Zygmunt Frankel



Going to Wieliczka, Ustrzyki Dolne, or Zawadow in summer was great fun. We would usually go to Wieliczka or Ustrzyki Dolne for a brief family visit first, and then spend the rest of the summer in Zawadow. Suitcases would be packed, and a taxi or a horse-drawn cab would take us to the impressive glass-roofed railway station of Lvov. Antosia always came along, probably with a heavy heart because she never really took to country life and must have been missing Lvov with its cinemas and dance halls and, last but not least, the blond carpenter.

In Ustrzyki, the sprawling two-floor family house would be almost empty until our arrival because all the children except Hela, the youngest who was still single and living at home, have long left. Fanda, the eldest, was in Brussels married to Jean Kurtz, an elderly manufacturer of bakery ovens and machinery. They did not have any children, although Jean had two grown-up daughters by a previous marriage. Hermann, my father's half-brother, an engineer, fell in love with and married one of them, Lili. The other brothers, Edmund, a chemist, and Joseph, a journalist, were still bachelors.

Our step-grandmother in Ustrzyki was nice and kind to us. My grandfather, a quiet old man of almost ninety with a long white beard and sidelocks loved me a lot - I was the firstborn son of his own first son, and so far his only grandson. He would slip me a slice of cake or a piece of chocolate between meals against all regulations ("the child won't have any appetite left") and take me for long walks in the streets of Ustrzyki where he would be respectfully greeted, especially by those who remembered him as the mayor. It was he who taught me the first letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the song, "A Little Fire Is Burning In The Stove", about an old rabbi teaching little boys in the kheder.

I had two playmates in Ustrzyki, Szymek, a little younger than me, and his brother Duniek. a little older. They were the sons of a Jewish tailor who lived next door to us. Shymek and Duniek kept pigeons and I would spend long hours with them on the roof of their house while the birds wheeled in the sky. I listened to fascinating stories about the carrier pigeons, of which they had a few, and how they could be taken miles away from Ustrzyki by train, released, and find their way back. There even was an annual competition.

One day, as we watched, there was a shout from Duniek. I saw a bird, which at first I took to be another pigeon but then realized that it was larger and faster, swooping down on the flock. There was a sudden cloud of feathers and one of the pigeons began tumbling down. The strange bird followed, scooped it up in its talons and made off. Duniek stood on the roof swearing like a peasant. "It was a peregrine", he told me when he finished. "They can even bring down ducks. The son of a bitch. If only I had a shotgun..." But I considered myself lucky to have seen a falcon capturing a bird, and, I suspect, so did Szymek and Duniek.

There were also storks. People would nail an old cart wheel to the roof of their houses, and if a stork couple chose to nest there it was a lucky omen. The storks were slow and clumsy while landing and taking off but beautiful in flight, with the sun shining through their wing feathers as they soared.

We would also watch an occasional sailplane in the sky, circling under the cumulus clouds as it slowly made its way across the countryside. The gliding site was several miles from Ustrzyki, too far to visit and difficult of access on top of a steep hill; but once Duniek and Szymek, very excited, called me out in the middle of lunch; a sailplane was circling low just behind the town, obviously having lost the upcurrents and preparing to land. Behind the last houses, we saw the glider in the middle of a large field, leaning one graceful wingtip on the ground. The sun shone through its wings like through those of a bird, showing slender ribs and spars under the thin fabric. The pilot, a young airforce officer, stood some distance apart, smoking a cigarette.

"Excuse me, sir," Duniek said, "this is a Komar (Mosquito), isn't it?"
"That's right, young man."
"Are you from that gliding camp? Have you been in the air long before landing here? What do you prefer flying - gliders or aeroplanes?"

He was a nice young officer and he told us that while of course planes with engines are powerful and fast, for sheer sport there is nothing to beat soaring. You sit there under the clouds like a bird and there is no engine noise, just the wind. Yes, it was the "C" badge he was wearing. He was trying for the "fifty-kilometre leg" of his "Silver C" today but the "thermals" have "kicked the bucket on him" and he had to land. He had already done the thousand meters height and the one hour's duration legs which were the two other requirements, and would try for the distance again soon, perhaps even tomorrow. The upcurrents, he explained, were a kind of vertical wind blowing upwards where the earth's surface was heated by the sun, and you could circle in them and gain height when and if you found them because they were invisible unless there were cumulus clouds forming above them.

He showed us the inside of the pilot's cockpit, explained what every control and instrument was for, and then, in an access of real generosity, let each of us sit for a while in the cockpit and even move the controls a bit except the ailerons because one wingtip was resting on the ground. Being too small for the cockpit I could not see outside but worked the controls gingerly and breathed in the smell of wood and varnish, sitting in a real pilot's seat and holding the joystick of a real aircraft.

