Zygmunt Frankel

SIBERIAN DIARY


KAIRAN

Mother's diary: "The lodgings, the local Kazakhs, the way of life. The feelings. A talk with a local neighbour about how it was in the old (Nicholas) days. On the 24th May a trip to Archimbai to receive passports. The lack of money. Rudnik, the watch. My depression, physical exhaustion, longing for some sign of life from my family (sent a telegram to Mama and Hella from the Rudnik on the 8th). Work: the cleaning of stables, then the making of kizyak (fuel bricks of cow dung). Relations between the five families ( the Turczynskis, Kowalewska, the Halperns, and Mrs. Miler in one room, Mrs. Hendynska and I in another.) Occasional misunderstandings; also the Jewish question.

1st July, Saturday morning, when I was still in bed, the Brigadir brought me the first letter from my family, dated 14th May. The letter is from Mama and from my brothers and their wives, and contains the news that Leon passed through Lvov on the 12th May. A flood of feelings, some good cheer. On Sunday 12th, a talk with Mrs. Halpern by the stream: it's quite pleasant here, life is passable, one is beginning to get used to it."

* * *

In addition to (Tsar) Nicholas's times - the good old days - the Russians also made his name into an adjective; a "Nikolayevsky" object - a samovar, a clock, a shotgun - was something well made that lasted, in contrast to the shoddy Soviet goods of the past two decades.

The mentions of Rudnik ("The Quarry") refer to Buko, the large village's proper name.

The slowness of Russian mail - a month and a half for grandmother's letter to reach us - might have been partly due to censorship.

The "passports" issued in Archimbai, a regional centre, were not for foreign travel; the Russians also use the term for identity cards; we were being made Soviet citizens.

My father's passage through Lvov: in May, the Russians deported a trainload of inmates from the Stryj prison to a labour camp somewhere in the Soviet Union. The train stopped at the Lvov station, and my father threw a brief note out of a window to someone on the platform who delivered it to our relatives; it was enclosed with my grandmother's letter. It is written in pencil on a piece of paper, ten centimetres by fourteen, torn out of a prison hospital registration book (pages 1241 and 1242). Two edges are straight - it is the upper corner - and two others jagged. Page 1242 carries printed columns: serial number of entry, date, section and cell, surname and first name, with the details filled in in ink; four names in slightly illegible handwriting, entry numbers from 3741 on, dated 16th May 1939. It is all in Polish; May 1939 was three months before the outbreak of the war; the registration book must have been thrown away or stored somewhere where a prisoner had access to it and tore some pages out. The other side - the end of the page - carries the diagnosis and the doctor's orders. The entries - four on one page and five on another - are widely spaced, and my father wrote over them, at right angles, in pencil:

"Lvov, 10/5 1940. My beloved ones; We have left Stryj last night in an unknown direction (Russia). I am in good health. God will help me and you! I am thinking only of you. Darling Giza, be strong, overcome everything, to bring the children up for a better future. We shall meet again! I greet and embrace you in suffering and longing for you. Give my regards to Fanda, my brothers, and all the others. I am travelling with acquaintances from Boryslav (Schuytman). You must be finding life hard; please ask my family and brothers to help you, they certainly will. Sell anything you can.
Leon
Today, 12/5 1940, we are still at the Lvov station.
Address: Dr. Artur Blatt, Lvov, 13 Jagiellonska Street."

Father may have addressed the letter to Uncle Artur instead of directly to us because he either knew that we had been deported or had heard about a large-scale deportation from Lvov and assumed - correctly - that Uncle Artur was less likely to be deported than we. Father's sister Fanda and brother Herman were then in Belgium, and another brother, Joseph , in England; he may have been hoping that apart from financial help, they might be able to do something for him from abroad. The two sentences with exclamation marks, "God will help me and you!" and "We shall meet again!" contrast with the injunction to bring Stella and me up for a better future; he was probably trying to cheer my mother up while suspecting that we might never see one another again.

The Jewish question that my mother mentions was directly connected with the talk by the stream she had with Mrs. Halpern. Our two families were the only Jewish ones in Kairan, and after mother tried to share some of her optimism with the others, she overheard a remark that the Jews were already on the Communist side, that you could buy them with a loaf of bread (recently distributed to us for the first time), and words to that effect, the general tone suggesting that they have always been traitors to Poland and this was just another proof.

