|"ONE TWO THREE FOUR and a SUITCASE"|
"All the rest were on a piece of string"
We were prepared to weather, so to speak, the advance of the Russian Forces. This was around Christmas time 1944.
It was obvious that the Russians were coming and that the Americans wouldnít make it because the Americans were too far into Czechoslovakia. We knew exactly what was going on. For example, we knew that the post from Warsaw had been broken. There were no letters from Warsaw although there had been letters early in the autumn. People talked to one another. It was obvious that the Russians were in Poland now. The question was how long it would take them- nobody knew exactly. The Germans were moving as well. There were many transports from the east, both military and civilian.
Mama decided to weather the storm in Poznan and she prepared everything downstairs in the cellar. We had a very big cellar in the house where we lived. We lived at 60 Glogauer Strasse, the German name. In Polish the name was Marszalka Focha Nr. 60 Flat 8. The street is now called "ulica Glogowska". All the Germans that were living in the house had already departed. These flats had been occupied by the Germans during the war. These were called "allocated flats". This was not our house, we were living in rented accommodation. One of the families that lived in the house before the war came back to live. Where they came from I donít know. I canít remember their name.
Anyway, Kazio Sikorski, our uncle, was to come to stay with us the day before. Mama went out of the house early that morning. She went to the station. This was about the 20th January, I canít be sure but it was certainly after Christmas. Mama went out to find out what was happening because one could already hear the Russian artillery in the distance. It was a hell of a distance away. It could not have been thunder as you donít have thunderstorms in winter. Anyway she went to town towards the station for some reason. She met this man Mr. Pospieszynski. He was a sort of orderly, so to speak, to dziadek (granddad) Wolkow where granddad was working at the station as a railway engineer.
Dziadek was no longer in Poznan. Iíve got no idea where he was but Babcia was with us. She was with us all the time.
Anyway this Mr. Pospieszynski met Mama and told her "Pani Sikorska, I think you should leave Poznan. There is this last train from Poznan to Pila. It will be going through Wronki. I know that you have friends in Wronki. I will reserve a compartment for you but you will have to arrange things quickly."
So Mama returned home at 5 or 6 oíclock in the morning and she said we are leaving. I donít know why she was up that early but she used to get these types of spur of the moment ideas. No apparent reason. She used to take decisions like this - completely opposite to what she was planning five minutes previously. In this case she was up because the artillery would have kept her awake. She went out to see what was going on.
When she came back she said that we are taking the suitcases which were always ready of course. Basic hand luggage as we used to call it. And off we go to Wronki.
Wronki is to the north west of Poznan. This wasnít far from Poznan, some 40 kilometres from Poznan. The train was going in that direction. But when the train left it travelled only a short distance in that direction and stopped and reversed back towards Poznan. It could not continue on its journey as the Soviet Forces were already at the River Warta in Obornik - some 30 kilometres away. So it went a short way from Poznan stopped and returned. It didnít return right into Poznan but bypassed. The trains usually had bypass routes for towns. It then took a direction for the west towards Frankfurt on the Oder. There was no way the train could have got to Pila as it could not by now have crossed the Warta. It was this Soviet artillery that we were hearing.
This was a small local train, three or four carriages stuck together, just chugging along. We had no tickets to anywhere or any travel passes, nothing official. We came to the station, Pospieszynski showed us where the train was, probably someone was given a bottle of vodka. We pushed into the carriage and that was it. There werenít many people, I donít think. There was Babcia with Mama and us four.
Anyway, the train headed for Frankfurt. We arrived at Frankfurt and that was the end of that part of the journey.
Here in Frankfurt there were terrific crowds. Like a football match. Worse than Victoria Station in rush hour. Frankfurt was a tremendously large and important railway junction. You had Szczecin, Berlin, Poznan, Wroclaw, Lipsk all linking in.
