The EXODUS Trail
A man was coming towards us; his every step set the wooden planks of the suspended foot-bridge chattering. Safety netting detached, suspension ropes frayed, wooden planks loose… but all that, and more, didn’t matter. I could feel my face a one big smile, my soul laughing, delighted. A tune was spinning in my head:
Tam szum Prutu, Czeremoszu
I wesola kolomyjka
Do tanca porywa.
Dla Hucula nie ma zycia
Jak na poloninie,
Gdy go losy w doly rzuca
Wnet z tesknoty ginie.
No point in translating this refrain. If a Pole is reading these lines he will know; he too will smile and his feet may well start tamping to the tune; if not - no point in translating it either. Instead, come, join me, face the open sky… that rippling Czeremosz below our feet, breathe deep the fresh air. Look, there, to the far side - see the rising ground clothed in deep green and shrouded in a haze of blue? Look behind you – see the steep, almost inaccessible access to the water, and further back – you have just passed it – the old turnstile at the entrance to the bridge, and the burnt out remains of the guard house? Walk onto the bridge; what tune do you elicit from the wooden cymbals under your feet? Do you sense – history?
The man was almost upon us when I blurted out my question: excuse me, what was here before the war? He pulled up short, dumbfounded. I could hear his thoughts, see them in his face: are you stupid, or what! Don’t you know? I took that moment to explain: we are from England; my wife and I are interested in history… His face relaxed. That was Romania – he flung his right arm out pointing to the far bank… and that was “Polsha” - Poland - his outstretched left arm pointed to the burnt-out guard house, and now… this is all Ukraine! With a quizzical smile on his face, he swiped the horizon with his arm and quickly walked away before these tourists could ask another naïve question. Or did he guess..?
Of course we knew; this history is part of our lives; and we don’t want it forgotten neither by us, nor our children or grandchildren.
This is Kuty, a small town on the left bank of Czeremosz. A road bridge was here, somewhere, perhaps where the pedestrian suspension bridge hangs now. The river was the boundary between Poland and Romania – between two Allies in those threatening times.
I wonder who, and how, remembers the bridge today - as the “Bridge of Tears” perhaps? For who would not have cried over the fate of Poland trampled by the Nazi juggernaut, then flooded by the Red Army. Who would not have shed bitter tears forced by its Allies – the French who thought Poland unforgivably recalcitrant in resisting Hitler’s demands, or the British who would sign a piece of paper with Poland so as to gain time to fight a phoney war; or America foreswearing “love you, love you” and waving you goodbye..?
Or the “Bridge of Treachery” – Stalin’s treachery? Is it surprising then that the bridge is gone, destroyed, wiped from the memory of people, of history; that not a trace of it remains today?
Or perhaps the “Bridge of Infamy”? For almost the entire Government of Poland, including the President, the Prime Minister, and the Commander-in-Chief fled the country while its armed forces, and its people, were still in mortal combat with the invader. Well, not quite “fled” – they withdrew just across the boundary to Romania, supposedly an Ally, from where they had hoped to govern and carry on the fight with the enemy.
Or the “Bridge of Zero Options” For if they had stayed and had fallen into Stalin’s hands… what would have been their fate? Now we know – death in Katyn, or a somewhat slower death in the mines of Kolyma. And if they fell into German hands? Now we know that too - they would have been executed just like the Polish professors had been shot in Lwow.
The bridge is gone but the centre of this small provincial town seems to have been untouched by the ravages of war; only time and neglect, and the vindictiveness of Communism have left their mark. But it still has that “something”, that quiet magnetism about it that… Stand in the middle of the town square, its large cobble stones glisten in the morning dew; just look around; look at the delightful old town hall somewhat reminiscent of that in Warsaw. Look at the ruined facades of the buildings around the square and you will want to get your bucket of sand and cement out, your can of white paint and brush, and DIY… just so you can sit, if only for a moment, in the shade of the trees, relax and watch the elegant life of the 1930’s unfold before you. But only for a moment for, suddenly, this mirage bursts with the deafening rumble of Russian tanks on the cobbles coming from just behind you… You gasp with surprise, with fear!
…..It’s Friday, 1st September 1939, 04.30 am.
Urgent, Urgent, Urgent telephone call for the Prime Minister! Wake him up immediately! German planes are bombing Krakow railway station… Germans have crossed the border in several places; Ostrow Wilkopolski, Poznan, the airport, social housing, railway station… everything is being bombed by German planes since 04.15. Germans, Germans, Germans…
People gasp with surprise, with fear. So it’s happened! Everybody knew war with Germany was coming, everybody was ready for it; everybody knew Poland would beat the hell out of the Nazis, and… everybody didn’t believe the war would come! Well… perhaps not quite everybody.
