THE WAY IT STARTED
It was a hot summer day, one of the last of August 1939. Some of us local high school students were basking, as usual, on the banks of the Liwiec river enjoying the sun, water and last days of vacation. About noon, on our secluded beach Edmund Zarzycki, our scoutmaster, made a sudden appearance. TheWegrow post office requested his help in finding a few trustworthy volunteers with bicycles who would deliver the military mobilization orders to outlying administrative districts.1
Half an hour later, at the Post Office, I collected several large envelopes bearing the State seal. I signed the receipt, and having sworn on the Bible that I would deliver them no matter what would happen, I hit the road in the direction of the two northern-most townships of Stoczek and Sadowne.
That day, somewhere on the highway between Wegrow and Sadowne, it all came to me: the somber face of the man at the Post Office, the Bible and then the realization that the documents entrusted to me would determine the fate of hundreds of people. When I returned home late that night, I was not the same. Somewhere along the road I left my childhood behind. In the morning, I presented all my receipts to the Post Office where the State Treasury paid me 6.25 zl.* I felt grown up for the first time in my life.
September...that unforgettable sunny September. The radio was full of military music sporadically interrupted only by an ominous: "Attention... attention ... attention... approaching!..." followed by coded map coordinates signaling an imminent enemy air raid.
At the town square there were clusters of mobilized men. Some held worn briefcases, most just carried small cloth bundles. Quite a few were already in uniforms. The last good-byes, the shy embraces, some children crying in their father's arms. They formed a marching column, and then, as if unable to further contain their emotions, they broke into song, singing the ancient "Oath of Allegiance". But it was not the Independence Day parade or the Third of May Constitution celebration2. This was real. These men were going to war.
It was my fourth year of high school and my cadet detachment was called to service. Those of us who were in town reported to the military district recruiting office and asked for assignments. We knew there would not be any classes since most of the male teachers were already in the army as reserve officers. The staff sergeant issued us the regulation rifles and ammunition. We were assigned guard duty for important military objects and ordered to help in controlling traffic on the strategic east-west highway.
Two of us were at our post, patrolling three bridges on the Liwiec River and checking the incessant traffic. People in car after car were traveling in complete darkness for fear of air raids, moving in a southeasterly direction. We stopped each vehicle and checked papers with the help of a small flashlight, following our orders yet not really knowing what we were looking for. There were government officials, civil servants, and ordinary civilians traveling with families, anxious to get to safety. In the darkness, they did not even know that the two soldiers stopping them in their flight were only a couple of fourteen-year-old school kids. At dawn we were relieved by a couple of classmates. We snatched a few hours sleep and then began duty at the Town Hall.
The town slowly became deserted. Police, state and municipal office employees, merchants, everyone was leaving. With authorities gone, most stores were bolted shut. Only the Mayor Jan Kuta decided to brave it out in Town.
Another night on the highway bridges. In the morning, the district command ordered us to return our arms. They had orders to evacuate with their equipment to the "East". I returned home and was about to get some sleep when...B r r u m!!! ... B r r u m!!!...B r r u m!!!...The thunder of nearby explosions brought me to my feet. The first bombs... Two civilians killed...The house of my classmate on fire... Considerable damage to the ancient gate of our parish church...War had arrived to my town.
Day and night, an unending confusion and
misery of retreat came from the northerly direction. Men, women and children,
civilians and soldiers, healthy and wounded, all were fleeing by horse-drawn
wagon, by motorcar, on horseback, bicycle or on foot. Tired to the limits
of endurance, all were trying to getaway from the advancing enemy, hoping
that there was safety some where ahead of them.
During the day, German warplanes systematically bombed and strafed the helpless human masses sowing panic and death. They were flying so low while strafing that I could see their faces. One lone Polish soldier was getting ready to shoot at them with his rifle when, fortunately for us, someone pointed out to him that the sheer stupidity of such an action would get us all killed. We were lying low under the bushes by the creek during the air raid, hoping that the Germans would not spot us.
At dawn on the eleventh of September 1939
the first German armored cars advanced to the highway bridge over our creek,
just on the edge of town. Some soldiers jumped out and went under the bridge
to check for mines as the last Polish soldiers were retreating byway of
neighbor's backyards and gardens...
1 In Poland before WW2 an administrative unit of "powiat" corresponded roughly to a large county by North-American standards; "gmina" - roughly parish, municipality or township. Wegrow - pop. about14.000, an administrative, commercial, and cultural center of the powiat of the same name. The Town itself received its charter in AD 1441.
2 Independence Day was
celebrated, as in some other countries, on the eleventh day of November.
The May 3rd Constitution of 1791 brought democratic rights to all the citizens
of Poland at about the time of the French Revolution, and without any bloodshed.