My World War II Odyssey
Of My Mother Eugenia
Killed In Warsaw Ghetto on January 21, 1943
Of My Son Karol
Born In Warsaw on March 3, 1923
Killed In Warsaw Ghetto in 1944
Last Day in My City - First Day of Odyssey
April 12, 1990.
This was the sixth day of September - the sixth day since Hitler's army started raining bombs on Poland, their tanks advancing from the South, West and North. There was no panic in Warsaw where I and my family lived, even though the city was bombed from the first day.
The city was criss-crossed by anti-bomb trenches dug by the population in anticipation of the war. This effort was well organized, and everybody was expected to spend at least one hour digging ditches in one's neighborhood.
There was a wave of enthusiasm when, on the third of September, three days after the start of invasion. England and France declared war on Germany, fulfilling the treaty of mutual assistance.
Ecstatic crowds gathered in front of the British embassy, and optimism was the mood of the day; cooler heads, however, realized that Western powers (if I may use this oxymoron) were powerless and could not have any effect on the short term outcome of the present fight.
With the declaration of neutrality by Roosevelt and recent non-aggression Soviet-German pact the political background was simple we were left to ourselves.
The Polish army and the Air Force could not dream of stopping the Germans; however, there mere spots of heroic resistance: Warsaw defended itself longer than France (and paid for it dearly) and the Northern military outpost at Baltic sea, Westerplatte, the first to be attacked and greatly outmanned, fought off the attackers with great courage. In the rest of the country the forces were soon in disarray and retreat.
However, let's go back to Warsaw.
I was the oldest of the three children, all sons. The youngest, Jerzy nine years younger than I, was a medical student and lived with mother. The middle brother, Bronislaw, four years older, was married, without children. I was divorced and my son Karol, 11 years old lived with his mother, who had remarried. I was working as an engineer in a manufacturing plant, located in Praga, suburb of Warsaw, on the opposite [Eastern] side of the Vistula River.
On the fifth day of the war I went to see my former wife, who together with our son was temporarily staying with her parents. When I arrived there, an air raid was just being called off and I found the two leaving the trench. I have to mention here, that more from stupidity, than bravery, I did not pay attention to air raid sirens.
She was frightened by the experience, and was still jittery when I talked to her. I suggested that her parent's home was not the safest haven, since it was located close to a bridge, a likely target for the bombs; if she had to stay there then I wanted to transfer Karol to my mother's home; and so I did.
The same evening at my mother's, where I was going to stay overnight, I received a phone call from Elias, my friend and schoolmate from Warsaw Polytechnic. He told me that he and his wife, like many other people, decided to leave the city.
The German troops were approaching Warsaw from three sides, and the only escape route left was in the Eastern direction. Elias said that he had a car to his disposal and was offering me two seats if I would decide to join him.
This was a very generous offer - very few people had cars and many were leaving on bicycles, some by horse and buggy, but most were simply walking.
I asked for two hours for the answer.
I did not contemplate leaving, and the opportunity caught me unprepared. There were several things to consider. If I were going to leave, the only natural thing was to use the second seat for Karol.
As far as safety was concerned at the time, the crowded roads were intensively bombed to disrupt communications, and to knock down telegraph poles and wires. .
After the city will fall, I thought, some order will be restored and life should become fairly normal.
My problem was that I had not read “Mein Kampf” and I still remembered the time when during the First World War the Germans occupied Warsaw. I distinctly recollect the day when in 1915 they took the city from the Russians.
I was 11 years old; it was in the morning, I was standing on my bed in the nightshirt, jumping from excitement as I watched through the window German troops marching order1y in the street.
They occupied the city for about three years; they were arrogant and rude, there were hardships and shortages, but the population was left alone and there were not any wanton killings.
But let's go back to my problem a Quarter of the century later. Rather than taking my eleven year old son on unsafe roads to an unknown destination, would it not be safer for him to stay in town with his mother and the rest of the family?
I phoned the plant manager (who was also the Owner), to find out what his plans were. Director (let's call him that was a very fine, wise and friendly man, a few years older than I. We had a good relationship, and I had great confidence in his integrity. I discussed with him my dilemma and enquired about his plans regarding the factory. His decision was to continue the operation; he will be in the plant in the morning. By that time I made already my mind - "I shall be there too" I told him.
“Well," he warned me, "it may happen, that you will regret your decision, but if you do come, bring with you some personal things you may need if the bridges should be destroyed and you might have to stay here overnight or longer".
I called Elias to tell him that I decided to stay. And here I have to make another digression.
Several months later I met Elias and his wife in Vilno, Lithuania and learned that their plan to travel by car did not materialize after all. And this freed me from the torment of a doubt: "Perhaps, if my decision were different, if I had decided to go by car, then may be a dear for me life would be saved?"
Now, back to the besieged Warsaw.
As I said, Karol and I were staying overnight at my mother's. Next morning, I borrowed my mother's knapsack.
"Are you leaving town?" she asked. "Not that I plan to," I said. "I am going to stop at my place on the way to the plant in order to pick up a few things I may need in case I shall be stuck on the other side of the river."
I bid her and Jurek goodbye, kissed Karol and went out to wait for the streetcar. Karol came out on the balcony and was waving to me. After I boarded the car and stood on the open platform he kept on waving until the car rounded the corner. It was something unusual in this long goodbye -- like a parting farewell; it might have been a child's premonition, because this was in fact the last time we ever looked at each other.
When I arrived to the plant, Praga was heavily bombed. I saw a German plane hit the ground in flames, close to our position. It soon became obvious that concentration of people in a small area was too risky, and Director decided to empty the building.
At noon the plant was closed. I stood outside the gates, watching people filing out; the faces were grim, some women were crying. The office employees, an old journeyman, who lived on the premises, the Director and I remained in the building.
Director, who was a bachelor, lived with his mother and two sisters. The day before the three, his mother and sisters, left Warsaw by car. Now he himself decided to leave the city too. But the tank of his car was empty -- he used gas from his car to fill up his mother's, and it was impossible to get gasoline in the city now.
It was getting late. The building had some living quarters and I decided to stay overnight; so did Director.
At midnight we listened to the news: it was shattering, though not totally unexpected: "It happened," we were told, "what can happen in every battle, the enemy broke through our defenses and is approaching Warsaw." All able bodied men were ordered to leave the city immediately and to attempt to join the armed forces.
This was the sixth day of the war.
I made several phone calls. I phoned my married brother, pulled him out of bed and told him what was announced. It was news to him, and he wanted to join me.
I called my mother: during the day Mira (my former wife) took Karol to her apartment. I wanted to talk to Jurek, my youngest brother, but he was in the hospital on duty. Mother will have him get in touch with me. “God bless you Stefciu,” was her farewell.
I also phoned Mira: Karol was asleep and I did not want to wake him. I bid her goodbye.
Jurek called from the hospital. He, a medical student, was needed and couldn't leave now, but, he said, he'd leave later, when free.
For his sense of duty, noble as it was, he paid with his life. He ended in the Jewish ghetto, participated in the uprising there, attended to the wounded in a provisional "hospital" room and was blown up by the Germans together with the building. He died fighting.
Bronek came to the plant and brought keys to the car owned by his father-in-law’s tannery, which he managed. We were joined by the director's family friend, a young chemist, and walked to the car.
I rolled it out and drove outside of city limits. There the car stalled: its tank was empty. We left the car and started walking fast.
It was two o'clock in the morning.
And thus my odyssey began.
May 4, 1990.
After leaving besieged Warsaw on the sixth day of the war (or was it seventh, since we left two hours after midnight), the four of us, director, chemist, my brother Bronek and I walked through the night on the highway. It was early, since all we heard in the darkness was the rustle of a moving throng of people, a silent human river. Those whom we could see around us were mostly men, some on bicycles. Occasionally a car was trying to make its way ahead.
I noticed a dentist I knew, who was walking beside a tri-wheeler ridden by his wife. The front cart was filled with the tools of his profession. Although everyone here was touched by a drama, this was a vivid illustration how uprooted people's lives can become in a span of few days.
In the morning, tired and sleepy, we arrived to a village. We asked a group of local people for a place to lie down and sleep - a barn with hay perhaps. They hesitated, they mere told to watch out for spies and saboteurs; they checked our identifications (as if this could prove anything) and, as we suggested, let us sleep in a clean barn.
Barns were going to be our master bedrooms for nights to come.
The highway we were traveling on, was one of the major ones leading from Warsaw toward a city of Lublin, some 100 miles South-East from the capital. This city of 100,000 was inside of the so-called "Triangle of Defense" and it was to be the seat of the government in case of war.
As we were instructed to join the armed forces, there is where we expected to obtain further instructions.
The weather was good, the proverbial "golden Polish autumn," the road was winding its way between fields of wheat, still standing, or harvested, or in dense forests of pine and oak.
