Zygmunt Frankel

SIBERIAN DIARY


ON THE WAY

The train was chugging through countryside which looked familiar because it resembled the way to Zawadow of our summer vacations: the same small or medium-sized fields, thatched cottages, country roads, cattle, and an occasional horse-drawn cart. There was a brief stop at the village of Maksymowka, the last one before the former Russian border. The villagers came to the platform, bringing us hard-boiled eggs and milk; some of them were crying. Then the train moved on, past some old border post and remains of barbed wire, and we were in Russia.

There was a marked change in the landscape. The fields were now much larger, sometimes stretching all the way to the horizon, and the villages seemed farther apart and much poorer. Everyone found the landscape depressing, although political prejudice and our deportation must have had much to do with it. I, however, have seen my first tractor: in the middle of a large field, ploughing. It was grey and built entirely of steel, including the large rear wheels with long steel spikes. I thought that this was ingenious, because rubber tyres could clog up with mud, apart from the problems of inflation, punctures, wear, and replacement. A tractor like this, given fuel, water, and maintenance, could run forever. The driver, wearing drab grey clothes and a cap, waved to the passing train. The tractor and the driver looked very lonely in the middle of the empty landscape. In Zawadow, a peasant ploughing his small field would sometimes talk to his horse; I wondered whether a tractor driver ever talked to his tractor.

Before sunset, the train stopped at a small station, and the doors were unlatched. The usual teams went to get bread, soup, and "kipiatok" - boiling or very hot water available free, from a tap, at many Russian railway stations, to make tea or simply drink as is, very warming in winter. The bread was brown, a little underbaked but tasty, and the soup was made with potatoes and some meat; there was enough of food till the next distribution.

In the night, the rhythmic noise of the wheels provided a lullaby, and we slept well; at least the children because some of the grown-ups must have been lying awake and worrying. From time to time, someone would use the sanitary bucket. The bucket, in spite of its cover, would maintain a slight smell of feces and urine in the car for the duration of our voyage, strongest where it stood and less noticeable near the open windows; our officer's advice had been sound.

The next day we got better acquainted. There was another Jewish family, Mr. and Mrs. Halpern, with a son not only my age but also bearing the same name, Zygmunt, and an older daughter; a middle-aged widow, Mrs. Prinz, alone; an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Paluchowski; a more distinguished couple of minor landed gentry, Mr. and Mrs. Turczynski, with a quiet, obedient and still single daughter in her late twenties or early thirties; and five or six comparatively young women with children, without their husbands; wives of Polish officers now in Russian captivity.

During the stops, we would ask the local people on the platform the name of the station. We had a school atlas in our car, and although the names of the minor stations did not tell us much, we were able to follow our progress by the larger towns and cities. We passed through Kiev, Kharkov, the Ural mountains, Omsk, and finally Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan. The trip took over two weeks, the train often spending several hours on the sidelines to let some other train pass, or perhaps occasionally waiting for the dark. Our timetable must have been planned in such a way that the train passed through the large cities at night. One of the most impressive sights were the steel girders of a seemingly endless bridge over either the Don or the Volga. The Ural mountains were beautiful, often covered with birch woods. I don't remember the mountains as particularly tall; we must have crossed through the lower southern end of the range, a logical choice for a railway.

There was one station in a fairly unpopulated area in the foothills of the Urals - we stopped there for about half an hour - where the people on the platform were dressed in rags, and many also wore rags wrapped around their feet instead of shoes. The next thing we noticed was that their faces were emaciated and of some pale shade of grey, showing the skull beneath the skin. The nearest I have ever seen to it was a book of drawings by Kaethe Kollwitz which we had at home; this was a population which was starving, some of them probably to death. The large village or small town started about a hundred yards from the station; there was some large factory there, and when our unscheduled train stopped at the station, dozens of grown-ups and children began to run towards it across the empty lot. All of them carried large cubes of gray washing soap, offering to exchange them for bread. It was not done in any spirit of barter but of pure begging. We had a decent supply of bread and pieces of it began to pass out of the windows in exchange for the soap. The people told us that there was a soap factory in the settlement, where most of the people worked, being partly paid in soap. They seemed to have been settled there without any care for their welfare, unless their misery and starvation were intentional. As the train began to move pieces of bread were still being thrown out of the windows, and the grown-ups and children on the platform scrambled for them pushing, shouting, and fighting.

Our own supply of food and water remained regular and well organized throughout the voyage, except for two days in the second week, in fairly hot weather, when we were left without water, as it later transpired through some logistic mess-up. The first evening, when it became clear that we were not stopping any more that day, we began to ration what little water was left. lt ran out the next morning. By noon we were thirsty. There was a brief stop to let some other train pass but no distribution. The guards could only say "Soon, soon". During the night, thirst turned into almost physical torture, made worse by the uncertainty of how long it would last. I overheard a whispered conversation between two of the men in which they tried to remember how long one could survive without water, and also wondered whether this was not a devilish - and admittedly ingenious - method of putting a whole trainload of people to death. They remembered the recent Soviet purges in which thousands if not millions of innocent people have been shot, and which had received wide and sensational publicity in the Polish press. The memory of the starving village in the Urals did nothing to reassure them. When food and water were finally distributed the next morning, we started rationing the water from the start, and filling several kettles in addition to the bucket. The shortage, however, did not repeat itself for the rest of our voyage.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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