The first of September, 1939 will always be etched in my mind as the day my life changed. I was a young doctor of twenty-seven who three years earlier had begun an internship at the dental clinic of a relative, Dr. Leon Buhanik of Miedzyrzec Podlaski, which is approximately seventy kilometers from Brest-Litovsk, a city near the Russian-Polish border. For the past few weeks, we had been hearing reports on the radio about an imminent German attack. Although the reports were full of assumptions and estimations that contained very little factual basis, everyone was convinced that eventually the Germans would attack Poland. The only question left to us was when and whether the Russians would join the German attack.
Letters still arrived from my home, albeit irregularly from my cousin and best friend, Adam Wolowelski, a medical doctor who had completed his studies in Modena, Italy around the same time that I completed my studies in Warsaw, after which I specialized in surgery at the general hospital at Brest-Litovsk. Adam was a tall, red-haired fellow, unkempt, in a gentlemanly fashion, sarcastic and spoke Russian fluently because of his Russian origin. In the 1920s, at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution triumph, which attempted to eliminate the rich upper class, his father, Moshe Wolowelski, a wealthy businessman, fled from the Communists to Poland.
Upon his arrival in Warsaw, he invested his money in real estate and brought along with him his eight-year-old son Adam, who had recently lost his mother. In Warsaw, Moshe met my beautiful and single aunt Cesia. They eventually got married and together had a child named Jerzy who was now, in 1939, seven years old.
I was in constant contact with Adam Wolowelski with whom I had much in common. Not only were we the same age, both doctors, single and cousins, we were extremely close friends. During my years of study at secondary school and then at the university in Warsaw, I lived at his home and we shared a room. Now, although we worked in separate clinics seventy kilometers from each other near the Russian border, nevertheless, we managed to get together often and spend time together.
Sometimes twice a week, I would arrive at the centre of the city of Brest-Litovsk and would spend time with young co-eds whom I met at dance clubs or through the volunteer associations of the various hospitals. These associations were particularly ripe places to meet young girls, for, as the reports of imminent war spread, the girls lined up and volunteered to study accelerated nursing courses. They were told that the military and civilian services were interested in them and would recruit them for immediate service.
Dr. Adam Wolowelski wrote on the back of a photo dedicated to his cousin Lila: with the cylinder and a “eye” to the war I am ready…” and signed “Adek”. Warsaw 16 September 1931.
In the very early morning on September 1, 1939, the city of Warsaw was bombed by hundreds of German aircraft that arrived in massive waves. Over the radio airwaves, we could hear the loud shrill voice of Adolf Hitler promising that no house in Warsaw would remain intact. “We will eradicate Warsaw to its foundation,” he screeched and so Jewish and Christian families alike lost their homes and all their life’s possessions were buried under rubble. Entire buildings collapsed, streets disappeared, and districts were obliterated when the waves of German planes relentlessly dropped tons of bombs on this great city. Within moments, luxurious gardens were transformed into craters filled with muddy water containing carcasses of swans and crushed fish. An unbearable stench of charred corpses hovered in the air and bursts of fire and smoke could be seen everywhere. Ambulance sirens were frequently heard but after a while, they also abated.
The lucky ones who were not injured were seen leaving the city in endless convoys mostly on foot pulling carriages laden with packages, all travelling in an eastward direction. Even those who were fortunate to begin the journey by car eventually had to abandon that plan because of lack of fuel and damaged roads.
The plane attacks occurred mainly at night and as a consequence, the city was lit by the incendiaries that ignited buildings, districts and avenues of beautiful old trees. Bridges that spanned the Vistula rose into the air and collapsed beneath themselves. A feeling of Armageddon and the end of life prevailed. There was no way of defending ourselves against the relentless German planes that operated without pause, bombing Warsaw and raining down destruction and death, which allowed their ground forces to advance and conquer the submissive city. The mayor of Warsaw, Jozef Stasinski, was helpless and confused. Once, he broadcast over the airwaves and urged the citizens of Warsaw to leave the city and be spared; while another time he urged his citizens to remain and not betray their torn and bleeding homeland. Shortly thereafter, the electricity was interrupted and absolute chaos reigned.
