It isn't easy to write about those turbulent years that went by then. It isn't easy to resurrect the people, the pictures in my imagination, recreate the whole climate and scenarios of those times. I tried it many times and somehow always put down my pen with a sigh of helplessness. How to write about the experiences that you like to forget?
But memories follow you around everywhere throughout your life and you cannot shake them off. Sometimes through the darkness of the sleepless night people that I knew then, that I suffered with, fought with, drank with, shared the most scary experiences with and the most intimate thoughts come and stand by so vivid in my imagination that I have an impression that the image is reality. Through the " mind's eyes" I see the places where we went by, the faces of people, they come out of the darkness and seem to be so close...
There are two
reasons for writing this memoirs: one, the most important, is that I want
you, my dear children, to know more about the past of your parents, how and
what we went through before we found peace and security and freedom in this new
country of ours. The other is equally important. There has been a
lot written about atrocities committed on the Jews during the WWII. There
is a good reason for these writings. Things like that cannot be ever
repeated again. The crimes that the Nazis did are hair raising. I
do not believe in a communal responsibility but in this case the entire German
nation should take the blame. They simply did not do anything to prevent
it. They were happy to profit from the fruits of the conquests of the
other nations and were dancing on the their graves. But there were other
holocausts that nobody wants to talk about. Think of the thousands of
Gypsies that were murdered by the Nazis. Nobody speaks for them.
And think about millions of Poles that were killed by both Germans and
But this is exactly why I am writing about. I want to give a testimony of what happened and how did it happen.
As you know, there
was a lot of talk about the World War II in our house. This is
understandable. Under "normal" conditions, a soldier, or a
civilian, if he or she was not permanently disabled, after the war could return
to his or her previous environment and resume a normal life. In our case
it was different. We did not have any place to go to. There was no place
to go to. Our towns were all ruined or in a foreign country, under
a regime that we knew only too well. When I saw for the first time
the ruins of
Both of us, your mother and I were deported when we were practically children: your mother at the age of 10 and I at the age of almost 16 (I was deported on June 21, 1941 and my birthday is on July 25). The war ended in 1945 but we did not resume our "normal" lives for a long time due to the fact that we were in various camps as "displaced persons." So, we went through our childhood, teens, and even early adulthood being tossed by the circumstances all over the world. That certainly left its trace on our lives later.
Your mother was
deported with her mother and brother to
I was deported on
That is the overview of our times during the war. No wonder that the war stays with us for the rest of our lives and you hear about it all the time. But I am supposed to give you a more detailed account of the events, so it is time to begin.
This is going to be unrehearsed tale of our past, the most factual that I can make it, without exaggeration, just the way it was. Perhaps we will get bored by it but sometimes maybe you will take your time and go through these pages. Well where shall I start from? My childhood?
My childhood was
relatively happy. My father a railroad physician, wasn't very rich, but
at same time we were not very poor. I could say that we were in the
category of middle class by the contemporary
Our house was loaded
with all kinds of books: medical, (my mother was a graduate midwife) historical
etc. I was an avid reader. At age 10 I started to devour books.
Sometimes I would get a heavy volume (400 pages) from the library and in
one afternoon and evening I would finish it. I developed a passion for
all kinds of books and different countries. By the age of 14 I was
familiar with classical literature of
In summer September
1939, we knew that the war with
I don't think that I realized the meaning of what was happening. I didn't appreciate the vast number of people will that be affected by the war. Somehow, it did not come to my consciousness. The grownups were talking about it and I could see that they were very concerned about it but I just didn't appreciate this.
Soon after the first
days of September things started to happen. We could see that the war
wasn't going well for
I think it was on the tenth or twelfth of September that we stayed over night in one house in the field when it was evident that the war was close. We could hear firing of machine guns, throughout the night. Next morning we went home and the Germans were already in the area. The Germans didn't stay in Brzesc long. On the seventeenth of September the first Soviet troops entered the city and the German troops retreated beyond the Bug river.
UNDER RUSSIAN OCCUPATION
The changes took place gradually but steadily. First two of our four room apartment were taken up by a Russian doctor who came and took over the dispensary and the clinic. Then my father started to complain that the new doctor in charge is harassing him for all kinds of reasons. Then finally the confrontation came when she asked my father to carry coal from the truck to the shed. My father considered this kind of a job below his professional status and refused. He was dismissed for insubordination. We moved to a small, one room apartment which my parents rented. At that time there was only three of us: my parents and myself. I really jumped ahead. Let's start from the beginning.
Soon after the
Russians entered Brzesc, the remnants of Polish army began to wander around the
town. It was a pitiful sight. Soldiers in their uniforms, unshaven,
hungry, confused, not knowing where to go and what to do with themselves, were
wondering all over the area, asking for food, directions, information. I
will never forget on Sunday, when we were coming out of the church, a soldier
crying in front of the people saying that he was ashamed of what he was doing
but he was hungry and had to overcome his pride and asked for food.
Wladek, who was with me, invited him to come to our house, we fed him, gave him
some food on his way and he left. This was very depressing. But before
the war my father foreseeing the future, that there will be scarcity of food,
bought two big sacks of flour; one white and the other rye. This was our
main diet: "kluski" three times a day. My mother designated one
room as a "hostel" for the refugees civilians or soldiers. Many
a time somebody went to town to get something either for my parents or my
brother or sister and came in a company of a stranger: guest for the
night. How many people went through our house I don't know but I am sure
that there were many. There were all kinds of people: refugees from
western parts of
In the "hostel- room" there were mattresses made of straw on the floor and the "guests" were sleeping one next to the other. Three times a day there was a feeding time: members of the family were treated the same way as the guests in the "hostel": "kluski" (dumplings) with milk. Mother had a big kettle and it was like in the army ‑ everybody had to stay in line to get his fill.
Meantime trains loaded with ex‑Polish soldiers captured by the Russians were passing through Brzesc towards east. On such occasions, my father would put a red cross armband on his jacket and used to go through the trains to see if there were sick or wounded. Usually he was accompanied by a Russian soldier. Sometimes, when the soldier would not see or was further away my father would leave the door open and a group of railroad men were waiting. At an opportune moment they would let the prisoners out. Everything was arranged, there were places where they could go to be fed and given directions where to go. I wanted go with my father on his visits to the trains but he never let me.
One night somebody knocked at the door. My father answered: it was a railroad man. He said that Wladek, who was called up as a reserve lieutenant to the army, is at the Central Station and sent a message to us that he was being held prisoner and he wants to see us. I should mention, that three members of our family were called up: Wladek, Piotrek and Adam, Andzia's husband. We, my mother, father and everybody asked of any news about any of them. One soldier said that he saw Lt. Lipinski, who was heavily wounded, dying and was calling others to kill him because he could not stand the pain any longer. Of course everybody in our family was very upset and we had Wladek for dead. So when the railroad man reported that Wladek was alive and well we were all stirred up. We were all happy to know that he is alive, but there was a concern how to get him out of there. It was about 2:00 AM. We knew that the Russians are taking our soldiers, specially officers, to prison camps in Siberia. At that time we did not know what fate was awaiting them (the mass graves in Katyn forests were discovered in 1943), but we knew that they are not going to have a good time there. My father and Janka, took quickly some food, warm clothing and went to the Central Station to give Wladek at least something for his long journey to Russia. When they arrived there, they found out that the railroad men went to the Russian Officer‑in‑Charge of the Station and pleaded with him that because my father was so good to the working class, railroad employees etc., to release his son, Wladek, out to freedom. When my father asked the Russian to allow him to see his son who is a prisoner of war the Russian answered: "Because you supported the working people I will free your son". My father didn't believe his ears... They quickly took Wladek with him home. There was a lot of crying (of joy of course) kissing and embracing. We welcomed him as if he was coming from the grave.
About two days later a man came to our house. It was Wladek schoolmate whom he met while being taken prisoner: Lt. Jerzy Roszkowski. It just happen that when Wladek and Janka were going to "gimmazjum" i.e., high school, Jerzy Roszkowski and his brother were their classmates. So our families knew each other well. It was in town Lomza. Now, when Wladek met him, while they were held at the Brzesc Central station, he told him that my father is a railroad physician, gave him our address and told him that if he can somehow escape from the Russians he will be taken care of. So, there he was. But what a sight!... He was all covered with the ashes. He had a pair of horseback riding pants which were too tight, so he somehow put several safety pins in his fly to keep his pants on. His underwear was sticking out from his fly in a very embarrassing way. His jacket made out of a kind that diplomats used to wear with the tails cut off. On the head he had a beret and he also had some coat. It was a pitiful sight. Of course, first he got a thorough scrubbing and washing and then he told his story: he escaped from the column of the prisoners and went to the first house he could find and said: "I am a Polish officer, please help me". It happened that he came to a baker who hid him in one of the ovens that was full of ashes. It was still hot but he did not complain. He spent there one night and in the morning Russian soldiers came for bread. He heard them talking but they did not look inside the oven. The baker gave him some clothing and this was it.
As soon as the matters have settled somehow Wladek and Jerzy Roszkowski started to plan their journey to France, where as the news were reaching us, the volunteers from all over the world were organizing Polish army. Wladek's situation under the Reds was very dangerous, because as a judge he was considered to be an enemy of the proletariat. As soon as they would find out about his position he would be arrested and that would be the end of him. We were waiting all the time for England and France to start some fighting with the Germans but as history named it right, this was the period of "sitz-krieg" or sitting war. They didn't move one finger against the Krautzes, they were just sitting and watching Poland going to hell.
Well, Wladek and Jerzy were planning to make their way through Romania, Yugoslavia, Italy and to France. Since Jerzy's wife was from the region of Poland (Lwów) which was near the Romanian border, they agreed that he will go there first and find out through his in-laws what is the best way to cross the border to Romania. Romania at this time was neutral country, not occupied by the Germans. After doing all the preparations he was going to notify Wladek and they were to go together on their way to France.
So, in late October he left. Several weeks passed it was already getting cold and Wladek was concerned that in winter it will be more difficult to cross the border, through Carpathian Mountains to Romania. Since no news were coming from Jerzy, Wladek decided to go to Warsaw first, and then on his own to Hungary or Romania and then to France. So he left, it must have ben already in November. Then, there was a terrible period of waiting and then, I remember, just about Christmas, a telegram came in French: "Je suis en bon sante, je vous salute‑ Wladek". (I am in good health, I salute you, Wladek). I will never forget this text. We still didn't know where was it sent from ‑ France or anywhere else, but at least we knew that he was well and alive. Years later, when I met him in England, he told me that he went to Warsaw, found that his apartment was intact, and went through the "green frontier" (illegally) to Hungary. There he was interned, as thousands of other Polish refugees. But the Polish government in exile from France, arranged with the Hungarian authorities that there were ways to smuggle Polish officers through Yugoslavia and Italy to France. There, he tried to join the Polish forces, but since France was at that time on the verge of collapse, he was taken by a British ship to England and he joined the Polish Paratroop Brigade there.
Meanwhile, Tadek was going to the Technical High School. Something was happening that we didn't quite understand. Suddenly, some strange guys started to come to visit him, he started to arrange "parties" that nobody of the household was allowed to attend; it looked strange. One time, I remember, he came to the dinning room, took a crucifix from the wall and went back to the other room where the "party" was in progress. Another time he asked me to stay outside of the house and report to him if there was anybody hanging around while they had a "party". I realized that something is going on and wanted to get in the act but Tadek had his lips sealed and they didn't let me know anything. But soon other things took place: Tadek's friends started to be arrested by the Reds in great numbers. It was evident that somebody in the Technical High school did denounce to the Soviets about the "parties" which was nothing else but a poorly camouflaged anti-Soviet organization. Soon the news broke that it was a Soviet provocation: they sent somebody to organize these boys and then when they had them all accounted for they picked them out like chicken. At that time my father realized that there is no time to lose; he took Tadek on a side and had "man-to-man" talk. Tadek confessed that he participated in an organization and he was pretty scared that any night he himself could be arrested. My parents decided to send him to our relatives in Lomza. Sure enough, two or three nights after Tadek left, the ring at the door rang and a voice of one of our family friends asked to open the door. When my father opened the door there were three Soviets: an officer and two soldiers, NKVD. NKVD stands for Narodnyj Commissariat of Vnutrennych Diel, The National Commissariat of Internal Affairs. This was the precursor of the KGB, the most hated and feared military police. In order to have an access to somebody's home they used the following trick: take somebody whom the prospective arrestee would trust and ask him to go with them, to knock on the door etc. This way they did not cause any suspicion that they are coming to arrest anybody and avoid the risk that he or she could escape. In our case they took along one of our friends, a railroad employee. They asked where is Tadek‑ my father, of course, told them that he didn't know:‑
"You know, this young generation, they come and go whenever they please."
Meanwhile, when they were at our house, they searched the apartment, took a camera, some silver coins and left. Fortunately, they didn't find our radio which was hidden in a wardrobe behind linens which we used to listen to the BBC from London.
They asked my father to go with them, we already thought that he is going for good. But after about five hours he came back. They questioned him about Tadek, asked all kinds of questions, asked to spy on the others etc. I think that the fact that my father had good reputation among railroad workers contributed to the relatively good treatment that he received from the Soviets. After that the Soviets called up father couple of times for investigation but always let him go after couple of hours. At that time Wladek was already gone so we were with my parents, Andzia with Leszek and her baby, Ziutek, and my sister Janka.
One morning Anna's husband came. He was captured by the Soviets but somehow as a noncommissioned officer (he was a sergeant) he was released. They were mainly after the officers, whom they were going to kill later on (see Murder of the Katyn Forest). Soon after Adam (Andzia's husband) came they left for Lomza where they were living before the war.
Meanwhile, the Germans were accepting the refugees from the central part of Poland which was now General Government, i.e., sort of German colony. The western part of Poland i.e., Slask, Poznan and Pomorze were incorporated into the Reich. The central part of Poland, west of the river Bug and east of the three above provinces were General Government. The eastern Poland, east of the river Bug, was occupied by the Russians.
Soon the news came of the repressions in the General Government started and the atrocities beyond description. That is well documented in books of history of the WWII, so I will skip it here. In spite of that, Tadek, Janka, and Andzia with her children and husband decided to go on the German side. To be eligible for repatriation it was necessary to demonstrate that one was a "Volksdeutch", i.e., of German origin, or that he or she was a resident of some place presently under German occupation. Tadek got false papers as Andrzej Rzemek. Rzemek was a student in Lomza but lived before the war in Myszyniec, where I was born, town which was now under Germans. Jerzy Roszkowski's brother, teacher at Lomza high school, stole his papers for Tadek from the files. The transfer point for the repatriation to the German occupation was in Brzesc, so we had an opportunity to see them go "on the other side". We all went to the Brzesc Central, where they were waiting for transportation to Warsaw and spent with them the few precious hours before their departure. We did not know that next time we see each other will be after the war. For fear of being recognized by somebody in Brzesc (he was on "wanted list" Tadek dyed his hair, and tried to avoid public exposure as much as possible. Tadek wrote from Warsaw later, that one of the Russian officials in Brzesc was his ex-class mate. He apparently recognized him but only smiled and let him go. They all left and I remained with my parents. Soon after that my father was dismissed from work and we moved to a single room apartment as I mentioned earlier.
That year, 1939/40, I didn't go to school. Somehow, everything was disorganized and I missed that year. We always waited that something is going to change, that France and England will finally start fighting, that everything will be O.K. But nothing changed. We listened to the news from the BBC, about the Battle of Britain, about the war between Finland and the Soviets and of course about German atrocities in Poland. Everybody was concerned about the ours in Warsaw.
Meanwhile, the Russians started mass deportations of Poles to Siberia. In the first group went all settlers farmers who were given land in the eastern part of Poland after the World War I. Usually they were veterans of the World War I or the veterans of the 1919/20 war with the Soviets when they invaded Poland and then were defeated in 1920.
The first transports left for Siberia in February 1940. Next mass deportation was in April 1940 and that is when your mother was deported with Babcia and Bebe. Dziadzia Kupczyk fled the Russians to Latvia and was there arrested by the Reds when they invaded that country. I don't know if there were any other transports of Poles to Siberia in 1940/41. As I mentioned before, sometime in 1940, my father was discharged from work and we moved to a small apartment in Brzesc. My father's financial situation wasn't that bad because many railroad men knowing my father called him rather than the Russian woman doctors and of course they paid him. So my father was very busy. I don't know how long could this last, because in Soviet Russia there was no such thing as private practice, but at least when we were in Poland we were not hungry.
In 1940/41 session I started to go to school. The school was reorganized in the Soviet fashion, i.e., they made 10 grades instead of our 6‑elementary, 4 years of junior and 2 years of "lyceum" (senior) high school. In spite of the fact that I finished first year of "gimnazjum" (or 6th grade) they put me again in the 6th grade of the Soviet school. I considered that this was below my status of an ex‑high school student but there was nothing I could do. The teaching was in Polish with the Polish teachers, but they introduced Russian language, German language (Germany were Soviet's ally) and the syllabus was modeled upon the schools in Russia. I remember the history was taught by an officer of NKVD, of Polish origin, hundred percent communist. In our history lesson every historic event was due to a struggle of classes. Everything was as Marks and Engels predicted or set out in their "Capital". This was my first encounter with the communist line of thinking. Of course, everything was according to the Russian rules. I remember, on the Easter Monday, usually a holiday in Polish schools as well as offices and in general, day free of work we had to go to school. As a sign of our protest, somebody brought a bottle of vodka and during the lunch time we drunk it. The teachers, Polish teachers, understood. We used to get together with Heniek Olendzki and Zbyszek Pietras and talk about the times when we will have a chance to fight the Reds, chase them out of our country.
When I think about these times I cannot help not to smile. These were such childish dreams. But then we took them very seriously and if something did happen that we had a chance to fight I am sure we would go.
In school there was heavy anti-religious propaganda. Every so often we had to go to those meetings where they ridiculed religion in every possible way. In place of religion the Soviets would substitute their communism. They used such tricks as for example they would ask a small child:
"Do you want a candy?"
"Yes, I do" - child would say
Soviet: "Ask God to give you some".
Of course, there was no candy.
The Soviet would then say : "Well, now ask Comrade Stalin for a candy."
Naturally, when the child asked Comrade Stalin for a candy it would get it.
They ridiculed the clergy, the liturgy, everything that was connected with religion. Of course, we did not want to go to these meetings but they were mandatory.
We were indoctrinated in the communist theory every day. Now, in perspective of time I can understand why when Stalin died people were hysterical with grief in spite of being aware of the atrocities that were committed by the regime. No matter how incredible it can be, anybody can be indoctrinated in believing into something if it is repeated long enough. The same could be observed in Germany. There, the entire nation of "civilized" people, who produced such outstanding giants of humanity as Beethoven and Goethe, was lead to believe that they were the master race. And yet, they could commit crimes against other human beings that are beyond the wildest imagination. And the communist theory looks great on paper. Marx combined Hegel's historical dialectic with a materialist view of reality. Hegel philosophy was based on historical dialectic which postulates that every condition contains a contradiction, which evolution must resolve by a reconciling unity. So, all historical events, any political system produces a contradiction which corrodes it. Eventually, the final outcome will result in a combination of the two. In other words, a thesis combines with an anti-thesis to result in a synthesis. Marx and Engels applied this philosophy to the economic evolution. Everything is a result of a struggle of classes. Thus, a social system such as capitalism creates out of itself socialism which will destroy it. Out of this struggle a new system will emerge - communism. In theory it sounds great; it's the practice that makes it rotten. Marx made several mistakes: he could not predict that the working class will organize in trade unions and will start negotiate their working conditions with the management. Thus in a way the employees became part of the employers. He could not foresee that his theory will be put in practice in the most backward country in Europe, Russia. Any social system, except dictatorial, requires social discipline and social awareness. In Russia, where people were under tyranny of the tsars for centuries there was none of either, and the attractive sounding political system such as communism quickly degenerated into dictatorship. Finally, one of the basic principles of any communal society is "take what you need, give what you can." It sounds very good from the humanistic point of view. Realities of life indicate that people are people and the opposite is closer to the truth. Well, so much for that.
Surrender of France in June 1940 was a terrible blow to all of us. I couldn't understand why Germany could conquer France on which we put all our hopes. Of course, I was a product of Polish propaganda which was indoctrinating us into belief that Germany is run by a bunch of adventurers, a country without natural resources and soon will have to surrender overwhelmed by such powers as Poland, France and England. Nobody said to us that our (Polish) 42 regiments of cavalry are useless against German panzer divisions. They were good for parades but not for modern warfare. The heroic charges of the lancers could be ridiculed as they were in the foreign literature, except that they were deadly in the terrible harvest of the machine guns and the armor against the flesh of the poor cavalry men. It is not true that the lancers were charging against the tanks. I know that this is what was written about in foreign press. The truth was that a detachment of cavalry was surrounded by Germans. They wanted to break out and according to their intelligence there were not supposed to be any German tanks in that area. To their surprise several German tanks appeared. Of course, they had heavy losses. But the courage of Polish soldiers sometimes bordering with insanity was not only a legend. Polish soldiers fought according to their tradition. What failed them perhaps was the wisdom of the upper echelon of the command which left the country naked in the hour of danger without having a perspective for the modern warfare. But this was not the first time in the history of mankind and probably not the last one that the footman is left by himself while his commanders run away. The Polish command didn't run away but didn't prepare the country in a way in which She could defend herself.
So this was the situation by the summer of 1941: everything seemed to be quiet and peaceful, and yet, it was evident that the two colossi, Germany and Russia, will jump to each other's throat. There were indications that something is going to happen. We were living near to the demarcation line between Russia and Germany and were able to observe increased activity of the army, frequent German planes over Russian territory, and in general there was a feeling of nervousness in the air. Yet, trains full of all kinds of goods, grain, and other provisions were going to Germany every day. Stalin wanted to have Germans on his side at all costs.
This was also the time when my big odyssey started. It was June 21, 1941.
They came at about 2:30 am, an officer of NKVD and two privates. This time they didn't have anybody to ask to answer the door: just knocked and came in. I remember, my mother woke me up and immediately I realized what is going on. They told us to take what we needed and be ready in one hour. It was night June 19/20, 1941.
We were packing our belongings, some potatoes, clothing, etc., when my mother asked if she can take some Valerian drops, which was the medicine for the heart. The officer refused. My mother asked if we can take the mattresses which were just made before the war. To our surprise the officer allowed to take them.. We were the last in their roundup for the night and they had some room on the truck, so he didn't object.
We packed our belongings on the truck and they took us to Brzesc Central, where on the side tracks were awaiting freight cars. There was a long freight train ready, the box cars with iron bars in the windows, and people were being brought from all over the area. Most of them were from Brzesc proper but there were also from the neighboring villages. This I could never understood: the Russians came "to free the peasants from the yoke of the Polish landlords" and yet, many of poor peasants were deported with us to Siberia. Sometimes you could see the whole families, old people, small children, etc., being arrested and deported. In our box car there was a grandfather, age 72, and two of his grandchildren 5 and 7. These two lovely children were the center of attention of the entire car. What crimes against Soviet Union did they commit in their short lives is beyond me. But this was an example of the Soviet justice. Their parents were arrested previously. It was later on that I heard that after the amnesty, the parents of these two kids came to Barnaul and found their children and soon after that their grandfather died.
Most of the families were without men: they were either arrested earlier or separated at the time of deportation. In our case, we were lucky: my father was apparently too old (at that time he was 61) to be arrested or to represent any danger to the Soviet Union. But yet, when I think about it now, I know of people in his age who were arrested or were separated from their families. I guess it was pure luck.
When I think about the reasons for selection of the deportees I get lost. There seem to be none. There were people from all walks of life: young, old, poor, rich, educated, uneducated, children (see above), grownups in other words everybody. There was a family of White Russians, two sisters with their children, their husbands have been arrested before. Their husbands (at least one of them) were lawyers. They spoke among themselves in Russian. There was a Russian Orthodox priest with his son. In our box car there was about 50 people.
We were held at the station the whole day June 21. They let us out couple of times to go to the station latrines. When I went with my father (men were taken separately from women) we looked at each other: it was easy to run away and hide ourselves in one of the railroad employees house. But mother was on the train and we did not want her to be all by herself. We went back.
People were coming to the train bringing something to eat, clothing, expressing their compassion. But the spirits were good. No despair.
During the night of 21‑22 of June 1940 we heard the train moving. We realized that it was the departure time. All of the sudden it became very quiet in the car and then somebody started to sing "Nie rzucim ziemi skad nasz ród" ("We won't forfeit the land of our roots"). Some women started to cry.
I don't think that at that time I realized the seriousness of the situation and the dramatic consequences of this moment for the rest of my life. It was somehow inconceivable to me that I will leave Poland forever. I envisioned myself returning to my native land as a grownup perhaps, after many years, to find everything the way it was when I was a boy. Just as I read in many of the historical books that I liked so much. I modeled myself right away as one of the characters from my books ‑ a pilgrim coming back to his country from far away lands after many years of absence. Years have shown that these youthful visions were only in my imagination. Realities of life proved to take my life on a completely different route.
The train was moving quickly, and by morning we realized that we were close to the prewar Russian border. I should mention that the Polish rails had a different gauge than the Russians. Poland railways were compatible with the rest of the Europe. In order to facilitate transport of goods from Russia to Germany, after the invasion, the Russians extended their type of rails to Brzesc. So, we didn't have to change our cars on our trip.
When we came to Smolensk we noticed that the station was bombed. The party of people who went to bring food to the car found out from the local Russians that there are rumors that Germans invaded the territory occupied by the Ruskis. Of course we were very glad to hear this: at last the two of our enemies will fight among themselves ‑ so much the better. After a short stop we went further inside Russia. The trip became more or less routine for the duration: once a day, at some station, or in the middle of nowhere, the guards would let us out to go to "bathroom". Women and men together, each car separately. You had to find some quiet place in the bushes to relieve yourself in some sort of a privacy. It was difficult because the guards were all over the place, bayonets on their rifles, keeping an eye on everybody. We found out later that all other box cars had a hole in the floor for sanitary purposes. Our car didn't have that vital detail. In connection with this there were terrible situations. With all fairness, I have to admit that, the guards didn't show any hostile feelings towards us. Just indifference. They must have been seasoned workers that escorted many people to the place of their exile, and we were one more. We asked them and sometimes they agreed not to close the door completely, so that we, boys could urinate when the train was in motion. Women, unfortunately, suffered terribly.
Mrs. Krynicky a “White Russian” who lived in Poland, was a character.... Everyday she would start a conversation with the guard, in her exquisite, literary Russian, asking him to let us out "for a walk", meaning to the bathroom. Invariably, he would answer: "Niet prikaza." (No order). Gradually, Mrs. Krynicky would increase her demand and her pleading would change the language so that she would curse the poor guard in words so profane that a sergeant of marines would blush. The poor soldier kept away from her. She became terror of the escort. Once a day, we would stop at some station and they would give us a "karmioshka" (food). It consisted usually of some soup or barley (kasha) if we were lucky. Once, I think in Svierdlovsk, the soup had worms so big and so many that it was decided to throw it away. That day we went to sleep hungry.
I spent many hours at the window trying to get a glimpse of the countryside. I would deny that I was curious to see it. One could see that it was not a happy land. We were passing villages with small houses with thatched roofs, people going about their daily chores seemed to be subdued, without a smile. At railroad stations there was ever present NKVD. We went through Tambov where my father was stationed during his military service before going to the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. This was the first time that I went outside of Poland. It was changing from the plains of Byelorussia, then the monotonous country of the Russia, until we came to the Ural Mountains. Then the train was going between rocks that sometimes you could reach them by hand. I think, we crossed the Volga river at Saratov. Somehow, it was our destiny that practically every generation had to go to Siberia. My father went there twice: once as a Russian soldier and then as an exile; my great grandfather died in Siberia; and I went there as an exiled. At nights I listened to the monotonous sound of the wheels, thinking that every sound takes me further and further away from my country.
Couple of times, I don't remember where, we noticed the stations bombed and the rumors about the war between Germany and Russia were confirmed. It became apparent that the Germans started the fighting on the night of our departure from Poland. We started our odyssey in the evening and they attacked in the morning on the 22 June, 1941. Only few hours of difference and how different would be my life. I don't know which would be better. Of what I heard how the Germans treated Poles, I might be grateful to the Russians for the deportation. Otherwise, I might not survive the war.
After 12 days of travel we arrived to a fair city of Barnaul. Barnaul is a capital city of the region called Altaiski Krai ‑ or Altai Country in English. It is a beautiful country. When I think of it now, it resembles Vermont or New Hampshire. Barnaul itself is situated at the foot of high Altai mountains, just like Denver, Colorado and the mountains could be seen at a distance. Only the climate is much more severe: hot summers and bitterly cold winters with plenty of snow. When we came there it was quite warm though not hot. We were brought to one of the suburbs of Barnaul "Vostochnyi Poselok" or Eastern Settlement. It was near one of the largest rivers in Russia, Ob. The Russians were rather sympathetic to us. I will never forget the scene when we were being detrained and a group of Russian women came to us and asked if we want anything to eat or drink. They told us that they were exiled from their from somewhere some 10 years ago in similar conditions. I learned later that to be exiled from one place to another was part of normal life in Russia. This was due to Stalin's paranoia and communist system.
We were put in a large hall hat was used as a "Krasnyj Ugalok", Red Corner in Russian. These were sort of a local community clubs that served as all-purpose assembly rooms, movie houses, meetings and every other purpose imaginable. Of course, every meeting or other communal activity had to be sanctified and approved by the local party boss. In Soviet Russia nothing, absolutely nothing could be done without approval of the Party. The Party, of course I am thinking about the Communist Party controlled everybody's life in every respect. Sometimes I thought why Boris Pasternak got all his honors for the "Doctor Zivago", which is a nice novel but perhaps not merits the Nobel Prize. I think that he received it for the message that he passed to the world in his book, that in spite of all the controls that the state imposed on the Russian people, in spite of all the efforts to kill existence of individual thoughts and feelings, people are still the same as before, they have a right to feel, to love, to be themselves. That is in human nature and no matter what restrictions any regime will impose on people it will never change.
We were sleeping on the floor, next to our things without any privacy whatsoever. There was about 400 people in that room sitting on our belongings. It was really a communal living. I don't remember now if food was supplied to us or we had to provide it by our own means, but I have a vague recollections of my mother cooking something on a makeshift fire outside. We were waiting for some more permanent place to live, killing our time by endless discussions about our future, politics and of course, about the situation on the Russian front. We did not know much from the press because papers were scarce and additionally, we did not trust the Soviet press.
