The following story has been kindly donated by Richard Denys. All copyright belongs to the Denys family and permission is required for any part to be copied. The family reserve all rights to these materials for any publication including electronic media.
Roman was one of three children, the son of a Polish high court judge and a Belgian mother. He was familiar with political turmoil even as a child. Despite pressure from the secret police, his father had refused to dismiss an appeal in a political trial. He was silenced by incarceration in a mental hospital, including in a straight jacket, until his death. Family life changed from affluence to poverty.
Roman begins his narrative in September 1939. He was 17 years old, living in Poznan and looking forward to soon going on to university. During his time at secondary school, Roman had become close friends with another boy, Lech. After the German invasion of Poland, they learn that a Polish government in exile has been set up in Paris. Roman and Lech decide at once to embark on this journey of more than a thousand miles. They depart on bicycles.
Nobody was allowed to travel without a permit. Lech and I went to the Town Hall and, lo and behold, who was in charge but one of our ex-school mates, whom I remembered as going to Germany every holiday. There he was in his youth leader uniform with swastikas, listening to our pleadings. Lech had an aunt in Krakow and we were going there to look for work. That was our story. I don’t think he believed us but, perhaps for old times’ sake, he issued us with permits. I am sure that he thought we would not get far, permits or not.
One day, during the first week in October, my tearful mother gave us her full support. She sewed a small cotton bag with string to put round my neck and into it she put her jewellery, a wedding ring, an anniversary ruby ring, my father’s signet ring with the Wroblewski family crest, and a bracelet, all 24 carat gold. I did not want to take them but she insisted, saying that my need might be greater than hers. In fact her generous sacrifice was later a very important factor in reaching our destination. We wanted to travel as light as possible. In our haversacks we packed a change of underwear, spare shoes, soap and a toothbrush, plus a school atlas, compass, my identity card, my birth certificate and money. We also took as many sandwiches as we could cram in. Lech was dressed in a thick sheepskin coat. I had to be satisfied with just a winter school overcoat. How I envied him later on, when my teeth were chattering with cold on many a night!
Day one arrived. Off we went down the main street away from my home. Just before turning, I looked back and saw my mother and my sister, two forlorn figures standing on the balcony with hands raised. I wiped my eyes. I did not want Lech to see my tears. Suddenly I felt all alone. I did not feel like a 17 year old young man, but still only a child.
For the first few days we made good progress. We were stopped a number of times but, on production of our travel permits, were let through by German patrols. Our stock of sandwiches diminished to nil after the first two days. However, when passing through small towns or villages and spotting bakers’ shops, we joined the queues. Sometimes we were lucky and managed to buy a loaf but, more often than not, the shelves were empty by the time we reached the counter. This meant an empty stomach for the rest of the day.
We had our first setback when we crossed into another district, evidently under a different German command. We were forcefully told to go back where we came from. We did so but, when out of sight, we slipped into the minor roads and by-ways and decided to continue travelling south, that way avoiding German patrols. Progress was much slower and finding food more difficult. We knocked on doors of some isolated cottages, begging to buy bread; we were not short of Polish money. Our endeavours were sometimes rewarded with a piece of bread or carrot but more often with the Polish version of “b… off”.
After travelling in this manner for several days, hiding in hedges and copses to avoid German cars or lorries, the real hunger set in. Finding odd swedes or potatoes in fields was quite an achievement. We tried to start a wood fire to bake our potatoes in ashes but were not always successful and had to eat them raw. Better than nothing, our empty stomachs told us.
The other problems we encountered included keeping clean in the cold wet weather. We washed in streams, which was a very cold process, but even more difficult was not only washing but drying our underwear. Very often we had to put it back on still damp, hoping that the heat of our bodies would dry it. Once when stripped to the waist for a good wash, I could count all my ribs, protruding under my skin. I never knew I had so many. We slept in isolated barns or deserted country railway stations. When rain sleet and wind blew through them, how I envied Lech, snug in his thick sheepskin.
After 3 weeks of walking or pedalling, they reach Krakow where they stayed for two days with Lech’s aunt. As they know mountains lie ahead, they sell their bicycles before continuing their journey. One of Lech’s aunt’s friends mapped out a way for them to cross the mountains.
