Zygmunt Frankel



It took us several days to recross the steppe from the kolkhoz to Zhengistovo, the nearest railway station, hitching rides on ox carts and spending the nights in villages on the way. We arrived at the station at which we had alighted from the deportation train a year ago, and, after an hour's wait in the queue, my mother bought tickets for the train to Barnaul which was due to stop briefly at Zhengistovo the next morning. The station was much more crowded than we remembered it; the war had boosted up traffic and travel. We slept on the platform together with a lot of people who were also waiting for the train. Barnaul was six hundred kilometres away, and the train went on to Novosibirsk and other major towns afterwards.

The next morning, a crowd several deep formed along the platform two or three hours before the train was due. We stood about two meters from the tracks; mother estimated that this was near enough to get onto the train during the brief stop but sufficiently far not to be pushed under the wheels should a surge occur. Our belongings were packed into three suitcases with mother, Stella, and me holding one each.

When the long train finally rolled into the station and stopped, we did not understand how even a single person could get onto it; it was packed to the bursting point, with additional clusters of people on the steps, buffers, and roofs. During the brief stop a few disembarking passengers managed to get out while what seemed like hundreds did get in, through both doors and windows. They did not seem to be getting in by any effort of their own; they were simply in the right place and the surge took them in. Mother, Stella, and I managed to advance about half the distance separating us from the train; it was a purely theoretical advance; after a quarter of an hour, our chances of getting onto the train were no greater than if we stood in the steppe outside the station.

After the train left, mother took place in a long queue again to exchange today's unused tickets for tomorrow's. We spent another night at the station. The next morning we took up positions about one meter from the tracks. Each of us had one suitcase, and, in a shirt pocket where it could not be stolen, the ticket, one-third of the little money we had, as well as a piece of paper with Uncle Blatt's address which we had also memorised (67 Malo-Zmeyevskaya Street).

A similar train arrived and the surge started. It was entirely different here than one meter farther back; there was a serious danger of having one's ribs crushed, but the door was slowly drawing nearer. Protecting mother and Stella from behind I got separated from them by a few people who squeezed in between us, and now saw them wedged in the door while I was still a few paces away, with time running out.

"It's all right," I called out to my mother; "I've got the money and the address and I will try again tomorrow morning."
Mother looked back and shouted in despair : "Try to get on this one if you only can!"
A deep bass voice boomed out behind me: "Don't worry, citizen, the boy will be on the train with you!" I twisted my head and saw a Kazakh, about two metres tall and a metre wide, calmly standing behind me smoking a cigarette.
"Are you ready?" he said. "Hold on to your suitcase with both hands."
He put his cigarette out. In a crowd like that you can only do it safely by first letting a generous portion of spit drop on the glowing end; then you can drop it without setting anyone on fire. Having done this he stooped down, passed one of his hands under my armpit and across my chest and lifted me.
"All right, here we go," he said, and simply strolled through the crowd and into the door. There were screams all around as if people were being crushed to death or at least having some of their ribs broken, and they sounded genuine.
"Here's your boy, alive and well," he said, putting me down next to my mother in the train corridor, and started rolling himself a new cigarette.

We spent a day and a night on the train, slowly manoeuvring for space, taking turns sitting on a suitcase to snatch a little sleep. Reaching the lavatory took a long time, and waiting one's turn even longer. The men were lucky in being able to urinate off the platform of the moving train.

