Zygmunt Frankel



A hush settled over Lvov. The relief was marred by the grief of Poland's fall after two brief decades of independence, but there was no shame. It had not been another Austria or Czechoslovakia. Poland had fought bravely; the defence of Warsaw and Westerplatte were already becoming legends, and there had been cases of Polish cavalry attacking German tanks, with the Uhlans trying to reach the crews with lances or sabres through the observation slots or tossing handgrenades inside. The Poles did succeed in checking the Germans at Lvov, a battle of which we have not seen but listened to. Attacked by Germany and stabbed in the back by Russia, the Polish army could not be blamed for the collapse. Some people were hoping that, finding themselves face to face, the Russians and the Germans would start fighting and annihilate each other, but this did not seem to be happening.

For a day or two people stayed indoors. There was no knowing how the barbarians from the East would behave in a captured town. Then the news spread that the Russians were fairly decent and well-disciplined, and nor engaging in any killing, robbing, or rape. They have been told that they were not occupying enemy territory but liberating their brothers in Western Ukraine from twenty years of capitalist yoke and they were very proud of it and friendly towards us. (This was not all propaganda; after the First World War, the reborn Poland lost no time in attacking the exhausted Soviets and pushing its border east, over much of the Ukraine; another case of traditional inability to live in peace with at least one of its two powerful neighbours, for which it was paying now.)

Shops reopened, and queues formed in front of them, to buy what was still available; no one knew how things would turn out. We children were at long last allowed out but no further than the garden and the street in front of the house. We were delighted to discover that some shell fragments and bullets had imbedded themselves in the walls of our houses and could be extracted with penknives and screwdrivers. Each of us soon had a small and cherished collection. We even found the tail of a small mortar shell in our garden, the tube and the fins deformed by the explosion. The luckiest was the boy across the street whose apartment had been hit by that shell; the walls of the ruined room were a veritable goldmine. The fragments, however, did not often change hands on the exchange market; much of their value lay in having been discovered and dug out by the collector himself.

A few days later, playing in the street, Witek, Kazik, and I met our first Russians. We had seen them before, but only from a distance. Now an open lorry with several soldiers pulled up in our street and they went somewhere with their officer except for two who were left to guard the lorry. They wore rusty brown greatcoats without shoulder straps, puttees, and strange peaked grey flannel caps called "Budyonkas", after Marshal Budyonnyi whose Red Cavalry wore them during the Civil War. The caps had small visors of the same grey flannel, rolled-up flaps. and an enamelled red star in front. One of the jokes branding the Russians as primitive and dirty explained the peaked top of the Budyonka as the place where head lice held political meetings while their hosts were similarly engaged. The bayonets on their rifles were of the pike type, with a square cross-section, a chisel point, and four grooves along the sides for the blood to run along, instead of the knife-type used by more civilized nations. The three of us stood there watching them roll themselves cigarettes. First they tore rectangular pieces out of a newspaper which we assumed to be either the Pravda or the Izvyestya. Then they took out small embroidered tobacco pouches, poured some dark coarsely cut tobacco into the paper, rolled it, and ran their tongues along the edge to seal the cigarettes.

Seeing us watching, they smiled and greeted us in Russian. We answered in Polish, and a conversation slowly got under way. One of the soldiers knew some Ukrainian which is half-way between Polish and Russian. They asked us about the war, and we showed them the wrecked window of the house across the street and the pockmarks on the walls. This earned us respect beyond our young years and civilian status because it transpired that they have not seen any fighting but simply rolled across all the way to Lvov. We were relieved that their hands were not stained with Polish blood and the conversation grew more friendly. They showed us their rifles and how the bayonets went on and off. They had very primitive backpacks: burlap sacks with ropes for straps, a small stone in each of the lower corners preventing the knot from slipping. They must have noticed our slightly disdainful looks and to offset them they showed us their tobacco pouches which were of soft velvet and beautifully embroidered. They told us that it was a tradition with Russian girls to embroider tobacco pouches for their boyfriends. The tobacco, they said, was called makhorka and was often home-grown. They seemed to be disappointed that we were not more enthusiastic about having been liberated and promised that from now on everyone was going to be happy and free and have enough to eat and that the capitalists would never oppress us again. Then their officer and the other soldiers returned and they drove off, waving and smiling.

"I wish a lightning would strike that lorry," Witek said patriotically, "but without harming those two; they were quite decent fellows, weren't they?"

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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