Ludmiła Niedbalska's Testimony
THE HISTORICAL MUSEUM OF WARSAW
Age: 11. During the Warsaw Uprising she lived at 42 Zielna Street in the City Center of Warsaw.
During the night you could hear some sounds, voices; during the day detonations, explosions. Mom would not let me go outside, so I would continue to rummage through my aunt's treasures or I would sit on the window sill and look out onto the street. Some people were hanging around in the ruins - ghosts, they were dragging some of their things, or other people's things, anything that could be useful. From the perspective of Wilcza Street - to the left - one could see Marszałkowska Street, and there a bit more movement, sometimes cars. Until one night, upon hearing a louder sound, I got out of bed barefoot and looked out the window: a building was burning on Marszałkowska Street. Completely new. A building which, yesterday, was still standing, whole. And even though it seemed absurd to me, in the direction of its windows, from the right side, from below, from an unseen source, streams of fire were flowing.
In the morning, from the gate, we heard a harsh German voice, which we had not heard in a long time. The voice declared that we were to go disassemble the barricades. The response it received was silence and the calm, hostile glare of women standing motionless. Just in case, the men did not come out. The German looked at us attentively; he noticed the red cat, raised his gun and shot. The cat ran away. The German lowered his gun, turned around and went out onto the street to join his pals.
Obviously no one went to disassemble the barricades - that was minor! They should do it themselves. But another piece of information reached us: we are to leave Warsaw. We began to gather our things. We puzzled over what to do with Aunt's things. Should we take them? Leave them? We would leave them - we would lock the apartment, take the key with us; after all, we would return in two weeks, at the latest. The Russians were in Praga... No, we would take the things - they would rob them even in two weeks. Mom wanted to take at least a down-filled quilt on this unknown trip. After everything passed, we would return it to Aunt, that way they definitely would not steal it, it would serve us, although the Germans could take it as we left the city and Aunt could feel resentful. Generally, was it alright to take another person's possession? Ultimately, the quilt stayed behind, rolled up tightly and tucked away deeply, behind the perpendicular furnace in the bathroom. You could not see it - maybe it would survive. And so on October 8, we set out on the first part of this unknown journey.
Relatively good passages were made, in the middle of the streets, in the rubble, and we were forced to walk along them - this time by Germans - along with a crowd of people like us, heading somewhere toward the West. Unburied corpses were still lying around, pieces of corpses; carriages full of junk and empty carriages were riding around; more organized groups of young people without bundles were marching, escorted by Germans; some people who were under supervision carried things out of houses; the rest of the barricades were taken apart. And the city continued to burn.
We could not figure out what the purpose was in all of this. But the sound of yelling Germans and screaming people already reached us from West Station (Dworzec Zachodni). We were pushed - remaining on our feet with difficulty after the march - onto the platform, along which a freight train was riding very slowly. When it stopped, we were struck by the collective shout of our escorts. The rear ranks pushed us into the wagons. Stumbling, calling out to one another, losing our packages, we loaded ourselves into the wagons, which stood exactly in front of us.
Luckily, we were some of the first to be pushed into one of the wagons that had walls only half as high as normal. Thanks to this, we had air and we could see what was happening. Next to us, people were crammed into a high, closed freight wagon with a roof, where darkness reigned. We reached the far right corner. People were stunned, frightened as much as the crying children; they stood where they landed, people everywhere. The heavy bolts of the doors drew closed.
We stood in a silence that was full of terror and helplessness, looking questioningly at each other and at the burning city. Screams from the process of loading were reaching us, from other wagons and from platforms that were further away, on the southern side of the station. On "our" side, the northern side, Germans came onto the platform that was next to us, that had been empty up to this point; they arranged themselves along the platform. Young people, under escort, marched after them. They were our boys and girls. That was our guess.
Someone yelled out to them - they replied. We were right. The deceitful bastards. They were forcing them to disassemble the barricades and to take away the city's belongings, for which they had fought.
A freight train pulled up slowly on the tracks separating us from them. An unclosed lorry, like ours, stopped across from us. The people there were getting in calmly and efficiently. They smiled to us, talked to us, kept our spirits up. Questions and answers wove together.
- "Somewhere in the Cracow Province."
- "Is Lieutenant "Ryś' with you?"
- "Be careful during the selection in Pruszków."
- "They help, the Central Welfare Council helps, and people too."
- "Janka! Janka! Oh my God, you're here?! Try to reach Baśka!"
- "Don't allow them to send you to Germany!"
- "Here you go, take this!"
- "Majewska, Majewska from 40 Hoża Street?"
They threw bread, apples, not heeding the screams of the Germans.
- "Hey! Be careful! Girls!" - someone yelled this out to us. A ruddy girl, with two light-colored, thick braids swung her arms widely. A head of cabbage fell into my hands.
- "They got it!" - the boy who stood next to her was delighted - "Here's more!" He threw tomatoes. One fell between the wagons, but we caught as many as three and someone behind us also got some. One of the trains already began to move - theirs or ours? I did not know. We began to cry, everyone - they did and we did - even though they waved and smiled at us. We tried to do the same.
They took us away. We rode, we stopped. The sun began to set. The smell of burning, smoke, dust, people in fields in complete and clean clothes, with hair that had color - brown, black, gold, not gray. After the high embankment, which we had just passed, the train stopped. Mom allowed us to eat only one tomato and a leaf of cabbage. She explained that after such a long time of hunger, one could not eat a lot. Danka got out a bottle that had been for some medicine, in which she had kept salt all this time. Slowly, solemnly we each ate a piece of tomato and a leaf of cabbage with salt.
Again we moved forward, in sorrow, saying goodbye to the cabbage fields. A symbol of life, calmness and continuity disappeared behind us. It started to get dark. We reached a platform. Across the road, you could see people walking quickly along a red wall, and Germans standing every couple of meters. And suddenly again there was shouting, pushing, unloading people from the wagons onto the platform, onto the road and forward. We walked along the wall, through a gate that was around the bend. Some buildings, shapes, people, emerged from the darkness. After a long time, we were approaching a factory hall - not shouting or pushing anymore - in which lights were shining.
We go in. Everywhere - on the floor, on some landings - people are trying to settle down. They look for a "better" place, or like robots they drop their things where they stand, they stagger, and sit down directly on the concrete.
But after a second, we sober up. Eyes begin to see consciously, carefully. Someone stands up, looks around. There is straw; there is a better corner over there; someone carries something in a little pot.
- "Sir! Where is that from?"
- "Over there, on the left, behind the pillar. There is bread and coffee."
Some normal people are walking among us, some with and some without bands on their arms.
- "Who is injured? Who has small children?"
- "Coffee and bread to the left."
- "Soap? Is there soap?"
- "Please, stay put. Ma'am, do not move. We will bring it for you. Do you have some kind of pot?"
- "The information center is next to the entrance."
- "Yes, you can wash up over there."
- "Who is injured?"
- "Water is next to the other entrance."
With a pot in my hand, I am searching for the coffee. There it is. And an apple. Bread. Real, dark bread. People are looking in disbelief at their own hands with bread and hot coffee in them. They return to their places, getting lost and reviving themselves on the way. And on the way, despair and depression mix with kindness and awareness; happiness and composure with frenzy and helplessness. People are roaming around, looking for water, food, traces of their close ones who have been silent for weeks, and places where they just left their family. Everyone was the same - you could not even tell differences in age. Yet, even though they had been subjugated to the level of vegetation, they were trying to pull themselves together. Someone tries to take a bath, someone repacks his suitcase, someone else gets out a pillow, and another helps someone stand up. Conversations begin, stories about experiences, exchanges of information and guessing.
We made ourselves quite a good bed on the straw. Danka returned after looking around. It was "URSUS". The camp - the main one in Pruszków. She found the bandaging station and sent me there with my finger which was still in a bad state. They prepared a bandage for my wound, cleaned my wound - it hurt, but I did not even make a sound, I was that fascinated by the clean, friendly, and efficient people.
We would go outside to pee. In front of the entrance, a little ways away a huge cannon emerged from the darkness. I immediately associated it with the "cow", which had buried me on Pańska Street. A sentry walked in front of the cannon. Between the cannon and the wall of the hall, people were peeing, trying not to look at one another.
In the morning they took us out of the hall. From darkness we suddenly came out into a yard that was flooded in sunshine. And we fell into another cycle of hell. Screaming people in uniforms and these men in Tyrolean hats, who stood in front of us, were hitting us with lines.
