BACK TO SCHOOL
I spent a few days at home with Mother after finishing with the Commission and then left town as had my brother and many others. I had a two fold purpose: to hide from the internal security people and if possible, to try to resume a normal life so rudely interrupted over six years ago for the youth of my generation. The first step towards normalcy was to continue one's education. I chose the historic city of Krakow because among the Polish university towns that city was the least ravaged by war, it was fairly distant from places where I was known - if mostly from police bulletins - and a number of my friends were already studying there. There was Marian Wintoch, my friend since childhood and his future wife Jadwiga Jablonka, Zbyszek Kordyasz with his wife, brothers Lech and Jurek Ratajski - a tiny group, but sufficient to preserve our unique identity among the large colony of those displaced from Lwow, now annexed to Russia and those who survived the Warsaw Uprising but could not find a home among the ruins.
And what a wonderful gathering it was. All that merry crowd having a good time, partying and of course studying while most of us had no tangible means of subsistence nor a care for the next day. Those who were lucky and secured lodgings in student hostels would put up friends, and everybody was a friend those heady days in Krakow. Students who had some food shared it with the hungry ones. The town itself gave the impression of being taken over by hordes of young people whose overwhelming presence made the local population almost invisible. Not that the students were rude or made any trouble, but their joy of being alive and young again was so exuberant that the quiet, rather conservative, inhabitants of that royal medieval city were overshadowed.
It appeared as if all those in Poland who were young and hungry for learning, all who had suffered years torn from their youth spent in Russian gulags, German concentration camps, prisons, the Underground and the battle fields of war assembled there at the old Jagellonian University, an alma mater to seven centuries of Poles *. They came as they were, many still wearing the uniforms of various theaters of war, driven by the hunger for something more than their daily bread. For some reason the Communist authorities responsible for cultural life did not seem to interfere with that quite reactionary drive towards higher learning; the preferred social classes being workers and peasants, the intelligentsia was looked down upon . Perhaps they were not yet ready with their dialectic materialism and other Marxist bunk which became prime subjects taught in all higher learning institutions in later years. 103 The local komisar for culture, a fellow by the name of Polewka, also seemed to have some weakness towards students and was said to be quite useful on several occasions.
Social life, though still a little shy, was fast gaining strength and vitality. By the time I enrolled in a course in mechanical engineering at the Mining Academy 104 I found myself in the midst of its some times dazzling intensity. There were dances, masquerade balls - we could not afford formal dress - poetry evenings and such. Occasionally some of us, after dancing all night would dance our way to the nearest church on a wintry Sunday morning. I had been drafted to the students theatrical group under the able leadership of the, already accomplished, poetess Zosia Karas. Besides her indisputable literary talent she had an uncanny ability not only to open a corked bottle of booze by hitting its bottom against the front of her maidenly shoulder, but also to recognize the true article from the chemically enhanced one. It came in useful when we were buying booze for a soiree or party. It was usually a contributory affair and, alcohol bought from street merchants in front of Krakow's ancient "Cloth Hall” 105 had to be tested before purchase.
As to my studies... I tried, I really did for a while. I forced myself into the daily hopelessness of trying to learn the calligraphy supposedly necessary in technical drafting. It had to be done on special quality paper which I could hardly afford to buy with pencils of the proper hardness almost impossible to find on the market. Somehow I felt I should be starting first grade again. The shock of this after the life I had led was too much and I also realized that I could not afford to study for five years without an income. ** Engineering was my boyhood dream but now I had to rethink my educational plans. I was not alone; many of us had to reestablish normal lives before arranging our future. One cannot attend university on enthusiasm alone. Early in the spring of 1946 I said good-bye to my friends in Krakow and moved to Warsaw.
Before settling down there I visited my
home town for a few days. I was about to return to Warsaw when a
friend with the proper connections passed the word to me to be on guard
as I was about to be arrested. It could be that the post-amnesty honeymoon
was over. I was not sure whether the threat was real or just a crude invitation
to leave town, but in either case it would have been stupid to disregard
the warning. I did not sleep at home that night and, since there was no
indication of any action against me overnight, I decided to take a chance
and depart on public transport, such as it was.
