13th May, 1941.
I am a commander of the Red Army House, a recreation club in Kaunas. Knowing my options, you will not suspect me of opportunism. But I do know that you will hold the fact that I accepted this position against my wishes, you being a man of tradition to put it very mildly. I don't intend to argue with you about basic principles, as it would be futile. We have had different outlooks but the strong bond of friendship has kept us together since childhood.
I would like you to know what has happened to me and what eventually led me to this position.
I realised just now that a year has passed since we saw each other and I really don't know where to start. So many impressions, so many changes have occurred during this year.
Although living in the same province of Poland, in this short time you and I have become citizens of different countries. I, a citizen of the Lithuanian Socialistic Soviet Republic and you, White Russian Socialistic Soviet Republic. Before, we were separated by an insignificant country boundary, now by a closed frontier.
Yes, my friend, since Marushka and I returned to Wilno I have the impression of witnessing history in the making. During this year our Wilno has changed hands from Polish to Russian, from Russian to Lithuanian and from Lithuanian back to Russian. Wilno, like a courtesan, changed hands, was remodelled according to her temporary possessors. She even changed her name, as is customary for lovers. Today she is called, more softly, Vilnius.
Our Wilno became whimsical and unfaithful. In her old age she even has delusions of grandeur, wanting decidedly to be a capital city. Therefore we, her permanent residents, have had to change our citizenship twice - from Polish to Lithuanian and from Lithuanian to Soviet.
Today I am a citizen of Soviet Lithuania and am living in Kaunas. I left Wilno at the time when she was Lithuanian with President Smetona (the first and last President of Independent Lithuania). President Smetona, with the help of his 'kalakutas' (the nickname given to his policemen) and their rubber truncheons tried to remake Wilno, the ancient town of King Gedymin, into the capital city of Lithuania. At this time Wilno started to become deserted as many of the local residents and a majority of the evacuees went to Kaunas where, trying to get visas, they joined the long queues in front of different consulates and legations. From here was the last chance to go to the west, flying through Sweden. Some went to the east, others wanted to go to France and England (at this time the place of the Polish exile government).
My road was short. Thirteen kilometres from Kaunas, on the Wilkomir highway, a house with white shutters stood on a hill. There Marushka and I lived as this was her property. Life was idyllic. I was cutting wood in the snow-covered forests and she was knitting, nursing the new life in her.
With the spring came the storks, as well as Soviet bases. Afterwards the Red Army took over this country with its chapels and crosses along the waysides. The cream of the Lithuanian society and the government elite, including President Smetona, left the country. The tall policemen with their red spiked helmets disappeared from the streets. New people, of the Red Order arrived. The Red Army soldiers filled the streets and red banners were fluttering above the buildings. The Avenue of Independence was now called Stalin’s Boulevard.
After the elections, the Lithuanian House of Representatives announced, with strong ovations, that Lithuania would join the Soviet Union as the 16th Soviet Republic. I was an observer at this historical session of the Lithuanian Parliament.
One of the first citizens to join the new republic was our new-born son. We registered him in Z.A.K.S. (Civil Registry for Birth Certificates), giving him the name of Jerzy (George).
Shortly afterwards my father died. When my son arrived into the world, my father departed. With dramatic punctuality, the old generation gave place to the new one.
I had to hammer the nails into the coffin where my father was lying. You can't imagine, my friend, what a shattering experience it was. When hitting the pine board with the hammer I heard a dull, hollow echo coning from inside. I had the feeling that I was doing my father a great injustice. He, who was lying defenceless in this coffin, I was forever depriving of the possibility of returning to his family. Those were hard moments.
After the funeral I returned to our house with the white shutters but somehow I lost heart and interest. In this land great changes were occurring, changes for which I had been campaigning in academic circles before the war. You remember our club for the intellectuals, our paper "Razem" (Together) "Druk" (Print)? You remember our 'Gugi', 'Muty', 'Wladek', 'Henruk' and 'Robespierre' and many other enthusiasts, building in our minds huge projects, dreaming about great changes whilst sitting in small smoke-filled rooms. And especially do you remember after I had been arrested as a suspect communist and brought in the night to the chambers of the examining magistrate, how I was brought in handcuffs for investigation? I'll never forget the moment when the door opened and we were facing each other. We were both in training for the Bar - you to become a judge, I a barrister. You recording, sitting behind the official desk and I, the accused, in handcuffs.
Now look at us today when our dreams of long ago are beginning to come true, when new people are trying to build the foundations for collective living - I, like a 'kulak', have to look after the interests of my in-laws' farm, to fight against the landless ones.
Do you understand the irony of my fate? I'll admit to you that I gladly agreed to the order of the shire office of parcelling out 20-odd hectares belonging to my wife. I left the running of the farm, Karmelowo, to my relatives who came from Wilno to Kaunas looking for work.
Fate intervened again, making a joke. I became the commandant of the Red Army House. The location of my first work for the labour socialist peasant government was amongst highly polished floors of stylish salons in a beautiful building designed for the previous Lithuanian Officers Club. In this building the House of the Red Army was now located.
I was walking on highly polished floors of the concert halls, on Persian carpets in visitors salons, climbing marble steps covered with red carpets. Everything was illuminated by crystal chandeliers, with gilded pictures in the conference rooms and tropical palms and sunny hothouses as well. I felt as if in a dream. Was illusion a reality or was reality an illusion?
Such a short while ago I had been carrying manure out of the barn, trudging behind the plough. The contrast was too great to accept readily. After a while I became accustomed to it, to the house of culture and recreation for the Red Army. It consisted of a library, reading room, auditorium, picture theatre, restaurants, buffet, hotel, war museum, gymnasium and many lecture rooms such as for physical training, sewing, foreign languages, ballroom dancing, music, ballet, choir.
Mine was the job of administration, general supervision of the civilian personnel and technicians, as well as buying objects d'art and period furniture. Anything to enrich and beautify the interior of the House. I like the last two duties - they give me a lot of satisfaction as well. Yesterday, for instance, I met a very good painter of watercolours. His main subject is the sea resort, Polonga. I intend to give him a commission for a few pictures. I see them already hanging in the reading room which is covered with dark blue tapestry. I will not bother you with details and had better finish this letter. I have given you only a very rough outline, but I am unable to put in writing many of the topics I would like so much to discuss with you. We will speak about those things sometime later when the war is finished, IF our lives are spared.
Give my love to your wife, Wisia,
My friend from early childhood was Edmund Oskierka. He never received my letter. He was deported to east Russia but never arrived at the labour camp. He was a paraplegic and died on the way from exhaustion.
May he rest in peace.
The future of my friends from the University mentioned in this letter varied greatly:
1. "Guga" (Druto) - wife of the future Ambassador in Paris and Rome.
2. "Muta" (Pziewicka) - became Chairman of the Polish Women's Society in the Polish People's Republic.
3. "Henryk" (Debinski) - previous leader of Catholic youth, afterwards leader of the left academic movement, a journalist and a brilliant orator. He was shot by the Germans as a communist.
4. "Robespierre" (Jedrychowski) - civic leader of the youth, editor of the academic Press. Became Minister of Shipping and Foreign Trade, chairman of the planning commission, Finance Minister, afterwards Minister of Foreign Affairs and also Deputy Prime Minister of the Polish People's Republic.
5. "Wladek" (Tilebowicz) - administrator of the editorial office for academic and left Press. Interrogated and tortured to death by the Gestapo.
Next morning, going to work, I mailed the letter to my friend. I was supervising the decoration of the large marble hall for a ball that evening which was to be included in the new Russian film called "Lithuanian Spring".
In the evening the ballroom looked splendid. The crystal candelabra were sparkling, colourful balloons and lampions hung everywhere. Multi-coloured streamers were floating from the balconies, confetti falling softly on gala-dressed dancers blond Lithuanians, ladies in national costumes, Russian women in berets and short skirts. Among this bright crowd Red Army men in uniform mingled with guests in black tails.
