PASSAGE WESTWARD – Part One
Because during the German occupation Polish children were not supposed to go to school beyond forth grade the secondary school I attended with interruptions from 1941 to 1944 was run as an underground operation. We learned in small groups that met with the teacher at different homes every day. I liked the lady with thick glasses who taught us German and although I never felt at ease using the language, because I hated everything German, I actually did quite well in her class.
My mother during her secondary education like most other girls of her generation learned French but because at her home they spoke Yiddish which was very much like German she could also speak German quite well after she had worked very hard , as she told me, to lose her Jewish accent while she spoke it.
At the time when the Second World War in the Europe was over on May 7th, 1945, Elba River which separated the American and the Soviet zones of Germany was just forty kilometers from the P.O.W. camp to which mother and I were taken at the end of the Warsaw Uprising in October of 1944.
Our camp was liberated by the Soviet Army. My memories attached to my first glimpse at the Mongolian looking soldiers attached to their horses will always remain with me as a picture of victory and of terror at the same time. These soldiers did not expect garlands of flowers. The spoils of their victory was the rape and carnage which they caused to the civilian population as they proceeded West. The women in our camp were constantly being made aware of the dangers outside and told not to leave until our transport to Poland arrived within a few days. We did however leave during the night of May 18th, with a group of people who like us decided to Go West. We were not giving up our beloved Poland with which so much connected us, but in fact were running away from a possible labor camp in Siberia and embracing freedom. The farm cart which mother, along with a few others, hired stopped in the woods a few yards from the bridge which loomed over the Elba river and within minutes we found ourselves faced by a female Russian soldier who was guarding the entrance to it. My mother showed her a paper which stated that she was French and was going home to Paris and then covered her with an avalanche of French words while pointing at me and gesturing that I was a deaf mute. The woman looked at me with pity and let us through. On the other side of the bridge was the City of Leiptzig and the American zone of Germany. While in camp one of our co- prisoners who spoke what he called Kings English gave me English lessons and now it was my turn to show my mother how well I learned. The American soldier who mother told me to ask for directions listened to me and in a language with a strange accent I did not recognize as English tried to tell me which way to go. I did not understand a word he said which made my mother very angry at me although I tried to tell her that what I was learning was Kings English which evidently the American Soldiers did not speak. Luckily a bus which had the letters UNRA written on it took us and many other people like us to a facility filled with Displaced People in short DPs like us. I looked out of the bus window at the city of Leiptzig and wandered how this new adventure was going to end. I knew that we were now Displaced People who with every kilometer West were becoming more and more Displayced as very soon we were going to discover that going West was definitely in the wrong direction for people like us who were supposed to go East. But I also knew that the war was over and that the years when we were marked for extinction just because we were considered Jewish were over too. No matter how this new adventure will end my mother and I have at this point won the battles for our lives and successfully, against all ends survived the hell of the Second World War.
The next day after sleeping on mattresses on the floor in a very large room we were given breakfast and Mother speaking in her best French with myself trailing her and being very silent asked, where were the busses, which took people to Paris where her nephew was waiting for our arrival.
The large bus with the words France on it was welcoming passengers when we entered it and sat down in the back hoping not to be noticed.
Alas we were. A man who entered the bus and went from person to person speaking to them in French after a few words with my mother knew that we were not French. Politely he told us to leave, go back to the center and wait for a bus to Poland. When he spotted us again the next day in another bus with the word France on it, he was not quite as polite, and the third time, a day later, his anger was very visible when with his teeth clenched he almost screamed POLAND and personally escorted us from the bus to France to the bus to Poland. I had to go to the restroom in a hurry and so on my return we watched with mixed feelings our landsmen quite happy in a bus going East. It was a lovely spring day and we or rather I decided to sit down on a bench under a flowering tree, as far away from our French enemy as possible. We wondered what to do next. Mother was beginning to waiver and while I began to intensively rub my Gold Key. She begun to question if perhaps we should not really be on that Polish Bus with all the happy people and even said that perhaps Siberia was not as cold as we imagined. I was tired of pretending to be a deaf-mute but told her that I will not let her have my Gold Key to help her heat our Siberia home no matter what. As usual when there was time I took out my small sketch pad and begun to draw a picture of a very blond boy about thirteen who sat very quietly next to his mother on a bench across from us.
When the little sketch was finished the mother asked me for it and delighted with it thanked me in German and begun to talk to my mother. When she heard and understood our dilemma she looked at my mother and said. I will help you, you can go West with us to Holland and then go to your nephew in Paris. Of course my mother’s first words were: But we don’t speak Dutch to which our new friend said with a smile which lit our entire world, “you will and we will teach you how”. If you speak German, you will speak Dutch.
The next few hours the four of us , since her son Hans joined gleefully in the game, we spoke German using as many words which begun with a G as we knew and then simply by using our throat changing the G sound to a very throaty H sound we spoke what seemed to us perfect Dutch. And so GUT MORGEN BECAME HUT MORGHEN and we were on our way. Our new friend told us her story which became anchored in our memory immediately since from then on it became our story as well. Den Haig where the family lived before the war was heavily bombed by the Germans and one of the bombs fell on their house. Her husband was killed and her apartment completely destroyed. After finding shelter with relatives for a few months, she decided to go to Germany with her son and get a job there as a domestic helper. Mother wrote down the address of her bombed home and we became completely Dutch. My throat was a bit sore from all the H sounds but it was so much better than pretending to be a deaf-mute.
The next day after breakfast, staying as far as possible from the French buses we followed our new friends to a bus which said Holland on it. We boarded after them and when the controller came in we greeted him with the most hearty and throaty HUT MORGEN anyone has ever heard. The bus took us to a train station which although partly in shambles had a passenger train standing on its trucks waiting for us. The journey through Germany took five days because many of the rails were destroyed. We bypassed the large cities and the window of the train which I hardly ever left during the entire five days framed mostly villages of white houses with red roofs surrounded by the greenest and neatest fields I have ever seen. My new friend Hans had a map of Germany and we knew more o less where we were.
I was sorry to see our friends leave the train in in a Dutch City on the way, where they had relatives and Mother and I stayed on it until we reached Amsterdam.
There at the station when examined by an officer in charge we still spoke, I think out of habit mainly, our very throaty German and were stopped dead in our trucks and pronounced officially that we were German Spays. The next night of our Passage West was spent in an Amsterdam jail where we were fingerprinted and put into a cell for the night. My mother was very upset but I remember being more excited than upset. In my mind this was just a beginning of a new adventure and since my sixteenth birthday was to be the next day I thought that spending it in jail would be, to say the least different.