After a few days the NKVD told us that we will occupy the temporarily built barracks while the permanent barracks, better equipped for the cold Siberian winters were being built. Those who will work will have a priority in getting accommodation in the permanent barracks. My father was not eligible to work( too old) but my mother and I volunteered. Later on they let my mother to stay home. I wanted to work with my friends who were pulling logs of wood to the river on horses but they didn't take me. NKVD said that I was too young. My job was to carry mortar to the plasterer. Every once in a while the plasterer, usually a woman, would yell at the top of her lungs "Rastvoru" (Mortar) then we would get couple of shovels of the mortar and bring it to her. They were working on the permanent barracks. The barracks consisted of a long corridor in the middle and had one room units on each side. Each room was about 8' x 12' feet. There was enough room to put two narrow beds against each wall and a small table in the middle. At the end of the corridor there was a communal kitchen. The construction of the barracks was very simple: two layers of boards 1"x 6", separated by studs, leaving about 4" between, constituted the inside and outside surfaces of walls, the space between the two layers of wooden boards was filled with wood filings which formed the insulation. The walls were plastered inside and I don't remember how they were finished outside. The whole idea was pretty practical and effective, except that after certain time the wood filings did settle down and the upper part of the structure was practically uninsulated which in Siberia was very bad idea. Anyhow, this was the housing, the Soviet style.
We went to Barnaul several times. It was not a very attractive place. Sidewalks were made of wooden boards and streets ware not paved. Practically all houses were made of wood. I don't remember any brick or reinforced concrete houses. Of course, there was a movie house which the Soviets used for propaganda purposes.
Since the wages from my work was not much (I think it was 180 rubles per month) and there was practically nothing that one could buy with these money, it was more profitable to go to the river, Ob, and fish. At least you could get something that you could eat. Ob, the second largest river in Russia after the Volga, at that time, was river full of fish. It was not unusual for me to bring home 15‑20 lb of fish or more. We had fish in every possible shape and form: fried, cooked, dried for the future winter time and so on. Also, as soon as it became known that my father was a physician, many Russians having more confidence in a Polish doctor than their own, started to ask my father to see their sick. My father, in return for the medical visits, since he was actually not licensed to practice, didn't take any money but did not refuse if they offered something to eat. So, more fish, because the Russians hardly had anything else. But soon after us there arrived a lot of Lithuanians usually rich farmers (Kulaks‑in Russian) and they brought with them large amounts of food. So, when they started to call my father he would bring home a piece of pork lard or something like that. That was valuable. My mother would save it for winter, which everybody was afraid of. Besides fish the only other sources of food were either black market or the dining hall of the Vostochnyi Poselok. At the black market one could get some potatoes that the locals would sell. Sometimes, in Barnaul, it was possible to get some meat, but that was very expensive.
We were getting 500 g. of bread per day. Under normal conditions there would be enough of other things to eat and one would not be hungry. If one gets only the bread and nothing else, 500 g. is definitely not enough. I remember, once we were fishing, and a Russian boy, who was fishing next to me asked me to take care of his "zakid". Zakid was a long string that had several hooks attached to it. One end of the string was anchored a the bank of the river and the other had a stone that was thrown into the water across the river. After some 15 minutes you pulled the zakid out of the water and usually there were several fishes on the hooks. So, this boy disappeared for a while. After ˝ hour he came back and said:
"Well, I just had my 500 grams of bread, and that's until tomorrow."
To me this simple incident symbolized the quiet resignation with which Russian people accepted their fate in times of war. It is so typical to accept their fortunes and misfortunes with a stoic melancholy. Perhaps it is best illustrated by Dostoyevsky in "Brothers Karamazov" where Misha brings upon himself the burden of guild and suffers for the crimes committed by the others.
In Barnaul I improved my knowledge of the Russian language. It should be noted, however, that the people that were there were not exactly the most educated and the words that I learned from them was not the ones that I would repeat in a mixed company. But, nevertheless, it was a learning experience.
Once somebody told us that at a distance of about 15 km. there is a kolkoz (collective farm) and there is a lot of potatoes left in the ground after the tractor finished to excavate them. Armed with shovels and sacks a group of us, mostly young people, went to the kolkoz. What we were told was true: there was a lot of potatoes in the ground and soon we filled our sacks of potatoes. As we were almost ready to start our walk home, several men on horses came from the kolkoz, flagellated us with their whips and confiscated our potatoes. I was lucky in that I saw them coming early enough to hide in nearby bushes and I escaped the whipping and confiscating of my potatoes but others were beaten pretty bad. This was a bitter awakening to the fact that we were in the Soviet "Paradise" and from time to time they reminded us that their justice is not what is commonly accepted. Although it was obvious that these potatoes will rot in the ground it was not allowed to take them from the kolkoz territory no matter what. We could deduct from this that he or she will rot himself in the Soviet Union like those potatoes.
Incidents like these were not unusual in Soviet Russia. This was the result of their "planned economy." Sometimes, they would bring shoes to the store. Usually there was only one store in a kolhoz. Everybody would line up in a queue for the shoes. But they would find out that the shoes were only sizes 6, 7, 11 and 12. Anybody who did not fall in these sizes was out of luck! Sometimes in one village there was plenty of sugar but they did not have salt and in another village, few miles away, the situation was reverse.
Somehow, I never lost my firm belief that our experiences are only temporary and somehow things will turn for the better. This strong optimism throughout the entire duration of my odyssey helped me enormously. Later on, when the war ended and it became obvious that we could not return to Poland because the allies gave her to the Russians and my dream of return to free Poland collapsed and people were at the extreme despair, going crazy, committing suicide, somehow I always believed that there will be a turn for the better, that we will come out of
this. The same was when I was in combat: when often it seemed that this is the end, that I will never come out of this situation alive. Sometimes, when pieces of artillery shells were passing left and right over my head with their characteristic noise, when dead or wounded reminded me that this is not a joke but real, deadly war, I asked myself if this is the last moment of my life. In those moments, sorrowful moments when I said to myself "goodbye life"‑ somehow at the back of my brain there was a ray of hope that perhaps the fate will spare me and I will survive. I guess many soldiers feel that way, everybody must be an optimist ‑ nobody wants to admit to himself that this is it ‑ the encounter of the worst kind.....
Well, back to Barnaul......
I will never forget our first trip to Russian bath. Of course, it was a public bath. Russians can be deprived of everything but they will never be deprived of their "bania". You probably heard about it. But it is an experience. There is a large room, with a pile of hot rocks in the middle. Fire is going under the rocks all the time to keep them hot. Every once in a while somebody throws a bucket full of water on the stones and the room fills up with steam. People recline or seat on the benches which are arranged in a amphitheatrically fashion. The higher you climb the hotter it gets. At the top the air is so hot and so saturated with steam that it is difficult to breathe. And they flagellate themselves with twigs until their bodies are red.
We had to disrobe in a locker room and go to the next room to get soap and a towel. There was a large framed woman giving out these item. I was a shy boy of fifteen and standing naked in front of a woman was very painful experience. But the worst was to come later. After I did have my bath, I opened swinging door not realizing that they lead to the women's bath. The room was full of steam which obstructed my vision and at first I did not realized that they are women. All of the sudden I was surrounded by naked women giggling, pulling me in all directions... I made a quick retreat and when I reentered men's compartment I was greeted with laughs - "Where did you take your bath?". I don't know if I was ever as embarrassed as at that time.
On political scene there were important developments. Since the Germans attacked Russia, the Soviets joined the allies in their struggle against the Nazis. As a result of this, sometime by the end of July, 1941, the Soviet papers announced that they started the talks with the Polish government in exile, in London, and on the basis of these talks all Poles who were either exiled like us or were arrested and found themselves in the Soviet Union will be given amnesty. Additionally, Polish Army was to be formed out of these people under Polish command to fight the common aggressor ‑ Germans. The Polish embassy was established in Kuybyshev and the staff of the Polish Army in Buzuluk. Our life, meanwhile, was not affected immediately by these events.
Upon hearing about the amnesty, my father wrote to the staff of the Polish Army asking them where we should go to join the army: he as a doctor, my mother as a nurse (she was a qualified midwife when she was young, and in the World War I she was a nurse) and I as a volunteer. To our surprise (in Russia when letter comes it is an event) a response came instructing us to go in the area of Tashkent because the Polish Army will be evacuated to that region pretty soon also. Meanwhile we knew that Piotrek's wife and his two daughters were deported like us to relatively close Kazakhstan. We knew her address and wrote a letter asking her if she wants to join us so that all of us could go to Tashkent. I was supposed to go to help her to come to Barnaul. I was excited about my new role of traveling all alone and rescuing my sister‑in‑law and her two daughters. To our disappointment, she responded that she has got a goat, a sign of prosperity in Russia, and has secured enough supplies of food to survive the next winter and she feels more secure by staying where she is rather than leaving everything and going to face the dangers of travel. I still remember her address: Kazakhstan, Povladarskaja Oblasc, Kokshetovskij Rajon, Kolhoz Kara‑Bulak. Having her negative response, my father decided to act: he organized the Polish people at the Vostochnyi Poselok and convinced them, that it would be better for us if we move south to Tashkent: if not to join the Polish Army, we will gain protection of the Polish authorities and at least the climate will be warmer in the winter. Also, since there is a better climate there will be easier to find something to eat. They listened. My father found 54 people who were willing to go with us. I will always admire my father's insight and his common sense approach to life ‑ the decision to get out from Barnaul was one of his better achievements. We found out later that soon after we left the Soviets changed their minds about many things regarding our freedom. Soon after we left they did not allow anybody to leave Barnaul and people there had to fight for survival to the end of the war. Additionally, after our army was evacuated to Persia, (more about this later) Russians organized another Polish Army under renegade general Berling who decided to cooperate with Russians. This army in which Piotr served (see later) was fighting on the Russian front against the Germans and was subjected to the draconian rules and regulations of the Red Army. There were several instances when it came practically to open fighting between the Polish Berling Army and the Reds. One example of such conflicts was in Warsaw, during the Warsaw uprising, in September, 1944. At that time the Red Army was already on the other (eastern) bank of Vistula river when the Polish Home Army in Warsaw, which is on the western side of the Vistula, was being decimated by overwhelming Germans forces. Detachments of the Berling Army crossed the Vistula and with heavy losses established a beachhead on the western side of the river. At that time the Red commanders gave orders to retreat, forbade to provide any supplies, ammunition, etc. They had to retreat leaving the insurgents to their doom.
So, my father organized this group of people to go South. It wasn't supposed to be a luxury type of a trip. They hired two box cars, they collected if I remember right, 250 rubbles per person and the two cars were to be attached to a train going to Kokand, which is in Fergana Valley, near to Tashkent. There were some agonizing moments when the station master on the last day said that there were some changes in his orders and he is not able to provide the cars. My father quickly recognized the fact that all he wanted was a bribe. They collected quickly additional 400 rubbles and my father delegated one good looking woman to go to talk to the station master. During the conversation when she was pleading for the damned cars, she without saying anything just put the envelope with the money in the drawer of his desk. He didn't promise anything and there was no talk about the money at all, but at the appointed time a man came and said that we should go to the station, the box cars are waiting. It was already mid ‑ or late October when we were loading our things onto the cars. It was getting cold. I will never forget that night. I had to load not only our worldly possession but also, being a nice guy, I carried the stuff of couple of elderly women who attached themselves to our family. It was about ˝ of a mile to carry the luggage and the time the two women were walking next to me all the time urging me to be careful about their stuff and expressing their concern that something might be broken. And they had tons of luggage. I was on the point of dropping something just to break it just to give them a reason for their worries. Finally, everything was on the train. I was completely exhausted.
On that night just when we were loading our luggage, a train with the wounded came to the station. The NKVD completely surrounded the platforms and nobody was allowed to see the wounded. Later on, I realized the contrast between the Soviet Russia and other countries, e.g., USA. When wounded were coming here from Vietnam, they were treated with honors, everybody was allowed to see them, people were allowed to express their compassion. Nothing like that in Russia. Nobody knows anything, everybody minds his or her business. If you want to know something that you are not supposed to know, they will take care of you quickly.
At that time we knew that the things were going bad for the Russians. It was not written in the newspapers but people were talking about the enormous losses in men and material and about German advances on all fronts. In spite of the facts that Germans were our enemies we were glad to see the Soviet Russia suffering defeat in the hope that when Germans will get further and further into the Russian steppes it will be more difficult for them to get out from this trap. We didn't realize how close it was for the Soviets to collapse altogether and them probably nothing would save the world from the German domination. We didn't know at that time about the extermination camps, but before we were even deported we were told about hundreds of Poles, Jews, and Gypsies, that were killed for any German soldier killed by the underground . My parents worried all the time about the ones who were in Warsaw, we were completely deprived of any news about them. So, we set on our trip towards Tashkent in hope that soon we will be able to establish contact with the Polish Army.
After long and tiring journey (at least a week or ten days) we arrived to Kokand. Kokand is a fairly large town, located in Fergana Valley, a very fertile area, about two hundred kilometers east of Tashkent. This was the Uzbekistan Republic. We rented a room from the local Uzbek family and anxiously awaited any news about Polish army.
This was my first exposure to oriental life and environment. The Uzbeks are Muslims, very keen on preserving their customs and religion. They had definite Mongolian features: They hated the Russians and their communist regime that destroyed their traditional way of life. The entire southern belt of Soviet Union comprising Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and most of Kazakhstan was subjugated to the Russians after the 1917 Revolution as late as in the thirties. Before, although nominally there territories belonged to Russia, it was really no-man's land where the law of the land was administered and enforced by the local landlords, according to their wishes. In spite of Soviet propaganda and various rules aiming at changing their ethnic lifestyle the local people preserved many of their customs and traditions. They were warring their colorful round hats, their caftans, their pastime was mostly in "chaihana" where they were sitting for hours sipping tea and talking. Chaihana was a large room with a wooden platform raised about 18 inches above floor, covered with some dirty rugs. The customers were sitting with their legs crossed. Families had their meals there. A meal usually consisted of large, bowl of rise pilaf. The Uzbeks would sit around the bawl and eat it with three fingers of their left hand from the same bowl.
Chaihana was an unique institution. It served as a meeting place, restaurant, cafe, or a hotel. You could sleep there for days and nobody would disturb you.
The personal hygiene of the Uzbeks had much to be desired. They had plenty of lice and since sanitary facilities were usually not available, their did their bodily functions wherever they could find a place suitable for it. Their attitude towards us was indifferent. They did not know how we did come to their country and probably they did not care. Probably they thought that we were Russian refugees, since we looked the same as Russians. There was also plenty of Russians who were living in Uzbekistan.
Women were dressed in their traditional attire which consisted of long pants and a knee long dress. Their dresses were very colorful and they looked very pretty. At the market place, or chaihana, which were the main centers of social gathering, there were people, men or women, with their nargileas, smoking. There were vendors selling shish kebab for five rubles. This was an object of my desires but I did not even think of getting one because of our poor financial situation.
Somehow the news spread out that my father is a physician and people started to call him to see their sick. One time he came and said that he is taking care of one Polish sick boy who has a brother in my age. On his next visit I went with him and this is how I met Richard Dziewulak. From that time he remained one of my best friends. His father was a captain in the Polish army, was captured by the Germans and was a POW. Richard was there with his younger brother Jurek and his mother.
My father's idea of moving to south of Russia proved to be good. There was plenty of fruit and vegetables, and of course, the climate was much better than up north in Barnaul, where the cold could go down to -40°F. On the other hand, we were very handicapped by lack of knowledge of the Uzbek language. Although the official language was Russian, in the streets one would hear mostly the local language. Because we did not have sugar we drank our tea with dried fruit. The most popular was the "kish-mish" which was dried raisins. There was also plenty of peaches.
We stayed in Kokand for about 2 weeks, when one morning the NKVD came to us and ordered to collect our things and be ready for travel. They told us that they are going to take us somewhere where we will be under jurisdiction of Polish authorities. Hearing these news we quickly gathered our worldly possessions and were ready. We were loaded this time not in red freight cars but in regular passenger cars and started to move back north. We were very apprehensive about this, but somewhere near to Semipalatinsk the train stopped. We were there for about ten days and then, without any explanation, our train was moved back through Tashkent, Kokand, Fergana, to the last station on that railroad line, Osh, in Kirghiz SSR . There, we were loaded on open trucks and after traveling for about four hours we came to kolkhoz (collective farm) "Pravda." Until now I cannot figure out what was the Russian machinations regarding moving us back and forth during this time. I read somewhere that at one time Stalin came with the idea of creating some sort of a concentration camp for Poles somewhere near the Aral Sea, in the Kara Kum desert. At that time General Sikorski came to Moscow for talks wit the Russians in an attempt to establish normal relations which were broken because of the Russian invasion in September 1939. I am guessing now, but General Sikorski's coming to Russia at that critical time had something with diverting the trains. Of course, establishing camps in the desert would be a disaster for us, because we probably could never be able to get out from there and would die on the Russian soil.
Kolhoz "Pravda" (in Russian "pravda" means truth) was in the region (corresponding to a county) Naukat was located at the foothills of Pamir Mountains, near to Chinese border. Since this was winter, we did not have any work assigned to us. It was located in a valley and one could see the covered with snow mountains not far, maybe 5 kilometers. Our hosts told us that the Chinese border is not far from the kolkhoz and there is a lot of illegal traffic across the border.
We were allocated a large room for several people. In that room there was our family of three, the two elderly ladies that attached themselves to us (I suspect because I was carrying their luggage) and two Jewish men: one about 60 and the other about 40. I don't recall where they started to travel with us. They did not come to Kokand from Barnaul. They must have been rounded up in Kokand.
The room we were living in was in a typical Kirghiz house. Under one wall there were sleeping quarters, usually on a pile of cotton blankets, in the middle of the room there was a sump where hot charcoal was put during winter. The entire family would sit around that sump with their legs in the sump and a big blanket to cover the hole. This was the way to keep warm. They would sit like this for the most of the day with only interruptions necessary to answer the call of nature or to prepare food. At the other wall there would be a fireplace where cooking was done. The houses were made out of clay and I don't remember what was used for roofs. Everything was very primitive. They did not have even the most elementary provisions for personal hygiene. Every day women did take their blankets outside to do "voshoboika" or killing of lice. Also, one of the main occupations was to remove lice from each other's head.
Lice deserve special mention. They were so common in Soviet Russia that having them was practically a way of life. It was probably due to the scarcity of soap, which in Russia was as precious as gold. In the Red Army there was a time assigned for "voshoboika" (lice hunting), when the entire detachment of soldiers would sit down, take off their shirts and look for lice. Lice were everywhere. It was impossible to buy a ticket for a railroad train without going through a delousing machine and producing a "Delousing Certificate." It was a place where you had to take off your cloth and put it in a steam closed to kill all the lice that you had. The trouble was that man who was running the delousing machine usually was stealing the coal to heat the place and there was not enough steam to do the job. I got my typhus on the train because lice were going at will from one passenger to another.
The Kirghiz people in kolkhoz Pravda were quite friendly to us. They recognized the fact that we were "people in disgrace" in the eyes of the Soviet government. They hated the Soviets themselves, so we had a common enemy. They told us that there was a legend that when a Polish bugler will play in Samarkand all people of the southern belt in Soviet Russia will regain their independence. At that time it seemed ridiculous, but when I think of the events that took place since that time, in view of the collapse of the Soviet Union, maybe there was some truth in it.
They did a lot to make our lives more bearable. For example, they would bring us wood for heating the room and for cooking, they would come for a friendly chat in their broken Russian, and in general one could feel friendly attitude on their part.
Bread was baked in an outside furnace. It was made out of clay with a horizontal tunnel about three feet in diameter and about four feet long. A fire was burning in the tunnel until the temperature was hot enough, and then bread, round like a pancakes, (lepioshkas) was slapped against the inside walls. It was made out of corn flour. When it ready it was removed.
I don't remember where I got a guitar. It was a Russian type, seven strings guitar. I do not pretend to be a musician but in Poland I learned to strike a few chords. Of course, my father had his violin. Sometimes we played together. Surprisingly, the natives liked our music. Sometimes they would come to our room, ten or more of them, sit around against the walls and ask: "Doctor murzyk." There were times that I was already in bed and they would come to listen to "murzyk." My father played old Vienna waltzes, Polish songs, etc., and they listened. It was evident that they enjoyed our playing. Then, after we played for some time my father would say:" Kursak propal" (stomach empty). Right away one of them would go out and come back with a pile of lepioshkas with a new request for music. Sometimes we played for them until early hours.
I don't know why, maybe it was because of the music, but by their behavior they showed special respect and sympathy for our family. Once the chairman of the kolkhoz invited my father to his house for a dinner. My father said that he did not have such feast for a long time. It was a traditional Muslim dinner, with washing hands before dinner, lamb meat, rice, and wine. Women were serving the dinner but did not sit at the "table." Everybody was sitting around the hole in the ground keeping their legs in the hole where they had charcoal. My father brought some food that they gave him for me and my mother.
Once a week two or three of us had to go to the regional town, Naukat, about fifteen kilometers, to bring bread for the Polish population of the Kolhoz. The bread was given to us for free. It was carried on the horses and we went on a horseback. I liked to go because I liked to ride on a horseback. Naukat was a typical Kirghiz town, with its market place and chaihanas. The personnel in the most important offices were Russians.
Our life was very primitive. Water had to be brought in from a stream, which was at a sizable distance. There was no sanitary facilities, even an outhouse, so everybody did their biological needs wherever they could. There was no privacy whatsoever, we lived men and women in one room. The two Jewish guys made a curtain for themselves. The two ladies did not bother. When we were dressing in the morning one had to do it under a sheet. But somehow these things did not bother anybody. The most important thing was survival. Everything was scarce. Once there was a rumor that kerosene is to be sold in Naukat. Kerosene was an item very important because it was used for the lamps in the evening and also it a valuable article for exchange for something that was needed. We set out to go there in the evening proceeding the day of the sale. There was already a long line of people waiting. We had to wait whole night and until one o'clock in the afternoon next day to get allocation (I don't remember if that was one or two liters).
I do not remember where did I get the books from, but I resumed my habit of reading. Although my knowledge of Russian was not that good yet, I managed to read and understand most of the books that I could get. One of the books that I remember reading was "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," by Alexandre Dumas.
All the time that we spent in Pravda I was thinking how to get to the Polish army. In all of my thoughts there was one obsession that there was a war going on, a war in which my country has been invaded and is occupied and I am sitting here doing nothing for the cause. Maybe it was the effect of reading all those books about history of Poland, where there was a lot of romanticizing about the heroes, where people were dying with a smile on their faces and the words that we were indoctrinated with: "Dulce at decorum est pro patria mori" (Sweet and honorable is to die for the country). Later, when I got to death at close range, I looked at dead people, I realized that nobody, specially at age 18 or 20, wants to die, that people do not die with a smile on their faces, that death is so terrible in its finality, that you want to hang on to life as to something dearest to you. I suspect that these noble slogans were composed by someone who never did go to war or was already too old to be fighting.
But at that time I did not think that way. I imagined myself marching through streets of Warsaw in a victory parade, crowd of people in the streets, girls throwing flowers, and here, we Polish soldiers, marching in deep columns bring freedom to our country. I compared myself to those characters from the books that I read, who during the Napoleonic era, left the country to fight for Poland and returned with the French to create what was known the Duchy of Warsaw. I did not realized then that the entire Napoleonic adventure was a political fiasco, that Napoleon never had any serious thoughts about freedom for Polish people and that he just tolerated Polish legions at his side because he needed them as cannon grinders. But at that time I felt that fighting for Poland was my destiny, that I was following the steps of my forefathers who, as I described in the Roots, were fighting and dying for the country.
Sometimes in February 1942, we got news that the Polish army moved from Buzuluk (Siberia) to south of Russia and the headquarters was located in Yangi-Yul, near Tashkent. Various detachments of the army were located in different localities throughout the area. Also, there were rumors that a few Polish officers showed up in Naukat to recruit volunteers to Polish Army. This was only for the Poles - no room for Russians.
Now it was the time to act. One frosty morning (snow was on the ground) myself and another young fellow, without saying anything to anybody we set out for Naukat. There was a recruiting going on indeed, and there were some men already in the office. The officer, in a British battledress, with Polish insignia, told us to wait. Then he told us that we are too young to be drafted into the army, (I gave him my true age which was 16) but we could go to the Cadets. This was a paramilitary organization for boys and girls. There was also another organization of Junak (pronounced Yunak). I think that the Junaks were for elementary school and the Cadets for the high school. It was set up similar to the military academies in the USA; they attended classes and also they had military training. Upon attaining the age of 18 they would be drafted into regular army. It was unfortunate that many of these Cadets were sent to Italy just before the battle of Monte Cassino. They were fresh from the school, poorly trained and many of them were killed.
Although I was disappointed that I will not be eligible to go to the army, I agreed to wait for my turn to go for physical examination and be drafted to the Cadets. While I was waiting, my parents, came running to the recruiting office together with the parents of my friend. There was a scene that I will never forget: mothers crying, fathers begging, and we, the young future soldiers were confused what to do. My mother went to the officer arguing with him that I am too young, that if I go they will be left in Russia without any help and support in their old age, that he has no right to take away the only child that was left for them. This was very embarrassing. Myself and my friend had a decision to make. We went outside trying to collect our thoughts. I did not want to leave my parents in this God forsaken land all by themselves. I knew that in Russia once you separate from your family you never know if and when you will be able to meet them again. I realized that Russians were not looking favorably on people who wanted to leave Soviet Russia and there is a good possibility that they will remain in Russia forever. I learned later that many of the Polish exiles, like us, were prevented by the Russians to return to Poland after the war. The Soviet authorities simply did not cooperate, they found all kinds of excuses to keep them in Russia and as a result of this, at present, 50 years after the war, there are entire colonies of people of Polish origin all over the Russia. Naturally, their children hardly speak any Polish and probably they consider themselves as Russians. I saw a program on television about these unfortunate people. My parents were already in a very advanced age (my father was 62 and my mother was 60). I looked at their silvery heads and tears were coming to my eyes. On the other hand, as I mentioned before, I had that dream of fighting for my country, to return to Poland as a hero bringing back freedom to my people. Finally, I reached a decision. We went back to the recruitment office and talked to the officer. He said that there is a shortage of doctors in the army, and in spite of his age, my father would certainly be given a post if he applied. He was not sure about my mother but he sounded encouraging. At that time my parents solemnly promised me that they will do everything possible to get to the army so at least, if I go, they will not be left behind in Russia. My friend made similar bargain with his parents. I knew that in the army I will not stay with my parents, but at least I will have a clear conscience that I did not leave them alone in Russia. So, we all went back to Kolhoz Pravda.
Meanwhile, there was another doctor among the Polish people, I think his name was Wy_ychowski, who was running a clinic in an nearby kolhoz. He had some friends in the staff of the Polish army and wrote to them that he is working in this terrible place, and he would like to join the Polish army. Soon a telegram came from Yangi-Yul to the Soviet military command (Voienkomat) in Naukat, requesting that Dr. Wy_ychowski be provided with a free ticket to Yangi-Yul. The local Soviet authorities could not deny him the right to go to the army but they made a condition that before he can leave his post at the clinic he will find a replacement for his job. Dr. Wyzychowski came to my father with a proposition: my father will take over his job and he will use his contacts at the staff of the Polish Army to get us out of Pravda. I should add that the leaders of any kolhoz in Russia did not look favorably on those who wanted to leave. At that time most of the Russian men were already in the army and there was lack of work force on the farms. The Russians did whatever they could to prevent people leaving their work.
At that time our food supplies that we brought with us from Barnaul were already thinning down, and our future did not look very bright. In the kolhozs, you get your share of the crops at the time of the harvest, and the new harvest was not very soon. We all lost a lot of weight. The skin on my parent's faces was hanging, and it was visible that we were on starvation diet. Going to the army was the only way to get out of the God forsaken place which was Pravda.
My father gladly agreed to take over the clinic from Dr. Wyzychowski. To our surprise, in about three weeks my father was called to go the Voienkomat (Russian military post). Guessing that there might be something from Yangi-Yul I went with him. My father went into the office and I waited for him, all excited, in the waiting room. After a few minutes my father came out from the office with a telegram in his hand. I will never forget what it said: "Immediately set out Edward Francowicz Lipinski to Polish Army in Yangi-Yul as a doctor, his wife Salomea as a nurse, and his son Romuald Edwardowicz as a volunteer. Provide them with per diem and free transportation." You will notice that my father's name was Edward Francowicz and my name Romuald Edwardowicz. This is the Russian way of using the patronymic of a person, and since my grandfather was Franciszek Lipinski, my father would be Edward Francowicz.
So, it was evident that Dr. Wyzychowski kept his promise.
We embraced full of joy as if we won a million dollars. The Uzbeks who were in the waiting room looked at us as if we were crazy. For them to be called up was a disaster: fighting a bloody war, away from their family, a good chance to be killed or wounded. They knew about the heavy losses suffered by the Russian troops and about the hundreds of thousand who went to German POW camps. What they did not know at that time that those POWS were treated like cattle, many of them starved to death. Even after the war, if some of them were lucky enough to survive all the suffering, after they were back in Russia, they were treated as traitors, many of them were shot by the NKVD and majority was sent to the Gulag, the prison camps. In Russia treatment of veterans is different from that in the USA. But they did not realize that for us going to the Army was the only chance to get out of Russia. They did not share with us the intense desire to fight for our country, to be free again. The danger of war did not matter.
So, full of joy we went back to Pravda and announced the news to my mother. Immediately, my mother started to give away the things that she considered as unnecessary for us. Everybody was envious our good fortune. I don't know what happened to the Polish people in Pravda and in general in that region, because in all my travels I never met anybody who was with us in that part of Russia. I suspect that the Russians did not allow them to leave the places where they were sent, and probably they remained there for the rest of their lives. It is more than probable that would be our fate if we did not go to the Army.
The Soviets provided a truck, the tickets money and we were on our way. We spent a night in Naukat and on the next day we arrived to Osh. Our trip was not without difficulties because couple of times our truck was stuck in mud and we had to dig it out to go on. We took a train in Osh and after a change in Tashkent we arrived to Yangi-Yul. During our trip everybody was very cooperative, because our papers were signed by Gen. Zukov (I don't think that he was related to the commander of the Russian Army of the same name). Gen. Zukov was the head of the NKVD attached to the Polish Army.
