We gambled our love on freedom
We met in a German prison camp, I a British soldier, Olga a Ukrainian slave worker. We had to choose . . . stay and be parted, or escape together into unknown dangers
On that midsummer morning in 1942, even before the German guards unlocked the concrete storehouse that was our prison, we knew something special was afoot. The grapevine had passed word: a new batch of Ukrainians had been herded into the slave-labor camp near our prisoner-of-war camp. This was actually a routine event. But after two years the dangers and hardships of POW life—sadistic work bosses, guards with itchy trigger fingers, food that was bad and never enough, dawn-todusk toil—all tended to merge in a numbing boredom that made even the arrival of a few more wretched uprooted people something different.
In our storehouse slept the ten British prisoners-of-war assigned to the farm of Herr Bruno Wargentin near Schönau, in East Prussia at the border of the former free city of Danzig. Our "home base”—to which we prayed never to return—was the vast German prisoner-of-war camp at Marienburg, a dozen miles away. I had been captured in the brief British invasion of Norway in April 1940, but my fellow prisoners were Dunkirk survivors. In addition to us. the German authorities assigned to Herr Wargentin some twenfy-five "slave laborers,” chiefly women, who lived at a shack encampment about a mile from our storehouse.
The newly arrived Ukrainians, twenty girls and five men, were waiting in the bright dawn at the place by the roadside where the trucks would pick us up, POWs and slave laborers alike, for distribution to the scattered fields. Some wore ragged working clothes; others were incongruously festive in embroidered shirts— snatched up before German evacuation teams drove these unhappy recruits to the slave camps. There was contrast in their expressions, too; some despondent, others with the cheerful look that no misfortune can wipe from the face of young people on a sunny day. One young girl in particular caught my eye. There was a light in her green eyes, a self-assurance in the tilt of her little nose, and her figure was slim and strong under her shapeless dress.
When the trucks stopped for us I boldly pushed my way on to the same one with the green-eyed girl. “Hello,” I said, then “good morning” in my best German. She looked at me coldly and silently turned her back.
That evening before lockup the POW camp had its first visit from Mickey. He trotted into the yard where, for an hour after we returned from work and before the storehouse's double door was locked on us. we were allowed leisure (under armed guard) for our sparse meal, to wash ourselves and our clothes, and to lounge in the outdoors.
He said his name was Matushka. but he was Mickey to us from then on. Although the Germans usually broke up families when drafting slave - camp workers, somehow ten - year - old Mickey had been allowed to accompany his mother. He was so young that neither our guards nor the German civilian overseers in charge of the slave-labor camp paid much attention to his comings and goings. He already spoke German (it had taken me two years to learn it). I gave him a piece of candy from my last Red Cross parcel, and questioned him about the green-eyed girl.
“Oh, you mean Olga Yurtschenko—the one all the men look at,” he said when I described her. I nodded.
"Ask her why she ignored me this morning when I spoke to her on the truck.” 1 said.
Next morning I boarded the same truck as Olga again, and she ignored me even more pointedly. That evening Mickey was back with her reply: "She says she is shy with strangers. She also says she ignores you for your own good, since it is the law that prisoners and workers who fraternize will be sentenced to a year at hard labor.”
"It was time for a desperate decision. If we escaped now we might make the Russian lines"
“Tell her I am willing to take a chance on punishment to make her acquaintance, if she is,” I told Mickey.
Next day Olga and I worked side by side, unloading fertilizer from a truck. This time she did not turn her back. Instead she smiled, and I smiled in reply. Neither of us understood a word of the other’s language, but somehow at that moment, in the unlikely atmosphere of a truckload of fertilizer, an understanding was born between us.
It was a strange courtship. Mostly it had to be conducted via Mickey’s services as a courier. Mickey taught me, with great patience, the rudiments of the Ukrainian language so that on the rare occasions when Olga and I could snatch a moment alone 1 could talk to her. And, more important, understand what she said.
This went on for more than two years.
If it sounds somewhat idyllic for two people in desperate plight, the truth is that we were extremely fortunate on the farm of Bruno Wargentin. When we had first been paraded before Wargentin earlier that summer I had felt a chill of apprehension. Here, I thought, is a fanatic. He was a huge man, well over six feet tall and broad in proportions.
