We spent the next month in Saratovka, the large village to which our spring caravan had continued after our few families had decided to remain in Kairan. It now also served as a transit centre for the deported Poles who were moving from temporary summer quarters to more permanent winter ones, and we lived there with several other families in a large crowded barn. We renewed some old acquaintances. The sensation of the season was the thirty-year-old daughter of minor gentry parents who had rejected a number of suitors in Poland. At the beginning of the summer she fell in love, or at least was made pregnant by, a young Kazakh from the steppe, and now they were going to be married. The parents were explaining to all who might understand French that la coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas.
Ziutek Serbenski, about my age, the enfant terrible of our spring caravan, pointed out to me a skinny blond Russian girl called Yelyena, eleven or twelve years old, who, he said, let anyone who asked fuck her. He gave an evasive answer to my question whether he himself had asked her, leaving the possibility open but mumbling something about her preference for older men, aged thirteen-fourteen.
There was a stream near Saratovka, larger than the Kairan one, with correspondingly larger pools and pike. After two days with my three-pronged hook we managed to catch a small one. Then Ziutek borrowed a large linen eiderdown cover when his mother was not looking, and we waded with it into a pool where a particularly large pike, almost half a meter long, was lurking. Keeping the mouth of the cover open, we slowly approached the stationary fish, trying to make no noise or sudden movement, cornering it and cutting off its retreat. With a sudden lunge, the pike went straight into the trap and we closed the mouth and waded out, shaking hands, dancing, and tapping each other on the shoulder. Our return with the pike was a triumph, marred a little later by the beating Ziutek got from his mother when she discovered the slightly torn and muddy cover drying on a washing line behind the barn.
The Brigadir of Saratovka, a Kazakh, seemed to be doing a little part-time, mainly administrative work, and spending the rest of his time roaming the low stony hills around Saratovka with his shotgun, firing at anything from sparrows to golden eagles which gathered on a nearby high ground to which carcasses of cattle or dogs would be dragged. I never saw him bring anything in. Studying the golden eagles feeding on the carrion, I would creep and crawl as close as possible, hiding behind rocks, and then, when they finally began their slow and clumsy take-off, I would rush them, trying to get an even closer look. Once or twice, as the eagles scattered, the Brigadir rose from behind a farther rock and asked in broken Russian why the fuck did I scare the fucking byerkuts. I noticed, however, that they never let him get as close as they let me. Either I was better at it or they knew something about guns.
Then there was another ox-cart caravan with a dozen families and a single elderly widow, Mrs. Prinz - she and the three of us were the only Jews here - and another two days in the steppe, arriving at a Russian village called the Lenin Kolkhoz. The villagers were once again not so much Russians as Ukrainians, deported during the collectivisation some ten years before; they had built the village from scratch in the open steppe. The older generation still spoke Ukrainian among themselves but the rest have switched to Russian.
We were put up in the school building - a large house with two classrooms in the centre of the village - and a fortnight later, when the school started, moved to an empty store, a sort of barn, nearby. While we lived there, we were getting acquainted with the villagers, exchanging goods for food and looking for permanent lodgings. We were expected, and advised to, rent rooms before the onset of winter, and we haggled with the villagers who were prepared to take lodgers. Our stock of clothes and valuables, or things which were considered valuable, and which would have to see us through the winter, was dwindling.
Finally, sharing it with Mrs. Prinz, we took a room with a family called Borzyenko. It was the better of the two rooms in the house, or, to be exact, the only one, because the other, first, room, was also the kitchen, large and suitable for living in. You had to pass through it to reach ours, after you passed the shed where the Borzyenkos kept a cow, a pigs, and some hens and a rooster. The only entrance to the house was an inward-opening door to this shed, and, with my technical mind, I thought that an outward-opening door would have saved some space.
Our landlord, Kostya (Konstantin) Borzyenko, and his pretty wife Marusya, were in their late twenties, and had a little boy of three or four, Tolya. The wife's old mother also lived with them. After we moved in, they slept on top of the large baking oven which occupied almost half of the kitchen; a traditional, space-saving, and warmest sleeping place in a Russian village house.
In our room, there were two beds; mother, Stella, and I slept in the large double one, and Mrs. Prinz in a smaller one across the room. Mrs. Prinz was to pay about a third of the rent; she had said that, being only one of the four occupants of the room, she should pay a quarter, but mother said that children did not count as full adults. The Borzyenkos have thus deprived themselves of beds and privacy to earn the modest rent we were able to pay, and perhaps also to have the first choice and slightly better terms on anything we might want to exchange for food.
