8. Coping with commissars

By Peter Fraenkel

Rosenthal was thin and wiry and very quick in his movements – a whippet of a man. To bridge silences he would light a cigarette. And then another. He was not popular with the Poles though he spoke an educated Polish. Most of them did not bother to hide their dislike of Jews – but especially of Rosenthal. “Too clever by half!” they said. “He’s the type who goes into revolving doors behind you …but comes out first!” Even so they enjoyed his stories, though they doubted they were true.

“We found ourselves in Tashkent in the Soviet Union”, he told us. “We got out of Poland as the Germans advanced. Life, in Tashkent was tough. Even Russians went hungry. I was doing a little business…. business that would have been legal anywhere on earth – except in that bloody place. Soviet laws are crazy. I was performing a useful service. There were great food shortages in town but I knew some peasants on a collective farm. I speak Russian and most of these Uzbeks understood me. I persuaded them to sell me vegetables and fruit and I brought them back to town. I was making a living. Not much of a living, but my wife was working too. She’s good at sewing.”

Rosenthal lit another cigarette. “One day I got a summons to the KGB. I can tell you, I nearly wet myself. I couldn’t sleep a wink that night. Illicit profiteering? Siberia, here we come! But my wife said “They didn’t come for you in the middle of the night. Maybe that’s a good sign.” She’s an intelligent woman. I told her: “If they take me in, start divorce proceedings at once! Save yourself and the kid.”

They kept me waiting in that green-painted waiting room….must have been nearly an hour. The colour of vomit! I had to keep going to the toilet. In the end I was ushered in to the commissar. Double doors, padded double doors! Nobody would have heard me screaming…. But no, the commissar offers me a chair and he smiles. Not what you’d call a pleasant smile – but a smile is better than a kick up … you know where. I said “I’m very pleased to meet you, comrade commissar.”

“No,” he said. But he was still smiling: “You’re not a party member. You can’t call me comrade.”

I apologised. “I’m just an ignorant Pole. But my great ambition is to become a party member – one day.”

“Well,” he said. “We’ll see. We’ll see. To business, Rosenthal: Your wife has been making dresses for my wife. Decent dresses … and reasonably priced. You seem to me to be honest people, the two of you. Now, we have a large population of Polish refugees here…”

“Yes, commissar, we are all most grateful that we found refuge here, away from the bloody Germans.”

“Well, here’s your chance to show you gratitude. We need a few people who can mix easily amongst the Poles, people who can stand in queues, listen to the chatter and tell us what people are saying… particularly in queues. You understand me?”

“Commissar, I understand perfectly! I would love to be of help to you …. I mean, to the great Soviet Union. Really, I would. But I can’t stand in queues. You see, I have this stomach ulcer. Very debilitating, very painful… Five minutes of standing and I’m done for. And then it takes me two or even three days in bed to recover…”

“Raspizdatelstvo!” cursed the commissar and he crashed his fist down on his desk: “Another bloody fuckup!”

Oi, I thought. Siberia, here I come! But no: he continued: “There are three decent Poles in this whole accursed town. One has a stomach ulcer. The second one has a bad back and the third? He’s almost totally — deaf!”

Rosenthal blew a smoke ring.