The filming team arrived from Moscow. Cameramen on large platforms covered with filming equipment came into the hall with blinding bright lights. The producer was organising people for the foreground nearer to the camera. Marushka, a bit shy, with a few other ladies in long evening gowns, was chosen. The instruction was that Marushka, dancing with me, had to move towards the camera. The producer gave a signal with his hand and the filming started. The orchestra played a Strauss waltz and we were dancing towards the receding camera, lit by bright reflectors and covered with a rain of confetti. Next we had to go laughing down the large marble stairs towards the eye of the camera. When all the required episodes were filmed, the ball came to an end. We were ready to leave when I was called to Comrade Colonel, Chief of the Red Army House, and ordered to organise, immediately, the cleaning of the ballroom as the room would be required again the same night. The maintenance staff, working during the night, would have the next day off.
Going home I saw many covered lorries driving about in different directions. Next morning we heard the alarming news: Deportation!!!
Arriving at work I met men in navy trousers and grey tunics, also some unknown civilians. The ballroom was full of stale tobacco smoke. The assembled desks were covered with many folders containing lists of names for deportation. Telephones were ringing everywhere. Guards were posted at all doors. Here was now the head office and on the railway station people were already being assembled for the first transport. Some of our employees did not return to work. Life in Lithuania became drab and people stopped sleeping peacefully. The "Lithuanian Spring" lost its smile.
Some time later two huge pictures arrived from Moscow. One showed manoeuvres of the Red Army under the command of Marshal Timoshenko, the other was of Stalin addressing the Supreme Soviet General Assembly. It was not an easy task to hang them in the main front salon. Later I had a much harder job as we received from Russia two monuments made of reinforced concrete. One represented a mariner, the other a border guard with a dog. They arrived in parts and had to be assembled. They were so heavy that I had trouble just lifting the mariner's forearm holding his binoculars. The director, Comrade Karmin, gave me orders to put both sculptures in front of the main entrance. I hired bricklayers and stonecutters, specialist monumental masons.
They built pedestals and started assembling. I had orders to have everything ready by the 23rd June. Only a few days were left and my mariner had still no body, the other one had no head. The next day it was raining and work could not continue. I was angry and in a bad mood knowing that an unpleasant reprimand was in store for me. Straight after tea I went to sleep in our bed behind the wardrobe.
It was the night of the 21st of June 1941...
We were woken up by rifle shots and explosives. We jumped to our feet. We were no longer accustomed to this kind of noise. We rushed to the windows, opening them slightly. A familiar sound from the German/Polish campaign - the deep drone of bombers. Nervously, Marushka adjusted her glasses. We were watching the bomber fighters which were flying very high and wondering where the shots were coming from. Again we heard a cannonade. Simultaneously there appeared in the sky many tiny white clouds. We looked at each other - we understood. The planes were being fired at, therefore they were enemy planes.
Who was the enemy? ... We knew - the same one which in 1939, also at dawn, also without declaring war, crossed our Polish frontiers.
The planes departed. Hurriedly I switched on the radio to hear news from Berlin. "Attention! Attention! An important announcement will be made soon." Military march music in the background and shortly we heard Mr. Ribbentrop, Foreign Minister of the Reich. He announced that, in defiance of the Fuehrer’s previous warning to the U.S.S.R., the Russians had amassed all their military power along the frontier lines. The order to attack had been given to protect Europe against communism. As from that day, the German Reich was at war with the U.S.S.R.
When I arrived at work I found many employees crowding the doors of the radio cabin listening to Molotov who spoke about the treacherous attack by the Germans, calling the Soviet people for intensified efforts to defend their country.
Later on the director called all employees together and advised us to stay at work, to work harder for the good of ... etcetera, etcetera ... but nobody worked much that day. People in larger or smaller groups were discussing the recent events.
Next day there came rumours that Germans had crossed the frontier and were advancing. Some high-ranking officers arrived at the Red Army House, many orderlies rushing around in dusty boots - many liaison officers.
When I entered the room of the duty officer I found a young woman lying on a bench. Her nightdress was torn and bloody and she was covered with a dressing gown. Her hair was dishevelled, her eyes were feverish and scared and she had no shoes.
Her slight wounds were dressed and we put her on a field bed in the ballroom. She was the first wounded evacuee to reach Kaunas. She told me that she was the wife of a Soviet officer and they had been living near the German border. The German attack was so unexpected that she had just managed to run away without dressing and hide in the forest. Afterwards she had found a road and continued running, with German tanks not very far behind. A car stopped and gave her a lift to Kaunas.
Now events moved quickly. Already by midday the order came to evacuate Kaunas. Private cars, packed to full capacity with people and luggage, were tooting along the streets passing dusty trucks. Cars started arriving in front of D.K.A. to pick up the families of officers and their belongings. Colonel Kadmin and some officers loaded the most important documents and the money from the strong box. The civilian employees were standing around and just watching the departing Soviets.
The building became empty. Comrade Colonel Kadmin entered the car and, giving the keys from the building, said, "Keep safe, Comrade Kruszewski. We will return to Lithuania." (At the time I did not realise how prophetic these words were). In seconds his car was lost from view. The people dispersed and I was left on the stairs. Beside me were the two unfinished sculptures; the border guard without a head and half the mariner. The cement in the trough began to set.
All that night the heavy traffic continued, only easing off in the morning. The permanent inhabitants watched and waited. Only here and there could we see tired Red Army soldiers and only occasionally a car with people and luggage - mainly Jewish evacuees.
In the afternoon some armed men appeared in the streets. They were rushing around singly or in groups. Across their chests hung belts with ammunition, they had rifles in their hands, and an armband in colours - gold/red/green. They were Lithuanian partisans. Later on we heard shots - sometimes single ones, sometimes a burst of a machine gun, also sounds of breaking glass. The time to plunder was getting ripe. On the other side of the street someone was smashing the window of a large wine shop. The windowpane broke and first a few men, and then more, entered through the hole, returning the same way laden with bottles.
At that time there was no authority in Kaunas. For marauders it was a golden opportunity to loot. I returned to D.K.A. The storeroom was already empty. The kitchen floor was covered with cream. There were also empty, broken vodka bottles, but no people. They had probably enjoyed the night here. The house was empty. Only in the boiler room did I find a man in a drunken sleep. I went up the white marble stairs. In the marble hall where such a short while ago the big ball had been in progress there was now only the echo of my steps. I looked at the furniture and pictures which I had so recently purchased, visited the hothouse where, amid the quiet of the palms and flowers, a tap was dripping. The goldfish were swimming erratically, opening and closing their little mouths. Everyone had forgotten them. I changed the water and attended to them. This was my last 'official function' in the House of the Red Army. I went down to the office, took my personal file out of the cabinet and, putting in into my pocket, left this house for the last time.
I had nothing to do here. No-one for whom to protect the property. I was an outsider in this country. I gave the keys to the drunken watchman before leaving the building.
In front of the building was a group of people watching some partisans who were smashing the unfinished sculptures. The mariner was already smashed to bits.
When going home, neighbours told me about the partisans who were entering houses and executing Red Army soldiers in hiding; also Jews and people who were on the Red Army payroll. While we were having tea and discussing what might happen, I saw through the window a group of partisans running towards our house. I thought they were the ones who had been in front of the Red Army House. Suddenly a thought struck me. They had found the address of the commandant – me, and were coming for me thinking me a Russian, especially as I could not speak Lithuanian. Explanations would do no good in these times. They were young Lithuanian chauvinists, angry and drunk. They would execute me on the spot and ask questions later. There was no time to lose. "I have to run," I called to my wife and in-laws and ran towards the kitchen where I jumped out through the window into the backyard. Going over the neighbour's fence, I saw Marushka, rather pale, shutting the window after me.
Going through a few more backyards, I came to Stalin's Boulevard. I stopped at the gate and looked around. The street was covered with smashed plaster busts of Stalin and tattered portraits of commissars and marshals of the Soviet Union. The shop which had been selling them had broken windows and an empty interior. Further away, near the corner, a group of partisans were arguing but they soon disappeared. I decided to go to our farm, Karmelowo. Crossing the street I passed the old cathedral and turned towards Parados Street. Here, at the foot of the hill, was an empty Soviet tank, spent cartridges all around it. From the hill came sounds of firing. In the park the Reds were still fighting. I came to the trees in the 'Green Hill' and was just ready to duck between the trees when a voice called out, "Stop." Looking around I saw, leaning from behind a tree, a partisan in the uniform of a railway employee. His rifle was pointing at me. I stopped. He ordered me to raise my hands, which I did. He came close and, providing my stomach with the barrel of his rifle, ordered me to show my identification papers.
