Zygmunt Frankel

 

Siberian Diary (Part 2)

Stella and I had problems with the Russian language, but we were making good progress and the teachers and the children were very helpful. Being a Slav language, Russian was similar to Polish, but the differences were sufficient for us to say things which made our classmates giggle and the teachers smile. Except for a Korean woman with two daughters, both of them in our class, who already spoke Russian, the Poles were the only foreigners in the village. The Korean woman, a Soviet citizen, had been deported together with everyone else some eight years before, and her husband, like many Russian ones, had been arrested and missing, possibly shot.

There was another unusual figure in the Lenin Kolkhoz: the local cowherd, a handsome single man of about forty, dressed like everyone else, but with long woman's hair reaching to his shoulders and a beard and moustache. He was a "pop", a Russian Orthodox priest, deported for his beliefs and calling. He would spend the day in the steppe with the village cows, and, not having a room of his own, slept in a different house every night, kneeling down for a prayer before going to bed. The old people respected him for his religion, and the others for his hard work and kindness. The children would sometimes run after him in the street calling him "a long-haired pop" or something of the sort, but he always had a smile and a kind word for them. He could have easily cut his hair and shaved off his beard and looked like everyone else but he didn't want to. When we arrived, the injection of new believers pleased him greatly, and in the evenings, whenever he happened to sleep in a house where Poles lived, he would hold long talks with them. He told my mother that it did not matter whether one was a Christian or a Jew, so long as one believed in God and lived according to the Ten Commandments. Mother found him an educated man and an interesting conversationalist. He was very poor and all his belongings fitted into a small bag, but he received the standard kolkhoz rations and would share what little bread he had with us or the Korean woman or Marusya, not our landlady but the poorest, still young, woman in the village, who lived with her three small children in a hut under the hill. Her husband had been arrested a few years before, and she was worn out by raising the children while also working on the kolkhoz.

When the autumn rains began, the village street turned to mud and one had to be careful not to slip when carrying a bucket of water from the well. Cutting thorn for firewood outside the village became even more tedious because one was cold and would sometimes be soaked by a sudden rain. The sousliks went underground for their winter sleep. The karaganik did for cooking in summer but now we had to spend some of our scarce money on bricks of kizyak as well. The small and infrequent parcels from home helped a lot, especially when there was some nightshirt or other exchangeable article enclosed.

And then snow fell and frost set in. For a while it looked like a Polish winter, but the snow grew deeper and the thermometer kept falling. For a few days at a time, when temperature fell to below minus thirty degrees Centigrade, the school would close; although ordinarily we sat there in our outdoor clothing, and had to thaw out our inkwells by the little stove, the classroom would be too cold during such a spell to learn anything.

Once, a "buran" - a snow storm - blew for three days and nights, with everyone under home arrest. When it finally ended, the room was still dark although it was late morning. I now understood why the entrance door opened inwards. When Kostya pulled it in, there was a solid wall of compact snow behind it. The village had been buried to the chimneys. Armed with a shovel, Kostya proceeded to dig a tunnel and a flight of steps. Outside, under bright sun and cloudless sky, a flat expanse of snow glittered where the village had been, with only chimneys sending up wisps of smoke. Shovelfuls of snow were flying up and the heads and shoulders of the shovel-wielding kolkhozniks emerging and greeting one another cheerfully. Afterwards, the excavations were extended to the windows so that light could get in, and the street and the water well were also cleared.

Our winter clothing was a disaster. We all had warm coats - by Polish city standards, but not by those of Siberia, however southern. This was the easiest to remedy: instead of wearing just one sweater under the coat you wore two or three. The head was no problem for the women; they wore shawls, and you could always tie a scarf over your ears under the shawl. A young man, however, would think twice before going out into the street with a shawl over his head. The Russian boys had warm fur hats with ear flaps. I, however, only had a dark-green visored cap with earflaps, resembling Sherlock Holmes's deerstalker minus the rear flap. It was made of thick woolen cloth, and mother had bought it for me the winter before last. I only wore it to school once. The fashion was to wear our school caps throughout the winter. The distance between home and school was not sufficient to get one's ears frostbitten, and earmuffs were tolerated on particularly cold days, but a warm cap branded you as a sissy. My father only persuaded me to wear the cap to school by saying that it was a hunter's model. When Professor Jaworski, a kind elderly teacher but a stickler for tradition, saw me wearing it, he said: "Going to Siberia, Frankel?"  Perhaps he was a prophet without knowing it.