Like all travels in Soviet Russia, our trip to Yangi-Yul was an experience that one does not forget easily. At that time Russia was going through two types of epidemics: typhus and dysentery. I described before the situation with lice. Obviously, we had to go through a delousing machine. There were two berths in our compartment. Above me there was a Polish fellow who was also going to Polish Army. I could see the lice falling freely from his berth on me whenever he moved. There was nothing that I could do, because everybody had lice. I am convinced that the typhus that I got later was from him during our trip to Tashkent.
There was another Polish fellow in our compartment who was also gain to the Army. He was a doctor. My father asked him if he practiced medicine in Russia. "Never" - he answered. He told us that he had a life of a king. He was in a Muslim Kolhoz that had a lot of pigs, and his job was to take care of them. The Muslim do not eat pigs. Whenever he wanted some meat he would kill a pig, pretending that it died of natural causes, and he had it all for himself. He always could find some potatoes and some vegetables and he always had a good meal.
"Where could I find a better life?" - he asked.
And he was right. In Russia at that time (I don't think it changed very much since then) it was not easy to have food like this. His looks were the best testimony of what he was saying. He was evidently well fed, and compared to us, living on our 500 g. of bread already for some time, he looked like Hercules.
After a few days of travel we came to Yangi-Yul. My father went to the headquarters of the Polish Army, met Dr. Wyzychowski, thanked him for keeping his promise and got assignment to 9-th Infantry Division that was located in Margelan, in Uzbekistan. The nearest railroad station was Gorchakovo, about 30 km. east from Yangi-Yul on the railroad line connecting Tashkent and Kokand. Gorchakovo was about 15 km. from Margelan.
In Yangi-Yul we met Piotrek. This is a story in itself. As I mentioned before, he was called up in 1939 before the German invasion. He was shell-shocked and they took him to a hospital in Wolkowysk, near to the Lithuanian border. When the news broke out that Russian army crossed Polish border he, mindful that he was fighting the Reds in 1920 and fearing that they may find out about it, decided to leave the hospital in order to reduce the possibility of getting into their hands. Upon leaving the hospital he sat on a bench trying to figure out what to do. At that time a soldier whom he helped once during the campaign approached him. He was a driver of a military ambulance and he told him that night he is leaving for Lithuania with his detachment, and if Piotrek wants to go he will be welcome. Since everything at that time was in disarray, everybody was on his own, Piotrek accepted the offer, and he went to Lithuania where he was interned by the authorities. In Lithuania was my mother's relative, who had a large estate. Knowing that a large number of Polish soldiers came to Lithuania, he found Piotrek and took him to his estate. When Russians invaded Lithuania on the basis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, they fond Piotrek, arrested him and took him to the infamous Lubianka Prison in Moscow. They found out about his past in 1920, tortured him trying to get information about his family and friends (In Soviet Russia if somebody was suspected his entire environment was under suspicion) and finally sentenced him to ten years of prison and fifteen years of hard labor in a concentration camp. In meantime, they found out that his family lives in Kolno and they deported his wife and two daughters to Kazakhstan, near Povladar, which is in Siberia. On the way to the concentration camp, as a result of the German invasion of Russia, and resumption of Russo-Polish relations, Piotrek got amnesty and made his way to Polish Army. He went to Kazakhstan to bring his family to safety under the wings of the Polish Army. At that time the Russians put started to forbid Poles to leave their places of deportation. Piotrek and his family were trapped in Kazkhstan. Later on, he was drafted to the Polish Army under gen. Berling, who was a communist and remained in Russia after our departure. That army, was fighting side by side with the Russians. Their first combat engagement was at Lenino where they were sent to attack Germans without any tank or artillery support and suffered heavy losses. It was obvious that it was one of Stalin’s tricks to get rid of the uncomfortable ally.
Meanwhile, Russians were not providing answers posed by the Poles about the fate of thousands of Polish officers captured during the 1939 campaign, they did not fully collaborating with Polish authorities regarding release of all Polish citizens in their prison camps. It was obvious that the Russian were forced to change their attitude to Poland because of the German invasion, and it was just a matter of time that the honeymoon between the two governments will turn sour. Later, the events proved that this prognosis was correct. Forty five hundred Polish officers were discovered in the mass graves of the Katyn Forest, and the fate of the remaining fifteen thousand Polish officers was never disclosed. There were rumors that they were loaded on a ship which was sunk in the White Sea. Nobody knows for sure.
I will never forget my first meal from the soldier's kitchen: good piece of meat, broth with rice, that was something that we did not see for a long time. I also remember the first mass that we attended in the military chapel. After being exposed to all the anti-religious propaganda that mass had for me special meaning.
After few days of staying in Yangi-Yul we went to Gorchakovo. In Gorchakovo, we stopped at a chaihana trying to find transportation to Margelan. At that time I begun to feel strange: feverish, weak, symptoms of a cold. In this situation, my parents decided that there was no point to go for a physical examination to get in the army. We rented a room from a Russian widow and I stayed there with my mother, and my father went to the Polish camp alone. We knew that Polish authorities did not have any hospitals where Polish doctors would treat the patients. Sick soldiers were sent to Russian hospitals where care was next to nil. My parents were afraid that if they send me there I would never come back alive.
My father got his appointment right away. Meanwhile, my temperature went sky high. Although there was typhus everywhere my parents hoped that it was an ordinary cold that will go away in a few days. Typhus takes two weeks for the rash to develop and then you know that it is indeed typhus.
Meanwhile, we got the news that the Polish army is to be evacuated to Persia (now Iran). We were very excited. Father came and told us to be ready on a short notice. Finally, the day of departure came. I woke up that morning, looked at my body and realized the terrible truth: I was covered with red spots - it was typhus. I realized that in these conditions I will not be able to go to Persia. My mother started to cry. Later on father came with soldiers to take us to the station (his things were already on the train) and he saw the rash on my body. The rest is rather foggy in my memory because of the high fever, but I reconstructed the events from what I remember and what my parents told me. There were three alternatives:
1) Take me on the train pretending that I am in good health. There was a risk that if my sickness is discovered, since typhus was a highly contagious disease, the Soviets will put me out at somewhere, where I will not have any care at all. Mother definitely said that she will not leave me alone wherever it may be. That would be a disaster. Here, in Gorchakovo, at least there were some Polish soldiers who could help us. Anywhere else we would be at the mercy of strangers. Besides, father being in the Army would have to go with his regiment to Persia and it was doubtful that we would find each other again.
2) Father would go to his commander, explain the situation, and ask for permission to remain in Gorchakovo.
3) Father would go with the Army to Persia and mother would stay with me hoping that there will be another chance to get out from Russia.
Father went to the train and asked his colleagues for advice. Some of them suggested to risk alternative #1, saying that they will help to hide me if Russians will search the train. We did not know what is ahead of us on the way to Persia and father was afraid that I may die in transport. He went to the commander of the transport and begged that he be allowed to remain with the "liquidation company, " i. e. a company of soldiers who were going to remain in Gorchakovo to take care of the civilians that were coming in in great numbers. To his surprise the commander agreed. He replaced the doctor who was scheduled to stay with the liquidation company with my father. Father came home, opened the box of medical samples that he collected before the war and which he took from Poland when we were deported. That box he guarded like a treasure, and for a good reason. There were all kinds of samples of drugs that were sent to him from all over the Europe and not available in Russia. Russia was isolated from the rest of the world by the idiotic communist politics. Father gave me all kinds of injections, drugs, etc. , and I was probably the best treated patient in the land. For the next two or three weeks I don't know much what was going on because most of the time I was delirious due to high fever. This is characteristic of typhus that a sick person has high fever and usually it kills him because heart cannot take it. Mother said later that I was getting up in the middle of night, screaming and doing all kinds of crazy things that a person with high fever does. With typhus, the critical time is when the temperature drops. If the drop is gradual the patient usually will recover but a sudden drop is much more dangerous. In my case it was a gradual reduction in temperature. I was so weak that I could not even seat on my bed. I was thin as a stick. Flesh was hanging from my bones. On Easter 1942 I was strong enough to seat in my bed.
I will never forget the Easter breakfast that day. Mother and the Russian landlady decided to have a join celebration. Father brought some sausage and sugar. Mother exchanged something on the black market for some flour, and our landlady's son, who worked in a slaughter house brought bull's testicles. They cooked some kind of soup and we all had a feast.
With drop in temperature came appetite. In the middle of a night I had stomach cramps from hunger, and I could not wait for morning to come so that I could get something to eat. I dreamt of a big loaf of bread. Mother was taking things that we had, my coat, some sheets, anything that could be exchanged, to the black market and exchange it for food.
In Russia black market is everywhere. It was there under the Soviets and it is now. This is an institution. One can get there everything from golden rings or the most expensive watches to the most mundane articles of life. We, the exiles, were in many cases in a better position than the native Russians, because we brought with us things that were in Russia scarce or not available at all. They did not have anything. Such trivial things as soap were in great demand.
When Polish soldiers left their tents were occupied by the thousands of Polish civilians who came to Gorchakovo. This was the result of the news that spread rapidly among Polish exiles that Polish Army is being taken out of Russia to Persia. Some of them came in time to leave Russia with the first transport that we were supposed to go, in March 1942. But most of them did not come on time and they were coming at the limits of their exhaustion and put themselves at the mercy of the "liquidation company" that was left after the departure of the main body of the Polish Army. In Gorchakovo, nobody bothered to have an exact count ( it was impossible to do it because people were coming and going all the time) but there were about four thousand of civilians. Father's clinic was always full of sick people.
When I recovered enough that I could walk, father arranged for me to have a job. I was to work as a janitor/nurse in the clinic that he was working with another doctor. My duties consisted of keeping the clinic clean, all medical instruments had to be properly arranged, sterilized, and in general keep everything in proper shape. Also, it was my duty to escort the sick from the camp to the Russian hospital located in Margelan. It was the most unpleasant part of my work. Twice a week I went with the sick to Margelan, usually five or eight people, and I always thought: how many of them will come back. Mortality rate in Russian hospitals was very high. For all my work I was getting a ration of soup from soldier's kitchen a day and an allocation of bread. The bread that we were getting was coming from a Russian bakery. It was dark and half-baked. As a result, it was full of water, and heavy as clay. So the 500 g. ration did not amount to more than a thick slice. Usually I was so hungry that I could not resist eating some of it on the way home. I had to restrain myself, because I knew that my parents are waiting to have some of it but hunger was twisting my guts... Sometimes, when I stretched my hand with a plate the cook threw a ration of the second dish, usually some sort of pasta, potatoes or rice with meat. That happened quite often. The conditions in the camp were very bad. The Russians did not provide for the civilians and they had to be fed from the military supplies. I really don't know how did our military supply officer manage to feed so many people from his limited means. I suspect that he was bribing his Russian counterpart to get more food because there was no other explanation. But there was hunger everywhere. It was in spring time March, April, May, too early for fresh vegetables, people were cooking grass to fill the stomach with something, people were starving and all kinds of diseases associated with malnutrition were rampant. The worst were typhus and dysentery. I will never forget that day when we got out from the clinic (I slept on the couch in the clinic with father and mother was still with the Russian lady) and found right by the door a young man dying from starvation. He must have come to the camp at night and did not have enough strength to get any help, so he fell right there at the door. There was nothing we could do for him; it was too late. I don't want to think how many cases like this occurred in those days in Russia.
Once we had a feast: somehow the man in charge of food had some extra white bread from somewhere and he gave whole loaf to my father. Father came to me with a face of a cat that just ate a big, fat canary. I gorged myself with good, fresh white bread. Another event that I keep fondly in my memory was the first can of corned beef that we received from Red Cross which started its activity at that time. Mother divided it in three parts and cooked some kind of soup. It had a taste of prosperity.
The camp was located in a huge orchard of peaches. As soon as the peaches were half ripe our people started to go the orchard and pick the fruit. There was a Russian guard, with a gun, and one of the youngsters got arrested for stealing the peaches which was a government property. The news about the incident quickly spread among our soldiers. Next day, they send a group of young boys to get some peaches and when the guard appeared and wanted to arrest them our soldiers roughed him up and told him that if he bothers our people again it will be worse. From that time on he was always in a different end of the orchard.
With coming of summer things got better, because some vegetables started to appear. People were still hungry but at least they could put something in a pot to cook a soup or eat something.
In July we were told that there will be another transport to Persia. We knew that this may be the only chance to get out of Russia. After many days of awaiting the day of departure came. We were given passenger cars and by train we were taken through Samarkand, Buhara, to Krasnovodsk, which is a port on Caspian sea. Train travel took several days, I don't remember the details regarding food, but I know we were crowded in our cars. I Krasnovodsk we were detrained on a big, sandy square, completely bare of trees, near to the Caspian Sea. There was a faucet for water and people had to stay in line to get it. The sun was oppressive, and after a few hours everybody was very uncomfortable. There were latrines at a distance that you had to stay in line to use them. I remember, one thing that mother took with her from Gorchakovo was a bottle of vodka. In Russia things like vodka, soap, canned meat or fish one always carried with him because these things were more valuable than money. You could always exchange them for something else, because they were always in demand. So, when we were sitting on that square and everybody was exhausted mother got her bottle of vodka and took a good sip from it. An elderly man was sitting next to her and looked at the vodka in such an obvious way that mother gave him a drink. Later on, in high school in Teheran, we met him. He was my teacher's father. When he met my mother in our refugee camp, in Teheran, he thanked her profusely, saying that this drink put him back on his feet. There were a couple of thousand people on that square. Apparently, this was the waiting area for people from all trains. We spent the night there. Next day, in the afternoon, the Soviet NKVD announced that we should be on the ready because we will be moving to the port.
Everybody was very excited. This was the day that we have been waiting for. At about three o'clock in the afternoon a train pulled up, we climbed on it and went to the port. There, after waiting for about two hours NKVD took us to the ship. We were supposed to march in orderly fashion, after a few moments all the rules were broken and the entire crowd, several thousand people, rushed to the gate of the port. I did my best to stay with mother, not to be separated by the crowd. We dropped practically everything that was too heavy to carry for a long distance and pushed our way foreword. There were scenes on that walk that deserve to be immortalized in a movie. Thousands of people, young, old, sick, some at the point of extreme exhaustion, going to the port. One man was carrying a large bag and apparently it was too much for him - he dropped dead right at the gate to the port.
Somehow we got on the ship. It was named "Zdanov" after some communist leader during the Revolutionary War. It was so packed that it was practically impossible to walk on the deck. Every inch on the deck was occupied. Many people were sick. Some people barely made it to the ship. Some could not even move to satisfy their biological needs. They were laying there in their urine and feces. It was a pitiful sight. The few army nurses were trying to help them but the job was beyond their capabilities. I don't know how it was inside, and whether it was a passenger or freight ship because I never did leave the deck. As matter of fact, I hardly left my place on the deck except to satisfy my biological needs for fear that my place may be taken as soon as I leave it. But I had to go. That was an experience in itself. The Soviets anticipated that the ship will be overcrowded and they provided latrines for that purpose. They were built out of wood, as structures attached to the side of the ship. In order to use them one had to climb on a narrow wooden platform outside of the ship and be careful not to slip off. Below was the sea. One had to squat, holding the wooden railing and relieve himself directly into the sea. Needless to say that due to a strong wind, the sides of the ship were a visible testimony of frequent use of latrines. Using these facilities was an experience that one doesn't forget.
We spent the evening on the ship. During the night we could see flashes of explosions at a distance. Somebody said that it was the bombing of Baku, which was located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea.
We left the port of Krasnovodsk at about two o'clock in the next morning. That was a memorable moment. Somebody started to sing the "Rota", which is a national song describing the sufferings of the Polish people over the more than century of oppression from the invaders. Somehow, in my thoughts I compared our lot with the Jews of the Old Testament that were leaving Egypt after years of bondage.
OUT OF RUSSIA: Persia
We were lucky, the sea was relatively calm, and after a day and night of travel, in the morning we saw the land. The Persian port that we came to was Pahlevi. The facilities were not adequate to accommodate our ship, so we were transferred on small boats and taken ashore. That was a lifting experience to be finally out of Russia, the house of fear and oppression. It was very emotional and people were letting go their feelings. Some were praying, some were kissing the sand on the beach, others were crying.
We were located on the beach, in shelters about 100 feet long and 20 feet wide, that consisted of a roof made of some kind of straw, with a ridge beam that was running in the middle, supported by wooden planks at about twenty feet apart. No side walls. The roof was slopping on each side, and families were residing in parallel, along the shelter. The shelters were arranged in a single row , so that they stretched for about a kilometer or more. Latrines were located at one end of the encampment, and if somebody's place was at the opposite end to the latrines he or she had a long distance to go. We were requested to shed all our clothing and were given a new one on account of the lice that everybody had and our hair and the private parts of the adults were sprayed with some powder that was supposed to disinfect us. We enjoyed the bathing in the sea, which contrary to the shore on the Russian side was free of oil. But the worst thing was the food. For some reason the British, who managed the encampment, did not realize that we did not have regular food for a long time, and our system could not right away digest heavy fats. They gave us fatty mutton and rice and that was a disaster. Diarrhea that resulted from that was terrible. People were just so sick that they did not bother to go to their places but they laid on the sand by the latrines unable to move. Some of them unable to make it to the latrines on time relieved themselves wherever they could without any regard to privacy. The whole area stank. Mother knew what would be the consequences of feeding me with heavy food and she mixed our rations with other type of food so that the effect was not so drastic.
Still, in spite of all these problems we enjoyed these first days of freedom enormously. We were bathing ourselves in the sea, we took advantage of the good weather and sunbathed ourselves, and in general life began to look more enjoyable. Soon I found some friends in my age and in spite of our unusual living conditions we started behave like normal people.
During our stay in Pahlevi father visited us daily. He was with his detachment in a different location, but their living quarters were similar to ours. He told us that during our transport from Russia he was on the same ship as we were, but he was below and it was so crowded there that nobody was allowed to go the deck where we and the majority of civilian population was located. We did not see him until we came to Pahlevi.
After staying on the beach in Pahlevi for about three weeks we were loaded on open trucks and begun our trip to Teheran. The road was going over the Elburz Mountains, very steep and rugged mountains that separate the Caspian Sea from the rest of Persia. The road was simply a shelf in the slope of a mountain wide enough for one truck. From time to time the road widened, so that two vehicles could pass. The Persian drivers were going at a neck breaking speed, it was a miracle that there were no accidents. Apparently, not everybody was so lucky, and many a time on looking down in the valley could see a wreckage of a vehicle that went down several hundred feet. Due to the constant turns on the serpentine some people got seasick. We stopped for the night at the town of Qazvin where we were fed and spent the night sleeping on the floor, at some building that looked as a school.
Next morning we resumed our journey, and after a rather uneventful trip we arrived to Teheran. We were located in Camp No. 2, about four or five kilometers from Teheran. Somebody told me that it was a machine gun factory, but it was unconfirmed. There were several brick, one story buildings housing the administration of the camp and some of the refugees. We spent about a week in a large building that looked like a hangar and later moved to barracks. Barracks were long buildings about 100 ft. long, made out of something that looked like clay, with a wall in the middle along its length. On each side of the wall there beds made of boards. Between the beds of boards and the outside walls there was a passage about three feet wide and at each end of the barrack there were doors. Each family occupied a section on the boards and that was their living quarters. Everybody hung some blankets at the end of their territory to provide some sort of privacy. We were sleeping on blankets that were laid directly on the boards. Food was provided from the camp kitchen and everybody brought it for his or her family to the barracks. There was no eating area.
In Persia, it started in Pahlevi and continued in Teheran, the Polish authorities started to compile the lists containing identities of the refugees. Usually, some verification was required to establish one's identity, such as two witnesses, or some written document. In many cases, however, people pretended to be somebody that they wanted to be but never were. There was a case that a man declared that he is a priest, he listened to confessions, celebrated masses, married couples, and in general, he did everything that a priest would do. Finally, he was discovered to be an imposter. I do not know what did the couples do that he united in the "holy matrimony."
Soon after we came to Teheran father was discharged from the Army. After a short time of being with us, he got a job in Polish hospital in Teheran. As soon as we came to Teheran I renewed my insistence on going to the Army. My parents objected: there was school being formed and they said that I should go to school rather than to the Army. After many discussions I agreed to go to school but when my mother suggested that I could lower my age in order to prevent my drafting to the army later on I said big "no." So, we settled on my going to school and let the events be at their normal pace.
Soon after our arrival to Teheran the camp administration organized a school. The "school" was something to write about. It was located in a brick garage. There was courtyard with cubicles on three sides to house trucks, cars or whatever. No doors. Each of these cubicles was a classroom. The only equipment in the classroom was a blackboard on a tripod. Everybody had to bring a few bricks to seat on. There was no chair for the teacher. When a wind blew there was a funnel of dust in the classroom and the blackboard was falling down. We were provided with writing pads and pencils.
When I came to the "classroom" there was about ten other students seating on bricks. I was glad to find among them my old friend from Kokand, Ryszard Dziewulak. Originally, we were only two boys in the class. Later on our class increased to twenty five students that included five boys, so we were a definite minority with regard to sex. Among my classmates was also Jerzy Schenk. There were also other classes in the Gimnazjum, Polish name for the first four years of high school. I was accepted to third grade which would correspond to the ninth grade of high school. After a couple of months in the garage our school was moved to one of the brick houses. Although we were terribly crowded, and the equipment of the classrooms did not change, we were not exposed to the whirls of dust due to gusts of wind. Our teachers were recruited from the camp population and they did the best they could to put some wisdom in our heads. I my class, there was a large discrepancy between ages of some of the girls. Some of them were much more developed than the others, and there were some rumors than they established more than close relationship with some of the British and Persian officers and were making nightly trips out of the camp. But these things did not bother me. We formed a small group of young boys and girls and did the things that teenagers do: play volley ball, go to Teheran to the movies together, going for walks and so on. Later on, I found out that some girls had "an eye" on us, boys, at that time already, but as far as we, boys, were concerned that did not bother us.
Meanwhile, we enjoyed our life as free people, we used to go to Teheran where at the YMCA we could read "Life" or "Parade" or go to the movies. At that time we received a shipment of clothing from the USA. I was given a suit but what a color: it was pink! I was the only one in the camp sporting a bright pink suit. So, I was somewhat a landmark in the camp.
Until now I am not sure if I had malaria or not. There was a period of time that I was getting high temperature; every day, at the same time. Father send me to the clinic in the camp and they put me in the local hospital for observation. The doctor gave me some quinine which was so terrible in taste that knowing that this is what I am going to be treated in future, I told the nurse that I feel better and I went to my barrack. I had temperature as before or a couple of weeks and then it stopped. Instead, my entire body and eyes became yellow. I knew that I had jaundice. It lasted maybe two weeks and disappeared.
In January 1943, I received a request to go to the military camp, which was about two kilometers from our camp. At that time I was not 18 years old, the age for the draft, because my birthday is on July 25, but the draft covered everybody who was born in 1925 or earlier. After a physical I was drafted. Since we were still in school, Mrs. Dziewulak, mother of one of my friends who was also drafted, who was a wife of a captain in the Polish Army and knew the ropes, arranged that we were allowed to attend the classes to finish our school year. The school year was abbreviated, so that in January we completed it. On the 7-th of February was my name day which we celebrated in Poland instead of birthdays. I will never forget that day. At that time we were already out of school and we were housed in the military quarters. My civilian friends prepared a small celebration in my honor and I was supposed to come to Camp #2 for the party. But at time I tasted what the Army is all about. The MP at the gate turned me back about six times, always either because my coat was not properly folded at the back, my hair were too long (I had to go to a barber to get a hair cut). Finally, he decided that I had bristles on my face (I did not shave yet at that time). Good thing that I had a shaving kit available so that I could shave myself. It was the first time that I shaved myself. Knowing that my friends were waiting for me I was in a hurry to go the civilian camp. This military persecution left a permanent mark in my memory.
As soon as we were out of school, by the end of February, we were loaded onto trucks and shipped to Khanaquin (in Arabic - Bottom of Hell) in Iraq, where the Polish Army was stationed.
I knew that this was the end to my civilian life and to my teen age. Mother gave me a rosary, kissed me goodbye, father came from the hospital to give me his farewell, some of my friends came to wish me good luck, and I climbed the truck. There was four of us: Ryszard, Jerzy (Jurek), Brunon and I. That trip opened a new chapter in my life, the military service.
IN THE ARMY
Khanaquin was the place where all Polish soldiers that did not have a permanent assignment were sent. There were people that came out from hospitals, soldiers that came back from their furloughs, etc. There I met for the first time some of the soldiers from the famous Karpathian Brigade.
The Carpathian Brigade was formed from those who like my brother Wladek sought for an opportunity to fight for Poland after the 1939 debacle, but they did not go to France. Instead, they were sent through Turkey to Syria, which at that time was under the French. When in 1941 France surrendered to Germans and they were threatened with internment, they marched over to Palestine, which was under the British who welcomed additional troops. Carpathian Brigade took its name from the Karpaty Mountains, at the south of Poland, which they had to cross to get to Hungary or Romania. During the African Campaign, they were sent to Tobruk on a destroyer, where they were recognized for their bravery. They were also participating in the battles for Gazala and other battles during the campaign against the Africa Corps. When Polish troops arrived to Iraq, the Carpathian Brigade was consolidated with the rest of the Polish Army, forming the Second Polish Corps. We, the youngsters coming to the Army, viewed them as heroes, envious that they already had the opportunity to taste German blood. We had to wait for our turn. They were aware that they had a reputation throughout the allied forces as gallant fighters and capitalized on that by total disregard of military regulations. Everybody had brown, officers shoes, their uniforms were neatly tailored, they wore neckties, and having extra pay for their front service, which they did not have opportunity to spend in the desert, they had plenty of money. Compared to us, the newcomers from Russia, they were lords.
In Khanaquin we got the first taste of military discipline. We noticed that the roll was not always called at the morning assembly of the troops. Since we did not have any definite assignment or duties, four of us decided to go sunbathing rather than stay in the camp and risking that might be assigned to some duties. Our absence was discovered and we were severely reprimanded.
In Khanaquin there was a commission that recruited for the Polish Parachute Brigade that was in training in Scotland. At that time I knew that Wladek was somewhere in England, and I thought that it would be nice to be with him together. Serving together with Wladek, my older brother, flattered me enormously. In addition, I thought that certainly, the paratroopers will be the first Polish troops that will come to Poland. Again, my dream of glory, to bring freedom to my country would be more realistic if I were a paratrooper. I saw myself marching through the streets of Warsaw, crowd of people welcoming us with flowers, and we would be marching proudly bringing freedom to the country we love. It would be like in those books that I read as a small boy about the legionnaires from the Napoleonic times that came to Poland after fighting for freedom of Poland in foreign lands.
Unfortunately, it was never to be. Ryszard, Jurek and Brunon were accepted after a short physical exam without any questions. To me the doctor said that I have "noises in my heart" presumably after typhus. But I never found out what was his real motivation for my rejection. After the physical, he spent with me a long time questioning me about my family, where are my parents, who will take care of my parents if I get killed, and finally he said that I have a better chance to survive the war if I stay in the regular army. I don't know if his decision was due to my health or his concern about my family, my parents and myself. To the best of my knowledge he did not question my friends that way. I was very envious that my friends were accepted to the paratroopers and I was rejected. However, I will never know if I should be grateful to him for his decision or not. Polish Paratroop Brigade participated in the operation Market Garden in Arnheim, Holland, where they got pretty bad beating. Although my friends survived there were many casualties in this engagement.
In the army you don't question decisions of your superiors; I knew that much. Shortly after that I received an assignment to the 12 Podolski Lancers Regiment. The name Podolski is from the Podole region in Poland, where the Regiment was stationed before the war. This was a recognizance regiment of the Polish II Corps. I was very glad that I was assigned to the lancers regiment. Throughout history of Poland cavalry was the pride of the army. Polish history abounds in historical facts when Polish cavalry, sometimes outnumbered one to ten, in one charge defeated their enemy. Specially it should be noted the hussars, who at that time, in 16th and 17th centuries, were something like the panzer divisions. They were heavily armed, big men on big horses, they were charging with such an impact that nobody could resist them. That was the case at the siege of Vienna, in 1683, when Polish hussars put Turks on the run, at the battle of Kirholm, in 1605, where 4770 Poles defeated 14,000 Suedes. Polish cavalry made a name for itself on other occasions. At the canyon of Samosierra in Spain, Polish lancers in one charge took the Spanish positions defended by eight artillery batteries that the entire French army was trying to overrun in vain.
The regiment was in Quizil Ribat (Hot Frying Pan in Arabic) in the middle of Iraq. Of course, the lancers of the Podolski Regiment did not have horses. They had American armored cars Staghound and British infantry carriers on tracks. The Staghound had a 37 mm. cannon and two machine guns "Browning" 7.62 mm., one of which was synchronized with the cannon and manned by the front gunner and the other was in the turret. The cannon was very accurate. I remember one case later on, in Italy, when the Germans having a machine gun were defending a farm house. Our lancers were approaching their positions on foot in frontal attack. One of our Staghounds approached the Germans from a side and by shooting right over their heads did not allow them to raise their heads high enough to effectively shoot at our men. Eventually, our lancers could approach them close enough to throw some grenades and destroy the resistance nest.
I was assigned to the mortar platoon. We had an infantry carrier. There were five men to one mortar, and there were six mortars in a platoon. Each mortar was on one carrier. A carrier was a small vehicle on tracks, and normally it had two men: the driver and a gunner, who had a "Bren" machine gun. We had to squeeze five men in the vehicle and in addition we had to take as much ammunition as we could because you never knew when additional supply of ammo will be available. It was very cozy.
When they were forming Headquarters Squadron, where my platoon was, the other squadrons were already formed. In forming our squad the commanders of the line squads had the opportunity to get rid off all the elements that they did not want to have in their squads. As a result of this my platoon consisted of people that were not exactly the best citizens. Their average education was maybe three grades of elementary school. We had a collection of people who before the war were hobos, one did not hide a fact that his main source of income was stealing, another was working only occasionally at such jobs as shoveling snow. There were a few farmers. Some of them were called in the army in 1937, as conscripts, and were in the army already five years. I was the only one who went to "Gimnazjum" (high school) at all, never mind that I went to the third grade of Gimnazjum. They looked at me as if I were from a zoo. Small wonder, that the initial welcome that I received from the rest of the platoon was not very friendly. I don't mean to say that I was beaten or abused in any way, but I was not one of "them". Digging latrines or guard duties at the worst time (between 2 and 4 AM) and the worst places was often assigned to me. And the guard duty was the worst thing that could be on the agenda. Standing in the middle of the night at about 3:00 in the morning, in the middle of a desert, when hot breeze is blowing, sometimes I could give my right arm for a comfortable bed. At times I was so sleepy that I was half conscious of what was going around me. And the time was so slow, five minutes seemed to be like eternity. I think, at that time I learned to sleep in standing position.
