Zygmunt Frankel

SIBERIAN DIARY


FATHER

My father was born in 1883 in Ustrzyki Dolne, another small town but without Wieliczka's mineral riches or proximity to a large city. The population was a mixed Polish, Jewish, and Ukrainian one, in about equal proportions. There was a small river flowing through the town where crayfish could be found under the stones. My grandfather Moses Fränkel had come to Ustrzyki Dolne from the larger town of Przemysl aged about twenty, to be married to 13-year-old Tova Singer; Jewish girls were often married at such an age in those days. The marriage was also typical in another way: a poor but intelligent and (religiously) educated boy from a respected family (his uncle in Przemysl, Rabbi Meisels, was the author of a commentary on a sacred text), and the daughter of a more prosperous family (they had a shop in Ustrzyki Dolne.) (This tradition is seen by sympathizers as a sign of the great respect the Jews have for learning; to others it might smack of selective breeding: the blending of business acumen and scholarly gifts.) The Singers have set my grandfather up - I am not sure whether as partner in the family business or on his own - and he prospered, and also, in due time, was elected the mayor of Ustrzyki Dolne, a post he held for a quarter of a century, until Poland's independence, when he was replaced by a Christian, Dr. Lenartowicz.

My grandmother's childbearing did not get off to a good start. During the first few years she had several miscarriages; she may simply have been too young. Then my father was born, and a couple of years later his sister Fanda. My father was fourteen when his mother died; of gall-stones, on the operating table of a Vienna hospital. My grandfather remarried and had four more children: my aunt Hela and uncles Edmund, Joseph, and Hermann.

My father attended the local Kheder, an orthodox school, at first, but later my grandfather transferred him to a secular high school, to get a solid all-round education. My father obtained his law degree in Lvov, and did some post-graduate studies in Vienna and Paris, travelling afterwards in England and Roumania, developing, in the latter country, an interest in oil- field deals, in which he was to specialize. (He had an album of postcards of all the places he had visited, saying that he preferred buying them to dragging along a camera to take less successful pictures.) Those must have been good and carefree years for him; as the eldest son, he had scooped up the cream of the family's prosperity (his much younger half-brothers were to be poor students at the Vienna University later on, when my grandfather was older and not the mayor of Ustrzyki Dolne any more); and Lvov, Vienna, London, Paris, and Bucarest must have been exciting places for a young bachelor with some money in his pocket in those days.

When the war broke out he was called up and given the rank of second lieutenant on the strength of his academic degree. He served throughout the war as a junior liaison officer between the headquarters of the Austro-Hungarian army and Pilsudski's Polish Legion which was fighting within the framework of that army on the Russian front. Formally attached to the Legion, my father never took part in the fighting, although he may have seen something of it on his travels between the headquarters and the front, especially the defence of Przemysl, to which I shall return later.

After the war he took up law practice in Lvov, specializing in oil contracts. It was not a full-time job and needed not be; a single major contract could leave the lawyer with enough to live on comfortably for between one and three years. The catch, of course, was to get the contracts, but my father seemed to be good at it.

Was my father a fanatic? By all accounts, he was very independent and strong-willed, terms which are more complimentary than "obstinate" or "stubborn"; or perhaps independence and strong will are mostly associated with success, and obstinacy and stubbornness with failure.

For example there was the defence of Przemysl (by the Austro-Hungarian army and the Polish Legion, against the Russians. Przemysl finally fell, but was retaken a few months later.) My father must have seen something of it, and a few years after the war went to see a film, "The Defence of Przemysl". Cinema was still young and imperfect then, but already mature in kitsch and propaganda, and the discrepancy between what my father remembered and what he saw on the screen was such that he vowed there and then that he would never set foot in a cinema again, and he never did. Stella and I went to the movies with our mother or our governess, and later with friends or alone, but never with our father.

Or piano recitals. He liked music, but early in their marriage - perhaps even before - he informed my mother that while he would always be eady to go to a violin recital it would be a waste of time to try to talk him into attending a piano one. He had nothing against the piano as such; my mother played it and he sincerely enjoyed listening to her; he must have had something against the typical Polish piano virtuoso and, true to his decision, never attended a recital.