Besides the cities, the highways were the main target of the Luftwaffe. In case of a raid everybody ran off the highway afield (always to the side opposite to the telegraph poles) and lay flat on the ground.
Once I saw an incendiary attack on a village; there were many small sticks vertically falling on the ground; I heard and saw them sear everything on contact, saw people running out of burning houses. One woman threw a large pillow out of a window and jumped after it, making a soft landing.
It took us four or five days to reach Lublin. On the way we ate vegetables pulled from the ground in abandoned gardens and slept mostly in empty barns.
Speaking of shelter I remember one incident. It was a cool evening and it started to rain. Looking for refuge we noticed an apparently abandoned hut; there weren't any lights in the windows. The door was barred, and when we tried to force it, a man came out from behind of the building, where he was hiding - we must have been not the first ones who wanted to use his hospitality.
He claimed that he had no key to the house and tried to slip away.
I was angry; I grabbed him by the coat, shook him a little, and told him that we didn't want anything of his, except a roof for that night and fire for our potatoes. He found the key.
In Lublin we did not find anything except commotion. The Government wasn't there any longer, they escaped to Rumania, which had a border with Poland, and then to France and later England. Crowds of refugees, confused and rudderless were milling around. I spotted an acquaintance, he looked despondent - he lost his wife in the confusion. Later he found her.
Many cases like this ended less happily. My youngest brother, Jurek, left Warsaw with his girlfriend and her sister in a horse drawn carriage. They were lying on the ground during on air raid when a bomb fell between them; nobody was hurt, but they panicked and scattered. The girls were picked up by a passing military vehicle, the horses ran away and Jurek confused and alone, returned to Warsaw. That cost him his life.
How do I know these details?
I know his side of this incident because of my correspondence with my family in Warsaw, I know their side because I met the girls later in Lwow.
A friend of mine, whom I saw last year during my visit to Poland (1989) was similarly separated from his wife; as a result he spent the war years in Wonow, and she in Siberia. They were reunited after the war.
We stayed in Lublin only for few hours. From there our road turned directly east. We found out, that several hours after we left, Lublin was flattened by the bombs.
Now, 50 miles east of Lublin is a major river, Bug. When we arrived there, the bridge was closed to civilians - the army was crossing the river.
I felt trapped by the obstacle to our escape. Cruising the dark and empty streets, while the rest of the group was asleep in a rented room, I was thinking how to break the barrier - perhaps we should rent a boat if the bridge would not open the neat day.
On one of the streets there was a tavern, full of people. The door to the tavern was ajar and together with the others I was listening to the news on the radio. The news was that the bridge was now open to the public again.
I rushed back to our room, woke up the gang and shortly we were on the East side of the river.
After the war it became apparent that the aerial attacks were not to be carried beyond the river Bug. According to the Ribentrop Stalin pact, the part of Poland east of Bug was to be occupied by Russia.
Fifty miles past Bug we arrived to the city of Kowel. Here two things happened: First, Bronek disappeared from the hotel room, which we occupied. He went for a walk and did not return; naturally, we were concerned. He showed up several hours later; he was grabbed and pressed into a gang for digging anti-bomb ditches. He managed to escape.
Next, an army deserter, who needed money, sold us a military carriage with a horse. This was a godsend, director had a bad knee which bothered him recently, and this was slowing us considerably.
Now we drove day and night, rotating the drivers. We were still 150 miles from the Russian border. On the second night I was holding the reins, while the others were asleep. A truck full of Polish soldiers was coming from the opposite direction, heading west. “Don't go there,” they shouted. “The Russians are coming.” That stopped us; we decided to reach the next village and settle there.
The village was not far. I am not certain of the name, I think it was Maniewicze.
We found a room there in the home of a Jewish blacksmith and his wife (a rare trade for a Jew in Poland). They were a friendly couple, living with their 20 years old daughter.
We gave him the horse and carriage, which he quickly took apart and hid; after all, it was a stolen government property.
The two women were trying to make our stay comfortable, we had room and board.
We stayed there for about three weeks and had a chance to relax; no more bombs, and no need to elude Nazis any more -- the feeling of urgency disappeared. Of course, there was great uncertainty about the Russians, but at this time we were weary and tired and refused to worry - que sera,sera!
We were relaxed, played cards, enjoyed walks and even flirted a little with the blacksmith's attractive daughter.
We saw more and more small groups of Polish soldiers, disoriented and scared, trying to hide all traces of their military past. One of them approached me, offering to sell his army coat. It was long and heavy, and I bought it, since the days were getting cooler then. To be safe I exchanged all the shiny, military buttons for prosaic leather studs.
So far no Russian soldiers showed up in our village.
When the railroad service was restored, (well, somewhat restored), we decided to go to Lwow, a major city in Polish Ukraine.
The train came to the station four hours late. No tickets were bought, nor sold; the ride was free. There was a large group of prospective passengers gathered at the station. When the train arrived, young husky women conductors hung by the handles at the entrance to the cars, with their backs outside, pushing back people trying to get In with wild thrusts of their behinds.
This was a choice assembly of wenches, but they were not strong enough and we managed to get in.
So started our first encounter with Russian officialdom.
The cars were filthy, with all the windows broken. It took hours before the train started rolling, but finally we reached Lwow, some 100 miles straight South, but 200 miles by rail.
It was October, 1939.
Lwow was one of the milestones in my odyssey.
P.S. My wife Lydia would not let me forget the importance of Lwow in my life -- she was born there.
My brother Bronislaw, Director and I arrived in Lwow in the middle of October, 1939, six weeks after we left the beleaguered Warsaw.
Lwow, city of 300,000 was one of the main centers of Polish culture and learning, with many theaters, a university, an Institute of Technology, one of the best in the country and with numerous publishing houses.
On the surface life seemed to be normal in the city; Soviet authorities were too busy rounding up Polish officials, police, political leaders and other “enemies of the people” to bother with everyday life of the common citizens.
There was no wanton mistreatment of people by Russian soldiers; on the contrary, they were friendly, willing to talk and hopeful that we appreciate the fact that they freed us from our “blood-sucking” overlords. They sincerely believed that.
Neither was there any plunder, although Russians were running from store to store as if they could not believe their eyes seeing the abundance of the merchandise. But they never admitted their awe and their standard statement, as if learned from their political manual was: “U nas wsio iests,” we have everything. Still they kept on buying watches, ladies' furs, lingerie, dresses, etc., which they sent home. One of them explained to me why there were so many goods on the shelves: “Polish working people are too poor to buy anything.”
The less friendly activity was the commandeering of private cars. In a way this was a blessing for me: they needed people for maintenance and repair of seized cars and I got a job at one of their stations. I was no more a wanderer who could live off nature and sleep in barns; I was in a large city and had to make a living for me and my brother.
Shortly mail service was restored and we could communicate with Warsaw. Not much change in my family; I gave them our address.
A new type of store appeared in the city: they were selling second - hand goods such as furs, dresses, clocks, cameras etc. left there on consignment by people who lost their jobs, or by the families of arrested officials.
Also, shortages started appearing - one could see more and more lines in front of the stores. Russians were buying, many people were hoarding and supplies obviously did not keep pace with demand.
We decided to outfit ourselves in new suits while they were still available. The ones we wore, after weeks of traveling, sleeping in barns, wallowing on muddy ground during air raids, were ready for retirement. It should be explained that in Poland the ready-to-wear stores carried low quality, ill fitting products. Most middle class men and women wore custom made clothes. There were many good tailors and the cost was not exorbitant.
I chose the cloth and after the measurements were taken I made the down payment for a suit. As it will be explained later, I never got to wear it.
In the meantime a heart-breaking episode took place.
One evening there was a knock: at the door and there stood my former wife, Miriam with her husband, Leo, just arrived from Warsaw. My first question was, “Where is Karol?" our twelve years old son.
"I was afraid that you will not approve", she said" but I decided that it would be too great a risk to take him along, that he should be safer with his two grandmothers. At the border the Germans were apprehending Jews, beat them, often severely, and were turning them back.
"What about Leo?" I pointed at her husband. "There were four of us women in the car, he was hiding under the seat; we wore long skirts and covered him. At the border a German trooper opened the door and shouted the question, ‘Are there Jews in the car?’ Luckily we got through.”
Here an explanation is in order: Jewish men were circumcised, the Gentiles in Poland were not. It was impossible for a male Jew to hide his identity.
It was the end of November when a government 'ukase' was announced: The Supreme Soviet was granting all refugees the 'privilege' of becoming Soviet citizens. This will be a voluntary decision; however those who will not take advantage of this opportunity will be considered enemies of the people. The text of this announcement is not repeated here verbatim, except for the last sentence. A deadline for handing over the passports was also given.
