Zygmunt Frankel

SIBERIAN DIARY


WAR

The day after we returned to Lvov and unpacked, the Wieliczka Rozenzweigs also arrived: our grandmother Sala, Uncle Romek, Aunt Giza, and my cousins Jozek and Zygmunt. As Wieliczka was nearer the German border, they came to stay with us for a few days "until things blow over". The flat was rather crowded and two Gizas and Zygmunts were causing some confusion. As more food had to be prepared for the doubled household, Aniela and Antosia went out shopping and ran into an unfamiliar problem. People were buying up food while some of the shopkeepers were suspected of hoarding it, hoping to make a better profit if a war broke out. Our two families organised themselves into small parties of one or two - I teamed up with my father - and, armed with shopping baskets, set out in different directions to buy whatever could be found. Many shops have set up, on their own initiative, a rationing system: so and so much per customer so that no one could buy up all or most of the stuff, perhaps even for future speculation, leaving others empty-handed. We ended the day with a pile of bread loaves which Aniela proceeded to cut into slices to be dried into hardtack, and a large stack of sardine tins of which a shop nearby seemed to have an unlimited supply and was selling to all comers without any rationing; also a decent quality of other groceries and vegetables.

Next day, the first of September, we set out early in the morning, as soon as the shops opened. My father bought a few boxes of his favorite slim "mixed light" cigars, saying that an old soldier never lets himself be caught without tobacco or ammunition. Then we got a couple of loaves of bread and another dozen tins of sardines. An air-raid exercise was planned for that day, and after a while we heard some planes high up in the sky over the far end of the town, , and some distant thuds.

"Well, expert," my father said lightly, taking me by the hand so that I was between him and the walls of the houses, "let's see you identify the planes by the sound of their engines."

"It's difficult at this distance", I said. The planes were mere black specks in the sky, and the street noises interfered with the faint sound of their engines. "Must be P.Z.Ls" (Polish Aircraft Industries.) "Is that the anti-aircraft guns shooting blanks?" I asked as more thuds were heard from the centre of town.

"I suppose so," father said, stopping and looking up. He tightened his grip on my hand a little, in a friendly sort of way, and it was nice standing there with him like that, two men discussing military matters.

"You know what?" he said brightly; "If this is an air-raid exercise the shops will have to close down for the duration anyway - they seem to have forgotten to blow the sirens but should do so any moment now - so we might just as well go home and see how the cellar has been fixed up as a shelter."

We turned back. The planes were still there and more dull thuds could be heard as well as occasional bursts of antiaircraft guns, and at long last the sirens sounded. Father was now walking fast and I almost had to run to keep up with him.

"Listen well," he said. "If we hear any explosions nearby, or a sort of whistle coming down from above, we duck into the nearest doorway and then down to the shelter on the double, together or each on his own, understood, little son? As fast as you can, together or separately, without stopping for anything or anyone, all right?"
"All right, father."

We reached our house and went down into the cellar. Most of the lodgers were there, solemn and a little shy being crowded together like this together like this. Mrs. Sokal, Kolynyczowa, and the Mateusz family were out shopping and probably waiting out the exercise in some shelter in town..

Finally, after about an hour, the All Clear sounded and we went up to our flat for a well-deserved cup of coffee, and also switched on the radio. It was broadcasting the news. Early that morning, the Germans have treacherously crossed the Polish border and our army has engaged them on all the fronts. The German airforce has bombed some airfields and towns, including Lvov. The enemy was suffering heavy losses and the nation stood as one man behind our valiant army. The national anthem was played and we all stood to attention. When the radio fell silent we heard Aunt Giza sobbing.
"Now, now, don't" my grandmother tried to comfort her.
"So many people will die now," she moaned, and went on sobbing.

Jozek and I were rather elated. Within a matter of hours now England and France were going to join the fray, and Hitler would at long last get what he's been asking for. The sirens sounded again around noon and we rushed to the shelter. It was full now, with only Mr. and Mrs. Sokal missing because he went to look for her after the All Clear.

