Zygmunt Frankel


Chapter 2


1st September 1939, evening.
War, for God's sake. Unbelievably, all of a sudden, out of the blue, without even a proper declaration of war, the Germans have attacked this morning. We heard the news on the radio at breakfast on my parent's farm, and we packed quickly and rushed to the station to catch the morning train to town, cursing the Germans for putting such a hasty end to our summer vacation. The train was terribly crowded, and delayed on the side tracks twice while trains with soldiers, horses, and guns rolled by in the opposite direction. It stopped on the outskirts of the town and we had to get out and take a cab home; the station had been bombed in the morning. Some of the bombs missed the station and fell in the adjoining streets, and dozens of civilians were killed. A couple of hours after we got home, the air-raid sirens sounded again and we ran downstairs to the cellar which serves as our air-raid shelter. We heard some distant thuds shortly afterwards, and later heard that the Germans have bombed the station again.
There has been a mobilization going on for the past few days, but nobody expected a war to start; it is a political and military suicide for Hitler with France and England behind us and due to declare war any moment. The unease of last year's Munich agreement is now gone. The men say that it is clear now that it was a very clever trick on the part of England and France, to give him enough rope to hang himself; a combined counterstroke by Poland, England, and France will now once and forever remove this unsavoury character from European politics, and high time too, and everyone will be able to breathe easier.
("The men", on this occasion, do not include Marta's and Mimi's husbands and Leo, because each of them is sitting out the first day of the war in his own house or air-raid shelter when the sirens sound, and not Major Serbenski and Lieutenant Sarna who are with their units, perhaps already fighting - may God protect and preserve them. This time it is my husband with the other male inhabitants of the house - the lawyer from the third floor, the businessman from the second, the car mechanic from the ground floor, and even the shoemaker from the basement flat. It is surprising how quickly, with only slight previous acquaintance, they got together and set up a strategic committee during this afternoon's air-raid, very similar to the one held in our sitting room before the war. "Before the war"! It was only yesterday!

2nd September 1939, evening
The second day of the war, and another air-raid. The Germans have bombed our railway station once again, and we have spent a couple of hours in our shelter - the basement which has in the meantime been emptied of some old junk and tidied up. France and Germany have not yet declared war and nobody understands why, unless, as the men say, they are mobilizing so as to strike hard and fast immediately upon the declaration. But they should have declared war on Germany at once all the same. There are also rumours that the Germans have advanced in the first hours of the war - they might get uncomfortably close to our town if they keep it up - but the men say it was only due to the unfairness and surprise of the initial attack, and they should start getting pushed back any time now. Two can play at this game. The shoemaker's wife has a new baby and she lets me hold it for a while; it's a delight cuddling the little thing, and my heart almost melted when it smiled back at me. Perhaps this short war will be a blessing in disguise, marking the end of our extended honeymoon and the sowing of our wild oats and prompting us to start on our first baby. I would so love to have one of my own, and I feel ready for it, especially, for some reason, after that incident in the bushes on the river bank. I am quite sure that the moment we become a little family, the home will take on a more sacred aspect and no more such incidents will occur, with this one receiding somewhere to the back of my memory as something that happened long ago, before the war, before our first baby, quite adventurous and spicy but well in the past and without any bearing on our present life.
One good thing about this war: I wouldn't have believed that I could lose half a kilogram in two days, and perhaps our little weighing machine is not all that accurate - my husband explains that it works with a spring inside, not weights - but it seems I did, what with the tension and the hours in the shelter and the nervous and interrupted sleep. Last night, about midnight, we mistook the accelerating noise of a motorcycle in the street for the first notes of the air-raid siren and jumped out of bed and reached for our clothes before my husband identified the noise.

3rd September 1939
At long last! France and England have declared war on Germany! The Germans have had it now! They may still be advancing in Poland, with our army recoiling the better to regroup and strike back, but it won't be long now. I wonder how Major Serbenski and Lieutenant Sarna are doing, and hope they will return from this war alive and well, with some distinguished decorations, and tell us all about it over coffee and cakes in our sitting room, or on the balcony if the weather is still warm enough in a couple of weeks' time.
We have not had any cake for the past three days because the war started so suddenly that our cook did not have the time to bake one. Four air-raid alarms in the past two days, two of them at night. On two of the four occasions, the Germans have bombed the station some more - it seems to be properly knocked out by now. The two other alarms were false ones, although during one of them we did hear some planes going overhead; a neighbour said afterwards that they were German planes all right, but heading for some target farther east. The men say that the Germans are going to miss every plane they lost and every bomb they dropped on this front when the French and the British start on them at the other end. Perhaps they have started already; every time we switch on the radio we hope to hear about it.
In the meantime, trying to sleep in the shelter, almost fully dressed, on a mattress on the floor, is damnably uncomfortable, and I don't understand how some of the people manage it, although I myself may have dozed off for a while.

