Before the war, our family lived in Lvov, then in Eastern Poland. It was occupied by the Russians in September 1939. My father was arrested shortly afterwards as a capitalist, lawyer, and former Polish Legion officer, and a few months later my mother, my sister, and I were deported to Russia, returning after the war. I was eleven at our deportation and seventeen when we came back. This book is an attempt at an autobiography of those years.
I have often regretted not having kept a diary, especially during that period, especially when I began to think about this book. Hindsight and the passage of time play tricks with one's memory, erasing or smudging some details and altering others. The ageing author is not the youngster he is writing about, and the world is not the same either. Then, one evening, as my mother and I - she in her eighties and me pushing fifty - were having coffee and reminiscing about those times, she said: "Oh, look what I found," and showed me some yellowed pages from a notebook, tightly covered on both sides with her handwriting, and a bunch of letters and photographs. I recognised the diary she had started at our deportation and kept for a couple of years, regularly at first, the entries growing fewer and farther between as our life in Russia settled into more of a routine. The diary consisted of brief, matter-of-fact notes, but, as I sat over it alone later that night, it brought back many things I thought I had forgotten completely, and they in turn brought others, unmentioned in the diary; and I was as ready to start as I would ever be.
The first and immediate difficulty was where to start. The midnight knock on the door when two Russian officers and a soldier with a bayonet on his rifle came to take us to the railway station would be too late; one had to tell something about the family that was being deported so as not to have to go into disrupting and annoying flashbacks and footnotes afterwards. The second difficulty would be hindsight. It is not only that during most of our stay in Russia we did not know whether we would ever return to Poland, or how the war would end. Two minor examples, both connected with poetry. A schoolfriend once told me how he had watched one of our lady teachers having sex with a Red Army officer in the woods near Barnaul. First, he said, the officer took off his belt with the revolver. Afterwards, there were "Suuuuuuch stains of blood and sperm on the blanket", using his thumb and index finger, held about five centimetres apart, to show the size of the stains. We speculated whether the blood was due to our teacher having lost her virginity on that occasion or simply menstruation, and whether the stains of sperm meant that the officer withdrew in time, not wishing to make her pregnant. Some years later, I read Lorca's "Ballad of the Unfaithful Wife", and the gypsy taking off his belt with the revolver immediately fell into position beside the Russian officer in the Siberian wood seducing our teacher and has remained there ever since; but at the time there was only the Russian officer. There were also two summers when, together with other high school pupils, due to a lot of men being away at war or already killed, I had to spend a month at a kolkhoz helping with the harvest. Our harvest was sugar beet and we had to dig or pull the things up and pile them into stacks. The beet, having been planted as a small seed and then expanded to their grown-up size, would leave a smooth tightly packed fist-sized hole in the ground. Some years later, reading Dylan Thomas's "Especially When The October Wind" I stopped flabbergasted at "with fists of turnips punishes the land". And so on. There is a strong temptation to rewrite this book, putting all those things in. It would be enormous fun, but the book would be ten times as long and I would have to live a long time to finish it.
Returning to where to start, at first I thought that going back a year or two would do: brief portraits of my parents, sister, and myself, and then the outbreak of the war, preceded perhaps by our last summer vacation. And then, in the stillness of the night, there came timid little tugs at my sleeve. The news that I was thinking about such a book must have spread, and relatives, close and remote, many of them dead long before the war, whom I knew only from family lore, and getting more forgotten from year to year, were begging to be included, be it ever so briefly, in the pages of a real book, as likely as not the only one ever going to be written about our family. And, I thought, why not? In some ways, to some extent, I have been a part o all of them, and they, of me. I would even do more. It is a custom to dedicate one's book to someone or to someone's memory; and, upon reflection, I would like to dedicate this one to everyone in its pages: parents, family, relatives, friends, acquaintances, even - an uncommon generosity - ill wishers, stopping of course short of the Nazis, contact with whom was unintentionally spared us by the deportation; to those who may read it and to those for whom it came too late; to my classmate Alla Druzhinina to whom I was rude when she was in love with me while I was in love with Ada Korsakovich who was in love with Mishka Sysov who was in love with someone else; to Vladimir Kononov, the manager and chief instructor of the Barnaul Aeroclub, who took me up in a little two-seater biplane for my first parachute jumps; to Murka, from the song of that name, because characters from books or songs can sometimes be more real than real people, who was shot dead one dark night many years before for betraying her gang to the police; and to the Russian border guard who, on our return to Poland, confiscated my collection of hilarious short stories by the recently black-listed Zoshchenko, but only after asking whether I have finished it.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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