I was lucky - he seemed a reasonable man. I gave him my documents and answered as well as I could in Lithuanian. He checked all documents, examined my passport and asked my address. He certainly was a better clerk than a partisan as, when examining my papers, he put his rifle against the tree before checking if I possessed arms. I could have silenced him with one blow of my fist. But why should I do it? He let me go anyway but would not allow me to continue in the previous direction. I had to return to town. I went back as far as the first turn and, when the partisan could not see me, turned to my intended direction but, being more cautious, I was now going through different backyards using, whenever possible, holes in the fences to squeeze through. At last I reached the highway. On the highway I spotted a group of partisans. They were searching someone. I dropped into the ditch and crawled slowly to the adjoining rye field. A few kilometres further on I could already see the forest which continued right to Karmelowo. I began to hurry when, unexpectedly, I heard rifle shots. The whine of the bullets was very close, just above my head. I realised that someone was shooting at me. I fell to the ground, hugging the earth. My heart was beating wildly. After a while the shooting stopped. Slowly I raised my head to have a look. About 400 metres away, leaning against a house, was a group of partisans. I could hear them laughing. They were not following me. They were drinking - probably moonshine - straight from the bottle. Crouching in the rye field, I continued towards the forest. I had only another 70 metres to go but this last part was quite devoid of any shelter. It was a freshly mowed meadow. I decided to risk it and sprinted as fast as I could towards the forest. Immediately the shooting started again but the bullets were whistling past and I reached the first trees. The partisans were probably too drunk to take good aim.
After a few hours walk through dense, bushy undergrowth, I reached our house on the hill. The white shutters were closed. I wondered if everyone had left. I went round the house and was joyously greeted by our dogs. The kitchen door was opened slowly by my cousin. In seconds I was in the kitchen. Everyone came to the kitchen, hugging me and asking for news.
"Are the Germans already in Kaunas? Why is it so quiet? Where is the Front?" I was asked. They told me that, during the last day and night, the highway was covered with the retreating Soviet Army, with masses of civilian evacuees and many Jews, who were going by trucks, by horse-drawn carriages, and even walking. Local residents of the nearby village fled into the forest. The little village was empty as all were in hiding.
There were also rumours about heavy fighting near Wilno as, coming from the south, the German Army had supposedly broken through the Front near Suwalki.
I thought about it during the night. In Wilno was my widowed mother with our son Jurek (George) and my three old aunts. They lived, unprotected, in a large house on the outskirts of Wilno, far away from other dwellings. There was nothing I could do here. To return to Kaunas seemed premature. I decided to go to Wilno as it was only 100 kilometres away.
At dawn I packed some food, took my old pushbike and, saying goodbye to everyone, was on my way. In the beginning I used country lanes for shortcuts. When the sun rose I went through the forest. There were no people and it was very quiet. Suddenly, after rounding a bend, I saw a man in the bushes. It was a Soviet Army soldier - part of his hand was torn away. The clotting blood looked black, his hair and face were covered with dirt and blood, his eyes looked frightened and feverish. Upon seeing me, he shrank back into the bush like a wounded animal. He had ceased trusting people and probably preferred to die among the animals in the forest.
I passed a few deserted villages, an empty railway station and bullet-ridden carriages with no engine. My way was now uphill. When near another village I heard shots from the forest. I wanted to get some information but the huts I entered were all deserted. There were not even dogs left behind. Soon I reached the River Niemen. Along it went the highway, Kaunas Wilno. The same road was used by Napoleon on his way to Moscow, nearly 130 years ago.
After a last sharp bend, I was on the highway and right in front of me was a Russian tank. In the open turret stood a soldier with binoculars and, around the tank, were soldiers with maps. I was stopped, my identity papers checked, a few questions asked and I was left free. They had bigger trouble on their hands.
A few kilometres further on Russian cavalry was crossing Niemen - swimming. The river was covered with horses. The soldiers were lying on the horses or swimming behind them, hanging on to the tails. Some were swimming without horses. Their clothing, tied with a belt, was hanging from their necks. They were in a frantic hurry. From the other side of the river could be heard calls, yells and neighing of horses.
After passing another empty little town (Rumshyshki), I had to climb a steep hill towards Zyzmory. I did not meet anyone. Only later near another forest I heard some shooting. In a trench were sitting Red Army men, their rifles pointing into the woods. Behind the wall of a hut was standing an officer with a revolver at the ready.
"Stop him!" he called to the soldier, pointing at me. Without delay I got off the bike. The officer approached with a hostile look on his face.
"Who are you?" he asked, in Russian.
"I am a local man. I am going to Wilno where my mother and son are," I replied in Russian.
“I love these 'local' ones,” he drawled, with biting irony. "Look how they are shooting at us, the bastards."
"I am not a Lithuanian. I am a Pole,” I replied, showing my passport.
The lieutenant did not look at it. He was more interested in my parcel hanging from the bike. He ordered me to take it off and show him the contents. A few sandwiches, a piece of bacon and a spare shirt. He gave me a dirty look, shaking the revolver at me and ... let me go.
Near Zyzmory I lost my way and turned into the forest. This mistake could have easily cost me my life. Here was a concentration of the Soviet artillery, tank formation and supply columns. All sides were guarded. It was a larger formation that had probably lost contact with the main force. I must state here that I had no idea where the Front was at that time, nor from which directions the Germans were attacking. One could not go by ear as there were no detonations, no sound of a heavy bombardment. Only from time to time some single shots came from different directions. Here, in these woods, I was in a tight corner. I asked a soldier if he could tell me the way to Wilno. An officer standing near probably thought me a suspicious character and he ordered me to raise my hands and searched me for firearms. Not finding any, he asked for my identity papers. Very carefully he checked all documents, including my birth certificate. He asked me to sign my name in Russian in his notebook and to compare this signature with the one of the Russian passport. He was still very suspicious. I did not know what he concluded.
I was expecting anything, but not what happened next. Destiny is certainly unpredictable. Within the next few minutes the Russian was dead. Quite unexpectedly, German bombers attacked the forest from very low altitude. The raid was so sudden that before the soldiers could grasp what was happening, bombs were exploding and trees were crashing noisily. Clouds of dust were rising above the trees. I was lying in a trench and was covered with earth. I was shivering, covered in a cold sweat, my ears ringing and, in my temples, the pulse was beating strongly. Again a hellish blast, the earth trembled, a whistling noise and something hit me on the head.
When I opened my eyes there was a tragic stillness around me. I was covered by a broken branch but was able to get up. Next to me lay the officer - a piece of wood had pinned him. In his dead hand he was still holding my passport. Branches and uprooted trees covered the ground, everywhere were stumps. Dust and fir needles were settling to the ground. My pushbike was undamaged. I took my passport from the hand of the dead lieutenant and left the forest as fast as I could. Using lanes, I bypassed Zyzmory and at last found my way back to the main road that led me once more into a forest. Among the trees were supply carts, abandoned by the Soviets. The carts were unharnessed, the harnesses still hanging on the shafts. There were blankets on the ground and bags filled with oats. There were no soldiers. Some local peasants were cautiously looking around, hoping to find something of value.
After coming out of the forest I saw two saddled horses tethered to a tree. I started to look around. Further up the hill, lying in a ditch beside the road, were two Soviet soldiers looking intently towards the field. I asked them if one could safely go ahead. One of them looked at me indifferently and, after spitting on the ground, said "If you want to, go ahead, but there,” pointing to a nearby hill, "are the Germans."
"Does it mean that the Front is already here?"
"And nobody is shooting?"
"Why the hell should we fire if they don't fire at us?" he laughed and lit a cigarette.
I was undecided. Should I wait? Or should I continue on my way? In front of me was an empty valley. If shooting should start, what should I do? There was nowhere to hide. Maybe on the other hill the Germans were also lying in ditches and only waiting for an order to start shooting? I looked at the Russian soldier distrustfully. When they saw me going towards the Germans might they not shoot me in the back? Who would prevent it? To kill people at the Front is not punishable. It is a soldier's privilege, and even their 'sacred duty'. These thoughts were rushing through my mind and I could not decide what to do. I sat down near the trench, lit a cigarette and waited. Anyway I was tired. I had already covered half the distance to Wilno.
