I leapt out of bed like a madman. From a deep sleep I had been woken suddenly by a loud crash and an explosion. For a second I could not quite understand what had happened. I was surrounded by a white cloud smelling of slaked lime. Aghast, I looked about. There was a big hole in the ceiling near the window, bits of plaster were falling to the ground and on the floor near the bed was a large piece of bent metal. It was a bit of anti-aircraft flak. "Another air raid," I thought, and this was immediately confirmed by a burst of gunfire above the roofs; high time to scram. My room on the top floor of a five-storey building was certainly not an attractive shelter against bombs. I dressed hurriedly and ran down the empty stairs. Some men were peering out through the half-open basement door. They were shouting excitedly and pointing to something in the sky. I looked up. Above our part of the city an air battle was in progress. The pale sky of a September dawn was lightened by the sun just rising. The planes in the sky were like a disturbed flock of crows, flying haphazardly above the city, turning, zig-zagging. Some were high up, others with a shrill noise barely cleared the rooftops. The whole sky was covered with tiny clouds, some were pursuing the planes as if trying to catch them, others erupted suddenly in front of planes which then dived instantly.

Someone shouted "Look, look, there to the left - it is falling."

Everyone tried to see, craning their necks the plane was approaching the ground very fast. It almost touched the roofs and then, with an unexpected growl of the motors, the plane started to rise.

The onlookers were disappointed. "What a shame - I thought we had him. Our gunners are shooting poorly. There is a whole flock of them. One could shoot them like ducks."

"Not poorly, gentlemen, but too thinly," said the janitor. "They only make holes in the sky. It should be like buckshot from a double-barrelled gun!'

Close to us, near Marszalkowska Street, automatic guns began firing. Looking up, we saw above our heads an aircraft giving a shake with its tail; for a moment it seemed he might regain his balance, but then in a twisted, corkscrew motion, he dived to the ground, leaving in the sky a dark line marking his descent.

"Got him" people cried.

"Bravo! Bravo!" called some young girls, clapping their hands.

The 'All Clear' sounded.

A fantastic spectacle. General enthusiasm.

The charred, bodies of two young fliers under the debris of the plane gave off an odour of burnt, singed flesh. The crowd surged towards their killers. In seconds, a small armoured car was besieged. Nobody doubted that these were the victors. From a nearby florist, ladies brought flowers and started throwing them over the young officer who was standing in the car saluting to all sides. His eyes were shining excitedly and he was very proud. He was the hero of the day. On his chest was a cross of valour and on his conscience were two more human lives.

I had difficulty pushing through the crowd. Only at the central station could I get a tram. The tram was full of people and luggage. They looked as if they were all leaving. Tired and pale faces, women with small children in their arms - some with bandaged hands and faces. I started to talk to one woman.

"We are from Ciechanowo, sir. The Front is there already. My sister," pointing to a young woman with her head bandaged, "and I were barely able to run away,” she said.

"Are you hurt?"

"Yes, a piece of shrapnel hit me in the head when I ran over the street to my sister. We escaped with only the clothes we stood in. Everything was in flames."

A thought struck me. That must mean that the Front was very close as Ciechanowo was barely 100 km away and here we knew nothing about it.

At the next stop a group of refugees from Modlin boarded the tram, claiming that it was impossible to stay in Modlin any longer as the Germans were bombarding the neighbourhood with shells.

I left the tram when it stopped at Marszal Square in order to buy a newspaper, hoping for news of the last twenty-four hours. The leading article on page one, written in large block letters, affirmed that prompt assistance was on the way from our allies. They were mobilising all their strength to help Poland who was bravely resisting the invasion, etc... I looked through the following pages for news from the Front, but in vain. Page two was devoted to strained relationships between Japan and America. A long and uninteresting article filed the whole page, leaving space only for a small verse about the “steel wings of victory". On page three the King of Siam assured Great Britain of their common interests, the deep friendship of two nations who value peace, etc... The following pages covered criminal offences, advertisements, theatre and cinema programmes and various small announcements. That was all.

