The Replaced Roses: Belarus
by Klaudyna Szewczyk
I stood far high up above the ground. At least higher than I previously thought. The
distance from the last step off the train to the grass in the ditch below appeared to be at least
3 feet. When the train slowed down, I jumped and suddenly everything stopped. My heavy
backpack hampered my movements. As I hit the ground I dispersed the force of the impact
by collapsing into a crouch: one knee on the ground and my hands touching the cool grass.
I slowly looked up. I could smell the characteristic and familiar smell of the train tracks, a
mixture of rust and steel carried by the wind. A gust of wind swirled around me, carrying a
greeting from this unfamiliar country. I was ready to explore. Silently I accepted the invitation
Behind me, I heard anxious voices. The train had stopped before arriving at the
platform of the train station. During trips to the East such things cause concern. I also felt that
something was not quite right. I wondered to myself why, without any warning, were we told
to leave the train in such an unorthodox fashion? I looked at the outskirts of the city with its
towering grim buildings surrounded by small clusters of trees. A tingle of fear ran down my
spine. During World War II most of the professors and academics in Poland were captured
and sent to East to work in labor camps or to be executed. Despite my resolve, I could not
help wondering how those who had come here before felt as they were transported to the
The train finally came to a complete stop and I reached out and helped other travelers
down off the train. We trudged to the only bus stop where the bus took us to the center of
the city. The frightened voices of the group flooded over me like a mounting wave. The
sound drilled into my ears until they reached my stomach and fear set in. A thought sprang
up unbidden in my mind, “All important feelings have their origin in the belly.” At the time,
I did not remember whether they were the words of Winnie the Pooh, Garfield, or Snoopy.
However, if they were true then the dinner which I consumed later should have silenced my
fears instead of keeping them and me awake.
The tension continued to grow later as I sat with a group of educators from my
university in a restaurant within the city. The decor of the room gave the a strong impression
of the essence of the works of Jules Verne. The walls were covered with maps, sketches, and
pictures of models of many strange devices such as flying machines and submarines. The
dinner itself felt more like a play in a theater than a meal. The waiters appeared like actors on
the stage. They played their roles well suggesting dishes as if they were mere props. It was
difficult to decide if this was a great performance or Tea with the Mad Hatter? Certainly, the
design of this place was beautiful but the tension in the pit of my stomach still grew.
Later as we walked through the strange city we passed several dozen groups of
gardeners planting fresh flowers in the city’s public flower beds. Just like in “Alice in
Wonderland” roses were being replaced: red for white or white for red, it was difficult to tell.
The streets, monuments, museums, fortresses… everything was perfect like a set designed
expressly for the ceremony accompanying our visit. Involuntarily I looked around expecting
to meet the Queen of Hearts. We had to take a bus to go visit the city’s ancient fortress which
is usually closed to the public. Suddenly the thoughtful silence of the group was shattered by
softly uttered words, “Do you remember how many Polish intellectuals were murdered here
during World War II?” Panicking, I had not realized that I had spoken my thoughts aloud and
in the shocked silence I could almost hear the roar: “Off with her head!” I looked around to
see how others had reacted to this statement. However, no one looked at me. All eyes in the
room stared at the mousy student sitting dejectedly in the corner seat. With a sigh of relief, I
realized that it was he, not I who had actually spoken the words we had all been thinking
since crossing the border into this country. Do you remember November 6th,
at the mercy of a tyrant much worse than the Queen of Hearts.
A few days later, I stepped out of the train station in my hometown and my brother
took my heavy backpack away from me. As I stood there, surrounded by the familiar and
precious sound of free and uninhibited conversations, the hidden fear I felt during my days in
Brest allowed me to see something that was as natural for me as the air I was breathing. I
finally took a deep breath and the knot of anxiety disappeared from my stomach.
I suddenly felt that until that moment I had never understood the true meaning and price of
strenght and freedom.
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