Assignation with An Assassination
Story and photos by Wanda Hennig

The excesses of a sublime Polish dinner lull the writer into a state of python-like sedation. Into this ricochets the shrapnel of a South African nightmare.

Krakow Castle

There has been wild boar and roasted venison. Salmon smoked on cherrywood and pierogi stuffed with forest-foraged mushrooms. A fish soup made from six kinds of fish. The restaurant’s version of befsztyk tatarski (steak tartare), and of smalec (pork fat spread), done with apples and onion. Raspberry mousse cheesecake, the berries being in season. Several vodkas: one with seven herbs and nuts and another, a special 14-year-old barrel-aged prunus padus (bird cherry) infusion, both made in-house.

Polish Food

Between courses, Veronika Baran has shared how her father, owner-chef Jan Baran, had been persuaded by her mother, his wife, 20 years previously—after the fall of communism in Poland—to open their popular Krakow restaurant, Pod Baranem. A portrait of the couple high on the wall near the entrance is one of a number of bright abstracts in the main dining area by acclaimed Polish artist Edward Dwurnik.

Both Jan Baran’s daughter and his son, Patrick, who works in the kitchen alongside him, typical of younger Poles, speak good English. They have told me in some detail how their dad struggled during the 1945 to 1989 post-WW2 Soviet era in Poland. His awful jobs under the communist regime. The deprivation. The grim work and living conditions. I listen enrapt—and when Jan Baran, via words and gestures, tells them to tell me I have a Polish palate, feel curiously elated. Like I’m doing my late dad proud. He was a Pole. He loved to cook.

Touring Poland in the Autumn

I’m in my second week in Poland. It’s October, the country’s “golden autumn,” thus named for the intense Fall color palette. My first week was spent on a road trip with a friend exploring our “roots.” Steered by a Polish friend of a friend he appropriated to be our guide, we’ve boated in the Masurian Lake district; visited historic Grunwald, site of the famous battle; explored “Teutonic” Malbork; visited Copernicus’s birthplace Torun. And so much more. Both our late dads independently emigrated to South Africa after WW2. Both had served in the Polish armed forces, his as a pilot and mine with the merchant marines. My friend now lives in the UK. I live between San Francisco and South Africa.

Polish Kiosk

I arrive in Poland informed on the atrocities of the Holocaust. Beyond that, my friend, a history buff, has recommended books and together we’ve visited museums and cemeteries; spoken to the adult children of WW2 survivors. I’ve learned a lot I didn’t know about the wartime slaughter by both Nazi and Soviet forces of non-Jewish Poles: officers, intellectuals, landowners, Catholic priests, professionals. Why my grandfather was forced to flee Poland. Why my friend’s grandfather was likely murdered.

When he heads home after a week, I take the train from Warsaw to Krakow where my focus, as a culinary travel writer, is food. Eating food, photographing food, talking to chefs.

Cheesecake in Poland

Given the excesses of our foray into Jan Baran’s fresh, local, creative, contemporary take on the culinary renaissance going on in Poland—they know the hunter who shot the deer in a forest near Krakow and have photos of the beef farmer with his cows—I am feeling sated and python-like sedated when, in his stumbling English, my host drops the bomb.

“I have a friend who went to South Africa. He shot and killed a black man because the black man was a communist. My friend is in prison: more than 20 years.”

The revelation thwacks like a sucker-punch to the gut, delivered as it is without warning. Reflexively, because I know he was assassinated by a Pole, I blurt “Chris Hani?” A legend in death, Hani was almost as popular as Nelson Mandela at the time he was shot dead outside his home near Johannesburg, on April 10, 1993, by Janusz Walus, who in 1981 had emigrated to South Africa from what was then communist Poland.

Jan Baran shrugs when I ask him if it was Hani his friend killed. He doesn’t know the dead man’s name. With a wan smile he mentions his friend’s name. Janusz Walus. Says he was a good man before he went to South Africa. He says “communist” and “Soviet” several times and shakes his head.

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Read this article online at: Assignation with An Assassination

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