Zygmunt Frankel



Talking about ancient Rome one day, our history teacher, a morose elderly man who never smiled, said that in the Roman army they had a principle that a soldier should be slightly more afraid of his officer than of the enemy. There were a few giggles and, pretending not to notice them, he passed on to other matters. Being particularly sensitive because of my father's arrest and our deportation, I had a feeling that the teacher was risking his neck; a denunciation letter from one of the pupils could land him in deep trouble. We were studying Gorky's "Song of the Falcon", with particular stress on two of the lines: "He who was born to crawl cannot fly" and "We sing a song to the madness of the brave", and it occured to me that perhaps our history teacher was such a mad falcon in disguise. It was rumoured that at the front, when infantry was ordered into an attack, it was followed by political commissars and military police which shot out of hand anyone who stopped or turned back. Short of such instant executions, similarly strict measures applied to civilians as well; it was a time of war, and the war effort behind the lines was as important as fighting in at the front. If you worked in a military factory and were late to work more than twenty minutes three times in succession, you could be turned over to the NKVD on charges of sabotage and land in a labour camp. There were two or three of those military factories in Barnaul, evacuated from the Ukraine when the war broke out. The factories arrived by train complete with machinery, raw materials, workers,technicians, engineers, and their families. The space for the factories was marked out, and, first of all, concrete foundations for the lathes and milling machines were cast, the machines installed in the open and connected to the electric grid, and work started, with the operators working fully clothed in sleet and snow, with perhaps a tarpaulin rigged over the machine to protect not so much the operator as the product, while the walls and the roofs were gradually added. Many of the workers were local boys of fourteen and fifteen who had completed courses at the FZU ("Fabrichno - Zavodnoye Uchilishche" - a trade school). The factories were several kilometres from town and there was no public transport; you had to get up at dawn to arrive at work on foot, on time, and, as overtime was standard and obligatory, you got back home late at night, once again on foot. The teenage workers were underfed, exhausted, and suffering from lack of sleep, and they all looked as if they had TB.

One day my mother received summons from the NKVD to report to Captain so-and-so in room number so-and-so at ten o'clock in the morning on such and such day. We were dead scared, and mother immediately consulted the Polish Jews of her acquaintance, including Rabbi Orlanski who conducted the prayers in private houses on Jewish holidays. There was a widespread belief that the Jews always knew everything and always knew it first. The only hope they could offer on this occasion was that it was not anything really serious, otherwise mother would have been arrested at home without a warning. Mother did, however, make arrangements for them to take care of me and Stella in case she did not come back and gave them the addresses of our relatives in Russia, Poland, and the West. She tried to make our parting that morning as casual as possible, but took a long silent look at each of us, and after we saw her to the gate stopped and waved to us several times before turning a corner.

She was back in the afternoon, enormously relieved. The captain merely conveyed to her that, in answer to her letter to Comrade Stalin a few weeks before, the authorities wished to inform her that nothing was known about her husband. (It was not, of course, a personal reply.) We had written to Stalin after our letters to the Moscow and Karelo-Finskaya NKVD brought similar replies, by post. The personal summons on this occasion, our Jewish advisers thought, might have been due to the fact that she had written to Stalin himself, but could perhaps also be interpreted as a warning that she should desist from any further inquiries.

One day, at the start of the eighth grade, we were given the usual annual medical examination. The doctor would ask us to strip to the waist, listen to our lungs and hearts through a stethoscope, ask us to open our mouth, pull down our lower eyelids, and make a mark in his journal. In two or three cases, having heard something suspicious, he sent the pupils for an X-ray at the local clinic. We returned to the classroom and thought no more of it.

A couple of weeks later, at the start of the first lesson, the teacher read out the names of almost all the pupils - the exceptions were one slightly lame boy, two suspected of having mild TB, and a son of one of the teachers - and asked us to report to the assembly hall. All the three eighth grades, with similar small exceptions, were there, seated on rows of benches. The headmaster, looking very grim, sat at the table in front, together with some tall, official-looking man. The headmaster got up and introduced him as the Mayor of Barnaul. The Mayor got up and started reading from a paper in his hand. By the order of such and such authority - I don't remember exactly which - the following pupils of our ten-year school - he read out all our names, almost a hundred of them - were hereby discharged from school and registered as pupils of the Barnaul FZU, our studies at the abovementioned trade school to start the following Monday at 8 a.m.

There was dead silence in the hall. Here, going down the drain, were all our hopes of further study, of becoming doctors or engineers. In three months' time we would be operating lathes at the military factories, getting up at dawn, trudging through the snow, working twelve or fourteen hours a day, and spending our Sundays in bed trying to catch up on our sleep.