My plus-fours were no problem. They were generously cut, the folds coming half-way down the calf, and by simply buttoning them at the ankle instead on under the knee one turned them into full-length slacks of a sporting cut.

Footwear was something else. Our leather shoes, even with woolen socks and rubber galoshes, were no defence against the cold for longer than a few minutes. The Russians wore "valenki"; knee-high felt boots made in one piece, worn large for additional wrapping or padding inside. We could not afford even a single pair. Mother took an old rather thin woolen coat and a small feather pillow and sewed us three pairs of tall boots with down padding between two layers of fabric. We wore our galoshes over them, and they were much warmer than leather boots although still far behind real valenki.

The further into the winter, the harder life became. We were both hungry and cold. The room was half-dark even on a sunny day, with the window panes frosted over and, in the mornings, hoar-frost on the ceiling and walls. The only really warm place was the bed, and we would get under the blankets as soon as we got home from school and stay there most of the time. By the end of December, the Paluchowskis ran out of things to exchange for food, and old Paluchowska went from house to house begging. She wore rags, with more rags wrapped around her feet, leaning on a stick, and, with wisps of grey hair protruding from under her shawl, looked like a witch. Some of the village children would throw snowballs at her and she would stop and curse them and those who were responsible for her and her husband's misery and hunger.

Mother still had a few things to exchange, but for the three most valuable ones- a silver ladies' watch, a pair of mother-of-pearl theatre binoculars, and my father's wedding ring (he left it at home when going to Zawadow so as not to provoke Communist officials with gold rings, and mother said he would have been the first to urge her to sell the ring to feed us; they could get a new one when we were together again ) - there were no takers in the kolkhoz; the people were too poor for such luxuries.

There was a woman in the village who had her eye on a satin nightshift my mother wanted to trade for food, but when mother went to see her, for the second or third time, she said that it would have to wait till the end of the month when food was distributed to the kolkhoz members because in the meantime she was short herself. We had no other takers for anything else at the moment, and had not received a parcel from home for a long time. There followed two or three nights when Stella and I were so hungry that we could not sleep at night and lay in the bed under the blankets crying. The next day, mother went called on a couple of village women with whom she was on friendly terms. She told them about the children crying and not being able to sleep at night, and asked whether she could borrow a piece of bread and return it as soon as a parcel came or she managed to exchange something. One of the women gave her a piece of bread and said there was no need to return it. I could not help feeling ever since that, on that day that winter, my mother went begging.

In January old Paluchowski died of hunger. It could be argued that he died of bronchitis which followed a cold, but his resistance had been badly reduced by hunger. He caught the cold cutting karaganik after digging for it in the snow - they could not afford kizyak - and kept cutting it for a few days while he was already running high temperature and coughing. The last time he crawled the last part of the way home on all fours and did not go out again. He was buried three days after he died; it took that long for several men to dig a grave in the frozen earth of the village graveyard with picks and crowbars. In the meantime they laid him out on a couple of wooden boards on trestles outside the house, and, together with Vaska, we crept close to the body when nobody was around to take a look. Paluchowski's face was emaciated, wax-like, yellow, and covered with deep grey stubble; Vaska told me that dead men's hair and nails kept growing after death. When we looked closer, we suddenly saw a lot of lice crawling all over Paluchowski's face and clothes; with the body cold, they were out to look for other habitation.