The village consisted of one long street ending under a hill. In the middle there was the school, the village shop, open for an hour or two a day, with almost nothing to sell, and the water well. The low hills around the village were covered with thorny bushes called karaganik which we cut down with sickles, wearing thick gloves, for firewood. (There was a small iron stove in our room, on which we cooked our food.) Karaganik was tough and difficult to cut, some thorns always penetrating the glove and pricking your hand. It also burned very fast. Kizyak, in the brick form, could be had, for a price, but the three of us regularly went to cut karaganik to economise. Mrs. Prinz was very bad at it.
And, behind the village, among bushes and some trees, there flowed a river; not a very big one, about the size of the one in Zawadow, but a real river all the same. At the beginning of summer I wrote to my cousin Jozek in Lvov asking for some fish hooks and now a letter with a dozen of them arrived. All of a sudden I was rich. The hooks were of good pre-war quality, while the few my friends in the village had were rusty, and bent and broke easily. I kept four for myself, gave one to my new friend Vaska who had become my guide of the river and the surrounding steppe, and gradually exchanged the rest for a piece of bread or a few potatoes each. There were minnows, dace and perch in the river, and worms to be found in the river bank. My largest catch never exceeded half a dozen fish, but the hours I spent creeping silently along the river bank with my fishing rod were the finest of that kolkhoz autumn. Once, seated on a stone behind a bush, I watched a long non-poisonous black snake with two orange spots on its head stalk and capture a frog and swallow it slowly from the rear while the frog struggled.
When we first went fishing together, Vaska inspected my rod and clicked his tongue with disapproval. The braided white sewing thread, he said, was all right for most of the length, but near the hook an almost invisible white horse hair leader was needed. We'll get some for you, he said.
It had to be done carefully. There was only one white horse in the kolkhoz, with almost no hair left in its tail. The technique was to approach the horse from the side, keeping out of the range of its hoofs, say a few kind words to it, twist a few hairs around your finger, and give a sharp jerk. The horse did not seem to mind; it only hurt if you pulled slowly. Approaching the horse was a different matter. If the manager of the kolkhoz as much a saw you looking in its direction he would grab a stick and be after you, trying to preserve what could still be saved from the white horse's tail to keep the flies away.
One day I saw something puzzling: a grown-up kolkhoznik stealthily approaching a dark-brown horse with a black tail, looking around to make sure that no one saw him, and jerking a few hairs out of the tail. I asked Vaska how one could be so ignorant; a black leader on a fishing line was worse than no leader at all. Vaska smiled a knowing. This, he said, had nothing to do with fishing; the village men would tie a horse hair around their pricks, with some bow-knots, to increase the woman's enjoyment of fucking by tickling her insides some more, and, of course, it didn't matter in the least what colour the hair was.
One day, I found my mother whispering with Marusya in the kitchen; they stopped when I walked in, but later I overheard mother telling Mrs. Prinz that Marusya was pregnant and consulted her about getting rid of the baby. Mother told her that such a thing was illegal, and even if it were not she knew nothing about it, and that her title of Doctor had nothing to do with medicine. Marusya had already consulted the wise woman of the village who had given her some herbs which made her vomit but did not stop the pregnancy. Mother asked Marusya why she did not want a second child. She did, she said, but not yet; they were poor, and life was difficult, and they were still young; in another two or three years would be better. Mother warned her not to use any drastic remedies or go to some unskilled person; a botched abortion could be dangerous and also prevent her from having babies later on. Marusya seemed rather relieved by what my mother told her; she said that the abortion was mainly her husband's idea, and if there was no choice but to have the baby, why, then, she would have it. She remained pregnant, and in the spring we had to look for other lodgings because with the new baby the Borzyenkos would need both rooms. We found lodgings with the Dimitryevs, at the far end of the village, next door to my friend Vaska, with us in the kitchen this time, sleeping on the stove. There was a little blessing thrown in: we moved there without Mrs. Prinz, who had proved unbearably cantankerous, and was now sharing a room with another family.