In the meantime, Zyggy Halpern and I were exploring the steppe around Kairan. There was a low rocky ridge half-way between Kairan and Buko, and a couple of hills right behind the village. We have discovered wild garlic and rhubarb growing there, and also pike in the stream. Not everywhere, because for most of its length the stream, starting somewhere in the hills, was a meter or two wide and shallow; you could wade through or simply jump over it, and, as the hot summer progressed, it shrank even more, except during the infrequent rains when it would swell and overflow its banks. But in a few places, due to some combination of ground and current, it had hollowed out pools, two to three meters wide, twice as long, on the average waist- or shoulder-deep but with a few spots where you couldn't stand; ideal for bathing and a very short swim. The banks of the pools were overgrown; I have noticed some minnows in the water right away, but it took me some time to identify a larger, longer, slim and and perfectly immobile shape as a pike. It was not very large, twenty-five or thirty centimetres, but in comparison to the minnows and the size of the pool it looked huge. The fisherman within me, who had lain hibernating during the winter and our deportation, now woke up with a vengeance. A long stick, some strong white thread, and a float were no problem; fishing hooks were a different story because I didn't have any. I made the first one out of a pin, but it kept slipping off because the head was too small. Then I tried a small safety pin , left open, but the head and the loop were too large. The third, reasonably successful prototype was made from a piece of rusty wire; it had a loop and the right proportions, and I sharpened the point on a stone, although it still lacked a barb. I must have turned over all the stones on the river bank looking for worms but couldn't find any so I started out with a little dough, later managing to run down an occasional grasshopper. It would sometimes take me half a day to catch a single minnow, but the adventure of fishing was there. The pikes were a different story. They remained supremely indifferent to dough and grasshoppers, standing perfectly still , and disappearing only if I brought the bait too close to them with a careless movement. "Disappear" was the only word for it. There was no sign of alarm, no preceding movement of tail or fin; the pike was there one moment and gone the next. If you then looked carefully around the pool, you could rediscover it under the opposite bank or at the far end, once again motionless and unperturbed. Handled gently and slowly, the baited hook could be brought right in front of their snouts, almost touching them, and they still did not react. Mr. Turczynski told me that pike could only be caught on live bait or a shiny metal imitation of it. I tried both: a small minnow hooked through the back, and a lure cut out of a conserve tin - I blunted my mother's nail scissors making it - and still it did not work; there must have been something unconvincing about my bait. Then I made a large three-pronged hook and tried bringing it, without any bait, very slowly and carefully, alongside a pike, with one of the prongs under her belly, and then jerking it up. The first twenty or thirty attempts failed; either the line touched the pike's side, or the split second between the beginning of the upward jerk and the point's penetration was sufficient for the pike to get away. When I suddenly felt the rod jerking in my hand I did not believe it at first, but I kept the line taut and brought the fish out with a firm, smoothly accelerating swing of the rod. It fell off the hook in mid-air but landed on the bank.

A fisherman's finest hour is not the admiration of his catch by others or a tasty dinner afterwards, not the lottery of casting, and not even the playing or fighting of the fish. It is those minutes on the bank, alone with his catch and the stream, sitting there looking at the fish and slowly absorbing the fact that he has really caught it. The pike was about thirty centimetres long; it was the first pike, and the largest fish, I have ever caught. It thrashed at first, and then lay there in the grass, still, with only its gill covers moving. It was striped and the greenish stripes looked as if the underwater shadows were still clinging to it. And as I sat there I felt myself growing and changing, as if emerging from a chrysalis. The Zyggy Frankel who would shortly stroll into Kairan with this fish would leave behind for ever the lesser Zyggy who had set out that morning with his home-made rod.

The Brigadir told me that the stream emptied into a lake some two hours' walk from the village and I took the first opportunity to explore, following the stream across the steppe. Walking in the steppe alone was not risky and I often went for long strolls . It would be difficult to lose your way, and although there were supposed to be some wolves, they were not dangerous in summer. The lake was a disappointment. It was rather small and the banks were overgrown with reeds. I circled the lake and couldn't find a passage through the reeds anywhere. I undressed and tried to wade through the reeds, but the going was difficult and the bottom muddy. About waist-deep, my feet began to sink in the mud; this was clearly dangerous, and I got out.

