The Alphabet
Begins with "S"

The Polish writer and foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski was born in Eastern Poland in 1932. When he was seven, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union amiably divided Poland between them and Soviet troops entered his hometown. He recalls this period below.

In school, starting in the first grade, we learn the Russian alphabet. We begin with the letter S. "What do you mean by S?" someone asks from the back of the classroom. "It should begin with A!"

"Children," says the teacher (who is a Pole) in a despondent voice, "look at the cover of our book. What is the first on letter this cover? S!"

Petrus, who is a Belorussian, can read the whole title: "Stalin, Voprosy Leninizma (Studies in Leninism). It is the only book from which we learn Russian, and our only copy of this book. On the stiff cover wrapped in grey linen, large, gold letters.

"Departing from us, Comrade Lenin commanded us to..." the humble and quiet Wladzio reads from the first row in a faltering voice. Best not to ask who Lenin was. All our mothers have already instructed us not to ask about anything. But these warnings weren't necessary anyway. I cannot explain it, I cannot say where it came from, but there was something so frightening in the air, something so tense and heavy, that the town in which we used to cavort with wild and joyful abandon had suddenly become a minefield. We were afraid even to take a deep breath, lest we set off an explosion.

All children will be members of the Pioneers! One day a car pulls into the schoolyard, and out step some gentlemen in sky-blue uniforms. Someone says that it's the NKVD. What the NKVD is isn't quite clear, but one thing is certain --- when grownups utter this name, they lower their voice to a whisper. The NKVD must be terribly important, because its uniforms are elegant, new, spic-and-span. The army walks around in rags; instead of knapsacks they have small linen bags, most often empty, tied up with a piece of old string, and boots that look like they've never been polished; whereas if someone from the NKVD is coming, there is an azure glow for a kilometer around him.

The NKVD brought us white shirts and red scarves. "On important holidays," says our teacher in a frightened and sad voice, "every child will come to school in this shirt and scarf." They also brought us a box of stamps and distributed them to us. On each stamp was a portrait of a different gentleman. Some had mustaches, others not. One gentleman had a small beard, and two didn't have any hair. Two or three wore glasses. One of the NKVD people went from bench to bench distributing the stamps. "Children," said our teacher in a voice that resembled the sound of hollow wood, "these are your leaders."

There were nine of these leaders. They were called Andreyev, Voroshilov, Zhdanov, Kaganovich, Kalinin, Mikoyan, Molotov, Khrushchev. The ninth leader was Stalin. The stamp with his portrait was twice as large as the rest. But that was understandable. The gentleman who wrote a book as thick as Voprosy Leninizma (from which we were learning to read) should have a stamp larger than the others.

We wore the stamps attached with a safety pin on the left side, in the place where grownups wear medals. But soon a problem arose --- there was a shortage of stamps. It was ideal, and perhaps even obligatory, to wear all of the leaders at once, with the large Stalin stamp opening, as it were, the collection. That's what those from the NKVD recommended. "You must wear them all!" But meantime, it turned out that somebody had Zhdanov but didn't have Mikoyan, or somebody had two Kaganovichs but didn't have Molotov. One day Janek brought in as many as four Khrushchevs, which he had exchanged for one Stalin (somebody had earlier stolen his Stalin). The real Crœsus among us was Petrus --- he had three Stalins. He would take them out of his pocket, display them, boast about them.

One day a neighbor from a side bench, Chaim, took me aside. He wanted to exchange two Andreyevs for one Mikoyan, but I told him that Andreyev wasn't worth much (which was true, because no one could find out who this Andreyev was), and I refused. The next day Chaim took me aside again. He pulled Voroshilov out of his pocket. I trembled. Voroshilov was my dream! He wore a uniform, therefore he smelled of war, and I already knew war, which is why I felt a sort of closeness to him. In exchange, I gave him Zhdanov, Kaganovich, and threw in Mikoyan for good measure. Voroshilov fared well. Similarly Molotov. Molotov could be traded for three others, because grownups said that Molotov was important. The price was also high for Kalinin, because he resembled a Polish grandfather. He had a pale beard and --- unique among the leaders --- something resembling a smile....

The deportations take place at night. The method here is surprise. The person is asleep, and suddenly shouts wake him, he sees above him the fierce faces of soldiers and of the NKVD; they pull him out of bed, shove him with rifle butts, and command him to leave the house. They order that weapons be handed over, which of course no one possesses anyway. The whole time they spew vile obscenities. The worst is when they call someone a bourgeois. "Bourgeois" is a terrible term of abuse. They turn the whole house upside down, and they take the greatest delight in this. During the time they are conducting the house search and creating this whole indescribable mess, the wagon arrives.