Our own situation improved for a while when a parcel arrived with, among other things, a lovely rectangular loaf of brown bread, fresh because it remained frozen all the way. "What intuition," my mother said; "As if grandmother knew how hungry we were." There was also a packet of margarine, and we had a royal meal of two slices of bread each, spread with margarine.

In her next letter grandmother asked whether we have received the parcel, listing the contents. She had not send any bread; what she did send was a loaf of honey-cake, presumably of the same size and shape. Someone at a post office along the way must have opened the parcel, taken the honey-cake, and replaced it with a loaf of bread.

Grandmother was still occasionally negotiating with Tolya, the officer who lived in our flat in Lvov, about the Underwood typewriter he had kept, without making any progress; he stuck to his story that he had bought it from mother when we were leaving.

I was now busy making a pair of skis. On clear days, the village children and teenagers would go skiing on a nearby slope, not particularly tall or steep. The skis were made by the local carpenter, with the front ends steamed to shape. Vaska had a pair and taught me to ski, but it was embarrassing to borrow his skis too often, and we had no money for skis or even a couple of boards from which skis could be made. Finally the father of one of the village boys lent me for the winter a pair of barrel staves which had been gathering dust in the corner of his cattle shed, and mother allowed me to cut two pieces off a leather luggage strap to nail to the staves and I had my first pair of skis. The curvature, uniform along the whole length, was all wrong and the skis were wobbly and difficult to use. My friends made unexpectedly mild fun of my skis; they were very impressed by the fact that I made them myself.

The best skier on the small slope was a young man of about eighteen called Grisha. He was very handsome and a terrible show-off, and he skied best, always with a cigarette between his lips, when some pretty girl was watching him. He was friendly towards me and tried to teach me changing direction with a jump in the middle of a run but my skis were unequal to the maneuver. Grisha had a way of listening to you with a half-puzzled and half-knowing smile and with one eyebrow cocked. The girls absolutely loved him listening to them like that. I had only recently mastered the arts of whistling and of moving my ears. Now, when there was nobody at home, I would spend long sessions with my mother's small mirror, trying to raise one eyebrow higher than the other. At first it was absolutely no go, much more difficult than the two other achievements. After a couple of weeks I finally succeeded, with the left eyebrow, to the extent of three or four millimeters, especially if I cheated a little by tilting my head to the right, and started using the cocked eyebrow at every opportunity when Grisha was not looking.

Theoretically, there was trapping to be had in winter, of a more valuable kind than sousliks. Vaska showed me small burrows in the snow not far from the river, with a lot of tiny footprints radiating from them. He called the animal living in them "laska". I did not know what he meant at first, but when he said it was a long thin predatory one with sharp teeth whose brown fur changed to white in winter I understood that it was a weasel or a stoat. Neither Vaska nor I nor any other boy in the village ever caught one. They either had a keen sense of smell, or were very suspicious, or had several exits, or did not go out very often, or several or all of the above; they avoided our traps like the plague. But it was fun trying to catch them, a bit like fishing; you did not really have to catch anything; the mere possibility that you might was enough.

My Russian was improving fast. Apart from school and talking with my Russian friends, I was borrowing every book I could lay my hands on. My favourite that winter was a biography of Amundsen, and my skiing friends were puzzled by my cross-country trips on skis on clear days, around the village or some way beyond the river, now invisible under ice and snow. I carried a trap to provide an easy explanation, but what I was doing, of course, was imagining that I was an arctic explorer on my way to the Pole. I even talked to Vaska and some other boys about training a few of the village dogs to draw a sled, but they were very conservative and said it would be easier to ask the manager for a horse, especially in view of some sort of harness that would have to be made for the dogs..

The winter dragged on and looked like it would never end. At long last the sun grew warmer and the snow began to melt. The first rain was almost a holiday, and when the dirty melting snow in the street finally turned to ankle-deep mud it was a sight the cowherd priest compared to the rainbow after the Flood.

