GERMANY INVADES THE SOVIET UNION
22nd June, 1941, a new war broke out suddenly between Germany and The Soviet Union. The Russians were retreating already on the first day. Kaunas was not far from the German border and already there were many refugees including military personnel. Going towards Russia were mainly the Communists and the Jews; some travelled by car or lorries, some were just walking. There was shooting in the streets which, as the day proceeded, became more fierce.
One government was leaving and the other had not as yet arrived; people were settling their personal grudges, political grudges, some were just looting. The Russians, on their way out, were shooting the anti-Communists, the Lithuanian anti-Semites were killing the Jews, the Lithuanian nationalists were killing the Russians and the Poles. Zygmunt was worried. He could not even speak Lithuanian. He was a typical foreigner working for the Russians. He thought that he should go to Wilno where he would be not only with his son and mother, but also a Pole amongst the Poles.
It was the second or third day of the war when the shooting became really bad. We were all sitting on the floor in the living room as stray bullets were hitting all around. The next-door neighbours were Jews and a gang came into our yard, probably to kill them. Czes was with us. Zygmunt got up and said that he was leaving straight away. He would go first to Karmelowo, get his bike and then proceed to Wilno. He went into the kitchen, opened the window, gave me a kiss and said that he would wait for Czeslaw under the big tree near Czeslaw’s home and jumped out into the backyard. He told me to close the window and, should the gang come to our house, tell them that we didn’t know where he was.
I saw him climbing over the neighbour’s back fence and disappear. Next day Czes told me that he had not seen Zygmunt. The Germans came and a few of my school friends. Georgy Bohnekempfer even spent a few hours with us, to get some rest and to wash his feet as they were hurting. He promised to stop in Karmelowo and to see Zygmunt. He also told me that Zygmunt did a very foolish thing by running away as he certainly would be shot either by the Germans or the Russians, depending by whom he would be caught. I learned later that Georgy died the next day near Karmelowo. Two German officers were allocated to our house. They behaved all right; we even spoke to each other.
They were quite certain that Zygmunt would be dead by now. By now he certainly would have been caught either by the Germans or the Russians. They explained that neither the retreating army nor the first lot of the advancing army would take any prisoners; there would be no time and every suspicious character was being killed, and in addition there were the self-appointed gangs, either pro or anti-Russians and they simply loved to kill. There was no chance that my husband could travel about 100 km without being killed.
But I knew that Zygmunt was not dead. It was not wishful thinking; I simply knew. I would have known the moment he would have died. I was very worried about my Jurek who was not even a year old. I had to go to Wilno and find them. But no-one was allowed to travel, no-one. Walking would take too long (over 100 km). I began pestering everyone I could think of to get some transport. Our two officers were the best bet. After trying hard to convince me that I should stay put, that travelling was dangerous, they at last agreed to help me. They put me in contact with their friend who was going in a tank towards Wilno and who was prepared to take me, but only as far as Wilkomir. I agreed happily as it was more than three-quarters of the way. Mother cried; even Father tried to reason and hold me back, explaining that we would be going through forests still full of partisans and might be blown up, etc. etc. I did not listen but went.
It was a slow drive and uncomfortable as only the driver had a proper seat and the soldiers and I were sitting on ammunition, small hand grenades and other large explosives. But that did not matter. Each hour we were getting closer to Wilno. In Wilkomierz I had to start walking, but not for long. I was stopped by a military patrol, asked for identification documents, the reason why I was on the roads, and then a major told me to hop in.
It was still the beginning of the German/Russian war and they were not callous as yet; in addition, I spoke fluent German and I was a mother trying to find my baby son. They took me right to Wilno and from there it was only five kilometres. I made it in no time, having only a small bundle in my hand and running most of the time. Only on reaching the gate I stopped and felt afraid to proceed. Part of me knew that they were alive, but were they? Were they unharmed? I really could not be sure. The gate was unlocked and so was the house. I called out but there was no answer.
I walked in and there was no sound, just complete silence. I walked slowly through the kitchen, dining room living room … no-one around … no sound … and then all of a sudden, a yell! Jurek! And such a happy yell! I rushed toward the sounds and there was Jurek in his cot, yelling to be picked up. My little darling. He smelled so lovely of dirty nappies, of brought-up milk, still full of sleep. I picked him up and he began laughing and grabbed my hair. Auntie came in and greeted me very pleasantly, explaining that today she was looking after Jurek. She talked and talked but did not mention Zygmunt.
She spoke about the fights they had around the house, about Jurek, and I had to sit down dreading the moment when she would ask about Zygmunt. And then she asked me if I had already seen Zygmunt who was ploughing the field. Zygmunt had arrived, he was here, Jurek was here, we were all still alive. What a wonderful feeling – we were alive! I did not go to meet Zygmunt but stayed with Jurek and let him play with my hands as all of a sudden I had to think about Czeslaw’s sister Irena. Was she still alive? The day after Zygmunt jumped through the window, she got married. The reception was at our place. Her fiancé was like Zygmunt, also from Poland. Czes and I were looking everywhere for food. We got plenty of wine and also a fair bit of caviar and some tinned food, but only one half-kg of bread and I had no flour at home to bake some.