Some time later the soldiers got up, mounted their horses and rode away towards Zyzmory. I was left alone. In the valley the wheat was waving with the wind, the clouds left dark moving shadows on the field, skylarks were merrily darting. Not far away a chained dog was howling terribly. His owner had probably deserted him.
Half an hour passed. Everything was quiet and I could not see anyone. I decided to risk it. I mounted the bike and quickly cycled down the steep hill. The highway in this place was unfinished and the detour led through a very sandy road that was impossible to pass by bike so I started walking. I passed a broken-down army kitchen where the ground was covered with white noodles which two grubby little girls were gathering into their baskets. Seeing me, they darted into the shrubs. Down the hill, before me came a cart drawn by two horses. A peasant, looking terrified, was driving them on with a whip. Passing me, he yelled, "Germans are coming!" I stopped behind some trees, looked around and seeing nothing suspicious, moved on.
Arriving on the top of the hill, I saw the charred ruins of a farmhouse. It was still smouldering. On the sooty stove stood a deserted machine gun. Some blackened soldiers' helmets lay in the ashes. On the stone bench beside the house sat a grey cat. The road now led through birch woods, sloping downhill. After passing the woods I again had a full view. Quite unexpectedly I saw tarpaulin-covered lorries packed full of soldiers dressed in greyish uniforms. These lorries were entering the highway from a side road. In the middle of the road stood a military policeman with a green metal helmet. He controlled the traffic. On an old birch tree was hammered a piece of board with the words "Mach Wilno" in German. I was now on the German side.
I passed the soldier controlling the traffic he did not even glance at me. Big lorries and trucks passed me continually. The air was filled with clouds of dust and the highway seemed to tremble and buckle under the weight of the unending traffic. After I passed Jewje (a small town), there was a Soviet air raid. The column stopped, soldiers jumped out of the trucks, over the ditches, and hid in the forest. The ditch at my side was very deep. Holding my bike, I started to go slowly down when suddenly the shadow of a diving plane passed over me. I was in a panic. The bombs were much too close. I dropped the bike and sprinted as fast as I could into the forest, accompanied by loud noises of explosions and two rising columns of dust.
After an hour I came to Ponary, quite close to Wilno. A military policeman stopped me, forbidding me to continue as Wilno was being taken over by the German Army and all civilians were forbidden to travel. I slept a few hours in the woods, finished my sandwiches and, when the sun was setting, I was on way again going cross country through woods and valleys, avoiding roads and highways. Within an hour I had reached the outskirts of Wilno. The streets were full of German soldiers.
At crossroads they were putting up road signs showing the direction of advancement. Near 'Ostra Brama' (an archway across the street with a small chapel and a famous picture of the Holy Madonna), soldiers were still in fighting formation but at the next intersection there were already signs with 'To Minsk 208 km.' I continued to Kolonia Wilenska (the suburb where my mother lived), along lanes well known to me, trying again to avoid main streets. It was dark when I opened our front gate and was greeted joyously our old dog, Jack. My mother, with my son in her arms, came to meet me. At last I was at home.
A week later Marushka arrived. As travel at this stage was strictly forbidden for civilians, she got a lift - first in a German armoured car and, later, in a small tank. She was very tired as all night she had been sitting on a box of ammunition with only two thoughts in her mind? Had I reached home alive and would the ammunition box explode with the jumping and shaking over the pot-holed road.
Marushka told me that her father was very anxious for me to return to Karmelowo and take charge of the farm during these uncertain times. After a few weeks in Wilno, taking Jurek and mother, we returned to Kaunas, this time going by train.
In Kaunas the organisation of the new regime was already quite obvious. The Fuehrer's victorious army was now at Smolenks. It was now the fourth occupation of Wilno's country and the second of Lithuanian Kaunas. This time banners with the black swastika were flying over the city. Once again the hopes of the Lithuanians were not realised. The Lithuanian partisans with their gold/green/red bands were fighting futilely as 'Lietuva' (Lithuanian native tongue) was wiped from the map of Europe. The Fuehrer's victorious army rushed forward on its Blitzkrieg. Following the army came the civilian administration. The employees of the newly appointed Minister for the Eastern Occupational Zones, Mr. Rosenberg, were organising the administrative machinery. There appeared 'Gebiets' - General and Reichs Kommisariats. Lithuania was only a part of the captured 'Ostland' (Eastland). Lithuania, with our old Wilno, was called General Kommisariat fur Ostland, with Kaunas as the capital. Her ruler was Party Member Freiherr von Renteln.
History as always was patient and, once again, ready to oblige her interpreters. The old capital, Kaunas, had to change its name. Traditions of old Hansa were again brought to light.
Once upon a time Kaunas was a Hansa town; therefore she must have been German and had to be called Kauen. Traditions from the middle ages were recalled and new orders issued.
Mr. Rosenberg ordered all Jews to the ghetto. After a bloody pogrom (organised massacre), 45,000 Jews were driven into the suburb, Sloboda, which was then surrounded by barbed wire. In smaller towns the majority of Jews were murdered outright and only the few remaining brought to Kauen. The direct control over them was given to - what irony - Mr. Jordan! These people with the yellow star were down-trodden and miserable but clung to the illusions that they were still human beings. Mr. Jordan was Chief of the Department for Jewish Affairs at the General Kommisariat for the Ostland (Eastern Countries - east of Germany). Mr. Jordan attacked his work energetically. The Jewish masses began to diminish behind the barbed wires. Mount Ponary, near Wilno, achieved a grim glory. Transports from Kaunas and Wilno were halted in the nearby forest. Then followed a bloody track between crushed bushes. Here the condemned were driven on their way to cemented ditches. When the deathly terror chocked their cries and their brains were numbed, they had to pass in a single file their drunken tormentors who were shooting into the human mass. As the trenches were filled with mutilated bodies, lime was poured over them.
On the Avenue of Independence, in the offices of the General Commissariat, Mr. Jordan was probably marking off some figures in his progress reports.
Thus died the people of the Star of David. They perished because they dared to be born Jews.
October, 1941. Trees bare of leaves, cold winds whirling leaves high, grey clouds over the rusty coloured bare fields. Our white shutters were rattling against the walls. I returned to the farm. Today I spent ploughing all day - it was cold and the wind penetrating. My feet were tired after a whole day of walking behind the plough. With pleasure, I returned home to sit down on a comfortable couch in front of the open fire while my mother prepared dinner by the light of a flickering kerosene lamp. My Jurek was sitting on the carpet among his toys. The wooden rabbit and the car without its wheels did not interest him any more. He was over a year old and loved chewing his big toe which he preferred to his old dummy. Marushka was ill and so was in Kaunas with her parents.
Next morning the cold wind was still blowing. I had to go to Kaunas to deliver my requisition as ordered by the Germans. I was sitting on wheat bags, wrapped in a fur coat. I had to hurry and was whipping the horses as the wheat contributions were accepted only until 2 p.m. in the suburb, Sloboda, behind the river. I had to pass the so-called small ghetto. Behind its barbed wires it was quite empty. Boards were nailed over the broken windows and doors. In the empty street of the dead suburb only the wind was howling. I remember how Marushka and her friend, Karaliene, were able to rescue some of the Jewish children. The despairing mothers were throwing their little children over the fence to be picked up by Marushka and her friend. They were trying to save some life - some uncertain life of the orphans but still life. Marushka and her friend were finding places between the Aryan families which did adopt them later on. There were no more Jews behind the barbed wires. I hurried my horses along, wishing to leave behind me this nightmarish suburb as quickly as possible. After delivering the wheat, I drove through the city to see Marushka. On the walls of some houses and on posts I saw some placards. I stopped the cart and, pushing myself through a crowd of people, started to read. It was a new order by the German occupational forces. This order was concerned with Poles, previous Polish citizens and their families, as well as Russian civilians who had stayed in Lithuania after the arrival of the German Army. All the aforementioned had to leave their present place of abode and, within three days from the date of this order, had to move to Sloboda suburb, to the small ghetto vacated by the Jews. This order was signed by the General Commissar and dated 16th October, 1941.