This was a blow as well as the last straw, which in retrospect saved our lives. It did not take us long to decide to escape this people's paradise.
There were only two possibilities: one to go South to Rumania, her border was only 188 miles away, but one would have to cross the Carpathian mountains, covered heavily with snow this time of the year; the other possibility, North, to the city of Wilno in independent Lithuania, a more attractive choice, considering that Wilno belonged to Poland before Stalin gave it to Lithuania, hence no language barrier there.
I went to Miriam to find out what their plans were. They did not share our concern. “Don’t you feel safe here?” asked Leo -- his name was Fokszanski, he was a promising young Polish poet. “Perhaps” -- I said -- “but I don’t want to be permanently tied to this country.”
They decided to stay. It was a fatal decision; year and a half later, in June 1941 Hitler army attacked Russia. It took only few hours and they overran Lwow. The Fokszanskis returned to Warsaw, ended up in ghetto and shared the fate of the Six million victims of the Holocaust.
First thing for us to do was to move closer to the Lithuanian border, which was 388 miles away, and arrange for the next step. We decided to leave, even though our ordered suits were not ready, with the result that we will present ourselves to the Lithuanians in our old bedraggled attire.
We moved to Bialystok, a city of 68,888, only 48 miles from the border. Here Bruce (Bronek) received a letter from his wife. Her father passed away and the family’s tannery, which was still operating, was now run by her and her two cousins.
Bruce decided to return to Warsaw and arranged for a guide who would smuggle him across the border. However the guide did not show up at the arranged time and place and Bruce decided to go alone. It was a brave and daring decision, but he got through unscathed.
During the whole ghetto period he was of great help to our family. He supported them - materially and during the critical period of deportations to the death camps he was hiding them in the tannery.
In spite his effort he was the only member of my family who survived the Holocaust. After the war, in 1945, I found him in the German Displaced Persons camp and brought him, his second wife and a baby boy to Vancouver in British Columbia, where we lived.
Now back to our problem.
December 20, 1990
We came to Bialystok from Lwow in order to prepare for the border-crossing from Russian-occupied Poland into free Lithuania. This was in the second part of December of 1939, the year of the Nazi invasion of Poland.
We made proper contacts and found out where the center of the smuggling activity was. I also learned that the typical cost of such enterprise exceeded my financial resources.
Director wanted to help. "I have here a promissory note from one of the retailers," he said, "who has a hardware store in this general area; the payment was due last month, but because of the war I did not hear from them, neither do I expect to hear now. If you could personally present this note to them and cash it, we could split the money." .
I agreed, it was an opportunity to earn the badly needed cash.
"Director" is the name I am using here for my employer and friend, who left Warsaw with me.
The promissory note was a very common credit instrument in Poland. Basically it was a check with delayed payment date, usually for three, or Six months. The convenience of such note was that it was marketable: one could, upon endorsement, sell it to a discounter for cash, or use it as payment for one's own purchases. A additional safety for those accepting the second party note was, that in case the original issuer would default, the next responsible party for payment was the endorser.
So much for the economic practices in pre-war Poland.
The hardware store was located in the neighborhood of a small town Glebokie, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Bialystok in the North-East corner of Poland. This narrow strip of pre-war Poland was bordering with Lithuania, Latvia and Russia, now totally in Russian hands. My destination point could be reached by an eight hour night train ride, followed by a ten miles trek by horses.
The train was nearly
empty, dirty and cold. I wrapped myself in my coat up to my ears and managed
to doze for a few hours. From one passenger, who was acquainted with the
area, I obtained the address of a peasant, living close to the railway
station, who could give me a ride to the destination.
No sooner I stepped down from the train, when I was detained by two non-uniformed characters. They asked some questions, took me to a small building and told me to wait there for the officer who, they said, was still asleep.
The room was nearly empty, except for several chairs along the mall and a simple desk under the window. I was not certain what was this all about, however I guessed that the activity must have some military significance and I would have to prove that I did not arrive here in the role of a spy.
Only later I was told that this station was a transfer point for Russian troops and equipment going to the Finnish front.
After consummation of the Ribbentrop-Stalin pact by occupation of a part of Poland, Stalin continued to shore up his frontiers by attacking Finland. The Finnish border was too close to Leningrad for comfort, and after futile negotiations with the Finns, Russians attacked on the last day of November, 1939, just three weeks before my arrival there.
I also learned that my interrogators were members of the NKUO (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs), the famous Stalin's secret police, and precursor of the KGB.
The young officer
who entered the room wanted to know my reason for being there.
After opening my
overnight bag he found inside a piece of sausage, remains of a loaf of
bread and a book. The book was "The Theory and Collection of Chess
It is a well known fart that chess is very popular in Russia, one could say, it is a national passion next to vodka. Every school and university has a chess club. Russia boasts of a disproportional number of chess masters. I wouldn't be surprised if the young officer had discovered in me a kindred soul. He, perhaps reluctantly, returned the book and gave me instructions how to get to the peasant's house.
The farmer was
away. "My husband is on the road with another traveler, I expect
him back around noon," said a pleasant looking young woman. She was
sweeping the clean, one room cabin. In the crib was a little baby. "Did
you have breakfast?," she asked and prepared for me a couple of eggs
with bread and milk. A neighbor dropped in for a chat, but my presence
must have discouraged gossips since she did not stay long.
The store was in a building on the street level; the owners, an elderly couple and their two sons lived on the second floor. The apartment was large, the furniture and details pointing to a comfortably living family. They treated me to hot tea, put me in front of the fireplace and told me their story:
Their business was taken away from them without compensation by the local communist government and given to be run to a group (they called it committee) composed of their former employees. They forced the owners to pay from their own pocket any business debts incurred before takeover. They also expropriated the building and demanded that the owners pay rent for living on their own property. "We are fortunate that we were not evicted," the owners said. On top of it all, our older son was arrested; he was the manager of the store and several years ago during employees' strike, he was crossing the picket line and kept the store open. The employees now reported him to the authorities who declared their son the enemy of the people and accused him of 'grave provocation. In the communist language this is a very serious crime.
They didn't feel, the owners said, that it was their duty to pay the debts of the store that did not belong to them any longer. .Of course if you shall go to the committee they will force us to reimburse you, I was told.
I stayed in their place overnight and for the first time in a long while had square meals in a normal household.
This time my return trip was uneventful, and I arrived to Bialystok with the promissory note still in my pocket.
Director was disturbed - "If I had known what was involved to get there, I would never have suggested this to you" he said, and then added with a straight face: "By the way, when you were away, it occurred to me that I still owe you your salary for the unused vacations this year."
"Knowing how scrupulous you are in paying your debts, I wouldn't dream of hurting your feelings by declining your offer" said I with equally straight face. We shook hands, smiling.
P.S. After I arrived
to the store owners' house with wet shoes from threading on snow, I tried
to dry them by sitting with my feet toward the fireplace. It turned out
that I have toasted my leather soles to a crisp rusk, and within several
days the soles cracked and disintegrated. This was the last echo of my
memorable business trip.
February 1, 1991
When in January 1948 I crossed the border from Russian occupied Poland to Lithuania, she was still a free country. From the time of union with Poland in 14th century, the only period of independence Lithuania enjoyed were twenty two years between the two world wars.
Before that the country was polonized, russified and occasionally overrun by Germans, until after world war one was given her liberty.
Wilno, a very old city, founded in 18th and established in 14th century as capital of Lithuania, shared with that country the vagaries of its history, with one exception: when Lithuania achieved independence after world war one, Poland, who was reborn then also, seized Wilno and kept it.
Now, this becomes complicated:
After Hitler invaded Poland, Stalin occupied her Eastern part, which included Wilno. He then, magnanimously, offered the city to Lithuania.
And that was when
I came to Wilno, then called "Vilnius" by the new owners.
Linguistically it was a real Tower of Babel.
The predominant language was Polish, although Russian and German were also spoken. Jews were communicating in Yiddish. The authorities forced on the newly acquired city the Lithuanian language by requiring it to be used when dealing with government offices; this was the law in the rest of Lithuania. The Lithuanian language originated from Sanskrit, was mostly forgotten and used only in back wood villages. Lithuania revived it after the First World War; its non-existent grammar was written, and it was declared the official language of the country to a considerable hardship for most residents.
There were in the city several thousand refugees from Poland, mostly from Warsaw. A group of them organized a social club, where they gathered, exchanged news, or information about relatives and friends. I met there a number of people I knew, or heard about. In my confusion of the first days in the city, I was greatly helped by them. Some shared their Quarters with me, until I could find my own place; others helped me with registration at the police, somehow managing to ante-date my arrival, to make my stay legal.
The club also served dinners. The cook was a middle age woman, from looks and demeanor similar to the motherly Mrs. Bridges from Alistair Cook's "Upstairs-Downstairs."
