Horodło, 17 June 1946
“Kom hiyer [Komm her], come here, du feel shlafen [viel schlafen], you sleep a lot,” said one German in broken Polish. “Kots arbayt [komm? Arbeit], bury comrades.” At every such call, I move slowly and stand up with a smile, thinking about burying as many of these comrades as possible because I enjoyed it. “A du alte vulf [Wolf?], machman krutsificks [machen? Kruzifix], make a cross!” he always said these words to my uncle. He led me to the SS graves under a hail of bullets, by the screaming of falling projectiles and the roaring of planes, where there were always a dozen or so dead SS-men, usually completely torn apart, soaked in their own blood, mud and dust. But there was not much work that day because there were only ten kilograms of body parts wrapped in a tent. It was 3 May 1944.
Later, I tidied up the room in the former fire station [which was to be used as] a room for the sanitary units. Finally I was allowed to leave. I have always been cheerful, but on that day I found myself totally humorless. I did not want to eat, I only walked anxiously up and down the house. Finally, I went to the room where my sister Zuzia was sitting and asked her to play the guitar for me.
I sat listening to my favorite tune until my uncle came to the door and asked me what I had been doing and how much I had earned. “Well, a little more than you uncle. As a result I probably earned a birchwood cross. Yes, as much as you uncle for sure. I don’t do it for money, God forbid, I do it honorably, as a Pole, meaning that I will do as much as they need – God grant me as much as possible, and perhaps we will be free soon.” “Well, it will have been with my help, too, let’s shake hands. As I can see, we will be made big names, and history will surely allow us to have our fair share, because we will be free” [sic!]. That was how my uncle and I joked, laughing and bragging.
But the conversation quickly turned down a different path. I told my uncle carefully and slowly that I had seen an order to the residents of the city posted on the street corner, written in Ukrainian, that the city should be evacuated within three days regardless of status, gender or age. The order said: “Civilians are to leave the city between 3 to 6 May 1944 and go to the Chełm station. Whoever remains will be subjected to the SS court.” Uncle paled, but I began to calm him down, saying that maybe I hadn’t understood. He calmed down a little and began to look for a cane to go and see for himself. Uncle has trouble with his heart.
The next day, everyone left the city with tears in their eyes, just like when they had left their own homesteads seven months earlier. They may or may not return, but they wanted to come back as soon as possible. And so a group of 60,000 exiles took to the road, escorted by the roar of distant shots. They moved along the road leading to the station where the train was supposed to be waiting. Yesterday this mass of people was businessmen, owners of beautiful houses, industrialists, clergymen, professors, today they are without a roof [over their heads] – heavy rain washed away all traces of their ownership – this mass of people waited for the train that would take them to a faraway land, into exile and maybe to death, because everything was expected from the Germans.
Night came. The May night was extremely cold. The water in the puddles and ditches remained after the rain, turning into ice. Mothers warmed their children with their own bodies. It might be their last night together. Here and there the Gestapo appear in the crowd – what do they want? Nobody knows. Knocking over baggage, they take husbands from their wives, sons from their mothers, brothers from their sisters without reason. What tragedy and despair in the night and the cold. Uncle aged so much during that one day that they did not take him, thinking that he was already an old man.
Now he came to find out what had happened to me. I am his favorite. At the beginning he asks: “What happened to Leszek?” In reply, he hears: “Quiet, quiet, he is hiding here in these packages.” Everyone fell silent, looking around to see if anyone in the family had actually been taken. But what a surprise – the train came and I was not in the packages. I came from a completely different direction a little while later. Horror was painted on my parents’ faces, and my uncle patted my shoulder saying, “Alright, you did well. I also think that that stuffy place is befitting only for cowards, not a Pole like you, you were right.” But my eyes met the stern eyes of my father, who graciously said, “son, you are due a spanking, but I will let you off. Remember that you must be an adult from now on.” Further discussion was interrupted by the cry: “Get on the train! Faster! We leave in an hour!” And in response, several projectiles flew over our heads, tearing through the air with a terrifying whistle, and fell behind the wagons on the tracks, cutting off the way into the city. Nearly everyone shook with terror, the whistle was repeated a moment later and two shrapnel broke above our heads, and the moaning of the dying and the wounded accompanied the explosion.
But nothing changed. Fresh masses of people were still coming in with packages and crowding into the wagons that were partly occupied already. I was in that hustle and bustle as well, carrying our packages without fear. But what is that! A Ukrainian stood in the door of the wagon we wanted to put our luggage in and began to throw the already loaded luggage away. Everything suddenly clouded over. “What are you doing here? Get out of here! These are our things.” “Here is a free car, here on the right, you can take that one,” and with that the package was violently thrown out. “Get him out of here!” a few voices grumbled and several pairs of hands grabbed the enemy by the hair and threw him down onto the tracks with a moan and a vulgar curse. After a short time, everything had been loaded into the car and we drove west.
And conversation started up once more. My father, stroking my head, said that hard times had come, and all because we were without a homeland, because Poles know only how to take and not how to keep. “So you, son, when you grow up – maybe fate will separate us, I am already old and sick, I will not stand wandering – you must be always prudent, do everything thoughtfully, not like you did today, coming out of hiding. You could have fallen into the hands of these enemies. Do not think that a hero is only someone who stands bravely on the ramparts, risking inevitable death. [He is] one who can [save and] preserve his [life] for [a future] time in which he might prove more useful. You could have died by their hands. Think about your weak mother, you know how she worries when you are sick or when you are away. You know how much it costs her health.”
Tears were in my eyes and I asked him not to talk about it anymore. I had to justify my actions. “Yes, dad, but I couldn’t stand it, it was so stuffy in there, and it doesn’t befit Poles [to hide like that], so I carefully stuck my head out and when I saw that no-one was looking at me, I stepped out and went to follow the German who was already departing. I returned when I was sure they were gone.” The train, having travelled a little way, now stood in a field and waited there until morning. It started to move again at sunrise, passing various places along the railway. Finally, we arrived at the main battlefield.
What a terrible sight we met! At a glance we saw hundreds of corpses lying in the field, torn apart in various ways, floating on water, on mud, hanging on poles. Their guts were half rotten. All eyes turned away in disgust at the sight. I couldn’t look at those half-burned, blackened and decaying corpses.
Flocks of cawing crows and ravens took to the air at the sight of a living man. The trees stood bare, for the most part only ragged trunks, like crosses on freshly-dug graves, dressed in green here and there. Here and there were broken tanks, burned-out planes and buses, large numbers of weapons and ammunition of various caliber hastily scattered along the lines of the trenches. The earth was torn up in various ways, it looked hideous. And the train flew by, passing everything.
After we had passed the battlefield, we looked calmly upon the blooming fields of grain and heard the lark singing above the head of a farmer working in the field, but the singing seemed sad and very distant on that day.