Certificate of Birth, Certificate of Survival
(From the Cycle ‘Scraps of Lives: Polish Jews in Central Asia during the Second World War’)
Anyone who has ever done research in archives will have experienced, on more than one occasion, feelings of vexation and disillusionment when the thread of a past discovered with great difficulty breaks off suddenly. This is inevitable, as even the best collections of documents are fragmentary in nature. At the same time, any document, even of a single page or its fragment (as concerns documents dating from the war, often they are indeed scraps in the most direct sense of this word), may turn out to be an important detail in the general picture of a specific historical period.
On the topic of the evacuation of the population from the western districts of the USSR to Central Asia and Kazakhstan, state archives hold information of paramount importance, which is useful above all for a statistical analysis of the material: more or less reliable data on the number of people who arrived in those countries from German-occupied territories; their destination; where they were settled; what type of work they did; what percentage of them was covered by the education and health care systems; how many of them returned to their fatherland after the war ended, etc.
Nevertheless, how dependable are archives as repositories of History?
First of all, as mentioned earlier, no archive may be considered to be complete. The fact that the archives of Central Asia do not contain any documents on the sojourn of particular Polish citizens in this region (from the category of ‘The Population of the Western Districts of the USSR’) does not nullify the fact that these people had lived there.As well, the very fact that an archival document is systematized imparts some order and ‘expediency’ to the chaos of past days, and this frequently leads to simplifications, and distances it from reality. Finally, archives contain mostly documents that are issued by a state, and only those from appurtenant organizations and private individuals, which are of interest to the state, and have a specific value only to the state. Naturally, these documents reflect a state’s point of view. Meanwhile, the life of an average person, who is essentially as important of a figure of history as monarchs or other leaders, usually remains outside the walls of archival repositories.
Of what value is ‘historical truth’ if the path to it lies through the description of official papers rather than human destinies? Recreating the past and reconstructing events, both in factological and psychological terms, is more reliable when the state archival documents are compared with ‘living’, private, individual ones: memoirs, especially if they are written in the immediate aftermath of events; diaries; letters; notes; and photographs dating to a specific period. History also lives on in them: in their every word, in every detail. It seems that precisely such a comparison, as well as occasional conflicting testimonies of various kinds, allows researchers to extract a grain of truth from them.
Such a reconstruction is sometimes prompted by a document found in a state archive: the paper gets stuck in the researcher’s mind, and commands him/her to find out what happened later to its ‘hero,’ about which more often than not practically nothing is known apart from his or her surname. Occasionally, the situation is reversed: searches in this direction are initiated by an encounter with a person who experienced one event or another, with his his/her narrative, for corroboration (or refutation) of which a researcher begins combing through archival collections. In reconstructing the past in this fashion, the researcher becomes a kind of liaison between the document and the person.
With regard to the topic of ‘Polish Citizens in Central Asia during the Second World War’, archives, in complying dutifully with state ‘linguistics’, which is knowingly or unconsciously false, designate all those who arrived in Central Asia and Kazakhstan during this period as ‘evacuees’: people who had been truly evacuated, that is, people who were resettled in an organized fashion from the western districts of the USSR to the rear districts of the country; refugees fleeing the Nazis; and deportees, that is, people who were forcibly resettled in Central Asia after the Red Army occupied the eastern Polish lands in September 1939. However, evacuees comprised the smallest proportion of Polish Jews in Central Asia and Kazakhstan: for the most part, they were refugees as well as deportees, many of whom had served sentences in the GULAG or endured Siberian exile.
The term ‘Polish citizens’ also requires explication, inasmuch as the majority of these people, by the time they arrived in Central Asia they already were no longer Polish citizens, having been stripped of their Polish IDs and were issued Soviet ‘hammer and sickle’ passports. The reverse also occurred: whenever necessary, the term ‘former Polish citizens’ was also conferred on those who had categorically refused to relinquish their national passports and accept Soviet citizenship.
Curiously enough, in their diaries and letters the Poles themselves call their place of residence in Central Asia an ‘evacuation.’ But, in their speech this is merely a reflection of Soviet reality, a ‘politically correct’ Russianism. They made wide use of other Russian words that signified concepts which were new to them: ewakopunkt, milicja, łagier, trudarmia, strojbat, rÐ°bkolonna, komandirowka, wyzow, czachotka, and bieżeniec [evacuation point, police station, camp, labour army, workers battalion, detached service, letter of invitation preapproved by local authorities, consumption, refugee.]
Most of the people who will be discussed below—Polish Jews—were in fact refugees, and without a doubt they were aware of this status. Many of them were refugees two times over: initially, they left (the Polish word for ‘refugee’ is uchodźcy; those who are going away) Nazi-occupied Poland; then they were removed from the places to which they had begun to accustom themselves—the western regions of the USSR.
Evacuees arrived in Central Asia by the trainload; refugees—by whatever means they could. Escaping the approaching peril, they fled thousands of kilometres, an immense distance that was impossible to cover in one fell swoop. They halted in various places for weeks or months at a time, in search of shelter, haven, salvation. The Russian word for refugee, bezhenets, however, is ‘divested’ of these meanings: it emphasizes movement alone. It signifies run, anxiety, fear, half-broken breathing, and the beating of a heart that seems to be jumping out of one’s chest. Here is one of the routes taken by the Okrents, a Polish Jewish family (according to their own account): ‘After the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, Usher Okrent put his wife and two-month-old daughter on the last special train leaving Lwów. At first, they ended up on a collective farm in Stalingrad Region, then in the Urals, in Lysva….’ Thus, the final stop was the border between Europe and Asia. Here are a few lines from a letter written by Usher’s sister Zosia Okrent:
I…left Lwów on the 28th [of June 1941]. On the 29th, in Tarnopol, I found out that you were there…but we missed each other. Through Kyiv I reached Rostov Region[Russia], where I worked on a state farm for nearly three months. But it was dangerous to remain in Rostov, and once again I set out on my journey, naked and barefoot, to Asia, even though everything inside me opposed this decision. I reached Uzbekistan, where I worked on a collective farm for six months. I have now been in Kirgizia, on the Katta-Taldyk state farm, for only ten days. Remaining on an Uzbek collective farm meant contracting tuberculosis…’
Zosia Okrent reached Osh Region, where the Chinese border was within arm’s reach.
Thousands of people were fleeing: dozens and hundreds of thousands. If they did not come under enemy bombardment and were not decimated by hunger and disease, they reached a ‘destination’ that was a sanctuary, a haven; often there was nowhere else to go or their strength was simply depleted.
Did they fear Asia? What did they know about it?
The name ‘Soviet Union’ leveled the notion of the immense spaciousness of the country and the various nations inhabiting it. The refugees from Poland had only to learn about their diversity.
Here it is necessary to emphasize the difference between the situation of evacuees and that of refugees—Soviet citizens (Jews and non-Jews) and Poles and Polish Jews. Everyonesuffered; thewarsparednoone. It is pointless to debate who had a more difficult time: the person who could at any point receive a ‘killed in battle’ notice about a soldier-son, or the person who did not know what was happening to his or her son who had remained back in Poland or who had become lost somewhere in the expanses of the USSR. Nevertheless, no matter how difficult life in evacuation was for Soviet people, they continued to live in their country, they spoke their own languages, and found themselves in the usual Soviet milieu—albeit in swelteringly hot Asia—where they were well acquainted with existing regulations. They experienced this terrible war together with their native land. For Poles and Polish Jews—although with the onset of the Great Patriotic War they had already spent approximately two years in the USSR (the first refugees from Poland arrived in September 1939, while the deportations from the eastern Polish territories began on 10 February 1940, sometimes even earlier)—all this was still a ‘different world’, and not just for staunch Communists of the Polish brand (there were quite a few of these) but also those how feared Communism like the plague. Life in a strange land meant a persistent feeling of vigilance and an inescapable sense of loneliness. Not everyone managed to master the new language easily. An even more complicated matter was mastering foreign concepts. All this, as well as the lengthy sojourn in strange and alien surroundings, led to serious psychological problems, to such an extent that some people lost their own identity.
Apparently because the Turkic- and Persian-speaking inhabitants of Central Asia found it difficult to pronounce the foreign word ‘evacuees’ (evakuirovannye), locals called the incoming ‘Westerners’ ‘plucked-out people’ (vykovyrennye). The vernacular word hit the target: the deportees and refugees from Poland, including Polish Jews, had indeed been ‘plucked out’ of their native places and thrown into an alien space—alien in climatic, geographic, social, ideological, confessional, cultural, aesthetic, and linguistic terms.
This was the most difficult period in the lives of the Polish refugees. I will try to demonstrate this with one example.
