September Days

  "Attention! Attention! Enemy planes approaching".... The even voice of the speaker announced a new German air raid on Warsaw.

I switched off the radio and kettle. I didn't feel like breakfast any more. I lived on the fifth floor in Sniadecka Street. One could hear the grim wail of the alarm siren - at first the one farther away not so loud, more subdued, then the nearer ones louder and more piercing and, lastly, the nearest one which shook the house with its piercing sound of maddening fright. The house was teeming like an anthill disturbed by a kick. On the staircases people were running with bundles and suitcases, women with children were carefully descending to the basement. Banging doors, fragments of unfinished sentences, calling and yelling.

The first hollow sounds of the anti-aircraft artillery sped up the stragglers and the door of the basement was closed.

The capital started its second day of war.

The house I lived in, like thousands of other tenement houses, had no modern shelter. There was only the ordinary basement - long, dark and narrow passages packed full with people and their belongings. How common a sight for people in bombed cities. Whispered prayers, a loud sigh after a powerful deton­ation which made the wall tremble, crying children, quarrels between people trampling each other. A few men near the slightly open door observing the sky, commenting about the enemy planes and the dropped bombs. Again a larger detonation close by. Somebody calls "Shut the door." "What the hell," calls another voice. "Should we all risk our lives for the stupid curiosity of some?"

"For God's sake stop quarrelling," a new female voice full of pathos intervened, "don't you realise how grave the situation is? Any moment we might share a common tomb under the walls of this house."

"The old hag cracks again.,” muttered a sleepy, deep voice from the dark corner of the basement. Suddenly we could hear a muted sound from a siren far away. Everyone became quiet. Intense, collective listening. Sighs of relief. Yes, it was the 'All Clear' sound.

The yard, the stairs were again full of milling people, children, bundles and cases, returning to their flats.

Crowds again in the streets, cars and trams started moving  the town became alive again. I took the No. 17 tram, hurrying to work. Trams and cars moved slowly, disorganised, noisy tooting and ringing, trying to get out of the traffic jam. We were peering, looking for damage, but this morning the main street, Marszalkowska, had not suffered.

When the tram came to the crossing of Novogrodska Street we saw crowds running towards an alley and further away we could see clouds of smoke. There was also a peculiar, un­specified smell. In the front of the tram somebody called out "GAS". It is hard to believe that such a short word could provoke such an unheard-of shock in the human mass. A word so short and sharp like a flint, or rather life a splash in the water from a flint. A word yelled out without intonation, just thrown between the masses - "GAS!" A word fired into the collective human brain, it was like a charge of dynamite. Travellers started to jump out through the windows, hurting their hands and feet, falling on the street they tried to protect their faces with hats and handkerchiefs - some lucky ones had gas masks. Within seconds the tram was empty. People rushed towards doorways and gates looking for some deeper hiding place. The explanation came fairly soon. During the air raid, in Novogrodska Street, a German bomber was shot down, the petrol exploded and the plane was covered in flames. The burning fuel and aluminium accounted for the peculiar smell which inspired one of the tram passengers to call "GAS!"

As I had another short alarm near Kralewska Street, I was two hours late for work.

In the M.S.Z. (Ministry for Foreign Affairs), there was great activity. At the main entrance many dark limousines, spotlessly polished, were driving away or arriving. Some gentle­men with bulging attaché cases were rushing in and out of the building. There was a lot of movement in the beautiful, large hall. Between groups of consular employees, mainly arrivals from Germany, were also high dignitaries from accredited countries. All the bombastic etiquette was missing. Nobody was there to meet the excellencies from foreign countries. Disorientated messengers, couriers, gold-braided valets tried to hide in dark corners and cloakrooms. They were unsure as to how to greet the arriving visitors - no top hats or white gloves to show their status, and faces didn't convey anything. It seemed better to disappear than maybe give a deep bow to an unknown book-keeper from one of the consulates. The Hall of the Ministry reminded me of a stock exchange. Different groups were bidding and declaring the latest news of the day, discussing Britain and America. One group started to increase considerably, someone there had really important news. He saw the British Ambassador arriving and now a conference was in progress between the Ambassador and Mr Beck.

