A Gitsel

Sometimes on the main streets of the pre-war Brest, among graceful coaches with haughty coachmen on boxes and passengers comfortably sitting on soft seats, rare cars and bustling crowds of cyclists, one could notice the carriage standing out against this usual background. A stalwart well-fed bay horse with a thick reddish mane and a luxurious tail of the same colour decorated with shiny rivets harness, wearing blinkers, clicked with its horseshoes on the cobblestones of the roadway and with apparent ease dragged behind the small wooden booth on solid forged wheels. At the back of the booth were doors with barred windows.

A man of small stature, dressed in tightly buttoned hooded cloak made of rough canvas, with his feet in boots barely visible, sat on the driving box in the front.
He was wearing a pulled down cap with a large peak on his head and held the reins and the compulsory whip in his hands. However, the latter was rather a decor element. His calm and strong horse seemed to listen to the voice of the master, flawlessly following his orders, and it would have been an insult to use a whip to urge his handsome and smart assistant.
On the roof of the booth there was an attached long pole with a movable belt loop at the end. It evidenced the profession of the man. He was a dog-catcher or a gitsel, as it was customary to call people of this profession in the north-west and south-west regions of tsarist Russia.

Usually, the gitsel’s booth rattled along the main streets for a short while turning into lateral more deserted streets where there were more chances to meet potential victims. It has to be said that dogs instinctively feeling appearance of the hunter would scatter and hide. Only those who lost vigilance would have bad luck to be caught up by the loop. Both the long-sleeved cloak made of thick canvas reaching his heels and rough boots on his feet reliably protected the trapper from a possible bite. The gitsel usually put a caught dog in the booth, which was divided into two compartments by a movable partition. A victim would first get into the “admission room” and into the general cell next. The “catch of the day” was delivered to the estate on Lysaya Gora, which the locals nicknamed “gitslyuvnya”. The house of the pre-war dog-catcher survived until these days.

Gitsel was neither a gat man nor a hangman for his prisoners. He placed the caught dogs in the crates with booths built in the courtyard of the farmstead. He fed them with horse meat. In fact, it was a dogs’ shelter: short term for some, extended for the others. If a dog was missing, the owners first rushed to Lysaya Gora. They often found their pets scared but in good health. After the identification procedure, dogs were returned to their owners. If there was a registration badge on the dog’s collar, “hand to hand” transfer was quite simple. The owner had to present the document which was issued at the registration of the dog by the relevant department of the Brest municipality.

I still have such a badge, which was found in the garden of the Polish landowner B. Chapkevich, the former headmaster of Technical School. He escaped in early 1940, leaving three well trained German shepherds and a beautiful well-groomed orchard with beautiful flowerbeds. The dog’s silhouette was stamped on the obverse of the round badge having 3 cm in diameter. In the centre of the reverse of the badge there was the assigned registration number, in that case — 1145 with the inscription: “1938. Brzesc n/B” around it. The number of dogs in the shelter was constantly changing. Only ownerless dogs, “bezpańskie psy”, stayed in the crates for a long time. I learned these details of the special treatment of the “prisoners of gitslyuvnya” from Yevgeny Nikolayevich Letun, my old school friend.

His parents were friendly with Gitsel for many years and often visited with him, though the distance from the house on Zbozhovaya Street (Mostovaya) where the Letuns lived to the Gitsel’s house on Lysaya Gora was rather long.

Gitsel, as an employee of the municipal service of the magistrate, continued working in the relevant department of the city council after September 1939, and after the German occupation of Brest, he also worked in the city government. He was in need to all authorities. Almost daily, all year round, the carriage with the booth circled around the city and its outskirts searching for victims. Gitsel freely entered the courtyards of the houses, drove up to the protected areas and facilities without any suspicion. Being a usual well-known detail of the city’s landscape, this small, imperceptible man had excellent opportunities to observe the surrounding reality. And he did exactly that in the Polish times, under “the Soviets” and during the occupation.

