We passed the long iron bridge over the Vistula, In front of us were the deep, red walls and dungeons of the Modlin fortress. At the crossroads were signboards, taking up at least two metres. The signs pointed in many directions showing many details of the interiors of the fortress. On the road was a military patrol stopping without exception all cars coming from Warsaw. After inspection of documents and a thorough search of the truck, it was directed to the road leading towards the fortress. We passed over another long, iron bridge, this time over the River Bug. Again there were guards at the gates and documents were checked. The dirty red fortress was sitting like a spider between the rivers Vistula and Bug, the roads protected with barbed wire and field mines. Mines were already attached to the bridge. The bunkers were covered with grass, spiked with barrels from the anti-aircraft guns. Soldiers in swim trunks were cleaning cannons. The wire entanglement surrounded the bridge, crept down into the water and up again over the opposite embankment. Notices were nailed to trees and posts:
As well as the words, a skull and crossbones was pictured making the meaning quite clear. There were only a few civilians about and they were walking furtively like insects near cobwebs of preying spiders. Passing the bridge, our truck turned sharply to the left and I noisily entered the narrow-necked entrance of the fortress gate. Shivers ran down our spines. We felt swallowed by the fortress. What would they do to us? More controls, more checkpoints - the little streets were like a maze. We passed some stores, railway lines, offices, barracks, trenches, more gates. Soldiers were everywhere, also military cars. At last our truck stopped in front of some magazines. Our driver dismounted.
"Everyone out!" called the noncom. Throwing down their rucksacks, the soldiers jumped down from the high truck. We did the same and were standing amid the soldiers. The noncom gave some orders to the soldiers and turned towards us.
"What should I do with you?" he sounded worried. "Here, have your documents and go to the 'Zersprentgensammelstelle'. Here in the fortress is such an office which assembles all the lost souls and sends them on to their appropriate units." He was even smiling, handing us the travel orders. He seemed quite satisfied with himself being able to get rid of all his passengers. He quickly returned to the car and left. The soldiers, putting on their rucksacks, left too. Only we were standing on the road, undecided.
We never expected anything like this to happen. We expected to be handed over to some 'other hands' for further orders. Nobody could possibly know us here nor why we were here. We again had a little freedom; we could try to improvise and show some initiative. Our aim was quite simple - to leave this place as soon as possible but how to achieve it was not so simple. We were in a place unknown to us, in a fortress guarded at the gates by fully armed soldiers. As we had already seen, the entry and exits were thoroughly checked. How to justify that we had to leave when here were all the offices and administration buildings to which we, as the 'array followers', belonged. Our travel order which helped us to leave Warsaw expired right here. We were now in Modlin where our supposed formation was located. We remembered another document which we obtained in Kaunas from the employment office. We obtained this document without giving it much value at that time, simply to have an additional document just in case. It was an order to report to the employment office in Modlin. At that time we thought it might turn out to be advantageous to hove something official which may enable us to reach "Warsaw via Modlin which was close to Warsaw. Now it was just the opposite. We came from Warsaw looking for some place in Modlin which was now a stepping stone on our war wanderings.
We were informed that the employment office was just outside the fortress walls. When we reached one of the gates we saw the guard checking documents of a working gang leaving the fortress. Men and women had to open their parcels and empty their pockets. We felt a bit uneasy as we were burdened with a heavy rucksack and, in addition, I carried a suitcase. We had learned from previous experiences that it is always better to speak with the man in charge rather than with his underlings. Therefore we approached the soldier who was supervising the control. The private arrangements between Marushka and myself were quite clear. I, as a man of military age, was always the most suspect. I was to show him documents and, speaking in broken German, try to explain something. Marushka, catching the line of my thought, was to interrupt and continue in perfect, fluent German, which always had a very good effect. This happened on this occasion. After I had murmured just a few sentences, she interrupted, building up our fictitious story with precise sentences - that we were from far away Lithuania, coming to work in the 'Reich', that we were allocated to Modlin, that polite army men had given us a lift by car to the Modlin fortress, that we discovered only here that the employment office was located outside the fortress where we were told to report without delay. Could he, the man in charge of the guard, let us pass without the proper pass from the fortress authorities.
"Are you really from Lithuania?" he asked.
"Yes, we are" Marushka replied, putting her documents back into her handbag.
He went towards the other guard and called out, "Let these two pass."
In this simple way we left the fortress. We took a deep breath and went ahead along the narrow, old streets of Modlin.
The sun was already low and, on the fields, the mist was gathering. A pleasant smell reached us from chimneys of houses - people were cooking dinner. We were tired and hungry, the rucksacks seemed heavy, the straps cutting our shoulders. We were again homeless. Through some freak chance we had landed in this unknown corner. What to do now? Where to go? How to live and keep free? Those were the questions to be answered later - just now we wanted only to rest. Those days, in Warsaw with sleepless nights and empty stomachs had made us weak. We decided to look for a sleeping place in Modlin. We knocked at many well-to-do houses quite unsuccessfully until at last one of the poorest accepted us. The owner was a labourer living on the outskirts of Modlin next to the fields. These friendly people led us and let us rest on the floor of their warm kitchen which was so small that I was unable to stretch out my legs. Resting our heads on the rucksacks, we slept undisturbed and deeply. This was our first night outside Warsaw.
In the morning the house and all the township seemed to tremble from the noise of tanks. Through the narrow streets passed a whole division of them, hurrying towards the most threatened point of the Front - the fork between the Narwa and Bug rivers. The huge tanks were tearing the pavements, leaving big holes. The miserable, poor huts barely as high as the tanks, were trembling and windows were shattering. Even the houses seemed to be frightened. Behind the tanks followed armoured vehicles, huge trucks on caterpillar tracks, then again the tanks and so on.
The atmosphere was decidedly of the nearing Front. By now we really had had it all. We wanted some quiet, peaceful corner where we could not hear either tanks or cannonades, where machine guns were not shooting at anyone, neither from the land nor the sky. By now we hated this noise of war which tore at the brains and nerve centres.
Early in the morning we thanked our friendly host and left in the direction of Nowy Dwor. We wanted to gather some news and try to find a permanent place to stay. Again bridges, check-points, dusty roads. After a few kilometres we reached a little town. A large yellow board reminded us that we were in the Great German Reich. It read 'Bugmiulde, Kreis Cichenau' which was a translation into German from the Polish name. The true German character of the town was obvious only in the recently painted signs, like 'Polizei', ',Burgermeisteramt', 'Sparkasse' and 'Frontbuchhandlung' (bookshop). In the shop windows were old numbers of the Signal and Berliner Illustrated. Propaganda placards, official orders posted on the walls and German military police completed the German Bugmundel.
In the side street I saw a scribbled sign on the wall - 'Long Live Poland'. It was the only sign written in Polish. We wanted to meet some of the educated people, white collar workers, and ask them about the conditions and regulations which governed this odd Germany, now called South-west Prussia. A Wozian told us that in the nearby hospital a few Polish doctors were working. Going there we were stopped by military police. We probably looked suspicious. They checked the documents very carefully. Marushka had trouble in supporting her story as by now we were able to show only the travel order but at last they let us go. In the one-storey hospital building were also doctor's surgeries. On the door was a list of doctors. We picked a name which sounded safe. He was a general practitioner and, after paying 3 DM, we were allowed to enter. He was an elderly gentleman in a white coat. Taking his stethoscope he looked inquiringly at us.
"Are you both ill?"
"Not ill, doctor, but just tired. We arrived only last night from Warsaw,” I told him honestly.
"From the uprising?" he asked quietly, looking around as though afraid that somebody might overhear.
I explained why we had come to see him.