It was a long hard slog, climbing to the top ridge. We slept in a shepherd’s little wooden hut. By next noon, we reached the top and came across a big stone marking the Polish-Hungarian border. Further on, we bumped into a 3-man Hungarian border patrol. One of them spoke some Polish. To our dismay he told us that he had strict orders to escort any refugees back to the border and hand them over to German patrols. We pleaded in vain. The Germans took us to their border control point, which was in a shepherd’s cottage in a tiny settlement in the mountains. They examined our belongings and were greatly interested in our maps and sketches. Fortunately, they missed my little bag of gold hanging around my neck under the vest. We listened while the NCO talked on his field telephone. The only word we understood was “Gestapo”. Afterwards, the Polish speaking soldier told us that we were to be locked up for the night and in the morning escorted to the Gestapo quarters in a small town some miles away. We were suspected of being spies!
We were thrown into an adjoining goat shed with the door bolted from the outside where an armed sentry stood vigil. Inside it was dark with only a little moonshine coming through a tiny window in the door and on the floor just straw and one small wooden milking stool. Our situation was desperate. We had to do something to get out. After all, the frontier was only half a mile away. I armed myself with the milking stool, holding it by its leg and stood by the door while Lech started yelling. The door burst open and a dark figure lurched in, swearing. I lashed out with my stool, hitting him on the back of the neck. In a split second we grabbed our haversacks and trampled over the prostrate struggling figure and jumped through the open door. Pandemonium broke out behind us: whistles, sirens, rifle shots! There were tracer bullets whistling over our heads. That night we must have been the first runners to break the 4 minute mile when, out of breath, we trotted into Hungarian territory. The tumult behind us died down and all was silent as we walked into a huge pine forest. We walked through the woods. When we got to a clearing, a voice suddenly shouted something behind us. We instinctively took to our heels, galloping down the narrow lane. More voices erupted, together with thumps of running boots in hot pursuit. After some few hundred yards, I was out of breath and, in desperation, threw myself under a bush at the side of the road. Lech kept galloping ahead. The voices and boots passed me without stopping. I lay still until the sounds died away in the distance.
When in danger or difficulty, Roman always prayed to the Virgin Mary.
When I got up, the silence was deafening. The moon shone through the tops of the huge pine trees, thick snow glistened all around. I had never felt so alone and lost. All I could think of was to say a little prayer to my “patron” asking for her help. I decided to walk in the direction where I last saw Lech disappearing, whistling all the time as loud as I could our signature tune, Chopin’s “Polonaise”. I did not care whether our pursuers heard me. Nothing happened for about a quarter of a mile when, suddenly but very faintly, I heard our tune in reply. We homed in on each other, whistling all the time until we met. It was the first time that we embraced, almost in tears with relief. To me it was a small miracle and I quietly thanked my holy protector.
When we got out of the wood, we marched into a largish village. We started to look for shelter, but everything was in darkness and locked up. We came across a village school with just one window lit up at the back. We knocked and a man opened the door. We asked him, in French, whether we could spend the night in his school. He nodded and let us in. In broken French, he told us he was the headmaster and we could stay until first thing in morning. We lay down on the classroom floor and, although the room was bitterly cold, we went to sleep instantly, totally exhausted. After an hour or two, we were woken with rifle butts and told to get up and follow two armed soldiers. As we were leaving, I said to the teacher “traitre”. It was a small consolation to me that he looked uncomfortable.
We were locked in the village police station. We shared a cell with about half a dozen men and one woman. There was barely enough room to sleep on the straw mattresses on the floor. There were two white enamel buckets standing in the corner. One was for drinking water and the other for light relief. They were emptied in the morning and brought back.
We were hoping that the guards did not mix them up when returning them. We certainly could not tell the difference! At midday we were fed with potato or beetroot soup and a piece of bread, plus a chunk of bread in the morning and evening – just enough to keep one alive. During our stay, we learnt that the fellow prisoners were mostly petty thieves, one a rapist and the woman a prostitute.
