Fiction — July 1, 2013 11:08 — 0 Comments

Starvation – Henry F. Tonn

My grandmother moved to the United States from Poland in 1900. She was the new bride of a German man who had moved into her small village thirty miles outside of Krakow, wooed her, and took her away. I later asked why she left her village and relocated to the New World with this relatively unknown man and she replied, “Well, he just had what it took.” My grandmother was never one to analyze things.

My grandmother, whose name was Frances Mataushek Sobzak, had two sons by way of the German, who died suddenly of a heart attack when only thirty-five. She quickly married a butcher who was also Polish, but this relationship soured quickly, and he, miraculously, died of a stroke just three years later. At this point my grandmother put her boys into an orphanage and became a live-in cook for a multi-millionaire in Philadelphia.

My grandmother communicated on a regular basis with her family in Poland over the years—the name of the village I can no longer remember. Her letters were in Polish since she never learned to write in English. In 1955, when she was seventy-five and I was fifteen, she decided to visit the “old country” once again, despite its being under the Iron Curtain. More importantly, she decided to take me with her. I was a bright, energetic child interested in everything, and my grandmother wanted me to view personally the roots from which I had emanated. The necessary arrangements were made and off we went that summer right before I entered high school.

I remember the airport in Krakow as being austere and our baggage being carefully searched by severe-looking security guards before they allowed us to pass. Grandmom’s relatives were relatively poor and had to borrow someone’s car to pick us up, and the drive to the village was an arduous one over winding, rutted roads. The village itself tended to be primitive, with dilapidated stone houses and few amenities. Some people didn’t have electricity.

We stayed with Grandmom’s younger sister, only seventy, who was also a widow, and lived in a one-bedroom house in the middle of the village. Grandmom shared the bed with her sister and I got the sofa in the living room. It was relatively comfortable and I had no complaint. No one in the town spoke English except the village school teacher named Anka, and she was invited over to talk to me while my grandmother visited old friends and relatives. They had a party the next day where everyone in the area seemed to attend, each bringing a dish, and Anka and I sat outside in the back yard and chatted while chickens, dogs, cats, pigs, and an old, gray, sway-backed horse wandered around in comfortable cohabitation. Anka, who was petite and spoke with a guttural accent, told me wonderful stories about the history of Poland, especially the sixteenth century hussars who wore wings of eagle and ostrich feathers attached to their backs and flying over their heads to disconcert their enemies.

“Tomorrow,” she said,” I want you to come to church with me. I want to show you something.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

A block from my grandmother’s sister’s house was the only beautiful building in the town: a medieval stone church built in the fifteenth century. From the outside it looked primitive and unkempt, but inside it was beautiful, with stained glass windows and a spectacular, colorful altar. The air in the church was cool despite the warm summer heat, and Anka guided me around quietly while local villagers bowed before the altar and made prayers. Finally Anka stopped before a large painting and said, “Look at this.”

I studied it carefully in the dim light. It was the picture of an old man with a long, gray beard sucking on the breast of a beautiful young woman. The young woman’s dark, silky hair flowed luxuriantly over his shoulders as he clutched her breast with a vein-lined, withered hand, and she gazed down on him with gentle tenderness.

“What is this?” I asked.

She smiled. “During the times of the great knights of Poland, there were also terrible despots. This old man was imprisoned by a ruler named Grzegorz Duda. He was a ruthless tyrant who killed anyone who got in his way. This man, an advisor in Duda’s court, said something that offended the dictator and he was sent to prison and sentenced to death by starvation.”

I grimaced. “That’s terrible.”

She nodded. “Yes. But after the old man was in prison for a month, the despot noticed that he hadn’t lost any weight. So he called in his chief jailor and asked what was the problem. ‘The man only receives visits from his daughter, sire,’ the chief jailer said. ‘We have searched her carefully and she carries in no food.’

“‘The next time the woman comes,’ Duda said, ‘observe them secretly. I want to know what’s going on here.’

“The following day the jailer returned and reported, ‘The woman in question has recently bore a child, sire. She is feeding her father her breast milk to keep him alive.’

“Duda decided to have them both killed for their insubordination, along with the mother’s baby, to teach everyone a lesson. But then he reconsidered and thought it would be a noble gesture in the eyes of his subjects to free the man for such family devotion. He did, and this painting commemorates that story.”

“Wow!” I said. “Is the story true?”

“Yes,” she said smiling. “But more importantly, the man and the lady and her child are your ancestors. If they had been executed by Duda, you would not be here today.”

On the plane trip back to the United States I asked my grandmother if she knew the story. “I’ve heard it,” she said. “But I’ve also heard Duda executed the old man and forced the daughter and her baby to take his place.” She waved her hand. “How can you know? Villagers like their myths.”

All the people I visited on that trip are gone now. But the memory of that painting remains with me, lingering.


Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist who has published fiction and nonfiction in such print and online journals as the Gettysburg Review, Connecticut Review, Summerset Review, and Eclectica. He is the editor of the war veterans anthology REMEMBRANCES OF WARS PAST and the author of the murder mystery e-novelette THE TUXEDOED CORPSE which can be accessed with iPad or Kindle. Please visit his website at

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney