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Child Of My Right Hand

May 2, 2010

On My First Sonne

by: Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy;

Seven yeeres tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

O, could I loose all father, now. For why

Will man lament the state he should envie?

To have so soon scap’d worlds and fleshes rage,

And, if no other miserie, yet age?

Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lye

Ben. Johnson his best piece of poetrie.

For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,

As what he loves may never like too much.

Sedliacka Pec

In the middle of each peasant home was a large rounded oven called a “Sedliacka Pec”, made out of mud and old tiles. It occupied the main room on the first floor, which was used as a kitchen, living room and bedroom combined. The oven both heated the house and served to cook the meals.  The oven burned either wood or maize (corn), and so on a daily basis Ludwig would venture out into the woods near the village to pick up firewood, or to a farm to pick up dried shelled corn.  On the back side of the oven was often a flat stone hearth of sorts for sleeping.

In this oven, Pauline and Maria would bake wonderful cakes and strudels and cook delicious meals; the best potato and sausage dish was made in there, sending a wonderful smell wafting through the house.  A Balkan cauldron would often hang by a chain from the ceiling about the oven, to boil water or to cook goulash or soup in.  In Pauline’s handwritten cookbook, the directions would sometimes include instructions for using the oven, such as “bake one hour next to gently flickering coals.”  Simply lovely baking poetry.

Another version of the Sediaka Pec

Clothes were washed in the large pond in town. Pauline and Maria would cart the basket of clothes out to the pond and soak them in the water, even in winter, and their hands would be freezing from the prolonged exposure in the icy water. When they got home they would lay the wet clothes out to dry near the oven’s fire, warming their hands by it as well.

My Great Uncle Igors class in Pivnice, 1920s. Igor's the one extending his hand out, with the big grin on his face.

Paul had to remember to eat little at the beginning, letting his body slowly adjust to the food, although he desired to eat everything in sight.  Ludwig stayed close by Paul’s side, bringing him drinks and assisting him in any way he could. They laughed and joked and told each other stories about the war, talked about what Ludwig had learned in school and about how things were going in the bakery, which Ludwig now worked at full time.  Paul would affectionately hug his son, playfully tussling his hair and rubbing his back, enjoying his son’s presence immensely.  Paul ate small portions, allowing his digestive system to recalibrate itself, and slowly he regained the weight and his health back.

Mentally, Paul had further to go.  The loss of his four young children was still mind numbing, and the loss of his savings still too devastating to fathom or to even begin to contemplate what to do next.  He leaned on Ludwig, who was the picture of health and vitality.  If nothing else, his “Paulinka” and Ludwig gave him reason to go on living.

One day, a few months after Paul’s return, Ludwig’s arm began to hurt.  Nothing bad really, but the arm was painful to the touch, and when Paul hugged him too tightly, Ludwig would pull away and wince.  A few weeks after that, an ulcer appeared on the arm, scabbed over, and then he began suffering from an alarmingly high fever (nearly 106 degrees Fahrenheit).  Ludwig’s thoughts began to feel hazy, and his spoken words no longer made sense.

Pauline, on right, with a friend, around 1921

Maria’s heart sank, and with a deep sense of foreboding, made him comfortable on the bed/hearth by the oven.  For the next several days, Ludwig drifted in and out of consciousness, his body aching all over, feeling nauseous and vomiting.  A red rash started on his chest, and then began to spread across his body, and he hacked away with a dry cough.  The windows were covered with linen tea towels (Pauline had woven and cross stitched them at school) to keep it dark in the house, because the light seemed to bother Ludwig’s eyes and gave him a splitting headache.  I still have some of these tea towels, cream colored pieces of fabric that have deepened to beige over time with her carefully stitched initials in red on them and an intricate blue border.

Maria knew what was happening, and she prayed he would pull through. Pauline knew too; she had seen these same symptoms played out one after the other in each of her four dead siblings before they died of the disease.  It was typhus, and while not always fatal, Ludwig’s prospects seemed grim.

Ludwig, around 1914

Have you ever stared into the blank, unblinking eyes of death?  Of course Paul had while fighting in the war, and here he did so again, as he sat beside Ludwig and gently stroked his son’s hair.  This time though, sadness descended upon him like an avalanche he could not get out from under. The heavy blanket of sadness was massive and oppressive, and seemed to cover everyone in the family.

While Maria had faced the agony of the death of one child after another, Ludwig’s illness was like nothing she had experienced before.  Ludwig was her eldest child, a teenager, the kind, witty son always helping out, with a magnetic personality and his whole life stretched out in front of him. Maria sat beside Paul, clinging to Ludwig’s hand, later with the grim realization that she had held on to it long after he was gone.

A Slovak family in 1931, who moved to Argentina. Mama has her black scarf and dress on, signs of mourning.

Pauline lay quietly on her bed nearby feeling so alone; the loss of Ludwig left her numb and empty inside, and she would carry this melancholy feeling with her the rest of her life whenever she thought of her beloved brother.  Paul and Maria had had eight children, and she was now the only one who remained.

Slovak Funeral in Vojvodina, 1920s

Afterword:

In 1915, the Rickettisa bacteria was found and identified as the cause of typhus, spread through body lice from rats and then from one human to another.  But it wasn’t until 1930 that antibiotics were discovered as a cure for typhus, a few years too late for Ludwig and his siblings. Over 60% of people who contracted typhus died from it, if left untreated.

Decades later, it was surmised that the typhus epidemic of 1916 in Europe was most likely spread by the soldiers in the war as they moved from country to country, spreading the bacteria through lice as a result of poor hygiene.   Several women scientists, called rickettsiologists, studied typhus in the first half of the 19th century.

John Reed, 1887-1920

Here is an excellent first hand description of the devastation of typhus in close by Serbia in 1916 by a young American journalist who traveled through the country during WWI and reported the stories back to the US: The War in Eastern Europe in 1916, by John Reed.  He calls Serbia the “Country of the Dead” and describes the every day life he sees of the women and children who are left in the country (the men are all at war or dead), and how they are coping with the typhus epidemic.  John Reed died in 1920 at the age of 33, after writing Ten Days That Shook the World, about the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.  He was played by Warren Beatty in the movie Reds, based on his life in Russia as he wrote the book.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniela and Jaroslav permalink
    May 2, 2010 5:01 pm

    That family that has moved to Argentina is Havran family from Pazova

  2. Stan permalink
    May 2, 2010 10:58 pm

    The impact on Pauline must have been very traumatic. Not just from observing her siblings dying but surely wondering why she alone escaped typhus. Have you ever wondered? Were girls more immune ? She must have been exposed to the sickness through the other children so how was she different? An impossible question I know, but she must have wondered.

    • May 2, 2010 11:06 pm

      Well, she must have had a strong immune system. She lived until the age of 94. All her life she complained about her health, of all her aches and pains. She did suffer from painful ulcerative colitis from the time she was about 30, and I remember her often not feeling well, bent over in agony. Her neighbor on the farm in Canada said the same thing recently, that Pauline was not well frequently.

      Maybe every time she felt unwell, she thought she would die; I am sure that witnessing all that death must have had some effect her. I remember thinking that of all my grandparents, that she would surely die first, she was so ill. But no, she outlived the other 3 by well over a decade. She only died 2 1/2 years ago.

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