by Zygmunt Frankel
This ulcer first started bothering me a couple of years before the outbreak of war, when I had a grocery in Lvov.
A wife and two children can be a little strenuous at times, and then running a business of your own is not the same as fulfilling eight hours a day for someone else; you have to keep the customers pleased, remember to order things, keep accounts, watch the prices and the competition; it's a responsible and nerve-wrecking job all right. The doctor put me on a diet; milk and easily digestible things, no pickles, no alcohol, and above all, no worry. He said worry is what causes it in the first place.
Milk I drank, and pickles and alcohol I avoided; but if I used to worry without the ulcer, how was I to stop now that I'd got one? So the ulcer stayed with me; it didn't get much worse, and it didn't get any better. Then the war broke out and, after a few weeks of fighting, Poland was divided between Germany and Russia. Lvov found itself on the Russian side. A little later I was arrested - without a formal charge but obviously because I was a capitalist and what they called an unreliable element. They came to get me at night, an officer and two soldiers with bayonets on their rifles, and there I was, getting dressed and telling my family it's all a misunderstanding which will certainly be cleared up the next morning - well, in a few days at most - and already, even then, not believing a word of it, and my hands shaking so much I couldn't button up my trousers.
Talk about women's intuition. My wife went and did something which saved my life later on, although at the time it seemed a stupid thing to do and I had to keep myself from shouting at her in front of the Russians. She took all my winter clothing - long underwear, pullovers, scarves, a suit and a winter coat, and then, taking a warm blanket, she tied them into a big, heavy bundle and made me take it along. In the labour camp in northern Siberia I used to wear them all at the same time, with the blanket thrown over me like a cape, and although I got my share of frost bite, the cold didn't kill me like it killed so many others.
We were sent there after a couple of weeks in jail, travelling for a full fortnight on a goods train, forty men to a carriage, then a week on foot starting from a God-forsaken little station. And there it was, a tree in the woods with a piece of plywood nailed to it saying, "GOSLAG 79" in indelible pencil. Goslag was Gosudarstvennyi Lager, the Government Camp number seventy-nine. We and our guards were the personnel, the camp was yet to be built - by us - and the winter was approaching.
Something like one out of five prisoners died before the barracks were finished. The work was hard, the food was bad and the cold was getting worse all the time. At first we slept on twigs, with more branches and twigs made into a kind of low roof over the bedding, three or four people to a shelter. The guards slept on folding beds in canvas tents and I don't think it made much difference, but they were better dressed and better fed than we were and, I suppose, more used to the weather.
We built the camp from nothing, felling the trees for timber, cutting off branches, and dragging the trunks to the camp over the snow. The work could have kept us warm if only we'd had enough to eat. Our fare consisted of thin soup, a slice of half-baked bread that resembled clay more than anything else, and half a salt herring per person per day.
I remember standing there one morning during a roll-call, stuffing my bread ration under my coat (the stuff would arrive frozen solid, be chopped into rations with an axe, and had to be carried next to the body for an hour or so to thaw out) and thinking to myself: "All right, Yehoshua Finkelstein, this is it. This is where you are going to end, at the age of thirty-two, leaving behind a widow and two orphans. You don't know all the details and the exact time yet. It may be in a few days or a few weeks, in the woods or in the camp; maybe a falling tree will kill you, or the ulcer will finish you off because of the bread and the herring. Or maybe, exhausted and underfed, you will freeze to death one night; but these are only details. The main thing is you've had it." And I remember I wasn't even particularly scared of the thought, just resigned. I was too tired, mentally and physically, to feel strongly about anything. When you're really tired it doesn't seem to matter whether you live or die. I knew I had a wife and children in Lvov, a fortnight's train ride away, but somehow they weren't real. It was a kind of abstract knowledge, a hazy dream I once had, without any relation to the present. The only reality was crawling out into the sharp, dry snow ot the Siberian dawn, the bread thawing out under your coat, the soup, almost water but warm, the woods, the rhythmical rise and fall of the axe, the warning shout and the crash of the tree falling, then cutting off the branches, then the trunks being dragged across the snow, your body almost horizontal with the rope cutting into your shoulder, half a herring skeleton cleaned to the last fibre, and, at long last, crawling into the shelter on all fours for the night.
One's brain was numbed and there was nothing to plan and nothing to think about. Most of the people who died died at that stage. They were shopkeepers, lawyers, insurance agents and businessmen, not always young and not always healthy, and there also were some cases of people not stepping aside on purpose when a tree was falling.
Our guards were not bad fellows and, except for better clothing and food and not having to work, not much better off than we were. They were simple peasants or workers, quite as far away from their families as we were from ours, and under just as stiff a discipline. Although they carried rifles and revolvers, everyone knew there was nowhere to escape to and no point in mutiny, so they were rather work foremen, better dressed and fed but sharing with us the woods, the cold and the isolation. They were only supposed to supervise the work but every now and then one of them would sling his rifle across his back or push his holster out of the way, take an axe from one of us and get to work; partly to warm up, partly to show us how it should be done, partly to help a tired prisoner, but mainly, I think, because their hands were itching to do some honest non-military work. Sometimes a guard would reach into his pocket and give us a little of the coarse tobacco they called makhorka, or show us how to make shoes of a kind from tree bark. And there were times, shuffling back to camp at dusk through knee-deep snow with a blizzard blowing, when a guard and I, both of us drawing our coats tighter with each gust, would catch each other's eye with strange solidarity and send a Russian obscenity at the weather.
A few weeks after our arrival the first huts were ready and we moved into them. The Russians got us some sheet-metal barrels to make into stoves. One good thing about that camp was that there was no shortage of firewood. The first evening in the first barrack was a sort of holiday. We all crowded into it, the stove was brought to red heat, the Russians arrived with a balalaika and a bottle of vodka, and, after a short speech from the commander, everyone got about a spoonful, and the Russians began to sing, with us joining in the best we could.
