When I yanked my suitcase from the swirling luggage carousel, it landed on the floor with a thud. A paper tag had been wrapped around the handle at the check-in counter in Australia. “HEAVY,” it read. Inside the suitcase wedged in-between my clothes, cardboard boxes and metal boxes were filled with old documents, papers, and letters written on thin airmail paper. My wheeled hand-luggage was heavy too, filled with more paper. And black-and white photos of my grandparents that had been snapped in Warsaw in the 1930’s, plus pictures of a five year old girl with flowers in her hair frolicking in the mountains near Dachau, Germany; my mother in 1947 after she’d been flown there in a military plane from Poland a year earlier.
At home, I lay out the items carefully on a table. My mother has downsized recently. She’d given me this trove of memorabilia for safe-keeping. It will help to round out my book manuscript, enable me to describe what things looked like, the mountains towering behind her as she dipped her toes in a river, a year after her tummy had ached and gurgled while shivering with hunger in the dust and rubble of a bombed-out Warsaw.
A rectangular black cardboard box lies on my table, stuck together with tape. Inside is a ruler with measurement lines so tiny that I reach for my glasses. Scratched into the white resin is a barely legible date: 18.III.1932, and a name: Julek. Julek had gifted the slide rule to my grandfather while they studied engineering at Danzig University. (Julek later committed suicide when he was about to be arrested by the Germans.)
My grandfather once published an article about his slide rule in an engineering magazine.* “At the moment of my arrest I had the slide rule in my pocket,” he wrote, describing the day the Gestapo grabbed him, in 1944. Three months later, the SS officer who'd interrogated him escorted him to a labor camp.“He stopped me before the gate and gave me back my slide rule,” Zdzislaw wrote. “My slide rule came with me through Auschwitz, Natzweiler and Dachau camps. I was able to smuggle my rule even when naked in the showers. I kept it under my feet.”
The slide rule might be obsolete–replaced by software tools and apps that generate the complex calculations for constructing buildings–but its journey through history is not.
*Przygoda, Zdzislaw, Slide Rule Column Brings back Memories, Canadian Consulting Engineer, July 1983