We finally got off the train at Barnaul early in the morning. The outskirts of the town looked like a very large village, with mostly one-storey houses built of whole logs. (I already knew that here were forests around Barnaul.) We began to trudge with our suitcases, asking our way to Malo-Zmeyevskaya Street from time to time. ( "Malo-Zmeyevskaya meant "The Little-Snake Street", a pre-revolution name; there was also a plain "Snake Street" somewhere near it) We had to cross the whole town (originally of about 80,000 inhabitants; it was to swell to 200,000 during the war because several factories and two military hospitals, with all their staff, as well as an officers' and a cavalry school were transferred there from the west as the Germans advanced.) As if to prove that it's a small world, in one of the central streets a tall Russian officer with a very pretty golden-haired soldier girl passed us. Then the officer glanced back and mother rushed forward and asked "Doctor Artur Blatt?" and, lo and behold, it was our uncle from Lvov. There were hugs and kisses. "Where on earth were you yesterday?" he asked. (Mother had sent him a telegram from Zhengistovo.) "I waited for you at the station and you didn't turn up." With slight embarrassment, he introduced the pretty girl as Assya, a nurse at his military hospital. They helped us with our suitcases and we finally reached the large and comfortable room he was renting near the hospital. His landlords, an old couple called Ghennadi Ivanovich and Aleksandra Ivanovna, prepared a samovar, and Uncle Artur treated us to something unbelievable: white buns with slices of yellow cheese. An officer's food ration consisted of something like six or eight hundred grams of bread per day, while that of a working civilian was four hundred grams, and of a child or someone who did not work, two hundred. It was even less than it sounds because the bread, for which one had to queue for hours, was underbaked and heavy, and rumour had it that part of it was ground bark or acorns or something of the sort. Uncle Artur even had the possibility of obtaining a part of his bread ration in the form of white buns. An officer's rations of sugar and fat or cheese were also much higher than those of simple mortals, and if the officer happened to be a doctor in a military hospital there was also the canteen. During our stay with Uncle Artur - almost a year - we were still hungry much of the time, but not as badly and hopelessly as before.

There were two adjoining beds in the room, and after our meal Uncle Artur and Assya moved one of them into a corner for my mother and sister to sleep in; I would sleep on a small sofa in another corner. I thought I detected a little regretful look which passed between Uncle Artur and Assya when they were moving the bed. Assya lived nearby, in a much smaller and poorer room, actually something of a corridor almost entirely taken up by her bed.

In the days that followed, Uncle Artur arranged a job for my mother, as a nurse at his hospital. My mother's only qualifications were a basic first-aid course she had taken some twenty years before, but she also knew Latin and was a good organiser. Her duties at the hospital were mainly serving the patients their meals and medicines, changing the simpler bandages, and simply being there when they called for a nurse, often in considerable pain. Most of them were young, and many have lost an arm or a leg. Mother discovered that simply sitting down by their bed for a few minutes' talk often did more for them than pain killers and medicines.

I began to explore Barnaul. It lay on the left bank of the Ob, and was cut in the middle by the much smaller Barnaulka, with a couple of wooden bridges connecting the two parts. It was now the end of summer, shortish but quite warm here, allowing one to bathe in the Ob. The level of the river had dropped, exposing a small sandy island not far from the town bank. Some of the bathers would swim over to it, carrying their bundled clothes on top of their heads, held in place by the belt passed under the chin. The Barnaulka could be waded in several places. The Ob was over a kilometre wide and marvellous. Its left bank on which the town stood was tall and steep, with winding paths leading down to the bank. The opposite bank - which could only be reached by boat or by a good swimmer accompanied by a boat - was low, marshy, and overgrown with bushes and reeds. To the north, a long steel railway bridge spanned the river. There were large circular log rafts hoved to the bank, and an occasional one being towed downstream by a small tug. The right bank of the Barnaulka was also a tall one, although not as steep as the left one of the Ob, with the result that the "upper" part of Barnaul, where we lived, was higher than the central one, and the road connecting the two was winding and steep. A short walk from our house there was a large park, from which a long flight of wooden steps also descended towards the town. The park was a cemetery before the revolution, and some mossy fallen gravestones with smudged letters still lay here in the bushes and tall grass.

Most of the large brick buildings were concentrated in the centre of the town, on the other side of the Barnaulka. In our upper part there was only my uncle's hospital, the school, the officers' school barracks, a couple of administrative buildings, and, on the outskirts, among the first trees of the forest, another military hospital, with lighter cases and convalescents. Most of the residential houses, only a few of them two storeys high, were built of wood logs, with sloping roofs. Many had gardens at the back or even a small plot of land with a few bushes or trees. A neighbour of ours even kept a cow which grazed there.