All of these descriptions I heard from my wife-to-be ”the lucky and fortuitous one.” The entire apartment house where she and her family lived on Ulica Chlodna in the centre of Warsaw was totally destroyed, but the family fled the building as soon as they heard planes overhead; thus, they were saved. After seeing the building go up in flames and collapse in front of their eyes, they decided to leave their beloved city, where their grandfather Maks was born and relocate to the city of Kobryn, which is east of Brest-Litovsk, two hundred fifty kilometres from Warsaw. They spent their first period of time there with relatives whom they met when they stole across the Russian border by crossing the Bug River that separates Russia from Poland, but I will return later to the story of the rescue of my future wife, whom I met in a Russian Gulag in Novosibirsk, where I was exiled along with many other Poles, Christians and Jews alike by the end of 1939.
During the subsequent days, I witnessed chaos that resulted as hundreds of thousands of frightened people were fleeing the border area towards villages and forests in the east, escaping to Russia. I decided to escape from Międzyrzec to Brest-Litovsk and see what the people were doing. After talking to Dr. Buahnik and his wife, who were both anxious but hopeful that no harm would befall them if they remained. I decided to make my move. I walked out of their house and found an abandoned motorcycle that was lying on the side of the road without fuel. A short distance away on the opposite side of the road there was an overturned truck. Approaching the truck, I noticed that there was fuel in the tank. With the aid of water hoses that I tore from the engine, I siphoned off the fuel and transferred it to the motorcycle, which immediately started and headed to my destination, all the while passing hordes of people escaping imminent death. Arriving at Brest-Litovsk, I raced through the deserted streets towards the hospital. At one point, the bridge was closed to traffic and I could not continue.
The officials were aware of the masses that were on their way and so there was great tension in the air close to the hospital, as air raid sirens sounded from time to time, warning of aerial attacks. The hospital was nearly empty as everyone was waiting for the victims of the attacks. The city was on high alert and ready for the worst. We knew that it was a matter of hours before the enemy arrived and meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, negotiations were taking place between Russia and Germany to divide Poland, thereby preventing a confrontation. Stalin wanted to avoid war with Hitler. Nevertheless, Stalin had a strong wish for the fertile territories of his nearby neighbors; his (traditional) enemies to the west.
At the hospital, I found Adam in a very depressed mood, as he had not received any letters or any information from his parents. Fleeing Jews who were arriving were reporting that the city of Warsaw was destroyed and that the Germans were kidnapping Jews, sending them to forced labor areas and forcing them to wear white armbands with a symbol identifying them as Jews. They also told of how the Germans were humiliating and degrading Jews on the streets while some of the local Poles volunteered and helped with hunting and turning their neighbors over to the Germans.
Everyone was looking to escape, but it was too late, as the borders were virtually closed. Those approaching from the Polish side found themselves in the Russian line of fire that shot at anyone approaching the border; while, on the other side, the patrolling Germans shot at anyone attempting to cross their border. All of these rumors were highly distressing and I was terrified hearing them. Although my immediate family lived in Wloszczowa, which was three hundred kilometers south of Warsaw, nevertheless, I had aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives living in Warsaw.
At Brest-Litovsk hospital, Adam and I sat together for a few hours encouraging one another, when we finally went out to the street to smoke, the street was empty, with only civil service patrols occasionally passing by the entrance to the hospital. After we went inside and separated with a long embrace, we knew that in all likelihood we would not see each other again. We also believed that the war would continue for a long time and that we would have to care for ourselves, but we agreed that at every opportunity we would send messages to each other.
On the seventh of September, the Germans began bombing Międzyrzec and Brest-Litovsks. The aircraft dropped bombs day and night that shook the earth and caused buildings to collapse. Gaping craters appeared in the main roads and travel was becoming difficult. Since I had a Polish passport and some money, I decided to go back to see what had occurred on the other side of the border, as the German ground troops had not yet arrived. I returned to Międzyrzec to the clinic of my relative and saw that the building was empty and the clinic was in ruins. Everything was turned upside down. All the equipment that Dr. Buhanik was so proud of, such as hand tools and the X-ray machines, chairs, medication and syringes, were gone, torn from the wall, all taken away during the heavy bombing of the city, even Leon Buhanik and his wife were also gone.