One day at school, Stella and I ran into a nasty political problem. As soon as the teacher walked in, she radiantly announced that today the pupils could enroll in the Pioneers - the Communist youth organization modelled on the scouts. There were no uniforms except attractive red neck kerchiefs with an enameled clip. When the teacher asked who wanted to join, all the hands went up but four: mine, Stella's, and those of the two Korean girls whose father had disappeared. The teacher was confused and didn't quite know what to do. She looked at me - I was the oldest of the four and the only boy - and asked lamely why not. Blushing and badly embarrassed I stood up and didn't know what to say. By coincidence I was looking at a page in a history book where a full-page portrait of some high party figure named Blucher had been blacked out on the teacher's instructions earlier that year. "He had proved a traitor" she said. I was almost thirteen and knew that words could be dangerous in Russia, especially in our situation. The teacher, who liked us and knew our reasons for not wanting to join quite well finally got an idea and helped me out. She said: "Oh, I understand; you still believe in God, don't you? It's all right, Frankel; whenever you decide, come and see me and you will be able to join." Believing in God was a minor offence compared to anti-communism, and I mumbled something like "yes, I will, thank you very much," and sat down with enormous relief. The teacher did not question the two Korean girls and started on our lesson.

The only day we really ate our fill, or almost, is very easy to remember: it was the First of May, which also happened to be the anniversary of our dismemberment at Zhengistovo, and just as sunny. The kolkhoz slaughtered a cow, baked a lot of bread and a pile of cookies, and lined up some bottles of vodka on tables put up in the square outside the school. There was a speech by the manager. The Internationale was played on an accordeon and a couple of shotguns let off. Then vodka glasses were raised to Stalin, the Party, and the fatherland, and we fell on the food. One of the Polish women asked the manager whether she could take some food to old Paluchowska who was ill and could not attend, and he agreed, although everyone knew that Paluchowska was not ill but staying at home and cursing, saying that she would rather starve to death like her husband than touch a single crumb of anything offered in celebration of their bloody First of May. The poor Marusya who lived with her three small children in the hut under the hill was not there either, for similar reasons, although, more careful and having her children to think of, she told someone that she had a lot of work to do at home but perhaps could manage to come later. Half a dozen kolkhoz women also took some meat, bread, cookies, a bottle of vodka, and a balalaika, and said they were going to cheer her up. (There was a balalaika in almost every house in the village, as well as a few guitars and accordions. Kostya Borzyenko had taught me to play chastushki and "The Muzhik From Kamarinsk" on his balalaika.) My mother and I joined them. Marusya was in the hut angrily ironing some clothes, with her three children peering over the edge of the stove, rather like fledglings in a nest, and crying; they wanted to go to the celebrations and she wouldn't take them.

"Hello, Marusya," one of the women said. "It's the First of May and we came to cheer you up."


"You can keep your First of May," Marusya scowled. "Give me back my husband instead."
"Come on, Marusya, snap out of it. Consider it a holiday of all the poor people in the world, and let's drink to them. Where do you keep your cups?"

Put this way, the toast could not be refused, while the children on the stove were given cookies and immediately stopped crying. Marusya was sitting on the bed, still sullen, sipping her vodka from a cup.

"Come on, girls," the woman with the balalaika said, got up, struck up the Chastushki, intoned one of them and went around the table, beating time with the heels of her leather boots. The Chastushki, literally "little bits" or "parts", was an old lively dance tune, to which hundreds of short four-line lyrics were sung all over Russia, on all possible subjects . Some of them were indecent and of those I already knew several by heart, and some downright anti-communist which could land you in jail or worse if overheard by the authorities. The refrain in every case was "That's right, that's right, absolutely true." Three or four other women followed the one with the balalaika, going around the table, dancing, clapping their hands, and singing. Finally Marusya herself smiled, took another sip of vodka, and joined them, intoning the next chastushka:

"I went to dance
Because there's nothing to bite at home;
Dry bread and crusts
And rags on my feet"

("Poshla plyasat,

doma nyechevo kusat;

sukhari da korki,

na nogakh oporki.")