While I was working in the Central State Archive of Kyrgyzstan, I stumbled on a document drawn up on 12 September 1942 by the Central Committee of the MOPR USSR, which was addressed to the Chairman of the CC [Central Committee] MOPR of the Kirgiz SSR [Soviet Socialist Republic].The content of this document follows:
Central Committee of MOPR USSR
12 September 1942
City of Ufa
Resolution [handwritten]: Carried out on 24.09.42
To the Chairman of the CC [Central Committee] MOPR of the Kirgiz SSR
We are in receipt of a report about the fact that a group of form[er] members of the CP [Communist Party] of Poland, form[er] political prisoners of Poland are living at the Kata-Taldyk state farm, Osh District, Osh Region.They have found themselves in difficult material circumstances. On the part of some individual c[omrades] of this group we are receiving complaints that the attitude of the state farm administration toward these comrades is much worse than toward other workers.
Among the indicated c[omrades] are form[er] party activists, for example, OKRENT Z. IA., FREILICH A. I., and others.
It is necessary for you to register all the form[er] mem[bers] of the CP of Poland, CP of West[ern] Ukraine, and CP of West[ern] Belarus who are living on the Katta-Taldyk state farm and to investigate the conditions of their life and material situation. If necessary, provide them with one-time material assistance.
Com[rade] FRAILICH is ill with tuberculosis and has a nurseling.
[on the reverse]
Com[rade] OKRENT is also in difficult material circumstances.
For a second time issue them a one-time allowance to Com[rade] FREILICH in the amount of 300 rub[les], and to Com[rade] OKRENT, in the amount of 200 rub[les].
Also offer them assistance with medical treatment and obtaining work corresponding to their physical capacities.
CC[Central Committe] MOPRUSSR /Tilis/ signature
The document was sent from Ufa, where the MOPR had been evacuated, to Kirgizia, which, like other Soviet republics, had a branch of this organization; it was stamped ‘secret’—but, what was not a state secret at that time? I saw this same kind of seal in archives on notes about the issuance, to an ‘evacuated’ Pole, of a package of pea soup, part of a shipment that had been donated by international aid organizations. The subject of this document is the provision of assistance to former activists of the Communist Party of Poland—a noble deed (meaning that MOPR, along with its special intelligence mission, also carried out its own authorized tasks). By all appearances, MOPR worked quite efficiently: the document was drawn up on 12 September 1942, and the resolution concerning its execution was handed down two weeks later, on the 24th: either there were many bureaucrats, or they acted promptly, or an abundance of relief funds had been collected from the Soviet populace. This document is like any other of its kind: it is a typical Soviet official paper with its characteristically impersonal turns of phrase, such as, ‘We are in receipt of a report,’ complaints ‘on the part of some individual c[omrades].’ ‘Individual comrades’ were complaining about the injustice that they were encountering on state farms and collective farms, where they lived and worked. This document was MOPR’s reaction to the measures that were taken by the state farm administration. One official instance was reacting to the actions of another official instance; institutions, and administrations entered into relations and measures were adopted. That is the reason why the document was preserved in the archive—not because MOPR was troubled by the condition of the tubercular A. I. Frajlich and her friend Z. Ia. Okrent.
I was struck by the prosaic nature of this document—tuberculosis and other fatal diseases among the so-called evacuees were an everyday occurrence—and by its dramatic quality. I could not get the statement ‘Frajlich A. I. is ill with tuberculosis, has a nurseling’ out of my mind. I tried to imagine who she was, where she had come from, and how she had ended up in Kirgizia; what she had experienced earlier: I mulled over several versions. The document was quite long, so it provided much food for my imaginings: the Communist underground, torture chambers (the document clearly states ‘political prisoner’), etc. And what kind of life did this young woman have in the conditions offered at the Katta-Taldyk state farm? Her child could only have been born there because the flow of refugees dried up in 1942. Where could her husband have been? Had he stayed behind in the Polish lands or may be fought at the front?
I continued to seek answers to these questions. I turned to documents held in other Kirgiz archives, which might allow for a reconstruction of the war reality as it was for Poles not generally in Central Asia but in the Kirgiz SSR, and more specifically in Osh Region, where the Katta-Taldyk state farm was located. In the Kirgiz Archive of Political Information I found a memorandum entitled ‘On the Question of the Accommodation of Citizens of the Polish Republic in Naukat District’, written by one Zhuravlev, Secretary of the Naukat District Committee of the CP(B) [Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Kirgizia on New Year’s Eve, 31 December 1941.
I must explain that Katta-Taldyk in Osh (today: Kara-Suu) District was adjacent to Naukat District, and the distance between them was easily covered. As regards, the situation was difficult throughout Osh Region.
The content of this document follows:
Naukat district committee of the CP(B) [Communist Party Bolshevik)]
To the Osh regional committee of the CP(B) [Communist Party Bolshevik)]
On the question of settling citizens of the Polish Republic in Naukat District
1,540 citizens of the Polish republic have arrived in our district; among them: 527 men, 462 women, and 451 children.
All the newcomers were placed on collective farms in the district, with the exception of the remote Papan and Laglan village soviets [counsil]. The newly arrived Polish citizens who have been housed in dwellings separate from the families of collective farmers have been furnished with small iron stoves, cookers.
All the newcomers were issued funds for 5 days, on the basis of 6 rubles a day, but some received more, misusing with regard to this question by moving from collective farm to collective farm, erasing tick-marks on attestations concerning the issuance of money or by not showing documents; they said that they had been stolen or lost.
As a result of the lack of bathhouses in the district, the proper sanitizing against infectious diseases was not able to be carried out promptly to the newcomers. At present, treatment is taking place by primitive means with the ‘KA’ preparation and dis[infecting] chamber.
For the purpose of case detection, after the placement [of the newcomers] on collective farms, district med[ical] personnel were dispatched on assignment to collective farms to make a household-by-household round of the newly-arrived Polish citizens. Typhus cases were detected in 2 peo[ple], measles in 10 peo[ple], as well as cases of diphtheria and oth[er] illnesses. Some of the newcomers are extremely infected with body lice.
With the goal of preventing infectious diseases, precautionary measures, those that are possible in the district’s circumstances, are being taken: quarantining the sick, vaccinations, sanitizing treatments, etc. The number of hospital beds has been increased from 18 to 50; during this period 2 sick newcomers, adults, died and 1 seven-year-old child. Death was caused by general debility and lung disease.
Twenty children without parents have been sent to a children’s home.
In order to create the most indispensable living conditions for the newcomers, the following [measures] were and are being carried out:
Ð°. Especially needy are assisted with footwear, clothing, blankets, [and] felt mats; collective farms and collective farmers do their best, however, the number of people who need footwear and clothing is too large, and not everyone has been supplied yet.
b. All newcomers who have been placed on collective farms are being issued bread from the district center, 400 grams each, out of stocks released for this purpose, since not a single collective farm in the district is in a position to supply them with bread or flour because of the lack of grain, apart from seed stocks. And despite all adopted measures, seeding has not been completed throughout the district and stands at: wheat—59%, barley—60%, potatoes—47%.
In connection with the fact that the newcomers cannot live and work on bread alone—this has led to the receipt of a large number of complaints on their part about the lack of food—collective farms have been issued instructions, and this is already being carried out, namely:
To supply the evacuees, in addition to what they are receiving in the district, with a daily quota per person of 150 grams each of bread [and] potatoes, 50 grams of meat, 100 grams of flour or 50 grams of grain, each for meals.
All these types of products are to be issued immediately, for no less than 10 days free of charge at the expense of collective farms.
In order to avoid the consumption of seeds and the slaughter of cattle from farms for the newcomers, collective farmers are advised to hold a meeting and discuss this question with the collective farmers so that each collective farm’s household will render assistance, wherever possible; this production is to be stored, and distribution is to be assured through the storehouses of collective farms.
In connection with the circumstance that complaints from collective farm chairmen have begun arriving about the Polish citizens assigned to collective farms who are constantly besieging them from morning until night with all kinds of demands and hindering their work, and on every collective farm
committees are elected consisting of 3 people from among the newly-arrived citizens, (having divided up the duties among themselves, one deals with organizing work, [another with] questions of supplying goods, fuel, etc.) through which the newcomers will be managed. The chairmen of these committees, together with collective farm administrations, are resolving all questions that arise in connection with settling the Polish citizens on collective farms.
Today, 31 December1941, ameetingof thedistrictpartycommitteewasheldwiththerepresentativesofthesecommittees on the question of their duties and the settling of the newcomers, exposing the shortage, and measures that are within our capacity will be taken to help them.
Despite the fact that among the newcomers the creation of brigades hasbeencarried out, [which are]headedbysenior people among them, for the most part on collective farms, all the newcomers have still not started working; they explain this mainly by the poor diet and lack of funds. And many do not wish to do rough agricultural labour, explaining that they have professions, and they are demanding work in their specialty, expressing their desire to work in the district center.
In connection with the desire of the majority of the newcomers to settle in the district center, settlement in the district still has not been fully completed and on collective farms which are close to the district center there is a particularly large number of Poles: up to 200 people on each collective farm. This is explained by the fact that many evacuees are leaving collective farms that are far from the district center without permission and arriving at the collective farms in the district center, and from the collective farms in the district center they categorically refuse to go to remote collective farms. The collective farms in the district center, which are economically weak, are in no position to supply them with essential food products, in connection with which the use of dog meat for food has been admitted on the part of lone individuals who were in the camps [labour camps] earlier.
