In Wartime

Aleksander Topolski
When the Russians invaded Poland in 1939, Aleksander Topolski tried to escape over the border in Rumania. He was caught by the NKVD, and sentenced to five years in prison. He was seventeen years old at the time. This is his story of prisons, trains, more prisons, more trains --- three years of non-stop cold, hunger, misery as a Polish refugee and a captive of the Stalinists.

He asks that as we read of his time here --- from the year he was caught until three years later when he joined the free Polish army in Iran --- we should imagine the words I Am Hungry inscribed at the top of each page. "Not the kind of hunger most of us feel when dinner is late or you go without food for a day or two. The hunger I am talking about is gnawing, incessant, pathological. It was the result of being underfed to the point of starvation for years." In Czortkow prison,

    Food became the main topic of our conversations. Finding a morsel of disintegrating potato in one's soup was a great event and warranted congratulations and comments from everybody. Between meals we talked a great deal about the dishes we ate at home or in restautants. And woe to him who interrupted Roman's description of a succulent roast duckling stuffed with apples and served with new potatoes in dill sauce, or Epstein's exploit of eating exotic concoctions in a Chinese restaurant in London.

There is prison literature and prison literature --- but outside of Jack Black's You Can't Win, I can't think of one that gets one so immersed in the subject that we feel ourselves right in the pest-hole, with the stink of the latrine, the lice (three kinds --- head, body, groin), the cold, the bodies pressed together --- and always, the watery soup, the 600 grams of bread or less, the occasional treat when one was able to bribe a trusty to bring in something special.

But a story about prison or death or sorrow cannot dwell on horror for three or four hundred pages. There must be a remission for the poor reader. Without Vodka gives us such, becomes a classic because there is an innocent hope that made it possible for Topolski to survive those years, a hope that guides his words even now, sixty years later.

Often, the diversions come from the details: some funny, some weird, some scary, some wildly imaginitive, most interesting in their own right: How to kill lice, how to construct chessmen from well-chewed pieces of bread, how to give a tattoo to a fellow prisoner with India ink pens (he was a professional draftsman), how to hoard bread, how to hide things from the guards, how to divert the prisoners who want to beat up on you, how to light a cigarette:

    With deft fingers suggesting years of practice, he looped one end of the string over his big toe, freeing a hand to hold a matchbox packed with charred cotton cloth. A few twirls and pumps and the button was soon a blur. He tilted his toe to touch the spinning button to the cast-iron radiator. Sparks flew. Some fell onto the charred cotton cloth making it glow. He blew gently on it and with a few drags lit his cigarette. It was all done within seconds. The button had to be porcelain or mother-of-pearl, he explained, in order to make sparks.

Without Vodka is an epic, and Topolski's travels come seem no less epic than those of Odysseus. He is captured in Gdynia, at the far north of Poland. He spends weeks or months in one prison, only to wake up, being transported in a cattle-car to yet another. During the war, when transportation of men and material was so vital in the battles against the Germans, we find that in the Stalin lunacy world, troop and cargo trains would often be held up so that the enemies of the state could be carried to another prison.

It could become a bore, but Topolski made it, for this reader, a can't-put-it-down trip because of his honorable writing style, his ability to pace the material, and an uncanny ability to sketch the characters that shared the filthy cells and trains with him. Indeed, it's a On-the-Road tale set in Russia, 1939 to 1942, well-colored by a nation's very odd priorities, the dictator's hold over the people, a state-sponsored system of destroying all logic of humanity and of justice. The book's title comes from an old Russian saying --- without vodka you can't figure it out.

There were informers in every cell --- one learned to identify them the moment one came into a new prison. The guards were often as hungry and as ragged as the prisoners. Whenever there was a forced march, the same lines were intoned: A step to the left, a step to the right, counts as an escape. The convoy will make use of their weapons without warning. March!

And the picaresque characters --- from all over Russia and Poland. Kozakiewicz from Nowy Pohost ("akin to the Pennsylvania Dutch") who always refers to Topolski as "Sir," invites him to visit "when the war is over," talks to him about their favorite subject, food, what it is like eating on the farm:

    For breakfast, milk still warm, straight from the morning milking. Sausages flavoured with marjoram. You ever had a ham from a wild boar cured in juniper smoke? And the pickled mushrooms and preserves our women make. Come! The larder is always full.

