On The River Trail
The train was not crowded, with only an occasional passenger in a compartment. Not many were keen to go in the direction of the Front. Everywhere there was darkness and deathly quiet. Lighting a match, we put our belongings away and sat close to each other. On the empty platform, the stationmaster's lamp appeared, moved up and down a few times, and we started to move away. The hilly outlines of Krzemienice were barely visible. The monotonous sound of the wheels made us sleepy and we began to doze. After about an hour, the train stopped at Kamienica. Yells, calls and banging doors indicated a large crowd on the platform.
The darkness was so complete that it was impossible to distinguish anything. On the platform, seeking information, I found that the crowd consisted only of soldiers. I went to the stationmaster who informed me that the train was not going any further, that we would have to change trains and our next train would come soon.
After a half-hour wait, the blue light of a diesel train appeared. It was a passenger train full of soldiers. When it stopped, the soldiers waiting on the platform rushed to the doors. We had great trouble pushing our way on board and trying to find room between the packed rucksacks of the soldiers. There was no hope of squeezing into a compartment. We found room in the passage near a window. The soldiers were tired and sleepy. They did not talk, but tried to find a comfortable position to rest.
After an hour, Marushka was very tired from standing. I made her floor-space along the wall, giving her the gas mask as a pillow. I sat down on our suitcase, putting my feet in such a way that I could protect her head from the feet of passers-by.
It was dawn when the train arrived at Zdalbunowo. As the train was going no further, we had to leave.
The stationmaster did not know if another train would be coming, but he told us to wait. It was impossible to enter the waiting room as it was packed with soldiers. Near the station buildings were a few wooden houses. On one was a sign "Station Restaurant,” on the other "Grocer". The restaurant was also very crowded and full of smoke. At the tables, which were covered with grey paper, soldiers were drinking tea.
I thought it time to buy some food for our journey and went to the grocer shop which was also packed full. One could only buy shoelaces, washing powder and matches. The prices were fantastic - a box of matches was 50 grosh (twenty-five times more than the normal price). I went back without buying anything.
Suddenly there was a commotion. Soldiers were grabbing their belongings and running away from the station; the train gave one piercing whistle and backed out of the station. We understood - it was an air raid. Grabbing the suitcase, we ran with Marushka through the restaurant kitchen into the backyard, hiding between trees. There were no shelters, no trenches. In seconds we could hear the bomber planes above us. Three German bombers were making tight turns over the station. We fell to the ground. They dived, coming in quite low. There were seconds of waiting with pounding hearts and heavy breathing. A tremendous explosion ... and then again, and again and again. The earth was trembling. We felt a blast of air, and then all became quiet. We looked around. Plumes of smoke curled above the rails near the station. We waited, but the planes did not return, so we all went back to the station to survey the damage. The main railway track was badly damaged and there was no hope of further travel by train. As Rowno was less than 20 km. away, we decided to walk, hoping that at a bigger station we might be able to find a possibility of further transport in the direction of Wilno. I strapped the two suitcases together and, throwing them over my shoulder, we went in the direction of Rowno.
The highway went over a bridge where police were checking identification documents and asking where we were heading. One policeman, on hearing that we were going towards Wilno, became very friendly as he himself was from Wilno. He gave us the address of his family, asking us to tell them that, up until this time, he was alive and healthy. He also informed us that, walking along the highway, we would have to be very careful and watch the sky for enemy planes as the German planes were shooting with machine guns at anything that moved. He told us that on the highway to Warsaw there were many private cars, bullet-ridden, and near them quite often suitcases, clothing and sometimes even money. He advised us that, after spotting planes, to leave the highway immediately and look for shelter between trees or shrubs. If there were none near us, just fall to the ground and not move. Worriedly, we continued our travel. Marushka put on her glasses and walked in front, being the observer. I followed with the suitcases, as a supply column should.
After many hours, with sweat dripping into my eyes and my observer walking with head bent low and dragging her dusty feet, we came to the suburbs of Rowno.
The streets were crowded. There were evacuees everywhere with their suitcases and rucksacks. They were sitting on steps in front of shops, they were crowding the pubs, forming groups, asking each other for information. Mainly they were men of conscriptable age.
Here I heard for the first time that this age group had orders to retreat to the east, away from the approaching Front.
Here one could see miners' hats from Silesia, tram conductors from Warsaw and Krakow, many railway employees and postmen. The crowd was disorientated. Nobody knew for certain what to do with oneself. Tiredness and exasperation showed on every face.
"If only the army would take us, at least we would know what to do," was the bitter comment.
The streets were packed with military cars and trucks, as well as with groups of evacuees, children and belongings. There were signs of previous bombings. Many houses were in ruins - some were still burning. We rested a while on a fence and then continued towards the station.
Suddenly, in the street I saw my old University friend.
"George, how are you?" I called out, being very happy to see him and thinking that now we would have a friend for company on our journey. I introduced Marushka as they had not met before.
"Where have you come from?" I asked.
"From Warsaw, as an evacuee."
"Will you come with us, back to Wilno?"
"No, I cannot now."
"My wife, who ..." but I interrupted "Nata is here too? That is splendid; we will all go together." His wife, whom I had known for a long time, was also a student with us in Wilno.
"We can't go now," he explained, "she is ill ... she will soon have a baby. We decided to stay here. I found a place in a village near Rowno. You stay with us for a few weeks and we will go together later. I have even been planning a safe, cheap and comfortable route."
"Floating down the Horyn, through all the Polesia. The Horyn passes not far from here. It is deep and one can paddle down as far as Dawigrodek."
"Not a bad idea, but we are in a hurry and can't wait. Anyway I already have train tickets to Wilno."
"I don't think you will be able to go by train," he told us in his characteristic, phlegmatic way. "There are many people waiting for the train for the last few days. But you should enquire."
"Will you go with us?"
"Sure I will."