The next, private, celebration was my thirteenth birthday, on the tenth of June, the 'bar-mitzva" on which a Jewish male becomes a grown-up member of the community with full rights and obligations. Mother had combined a business trip to a nearby kolkhoz with a visit to a deported Polish rabbi who lived there and brought me back an unexpected birthday present: a set of phylacteries, the two small leather cubes with some inscriptions inside and long leather straps on the outside which an adult Jew puts on his forehead and left arm for the morning prayers. The rabbi also told my mother how the straps should be arranged - a prescribed number of turns on the left arm and over the hand and fingers - and what prayers I should say. (We did have a small prayer book with us.) There was no hope for a "minyan" (congregation) for my bar-mitzva; that had to consist of a minimum of ten Jewish men and I was the only one in the village.

There was also the question of where I could say the prayers with my phylacteries on. Doing it in the house would call for too many explanations. I finally solved the problem by going into the bushes on the river bank with the small embroidered bag with the phylacteries in one pocket and the prayer book and a handkerchief (instead of a skullcap) in another, and carrying my fishing rod. I was never particularly religious but this was a special day and I put on the phylacteries with reverence and swayed a little as I saw the religious Jews in the synagogue do while I read "Shma Israel" and prayed for my father to come back soon and for us to have enough to eat. I also sanctified my bar-mitzvah by not fishing or setting any traps on that day.

One day, fishing in the river, I heard a few shots from the direction of the village and the strains of an accordion, once again playing the Internationale. I did not know of any national holiday in the second half of June and went to investigate. There was a horse cart in the village square and a small crowd around it. As I approached, another shotgun was raised and fired. Vaska caught up with me.  "What on earth is going on?" I asked him.

"War."

That morning, a messenger arrived at a gallop from the regional center with a telegram for the manager. Russia was at war with Germany, and the telegram contained a list of a dozen names of the kolkhozniks who were to report at once for military duty. Some of them were married men who had already done their military service and were now in the reserves, while others, Grisha among them, were being called up for the first time. By the time I arrived they were already assembled by the cart with bundles over their shoulders, trying to be cheerful and taking little sips of vodka from a bottle that was being passed round, while the women cried and lamented and the children clung to them. I shook Grisha's hand and cocked an eyebrow at him, wondering whether he will notice. He suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence - he was saying something to a pretty girl in the crowd - opened his eyes wide, and then burst out laughing.

"Learned it, did you?" The girl looked at him puzzled, not knowing what he was talking about. "You will have to get yourself a better pair of skis for the next winter," he said, "and I'll teach you some more tricks. I hope to be back by then."

The first and most immediate result of the war was that parcels from home had stopped. The papers were reporting heroic resistance of the Red Army and heavy German losses, but they could not help occasionally mentioning places where this resistance was going on, and a look at the map showed that the Russians were being pushed back at a rate which, maintained for a few more months, could deprive them of all the Russia that mattered unless they collapsed or surrendered or signed peace before then. Lvov had been overrun within the first few days and we didn't know what was happening to our relatives there, except one: my uncle Dr. Artur Blatt. A telegram arrived from him from a town called Barnaul, followed by a letter. He had been mobilized into the Russian army when the war broke out and was now in charge of the X-ray department of a military hospital in Barnaul, with an officer's rank. His wife and daughter had remained in Lvov. He was inviting us to join him in Barnaul. We were now free to do so because the German attack had drastically changed our political standing. From a capitalist enemy who had robbed the budding Soviet Union of western Ukraine, Poland became overnight a fellow victim of fascist aggression, and a Polish army was forming in Russia to fight side by side with her new ally. We have regained our Polish citizenship, had rights similar to those of Soviet citizens, and were free to change our place of residence if we so wished. (The men were also subject to mobilization into the Polish army.) Barnaul sounded like a promised land; a large city on the banks of the Ob river - I have found it on the map and was already wondering what fishing in the Ob was like, while mother thought one might be better able to sell the silver wrist watch and the mother-of-pearl binoculars there. (In Russian, the "b" in "Ob" is followed by the "soft sign", making it sound more like "Obe" or "Obi".) Uncle Artur would also certainly help us, and might be able to find mother a job. The prospect of another winter in the kolkhoz had been hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles; with conditions unchanged, there was a serious danger of following old Paluchowski to the village graveyard.

