Alek Zachowicz - War memories

My name is Aleksander Zachowicz and I was born the 30th October 1924 in a village called Molodeczno just outside the town of Vilna in Poland. Now it is in Lithuania. I had a mother, sister, step-brother and a step-father. I wasn't born when my father died. I don't know how he died, my mother never talked about it. She did say that he died going into the forest. He was working in the forestry. He might have been killed by something in the forest. The forests were huge in that area. We were near to White Russia and the forests stretched right across to Smolensk. We lived in a very poor little house with two rooms, a sort of living room and only one bedroom. We were squashed in. My sister was younger than I was and my step-brother was about the same age as me. My step-father was very strict and very nasty. He used to beat us terribly. He never let us go out.

I ran away because I did not want him beating me. I ran to Baksti in White Russia where my uncle was. He was my mother's brother. I was up there about a week but when war broke out in 1939 and the Russians occupied that part of Poland I wanted to go back home. I told my uncle and he said "The war is not finished yet. You would be better off down here." But I wanted to be back with my mother and my family. I couldn't get home. The Russians had given my town, Vilna, to the Lithuanians. The Russians had an agreement with the Lithuanians for this to be done. Once, a long time ago, this part of Poland did belong to the Lithuanians and it came to be part of Poland as a marriage settlement in the marriage of a princess. Any way, that is the history. I could not get over the frontier so I had to go back to my uncle. I wanted to go to work but in Russia you could not go to work until you were eighteen. But they opened special schools for boys like me without parents. This orphan school was on the railway. They gave us a railway uniform and we had living quarters in the coaches. There were about five hundred of us.

It was more like being cadets in the army. We were divided up into five groups of fifty with different trades. For instance we were learning plate-laying, building various transport vehicles, brick-laying, welding, things like that. I was on the trade for building bridges. I learned how to measure cement, water and sand. Each morning we would get up and do PE exercises, then go for breakfast. The food was good. After that we went to learn our lessons, writing and reading Russian. It was difficult to start with to learn the Russian alphabet because it was so different. Next came lectures on weapons, gases and things like that. When we went to dinner, we went in our groups, marching in and singing patriotic songs, Russian patriotic songs of course. It had to be like that because they tried to convert us. From dinner which lasted about an hour, we went to practise with weapons, rifles and machine guns, learning how to clean them and put then together again. They were getting us ready for the army of course. Then it was time to do our trade, bridge-building. We had to learn the quantities needed in the cement according to what weight the bridge had to carry. For instance we had to know what strength the cement must be for a bridge carrying a hundred tons. We used to weigh cement, sand, and water. We had to get the exact amounts of each to make the mixture that would hold that amount of stone. It was a useful training.

It was about 1941 now, and war broke out between Russia and Germany. In that town where I was, Molodeczno, there was a railway station and where the sidings were was about half a mile with a tunnel underneath it with a little stream going. The sidings were on top of the tunnel so it had about a metre of concrete and about two metres of ground over it. This tunnel made a shelter for the railway workers from the bombing. War broke out on a Sunday and on the Wednesday, we had been working in this tunnel overnight and we had just come up for our breakfast. Nearby, about half a mile away, was a main road where part of the Russian army was moving further up into Poland. We came out of the tunnel and we saw these aeroplanes coming. Our master said they were some of our (Russian) planes coming back from bombing Germany. We counted thirty-six planes. Suddenly they dived down. They were Stukas screaming as they came down to bomb the station. We were very frightened and we ran back into the tunnel. They also went after the army on the main road. After the air raid we came up from the tunnel and the sight was terrible, believe me. Men and the horses which had been pulling the canons, and the equipment lay smashed up and bleeding and mixed up with the earth in a horrible mess all over the main road.

