TRYING TO REACH AMERICANS: THE
It was by now the middle of July 1945. We traveled through Krakow, Legnica and then along the Czech border as far west as possible in Polish territory, into the corner where the new borders of Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany met in the Sudeten mountains. We journeyed most of the way by night and via freight train, the four of us on the small open platform in the rear of the box car. Despite it being summer the ride was almost unbearably cold but luckily on one of the short stopovers, the train engineer invited us on to the platform of his engine.* Our destination was the town of Jelenia Gora. ** To the south of town was the forest covered mountain range with its highest peak, Sniezka, over 6000 ft. The Polish/Czech border ran along the peaks of the range.
There was nothing dramatic in crossing the border although climbing the mountain through the thick forest, in the dark and soundlessly was not an easy task. For obvious reasons we had to chose a route that nobody in their right mind would take at night. If we were caught by the border patrol we would be accused not only of attempted illegal crossing but also of desertion because of our military disguise and, if our true identity was discovered, of the multitude of previous sins against the "People's Democracy". Dawn was approaching when, close to the crest, we cautiously crossed a cleared strip of forest marking the border. We were in Czechoslovakia...
It was full daylight by the time we descended the mountain and stepped on the hard, winding road. There was no point in trying to hide any more. It would be utterly impossible to travel a few hundred kilometers through thickly populated country without being apprehended. Although Poland and Czechoslovakia were now both Soviet style "People's Democracies", there was however no love lost between them. A thousand year history of frequent border disputes, including some recent ones, which even "Socialist Unity" could not prevent, as well as some additional factors 97 gave me hope that the Czechs would recognize us as political refugees and not expel us back to Poland, but allow us to pass into American held territory which, at that time, reached as far as the town of Pilsen in western Czechoslovakia. So when on the road ahead of us a large patrol of border guards appeared we deposited our guns on the ground thus signaling our peaceful intentions. For the next few days we were treated very decently and without visible hostility. We were in the hands of the military counterintelligence being investigated for possible espionage activities under the disguise of political refugees. We were driven from the border in two civilian sedans with a minimum escort to the town of Trutnow and held for a few days in a local jail. It was, as far as I was concerned, a very comfortable place: clean beds, running water, towels, clean toilet, even the food was not bad. But for the locked doors, bars in the windows and daily sessions with the investigating officer it could have been a hotel. At first we had some trouble in communicating but after a while, talking slowly in our own languages, we could understand each other. After all our languages once were the same.
All that changed when the military counter intelligence satisfied themselves that we were not spies and released us into the hands of regular police for further processing. We were transferred to the Czech capital city Prague and held in a prison called: "Four" ("Stirka" in Czech) from its number on an obscure street in the old part of Prague. In normal times it was an institution where petty thieves and street drunks were detained before arraignment in court or until they sobered. Now it had to accept into its limited facilities all the human flotsam of the great war found in or passing through town. They placed us again in different cells. I was assigned to one that had sleeping facilities - a large wooden bench - for twelve people, but there were more than sixty of us. It was very mixed company. There were some police officers of different rank and various civil servants awaiting trial for too eager collaboration with the German occupation force. Some of the prisoners had been arrested for crimes against the new economic order such as the stringent food distribution regulations. Some were people of different nationalities who while returning from slave labor or concentration camps in defeated Germany imprudently stepped off their trains in search of food and were apprehended for lack of credible documents. 98 There was one man mentally ill, one SS-man apprehended because of his tattoo, one claiming to be a Swiss citizen, an Ukrainian journalist from Carpathian Ruthenia *** very critical of the politics of his compatriots on the other side of the mountains, and a middle-aged Slovak peasant who was not sure why he was locked up. There were changes daily. Every morning some people were called to go either for interrogation or to court. Those going to court knew it when they were told to take their belongings with them. There were two courts, a criminal one called "Karlin" and another for political prisoners called "Pankrac". The expression on the faces of the inmates called to the last one showed they had little hope for the future. New prisoners always replaced the ones sent to court.