Poland’s Allies in Paris and London reacted: Mr Hitler, here’s our ultimatum - you have 48 hours to withdraw from Poland and stop all military action! Italy and the Soviets promptly declared neutrality in the Polish-German “border dispute”. 48 hours! Be thankful Poland that it’s 48 hours! Thank the British for that, for the French - your long-standing Ally - was insisting on a 7-day ultimatum! But in the meantime what – bomb as you please Mr Hitler?
And America? Perhaps people were wrong, a little jaundiced perhaps in their judgement of America for President Roosevelt did react. He appealed to the combatants to refrain from bombing civilian towns; he appealed to all countries that may eventually enter the war to publically declare that under no circumstances will they let their side bomb civilian population and non-militarized towns – if the other side declares that too… Indeed, if only that Austrian corporal could understand English maybe his Germans would then not bomb or gun down from the skies civilian refugees, workers in the fields, school children, hospitals clearly marked with the Red Cross…
The same day proclamation from the Polish President appeared all over Warsaw:-
This night our historical enemy attacked the Polish State without declaration of war. I confirm this fact and let God and History be my witness. At this historical moment I turn to all Citizens of the Polish State in the belief that the whole Nation will stand by our Commander-in-Chief and the Armed Forces in the fight for Freedom, Independence, Honour and an appropriate response to the invader as in the many instances in the past in our Polish-German relationship.
The whole Nation, with God’s blessing, will in their fight for holy and just cause stand shoulder to shoulder with our Armed Forces until total victory.
Warsaw, 1 September 1939 Ignacy Moscicki
September 2nd, 3rd… and bombs kept falling on Warsaw; damage, devastation, casualties grew; fires burned. With every passing hour, tension mounted and doubts begun to surface. The Polish Nation waited with baited breath for its Allies to act, for it was well known that in Great Britain, and even more so in France, everyone was secretly or openly, hoping that the Poles will climb down, but the Understanding with Great Britain obliged it to act at once with all their forces in power.
At last some encouraging news uplifted people’s spirit; at 11.15 on 3rd September Great Britain declared war on Germany; France followed seven hours later.
By September 4th the news from the front was unbelievable, shocking; rumour had it that General Skotnicki’s mounted cavalry brigade charged German tanks in open terrain… imagine! The bombing of Warsaw intensified, fires raged and devastation spread. There was no sign of any meaningful reaction from the Allies - no bombing of German industry, no air support over Poland - nothing. According to news coming from England the British were reluctant to launch bombing raids on Germany for fear that Germany may reciprocate by bombing London! Is it possible?
Smoke started billowing from the Ministry buildings in Warsaw - the buildings were not on fire; smoke was coming from the chimneys and from inside the courtyards! Grim faced passers-by saw and guessed - they are burning ministerial documents! The Government is getting out of Warsaw!
German tanks were advancing rapidly; by day 5 they were threatening Warsaw. Peoples’ spirit was indomitable, but there was no longer any doubt about it; the Government, the Ministries, the Military HQ was evacuating Warsaw! They were heading east. And so were the people - in cars, in horse drawn carts, on bicycles, on foot struggling under packs they hoped to salvage, mothers with babies in their arms, children tightly held in grandparent’s hand… a churning mass of people in exodus East.
What a spectacle it must have been from the sky above! That infinite mass of Polish vermin, those ministerial limousines, those military vehicles weaving through it all urgently, impatiently, anxiously, forcibly heading east… What a temptation! Irresistible, and with Herr Fuhrer’s blessing! German Stukas dived, bombs fell, machine gun fire raked… that Polish vermin scattered into the roadside woods, ditches, fields, wherever hope, if not safety, could be found. The Stukas left; they went west; only blood, sweat and tears moistened the ground on this dry, sunny, hot, perfect autumnal day. No flowers in the meadows or by the roadside only wrecked cars, wagons, scattered baggage, slaughtered horses, human limbs…
Wherever they turned, whichever road east they took they were always just in time for the Stukas – in Luck, in Dubno, in Krzemieniec. And here, in Krzemieniec, the politicians, the chancellery, the mass of civil servants were caught by the wrath of Herr Hitler on the hunt for Polish Government. Stukas dived, bombs fell… and so did the civilian population, and this small rural town crashed and burned in full view of the whole foreign diplomatic corp. They have heard of this barbaric behaviour by the Germans, and now, they have seen it; a feeling of outrage, disgust, disbelief swelled in their minds. The words of President Roosevelt rung hollow in Krzemieniec that day: …all countries that may eventually enter the war to publically declare that under no circumstances will they let their side bomb civilian population and non-militarized towns… The foreign diplomats wanted to send a strong note of protest: Mr. Hitler you are not playing by the rules – but, Switzerland, the neutral mediator, refused to pass on the note; the Swiss didn’t want to antagonize Hitler! Blissful neutrality - forever in Swiss interest only!
