Alexander Lenard: A Few Words About Winnie-Ille-Pu
|Nothing more difficult, than to tell, when we met our best friends for the first time. I am quite sure, I did not meet Winnie-ille-Pu (- my companion in Gestapo- occupied Rome, in the
forests of Brasil and now in the greenest valley of the world in the state of Santa Catarina -) as a child. I am quite sure about it; he was not yet born, when I went to school. We, Hungarian
children of the pre-Winnie era had quite a different bear whom we did not love less, but did not reach Winnie's international fame, probably because his name was less suited for export. He was called
Dörmögő Dömötör and his passion for honey and good food was absolutely Winnie-like.
Thus Winnie was - if I am allowed to vary a theme from many biographies - the second bear in my life.
We met in a dramatic moment. Even Nostradamus, the great prophet could not have foreseen the situation of 1943. The city of Rome was defended by its archenemy, the Germans, and attacked by its friends, the Anglo-Americans. General Kesselring sat in the belly of Mount Soracte, listened to his private Don-Cossac chorus and phoned into town, when he wanted hostages shot. Arabs in French uniforms, Afrikaans-speaking bushmen, Texans and Californians fought their way from Naples up. Germans with emblems showing a jumping tiger and the inscription "Free India'', Italians in newly invented fascist uniforms roamed the town. Nobody was really happy about it.
Those least happy were the refugees, hidden in Rome without bread tickets and defended by nothing, but some forged document (an employee of the Royal Hungarian Legation which represented no king at the court of none changed its policy after the Salerno landings and furnished such paper as a defense against head-hunting Gestapo-men) and the British prisoners of war, freed on September the 8th and waiting for the VIIIth Army.
Small wonder, if the least happy look for each other and finally meet. "They'll come in a fortnight" we used to say each other for nine long months, every time we met. Sometimes we met on a rooftop, waiting for the German patrols to finish their search downstairs.
We had to live on something and that's where the Bear comes in. We lived on teaching English. Everybody wanted to learn English. Some even promised a piece of bread and cheese for a lesson! There were no books to be had and we had to provide reading material for our pupils. My only English book happened to be Winnie the Pooh.
On a hungry autumn day I got a new pupil. He spoke the melodious accent of Venice and said: I know no English at all. We had it in school and you do not learn languages in schools. I do not want to hear about grammar. I don't want to memorize words. But I want to know English well enough to talk with the allied authorities, once they are in Rome.
- When do you think they come? - I asked.
- In a month or so.
I was relieved to find a pessimist and said: Yes, Sir.
-You have to get a suitable book for me.
-Yes Sir. - I said.
-We start tomorrow at eight.
- Yes Sir.
When he was gone I dived desperately into Winnie, in order to see, if I could use it. Soon I was relieved to see that I could. The book contains remarks about the present and expected weather, which - I felt - would be a perfect introduction to conversations with Allied officers, - although I was not quite sure about the American attitude in this matter. The book contained information about the transmission of messages - by air, by means of bottles or whistling in a particular way. It contained a plan, general staff style, to capture something or someone by means of deception. An ambush was defined and an expedition explained. Finally there was the description of a banquet with an appropriate speech one might hold if honoured in a particular way.
- Here is the book I chose among many - I lied next morning at 8 o'clock sharp.
We started with the chapter on the heffalump, as I thought the conversation between Pooh and Piglet could prove useful in contacts with senior officers: "Piglet said: if you see what I mean, Pooh - and Pooh said: it's just what I think myself, Piglet - and Piglet said: but on the other hand, we must remember, and Pooh said: Quite true, Piglet, although I had forgotten it for the moment. We made speedy progress. When we reached -the cunning trap, I already knew that my pupil had come from Venice, sent by the underground, in order to obtain arms from the Allies. When Piglet saw the horrible heffalump I had already found a helper in improving my friend's accent: major Darry Mander, parachuted behind the lines to organize help for the hidden P.O.W's.
