It was the year before it all changed. We stayed late at the cafe during the long days of summer. Inside, there were bright lights and laughter, especially when a beer was spilled, and a conversational hum interrupted by the sharp demands of short-tempered waiters. Outside, police horses clipped over cobblestones corralling rioters, as roving gangs, sober or drunk, chased Jews or Germans into dark spaces.
We were new graduates of the University of Warsaw Faculty of Architecture, together with our girlfriends or boyfriends or just friends. We divided into the Communists, who argued among themselves whether the architect was actually a bourgeois construct, and the Modernists, who argued over the primacy of form or function. I was a prominent member of the Modernists, scouring all sources for the latest news from Bauhaus and the latest monographs from our hero, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. My closest friend Max, who was so brilliant that the faculty were forced to present him with the gold medal at graduation despite his religion, was also a Modernist. He confided in me alone that he had sent his dissertation to Paris, to Le Corbusier.
In my memory, it was my hair that caused my liberation from the Gulag camp.
“What will you do?” This was the only question that mattered that next and last summer. Max and Sylvia were in the shadows of the far corner of the café at my final visit, their heads touching so their voices would not be overheard by the few solitary old men who knew no other place to go. I brought my coffee over and sat down while they focused on the ring pattern on the table.
“We have boat to Sweden arranged,” Max whispered. “Sylvia’s brother-in-law knows a fisherman, notorious anti-Semite, but now that only means he charges us more … There is not more room … What will you do?”
I wanted the pause to stretch into discomfort but friendship triumphed. “Home is in the wrong direction. There is no choice but to go east. I will try to cross the border into Estonia and somehow get to Riga. My father has a cousin there and perhaps I too can get a boat.” We carefully said our good-byes.
I wished I had saved my zlotys instead of enjoying cafés, theaters and the girls. Although the young man in the flat downstairs, called up the day before to join his cavalry regiment, was resigned to sell me his motorcycle for less than it was worth, I had nothing left for a good leather jacket. In the pregnant dark of the next morning, I put on my old winter jacket and slowly navigated through the familiar streets of Warsaw until the sun came up on my face and started coloring the yellow-green wheat fields growing at the suburbs’ edge. Running flat out, I would arrive to the border by dark, if I wasn’t stopped too often. The wind made the smell of mothballs from my old jacket less offensive and as I sped up, the engine roar filled my ears. High above me a bird called out, a long rising shriek like an angry eagle. The eagle cries multiplied and I pulled over, as behind me Warsaw exploded in blossoms of fire and smoke from the Stuka dive bombers, and I saw the first buildings fall.
The path leading to the barbershop was one taken routinely by the people in the camp. The reason was lice. On their irregular visits, the central inspectors had found lice on many prisoners in our compound. It was not only a health hazard; it was also a shame and a damning spot in the annals of the camp, on the reputation of the camp management and on the personal reputation of the camp commander. So it was the commandant himself, the Boss, who personally took charge of the battle of against the lice.
It was important to look good, as if fourteen years and more than one lifetime had not passed since we had last seen one another. I retrieved my brush from my suitcase in the taxi taking me from South Station to their address in Cambridge and gave my hair one more pass.
When Susstein hired me, he mentioned that good architects subscribed to Architectural Record, so every month I studied each project/design until the afternoon I opened my copy to read about a radical proposal for a dormitory at Harvard and my breath stopped and my heart leapt. There was Max, whom I had finally accepted I would never see again, looking up at me from his photograph. When my eyes could focus and with an uncharacteristically shaky hand, I wrote him in care of the office address included in the article. Within days I had his reply expressing equal delight at finding me alive, and inviting me to visit him and Sylvia at the earliest opportunity. Now the fourteen years were compressing to minutes as the taxi halted in front of a green clapboard house.
The first line of attack was the hair. Now the hair for a prisoner in the remote Gulag was, at one level, a part of your well-being, an anatomical/physiological phenomenon which you would care for by clipping, cutting, shearing and (occasionally) washing and which might add to your personal appearance and attractiveness, and maybe as another tool to withstand the deep and long winter cold. Except for that last (and perhaps significant) point, this is not different from other men in other places like Warsaw. For a prisoner in a camp five thousand miles away, however, the length of hair was a symbol of status, a sign that a certain level within the camp hierarchy had been achieved, and maybe most importantly, it brought you to an equal footing with the “free”.