With Jan, my schoolmate from the Warsaw Institute of Technology, I rented a room in the house of a Polish school teacher, living with his wife and a beautiful, but aloof, daughter.
Soon my life became, one could say, normal. I was offered a teaching position in Jewish Technicum and took over two classes: "Strength of Materials" and "Machining of Metals."
There was a problem, however - the language in Technicum was Yiddish, one I did not know, at home we spoke Polish.
In the short time I had, a young teacher was trying to cram in my head conversational Yiddish plus reading and writing, starting from Hebrew alphabet. As could be expected, the results were meager; what helped me though was: first, Yiddish could be considered a cousin of German language, which I knew; second, most technical terms are international; third, all students knew Polish and in emergency I could sneak in a Polish word or sentence.
And so, as I bravely was trying to do my job, the school principal and the faculty were watching my linguistic struggle with friendly smiles.
Beside the Technicum, there were other responsibilities. We organized Vocational Training courses for the refugees and I was the instructor in the Engineering Drawing, and in Workshop Practice classes. The Technicum lent us their facilities.
With my finances improved, I could afford to send food parcels to my family in the Warsaw ghetto. My mother, with the characteristic trait of all mothers, in the tragic situation in which she was, worried about me in her letters!
Some weeks later
I learned that the Lithuanian Government successfully concluded an agreement
with the Paris office of the Joint Distribution Committee to accept a
group of Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. J.D.C. guaranteed financial
support for the children and obtained a "sauf conduit" (safe
conduct permit) from the Germans.
I advised my mother about this arrangement, and she succeeded in having my son Karol's name included in the list of the children to be evacuated. Soon mother started preparing clothes necessary for the boy's travel.
Alas, while there was some dickering in Warsaw about who should chaperone the children in their exodus to freedom, Paris fell to German army (June 14, 1940), the financial guarantee was gone and Lithuania backed out from the agreement. This was a heartbreaking blow.
Several weeks later Lithuanian independence ended - the country was occupied and obligingly, on August 3rd, incorporated into USSR as the 14th Republic.
Except for the arrest of officials and politically exposed personalities, life in the country did not change perceptibly. Lithuania was a food exporter, its high grade meats and dairy products were famous, and the availability of produce did not diminish.
changes in the political views of some people could be observed.
Similar shift in political views, although much more discrete, I noticed in the principal of Technicum.
The Club was a very important factor in the lives of its members; it was more than a social center - for many of us it was a substitute for a family. We were spending there evenings together, holidays together, many ties and friendships developed; no serious discords or rifts ever existed within our group, discords which so often split emigrant communities.
But, what was even more important, the Club was a center of information; in an extremely volatile situation, one had to be abreast of events as they unfolded.
In the fall of 1948 incredible news was spreading: the Japanese consul in Kaunas, then the capital of Lithuania, was granting transit visas for passage through Japan. Of course one still needed a destination visa.
Rely on ingenuity of desperados who try to break the walls of the cage. Somebody discovered that the Dutch consul would stamp in a person's passport a sentence: "No visa is necessary for landing in Curacao."
The stamp told
the truth, but not the whole truth; what it should say, and did not, was:
"No visa is necessary for landing in Curacao, but the permission
of the Governor is."
Curacao is an island in Dutch West Indies in the Caribbean Sea.
So far so good, but nobody could leave USSR without an exit permit, and everybody knew that applying for exit permit entailed risk of persecution, and at best it took a very long time to get one. On top of that, rumors circulated that secret police was taking pictures of anybody entering the Japanese consulate.
And yet some of the refugees got Japanese visas and filed applications to NKUD, the secret police, for exit permits.
My friend, director, could not make up his mind about the visa; I asked him to let me know if and when he should decide to take it, I would follow - I had great confidence in his judgment.
One evening after
dinner I was sitting at the Club and was watching a man, who just came
from Kaunas and was distributing passports to a group of people. He was
a refugee, a lawyer, commuting between Wilno and Kaunas and for several
rubbles apiece getting the Japanese visas for people who did not want
to do it personally.
Among those retrieving
their passports I noticed my friend, the director.
In the meantime
the man had left. I obtained his address, got my passport and went to
see him, but he was away. I waited for him in front of the house until
late hours - he did not return. By that time I became nervous - now, once
I decided to get the visa I did not want to miss it.
And so he was. He told me that the consulate was already permanently closed.
"However," he said. "I found the address of the secretary of the consulate, went to his house, and had him stamp the visa in your passport. He demanded extra three rubles, which I paid. I don't know whether you approve of that, but if not, then you don't have to pay me anything beyond my usual fee." A wonderful man, but a real lawyer, who felt guilty for spending the extra money without mandate.
Little we knew that if not for his extra effort and the risk he took by paying the total sum of three rubles, I would not be writing these memoirs today.
To everyone's surprise a number of people who filed the application for exit permit received them; however, persons Known as big land owners, former industrialists, bankers, and similar plutocrats, were refused.
My decision was not an easy one to make - in contrast with most of the refugees my life in Wilno was for all practical purposes normal; I had work in my professional line and as an engineer belonged to a privileged class in USSR. I also would be closer to my family in Warsaw if I stayed, although I could not do much for them - latest food parcels sent to them were not delivered.
There was also another factor for me to consider.
Approximately at that time, the authorities announced, the way they did earlier in Lwow, that all foreigners were granted - as they called it - the privilege of becoming the USSR citizens and that the decision was voluntary; however, the announcement said, those who will not avail themselves of this privilege will declare by their choice to be enemies of the people. There was also a deadline for filing applications.
Now the problem was that if my request for exit permit were rejected, I would miss the deadline for citizenship and would become an outcast, probably landing in Siberia.
To make the long story short, I cut the Gordian knot, filed an application for exit permit, and shortly afterwards was called for an interview with NKUD. I remember every word of that meeting.
The room was small
and fairly dark; the man was of middle age, rather nondescript. He spoke
Polish. He started with a question" What is your attitude toward
And here is the
verbal exchange which followed:
N.B. I should mention
that in Europe men always wore hats. In those days people walked - private
cars were a rarity; then how otherwise would you greet friends you were
passing, if not by tipping your hat?
Two weeks later I received my permit; it was a very strong document: it contained my photograph, directed me to leave the country within two weeks from the date of issue and, most important, instructed all government functionaries to facilitate my exit from the country.
At that time my life could be compared to a hurdle race; every so often one had to clear another barrier. My next hurdle was Intourist.
No foreigner could
travel in USSR without the" protection" of Intourist, the official
travel agency. An American tourist, for instance, who wanted to visit
Russia had to travel under guidance and control of the Intourist. He paid
the fees in dollars: that covered travel expenses, food coupons, tickets
to musea, concerts, and so forth.
Possessing dollars in USSR is a crime; a person would end in jail if caught with dollars in the pocket; but if one managed safely to bring dollars to the Intourist office and put them on a counter, one was treated with respect, even though they knew that the dollars were bought on the black market.
To buy two hundred dollars on the black: market would cost eight hundred rubles, a fourfold price; I had some savings, but far from that amount.
Many other refugees were facing similar problem, and were desperately looking for solution. Some, who had friends or relatives in United States would wire a request for a loan, asking that the money be paid in to the New York office of Intourist, who would then notify their office in Wilno that the money was received, thus settling the matter.
Others would obtain money by means of the so called "transfer," an honest, although illegal method, which worked as follows: If I had a friend or a relative in the U.S. and you had one there too, and if my party paid your party some monies in the U.S., then in return you will pay the same amount to me in Wilno.
There were dramas too: a couple I knew, a Polish lawyer and his wife, both in their fifties, could not gather enough travel money for both of them - consequently he took his life so that at least she could leave.
I met the widow later in Canada; she became a dear friend of ours. She was bearing her tragedy bravely.
In view of the two-week deadline there was not much time for me to deliberate; the 6500 miles by train with transfers would last at least twelve to thirteen days.
With my roommate Jan, who was in an identical situation, we decided to bypass the Intourist and travel through Russia and Siberia without their help, paying our way in rubles. We knew we were taking a risk, but we were desperate.
I wrote letters to my mother in Warsaw and my former wife in Lwow. I sold in a hurry as much as I could of my possessions, bought the cheapest suitcase (which according to the seller was guaranteed to serve me safely to any destination - and it did, but no farther than that, since as soon I reached Canada several months later, it gave up the ghost and split in all the seams.)
We decided that
taking the train to Moscow from Wilno was risky, it would be too obvious;
we decided to take it from a small town outside of the Lithuanian border.
It was late March of 1941.
And thus ended the eighteen months long, most eventful period of my travel.
P.S. Three months later Hitler took Vilno.
