FAREWELL TO EUROPE
At Ludwigsburg, after registering at the IRO offices we were assigned our lodgings in a huge building, once probably a school, now converted to a shelter for people being processed for emigration. The former classrooms were subdivided into smaller compartments each housing six to eight people who slept on multilevel bunk beds. To exit onto the corridor one had to pass through two or three other rooms. Each floor had common toilets and washrooms. The only private place was the assigned bunk. It was a truly international center; in a single room one could hear five different languages spoken simultaneously. Men and women were housed on different floors however and, because there were a considerable number of families, during the day there were many women and children visiting the men's quarters. Some of the women would also stay overnight which was forbidden but no one enforced the regulation. To keep the place in order was everyone’s obligation; however in each room there was usually some older fellow who for a small shared monetary consideration would keep the room clean and free from thieves. Once every few days each of the inhabitants had to serve in the kitchen peeling potatoes, washing pots and pans and the like. The huge dining room was on the ground floor and everyone received three meals daily. There were very limited laundry facilities. When Janek and I tried washing our black uniform shirts with our whites the resulting mess was clean but of different shades of black.
According to the existing American regulations, as civilian laborers discharged from the service, we had automatically become wards of the German Economy and therefore were entitled to receive the unemployment benefit. This was not much but it helped pay for necessities. On the other hand one was obliged to take any job that the employment office may assign. It happened that I was sent to a construction company about a week before leaving for Canada, however when I explained the circumstances to my prospective employer he refused to employ me on the grounds that I was not qualified for the job.
Christmas that year passed practically unnoticed; we had arrived in Ludwigsburg only two days earlier and were in the process of settling into our new lodgings. The loneliness only hit me with full force on the eve of the New Year. We were alone in our little room; all the others had departed, probably to visit friends or families. We had no place to go, although Janek had an invitation to spend the evening with someone he knew whose sister had a room in town, but he did not feel like going. I felt downhearted, a rare condition for me, and kept to my bunk. Late in the evening Janek went out to try to buy something to drink. A small radio belonging to one of our roommates had been left on the table. I came down from my bunk and idly switched it on, playing with the dials at first casually and then with increasing and almost feverish haste. The night of New Year's eve is always full of so many sounds and I was almost ready to give up when.... from far away came... the silvery tune of the midnight bugle-call from the tower of St Mary's Church in Kraków. For a fleeting moment, a few dozen heartbeats ... before Tartar's arrow punctured the bugler's throat...I was home...* Janek returned late and in bad humor because he had had to walk quite a distance to the railway terminal to buy a bottle of what was supposed to be slivovitz, but it tasted so awful that we poured it down the drain.
Right after the New Year we started spending our days in the waiting rooms of various emigration offices hoping to be processed so we could progress to another waiting room for the next step. It was a long process of elimination, a market principle of demand and supply applied to a mass of often desperate people. There was a shrinking demand for immigrants, yet displaced persons were being dumped from the camps they had been living in for the last five years, into a German Economy which was struggling to feed its own people. The countries which were still taking immigrants had become increasingly selective: Australia was interested only in young families, the United States would accept only people who were in Germany by the end of 1945 and who were sponsored by private citizens or charitable organizations and Canada would only take sponsored family members or those able to work in gold mines or lumber jacking. Janek and I could only fit the Canadian requirements but everything depended on the eventual arrival of a government agent or "buyer" with the list of required manpower.
Luckily for us the Canadian buyer arrived and after the preliminary IRO processing including medical assessments and days spent in waiting rooms, each of us was admitted into his presence. The scene was reminiscent of a market where horses are traded, except that one cannot request a horse to demonstrate sit-ups, push-ups or other physical tests; the standard checks of eyes, nose, ears, and teeth were identical. A horse, after examination usually receives a friendly slap on its behind, however we were spared similar signs of affection. If it had not been for my dentist friends in Frankfurt I would never have passed the dental assessment. Anyone found physically fit also had to pass other mental and character evaluations while answering the, sometimes tricky, questions of the Canadian emigration officer. A person could be asked about his country of origin which many often confused with their ethnic origin, and if he persisted in his error after explanation, he could be rejected.** Many people were rejected for exaggerating their level of education and subsequently failing a mathematical test which at their declared standard they should easily have passed. The emigration officials working there were very competent in European affairs but did not tolerate any attempt to cheat. The tragedy was that once a person had been rejected by one country's emigration department he would be rejected by all the others.
Finally, the last critical step: The Security
and Visa Officer. This officer was there to exclude political and criminal
undesirables. Being rejected by a security officer of one country also
closed access to all others. One of the tests of a person's good
behavior while in West Germany was his police, DP camp, or Labor
Company record for as far back as 1945 if applicable. It was an understandable
precaution by a receiving country to weed out people, many of whom while
living in the camps, with time on their hands, might have engaged in all
sorts of criminal behavior.
When it was my turn to face the security officer, after going through my papers, he asked me in German the inevitable question concerning my activities between February of 1950, the date of my certificate from the Hamburg criminal police until the end of May that same year when I enrolled in the Labor Company in Frankfurt am Main. Looking him straight in the eyes I told him that he could check that in room 272 Lancaster House in Berlin. He looked at me with sudden interest and then without a single word signed my visa for emigration to Canada. In that moment I felt a deep gratitude to my British friend in Berlin for giving me the password - an excellent example of the famous British "fair play".
In the first days of February 1951, almost exactly on my twenty sixth birthday, we were loaded on a special train and shipped towards the North Sea. After many hours we disembarked in the transit camp of Bremen-Tirpitz. This camp maintained by the IRO served to assemble the complement of passengers for the next available ship to North America. It was also a quarantine camp; anyone who during the two weeks of our stay there was found with even a minor cold had to wait for the next transport.
A few days before sailing a shipment of Polish refugees arrived from Sweden, where they had found a temporary refuge on their way to Canada. Most of them, like Janek and myself, were relatively fresh from Poland. We became friendly with some of them and cultivated that friendship in years to come. Our “German” group consisted mostly of Polish Jews, some Ukrainians and many south-eastern Slavs. Most of them were single men with a sprinkling of women and some families with children, in all nearly fifteen hundred people, the great majority of them on their way to the United States. On the day before our departure, those of us on the Canadian "buyer's" list were called to the office and given labor contracts to sign. The contracts were with the Canadian Government, obliging each of us to work for a year on any job to which we would be assigned for the wages that were proffered. The contract was written in English with accompanying German translation.
On February fourteenth, after a two hour train ride we disembarked in a tiny American harbor for military transports. At the wharf a large American transport ship USNS Gen. R.M. Blachfort was loading supplies. Anticipating only a minimal crew, while in Tirpitz we had been formed into three platoon size groups to help in running the ship and in keeping order among passengers. I commanded one group, Janek another and Maciek Szymanski, who arrived from Sweden with his wife, the third one. A number of women volunteered to work in the galley. Those of us who had volunteered to help were admitted on board first and shown to our assigned quarters after which we assisted with the embarkation of the rest of the passengers, especially the mothers with children. It took a few hours and there was much confusion and even cases of hysteria. Some people were sea-sick as soon as they stepped on board. The confusion lasted until bed time.
At dawn on February fifteenth I stood on
the deck of our ship and watched the land slowly disappearing into the
light morning mist. It was German soil, not Poland, but
nevertheless it was Europe, the continent which had bred and forged me
and on which I was leaving behind everybody and everything dear to me....
Further down the deck a solitary woman also stood watching while trying
to wipe the tears running down her face...
** A typical example of a person
originally from Yugoslavia insisting on being identified as a Croat.