The Mayor said that he was sure we realised that this was on par with a mobilisation order for army service; the Fatherland was in the midst of a war for its very survival, against an inhuman enemy, and a man at a lathe was as important as a fighter at the front. Could we please come up one by one and sign the receipt of the order.

Nobody moved. There was dead silence in the hall. The headmaster sat there doing nothing to help the Mayor; he must have been furious that all three of his eighth grades were being wiped out like this.

After a while the Mayor looked at the list and called out a name. A tall burly fellow stood up.
"Come here and sign," the Mayor said.
"I am sorry, comrade Mayor," the burly fellow said in a deep bass voice. "I am not of age yet. I still belong to my mother, and will have to ask her first."
In spite of the seriousness of the situation, thunderous laughter rolled across the hall, and even the headmaster smiled. The Mayor of Barnaul didn't.
"In this particular case you belong to the Soviet Union more than you belong to your mother," he said in a cold voice which wiped out any remaining merriment. "Come up and sign."
"I am sorry," the big fellow said, weakly.
"You are free to see this order as having come from Comrade Stalin himself; anyone who refuses to sign will be considered a saboteur and dealt with accordingly."
"I am not refusing to sign, comrade Mayor;" the big fellow said. "I just have to ask my mother, and if she agrees I'll sign, tomorrow morning f it suits you."
"It does not suit me. Anyone who does not sign tonight will be considered to have refused to sign and dealt with accordingly, not by me or the school but the NKVD. Now come here and sign."

The big fellow shuffled to the table and signed. After that, they went one by one without any more resistance. My brain was working feverishly and fast. It was no good claiming ill health; we now understood that the recent medical examination was not just a yearly check but also a preparation for this. Being among the best pupils in our class could not help me either; there were others as good as myself here tonight. When my turn came, I said politely:
"Comrade Mayor, I happen to be a Polish citizen, and I think I must consult our council before signing."
He looked at me coldly and then filled his lungs with air.
"You eat Russian bread, don't you?" he roared.
This was the closest I ever came to pissing into my pants from shear fear.
"Yes, I do."
"The Red Army is fighting for you as well as for us?"
"Yes, it does."
"With the weapons they make at our military factories?"
"Then sign and stop sabotaging the war effort."
"I... could I please have your permission to ..."
"No, you don't have it!" He was still shouting and working himself into a frenzy. "If you don't sign now, just write "I refuse to sign" and sign that, and we'll know how to deal with you, my boy."
I was badly scared. The minimum age for death penalty or labour camp in Russia was twelve. My refusal could affect not only me but also my mother and perhaps even my father, wherever he was. I took the pen and signed.

At home, we sat late into the night and considered all the aspects of the situation. Mother agreed that I had no choice but sign; a refusal in front of everyone might have ended very badly. I was almost sixteen, and there were some boys of my age in prisons and labour camps. Longrangewise, if the Allies won the war, our return to Poland might be at risk, and that could be more important than higher education. Resigning myself to my fate and reporting to the trade school on Monday would cross out any possibility of higher education for the next few years, and make an attempt to return to it very difficult. One immediate advantage would be the extra set of clothes and a pair of boots FZU pupils received when starting their course. A longer-range one might be the postponement of my mobilization if the war dragged on; the present age was eighteen or nineteen, but the Russians had been suffering heavy losses at the front and could lower it any time.

The next morning mother went to consult her friends again. The Polish Jews told her that whatever we did or did not do had to be based on some official document with a seal. The Russians have a saying that what's written with a pen cannot be cut out with an axe ("Napisanovo pyerom nye vyrubish toporom") and this was true not only of the NKVD but of all the Soviet bureaucracy. You had to have a document for everything, and the classic question was "Is there a stamp?" Maria Moysyeyevna, the principal of my old school, told mother that scholarly achievements did not count in such a case, but she had a friend, a Jewish woman doctor at the central Barnaul clinic, to whom she would talk that evening. If mother could take me to her for a check up and if I looked ill enough and perhaps coughed a little or something, she might give me a slip of paper saying that I was ill and perhaps needed further examination, and in the meantime the FZU course would start without me and perhaps they would not insist on rounding up the absentees.

The next morning we went to see the lady doctor. Appearances were kept. I coughed a little as we entered, and Maria Moysyeyevna and the FZU were not mentioned. Mother said that I was running a temperature and coughing. The doctor took my pulse and laid her hand on my forehead without using the thermometer while I coughed again. Then she looked at at my throat, asked me to strip to the waist and listened to my heart and lungs with a stethoscope. She looked at me with some doubt; although I was very skinny and pale - it was the end of winter - and stood rather stooped, she obviously was unable to discover anything wrong with me.

