Happy Breathing

Earlier this year I wrote of the man who, when a youthful slave in a Nazi slave camp, wished he’d been sent to Auschwitz. He’d been envious at that time of the greater food rations allowed to slaves at Auschwitz. When I met him, seventy years after liberation, the man was shackled to an oxygen cylinder.
We bumped into each other again today. “Where’s the oxygen tank, Jan?” The skull that is Jan’s face split into a grin: “I am supposed to use oxygen sixteen hours a day. Outside of home I am free. I enjoy my free hours. My wife and I will drive sometimes to the city. We walk around, we are away from home longer sometimes than eight hours, sometimes ten.” Big skull-splitting smile. Big lung-filling gulps of ordinary ambient air.
“I see you are watching my breathing, Doctor. I like breathing. It is easier, of course, with oxygen.” Jan leaned forward, confidingly, sharing one of life’s large jokes: “You know, Doctor, oxygen can be addictive…
“I used to smoke, but never heavily, and I stopped many years before now. Yet my lungs are quite wrecked. Our greatest teacher is our body. Of course we ignore it , we abuse it. Of course life is not even. It has its up and its down. But you accept… I have not any complaints.”
“We have our little span of life, we humans. Surprising that we humans rule the planet. Insects of course have been here first, well before the human. The insects are our seniors. They should rule the planet. They would do a better job.” When Jan uses words like ‘job’, he soften the hard letter ’j’ so the word comes out as ‘chob.’ ‘The insects doing a better chob’ – delivered with the Jan smile and punctuated by the heaving of the shattered chest – becomes a fanciful idea of unexpected weight.
‘’First we had ‘The War to End All Wars’. Soon after we finished that one we started to prepare for the next, which was worse. Now of course, we see them preparing for the Third.”
“You think so, Jan?”
“It is inevitable. They are grooming for it. It will happen because Man’s stupidity does not end.”
“How did you come to settle in Australia, Jan?”
“In 1944 I made myself useful to the Americans. I spoke, of course, Czech, and naturally Hungarian, also ‘Cherman’. The Americans in ‘Chermany’ needed intelligence about the Jerries they held. My languages were helpful. And so I improved my English. And the Americans paid me.”
“I returned to my own country, to my city, and the Communists were there. They decided I was interesting to them. Some kind person told the Commies my family used to have shops. So we were Capitalists. I was nineteen and the Commies decided I was an Enemy of the People. This had a familiar look, an uncomfortable look. I had been an enemy before. Also some helpful Jerry told the Commies I was slippery, an escaper. A friend said, ‘They will come for you tomorrow morning at four.’ So I left. I took a train.”
“To Vienna?”
“No, they closed that border. I went East, to Bratislava. From there, west again, to Prague.”
Another grin of bones. Throughout Jan’s discourse, in which his breezy phrases alternated with king tides of respiration, Jan stopped frequently to smile, either at his own serpentine cleverness or at the great joke of existence. “So I made my way from Prague to the border, which of course, our Commie friends patrolled. So I waited until dark and I watched and found a place in the wire furthest from the sentry posts. And I went under the wire.
And I left Comrade Stalin behind me forever. I came to Australia and visited Sydney.”
Jan’s wife, who knows these stories, who has heard them now for longer than the six decades of their marriage, listens actively, nodding, beaming, a happy audience. At this point she reminded Jan: “That’s where we met.”
“Yes, I met this girl but I did not settle then in Sydney. The government was sending men to the Snowy River but I went north and became a cane cutter.”
Jan is short and slight. In his old age he is bent like a banana. Work on the canefields is tough for the most robust and the humid heat is brutal. It is hard to picture Jan at this work.
“On the coast I saw a traditional Pacific Islander sailing boat, hollow, with an outrigger. My own country has no coast. I decided I would learn to sail. With an Aboriginal friend I found a tall straight tree and chopped it down and hollowed it with an axe. I made a boat and I sailed it to Sydney. I stopped here and there to work when I needed money. I stopped further south and there was this same girl and I took her to South Mole Island…”
Jan embarked for Sydney on December 26, 1951. He arrived in Sydney on December 26, 1953. Jan enjoys recalling precise dates. There were newsreel cameramen filming his arrival. “I was quite famous.”
Jan spoke of his work laying railway tracks, of his initiative in reinforcing curved sections to prevent derailments. The smiles flashed, signalling pride in serious work perfomed well. He married ‘the girl’ and they settled in sugar cane country where they raised red pawpaws and four children Jan spoke of his generations, of his ‘tribe of fifty.’
“You have fifty descendants, Jan?”
“Yes, they number fifty; children and grandchildren, and grandgrandchildren. Some from my children, some from step-grandchildren: it is not different, all the same, all my tribe. When we come together, all are the same. All are one.”
As I sat and listened to Jan, our heads bowed close to allow his soft words to breach my hard ears, I tasted his ideas of peace that ends to soon, of insects that should rule; I reflected how a life that started in Old Europe – “I am a relic the old Austro-Hungarian Empire” – flowered in this new country, how a sole person now has a tribe of half an hundred. I thought of my grandchildren and his ‘grandgrandchildren’, all of whom who must grow in this world. I thought of Jan’s eighty-eight years of living and breathing and smiling. Somehow this spirited man radiated a joy that quite defeated glooms past and pushed away gloom to come.

4 thoughts on “Happy Breathing

  1. I like this humanistic blog! and I like following bmpermie! whom we can see is a beaut human! How strong is Jan, I’m so glad he was able to escape! and I agree with him about the probability of a 3rd or more WAR! I’m not including women, but I have no comfort with fellow MEN! who are far more stupid than insects, and the undercurrents are there! but let’s hope and be ready at all times to say, NO! STOP! xxxx my love to all clear thinkers!

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