Unfortunately, I do not know the name or surname of this person. In his stories about the events of the pre-war times and the time of the German occupation, Yevgeny Nikolayevich had never named him. He was just a gitsel. Although my companion remembered perfectly well not just the names, but also the nicknames of his many childhood friends. He probably knew the surname of the gitsel too but kept it a secret. Such attitude was typical for the majority of the city residents who survived the fleeting change of powers in 1939–1941, followed by the occupation and the liberation.

During our almost half-a-century friendship, Yevgeny Nikolayevich, little by little, shared his memories with me. In the last years of our meetings, he himself was curious about who the friend of their family had really been? Some events of the past remained a mystery for him too. Driven by the desire to learn more, we went once to Lysaya Gora. The area had of course changed dramatically over the past decades. We doubted if we would even find the place of the “gitslyuvnya”. But the first woman whom we met in Dubrovka and asked for guidance answered: “Gitslyuvnya? That’s it, right next door”. Following the instructions, we easily found the gitsel’s house recognized by Letun, and made the acquaintance with the new owners of the house. Unfortunately, we did not find out anything new.

What was it that my friend Yevgeny Nikolayevich wanted to find out?

Here I will make a necessary digression. Yevgeny Nikolayevich had never told when and in what circumstances his parents met and developed the long-term friendship with the dog-catcher. His father, Nikolai Demyanovich, and his mother, Maria Ignatyevna, came from the famous village of Olshany in David-Gorodoksky district. After serving as a gunner in the Polish army Nikolai Demyanovich moved with his family to Brest in 1935 and lived there until the end of his days. From the pre-war time the Letuns settled in Graevka, in the Skorbnik house on Zbozhovaya, now

Mostovaya Street. During the construction of the overpass, their house was demolished. Nikolai Demyanovich and Maria Ignatyevna moved to Moskovskaya Street, now Masherov Street, house No. 12. They were given a tiny two-room flat on the second floor above the shop. The tenants tremendously suffered from the crash produced by the freight elevator
of this shop.

Throughout all their lives, Zhenya’s parents carried out their peasant diligence and practical savvy. Preserving their previously acquired skills, they easily mastered new knowledge that helped them stay afloat at all times, no matter how difficult life circumstances turned out to be. They belonged to “town people” who were always famous among inhabitants of other areas of Polesie for their entrepreneurial spirit.

For example, Nikolai Demyanovich was known as an excellent shoemaker. His waterproof hunting boots with the single scam were ordered by many high-ranking people, including Marshal J. Pilsudski. Under “the Soviets” in 1939–41, he changed his profession and worked in one of the city’s construction organizations. With the beginning of the Nazi occupation, he returned to shoe handicraft. He repaired old shoes and sewed new shoes from customers’ material. Maria Ignatyevna was busy with her small kitchen garden, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and vegetables. She was also an excellent floriculturist.

Hard work produced good harvest, which was partly sold in the market. Nikolai Demyanovich was a sales person. This was noted in the city archive and reflected in the document found by V. Sarychev and published in the newspaper “Evening Brest”. As a matter of fact, the Germans introduced fixed prices for many food items and services and exceeding the upper price limit was penalized by a fine. My friend’s father was fined for such an offense. He slightly exceeded the official price limit selling his tomatoes which resulted in him getting into the protocol and along with it into the history.

Commercially minded Maria Ignatyevna placed on the window of the Letuns’ flat looking into the street the advertising: “Gorąca herbata. Ciastka”. The sale happened straight from the window. The local people willingly used the proposed service. The announcement was written in Polish which was then the most common language in the city. The Letuns did not make cakes and cookies themselves. Marya Ignatyevna ordered everything in the small bakery located in the courtyard of the magistrate in Dombrovsky Street (Sovetskaya). Zhenya delivered the pastry, having adapted a small cart for this purpose.