The most fascinating place in town was the flea market, on the left bank of the Barnaulka, near the Ob. The shops in town, one of them a two-floor supermarket called Univermag ("Universalnyi Magazin" - a "universal shop") were practically empty, but at the flea market one could find just about anything, at a price; clothing and shoes; kitchen utensils; tools, and all sorts of odds and ends. There were second-hand cameras; the Russians had a locally made (and inferior) copy of the Leica and a 9x12 cm glass-plate folding camera with double-extention bellows called the "Fotokor" ("photo-correspondent"). There were also photo plates, film, paper, and chemicals which one bought at one's own risk, not knowing how old they were. Bottles of vodka, some of it home-distilled, were also on sale. A couple of men made the rounds of the market with a bottle of some thick whitish liquid advertising it as "badger fat - the best medicine for tuberculosis", but a woman selling something off a wheel barrow said to her neighbour that they were cheats and it was simple dog fat. The neighbour said that in starvation times any fat was probably a good cure for tuberculosis, and that in the part of Ukraine where she came from, during the famine, people first ate their cats and dogs, and afterwards any rats and mice they could catch.

And then there were books, and a lot of people browsing through them. On weekends, one often saw a tall young man with a pleasant cleanly shaven face, dressed in a nineteenth century tophat, morning coat, stiff collar and a flowing tie, browsing through the books. Nobody knew where he got the clothes; they may have come from a theatre wardrobe. He seemed to be well educated, and occasionally, making his way through the crowd, would raise his hat and say "Pardon, madame" in French or "I beg your pardon" in English. They said that during the week he worked in some office and lived in a tiny rented room. People called him Lensky and most of them believed him to be a harmless madman who believed himself to be the character from Pushkin's "Yevgenyi Onegin", while some others suspected it was a clever trick to avoid army service.

One of my first investigations concerned fishing in the Ob. I had already noticed a place where boys dug for medium-sized red earthworms, and had joined for an hour one of them fishing from a raft. If I had any hopes that bigger river meant bigger fish, they began to fade almost from the start. There must have been big fish somewhere in the Ob; the lore spoke of large catfish and even of sturgeon, but somehow even old fishermen, when pressed, admitted that they haven't caught any for a long time. Along most of its length, the bank was slightly muddy, and what one usually caught there - and not too often either - was small ruff, a shabbier cousin of the perch, greyish, spotted, and even more prickly. A better place to fish from were the large log rafts anchored to the bank. They were formed of an outer ring of logs held together by a thick steel cable, with the rest of the logs free-floating inside the enclosure. One would not be able to cross such a raft under way because the logs rotated, but, on their stopover in town, the current pressed the rafts against the bank, providing enough friction between the rough-barked pine logs to enable us to go out to the far end, although one still had to be very careful, and good at balancing. The best fishing was to be had not at the far end but in gaps and openings between the logs, and the fish to be caught there were conventional silvery dace or their cousins, once again rather small, say up to twenty centimetres. They seemed to prefer the shadow of the rafts to open water, feeding on the bottom or on whatever could be found on the underside of the logs.

One could also bathe off the rafts, diving off the downcurrent end; never the upcurrent one because one might be dragged under the logs and drowned. Having dived off the downcurrent end and swam some way with the current, one had to be a fairly fast swimmer to get back to the raft; otherwise one had to swim to the beach and do the balancing act on the logs to rejoin one's clothes and fishing rod.

The daredevils among the local boys would sometimes dive into an opening in a raft and come up through another, some distance away. I tried it once, with all possible precautions. To start with, I did it in the presence of a friend, Vladik Krakovsky, the son of another doctor in my uncle's hospital, who was also a decent swimmer. Then, I chose a fairly large entry opening, only five or six metres from the downstream exit one, a distance I could easily swim underwater, and a few more metres beyond that the raft ended, so that if I should miss the exit I would find myself in the open water a few seconds later. I hesitated for a while and finally dove in. The greatest danger here was hitting your head on the edge of a log; this was easily avoided if you dived properly, but I did scratch my back a little while going under the logs. Once in the water, it was easy; with my eyes open the vision was blurred but I could see the exit opening clearly enough from the start, and the edge of the raft beyond that as well, and I surfaced in the middle of the opening and swung myself onto the logs without any problem.

I noticed something interesting about that dive. Before, there had been the hesitation and some fear, simple and understandable. Then, once I was under the logs, I was perfectly cool and composed, concentrating on what I was doing. This lasted for about a minute after I got out; then my heart began to beat wildly and uncontrollably - I could only remember it beating like this once before, on the night when we were deported - and my hands and legs began to tremble. I must have also gone pale in the face, and Vladik looked worried. Not wishing to embarrass me, he said, with what sounded like faked enthusiasm:"Well done, Zyggy! Now let's sit down and fish for a while." He did not volunteer to try a similar dive and not only did I not goad him into it but also decided never to do it again myself, and told Vladik so, making him promise that he would never mention this dive to my mother or uncle. It had been too scary, and if the delayed panic should ever overtake me in the water it might also be deadly .

