On The Railway Trail
Our journey was now by land. We gave a last look at Horyn and entered the empty woods. Our guide jumped nimbly in his best shoes, choosing the clumps and tussocks. We followed, stepping carefully, trying to avoid swampy holes covered with mouldy leaves. Sometimes we had to go over deep ruts and swampy streams, crossing them with the help of planks thrown over them. After a few hours we touched dry ground and a fir forest. The ground was covered with heath. Here our guide stopped, explaining that he had to go home, that we could not get lost as the road led straight to the station in Rajewicz. We all sat down for a short rest. Our guide offered us some home-grown tobacco. After we had rolled our cigarettes in newspaper, he took from his pocket a bit of flint and same tinder and a bit of metal. This was his lighter. He put the tinder on the bit of metal, holding it with his fingers and, with the other hand, he hit the flint on the iron, producing sparks. It took a while to get the tinder glowing. At the right moment he started blowing on the tinder, making something like a charcoal sponge. In this way, like cavemen, we lit our cigarettes.
Saying farewell to our guide, we continued on our own. The road was not as straight as expected and a few times we took a wrong turn but, after a few hours, we reached the outskirts of the town and could even see the railway building.
We stopped at a house to ask for water as we were very thirsty. In the house was only a frightened woman. She told us that the town had already been looted twice by armed gangs that the Soviet Army was not far away but had not reached them as yet. A delegation of townspeople had gone for help to the regular Soviet Army asking for protection against the marauding gangs. She also told us that no trains were going.
However we decided to go to the station. The streets were empty and the town deserted. At last we have the railway lines. On the station was a group of evacuees and some railway employees. They informed us that at present there was no hope of a train. No-one knew when the trains would start running as the railway was not co-ordinated by any authority. No Polish authority existed here anymore and the Soviet one had not yet arrived. Everyone was awaiting the Soviet Army. We were told that, more to the north, the Soviets had already reached the railway. Armed bands had attacked and robbed the evacuees, stripping them of all clothes and belongings. We also heard that some victims had gone to the Soviet detachment. Whenever possible, the Soviets intervened immediately and, if catching the criminal, shot him on the spot, returning all belongings to the victim. Anyway we felt much safer in a group and soon continued our journey to Sarny by foot, along the railway lines. Sometimes we met the other groups also going to the north. We saw a bombed-out goods train, torn and with blood, still standing on the rails. Part of it was on the embankment, wheels broken. Along the line were big craters and sometimes a mound with a cross. Some crosses were made from branches of fir trees, on some hung an army cap with the Polish eagle. In one place there were five single mounds with crosses put up in a row. Some birch branches were hanging over the new tombs.
On the other side of the rail stood a trackman's cottage. As the rucksack was feeling heavy, we headed there to have a rest. In the kitchen were two railway employees. They were cooking. We were hungry, they lent us a pot and gave us a few potatoes. Marushka started cooking. They told us that a few days ago the Germans bombed a big army transport moving toward Lwow. The rest of the transport was still on the rails. Many were killed and wounded. The dead ones, or rather the bits of the massacred people, were buried in a common grave.
"For whom were single graves near the mound?" I asked.
"Those are for the Polish officers killed by the Bolsheviks."
"What?" we all called out.
"Well,.." he began, "yesterday we were very frightened here. Seven officers were sleeping here. They were heading west trying to avoid the Bolsheviks. We all slept here on the floor of this room. The officers were talking through most of the night. They kept their coats on, even when lying on the floor. The hut was full of smoke. I understood from their talk that their regiment had met with the Bolsheviks. The communists ordered them to put down their arms. When their commander refused, fighting started. Some of the soldiers ran away and the rest were surrounded when Soviet reinforcements arrived. The commander did not want any more unnecessary bloodshed and agreed to lay down the arms. Ten officers from the regiment did not want to surrender and decided to fight their way through the surrounding army. They succeeded, but three were killed. Those seven arrived there during the night. They were cursing their commander and the headquarters who had not issued orders as to how to treat the Soviets. One was even crying, hitting his head with his fists. He was screaming that Poland had been treacherously betrayed. It is a brothel and not diplomacy, he was repeating, how could it happen that the Soviets hit us in the back? Where are the allies? Instead of help we are being hit in the back. The world is an atrocious gang, full of traitors and vile scoundrels and abject liars.” He was sobbing like a child and we were all sorry for the youngster. Others were determined to keep their arms and to continue fighting the Germans in Warsaw.
