The Beginning of the War
Against the wishes of my mother, I decided to go to Warsaw. I left Kaunas at 4.30am on 1st September 1939. When I was at the frontier in Vievy, I had a telephone call from Mother. She told me:
“There is war between Poland and Germany!”
She cried and begged me to come back home to Lithuania, as Lithuania was neutral. She argued that Zygmunt would be at the front, that I would probably not even see him.
I spent a few days in Wilno, trying desperately to get permission to go to Warsaw. Already as the first day the government issued orders to discourage people from travelling, leaving the trains for the army, and especially not to go to the capital city, where so many wanted to be in times of upheaval. Right from the first day there were heavy air raids. I was scared when I witnessed the first air fight whilst waiting for a train. I remember hoping that none of my German school friends would drop a bomb on me, as war or no war, enemy or no enemy; I knew that they would hate the thought of killing me – me their friend.
The travel to Warsaw lasted a day and a night instead of the usual few hours. The train was shot at, some bridges were demolished and we had to walk for kilometres at a time. I was dirty, thirsty and hungry when I arrived in Warsaw.
I went to one of Zygmunt’s aunts where I found a short letter waiting for me. It was more of a scribble than a letter in which he told me that he had to leave and would I try the Foreign Office to find out where he might be. It took me ages to go to the office, as Warsaw was being bombed, trams were not going and taxis were without petrol. At the office I was told that Zygmunt would be leaving that day at 10.30am from the East Station. It was already 10am and I asked the officer how could I reach the station in time? His reply was: “That is your private business, madam, don’t you know there is a war on?”
I felt desperate and rushed to the nearest taxi stand, near a service station. Showing my diplomatic passport, I requested that they fill up the taxi as I was in a hurry and had to be at the station at 10.30. I would not let them argue, did they not know there was a war on?
I got the petrol and taxi but progress was very slow and getting worse the nearer we came to the station. All the streets were jammed with lorries and cars, the sidewalks were full of people. Near the station we were unable to get through, and I walked. I have never seen such crowds: crates, luggage, people including little children. Part of the station was already destroyed by previous bombing and there were dirty smelly trenches along the street.
At the station I was told that the train reserved for the Foreign Office had already left. Zygmunt was gone, destination unknown. What should I do with myself? I had no money and only an overnight bag. Should I stay with Zygmunt’s relatives? Definitely no! I must try and get some money from the Ministry but I also must decide what I intended to do.
Back to Lithuania? Definitely not.
Back to Wilno and try from there to do something worthwhile? Impossible, as the last train for Wilno had left yesterday.
I had to find some of my friends from the Conservatorium. But here again I struck trouble. The public telephones were destroyed, only one at the soda fountain was working and there was an unbelievably long queue! There were thousands of people and it seemed as if everyone wanted to make a phone call. The queue had been dispersed so many times by air raids. I was able during the next hours to make a few phone calls, but all were out of town, even Irka Gasztecka was out, although I did remember her having a farm. I decided to join the Red Cross, as their gathering point was not more than twenty kilometres away. I should be able to make it but I was so tired! I decided to make one more phone call. I was standing again in the queue near some crates and gave the man in front of me a bit of a push so that I could at least lean against the crates. The man turned round…it was Zygmunt!
Even now we call this meeting a miracle and we celebrate the 7th of September!
Without this meeting our paths would have been quite different and we would have been separated for many years, if not for always.
I was not even happy meeting him. I just let go and started to cry. He would know what to do, I could relax! “When did you arrive?”
After a few cups of strong black coffee and innumerable sandwiches I started to recover and felt unspeakably happy. Our meeting in this crowd was to me a miracle and an omen. We were meant to be together! My Zygmunt and I, we will never part again. Never. Together we would manage the nightmare of war and the uncertainty of tomorrow, we would manage as long as we were together.
His train, the second for the Ministry, left in the afternoon. We all had seats. Nobody knew the final destination of this train. Our train was bombed so many times and quite heavily in Czeremcha, where we waited the bombings through in the cemetery, laying close to each other, surrounded by tombs. I was very frightened. We were shot at from diving bombers (Stukas?), there was no food only lemonade and dry sausages. I got stomach ache and fainted, but not for long.
Next evening we arrived in Krzemieniec where Zygmunt (of course!) had some relatives. Mr Czarnocki was the director of the lyceum living in a beautiful white building. I liked all his family. Most of the ministries were evacuated to Krzemienic and also foreign embassies. Zygmunt did not have to go to work although he enquired each day. We went for walks. It was a charming old town but now overrun by evacuees. I sent a cable to my parents so that they should not worry, as we were safe. A few minutes later all hell broke loose.
It was the local market day, all the town was overcrowded when, without any warning (there were no sirens in Krzemieniec) bombs started falling, machine guns mowing down people and animals. It was dreadful! There were dead and wounded covering the streets, frightening horses running berserk still attached to their carts. The chaos was unbelievable, there was blood everywhere. A nightmare, a senseless slaughtering. Zygmunt was helping carry the wounded to the hospital, his shoes slippery with blood. Bodies without heads, and heads without bodies lying around.
Next day there was a protest notives (diplomatic notes) even to the Pope. Nobody listened, nobody cared. Next day people started to leave Krzemieniec. The offices closed. Many people, especially the officials, were encouraged to leave Poland and go to Romania as the situation was supposedly grave. There were no official orders and no official news. Officials left in cars. We were offered a lift by Mrs Nowicka, the Consuls wife, but Zygmunt declined. Buses were provided for the staff of ministeries. People were pushing and scrambling to get in. Neither Zygmunt nor I felt like it. Zygmunt decided to go back to Wilno and maybe from there to join his regiment. We bought tickets and left after a friendly farewell from Mr and Mrs Czarnocki. We did not travel far, only 45km – another four hundred kilometres still to go. There were no more trains, all the rails were twisted, the trains destroyed.