That meant ghetto for the Poles. I could still see those empty, broken-down wooden houses in Sloboda. I began to shiver. The Jews vacated the place for us. Would our future be the same as theirs?
All Poles were greatly alarmed. At home the atmosphere was very depressing. “What to do?” Everyone was asking. There were still many thousands of us in this country. Nobody had any intention of going to the ghetto. Better misery and quick death than to be behind barbed wires in a ghetto, waiting for certain death. The very thought of the ghetto filled one with horror. The decision not to go was quite definite and unanimous. The results of this decision were definite beyond all expectations.
After three days when Mr. Jordan arrived before the ghetto to satiate his eyes with the new conquest, there was not even one Pole there. Only ten poor Soviets took up residence in one small house on the edge of the ghetto. All the other houses were quite empty. The Poles simply left Kaunas, this town of grim ghettos, and dispersed in all directions into the country.
I had to save Marushka who was ill, and my son Jurek. Because before the war I was a Polish citizen, they would have to go to the ghetto as Marushka had committed the crime of marrying a Polish citizen. Thanks to the law, I found a way out of it. Marushka and I got a divorce - she could keep our son and had to take her maiden name again. I hid in the country. Many Poles followed my example but some fled to Wilno, maintaining that, should the Germans order people to the ghetto, the whole town would become one big ghetto.
Some took to the roads, tracking along small lanes, sometimes getting a lift or, like tramps, finding sleeping accommodation in empty freight trains and following the railway tracks, looking for some lucky break. Here in Kaunas everything was against them. Just the thought of the ghetto filled one with horror. The evacuees were like pilgrims, searching for human rights in this world. Would they find it in their own country, their country trodden down and suppressed by war? Even they doubted it.
Winter was approaching. A hard, ominous winter of 1941-1942.
The bare soil, not yet covered by snow, became hard as rock. Even the small sprigs were covered with white frost and a greyish frost hung in the air.
I was bringing milk to Kaunas, peddling my pushbike vigorously from Karmelowo where I was living in the house with the white shutters, hiding from the Germans. My breathing was becoming laborious, my eyelashes and eyebrows were covered with hoarfrost. The highway led past empty paddocks, the telephone wires were ringing hollowly and the frost was tightening its forceps. My hands were becoming blue from the cold. On the misty highway a long column of Soviet war prisoners appeared. They walked bent, their heads pulled as far as possible into their collars of their trench coats. On their shoulders were visible the big letters SU. SU. SU. (short for Soviet Union). The column progressed slowly and tended to stretch out more and more, never ending with those who already were weak. They just shuffled their legs. Their grey faces were very thin, their eyes deep and hollow. Some of these human skulls covered with skin were wrapped in rags, under which the wounds might heal. It seemed that some of these prisoners would be unable to reach their camps behind wires. They were dragged by their mates, their heads hanging down, their feet dangling along. They were slow and lagging behind. The impatient German soldiers were prodding them along with the butts of their rifles. Why should they hurry? Where to? Death would find them anywhere - in the labour camps, behind the barbed wires, in barracks erected quickly from thin planks, and on the earthen floor among dirt, lice and various infections ... and in the queue to the kitchen with its pots of frozen potatoes and rotted cabbages ... and there in the streets being used as horsepower, dragging heavy cartloads, as there were more prisoners than horses. Death was lurking where they had to shovel the snow away, where the frost was coagulating the blood of the starving S.U....SU...SU..., living skeletons, chopping trees in the forests or digging peat in frozen swamps. Everywhere! Everywhere! ... Where the hundred thousand humans could be disgorged from the Front. Why should one care about these humans? Should they perish, others would take their place. Victory was assured. The Fuehrer's army was at the gates of Moscow. In eight weeks the war would be finished. Conventions and humanitarianism were only for declaration in the Palace of the League of Nations. In the 'New Europe' this herd of prisoners of war would be looked after by the 'Arbeitsartit' (Employment Office).
It was a terrible winter for the people with the SU... SU... SU... stamped on their backs. They were branded like cattle taken for slaughter. The dead ones were grabbed by their legs and thrown into a common ditch. The sick ones were allowed to stay on their wooden bunks to wait for death.
General 'FROST' became the victorious Chief Commander of the Soviet Army.
The snow became hard, the water frozen and like rock on the rivers. The air looked grey - it seemed that at any moment it would get hard too, that it would turn to ice.
I was on the railway station. On the first platform stood a long transport. The engine was covered with ice but there were clouds of white steam from the engine. Behind the engine were freight cars with a most unusual load. The Fuehrer's victorious soldiers, suffering severe frostbite, were lying on the floors. Bandaged soldiers covered with blankets, shawls, rags and torn Russian army coats, were lying on the floors of the freight train. They were untouched by enemy bullets, not even scratched by shrapnel. They were the victims of 'General Frost', the enemy without mercy who started his offensive in January, armed with the most powerful weapon. This weapon was the freezing air. At the Front the mercury in the thermometers was still contracting, the silver column was going down the minus Celsius scale 30 .. 35 .. 45…
'General Frost' was tightening his pincers without mercy. His wind was chasing the transports, his snow massed on the railway lines, the waiting engines were covered with ice and the soldiers were freezing in the unheated wagons.
The white general took the side of the Red Army. Now he was not only the general, but Marshal Frost, stopping the attack on Moscow, halting the Fuehrer's offensive. Already in 1812 he had struck down Napoleon's army at the same Moscow gates. Now he intended to repeat the debacle a second time.
The transport with the frostbitten soldiers of the twentieth century's Napoleon was standing a long time at the platform in Kaunas railway station. Those who could climbed to the platform, using sticks and dragging their swollen legs, covered in rags. They could not wear boots. Sisters from the Red Cross were serving hot coffee. Some had to be fed by spoon like helpless children. They could not manage by themselves as, instead of arms, they had only two useless stumps frozen up to the elbows. There were also some who could not drink at all. Their faces were too stiff and they looked ghastly.
With a piercing whistle and screeching of brakes, a new transport appeared from the tunnel. The engine was covered with a shield of ice, the cars were covered with stiff, frozen snow and the Red Cross signs covered with white hoarfrost. It surely was a transport of the White Cross as the victims were cut down in a bloodless battle by the white enemy. At last thousands of frost-bitten soldiers were returning to the Fatherland, to their home towns and their hospitals, to wait there for amputation of their limbs which they were still dragging with them. They were hoping for a miracle but the gangrene was spreading in the badly frost-bitten and neglected limbs. In the Fatherland the hospitals were getting ready to receive them.
A young shepherd arrived, panting. "Sir, the Germans are digging up corpses."
"There, in the woods where the grave is."
I pushed the scythe into the field, put my whetstone alongside the pitcher with water and went across the river to the woody hill in the direction indicated. I saw a group of people and three white coffins made from planks. I came nearer; the smell was putrid. Two Russian war prisoners covered with aprons and wearing long rubber gloves, were carefully removing a large rag from the bottom of the pit. A few German soldiers were standing nearby supervising the exhumation. One of them was making some notes. A few young shepherds watched, full of curiosity. When the Soviet prisoners removed the sheet from the pit we could see three German soldiers. They were lying huddled together like sleeping brothers. One, with his outstretched arms, hugged both the others. In the dry sand of this hill their bodies were fairly well preserved considering that a year had passed since shells from a Soviet tank had ended their lives. The broken fir stump was still there. They had been sitting under this fir tree on this, their fatal date - 27th June, 1941. I remembered the shelling very well as it happened barely 200 metres from our house. Our house had trembled, the windows shook and a large dust cloud rose over the hill. Only later did I see the new grave and the broken fir tree. On the ground remained the metal helmet with holes, a few shell fragments and a dirty notebook. I read his name: Obergefreiter Stanislaus Kuzzawa from Selesia. On the last page was a short note; 27.6.41. In the woods near Kauen, Soviet tanks are shooting from the village .... These were his last notes. The most important fact he was unable to note in his diary was that in a few seconds he would be dead. He, a Pole on Lithuania's soil, fighting for the ideals of the aggressive German. Now he was lying in his grave - I did not know which body was his; the one with the smashed skull, the one without legs, or the one holding his comrades in his arms. Their faces had no expression, stiff in a deathly grin.