Herr Wargentin was fanatical, all right, but only about his farm and his horses and cattle. He made us work hard—he had to. with the district supervisor of farm production constantly pressing him to produce more. But Bruno Wargentin proved himself a decent man. Periodically a Hitler proclamation would demand a special Sunday of work.
T do not work my animals on Sunday and I will not work men and women,” Wargentin was quoted by our grapevine as telling the district supervisor.
It was an ironic tribute to the prisoner-of-war grapevine that we POWs knew of the Russian approach before our masters did. In December 1944 I heard that the Russians were less than a hun-
died miles away from Schönau and advancing fast. There was an ominous rider to this news: our POW camp—and the Ukrainian labor settlement — were soon to be evacuated westward.
We would be separated, of course. In the turmoil of war Olga and I would probably never find each other again. It was time for a desperate decision. If we escaped together now, we might make our way safely to the Russian lines—and we might be allowed to marry and return to England. The odds were heavily against us whether we stayed or tried to escape together, and I talked the matter over with my fellow POWs. After all, my decision affected them directly. They would be questioned and probably punished when I was found to be missing. But unanimously they gave me their blessing.
“I’ll give you a Ukrainian haircut as a parting gift,” promised Jock, the Aberdonian who doubled as our barber.
I sent Olga a message by Mickey. Her reply was simple: she was ready to leave with me any time I said. First, we set about gathering what provisions we could for our flight. I stole a small sled from the farm’s implement shed and hid it under a pile of straw in a field between our POW quarters and the slave-labor camp.
Olga and I hoarded, grudgingly, half the bread of our rations. We stole and hid on the sled, one at a time, a few eggs, onions, carrots and turnips. I had some canned meat and chocolate from a Red Cross parcel, but fellow prisoners warned me to sacrifice those treasures, since if we were captured they would identify me as a prisoner-of-war.
The night of our escape was cold and stormy, but it offered the one advantage that the heavily drifting snow would cover our tracks. The escape from my cement prison was not too difficult: we had discovered that by pushing on the bottom of one of the heavy double doors, and pulling on the other, a space could be made large enough for a thin man to squeeze through. I shook hands with the ten men who had shared the concrete-walled prison with me, then half of them pulled while the other half pushed—and I was out in the blizzard. No guard was in sight. I walked rapid-
ly toward the Ukrainian slave-labor camp. En route I collected the sled with our supplies.
Olga was waiting for me near her camp. Actually, it was much less difficult for her to get away undetected than for me. The grim truth was that slave workers were considered so expendable by the Germans that they were often not rigorously guarded, on the grounds that few would be unwise enough to try to escape from a place where there was an irreducible minimum of food and shelter into an environment where a homeless enemy civilian was likely to be shot on sight.
Olga was holding in her arms a bundle of clothing—Ukrainian garments to change my identity from British prisoner-of-war to slave laborer. The outfit . consisted of coarse wool trousers, a white wool Cossack hat, an embroidered shirt, worn but freshly laundered, and a heavy fleece-lined leather jacket. I asked her how she had managed to obtain such fine garments. Her answer brought a lump to my throat:
‘The men knew we were trying to escape together and that you would
In the slave camp ten-year-old Mickey carried messages between Jim and Olga.
need civilian clothes. They .gave us these things to wish us Godspeed.”
We slipped silently into the snowfilled darkness. About two hours after we started we came to what I had been seeking: a deep gully filled with snow and heavy underbrush. There I changed my clothes and hid my tattered British uniform. There too I discarded the papers that identified me as James Pegg, prisoner-of-war. When I rejoined Olga I had assumed the identity we had decided on. I was now Ivan Yurtschenko, of Kiev, Ukrainian slave laborer and brother of Olga Yurtschenko.
We walked what I calculated to be twelve miles that first night, dragging the sled. At dawn we were within sight of a farm. We hoisted the sled into the hayloft of the cow barn, and while I kept watch Olga swiftly drew a few squirts of milk from several cows.
“This way,” she explained in a whisper, “the farmer will never miss the milk.”
I smiled at her ingenuity as we sat in the hay and drank the milk and ate some of our provisions. We took turns sleeping and keeping watch, and at nightfall we set out again. We walked at the edge of the road, ready to dive into the ditch at any sound. By day we hid in the heaviest underbrush we could find.
