"Extremely vivid: events observed by a bright little boy, recollected and given their true significance by a mature historian. It is peopled by magnificant characters." —Tablet
Crater's Edge: A Family's Epic Journey Through Wartime Russiaby Michal Giedroyc
A remarkable true story of survival during World War II, eloquently told, sparkling with moments of humor and optimism that shine all the brighter for the surrounding darkness
In September 1939, as a 10-year-old boy, Michal Giedroyc watched the Russian security police seize his home in Eastern Poland. His father, a senator and judge, was imprisoned/b>
A remarkable true story of survival during World War II, eloquently told, sparkling with moments of humor and optimism that shine all the brighter for the surrounding darkness
In September 1939, as a 10-year-old boy, Michal Giedroyc watched the Russian security police seize his home in Eastern Poland. His father, a senator and judge, was imprisoned while his mother, with Michal and his two sisters, were left on the streets of the local town to fend for themselves. Later they were transported in cattle trucks to the wastes of Soviet Siberia, with hundreds of thousands of other deportees. "Here, by the will of the rulers of the Soviet Empire, we were to toil and die." Eighteen months of deprivation and hunger on a collective farm brought them to the brink of extinction. Exhausted, half starved, and ill, Michal's mother and her children set off on a second grueling journey that would take them across Central Asia to Persia, the Middle East, and finally England. In one dramatic incident their survival hinged remarkably on the just two simple objects—a potato and a penknife. Woven into the narrative are memories of a gentler prewar period when the Giedroyc family revived a failing country estate and enjoyed an idyllic way of life that vanished forever in 1939.
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By Michal Giedroyc
Bene Factum Publishing LtdCopyright © 2010 Michal Giedroyc
All rights reserved.
August of 1939 ran its course. City guests were gone; the harvest was brought in. After a busy summer, my mother returned to what she loved best, her orchards and beehives, bravely enduring stings and swollen eyes. My father was well again after his summer holiday, sunburnt and lean. He shaved off his beard, and tried to restore a passable growth of hair to his shorn head.
My elder sister Anuska was banished to the furthest guest-room, known as norka (little burrow), to study away from distractions. She had to retake her first-year university exams, which she had failed two months earlier in the wake of the Warsaw season. Anuska kept the window wide open onto the park, and through that window, one morning, an owl flew in looking for a quiet corner after a night's hunting. My sister welcomed company, and the owl took up residence on a tall stove. Norka thus became a shared refuge, and my father, ever anoptimist, saw in this an omen: the owl, symbol of lofty thought, encouraging a frivolous student. In fact, my elder sister seemed not to apply herself all that strenuously. Her relaxed routine matched the unhurried lifestyle of the owl. The atmosphere of norka was in harmony with the hot summer outside.
My sister Tereska had just passed her matura (baccalaureate) examination. At the age of seventeen this was something of an achievement, which my parents decided to reward by letting her enter the Warsaw Higher School of Journalism. That dream was to be fulfilled in September, which she awaited in a state of euphoria. In the meantime she spent every spare moment in the saddle, as if to reassure her temperamental gelding, Breeze, that parting would be temporary. The atmosphere in the stables was emotional.
I too was about to enter the World. My father decreed that for one year I was to attend 'the best' private day school in Warsaw, called, somewhat pretentiously, 'The Future'. That was to be followed by the First Cadet Corps at Lwów. My father formed a view that I was in need of discipline dispensed by men; and for this the Lwów military school was renowned. I welcomed these plans. The glamour of the capital, and the prospect of military glory (the First Corps was the school of my dreams) outweighed any doubts I may have had regarding army discipline.
The manor and its two home farms – the small world around me – continued its peaceful and self-centred existence. There was talk of war, of course, and we knew that our local cavalry brigade, commanded by a young major-general called Wladyslaw Anders, had already been deployed near the East Prussian border. We had caught glimpses of his mounted squadrons during recent manoeuvres; we believed them invincible. Twenty years earlier, in the Polish-Soviet War, men like Anders had defeated Lenin's Red Army. I failed to notice how concerned my father (an experienced staff officer) was becoming. The large map of Europe – a new addition to his office – was peppered with pins and arrows pointing towards Warsaw from the north, west and south. Soon after, our German governess, Fräulein Marie Schmidt, was sent back to Berlin. The fruit contractors – also German – quietly disappeared. Mlle Félicité, the French governess, left for home. In the dying days of that August, mounted messengers began making frequent trips to the local post office: my father was anxiously awaiting instructions from Warsaw.