We continued on our way to the station, talking about recent events. Suddenly we heard approaching aircraft. We spotted nine planes immediately. They were flying in formation towards Rowno. We rushed along, looking for some shelter or a house. The nearest, a two-storey, brick house had no shelter. I tried the door and it was not locked. The house was empty as everyone had left. I looked into the rooms and went through the kitchen to the back yard. They must have left only a short while ago as a meal was still cooking on the stove. The dull growl of the three-engine planes thundered gloomily above our heads. I ran back and we decided to await our fate here. In this by now common situation, we were seized with the feeling of utter helplessness. This small house offered no guarantee for survival. Before our eyes were the ruins of brick houses in Rowno. However there was nothing we could do, so we just closed the door and sat down on the steps to wait.
After the last raid in Krzemienice, Marushka was more nervous and frightened. She was feeling sick - the sight of the wounded and dead had been a shock. We waited for what seemed a very long time. Then we could hear the bombing; it had started again. Some bombs were close, others were further away. The house shook and glass from the windowpanes was breaking. Marushka was pressing towards me and I hugged her closely. Distressing seconds passed. Would the destruction reach us? We had the feeling of being in a closed box, not knowing what was happening nearby. Some bombs were falling in series of threes and fours. We could also hear machine guns not far away, probably ours, trying to shoot down a plane. At last the thunder subsided and the growl of the planes stopped.
We opened the door and looked out. No planes were visible, but around us were many columns of smoke. Slowly, people started, to emerge from their hiding places.
We continued towards the station. Alas, of the station only ruins, clouds of dust and smoke were left. On the platform were bits of furniture, ceiling and plenty of broken glass. Between the railway lines were big crates, twisted rails and torn portraits of our President and both Field Marshals.
This meant the finish to our train travel. Sad and depressed, we said goodbye to my friend and returned to town, seeking some accommodation. With great difficulty, we found a room with a single bed in a small hotel. Exhausted, both physically and mentally, we sat dawn on the bed, leaning against the wall, and started to think about our situation. It was not enviable. Home was 400 km. away. To walk with two suitcases was hopeless. To wait here for a couple of days, hoping that the railway lines would be repaired? Marushka was quite definite that she did not want to stay in Rowno. I found that one couldn't buy food for any money. Eventually we agreed to leave Rowno the next day at dawn. Of course we intended to walk, hoping for a lift and maybe finding a station where trains were still departing. Marushka hurried down the street to get some material to make a rucksack as walking for any length of time with suitcases was out of the question. She returned with some striped pieces of fabric, usually used for making mattresses. We made a bag resembling a rucksack with shoulder straps. Into it we crammed the most necessary things and the rest, including two leather suitcases, the hotel maid exchanged for a handful of salt.
We slept dead-to-the-world and, feeling rested, the next morning left Rowno at dawn. The morning was cold and misty. The streets were lined with black, smouldering cinders from the previous bombing. On some fences were placards and, although dirty with smoke, they still colourfully displayed scenes of thousands of planes flying to the West and huge tanks smashing German fortifications. I remembered the first days in Warsaw. Propaganda and Reality. What a deceptive picture they represented now. Where are our planes, our powerful tanks? Alas, only on posters.
After leaving Rowno, the highway led north. We had 400 km before us. Our destination, although very far, was quite definite. As it was not hot yet, we could walk fast. Upon reaching the main highway we started to see more evacuees, the majority of them also walking - some choosing small side tracks and some peasant carts drawn by tired, scraggy horses, laden to the top. It was not possible to get a lift. The evacuees flowed down the highway, some singly, some in groups and even in columns. Some were fleeing the Front, others were returning home. Most were looking for a way out of this snare which the zig-zagging broken Front line had created.
It was impossible to get any kind of food. The villages and hamlets were stripped clean of food and their inhabitants irritated and tired by constant demands for food. Some even refused a drink of water.
In the afternoon, already fairly tired, we arrived in Aleksandria. We rested on the steps of a beer hall. We were covered with sweat and dirt and our eyes were sore. We felt rather pessimistic. We had made 20 km with another 380 to go.
I still had a few hundred zloty. Maybe we could hire a cart? Marushka went to look around. In the meantime I took out all my maps which I had acquired in Warsaw and began to study our route. I found Aleksandria and noted with astonishment that it was situated on the River Horyn. I glanced around, looking for the river. Only now did I notice the landscape. This partly burned, poor, eastern type little town lay on a gentle rise surrounded by meadows. Through the meadows wound a wavy line of trees and bushes, almost hiding with their green canopy the silvery waters of the Horyn River.
Near the town, along the river, was a very large park. Behind old oaks and chestnut trees I could see white walls of an old manor. I looked back to the map which I was holding between my legs. In the beginning the Horyn made a turn to the west but, after a few bends, flowed straight north and joined the Pripet River in the same direction as our route to Wilno. Maybe we could float down the Horyn? This possibility seemed very attractive; therefore I was not disappointed with the news Marushka brought. Nobody would give us a horse as the army was taking horses from the roads. Also nobody would leave their home as one did not know if once one departed, one would be able to return.
Somebody had been able to get a horse and cart the day before to go to Kostopol, 30 km away, and it had cost 1,000 zloty! In reply I showed Marushka the map and told her about the intended project, pointing out the advantages. Firstly, we would have our own cheap transport and, secondly, we would not use the overcrowded ways and therefore not be depleted of food by evacuees. Besides, going by boat is a very pleasant sport.
"Just think," I was saying, full of enthusiasm, "no dust, no highway, no bombs. Instead of bombers, cranes will be soaring above our heads - instead of submarines, trout will whisk past and a violet moon will shine on the flood. In our hollowed out trunk we, hugging each other, will float on like lovers in a cheap romance."
Marushka accepted my project. I don't know if she was influenced by the vision of the cranes or the absence of submarines but she accepted it happily.
