Zygmunt Frankel

SIBERIAN DIARY


HOME

I remember my father as tall, slim, and stern, with wavy black hair, grey on the temples, and a trim military moustache. He wore old-fashioned stiff high collars and carried a walking stick when he went out. On the back of his hands with the long slim fingers the veins often stood out and I liked holding his hand. He never struck me and never raised his voice; but he could put on a hint of steel in his eyes and voice which for me and Stella (and, I suspect, occasionally mother as well) could be worse than both.

My mother: medium height, gentle face and voice; quiet and kind, to us and everyone else. In discussions of someone's nasty behavior she would quote the old saying that to understand everything is to forgive everything. Father and I would argue.

Two other members of our household, both young women: Aniela, cook and maid of all work, a plain but pleasant village girl pushing thirty, and Antosia, younger, prettier, and better educated, who started out as our nanny and continued as governess. At first Stella and I called her Panna (Miss) Antosia. but later shortened it to Panantosia.

Our summer vacations in Wieliczka, Ustrzyki, and Zawadow were only interludes. ("W" is always pronounced as "v" in Polish, and "cz" and "trz" as "ch": "Vyelichka", "Ooschiki Dolne", "Zavaduv".) For the rest of the year our home town was Lvov, and an old, graceful, and lovely town it was. There was even a song: "And if I were to be born again, I would only be born in Lvov; and it's no use arguing; there is no place like Lvov. The rich man and the beggar are brothers here, and everyone wears a smile on his face; and the girls make this town sweet like chocolate and honey."

Having left Lvov on a deportation train at the age of eleven, I did not have the opportunity to compare it to other great cities or its girls to theirs. Even at that age, I was rather sceptical about brotherhood of rich and poor based solely on geography. But it is certainly easier to be happy or friendly in a lovely city than in an ugly one, and Lvov was resplendent with parks and alleys, chestnut trees, greenery, old buildings, ponds, fountains, a famous railway station with a glass roof, the university and the polytechnic, and, on the outskirts, the Wulka hills where we flew kites in summer and sledded in winter.

Our house, of three floors, stood in a quiet district on the corner of Potocki and Reymont streets. Its own corresponding corner was built in the form of an octagonal turret, resulting in a small octagonal room on each floor. The wall on the Potocki Street side also had a small niche with the bust of the poet Slowacki. Our apartment occupied the whole of the second floor. There was the small octagonal guest room; the adjoining dining room; the drawing room with two large allegorical oil paintings, "Summer" and "Autumn", each represented by a large winged figure; my father's study with leather-covered furniture and a large desk, one wall taken up by a large bookcase, and a smaller table with an Underwood typewriter; our parents' bedroom; Stella's and mine bedroom; Antosia's small room; and a passage behind the kitchen where Aniela slept.

The ground floor was divided into two flats. The larger and more comfortable one was occupied by Dr. Kops, his wife, their son Lucek, a couple of years older than myself, their two little dogs, mother and daughter, and Lucek's airplane models, flying and scale. Passionately keen on aviation, Lucek infected me, and I soon knew by heart the names and details of every type of Polish military plane in service. He also guided me through the building of my first, rubber-powered model. (After the war, true to his childhood passion, he became a pilot in the Polish air force.)

In the smaller flat across the hall there lived a poor Jewish tailor, Mr. Sokal, with his wife and two children, a boy and a girl. The children were younger than Stella and me, spoke faulty Polish with a strong Yiddish accent, and we rarely played together and did not become particularly good friends. Above our apartment there was an attic occupied by two students, one of them a portraitist of Antosia.

