Zygmunt Frankel

SIBERIAN DIARY


MIDNIGHT BATTERIES

Starting school was a great event. My parents bought me a satchel with shoulder straps (carrying a briefcase in one hand was believed to deform a child's spine over the years); a pair of slippers to wear at school (to protect the wooden parquet floor); and a school cap. The regulation cap of our school had a navy-blue, four-cornered, Polish army style, top; a dark-red band; and a long black lacquered visor. The top bore a stamped-metal Polish eagle, and the band the number of our school. Otherwise there was no uniform and one could wear anything one liked to school. We were very proud of our new caps but it didn't take us long to discover that a brand-new cap marked one as absolute greenhorn, and we proceeded to put a few cracks into the visors, bends into the eagles, and artificial wear into the tops, rubbing them on the pavement and jumping on them from time to time. After that, the older boys were less reluctant to be seen with us in the street.

There were about twenty boys in our class. Three or four were Jews: Schönberg, Rosenberg, Pineles, and I. Pineles was the questionable one because his parents were said to have converted to Christianity and he had been seen kneeling and crossing himself on a class visit to a historic church. All four of us were among the top students, and I also held the top place in drawing until the third grade when Andrzej Rzewuski showed up. He was unsurpassed in drawing horses; grazing, walking, trotting, galloping, rearing, singly and in groups, with and without riders, the riders ranging from historic hussars with feathered wings on their armour to present-day uhlans, their lances lowered for the charge. We peacefully shared the laurels, with him ruling the equestrian world and me retaining aeroplanes, cars, tanks, landscape, and - my forte since early childhood - drawing Mickey Mouse with my eyes closed.

My reading started innocently enough. Not knowing Ala or Marek personally I couldn't care less which of them had a cat and which a dog, and whether it was the cat who was white and the dog black or the other way around. And then, at some stage, the printed page began to tell me stories.

I enrolled in a small lending library around the corner from our school, changing books almost every day; going, over the next four years, through all they had by Jack London, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Fennimore Cooper, and, above all, Karl May.

Ah, Karl May. Ah, his Wild West books, populated by Old Shatterhand, Winnetou The Redskin Gentleman, their friends, horses, and enemies. They were our Bible, Shakespeare, The Capital, and Mein Kampf rolled into one. When I first brought a book by Karl May home, my father took one look at it and said "Oh-oh".
"What's the matter?" my mother asked.
"He's got a book by Karl May. It probably says somewhere on the back cover: 'If you've read one book by Karl May, you will read them all'." We checked and he was right; and so was the inscription. There were long waiting lists for each of Karl May's books at the little library, and whenever my friends and I found ourselves in an ambiguous situation we would ask ourselves not what religion, society or our parents prescribed but what Winnetou or Old Shatterhand would do in our place. Their weapons - Old Shatterhand's revolver rifle and Winnetou's silver inlaid double-barrelled gun, neither of which ever missed, were more real to us than Rosenberg's father's revolver which Rosenberg once showed us when his parents were out, unlocking with a piece of bent wire the desk drawer where it was kept.

Twenty-four hours per day was obviously not enough to attend school, have lunch, do one's homework, play in the garden, read all those books, and still get a good night's sleep. Something had to go and it was the sleep. I had a little torch which threw a good circle of light onto the printed page under the blankets at night, and my parents had no means of knowing that I was now spending most of my pocket money on fresh batteries instead of sweets and chewing gum. (I have read, in one of the books, that there was an alternative method, using glowworms in a bottle. But glowworms were out of season most of the year, and then one would have to catch a lot of them, and feed them something, so I just stuck to my torch and batteries.)

I would often experiment with what I read. There was one book about a young boy living with the gypsies, travelling in a wagon and eating meat roasted over open fire. He might have been stolen as a baby, but I think there was a wicked uncle after his inheritance who had tried to get rid of him, and he was in hiding. The good gypsy woman looking after him had darkened his skin with walnut juice so that he should not be recognized before he was ready to claim his due.

I already knew something about gypsies because every now and then an old gypsy woman would make the rounds of the houses in our street and tell fortunes to housemaids, cooks, and governesses. Occasionally, even the mistress of the house, pretending amusement, would cross the gypsy's palm with silver and offer her own to be read from. Aniela and Antosia would go into a huddle with her on the back stairs; the gypsy would take out a greasy pack of tarot cards and foretell a meeting with a dark stranger or a happy home with a blond young man, preceded by some complications but ending happily. If she saw anything worse in the cards she must have kept it to herself.