In the afternoon, the Ministry ordered the packing of documents. A large group, including myself, was directed to the right wing of M.S.Z., the archives. In a large hall stood stacks of metal cabinets reaching to the ceiling with only a narrow walking space between them. There we set to work.

Around midnight, tired and hungry, we sat down for a short rest. Some gentlemen from the Minister's office arrived and told us that we would have to be prepared to work through the night. Then he divided our labours so that the men's energies were spent carrying packed cases outside while the women continued packing, but now only from special cabinets marked T. T. (secret). One o'clock, two o'clock. Passages, halls and the yard were being filled with large, wooden crates. We walked wearily and were very sleepy. At three o'clock somebody came with a list and read a few names, including mine, and told us to go home immediately, pack bare essentials and be ready to travel.

"One suitcase only,” we were told by the elderly, clean-shaven gentleman with a monocle.

“Gentlemen, you have to be here at the Ministry at half-past four in the morning. The Government has ordered the evacuation of all public head offices. Our Ministry will be evacuated this morning. You, gentlemen, have to supervise the transport of the documents of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The destination will be given later."

It has happened, I thought. The refugees in the tram were telling the truth. Warsaw is directly endangered; therefore the sudden evacuation.

I intended to hurry home but there were no trams and I had a fair distance to cover. The city was in complete darkness, looking like a block of marble. The streets were deserted. From Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street came the dull, monotonous sound of wheels and the stamping of horses' hoofs.

I turned into the street in the direction of Coper­nicus statue. A field artillery battery was on the move. Around the statue of Copernicus a company of C.K.M. (heavy machine guns) had halted. The horses, heads down, were standing motionless in their harness; the soldiers crowded the steps of the Holy Cross Church. Coat collars turned up, they huddled on stairs and against the walls. Some were sitting on kerbs along the street. Faces were indistinguishable and only their stooping shapes clearly showed their tiredness. I looked up. On top of the church stairs loomed the bent figure of Christ with the stone cross on his back. In this attitude, He was giving people peace on earth. The soldiers had hand grenades in their belts and guns on their backs. Cannons were being moved along the street. Dozing soldiers slumped on horses moving with tired steps. This night Christ reviewed the parade of a sleepy army. He, General Christ, the chief commander of loving peace and people of good will. Where are the people of loving peace? Where are the people of good will?

Those who with holy water, making the sign of the Cross, blessing the factories of bombs, poisonous gases, tanks, battleships, bombers and cannons - are they the Priests of Peace?

The uniformed Youth of Pioneers, Hitlerjugend, Falangist, Komsomols marching in step to military drums with their wooden rifles - were they taught to 'love thy neighbour'?

Young girls throwing flowers over youths in uniforms, mothers farewelling their sons with the pathetic cry - "Go! The country is calling you!"

Could they teach brotherly love?

Maybe the law? edicts? codes? could. No ... they punish with prison for the refusal to take arms.

"Who is guilty? Where is the culprit?" one wants to ask. Hitler is blaming the allies, the allies are blaming Hitler.

The U.S.S.R. is blaming the capitalistic world, the capitalistic countries are blaming the Komintern. The fascists are pointing to communism, communism to fascists. A vicious circle looking for the guilty. All countries have their ‘sacred rights' which they are ready to defend with lives. The blood was running from gored bellies and pierced heads and torn limbs. It was flowing through hamlets, villages and towns, illuminating the 'sacred rights' with fires of war.

Now is not the time to seek the culprit.

Guilty will be the one who loses the war.

Inside the houses that I was passing, hundreds of thousands of families were sleeping. Will they still be standing in the next few days when the enemy is trying to strangle the city? Where will their Fatherland be? Under which roof will they try to find shelter?

Galloping hoof beats cut through my gloomy thoughts. Sparks flew under the hoofs. A soldier, bent down over his horse, was tearing ahead into darkness. An echo reverberated through the empty streets.

Despite the early morning hours, the bustling activity on Station Fast was unbelievable. Our trucks, fully loaded with crates and honking loudly, could hardly move. Loaded vehicles from different offices were constantly arriving. Along the streets crowds were streaming like overflowing rivers. On the platforms piles of luggage were surrounded by women and children. Trams disgorged masses of jostling refugees, looking for some spare place to put down their belongings. Noise from diesel engines and moving freight trains increased the clamour.