One afternoon on the third day of our incarceration, Lech and I were escorted to the station office. There we stood stiffly to attention in front of a tall officer in an elegant gold and red trimmed uniform, with highly polished cavalry boots. He spoke fluent French in a cultured voice. He wanted to know who we were and what were our intentions. We told him the truth, including our desire to get to France to join the Polish forces. He paced the office, pondering. At last he said to us, “Hungary is in great danger of a German invasion. I need to place one or two agents to observe German troop movement in Poland. If you give me a couple of addresses of safe houses, in return I’ll put you on the train to Budapest.” We readily accepted his offer but, to play safe, the address I gave him was my bombed house in Poznan. Lech gave him some plausible address in Krakow. This may seem deceitful or ungrateful but we did not want to jeopardise the safety of our friends or relations in Poland. We were driven to a railway station, armed with a military travel warrant. We boarded a train, only a third-class compartment with wooden benches but what a fast, relatively comfortable way to travel compared with our previous tortuous journeys!
In Budapest, they contacted the Students’ Union where they were fortunate to meet a very helpful law student, Laszlo, who found them somewhere to sleep and to eat on the campus. But on the fourth day on their stay, the campus was raided by police and they were taken to an internment camp about 25 kilometres from Budapest.
The camp consisted of old army wooden barracks with a barbed wire fence all around. Life in the crowded camp was not too bad; straw mattresses on the floor, reasonable washing facilities and one hot meal of cabbage or beetroot soup a day, plus some bread morning and evening. Lech and I explored the fencing and did not think it would be hard to penetrate. We made friends with a Polish journalist. He did not think we would ever make it to France but, just in case, he gave us an address of Mrs “M”, a Polish Jew married to an Italian industrialist in Milan; another lucky encounter as it proved later on.
There was not very strict supervision at the camp - no roll calls, just one guard at the entrance and one or two inside to keep us in order. One evening we scraped with a piece of wood a shallow trench underneath the barbed wire fence in an out-of-sight corner. We covered it with bracken and decided to make a dash for it the following night. One of us held the wires up while the other slid underneath. We were on the road, marching towards Budapest.
They had been told, at the Polish embassy in Budapest, that they would need photographs to get passports. They stopped at a photographer’s in a village. When Roman looked at his photograph, he saw a thin ugly face with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. They were given a lift back to Budapest in a fire engine. The Polish embassy issued them with new passports but they still needed Yugoslav and Italian transit visas and a French entry visa. Again Laszlo’s help was invaluable in obtaining these, though Roman had to part with some of the gold jewellery, still in a little bag round his neck, as officials needed to be bribed to obtain the transit visas. Roman and Lech boarded an express to Zagreb and Trieste. The journey through Yugoslavia and Italy passed without mishap. In Milan, they stayed with Mrs ‘’M” and her husband who paid for their train fares to the French border.
I shall never forget when we arrived at Mondane, on the French side of the border, where we were to change trains. I stepped on the platform, knelt down and kissed the ground. It had taken us over two months and a lot of luck or Holy Mary’s help but we reached our goal. We were in France!
Once in Paris, the two friends reported to the Polish embassy to volunteer for the armed forces but to their disgust the request was turned down. They were sent to live in a refugee hostel and were instructed to continue their studies, which they did at a lycee. They had just successfully completed these studies when the Germans invade France.
One day I watched German troops marching down the Champs Elysees. I remembered witnessing a similar sight before. Immediately both of us held a council of war. We decided we must get to the Spanish frontier, cross the Pyrenees and, avoiding internment, get to Gibraltar. This was easier said than done! Panic set in Paris with long queues outside the railway stations. Few passenger trains were running and only people with special travel warrants were allowed to board. We thought that goods trains were our answer but how to cross the barriers at the station? Lech had an idea. From the sick room at the college, we borrowed a stretcher and a couple of Red Cross armbands. Thus armed, we boldly bypassed the queues and, at the entrance, demanded access to collect a child with a broken leg, supposedly lying in one of the waiting rooms. It worked!
We boarded a train and hid in the lavatory. Some while after the train moved, we left our hiding place and mingled with other passengers. When we stopped at a small station, by now quite a distance from Paris, we heard conductors calling for tickets. We left the train and hid in a small marshalling yard. We thought that we would make our way using goods trains, a less comfortable, slower but safer method. We looked for wagons which had a southern destination chalked up on the side. If the chosen wagons were not locked, we hid inside until the train reached its destination at larger towns. We risked mingling with passengers on platforms only to buy food and drink. At some marshalling yards, when we found a desirable goods train and its wagons were locked, we climbed on top and held on, grimly, heads down in case of low bridges, and breezed through the night until the train stopped.
