FINAL ESCAPE

January, 1945, was an unusually cold month. Nobody attempted escape simply because to get away on foot or by public transport, without documents, was impossible. Listening to our radio in Zigi's quarters, it seemed the war had stopped. Polish troops had taken Monte Casino, opening the road to Rome and, indeed, all the way to the Alps. The news bolstered our pride, but the effect was short lived.

Late that month we heard a broadcast from London that Auschwitz had been liberated. If this were true, it also meant Russian troops had successfully pushed back the German army and reoccupied Poland.

"One enemy defeated only so another can take its place," I remarked.

"Just wait for the spring," said Jan. "American and British troops will finish off the Germans and then boot the Russians back into their own country. For all we know, we might actually stand a good chance of returning to Poland in military uniform."

"Anyone who believes that is a dreamer," responded Jarossy. "Politics is a dirty business. When the Brits and Yanks are no longer directly threatened by Germany, they'll give up on Eastern Europe. Even the radio broadcasts admit Stalin is a 'great friend' of the Western powers. They'll leave the housekeeping to dear daddy Stalin and then you'll see - no more Poland or Hungary and all Eastern European nations a part of the Soviet family."

"Maybe so," Jan conceded. "But if that's the case, all of us now serving in the Polish army under British command will be considered enemies in Stalin's Poland. We'll not be able to return to our own country."

"Nor may there be room for us in England," added Jarossy.

Finding his cynicism too much to bear, I immediately lashed out at Jarossy. "You're a Hungarian and don't know the traditions of the Polish army. This is not the first time we've fought for Poland outside our own borders."

"Perhaps. I say this, however, not as a Hungarian, but as an older and more experienced man than you are."

Indeed, Jarossy's predictions proved far more accurate than any of us would have expected. Despite enormous sacrifices, the Russians continued to push towards Berlin. Psychologically and politically, it was a brilliant move. The more territory now taken by Stalin's army, the more would be under Russian control when the Third Reich collapsed in defeat. Furthermore, the Red Army's capture of Berlin would signify that Russia and not the Western powers had won the war.

As the end of the war approached, we began to hear of further atrocities committed at Auschwitz and Buchenwald where the SS embarked on a futile attempt to dispose of all witnesses. In small Camp Rose, however, we felt no imminent danger from our guards, many of whom had grown tired of the war and looked forward to a future of peace and prosperity. It therefore came as a great surprise to us when one day Zigi announced that Busch had ordered the erection of an electric fence around the camp.

"This is crazy!" exclaimed Kazik. "Don' t you see that once his fence is built, the Fat One can call upon the Gestapo to machine gun all of us and obliterate any evidence of his own behaviour?"

"He'd never do that," Zigi replied casually. "The guy will be too busy trying to save his own neck. But while this project's under way, I don't want to deal with any more escapes or encounters with Busch."

Work on the fence started a few days later with the assignment of a special group of prisoners, supervised by a civilian technician, to attach insulators to the barbed wire. Almost immediately the Russian prisoners, in particular, voiced strong opposition to the fence. One morning it was discovered the insulators had been smashed. In a fit of anger, Busch ordered his guards to fire sporadically at night between the towers and to shoot any unauthorized prisoner seen within 50 metres of the fence.

On a night shortly following the completion of the fence we were awakened by the sound of gun fire. Zigi dashed from his bunk and commanded his security men to check all barracks for any missing prisoners. He then met with the guards who said they had fired at the sight of sparks flashing in the dark. A thorough search was conducted along the fence but nothing turned up. When the security force reported that all men were accounted for, he called off the search and returned to his bed.

Next morning the guards came upon the German shepherd belonging to Busch, its partially singed carcass lying next to the fence. No one knew why the dog had come in contact with the fence but Busch directed his fury at the SS guards. Later we found out what actually had happened.

Each night before going to bed Busch let his dog out for a run. Some Russian prisoners saw this as an opportunity to take revenge on the commandant and began throwing scraps of meat to the dog over the fence. On that particular night they deliberately deposited the scraps on the camp side of the fence, knowing the animal would electrocute itself trying to get at them.

"They must really hate Busch," I remarked upon hearing the story in Zigi's room. "To kill his dog, they sacrificed the little meat they get."

Andrew's face suddenly peeked down at us from the edge of his bed. "On the contrary. Those Russians have more meat than you think. They set traps on their way in from work and catch all sorts of animals - rabbits, cats, even big juicy rats from around the kitchen."

"Disgusting," scowled Father Martin. "How can they do it?"