While we were unloading the heavy crates to the ground, the alert sounded. Everyone started to run  general confusion. Being near the station terrified people. Part of the station had been demolished by previous raids and the charred stumps increased the scary feeling. Cabs, not even waiting for payment, turned back to the city. The crowd wavered. Heavy parcels retarded progress, small children could not run. Wives were desperately calling their husbands, yelling and crying in the human ant heap. The majority did not know where to go, where 'to seek shelter. No shelter was large enough to protect a crowd of many thousands. I could not see a shelter anywhere, but tried to reach some trenches at the end of the street. These at least offered some protection from shrapnel. The place in front of the station became empty of people, leaving only luggage and crates behind. The trench into which I jumped was proudly called SHELTER No. 1, the name printed on a yellow board attached to a stick. The floor of the trench was of course covered in shit left by the previous night's passers by.

It was only a short alert. The 'All Clear' sounded and people rushed to their luggage. The train for our Ministry had not arrived so, hoping to contact Marushka, I decided to telephone from a soda fountain kiosk. My sudden departure in an unknown direction would make it impossible for her to look for me.

My optimistic letter written to her the day before the war could have encouraged her to come to Warsaw, and this I could not have forgiven myself, especially as she was in neutral Lithuania. My optimism reflected only the general atmosphere at that time. Who would have thought that, within seven days, such disastrous changes would occur.

The queue to the telephone was long. Many were waiting to contact their nearest before going into the unknown. When I was only a couple of people away from the front of the queue, the alert sounded again. The lady from the kiosk locked her door and I ran to the trenches. A further alert again interrupted the queue. Each consecutive, harmless alarm frightened the people less and less. Some even stayed on the platforms whilst others went leisurely towards shelters, glancing at the sky.

Once again I was in the queue and had only to wait for a peroxided blonde to finish her call. I was like a cat on hot bricks, being afraid of another alert, but she continued yakking away. People were getting restless and abusive and started to push and shove. I turned around ... and stood rooted to the spot, unable to believe my eyes. In the queue, right behind me, was my wife. She was standing with her hands in the pockets of her brown coat; from under her beret, masses of red-brown curls tumbled onto her collar. She saw me and her eyes filled with tears.

We fell into each other's arms. Without speaking, Marushka started to cry soundlessly on my shoulder. Her wordless weeping told me more than the most elaborate phrases could have done. A chance of perhaps one in a million a truly miraculous meeting.

Had we missed each other, our fate would have been totally different for the rest of our lives.

We would have lived separate lives. We did not need the telephone any more. We left, holding hands and, without words, knew that from then on we would not be separated. We sat on one of the crates. Looking at her pale face, I said "You must have had a lot of trouble coming. How long did you travel? What is happening at home?"

In her lilting, Lithuanian accent, she told me in short sentences that she had left Kaunas (the capital city of Lithuania, approximately 500 km away) the day war started. At the Polish Lithuanian border, her mother had reached her by telephone, begging her to return. But she refused, wanting to be with me, and had bought a ticket to Warsaw, although it was very difficult for civilians to obtain permission. The journey had lasted three days instead of the normal seven hours. In Malkinie, the train had been bombed and rails demolished so that passengers had to travel a few kilometres by foot, carrying their belongings. Tired and hungry, she had arrived in Warsaw on the day of the evacuation.

Finally we were advised that the train for the Ministry was waiting on one of the side platforms. With our belongings, we went to seek seats which we found in a smoking compartment of a Pullman car. None of us knew the destination of our train.

Many military trains passed us without stopping. Near us stood an ambulance train. Through the car windows we saw for the first time wounded soldiers from the front. Wearing dirty, open army coats, some bandaged soldiers were standing, others lay on the floor. They were unshaven, grey-faced, and their dressings were soaked with blood.

How quickly human material is used up during war. It is only the seventh day of the war and how different these soldiers look from the shining ranks parading only three weeks ago. Then they parted before the stands where high dignitaries and beautifully clad ladies were sitting. Today, some were groaning and cursing, lying on the floors of freight trains - and those taking part in the parade, frightened and sweating, were dragging their luggage into evacuee trains.