That was in the morning and in the afternoon, the German army came in. I ran to hide and I was hiding for about a week in a block that I knew of in the village. Then I thought, "The Germans keep going further into Russia now, and I am free to go home." I was a hundred miles from home but I walked for about a week to get home. My parents and my home were still there. Now I had to get an identity card for my rations as the Germans had introduced rationing. I went to register for a card and what did they do? They registered me and then took me away. This was at the end of 1941. There were quite a few of us taken and they put us into a working column and sent us to between Witipsk and Smolensk which was in Russia to repair the roads because the Russian partisans had started to work. German columns would use the road to carry war equipment to the front and in the night, the Russian partisans used to blow the roads up. We had to clear the mess and level the road for the next column to get by. We were in barracks. There was one barrack where we lived, one barrack for the transport and one barrack where the Germans lived. We had to go out into the forest for wood to burn on the fires to warm the barracks. We went out with a horse and sleigh. The forests stretched for miles and miles from Witipsk to Smolensk. They cut the forest out, clearing it of dead wood.

The wood was cut up into lengths of one metre. The wood was piled into square heaps one metre cubed. Anyway we went and loaded up and we decided to take this load back to the barracks and come back for another load. We left one of our men, an older bloke, in the forest. When we got back he insisted that we went straight back. He was very frightened. The next morning his hair had turned white. He told us later that when he had been waiting for us, one of the partisans came up to him, a man in Russian uniform with hand grenades all round him and with a machine gun. Our friend was told that he should not be collecting wood to feed the German fires and that he was a traitor. Some Ukrainians and some White Russians had joined the German army and were regarded as traitors. "We will have a trial", announced the partisan and he called upon another of his comrades to come. They pushed my friend up against a tree and questioned him. He did manage to persuade them that he was Polish. After smoking rolled cigarettes together he was allowed to go. "You are lucky", they said, "We were going to shoot you, but tell your boys never to come back down here any more." 1941-42 was a very harsh winter and the Germans sent their dead back to Germany by train.

A few of us escaped by climbing on one of these trains and lying on top of the dead soldiers who were all frozen stiff. This way we got back to Vilna. I was seventeen at the time. Back home again, I still had to get my ration card. My parents only received enough food to feed those in the house already. So back I went to register and they got me again. This time I was sent to Riga in Latvia to work on the aerodrome which was being extended to take bombers. We were now at the beginning of 1943. We had to work with the Jews here as well but it was easier for us because they gave us the easier jobs. The Jews had to work harder like collecting cement and sand and things like that. We just used to clear up and move stuff in trolleys and empty them into the road. When we had finished the extension we used to watch the aeroplanes coming in and out. They were 2-engined Junkers on bombing missions over the Baltic Sea and trying to get to England. They would be after the exports from Sweden to England. We would count how many went out and how many came back. Sometimes only one or two came back. Anyway, I ran off back home again. I used to help my step-father trade with the local farmers. He worked in the brewery. You couldn't buy the beer or anything else really.

Everything was produced for the Germans, but my step-father could get hold of say about one barrel of beer a week. He would sell this beer to the Lithuanian Police - they were drinkers really. Near Vilna was a place called Ponarri where thousands and thousands of Jews were shot. A German officer commanded the Lithuanian Police and the Lithuanian Police had to do the shooting. Jews from White Russia and from the Ukraine were brought to a small station called Ponarri. Near there, the Russians had started to build an oil depot for the army. They got as far as digging out big pits, fifty metres in diameter, and lining them making underground tanks. They had covered them over and planted trees on top for camouflage. These tanks were never finished and when the Germans came in, these tanks were filled up with the bodies of the dead Jews. The Jews were brought in batches and the first ten men would be ordered to get undressed into their bare suit. The next ten were given shovels. At a signal the Police would open fire and the first ten men would fall into the pit. The men with shovels would scatter some sand or soil over them, and they would hand the shovels to those standing behind them, and undress in their turn. In this way, thousands were killed.