After a relatively short time things began to change. I remember one of the guys came to me and in a most friendly manner asked me to address an envelope to his girl friend "the way they write in an office." Another came and asked to write a nice, "hot letter to Kazia", his girl friend. Although I did not have much experience in amorous correspondence, I challenged my imagination and composed the letter that he liked. Couple of weeks later he came to me again with a bar of chocolate, with a big smile on his face and asked me to write another letter to "Kazia" as a response to her letter to him. Apparently, my letter to Kazia did have favorable results. Little by little, the attitude of my colleagues changed. I became a very important member of the platoon. Later, when we went to Italy and in combat, I quickly learned Italian. My position in the platoon became even more important, because I was needed not only as an interpreter by my friends in the platoon, but I was known in the entire regiment as one who can communicate with the Italians. I was asked by various officers to help them in various matters that needed an interpreter. I developed close ties with this bunch of primitive but essentially good men and enjoyed their company.
During the summer months that we were in Kizil - Ribat heat was oppressive. I think the temperature was reaching 120°F in shade. In May any grass that was in the area was burned out. We had tropical hats, and we did not have any duties from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Our main relief from the heat was the nearby river where we used to go swimming. We received our equipment, our carriers, 3 inch mortars (British), our Enfield rifles and other elements of standard military equipment. Our daily exercises consisted mainly of operating the mortars, learning how to quickly mount in a firing position and zeroing in on a target. Additionally, we were learning handling the side arms and all about our vehicles. Everybody had to know how to drive a truck and a carrier.
We did not have any contact with the natives. The Iraqis were not friendly with us since we were in the British army and they were trying to gain their independence from the British domination. Besides that there was a language barrier. There was a strong movement towards independence of Iraq and on many occasions they tried to steal our weapons. In one case, the natives working in the camp tied a rope to one of the artillery pieces during the day, and at night they tried to steal it by pulling the rope from a distance. The soldier guarding the equipment could not believe his eyes: the gun was moving by itself (of course, he could not see the rope in the darkness). Fortunately, alerted the rest of his detachment and they chased the thieves away. Sometimes, the Iraqis were more bold. There were several cases of drive-by-shooting of a guard. Our guards were doubled and were given orders to give one warning and then shoot to kill.
I don't remember the month when we moved from Kizil- Ribat, which is located in the central part of Iraq, to Altun Kopru, near Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. Nothing changed in our daily life, except the natives there were the Kurds, mean looking guys. They also hated the British and we had to be very careful about everything that was going on around us.
At that time the orders came that there will be a high school organized and those who were in high school before going to the Army will be able to continue their education. I went for the examination and I was qualified to the fourth grade of Gimnazjum (tenth grade in the American system). I was asked to describe and give examples of chemical, thermal and mechanical types of energies that result in work done. I was not an exam in the strict meaning of the word. They wanted to see how you handle yourself, what is your command of the language, and in general, intellect of a person.
Sometime in April or May of 1943, we learned about the Katyn Massacre. The mood in the regiment was very subdued. There were rumors about mass killing of Polish officers captured by the Soviets during the 1939 campaign, but these were only rumors. Now it was sad confirmation of these rumors. Many officers in my regiment knew that their friends were taken to prison by the Reds and they knew that they would be in one of these mass graves found near Katyn. Actually, only about 4,500 bodies were found in Katyn. Another 15,000 Polish officers were never accounted for. For years the Reds denied that they had anything to do with this mass murder, blaming the Germans for it. Finally, in 1993, many years later, after collapse of the Soviet regime, they admitted that the Polish officers were killed on direct orders from Stalin. I am convinced that if Wladek did not manage to get out from the Soviet captivity in Brzesc he would be among them.
PALESTINE AND EGYPT
In August our 2-nd Polish Corps was moved to Palestine. The trip was interesting. We went in trucks through Jordan, through the desert, through completely deserted land. Our cooks went always ahead of the main body of the regiment and when we arrived to the place where we were to spend a night, food was already prepared. The military had stations established for the troops at certain points, so that we did not have to bother with putting up our tents. The passage took about a week.
Climate in Palestine was much nicer than that in Iraq. Many of the Jews came from Poland and they spoke Polish. They were friendly with us, many remembering with nostalgia their native towns and villages. Wherever we came there were always some people calling us "our boys", asking if there is anybody from some town that they came from. Soon after our arrival our soldiers established friendly relations with the better half of the population, both Jewish and Arab, specially by frequenting certain houses that financial status was based on the amorous sentiments of young men. Many of them did not pay attention to the deplorable conditions of personal hygiene of residents of these houses and as a result there was a real epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases.
At that time Jews and Arabs were already fighting the British in their struggle for independence. They very often set mines on roads and detonated them by remote control from a distance. In all fairness, I have to admit that they recognized the fact that although we were part of the 8th British Army, we were neutral in their fight for freedom. They requested our command that the signs on our trucks be made large and visible from afar in order not to take them for British. I think it was soon after our departure when they bombed the David Hotel. This was the hotel that was housing many British officers and their families. Jewish organization warned the British many times that they are going to plant a bomb there, and every time the British evacuated the premises. After many warnings they started to ignore them. This is what the Jews were waiting for. One day they did explode a bomb with devastating results. There were many casualties. They did other acts of terrorism, for example they kidnapped and murdered a British judge, they attacked British soldiers if they found him somewhere alone, or even in a group of two or three. Every building housing a British office or a residence of British officers was surrounded by barbed wires and barricade of sacks with sand. Very often there was also a guard with a machine gun. The entire Palestine was one big military camp.
But the Jews were quite friendly to us. During our maneuvers, one of carriers broke down. Our boys went to a nearby kibbutz (Jewish collective farm) and asked for help. They had to wait for three days for our repair unit. Meanwhile, they stayed at the kibbutz. They said that they were treated like kings. They were fed, taken care in every way and their hosts were very friendly.
In Palestine, the military authorities organized a high school by the 3-rd Carpathian Division. At that time we became the reconnaissance regiment of the 3-rd Division, and I was sent to the school. Our teachers were recruited from officers that had anything to do with education before the war. We hardly had any books. Teachers had to rely on their knowledge and memory regarding the subject matter and we had to make copious notes of everything that was said in the class to have something to study from. Everybody realized that these were not the best conditions to study, but it was the best that was available, so there was no room for complaints. During that time we had the opportunity to go to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and other places known to us from the Bible. In recognition of our odyssey, the Church considered us to be pilgrims we given the right to receive the Silver Cross of Jerusalem (for Ł3.00). We were supposed to be in the high school for five months. But soon after we started our classes the orders were changed. After 1˝ month we were sent to our regiments and we participated in big exercises together with some British troops that lasted two weeks.
We knew that after that we will be sent to combat in Italy. Our rumors proved to be correct, and at the end of November we went to Egypt. This time we went by train. Our new stop was a large British encampment in Quassassin, near the town of Ismaila. There I took the opportunity to visit the pyramids. I went inside the pyramid of Cheops, which is the largest of the group of pyramids that we saw. We went by a long, narrow corridor, sloping down, a distance that seemed to be several hundreds feet, at the end of which there was several large rooms with stone walls. In one of them, which was supposed to be housing a sarcophagus of a young princess, was an old Egyptian woman who was fortune telling. I gave her some money and asked her if I will come from this war alive, wounded or I will be killed. She told me that I will be wounded. I did not attach a lot of weight to her predictions but nevertheless, when we were in action, many a time at the back of my head there was a thought that maybe in the next few moments I will be wounded or dead. Fortunately, she proved to be wrong. I was impressed by the ventilation system that they had in the pyramid. There was no mechanical devices, such as fans or similar, yet, the air was quite fresh.
In Egypt, we had a short get together for the students of the high school. We did not have any classes but we were given some books, I don't remember which, and were told to study them and that we will be called for examinations. In view of the forthcoming trip to combat nobody took this advice seriously. Everybody was talking about going to Italy, but there were quiet rumors that we may be sent to Turkey. Finally, sometime in the middle of December, we were loaded on transport ships and away we went to Italy.
DECEMBER 1942 THROUGH APRIL 1943
I will never forget the trip through the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. Our regiment was located in the very head and the lowest part of the ship. There was no storm but the sea was rolling and it seemed that it goes ten stories up and ten stories down. We were given hammocks and after sundown everybody had to clear the decks because of a blackout. Germans were still occupying Crete and German submarines were patrolling the area. Violation of that rule was punishable with incarceration. I tried to lay down to sleep in the hammock, but after a few minutes I became violently sick. I went to the bathroom which was full of sea sickness sufferers like me. After several attempts to lay down on my hammock I realized that it is an effort in futility, and decided to do something about it. I knew that if get caught on the deck I will be put in the brig. Nevertheless, I sneaked out from the cabin and hid myself behind some boards that I found on the deck in the midsection of the ship. I spent there the next three nights. During the nights I heard the MPs patrolling the deck, but nobody bothered to check my hideout. After three nights I got sufficiently adjusted to the rocking of the ship that I could stay below.
We sailed along the African coast to the point until we were opposite Italy where we could cross the Mediterranean Sea. Our was a Dutch ship, I don't know the size but seemed to me that it was a large vessel. There were many ships in the convoy, surrounded by destroyers that were always going back and for looking for the U boats. One time we had an alarm but no depth charges were fired. Apparently it was a false alarm. I looked at the water below and often I thought that I may be jumping down there if we were torpedoed. The water was not very inviting.
After five days we arrived to Taranto, Italy, which is located at the base of the heel of the Italian boot on December 21, 1943. British authorities who were in charge of supplies were not prepared for the influx of so many troops and as a result we did not have anything to eat. But we managed to exchange with the local farmers a few things that we had for wine, and there is no worse combination than an empty stomach and a bottle of wine. Before long many of my friends were drunk. This could end up in a very tragic way. During the Christmas Vigil dinner, at the officers club, they were just about ready to have toast when somebody, apparently after a few drinks shot a series of bullets from a Thompson gun through the officers club tent. Fortunately nobody was hurt, but it could be bad. Next day, on Christmas day, we had to pay for it. Half of the day we spent on search for live ammo and equipment inspection and after lunch we were taken on the worst march that we ever had: full equipment, running, several kilometers over a rugged terrain. Everybody was exhausted to the limit.
Weather was nothing to brag about, it was raining most of the time. We were sleeping in our tents for two people, on the ground covered with whatever one could put on it to make his bed more comfortable. I collected some dead tree branches and put my blanket on it. It was not very comfortable, but at least I had something between my body and the damp ground. But we had some bright moments too. Many of us made some attempts to contact local signorinas with varying success.
We stayed near Taranto for about six weeks. Our daily duties consisted mainly of long marches, with full equipment, in other words preparing us for combat. Sometimes in the middle of February, we started on our way up north. We went through Bari, the place that was home of one of Polish queens, wife of king Zygmunt I of Vasa dynasty. Then we passed Foggia which was badly bombed by the allies. Further north, after Campobasso, we went into the mountains which were covered with heavy snow. Finally we arrived to Agnone, where we established regimental headquarters. After a couple weeks of staying in Agnone we proceeded to the front line. Our platoon was assigned to the place called Pescopennataro. We walked in a file, the road was covered with snow, walking was possible through a narrow footpath. Fog was so dense that visibility was limited to a couple of feet. Our equipment was carried by mules. After several hours of march we arrived to Pescopennataro, which was our first combat position.
Pescopennataro was a small village that was almost completely destroyed. There were just a few houses that could be called habitable, and a church. The church had a big hole in the roof but some of the floor areas were relatively dry. Most of our soldiers stayed in the church. The village was destroyed by the retreating Germans, who mined practically everything. We were located in a stable that was used to house a goat. It was stinky, and there was indisputable evidence and identity of the previous occupants, but it provided a roof over our heads. It took us a while to clean the place to the extent that we could occupy it, we installed wooden berth beds and we moved in.
Several armies passed through Pescopennataro. First the Canadian troops took it from the Germans. Then came Polish commandos. After them, some British troops came, and finally us. Everybody put some mines so that only the local Italians could tell us where were the areas free of mines. Nobody knew for sure if any area was free of mines. One could only guess.
The village was situated on a edge of a deep ravine, couple of hundred feet deep, that was part of river Sangro. The river, narrow in dry periods and very wide and deep in time of rains and melting of snow, was in the valley that was about three kilometers wide. Germans were on the other side of the valley in town called Gamberole. When we came, as I mentioned before it was very foggy. I was taken to the place which was between two huge rocks ant told:
"Germans are that way - if you see anybody coming from this side - shoot"
I could not see more than 2 or 3 feet away. At that time I did not realize that right behind these two rocks there is about two hundred feet vertical drop and nobody could climb that cliff without being noticed. After staying at that post for a couple of days, I noted a lieutenant who from a distance was calling me to come to him. Being a the guard duty, I did not want to leave my post, until our platoon commander himself came and explained that the spot where we were standing is heavily mined and the only reason that the mines did not exploded was the fact that the snow was thick enough to form a crust that protected us from detonation of the mines. Naturally, we quickly moved our post to a safer area.
Activities during our stay on Sangro were limited to patrolling the area, trying to get as much information about the enemy as possible. But it was a deadly game. The danger was from the mines that were literally everywhere and also from the enemy. Each side tried to ambush the other usually with some deadly results. I remember the first casualty, one of our soldiers was killed by a mine. It had a sobering effect on me. I realized that it is not just playing soldiers, it is not a game anymore, but a serious business that people are killed. I could not help, in spite of all the hatred I had for Germans, to be saddened when one of our patrols killed a German soldier and they brought his letter to his mother that apparently he did not have a chance to mail. At that time it came to me that it could be me, that he had a mother somewhere that was waiting for a letter from him just as mine is waiting for letters from me. And she will never get that last letter that he wrote, but she will be notified that her son was killed "on the field of glory." Glory? It isn't very glorious to be a stiff corpse. And when one dies it hurts the same, and everybody dies the same way, be it a German, Pole, British or anybody else. Many a time, when I was standing on a guard duty, I thought that somewhere, on the other side of the valley there is a young fellow just like me, and although he is determined to kill me if he had a chance, he has somebody who wants him to come out alive from this terrible war. But then my thoughts would go to those places in Poland where Germans were gorging themselves in the orgy of bestiality, slaughtering innocent people, women, children, I thought of the air raids on open cities where hundreds of civilians were killed, about machine gunning of civilian refugees on the roads from the planes, about hundreds of hostages shot without any reason. Then my hatred for Germans and everything that was connected with them would take over and only a desire of revenge would dominate my feelings. I guess every soldier has these kind of thoughts at least once in a while. But when you are in combat you don't have time for hesitation and meditation. It's either you or him. I never had a situation when I had to kill somebody in men to men combat, and I am glad.
During our stay at Pescopennataro, by the end of March, we received the orders that those who were at the school in Palestine should report for the examinations from their respective classes. That was the episode that I will never forget. All roads in the area were blown up, and only way for supplies to be brought was by mules. Snow was several meters deep. It was so deep that a convoy of mules with the Indian escort was buried in the snow and we had to go out and dig them out. Some of the Indians had severe frostbites, but I don't think any of them died. German patrols were in the area, so that the trip was not very safe. On that morning, three of us, took our rifles, hand grenades and our books in the knapsack and we set out on our way. After about ten kilometers of walking in the trail, in the snow, we came to the road that was already plowed and a truck took us to Agnone. From there we were sent for the exam. The atmosphere at the examination rooms was not what one would expect in a school. Everybody, including the examiners, was more interested in what is going on at the frontline than in the exams. We were talking about the action that took place, about the losses, who was killed, wounded, etc. Finally, it came to my mind that I am going to the examination at the level of 4-th year of Gimnazjum (10-th year of high school) and I don't even know about Pythagorean Theorem. I went to one of the teachers and asked him to explain to me all about it. He was the math teacher. He did spend time with me, and when I came to him for the exam, he gave me a question which required an application of the theorem (given two sides of a right angle triangle find the third). In general, the exam was aiming at testing general intelligence of the student, rather than any specific knowledge. Young officers were needed in a hurry because they are the prime target in a war. In order to be qualified for a officer cadet school one had to have at least 4 years of Gimnazjum. Hence the rush. So, that is how I completed my Gimnazjum.
MONTE CASSINO: APRIL 30 - MAY 23
Battle of Monte Cassino has been written about extensively so I will not waste time describing it in general terms. I will limit myself to my experiences and my opinions.
Sometime at the beginning of April we were taken out from the Sangro Line to a camp near Campobasso, which is located in the central part of the Italian peninsula. We spent there about three weeks during which again we went through an extensive and exhaustive physical training. Finally, we were told that we are going to be sent to Monte Cassino and we knew what that meant. We saw from Pescopennataro flashing of artillery salvos and we knew that the Allies are getting a bloody nose over there. We heard about the fiasco at Anzio, and when the news broke about us going to Monte Cassino, we knew that not everybody will come back.
We came to the Cassino area on April 30, 1944. Our temporary camp was in an olive orchard, few kilometers from the Cassino town. It was about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, when I went to the edge of the orchard and took a look at the monastery. There was a valley in front of me, maybe four kilometers wide and at the other end of the valley there were rather steep mountains, about 500 feet high. To the left, I could see a powerful mountain, covered with smoke, and the ruins of once beautiful monastery. There was one thing that impressed me: between our orchard and the hills the valley was covered with beautiful, red poppies. Beauty of these flowers was in striking contrast with the grim brutality of war. Later on when we were already in battle, when I wanted to divert myself from the reality of our situation, I often looked at these beautiful flowers and I always could find a relief in thinking that somewhere life is going on, serene, happy, where people go about their daily chores, life so different from ours. These poppies were in a striking contrast with our immediate surrounding: death, death and once more death. Maybe there is some truth in the song composed for us, "Red Poppies of Conte Cassino", that says that they will be more red than before because they soaked a lot of Polish blood...
Looking at this panoramic view it was evident that the enemy, situated on the top of the hills, had an excellent view into the valley and the slopes of the hills, where our troops were located. At that time I did not know the whole history of the battle of Monte Cassino. I did not know that the fighting for these mountains was going for four months, but I knew that it was a tough going, and that we will be going up those hills next. Looking at the chain of hills in front of me I could see explosions of artillery shells here and there. Our artillery was shelling some enemy positions hidden in folds of the mountains.
We were told to deliver to the headquarters all papers that could identify us by name or by the regiment. All personal papers, letters to our families, documents etc., had to be collected and left with the regimental office. The only thing that we were allowed to retain were the dog tags, and the equipment that consisted of one blanket, mess kit, and of course, our side arms, in my case my rifle, and ammo. We were given sneakers, or sometimes rubber boots, and, I think it was 31-st of April, as soon as it became dark, we started our march towards the hills. We were told that any talk while marching is forbidden, because the enemy could hear it and that would bring on us artillery fire. Truck and carrier drivers and regimental administration remained with the headquarters.
At the foot of the hills there was a fast flowing Rapido river, which we crossed through a wooden bridge. On the other side of the river there were some barracks, in varying degree of destruction. We were stopped from further march, up the hills, because what we had to climb was a narrow foot path. A convoy with mules was coming down in the opposite direction and the foot path was too narrow to accommodate two columns - one going down and the other going up. Climbing the hills outside of the foot path was impossible due to land mines scattered everywhere. We waited for the convoy on the small yard near the barracks, packed like sardines, for about half of an hour and then resumed our trip. When we climbed far enough that the last men from our regiment were leaving our waiting area by the barracks, few artillery or mortar shells exploded right where our regiment was not long ago. If the Germans did fire on us few minutes earlier there would be a bloody mess. We were so close together that any shell would result in a massive carnage. We were walking in complete silence, it is hard to estimate how long did we walk, but finally we reached the positions of our predecessors. I think they were British. We did not have to change anything as far as our equipment is concerned: they had their mortars in place with various targets marked. One of them was the monastery. It was difficult to orient myself where we were at that time. On the basis of what I read about our movements during that period we must have been somewhere in the area of the Great Bowl ("Wielka Miska"). After two days we were moved, during night of course, to the left end of the Polish forces, to the hills almost overlooking the town of Cassino. Further to the left of us were some troops from the XIII British Corps. I sheared my shelter with Stefan Strasz. He was a carpenter before the war. He was square-built man and strong as a horse. But he was a great companion. Together we found some wooden beams which we brought to our post and we built our shelter. We could not dig it in the ground because there was a rock right at the surface, so it had to be made on the surface. We found a ruined shed that had concrete floor and one concrete wall against the mountain. We leaned our beams against the vertical wall, put some material to protect us from rain and this was our shelter. It was just big enough that two men could sleep there. The shed floor was not bigger than 12 feet square and our shelter was about 4 feet wide. Germans were shelling us, probably with mortars, usually at night. One shell exploded right next to our shelter. It wasn't more than two feet from us. It was probably a mortar shell, or a howitzer, because the trajectory would be too steep for an field artillery piece. During the shelling I experienced for the first time claustrophobia. When somebody is locked up in a dangerous situation there is an overwhelming desire to get out on an open field, away from the enclosure. The common sense tells you that it is safer to stay where you are, nevertheless, one wants to get out. I experienced this feeling many times. Sometimes, I was in my carrier, on the road that was shelled by artillery. There was that urge to get out from the carrier and lay down somewhere in a ditch, though it was safer in the carrier, because unless there was a direct hit, carrier protected me from fragments of an exploded shell. A carrier had no roof but had about ˝ inch steel walls that offered some protection from machine guns firing and shrapnels.
We knew that there will be an offensive on the monastery, and that we will be playing a major role. Being in the mortar platoon we were not in the most advanced positions, but we were quite close to the enemy. Our shelter was camouflaged and could not be seen by Germans, but we had to walk with our heads down, otherwise there was an immediate fire. Our line platoons were so close to Germans that they could throw hand grenades at them. Sometimes, when our advanced positions required us to fire on Germans, some of our shells landed among our own troops due to vicinity to Germans. Yet, they did not allow us to fire further from them because, they claimed, our firing would be behind the enemy lines. There was always a shortage of food and water. Everything had to be brought by mules or in the final stage by men. Sometimes the mules were scattered around on the way up by German fire, got blown up on the mines, and only a fraction of the supplies arrived. Fortunately, at the bottom of the hills we found an old, American food warehouse. It was destroyed by artillery but there was a lot of cans with all kinds of food laying around. We found a safe path to get there and when we needed food we would go there to supplement our rations.
The area was a living testimony of what war is all about. There was not one tree that did have its branches green with leaves. There were only naked limbs, stumps, sticking out here and there. Grass has disappeared also. Bare rocks, covered with dust, unfriendly, were everywhere. Also, there was a testimony of what was there in the past - dead bodies. Some were half decomposed, some half covered with dust or whatever dirt could be scraped from the surface, in most cases, they were covered with lime. These were the reminders of the ferocious fighting that was going there for four months, since January, when the American 34-th and 36-th Division made the first assault, crossed the Rapido river just to be decimated by the Germans. Both of these fine divisions were practically ceased to exist as a fighting force. The entire history of the battle could be read from these corpses. There were corpses of the Americans, Germans, Gurkhas, British soldiers, some with their faces half eaten by insects, mice or other animals, darkened by time, empty eyes, with only teeth shining. Odor from these decomposing bodies was suffocating. They were all quiet now, resting in their eternal sleep after the dance of death a few months ago. Every time I looked at one of them a sad thought was going through my mind: when will I be like them? In this situation I realized that the odds are against me, that it is just a matter of time when my number will come up and sooner or later I will be looked at just the way I looked at these dead men, who at one time were young, vigorous, full of life and hopes for future. And look at them now.
And flies. They were big, fat, gorging themselves on the dead, decomposing bodies. Stink of death was everywhere. And there, down below was that beautiful valley full of red poppies. At times it was hard to realize the contrast: here an atmosphere of death and destruction and there beauty, peace and quiet. I thought: how these two worlds can coexist sided by side. But that how it was.
North of the monastery there was a chain of mountains that was considered to be crucial to the success of the offensive. Our role in the assault was to secure the left wing of the 3-rd Battalion of the 3-rd Carpathian Division which was opposite the famous Hill 593, full of German bunkers. For that reason, our most advanced troops, 2-nd and 3-rd squadrons (in cavalry we had squadrons rather than battalions, which were in infantry) were very close to Germans. Of course, under these conditions any movement had to be confined to a night time only and even then in complete silence. Distance between our most advanced positions to the monastery was about 700 m and to the closest German bunkers only 80 -100 m. Germans were on the Hill 445 and a small place called D'Onufrio, which dominated the entire sector of the front. About 900 m north behind the first line of our positions was the regimental HQ, located in a house that was demolished by artillery fire, but at the lower level there were two rooms that did provide some shelter. About 500 m to the east of the regimental HQ was the 1-st squadron, in reserve. Our mortars were located somewhere south of the regimental HQ. It is difficult to locate our positions exactly, because hills look different in the terrain than on a map. The description of our positions location that is given here is on the basis of the available information provided in the history of the 12-Podolski Lancers Regiment, "Ulani Podolscy", and the "History of the 3-rd Infantry Division," (History) Vol. I, which are written in Polish. The History reports that even before the offensive (4-th Battle of Monte Cassino) started the total losses of the 3-rd Carpathian Division were 236 men, including officers, due to the constant shelling of our positions by Germans.
The offensive started with an artillery barrage exactly at 11:00 PM, on May 11, 1944. I never saw anything like it. The entire area where the olive orchards were was in constant fireworks. I saw similar pictures of the artillery barrage in movies, about the battle of El Alamain, in Africa. One could hear the noise of artillery shells in the air. The Germans were quiet for a while. After some time German batteries started to respond. We found out later on that our artillery did not do much damage to the Germans on the front line. They had two kinds of shelters: one type was combat shelters, for firing at us and the other to protect them from our artillery and air bombardment, to rest and sleep. The combat shelters were well camouflaged, most of them were made out of steel pillboxes, encased in the rock. One of the problems that our attacking forces encountered was that they did not have reconnaissance of the enemy nests of machine guns, and they had to figure out where the enemy is already being fired upon. And the Germans knew how to hide themselves...The shelters where they were sleeping were usually in large caves, protected from air attacks and artillery fire. They had their supplies there, their temporary medical facilities, and so on. Thus when our artillery started to fire they took refuge in the shelters that were prepared for that purpose and did not suffer many casualties. When our infantry started to advance they went to their firing shelters and our troops met a stiff resistance. Another thing that is worth to note, and not mentioned in many books, is the fact that when the offensive started Germans were releasing the troops that were at the Cassino complex. Thus although they perhaps suffered more casualties in the first stage of the battle, they could mount their counterattacks with greater strength than it would be if only the initial garrison of soldiers was there.
Organization of our forces was modeled by the British system. The 12-th Podolski Lancers Regiment had in combat group three squadrons, each consisting of 9 officers and 80 troops. Additionally, there was a platoon of each: mortars, anti-tank guns, signals, administration, mechanical repairs, and other services, such as health, chaplain, etc. In infantry the basic unit was a battalion, consisting of three companies, 120 troops and 5 officers each, plus some services. Total number of men in a battalion was 808 soldiers and 37 officers.
At first, the assault of 2-nd Battalion, 1-st Brigade of the 3-rd Carpathian Division was successful. They quickly took Hill 593 and moved towards Hill 569. But then the Germans counterattacked. It is difficult to determine how many counterattacks Germans did make. After several German counterattacks, our infantry, exhausted, decimated, lacking ammunition had to withdraw. Losses of the infantry were terrible. Out of the three companies of the 2-nd battalion came back 5 officers, and 37 enlisted men. Total losses, killed, wounded and lost in action in the battalion were 216.
Forth Company of the 3-rd Battalion was supporting the 2-nd Battalion in their attack on Hill 593, also suffered appalling losses. Together with their commanding officer, ten soldiers came back out of the entire company.
Simultaneously with the attack on Hill 593 by the 2-nd Battalion, the 1-st Battalion attacked Mass Albaneta, north of Hill 593. Again, after fighting all night and good part of the next day, May 12, the battalion had to retreat to the original positions with a loss of 216 men. It should be noted, that it is difficult to establish the percentage of the losses with respect to the number of people participating in the assault, because only certain fraction of the battalion was participating.
Further north, tanks from the 4-th Panzer Regiment attempted to get on the "Gardziel." The road that they had to proceed was heavily mined by the predecessors, as well as Germans, and there was no information regarding mine fields. Sappers were removing mines for three nights prior of the offensive, but in spite of heavy losses, they cleared only 250 m. removing 59 mines. Having suffered heavy losses they had to retreat to the original positions.
Assuming that the assault of the 3-rd Carpathian Division were successful, the 12-th Podolski Lancers were supposed to attack Hill 445 (Colle D'onofrio) and then proceed towards the Monastery of Monte Cassino. In view of the failure of the attack on the 11 and 12 of May, the lancers were waiting for further orders.
Meanwhile, the 5-th Infantry Division, fighting north-east of the 3-rd Division was successful in taking the Phantom Ridge (Widmo).
On May 17, a new assault was made on Hill 593. This was to be the straw that was to break the camel's back. Our commanders knew that Germans were probably exhausted enough that if they are pushed just a little bit more they will decide that they had enough. They were right. Also, after many attempts and heroic efforts with heavy losses by the sappers to clear the mines some tanks showed up at the battle field. Through the entire day of May 17 fighting for the Hill 593 was going on. During the night of May 17/18 the it was relatively quiet. Germans, by loud speakers, voiced some propaganda mixed with insults from the monastery, and we answered them by means of our mortars.