As soon as I entered the almost empty village shop for the first time, a small metal contraption on a shelf caught my eye: two strips of sheet metal bent into half-circles seven or eight centimetres in diameter, kept closed by a U-shaped flat spring with a base and a small round plate in the middle. Having been deprived of toys for so long, I suddenly felt a craving for some mechanical gadget of my own, akin to my longing for a book in the shop in Buko. Asked what it was, the shopkeeper said "Kapkan", leaving me no wiser, until Vaska, the skinny and shy classmate who later became my best friend in the village, explained that kapkan was a leg-trap, used for trapping sousliks and something he called a steppe rabbit. What were they, I asked. He showed me a picture of a souslik in a book; a small rodent with a short tail, slightly larger than a rat, standing on its rear legs in the steppe, a smaller version of a marmot. Vaska said they had marmots too, higher up in the hills, and they had warm fur and were very good to eat, but they were difficult to trap, and a much larger and stronger trap was needed. The steppe rabbit turned out to be a jerboa, with large rabbit-like ears, long rear legs, and a long skinny tail with a black-and-white brush at the end. Then he showed me his traps; the same model as I saw in the shop, but rusty. He had four of them. Finally he brought out a half dozen souslik skins, paper-thin, with short tawny fur. He was keeping them for the dealer who came every few weeks in summer. You could either get a few kopeyeks for a skin, or a kapkan for a bunch of them, the village boys usually taking the latter option. I was all ears and eyes. Since our deportation, I have seen a wild duck baked in a ball of clay, a big and hairy heavily laden Bactrian camel which once passed through Kairan, falconers, a wolf cub, and now, all of a sudden, I was finding myself in a place where boys like me went trapping. Kazakhstan was fast turning out second best to Alaska, and without the eternal cold and snow.
Vaska took me with him when he next went to set traps in the steppe. The first thing, he said, looking around, was that no one saw you setting the traps, otherwise they would be stolen. That, Vaska told me, was how he got one of his four traps. Stealing traps, it appeared, was not a crime but something closer to finders keepers. Couldn't you mark them somehow, I asked. Yes, with a file, but then whoever pinched them could alter the markings or claim them for his own, and if you insisted it might get you into a fight. It was simplest to pinch your trap back if you found it, or pinch another. Of course one did not steal the trap of a good friend if one knew it was his.
It took us a couple of hours to find three sousliks' burrows and one jerboa one. The souslik holes were round while that of the jerboa more arched. You set the traps by depressing the spring, opening the jaws, and locking them with a tongue which passed over one of the jaws and locked into a slot in the round plate on which the souslik would step. The trap was placed in a depression scooped out in the ground in front of the burrow entrance and lightly sprinkled with earth and grass to disguise it. A thin chain attached to the spring had a peg on the other end which one drove into the ground to prevent the animal from dragging the trap away or into the burrow.
The next morning we found two sousliks in the traps; the other two burrows seemed uninhabited. This, Vaska said, was a good catch; he was not hoping for more than one. He was carrying a stick and coolly dispatched each souslik with a well-aimed blow to the head before taking it out of the trap. I noticed some double standard in my feelings. Before the war, we had a pet squirrel for a winter; Antosia and I had caught it in a park in the autumn, using her shawl - the squirrels in the park were half-tame and came down to take a nut out of your hand. The squirrel lived with us until spring when we set it free; with he windows opened again it would have escaped anyway. It slept most of the time, under a sofa cushion or, preferably, during the day, in my parents' bed, and when awake, would sit on a window sill watching the snow outside, and conceal nuts all over the flat. I have grown very fond of the squirrel and would have done much to protect it from harm. Now I watched creatures very much like it being killed, without much pity. They were something quite different, closer to the fish I caught, the mallard duck the Kazakh driver brought from the lake, and the dead fox at the falconer's saddle. This, I felt, must be the difference between the love of a hunter for his dog as opposed to his luck of pity for the partridge or hare falling to his gun, or, on human level, the friendship of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou The Redskin Gentleman or, for that matter, of soldiers in a war, calmly bringing down the anonymous enemies in the sights of their rifles.
In the backyard of his house, Vaska showed me how to skin a souslik. There were two methods: flat and "the sock", equally acceptable to the collector. In the first case, you slit the skin from chin to anus, and twice more between the front and rear paws, pulling it off carefully so as not to tear it, and scraping off any meat or fat that adhered to it. Then you nailed it with a few small nails to a plank, the fur innermost, and put it out in the sun to dry. The other way was to slit the skin between the rear legs only, peel it off like a glove, and stretch it on a V-shaped twig resembling a wishbone.
