EVA-US WUORIO March 15 1945


EVA-US WUORIO March 15 1945


A record of love and adventure that reads like fiction ... the true story of a Polish singer’s escape from the Nazis


HANKA SIKORI'S story begins in a walled Baltic port. It begins with the glow of amber and the tune of a Norwegian song.

Think of a walled Baltic city, historic as a free Hanse town in the days of medieval trading, but now a forgotten port. Here amber is sold, and wrought dull silver, and here men speak of the brilliant Ruriks, the bold Vikings, the Teutonic Knights as familiarly as though they had passed through but yesterday. As indeed, in this timeless place, they well might have.

And think of Hanka, in her early twenties but already famous, here after an exhausting, successful concert tour through the capitals of northern Europe.

It is afternoon, hot and still, as summer afternoons in the far north so often are. Hanka has walked to the embankments by the bay, alone. She leans across the grey stone balustrade, and the old tales are in her mind of secret amber, deep in these clear waters, hidden in the golden sand, the cumulative life of pine trees drowned 3,000 years ago.

A voice behind her speaks, hesitantly: “You sing

my favorite song, madame.”

Hanka turns and there stands a tall man, very thin and very fair. His high nose hooks arrogantly between two deep-set eyes, his forehead is almost too broad. There is only academic interest inhisexpression.

And then Hanka realizes that she had been humming Grieg’s “Solveig’s Song,” naturally enough, for had been on her programs often that year.

There is no recognition of her in his eyes, merely a distantly courteous recognition of the song. So Hanka answers: “1 like it too. I’ve always liked it.” “It has given me such solace,” the man continues simply, directly, “that 1 wonder whether you would honor me by accepting—this.”

He has a hunk of translucent yellow, the size and shape of half an egg cut lengthwise, on his palm, and he holds it out to her.

And then, suddenly embarrassed, he withdraws his hand. “It is only amber,” he speaks quickly. “I like it for the look and the feel of it.”

She smiles at him then and helps him: “Like

sunlight captured into a shape,” she says.

He leans against the ancient stone of the balustrade; “I am Tomek Sikori, engineer, of Warsaw, here on short holiday.”

Hanka laughs about it now. “When I found out he could recognize one song and one only I married him.” They had an apartment in one of Warsaw’s modern solar buildings. Flowers grew in profusion over their verandas, and the sun poured in all day. In the hush of the evening you could hear the sibilant song of the River Vistula flowing to the sea. Within a year Jozef was born, and then, three years later, Jan. The baby’s second birthday was Aug. 30, 1939—the day before the Germans marched into Poland and bombed the city of Warsaw.

“Three days later we decided to take the children to my parents in Lwow. It is an old cathedral city in southern Poland. We thought they’d be safe there.” Hanka’s voice is calm but her fingers twirl a crested fork around and around.

The weather mocked humanity that autumn. Clear blue skies, brilliant sunlight, fragrant dry pinewoods, perfect harvest season perfect “Hitler weather.” As they drove through the best part of Poland the silver

airships of the enemy, glinting in the sun, would fall out of the sky in a deadly dive, spuming death.

Hanka sat beside Tomek in the front seat of their open touring car, holding the baby. Jozef, five years old then, knelt on the back seat, watching the sky. At his warning Tomek would pull up by the side of the road and they would throw themselves into the ditch or run to the trees. And squirrels played in the branches above them and sun filtered through, but when they drove on again they would pass bodies of refugees, machine-gunned by the German fliers.

THEY reached Lublin one night and found shelter in a small hotel. There was no milk for the children, no food to be had except what was left of their own provisions. At 4 a.m. the landlord pounded on the door: “The front has come here! The front is here!” he screamed. They heard him running down the hall, banging on other doors, shouting: “The

front is here!”

The lights had gone off and they stumbled down to the courtyard in the darkness, carrying the children. Down the road came the rumble of tanks, shouted orders. The car was headed toward a wooden fence. There was no time to turn it around. Tomek forced it through the cracking wood. They had less than a gallon of gasoline left, but they passed by an abandoned gasoline station and took what they needed.

Hanka’s parents’ house was near the cathedral, an obvious target for the Nazis, but it had a deep stone cellar so they decided to stay there instead of joining the many refugees in the crowded shelters.

That first night Tomek, holding Hanka close, said gravely: “I must go on. They are forming the Army in France. I might be needed—engineers are essential to war. I think you know—my heart, my soul, my life —remain with you.”