The Police would trade with my step-father, Jewish items like clothing or anything they had got hold of, for beer. Then he would swop these things with the farmers at the market for food, bread or butter or bacon. It was terrible but it was our life. How else could we have survived? What else could we do? I could not get a ration card or they would have got me again. When I was still at home before they caught me again, we used to see them taking the Jews along the street. One day I had been delivering bread and I had one loaf of bread over. One of the Jews tried to pass me a ring for the loaf of bread and of course one of the soldiers saw me and hit me with the shaft of a pick-axe. I can still feel the scar. When I woke up I was in bed at home. I had a big lump on my head that turned septic. I was in bed about a month without a doctor or anything, but it healed eventually. I never thought my hair would grow again just there but it did. Towards the end of 1943, a Tarzan film was being shown in the town and my young sister wanted to go to see it. Anyway, we took her to the cinema. But the Gestapo raided the cinema and all those who had papers were lined up on one side and those without papers were lined up on the other side. Those people without papers, like me and my step-brother, were taken straight away to the railway station, into the wagon and into Germany.

My parents did not know where we had gone. We were put in a camp just outside Berlin at a place called Slachtenizi. This was in the beginning of 1944. During the nights, Berlin was bombed. I don't know whether it was the Yanks or the British. We had to go in the shelters which had been constructed in a zig-zag way with blocks along the top. They were not very good shelters and they got very crowded, so my step-brother and myself used to slip out and crouch down outside in the corners of the zig-zags. About half an hour after the alarm went off there would be an aeroplane which set off little fires in a circle. Five minutes after that you would see the bombers arrive and bomb inside the circle. We used to see the ack-ack which was beautiful to watch with all the colours. It was like seeing lovely red, yellow and white beads going up into the sky. I know they were deadly but they were very lovely to see. We would hear the bombs whistling down and then there was a flash of light. It was all very interesting really. In the mornings we would get a slice of brown bread and some coffee, and then we would have to go on the train to Alexanderplats which is in the centre of Berlin. We had to work to clear the ruins after the bombing, digging out people and moving the debris.

If you found anything to eat like bread, you could take it with you. But anything else you picked up, you would be shot instantly. Even a tiny thing like a needle, or a useful item like clothing, no, because the guard would be watching you all the time. We used a pickaxe to move the bricks and if it went down easy, it meant it was in a body and blood would come squirting up. It was terrible. One place we went in, there was a cellar and about fifty people were supposed to be trapped in it under the rubble. The guard told us to pick down to find the door. We did and when we got the door open all the people lay on the floor, blue. They had suffocated. All of them just lay there dead. After that we were sent to Denmark, in 1943-44 to build the bunkers on the shore for the Atlantic Wall as the invasion was expected. The Danish people were very good to us, especially when you said you were a Pole. They gave us everything. We had a good relationship with the Danes. We weren't locked up, we could go into Copenhagen to do the shopping. We had the time at night although we had to work from sunrise to sunset. But we were not locked up, we could get out. I had a Danish girl-friend while I was there. My step-brother escaped with a gang of his mates when we were in Denmark. They got to Copenhagen and paid a Danish fisherman to take them to Sweden in his boat. I was arrested by the Germans to try to get out of us where they had gone. I was quizzed and quizzed but I did not know. Later my sister wrote to us to say that he is in Sweden somewhere.

My mother wrote to him but after she died the address was lost. I tried to get news from the Red Cross but because I didn't know the exact date of his birth I was not successful. I think they were suspicious of me in case I wanted to do something to him. They were not sure that I was his brother. The work on the bunkers went slack as the soldiers there were sent to the front to fight and only a few guards were left. The people who were in charge of us told us not to do anything foolish as the war would soon be finished. Don't run away or you will get shot, they told us. We didn't have anything to do really. After that the British Army came and the Germans packed up. After the capitulation, we went into Germany to a civilian camp near Flensburg which had been bombed a lot because of all the U-boats there. The civilian camp was not very good so I moved to the army camp. This was the Polish Army under General Anders and I joined them. This did not last long as all the Polish Army outside Poland was demobbed. I then volunteered for the mixed police service, called the CMPS - the Civil and Military Police Service. We were in the same barracks as the British Army and we were issued with the same food and we used the same NAAFI as the British soldiers. We were guarding NAAFIs and munition dumps and things like that. We had a good time then just after the war. We used to go to the NAAFI and the British Army gave out what they called cookhouse cigarettes in boxes of fifty. As we had been prisoners we got Red Cross Parcels once a week as well, and once a month we got parcels from Polonia in America where a lot of Poles live. Also we got German cigarettes which they had to give us.