I held on tightly to Mom, horrified, made deaf by the screaming. I knew that in just one moment something decisive would happen, I did not know what, but it was necessary to stay with Mom, even if that meant being killed. I saw an open mouth above me with a hat, and I heard Danka and Mom simultaneous screaming:
A large German pulled at Danka and pushed toward the right. A civilian in a Tyrolean hat jumped up, caught Danka by the hand.
- "Do you have a document?"
- "Yes, here it is!" - Mom waved with some scrap of paper in her hand. The man from Tyrol pushed Danka, along with us, to the left, simultaneously screaming:
- "Move it, fast, damn it!" ("Schnell, schnell psza krew!")
The yelling of Germans, the anguished shouts and crying of separated people remained behind us. They were already pushing us into wagons.
Somehow we whirled through the general commotion and stuffed ourselves into a wagon that was similar to the one from the day before, with half-sized walls, and we got to the same spot inside. From there, we were loking at what was happening in front of the hall.
They were packing more and more new groups into our wagons; they were leading more and more new groups deeper inside. They were grabbing each person by the arm, by the shoulder - wherever their hands landed - and with screams they were pushing them behind them, either to the left or to the right. Civilians with arm-bands of the Central Welfare Council or the Polish Red Cross walked around amid the Germans, or they stood vigilant off to the sides. Unexpectedly they joined into this tumult, they created additional confusion, they descended on some people and - in this chaotic boiler - screaming just like the Germans, they redirected many people to the left, toward us - including those who were already designated to the "right".
After the shock people in the wagon slowly regained their voices. Someone was crying, someone was praying. Mom put away the blessed scrap of paper, which was the result of x-rays but it had the following written on it - negative. We did not know where they were going to take us. Maybe it was worse that they had pushed us "to the left"" Yet it was known from somewhere that those "on the right" were going to camps and to forced labor - so to the Third Reich. Meanwhile, we had some chance at staying in Poland.
We headed out at dusk. Again the train switched tracks, guesses, what direction would we finally go in: Brwinów, Milanówek, Żyrardów. As we passed stations, there were gatherings of people on the platforms, Germans with their guns directed at the wagons.
Skierniewice. Again those small groups of people. When we begin to slow down, the groups disperse and people run in a line along the wagons. They stretch their hands out to us, holding something. They throw things at us randomly - bread, apples. Whoever catches something is lucky. The train stops. People give us food, they pour liquid from pitchers into dishes that are stretched out toward them, hot coffee, they exchange cups for empty ones. They run on the platform as fast as they can, in order to hand out the food as quickly as possible. People in the wagons give them pieces of paper with information, addresses, informing that a certain person is alive. The people on the platform call out that they are taking us to Kieleckie Province, that we should not worry, that we would survive, that they are coming from the West, and they are coming from the East, soon.
We move on. We were leaving the platform, with arms stretching out toward us, and guns forming a line, aimed at us.
A full moon. It shines like mad, picking out from the darkness alert and sleepy faces, crying and expressionless faces, still eyes, shining eyes, dead eyes. I munch on cabbage leaves and I breathe scented and moist air. I am sitting on something, even rather tolerably, although the iron fitting of the wagon's wall is sticking into my ribs. There is no way to sit more comfortably. Some people are standing the whole time, leaning against each other; others sit in turns. It is cold. In Skierniewice we were on the side of the wagon opposite the platform and the coffee did not reach us. Now I am holding a cup in my hand, so that in the event of another chance I can get a hot beverage. But the train passes stations where there is no one except Germans, and if the train stops then it does so only in a field. Usually at those times, either from the back or from the front, you could hear a series of shots - apparently someone was trying to run away, or it was a deterrent. Because in general, people are afraid to take risks. Although... someone probably jumped out and collapsed. If it were not for the moon, it would be easier. I hold the cup in my hand, maybe there will be a station afterall?
There it is! Radomsko! People on the platform are running like in Skierniewice, the train slows, arms are extending - our hands are empty, theirs are full. They are running quickly, with so much strength, they are blindly throwing slices of bread, apples...
- "God, a little slower!"
- "Even more."
- "It's impossible."
- "The bastards didn't stop it!"
The train hastens. The helmets of Germans - talking amongst each other indifferently - flash by next to the wagons, and with them are helplessly extended hands. They disappeared. And again it is night, the moon, fields, forests, the rattling of the train.
At daybreak, we stood on a high embankment. The moon had already gone down - darkness. You could hear a gentle knocking. Hardly visible shadows tear away from the wagon, they reach the edge of the embankment in jumps and fall over the edge. Silence. Again someone tore away from one of the wagons and disappeared into the darkness. And again. Now it is easier to see - a woman in a light-colored overcoat is pulling a child along with her. And someone else. They are disappearing behind the embankment and at the same time they are running deliriously to get further away from the train. We already had our things in our hands. Mom whispered:
- "Mother Mary will help us!"
They shot everyone. The child too. We all looked at this vacantly, without emotions, as if we were at the movies.
Mother Mary had helped us...
At dawn we arrived at the station in Częstochowa. Again the train switched tracks several times under a strict guard, in order to finally stand in line with other trains - empty trains and freight trains. Again, timid thoughts of escape showed through prayers to Mother Mary, Queen of the Crown of Poland. For some reason there are fewer Germans, ordinary people are roaming around, railwaymen. Someone familiar will be found.
But we had already had enough. We were tired of waiting; we wanted what lay ahead to simply happen. They are taking us South - maybe we will reach the mountains, and there it is like being home.
A Polish railwayman was walking along the wagon. He stopped and offered help. Mom was hesitating. Our neighbor, with a girl who was a few years old and had long braids, took advantage of the situation. He returned after a little while. Our neighbor jumped down using the buffers, and the little girl went too. We handed him bundles - the railwayman took one, he did not allow for more. They moved stealthily, hurriedly, under the wagon that was a part of the train standing on the neighboring track. On that side the railwayman took the woman by the arm, and then the three of them walked away - talking very loudly - through the passage, which was next to some kind of kiosk, and into the city.
They managed. It was a bit regretful that we had not decided to accept the railwayman's help, but maybe it was better this way?
We moved again. Headed where? To what place? Information spread through the wagon that they were taking us in the direction of the border with the Reich. But no one knows where the border is. People are desperate. During some random stopover, in broad daylight, a whole group of people, with their things and with their children, jumped out of a neighboring wagon. They were running - without hiding themselves at all - to nearby woods. Shots rang out, but somehow belatedly. The people managed to disappear into the woods. No one follows them; they do not shoot anymore - maybe because while we are on Reich territory, the Germans know that those who escape will be caught anyway?
It had begun to drizzle while we were still in Częstochowa, but we reached Szczakowa in a serious downpour. They stopped us on the tracks, along which stretched the gutter of the station building. The gutter was leaking; it was not in a condition to deal with so much rain because streams of cold water were pouring down on us, especially on those who were right next to the side of the wagon. And so it poured. And we could not do anything about it - we could not move away and we could not cover ourselves. In any case, everything had already been soaked through a while ago. So we were stuck helplessly in our places, and it continued to pour. Maybe they will unload us here?
No. We moved. Trzebinia. So afterall we were in the Cracow Province. No. The train jerked. From the front a locomotive rode by on the neighboring tracks. In its window there were the sad, tired faces of the engine driver and the assistant. I do not know exactly why there arose a general feeling of anxiety.
We moved in the opposite direction, but soon afterward we turned and headed South. Emptiness. No stations, no villages, no people. The train gathered speed, it raced through a wet forest. A ghastly clattering came bouncing off the trees. A dreadful suspicion pricked at us - around here somewhere was Auschwitz.
The train slowed down, and stopped. A railwayman walked with heavy steps through the forest - a Pole? A German? It does not matter, we must take a risk. Mom wrote Father's address at the German prisoner-of-war camp and the following information on a scrap of paper: "We are alive, we are riding toward an unknown place, Tośka." She wrapped something heavy in this piece of paper and threw it toward the person's legs. He did not notice, he walked on. Tough luck.
- "Sir, where are we?" - he did not respond.
The silent mode of transport, overcome with terror, moved forward. We had already gained speed when we saw that the railwayman had turned around.
It stopped raining. Slowly we rolled into an entirely deserted station. We were separated from the building of the station by a very wide platform that was made of sidewalk plates. Among us, complete silence reigned. The railwayman came out of a building; he was accompanied by a German, who walked a little bit of a distance away from him. He walked in the direction of the train. We fixed our gaze on him. It seemed like he wanted to say something, but no, no we did not hear him.