"You should not stay here in Nowy Dwor,” he advised. "Firstly, we are all under very strict supervision and, secondly, it is very hard to get any food. We are cut off from the country. To cross the Bug is hard as the river is heavily patrolled and there are constant checks. Food smugglers are caught and the food was confiscated. The road to Warsaw is closed. The boundaries of the General Government are watched by the army. All the villages in the direction of Puazeza Kempinkowska are in the hands of the partisans. A few kilometres from the bridge the Germans are building something like a second front, guarding against attacks on bridges and the fortress. Many people are leaving Nowy Dwor and going to the country. Only those who have to work here are left. I would advise you to try the country - the best chance would be the other side of the River Hug. It is still quiet down there."
He also examined Marushka who had lost 17 kilos which was probably the reason why she felt so tired.
The doctor continued - "Good food and peaceful, surroundings would be the best medicine for you."
"I am afraid this might be the hardest medicine to receive today,” I answered, thanking him for his advice.
We left and went towards the River Bug. The road led beside the fortress bunkers, climbing up higher and then, again through a large valley. After the last hill we had a large open view to the far horizon of arable fields, ending at a dark line of forest. It had the true country smell of earth and growth. It was a hot day and the heat of the air was vibrating over the ripening fields. Cows were standing in the shade of bushes, switching their tails lazily.
Our backs were soaking wet from carrying the heavy rucksacks. At the crossroad we sat down, wiping our faces. There were three roads in front of us, each leading in a different direction. Which one should we take? There was no-one to ask. We were simply travelling to the country behind the River Bug. We were on the banks of the Bug and the roads cut a line through fields, going towards small villages. Each road was as good as the other. Each one seemed attractive with its rural scenery. I remembered that somebody had told us to go towards Janow, that it was far away from highways and that people there were still rich in food.
"Maybe we will go to Janow. What do you think Marushka?" "I don't care as long as it is not too far. I simply do not have much strength left and, in addition, it is so hot. Don't count on me walking for a long distance."
She spoke lying on the dusty grass, her head resting on the rucksack. Her eyes looked indifferently at the clouds moving high in the sky.
I remembered Sarny. There she was also near the end of her strength but then she was going home to her family. Her parents were awaiting her, her open house was waiting, our own rooms, friendly, smiling faces. Those thoughts at that time gave us encouragement and energy.
And now? My God, how much had changed since then. Five long years of war. Today we were going sway from our home to an unknown, homeless future. We left our families, we left our nest with our two little nestlings. The longing for them was so very strong now. To remember the house hurt more now than five years ago. Maybe at this very moment the grandmothers were hugging the children, speaking about their parents who were being tossed around by the war. But soon, very soon, they would return. They were probably saying that Daddy would bring some red trucks and Mother a big horse. Trying to make the children happy, they were probably wiping away tears from their own eyes. Both grandmothers assumed us to be in Warsaw. They knew that Warsaw was engulfed by fires and was bleeding.
The moving clouds cast a shadow over us. Marushka was crying silently. I knew that she was thinking about home. At this crossroad she must have vividly remembered our departure.
"Will we ever return to them?" she whispered. I could only shrug my shoulders.
The clouds passed. The hot sun again covered the fields. On one of the roads a man on a pushbike appeared.
He stopped beside us and, wiping the sweat from his face, he asked
"Where are you from? From far away?"
"We are from Warsaw,” I replied.
"From Warsaw? Really? What is happening there? Oh my God, how good that I met you. My wife is in Warsaw. She had a haberdashery shop in Czerniakowo Street. I don't know what is happening there. Is she still alive? Some terrible rumours have reached us. Every night we see the fires over Warsaw. It is weeks since I had the last news. Are there still some people alive?"
We talked at length. His name was Sylvester Niewiadomski and he was a ladies' hairdresser in Nowy Dwor. After hearing that we were homeless, he immediately offered to take us to his place.
He was very talkative and explained "I don't live in Nowy Dwor. Life is very expensive there and also not safe - you know, just like in all towns. I live in a hamlet with Grandmother Wojciechowska in Kosewo which is not far from here. I have a room there and a kitchen because Mrs. Reszko, a midwife and a friend of my wife, has left to join her parents. There is plenty of room you know so don't look for anything else. You must be very tired aren't you?"
We were very grateful to Sylvester and, without hesitation, accepted his offer.
Marushka was unable to carry her rucksack any more so we put it on the bike with Sylvester. He looked very pleasant a young man with greying temples and a pink face with regular features, with a smile too sweet. All his movements were soft and he was very polite as his profession would require him to be.
The road went along an airfield. The large, even fields were used by the Germans for a military airfield. The arable fields were now covered with grass and long cement runways cut a white band across the green fields. Red lamps showed the boundaries of the airfield. We did not see hangars. The planes were either covered with sheeting or hidden behind shrubs. Some were standing between the uncut high wheat like large scarecrows. On the right side of the airfield was anti-aircraft artillery. Long barrels protruded from the turrets and machine guns pointed towards the sky. Alongside were bunkers dug in the potato field. Soldiers without shirts were sitting at tables playing cards. Some were sunbaking in the sweet-smelling clover field. An observer with binoculars was watching the sky. The sky was light blue and moving clouds were leaving dark patches on the airfield. At the end of the field we turned into a narrow track. Above the wheat we soon saw thatch-covered roofs nestling among green orchards. This was Kosewo.
We stopped at a small hut with stone steps. Ripe cherries hung above the roofs and vines covered small curtained windows. In the garden grew fruit trees, beans climbed up a broken fence and there were also some flowers which looked lost between the high weeds. Next to the cottage was a little old barn and, added to it, was a tiny pigsty. The last of the buildings was an outside toilet covered with rotting planks. This was the property of Grandmother Wojciechowska where we had the great fortune to find shelter thanks to the friendly Sylvester. Grandmother Wojciechowska accepted us very hospitably. This lonely old woman had a golden heart. She made us immediately feel welcome.
"My dear God, how much road you have covered. What is the war doing? Oh Holy Mother, our Protectress. I also was once in Warsaw with my late husband, Stanislaw, during the time of the Tsar. Such a beautiful town and now all the beauty is burning." She was chatting animatedly as she asked us into the kitchen. In the small kitchen was an iron bed, some stools under the window and a shelf for pots. The stove, which was not in use, was covered with old newspaper. Grandmother brought from her dower chest a large pillow embroidered with red sweet peas and put it on the bed for our use.
When we were in bed we could hear mooing of cows returning for milking from the pasture and crickets playing outside the window in the bushes, a soothing, peaceful feeling came over us - only in our dreams were we pursued by memories of fighting Warsaw.
During the next few days we had one wish only - to have a few days of peace and food in this charming, hospitable hamlet. Let the Front stay for a week where it was at present.
With half of our remaining money we bought a goose. What a feast that was. We finished the lot in one sitting, adding plenty of new potatoes. Happy and replete, we went to sleep on the grass in the shade of the ripening cherry tree.
In the evening, when the sun was setting behind the river, we climbed up the cherry tree and stuffed ourselves full with the sweet fruit. Grandmother Wojciechowska used to come and sit on the stone steps and murmur her evening prayers. Hens and chickens came into the kitchen to look for crumbs. A peaceful dusk covered the village. At this time of the evening one could already see the big red glow of burning Warsaw. The day ended, Grandmother, leaning on a cane, closed her little barn and pigsty. Coming back she looked at the red glow in the sky and, crossing herself, sighed deeply and murmured "I was there at the time of the Tsar. Such a beautiful city. Oh my God, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
The days passed quickly. The wheat was already reaped, the cherries gone. The first days of September 1944 came. Five years of a long war.
Next morning, the army arrived in the village. Near the draw-well a kitchen was assembled, surrounded by trucks of provisions. Tired soldiers were billeted in the local houses. Two German noncoms were billeted in our house in Sylvester's room.