There is still a multitude of shortages in the sense of creating the most indispensable living conditions for the newcomers.
In essence, the secretary of the District Committee of the CP(B) responsible for human resources is now dealing with them only.
There are no unwholesome relations between the newcomers and the collective farmers; the collective farmers have received them well, they are offering them whatever assistance is possible on their part.
The newcomers themselves are demonstrating exceptional laziness; they refuse even to go for straw to heat their own rooms, put putty around the windows, whitewash their accommodations, etc., demanding that all this be given to them. Considering that, as they claim, back home in Poland cattle lived in better conditions than where we have been placed.
The majority of the newcomers are coarse, insolent; they treat collective farm chairmen with exceptional exactingness, and chair[men] of collective farms go to the district party committee with complaints that they are not in a position to fulfill their demands, and the newcomers are not allowing them to do their regular work, because they [newcomers] are so importunate.
Secretary of the Naukat District Committee of the CP(B) of Kirgizia: Zhuravlev
31 December 1941
52, village of Iski-Naukat, Osh Region, Kirgiz SSR.
True copy: Signature (Sunitskaia) of the Head of the Regional Party Archive
The above-cited text means that ‘my’ A. I. Frajlich with her infant lived in roughly such conditions. The contents and structure of this document clearly indicate that this was a response to a query from the center (instructions on how to deal with the Poles were also dispatched to local areas). This memorandum reports on the number of Polish newcomers (as a rule, no distinctions were made between Poles and Polish Jews in Soviet state documents), the provision of housing and food, sanitary conditions, the disease incidence rate, mortality, and, finally, the moral character of the newcomers. Such queries were apparently circulated to all districts where Poles resided. Indeed, this was undoubtedly a response to a query: the lowest ranks of the bureaucracy did not show any initiative, afraid of thrusting themselves forward; on the other hand they knew that the query ‘from upstairs’ had to be answered without delay, and in the event of criticism, they would have to defend themselves circumspectly and not very energetically.
The memorandum spoke of a large number of complaints sent by the Poles, complaints that were similar to those mentioned in the letter from the MOPR management.
According to the memorandum there were more than 1,500 newcomers in Naukat District.It cannot be ruled out that there were slightly fewer of them than locals; there was a low population density in the mountainous areas of Osh Region. On the map corresponding to the system of coordinates that existed in 1942, the district center of Iski-Naukat is marked as a village-type settlement with a population of just a bit more than a thousand people, while Katta-Taldyk had fewer than 500 inhabitants. It may be inferred that, taking into consideration corresponding proportions, the situation in Osh District differed little from the one that existed in Naukat District.
What other information may be gleaned from the lengthy memorandum?
The high-ranking bureaucrats advised collective farms ‘to supply the evacuees’ (note the use of this term) with food. The memorandum states unambiguously that collective farms are in no position to supply them with all indispensable items, ‘in connection with which, the use of dog meat for food has been admitted on the part of lone individuals who had been in the camps earlier.’ It seems that the question here is not only about material difficulties; there is also a veiled reference to the Poles’ morality. In fact, as regards their notorious immorality, the memorandum does not beat around the bush: ‘The majority of the newcomers are coarse, insolent’—a memorable phrase, indeed.
The document also clarifies the point concerning Poles ‘who had been in the camps.’ This means that there were not only refugees in Osh Region but also deportees, who had been freed according to the terms of the Polish-Soviet Treaty of 30 July 1941, the so-called Sikorski-Maisky Agreement.
But in the MOPR letter, who was A. I. Frajlich—a refugee or a deportee?
Most of all I was tormented by an existential question: Did she and her infant survive or were their bones laid to rest forever in that mountainous land?
The memorandum states: ‘During this period 2 sick newcomers, adults, died and 1 seven-year-old child. Death was caused by general debility and lung disease. But what about A. I. Frajlich, who suffered from tuberculosis? And if a seven-year-old child in the vicinity had died, then had her seven-month-old (described as a ‘nurseling’) been spared? The document also states: ‘Twenty children without parents have been sent to a children’s home.’ Let’s say that a mother died and her child (a boy or girl?) was sent to a children’s home. Whichone? Whatwas its subsequent fate? Wasthechildstillalive? In short, what happened later to the ‘characters’ in these archival documents, if there actually was a ‘later’? Myquestionsweremultiplyingbuttherewerefewanswers.
It came to me out of the blue: there was a well-known Polish poet of Jewish background named Anna Frajlich living in the USA, and, strangely enough, she was born in Kirgizia. (As Anna said later in an interview, ‘My biography may seem exotic only to those who do not know the history of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century.’) Upon verification, it was confirmed that the poetess Anna Frajlich was born in Osh Region in 1942, and her parents were natives of Lwów.
Thanks to the help of my Vancouver friends, the philologist Lina Weigsman, who specializes in Russian language and literature, and the distinguished poet Bogdan Czaykowski, now deceased (both of them were born in Poland and saw Central Asia and Kazakhstan, with their own eyes: Lina, like her refugee parents, spent her childhood in Leninogorsk, near Ust-Kamenogorsk, in eastern Kazakhstan, and Bogdan, who had been deported with his parents from the city of Rovno to a camp [GULAG] near Arkhangelsk, ended up in Samarkand and Kermine, and later left the USSR with the Anders Army), I contacted Anna, in whom I recognized as that ‘nurseling’ from the Katta-Taldyk state farm.
I wrote to Anna about my discovery in the archive in Bishkek. It became clear that her mother, the A. I. Frajlich who had prevented me from sleeping at night, lived in New York and was seriously ill. I never had the chance to meet Amalia Iosifovna, who died before long, in April 2004. But, after more than sixty years, she still managed to see the document that I had discovered in the archives. As Anna suggested, ‘this was the most significant event of the last period of her life.’
As far as I am concerned, this document was not simply an episode in my professional work. I had thought about A. I. Frajlich so intensively, reread that faded sheet of paper with her name on it so many times, and so zealously researched the fate of other Jews from Poland who had survived (or not) in Central Asia, that Amalia Iosifovna and I became close.
Her personality acquired more vivid contours after Anna sent me fragments of her mother’s memoirs.A substantial part of these memoirs, written in 1996–8, is based on notes that she made in Kirgizia (the so-called green copybook; Amalia regretted that some of her diaries were lost). A few letters from and to Katta-Taldyk had also been preserved. A comparison between archival and personal documents emerges here all by itself.
What did Amalia Frajlich's memoirs and letters reveal?
The memoirs and letters pushed apart the borders of the Soviet document, confirmed and supplemented it, and turned conjectures into answers; they explained much.
Amalia Frajlich’s biography reveals that when Malka (her nickname) was a teenage girl, she joined the world youth organization Hashomer Hatsair.In her native Galicia this organization was especially popular, and the first and second congresses were held there in 1918 and 1920, respectively. It preached Zionism and left-socialist views. Judging by the fact that Amalia had never moved to Eretz Israel, socialism attracted her more than Zionism. And since the leading principle of the movement was the personal realization of its ideals, Amalia’s path to the Communist Party (of Western Ukraine) was preordained. By the beginning of the war Amalia was twenty-seven years old, having spent five of them in prison for her party activities. She was given a ten-year sentence, but the war broke out and political prisoners were released. Her enthusiasm for Communist ideas was still intact; disillusionment came later. Thus, the assistance that MOPR gave to Amalia Frajlich was entire justified.
After leaving prison, Amalia remained in her native city of Lwów, where she met Psakhe Frajlich, who was from this city, and they got married in 1940. They lived only briefly in Lwów, which was soon occupied by the Red Army. In June 1941, after Germany attacked the USSR, Psakhe was mobilized into the labour army.
Amalia was not permitted to go with him. 
The war caught the young couple by surprise, as it does everyone in all eras.
Psakhe found himself in the Urals, in the town of Lysva, in Molotov (today: Perm) Region. As is generally known, the Ural region was one of the main arsenals of the Red Army; in the rear it forged weapons and victories at the front. During the war Lysva produced ammunition and the famous Lysva helmets that helped save many a soldier’s life.
Psakhe, who was an ordinary unskilled labourer in a construction battalion (these quasi-military labour formations were also called labour, or worker, columns), was one of hundreds of thousands of ‘soldiers’ in an immense labour army, a significant proportion of which was comprised of Poles and Polish Jews, Soviet Germans, and other so called special resettlers [specpereselentsy].
Interestingly enough, the terms ‘labour army’ and ‘labour soldier,’ which were so popular in everyday life and were used everywhere, particularly by Poles, were ‘illegal’. Compulsory labour duty as such did not figure in state documents, and you will not find it in any archives. It was replaced by phrases that included the word ‘mobilization.’