One day I heard some screams and wailing in the street, and saw a group of women surrounding and supporting the wife of a shortish and slim quiet man who had been called up when the war broke out. She was tearing her hair and asking, in a loud traditional wail, why did he leave her and his poor little orphans, and what will they do without him now, and what life can possibly be without him, and where was his faraway grave in the damp earth, and called him her flown eagle and her golden heart, while the women supported her by the elbows and occasionally joined in her lament. A letter had arrived that morning informing her that her husband had fallen in defence of the homeland.

A few days before we left for Barnaul, Grisha's mother got a letter from an army friend of his. He started by expressing the hope that Grisha was alive and well somewhere and that he will recover quickly and that they will meet again after the victory. In the meantime, he had to inform her that a few nights before they were crossing a large river on crowded pontoons and that the Germans caught them in a searchlight and opened machinegun fire on them, and Grisha, who may have been wounded, and several others fell into the water and were not seen again in the dark and were now listed as missing. Grisha's mother did not run out into the street for the traditional lament because the letter was not an official one and still left some hope. And ever since, whenever I cocked my left eyebrow higher than my right one, memory of Grisha would stir in my mind.  

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.

The lice - body and head - were an insult added to the injury. Whatever one did, one could never completely get rid of them. You could wash your hair with kerosene, get rid of the brown head lice with the louse comb, and do your best to remove the nits, and a couple of days later you came home from school with a big fat pregnant matron establishing herself in the new surroundings.

The greyish-white body lice were easily tracked down in the seams of one's clothing and executed with a satisfying crack between the fingernails of your thumbs, and a hot iron put an end to the nits it touched, but there were always some nits which survived and grown-ups which migrated onto you in a crowd. They were a permanent curse, easier to overcome temporarily in summer than in winter, and also a dangerous one because of the typhus they spread. Epidemics of the disease would regularly sweep the town.

The body lice were a tougher problem, especially in winter. There was a free delousing service provided at the municipal public baths, the entrance fee to which was very low, practically symbolic: while you were inside, your bundle of clothes was put into a special oven which heated them to a temperature which killed the lice and nits without damaging the fabric. We went to the baths because bathing at home called for a lot of firewood to heat the water in addition to being messy, time-consuming, and lonely. A visit to the public baths was also a social occasion; we went in groups and stayed for a couple of hours, enjoying ourselves, telling jokes, and making fun of one another's penises, especially Jewish circumcised ones, including mine. You were given a small piece of brown soap which never produced any suds and a large metal wash-basin. There were no bathtubs, only hot and cold water taps along the wall of the large hall and smooth stone benches on which you sat, alternatively soaping yourself and sluicing yourself or a friend with water from the basin. You could skate on your bare feet on the wet floor and pour a basin of cold water over an unsuspecting friend. There was also a sauna where people sweated on wooden benches, smacking themselves on the back with bunches of birch twigs. Once there was a power cut, leaving us with soap running into our eyes in pitch darkness, and by the time we groped our way to the taps on the wall, a mournful voice of the attendant announced: "Sorry, no water either." We dried ourselves as best we could with our towels, spent half an hour by the light of an oil lamp getting our clothes back, and went home to wash off the rest of the soap with cold water.

Compared to lice, bedbugs were a minor but persistent problem. Theoretically, if you moved your bed away from the wall and placed all four legs in tins of kerosene, they couldn't get at you, but they solved the problem by climbing onto the ceiling over the bed and then dropping down. In a scientific mood, Shurka Okolyelov (who stayed away from the public baths because of his bad leg and hunched back) wondered whether they always did this, or only got the inspiration when parachute jumping became a popular sport in the Soviet Union.

©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.