We returned to our train as we heard a rumour that it would be moving soon. The crates containing all the documents were still in front of the station. The train, standing at a siding, had only one luggage carriage.

Time was running out and there was no-one to help cart our heavy burden. The Station Master in a red cap informed us that the train had to leave immediately as the track was required for another transport. He did not listen to the Ministry's coun­cillors and gave the signal for departure. The train started moving and in the carriage were only two crates. Somebody later mentioned that these crates contained French wines belonging to a friendly embassy. The crates containing the secret docu­ments were left near the platform. What happened to them I don't know I never heard about them again.

Our train travelled to the east, not stopping at any stations. There were eight people in our compartment. An elderly lady, elegantly dressed, with well-manicured hands, looked tenderly at her son who was sitting next to her. Her son was a moderately handsome twenty year old man, partly bald, with extremely long fingernails and nonchalant manners. A signet ring with a coat of arms completed the fashionable style of a young dandy. What he did in the Ministry I didn't know. Probably a protégé of a high dignitary. Further down were two gentlemen of medium age; one, with glasses and unruly hair, occasionally looking at the ceiling, was writing something in a notebook, with the other hand opened his suitcase containing nicely assorted sandwiches which he devoured whilst looking unseeing through the window. They were employees of M. S. Z. Next to us sat a young blonde with a snub-nose. She was a stenographer. On her lap she nursed a fluffy poodle with a red bow. Her five-year-old daughter was sitting on Granny's knee. Granny was dressed like most grannies in a dark frock, dark overcoat, dark shoes. Her face was pleasant and kind and all her thoughtful­ness was concentrated on her grandchild, as usually happens with grandmothers. We were the last two. Not all of us were to arrive at our destination.

We still did not know what our destination was to be. There was a rumour that we were going to Lublin, a city in south-east Poland. In the hope of preventing air attacks, the name of the place for evacuated Head Offices was kept secret.

After a few hours, we were approaching Czeremcha station when there was a loud boom, rumbling and crashing. The air shock was so strong that windows in our compartment shattered into small pieces, covering the floor. We all looked out, but were at first unable to see anything. Someone yelled, "Germans are bombing the station!" The train stopped, reversed noisily, and started to travel backwards, leaving the station.

Thanks to the presence of mind of the engine driver, we were saved for the time being. Something was burning - the train was covered with dust clouds. Through the windows, we could see airplanes with their black crosses. They were circling the lines like bloodthirsty crows. Suddenly the planes circling low opened fire with the loud noise of their machine guns. Bullets showered the train like hail and we all fell to the floor, trying to protect our heads with our hands. The train stopped on a high embankment.

Passengers ran to doors, pushing and trampling each other. Suitcases were thrown through windows and some women fell from the high steps and rolled down the embankment. I was very astonished to see our typist with her poodle pressed tightly to her, running away from the train. She left her daughter and mother to fend for themselves. The balding man with the signet ring from our compartment jumped through the window and others, including us, pushed through the doors.

Running down the embankment, we looked for some shelter. In front of us was a meadow, behind it a cemetery, to the right the burning station building. Some were trying to hide in holes caused by previous bombing; others, panic-stricken, were simply running. We found a potato cellar dug in the ground. We could only stand in the porch as the cellar was locked. Not a very good shelter, but it had to do.

The planes disappeared behind the forest. We waited. We city-dwellers were not used to bombing without previous warning by sirens. We did not watch the sky; others were doing it for us. We were used to wailing sirens warning us of the approaching danger. A short, interrupted sound told us 'All Clear' and we could continue, carefree, doing our work. Here, for the first time, we had our baptism of fire. We were left by ourselves. Now we understood that here, beyond the Front, the sky could hold deadly peril. We had to watch it, this clear September sky, but no longer with a calm smile.

Probably ten minutes passed - the meadow looked empty, no-one was on the train. The glow of the burning buildings and their crumbling walls only emphasised the past dangerous moments. We had started thinking about returning to the train when some­one pointed towards the western sky. On the horizon appeared three small dots, then another three. They were flying in formation. Of course they were planes - but whose? Perhaps ours? We were not certain, still being very naive. Already we could hear them. Marushka put on her glasses, as otherwise her horizon was not more than 100 metres, but it was impossible to distinguish the markings.