The ‘labour soldiers’ lived in harsh conditions: in dugouts, barracks filled with two-tiered bunks, factories, and schools; occasionally, they managed to rent a corner in someone’s house. Their diet was meagre, and people got sick and died of malnutrition. During the bitter winter cold many were poorly dressed and ill shod. Lodging a complaint meant risking one’s freedom, and it was as easy as pie for the Soviet authorities to indict a complainer on charges of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Running away meant putting one’s life at risk.
Most people adapted somehow. Psakhe, too, endured: he worked so hard that was later transferred from manual labour to a metalworking unit.
His young wife knew nothing about this: not her husband’s whereabouts, not the type of work he was doing; not even if he was still alive.
In June 1941 Amalia was working at a weapons’ repair factory in Lwów. From there she was drafted into the Red Army (‘I am a former front-line soldier of the Southwestern Army, PAM no. 5,’ she writes in her memoirs).However, she was soon demobilized. Instead of a military certificate, she received a refugee certificate.
Thus began her eastern trek.
Why did she end up in Kirgizia of all places? Thishappenedbychance.
At one halting-place during her journey—either in Penza or the village of Kinel near the Samara City—she encountered some girlfriends from Lwów (they had worked together ‘at Zielenewski’s’), who had relatives who had ‘run as far as’ Kirgizia, where they too were headed.Amalia joined them.
According to the law of war, Amalia Frajlich and her friends, like other Polish Jews, found themselves in a place where, in other circumstances, they could never have ended up: in Soviet Asia. The contrast between Lwów and Katta-Taldyk must have been unimaginable. But, even Jews who were fleeing from tiny towns or had been living in extreme poverty came face to face with something they had never encountered before: here, on the outskirts of the USSR, in the high mountains, even small cities were different and the poverty was different. One simply cannot compare the European space with the Asian space.
Poles in Asia were out of their depth. But, for a few people like Amalia Frajlich, this place without their own place was of primary, life-long significance because it turned out that she was pregnant—and Katta-Taldyk was where her daughter was born.
A Pole in Asia was a person outside time, and not simply because time in the high mountains of Asia has a different dimension, unfamiliar to European flatlanders, and not only because the duration of a war is measured out not in years but in victories and defeats, but also because it was suspended in the emptiness of the present: s/he was cut off from the past and did not know if s/he had a ‘root’ future. It seemed that the present had neither a beginning nor an end. Judging by numerous reminiscences, deported Poles and refugees who ended up in the USSR last checked the time when they were being transported on freight trains (or they were traveling) into ‘evacuation.’ And space was not measured in kilometres: how could they be computed if the ‘passenger’ did not know the designated station? Daytime was a different matter: at dawn a ray of sun poked through the cracks in the train car; after sundown, pitch darkness crept through the same crack.
For Amalia Frajlich, time in ‘evacuation’ seemed to have stopped: ‘At the time I did not live by the calendar, and I did not measure and count the days’, she writes in her memoirs. She manages, with difficulty, to establish the date of one incident or another, or even the time of year, in relation to her daughter’s birthday—and then only by association. For example, a certain event was ‘six days before Ania turned one and a half’. She struggles to remember: ‘What came before? What came later?’ She justifies her forgetfulness by the absence of timepiece: ‘I didn’t have a watch.’
But I would say that there was no Time. Now, time was measured by distance: it was 16 km from Katta-Taldyk to Osh; to collect the kurai, the dried grass that was used for the hearth, one had to walk for some five kilometres, and from the mountain, where the midwife who attended Amalia’s labour, lived, fifty kilometres down a steep slope (on one side was a wall of ice and on the other—a precipice). Yet, no matter how much time it took to descend that slope, it is impossible to say for sure: ‘the whole day, I think.’ One word says it all: Pamir.
Exclusion from the context of their place and time exacerbated the acuteness with which the newcomers perceived the world in which they had landed. The memoirs of Amalia Frajlich and her contemporaries contain a striking amount of ethnographic detail. She recalls, although not always accurately, some Kirgiz words, and deeply regrets that she did not retain many expressions. She describes rural settlements (kishlaki) and yurts (kibitki), how roofs were patched (or molded, to be more precise), and clay floors were ‘washed’.She is drawn to the small, hard-working donkeys that no one could do without in the mountains, and to the intelligent camels; the quilted blankets that also served as mattresses—‘an embellishment and pride of the home’—and typical kitchen implements: the cast-iron pots that were used for cooking and a stove for baking flat bread (lepeshki). She admires the slow Eastern melodies, and mentions various customs: breaking cake with a guest, men wearing traditional quilted robes and their habit of sitting cross-legged or on their haunches, and women braiding their hair into numerous plaits, and the incredible grace with which they carried heavy objects on their heads. She recalls the customs that she had heard from local residents and which made a great impression on her: the tradition of burying the dead in a seated position and leaving a bowl (piyala) filled with rice on a grave. Finally, she paints a vivid picture of swift rivers, sandstorms, and the majestic mountains that disappeared into the clouds. Everything that the narrator recounts so skillfully is recognizable to those who have been in Central Asia.
There is no doubt that to some degree the newcomers were discovering Asia, filling up the vacuum of ignorance with scraps of incidental observations. The mutual lack of knowledge between the ‘Westerners’ and ‘Asians’—and the resulting lack of mutual stereotypes—created an opportunity for both sides to get to know each other. But, one can hardly say that they were realized, as all the newcomers’ energies were spent on trying to survive. And the real habitat of the refugees in Kirgizia was not an ethnic environment but a social—Soviet—one: they worked in Soviet factories and on Soviet collective farms; they obeyed Soviet laws and rubbed shoulders with Soviet people.
Amalia’s girlfriends worked in the fields. One of them writes: ‘We work in the fields weeding; the wages are between 4 and 5 rubles per day…I have become a specialist in field work; I have even learned how to plow.’Later she writes: ‘For the last six weeks we have been working, gathering hay into stooks. The work is hard—of course, none of us knew how to do that. And, of course, even though we worked like cart horses from sunup to sundown, we did not complete the quota.’
The girls were very upset by their failures on the labour front. Written confirmation of this follows: ‘Imagine…a general meeting, during which fingers are pointed at us as “especially” bad workers. All those present turn in our direction and stare at us. I have never experienced such shame in my life. I simply want to howl…But, fortunately, the working conditions changed, and for a week now we have been exceeding the plan. I don’t know where we get the strength for this. The fact is that now we are not ashamed of looking people in the eyes, a place on the honor board has already been reserved for us.’
Amalia was a metal-worker, labouring twelve hours a day. Any infraction, even the most trivial, was punished ‘in keeping with wartime laws’. The pregnant Amalia was punished for absenteeism: she was absent from work for three days because one Friday she went to see the gynaecologist in Osh and should have returned the same day. Because the doctor did not appear at the outpatient clinic either on Friday or on Saturday, Amalia was forced to wait until Monday. Apparently, the punishment was quite light owing to her pregnancy: her wage was cut only by 30 percent for several months, even though one could barely subsist on a full wage.
When her baby was born, Amalia would leave for work after securing her daughter to her homemade, little bed with some belts she had managed to find. Shewouldreturnhomeafterdark. ‘I cannot say much about my child: when she began to smile, to babble, to sit up—about everything that under normal circumstances is an unforgettable milestone for a mother. Iknewmydaughtersolittle!’ Amaliawrites. She made the firm decision to quit the metalworking workshop. She recalls: ‘I had an “Employment Record Book” with my accrued trade-union length of service since 1931, which had been issued on the basis of my old trade union certificate that I had carried with me inside the inner sole of my soldiers’ boots across the front and the blockade. Such uninterrupted length of service and this “Employment Record Book” represented true wealth…in the USSR. I placed a piece of bread on one side of the scale, and on the other was the life of my Child. I don’t remember how I arranged this. Either I simply returned the key to the machine operator or maybe I went to the political instructor. But that day was the last day of my work on the state farm.’ Amalia began to provide laundry and darning services, and sewed clothes for whomever she could. Shewaspaidwithgroceries.
That is how she survived and managed to save her child.
Therefore, the claim that ‘the Poles do not want to work’, made by the authors of that memorandum, should be accepted with the following caveat: different people, different cases. It goes without saying that with such a confluence of people, some people behaved dishonorably, but there probably many more honest people among them.
The living conditions on the alpine state farms of Kirgizia were tremendously difficult and often extreme. On the one hand, the memorandum does not deny this. Nevertheless, reports are being sent to the high-ranking leadership: ‘Collective farms have been issued instructions, and this is already being carried out, namely:To supply the evacuees, in addition to what they are receiving in the district, with a daily quota per person of 150 grams each of bread [and] potatoes, 50 grams of meat, 100 grams of flour or 50 grams of grain, each for meals.’
This is Amalia Frajlich’s account: ‘Rice was delivered to the state farm. Real rice, the real thing! But it...did not end up in the store [it was divided up between the director of the state farm and the machine operator—O.M-N]. That very day...my baby came down with bloody diarrhoea, and I took a small bowl and went to try and beg a few grains of rice, although I was convinced that I would be refused these few grains.’ Amalia continues: ‘Everyone on the state farm knew [that] while the children and wives of soldiers who had left for the front were starving and suffering from night blindness, at the home of the state farm director even...the chickens were fed with golden grains of wheat, without any compunction whatsoever, in full view of everyone. And bread did not make it into the shop at all.’ So:foodwasdelivered, butnottoeveryone! The Poles received only crumbs from the assistance that looked so promising in the government document. And a mother’s request for a tiny handful of rice for her sick infant was refused. Time and again the authorities abused their power.