Many of these graves marked the roads of Hitler's war up to the Volga, the Krim vineyards, reaching even the far hills of the Kaukas. The Fuehrer was at the peak of his victory. He gave orders that graves far behind the Front should be opened and his soldiers returned to their native soil, the soil on which they grew up for the 'Fuehrer, Volk and Vaterland'. They were to be buried near the battlefields only as a temporary measure.
Crosses topped with German helmets were standing guard on the conquered lands. The living went forward to conquer new lands as per the Fuehrer's orders. The victorious army advanced through the Volga steppes, through sandy Libia and climbed the hills of the wild Kaukas.
Victory, Victory - the words of the paean were on the stages and on screens with a background of thousands of planes and tanks and innumerable columns of captured prisoners. The song was echoed by the marching army. The German radio repeated it in their news: "Special announcement. Krasnodar has been taken, Majkop is taken. The enemy suffered great material losses.. Thousands of war prisoners have been taken ... Tobruk has fallen .. Solum has fallen ... Marshal Rommel is standing with his unconquerable army at the frontier of Egypt ..." and, finally, among these names marking the triumphal march of the Fuehrer we heard the two: STALINGRAD - and EL ALAMEIN.
Once again the winter has come - 1942/43. In our house on the hill the white shutters were again rattling in the cold wind. On the cold, misty mornings I took my saw and we went into the forest to cut wood, half for us and half for export to the Reich.
In the evenings, as before, I used to sit on the old couch in front of the fire which illuminated the room with a red glow, but my little Jurek did not play in front of me on the carpet. I was alone. The family were in Kaunas where I delivered them milk and food. The highway was not empty. I did not meet my transports; nor Soviet prisoners driven in long columns. The Front was far away. The fight near Stalingrad seemed to come to an end. Now the Russians were taking German war prisoners.
Jurek always met me at the front door. While I was unpacking my milk can he climbed on the pushbike and, furiously dinging the bike bell, announced my arrival. After tea, making sure all the doors were locked, I sat by the radio. Listening to the voice from London was punishable by death.
But Jurek was always with me. "Wait, wait daddy, I will switch on the radio." Climbing on my knees and manipulating the nob with his tiny fingers he would say "Look, see? There is light behind the glass" and, in a few seconds, came the voice from London: "This is the Polish Radio Warsaw, Krakow, Poznan ... broadcast from London. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Firstly the latest news. The three hundred thousand strong army of Field Marshal Paulus is trapped. The pincers of the Soviet counter-offensive have closed. The Soviet headquarters had issued an ULTIMATUM. After 97 days of bloody fighting, Hitler lost the battle of Stalingrad.
Next morning dawn again found me cutting wood in the forest.
The German administration demanded more and more. The amount of the requisitioned goods always increased. We had to deliver wheat, potatoes and milk to the Germans. The eggs I carried in a basket to the collection centre. I also had to deliver vegetables, hay and straw, hens and meat. Our herd was decreasing rapidly. There were only five cows left; the rest went to be converted into tinned food for the 'Wehrmacht'. About fifty percent of our products had to be given to the occupation forces. This winter they took horses and carts as well. As it was getting harder to make ends meet, my relatives who had arrived more then a year ago from Wilno, left Karmelowo looking for jobs somewhere else. My cousin became a waitress in a Wilno restaurant and her husband got work in a mill to be nearer the flour. I was left only with my Simon. He was a farm labourer and had a wife and two children. We three had to do all the work between us. Life became even harder.
Spring was coming. When the March sun melted the remaining dirty snow and the furrows were dried by the wind, we went to work in the fields. Simon walked behind the harrow and I, with measured steps, sowed the seed, thinking about our Krystyna. She was not born yet but we had already given her this name, the name of Lavrans daughter, because Marushka and I liked the author Sigrid Undset.
At the end of March, 1943, Marushka bore me a son. Thus our long-awaited Krystyna became Roman. He came into our family as the second war child, another male offspring. Both grandmothers took him under their wings. Jurek was thrilled. When his new brother arrived from hospital, he grabbed a vase of flowers and, before anyone could stop him, he was bending over Roman's head, tilting the vase and saying "Smell them, my little brother, they are smelling lovely". Of course all the water from the vase went over Roman. Thus the two brothers met for the first time.
Summer progressed quickly. The wheat sown with my own hands grew and Simon and I were already sharpening our scythes to be ready for the reaping. Sitting in the shade of a willow tree, our hammering on the scythes made the melodious sounds so familiar to all harvesters. Jurek was dragging a long chain and making puffing sounds, pretending to drag a train behind him. A small puppy, Miki, barking loudly, was trying to grab the chain. The same chain which represented a train to George was probably to Miki a hunted animal. Fantasy on both ends of a chain.
Mr. Alfred Rosenberg also had his own fantasies. In the chain of war events he was adding new links. He changed the face of the Ostland. The countries along the Baltic Sea became ‘Forefront Fatherland'. The general commissar received instructions in the utmost secrecy. The ruler of Lithuania, Freiherr won Renteln, ordered all Poles to be deported from Lithuania. No placards or proclamations were issued. He had learned his lesson with the arranging of the Polish ghetto. Instead he sent lorries into the country with his Gestapo men. They took the people from farms, from private homes in cities and small towns. The people were ordered to leave behind all their immovable possessions as well as most of the moveable ones. The Polish owners were rounded up and transported as a labour force to the Reich. In the Reich, Germans were ready to come and occupy the empty farms. Into Lithuania arrived new colonists. Export and import of humans was flourishing. Rosenberg shuffled people, building his house of cards. From the east the thunder was approaching and an ill wind was blowing, shaking the foundations of his house of cards. Not many colonists had arrived in the newly-formed 'Forefront Fatherland' when the first evacuees began to arrive into Germany. They were the 'Wolgagermans', the old German colonists from the fertile Ukraine.
The Red Army was pushing forwards. The Fuehrer took over as the Chief Commander of German armies. A new phase began “The brilliant strategy of the ‘mobile war'” as it was called by the new agency. Each Tuesday there was a broadcast by General Diettmar "With tremendous material losses for the enemy, the German Army have occupied new and better positions, withdrawing according to plan".
The Anglo-American air offensive was increasing its range causing the German Minister of Heavy Armaments, Reichsminister Speer, many sleepless nights. Many factories were in ruins, but the Fuehrer required new guns, tanks and airplanes.
More people were required for labour in the Reich. Berlin was sending new instructions to the General Commissariats in the East. The employment office, Gestapo and police were busy. People were captured in the streets, cafes, picture theatres, in market squares and on roads. Lithuania had to supply an additional 100,000 labourers. Transports were organised, on the railway station people were de-loused in specially prepared disinfection rooms and loaded into trains. Here Marushka and her friend, Alma, who both worked in the 'Abeitamt' were able to facilitate the flight for many women from the transports to Germany. Out of the disinfection room the women were conducted to the back street and to freedom. Only at the last moment was I able to rescue Simon, our farm worker. I lived on forged documents. Marushka was transferred from her job at the Red Cross where she worked as an interpreter to the employment office where she was an interpreter/ typist, and later on, to the offices of military workshops for transport vehicles. Through paying her tribute in work, she was allowed to stay with her children.
Another winter came, the fifth in Lithuania. Much could be said about those years. They were the years of 'Drang nach Osten' (Expansion to the East). But now came a special year, the year 1944 - two scores and four. Bewitched by the prophetic words of the old Polish bard, we expected great historical changes in this coming year. The might of the Fuehrer started to crack. On all fronts blows were falling on the invincible Wehrmacht. The Fatherland was being crushed by allied bombs.
This year was the beginning of total retreat.
The European underground started to rise again.
