewed by correspondents.

    Soldiers often told tales at the evening campfire about the dangerous missions he had undertaken only a year earlier. They discussed endlessly his heroic actions in the rear of the enemy, where he parachuted in alone and then sniped at officers and couriers of the German Army with extraordinary long-range marksmanship. They marveled at the way Mitka managed to return from behind the lines, only to be sent out again on another dangerous mission.

    During such talks I swelled with pride. I sat next to Mitka, leaning on his strong arm, listening intently to his voice, so as not to miss a word of what he was saying or the questions of others. If the war lasted until I was old enough to serve, perhaps I could become a sharpshooter, a hero about whom working people talked at their meals.

    Mitka’s rifle was the object of constant admiration. Yielding to requests, he would take it out of its sheath, blowing off invisible specks of dust on the sights and stock. Trembling with curiosity, young soldiers bent over the rifle with the reverence of a priest at an altar. Old soldiers with large, horny hands picked up the weapon with its softly polished stock as a mother picks up a baby from its cradle. Holding their breath they examined the crystal-clear lenses of the telescopic sight. It was through this eye that Mitka saw the enemy. These lenses brought the targets so close to him that he could see the faces, gestures, smiles. It helped him to aim unerringly at the spot beneath the metal bars where the German heart was beating.
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    Eventually Gavrila’s lessons filled me with a new confidence. In this world there were realistic ways of promoting goodness, and there were people who had dedicated their whole lives to it. These were the Communist Party members. They were selected from the whole population and given special training, set particular tasks to perform. They were prepared to endure hardship, even death, if the cause of the working people required it. The Party members stood at that social summit from which human actions could be seen not as meaningless jumbles, but as part of a definite pattern. The Party could see farther than the best sniper. That was why every member of the Party not only knew the meaning of events, but also shaped them and directed them toward new aims. That was why no Party member was ever surprised at anything. The Party was to the working people what the engine is to a train. It led others toward the best goals, it pointed out shortcuts to an improvement of their lives. And Stalin was the engineer at the throttle of this engine.
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    According to Gavrila, people themselves determined the course of their lives and were the only masters of their destinies. That is why every man was important, and why it was crucial that each know what to do and what to aim for. An individual might think his actions were of no importance, but that was an illusion. His actions, like those of innumerable others, formed a great pattern which could only be discerned by those at the summit of society. Thus some apparently random stitches of a woman’s needle contributed to the beautiful floral pattern as it finally appeared on a tablecloth or bedcover.

    In accordance with one of the rules of human history, said Gavrila, a man would from time to time spring up from the vast nameless mass of men; a man who wanted the welfare of others, and because of his superior knowledge and wisdom he knew that waiting for divine help would not help matters on earth very much. Such a man became a leader, one of the great men, who guided people in their thoughts and deeds, as a weaver guides his colored threads through the intricacies of the pattern.

    Portraits and photographs of such great men were displayed in the regimental library, in the field hospital, in the recreation hall, in the mess tents, and in the soldiers’ quarters. I had often looked at the faces of these wise and great men. Many of them were dead. Some had short, resounding names and long bushy beards. The last one, however, was still living. His portraits were larger, brighter, more handsome than those of the others. It was under his leadership, said Gavrila, that the Red Army was defeating the Germans and bringing to the liberated peoples a new way of life which made all equal. There would be no rich and poor, no exploiters and no exploited, no persecution of the dark by the fair, no people doomed to gas chambers. Gavrila, like all the officers and men in the regiment, owed all he had to this man: education, rank, home. The library owed all its beautifully printed and bound books to him. I owed the care of the army doctors and my recovery to him. Every Soviet citizen was in debt to this man for everything he possessed and for all his good fortune.

    This man’s name was Stalin.
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    I read my first book with Gavrila’s assistance. It was called Childhood and its hero, a small boy like myself, lost his father on the first page. I read this book several times and it filled me with hope. Its hero did not have an easy life either. After his mother’s death he was left quite alone, and yet despite many difficulties he grew up to be, as Gavrila said, a great man. He was Maxim Gorky, one of the greatest of all Russian writers. His books filled many shelves in the regimental library and were known to people all over the world.
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    If it was true that the Germans were capable of such inventions, and also that they were determined to clear the world of all swarthy, dark-eyed long-nosed, black-haired people, then my chances of survival were obviously poor. Sooner or later I would fall into their hands again, and I might not be as lucky as in the past.
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    Only when I knew I would never see him again did I realize how well he had known me and how much he loved me. He took great pains to formulate every lesson according to my particular cast of mind.
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    Perhaps the best proof that I was not overstating the brutality and cruelty that characterized the war years in Eastern Europe is the fact that some of my old school friends, who had succeeded in obtaining contraband copies of The Painted Bird, wrote that the novel was a pastoral tale compared with the experiences so many of them and their relatives had endured during the war. They blamed me for watering down historical truth and accused me of pandering to an Anglo-Saxon sensibility whose only confrontation with national cataclysm had been the Civil War a century earlier, when bands of abandoned children roamed through the devastated South.
    bblbrxhas quoted4 months ago
    “. . . the truth is the only thing in which people do not differ. Everyone is subconsciously mastered by the spiritual will to live, by the aspiration to live at any cost; one wants to live because one lives, because the whole world lives . . .” wrote a Jewish concentration camp inmate shortly before his death in the gas chamber. “We are here in the company of death,” wrote another inmate. “They tattoo the newcomers. Everyone gets his number. From that moment on you have lost your ‘self and have become transformed into a number. You no longer are what you were before, but a worthless moving number . . . We are approaching our new graves . . . iron discipline reigns here in the camp of death. Our brain has grown dull, the thoughts are numbered: it is not possible to grasp this new language . . .”
    Natanowicz Fabianhas quotedlast year
    From him I learned that the order of the world had nothing to do with God, and that God had nothing to do with the world. The reason for this was quite simple. God did not exist. The cunning priests had invented Him so they could trick stupid, superstitious people. There was no God, no Holy Trinity, no devils, ghosts, or ghouls rising from graves; there was no Death flying everywhere in search of new sinners to snare. These were all tales for ignorant people who did not understand the natural order of the world, did not believe in their own powers, and therefore had to take refuge in their belief in some God
    Natanowicz Fabianhas quotedlast year
    As they used to say in the villages, even a speck of dust shows up in the sun.
    Natanowicz Fabianhas quotedlast year
    But the book, like the boy, has weathered the assaults. The urge to survive is inherently unfettered. Can the imagination, any more than the boy, be held prisoner?
    Natanowicz Fabianhas quotedlast year
    and only God,
    omnipotent indeed,
    knew they were mammals
    of a different breed.
    MAYAKOVSKY
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