The day Piglet took his bath Monty left the command of the VIlIth Army. The Americans were stuck at Cassino, very much like Pooh in Rabbits door. My pupil's English improved rapidly, although it was we, who were getting slenderer and slenderer. Eeyores balloon exploded and the island of Leros fell to the Germans. Roo took a swim and Leipzig went up in flames. We lived interesting times and General Maelzer, the town commander as well as Gestapo chief Dollmann (today a happy citizen of Munich) tried to do their best to make life more exciting. Pooh had not yet received his pencil case, when my friend said:
- I have to leave tomorrow.
I objected: ... the irregular verbs! ...
- I think my English is good enough by now.
We met after the war, after the ending, which was happy indeed for those not shot and not deported. My friend Pietro Ferraro had really contacted the Allies, had received the arms, and was parachuted back to Venice, where he had led the insurrection and hindered the Germans to carry out their sabotage plan. He was awarded the "golden medal", the highest Italian military distinction.
- I had no difficulty in treating with the British - he said. On the contrary: They complimented me upon my English. Sure - I said the plan to capture baby Roo.
Bears sometimes sleep for a season. Winnie disappeared from my life when I worked as consultant physician to the U.S. Claims Service and then (as there were no more civilians hit by U.S. Army vehicles) as Chief Anthropologist of the U.S. Graves Registration Service. The supply of "skeletal remains" - that was the official name for bones - lasted longer. But finally there were only the isolated ones, with a little round hole in the skull, found here and there in Italy. By 1950 the service folded up.
I had passed my spare time, during the dark years in the great libraries of Rome, reading old, Latin medical books and writing essays on the history of medicine. The best defense against fascist propaganda was listening daily at 6 o'clock to the B.B.C and not touching printed matter unless it was 200 years old. Now I hoped to get a chair as professor of History of Medicine in Hungary. The iron curtain, however, did not hinder news coming out and I decided to try fortune elsewhere. The International Refugee Organisation offered to send me somewhere. Brasil looked big and green on the map. So I chose it.
The IRO was a very big organization, financed by the UN. It is my conviction that the UN would have saved a lot of money, if instead of organising, they would have paid a first class ticket on a luxury liner to every refugee, who asked for it.
We were dumped into an old coal-freighter and marooned on an island in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro.
This stinking spot of the globe got some publicity later on, when the Hungarian freedom fighters were landed there. They protested, there was a sort of mutiny, quite a few wanted to return to Hungary and some reentered illega1y Great Britain. They told the island story and were allowed to stay.
As a pupil of the stoic philosopher I had learned to divide the things into two groups: those which depend upon us and those which do not. To get away from the "Island of Flowers" as this tropical dustbin was (again: "officially") called did not depend upon me. So I waited.
One day, an agent from a lead-mine appeared in quest of useful greenhorns. He wanted mechanics, miners, bricklayers and a doctor for the first aid stations willing to accept the pay and the title of a male nurse. Enthusiastically, I signed up.
The lead mine had the advantage of not being surrounded by water. Else it combined dangers and disadvantages of the virgin forest such as spiders and snakes - with smoke, noise and filth of an old fashioned factory. A matter of fact description of the place would sound as hackneyed ideological propaganda. "The workers suffered from lead poisoning, their children were so full of worms, that they kept creeping out from their mouth and noses and the Portuguese who owned the mine brought precious race horses for his stud from Argentine. The superintendent played the role of the man, who wanted to help the workers, but could not. The French engineers suffered from the obsession of commanding an outpost of the foreign legion.
Every gambler (and every refugee) knows that Fate sets a limit to good luck. After that you lose. But there is an identical limit for rough luck. Once you have served your time of distress things change - and I had twelve years of utter misery on my account. Thus the tide turned. The French urgently needed a teacher for their daughters - somebody, who was willing to teach English, Latin, History and Mathematics in French in the Brazilian forest - and that was my very humble self. Aside from working as surgeon, obstetrician, paediatrician and what not I taught, and got even paid for it.
My teaching experience was small - and that's where the Bear comes in again. I remembered what Winnie had done for freeing Venice and I started teaching English with Edward Bear coming - bump, bump, bump - downstairs. The young ladies liked the story and made rapid progress. They showed considerably less enthusiasm for the declination Latin nouns.