"It was already dawn," continued the trackman, "when they calmed down and started to doze. Suddenly somebody started to bang at the door. I got up, asking who was there. “Open up, we are soldiers,” a Russian voice called. I am telling you, covered in cold sweat, I did not know what to do. I yelled into the room “Bolsheviks.” They were up in, seconds. One opened the window and, having their guns at the ready, they began to jump out. The pounding at the door increased. I did not know whether I should open the door or not I heard a shot behind the house. The pounding stopped, a second of quiet and then some more shots. I did not know what was happening outside. How many Russians were there? What should I do? Two of us were left - my mate and myself. All the officers had already jumped out through the window. We decided to do the same. We approached the window carefully when suddenly a machine gun opened up, the bullets spraying the room, the plaster falling off the walls. We fell to the ground by the window. A second and third machine gun started pelting our house. Sometimes a shot from a revolver replied from behind the house. The shooting lasted at least ten minutes. There was no hope of jumping out. The machine gun stopped firing, then a few single shots, and quiet. The quiet did not last long and we heard soldiers running. Some shouted orders and our house was surrounded. Something heavy was hitting the door, the door gave and some soldiers from the Red Army came in, their rifles at the ready. They had an electric torch and found us crouching under the window.
"Hands up!" came the order, then a personal search and interrogation. I thought our end had come. There were no arms, either on us or in the house. I speak Russian fluently which helped. I explained that we two live here always, that the officers came during the night and demanded a place to sleep. The Soviets were cursing the officers terribly. They said they would kill all those bastards. We were ordered to take shovels and follow them. A terrible thought crossed my mind - they will force us to dig our own grave and then shoot us. I had heard that the G.P.H. (Secret Police) were doing it. We went. By the door was a dead Russian soldier. Near the wall were three bloody bodies of our officers. One had his brain splashed on the wall as the bullets cut off his scalp. You can go and see for yourself. The next one, behind the house near the fence, seemed to be praying. About fifty steps farther, there under the tree, was another one. This was the one who was crying and telling us that he could not continue living with those traitors. Two were probably able to flee as we could not see their bodies. The Soviet officer who had been giving orders to his soldiers returned to us.
“Take these dead ones and bury them so that no trace is left of them,” he ordered.
"We took a deep breath - not for ourselves were we going to dig the grave. We dragged the corpses over the track and began to dig a big hole. The officer ordered his soldiers to take their dead ones and, mounting the horses standing near the forest, turned in the direction of the village. We buried the unfortunate officers. There on the mound, the five graves in a row, that is them."
We looked at this ordinary room and shuddered. Last night between these four walls a tragedy overtook seven Polish officers. They were fighting the Germans and were killed by the Russians! They were fighting for Poland's independence and were accused of occupying western White Russia. How will the future judge them? What will history have to say? Will they be proclaimed as heroes or accused as traitors?
Anything is possible. History is written by the living. The dead ones who shaped it have no voice. Sometimes they might be put in golden urns; sometimes they might be taken from quiet tombs overgrown with grass and their rotting bones placed into splendid memorials surrounded by banners to shine as a symbol for others. Later might come others with their own history, with their own gods. They will burn the pantheons, kick away the urns, trample the venerated holiness, spit on the noble symbols. They will then resurrect others, their own. Now their dead will have monuments, for their remains will be built mausoleums, their names will be on banners for display to crowds. Those are our symbols, those are our gods, long live the new history ....
The dead ones could not be heard, their sleep is eternal. They are waiting to be fudged by future history.
What ironic fate. Here they lie next to each other under the shade of the same bent birch, those crushed by the German bombs and those cut down by Russian bullets. What a cemetery! The cemetery of Polish tragedy!
Sleep, brothers, history is busy now, history is being reshaped. There will come a time when you will be removed from these graves.