I immediately had to have a trap of my own, and finally got one of Vaska's in exchange for a small old pipe I once bought in Lvov for a few pennies as part of a tramp's costume for a fancy-dress party. Vaska stole a little makhorka from his father and we smoked it in the pipe in the steppe, getting properly sick. At first I had no luck with my new trap, and when I finally saw a souslik in it I stood there for several minutes not quite believing it, or perhaps getting up my courage to kill it. Mother and Stella never quite understood my new hobby, and I would skin the sousliks out of their sight. When the pelt agent arrived, a dozen of us boys spent a serious hour with him, in the shop, exchanging the skins for traps, and discussing sousliks, jerboas, and trapping methods like grown-ups. I brought half a dozen skins, one of them a jerboa's; not quite enough for a new trap, he said, but he would let me have one just the same, seeing I was doing quite well for a beginner. I asked him what they did with the skins. He was not sure; his job was only to pass them on, but he thought that, thin as they were, they did make them into something somewhere, gloves perhaps. The immediate and most important thing, he said, was keeping down the rodents which were causing damage to the crops. The worst one was the hamster; he once saw a hamster's burrow dug open at the end of the summer, and there was about half a sack of grain stashed away down there. There were only a couple of hamster's pelts among the catch the village boys brought in; the mounds of earth the hamsters pushed up were easy to spot, but then one had to find a tunnel, set the trap underground, and cover the top again. In most cases, the hamster blocked the trap with earth without getting caught, or dug a tunnel around it, or something of the sort.
The small carcass of a skinned souslik was meat but, even though we were hungry all the time, I did not dare to suggest to mother that we cook them; they looked very unattractive without their skins, and it would have been something like eating rats. I did, however, build a small kizyak fire in the steppe once and roasted a souslik over the coals, not so much out of hunger - some of the meat was be burnt and some half-raw, and there was very little of it - but for the adventure of it. My greatest fear was that someone would see me and the village boys - and, worse, girls -would make fun of me ever after. Being hungry in the kolkhoz was much worse than being hungry in Kairan. There, we were mostly alone, and everyone was in the same situation. Here, with the local children better fed and clothed, there was also a matter of pride and prestige. Vaska would sometimes take a piece of bread on our excursions into the steppe and share it with me, and I would always refuse at first, saying that I was not hungry.
School started, and Stella and I found ourselves sitting side by side on the same bench. There were only two classrooms and two teachers, both of them single young women, no great beauties but assiduously courted by the young men of the village because a teacher's standing was far above that of a simple village girl and every mother would like to see her son married to a schoolteacher. The younger children sat in one class and the older ones in the other.
Stella and I had problems with the Russian language, but we were making good progress and the teachers and the children were very helpful. Being a Slav language, Russian was similar to Polish, but the differences were sufficient for us to say things which made our classmates giggle and the teachers smile. Except for a Korean woman with two daughters, both of them in our class, who already spoke Russian, the Poles were the only foreigners in the village. The Korean woman, a Soviet citizen, had been deported together with everyone else some eight years before, and her husband, like many Russian ones, had been arrested and missing, possibly shot.
There was another unusual figure in the Lenin Kolkhoz: the local cowherd, a handsome single man of about forty, dressed like everyone else, but with long woman's hair reaching to his shoulders and a beard and moustache. He was a "pop", a Russian Orthodox priest, deported for his beliefs and calling. He would spend the day in the steppe with the village cows, and, not having a room of his own, slept in a different house every night, kneeling down for a prayer before going to bed. The old people respected him for his religion, and the others for his hard work and kindness. The children would sometimes run after him in the street calling him "a long-haired pop" or something of the sort, but he always had a smile and a kind word for them. He could have easily cut his hair and shaved off his beard and looked like everyone else but he didn't want to. When we arrived, the injection of new believers pleased him greatly, and in the evenings, whenever he happened to sleep in a house where Poles lived, he would hold long talks with them. He told my mother that it did not matter whether one was a Christian or a Jew, so long as one believed in God and lived according to the Ten Commandments. Mother found him an educated man and an interesting conversationalist. He was very poor and all his belongings fitted into a small bag, but he received the standard kolkhoz rations and would share what little bread he had with us or the Korean woman or Marusya, not our landlady but the poorest, still young, woman in the village, who lived with her three small children in a hut under the hill. Her husband had been arrested a few years before, and she was worn out by raising the children while also working on the kolkhoz.
When the autumn rains began, the village street turned to mud and one had to be careful not to slip when carrying a bucket of water from the well. Cutting thorn for firewood outside the village became even more tedious because one was cold and would sometimes be soaked by a sudden rain. The sousliks went underground for their winter sleep. The karaganik did for cooking in summer but now we had to spend some of our scarce money on bricks of kizyak as well. The small and infrequent parcels from home helped a lot, especially when there was some nightshirt or other exchangeable article enclosed.
And then snow fell and frost set in. For a while it looked like a Polish winter, but the snow grew deeper and the thermometer kept falling. For a few days at a time, when temperature fell to below minus thirty degrees Centigrade, the school would close; although ordinarily we sat there in our outdoor clothing, and had to thaw out our inkwells by the little stove, the classroom would be too cold during such a spell to learn anything.
