Zygmunt Frankel

SIBERIAN DIARY


THE WAY BACK

It was now certain that we were returning to Poland in the summer of 1946; not to Lvov, which, as part of Ukraine, remained in the Soviet Union, but perhaps Cracow, at first at least, where mother's brother Romek, an officer in the second Polish army which had been formed in Russia, now lived with his family. The train was scheduled to go on to the Polish Silesia, larger now than before the war, from which the German population has been deported to East Germany and returning Poles were being settled in their place. The repatriation would prevent me from continuing my studies at the Barnaul technical college and, worse, the gliding course. The winter flights on the Ob had stopped well before the ice began to break up with its sound of constant cannonade, and the spring mud, rains, and winds have delayed our first flights at the airfield outside the town for several weekends. By the time we left I only made half a dozen flights, beginning to get the knack of controlling a glider, and in spite of all my efforts have not managed to get an extra parachute jump either. I delayed telling Kononov that I was leaving till the last days, pretending that the repatriation came suddenly, and, as I expected, he was cross; he had a norm to fulfil, and I had taken up a place in the course without finishing it.

Finally, with a medium-sized wooden trunk and a couple of suitcases which held all our belongings, we boarded a long box-car train at the Barnaul station, exactly like the one that took us in the opposite direction six years before, except that there was no armed guard and the doors were left unlocked. On sunny days, as it chugged slowly across the countryside, the doors would be slid open, and young people would sit there with their legs dangling, to the concern of their parents. Sometimes, at a station, we would buy something tasty sold by the local women: a "pirozhok" - a small meat or potato pie, or a piece of calves feet jelly.

For the first half of the journey the Russian countryside was as we remembered it. Then we began to see gutted houses, charred hulls of tanks and lorries, overgrown trenches, and rusting barbed wire, and talked to people who had been under German occupation. We still had no news from most of our relatives in Poland, but the country was in a mess, with a lot of people, especially Jews, having changed addresses or names or both during the war, and we were hoping to finally find them when we came back. For all we knew, our father might also have been freed and already in Poland. When the train stopped for a couple of hours in Lvov, mother went to visit our house. Of the old lodgers, only Kolynyczowa, the janitor, still lived there, and burst into tears when she saw my mother. Then we pulled up at a small unimpressive station, except that it was the border. Uniformed border control officers went from car to car checking our luggage, without great hope of finding anything of value. Our car was visited by a friendly young officer with a parachutist's badge, and when he saw mine an instant bond was established; he asked where I made my jumps and how many. Going through our trunk, he saw at once that there wasn't much chance of any valuables being smuggled out of the Soviet Union here but concentrated on my books instead, handling them carefully and with respect; he must have been a reader himself. After a while he came across a collection of Zoshchenko's short stories and raised his eyebrows.

"Haven't you heard Zoshchenko's been banned recently?"
"No, I haven't. Was he?"
I did know about it, but pretended ignorance so as not to be suspected of trying to smuggle forbidden books out of the country. Zoshchenko, a well known and loved writer of humorous stories, seemed to have made too much fun of certain aspects of Soviet life and had been rapped on the knuckles, though not as badly as Babel, executed during the purges.
"Have you finished reading it?" he asked, looking me in the eye.
"Yes, I did."
"Well, in that case I have to confiscate it," he said, and slipped it into the pocket of his greatcoat.

The train pulled up at the Cracow station late at night for a brief stop, and our fellow passengers helped us to get our trunk and suitcases down. We shook hands and the train moved off, on its way to Silesia. The platform was completely deserted at this late hour and the three of us stood there silent and deeply moved, with our feet once again on Polish soil, Uncle Romek and his family somewhere in the sleeping town, Wieliczka, where all of us were born, a twenty minutes train ride away, and with my mother looking around and remembering the familiar station from her younger years. Finally two railway officials showed up, walking towards us along the platform, obviously on some periodic inspection round. Mother spoke to them warmly, saying we were repatriates from Russia, and expecting some words of welcome in addition to information on taxis or cabs into Cracow. The two men looked at us and then at each other, and one of them said: "Repatriated to start breeding here again," and they moved on. We waited on the platform till the early hours of the morning, and finally got a cab to take us to uncle Romek's address. It was a touching and tearful family reunion. My uncle was still in the army, with a major's rank. A lawyer by profession, he had been attached to the headquarters of the second Polish army in Russia, but did manage to get under fire on a few occasions on the long way from Russia to Berlin. My two cousins, Zygmunt and Jozek, have also grown up. (Zygmunt was one year older than me and Jozek one year younger.)

It was also the only family reunion that awaited us in Poland after the war. Of my father's three brothers and two sisters, one brother was in England when the war broke out and another reached it shortly afterwards with the Polish army he joined in France. Another brother and sister who lived in Belgium survived the war in hiding with Christian families.

My father's stepmother, his sister Hella, her husband Alfred, and their baby son, together with other Jews of Ustrzyki Dolne were rounded up by the Germans and loaded onto a train to a concentration camp, the men having been separated from the women and children at the station. On the way, Uncle Alfred somehow managed to climb out of the window of the moving train and roll down the embankment. He began to run across a field towards some trees but was noticed and shot by the guards. Hella, her child, and my stepgrandmother were killed at the camp.

