89 Books about Poland | Polish War Graves in Britain
For almost 60 years the journals and letters of Edward Herzbaum had been lying in an old leather suitcase. They contained the story of what happened to him when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded his country Poland in 1939.
After the death of Edward and his wife his daughter inherited the journals. Written in Polish, they were in a language she could not read. In 2009 she had them translated and the story of what happened to Edward could now be told.
On 1 September 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Edward Herzbaum was serving in the Polish Forces. He came under German artillery fire.
...deafening explosions and then a howling noise. I fell down, flattened, deafened. The earth was coming down in small lumps. The fear in my heart was bursting the entire world...There was a lot of dust and smoke and we couldn't see anything...Then silence...We were waiting...but soon the waiting was over. (p. 4)
Edward and his fellow Polish soldiers now saw large tanks travelling quickly down the road. It was not until the 12th tank went past that they understood that they were German: it was flying a pennant with the swastika. They were shocked.
We were scared and helpless...because they had [broken through] without any fighting. (pp. 5-6)
A German patrol approached where they were hiding in the forest. There were five of them carrying thick barrelled guns. A shot rang out. A Polish soldier had fired and hit the German commander. Edward raised his rifle, pulled the trigger and a German soldier dropped to the ground. The Polish soldiers then ran from the scene further into the forest.
Deported to Russia
Edward was later captured by the Germans but managed to escape and made his way back to his home in Lodz. In December 1939 with the assistance of a carrier he crossed the River Bug into the Soviet zone of occupation. At the railway station in Brzesc [Brest, now in Ukraine] he avoided capture by the Soviets and made his way by train to Lwow. There he found a job in a construction office.
In June 1940 he was arrested by the Soviets. He was put in an old barracks together with thousands of others arrested. There he was interrogated by the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police). They applied a cigarette to his hand and burnt him.
The pain was like a hot current going all the way up to my armpit, while my entire arm went numb. (p. 26)
Three weeks after arriving in the barracks they were taken to Lwow railway station and loaded into cattle trucks. Forty men to a truck. The train left Lwow and headed slowly for Russia. They were being deported.
It became cold and I was shivering more and more. For that reason I didn't feel any hunger. Others were banging on the walls at each station and shouting out for bread and water. Nobody listened. (p.29)
After a week they were taken off the train and put on a boat on the River Volga for a two day journey up the river. They were unloaded at a small jetty and Edward was assessed as being too ill to walk to the labour camp. He and some others were loaded into horse-drawn carts for the journey. On the way to the camp his cart collapsed. Edward rolled into bushes and was not seen by the NKVD. He took this opportunity to escape. When the NKVD discovered he was missing they searched for him with dogs. The next day they found him and a NKVD soldier shot him in the leg. Edward was then taken to a hospital. He had pneumonia and his wound was infected.
After his release from hospital Edward was taken to a labour camp where the inmates had the task of cutting down trees.
Conditions were harsh.
...we are issued soup twice a day...tastes like dishwater...we rarely get more than 500 grams of bread...completely soggy, raw and sour...We survive on practically nothing. (p. 44)
The cold was unrelenting.
...in the barracks where we sleep the temperature is 15 degrees centigrade below zero...by jumping up and down repeatedly one can prevent serious frost bite...I don't know how many of us have already perished...it used to be impossibly crowded here, now there is much more space on the bunks; where twenty people used to sleep there are only seven. (p. 52)
He was at risk of being attacked.
A few Russian brigades moved into our zone. Most of them were dangerous people who would often attack us during the night, rob us, beat us and take away our clothes. (p. 56)
Edward was later moved by the Soviets to another camp. He had to walk 180 kilometres to get there. The work at this camp involved levelling the terrain.
Frozen earth has to be crushed with a crowbar and a heavy hammer and the resulting lumps and large pieces need to be transported in wheelbarrows over boards laid on snow...The wind, which never stops blowing, is worse than the frost. (p. 67)
Release from the Gulag
In June 1941 Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. An agreement between the Polish government in exile in London and the Soviet government led to the Soviets granting an amnesty to all Polish prisoners.
Edward was released from his camp in September 1941. He was given an identity document, some bread and a herring. He now had to find his way to the place where a Polish Army was being formed in the Soviet Union to fight the Germans. He managed to catch a train to Yaroslavl (north east of Moscow).
...the trains are overwhelmed by the military transportation, so that passenger transportation is made difficult. There are refugees everywhere. (p. 99)
From Yaroslavl he travelled to Vladimir, then the important railway junction at Ryazan and from there to Saratov. Here he got lucky as he met a man in a Polish uniform.
Ten minutes later I knew everything: that the camp of the Polish army is about 40 kilometres from here: [in Tatischewo] that they accept volunteers; that they will soon receive arms; that uniforms for them have already been sent from England. (p. 101)
In the spring of 1942 Edward was training with the Polish Army in what is now Kyrgyzstan.
His routine consisted of:
- battle exercises
- night exercises
- target shooting
There was a marked contrast between conditions in the south and those he had experienced in the frozen north.
...it is impossibly, stiflingly hot in the tent...It is so hot that one cannot walk barefoot and yet not very long ago we were cursing the frost and we were crying with pain because of our frost-bitten feet. Now we suffer from too much heat. (p. 109)
In August 1942 Edward set out on a six day train journey to the port of Krasnovodsk on the Caspian sea. Stalin, the Soviet leader, had allowed the Polish Army to be evacuated from the Soviet Union to the Middle East.
On board Cziczerin. It's an old wreck crawling across the Caspian sea...At last, finally we are in Persia. After three years we have got out of the red paradise of the Soviet Republic which is aptly called the country of modernised misery and organised famine. (p. 124-125)
Edward left Persia and went to Khanaquin in Iraq which was only a few hours away from Baghdad. He joined his regiment and spent his time training to be an anti-aircraft artillery operator. In the autumn of 1943 he was moved to Palestine and at the very end of that year he departed for Egypt. He left Port Said, Egypt, by boat for Italy in February 1944.
In the spring of 1944 Edward was in the front line at the battle for Monte Cassino in Italy. From his position the range finder on his field gun told him it was three and a half kilometres to the German held Monte Cassino monastery. The Polish Army attacked the Germans on 11 May 1944 and on the 18 May the red and white flag of Poland flew above the ruined monastery.
If you ever visit a battlefield. I would recommend that you never go alone...Along the road [from Cassino to the monastery] there are German bunkers and pillboxes. German corpses are lying in all of them. One cannot approach closely, except maybe in a gas mask. (p. 177)
In May 1945 the Second World War came to an end and Edward left Italy in October 1946 for the UK. In Britain he worked as an architect. He died in 1967 aged 46.