With the decision made, we felt a return of energy. I put my maps away and, holding hands, we went in search of a boat as without it our plans would fail. Near the park stood a hovel thrown together from charred boards, the roof made with old, rusted iron sheets. Through the wall stuck a metal pipe from which smoke was coming. We came nearer. A thin woman in a dirty blouse was cooking something in oil and the smell of fish was very strong. With her sleeves she constantly cleaned her eyes as they, were weeping from the smoke coming from the stove straight into her face. In the; corner of this room was a plank bed covered with straw and pillows. A small fir table completed the furnishing of this shanty. In front of the hut, small children were playing. Before the shanty stood a crate, turned upside down, and on it sat an old fisherman with a pipe in his mouth.
I turned to him and, without any preliminaries, asked "Mister, I was told that you have a boat for sale and would like to buy it."
He did not reply immediately but looked at his wife, then at me, gave a few puffs on his pipe, spat over his left shoulder, wiped his moustache with his sleeve, and asked me in a heavy Ukrainian dialect "Where would you be from?"
"Why do you need a boat?"
I told him about our plans, explaining how hard it would be to continue our travels by foot.
"It will be hard-going with a canoe on the Horyn. She is a lazy river - there is hardly any current."
"Is she deep?"
"Deep she is, very deep. One can't reach the bottom."
Offering him a cigarette, I came to business.
"So what about this canoe?"
"She is not a real canoe but she can go on the Horyn. Yes, I do have one."
"Would you sell her?"
"First you should look at her. Maybe you won't like her."
"Where is she? Far?"
"There, under the bushes near the river."
"Could we have a look?"
"If you want to, we can go."
He got up heavily, filled his pipe, took a piece of coal from the fire which he put into the pipe, again gave a few puffs, spat, and turned towards the river. He pointed out to us the dugout canoe that was lying upside down in the bushes. I had a look. Her bottom looked old and showed damage, here and there patched with iron sheets. I turned her over. It was a hollowed-out log from some big tree, dark with age. Very primitive. She reminded one more of a trough, than a boat.
"Is she leaking?" I asked, looking with distrust at some rotten boards.
"Maybe she will let a few drops through. She dried out in the sun but, after some time in the water, she should hold."
"How much do you want?" I asked, kicking the bottom with my shoe. Instead of replying, he first gave a few more puffs, spat again and asked cautiously, "How much will you give?"
"I don't know” I replied honestly. "I have never bought a boat in my life."
He thought for a while, scratching his head.
"Say thirty zloty. Will that be too much?"
“All right," I agreed immediately, " but you should add oars.”
He seemed quite happy. He was expecting to have to haggle about the price. Now he replied immediately.
"An oar is lying behind me but and I will even add a punting pole for pushing." The business was completed. Our project now became a reality. Going back to the house, I asked the fisherman to whom the park and manor belonged.
"Here lives the great lord, Prince Lubomirski. This is Aleksandria."
"Is it a great property?"
"He owns thousands of acres, many farms, spread through three counties. He is a great man. Even the senior constable greets him with a deep bow."
"You are neighbours?" I asked, smiling, as his shanty stood right behind the park fence.
He replied with bitterness, "It is not an easy life with such a neighbour. He is not much of a man - he is a bloody aristocrat."
"Was it your hut which burned down?" I asked, pointing to the charred remains of a nearby hut.
"Yes, all my homestead burnt down."
"Surely not now, during the war?"
Sitting down on the upturned wooden box, he started to tell his story. "It would be nearly a year ago when there was a great fire in Aleksandria. Most of the houses and huts were burned down. Only the palace of the Prince remained. It was a great disaster for us. I, my wife and seven children were left with only the clothes on our bodies and without a roof. We went to the Mayor for help. In the shire they gave all of us some money and people started to rebuild their homes. I also wanted to build a hut but the council would not give me a permit."
"Why not? I asked, astonished.
"The Prince had forbidden it. He wanted to extend his park and our hut was in the way. Then, when the hut burned down he used this opportunity and told the council not to give a permit for building."
I could not believe it. "How can he? It is your land, isn't it?"
"Mine and not mine. My grandfather lived here but they say that, according to the law, it is serf's land - it is ours but belongs to the Prince."'
"But you have to live somewhere. They must give you land somewhere else."
He gave an ironic smile. "I went to many offices, even to the Voivode (title of the head of an administrative division). I wanted to fall on my knees before the Prince. And what? Nothing. The Voivode sent me to the council and, from there, they sent me to the Prince. The Prince did not speak to me.
“Who am I? Just a peasant the Prince does not speak with such.
“In the kitchen of the palace they told me to go to the administrator. I went there. The administrator was polite - I can't say otherwise. He asked me to sit down, looked in the books and explained;
"How much land have you got?"
"Seven and a half acres," I told him.
"Then you will get ten, but not here," he told me. "You will leave this land, man, because the Prince needs it. We will give you another piece of land across the river near the rectory."
"I don't care,” I said, “as long as the land is not worse than this one."
"This you will have to settle with the priest. He is a good man you know, the priest. I will give you a paper and the priest will allot the land. His land also belongs to the Prince, like yours. Everything will be alright."
I thanked him many times and went home to share the good news with my wife. Next morning was a Sunday and I went to the priest straight after Mass. I kissed his hand and gave him the paper from the administrator. He put his glasses on and started reading, and then he yelled "What - I have to give away the presbytery land? This land is under type administration of the diocesan chancery. I do the ploughing, and the sowing and now somebody comes and wants to take the land away. I will not give it,” he screamed. "Never. I don't care about your paper. The boss of this land is the diocesan chancery. Go there, good man. The land is not mine," he continued, without screaming. "I am only the caretaker of the Church property.” He gave me the paper and went back to the house.
"Again I went back to the administrator," the fisherman continued, "and repeated what the priest had told me and the administrator said, “That is not our business any more. You have the paper stating that the Prince will give you even more than you possessed before. If the priest does not give it to you, go to the office and ask them to help you.”