"Well," she finally said, "if you cough, and your throat is not red, it obviously calls for an X-ray and another check-up afterwards. There is a waiting list for non-emergency X-rays, so I'll put you down for one in a month's time, and afterwards come to see me again with the results. In the meantime, just in case it's the start of a bad cold, stay in bed, I repeat, stay in bed, for the next week or so, until it blows over." She did not say whether what should "blow over" was the threat of cold or the FZU mobilization. She wrote out a long note - mother asked her for three carbon copies - about my being weak and underfed, persistent cough and high temperature, suspicion of TB or/and bronchitis, the need for an X-ray, and orders to stay in bed, and signed and stamped with the seal of the clinic all three copies.

We mailed one of them to the FZU, one to my school - to which I intended to return - and kept one for ourselves. I stayed in bed, or near it, for the next week, but nobody called to check up on me. The following Monday I crept back to school and approached the headmaster as he was passing in the corridor. Yes, he said, he has received my letter with the medical certificate. "Look, Frankel," he said, "this is not exactly an official document releasing you from the FZU, but as far as I am concerned you can continue studies unless we get explicit orders to the contrary from above."

He seemed to be resentful about the authorities, and when I walked into the classroom I understood why. There was only one eighth grade left out of the original three, with only a dozen pupils: some ill or otherwise handicapped, one son of a teacher who must have been warned and took precautions in time, and three or four like me who managed to wriggle out through some loophole or other.

A few days later I met one of my ex-classmates, a red-haired fellow who did not like me at school and liked me even less now.
"Wriggled out of it, did you?" he said nastily.
He already seemed to be proud of his FZU uniform, and told me of the many-layered knife handle he was going to make as soon as he had mastered the lathe. I pretended to be sorry about my illness and said I might yet rejoin the FZU.
"Not a chance," he said. "The course is full. The next opportunity is in three months' time when a new one starts."

I was relieved to hope that no steps were being taken to round up the deserters. We talked a little longer and parted with a more friendly handshake than at the beginning.

I now had a nasty problem my mother did not know about. I had become fascinated by the parachutists and glider pilots of the local aeroclub on the ice of the Ob, right below the town, to which they migrated every winter from the 8-kilometre distant airfield when the ice grew thick enough. (I once saw a four-engined Antonov transport plane land there, and the long-distance lorries would also take a short cut across the frozen Ob in winter.) Every weekend when the weather was fine I would listen for the sound of the little U-2 open-cockpit two-seater biplane, and as soon as I saw it towing a glider or dropping a parachutist I would put on my skis and make for the river. (There were few slopes in Barnaul, but most of us were quite decent cross-country skiers.) There I would find one or both of the aeroclub's U-2 planes, mounted on skis. They had six before the war, but four had been requisitioned by the army. (The U-2, for "Uchebnyi"("Trainer"), flying since 1928, was renamed Po-2 half-way through the war, when its designer, Polikarpov, died. The Russians usually named their planes after their designers: Yak after Yakovlev, Tu after Tupolyev, and Mig was the combination of Mikoyan and Gurevich.) The shortage of planes, and - no less important - fuel, put an end to flying courses when the war started, and what remained was parachuting and gliding, the former a widespread and popular sport in Russia since before the war. There was something magic about a parachute opening in the blue sky, like a white flower. Mother told me that when she was a girl they would buy some little pills of Japanese manufacture which, when dropped in water, would open into paper flowers, birds, or butterflies, and this was something similar. The noise of the plane's engine, high overhead, would diminish to an idling tick-over; something would stir on the wing near the fuselage, then a little black dot would drop down, begin to trail a sort of white flame, and then the parachute would open. When they flew gliders, the train of plane and glider would make a full circuit, climbing higher and higher; then the glider would detach itself; the plane, trailing the towing cable, would return in a steep circular dive and land, with the glider slowly and silently completing its descending circuit and landing in the snow.

An onlooker would sometimes watch for a while, but there was only one - me - who came there one Saturday morning and stood or sat in the snow the whole day watching them, from a distance so as not to be in the way. The next morning I showed up again. After a while, a glider landed near me; they were trying for precision landings but not always succeeding. Three of the student pilots passed me at a run; their job, assisted by the one who had just landed, was to drag the glider back to the take-off point as fast as possible.
"Can I help?" I asked.
"By all means, if you enjoy it."

For the rest of the day I ran with them, dragging back gliders, and was back the next weekend. Nobody befriended me in particular, and the instructors - the manager of the club who piloted the plane, and two others, one tall and thin, with a slight limp, and one short and plump, didn't seem to notice me.

