Chapter 18


Christmas in jail. The day was cloudy, promising snow. My companions and I tried to stifle the uneasiness of facing the unknown evil by getting busy with meaningless trifles. They gave us some food, one wet  towel to freshen our faces and, in pairs, they escorted us to the outhouse. It was freezing inside our room and the authorities in charge gave us some matches to start the  fire in the tile stove. There were only a few pieces of firewood left, and Staszek who had started the fire, loudly asked the senior of the two guards if it would be possible to bring some more from the back yard. The sentry did not answer  -they were not permitted to converse with us - but pointed his gun at Staszek, and with a nod of his head indicating his approval, escorted him downstairs to the backyard. I moved slowly to the window; Koszutski and one of the girls joined me. Through the partly frosted glass we could see the yard. In the left corner was a large pile of chopped firewood. The previous day I had observed a poorly clothed civilian, perhaps a nonpolitical prisoner, busily chopping it; a small gate in the high wire fence leading to the orchard  had been  padlocked and, tied to the fence post, there had stood a scraggy looking cow,  probably confiscated from some "enemy of the people". Staszek was there now a little awkwardly stacking an armful of firewood on his outstretched left hand. The cow was still there chewing some hay, but the gate  was not locked, in fact it was slightly ajar;  perhaps someone had brought the hay for the cow from the  adjacent high fenced orchard, and had forgotten to lock up.... I was near the door by the time Staszek arrived with his armful. "That's not enough" I said with disdain and a large dose of gall in my voice, and added: "I will get more", and without waiting for permission I stepped by the guard and onto the staircase leading to the rear of the building. I thought that the guard who escorted Staszek was there, but he was down at the back entrance talking to the sentry guarding it. "We need more wood" I said curtly  bypassing them both. Self-confident and immersed in their conversation  they did not try to stop me. In the backyard I walked towards the pile of firewood  by the fence  and slowly,  with premeditation,  stacked the wood over my outstretched arm.... To select the last  few pieces I bent low, close to the ground...a furtive glance towards my two guardians in the entrance to the building...they were still there talking....

Very gently and without noise I deposited my armful of firewood on the ground ... grabbed the gate to the orchard and in the next second or two I was over the high wooden fence to my right... another orchard and then another fence fifty feet farther... getting out of the line of fire strictly on instinct and adrenaline.... I could feel the screaming tension of  peripheral nerves in my back anticipating a burst of bullets...  a fence again, and I  crossed a road  at the rear of  town ... some people were walking in the opposite direction....  In front of me an empty field, beyond it  the stone fence of the old graveyard.  I ran over the frozen furrows trying to get out of the open and behind the stone wall of the cemetery...the dark line of a high forest was almost within reach... I lunged round the corner of the graveyard fence right into a Soviet soldier standing there.... a moment and I would have gone for his throat, but in that instant I realized that he  held a wooden stick not a rifle. For a few seconds we  stood facing each other, I in a position of an interrupted run, both arms partly raised and breathing heavily; he visibly frightened, an old gray-haired soldier. Nearby a few skinny cows tried to crop the dry grass. The tension  was relieved by the Russian:  "Zakurku imiejesz? " *  he asked in a trembling voice. I reached into the left pocket of my jacket where I had some tobacco and gave a fistful to him...and then I was running again with only one guiding thought in my mind: to reach the forest... a few more minutes... gasping and gulping  cold air...  unbearable pain in the lungs... a few more meters....  Once among the friendly trees I changed to a  fast walk; luckily there was no snow to leave footprints. A kilometer into the forest I stopped. Briefly I made my thanks to God for the escape, and sat down on a rotting log to give some necessary attention to my hurting feet. I had not had an opportunity to remove my riding boots for at least a week and they were not really suitable footwear  for a cross country run over frozen furrows. I managed to take them off. My feet, especially the heels were one bloody mess. Gently and gritting my  teeth in pain I removed the bloodstained scraps of cotton that served  as socks. Dividing in two the portion of towel which Funia had given me I re-wrapped my feet. It was not easy to put the boots back on but  I managed and hid the discarded rags under the log. By then I had started to  feel the cold. I wore  only a shirt, still sweaty from the exertion of the run, and a light jacket, but although bareheaded, hungry and  beaten,  I was free.  Judging by the expression of horror on the face of the old Russian, my still swollen face with fresh scabs and black eyes should be kept out of sight as far as possible.

I got up  and started walking as the crow flies, roughly in a northerly direction.  After an hour or so of travel through forest and  pine thickets I reached the road leading to a settlement called Dobre. Dusk was  falling and it had  started snowing. I did not feel very secure entering the little town with my face as it was, and dressed very much  out of season. However the alternative of trying, in my poor physical condition, to bypass the settlement by  way of frozen fields in  darkness  and snow  did not look better. Entering the town I raised the collar of my jacket as much as I could, held the lapels together and pretended that I had just run across to a neighbor’s house. There were no lights there except inside the houses and, as I hoped, nobody paid any attention to me; a stranger these days was not an unusual sight. I knew that there was no Bezpieka in Dobre, perhaps only Milicja but they would be busy with the Holidays I expected.

