Zygmunt Frankel


Chapter 13

It's Over

20th February 1945
It's over.
There was a night of eerie silence; not complete silence, because we could hear some distant guns, and some planes passing high over the town but they did not drop any bombs any more. Then, at dawn, there was some distant rumbling as if of lorries or tanks from a the outskirts of the town, getting nearer A young man, the nephew of one of the lodgers, decided to venture out into the street, against the protests of everyone, "on patrol", equipped with a stick with a white handkerchief just in case. We sat there in tense silence for about an hour, and then heard him calling joyously from the stairs and he came in with three soldiers in Russian uniforms and carrying Russian submachineguns, heavy, with wooden rifle-like butts and round magazines, but with tin Polish eagles on their Russian fur hats; Polish soldiers! speaking Polish! There was no end to hugs and kisses, and someone brought out a bottle of vodka which was emptied almost at once. They were the soldiers of the second Polish army which was organized in Russia after the first one had left, through Persia, to fight along the British, following the Katyn discovery and the ensuing quarrel between the Soviet an Polish governments. We tried to invite the soldiers to our flats for a meal and additional celebration but they said no, they were on patrol and had to keep going.

16th April 1945
There is still fighting on all the fronts, inside Germany now, converging on Berlin, and also in Japan, but, for our little town, the war is over. It is not yet clear what sort of government Poland is going to get; the communists are very strong, but there is also an alternative party of Mr. Mikolajczyk, siding with the government in London, and it is likely to gain the majority in the elections, if the elections are going to be fair. Some people doubt it. It looks like Russia is going to keep all of Western Ukraine, which they occupied in 1939, and Poland will get the former German coal-rich Silesia as compensation, which will actually shift Poland west across the map. The men have a joke that a border with France would be nice.
My brother came for a visit a few days after the liberation, to let us know that all the family is alive and well. There was only some minor shooting on the outskirts of the village before the Germans withdrew. The Russians have taken our two horses and the cart, and ate all the pigs and poultry. They have also unintentionally burned the barn (what memories!) when a Russian soldier who brought a girl there forgot to put out his cigarette first.
It is not yet known whether my father will be allowed to keep all his land under the new regime. He is trying to impress the authorities as just another peasant, only a little more prosperous than most, and talks to them in the local dialect.
I asked my brother what the Russian army looked like. (Our town has more of an administrative personnel, many of them Polish.) My brother said that, after the spearhead of tanks, there rolled a shabby horde of horse-drawn carts, with a squad of soldiers to each, living off the land without relying too much on regular army supplies. The heavier weapons, ammunition, rucksacks, and loot was on the cart, and if not all the squad could ride they took turns walking along. The horses grazed during stops. If there was a potato field, the soldiers harvested it. If there was a farm, they helped themselves to the poultry, pigs, women, and vodka, and rolled on. If the women were Polish it was done with their consent. Further west, in Germany, the rumour had it, it was a different story.)
"Plus úa change, plus c'est la meme chose," my husband said. "Seven centuries ago, the Mongol soldier of Genghis Khan carried on his tough little horse his bow, arrows, javelins, a sword, a dagger, a shield, a saddlebag which could be inflated to cross rivers, a supply of food and water, a fishing hook and line, a hatchet, a file for sharpening arrowheads, a change of clothes, and thread and needle. The system doesn't seem to have changed much."

