Chapter I

Diplomatic Car to Poland

(November 1944)

“Have your baggage down on the sidewalk in front of the Metropole. The plane is leaving at once. Our car will pick you up in passing. Look for the white-red flag over the fender.”

It was the Polish Embassy in Moscow speaking. I hastened down to the frost-covered sidewalk with glad assurance. Only four hours by plane! Lublin by afternoon! A friendly diplomatic courier tossed my baggage on top of his two big bundles of “important documents” that “had to get to Lublin right away.” Thrilled by the thought of what might be in those documents I forgot to notice the mudstained, battered outside wrappings; they might have told me what to expect.

We sat three hours at the airport. “Fog over Minsk” they said. At noon we came back to the Metropole. “Too late now to make it by daylight; we’ll try tomorrow again.” So said the courier, who had been to the airport three mornings already. "Fog over Minsk" was chronic. The flight from Moscow to Poland crosses the largest swamps in Europe, several hundred square miles of damp. Here the moist winds from the Baltic and the distant Atlantic Gulf Stream meet the chill of the Russian plain. Yet the chronic fog is a thin one; it may always clear by noon. So daily we waited at the airport because there was hourly hope. Just as there was hourly hope that all those other fogs between Moscow and Poland might clear.

My fourth attempt was different. A party at the Polish Embassy the previous night in honor of Poland's Independence Day made everybody late. We reached the field to find the propeller whirling. Two hundred feet from us the plane was ready to start. But the gate was closed and the guards would not let us through. We looked on fuming while the plane took off.

"Why don't you go by train?" they asked at the Polish Telegraph Agency – "Polpress" for short. I had previously refused because I knew that under war conditions the train took at least three days; but I had spent four already "going by plane." Then I learned that a diplomatic car was leaving for Lublin carrying Dr. Jendrychowski, then Polish representative in Moscow,* Captain Modzilewski, then chief of Polpress,** some professors from Vilna and Lvov going to join the Committee of National Liberation, and several Polish officers bound for the Polish Army. Three days of diplomatic comfort combined with conversation would not be bad.

* Dr. Jendrychowski is now Polish representative in France.

** Colonel Modzilewski is at present Polish Ambassador to the USSR.

That night I groped my way through a dimly lighted station – blackout was strictly enforced in Moscow though the front was three days’ train journey away – and found a lively crowd around the entrance to an ordinary "hard seats" car. It was a shock. The car was the old-fashioned kind in which one could not sit fully erect in the lower berth when the upper berth was down. Thin mattresses on the solid wood of the bunks were the only concessions to the diplomats. Nobody else was complaining, so I spread my sleeping bag to cushion the mattress, thankful that I had a lower berth.

I was at first ashamed at the amount of my baggage. Besides my sleeping bag and a brief case containing three days' food, which I kept under the pillow, I had an old-fashioned carryall and a box with paper, typewriter, and extra rations stowed away in the compartment's spacious upper shelf. It was one piece more than I could carry by myself, which is inadvisable when traveling to a war. My conscience cleared when two other women entered, each with twice the baggage I had brought. "Get up," commanded the porter and I discovered that my lower berth also covered a large baggage compartment.

The two women began to arrange themselves. One was the blonde wife of a Polish official, taking the family possessions back to Lublin after five years as a refugee In the USSR. The other was a middle-aged teacher, formerly of Warsaw, who had been in Siberia five years and was now returning. Just before the train left, a dark-haired Jewess strode in, followed by two porters with eight pieces of baggage, whose apparent weight indicated a quantity of books.

The other two drew back perceptibly. Was it normal resistance to overcrowding or reaction to the newcomer's race? Then their manner changed to an almost too obvious acceptance, as if they were consciously saying: "Poland is to be democratic, now! Jews are equal citizens now! Not for nothing have we spent five years in the USSR!"

The last four suitcases went on the foot of the newcomer's bunk – the one above me. This left her no room to stretch out straight, for the entire journey. It also meant that her berth could never be raised and that I should at no time be able to sit completely erect.

