‘How my husband’s grandmother escaped occupied Poland during WWII’

Nov 03, 2020
Sue Smethurst's book 'The Freedom Circus' tells the remarkable true story of how her husband's grandmother escaped Poland with her family during World War II. Source: Getty.

The sky is just beginning to turn pink when the noise wakes Mindla. It is a familiar rumble, almost rhythmic, metal scraping on metal followed by a soft thud every now and then, off in the distance.

As the pattern repeats, it doesn’t take long to settle in Mindla’s mind. Definitely aeroplanes.

She prays it is the Polish Air Force still practising their dog fights and drills. Slivers of sunlight creep through cracks in the paper-thin blinds. Gad is fast asleep beside her, oblivious to the din outside. She cuddles the toddler in close and gently strokes his forehead as she lies in bed listening to the strange noise.

She notices the absence of the pigeons that nest on the window box outside her room, usually cooing among themselves at this time of the morning. The thunder rolls in, louder and louder and louder. She pulls back the corner of the blind.

‘Oh, good God!’ she gasps.

The dawn horizon is dotted with silver birds, their bellies bursting with bombs. A long whining scream is followed by impact and then an explosion. She scoops up the sleeping child and runs into the kitchen.

Mindla’s brothers and sisters jostle for position at the windows, watching the horrific sky show. Hitler’s Luftwaffe, flying in perfect formation, line the skies as far as their eyes can see. The family hear the screeching noise again, followed by a haunting whistle and then the thud of impact.

‘Get down!’ Shmuel yells as they each dive under the kitchen table or their beds, cowering.

A few seconds later, before they have time to catch their breath, the same noise, a high-pitched hiss followed by the thump of a bomb smashing into the earth somewhere nearby. Their building judders. For a few moments there is silence, then the wailing of an air-raid siren sparks a frenzied rush.

A human stampede is heard outside the apartment door as neighbours, panic-stricken and shrieking, push and shove their way down the narrow wooden stairs to the cellar.

Shmuel is yelling too. ‘Run, we must run!’ he cries, but instead of running, they freeze, momentarily unable to process what is going on. Another air-raid siren snaps them into the terrifying reality that Warsaw is under attack.

‘Attention, attention,’ a loudspeaker screams, ‘it comes!’

There is no time to run. Mindla snatches a blanket and throws it underneath her bed, pushing Gad as far into the corner as she can. She crawls in beside him and does her best to shield him with her body from whatever’s about to happen.

Sonia does the same with little Shara under the next bed. The little girl puts her fingers in her ears when the bombs’ piercing whistles fill the room. In every available spot someone shelters – under the kitchen table, in the closet, under beds – while bomb after bomb rains down on the city. Blitzkrieg has been unleashed.

In the maelstrom, Mindla loses all track of time and has no idea how long they spend trembling under their beds. It feels like an eternity. Sometime later the loud speakers declare the air raid is over.

One by one, shell-shocked neighbours emerge and make their way out onto the street. Mindla dusts herself down and joins them. Although still not confident they are safe, she is comforted by the sight of familiar faces. Miraculously, Muranowska Street remains intact, but others one or two blocks away aren’t so lucky. Buildings are on fire. Thick smoke fills the air. The smell of fuel and acrid smoke lines their mouths.

When Mindla returns to their apartment, Yakov has news from the street: Hitler is on his way. While they were sleeping overnight, one million German troops flooded Poland’s borders. At 4:45 am they struck. Poland is at war.

It is a lie to say Mindla is surprised.

For months the country has been on edge as the land forces of the Wehrmacht inched towards the border. In her heart, she’s hoped nothing bad will happen to her harmless country, but her head knows the truth.

Poland is a defenceless player in a game of political piggy in the middle, a prize to be carved up. The country’s fate was sealed the previous month when German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed a non-aggression treaty, a secret pact to divide Poland.

Although the dark curtain of war has been lowering menacingly for some time, Mindla has gone about her business as usual, going to the shops and factory each day, desperately hoping the talk of war will dissipate.

In the weeks leading up to invasion, she became quite accustomed to seeing troops on the streets. The sound of Polish fighter aircraft practising manoeuvres in the sky offered comfort, not alarm. The Polish army built anti-aircraft sites around the city and every available man was asked to help dig trenches in parks and gardens to assist the army’s efforts.

Posters calling for men to enlist were pinned up on street corners. ‘Help them!’ and ‘Poles to arms!’ they cry. Mindla thought at first this was all precautionary, but now she’s beginning to realise she underestimated the gravity of the situation.

That afternoon the air-raid sirens begin again. When the sirens howl, Gad howls too. Somehow he knows what is coming. The Levins run to the basement or cower under their beds when it’s too late, knowing in their hearts that neither shelter will save them if a bomb directly hits the building.

Mindla hugs her son to her chest and hums nursery rhymes to soothe him, marvelling at how much like his father he looks. How she wishes Kubush were here now.

In the lull between afternoon and evening air raids, Minya sits on the bedroom floor with Gad and Shara singing songs and playing patty cakes, while Mindla tries to finish off the socks she is knitting for Kubush. Mr Landau gave her some scraps of bright-red yarn from the factory that she thinks will match Kubush’s costume perfectly. She takes her fear out on the knitting needles, her fingers trying to weave a little piece of normality amid the chaos.

It doesn’t last long. As sunset arrives, so too do the Luftwaffe.

The Freedom Circus by Sue Smethurst goes on sale today.

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