12th September 1939
What on earth are the French and the British about? This war has lasted almost two weeks now and the Germans have occupied half of Poland by now and are still advancing. Some people are leaving town and going east, in cars or hired carts, until it blows over. Leo was among them; we got a hastily scribbled letter from him, delivered by a messenger: "Dear Stasiu and Halina; After serious reflection, have decided to leave for a while, most probably for Lvov, mainly because of my mother who is ailing and not taking it well. (While hoping that the Germans will not take the town, not even for a few days, it might be more risky for us than for our Christian friends to remain if they do.) I hope we shall all be together again soon, for coffee and cakes, and put "Indeed, Such A Pity The Summer Is Gone" on the gramophone and dance, and remember all this as a bad dream which was quickly over. Many thanks again, to you and Halina's parents, for the lovely weekends in the country. Yours, Leo."
My husband grumbled a little. "Why isn't he in the army, anyway?" I reminded him that Leo once told us that he suffered from occasional bouts of asthma which disqualified him from military service. My husband was not convinced, saying that doctors are a sort of Mafia, and one of them can always find something wrong with another, especially if it's about army service and both of them are Jewish. I said he was our friend and it was not nice to say such things about him, but could not help remembering that, in spite of very fast and deep breathing, Leo did not display any signs of asthma that hot summer noon in the bushes by the river.
By now, we have spent several nights in the shelter. It's not worth going up after the all-clear, undress, go to bed, fall asleep, and then dress hastily again and rush down the stairs when another air-raid warning sounds. The shelter is crowded and stuffy at night, and one of the neighbours snores. My husband occasionally keeps a hand on one of my breasts under the blankets, but it's more of a gesture of friendship, of common memories, of what's to come in a few more hours when we are alone in our bedroom again, than any love play. I think I have heard the Piaszczynskis, on the mattress next to ours, making love one night, very quietly so that no one should hear, and it sounded shabby and demeaning.
Lost another kilogram since the war started.

16th September 1939
The Germans are in town. Two days ago, we heard some explosions without any air-raid warning, rushed down to the shelter, waited for over an hour, did not hear any more explosion but no all-clear either, returned to the flat, and, an hour later, explosions again, once again without any air-raid warning. My husband thought that the sirens might have been knocked out, but in the shelter someone said that it wasn't planes this time but the German artillery shelling the town. The mood in the shelter was awful. We stayed there from then on, except for some quick sorties to the flats, to bring down some more bedclothes or food. And then, this morning, dead silence outside, except, after a while, some rumbling as if of lorries or tanks in a distant street, and then silence again. After a couple of hours, the janitor, an elderly widow called Kolynycz, creeps up the stairs and peeks into the street just as a patrol of soldiers in unfamiliar grey uniforms and strangely shaped helmets passes by. The officer or sergeant in charge salutes her politely, says "Guten Morgen, liebe Frau; wir sind da," and they go on.
Now the men had to decide whether we should stay in the shelter for a while or return to our flats, and they seemed at a greater loss in this seemingly simple local decision than when discussing grand strategy on European scale. If the Poles counterattacked and the artillery opened up again, it would be safer in the shelter. If, on the other hand, the Germans started looting and raping, as occupying soldiery is reputed to do for the first three days, we might be better off behind the locked doors of our flats. We finally decided to wait for another hour or so and if the silence continued, return to our flats, which we finally did, keeping away from the windows for the rest of the day.

16th September 1939
It is a quiet town, with a hush over it while the occupiers and the occupied are taking each other's measure. We do not leave the house and only watch from the window, and, later, having grown slightly bolder, from the balcony. What a smart, good-looking army these Germans are! Not just the officers - the Polish officers were also smart, and Lieutenant Sarna even suspected Major Serbenski of wearing a corset - but even the soldiers, with their knee-high leather boots instead of the puttees the Polish soldier wears. Even their steel helmets, coming down lower over the forehead and the neck, look more efficient. And the mechanised transport! The town is full of lorries, with an occasional small column of tanks passing through; a lot of motorcycles with sidecars and machineguns mounted on the sidecar, and almost no horses. This, together with the German successes, should clinch at least one of the old arguments, the one about the horse versus the engine.
Hurry up, the French and the British. Will we have to go through all this all over again when the Polish army retakes the town, or will the Germans capitulate and withdraw peacefully after their collapse on the Western front? It is now more difficult to know what is going on because there are German propaganda broadcasts in Polish on the radio. Warsaw seems to be defending itself bravely, and Germans seem to have been checked, or have simply exhausted themselves, on the approaches to Lvov. Let's hope the tide is turning at long last.
Seventy-one kilograms. I will feel a different woman, in body and spirit, if I manage to drop below seventy, which is now well within reach.

