BITTER TASTE OF FREEDOM
It was early afternoon when we approached the inconspicuous looking gate barring the way to another world, one that was perhaps not always better but in which existed the freedom of choice.
There were a few cars ahead of us passing the border control, but there was no cause for worry since every few minutes the gate was raised to let a car through. When our turn came the same routine as in Babelsberg was repeated with the driver presenting the documents and the border guard checking the names of the passengers. A few more moments, the guard raised the barrier and we started slowly across the no-man's-land at the required maximum speed of five kilometers/hr. A few hundred meters further the British M.P. waved us by without stopping the car.
In less than two hours we arrived at Hannover. One of the passengers got out at a street intersection but the rest of us, a middle aged woman in the front seat, Teresa and myself waited until the driver arrived at the end of his run, a small plaza surrounding a tiny park. Our driver, a well built man in his forties whom we had barely observed before, informed us that if we needed his services again either he or his trusted friend would be on this plaza every Wednesday morning. We shook hands: "Danke, aufwiedersehen".* I could not know then how soon our next meeting would be.
Teresa and I were both very hungry, but with our limited resources we first located the train terminal to see about a Hamburg connection. My plan was to visit Jadwiga's husband there and deliver a number of verbal messages from her. I was not at all sure that he was overjoyed by his wife's expected arrival but nevertheless hoped to get some help from him if only good advice. Anyway, there was no other place to go; I had no money, no documents - (those for obvious reasons I had left in Berlin) - and a teenage girl dependent on me.
After paying for two tickets for the night train to Hamburg we each bought a hot sausage with mustard and a roll and the only money left was barely sufficient for a streetcar fare. We spent the hours before departure inside the crowded terminal trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, taking advantage of its warmth and a bench on which to sit. Happily our train was not an express so we had shelter for the night as we journeyed. Early next morning we were at Hamburg.
Without much trouble we located the Displaced Persons camp in Altona, a suburb of Hamburg, and found Mr. Raciborski in his office. He did not exhibit much enthusiasm at our arrival but neither did he show any animosity towards us. I suppose seeing hundreds of homeless and displaced people every day makes one dispassionate towards another pair of fugitives. He could not take us to the camp but sent us to his very modest apartment where we had something to eat and waited for him to finish work. When he returned home in the late afternoon I had to tell him all about our escape from Poland and about Berlin. After I had delivered all the messages from his wife we started talking about our immediate situation. He advised us to register with the police as refugees as soon as possible; without any documents we could be arrested by the German police and thrown in jail. In West Germany, regardless of which occupation zone it was, the ordinary matters of law and order concerning the civilian population were in the hands of German police and for them a person without documents was always suspect. We stayed overnight in Altona: Teresa slept at the apartment of a female camp official while I remained at Raciborski's place. The next morning, equipped with the fare by our host, we went downtown to the Hamburg police headquarters. To be on the safe side although we entered the building together we pretended to be strangers to each other. Teresa had a whole story prepared about her "Polish" past but it was insubstantial as she did not speak the language. On the other hand presenting herself as Hungarian or even German would make her presence in West Germany illegal without "Zuzuggenehmigung (sponsorship). If recognized as Polish she would be treated as a refugee and left alone. Poles were granted the right to be so recognized. However, after losing the war a German policeman yet had the right to decide whether they would let us stay or throw us in jail for half a year for illegally crossing their borders - all that by the authority of our Allies.
After being registered at the desk we were called separately for the interview. The plain-clothes officer dealing with me had me repeat my story - which was true with minor changes - a number of times trying to trip me on details. I was photographed in at least six different poses, fingerprinted and finally left alone to wait. All this took about four hours and all that time I did not know how Teresa was doing. Finally the duty officer at the desk called me and gave me a small piece of paper with the stamp of the Criminal Police in Hamburg and the print of my index finger . The German text on it pronounced that I was not sought by the criminal police. The duty officer told me that I could leave. Turning on my way out I asked him matter-of-factly what had happened to the young woman who had been there when I came in that morning. "Oh, she is held over " said the unsuspecting policeman.
I returned to the camp saddened and with a feeling of failure: sorry for the girl and for Gruenberg, disappointed that all the long hours of danger had ended in disaster for Teresa leaving me with the bad taste of a botched task. I should have trusted my gut feeling and stayed away from the police. They must have received an all points dispatch about a missing teenage girl and probably recognized Teresa from the description. Her posing as a twenty year old and Polish probably had not deceived them. She would surely be sent back to her aunt who would make sure that Gruenberg never saw her again. Of one thing I was certain, that she would not betray Raciborski and myself.
To my astonishment and delight, early next morning Teresa arrived at Raciborski's apartment as if nothing had happened. My suspicions about her being sought as a missing underage girl were right. She was recognized and, being female, was not kept in the police lock-up until her return to Berlin but put into the custody of nuns in a nearby convent. She spent the night there, without much difficulty outsmarted the nuns in the morning, and here she was.