We were expecting only fourteen people but there were a lot more as some of the political prisoners broke out of the jail and came to our place. There was not enough food. The caretaker was a great help as he gave us a bag of potatoes. Potatoes and caviar went very well together but still it was a very sad wedding. Shortly after they went to Poland. Only much later did I learn that they had a few happy years in Warsaw, had a baby and then in 1944 all three were killed during the Warsaw uprising. All the inhabitants of the block of flats were ordered to come out and all were mown down by machine guns. Their bodies were left on the street. My thoughts were interrupted when Zygmunt came in; he looked so healthy and the lovely smile he gave me … I could not utter a word; there were no words to express how I felt. With Jurek in-between us, we talked the whole night through.
Zygmunt told me how, on his way to Wilno, he was shot at, how he got through both front lines, how he was often near death. Taking Jurek with us, we went and sat on the front porch. A star was falling down and I wished Zygmunt eternal happiness. In our country there is a superstition: If you formulate a wish during the time a star is falling, your wish will come true. I don’t believe in any kind of superstitions, not at all, but just the same I never would go under a stepladder, I’ll go around it. I don’t believe in falling stars and all that rubbish, but every time I see a star falling I still wish that Zygmunt should have a happy life and an easy death. I never believed in superstitions either then or now, but I still avoid stepladders, still have a wish and many more things. Stupid, isn’t it? However, it can’t do any harm and maybe, just maybe it might work?
During this stay my foot started to fester and became smelly so Zygmunt carried me up the hill to the nearest doctor. I had injections and Zygmunt had to change the smelly bandages a few times a day. Most of the day Jurek and I spent on the veranda and Zygmunt brought us fruit, especially strawberries which Jurek loved.
The fighting was over, the Germans soon occupied all of Lithuania and were advancing towards Russia proper. Mother came and took us all home, including Zygmunt’s mother, Bama. There were too many Germans allocated to our old house in Kestucio Street 18 and therefore mother found accommodation for all of us in the suburb called “Green Hills” in Viduno Aleja. We had the ground floor and part of the garden and the owner, a Lithuanian teacher, the top floor. The house was quite nice but not quite big enough. Zygmunt and I slept in the dining/living room and Bama shared her room with Jurek. Everyone tried to give us privacy, especially Father who was a darling; he was the first to leave the room if not specially invited.
The Germans and not the Russians were now the bosses. They issued an order that everyone who could speak German had to register. I could not get out of it as all knew that I had finished the German school. After filling out the questionnaire, I was told to report for work at the “Arbeitsamt” (employment office). At that time we knew only vaguely that the Arbeitsamt was not an ordinary employment office but something bad. The Lithuanians, in their majority, hated the Russians more than the Germans as the Russians took away their independence and made them the 17th republic of the Soviet Union but, to us the Poles, enemy number one were the Germans and I was very upset about my assignment.
Going home I met Mr. Safsienowicz and told him that I would have to work in the Arbeitsamt. He thought that it was extremely good that a Pole would be working there, and he would speak immediately with Mr. Gruzewski who would contact me and tell me what to do. He explained to me that having a Pole in the Arbeitsamt would be very useful as I would be able to help the Poles. He advised me to watch and listen, to memorise as much as I could, to keep quiet and not to voice any opinions, that instructions would come regularly and not to worry; I would be able to catch on quickly and know what would be required of me.
Zygmunt and Bama went to Karmelowo; Jurek was sometimes with them and sometimes with us. I had to leave home at 7:00 am as I had about an hour’s walk to work, and came home after 6:00 pm. I found the work easy and less boring than the job I had before at the Red Cross. In the beginning I felt confused interviewing people. I had never had much to do with cheeky female factory workers, nor did I know much about the way prostitutes speak. During the first week I had to interview a prostitute who told me: “I am an honest prostitute and do an honest night’s work and I never over-charge. I don’t want any other work.” I tried to talk her into doing factory work, as I was supposed to do, but she cut me short: “Nobody is going to tell me when or where to work. It is my arse, see? I’ll give it to whom I like. It is my arse and no f---ing Arbeitsamt is going to tell me who to give to or not to give it to, or how much to charge. My arse, isn’t it? I can do with it what I bloody well like. I don’t want your work and tell you boss that I am an honest woman and I never cheat and I don’t care about politics.” – and off she went. I was embarrassed at having to translate her talk to the boss.
A short time after the Germans occupied Lithuania they started to organize transport of labourers to Germany (not volunteers), either by force or by cheating. There were lists of people for transportation and they were so long that I had trouble memorizing all the names, but luckily there was another Polish lass, Imatrykulata, Irma for short. Most of the time we managed to see the lists and warn the Poles mentioned on them. Those on the list had to move to some other place or leave Lithuania and try to reach Poland. They also had another loophole: a doctor’s certificate, preferably stating that they had some contagious disease, especially TB, which was very good as those people were never bothered.
I made new friends – Alma and Stasia Karaliene. We were able to throw food to the starving Russian prisoners and were very nearly caught a few times and we also managed to rescue from the ghetto some little doomed children. Stasia procured sleeping tablets; I had some contacts with the Jewish population and Alma kept the guard distracted. I had to pick up the children whom, whilst asleep, were thrown over the fence - and find for them a safe hiding place. The best place I found was in South Germany in a nunnery! My old Jesuit priest helped me find this fantastic place.
At home we were hiding a young Jewess, Maryte, for quite a long time as she had nowhere to go. We also had a Miss Stefania whom Alma and I were able to rescue from one of the transports, she being from Central Poland and having nowhere to go.