On one of the train trips jammed together for thirty days with the author are the Dombroski brothers, somehow always able to jump off the train at a station, came back with vodka and food and occasional ladies. The Polish priest, Father Krol, takes exception to their language, always talking about what they have or will do to their women. One of them retorts,

    Father, it's easy to preach a clean life for someone like you who tied a knot on his peter and carries his nuts around for display only. But for us, mere normal mortals, living clean is well nigh impossible. Somebody's got to sin, if only to keep your job going.

And always it is the immaculate descriptions that sets the characters apart and keeps us going in this movie of impossibly hard, hungry, lice-ridden, filthy, prison life, written in picaresque fashion by the always despised Pole-in-Soviet-Russia trying to make do in with a country at war with the world, in which one man ran the whole show, using millions of agents to destroy live and hope and joy, for, it seems, the sheer hell of it.

Most of all, it is Topolski's character --- always trying to figure out how to make do in a world of rags and no food and tiny tyrants. Twice he comes down with typhoid fever; twice he survives but all the while with a scurvy that weakens him, loosens his teeth, gives him running sores (sores described almost too exactly for some reader's tastes.) Yet through the dreck he always comes across as an honorable, hard-scrabble sort right out of Lazarillo de Tormes.

§     §     §

Part of the fascination for those of us who grew up unable to peer through the Iron Curtain is the discovery that life in the USSR was as bad as we had heard (some of us thought it was just propaganda).

For example, prison memoes were made on the backs of pieces of wall paper because of a typical Five-Year-Plan hitch where there was a shortage of writing paper but an overabundance of nicely colored wallpaper. But in the Slobodskoi prison in the midst of the pine forest, all notes and lists of prisoners were kept on planks of wood, since no paper at all was available.

In one prison called Chernigov, the guards, as usual, come to do their weekly search. The prisoners are driven out in the corridor. The search, the prisoners notice, seems to take a long time. At one point they peek in through the spy hole, find the guards gathered around one of the beds. One had found something curious.

    In front of him, stretched flat on the blanket, was a green flannel shirt which belonged to Zynio. The shirt had a long zipper in front. With his mouth half open, the guard kept pulling the zipper up and down. He had obviously never seen a zipper before. Nor had the other guards. Fascinated by that "Amerikansky" invention, they crowded around the bed, turning their heads left and right to follow the zipper with their eyes as if watching a game of tennis being played on a miniature grass tennis court.

The Poles are kept crowded in their cells without respite. There is little or no air. It is either freezing cold or desperately hot. Dozens are jammed in a cell meant for five. The smell of the latrines is overwhelming. They are trapped there for what seems like forever. But then:

    When a guard brought into our cell a broom made of young birch twigs which still had green leaves on them, we gazed at it and sniffed it, burying our faces in the green bouquet. We marvelled at the design of leaves, their saw-like edges and their delicate veins, as if we had never seen them before. Just as being cut off form the outside world had heightened our appreciation for nature, so the months of hunger had sharpened our ability to smell food. We could smell fresh bread even before it was unloaded in front of the prison gate from the van that brought it from a bakery in town.

Occasionally his cell mates would divert themselves:

    Each day before our skimpy supper, all three of the students would "take a walk along the main corso in Zaleszczyki." Walking three abreast, they'd take eight steps forward, turn around at our cell's wall and take eight steps back to where they started. While they went back and forth like this again and again, they ran a commentary on everything they "saw" in their imaginary ramble.

    "Hide your cigarette in your sleeve. Old Reiff [their math teacher] is walking on the other side of the street. Hello! Wanda! [They would doff their school caps in Wanda's direction and smile.] See how she wiggles her bum? Now let's stop for a minute in front of the cinema and look at the posters. Not bad. Gharry Kuper and Loreta Yank. [For that's how we said Gary Cooper and Loretta Young in Polish.] Now, watch out. Quick! Cross the street before that old bore Gwalik gets a hold of us. Should we stop at the ice-cream kiosk?

--- Ignacio Schwartz


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