Without Vodka: Adventures in Wartime Russiaby Aleksander Topolski
Aleksander Topolski was sixteen when he was called up for military service on the morning of August 24, 1939. In eight days his native Poland would be invaded by the Germans. Shortly thereafter, the Russians rolled in under the Hitler-Stalin pact, and when Topolski tried to sneak across the border into Romania, he was captured by Soviet border guards. Thus began a more than two-year-long ordeal through the Soviet Union's outrageously absurd penal system. Writing with an unexpected sense of humor and irony and an almost superhuman capacity for recalling fascinating details, Topolski recounts his fight for survival in the gulag. Mendacious NKVD officers, whimsical pick-pockets, ruthless youth gang members, wise political prisoners, Polish patriots, unfortunate Uzbechs, and countless other unforgettable characters populate this often raucous odyssey. The perplexing madness of Topolski's ordeal was perhaps summed up by an old Russian saying he heard along the way: "Without vodka you can't figure it out." Ultimately Topolski escapes into Iran to join the Polish Second Corps, assembling there to fight the Germans ... but that's another story.
- Steerforth Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1st U.S. Edition
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- 6.05(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.89(d)
Read an Excerpt
A whisper rippled along our string of marchers: "Look right." On the ridge of a gentle slope I saw the silhouette of a Soviet soldier standing still. His black outline, topped by the soft gathered spike of a cloth budyonovka hat, was clearly visible against the dark blue sky. So was the long bayonet at the end of his rifle. He was no more than fifty yards from us. With our faces turned towards him we kept marching forward. He remained motionless as if mesmerized by the sight of the long line of people passing him in an orderly file. Then several soldiers emerged from the lower ground beyond him. They ran in our direction but didn't come any closer than the first soldier.
Rifle shots and cries of "Postoi!" Stop! rang out together. We lunged forward. Our guide fired one shot from his revolver at the soldiers and quickly blended with the other scattering runners. The Soviets kept firing. Irka, who was running in front of me, fell face down. So did her brothers. Somebody running on my right followed suit. I was next. A moment later when I lifted my head, I could not see anybody running or standingonly the Soviets coming at us and still firing. A soldier stopped a few yards from me. I saw him aiming his rifle. He fired and a bullet hit the ground near my face, raising a small plume of snow. He kept his stance, still aiming at me. I was moving my head, shielding it with my little gas-mask bag, and trying to make it a less easy target. Four more shots and four more plumes of snow around my head. He stopped firing when hefinished the clip. By then they were all over us.
* * *
In mid-summer 1939 everything seemed to go my way. I had just returned to my home in Horodenka from a trip to Warsaw and to Gdynia on the Baltic Sea as a guest of the Polish Navy. With two of my friends I had won the first prize in the all-Poland Boy Scouts' competition for our model of the destroyer Blyskawica. By rights, my father should have shared in the prize because of all the help he gave us. The Navy, a gracious and generous host, treated us three winners as future ship designers. Apart from many happy memories, I brought back with me as souvenirs the special permits issued by the Admiralty to visit the naval base in Oksywie, the brand new destroyer Blyskawica and even a submarine. I never suspected that holding on to these souvenirs would cause me so much trouble in the months to come.
After my return I hardly had any time to gloat and boast about my exploits on the shores of the Balticin two days I left for the Boy Scout camp in the eastern Carpathian Mountains. But striving for proficiency badges and singing around the campfire had lost the attraction they once held for me. At sixteen I thought myself too old for all that. Instead I thought about the new tennis court at our high school, about my new, long white linen trousers, and my older friends who were passing their vacation time at the municipal swimming pool in the company of young women, dancing inept tangos with them in the evenings on the pavilion terrace and afterwards walking them home. Within a week I found some feeble excuse to leave the camp, and I returned to Horodenka.
