Zygmunt Frankel



Our second winter in Russia turned out much better than the previous one. We were still hungry most of the time, sometimes as hungry as in the kolkhoz the year before, but not as hopelessly hungry. My mother was getting insufficient but regular bread rations as a nurse in a hospital (400 gram per day), Stella and I about half of that each, and Uncle Artur, who ate at the hospital, always helped out. In addition to the standard food rations, once the winter set in, the hospital arranged for an allotment of one cubic metre of firewood for each of its employees. The wood came in the form of a tree on the root in the woods near Barnaul. Several nurses with sons and an occasional husband, armed with saws, axes, and hand-drawn sleds, were led to it along a forest path by an official who checked some numbers marked on the trees and said: "This one is yours." It took us a whole day to cut down the tree, chop off the branches, and saw it into transportable lengths, to be further sawn and chopped at home. The raw wood wouldn't burn properly in the stove, and had to be mixed with kindling, bought privately. When summer came we were also allotted a plot of sandy soil between the town and the woods, to grow potatoes in. This called for an investment in a small sack of potatoes which were then cut into the smallest pieces still retaining "an eye" for planting, and, later, everyone had to chip in to hire a watchman so that the ripening potatoes should not be stolen. We managed to dig out about three times the amount we had planted.

Apart from this, there was now a Polish Committee in Russia helping Polish citizens with an occasional allocation of clothing - a pair of boots, or a British battledress with the shoulder straps cut off, dyed dark green to disqualify it as uniform. A Polish army was being formed in Russia under General Anders, and Poles were being released from prisons and labour camps to join it. Mother and Uncle Artur were worried about their families in Poland. His wife and daughter have remained in Lvov, and on our side there was my grandmother and three uncles and aunts with their children. ("And grandmother was so worried about that typewriter," mother said.) But here was now a stronger hope to hear from our father soon. We wrote to the headquarters on the N.K.V.D. in Moscow again. Because of the slowness of the Russian mail and the speed of the German advance we were not sure who would reach Moscow first - the letter or the Germans - but the Germans seemed to have been stopped in front of Moscow and several weeks later the answer arrived, identical to the previous one: nothing was known of him. Then we received a postcard from Uncle Joseph in London: "According to Weinberger " (a distant relative, formerly an elderly childless widower who had remarried and had been deported with his wife and two young children to Russia) "Leon is in Karelo Tinka. We hope he will join you soon." The postcard took some months to reach us. "Karelo Tinka" was an obvious misspelling of "Karelo-Finskaya", a region in the north, close to Finland. We wrote at once to the regional N.K.V.D. of the Karelo-Finskaya region, once again giving all the details, and to Uncle Joseph in London asking for Weinberger's address which he had omitted in his postcard. The letter took some months to get to London, and the answer with Weinberger's address, in Tashkent, a few more to reach us. We wrote to Weinberger at once, asking for all the information he could possibly supply. In the meantime, an answer from the Karelo-Finskaya N.K.V.D. arrived, identical to the one from Moscow: they did not know anything about our father. Then the letter to Weinberger came back unopened. A note on the envelope, by a neighbour, said that Weinberger, his wife, and his daughter have died of typhoid, and that his little son was taken to a Polish orphanage. In view of the friendly Polish-Russian relations - we were now both victims of the Fascist aggression, with bygones seemingly bygones - this persistent lack of information about our father left mother in a dark mood. She tried not to infect us, but I could sense that neither she nor Uncle Artur believed that an organisation like the N.K.V.D., even in the midst of war and retreat, could so completely lose track of someone they had arrested and deported before the war broke out. If they managed to evacuate whole factories, they have certainly saved N.K.V.D. archives. We have seen Paluchovski die of starvation in the kolkhoz, and now there was Weinberger and his wife and daughter of typhoid in the warmer south. If simple deportees were dying at such a rate, the situation in prisons and labour camps must have been much worse, and the N.K.V.D. could be hiding something.

Then Uncle Artur's hospital was moved, nearer the front though still a safe distance behind it. Before leaving, he arranged a job for my mother, once again as a nurse, at the other military hospital in Barnaul, more of a convalescent one, on the outskirts of the town, among the first trees of the woods.