It was agreed, more or less...., - anyway Iíll digress a bit. Mama, Babcia, Ciocia Ola, Father when he was alive, other people who were concerned, Kazio,- we had agreed certain places which in case we got lost, besides the most obvious ones like our normal addresses, we would go and look for these people and for the family. There was a place in Geneva, a place in Berlin, a place in Altenburg and I think in Paris but Iím not sure- I donít remember. Those were the places in Europe. There was a place in Australia, and one in the States. I donít now remember the addresses. The people in Australia were called Taran. In Geneva was the Red Cross. In Berlin was Lampe. In Altenburg was Viera Konstantinowna - she was some relationship to the Tsar Nicholas. Her father was a witness at our grandparents wedding. They knew each other from way back in Russia pre revolution times. She was married to the Duke- Herzog of Sax-Coburg Altenburg. Anyway this is just some background - anyway our family knew these people well.
In Frankfurt I got lost at the station. Someone at the barrier wanted to have a look at my suitcase. Well I had the most important suitcase - it had all the food in it. This was some official in uniform- I donít know who- a railway official, Gestapo, Police,... I donít know. So I, in my well-learned manner, dashed into the crowd. The more people the better because nobody chased then. Well when I collected my senses of course Mama and the rest were no longer around. I had a lot of money with me so that was no problem. I had a lot of food which was no problem. So- I knew geography very well- I went to the railway timetable and said I wanted to go to Altenburg because it was the nearest of the meeting places. Sooner or later somebody would come and find me there. And there was a train for Coburg. So I went to that platform and there was Mama and the rest sitting there. Mama was very worried and was drinking a little snifter to calm herself down. Alina and all the rest were on a piece of string and an hour or so later the train left and we got to Altenburg.
This was a normal passenger train- we had to pay for tickets. The journey from Poznan to Frankfurt took about a day. This all happened in the one day. We would have been in Altenburg the following day. The Coburg journey was at night.
So we arrived in Altenburg and we got to the castle. How we got from the station to the castle I donít remember. I remember that the Duke wasnít there. He was away in the army.
The lady of the castle met us there. She was very apologetic because she couldnít give us any rooms because they had all been requisitioned. So we lived in a picture gallery. I slept on one of those Louis IVth couches, the type with very thin legs, underneath a large painting of somebody. The picture weighing about five tons in a frame about a foot wide. All the time in Altenburg we live in this picture gallery.
There were many other people staying in the castle. The castle grounds were probably as big as The Warren. There were cobblestones, there were ramparts, outbuildings. A tower and gate- a typical German castle.
During air raids we used to go to the cellars. These were so deep that no bombs could possibly get through. During many of the air raids we used to stand on the ramparts watching the planes go by going onto Dresden, Leipzig, Kemnitz. These were the most common targets. Altenburg was never bombed- not while we were there anyway.
Shortly after Easter - I think this was a Saturday after Easter- the town was covered with leaflets dropped from the Americans demanding surrender. They demanded that the mayor of the town light up the town at midnight or maybe two oíclock in the morning (either one or the other) which was a Sunday indicating that the army could enter unopposed. If no lights were lit then there would be bombardment of the town. There was no German army in the town by then. They had left a few days before. The "homeguard", consisting of children and invalids all in very poor physical condition with some guns were the only authority left.
A day before this happened someone had said that the German army stores are being opened so that people could get food. I donít know who said this but Babcia arrived with Andrzej and they had a box of cigars which she got from there. So Mama and I with Babcia and Andrzej went out there again but by the time we got there there were many people there already. I managed to get a box of liver sausages, Andrzej got a box of chocolates from somewhere and Babcia didnít get any more cigars. By the time we got back French prisoners of war had taken over command of this store. I knew they were French as they had French tricolour arm bands on. There must have been a French prisoner of war camp somewhere close by.
As the Americans had demanded the town was lit up a few minutes before the dead line. The next morning Mama and Alina went to town and the saw American tanks.
There were a few air dogfights which I saw. This was all happening two or three days around the liberation. During one of the dogfights there were many bullets on the street with everybody running into gates and doorways.