It is a peasant wagon pulled by a paltry little horse, for the inhabitants of the Polesie region are poor and have bad horses. When the commander sees that the wagon is there, he shouts to the ones who will be deported: You have fifteen minutes to pack and get on the wagon. If the commander has a kind heart, he gives them a half hour. Then one simply has to pounce on anything and everything and stuff it into suitcases, whatever one can manage. Choosing anything, or deliberating about something, is out of the question. Quickly, at once, now, hurry up, hurry up! Then at a run to the wagon --- literally at a run. On the wagon sits a peasant, but the peasant won't help; he is not allowed to; he is not even allowed to turn around to see who is getting into the wagon. The house is left empty, for they take the entire family --- grandparents, children, everyone. They turn off the lights.

The boys who have managed to observe a deportation say that they have followed after these wagons on foot all the way to the railroad tracks. The freight cars stand there, a long transport. Every night there would be a dozen or so wagons, or several score or more. The wagons would come to a stop on the square in front of the train station. To get to the freight cars, one had to go on foot. It is difficult to board a car like that, because it is high. Those from the escort drove the deportees on, swung their rifles around, shouted, cursed. When they filled one car, they moved on to the next one. What did it mean --- to fill a car? It meant to stuff these people into it using knees and rifle butts so that there would no room left even for a pin.

One never knew what night they would come, or for whom. The boys who knew a lot about the deportations attempted to discern some rules in this matter, some hierarchies, to discover the key. Alas, in vain. Because, for example, they would begin deporting from Bednarska Street, and then, suddenly, they would stop. They would go after the inhabitants of Kijowska Street, but only on the even side. All of a sudden someone from Nadbzezna Street would vanish, but that same night they would have taken people from the other side of town --- from Browarna. Since the time of our house search, Mother does not let us take our clothes off at night. We can take off our shoes, but we have to have them beside us all the time. The coats lie on chairs, so they can be put on in the wink of an eye. In principle, we are not permitted to sleep. My sister and I lie side by side, and we poke each other, shake each other, or pull each other by the hair. "Hey, you, don't sleep!" "You, too, don't sleep!" But, of course, in the midst of this struggling and shoving we both fall asleep. But mother really does not sleep. She sits at the table and listens the whole time. The silence on our street rings in our ears. If someone's footsteps echo in this silence, Mother grows pale. A man at this hour is an enemy. In class we read in Stalin about enemies. An enemy is a terrifying figure.

Even if we do sleep, we're on pins and needles. We are asleep, but we hear everything. Sometimes near morning we hear the rumble of a wooden wagon. The noise swells in the darkness, and by the time the wagon passes our house, the racket is like that of some infernal machine. Mother walks to the curtain on tiptoe and carefully draws aside the curtain. It is possible that at this very moment other mothers on Wesola Street are doing the same thing. They see the slowly rolling wagon, on it the huddled figures, the Red Army men walking behind it, and --- behind them --- darkness once again.

The first in class to disappear was Pawel. Because winter was approaching, the teacher suggested that Pawel had probably caught a cold and was staying in bed. But Pawel didn't come the next day or the next week, and in time we began to understand that he would never come. Shortly thereafter we saw that the bench in the first row, in which Janek and Zbyszek sat, was empty. We grew sad, because the two of them played the best practical jokes, which was why the teacher made them sit in the front row, so that he could keep an eye on them. In other classes children also disappeared, more and more frequently. Soon no one even asked why they didn't come or where they were. The school grew empty. And after class we still played ball, hide-and-seek, stickball, but something had happened --- the ball became very heavy, during hide-and-seek no one felt like running fast, and in stickball every one waved the stick around any old way. Bizarre disputes and fierce battles erupted easily, after which everyone took off --- angry, sullen, and listless.

One day our teacher disappeared. We arrived at school as usual by eight o'clock, and after the bell, when we had sat down at our benches, the principal, Mr. Lubowicki, appeared at the door. "Children," he said, "go home now and come back tomorrow, you will have a new teacher, a lady." For the first time since my father's departure, I felt a cramp near my heart. Why did they take our teacher? He was constantly nervous and looked out the window frequently. He would say "Ah, children, children," and shake his head. He was always serious and seemed very sad. He was good to us, and if a student stammered while reading Stalin, he didn't shout, and even smiled a little.

I walked home dejected. As I was crossing the tracks, I heard a familiar voice. Someone was calling me. Freight cars stood along the railway, packed with people who were about to be deported. The voice was coming from there. In the door of one of the cars I saw our teacher's face. He was waving to me. My God! I started to race in his direction. But a second later a soldier caught up with me and struck me over the head so hard that I fell. I was getting up, dizzy and with a sharp pain, when he made as if to strike me again but didn't; he only started shouting at me that I should clear out of here, go to the devil.

--- From Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska
©1994 Vintage Books

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