In Lithuanian forests, partisans appeared. Sore of them, in colourful armbands, had long ago greeted the advancing, victorious Germans in the streets of Kaunas, but now they were throwing hand grenades under the wheels of the German vehicles. The expansive Lithuanian forests presented a good hiding place for the underground. The Germans issued an order to cut down the trees along both sides of roads and railways. Disobedience was punished by death. It was easier to fight the forest than the people hiding there. For thousands of kilometres the trees were felled, 200 metres deep. The felling was the duty of the local people who had grown up in their shade. I also had to fell the trees on our hill. Simon and I felled the silver firs, the gentle white birches and the tall pine trees smelling of resin, until the hill was bare along the highway. Many trees went but many new people came into the forests. The vast forests of Lithuania and Wilno county were sheltering an odd collection of people. History will be silent about many legends from these forests. The ideas and laws in these forests were not always pleasant to the ears of the chronicles of the Polish Government, nor to London. The slogans were different for BOR and different for ROLA (BOR-Komorowski, Chief Commander of the white partisans -AKA. ROLA-Zymierski, Commander of the Red Polish detachment - AL.)
Not only the Poles had their lairs in the forests. Hiding in these forests were also Soviet war prisoners, many German deserters from the Fuehrer's army, and the fugitives from ghettos. Soviet paratroopers jumped down into the forests too and started to organise the cadres of the Red partisans. The Lithuanian forests forces grew in strength when the men from Plechavicius battalions came to hide as their mutinous General Plechavicius was to be arrested by the Germans and his men were to be sent to the Front. The armies from the vassal countries started to rebel - they did not wish to shed their blood for the General Commissariat in Kaunas. In these hospitable forests various gangs of robbers and looters also found shelter, hiding under the name of partisans.
In the beginning of 1944, in the north-eastern part of the former Polish republic, the partisans grew to great strength. In the virgin forests of Rudnicks, Lida and Traki, they had foray bases and, from Smorgonie on, their power was complete. The peasants were paying the requisition to them only. They were given signed receipts which they handed to the village chief, hoping that this would stop the Germans demanding their share. The German administration existed here in theory only. The German civilian clerks had left this inhospitable part long ago, seeking protection in the 'Gebiets Kommisariat' where the Germans still ruled. Protected by army garrisons, there they even ventured outside - but in armoured cars.
At this time the German forces were holding the bridgeheads near the famous Berezyna, and the Soviet Army was forcing its way through the Prypec swamps.
A storm was brewing once again over the land trampled so often by various wars. The distant thunder could already be heard. People again crowded around their radios. Once more there were frightening rumours as well as hopeful predictions of early peace. Anxiety grew. Would the Front pass gently over this land? Maybe the war would finish even sooner? It was senseless for Hitler to continue fighting, the people tried to convince each other.
As before, I was bringing the milk to Kaunas but the highway was no longer empty. Towards the Front, the German soldiers were advancing and from the opposite side came the first wave of evacuees.
Jurek met me at the door as usual. But now he took my hand and we went to see his small brother who was holding a dummy in his mouth. Lying in his cane cot, Roman looked like a tiny animal in a cage. "Daddy, do you know that this, 'our puppy', can already get up?" He was saying it with a certain pride, pointing to the openings in the old cane bed.
As before, I listed to Radio London, Moscow and Swit (a secret radio station in occupied Poland). The news was good and getting even better. It was the beginning of an epilogue for the great historical drama. In a good mood I was returning, as before, to my house on the hill. The white shutters were rattling slightly in the gentle Spring wind. The last snow had melted in the valleys, and the earth became warm and streaming. It was time to go and work in the fields. But this time I was sowing half-heartedly as the future ownership of the land was rather doubtful. Who would be reaping these fields? Would the storm coming from the East destroy the crop and the house? These and similar thoughts did not encourage enthusiastic work.
The sowing was finished, the fields were soon covered with the new green grass, all the potato field was covered with new manure but the Front was still far away.
At last came the day. I was sitting with Jurek in a strawberry paddock looking for the first ripe berries when I heard the news that Minsk (now the capital city of White Russia in the Soviet Republic) had been re-taken and the German Army had surrendered. The road to Wilno was open. The last Germans were leaving the Soviet Union.
The theatre of war again touched our land. The roads were full of evacuees from the east. The highway was covered with long lines of Russian 'telegi' drawn by small, thin horses. Sitting on their dirty bundles were the evacuees from the faraway east. Under these carts dangled the empty buckets. The children dozed and the tired women stared blankly. The men, in torn shoes and shirts, were walking heavily alongside the cart followed by a thin cow on a chain. Day and night the carts dragged by, forming columns - homeless people, half-starved animals were travelling for months into an unknown and, to them, a foreign west. They were often overtaken by dusty trucks, packed with goods, driven by the 'Volksdeutsche'.
Mr. Rosenberg's house of cards tumbled. The imported German colonialists were hurriedly fleeing from the Ostland. Those, who only a short while ago had arrived as the 'Herrenvolk', had already packed, and soon after the Lithuanians started to flee from Wilno, especially Lithuanian public servants who were leaving their new Lithuanian capital city, Wilno, in fear of reprisals from the Polish inhabitants.
Once again there were bombers over Kaunas - this time Soviet ones. Again air raids, bombs, and people fleeing to shelters. Kaunas had only a few shelters. The raids were usually at night. Whenever the siren sounded people rushed out from houses and, in the outer suburbs, towards the bunkers of the old fortresses. In the streets people loaded with suitcases, prams and crying children were yelling and shouting. Great flares of light brightly illuminated everything, accompanied by the noise of the circling bombers and tracer bullets under the dark ceiling of the sky. We would put Jurek and Roman in the pram and, taking only the bare essentials for the children, rush to the bunkers. Such were the grim nights in Kaunas.
In the meantime news came from the front. We heard through London radio that Wilno was surrounded by the Soviet Army and that there was heavy fighting in the streets.
This was a signal for us; we started hiding our goods. With Simon, we dug a big hole in the barn under the hay where we hid a large barrel full of wheat and a box of personal clothing. Under cover of darkness, we dug a hole in the bushes for the bacon from our last pig. All the neighbours were doing the same. Everywhere one could see smoke coming from the chimneys as people were smoking their bacons and preparing meat for the brine. Everything was dug into the ground. We all knew that the bloody fighting in Wilno's streets had already continued for the fifth day. The Germans were now fighting for every foot of soil, being near their Fatherland. Heavy battles were expected on the line of the River Niemen and over Kaunas. We were living near this town beside the highway and near the extremely busy airfield. Nothing good could be expected in our countryside.
When the companies from the Front started arriving in our village the peasants started to leave the neighbourhood, taking all their possessions with them. They went to the hilly forest on the other side of the river. Things started to get hot for us too. On the highways were the remaining evacuees from the Soviets. They were mainly policemen who had worked for the Germans. In Russia, during the German occupation, they were employed mostly in prisoner-of-war camps and in helping to catch the partisans. The road of return was closed to them. They were the ones who were doing a lot of harm. They looted and plundered the houses near the roads; they took horses and cattle. We were helpless as they were armed. We had already received a few of these visits and decided to go to the other side of the river to try and save some of our goods. Simon and I harnessed the horses to the cart, packed the remaining goods, roped our remaining cows and crossed to the other side of the river. At the ferry we had waited in a long queue of carts. The cows were mooing, the dogs chained under the carts were barking and the peasant women, surrounded by their children, were lamenting and wailing. On the other side of the river, using winding country lanes, we went uphill. In one of the deep gorges I spotted farm buildings, quite well hidden.
There we found shelter. I left Simon there with all our possessions and, taking a boat, went back home. At home I found military police had been billeted in our house. On the highway stood a guard. Some officers sat on the veranda. Jurek, touching some shining buttons on the uniform, asked questions and could not understand why the German did not speak Polish. Marushka was packing rucksacks with our personal belongings. We were not certain what to do. My in-laws wanted to stay in Kaunas with little Roman. My mother wanted to take Jurek and go to the forest on the other side of the river. I brought Jurek and mother by boat to the other side of the river. I decided to stay with Marushka in our house and await further developments from the Front.
At that moment we had only one aim to keep us all alive and, if possible, to save some of our possessions.