I visited the lake twice more with my rod and tried to fish among the reeds but without success. There must have been fish in the lake, possibly quite large, but they obviously saw no reason to squeeze through the reeds into the shallows to be caught by me.

The second time, on my way back, I saw three Kazakh horsemen crossing the steppe in my direction. One of them had a very large brown bird on his wrist, and when they got closer I also saw a dead fox dangling from his saddle. I greeted them in Russian, and they stopped to talk to me without getting off their horses. They were friendly and in high spirits, but knew very little Russian. I have heard and read about falconry, but had no idea that it was practiced here, and with such huge birds too. I guessed - correctly as it later transpired - that the hooded bird on the Kazakh's wrist was a golden eagle. One of the Kazakhs pointed to it and said "Byerkut" - the Kazakh name for it - and then to the fox and to his traditional three-flap fur hat lined with similar fur, and I nodded with congratulatory understanding. I gingerly touched the fur of the dead fox, hoping it was really dead and would not recover and bite me. The falconer lowered his hand and let me touch the feathers of the eagle as well.

I walked the rest of the way on air; this encounter, so soon after my first pike, was something incredible to be happening to a skinny eleven-year-old Jewish bookworm from Lvov. Our deportation was beginning to show some good sides, especially if we could be reunited with my father soon, and go a little less hungry in the meantime.

Food was a problem from the start. Bread was distributed to us only a few times that summer, about five kilograms at a time, and was soon gone. The Brigadir said that if we wanted anything more we would have to earn it. The only work available in the village was the cleaning of stables and the making of kizyak, and my mother and the other women did some of each and earned some extra bread and flour and a little sugar. The making of kizyak was something new. The cakes of natural kizyak in the steppe were thin on the ground; they sufficed for summer cooking but not for the long hard winter ahead. Although most of the Kairan Kazakhs were out in the steppe, they used the village as their base and there were often three or four of them here, for a few days, mostly women, with frequent visits by our Brigadir. Some of the cows would be kept for extended periods in the village. Their milk would be tested for fat content in glass test tubes in a small hand-operated centrifuge. Except for the small amount drank fresh it would be allowed to go sour. Then the Kazakhs would boil it, adding some salt, in large cauldrons, skim off the layer of boiled white cheese, knead it into small finger-sized pieces, and dry it in the sun; the kurt we were already familiar with. They also had a drink of mare's milk called "kumys", drank cold. A Kazakh woman once gave me a cup; it tasted like sour milk and was cool and refreshing, and I accepted another. Afterwards, when I went to gather kizyak in the steppe, I felt a bit giddy; the kumys must have been slightly alcoholic.

For winter supplies of kizyak, cow dung would be brought out of the stables onto the square and spread in an almost knee-deep layer; straw would be added, and the whole then properly mixed by treading it with bare feet for a few hours. The final layer, about twenty centimetres thick, would then be left to dry in the sun until the crust has hardened. It would then be cut into square bricks with a shovel, left to dry out completely, and stacked behind the houses.

"Dr. Frankel," said Mrs. Hendynska, treading the stuff with her bare feet next to my mother, their skirts hoisted to the hips, (they usually called each other by their first names) " doesn't this job feel vaguely familiar to you? Making bricks in Pitom and Ramses?"

"Yes, except that that was clay, which must have been even harder, and they didn't give us enough straw that time," mother said. "Things are improving."

We obtained most of our food through barter in the nearby Buko. The first time mother and Mrs. Hendynska went there alone, staying the night and returning the next day. They told of a large predominantly Russian village, with some Poles living there as well. The Buko Poles were entire families, of the settlers deported earlier that year from Ukraine; they had been poor and hard-working before, and were settling into the new life with fewer difficulties than us. A young couple expecting a child had already acquired a goat in case the mother would not have enough milk for the baby, and one family even had a cow. The next time mother took me with her.