What epitaph can we now put on your wooden cross? You who were born in the war, you who gave your life to the war?
(War be with you, as opposed to pax vobiscum - Peace be with you)
Our way continued along the railway lines, hopelessly straight, uninterrupted, indefinite, cutting through meadows, swamps and forests.
It was exhausting travelling along the lines, especially with tickets in our pockets. We were meeting other evacuees, some having a rest, leaning with their rucksacks against barriers, resting their backs. It was customary by now that evacuees asked each other questions and gave information about the road, the Front and the political situation. Wandering the trail of the evacuees was like living a newspaper. After the conventional questions "Where from?,” "Where to?" and "How?,” we were told that the Soviets were already near and were killing all Polish officers, even those not in uniform. We were advised to burn all documents if we should be officers of the reserve. One woman with a rucksack on her back told us definitely that Rydz-Smigly, Chief Commander of the Polish Army, shot Minister Beck and then committed suicide. The President was in England and, in Poland, Stalin would rule. Full of this news, we walked on waiting nervously for our meeting with the Soviet Army. We did not destroy our documents but were not certain what would happen.
There were so many rumours about the Red Army. Somebody had already seen them. They were supposed to be already quite near, like an army of ghosts which was swarming near us. We had the feeling that at any moment they would jump out of the bushes, they whom we had never seen - the Soviet people, these mysterious people of the Red Revolution.
Would they be the people who built Dnieprostroj? (The large dam, hydropower station and industrial centre on the River Dnieper - 1330 km in length), or the people who changed Stalingrad? Or people of the great Cham, as according to my mate, Lesman? (Cham = boor, churl, a vulgarian, primitive, brute, cad).
Or cadres of the bloody G.P.U. (Secret Police)?
Or gentlemen of the red land?
We were fed by propaganda; we looked through white glasses to the red east. Where do we go from there? From there, slowly the truth was filtering through. Not the naked truth but the truth draped with red cloth. We, the people of the age of 'Applied Propaganda', know what the official truth injected with propaganda means. What are these people, the Soviets? What is their Red Army like?
With thoughts like these we travelled on, full of curiosity and anxiety. We did not know whether we would stay free or be imprisoned. We passed a few dozen more telegraph poles which Marushka was counting carefully. Counting them gave us some indication of distance covered. We approached a station building.
On small platform a soldier stood guard with a rifle over his shoulder. He was dressed in a dark grey short, army coat without badges and without shoulder straps. His thin legs were covered with black puttees, dirty foot clouts showed above his shoes. A narrow face, unshaven, rather pleasant looking. On his head he wore a soft, grey cap in the shape of a spiked helmet. On the hat was a large red star with hammer and sickle. He was our first Red Army soldier.
When we were a few paces away he called, "Who is that?" taking the rifle in both hands.
Our small groups stopped. I called back in Russian, "We are evacuees."
"Go to the station where other people are standing," he instructed and put his rifle back over his shoulder. At the station building huddled a group of people with their bundles and a few Russian soldiers. Through the door of the station came a military man, probably of higher rank. He was middle-aged, with a smiling round face and a snub nose. He was dressed quite differently than the soldiers, in high boots, dark navy trousers with narrow red stripes, and a long drill tunic reaching to his knees. On his collar was a red tab with dark red little squares. He wore a dark navy cap with a stiff leather peak and a red band. He was a Politruk (political officer) of the Soviet Army. We all looked at him full of interest, but also with anxiety. He stopped at the top of the steps, looking our group over.
"Where are you from, citizen?"
From the group came replies "From Warsaw, from Luck, from Lublin". He came down the steps and began speaking with some of us individually. People were answering his questions in Polish, Russian, and in a mixture of both. He came near us and asked me
"And you, where are you from?"
"My wife and I are from Warsaw," I replied in Russian.
"What were you doing there?"
"I worked in the archives," I replied in general with a careful reticence.
"And where are you going?"
"Back to Wilno. Our parents are living there. We are from Wilno."
"You a smoker?" he asked, holding out a packet of cigarettes.