A few days later, around noon, I heard that a boy from our neighbourhood, who lived in a street leading to the park, had been drowned earlier that morning diving from a raft. Neither Vladik nor I knew him personally, although, judging from the description, we thought we might have seen him occasionally in the street.

Later that afternoon I was walking to the park to try out a new rubber catapult on which I had worked for the past few days. The small street s near the park were deserted at this hour. Turning a corner, I saw a tall man walking towards me, carrying the body of a boy , about my age judging from the size, wrapped in a blanket. The blanket had slipped at one end, exposing a pair of bare feet, of an unnatural yellowish colour, the same as old Paluchowski's face and hands as he lay outside the house in the kolkhoz last winter. The man carrying the body walked at a normal pace, looking straight ahead with a still expressionless face. We passed each other in silence; even our steps were absorbed by the soft dust of the street. There was something strange and unreal in the contrast between the peaceful little street on a warm summer afternoon and, all of a sudden, a man carrying his dead son's body in the middle of it, alone. Not knowing where the boy lived, I couldn't guess whether the father was bringing the body home from town, by the way of the park, or, on the contrary, taking it somewhere, perhaps for a post mortem or some formality. There were very few cars in Barnaul, and the man looked very lonely carrying the body alone like this; or perhaps he had chosen to carry it, to be alone with his son a little longer.

In the park, also deserted at that hour, I did some half-hearted catapult practice, and then sat on the edge of the cliff overlooking the Ob, watching the river and the rafts, and wondering from which of them and into what opening the boy had dived that morning. On my way back, I stopped by an old gravestone half-concealed by bushes, with the writing on the weather-eaten and moss-covered stone still legible; it was someone who died in his eighties some years before the revolution.

A few days later, I was in the park with my catapult again, trying to stalk and hit some bird. The birds were mostly sparrows and wouldn't let me get close enough., but stalking them was fun. The park was deserted again except for a boy about my age, bare-footed and poorly dressed, who watched me from a distance. After a while he began to follow me, keeping a few steps behind. I gave him a sour look when another sparrow took off before I had the chance to stretch my catapult, and he smiled ingratiatingly and said: "No, it's all right; I am keeping my head down and being very quiet. That's a nice catapult; may I see it?"

I was reluctant to pass it to him, and said no, there's another bird. He kept behind me, and when I missed again and put another stone in the leather fold, he looked to one side and said suddenly: "Hey, there's a magpie over there; let me just try it once,will you?" and practically took the catapult out of my hand; I felt it would have been churlish not to let him. He walked a few paces towards a tree and then stopped, turned towards me, and smiled.

"Where's the magpie?" I asked.
He didn't say anything and kept smiling an insincere and nasty smile.
"May I have my catapult back?" I said and stretched out my hand.
"Go fuck yourself. It's mine now."

I stood there feeling like an idiot. The boy was about my size but looked stronger, and there was something dangerous about him. I compressed my lips and narrowed my eyes, took a step towards him, and said in as cold and threatening a voice as I could:
"D'you want your teeth knocked out?"
He stepped back, stretched the catapult and aimed it at my face.
"D'you want an eye put out, or a knife in your stomach?"
He sounded as if he meant it, and I was scared. No catapult was worth going through the rest of one's life one-eyed. If I lowered my head quickly, before he had the time to shoot, and butted him in the solar plexus, I might recover my catapult; but if he brought his knee in my face and then pulled a knife, it was not worth trying. Even standing there with the catapult aimed at my face was getting more uncomfortable from second to second; he might let go just to convince me he meant business.

"All right," I said, in as cool and threatening a voice as I could. "We'll meet again and you'll pay for this." I turned on my heel and walked away, almost sobbing. It was not just the loss of a catapult; it was the first time in my life I have been cheated and robbed. And with my own weapon too. The park and the town had turned into a jungle. In Lvov, we had lived in a quiet and peaceful area; Kairan and the kolkhoz were small places where everyone knew everyone else; this place was different. The only cold comfort was that I never saw that boy again. Perhaps I did scare him and he kept away from our part of town.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
You are welcome to print-out this material for your personal reading, but it is illegal to modify or sell it

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