Every day that August the newspapers and the radio brought foreboding news about Germany's latest demands and threats. Hitler felt confident that he could walk unopposed into Poland as he did into the Rhineland, Austria, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia. Our politicians spread false optimism, forecasting a quick victory over the Germans by the Polish-French-British coalition. The Polish people, on the whole, felt intensely patriotic and upbeat. Any form of acquiescence or compromise was out of the question. Men were not unduly worried. They thought of war as inevitable and dangerous but still an interesting interlude. Some were looking forward to it as an escape from the dreary life of daily chores, a nagging wife or an insufferable boss.
Our water carrier Mendel, an elderly Jew, said he was going to volunteer for the army. When the other water carriers (there was a whole guild of them in Horodenka) asked him if he was not afraid to go to war, he said, "Oy-vey, war schmor. I go to war, kill a few people and return home."
"And if they kill you?"
"Kill me? Why should they? What for? What have I done?"
For our family friend Mr. Krzyzanowski war was to be his salvation. He was so much in debt that it nearly drove him crazy. I still remember his furrowed brow at our card table when he would seek reassurance or at least a nod from his whist partners. "Say, director," he would ask my father, who had been the principal of a teacher's college, "there's bound to be war. There's no other way. Am I not right?"
After all, in Poland it was an axiom that each generation goes to war twice. (Our victorious war against the Bolsheviks had ended only nineteen years before.) Worry was left to mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. It was their job to fend for elders and the little ones while their men were denting their sabres on enemy armour. But meanwhile we youngsters in Horodenka were enjoying what proved to be our last carefree summer. The skies were blue, and the hot August sun tanned our bodies to the coveted chestnut brown. Our only worry was that something would go awry, and we would miss having a war. And then things began to happen.
"It's for your son."
I recognized the voice of the sergeant who worked in the local Draft Board office across the street. He must have been talking through the open bedroom window to one of my parents.
"Will you sign for it, please? Thank you."
I heard his army boots crunching gravel along the path as he marched back to the garden gate. The latch clicked and he was gone.
That morning I had been reading in bed before breakfast. But now I sprang out of bed and pushed open the door to my parents' bedroom, letting through a gust of the morning breeze. The muslin window curtains billowed in like the sails of a ship scudding into the room. Only my mother was there. She was standing near the open window with one hand clasping the top of her housecoat. In the other hand she held a small sheet of paper. A printed form with a diagonal red stripe.
Seeing me, she tried to hide it behind her back. Then her arm dropped down in a helpless gesture. The paper floated to the carpet. She stood still and stared at me.
"Holy Mother of God! They are taking my child!"
She made a small step forward and stretched her arms as if she wanted to embrace me. I picked up the intriguing paper from the floor and drew back from the range of her pleading arms. Signs of affection embarrassed me. Besides, I did not like being called a child. I glanced at the paper. Below the lines of fine print was my name and in bold type "Call-up to Active Duty. Group C." It was a surprise. I felt honoured. I was only sixteen.
I got dressed in no time. When I went back to my parents' bedroom, mother was still standing at the window motionless, only her lips were moving in inaudible prayer.
"I've got to go, Mum. You know. I've got to report at the Draft Board office."
She said nothing but kept staring at me and nodding her head. I came closer, and as I kissed her on both cheeks, I tasted the salty tears which trickled along the crow's feet around her eyes.
It was Thursday, the 24th of August, 1939, when I received my call-up papers. So did the other high-school students who had completed at least the first half of the military training course which normally started in the first year of the lyceum (equivalent of grade eleven). By some quirk the grade eleven class in 1938 had only eight male students, and so we boys from grade ten had been taken to make up the number needed for the course. Because I entered the high school a year earlier than normal, I had completed that half of the military course at sixteen instead of the usual eighteen.