"Try one of the Soviet cigarettes." He gave one each to us and to the others and, lighting one himself, continued, now speaking to all of us.
"Do you know, citizen why we came here?" This was a rather rhetorical question as he did not wait for a reply and continued, "We came here to liberate you from the oppression of the Polish masters who force the people to hard labour. Now there will be freedom. In our Soviet Union all have the same rights. You, citizen, don't know as yet our Stalin's constitution. We have no masters. We have no bourgeois oppressors. So now you know, the Red Army came here to protect your interests. The interests of the labourers and the peasants and, in addition, as our Comrade Molotov said 'to spare your towns and villages from destruction of war."' We were all quiet until someone asked, "What will happen to us, Comrade?"
"You can continue your journey," he replied and went into the station. We grabbed our bags and quickly went away, now travelling on 'liberated' soil. Our freshly-instructed group started to stretch out along the rails, becoming smaller as many began to look for sleeping quarters for the night. It was dark when we lay down in a cottage standing by the road.
We still had 25 kilometres to Sarny. We covered this distance the next day still walking on railway tracks which are monotonously straight and seemingly without end. Sleeper after sleeper, bolts after bolts, pole after pole, reappeared hopelessly at the same intervals. We walked automatically, rhythmically, bored stiff with railway tickets in our pockets.
We met a few more Soviet guards along the railway line. They wanted to buy my watch. Later, we noticed that they were very keen on watches. They tried to buy them, or just took them, whenever possible.
"Don't you have watches in Russia?" I asked one.
"No, you can't say that we have not got them,” he replied slowly. "We have watches, only they are very large like a potato, not nice to wear, and they are also hard to get."
To be on the safe side, I put my wristwatch in a pocket to avoid temptation for the soldiers.
When we reached the outskirts of Sarny, Marushka stopped. The bard and I wanted to go to the centre of the town. We tried to persuade her to go just one more kilometres but to no avail she would not budge. She sat down on some planks. Irritable and tired, she told us to 'go to hell'. Up to now she had been a stout companion on land and water, but now she was finished. The railway track had been too much for her.
Only now did I realise how she had lost weight. She was pale. Her skinny, dirty legs in damaged shoes were hanging helplessly. Her large, grey eyes were full of tears. I understood those tears. During the journey we expected her, a female, to be our equal physically. She always adjusted her steps to ours, being proud and keeping up the team spirit, with strain and effort. Now her strength had given out before ours. Therefore the tears. She was not angry with me but, because we were stronger, because we could still walk and, above all, the nightmare of another 300 kilometres - so hopelessly depressing.
I sat down next to her, put my arms round her shoulders and hugged her tightly, stroking her hair, grey from dust. I was truly sorry. My sorrow was for those tired, sore legs in down-trodden shoes, for those large tearful eyes. My companion for life and comrade on this journey was clinging to me like a child, crying on my shoulder. She was looking for tenderness, affection and understanding. I comforted her as well as I could. She cried for a while and felt better. I dried her eyes and she rose with a smile.
Holding hands, we started walking. The bard in the meantime was asking the neighbours for eggs.
The Russians were already in charge of this town. In the streets there was much traffic and many pedestrians. Through the streets passed army columns and the footpath was crammed with evacuees. Demobilised Polish soldiers in their grey-green coats were coming from everywhere. They were directed to old army buildings. The organisation of civilians had also started. Young lads with red armbands, the beginning of the local militia, were rushing through the streets. On some houses red banners were flying. The mixed crowd in the streets consisted of evacuees, Polish soldiers, Red Army soldiers, and local Jews in their Sunday best. Queues in front of the bakery were growing rapidly. We pushed through the crowd looking for a shop less rushed.
Suddenly on one of the side streets the crowd started to move and we were carried along by the human wave towards the market place. Upon asking what was happening, we were told that in the market place the Soviets were distributing something. In the square some trucks were standing, surrounded by a milling crowd. On the trucks were soldiers tossing into the crowd white, dried bread.