We were well away. I decided that I would like to emigrate to New Zealand because New Zealand was a long way away and I wanted to be away, as far as I could go. The reason I did not want to go back to Poland was Communism. I did not like it. I did not want to go there as it was still under Russian occupation. The men who went back to Poland had to join the army straight away. They were put behind the wire and were not free. So many of them escaped and came back to Germany again. My friend had gone to Wales; he went soon after the capitulation. I am still in contact with him. When I went to sign on for New Zealand they said that they wanted married men with families not singles. They suggested I went and got married but I thought that I didn't want to do that. So I came to England. About a hundred of us came over by ship, some Poles, some Ukrainians, and some Serbians. We were taken to Yorkshire to a transit camp, about a five minutes bus ride from York. We could choose to go down the coal-mines, farming or work on the iron-stone. So I chose the ironstone as it was open-cast and I did not want to go underground. So that is how I came down here. We came from York by train to Grantham and then a bus brought us to Buckminster to the hostel which was in the old stables. There were Poles, Yugoslavs, Serbs, Ukrainians, oh all sorts. Some settled around here and others moved on. I met my wife at a dance at the old village hall. We have lived in this house for fifty-odd years. We have a son, Winston and a daughter, Anne. We did not give them Polish names but we did give the dog a Polish name, Genik.

During the war, I never thought about whether this nightmare would ever end, because you were so down you could not think about it. You were so depressed. You knew that you might die at any time. All you thought about was getting food that is all you could do. Sometimes you thought "Why have I been born?" But most of the time you didn't care, so you never thought about whether it would finish. You never knew what was happening in the war, except when the Germans sent train after train full of their frozen dead back to Germany from Russia, we did understand that things were not going so well for them. But that is all. When we were in Denmark, the Danes told us about D-Day, the invasion, otherwise we never knew what was going on in the war. I can tell you how my step-father died. He was shot. One of the German soldiers had been shot in the street. There was punishment for all the people in the street. All men were fetched out of the houses and stood in a row and every tenth man was shot. My step-father was one of the tenth men and he was shot. I like to keep independent, I don't join anything or go visiting and I learned not to volunteer. Some people were a bit suspicious of me when I settled down here. Most people were alright and friendly. Now there are all sorts in the country and nobody takes any notice.

There were some good blokes come to live here from Poland and the Ukraine and so on. We went to Poland for a holiday and it was lovely. I had forgotten some of my Polish but I soon picked it up. I can remember my Russian as well; I can remember the alphabet. We did not have time to go to my old home. I don't think there was much difference between the Germans and the Russians. Some of the Russian people are good people. They like to enjoy themselves. But when the Communists were there, life was different. The same as in Germany. I didn't like them in the war, but things are different now. The problem is that they carry the name. Alek was the blow-man who set the dynamite charges. He would walk around holding sticks of dynamite in his arms. He has been known to smoke at the same time. "Mr Timberlake used to come down and open the door to check up on what was going on. I had just set the charges so I sent one man with a red flag up to one end and another with a red flag to the other. I sounded the hooter to warn people. Mr Timberlake came up and got into the cab just as I blew the charge. He was covered in dust. He should have known not to enter the area. I was in charge of explosives. I worked at the ironstone from 1949 to 1972. There was Number Two pit, North pit, Cringle pit." Alek feels that he was diddled out of his redundancy money because he was told three months or so before that anyone with a job could go as the works were closing down. "So I went and that was reckoned my choice to go so I didn't get any redundancy money."