6th May 1945
Hitler has committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin, Germany has capitulated, and the war is over, at long last, thank God. Celebrations, parties, parades, flags, and the national anthem all the time. Well, people have waited five years for this, and not all have lived to see it.
The first thing we noticed about our national emblem, the white eagle, on the flags and on the soldiers' caps, is that it has lost its crown and is now bare-headed, in keeping with a more democratic future. The Russians, it must be noted, have also introduced some changes. They have replaced their national anthem, the Internationale, a fine and rousing battle song on a par with the Marseillese, by some slow and pompous abortion, probably so as not to irritate their capitalist allies. They have also reintroduced shoulder straps on their uniforms, something they had considered the symbol of the old order ever since the revolution. They must have decided that shoulder straps add to pride in one's uniform, or tighten discipline, and perhaps also, with so many civilians wearing army-type clothes, simply to make it easier to tell them apart.
The uncrowned eagle is not the only change compared to pre-war Poland. The new authorities have a much greater power over the individual than before, and critising anything can be risky. One of the first things they did was to arrest the owner of the factory where my husband works, on charges of collaboration with the Germans. His other sin is obviously that he was a capitalist - the factory is likely to be nationalized soon - but that is barely mentioned, in view of the seriousness of the main charge. There were long interrogations of our two husbands and several other employees, conducted in one of the offices at the factory during working hours, but without additional arrests, thank God. The owner, a rather honest and truthful man of the old school, told his interrogators that he had no means of wriggling out of the orders because that would have been considered sabotage and land him in the hands of the Gestapo. This was feeble defense because the courts do not seem to bother about different shades of grey and see only black and white. He got twenty-five years of hard labour and was lucky not to be shot. Our husbands and a few other key employees avoided trial by claiming complete ignorance of who the orders were for, but it was a very close shave. What may have helped them is the wish of the authorities to keep the factory running. There is a new boss, a trusted party member, but, according to my husband, a lousy engineer. Fortunately, he is more interested in political meetings and conferences, and gladly leaves technicalities to qualified staff.
It is also good that we had divided our flat into two parts, because the town is flooded with soldiers and new arrivals, and the authorities have planted eight - eight! - lodgers in our flat: a single man, and two families, one of three and one of four. We were lucky to retain our inner fort - the bedroom with its small bathroom and corner balcony and my husband's study, which, according to our original plan, make a small but independent flat, while we also remain entitled to the use of the communal kitchen, bathroom, and lavatory, which we try to use as little as possible. Actually it was not just luck. The two officials who inspected the flat were from the start impressed by my looks, but very strict about the official business. They explained that a lot of people who had escaped to Russia when the war broke out have now returned. (Everyone knows that the Russians had deported thousands of them a year before the Germans attacked, as unreliable element, and that it was only after the invasion of Russia that they have regained their citizenship and rights. There is quite a lot of Jews among them, and the surviving Jews who had been hiding from the Germans have also reappeared. While there were rumours before, it is only now that the whole story of systematic mass murder of the Jews by the Germans begins to emerge.) The two officials were reluctant to let us keep both rooms, and said they would have to think about it. It was then that I first saw my husband in a certain kind of action; not very honourable action but one which saved the situation. He took out a bottle of vodka end said anyway, let's drink to the liberation, to our Soviet friends, and to all those who are now returning to the free homeland. They could hardly refuse this, and were deeply impressed by the snacks I brought in: slices of sausage and smoked meat, and home-made pickles. I explained about my peasant origins and how my poor family in the village would deprive themselves of those things to let us have some during the hard times, and then I had a sudden inspiration and added shyly, in a lowered voice, laying a hand on my belly, "especially of late, because of my condition." "Oh, that's different then," said the older man, while my husband, no less inspired, cut the remaining sausage and the piece of smoked meat in half, added two small jars of honey, and, wrapping them in sheets from a newspaper, forced the two little parcels on our visitors, insisting that they did hard and valuable work and needed the stuff more than we did. I was so embarrassed that I almost blushed, but the blush must have been counterbalanced by pallor at the thought that we were going to be arrested on the spot for trying to bribe the officials. To our enormous relief, they slipped the packages into the pockets of their coats and decided that all things considered, especially my condition, we could keep both rooms, and we parted with many handshakes and kind words.
Of the people who have been planted on us, one is a the single man is quiet and somewhat morose, pushing forty, handsome in a dark way - he is Jewish - and a painter. (A painter! Memories of Mimi's young man. Wonder where that portrait is now.) His wife and two children have been killed by the Germans. Of the two families, one couple is about our age, from Lvov, with a lovely baby boy who, unfortunately, is crying all the time because he's cutting his teeth. The other family has a bigger child, a girl, about six, and the husband's mother is also living with them, The mother is something of a witch but the girl is very sweet, with pigtails, and giggles all the time.
It is not yet clear how much land my family will be able to keep. It's something that can't be settled by a few drinks and a sausage, and my father is keeping very quiet about his connection with Zygmunt, because the Home Army - what's left of it after the uprising - has decided to stay in the forests and fight on. They say that Poland is still occupied, and whether it's Germans or Russians makes little difference, and they keep blowing up trains and assassinating Communist officials. (The other, socialist, partisans had come out of the hiding at once, in full support of the new regime.)