"It made my blood boil. I threw the paper to the ground and left. We built this hut on our land and I am not going to move from here!
He continued, his voice full of sadness and bitterness "Five of my sons are now fighting at the front and I don't even know if they are still alive. We were told to defend our home and Fatherland. And where is our native home? Whose home are my sons defending? The Prince's! This bloodsucker. There is no justice, sir, no justice on this earth. Where should I welcome my sons if they come home from the front? Here, in this hovel?"
This story of a simple fisherman touched us greatly. We were unable to give him advice. We only wished him a better future after the war and left, carrying the boat and oars along a narrow path. According to the Constitution, this path was the boundary line between the property of two equal citizens - the Prince and the fisherman.
Whilst lowering the boat into the water we had our first unpleasant surprise. A passing peasant informed us that after the first bend there was a railway bridge, under which the army would not permit anyone to pass. I went to find out. It was true. Less than a kilometre away was a railway bridge, surrounded by barbed-wire, which extended into the river. The bridge was patrolled. We hired a cart and carried the boat beyond the bridge.
We had overcome the first obstacle but lost many hours. We covered the bottom of the boat with plenty of straw and I, as the oarsman, took the place in the back with Marushka as ballast, sitting on our rucksack in the middle. I pushed away from the bank and the boat turned lazily towards the centre of the river. I hoped that there a rapid current would carry her quickly. We knew that our boat could not be fast but we felt let down by the River Horyn. It was such a lazy river that sometimes we were unable to tell the direction in which it was floating. The so-called blessed current pushed us no more than a kilometre per hour. Marushka, always fond of calculations, informed me that, depending only on the current, we would reach the river mouth in one and a half months. To get a little more speed, Marushka moved to the back with the rucksack; the bow lifted and I started to row strongly. Luckily for us, I had been rowing a kayak fairly frequently. Our boat started to move a lot faster. The river in this place was not wide not more than ten to fifteen metres from bank to bank. The great advantage was that the river was deep; the shallow banks gave way immediately to a much greater depth. Horyn gave the impression of being a channel rather than a river. Before we had time to be satisfied with the pleasure of boating, it began to get dark. As we were passing a bend where the river touches a road, we saw a man with his shirt off, rinsing his soapy face. He raised his hand and called to us, asking where we were going. He was very happy to hear that we were proceeding towards Wilno.
"I, too, am going to Wilno. I am from Wilno. Please take me with you. I will help rowing." I slowed down and looked at Marushka. This was a possibility we had not included in our plans.
"Do you have a lot of luggage?" I asked, hesitantly. "No, only this bag,” pointing to a small bag lying in the grass. "You can see yourself that this boat is very small and an extra load may ground it."
"No, it will not go under" he said, very assured. "I am not heavy." He rinsed his face, dressed hurriedly, probably thinking that all had been settled. I had nothing against a try. On such a river one had to row constantly and an additional oarsman would be welcome. I could not count much on Marushka who was a much better pianist than an oarswoman.
We looked him over. He was fairly young, rather nondescript with a fat face, irregular features and dark hair combed back. I discovered later on that he was 27 years old.
"I am Adam Mickiewicz," shaking our hands vigorously he introduced himself. Adam Mickiewicz was the name of the greatest Polish poet. This name surprised us and I felt like calling out "Oh, bard come to our silent boat and we will float down together to Wilno, the town of your youthful dreams," because the famous poet spent his academic years in Wilno. Slowly and very carefully we sat down in the boat as we did not know how much she would hold. First came Marushka who, being the lightest, sat in the front, then our new companion and, lastly, myself. The boat sat rattier deep, barely a handbreadth above the water. Although more stable, she became much slower.
It became dark and we could hear some explosions away in the west. They began singly, then closer together and, after a while, a continuous thunder. We were in no doubt that we were hearing the Front as the sky in the west was clear, with nothing like a storm in sight. I changed places with our new companion. We had to pass each other in a very narrow place, holding onto the sides of the boat. Marushka watched carefully, trying to adjust the balance. The Bard, as we called him, being the guest climbed over me and, taking my place, started to row, full of energy and experience. I took my maps and tried to adjust them to our position. I wanted to know where the Front was. According to my reading, the thunder from the west was somewhere near Lick. Our Horyn was running quite a few kilometres away from it and then gave a sharp turn to the north-east. We decided to continue through the night, hoping to pass the Front before it came any nearer.
The evening dusk gave place to a dark night. On the western horizon flares from the exploding shells began to appear and then came the glow of fires. Our rowing became more vigorous and we changed places frequently. The sky from the east was covered with clouds, only a few stars being visible. On the bank the bulrushes and shrubs started to weave and bend and the wind was getting stronger. It became colder and heavy drops of rain were falling noisily into the river. A storm was about to start. The rain began to pelt down violently whilst thunder and lightning came from all sides. Front and storm seemed to have united. The rumble of the artillery was overshadowed by the roar of the storm. The lightning cut through the clouds - even the light from the explosions looked paler. The lightning was cutting the darkness, the fires were illuminating the horizons and the heavy rain was screening all. We were wet to the bone. We were navigating by feel and touch. Our boat stopped suddenly, pressed against some thing. We had probably taken a blind arm of the Horyn.
We felt lost between the shrubs and reeds, trying to find the main current. The rain pelted in our faces and there was water above our ankles in the dug-out canoe. We retraced our route but, again, no current. Where the hell was the river proper? Was it a bewitched swamp? At last the canoe was free of weeds. The clean, clear water suggested that we were in the proper stream. But the next question was; in which direction should we go? Horyn was so slow that at night it was impossible to see the direction of the current. The Bard was tearing pieces off some letters and throwing them in the river and I lighting matches which were constantly going out, tried to find the direction of the current. The waves moving backwards and forwards made the bits of paper hover in the same place. We were quite disorientated. When one of the lightning flashes illuminated the nearby bank, we saw some huts through the curtain of rain. We decided to stop and look for shelter in the village. We managed to reach the bank, lifted the dug-out and, taking our belongings and the oars, set out to the village. It was near midnight. Everyone was asleep and the houses securely locked. The near Front made everyone even more cautious and frightened of gangs. The occupants of the first few huts we tried refused us permission to enter. At last someone took pity on us. It was one of the huts on the outside of the village. The peasant, without coming out, pointed to the barn. Wet and tired, we fell onto the straw. We could not change into anything dry, as nothing was dry. When we got warm, hugging each other, steam began to evaporate from our wet clothing. Thus finished our first day on the river trail.