The next day, while the plane was being refuelled, the manager walked a safe distance downwind wind from the plane to smoke a cigarette and stood near me.

"This seems to interest you," he said.
"Yes, very much, comrade director," I said. "May I ask how does one join?"
"Are you sixteen already?"
"No, but I will be soon."
"There's, first, a medical examination, then an application - curriculum vitae so we can see how streamlined politically you are - then a theoretical evening course, a month for parachuting and three months for gliding, and weekend practice afterwards."
"Would it be possible to pass the medical and the theory before my birthday and start as soon as I am sixteen?"
He thought for a while.
"Yes, I suppose it's all right. Drop in at the club some evening and get the forms."
"I will; thank you very much."
"Are you sure it's for you? You haven't flown before, have you?"
"No, comrade director."

Just then a very pretty young girl was strapping herself into the front seat of a glider. I knew her name was Valya Kukushkina; she had a rare combination of blond hair and black eyebrows over blue eyes, and everyone seemed to be a little in love with her. She was older than most students, about eighteen, and an old parachutist with over twenty jumps to her credit; the aeroclub may have been grooming her as an instructor. She had already soloed and the rear cockpit was empty.

"Valya, would you take a passenger?"
"I would be delighted, comrade director; it's been awfully lonely since my solo."
"All right, get in," he said, and walked towards the plane.
The boy who had helped Valya to strap in now helped me, while another held one wingtip and a third attached the towing cable under the nose of the glider..

"Keep your face as covered as you can," he said, "otherwise it'll get frostbitten. It's twice as cold up there."

I tied the flaps of my hat under my chin and buttoned the collar of my coat. The students wore thick flying suits, fur-lined flying helmets, and fur-lined leather face masks with openings for eyes - covered in flight by the goggles - nose, and mouth, lent to them by the club. The instructors also had tall fur-lined airforce boots while the rest of us wore simple felt ones. They all looked and moved like clumsy fat bears.

There was a familiar light smell in the cockpit, of wood and varnish, which I remembered from the cockpit of the glider in Ustrzyki Dolne.We sat there while they were restarting the engine after a brief lunch break and refuelling. In winter it was a complicated business. There was a sort of large primus stove fuelled by aviation petrol with five long flexible sheet-metal pipes which fitted over the heads of the five air-cooled cylinders of the engine. When the engine warmed up the propeller had to be swung. In summer, on dry ground, it was done by hand, with the swinger stepping back as the engine caught . In winter, on slippery snow, it would be too close to suicide. Instead, they would turn the propeller till it was almost horizontal and slip a sort of leather glove over the lower tip, with a long rubber cord attached. An instructor would hold the tip standing just outside the circle described by it and ready to step farther back. A helper on the other side would get hold the end of the rubber cord and back away, stretching it. Then, after the standard litany of "Petrol on" "Petrol on" "Switches off" "Switches off" "Throttle closed" "Throttle closed" "And set" "And set", and finally "Contact!" "Contact!", the glove would be released, the propeller swung by the rubber cord - with much greater force than by hand - and the engine came to life. Earlier that morning I asked one of the instructors why, being more efficient and safer, this method was not used in summer as well.

"Young man," he said, "there is efficiency and there is tradition, and the tradition says that as long as propellers can be swung by hand, swung by hand they will be."

The engine started, sending a whisp of snow towards us. The boy who had attached the cable now stood aside with a little red flag.

"Ready?" Valya asked. "What's your name?"
"Zyggy; Zyggy Frankel."
"Ready, Zyggy? Strapped in and everything?"
"Ready, comrade pilot."
Valya raised her thumb. The boy with the flag began to wave it over the snow, in front of his boots. Another student with a similar flag, standing a little in front of the plane, repeated it for the pilot to see; it was the "take up slack" sign. The plane began to move slowly forward, and after a while there came a tug on the glider.
"Take off!" Valya called out.
The flag went up, waving over the boy's head. The noise of the engine grew, and we began to slide forward. I was braced for some breath-taking acceleration but there was none. In spite of the smooth snow, the little five-cylinder engine must have been too weak for anything spectacular with the glider attached. The boy who held the wingtip ran with it for a while and then let go when the speed became too much for him but was already sufficient for the pilot to hold the wings level using the ailerons. We were sliding forward faster and faster, throwing up a little snow spray, and then the spray and the slight noise of the glider sliding over the snow stopped, and we were flying level, a meter or so over the snow. The plane was still on the ground, and Valya held the glider level to let the plane gather additional speed. Valya's cockpit was covered in front and had a plastic windscreen. Mine was completely open on top and now there was a freezing wind blowing through it.