Half way  through the town, along its main street, and beside  what looked like a combination general store and drinking den, there stood a Soviet military truck.  Nearby, huddled together against the cold  stood an older woman with a shawl wrapped about her head and shoulders, a poorly dressed man and a boy, perhaps ten, who was not dressed much better than I. They were obviously hoping to catch a ride once the driver and his companions emerged from  inside  the store where  someone must have bought them a drink. They knew that the soldiers would be traveling in the direction of the next village called Pniewnik. So I joined them because it would suit me very well if I too could catch a ride at least a few kilometers  towards the village of Czerwonka where I expected to find help. By that time I was feeling ill, I had fever and was visibly shivering. Fifteen minutes later four soldiers and a civilian emerged  from the store, two soldiers entered the cab and the rest of them  mounted the uncovered platform and sat on the small bench behind the cab to get some protection from the wind. So settled, one of the soldiers with a gesture invited us to climb aboard, and we were on the way.

The cold was terrible. I sat beside the boy on the steel floor crouched as low as possible to be least exposed to the wind, but it did not help much. Suddenly one of the soldiers asked me in Polish: "Are you crazy or something to travel just wearing a jacket? " I looked up and...I could not swear to it, but he looked like the commandant of the Milicja in Minsk who had come to see us in our arrest... Brazenly and pretending a degree of shame I told him a prepared story about being drunk in the tavern, getting in a brawl and being thrown out as I was. I do not think he believed it, but he did not react.... Perhaps he knew that a hunted man or animal is dangerous, perhaps he did not recognize me (he had seen me only in passing and it was night now), or perhaps he was a decent human being. Mysterious things happen sometimes at Christmas. The Russian seated beside him threw a spare blanket to the boy and me to cover ourselves. "Spasiba" I thanked him; the truck sped into the snowstorm....

I got out when they stopped for a moment in Pniewnik. My feet which were now half frozen could barely support me. Finding my bearings with  difficulty I finally took the road to Czerwonka  where I had friends, but traveling was not very easy with fever,  hurting feet and a snowstorm.  Just past Pniewnik there were a few small sad looking houses with thatched roofs. I was very thirsty and not too sure of my direction...

A light was still visible in the last house. I knocked and a middle aged man opened the door revealing a kerosene lamp on the wooden table,  a kitchen stove near the door,  and a woman with a wooden ladle in her hand. A typical dwelling of a local dirt farmer.  Somehow he knew that I was alone for he  did not even ask who was there before opening the door. For a few moments we looked at each other in silence... then I asked for a cup of water. The woman spoke: "Wait ... I will give you some warm milk".  She reached with her ladle,  scooped a cupful from the pot on the stove, and handed it to me. Never in my life had I received such a delicious drink. "Bog zaplac"; **    I thanked them for their humanity and was about to depart when the man stopped me with a gesture. "Take this" he said handing me an old cap "there are Ruskie ***  in Czerwonka".... I was sure now of the right direction.

Two hours later I finally reached Czerwonka and without trouble found the house of the Wieladek family. I knew that their youngest daughter Basia, whom I often saw in Wegrow, would be home from her high school for the Christmas holidays. There was still light in their house, and luckily  no dogs to raise the whole village. I knocked on the kitchen door. It was opened by a young man, husband of one of the daughters.. About a long table sat the whole family at  Christmas supper. At the far end sat Basia who on seeing me, jumped to her feet. Her large blue eyes were looking at me with a mixture of surprise and horror. At that moment I realized that only a few days ago jokingly I had said that I would visit her in Czerwonka during Christmas. Obviously she did not know about the arrests and associated my ghostly appearance with the promised visit.  "Please forgive my untimely visit, but this morning I escaped from UB jail in Minsk and have no strength to go any further" - I explained.

They were all on their feet; nobody asked any questions. These people who during the past summer had lost their son and brother, my comrade in arms  who died in action "Thunderstorm", took care of me without any thought of  danger to themselves. In no time I was fed, one of the girls washed my face, somebody carefully removed my boots and attended to the wounded feet. Bodek Oprzadek - Basia's cousin was to  contact Wegrow the next morning. I wanted to go to their barn for the night, but they would not hear of it. They put me to bed between cool linen sheets. As I was drifting into sleep I felt Basia's hand stroking my hair.

*     "Would you have something to smoke?" in Russian.
**   "May the Lord repay you", a customary expression of thanks in the Polish countryside.
***  Slang for Russian.