He left with a friend one dawn, driving toward the Romanian border. His last words were to Hanka: “When this is over I will find you. No matter where, no matter how, we will be together again. We will be together!”

Hanka stood in the grey light, wordless, and watched him go.

Then came days of constant bombing, days of bread lines, days of fear. Others sought shelter in the cellar kitchen, too. The baby slept through the terror of it but small Jozef would kneel through the worst bombardments, praying earnestly for safekeeping.

“It was at times like that,” Hanka said, “that I sometimes hoped we would get it the next time . . . so that it would be all over with, once and for all. And yet, in between, the utter terror was not in my mind, for 1 was too occupied with worry over the children. If only a door banged I was certain it was a bomb. Yet now I think that my worry over them saved my sanity —at least that worry was normal, the only normal thing left.”

When Russian troops entered the city new prohibitions and rules were forced on the people who had already suffered chaos and siege. Food was short, water mains were broken, there were no lights—but the bombing had ceased.

Hanka’s fame as a singer was known. She received orders to join a theatrical troupe then being formed to be sent to Army camps in Russia. She had little choice; she was assured some salary for this work, and she needed money badly, for all food prices had rocketed sky-high. She would have to leave the children with her parents. The irregularities of war had made transportation very uncertain, though she was assured she would be back in two months. A message had come from Tomek through the already organized underground—he was well, with the Army in France.

Besides, artists who had refused to join the enter-

tainment troupe were sent to concentration camps. So again Hanka left on a concert tour, this time not to sing to well-dressed audiences in bridged Stockholm, white Helsinki, tawdry Vienna, gay Copenhagen, or Berlin of the threatening marching echoes. This was to distant lonely outposts, where men in baggy uniforms with red stars on their caps trained vigilantly. And somehow, on this journey, Tomek seemed closer to her than ever before, Tomek whose devotion she had accepted so unthinkingly since their quick marriage after the Baltic meeting. The train wheels seemed to carry his voice, and his thin handsome face came often into her restless snatches of sleep,

. . sing me your song again, my Solveig, sing to me, beloved . . .”

IT WAS for Tomek that she always sang “Solveig’s Song” at eachof her concerts. The poignant tune of the Norwegian Grieg was acceptable to the Russians, who themselves indulge in melancholy love songs.

In Samarkand, while on the concert tour, she had a strange experience in the street of the bazaars. She had gone merely sight-seeing, being short of money as she sent almost all she earned back to Poland. Two men were sitting in a shadowy doorway. Flies were thick all over their bodies but they seemed to have no strength to whisk them away. They were in rags, their cheekbones sticking out of their yellow skin. Hanka heard one of the men say something wearily in Polish.

The men turned out to be prisoners, escaped from a concentration cump. Hanka and her friends sold some of their clothes to outfit the men and to buy ointments for their sores. Within days the two were speaking eagerly of making their way to France to join the Polish Army. Suddenly, with a near revulsion at herself, Hanka realized she had not thought of Poland once -she had been desperate for Tomek, she had worried about the children, she had wondered about her own fate. Here, two Poles, nearly dead, and suffering as she had not suffered, thought of only one thing: how to serve Poland.

And yet, honestly, she spoke of her reaction: “It

seemed to me my mind no longer lived in my body. It was divided, half of it searching for Tomek, desperately, ceaselessly, the other half hovering about Jozef and Jan, trying to shelter them from I knew not what. I wanted to feel home again ... I wanted to go home . . .”

She made no effort to leave the tour. It seemed hopeless. They were now singing in the towns by the Ural Mountains, where oriental life pulsated with sodden brilliance in the larger centres. In Aktyubinsk —she would always remember that name—their Russian conducting officer came backstage. His face was completely expressionless.

“Russia is fighting Germany. Poland and Russia are now Allies,” he told them. “All Poles have been freed from the concentration camps. The Polish Government has been given permission to form a Polish Army in Russia. The tour is cancelled.”

The tour cancelled! That meant no more money. They were on their own now, in an alien country.

“I want to go home,” Hanka said, again and again. But nobody had been able to leave the town, and then it was learned that at Busuluk a Polish training centre had been formed. Busuluk was within realms of possibility—it, too, was in Caucasia. Hanka sold everything but the clothes she wore and bought a railway ticket to Busuluk.

BUSULUK is a sandy little town in the middle of nothing. Arid lands dwarf it and dust rises at each step. But as they left the slow, hot train a sight met their eyes that made it wonderful. There was a Polish flag, unfurled. There was a soldier with a redand-white arm band and the word “Polski” on his shoulder, and there was a band playing the Polish national anthem.