The life of a refugee on the run, in the turmoil of rapid historical changes taking place around, is harsh and primitive. Holding ones head above the water is the main and predominant occupation.
In the 21 months between leaving Warsaw and safely landing in Canada, I became lean and trim, lost 40 pounds, and never was sick even one day; physically I was in great shape. Moreover, among the multitude of other refugees I met, or was living amidst, I don't remember a single person becoming ill. It was as if the nature wanted to invest each of us with extra strength and resistance to help in surviving the hardships.
During that time, and particularly the hardest period, between Warsaw and Wilno all aspects of cultural, finer parts of life were forgotten - not only that they were not available they were literally forgotten, totally out of mind.
Things like normal food, hot bath, clean bed, let alone entertainment, music, did not exist and were not missed - we lived from day to day. Even sensitivity to women's beauty and charm deserted me totally.
My landing in Wilno, on the other hand, was like sailing into calm water of a bay, after crossing stormy sea in a leaky boat. The uncertainty about future still existed (particularly after the Russians occupied Lithuania Six month later), but the immediate danger was no more - or so I thought.
I described my life in Wilno in another place, suffice it to say that having gained a good position in my profession, living in comfortable quarters and amidst a group of friends, my life became much more regular.
Among our bunch of refugees (we called it "The Club") there was a young lady musician, a violinist. She was shy, but with help of a friendly pressure she agreed to play for us.
We turned over the largest room of our club into a poor man's concert hall, with people sitting on chairs, tables and on the floor.
The performance was a real feast for all of us - she turned out to be a talented virtuoso with ample repertoire: in the several concerts she gave we heard Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schubert and other classical composers.
It was as if a new leaf in our story were turned over, as if we mounted one step higher in the quality of life.
The husband of our musician, a short man with a gentle, smiling face was totally devoted to his young wife; his obvious pride in her was fully justified.
A happenstance let me enjoy another musical experience. Jan and I were introduced to a lady who happened to be piano music teacher. We spent some time in conversation with her. She was born in Wilno and lived with her elderly parents. We were invited by her for a Sunday afternoon tea; it looked as if another musical event was looming.
Alas, our gracious hostess politely, but firmly declined our pleas to play; whether this was a modesty, or stage fright it was never explained.
And now, to save the day, enters the man of few words, my good friend, Jan. He was my schoolmate in Warsaw Institute of Technology, and for the last several months my roommate - and only then, that Sunday afternoon I found out that he was an accomplished pianist!
From the moment his strong hands struck the first powerful chords of Chopin's Polonaise, my heart started melting. He played for a long time, occasionally helped by our hostess' music sheets.
We met there regularly, and those weekly afternoons were a joy I was always looking toward to.
Our hostess was an intelligent, well read, pleasant to talk with person, with a cheerful, but serious disposition. I was attracted to her and the two of us met several times in the park for an evening stroll.
In one of these
meetings I kissed her and she warmly reciprocated. And then she said:
"Please help me, I don't want to complicate my life." She told
me that she was engaged to be married.
They were bright spots in my life in Wilno, and even today, after all those years, my heartbeat accelerates when I think of this episode.
March 10, 1991
While hundreds of refugees were shepherded by Intourist on the way from Wilno to Moscow and further to Vladivostok, we, my friend Jan and I chose a more affordable, although less legal way. We decided to travel without the friendly help of the Intourist and pay our way in rubles, the way the citizens of USSR do, rather than in the black market purchased dollars, as demanded by the Russian travel agency. I should mention that the train travel in USSR was inexpensive.
To avoid visibility we traveled to Lida, a small town outside of the Lithuanian republic, in order to start the trip to Moscow from there.
My experience so far was that in the flight from Warsaw the road was paved with obstacles, sometimes trivial, more often threatening. So it did not surprise me that no sooner we stepped down from the train in Lida a uniformed man stopped us and without explanation demanded that we follow him to the police station. He was in a hurry and I, with my heavy suitcase and a knapsack, could hardly keep up with him. At the station he made me open the suitcase pulled out a stack of neatly folded shirts and accused me of smuggling. After I showed him some threadbare areas on the shirts he lost interest and without a word, let alone apology, turned his back and walked away, leaving me with the messed up contents of my suitcase on the floor.
There was some justification for his suspicions, if not for his rudeness. Lithuania, the newly acquired republic was a horn of plenty, as compared with the rest of the USSR (and still is, fifty years later as I write this now). The full shelves of food and consumer articles, attracted people from neighboring republics. They were returning home carrying bags bulging with purchased goods, most of which landed later on the black market. Authorities were trying to stop that traffic.
We bought the tickets without any problems and soon were sitting in the train to Moscow where the Trans-Siberian line (called by the Russians "The Great-Siberian") starts. There were three trains a week from Moscow, and the memory cells in my brain insist that they were scheduled on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and that our nightly train to Moscow was to arrive in Moscow on Wednesday, the day of the Trans-Siberian's departure.
Half way to Moscow, at a major stop in Smolensk, Jan, who was a man of few words, jumped without warning from the train, ran to the station building and shortly emerged with tickets in his hand, motioning to me to leave the wagon. I grabbed our knapsacks (the suitcases were in the baggage car) and followed Jan. He discovered that alongside ours was standing an express train to Moscow and arranged the transfer from our slow train to the express. This was an adroit move.
It was imperative that we should not miss the Wednesday departure of the Trans-Siberian, otherwise we would have to stay in a Moscow hotel. A well known fact was that hotels were reporting new arrivals to police, particularly the two strange looking foreigners with heavy suitcases. In all hotels the secret police placed their own agents as clerks, porters, or cleaning personnel. These people entered the rooms, ransacked the drawers and suitcases and reported everything to their bosses.
Any contact with the police would be disastrous to us, illegal travelers, trying to sneak unnoticed across the USSR through the 6500 miles and eight time zones; hence the earlier we arrive to Moscow, the less chance there will be to miss the Wednesday train to Vladivostok.
The express train was full and the only available tickets Jan could get was a private compartment; it turned out to be a luxurious cabin-sleeper with own bathroom. We felt like lords.
When dinner time came, we left the compartment. Among passengers passing through our wagon on the way to the restaurant car, I saw familiar faces; a woman acquaintance noticed us: "What are you doing here?" she asked, "This is an Intourist wagon, and this is our Intourist guide," she pointed discreetly to an approaching man.
This was a bolt from the blue. Trying to control our panic, we withdrew with a measured haste to our compartment, locked the door and pulled down the window curtains. We were not disturbed till the end of this journey and the only, terrifying, knock on the door was by the steward, who came to make our beds.
I have to mention that in the feverish preparations for the trip in Wilno we did not forget about our stomachs: each of us had in the knapsack a half of a smoked ham, so that we could easily put up with the loss of the restaurant dinner.
We arrived to Moscow in early morning. The station for the Vladivostok train was in other part of the city. We decided against waiting for our luggage from the slow train and took the subway to the Trans-Siberian station.
The newly built subway was a pride of the Moscovites. It was richly appointed, with the walls faced with different kinds of marble and sculptures displayed in each station. The stations were large, well lighted and clean.
The Trans-Siberian ticket office was closed, to be opened at one o'clock the sign said. We had several hours on our hands. I wrote a letter to my friend, whom I called director (and who was still waiting in Wilno for his exit permit), included our luggage tickets in the letter and asked him to retrieve our suitcases when passing through Moscow. (He did, and brought our luggage to Japan).
I also sent him a wire - our arrangement was that I should wire him whenever possible, so he would know our whereabouts.
We hired a taxi and asked to be given a short tour of Moscow. The rapid pace of this review left in my memory general impression of a city with many beautiful churches, monuments, musea and other buildings of distinction, wide avenues and parks - in short, a city which deserves a less hurried visit. While my memory did not retain many details, one picture is still in front of my eyes - that of the unforgettable Red square with the heavy wall of the Kremlin on the hill, with the magnificent Lenin's Mausoleum in front of it, and of the eight-church complex of the St. Basil's Cathedral with the colorful onion domes.
We returned to the ticket office before one o'clock to find a multiply-coiled snake of people in front of the wicket. What was still worse was that these people already had their tickets and were lining up for the reserve seats. They had priority and no tickets could be sold until these passengers were dealt their seats, provided that any were left.
It looked hopeless, we realized that we had very little chance to get on the Wednesday train and decided to talk to the stationmaster. We hoped that the directive on our exit permits for all government agents to help us meet the deadline for our departure will make proper impression. It did. The manager, a stocky woman in uniform, squeezed us into the queue close to the window, causing angry murmurs, went behind the partition and said something to the clerk.
When our turn came and passengers standing behind us saw that we were handing money to the girl in the wicket, a great riot-like outcry rose - an expression of protest, unheard of then in that dictatorial empire. But we got our tickets!