It was five o'clock that wintery morning and still dark. The bus, freshly converted from an old truck, was about to leave when I boarded it and took a seat on the bench running along the right side row of windows. At the very last moment before departure a uniformed man came running, calling the driver to wait. because "Komendant will be taking the bus". There was only one Komendant in town and I did not particularly care to meet him under the circumstances. It was too late to disappear because just then Lt. Klosinski, his wife and their inseparable companion the KGB captain were already boarding the bus. The only thing working for me was the advantage of surprise. They seated themselves on the middle bench practically facing me, but in the darkness within the bus they did not recognize me until I moved to the empty seat next to Mrs. Klosinski. She seemed genuinely glad to see me but her companions were somewhat uneasy in their supposedly cordial greetings. I on my part, while meaningfully holding my right hand under my coat, was at my conversational best, just as if meeting long lost friends. The conversation, mostly with the woman, who was obviously unaware of any tension, was not easy to start but, after some initial restraint, she seemed eager to talk to a fresh acquaintance. As wife of the UB komendant her social life was probably nonexistent. At the rest stop in Kaluszyn I invited them for hot sausages and a few shots of vodka while as far as possible remaining beside the lady. When we reached Warsaw's suburb, Praga, and disembarked at the final bus stop I brazenly asked both men what their plans were. "We have to report to our territorial headquarters" they answered. "And you? " to the lady. "Oh I want to go to the other shore, to Warsaw proper" she said. " So it seems we will be going the same way" I said to her and, taking her arm, we waved good bye to both men standing a little bewildered on the sidewalk and started walking towards the wooden bridge over the Vistula.
I met Lt. Klosinski once more some months later at the time of the famous Referendum that was supposed to demonstrate to all that the policy of the Communist government had an overwhelming approval of all true Poles. Under pressure from its Western Allies to make good on the promise to hold free elections in Poland, the Russians permitted the Prime Minister of the émigré Polish Government in London and other political leaders to return to Poland and take part in the Country's political life. The new non socialist Polish Peasants Party (PSL) was formed to oppose the united communist front of Polish Workers Party (PPR), Polish Socialist Party (PPS), Peasants Party (SL) and Democratic Party (SD). The pitch of government propaganda reached a crescendo before the Referendum. During the months leading to the elections however there was a visible relaxing of the police and political stranglehold; some opposition press, though heavily censured, was allowed. The unbending included the release of thousands of political prisoners from Siberian prison camps, though many were re-arrested and condemned to long prison terms or executed. Many of my friends, including those arrested with me on that memorable Christmas of 1944, also returned, with the exemption of Col. “Janczar" who was bayoneted to death in the execution bunker of a UB prison , and those who died on the way to, or in the Siberian prison camps. 106
Taking advantage of the fact that due to the current political relaxation my name was not on the wanted list, I visited my home town. It was the end of June 1946 just a day or two before the "3 x Yes" Referendum. I could not take part in it of course; my name, names of members of my family as well as the names of people who could not be counted on to vote "yes" were removed from the official voting lists by competent officers overseeing the "democratic" purity of the vote. Of course I was not surprised that the official count was in the high nineties for the Government. I met Lt. Klosinski by accident at the corner of the market place the day after the vote. He was not surprised: obviously he knew I was in town. It was almost a friendly encounter. I knew that he had assisted when the votes were counted and was aware of the true result. I asked him directly which side had the majority of votes. "Of course yours" he answered with a cynical smile on his face. Some time later I heard that Lt. Klosinski had lost his command and was sent to jail because he had not reacted fast enough when requested to come to the aid of his counterpart from a neighboring town who wanted to make a raid on a transient partisan band. Apparently the partisans did not wait for Lt. Klosinski's force to join the raid but struck first. Klosinski was blamed for the disaster. I never learned whether his life was spared but I suspected that he was doomed anyway. As a Communist by conviction he had no future in a system that depended solely on people without scruples and morals who did what they were told and `were expendable. I have met many disillusioned "true believers" who were lucky to be left alone after they were initially used.
Thanks to war time connections I managed to find a job in Warsaw. An Underground acquaintance, F. Szafranski the agricultural engineer and political activist in the Peasants Party, now in charge of the Territorial Land Office, offered me employment in the administration of transport attached to that institution. It was not much but a start, and I did not have to provide references.
Having assured my material welfare I took two further steps on the road to normalcy. The first step was to register as a student in the School of Economics (SGH).*** The reason for my choice was not a sudden interest in political economy or economic policy. It was for the very practical reason that all the lectures and seminars were repeated in after work hours for the benefit of the students who had to work for their living. This was the only higher learning institution in the Country not yet socialized and one which, though charging tuition fees, was very much student oriented. The next thing was to find a place to live. On the recommendation of friends I found it on 8 Belgijska St. in the Mokotow part of town not far from school and work.