It was a strange journey. We had been in love more than two years, and now for the first time we were together for longer than a few seconds; for the first time we had the leisure to tell our stories to each other.
I was born at Newcastle-on-Tyne, where my father John Pegg was a coal miner and is now a pump tender at a mine. I tried farm work, but couldn’t see a future at six shillings a week; I took one look down my father’s mine and decided to join the army. I was then fourteen. After a four-year course with the Royal Engineers I was a fullfledged soldier, taking part in the 1940 Allied invasion of German-held Norway.
Before I was captured I was wounded. After six months in hospital I was sent to a POW camp near Torun, in Poland, where I spent two years working on roads and in sugar-beet factories before I was transferred to Schonau.
Olga’s history was even shorter. When the German army invaded the Ukraine in 1941, she and several other teen-aged boys and girls in her village had been rounded up. Olga’s mother, weeping, had walked beside her as the young people were herded toward the railway. A soldier motioned with his gun for the older woman to go back. “Only a little way, a little way,” pleaded the girl’s mother. The soldier threatened to shoot her if she did not obey. That was the last Olga ever saw of her mother.
By the fifth day of our flight we no longer had to guess the direction of the Russians. That day we hid under a bridge and heard the sounds of gunfire. There were the measured march of German soldiers moving eastward toward the noise of battle, the shuffling of German refugees fleeing westward. The refugees still streamed along the road after dark when we resumed our journey.
Then suddenly, at a turn in the road, we were looking down the barrel of a tommy gun, and the helmeted face behind the gun demanded: “Ausweis!” We had walked smack into a German road block. The guard wanted our papers ... In German I told him the story we had rehearsed. We were Ivan and Olga Yurtschenko, brother and sister, Ukrainians from Kiev district. We had been working on a farm near Altfeld (I had heard that name, but had no idea where it was) until the owner was evacuated. In the confusion our papers were lost. I held my breath and gripped Olga’s hand tight. It was a tense moment. Without papers, and with the confusion of retreat, the soldier might well have shot us on the spot. 1 could see his small blue eyes in the lantern light, considering what he should do. Then he grunted, and motioned toward a truck parked off the road.
Brutality on an incredible scale
Inside were five others who had been trapped by the roadblock—two Polish men, two Ukrainian men and a Ukrainian girl. Presently the truck rumbled off down the road, back into German territory. I felt utterly dejected.
At Dirschau (which the Poles have since rechristened Tczew) we were herded into boxcars and taken to Danzig. We stayed overnight in the Danzig freight yards and next morning our guards marched us through a snowstorm seemingly endless miles to a camp a dozen miles from the port of Gdynia, well behind the front at that time. There the Germans’ slave laborers were preparing gun emplacements and anti-tank trenches. Every morning at 4.30 we were aroused by the guards, given a cup of black, bitter ersatz coffee, and marched five miles to the site of excavations, where men and women dug and horses hauled earth twelve hours a day without rest or food.
It was not until we returned to camp that we received our one daily meal— soup, black bread and black coffee. It was at the Gdynia camp that I first saw depravity and brutality on an incredible scale. Here men and women were housed in the same shacks. The sanitary facilities consisted simply of a latrine trench used by both men and women. When hungry slave laborers snatched a few potatoes from the straw-covered storage dumps on farm fields, the treatment was incredible . . .
One night a spot search was made. Four men and four women were found with potatoes—Olga and I might well have been among them, for we were as adept at palming a few potatoes as we passed a dump as any of the others. The
eight were placed in confinement, without food, for five days. Then a long scaffold, which reminded me incongruously of a football goalpost, was erected. On it was placed a sign in Polish, German, Ukrainian and French: “Potato Plunderers.” Everyone in camp was ordered to assemble. Then the eight starving, staggering wretches were led out—and hanged before our horrified eyes. Nearby another scaffold was built, this one with a sign reading: “This scaffold ready for other potato plunderers.” That night Olga did something I can
never forget. She had been assigned to kitchen duty that day, and when she returned to me she was carrying nearly half a sack of potatoes! When I saw what was in the bag I snatched my hand away as if the bag contained cobras.
“But don't you know. Olga, that eight people were hanged today for having potatoes—that you were taking a terrible risk to bring these here?”