The eight kilometres between Kairan and Buko took about three hours to cover. The way led across the stream and the steppe, past a little Muslim cemetery near the ridge, with a knee-high stone wall and perhaps a dozen graves, each surmounted by a flat stone without any inscription. In a ravine, a sort of shallow canyon, the path changed into a wider unpaved road leading all the way down to Buko, now visible on the other side. The sides of the road where it passed through the range had been quarried, and an unattended bulldozer and another machine which must have been a crusher stood there. The rock looked like white quartz, and I searched through the rubble for a gold nugget or at least some flake of the precious metal, but couldn't find any.

After visits to several Russian houses, mother managed to exchange a nightshirt for some money, bread, a bag of flour and a small head of sugar. We also had dinner, cheaply, at the local "stolovka", a sort of restaurant run for the Buko residents; a bowl of "shchi" - thick soup of potatoes, sauerkraut, and scraps of meat, and a slice of bread. Mother thought of filling a canister for Stella, who had remained in Kairan, but one was not allowed to take any food out.

We stayed overnight, for a small renumeration, with Babushka, a woman who lived on the outskirts of Buko. Babushka means grandmother in Russian; the woman was hardly middle-aged, but her married daughter did have a baby so she qualified for the title. We slept on a bench in the kitchen. To wash my face and hands in the morning, I was directed to an unfamiliar contraption suspended from a nail on a tree outside. It was a half-round metal container, perhaps twenty centimetres wide and twice as tall, holding a few liters of water. (There was no water supply in the houses, and it had to be brought in buckets from a well.) In the bottom of the container there was a hole, and through the hole passed a short metal rod with a button on each end. The weight of the rod kept the hole closed, but when you lifted it water trickled onto your hands; very ingenious, and simpler and easier to control than a tap.

For another small fee, a young Pole cut my hair; my first haircut since the deportation. We also visited the Buko shop. There was very little to buy there, but there were some schoolbooks and I bought a geography one. It was very cheap - all books were cheap in Russia - and I suddenly felt an awful longing for a book of my own, even if it was in Russian. Afterwards, in Kairan, it helped me to decipher the Russian alphabet and to guide my first steps in the language. There were maps in it, and I traced our travels on them in red pencil.

We also visited a man called Minayev. My mother had a couple of small pieces of gold jewellery and a silver wrist watch which she might have to sell later on, and she wanted to know how much she could get for them. Babushka told her that there was a branch of government gold-buying agency in Buko, both for locally produced metal - we didn't quite understand this at the time - and for outside gold, and that Minayev could tell us all about it. Minayev's wife was at home and said her husband was in the backyard washing gold. I pricked my ears. At the back of the house, we found a serious elderly man with a large frying pan with some white quartz sand and water in it. He held the pan at a slight angle over a larger rectangular tin tray on the ground, swirling it so that the water was taking some sand over the edge of the pan and into the tray. It looked exactly like the Klondike gold prospectors I had seen in the movies, except that there was no stream anywhere near. Minayev shook hands with us and asked whether we would mind waiting till he has finished this batch. I asked for nothing better. He kept adding water and swirling the white sand over the edge of the pan. When he finished - I could hardly believe my eyes - there were some grains of gold gleaming at the bottom of the pan. He put them in a small piece of cloth, added a few drops of mercury from a bottle, then twisted the cloth and squeezed, to get the water out. Then he untwisted the cloth, took out the small lump of compressed gold sand - perhaps half a centimetre in diameter - put it on a piece of sheet metal which looked like a cover of a conserve tin, and placed it on the coals of a small stove burning in the backyard. Then we went inside where his wife has in the meantime prepared a samovar and settled down to tea and some biscuits.

The white gold-bearing sand, Minayev told us, was ground from the quartz rocks at the quarry by the government, and then distributed to individuals to wash the gold out. They then sold it to "Zolotaya Skupka", the government gold-buying agency, at a fixed price, by weight. The agency paid either in money or, if one preferred, in coupons entitling one to certain merchandise or food; such coupons were often more valuable than money. Mother consulted him about a small gold watch she had, and a couple of other pieces of gold jewellery. Minayev said that she could of course sell her jewellery to the Skupka but she would be paid for the gold only, without any consideration of its artistic value, and that she could get a better price from a private person. Then he went out into the backyard with a pair of pliers and took the piece of sheet metal out of the coals. There was a small round pool of molten gold on it; the mercury must have been added for some chemical reason, to help the drops to form. When it cooled, he weighed it on a tiny scale. "A lot of work for those few roubles," he said.

