Zygmunt Frankel



Towards the end of the winter there were rumours that the Russians have deported thousands of Polish settlers from Western Ukraine. The settlers were poor Polish peasants who had settled, or had been settled, on Ukrainian lands after their conquest by Poland in 1920, and now, twenty years later, were once again on the move. The Russians were not sending them to prison or concentration camps; simply moving them to underpopulated areas with agricultural potential like Kazakhstan, to strike roots and contribute to their development. From the letters which began to arrive from them the resettlement did not seem to be particularly difficult. The farmers were tough, used to hard work and hardships. They had lived for twenty years among hostile Ukrainians, and now found themselves among Russians who were traditionally hospitable and kind, and who had themselves been deported to those areas only a few years before, many from the same Ukraine during the collectivization, with considerable suffering and loss of life through executions and famine, so they understood and sympathized with the new arrivals and did their best to help them and make them feel at home.

The news of the deportations, while causing patriotic indignation, did not affect the town dwellers too deeply. It was happening to other people, somewhere else, and everyone had his own problems and worries at home.

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One night in April, shortly after midnight, we were awakened by loud knocking on the front door. My mother put on her dressing gown and slippers, went to the door, and asked who was there. A man's voice said in Russian "Open the door, it's the army". My mother opened the door and saw two Russian officers and a soldier with a rifle.

"Are you Giza Frankel?" one of the officers asked.
"Yes. "
"Do you have any weapons in the house?"
"Weapons? No, none whatsoever."
"We have to carry out a search."
"By all means; do come in."

They came in, the soldier remaining at the door. The officer in charge asked to be shown through the flat. The rest of the family remained in bed. Then Tolya also appeared, fully dressed. We didn't know whether he knew beforehand about the visit or was as surprised as we were, but his presence removed some tension from the proceedings. The search for weapons was rather perfunctory; the officer looked under a bed or two, at the top of the wardrobes, and under and behind a few stacks of linen inside.

"Well", he said, clearing his throat and looking slightly embarrassed; "get your things ready."
"I beg your pardon?"
"We have the orders", he said, reading from a document in his hand, "to escort you, your children Zygmunt and Stella, and your mother Sarah Rosenzweig to the Lvov railway station, from where you will travel to your new place of residence in the Soviet Union to rejoin your husband. Officially" he said, putting the paper in his pocket, "you are allowed to take up to fifty kilograms of belongings per person and pack within half an hour, but I can tell you privately that nobody is going to weigh it and the train will not start before morning so you can take your time and pack as much as you can, especially warm things and bedclothes, and things like these" - he pointed to a stack of my mother's silk nightdresses - "which you can exchange in Russia for food or something while you are settling down."

When, still under my blanket, I understood what the officer was saying, I felt a gradual powerful increase in my heartbeat, until it was almost audibly hammering in my chest. The next thing that happened was that my grandmother fainted. She was elderly and, now that the war was over, increasingly homesick for her native Wieliczka and talking about returning there. What the officer said about rejoining our father may have softened the deportation for us, but for her, being sent in the opposite direction must have come as a much greater shock. My mother could not know whether it was a simple fainting fit or a possibly fatal heart attack. Tolya and the other officer were also confused. My mother asked whether she could telephone for a doctor and the officer agreed. She dialled her cousin Dr. Blatt's number, saying that this is Dr. Giza Frankel of 33 Potocki Street calling, that her mother has lost consciousness, and could Dr. Blatt please come as soon as possible. There was a short silence during which Uncle Artur must have understood that there was some reason for not disclosing that they were relatives, and said he would come at once. He arrived within a quarter of an hour and was visibly scared by the soldiers in the flat. My grandmother has by then been revived with smelling salts and alternative dippings of her hands in hot and cold water. Uncle Artur, consistently addressed by my mother as Dr. Blatt, took out his stethoscope and and examined my grandmother, with my mother by his side while the officers stood in a far corner of the room, discretely looking the other way. Uncle Artur whispered to mother that it was only a fainting fit, and she to him to insist that grandmother couldn't travel. Aloud, they kept calling each other Dr. Frankel and Dr. Blatt. With some hesitation, Dr. Blatt told the Russian officer that my grandmother has suffered a heart attack, must remain in bed, and cannot possibly travel in the near future. The officer made a note on his deportation order and asked Uncle Artur to sign it; then he said that, this being the case, my grandmother could remain behind.