She nodded and smiled. “Yes, I knew,” she said. “But,” she persisted, “I wanted you to have them.”
I hid the priceless potatoes inside my
coat, ran to the brink of the latrine pit, and hurled them in. It was one of the most difficult things i have ever had to do.
After the first few days of digging, the Russians started to take an interest in our activities. First, a reconnaissance plane came over. Next, all hell broke loose among us in the form of roaring, diving planes, bombs and strafing machine-gun bullets. Olga and I had been working at the side of a French girl named Helene. Instinctively we threw ourselves to the ground. One girl lay on either side of me, our bodies almost touching. When the attack was over Olga and I rose cautiously. Helene still lay there—her body riddled by a burst of machine-gun bullets.
Several other workers were killed, so were a few guards—and a number of horses. Silently the prisoners fell on the horses’ carcasses and ripped off meat to sear over fires of twigs and devour half raw.
The casualties of that first attack and a second attack the following day were so heavy that the German authorities decided to carry on the work at night. For several nights we worked undisturbed, then one night without warning shells started to fall among us—artillery had moved close enough to reach us. Olga and 1 had been shoveling earth out of an anti-tank trench near the edge of a wood. I touched her arm and instinctively we understood each other’s thoughts. We scrambled up the sides of the trench and ran for the trees.
We were now within reach of the Russian lines. I calculated the Russians would be about fifteen miles away. But between us and freedom were the retreating German forces, an embattled no man’s land. We fell back upon our hideby-day, travel-by-night plan. When the first dawn came we hid in a thicket near a stream and tried to satisfy our hunger by chewing leaves and grass and drinking water. I made a face as 1 munched my first mouthful of grass, and Olga said: “It isn’t bad when you get accustomed to it.”
“How do you know?” I asked her.
“Oh, I’ve lived on grass before,” she said. During the great Ukrainian famine of 1933, when she was about six, her parents would go off foraging and leave her alone. “And mostly what I could get to eat by myself was grass,” she said matter-of-factly.
All that morning planes droned overhead and shells exploded within our hearing, some unpleasantly near. Suddenly Olga cried out softly: “I’ve been hit!” I had felt nothing after the last shell burst not far away, and I looked at her incredulously. She took her hand from her side and showed me it was smeared with blood. Examination showed that she had no fewer than five wounds spaced up one hip and side, small shrapnel wounds that hurt and bled profusely, but did not penetrate deeply. I tore my embroidered shirt into strips and bandaged her.
Olga smiled with relief when she found her wounds were not serious. “I was so terribly afraid,” she said. Then she added hastily: “Oh, not afraid of being wounded, but that I would be a burden on you if I couldn’t walk.”
That night, as we made our way cautiously through the forest, we heard voices to our right. German voices. We dropped in our tracks and lay still, scarcely breathing. A German patrol passed close by. A careful hour later we were almost thrown off our feet by a tremendous explosion a few feet ahead. We had stumbled on a German artillery position just as it went into action.
We circled wide, found a thick patch of underbrush, and crawled in to rest. There was too much doing out there in the dark forest. German troops began to stream by in numbers. Olga and I hugged each other. This might be the German retreat! Instead of having to get through the German lines, perhaps the German lines would leave us behind.
We lay hidden all that day and started out. filled with caution and hope, as soon as it was dark. We had not walked far when we heard voices. It had become instinctive now to lie flat and keep quiet
at the sound of a human voice, and now we both did so. But Olga put her lips close to my ear and whispered excitedly: “Russians!” Now we could hear them speak again and I knew they weren’t Germans. The soldiers advanced cautiously in our direction, but did not see us. When they were close, enough to hear, Olga said in a low, penetrating voice: “Tovarisch, tovarisch.” Instantly half a dozen rifles swung to cover us, and a voice ordered us to stand up. Olga hastily explained who we were. At the mention of "Englishman” the Russian soldier nearest me solemnly held out his hand. This simple gesture of friendship had a curiously nostalgic effect on me—it was the first time I had shaken hands with a friend from the “outside” in more than four years . . .
The Russian patrol conducted us to a hastily improvised group of tents, wagons and shacks. Our welcome here was even warmer. A group of off-duty officers joined us in a meal, which included copious vodka. When they learned that an escaped English soldier had “liberated” a Ukrainian girl and hoped to marry her, they practically applauded. Lieutenant Ivan Mihaelo. a slender, volatile young man, proposed a toast to us which seemed to please his comrades greatly.