The Germans were rather naïve at that time. If one spoke good German confidently, they did not distrust you much, especially a young mother with a baby in a pram. Once we were unable to see the new transport lists and were furious with ourselves that we could not warn anyone. Whose idea was it? Alma’s or mine? I don’t remember, but it was a grand idea because it worked.
We decided to rescue at least some right from the station where the women had to take the degrading delousing showers. We both knew the outline of the station well. Taking Jurek with us, we decided on a very simple procedure. Alma, with Jurek in the pram, returned outside the shower room window and I, pretending to be on official business, showed the guard my Arbeitsamt documents, explaining that I was to supervise the showers. I was let in without any trouble. When the doors were closed, I asked every second woman to jump out through the window where my friend was waiting and we would take them to a safe place. Some agreed immediately and those who started arguing, I ignored; there was no time for explanations.
There was quite a large group outside when I heard Alma’s piercing whistle – our signal that danger was near. I jumped out and we hurried all the women – first to our priest for a night and next morning distributed them to other Polish families. Stefania had nowhere to go and therefore came to us. Our house was fairly safe; two elderly people, a young mother with her baby, next door a high Gestapo official, and we had already been vetted before. Jurek was a tremendous help. He helped me with my boss who started to speak about love and sex, a Mr. Krueger. He used to wait for me in the morning near home and bring me home which was very awkward as I was unable to do the illegal messages.
This went on for a while until I had a brainwave. I asked him nicely to come to our place and stay with us instead of going back home immediately. He accepted happily. I warned the household and the dining room table was set nicely because I did not want to offend him and get some reprisals. The room looked nice with flowers and all the trimmings. In the middle of the room was the pram with Jurek and both grandmothers pretending to be helpful, speaking no German at all! One should have seen his face! He did not stay long, not even for the meal, and he stopped picking me up. My idea had worked perfectly! Jurek was also a great help when I had to take messages, ammunition or revolvers to someone. All those things were hidden in Jurek’s sheepskin bag which had a double bottom. For safety, there were a few toys and a few empty baby bottles.
The first time I was scared when I was stopped, but later it was rather fun. If the soldier looked bored, I would let Jurek sleep but, if he was zealous or too friendly, I would pinch Jurek who would start screaming. I would pick him up, including the illegal things and, hugging Jurek, beg them to hurry up as the baby had to be fed – and the bottles were all empty. It always worked. Neither Zygmunt nor the parents knew about all this. Not that I did not trust them but, for security reasons, it was better not to let anyone know if not really necessary.
The time of the German occupation was an odd time. Politically, it was just horrible as the Germans were still advancing but our moral outlook was strangely odd – we lived a double-standard of morality. For example, to cheat is bad but, to cheat the Germans is good. To take human life is unforgivable but not when it is a German’s life, then it was even a very good deed. To distribute arms so that people can kill each other is bad but, to help smuggle arms to free Poland or the partisans in the forests is a good thing, and so on.
We were frustrated that the Allies seemed so weak and were unable to hold the front anywhere, not even with Russia’s help, but were we frightened? I don’t remember; we just lived from day to day or rather, from hour to hour. Only occasionally was I really frightened during this period, like being caught during heavy shooting in the street, or once coming home with Zygmunt I saw our cart with hay in our front yard and rifles poking out of the hay. Luckily, Zygmunt did not notice them and I was able to push them deeper inside.
My parents were very frightened of everything and might even have been able to compromise with the enemy and I could not endanger Zygmunt as he was already in a bad position, being a true Pole – hated by the Germans and Lithuanians alike. Zygmunt started to learn English from my dictionary but Mother wanted him to learn Lithuanian so that he could enrol at the University and finish architecture which he did not finish in Warsaw. Under pressure of his parents, he completed the law faculty. But Zygmunt refused, saying that he came to work and not to learn. He, Jurek, Bama and Miss Stefania moved for good to Karmelowo and I saw Zygmunt and Jurek only on weekends and even then, not always. Bama worked hard and made sure that others worked hard too. She explained that she needed meat, food, etc., to pay her sisters who were working in her house. My parents and I could not understand her constant talk about payments to her sisters.
Mother was even worried that Zygmunt might be the same some day, even towards me. I was not worried as I remembered when in Stettin he showed me the moneybox and told me to let him know when there was not enough and he would try to get some more the same day. Life proved me right as, although we had and still have many quarrels, we never once argued about money. If there was some, we spent it; if there was none, we went without – it was never HIS money or MY money; it was always ours. Father loved Zygmunt and trusted him implicitly. He did a beautiful thing: Father altered his Will, leaving everything to Mother for her use during her lifetime and, after her death, everything was left to Zygmunt. Father explained that he was certain that, in the event of our marriage breaking up, Zygmunt – being so honest – would do the best to leave me provided for. He considered Zygmunt a much better manager of property than I, his daughter. Thus, there he was leaving all to Zygmunt. How I loved Father for this.
We both knew Zygmunt really well; we trusted him and, through this, his last Will, Father showed me that he loved Zygmunt just as much as I did. Darling Father. Times started to get worse; food hard to get and Zygmunt had to come more often on his pushbike, loaded with food for us. Transport into Germany went more often and more people were killed or simply disappeared; the Jews were being exterminated systematically, brutally.