Four days, not three, we jogged southwest along a partially repaired railroad. The main line through Minsk was either ruined or more probably in use by the Red Army; naturally they didn't tell us which. We went a long way around, by Kiev. A thousand miles of devastated fields, charred villages, gaunt skeleton towns, wrecked bridges, burned railway stations. There is nothing resembling this in Western Europe, where the Germans to some extent observed the so-called laws of war. In all Slav lands they pursued a policy of national extermination, driving off cattle, deporting inhabitants, and burning what was left behind.

Curled in the corner of my berth nearest the window I listened to the women's discussion of war's effect on family life. I entered an inner world as grim as those outer ruins through which our train was passing.

“My sister's little boy of six keeps trying to join the army,” said the Polish official's wife. “He saw his father killed right in front of their home. He keeps begging the soldiers to take him. He says to his mother: 'Mamma, I must go.’ ” The teacher knew a man who killed his wife to keep her from falling into the enemy's hands. “They were fleeing across a field near Orel. The Germans were going to catch them; the woman couldn't keep up. The man tried to help her along but it was useless. So he shot her and reached the woods himself to join the partisans. Two years later he told me of it, saying: 'It was the only thing to do.’ ”

The Jewess at first said little. It was the second morning that we heard her story. She was a doctor; when the German invasion of the USSR began she was attending a medical congress in Odessa. She escaped eastward to Central Asia. Her husband, her mother, her sisters and brothers and their children, had all been massacred in a little town near Lvov.

“In England and America you find it hard to believe these stories.” She was speaking directly to me. “That doesn't surprise me. I myself wouldn't believe them when I was working as doctor on a collective farm near Samarkand. I wouldn't even read those official reports on atrocities. Then the Red Army freed my home town and I got direct word. I've only one thing to be glad of. It was swift death right at home. The Germans just came and killed. They didn't have the long agony of those who were dragged away to death camps like Maidanek.”

At Kiev our car was shunted to a sidetrack to await a Lublin connection. I went uptown to see the ruins along Kreschatik, that curving thoroughfare once world-renowned for beauty. The Germans had blown up the buildings systematically, firing them before they left. Gangs of German war prisoners were clearing the ruins. Most of the Ukrainians passed without looking at them.

I looked for Ed Snow at the Intourist Hotel; he had left Moscow a day before me on a specially arranged trip to Kiev, not knowing that my trip to Poland would have Kiev thrown in. Ed was out but my first inquiries convinced the manager that as Ed's friend I had the right to buy breakfast at his hotel. I succeeded in getting an omelet and tea for myself and the Polish officer accompanying me – our first hot meal in two days.

Handsome, intelligent looking Captain Welker, with three stars on his epaulets, bore a few traces of the years he had spent in concentration camps, first in France and then in Africa. He went to war with the Nazis early. In 1937 he fought in Spain, When Spanish democracy was beaten, Welker was among those who fled over the French border only to be interned. Later, when the Germans took Paris, he was sent to Africa to make bricks and haul stones in the desert on a ration of five slices of bread and two plates of thin vegetable soup a day.

“Nearly twenty thousand Poles fought for the Spanish democracy,” he told me. “Only a handful survived. We were fifteen hundred when we came over the border of France in 1939. We were two hundred when we were sent to Africa. The camp commandant there was a French fascist who beat prisoners personally with his cane. He hated us for fighting in Spain.”

When the Americans landed in Africa, the Poles in the camp applied as “remnants of the Dombrowski Brigade” wishing now to fight for Poland. A representative came from the Polish government-in-exile in London, told them that they had lost their Polish citizenship by fighting for the Spanish Loyalists, but that he would investigate them one by one.

He asked: “Would you fight against Stalin?” “But he is our ally!” they protested.

“It's not your business to have politics. Soldiers must fight where they are told.” Unconvinced of their reliability, he accepted only a few. The others were put in a British labor battalion.

Finally a Soviet consul reached Africa. Word spread of the Polish army being formed in the USSR. “We volunteered at once. Somebody somewhere was sabotaging, for it took a year to get released from those labor battalions. At last we were let go. In the USSR they trained me for a flyer. I've been fighting in the Polish air force two months. This is the third time I tried to fight for Poland: once from France in 1939 and once from Africa and now from the USSR. Only the Russians would let me. In our very first battle, one of our International Brigadiers, Major Hibner, won the order ‘Hero of the USSR’ ” As we went back to the train he added: “For a hundred and fifty years – ever since Kosciusko fought for your American Revolution – there have been Poles fighting for other countries' freedom. Now we shall have our chance to fight for Poland and make Poland really free!”