They talked little and avoided speaking about the Front. We only learned from them that a larger strength of the Soviet Army was forcing its way through north of Warsaw. They had no detailed news - the German papers did not reach that far, polish newspapers did not exist and no-one had a radio in the village. Everything was based on rumours. But something must have been happening. At night we could hear louder than usual detonations from the direction of Warsaw. (from the highway the sound of tanks was continuous. Next day the village elders announced that all adults had to go digging trenches four kilometres away near Szczypiozna village.
In the evening Sylvester brought news that all the people in Nowy Dwor had also received orders to dig trenches near the fortress. It was rumoured that the Russians had forced the Front and were advancing towards Modlin. There was no end to all the rumours, mostly full of panic. Some people ran away to the forests but days passed and the Front did not come nearer. The military police became more persistent - they were making round-ups, checking houses. Every morning at dawn men were herded together and sent to dig trenches. Each day I found it harder to stay in hiding but we did not want to leave this village. It was good to be there - we already knew most of the inhabitants, we had a roof over our heads and enough food. Our intention was to stay until the Front passed us and then return back home. We were certain that it could not last long - perhaps a few weeks at the most. We even decided what we would do. When the Front came to Modlin we would hide in the forests until the German Army retreated and then start on the way back home. Again a few days passed. The heavy cannonade had stopped. The airplanes were again covered and the soldiers left the village. It became quiet again. People were disappointed - it seemed that the war would never finish. Only the military police were as busy as before and the digging of trenches continued. Through pressure from above, the police became more active, hunting people more and more. I could not keep on hiding much longer. We had to think of something. If there was no way out of work, at least I must find work which paid something. Digging trenches was not paid, not even food was provided.
Our nearest neighbour was Marysia who worked as a cook in the kitchen near the airport. She told us about the conditions of work and advised us "Put your names down for work at the airport. You will be paid and the food provided as well and those who work at the airfield are exempt from digging trenches."
The next day we went to the barracks at the airfield. Marysia was just preparing dinner for the working force. The rich cooking smell was very pleasing. Thanks to her we were introduced to the chef. As it happened he was a Pole which made it a lot easier. Mr. Cwiczkowicz, called the chef, was strictly speaking an overseer of the working force and, at the same time, looking after the provisions. As I learned later, he was a Polish officer who became a P.O.W. where he enrolled on lists of the 'Volksdeutsch' (Poles who could claim that any of their ancestors were of German origin) and was discharged as a P.O.W. thanks to a long dead German grandmother.
Our ambitions were very modest. My wife asked to be employed in the kitchen, helping peel potatoes. I said that my general knowledge qualified me for the work of an 'unqualified' labourer. But thanks to the friendly Mr. Cwiczkowicz we got very good positions. Marushka was to be employed in the office as an interpreter and clerk/typiste and I became a leading hand.
The firm for which we were now going to work was called grandly Strasseribau-Ovander-Fliegerhorst Modlin. In reality it was a sub-contractor attached to works at the airfield but thoroughly supervised by the army. Our main boss was a fat, redheaded corporal. We had already met him the first day. He talked without ever removing his cigar. His gloomy face was covered with freckles, he had small piercing eyes and looked unpleasant. Our second boss was the quartermaster. When his name was mentioned the female staff usually had grins on their faces as he was known as the Don Juan, as in old movies. He was young, clean-shaven, smelled of shaving lotion and always followed by his faithful dog, a large full-bred Alsatian. For a German, he was very polite and well mannered, ready to smile at everyone.
The commandant of the fortress was a major. We never saw him close up. The moment somebody spotted his cart, drawn by two Arab horses, they would yell “Attention: The major is coming.” The labourers pretended to work extremely hard, the soldiers jumped to the position of full attention, saluting smartly. The cart drawn by full-breds passed us quickly, giving just a glimpse of the major. Only the two rumps of the white arab horses were visible for a long time on the outskirts of the airfield. This was our major.
The labourers were assembled near the kitchen barracks on the opposite side of the airfield near Modlin fortress. We had to work twelve hours on week days but only seven on Sundays and public holidays. Each day we had to cover three kilometres, going by the road through the airfield. Marushka and I had to leave home before dawn to be on time. We assembled before the kitchen. There were one hundred and twenty labourers. Unshaven, in torn clothing with holes in shoes, or barefoot, people lined up in two rows. It was an odd gathering. We looked like scarecrows or vagabonds from an operetta. Some had on their heads very crumpled hats which they probably used instead of pillows, a sad reminder of good times gone by. Some had their jackets pulled over their bare chests as their shirts were gone. A few youths had long Austrian army coats reaching to their bare feet, their legs covered in old drill slacks. Behind them stood a draughtsman from Warsaw clad in a long rubber overcoat and high boots of a Reichwehr officer. Behind him, a shopkeeper from Rembertow wore dirty canvas runners and had hairy white legs. Another one had huge, torn rubber boots on his feet but compensated for these with a beautiful Tyrol hat, complete with a feather. Everyone had a haversack over their shoulder and from the waist hung a mess tin which was usually an old tin from canned goods. We were a herd of people driven together by the war, mostly from nearby villages and small townships near the approaching Front: Tluszcz, Rembertow, Wawer, Wlochy, Wyszkow were their home places.
The chief divided us into separate working gangs.
"Cabinet makers, carpenters - come forward. Go to the railway ramp - you will unload bombs.
"You there, you will be digging trenches near the old town beside the airfield.
"You five will be laying mines. Ready, go.
"You four from the major gang, you will go to Warsaw for a grand piano for the major. What is wrong with you lot? You are sick? You think you are not feeling well? You need an enema. You were gorging yourselves last night I bet. My God, I will assign you to the bomb gangs. I bet your sickness will be cured immediately.
"Who is there still left? Oh, yes, the fire brigade - how many are there - thirty? Good - out, hurry to your work."
My group and I were assigned to building a shed for the fire brigade on the airfield. It was about 1 km. away. We were all well trained and managed to cover this distance in an hour. To say that we walked at a snail's pace would be an understatement. The work was also conducted in the slowest possible way. Being the leading hand of this gang, I kept reminding them that our twelve hours would not run away. While digging, our shovels held no more earth than a spoonful. My main function was to keep watch for approaching bosses. My work was made easier as, sitting on the high embankment, I had an uninterrupted view to three sides. Only one side was covered by shrubs growing in the fortress park and the cemetery and here it would be easy to sneak up on us unexpectedly. Part of the gang played cards in the shade of the trees and listened carefully - they were our guards.
During this time the airfield was quiet. There were no more than a few observation planes taking off daily, the rest of the planes stood hidden behind the shrubs. The pilots were playing cards all day long. The maintenance men were resting in the shade of the wings. The shortage of petrol was very noticeable. If the Soviet planes did not show a greater activity in this part of the Front, the German Stukas would rest undisturbed on the field like large stuffed birds.
By the end of September, the S.S. men brought many new people to the fortress - evacuees from Warsaw and her neighbouring areas. The villages around Modlin received orders to feed the evacuees and to give them some place to sleep. Village elders had to organise the feeding and accommodation. The eager and friendly hospitality of the local inhabitants was beyond description. In Kosewo, in the middle of the village, large barrels full of cabbages were brought and the peasant women also provided soup, milk, bread and tomatoes. Every day another village supplied "the food. Fully loaded carts went daily to the fortress.
Germans developed a frenzy for digging trenches and manholes. Everyone had to dig, the local peasants, evacuees, 'O.T.', 'R.A.D.' (para-military working units), even the army. The poor earth was dug sideways and lengthwise for tens of kilometres. Trenches were dug for riflemen, anti-air raid-trenches, bunkers, sheltering hillocks for tanks, for mines and I don't know what else. The peasant was quite often unable to bring his wheat from the fields.
One day all the sky was covered with leaflets. German aeroplanes tossed masses of them over the town, villages and fields.