All roads now led to the south-east corner of Poland designated as the last bastion of Polish resistance, the Polish “Alamo” in the region around Kolomyja bordered by the river Stryj and Dniestr, and its borders with Romania and Hungary. Both countries were Allies of Poland but both were already feeling Hitler’s breath down their necks. The President lodged in Sniatyn, the Commander-in-Chief and his Staff in Kolomyja, the Prime Minister and the foreign diplomats in Kuty. All had their eyes on that bridge across Czeremosz; all were waiting, hoping for some kind of a miracle… for the Allies to act? But from France, and from Great Britain… they heard only silence.
By the 15th September, there was, in reality, little left to govern or to do; many of the foreign diplomats had already left the country; Polish armies were in disarray but still fighting bloody battles; civilians were streaming out of the country into Romania and Hungary; governmental documents had been burnt, destroyed or lost… And still no sign of the miracle; and unbeknown to them, time was running out...
At 10.00 hrs. 17th September a telephone rang:
Urgent, Urgent, Urgently get the Prime Minister! The Red Army is flooding Poland across the entire border from north to south! Soviet tanks have already crossed the river Dzwina at Usciecz! They have taken Sniatyn and closed the border crossing to Romania; they will be here tomorrow, possibly even today! Unbelievable! Impossible! What about the 1932 Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviets!? And the Trade Agreement signed only last year..!?
The final tragedy had struck; it was the end! The only hope now lay with Romania; will she be the friend-in-need in Poland’s darkest hour? Will she let the Polish Government represent Polish interests from a base in Romania; will she… will she..? From Kuty, on the 17th September 1939, the President issues his second Proclamation to the Polish people:
We must save the existence of the Nation and the source of constitutional power from this passing tsunami. And so, with heavy heart, I have decided to move the seat of the Presidency and of the Main National Bodies to the territory of one of our allies. From there, in conditions ensuring full sovereignty, they will guard the interests of the Nation and, with our allies, continue the war.
Instantly, all roads now led to Kuty. The cobbled road leading downhill to the border crossing on river Czeremosz suddenly bulged with people, limousines, cars, soldiers, and then choked at the police post on the Romanian side. The old, narrow, wooden bridge across the river creaked and swayed under the weight. The heat and dust, the congestion and chaos made people push and shove and holler in anger, frustration and fear; others wept, some scooped a handful of soil - Polish soil - into their pocket; soldiers, grim-faced and with broken heart reluctantly crossed the bridge and gave up their arms.
But one or two turned back at the last moment; only a bullet in the head would salvage an officer’s honour; and they found a quite spot… Others also turned back from the bridge; they set out across the fields to seek the battlefield but they didn’t get very far. If they were one or two, they would have died as one or two, for the Ukrainian peasants were already putting up arches, garlands and red flags to welcome the Red Army, and they became openly hostile to Polish “Pany” be they dressed in an officer’s uniform or rags.
Others saw their duty to continue to govern, to speak for the Polish Nation be it from foreign soil, or to fight the enemy wherever he may be. And so, the President, Ignacy Moscicki crossed the bridge, the Commander-in-Chief, Marshall Rydz-Smigly was seen crossing, the foreign diplomats crossed, Prime Minister Felicjan Slawoj-Skladkowski and the Ministries crossed; Generals and politicians… all crossed the bridge. Fortunately, in anticipation of the worst, most of the gold reserves and foreign currency of the State Bank had already been moved to Romania and was on its way out to France. The Polish “Alamo” was being abandoned…
Some twenty thousand people crossed to Romania from Kuty that day. And that night on the Romanian side it rained! A thunderstorm welcomed them, and the road from the bridge to Czerniowiec churned into quagmire by the cavalcade of ministerial cars. Oh how people in Poland had prayed for rain, for thunderstorms, for quagmire in place of roads, for anything that would have slowed down German tanks, for anything to keep the Luftwaffe off the skies… but He didn’t hear.
Whoever had run this deathly gauntlet on Polish roads will forever remember the heat and that stagnant thick cloud suspended above the road, of dust raised by the wheels of cars, carts and motorcycles churning the soft surface of those roads. People would suddenly emerge like ghosts from this dense cloud only to melt away again just two steps later. Abandoned cars, wagons, baggage, broken cycles obstructed the movement. Abandoned people sat by the roadside, unable to walk any further, their faces caked with dust, their eyes begging for help, for salvation. Fatigue, disorientation and a feeling of hopelessness enveloped the masses. The Luftwaffe didn’t need a compass to point the way; they could see their target from afar.
Seventy years later it’s also hot, a sunny day – in Ukraine! The skies are clear blue – no trace of that suffocating cloud of dust; no Stukas - only some white birds hovering in the skies. An old bus - who knows whether it’s not from the old times - trundles along an asphalted road; no congestion in the bus, even less congestion on the road. Vast open country to my left and right; vast open fields to my right and left, some still covered with the stubble of harvested crop, others already ploughed and ready for the second sowing of the year – deep, black, rich soil glistens in the sun.