Inside the Draft Board office, Sergeant Gruber greeted me with a short, "You are too early." For a moment I was scaredI thought he was referring to my age. But I was relieved to see that he was pointing at the clock which showed ten to nine. The office opened at nine. A few of my friends appeared. We were all sent to the local depot of Strzelec, a state-sponsored paramilitary organization, to get our uniforms and rifles. I could not find a uniform small enough to fit me. While I waited for one to be altered for me, I wore my khaki Boy Scout shirt, the long, dark blue trousers from my high-school uniform, a forage cap and a wide army belt.
My first two days "on active duty" I spent riding furiously on my bike all over town delivering messages from the Draft Board to other offices and to individualsincluding a love letter in a mauve envelope from Lieutenant Beloshiyev to his fiancée. On the third day, I was detached to the air-spotters unit, which formed part of our countrywide air observation system. Then on the 28th of August I was transferred to a border guards unit near Serafince village beside the Polish-Romanian border, just six kilometres from my home.
Our post was a white one-story house ringed by tall poplars, which stood out like a green island in the midst of rolling fields still golden with the stubble of harvested wheat. Despite the heat, the post's commandant, Senior Guard Mazur, sat in his office completely buttoned up. He got up when I reported to him and looked me over well, as if bemused by his new charge's childish appearance. Finding nothing else to compliment me on, he said, "You have a fine sounding surname. Now take your things to the big room behind the kitchen. You'll be sleeping there on the floor with the other draftees. Report for duty at 20:00 hours in this officefour hours at the telephone and four hours outside plane spotting."
"Plane spotting at night?"
"Yep. The buggers fly at night too. Dismissed!"
Sleeping on the floor was not too bad because the pine floor was scrubbed with lye every few days. However, the stench of human bodies in our sleeping quarters was so thick that, in Mazur's words, "You could suspend an axe in mid-air."
Our duties were undemanding and tedious. To keep us on our toes we had to send practice reports marked "Dummy" four times a day. Most of the draftees were from Polish farms in the nearby villages and were terrified of the telephone, never having used one before.
When off duty, I'd often ride my bike home for a meal, a change of clothes or just to get a good night's sleep in my own bed. It was after one of these nights at home when, on the morning of September 1st, I heard our national anthem being played on the radio before the eight o'clock news. That was unusual, and my heart pounded as I listened to the anthem. Then the speaker announced the President of Poland, Ignacy Moscicki. After a few clicks and squeaks came the voice of our leader.
"In the early hours of today, the eternal foe of the Polish Republic forced its way through our borders, a fact I state in the face of God and history. I declare Poland in the state of war." Then he listed the cities which had been bombed and proceeded with patriotic exhortations. I did not listen to the end. I leapt from my bed, ran to the kitchen and spun Pyotrusia, our kitchen maid, around. That wasn't easy for she was a strapping lass.
"Pyotrusia! The war has started! Yippee! No more school! We go to war!"
She thought it was one of my pranks.
"Don't say things like that. You may say it in an evil hour and cause it to happen."
She crossed herself. I told her I was not joking. I had heard it on the radio. When she realized that I was telling the truth, she opened wide her blue eyes and began to cry. Her strong jaw trembled as she tried to suppress sobs, while she continued to prepare breakfast. Then she said, "My brother!" and I remembered that she told us he had received his call-up papers the day before. Within minutes the entire house was awake. Mother came running in and embraced Pyotrusia. They both stood there crying and hugging each other From the far room across the corridor my sisters, still in bed, were shouting, "What happened?! What's going on?!"
Father put the brouhaha to good use. He got dressed without attracting anybody's attention, skipped his morning coffee, and when Mother went looking for him on the front porch, she just managed to catch a glimpse of him as he was turning the corner at the end of the street carrying his fishing rods and tackle box.
