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Michal Leszkiewicz

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From the War Diaries of Michal Leszkiewicz

Balchik. 18 December 1939   

 I'm about to begin the third stage; the first was war in the homeland*, the second in Romania and the third as yet unknown. I am on board ship. So many happy experiences on the one hand and on the other, tragedy. Until now I haven't recorded anything for reasons of prudence, nevertheless everything is fresh in my memory: life in the internment camp, the abortive escape across the border to Yugoslavia, the Rumanian prison and the five weeks in the port of Balchik**. So much fear, uncertainty and risk, but the ultimate aim is unchanging. Who knows if one would be sitting on board ship if it wasn't for the lack of intelligence, corruption and general stupidity of the Romanians? It's 17:00 hours and we haven't set sail yet. A horrendous crush of men, one jammed against the other. We had thought that we would pass the time playing bridge, but all we can do is think about it. Only the gentlemen *** have comforts, two to a cabin with bunks. When will this crazy caste privilege end -perhaps this is the last time... perhaps? An English merchant ship: the radio receiver is set to a German station. It's only singing, but, nevertheless, aren't they (the English) perhaps viewing the Germans in too humane a way. 10 o'clock, i.e. 22:00 hours and still we haven't set sail.

 

 


* the homeland -Poland.

**Balchik is a port on the Black Sea

*** "Panowie" -Polish expression for officers, those in authority.

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Some flimsy looking palliasses are being distributed, just a few per 1000. Dreadful conditions. There aren't any seats and I dread to think how we are going to survive without any space to lie down, as the journey is likely to take at least a few days.



Balchik. 19th December 



Awakened feeling crumpled at 08:00 hours. I had lost hope that we might organise a game of bridge, but we managed -on suitcases, on the floor to 3am until we were exhausted. One deck below I managed to find sufficient space to crouch down on my overcoat.

The ship's moving off, manoeuvring - think we're sailing. At last. Just been up on deck -we are indeed sailing. Balchik is disappearing in the distance and with it the whole of Rumania. And so one leaves behind a whole handful of extraordinary experiences.

Someone next to me whistles a Romanian tango. One remembers Sijcia from the living quarters and her friend*. The friend sang well -I danced with her a little. I'm leaving it all behind -Oh, but with no regrets!

We've been sailing now for over 7 hours. I'm struggling a little to keep seasickness at bay, but I'm far from overcome by it. Someone says there's land in sight but I haven't spotted it yet.

I'm in the bows of the ship -yes, you can see land to starboard. 


* The writer mentions the girl's name, but it is illegible.

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Evening. We are sailing through the Bosphorus. The ship has slowed down, it's signalling; we must be entering port. The Straits aren't wide, a kilometre; altogether hard to tell in the darkness. Europe to our right, Asia to the left. The surroundings look very picturesque. A mountainous coastline with a multitude of lights on its slopes, arranged in four clusters. A beautiful moonlit night and the lights' layered reflections in the water present a marvellous sight. A most romantic atmosphere. This is the reality of all that was portrayed in novels and seen in the cinema at home, in a free Poland -and one was so thrilled by it And now? I don't find it extraordinary. Life's shackles have made me incapable of fully appreciating the moment -the atmosphere and the beauty. Why talk of the romanticism of it all here -here it's wholly unsatisfactory .And what is the value of this reality compared with that other, horrifying reality.

Constantinople. A picturesque panorama. Alongside the coast to the right one can see the town stretching for some kilometres. What a pity that all this is taking place in darkness. I would have loved to see it in daylight. Everyone is thrilled. On the left coast, a long string of motorboats. Just like a fairy tale. Many motorboats. The Turks shouting, calling something, our people scream back impatiently. The Turks become aware of who it is sailing past and where they are bound. One of them shouted "Marsylia"*. The world's changed, who would bother with this ship in normal circumstances.

We are ordered below decks -a mystery .We had to leave the shouting Turks. They're friends -it's enough to hear their shouts to guess what these people are thinking.

The Turks are with US-


** "Marsylia" -the French port of Marseille~-

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The Sea of Mannara. 20 December 



To end this agony, I rose exhausted from my pig's bed of misery. I emerged on deck. Daybreak, a beautiful dawn on our left. The black humps of hills on a distant island emerge on the horizon. The air is fresh, it'll be a nice, sunny day. Here, there are many hilly islands scattered across the sea. On one peak a light flickers, a little light and beside it a mast. Maybe it's a radio station. It's getting lighter; the rosy dawn provides a beautiful backdrop. A lovely sight, I've dreamt of such sights. I dreamt of voyages. This is a dream come true, I should be enthralled, but why am I not? I know why: the price I was made to pay is too much. 