All of our wanderings during the war years are recorded in a book titled Bellum Vobiscum, (www.bellumvobiscum.com) written by Zygmunt Kruszewski. Reading my diary I am amazed how little I saw compared with Zygmunt. We were together, we covered the same routes, but my private memoirs were limited. I did not see the towns we passed, I did not keep track of the political events from week to week. My horizon was narrow. I saw only what was in front of me, I was frightened. I was afraid of bombs, of bullets from machineguns, of being wounded and of pain and torture. Scared to become hysterical, as it would have made things worse.
I was frustrated with all the human misery around me, all the suffering and being quite helpless, hating war with an intensity I never knew I could feel. I wanted to harm and hit back at my enemy, Germany, but how? When? I used to bite my knuckles when hearing about all the atrocities, especially those done to the Jewish people. All these feelings grew and intensified during the years, but at the moment of leaving Krzemieniec I was just very frightened.
Walking was a tiresome business on roads crowded with evacuees, with planes diving and shooting at us with machine guns. We were constantly hungry as one could not buy food for money, only occasionally in exchange for goods, but we had hardly any goods left to exchange. Each of us had some kind of rucksack which was a pillowslip with straps attached but there was not much in them. Zygmunt decided to leave the road in Alexandria and bought a dugout, something like a kayak. The man who sold him this dug-out had sons at the Front, fighting to protect the land. Whose lands were they protecting? They were land-less farmers, their landlord’s sons were not fighting, they were somewhere safe, they were not risking their lives.
It was good to float down the River Horyn. It was so quiet, floating down the narrow winding river, but we were constantly very hungry. It was also very cold during the nights. The nights were clear with a full moon but, even huddled together and covered with my overcoat, we were shivering, especially at dawn, and so very hungry. One day we heard that the Soviets had entered Poland! They had stabbed us in the back. Now all was finished! We couldn’t fight two powerful enemies nor could we let Poland be divided once again by Russia and Germany! Where were the allies? What was happening to the promises and all the pacts? We did not know what was happening in the world. We had no newspapers and people we spoke to had no idea what was going to happen.
Once we were stopped by a gang of communist youths who were going to kill us but there were diverted when they saw their rich landowner moving out. They went for the landowner and we used the time to run away, but decided that we should abandon the kayak and start walking again.
We started walking along the railway lines with the tickets in our pockets. Counting the poles and counting the miles covered, we walked on and on and on. The pack on my back seemed to get heavier and heavier and Zygmunt took it away and carried it for me. My feet seemed to get bigger and bigger and each step was an effort. I felt so tired and wanted just to sit down but we had to go on. Alongside the rails were freshly hewn crosses, sometimes single ones. Sometimes there were a few together. Who were they who died here so recently? Were they local people who settled their grievances during the time when there was no police? Or were they retreating soldiers attacked by whom? The Soviets? The local youth of communists? We did not know then come also the evacuees who could not keep going any longer. No one knew.
At last we came to a town where the Red Army was already there. After an interrogation we were told that there should be a train to Wilno. A train! How wonderful! No more walking! We were even given some bread, not even stale but quite fresh! Lovely! It was heavenly to travel by train. It was only a cattle truck but we could sit on the floor and watch the miles go past. Next day we arrived at Wilno and it was only a few miles to Zygmunt’s home in Kolonia Wilenska.
There were already quite a few relatives there, mainly refugees like us but I do not remember them all. What staggered me was the way we were met, no fuss, no ado, not even a real kiss! Just as we would have been met after a few days holiday. We had been bombed, we had been gunned at, we were tired and hungry and had had no proper sleep… but we were met as if everything was quite normal, as if there was no war, as if the Soviets had not hit us in the back, as if we were still free people!
We were given a room to ourselves and already the next morning Zygmunt was told to do some ploughing and I to bring water from the draw well and water the new plants.
There were some quarrels between Hanna and my mother-in-law, something about either too much food or too much wood, I don’t remember but Hanna and her son left and Zygmunt and I felt that Zygmunt’s mother was not fair. Zygmunt senior, Zygmunt’s father, kept in the background and did not say much. However once I caught him looking at my Zygmunt when he was ploughing and Zygmunt senior had such a nice expression on his face, full of love and tenderness, just like my father when looking at me. But when he saw that I was watching he turned around and left the room. What an odd family, I thought. Why are they afraid to show that they love? That they care?
I remember being very astonished that each sister, that is my mother-in-law, her sister Ola, her sister Jadzia, cooked their food separately and if one of them ate the meal which Zygmunt’s mother provided and was cooked by old Zosia, each one had to make it up by work in the garden on the vegetable patch or somewhere else. One sister had the top floor of the house, the other slept in an outhouse, but each sister was somehow made to feel she was not having a free meal. I simply could not understand it.
At last my mother arrived. My darling little mum! It had taken her a few days instead of a few hours. How happy we were to see each other. Hugs, kisses, tears and smiles. It was so good to see her. War or no war she still loved me and Zygmunt and father was waiting for us.
All men had to register including Zygmunt, being a reserve officer. Zygmunt was lucky, he came back the same day, but Hanna’s husband Bogdanowicz never came back, nobody knew what happened to him. Many men were never seen again, some only after many years, some were deported deep into Russia and many died during the transportation.
Mother asked what we intended doing and Zygmunt, after giving it a great deal of thought, decided to go to our farm in Karmelowo and do some farming as food was getting scarce and father was too old for farming. It was all right with me. I preferred to go back to Lithuania. Mother arranged everything for me and I left before Zygmunt as he had still a lot of work to do around his place
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