"You know, Marushka, I think we should run. We are certainly too close to the station."

We left our cellar and, hurriedly, went towards the cemetery and the forest behind it. Together with a group of others, we reached the cemetery. Abruptly a whizzing sound and, a second later, a terrible blast of an exploding bomb nearby. We fell to the ground between the tombs with buzzing in our ears. We were lying between two tombs, pressed into the ground. A few seconds of silence and then again the piercing and whizzing sound. Now we knew what to expect. This sound of falling bombs haunted us and brought to memory the unpleasant feeling of prickling between the shoulder-blades and in the pit of the stomach. It seemed that the bomb would drop right into the centre of the back. When we heard the first, second and then the fourth explosion, we gave a sigh of relief  they were not hitting us. The earth was shaking and clouds of dark dust hid the sky. Next to us, a hatless woman with tousled hair was holding two small children. The children, holding tightly to their mother, were crying. The mother was praying loudly, looking at the cross on the nearest tomb. Other people were laying between tombs, pressing against tombstones as if looking here for shelter. The living were trying to be near the dead in the face of mortal fear. No more explosions  a deathly silence, only the bending branches of old birches rustled slightly.

When the planes departed, people in the old cemetery came alive; from behind the moss-covered tombs 'resurrected' people began to emerge. The cemetery sheltered us, gave us rest but, luckily, not the eternal one. What to do now? We were not ready to go back to the train as we had no assurance that at this was the last bombing. We decided to look for shelter in the nearby forest. On the way, we met women without hats or handbags, and with lacerated hands and feet. In their blind panic, they had inured themselves on barbed wires, and some had even lost their shoes. In the forest, we came upon a machine gun company. The soldiers began to curse us, saying that by running through the meadow, we might have brought a new air raid upon them. They showed us how to take cover behind trees and under their shade so that the pilots would be unable to see us. Some of the passengers were frightened on seeing soldiers, thinking it might be the Front, and ran deeper into the forest. The planes did not return. Probably an hour passed, then people started to come out of their hiding places.

We returned to the train which had been shelled. The windows were gone, but it was otherwise undamaged. A loud whistle announced its departure and soon we were again under way. Passing the station, we saw many craters on both sides of the rails. Only one bomb damaged the side track. We passed Czeremcha (a small town near Warsaw) and our train rushed towards Kowel. Slowly the people quietened down. The blonde with the snub nose was combing her poodle who had used his freedom to roll in the grass. One of the employees again started to chew his sandwiches which he had left behind during the raid. The other one talked to the grandmother, cursing the Germans to high heaven, full of indignation towards bombing and shooting at a train full of civilians.

He started, full of resentment, "They were flying quite low, they saw that this transport consisted of civilians only. This is beastly, it is barbarous to shoot at defenceless, unarmed people. These raids are terrorist and there must be consequences. This train is part of the Corps Diplomatique; one must write a firm protest to the League....' He wanted to add .." of Nations," but stopped in time and continued "to the Head Office of the International Red Cross in Geneva."

"But will they listen?" asked grandmother, full of doubt. "It is war you know.”

"Yes, I agree, but everything has its limits. We are living in the twentieth century and not in the time of Huns when children and women were murdered without mercy. Germany is considered to be a cultured nation. Armies fight armies; this I understand - this is war - but there must exist some humanitarian war." He probably liked this expression as he repeated once again "a humanitarian war with a moral code in respect of the civilian population which has no part in the war." He stopped and, with a shaky hand, lit a cigarette.

The passengers stopped talking. The train was travel­ling fairly fast. The elderly lady sitting at the window said she thought she could hear approaching planes. We all tried to look through the window at the sky. From other compartments, people were leaning out too. The previous experience had already taught us a lesson. Our watchfulness increased. At the same instant, we all spotted the planes coming from, the west.