We were driven to the station in an open lorry. Approaching the station, we saw other lorries, taxis, and even horse-drawn cabs which have been enlisted for the job with similar families and their belongings. The station was crowded; a very long train of what looked like freight boxcars stood on one of the platforms and soldiers were helping people into the cars. In spite of the scale of the operation - there were hundreds of people getting onto the train in addition to the ones already inside and still arriving - it was on the whole quiet and orderly. Our escort helped us into one of the boxcars. We saw that it was equipped for transportation of people; there were two rows of wooden banks on each side, as well as a large sanitation bucket at the far wall opposite the door, already closed off on the three sides by a curtain improvised from old blankets and smelling a little in spite of the cover. There were also two buckets for water and soup.

The car was still half-empty and our officer recommended the upper bunk near the window, because of the view and fresh air, and we spread some of our things there. He then registered us with the soldier outside our car and they exchanged signatures on their lists. Our officer then touched his hand to the visor of his cap, wished us a good voyage, and left.

We settled down on the top bunk, and mother got into a conversation with the people already inside: an old couple who spoke peasant Polish; a lady with three young children and a maid or nanny who was accompanying them of her own free will; a Jewish family - both parents with a boy my age and an older sister; and two or three other families, without the fathers. Nobody knew where we were going, and the soldiers outside couldn't or wouldn't tell us. Only one other family had been told that they were going to join the husband - a Polish officer taken prisoner of war when the Russians moved in.

In the morning, people were still being brought in. Our car was by now almost full. At a rough count, if a dozen people could sleep side by side on each of the four bunks, there were about fifty people to each of the twenty or more cars, making this single train carry at least a thousand people.

The day began to pass. In the afternoon, four men from each car were asked to take the two buckets and a blanket and were taken under escort to the far end of the platform and given soup, drinking water, and some loaves of bread. Later, two of them, again under escort, took the sanitation bucket to be emptied and washed. The platform was by now lined with people who came to look for relatives or friends, or from simple curiosity, or to offer some feeling of solidarity by their presence, and were glad to take a letter to some address in Lvov or make a phone call. The access to the platform was free, and the soldiers only kept the onlookers a few paces from the cars. Except for names being called out by people walking along the train trying to locate someone, the platform was fairly quiet, and the soldiers were strict but not particularly tense or worried (There may have been reinforcements somewhere out of sight in case of trouble.)

We spent the night on the train. My mother spread our bedclothes on our part of the wooden shelf, and, with all the strange people in the car, it was a little like our nights in the shelter during the war. In the morning there were more people on the platform. We received soup,bread, and water again. In the afternoon, steam and smoke began to rise from the engine's stacks. The Russians began closing the doors, latching them on the outside. Then some of them boarded the open platforms at the end of the cars, while others remained below, keeping order. A whistle blew and a flag was waved somewhere in front. A hush fell over the station. Then there came a distant clanging of iron, buffer against buffer, drawing nearer; our car gave a little jerk, and the clanging passed on towards the rear of the train. Very slowly at first, the train began to move, with the people on the platform waving and us waving back.

And then - I don't know whether it started on the train or on the platform, faint at first, then swelling and spreading - hundreds of voices rose in a slow solemn song, growing in volume and covering the noise of the wheels and the engine.

Apart from its national anthem - a rather light mazurka with outdated lyrics going back to Napoleon's times ("Poland will not perish/ while we are alive/ what was taken from us by force/ by force we shall regain") - Poland had three other songs, perhaps more suitable, both in tune and lyrics, for the national anthem. The "Varsovienne" ("Let this day of blood and glory") is a battle cry calling the people to the barricades. Then there is the defiant slow and solemn "Rota" ("We shall not give up our native land; we shall not let our mother-tongue be smothered"). The third one, "God Who Hast...Poland", is a hymn, sang both on public occasions and in church: "God who hast clothed Poland with a glow of might and glory over such long centuries, who hast protected her with the shield of Thine mercy from the disasters about to befall her; we bring a plea before Thine altars: be it Thine will to give us back a free homeland". (In the brief periods of Poland's independence the last line would be altered to "bless our free homeland".)

It was this hymn which now rose from the platform and from the train pulling out at a walking pace from the station, gaining in volume as everyone joined in. The Russian soldiers looked puzzled but did nothing; they probably did not have any orders concerning singing, and must have been glad that the unfamiliar and embarrassing duty was now over, without incidents or riots.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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