Life from day to day became more dangerous under the German administration. When the Germans occupied Lithuania, they incorporated her into the “Ostland” (lands to the east of Germany). The chief commissar was Mr. van Reoteln and his henchman (for extermination of Jews and other undesirable people) was Mr. Jordan. One day there appeared posters concerning Polish and Russian citizens living in Kaunas. We were not allowed to live in private homes anymore; we had to move to the “Small Ghetto” which by now stood empty as all the Jews amassed there had already been killed. Now it was our turn. The ghetto was in a valley along the River Niemen. Houses were without windows and doors; it was autumn and already getting cold. Zygmunt did not have to go as he was registered in Karmelowo, but Jurek and I had to go. It was a toss-up whether we would die of cold or be exterminated earlier. To flee to Central Poland was very risky too – especially with a baby – as all roads were by now very heavily guarded. To try to hide with friends in the country was also not good because I would be found soon as I had to report to work, even when in the ghetto. Mr. Krueger suggested that I apply to become a “Volksdeutsche” as I would be granted it without trouble.
That would be the last thing I would do and I asked him if, in 1915, he would have liked to apply, for instance, for French citizenship. He would not. Then he suggested that I should apply for cancellation of my Polish citizenship and become a Lithuanian. I asked him if he would have liked, in 1917, living in Elass Lotheringen and being a German, to become a French citizen. He understood. Next day he told me that he had written to Mr. Jordan. Mr. Jordan was tall with regular features, a good figure, cruel eyes and a rasping voice. I will never forget him! I hated him and everything he represented. He was killed by Polish partisans the following year. The interview was very short and one-sided:
“You are a Pole who should be helped, according to Mr. Kruegar? I’ll help you and your bastard child! I’ll help you to a slow death; I’ll make sure your death will be painful and slow. I hate you Poles and all your bastard children! I, personally, will make sure that all of you are wiped out – just as I wiped out the Jews! Out!”
Zygmunt suggested that we should get a divorce because, according to the law, I would revert to my Lithuanian citizenship and so would Jurek, being my son. I hesitated as I thought it would not be fair to Zygmunt, but he only laughed. He was not endangered, living outside Kaunas, and nothing would be changed between us. He would come as usual from Karmelowo – not to visit his wedded wife but to a young divorcee – what fun! Two days later we were divorced, thanks to the help of Father’s friend. Many other couples did the same.
The work at the Arbeitsamt became unproductive. We had a new boss – Ohlschlaeger, I think – and the regulations were tightened; two German females arrived and we had no access to the lists. I caught ‘flu somewhere and was unable to shake it off for a long time and the long walk from and to work made me feel very tired. I managed to get a transfer to HKFP (repair depot for army vehicles) nearer home. Father was getting tasty food for me on the black market but I could not keep my food down and had to go to the doctor.
I was pregnant once again. I was not happy about it but did not mind very much. I wanted to have a girl and she would be called Krystyna because a few years before I had read a book which I liked very much, written by Sigrid Undset called “Kristin Lavransdatter” I liked the headstrong Kristin and saw her problems, and I liked the background of old Sweden hundreds of years ago. My health became worse and I was able to eat only dry bread and to drink black tea, and my cough was getting worse. I was even given time off from work and could stay in bed. It was lovely just to be in bed with Jurek playing all the day in the same room. He did not speak but understood most of the words. He loved to sit on the bed, looking at books, but best of all he liked to bring different things from other rooms and pile them on my bed.
One evening I was not feeling well at all and in the night my bed was wet; the bed and I were covered in blood. The doctor said over the phone that it looked like a haemorrhage and that I should stay in bed and he would come next day. My mother would not let me go to the toilet and brought me a pot which I, of course, refused to use. The haemorrhage continued and I felt really quite weak. When no-one was in the room and the passage seemed to be empty, I got up and went to the toilet, but was caught just when I reached the door. They wanted to carry me back to bed, but I got hold of the door knob and would not let go. They had to let me go to the toilet as struggling was certainly not good for me. I felt something falling out of me; something big. Bama found it; it was a baby, partly covered in a fine skin bag.
Next day the doctor came and after examining me, told us that I had had a very good miscarriage and no cleaning up was necessary. The baby had died of starvation and, through coughing, I pushed it out. I was quite amazed that miscarriage could be that simple. It was 23rd March, 1942. Next day, whilst still in bed, I began thinking that the miscarriage might have been my fault, and I got completely drunk on New Year’s Eve. We had a small party: My parents, Bama, Alma and Erwin. My parents and Bama left early and I decided that it was time to find out what it meant to be drunk.
As the night progressed, Erwin got drunk and had to go home, Alma was performing solo dances, shedding some garments, and I could still walk straight along a line. Zygmunt and Alma decided that they would fix me, and I agreed. The poured me a tankard of beer – after all the wine and vodka I had already had. I drank the beer and still felt all right. Zygmunt (who was no longer sober) became annoyed and poured me a cup of moonshine, horrid smelling stuff. I drank it, holding my nose, and could still walk straight. I wanted to dance but Zygmunt got vexed and poured me a coffee cup full of some green sweet liqueur.
After drinking it I had to sit down and Zygmunt was watching me when all of a sudden he grabbed my arm and started to drag me out of the room. I asked why he was doing it but he never had the time to explain before I started being sick in the passage. I remember standing in the toilet with Zygmunt holding me and being so sick. I was certain that I was going to die there and then. I do not remember anything more at all. Next morning I found myself in bed, undressed and feeling terrible. Alma was snoring on the couch. If that meant being drunk and people knew about it before, why the hell do people get drunk? After Alma went home, Zygmunt came and sat on my bed and was a bit sympathetic and wanted to bring me some alcohol but, even thinking about it made me shudder. He explained that I should not complain; I wanted to know what being drunk meant and now I knew. It was a lesson. Later on he made me feel even worse as he explained that when they brought me to bed, I was like a piece of wood and he and Alma had fun together as they both felt kind of lonely!