It was an appeal by the German Chief Command to the "conscience of the Polish people,” "they should check their ill-advised actions,” ... "they should guard against becoming pawns in the hands of foreign interests" ... "they should report to the nearest German offices should they notice anyone ready to 'act ill advisedly' because piles of innocent women, children and men covering the streets of Warsaw are an example of what incautious acts like riots might lead to. The German Chief Command expects from the Polish people a firm stand, supported by commonsense and reason, against starting ill-advised actions."
The children of the village were very happy. They were making birds and kites, happy to receive a present which fell down from heaven.
One day Mrs. Grzeszkowa, with her two children, returned and occupied her previous room. The house became crowded. She was a natural blonde with plenty of curves. She had one main and two minor problems and she loved talking about them. Her main problem was her husband who, one grey morning, deserted the German Army and arrived in civilian clothes back home to his wife telling her that he had had the war and intended staying home. It was fine to have a husband back home but to shelter a deserter was quite another matter. She was in a panic. A month passed and the war still continued. The deserter got fed up with hiding in the barn behind some hay and began coming to the house. She became so scared that she was shaking and just kept looking through the window. When he started to even go outside, her nerves could not stand it any longer and, taking her two children, she left. One of her minor problems was a 'political' one. "What will the Soviets do with us? Will they kill us all? Or deport us to Siberia?" Her second minor problem was a rather delicate matter of conscience. At a certain stage of the war she weakened and enrolled as 'Volksdeutsche'.
"What could I have done?" she explained. "My husband was taken into the German Army, the children were told to go to a German school and here, in Kosewo, is a hospital where I worked as a midwife, you know, and I was threatened with deportation to a labour camp into Germany. Should I refuse to become a 'Volksdeutsche'.
Sylvester interrupted - "Don't forget to mention your ration card and coupons."
"What are coupons, Selek. I could earn enough to live being a midwife you know. I just wanted peace that is all.”
"And didn't you take coupons not only for food but also for clothing, shoes - don't forget the butter and sugar."
"We did not receive even a fraction of those,” explained Sylvester.
"You, Selek, don't you pretend to be any better. Look who is speaking. Didn't you go to Lodz, didn't you try there to be accepted into the 'race', only they would not have you, you fart."
Sylvester became indignant, threw a tomato on the table and, choosing his words carefully, turned towards her. "Whether I went to Lodz for the 'race' or not is not your bloody business. The fact is I am not a Volksdeutsche, neither a first class, nor second, nor third. But you, Mrs. Grzeczkowa, I beg your pardon you shit higher than your arse! You don't speak German but you were showing off your being Volksdeutsche in the whole township." Pouting his lips, Sylvester was mimicking in a high voice "Heil Hitler: A kilo of Polish sausage please." "Didn't you speak like this at the butcher's in Nowy Dwor? Didn't you?"
"You are a dumb fart, you shit you ..." she jumped up from the table and rushed out, slamming the door.
We felt embarrassed, but not Sylvester. After a few seconds of quiet, he continued;
"I am a true Pole and suffered for it. I was caught in a round-up in Modlin and taken to forced labour into East Prussia. Just in the clothes I was standing. I did not even have a change of shirt. I caught lice which were biting me. You know? I am a person of strict hygiene. I couldn't stand it and ran away but was caught by the military police and put in a labour camp in Dzialdowo. Oh, heavens, you should have seen this terrible place. We were beaten and tortured and had no normal lives. We all looked like skeletons. After one month I was sent to a sawmill in Ostorode. There were many French prisoners of war. The Germans put a letter 'P' on my back." (Polish forced labour had the letter 'P' on their clothes). "I had to clean the sawdust from the saw and the dust made breathing so hard. I worked there one and a half years. I could have choked there but I am not such a stupid bastard as some might think. I used to loosen a screw in the saw frame and when the screw fell out the saw stopped. While others were repairing it, I could not only catch up with my work but rest as well. Later on, friends taught me to water the belt. That was really a beaut thing for all concerned you know? It took so long to repair that we could even go and have a smoke in hiding. Yes, my God, one and a half years. If it were not for the parcels from home I would have perished there on their food. And now this stupid woman starts pushing the 'race' into my face - me, a Polish patriot, when one could say that I suffered for my Polish beliefs."
Next morning we left at dawn for work as usual. The morning was pleasant although rather cold and the sun was just clearing the morning mist. Some planes were noisily revving up, others stood quietly covered in droplets from the night mist. The wind blew cold from the airfield. We started walking faster as I had no overcoat. In the kitchen we got some hot tea. Marushka went to work in her 'cage'. One could not call it anything else. Behind the kitchen was a square metre of door space with a table, a chair and a field bed for the chef. This was the office where Marushka was typing lists and lists for the paymaster while I went with my gang to work. The ginger corporal told me to shift the toilet to another spot. Ten people were assigned to this job and the boss left. We threw the toilet on its side and, sitting on, it, started to roll our smokes. Suddenly one of the men pointed towards the western horizon. In the sky we could see many shiny dots flying in a large key formation.
"Probably German ones." The rest of the working gang did not pay any attention to them - we were all used to planes. So many were here on the airport. We always recognised the Soviet planes quickly. Firstly they never came in large groups but mostly only in threes - occasionally there were six. Usually they came from the direction of Warsaw, diving low when flying above the fortress. This time it was quite different. After a very short while other formations appeared in the sky. By now the whole sky aid air were trembling from these strong monotonous vibrations. It was certainly some thing unusual.
"I don't think they are German planes."
"Just look, masses of them." To have a better look we even climbed on top of the embankment.
"Oh, heavens, there will be at least three hundred of them,” commented the shopkeeper from Rembertow, trying to count them. "Jesus Christ! Look there, just to your left." We all tried to count. Someone made it three hundred and fifty. Suddenly our airfield came alive. An alert was sounded. Some German aeroplanes started to leave the field in a great hurry. Pilots rushed to their planes. In the meantime the first squadron was near the airfield. They were flying majestically - they looked so large. Their large aluminium wings were shining in the sun. They looked like flying tanks. They were four-engine American fortresses. The German anti-air raid artillery opened fire. The air was vibrating even more with this added noise of heavy guns. A hail of small shrapnel fell in the sand near the bunker as if someone had thrown a handful of pebbles in the sand. Those who could started running away from the airfield. We barely had time to jump into the unfinished trench where we hugged the walls tightly. "That will be the end of us,” said someone to cheer us up. "The Americans don't joke." We were waiting, full of tension, for the first bombs to come. But the first squadron flew over us. Wave after wave they were passing us, flying to the east. Although the flak was still falling, we had to raise our heads and look. The whole sky was covered with tiny white clouds of exploding shells. Above them and through them were planes flying majestically in their prescribed spacings. They were flying unconcerned, evenly and, it seemed, slowly, like cranes leaving in the autumn.
"Oh, Jesus Christ! Just look what is happening,” someone called out, rising out of the trench. Our emotions were running very high when we saw what was happening. The planes, which had already crossed Vistula, started to toss out small white dots which opened up like big umbrellas.
"Parachutes!" people were shouting, laughing and pounding on the grass. "The Americans have come to help us" The joy was indescribable. At this stage we were. unaware that Churchill wanted to send help, that planes and crew were made available, but that Stalin would not permit the allied planes to land and refuel on Russian soil. Therefore many planes with all their crew, mainly Poles, were lost. Later on Churchill forbade these flights.
On the airfield the Germans called an alert against parachutists. The soldiers put on their helmets, ammunition belts and took their repeater guns. Over the field passed armoured cars full of armed soldiers. Motor bikes hurried along. Full alert continued. Minutes passed and the planes disappeared beyond the horizon. Shooting ceased and the parachutes were lost from sight behind the Vistula. The 'All Clear' sounded and we were told to go back to work. As the chef was not around, we were sitting or lying around, the spades in the grass. I was lying on some planks, smoking. Suddenly, like lightning from a clear sky, appeared the ginger corporal. We all jumped up but it was already too late to pretend that we were working very hard. Bad luck, we were caught.