And I, surrounded by all these events, remained casually oblivious to their significance. Instead, I was absorbed by my new role as my father's companion on his rounds of inspection. This was a rite of passage: the shedding of women and nursery in favour of a public presence alongside my father. In the parlance of the home farms and the villages, I was assuming the position of 'Young Master' (Panicz in Polish) at the elbow of my father. I remember how carefully he watched me during these outings. At the time I assumed that he was checking my horsemanship. It occurs to me now that on the eve of the storm he suddenly became concerned for my capacity to grow up unaided.
On 1st September, in glorious late summer weather, German Panzers rolled into Poland. The wireless reported indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. Even before the violation of the Polish frontier, General Werner von Richthofen of the Luftwaffe ordered his dive-bombers to strike at Wielun, a small border town of no importance. For the general on the other hand, the foray itself was of the greatest importance: he had just launched the definitive test-flight, with a live target, for his latest Stukas. The Luftwaffe flattened the town's school and cottage hospital, and virtually everything else. On that September morning Wielun assumed its place in history alongside Guernica. The Polish regular army was denied its reserves because in the dying days of peace Poland's Western Allies repeatedly asked the Polish Government to delay general mobilisation – until it was too late. My father's summons did not reach him either: Lobzów, in the depth of the Eastern Marches, was beyond the reach of a communication system stretched to the limit.
1st September began in an orderly fashion. Early in the morning a police constable cycled over from Dereczyn to inquire about the whereabouts of Lobzów's Germans, the governess and the orchard contractors. Satisfied that they were no longer with us, he moved on. Later in the morning my mother decided to visit Dereczyn. I noted that the trip was unscheduled because it was a Friday, and my mother's weekly visit always took place on Tuesdays – market day. I asked permission to accompany her and we set off together in the wolant (our four-wheeled everyday carriage), with the coachman Kosowiec on the box wearing his summer pudermantel and peaked cap. We arrived at Mr Wieniacki's store to confront the familiar ritual: the owner stepping out to offer his guests chocolates on a silver salver. The only difference was that the store was unusually crowded. My mother swept in, chatted to friends and acquaintances, and then, quite deliberately, bought just two kilos of sugar. The crowd began to disperse, reassured that there was no need for panic buying. It was an impressive example of public relations, although perhaps it would have been more prudent not to discourage the housewives of Dereczyn from stocking their larders.
My father's increasingly desperate attempts to contact the Parliament offices in Wiejska Street remained fruitless. Over a tense luncheon he spoke of going off to his regiment. It was a pipe dream: he knew very well that senators were debarred from active service. What he could not have known was that this law was to be relaxed two days later, on 3rd September. So he did what the best of Napoleon's marshals would have done in the circumstances: he decided to 'march towards the sound of the guns'. On that same 3rd September the coachman Kosowiec took him, this time in the shining victoria (our formal carriage), to the railway station. At Zelwa my father began his race against German armour towards Warsaw.
My mother, quietly resolute, was left behind in charge of Lobzów. The news from the front was bad, but I for one remained unaffected, since there were no dramatic symptoms of conflict around me. My mother, ever sanguine, insisted that intervention by France and England was imminent. Her confidence was reassuring to our agent Mr Dabrowski and his staff. The manor and its home farms, away from the battlefield and major highways or railroads, continued its uninterrupted routine.
There was, in fact, an early meeting with the enemy, but it turned out to be innocent. My mother was doing the rounds of her beehives and orchards when she heard the sound of a low-flying aeroplane. As it swept past her, she – quite certain that it was one of ours – waved at the pilot, and he waved back. Then my mother saw on the fuselage a black cross. Marteczka, my nanny, was furious, and for the first time I heard her scold her mistress: 'You really should try to be more careful!'