“We have here in these comrades,” he said, “a counterpart of our own great romance between a soldier and a farm maiden, as told in the great historic poem Katrina.”
“Ah, yes, Katrina,” echoed the otherofficers.
“Of course,” continued Mihaelo, his face beaming, “the story of Katrina has a sad ending . . . and so will your
romance. You will never receive permission to marry a Russian subject and take her to England. It is forbidden.”
The others, too, seemed both sad and overjoyed at the inevitable unhappy ending for my romance with Olga.
Bullets barring their escape
Next day we were given instructions to report to the Russian commandant at Danzig, and we were given a lift on a truck bound for a supply depot near Danzig. At the Danzig command post no welcome awaited us. Instead we were brusquely told by the officer in charge that it was illegal for a Russian subject to consort with a foreigner. Therefore we would both be held for investigation. We were taken to a detainment centre on what was once Von Hindenburg’s Danzig estate.
The detainment centre was not fenced, and we seemed to be casually guarded. But when one or two of the prisoners wandered too far they were quickly brought back by a hail of bullets over their heads. Already I was plotting escape, though. I had no intention of being parted from Olga by Russian red tape after all we had faced to be together.
Then one morning I knew our plans had to be postponed. I was down with a severe attack of dysentery. I am certain that my chances of recovery would have been small had it not been for the fortunate coincidence that we were shar-„ ing our quarters with hundreds of cows commandeered by the Russians — and that Olga had a singularly deft hand for undetected milking. On an endless diet of fresh milk I was soon convalescent. Then fate dealt us some new cards in the shape of two English POWs brought in by the Russians.
Harry and Raymond had been picked up by the Russians during their swift advance. Since, like me. they were wearing civilian clothes and had no papers, they were being investigated. But they were being lodged in the detainment centre largely as a matter of convenience, and would undoubtedly have been freed and sent on their way back to England in a matter of days. However, when they heard that we were in trouble for “consorting," this irrepressible pair decided to make an adventure of things—and to escape with us.
Harry and Raymond had been commandos, and recommended blackened faces as the best method of getting past guards undetected in the dark. So one night wc blackened our faces and crawled in Indian file between the guards’ positions. moving inches at a time. After an agonizingly long quarter hour we were clear of the centre. We hurried to (he railroad station,, hoping to hop a freight toward Warsaw where there would be a British embassy or consulate.
But the station was swarming with guards. A Pole we spoke to assured us that nobody could board any train without a military pass.
“Well, then,” said Harry, a bold little man, "let’s go to the command post and get passes.” 1 told him Olga and I were already unfavorably known there. Harry thought a moment. “Tell you what,” he said, “Raymond and I’ll go. We’ll ask for a pass for four. We’ll say the other two are sick and can’t come.”
I thought it was the most improbable plan I’d ever heard, and said so. But Harry and Raymond went off cheerily and presently were back — wearing broader grins than ever. They actually brought back a pass allowing three Englishmen and one “Englishwoman” to travel unhindered. Harry explained that the commandant had been out, and they had talked a sergeant into issuing the pass.
As we neared Warsaw, people crowded around at every stop, clamoring to buy any article of clothing we could spare. To keep ourselves fed we sold everything beyond the barest minimum of decency. Olga arrived in Warsaw wearing only a ragged dress. The nearest the train got to Warsaw was some distance outside the city, since all tracks and stations inside the city limits—like most of the city itself—were in ruins. As we left the train, Olga was carrying our last saleable asset, a bedsheet purloined at the detainment centre. It had once been white but now was nearer black. A woman approached and asked Olga how much she wanted for the sheet.
“Enough to buy a loaf of bread,” answered Olga shrewdly.
"That will be forty zlotys,” answered the woman, handing over a sheaf of grubby bills. We asked her where the British embassy was, and she said there was none in Warsaw.
We hurried through the cleared narrow paths in this most devastated of all cities. Several more people shook their heads when we asked for the British embassy. We came upon a makeshift kiosk that arose out of the rubble. In it was a shelf of cigarettes for sale. We three men stopped and stared, entranced. We hadn’t smoked anything better than dried leaves rolled in newsprint for longer than we cared to remember. Olga, who doesn’t smoke, looked at us in mock disgust. “You men!” she said.