Oh, men! I hated all men in general and Zygmunt in particular and was really furious with him but not with Alma. Only one thing cheered me up a bit – that Zygmunt was still keeping his promise given a long time ago; when one of us was unfaithful, one should admit it and not wait until someone else would hint at it. To me it meant that I could still trust him but certainly would have to watch him. I was thinking about Mr. Pryfer and did not cry, so when he apologized and seemed sincerely very sorry, I forgave him graciously. A few days later when I met Alma, we looked at each other and both grinned.
“Marushka, I am happy that you are taking it the way it was, just some fun and nothing serious. It was a lovely party, sorry about you being drunk, but it was your idea and now you know what it is to be drunk. Are we still friends?”
“Sure, a small episode would not change our relationship.”
We would still have been friends but Alma returned to Lithuania after the war and we lost touch with each other.
The work at HKP was boring and there was no hope of any sabotage. My boss, Erwin S., was a nice and kind man, although a drunk. I would have liked him even more if he would stop pestering me for a divorce from Zygmunt (he did not know that we were divorced) – he asked for a divorce from his wife, Claire. But he was a kind man and was prepared to wait and wait – even indefinitely, I think. He was a German, but I could not hate him. He was even a Party member with a golden badge which was given only to the first 1,000 members! He did not attract me as a man but I liked him and he was a good man and a good German. (People now sneer when someone mentions a “good” German). I will give only a few examples of his kindness and show that he was humane, although brainwashed.
Many Jewish technicians and labourers were working for the HKP. Every day he ordered some Jews into his office and, when the door was open, he would scream at them but, when the door was closed, he told them to start screaming as loudly as they could, and while they screamed he would hit his riding cane on the leather couch, and those who were not in the know assumed that he was beating them. He put food and cigarettes in their pockets and let them go. I was able to draw his attention to the most desperate cases and he helped to bring them goods which were easy to barter with – like stockings and similar small commodities.
When it became very cold and the workers could barely work in the workshops, he used to come screaming to the workshop, cursing everyone that it was too cold for him to inspect the work properly and stoves had to be kept alight and wood restrictions did not matter. When he saw workers with very poor clothing, he would transfer them to the kitchen or to cleaning offices, still yelling at them. We were able to bring goods suitable for barter and give them to the workers. He knew it but never said a word and just to think that, according to law, everyone who helped a Jew could be exterminated or at least deported. One day there was a fatal incident for him and I am very sorry that I was the cause of it. I received a message that small Jewish children were being slaughtered in a horrible way at the ghetto; the children were killed in front of their parents. I was given details of the killing – dreadful details. I was asked to try to help.
I was so shaken that I lost my temper and rushed into Erwin S. office even without knocking, and started abusing him and all the Germans, calling them inhuman criminals! He closed the door after me and asked for details but by now I was crying and barely able to give a coherent explanation. He ordered a car and, taking me with him, went to the ghetto. He assured me that the message I had received was certainly exaggerated and that he will prove it to me shortly. When we arrived at the ghetto we were stopped – as he did not belong to the extermination commando, but after showing his golden Party badge, he and I were let through. Already in the first street we heard screaming and wailing.
When we turned the corner we saw an SS-man holding a baby by its legs and hammering the baby’s head against the wall; a woman was lying in the gutter; a man – his clothing torn – was hitting his head against the wall. Erwin started yelling at the SS-man who only sneered at him saying that he had his orders and was quite happy to show them. Erwin read, looked around like in a daze, and … tore his Party badge off and threw it in the gutter, spitting at it, kicking it, speaking quietly: “I am sorry I trusted Hitler … I was blind … now I see … and I am no member of this race …” He turned and we left. He did not go to his office and next morning I did not see him. In the evening he came to my place to say a short goodbye. He was posted to a “Straf-Kommando” (penalty commando). He promised to write as soon as possible. I never received a letter from him. I am quite certain that he was killed and I only hoped that his death was a quick one.
I took it very hard as his death was my fault. I should have kept my temper but, by losing it I did not help anyone, and killed him. I could not speak about my feeling with anyone as they would not understand and would say “Good luck, one German less!” – and I could not even speak with Zygmunt otherwise I would have to explain how I got the message and a lot of other things which I was not allowed to say.
Again, I was not feeling well and felt very tired and was unable to do liaison work, being too tired to walk long distances. I went to our Polish doctor who advised me to go to an official German doctor as he thought that I might get some temporary sick leave. I was lucky and got a long leave. That summer I spent in Karmelowo where there were a few of Zygmunt’s relatives. There was Wilunia and her husband whom I liked but not very much, there was Zygmunt’s cousin Halina and her husband and I liked them very much and also her sister and mother. But they were all working hard, including Bama, and I felt so useless. However, there was one compensation that summer – I had Jurek for many hours just to myself without any supervision.
We played together, rolled in the grass and discovered all the ants, tried berries, watched cows, walked along the creek looking for the fast-moving little fish. It was heaven! We were even writing letters and numbers in the sand and Jurek, although barely speaking, knew a lot of letters and figures. I knew that our family and I were extremely lucky so far as nobody from the nearest family had been deported; we had enough food and even after the contribution to the Germans was paid, it was enough to give away and to sell on the black market. While Jurek was sleeping during the day, I remember thinking about life and death and about time.