Next morning we got completely dry in the hut of the owner and continued our journey. The morning was misty and wet but cleared to a sunny day. We were warm and dry and our spirits started to rise. At last the river turned to the north, the roars and explosions quietened down and we floated quickly along the beautiful river.
On the way we met another boating enthusiast. Compared to our dug-out, his was a liner, it even had a funnel. From far away this funny contraption looked like a miniature Noah's Ark. We pulled as strongly as we could to catch up and have a good look. This was not difficult as the ark moved very slowly and majestically. It certainly was a unique navigational object. Two dugouts like ours were joined by a bridge made out of planks. At the back was a cabin with a window and a sheet-iron pipe from which, like a steamboat, clouds of steam poured. In the front the cabin was open. Near the opening stood an iron stove, then a stool and, deeper in, a plank bed made up and with pillows. On the first gangway sat a young woman, peeling potatoes – probably the wife of the ark owner. A few children played next to her. The captain of this Horyn yacht was a young suntanned fellow in a torn shirt. With his dishevelled hair and shapeless beard, he looked like a Robinson Crusoe. He was busy fixing baits to many fishing rods hanging around the deck. The long pole fixed to the back deck indicated the way of steering this odd raft. It was hard to overtake it as she took up all current space and our canoe could just squeeze through, touching the bank. We greeted each other with full marine courtesy. We started talking. He was also an evacuee going with all his family to relatives in Pinks, a city in north-east Poland. He went ahead and we stopped to have something to eat, finishing all our food supply. We were helped considerably by our bard who had only a piece of bread left. Our passenger was not talkative and a rather lazy companion. He was a Bachelor of Law and assured me that he knew me from Wilno University but I could not remember him, even with this exceptional name. He only came fully alive when eating and therefore all we learned about him was during meal times.
The Horyn was running through widespread meadows. Here the Horyn was straight as an arrow, going right into the large disc of the setting sun. It was beautiful. The large trees on both banks were like a canopy, almost touching each other. Huge misshapen willows like old hags with dishevelled hair were washing their branches in the stream and their twisted roots drinking the water. The whitish reeds, rustling slightly in the light breeze, had an overpowering smell. Frightened frogs jumped with a loud splash into the river and flocks of wild ducks flew over the meadow looking for a good resting spot for the night.
The war, our worries and the objective of our journey were forgotten as we simply floated towards the sun on golden, placid waters.
That night we dossed down in a small cottage situated on a hill which seemed to guard the fords of the river from the side of the vast plain.
Our host was a Czech who, through some quirk of fate, had settled down in marshy Polesia. He spoke in a dialect of his own making - Czech, Polish and Ukrainian. He had forgotten part of his own Czechoslovakian, had never learned Polish properly and had to use the Ukrainian language. His wife was from Georgia, U.S.S.R.
We were very hungry so Marushka offered her nice multi-coloured scarf in exchange for milk, eggs and boiled potatoes. We had already learned that the peasants here were reluctant to accept money and most business transactions were on the basis of barter. We had all eaten our fill and, what was still left was devoured by our bard. That night we slept in the barn on soft hay. Early next morning I bought from the Czech a fly and hook attached to a line a few metres long. After teaching her how to cast and hold the line, the serious duty of angler was given to Marushka. We were quite excited and constantly asking her if she could feel the pull of a fish, if she had caught something, but to no avail.
In the meantime the boat took on more and more water and we somehow had to put our things higher. We could not find any specific hole; the old boat was simply leaking. We had to bail with only a cup at hand. This was an additional duty for Marushka who, disheartened as an angler, hardly watched the line. It was nearly noon when she called out "Got it". We understood immediately. I jumped aver the bard to the bow. Marushka was pale from excitement and explained that she had felt a sudden pull on the line and a resistance. I grabbed the line. Certainly there was resistance but I could haul in the line. Therefore it could not be roots. I told Marushka to make a place for me and asked the bard to push towards the bank. My heart was pounding. When hauling I sometimes felt the resistance go slack.
"It must be a pike." I called excitedly. "It feels like a really big catch."
"We will cook it the Jewish way with stuffing and butter and eggs,” called the bard, licking his lips. Now the last tug and out of the dark depths came ... an old rusty bucket with a hole in its middle. I started cursing and threw the bucket back into the river and, going back to my place, told Marushka to go to hell with her fishing. For a while the frayed line trailed behind, then disappeared, and we gave up this unproductive business.
The Horyn started to turn and twist in many bends. Sometimes it took a few twisting miles to cover a distance of 50 metres. Our dug-out was too heavy to carry across the land. To make the boat speedier and lighter, we left only one man in the boat, the other two going by land.
After some bends, near a small bridge we once again saw Noah's Ark and our Robinson Crusoe. We were very astonished and couldn't understand how he had managed to pass us on his raft in this slow stream. He explained it quite simply.
“Because we travel in a house, we don't have to stop for the night looking for accommodation. We don't stop, we travel through the night.” At present he was in trouble as the small country bridge was very low and he was unable to pass under it. After several attempts, he decided to lower the roof of his cabin. The bridge was no trouble for our dug-out and we continued wishing each other a lucky journey without further interruptions. This was our last meeting - we never spotted the ark with its iron funnel again.