And as I was sitting there in my shirt sleeves in front of the red-hot stove, deliciously warm and a bit dizzy from the fire and the vodka and the day's work, I suddenly realized that I haven't heard from my ulcer for a long time. Siberia and the labour camp did, in a few weeks, what the expensive doctor in Lvov couldn't achieve over two years.
And the Yasha Finkelstein (I have been re-named by the guards who found my first name a bit complicated) who sat by the stove singing "Galyah" out of tune was not the same man as Yehoshua, the son of Reuben, who used to run a grocery in Lvov. My beginnings of a pot belly were gone, my muscles were stronger and I was rarely out of breath. I was beginning to find satisfaction in the keen blade of an axe descending with force upon the exact spot I aimed for. Recklessly, in a relaxed moment, I would form my initials or as much of my signature as I could while pissing on the white snow. And, as though a cataract was coming off my eyes, I was slowly beginning to notice the Siberian pine forest.
You see, the nature I had known up to my arrest was petty, something little small change; a stream and some fields outside Lvov, the municipal park where you took your family on weekends and bought pretzels and fed nuts to half-domesticated squirrels. The forest in which our camp stood was primeval and wild. The trees were huge and enormously tall, the undergrowth thick, and the snow marked with the trails of wolves, foxes, bears, and hares. The forest was proud and alive and one stood before it in awe.
When I was a little boy in the kheder we came across the sentence "My eyes have seen the glory of the Lord". I had to learn it by heart in Hebrew then, but I never understood it until I became a prisoner in Siberia. There is something out of this world about a Siberian forest and you begin to understand the people who say that God and Nature may be one and the same thing. The single trees were mortal, prey to our axes and saws, yet the forest was something apart from the timber we felled. It was immortal in some form or other and intensely alive. And something of its life force was finding its way into those of us who survived the first months.
Now, in the evening, warm huts awaited us and we would sit around the red-hot stove, stripped to the waist, going through our shirts and cracking lice between our thumbnails, and sometimes passing a makhorka cigarette around. It wasn't too bad and it lasted for over a year. On June 22, I941, the Germans attacked Russia.
Almost immediately we, the former Polish citizens condemned to prisons and labour camp as enemies of Communism became brother victims of Fascist aggression, and we were released to join the newly-organized Polish Army under General Anders. Through some political trouble - it was only later that we learned what it was - that army left Russia for the Middle East, to fight alongside the British. A Communist Polish government - an alternative to the pre-war one now in exile in London - was formed in Russia, as well as a new Polish army which fought alongside the Russians, and, through some delays and foot-dragging, I found myself in that second army.
(The political trouble was that when Anders was organizing the first army, fifteen thousand Polish officers taken prisoner by the Russians were missing. The Russians said their camp or camps have been overrun by the Germans. Then the advancing Germans discovered, in the Katyn woods near Smolensk, mass graves of about five thousand of those officers. They invited the Red Cross to inspect them, and it was obvious that they had been shot by the Russians in 1940, a year before the Germans invaded Russia. The Russians called it a lie, broke off relations with the London Polish government, and made up a new government and a new army more to their taste. It is still not know where they shot the other ten thousand.)
The war is a separate story. I did most of it on foot, east to Stalingrad and then west to Berlin. The memory of the labour camp stood in relation to it like the lost Garden of Eden. I was wounded twice and I killed repeatedly, by bullet, bayonet and hand grenade. I was towed on skis by a tank, crossed rivers holding a rifle over my head and pushing ice-floes aside with my shoulder, laid under fire and sun in the dusty steppes with the Germans all over the place and thinking thirst was the worst part of it, and I took part in the spring and autumn offensives when the knee-deep mud slowed you down to a snail's pace right in front of the German machine guns. There was one ray of light in all this. My wife and children had escaped into Russia before the Germans overran Lvov, managed to get in touch with me, and I was able to spend my rare short leaves with them.
After the war we returned to Poland and then, shortly afterwards, left for Israel. I am not a big Zionist but it is nice for a Jew to have a country of his own. If the worst comes to the worst we shall be better trained and armed than the ones in the Warsaw ghetto. And we are rooted here now; the kids are married and there are two little grandchildren.
The old woman and I are running a little grocery shop, and live in a small flat, nicely furnished, with a radio, a frigidaire, and a carpet on the floor. My wife is talking about a washing machine and, later on, a vacuum cleaner, and I don't see why not. We manage to put a little money aside, not a lot, but some. I have a couple of smart suits; most of the time the weather is too hot for anything but shirtsleeves, but on a cool evening when you go to the cinema or to visit friends, not to mention marriages or birthdays, it's pleasant to be well dressed.
The past I remember well, although most of the time it sleeps in some little drawer at the back of my mind, dimmed by the present life and the daily preoccupations.
Some evenings, when my wife is gone to visit a neighbour or one of the kids, I switch the radio off and walk around the house and let my mind go blank. Then, after a while, those years come back to me. The nice flat and carpet on the floor disappear and the pine forests of Siberia are rustling for me once again and a guard's balalaika plays against the flames of a campfire in the night. And I go into the kitchen, and cut myself a slice of bread, and sit down and take a bite, without butter or salt or anything, and chew it slowly, smiling and listening to the taste of good, simple bread, which is the best and greatest of all the foods in the world, and it warms your heart up like vodka, or campfire, or friends.
Only with the crust I have to be careful because my ulcer is back. The doctor put me on a diet but it still bothers me a lot. I'm afraid that this time it won't be all that easy to get rid of.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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