Here Józef gives a brief example of the plight of civilians as they try to escape the invasion and the dilemma he faces in obeying the rules or following his instincts.
It was a beautiful day and the sun was scorching as on all those September days. We passed another manor house set up as a first aid station at which large buses from the Silesia bus line were frequently arriving. It seemed that an evacuation to Kraków was already starting from some distance away.
We rode into a narrow street. Once more people gathered around with tomatoes, cigarettes and whatever they could give. The drivers were experts at “receiving” gifts, so I got something as well.
On the road there were large numbers of refugees. It was a strange sight. Men from 18 years of age, young people and those up to 50 years old and older were fleeing – women, girls, all sorts and types.
There was fear in their eyes and in their haste. They were walking with next to nothing – often they didn’t even have capes, some just had a bundle or a relatively small suitcase. This sight made one’s heart bleed. Seeing those tired faces, I wanted to take everyone in my parked cart, but I could only help one or two at most. The horses were so tired and had such an awfully long road all the way to Brodła. Besides there were clear rules not to take civilians in the carts, because you didn’t know who you were dealing with. (A few days later we became convinced that amongst these refugees were a number of infiltrators.)
So we went on and I often blocked my ears so as not to hear the request: “Please take me in your cart”. I didn’t turn around, so as not to look these people in the eyes.
After some time we passed two young people on the right hand side of the road – probably a married couple.
“Please take us,” he said. His face looked somewhat non-Aryan.
I replied, “Sir, the cart is for sick and injured soldiers, I can’t take civilians.”
Then hardly moving, the woman said to him, “Listen, I just can’t go on any further. I can’t go another step.”
“Sir,” she turned to me, “take me even if you take me alone.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t. Besides we are going somewhere else, we will be turning off the road.”
Then she cast such a penetrating look at me with such pain in her eyes, with tears and pleading and reproach, that it disturbed me and in a flash I remembered my own dearest ones, thinking: what if one of them at this same moment is in this same situation, and she turned to someone, and in the same way this person refused to help her?
The cart was moving slowly at a walking pace. They – these two – were also walking slowly alongside, clutching on to the cart. Then, with that penetrating look, the woman staggered and let go of the cart. She would have fallen away from it, but I seized her arm and with the help of her companion I hauled her into the cart. I was overcome with shame. In her eyes I saw such complete joy that I had a lump in my throat and didn’t hear the words of thanks that spilled from her lips. I didn’t notice immediately that I had two passengers – her and her companion.
After some time a conversation started and I heard from her what had happened in Katowice, after the departure of our army.
“As soon as the last detachment had passed Zawodzie * Nazi figures with armbands bearing a broken cross on their arms, appeared on the streets of Katowice rushing along the streets on foot, on bicycles and on motorbikes, storming into apartments belonging to Poles. Shots were heard…
“I saw this as I was returning from friends,” she said. “I rushed to our flat and grabbed a cape. My husband bundled the things we needed the most, we locked the apartment and almost raced to catch up with the last of our troops. Leaving the streets of Katowice, we could already see the Nazi flags flying from many of the homes…
“Up to now we have been going without a break, almost running. We left yesterday at 11 o’clock – exactly before noon,” i.e. on the 3rd September. “In other words, we have been going without any food or drink, without a minute’s rest for more than 24 hours.” The tired woman ended her story. You can say without exaggeration that this single scene was amongst thousands or even a million others.
I had all the more reason to be glad I took these people into the cart. I heard later from the corporal in the kitchen that the woman was from Wełnowiec** and was a teacher who had married a Jew.
More or less half way between Trzebinia and Krzeszowice we turned along a road to the right towards Alwernia. I unloaded my travelling companions from the cart not paying much attention to their words of thanks and assuring them that in Krzeszowice they would be able to rest and sleep for at least 24 hours.
I don’t know about their subsequent fate, but I’m sure they didn’t even get 10 hours’ rest – so very many Poles pursued and taking flight like hunted dogs.
We were convinced of this a few hours later by the sight of Chrzanów ablaze, followed by some warehouses in Trzebinia. The flames could be seen a long way off, fading a little on the distant horizon.
*on the east side of Katowice
**in the north of Katowice