Andrew grinned broadly like a Cheshire cat and snickered. "Actually, I tried fried rat myself. It's certainly better than the stuff we get from the kitchen. And you know, of course, what happened to Busch's dog. They offered to bury him, so no doubt he too ended up in the pot!"

Some weeks later Schmidt informed me that we would be making another trip to Mannheim to stock up with as many provisions as possible. "The army is taking our trucks tomorrow. They must be desperate at the front. Have you heard any news over our radio from England or France?"

"Unfortunately, the broadcasts aren't telling us what is happening in the west. But in the east, the Russians are already on German soil."

Schmidt frowned and shook his head. "Oh dear God, dear God. Do you think they will take the whole of Germany? Why doesn't Hitler negotiate with the Americans and the English? From what I've heard about the Russians, they leave nobody alive."

"Don't worry, Schmidt," I said, patting him on the arm. "The war will soon be over and I hope your sons get home safe and sound."

We arrived in Mannheim to find the central stores so packed with trucks we could barely make our way to the warehouse. Inside, the corridors were jammed with SS men pulling hand carts stacked with food. Filing our way through the crowd, we finally located Bruno in his office, greeting us with his customary scowl.

"All the food is gone - to be shipped to the front, or so they say. There's nothing for you here."

I placed a pack of cigarettes on his desk and he agreed to allow us anything we could find. We returned to the truck, seconded the driver and guard, grabbed two empty carts and ran back into the warehouse.

Bruno was right; the place had almost been stripped dean. Picking up whatever was edible, we decided to try where the potatoes were stashed and had more luck there, loading on our carts enough sacks to fill the truck.

"Imagine, nobody in charge!" said Schmidt on our return to camp. "Sheer anarchy! The Russians must not be far off."

We stopped outside the main gate and preparing to enter the camp on foot, spotted more of what seemed like anarchy. A new detachment of SS men were disembarking from trucks while Busch paced about nearby, obviously excited. Upon seeing us, he barked to Schmidt to escort me to the gate - a most unusual order as I always walked there unaccompanied - and directed our truck to the SS stores.

At our barracks I found my colleagues in high spirits, each claiming that the war had ended because no one had gone to work. Jan was busily tuning the radio to all stations, including the German network, but could find no news of anything out of the ordinary.

Finally, Zigi was called to see Busch. When he returned, he looked grim and worried.

"The war is not yet over, gentlemen, but according to Busch it soon will be. He says German scientists have produced a secret weapon that will low up the whole of England. And Russia, if they refuse to surrender."

"Bullshit!" shouted Andrew.

"So our boy's scared, is he?" said Zigi. "Ready to scram from here to save his own neck?"

"Whatever the Germans decide," replied Andrew, "I know what we have to do. A detachment of young and mean looking SS guards has just arrived from the Belsen-Bergen camp with orders to deliver us there, dead or alive. By tomorrow our trucks will have left for the front and we'll be forced to get to the Mannheim railway station on foot. Schmidt has requisitioned horses and wagons to load whatever food we have and the sick from the hospital."

Zigi, who had obviously volunteered much of this news to Andrew, made no attempt to contradict it. Anyway, there would have been little need for him to do so. We all knew our small camp was located here because prisoners were working on some secret project that involved digging tunnels and chambers for an underground factory. No one knew for certain what the factory was intended for, but it seemed that they had finished their work and our camp was no longer needed.

"This time Andrew could be right," I said. "What I saw in Mannheim today doesn't look like a nation winning a war. There was panic everywhere, stores were actually being looted. Remember that we're very close to France. Perhaps the allied invasion from the west has begun and as a result they're shipping us deeper into Germany. They may even have other, more sinister plans. We must be alert and ready to defend ourselves."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Zigi. "I want to make clear that there is no danger. I will lead the march in front of the column and ensure that no one is harmed. Who knows, perhaps Belsen-Bergen is waiting for a leader like Zigi. You guys just stick to me and you'll be all right."

In spite of these assurances, none of us could sleep that night. Kazik and I talked almost until dawn and decided to keep clear of Zigi whose interest, if anything, centred on preserving his position of power. That morning, while Zigi organized the columns, five abreast, and counted prisoners, Kazik and I opted for helping Schmidt load the wagons with food.

About mid-morning, flanked by two rows of the new SS guards, the first column of prisoners marched out of camp with Zigi proudly parading at the head.