Beyond Kiev we were part of a freight train; our diplomatic car was coupled between cars of hay. We made long stops in open fields. Snow alternated with mud on the ground. The car grew cold; neither the lights nor the heating system functioned. Jokes arose that we were "waiting for the horses," or that "there is still two days' supply of hay in Lublin so we are not moving yet." We had all brought food, but had counted on finding boiling water for tea. The stations that usually supplied this were ruined; our conductor's utmost efforts gave us tea only once a day.

The warmth of the passengers made up for the physical discomfort. They were exiles coming home from all parts of the earth. They moved from compartment to compartment getting acquainted and sharing provisions; they seemed pleased that I, an American ally, was going to Poland too.

The sandy-haired teacher in my compartment had fled from Warsaw to Lvov in 1939 and from Lvov to Siberia in 1941. “ ‘Twice accursed,’ we used to say of the unlucky. But now we say ‘twice a refugee.’ ” She had clearly not lost her sense of humor.

Helene – that was her first name, and her last name I never could pronounce – had suffered in her long migration but had learned much. “For the first time I met the Russian people directly and they were very kind and good. They had kitchens giving us food at every station; they seemed to understand the feelings of people who had to leave home and run away. But the big, big spaces between the stations frightened me; those tremendous, lonesome prairies made me nervous....

“When I came to Chuvash and saw the Mongol-like faces, I felt I was at the end of the world. But the school director talked like a European. He was glad that I knew German and English; he offered me a choice of jobs teaching either language.... I had trouble with the Chuvash children. They refused to learn that 'Nazi tongue' even though I explained that it was also the tongue of Goethe and Schiller. I wouldn't do that now. I myself now hate the German language after all those death camps at Maidanek and Tremblinka. But when the war began I thought only a few Nazis were to blame for it all.”

Helene worked on a farm in the summer of 1942. “Everyone was working on farms that summer and I wanted to come closer to the children.” The following year she joined the "Union of Polish Patriots" and taught in a Polish school. "That was when the Poles in Russia began to get together. Wanda Wasilewska organized a Polish newspaper and I wrote to it. They also organized a Polish army and many of my former students joined. Two students who fled with me from Lvov have already died in battle; another lost both legs in the taking of Praga." Helene sighed deeply; then she resumed: –

"I am going back to Poland as a teacher to make Poland democratic. It is hard to make democrats of grownups but I like to make democrats of children. That will be my work."

Professor Stanislaw Mazur in the next compartment was going to Lublin on behalf of the Poles of Lvov. He was a tall, gaunt man with the forehead of a thinker, but with deep lines marking his lean face. His shabby overcoat, once of good cut and material, hung loosely on him as if he had lost weight. As a member of the mathematics faculty of the Lvov University since 1930, he had seen that city's eventful history of recent years.

"For a week in 1939 our city held out against the Germans. Then the Red Army came from the east. The Lvov garrison commander surrendered to the Russians saying: ‘The Polish Government has gone with the General Staff and I have no orders to fight the Russians.’ Most of us in Lvov thought there would be a conflict right then between the Red Army and the Germans. Many in the Red Army thought so too. But the Germans withdrew and the frontier was formed leaving Lvov inside the USSR. The city was swollen with a couple of hundred thousand refugees."

Mazur was agreeably surprised by the growth of his university during those two years of Soviet rule. "Our physics-mathematics department increased from three full professors to ten; we added some from Warsaw and a Jew and a Ukrainian from Lvov who could not have held such posts in prewar Poland because of nationality. Our graduate fellows, formerly unpaid, were quite well paid. Even students got stipends. Teaching was in Polish or Ukrainian according to the teacher's choice. Then the Germans came and closed down everything.

"Five of our mathematics professors were shot in the first days. Others hid; I myself was hiding for two years. I sought places with two entrances; once the police came to the front door and I got out the back. My two sisters helped me; they were married to a baker and a merchant. These were not so much persecuted, for the Germans sought especially to destroy Polish intellectuals. There were thirty mathematics teachers of all grades in Lvov when the Germans came. There are only fifteen left.