Perhaps it’s one of these enchanted evenings for the earth seems to have unique magnetism here: it draws my soul and I immediately know that I would work, love and be happy to die amongst these open vistas, these fields, that glistening black soil. And something, perhaps my heart, tells me once you have found her never let her go… It’s silly, this Maurice Chevalier signature song occupying my brain so. But perhaps it is true; perhaps once the Polish “Pany”, once the Ukrainian “chlop” held it in his hand, once this rich, black soil crumbled through his fingers then neither would let it go; the fist clenched oozing blood in love or hate… Is this what the Ukrainian peasants feel, and the Polish “Pany” felt? Is this the magnetism of “Kresy” – for centuries the Polish eastern borderlands, and perhaps for even longer centuries the land toiled by Ukrainian peasants? Is this the reason for the barbarism of the Chmielnicki uprising of the mid 1640’s and, three hundred years later, for the barbarism of the soon-to-come mid 1940’s?
Coming up just ahead a downhill run through lightly wooded forest into Krzemieniec and there, there… a glimpse of the ruins of the historical castle on the hill of Queen Bona - in Ukraine. An old woman dressed in black looks rather unstable as she walks downhill a cobbled alleyway, but she waves to us: come, come, my tenant has died, you can rent my house. Even with her back now turned towards us, her bearing is still so commanding that we do follow her. She pushes the gate open and we follow like two docile sheep into two rooms and kitchen in the vestibule. Bare, parchment-colour walls throughout, a coal-fired steel stove, metal pots and pans I can easily place in the 1950’s and, of course, “our” room. A rolled-up mattress on a metal bed – that’s where he slept. Do I imagine or smell the sweat, vodka, tobacco, the bugs, typhoid or what else on the mattress and the floor? A rickety table and an old photograph of the landlady in a family gathering… and yet, I could live here! Is it the sun streaming in through the window, the richness of the verdure and flowers outside, the steep cobbled alleyways…? Are people right – have I already caught the bug, the “bacillus” of Krzemieniec?
But I still have a mental picture of Krzemieniec as it was then – 14th September 1939; of foreign diplomats in shock, covered in dust, amongst crashing buildings, blazing fires, blood, limbs of the innocent, of powerless wrath at Hitler. I have a photograph of the town in total ruin…Perhaps it’s better that such images remain with history, for what I see now, is a town rebuilt. The imposing College stands in its grandeur as it did in 1830’s – only the cross on its chapel has been replaced by Orthodox copula – the Polish church is open, the Orthodox Cathedral is also open; it’s a living town. One single road winds through it downhill and at the far end, where the Jewish quarter stood, there is little else today but a shanty town scattered around the bus terminal; what used to be the Synagogue is now the bus ticketing and information office. One old timber house painted communist-red, its door ajar, lives on – did it survive the bombing and the annihilation of the Jewish quarter? And above it all, high up on the mountain, reigns the castle - in ruins, but imposing and majestic in its robe of royal-brown armour reflecting the last rays of the setting sun.
No, I will not be renting the “rooms”, not this time, for this is only the start of the Exodus Trail, but I know I will come here again and again. Indeed, I have caught the “bug”.
And the next day the sun still shines; the sky still transparent blue. We don’t need that cloud of heavy dust nor a compass to find our target; an asphalted road takes us south to Tarnopol. A large town. Refurbished hotels with glazed fronts along the wide main road show pretence to modernity, but the sidewalks and the pavements are crowded with “babushkas” selling just about everything ranging from fruit and vegetables to fine crochetry. The coach station is overflowing with people, buses, taxis and stalls of all kinds. It’s hot so the stalls with drinking water and greasy pats are doing good trade. Surprising enterprise thrives here: young people with billboards and mobile phones in their hands mill around – you want to phone the UK? Please, here’s the handset, just dial the number; costs practically nothing! Oh, you are speaking Polish? You know, life is hard here so my husband and my daughter have gone to Poland to work. I work as a cleaner, I am going there tomorrow. How can I help you? Bus? Train..? But this was Poland back in 1939! Don’t they know, or don’t they want to know?
Tarnopol was overrun by the Red Army on the first or second day; fortunately, the gold bullion had already passed through the town on its way south to Romania and the Exodus was already in Kuty. Late stragglers avoided the town like hell – men with red arm bands were everywhere and would have taken any refugees in. But to-day, the sun is setting gloriously over the huge expanse of the artificial lake; not a ripple on the water, people stroll contentedly, young girls in miniskirts giggle and ignore the stares, and in the distance, across the water the copula of an orthodox church slowly melts in the evening haze.