One rumour was being persistently repeated: on the recaptured lands the Soviets were mobilising all men of military age and, after a short training, sending them to the Front. Our anxiety increased. I had never belonged to the group of men who liked the profession of 'being a knight', especially in such 'un-knightly' times. Fighting with arms, shooting people, using methods of violence had always filled me with disgust and loathing. It is a dirty business. Should one behave like a monster, even in the name of the highest and most noble ideals? I know, I certainly know, what reply I can expect - for ideals ... for freedom ... if someone is attacking you, you should defend yourself.
Yes, Yes and, once again, Yes! I know, so go and kill each other, slaughter each other, so go and rape each other's wives and sisters - in the name of the holy ideals. I would like to know if fighting in the name of ideals makes the uniformed masses, fighting their battles, any more noble and gentle? During the fighting there exists a special unwritten morality where young men of twenty or so, steeped with blood and alcohol, can form their character by indulging in killing, raping and looting, without fear of punishment. No... I hate war with its well-organised machinery, irrespective of who is killing whom. It is enough for me to know that humans are killing humans, that they try to annihilate each other in the most brutal and criminal ways. I also have the right to voice my 'holy ideals'. Up till now, fate has helped me to stay away from this sad duty. Would I now, by the end of the war, be forced to go against my most holy principles? During these five years I had seen enough of this criminal war. Should I be forced now to actively become a part of it? There was even something worse - I would be incorporated in the Lithuanian battalions with strange people, not even knowing their language. I would feel completely defeated. Marushka, afraid of all this, hesitantly suggested flight, whispering flight. I did not want to flee with the Germans. The thought nauseated me and, anyway, where to? And what would become of my children and parents? What should I do? What?
A few days passed. Wilno was recaptured. During the night we could see the glow on the far horizon and hear the explosions.
The Front was getting nearer. On the dusty highway, occasional groups of stragglers from the German Army began appearing. We were familiar with these signs; these were the symptoms of lost battles. Emaciated German soldiers in torn uniforms, unshaven, supporting themselves with sticks, dragged their way along. As 132 years before with Napoleon's army, so now with the remnants of the German Army, struggled along the road. History was repeating itself but, unfortunately, nothing had been learned. On these old roads dragged the remains of Hitler's decimated army. After years of bloody fighting they, who had wanted to own Moscow as well as the Egyptian pyramids, had only secured for themselves enough land for their graves. Today their way is marked by crosses.
This time I went on foot to Kaunas as the retreating soldiers were crowding the highway and cycling was not possible. In my hand I carried a milk can for my little Roman. Sometimes a private car or a motorbike passed the columns, covering all of us with clouds of dust.
In Kaunas I met a man who was able to make his way from the east. He had passed the Front in the Wilno forests and arrived unharmed in Kaunas. He was quite emphatic regarding the rumours about the mobilisation of the local people by the Soviets. This had been his main reason for fleeing from the east. He was a Pole and wanted to be in his own country. On my way back to Karmelowo I thought about him. With all these evacuees and the chaos behind the lines of German armies, perhaps there was a chance of reaching my homeland. There was my native land, there lived most of my relatives ... I was so immersed in my thoughts that for a few seconds it did not register that a truck had stopped beside me. The driver, a German officer with a map in his hand, was making signs for me to approach. The truck was carrying German soldiers. When I came near enough, he asked me "Nach Wilkomir? Nach Wilkomir?" I replied in German that he was on the right road and that he had another 75 km to go. When he was ready to move on I asked if he could give me a lift, standing on the steps of the truck. He agreed. It was getting dark and, on the horizon, one could see the glow of burning forests. The soldiers were sitting in silence, their heads resting on their rifles. They were nearing the Front perhaps that very night would see them in the fighting lines.
"How far is the Front?" I risked asking.
"In Wilkomir,” replied the officer without a moment's hesitation.
"That close?" I blurted out.
"Yes, sure, and soon it will be even nearer," he added with an odd smile.
A few minutes later I jumped off the car as we had come to the lane leading to our house.
Till late in the night we discussed the project to go to Warsaw. Warsaw. Why Warsaw? Warsaw and the surrounding counties were occupied by the Germans, but not incorporated into the Third Reich like many other cities. Nor could the Russians take one from there and enlist in the Red Army. In Warsaw there were many relatives and friends - Marushka's and mine. I wanted to share the war years, still ahead, with my own countrymen. Marushka's eyes were full of tears. Her parents did not want to go but they wanted to keep Roman. My mother wanted to be in the forest on the other side of the river, keeping Jurek with her. Anyhow, it would have been impossible to take the children. I suggested she stay where she was, as only my life was at stake but, at this, she burst out crying. She took this dilemma very hard. The tragic dilemma for a mother, wife and obedient daughter at one and the same time. She wept silently. Occasionally we could hear some muted detonations - the clock was ticking away, marking the passing of the night. I was silent. It was dawn when Marushka threw her arms around my neck. Between the children and me, she had chosen me. The decision was taken. A hard and painful last decision. We would both go to Warsaw.
Next morning we finished our packing and checked our bikes.
Looking through the window, during lunch, I saw two riders coming up the hill towards our house. The very thin horses climbed the hill with great trouble. I went out to meet them, accompanied by the barking of the dogs. The two very tired riders came into the yard, stopping at the draw well. Looking at them I was unable to suppress a grin. In front of me were two classical caricatures. Don Quixote from la Manche with his Sancho Panza. This sight would have been humorous if not for the deep tragedy of the situation. A symbolic tragedy.
The riders were two soldiers in German uniforms and bareheaded. One was extremely tall with a pale, long face. Round his neck was slung a rifle his strapped feet were bare and dirty. The other was a young man with a round face. In his hand he was holding a birch rod and he was seated on a small Kirghis pony. While I was looking at them with astonishment 'Don Quixote' started talking in German.
"We are hungry. Do you have something to eat?" I nodded my head. They dismounted and the horses rushed towards the grass near the fence. I took them into the kitchen. "I,” continued 'Don Quixote', "have a bad stomach and can't eat anything heavy. I would really like some sour milk."
"And you?" I asked 'Sancho Panza'. "I don't care as long as there is plenty of it,” he replied, to my astonishment in Russian. "Aren't you a German?" I asked him.
No. The German, sitting down, hurriedly explained.
"He is a Russian from the Wlasov army. A young lad of seventeen. He escaped while his army was surrounded. I found him on the road beside the forest. He was sitting and crying. He did not know what to do with himself. I felt sorry for him. You see I also have a son like him at the front. I don't know what is happening to him. My God, what is the war doing to us?" He sighed heavily and called to the boy - "Sit down, Alex." After the boy sat down he continued "He is a Russian, but he is a good boy so I took him with me. What does he know about the world? He was only a child when the war started, just like Hans who might be dead already. It is more than half a year since I have heard from Hans." He sighed again and from his pocket brought out a worn photo of his son in uniform.
He continued: "Photos, only photos, that is all that remains. Near Hanover I had my own business. In 1943 everything was bombed out including my house. My wife died leaving me with my only child, my son Hans. Will I ever see him again? Half a year. My God, half a year of this war is very long. Oh, the damned war. What has the Fuehrer done with his cursed party?
“He promised to create a new Great Germany, to give everyone work. And we believed it. He spoke so convincingly, so beautifully. And what has he given us? Ruins and cemeteries. Instead of the Great Germany now we have not even a Fatherland." He put the photo back in his pocket, sighed, and continued eating.
I looked at the boy. He was eating ravenously. "How did you come to be in the German Army?" I asked him. "I joined voluntarily." "Voluntary?" "Sure, what should I have done? There was no other life. You see in our parts it was this way. You either had to join the German Army or go into the woods to the red partisans. You couldn't do anything else. If you didn't go to serve in the German Army joining the Wlasovs, the Germans would deport you for labour into Germany. In the forests with the partisans it was a very hard life. To the Wlasovs the Germans issued boots, uniforms and better food. The family was also better off. So I went and joined the German Army."
After they had finished eating they went to the barn to sleep. When, in the evening, I came to look for them I found them still sleeping. The German was lying on his stomach, his long, bare feet stretched out, the Russian curled into a ball with his hand under the arm of his protector. Don Quixote and his Sancho Panza - two knight-errands of our times. What tragedy was incarnated in those two ludicrous figures.
That is what people are to the war.
That is what war is to people… and the two scraggy nags were feeding along the fence.