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All That Was: Chapter Thirty-Five - Exit

...The air raids had destroyed all the major cities in the Ruhr district. We did not see even a semblance of a railway station along the way. Everywhere the devastation was on an enormous scale. In large clearings amongst the rubble several detention areas, fenced off with barbed wire, held huge numbers of German prisoners of war. They had been stripped not only of their armour but also of any remaining vestiges of their former power and self-importance. They just stood there, gaping and exposed to the elements as they awaited the pleasure of their captors...

A train arrives to carry those used as slaves by the Germans to the west, and freedom.

Lusia Przybyszewicz describes epic events so vividly that you begin to feel as though you too were there on those ecstatic end-of-the-war days.

Lusia's wonderful book All That Was is available from her at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia 9425 Australian plus postage).

On the third morning at dawn (1st or 2nd May, 1945) just as we were taking stock of the extensive damage our spree of destruction brought to the camp area, three powerful blasts of the whistle announced the arrival of our train. The waiting game was over!

A black, puffing steam engine came into view. The assembled crowds gave it a tumultuous welcome. Behind the engine trundled fifty maroon goods-train carriages. Each one bore the inscription in French 'Wagon a Chevaux' (horse carriage). As soon as the long train had come to a halt, out of the engine room a tall, handsome, black American soldier leaped to the ground and ran at a trot the whole length of the train. He waved his arms frenetically and motioned us to climb aboard as fast as possible. There was no question that he was the only person in charge and that he meant business.

We jumped for joy. Everyone rushed to gather their belongings. The American engine driver - cum supreme commander - proceeded with lightning speed to throw open the heavy gates to each of the fifty horse carriages. In the great bustle the magnitude of the moment would have been lost on many. In no time at all long queues began to form in front of every gate.

Most of the prospective passengers comprised uniformly attired young French males. But amongst the others eagerly awaiting the departure was a bizarre assortment of men and women from other formerly conquered European countries, including one Swiss national who unwittingly became caught in the web.

At the sound of the now familiar triple whistle the mass of humanity moved forward. We were all far too excited to mind the bare, roofless horse carriages, mounted high off the ground.

The boarding began. A narrow ledge directly beneath the gates was of some assistance to the taller ones amongst us, but those of my minuscule size had to be hauled up. Our clambering on board was further obstructed by the huge amounts of luggage we lumbered with us: precious food reserves, water supplies, chairs, straw mattresses, blankets, small wood stoves and of course the occasional piglet.

With the black American nudging us on, we completed the loading in record time. As soon as the last gate was shut, three whistles sounded. With the most excruciating grating noise rising from the undercarriage, our unwieldy transport to freedom moved forward. A deafening applause arose from the fifty carriages.

To have one last look at K.D.F. Stadt, I was obliged to climb up the tall carriage wall. The exercise demanded a good deal of my usually dormant acrobatic dexterity. From my perch I gained an unobstructed view of the town, already receding into the distance. This was my ultimate reward for years of misery and frustration. Reminiscing on that day still brings tears to my eyes.

As the train began to gain speed, it became very clear that each carriage would remain physically cut off from all of the others. It was thus left to each contingent to render its own horse carriage habitable.

In our carriage the many passengers settled in small groups along the walls. We left a large space in the centre, for common activities, especially for cooking. Along its perimeter we transformed the carriage floor into a very basic campsite where we nestled closely together. All of the available gear had to be used to ward off the chilly nights. We were very lucky that the weather remained dry throughout the journey.

We were soon to learn that our physiological needs had to coincide with the American's own calls of nature. Whenever the train stopped suddenly in the middle of nowhere, all the gates would open in great haste and the passengers would jump to the ground. It was left to each individual to find a vacant bush in the vicinity to relieve himself and then run as fast as possible back to the train. When our black leader was done, he would hop back into his engine, oblivious to the world. The triple whistle sounded, and the train was off. We lost a few people along the way due to this system.

However, as in most emergency situations, the majority of travellers quickly mastered the novel conditions. Some professional scavengers managed even to use those brief halts to collect bits of equipment lying about so as to further enhance the amenities of our carriage.

Within the first couple of days of our odyssey our rolling home boasted a roof fashioned out of iron sheeting. Occasionally during a comfort stop someone brought a goat on board, milked it as we rolled along, and then let it out at the next stop. We had a properly installed stove for cooking soups and such, but much of the time we were too short on ingredients to do it justice. Many 'meals', consisted merely of spoonfuls of sugar out of a sack. We washed the sugar down with ersatz coffee.