It’s strange here in Kolomyja, in Kosow and Kuty, for only a month or two before that fateful 17th life here would have been almost as it is today. Vacationers from all over Poland would have come here to relax and recoup their energies in this corner of Poland, in the land of the “Hucul” – in the foothills of Carpathian Mountains. They would have seen life still as it had been for hundreds of years; they would have seen - Huculy - the highlanders still in traditional dress, the scythes at work in their hands, the stacks of hay, the sheep. They would know the meaning of “poloniny” and they would feel, as Huculy did, why:
Dla Hucula nie ma zycia there’s no life for a Hucul
Jak na poloninie, but on the highlands,
Gdy go losy w doly rzuca when fate dictates the lowlands
Wnet z tesknoty ginie. death comes with homesickness.
Come here once, and you will want to mark it on your map and come again and again.
Stand on the high bridge in Jaremcze over the cascading river Prut below; dip your feet in its rumbling waters, swim if you dare… Walk the road running through the village; see the quaint guest houses welcoming you with open arms; walk to the railway station and as you wait for the train look at Karpaty, once in sunshine once covered in ominous clouds. Take the train back to Kolomyja; it might have been a first or second class carriage then, but now? Now you will be the larvae in a beehive and big busy bees struggling back and forth under heavy loads will offer to feed you sweet drinks, crisps and who knows what else… and you will still smile, look around and want to laugh out loud in amazement, in amusement!
Kolomyja - how different! On the 17th the whole town would have been choked with hundreds of military personnel; wherever you turned, generals and officers of all ranks, ministerial limousines side-by-side with army trucks and civilian cars, military police pushing people off the town centre… a feeling of grim apprehension must have been pervading the town. But step out onto the main street in Kolomyja to-day and you will blink twice at the sight of the two-storey-high, brightly coloured egg! Ah… it’s not a prehistoric exhibit, there’s a Museum of Pisanki behind it exhibiting the tradition and art of decorating Easter eggs. And along the street, marquees selling beer, kiosks with snacks… but where can you sit, where can you eat? No military kitchens here today; the one restaurant - closed!
So where is history then? An imposing red-brick building - the Museum of Arts & Crafts - is this where Marshall Rydz-Smigly had his HQ? Walk along a little further – Polish Catholic church. It’s Sunday, the church is full and at the end of the mass two priests standing at the doorway bid the parishioners goodbye. But we can sense that not all is as it should be, or is, as in Kazakhstan or even in Belarus. The Polish priest is not very forthcoming in talking to a Polish-speaking foreigner about Poles in Kolomyja – is it because the priest next to him is Ukrainian? Parishioners are polite but that’s all. A young woman met further up the road was born here, in Kolomyja, but now lives in Poland and only returns to see her mother. Never would she want to live here permanently again; the environment for Polish people here is oppressive; constraints at every step. Evidently that feeling of resentment towards the Poles demonstrated in the blood and the atrocities of the mid 1940’s is only just under the skin of politics in Ukraine.
But a little further, practically on the periphery of Kolomyja stands, or rather sits close to the ground, a relic from history. You will want to once, twice or perhaps even more times walk around this small Orthodox Church to marvel at this architectural jewel and its remarkable construction entirely from wood; it’s even more remarkable that it has survived four centuries of time, and half a century of communism. And if you need a rest, you may find a place on the bench in the shade under the deep - unique - eves around the church, but you will have to squeeze in-between the thousands of pilgrims and other faithful who had sat here over the centuries resting, talking stories, sharing bread, eggs, pork belly… Inside, the church is spell-binding; the colours, paintings, and the light penetrating down from high above makes you hold your breath and walk on tiptoe. And behind the church, a long memory lane takes you into the past. Imagine how much history lies buried in the graves here - if only one could decipher the writings on the tombstones. The entire cemetery is almost itself buried in greenery, in silence and peace - the past laid to rest even if not forgiven; unable to prevent the future.
Walk further along to the bridge over the river Prut and now you know why the town is empty of people. As far as the eye can see, bathers dot the pebbly beach on both side of the river. Dip your toe in, wade up to your knee… now you begin to feel the joy of “Huculszczyzna”…
… Tam szum Prutu…”
But even if you had thought of cooling your sore feet in the Prut on those hot autumnal days, on the 17th you would have been galvanized into action; you would race to join the Exodus. Searching, packing, abandoning, destroying… First the limousines, the Generals, the officers in uniform, all ashen-faced - go, go! Kuty! Gendarmes and the police try to keep some semblance of order… You! You! Later, later…
A minibus runs the fifty miles from Kolomyja to Kosow. The sun is trying to break through the clouds; perhaps yet another hot day, but no clouds of dust as it was then -the road is asphalted. But in Kosow it’s turned out to be quite a different day. On Monday and every other day of the weeks to come it is bazaar day - an amazing splash of colour, a staggering display of artefacts and Hucul traditional craft. Whatever you may want as souvenir - it’s there for you - but nowhere can I buy the memories, photographs nor even postcards of that September in 939. But the moment I begin to despair, Nature comes to aid my imagination: a black cloud descends onto this little town, thunder and lightening render the sky, rain sharp as bullets rakes the civilians; utter surprise, confusion, mad rush to salvage one’s possessions; mad rush to find shelter…
We were lucky; we found shelter and roof over our heads, and a bowl of hot soup, bread and tea. Others were still running in utter confusion, some wet right through, some stripped of their clothing, their limbs showing… A large group of Armenians took shelter at the next two tables; leather jackets, shouts and embracing… masses of food descended on the table, and vodka helped to weather the storm, to survive. And they have good reasons to celebrate and good reasons to be thankful, for Kuty just a few miles distant was well known as the “Polish Capital of Armenians”. And their story is full of woe in the land of Ukraine… Some twenty minutes later the matinee ended; Nature withdrew behind the curtain of clouds; the storm abated - now we knew how it was on the Romanian side on the way to Czerniowiec, on the night of the 17th.