10th April 1944
The dreariest of all the war winters so far - and the last one, one hopes - at long last over. There was this feeling that the war and those awful winters will never end, but now it's becoming clear, even to the men, that it can't last much longer and that Germany is losing. Adam once explained to me that thirty-year wars and hundred-year wars were possible in the past, when it was done on a small scale, but not with the intensity of modern warfare. The first world war lasted four years and left Europe in ruins, and this one can't take much longer than the first one.
In the long run, he said, it was all a matter of economy: how many men and machines each side could put into the field, and what resources - money, minerals, oil, industry, and manpower - it had to back them up with. A Blitzkrieg - the German lightning war - was only successful if you managed to win before your oponent had the time to mobilize his resources, learn from you, and reorganize. In this, the Germans have failed, first with England and then with Russia. Now, with America with its enormous resources also fighting them, it was only a matter of time before they went under.
Patriotism, love of freedom and justice, and the fightlng spirit, he said, had almost nothing to do with it. The best soldier with a rifle can do little aganst a heavy bomber. The Allies would have been prepared to let Hitler run things in Germany his way - and will let Stalin carry on in Russia with his purges and executions and God knows what else - so long as their own power and influence are not threatened.
A lot of German military traffic through the town, by train and road, packed in both directions: soldiers and supplies to the front; soldiers on leave - not too many of those - and the wounded to the rear. No news from Adam; I wonder where he is now and how he is doing, although knowing him I am sure that, except for some really nasty unforseen circumstances, he will manage all right.
Rations even shorter, and not always available even if you have the coupons. The help from my family is even more valuable now than before. Can't imagine how people without any such help can manage; and indeed, a lot of them in the street look hungry and poorly dressed, and there seem to be more funerals, with coffins much more plain than before the war.
Strangely enough, with all the hardships and shortages, I have gained weight and am slightly over seventy kilos again; obviously because of the boredom and inactivity, and the starch in the potatoes and the flour. This has also been my first long period without a lover, and no visits to the Roma either. The place had become fashionable with German officers in the evenings, and a couple of weeks ago someone threw a handgrenade through the window. A Polish couple were killed, and a German officer and the Roma owner slightly wounded, There was no end to street searches for the next few days, and the Germans shot fifty prisoners from the town jail in reprisal. The Roma is closed for repairs, and they are also putting wire netting over the windows to keep the handgrenades out, but Mimi and I are not going back when it reopens. I met the owner in the street recently, with his hand in a sling. He was very gloomy, not so much because of the grenade but because it has branded the Roma as some sort of a German officers' club, and it could be held agerinst him when the Germans are gone. He wonders whether it would not be better for him to leave town if the front gets closer - one of his customers, I may remember him, a Mr. Adam, has done that and perhaps it is the wisest course. He remembered the first world war, with the Germans and the Russians and later the Poles sweeping over this area, and whenever the town changed hands justice was swift and not always very just.
"So this may be the end of the Roma," he said. "It has survived the first world war but might not survive this one. It was as much part of this town as the old church and the town council, and more popular than either. Oh well, with the coffee the quality it is now, perhaps it is just as well."
"Would you recommend going to a village if the front gets any closer?"
"No, perhaps not. If a village is overrun, you are exposed to the frontline troops. The town, through the sheer the size of it, somehow absorbs the first shock, and the occupying troops are under better control. I think it's best to stay where you are."

25th June 1944
The British and the Americans have landed in France, on the Normandy coast. The Germans say they are pushing them back into the sea and that it's going to be another Dunkirk, on an even bigger scale, but this pushing back into the sea has been going on for the past two weeks and the Allies are still there, and even seem to be expanding their beachhead. That's three fronts in Europe now: Russia, Italy, and France.

6th August1944
No, four fronts! An uprising in Warsaw! The Home Army has struck in force and gained control of the city within the first three days! And the Russians are just on the other side of the Vistula and due to enter the liberated capital any day now. The men say the uprising was marvellously timed: with Warsaw liberated by non-communist forces, Poland will be in a much better negotiating position than if the capital had been freed by the Russians.
It looks like no summer vacation in the village this year, a couple of short visits at most, because of the situation. Aerial bombardments have started again, and the siren which sends us to the shelter seems to be the same one we heard in 1939. The only comfort is that it is the Germans who are getting it now. The railway station seems to be the main target, as it was then; and, now as then, some of the bombs miss it and kill civilians instead. The Germans are much quicker at repairing the damage than the Poles had been, and the trains are usually running again within a few days.
The bombardments are more frequent, longer, and heavier than they were in 1939, and are mostly carried out nt night. There is the siren, and then the drone of heavy bombers, and absolutely beautiful cones of seerchlights over the town, and then the parachute flares and the anti-aircraft guns and red and green tracers, and then the explosions.

