Zygmunt Frankel

SIBERIAN DIARY


FATHER'S ARREST

A few days later, my father decided to go to Zawadow to clarify the situation with the new authorities. It was almost certain that large private properties would be confiscated, but perhaps a small part like the little villa could remain ours, or compensation be received. Mother was against his going. She argued that it was too soon, that the Russians might still be tense and impulsive, that the proper and permanent administration may not yet have been appointed, and that it would be best to stay at home and keep quiet; if and when they wanted to get in touch with him they would know where to find him. Father replied that by then all sorts of misunderstandings and hasty one-sided decisions might accumulate and it will be too late to do anything about it, that it was better to prevent than to cure. Always a stubborn man, he packed his little leather bag and went. The next day, someone from Zawadow phoned and told my mother that my father has been arrested and taken to the prison in nearby Stryj.

We heard later that as he was walking through the village, a woman stepped out of one of the cottages and told him that the N.K.V.D - the Russian political police - were at the villa, and that he was welcome to wait it out at her house until they were gone. He replied cheerfully that they were the very people he wanted to see, continued on his way. entered the villa, introduced himself, and was arrested on the spot. It seems that as soon as Zawadow was occupied by the Russians, one of the workers at the brick factory, a hothead and troublemaker, decided that the redistribution of wealth would be immediate and spontaneous and moved into the villa. When the N.K.V.D. arrived that morning he was asked some uncomfortable questions, and the sight, from a window, of my father calmly striding towards the villa, unnerved him even more. He quickly said that this was the capitalist who owned most of the village, exploited the workers and the peasants, and once even threatened him with a pistol. (My father did not have a pistol.)

My mother went to Stryj on a crowded train and called at the prison. Yes, they told her, my father was there and the investigation of his case was in progress. No, they did not know how long it would take nor what he was accused of, but in the meantime she could bring him food parcels once every two weeks. She put together a food parcel with the help of relatives in Stryj and stood for a long time in a queue with other women to have it inspected and accepted. Afterwards she would travel to Stryj every fortnight with a food parcel and some cigarettes for father, on crowded trains, sometimes on an open platform. It was a two-hour trip and when winter came, it was bitterly cold and sometimes it snowed. The women in the queue were the wives and mothers of peasants, Polish settlers on Ukrainian lands policemen, administrators, businessmen, and the intelligentsia. None of them knew when their husband's or son's case would be settled. Many of them had tried to find some influential connections and failed; even people who had been far to the left before the war had little influence now and were rather scared of the new authorities.

After some three months, my mother asked for and was granted an interview with the prison director, a Russian N.K.V.D.officer. She arrived on time, was kept waiting for an hour, and then called in. My mother was modestly dressed, even wearing a woolen shawl to look more like a woman of the people, and spoke simple Polish so as to be better understood, addressing him as "Tovarishch Kommendant". She said that my father was a good man who always helped poor people to the best of his ability and, as a Jew in antisemitic Poland, could not have been anything but a democrat and in favour of justice and equality. People in capitalist Poland had to invest their savings in private property so as to safeguard some decent standard of living for their children; not only was it not against the law but the capitalist practically forced it on you. My father's arrest must have been due to a misunderstanding and she would be very grateful for an early consideration of his case and for his release.

"If he was such a persecuted Jew, citizen Frankel, what was he doing as a much-decorated officer in Pilsudski's Legions?"

My mother was chilled by being addressed as "citizen" which was more formal than the standard "comrade", and by the question itself. The commandant seemed to have done his homework. She explained that my father had been mobilized into the Austro-Hungarian army when the war broke out; that his officer's rank - the lowest, that of a second-lieutenant , was automatic because of his university education; that he was allotted to the Legion by a decision from above because of his knowledge of Polish; that he never took part in any fighting and left the Polish army as soon as possible after the war, long before it attacked Soviet Russia; and that his two medals were simple campaign ones, one from the Austro-Hungarian army and one from the Polish one, routinely given to anyone who had been in uniform in those days.

"And the higher education he chose for himself was that of a lawyer specializing in defending the interests of the oilfield capitalists, after having travelled in Romania, England and France, wasn't it?" Travel abroad seemed to be particularly suspicious. "Not, for example, a doctor tending to the poor, which was also legal in capitalist Poland? Can you tell me, citizen Frankel, how much exactly a worker in that brick factory of yours in Zawadow earned - there were three strikes before the war there, because of exploitation of the workers, weren't there? - and what rent the lodgers in the basement flats in your house in Lvov paid out of what they needed to make ends meet, and how much you yourself were spending?"

My mother could not tell him the exact figures but assured him that my father was always kind and helpful towards the poor.

"Look", the commandant said, taking a piece of paper and drawing a diagram. "We're trying to plant a garden, here and in Russia. Right now, there are both useful plants and weeds, and we are uprooting the weeds. Your husband, I am sorry to tell you, belongs to the weeds. You will be duly informed about his case after it's been considered."

My mother returned home in a dark mood. It now looked as if my father's arrest had not been some administrative misunderstanding springing from an improvised story about a pistol threat but a part of a conflict between the old order and the new, and might lead to a prison sentence or deportation to Siberia. People with less of a capitalist past than my father were still being still arrested without having walked into any trap.

Towards the end of the winter my mother returned from one of her trips to Stryj depressed but excited: she had managed to see father briefly. When her turn to hand in the parcel came, she was told that father was not in his cell but in the prison hospital at the back. She went there; the hospital was a long barrack with only one Polish militiaman at the entrance. My mother bluffed her way in, saying that she had been sent by the prison administration to give the parcel to her husband. "But you can't," the policeman said; "the parcel has to be checked first, according to regulations." "By all means", she said, handing him the parcel to him; "please do check it; I'll be right back," and she entered the barrack, walking fast between the two rows of beds. She did not recognise my father who had grown a beard, quite white, which, she said, made him look exactly like my grandfather; it was he who called out to her after she had passed his bed. They were both overcome; he asked about us and mother reassured him; he in his turn said that he had had a bad cold but was recovering now and should be discharged from the hospital within a few days; by then the policeman walked in and said that the visit was against regulations and my mother should leave at once. Two weeks later, when my mother came to Stryj with the next parcel, she was told that my father has recovered and was back in his cell.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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