Full of rage, he turned towards me. I hoped he would have a stroke. He was red and choking with rage. The last straw was when he saw the toilet lying on its side. In the meantime everyone sneaked out to their shovels. I thought he was going to kill me on the spot. I was left alone with a raving maniac. Nothing happened - I was only degraded in my duties which suited me admirably. At last I was free from the unpleasant duty of a leading hand, actually an overseer.
Next morning the chef advised me that I was to start work as an ordinary labourer. I had to join the worst labour gang - transporting of bombs. Under the supervision of the soldiers we had to unload half-ton and quarter-ton bombs from the train, take them to the embankment and then load them into trucks. It was heavy, primitive work - there were no forklifts. Everything had to be done by hand and muscle power. These rounded, smooth and hellishly heavy things sometimes slipped, crushing fingers and feet. When the truck was loaded, we travelled to the airfield where, if there were no air raids, it was a time to rest.
On the airfield we had to deliver the bombs to planes which were ready to take off. The soldiers hooked these large eggs to the undercarriage of the planes. The pilots put on their helmets and earpieces and climbed into the cockpits. Three planes, revving furiously, began to move to the runway, leaving dusty clouds in their wake. Taxiing awkwardly and moving along the bumpy surface like ducks, they started to rise, taking their place in the formation, circling over the airfield and going to the east.
"You f. . . . bloody bastards, you are going to Warsaw,” some of the gang were swearing.
"Screw you,” added another one standing on the steps of the truck. "And just to think that with my two hands,” he stretched his hands out, "I had to help load bombs which will be dropped over my own town." He spat on the ground, sat down and let his head drop.
"Hurry up, quicker, get a move on,” the driver yelled.
We were on our way back again for a new load of bombs.
Next day I was lucky to be assigned to another group. I was one in a group of ten who had to bring back a broken-down truck with building material. The truck broke down coming back from Warsaw. When we were leaving in a military car with a trailer, others looked at us enviously. “See you later, we are going to Warsaw,” we shouted, waving our hats.
After many checkpoints around the fortress we passed the bridge over the River Bug and, after a few minutes, crossed the iron bridge over the Vistula and turned into the highway to Warsaw, leaving Puszcza Kempinska behind.
The nearer we came to Warsaw, the more army traffic. Each village, each house along the road was full of army men. On the highway were transport and supply columns. In the fields, from the direction of Legjonowo, were long columns of evacuees crossing the highway. They continued in a westerly direction. Everyone was bent, carrying a load on his back. Men, women, children, old and young. The sounds of shooting and fighting intensified. In Lzodowo we saw a large evacuee camp. On a large sports ground near the street heavy loaded carts, hand carts, pushbikes and prams were standing. Tired people were sitting next to their belongings or leaning against the fence. S.S. men were prowling the fields, lanes and shrubs, herding everyone to the camp.
We travelled another ten kilometres and were now close to the city. Near Bielany the houses stood empty. There were no civilians left and most of the houses were in ruins. The army was in position in nearby fields. On both sides of the highway were trenches from which protruded the dark barrels of guns. All soldiers were wearing helmets. From a little hill near the woods German artillery was firing. One could even hear the whistling of the flying bullets and the heavier sounds of the cannon shells. At last our car stopped alongside a broken-down truck loaded with building material. The back of the truck was smashed by bullets.
We started the unloading. This time we really worked quickly, speeded up by the thought that the Soviets could start shooting at any minute and air raids could come unannounced. We worked on the open highway. In the field near us was a burnt-out Russian plane, part of the red star still visible. On our return journey a group of Russian war prisoners was told to board our car. They were guarded by two young S.S. men. We started talking with them. They had been taken prisoner only the day before behind the Vistula. They told us that Warsaw's suburb, Praga, was in Soviet hands and that our Red Polish Army was also fighting there.
We were hungry when we arrived back at our barracks in the evening we received some soup, already cold, and our daily rations: 300 gr. of bread, 20 gr. marmalade and three cigarettes. The cook told us that a new German boss had arrived. He was a civilian and we should expect some changes. The cook was right. New people were brought, the working gangs were divided differently and a store for tools was organised. Because I could speak some German and also write it, I was told to make a list of tools. I even got a rise in pay - the hourly pay, was now 47 pf. instead of the previous 35 pf. The best of this arrangement was that the store was near the kitchen and the offices and I could see Marushka often and get extra food from the cook who liked me.
The store was in a bunker with cement walls and a roof made out of planks covered with earth on which grass and even some bushes were growing. The entry was through a narrow door and steps led to a long dark passage. On both sides of the passage were large cement cells without windows, smelling of dampness and mould. In these cells was my tool store. In the first one was stored potatoes and beets, in the second shovels and picks, in the third dirt, tins and nails and in the fourth, broken window frames.
The fifth was empty of stores but was occupied by a beautiful weasel with a white belly and bushy tail. She became my inseparable companion, sharing the loneliness. Blinking her eyes, she used to glance at the bright light of the bulb hanging day and night from the ceiling. Moving her whiskers, she would look straight into my eyes, nodding her little head graciously. She liked to keep her distance and when I was moving around she used to go to a darker corner. My office was in the passage under the electric light globe.
I made myself a rough sort of table, got myself an old stool and started my 'office work'. One of my goods was rather odd four half-tonner French bombs which were stored along one wall of the passage. As in all other bunkers and magazines in the fortress, the French bombs were put there in readiness for destruction if the army had to retreat. In the beginning I had an unpleasant feeling looking at them. They were packed with explosives and I did not like their shiny fuses and detonators, especially during Soviet air raids. With time I got used to it. When Marushka was able to sneak out of her cage she would come to visit me and sit on these bombs and smoke our cigarettes. They provided the only sitting accommodation for visitors. My work did not take much of my time. I had to issue the tools in the morning and then sit around all the day in case somebody would require additional nails, wires, etc. To sit for twelve hours each day in the damp cell without anything to do was driving me mad and there was nothing to read. I knew that I was becoming morbidly depressed and ready to collapse.
As there was no reading matter, I decided to write. A man driven to despair is ready to grab at any straw. I started to write my recollections of the war.
From this moment I stopped noticing the mouldy walls of the bunker and I did not feel the musty air. My thoughts wandered among the streets of Warsaw in September, 1939, among the hills in Krzemienice. In my mind I was again covering the trail down the River Horyn. I remembered Karmelowo and the streets in Kaunas, my small Jurek and little Roman, my mother, Marushka's parents. Hours flew by unnoticed. Only the noise of the shovels and the loud talk inside the kitchen when the labourers returned reminded me that a whole day had passed. Only then did I close my notebook and hide it under my shirt. I checked the returned tools, received my ration in the kitchen and, together with Marushka, went home to Grandmother Wojciechowska. The days settled in to this routine.
The red corporal who still disliked me must have noticed something. One day he burst into the bunker. "What are you writing there? - I think you have too much time" - and I was landed with two extra jobs; to sweep the yard and sharpen the tools. From then on I had less time for writing but could sit in the yard, leaning against the wall enjoying the sun whilst sharpening the blunt saws.
A few days after we had seen the large number of American planes our trucks brought parts of two broken-down flying fortresses. During the work break everyone came to have a look at the huge wings, the broken fuselage and motors. We were all impressed with their size. A wheel was as high as a man. They were the four-cylinder models, type B-17. A large group gathered around one motor.
An excited youth called "Look, he was killed here. You can see the blood and his flesh." Coming nearer, I could see between the broken fuselage torn bits of human flesh, in the twisted cabin was a boot with part of a leg. That was all that was left of the pilot who was destroyed together with his machine. Who was this American pilot who was torn to bits in the air? Had he come from far-away America, never stepping on Polish soil but where he had left his foot? Human desire for life interrupted my thoughts about the death. From the blood-covered fuselage people began to tear out metal pipes and wires.