For some reason we did not take the direct route to Mannheim but followed a side road or walked through empty fields where it was easier for the guards to watch us. At 2:00 o'clock we stopped briefly to receive a lunch consisting of bread, margarine and coffee, then continued on our way. Kazik and I kept watch for an opportunity to escape, but on the few occasions when one did arise the guards were also alert.

Only when the sun began to set did it become clear why we had taken this route. The whole column, including horses and wagons, was herded into an empty forced labour camp. Once all prisoners had assembled on the grounds, the guards marched through the gate and assumed their posts in towers outside the barbed wire fence.

Left on our own, Kazik and I set out to explore the camp. We located first a kitchen where our kettles of coffee could be warmed. Upon visiting other buildings, however, we were surprised to find that we were not alone. Occupying several barracks were about 100 men, the remnants of a large work force that had been shipped there from the Ukraine a couple of years previously. Most of this force had since been transferred to other places while those too sick or weak to march had been left behind, without guards.

The presence of other prisoners gave me an idea. "Tomorrow morning we'll get lost among those Ukrainians," I suggested to Kazik, "then let the rest of our group march away under Zigi's leadership."

"It just might work. We can pretend to be working in the kitchen. After all, the SS guards don't know us and I'm quite sure Schmidt wouldn't give us away."

Next morning, after everyone had received a cup of hot coffee, Zigi again assumed the role of campelder, forming columns and keeping order. Meanwhile Kazik and I remained in the kitchen pretending to be civilian labourers. just as the SS sergeant gave the order to march, we heard Zigi shout for everyone to stay where they were.

"Please, one moment! I haven't completed the count!"

The new SS guards could not have cared less how many prisoners there were. No longer under Busch's command - the commandant and his wife had left Camp Rose by car the night before - they simply wished to deliver their charge to the camp at Belsen-Bergen without incident. Besides, only Zigi knew the number of prisoners being transferred.

But before the sergeant could repeat his order, Zigi shouted: "There are ten men missing!"

"They will come out in a minute when I start shooting down those Ukrainian workers who are hiding them!" announced the sergeant.

He then fired a series of machine gun bullets at the feet of the Ukrainians who were standing watching our departure. The shots were enough to convince Schmidt to come to our rescue.

"Everybody's here!" he shouted to the sergeant. "I have instructed some men to help load the rest of the provisions from the kitchen. You can go, I'll see that they join the end of the column."

Wearied by the delays, the sergeant began marching prisoners out of the camp as Schmidt entered the kitchen.

"Now you have to come," he told us, "thanks to your stupid Zigi. I know you wanted to stay. Perhaps you'll find another opportunity in Mannheim."

We followed him out through the door and joined the rest of group on their trek towards the city.

As the daylight turned to dusk, I considered the possibility of grabbing Kazik and sneaking from the ranks into the darkness. I turned several scenarios over in my head, but none seemed feasible. The night soon closed in around us and noticing we were nowhere near Mannheim, I began to feel edgy, longing for the chance to make a dash for it. At that moment we were startled by a burst of machine guns and the sudden glare of the guards' flashlights. Two Russian prisoners had had the same idea; they now lay dead on the ground a short distance away.

We were still looking for an opportunity when our column came upon a small railway station outside the city. Because Kazik and I were at the end of the column, we were ordered to load food and kettles of cold coffee for the SS guards onto the last of a line of waiting freight cars, several of which the prisoners were already boarding. We transferred kettles and supplies from wagon to car, then hopped in after them as a guard pulled the door closed be-hind us.

Not long after, we felt a sudden jerk as the train started to move. The motion was familiar: forwards and backwards, a quick stop, then forwards again. Though we had lots of room to move about, any hope of escape seemed impossible. We thus resigned ourselves to our fate and fell fast asleep on the wooden floor while the train shunted back and forth.

We were abruptly awakened by the sound of the door rolling open.

"Come out, you two," said Schmidt. "We have to get I some hot coffee for the guards from the station."

Grabbing a 50-litre kettle between us, we jumped down from the car.

"Where are we, Schmidt?" I asked, squinting as my eyes adjusted to the yellow light of dawn.

"God knows. We didn't get very far, that's all I know. Those two air raids in the night could have finished us off."

Kazik and I looked at each other in puzzlement. Apparently, we had found the anti-climax of our unsuccessful escape attempts so wearying, we had slept right through the night. Schmidt shook his head in disbelief, muttered something, then followed us to the station.

While we were walking, an SS sergeant called out from behind: "Schmidt! Come and join me for a cigarette. I'll send some younger man to guard those two prisoners."