We had more tea, and he piled a few more biscuits onto my saucer. "Go ahead'" he said, "don't be shy. You must be finding this a difficult time'" he said to my mother. "Where is your husband? Arrested? Deported? Disappeared?" He asked this casually, as if inquiring about his profession or the colour of his hair. When mother hesitated, he reassured her. "You can talk freely to us here," he said. "We've been through the same, or worse, a few years ago, and there is still no end to it. There is this great beautiful country of ours, and fine people, and all over it, the dreaded iron hand of the N.K.V.D." His wife kicked him under the table and he grew silent and downcast, staring into his cup.

We got back in the afternoon to find Kairan in a commotion. Some sheep had been herded there a few days before, and this afternoon, a couple of hours before we got back, a pack of wolves charged into the square and made off with a lamb. The Brigadir was there,with half a dozen other horsemen, some of them with shotguns. Early next morning they set out to deal with the wolves, on horseback, accompanied by a couple o dogs. The dogs were plain mongrels most remotely related to any hunting breed, and went with the horsemen, I think, just for the fun of it and the company. I was never more sorry not to have a horse of my own than that morning. I tried to hitch a ride with the Brigadir, sitting behind him and holding on to his waist, but he was not keen on the idea and my mother wouldn't hear of it, so we just stayed behind to wait.

The hunters returned in the afternoon. They have found the lair and killed the mother and all the cubs but one, which the Brigadir brought back in a sack for his little boy, five or six years old. They did not bring the bodies of the wolves back , only the wet rolled up hides, to be cured and made into hats and a coat later on. The little wolf cub was pure magic; very much like an Alsatian cub, but even more of a little ball of fur, with his feet hardly visible, a cute little head with shiny eyes, and small rounded ears. The Brigadir's son put it in a deep clay enclosure used for storing corn in winter, and spent all his time with it. For the first day and night, the little wolf cub hid under a sack, whining sadly. The Brigadir's son kept offering him a piece of cloth twisted into a semblance of a teat and soaked in milk, and the next morning the cub finally took it, sucking greedily. A few days later it learned to lap milk from a bowl, and kept growing and playing with the Brigadir's son. Neither we nor the Kazakhs knew whether a wolf cub could be fully tamed and raised like a dog; Mr. Turczynski doubted it.

Another letter from Lvov arrived, the second one we have received. My grandmother was now staying with uncle Iziek. Tolya, the Russian officer who gave my mother some money on our departure, and his family were now the sole occupants of the flat. Tolya had behaved very badly; when grandmother was leaving the flat, she wanted to take my father's valuable Underwood typewriter, but Tolya said that mother had sold it to him, and that the money he had given her was not, as grandmother thought, a gift or a loan but payment for the machine. Perhaps a written statement from my mother could help to recover the typewriter, grandmother wrote, but perhaps, on the other hand, in the circumstances, it was better not to pursue the matter further for the time being.

We still haven't heard from my father. One day, a handsome thirtyish Russian woman got off a passing ox cart to spend the night in Kairan. She introduced herself as Klava and said she was travelling to visit some relatives in Archimbai. She had some food with her and we offered her tea. She commiserated with us in our plight, and said there was a recently opened Polish prisoner camp on the outskirts of her town , and that it was possible to talk to the prisoners, all of them men, across the wire fence. Had she heard any names, mother asked; did Leon Frankel by any chance sound familiar? Klava knitted her brows in concentration, with a glance at me. A tall slim Jew? Perhaps, but she couldn't be sure; she could, however, inquire when she got back. All the women in Kairan gave her their husbands' names, and Klava said she would write us at once if she succeeded in finding any of them. There was no risk in giving her the names; the authorities knew all about them, having arrested them themselves. The atmosphere was very friendly and optimistic, and later that evening Klava bought a few things from us for a lower price than another purchaser would have to pay. She left next morning on another ox cart. Mr. Halpern and Mr. Turczynski suspected that Klava was an enterprising confidence trickster, travelling among the deportees to buy things cheaply, but the women preferred to hang on to an extra hope. We never heard from Klava again.