About an hour later, a car from the gliding camp arrived, towing a long platform on two wheels. Our pilot and the two other officers who came in the car took the wings off the glider, attached the fuselage to the platform and the wings alongside it and drove off.

In Wieliczka, the large three-storey family house was a sprawling one, with many rooms, passages, nooks, and corners as well as a large attic full of interesting old things. There was a front lawn, some flower beds, a gazebo, and a row of trees separating it from the street. At the back there was a large vegetable and fruit garden, stables with a couple of horses in them, and a small hut where old Jozef and his wife, the parents of the son who was killed in the war, lived. For one summer, a little baby deer ran about the fenced garden and ate carrots from our hand; it had been found or caught in the timberlands owned by the firm, and one of our uncles brought it to Wieliczka. The next year, having grown much larger, it was given to the Cracow zoo. In the backyard, turkeys, ducks, hens, and a gorgeous multi-coloured cockerel wandered about. Of my several Wieliczka cousins, my favourite companion was Jozek, the son of my mother's brother Romek. We would collect large garden snails and put them in Stella's bed, or use our watercolours to decorate Aunt Bronka's white ducks.

In the large lounge there was a black royal piano , and, on a sideboard, two life-size china cats, each smoking a pipe. They may have been inspired by an old children's rhyme: "I shall tell you a story; a cat was smoking a pipe with a long stem; it burned its ear." In the library, there was a lavishly illustrated set of Brehm's Zoology, and in a corner, my engineer uncle Iziek's mineral collection from his student days; he had another, larger one, at his home in Lvov.

By each bed in the house there was a night stand with, in the bottom compartment, a yellow nightpot decorated with brown vertical stripes; the male model had a half-spherical recess for the penis and testicles.

Over the far end of Wieliczka cableway carriers were transporting salt from the mines to warehouses. Antosia once took us for a visit to the famous mine and I remember the underground church carved in salt and glittering with lamps and candles. Antosia knelt down, crossed herself, and said a prayer. At the exit she bought souvenirs carved from salt - a little cross for herself and human figures for Stella and me, but ours didn't last long because we kept licking them.

We would, however, spend most of our summer vacations in our little white villa in Zawadow, the village where my father also owned the brick factory and some land. There were no other city families there and all my friends were village boys. None of them kept pigeons and there was no gliding site nearby, but otherwise the village had everything one could wish for and I liked it more and more from one summer to another, beginning to see it as a second home.

There was a small river, Zawadowka, flowing past it, where my friends taught me to fish for perch and to swim. They also taught me to ride, bareback, holding on to the mane, the horses they took to the river to water, but at a walk only, and choosing for me the quietest one so that I shouldn't fall off and bring them into conflict with my parents.

Towards the end of summer, when potatoes reached a decent size, we would sit around a small fire in a field, baking them in the ashes. The potatoes were discreetly taken now from one peasant's patch and now from another's, removing just one or two from under a given plant and smoothing the earth back. I would bring matches and salt because the village was poor and our salt was finer and whiter than theirs; as for matches, the villagers would often split one lengthwise with a razor blade into two or even four slimmer ones - it was something of a fine art.

About a mile from the village there was a wood and we would go there with Antosia to gather mushrooms. At first we would drop into one of the cottages on our way back to have our crop checked for any poisonous ones, but in time we became as expert as the villagers. Apart from splitting matches they would also save on fly paper with the help of the pretty and poisonous fly agaric. The cap of the mushroom would be placed on a saucer, sprinkled with sugar or a few drops of honey, scalded with a little boiling water, and the saucer then put on a window sill. The flies would suck the sweet syrup and then die on the saucer or the window sill.

A couple of times, gathering mushrooms in the woods, we started a hare, and once saw a fox, a bright long ginger-red flame of an animal crossing a clearing at a leisurely trot.

I loved it all, with solitary fishing in the river at the top of the list. My father had bought me a beginner's fishing rod which became one of my most cherished possessions; three slim and light sections of whole black bamboo with brass ferrules, a line slightly longer than the rod - there was no reel - and a lovely red and white cork float. Digging for worms or catching grasshoppers for bait was already adventure - the old instincts of the primeval hunter-gatherer. Then one was alone with the little river , stealthily creeping along its bushy bank so as not to scare the fish, looking for a likely spot, free to imagine oneself on a desert island or in the wilderness. My activities did no massive damage to the ecology of Poland; a few minnows at a time, with an occasional small perch taking the part of big game. But there was magic in the long hours by the little river, in the mystery of its surface with its swells and eddies, and all the dice and roulette tables of the world in the little red-and-white cork float on the sunlit water, my heart echoing the slightest tug on it.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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