march to Captivity
October 5, 1944
All night long the billets were a hive of industry. Alexander gave instructions for the men to parade at 3 a.m. and although I pulled his leg for this excess of caution, it turned out that he'd been right after all. There was still a great deal to be done.
The men's pay has been a nuisance, for part of the money is in banknotes of 20, 50 and even 100 dollars. It's easy enough to find a couple of friends who take their pay in common in the form of a single note, and even a few groups of five men, who take one of the 50-dollar notes between them. But we had to try to change the 100-dollar notes somewhere and Lieutenant Wit, of No. 5 Company, offered to get it done by a money-changer he knew. So he took 100 dollars – and that was the last we saw of him.
Fortunately, we were able to make good this loss, since nearly a dozen women and as many men whose names appear in the nominal roll had, in fact, left the battalion before the pay was issued. In some cases, too, men were listed twice, both in the unit to which they belonged according to the records and also in the unit where they last served. In fact, there was enough money to pay everyone, and we also had a few dollars over. We split this money up between the hospital and the women, as a kind of social fund.
There was still the last job to do, and we set about burying all our papers in a metal box--all the orders, reports, sets of publications, records, photographs and maps, plans, drawings, identity papers and documents. Only four people apart from me know where these archives are buried, and afterwards the ground was well smoothed over and all traces removed and concealed.
The companies were late in turning up on parade. The chap-lain wanted to say something to the men before the march-out, so I drew the battalion up in fours in Zelazna Street. This was the first time the whole battalion had been on parade together, and many of the men were seeing each other for the first time in their lives. They looked well, all wearing similar dark-blue uniforms.
The priest spoke of suffering, sacrifice and of the dead, and told us we must make our, peace with God, for none of us know what is in store. The men listened attentively. Then the priest said a prayer for the dead, the men knelt and repeated the words after him. He gave them his blessing and gave general absolution. The men rose. There were no tears. Each man stared in front of him, his face set and hard.
The priest intoned the words of a hymn: “Land of our fathers …”
Four hundred voices caught up the words and continued. The singing was like a challenge. Defeated men could not have sung like this.
We went to Grzybowska Street, feeling we had to say good-bye to ‘our' street, and as we stood in front of No. 17 a little crowd of people gathered on the pavements, their faces well known to all of us. I dismissed the men for a quarter of an hour, as nearly everyone has someone near to them here, either alive or buried in the ruins. Now and then someone would crouch over a grave and collect a little of the earth in a tin box or little bottle. Soon it was half-past ten, and we should have marched out at nine. The companies fell in again in fours.
“Battalion! Forward march!”
The orders rang out, the companies moved forward one by one, keeping step and marching firmly. People on both sides of the street stumbled along the shattered pavements, keeping up with us as far as the corner of Ciepla Street.
“Felek, take these gloves with you!”
“I don't need them! You keep them!”
“Take care of Mietek!”
“Don't worry, Mother. We'll be back by Christmas!”
“Come back to us! Come back soon!”
Beyond Ciepla Street we were in no-man's-land. The houses on both sides had been burned out down to the ground.
“Look, that's where 'Proboszcz' was killed ...”
“And 'Miecz' there. . . . That's the window we fired at the gendarmes from.”
From the crossing of Grzybowska and Zelazna Streets, we could see in the distance a group of German officers and among them was Colonel Pawel, the C.O. of our regiment, a tall erect man wearing a long officer's great-coat. I'd only seen him once before, but recognised him at once by his thick moustache. I halted the battalion and went up to him, pretending not to notice the Germans.
“The and Battalion of the ‘Chrobry II’ group on parade, sir! Our strength is 42 officers, 335 other ranks and 79 women.”
“You're almost two hours late, Captain. You're the last and we've been waiting just for you for an hour. The Germans were very worried, as they suspected that your battalion wasn't coming out at all. Why are you so late?”
“There's no reason just that we weren't in a hurry to go into captivity, sir.”
I seemed to catch a glimpse of something like a smile in his eyes. Then it disappeared in a stern frown as he translated my reply for the benefit of the Germans and read aloud our strength return which I handed him on a scrap of paper.
“You will now march your battalion along Zelazna Street to Chlodna Street.”
We moved forward into an alley full of German positions. Lieutenant Czarnecki was marching a pace behind me, to the left. As he had a Polish uniform and great-coat, Wislanski had told him to act as my adjutant today, for appearances' sake. We were followed by the rest of the officers, formed up in fours. Then came Alexander at the head of No. 4 Company, followed by the women's unit; behind them was No. 5 Company, and No. 6 Company brought up the rear. Although heavily burdened, all the units looked fine. They marched in step, their heads up, keeping level. Nobody would have believed that at least half of these men were sick or wounded, and that many of them were marching in a column for the first time. What amazed me most was the number of weapons. I'd no idea that we had so many.