That day we covered quite a long stretch. At dusk when it was time to look for a sleeping place, we were passing through uninhabited wilderness. The evening mist was covering the meadows and above the river hung thick vapour when before us, suddenly emerged an old water mill. It was our first mill.
A plank was thrown over the weir. The old mill settled deeply into the ground. Foaming water flowed from the wheel. The Horyn formed a large pond here.
On the plank appeared some human shapes. They went in a single file, stepping carefully on the plank. We pushed the boat nearer to have a better look. Through the heavy mist we could distinguish Polish soldiers but they did not carry arms. Their coats were unbuttoned and some walked heavily, leaning on wooden sticks. They walked in silence. They were like phantoms produced by the falling dusk. Their single file appeared out of the mist covering the meadows. Bent and treading heavily along the river they disappeared once again, swallowed by the heavy vapours of the river. The sound of their footsteps ceased when they reached the grass.
We had a feeling of foreboding. Something had happened. For the last few days, travelling through the wilderness, missing well-trodden tracks, we had no idea what was happening. We wanted to find out. I jumped onto the bank and went towards the mill but they were all gone. I intended to follow them when a new file of soldiers appeared, coming towards us. We began to ask them questions. Where were they going? Why without arms. Had the war finished?
They did not want to talk. One solider answered. “For us the war is ended." He spoke with a decided Warsaw accent. "Why?" I continued asking. "Have the Germans surrounded you?"
"No, the Front has not even reached us. Our commander demobilised the company and told us to go home. We hid our arms and are now going home."
"I don't understand. Did the commander think that there was no sense any more in fighting?"
"But you said that the Front had not even reached you."
"Sure, but the Russians had hit us in the back. The whole Soviet Army is advancing to meet the Kraut. From one side the Front and, from the back, the Bolsheviks. We can't fight on two fronts. We are going home."
"What are you saying? Did the Soviet intervene?"
"If you continue with your journey, you will meet them." He finished talking and followed the others.
"Where are you going?" asked Marushka.
"We are going to the west," he called back.
We could not understand and were lost in conjectures. Was it true what we had heard? Maybe the Soviets had declared war on Germany? We headed towards a village. The bard stayed with the boat. We were accepted in the first house and given sleeping place in the garret, covered with fresh hay. We brought our belongings, hid the boat between the bushes and, with our host, sat down on a wide bench around the table. His wife cooked us potatoes and gave us a large pot of sour milk. We asked about news and the Front line. He could say nothing definite. He advised us to go to his neighbour who was manager of a co-operative. As his neighbour had a radio and, according to our host, was an educated man, we went there immediately after our meal. He was standing in front of his house, leaning against the fence. We introduced ourselves and asked for information.
"Don't you know that today Molotov, Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, announced on the air that the Soviet Army is entering Poland."
"What are you saying?" I asked, amazed. "Did the Soviet Union declare war on Poland?"
"Is she coming to help Poland against the Germans?"
"For what reason did the Soviet Army enter Poland? Didn't Molotov say?"
"He said that the aim of the Soviet Union is to liberate Western Ukrainians and White Russia from the oppression of the Polish lords and safeguard these countries from war activities and ruin."
"Has the Soviet Army already crossed the Polish border?" Marushka asked.
"Not only have they crossed, but they are already not far from us."
"And what news from the Front? Does the fighting continue?" she was asking.
"I don't know where the Front is at present. I heard yesterday that Warsaw is still fighting, that we are still holding Hel and Westerplatte. But rumour has it that Lublin is already in enemy hands and that German tanks are near Luck."
"Did you hear by any chance if our army is fighting the Russians or are they neutral?"
"I don't know. Today soldiers were passing our village. They were without arms, going home. They did not say much. One man told me that they were given orders to go home and to avoid conflicts with the Soviet Army. They don't want to speak about the approaching Soviet Army as it might incite the people to revolt. One heard that there were already instances of assault at the frontiers. Please, do realise that in this region the population is mainly White Russian. I am one myself. There are many here who are waiting the coming of the Soviets with anticipation. I live here permanently and I work amongst the peasants so I know their mood."
He was called to the house and we went back to bed down. Marushka and I did not sleep much that night as there was so much to think about. Only the bard slept heavily, full of potatoes. The fate of the world did not concern him much.
It was the night of the eighteenth of September, 1939.
Next day, about noon, we met another obstacle on the river an abandoned mill. The dam and the derelict sluice gates were still there and the waterfall was too high for safe floating down. To carry the heavy boat overland was not tempting either. I decided to negotiate the obstacle with an empty boat. Marushka tried to dissuade me, looking distrustfully at the rapids which were two metres high. I would not give in. We emptied the boat, I undressed and pushed the boat toward the middle of the river directly opposite the waterfall. Marushka and the bard were watching, full of attention, from honorary seats of a tribune the ruins of the old mill. The main stream caught the boat and pushed it faster and faster towards the falls. The noise became louder. I grabbed the edges of the boat, sitting right in the back.
My dug-out was hanging in the air with the nose pointing straight down. A second of uncertainty and the boat settled down nicely, like a duck, right in the middle of the stream. From the ruins, my audience gave me a great cheer. I stood up proudly to give them a deep bow and ... toppled over into the water. This was my first swim in the Horyn.
Afterwards, when we were preparing to continue on our way, the bard ran to some nearby huts looking for some food, especially eggs which he simply adored. He never missed an opportunity to ask peasants he happened to meet for eggs. This time he got six and started pressing us for a stay so that he could cook them. The evening was cold and we were rowing strongly to get warm.
