The M.S.Z. (Ministry for Foreign Affairs) was located in a college building. We found accommodation in a white, single-storey building belonging to the Director of the college, Stefan Czarnoski. The Czarnoski family were our relations and, therefore, we had gone to them upon arrival. After the unpleasant, two‑day journey, we had a good night's sleep between clean sheets in comfortable beds.
Next morning I went to report to the Ministry. Among several long, white buildings I found our offices. The imposing thick walls, the deep window niches and long passages with arched ceilings breathed of the Middle Ages. On the left side were many empty halls and auditoria. Typewriters were placed on school benches. Tired messengers, shuffling along, looked uncomfortable in these different surroundings. Occasionally some employees sauntered along with their hands full of documents.
I had trouble discovering what I was expected to do, or even if I was required. Stamping up and down stairs I at last found, in one of the classrooms, a rudimentary nucleus of a personnel office. It was the secretary of the Personnel Office, and her typewriter. A small, elderly lady with narrow, cold eyes and a dry, dispassionate voice. She was not only the rudiment of the Personnel Office, but rather its pillar. Other additions like the Director or Head of the Department were merely bureaucratic extras to her personality.
She greeted me coldly and, without waiting, said, "Today you have no work as your department is not yet organised. Please come tomorrow for instructions. You are free to relax after the tedious journey," she added with something of a smile.
I left with great pleasure. The weather was perfect and the town unknown to me. I called for Marushka and we plunged into the narrow, winding streets going towards the hill Queen Bona.
At the foot of the hill sprawled the beautiful small town. A narrow lane climbed a steep hill, formed like a large mound. On top of the mound stood the ruins of the old castle.
Standing high up between the ruins, it seemed we could embrace with our eyes all Wolyn and Ukrainia. Only somewhere far ahead beyond the blue horizon we lost the view of the boundless farm fields, meadows and pastures, dotted with clumps of bush. The township occupied a limey and rocky hillside below the foot of "Bona" as if trying to climb upwards. The white college was like an old manor with its massive walls. It was surrounded by small white houses covered with vines, hiding between trees. Narrow, winding streets wriggled between irregularly‑built houses on the cliff of the hill. A rapid stream hollowed a deep bed through the limey ground, undermining old alder wood and bent willows.
This was Krzemienice, town of old legends, rampart of Wolyn's culture.
Those quiet, grass covered streets were now swarming with strange people; visitors from the outside world.
This morning the local inhabitants were probably amazed when looking through their windows. On the streets passed luxury cars, Warsaw taxis and trucks from the city firms. Hooting, they drove hordes of pedestrians from the streets, people who were strangers to this town. Ladies in fancy hats and latest model frocks were walking carefully and awkwardly on cobblestones with men in beautifully tailored suits and smart hats.
An unusual bustle continued all day.
Embassies, legations and consulates were arriving from foreign countries. Pressmen and correspondents from foreign papers always followed the Corps Diplomatique, besides ministers, senators and other dignitaries and their families and friends.
At home we met new visitors: the Deputy Minister with his wife, their maid, chauffeur, and a little dog on long slim legs, plus a countless number of leather suitcases and trunks. There were also three directors from our department and a small, thin man with a very pleasant face who was the Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Poniatowski. Because of the new arrivals, there was trouble with accommodation, especially as madam required a salon and at least two maids.
After tea our hostess, my cousin, asked us to help cover the windows with heavy drapes. As this happy town had so far not experienced an air raid, nobody had bothered.
In the salon, the Deputy Minister's wife was reclining on the couch, talking affectionately to the terrier who was dressed in a black coat. His collar had little bells, and his eyes were big and tearful. She kindly permitted us to cover the windows. She did not take much notice of our presence and tenderly whispered in French to her terrier. Standing on the windowsill, I glanced sidelong at her. She was a big woman of indeterminate age, tall, fat, with thin dark hair.
There was a discreet knock at the door.
"Enter," she called, without changing her position.
With a deep bow, a French correspondent entered. Indicating the couch, she asked him to sit down. She spoke to him in French, words which shattered us to the raw.
"Monsieur, I think the situation is more than critical. We are leaving Poland, going to Paris, via Rumania. I would advise you to do the same".
She stopped speaking as a few diplomats arrived. As she was glancing at us impatiently, we left without continuing our job.
Next day I again went to the Ministry but nothing had changed, nothing was organised, and my attendance was quite unnecessary. I went with Marushka to town to shop and to send a wire to her parents, advising them that we were in a quiet, small town and were all right. How naive we were, considering the next developments.
The shops were all open and there were crowds in the streets as it was a market day.
We were just crossing the street to go to the market when, suddenly, like lightning from a clear sky, German planes dived towards the market and the main street. The next few moments were so weird and uncanny that I am unable to recollect them clearly. The moment I saw the bombs there was already the thunder of exploding bombs. The houses and trees were trembling and the earth shook under our feet. Panic stricken horses with fragments of broken carts rushed straight at us. I jerked Marushka and we both dived under a tree. Boards, bricks and broken iron sheets were falling on the street. Lifting my head, I saw in front of me, above me, and all around me a cloud of dust and sand and whitish flakes fluttering in the air. I shook my head; something must be wrong with my eyes.
