Zygmunt Frankel



The first songs I have heard and learned were sang to me by my mother. Most of them were the popular children's ones: "A kitten has climbed the fence and is winking; it's a beautiful song, and not a long one"; "Two children, a little brother and sister, are driving along a road, full of wonder at how beautiful the world is"; "Something knocked in the forest, something struck in the forest; a mosquito fell off a tree and broke a bone in his back." In one of the songs, beautiful young girls are sitting at their spinning wheels. There was some young man whom one of the girls had remembered for three days and then forgot.

We wore the Polish eagle on our school caps with pride, and on national holidays would stand in rigid formations in the school grounds, singing the latest patriotic songs. In 1935, when Marshal Pilsudski died, we were taught a hastily composed new one:

"Although your heart has stopped,
Although your valiant sword has rested forever,
In our hearts you will go on living as you always did,
Beloved immortal leader."

Deeply grieved by his death, I made a little cardboard coffin to fit onto my pea-shooting cannon, covered it with a little paper Polish flag, and, flanked by tin soldiers, this replica of Pilsudski's funeral stood on my desk for several days, reappearing on the anniversary of his death for the next four years.

His successor, the less impressive because younger, unmoustachioed, and bald-headed Marshal Smigly-Rydz also got a song to himself:

"All of us children, big and small,
Know, from our first year at school,
That our brother the soldier in grey uniform,
Defends our native land.
We all love our soldier
Strongly and very sincerely,
And we know whom one should obey
Once one has become a soldier:

The Marshal Smigly-Rydz,
Our dear and brave commander;
Upon his order, we shall go with him
To thrash the invader;
The enemy will not do anything to us,
The enemy will not take anything away from us,
Because Smigly, Smigly, Smigly-Rydz is with us."

In 1938, when Czechoslovakia fell to Hitler without a fight, with Poland also taking out a chunk behind the Oder river, we stood in the courtyard again, singing new lyrics set to an older tune:

"Across the Oder, march, march!
The horse and the armour are ready;
Oh mother mine, bless me and pass the sword."

Slowly and solemnly:

"Across the Oder, across the Oder, valiant soldiers,
Because the people there are waiting for the sacred alliance,
For the sacred alliance, for the wedding with Poland,
They want to embrace their mother, to fall to her feet."

Older and better were the old Polish Legion songs, which have passed the test of time: "The Legions Are A Soldier's Tune" and "We, the First Brigade." Once, in Ustrzyki Dolne, I heard them sang by a soldiers' chorus, in the evening, by the river, when my father took me to a memorial meeting for the fallen Legionnaires of Ustrzyki. There was a large bonfire burning, and after the speeches and the songs, the names of the dead were called out one by one, and after each name the formation of soldiers standing to attention would call out:
"Fallen !"
"On the field of!"

It was very solemn, sad, and impressive. My father also seemed to stand to attention, and when I asked him afterwards whether he had known anyone who fell in the war he nodded sadly without going into details.

The words "glory", "might", "valiant", "sacred" and "immortal" occured often in Polish patriotic songs, but there were at least two songs about war which were lighter and merrier, in both lyrics and tune: "Darling war, darling war, what a lady you must be for all the most handsome boys to follow you like this", and "How pretty it is at war when an uhlan falls off his horse; his friends not only don't pity him but even trample him with their horses; for his young years they'll play a few notes on a trumpet for him, and for all his toil and trouble fire three cartridges into the air."

Of the civilian songs, there were some old established ones; some which came and were accepted into the cannon; and many which sprang up, became all the rage, were heard, sang, and danced to for a season, and then evaporated into thin air, except for the couples who would always remember them as "our song". There were two established tunes to which many four- or eight-line couplets were being sang, on all possible subjects, with new ones added from time to time: "In Kleparow, (a low-grade suburb of Lvov), a bloke was trying to start something with a young lady; he pressed his advances until he overstepped the limit and stole a kiss from her, and she, his wallet."

"I fell so deeply in love with Miss Valerie that I bought her a lottery ticket. 'Miss Valerie, I am a believer in luck; if the ticket wins, we shall get married'. It won, umpteen thousand zlotys, and I haven't seen her since."

"Up there, over the town council, there's something dangling on a string; it swings left and right, and the public is applauding; Oy-ra, the world is laughing; Oy-ra, blood is flowing; Oy-ra, Manka is screaming; and the music plays."

I have always wondered about this Manka. Something told me that whatever was causing her screams was at least partly deserved. She may have come from another song where the singer shuns prospective acquaintances:

"I ain't talking to you because you're a soldier; soldiers have dirty collars; I ain't talking to the likes of you because you're a boor; I don't talk to boors;
I ain't talking to you because you're a pilot; I know pilots through and through; I ain't talking to you because you're a boor, etc;
I ain't talking to you because you're a civilian; I can get civilians one per minute; etc."