The MOPR document mentions Amalia’s illness. But in her memoirs she rarely writes about her suffering. Once she makes a remark in passing that her friends are afraid of being infected with tuberculosis from her, and on one occasion she quotes a nurse’s words: ‘If you don’t start eating, you will get galloping consumption.’ There is one final mention when Amalia revolts against the injustice on the part of the powerful of this world: ‘They bought corn for chickens, feed for the piglet, but at the same time I was at risk from “galloping consumption” due to starvation.’
Amalia beat the disease and lived until the age of ninety-two.
The memorandum also reports that the Poles ate dog meat. Here, one may suppose that the situation in Naukat was identical to the one that existed in Katta-Taldyk. Amalia recalls: ‘Four guys, lice-ridden and in rags, arrived at our state farm; they had come from exile, but somewhere en route they had already managed to obtain UNRRA “gifts.”They had been deported in 1940 during the “bourgeois origins” action or as “refugees” who had arrived from their native Poland after escaping from Hitler, now released in keeping with the Sikorski-Maisky Agreement.’
It is very likely that people who had been released from Soviet labour camps did consume dog meat: during the war years people thought that the cavity in their lungs could be healed with melted fat from dogs. It is entirely possible that this was true, although Amalia’s memoirs do not describe such cases. Instead, they contain detailed descriptions of how she and other Poles (and later, local residents) went hunting for turtles, from which they made soup, and how she prepared food for her daughter out of a single piece of dried tomato, to which she added a spoonful of flour to make a mash. During her entire stay in Kirgizia Amalia never once got to taste pilaf. She did not know how it tasted, but even in her dotage she still remembered the aroma of this dish wafting through the bazaar in Osh.
From the letters of Polish refugees it appears that in June 1942 those who were working on the state farm received 600 grams of bread and three meals a day in the canteen.The food here was ‘incomparably better than on the Uzbek collective farm’. If the situation improved, the Poles noticed this: ‘Lately, in connection with the harvesting, better conditions have been created on our state farm for workers who have distinguished themselves by their good work. Practically every day we receive tomatoes (2 kg per person), sometimes melons and pumpkins are issued, so in material terms we are better off in the last while; we are not so “murdered by starvation” (golodomory) as before.’In general, the refugees did not complain, and it is unlikely that they exaggerated their penury.
The memorandum states that the Poles ‘refuse even to go for straw to heat their own rooms, put putty around the windows, whitewash their accommodations, etc., demanding that all this be given to them.’ What if this statement is compared to what Amalia Frajlich writes? The women were constantly going into the mountains to pick the dried grass known as kurai. How else could they have protected themselves from the winter cold in the mountains? They also tried to beautify their daily life and whitewash their squalid dwellings, even though the mixture was corrosive to their hands, burned by the lime.
When Amalia Frajlich died, in her eulogy her daughter Anna recalled her mother’s ‘strong sense of home’. It probably could not have been otherwise for a woman who had spent five years in imprisonment, having experienced what it means to sleep top to tail with a friend on a narrow cot or next to her tiny daughter on the bare floor of the club at the Katta-Taldyk state farm, or on a table in an abandoned wooden hut perched on a high hill.
The Poles were exhausted by the monotony of village life. One day was like the next, and there were no diversions. ‘Our life was so monotonous, so impoverished, that there was nothing even to write about. Our entire world is the field on which all our interests are inescapably focused.…We would so like to live in the city and work in a factory.…These rural backwoods are lethal’; ‘Our life here reminds me of Brygidki,’ wrote Zosia Okrent from Katta-Taldyk.
The best years in the lives of the young women from Katta-Taldyk were spent in Brygidki, the Lwów prison for political prisoners, which was notorious for its brutal conditions. Then there was the war and, finally, a life of isolation in the mountains of Kirgizia. Taking into consideration their energetic activities in Poland, it may be supposed that they felt a keen lack of stormy political discussions and were dissatisfied by a life lived without struggle, without passion, without revolutionary romanticism.
As before the war, when they had professed a sacred faith in Communist ideals acquired as a result of profound spiritual work or were uplifted by the fiery speeches of experienced party propagandists, so too ‘in evacuation’ they remained staunch members of the underground who were devoted to each other. Solidarity was also demonstrated by their ‘comrades in arms’, who had stopped somewhere midway on their journey to Central Asia: denying themselves everything, they sent money to their comrades in Katta-Taldyk. With these funds they could purchase clothing and footwear in anticipation of winter.
Even after colliding with the daily Soviet routine under Communism, the Polish Communists clung to their youthful illusions for a long period of time. However, in some letters one can note not so much doubts as confusion: ‘Here it’s just like at the front—the situation keeps changing. For example, two weeks ago we were proclaimed as “slackers” [lodery, a distortion oflodyriami; it is significant that the author of this letter written in Polish uses the Russian word], and that was how we were talked about at the general meeting. But, today we are suddenly Stakhanovites [Stakhanovite - a Soviet worker honored for exceptional diligence in increasing production] completing the quota by 200%…In these conditions, labour is the sole means of demonstrating our attitude to the Soviet government, our love for it’; ‘We completed the work…We do not know where they will send us now…One way or another, we are glad that we succeeded, if only partially, in overcoming the shabby treatment [meted out to] us “slackers….” Howmuchhealthandnervesthiscostus! But this is behind us now. Although it is difficult to predict what will happen next. The main reason lies in the fact that we are Shabzovnas, not Ivanovnas [that is, ‘Westerners’, Poles, Jews, aliens]. Weunderstandthisperfectly. We sense this at every step of the way. And it is painful.’At the time, they still had no idea that this may have been a deliberate policy on the part of the Soviet authorities: the instant transformation of ‘slackers’ and ‘wreckers’ into Stakhanovites and pacesetters, the notorious carrot-and-stick policy that was so consistently inconsistent that even the most faithful Communist began to doubt his/her own loyalty to the government.
The most difficult thing was to conquer loneliness. The Poles moved closer to each other and, as a rule, tried to stick together; otherwise they would not have survived. Yet, they did not stop longing for their families and friends. This is convincingly attested by Amalia Frajlich’s reaction to receiving the most ordinary postcard from Nata Pawłowska, a female comrade from the period before the war.
Amalia recalls: ‘It seems that life has treated me unfairly...I was overcome by a feeling of terrible loneliness and loss of all prospects…when suddenly, O God, I received a postcard!’ The postcard was sent from Frunze on 14 August 1942, received in Osh on 2 September, and, to all appearances, as Amalia conjectured many years later, it reached Katta-Taldyk on 4 September.
Receiving the postcard was such an important event that she even mentions that second date, although there is only a difference of two days between the first and second dates. Here is the message written on that postcard: ‘Es[teemed] Com[rade]! When I was at MOPR office, I stumbled across the surname Frajlich on a list and was even more surprised when I saw the initials A. I. Is that you, Malya? I am confused only by the existence of a “child.” Lord, if this is you, answer at once, write about everything, beginning with Lwów.’
‘When my hopeless situation had reached rock bottom, a friend stretches out a hand from the distant capital of Kirgizia,’ Frajlich continues. The distance between Frunze and Osh is 234 km, plus another 14 from Osh to Katta-Taldyk—a total of 248 km. But, for Amalia the city of Frunze was the distant capital. How unreachably far away her native Lwów must been for her in those days! ‘It is difficult to describe what I experienced at the time—I wanted to weep bitterly!’ Amaliaexclaims. ‘Wheredidwecomefrom? Whoarewetoday? To what depths have we descended? But now we...are no longer alone; someone somewhere, even if far away, loves us, someone needs us....We are a particle of something whole! That means so much!’
When it seemed as though Amalia Frajlich—a Pole, a Jew, a Galician, a native of Lwów, a Communist, someone’s daughter, sister, and wife—who was living on a godforsaken Kirgiz state farm, was beginning to lose her sense of identity, a postcard restored her connection with what had remained in the past and awakened hope for rebirth; it helped her maintain her equilibrium. But, how many Polish citizens disappeared from view in the mountains, steppes, and deserts of Asia, who never had any kind of support?
In this type of situation, correspondence played a colossal role. Letters (both regular and registered), cards, postcards, and telegrams flew in all directions: to address bureaus, local police stations, post offices where the recommended letter were collected, at random, and by prompting. Letters duplicated telegrams and telegrams duplicated letters—if only for them to reach their destination. Sometimes letters were lost or traveled a long time; at other times, they arrived surprisingly quickly.
The words ‘loneliness’ and ‘searches’ are linked inextricably to each other; they were key in this correspondence.
