'My idea was to show how two people went through the two greatest tragedies of the 20th century,' says Zygmunt Frajzyngier
Zygmunt Frajzyngier has published more than two dozen books and more than 140 scholarly articles over his half-century long academic career. But it wasn’t until his seventh decade that he decided to publish the story of how his parents survived under the two most murderous political regimes of the 20th century: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
With The Roads of Exile, he presents detailed oral histories of his parents, Emanuel “Emek” and Franciszka “Franka” Frajzyngier, who died in 2011, as well as his own recollections of the experience.
“The purpose of the book is really to honor my parents,” says Zygmunt Frajzyngier, professor of linguistics at the University of Colorado Boulder. “My idea was to show how two people went through the two greatest tragedies of the 20th century.”
His father and mother were secular Jews living in a small town in eastern Poland when Zygmunt Frajzyngier was born in 1938. A decade earlier, his father had served three years in a Polish prison for passing out political fliers to commemorate May Day, a holiday celebrated by communist and socialist movements around the world.
“Why was the communist movement attractive to me?” Emek Frajzyngier remarked. “The year 1928 was a difficult year as far as the economy was concerned, and the conditions for Jewish young people were even more difficult than for young Poles… Everybody was reading literature about the need for social justice.”
The Nazis invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, divvying up the country with their then-ally the Soviet Union. Franka Frajzyngier soon witnessed the beating of Jews, and a Polish woman ominously told her, “You just wait and see what kind of destiny awaits you!” She knew it would not be safe to remain.
“Her first intuition was to flee. Her father, her brothers and all her relatives stayed. They thought, ‘Well, how bad can the Germans be?’ How wrong they were,” says Zygmunt Frajzyngier. His parents were the only members of their families to survive the war.
His father walked some 235 miles to Soviet-occupied Lvov in eastern Poland and Franka Frajzyngier followed in a horse-drawn cart with her toddler son shortly thereafter. Emek Frajzyngier took a job as an electrician in a coal mine in the Donbas region. But it soon became apparent that life under Soviet control was not the rosy picture painted by Communist propagandists.
“What we saw around us convinced us that what we imagined about the Soviet Union was about as wrong as it could be,” Emek Frajzyngier recalled. “People lived poorly, they wore the same poor-quality clothing every day, and there wasn’t much to eat.”
Emek Frajzyngier made the mistake of uttering his disappointment out loud. On the day the Nazis turned on the Soviets in June 1941, he was arrested, once more giving lie to fantasies of communist paradise.
“When they take you upstairs to the fourth floor,” another prisoner ominously told Emek Frajzyngier, “you will confess to everything they want you to confess to.”
First charged with being a spy, he was eventually convicted of conducting anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced to five years of hard labor, with no “right of correspondence” with his family. Loaded onto a boxcar with other prisoners, he was shipped to a prison camp in the frigid wastes near Novosibirsk, Siberia.
Life in the camp was much as Alexander Solzhenitsyn described it One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a daily routine of brutal labor, including digging in the frozen ground while enduring subzero temperatures and wind, scarce food and constant threat. Emek Frajzyngier learned quickly not to march behind smokers, who were sometimes shot by guards when they stooped to pick up cigarette butts.
Suffering bouts of pneumonia and pellagra, a debilitating disease caused by a lack of niacin in his diet, his father was “an old man at 31,” Zygmunt Frajzyngier writes. Ironically, poor health led to his early release after just three years in the camp.
Emek Frajzyngier learned quickly not to march behind smokers, who were sometimes shot by guards when they stooped to pick up cigarette butts.
“They didn’t want too many people to die in the camp. They were letting go those people who were on the verge of dying, so they would die outside of the camp,” Zygmunt Frajzyngier says.
Emek Frajzyngier was exiled to a remote Siberian village. He had no idea where his wife and son were—or even if they were still living.
As soon as her husband was convicted, Franka Frajzyngier was ejected from her apartment in Ukraine. She took her son by train to Central Asia, where she took a series of “extremely dangerous jobs in order to make sure there was some food available,” Zygmunt Frajzyngier says.
Franka Frajzyngier contracted typhus while working in a typhus hospital in the Uzbek Fergana Valley, and both she and her son came down with malaria while she was working in a pellagra hospital in Vanovsk, Russia. Finally, she worked barefoot and without protective clothing in a munitions plant in Kyrgyzstan that processed highly toxic antimony, a chemical element.
Unable to contact her husband in the prison camp, Franka wrote letters to central registration authorities seeking her brother-in-law. One day, she received a letter from her sister-in-law and was surprised to hear that Emek Frajzyngier had been released and “looking for you for more than a year.”However, since Emek Frajzyngier was still under exile, the family was forced to live in Siberia, where Zygmunt Frajzyngier began his schooling and his sister Wisia Frajzyngier was born. Zygmunt Frajzyngier suffered a bout with diphtheria, as well as at least one more-common childhood indignity, “Testing, with my tongue, whether the metal on the outside of the building where we lived was cold.”
He has just two memories of color from those cold, white early years of childhood: dragonflies, “their transparent wings … shimmering with delicate greens, blues, and pinks” in May, and decorations on a Soviet New Year’s tree.
After the war, the family returned to Poland, but anti-Semitic violence continued to rear its ugly head in a pogrom. Franka Frajzyngier and her son visited Israel, but were not inclined to emigrate.
Zygmunt Frajzyngier completed his schooling and went on to earn degrees in linguistics from the University of Warsaw and the University of Ghana, where he was an exchange student. In the late 1960s, his parents and sister left Poland for Sweden and he came to the United States.
“I was offered a position at (CU Boulder),” which he accepted knowing next to nothing about either the town or the school, he writes. “I knew only that it was about 2000 miles from New York and about 1,500 miles from San Francisco.”
After the death of their parents in 2011, Zygmunt Frajzyngier and his sister traveled to Lublin, Poland “to see the streets, and possibly the houses, where our parents grew up.” They also visited the site of a concentration camp where 70,000 people from the Lublin area were murdered, including their grandfather, uncles and other family members.
It was a sobering reminder that, if not for his parents’ hard choices and suffering, he might not be there at all.
“While my parents were alive, I was not aware what a source of strength they were for me. … Writing this book has become a source of strength for me, as if I was talking to them. So, through this book, they once again give me their support,” Zygmunt Frajzyngier concludes.