For weeks we had expected the war to start any day. But it jolted everybody when it came, even though the general mobilization had been announced the day before. Throngs of called-up reservists, almost all of them Ukrainians, were already arriving from the neighbouring villages. I saw them being led first to the schoolyard. There they were seated at trestle tables laden with loaves of fresh bread, bottles of beer and coils of steaming fat sausages with garlic and marjoram, a gift from the wealthy, fat butcher Ludwik Tomkiewicz, who was also our mayor. After they ate their fill, it was time to go to the railway station. They would form in columns eight abreast, arm in arm, taking the entire width of the street so that nobody could pass them. This was to show their contempt for the lesser breed, the civilians. And they sang in harmony as they marched, making up newand irreverentlyrics that showed scant respect for military life.
It seemed that with the outbreak of war, a lot of men likely to be called up, and even some of those who were infirm or too old for the army, adopted a semblance of military bearing. With their heads high and chests puffed up, they would strut briskly, confidence beaming from their clean-shaven faces. Women were less affected by martial feelings. My mother busied herself with traditional preparations taught to her by her mother and grandmother. She began buying in bulk and storing flour, sugar, tea, salt and jars of lard. And in the darkness of the night, she and my father buried in the back garden some of our silverware and other valuables wrapped in grease-soaked linen.
Twice a day, at nine o'clock in the morning and in the evening, people would gather around their radios to listen to the news. Those who did not have a radio would go to neighbours who did. Mr. Ciolek, the tailor who lived next door, and his subtenant Mr. Piorewicz came every evening just before nine and sat in front of our Telefunken radio set, gazing at the green tuning light which glared back at them like the eye of a basilisk.
One by one Polish radio stations were knocked out by German bombs, and after two weeks all of them except the subsidiary Warsaw Two radio station went off the air. What news we did get was anything but good. The Polish Army was being cut apart by the steel of the German panzer division tanks. The German Luftwaffe ruled the sky, bombing and strafing towns, railway stations, military and nonmilitary targets, and the civilian population, which took to the road by the hundreds of thousands trying to escape the Nazis. That was well nigh impossible because the German armies were invading Poland simultaneously from the north, west and south.
Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, but it was a token gesture and did nothing to relieve German pressure on Poland. The unusually hot and sunny September favoured the advance of the Germans. We prayed for the fall rains that would have turned our dirt roads into mire and stemmed the onrush of the German mechanized divisions. Alas, the rains came too late.
When several of my high-school friends and I received our first army pay, we decided to celebrate it together at Spiegel's restaurant. For the first time I put on my army tunic, altered at last by the tailor to fit my boyish frame. I was so proud of it I wouldn't think of taking it off although it was a scorchingly hot day. We slouched at the central table and pushed our chairs away from it, so we could stretch our legs and show off our heavy army boots. We offered each other cigarettes. Each one of us had bought a different brand. The owner himself came to serve us. Some ordered vodka, some beer. I opted for Gdanska Zlotowka (Danzig Goldwater), a liqueur with tiny flecks of gold foil floating in it. Maciek Konopka, who was a bit older than the rest of us, proposed visiting Stefa, one of the town's three prostitutes. But most of us felt uneasy about his idea. We got out of it by saying that it was too early in the day even to ponder such matters, which bloom better under cover of darkness and discretion.
The speed of the German invaders was unbelievable. Refugees from western and central Poland started appearing in Horodenka. Rumours abounded about water wells poisoned by "fifth column" saboteurs, about poisonous chocolates and candies dropped by German planes, and about regiments of Polish-speaking German soldiers dressed in Polish uniforms. The refugees were talking about total disarray and the near collapse of the Polish Army. We did not want to believe them. But then my Aunt Jania arrived from Modlin in central Poland with her two small children after a nightmarish journey on bombed trains. She was followed by more of my mother's relatives, including my Uncle Tadeusz with his wife and small daughter. Their stories confirmed our worst fears. The war was already lost.
This was brought home to us twice in mid-September when droning German squadrons flew high overhead and bombed Horodenka. This caused panic among the townsfolk but little damage. One batch of bombs fell in fish-breeding ponds. Most of the others exploded in gardens and orchards, leaving puny holes that looked to me more like pits dug to store potatoes for winter.