18th September 1939
Something unbelievable has happened. The Russians have crossed the border and invaded Poland from the east, stabbing us in the back. There are rumours of the government, the high command, and some of the army escaping south, across the border, to Rumania I think. Warsaw is still fighting. Where the devil are the French and the British? The men say the only hope now is an expeditionary force, but even they are not sure whether it can get here in time and where it could land and how successful it could be against the combined Germans and Russians and whether it would be willing to take on the Russians before it finished off the Germans. It looks like another partition of Poland, and God knows for how long this time. Marta's husband - we have visited them, for the first time since the outbreak of the war; it is quite safe to go out into the street, the Germans are not looting or raping or anything of the sort, on the contrary, they are trying to be very correct and civilized. The men are trying to analyse where we went wrong. His theory is that if Poland was unable to defeat Germany single-handed in one fell swoop - and the government should have known our real strength, whatever the brainwashed citizens believed - then we should have sided with one of our powerful neighbours, either Germany or Russia, against the other, and not left ourselves between the anvil and the hammer, at daggers drawn with both of them ever since our independence twenty years ago. While those figures of speech - one fell swoop, anvil and hammer, daggers drawn - were floating about, Marta and I played with their little brat, who had found the war and the shelter fascinating and was quite a good little boy throughout.

3rd October 1939
Everything quiet and orderly, and a little dull. My husband has returned to work. Our little circle has started visiting each other again, reduced to three couples only, because Leo and Major Serbenski and Lieutenant Sarna are away. I wonder where they are and how they are doing. If Leo got to Lvov safely - the Germans have bombed and strafed the roads packed with refugees - he is under Russian occupation now. It is not clear whether people on the other side will be able to come back, and in his case it might also be unwise; the Germans seem to be even more antisemitic than the Poles, and there were some excesses in the Jewish quarter when they first occupied the town. The communists at least are against racial discrimination, and I suppose a doctor can find work anywhere, sooner or later. We do not know whether Major Serbenski and Lieutenant Sarna have escaped with the army across the border to Rumania or been taken prisoners - we hope nothing worse than that has happened to either of them.
Except for the railway station, which is in ruins - the Germans have already started repairing it - and a few houses near the station, the town is as it was before, and the caf- "Roma" - Mimi's and mine favorite - has already reopened, and our first coffee and cake there since the start of the war was a pleasant though sad experience; life sort of returning to normal in spite of the occupation and the absence of good friends.
On our third visit, late in the afternoon, an embarrassing incident occured. Two young German officers entered the cafe and sat at a table next to ours. An elderly gentleman in a corner immediately called for his bill, paid, and ostentatiously left the place. We thought of doing the same but decided, in whispers, that it would be misplaced patriotism if it endangered not so much us as perhaps our husbands. We did not have the slightest idea how the Germans might react. So we finished our coffee slowly and left later, but not before the German officers tried to strike up a conversation with us. One of them was so good-looking that it almost made you faint, and yet he seemed to be the more shy of the two. His friend cleared his throat and asked us politely whether we spoke German. We shook our heads and made regretful faces, although both of us did know a little German from school. Then the handsome one asked "French perhaps?", in French. There he had us, because every educated Pole speaks French. I myself, as a young lady from a good family, had to play the piano, paint watercolours, and read Balzac and Madame de Sevigne in the original. I took quite a liking to Madame de Sevigne, and got a nicely bound collection of her letters as a prize upon leaving school. So the conversation went on in that language, which sort of took it onto more neutral ground, and there was even the satisfaction that the handsome officer - his friend's French was awful - was forced to speak the language of an enemy which even now, as we sat in the caf-, must have started battering their armies in the west. The officer praised our little town and this caf-, and was interested to hear that it has been in existence since the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He said the old church in the centre of the town looked very interesting and asked whether we would be so kind as to show them the town in more detail, today or on some future occasion, in their car, or, perhaps, if it were more convenient for what he called with some hesitation social or political reasons, in a taxi. We took this opportunity to say demurely that we were both married and that our husbands might look askance at such an excursion - especially, Mimi added to sweeten the pill, with two such handsome officers - and they were very apologetic and correct. We left shortly afterwards, and Mimi said in the street that it was a pity the blond one wore the wrong uniform; there was no telling what a woman, even a married one, might not do if it were the Polish one.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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