Zygmunt Frankel


Chapter 9

The Ebbing Tide

16th February 1943
The German Sixth Army has surrendered at Stalingrad. According to foreign broadcasts, ninety thousand prisoners were taken. Farther south, where Germans had penetrated into the Caucasus, towards the oil fields, they "elastically shortened the front for greater efficiency", obviously to escape from an even bigger trap before that closed as well.
Shortages of everything. In spite of help from my parents we can't keep even one room heated for long, and often wear our coats at home, and only regain delightful all-over warmth in bed. It is the same with Mimi and Marta, and it's only Adam's flat that remains properly heated and I can luxuriate there walking about the bedroom naked. I have a really lovely body now, at sixty-eight kilos, and one of the curses of this war is that more people can't see it; not naked, of course, but in some thin and revealing dress at a dance in a well-heated place, or at tennis or the swimming pool in summer.

3rd March 1943
Another winter over, thank God; and it was a tough one for the Germans.
In addition to Stalingrad, they have been driven out of Africa after the loss of Tunis, and now, when the men are studying maps, the Mediterranean does not look as big as before; some parts of Europe seem quite close to the African and Middle East coasts. With the Russians pushing them back and a possible Allied landing in Europe, the Germans might find themselves between anvil and hammer, one of the men's favourite strategis expression. They have this penchant for using "anvil and hammer", "iron fist", "steel wedge", and all sorts of other metal clichýs with relish, as if it were they themselves who were delivering the blows. It is taken for granted that independent Poland will rise like a Phoenix from the flames of this war, greater and stronger than before, with all of the Ukraine recovered from Russia and Silesia from the Germans. Together with liberated Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Lithuania and Estonia, and a strengthened Finland, we shall form an iron barrier of Western civilisation, restraining Russia, keeping Communism at bay until it finally collapses, or is defeated in some other war, giving way to a more decent regime. I personally don't want to see another war in my lifetime, and would be quite prepared to put up with Communism across the border so long as I can at long last have my baby.
For the last month, my husband and I have been working on a project: dividing our flat into two smaller ones, just in case. There is a rumour that the Germans will quarter some of their officers and perhaps also NCOs in private flats throughout the town this summer, and we want to be ready so as not to suffer too much inconvenience if it happens to us. There has been a lot of military traffic through our town of late, and they have also opened some large depot near the railway station. The men say they are moving their stores farther west because of the Russian advance, although on the map the front still looks far away. There are regular "elastic shortenings" of it now, and the Germans explain that this enables them to concentrate greater forces on a given stretch of the front the better to oppose the Russians. It does not sound convincing, because such a shortening of the front should enable the Russians to do exactly the same, with the ratio between the two forces unchanged.
Our flat consists of five rooms. The bedroom, entered from my husband's study with its bookshelves and drawing board, has a tiny corner balcony and a small adjoining bathroom of its own, with a lavatory seat. We have sealed these two rooms off from the rest. My husband's study can be entered from the long corridor, and the two rooms thus combine into a small but independent and cosy flat with a separate entrance. You can even brew coffee or fry an egg there on a little spirit stove, without having to use the "communal" kitchen or bathroom. What's more, there are not just one but two entrances to the corridor from the staircase: one opposite my husband's study, and the other, more of a tradesman's entrance, opposite the kitchen. My husband installed a door in the corridor separating the two entrances; once locked, it finally divides the flat into two independent ones. He got hold of some locks and latches and spent a weekend fitting them to the doors. It is a pleasure to see a mechanical engineer at work with proper knowledge and tools, drilling holes and driving screws, with everything fitting and clicking into place, and it made me fonder of him then I've been for a long time.

28th May 1943
Something terrible seems to have happened in the Katyn forest near Smolensk some time ago, it is not yet quite clear when, and the Germans and the Russians are blaming each other for it. The Germans, who are in control of the area, say they have discovered mass graves of Polish officers taken prisoner by the Russians in 1939, about five thousand of them, executed by the Russians with a shot in the back of the head, about a year before the Germans invaded Russia. The five thousand are about one-third of the fifteen thousand Polish officers captured by the Russians, all of them missing, so there is a strong suspicion that another ten thousand bodies lie buried somewhere else. The Russians say that the Germans killed them more recently, after overrunning their prisoner camps in 1941. The Germans invited the international Red Cross to examine the graves, and the Red Cross has decided that according to the state of the bodies, the documents and letters in their pockets, and the ageof the saplings planted over the mass graves, the executions took place in May 1940, while the Russians were in control of the area, a full year before the Germans attacked them.
Whoever did it, two names which immediately came to our minds were those of Major Serbenski and Lieutenant Sarna, from whom we have not heard since they went to war and who, we always hoped, were alive and well and fighting with the Polish Army abroad. It is a terrible thought that their bodies, too, might be among those in Katyn.
The Jews in the Warsaw ghetto have organised some sort of uprising against the Germans last month, and it took the Germans a whole month to put it down. The men can't figure out what the Jews were trying to accomplish; certainly not driving the Germans out or obtaining better conditions through armed resistance. If the Germans shoot one hundred hostageand fifty for each wounded, God knows what they are going to do - or have already done - to the Jews in Warsaw, The ghetto itself, they say, has been razed to the ground, and they have deported the survivors to some concentration camp. There are nasty rumours about those camps. with prisoners dying of hard work, starvation, and cold, or even killed in cold blood, their bodies burned in crematories. I hope that Mimi's young painter is not among them, and if he is, that he will survive. One unpleasant phrase one hears from time to time, from all sorts of people, some of them quite cultured and educated, is that there's nothing bad without its good side, and that one favour the Germans have done us was to clear Poland of the Jews. Nobody quite knows - or much cares - where they have resettled them, except that it's somewhere in the east, probably in Russia, in the territories which the Russians are recapturing now, and the hope is that the Jews will stay there. Having only known one Jew, Leo, who was a perfectly assimilated and charming man, I can't understand this hate of the Jews. The ones one sometimes saw in the street or at the market, with their black clothes and hats and beards and sidelocks, speaking funny Polish, were quite different from Leo, but blaming them for all of Poland's or Europe's misfortunes and hoping that their disappearance will solve all problems seems stupid and cheap.
Marta's little girl is an absolute angel, and Mimi and I spend hours with her, changing her nappies, bathing her, and making silly faces and noises at her. She is more real - and more important - than the war and the Germans in the street and the news from the front and the men's endless military and political discussions. Her brother is even more unbearable than before, throwing tantrums and trying to pinch her when nobody is looking. He has also started wetting his bed, obviously to compete with his baby sister for attention. Marta welcomes our help because she is often at the end of her tether, what with the two children and the cooking and the washing and the shortages. Mimi's affair with Marta's husband is all but forgotten and she is on her best behaviour. She occasionally tells me that she is ashamed of such a thing having happened with a friend's husband, possibly to reassure me about mine - or about Adam. She envies me Adam and would like to find someone like him, but above all she envies Marta the baby and so do I. Mimi sometimes says a curse on them all for delaying it. When I ask whom she means, she says "Well, Hitler and Stalin and Mussolini and Churchill and Roosevelt and Hirohito and our bloody husbands" - as if she saw the eight of them united in a plot whose main object was to delay our babies.

# # #

©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

feedbackmain menu

feedback | main menu

short stories

shark reef

collected poemsoedipusred riding hoodsiberia

Stories | Shark | Poems | Oedipus | Red | Siberia