Edward Herzbaum - Excerpts from ‘Lost Between Worlds’
Szeksna, 13 June 1941
In our small circle we talk mostly about politics. We all tend to agree that the inevitable German-Russian war will resolve what will happen to us. As Zygmunt says, either we will perish or we will be released. It seems that we will not have to wait long to find out. Even though most Russians laugh at us when we mention the war, some of them give us more reliable news. It is strange that they are more eager to talk to us about what they think, than they are to talk to each other. Recently several meetings took place, of course strictly confidential, in which the high-ranking men received exact instructions of what to do in case of war. Anti-aircraft defence, increased controls, changes in work plans; all of that has been worked out in detail.
Szeksna, 23 June 1941
We were right, the war has started. There is no change in how we are treated, but there is no doubt that something is up. They collect forms; they write and sort things out. The day before yesterday we heard a speech by Molotov and straightaway the radio was taken away. In general it seems that our situation is going to improve.
Perybory, 1 August 1941
One day an order came to transfer us all to the 5th sub-section. Here we have a separate zone and we are rather strictly isolated. There are about 2,000 of us, from the entire hydro-electric construction site. The work is no more serious than it was on the Szeksna River. They are prodding us more, they are shouting more, but to no effect; discipline is falling apart. They are releasing a lot of prisoners and they have to send the remaining ones somewhere because the construction work will be terminated. It seems that everybody except the political prisoners will be released.
Szeksna, 7 September 1941
Actually it was only when we stopped going to work that we finally believed that they would let us out. We hadn’t wanted to admit it, but everybody had prepared themselves for the possibility that this entire amnesty was simply a propaganda trick. Maybe they will let some of the POWs out but will it include us? But now after a whole week had passed and we were sitting in the zone and doing nothing, we started to believe that something would happen, because it was the first time in the entire history of the camps that people were not working without a valid reason. It seems that we were lucky being so close to the front, as it meant that the entire hydro-electric project would have to be stopped.
Perybory, 12 September 1941
In the morning they gave us bread and a herring each and at ten o’clock they were reading out our names and letting people go beyond the guard post but, on the way through, they still insisted in taking away our cotton quilted jackets and undergarments. On the other side of the guard post, there was another gate connecting the enterprise zone or the so-called ‘ocieplenie’, the warm-up zone, with the unguarded terrain, which meant freedom. They were reading the names again at the gate, giving us a document called ‘udostoverenie’, which is some kind of a permit or identity paper. I was quite shocked when I saw my photograph, which had been taken much earlier in Parsow. Once through the gate, all of us sat down on our own stuff and we started to finish the bread. They had given us two and a half kilos each. Then we waited to see what would happen next. But nothing happened; we were sitting there for almost two hours. Then suddenly the guards on the watch towers started to shout at us that we must leave or else they will start to shoot at us. We moved away a little, feeling quite surprised, but they kept waving their hands and shouting that we must get out of there ‘to the devil’s mother’. And then it dawned on us that we no longer had our ‘caretakers’.
Vladimir, 16 September 1941
After a few hours, another change of trains at ‘Novki’ and again almost an entire day of waiting, the trains are overwhelmed by the military transportation, so that passenger transportation is made difficult. There are refugees everywhere, some of them with wooden coffers under their arms, others with nothing, as if they had just left their homes for a short while. I know this picture only too well from September 1939. You can see signs of the war everywhere: imposing war posters, large numbers of wounded and the blackout lights everywhere. That’s how I arrived here in Vladimir where I must wait again until midnight.
Ryazan, 17 September 1941
Who knows how much longer it will still take me to get to Astrakhan. Because of the war there is not only a shortage of available passenger transportation and the resulting overcrowding, but also, because I cannot go directly through Moscow, I need to find detours, to look for secondary rail lines and narrow-gauge trains. Yesterday and the day before I only travelled by train for about one hour on each day and the rest of the time I was waiting around or I was walking from one railway station to the next village where there is a different railway line, because there is no connection over the river, etc. I’ve hardly got any money left and I will arrive in Astrakhan without a penny. I will be forced to accept the first job that I can find. I have discovered that the transports of the Polish military passed through here and that they were wearing the four-cornered hats which are easily recognised by their description, as field hats, but I couldn’t establish anything else.