A locomotive rode by with the same silent railwaymen.
- "Sir, where are we?"
- "What station is this?"
Silence. Suddenly, from somewhere up front the name of the station appeared: AUSCHWITZ.
Slowly, the train moved in a wide curve through wet meadows. But it was no longer a quiet transport. Fear and despair; crying and screaming; curses and prayers. Banging on the walls from the inside of the neighboring, tall wagon - they still did not know what was happening. Families were saying goodbye; they were squeezing each other's hands tightly; they looked at each other with vacant eyes. A sudden, high-pitched scream tore through all of this. And a second one. Some were trying to reason logically - as if logic could explain the actions of the übermensch.
- "It's not possible that they would burn us all."
- "Where are the previous transports - did any of them come here, too?"
- "But so many thousands would not make it in time..."
We rode up to the platform. Half of the train had ended up past the gate, under a wooden guard tower. The other half - which included us - remained outside of the camp. We stopped. Silence fell, full of peril. Germans arranged themselves along the sides of the wagons. We waited for a sudden yelling of orders, the yapping of dogs, and the whole next cycle of hell, which would lead us to the last oven, called the CREMATORY. But nothing was happening. Past the gate, past the wires, by the left row of barracks a few prisoners in striped prison clothes were walking around.
In defiance of the obvious, I had an idiotic sense of certainty that we would not stay here. But my heart was in my throat.
- "Some transport was already here; it went straight to the oven."
- "Two days ago the Russians bombed their oven, their biggest one."
- "They don't have anywhere to burn us, we are waiting in line."
- "First they want to tire us out psychologically, the bastards."
Guesses and information were floating around, but still nothing was happening. A dull resignation overcame us. We were looking deliberately at the western sky, which was clearing up. We were waiting, prepared for the end.
And... we moved. In the opposite direction. Barracks, the gate, Germans, dogs - all of this was further and further away. Around us, it was empty; wet fields, wet bushes.
- "They will finish us off this way. They will take us away a little bit and then return again. Until we all go crazy."
- "Afterward, they'll burn us anyway."
- "Before we even reached the platform, seven people had already thrown themselves under the wheels."
- "A few people have already gone crazy."
These words are spoken calmly, without emotion, to the point.
Some little houses appeared; distant hills were before us; a town, ordinary people on the streets, who were looking at us carefully. A small, white station. We stopped. There were no Germans in sight. From the windows of buildings people were signaling to us. We did not react to them.
Again - a locomotive, silent railwaymen, and the return ride.
Again - muffled despair, sobbing, prayers.
Again - wet fields and bushes.
Again - hills, faraway; the camp, nearby.
Again - a stopover.
This time the locomotive rode very quickly. And in the opposite direction. Little houses, hills, a town, people, a small white station. We stopped. A locomotive - for who knows which time - rode by next to us, but this time the railwaymen were as if revived. People in the building were suddenly yelling something to us - but we were looking at them as if we were already in the next world, as if what they were saying no longer pertained to us. And we did not grasp what they wanted to tell us. In any case, we moved back again, in the direction of the camp.
I was observing the road carefully - it seemed like there were more houses...and trees; we had already driven quite a distance, and the wet field was not there.
- "We are going a different way" - I declared loudly.
They looked at me compassionately, someone whispered:
- "Poor child."
- "But we're really going a different way" - I insisted because I was sure - "These hills were not here, a field was."
No one was listening to me, so I said it to myself in an undertone:
- "These houses weren't here; this station was not here..."
Finally someone became aware of this.
- "She's right! There are some villages, mountains here. There were no mountains before!"
The liveliness started to grow; people were overcoming despair; they were looking around attentively.
And suddenly happiness took control of everyone - we are alive, there are mountains, people are walking around, there are houses here, the sun is setting, animals are grazing - all of this is real and maybe it pertains to us!
People were greeting each other, as if after a long time apart; they were taking out the rest of their food, offering it to their neighbors; they were crying and praying, this time from happiness. Someone congratulated Mom, that her daughters would live, that they are saved.
But for now, the saved ones did not have anything at all to eat - the cabbage had ended already a long time ago. Obviously in this situation, hunger was not an issue at all; the most important thing was that the air had the scent of mountains; nevertheless...
We stopped in Wadowice - maybe they will unload us here? No. There are no orders. But now we can wait, anyway.
There was a crowd at the station - right then an overcrowded passenger train arrived. People are leaning out of the windows, they are waving to us:
- "Take care!"
- "You're not far now!"
- "Where are they taking us?"
- "They are letting you out, maybe in Sucha, or somewhere further on."
Across from us there is a compartment labeled, "Nur für Deutsche" ("Germans only"). There are two civilians in the window, blonds getting ready to unwrap breakfast from napkins. They are interested.
- "What is this?"
- "Warsaw" - someone growls with hatred.
- "Oh, Warsaw!" - the two suddenly yell. They quickly wrap up their breakfast in the paper again, they call out, and throw the food to us:
- "We are from Czechoslovakia; we are Czechs! Here! This is for the little one!" - they check to see if I caught it. They throw a second roll. They reach behind them and get out some more food - fruits - they fling all of this toward us from an already moving train.
- "Warsaw! Warsaw!" - they yell to us, waving their arms in goodbye.
The roll was with butter and ham. It sat in my hand like a gem - we stared at it for a long time before we started eating it.
When we moved into the depths of the mountains, dusk fell. An increasing clatter of wheels made noise in the ravines; as we made turns, wet branches beat our faces. I would stretch out my arms to catch them, rip off a leaf, to know for sure that this was real. I knew that we were going into the mountains, and Bukowina was in the mountains, and there everything would be alright.
At night, during a downpour, we reached Chabówka. They opened the wagons - we could go - but where? Maybe they will still take us further, closer to Zakopane. To be on the safe side, many people scram, hurriedly grabbing their things. Others jumped out to stretch their legs, and finally, after so many days to find a toilet.
There was no toilet. The Germans do not allow us to go our own way yet. Tough - a line of oppressed, degraded people with averting eyes, stand along the platform, in streams of pouring rain...
In the morning, on a foggy, wet, dark, October day, they take us to Mszana Dolna. They opened the wagons. They ordered us to get out.
Some of the wagons went on further. We got out. People from the Central Welfare Council took us to a nearby parish house, where we were placed in rooms. There were blankets on spread out straw - maybe even on bunk beds. Even though it was day, the light was on. We settled down in some corner. Mom went to look around, to find out about something. We received hot soup, coffee, bread, and finally it was dry and we could sit normally and even lay down.
Mom returned with information that they would be sending us to country villages, to highlanders (górale), individually or in pairs. They would also find us work, if possible. It was difficult to reach Bukowina - it was unclear how trains were riding; there was a route to Nowy Sącz here, it was necessary to return to Chabówka and catch a train there to Zakopane, and then count only on one's own strength. Maybe summon up this strength and reach our own people? - but if it is worse there? The highlanders signed the "Highlander People's List" ("Góralenvolkslist") - maybe it was more dangerous there than here? Here they are somehow prepared for us - but there? Maybe there, there are more people like us, and it will be difficult for them to look after us too?
Ultimately, exhaustion and concern about future uncertainties and difficulties dominated: what will be, will be - we are staying.
That same day, trucks and carriages drove the tormented Warsaw citizens to various remote villages in mountain ravines.
We left Mszana, making a right turn from the railway tracks, along a wide road under a viaduct. A fence belonging to a huge, country manor garden stretched out on the right side; then some small houses on the left side of the river. The car ahead of us turned left, going up. We rode on, along a narrowing valley and a loudly humming river. It was getting darker by the minute. A whitened wall - still whitened - probably of a school, right next to the road, and an expansive house in the highlander style - but not like in Bukowina - was on the slope, and complete darkness fell. We were riding through this humming, wet, scented tunnel of night to people. To some people who have nothing - because what do highlanders have, in villages that have been forgotten by the world? - but they are waiting for us, to share this nothingness with us. Because we have even less than they do.
The village was called Niedźwiedź. There was a town hall, a store, a school and a church here. And in this church, Father Dean Baradziej, from the heights of the pulpit and his majesty, he said to the hardened, work-worn people, that it is necessary - precisely now - to help and welcome these citizens of Warsaw, who had leapt up to fight for Poland's freedom and had lost everything.