We were on the rails for about a week. Sometimes we were spotted, sworn or shouted at and, on one or two occasions, chased but by then we were old hands at outrunning our pursuers. Towards the end of that week, we hid in a wagon half full with barrels. It was a very hot day and we were thirsty. With a pen knife we drilled a hole in one of these barrels. A thick, dark red, very sweet tasting liquid came out. It was lovely, like an expensive liqueur and we could not stop sipping it until we were completely blotto. We woke up because of silence and lack of movement. We stepped outside bleary eyed and with a hangover. It was dark but we could see, beyond the marshalling yard, station lights. To our delight, we discovered it was Bordeaux. Far enough but not near enough to the Spanish border. There was perhaps one more hop. We discovered a couple of wagons with ‘St Jean de Luz’ chalked up. We had to wait about half a day before they were shunted and moved. The name did not mean anything to us but, according to our atlas, it was a good way south.
When we arrived at that small seaside resort the following morning and walked to the coast, we were staggered to see hundreds of Polish airmen, scattered on the hillside overlooking a small bay. At the far end of the bay, a huge grey ship with a British flag fluttering on the stern was anchored down below. On sandy beaches were groups of airmen waiting to be ferried by French fishermen to the ship. What a hopeful, inviting sight! However, when we asked whether we too could join the boarding parties, the reply was: “No chance-only regular air force men- no civilians, nor even air force families” We walked away dejected. So near yet so far away. The thought of crossing the Pyrenees loomed over us, a frightening prospect. We had crossed mountains before but not that high or rugged.
In desperation, I said my prayer to Holy Mary, but without any expectations. Even she could not suddenly produce another ship or turn Lech and me into regular airmen. We wandered about till I spotted a small group of Polish officers. One giant figure looked familiar. It couldn’t be Major Stablewski? It was! He was as surprised as I was. After all, it was nearly ten years since we had last seen each other in Torun when he and his wife lived in a flat one floor above us. They were great friends of my parents and frequently he used to lend me his bicycle. He was then a fighter pilot. We were great pals; he was a jovial giant and I a small boy of eight or nine, wanting to be just like him, a pilot officer.
Briefly we explained our plight to him. He called his warrant officer. We were told the only way to get us aboard was to find a couple of uniforms. After half an hour of anxious waiting, the warrant officer reappeared. Nobody had any spare uniforms but he managed to produce two outfits, which were in fact cooks’ tunics and trousers in white linen. The main thing is that they fitted and made us look quite professional. By the time we were to board a fishing vessel, Major S was the only senior officer left controlling the embarkation. All the generals and colonels were already aboard the British ship. I think he had to use his rank to get us through and to our relief we were afloat. The ship named the “Arrandora Star” zoomed ahead.
We had to climb up rope ladders to get on the top deck which was crowded with airmen. Lech and I decided to explore the ship. To our surprise, we found an empty first class cabin with en-suite shower. We made ourselves at home in it - a bit cheeky for a couple of stowaways! When an English steward came along, I asked him why the luxury cabin was not occupied by some top brass. He laughed and said: “They are all too scared of U-boats to stay below!” Well, we did not give U-boats a second thought. We were sure that God would not have gone to all the trouble of getting us aboard and then let us sink into the sea.
Roman and Lech landed at Liverpool.
After disembarking, the whole contingent in smart uniforms, shouldering arms, marched from the docks. The whole length of the street was lined with hundreds of cheering and clapping crowds, waving flags and flowers, mostly women and children. Lech and I had strict orders not to spoil the parade and to follow on well behind the last ranks. Thus we marched, feeling a bit self-conscious. We need not have worried. When the crowd spotted the two young lonely figures, the cheers doubled and both of us were showered with flowers and kisses, more than the rest of the column put together!
They both joined the air force, Roman as a bomber pilot and Lech as a fighter pilot. At the age of 22, Roman was the youngest pilot of a Wellington bomber of 304 squadron, hunting U-boats in the battle of the Atlantic. Both Roman and Lech survived the war.
Roman and his wife Joan had two children: Richard (1944) and Rosemary (1950). Roman died in 2002 and Lech a very few years later. If you would like more details about Roman’s life, contact either firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com