In view of the successes of the 5-th Kresowa Division in the region of the Phantom Ridge prompted the division commander to order on May 18, at about 8:45 AM, to send a patrol from our regiment to find out what is the situation in the area of the monastery. They successfully crossed the mine field and reached the outer walls of the monastery. They found out that the Germans left the monastery during the night, leaving only 16 wounded, with two medics under a command of one officer cadet. The Germans were scared because their command told them that Poles murder their prisoners. Our men took care of the wounded, giving them the help that they could, and those who could walk were sent further to our area. It is interesting to note, that sometimes in 1970-s someone announced on German radio that Polish soldiers were killing their prisoners. To that answered one of those German paratroopers that was found by our patrol at the monastery, stating that it was a lie, that he was one of the wounded soldiers found by the Polish patrol on the 18-th of May, and that he was provided with medical care and was treated very well. The 3-rd Carpathian Division Association got involved in the act and arranged a meeting between this ex-German paratrooper and Lt. Gurbiel, the commander of that first patrol that entered the monastery. It must have been some meeting. It must have been similar to that I had on May 18, 1994 with the Germans ex-paratroopers at Monte Cassino. At that time, it was on the occasion of the 50-th anniversary of taking the Monastery, there was a big celebration at the Polish cemetery. Iza and I went with a group from Washington to Italy, and the trip was scheduled that on the 18-th of May we were at Monte Cassino. I met some of my friends, and we started to go through the surrounding hills trying to find some familiar places. Suddenly, from one of the houses there, came three German veterans who came like us to visit German cemetery which is in a nearby village. They told us that were in the 1-st Parachute Division, the one that we had against us during the battle. They were quite friendly to us, so we started talking to them. It was a funny conversation: we were telling them how we tried to kill them and they were telling us how they did their best to kill us. But soon we found common language. This was the first time that I was so close to German soldiers alive. They showed us their decorations, we showed them ours. They told us about another meeting with veterans from New Zealand whom they met day before. They showed us a hill where five New Zealand tanks got to. They were all destroyed, by the these German's detachment and the crew killed, with one exception: one of the New Zealanders got away. Day before our arrival he came to visit Monte Cassino and they met that man. That must have been some meeting too...
At 9:50 AM a banner of our regiment was placed at the highest point of the ruins of the monastery as a signal that it was taken by our forces. This banner is now in the General Sikorski Institute in London.
City of Cassino was also taken by the British 10-th Brigade of the XIII Corps. Although by this time Germans were emerging from cellars and dugouts to give themselves up, sporadic fighting continued throughout the day. Mines, some fanatical paratroopers that did not receive orders to withdraw were still shooting at our troops, taking a tall of our soldier's lives.
So, the battle of Monte Cassino came to an end. We left our positions on May 24. I will never forget, when we were leaving the Cassino area, we were passing close to the temporary cemetery. Long columns of bodies wrapped in blankets were laying waiting for burial. It had a chilling effect on me and on my buddies. We all realized that we were all very close to be among these less fortunate, who not long ago were young men, full of vigor and dreams about future, having somewhere somebody dear, who was praying for their safe return that will never come about. Our regiment did not suffer as heavy losses as infantry battalions: killed were one officer and 17 noncommissioned officers and lancers; wounded seven officers and 68 noncommissioned officers and lancers. Total losses were 93 soldiers which was one-quarter of the total manpower engaged in combat.
We had against us crack German division of paratroopers. The 1-st Paratroop Division was under the command of 48 year old Gen. Richard Heindrich. Directly against us was the third regiment of the 1-st division. Further north there was the 100-th Mountain Regiment. Their defense was based on resistance points that could support each other in case of need with machine guns, mortars and other weapons. Their bunkers were well camouflaged and the attackers could find them only after being shot at. The paratroopers were well trained to fight in small groups or individually, tough, ruthless soldiers, recruited either from fanatical Nazis or from gullible young men who believed that they are the master race and soon the entire world will be under their domination. There were some cases that give testimony of their fanaticism. For example, a badly wounded soldier refused blood transfusion. He preferred to die rather to have his enemy's blood in his veins. Germans were using all kinds of tricks to increase our losses. For example, at one point just taken by our troops, a man appeared in British uniform, seating at a distance in front of our soldiers. When our guys started to call him in Polish and in English he disappeared. As soon as he was gone there was a barrage of mortar shells on our troops. Evidently, he was a German sent to find out about location of our troops. Upon leaving the monastery, Germans left a lot of mines with delayed detonators. One mine exploded in the area of the monastery five days after capture of the monastery. Among the prisoners taken near the monastery there were four officers including a battalion commander. Our commander of the convoy asked capt. Beyer, German officer, about the passage through the mine field.
"Even if knew I would not tell you. The mine field was put for you and you have to find it" - was the response.
In view of such a response they were ordered to go directly through the mine field. They went without saying anything. Four of them were killed by the exploding mines, but they did not reveal the safe passage.
After the battle our troops were very popular among the allies. Wherever we appeared we were welcomed as heroes of Monte Cassino. Sometimes, when somebody was hitchhiking, a high ranking officer be it a British, American or French, would stop invite us to his car, offer something to drink, take us wherever we wanted to go. One time we were drinking in a tavern, and at the neighboring table were some American soldiers. When they heard that we are talking Polish, one of them approached us and asked: "Polski? Polski?" When we said that we are Poles, they invited us to their table and we had a feast. Some of them were of Polish origin and they spoke some Polish, which helped us to communicate. From other tables came other American soldiers and we had to tell them about the battle, about our times in Siberia, how we got out from there, in other words the whole story. It impressed me then for the first time how little the world knows about the fact that close to two millions Poles were deported to Siberia. They thought that we ran away to Russia from Germans! Anyhow, we had a big time together, and our American friends brought us to our quarters at wee hours.
The Italian campaign in general and battle of Monte Cassino in particular, has been a subject of controversy right from the beginning. There has been a lot written questioning the judgment of the ally commanders. Gen. J. F. C. Fuller, wrote that the entire campaign was "tactically the most absurd and strategically the most senseless campaign of the whole war" (History, Vol. I, p. 407). Gen. Francis Tuker, Commander of the 4-th Indian Division which was practically wiped out during the second battle of Monte Cassino wrote that the strategy of British commanders is an obsession that they have to attack the enemy at the point where he is strong rather that take advantage of his weakness ("...It is an extraordinary obsession in British commanders' minds that they must challenge the enemy's strength rather than play on his weakness. Perhaps it is a little bit unsporting to pit strength against weakness" - History, Vol. I, p. 408). Would it be easier to dislodge Germans from their positions elsewhere? Probably there is no answer to this question. Most of the Italian peninsula is covered with mountains, the terrain that is ideal to defensive warfare. The only other segment that could offer more favorable terrain conditions was on the Adriatic coast, a rolling type of countryside. That area would be favorable to a tank action and perhaps there Germans would be more vulnerable. But Cassino was on the way to Rome and it is well known that all generals are prim ballerinas anxious to get their name on front page of news papers. As a matter of fact, if Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the 5-th American Army, instead of going straight to Rome did strike retreating Germans across the Italian peninsula he could have cut off their several armies and therefore shorten the war in Italy by several months. Instead, pursuing his desire to be the first to take Rome, he went to the Eternal City allowing the Germans to sneak out unharmed. He was under congressional investigation for his tactics not only for his Rome handling, but even more so for his ill conceived offensive at Monte Cassino during the first battle in January 1943. At that time the Rapido river was swollen from heavy rains and launching and assault under these conditions was against any common sense. At that time the plan was for the US 36th (Texas) Division of the US II Corps to force crossings over the Gari river to enable Combat Command B of the US 1st Armored Division to pass through and debouch into the Liri Valley. The attack was a complete fiasco. Most of the troops of the 36-th Division did not even cross the river, much less of providing any menace to the well entrenched Germans. The entire division was practically wiped out.
When the frontal attack against the Liri valley entrance failed Clark decided to assault the Cassino complex from the north. He requested that the US 34th Infantry Division cross the Rapido river north of Cassino, approximately where we were going four months later, and attack southwards in the mountains north and behind Monte Cassino. This attack was coordinated with the General Juin's French Expeditionary Corps. The Americans penetrated the northern outskirts of the town but withdrew after strong German counter-attacks. At one point the lead troops of the 34th Division advanced within five hundred meters of Point 593 on Snakehead Ridge, and, on the left, they were on Point 445, little more than four hundred meters from the Abbey. But again, after bitter fighting , they they were forced to withdraw.
A lot has been said and written on the question if the Polish participation in the battle of Monte Cassino did contribute anything to the Polish cause. There is no easy answer. Maybe looking at the overall political arena will shed some light on the subject. There are those who say that at that time Poland's fate was already decided by the allies, our government in London knew that one third of Polish territory will be given to the Soviet Russia and the rest will be within her orbit. It is my understanding, that the allies were panicky about a possibility of separate treaty between Germany and Russia. They did it in 1918, during the WWI, and the allies thought that they could do it again. In the United States as well as in England, there was a wide spread hysteria regarding heroism of the Russian people and their suffering from Germans. This was amplified by the pro-communist press in England ("Daily Worker") and in the United States. At the instigation of the Soviet government, the press on both sides of the Atlantic was writing that Polish soldiers are pro-Nazi, they don't want to fight Germans, and by their departure from Russia at the time of German advances they proved their pro-German sympathies. On May 24, 1944 prime minister Churchill in the House of Commons, had a speech in which he developed his views on resolution of future of Poland. It was an agreement for giving part of Poland to Russia and the remaining part to be under Russian domination. Later he was more blunt. During his talk with Gen. Anders on February 21, he said that England does not need any Polish help because she has enough of troops, and therefore, "...you can take your divisions out, we will manage without them."
Situation in the United States was not much better regarding of Polish interests. Roosevelt and his advisers were all under the spell of communist propaganda. Their political philosophy was deprived of any moral scruples, any regard for the millions of peoples that will be thrown into Soviet Gulag. Their main objective was to be reelected for another term. It is well known from literature written after the war that when Roosevelt came to Jalta conference he did not even try to negotiate future of the Eastern Europe with Stalin. He agreed with his demands right away. This is what Churchill wrote in his memoirs. Churchill wrote that when he raised a question of Poland he was quieted down by Roosevelt. And Stalin knew what he wanted, at that time his armies were victorious pushing Germans to their fatherland. And later on nobody questioned his loyalty to the allies during the Warsaw uprising when Russian troops were on the left bank of the Vistula river while the insurgents were dying in the city. I read somewhere that during the uprising Russian soldiers were bathing in the Vistula river on one side and Germans were swimming on the other and they exchanged jokes in a friendly fashion. At the same time Polish uprising was being crushed by Germans. At one point Polish troops fighting along side of the Russians crossed the Vistula river suffering heavy losses to give some help to the insurgents. Russian command cut off any supplies to them and they had to withdraw.
It was obvious that although England's was participating in that infamous conference all the decisions were made by the two big partners: Russia and the United States. Of course, we soldiers in combat, did not know all the sordid details about machinations of the powers dividing Poland and deciding about lives of millions of people. We knew, however, about Russian advances and had many uneasy thoughts about our future. Later on I read about the political situation that was developing in London, Moscow and Washington.
There are those who say that in accepting the assignment of assaulting the monastery General Anders was motivated primarily by his ambition and perspective of personal gain. I don't believe this. I think, that he was aware of developing of the unfavorable political situation described above. He knew, that to refuse taking the assignment of participation in the battle would be like adding oil to the fire of the Soviet anti-Polish propaganda. At that he probably had illusions that some compromise will be worked out and Polish Army strong, proven its value, will be one of the factors in future negotiations and may change the history. Sure, the price was high. But it was the war, and in war people are killed. Yet, some accusations that our command was generous with Polish blood may be substantiated. I am thinking of the young boys who were sent to Italy from Cadet school in Palestine as soon as they reached the age of 18. Many of them were killed. Polish cause probably did not gain much by this, and it would be much better if instead of sending these untrained boys to be killed in Italy sent them to some universities to develop an new Polish intelligentsia which was so devastated by both Germans and Russians.
In summary, there will be probably many opinions about the battle of Monte Cassino in general and about Polish participation in it in particular. There will be some rationale on both sides of the argument. I think, that we were in a no-win situation. Polish people because of our geopolitical situation are condemned to suffer more than many others and bear sacrifices to preserve their identity and freedom. Our national life has been a struggle throughout the centuries and unless Polish people are willing to fight for their place in the international community they will go to extinction. "We are condemned to greatness" said Józef Pilsudski, the first marshal of Poland after regaining independence in 1918, after 123 years of partitioning between Russia, Germany and Austria. Maybe it sounds too pompous, but thinking about the unfortunate situation that Poland is, there is only one of the two alternatives: fight to the end or succumb to nothingness. We lost many battles in our history, and we won many victories. Poles are generally good in winning battles. They are not so successful in winning peace. But we will always be fighting for our right to exist, to preserve our identity and our place on the map. Poland came out of the WWII as a looser. Ironically, the only countries that became the most prosperous after the war are Germany and Japan. But, it is not the first time in history of Poland that a war was lost. Somebody said: "Even a great nation can fall, but only dishonorable one can annihilate it." The bottom line is that Poland was raped, the biggest offenders were of course Germany and Russia, but the western countries were conspirators because they did nothing to prevent it. This was a crime that they had to pay for later in Korea and Vietnam with their blood and money. At Monte Cassino, having lost our country to the Germans and Russians, as well as many of us our families, we were trying to make a desperate effort to win some trumps that would help our cause. We were fighting for revenge and honor of our country without much hope to see it again. Tragedy of Polish soldiers is perhaps best summarized in the inscription that can be seen at the cemetery on the slopes of Monte Cassino:
We Polish soldiers
For our freedom and yours
Have given our souls to God
Our bodies to the soil of Italy
And our hearts to Poland.
ACTION ON ADRIATIC COAST
After Monte Cassino we were sent for a couple of weeks to the area of Campobasso. We were supposed to spend there enough time to reorganize and resupply our equipment. Unfortunately, our supplies could not come from Poland. The only source of manpower were deserters from German army. And they started to come to us in big numbers. Many of them were from the Polish provinces that Germans incorporated to the Third Reich. These were the areas near Poznan, Torun, Pomerania and Slask. These people considered themselves as Poles and deserted from German army at the first opportunity. Our command recognized this fact and upon a declaration by a prisoner that he is a Pole, after a short training period, he was given a uniform and an assignment. They proved to be very good soldiers, motivated, well trained and disciplined. Another source of manpower were people that were trickling in from partisans, refugees from Poland, who made their way somehow through Germany, France or otherwise. In some regiments were people from South America who when they heard about organization of Polish army dropped everything and came to serve. In our regiment, there was Lt. Scazighino, whose father was a consul in the United States (this is was I was told). He volunteered to our army and was killed at Monte Cassino. So, in spite of the fact that our army was outside of Poland our numbers instead of decreasing were increasing. I don't have exact figures, on the basis of the information received while in the army and later, the total number of soldiers in the 2-nd Polish Corps changed from 60,000 in Iraq, to about 100,000 in Italy, at the time of the end of the war.
Unfortunately, our recovery did not last long. Even at the time of Monte Cassino Battle, seven divisions were removed from Italy and sent to England to participate in the future invasion of France. Orders came to get ready and after about three weeks of rest we were sent to the Adriatic coast. At that time Germans were retreating on the entire front. We were trying to catch up with them, going for three days full speed along the highway No. 16 from Pescara to Macerata. Everywhere that we came we asked: "Dove Tedeschi" (Where are Germans), and everywhere we were getting the same answer: "Sono scappati via" (They just ran away). But at Macerata it was different. There Germans gave us a stiff resistance. In Macerata took place an incident that I will remember for the rest of my life: a piece of shrapnel went through my boot, ripped the leather, and did not touch the skin.
We had our mortars set up in an area of a soccer field, between two walls. One wall was separating the field from the street and the other, smaller, separated the area for spectators from the field proper. At the northern end of the field, our lancers set up an observation post. I went to see the observation post and since there was nothing interesting to see, I decided to go to my mortar and talk to my friends. I was just approaching the group of maybe six or seven men, when in short intervals three shells came: one was too long, one was too short and the third fell right between me and the group of men that I was approaching. It happen so quickly that I did not even have time to fall on the ground. I felt a painful blow on the inside of my right foot. I realized that I was hit and for a moment I was afraid to look down at my foot wondering if it is still there. Then, I realized that I feel my foot. I looked down and saw the leather ripped off. I moved my toes and sighed with relief; everything was O.K. It was not O.K. for everybody; one of the guys in the group that I was approaching got a piece of shrapnel in his head and must have died instantly. I didn't know why Germans shelled that particular spot. There was just a few of us, so it was not any concentration of our troops. They might have been signaled by one of their spies that were always left behind. That will be one of the mysteries of the war.
It is difficult to describe our action on Adriatic coast. It was a mobile type of warfare. The terrain was rolling, from time to time cut by rivers flowing east, to the Adriatic Sea. Germans were retreating in an orderly fashion, leaving practically every bridge destroyed. Also, any passage through any stream or river was mined. Our sappers had plenty of work in removing those mines. Germans used all kinds of tricks to make our life more difficult and short. For example, when it became obvious that metal mines could be detected by means of a metal detector, they started to use plastic mines. These could be detected only by sticking a bayonet in the ground and if it did not penetrate further there might be a stone or a mine. Then they started to bury two mines, one on the top of the other, coupled together, hoping that the bottom one will explode upon raising of the one above it. They also used small cubes of TNT, in wooden boxes, which could be placed anywhere. That was just enough to blow off one's foot.
Their tactics was to retreat and set up resistance line behind a river. When our troops would cross the river they would put a barrage of artillery on the troops that established a bridgehead and also cut off any supplies that could be brought over across the river. Then they could easily liquidate the bridgehead. They were always on the slopes of hills facing south. Under these conditions visibility was a problem, because in the afternoon they were in a shade and we could not see them very well. Being a reconnaissance regiment of the 3-rd Carpathian Division, our task was to move right after the retreating Germans, camouflage ourselves, and detect any machine gun nests, mortars or artillery, so that when our main forces arrive we could be able to define their targets. There were situations that we were practically surrounded by Germans. Sometimes, we spent whole night with our guns at the ready expecting fire at any time. Sometimes we would advance close to Germans during the day and retreat for the night in fear of being surrounded. Under these conditions we were moving a lot, there was no time to dig any decent shelter. Most of the time we were sleeping in a small foxhole, just dip enough to be below the ground level, so that fragments of a shrapnel would not hit the body. Sometimes I could find an old crater from heavy artillery. That was a feast, because there was a decent shelter and it was already made - no digging. The time was summer, it was warm and this outdoor sleeping would not be so bad. But sometimes a rain would come during the night and you wake up in a pool of water. Well, you just shake it off, like a dog and go ahead with your duties. Being a mortar platoon, we were assigned to whichever line squadron was in action. So when our line squadrons were changing, one being in combat duty and the other in reserve, we were in front line all the time. As a result of this we were in constant action from about 15 of June until mid-September, when I was sent to the officers-cadet school.
We drank a lot of wine; for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in between. Wine is as common a drink in Italy as water in other countries. Every contadino had an enormous barrels, maybe 15 feet in diameter, filling the entire room, full of wine. We had two 5 gallon cans, normally used for gasoline, that were assigned for the purpose of carrying wine. When one of them was empty we had enough time to replenish the other. Since I quickly learned Italian, I was the one who negotiated with Italians the supply of wine. In view of my knowledge of Italian my position and popularity in the regiment in general, and in our platoon in particular, increased greatly. When we were embarking on a trip for wine I refused to carry it myself; I would take a guy to this job for me. I was the supplier. I guess the taste for wine never left me since that time. When we had any money we paid for wine and rather generously; when money was gone we usually were able to talk the contadinos to give us wine for free.
Our relationship with the Italian population was very good. I don't remember any case of a major offense committed by those that I knew. The general rule was that we could take from abandoned houses, and there was plenty of those, the things that we needed for our personal use, i.e., food, clean underwear, soap, etc. Of course, nothing was allowed to be taken by force. Here I have to mention Gregory Chomicz. Gregory, (Grzes) was coming from a small village in the eastern part of Poland called Polesie. This was the most backward part of the country, abundant with marshes, its countryside reminding of parts of Louisiana. I many cases the only means of communication was by a boat. Grzes was a very primitive man in some respects, and yet he had a great thirst for knowledge. Since I had some books that were given to us in high school in Egypt, Grzes would often approach me and asked me to loan him some books, so that he could read them. I don't know what was his reading skill, he never wanted me to read them for him, although I often offered to do this, maybe he just looked at the pictures, but he was always very eager to learn. He always addressed me as "Pan" which has some connotation of respect. I liked him and on many occasions we had long talks about our lives in Poland. He was very devoted to his father that he left in Poland. Whenever we got our allocation of chocolate he would save a portion of it for his father, hoping that one day he will give it to him. He never tasted chocolate in Poland. Whenever we were billeted to a large building he would say that he couldn't believe himself that he is in such a big house. There was also another peculiarity about Grzes. He was a dog for women. He always had a supply of ladies clothing, fancy underwear, stockings, etc., that he took from some empty house and used it for sexual favors from local girls. Whenever we came, Grzes would disappear in search for some female company. He was always successful.
Another rather colorful guy was the master sergeant Leon Skiba. Skiba is a Polish word for ridge, but it was his real name. He was an old cavalry man, at least fifty, and he spent his entire adult life in the army. He was fighting Bolsheviks in 1920 and should really retire a long time ago but for some reason they kept him in active duty. He was a skinny, cheerful, pleasant man, always full of stories about the "good, old days" when cavalry was the way it should be, of course on horses, about the days when they were charging at the Russians with their sabers draw, his various small battles of the WWI, the parades and so on. It was entertaining to watch him preparing for a parade or any other special occasion. It was amazing how much time and effort he devoted to have everything polished and cleaned. His shoes were so shining that could be used as a mirror. The buckles of his belt were polished, his shirt ironed (I still don't know how he did it because we did not have irons), his head shaved (he was bold), in other words he was in top shape. And it was evident that he took pride in his looks and he enjoyed it. That was his pride and glory, when he was standing in front of the platoon, straight as a stick, giving an example to us, the young guys how a soldier should look like. Good, old Skiba, real horseman. I remember him fondly.
Sometimes when I watch a movie about WWII and see scene when allies troops enter a town after Germans are gone, it reminds me of the time when we entered that way the city of Corinaldo (if my memory does not fail me). I may not be sure of the name of the town but I will never forget the great feeling of liberating these people from Germans.
It was in early morning, when a sergeant from the squadron that we were supporting at that time came to our platoon and said that his people are so exhausted that he does not have anybody to accompany him to go for a patrol. We arrived to our positions in the previous evening and we were to attack the Germans who were supposed to be still in Corinaldo. The task of the patrol was to go to the first houses of the town and find out if Germans are still there. The only way to find that was to go, and if you are shot upon you know. Three of us volunteered. Armed to our teeth with Thompsons submachine guns, hand grenades, and as much ammunition as we could carry four of us set out to go to the town. We were going for about quarter of an hour, through an orchard, we passed our most advanced, camouflaged, Staghound cars, and left the cover of the orchard. We entered a field on which there were sheaf of some sort of wheat. The first houses of Corinaldo were visible at about ˝ of a mile. We started to move, jumping from one sheaf to another, using them as cover from any fire that might come from any of the houses, our guns at the ready. We came quite close to the first houses not knowing what to do, waiting for the orders from the sergeant. Then we noticed a man in front of one of the houses. We signaled him to approach us, and when he came closer we asked him if Germans are still in the town. He said that he does not know. We went forward and hid behind a ridge of bushes close to the houses. A young man came out from one of the houses. Again, we signaled him to approach us and asked him if Germans are still in town. He said that is not sure, but chances are they left because "there was a lot of noise in town during the night." At that time our sergeant said that Germans probably retreated and that we are going to enter the town. As soon as we came closer to the buildings, people recognized us and they came to welcome us. As we were going into the town, the crowd grew. Soon the main street was so crowded that it was hard to move. Everybody was out, clapping their hands, with flowers, shouting. At first they thought that we were Englishmen. Upon learning that we were Poles they started shout "Viva Liberatori Polacchi!" They came to us with wine, some cookies and flowers, girls kissed us, it was a general euphoria. It was an exhilarating feeling. Somehow I associated this moment with my dreams that maybe one day I will be marching that way through the streets of a Polish town and people there will meet me the way they did here. And at the same time I was jealous of their happiness. Why couldn't we bring that freedom to our people that were being slaughtered by Germans and Russians?... Later on I found out that most of our soldiers who returned to Poland after the war were either arrested as "reactionaries" or discriminated in various ways by the communist authorities. What a sad reality! But at that time I did not think about this. I was happy that we can bring freedom to these people on the street, that for them, at least this terrible war was over.
It was arranged that if we find that Germans there are no Germans we will put a Polish flag on the top of the church's steeple. Otherwise, an artillery fire was prepared. We told that to the mayor who promptly followed our instructions. He took us also to the town hall where he gave us some items that were found with bodies of the Italian soldiers of the Corpo Italiano de Liberazione (CIL), who were attacking the town prior to our arrival. From time to time we were coordinating our actions with Italian CIL and partisans who were active in the northern part of Italy.
Knowing that Germans like to put a sudden barrage of artillery fire in few hours after retreating, we told the friendly crowd to disperse and be prepared for German fire. After that we returned to our lines.
Throughout the summer of 1944 we were in constant action. As I mentioned before, our mortar platoon had to go to combat with whatever squadron was in line at the time. As a result, we did not have any respite from combat duty from June until late September when I was sent to panzer cadet-officer school.
War in Italy was often called "gentlemen's war", and I think there was a reason for this. It could not be compared with the Russian front, where hundreds of thousands Russians were taken prisoners in one operation or where in one battle of Kursk 6,000 tanks were used. This was a small scale war, brutal as all wars are, but some degree of consideration for human life was observed. There seemed to be an unwritten agreement that at about five o'clock in the afternoon both sides stopped fighting. At that time it was possible to get out from the foxhole, go to the neighbor and chat about "good old days", smoke a cigarette. One time, we had a squadron of British tanks attachment to our regiment. Our commanding officer sent three of their tanks for reconnaissance. We were observing them moving cautiously through the no-man's land. Then, at 5:00PM, they brought their tanks to one place, got out and started to have tea. I am sure that Germans were observing them also. There was no fighting during the tea time.
At one place there was a self-propelled gun that was always at the same time, usually at about 5:00 AM, would fire several rounds at our positions. I got used to those nightly artillery explosions that I could sleep throughout the night without waking up. I heard them, I felt the earth shaking and pressuring me in my foxhole (the foxhole was so narrow that you could lay in it only on your side and any shaking of the earth was exerting pressure on the chest or the back) but it did not bother me. Sometimes I woke up, and a minute later I would fall asleep again. Sometimes I did not even wake up; next morning my friends would tell me about the shelling. Then, one day our guys had enough of this. They found out that the Germans come with the gun every night to the same spot at certain time after dark, wait until 5:00 AM, fire few rounds, and retreat after shelling. They found the place by the traces of tracks on the ground and set up an ambush. When the Germans came there next night they took them as prisoners. We were not bothered by night shelling any more.
I have to devote a few words about discipline situation in the regiment, and I presume, this was common throughout the 2-Polish Corps. Nothing unites people like common cause and common danger. Being exposed to a common danger develops some bond that is very strong. Being together in combat men got to know each other, respect each other. In an hour of danger the real man, with his best and his worst, comes to the surface. Under these conditions, discipline, the basic condition of any military organization was developed not because it was imposed by orders but on the basis of that human bond between the people who had something in common, that common cause that we all had in our hearts. In the regiment I felt that I was like in the family. When we were marching I had that feeling that this is my place and I felt good about it. I knew that in an hour of need these men will help me, and I was prepared to help them if needed. I understand heroism of soldiers who throw themselves on grenades to save their friends. At that moment they don't think about themselves - they think about their comrades who may die. This is a result of that common bond that I am writing about. We had examples of such a heroism right in my platoon. To describe, I have to say a few words about mortars. Mortar shell is loaded through the outlet of a barrel. At the lower end of the barrel there is a pin that hits the small detonator, located at the bottom of a shell, which in turn ignites gun powder located between the fins of the shell. Range of the projectile is determined by the number and size of the pellets of gun powder. Another detonator is located in the front part of a shell and it detonates upon contact with a target and an explosion results. One time, we were firing our mortars so long and at such a frequency that the barrel was so hot that, apparently, the gun powder between the fins of the shell ignited on its way down the barrel. As a result, the ignition of the gunpowder was not spontaneous but gradual, reducing the effect of the ignition. The shell emerged from the barrel, and fell a few yards in front of us. The result of this could be devastating. We did not have time to build and any protection around the mortar, in the situation that we were we had to fire immediately after our arrival to our position. Everybody fell flat on their faces watching in terror the shell that was whirling in front of us. Then one of the guys jumped to the shell grabbed it and threw it into a nearby creek. We reported this incident to our commanders and he got some decoration, I don't know what. In my opinion, he is a hero, because if the shell did explode when he held it in his hands there would be only a few guts of him left.
Another example of closeness in the regiment was the case of my brother, Tadek. During the occupation he was deported from Warsaw to Germany to the infamous Krupp factories for forced labor. After the war, somehow he knew that I am in the 12-Podolski Lancers, and he made his way to Italy. He came to my regiment, and all he did is to declare and show that he is my brother. At that time I was in Beirut, away from the regiment. My friends took complete care of Tadek: they gave him a uniform, they fed him, and they brought him to England. I don't know if they did give him even some pocket money. Anyhow, when I met him in England he had only good words about the guys in the regiment in general and about the platoon in particular.
After the war a lot of officers and enlisted men came to us that were in POW camps. They were captured by Germans during the 1939 campaign, and now they were liberated by the allies. The officers, accustomed to a rigid, pre-war discipline were shocked by this easy going situation in the Army. They were very disappointed. For six years they were waiting for the time when they will come again to the army and they will be in command, and the only soldier they would tolerated is a poor guy standing in attention in front of them saying "Yes Sir!" And to their dismay they found the relations between officers and the ranks somewhat more relaxed, more friendly. This led to friction between "our" officers and troops and the newcomers. But they were handicapped by the fact that they were five years behind in training and combat experience. So, we always had an upper hand.
The Cadet-officers school was located at first close to the Tasmanian Lake (Lago Trasimeno). near Peruggia. We were staying in tents and there was mud everywhere. Later on we were transferred to Gubbio, also near Peruggia, to a building that used to be an old monastery. At least there was no mud. Contrary to the tradition this was a fun school. Normally, cadet-officers school was very tough, discipline was incredible, the eleves were busy 24 hours a day, they were yelled upon, insulted, any non-commissioned officer doing his best to make their lives miserable. Our school was different. The instructors were all front-seasoned officers, as well as the eleves. They knew each other, they were fighting few weeks before coming to the school, sometimes they were in the same tank. The instructors knew that the men that were here went through the same test of nerves being exposed to danger as they were. We were treated as younger colleagues not as subordinates. So, the training did not consist of just lectures, but very often it was a discussion of experiences during certain engagements, critical analysis of the situations, what should be done in such and a such a case, and so on. Of course, discipline was observed, but it was more out of respect for higher ranks than out of fear of being reprimanded. It was the same in the regiments. Somehow, we understood our officers and they understood us, the ranks.