But she bought a package of ten cigarettes. The price was the same as a dirty sheet or a loaf of bread: forty zlotys, or five dollars. We sat there on the rubble and smoked in huge enjoyment while Olga shook her head at us.
And immediately our prodigality was rewarded. What seemed to be a mirage loomed on the street—a jeep flying a
huge Stars and Stripes. We stood in the middle of the street and flagged it down. The driver, an American army major, stopped but looked dubiously at his accosters, three dirty unshaven men who must have looked like cutthroats, and a ragged young woman whose light-green eyes looked out of a dusty, face. Our accent soon convinced him that we were indeed Englishmen — and he had the best of news for us. There was a British embassy in town; only that morning an ambassador and his staff had flown in and taken up quarters at the Hotel Polonia.
"Pile in,” said the U. S. major, “I’ll run you over.”
A wedding in two languages
Minutes later we dismounted before one of the few large buildings remaining intact in Warsaw, and walked through the revolving doors into 'a magnificence we had forgotten existed. Dirty and ragged as we were, we just stood there, too embarrassed to move or speak. Then two men got out of the hotel elevator and spoke these memorable words: “1 say. clerk, is that clock right?” The words were memorable because they were pronounced in an unmistakable English accent. Both men were members of the newly arrived British embassy staff; one was Freddy Wall, the other’s name was Russell. When Russell heard my story and Olga's, he wept softly. Wall's sympathy was more practical. He took one look at Olga’s clothing and solemnly presented her with a monogrammed pair of underwear shorts and an undershirt. With these respectable garments under her tattered dress, Olga and 1 were married next day. Rather unfairly, 1 wore a spanking-new U. S. uniform, kindly provided by the American authorities (characteristically, the Yanks had flown their stuff in, while British supplies were en route by slow freight).
The wedding ceremony took place in a small room in the basement of a little ruined Methodist church. The pastor. Rev. Konstanty Najder, had lived in New York for a time, so he was able to conduct the ceremony in both Russian and English, for the respective benefit of bride and groom. The ring I placed on Olga’s finger was provided by Raymond. Some girl had given it to him. he said. It was made of a small German gold piece beaten into shape. Olga wears it to this day, along with the more orthodox wedding ring 1 gave her later.
After the wedding there was a real wedding reception attended by the British ambassador, His Excellency Victor Cavendish-Bentinck. Olga and I can still remember the food—potatoes and spaghetti seemed quite as luxurious as the assorted meats and the wine. Olga, demure in her tattered dress over Freddy Wall’s underwear, was handed one hundred pounds, a wedding gift from the embassy staff “in honor of the embassy’s first clients.”
Olga went shopping for clothes and shoes—and next day permitted the "official” wedding photograph to be taken. Womanlike, she did not want her marriage to be recorded in the battered dress in which she escaped—although to me it always has seemed a cloak of honor and courage.
Freddy Wall had warned us that outmarriage made no difference in our status as far as the Russians were concerned; Olga would not be given a permit to leave and we would be kept in the embassy for safety until something could be worked out. What went on behind the scenes we will never know. But suddenly one morning Olga was bundled into an English-looking coat and we slipped into a closed car at the Hotel Polonia’s side door. In this car we not only drove out to the airport, but right up to an RAF Dakota plane waiting on the runway with engines running. Wc hopped aboard and the plane took off immediately. A few hours later we were in London.
That is the end of what happened to us except for a few loose ends. I had five years’ back pay waiting for me, and ran my own small furniture-moving business until two years ago when I decided to do what I had wanted to do since I was a small boy—come to Canada. With our year-old daughter Anne we arrived in Toronto two years ago. Soon I got a job as switchman with the CNR and all three of us are rapidly becoming Canadians.
We have only the slightest inner differences to show for our strange adventure, Olga and I. I have become practically a vegetarian—after those horses at the slave camp. It’s still an excitement to enter a supermarket with its incredible offering of food. But mostly we think and feel like Canadians. What problem would you say, for example, now bothers Olga and me most? Why, the same as most Canadians: how we can raise the down payment for a little NHA home of our own. ★