The conveyor of the sensational news continued, "This talk between them is of far-reaching importance. I am sure that Britain will give us all the military help according to the signed treaty." He adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses and, being sure of his authoritative position in the group of listeners, he continued, "I know from a competent source that Hitler is afraid of an attack from the West and therefore he had moved part of his army to the Siegfried Line."

"Alright," said someone from the group, "but how can we expect positive help from Britain if she did not even want to give us enough help with armaments?"

"That is a matter of money, my dear sir," interrupted the man with the horn-rimmed glasses and, full of his own import­ance, moved on to another group giving them "vital information from a competent source.

In the meantime, we, the personnel, were issued with gas masks and asked to go back to work. Before me were heaps of documents in coloured covers, of navy, golden and orange. I learned to work mechanically, opening a file anywhere in the middle and reading '70 tins of Portuguese sardines in olive...' and the complete file went on the heap for burning. The pile of other documents grew very slowly and I tried to read more and to gather more information about our neighbours. There were differ­ent briefings and reports - political, social welfare, adminis­tration, economy, reports on foreign commerce and trade, exchanges in ports, agrarian and social relationships with foreign powers.

About one o'clock when we were ready for a break, the sirens started their loud wailing. Our department head rushed in. "Ladies and gentlemen, enemy bombers over Warsaw. Please go down to the shelters, the entrance is to the right from the main hall."

In a few minutes the whole building became empty. It was the first time that I was in this shelter. I was amazed to see well lit passages connecting spacious rooms. The ceilings were low, the walls were covered with marble plates and supported by many columns. Comfortable chairs, soft couches, a well-stocked buffet and good electric ventilation made the stay a pleasant one.

Very well-fitted thick doors provided good isolation from outside noise. Although a battle was being fought over the town, it was quiet here. It is understandable that the atmosphere in this shelter was nearly peaceful. Some were resting in com­fortable deep chairs drinking coffee, some walked around discussing the situation. One heard talk about war and politics, but also about horse races, new jokes and current society gossip.

I walked around, looked, and listened. I didn't know many as I had only been a short while at headquarters. It seemed to me that I was looking through a kaleidoscope. Some minor employees were standing near the walls; they seemed rather uncomfort­able with the big bosses. Many were shy and timid - they had spent most of their lives behind desks in accounts or the archives, or in supplies and stores. Pale people, seldom outdoors, people in clean but old, shiny suits with dark protective cuffs pulled over their sleeves - they were the proletariat of the Ministry.

The elite department heads, branch head, councillors, gentlemen from the diplomatic corps, with perfect manners and wearing spotless, unrumpled suits, were drinking coffee and sitting comfortably chatting with their secretaries and typists. Here and there were foreign correspondents Japanese with slantly eyes, dark-haired Romanians, Hungarians, Americans, Frenchmen and Englishmen.

In one of the rooms was a group of young people, most of them recently graduated in foreign affairs, economics or law. They talked mainly about call-up cards and mobilisation. In this room I suddenly spotted a familiar face  Lesman. We were together at the University and I had not seen him for a few years. A shortish, blond fellow with glasses and a tendency to become fat in later years. He had a big nose and a nervous habit of constantly adjusting his glasses on his nose. During the Uni­versity years we belonged to opposite groups. He called me a ballroom communist and I called him a monarchist. Once, during some heated academic debate where one group was denouncing the "crumbling capitalistic world,” Lesman jumped on the podium and, adjusting his glasses nervously, called out: "Fellow students - the time of the cads and roughnecks is coming. A real gentleman should have no discussions with them, he must hit them in the snout. Down with the barbarian, stop him behaving like a bull in a china shop, stop him destroying our culture and our beautiful churches."

That was Lesman - a true adherent to the ideas of the Wilno monarchistic newspaper "Slowo".

I came up behind him and put my hand on his shoulder. He turned. "Zygmunt, what are you doing here, where did you come from?"

"I worked in our Consulate in Stettin and you may congratulate me on my political astuteness!" I answered with a smile. "Two weeks ago my annual leave was due and I came home. Have you been working here long?"