Until I and Stella were born, our parents lived quite comfortably on my father's earnings from oil contracts. A case he had won in court about the time of my birth earned him some extremely high sum as well as renown in legal circles. Now that he was a father of a family, he thought of a more solid and secure financial base; southern Poland was under no obligation to send new oil wells gushing until his children grew up; and while it did, the lucrative field was attracting a growing competition. My father faced a choice: on the strength of his reputation, he had been offered a high and well-paid post in one the ministries - industry, I think - which would provide a steady and secure salary in addition to the interest on his capital. Or he could use his money to go into business on his own, and he chose the second alternative. My mother was all for the steady job which would provide the greater peace of mind. My father replied that he couldn't see himself as a government clerk going to the office every morning, that he was carefully considering two alternative safe and profitable investment plans, and, as usual, he had it his own way. Both alternatives consisted of spreading the money over several investments, so as not to keep all his eggs in one basket. The difference was that in the first case the investments would be in fully formed and finalized enterprises, bringing in steady profit from the start, with my father comfortably sitting on his laurels and not doing much. The other alternative called for the pumping back of a part of the profits into a medium-sized brick factory in the village of Zawadow, near Stryj, and a sawmill in the Carpathians, expanding and modernizing them for the next ten years; the family would live more modestly till then, but, with the plan completed, income would take off at aboput the right time, when all of us were ten years older.

Once more my mother favoured the more modest but secure plan and my father the more adventurous one, and once again he had it his own way. It must be said at once that the second plan was also quite safe, and that much of the property acquired was profitable from the start. A part of it, our house in Lvov, brought in the rent from the other flats. The purchases in Zawadow included, apart from the brick factory, some land leased to peasants, and a small villa with spacious grounds were we could go for our summer vacations. There was also a small adjoining farm with a large fruit garden, a few cows and horses, and a workshop, rented by a German family with two teenage sons. A couple of years before the war, with the friction between Poland and Germany growing, they left for Germany, and later sent a brief but friendly letter to the resident manager of the property, with a photograph of the father and two sons with swastika bands on their sleeves. There was no hint of anti-Polish or antisemitic feeling in the letter (unless the photograph was meant to speak for itself); they wrote that in spite of happy memories of Zawadow everyone always feels best in his own country among his own people, and they asked to convey their regards to Dr. Fr änkel and his family.

In spite of some occasional difficulties with the brick factory - an oscillating market, a couple of strikes, and the need for new machinery and a railway extension to the factory - my father's plan worked, and within ten years he was looking forward to a greater income with a greater peace of mind.. He could not have foreseen that when the ten years were up the Russians would come, nationalize everything, and arrest him. He did seem to have a keen political insight; he had a copy of "Mein Kampf" in his library, and told me once that Hitler was a threat under whose rule the Poles, and especially the Jews, could not expect any favours, but that he was unique among politicians by saying openly, in this book of his, exactly what he thought and what he was planning to do. It was a good thing, father said, that he would never be allowed to carry out his plans. Father was an old Legion officer, with two campaign decorations in the drawer of his desk: a gold-edged Austro-Hungarian cross, and the bronze Polish Medal of Independence; and I was a young fully brainwashed schoolboy, both of us ardent believers in the invincibility of the Polish army.

After their marriage, my parents lived in Lvov, an old and handsome city, leading a pleasant life, with only one thing marring their first six or seven years together: they had no children. This time it was not a case of too young a bride or miscarriages, and the Lvov doctors could not find anything wrong. My parents decided to try Vienna, across the border now but still a prestigious centre of European medicine and a family tradition. (There is even a literary connection: my mother carried a scar of an appendicitis operation performed on her as a young girl by Dr. Schnitzler, the writer's brother.)

My parents were preparing for their trip when unmistakable signs indicated that I was on my way. My mother went for her confinement to the family home in Wieliczka, where I was born at about three o'clock in the morning on the 10th of June 1928. My sister Stella followed a year and a half later. My parents and their families heaved a great sigh of relief, and today, more than half a century later, having come this far in my notes, so have I. It has been heavy going, writing about things I have no personal memory of, and about a lot of relatives, some of them long dead, or remote, or, to be quite frank, a bit boring. (There is a design in this: they will reappear briefly towards the end of this book, some as survivors and some as victims of the war.)

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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