WORSE THAN HUNGER AND LICE
It was easy to be hungry before the war, for an hour or two, before lunch or dinner, returning home from school or half a day spent gathering mushrooms in the woods during the summer vacation, or, in my case, following the bank of the little river in Zawadow with my fishing rod; one knew that a good meal was waiting at home, and the hunger simply made it more enjoyable. The chronic wartime hunger was something else; not just a physical gnawing at one's stomach and the weakness caused by underfeeding, but a state of mind; permanent thought of food, of the next meal, of what one would like to eat. Stella and I had a little game: describing the meal we would have "after the war". There was nothing outstanding about the components except the quantity: a whole loaf of bread, half a sausage, a large chunk of Swiss cheese. If it was a cooked meal, it would start with a pot of thick potato soup with a lot of meat in it, go on to a whole roast chicken or a couple of large steaks with plenty of bread, and end with chocolate cake.
The lice - body and head - were an insult added to the injury. Whatever one did, one could never completely get rid of them. You could wash your hair with kerosene, get rid of the brown head lice with the louse comb, and do your best to remove the nits, and a couple of days later you came home from school with a big fat pregnant matron establishing herself in the new surroundings.
The greyish-white body lice were easily tracked down in the seams of one's clothing and executed with a satisfying crack between the fingernails of your thumbs, and a hot iron put an end to the nits it touched, but there were always some nits which survived and grown-ups which migrated onto you in a crowd. They were a permanent curse, easier to overcome temporarily in summer than in winter, and also a dangerous one because of the typhus they spread. Epidemics of the disease would regularly sweep the town.
One winter day Maria Moysyeyevna walked into our classroom in the middle of a lesson. A typhus epidemic was in progress in Barnaul, she said, and the authorities were doing their best to combat it. The contribution of our and other schools would be that all the boys would have their heads completely cropped. There had been a suggestion that girls should also undergo the same, but it was felt that at their age it would be asking too much. The boys' cropped heads, however, will do much to reduce the danger. A hairdresser was waiting in the gym hall; would the boys please report to him right away.
Nobody moved. We were in a deep shock; we were fourteen or fifteen and our appearance was enormously important to us. Cropped heads was something one associated with prisoners, army recruits, or skin disease. If Vitka Karabanov or Mishka Sysov had their hair cropped, they would still retain their burly physique, smart shining leather boots, and the authority of gang leaders. But I, with my narrow shoulders and poor clothes would be practically destroyed. My strongest card with the girls, in a blond straight-haired society, were my black curls. There was another Jew in our class with a similar crop, but he also had a hooked nose, brown eyes, a week chin, pimply face, and a repulsive character, and was no competition. I had a fairly pleasant face with a straight nose and blue eyes. Blue eyes were penny a dozen in themselves, but I tanned very quickly, on the river bank in summer and cross-country skiing in winter, and the combination of black curls and blue eyes in a tanned face must have worked its magic on Alla Druzhinina, from whom I have recently received a love letter, the day after I had dared to send one to Vyera Sysova, Mishka's sister, to which a kind but negative reply was delivered by Ada Korsakovich just as I was composing a similar negative one to Alla. Alla Druzhinina was a plump Georgian with thick black hair (straight) and a curved nose, quite pretty and charming but absolutely not my type. As the saying went, the heart takes no orders. I am not quite sure what made me write to Vyera Sysova; she was tall, pretty, and well built, with a nice slightly mocking smile and a sense of humour, like her brother. A part of the attraction must have been that she was the sister of a leader; but I suspect that I was already then in love with Ada Korsakovich, who was her best friend and whom I did not know very well. Asking a girl to deliver a love letter established some close bond between the stricken victim and the messenger, and I had a feeling that the rather fast heartbeat and confusion I felt when I took Ada aside and looked from a close distance into her disturbing greenish -grey eyes was not entirely due to Vyera and the letter I was asking her to deliver.
God knows what we were expecting in case of a favourable reply from the addressee. Straight sex to deliver us from masturbation, almost certainly not; at most, I think, long walks, intimate talk, kisses and some fondling, a great romantic happiness, most probably occasionally spoiled by our friends' mockery, and perhaps, perhaps, one day, real loss of virginity on both sides. Anyway, there I was, with a sad Alla Druzhinina under the window on the left and Vyera Sysova and Ada Korsakovich side by side somewhere behind me when Maria Moysyeyevna barged in with that bombshell.