Here we also had a master sergeant, a replica of our old Skiba that was in the 12-Podolski Lancers. He was a short, stocky man, with large mustache. His pride and glory were his shoes. They were big. Looking at his short frame I often wondered how come such a short man can have shoes so large. I suspect he had his shoes specially a few sizes too large to accentuate their radiance. Somebody told me that he had this pair of shoes kept in a closed, that he used them only for the roll call, polished to the utmost, just for the purpose of intimidating us. Every evening, after our evening meal and the prayer, we were lining up for inspection before being released to go to town. Then the sergeant had his moment of triumph. He would parade in front of us, his enormous shoes shining, twiddling his mustache, taking a critical look at us. He always gave us a sermon how we should behave in town, how to preserve our reputation and good relationship with the locals, be careful with the local girls, don't make local guys jealous, and of course, be back on time.
And as it is always when soldiers are in town, girls were eager to be friendly with us. There must be something that attracts female species to a uniform. There was one guy in our school that was notorious when it comes to girls. His name was Weber (don't remember his first name). He was a strikingly handsome man, a private, but he told all his girl friends that he is "Tenente Weber, commendante di tre carri armati" (Lieutenent Weber, commandant of three armored cars). And those Italian girls were swarming around him like bees to a flower. He was always late coming back from town, and there were various stories about his conquests and amorous adventures. Girls, women of all sorts used to come to our school asking for "Tenente Weber."
We did our training of commanding a platoon of tanks, that was three tanks, five men to a tank. We learned driving of every type of vehicle there was, and we were trained in shooting every firing device there was. I was quite good in driving a Staghound armored car, that was the first vehicle with an automatic (at that time it was called hydraulic) transmission, as well as a Sherman tank.
For Christmas our school was closed and we were sent to our regiments. Our regiment at that time was in a small town of Mercato Saraceno, in northern Italy, being withdrawn from their action in the Apenin Mountains south of Bologna. I entered the large room where the platoon was billeted, and I saw the whole gang, seating around a barrel of wine, out of which several rubber tubes were coming out. Every once in a while one of them would suck some contents of the barrel... They all gave me a warm welcome and invited me to join them at the barrel, which I promptly accepted. We were celebrating that way for several days. Soon after Christmas the regiment was moved to Casarano, which is in the southern Italy, at the heel of the Italian peninsula. We were offered transportation back to the school by the regiment. We were also told when we were leaving the school that a truck will come to Mercato Saraceno to bring us back to Gubbio. Since it was too early to go back to school and we were attracted to remain in Mercato Saraceno just as few military, where the entire town was to our disposal, men we declined. I should explain, that these war conditions, and in this situation soldier is in a driver seat. He is the master, civilians are simply affraid of him. Also, we expected that the truck will come from the in a day or two. So, we wanted to taste the sweet feeling of the conquerors for a few days. We also presented an argument that the truck from the school may be already on its way and we may be reprimanded by the school authorities for not notifying them that we are coming on the truck provided by the regiment. Meanwhile, everybody found for himself a cozy place, usually where was an attractive girl, and small wander that we did not want to terminate this Shangri-La. At first, everything was very nice. I was sleeping in the room occupied by the regiment commander, enjoying his comfortable bed, my hosts were very pleasant, and I said to myself that I never had it so good. Several day and the truck did not show up. Our hosts were still friendly but we began to feel that they would be glad if we were on our way. Our supply of cigarettes, chocolate and other items that usually opened doors and hearts to the Italians, specially the nicer half of their population, were dwindling. Every day we met at the square in the middle of town trying to decide what to do. Mercato Saraceno is a small village, located far from the main highways and there was no transportation available whatsoever. The problem was to get to the main highway, No. 16, that was going along the Adriatic coast. Once we could get ourselves on that road the rest was easy, because of heavy traffic of all kinds of military vehicles. Finally, after several days of waiting we found a civilian truck that was going in the direction of the main highway. Once we got there we split in two groups because it was difficult to find room for all of us (there was about eight of us) in one truck, and we hitchhiked for the rest of the way. In the evening, after traveling through half of the length of the Italian peninsula we were all in Gubbio. I think that on that day I changed sixteen cars.
The cadet-officers school ended in the middle of April, 1945, but we the eleves from cavalry regiments, had to stay two weeks longer to go through a special training on the Staghound armored cars. Thus I graduated at the time of the end of war in Europe, on the 7-th of May, 1945. Our graduation ceremony was subdued by the news that one of our colleagues, who went to his regiment two weeks earlier was killed in action. We were sent to our regiments with our diplomas of officer-cadets all with a rank of a corporal. In Polish army, a graduate of officer-cadet school has a rank of some noncommissioned officer and has to serve in a regiment for a while and wait for the commission to a second lieutenant.
Generally, this is the worst position that one can be at. He is expected to prove himself to be worthy of becoming an officer, that means that his conduct must be exemplary, he is expected to perform above and beyond his call of duty in every respect. During a war that means that he is given the most dangerous assignments, and he is expected to perform them willingly and successfully. Proportionally, the heaviest losses of all ranks were among cadet-officers. Fortunately for me, the war ended just at the time when we completed our school.
When I finished the school my regiment was stationed in Cingoli, a small town on the Adriatic coast. Our platoon was transformed into regimental battery and we were given 88 mm. guns on half-tracks. We knew of the political situation in Poland, that a puppet government sent from Moscow was in power, that the Home Army, the underground army that was fighting Germans, after identification, was disarmed and its members arrested and in some cases their officers shot. We knew that going back to Poland would be almost suicidal. Yet, we knew of the friction brewing between United States and Russia and there was a hope that United States, being the only country to have the atomic bomb, will impose some conditions on Russia that will be more favorable to Eastern Europe in general and to Poland in particular. The Iron Curtain was falling on Europe and we were hoping that we will be the ones to tear it down. For this reason there was intensive training in every part of the 2-Polish Corps. Our regiment was going to get tanks.
Meanwhile we had a life of more or less regular army at the time of peace. We, officers and cadet-officers, were billeted in private homes. We had our daily training duties but outside of that it was care free life of young men who are happy that they got out from the war with their lives. I remember the joy when I was given a real bed, perhaps for the first time since I left Poland, with a clean, white sheet. After sleeping on all kinds of makeshift sleeping arrangements, many times directly on the ground, this was quite a treat. Somehow I got an electric, one ring, cooking stove. Since the power for domestic current was too low for my cooker, we extended the wires directly to the high voltage wires that were in front of my window, on the street, and the cooker was performing in excellence. Being the proud owner of the cooker, I used to invite to my quarters other officer-cadets and they were bringing all kinds of drinks and food and we used to eat, drink and play cards until early hours.
Meanwhile, orders came that a school is being organized (Lyceum) for those who finished 4 years of Gimnazjum (10-th grade of high school). I applied for the school and in June 1945 I found myself in Mattino, a small village at the very end of the Italian heel. There we spent four months in intensive study that covered two years of Lyceum. There were two types of Lyceum: technical and classical. I opted for the technical. This was an intensive course of study. Of course, we did not cover the normal material that would be covered in a normal school. In four months it was simply impossible. But we did a lot of mathematics, and physics (electricity). Of course there were other subjects but the emphasis was mainly on these two subjects. I did not pay too much attention to the fact that the curriculum was not adequately covered, hoping that sometime in the future there will be time and opportunity to go to a "proper" school.
Life in southern Italy is very much different from that in the northern part. This is much more backward country. There is hardly any industry, the main product is olive oil, vegetables and wine. Education level is much lower, and life is more run by clergy and mafia. In those days mafia was quiet, maybe because of large number of troops, but clergy was certainly an important voice in regulating the lives of the natives. At least three times in a week there was a religious procession with fireworks. I have my doubts about depth of religious feelings of the participants of these processions. It seems to me, that for most of them it was a good opportunity for young people to meet somebody. After the procession one could observe young couples going towards the vine orchards... It was not unusual to find a young woman with a child out of wedlock. The economic system was practically feudal. The rich proprietors were residing in town and the contadinos were working on their farms practically for nothing. And they were very poor.
There was five of us, occupying two rooms. Three of us were from the 12-th Podolski Lancers, one came from a partisan group, and one from artillery regiment. Once in a while we did go to the beach at nearby Gallipoli. There was no much excitement in our life there, and before we knew it was October, 1945, and I was awarded a "Matura Diploma", i.e., certificate of completion of lyceum. In Poland it was also called "Certificate of Maturity", because a man with such an education is supposed to be a mature person.
We returned to our regiments and to our previous duties. At first, I my assignment used to be commander of the guards. I hated this job because I was responsible for everything that happened in the area of our regiment, the regimental jail, for every guard's behavior and so on. If a guard's button was torn, or his coat was dirty, a guy was disorderly in jail, I was the one who had to take care of it. Their duty was just to seat in the regimental office at night, usually from midnight to six in the morning, make a few rounds through the town and that was it. Later on, to my delight, my assignments were changed to the officer on duty. On November 11, 1945, our regiment received new regimental banner funded by Polish Air Forces. This was big celebration, with participation of most of the high ranking officers Polish and English, parade and after the ceremony of receiving the banner, there was a gala dinner at the officers club. We, the officer-cadets were also invited. There was a lot of eating and drinking according to the old cavalry tradition. After dinner, I noticed an officer in rank of a rotmistrz, not from our regiment, that the face was somehow familiar. He was talking with our deputy regimental commander, Mjr. Florkowski. Observing the way they were conversing I could see that they were well acquainted with each other. After looking for a while I identified the unknown officer as Jerzy Roszkowski, Wladek's friend, the one who came to us in Brzesc after escaping from the Soviets. I did not have the guts to come to him right away and introduce myself. I was not even sure that he was the person I thought him to be, and it is not very often that a cpl. cadet-officer is addressing the regimental deputy commander directly. In the army everything has to go through the channels. Nevertheless, after some hesitation, I went to them and addressed Mjr. Florkowski if I can talk to his conversant. He was somewhat surprised but said yes, and then I introduced myself. He hardly recognized me but he confirmed that he was indeed Jerzy Roszkowski. I reminded him about their plans to go with Wladek through Hungary to France, I told him that Wladek waited for the news from him and asked him what happened to him when he left Brzesc.
Just about that time we have got the news that there are technical courses being organized, to teach practical skills such as drafting. I went to the Educational Command and asked if I could be enrolled in one of such courses. They told me that these courses are primarily for people who did not finish high school. Since I was a high school graduate I should try to go to a university. Knowing how poor was my high school education, several compressed courses here and there, I thought that they are joking. But they told me that they are serious, and that Italian universities agreed to accept Polish soldiers holding high school diplomas, and that orders will be issued soon to that effect. Soon enough, in about two weeks after my visit at the Education Command orders came that we can apply to Italian universities for various types of study. I still did not take this seriously, and treated this enrollment as a preparation to a serious study somewhere, when the my situation will be more stable and I will have an opportunity to catch up and fill the holes in my high school education. But, I said to myself - "What am I going to loose?" Besides, the perspective of getting away from the daily duties in the regiment, somewhere living like a civilian was very tempting. So, I applied for chemical engineering. The choice of chemical engineering was the result of my ignorance of industry, of the subject of my choice, and lack of any guidance regarding my career. I was always inclined towards journalism, history, psychology and philosophy. On the other hand, I realized that I had to choose some marketable skill that would be a profitable profession. But I did not consider myself to be very good in mathematics; that eliminated engineering disciplines. In my ignorance, I was under the impression that chemical engineering study will not have as much mathematics as other types of engineering. Somehow I did not think about medicine which would be a good choice also. I must note, that in pre-war Poland engineering was considered to be a very prestigious profession, more respected than medicine or law. I think that the universities did not want to create surplus of engineers and purposely graduated only as many engineers as was needed for the economy of the country. There was a lot of unemployed lawyers. Doctors somehow always managed to find a job, sometimes with difficulty. But there was no unemployed and poor engineers. So, I opted for chemical engineering.
MY STRUGGLE FOR EDUCATION
In a couple of weeks after filing my application I received an order to go to Turin.
The Academic Center was located in a very nice brick building, out of town, in one of the nicest residential districts, overlooking River Po, at about 20 minutes walking distance from the Polytechnic. It used to be some school for young Fascists. We were in large rooms, about ten students to a room, but there were desks and study areas provided, so that conditions for study were excellent. But we wanted to be in town where the action was. Of course we were arguing that moving the Center to town will help us with our studies because of proximity to the Polytechnic. There was a lot of discussions, our commanders were quite understanding, but it was settled that since this was the building provided to us, we have to stay where we are. They made one concession: we were allowed to rent private apartments with our own money, provided that we will keep abreast of all developments, all orders, and everything that is going on at the Center. With that being the case, the Center was the place where we were coming just from time to time to check if there is anything new and for our pay. The place was deserted, only few guys, in rank of a private who could not afford the rent were living there. Practically everybody found an apartment. I teamed up with a nice guy whose family was rooted in Lomza, Poland, named Tadeusz (Tadek) Iemielita. I remember that my parents mentioned this name in the past, my father could be even related to some Iemielitas, I don't know for sure. He was an awfully nice guy and we were getting along really fine. I regret that I never met him later, and I don't know what happened to him.
Right away we established a students union, collected some money and rented a place for our club. It was an old night club that did not do very well financially, near Polytechnic, and the owner was happy that we were willing to carry him through the hard times. The building was in a shape of a ship. Soon it became one of the main attractions among the Turin student population.
Turin is a big town, over one million inhabitants, and of course, it is famous for the Fiat automobiles. It is the capital of the province of Piemonte which is the seat of the Savoya dynasty. The first Italian king was Victorio Emanuele II, of the Savoya dynasty, who became king of Italy in 1861. Before that time Italy was divided into many small town-states with many kings, dukes and princes, fighting each other most of the time throughout centuries. It is mostly an industrial city, it is not considered to be a center of attraction for tourists. But it is a nice city, with many picturesque areas, and many years of history.
My staying in Turin will certainly be considered as one of the happiest periods in my life. Finally, after the war I had a complete freedom of movement, reasonably good financial support (we were envious that our officers-colleagues were in much better financial situation), being in a nice town, life was good.
The Polytechnic was located in the middle of a Park Valentino, in a building that looked as an old palace, adjacent to the river Po. The park was beautiful, famous throughout Italy, immortalized in a popular song that goes like this:
Ricordi quelle sere ( Remeber those evenings
All'parco Valentino In park Valentino
Con biondo studentino With a blond student
Que ti stringeva a l'cuor. That hugged you to his heart.)
But it was an old school where at one time the famous Avogadro was lecturing. The curriculum was very extensive, it took five years to get a degree in engineering, but the degree automatically was that of Doctor of Engineering. The curriculum was highly theoretical. I remember the derivation of various mathematical theorems such as Theory of L'Hopital, it was so complicated and did not have any practical value except as an exercise in mathematical thinking. Our professor of mathematics was Prof. Einaudi, famous mathematician. As it was generally accepted, he seldom lectured himself. Most of the lectures were carried out by his beautiful assistant, a woman of about thirty. When she was lecturing the class room, big amphitheatrically aula, capable to accommodate about 200 people, was crowded. I wonder how many students were coming to listen to the lecture and how many just to see her. She was beautiful. There was always a red rose on her desk when she was having a lecture, placed there by some anonymous admirer. She always thanked for the flower and we wandered who it was. One time, unexpectedly, Prof. Einaudi had the lecture instead of his assistant. The rose was on the desk as usual. He smiled, and said that he knows that the rose is not for him, but he assured everybody that it will be delivered to the proper recipient. Typical Italian.
Our professor of physics was Prof. Perucca. He was also famous in academic circles being one who worked with Enrico Fermi on splitting the atom. Fermi then emigrated to the United States and Perucca remained in Italy. I attended his lectures but because of my poor preparation in the basics of physics I did not understand a lot.
I managed to produce a set of drawings and passed one subject, architectural drawings.
The Italian system at the university level was similar to that in Poland. Upon registration, a student was given and "Indice" (Index) and "Tessera di Riconoscimento" (Document of Identification). Index was the main document throughout the course of study. All the required courses for the year were written down, as well as the grades when the student passed his exams. Nobody was checking to roll at the lectures. There were two examination periods in a year, one in the fall and other in springtime. It was student's responsibility to register for the exam for each subject. There was a written exam for everybody at the same time for those who registered, followed by individual oral examinations by the professor. At the oral exam, depending on his performance, he could tell the student that he passed, or that he can come back in a week or that he will not be ready for another examination for six months.
The Tessera di Reconoscimento was a very important document that entitled the bearer to many privileges, such as special rates at the movies, lower transportation fees, lower charges in many restaurants and night clubs. Also, the Italian students union had a reservation at one of the night clubs near to the Polytechnic, where twice a week one could go in the afternoon to dance. It was a great place to meet people. Usually, somebody from the students union would come dressed in a medieval costume to enhance the festive mood.
We had special students hats, fashioned according to the medieval times. Each faculty had a different color, for example, engineering was black, law was white, literature was blue. On the hat there was a golden stripe for each year at the university. So, if you met somebody interesting, you could right away know where he or she could be found because it was easy to identify the faculty and the lectures where that person was attending. I remember that Wladek, when he was attending law at the Warsaw University had a student's hat, different shape (it was round, with a peak) but also white. I don't know if that was coincidence or there was some international agreement regarding color of university hats.
The location, the ambiance, the surrounding and the atmosphere was certainly not conducive to a serious study. We were very popular among the better part of the academic population. There must be something magic in a uniform that attracts women, because I don't know how to explain otherwise our popularity. When we were coming out from the Polytechnic there were always girls waiting for us. And the park was right there...
There was about 250 of us, military students in Turin. About 50 of us were in various ranks of non-commissioned officers, cadet-officers or privates; the rest were officers. There was no other military units stationed in the town. We were looked upon by the Italians with curiosity, as if we were from another planet. Italian people are very open to foreigners in general, so small wander that we soon established friendly relations with the local student circles at the Polytechnic and at the University. Not only that, we started to be invited to various exclusive clubs where the cream of the Turin society were gathering for parties. From the local Circle of Chamber Music we always received about twenty invitations for a concert and a dance with refreshments afterwards. The dances were held in accordance with the strict old fashioned etiquette. Girls usually were in a company of some member of the family, if you wanted to dance with one of them, you had to ask for permission from the chaperon, it was expected that you introduce yourself, and I observed that most of the Italian guests were kissing women's hand. The bacciamano (hand kiss) apparently was not practiced in Poland only. This is where I met Graziella de Napoli, daughter of the President of the Circle of Chamber Music. She was a very fine, intelligent young woman of 18, just graduating from high school, very beautiful. We had a lot in common: we both loved music and we could listen to her records for hours. We became good friends, just friends. She liked to come to our club with her twin brother to dance. I did not like to go to the concerts in my military uniform, so I used to borrow civilian suits from my friends. Graziella noticed that I come in a different suit every time. She said that I must be very rich if I can afford to have so many suits.
I also had other friends. There was Vincencina (Cina) Mazzoli, where I used to go for a nice chat. Her father was a Cavaliere, which is some aristocratic title, and they had a nice apartment in Turin. I never met her father. But her mother was a very nice lady, always offered me a glass of cognac and coffee. Both, Graziella and Cina sent me some cards from Turin to England.
I must note, that we, the Polish students, since we were welcomed to the best circles in Turin society, took special care to maintain our reputation as well mannered, well behaved, cultured young men. I am glad to say that reputation was not tarnished throughout the time that I was there. Sure, some of our guys met some ladies of demi-monde, and they took care of them and of their money. Soon they were broke going arround trying to borrow some cash. But these were exceptions. Vast majority of us behaved quite properly.
Our beautiful life in Turin was shattered by the Polish representative from Warsaw. At that time Italy, along with other countries like England and the United States, recognized the puppet regime in Warsaw. Our Polish government in exile, in London that issued our high school diplomas was no longer recognized as representing Poland. We, the Polish citizens who were abroad were the voice of opposition to the present Polish government from Warsaw. Obviously, they did everything to make our lives miserable to force us to go back to Poland. This way they could claim that all Poles are happy with the present system and they all support the communist regime. For example, they insisted that the British make the conditions in refugee camps so bad that people would go to Poland rather than stay abroad. In many cases they were successful. In our case they brought to the Italian government the fact that we were enrolled at the universities on the basis of our high school diplomas issued by the government in exile that the Italians already did not recognized. Italian Ministry of Education responded that we have to produce one of the following: 1) pre-war Polish high school diploma 2) a valid Italian high school diplomas or, 3) a high school diploma from some school issued by the government recognized by the Italians. Otherwise, our registration at the polytechnic would be invalid and we would have to go to our regiments. They offered, however, to hold special high school examinations for us, if we decide to take them, and give us Italian high school diplomas if we pass. They agreed to exempt us from subject such as mathematics, physics, geography and other subjects that did not require special knowledge of Italian, provided that we will pass the subjects that are specific to the Italian schools. In consideration that we were out of the age of the ordinary high school students, and some of us ware wounded in the war, some of us had pieces of shrapnel in their bodies not removed, because they were near to the heart, or for other reasons, we were also exempt from the examination in physical education. The subjects that we were required to pass were Italian literature, Italian language, history of Italy, history of arts, and philosophy. The Italian authorities were very sympathetic to our situation, and they were willing to cooperate, but they did not have any other choice. They gave us couple of months to prepare ourselves for the examinations. Among the students in Turin there was about forty students who were affected by this rule, and of course I was among them. Naturally, we were quite concerned. Our life in Turin was so good, and we did not want to bring this idyllic life to such an abrupt end. We had a meeting and we decided to opt for taking the required examinations. We hired high school professors who gave an intensive course in the subjects that we were going to be examined. We were studying like crazy. We knew that in Italian we will be given three subjects and we had to write an essay on one of them. Practically everybody had some Italian girl friend seating at a nearby café with a pad of paper and a pencil. We arranged with the school authorities that one of our guys, who lived in Italy for many years and did not have to take the exam (I think that he had an Italian high school diploma) was allowed to be in the examination hall and he could come and go as he pleased. He was to take the titles of the examination essays to those girls in the cafes for them to write the essays and then smuggle them to the guys in the examination hall. We were hoping that the school administration will be looking the other way if somebody wanted to cheat at the exam. But some facade of serious effort had to be maintained. Finally, the big day came. We were all very nervous. I wanted to take the exam on my own and did not secure any "help." I knew Italian by this time fairly well, as a matter of fact it was not right away that the Italians would recognize me that I am not an Italian. I spoke without an accent and quite well grammatically. Naturally, my vocabulary was not as good as that of a native Italian, but my Italian was quite fluent. I had prepared three essays on subject that I thought might be given. These essays I wrote alone, but they were written without the nervousness of the exam, when I took my time, and I was sure that they were fairly good. Unfortunately, none of them was compatible with those that were given at the exam. But one of the titles that was given to us was "Describe a Figure of the Nineteenth Century That Made on You the Greatest Impression." I decided to write about Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz. I knew that he was a contemporary of Gioseppe Garibaldi, leader of Italian fight for independence and unification of their country. He was like George Washington to the United States, or Józef Pilsudski to Poland. Mickiewicz collaborated with Garibaldi and became friends united in their fight for freedom of their respective countries. He even formed a Polish Legion, the Mickiewicz Legion, that was fighting along the Garibaldi's troops. I put it all on paper, emphasized their common case, and made out of it a nice essay. A few days later, when we were taking our exam on another subject one of the professors came to me and said that my essay made such an impression on everybody, that it was read to the entire staff and the Italian students as an example of a beautiful essay, and that "il direttore piangeva" (director cried ) being unable to restrain his emotion. She said that unless I fall flat on my face in other subjects I don't have to worry about my high school diploma. Sure enough, when I came for the oral examination in Italian language, the professor welcomed me with a big smile, and said: "Oh! So you are the famous Signore Lipinski!" He confirmed what the other professor told me, that my essay became famous in the school, that they all read it, and that he himself found it very good. He asked me something about a poem Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, shook hands with me and told me that I should feel that I have my diploma in my pocket. When I received my high school diploma, I noticed that in all subjects I received a grade of six, which is equivalent to a "C" and in Italian language I got seven (good). I was told that this grade is difficult to get even for native Italians.
One event that probably will be remembered in the Turin academia was the party that we had in our center. The reason for the party was creating closer relationship with the Italian student population, which we wanted to keep as amicable as possible. All officers were receiving an allocation of whiskey and gin, and they dedicated two rations for the occasion. Our cook came out with some fancy meat balls and sandwiches. So, there was an abundance of food and even more drinks. We hired a live orchestra, sent invitations to the university and to the Italian Student Union, set the buffet and waited for them to come. And indeed they came, in big numbers. We all had a great time. The drinks which of course were for free, broke the ices quickly and in a couple of hours half of the guests were drunk so badly that there was practically nobody to dance with. They were in no shape to go home. Most of them slept in our quarters. It goes without saying that our guys were more than willing to accommodate them, specially girls...
My parents were all the time throughout the war in Lebanon. Most of Polish families, women and children, were sent to the refugee camps to various parts of the world. Your mother, for example, was sent to Africa, where she was until 1948, when she came to England. There was a large Polish refugee camp in India, and many of my friends went there. I understand, that there were other refugee camps in various parts of the world; in Mexico and in Australia but I don't know much about them. The Polish people in Lebanon had a very comfortable life. Lebanon recognized the Polish government in exile in London and there was a Polish consulate in Beirut. Polish refugees were getting monetary subsistence from the Polish consulate, which was not much but sufficient for modest living. They had Polish schools which although did not have laboratories did provide some resemblance to a normal school. At least they had a normal length of a school year. Compared to what we had in the Army it was great. But my parents wanted to see me.
They kept writing tearful letters urging me to do something to come and visit them. I realized that my stay in Turin is temporary. I knew that sooner or later our troops will be withdrawn from Italy, and then it would be very doubtful that there would be any organization that would subsidize our stay at the universities. Being aware of the uncertainty in Italy, I applied for a furlough to go to Lebanon.
The end of the academic year, on July 30,1946, we celebrated in Italian style, in an elegant night club rented by the Students Union, near the Polytechnic. There were representatives from various Italian and French universities. The night club had a nice Japanese garden, with a bridge and a pool. There was selection of Miss University and a lottery for the privilege of one of the students to wash her legs. That was quite a show, because they made her take off her dress and she entered the pool in her underwear. Some Italian students got drunk and they threw one of the guys into the pool in his underwear. The poor fellow stood up in the pool yelling "Dove č la mia camicia! Dove sono i miei pantaloni!" (Where is my shirt! Where are my pants!). But it was all in good spirit and everybody had a great time.
The day after the celebration, I went to the Academic Center mainly to get my pay, and to find out what is going on there. On the way I met another student, going in opposite direction who told me that they are looking for me at the Center, they have some important and urgent news for me, and the word is out to let me know that I should report at the center as soon as possible. Alarmed by the news I rushed to the Center and at the office they told me that my request for furlough has been approved and in order to use it and make the departing ship for Alexandria, Egypt, where room for me was assigned, I have to be in Naples on the next day at or before 2:00 PM. I was told that if I want to get on the ship I had to take the 8:00 PM train from Turin. The furlough meant a lot to me. I knew that my parents went through a lot during the Italian campaign wandering whether I am alive, dead or wounded and I wanted to somehow reward them for those days of anxiety. Obviously, I did not have time to say goodby to my friends. I learned about my furlough at about 5:30 or 6:00 PM. I had only enough time to run to our apartment and tell Tadek Iemielita, my roommate, that I am leaving, I asked him to take care of my things, I packed only those things that I might need in a warm climate, such as couple of shorts, shirts and so on, and left for the railroad station. I just made it. There was a couple of other guys going to Lebanon on the same train. They also had families in there. We arrived to Rome at about 6:00 AM. There we lost one of our friend who was met by his girl friend and missed the train. He was an interesting case. His family emigrated from Poland to Lebanon years ago, and his parents had a prosperous business in Beirut. He grew up in Lebanon, where French was the commonly spoken language and that was the language that they used at home. When war started and the Polish forces were formed in Syria, his father, his sister and he volunteered to the Army. His sister was in some transportation outfit, I don't know where his father was and my friend was in a tank regiment. He was sent to the officer-cadet school just like the others, went through the entire schooling, but when graduation came he was denied the promotion to a officer-cadet. The reason for this was his poor knowledge of the Polish language. Everybody was very upset by this. If they considered that his Polish is so poor that he could not be an officer they should not send him to the officer-cadet school in the first place! We all felt very bad about this. But army is an army, there is nothing you can do about it.
Anyhow, I got on the ship, and we were given the assigned berths together with the other British and Polish soldiers. We, Polish officer-cadets, organized ourselves and send a delegation to the captain of the ship explaining to him that in Polish army officer-cadets have the same privileges as officers and requested that we be treated accordingly. Sure enough, the captain send his deputy who apologized and moved us to nice cabins that were usually occupied by civilians or officers. That was a nice change. We had a good cabin for two, every morning a steward brought us tea to the cabin, we were eating in the officers' mess, and the location of our cabins was in the midships section which was not subject to much of rolling. The weather was pretty good, and I enjoyed the passage to Egypt tremendously. At times I was thinking about my passage on a ship to Italy three years ago. Then, I was seasick, hiding at night between some boards so that the MPs would not find me, unsure if I will come alive from this war, and now, in a nice cabin, served with tea in every morning, eating at the officer's mess. Quite a change.
We arrived to Port Said in Egypt and shortly after that we were transported to a large camp in Quassassin. From there I went to Jerusalem to the Lebanese consulate to get a visa. I found that the consulate was closed, I don't remember the reason. From Jerusalem, I went directly hitchhiking to Tel-Aviv, where was another Lebanese consulate. There I caught the consul literally on the stairs; he was leaving the town for several days and that would mean another delay. He was a kind man, went back to his office and gave me the visa. Then I returned to the camp. Considering the fact that all my travels in Palestine were done by hitchhiking and in one day, I was satisfied with myself. Next day we were provided military transportation to Haifa, which is a town in the northern part of Palestine, and from there we took a taxi to Beirut.
We arrived to Beirut after several hours of travel at some ungodly hour at night. It was late at night. The driver brought as to the main square in town, Place De Cannons, took his fee and said goodbye. We tried in vain to find somebody who spoke English. I remembered from Poland some of my French. I asked somebody where is the Polish Red Cross. To our surprise, we found that French was commonly spoken in Lebanon. We were shown the way right away. We did not realize that Lebanon until not long ago was under French domination and French was the main language at that time. In all offices the administration was in French. Arabic was just being introduced as the second language.