Sylvia stood in the bright yellow Pullman kitchen, chopping, mixing and stirring as Max and I stood just out of range. I did not see her measure or consult a recipe yet a most delicious aroma of onion, garlic and rosemary and warmth soon surrounded us. She cooked like she dressed, boldly and elegantly. A patterned silk scarf only appeared to be casually thrown over the shoulder of her bronze wool turtleneck, both picking up the deep browns in her hair, which was arranged in a neat and promisingly full, bun. She had kept her hair down and free when I met her first, before she saw Max.
We shifted to the table in the living/dining room to enjoy her paella. By the time we settled on the couch, two bottles of Cotes-du-Rhone were gone and we were on to the cognac. Max depended on her for the small talk of social intercourse so he sat and occasionally nodded as we spoke of family and living, taking over only when I asked how they had come to Cambridge.
“Wyjechaliśmy z Warszawy w lipcu. We left Warsaw in September, it was 1939, right, and then we were in Stockholm. Do you remember Piantokowski from the class before ours?” he asked. I said I did, although I wasn’t certain.
“Well, he was there. Working as inspector, more engineer than architect. He gave us room. And waiting for me was letter from Le Corbusier. We corresponded before we left and I gave Piantokowski’s address in my last letter.”
“He did like your paper on urban planning and philosophy,” I said, referring to Le Corbusier, not Piantokowski. Max waved his hand. Except that his hair was graying, he was unchanged from when we said goodbye that evening in the café.
“He was not happy I was in Stockholm which he called chaotic and monotonous.”
“He must not have been there in that brief but glorious summer,” Sylvia commented.
“But the citizens must live there the other eleven months.” Max turned his smile to her, then back to me. “At bottom of his letter, he asked me to come to Paris, to work with him.”
I interrupted to exclaim my admiration and Max’s smile broadened briefly.
“Can you imagine, I actually turned down Le Corbusier, maybe greatest architect of our time? Sylvia was wise head here, predicting Paris would be no better than Warsaw for a Jew. He was quite understanding and arranged for me work with Markelius. You may have seen our proposal for the replacement of old central Stockholm with modern efficient design. Le Corbusier sent me drafts of his Athens urban plan, you read it, no? And we met at the CIAM conferences, first in Bridgewater and again in 1949 in Bergamo.”
“My visa for Canada came the month before Bergamo and I could not risk losing it. I wanted to go,” I told them.
“What a shame!” Max sympathized. “This is where I meet Ruiz. He invited me to join him here at Harvard and we came next year. If you had been there, he would have invited both of us. Can you imagine?”
At that moment I became aware of how late it was, so when Sylvia turned to ask about my journey, I said that it would certainly keep until tomorrow.
The next day consisted of a luncheon at the apartment of another old classmate teaching at the Harvard School of Design, Marian Gorski. The meal ended by early afternoon and but there was no reason to leave. Faculty and students joined us at various times, Sylvia and other spouses eventually left and even the celebrated Jorge Ruiz attended for a time. There was the buzz of excited voices, there was laughter. I felt drunk, perhaps a little from the alcohol or perhaps from keeping up with the conversations and arguments about Johnson and Neutra and other names I had read in Architectural Digest. Primarily, it was from being unmoored, adrift between now and our old café world.
By the time Max and I were finally saying our goodbyes to walk back through the dark streets to his house, we all were certain that I would join them in Cambridge.
“We will be Ruiz’s boys, go to meetings and shout at speakers, write books better than Le Corbusier, make new architecture!” Max clapped me on the back.
The next morning, at the station, I kissed Sylvia’s cheeks and hugged Max, saying thank you for the hospitality, for the reconnection to something that I thought had been lost and for the prospect that it could all happen again. I came back to my new wife overflowing with news.