There was dead silence in the class. Every boy was contemplating with undivided interest his pen or his fingernails. Without a word being spoken, through pure telepathy, a collective decision has been taken: if we stand firm as one man, this might blow over somehow; if we don't, we are done for.
In a quiet but determined voice, Maria Moysyeyevna repeated her request. Then there was a long silence. Glancing sidewise, I realised that the whole class was watching me for some reason. I looked up and met Maria Moysyeyevna's steady gaze. She was just standing there, leaning on the desk, not saying anything, and looking straight at me. I got hot under the collar. For the others, she was only the headmistress. For me, there was also her friendship with mother and the Closed Shop. For the others, her fixed look had only an air of authority and command; but I thought I also detected in it a plea for help. What the hell, I thought, the hair would grow back sooner or later and by then the typhus epidemic might be over, and it was a deadly disease after all; it was a challenge; there was a Russian saying: "If you have to die, do it in style" (literally "with music": "Pomirat tak s muzykoy").
I took a deep breath, got up, and said as calmly and casually as I could:
"All right, Maria Moysyeyevna; may I go first, to beat the queue?"
A wail rose from the girls. Pretending to be on the verge of tears, Vyera Sysova asked me to bring her a curl of my hair, and there was a chorus of "For me too". Maria Moysyeyevna was visibly relieved, while Mishka Sysov and Vitka Karabanov, in a foul mood, got up to follow. I thought it would be best not to let them intercept me after school.
The manual hairclipper went over my head a few times with a cold metal touch and it was over. My head felt naked and strange under my hand; there was no mirror to see the result; that would have to wait until I got home. I collected some of my hair and went back to class. An even louder wail, but with some note of admiration, as if greeting a crippled returning hero, rose from the girls as I walked in.
Very politely, I said to the teacher "Please excuse me, Maria Trofimovna; I promised", and went from desk to desk, giving each girl a curl of my hair, before sitting down.
A new wail greeted each returning boy. By the end of the school day we started getting used to our bald heads, and even joked about them. The next day, Fyedka Chelapko, who had been absent the day before, was the only one in class with long hair, running his fingers through it with a superior smile and snickering. The hairdresser had only been invited for one day; typical Soviet planning without attention to detail or exceptional cases which allowed clever or lucky people to find a loophole. Chelapko kept running his fingers through his hair and snickering for two days, and then broke down under the cold stares and the ostracism, went to a hairdresser, and had his hair cropped at his own expense.
The body lice were a tougher problem, especially in winter. There was a free delousing service provided at the municipal public baths, the entrance fee to which was very low, practically symbolic: while you were inside, your bundle of clothes was put into a special oven which heated them to a temperature which killed the lice and nits without damaging the fabric. We went to the baths because bathing at home called for a lot of firewood to heat the water in addition to being messy, time-consuming, and lonely. A visit to the public baths was also a social occasion; we went in groups and stayed for a couple of hours, enjoying ourselves, telling jokes, and making fun of one another's penises, especially Jewish circumcised ones, including mine. You were given a small piece of brown soap which never produced any suds and a large metal wash-basin. There were no bathtubs, only hot and cold water taps along the wall of the large hall and smooth stone benches on which you sat, alternatively soaping yourself and sluicing yourself or a friend with water from the basin. You could skate on your bare feet on the wet floor and pour a basin of cold water over an unsuspecting friend. There was also a sauna where people sweated on wooden benches, smacking themselves on the back with bunches of birch twigs. Once there was a power cut, leaving us with soap running into our eyes in pitch darkness, and by the time we groped our way to the taps on the wall, a mournful voice of the attendant announced: "Sorry, no water either." We dried ourselves as best we could with our towels, spent half an hour by the light of an oil lamp getting our clothes back, and went home to wash off the rest of the soap with cold water.