"Marushka, do you see it? Is it snow?"
"No, they are feathers!"
When the dust settled down a bit, the sight was unbelievable. There was a cloud of feathers all over the market. One bomb had fallen on a stall of goose feathers and the explosion had lifted them high in the air, covering the sky. Broken carts with the remains of human bodies and horses' bodies, carcasses lay everywhere. What a sticky, indescribable mess. Debris from broken buildings covered the footpath and the street. In the market place, human heads lay scattered about between heads of cabbages. Milk, cream and blood flowed together, producing a rusty colour in the gutter. Near the dead owners were their dead horses, still in harness. Some, with their torn bellies and bleeding from their noses, were kicking helplessly. The wounded were calling for help and groaning men were lying on the ground. Between them were hens with their legs tied together, but still trying to fly. The moaning of people, neighing of horses, grunting of pigs, cackling of fowls were the cry of common pain and terror.
The bombers were already far away. Perhaps the pilots were already reporting the "successful bombing of enemy targets."
Near us sat an elderly woman in a linen shirt. She was not moving, only breathing heavily. A narrow thread of blood ran from the corner of her mouth. She was looking at us with wide open eyes, full of tears.
"Are you hurt?" I asked, as I could not see any injuries. She did not answer. I got up from under the tree and went to her. The sight which greeted me made me feel sick and my veins began pounding. All of her back, including her blouse, was torn by shrapnel. The flesh was hanging in strips, exposing broken ribs. I turned towards Marushka. She tried to get up but could not. I ran to her. It was only a dislocated swollen ankle. It must have happened when I jerked her under the tree.
From the nearby hospital, nursing staff started arriving with stretchers. We lifted the injured woman gently onto a stretcher. She was in shock. I helped Marushka to sit down on some steps, asking her to wait for me. Taking the stretcher, I helped carry the injured woman to the hospital. It was not easy to carry her up the steep, narrow steps without jolting. On the first floor, the entire hospital was located in one room.
Stretchers were arriving with injured. The few patients were looking on in horror. Shortly there were no beds left. The wounded were put on the floor, in the passages, and even in the hospital kitchen. The cement floor became slippery from coagulated blood. The wounded looked deathly pale. The jagged wounds were bleeding profusely.
One young peasant woman, thinking I was a doctor, grabbed my hands and, trying to kiss them, implored me to help her husband. A twenty‑year‑old man was lying on the passage floor ‑ his legs were missing.
The sight before my eyes was terrible and shocking but what I saw in the next minute, in the dark end of the passage, was beyond any of my wildest imaginings. At an ordinary kitchen sink stood an old Jew with a long, grey beard. In one hand he was holding his intestines which were falling out of his torn abdomen. The water from the tap flowed over the steaming entrails and, while rinsing off the blood, he was trying to push the slippery bowels back into his stomach. He was standing quietly, without a sound, his chest heaving and his face was covered with sweat.
I ran down and my shoes, wet from human blood, left ugly marks on the steps.
The whole town was in turmoil. It appeared that neither the college, nor any of the buildings occupied by the government or foreign powers, had been damaged. The tally for the enemy was the market square, shops on the main street, and some houses in mid‑town. About forty people were killed on the spot and many more wounded. Most of those wounded were farmers who came to the market, Jews, whose shops were nearby and other civilians, including some evacuees who happened to be nearby. One bomb fell on a small drapery store. Nothing was left. The store, including the owners, his family and buyers were pushed through to the basement ‑ all were killed. Amongst the rubble were left some coats, slacks and torn bales of fabrics. Under the door of the next house was an unexploded bomb. The dark, large oblong bomb with its shining brass detonator was lying undamaged, full of explosive material. People were looking with horror, shaking their heads and speaking about the strange trick of fate. This bomb could have destroyed the house and its people, who were looking out through the window, would have met their death. Somehow fate had saved them ‑ and buried their neighbours.
Soon foreign correspondents arrived and members of the Diplomatic Corps, led by the Papal Nuncio. They came to see with their own eyes the outcome of the terror raid. They saw the market massacre. The press took photographs, the diplomats handed in a joint protest to the hands of the Nuncio to be delivered to ... The Pope. A diplomatic note calling for vengeance from Heaven through the intervention of competent authority.
The raid made a great impression on the people of this town and the neighbouring villages. The shops were closed, the windows and doors hammered up with boards and the same evening, in fear of future raids, the locals left their town, looking for shelter in villages.
A siren was installed and observers were posted on the mount "Bona". Even some anti‑aircraft units consisting of a few youths were organised, equipped with long, old‑fashioned French rifles. An order was issued to dig trenches, and a strong reminder to secure blackouts. We became wise after the event.