And he also said, that they should not be surprised and to be understanding because these people were being killed for two months, because their children, parents, brothers were being killed, because for a full two months they were in a kind of cell of death and they might be sick...they might be...as if insane.
Niedźwiedź was a village located in a place where three valleys met. My stop turned out to be the farm of Mr. Białoń - Tadeusz's brother.
I slept on a chest, between the beds of the hosts. I would wake up at 5am, when the hostess was already heating up the oven, and she would sing endlessly. I would peel potatoes, prepare grub for the cattle, clean and drive the cows and sheep out into the mountains.
I would allow the cattle to graze until dusk. I had the hostess's old coat to shield me from the cold; I had a pea bag to shield me from the rain, with which I created a kind of hood with a cape, tucking one corner inward. I would walk incessantly and sing songs in order to keep warm - songs from scouts, uprising songs, any song I could remember. While doing this, I would look in the direction of Turbacz peak, because past it was Bukowina. It seemed to me that if I really tried, I could make it there on foot - I was completely unaware of the distance.
I learned how to "call out" ("zawoływać") - in the highlander way - to neighboring mountain peaks, and I was very happy when someone responded. A few of us gave each other an earful from time to time; we lit fires to warm our hands which were tired from raking and being persistently wet; we also exchanged the most recent news from the village.
For example, the fact that Germans were in Zapałów, but Kazek jumped through a window into the garden and that was the last time they saw him; or the fact that in Konin our people went down to the village for the night, someone informed on them, there was a shooting, they beat the German to death and possibly the one who informed on them too. Of them, only one was wounded. They went to get Doctor Hozer, took him to the forest. Who knows what the Germans will do now.
From our location, from above, you could see what was happening on the road from the station to Niedźwiedź. Sometimes, Germans were traveling somewhere by car, sometimes by motorcycle with a sidecar; sometimes they straggled somewhere on foot, a small patrol. But usually they sat quietly at the manor.
In the evenings I would grind rye in a hand mill and I would break free to Mom and Danka.
Peeling potatoes - that is taters - was not my strength. I was used to a knife - a little machine with a gap along the blade. It was possible to peel precisely and safely with this. While here, I had a rather sharp but used pen knife, or a large, jagged knife. I often cut myself with the damn thing; I cut the taters into thick pieces, healthy for the cattle, a nuisance for me. I tried to emulate Grandma Białoń, who knew how to go over an entire such tater in one stroke and the peel - one long spiral - would fall into the bin. I was not able to do this. Once, while looking at a peel that was weaving quickly under Grandma's knife, I carelessly called out, delighted:
- "How cool! Just like little sausages!"
The door creaked behind me.
- "Sausages, sausages" - Mrs. Białoń's voice scraped - "You all ate sausages there, while we didn't know what sausage was. Good for you. Now you don't have anything either."
Tears were dripping onto my knife and onto the badly peeled taters.
Soon after this incident, things got better - Mom took me to her place. To her place means to Mr. Tadeusz Białoń's place. The girls, of whom the oldest took care of the youngest, the smiling hostess, and the host who was ruling judiciously over this magnificent group of women - this was a house full of life and joy. And there was Mom. Mom, who took care of the little ones, taught the older ones, and did everything that needed to be done, as if she were a member of the family.
Clearly, I joined in on all kinds of work, since I no longer grazed sheep and I did not leave home for work. I ground corn in a hand mill, but usually with one of the girls. It was lighter work, even though it was necessary to grind for 14, not for 4 mouths. We all ate the same thing in circles. Like with the other Białoń family and the hosts from above the manor - it was simply the basic food in the region - "bryja". "Bryja" was thick rye flour cooked with water, poured into one, large, clay pot and then covered in cold milk. For breakfast, for dinner, for supper. That's all; except that on Sundays, "bryja", was usually based on wheat. Sometimes for supper we had whole taters, not mashed, also with milk, but in small pots. Obviously we ate from a communal bowl - using wooden spoons carved by hand from linden trees - during long evenings after supper. Sometimes we ate boiled rutabaga - produce from the ground that was, up till that point, not well known to me. Everything tasted good to me and nothing surprised me - after barley boiled in dirty water...
Actually, pancakes made of "naked" ("gołe") potatoes was a delicacy, or pancakes made from patted flour with water, cooked straight on a metal sheet.
The evenings were most interesting. After supper time - for both people and the animals - everyone sat in the kitchen by the paraffin lamp. The little ones would draw; the slightly older children would practice writing and counting, as well as rock the little ones; the older children would knit, sew, wash clothes (in lye), they ironed using an iron on coal. Mr. Białoń would repair the horse collar, or other farm tools; Mrs. Białoń also always had some kind of work to do. And everyone took turns taking baths, and everyone listened carefully - with great interest - to Mom's stories.
Mom, who was a teacher by profession and because it was her passion - with a specialization in the Polish language and Polish history - had a lot of experience, resources of information and observations and would know how to make even rocks interested in her stories. People listened to her with bated breath, and additionally, all of what she said somehow stayed with the people who listened.
I slept with the oldest children in a room with a porch, upstairs. It was horribly cold up there; instead of glass, there were planks of wood in the windows, but we had down-feather bedding, blankets, some old sheepskins, and a bed. In truth, during times of extremely cold conditions, we could arrange ourselves in the kitchen, but then it was crowded and stuffy. And upstairs, it was also mysterious.
In the late evening, with the candle going out in the wind - or even without the wind - we would run around the house, through the garden (there was no other way to get into our room), giggling and scaring each other.
We would land upstairs and pack ourselves under all of the coverings we could find. Invented stories about ghosts and "what would be if suddenly..." flew endlessly as we waited to be warm again. Sometimes, if we managed to bring with us a burning candle, I would read a book out-loud. We found it in the attic. It did not have a beginning.
Mom tried to get a job at the local school. After all, it was necessary to try to live normally. Danka had already been working for some time in the hospital in Niedźwiedź.
The little hospital was located in a white, brick villa - it was very pretty, popularly known as "Belweder". It was built on a southern slope, which was partially in the area of "city center" of Niedźwiedź. It was the private property of Father Baradziej, who was the director of the Central Welfare Council in the area. He donated his villa to the hospital and organized the hospital himself. The doctor - the only doctor - was Dr. Hozer.
On the 7th or 8th of November, Mom and I headed out to explore Bukowina Tatrzańska.
We traveled for what seemed like an eternity in I think the fifth class. The wagons had compartments, each of which had a door without a window or did not have a door at all. Along the outside of each wagon there were ledges, and people - mostly young men - traveled by sitting on these ledges. Inside, the crowd was incredible - packages, baskets, women in head-scarves or under sheepskins would stand or kneel, some little kid was screaming, someone of course was praying, and the people on the ledges were blue from the cold and the effort to hold onto the frames of the windows and doors - they were thinking out loud "What would happen if now...". They were wary; every time the train slowed down, they were ready to jump off and disappear into the forest that came all the way up to the tracks.
We reached Poronin somewhere around noon. Then we walked to Bukowina - 12 km. It was easy to walk. The temperature was cool, the sky was clear, there was an autumn sun, familiar mountains; there were no Germans in sight. Just to be safe, we tried to walk along the slope, near the river, in the forest, rather than taking the road. After the fork in the road at Małe Ciche, we went along the trail through the forest and then Mom left me for a moment - I do not know why - and went to the closest hut. First I stood and waited calmly; then I stopped being calm, then I became very nervous; and finally I started crying. I suddenly felt forlorn, and a moment later a terrifying thought came to my mind - that Germans had caught Mom. A highlander came out of the forest, and at first I was afraid of him.
- "Hey...why are you crying? Did you lose your mom? But you don't have to cry, your mom will return soon, you know?"
I stopped crying. The highlander was speaking decently, calmly, and just the fact that he was there made me feel better. And in any case, Mom really did return soon afterward; she talked with the highlander for a little bit and we went on our way.
In the red light of the setting sun, we climbed up a steep slope to Krzyżówka. We were clearly very worn out because it was difficult to walk; we had to take breaks, and we reached the top when it was already dark.
The Chowaniec family was dumbfounded. At first we could not communicate with each other - we would start saying something, not finish the thought, start saying something else and stop again. Emotions, a feeling of surprise, fatigue, happiness, the realization that something was the same as it had been before the whole storm that had passed over us - all of this created a kind of overwhelming cloud. Finally, we ate something, we took a breath, and the story-telling began, or maybe it would be more appropriate to call it an exchange of information and a discussion about the situation, plans. We sat in the kitchen by the paraffin lamp. The fire was muttering in the oven; Mr. Chowaniec was sculpting or listening carefully, or he himself was speaking slowly and calmly. It was warm and safe.