In her absence, Aniela and Antosia tried by more amateurish means to peep into the future. They had a thick and well-thumbed Ancient Egyptian Dream Book; and, of a quiet evening, they would also pour molten wax into a pan of water, trying to guess what the resulting shapes and whorls foretold.

Walnut juice was easy because there was a couple of trees just outside our windows, with branches reaching the sill. I have ground and squeezed the green outer shell of several walnuts, smeared the juice over the back of my hand, and, lo and behold, it did darken the skin a little. As for meat roast over open fire, I used our kitchen stove and a long two-pronged carving fork, burning the first scrap of meat to cinders and annealing the points of the fork. My father walked into the smoke-filled kitchen and sternly asked what I was doing. It was a pleasant surprise when, instead of telling me off, he explained that the meat should be done over a bed of coals, not open fire, and asked Aniela to put a whole steak aside for me for later on, when the fire will be almost out. That afternoon, I had my first piece of real barbecued meat, still a little burnt here and a little raw there but delicious, regretting only that it was not venison shot by myself.

Another culinary experiment was carried out as I lay in bed with a slight cold reading Don Quixote. At some point he and Sancho Pansa are in dire straits, aching from some recent beating, sleeping in the open, penniless, and subsisting on black bread and onions. I called my mother and asked her for some.

"The child wants bread and onions," she said to my father in a slightly puzzled voice.
"By all means," he replied. "It's vitamin C, could be good for the cold, and he's not kissing any girls tonight."
A little later, a tray was brought to me with two buttered slices of white bread covered with finely chopped onions, and it took some quotations from Cervantes to put the misunderstanding right and get a chunk of brown bread and a whole onion to bite into.

My late-night readings would leave me pale and tired in the morning, and Dr. Meisels, the family physician, was called in to give me a check up. Tuberculosis was the great scare, striking the rich and the poor almost indiscriminately. Another suspicion, glimpsed from an overheard whispered conversation between my parents but not understood till later was that I might have already began masturbating.

I had not. It was only recently that I have heard, from Witek and Kazik, how babies begin. I had gone down to test my new little rubber-powered plane, and after a while Kazik and Witek looked at each other and said:
"What do you say? Shall we tell him?"
They took me for a walk along the deserted street, one on each side of me, and told me the facts. I think they themselves had only heard it a few hours before and were keen to spread the knowledge. It was rather shocking to think that our parents have done such things.
"But doesn't it hurt?" I asked.
They didn't know but decided that it must, It now seemed that grown-ups who badly wanted children were ready for any sacrifice, and it restored our esteem of our own parents to know that they had gone through such unsavoury and painful business to bring us into the world.

Dr. Meisels found nothing wrong with me but recommended cod liver oil and ultraviolet lamp. We had an uncle in Lvov, Dr. Artur Blatt, an X-ray specialist, married to my mother's cousin Paula, the daughter of a rabbi but not herself particularly religious. They had a daughter, Dasia, about Stella's age, and Stella and I went there for our ultraviolet lamp sessions because it was more fun together; the three of us would lie there side by side in our bathing suits and dark goggles and exchange news and gossip.

Of course no amount of cod liver oil and ultraviolet light could compensate for lack of sleep. One night I finally fell asleep over my book under the blanket, failed to be awakened by the alarm clock in the morning, and was discovered fast asleep with the book open and the torch still glowing faintly. Once again, my father was more forgiving than I had expected him to be. I was allowed an extra half an hour of reading in bed in the evening but no torches after that. Playing on my two major ambitions, father explained that my eyesight was at risk, and that spectacles inconvenienced an explorer and altogether disqualified an aspiring fighter pilot.

In parallel with my school and reading, Uncle Iziek, the engineer, my mother's youngest brother who also lived in Lvov with his wife Syda and little daughter Kuka, was introducing me to mechanics and machinery. I have early displayed an interest in the subject, and could not only take my mechanical toys apart but also, sometimes, put them together again. I thought that if cruel fate ever prevented me from becoming an explorer or a pilot, engineering might be a good third choice.