Out of the three weekly trains, two were regular, with eleven-day and one was express train 11'ith seven-day duration of travel to Vladivostok. We were in the slow train.
Our car was full of passengers in open, four-person compartments. Sleeping bunks were of the drop-leaf type, located above passenger's heads, with short curtains for privacy.
were a mixed group: some military men and women, some looking like mechanics,
others like clerks, or officials - anybody's guess.
In spite of the lengthy confinement I never heard quarrels, or even arguments. There were no personal questions; the closest to such question was when a gentleman, perhaps an official, if judging by appearance and demeanor is allowed, said to me: "You must have an important assignment, being sent to this restricted naval base." To completely satisfy his curiosity I said "Yes."
It should be explained that nobody in USSR can travel without authorization, even a vacationer, let alone one traveling to a restricted zone.
The military man sitting with his family next to us offered me one hundred rubles for my flashlight. "I am being sent to a post far North, to a desolated place and I won't be able to get a flashlight there," he said. "What about the batteries?" I was trying to discourage him. "These I can get in the military warehouse," he answered. I told him that the flashlight was useful to me at night when the lights were dimmed, and high in the bunks was nearly totally dark; I promised to leave it with him at the end of the trip - "And forget about money," I said.
This was not a generosity on my part - if he offered me thousand rubles it would not make any difference.
the country was allowed to take Russian money abroad. One had to leave
it with the border inspectors - of course, they gave you a receipt, so
you could claim the money when you return. Similarly women and men could
keep only three pieces of jewelry of one's choice. the rest was taken
away - and again one gets a receipt.
I said that the people on the train were somber; they were, and I believe that this was an indication of a chronic weariness. Their difficult living condition must weigh heavily on them; they are spiritually tired. When they resort to Vodka, to escape reality, their true nature floats to the surface: they come alive, become cordial, open-hearted and sentimental, sometimes to tears.
I hope to be excused for this non-professional digression into psycho-analysis, but after the 19 months of brushing shoulders with the Russians I got to understand and to like them.
Our breakfasts, lunches and evening snacks were ham canapés with tea: Bread and tea we bought on the train; dinners we ate in the restaurant - far. For the most time only fish was available. Majority of men diners drank vodka with food.
Of course the time schedule of the meals was European: what I call here lunch was a second breakfast, between ten and eleven o'clock, the dinner at three, and the evening snack was a light supper at eight, for us - ham canapés again.
We had numerous short stops on our way: one travel-book said that there are 91 stops between Moscow and Vladivostok. Only three of them are imprinted in my memory.
One was when I unwisely descended from the train in order to taste fresh air and to loosen the leg muscles, and was immediately grabbed by a policeman, and taken to his sentry shack. Fortunately, after checking my documents he released me soon enough to let me jump on the train before it left.
The other stop I remember was at Birobidzhan.
Birobidzhan was created by USSR in 1928 as an autonomous Jewish region, with official Yiddish language. It was not an idea of a Ghetto. It was meant to be an alternative to Zionism. Birobidzhan is a rough country, never really developed as a livable center, and about thirty years later the project was abandoned.
In the station I saw people climbing into the restaurant car trying to buy bread. .
The third memorable stop was Baikal Lake. This huge, 400 miles long lake is a sacred area for some Mongol tribes. It is said that it contains one sixth of the total fresh water on the earth. Over 300 rivers and mountain streams are draining into it, with only one outlet, the Angara River, (close to the train station.) Presently it is said to be totally polluted!
We arrived to Vladivostok after midnight and checked in a hotel. Early next morning after a quick breakfast in a nearby coffee shop we went to the waterfront to enquire about the tickets for the Japanese boat.
Oh ye innocents!
There was little activity in the harbor - we saw several dock workers only. They explained to us that all boardings on foreign vessels were handled by the Intourist.
The Intourist office was in the Intourist hotel in town.
The receptionist looked bewildered when two unchaperoned foreigners asked her for two tickets to Japan. "Where are you from?" she asked. If we told her that we came from Mars, she would not be any more surprised. "We came from Moscow," I said. It was the truth, but not the whole truth.
She disappeared behind the door and returned with a young man of pleasant appearance. "This is our office manager," she said.
He bid us to sit down. I told him the whole story. The young man reached for the phone and verified with the hotel the time of our arrival - he wanted to be satisfied that we did not have time to loiter in this restricted military zone.
He said that we have perpetrated non-acceptable illegal acts and should be sent back. I argued that it was the Intourist demand of payment in dollars from the residents which was illegal.
This controversy lasted for some time, with the manager obviously not certain what to do: however all this time he was patient and polite. Finally he said: "I am going now to the harbor to transfer to the boat the newly arrived party of refugees, I win inform officials of your presence. In the meantime I want you to stay in this hotel, your posses ions will be brought here. You'll hear from me."
It was ten o'clock in the morning; the boat was to leave at ten at night.
In the hotel we met another refugee, one Mr. K., who was staying there for some time, trying to free his wife, deported to Siberia. He seemed to be it man of some means, which must have helped in the resolution of his problem. I saw both of them later in Japan.
In his room I removed my ten dollars from the shoulder pad, hoping that I may need them for the boat ticket. The day was long, most of the time we spent in the lobby, or in the hotel restaurant, where we had our meals. I also sent a wire to director.
Since the evening was drawing on and we did not hear from the manager, at eight o'clock we sent a message to him through his secretary in order to remind him of our existence.
Half an hour later a jeep came to take us to the harbor. The driller was instructed to collect from each of us seven dollars for the boat fare. This was good news; I gave him my share, but Jan was in trouble.
He did not have dollars. How did it happen?
Well, Jan, man of few words was also a man of his own mind. Back in Wilno, where everybody knew that the boat fare to Japan was seven dollars, Jan decided to buy English pounds, because the black market exchange rate for pounds was better, then for dollars.
Our driver did not want to accept pounds; his instructions were seven dollars, period.
Now Jan was in panic; he ran up the stairs in leaps to look for Mr. K, while we were waiting in the jeep. He got the dollars, after Mr. K skinned him shamelessly on the rate and, breathless, he joined us.
In the harbor a line of passengers was stretched for inspection with open suitcases at a long counter. We joined them and laid our bags for examination, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and saw two tall, Cossack-like uniformed men in high fur hats - a rather scary sight in our circumstance.
They ushered us to a room, separated by a curtain, the Intourist manager was there too, and told us that that we owe the Intourist two hundred dollars each, and unless we pay the debt we'll be sent back.
As usual, I was the spokesman. I told them, that coming to Vladivostok we were paying our own way for transportation and food and didn't owe anybody anything, that we are not speculators in foreign exchange and don't possess dollars, that we are "Robothzyi Narod" - which in the communist lingo is the only criterion of purify and virtue and means those who gain their livelihood by their own labor in contrast to social parasites.
I did not feel that we had much to lose and ended by saying: The Intourist is the guilty one for trying to force us to break the law, to deal with the black market and to acquire dollars." They listened and left the room.
Through partially drawn curtains we saw the last passengers leave the counter. I said to Jan, "I guess that's it, we'll be going back," when one of the Cossacks came in and said, "Get out and open your bags for inspection."
The manager shook my hand with a friendly smile; this handshake put to rest all issues between us and the Intourist.
Tired and bewildered, we were the last two passengers to cross the gangway minutes before it was removed. Russian pilot was on the boat; when he finally climbed down the rope ladder to his launch and cast away the hawser, a great, happy hurray sent him off -- we were on the international waters!
September 30, 1991
We were on the Japanese boat, traversing the Sea of Japan from Vladivostok to Tsuruga.
Most of the details of this two-nights-and-one day crossing are lost to me; my mental energy and awareness were suddenly deflated like a pricked balloon; I was impassive, indifferent to the activity around me.
The contrast between the present sense of security and the tension and strain of the past weeks of desperate effort to extricate myself from the hands of the communist bureaucracy and to get out into the free world, is too great to describe.
When I am reviewing now the events of those weeks: the confrontation with the secret police in effort to get the exit visa; the problem with Intourist about payment in dollars which I did not have; the decision to bypass the Intourist and to steal across the 6500 miles of Russia and Siberia; the arrest in Lido; the unexpected and alarming encounter with Intourist personnel on the train to Moscow; the lucky strike in getting the ticket for the Trans-Siberian train, totally against hope; then being detained by local police on one of the Siberian stations, and hoping that the train will wait for me; being forced to surrender into the hands of the Intourist in Vladivostok; the interrogation by the military in Vladivostok harbour, who threatened to send us back, and finally, unexpectedly, minutes before the boat's departure being allowed to board her - I believe, all that would challenge the strongest nervous resistance.
Today, looking at the little finches sitting on a perch of the birdfeeder, glancing to the left and to the right, checking their safety before they dare to pick a grain, I see myself during the wartime travels when, with few exceptions, constant vigilance was the order of the day.
