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Jan Walenty Walis

The following section has been kindly donated by Chris Bell. It forms part of a much larger story, which may be published at a later date. The quality of the narrative provides an insight and contextualizes the feelings of many young Poles as a snapshot at that time. These memories and feelings have long gone with that generation.

Born in the town of Dominikowice Uniejow on 8th February 1908 to Jozef Walsi and Agnieszka Teodorczyk.

Poland in 1908 was a divided country between the empires of Russia to the East, Prussia to the West and south of the River Vistula was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Jan and his family were in the Russian sector where everyday life would be thrown into turmoil ever since 1904 when hostilities between Russia and Japan would raise the 'Polish Question'(Davis, 1981). From 1904 until 1908 revolution and insurrection against Russia by the newly formed political parties saw hostile revolt against their Russian masters and political infighting. Armed struggle, strikes and mass redundancy fermented into public disorder where the violence touched many.


 

Jan's War and Escape
31st August 1939
The situation felt unbearable and lasted until the 30th August 1939 when in the town square, officials of the administration announced the third and final group of mobilization. I was in that group and was therefore called to report immediately to the mobilization office in Kielce. When I was called up to fight I was already 31 years old. I had my officer's uniform, though it wasn't a field one, only that which one wore to go visiting and suchlike.
Jan's War
As I watched my town disappear from view it was just as well that I had no idea I would be one of those who would never see Chehmza again. To Torun - Warszawa - Radom - Zagorze (Headquarters).

Everything was checked - my identity, my army book and my rations. All the officers were sent to Zagorze which lay about two kilometres from Kielce. At this time it seemed appropriate to ask for our equipment as we were still minus various pieces of military kit. We were told to go to a room where we found massive piles of clothing and equipment all thrown haphazardly together. Every single piece of uniform was worn out, and there was not one single item, which was fit for use. I personally found only one piece of kit worth taking - a rubber peleryna (cape) and I immediately added it to my meagre bundle of possessions. As time was to prove, this cape was to be invaluable in the days to come. So with my 'new' cape over my arm I joined my friends at Zagorze.

This was our Reserve Unit, the one, which was supposed to be able to replace killed and wounded men in 25 Infantry Division. For me it was on the 4th August that I was ordered to gather my belongings together and make my way to a meeting place in the village of Zagorze.

At this meeting we were told that we would have to move even further east. Immediately we marched off towards the next place which was called Mojeza.

Retreat to the East and Rozwadow
Meanwhile, we scattered and hid in the foliage, no mean feat as we were a large unit. Our Reserve Corps of 25 Infantry Division had a full quota of officers and other ranks and the Commanding Officer had a large responsibility to us. It has to be said that during the retreat we were cut off from all news and we could only guess what was happening.

On the 4th September we moved through LagowSvaniska, Sandomierz to Rozwadow, moving at night and resting among the trees during the day. During that section of the journey we didnít see one single German plane which was a great relief to us.

On the 8th September we reached Rozwadow and the whole Reserve Corps was put on a train to continue its journey. We travelled for five days. 9th September - Lublin; 10th - Krasnik, Rejowiec, Krasnystaw, Zamosc; 11th - Hrubieszow, Wlodimierz, Wolynst; 12th - Lwow; finally on the 13th September we arrived in Krasne. In total we had travelled about 250 kilometres in that five days; the slowness due to the inevitable stoppages of war, and we were to see more of the evidence of battle soon.

At Krasne we were delayed. While we were waiting we were able to wander round the station as we pleased or remain on the train. I chose to do the latter, having little desire to look at bomb damage. Suddenly, out of the blue skies came a hoard of German planes intent on inflicting as much damage as possible. There were over one hundred killed in the station itself and many more in the surrounding area. I, having decided to stay on board the train, could only dive to the floor and pray. I was resting in the very last coach and it was the only one to be untouched.

I was now suffering badly from bleeding feet and I had to force myself to get to each checkpoint. By the end of the third day I knew I could go no further. I realised that to be left behind in the trees would be courting disaster, so I tried to examine my situation rationally.

Carrying my boots in my hands as well as my small suitcase I hobbled over to the mobile ambulance. I met our own doctor there, a fine man by the name of Czech. He told me not to let the sergeant turn me away. I had no intention of capitulating to the sergeant and I argued till he let me take one of the two remaining seats. What fate decides! Had I been left behind in the woods my fate would have been as unknown as those others who had dropped out along the way.