Once, a "buran" - a snow storm - blew for three days and nights, with everyone under home arrest. When it finally ended, the room was still dark although it was late morning. I now understood why the entrance door opened inwards. When Kostya pulled it in, there was a solid wall of compact snow behind it. The village had been buried to the chimneys. Armed with a shovel, Kostya proceeded to dig a tunnel and a flight of steps. Outside, under bright sun and cloudless sky, a flat expanse of snow glittered where the village had been, with only chimneys sending up whisps of smoke. Shovelfuls of snow were flying up and the heads and shoulders of the shovel-wielding kolkhozniks emerging and greeting one another cheerfully. Afterwards, the excavations were extended to the windows so that light could get in, and the street and the water well were also cleared.
Our winter clothing was a disaster. We all had warm coats - by Polish city standards, but not by those of Siberia, however southern. This was the easiest to remedy: instead of wearing just one sweater under the coat you wore two or three. The head was no problem for the women; they wore shawls, and you could always tie a scarf over your ears under the shawl. A young man, however, would think twice before going out into the street with a shawl over his head. The Russian boys had warm fur hats with ear flaps. I, however, only had a dark-green visored cap with earflaps, resembling Sherlock Holmes's deerstalker minus the rear flap. It was made of thick woolen cloth, and mother had bought it for me the winter before last. I only wore it to school once. The fashion was to wear our school caps throughout the winter. The distance between home and school was not sufficient to get one's ears frostbitten, and earmuffs were tolerated on particularly cold days, but a warm cap branded you as a sissy. My father only persuaded me to wear the cap to school by saying that it was a hunter's model. When Professor Jaworski, a kind elderly teacher but a stickler for tradition, saw me wearing it, he said:
"Going to Siberia, Frankel?"
Perhaps he was a prophet without knowing it.
My plus-fours were no problem. They were generously cut, the folds coming half-way down the calf, and by simply buttoning them at the ankle instead on under the knee one turned them into full-length slacks of a sporting cut.
Footwear was something else. Our leather shoes, even with woolen socks and rubber galoshes, were no defence against the cold for longer than a few minutes. The Russians wore "valenki"; knee-high felt boots made in one piece, worn large for additional wrapping or padding inside. We could not afford even a single pair. Mother took an old rather thin woolen coat and a small feather pillow and sewed us three pairs of tall boots with down padding between two layers of fabric. We wore our galoshes over them, and they were much warmer than leather boots although still far behind real valenki.
The further into the winter, the harder life became. We were both hungry and cold. The room was half-dark even on a sunny day, with the window panes frosted over and, in the mornings, hoar-frost on the ceiling and walls. The only really warm place was the bed, and we would get under the blankets as soon as we got home from school and stay there most of the time. By the end of December, the Paluchowskis ran out of things to exchange for food, and old Paluchowska went from house to house begging. She wore rags, with more rags wrapped around her feet, leaning on a stick, and, with whisps of grey hair protruding from under her shawl, looked like a witch. Some of the village children would throw snowballs at her and she would stop and curse them and those who were responsible for her and her husband's misery and hunger.
Mother still had a few things to exchange, but for the three most valuable ones- a silver ladies' watch, a pair of mother-of-pearl theatre binoculars, and my father's wedding ring (he left it at home when going to Zawadow so as not to provoke Communist officials with gold rings, and mother said he would have been the first to urge her to sell the ring to feed us; they could get a new one when we were together again ) - there were no takers in the kolkhoz; the people were too poor for such luxuries.
There was a woman in the village who had her eye on a satin nightshift my mother wanted to trade for food, but when mother went to see her, for the second or third time, she said that it would have to wait till the end of the month when food was distributed to the kolkhoz members because in the meantime she was short herself. We had no other takers for anything else at the moment, and had not received a parcel from home for a long time. There followed two or three nights when Stella and I were so hungry that we could not sleep at night and lay in the bed under the blankets crying. The next day, mother went called on a couple of village women with whom she was on friendly terms. She told them about the children crying and not being able to sleep at night, and asked whether she could borrow a piece of bread and return it as soon as a parcel came or she managed to exchange something. One of the women gave her a piece of bread and said there was no need to return it. I could not help feeling ever since that, on that day that winter, my mother went begging.
In January old Paluchowski died of hunger. It could be argued that he died of bronchitis which followed a cold, but his resistance had been badly reduced by hunger. He caught the cold cutting karaganik after digging for it in the snow - they could not afford kizyak - and kept cutting it for a few days while he was already running high temperature and coughing. The last time he crawled the last part of the way home on all fours and did not go out again. He was buried three days after he died; it took that long for several men to dig a grave in the frozen earth of the village graveyard with picks and crowbars. In the meantime they laid him out on a couple of wooden boards on trestles outside the house, and, together with Vaska, we crept close to the body when nobody was around to take a look. Paluchowski's face was emaciated, wax-like, yellow, and covered with deep grey stubble; Vaska told me that dead men's hair and nails kept growing after death. When we looked closer, we suddenly saw a lot of lice crawling all over Paluchowski's face and clothes; with the body cold, they were out to look for other habitation.
