All over Germany camps were being organized for displaced persons who were unable to go home. Those camps were mainly for Lithuanians, Poles and other Baltic peoples, but some Russians and Ukrainians were able to hide there too, pretending to be of a different nationality.
Zygmunt heard about a camp to be opened in Reute so we decided to go and have a look. Many other Poles from Isny went too, telling me quite frankly: “If Mr Kruszewski thinks it is good to go to this camp, then it must be all right. If he thinks that Reute is a good camp and if he will stay there, we will stay there too.”
The camp in Reute was a big building. Before the war it was a nunnery and later, during the war, it was given to the “Volksdeutsche” and now it was given to the Poles. The commandant, Mr Rusiecki, told us that there was no more room available and that we should look for somewhere else. Zygmunt and he started talking and discovered that they both went to the same school and at the same time, only one was in Class “A” and the other in “B”. They had also met during their University years although Mr Rusiecki was an engineer. Of course, now there was space available not only for Zygmunt and me, but also for all those whom Zygmunt wanted to come.
The camp in Reute was a big brick building, three storeys high. It enclosed the yard from three sides and had big, tall gates. There were many passages with doors on both sides. The smaller rooms, rather like cells, were given to single men or women and the bigger ones were for families. There was a big kitchen and a large dining room; there were offices and storerooms. There was a very large hall where Zygmunt (later on) had his rehearsals and we even had some classes, not only for children but also for grown-ups, as people had the desire to learn. We got a nice big room with a table, two beds and two chairs. Zygmunt chose this room as the toilet was next door and the room also had an oven for heating and cooking which, I thought, was quite unnecessary as summer was approaching and we would certainly be home long before winter began.
Our first job was to clean the room from bed bugs. Zygmunt got a shovel, a broom and a bucket from the management. He lifted the lino and I shovelled while Zygmunt caught the bugs and tipped them into the bucket. When we finished the bucket was a quarter full. We also got some disinfectant which we sprayed about liberally before putting the lino back.
We settled into a routine. I worked in administration, helping Edek Rusiecki who became our friend. The war hit Edek hard. He was one of the first to be taken to the extermination camp on Oswiecim (Auschwitz). Now he was an alcoholic and had trouble with his lungs and kidneys as he was badly beaten up. He had survived all the horrors; he was very compassionate and a very nice and clever person. Edek died of TB some years later in Poland.
My main job was to type lists of people, trying to include as many “dead souls” as I could possibly manage without being found out. We needed the extra food as we had quite a few Russians in our camp who we could not list as they were there illegally. I help to organize lessons for children and at night I played bridge, sometimes all through the night. There were constant parties, constant drinking (mainly moonshine).
People were stealing and bartering, were falling in and out of love, and everyone had a merry time, thinking only about today. I hardly saw Zygmunt. He was travelling with his theatre group around Wuertenberg and doing a good job, appreciated by the Polish communities.
When back in Isny, he calmed down the angry and the frustrated. At weddings (of which we had plenty) he was usually the one who gave the bride away as the fathers were somewhere in Poland and not available. Part of his – what should I call it, ‘authority’? – reflected even on me as I was able to help during the fights when he was away. It usually happened during the late evenings when I would hear the call: “Mrs Kruszewski, come quickly. They are killing themselves with kitchen knives!”
I was not afraid of the fighting men. I could come between them and one or the other would give me his knife, still swearing, but hanging on to me, he would stagger (being quite drunk) back to his room. None was vicious but all of them had spent years facing death, seeing death, living with death. Not many of us were yet well balanced.
Food and cigarettes were supplied by the French administration. The cooking was done by our own people and, sorry to say, it was not always a clean job. One day we all got stomach upsets as the copper pots were not cleaned properly. Some of us were affected more severely than others. I was one of the last to arrive for the meal and received a lot of verdigris which was present in the pots, and became really sick with dysentery, bleeding, etc. Certainly I was glad that our room was near the toilet. Soon I could not keep any food down. Edek got a doctor who agreed to see me in the camp. By now I was hardly conscious and fainting often. The doctor and Edek got for me some medicine and rice flakes, but I was unable to keep them down.
Although Zygmunt had commitments and could not be with me, I was never alone. People were so kind; there was always someone to help me get up, and the doctor came every day. One day the doctor just shook his head and said that he was unable to help me anymore as I was not too strong before the dysentery but, he said that I might pull through, being still young. He left, still shaking his head.
As I was shivering, one of the women lit the stove and even put a pot of mutton on to boil so that Zygmunt could have something warm to eat when he arrived back from his tour. I remember waking up and being able to reach the toilet and, by hugging the walls, I was able to get back. The room smelled very nicely of soup and mutton.
I was quite certain that I would not live much longer and decided to die on a full stomach with the taste of soup in my mouth and the smell of mutton up my nose. Somehow I managed to reach the stove but there was no way that I could get the pot down, nor could I reach the table to get and knife and fork. With my bare hands I grabbed a piece of mutton and threw it on the floor to cool. I could not pick it up, therefore I sat down on the floor and started eating the cool mutton, and I remember being quite happy.