24th September 1944
The uprising in Warsaw has been going on for the past two months, and the Russians haven't moved yet. If they won't soon, the Germans might put the revolt down and all those lives and effort will have been wasted. There is the chilling thought that it is not only my husband and his friends who had realised that liberation of Warsaw by the Home Army would be to Poland's advantage. The Russians had understood it as well, and may be holding back to let the Germans put out the revolt, and will then move in as the only liberators.
Have managed only a couple of short visits to the village in the whole summer. My parents gave us more food than before, "just in case". You never know whether the visit won't be the last one for a long time, what with the front creeping closer and the revolt in Warsaw. Father has not seen Zygmunt since the start of the revolt; the Home Army must have brought all its people to the capital for the battle.
Had a few days' scare in summer when my period was late, but it turned out to be a false alarm. The scare wasn't all that great because, with Adam and Zygmunt away, it would have been my husband's baby, and I think I would have gone ahead with it. Prevention is one thing, abortion another; and, from the way things look, this war really can't last much longer.
Seventy-one kilos.

12th November 1944
Another winter beginning. It only lasts a quarter of a year, but when I look back, this war seems to consist mostly of winters. Summers are easier and more interesting so they seem to pass quicker, something the men call relativity of time. There is this joke about two Jews travelling on a train in Germany before the war, when Jews could still travel on trains there. One of them is reading a paper and says: "Oh, I see Einstein left for America."
"Who's Einstein?" asks the other one.
"You mean you've never heard of Professor Albert Einstein who invented the theory of relativity?"
"No; what's that?"
"Well, it's rather difficult to explain to someone like you, but, in a nutshell, it says that if you spend five minutes doing some hard work it seems to you like an hour, while if you're in bed with a beautiful woman, an hour passes like five minutes. You understand?"
"Yes, I understand; and for this they gave him a visa to America?"
The revolt in Warsaw is over. The Home Army has surrendered and the Germans are razing the town to the ground. They have done this to the Jewish ghetto a year ago, and must now be fed up with the whole city. When the war started and the Germans came, I was worried about Leo Goldberg; afterwards about Hans Werner; then about Adam; and now about Zygmunt. Is this to be my contribution to this war: memories of lovers who go away and may never come back?
Marta is busy on probably the most lasting and worthwhile project in such times: raising the next generation. The little brat has matured a bit and is slightly more bearable than he was in his extreme youth, and the little girl is an absolute angel and calls us Auntie Mimi and Auntie Halina. The two of us are spending more time with Marta and her kids since the Roma has closed, and are trying to help as much as we can.

28th February 1945
Spending all our nights in the shelter now because of the Russian air raids. They are keeping the railway station permanently knocked out now, and there is a lot of German road traffic through the town, and even some horse-drawn carts; much of it in the direction of the front, but also an increased flow west, probably non-essential personnel and equipment being evacuated, We may be seeing the first wave of the German withdrawal. The Russians do their bombing of the town by night with the help of those parachute flares which change night into day. Perhaps it is safer for them to come at night because of the fighters and anti-aircraft fire, or perhaps by day they are busy at the front or on the roads.
Then, one morning a few days ago, we heard explosions without any sirens sounding first, and rushed to the shelter assuming that the Russian bombers must have must have changed or expanded their tactics. When the explosions stopped and we didn't hear any all-clear either, we remained in the shelter. A little later it happened again, and finally someone came in and said that it wasn't aerial bombardment any more; it was Russian artillery shelling the town. The first question asked, by one of the men of course, was what is the range of Russian artillery, in other words how far are they from the town? Nobody seemed to know for sure; the guesses were anywhere between five and thirty kilometers. But if it was heavy artillery, they wouldn't be firing from the front trenches but some way back, so the tanks and infantry could be much nearer, and the big question was whether it was stationary fighting for some or an offensive; whether the town would be taken quickly or only after Stalingrad-type street fighting; whether we should stay in the shelter which the soldiers might enter, or sit it out in our flats upstairs, keeping away from the windows?

# # #

©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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