15th September that I was taken from Zborov by bus-ambulance to a small village called Nizmow where we arrived on the 17th September. There, those of us who remained from the entire Reserve Corps regrouped.

It seemed quiet and we were enjoying our chance to wander about in the open air, when suddenly a shout rang out, "Russian tanks - take cover!" Everybody rushed to hide. As we had been parked just off the main street and were sauntering through it, we all dashed down the side streets. Most men made for the river. It had very high banks and appeared to afford the best cover from the enemy. Although our scouts had been able to warn us of the approaching menace, we had barely enough time to hide.

The tanks rumbled down the main street, machine guns and rifles firing, and on reaching the end turned and repeated the whole process the other way.

After the tanks departed, an order was given to pack up and move off immediately. The Captain, whose name was Symanski, was called to the Commanding Officer and told to take our ambulance and one other truck which was also carrying sick men, and to lead us to the next rendezvous. He was then to rejoin the main unit and collect the remaining sick. We left the column and set off. Unfortunately someone got things badly wrong and our driver took a wrong turning, unnoticed by anyone. We travelled for a few kilometres and came to a small wood behind, which was a large meadow. In the distance we could see a red roofed building, which we later discovered was a school. Suddenly, out from the trees leapt a group of young men, firing in the air and shouting to the driver to stop. They ordered us off the bus and proceeded to search us most thoroughly. They even emptied what little baggage there was, apparently looking for arms. As we were an unarmed unit this was almost funny. However, their disappointment was obvious and they began to treat us quite roughly. When they had finished searching us we were all taken to the red roofed building and held there for two hours.

It transpired that this was a group of Ukrainian resistance fighters who were to show their hostility to the Polish Army at the end of the campaign. They caused a great deal of trouble to the passing Polish columns, killing and wounding many. Being in their hands we were not optimistic about our chances of survival. We were sure they intended to hold us until night and then execute us. Meanwhile we were left in this building to assess our fate.

After a short time we became aware of a heated discussion outside, which was growing louder all the time. As they were speaking in Ukrainian, we had to strain to make out what they were saying. Naturally we expected the worst and were quite prepared for it when the door opened. A well-dressed man entered and announced that he was the headmaster of the school. To our great astonishment he told us that we were free to go! Ho apologised to us saying that the group had made a mistake and had not intended to attack sick soldiers. Without wasting a moment we hurriedly repacked the bus, got everyone on board and drove off.

That headmaster was very cunning. Pretending to see us safely through the lines of possible trouble he boarded our bus with us and in that way he escaped from the village.

He knew that there would be repercussions on his village and he was determined to escape punishment.

When we joined the passing columns of the army we were informed that our division, the 25th Reserve Corps, had been cut off by the Russians and was in their hands. For us it meant that any return to our unit was impossible; that the 25th was finished and that we were left to try to reorganise ourselves. I never heard what happened to all those officers and men. I assumed that they shared the fate of so many and ended up as prisoners of the Russians.

Before we got far underway it was made quite clear to us that the trek to Hungary was voluntary and that on no account would anyone be forced to cross the border. This had to be made clear as we were all in some quandary. We did not know what the true situation was in our country.

Jan's Escape route to Hungary
The flow of traffic moved steadily on towards the Slovakian border. We would cross into Hungary through the beautiful Carpathian Mountains via the High Tatra Pass, which runs from north to south. We travelled alongside all the other refugees until we reached the border where they were directed to civilian camps and we were sent to military ones.

Those three days from the 17th till the 20th September 1939 left me with rather a lot of vivid memories. Our bus was squashed between the black government cars from Warszawa and as progress was so slow I was able to observe a great deal without it looking odd. Outside, soldiers were walking beside the moving vehicles. If any soldier tried to make use of any car he was roughly pushed away amid much shouting and abuse. So much for patriotism! I had never seen this type of behaviour before and I found it hard to understand.