Seventy years later we walk that fateful bridge from Kuty to Wyznica. “Romania” - we made it! No border here now; not a soul in sight – this is Ukraine now! But Czeremosz still flows into the distance as it will; swing left, swing right, leave shoals of rocks and pebbles here or there and everywhere along its banks. And no wonder that the mysterious wooded hills covered in blue haze today draw the river south… Only an excavator and a bulldozer rummage laboriously in the pebbly shoal in an endless and useless struggle with the river…
Tam szum Prutu Czeremosza…
Where Prut and Czeremosz ripple into the distance…
But after the events of the 17th, after the bloodletting of the early 1940’s, after the enforced Sovietization and the kolkhozes and sovhozes; after its conversion into Ukraine what does that rippling Prut or Czeremosz mean to the people of Kuty today? Who now tamps their feet under the table when they hear the refrain?
By the time the rain stopped on the Romanian side of the border, the road to Czerniowiec was churned into quagmire, and the cavalcade of vehicles came to a grinding halt. One by one, they had to be rescued and, at last, arrived in Czerniowiec in the nearly hours of the 18th. Even at this early hour, the streets were full of Polish vehicles, soldiers and refugees seeking a place for the night and information about what and where next.
But seventy years later, who would be anxious to leave Czerniowiec? The roads are dry, the hotel welcoming… warmth, light, Mediterranean atmosphere; the city welcomes you into its embrace. At night it exerts an even greater pull: the central square is crowded with people sitting at tables, eating, drinking, flooded with music and illuminations… what a different world to-day! The railway station is still there but, in contrast to the central square, it is abandoned in dust and neglect by the side of a through-road, empty. But jump the road barrier, walk downhill, and any of the well-trodden paths leading through open woods will take you to the river Prut.
And the Prut flows as if nothing had ever happened here before, as if the world was happy and content. It welcomes you on its grass-covered sandy verges and its wide-open pebbly beaches that continue into infinity. It welcomes you and hundreds other lithe, half-naked bodies – human sharks, hippos and their babies frolicking in its warm waters - contentment and happiness you may think surrounds you. And yet, if you notice your wife looking at you with that quizzical smile in her eyes, your eyes will start counting the pebbles on the beach for you know that she knows that, should you offer, not one but a queue of these beautiful lithe bodies would happily go with you to Poland, to England, the USA too. They wait for you on the main roads in Poland, at near-by hotels… on your doorstep, almost, in London too. Life is not quite as happy and relaxed as it seems.
Who still remembers that night back in 1939? All night lights were burning bright in the Bishop’s Palace. The President, the Prime Minister and the Commander-in-Chief were pressing their Romanian counterparts for a quick transit through Romania on their way to France. Indeed, the Romanian hosts would be only too happy to provide free passage and to see all the Poles go, but they demanded of Polish dignitaries to first relinquish their official functions! Relinquish?! Travel as civilians?! What a slap in the face, an insult almost – and that from an Ally! How dare they, how could they! An air of anger on one side and an apologetic mien on the face of the others left this fundamental issue hanging in the air - unresolved. It was becoming quite obvious that the Romanian hosts were under pressure from German officials in Bucharest to lock-in the Polish problem, and the Romanian Ally feared getting entangled in an armed conflict with Hitler. It didn’t look good…
Polish officials were anxious to head for Bucharest, and from there, to continue representing the Polish Nation, be it from exile. A special, train was readied for the Polish President and government officials to take them to Slanic and then on to Bucharest. To the consternation and shock of many, Marshall Rydz-Smigly was also on the train; in their eyes this was the ultimate disgrace: the Commander-in-Chief abandoning the Country while Polish forces were still fighting the invader. But the train did leave the station - it was night time - and was it due to the confusion on Romanian railway network, or the confusion in Romanian politics, or the German threats and pressure… the Presidential carriage arrived in Bicaz with an “invitation” for President Moscicki to reside in the King’s palace there – not in Bucharest! The Commander-in-Chief found himself much further south-east in Craiova on the Bulgarian border; only Beck, the Foreign Minister made it to Slanic.
