Chapter 30


It was Sunday the fourth of December when we made our first attempt to cross the border. Our guides apparently always made their runs on Sundays; the border guards were usually less alert then as most officers were off duty and therefore no surprise checks could be expected. That Sunday, though, we should not have gone because it was the time of full moon.  Only the fact that, due to a miscalculation in  previously agreed plans, our group had already arrived at  the near border town of Luban and a cloudy night was forecast, decided us  to try to make a run for it. We spent the day as guests of Janek's cousin Jozek Basik who lived there. Jozek and I spent some time trying to persuade Mrs. Raciborski that lugging a dozen or so volumes of her memoirs over  the border did not make any sense,  not only because of their weight. She argued that all of her apparently quite colorful life story  was contained in them, that she wanted to publish them and so on.  That, otherwise quite intelligent, woman just could not grasp the reality of trudging for miles over rough terrain,  fording the river in winter and then walking again. She finally agreed to leave the memoirs with Jozek who promised to return them to her brother. Back in  Warsaw  I had had a hard time  persuading her to leave her beloved poodle behind.  Janek meanwhile took our guides to a local bar for a few drinks. After the ice was broken the two men became less formal and during a rather friendly conversation confessed that the intermediary who had arranged the expedition had presented us as very dangerous types and warned them not to get in any way involved with us. It was more or less the same warning only in reverse that was passed to us. The smugglers were to be trusted only as far as guiding us across the border but no further. It was easy to understand the purpose of that kind of briefing since,  as Janek found out, the smart entrepreneur paid the guides only a fraction of the money that he charged us and did not want either side to find out.

We all felt cheated but there was nothing we could do about it, although the general atmosphere between guided and guides was greatly improved. There were six of us: two Silesian coal miners *   turned smugglers, a young woman the cousin of one of the guides who had a fiancé in East Germany and the three of us. In the late afternoon, separately and pretending to be casual strangers, we took the local train  in the direction of the border. After an hour or so we arrived at the small town called Mikolajowo (or something like that) which was the last stop before the border zone. To progress further one needed a special permit or,  as in our case, the cover of darkness. Taking advantage of the latter and trying not to attract the attention of numerous soldiers, we each, singly, followed our guides out of the little town.  Soon we were marching cross country over the abandoned fields and meadows. Luckily, despite it being December, the weather was still mild and the old furrows were not yet frozen which would have made  walking very difficult. Our two guides seemed to know the territory well; only occasionally would they stop and have a moment of whispered consultation between themselves. Each of us carried a kilo of coffee beans which, in case of capture, would suggest that we were just ordinary smugglers not  political refugees. It was highly naive, at least in our case, but it supposedly worked at times: punishment for ordinary smuggling was far less than in other cases. Anyway coffee was good for barter on the other side of the border. I carried over my arm two small but heavy leather suitcases belonging to Mrs. Raciborski.

After about an hour and a half of steady progress the sky cleared and the full moon came up. It was still early in the night,  nearly two hours before we had to decide to go for the border if the moon disappeared or return and get out of the border zone before dawn.  Our guides led us to a nearby abandoned thatch roofed shepherd’s shack and we settled there to wait. But the moon did not oblige, and after postponing the decision to the last possible moment, we started the strenuous retreat made so much more difficult by the depressing sense of failure. Again pretending to be just ordinary folk minding our ordinary business we boarded the morning train back to Luban. There is a proverb saying that every cloud has a silver lining. Personally I have some reservations as to the "every" premise of it, but we managed to extract some "silver" out of our misfortune. As  mentioned earlier we had discovered that the  entrepreneur in Gliwice with whom we had made our arrangements, while charging us quite high fees, paid the guides far less in relation to the risks they were taking. On our way back to Gliwice (we could not stay in Luban as it was too close to the border) we conceived a plan to eliminate the greedy intermediary and split the premium he was charging between ourselves and the guides who were doing the real work. On  arrival at Gliwice the guides were to report to their employer that because of increased border patrols the border was almost impossible to cross, and that they were unwilling to take further risks.  We on the other hand, upon arrival  went to the store he was operating and requested our money back. He had no choice and paid most of it except for a small portion which he promised to return to the address Janek gave him. There was no risk on our part; the fellow knew that from the moment he stopped being useful his safety depended strictly on our good will and as far as he was concerned we were staying in the country. The ploy worked; we paid the guides as agreed and made plans to meet them in Luba? the following Sunday morning. We also arranged the necessary contacts for eventual further clients for their services. Janek mailed the recovered portion of his money to his sister in Warsaw and I repaid most of my debt to Jadwiga Raciborski. She took a room in the hotel which she had once owned, while Janek and I found  less expensive accommodation; we had a whole week to kill.

