Who Could be Calling Me by Name in this Wilderness?

The supply column’s arduous journey towards the River San continues across difficult, sandy terrain, while their exposed position threatens to make them an easy target for the enemy planes.

10/09/1939  

Travelling up and down over the undulating terrain at daybreak, constantly ankle deep in the sand, we passed the same buses which had given us such a fright in the night. But now we laughed at them and looked with a sense of retribution and satisfaction as their engines whirred – choking and stuttering to counter the resistance of the sand. Their attempts seemed useless; their wheels spun round a few times, progressed half a metre and eventually, overcome, they came to a stop and could see the futility of their efforts.

With a smile and some smugness we looked at our ponies, which were the only suitable means of travelling here. Patting their sweaty backs with appreciation, we helped them by shoving the carts from time to time. Nobody, in the face of this, would have taken the risk of adding to the weight of the cart by sitting in it.

In Stara Wieś just before Ruszcza, I heard the call, “Józek”. I looked around astounded. Who could be calling me by name in this wilderness? I see a strange shape in a crumpled, dirty uniform with a shirt thrown over his shoulder. He was barefoot, with his trousers flapping, a dirty, blackened face, dishevelled hair, and his arm in a sling with a blood stained bandage. Who? Janek Kiosok, a former judge from Wodzisław, with whom I spoke at length at his flat in Katowice in the last days of August, about the possibility of war.

We greeted each other affectionately, then with a woeful grimace, he told me that his dressing was unbearably tight and troubling him terribly. He asked me about having it changed so I led him to the nearest house, picking up a bag from a non-commissioned health officer. I cut through the hardened dressing and, as I replaced it with a fresh one, the feeling of relief was visible on his face.

After a brief conversation and questions about friends, we parted company with wishes that we would see each other again. Since he was going in a car I advised him to make his way to a hospital, ideally in Sandomierz. (I admit I wasn’t entirely sure where the hospitals were, but how could I know this when no-one else knew either?)

After some time we reached Ruszcza and around midday we came to Połaniec. On the way we had repeatedly had to hide under the sparse trees because the airmen wouldn’t leave us in peace. Many a time they dropped down confidently to a few hundred metres – and why not? We had no anti-aircraft protection with us.

But when they had come too low, there had been spontaneous, indiscriminate and ineffective shots by way of hand rifles from every cart, despite the protests of the non-commissioned officers. Consequently the airmen had taunted us even more and flown even lower, sending many more bullets from machine guns in our direction. It was as if they had been afraid that someone was laughing at them by taking up arms in such paltry fashion as an ordinary hand rifle – particularly when even a heavy machine gun or anti-aircraft artillery seldom hit the target from down here.

Furious but powerless we would wait until each one gave up their fight with this crush of a supply column, this second class army. Then we would move on further until the next one appeared. Anyway, it seems one German airman finally found his bearings, deciding he didn’t want to start with the supply columns. Maybe firstly, because he didn’t want to bother with such an army; and secondly, he would have been confident that the supply columns didn’t have any provisions. Perhaps as their ammunition arrived at the front line too late, he thought it would be a waste of lead.

The situation in Połaniec was just one of many that the army encountered along the route they marched at that time. It was similar in almost all of Poland and therefore Korczyn, Stopnica, Baranów, Rozwadów etc. all suffered exactly the same fate. It meant that on the whole, people evacuating found themselves entering into desolate areas. There was a trace here and there of the German airmen’s presence: closed shops, a few fearful, bearded Jews hanging around a house, movement on the streets – but only of our soldiers. There was a mass of supply column vehicles mainly in the main square, soldiers dashing around the houses plundering cellars, the shout of a wronged Jew and here and there the frightened face of a kindly citizen with a question on their lips.

“Are the Germans far away?”

“Should we surrender the town or run away?”

As a rule such good souls were assured that the Germans were nowhere in the vicinity and that these were tactical manoeuvres and so on. In fact, the subsequent course of events was that German planes would follow the trail of the army to such a town and loot chests, demolish houses and set fire to them. Then, in the dust and ash stirred up by bombs and runaway carts, nothing would be visible for a long time. And afterwards… some ruins, some sudden changes, a strange skeletal view of the town and no trace of the army carts. They would already be stretched out in a long line outside the town or under cover in the nearby woods… while the remainder were at rest beneath the ruins of the town.

Such was the fate of the majority of towns. Nature and economic conditions forced the Polish army to come to a halt on the road and retreat in the September Campaign of 1939. Those cities which avoided this outcome, met a similar fate after the invasion of the pursuing German troops.

The fire spread over the whole of the lower Vistula, the plain between the Vistula and the San, and further beyond the San. Accompanying the fire were the reverberations of exploding bombs and bursting shells, alongside the howls and wails of innocent victims as they snatched the remains of their meagre belongings from the engulfing flames.

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