I could not grasp the meaning of infinity and God. I had only a finite mind and I tried coming back to the thought of infinity. It was time for me to go for a check-up and no wonder that I was told to go back to work as I was feeling well again and not only well but also very happy as I was pregnant again. I was certain that now I would have my baby girl, Krystyna, but Zygmunt laughed and said that a second son would be just as welcome. Although the winter began early that year and was very cold, we did not grumble as at last the news from the Fronts sounded good.
The name El Alamein was like sunshine as it was the real true first time that the Germans did not have it all their way and, although El Alamein was so far away, it was encouraging. Maybe the tide was changing. There came even better news, nearer home – Stalingrad! At last the Germans had it hard too! We were all listening to radio “Free Europe” coming in on the waves of London although it was punishable by death when caught listening to foreign news. I also liked the Swiss radio. It was no good listening to the German news broadcast as they never told the truth. We all listened but Zygmunt more than anyone else. When in Kaunas he spent most of the time at the radio, tuned so low that even if someone was listening at the window, he would be unable to hear anything. We were all happy about the news bulletins but in Lithuania, the times were getting harder and harder. More and more people, including many friends, were either deported or imprisoned, including Czeslaw. Some tried to reach free Poland.
During all this time Father was unsurpassed; every second day he stood in a long queue in front of the prison, bringing Czeslaw food. Sometimes he had to stand for hours. He was also very good at obtaining food which we did not grow, like sugar and orange juice for Jurek. He also took Jurek for walks which was a hard job as Jurek would stop at each house to read the numbers, then transpose them and also try to get the numbers upside down. For example:
“Dziadku, (Grandpa) two and six is twenty-six but if I move the two it will be sixty-two, yes? And if I turn the six upside-down it will be ninety-two, yes? And if I shift the two it will be twenty-nine, yes? Luckily we only had a few houses with three numbers which we avoided like the plague. Those walks took hours but Father did not mind; he loved Jurek. At that time father was already seventy or more.
On 27th March – early, before dawn – I started to have my labour pains. Father got a drozka (a sort of fiacre) and took me to the hospital. The hospital was overcrowded, dirty and the sisters were grumpy and overtired. The hospital was nationalized by the proprietor and his sister, Dr. Mazylis, were still there. I did not grumble as even a dirty hospital was better than none and we were prepared to have the baby anywhere. Zygmunt knew what he would have to do in an emergency and we had scissors, cotton-wool and bandaids always near us as none of us knew where we might be the next day. Nobody came to examine me and I was told that the doctor had had a hard day and was sleeping. In the evening I asked to be allowed to go to the labour ward as the pains were very frequent. They let me go but told me not to make a fuss as in half an hour the shift was changing! I demanded a doctor, any doctor would do. The sister in charge came and examined me and asked me to hold back and she would call the doctor who lived only fifteen minutes away. She told me: “Just hold on, dear, I am not allowed to deliver babies and there is no doctor on the premises.” Although I tried to “hold on” I found it impossible, but luckily the doctor came in time and was able to grab the baby.
“It is a healthy, normal boy.”
We decided to name the boy Roman. It was an easy name to pronounce and it was the same spelling in any language and, in addition, I liked the author Roman Rolland! The hospital was so very dirty – the floors covered with caked blood and vomit. Zygmunt and Mother washed the floor in the room which I shared with Mrs. Nagavicius – a woman of about forty – who had had her first baby. The nurses wore aprons stiff with dirt on which they straightened out the dressings before pushing them into us.
Two of my school friends died during this time of child fever in this hospital. I left as soon as I could stand on my own two feet. At home I could see Roman without nappies for the first time. His bottom was red raw and his ankles were rubbed to blood! How I loved this poor, darling child who, in the first week of his life, had suffered more than I had in nearly twenty-seven years. As I still had sick leave, I was allowed to look after him and Bama was still in Karmelowo. Roman’s sores healed quickly; he stopped crying and looked happy and slept a lot. Once again I got an infection and my breasts were covered with sores and were bleeding at the slightest touch. Roman too had to go on the bottle. I received an extension to my leave and we went to Karmelowo. Roman was a happy and undemanding baby. Jurek was good to his little brother and brought him all his favourite toys. Although Jurek mispronounced some words, he liked to speak in sentences, such as:
“Look, Mammy, how the wheat is bending with the wind.”
He could not read but knew many letters by now and loved to show off at the big map which hung on the wall. He would show and spell out USSR, Poland and many others.
That year we had a plague of flies – they were everywhere. I kept Roman covered with a net but he had to be changed and fed and his food had to be prepared. We had fly bottles and fly strips everywhere but they were not much help, especially in the kitchen where there were thousands of flies, not hundreds! Probably I was not careful enough because Roman contracted diarrhoea and within a few days he was passing blood – it was dysentery!
We went to Kaunas. Roman stopped crying; he was just whimpering. My leave expired and, although I tried, I could not prolong it. Roman was getting weaker and the doctor did not give me much hope. As there was nothing to lose, the doctor suggested trying to feed Roman with a new preparation (being developed at the university) which was still not for sale. I had decided that I wanted to give it a try. There was nothing to lose – Roman had maybe hours, maybe just a few days at the best to live. I have to thank my father that Roman is alive and healthy as Father went every day – three times a day – to the laboratories to get a bottle of food for Roman, and it was a long walk. For the first few days we were still uncertain as his skin was still wrinkled and he was just barely whimpering, but then he started to recover and even put on weight. We all felt as happy as never before!