It must have been a reconnaissance aircraft, because soon afterwards we heard the sound of distant bombs. Later we were told that the bridge on the river Niemen, some 30 kilometres away, was destroyed. On that cloudless afternoon people looked to the sky; and, sure enough, a flight droned overhead at high altitude, dropping one single bomb on Dereczyn. Our church spire was the marker, obviously, because the bomb exploded nearby. A largish crater marked the spot. Mercifully there were no casualties.
The war had arrived on our doorstep. Yet still there was no news from Warsaw. My mother placed the victoria at the railway station on permanent stand-by, and, as we waited, tension began to mount.
One morning – it was, I think, 12th September – I was told that my father had returned in the early hours, and that we should be quiet because he was resting. When eventually he emerged, he still looked tired. And, surprisingly, the great raconteur was silent. My mother did manage to winkle out of him a few details and these I now put together was told that the direct line to Warsaw had already been disrupted. He was advised to take a roundabout route via Brest (Brzesc), a good 150 kilometres due south-west. When he eventually arrived there, he noticed long anonymous trains in the sidings. He was told (in whispers) that this was the first wave of evacuation, involving the senior echelons of government. My father should perhaps have turned round at Brest, but he did not; he decided to go against the current, hopeful that instructions might still be awaiting him in the capital.
He reached Warsaw on the 6th and found the Senate chamber, corridors, and offices deserted; Parliament had left the capital the day before. The city under air bombardment was blacked out, public transport was overcrowded, telephones more often than not dead, and all the railway stations besieged by refugees. The next day my father decided to turn around and go eastwards: the state administration was already there – and also his wife and children. Going against the current was hard enough; joining the exodus became a nightmare. Roads and railways were virtually grid-locked, and along these my father picked his way, first by car and later – when there was no more petrol – by train, cart, and on foot. He did not want to talk about this part of his journey. All he said was that he was surrounded by 'fire and blood'. The Luftwaffe saw to that. German armour took up its positions on the approaches to Warsaw on the 8th.
During the next five days a strange, tense silence descended on Lobzów. Except, that is, for one interruption, which happened soon after my father's return. At lunch – still an orderly affair with servants and restrained conversation – we were disturbed by the sound of an aeroplane. By then there were few, if any, Polish aircraft flying, and my father's instinctive reaction was to order all of us to gather tightly around the doorway between the dining room and the big drawing room. Which was all that he could do. The sound became a roar – and then it faded away. No violence was done on this occasion. We all returned to the table. Life went back to 'normal': the farming routines continued and the sky remained cloudless.
My father stayed glued to the wireless, and when the batteries went dead he began taking frequent walks to the village to listen to the wireless of Mr Stecko, the school-teacher. I went with him, and I soon discovered that the two men were now listening to Moscow, not Warsaw or Berlin. The Russian word neitralitet (neutrality) came over the air-waves more than once. On 17th September the Soviet radio announced that the Red Army had crossed the border of the Polish Republic. A second invasion of our country had begun.
Lobzów manor, an outpost of the old order, now found itself in no-man's-land between two enemies: in the west the Germans, and in the east the Red Army. Law and order, in force as long as the Polish Army fought its defensive campaign against the Wehrmacht, suddenly collapsed. All now depended on the reaction of the local communities: our two Belarus'ian villages of Lobzów and Kotczyn, and the ethnically mixed township of Dereczyn. My father looked to them for signals.
Word came almost immediately from the local 'committees' that they would be willing to discuss interim arrangements with the 'Master-Heir'. The committees were a spontaneous response to danger. They were concerned with immediate security, but they also sensed opportunities for land redistribution.
These early contacts between the manor and the committees were not hostile, or even tense. Our villages remembered my father as a useful neighbour and, perhaps even more importantly, as a just and sympathetic local magistrate. The members of the committees, at this stage all of them village elders, were well known to my parents, and some of them were on friendly terms with the manor. Through them arrangements were made for a meeting in Dereczyn, to which my father intended to take the whole family in case it was decided to stay in Dereczyn, or even move to Slonim, a town some thirty-five kilometres to the east.