"Three of our mathematics professors, Banach, Knastrac, and Orlicz, served as lice-food' in Professor Weigel's antityphus institutes where vaccine was developed through the bodies of lice. The process was very expensive and only produced enough vaccine for German officers. The lice had to be fed on human beings. Those professors went every day to receive five hundred bites. In six months they were all ill."

A million or more Poles, Mazur stated, in the area that was formerly Eastern Poland but that now had become Western Ukraine, were being given their choice of country. Most of them he thought would go to Poland if they were assured of jobs or land. Poles in Lvov were "much upset" that the city was not to be included in Poland. "But what can you do? Poles predominate in the city proper which has old connections with our history and culture; but the surrounding country is Ukrainian. Lvov is a Polish island in a Ukrainian sea."

Glad to get the testimony of a mathematician on this much-debated question, I asked Mazur about conflicting population figures. The Encyclopaedia Britannica gave 56.6 per cent Poles in the "Lvov voyevodstwo" in 1921. Other authorities, including the London Times, stated that there were only two and a half million Poles in a total population of eleven million in East Poland before the war.

"The figures are not as contradictory as they seem," he answered, "It depends on where you draw the border. That Eastern Poland was always predominantly Ukrainian and White Russian. It was not given to Poland by the Treaty of Versailles. At that time a committee under the British Lord Curzon worked out an ethnographic border, since known as the 'Curzon Line.' East of that line, where Poles were only a small minority, the figures of The Times are correct. But landlords there were Polish; under their influence the Pilsudski government took the territory from Soviet Russia in 1920 by war. The figures given by the Britannica for the Lvov voyevodstwo were artificially secured by including in the district a Polish area to the west. In 1939 the Russians fixed a strategic border between themselves and the Germans at the river San. Now they are giving some of this territory back to Poland. It is not easy to determine such a border, since Ukrainian and Polish populations overlap."

To my question whether Professor Mazur himself intended to remain in Lvov or go to Poland permanently, he replied that he had not yet decided. "If we can really make a democratic Poland, I want to take part in it. But if it is to be such a Poland as we had before the war, then I shall stay in Lvov where I have a good job and a good apartment. In any case I hope the postwar relations will not make iron barriers between countries. "

Professor Jan Dembowski of Vilno faced a similar problem. A biologist of renown in the field of animal psychology – he worked in 1926-1927 in the United States under the Rockefeller Foundation in the marine biological station at Woods Hole – he was on the black list of Home Army terrorists in Vilno, marked for assassination. For this reason he was at first uncommunicative and a bit nervous, being essentially a scientist who did not wish to take part in a political fight. He was going to Lublin to help organize science teaching, but he did not know whether he would remain in Poland or return to Moscow where he was offered a good scientific job.

"After thirty years of scientific work," he told me finally, "one wants to leave something behind one. The war stopped my science; under German occupation I worked as an office clerk. We professors collected our students in small groups and taught them secretly. We went from apartment to apartment, for it increased the danger to be seen too often in the same place; if caught, it would have meant death or at least concentration camp for all of us. After these wasted years, I want a few years of scientific work before I die; Moscow universities offer me this. I am not sure what science there will be in Poland. I am going to Lublin to find out....

"I am no prophet." He stared at me through his black-rimmed spectacles when I asked him what he thought would happen in Poland now. "In the long run Poland will be democratic because the peasants are getting the land. But democracy will not be easy; they will have to hang some incorrigibles first." He sighed, as if he found it hard to be a scientist in such an epoch.

Professor Dembowski's analysis of the "Vilno problem" – which had put him on the "death list" of the Polish terrorists – was similar to Professor Mazur's explanation of Lvov. "Vilno has a long, complex history. Lithuanians claim that their Prince Gedymin founded it, but excavations show that it antedated Gedymin by hundreds of years. Probably it was originally a White Russian settlement. It was Lithuania's capital in the Middle Ages but it has been Polish since. The city is today largely Polish, but surrounded by White Russians and Lithuanians. There is no way to join it to Poland; geography prevents."