The mood was grim but elated. The main worry was that we did not have any proper gas masks, but by now everyone had a home-made one of cotton wool between two layers of gauze, covering nose and mouth, with a couple of ribbons to hold them in place. They were to be wetted with a soda solution, or, in case of emergency, urine, and assumed to be fairly effective against most of the poisonous gases, for a while at least. So far there was no news of Germans having dropped gas bombs, but plenty of rumours about other underhand methods. They said Germans were dropping poisoned sweets, and toys and watches which exploded when one picked them up. We children were strictly warned not to pick up anything in the street although with my technical mind I wondered how a watch could survive a drop from considerable height onto a city pavement. Worse still, German agents were poisoning water supplies.

The conversations were few and almost in whispers; everyone was listening for the sound of explosions. Then a scream came from the corridor:

"The water! The water is poisoned! They have poisoned the water!"

The screamers were a young girl and her mother, village relatives of Kolynyczowa who came to stay with her because of the war. There was a water tap in the corridor and when the girl opened it the stuff that came out was yellowish, with a strange smell. "Don't touch it," someone said. People were scared. Not having foreseen such an emergency, we had not laid in a supply of drinking water.

One of the garret students - the engineering one, not the artist - made his way to the tap, looked at the yellowish trickle issuing from it, opened the tap wider, let the water run for a while, filled a glass with it, smelled it, and said:
"Ladies and gentlemen; what you are seeing is simply rust, because the tap hasn't been used for a long time; see, the water is already clearer; your health." With this, he raised the glass and drank it.

There were gasps, and everyone watched the young student closely for the first signs of dropping dead. When he didn't, whispers were heard about him having "saved the situation" and about Poland having nothing to fear so long as it had young men like him.

After the "All Clear" sounded, we rushed to our flats to glue long paper strips over the window panes and to have blankets ready for the black-out. There was another air-raid warning in the evening, and it was then that we heard that Mr. Sokal did find his wife that morning, dead, near the railway station. It seems that some bombs missed the station and exploded in a crowded shopping street nearby, killing a lot of civilians. Mr. Sokal, it was said, recognized his wife, who must have been close to the explosion, by her shoes and coat only. Their children were not in the shelter, having been taken away to stay with relatives.

At midnight, we had to rush to the shelter again, in our pyjamas and dressing gowns. The mood was dark. In addition to Mrs. Sokal's death, it was now almost twenty-four hours since the Germans attacked, and England and France still haven't moved. It was not till two days later that we saw a well-dressed but slightly drunken man in the street waving his walking stick and shouting "Hurray! England and France have declared war on Germany! Long live!"

It did not seem to make any immediate difference. Air raid warnings continued to sound, Lvov was bombed a few more times, and our shelter was crowded, with several beds and trunks put in to sleep on. We would spend some time in the shelter almost every night, having rushed there with dressing gowns over our pyjamas and the bundle of day clothes under our arms. The news from the front was not good; much was said of the heroic defense of Westerplatte, on the narrow strip of Poland's Baltic coast, and, later, that of Warsaw; the Germans were obviously half-way across Poland. The situation was expected to improve any day through a combined British- French attack at the other end.

Then, one night in the second week of the war, we heard some explosions unpreceded by an air-raid warning and rushed down to the shelter. An hour passed; there were no more explosions; no belated air-raid warning had sounded and the all-clear did not seem to be coming either. We decided it must have been anti-aircraft artillery firing at some passing plane and returned to our flats. An hour later the story repeated itself. The next day we heard that it was not aerial bombardment any more but German artillery; they have reached Lvov and fighting was going on on the outskirts. We moved to the shelter permanently. There was no knowing when a shell might hit our house. When a trip to the flat, to get some food or extra clothing became necessary, it was done by one person and as quickly as possible. Finally, a house across the street got a shell through a second floor window; the room was wrecked, without any casualties because the lodgers were in the shelter like us. The window panes in our flat were shattered, with glass splinters all over the floor despite the paper strips.

The shelter was crowded and stuffy, and the situation was slowly fraying everyone's nerves; there were little arguments and squabbles which wouldn't have occured in the first days of the war. The Polish army seemed to have stopped the Germans at Lvov and we were hoping for a turn of the tide while also, without saying anything aloud, we were listening for rifle fire or the sound of tank engines in the street. Then, after about a week, there came a long afternoon without any firing, followed by a silent night and morning. One of the students went out to investigate.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said solemnly after his return, and paused for greater effect.

"The Russians are in town."

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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