At that time, the most popular and demanded commodity was vodka. Under the threat of execution, trading vodka was prohibited by the occupation authorities. In spite of this, the illegal trade of alcohol was a lucrative business and people took a risk. Vodka could ruin lives and it could also save them. For a bottle of vodka, one could be shot, and the same bottle of vodka could buy some one’s forgiveness. Vodka stood in the top place as a bribe. Despite the slogan “Ordnung muss sein!” (“Order should be”) and draconian ways of its implementation, the Germans turned out to be desperate bribe-takers. Many problems were solved by simple tributes. Therefore, the residents of Brest figured out to stock up, just in case, one or two bottles of vodka. Purchase and sale took place under safe conditions, only in the close circle of acquaintances and reliable people. There were also a few bottles of vodka stored in the hidden corners of the Letuns’ flat. Yevgeny Nikolayevich was recalling that once in the dull night, a horseman galloped to them. He was one of the gitsel’s assistants (from the pre-war time two young guys worked for him). Gitsel had sent him to the Letuns for a bottle of vodka. Having received the bottle without any further questions, the messenger galloped into the darkness of the night. This unexpected night visit evoked questions in the mind of Yevgeny Nikolayevich. But he shared his concerns only a half a century later.

Firstly, the messenger galloped during the curfew. Numerous patrols were scattered around the city and meeting them meant trouble. In the mornings, early passers-by often stumbled against corpses of those curfew violators who were shot. Secondly, to cover the distance from Lysaya Gora to the house on Mostovaya Street and back, the messenger had to pass twice by the carefully guarded military facilities:  the airdrome and the barracks of Severny gorodok; to cross the outpost at the entrance to the city, and all these with the prohibited item in the pocket. One had to be deeply sure of his safety. How could the gitsel not know all these?

The second event, which happened in the Letuns family, was even more mysterious. One day, returning from his school, Zhenya found his mother deathly frightened. “Your father was arrested. Run to Gitsel. Maybe he could find out where he is and what happened to him!” Zhenya rushed headlong into the street and ran to Lysaya Gora with all his might. Why did Maria Ignatyevna send him for help there? Maybe because when they visited gitslyuvnya they often saw the owner of dogs’ crates friendly chatting with German officers who, according to him, were coming for lost dogs?

Zhenya came back an hour later together with the gitsel. After listening to Maria Ignatyevna, he asked only one question: what colour was the uniform of the people who arrested her husband? In about two hours after he left, Nikolai Demyanovich was home.

Who was this little plain man of a despicable profession who left no name or surname behind him, but managed to instantly pull the prisoner out of the torture chambers of Gestapo? He carried away his secret over the Bug, where he retired together with the German troops retreating from Brest. The abandoned house in Brest and the name of the place where it stands — gislyuvnya, — that was all that remained. Yet there is no one around from Brest residents who once knew him. Nikolai Demyanovich, Maria Ignatyevna, Yevgeny Nikolayevich have long gone to a “better world”.

In the summer of 1946, the carriage of the new gitsel rattled in the streets of the city. But he was a completely different character. As the saying goes, “the pipe was lower and the smoke was softer”. I became a witness of an amusing incident that happened to him.

One day, he stopped his booth near the market place and went off for some business. The booth, from which desperate barking was heard, was circled by the visitors of the market place who were looking at the poor guys through the bars. My school No. 5 was next door. During the breaks, we would often run to the market to look at the food demonstrated on the shelves and at the stuff sold by rag-and-bone men. At that time, the open-air bazaars were if not proper shops but definitely holes-in-the-wall for household goods. One could find anything there. This time we did not get to the open-air bazaar, attracted by the dogs’ barking and the loud laughter of the bystanders. Having squeezed through their circle we saw the scene, whose hero was the city madman, a very young fellow, harmless in his illness. I often met him in the city centre walking along sidewalks and speaking loudly to himself. He often laughed without paying attention to the passers-by.

Under the crowd’s laughter, the fellow opened the cage, releasing the dogs that went frantic from their unexpected freedom. The barking and yelping dogs immediately scattered. He then climbed into the empty cage closed it and began to bark. The laughing crowd was cruel. Some people were teasing the fellow sitting in the cage, not understanding that they mocked themselves. The furious gitsel came running with dirty abuses and pulled the poor fellow from the cage. But he did not dare to beat him realizing that the viewers’ reaction would not be in his favour. He then quickly disappeared, followed by the laughter of the crowd, changeable in its sympathies. I never met the gitsel again. He was probably rattling somewhere with his booth, but it was the last time that I saw the man of this, now, well forgotten profession.