A taciturn, nervous fellow who shared Dembowski's compartment listened condescendingly to the professor's difficulties. Stanislaw Zelent, engineer and graduate of Warsaw Polytechnic – he had just been selecting a press in Moscow for the Polish Government's official newspaper – had faced the ultimate in horrors. He had been confined in Maidanek "death camp" for nearly two years, surviving only because the Germans used his engineering skill to design structures in the camp.

"I am no longer a normal human being," he told me. "Nobody who endured Maidanek can be normal again." Zelent had seen the day in November 1943 when they killed in Maidanek "eighteen thousand Jews in a single batch." He had been under a camp commandant, Peter Wertzer, who "liked to kill by jumping with his boots on a prostrate man's belly, then on his chest, and then with his heel on the throat. He did this in the square in front of everybody to put the fear into us.

"The worst wasn't the physical hardship or even the beatings. It was the mental atmosphere that poisoned everyone. The strain of knowing that any minute they might decide to kill you. The humiliating sense that everything you did was bad because you were a Slav dog, a Slav pig, an inferior creature. Your belief in humanity was destroyed."

Zelent had kept some self-respect alive by sabotaging. Even this tortured slave found a way to handicap the Nazi war machine. "There were six 'fields' in the camp, and their commandants competed. If one field got nice sidewalks, the others wanted them too. I designed foundations and sidewalks to use as much cement as possible, since this was a deficit article needed for the war. By playing on their mutual competition, I got them wasting cement. In the fifth year of war I used up several extra carloads on one field. And all the other fields were copying my designs!"

His eyes glared at me. "What shatters me now is that there exist people like the Americans and British who do not even believe the things that we endured; and therefore there is no hope of justice. If I hear that anybody says Maidanek death camp couldn't exist, then I want to take a knife and kill that person."

The glare faded from his eyes as he apologized: "I told you that I was not normal any more." If I had doubted the horrors of Maidanek, I should not have dared to say so then.

I wandered into the next compartment and found the handsome Captain Welker and two other veterans of the Spanish war exchanging reminiscences with a new comrade. Josef Filipczyk also wore the uniform of the new Polish Army, but had come to it by a different route. He had joined Anders's army in the USSR and deserted it in Irak, risking his life to get back to the Soviet Union to fight for Poland.

Josef’s early life was made by the Versailles Treaty, which divided between Germany and Poland the Silesia in which he lived. There were three uprisings against the Germans. Josef, a boy of fourteen, took part in the third. "I went on a truck that carried arms to the uprising. The people cheered and gave us enormous loaves of bread. The French soldiers were our friends but not the British. Lloyd George didn't want to give Poland too much, he opposed Clemenceau." It was a voice from the long past speaking. British, French, Italian soldiers all guaranteed the "plebiscite," the people's right to vote. To Josef the plebiscite was not voting but battle.

He grew up in the mines and graduated to the steel mills. He married and had a son. He learned, the hard way, what foreign ownership of a country's resources meant. "Foreign owners closed our mines to raise the price of coal in other countries so that their other mines could profit. The Polish Government was never strong enough to enforce laws against them; it was they who enforced their will against the Polish Government. The people tried every way to get democracy and couldn't. So we came to 1939 and the war."

War made Josef a refugee in the Urals. He got a job in a steel works near Perm. Then the Germans attacked the USSR and Josef was drafted into the army of Poles formed in the Soviet Union under General Anders, representative of the Polish government- in-exile.

"At first everyone in the army expected to go to the front and win back Poland. But when the Germans reached Stalingrad, Anders made no secret of his belief that the Russians couldn't hold. He took his army to Iran and later to Irak. For more than a year in Irak we had no arms and there was no talk of the front. The talk was 'Let the Bolsheviks feel the German conquest! When both are worn out we will have a Poland from the Black to the Baltic Sea.'

"Then we began to hear by radio of the new Polish army forming in the USSR. They were fighting their way towards Poland while we rotted in Irak. When we heard that the Kosciusko Division broke the German lines at Lenina, we thought: 'Why aren't we there?' A group of officers and noncoms wrote a telegram of greeting to General Berling's army in Russia. Anders had them all arrested and thrown into an old Palestine jail."

Fed up with inaction, Josef Filipczyk deserted in order to seek the war. It took him a year to get there, a year spent in evading the military police. Some Canadians helped him towards India. The "Americans weren't too strict" on the autos through Iran. He was stuck a long time in Teheran, where he had to live illegally, "fearing the British military police." Finally a representative of the Union of Polish Patriots came from Moscow, and helped him and others through.