Length of hair was one of the few external attributes which distinguished the “free” from the “prisoner.” Except for the fact that at the end of our daily work we were ushered into our own drafty wooden barracks behind the barbed wire and “they”, the freely employed, were going to their lodging (sometimes to families), there were very few differences in our habits, our dress or even our food, such as it was. For thirteen months dinner consisted of rice in broth, rarely augmented by a quarter loaf of bread. And, of course, we were all thousands of miles from home. Here I am talking of the upper echelon of the prisoners, mostly professionals who were almost free to go in and out of the camp/become organized, and who often worked in quite responsible positions. For this “privileged” group of prisoners to whom, at that time, I had good luck to belong, length of hair was of quite passionate importance. To be able to have a forehead covered, to part, comb, to arrange and under the weak electric light that barely penetrated the perpetual winter to show them all your hair, long and obedient, was a very serious ambition in our world.
The drafting table in our apartment was in the small spare room, where the radiator produced enough heat to require the window always be opened a crack at the top. Through that window, I saw the bare willow branches draping down in the fading afternoon light. With a small record player on which to play my Schubert, a pot of pencils and an electric eraser, and with my wife out shopping, there was time to work. I was learning from Susstein less about architecture than about the business of architecture, such as how to take advantage of a new immigrant. This meant that my wife would be gone longer, going from store to store to find the best prices.
I imagined the work spaces at Harvard. Were they like Warsaw where the room in which all senior students had their tables was the size of a soccer field and the sun came through the skylights six meters over our heads? Did Ruiz and Max and Marian have their own studios, or just offices to sit, think and write? The faculty in Warsaw sat in offices which were dusted and cleaned every night, where they left for the faculty club early in the afternoon. I wrote to Max to ask about what my new life would be like.
He wrote, “Don’t worry, Yutek.” That was his nickname for me. “Architecture needs us and there is much to do. A few reactionaries to root out, even here, and young minds to set on our path. They will remind you of us.”
Susstein’s commissions consisted of small industrial and commercial properties and the rare private home design. This one was a small office building with ground floor retail located in an area of the city undergoing what was termed urban renewal. We were replacing a sixty year old brown brick structure that attracted little attention except that it had far more character than the rows of soulless but functional housing units being erected across the boulevard. I sharpened a pencil and began to sketch, my strokes like the willow branches, thin and sharp, on sheet after sheet of stiff tracing paper pulled from a roll.
As I had discovered when I was a student, the freedom to create something from nothing, to take empty space and imagine it carved into a real object, to walk around and through it, this was my joy.
Since the favorite habitat of lice is hair, this is where the first strike was aimed. The procedure was simple. After morning report when all the healthy-bodied prisoners were leaving for work, the commandant stood at the gate with the barber next to him. No matter the temperature, everybody passing under the light at the gate had to bare his head, risking freezing the tips of his ears. Any hair longer than 3 mm was administered a 1 mm “road” with barber’s clipper. Since this was a stigma and a sign of poor hygiene, whoever got a lice road resigned himself to having his entire head clipped.
Early Spring, 1954
Wherever I stepped, it was either ice or mud. The black ice was deceptive and the brown slurry felt like it could penetrate my galoshes. Of course, this did not bother me. I successfully navigated through them to the construction trailer, a room overflowing with big men puffed up by layers of frayed sweaters and smudged quilted jackets. The only one who looked directly at me was the foreman, a pencil behind one ear and a walkie-talkie in his stubby, dirty fingers.
I shook his hand and placed my hard hat on the large table that took whatever space remained in the room, running my fingers once or twice through what was now steel-grey but still a full head of hair.
“How are you?” I asked the foreman.
“Not too bad. We missed a few days during the snowstorm but gained back one since then.”
This was the ritual. The architect had to briefly appear as if he were interested in the foreman as something like a colleague, except not a colleague, while the foreman straddled the gap between the men and the Boss, a term applied to anyone who only visited and did no visible work.
The foreman removed the half-empty coffee cups and we huddled over the blueprints for almost an hour, reviewing the challenges to come in the next few weeks of construction. I never asked for the impossible but it was best to get all the questions answered now because mistakes would inevitably be blamed on the foreman and his crew.
