Zygmunt Frankel

SIBERIAN DIARY


WINTER 1940

The autumn and winter of that year were depressing and dull. There had been defeat and occupation, with, as far as we could judge, nothing happening on the other front. Food was basic and one often had to queue for it. At our own home, additional gloom was cast by my father's arrest .

School started again, with the same teachers. Instead of Polish patriotic songs we were learning the poems of Shevchenko, the Ukrainian national poet. The weekly religion lessons, which the Catholics took with a priest and our little group of Jews with a rabbi, were cancelled. We wore our old school caps but with the Polish eagle removed. A few die-hards, including myself, defiantly wore the eagle for a while, with the Russians either not noticing or not knowing what it was. Then one day, during the mid-morning break, Professor Jaworski strolled up to me and, laying his hand on my shoulder, gently took me aside and asked after my father. I told him there were no news. Then, clearing his throat, he said:

"Look, Frankel; about the eagle on your cap. Whatever our feelings and hopes , the situation has now changed and a small thing like that will not achieve anything but might cause considerable trouble, to the school, to your family, and to your father in his present predicament. I would strongly advise you and your friends to remove them." We did. I was greatly touched by Professor Jaworski's "our feelings and hopes", while also noticing how he spoke of our patriotism, defeat, and sorrow without spelling them out.

Shortly after their arrival the Russians held a plebiscite and the overwhelming vote was for Western Ukraine to become a part of the Soviet Union. There were stories of lorry loads of loyal communist workers rolling throughout the day from one polling station to another, voting at each of them, but that was generally considered unnecessary because the results could also be rigged during the counting. There was also the fear that the forms could somehow be marked, so that the authorities would know how everyone voted and deal with him accordingly. The Soviet purges of 1937-39 had been given wide coverage in the Polish press, and the people knew what they could expect if they did not toe the line.

In view of the friendly relations between Russia and Germany, the refugees from Western Poland could now register for return to their homes, and long queues formed in front of the registration office. Some of the applicants were Jews. They have heard of German antisemitism but felt that the Jews have always been discriminated against, and that the Germans were civilized Europeans while the Russians were an unknown factor. The repatriation was not starting yet - it would take time, they were told - but the registration was the first step.

Our home remained crowded for a while. Then the relatives who took shelter with us when the war broke out gradually found other, more permanent lodgings in Lvov, except for my grandmother who remained with us, as did Aniela and Antosia. By then Russian officers begun to visit and inspect our flat; they were looking for quarters, having been entitled to move into flats which offered sufficient space for both themselves and the old inhabitants, and ours was on the list. The first three or four visitors seemed disappointed and did not return; they may have been looking for more space, or a home without children, or perhaps even a young, pretty, and unattached landlady. Finally a young Russian officer, Lieutenant Tolya (Anatoli), slim and of medium height, moved in with his wife, mother, and baby girl, occupying my father's study and the adjoining guest room, with access to the kitchen, lavatory, and bathroom. They were a nice quiet family, and the baby girl did not cry often. Tolya and his mother were Jewish - one's ethnicity was specified in Russian identity cards - but without any knowledge of Jewishness; this was the first time we met any Jews so totally assimilated.

Tolya's mother and wife at first needed guidance in the operation of the hot and cold water taps and the flush toilet; they came from some small town in Russia where such facilities were unknown. Tolya himself was particularly fascinated by the Underwood typewriter in my father's study and, although the letters were not Cyrillic, would occasionally sit down at it, typing things with two fingers. He said that very few people in Russia had typewriters of their own, and that one needed a permit.

When winter came, our family would sit for warmth around a single stove in my parents' bedroom or in the kitchen; there was not enough coal to heat the whole flat. Outside, the snow was as good as ever. Once, while we were sledding in the Wulka hills with Kazik, Witek, and two other boys we met there, one of the boys threw a snowball at three Russian soldiers passing under the hill. We were scared at what the Russians might do. They stopped, looked at us, held a council, and then made up snowballs and returned fire. A pitched battle issued, with us at an initial advantage of higher ground and outnumbering the Russians four to three. They, however, could throw snowballs harder, with wicked accuracy. After a while they charged up the hill with shouts of "Oorrah", the battle cry of the Red Army. We fought a fighting retreat but finally had to stop and raise our hands in surrender. The victorious and smiling Russians shook hands with us, and one of them, who looked eighteen at most, said that it made him feel young again, and suggested we build a snowman. The snow was firm and sticky, and with the combined effort of the Red Army and the local population, the hill was soon capped with a magnificent snowman almost two metres tall with a makhorka cigarette in his mouth.

The Russian occupation also gave a boost to our stamp collections. It transpired that they were printing beautiful stamps in long series, commemorating various industrial, agricultural, and aeronautical achievements, and great leaders and writers, with Lenin and Stalin foremost among the former.. Some of the stamps were triangular, a new thing in our collections.

And then there were the Russian movies and songs. The plots of the movies were rather simple and full of propaganda. The comedies were funny all right. But the songs! All of a sudden a whole new floodgate has opened, and I, for one, was soaking them up. The lyrics, once again, were often propaganda. "I do not know of any other country where a man breathes so free" did not go with my father's arrest, and there also was the question whether the authors and singers have ever been outside Russia and in a position to compare. But the tunes were absolutely lovely, and I added them to my store of pre-war songs like the Russian stamps to my collection, except that , being stored in memory, they were portable and indestructible: "A Merry Song Makes the Heart Light"; "My Heart"; "Sing Us a Song, You Merry Wind" (from "The Children of Captain Grant"); the rousing "Pilots' March", and more. Aged only ten, I was already building up a second layer of musical memories. (In the first, "Look" remains forever associated with Ewa Mateusz that afternoon in the garden.)

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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