There were also three basement flats, with windows at street level. One was occupied by Kolynyczowa, our janitor, an elderly widow very strict with all children in all matters pertaining to noise, movement, or messing up the little courtyard, whom we saw as our own local witch. She had her late husband's photograph, a print of Christ with a bleeding heart, and a crucifix on the wall of her one-room flat, a gramophone on a small table, and a collection of records with waltzes, tangoes, and Jan Kiepura and Caruso arias, which she would put on for us in her rare friendly moods. In the next basement flat lived Zubik, an elderly beer- loving and chain-smoking house painter with a drooping blond moustache and pale blue eyes, both made paler still by beer. His wife was slim, gentle, and quiet, with a persistent soft cough. Their children were already grown up and married. In the third, larger and better basement flat, lived a younger couple, Mr. and Mrs. Mateusz, with their daughter Ewa, my age, a pretty and slim blond girl, with all the postures and languorous sidelong glances of a cinema vamp. Her best friend was Augusta, a plump dark girl from across the street, and they would hold long whispering sessions in our garden, glancing over their shoulder at the boys and giggling. Ewa's father worked in an office or a bank, and they looked upon their present lodgings as temporary; and indeed, shortly before the war, they moved into a better flat on the first floor of a house farther down the street.

My own two best friends, Kazik and Witek, lived in a tall modern house on the other side of Reymont Street. Witek's father was an architect, and Kazik's the janitor of the house who also made some extra money dressing hares during the shooting season. Kazik had a supply of the slightly pitted lead shot extracted from the bodies, a valuable commodity on the junior exchange market.

Stella, Ewa, Ewa's friend Augusta from across the street, and the tailor's daughter sometimes joined Witek, Kazik, and me in our games in the garden, but no great camaraderie developed on that plane. They didn't care much about Old Shatterhand or Winnetou The Red-Skin Gentleman who were our idols - Karl May's books were our Bible and had to be reserved well in advance in the little lending library around the corner from our school - and they took the parts of captive squaws with less than wild enthusiasm, especially when it involved being tied to a tree.

The garden behind the courtyard, surrounded by a tall wooden fence, was large and neglected. There was a gazebo among lilac bushes; behind it were neglected cherry and apple trees, more bushes, tall grass, weeds, and nettles, with narrow paths winding among them. The nettles were enemy armies to be massacred with a wooden sword, and the gazebo a fort to be held against attacking Indians. There were marvellous robber and pirate hideouts in the garden, and perfect turns of the paths for an ambush. Empty conserve tins and cardboard boxes served as targets for catapult and archery practice.

In the courtyard there was a small carpentry with a lovely smell of wood shavings and glue, rented by a friendly handsome young carpenter with a blond moustache, to whom one could always turn when a wooden toy broke down or one needed a piece of plywood to try out one's new fretsaw on; and with whom Antosia (I wasn't to hear about it till much later) had a steady love-affair of long standing, in spite of his being married and the father of a small family. He had a younger brother, Staszek, then serving in the army, who took up with Aniela, and in due course they became engaged. On Staszek's evenings off he and Aniela would seclude themselves in a little dark passage behind the kitchen where a large wickerwork trunk almost blocked the passage, with a lot of creaking issuing from the trunk. Whenever I walked in on them - always intercepted and delayed by Antosia who would be in the kitchen reading or embroidering - I would find them sitting on the trunk rather flushed and with Aniela's clothes in disarray. Antosia and Aniela were good friends and would exchange long whispered confidences about the two brothers.

Two more lodgers, young students, were renting the attic. One of them drew well, and once did a good and complimentary likeness of Antosia in pencil, which took several long sittings while his roommate was out. Having heard that a portrait was in progress, and being something of an artist myself (I could draw Mickey Mouse with my eyes closed), I demanded to see how it's done, and with some foot-dragging on the part of both artist and model was finally admitted to one of the sittings. From what I know about art now, the pencil sketch shouldn't have taken more than an hour or so. There must have been different things to be learned from a brawny young carpenter and from a gifted young student living in an attic.

In winter Kazik, Witek, and I built snowmen, threw snowballs, and took our sleds to the Wulka hills on the outskirts of the town. Wulka was also a fine place in summer for flying kites, playing cowboys and Indians, sailing model boats on the small pond there, and fishing for sticklebacks and minnows.

# # #

1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
You are welcome to print-out this material for your personal reading, but it is illegal to modify or sell it


feedbackmain Siberian Diary menu

feedback | main Siberian Diary menu