Another letter had come today, this time from Marian asking when I was coming. I wondered, had Max set foot on a job site since he had been safe, warm and looked after in Stockholm? Ruiz, Max and Marian did not need galoshes. Like theoretical physicists, they constructed their buildings from their ideas and shaped them by their arguments. Their legacy would be in the history books, like Palladio, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier. And also Albert Speer and Joseph Stalin.
On a black morning like the thousand other mornings, I also got a “road”. At the tunnel head, one of laborers, who were the criminals and the unlucky, saw me and said, “Hey, Comrade. Soon you will look like one of us!”
I laughed at his little joke but knew what the fate of my hair was to be. Upon my arrival back to camp, I went straight to the barber, who had his shop on the grounds of the camp headquarters where I usually worked as manager of the civilian building department. I was about to sit in the chair (an authentic barber chair) when I turned to Nazemerov, the barber and said. “To hell with it, shave it all off.”
He shrugged and wordlessly went at the task, and at the point that exactly half my head was shaved, the headquarters messenger boy ran into the shop and when he saw me, exclaimed with relief, “Here you are. The Boss is looking for you, quick.”
Usually when the Boss was looking for somebody it was not a good sign. Either I did something wrong – we never knew how our work would be judged – or somebody ‘spilled’ something about me. Whatever it could be, it did not augur well. A flush of anxiety arose in me and was quickly extinguished because at that moment, I no longer cared. I told Nazemerov that I was not going half-shaved and he finished the job. So it was with a clean and shining head, I went to face the Boss.
He was a tall heavy-set man, blond, cold blue or maybe gray eyes looking directly at you. His contact with prisoners was minimal except for presiding over the weekly sessions in Marxism-Leninism where, with surprising grace, he explained the historical inevitabilities and moralities while omitting any mention of our camp. Otherwise he was a strict disciplinarian. He knew how to push the workers, forcefully trying to keep pace with the demand on which we were working according to the schedule imposed by the Gulag. The tunnel we were boring through the damn dank rock in the mountains of the Sikhote Alin Chain, near Manchuria, was badly needed by the Soviet authorities to relieve the congestion on the main Trans-Siberian line moving American Lend-Lease supplies between the east and the West, where desperate struggles with Nazi forces were taking place. Expediency was our only rule, carving out the minimal amount of limestone and granite required to create the necessary space underneath the mountain.
I bundled up and left the sanctuary of the trailer to cut through the brilliant and brittle cold to the actual construction site. The steel was up and some of the retaining walls had been poured. Susstein had eventually accepted my design; the walls were concrete, not cinder block. I removed my glove and ran my hand over the cold surface and I could feel the tension between its solidity and its sinuous curve enveloping the space within. It was no longer a concept or even a blue one inch line on a piece of paper. It was now a full foot of grey mass, solid under my fingers. On the other side would be one of those new unisex hair salons, and the design possibilities offered by the expanse of bowed inner wall began to pop in my brain as I stood holding my building, much more substantial than a copy of Architectural Record.
Regrets about my decision to reject Harvard would linger for a short time, longer than any doubts.
Here was a pleasant surprise. Without any preamble the question was put.
“You are Polish?” It seemed more like a statement than a question since he must have known the answer before he called me. So when I confirmed, he continued.
“Comrade Stalin has declared that we are now friends and allies. So you will be liberated”
Two days later I walked through the gate with no reason or imperative to return. The rate with which my hair grew back measured the miles across Siberia and my hair looked as it had when I left by the time I re-entered Europe. But it was a Europe I could not recognize. Kiev resembled Budapest, which looked like Vienna, all homogenized by ideologies arguing to the death. They had evaporated tenements and apartments, obliterated cafes and stores, toppled buildings and excavated massive holes. Looking one way, it appeared as if the cities had been administered a “road”, in another, like they had been shaved, and made ready for the next theoretician.
Henry Rozycki practices medicine and writing in Richmond, Virginia. His patients are grateful that he is more practiced in the former than the latter. His stories have appeared in The Cynic Online and Hospital Drive and he has been a Glimmertrain finalist. He has also had essays published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch andSkirt! Magazine.