The old Roman slogan "panem et cireneses" (bread and circus) was still applicable. The bard dived into the crowd towards the trucks. We still had the "bourgeois prejudice" and, although we were hungry, we were unable to fight in the crowd for tossed gifts but, when the bread came to us, we took it. It came to us by way of a truck which, for a better propaganda effort, started moving slowly along the street throwing dried bread amongst the people. In this way a few pieces of dried bread landed in our hands. The pieces were the size of chocolate blocks.
Before we were able to finish chewing our first gift from the Red Army, we were arrested by the Red Army Militia.
To this day, for what reason I don't know. One militia man came towards us asking for our documents, took a look at them and asked us to follow him. He took us to a large, red brick building - the offices of Gorodzkoj Ispolnitelnyj Komitet (Town Executive Committee). Many people were crowded into this room. A few tables were covered with papers. Around the table were gathered the representatives of the "Ispolkom" (Executive Committee). They wore hats and coats. Militia men were coming and going. The chairman was rushing in and out through the door. He was a slim man with Aryan features. Our militia man approached him, reporting something. The chairman listened, gave us a quick look and went back, calling someone. The militia man left, considering his job completed.
We stood and waited, not knowing what was wanted from us. When the chairman once again returned, he was surrounded by a group of people demanding the arrest and execution of one of the bakers as he was heavily over-charging, a profiteer. A very agitated discussion developed, complete with table-banging and fist-raising. The chairman listened with a detached interest. Some were pulling his sleeve, others giving him advice or asking questions. I had the impression that by now he was not certain how to start rebuilding the government in his town; shoot the baker or regulate bread prices? Or, maybe, have some more banners? Looking at the crowd which surrounded him, it was impossible to say who were the advisers, who the petitioners and who the arrested.
We decided to disappear and simply walked out. Nobody stopped us, nobody gave us a second look. Searching for bread, we joined a queue in front of a bakery where bread was to be sold within the hour. There was a peculiar smell of something charred and smouldering coming from the next building. I asked the man in front of me if this town had been bombed or if there had been recent fires. He told us that the previous night when the Soviet soldiers were entering the town a battle developed in the fire brigade house. A dozen or so officers, sergeants and firemen locked themselves in the station and, when the order to surrender arms was issued, they replied by opening fire. Many hand grenades were thrown into the station and some of the people were wounded and killed, but they would not surrender. All sides of the fire station were set alight and the station completely burned out, incinerating the fanatics who were fighting such impossible odds. The ruins were still smouldering with the characteristic smell of burnt flesh.
Another grim picture of the tragedy of Polish soldiers fighting on the eastern region.
When the baker finally started selling, it was a loaf per person. When we were just near the door, the same policeman who arrested us approached, smiling and greeting us like old friends and asked us to buy him a loaf. He probably assumed that we had been set free by the chairman after our papers were checked.
After securing the bread, we tried to find some place for the night. It was not easy. The town was overcrowded as soldiers and evacuees alike headed for a large railway station.
A few householders refused to take us under their roof as they were afraid to shelter men of military age. There had already been arrests of Polish officers who had changed into civilian clothes and were hiding in town and those who gave them shelter were also prosecuted. It was getting dark and we were very tired after a day's march and hours of walking in the town. We went across the railway line towards the outskirts of the town. As had happened many times previously, the richer houses closed their doors in our faces with a more or less polite excuse.
Understanding and pity were mainly shown by the people in the poor, cramped huts. This time we were accepted, without hesitation, by a poor postman living on the far outskirts of the town. He had one room and a kitchen. He lived with his wife and child. We were offered the couch and the bard slept on straw in the kitchen. Next morning, looking through the window, I saw a rather unusual scene.
In front of the shire office was gathered a big group of civilians, all oddly armed. Some had light machine guns on their backs, some double-barrelled guns, some old matchlocks which had to be filled with buckshot through the muzzle. Some held in their hands different types of revolvers and hand grenades. Women had baskets full of cartridges. Near the window stood an old Jew in a crumpled hat. He was leaning on a sword, like a general at a levy en masse.
I was really curious. It appeared that the Soviets had issued a strict order to the population to bring all arms in their possession to the shire. This oddly-armed crowd was obediently following the orders of the red authority.
