How We Escaped From Poland

As the Germans approached Warsaw there was an increasing exodus from the capital.  This personal account of dangers endured on the way to Romania by 1,500 refugees was sent by Mr J Crang, “News chronicle” Warsaw correspondent, to his paper and republished by War Illustrated.

The foreign diplomats, journalists and officials were still sitting in Warsaw’s fashionable cafe’s talking about a long war when they learned that they must pack and depart within a few hours.  Very few managed to take anything with them.  My family and myself went, leaving everything behind.

So big was the rush out from Warsaw that it took over an hour to cross Vistula Bridge towards the Eastern station, where a train was supposed to be waiting for us.  It took three hours to find the carriages.  The station represented the worst confusion imaginable, mothers shouting in the dark for their children, husbands for wives, children weeping for their parents, all fearing a repetition of the raids which a day earlier had bombarded the same station, killing many.

The train was composed of fourteen carriages carrying officials from the Ministry of War, the Ministry of Justice, of the interior, of Foreign Affairs Social and Public works, Education and the Senate.  It was originally destined for Lublin, the first halt of the evacuated Polish Government.  But the direct route was impossible owing to the damaged railway line at Deblin.  We were taken a roundabout way, subjecting about 1,500 men, women and children in the tain to the worst ordeal imaginable.

The first encounter with a German bomber was about 60 miles north of Warsaw.  The bomber flew over the train at a low altitude, causing indescribable panic.  Passengers jumped out of the carriages and ran into the fields and woods seeking any available shelter. But the bomber hurried onto the junction station in front of us, where 20 minutes later we ran into real hell.

Soon we reached the station called Czeremcha.  Three German bombers arrived before we had time to look for shelter, and over fifty bombs were dropped, including several incendiary bombs.  No shelters were available.  Women, men and children clung to trees, knelt praying in the open fields and hid in the ditches near the road, whilst bombers came in still larger numbers attacking fiercely the railway junction.  I am not sure even now which noise was the more terrifying, women and children or the explosion of the bombs.

I saw a mother lying with her baby in a crater made by a bomb during one of the earlier German attacks on the same station.  My own little boy aged four, who had gone through over thirty air raids in Warsaw clung to my knees, weeping and calling “Daddy, dear, tell them to stop bombing”.  Before we left our ditches we were bombed again and again, each time with greater ferocity and determination.  Surprisingly, this station linking north-east Poland with the capital was entirely unprotected, so that the German planes did their destructive work without risk.  The stationmaster, worn out after enduring about 30 air raids, remained calmly on duty and managed to keep his eye on my little boy, who was wandering about scanning the sky to see whether the bombers were coming back.

The bombers had obviously not aimed at the passengers, but were attempting to destroy the junction so as to hinder transport.  Otherwise a few, but all would have been killed. Our ordeal was not over.  It began again when more bombers arrived and hovered over the ghost train.  Time after time the passengers left the carriages in terror and hid in fields, woods and ditches.  Once, when the bombers reappeared overhead, women and children escaped by lying down in swamps inches deep in water until the planes had passed.  So terrified became the passengers that the slightest noise caused people to jump from the train.  At each station one saw passengers, unable to bear the strain any longer, disappear into the woods and not emerge again.  A judge in Poland’s highest tribunal, who travelled in the same carriage with me, left the train with his wife, preferring to remain in the fields rather than continue his journey.  After each bombing fewer passengers remained in the train.  Those who remained had their nerves shattered, particularly the women and children.  Food and water were completely unobtainable, and people were fainting from exhaustion.  The most pitiable sight was the little white faced, terror striken children trying to hide themselves to escape the bombing.  Their cries are still ringing in my ears!  For four days the trains wandered from place to place, unable to reach Lublin because the town has been heavily bombed.  The train was diverted to Chelm Kowel, later to Luck and finally to Krzeimieniec, dropping various ministerial officers on the way.  Soon over Krzemieniec the German bombers appeared, too and dropped 10 bombs killing 31 people.   Unable to obtain other means of transport many people hired plain peasant carts to take them out of Krzemieniec farther away towards the Rumanian border. We followed them for three days and nights wondering by road, keeping away from the main highways in fear of enemy planes, but even on the side roads the planes followed us, but making no attempt to bomb us.

We met tens of thousands of refugees fleeing from the Germans without really knowing where they were going.  Many frontier zones were suddenly closed to refugees and people were running from place to place in search of refuge, like mice in a trap.  We met refugees from Silecia and Galicia who has walked for 500 miles and were looking like skeletons.  They had lost all human appearance.  After two days in Zaleszczyki we managed to cross into Romania about an hour before the frontier closed.

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