"Surrealistic scene from a Fellini movie"


I really donít remember very much, just snippets of events and vague mental pictures of places, people and times. I am not sure whether what I now think I remember is true memory or memory of stories that have been told probably many times over. But nevertheless this is what I now "remember".

Till recently Poznan was to me a town on a map. I have only a slight recollection of the street or the house where we lived. A tall building with a balcony overlooking a busy street. I do remember looking from our balcony at soldiers marching past. I presume these were German occupying forces. The shops, schools, churches, friends, enemies may not have existed as far as my memory goes. So this "nothing" of the past, so to speak, makes me feel that my life really started when we were leaving Poznan in January 1945. The date of course is hearsay.

As a lead in I set the scene from what I have learned over the years about events that were taking place.

A family of five. Mama, Roman, Alina, Andrzej and myself. My father had been executed by the Germans when I was only a baby so I have no recollection of him at all. We lived in a flat in Poznan with the German occupation in full swing.

But the tide was turning for the Germans and they themselves were becoming more and more the victims and, in their turn, sufferers of the war. The Russian Army has advanced and occupied- some say liberated- much of Poland and Poznan was on their route to Berlin. Whenever armies pass there is the now historically and well-rehearsed choice of options that people have instinctively learned. Stay and hope to survive with the new conqueror or run and hope to survive in a new alien place. To paraphrase the historian- "The Devilís Alternative in the Devilís Playground."

So Mama made the decision to stay and we prepared for the approach of the Russians. I remember the distant sound of their artillery like thunder in the far distance. This distance could not have been far.

In the cellar of our house is where my memory really starts.

I have a faint recollection of the cellar in which we were to hide. I remember that it was long and narrow. Things stacked on either side. I donít know what. We obviously did not stay there, as otherwise I would probably not be here to tell the tale. The story goes that on the spur of the moment Mama decided to leave Poznan and obviously we did. I was told much later on that during the first shelling that Poznan endured our house was hit and completely destroyed. We would certainly have been buried beneath the rubble in the cellar. We found out sometime later after the war that my uncle with his family had in fact held a memorial service for us. It was only after the end of the war that the building rubble was cleared and no sign of us was discovered. Close shave!

Anyway, we left Poznan. It was during winter and snow was on the ground. I was pulled on a sledge to the railway station and know that I cried when my sledge was left behind at some stage tied to the back of a railway carriage. The sledge would have been useless without snow and I am sure that in such circumstances superfluous things would not have been taken from the house. The journey was in a crowded train and I was pressed against a carriage window. I was eating the frozen condensation from the windows so it must have been very hot and stuffy inside and freezing outside. I remember someone taking this off the windows and giving it to me.

I do not know how long and how we travelled but eventually we arrived at Altenburg. I would not have remembered the name, this must have been told to me, but I do know that here we stayed in a castle. There was a large courtyard - cobbled and steeply sloping. There was a sandpit where I with other children used to play. Once when some children were playing there a plane buzzed it and fired at us. I donít think anyone got hurt - it seemed like a game to me at the time - a very exciting event to see a plane so close.

Another incident was when Roman and I were helping an old lady with a cart full of firewood. Roman was pulling and I was pushing this handcart up the hill in the courtyard. I suddenly without any reason fell to the ground. I donít think I tripped. At that moment in front of Roman a piece of shrapnel hit the ground and made a big hole throwing cobblestones up into the air like an explosion.

The air raids were frequent. These were announced on the radio. I remember hearing the words "Achtung, Achtung,....something or other... Hanover und Brunsweig...... " obviously frequently mentioned to make me remember. How we had access to a radio is now perplexing. Perhaps it was through public address speakers? We used to go into a shelter with many other people who lived in the castle. A long flight of stairs is what stays in my mind.

Once we overslept an air raid warning and we were woken by Mama with the bombs already exploding all around us. We could not get across the courtyard to the shelter so we went down to a small cellar below the building where we were staying. Roman was half-asleep and I remember we were all in a panic till Mama suddenly started laughing. She was looking at Roman who was very calmly and methodically lacing up his boots each eye at a time very slowly and carefully.