While the others travelled by train, the Prime Minister, General Felicjan Skladkowski and his entourage left Czerniowiec by car. Again via Storozyniec where they stopped for the night, and if they were to look towards Poland they would have seen a red glow in the sky – Kosow was burning?! And if they were to stay a day longer, they would have heard the bitter defence of the bridge in Kuty by the remnants of Polish forces against the flood of the Red Army. Indeed, the Polish Government had crossed just in time, and the Polish “Alamo” did not fall without a bloody fight!
The Prime Minister’s cavalcade continued on to Roman, Bacau and on to Slanic in Moldova. They were travelling on country roads now full of pits and ruts through open steppes raising a huge cloud of dense, suffocating dust. Few people in between towns, fewer petrol stations still. The cavalcade stopped for a respite, and a few hundred yards on a parallel track a small car and its two passengers were in obvious distress – General Sikorski was stuck in the middle of nowhere; his car had run out of petrol! Notwithstanding the history between the two generals, the Prime Minister-of-now did play the role of the Good Samaritan and expedited the Prime Minister-soon-to-be on his way to France.
Polish officers and soldiers were equally anxious to get out of Romania and on to Syria or France, to wherever Polish men were reforming into fighting units alongside the Allied forces. On foot, in cars or carts, they followed the same country roads heading for Bucharest but they were being directed to reception camps where they were to be fed, organized and readied for transit out of Romania. It didn’t take long for them to realize that they were, in fact, being interned. Bitterness, sarcasm and animosity towards the Government prevailed amongst the Polish refugees.
By the time the Prime Minister arrived in Slanic late on the 19th there was no longer any doubt about it – all Polish officials had become internees; no question now of any formal political activity from a base in Romania! The French officials encountered here or along the way couldn’t look the Polish officials in the eye; what was in their mind then: a shocking disgrace on the battlefield, a culpable abandonment of the Country and its People by the Government? France… that had hardly lifted a finger in defence of its Ally in those critical days of September 1939 was now wagging its finger in the Polish face – if only those French could see, just a few months ahead, to May 1940 and the shame brought upon their own country by their own People…
In those early days of the War, France was still seen by Polish people as the natural destination for all Polish émigrés, a natural place for the reassembly of forces willing to fight for “your freedom and ours”. But France had had enough of the badgering by colonel Jozef Beck, the Polish Foreign Minister, and by Marshall Rydz-Smigly for military assistance to the point of acute embarrassment in its reluctance to engage the enemy. Their finger was already pointing to “their man”, one they “could work with” – to General Wladyslaw Sikorski. He too had crossed the bridge in Kuty; drove down the same country roads across the Moldavian steppes to Bucharest; he had no difficulty in obtaining a French entry visa and was quickly spirited away to Paris.
Under General Sikorski, there was no place for anyone from the 1939 government - that festering resentment of General Sikorski and his followers towards those from Marshall Pilsudski group surfaced even in times of national distress. Only those on the list of people approved by the General could enter the ranks of Polish Government-in-exile in Paris, or play any role in political or military affairs; only they could easily obtain a French entry visa from whichever French consulate; to others French doors were closed – not officially but effectively. And so the game of ministerial musical chairs in the Polish Government in Paris began.
It soon became obvious that neither the President nor the Government could function in Romania but it was essential to provide continuity in the running of Polish affairs and in representing Poland on the international arena. Ignacy Moscicki abdicated the Presidency and passed the insignia to a new man in Paris – Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz -acceptable to the French; General Sikorski was nominated the Prime Minister and the Commander-in-Chief of all Polish armed forces. The old, 1939, Cabinet was now redundant and submitted its resignation – Slawoj-Sklakowski, Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski, Jozef Beck, Tadeusz Kasprzycki, Antoni Roman, Juliusz Poniatowski, Marian Koscialkowski, Wojciech Swietoslawski, Juliusz Ulrych, Emil Kalinski, Witold Grabowski, Michal Grazynski, Waclaw Kostek-Biernacki.
It’s painful to see how a Nation can turn against its leaders at a time of great national tragedy as if they alone carried the blame for the perceived “fiasco” of Poland’s defence against German attack from one side, and the duplicity of Stalin on the other. Who could have imagined, back in 1939/40 that France – the great France – will fall to Hitler in just 14 days when Poland had fought on for a month in defence of its territory, and then would carry on the fight at the side of its Allies in Libya, in Italy, in Norway, and fight so gallantly in the defence of Great Britain itself? And who at that time fully realized the might of the German war machine; who then had anticipated that it will take the combined might of the USA, Great Britain with its Colonies, and the same Stalin’s empire to halt and eventually destroy Hitler’s Germany; and who at the time foresaw that it will take five years? If the Nation had known; if the Nation had not been split into two mutually antagonistic political camps; if, if… perhaps its judgement would have been different.