We had to climb up before we could descend into Hungary and our bus actually found the climb easier to negotiate then the descent. The reason for this was quite simple. Our brakes were rather worn out and the test came when we had to descend behind the black cars. The bus gathered speed and the driver tried to control it. He did not have much success! He had a choice; he could either ram the side of the road and crash certainly injuring us all; or he could run into the car in front and hope to stop that way. He chose the latter course of action. Luckily the brakes had just enough grip left to prevent a full scale pile-up and we gradually slowed down much to our relief! No one was hurt and we all continued on our way relieved to have made it down safely.

In addition to all the previous hardships, I had caught a cold. Under normal circumstances this would not have bothered me, but in the cramped conditions of the bus, with the extremes of temperature which we experienced I suffered. The lack of food did not help either. So it was that in this exhausted, hungry and rather ill state I crossed the Slovakian border and entered Hungary.

Arrival in Hungary
The 20th September saw our rather bewildered group in the hands of the Hungarians. As soon as we had crossed the border we were asked to leave the bus and to declare our arms and ammunition. In front of us we could see a large pile of previously discarded weapons signifying that we were not the first to cross the border. Our Hungarian captors were not at all hostile towards us.

The steady stream of border crossers was mixed both civilian and military, and it was obvious that the burden that had fallen upon the Hungarians' shoulders was a heavy one. They did their best and the first thing they did was to separate us into two groups - military and other. Our unit was allowed a good rest and was directed right into Hungary. We were still on the southern side of the Carpathians and by the 25th September our group comprising ten officers (one an elderly doctor) and about two companies was settled into Cappriatu Army Barracks. It was in the area of FelseHangony, in the foothills of the mountains. I was there until 28th January 1940.

The barracks at FelseHangony were built in a similar fashion to those in most Polish camps. Large buildings were grouped together around a square and there was a large oblong area where the soldiers went to gather. We were taken to the square initially and formed into columns, officers in the front. Two Hungarian officers read out the camp rules in German, assuring us that the punishment for anyone who tried to challenge them would be severe. The speech was translated into Polish for us and at first we were so alarmed that it made our skin creep.

After a month of very rough living we were quite prepared for anything; so it was with some trepidation that we viewed our accommodation. The hut provided us with a roof over our heads but that was all. There was no bedding, no tables, no chairs, and no beds. Scattered around the floor was a pile of straw. Had we not been so exhausted and dispirited, we would surely have tried to do something about it all. As it was we were so glad just to have shelter that we collapsed onto the straw.

After a few weeks this changed. The officers were allowed to take billets in the village. The civilian population was quite happy with this arrangement and were very friendly towards us. In return for some small reward or favour we shared accommodation in comfortable rooms with warm quilts. There were some restrictions and controls. If anyone wanted to go to the village he had to get a pass, which was not difficult to get. The only limit was on the number of soldiers wandering around the village. There was a shop in the village and after our arrival they seemed to increase their stocks in order to cope with our demands.

We used to go walking in the hills. This gave us a most wonderful feeling of 'freedom' and we would wander among the trees, watch the clouds floating past from the top of the hill, or lie gazing down at the valley below for hours on end. Most of us spent some time up there thinking of our families and in a way it helped us to release our pent-up anxieties which otherwise might have released themselves in other, more destructive ways.

In the early days, during one of these walks, I was approached by a young cadet. We walked and chatted for a long time and he gave me some very interesting news. He told me that among the soldiers was a certain Private Stanislaw Mikolajczyk. Although I did not know the man personally I did recognise the name. He was the chairman of the political movement that represented rural areas, the Polish Peasants' Party (PolskieStronnictwoLudowe or PSL). It was the Polish equivalent of a political party. It was not exactly a good name. It represented the small and middle sized farmers. Mikolajczyk belonged to the Werkarm part of Poland, Poznan District, and there he was the head or chairman of the movement. Later he was elected to be Prime Minister of the Government in Exile from 1943 until 1944.

Under Pilsudski's regime all political parties were forbidden open action so they went underground and this Peasants' Party followed suit. Later, in Scotland, I met a young officer whose job it had been to watch Mikolajczyk's activities in Poznan. He had a room in the opposite house facing his subjectís window and had to report all his movements to the police. That young man's name was Kazimierz Korbik. Because my political affiliations with Mikolajczyk were well known in Scotland, I understood this reserve officer's 'friendship'! However, by that time I was far more occupied with photography and politics was the last thing on my mind. I fear I gave him very little to report to his bosses, unless of course they were interested in the various secrets of the darkroom!