The conditions in our jail were bad especially in my overpopulated cell (my companions were slightly better off). Except for the few who could afford to pay for the privilege of sleeping on the wooden bench the rest of us slept on the dirty cement floor, but even here there was not enough space for all. The newcomers had to sleep in the crawl space under the benches where the stench of unwashed bodies sweat stained clothes and the terrible stink of the, always overflowing open toilet was overpowering.
The food - if what we were getting deserves
that name - consisted of a cup of brown warm water called coffee
with a slice of black rye bread in the morning, and another cup of warm
water with a few groats floating in it as soup in the middle
of the day. The hunger was such that the mentally ill man would drink
the contents of the spittoon at night if others did not stop him.
Some of the prisoners, who had their families in town, received modest
food parcels, 100 but prisoners like
the Ukrainian journalist, Slovak peasant, myself and many others
had to depend on regular jail rations. I kept close to those two because
like them I was a stranger on that human refuse heap 101
and we could watch each other's backs. Occasionally I would get some cucumber
peelings from a Czech police officer who was receiving food parcels and
with whom I had long discussions in my newly acquired, although still far
from passable Czech language. He was "political" and definitely not a friend
of the present regime. Besides giving me some fresh vegetable leftovers
he would sometime pass on a current newspaper. That is how I first knew
that Americans had exploded atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki early
in August that year and then the news of Japan's capitulation. It was
hard work reading the language, but it helped to kill time. The hygienic
conditions were very bad. We were allowed a few minutes every morning to
wash hands and face in cold water without any soap. There was
no chance for a bath or washed underwear. I had an infected abscess on
the top of my left foot with pus oozing from it, and no ointment or bandage
to attend to it. When, after weeks of requesting medical help I finally
saw the doctor, he only looked at my foot in passing and motioned for the
Time passed slowly in jail. The limited activities were stretched by us to unreal limits. Some of us would spend an hour or so, virtually "celebrating" every crumb of our "daily bread". Others would spend hours talking about food. From time to time some of us who were non political prisoners were taken to work outside of prison. However one had to be fairly clean shaven to be accepted. Some of the locals had safety blades which, set in a stick of wood, could pass for a razor. I managed to get the use of such an improvised razor blade from one of the German collaborators for the promise of buying some bread for him with the food coupons which he had. It was a known fact that the guards supervising the outside works often took the prisoners possessing food coupons to the store where they could exchange them for bread and mustard; it was about all that each store could offer anyway with or without coupons.
Occasionally I was assigned to shovel coal into the cellars of the historic royal castle. Once, while working on the yard of an office building I found leftovers of an apple on a garbage heap. On another occasion I picked some bitter red berries from a mountain ash. I could have easily escaped but did not want to do so without my brother, Grazyna and Zdzisiek. I knew through the jail grapevine that they were in good health and sometimes went to work. Zdzisiek had slightly better conditions because he was in the cell for minors. Grazyna was occasionally called to help in the jail kitchen which provided some extra food. Nearly six weeks passed that way...
One afternoon the turnkey opened the cell door and called: " Brzeski, z vecami" which, since it was my current name even if badly mispronounced, meant me with my belongings. I had no belongings and promptly followed the guard. Whatever they were calling me for it was not for court - calls for court were always in the morning. Downstairs I joined my three companions and a few other unknown people. We were taken under police escort to the railroad station and loaded into the train heading for the Polish border town of Cieszyn. 102
We were seated in the last rear compartment of the day coach. The door to the corridor was open and the two police officers escorting us were there blocking the way to the forward part of the coach. However we were free to go to the rear platform where the toilet and the exit door were located. The inter-coach passage was solidly barred. All four of us disliked the idea of being deposited by Czech police together with our dossiers into the waiting hands of Internal Security people on the Polish border. Our guards did not interfere with us talking to each other or moving between our compartment and the rear platform, so it was not difficult to pass on the plan of action without raising any suspicions. It was as follows: Grazyna and a young Polish fellow named Szulc (who somehow became attached to us) were to be engaged in an animated conversation on the rear platform near the door to the toilet; they would escape through the coach door which was not locked. It would be easier on Grazyna than jumping from the window; I gave her some pointers on how to balance the body against the speed of the moving train to lessen the severity of the fall. Zdzisiek was to go ahead of time to the toilet, lock its door, open the window and wait for Tadzik (my brother) and I to jump from the compartment window then, after delivering a loud bang on the toilet door as a signal for Grazyna and friend, jump himself via the toilet window. Our plan was to be executed when it grew dark and when the train neared some larger station and began losing speed.