We spent the rest of the night at the Polish Red Cross and next day, after breakfast, I went to look for a bus that would take me to Bei Chibab, a small village, about 15 kilometers from Beirut were my parents were. Then an incident occurred that thanks to which I formed my opinion about Lebanese as nice, honest people. I was told that busses are leaving from the market place. I went there, but nobody could tell me where I could find a bus to Bei Chibab. It was awkward to walk around with my gear, so I asked a vendor if I could leave it under his care. After I found out about the bus, I came back and found everything the way I left. Nothing was missing. In any other country in the Middle East I would probably never see it again. By comparison, on our way to Egypt, in 1943, my wallet was stolen by the soda vendor, when I turned my back on him in the train.
On the way, in the bus, I found some Polish refugees that were also going to Bei Chibab, they knew my parents and told me where I should get off the bus to be in vicinity of my parents residence. I wrote to my parents about my coming but, but of course, I could not know the exact date or hour of my arrival. But they were waiting for each bus hoping that I will be in one of them. They saw me descending from the bus and both of them ran to welcome me. There was a lot of embracing, tears of joy, short, scattered words, as usual when people want to tell about the experiences of several years in a short time. They told me about their agony of waiting for letters, their joy when they got one and anxiety when they did not. Mother told me how when she was going to the post office at the time when letters were arriving, she saw other women receiving notifications of death of their beloved, killed in action, crying, how she was praying for my safe return and survival of all of us dispersed throughout the world. There were six of us children and all were at different parts of the world, and all of us were somehow involved in the war. Piotrek was in Siberia, and my parents knew that there was a Polish army formed out of those Poles who were left in Russia and that they were fighting on the Russian front, so Piotrek was probably in combat. It turned out, that he was indeed in the Polish army, participated in the big battle at Lenino, where Polish troops under General Berling got a bloody nose from Germans, and survived the war. Wladek was in Polish Parachute Brigade, I was in Italy and there was no news from Tadek, Andzia and Janka, who were in Poland. So, they had a lot to worry about. On the top of all this, my parents wrote to me that they were being sent to a refugee camp in Africa and they gave me an address where I should write to them. That was just before the battle of Monte Cassino. From that time I sent all my letters at the address in Africa. Meanwhile, they were directed to Lebanon. It took a couple of months before finally they wrote to me that they are in Lebanon, and I started to write to them at their new address. But during the worst time of our combat at Monte Cassino, May and June 1944, they were going crazy knowing that we are engaged in heavy combat and there was no news from me.
Since all arm bearing able men were in the army there was a scarcity of men in Lebanon. I, and others like me, were celebrities among the Polish population. Lucyna Chwialkowska with whom I was in high school in Teheran was getting her high school diploma in another village, about 20 miles away. Somehow she got the news about my coming and wrote a letter to my parents inviting me to their graduation dance. It was an awkward connection by bus (this was the only transportation that we had to our disposal in Lebanon), because I had to go to Beirut and then take a bus to that village, but it was worthy. I was the only young man at the dance. There were few young boys who were in the high school but I was definitely the center of attention. Poor girls, they had to dance with each other. Of course, Lucyna was very proud that she was able to find me to come for the dance.
Lebanon was going through a transition period after gaining its independence. As I mentioned before, the entire administration was still in French language and French system. The Christian minority was the middle and upper class, usually better educated and richer. Muslims were in majority but they were living in their ghettos. There was some kind of agreement that the President of the country was a Christian and the prime minister was a Muslim. There was a fragile equilibrium between the two fractions and they were generally getting along. Beirut was a unique city. It was called Paris of the orient and for a good reason. There was an interesting mixture of two cultures; European through the French and oriental through the Muslim. One could find a café like in Casablanca, with naguilla smoking Arabs, belly dancing and Arabic ambience, and in the same block there might be a bistro like in Paris with an accordionist playing French melodies. There were very elegant European hotels, and there were ghettos where the Arabs were living. It was heart breaking to hear that this beautiful city was later destroyed. It may be later rebuilt but it will not have that atmosphere of those days.
After few days of my staying with my parents we became aware that in two weeks I will have to go back to Italy. I knew that our stay in Italy was temporary and that my studies there will not last long after withdrawal of Polish forces. I realized that I need a place, a country, where I could start to a serious study, uninterrupted by constant moving from place to place. Lebanon did not qualify as such either. Meanwhile, we established contact with Wladek and Tadek. Wladek had a terrible accident while jumping from a plane during some exercises. He married a Scottish woman who was a nurse at the hospital where he was brought in after the accident. Tadek was with my regiment and was taken care of by my friends there. The news from Poland about Janka and Andzia were sketchy and rare. Also, there were disturbing news about the fate of those soldiers who went to Poland after the war. I must mention, that it was 1946, Europe was not stabilized yet after the war, thousands of people were crossing the borders between different countries which were not well guarded. People were selecting their countries of residence at will, it was easy to establish new identity get some false papers, in other words, everything was fluid at that time. A decision had to be made whether we are going to return to Poland or settle somewhere abroad. Wladek, married to a Scottish girl, comfortable in England, was bombarding us in Lebanon that going to Poland now, under the communist regime would be insane. He pointed out that the members of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) were arrested and sent to jail, that soldiers who returned to Poland either from England or from the 2-nd Polish Corps shared the same persecution, they were ostracized, denied jobs and discriminated by the communists in every possible way. They were simply considered as Nazi sympathizers, enemies of Poland. Tadek, being married in Poland during German occupation, tried to get his wife out from Poland. His wife gave him various excuses for not being able to join him in Italy. At one time he arranged with some driver who went to Poland to smuggle her out of the country, which in those days was relatively easy, but again she wrote him that she did not trust the driver and she refused to come. He suspected that something is not quite right there, but was hoping that even if she had some romance during his absence, when he comes back everything will be forgiven and forgotten. He was determined to do everything he could to get his wife out, and if that fails go back to Poland. Eventually, we decided that come what may, my parents, Wladek and myself will stay abroad.
Meanwhile, the date of my departure from Lebanon was quickly approaching. Mother's tearful eyes were following me with anxiety, and I knew what she was thinking. Finally, somebody came up with an idea to try to get a student's status in Lebanon and stay here for a longer time. There were many Polish students in Beirut studying at the American or French university. Most of them were women, but there were many men who somehow avoided being sent to the army and were in Beirut throughout the war. I received several letters from my friends who wrote that their days in Italy are numbered and that they are preparing for departure to England. The British, influenced by Polish government from Warsaw, exerted some pressure on us to go back to Poland. At that time the entire western world suffered from hysteria about Russia. And yet, at that time the USA was the only country to have the atomic bomb and that was the time to make demands on Russians that they restrain themselves in their desire to expand. If Roosevelt did not have an euphoria about unrealistic image of "Uncle Joe" - Stalin, maybe history could take different road. But at the political climate of those days we, the Poles, were a thorn in the side of the cordial relations between the West and the East.
Inspired by the prospect of staying in Beirut I went to the Polish consulate and asked if I could study in Lebanon. They told me that if I bring a proof of my enrollment to a university I will be entitled to stay as a student. There were two universities in Beirut: American and French. I don't know what motivated me to go to the French university. I went to the dean and asked to be enrolled to the university. After a few sentences in my broken French, he asked me directly if I, coming from Italy, speak Italian. I answered in quite good Italian, he spoke in French and we understood each other very well. Apparently, my knowledge of Italian, helped by some Latin that I had to take in Polish high school was enough to understand French. The dean took me to the registration office and declared that I can be accepted as a student of chemistry. That established me as a student in Beirut. I moved from Bei Chibab to Beirut and started to attend the lectures. The Academic Center was in the Metropolitan Hotel for men and there was another building for girls. There was roughly about 250 Polish students in Beirut, about 50 of them were men, the rest were women.
There was four of us in the room: Chris Parczewski, also studying chemistry, there was a guy studying philosophy, another man, Zeitlin, who was on medicine, and I. Zeitlin was quite a character. He had all but one examination to complete to get his diploma. He had been "studying" for that one exam for years, but he was in no hurry to finish his studies. He hardly attended lectures, but the authorities did not disturb him because he always presented himself that he is just about to take that last exam and he always managed to stay in Beirut. I don't know if he ever finished his study. Meanwhile, he was spending his money and nights playing bridge. He did one thing that I will remember fondly; that was good drinks. We, Chris and I, were supplying the spirit (pure alcohol) and he would get sugar and dried cherries, mixed them, cooked them and out of this made drinks that could compete with the best nectars of the world. One time the alcohol caught fire and he burned his hands while cooking the stuff. It was also convenient for other reasons. We had dances in our Center quite often. The dancing was in the hall located centrally in the hotel, and the individual rooms where we were living were around the hall, separated only by doors. For each dance, our bar in our room was well supplied with drinks, and when we wanted some refreshments, all we had to do is step into our room. Small wander that we were very popular among our friends of both sexes. We had a small Academic Center where for a reasonable fee we could eat, and come for a social meetings. It was a pleasant meeting place in a friendly atmosphere.
There were several members of Polish aristocracy in Beirut, and two authentic Polish counts were among the students in Beirut. Each of them deserves a mention. Not because of their aristocratic births but because they were exactly opposite in their behavior. The other was exactly opposite in his lifestyle. I don't remember his name now. He might be a figure taken directly from a 19 century movie. Always dressed in accordance with the latest fashion, with his cane in hand, white gloves on hands. He hardly talked to anybody and nobody sought his company. He was eating with a solemnity of a priest celebrating a mass. The two aristocrats hardly talked to each other. It was fun to watch these two characters so different, so unique.
Life in Beirut was quite pleasant, but unfortunately, all good things have to come to an end. Sometime in summer 1947, I was called to the military command in Beirut and told that my regiment left Italy for England and I have to report to the a military camp in England. It was obvious that the Polish civilians sooner or later will have to go somewhere. We did not know at that time where, but we knew that the subsidy from the government will not be for ever, and after the war, when the things will settle down, there will be an end to this Shangri-La. Of course, I could simply refuse to leave Beirut and continue studying at the university. That would be equivalent to a desertion. Since Polish authorities did not have any way to enforce the law nobody could do anything to me. But then, there was a question of citizenship. I received Polish passport, and was a Polish citizen. I did not want to apply for a Lebanese citizenship.
I did not want to interrupt my studies but I did not have any choice. I had to go. So, in July 1947 I climbed a bus to take us to Egypt and after almost full year of staying in Lebanon I went on my way. We spent couple of weeks in Quassassin and boarded a ship that took us to England.
We arrived to England on Bank Holiday, which is a legal holiday in England (I think that it was 14 July, but I am not sure). We went to a small camp in Sudbury, south of London. This was a camp that was for people who were not discharged yet from the army, and there were several courses offered to prepare them to a civilian life. The prospect for continuation of my further studies were not very good. The morale of the guys in the camp was low. They did not know what to do with themselves, they wanted to study something but did not know how to go about it, they did not know English, they were depressed. I should mention that there was Polish University College (PUC) set up specially for Polish soldiers. They had an introductory year of lectures that emphasized study of English language, but the subjects were taught in Polish by Polish professors. Lectures in English were gradually introduced and at the final year they were only in English. This was a very good arrangement, because most of the students did not know English well enough to follow lectures in that language. PUC had its best years during and shortly after the war. When I came to England they did not take any new students for the forthcoming academic year and the idea was to close it down altogether when the class of freshmen of 1947 will graduate. I went to the Interim Committee for Polish Studies which was taking care of the stipends and I presented my case, that my studies were interrupted in Beirut and I could not get admission to PUC. I was told that if I could get an admission to an English college I may be given a scholarship. It was not much: 18 pounds to students in the country and 20 pounds to the married students and those in London.
My situation was almost desperate. It was already late in summer and classes were to start soon. Most of the colleges were flooded with applications from British soldiers who were being discharged from the army. Also, studying at an English college was a frightening proposition on account of my poor knowledge of English. But I did not have any other choice. So, with help of a friend I composed a letter asking for admission to a college, which I sent to 18 colleges and universities. Meanwhile, not having anything better to do I enrolled for a course in drafting which was offered in the camp.
I found addresses of Wladek and Tadek who came to England with my regiment. Their relationship went sour. According to Tadek's story, he came to England expecting that he will be able to stay at Wladek's place for some time, and then, when he will have a look around, he will find some job. He also considered going back to Poland. He devised couple of plans to get his wife out of Poland but she always found some reason for not coming. Tadek suspected that she may have had some romance during the war but hopped that when he comes back things will be better. I visited Wladek and Tadek separately. Wladek had a nice house with a garden, no children. They lived in Harrow, which was a suburb of London. His wife, a typical Scottish woman, probably older than him, did not impress me at all. I stayed there for dinner, Wladek, as a result of his jumping accident when he was in the Polish Parachute Brigade had part of his tongue cut off and sometimes it was difficult to understand him, specially when he was emotional. He definitely changed since the last time that I saw him. He was subdued, no usual zest, no ambition to do anything to improve his social and financial status. He was working in some ice cream factory doing a manual job. When I looked at him I wanted to cry. Here was the man who had all that could be desired: intelligence, talent, position and what has become of him!
My meeting with Tadek was very cordial. After all it was with him that I spent most of the years before the war, so we had more in common. His marriage fell apart. It was one of so many tragedies as a result of the war. Obviously, this was a terrible blow for him. When I met him he was very depressed.
Influenced by the subdued atmosphere in the camp I did not have much hope for any success, and resigned myself to the drafting course, hoping that I will get some job as a draftsman and then start my studies part time. I would like to emphasize one thing: I was determined to go to a university and get my education one way or another. That was my complete commitment and at that time that was the beacon that determined my actions. To my surprise, I received an admission to the Leicester College of Arts and Technology in Leicester. This was the eight letter out of the 16 that I sent to different colleges, and the only one with a positive response. I will never forget that morning, couple of weeks later, I was at the drafting course, when my friend came to the class and told me:
"Pack your things and get out from here, you got the scholarship".
How did he find out about this I don't remember. Maybe he read the letter that came from the Interim Committee. Everybody looked at me with envy. Immediately I went to the Interim Committee for Education of Poles asking for a scholarship. Of course, I did not wait long. As soon as I settled my affairs with the camp administration regarding my leaving, I was on the train to Leicester.
Leicester is a good size town, at that time population of about 250,000 inhabitants, about two hours ride by train north from London. It is an old town, going back to the Roman times. When I was there they were excavating Roman public baths. It was a pleasant town, not much of industry, much nicer than those in the heavy industrial basin, like Birmingham, Woolverhampton, Sheffield and so many others in England.
Leicester College of Arts and Technology was located in the old part of the city, big red brick complex of buildings. It was famous for its textile department and there were students from all over the world to study it. In addition it offered a diploma in Higher National Certificate, an English version of an Associate Degree in the United States, though I think that it had slightly higher level that the corresponding study in the USA. It took four years part time to get the Certificate, it was similar to a university degree in some respects but emphasis was on practical aspects of the profession rather than on theory. It was highly respected in the professional community and there were many engineers, Certificate holders, who attained high positions in their trade. It also offered courses and the laboratory work required for the external studies at the University of London. I was registered as an external student of University of London.
External studies at University of London require some explanation. It was an interesting system, enabling to study anybody who wanted it and practical anywhere in the world. The University Senate was located at Russell Square in London. It was up to the student where and how he was studying. He or she might go to some educational institution, study privately at home or take some correspondence courses; it did not bother the University at all. There were only two requirements: 1) that the required laboratory work was performed at some approved college or university and, 2) that the examinations were taken at the examination centers. These examination centers were all over the British Empire; some were even in the United States. The study for a B.S. diploma was officially four years and there were only three examinations to be taken: after the first year (the "Intermediate"), then Part A of Final, and Part B of Final . It sounds easy but it was not. The lab work was not that difficult but to get through the exams that was very tough. First of all an external student did not have the benefit of knowing specifically what was expected of him. The only source of information were the questions from past examinations which were increasing in the level of difficulty every year. The published descriptions of the subjects were to vague to be of any help. Next, those three examinations over the entire study were a curse rather than a blessing. In the first year there were four subjects: pure mathematics (algebra and calculus), applied mathematics (static and dynamics), physics, and chemistry. The first examinations were at the end of Intermediate, the first year, and offered twice a year: in July and November. The examination time for each subject was full day, three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon so, that the total examination took four days. The examinee was identified only by his number which he received at the time of registration for the exam. If he flunked two subjects, all four subjects had to be repeated. If one subject was flunked, the student was allowed to repeat examination in that one subject only. Next examination, Part A of Final, was held in March, after full year and two trimesters of study and consisted of seven subjects. Examination for time for each subject was four hours. Again, if two or more subjects were flunked out all seven had to be repeated. The third examination, Part B of Final, was in four subjects after full year and one trimester, and the same of two subjects flunked applied. The examination in each subject was six hours three in the morning and three in the afternoon. So, the entire Intermediate examination took four days. The stress caused by the exams was enormous. At the end of the exam you did not care anymore about the results; your head was spinning, you were glad it was all over.
The difficulty in passing these examinations was caused by 1) the fact that all subjects had to be passed all with exception of one and, 2) the amount of the material covered at the examination. For example, in Part A of Final, almost two years of study. So, there were many people who were trying for years to get through the Intermediate or Part A of Final having failed in any two of the subjects one year and passing those but failing in two other subjects next time. The emotional and mental drain on students was enormous. Before every exam everybody was walking like a zombie. People suffered nervous breakdowns, they were vomiting during the exam, right at the examination room, or displaying other symptoms of nervousness. I witnessed, during one examination that a student tried to leave the room and collapsed at the door. I myself, before every examination had a sleepless night.
When I visited Tadek in London we had many discussion about the choice of my study. I confided to him that chemistry was not exactly what I wanted, and he highly recommended civil engineering. He painted to me a rosy picture of a life of a surveyor or a civil engineer inspecting construction, designing buildings, bridges, etc. I decided to change direction of my study for civil engineering.
My problems were complicated by my poor knowledge of English and by very inadequate high school education. The entire time that I spent in high school was about two years compared to six years that would be in normal times. There were entire subjects in mathematics, physics, chemistry that we did not even touch in the "school" that I attended. I realized that my difficulties will be enormous, but I was determined to go ahead.
In Leicester, I found a nice boarding house near the college, there were about ten boarders in that house run by an elderly couple. I met another Polish soldier, Waldemar (Waldek) Kulesza, that was together with me in Egypt before, and we teamed up. At that time everybody in England had a Ration Book that entitled him or her to buy certain articles that were rationed, such as eggs, sugar, meat, and so on. Even bread was rationed. It was one of the ironies of the war: at that time, Germans, the defeated nation, were eating sausages without any rations and British, the victors, were on rations.
Our life in a British boarding house deserves a book. This was the time that I became aware that the British are unique species different from anybody in the world. We had to give our ration books to the landlady who bought the groceries. The meals consisted of a breakfast (of course porridge and eggs and bacon) and a dinner. On Sundays the main meal was in mid-day. Invariably, we had a roast, which the landlord cut himself, and then with a smile would ask:
"Would you like a piece of fat?" - with a facial expression as if he were offering a $100 bill.
Sometimes, when the food that we had at the boarding house was not enough we went to buy some bread, which was rationed. Usually, the store clerk would be moved by our plea to sell us a loaf and would overcome the fear of penalty for selling bread without a coupon. Maybe, looking at our young faces, being ex-servicemen (we were wearing our military uniforms), those young English girls with tender hearts did not refuse, and did not let us go hungry.
On Sundays everything except for pubs and cinemas was closed. One Sunday, we were trying to find an open place to get something to eat and we could not find it. Everything was shut down for good. And think that this was in a city of about quarter of a million people!
British people had a very regimented life style. At that time they were not accustomed to the foreigners, and any innovations in their life was incomprehensible to them. This example will illustrate the point. As in most houses in England at that time, there was no heating system in the house except for fireplaces. There was no water heater either. The only source of heat for water to be used in a bathroom was the fireplace in the kitchen, which was burning 24 hours a day, which was connected somehow to the water tank in the bathroom. Every tenant had a night assigned to take his bath. If for some reason he missed his appointed bath night he had to wait another week for his turn. And if you wanted to switch your bath night with another person it was "shocking". It was getting already rather cold and getting up in the morning, in an unheated room was dreadful.
Shortly after I started my classes at the college I was visited by Tadek. From the way he looked at me and my life style it was obvious that he was envious. He told me that he would like to start some study to get some certificate that would enable him to work in his profession. He graduated from an underground Technical High School in civil engineering in Warsaw prior to his deportation to Germany. But in order to be able to work, he needed some certification from an English institution. I felt that I abandoned my brother in need and that it would violate my moral principles if I did not stretch my helping hand to him. I told him that we can try to carry on together on my scholarship. After a token of hesitation he agreed. In two weeks he was in my room with his worldly possessions.
Tadek's coming to Leicester opened a new chapter in my life. It became apparent that we could not live the way I was living previously, simply because my scholarship was not sufficient to cover the boarding fee for the two of us. We had to find some way to cut the expenses. Tadek's fee at the college were not very high, but we were counting pennies. He established a contact with the Professional Society of Civil Engineers and they sent him some recommendations regarding the courses he should take to prepare himself for their examinations. I should mention, that professional associations are very respected in England and they have their own examinations, corresponding to the professional examinations in the USA, which carry a lot of weight in the professional community. There is an examination for an Associate Member of the Society of Civil Engineers, corresponding to the Engineer-in-Training, and then there is a Member of the Society of Civil Engineers, which corresponds to the Professional Engineer in the USA. Similar situation is in other disciplines of Engineering.
At that time I was called by the military to come to some camp, I don't recall now where, to be discharged from the army. The British created a Resettlement Corps for all veterans coming from abroad, which was providing assistance in preparation to a civilian life. There was a special unit in it for Polish soldier. They were organizing courses in English, various technical fields like the one that I took in Sudbury, in accounting and other fields. These courses were provided in several camps throughout England. I was requested to come to one of such camps to be discharged. The discharge formalities were brief; I received civilian clothing (including hat, but no shoes or overcoat) some Ł28, and they wished me good luck.
In order to reduce our expenses we needed to move out from our present boarding room. We rented a furnished room with a right to use of kitchen in what seemed to be a respectable place. We moved in there on Good Friday. Waldek with his mother recently arrived from Lebanon rented an adjacent room. Our landlady told us that there will be a party that evening. Knowing that in England it is customary to have parties on Good Friday we were not surprised. When the party started we were not very disturbed by the noises coming from the other rooms. But then, when I was going to the bathroom I noticed girls running the corridor in various stages of disrobe. When I returned to our room I said to Tadek that this is not the house where the atmosphere will be conducive to study. Soon Mrs. Kulesza came to our room with Waldek. The old lady was very distressed.
"My son - she said - where did you bring me! I never expected to see things like this!"
We found out later on that the landlady rented rooms by the hour. We quickly decided to move out as soon as possible.
Tadek had few pounds saved from his work, we put all our finances together, and it was just enough to buy the bare necessities of daily life: two beds, two chairs, two plates, two spoons, one table, etc., and we rented an unfurnished room. We also bought an alcohol fired stove for cooking. All these expenses left us penniless. It was just before the third of the month, when I should get my monthly check. We needed money to pay our rent.
The first days at the college were like a bucket of cold water. My high school education was so fragmentary that to do it right I should start from the beginning. Mathematics that we covered was very superficial; here they started right away with calculus, knowledge of trigonometry and analytical geometry was taken for granted. Ironically, because of the fact that knowledge of English was not a major factor in mathematics, this was the subject that I did the best. My English was poor. I will never forget the first lecture at the college. The subject was physics. The professor, an old Scott had a terrible accent, so bad that the native Englishmen had a problem understanding him. Whatever he wrote on the board I could follow but what he was lecturing that was another story. I noted that the word he used quite often was "surface" which sounded to me like "service". In my limited vocabulary the only meaning that I could associate with the word "service" was the military service. Throughout the entire lecture, that lasted two hours, I tried to figure out what military service had to do with physics. Later on I found out that he was talking about surface tension. But that came much later.
In order to be matriculated at the University of London and to be allowed to take the examinations I had to take Special Entrance Examination at the University. I don't know if this requirement was specially for us, Polish veterans or for all external students. On the basis of our Polish high school diplomas we were exempted from all subjects except English. The exam was in two parts: written, where it was required to write an essay, and oral. The oral part was considered to be a formality, and usually the examiners just told the student that he did a good job on the written part. If he failed the written exam he was not asked to come to the oral.
I realized that I desperately needed somebody who would help me to prepare myself for the Special Entrance Examination. From the local paper I found an advertisement about a tutor in English. I responded the ad and made an appointment. The tutor turned out to be an elderly gentlemen, living with his daughter and her family, who wanted to occupy himself and at the same time to make a few pounds on the side. We hit it off right away. I went to his place three times a week, straight from college. My daily schedule was going to college from 9 to 5 and then go to my tutor, where I would stay until 9 or later. Our sessions consisted primarily of discussing various subjects. My tutor was well read, very intelligent and quite often he impressed me with his erudition. He could quote various statements made in books on different subjects. As we talked he corrected my phraseology and my grammar. Sometimes he would ask me to write a short essay which he reviewed and corrected. He recommended some books to be taken from the city library, mostly collection of essays, which we discussed later during our sessions. I still remember fondly our long discussions by the fireplace (one cannot imagine an English house without it) him, with a cigarette in his hand, slightly bent due to age, slim and tall, walking back and forth through the room. With time I met the rest of his family and his daughter, who was running the household and sometimes she invited me to their family dinners. I become kind of a member of the family.
It was nice to stay at my tutor's place until late hours, but it was not easy to go back to my apartment. He lived on one end of Leicester and our apartment at the other, not diametrically opposite but at about 60 degrees angle. In order to go to my apartment I had to choose: take a bus to the city center and then another bus to my apartment, or walk for about hour and half along the periphery of the city. Since busses were not going very often I usually decided to walk. I did not have any means of transportation. Getting a bicycle was beyond our financial means, I had to rely on my feet. Very often I stopped at the store on the way and bought some fish and chips ate it at the store or on the street and that was my dinner. I used to come home quite late. Then I had time to open my books and start reading the subjects covered in class or some of the books recommended by the tutor.
Food in England was still rationed. We were supplementing our meat rations with rabbits imported from Australia, where rabbits population increased to the extent that they were grazing on farmers plants destroying practically everything. To avoid a major shortage in vegetables Australian government designed a big hunt for rabbits and England was the recipient of millions of rabbit meat. They were not rationed and we took advantage of that. We did not know, however, that in order to tenderize the meat it should be left overnight in vinegar. As a result the meat was tough.
We were very poor. We were struggling with Tadek on my scholarship which was barely adequate for one person to survive. In order to reduce incidental expenses connected with our studies I did not buy paper in regular sizes. Instead, I found out that buying it in large sheets was cheaper. These sheets were about four feet by four feet in size, and I cut them to the size that roughly corresponded to the legal size. I think that for a while we had only one jacket for the two of us. Tadek was the cook and took care of general housekeeping. Some of the courses that we took coincided, so we went to school together and took some of the exams together. I was better in mathematics, so Tadek would seat close to me at the exams and he did a lot of cheating. I tried to help him as much as I could without jeopardizing my good standing with the professors. Other English students were shocked when they heard us talking in Polish during the exams and me passing notes to Tadek with solved problems.
I established contact with my friends from Teheran, Ryszard Dziewulak and Jerzy Schenk. They were both in the Polish Paratroopers Brigade, Jerzy was sent to Arnheim and took part in the operation there. Ryszard spent three nights in a glider, also to be sent to Arnheim, but weather was always bad and finally, when it became evident that the whole affair was a big fiasco they cancelled the flight. I also found many of our classmates from Teheran and on my visits to London we used to get together at Jerzy's place (he had the biggest room and was conveniently located near the Earls Court underground station). He could always get some chocolate for the girls and we would provide drinks. Now, when we met after the war, these girls had definite plans for us. But we were too busy with our studies to be bothered with any romantic involvements. Nevertheless, there were some definite results from these meetings because eventually Ryszard married one our classmates from Teheran.
It was a crazy time. Since all of the Polish armed forces were being discharged they all were brought to England for that purpose. England at that time was practically invaded by the Poles. Whenever I came to London I always met somebody that I knew somewhere in the past. There was a street in London, Gloucester Street, that was called by the Britishers Polish Corridor, an allusion to the corridor that Hitler demanded through Poland from Germany to Gdansk in 1939. Refusal by the Polish government was his excuse for war.
Polish veterans were all trying to decide what to do with themselves, where to go, how to shape up their future. It was perhaps the most difficult time for my compatriots. Imagine, for five years they were fighting for their country, having only one purpose in mind - to bring back to their nation what the Germans and Russians took away: freedom. The western countries guaranteed integrity of Poland's borders. Polish armed forces were fighting on land, in the sea and in the air. Polish underground was the strongest of all of the occupied countries. Poland suffered appalling losses in lives and German atrocities were unparalleled in any other county. A lot has been written about French resistance. Numerous post war literature revealed that much of this was exaggerated, that many Frenchmen were collaborating with Germans. It came to the open during the trial of German Gestapo official, so called "Butcher of Marseille". French authorities were reluctant to have the trial widely advertised for fear to reveal the extent of collaboration of French population with Germans. In Poland there was practically no collaborators, and if there were any they were liquidated by the Home Army. One of my roommates at the high school course in Mattino was from the detachment of the Home Army whose function was to carry death sentences on traitors and collaborators. It was not a pleasant job. Sometimes, he said, when they raided a collaborator's home, he knew what awaits him. They had to take him out from the house, his family, children crying, read the verdict passed on him by the underground tribunal, in front of witnesses, and carry out the execution. But, there was a war and the man could be responsible for the lives of many others. A lot written has been written by some Jews that Poles did not help Jewish underground or that Poles did not do enough to save Jews in Poland. After the war there were several books written on the subject. They point out that it is unfair to compare the situation in Poland with any other occupied country. In Poland the German occupants imposed much harsher penalties than anywhere else. For hiding or helping a Jew in any way there was a mandatory and immediate execution. The helper and the helped were hanged at the same time. Yet, when the chips were down, the war was over, Poland was forsaken, forgotten, Polish troops were not even invited to the Victory Parade in London in which all nations participating in the was were marching for fear that Russians might be irritated. We were given "Travel Documents" a document that allowed us to travel anywhere we wanted, if any country would take us; we were people without a country. Citizens of the world. No obligations, but also no rights, no privileges, no protection. We could be arrested for no apparent reason and nobody would have would speak up for us.