My mother's brother Iziek in Lvov was invited by Professor Fryze, a Christian and the head of his department at the Lvov Polytechnic, to go into hiding with him as soon as Germans occupied Lvov; they had a list of prominent people, both Christians and Jews - intellectuals, scientists, writers, artists, rabbis, and so on - whom they began to arrest and execute at once. Uncle Iziek did not suspect that they would be so thorough as to keep under round-the-clock observation the apartment where his wife Syda and their two children - a small girl and a baby son - lived; he went to visit them one night, was arrested, and shot with some others in the Wulka hills outside Lvov a day or two later. Syda took her children to Wieliczka to stay with my grandmother who had returned there. One day the Germans rounded up the Jews of Wieliczka, including my grandmother, Iziek's wife Syda, her daughter - she had managed to leave her baby son at the last minute at the Wieliczka Jewish children's home - and my mother's other sister Ida with her family, took them to a nearby forest where a deep trench had been dug, and shot them. The actual killing was carried out not by the SS but by the Ukrainian police. On their way back they entered the children's home and killed the children as well. The local people said that the Ukrainian police were slightly drunk when they took the Jews away - probably a vodka ration to make the executions easier. It must also have affected the accuracy of their shooting, because some local boys who had afterwards sneaked into the woods to take a look said that the earth over the mass grave kept moving slightly for a day or two afterwards.

The brothers Szymek and Duniek, my friends in Ustrzyki Dolne who kept pigeons and with whom we saw the falcon take one of the pigeons and sat in the glider which landed outside the town survived Auschwitz, but Szymek not for long; the notorious Dr. Mengele had carried out some medical experiments on him, and he died a few months after the war.

My father never came back, and we were unable to find out exactly where or how he died. There was an extremely high - about one third annual - mortality in the Soviet labour camps in the first years of the war, from cold, hunger, disease, and sometimes suicide. (A simple method was to throw yourself under a falling tree.) It was not uniformly distributed among the prisoners: the survivors were mostly young men used to physical work, while most of the older white-collar people - my father was over fifty at the time of his arrest - died within a year or two. Half a century later, in 1992, the hitherto secret text of the March 1940 decision of the Soviet Central Committee to execute 15,000 Polish POW officers - an old and well-known story by then - was published, and it also included the decision to execute 11,000 civilian prisoners from Western Ukraine and Byelorussia - land owners, industrialists, ex-Polish officers, policemen, and government employees. Between seven and eight thousand were executed, and when the lists were published, my father's name was there, number 3066, group 56/2-22; so that the train from which he dropped his note was not a deportation train but death transport.

Half a year after our return to Poland, Stella and I left for England, by boat, through Sweden. The British government had offered immigrant visas to a number of Jewish children and teenagers who had relatives in England prepared to support them, and our uncle Joseph arranged this for us. (Mother could not come, and the three of us were reunited a few years later in Israel.) We could have stayed in Poland, and by the time we left I was already a student at the Lublin University, but, in addition to the cold reception at the Cracow station, two more things happened that year to make us grateful to Uncle Joseph in London for his efforts. The first was the Jewish pogrom in Kielce. A year after the war, under the iron rule of the Communists, at the risk of their lives - several were later condemned to death and hanged -a crowd in that town one day rounded up and killed a number of Jews, some of them taken off a train which stopped at the Kielce station. My mother happened to be on that train, and it was only her non-Jewish appearance and good Polish which saved her life. A few weeks later I was at a party at a fellow-student's house in Lublin, sitting in a circle and drinking vodka, when one of the students said something which was being often said in Poland after the war: "Well, there was at least one good turn Hitler did us; he rid us of the Jews." It was not aimed at me because, in spite of my dark curly hair, nobody there, in the first days of our studies, knew that I was Jewish; my straight nose and blue eyes offset that, and they also knew that my father was a Legion officer, untypical for a Jew, arrested by the Russians in 1939. What shocked me was not the saying itself, but the fact that this student's whole family - father, mother, and sister - had been shot by the Gestapo for belonging to the underground, and he was still grateful to them for shooting Jews as well. I remember sitting there watching him with a curious feeling: neither dismay, hate, nor fear, but some cold detached scientific curiosity, rather like seeing some incredible animal in a zoo and having problems believing that it really existed. I think it was at that moment that I finally decided that this was no country for a Jew to settle in and raise a family.

There is a strong temptation to end this book with some dramatic flourish, like "I watched the shore receding, and when it finally faded in the grey Baltic haze I turned my back on Siberia and Poland and went forward along the rolling deck, breathing the free wind from the west", or something about a wandering Jew once again on his way, and I do remember that Byron's "Farewell, farewell, my native shore", in Russian translation, passed briefly through my mind; but on the whole I was rather cool and composed, and I think that had the phrase "this is the first day of the rest of your life" been current by then, then that is what I would have quoted to myself, leaning on the railings and watching the sea.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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