Some quick decisions had to be taken. Teresa was now a fugitive from both, the East and West German police and could not stay here because Raciborski could be arrested for harboring a fugitive from justice. I had no way to care for her and even if I could it would be only a matter of days before we were caught. Considering all that, I decided to send Teresa back to Berlin the same way we had arrived and without the help of police. They certainly would not look for her there. Raciborski who was far from well off offered to pay Teresa's fare back to Hannover. By a lucky coincidence the next day was Wednesday, the day when our friendly smuggler would make his Berlin run. I escorted Teresa to the Hamburg terminal for the night train, keeping as far as possible to poorly lit areas, and bought the ticket for her. She had a paper bag with sandwiches and was bundled up against the cold and curious police eyes. I instructed her to find our smuggler at the little plaza in Hannover and ask him to take her to Berlin, assuring him that he would be paid there by Gruenberg. I regretted having to send the girl alone, but counted on the professionalism and compassion of the smuggler. Little though I had known him, he impressed me as dependable. And Teresa was a smart and tough kid though now, saying good-bye, she had a few tears running down her pretty face.
I stayed with Raciborski for the next few days until the arrival of my documents mailed to me by Janek from Berlin. With them was a short note that Teresa had arrived there without a hitch. That took a heavy load off my mind. After exploring my situation with Raciborski I decided to travel to the town of Osnabrueck, also in the British Zone, which seemed to be the command center of the British occupation forces. Apparently, attached to the British military in Osnabrueck there were paramilitary units called "Labour Companies" (probably to avoid political complications) formed exclusively of Polish men and officers, those who were freed in 1945 from German POW camps or forced labor. The members of those companies wore uniforms similar to the British but dyed black, were armed and their "labour" consisted of guarding military objects. Of course while planning to go to Osnabrueck I did not know all this except for the little that Raciborski could tell me, but it seemed that there could be a chance for employment and a place to stay. Civilian opportunities for employment were nonexistent even if I had Zuzuggenehmigung; there were hundreds of thousands of refugees in West Germany. I was also not eligible for any DP camp and the only flicker of hope seemed to be in Osnabrueck. Raciborski somehow obtained a free train ticket for me plus a small bundle of warm underwear and socks from the camp store and bade me luck. I promised to stay in touch when and if I had a fixed address.
I arrived at Osnabrueck in the morning. Without any trouble I found the barracks of the Labour Company. There was a Union Jack over the gate but the guard was a Pole. He admitted me when I stated that I wanted to enlist and passed me to a sergeant who first took me to the mess hall for a meal. It was Sunday so nothing could be arranged officially till Monday but I could stay overnight. There were a few others, still without uniforms but already accepted, so nobody paid any attention to my civilian clothes. On Monday morning the duty officer asked for my documents but when he realized that I had not come from any of the DP camps but from Berlin he asked me if I had Zuzuggenehmigung. Of course I did not. "Sorry", the duty officer said, "you can not be accepted; such are our regulations".
I found myself on the street again with my little bundle of warm underwear. I really did not know what to do. I had the address of the older man we had met in Berlin, who had taken us, hungry as we were, for a coffee and tried to extract information from us. However I was very uneasy about meeting him again notwithstanding the fact that I was penniless and his place of business in the town of Minden was about eighty kilometers away. While walking aimlessly and deliberating on what to do next I remembered that someone in the barracks had given me a Polish bi-weekly which was published right there in Osnabrueck so I decided to visit the editors in their office. Perhaps they would have some advice for me. The town was not very large and I found the place without much difficulty.
There were two of them: the whole editorial and publishing staff of the "Wiadomosci Polskie" (Polish News) crowded into a small room which also served as their living quarters. Both of them looked as if they were nourished more by the idea of supplying a written word to their countrymen here than by ordinary food. To discard free room and board in the camp for that thankless mission bordered on real heroism, but then some of us "do not live by bread alone". They wanted to feed me but I managed to convince them that I had just had a meal. We spent a few hours talking. I learned quite a lot from them about the situation in West Germany. They were well informed and quite interesting fellows. They did not mention it but I had the impression that they had been rejected from emigration because of their health. I asked them if they knew anything about my acquaintance from the Berlin café. Yes they knew about him and a few others there. They were former Polish intelligence officers from England who could not safely return after the war to Poland and were making their living working for the British. My new friends advised me not to get involved with them, but when I fully explained my situation to them they agreed I had little choice. When well into the afternoon I wanted to leave they searched their pockets and managed to find two marks which they offered me apologizing that they had no more at the moment. When I refused to take it knowing how badly off they were they insisted saying they had a roof over their heads for now while I had none.
At the kiosk where they sold home made
cigarettes near the railway station, I offered the bundle of new
underwear from Raciborski to the salesman for five marks. He paid without
checking and I had enough to pay the fare to Minden (Westfalen) where my
Berlin acquaintance and his friends had their shop.