Mikolajczyk was himself a moderate and was acknowledged as such. The way I had been brought up meant that I found it impossible to be indifferent to these problems and to the peasant movement. Therefore I was well aware of the activities which took place throughout Poland, especially in the west. That is why I knew about Mikolajczyk and his position in the party, although I had never met the man or had the chance to see him. Circumstances of life aided our meeting. At first when we met we exchanged the usual type of convivial greetings which any two people might exchange. However, when I later asked him if he was the Mikolajczyk, I saw that a look of fear was in his eyes and his manner stiffened. He didnít know me. I was an officer and he was a private. I could understand his fear. After all, he had been persecuted in Poland by the military regime and he had no idea if I was a regular officer or a reservist! Once I had introduced myself and made it clear that I was friendly, he relaxed and we had many a long and most interesting conversation.

We came, quite naturally to talk about the affairs and conditions of living and about our isolation. We still knew next to nothing of what was happening in Poland and in the rest of the world. In our discussion we had the idea of setting up some kind of news-sheet or information system to try to collate any news of the war and its progress. Mikolajczyk spoke fluent German and as that language was the only way to communicate with our Hungarian captors he was the ideal man for the job. Besides being well oriented politically, he was experienced in passing on information clearly.

The question was how to get hold of a radio but even that problem was solved remarkably easily. My job was to persuade the other young officers to agree to our scheme and then approach our commanding officer with the idea. The biggest obstacle was to decide who was to be our newsreader. The actual proposition was accepted and we managed to get everyone to give voluntary contributions for the radio set. The next morning the commanding officer announced that our newsreader would be Mikolajczyk, and the CO also supervised the collection of contributions.

We were given far more than we needed. A suitable room was found where we installed the radio. Two beds were also set up in that room and Mikolajczyk and his assistant stayed there. In that way, Mikolajczyk had a discreet place to stay and peace to prepare the news. From that time on there was a large gathering every evening when the men met to listen to the news. This helped to raise morale until letters from our families began to trickle in. Although we knew that there was bound to be bad news as well as good, it did not help when it began to arrive, and the expectant atmosphere of the evening gave way to despair.

Every morning and every evening we had roll call and every single name was called out. The inevitable happened. At each roll call somebody was missing. It was obvious that as men received bad news or letters from home they would leave the camp. Nobody could blame them for it and the Hungarians did not make any fuss about it anyhow.

Eventually I got my first letter from one of my sisters. In it I learned that my parents, two brothers and a sister had been killed and our farmstead had been razed to the ground in the very early days of the war. (my grandparents and uncles, aunt were all shot while trying to take cover in the orchard) It was very difficult to accept this tragedy. I carried on grieving until, on the first of November, which was All Saints Day and the day of all dead souls, Mikolajczyk and I went to church.

The morale of the camp was still deteriorating yet we did not feel quite so isolated. Communication between other camps was set up and soon after we heard news of a Polish Army formed abroad, in France. These young men - soldiers and officers were asked to join in the new army of liberation. We gave our strongest encouragement to those who wanted to go.

We officers got a new job. The most important thing was to get as many away as we could. There was no shortage of volunteers and we did succeed in sending a small group away to Budapest where they were taken care of. There was still a strong Polish Consulate there through which all operations were managed.

Meanwhile Mikolajczyk managed to get in touch with his friends in Paris and one day he got a call with a message from General Sikorski, asking him to make his way to Paris. Soon after, on a very beautiful evening when the sky was sharp and the stars were clear we left the camp together. For him, it was his last stroll out of the camp. I walked with him for a few kilometres as he had a long way to go to reach the railway station.

At our parting I shared my savings with him. He was a private and his savings would not be enough to cover his personal expenses although his tickets were paid (I never did see that money again!). With a handshake, and a "See you in Paris!" we went our separate ways, he to the station and I back to camp.

Every day the German government interfered more and more in Hungarian affairs and they called for stricter regimes in Polish internment camps. The general situation deteriorated and news began to circulate that sooner or later the Germans would take control of Hungarian affairs. We were all only too aware of what would happen to us. We realised that it was time for us younger officers to go.
 

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