We started to live normally again; that is, we were listening to the radio, we tried to free people from transports, to help those in jail with food or messages and to find extra food. The latter my father did like a wizard. He always knew when someone was selling something. Mother was selling her private belongings quite well and she never hesitated to sell even those things which she really liked – such as her silver mauve large Persian carpet or her beautiful platinum necklace which was embroidered with lovely pearls, all slightly pinkish. She was happy to sell and happy when she could buy us presents, and she was constantly making surprises for all the family – but she never bought anything for herself.
The winter was extremely cold but we were happy about it as the frost helped to push the Germans back as well as kill the germs. Stalingrad fell and on all Fronts the Germans were stopped and were even forced to retreat and the Russians started to advance. The German administration became even worse than before. There were more transports of labour force into Germany, more requisitions from the country. Sometimes we even had to buy food to be able to complete the demanded requisitions. Cows and horses were taken. Many of our friends were leaving Lithuania and trying to reach Central Poland – of course, quite unofficially.
On 6th August I was in Karmelowo with the children and with Czeslaw. When it was getting dark, we all went to meet Zygmunt who had this day to go to Kaunas. When he saw us he started to run – his face was smiling and he could hardly speak from excitement.
“The Second Front has started!”
We all knew what it meant. It was the beginning of the end for the Germans! Now they can’t win this war! Now they have no hope at all!
Times became hectic and frightening. Now there were air raids by the Russians. In Kaunas lived my parents, Roman and I, but Zygmunt, Jurek and Bama lived in Karmelowo. Zygmunt came often bringing milk and some food. The air raids became very frequent. Roman’s pram was always kept ready packed near the chimney which usually stayed on, even when the rest of the house crumbled down. In his pram were his nappies and his food, bandages for all and also medicine and some gold roubles for exchange for food and some food for all, if available. Near our house, not more than a kilometre away, was the old fortress with its bunkers which now became perfect shelters.
It was only a matter of estimating whether one had enough time to reach them as the alarm sirens did not always sound on time. Most of the bombs usually fell far away – only two were very close. The atmosphere in the bunkers was very tense with all the crowds of people and children. When the bombs were falling close by, we tried to cover Roman and his pram with our bodies but he was still frightened by the noise of the people and the screams. It was quite unpleasant, but we survived.
The Spring of 1944 again saw refugees on the roads, but now they were going – not to the East but to the West – and they were GERMANS! Or rather, “Volksdeutsche” and German settlers. The Germans were retreating in a hurry. The highway was so crowded that sometimes Zygmunt had to wheel his bike and walk all of the 12 km to bring us food. Then came disturbing news. First there were only rumours but later these were confirmed as facts. The advancing Russian Army would take all able-bodied men into their own army which, in our case, meant the Lithuanian Red Army.
What should Zygmunt do? Some Lithuanians fled to the forests and joined the Lithuanian partisans fighting for independence, but Zygmunt could not join them as he could not speak Lithuanian and was just a “bloody Pole”. To be drafted into the Lithuanian Red Army seemed just as bad. There was a Polish Army in the Polish Underground, fighting for free Poland, but how could he reach Poland? To go to Wilno would be no help as Wilno was now incorporated into Lithuania. We did not know where the Front was from day to day, nor could we guess how the Front would develop. One thing seemed certain: Zygmunt must leave Lithuania and try to reach Poland, but the question remained – how?
I had my own personal problems. What should I do? Let him go alone through Germany, probably never knowing if he was dead or alive or wounded or taken prisoner or dying? I might be of help to him as I spoke German fluently and knew the German mentality and he could barely speak German.
It seemed impossible to leave my children; they might need me too. But I should not speak about both children. I should choose between Roman and Jurek as Bama had decided to stay near Karmelowo and my parents decided to stay in Kaunas with Roman. With whom should I be? With Zygmunt? Roman? Jurek? Certainly not with Jurek as Bama would not let me interfere with her decisions. With Roman and my parents? It was better, but not much. I could get my way with Father but not with Mother where Roman was concerned. Where would it be safer? In Kaunas? Near Karmelowo? Somewhere in the forests? In Germany or Poland? Nobody knew, nobody could even make a guess!
I felt that I would be unable to leave either the children or Zygmunt. It was a hard decision to make, but make it I must. To my parents it seemed quite simple. I should stay with them and Roman who had then just started to walk. They would look after me and Roman. They always looked after me well, didn’t they? My thoughts were different. They certainly would look after Roman and me well, which meant that neither Roman nor they needed me. What about Jurek? I would not be allowed to look after him – Bama would tell me what I should do. She was still young and very energetic and I had to admit, managed life quite well – maybe better than I would, if given a chance. She had experience from the First World War. Zygmunt would not advise. He said that it was my decision and my decision alone.
I decided to go with Zygmunt, hoping that it would be a very short separation from the children as the German Front was crumbling in the East and in the West and everyone was predicting that the Germans would surrender when the Allies would reach Germany. It could not be long. I would go with Zygmunt into the unknown – him I might be able to help. We might be able to reach Poland by devious routes. We would be partners. After I reached the decision, no pleading or crying would shake me. Zygmunt still kept quiet. Mother prepared us lots of goods to take with us but we had to leave most of it behind.