But much worse was to follow. On the 17th of September, a guard who had just finished his border patrol came to see our commandant. He said the Romanian border guards told him that the Soviets had declared war on Poland. We were all stunned by this news. Nobody had ever admitted such a possibility, although the improbable Ribbentrop-Molotov friendship pact between the Nazis and Soviets signed only a few weeks before made every Pole feel uneasy. The news was confirmed a few hours later on the radio.
That day the one-way traffic on the road leading to Romania was heavy with a procession of trucks, cars, buses, artillery pieces, horse-drawn carts, ambulances and even fire engines. The soldiers and civilians on them were grey-faced, exhausted after two and half weeks of retreating under bombs. They were leaving their homeland for some other country wherethey were toldtheir army would be recreated to fight the Germans and come back victorious. How long that would take nobody knew. Perhaps it was just as well they didn't.
In the afternoon a rather old-fashioned plane flew by. A biplane. Its engine sounded like a slow motorcycle. As it was passing our border post, it let out a burst of fire from its machine gun. The bullets hit the ground near the main entrance. The plane flew away, but then it made a circle and started coming back straight at us. I started running toward the open field to be as far as possible from the house. I ran fast, stumbling and falling on the flat ground covered with wheat stubble. There wasn't a ditch in sight where I could take cover. I could hear the plane coming closer, and I felt as helpless as a rabbit being pursued by a hawk. I hit the dirt and when I looked up, the plane, which was flying very low, took such a sharp turn I could see the goggled face of the machine-gunner. The plane looked like the RB Soviet reconnaissance plane that I had seen on aircraft identification charts at the air-spotters unit. As it made another turn I noticed the red stars painted on its wings. There was no more guessing. It was a Soviet plane. I picked myself up and returned to our post feeling rather sheepish. But it seemed that nobody had noticed my panicky dash for escape.
Later that afternoon, Commandant Mazur gathered all his subordinates in his office. He told us that he and the other border guards were going to Romania in half an hour, after they had bid farewell to their families. The rest of us could either follow them or go home. Then he turned to me: "You go home. At least for the time being. You are young and the Bolsheviks may leave you alone. If things turn bad, you know the border and you can cross it any time."
Before I left, I saw the guards return and squeeze into a two-horse cart, their rifles upright between their knees, their belongings crammed around them. For the last time, they kissed their wives and patted the heads of their children. "Don't worry. Wait for us. We'll be back before the storks return."
I biked home to find my father and uncles playing cards. Father was a bit annoyed that they were not paying proper attention to the game but discussing the day's events instead. They said the Soviet army was already on the far shore of the wide Dniester River less than twenty kilometres away. But the retreating Polish troops had blown up the only bridge in the region, so the Russians were not expected to enter Horodenka before morning.
My Uncle Tadeusz, although a judge and a sensible, intelligent man, had yielded to years of Soviet propaganda. "You'll see for yourself what communism did for Russia," he declared. "Their standard of living surpasses that of Switzerland or America. There are no prisons in the Soviet Union because they've eliminated crime. And there's no unemployment. As for food, Russia was never short of it. In 1915, we all saw the mountains of flour, bacon, sugar and tea that came after the tsarist armies."
My father was not impressed. "Relax, Tadeusz. Stop waving your arms about. We can see your cards. You'll be the first unemployed when they come here. With crime eliminated, there'll be no job for you."
Meet the Author
ALEKSANDER TOPOLSKI was born in 1923, the youngest of three children and the only son. He grew up in Pruzana in the Pripet Marshes of eastern Poland and in Horodenka, a small town in the southeastern corner of Poland. Following his two years in Soviet captivity, he joined the Polish Army loyal to the Polish Emigrée Government in London. A graduate in architecture from Manchester University, he practiced in England, Connecticut, Virginia, Puerto Rico, and the West Indies before settling in Canada. He has three grown children and lives with his wife, Joan Eddis, in Chelsea, Quebec.
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