In June 1941 people were abandoning their homes, leaving, fleeing, escaping from the invader; an immense human mass was moving throughout the huge country. In 1942, once they had reached places that were more or less safe, they began searching for one another. They believed their search would be successful.
Providing assistance in these searches was considered the moral duty of each individual. This explains a persistent theme in their letters: who saw whom for the last time, and when and where, the circumstances in which they parted; who is not showing any signs of life, and who has been found. It is more than likely that mentions of fellow countrymen who were living close by were not fortuitous but premeditated. Letters were often read out loud, and any detail could turn out to be an important, of vital importance, hint to someone. ‘The main thing is that you are alive,’ was an oft-repeated phrase.
Amalia Frajlich’s friend Niusia Warzager writes from Katta-Taldyk to some friends: ‘We read the letters out loud, just like in a prison cell…After receiving such a letter, hope in life returns.’The prison in Lwów and the mountains of Kirgizia—such were the associations that arose in the minds of these female refugees.
Zosia Okrent writes to her brother: ‘For us a letter is a holiday and the only diversion.…At lunchtime we rush home from the fields, measuring out the kilometres just to check if there is a letter. And when there is none, there is sadness in our hearts.
As mentioned earlier, a letter was a thread extending from the past into the present, and perhaps—if one dared to dream—into the future. It was also a sign of love, of which these people living in an extreme situation in a foreign land were so deprived.
But, let us return to the MOPR document: ‘A. I. Frajlich...has a nurseling.’
Women gave birth during their life in evacuation. Sometimes they went into labour on trains, in cotton fields, or in a factory. This is corroborated by documents held in the archives of Central Asia, which contain birth certificates issued on small pieces of ordinary paper, medical information submitted by women recently confined at their places of work, and their requests for material assistance. Reading them, one can imagine the difficulties that these young mothers experienced. But, the memoirs left by Amalia Frajlich are absolutely unique.
The first months after giving birth are usually a difficult period in a woman’s life: she is very anxious about her baby and she is exhausted; so sleep-deprived that she simply does not remember or is in no shape to describe what has happened to her. Amalia, however, vividly describes her state: she is afraid of the prospect of giving birth (she even mentions hearing stories from local residents that Kirgiz women give birth standing up, tied to a tree, and she is horrified). She is terribly afraid of losing her baby: she had witnessed the grief of mothers who had set out on their long journey with their baby, who did not survive the trek; she had read letters from acquaintances about the deaths of children because in such conditions ‘many either cannot carry the baby to term or the newborns starve to death.’ It is terrible to lose a little one. Amalia had often heard people saying: ‘Why are you crying, you fool? It’ll die anyway!...You have a husband, you will give birth to another.’ But this kind of talk only forced her to resist even more. Safeguarding the child despite all the difficulties was the main sense of her life in ‘evacuation.’ Hence, it is the principal theme of her Kirgiz memoirs.
The Frajlichs’ personal archive also contains a document that was issued in Osh (fittingly, on stamped paper!). This is Anna’s birth certificate. I would call this a certificate of survival.
After her daughter was born, Amalia was in dire material straits. Her morale was in even worse shape. However, oneincidentchangedeverything.
Here I would like to draw attention once again to the MOPR directive that mentions the issuance of material assistance to A. I. Frajlich and – next to her name - to Z. Ia. Okrent. If not for the diaries and letters preserved by Amalia, we would never have learned that Frajlich and Okrent are not just two surnames that had ended up accidentally in the same document.
The very name ‘Okrent’ (Pol., okręt, boat; in some cultures a boat represents destiny) could have been the symbolic term applied to Amalia Frajlich’s return to life.
Usher Okrent , the brother of Amalia’s ‘Kirgiz’ friend Zosia, located Amalia’s husband (in turn, a girlfriend of Zosia’s helped her find her brother; the small network worked without a hitch). He found him by accident at a construction battalion in Lysva. Apparently, he crossed paths ‘through work’ because he was a ‘labour soldier’, like Psakhe, although not in Molotov Region but in the neighboring one, Sverdlovsk, in the town of Krasnouralsk. It was from him that Amalia received the following news in Katta-Taldyk: ‘I have found your husband’s traces.’
At the moment when Psakhe was found, Amalia got her second wind.
Psakhe was shaken by the news that he had a daughter. When he was parting from his wife, neither of them knew that she was expecting a child; then all contact was severed. He was in seventh heaven.All that was left to do was repay Usher by doing him a good turn: help him find his wife and daughter. And Psakhe found them—in very ‘miraculous’ circumstances: in Lysva he approached a group of female refugees and asked them if any of them had ever heard of a Regina Okrent. One of the women in the crowd turned out to be Usher’s wife!
Does this sound like a family legend? With each passing generation yellowed, semi-decayed papers that are so difficult to decipher and old photographs that descendants touch with awe give rise to new legends. But no, this time the ‘legend’ turned out to be the unvarnished truth, a real intertwining of destinies.
One and a half years after parting from her husband Amalia was reunited with him in Lysva. Regina and Usher were reunited in Krasnouralsk.
During the war such miracles did not occur very often. Death was an everyday phenomenon.
Usher promised his wife: ‘From now on I am with you forever.…I will be your support. Of this you may be sure.’A battle-hardened Communist who had spent time in more than one prison in prewar Poland, Usher longed to go to the front. He was rejected for health reasons, but later managed to be accepted as one ‘fit for non-combatant duties’. He ended up in the Henryk Dąbrowski 2nd Infantry Division. He was killed on 25 April 1945.
The majority of the relatives and friends of the Frajlichs and Okrents perished in the mass extermination actions in the Lwów and Łódź ghettos. Those who survived were saved mainly by the fact that right before the war broke out or in its early days they ended up outside the borders of Poland, and many of them in Central Asia, specifically in Kirgizia.
Perhaps the Polish women living in Katta-Taldyk, like all newcomers to that place, were spellbound by the East. But the desire ‘to get out of this Asia at any cost’ did not leave them. ‘We are suffocating here,’ Zosia Okrent wrote to her brother.
What prevented them from breathing freely amidst the indescribable beauty of the Pamir region known as the ‘roof of the world’? Most likely it was isolation from the world at large. They longed for the Urals with its cities, factories, railroad, and multitudes of people. From the vantage point of Katta-Taldyk and the godforsaken state farm, the Urals probably seemed like a center of civilization to them. Even if that region was the easternmost edge of Europe, it was Europe all the same. Did they think that the climate in the Urals was easier, that the mountains there were more caressing, and the beauty of the region was more accessible and more like their own? Or perhaps they were bursting to go there because their people were there: men, moral support, sustenance, love; or because for the first time in their lives they felt that their youth was disappearing, that life was passing them by? What was extremely important was that work there seemed more significant to them. The slogan ‘Everything for the front, everything for victory’ was associated precisely with the defense industry of the Ural region and not at all with pulling out weeds in Katta-Taldyk. If they, urban women, could have worked in Frunze, it is entirely likely that they would have perceived life in Kirgizia differently.
What was the most important thing that Amalia Frajlich derived from her experience of living in Kirgizia? It seems that it was a sense of what was ‘her own’ and what was ‘foreign.’ Her ‘own’ was everything Polish. Naturally, at such a great remove Poland was idealized. Every trifle reminding her of days long past seemed dear: for example, a piece of soap with the familiar label ‘with a deer,’ which ‘had fallen from the sky’. The well-disposed manager of the state farm deserved trust because of his Polish-style surname ending in –ski.
The word ‘foreign’ was applied to everything that had happened after Poland. But like everywhere, here too, in an alien land, Good resided cheek by jowl with Evil.
Amalia finds many warm words to say about the compassionate granny who did not let her starve to death; about the midwife, who warmed Amalia’s newborn daughter with her own body; about the invaluable lessons of the Kirgiz, who instructed her on the features of local life; about her neighbor who personified ‘Russian tenderness’; and about the female doctor who saved both Amalia and her daughter with the single confident phrase: ‘This child will live’. Amalia declares: ‘And let no one say a bad word about Russians. They were exiled there, torn from their own corners against their will, scattered throughout this immense land; they are like their ancient songs, like their wonderful language, like their harsh life.’
Like the majority of the ‘evacuees,’ Amalia prized every charitable gesture.
However, there are also bitter pages in the memoirs about the brutal Soviet system and the people who were spawned by it: the doctor who stupidly humiliated those whom he was obliged to help; the female stock keeper at the Osh bureau of MOPR who refused to issue the former Polish political prisoners clothing that was earmarked for them; clothing with which the storehouse was filled to bursting; meanwhile, they were walking around in rags sewn out of old grain sacks (‘Such inhuman, Soviet, treatment of people’, Amalia concludes); and above all those who sent out inquiries to local areas and those who wrote memoranda to their superiors, similar to the one cited above.