It was a pleasant place, a flat in a partly bombed-out house, occupied by a middle-aged woman with a daughter working towards a law degree and a son, a student of architecture, both in their late teens. The husband and father had spent the war years fighting on the western fronts and was expected home from England any time soon. They scratched a living out of renting the rooms to students and from the modest remuneration the young daughter was paid for looking after the registers of inhabitants in our building and a number of neighboring houses. 107 Two other students and myself rented a small room whose ceiling doubled as the roof which had been destroyed by a bomb. The outside wall had a few minor holes made by exploding shrapnel and the window frame was a poor fit. Nevertheless, after plugging the holes in the wall with cotton it was not too bad a place in which to live. The installation of a small iron stove gave us great comfort in winter on the rare occasions when it held a fire. I remember waking up on some mornings with frost on my eye lashes. One of my room mates attended the same school I did but besides his name and a very few minor details I knew nothing about him because he hardly ever uttered a word. Even moving his head in assent or denial seemed an effort. My other roommate, a student of law, was a very cheerful opposite. Two friends from my home town, Zygmunt Bukowicki and Roman Gluski would drop in quite often. They lodged in the same building but on another floor. They both attended the engineering course in wood technology at SGGW which was an Agricultural Academy. As a matter of fact they were the ones who directed me to Belgijska street. Roman seemed to have a romantic interest in the daughter of our host family, a very nice and quite handsome girl called Agi (her name was actually Agrypina which may have been all right for a Roman emperor but not for a girl). Often we would assemble in her little room for a pleasant evening of talking, singing a little and just being together.
I spent nearly eight months on Belgijska Street. It was the only period in five years in PRL (Polish People's Republic) that I lead a somewhat normal life, renting a room, sleeping in my own bed, attending lectures and going to work. And then... one day I had a visitor. A high school student from my home territory, one of those who had missed the excitement of the Underground because of his tender age, became involved, together with a few of his friends, in some kind of conspiracy. Terrified by the arrest of his friends he took flight and landed on my door step - figuratively speaking of course. That in itself would not have been so bad but, as it happened, while attending school the young man had been lodging with my mother. That, combined with my notoriety, would undoubtedly lead the local UB to the obvious conclusions. I equipped the lad as best I could and gave him some advice on where to go and how to disappear among people in the new territories reclaimed from Germany in the west part of the Country. Luckily the young lad had some money to tide him over for a while. His actions may have been stupid but he did not deserve to end up in the hands of the UB. 108 As for myself, the good life on Belgijska was over. I could not involve the people who had accepted me in their friendly home. I thanked them for a pleasant stay and apologized for any possible trouble. Agi promised to remove all traces of my stay from the registry. I left my friends with a deep feeling of sadness.
An academic life in Warsaw was quite different in many ways to that in Krakow, mainly because the education facilities were scattered. There was Warsaw University the biggest of the local higher learning institutions with its campus located in the older part of the city in the neighborhood of the old churches, historic parade grounds, the famous statue of Copernicus 109 and ruins of the Royal Castle. The Polytechnic Academy was on the southern edge of the city center and there was a third facility in a southern district of town called Mokotow. Along or close by Rakowiecka St. were located four learning institutions. They were the one I attended, SGH (Szkola Glowna Handlowa) for Economics and Commerce and SGGW (Szkola Glowna Gospodarstwa Wiejskiego) for Agriculture and Forestry where my friends Bukowicki and Gluski were studying forestry. By some coincidence, or perhaps because of the course in forestry, there was quite a concentration of former partisans who during the last war had had to make the forests their home. In time I made many friends among them. There was also an added reason to seek their company. Many of them came from towns and villages near the heavily wooded Swietokrzyskie Mountains or the ancient town of Sandomierz, both areas not only known for strong partisan activity, but also dear to me as the locale for many novels by my beloved, turn of the century, author Stefan Zeromski. 110 Nearby was the Dental Academy attended almost entirely by young and mostly good looking women, and finally the old and venerable Engineering School of Wawelberg and Rotwand, from which my father graduated before WW1. 111 This school, during the war years reduced to the status of a secondary trade school, not only served in the Underground to train engineers, but its students produced in their shops the working replicas of the famous British submachine sten gun under a Polish name "Blyskawica" (Lightning) for the Underground. Most of the school buildings on Rakowiecka Street survived only because the German military units were stationed in them. The Mokotowskie Prison located almost opposite my school also survived to become one of the most infamous institutions of political terror in the years to come.