"Many thought like me.... Many wished me well and gave me money for the road. But not many decided to desert as I did, for it was a choice of life or death. Several were caught and shot, only a handful got through. I'm in luck to be fighting for Poland. So many Poles never got the chance!"

A white-haired old man with ruddy cheeks, sparkling blue eyes, and vivacious manner also thought himself lucky to fight for Poland. Engineer M. Okecki (pronounced Okenski), who occupied the end compartment, had come from Afghanistan for the chance. He had blown in the savings of a lifetime and thrown over a job that meant security. The blatant happiness with which he wandered through our chilly compartments, congratulating everybody, was almost enough to warm the car.

"I have had one life and it was a good one. Now at sixty years, a new life begins for me!"

From early years Okecki had been a crosser of frontiers. Born in Warsaw, he finished a German secondary school in Darmstadt and an engineering college in Petersburg. He was chief of a road section of the Tsar's army in the first World War and saw the Russian Revolution in its capital. As councilor for the Ministry of Public Works in the new Republic of Poland, a post which he technically held till the second World War, he fixed frontiers in Silesia, studied transport problems in Great Britain, and attended the international congress on roads in Washington in 1930.

"The American Government was very good to us. Mr. McDonald, your chief of road administration – the greatest man in the world for roads – gave us a very fine time. I was elected a vice-president of the congress."

The League of Nations asked Okecki to work in its transit section. He was sent by them to China where he built hundreds of miles of roads and received a high decoration from Chiang Kai-shek. "The Chinese are very fine people. I was there four years." He came back by way of America, crossing the continent in a car to study American roads for the League of Nations. "I learned a lot in Arizona and Texas."

At home in prewar Poland Okecki was less successful. "I saw only misery and small policies and I couldn't agree. I wanted three big strategic highways because it was clear that our railroads would be bombed out of use in a war. I wanted plenty of good third-grade roads to connect the farms with the market and give our peasants a good life. I wanted well-developed motor transport so that in war our life could not be suddenly stopped.

"I spoke to our military men, but they were in love with cavalry and with the poetry of the beautiful horse! I published a book on roads and the minister was furious. I had too many friends to be put in jail just for a book on roads; but they made my work very unpleasant and sought chances to get rid of me. Then came our treaty with the Afghans giving them technical help. I was willing to go to Afghanistan and the ministry was very glad to send me. I took my best assistant, Frank Wychrzycki, to give him a chance to develop, for in prewar Poland there was great decadence of our engineers."

Okecki liked the Afghans. "They have a very ancient culture; they are hospitable and appreciative." It seems the Afghans liked Okecki too. They sent him to Europe in early 1939 to pick out forty or fifty engineers for a new ministry of public works. He brought back forty-five, most of whom were Poles. He invited Germans also but they wouldn't work under Okecki. They smelled the coming war.

When, the World War broke across Poland, Okecki and his staff telegraphed to place themselves at their country's disposal. They were told to wait. In a fortnight it was over. There was no Poland left. Okecki kept on building roads for the Afghans, with a great void in his heart. He built one hundred and forty bridges and the first road-tunnels the Afghans had ever seen. And then to Okecki, in faraway Kabul, the gospel of Wanda Wasilewska came.

"I heard that Poles were organizing in Russia and that Russians were giving them help. I got their newspaper and I said: This is salvation for Poland. For hundreds of years we ruined ourselves fighting the Russians and now we are going to be friends."

Okecki wrote at once to Wanda Wasilewska and her Union of Polish Patriots that he was ready to work for Poland in any way and at any time they desired. No answer came for a year. The Polish vice-consul in Kabul – appointed by the Poles in London – called Okecki a traitor and took his diplomatic passport away. After a long time he got a passport again "because the Afghans interceded with the British," but it wasn't a diplomatic passport any more.

"It was all because I wanted to be friends with the Bolsheviks," explained Okecki. "Tell me," he asked anxiously, "what is so wrong with the Bolsheviks? All the ones I ever met were very nice to me!"

In the summer of 1944 the Soviet Embassy in Kabul sent for Okecki. "We have a transit visa for you to Poland. It seems they want you there."