I frequently saw masses of bombers flying over the castle. They filled the sky and I can still vividly imagine to this day the drone of the engines. These I now know were American planes on their way to Dresden in their 1000 bomber raids.

One day Andrzej returned to the castle, from town I presume, with a crate of chocolate, which he said he got from the American soldiers. This of course meant that the Americans had taken the town. I however remember only the chocolates. They were in round tin boxes.

After Altenburg the next place I recollect is Wetzlar. Of course I didnít remember the name of the place but I remember it as a large camp. The buildings were all in a row built of brick each three or four storeys high. I think we all stayed as a family in one room.

I think it was here that I remember getting a hiding for selling my grandfathers watch.

There was a wooden slide built for the children and I managed to get a very large splinter in my backside from this. I think it was here that I badly cut my finger on some kind of trolley that we were playing around with. It was being pulled around by a rope that was attached to a handle of the trolley by a hook. I was holding on to the same handle and the hook slipped along and cut my nail. To this day the nail has still got a split in it which in spite of the growing nail has not disappeared. Its not surprising that such a memory would stay so vividly with me.

We obviously stayed in Germany for quite some time but I have no recollection of any sense of time or any chronological sequence of events.

In one place, a crowded room, I opened a cupboard or a room door and a ski or ski stick, which had been leaning against the wall, fell and cut my forehead. I remember actually seeing this stick falling and not being able to move out of the way. I have a scar to prove it.

There was a man I remember who had a black car. I think it was like a Citroen- the type that Inspector Maigret used. This was the first car I remember ever riding in. Once he sat me down on his lap and he let me steer it. He was a soldier as I remember his uniform.

I recollect a strong smell of a mixture of oil and dampness in garages or workshops. Maybe from travelling in trucks I donít know but I can imagine this smell plainly and very distinctively even now.

The visits to Dziadek and Babcia I remember but cannot recollect the house or anything about the place. They were not living with us then.

There was the trip in a lorry over mountains. This was Austria. We were being transported to Italy and Andrzej and I were told to hide under blankets in the lorry at a checkpoint, probably the border post. I do remember peeping out to see what was happening and seeing everyone else lined up as at a parade. They were all in uniforms.

We went into Italy. Again the time scale is missing from memory. Trani was the next place where some recollections come to me.

I was being taken to school, to my recollection for the first time in my life. I was screaming as I did not want to be left behind by Mama. A long empty echoing corridor with Mama, a nun and myself only. I remember hearing Mamaís footsteps echoing as she walked away along the corridor while the nun held me. This is all like a surrealistic scene from a Fellini movie. I was left there very small and alone.

This was a large house with a garden with a vineyard. There was a fountain. I remember hiding in bushes and eating the grapes.

The stubbing of my toes on stones was a frequent occurrence and obviously painful as this sticks in my mind quite plainly. I must have been running around in bare feet and, not being used to it, kept tripping.

I have a vivid taste memory of the ice cream there- again obviously a very strong impression. A delicious taste that I have not had since or at least not recognised. I also tasted "burnt" ice cream. This was being made in some kitchen by some ladies. I remember them standing there stirring this large pot which was to be the ice cream. I could not understand how frozen ice cream could have a burnt flavour. Burnt milk of course.

Then there is a virtual blank till Lanark in Scotland. I know that we had to travel but do not recall any events at all. I know that we stayed in Kirkby near Liverpool in a camp. Again brick built three or four storey barrack type buildings. I went to the first English school there.

In Lanark, Scotland, and this name I think I actually remember, we stayed in a boarding school. It was winter and very cold. I am sure that I had previously been very cold but this is the first time I actually remember being cold. The place had gas lighting with its own gas producing plant in some outhouse. The smell was awful as I remember being in the room where the plant was. Someone was mending it and the smell was awful.

In due course we arrived in Edinburgh and here things start taking some form of coherent form. But thatís a less interesting story.

From the time of Austria to Edinburgh I cannot recollect any event where Roman, Alina or Andrzej figured in any way. Strange? We were always together as far as I am aware yet nowhere can I fit any of them into any picture or event. Perhaps during that time we each were more and more inclined to be doing our own things.