General Anders was performing the all but impossible task of organizing an Army out of a multitude of refugees in this little unknown town. There were not enough shelters for all, and in the large hall that the Russians had rented them each family group had its own heap of straw, its own private life. The women who signed up in the Pestka’s, the Polish Women’s Army, as did Hanka, had their own quarters.

Hanka had found it impossible to separate her mind from the daily life. This new experience needed all her concentration now. Sometimes she thought, “I am serving Poland!” and then she admitted to herself that actually all she did was to accept each day as it came, that this was the solution fate had presented. She did secretarial work and took part in all concerts given at the new encampment. She was exhausted each night, yet somehow, at each concert, she sang the Song of Solveig, and for a moment, her eyes closed,

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I Will Find You

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was back in that far summer on the Baltic.

All this time Hanka was sending messages home. She did not know if they were reaching her parents at Lwow. She had received no news of Tomek since she left home. Somehow her own individual life seemed a little i like a dream. The hot eastern sun, the j fervid eagerness of her countrymen and j women to serve in Poland’s armies i again, the fullness of the days, deadened her despair. She had been caught squarely by events.

Hanka was sent with the First Polish Division to Persia. Now in uniform, she was in charge of a carload of civilian refugees, until the Army personnel boarded a ship at a Caspian port for Pahlevi.

“The Caspian is not like our northern seas, black-blue and clear,” Hanka stared backward in time. “It was dull, brownish-green and stormy. Terribly stormy. Yet I was deeply excited to see it, for it seemed to me it must bring me closer to Tomek. After all, I had met him by a sea.” She shrugged helplessly. “It was illogical of course, but so I thought.”

They landed in the Persian port of Pahlevi on April 5, Easter Sunday. The Poles were marched to the seashore sand dunes for the night. They fastened their military capes on sticks, to shelter their heads from the night wind. That might have been sufficient on an ordinary night but a storm rose and before morning they were drenched —a sopping mass of chapped flesh. At dawn they were taken to headquarters and there their clothes and bodies were deloused. “We needed it. We were alive with them,” Hanka says with a cool little shrug.

“Then we were issued a heavy coat, a new uniform, a cap, a knapsack, water bottle, rations. These I had in two suitcases. We then marched almost two miles to a bus stop, en route to the Polish camp. I was never so tired!”

HANKA was quartered at one of the camps outside Teheran. There her mind received its first transfusion of hope—and painful expectancy. Her third morning there a friend came to her breathlessly. “Hanka, your name is on the Red Cross list! Someone must be looking for you.”

“It is odd,” Hanka says, remembering it, “but suddenly I was afraid. I felt as though I had been in hiding and had been found out. I stood before the roughly nailed notice board and my breath came as though I had been running.” Her hand went up to her throat; “I can still feel it.”

The Red Cross office was at Teheran, about four miles away. She walked there at noon, when all work stopped, even at the barracks, for the hot hours of the day.

“We cannot give you any information now,” she was told. “Come back in a week.”

She doesn’t know how she lived through that week. And then she found out: two Polish engineers, now in southern Persia, their names unfamiliar to her, had put in the enquiry. She telegraphed them. Tomek, too,

I was an engineer—life suddenly had a I new rhythm.

j The two men had heard from Tomek j months earlier. He had sent money I in the hope that they might somehow get in touch with Hanka. At that time ; he had been in France, now France had I fallen. The three of them spent days I wiring every conceivable place: France, i England, Egypt. Tomek had not been ! heard of anywhere.

Since the day she had seen her name on the Red Cross list Hanka had believed absolutely that now, at last, she could contact her husband. The failure to find him suddenly snapped her nerve and she succumbed to an attack of pneumonia. After she recovered she could not shake the feeling of hopeless inertia. She felt herself only a number in the Army; devoid of rights, her personal life lay hidden beyond an impenetrable fog.

She became a secretary and received the rank of sergeant-major. Only once did hope flicker again. That was the night she sang Polish songs over the Teheran radio and included the Song of Solveig “in case Tomek was listening.” Two years went by.

And then, abruptly, unheralded, her individual life snapped back into place. A cable from Tomek came directly from Canada to the Teheran Red Cross. She was to find later that he had escaped from France to England and from there to Canada. He had already arranged for her passports and permits. All she needed was a release from the Army.

Teheran, Persia, to Toronto, Canada, across a world at war, seemed simple. After all, she had a destination again!