Compared to lice, bedbugs were a minor but persistent problem. Theoretically, if you moved your bed away from the wall and placed all four legs in tins of kerosene, they couldn't get at you, but they solved the problem by climbing onto the ceiling over the bed and then dropping down. In a scientific mood, Shurka Okolyelov (who stayed away from the public baths because of his bad leg and hunched back) wondered whether they always did this, or only got the inspiration when parachute jumping became a popular sport in the Soviet Union.
Once, having taken shelter from the rain in an entrance to a house, I overheard two women talking in the corridor.
"Eeeekh, dearie, " one of them said with a deep sigh, "it's worse than hunger and lice."
"How right you are. If your man comes back from the war and you've had a baby in the meantime or caught a disease, you're finished. No condoms in the pharmacies either - not that they were all that reliable when you could get them, you never knew which one was going to tear or have a hole in it from the start - but now it may be not just shortage but the government might have also decided that too many people are getting killed in the war and we need replacements. Working your head off and trying to feed the kids and shit-scared whenever a postman comes near your house, and using your finger as well like you did at school instead of the real thing."
It came to me as a revelation that a lot of grown-ups must have been masturbating like us, for similar reasons: the scare of pregnancy, syphilis, or scandal. One saw tertiary syphilis cases in the street or at the flea market: fallen-in noses and red-rimmed eyes, and heard stories of madness and of children born blind. A few streets away, a young girl hanged herself upon becoming pregnant, and downtown a young student did the same upon the diagnosis of the dreaded disease. There was also another love-related death - most probably followed by another - of a strikingly romantic and old-fashioned kind: two cadets from the officer school fought a duel over a girl, with service revolvers, on the ice of the frozen Ob, and one of them was killed. The survivor was immediately dispatched to the front, to something called a punitive battalion, an assignment which was considered a more useful and honorary, but otherwise as effective, form of death sentence.
At home, our landlady Lyuba had a steady lover, an almost middle-aged officer stationed in Barnaul in some administrative capacity. He would come after work bringing some bread and sausage and a small bottle of vodka, and he and Lyuba and the children would have dinner on the small table near the window. Then he would stay the night, offering the children the excuse that it was late, and far to his quarters, especially if it rained or snowed, with Luyba politely inviting him to sleep on the bench across the room. The obnoxious Tolya was perfectly aware of what was going on, and would tell me and anyone else who would listen how the guest got into his mother's bed afterwards and how many times he fucked her during the night.
Mother was not happy with the situation, worrying about the influence it might have on me and Stella, and trying to smooth it with occasional remarks on how unfortunate Lyuba was not knowing anything about her imprisoned husband - a situation similar to ours - and that perhaps if he did not come back she could marry her gentleman friend. Then his unit was sent to the front or somewhere nearer it, leaving Lyuba downcast and brooding and my mother comforting her and asking about letters from her officer friend. They were not to be expected for at least a month or two due to the slowness of Russian mail and the military censorship. Some two weeks later another suitor, also an officer, whom Lyuba met at the flea market, showed up with bread, tins of food, and vodka, and stayed the night because it was late and far to his quarters and snowing. The affair did not last, and there followed in quick succession a number of gentlemen friends, mostly officers but also an occasional civilian, staying the night a few times and then disappearing. Luyba did not seem to take this variety to heart; on the contrary, she was in a much better mood and more lively than before. She even gave me an occasional sidelong glance and once, as I was passing through her room, said in an undertone, as if to herself: "I could do with a little husband like that", the diminutive ("muzhenyok") in this context not necessarily suggesting a permanent legal one.
After this remark, I was keenly aware of, and confused by, a budding possibility of learning real sex from our landlady. The syphilis scare was there from the start , because picking up philandering men at the flea market was not a safe thing to do. I wondered whether my older and possibly more experienced friends at school, like Vitka Karabanov or Mishka Sysov, might help me to get hold of a couple of condoms, and whether wearing two at a time could increase their reliability, in the meantime avoiding finding myself alone with our landlady.
It was not only me who was aware of the situation and its risks. My mother must have sensed it as well. She could offer us no further excuse for our landlady's behaviour, and must have been less than keen to have her fourteen year old son initiated into sex by her, with the risk of falling in love with an older woman or catching a dread disease or both, and she found other lodgings, round the corner from Malo-Zmeyevskaya Street, with a schoolteacher with three sons, whose husband was at the front.
©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