In other ways this gypsy-like existence was also taking its toll. Devoid of proper sleeping or washing facilities, our general appearance was fast deteriorating. We kept wearing the same crumpled garments day after day. The men were unable to shave, and they all cultivated a thick stubble. At least for the time being we could do nothing about this state of affairs; we just had to take all the hardships in our stride.

Meanwhile, the train was slowly making its way west. Thanks to a ladder and a few armchairs we were able to take turns at sitting on the roof to view the countryside. We travelled via Dortmund, and we must have crossed the Rhine somewhere between Dusseldorf and Koln. It was very difficult for us to establish our exact route. The train often had to retrace its tracks due to breaks in the rail links. As well, there were no signs anywhere to tell us where we were.

The air raids had destroyed all the major cities in the Ruhr district. We did not see even a semblance of a railway station along the way. Everywhere the devastation was on an enormous scale. In large clearings amongst the rubble several detention areas, fenced off with barbed wire, held huge numbers of German prisoners of war. They had been stripped not only of their armour but also of any remaining vestiges of their former power and self-importance. They just stood there, gaping and exposed to the elements as they awaited the pleasure of their captors. From our vantage point on the roof of the horse carriage we witnessed the fundamental reversal of fortune - it was fascinating! We had not a shred of charity in our hearts, and we cheered madly and hurled abuse at them.

Sometimes, when our train remained stationary at a siding of a major rail junction, we found ourselves alongside a goods train packed with German prisoners of war. We taunted them in every possible way, and we reserved the most malicious venom for the high-ranking ones. When we passed this supposedly human cargo of vicious felons at close quarters, we would spit at them.

One day as we were crossing through some forlorn village, the American stopped the train for the usual reasons. By then we had a well-established routine. I jumped to the ground with the others and competed in the race for the nearest available bush.

I found it a bit further away from the train than I would have preferred, but there it was. While still in the squatting position, to my utter horror, I suddenly heard the triple whistle. Startled, I stood up, pulled up Marcel's trousers, held them up with one hand, and bolted towards the train. It was already pulling out. I ran alongside for a bit, but it was rapidly gaining speed. Marcel stood on the ledge of our carriage with his arms outstretched to catch me, while his mates held him to keep him steady.

My modesty prevented me from releasing my grip on the trousers. My mind was racing as fast as the train. I knew that I was delaying the rescue operation. In the end, the entire audience of the fifty odd carriages yelled: 'lache-le!' (let go). I let the trousers drop. They dangled helplessly out of my boots. To the loud acclaim of all the fellow passengers, Marcel lifted me up by my arms into the fast-moving train. It took me ages to live down the indignity of this particular incident.

In wonderful weather, we were nearing the Belgian boarder. For safety considerations, we were frequently forced to vacate our roof. Sections of collapsing bridges threatened to decapitate us. Then one day about a week after leaving K.D.F. Stadt, we arrived in Belgium.

We made it!

Our train arrived at Liege on the 8th of May, 1945. We were in a sadly bedraggled state, but otherwise elated beyond words. Everyone alighted to celebrate the Armistice with the locals. Shedding tears of joy, we sang and danced in the main city square, our arms entwined in criss-cross fashion. All joined in singing the refrain, 'It's a long way to Tipperary'. I heard this very stirring tune for the first time in my life and felt jubilant.

All military activities were to cease by midnight on 8th - 9th May. The War was over!
Later that day, we continued our trip to France. Our final destination was Maubeuge in Flanders, right on the boarder. The official French Centre d'Accueil was set up there to receive and process all the new arrivals.

I do not have a clear recollection of that evening. The extraordinary events of the day, together with my total exhaustion were probably responsible for some lapses of memory. I was moved by the genuine kindness of the French officials whose task it was to welcome this flotsam and jetsam of humanity to their country. They appeared much more concerned with the welfare of the refugees than with their own JOFTA nationals.

When my turn came to be interviewed, I gave Jojo's address to the authorities as my 'domicile.' I was at once issued with a provisional Carte d'Identite de Deporte Politique (it is still in my possession), which offered me refugee status in France.

After some refreshments we all retired for the night to makeshift dormitories. On the 9th of May repatriation trains out of Maubeuge began dispatching their charges to many parts of France. A great number of French boys travelled home to Gironde. Our own group of friends was destined for Paris.

R. and Paul were off to Montargis to his mother's house. I believe that S. was not so game with her liaison, and she opted for the Jewish Joint Welfare organization.

Marcel was extremely reluctant to return to Bordeaux without me. I most definitely did not wish to go there so unexpectedly to face his family - I feared that it could spell disaster. We resolved to stay together in Paris for a few days, to think things out.


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