Germans in uniform hastily set up cameras, and got in our way as they took pictures of us from the rear, from above and all round, and filmed the scene. Some of the German officers saluted as I passed; later on they'd be able to show the world how ‘cultured' they are. I passed them as though they weren't there. Each of us wanted to make it clear to them that as far as we were concerned they simply didn't exist.
All the time we were marching among total ruins and burned-out buildings, in which there was no sign at all of life, not even a blade of grass. Just before Kerceli Square we caught up with the unit which had marched out an hour before us, and there was a hold-up; they were handing over their arms. We formed a single file. Tables had been placed in the centre of the square, and as we passed we had to hand over our arms to German soldiers. I handed over two revolvers, and went on, still wearing my sabre. The Germans saw it but did not stop me. Then we crossed to the far side of the square and went back into Wolska Street.
From here I could see No. 4 Company moving along in the other direction. They still had their weapons. They were looking across at me, pointing out something to each other, and it was easy enough to guess that they were all looking at my sabre. Some of the lads raised their clenched fists in my direction, as a signal of satisfaction.
My useless, out-dated sabre had become a symbol now that we'd laid down our arms. But what was it a symbol of? Merely that the enemy would keep to their agreement? Or that all is not lost and that we are, after all, taking away something with us from Warsaw in addition to the bundles of belongings slung over our shoulders?
But I didn't try to define it. If indeed it meant anything to the men, then they should all see it. When I reached Wolska Street, two companies were still in Chlodna Street, and, before turning to the right, I went out into the middle of the road, and stood facing these companies, and the city, and drew the sabre from its scabbard and with it saluted the Warsaw we had left behind us.
Clouds of brown smoke were rising above the ruins, and we could hear artillery thundering across the Vistula. A half-hearted artillery duel between the two armies of oppression was still going on.
We went farther along a track that had been cleared of rubble and which used to be one of the main streets of Warsaw, with its million inhabitants. Here there were no more positions manned by Germans armed to the teeth. Each of our companies was escorted by a few wretched looking Wehrmacht soldiers, with their rifles carelessly slung over their shoulders.
Then we passed through the suburb of Wola: to the right were great fields of little white crosses, standing close together and strewn with fresh sand. This was the burial-ground of the Germans killed in Warsaw, and there were thousands upon thousands of them. It made me think of Verdun.
We left the ruins behind, and an asphalt road led out across the fields. Here the air was fresh, there was the smell of wet rye-fields and newly-dug earth in the potato-fields. I stood aside to see how the men were standing up to the long march. I could see by the way the veins stood out in their throats and temples, and by their parched lips and shoulders bowed under the weight of their packs, that they were tired. They were no longer keeping step, some were limping, but nobody was falling behind.
“Is it much farther, sir?”
“We ought to be there in an hour. Can you hold out?' `We've got to.”
The girls were mostly carrying heavier packs than the lads, and they looked like over-burdened camels, but they were keeping step. That was the way they wanted it.
“Sir, may we sing?”
“If you can.”
One of the girls up in front gave the signal and they all started: “Oh the wind blows wild …”
The German escorts looked round anxiously, and glanced at each other. Obviously they'd had no instructions about singing. Lorries full of people drove past. Someone shouted to us from one of them, and I recognised ‘our' Spaniards, waving like mad. “Long live Poland! Long live Freedom!” they shouted in Polish, unconcerned by our escort of Germans.
We passed through a little hamlet. Women came running out of their gardens, broke into our ranks and handed out apples and tomatoes and carrots to the men. Barefoot children, driven back time and again by rifle-butts, kept running up again with buckets of water.
An old man, leaning on a stick, took off his cap as we passed, and an old woman made the sign of the cross in the air.
Then to the left and below us we saw railway lines which disappeared farther away amidst the white walls of a big factory. This was Ozarow.
Here, in the big factory workshops, thousands of soldiers were lying on the cement floor which had been thinly strewn with straw. It was difficult to squeeze between them. Hundreds of new arrivals kept pushing through the single open doorway. Men with dysentery were unable to get out, and there was the stench of blood-soaked bandages, festering wounds and sweating feet.
Part of the space was marked off for the women and I made my way over to them in order to say good-bye to Barbara, my wife, as we were to be separated for the journey into Germany next morning. I found our girls crushed together in a corner.
“Do something, Lech!” Jasia begged. “We're suffocating.”
“The stench is unbearable,” Ola said calmly.
Franciszka, smiling cheerfully, was squatting on a suit-case. “Don't let it bother you,” she said. “Think about something else! Try to think about the sun shining somewhere a long way away …”