In the afternoon we heard a very pleasant rumour. Tomorrow the first train would be assembled from the undamaged wagons on the rail. It would be for the demobilised soldiers and evacuees. The train was supposed to go in the direction of Wilno which was already in the possession of the Soviet Army.
We rushed to the station for more information. On the station we saw signs of preparation. Polish and Russian railway employees were busy. Carriages were assembled, men were repairing the damaged rails, clearing them of rubbish. At last the dead rails, where grass had even started to sprout, began to come alive.
We decided to wait in Sarny for the first train to go north. None of us was keen to track along the railway lines. The waiting lasted three days, during which we watched the station. At last, on the third day, the locomotive arrived. Everyone cheered. Puffing and whistling, the engine shifted the carriages to new tracks. There was a large crowd of Polish soldiers and evacuees on the platform. All were waiting and ready to jump aboard the train at the given signal. After two hours the train came into the first platform, ready to start the journey. There was a great rush to the doors. It was hard to climb up the high steps of the goods train. After climbing into one of the carriages, we found some floor space in a dark corner. In this crowd, we lost sight of our bard and never saw him again.
After a few more hours waiting in the train, we heard a whistle and the train, amidst the cheering of passengers, started moving.
At each station there were more people waiting, all trying to board the train to find a place. There was an unbearable crush. There was no place to sit on the floors. Like sardines in a tin. We were standing and if possible, leaning against the walls.
During the night, at a small station there came a loud banging at the doors.
“Let us in. What in the bloody hell - we also want to go home,” the people called.
We couldn't distinguish anyone through the cracks.
"Who are you?" asked someone.
"We are Airmen. After all, this is a train for the army."
"Oh, Airmen," called another voice from the train amidst jeering and laughing.
"Where were you when the Germans bombed us? Not one of you was around then. Now, when the war is over, you are all pushing."
"Don't let them in. Let them fly home in their planes," other voices were calling.
Only a few of them were able to push their way in. Most were left to fight for another place.
In the morning we reached Baranowicze, a junction in north-east Poland, Some of the soldiers left and we had more space. One could even move about. Although the morning was very cold, we left the door open to let in the fresh air as it was hard to breathe in the stale, foul air.
The next day was better. Less demobilised soldiers were boarding the train. We talked with the soldiers. Some of them were wounded, mainly by German bombs, only a few through fighting with the Russians. The frontier detachment was quite disorientated. There were instances when the Poles opened fire immediately but the Russians tried to negotiate. But the opposite also happened; the Russians were greeted as allies and were expected to join forces and fight the Germans. There were also other situations. When the Polish commanders saw the Soviet Army, they deserted and fled, or tried to negotiate with the Soviets. The Soviets directed the grey masses of the Polish soldiers towards rallying points. There they were questioned and disarmed, if they still had arms, except for officers who were arrested. This was what the soldiers told me from their own personal experience.
We passed Lida, a small town in north-east Poland. The train was very slow. I dozed, sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall. Some played cards, others sat in the open doorway with their feet dangling outside. Suddenly a train passed and we heard, from the front of our train, yells and cheers. I rushed to the door of a Soviet military train. Our soldiers were greeting them, waving their caps and cheering the Soviet Army, calling "Greetings comrade," "Hooray Red Army," "We are going home," "For us the war is ended.” These cheers came mainly from the White Russian peasants, citizens of north-east Poland.
The soldiers from the Red Army returned the greetings and looked at our transport with great interest. The soldiers with the white eagle on their caps were going home. For them the war was finished for the time being and that was enough. Those with the red stars were quieter, more reticent. They were going to an unknown future and war. Their train was carrying them further away from their homes into a foreign land of the unknown, a land full of contradictions. Some people were greeting them with cheers and waving caps, others were firing at them. What should they expect? Fighting, or a friendly handshake? Uncertainty does not make one smile readily.
After passing Lida, we entered a countryside of forests near Jashuny forests of fir trees smelling of resin, saw mills and stored wood, fallow hilly pastures. This was already our home country, our Wilno scenery.
Soon our train started to descend a deep gorge into the River Wilja valley towards our Wilno, our native town with its many church towers, its narrow twisting streets.