Our own situation improved for a while when a parcel arrived with, among other things, a lovely rectangular loaf of brown bread, fresh because it remained frozen all the way. "What intuition," my mother said; "As if grandmother knew how hungry we were." There was also a packet of margarine, and we had a royal meal of two slices of bread each, spread with margarine.
In her next letter grandmother asked whether we have received the parcel, listing the contents. She had not send any bread; what she did send was a loaf of honey-cake, presumably of the same size and shape. Someone at a post office along the way must have opened the parcel, taken the honey-cake, and replaced it with a loaf of bread.
Grandmother was still occasionally negotiating with Tolya, the officer who lived in our flat in Lvov, about the Underwood typewriter he had kept, without making any progress; he stuck to his story that he had bought it from mother when we were leaving.
I was now busy making a pair of skis. On clear days, the village children and teenagers would go skiing on a nearby slope, not particularly tall or steep. The skis were made by the local carpenter, with the front ends steamed to shape. Vaska had a pair and taught me to ski, but it was embarrassing to borrow his skis too often, and we had no money for skis or even a couple of boards from which skis could be made. Finally the father of one of the village boys lent me for the winter a pair of barrel staves which had been gathering dust in the corner of his cattle shed, and mother allowed me to cut two pieces off a leather luggage strap to nail to the staves and I had my first pair of skis. The curvature, uniform along the whole length, was all wrong and the skis were wobbly and difficult to use. My friends made unexpectedly mild fun of my skis; they were very impressed by the fact that I made them myself.
The best skier on the small slope was a young man of about eighteen called Grisha. He was very handsome and a terrible show-off, and he skied best, always with a cigarette between his lips, when some pretty girl was watching him. He was friendly towards me and tried to teach me changing direction with a jump in the middle of a run but my skis were unequal to the manoeuvre. Grisha had a way of listening to you with a half-puzzled and half-knowing smile and with one eyebrow cocked. The girls absolutely loved him listening to them like that. I had only recently mastered the arts of whistling and of moving my ears. Now, when there was nobody at home, I would spend long sessions with my mother's small mirror, trying to raise one eyebrow higher than the other. At first it was absolutely no go, much more difficult than the two other achievements. After a couple of weeks I finally succeeded, with the left eyebrow, to the extent of three or four millimetres, especially if I cheated a little by tilting my head to the right, and started using the cocked eyebrow at every opportunity when Grisha was not looking.
Theoretically, there was trapping to be had in winter, of a more valuable kind than sousliks. Vaska showed me small burrows in the snow not far from the river, with a lot of tiny footprints radiating from them. He called the animal living in them "laska". I did not know what he meant at first, but when he said it was a long thin predatory one with sharp teeth whose brown fur changed to white in winter I understood that it was a weasel or a stoat. Neither Vaska nor I nor any other boy in the village ever caught one. They either had a keen sense of smell, or were very suspicious, or had several exits, or did not go out very often, or several or all of the above; they avoided our traps like the plague. But it was fun trying to catch them, a bit like fishing; you did not really have to catch anything; the mere possibility that you might was enough.
My Russian was improving fast. Apart from school and talking with my Russian friends, I was borrowing every book I could lay my hands on. My favourite that winter was a biography of Amundsen, and my skiing friends were puzzled by my cross-country trips on skis on clear days, around the village or some way beyond the river, now invisible under ice and snow. I carried a trap to provide an easy explanation, but what I was doing, of course, was imagining that I was an arctic explorer on my way to the Pole. I even talked to Vaska and some other boys about training a few of the village dogs to draw a sled, but they were very conservative and said it would be easier to ask the manager for a horse, especially in view of some sort of harness that would have to be made for the dogs..
The winter dragged on and looked like it would never end. At long last the sun grew warmer and the snow began to melt. The first rain was almost a holiday, and when the dirty melting snow in the street finally turned to ankle-deep mud it was a sight the cowherd priest compared to the rainbow after the Flood.