The plane finally took off and we started climbing. At first it was like watching the frozen snow-covered river from a tall building, and even when we reached the height of the tall bank, from which I had watched the river and the planes so often, the view was still familiar. Then, as we rose even higher, the whole town became visible, with the houses very small and the people mere black dots. The plane and the glider banked and we turned away from the tall bank, and after a while made another 90-degree turn, flying now in the opposite direction over the far bank of the river. The appearance of the ground was changing, from three-dimensional to something like a flat coloured map. I was scared at first but was getting used to it fast, with a little comforting thought at the back of my mind that if anything happened I would die together with Valya and perhaps be buried next to her, with something about pilot's death on our gravestones. Just as I overcame my fear and was beginning to enjoy the flight - it was a smooth one, with no turbulences in the still cold air - the glider suddenly banked and started rolling over onto one wing. I heard a loud disgusted "Oh yob tvoyu mat" from the front cockpit and saw Valya struggling with the controls. Within a few seconds the wings returned to level. Valya, who was supposed to fly the glider slightly above the towing plane to keep out of the rotating propeller slipstream, had allowed it to drop down. ("Yob tvoyu mat", literally "I fucked your mother", originally an insult, had long since become the standard impersonal Russian curse.)

We flew on, climbing all the time. Over the starting point, Valya took the glider a little higher, went into a shallow dive which put slack into the towing cable, and pulled the release. The plane veered aside and went down in a spiral dive, trailing the cable behind it. We were alone in the air, with only the swish of the wind now. Valya repeated the circuit, the glider now losing the height it had gained, and finally held it level just above the snow to loose speed and touched down gently and expertly. The glider slid over the snow for a while and stopped, dropping one wingtip to the ground. I got out of the cockpit, thanked her, and said how much I enjoyed the flight. She said she enjoyed having me for a passenger, and then took one look at my face and hastily got out of the cockpit.

"Your nose and cheeks," she said. "Quick, rub them with snow!"

This restored the circulation, but my frostbitten face still blistered and then peeled for days afterwards. But it was a small price to pay, and I walked on air, frostbite or no frostbite; I have flown, in a real aircraft, high above Barnaul and the Ob!

A few evenings later I walked into the Barnaul aeroclub and was given the forms for my medical examination. They were a shock: no less than the full medical examination for airforce pilots. Courses at the aeroclub were free, but the authorities obviously hoped that the young enthusiast would go on to greater things like a pilot's career when he was called up, and they were not going to waste their time and money on weaklings barely fit for gliders. Concerning parachutists at the club, only about half of them were civilian volunteers like myself; the other half, slightly older and approaching mobilization age, were sent there by the military authorities so that they should enter the army with basic parachute training, and their medical requirement were lower. The result was that half the budding parachutists were very keen on the sport while most of the other half did everything possible to wriggle out of it. I once heard a boy from the latter group trying to convince Kononov, the club manager and chief instructor, that his eyesight was poor. "Do you think," Kononov asked, "that you might be able to see the planet Earth from the distance of six hundred metres?" "I suppose so", the student mumbled. "Then you're going to jump." The volunteer group, however, had to pass successfully the whole gamut of the strictest examinations.

A few days after I got my forms, the FZU business exploded, and now I had two medical examinations on my hands: one to prove me an invalid unfit for workshop training and the other to pass me fit for flying fighter planes. I have always hated examinations, at school and for the GTO sports badge, with their need to prove yourself and the fear that you might be found lacking, and have now extended this sentiment to medical examinations. I lay low for about a month after the FZU scare, to see whether any steps would be taken to round up the stragglers. There weren't any. The clinic which examined prospective parachutists and glider pilots was not the central one in town, but another, larger one, on the outskirts of Barnaul, which also handled army recruits, candidates for lorry and tractor drivers' courses, and so on. I could not afford to run into the same lady doctor who had passed me unfit for the FZU, so I made discrete inquiries and was glad to hear that each clinic had its own personnel, and no doctor worked in both. Better still, each of the clinics had such an amount of paper work, files, and archives, spiced by inefficiency and overwork, that there was practically no chance of information from one of the clinics seeping to the other.

My mother didn't know about any of this. I was so sure she wouldn't let me do any parachute jumping that I didn't even bring up the subject; she had been scared enough when I told her about my flight in the glider, and asked what was she going to tell my father when he came back if something happened to me. But there was no hurry until I passed the medical. If I failed, the problem would resolve itself, and I would join the multitude of young - and, later, middle-aged - men who would wistfully look up when a plane passed overhead or a parachute opened in the sky, regretting that they had never done anything of the sort.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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