Okecki had twenty thousand men working for him in Afghanistan. He was Chief Engineer of Roads. He hadn't the faintest idea who wanted him in Poland or whether they offered him a job. But he knew that this was "the greatest moment of our history, when the mistakes of centuries will be righted." And he had a chance to be there.

The Afghan Prime Minister sent for Okecki and talked with him for an hour. He said: "Perhaps this is too soon to go to Poland... perhaps you'll be disappointed... after all you are sixty years old." He said: "You are irreplaceable here." He offered to double Okecki’s salary, to bring his family from Poland; to send his children abroad to study, to give him a life pension, to give him a house and land.

Okecki replied: "Sadrazam – Prime Minister – Afghanistan is my second motherland. If there wasn't this war, I'd stay here fifteen years. But you yourself came to Kabul in a revolution. If you were a Pole and your country was as Poland is, what would you do?"

Two tears rolled down the Afghan minister's cheeks as he answered: "I am your father and your brother. Go with God!"

Okecki bought himself two tons of baggage – all that he thought he might need for the rest of his life – and it was all carried from his house to the autos by Afghan cabinet ministers. The people of the East knew how to appreciate Okecki's quality of soul. The governor of Kabul and one hundred and fifty Afghan officials said good-bye to him and many of them were weeping. But not a single Pole from the Polish colony in Kabul saw him off. "They were afraid of that Polish vice-consul," opined Okecki.

When Okecki reached the Soviet frontier in Central Asia he changed his life's savings – till then in dollars – into rubles at the official rate. No sensible tourist ever does this, but Okecki supposed it was the proper thing. He blew it all in for his expenses in Russia, which he paid at commercial prices. To another man this would have been a major tragedy, but to Okecki the loss of his life's savings was an incidental price for reaching Poland in her hour of need.

"What is the matter with those Poles in London? When Mikolajczyk had the chance to come to Poland, how could he bear to stay away?" This was his simple view of Polish politics. All the way across the USSR he wondered who had arranged for him that transit visa; he hoped it was Wanda herself, his chosen prophetess. "She wrote such clean, patriotic tales for children before the war!"

Frank Wychrzycki, with his wife and two children, shared the older engineer's compartment. His devotion to Okecki was that of a son. Okecki had opened the world to Frank and his family. Frank's wife had been only a Polish housewife; now she had taught the daughters of a king! She was instructress in the first girl's school in Afghanistan, a closed school to which girls came veiled through the streets of Kabul. The king's daughters came to that school together with daughters of poor people, because the Afghans also were going in for democracy!

Late on the last afternoon Okecki invited me to his compartment. "We are celebrating our crossing of the frontier."

It was nearly dusk when we gathered, a dozen people crowded into a space for six, filling the seats and the upper berths and the standing-room near the door. On the tiny table near the window a fragrant cherry brandy – brought from Iran by the International Brigadiers – was poured into every kind of container: tea glasses from the conductress, traveling mugs of passengers, and a half dozen beautiful Chinese goblets without handles, brought from Afghanistan by Okecki, dark outside and glazed white within.

"To drink to our return/' said Okecki.

We halted for some time at the frontier. In the deepening dusk a sleety rain beat into muddy ditches. A field was ragged with stubble, woods were barely seen against the leaden sky. Off to the left in the mud stood a hut with straw-thatched roof and broken windows. There was no light in the hut; there was no light in our car.

We let off the Russian frontier officials at last. Through the window I saw their vague figures stumbling past in the mud. The train moved jerkily. Then across the drab dusk grew a pale sheet of water, swollen with rain and spilling into disorderly ditches; into it tilted the black jagged lines of a broken bridge.

Inside the compartment the faces disappeared into shadow. Only the white hands outstretched with the circling cups were seen, and only the white inside of the Chinese goblets with the dark Iranian wine.

"How beautiful is our Poland!" said a voice in the darkness. My breath stopped; what was there to say? Outside a merciful night was veiling the dreary desolation. The edge between earth and sky had vanished. Then the conductress came with a single candle. I saw Okecki's face; it was that of a pilgrim who comes to the Holy City!

So we came over the river into the ruined land.

Click here to go to Chapter II

Click here to return to the index of archival material