Amalia Frajlich’s memoirs reveal, among other things, that in the winter of 1942, when she was about to give birth, Amalia set out for Osh to see her gynaecologist. Luckily for her, a truck was leaving for the state farm base in that city. It was no problem for the driver to drop Amalia off in the city. He agreed to take her, but the director of the state farm had other plans: his wife wanted to go to Osh. At first, Amalia was moved from the cabin to the body of the truck, and then she was told to disembark altogether. She tried to have it out with the director, but he was implacable and shouted for the entire street to hear: ‘What an insolent nation!’ Amalia interpreted that remark thus: ‘The insolent nation is my Jewish nation or, at best, it is we, repatriates, who are so insolent.’
(Of course, ‘repatriates’ this is a slip of the tongue, a memory lapse stemming from confusing the nomenclature of various periods: instead of ‘repatriates’ Amalia Frajlich should have written ‘evacuees’. She was a ‘repatriate’ when she returned to Poland after the war ended, and this word figures often in her subsequent memoirs. Her life was such that one state or another affixed labels to her. Later, in the USA, another was added: ‘immigrant’. It turns out that for the better part of her life she was an ‘alien’. The war turned hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews into ‘aliens’.
The director had in mind ‘evacuees’ in general.
In the memorandum drawn up by the secretary of the Naukat district committee, the following is written in black and white: ‘The majority of the newcomers are coarse, insolent’. Indeed, is it not possible that the director of the state farm in Katta-Taldyk had scribbled the same kind of memorandum along with the secretary of the district committee of Kara-Suu District? Or perhaps he had recopied a carbon copy of the document that had been carefully prepared by his comrade from the Naukat district committee, merely changing figures and individual facts? And what’s worse, what if he repeated the phrase from the instruction issued by his superiors about how to deal with the Poles, since they are ‘such an insolent nation’?
It could have been either way. However, familiarity with the general body of documents on the ‘evacuated’ Poles and the work style of party bureaucrats, as well as a comparison of the date of the memorandum and the period in which the incident in Katta-Taldyk took place (the memorandum was written on 31 December 1941, Amalia gave birth on 10 March 1942, and she went to Osh to see the doctor shortly before giving birth, that is, sometime in January or February) lead one to suppose that this word—‘insolent’ was not accidental—the director blurted it out because it was circulating within the leadership.
It would appear that Amalia never forgot that vile insult. Yet, she never doubted that the people were one kettle of fish, and the government was another. And whereas documents from state archives paint a complete portrait of the Soviet government, other documents—from private archives—limn the image of a person who had a face-to-face encounter with that government. Taken together, they bring us closer to the truth of those harsh days.
Polish Jews were saved in the USSR, many of them in Central Asia. Knowing what the Holocaust was, one can easily imagine what would have happened to them if they had not crossed the ‘green border.’ However, in repeating the phrase about ‘those who were saved in the East,’ one should clearly visualize the cost of this salvation.
War—even if it is not a battlefield, ghetto, or concentration camp—is always a tragedy.
The documents that have been preserved carefully in the state archives of Kyrgyzstan, as well as the private papers of Amalia Frajlich, which trace the route across continents and oceans from the USSR to Poland and from Poland to the USA (the Frajlich family left Poland in 1969, during the antisemitic campaign inspired by the ruling Polish United Workers Party) reflect the crossroads of Polish, Jewish, Soviet, and even American history. Amalia Frajlich found her final refuge in New York; her daughter, the poet Anna Frajlich, teaches at Columbia University, ‘on the other side of the ocean/on the other shore of existence’.
A few years ago in Bishkek I organized an evening of Polish émigré poetry. Of course, I also intended to talk about Anna Frajlich’s poetry. I wanted Anna herself to address her listeners, so I asked her to write a few words for this event. This is the text that she sent in response to my request:
I am excited by the fact that my poems will reach the place that my mother reached, saving herself by escaping from extermination. I do not remember the place where I was born because shortly after my birth my mother and I left for the Ural region. But, Mama often told me about Katta-Taldyk; she also described it in her memoirs. Mama retained good memories of that period, even though this was an unendurably difficult period in her life, just like in the life of all the other people. She ended up alone there—father was in the Ural region—and despite everything she managed to ensure that her child survived, although many children died.
While I was still living in Poland, I never saw a single contemporary article about Kirgizia. But, in the USA in 1974 I stumbled on an article about this republic on the front page of The New York Times, and I was glad to know that the word Osh does not exist solely in my passport. Since then I have collected clippings of articles about Kyrgyzstan published in the American press. And when Kirgizia became an independent country, I changed my place of birth in my passport from ‘Osh, USSR’ to ‘Osh, Kyrgyzstan’.
Art and poetry unite people who are separated by natural and artificial barriers, and I am glad that, even though I did not manage to return to my birthplace, my voice is returning there. It is returning to the place where it sounded for the first time.’
In conclusion, I would like to say a few words about myself: I always leave the premises of an archive surrounded by people who, by the will of destiny, became characters in a historical drama. My goal is to bestow names on the numbers assigned in the archives; to give due honor to all those who said to themselves every day of the war: ‘One must survive’—and who did survive.
Translated from the Russian by Marta Daria Olynyk
1. Topographic map of Osh Region, Kirgiz SSR, 1942 (fragment).
2. MOPR propaganda postcard, 1932.
3. Letter from the CC MOPR USSR to the Chairman of the CC MOPR of the Kirgiz SSR, dated 12 September 1942; 3Ðis the continuation of the letter.
4. Memorandum of 31 December 1941 sent by the secretary of the Naukat district party committee to the Osh regional committee of the CP(B) of Kirgizia (fragment).
5. Zosia Okrent’s letter to her brother Usher, Katta-Taldyk, 3 August 1942 (fragment).
6. Postcard received by Amalia Frajlich from a girlfriend in Frunze in early September 1942; 6 Ð is the reverse side.
7. Amalia Frajlich’s letter to Usher Okrent, Katta-Taldyk, 19 October 1942; 7a the reverse side.
8. Postcard sent by Psakhe Frajlich to Usher Okrent, Lysva, Molotov Region, 17 October 1942; 8Ð is the reverse side.
9. Anna Frajlich’s birth certificate issued on 10 March 1942 at the state farm in Katta-Taldyk, Osh Region, Kirgiz SSR.
10. Amalia Frajlich and her daughter Anna, Katta-Taldyk, 1942. Amalia recalls
A small triangular shelf was attached on our old veranda, in the corner beneath the roof, which was covered with an old sweater (at one time someone had probably built a roost for his chicken. For a long time I looked closely at this shelf and finally decided to appropriate the rag. It served as bedding for us for a long time....And much later I sewed Anna pants and a sweater out of it (and a hat as well, it seems, I don’t remember). This was her first elegant outfit. As far as I can recall, she travelled in it to see her father in the Urals.
I am deeply grateful to Anna Frajlich-Zając, who placed at my disposal papers from the personal archive of her mother Amalia Frajlich, as well as the personal letters of Ludwika Wujec (née Okrent) (with the latter’s permission). I have published several articles about Polish Jews in Central Asia during the Second World War: ‘Zapad–Vostok: obryvki sudeb (poliaki v Srednei Azii v gody Vtoroi mirovoi voiny,’ in Studia Polonica: K 70-letiiu V. A. Khoreva (Moscow, 2002); ‘Strzępy losów,’ Slowo Zydowskie (Warsaw), nos. 18–19 (2002); ‘Scraps of Lives: Polish Jews in Central Asia during the Second World War,’ Zachor (Vancouver, B.C.), no. 2 (April 2003); ‘Obryvki sudeb-4,’ in Evakuatsiia: voskreshaia proshloe; Materialy Mezhdunarodnoi nauchnoi konferentsii (Almaty, 2009); ‘“Tam, gde v aprele derev′ia v tsvetu…” (Deportatsiia v Kazakhstan 1940–1942 gg. v Vospominaniiakh Iakova Eliasberga),’ in Istoriia. Pamiat′. Liudi; Materialy 5 Mezhdunarodnoi konferentsii(Almaty, 2011); ‘V atmosphere lubvi k Strane Sovetov (O pol’sko-evrejskih detiah v Srednej Azii v gody vtoroj mirovoj vojny)’, in Istoriia. Pamiat′. Liudi; Materialy 6 Mezhdunarodnoi konferentsii(Almaty, 2013).
I offer only two examples from what may have been quite an impressive list: the archives do not have any documents about Jan Czerniaków, the son of Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Jewish Council in the Warsaw Ghetto. Jan Czerniaków died in Kirgizia; or about the prominent Polish-Jewish poet Rachel Korn, who lived in Ferghana during the war years. It is possible that some documents have not been located by researchers, who do not have access to all collections.
Zosia Okrent to her brother Usher Okrent, 9 June 1942.
MOPR—Mezhdunarodnaia Organizatsiia Pomoshchi Revoliutsioneram, the International Organization for Help to Revolutionaries (also known as International Red Aid), was a communist social services organization established by the Communist International (Comintern) in 1922. With branches in dozens of countries throughout the world, MOPR provided material assistance to convicted revolutionaries and their families. The main source of funding for MOPR was so called voluntary and in reality compulsory fund raising among Soviet workers. On the international scale, the organization operated until the Second World War. TheSovietsectionofMOPRfunctioneduntil1947. See the Central State Archive of Kyrgyzstan, fond 905, list 1, file 5, fols. 59–59v. In this and all subsequently cited documents, the orthography and punctuation of the original have been retained.