Lead-poisoning, burns, explosion wounds and the rest kept me busy. I had to save time and simplify my teaching. "I'll translate Winnie into Latin and read a twin Bear" - I decided - and started translating right away. I would not dare to say that the first version was any good, but it worked. Les demoiselles accepted willingly Ciceros words, as long as they were pronounced by Eeyore. I carried on. One of the Frenchman, chief engineer Jean Watin, a brilliant humanist, who at the first occasion fled the place and flew to Paris got so enthusiastic about the undertaking, that he sent me Quicherat's priceless French-Latin dictionary.
My idyllic existence came to an end, when I was fired. I had suggested the lead-poisoned miners and smelters to get the hell out of the place and that was not what the superintendent wanted me to do. I left the mine with my dictionary and the fragment of the Latin Pooh and went to São Paulo, the hope-city of all European immigrants in Brasil. My bad luck seemed definitely gone. Soon I worked as assistant to the excellent Brasilian surgeon Dr. Egberto Silva. He paved my way back from a refugee's romantic misery into the agreeable, uninteresting existence of the average citizen.
The only remainder of the difficult start was Pooh, the Bear. I had caught him and he had caught me. I had not only a safe job I had also a hobby. Sao Paulo has a public library. I read slowly and with infinite pleasure Horatius and Petronius, Apuletus and old Cicero, I had once considered so dull. Everyone of them willingly furnished words and phrases for Mr. Milnes zoo. After seven short years I was tempted to say that the translation was printable.
This view however was shared by but a few. Robert Graves, to whom I had sent a copy, replied in elegant Latin that he was going to use it teaching his two boys. An expert on teaching Latin and eminent member of tire Orbilian Society wrote: "children do not begin the study of Latin till they are 11 or 12, and certainly learn nothing about some of the constructions that you very properly use in your translation until they are 13 or 14 Years of age. For instance the accusative-and-infinitive and the Ablative Absolute are not used in our Latin teaching till the end of the pupils second year, the gerundive and gerundium not till the third year and some of your subjunctive uses not till the third or even the fourth. So at the time, when pupils would be expected to understand your Latin properly they would already have reached the age, when the subject matter would be of no interest to them". Publishers shared the latter view wholeheartedly.
By that time I loved the Bear so much, that I did, what hopeless poets do the world over: I decided to print the book upon my own expense. Translating an Inter-American Congress of Pathology I earned the money; the agents of the book sold me (for 3 cheap Guineas) the right to distribute it free of charge - a right which I thought to possess already - and a Hungarian printer set the type on the machines of an Italian daily in São Paulo. My friends accompanied my undertaking by explaining, what I should have better, done with the money. They widely disagreed in their suggestions, but agreed in one point: that nobody would ever read the book. Today, I deeply regret, I refused to bet upon it. I could not only buy the astronomical telescope, I am longing for, but could build a nice observatory too ...
Printer's ink has magic properties. The small, white-covered São Paulo edition with it's innumerable misprints and errors was well received the world over. Humanists from Australia asked for a copy, booksellers from Oxford for 50. At Christmas 1959 the great Sweden publishing house Svenska Bokförlaget published 2000 copies. Touching letters from Scandinavian latinists and 2000 more copies followed.
Now Methuen - who 2 years before had refused to run the risk - reconsidered his decision: Winnie got a sword and a helmet, and Piglet - vexillifer Porcellus - set out with him to conquer the world - or, at least the Republic of Humanists.
I am, of course, very proud, but feel rather lonesome now. "Just like him" - Eeyore would say. - First, he left his father, good old Mister Milne. You were a good stepfather to him - but off he stumped again.
It is very nice to hear Winnie-ille-Pu is read and commented upon. "At pulchrum est digito monstrari et dicier: hic est" - (it is wonderful to be pointed at and hear the people say: that's he) - he probably quotes Persus. But what should I do without him? He won't come back. - He might get a teaching job, exchange his warlike attires for cap and gown and forget me ...
Perhaps I could catch him again by means of a trap. And it must be a cunning trap: I think if I started to translate him into Greek he would stay with me during my lifetime. After all I am past fifty ... and it would take some time to get Pooh into the company of Achilles, Odysseus and the other Homeric heroes.