On this same 17th day of September, quite early in the morning, a yellow cabriolet, pulled by a handsome pair of greys, came up the front drive. In it sat a mustachioed old gentleman accompanied by two young women and a large, soigné-looking bulldog. In an automatic reaction reminiscent of the Conciergerie under the Terror, my parents formally received their guests in the porch – with the committee members at a discreet distance. The guests were the Staszewskis, a gentleman and his two nieces, Zosia and Margot, from the Hniezna estate near Wolkowysk, about forty kilometres to the west. My parents did not know them, but knew of them. The girls looked extremely sophisticated and my younger sister Tereska – aged seventeen and still under wraps – eyed them with some envy. They were escaping from the approaching Germans – straight into the open arms of the Soviets. ... The committee received our guests with reservation, and – since there was a danger that criminal gangs might approach from further afield – they asked my father to take the Staszewskis with us to Dereczyn.
The meeting with the committees began in the early afternoon of the 18th, across the table in the mayor's office. I remember it well because we were all present. The meeting was long, and to me boring. I did not know that around that table arrangements were being made for the next two or three days; those two or three days, that today seem to me the most dangerous days of our lives. The committees told my father that within our commune of Dereczyn he and his family were safe. They could not however guarantee our safety further afield, and for that reason they advised against the journey to Slonim. The decision was taken that the Giedroyces (and their guests) return to the manor. My father closed the meeting with a statement that a new order was about to arrive, and that 'our' two villages should immediately assume the role of stewards of the manor's assets, in this way asserting their claim to the home farms in the face of the Soviet authorities. It was a calm and pragmatic acceptance of the inevitable, and at the same time a hint of what a post-Soviet future might ultimately hold for the smallholders of Lobzów and Kotczyn. The priceless gift of safety, however brittle and short-lived, was repaid with far-sighted advice.
Staszewski was asked to surrender his gun, but my father was allowed to keep his. Late at night we arrived back at the manor, where the children were put to bed fully dressed, and the adults – my parents, Staszewski and our 'minders' sent by the village of Lobzów – began their vigil. The night was not peaceful. A small detachment of the Polish Army, a dozen or so hungry and disoriented men with an officer, arrived on the doorstep. They had to be fed and comforted; and our Lobzów minders had to be reassured that no plans were being hatched behind their backs towards restoration of the old social order. Eventually the soldiers took to the road, having been told by my father that the enclave they were leaving behind was at peace with itself, for the time being at least.
Tuesday the 19th was quiet. The presence of the committee was reassuring, and a feeling of shared danger strengthened the bond between the minders and the minded. There were even some laughs, as when my mother suggested that in anticipation of the arrival of the Soviet authorities she should make up some red armbands for the committee members. The offer was readily accepted. And it proved timely, because late that night a Soviet reconnaissance patrol knocked on our front door.
It was obviously an elite detachment, led by a polite and very professional officer. At supper, to which he was invited, he showed me his heavy nagan (Russian-style revolver), and to my father he revealed his detailed map with instructions how to find the home of Senator Giedroyc. The patrol departed quietly, and then my sister Tereska and I hatched the stupidest plot imaginable. We decided to bury several bottles of our favourite cherry syrup at the far corner of the park, because we did not wish the newcomers to steal this treasured delicacy. The deed was done as the sky darkened, the wind rose, and the trees of the park became agitated. This silly piece of conspiracy was almost certainly noticed by the minders; they kept their counsel, but would not have been amused.
Excerpted from Crater's Edge by Michal Giedroyc. Copyright © 2010 Michal Giedroyc. Excerpted by permission of Bene Factum Publishing Ltd.
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Meet the Author
Michal Giedroyc was born into an aristocratic family in what is today Belarus, and after an extraordinary five years of survival against the odds, built a successful post-war career as an international aircraft designer, industrial consultant, and finally settling in Oxford as an academic. Norman Davies is a prominent historian whose books include Europe: A History, No Simple Victory, and Vanished Kingdoms.
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