Sunday, December 11, 1949. Again a short ride by train from Luban and a discreet  melting into the surrounding darkness.  The same people, the same trail, only no moon this time. It appeared that the border was much further that we had assumed after the first attempt the previous week. It was getting harder with almost every step. Jadwiga who was in good physical condition - she used to play competitive tennis - nevertheless  had trouble keeping up with the rest of us and stumbled occasionally. She did not carry any luggage, but under a rather shabby overcoat she wore a three quarter length Tibetan llama fur coat which was a bit too much for the cross country hike. She had also - as she confessed much later - attached to her garters most of her expensive jewelry which was cutting into her  tights with every step she made. I suppose it was a precaution in case we tried to rob her.... I was helping her as much as I could but for the last few kilometers she completely broke down. Janek and I had to literally drag her while she begged us to leave her right there.

Finally the river - the border. We lurked in the shadows  at the low bank of Nysa. The sky was cloudy and it was very dark but one could distinguish the opposite shore against the slightly lighter horizon. Janek, the younger woman and both guides started removing their shoes. I sat a little to the right of them with Jadwiga, dead to the world around her, and began doing the same, but gave up after a moment.... The stillness lasted perhaps half  a minute when the tense silence was torn by the yell of the guide: "In the water !!!"....

As if galvanized we sprang to our feet.  The four of them ran into the water where it was shallow while I grabbed Jadwiga by the sleeve of her overcoat and, holding to it  threw her into the river right beside us.  Immediately the water reached my chest. Over my left arm I had Jadwiga's two leather suitcases strapped together while I used my right hand to literally float the almost unconscious woman  trying to keep her head above the surface while  avoiding any splashing. In no time  the water was above my shoulders. "What if I lose my footing?" raced through my head; I was not sure I could swim and support Jadwiga even if I dumped her luggage.  Luckily the river, deeper here, was simultaneously narrower and without losing the ground under my feet I managed to bring my load to the German side of Nysa. We were still chest deep in the water; in front of us  rose a steep bank, a few meters high.  I pushed Jadwiga against the half frozen wall of earth for some support and slowly, without making a splash turned around and looked towards the Polish side. While we were invisible against the dark background of the bank,  the horizon on the other, lower side was a little lighter and if there was any movement I would see it. There was no one moving, no human silhouette,  which could mean one of  two things: either the border guards, whom our guide had spotted approaching, were lying in wait hoping they  could still trap us or, what was more plausible, seeing that we had reached  the other side they had decided to pretend that nothing had happened so they would not be punished for  being insufficiently alert.  Whatever  their reason,   the peripheral nerves  in my back remained tense in anticipation of a bullet. Jadwiga's and my situation was a sorry one. There was no way I could drag Jadwiga, her clothes completely water-logged, up the almost vertical slope.... I whispered in her ear that I would come back for her and leaving her and her luggage still half submerged very laboriously  managed to drag myself onto the grassy meadow above and then started crawling in the direction I expected to find the rest of our group. After a few minutes I noticed someone lying  on the ground. By the time I was close enough to whisper, that person, obviously taking me for a border guard, jumped up and started running away from me. Immediately  three other shadows were running with me in pursuit. Only when I overtook the Silesian girl, who was the first to panic, and continued pursuing the rest did they realize that it was I not a guard chasing them.  Luckily there  were  no border guards  from  the "Volksrepublic" nearby. Cautiously and moving close to the ground we returned to the river edge. It was not easy to find Jadwiga and when we found her  it was quite an effort to drag her up. After a few tries, by joining our hands in a human chain, we finally managed it.

Another hike, cross country this time, wearing wet clothes and our feet growing numb from cold. We  again had to clear the border zone unspotted. Jadwiga was somehow better now but there was no hope of reaching the smugglers' hide-out before the general curfew imposed in  all near border towns.  To our relief just beyond the first  road we crossed was a large haystack. Here we decided to spend the rest of the night. Soaking wet and cold, especially Jadwiga and I, we holed up as deep as we could in an effort to warm up but even the little warmth produced by walking had left us. At one point during that long night I could not feel my body from the waist down. Janek had a quart of very strong vodka and we all had a sip every once a while. Very slowly the long hours of the night passed. Before the late winter dawn arrived it started snowing.

*  Upper Silesia in south-western Poland is a coal producing region.