We stopped at a fisherman's boatshed. On the bank were two boats, a fish trap and a large net drying on sticks. We decided to spend the night here. The countryside was beautiful. On a steep hill was the fisherman's cottage. The fisherman welcomed us very hospitably. He was dressed in the custom of this region. He wore bastshoes made from birch trees and old linen clouts (bastshoes are made from inner bark of a tree and clouts - a long piece of cloth to protect one's feet and legs). He gave us the barn for the night. His wife brought fresh milk, straight from milking, and some cold potatoes. The bard, of course, asked for eggs. When the bard heard that there was a village nearby, he disappeared and we prepared for the night. The barn was nearly empty - there was not even straw. We bedded down on a cart with a bit of straw and our rucksack for a pillow. The bard came late but in a good mood and talkative so we guessed that he must have been lucky in finding some eggs.
It was a very cold night and our teeth were chattering. The only cover for both of us was Marushka's overcoat. At the crack of dawn we were up. Even the wooden fence was covered with fine white threads of rime. The hut on the hill dominated the neighbourhood. At the foot of the hill flowed our Horyn, overgrown with shrubs and reeds, around us meadows covered with hoar frost and, on the horizon, the dark line of a forest. The first sunbeams were shining brilliantly, spreading their golden glow over the calm water. The fisherman was ferrying some soldiers to the other side of the river. They dispersed in different directions, each going hurriedly towards their home. For them the war was over.
This day we were really hungry. The evening meal had been inadequate, the night was very cold and we left early on an empty stomach as we had hardly anything left to barter. The bard was quiet, scanning the bank for some habitation. Marushka was chewing an old crust which she had found in her pocket when looking for her glasses. At last we saw a forester's cottage on the edge of the forest. We sent the bard to enquire. Shortly he began waving his hands, indicating that we should follow. In the house was a woman with three children. She was Polish and from the city of Lublin. Her husband was a gamekeeper. He took part in the war of independence during the First World War. They had lived there for some years. Now they were very worried about the future.
She talked incessantly. "You know that the peasants could kill us all. They are very angry with my husband for all the fines he has issued to them for poaching logs and taking wood away. The Court gave them jail sentences and my husband was called as a witness. They have threatened many times that they will get their revenge. My goodness, do you know that they are all waiting for the Bolsheviks? I have heard that already some armed bands are being organised. They say that they will kill all the masters and their servants. My husband does not sleep at home any more - he is afraid. Now he has gone to find out how far the Bolsheviks have advanced. He has been gone such a long time. Mother of God, maybe he has already been killed. What will I do with three children? Jagusia is only two years old."
She was pouring out her sorrows, mainly addressing my wife, as we men were distracted by a big loaf of bread and some cheese and eggs which were lying on a shelf.
“Oh, my Godfather, Holy Mary. My milk will curdle," she exclaimed suddenly and ran to the stove.
We considered this a very good moment to stop her story by changing the subject.
My wife asked her timidly, "Could you maybe sell us something to eat? We are very hungry."
"Certainly, madam, everything will be looted anyway. I will not talk about selling. You just eat anything which is in my lowly house. Oh, my God, tomorrow we might all be dead. Who could think of selling in times like this?"
Who knows how long we might have had to listen to this torrent of lamentation but our bard had a ready approach. He was unable to wait any longer.
"Can't we fry some chicken?" he interrupted. "There are so many running around, maybe you could give us some?"
We were stunned but the hospitable wife of the gamekeeper did not hesitate and offered us four! We were thunderstruck, but not for long and started to work. The bard was killing the chickens, Marushka was plucking them and I entertained the hostess. The work was well distributed - perhaps I had the hardest job. Never since have we eaten such a wonderful meal. Nicely browned chicken covered with dripping fat, fried potatoes and cucumber salad smothered with sour cream. It was like a symphony for the senses. An unfinished symphony, as one chicken remained uneaten. We took it with us, thanking the hostess profusely for her reception fit for a king.
Steeped in a blessed feeling of satiation, we let our boat proceed slowly and lazily. After a few kilometres of such peaceful travel, we heard some shooting from a nearby village, some shouting and someone calling "Stop". Looking around, we saw some ten armed peasants waving their hands and signalling us to stop. We had to. We did not expect anything good from this armed group but there was no way of fleeing. I banked and the peasants ran towards us. Some had rifles, some hand grenades; amongst them were teenagers holding sticks and stones. We were worried.
"Out of the boat." yelled one, coming quite near.
"Hands up." was the next order. We climbed out, putting our hands up, facing ten hostile men. A large young man holding a hand grenade came forward. His dirty shirt exposed a hairy chest.
"Where are you going?" he challenged us.
"We are evacuees from Warsaw," I replied tersely.
"Ah..." he hesitated before the next question, "do you have arms?"
"No? You just watch out" and, coming a step nearer, he shook his fist with the grenade before my face.
"If we find arms, you see the birch?" pointing towards a tree. "That is where we will shoot you.
"Matthew, start searching,” called another one standing nearby.
They threw all our belongings to the ground and started searching. The contents looked rather poorly. Some personal underwear, a frock for Marushka, a spare pair of shoes and a manicure set which the peasant examined very carefully and, turning to me said, full of authority "Aha, you are an engineer!”
“A big boss!" He probably assumed it to be a drafting set.
"Maybe they hid some under the boat?" suggested another.
"Right. Turn her over, brother, and we will have a look," said the leader of the gang. They turned the boat over and still no arms.
Suddenly one of the men standing farther away called out "Look, the grazier is departing." "Hoj, hoj" they started yelling excitedly. We all looked in the direction he was pointing. On the road were a few wagons loaded with trunks, suitcases and bags, each drawn by two horses and with thoroughbred cows tethered, secured to the wagon. It was obvious they were from a big farm.
Without hesitation, the leader of the gang turned and started running towards them, calling to the others to follow him. Some followed him immediately, others hesitated, but the heavily loaded carts looked very tempting. They also wanted to witness the destruction of a really great Polish farmer. At last they all left. No time to ponder - perhaps the leader would send some of them back to guard us? We did not know their intentions. Our fate depended on them. We turned the boat back, threw our things in and started rowing and pushing with the pole as fast as we could. Some cowherds from the other side of the river who had been in the previous search tried to stop us by throwing sticks and stones at us. We did not mind, we just ducked the stones.