"Only a few months. I had a lengthy apprenticeship in foreign affairs in America."

"In America?" I called out. "What bad luck to be recalled to Europe now."

"Can't be helped. Our country needs us." he replied very piously and quickly went after his boss as the all-clear was sounded.

During the war we met once again, but in quite different surroundings.

Next day, work at the Ministry was constantly interrupted by alarms and we spent most of the time in the shelter.

I left the Ministry late in the afternoon. There was a lot of traffic in the streets. Shops were packed full as everyone was trying to stock up. Pillars, walls of houses and trams were covered with placards.

"Poland will prevail with wings"

"The Chief Commander calls us"

"Strong, united and ready".. etc. etc.

Some posters showed a blue sky covered with thousands of Polish airplanes, tight formations of soldiers in steel helmets, whilst above them streamed the victorious banner and the Chief Commander with a sword in his hand hovering near the clouds like the providential Holy Ghost on sacred pictures.

On other posters, soldiers with bayonets were depicted killing an eight-headed hydra, giving her the death thrust on the centre of her 'Hakenkreuz', painted on a shimmering belly.

SIGNUM TEMPORIS, I thought, looking at all the posters. War propaganda seemed so much shameless boasting. Would opponents arriving to fight a duel carry placards caricaturising each other in the lowest terms imaginable? Etiquette would frown on such behaviour, yet in a duel between nations it is acceptable. Even exaggerated propaganda is permitted to stimulate the national spirit of resistance.

When I turned into Jeruzalimska Street I heard the paperboy’s, "Extra! Extra!... Britain and France declare war against Germany!" The boys were running through the streets, the trams and cafes. Within seconds they were surrounded and the edition was hurriedly grabbed. Everyone wanted to read with his own eyes the news that had been awaited with impatience.

A short, extraordinary text issued by 'Kurjer War­szawski' announced in big, bold letters the declaration of war by Britain and France against Germany. In fulfilment of their alliance with Poland and, following the act of German aggression, these powers took the decision to help Poland with all their strength at sea, on land and. in the air.

A new spirit, full of hope, came over Warsaw and all Poland. Although it had been expected, the accomplished fact had a tremendously uplifting power. All Warsaw spoke about it. Everyone was cheering everyone else, even scoffing at the German danger.

As I was hungry, I went into a pub, 'Pod Satyrem'. All the tables were taken, so I joined a group of men discussing the news at the bar.

"Hallo, Karol, to Britain's health," called someone, lifting his glass.

"Yes, sure, Britain is a power, sir, the Queen of the Seas. When she takes this business in hand, she will make mincemeat of them. Did you read the last edition? With all their strength at sea, on land and by air, they wall hit Germany."

"Karol, I am dead sure that if we push solidly from the East and, in addition France helps, we old ones would not have to go into the army."

"I think so too" said someone, licking his fingers after eating a herring sandwich.

"This war will not last long. Britain will prevent the German fleet entering the Atlantic."

"Surely not long but, as we are already drinking to Britain, it's my shout now." He turned and called, "Hey, waiter, fill them up, please." Glasses clinked.

The barman in his white jacket listened intently.

"Gentlemen,” said the barman, "more than 500 aeroplanes are already on the way to Poland. I have heard from reliable sources that they will bomb Germany and land on our airfields."

"How are things at the Front, Karol? Have you heard something? The papers don't give any details."

Someone, still chewing his sandwich, hurriedly replied, "The Front is holding well. I heard that near Poznan our array crossed over into Germany. The Germans can't break through Pomerania. If not for those damned air raids, we wouldn't have felt the war in Warsaw. But you just wait - let the British squadrons come."

The pub was becoming very noisy. It was crowded and full of smoke. People were coming in from the street for a drink and to discuss the recent news. Hardly anyone talked about the Front. There were comments about landing parties in Gdynia and Gdansk. I could not distinguish what the first group was talking about as near me a heated argument started on how long the war would last. The more cautious calculated it to last for up to one year; others were ready to bet that within three months the war would be over. I finished my goulash and went home.

That night the sky was clear and silent.

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