Uncle Iziek, the pampered baby of the Wieliczka family, had grown up into something of a rebel, although quiet, shy, and prematurely bald. To start with, instead of joining the family firm, he chose engineering studies and, after graduation, research work at the Lvov Polytechnic, under Professor Fryze, which led, within a short time, to the equivalent of a master's degree and the publication of a research paper which attracted some attention not only in Poland but also in the United States. He was widely believed to have a very bright future before him.

As a bachelor, he swam and paddled a kayak, a new thing in the family. He was also very good with his little Leica camera. Then he met and married Syda. There was nothing wrong with Syda; she came from a good Jewish family, and one of her uncles was the author of a learned treatise on a religious subject. The fact that she left home to work in an office in Lvov and live alone in a rented room might also not be looked upon as major misbehaviour by progressive Jews. But the fact that, to avoid fuss and festivities, Iziek married her first and informed his mother by letter afterwards was a blow to family tradition and pride. My grandmother's reply was remembered as a shining example of good will, tolerance, and forgiveness; she was happy to receive the news, congratulated the young couple, wished them every happiness, and was looking forward to embracing her new daughter-in-law.

Iziek showed me how to take apart and put together again his mechanical pencil with leads of four different colours. He also explained how a repeating rifle worked, using, as a model of the breech mechanism, the bolt of our garden gate, and also sketched out for me the history of firearms, from the earliest muskets through flintlocks, primer cup muzzle loaders, revolvers, automatic pistols, and machine guns. (Witek, Kazik, and I had cap pistols, occasionally sleeping with them under our pillows. One could also buy "bombs", marble-sized balls wrapped in cellophane which, thrown against the pavement, exploded with a loud noise and some smoke, marvellous for scaring girls. There was also the key pistol of home manufacture. One needed a key with a tubular shank, a nail which fitted into it, and a string to connect the two. The shank of the key would be half filled with phosphor scraped off matches, the nail slid in point forward, and the whole expertly swung against a wall, the head of the nail taking the impact and the point exploding the stuff inside.)

Iziek had many interesting books in his library as well as a mineral collection which did not particularly interest me except for a small gold nugget (Jack London) and a piece of amber with an insect inside, the story of which went straight to my heart: the rosin of primeval forests, an insect caught in it and preserved for all posterity, the sea washing over it for long millenia, the Greeks getting the first hint of electricity by rubbing it, its golden honey appearance and warmth when held in the hand, and the adventure and gamble of finding pieces of it on the shore of the Baltic after a storm.

Under Iziek's guidance I also built a magic lantern and a telescope, both of cardboard except for the lenses which had to be bought. The magic lantern was of the opaque projector type, with the light of an electric bulb reflected from the surface of an inserted drawing through the lens and onto a bedsheet on the wall. The drawings, on long paper strips, were made by myself, mostly with Mickey Mouse as the leading character, for the entertainment of the household in the evenings.

The telescope consisted of two lenses in cardboard tubes sliding inside each other for focusing and compactness of storage. Extended, it was almost a meter long, and showed the surface of the moon even clearer than my mother's mother-of-pearl theatre binoculars. Iziek also taught me to identify the Big and Little Dippers, the North Star, Venus, the first to shine after sunset, and Orion with his belt and sword. Looking through the telescope at the moon with me one evening, my father said: "Try to live very long, and you may yet see people landing there in rockets."

My father seemed to have a good inkling of what direction civilisation was taking. Once, watching a military parade on Poland's independence day with him I told him about my hesitation between cavalry and aviation when my turn came. There was a company of uhlans trotting past us just then, the horses marvellous and the pennants of the lances fluttering in the breeze.

"Sorry, little son," he said; "you were born too late for this. By the time you grow up there will be no cavalry left, only motorcycles, tanks, and armoured cars." I argued that the high command of the Polish army, obviously top experts, relied heavily on cavalry and maintained large formations of it, but he wouldn't budge. "Let's hope," he said, "that they will never be proved wrong by anyone." He was a very stubborn man.

Iziek also guided me in the building of a simple radio set with a conical cardboard membrane for the loudspeaker. The radio ran a very distant second to the books I was gobbling up, but it had some interesting programs, and it was to the strains of The Blue Danube and The Tales of the Vienna Woods issuing from it that Antosia taught me to waltz.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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