At dawn the next morning when enemy planes were approaching, we were given warning by a hand‑turned siren. Our memory of yesterday still being quite fresh, we all jumped out of bed pretty quickly. The first to come was the Minister with his wife. He was in a nightshirt and trousers with hanging braces and holding an attaché case. His wife wore a long dressing gown, slippers and her hair in rollers. She was pressing the terrier to her ample bosom. She was irritable and demanded insistently to be led to the nearest shelter, but such did not exist. The same evening she left the town taking with her the maid, the dog and masses of luggage. She went in the direction of the Rumanian border. She was one of the first rats to leave the sinking ship.
During the next few days we had many alerts, being forced to interrupt tea three times to hurry to the basement. Nothing new at the Ministry. I was still unemployed. Marushka was unable to walk because of her swollen ankle. I went to dig trenches in the college garden.
More and more evacuees, including our boss, arrived in Krzemienice. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Beck, was dressed in the uniform of a Colonel of the Polish Army.
There were rumours that he had been to Moscow, asking for help against the Germans.
News from the Front was hazy and contradictory. There were no papers from the capital city only a small, single page ‑ a local newsletter giving general political news. A lot of talk about help from Britain and France, about their power, how they would soon attack Germany when their mobilisation was complete. Where was the Front in Poland? Nobody knew and, if they did know, they did not tell the community. We knew the situation could not be good, especially as we had so many raids. The Germans had full supremacy in the air. We had not seen the Polish Air Force.
On the 13th September we were called to the Ministry. We all expected to be employed, at last. To our astonishment, we received three months salary as though our employer were terminating our appointments.
Next morning when passing the Ministry I saw great activity. In front of the building were buses and cars, with employees hurrying, bringing their belongings. When I asked where the Ministry was moving, I was told tersely, "To Romania." Pushing through the crowds, I looked for the secretary of the Personnel Office. She was still in the building, packing documents. She advised me that the evacuation was to be towards Tarnopol and from there to the Romanian border as the military situation was very grave.
"You are coming too," she told me. "The visas will be completed at the border. Get your belongings and report here where the buses are leaving."
The sheep instinct took hold of me too. Taking our luggage, Marushka and I joined the others. The first buses were just leaving. Many people were still waiting. In the crowd I spotted Lesman who was nervously rushing from group to group asking for the next transport.
"When did you arrive?" I asked him. "Probably at the same time as you," he replied. He was not eager to talk. He looked pale and distracted, adjusting his glasses nervously. But I did not give in.
"How come I have not seen you, either in the train or here?" I continued.
"I came later by car. I was working here in the Press section."
"You must be well informed. What is happening? Why this hurry with evacuation?"
"Nothing good," he replied tersely, without his usual elaboration. "The Germans have broken through our lines in many places and are now pushing towards Lwow. I understand there is now danger that they might cut us off from the Rumanian border; therefore the hurry."
"All right, but what can we expect in Rumania?"
"What to expect? In this critical moment we have to save as many people as possible, organise the government in exile and fight for Poland at the side of our allies, not here but abroad. Do you understand? We must insist on speedy assistance from them."
"Yes, but Poland is still fighting and all the people cannot go, with their suitcases, to Rumania."
"Oh, Zygmunt, even now, in this dramatic moment, you are unable to curb your caustic remarks. In this case I mean of course the elite, the ... Oh, my bus .." he interrupted, grabbed his case and, without even saying goodbye, ran to the bus. The doors to the bus were crowded. Everyone wanted to get in simultaneously. One man, standing on the steps of the bus and pushing others away with his elbow, was shouting. "Gentlemen, please, ladies first" and, allowing his wife aboard, he ducked into the bus. Lesman was the next to dive in. Now everyone was trying even harder to push through. We also tried half‑heartedly, but too late. The overcrowded bus left.
We were the only ones left. Torn bits of paper were flying around on the empty street. The building stood empty, doors open. We sat down on the steps. Once again fate had decided for us and we were resigned. To be honest ‑ who knows, should another bus have arrived and we had been told to board, maybe we would have done so. We too would have left our country, just like the others. Were we any different? Probably not but deep down we had some qualms. Instinctively, we did not want to leave our country. Our actions were hampered, fate interfered. We stayed in Poland.
We started thinking ‑ what should we do now? Stay here and await further developments or go home? Home was far away, but there were our parents to be considered. After some deliberation, we decided to go back to Wilno. This decision was made easier because, as far as we knew, the way home did not cross the front.
Delaying no longer, we went to the station. The streets were empty; only occasionally a car went by in the direction of Tarnopol. In one of these cars we saw a well‑known minister and also speaker of the senate whom I knew from Wilno as a voivode (head of an administrative division). (Note: It was Mr. Raczkiewicz, who later in London became President of the Polish Government in exile). Most of our female students were in love with him as no‑one could wear tails as well as he and his top hat sat perfectly on his well‑shaped head. He was to the female students the ideal government representative who, with assured elegance, could even carry his mace beautifully.
The car carried him to an unknown future. Who could tell ‑ perhaps to a new future of dignity and honour.
Late in the evening, the train left towards Rowno. We bought tickets through to Wilno, approximately 400 km away.