We did not stay in Bukowina.
I was in despair; I did not understand what was going on; I felt cheated. Mom explained it to me: Bukowina is small, strangers will be noticed at once. The Germans are trying to catch Warsaw citizens; in Zakopane there had been arrests; it was unknown what the people who had signed the "Highlander People's List" ("Góralenvolkslist") could do. We could not put our friends - the highlanders - in danger. We would manage somehow. The storm would end soon.
A letter from Dad arrived in mid-November. It was a response to the card that Danka had written in German and left to luck to reach the address. The letter was bitter, helpless; the happiness that we were alive was hidden behind despair and anxiety about what would happen next.
Their opinion there, about the hierarchy of events and losses, was different from ours here. We were not "most sorrowful about the loss of mementos, documents, and photographs". Generally, in our experience, there was no room for any kind of regret. Instead, there was a sober stubbornness to live as normally as possible, despite the existing situation, and when this would all be over, to return to Warsaw.
As November turned into December, we moved into our "own place". It was an independent room in the home of a Mr. and Mrs. Cichorz.
Our room was above a cowshed, so it was rather warm there. But most importantly, it was an independent space, with a door to the vestibule, and with a very large oven with a chimney that went through the attic. Cracks in the wooden ceiling next to the chimney allowed the cold and mice to come in - at night the mice would fall directly onto the metal sheet, and then with a yelp they would rush back up. We were together now, and really there was nothing to eat, nothing to wear, nothing to burn a fire with - Mom was not yet receiving a salary - but at least we were not surviving off donated bread.
Winter was coming. We thought about this with fear. What we had taken with us during the uprising was nothing - it was mainly summer clothes. Nobody had thought that this would all take so long. In Warsaw you could hear the front - but the front was not here. The Germans were rampant, as usual. But despite everything, life in our family was becoming more and more normal. Mom was teaching at the school, and I started attending classes there.
We would both wake up while it was still dark; we would bath in cold water and we would rush through the furrow that had been treaded on by people in the snow; in addition, I had been ordered to "go along the footprints". This meant that I was supposed to walk along the holes that Mom had already made with her shoes. That way, my summer slippers would not soften. That is, they softened, but at least the snow did not touch my legs up to my ankles and even higher.
Our situation was poor, but not tragic. It became tragic on December 21st: eviction to a village called Korzenna, near Nowy Sącz. There was no cancellation; the order was as suprising as it was categorical, signed by the chairman of the Central Welfare Council - Father Baradziej.
There would not have been a problem with packing because there was not much of anything to pack, except that we were trying to take everything that we possibly could, even the straw mattress.
We reached Nowy Sącz in a monstrous crowd. Mom left Danka at the station with our things, while we both rushed to the Central Welfare Council and also to the local department of education. A nervous and short conversation took place in a run-down room; the order was immediately withdrawn and we rushed to return home. At the station, a transport was already leaving for Mszana; we all hurriedly got into the wagon, along with a crowd, the train moved and then it turned out that Danka was not with us. So a verbal relay went through the wagons - because it was impossible to walk through - Danuta Niedbalska, Danuta Niedbalska from Warsaw. Danka was not there. We reached Mszana at dusk. We got out of the crowd; Mom saw a wagon from Niedźwiedź; she put me under the care of the wagon driver; I was supposed to go to the Cichorz family and wait, while Mom would go back to look for Danka. I had sparkles before my eyes; my whole body was burning and aching.
In addition to this, it was pouring, so I was shaking from the cold and because I was wet and scared that someone would steal our things.
The Cichorz family was surprised and gave me something to eat and something hot to drink, but I did not want anything. I was under the impression that they were not pleased with our return. I curled up into a ball on the straw mattress in our cold room, and I spent the whole night keeping watch.
In the morning Mrs. Cichorz forced me to eat something and to sit for a little while in the warm kitchen. Jacek got out his crayons and paper and started drawing. But I did not allow anyone to tear me away from the window, from which you could see the road from Niedźwiedź. I continued to stare out at a bleak view, looking out for "my people".
"My people" did not arrive until night-time. Things immediately turned bright and I felt safe, which caused me to fall asleep. So the next day, I found out how they had found each other.
Having left me in the cart, Mom crammed herself into the first train that was going in the direction of Nowy Sącz. It rattled on horribly during the night, amid intermittent shootings. It finally reached Limanowa and that is where Mom saw a train that was on the neighboring track, facing Mszana. So she jumped out of her train and while running by the wagons of this train on the neighboring track, she called out for Danka - not knowing whether one of the trains would suddenly move and leave her at the Limanowa Station in the middle of the night:
- "Danuta Niedbalska, Danuta Niedbalska from Warsaw..."
- "She's here! She's here! Niedbalska? She's here!" - someone called out from one of the wagons - "Ma'am, get on!"
Unknown hands helped her jump into the train, which was already moving, and after a while she managed to reach Danka.
They reached Mszana in the morning. From there, in the wagon of a peasant boy who they met by chance on the way, a wagon that was taking something to Father Baradziej...they reached home.
The effect of the local Central Welfare Council's move was tragic. Mom got a serious glaucoma attack. As a result of this illness, she was losing sight, even though she had already had an operation on both eyes. Now the only thing that could hold back, or rather postpone the inevitable catastrophe was rest...There was no medicine, anyway.
We also lost some of our things in that damn struggle. But we were together again and under a roof.
And that was the most important thing.
Well, we had never had Christmas like this before and we would not have another like it - without a hoome, without a Christmas tree, without food.
We arranged the room somehow; we gathered brushwood; I personally grounded some rye. A new snow fell, and everything suddenly froze.
So, we have the following Christmas Eve:
2. noodles made from rye flour, sprinkled with dry poppyseeds - straight from the poppyseed plant - and sugar,
3. gall, which entered our Christmas vocabulary and menu forever.
And all of this took place on a tall bench covered with a sheet, and by candle-light. There was a plate prepared for Dad - the next holidays would be spent all together - right? The fire was crackling; we were singing Christmas carols.
I was beginning to leave home less and less frequently. Something strange was happening with me. The alleged scabies was convincing us that it was not scabies at all but some other kind of scum. The rash spread to my tongue, palate and gums. I could not really eat - it was easier to drink, especially sour beverages. The doctor returned, and he diagnosed me with inflammation of the mucous membranes in my lips, and he told me to apply a strong rinsing solution based on hydrogen peroxide and to brush with silver chlorine. I choked because of these remedies; they did not help too much; but we gave them a try.
The frost held on. The water that we withdrew from the doctor's well was covered in ice before we even reached home with it. It is true that I took breaks while carrying the water, since I could not carry the bucket when it was only three-fourths full, but it is all the same.
With Danka I would go to gather brushwood by the river. You could see what was happening on the road through the bare trees. Thanks to this we once saw Germans stopping in front of our house. We hid in bushes and waited to see what would result from this. Mom was not at home - maybe they were coming for her? For us? After a while, the Germans rode away. But we continued to sit in the bushes by the river for a long time. We were finally stiff and we found the courage to return.
Mom returned and the presence of the Germans was explained: they came only for food. Mrs. Cichorz had given them a sack of potatoes and something else. Mom could not accept this - the Germans were given the sack of potatoes and we were refused even a kilogram. There were more of these kinds of unpleasant experiences. Mom received a ration of two meters of wood. But it was growing in the forest. We had to chop it down, prepare it, and we really were not in the condition to do this alone. And no one - not even for half of the goods - wanted to help us, and no one did.
So, we were left with gathering brushwood at the river or with buying wood at high prices or "for something". For what?
More and more often, I was in bed because of the cold and lack of strength. Not only did the rash not disappear, it also got stronger. It was becoming more and more difficult for me to eat, and even to speak. Luckily "bryja" could be nearly fluid. I wanted to drink curdled milk or juice from sour pickles very much. But there was none. In desperation, Mom went to Father Baradziej - he gave us half a glass of sugar.
A letter from Dad arrived, containing sad holiday greetings. He could not help us at all, so he at least tried to raise our hopes. His hopes too.
By mid-January I was vegetating in bed non-stop. Mom no longer maltreated me with liquor-lye; she only covered my throat and lips with the medication, and tried to force me to eat "bryja"; there was nothing else to do. We ran out of hydrogen peroxide and the silver solution soon after this.