The first to go was all winter clothing which we considered quite unnecessary as the war would be finished long before winter. We took with us a change of clothes, things to barter, some gold and some food. I could not help it but started crying when I was dressing Jurek for the last time and kept crying when we left him and Bama standing on the highway waving to us. It was not better in Kaunas when parting from Roman and my parents.
We went by train to Germany as we were able to get travel orders for a fictitious job. The German administration was by now in chaos. When I explained apologetically that we missed our evacuation lorries of the K.K.P. and, producing my working card, told them that we were in a hurry to join them, they did not query it at all. Zygmunt advised me to say that H.K.P. had been evacuated to Modlin and that we intended going there. He picked Modlin as – although a Polish town before the war – it was now declared as belonging to the Reich and, being a fortress town, it sounded plausible to have the H.K.P. shifted there. Zygmunt also chose this town as it was the nearest German town to Warsaw! Our travel permit was issued for Modlin! We travelled in open lorries packed with ammunition, civilians and military men. We went through forests full of partisans who, a few days before, had blown up one of the trains. The train stopped at the frontier town Kybarty and every civilian had to get out.
It did look grim. There were holding centres for labourers and all behind barbed wire. We left the milling group of people and went further inland to the farm of my friend, Gramadzki. There were on his farm a few refugees who intended not to travel further as they expected to hear very soon that Germany would surrender. We were not so certain and decided to continue and to reach Modlin. In Kybarty lived my friend, Wanda Judzentowicz. She welcomed us and said that her house was ours. We stayed there for a few days and they were anxious days as the Germans issued orders that all the people had to go and dig trenches against the oncoming Russian Army.
The police were hunting for those like us but we were lucky as Wanda’s friend, Veronika, helped us out by bribing a policeman with her vodka and Zygmunt’s cigarettes. The frontier was closed to all without a permit and those who were caught were either returned or brought straight to dig fortifications and trenches. A few years later Wanda told us that there was a real massacre at the trenches when the Russians broke through the Front and, of course, the Germans did not surrender when the Russians entered Germany, although many expected its surrender.
At last we were going to Warsaw, admittedly in a very roundabout way, as we had to go through most of Germany. Zygmunt – who gave it a lot of thought – told me now what he thought we might be able to do. Why should we go first to Modlin and try from there to smuggle ourselves into Warsaw? Why not try to go straight to Warsaw? Our documents were to Modlin, certainly, but would it not sound plausible if we – so eager (!) to join the workforce – would try to take the shortest route and go to Modlin via Warsaw? It sounded not bad to me. Therefore, when we came to Insterburg, we changed trains and went to Scharfenwiese – a town which, a few years before, was a Polish town called Ostrolenka.
Here was our first setback. Firstly, no trains were expected that day for Warsaw. Second disappointment, the language in the streets was only German and only in the toilets and washrooms did we hear Polish but then, only in whispers. The main disappointment was when we learned that to travel to Warsaw one needed special permits. I went to the “Kommandantur” to try for this special permit. It was a long walk and I had to wait for hours and I did not achieve anything. No-one, but really no-one, was allowed to go to Warsaw if there was another way available as Warsaw was considered not safe for people working for Germany (!)
It was already dark when I got back to the station and Zygmunt was waiting anxiously for me. We both felt like crying and we were also very tired and hungry. We had “Speisekarten” (food vouchers) but there was no food at the station, only water. With some trouble we found a place to bed down on the floor near the door as all the station was crowded with military men. There were a few SS-men but even with them around, the Army men were making jokes about the Fuehrer and about food which was not available. Clutching Zygmunt’s hand, I went to sleep with my rusksack as a pillow.
During the night he woke me up because he heard talk about a special train to Warsaw for the Army and he thought that we should try to get into it. I was aghast. How? Especially me – a woman! He said: “Don’t waste time, come and just try!” It was still dark and the platform was crowded with soldiers but I could not see even one woman about. When the train arrived, the soldiers began to climb in and Zygmunt was one of the first up the steps to give me a hand when a military policeman stopped and grabbed my rucksack. I was more than frightened; I was really scared, but I was also desperate. I did show the policeman my H.K.P. papers and my orders to report for work as soon as possible. He started reading and shaking his head, muttering “But you are a woman.” The whistle sounded and by then I was truly desperate. I grabbed my papers out of his hands and shouted at him: “I know that I am a woman but I am doing a man’s job. You can’t detain me just for some stupid formalities! Don’t you know how urgent it is that all of the workforce is working? Don’t you realize that any delay would be punishable?” … and, hanging on to my identification cards, I jumped onto the train which luckily started to move.
He was standing, undecided, when the train began to gather speed. I was shaking with fright. What will happen next? How many more military policemen will I have to face? Zygmunt and I talked in whispers so that the others would not know that we were speaking in Polish. But nobody took any interest in us. The soldiers took off their rucksacks and made themselves comfortable either on benches or on the floor, and we did the same. The train stopped but only civilians boarded and no policemen. It was very oppressive. When it became lighter I saw dark clouds gathering and there was thunder in the air. We were approaching Warsaw and the names of the stations were now in Polish, but I was still very frightened.
What would happen when we arrived in Warsaw? Would we be able to explain convincingly our presence; would they let us pass or would they start enquiring in Modlin about our HKP which certainly was not in Modlin!? In addition, we did not even have tickets! Coming nearer Warsaw the train stopped more frequently and civilians boarded the train and they were speaking Polish! At last we were not the only civilians on the train. At last we could speak Polish!
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