ANEW phase in her life began. She was more on her own now than she had ever been. Now she entered the age of responsibility and a new world —the world of refugees.

All across the east the refugee camps make a half world, a life below the surface of the normal, for the homeless. This Hanka entered, though while in Teheran she was able to get concert engagements and so, supporting herself, retain her identity.

The next stop, four months later, was at Ahwaz, reputed the third hottest place in the world, an arid town north of the Persian Gulf, huddling in the foothills of the Khvzistans. Among the 1,500 refugees Hanka organized plays and concerts, and the Song of Solveig was constantly on her lips—she was on her way to Tomek!

She drove herself at work, and at night was too tired to mind the hard boards, one blanket, using her purse for a pillow, in the barracks which 45 women shared.

After four months in Ahwaz Hanka lost faith in the arrival of a refugee transport and took a bus to Korrashahri, eight hours away, to try to get on board ship as a stewardess. The move was unfortunate; though she did secure a position, only five days before the ship sailed she got a high fever and did not recover for weeks. Meanwhile the long-waited transport had called at Ahwaz, and she missed that too. She had another four-months wait for the Bathori, a Polish ship in Allied service.

The trip down the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and across the northern Arabian Sea to Karachi, in India, was mainly remarkable for the incredible fact of sleeping between sheets, in a real bed in a small clean cabin!

“It sounds naive to say one has forgotten such things exist,” she said thoughtfully, “but that is true. Just that. Circumstances change your conception of the necessary. Sheets to me had become a luxury.”

Though Hanka did not know it would be four months before she moved again, she seized desperately every chance to work. She was given clerical duties and the organization of a theatrical troupe. Under her direction the refugees put on a Polish version of Steinbeck’s “The Moon Is Down,” and arranged regular concerts. The fame of the theatre spread, even outside the refugee enclosure.

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And then Hanka could not wait any longer. She had heard from her husband while still in Teheran and Ahwaz, but now for some months no news had come. She did not know then that he was very ill; yet her restlessness grew. Passage on a refugee transport would have been cheaper than a regular fare, but she had given up all hope of ever getting a refugee boat. She left for Bombay.

“No women or children are allowed on ships leaving here,” she was told. “The space is too scarce.”

Hanka was' now beyond the time when she would accept “no.” Her permits authorized her to reach Canada via India, Africa and Mexico. Now she tried to get a direct passage to America. She phoned the British authorities in Delhi and meanwhile engaged a berth on a boat leaving in four days. She was ready to leave, when it was pointed out that she would not be allowed to land without an American transit visa. Desperate now, she phoned Washington. “Yes,” she was told, “we’ll secure you one.” Meanwhile the boat left.

Another four months went by. Waiting was torture ... no news of her sons for more than a year, no news from her husband for months. * Her money was almost gone. Hanka worked and life continued. Each morning came with a regularity that continually surprised her—until she was lulled into an odd sense of acceptance by the very inevitability of living on.

FINALLY she did get a boat out of Bombay— destination unknown, for security reasons. When they touched at Melbourne she realized they were taking the direct route to America and that night she watched the stars with a sense of reverent thanksgiving. She

landed at Los Angeles and soon she was on the train to Canada.

The immigration men at the border found some technical omission in her papers and stopped her at Niagara Falls. Their officiousness could not give them insight into Hanka’s desperate need to arrive—to at last arrive. She broke down then, and as from her hotel room she managed to phone Tomek in Toronto her hysterical sobbing was uncontrollable.

She had not seen him for five years and 10 days precisely. His voice, questioning, came through the phone and Hanka whispered:

“Tomek! Tomek!”

“Hallo, hallo,” his voice was anxious. And then, “Hanka!”

He contacted the Polish consul in Toronto. It was Sunday and it took the long day for that energetic diplomat to rout out the officials concerned, in Ottawa and in Washington, by phone to discover that the technicality the immigration men were quibbling over did not exist—it had been withdrawn from the regulations some years^ack! Hanka caught the last train that day for Toronto.

By some mishap Tomek missêd her at the station and Hanka arrived at the apartment he had rented to find that he had telephoned only a few seconds before, reporting that he had not found her and would be coming home.

She stood by the window and watched for him, and the minutes were as long as all of the five years preceding. Finally he came, a tall, lean man, a little stooped, with a slow step that was the aftermath of his long illness. She went slowly out of the room and out through the door and down the stfeps and only as she reached the street could she find the strength to run.

They met under the bare trees in a slight sprinkling of a Toronto raih . .