One day at school, Stella and I ran into a nasty political problem. As soon as the teacher walked in, she radiantly announced that today the pupils could enroll in the Pioneers - the Communist youth organisation modelled on the scouts. There were no uniforms except attractive red neck kerchiefs with an enamelled clip. When the teacher asked who wanted to join, all the hands went up but four: mine, Stella's, and those of the two Korean girls whose father had disappeared. The teacher was confused and didn't quite know what to do. She looked at me - I was the oldest of the four and the only boy - and asked lamely why not. Blushing and badly embarrassed I stood up and didn't know what to say. By coincidence I was looking at a page in a history book where a full-page portrait of some high party figure named Blucher had been blacked out on the teacher's instructions earlier that year. "He had proved a traitor" she said. I was almost thirteen and knew that words could be dangerous in Russia, especially in our situation. The teacher, who liked us and knew our reasons for not wanting to join quite well finally got an idea and helped me out. She said: "Oh, I understand; you still believe in God, don't you? It's all right, Frankel; whenever you decide, come and see me and you will be able to join." Believing in God was a minor offence compared to anti-communism, and I mumbled something like "yes, I will, thank you very much," and sat down with enormous relief. The teacher did not question the two Korean girls and started on our lesson.
The only day we really ate our fill, or almost, is very easy to remember: it was the First of May, which also happened to be the anniversary of our disembarkment at Zhengistovo, and just as sunny. The kolkhoz slaughtered a cow, baked a lot of bread and a pile of cookies, and lined up some bottles of vodka on tables put up in the square outside the school. There was a speech by the manager. The Internationale was played on an accordeon and a couple of shotguns let off. Then vodka glasses were raised to Stalin, the Party, and the fatherland, and we fell on the food. One of the Polish women asked the manager whether she could take some food to old Paluchowska who was ill and could not attend, and he agreed, although everyone knew that Paluchowska was not ill but staying at home and cursing, saying that she would rather starve to death like her husband than touch a single crumb of anything offered in celebration of their bloody First of May. The poor Marusya who lived with her three small children in the hut under the hill was not there either, for similar reasons, although, more careful and having her children to think of, she told someone that she had a lot of work to do at home but perhaps could manage to come later. Half a dozen kolkhoz women also took some meat, bread, cookies, a bottle of vodka, and a balalaika, and said they were going to cheer her up. (There was a balalaika in almost every house in the village, as well as a few guitars and accordeons. Kostya Borzyenko had taught me to play chastushki and "The Muzhik From Kamarinsk" on his balalaika.) My mother and I joined them. Marusya was in the hut angrily ironing some clothes, with her three children peering over the edge of the stove, rather like fledglings in a nest, and crying; they wanted to go to the celebrations and she wouldn't take them.
"Hello, Marusya," one of the women said. "It's the First of May and we came to cheer you up."
"You can keep your First of May," Marusya scowled. "Give me back my husband instead."
"Come on, Marusya, snap out of it. Consider it a holiday of all the poor people in the world, and let's drink to them. Where do you keep your cups?"
Put this way, the toast could not be refused, while the children on the stove were given cookies and immediately stopped crying. Marusya was sitting on the bed, still sullen, sipping her vodka from a cup.
"Come on, girls," the woman with the balalaika said, got up, struck up the Chastushki, intoned one of them and went around the table, beating time with the heels of her leather boots. The Chastushki, literally "little bits" or "parts", was an old lively dance tune, to which hundreds of short four-line lyrics were sung all over Russia, on all possible subjects . Some of them were indecent and of those I already knew several by heart, and some downright anti-communist which could land you in jail or worse if overheard by the authorities. The refrain in every case was "That's right, that's right, absolutely true." Three or four other women followed the one with the balalaika, going around the table, dancing, clapping their hands, and singing. Finally Marusya herself smiled, took another sip of vodka, and joined them, intoning the next chastushka:
"I went to dance
Because there's nothing to bite at home;
Dry bread and crusts
And rags on my feet"
("Poshla plyasat, / doma nyechevo kusat;/ sukhari da korki,/ na nogakh oporki.")
The next, private, celebration was my thirteenth birthday, on the tenth of June, the 'bar-mitzva" on which a Jewish male becomes a grown-up member of the community with full rights and obligations. Mother had combined a business trip to a nearby kolkhoz with a visit to a deported Polish rabbi who lived there and brought me back an unexpected birthday present: a set of phylacteries, the two small leather cubes with some inscriptions inside and long leather straps on the outside which an adult Jew puts on his forehead and left arm for the morning prayers. The rabbi also told my mother how the straps should be arranged - a prescribed number of turns on the left arm and over the hand and fingers - and what prayers I should say. (We did have a small prayer book with us.) There was no hope for a "minyan" (congregation) for my bar-mitzva; that had to consist of a minimum of ten Jewish men and I was the only one in the village.