As much as Krakow was the town of past centuries with its Wawel castle and ancient cathedral where the remains of most of Poland's kings and some of her heroes were put to rest, so also Warsaw became mostly a living history of our generation. Here one did not need to visit museums or contemplate the architecture of the old buildings. Most of them were in ruins anyway. Here history was in every stone, every ruined entrance to what once was a building, with dozens of names scribbled on it with chalk in a desperate search for loved ones who might have survived. In Cyrillic letters on the remnants of a wall history was also written by Russian soldiers who arrived for the postmortem and left signs saying : “Min niet" (checked for mines). The crosses over the lonely graves gave mute testimony, and a kid clothed in rags selling newspapers, his right arm lost in a charge on a German panzer, gave silent witness to tragedy. But beyond all this there was an almost incredible vitality in that "Never Conquered City". There were already coffee houses and shops erected in the vestiges of burned out buildings. All kinds of shanties and shacks had sprung up beside Jerozolimskie Avenue near the corner of Marszalkowska Street - two main arteries of the town. There one could buy hot sausages, bimber 112 and home made cigarettes as well as exchange foreign currencies. Once one of the bridges was open to vehicular traffic all the trucks belonging to numerous government institutions would stop on that corner and helpful as well as business-motivated drivers would take passengers over the bridge, for some monetary consideration of course. Here a bunch of street kids urged the public to line up for the ride by shouting:" Kanada na Pragie, kanada!!!" a slang which translated into: "Take ride by Canada to Praga", the word Canada meaning the luxury of an American made truck. 113 Before the opening of the Poniatowski bridge people depended on the temporary wooden one and to get to and from Warsaw everyone had to descend or ascend, as the case may be, a long set of stone steps at the foot of Karowa Street. Without rail on those stairs one would meet all the people one may like to see or avoid. Initially some university departments, because of the lack of suitable space, had to give some lectures in a suburb of Praga. Returning home from lectures after nightfall across the long bridge and among the dark ruins could be dangerous especially for young women. They coped by always returning in a large group.
Living conditions were still very primitive.
Except for a few overcrowded hostels student housing was practically non
existent in the City where whole districts were simply leveled off. About
the only places available to sit in peace to prepare for exams or just
to find a quiet moment were the interiors of the still existing churches
whose doors were open till late. Especially moving was the sight
in the basement under the ruins of St. Alexander's church: the eternal
light in front of the improvised altar, in the pews the young heads leaning
over their books or papers, others busily making notes, and
here and there someone kneeling in silent prayer. Entering, one was
immersed in an atmosphere of almost tangible peace and tranquillity....
103 At the stage described above most of the higher learning institutions were already nationalized and had lost their academic freedom, however there were not yet any restrictions concerning the courses taught nor political selection of students. Later on, for example, access to medical schools and some engineering courses was controlled by social origin and membership in Communist youth organizations.
104 An engineering school on the university level known in Europe before WW2 for excellence in mining related studies.
105 An ancient commercial structure on a medieval market place once used for trade in textiles, now displaying variety stalls as well as a fine arts museum on the second floor.
106 As related by a fellow cell mate J. Lipka, Col. Janczar (L. Szymanski) was escorted to the bunker used for executions three times. Each time his executioners made him ready for hanging only to finish the torture on the third attempt. It took place in the winter of 1945 in a UB penal institution in Warsaw. The mortality of prisoners being transported to Siberia in the winter of 1945 was over 20%. Some transports in sealed cattle cars took up to five weeks. The only food was a salted herring on every other day and drinking water on the days in between.
107 In Poland, as in most European countries, each municipality had to have a central registry of all the inhabitants. This was very strictly enforced by the Germans during the war and by the Communist regime that followed them. A lack of a receipt of registration could be cause for arrest. However there were numerous ways to simultaneously register and remain untracked in a large city.
108 Despite the end of the war all those accused of crimes against the state were tried in special military courts where a single judge without any jury could pass any verdict he wanted including a death penalty. The cases were often heard in a prison cell, the accused usually having only an ex officio defense counsel.
109 Mikolaj Kopernik, 1473-1543 (Copernicus in Latin, the language in which his scientific work was written) first proved that the Earth rotates around the Sun not otherwise, as it was then believed, and was not burned at the stake as a heretic for it. The Germans, during the war, covered the original inscription on the foot of the monument with a heavy brass plate identifying him as a German astronomer. The members of the Small Sabotage section of the Underground managed to unscrew the German plate and wrote on the base of the monument in big black letters: " As a penalty for defacing my monument I prolong the winter by two months, Mikolaj Kopernik, Astronomer." It was the winter the German soldiers were freezing in Russia.
110 Gory Swietokrzyskie or Holy Cross Mountains, the rocky and forested hills in central Poland near the town of Kielce. Stefan Zeromski wrote a series of novels on social and national themes. This very prolific and deeply feeling writer provided inspiration to many of his own and following generations. My code name "Radek" originates from one of his heroes. One of the organizers of the Russian Revolution, later executed by Stalin took the same name.
111 So named for two Warsaw industrialists who founded it.
112 A home made rye whiskey.
113 For some reason the
word "Canada" became a synonym of richness or luxury. Even in Auschwitz
the inmates gave the name Canada to the store where the Germans kept all
the goods robbed from murdered Jews.