The patients - officially under military discipline - were in a much better shape than the ones in Uncle Artur's hospital; they were recovering and many of them were due to return to the front once they were well, and determined to make the most of life until then. The ones who could walk had the run of the wooded hospital grounds during the day. There were pretty nurses in the hospital, and pretty girls in town with its shortage of handsome young men because to the war. A raid on a ward after the lights-out would sometimes reveal a guitar instead of a patient in bed, with the blankets artfully draped over it to simulate a sleeping human form. One of the patients, a handsome young officer, once gave my mother a considerable sum of money, asking her to buy him the largest bottle of perfume she could find on the flea market. Knowing him to be in love with a young nurse, my mother's heart melted and she agreed, even though it was against the regulations. An hour later, the head nurse asked her to step into her office.
"Did lieutenant so-and-so ask you to buy him a bottle of perfume?"
"Yes, he did," my mother admitted. "You see, he seems to be very much in love with one of the nurses and..."
"Giza Sigismundovna," the head nurse said in exasperation. (Both my grandfather and I had been altered from "Sigmund" in his case and "Zygmunt" in mine to "Sigismund", the Russian version of the name, and my father to "Lev" instead of "Leon" as well; I was now Sigismund Lvovich Fryenkyel on my Russian documents, and mother Giza Sigismundovna.) "Are you so naive as to think he would waste the largest bottle of perfume you can find for him on the flea market in such a decadent nineteen-century way? They DRINK it, for God's sake, because it's got alcohol in it! Give him his money back on the double unless you want to find yourself out of a job and perhaps even in jail." Mother did, a sadder and a wiser woman.

After Uncle Artur left, we could not keep the large and comfortable room he had been renting, and moved to a smaller one a few houses away. The wooden house sat in a back garden, close to some bushes and trees, very convenient for setting out bird traps. Our landlady was a young, slightly plump woman in her early thirties, a refugee from Leningrad, with two sons; Tolya, nine years old, and his younger brother, about five. Her husband had been arrested a couple of years before the war and she hadn't heard from him since. She was doing a little trading on the flea market, and having difficult time feeding herself and the two boys. Actually the real landlady who owned the house was her relative, a native of Barnaul, an older woman with a grown up, still single, daughter of her own, who let her refugee relative have the use of half of the house, about a room and a half. To take us in, our sub-landlady moved into the smaller front room, with a couple of wooden bunks, one above the other. She slept on the lower bunk and the boys on the upper one. The room she rented us was a slightly larger one at the back, with two beds, one for mother and Stella, and another, narrower one, for me. To get to our room we had to pass through hers. She was out of the house much of the time, and had problems keeping her boys disciplined. Tolya turned out to be a nuisance; he was too young for me to befriend properly but always wanting to go fishing or catapult hunting with me, and trying to join us when a friend from school called. Rejected, he could turn very nasty and foul-mouthed. He could swear like a grown-up, and had picked up a great deal of theoretical sexual knowledge with which he spiced his swearing.

One day, as our class was making its way downtown for a visit to the city museum Vitka Karabanov gave me a dirty look and said: "Well, the Poles are against us again." He was referring to an item in the papers announcing the breaking-off of diplomatic relations between the Polish government in London and the Soviet Union. No reason was given except that the Poles were at fault. It was awfully unpleasant, and, blushing, I mumbled something about this being against the will of the Polish people, who will certainly overcome any such reactionary machinations and remain friends with the great Soviet people. My Russian was very good by now, my top marks at school including the Russian language and literature, and I have used the stiff official party language which one never contradicted to counter Vitka's announcement. It worked and he changed the subject.

In the weeks that followed, some additional details were supplied by the press. According to them, the Germans had overrun a Polish officers' POW camp near Smolensk, shot all the officers, several thousand of them, in a wooded area called Katyn, and buried them in mass graves. Then, in a primitive and dirty propaganda ploy, they pretended to have discovered mass graves of Polish officers shot by the Soviets while the area was still under their control, before the German attack, and even invited an international Red Cross commission to come and see the for themselves. The gullible Soviet-hating Polish government in London dared to ask for additional investigation and details, which was not only idiotic but unacceptable among allies in their struggle against the fascist aggressor, and diplomatic relations were broken off.