"One, two, three," someone started counting. The whole train was already alert. A few seconds later there was a squeal of brakes and the train stopped in an open field. Without waiting for orders, we all filed quickly from the train. In front of us was a small, wet forest with some puny trees, further on a meadow, and only farther away was the outline of a real forest, but no buildings. Jumping over the signal wires, the travellers started to disperse amongst the scanty growth.

From somewhere, a man with a white armband bearing the letters O.P.L. (Defence against air raids) appeared and, in a loud voice, advised us all to go to the left side of the rails.

We noticed many people carrying their luggage, hurrying nervously away. We reached some shrubs and Marushka's foot got stuck in a swampy pool. We walked slower, looking for drier ground. Finding a track, we at last arrived at a dry clearing. We sat down and, lighting a cigarette, began scanning the sky. The planes were flying slightly to the side and fairly high. Every once in a while, singly and in groups, people slipped out of the scrub to hurry into deeper bush.

Half an hour passed. The planes had long since dis­appeared beyond the horizon. Travellers calmed down and were walking along the pass between the shrubs. We went to look for berries. Here, in the country, a raid seemed less menacing. After a further fifteen minutes, short whistles sounded from the train. It was our signal to return and also our local "All Clear" sound. We turned towards the rails.

We were astonished to see groups of people with luggage piled neatly beside them. They did not show any inclination to return to the train. Curiosity got the better of me and I started talking to a lady sitting on her suitcases.

"We have had enough of this travel under bombs. We will stay here. Sooner or later the train will get hit.”

"Do you know someone here?"

"No-one at all. We will go to the first village and stay there. Perhaps, in the meantime, we might learn something about this war."

We returned to the train. Men with the white armbands asked us to hurry. A few additional short whistles and the train moved again, leaving a sizeable group behind. Luckily, we passed through some stations without incident. At some stations we saw transports from different government offices. This indicated the general direction of the government evacuation.

On one of the small stations (I have forgotten which), there was a funny incident. When the train stopped at the station, some people went onto the platform to stretch their legs. The station was surrounded by forests and near the rails were stacked wooden beams. A little further on there was a sawmill and stacks of wood. The scent of resin was quite strong. Suddenly a plane appeared above the forest, starting an in­describable panic. Elderly gentlemen in vests and soft slippers began climbing frantically over the stacked beams, as the entire platform was covered with wood. Although it was tragic, it was also extremely funny to watch this hurdle race. Feet were slipping on the smooth beams. They started to crawl on all fours, sticking out their fat behinds, and women lost their beautiful high heels between the beams. Those gentlemen, not long ago wearing black frock-coats and walking sedately through the Ministry, now really looked funny and quite without dignity. It was a tragic-comic situation as the single plane was not an enemy aircraft, but our own bi-plane with clear red/white markings on its wings. It was the only one we saw during all our travel. We had to wait a while for the gentlemen to return. Red-faced, they were greeted with friendly jokes by the passengers.

Late at night, our train arrived at Kiwerce Station where we stopped for the night. Marushka and I went straight to the first aid room - "two victims of war". Marushka had stomach-ache and looked like a blown-up balloon as we had not eaten anything hot, only sandwiches washed down with lemonade.

I had twisted my ankle when jumping from the train. My foot was badly swollen and, thanks to this, we were able to spend the night in comparative comfort on wooden benches in the waiting room.

In the morning, our travels continued. Ahead of us stretched the fertile fields of Wolyn (Eastern Poland, bordering on the U.S.S.R.) We were far from the Front. German bombers ceased worrying us. Everything looked peaceful and normal in the quiet hamlets. We could look freely at the scenery as it was unnecessary to peer at the sky. White farmhouses, surrounded by trees and bushes, nestled amongst the gently sloping hills of Wolyn. Here and there, lazy yoked oxen turned over furrows of dark earth and herds of mottled cows grazed among rusty rye stubbles. It seemed that conflict could not reach this land. It was quiet and tranquil.

The sun was setting behind a forest when we passed Rowno, a Polish town in East Poland. Only the last rays of the sunset were reflected in our windows.

Late at night we arrived in Krzemienice, the capital of Wolyn and an ancient Polish fortress.

This was our destination.


Return to Table of Contents