Then there is this incident in the sandpit with Marek and me. I remember that Marek was playing in the sandpit and I heard a whistle. I jumped on top of Marek and I had my head shaved at the back by some flying object. If I hadnít jumped on Marek he would have been cut in half. It was a small bomb which fell into the castle yard.
It took about ten days, probably less, before a camp was formally organised for all the displaced persons in Altenburg. These were military barracks. There were all sorts there- French, Poles, a lot of Polish prisoners of war mainly from the Warsaw uprising period, not the older generation proper army. There was also the French army, Ukrainians, Russians. This camp was virtually a transit camp because the Americans knew that that part of Germany would be handed over to Russia. To the Eastern Zone as they used to call it. It was a very small camp perhaps a few thousand people. Things were moving here very very very fast. I donít remember any schools or anything like that.
Very shortly after that there were transports organised. There were no transports from there to Poland. They were all going West and I think there were some to Yugoslavia. This was all happening in mid May 45.
We travelled by train in goods wagons- cattle trucks. Our transport was a purely Polish one I think and we went to Buchenwald. This was three weeks after the liberation of the camp. This was being used as a transit camp. There were still many people walking about in their striped prisoner uniforms. There were various liaison officers of many nationalities. The Americans were running the place as this was in the American Zone. There were certain areas that were out of bounds, mainly outside the camp where people said there were mass graves.
I saw the crematorium- the pits with fat in them which people said was used for making soap. I saw the medical museum. These were horrible sights.
We lived in a hut with two rows of bunkbeds on either side of an alleyway. The bunks were four high and I slept on the top. I am not sure whether Babcia was still with us. I think she must have been. But I donít know where and how we were separated.
We stayed here quite a short time.
From Buchenwald there were transports going to Poland and also West. It was somewhere here I think that a train was taken over by some Poles who wanted to take the train back to Poland. At one of the stops people started shooting because they wanted to change the transport to go back to Poland. They had guns and were standing on the roofs of the wagons. I donít remember what happened but the train did continue on its way to the West in the end.
On one of these trips we nearly lost Marek and Andrzej because they wouldnít listen. They used to get off when the train stopped and then jump on when the train started off again. One of the times they missed the wagon but managed to get on to another one further down the train and eventually Mama found them.
We arrived in Wetzlar at the end of May or beginning of June.
This camp was very well organised. It was run by UNRA (United Nations Relief Agency). These were army barracks. The camp was split into two- the Russian and the Polish camps. The Russian camp eventually disappeared- they were all sent back to Russia and this part expanded for the Poles. We had more room then and things became less crowded.
We had one room for the family. The size was about 8 X 10 ft. with bunk beds. The camp was well organised. It had a church, school, clubs, and sports facilities. I joined the scouts here. There were many army liaison officers running things. It was a proper community with everything there. We were there for about a year that means till June 46.
By this time Dziadek and Babcia were settled in Wiesbaden. I know we visited them there. It was possible to travel around although with difficulty. There were no personal restrictions on travel. We used to go on excursions to the Rhein. It was by now a fairly normal organised sort of life. People knew that they would not be in the camp forever and would eventually have to go somewhere. People emigrated, people arrived, and there was a movement of people.
We stayed in Wetzlar for about a year. It was a big camp, about 5000 I should think. There were many kids there and a large number of people in their late teens and early twenties, a lot from the Warsaw Uprising.
Shortly after arrival I contracted a horrible jaundice and I spent most of this time in hospital till after Christmas. At the same time Alina had diphtheria. Andrzej had something and Marek was put in hospital purely and simply to get him out of the way because Mama did not know what to do with him. The hospital was very large where unfortunately I had to spend a lot of my time.
I came out of the jaundice and by then the camp was well organised. After Christmas we all started schools. Marek went to the kindergarten, Andrzej and Alina to primary school- I donít know which classes- and I went to secondary school. Mama was doing some teaching in school, music I think. There was also a technical school where I remember particularly that many were being trained as draughtsmen.