"Look what a fine piece. It will be just right for moonshine making,” someone was proudly displaying his treasure. Others, lying on the ground, were cutting the rubber tyres while some were cutting pieces from. the petrol tank which would be very useful for repairing shoes. In a few days the plane was plucked clean.
By mid-October the situation at the Front again became tenser although the news from Headquarters was still the same. The situation between the Rivers Bug and Narew and around Warsaw is still unchanged. But we, living just behind the Front line, could feel every twitch at the Front, The Soviet artillery intensified their firing - the small window in the house where we lived shook. In the evening new fires appeared in the sky. Again skyrockets and tracers appeared in the sky and searchlights cut through the darkness. People standing around their houses watched the changing sky. The sky over Warsaw was illuminated as if there were some great festival. Next morning the evacuees arrived, this time from Legionowo and surrounding places. Once more long columns of women and children and of old people, all looking miserable and tired. Goats on a rope dragging along pushbikes, hand-pushed carts loaded to the top, even sometimes cows, also looking like skeletons. Again this human river was flowing to the west. These people were ordered to leave Legionowo and the surrounding villages. And anyway how could they stay there any longer? Shells were exploding amongst their homes.
In the evening new S.S. soldiers, this time in black uniforms, came to our village again. They were from the Panzer divisions of the Vikings. In the orchards, breaking fences and trees, tanks arrived. In the open places and yards were armoured vehicles. Frightened cows ran in panic and the peasants tried to catch them, dogs barked and tore at their chains, chickens and geese flew over fences looking for a safe hiding place. Many were billeted to the village and we had to make space. Into our kitchen came three Soviet women who were cooking and doing the laundry for the soldiers.
Now six people were living in this small kitchen Mrs. Grzeszkowa who had come back with her two children, Sylvester and we two. Marushka and I slept under the table as otherwise no-one could reach the bed.
After a sleepless night, next morning at dawn we again went to work. We met only small groups of evacuees. The cannonade from the Front persisted unchanged. The airfield was humming with activity. The famous Molber squadron had arrived. Engines were revving up. Some aeroplanes were already starting from the middle of the field, others were getting ready at the sides of the field. The Soviets must be pressing harder - once again we were filled with hope. The atmosphere in the barracks was full of excitement. In the afternoon when I was sitting in the bunker Soviet airplanes appeared in the sky. I barely had time to go up the stairs for a good look when people started to tumble down into my bunker. All the kitchen personnel, Marushka and some soldiers and the red corporal tried to find a place. When I was able to look at the sky I understood their panic. The Soviet planes were flying very low, shooting at everything with machine guns. The whistling bullets were hitting barracks and earth, biting at anything they met like angry hornets. Just for luck a few bombs were dropped as well and the alert was over. We went outside. Near the bunker lay one of our men who had not made the shelter. Some fires were burning on the field; German planes were burning.
Going back home we found on the field some scattered newspaper, 'The New Warsaw Keujer'. A special issue - No. 105. On the front page was a photo of civilians carrying their belongings as they were entering a German army car. Below was printed: "Fleeing from the heavy street fighting and fires, the Warsaw civilians are coming to the German powers for protection, full of trust." Another article was headed: "Who is to blame?" and below it a sub-heading "On the periphery of human misery."
When we had finished reading I asked Marushka "What do you think, who is to blame?"
"Do you mean in the opinion of the author?"
"I think the author is trying to blame London."
"Not only London but also Moscow. Funny, if the Soviets would now toss us some leaflets they would blame Berlin and London. The cautious London Times would probably blame only the Germans. Each of these powers have their own reason of state and they are looking at the Warsaw uprising in their own light. What a pity that there is no universal common policy of state which would firstly think about the rights of human beings, who would prevent the burning of a city with a population of millions, who would stop the murder of its people, who would prevent the homeless, hungry wanderings of masses. Why look for the guilty ones? There are none, there are only the victims. Every side which was added to this entire holocaust is responsible but they were acting according to the reason of their state therefore they are blameless. The crimes committed are sanctioned in the name of reason and the murderers might be called heroes. The Warsaw uprising is not an isolated case to be looked at as though in a laboratory. It is closely connected with all of the world war, its fighting, and with the political aspirations of each separate power."
Coming home, there was no place in the kitchen. Mrs. Grzeczkowa and the children were sitting at the table eating dinner, Sylvester was shaving the Vikings and on the bed sat a neighbour. We went out to sit under the cherry tree. The sun was setting, behind the dark line of forests. From the Front the thundering sound was strong and gloomy. Over Warsaw, as usual, were many great fires. When some of the people left and we could return to the kitchen, I found a German newspaper left by the Vikings. It was the 'Zischenauer Zeitung' from the previous day. At last! Some written, recent news from the Front. I learned about the recent Panzer battle ... near Paris. About bombing of the Philippines, about the far east. "Between Bug and Narev and north of Warsaw the position is unchanged ..." and our windows were rattling more strongly. I continued my reading. A large article by Goebbels justifying the closing down of theatres and other places of entertainment as well as hairdressing and beauty salons throughout Germany. On the last page were different notices. One caught my eye. "Mister Michael Gutkowski, a department head in the employment office in Mlawy, announced that his name is hereby changed to Mr. Guth." In small print it was reported that a farmer from Prussia refused to contribute to the army winter fund, declaring himself a pacifist. He was sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence had been carried out.
Our candle was burning low - it was time to bed down under the table. In the village, drunken soldiers were singing in a mixture of German/Polish and Russian words.
During the night we were awakened by the sound of very heavy artillery fire coming from the north. The beastly roar shook the whole house. I got dressed and went outside. It was a clear night full of stars and the moon looked pale in the light of the burning fires over Warsaw. Searchlights were gliding over the sky and tracers were bursting like little stars. The Front seemed full of movement.
Next morning the evacuation of the German civilians and the 'Volksdeutsche' from Modlin and its surrounding areas started. The first to leave was the German schoolteacher, leaving her un-Germanised children behind. German peasant, imported here before as future master-race, were hurriedly packing their carts harnessed to two strong horses. The rest of their meat which they did not take with them was quickly sold. They were cursing the order to evacuate, they were cursing the war in general and Hitler in particular. The noise of butchered pigs and frightened sheep was everywhere whilst scared geese, holding their necks high and snapping at everyone, added to the confusion. The rich butchers were loading their goods and departing. There was nothing to be bought with coupons. The locals looked on in dismay. In the afternoon the occupants of the offices started to move out. The Modlin employment offices were packing their files on trucks. The locals were happy to see them go. We were all full of hope. The Poles were smiling, looking at the hasty packing and departure of the Germans. We were not quite free as yet. The army and military police were still there. The old peasants in Kosewo were shaking their heads doubtfully.
"It has already happened once,” an old peasant leaning against the fence told us. "It was when the 'Russek' was coming near Warsaw. The Germans were running like hares. Everyone fled, not only the employment offices but also the military police and even part of the army. The fortress was quite empty, like a barn before the new season. We were certain that it was the end of the war. It lasted two days. The 'Russek' did not come and Germans started to return. Firs the army, then the military police and, after them, all their offices. Who knows, it might happen once again. I'll wait and see,” said the old peasant.
The work at the airfield continued. The digging of bunkers and trenches had to be finished, this time in earnest. The Germans brought some Soviet war prisoners to speed up digging. When I was giving out shovels, I was astonished to hear them speak polish between themselves. They explained that they were taken into the army just at the beginning of the war when the Soviets had occupied east Poland. After only a few hours of training they were pushed to fight at the front and later on they were taken prisoners by the Germans. They showed me the new Polish currency which I had not seen as yet.