There was also the question of where I could say the prayers with my phylacteries on. Doing it in the house would call for too many explanations. I finally solved the problem by going into the bushes on the river bank with the small embroidered bag with the phylacteries in one pocket and the prayer book and a handkerchief (instead of a skullcap) in another, and carrying my fishing rod. I was never particularly religious but this was a special day and I put on the phylacteries with reverence and swayed a little as I saw the religious Jews in the synagogue do while I read "Shma Israel" and prayed for my father to come back soon and for us to have enough to eat. I also sanctified my bar-mitzva by not fishing or setting any traps on that day.
One day, fishing in the river, I heard a few shots from the direction of the village and the strains of an accordeon, once again playing the Internationale. I did not know of any national holiday in the second half of June and went to investigate. There was a horse cart in the village square and a small crowd around it. As I approached, another shotgun was raised and fired. Vaska caught up with me.
"What on earth is going on?" I asked him.
That morning, a messenger arrived at a gallop from the regional centre with a telegram for the manager. Russia was at war with Germany, and the telegram contained a list of a dozen names of the kolkhozniks who were to report at once for military duty. Some of them were married men who had already done their military service and were now in the reserves, while others, Grisha among them, were being called up for the first time. By the time I arrived they were already assembled by the cart with bundles over their shoulders, trying to be cheerful and taking little sips of vodka from a bottle that was being passed round, while the women cried and lamented and the children clung to them. I shook Grisha's hand and cocked an eyebrow at him, wondering whether he will notice. He suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence - he was saying something to a pretty girl in the crowd - opened his eyes wide, and then burst out laughing.
"Learned it, did you?" The girl looked at him puzzled, not knowing what he was talking about. "You will have to get yourself a better pair of skis for the next winter," he said, "and I'll teach you some more tricks. I hope to be back by then."
The first and most immediate result of the war was that parcels from home had stopped. The papers were reporting heroic resistance of the Red Army and heavy German losses, but they could not help occasionally mentioning places where this resistance was going on, and a look at the map showed that the Russians were being pushed back at a rate which, maintained for a few more months, could deprive them of all the Russia that mattered unless they collapsed or surrendered or signed peace before then. Lvov had been overrun within the first few days and we didn't know what was happening to our relatives there, except one: my uncle Dr. Artur Blatt. A telegram arrived from him from a town called Barnaul, followed by a letter. He had been mobilized into the Russian army when the war broke out and was now in charge of the X-ray department of a military hospital in Barnaul, with an officer's rank. His wife and daughter had remained in Lvov. He was inviting us to join him in Barnaul. We were now free to do so because the German attack had drastically changed our political standing. From a capitalist enemy who had robbed the budding Soviet Union of western Ukraine, Poland became overnight a fellow victim of fascist aggression, and a Polish army was forming in Russia to fight side by side with her new ally. We have regained our Polish citizenship, had rights similar to those of Soviet citizens, and were free to change our place of residence if we so wished. (The men were also subject to mobilization into the Polish army.) Barnaul sounded like a promised land; a large city on the banks of the Ob river - I have found it on the map and was already wondering what fishing in the Ob was like, while mother thought one might be better able to sell the silver wrist watch and the mother-of-pearl binoculars there. (In Russian, the "b" in "Ob" is followed by the "soft sign", making it sound more like "Obe" or "Obi".) Uncle Artur would also certainly help us, and might be able to find mother a job. The prospect of another winter in the kolkhoz had been hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles; with conditions unchanged, there was a serious danger of following old Paluchowski to the village graveyard.
One day I heard some screams and wailing in the street, and saw a group of women surrounding and supporting the wife of a shortish and slim quiet man who had been called up when the war broke out. She was tearing her hair and asking, in a loud traditional wail, why did he leave her and his poor little orphans, and what will they do without him now, and what life can possibly be without him, and where was his faraway grave in the damp earth, and called him her flown eagle and her golden heart, while the women supported her by the elbows and occasionally joined in her lament. A letter had arrived that morning informing her that her husband had fallen in defence of the homeland.
A few days before we left for Barnaul, Grisha's mother got a letter from an army friend of his. He started by expressing the hope that Grisha was alive and well somewhere and that he will recover quickly and that they will meet again after the victory. In the meantime, he had to inform her that a few nights before they were crossing a large river on crowded pontoons and that the Germans caught them in a searchlight and opened machinegun fire on them, and Grisha, who may have been wounded, and several others fell into the water and were not seen again in the dark and were now listed as missing. Grisha's mother did not run out into the street for the traditional lament because the letter was not an official one and still left some hope. And ever since, whenever I cocked my left eyebrow higher than my right one, memory of Grisha would stir in my mind.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
You are welcome to print-out this material for your personal reading, but it is illegal to modify or sell it