All that affected the morale of the men under arms. When the news broke out that the arms must be surrendered and we are going to be demobilized people were in despair. I that time I was in Beirut, away from the mainstream of the army, but my friends told me a lot about those days. There were various factions that were trying to decide what to do. There were those who did not want to go to England but as an expression of protest march to a neutral country, Turkey was the most popular candidate, and ask for an asylum. Then, there were those who wanted to negotiate with the western powers to move all the Poles in exile to some island where they would establish a Polish colony. Madagascar was considered. They argued that the colony had possibilities to survive and develop, since with us was all elements of normal population: there were men and women, children; there were members of all trades; there were manual workers as well as intelligentsia, in other words there was everybody. Individually, people were confused, depressed, lost. They looked up to their leaders, their generals who lead them in battles and there was no answer. There were many suicides. My friends told me that those soldiers, hardened in battles, who had brushes with death many a time were crying like children when it came to surrender the weapons. At that time they realized that their dreams of going back to Poland were shattered for ever.
The Special Entrance Examination was scheduled for March. The university exams were held at the beginning of July. I realized that my first priority was the Special Entrance Examination, because without it I would not be allowed to take the university exams. I also knew from my friends that many of our friends tried to take it, failed and their scholarships were cut off. In most cases they had to look for some kind of work and their studies were studies were finished. This was true even for those who were at the PUC, where they had the entire year to improve their English and prepare themselves just for the Special Entrance Examination. Since I had to study at the college without the benefit of any time to allow me to improve my English, and at the same time read for the Special Entrance Examination, the difficulties that I was facing were enormous. On the top of that, I was lacking some high school education in practically every subject at the college.
In March 1948 I went to London for the Special Entrance Examination. As announced, we were given three subjects to choose from to write an essay. One of them was "City of My Childhood". I jumped on this one. I wrote about half of a page and I ran out of steam. I could not come out with one single line. I kept staring in the sheet of paper and I realized that unless I come quickly with some bright idea my examination was gone. That would mean goodbye to the scholarship and maybe any further study. In desperation, I looked up at the other subjects: there was another entitled "Fascination of the Difficulties." It was maybe 45 five minutes to the end of the three hour exam. I started to write on that subject. I don't know what happened to me, but words, whole sentences were coming to my mind as from an inspiration. Somehow I remembered whole paragraphs from the essays that I read at the recommendation of my tutor. In 45 minutes (maybe even not that long) I wrote almost three solid pages in good English prose. I went home full of cautious optimism. In two weeks I was called to London for an oral examination. As I mentioned before, this was usually just a formality. I knew that my spoken English was not very good at all. I was ushered into the examination room and one of the three examiners asked me if I was in the army, and where did we fight. That was easy enough. But then he asked me what branch of service I was. That was already beyond my vocabulary. I did not know what he is talking about. I said something stupid, I don't remember what. It must have been pretty stupid because they looked at each other and one said to the remaining two:
"Obviously, he can better write than speak".
Then he turned to me and said:
"Your essay was pretty good and you showed good command of English. We would like to recommend that you keep improving your English during the course of study at the University. Congratulations on your examination".
Needless to say that these words were music to my ears. I quickly thanked them and left the room.
At that time our parents, under the program of uniting military families, came from Lebanon to England. At first they were in a camp in Lincolnshire, where we visited them couple of times. Later they were allowed to leave the camp and came to Leicester. They received a pension from the Assistance Board, equivalent to the Welfare in the USA, which was very little but sufficient to cover the most necessary expenses of everyday living. They rented a room in the same house where we were with Tadek.
We realized that renting the rooms was an expensive way of living. Father came with an idea of buying a house large enough to rent some rooms. There were many Polish ex-soldiers renting rooms in English homes. Housing in England was scarce. He saved some money in Lebanon which my parents brought with them to England. It was not enough for a down payment for a house. There was an organization of called Polish Combatants Association (PCA) in Leicester which organized all of the Polish veterans. PCA cells were all over England and in many other countries as well. My father went to the Leicester unit of PCA and put an advertisement that he is looking for a partner to buy a house. Couple of weeks later Mr. Kusztelan came to see my father about buying a house. With my approval, father designated Tadek to be the point of contact with Kusztelan, they went to a real estate agency who found a large house, each party provided an equal amount of money and they bought the house. It was located at 46 St. Peter Street. It was a large building with eight rooms and a kitchen. In the past it might have been used as a boarding house. Cost of the upkeep of the house was divided equally between us and the Kusztelans. We divided rooms on the basis of size and appearance and so partnership was formed. Out of the four rooms that belonged to our family, Tadek and I occupied one room, parents another and two rooms were available for renting. Soon we got tenants and that supplemented my scholarship very substantially.
In July I went for the University examination of the first year, Intermediate. During the past months I neglected the college study, concentrating on English to pass the Special Entrance. From March to July I tried desperately to catch up with the subjects in school, but with my less than adequate high school preparation, I realized that I am going for the exam unprepared. I studied all days, but it was impossible to do an adequate job in few months. With my poor knowledge of English, it took me three times as long as it would take an average English student to learn something. Any page of the text I had to translate with my dictionary, then try to understand what it is all about, then finally try to memorize it. All this had its effects on me. I got insomnia. Sometimes, after coming home from my tutor and studying until about two o'clock in the morning I was in bed and hours were passing by without any sleep. I was getting up in the morning not knowing what I was doing. These periods of sleepless nights were going on for three or four nights. Sometimes, in the middle of a sleepless night I thought of the times when I was standing somewhere in the desert, when a few minutes of sleep was something that I was practically dying for, and here I could not sleep. Quite a change. I did not know what to do. I knew that I am studying too hard but rest was one luxury that I could not afford. There was so much to learn in such a short time that sometimes I did not know which book to take to start studying. I went to a doctor; he gave me a sleeping pill and sent me to a psychiatrist. He talked to me and recommended that I take it easy with my studies. I thanked him and walked out. I realized that what I am doing has detrimental effects on my health, but studying and obtaining a degree became my obsession. I knew that if I give up I will regret this for the rest of my life, I will not be able to look into a mirror without a thought of disdain. I had to go on. But insomnia that started then did not leave me for many years to come.
I went for the exam and I failed it badly. For a long time I did not get any notification from the University. Finally I wrote to them asking for the results. The answer was devastating: there was four subjects and I received a mark of "Bad Failure" in every one. In addition there was a note that said: "Your performance was extremely poor".
I knew that nobody was getting a note like this. I must have made some impression on the examiners... I English system the grades were given as follows:
A - Very good
B - Good
C - Passing
D - Weakness (Passing)
E - Failure (Failure)
F - Bad Failure.
I had all Fs. That meant cutting off my scholarship in a near future. I had to do something fast if I wanted to continue my studies. I started to take a critical assessment of my possibilities, and if my ambitions commensurate with my abilities. I realized that I would have to overcome extreme difficulties if I am to get a degree from the University. As I mentioned before, there was a course towards Higher National Certificate (HNC) at the Leicester College of Technology. I went to my the Dean of Engineering, presented my situation and asked him if I could switch to HNC. He agreed. I went to the Interim Committee and asked them if I could switch to the HNC and they said that I cannot. Once I started a B.S.. study I had to continue or drop it altogether. I did not have choice but to continue.
At that time I had an accident that almost cost me my life. I was going to see my friend to study together. At that time I had already a bicycle. It was a rainy Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, a big double-decker bus hit me from the rear. I fell on my right side and felt that the axle of the front wheels are pushing me on my neck. Thanks to the fact that it was raining and the pavement was wet I was sliding forward in front of the bus. I thought that this is the end. Then I heard the sound of the pneumatic breaks of the bus, and everything stopped. Someone pulled me from under the bus, I was badly shaken, pale. An old English lady invited me a cup of tea, which I declined. Of course my bike was badly damaged. A policeman talked to the driver and decided that it was not his fault. They repaired my bike.
Next year was perhaps the most difficult year in my studies in England. Since I failed the examinations I lost my scholarship. Thanks to my parents investment in the house we had some income from the boarders. Tadek found a part time job as a surveyor's hand and he was giving mother some money for groceries and the rent. I was helping her and father with cleaning the house.
I took some classes in two subjects where I felt that I needed most help. The remaining subjects I tried to study myself. By now I understood most of the subjects; it was the matter of learning them so that the ideas were crystallized in my mind. It required more time, they had to be thought through, sink into my brain. I put all my energy into studying. I did not go out from the house for days, studying, studying, studying. I had to learn practically all of the high school material myself.
Next Intermediate examination showed some improvement: I had two failures (E) and two bad failures (F). It was not much to brag about but it was better than before. I was not alone. The draconian rules of the examinations resulted that many of my friends tried to get through the Intermediate and after one or two attempts gave up. Lack of specific information of the curriculum, the fact that only the examination results were considered and the rule that failure only in one subject was allowed to take a corrective examination in that subject caused that people were repeating the exam time and time again, always failing in some two of the four subjects required to be passed.
Although by this time I had serious doubts if I will ever be able to pass the darn Intermediate, I decided to try again. By this time my English improved considerably. I could understand better, I started to converse more easily, and I could understand the information contained in my books quicker and better. I became involved in the Polish Students Association Abroad, where for a while I held a function of a Vice-President. This was an organization that had their units all over the world and they exchanged valuable information about conditions pertaining to standard of living, opportunities for study, and so on. A that time Tadek tried to talk me into emigration to some other country where we could have better opportunities to make a living. Many Polish ex-servicemen, as veterans were called in England, emigrated to Australia, Argentine and Canada. The Congress of the United States passed a bill that allowed 18,000 of Polish veterans to immigrate to the USA. This was the bill under which your mother and her parents came to America. I did not want to go to the USA. I was afraid that my opportunities for studying are best in England. I knew that once I improve my English, I will be able to pass the Intermediate and then my scholarship will be restored. Anywhere else I would have to finance my studies myself. So, I considered that my prospects for successful continuation my studies are best in England. Besides, there were our parents and Wladek, I had a lot of friends and, in general, in England I begun to feel at home. My friends, were coming from London every once in a while to visit me. With them the girls that we were studying together in Teheran, who were also in London were coming as well. I suspect that they prospects of marriage on their minds but nothing came out of this. At that time, we boys, had our amorous attentions directed somewhere else and I was too busy with my studies to think about marriage. But they were coming nevertheless, I was making wine out of rice, using raisins instead of sugar (very strong) and we had a lot of fun together. Every once in a while when I had to go to London in connection with my studies, I would stop at Jerzy's place for a chat. That was our meeting place in London. Life became more bearable.
In July 1950 I tried again to pass the Intermediate. This time I passed three subjects with a weakness in one. This was one of the happiest moments of my life. The subject that I had to correct was Applied Mathematics which was the name for Static and Dynamics. I knew that I had good grasp of the subject but I did not pass it because I drank too much coffee before going to the exam. As a result of this, during the exam my heart was pounding so much that I was afraid that I will get a heart attack. I had an impression that my head will explode, I could not think. I passed it in November and my scholarship was restored.
Tadek, after taking some courses at the college and some correspondence courses provided by the Civil Engineers Association passed the examination and became an Associate Member of the Civil Engineers Association. This corresponds to the Engineer-in-Training status in the USA. For some already was working in Manchester as structural designer. He rented a room in a house owned by a Polish family. His landlady and her daughter were in Lebanon during the war, like my parents, and like my father, she bought a house and supported herself and her daughter (married) by providing rooms and board. During his visits in our home in Leicester he frequently told me about large Manchester Polonia, about nice dances that they had there at the Polish Combatants Association Club, and about pretty girls coming to the dances. He invited me to come to visit him.
XII IZA AND MARRIAGE
On 18 of November, 1951, there was a big rally of Polish veterans and civilians in Manchester. The occasion was celebration of the Independence Day, which was a holiday in pre-war Poland to commemorate regaining of independence in 1918, after 123 years of partitioning between Germany, Austria and Russia. General Anders, commander of the 2-nd Polish Corps in Italy and most of high ranking officers were expected to come. For me that was a big thing; here I could relive the old days of my days in the Army, meet some of my friends. I arrived to Manchester on November 17. Tadek met me at the railroad station, we went to his apartment where I met his landlady. It turned out that I remembered her daughter from Beirut, she was a student at the American University. That evening, since we did not have anything better to do we decided to go to a dance at the Polish Combatants Association Club. I did not know at that time that it was one of the most significant days in my life. The dance was nothing special. But I looked at the couples that were on the floor and noticed a young attractive brunette dancing with somebody. She was wearing a navy blue dress that outlined her curvaceous body. She had a figure that would be an object of envy of every woman. But what attracted me the most it were her eyes. These were the most beautiful eyes I ever saw. Big, fiery, beautiful, surrounded by perfect eyebrows. They were passionate and at the same time tender. From the very moment that she looked at me with those big, beautiful eyes I was under the spell. It is hard to describe them. Many years later I called your mother "la strega", which in Italian means a witch. It was a right name because she bewitched me with her eyes. And you know? I am under that spell even now, after so many years. Every time I hear that Russian song "Ochi Chornye" I think about that evening when I saw them for the first time. She was an exceptionally attractive woman.
There was something that pushed me to ask her to a dance. Our conversation was quite casual: about Manchester Polonia, I asked her if she comes often to these dances, the usual things that are spoken while dancing with a stranger. But there was something like a spark between us right there. It was obvious that she liked dancing with me and the feeling was mutual. She told me that on the last Friday of each month there is "really nice dance" by invitations only at the club. I felt that she wanted me to come. I asked if she could get me an invitation - she did not want to commit herself - she suggested that I get it through Tadek. I knew that this will not be a problem. I introduced myself and she told me her name: Izabela (Iza) Zienkiewicz. We danced together for the rest of the evening.
The rally was held next day in an indoor sport stadium. It was a big place capable to accommodate thousands of people and it was filled up. Iza was distributing the programs. She was working in the section where I was seating, wearing a smart navy blue dress with white stripes. We glanced at each other, she smiled and went away.
The rally was a big success. Thousands of veterans and their families came to see Gen. Anders and his entourage and to celebrate the anniversary of the Independence Day. There were many speeches, a lot of singing, slogan yelling, remembering the old, not always so good days.
I met a fellow that was in my platoon, Felix (Felek) Bartoszak. After the rally, Tadek, Felek and I talked in front of the rally hall, and I saw Iza standing at a distance, talking to some friends of hers. I tipped my hat in her direction and continued talking to Felek and Tadek. She told me much later that she was mad at me at that time that I did not come to talk to her. We did not talk to each other that day. It happened that Felek worked in the same place as Iza. Iza told me later that Felek tried to approach her on many occasions, but she always gave him a cold shoulder.
I could not wait for the last Friday of November to go to Manchester for the "nice dance." We went to the Polish Club with Tadek, and I impatiently surveyed the dance hall looking for Iza. She did not come yet. Then I saw her coming, but what a disappointment! Right behind her was a six foot tall guy! That did not look very promising. I sat at our table with Tadek with heavy heart. Tadek, knowing about my feelings towards Iza, was contributing to my despair by his wise-cracking and telling me to forget about her and start looking at other girls. That made me only madder and even more depressed. Meanwhile, I saw Iza wearing a maroon dress in which she was even more beautiful than before, seating at another table surrounded by young men and women, apparently having a time of her life. She was dancing a lot, casually glancing in my direction. Finally, I decided to investigate the situation in detail, and perhaps the step that I made at that time decided about our future lives. I went to Iza's table and asked her to dance with me. Her eyes sparked, it was obvious that she was delighted. As soon as we started dancing I asked her if she has an escort, and she quickly said that the man who came with her is "only" her brother. When I heard this a hundred pound load came off my chest. It was obvious that she liked dancing with me. We danced several consecutive times, and after that I invited her to our table where we had a bottle of wine. We hit it off right away. There was no doubt in my mind that Iza liked me a lot and I did not hide the fact that it was mutual. I was somewhat surprised by her direct approach, she asked me to address her by her willingness to drink a "brudershaft" (when people drink brudershaft they are supposed to be on familiar "ty" rather than a more formal "Pan" or "Pani"), but of course I was only happy to accommodate. The remaining time of the dance Iza spent mostly at our table, rarely going to visit her friends. It was obvious that there was a lot of electricity between us. We talked about our families, about us, our eyes fixed on each other, trying to condense a lot in a few hours that we had. She told me that her parents applied for emigration to the USA under the bill for Polish veterans. As I mentioned before, her stepfather was in the Polish Army and was entitled to go to America. They had all the paperwork complete, and they were only waiting for visa, which was to come any time. Never in my life time went so fast as on that evening. We exchanged our addresses and promised that we will be in contact in future. Right then I knew that she is the one that I want to spend the rest of my life with. Later, after we were married, Iza told me that right after that fateful evening, when she went home she started write her name as Izabela Lipinski just to see how it will look in the future. I did not know at that time that my fate has ben sealed...
Since bus service in Manchester was only until certain time, Tadek left to catch the last bus. I did not want to cut short my being with Iza, and since the dance continued, I asked for directions to his apartment and remained in the club. We continued dancing, talking. We both knew that there is something deep between us. Time went only too fast and finally there was time to go home. Later on I walked for miles through empty streets of Manchester to Tadek's apartment, but I did not mind that. My heart and eyes were full of the beautiful girl that I left at the dance.
After I came to Leicester I told my parents that I met Iza and that I want to continue a serious relation with her. Her forthcoming departure to the USA disturbed me a lot but I tried to push these thoughts aside, hoping that somehow we will find a way to be together. Iza sent me a card for Christmas together with a letter in which she informed me that the departure for the USA for her and her parents was set for January 15, 1951. She wrote also that she wants to see me before her departure and invited me to Manchester for the New Year day. That was a blow to me. I realized that her departure for America may mean an end to our relationship, and I may never see her again. Every fiber in my brain was aching on the thought that our short lived relation will end. I could not and I did not want to accept that. I just could not imagine my life without her. On the other hand, I knew that by accepting her invitation and going deeper in my love with Iza it would be just putting salt on an open wound. But I could not resist the desire to see her again. My father saw my distress and advised against going, saying that once she goes to America I might as well forget about her. As a man, seeing her photograph, he appreciated her beauty and said that she will find there somebody else and by going to Manchester I will just aggravate my grief. Tadek, who at that time was sick and came to our house to rest under mother's care, was in favor of going. He said, that if I don't go I may regret it for the rest of my life. His words were what I wanted to hear: I went.
On New Year Eve I arrived to Manchester, and Iza met me at the railroad station. She had a brown coat and green beret in which she looked very attractive. We went for a snack to the Polish Club. Iza told me that her mother is expected to return from hospital, where she was for the last few days for some examination, to take advantage of the free medical care in England before going to the USA, and she did not want to bring me to their apartment while her mother is away. So we went to Tadek's apartment where we spent few hours talking. Iza was wearing a brown sweater, which enhanced the contours of the shapely feminine features of her body. We talked about out lives, our dreams, our desires. The landlady made a couple of sudden entrances to the room to find out if we were not engaged in some activities that would measure up to her moral standards, but seeing that we were involved in a serious discussion she finally gave up. Knowing that this may be the last time that I see Iza I realized that it was a moment that we had make a decision regarding our future. It was now or never. I asked her if she would want to be my wife, her eyes lit up, and she quickly answered "yes". It was obvious that she had been waiting for my proposal. That was our engagement: no ceremonies, no kneeling, no engagement rings. We did not have time for that kind of frivolities.
Late afternoon we went to Iza's apartment. Her mother was already home, her stepfather was still at work. We spent a short time talking to her mother and then decided to go to the movie and come back and meet the New Year together with her parents. When we were back, Iza's stepfather was already home and her parents were waiting for us with dinner. Iza's stepfather pulled out a bottle of vodka and offered me a drink that was a signal for me that I made a favorable impression on Iza's parents. We did not tell them yet that we were engaged, and as far as I remember they found out about it after their arrival to the USA. During the dinner I told Iza's parents that in view of their forthcoming departure I invited Iza to Leicester to give her an opportunity to meet the rest of my family. Her mother was somewhat taken aback: how can she give Iza permission to go to visit a man that she just met a few hours ago. But Iza grabbed her hand and pleaded: "Mama, at one time you were young too!." Finally, they agreed that Iza will come to Leicester next weekend.
I met Iza at the station when she came to Leicester. She met my parents, and we spent the weekend talking about her future life in the United States and about continuation of our relationship. We both realized that it will be difficult to live separated by 3,000 miles, but we did not think about the bad and the difficult aspects of it. We hoped that somehow there will be some solution to our problem. The main thing that I wanted to accomplish by her visit was that she will know that what I told her is the truth, that I am a single man, no children, that if she ever decides to come back to England she will know to whom she is coming.
On January 15, 1951, Iza left with her parents for America and I went back to my studies. We kept writing to each other often. I was writing twice a week and Iza reciprocated in the same way. Meanwhile, we were trying to find some to reunite.
The problem were my parents. Here I come to one of the most painful situations which destroyed many years of happiness of mine and Iza's life. My parents, specially mother, had an obsession about spending the rest of their lives with me. It was some atavistic ingredient in their nature that dictated that one of their children, of their choice, has the obligation to support them in the old age. Maybe this was the way it used to be in old times, when the conditions were more stable but in our conditions where I had to struggle for my place in the world it was completely out of place, it was cutting me at the knees. It was not the financial problem, because my parents had a pension from the British government, which was not much, but was sufficient to cover the most necessary expenses of ever day living. It was an emotional problem. They felt that their children should stay with them and support them in their old age as a reword for the care which they gave them in the past.
If it comes to my situation, most of my young years I spent in the army and outside of the elementary school I had to struggle for my education myself. I was compassionate, however, for the years of loneliness, anxiety and fear for the wellbeing of all of us dispersed all over the world during the war. I knew that mother suffered a lot during those years.
I wanted to be with Iza as soon as possible, but I also wanted to examine my own and Iza's feelings to be certain that our romance is not a passing fling. When I told my parents that I may to emigrate to USA mother practically got heart attack. Besides, emigration to USA would probably involve waiting for about three to four years. After a lot of deliberating, Iza’s parents gave Iza their consent to go to England in pursuit of her happiness. I will forever be grateful for their sacrifice to part with their daughter. It strikes me how noble and unselfish was that decision.
During summer 1951, expecting that some definite change in my life will take place, I went for the last vacation in England with Tadek. We rented a 23 foot sailboat at the Yarmouth area. It had a galley, toilet, and enough room to sleep five or six people. Iza sent me some parcels with salami, turkey and ham, which were practically impossible to get in England. The vacation was a great success. Weather was generally good and we had a great time. Every time Tadek took a slice of salami, which he liked a lot, he mentioned:
"That Iza must have a heart of gold. It is hard to find a girl like this."
This was music to my ears.
During our vacation there was a humorous incident that is worthy mentioning. Not because it was significant but I think, it was rather humorous. In one place we docked for the night, and next to us were two girls who also decided to spend a night there. Tadek, always of the opinion that I have a way with women, desirous to spent some time in their company talked me into going to them and strike a conversation. I went and after a short while I was talking to the girls. Suddenly, Tadek appeared with the camera and took a picture of me with the girls. Later on, he made a wedding of an album containing pictures taken during our vacation, and included the picture with the girls. When Iza saw it she was outraged:
"So I was sending you parcels with salami and turkey for you to have a good time with those girls?!"
I tried to assure her in vain that we ate her salami and turkey ourselves; she remembered that for a long time.
In August 1952, Iza came to England. Her mother wrote a letter addressed to my parents, asking them to take care of her and asking to have the wedding as soon as possible. The three weeks between her arrival to England and our wedding were filled with exitement in anticipation for the big event in our lives and the time went faster than we expected.
On the day of our wedding it was a typical English, rainy weather. We had a brief ceremony at the church, and then a reception at our house. Mother invited our neighborhood butcher and he provided an adequate supply of meat, which was still rationed. In addition to my family, Ryszard Dziewulak, Jerzy Schenk and Lucyna Chwialkowska as well as Iza's friend and some of my friends from Leicester came for the wedding.
It was not a big reception. Our bed had to be taken out from the room to make room for the guests. Our wedding was on Saturday and I went to school on Monday.
When Iza was arranging her travel papers to England, she told her travel agent that she is going to her fiancé to get married, and that she is not planning to return to the USA. The agent, an elderly person, talked her into applying for a Re-entry Permit, a document that would allow her to come back to the USA. She was so enthused by the prospect of getting married that she did not even think about going back to America. The travel agent volunteered to take care of all paperwork connected with this document, and since it was already too late to get it before her departure, to send it to England. Reluctantly, she agreed to apply for the Re-entry Permit, she gave the travel agent my address in England and the $6.00 fee. When I think of it, these were the best $6.00 that she ever spent. They probably saved our marriage and they brought me to this world of opportunity. He promised to take care of the paperwork involved. Soon after we got married the Re-entry Permit came. After the first few weeks Iza started to compare the standard of living in England and America and came to a conclusion that our life in England could not compare with that in the USA. Possibly, a contributing factor to this conclusion was the conflict with my mother. Anyhow, she started to whisper in my ear how great it is in the USA, that we have to think about future of our own and our children, that she is missing her parents, and so on. When you are in love, as I was, you agree with everything that your loved one says; in this case I began to thinking seriously about emigration to the USA. I told my parents about our plans promising them that when we will establish ourselves in the "New World" we will try to bring them over there. At that time I thought that this was possible, so it was not a right out lie. At the back of my mind I had some doubts about it, I did not know when and how I will be able to accomplish this, but at that time I pushed these doubts aside. All I wanted to do is to get out from this intolerable situation, this triangle that I knew, was toxic element in my marriage. Iza went first in July 1953, and as soon as she arrived to the USA she requested a visa for me on the basis that she had a status of a permanent resident and I was her husband.
Sometime in September was requested to come to the American Consulate in Liverpool for a visa. The consulate employee gave me some papers to sign and said that he has to call the State Department in the USA to ask if a visa for me is available. He told me that as a husband of a permanent resident I have a "third preference" for visa, after a spouse and children of a US citizen (first preference) and parents and siblings of a US citizen (second preference). He told me to come back in three hours to find out about the results of his call. When I came back to the consulate, I was told that I obtained a visa and I can go to the States any time. I went to the travel office and I was told that the first available berth on a ship will be in three months, in December. Of course, there was a place in a plane, but the cost air travel at that time was $650 compared with $150 by boat. To travel by plane was definitely out of my reach.
Since the school year was over and I had time to spear I started to look for a job. I wanted to save some money for the trip and for our first steps in the new country, and at the same time to get some experience in my line of work, engineering. Iza's parents were residing in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and that was the place where I was going to start our new life. Through my distant cousin, a nun who was in a convent in Lodi, New Jersey, I obtained a list of addresses of colleges in New Jersey and tried to select the one where I could continue my studies at night school. Newark College of Engineering (NCE), in Newark, was the only one that satisfied my requirements. I contacted NCE and they requested my transcripts to be sent directly from the University of London to the Dean of Admissions of the NCE. When I came to the NCE after my arrival to the States all papers necessary for my admission to the college were on the dean's desk. I received all the credits for my work at University of London.
In my effort to find a job I found out more about the prospects of my life in England, should I decide to stay there for good. For example, when I went to the Bureau of Public Works for the city of Leicester, I was given a form to fill out where were questions about my ancestry, if my parents and my grandparents were British born citizens and alike. That lead me to believe that jobs in public service were closed to me, since obviously my parents or grandparents were not British and I was not even a British citizen. I understand that soon after my departure from England these laws were somewhat changed but I don't know when and to what degree.
I found a job as a junior designer, in the British Reinforced Concrete Ltd., in Stafford. It is worthwhile to describe the working conditions there because I did not find anything like this in this country. When one was coming to he had to go to a locker room, where he would leave his jacket in his locker and put on a white frock, like the ones that doctors wear. Exactly at 8:00 o'clock he would go through a narrow passage with glasses on each side, where on one side was the head of the department, and on the other his secretary, and both of them were observing if everybody had the attire prescribed, i.e., the white frock. Anyone coming after 8:00 AM was noted. The glass corridor ended in a large room with long tables on each side of the aisle. There were two designers or draftsmen at each table. Under the tables there were shelves, for the drafting boards and drafting instruments, such as triangles, pencils, etc. At five o'clock, when there was quitting time, everybody had to put his or her drafting board on that shelf so that the table was completely clear. There was no telephones on the tables, and as far as I know no personal telephone conversations were permitted during the working hours. When my future landlady came to tell me that she agreed to take me in their house as a tenant she was ushered to one of the conference rooms, I was notified that there is somebody who wants to see me, and we had our conversation there. She was not allowed to come to my table to talk to me.
I found a room with breakfast in one of the nearby homes. I should mention that at that time the entire British population could be divided in two categories: those who were abroad during the war and those who were during the war in England. People who were in the first group were more open to foreigners, easy to get along, more human. The other kind were typical British: wrapped up in themselves, considering themselves superior to anybody else, unfriendly. To them people that they could trust were "people next door". Anybody else was a stranger. Even people across the street were strangers and that meant that they could not be trusted. People from abroad, like us, were regarded as people from another planet, "bloody foreigners". I was fortunate to meet an ex-serviceman at a bus stop and in conversation I asked him if he knows anybody where I could rent a room. He asked me where I am working and next day his wife came to the office, as I described above, and offered me to take me as a boarder. They were a young couple in their late thirties and had a little boy of five. I was very happy there, because it was very convenient to work, they were both very nice people, and I soon gained their confidence, so that they would go out and leave their little son and the entire house under my care. That was very unusual among the British; they don't trust each other. Since I didn't know anybody in Stafford I didn't go anywhere, they had a built-in baby sitter.
The three months of waiting for the cabin on the ship finally came to an end, and on December 16, 1953, I was on my way to the USA. There were four of us in the cabin: Rico, an American sailor of Italian-Spanish descent, an Englishman, a Scott, and I. Rico spent in our cabin: the first, because he did not find yet anybody to sleep with, and the last one because he was so exhausted by his nocturnal adventures that he was glad to lock himself in the cabin and have a good night rest. He had all kinds of escapades with women on the ship. A book could be written about them, but this is another story.
During this trip I realized for the first time how deeply rooted are the tensions between the English and the Scottish people. The Scott, a catholic told me about discrimination that the British had through centuries against the Scots. He told me that it was very difficult for a catholic Scott to get a job in a company that is run by the British. These things were new to me. Of course, I could not be aware of these things since I lived in England only and never visited Scotland. We had a fairly good passage through the Atlantic and on the 21st day of December, 1953, I arrived to the United States of America.