We travelled for six kilometres and were just completing a large bend in the river when on our left appeared a hill covered with peasant cottages. On the top stood a small white church. It was a large village. From the other end of the village, behind the forest, came rifle shots. First just singly, then a whole volley, followed by bursts of machine guns. We stopped and listened. The shooting came from the north of the river.
We put our heads together. It was not safe to continue and we decided to seek information in the village. After our previous experience, we took some precautions. Firstly we took all our maps, wound them round a stone and threw them to the bottom of the river. There might be another search and a new partisan gang finding maps of Europe, Lithuania, Poland and Germany might take me for an officer or, even worse, a spy, and could quickly wipe us out. We hid the boat amongst deep reeds and taking only the oars, went to the village.
In the village were only scared-looking women standing in small groups, glancing fearfully around. They told us that the shooting came from a nearby town, Stepan, situated on the Horyn. The shooting was between the retreating Polish soldiers and gangs of peasants who had obtained arms from somewhere and were now trying to disarm the soldiers. The women explained that the previous evening a large unit of K.O.P. (Corps of Frontier Guards) had retreated through there. They had found some of their mates killed by gangs, from Stepan and now decided to seek a bloody revenge. They had surrounded the neighbouring villages, killed all the men and burned the villages to the ground. Therefore, today men from other villages were hiding in the forest. We were afraid to continue by boat as it would take us directly into Stepan, the town in revolt. To start walking through this empty and wild part of Polesia seemed equally risky. We decided to aim for the nearest railway line which went through Sarny, Zuniniec, Baranowicze, Lida to Wilno. We needed a map but mine had gone to the bottom of the river. As there was a school in the village, we hoped to find a map there. I went with Marushka and the bard used this opportunity to ask for eggs. The primary school was quite large. Only one lady teacher remained as the headmaster and the other teacher had left. They had gone west, being afraid of the approaching, Bolsheviks. She did show us a large geographical map hanging on the wall. We found our position relating to the railway. The teacher gave us additional information six kilometres away was a village Komarowo and, from there, a straight road direct to the railway station Rajewicze. As the village was on the river, we decided to take our dug-out for the last time. It took us only half an hour to reach this small village which stood between the swampy woods and the river.
This small village consisted of a few old, decrepit huts. The straw roofs were covered with moss, grass and on some even small birches were sprouting. Broken fences made from unhewn poles were mostly broken down and clay pots hung from them. In front of the huts grew stunted cherry trees. Only a little light entered through the small windows which were mostly covered with dirty rags. Here lived the people of bog and marshy woods Polesie. People of short posture, poor and dirty, people who had to make their living in the forgotten district of Poland. We went from hut to hut looking for a buyer for our dug-out. One peasant gave us 30 eggs and a kilo of bread for it and also shelter for the night. This part of Poland so far had hardly any evacuees; therefore quite a number of men gathered around us, asking questions. They were sitting on benches and puffing pipes or smoking cigarettes hand-rolled in newspaper. It was already dark and the hut was lit by a smouldering resinous ship stuck into the wall - it was 'the lamp' of Polesie. Dirty children crawled on the earthen floor. They piddled on the floor and the sticky clay dirtied their little hands and naked behinds. The housewife, pushing a sooty cast iron pot nearer to the edge of the stove, drained the water onto the floor. The hut was hot and steamy.
We spoke about the Soviets. They were awaiting them with mixed feelings. The young ones were full of enthusiasm, the older ones with a friendly reserve and the richer farmers with distrust. Everyone dressed alike, in best shoes and darned shirts and all were smoking the same hand-grown tobacco. The kulak (rich peasant) and the poor peasant, both neighbours in the same village and often related, but with different emotions passing through their heads. Hidden thoughts, calculated, culled off from the propaganda of left and right agitators.
"We are not educated but we know the difference between the chaff and the grain although we are only peasant," said a really old man with a twinkle in his eyes. "The Bolsheviks would sooner take my three cows away than give me a fourth from a richer farmer."
"But bolshevism is the power of the labourer and the peasant. Now, here you are the last, but there you might be the first," I contradicted, searching for his true opinion about communism.
Some were smiling ironically, others listened full of attention.
"I'll tell you something," replied the old man. "Their politics are such that, if you go to a koechoz, that means you are not an owner any more, you are then a nationalised man. If you don't go they will take away your land and finish you off. There you have the power of the peasant."
"Ah, Simon, you have the soul of a kulak," said a youngish man. "You still haven't had enough of masters, you are just... the master's servant." He spoke with hatred and left the hut.
"He wants to become a Commissar," someone called out.
There was general laughter followed by animated talk. I sat in the corner and listened attentively. Simon would not give in. He maintained that he would not be persuaded by red or white slogans, that he had lived his eighty years and knew life and people. In Russia man does not live for himself singly, but for all. But do all live for the betterment of life for everyone? Such were the thoughts of the old man from Komorowo, trying to separate the chaff from the grain.
That night we slept on straw in the hut. I had never seen so many fleas in my life. I saw them jumping straight up at least 25 cm without any trouble. That means they can jump more than 250 times their own height as Marushka calculated immediately. They jumped in swarms, clutching on to our clothes, our laces and legs. We scratched and tossed and turned but could not sleep at all. At dawn we got up feeling seedy and longing for a smoke. We had nothing with which to buy the home-grown tobacco. The peasant advised us to gather some cherry leaves, dry them and smoke. This smoke was often used when tobacco gave out. We followed his advice, dried the leaves on the stove and rolled cigarettes in newspaper. The hot and bitter smoke started to choke us, bringing tears to our eyes. We no longer cared for a smoke (but, alas, not for long).
The 'straight' route to the railway was 10 km, leading through swamps and mire, following some barely visible tracks. Our host was very kind and offered to take us across. Breakfast consisted of milk and some eggs which we received for the boat, and we were ready to go.