The Communist Party of Poland was founded in 1918 and banned in March 1919. From 1923 the party included both the Communist Party of Western Ukraine and the Communist Party of Western Belarus as its autonomous parts. The CPP was dissolved by the Comintern in 1938.
As emphasized earlier, the majority of them were ‘former citizens of the Republic of Poland’, who in exchange for Polish passports received Soviet ones. (Fond 391, list 3, file 282, fols. 1–4. The document has dual numbering: from fol. 125 onward; apparently the latter number was added during a previous inventory carried out in the Osh Region’s party archive (fond 2, list 15, file 266, fol. 125), where this document had been stored earlier.
According to current orthography, it is known as Nookat District, Osh Region.
The village of Iski-Naukat; since 2003 it has been called the city of Nookat.
How many Poles in all arrived in Kirgizia? There are no exact figures in this regard. The State Archive of Kyrgyzstan contains an accounts ledger with a list of surnames of former Polish citizens; there are many surnames. I surmise that everyone who settled in the city of Frunze and Frunze Region was recorded in it. Poles worked in various enterprises: for example, at a match factory in Frunze; at a chemical-pharmaceutical plant in the village of Kara-Balta in Kalinin District, Frunze Region (today: Chuisk Region), etc. It is doubtful that the authorities had time to record in the accounts ledger those who had been assigned jobs on state farms and collective farms. Local residents recount that collective farm carts used to line up at the railway station to meet the new arrivals. The pages of this book are soiled and most likely it was already in this condition during the war: refugees searching for one another consulted it constantly. PolesweredistributedunequallythroughoutKirgizia. There were villages in which there was only one person from Poland among the local population. For example, in the vicinity of the brick factory near Frunze there was only one Polish woman, Irena Ginzburg, a young physician from Warsaw, who later became the world-renowned neurologist Irena Hausman-Petrusewicz. It is interesting that the locals did not distinguish her from other foreigners. They were convinced that there were neither Poles nor Polish Jews in the village: ‘they were assigned to collective farms.’ Like the special resettlers—Volga Germans—Irena was called a ‘German’ (according to the accounts of people who lived in the vicinity of the former brick factory, which is the village of Nizhniaia Alarcha today, located 12 km from the center of Bishkek, 2007).
Natan Gross, ‘Anna Frajlich: o sobie i o wierszach,’ in Archiwum emigracji: Studia, Szkice, Dokumenty, no. 4 (Toruń: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Mikołaja Kopernika,2001).
Some of these fragments, which focus on the early years of life after her return to Poland from the USSR, were published in Szczecin. See Taube Kron, ‘Droga do domu’, Pogranicza, no. 4 (2003). Amalia Frajlich used her mother’s name as a literary pseudonym.
See ‘Dwa istnienia rozszczepione: Z Anną Frajlich rozmawia Czeslaw Karkowski,’ Przegląd Polski, 21 November 2003.
See A. V. Chevardin, ‘Urozhentsy Zapadnykh oblastei USSR i BSSR v sostave stroitel′nykh batal′onov na Urale v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny,’ Vestnik Cheliabinskogo Gosudarstvennogo Universiteta, Istoriia, no. 16 (154), vyp. 32 (Cheliabinsk, 2009), 74–76. The author explains: Initially, 100,000 people from Soviet-occupied lands were mobilized into the army: 37.1 percent of them were Poles and 11.9 percent were Jews. But, as early as 16 June 1941, order no. 170, signed by Molotov, transferred 35,000 troops from military units that had been formed in the western regions of the USSR to construction sites of the People’s Commissariat of Construction (Narkomstroi). The Soviet authorities feared that the Poles would desert to the enemy side. These so-called ‘Westerners’ were not trusted, and by the first weeks of the Great Patriotic War they had been sent to the rear. In 1942 the Polish construction battalions were abolished. One part of the contingent ended up in the Anders Army and another in the Tadeusz Kościuszko Division. Otherscontinuedtoworkinindustry.
As concerns the members of the labor army on the whole, the following figures are revealing: by the end of the war, out of the 120,000 members of the labor army working in the Southern Urals, a little more than 34,000 survived. See G. A. Goncharov, ‘Trudovaia armiia na Urale v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny’ (Doctor of Historical Sciences dissertation, Cheliabinsk, 2006).
PAM is the Russian acronym for ‘mobile artillery workshop.’ See Amalia Frajlich’s memoirs (manuscript) in Polish. Translations from the Polish here and elsewhere are mine [O. M-N].
The famous machine-building and rolling-stock factory in Lwów owned by L. Zieleniewski (1804–1945).
Perhaps in Kirgizia it would be more appropriate to speak of ails. But, it is possible that the population centers about which Amalia Frajlich writes were in fact kishlaks. Osh Region is noted for its mixed population of Kirgiz, Uzbeks, and Tadzhiks. This mixture was probably reflected even in the very name ‘Katta-Taldyk’. The word ‘katta’ (large) is of Turkic derivation, while ‘tal’ (hill) is a Persian word. However, the word ‘tal’ also exists in the Turkic languages and means ‘willow tree’. The poles and lattices of the Kirgiz yurt are called talovye (i.e., made of willow). So the name of the state farm may be translated as Bol′shaia Iva (Large Willow) or Bol′shoi Kholm (Large Hill). The latter is more likely because Taldyk is also the name of one of the mountain passes between Ferghana and Kashgar. In 2004 the village was renamed Taldyk, and it is now part of the village administration of Kattataldyk (current spelling): the Kattaldyk ainal kenesh of Kara-Suu District, Osh Region, Kyrgyzstan.
Zosia Okrent to Usher Okrent, Katta-Taldyk, 9 June 1942.
Zosia Okrent to Usher Okrent, Katta-Taldyk, 3 August 1942.
The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was established by the USA later, in 1943, in order to provide assistance to its Allies, which had suffered during the Second World War.
Zosia Okrent to Usher Okrent, Katta-Taldyk, 9 June 1942.
Zosia Okrent to Usher Okrent, Katta-Taldyk, 3 August 1942.
Amalia recalled later that in the spring of 1946, when the family was returning to Poland, she wanted to occupy a cozier corner of the train compartment in order ‘to create some semblance of home en route.’ See Kron, ‘Droga do domu.’
Zosia Okrent to Usher Okrent, Katta-Taldyk, 3 August 1942.
Minka Mansfeld to David (Tadeusz Bezwiński; a well-known activist in the Hashomer Hatzair youth organization); Zosia Okrent to Usher Okrent, Katta-Taldyk, 3 August 1942.
In the USSR Nata Pawlowska became ‘Pavlova’. This was not the only case of a name change: Poles themselves frequently altered their surnames; more often their names were distorted by Soviet bureaucrats during the process of filling out numerous certificates. Occasionally, as in this case, Polish names and surnames were Russified and, on occasion, ‘Judaized’. I recall a story recounted by the composer Mieczysław Weinberg, whom I had the good fortune to know. When he was crossing the border between Poland and the USSR immediately after the war broke out, a Red Army soldier asked for his name and surname. He replied ‘Mieczysław Weinberg,’ whereupon the soldier muttered: ‘Jews like that don’t exist,’ and proceeded to write “Moisei.” Weinberg kept this name for many years, particularly during his stay in Tashkent during the war years.
Incidentally, the surname Frajlich was also changed. In prewar Poland it was Frejlich, but in the USSR it was recorded in Soviet documents as Frajlich. In the same MOPR document there are two versions of her surname: Frejlich and Frajlich. The surname returned to Poland in the latter transcription. Since then, the customary spelling has been ‘Frajlich.’
The work with archival documents required maximum attentiveness to surnames. For example, the collection in the Kirgiz archive contains another MOPR document (fond 905, list 1, file 5, fol. 19), which was sent from Ufa to the CC MOPR of the Kirgiz SSR on 21 February 1942, with a suggestion to issue a one-time allowance to comrade G. A. Frelikh, residing in the city of Osh. It was tempting to suppose that this man was a member of the same Frajlich family, perhaps even Amalia’s husband. At the time, I thought that separated during the war spouses were reunited when the war ended, and their names were filed in the same archival folder. Later, it became clear that G. A. Frelikh had no connection to Amalia Frajlich. It was just that there were so many Polish Jews in Kirgizia, like everywhere in Central Asia, that it was a common occurrence to encounter people with identical surnames.
Niusia Warzager to Usher Okrent, Katta-Taldyk, 19 October 1942.
Zosia Okrent to Usher Okrent, Katta-Taldyk, 3 August 1942.
Usher Okrent to his wife Regina, Krasnouralsk, 22 October1942.
Zosia Okrent to Usher Okrent, Katta-Taldyk, 3 August 1942.
From Anna Frajlich’s poem ‘Son o L′vove’ (A Dream about Lwów) translated into Russian by Anatoly Roytman.