Of the classics I was fond of "La Paloma", "Donkey's Serenade", and a song which may have been written in Poland but described Spain: "The senor is asleep near the door; the dona is dancing; singing is heard among the orange trees." By a shift of two words, we sang it as: "singing of oranges is heard among the trees."

Sometimes the song-writer would sacrifice credibility for the sake of a rhyme. In "Oy, Madagascar", a tango mocking Yiddish accent, a man who has bought some land ("a colony") on the island, (at one time proposed alongside Uganda as an alternative to Palestine for a Jewish state) looks forward to going there:

"Oy, Madagascar. A black, steamy land. Africa is half-wild. Oy, Madacascar. I feel half-wild myself, myself a cannibal, because I am going to Africa where I have a colony. I'll buy myself an elephant and a wild horse; either one has a colony or one hasn't." (He then goes on to more plans, including black-and-white-checkered children he is going to have with a black mother.) To the best of my knowledge there were no wild horses in Africa, but "elephant" and "horse" rhyme beautifully in Polish ("slon" and "kon") while the zebra poses a problem. Another one was "Look":

My star has fallen down,
A sign that my dreams will come true
And you will fall in love with me as I have fallen in love with you.
This beautiful night,
the Italian sky, your song,
the murmur of the oars,
stir one's blood,
and make one dream of love."

And this was written for grown-ups, while even I already knew that if your star fell down it usually meant your speedy demise, and even if not, the last thing you should expect was that someone should return your love or any other such luck.

(One warm afternoon I was sitting with Ewa Mateusz on the grass in our overgrown garden explaining to her the virtues of my brand-new rubber catapult. She was playing with some flowers and not paying much attention. Half-way through the importance of having both bands of good quality and exactly the same length, she lay down on her back and, looking at me out of half-closed eyes, softly began to sing "Look". I was awfully embarrassed, squirmed until she finished, and then demonstrated the accuracy of my catapult by almost knocking a bird off a branch ten meters away. I may have missed my chance of a first kiss.)

There were also the simple songs the village girls used to sing around a fire while the potatoes were baking. They were often sad, about orphans of fathers who had fallen in the war and mothers who have died young, and about unhappy loves and crimes of passion. There was a young man who was called up and served a whole year while his sweetheart was wasting away. He finally returns home and sees a funeral. Learning that it is his beloved they are burying, he jumps into the grave and plunges a knife into his heart, exclaiming, ungrammatically but sincerely, "Let our love be buried together". In another song, a little orphan girl is herding a flock of geese. "Hulala, hulala, my little geese; hulala, hulala, home; the night is falling and I am afraid, but please don't tell anyone. My mother died when I was little, and father was taken away to the war; and I, a poor little orphan, am herding geese till exhaustion. Hulala, hulala, my little geese; hulala, hulala, home; the night is falling and I am afraid but please don't tell anyone."

The last summer before the war, having heard from Uncle Iziek how amber came into being, I collected a ball of resin from a tree in the orchard and buried it under the fence, carefully marking the spot. I knew it took millions of years, but thought I would take a look each summer to see how it was going.

It was also a summer of two or three firsts. I caught a perch twenty centimetres long; everyone said it was luck but I knew it was the result of getting up earlier, knowing the river better, and a particularly stealthy approach and expert cast under an overhanging bush. Once a horse I was riding broke into a trot and I remained on top of it. And, although I had learned to swim the summer before, it was only recently that I have crossed a spot deeper than I could stand in, wading out on the other side a different man, a close cousin of those who fight sharks with knives in tropical seas.

While the bonfire was burning we would jump over it, or chase the girls trying to throw an old blanket over them. Once, when I succeeded some distance from the fire, and threw my arms around the girl to prevent her escape, she suddenly stopped resisting and leaned against me with a sigh, as if to catch her breath, before we returned to the fire. I was strangely elated walking home along the little river that night, remembering the warmth of the girl's body and her hair against my face, and humming the latest city hit "Indeed, Such A Pity The Summer Is Over."

There was still a week of the summer vacation left, but my father arrived unexpectedly from Lvov and we began to pack. The political situation was tense and he thought it better to return at once. We were driven to the station in a buggy and the station master respectfully shook my father's hand and asked him what he thought of the situation. Our train was delayed to let a long goods train pass in the opposite direction. There were boxcars with soldiers and open platforms with horses, guns, and a few small light tanks. Some of the soldiers sang and people waved to them and they waved back. The grown-ups were watching the train with grim faces. I asked my father about the caliber of the guns and the horsepower of the tank engines and he made a guess but said Iziek should be able to tell me more when we got back.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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