He then appointed a fellow named Franz to accompany us. Franz was one of those eager to please SS men. Taking Schmidt's place, he ran behind us pushing us with the barrel of his rifle and shouting: "Quick! Quick! The SS guards want their coffee!"

We crossed several rows of tracks to the station restaurant where we found a half-asleep attendant standing behind the counter.

"Here!" cried our young guard, pointing his barrel at the kettle. "These prisoners are to fill this with hot coffee for the SS men."

Unintimidated by the shouting and gun-waving, the attend-ant answered in a lazy voice: "There is no coffee."

"How come there's no coffee? There must be coffee for the SS or someone will get hurt here!"

"Coffee will be ready in about three hours," the attendant replied indifferently. "Either wait here or you can go to the labour camp kitchen behind the station. They usually have coffee early."

Franz paused briefly to think the matter through, then huffed at the attendant and marched Kazik and me through the back door of the station. Several hundred metres away we could see a huge camp spread across the valley below.

"Run! Run! Quick! Quick!" shouted Franz, prodding us repeatedly with his rifle.

We followed a dirt road down the hillside and into the camp. Passing through the gate, we noticed the absence of any guards or prisoners. Either the occupants had already gone to work or the camp had recently been evacuated. In any case, there was no one to ask for directions.

While Franz walked a short distance from our side to survey the grounds, I whispered to Kazik: "This is it - we have to disarm this guy and go."

Franz turned suddenly to face us, his rifle waving in the direction of a nearby- building. "There's the kitchen! Over there! Fast! Fast!"

The three of us rushed towards the building, but upon arriving at the door, the young SS man made a mistake. In his hurry to get coffee he entered into the kitchen first, with Kazik and I following right behind. While Franz looked around for a sign of life, we quietly put down the kettle and came up on both sides of him. Kazik jumped from the left and grabbed his head under his arm, skilfully applying a wrestler's hold. I instantly took hold of the rifle and pulled it from him with such force that it dislocated his shoulder, causing him to yelp with pain.

T o put a stop to his cries for help, I pushed the barrel of the rifle into his back. "You make one more noise and you're dead."

The guard gasped under Kazik's tightening grip, then whispered: "Please don't kill me. It's already the end of the war and the Americans aren't far from here. I also want to go home."

"Shut up and lie quietly on the floor," said Kazik, throwing him down from his neck hold. He then took out a penknife and quickly removed the red triangle and number from his jacket and my own.

'We're ready to go. Only what are we to do with this SS beauty who likes poking people with his gun?"

Before I could reply, Kazik grabbed Franz by his dislocated shoulder and pushed him down again. "You wanted to shoot us, didn't you? You little bastard, how many prisoners did you shoot? Took a pot shot at those escaping prisoners last night, eh?"

The guard crawled to his knees and favouring his arm, started to sob uncontrollably. "Please don't kill me, I was only doing my duty. I'm a soldier and have to obey orders."

This was a pathetic picture of a man who only moments before had been so arrogantly sure of himself. Though moved by his pleas, I was in no position to take valuable time consoling him.

"Be quiet and you will live," I told him. "But make any noise and we'll have no choice but to shoot you."

Then turning to Kazik, I said: "I'll watch him here. Would you see if there's some place we can lock him in?"

Kazik walked from one end of the large kitchen to the other, opening any cupboards or doors he passed. He then pulled open the door of a warming oven, stooped down to look inside, and exclaimed: "Here's an excellent place, a perfect fit for our little Nazi swine."

Without threats or prodding, the man crawled obediently into the oven.

Kazik grinned at the terrified face that peeked out at him. "We'll wait here for the train to leave. If you make one peep in there, my friend will start shooting right through this door."

He then swung the door shut and locked it. Kazik took the rifle from me, placed it out of sight on top of one of the shelves and motioned me to follow him quietly out of the kitchen. Taking one last look around, we closed the door behind us. After the war I learned that Franz had returned to Belsen-Bergan and reported that he had executed us.

Outside not a soul was to be seen. We walked at a fast pace to the opposite end of the camp and stood at the edge of a field.

Never before did a field look so beautiful to me as it did then. It was a warm spring day, March 27,1945 - my 30th birthday. The air smelled of fresh soil and from the green carpet before us rose a thin layer of mist, melting under the gentle rays of the sun.

We did not talk. The feeling of freedom and the beauty of nature were like magic, cloaking us in an ecstasy neither of us could share in words. We walked west, out of the hideous familiarity of an inverted world and back into the strange and distant life we had left behind five years before.