Chapter 12



It happened in the early days of the occupation when we were making our first organizational contacts.  I had arranged  to visit  a fellow named Makarewicz, an early organizer in the Underground  group to which I belonged at that time.  I was about to turn into the gate in the picket fence surrounding the house where he lived,  when I recognized  an older man approaching  from the opposite direction as our High School janitor, known to all students as Mr. Wladyslaw. Though  strict and demanding as far as order in School was concerned, he was a  very friendly person and  well liked by students and faculty. I had lost sight of him since the Spring of 1939, nearly a year ago, and  was really glad to see him again. We stopped on the edge of this quiet cobbled street for a chat like a couple of long lost friends. There were the usual questions: "How have you been?  How are you managing?" I wanted to ask what he was  doing there. - his house was way out of Town - but one did not ask too many questions those days. The exchange lasted a few short minutes and we were about to part when suddenly a car appeared from around the bend of the street, slowed down as if looking for the address and came to a stop right in front of my friend's house, barely a few feet from where we were chatting. There were German police plates on the car. Two uniformed Gestapo men and one civilian stepped out of the car and went inside. Without a word we parted. A few minutes later, from down the street I saw them leaving with my arrested co-conspirator. I never saw him again nor did I see Mr. Wladyslaw who died a few years later.


There was a man walking in my direction on the otherwise empty and quiet side street. At first he appeared  to be a drunk - not an uncommon sight there - because he stumbled on almost  every cobblestone of that ancient street. Yet there was something peculiar about him, the rags he was wearing.... I grabbed him as he was about to fall, and the stench from his rotting clothes hit my nostrils. No, the man was not  drunk,  his face was flushed with high fever; he was mumbling something incoherent, but his eyes were not focusing. "Must be typhus" I thought and looked closer. Yes,  I knew him well but could barely recognize him now. Adam Tokarski has been sentenced about six months previously to six weeks of forced labor camp in Treblinka for accidentally falling into an open cellar in which crates with eggs were stored. It had happened in a rural cooperative where he worked. Of course a German manager recognized it as a clear act of economic sabotage.  And here he was... released because of typhus and kicked out to die. I managed to carry him over to the home of his aunt - he was not very heavy then - where with good medical care, he recovered, although he could not remember how he had  managed to travel nearly fifty kilometers in such a weakened condition.


It was quiet that morning in the sacristy of our ancient parish church. Fr. Czarkowski was getting ready for his morning mass.  A crippled boy serving as an acolyte, and a middle aged woman  arranging the church vestments 37 were the only others in the huge sacristy. Suddenly the outer door opened just enough to let somebody enter. It was a German soldier; dressed in feldgrau,38 with the regulation bayonet and ammunition pouch at his belt. He stood there for a moment orienting himself in the half-light of the sacristy and recognizing the priest spoke to him in German. Fr. Czarkowski was not a timid man,  but in those days, as a general rule, anybody wearing German uniform and entering your premises was bad news,  even if he had not opened the door with his rifle butt and spoke in a subdued voice like a normal human being.  The trouble was that  Fr. Czarkowski did not know German and the soldier obviously could not speak  Polish. Surprisingly the German soldier did not start shouting in  frustration, but patiently tried to explain while first pointing to the priest and then to himself,  but that did not work either. Then  he reached into the pocket of his uniform and pulled out a miniature  Latin  breviary 39  and pressed it in Fr. Czarkowski's hand pointing again to himself. Now the Pole finally understood and they had a common language. The brief Latin exchange clarified the situation: the soldier was also a priest  forced into the army and all he wanted was to be permitted to celebrate  mass at the side altar if possible. He had not had a chance to do so for a long time, and did not want to advertise his presence in the "enemy's" church. Of course Fr. Czarkowski had no objection: indeed it was the only time when he embraced somebody wearing German uniform.

37  Those days women were not employed as sextons, but her husband had not returned after the 1939 campaign and his death was unconfirmed although someone  claimed to have seen his body. In any case  it seemed only decent to let his wife have the job.  A few months after the end of the war in 1945  our sexton returned to his wife and children having fought  for five years in the Middle East, Africa Italy and Western Front.

38  Literally: field gray; popular description of the German infantry uniform  including Waffen SS  units which wore different insignia on their uniforms.

39  A prayer book for priests. At that time the Catholic Church used Latin in her liturgy.