Horrible headaches joined in on the attack - they prevented me from doing anything other than lying down with my head covered with something.
Then things started to change. At night we could hear detonations from far away - they gained strength and occurred more often with every day. The front. Will they reach us here, in this lost place in the mountains? Or will they pass us by? What will the Germans do?
Of course, the Germans did the final despicable thing they could. They stayed at the station, and when the cannonade was very close, they went out to the trenches, which were located along the small forest on the slope of Kotelnica peak. (That is where we had looked for Christmas trees for the holidays.) So they were across from and above our homes. In order to clear their foreground, the next thing they did was to leave the trenches and burn everything that was below.
Panic arose. People began to run away from their homes, hurriedly grabbing what they could and chasing out the livestock. It was important to get going very quickly and to rush to the village. We had been on stand-by for a couple days - dressed and packed. The Cichorz family had grabbed our things and hid them along with their own things in one of the little basements behind the wood-shed, and then they blocked the door with a tree.
We were running away to the river. The bastards were shooting, so we ran while hiding between the bushes, straight across the frozen river, just to get further away, to the houses on the opposite slope of the valley. In this blue, winter day, people were rushing, falling into snow, with bundles and frightened children, looking for anything to hide behind along the way. Some figures - soldiers? guerrilla fighters? Russians? - appeared, spread apart at regular intervals, on the slope that closed the valley from the East. They quickly disappeared. Or maybe they were Germans? Are they surrounding us? The shooting faded away - what does that mean?
We climbed up onto the slope and into some hut. But we could already hear the yelling of Germans, crying, single shots. Through the window we could see people running.
- "Run away! They're on this side!"
- "The assholes are burning things! They are burning things on this side!"
- "The rutabaga fields are burning!"
We jump out of the house and run up, past barns, fences. There is smoke and fire below. A series of shots makes us fall down to the ground; another; branches fly over my head. We cling to ice-covered fallen trees in the small, shallow valley, which runs along the passage made by a frozen stream - unfortunately, perpendicular to the river. There are hunched figures around us in the snow and crevices between bare doors, on the white snow, visible to the Germans. There is not a single cricket here. So they shoot calmly, long series of shots, in response to the slightest movement, and even without it.
Silence. There are screams from the direction from which we came. Silence. Someone approached someone else; another person raised their head carefully; one person even stood up. People are conferring with one another, walking away stealthily. We also stand up. Carefully, we run to distant huts, hiding ourselves as we can along the way. For some reason, they are not shooting. A group of people is gathering. We are waiting. It is cold. We cannot burn a fire in the oven because that would draw attention to us. Supposedly, they sent girls with shaved heads to the Germans. Clearly, they somehow restrained the damn pyromaniacs, because it is still silent. People are apparently already turning out the lights, and there are no new fires in sight.
We do not know what to do next. The Germans returned to the trenches; the Russians were silent, although they were probably the figures on Witowa Peak. What are they waiting for? And ours? Why aren't they leaving the forest? They could knock them out now without much of an effort. Supposedly, Mr. Cichorz and a few highlanders went to "Priest Forest" ("Księżego lasu"), in order to find them. This dark day, whitened by the snow, does not want to end.
All around people are indifferent or even unfriendly. We cannot stand it. It looks like things are calm, so we will try to reach home. We wait for dusk - which is also long and whitened by the snow. There is no reason to wait. We must go. We walk down, slipping and falling along the narrow, well-treaded but frozen ditch, which leads to the river. They saw us. They are shooting. A rapid, high whizzing right next to my head. Danka pulls me down to the ground. Luckily, the ditch lightly turns left here, so we are lying in the snow behind the edge of the dirt. There are a few more shots. Silence. We crawl down until we are past the slope. Below there is a wooden log. In any case, an area with huts already begins here. We jump carefully behind the fence. Silence. Now we run through part of a field that is between the river and the fence of the new school in Poręba. It is safe here. The buildings hide us from everything above us, from the trenches, in darkness that has somewhat thickened. One last jump across the farm road near our stable and we will be behind the brickwork base made of huge stones.
The stable is the safest and warmest place. And the animals are there, chickens - which always makes things more lively.
We did not know what time it was. It is true that Danka had a watch, but it was too dark to see it. Time swelled and shrunk, without us knowing about it. Maybe this all lasted 10 hours, or maybe two? Maybe it is 4 in the morning, or 11 in the evening? The shooting escalated; the cows were mooing even though they received hay; they probably wanted something to drink. A highlander opened the door carefully, gathered some snow in a bucket. A series of shots tore inside sharply, along with the freezing air, and recoiled behind the walls as the door closed.
Again, some time passed. It was completely silent. The night and the sense of uncertainty had no end. The highlanders became silent in their corner.
Suddenly, our ears prick up - there is some kind of murmuring, it is coming closer and closer, a light scraping sound. From upstairs there is a light knocking, and a moment later something is scratching at the door.
- "It's me" - we hear Danka's voice. We close the door behind her.
- "I think they're coming" - she says quietly. She gets into the chicken coop with me.
Shadows are visible in the glow outside the windows; someone is dragging something that is clattering, backwards, the quiet creaking of heavy steps, a wrestling. We are waiting for... and there it is. A knocking on the window, lowered masculine voices. In any case, they are probably Germans. Slow, careful steps and this time a knocking on the door.
- "Hey!... Hey!" - a melodious whisper to someone who is further way - "Hurry! Hurry!"
- "Let's not open it" - a highlander moaned. Of course, Mom opened it.
- "Who is it?"
I think the guy must have blocked the small door entirely with his body, because it was just as dark as when the door was closed. Mom came to an understanding with the man, in Russian, in just a moment, just like in a silent film - things started to happen, although they hardly made a sound. They are bringing something inside; someone is going outside; through the window you can see people running; they bring something in again. We can hear many heavy and muffled steps above us - they were upstairs. They placed something in the middle of the stable; they were pulling something; they were assembling something, there was a quiet knocking and in a moment:
- "Liena Liena Liena... Liena Liena... Liena...Liena..."
I did not understand why this man was supposedly Russian, since he spoke in Polish, and I did not understand why he was suddenly phoning this woman named Ms. Lena. Now there were about four of them sitting in the stable: two of them were next to this device, one was leaning against the chicken coop, (he was blocking the whole door from my view), and another one was pacing non-stop outside. At one point, the guy who had been saying "Liena, Liena" suddenly became very lively; he started talking very quickly - but it was not Polish. That other one was coming in and going out more often than before. And a storm broke out in the silence that had reigned up to that point. There were shots flying around everywhere - heavy, soft, single shots and shots in series. I think a heavy machine gun (CKM) was standing in the corner of our stable - I had never heard such close shots before. And "Liena, Liena..." was piercing through all of this incessantly.
It started becoming light. We started becoming accustomed to one another. They took the heavy machine gun somewhere else, and the chit-chat began. Mom gave them some soup - they gave us some bread, which we had not eaten in a long time. After so many "metal-tasting" pancakes, this food was like heaven. The chickens awoke and started walking around. Everywhere. I moved to the roof of the chicken coop. They found Danka, and one of them - I think he was an officer - immediately started discussing with Mom about the possibility of marriage. Mom started explaining that Danka was only 17 years old, but he could not be convinced: he would take Danka and both of us to his place in Siberia, there were beautiful forests there, mountains, it would be good for us there, very good. Mom asked for our opinions. We did not want to go with him. He patted me on the head with his hand, which was as big as a loaf of bread.
As the day brightened up, we began differentiating faces and things that were outside. Right outside of the open doors, exhausted soldiers were sleeping in the snow.
The oldest of "our" Russians, with the receiver held up to his ears, was monotonously trying to reach the central station. A chicken climbed onto his shoulder.
- "Oh, and you?" - he murmured and tried to throw the chicken off. The chicken was stubborn, and the Russian said that if Mom did not speak in Russian, he would curse her out - the chicken, that is - and he continued calling his "Lena". Apparently, he felt some kind of tribal kinship with someone who knew the language in which he himself spoke. [...]
We stood on the porch of our home. Dark figures were coming down the opposite slope, on a snow-covered meadow, out of the trenches, in line formation. They were being escorted by Russian soldiers who were wearing white protective suits over their uniforms. "Our" soldiers of the Red Army and people who were coming in from all over were already waiting at the bottom. Everyone was yelling, waving their arms, exchanging greetings with strangers, with Russians, with us; everyone was suddenly kind, friendly. Something remarkably important was happening at that moment, something which was settling over us, even though we were not aware of what was actually happening.