The Polish army which had been formed in Russia under General Anders left through Persia to join the British forces in the Middle East. An alternative, more compliant, Polish government, or rather a committee which was to become government later on, was set up in Russia, and a new Polish army, due to fight side by side with the Russians and, in due course, to participate in the liberation of Poland from the east, began to be formed. In the meantime, however, Poles in responsible positions were removed from their posts. My mother was only a nurse, and was one day dismissed from her job, officially for improperly bandaging a patient. Shocked and confused, she went to see the head nurse; my mother was a junior nurse; bandaging patients was outside her qualifications and duties and she had never bandaged one during her work in the hospital. She said that a mistake or a misunderstanding must have occured, not only depriving her of a job but endangering her reputation, and asked the head nurse to appeal on her behalf. The head nurse glanced around to make sure they were alone, and said in a low voice that it was not a mistake but some sort of formality; that the reason for the dismissal was not professional but political, and she strongly advised my mother to accept it quietly without making things worse. Mother was scared and accepted her advice. Then a letter from Uncle Artur arrived, with a prison address. Being an officer and a successful and respected chief of the X-ray department at a military hospital, he could not be simply dismissed, so he was arrested, charged with some offence which he did not specify in the letter, and sentenced to seven years in prison. He must have been given the right of infrequent correspondence, and in his next letter wrote that he was now working at the prison hospital. He did not say whether he was working there as a doctor or in some other capacity, but the mere fact of being employed in the hospital must have made his imprisonment easier and his food situation better than those of other prisoners.

My mother's dismissal turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Depressed, she went to consult Maria Moysyeyevna, the headmistress of our school with whom she had grown friendly. They got acquainted when Stella and I enroled, and have since discovered that they had a lot to talk about and enjoyed each other's company. Maria Moyseyevna and her husband were Jewish and had a couple of children.She was tall, slim, and an efficient headmistress. Her husband had some high academic degree, in literature I think, and held a high and lucrative post in some cultural organisation. He had a problem, however, or rather they had a problem, because it was causing Maria Moysyeyevna more trouble than him: he was addicted to cocaine, managing to obtain it through some medical acquaintances. The addiction had to be kept secret from the authorities and neighbours, and when he was not drugged the craving made him very difficult to live with.

Maria Moysyeyevna first of all told my mother that she did the right thing not pressing the matter further; if it was political, as it seemed to be, mother was lucky to be only out of a job, free, and at home with her children. She would not get another job as a nurse with that faulty bandage in her letter of dismissal, and a job was mandatory. The money was almost of no importance, sufficient to live on for a few days only; but employment also meant a higher bread ration and occasional allotment of coupons which entitled one to buy, for a very low price, now a square meter of linen and now - even more infrequently - a pair of boots. Sold on the flea market, such allotments could keep one from starvation for a month or two, and, ever since Uncle Artur left, we have been permanently hungry again, though not quite as badly as on the kolkhoz, .

Maria Moysyeyevna thought for a while, and suddenly perked up and asked how good mother was at mathematics; the school urgently needed an accountant. She was keeping the accounts herself; they were not very complicated but taking too much of her time. She showed mother the account books and it transpired that mother was capable of managing quite well. But doesn't she need proof of some professional training in accountancy, she asked. Maria Moysyeyevna didn't think so. So long as you can do the job and have an academic degree in any field, she said, nobody is going to question your employment. In that case, mother said, I'd better have my doctor's diploma from the Vienna University translated and certified by a notary.

Maria Moysyeyevna's husband who was present, clearheaded and in a good mood on this occasion, pricked his ears.
"Did you say you have a doctorate, with the title of "Doctor" clearly stated on the diploma?" he asked.
"Yes." mother said, and explained that in those days in Austria and Germany the title of "Doctor" was the first degree, bestowed after three or four years of successful undergraduate study.
Well, Maria Moysyeyevna's husband said, nobody in Russia knows about it. In Russia, the title of "Doktor" is a rare distinction bestowed on deserving candidates after two or three academic degrees and some distinguished research work, and entitling one to occasional shopping in the "Closed Shop" - a store where one could buy extra rations of food and goods denied to simpler mortals. If mother could let him have a translated and certified copy of her diploma, he would try to arrange it.

My mother did, and he succeeded. Mother returned from her first visit to the "Closed Shop" with a tin of cooking oil, some conserves, a small bag of sugar, and a bottle of vodka. The vodka was the most valuable item of all; sold at the flea market, it helped our food situation for a couple of months. We were still permanently hungry, but it made the difference between mere hunger and the danger of starvation.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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