The roar along the Front continued. In the sky we saw more often Russian planes diving into the German hinterland. None of the German planes were taking off from our field. They were sitting around just like stuffed birds. They had no petrol, but the Front was definitely coming nearer. Sometimes the firing seemed to come from quite close by. Our labourers were climbing up the bank for a better look but the forests along the River Bug obstructed the view. During lunchtime the rumour was that the Soviets had taken Warsaw and were now advancing towards Nowy Dwor. We were all very happy as we were fed up with this hopeless situation. At last we could expect a change - at last the Front seemed to move.
In the evening, going home through the airfield, we saw many hurried movements on the airfield. The soldiers were leaving their bunkers, donning their helmets and taking up positions. Some were already sitting beside their guns, moving the barrels towards the sky. All observers were at their posts. We knew what to expect. We were still half a kilometre from the end of the airfield. We started running as fast as we could. In a very short while planes were above the airfield, turning and diving. We fell to the ground, crawling towards the nearest trench. The German artillery opened fire. The diving planes were shooting non-stop from their machine guns. I have only one memory from this raid-scared cows with their tails high up running around the field and the cowherd chasing them, trying to push them towards some shrubs, or home.
After the air raid Marushka came out of the trench irritable and angry. "I've had it. I can't stand it any longer. All this damned war, the planes, the bombs. I don't want to sit here any longer. It is beyond my strength. Zyg I can't - let us go away:" I started to explain that we had both decided to wait here until the Front passed us, that only then would we be able to go home, that coming to Poland had been hard enough but, if we left now, all we had been through would be for nothing.
"But I simply can't take it any more. We have been here nearly two months now. Every day is horrible and I can't see any end to it. My nerves can't take any more. I know I am going to pieces, being hysterical, but please understand - I can't take it any more" I tried to explain that the end was now quite near, that today I had been able to listen to the radio while in the locksmith's workshop. The Soviets had brought four new divisions to our part of the Front and they were trying to force the front along the Harew River. "Be patient, my darling, you have to face up to it just once more."
In the village we were met with more news. From some wounded Vikings we learned that the front was barely 25 kilometre away. Not only tank men arrived in our village, but also the infantry. Many tanks were smashed and the new ones had not arrived as yet. Now we were really full of hope. At last the end seemed near.
Unfortunately Marushka became ill. Maybe it was yesterday's raid when she, after running and being hot, was lying in the wet trenches. Her temperature was rising. By evening I could tell that she was seriously ill and in pain. Her temperature reached 40 degrees and was climbing. Worried, I went to the next village to ask for the doctor. The field hospital was already partly evacuated. I asked and begged the doctor to come but he refused as he had wounded soldiers who needed his immediate attention. I rushed back home and found Marushka worse. In desperation, I got her dressed and half-dragging, half-carrying, took her to the field hospital which was over 1 1/2 km away. The doctor agreed to see her. He thought it could be rheumatic fever and gave us a handful of quinine. It was the best he could do.
Marushka was reeling and swaying as we returned and I carried her most of the way. There was more room in the kitchen as the three women had left.
It was one of the gloomiest nights of my life. A cold autumn rain was falling outside. Marushka was lying on the straw-covered bed, the room was full of cooking steam, children played noisily beside her bed and she was moaning in pain. At the table sat some drunken soldiers waiting their turn for a haircut by Sylvester. Every time the door was opened the cold air filled the kitchen. I covered Marushka as best I could but damp cold air was even coming from the floor. It was late at night when at last we were left alone. Giving Marushka another dose of quinine, I sat at her feet. The firing from the front was nearer and louder.
At two in the morning even the earth started to tremble. The heavy concentration of the artillery fire seemed to tear the air apart. The wet windows were shaking and the door banged loudly with each new ear-shattering blast.
Marushka was breathing heavily, her eyes were shut, she was in pain and she did not reply to my questions.
I was seized by a hopeless despair. Gloomy thoughts entirely filled my mind. It was dark outside, the kitchen was dark, my thought were dark. The clock was ticking evenly. Odd how in times of dreary thoughts, in times of distress, I usually heard the measuring of time. I tried to push the thought away, the thought which was insistent, which was haunting me like a phantom in a dark night ... maybe Marushka ... no, I didn't want to think this word.
It sent cold shivers down my spine. I fell into a half-sleep, I started to drowse and my mind became numb, deadening my thoughts. I opened my eyes once again, looking through the window with unseeing eyes into the darkness, into the gloomy, hopeless night ... a dream ... a nightmare ... She is lying on the straw with a red rose between her white lips. A black Viking is twisting his skull in a dance full of frenzy, roaring a drunken song, flying bombs are changing into colourful fireworks, all heaven is ringing with the song of peace - a happy day is now to begin ... firework are bursting, standing between the dancing Vikings is their chaplain, also in black ... he is lifting a black cross and, instead of Christ, there is a large red star. Pending over the deathly pale Marushka, the chaplain is blessing ... PAX VOBISCUM ... PAX VOBISCUM ... REST IN PEACE ... REQUIESCAT IN PACE ... the choir joined in ... pacifist ... pacifist ... pacifist ... the Vikings were dancing around the black chaplain.
I woke up leaning against the bed - the grey morning mist was visible through the window. I bent over Marushka. Her face was covered in sweat, her damp hair covered part of her face, she was breathing more evenly and her sleep seemed very deep. The rain had stopped and the first golden sunrays were reaching the window, drying the droplets. The sounds from the Front were not so loud. Life was once again smiling at me.
A few more days passed and there was still no breakthrough at the Front. More and more army men arrived in the village. On the other side of Kosewo, near the airfield, the artillery was digging itself in. Every building was occupied by the army. We were now just behind the front lines.
Quinine was helping Marushka. She was still in pain, still very pale and weak but her eyes were shining again. If the weather was warm when I returned from work, I made her go outside and we would sit under the trees and make plans for the future. Marushka felt very strongly against waiting here for the Front to break. She had no faith in her strength. After the unsuccessful effort by the Soviet Army to break through on our front lines, we now had reasonably quiet days. The artillery was silent.
One day Soviet airplanes came. "They were flying slowly and very low. We wanted to run, but where to? There were no shelters. The airfield, full of planes, was very close, behind the orchard was the German artillery, tanks were standing in all the yards and the village was full of soldiers. We were leaning against the barn, its roof covered with straw. The first bombs started falling - clouds of dust rose. Marushka, frightened, grabbed my hand and we rushed back into the house. Everyone was leaning against the stove, the children were lying on the ground and Grandmother Wojciechowska was praying loudly. When the noise of the angry motors was straight overhead we hid our faces on each other's shoulders, a creepy feeling in the back. Maybe now? Marushka was holding my arm tightly, her fingers twitched nervously, her legs began to shake, her teeth rattled as in a fever. At last I understood that she would be unable to sit here and wait as she was heading for a breakdown. When from the flight-deck the machine guns started cutting down the leaves and branches of our cherry tree, we all fell to the ground. Seconds and minutes passed, the detonations receded, the raid was over. In our village many were killed and wounded.
Next morning many new evacuees arrived in our village. Among them were relatives of Grandmother. They arrived from the other side of the Bug River - the peasants from that village had decided to flee with all their possessions without waiting for any orders. The Front once again became so active that there was no hope of crossing the front lines. We were now very crowded. In the small kitchen there now lived eighteen people. There was no seating space left. As Marushka wanted to talk with me, we went into the barn which was empty. While I was at work she had spoken with one of the soldiers, Mr. Oswald Goch. He was German but brought up in Poland, in Poznan. His parents became Volksdeutsche and were now living in a small town in Wurtenberg, Germany near the Swiss border. He told Marushka how beautiful and quiet this place of his parents was the beauty of the hilly scenery near the Swiss Alps, far away from all war activities.
He tried to talk Marushka into going there. He was prepared to write a letter to his parents recommending us - to his father who had influential connections. Other Poles, were already working there.
When Marushka had finished, we both fell quiet. I stretched out on the hay, looking at the roof.