We wanted to see those "sons of bitches" ("psiekrwie") - as the highlanders called them - close-up. They were coming down with their arms up; they were arranging themselves neatly in line, suddenly unshaven, disheveled, emaciated, with damn little eyes that were hidden at the bottom of their sunken eye sockets. Contemptuous hatred was cornering them, standing there with their arms still raised, without weapons, without belts, from bastards - like princesses into frogs, rulers turned bastards - into beggars.
- "This one! He was burning it down!"
People were standing in front of those who they could blame their pain on. They were attacking the Germans, who were guarded with difficulty by the soldiers. They recognized their own persecutors. Curses were combining with shouts of hatred, demands for immediate punishment. One more moment and they would lynch the horrified scumbags.
- "So which one?! This one?!" - a Russian officer was smacking the barrel of the gun he had unexpectedly pulled out; the prisoners were speechless from fear.
- "Yes! This one! This one!"
- "So here! Shoot!" - with a sudden motion, the officer gave the gun to the screaming highlander.
The crowd stopped moving, became silent. The highlander was already grabbing the gun and... he hesitated. He slowly put his hands into his pockets. The officer looked questioningly at the people.
- "So... Here you are?!"
No one moved. Hatred, contempt, vengeance, yes - but to kill, just like that?
The officer put the gun away; he gave the appropriate orders; the soldiers surrounded the shabby übermensch ("superior man") and headed toward the village. People joined them, directing curses and words of hatred at the "sons of bitches" ("psiekrwie"), at least in this way trying to compensate for their misery. [...]
I do not remember much about those intoxicating three months, but what I do remember is very precise. And so.
At various times, during the day or at night, but only for an hour or so, once a day, I would have a very high fever, accompanied by a very strong headache. Then I would shake from the cold and I would not have the energy to speak. Well, I could not speak. Ulcerations on my tongue would not allow me to - but they were there regardless of the fever attacks. I still wanted to drink sour beverages and I had a strange sensation that my eyes were set in tunnels in my head, very deep tunnels, as if I were looking through binoculars in the reverse direction. [...]
"There's no way to finish off the thin ones" - according to this principle, without medical attention, in defiance of biological and medical principles - I survived. The snow started to melt. I began to gather strength, so one sunny, spring, although cold day, I went with Mom, on foot, to Mszana to see a doctor. The slush was up to our ankles, a rather sharp wind was blowing, but it was easy to breathe. We made it through those 8 kilometers - with stops along the way - in a bright, even carefree mood.
The elderly doctor examined me very precisely, "he looked at my throat, he looked into my ear", and he said:
- "My God! Ma'am, why did you torment this child? This isn't scabies - it's a complete vitamin deficiency. She survived..." - he shook his head - "Brave girl. Now, she just has to eat milk, eggs, cheese. She has to get some sun and some fresh air. And let her do whatever she wants." [...]
School was not yet open, but the government was paying Mom some money. It was not much, but still. Danka helped our situation by fortunetelling - ?bet on 24" and "on 36"... Women from the countryside would come to see her, and because her cards were successful, many things turned out the way she said they would, her fame heightened, and the happy highlander women would bring eggs, milk, sometimes butter, and flour.
One time, Danka told a farmer woman from across the river her fortune - incidentally, she was from the same mountain peak where we hid from the Germans who were setting huts ablaze - "A young, dark-haired man will arrive unexpectedly, from the wide road". The woman started crying.
- "Ma'am, could it be my son! But that's impossible! It's already been two years since the Germans wrote that in the camp, typhus... I have the papers..." Danka lost her head, she started to stammer that maybe it was someone else, that it was "unexpected", so maybe she does not know, maybe.
A little while after that, I was making myself some egg yolks with sugar on the porch. It was a sunny day; it was overflowing with happiness; lilacs were bowing toward the ground, and some man broke off a branch. I was about to yell about how it was not right to do that, and so on, when the man walked onto the porch and asked for some water. He was in a worn sweater and in army pants. I observed him, as he drank from a gray little mug. Large, sad, very kind eyes were looking out from his extremely tired face. Steel eyes - they were neither blue nor gray. He left.
Toward the evening, the highlander woman from the other side of the river came by with a small basket of butter, cheese, eggs and again she was crying, but in a different way.
- "Ma'am! He returned! You said he would and he returned! Back then, he ran away from the camp, and now through Hungary, on foot, he returned! He got through so many worlds, on foot! And Ma'am, you said he would!"
Finally, all our eyes became misty, from happiness.
But it was impossible to survive off of all that, even with Mom's private lessons. Pre-harvest was approaching; the price of milk products was gradually increasing; and there we were, trying to get over a few years of starvation. We also had to attempt to get back to Warsaw. [...]
In May, we found out that the war had ended. People were passing this news on to others, faster than any newspaper could carry it, and there was no radio.
Also in May, Mom went to Warsaw. Of course, our home did not exist. Everything from the basement had been looted (I had to say goodbye to my dreams about my little suitcase). My aunt, whose home had survived, would not welcome us to stay with her, and at the Department of Education, Mom was told the following:
- "We don't need old teachers. We have new ones, our own, the kind that we want".
Upset, Mom found Mr. Bronisław Chruścicki, a teacher activist, who she had worked with throughout the course of the war, and in two ways. He was the director of classes where Mom taught, and besides this, there was a contact box in our apartment, and teachers who were hiding would spend the night at our place, sent there by Mr. Chruścicki.
Of course, Mr. Chruścicki - later the president of the Polish Teachers' Union - intervened immediately. The horrifying remark of the fierce bureaucrat was not confirmed, and within one day, Mom was appointed to work at the school in Żoliborz, located at 39 Czarneckiego Street. I was assigned to the Stefania Sempołowski Middle School on Inwalidów Plaza. Danka was assigned to Ms. Lenkowa's high school of commerce on Wojsko Polskie Avenue. And Aunt Pola Zochowska, Mom's cousin, who was a worker at town hall on Teatralny Plaza, invited us to her apartment. My aunt also lived in Żoliborz, at 29 Wojsko Polskie Avenue, in a room with a kitchen, with two adult children, but she welcomed us to stay with her. [...]
September was approaching. Our tragic yet radiant stay in the mountains was ending. We were leaving earlier - Mom and I. Danka was going to join us in two weeks. A couple days before our departure, the two from Zapałów came to visit us - I think they brought something to eat, something to take to Warsaw.
It was getting dark. We were talking to Antek by the fence, and he proposed that we stay there. We could get married there; we would not go hungry; things would be good for us. I felt afraid. The idea of staying in Niedźwiedz seemed absurd to me, though I did not know how to argue against it. I realized that I could not live anywhere else - other than in Warsaw - despite the fact that there was nothing there for us, we would be going toward the unknown, and I would miss the mountains, the forests and the sun, as well as the friends who I had become close to during those crazy times. Well, I do not know if it was regret that I felt. We had lived through so much, we had met kind people - the invaluable Ms. Kunicka, Mr. and Mrs. Białoń, Ms. Rózia with her younger and very handsome husband, who helped us multiple times, and so many other people. We had experienced many bad things, but also many good things. Was it regret that I felt?
In any case, we were leaving. [...]
We reached Warsaw in the morning. We went to Żoliborz on foot, through the canyon-like streets, in which paths had been carved with treading feet. Sometimes the path was even wide - I think there was even a pathway dug out in the direction of Żoliborz. Tracks were visible in some places, and I could not understand why the trams did not ride if there were tracks for them to use. We could not catch on to which streets we were passing, on which streets we were walking, and the ghetto did not have any streets at all. But it stuck out in between the stumps of the "Cedergren" - Polish Telephone Joint-stock Company (PAST) buildings. Suddenly our home stood before my eyes so perfectly that I wanted to go there. I considered it impossible for it to not be there. The PAST building was there, so our home had to be there too.
Żoliborz - under the sun, from far away, with all its buildings and greenery - looked like the edge of the sea. We were slowly but continuously approaching our destination, even though our legs did not want to walk anymore.
Aunt Pola greeted us very warmly. It was quiet and finally we were not riding or walking. The first thing we did was, of course, sleep. Afterwards...
Afterwards, there were six of us living in that room with the kitchen - which does not include the people in need, who would sleep there temporarily from time to time. And so we lived somehow. We slept - the three of us - on the backless sofa bed which stood in the room; we would spread out some other bedding too; and my aunt would sleep in the kitchen. Leszek was always traveling, so he was not home very often; then someone could sleep on the narrow couch.