It was a rainy September evening. We were in the vicinity of the town of Pardubice. I had checked that on the side we would be jumping there was no second set of tracks which would make the escape impossible. Even if everything worked perfectly, because the train was moving we would be scattered over some distance along the tracks and could miss each other in the dark. In case of that eventuality everyone was to walk back in the direction from which we had come to the nearest road crossing and there wait for the others.
It was quiet in our compartment, all the people sitting there seemed to be dozing, only the subdued voices of the two guards in the corridor and slightly louder ones of Grazyna and Szulc could be heard. With a light movement of my head I signaled Zdzisiek to take his position. He got up, stretched lazily and walked to the toilet. For some time I waited for the train to slow down. In the dark I had no idea how close we may be to the station. After perhaps a quarter of an hour the cadence of the wheels on the track started to change... a while longer and... I gave my brother seated beside me a light jab in the side.... He jumped from his seat, in a flowing movement thrust his legs outside the window hanging suspended on his arms, then pushed himself outward to avoid being drawn under the wheels as he let go to bump and roll down the embankment. A few seconds later I did the same twisting my leg slightly on landing. Before I was up the thunder of the train was gone. Tadzik was already walking towards me, but there was not a sign of the others. As per previous agreement, after searching for a while a little ahead we walked along the tracks back to the nearest rail crossing and waited there perhaps for two hours but nobody showed up.
By a certain hour of the night we decided there was no point waiting any longer and we started walking along the tracks, goose stepping over the wooden rail ties, traveling west towards the Americans. It was neither easy nor for that matter a prudent thing to do but, without a map and in the darkness, it seemed to be the only option we had. The railroads tend to bypass human habitation and we hoped to find some hiding place before dawn. We were both in poor shape, especially myself. My shoes were falling apart, I had an infected left foot as well as fever. We were half-starved, wet and cold, and there was that steady drizzling rain.
We did not get very far. Dawn was just
approaching and even though there was no village or town in sight, neither
was there any forest or bushes for cover. We had just approached a country
road intersection when almost from nowhere stepped two Czech policemen.
They were obviously waiting for us. They were polite and knew who
we were. We started walking with them towards the still invisible town.
In desperation, when we were passing a small grove I pushed the nearest
policeman to the side and yelled to Tadzik to run.... We ran with all the
strength we could muster... but there was not much of it left. The Czechs,
who at first tried to stop us with a few pistol shots, had little trouble
catching us. This time they did not take any chances; handcuffed
and leg shackled to each other we had to walk to the little town, going
from there by car to Pardubice.
97 The Government of Czechoslovakia at that time, unlike in Poland, was not yet fully Communist. The offices of the president of the country and the minister of external affairs were held by prewar Czech politicians E. Benes and J. Masaryk respectively. Both of them were members of the Czech government in exile in London during the war years.
98 The simplest way home for thousands of Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Yugoslavians and Russians who wanted to return home from Germany (regardless of their reasons for being there) led through Czechoslovakia.
99 Most SS-men had their blood group tattooed under the arm for use in case of medical emergency. Ironically it would become a sure give away in the hunt for war criminals.
100 The food distribution in Czechoslovakia was strictly controlled; almost everything edible was available only with coupons issued to registered citizens. In Czechoslovakia, like in all the Soviet satellite countries everyone had to be registered at one's current address and carry the proof of it at all times.
101 Slovaks and Ruthenians although citizens of the same state were very much looked down upon by ethnic Czechs. Eventually there would be a split creating separate Czech and Slovak Republics.
102 Cieszyn - an industrial
town, since 1918 a bone of contention between Poland and Czechoslovakia
was located much further east than the point where we had crossed the border
over six weeks ago.