From the short voyage on the boat to Tsuruga my memory retained only few impressions.
We were sleeping on hard mats under the deck, with several smoldering hibachis for heating. Jan bitterly complaining of cold: "Feeling of weight is important," he muttered, piling on his blanket spare mats picked from the floor.
I remember lining up for food, which consisted mostly of rice and curry.
I remember the rude and insulting crew.
Tsuruga woke me up instantly. Comparing to the bleak, depressing Vladivostok, Tsuruga was for me strikingly colorful, with the April cherry blossoms, with flowery kimonos, with the displays of stores full of goods. The town was pulsating with life, streets were crowded with pedestrians, bikes, rickshaws, and busses.
It felt as if I found myself in a different, long forgotten world.
A small port of 30,000, Tsuruga is part of a cluster of cities: Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe in the Southern port of the main island, Honshu.
Our stay in Tsuruga was short; after being interviewed by the immigration, where an invisible hand paid for each of us substantial landing fee (it turned out to be the hand of the American. Jewish Distribution Committee), we continued our journey to Kobe, which was going to be my home for the two months of my stay in Japan.
The 80-mile road to Kobe was leading through a picturesque country, between green hills and an inland water. I saw farmers in coolie hats, bent, planting the rice shoots on the water-covered, terraced fields.
Our life in Kobe was managed by the Refugee Committee, created under aegis of the Polish embassy in Tokyo. The Japanese did not interfere in our daily affairs - their only interest was to get rid of us as soon as possible; after all, we had only transit visas. And remember - this was 1941, the Pearl Harbour year and they wouldn't want to have foreigners to witness their war preparations.
During my stay I was twice called to the police station and politely asked when and where to I will be leaving. My answer was that I shall leave for US as soon as I obtain my visa. Truly, I did not have any prospects for US, or for any other visa, but they were satisfied with my answer and did not ask any further questions.
Our quarters were in a one-floor building, separated inside into four-person comportments with common bathroom and kitchen. Again, we slept on mats, with a hibachi in each compartment.
witness to the strength of German nationalistic jingoism of those days,
and of their sense of superiority, was the behaviour of German Jews among
our group of refugees. Strongly assimilated, they acquired many traits
of those of their compatriots, who considered themselves culturally superior,
with particular contempt towards "Ost Juden," Eastern Jews -
those from Poland and Russia.
Each of us was receiving a daily allotment of ninety sen. A sen was one hundredth of a yen, which in turn was equivalent to one seventh of American dollar; hence our daily dole was worth nearly thirteen cents. This was supposed to be for all personal expenses, including food.
Not everybody was so limited fiscally. Many brought jewelry, or money, or both; a family I knew, smuggled dollars inside of the grips of their flatware knives. One person had a tooth cavity filled with a diamond.
I was not that lucky and had to tighten my belt.
One of the first things I did was to learn the name of numbers in Japanese, so, if the price of the produce was not displayed, I could ask for it, and then, often, haggle. The problem in communication was that when the merchant said no, he nodded with a smile - something like: Yes, we have no bananas.
However I did not starve. Most affordable was fish and cabbage, although boiling cabbage made me unpopular in the communal kitchen. A few times I could even afford a bowl of soup with one dumpling, in a local small eating place.
Kobe, a city of three Quarter million, was an important port with a commercial traffic to Pacific (as distinct from Tsuruga, a harbor at the Sea of Japan). It is a twin city with Osaka, only twenty miles away.
Kobe is located at the foot of picturesque hills dotted with Buddhist monasteries and temples; many of those were also in the city proper. In one of the shrines in town was a well known statue of Big Buddha. There were a number of attractive parks.
Once I hiked on the trails of Mount Maya and came down with several little booklets handed to me by monks; the booklets, opening like an accordion had on each page a square red stamp with Japanese sentences of prayer.
I had plenty of
time to sight-see the city, and some of the things I observed seemed strange
at the time, but they made sense to me eight months later, after Pearl
There was a considerable industrial activity; in the night one could see reflection of red flames on the clouds from steel mills working twenty four hours a day.
Even though we were not restricted in our movements, we were not allowed to enter the harbor. And we were being watched.
I had in my possession a spare straight razor with a beautifully encrusted mother-of-pearl handle. I sold it and for the money I indulged in several luxuries. One of them was a can of preserved pineapples, which I disposed of without much delay. The other luxury was a trip to a city of ancient temples and castles, Kyoto, a 1200 years old former capital of Japan.
During the 70 mile train journey I was sitting opposite two Japanese gentlemen, who very politely asked me for identification and who wanted to know the purpose of my trip; after which they gave me useful touring information about Kyoto. They spoke German.
Another example of the attention the Japanese agents were giving to the presence of the refugees was experienced by my future wife, Lydia.
She was working with the refugee committee at the embassy in Tokyo, where she stayed in the Daichi hotel. One evening she was sitting in the hotel lobby, talking in Polish with several embassy employees. After they left, a Japanese man approached her and started a conversation also in Polish! He used to be a member of the Japanese embassy in prewar Poland and learned the language. He did not hide the fact that he was there to observe the activities of the Poles in Tokyo.
Another luxury which I could afford then was to visit some of many charming tiny tea houses, where over a cup of tea one could listen to music of one's choice, including classical music.
On the street where we lived was a public bathhouse; in the evening we could hear a shuffling noise of many wooden clogs of people going there. Each was dressed in kimono and was holding in the palm of the hand a bowl with soap and towel.
We were not given tourist pamphlets with information about the local customs - I had to learn the hard way.
I remember once in a bus I offered my seat to an elderly woman; this was met with angry shouts from the men in the bus; she was embarrassed and declined my offer.
Another time during my visit to the Polish embassy in Tokyo, I was in the bus watching passing cavalcade of the emperor Hirohito. I was angrily instructed to turn my head away - gazing at the emperor was a sacrilege.
When we talk about Japanese social customs, there is another one worth mentioning.
I was shown a substantial building with an ornate door; this was an official city bordello. On both sides of the door were framed under glass, waist up, modest photographs of the hostesses of this institution. By the Western taste the faces were not attractive.
In front of the door were several pair of footware of the patrons.
I was told that many of the girls were plying this trade temporarily in order to save money for the dowry; if so, then apparently this was not considered dishonorable, since they displayed their pictures in public.
I want to make a digression here.
In pre-war Poland prostitution was also legal. The ladies were registered and each carried a small book where the periodic medical checks were recorded; if any was found infected with V.D., she had to submit to medical treatment, before her health was certified by a stamp in her book.
Withholding any opinion about the morality of the Polish system, one could not fail to conclude that such system must have prevented the spread of venereal diseases owing to medical control, must have freed the police from chasing the prostitutes and their clients and relieved the courts and the penal system from the additional burden of enforcing, mostly in vain, laws against prostitution.
It would also free the girls from the servitude to the pimps, whom otherwise they would need for bail and protection.
Through the intermediary of the Polish Government in exile in London, the embassy in Tokyo made contacts with several countries, among others with England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and US in an effort to obtain visas for the refugees. All of those countries were dragging their feet, finding it difficult to absorb among themselves the 2000 Polish citizens. The least flexible was the U.S. Even the strongest affidavit from an American sponsor would not open the door, as long as one had relatives behind Iron Curtain, or in the German occupied territory.
This was exactly what happened to Lydia, who was sponsored by a friend of her family, a well-to-do American patent attorney. Her application was rejected off hand, when she disclosed that her parents were in occupied Poland.
The final outcome of the embassy effort was only about 200 visas to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Burma. There was a trickle to England.
Among the refugees were formed professional groups, such as engineers, doctors and lawyers, each lobbying the embassy for a share of the visas.
I traveled to Tokyo twice on behalf of the engineers' group. The train was slow, and it took over ten hours to cross the 400 miles from Kobe to Tokyo. The unforgettable, most picturesque sight was in the early morning, when the train made a semicircle around the Mount Fuji, the sacred, 12,400 feet Japanese landmark. In places we came as close as 12 miles to the majestic, snow covered peak.
On the stations one could buy from vendors walking along the train disposable lunch boxes, with neatly arranged chunks of food: raw fish, vegetables, fruit and sweets ready for supplied short chopsticks. One could also buy hot tea and it must have been a very hot tea, because I vaguely remember that I carelessly burned my lips and tongue the first time I bought it.
I should comment here on the manner many Japanese - to my observation mostly farmers - were resting. One could see them waiting for the bus, squatting at the curb. I saw several people on the train, squatting, with their feet on the bench. Some of them were dozing in this position.
Finally, the group of engineers obtained visas, some to Australia, others, including me, to Canada.