If you happened to be in Geneva and by chance had visited Versoix - a nearby village - and made your way to the local cemetery, you might have become intrigued by a simple grave with an ordinary wooden cross marked with letters I.M. - nothing more. I am… who? And you would have had to wait until 1993 for the Polish Nation to tell you that there lay its President! Ignacy Moscicki, died 2nd October 1946. The Nation turned against him in 1939; it would rather forget him; and at his own request he preferred to lie in this grave… forgotten. Two generations later, in the now free and independent Poland, the Nation brought back its President and laid his remains in the Cathedral in Warsaw - in his rightful place.
And Marshall Edward Rydz-Smigly? Commander-in-Chief and, at the time, the heir-apparent to the Presidency? The Nation disowned him after the “ignominious defeat” and, as some say, his “escape” from the battlefield to Romania. He initiated - “Oboz Polski Walczacej” - an underground resistance movement on Polish territory; escaped from internment to Romania and via Hungary and Slovakia re-entered Poland. He went to Warsaw, wanted to join in the fight and resistance to Germany, but all doors were slammed shut in his face. This is what General Sikorski had to say: "the Polish Government will regard a sojourn of the Marshall in Poland as a sabotage of its work in the country. The Marshal must as soon as possible move to some country of the British Empire”. Soon after, on December 22, 1941, he died of heart failure in Warsaw and was buried at the Powazki Cemetery under his alias Adam Zawisza. Or did he die of a broken heart at the loss of the Country and its People he loved and had fought for? How will the Nation remember this man who served it loyally since the inception of the struggle for independence in 1917; in the taking of Wilno in April 1919; as the Commander of the 3rd Army that took Kijow; as Commander of the main thrust against the Soviet forces in their retreat from the river Wieprz…? Will it have forgotten too his skilled paintings of Polish landscapes?
For how long will the “ignominious defeat” label stain Felicjan Slawoj-Skladkowski’s reputation? For how long will half of the Polish Nation never forgive him for his absolute loyalty to Jozef Pilsudski and the blind execution of his policies; he stood by Pilsudski without any hesitation during the May 1926 putsch; he stood by Marszalek’s bed at the moment of his last breath. As the Governor of Warsaw, the Minister of the Interior, 2nd Vice-Minister for Military Affairs, the Prime Minister from 15/05/1935 until his resignation on 30/09/1939 - the longest serving Prime Minister in the history of the “II Rzeczpospolita” (republic) - he served his country honorably, with dynamism, and well. He managed to slip away from internment in Romania and was eventually “permitted” to enter the armed forces, but not for long for the label stuck and people clamored to have him out. Eventually, he made his way to the U.K. He died in London, August 31, 1962 and, at last, thirty years later, found his rightful place in the Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw. Perhaps in time he will be better remembered for his writings than the tragedy of September 1939, but even to-day, some will think of the “Slawojki” as his main legacy - external toilets he promoted throughout the rural areas for improved hygiene.
And General Wladyslaw Sikorski - the “king maker” of the Polish Government in exile in Paris and then in London; the Commander-in-Chief of all Polish forces at home and those alongside the Allies; the unassailable Polish hero after his tragic death in the plain crash in 1943..? What was speaking through his voice when, in answer to Skladkowski’s request to join the active service at any level or function the General sees fit in order to serve the Country, the General wrote:
“To former Prime Minister Felicjan Slawoj-Skladkowski at Basile Herculane.
I have received your request to join the active service. You ask for the impossible. I do not possess at my command neither the police force nor gendarmes to protect you from the insults and threats to which inevitably you will be exposed in any larger Polish grouping. You, the Prime Minister of the Government responsible for the unimaginable rout which we have suffered should understand that only one option is left to you: let the people forget you.
Minister for War and Commander in Chief”
Was the General not perhaps simply the right man at the right time - and for just the right length of time? For how would the Nation have judged him in the light of Yalta, in the light of his Allies ceding Polish “Kresy” – the entire eastern borderlands to Belarus and Ukraine, and more, abandoning Poland in its entirety to the dictates of Stalin and the rule from Moscow… and then the final slap in the face: excluding the Polish military from the Victory Parade in London? Could he have changed the course of history?
Colonel Jozef Beck - another unwavering supporter of Marshall Pilsudski – imposing in stature and ability, Foreign Minister from 1932-39. He feared Hitler’s German rapacity less then Stalin’s duplicity and Communism, yet it was he who said NO! to Hitler’s demands on Poland while the West, the Allies, were pleading for Poland to acquiesce as the Austrians, the Czechs and Slovaks, and Chamberlain had done… and was he not proven right? Who dares throw it in his face that Poland was poorly trained and inadequately armed… think of the “Great” Britain, of France with its Napoleonic ambitions; who at the time was ready, prepared, equipped to take on Hitler’s might? But for Colonel Beck, internment in Romania was sealed; access to France, to Great Britain, to the continuation of the fight was closed. The once imposing figure wilted in Romania, died of tuberculosis and lay in foreign soil.