I went to middle school - I had straight-A's on my report card from sixth grade, so I did not have to take any exams. I was accepted into Sempolaneum, into the French class - IB.
Danka arrived. I returned from school and ran to greet her, but I became afraid. She was on the mattress, her eyes half-open. I had seen too much to not think that she was dead. Of course, she was alive, but she was so exhausted that she was sleeping with her eyes open. [...]
And that is how the first phase of normalization of our postwar lives began. Things were difficult, but all right.
I joined the Polish Scouts, which made me very proud. It was a goal I pursued from the moment I returned to Warsaw. I was in the Eighth Warsaw Women's Scouting Troop, I had a gray uniform of course, a brown scarf with a golden ribbon around the edges, which I had made myself, and a forage cap with the Scout badge, which I had searched for with great difficulties, all over City Center, getting lost a few times. I attended Scout meetings, gatherings around the fireplace, bonfires; I learned about independence, resourcefulness, and cooperation skills. I made the pledge in December and to this day, I am faithful to it. You make that kind of pledge once in your life.
I also took ballet classes, which were organized by the Polish Red Cross, I am not sure why. Ms. Grafczyńska was our teacher, a woman with an immense amount of knowledge, familiarity with the subject area, and a great talent for teaching. I was seen as a student with a great future ahead of her. The "arm motions" I made were excellent, I had a great sense of rhythm and so on. I wanted to dance as leaves and swans and other such things, but for a while, since I was the tallest, I danced as the boy in the lead couple. That was difficult - they tried to make me feel better - but I was very unhappy about it. [...]
In the evenings, after I would complete my homework, if I did not have meetings to attend, I would prepare cigarettes with Leszek. The hand-operated machine was not complicated, but it required precision. Of course, I would rip the cigarette paper, it would tear apart sometimes, the tobacco would spill, but in the end, I learned how to do it right. In the longer term, we did not have any shoes to walk in. Given the situation, UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) packages were a huge help. Right when winter was approaching, we received a package which contained black canvas slippers, with the toe end and heals made out of a material similar to leather. Or maybe it really was leather. These slippers were popularly known as "trumniaki" ("caskets"). So, we walked around in these "caskets" and we even considered them elegant.
On days when I had Scout meetings, I wore my uniform, but my basic clothes consisted of a gray apron, which covered all the imperfections underneath. In the IB class, Krysia Hörnig had the prettiest dress - which I was jealous of, and I later found out the whole class was too. It was a brown, a light brown dress with a bell-shaped bottom, and with fur around the neck, arms and bottom hem. Maybe this was Krysia's only good outfit, but in our eyes, she might as well have been an aristocrat, if not a princess from some fairytale. [...]
During the winter, Aunt Pola became sick - with cancer.
Again, something seemed impossible to me: to die from an "illness?" From war, from shootings, yes, but from an illness? My aunt stayed in bed in the kitchen. Lidka and Mom would take turns sitting by her. One evening, Mom called me to the kitchen. I wanted to talk with my aunt, but she could not speak. She just patted me on the head, smiled, a pang of pain overcame her, and Lidka grabbed for the syringe.
I really did not want my Aunt to go away. She was good, she had welcomed us all when no one else would. But this was not about gratitude; it was something else, which I did not know how to name. And so I rebelled - a protest against something you have no control over.
After a couple days, in the evening, my aunt wanted to go somewhere. Mom and Lidka supported her, they tried to help her walk, they tried to tell her gently that it would be better for her to stay in bed. My aunt slipped by the door! Mom and Lidka got her back into bed. They closed the door. During the night, Mom went into the room. My aunt... she was suffering so much. It would be better for her not to suffer anymore. At the time, I still did not understand that, I protested against it, though I knew that Mom had to be right. [...]
Around June 1946, the second phase of normalization began - we got our own room (nearby the family) in the building of the Polish Teachers' Union, at 6 Krechowiecka Street. It was luxury compared to what had come before. The Łopiński family was very decent and kind. We lived in harmony for a couple years; we went through many good and bad moments. For example, for the first time in my life, I experienced the birth of a child, which took place in the neighboring room, and made a huge impression on me. The little one was named Jadwiga; we called her Jagoda. When she had already grown into a young girl, she would come visit us frequently. Though, it would be more accurate to say she came to visit our cat, which was small, with patches. Danka had gotten it from a wooden tub of lime at some construction site. Some horns were hanging in the hallway of the large apartment - it was unclear whose hunting trophy they were. Apparently, one day, little Jagoda got scared of them, and someone explained to her that there was not need to be afraid because while leaving our room, she would take another person by the hand and while walking through the door, she would calmly repeat: "Don't be afraid of the horns. Don't be afraid of the horns". I probably do not have to add that this saying entered our family vocabulary.
Packages from the UNRRA continued saving us. Of their contents, I liked the hard, bitter chocolate the most. But there were many different things inside - some of the contents have survived to this day. In one of my drawers, for example, a decorative pin for bows is tumbling around, a toothbrush that is still suitable for use, a brush for dolls which works very well as a brush for my eyelashes! Clearly, the main thing, of the most essential worth, was food - for example, flour which was gooey like gum, and clothes, in addition to a number of other useful things.
A surprise was waiting for us - Dad! In a beret of the Władysław Anders army, with "POLANDEM" on his arm. Dad, whom I would address as "Sir" for a couple weeks...
And after a month spent at another camp, this time in Świder, school began again - assemblies, ballet, swimming, piano lessons, an extra English course at the YMCA. I do not know how I fit all that into the days. But it fit somehow.
My parents worked; Danka finished the high school of commerce and went to the Warsaw School of Economics (Szkoła Główna Handlowa, SGH); in a word, normal life.
And a big adventure forced its way into the normal course of events. In March 1947, I went to Denmark for three months, thanks to a campaign called "RED BARNET" ("Save the Children"), which was organized by the Scandinavian countries.
The organization "RED BARNET" planned trips for children living in European countries, especially those that had been affected by the war - mainly Polish children - trips that lasted for some time and had the goal of nourishment and psychological regeneration. The children would travel to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, to individual families, and it would happen sometimes that the children who no longer had their own families would stay on with their host families, either by being adopted or through other such arrangements. There were also a few periods that were organized along the lines of Polish Scout camps, but I was with my family then.
My stay there also had certain shadowy moments, but it is difficult to overstate the importance of my stay. It was the encounter of a hurt child - who did not have a childhood, who had matured eight years too early, who had experiences which most adults who led normal lives did not have - with a community where a child was supposed to play hand ball, not shoot with detonators; where a child was supposed to count goals, not duds; where holiday greetings sounded like this: "May you be healthy" and not like this: "May we live to see the next holidays." Over there, a storm was a storm - it was not associated with death, with bombings. Over there, an airplane flying overhead did not induce an immediate impulse to run away to the basement. We would sleep during storms; at most, we would close the windows; and when an airplane flew by, we would look up to find the shining figure in the blue sky and wonder where it was flying to.
And that is why Scandinavia, in general, and Denmark, in particular, will always be for me a synonym for the greatest, selfless, good which cannot be overstated.
This second period of normalization lasted until 1949, when we got an apartment that was part of the Warsaw Housing Association (WSM) in Mokotów. We had two rooms, with a kitchen, a bathroom and a balcony. It was a sunny and dry apartment.
We had our home in Warsaw again.
And even though we started out with nothing, we were at home.
What remained of that life, from before the Exodus, was:
Mom's worn fur,
Mom's shirt with a Ukrainian pattern, a shawl made out of gray-pink wool, which Mom had made with a crochet-hook, back before she was married, a highlander belt made out of leather with a buckle that was made by old Bigos in Bukowina.
I personally had a "Jerzyk" - a doll wrapped in a padded blanket, who moves her head and hands when you put your right hand finger inside her. I never parted with her and for all those years she served as my small pillow.
Danka had a watch of the brand "Zenith", which she received in 1939 after finishing sixth grade.
And we had a few photographs, which were saved, thanks to the fact that we sent them to Dad to the officer prisoner-of-war camp.
The annex to our home stood burned down for a couple years, even when the new Marszałkowska Street already existed, with trams riding along it. A bomb had torn it apart, perpendicularly; this so-called "little room" ("pokoik") of our apartment - with its pink wall and traces of the Michelangelo reproduction that had hung there for many years - looked out over Marszałkowska Street, directly onto the PAST building, and it conjured memories, sorrow, longing and bitterness.