Sunrise 07 .35 hours. The sun can't be seen yet. Behind, hill-tops bathed in the rosy light. The sun has emerged. And again, a different sight. The hillsides on the island appear to be draped in a red fabric. A little town is visible, its windows reflecting the sunlight. The sky overhead is covered in clouds. Pity. But the wind is cold. It looks as if we are approaching the Dardanelle's because there is more land visible about us. 
We are being escorted by a flock of seagulls, which dive incessantly into the water looking for food amongst the ship's waste. 
The clouds have thinned, the sun has begun to shine. It's becoming warmer. 
Everyone's coming up on deck. On either side a solid stretch of land, obviously we're getting closer to the straits. On our right we pass a sizeable town. I don't have a map, 
I don't know what town this is. They say it's Gallipoli. These are the Straits, some 2km wide. The terrain is mountainous, barren. The houses are gathered together into larger settlements; there are no solitary houses like our farmsteads*, 

I seriously miscalculated the width. They say it's some 8 km, I'm prepared to believe them.

 

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 A sunny day. It's difficult to discern the details along the coastal terrain. Woods, settlements, and various multi-coloured patches of terrain. 

We're throwing bread to the seagulls. Fascinating sight to watch them diving 'en masse' for the ultimate trophy; nothing is settled without noisy argument. of course. 

Port. The ship has slowed, the siren screamed. A pretty port. On the ground ashore there is a sign: 18.111.1915. The ship has come to a halt, the customs officers are approaching in a launch. There are warships docked in the port. The customs people have left and our ship is sailing away. Mosques shoot out above the town's skyline; there are so many of them. There are forts visible -there must be the defences for the straits here. 

A quaint old castle stands on the water's edge shaped like a flower bed (a heart with convex sides). 

The Dardanelles are coming to an end; we are sailing out to sea. A significant fact. 
They say that when we sailed through the port in the last town, some Turkish tar hung out a Polish flag to welcome us. A fact of great consequence -the Turks are with us. It's midday (12:00 hours east European time). We're sailing out into the Aegean Sea. 

We're passing the last Turkish island -sailing between the island and the mainland of Asia Minor. There's a town on the island. In the foreground a castle; it's old, looks rather like it's in ruins. One can see the peculiar windmills, small with sails like a cobweb. 

Hard, colourful cliffs. One can also see some cultivated fields, although there are very few. 

We are still sailing along Asia's shoreline. Mountainous ridges rise out of the landscape. These are unusual peaks -bare and colourful, they look as if they were made of steel. 

A choir of amateur singers has gathered with various instruments to accompany them. 


"chutor" -Polish name given to detached farmsteads on the Polish-Ukrainian border. 

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Their voices aren't bad. They sang "There is one, the only one" ("Jest jedna jedyna").  I mused -who is "my only one"? yes, it's Urszulka -I've known it for a long time now.  She's the one, the only one who I the most. (sic) 

A warship has stopped us. It's approaching us; coming up close. A motorboat has been dispatched to us. It's arrived -they're carrying out an inspection. I don't yet know what nationality the ship is -they say it's English. Bravo the British -you've conquered the seas, nothing will get past you -you're masters of the situation. 

Everything is in order; we're sailing on. The warship has moved out to sea. 

Yes, there's no doubt, it was a British warship. The Turkish coast has passed. We're sailing past a Greek island, high mountains, nothing but peaks. Lesbos -we're passing Lesbos. In the distance you can barely see the headland of the Turkish coast. It's 16:15 (East European time). 

Dusk falls. The ship's lights have come on. Ahead of us on the horizon another Greek island appears. We're sailing towards it. 

20: 18 hours. I've come out on deck. A breezy night, but not cold. The moon wanders through the clouds, emerging every now and then to illuminate the sea with its brightness. We're level with the second Greek island now, Chios. It's visible -a barely distinguishable outline of hills. On the right a small islet, with some kind of light flashing. 

We're probably sailing to Syria. A vague fear of the unknown -a purely human instinct. When you know what to expect. you don't go to pieces. We have to -we must go on. The responsibility lies with us, the young people; they're turning to us even in Poland -the innocent ones whom fate has wronged. Let us say fate -we know exactly who has wronged us, yet we say fate. We are their hope. To free the fatherland, a sacred mission -isn't such an objective worth giving much for to achieve. The motherland -

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I never treasured it when I had it. 

It's 23:00 hours. Time passed quickly chatting with my companion Stach. 

The subject -not love, or music, or literature -the subject's obvious. Time to think of sleep. There are people sleeping out on deck; I think I'll follow their example, even thou~ it's a little cold, but then it's not much better "in that stinking hole", as someone called it a moment ago. 

Right, goodnight. 