"Are we going?”
"Why, what is waiting for us there?"
"Peace, hills, the Bodensee."
"And hard work too."
"Don't we work here, even worse, under bombing and shelling."
"Do you really want to go very much?" "Very much! I can't stay here, I'll go really mad." "OK. Maybe you are right, if we go it might be better to go as far as possible away from this hell. Alright, we will go" "Truly? We will really go away?" Marushka jumped to her feet, her eyes shining as she hugged me, hanging on my neck. The decision was taken.
To realise her wish was not so easy. Free travel was long ago suspended in Germany. There was only one way left - to again get some fictitious documents, some travel orders directing IDs to that particular part of Germany. The only person who would be able to do this was Captain Bueller. He was a soft-hearted man and easily influenced by females. Marushka could achieve it and, in addition, her fluent German language would be of considerable help. We decided to tell him the truth.
Next evening we went to the, barracks where he had his offices. He was away and we were told to wait. It got dark and started to rain. His batman, with a lantern in his hand, was going to feed the cows. Looking for protection against the rain, we followed him to the barn. In the long barn were only five cows. The batman went to the opposite wall and put his lantern on ... a grand piano! Seeing our astonishment, he explained that the captain had brought this concert piano from an empty house in Warsaw. Being short of space, the piano was kept here.
"They are taking everything away from Warsaw,” said the batman who was German by birth but brought up in Poland. "They not only take pianos - I would not even want such a thing, it only takes up a lot of space - they are bringing beautiful things. They are going through Warsaw with large trucks, looting stores, homes, basements. Once they took me to help. Heavens, what a variety of things we brought back. A lot of very good vodka, liqueurs, boots and ladies shoes, lovely silks. I tell you, just looking one felt like finger-licking. Many bags of sugar, three tons of flour, white as snow. One of them even found a whole big bag of Italian walnuts."
Seeing Marushka lovingly patting the shining piano, he laughed - "Go ahead, play us some modern pieces."
I pushed an empty box nearer to her. She sat down, opening the piano lid. Spotless, white keys were smiling at her. She placed her hands on the keys ... and from the dark barn came floating the music of Chopin. Chopin's ghost freed by music. The melody was very tender, masterly impressive, inspired by a magic charm of Chopin's bewitched soul. My heaven how he freed it, how his magic wand liberated those feelings. Leaning against the wall of the barn, I was listening to a ballade. Looking at the walls covered with cobwebs, my thoughts began wandering, trying to remember the story which inspired Chopin. Through the melody I see a young girl playing with her long plaits, charming two young men, both in love with her. She charms them both, distributing her smiles equally. The music is light, happy and frivolous but love desires to possess and now come the first jarring sounds. The music is changing, the smile disappears, and there is disharmony. Then the big ball interrupts. The ballade takes us now to the gilded ballrooms, full of glittering lights, the frocks are rustling. There is a lot of light laughter, the fans are opening and closing flirtatiously, deep bows, and pairs are assembling for the leading dance. The orchestra starts up with the opening bars. Gay dancing music, the pairs are swirling in a round dance.
Absorbed in the music, I let ray eyes wander. My God, cows are in the ballroom. No, that is a mistake, Chopin came to the barn. Manure in a ballroom?'' Or is the ballroom in the manure? Wet cows mouths instead of smiling faces.
The nearest cow could even hit the piano with its dirty tail and there was a fly-speckled lantern on the beautiful grand piano. I took my eyes away, looking now at the darkest corner of the barn. The music and the charming ballade engulfed me again. I was back at the ball, back again to the girl with her flighty smiles, those two youths now rivals. Only one at a time can dance with her. The other is standing with a gloomy face, leaning against the wall, his eyes burning with jealousy, he feels hatred building up in him. The music is still gay dancing music but more disharmonious sounds are included - the music becomes dismal. Something must have happened. I listened, full of attention. Both rivals leave the ballroom, rushing out into the dark night towards the cliff. They close up, locked in each other's arms like two stags in season. Now they are near the precipice - one's leg is slipping over. The sound of the music increases, the tone gets harder, then full of fighting frenzy. The fight is now in earnest, without rules, when suddenly.. a second of emptiness, dead silence and then .. just an echo which is drowning, a rock thrown down the cliff into the emptiness. Both youths, in a mortal embrace, hurtle down to the vast ocean. The ballade finished.
"Not a bad piece,” called out the batman, "but perhaps you could now play a fashionable tango?"
The captain did not return that evening. Only next day was Marushka able to receive the travel orders. It even went easily. Our travel orders were for Isny. With some difficulty, we found it on the map. It was a thousand kilometres away, right through all Germany, at the foot of the Alps. Once again a crucial moment in our war wanderings had arrived.
We were ready to leave next morning at dawn. Our rucksacks were again heavy. We were promised a lift by a military truck as no trains were leaving Modlin - the railway line near Plonsk was destroyed. The truck was to leave from the main barracks, going to Torun. It was sad to part from these kind and friendly people. Grandmother Wojciechowska gave us her blessings for the long road. For the last time we went along the well-trodden lanes, through the potato field.
Our truck left much later than expected as the driver was waiting for some soldiers. We took our places, sitting on our rucksacks under the canvas roof. Late at night, frozen to the bone, we arrived at Torun. We went straight to the station which was shrouded in darkness and fairly empty. There were a few military policemen walking about. From the railway maps on the station, I made notes of the towns through which we would travel. The road led through Poznan, Dresden, Nurenberg, Augsburg and Memmingen. As the train far Dresden was leaving at two a.m., we had enough time to have a look at Torun. A lot of things are possible during war but to see a town at night is not one of them. The darkness was so complete that we had trouble in walking. I was mainly interested in seeing its people as I knew the town from before the war. The town, once Polish, was now a German town, indistinguishable from other towns in Prussia. I did not hear the Polish language. In the streets, cafes, beer-houses, everywhere, were only Germans, civilians and soldiers and Hitler Youth in their uniforms. Even the waiters were German. I was amazed - it seemed unbelievable that this town only five years ago was a Polish town. Why should I be so astonished by the living Torun locals when even Kapernicus after his death was made a Volksdeutsche? Mister Rosenberg accepted him into the master-race, even giving him the honour of citizenship because now the earth is rotating around the sun thanks to the German genius.
After a few hours walking we returned to the station. There, in the public toilets, I heard the first Polish words from the half-open door of the cleaner's cubicle came the sound of Polish talk. I wanted to wash my hands and entered after mocking. A Railway employee in uniform, the waiter from the station and the cleaner stepped talking immediately.
The cleaner turned to me and asked in the official tongue "What do you want, please?"
I replied in Polish "I would like to wash my hands." They looked at me distrustfully. The cleaner, after some hesitation, gave me a towel and replied in German - "Help yourself." Their conversation continued in German.
I started to wash. Unexpectedly the door was pushed open and a porter entered, speaking in pure Polish "This is where our club is hiding today ..." He stopped, noticing the signs given by the cleaner pointing in my direction. The talk continued in German.
I had walked for two hours around Torun but found here, in the toilet, its true face. Returning to the station I started imagining, overdoing it. It seemed that all the travellers and the station staff, including the police and the stationmaster, were all wearing a mask, that they all did speak Polish only when it was safe to do so.
Our train left on time. The first large town was Poznan (also a Polish town before the war). The platform was crowded with German evacuees, bombed out during the recent raid over Koenigsberg. Most of them were trying to go to Saksoni. The crowd was storming the train. Police were guarding compartments reserved far the army.
Packed full, we continued towards Dresden., People were sitting on their bundles in the passages. They were mainly from East Prussia. In addition there were soldiers, sisters from the Red Cross, RAD and others.
The windows were tightly shut and blinds drawn. Military controls checked everyone’s documents. At dawn we were already travelling through true Germany, not former Poland.