The fare was paid by the Refugee Committee. Each of us was allowed to exchange our yens into dollars at a special, favourable rate. I had too little money to take advantage of the offer, so I borrowed yens from a friend, exchanged them for dollars at a special rate, sold part of them at a normal market rate, returned my debt in yens and was left with the gain of Six American dollars in my pocket - I felt rich.
One ought to be a lion and a fox, advises Machiavelli - I was only a fox.
It was end of May, when I boarded in Yokohama the Heian Maru, which was sailing to Vancouver, British Columbia.
Free at last!
P.S. Six months later the Japanese air force attacked Pearl Harbor.
My arrival to British Columbia in 1941 was not a result of my free choice. I would have been happy to accept any visa which would open the door to a free world, and there was only one in four of us refugees in Japan who were lucky to get out before Pearl Harbour.
However, if I had a choice, I could not adopt a better continent that my luck placed me in.
In our parents' home we, three brothers, were always avid readers, and the American Indian lore, the gold rush stories, the Quick-draw outlaws, the gamblers with the beautiful Queens of the saloons, the Bufallo Bill adventures were prominent on our reading lists. And the Deerslayer, Chingachgook and Um:as were as big heroes for us as the Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Christo were. Therefore, for me to be suddenly transplanted on the American continent, and particularly to the "Wild West" was as miraculous as it was for Alice to find herself in the Wonderland.
Of course I arrived
here too late to see all that history in making, and perhaps just as well,
since I was already in my late thirties - hardly the age for adventure.
Still, the romantic mystery of these lands remained, and had great influence
on our lives there.
One year, I think it was 1945, we decided to go to d'Arcy, a village located close to Southern tip of the Anderson Lake, about 90 miles North of Vancouver, on the border of the Caribou country. The place was practically inaccessible other than by single track railway, setting out daily from North Vancouver. The train was short and had two locomotives, one pulling, the other pushing, both laboring hard when crossing the Coastal Mountain Range. It made frequent stops at numerous Indian villages, and at every stop scores of Indians were boarding, while others were leaving the train. They had the privilege of travelling free and kept on constantly visiting their cousins in other villages.
Of course, as always, there were exceptions to the rules. We met there a railway worker, retired for "health reason" who showed us deep impression left by a friendly pat on the shoulder by a bear he met in the forest. He survived using old ruse - by playing dead; after a while the bear lost interest. "It was a very long while for me," said the man. .
Another route for
a walk was along the bank of the lake, between the rails and the shore.
We were surprised to see there patches of wild strawberries so popular
in Poland, but not common here.
Lydia was concerned: "You are alone here, what would happen if you fell sick?" 'she asked: "Oh, there is no problem," he said "Every day, when the train passes, I am at the track and exchange greetings with the crew; if they would not see me there, they would stop the train and look me up."
This story touched my heart; it confirmed what I always believed that this country of pioneers was great in more ways than one. With the vast area and small population everybody counted, everyone was important; and in trouble, or sickness - your neighbor, or a stranger on the highway was his brother's keeper.
This was the way I felt then, 45 years ago. And today.? I don't know, I am not there, and our world is changing fast.
A Post Scriptum: Both our children were born in Vancouver. The hospitals were efficient and free. And for every child we were receiving monthly several dollars - milk money - they called it. The checks were issued to the mother's name only.
It was Summer,
1955; Alan was three years old, Joan was eight. When it came to make the
plans for our vacation, Lydia decided to stay home with the little boy.
"Take Joan and go to a ranch" she said, "Joan will enjoy
some horseback riding". This was what I did. A small guest ranch
located at the Horse Lake was recommended to us. Horse lake is at the
100 Mile House on the Caribou highway. The name "100 Mile House"
should not be taken literally. The Caribou highway starts where the Fraser
River Canyon road ends, at Lytton, and from there to 100 Mile House is
close to 200 miles. The lake is on the parallel 300 miles North of Vancouver.
I left the family car with Lydia and packed Joan and the fishing rod on the bus. Travel on the Fraser River Canyon Highway is always exciting, no matter how many times one made the trip; however after many hours on the bus we were quite tired when we arrived at sunset to the ranch. Accommodation was comfortable; we were assigned, as others were, a separate family cottage.
Joan was quite taken by the boys' attention and I considered the unexpected company of an attractive woman as an additional feature of the place. Both were good riders and so was Joan, who rode horses previously at Summer camps. Helen (let us use this name) was a legal secretary, divorced after
However it was
not going to end carefree, and this was for more than one reason. One
day at the table next to ours a new guest arrived. He was perhaps younger
than I, but his serious mien seemed to add to his age. Since he was sitting
alone at his table we invited him to join us.
After we exchanged
our names it turned out that we knew about each other, although we never
met. He was an engineer, manager of a Vancouver sales office of a large
manufacturing company with headquarters in Montreal. On behalf of the
consulting office I was representing, I often was selecting and ordering
equipment from his company. I was dealing over the phone with other engineers
in his office, and he knew that.
Having many common professional and business interests we spent some time talking to each other. Apparently, having need of a listener, he started talking about his private life. He became a widower recently amid dramatic circumstances; he came here to relax, to be away from anything which would remind him of his tragedy.
This, I thought
to myself, is a great coincidence: we have here two people who may need
each other, who may help each other, but don't know that; in fact Helen
did not seem to be interested in the newcomer. As outgoing as she was
she was rather reserved toward him. I decided to sound her out. "Why
aren't you trying to be more friendly with Ron (this is his name for this
story)?" She read my mind: "He is depressingly gloomy and cheerless,
besides I think he drinks, this is not the kind of person I should be
I said, "This man for the last five years was taking care of his
mentally unstable wife, wife who finally ended by suicide and died in
his arms. He needs time to stand on his feet and learn to smile again;
he is in charge of a large office and is well regarded by his co-workers
and the business community. He is alone and tries to cope with his burden."
These were my words as close as I can remember. She was listening and did not answer. I believe she was moved. To make the story short - before we left the ranch they announced their engagement. From then on the mood of our group changed. The couple became totally preoccupied with each other. She stopped riding horses, they were going for long walks, or taking the car and disappearing for hours. Our equestrian squad was reduced to a trio - the two kids with me. I lost two companions, but I patted myself on the shoulder - I exchanged an innocent and pleasant flirt for a successful matchmaking. This should suffice as a good deed for the rest of the year. Lydia and I were invited to their wedding and maintained contact with them, not for long though - shortly afterwards he was transferred to Montreal to assume the position of the Vice-president for sales, and we lost track of them.
However, I am ahead
of myself - we are still at the Horse Lake, and this is what happened
next. One day, after dinner, when the sky was still bright, the lake was
smooth and fish were biting, I took my fishing rod and with Joan got into
a rowboat for a short fishing expedition. But, no sooner we moved out
of our bay onto the lake, when without warning the sky darkened and a
strong gale struck. I attempted to turn around and return to the shore,
but the wind was strong and carried the boat away from the bay onto the
This free ride lasted for a long while; it was getting dark, and the dusk was setting in, when I noticed ahead an ill defined wooden structure, reaching from the shore into the lake. When closer I recognized it, to be a broken- down dock; part of it, a horizontal beam, was stretched across the water in front of me. I decided to use it as a stop, and the only way to do it without overturning the boat was to meet it head on. I tried to slow down using oar, still, the jar was strong enough to loosen my grip on one oar, which gracefuly floated away.
In the forties
and fifties such small, temporary sawmills were being erected by entrepreneurs,
called scavengers, who moved into abandoned logged areas and salvaged
"small" logs left behind (those days logs below foot and a half
in diameter were considered small) and either cut boards on the spot,
or brought the logs to the place where highway existed and there erected
a temporary sawmill. Afterwards they dismantled, carted away the machinery
and left behind all debris. These created fire hazard, and years later
loggers were required to clean the area after the operation. Now these
leftovers turned out to be life savers for us.
It was already
pitch black and getting cold. There was not a single light to be seen
on the horizon. I crawled on the beams toward the solid ground, only to
find out that it was soggy and possibly a swamp, too risky at night to
walk on. In the meantime it started to rain, not heavy rain, just a drizzle.
The situation was far from pleasant.
Using slabs I arranged
for Joan a sort of bunk and covered her with layers of wood and bark to
protect her from wind and keep her warm. I laid down on her windward side,
built a wind barrier and covered myself with bark and slabs too. I could
not read my wristwatch and did not have any notion of time. But the wind
did subside and the sky started clearing; I carried Joan to the boat and
was limping using one oar on the way back. I could see very faint outline
of the shore and my only concern now was not to miss our small inlet.
That night, when I did not show up for hot chocolate at 11, and somebody mentioned that we were seen going towards the lake with the fishing rod, and when upon checking they did not find us in our cottage, they were seized by fear: what could they expect to happen to a small rowboat on the lake for over four hours during severe windstorm?