Zygmunt Frankel



By 1945, ever since Stalingrad, the news from the front was consistently good. We heard on the radio and saw in the newsreels long rows of guns in Moscow firing salutes whenever another city was liberated, with one great extra celebration thrown in when the Germans were cleared from the last inch of pre-war Soviet territory and the Red Army moved into Prussia, and later across Poland and into Germany proper. On the other side of Europe the Allies were also advancing. Then the Red Army reached Berlin and was fighting on its outskirts. On the 9th of May, the radio began to call the listeners to stand by for important news, and finally broadcast it: last midnight, Germany has capitulated; Hitler was dead by his own hand; the war was over.

The joy and jubilation that swept over Barnaul - it must have been the same over all of Russia - was a combination of patriotism and pride, an enormous relief that the slaughter was over, and a hope for a better future; in what proportions, nobody could tell and we shall probably never know. My mother cried a little, and said may God let our father come back soon now, and may our families in Poland have gotten through the war safely. (Because of the turmoil in liberated Poland and the slowness of mail we still had no news of them.) The Russians put on their best clothes and went out into the streets, drifting towards the centre of the town, smiling broadly, shaking the hands of friends and hugging them, and occasionally taking a swig from a bottle of vodka. Accordeons, balalaikas, and guitars were brought out, and a policeman went up to a slightly drunken man with a wooden leg and medals on his coat who was firing a double-barrelled shotgun into the air. The man said he lost his leg at Stalingrad and that not even Comrade Stalin would object to his private little victory salute. Finally the policeman asked how many cartridges he had left; the invalid took them out of his pocket and counted; there were six. "Nothing in the other pocket?" "No, just makhorka and the bottle", said the invalid and showed him. They compromised on the man firing off the remaining cartridges on the spot, in the policeman's presence, keeping the barrel pointing up. Otherwise the town was fairly quiet; it was too early for official large-scale festivities with loudspeakers and fireworks. People kept to the raised wooden "pavements" because the streets were muddy. Downtown, in the large central town square, a happily drunken man dressed in a smart, slightly ill-fitting suit and a tie - a rare thing to wear in Barnaul - was unsteadily crossing the square, waving a bottle and singing the Internationale. He began to cross a large puddle, slipped, and fell flat on his face. Then he raised his head; his face,and the front of his suit, was completely plastered with mud. He smiled broadly at the people watching him and said:"Almost fell down, didn't I?"

A year before, in the same square, I had experienced something of a surprise and a revelation. Our school was participating in the First of May parade. The boys were issued with dummy rifles - of the same appearance and weight as real ones, and with real bayonets - formed a company marching some twenty abreast, and drilled to keep the line straight and the rifles, lowered for the salute when marching past the stand, level. We did this over and over again, to the instructor's whistle and his "right, left" commands, and it was boring and tiring. I had never managed to whip up any great enthusiasm for the mass shows like the First of May parades in the Red Square in Moscow which one saw in the newsreels, with hundreds of identically dressed soldiers or sportsmen, in geometric formations performing identical movements. It looked impressive but it strangled individuality in an awfully depressing way.

When the First of May came, we stood with our rifles, at ease, with an infantry battalion in front of us and a company of schoolgirls with nurses' caps behind, while a orchestra was testing its instruments and various high-ranking officers and dignitaries taking their place on the stand. We were symbolising the new generation getting ready to defend the homeland against all comers. Red flags flew in the breeze and Stalin looked at us with a stern but friendly expression from a large portrait over the stand. We could not see much because the soldiers were barring the view.

There was another half an hour of speeches: the First of May, the great Soviet Union, Lenin, the great commander and leader Comrade Stalin (applause), the great Communist Party and homeland (applause), victory over the fascist aggressor, once again Stalin.

Then, at long last, orders began to ring out: straighten the ranks; atten-tion; shoulder arms. There were separate orders for the soldiers and for us because we had to let them move ahead a certain distance before following.

Finally there came from the front the name of the army unit, then "forwaaaaard" and "march!". Exactly on the "march", the orchestra's drums struck, a rhythmic beat in units of "tam ta tam, tam ta tam, tam ta tararara tam ta tam". It was impressive and rousing, and, as the block of soldiers was moving away, we found ourselves at long last facing the open square, the crowd, and the flags. We straightened up a little more.


Exactly on the "March", as our left feet rose and hit the ground, the whole orchestra struck up a rousing military march. Squinting aside, we were surprised to see that our line was perfectly straight and nobody was marching out of step. The whole square was moving as a single block, in perfect rhythm with the drums and the music. And then there came a distinct swelling in the applause from the crowd. We were marching as smartly as the real soldiers in front of us, and Barnaul was proud of us.


The rifles fell from vertical to a threatening horizontal, the sun glistening on the sharp points of the bayonets. The officers on the stand, who had lowered their hands when the army detachment had passed, brought them to the visors of their caps again, saluting us. The applause was still growing.

From the moment we had begun to march, I was experiencing a growing strange and new feeling: a sort of elation, even drunkenness (I once had a glass of vodka too many at a party) which did not affect one's legs; an enormous feeling of power by being a part of this armed and advancing formation, with the orchestra playing, the crowd applauding, and the commanders saluting from the stand. No enemy could withstand us and nothing was impossible for us; we would yet turn the world upside down and build a beter one on this bloody and suffering earth and everything.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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