Saturday, May 11, 2013

Aus alter Zeit

It's been a slow, but healthy Saturday so far. I spontaneously woke up around 5:00 am, snoozed the alarm that I had set for 7:30 am, put on some good music, and returned to the comfort of my bed to daydream in a lazy-weekend, semi-awake state. The sunrise sky I caught a glimpse of through the window was beautiful. My eyes then wandered around the ceiling for a while, and finally locked on this year's wishlist, which I scribbled on my last birthday and taped to my ceiling above the bed. The tape on the bottom has since partially come loose, and the list is now hanging by three corners, making it hard to read. I raised my right index finger towards it, pointing at Item 3 with my arm fully stretched out, and sketched a swift mid-air gesture at the end of the line, while uttering to myself: "Check!... :-)".

A little over six years ago, on the day that I turned 18, I went over to my grandmother's house to have a cup of tea and a talk with her. I remember it as if it were yesterday. She gave me a long, warm hug and a kiss on each cheek, like she always does. She then opened the lychee-flavoured black tea packet I had handed her, smelled it, and disapprovingly returned it to me.

   "Oh... I don't like your tea. I've already brewed my own earlier, and I'll have a cup of that. But I'll put the kettle on for you, and then we can talk.", she said, smiling sheepishly.

We both laughed, because she always does this. Being a tough customer is just one of those things that you have to love about her. We talked for an hour or so, and then she lit up as she suddenly seemed to remember something.

   "Oh, I almost forgot. Wait here!", she said, and disappeared to the other room, only to return later holding an old, brown paper bag. From the bag, she took out an old wrist watch, and gave it to me.

   "This is just gathering dust now, so I wanted you to have it. It might even still be working, I don't know... the winder is missing.", she said.

I took a closer look at the watch, and turned it on all sides with curiosity. It had a simple and elegant design. The hour markings were cut straight into the convex-bordered beige dial. There were two fragments of text inscribed thereon: "ᴘᴏʟᴊᴏᴛ", the brand name of the manufacturer at the centre, and "ᴍᴀᴅᴇ ɪɴ ᴜssʀ", written in a finer print below the number 6. The backing was plain steel, with no inscriptions on it, and by the looks of it, was not the original backing that had come with the watch, but a later replacement. I made a comment on it being a Soviet watch, and asked her where she had got it. She stopped for a moment, as if to sort out her memories, and then proceeded to tell me the story in a half-firm, half-sad voice.

The watch on my desk in Cambridge, as it looked on the day I had received it.

My grandmother is very old. When the second World War ended, she was orphaned at the age of 11. Her father had died on the front, while her mother died from exanthematic typhus six months later. The outbreak of the epidemic in the wake of the retreat of the Red Army that autumn had claimed the lives of thousands, as the towns and villages lay in ruins without access to clean drinking water.

The experiences she recalled from the years of her early childhood are horrific. Firstly, the entire Jewish population of my home town (at the time, roughly half of the population) was deported to concentration camps. Only a few of the German residents (which at the time, counted roughly yet another quarter of the population), also fearing for their lives, managed to flee to the United States; most of them stubbornly stayed put to protect their homes, businesses, and life savings, only to be later forcibly relocated to Nazi Germany. The only ones that got away were the ones who could lie about their ethnicity. The rest of the civilian population (Romanians and Ukrainians) were evacuated away from the front line. Following the war, Bukovina was partitioned between Romania (the Southern half), and the Soviet Union (the Northern half), before peace was eventually established and the surviving refugees could safely return and try to rebuild their lives from scratch. These things you can read from history books. The following, however, is a more personal story.

As she was an orphan, my grandmother had no choice but to work to earn her living. She engaged in daily labour for a short while, and was later taken in to care for an old woman. From there, she went on to work at the rebuilding of the town's hospital, moving out construction rubble and wiping the floors of the wards after they had been newly painted. When the construction work was over, the doctors, who had been impressed with her hard work, put in a word, and she became a member of the hospital staff. First as a cleaning person, and then later, after being trained, as a nurse in the paediatric ward.

This sums up more than a decade in a paragraph. By the time she became a nurse, the political atmosphere in the country had strained considerably. The king had long been forced to abdicate, Romania had been turned into a socialist republic, and it had fallen in the Soviet sphere of influence. All previous ties with the West were severed. She remembers how the hospital cringed in its early years under the lack of medical supplies. In the era of glass syringes, she remembered how the ward didn't even have a clock for timekeeping.

   "We needed to somehow keep time for the patients who had intravenous drips, but the only clock available was the one mounted on the nearby Catholic church tower, a few hundred metres away. We had clear view of it from some of the hospital windows, and that's what we used. It was hard.", she recalled, adding that at home, she relied on the siren from a nearby factory to know when to wake up and go to work.

   The hospital later received a wall clock as a donation from a CFR (Romanian Railways) employee, the life of whose child they had saved, but it wasn't until the late 1960s that one of the doctors in the ward was able to finally travel abroad on unrelated business (to St. Petersburg, as this was in the time of the Iron Curtain), and smuggle back some watches, which were otherwise extremely expensive in Romania at the time.

   "Me and a few colleagues gave him our gold earrings, and told him to sell them and bring us back watches.", she recalled. "He brought back this one, and I used it at work until I retired. It later stopped running, and I lost the winder somewhere, so I put it in a drawer and forgot about it for decades. I found it again last autumn, while cleaning."

   I wrote down her story on a piece of paper, as well as I could remember it, wrapped the watch in it, and put it safely in my desk drawer at home. Last winter, when I went home for Christmas, I decided to take it back to the UK with me. I researched the brand, and found out that it had been manufactured by the First Moscow Watch Factory, which reputedly later produced the Soviet watches used in space missions, including the one worn by Yuri Gagarin during the first manned space flight. Of course, the one that I have is the cheapest mass-produced model of its day, and is barely worth much even today, but the family story behind it makes it invaluable to me. I took it to a professional antique dealer in Cambridge and had it restored. Surprisingly, the mechanics were almost intact. I told him not to re-plate the frame, so he just cleaned it, replaced the glass, and got it running again.

The watch after I picked it up from the antique shop on Friday afternoon.

I didn't go home for Easter. Among the "official" reasons I enlisted were the cost of the flight and my impending MPhil dissertation, but the real reason was because I was scared of getting depressed. I called my grandmother this morning, and told her that I had had the watch restored. She was well, but seemed confused over the phone.

   "Do you remember the watch that you gave me?", I asked.
   "Yes...", she replied hesitantly, after a pause.
   "I'm holding it as we speak. It runs... I really like how it ticks :-)." I put the watch next to the phone. "Can you hear it?"
   "Yes... so you bought this?"
   "No, I didn't buy it. You gave it to me, remember? I didn't write down the year, but do you remember exactly when you first received it?"
   "Yes...", she made a very long pause, but she didn't reply.
   "It's OK, never mind. I love you! :-)"

We exchanged a few more lines, and we hung up. I was very happy today, I haven't felt so wholehearted in a long time. I felt... reconnected :-).