The local Kazakhs who would stay for a few days at a time in Kairan were quite friendly. The women knew even less Russian than the men, and would make fun or our difficulties with the kizyak and the cleaning of the stables. They drank a lot of the brick tea, adding sheep fat and salt to it. They believed that drinking tea prevented headaches. Mother, with her degree in ethnography, looked with interest on their scant crudely fashioned silver jewellery, made, she was told, by the same blacksmith who shod their horses. The Kazakhs were tough, hard working, and self-sufficient. For a week, a group of men, harvesting somewhere nearby with tractor and a combine, spent their nights in the village. The slaughtered a sheep, cooked the meat in a large cast iron pot, and shared it with everyone. They did not use plates or cutlery, only their pocket knives, taking one end of a strip of tough meat between their teeth and deftly cutting it off close to the lips; unnerving at first until we saw that they were experts at it and nobody cut himself.

One of them, the tractor driver, was a Russian. On the first day, when something went wrong with his tractor, he took the gearbox apart and put it together again, and it worked. He told me that a tractor driver's course in Russia included a complete mechanic's course as well, and that a tractor or a lorry carried a set of tools and spare parts which enabled the driver to make quite extensive repairs away from civilization. Now, over the tough meat, watching the Brigadir's son play with his wolf cub, he told us how one winter, driving a lorry alone, he was stuck for two days and nights in the freezing snowbound steppe, in the driver's cabin. It's not that he couldn't repair the lorry, but there was a pack of wolves waiting for him outside until a sled with a couple of men with a shotgun came along and liberated him. The insult added to injury, he said, was that the wolves not only used the underside of the lorry to keep out of the wind, but also pissed on the wheels.

Why wasn't I using a pocket knife, he asked me. I said I didn't have one. "Everyone should have a pocket knife," he said. "We'll make one for you." He rummaged through his box of spare parts and tools and found a rusty piece of iron band. You never threw anything away in the steppe, he said; it would always come in handy, sooner or later. He put the band in the coals and when it grew red-hot he took it out with a pair of pliers, asked me to hold the pliers so that the end of the band rested on a stone, and with a thick nail and hammer proceeded to forge a hole through the iron. This took several reheatings. Then he heated the blade again and tapped along one side to give it an edge. Then he heated it again and poured water over it to harden the steel. He broke off the corner opposite the hole, giving the blade a point , and asked me to sharpen it further on a stone the next day while he was out in the steppe. The next evening he took a piece of a thick stick and, holding it in a small vice, patiently sawed three quarters through it, lengthwise, providing a groove for the blade. Then last night's nail went into the fire again to burn a hole through the handle. Finally the nail passed through both handle and blade, holding them together, was cut off on and peened on he other side. It was crude but real pocket knife. When we settled down to the remains of last night's meat, my mother almost fainted when I used it in the local fashion and asked me for God's sake to keep it well away from my lips. Mr. Turczynski and Mr. Halpern were very impressed. Those Russians, they said, can make anything. While very grateful to the tractor driver, I suspected that he had enjoyed making the knife as much as I did having it made for me. He seemed to love anything mechanical, and would grow restless in his spare time until he went pottering about this tractor or arranging things in the toolbox or repairing some utensil in the village.

I proudly used my new knife to clean the next pike I caught; there were to be three or four that summer. They did not help our food situation much; we were hungry most of the time, and had to ration our food carefully. We were also careful about bartering things for food in Buko; we didn't have too many of them, and didn't know what the winter would bring. The nights were getting colder and the summer was ending. The Kazakhs would return soon. It was time for us to move to some more permanent quarters; we were first to go to a larger village some three days away, a sort of regional centre to which the rest of our caravan had continued after we had remained in Kairan for the summer.

Finally the day came when several ox carts were lined up in the Kairan square again, with our stuff on them.The Kazakhs who were in the village gathered around to say goodbye to us. I went to say farewell to the little wolf cub who was now much bigger, and he wagged his tail and held my hand in a playful but quite sharp-toothed grip.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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