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Thursday. 21 December 



The wind's whining and tossing of the ship woke me. (X). 15. It's still dark, in the eastern sky a pale dawn. The strong wind has caused the ship to roll to one side. It really rocked us, there were folk vomiting loudly. The real sea voyage was beginning. 

I wonder if I'll succumb to these forces of nature. 

The ship is being jerked about all over the place. People are being sick*. Rumour has it that a huge wave has caused the front corridor to be evacuated. 

Dawn has scattered the last of the murky gloom of darkness. One can see a little island on the left. It's hard to establish where we are; I don't know which way the ship sailed in the night. 

There are more and more islands appearing; apparently this will be the Italian archipelago.


* "jada do Rygi ze spiewem" -"singing on the way to Riga" -a colourful Polish expression for seasickness. 

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A good mood on board. Folk dash for the rail and they're off [to Riga] (being sick), their faces pale as white doves. The stronger ones are having fun laughing. 

I think we're sailing towards Syria, because the sun is rising on the left directly ahead of us. We're about to reach the last Italian island. Rhodes -the largest- so says one of the ship's crew. It's visible, mountainous like the others, stretching unendingly into space 

I'm feeling a bit seasick, not very pleasant. 

The sun's out. It's windy. The sea has rocked itself to a calm, only the crests of the breaking waves are sparkling. Looking into the distance at those mountainous islands, I'm thinking that no-one benefits from them. Just craggy rocks. There is some inexplicable 
urge to be on such an island, maybe even stay forever away from all that is human. 

I haven't eaten anything yet. Stach offered me a lemon. Instead of improving my resistance, I've done the opposite and developed a tendency to succumb to seasickness; but it's passing. I may even have something to eat. 

The wind is dying down, the sea becoming calmer, and the ship is rolling less. The sun warms us. Good -it will make us feel better. 

We're sailing alongside that large island of Rhodes. One of its peaks is very high, even touching a billowing cloud. 

11:05 hours (East European time). We bid farewell to Rhodes and to the Aegean, and welcome the Mediterranean Sea, a wide open expanse. 

  Two aeroplanes fly towards us. The same silhouette as our "Karás"*. .A slight swell of excitement. We all know what they're capable of doing. They've changed direction. 

We've been ordered to come down from the upper decks, to take cover.

 The 'planes move away in a broad arc, flying back whence they came. 

 

 

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Whose are they and what are they doing -is it a patrol or just a normal training sortie. They're back, far ahead cutting across our bows. They're not afraid to let them fly out over the open sea, these ground-based 
aircraft. They're back again and now they're flying back where they came from: the Turkish shore. 

On the horizon [illegible word] snowstorm. On the water's wide open surface the wind is again whipping up the waves, rocking the ship good and proper. Poor folk. I'm still holding on, feeling slightly muddle-headed -I'll go and get something to eat. 

We're on the Mediterranean Sea. There's a cross wind. The ship has started rolling again, plunging deep so that even the deck is awash. The waves mounting up, getting bigger and bigger, and only the crests glistening in the sun as they break. Cruel waves - they don't spare people from suffering. 

The less brave are scared. They nervously cling to the ropes. The tilting is huge. I'm beginning to enjoy this voyage. I observe these wild forces of nature with admiration. The waves form huge crests, do battle with one another, then break up to leave only foam and a green smudge. The water in this sea is so green. And the ship is ploughing on, despite the excessive rolling, still ploughing on. 

Obviously just mocking these waves: it's coped with far worse. 

The strong wind wasn't abating, so what do we expect of the sea? An even better show! 

I can't look anymore. My eyes hurt. This stretch of water gleaming in the sunlight dazzles. And the waves play cheekily with the ship. As if they were really trying to turn it over. 

Space, the sea all around and the eye's gaze has nowhere to settle 

A strong wind, but not cold. The sun's shining. It's warm.

 

 

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Folk are scared, nervously holding on to anything, and with bated breath waiting for the ship's side to re-emerge from the sea. The rolling is massive; the sea is getting huge once again. 

Enough of this rocking, I'm feeling dizzy and sick again. It's only slight, but very unpleasant. They've told everyone to go down into the cabins. I don't know why. 

Apparently there's a gale on the way. They've switched on the loudspeakers. [Illegible word] it'll be even worse. We've lain down and are rolling around like so many logs of wood to the rhythm of the ship's rocking.. 

The radio is obviously broken; no sound, -just a lot of crackle. 

I'm not feeling well. I haven't eaten much today. A piece of bread with marmalade, an apple, a few walnuts and some prunes. 

The storm is approaching; they're not letting people out on deck. This stuffy atmosphere will finish me off. My head feels so heavy, confused, muddled. This is real torment. And it's just rocking and rocking, over and over again. 

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