I must have lost consciousness whilst eating because I remember only that someone put me back to bed. Next morning I felt alive and happy, although still very weak. My dysentery was gone. Incredible things can happen but I would not advise anyone to try curing dysentery with cold mutton but, if there is no medical help left, let the patient do as he wants even if certainly it is bad for him.
I think that happiness goes a very long way. The political atmosphere was not a pleasant one and quite unusual. As a result of war and the barter for political gain, the map of Eastern Europe was in the process of change. Lithuania was not an independent country anymore. It became the 17th Republic of the Soviet Union with Wilna (Polish) now called Vilnius, as its capital. We Poles now had two well-established and officially recognized governments, each with a president, prime minister, marshal, etc. Our national emblem, the eagle, was either with a crown or without a crown. One government was in London, the other in Lublin. During the war some Poles fled to the East and some fled to the West. Both governments were Polish and they opposed each other. We, the displaced people, could pick and choose the one we wanted or none at all, and stay as displaced people. Representatives from both governments were visiting our camp, giving us pep talks but no real or true information.
One lot advised us to go to Poland as soon as transport became available. The others advised us to stay in Germany and wait.
The majority in Reute were too frightened to go back to Poland as there were so many rumours about bad deeds done by the Soviets in Poland. Zygmunt and I wanted to go back to Poland at all costs, as soon as possible. I, being a woman and mother, mainly because our children were there, but I also agreed with Zygmunt; he considered himself a Pole in the first place and he thought that it was his duty to help build up the ruined country; so many of the educated class were exterminated either by the Germans or the Soviets. People were needed now in Poland.
Zygmunt’s father was always pro-Communistic and Zygmunt was always politically orientated to the left. His father was an atheist, a fanatic supporting all the Communist ideals. Zygmunt was even jailed for a short while for his convictions which went against the Establishment. All his friends were tending to swing to the left. We wanted to go but there was no transport. There were not even lists to sign for those who wanted to go to Poland. Waiting became very hard. Everyone was allowed to mail one postcard, thanks to the help of the Red Cross, but nobody knew when they would receive a reply. Poles from America sent us clothing and food.
We were fed, dressed and warm. We could work if we wanted, we played cards, had parties, plenty of alcohol, and still it was very hard to wait. Spring and summer passed, autumn came with cold winds and rain. In September, 1945, all the church bells were ringing as the Second World War was now finished for all people, including the Japanese. I don’t remember feeling elated as, to us, war had finished a long time ago but we were still here in Germany, we still had no news from our families, we still did not know what would happen to us. People were nervy and jumpy and ready to start a fight for no real reason, especially the “Katzetniks” (men from the concentration camps).
The fights were ugly and brutal; with knives, with legs from the broken furniture, with broken glass. It was often that somebody would call me for help. I was not afraid of the drunks. I think that Zygmunt’s aura covered me too as I could take their knives away and they would give me their bits of broken glass that they had been wielding, threateningly, a moment before. Some of them behaved like children the next morning; they would look a bit sheepish, but very friendly. They invited me to their rooms to show me their production of “moonshine” which they managed to make, even in bathrooms. They were even looting and proudly showed me their new loot which later on they would exchange for something else – just like children do with toys. It was an ugly time.
New Year came, with more parties and more drunks. At last, early in 1946, there was an announcement that two transports would be available for those who wanted to go to Poland. One had to sign one’s name on the list which hung in the main room. Initially, only a few put their names down – not more than twenty people signed – but when they saw that Mr Kruszewski had signed his name, there then appeared over eight hundred signatures. The men, singly and in groups, would speak with Zygmunt, and the women came to me for advice.
I only told them our reason for returning to Poland. Firstly there were the children, and each mother nodded, they understood this reason. Secondly, I personally did not believe that all the anti-Soviet propaganda leaflets were true. Poland was not – and I did not believe that it would ever be – a Soviet Republic. The Lubin government had printed the names of the new cabinet, the ministers, etc. Zygmunt knew many of them – they were his friends from school and University. We knew that they were POLES and not Jews in the pay of the Soviets (as the leaflets were saying), nor were they Russians by birth, at least not the majority. Zygmunt could vouch for them. They were Polish people who loved their country, who thought that Poland needed many reforms to help the labourers and the farmers. Zygmunt knew these people personally. They were not in the Government for money or careers; they believed that they could help Poland achieve a better life.
I had nothing against the people in London. They were also Poles, also trying – to the best of their ability – to have a free Poland. But what could they achieve over there in faraway London? What help could they give, even if the American Poles were ready to help them? Were they striving to restore Poland to its former self like it was before the war? If that was the case, I did not want them. I preferred the new ones who might bring changes which were needed long ago. The women listened and nodded their heads. Poland certainly needed some changes to improve the lives of the farmers and the labourers. They belonged to this group so they knew what I was speaking about. I was not speaking for propaganda. I could not care less if they went or not. I was speaking as a mother who would go anywhere if need be – I would go to Siberia or to the Arctic – anywhere - to find my children. I was also speaking as an immature person, voicing my thoughts, thoughts which I already had five, six years ago, which were now strengthened by Zygmunt. I was speaking sincerely, telling them what I really thought. I was amazed to see what influence it had on their attitude. If I did wrong, I am sorry. I was asked my opinion and I gave it.
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