In June 1946 Mama decided that we would be returning to Poland. Several transports were being organised by the camp authorities and she had decided to join one of them. We were all ready and packed. Mama would take months to pack and get ready although there was not much to pack. My suitcase was still about and we had bundles of stuff. A lot of things had been lost. A small pick-up car arrived to collect us. When we were already loaded up and ready to go Mama went to say goodbye to various people in the office. One of the persons she saw there was a Mr. Fikus who was an old friend of the family. He was a Polish Liaison Officer. She was surprised to see him wondering how he had got there. He asked about the children and she told him that we were ready loaded to go home to Poznan. He said to Mama that it would not be wise for us to go back and said that as we were loaded up he would arrange for the car to go to Murnau as he was going there too and could arrange some things for us. Murnau was a prisoner of war camp. There were a few of fatherís friends there who had still not been repatriated. He suggested that Mamaís intention of repatriation be discuss and considered.
We spent three of four days in Murnau. This little "conference" took place and they advised that it would be better if Mama went to Italy for a while. It was a delaying tactics- they all said that it is still not sure how things would develop so it was best to wait a while before making any decision to return to Poland.
From Murnau we were smuggled into Italy because the British would not allow any immigrants to enter Italy. We went there as "parcels" from UNRA. The transport consisted of about twelve or thirteen people, I donít know how many lorries there were. They were full of parcels and we were surrounded by them hidden inside the lorries. I remember that on the border I had an attack of asthma. This was on the Brenner Pass the Austrian Border.
Once we were in Italy we heard Polish being spoken outside and we were unpacked-so to speak. In Ancona we met Jurek Berg who was there already. We proceeded further south to Bari where we joined a camp with many families. The place was Trani, a small place that was just a camp, a few palazzos, a beach and lots of vineyards. Mama was working for the Red Cross and we were put into various schools.
Nothing really much happened here. I used to spend most of my time on the beach eating grapes taken from the vineyards. For three months this was it. It was hell because it was so hot; there was no rain for three months. The food was awful. We stayed in barracks in long big rooms with I would say about twenty to a room.
We had nothing to do because it was in fact school holidays. This was June September 1946. We use to swim in the Adriatic. I did the swimmers badge for the scouts here and I nearly drowned. There was a typical tropical storm that caught us. We went out into the sea in the calm and then the wind started blowing from the shore and out. Nothing serious actually happened but it was very frightening.
We would go for excursions- sometimes long ones. We went to the famous Bari festival where they drown St Nicholas and then pull him out of the water. I think that Mama and Alina went to Rome.
I once went to Ancona with a friend by hitch hiking a lift. We would go from one camp to another using army lorries. At the time we would be dressed in uniforms so that we would look like semi- soldiers, cadets I suppose, and we had identity cards. While in Ancona I was told by the Red Cross that we were going to England so I had to hurry back. A special truck was laid on for me to make sure I got back Trani in time. I think it was on the 3rd September that we left Trani for England arriving at Dover 7th or 8th September 1946. We travelled by normal train that was laid on for the transportation of people from Italy. Which way the train went I donít remember. The other part of the transport, the main part went by sea from Naples all the way to Liverpool. When we left Trani we were virtually the last to leave.
From Dover, after all the formalities that took ages we went to a transit camp at Kirkby that is a suburb of Liverpool. This was a typical transit camp with people arriving and leaving very quickly.
Alina did not stay in Kirkby very long. She was sent to school in Brentwood, the Ursuline Convent School. I was moved to the Royal High School in Edinburgh, October or November time, anyway it was towards the end of the first term. Mama, Andrzej and Marek were transferred to Barons Cross that was a camp somewhere in the Midlands.
Then Mama came with Andrzej and Marek to Edinburgh to the hostel where she ran the kitchen and was a sort of housekeeper /matron. This continued for a year or a year and a half and then she went to London together with Andrzej and Marek.