WILNO (Nov. 24)
Rovno had not yet experienced the horrors of the war. One day living in this peaceful atmosphere was enough to help us to overcome the paralyzing effect of the war events.
The train taking us to Krzemienice consisted of some 50 cattle wagons and uncovered coal wagons, all filled with evacuated families of railway officials from the Poznan, Pomerania and Silesia provinces. Our traveling in an open lorry prevented us from enjoying the sight of the beautiful Volhynian scenery because the clouds of smoke issuing from the engine car covered our faces and clothing with thick soot, blinding our eyes and making us look like chimney sweeps.
Conversation was impossible because of the danger of being choked. Suffering from thirst, but fortunately not molested by enemy aircraft, we arrived after seven hours in Krzemienice station, where 3,000 people left the train, mostly evacuated families carrying with them all their belongings, even furniture.
The town was already overcrowded with previously-arrived evacuees. The journalists’ party was advised to wait at the station until billeting cards were issued, but when evening drew near without anybody taking care of us we decided to walk the few kilometers to town. At the Foreign Office we received billeting cards, but when I arrived with my family at the allotted billets we found the room already occupied by some diplomats. All the other journalists had the same experience.
At nightfall we approached an unknown citizen on the street who gave us shelter. Next morning the Jewish community learned that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency staff had arrived and offered us a house where the famous Hebrew writer and philosopher, Rabbi. Isaac Ber Levinson, known under the abbreviated pseudonym of Rivol, had lived until his death in 1860. It turned out, however, that the house, which was to be converted into a museum, was not fit for habitation, so we became guests of the Jewish notable, former Vice-Mayor Azriel Kremienicki, while the president of the Jewish community put at my disposal an office room with a telephone and typewriter.
From Krzemienice I sent the first J.T.A. cable since the flight from Warsaw. The Warsaw cables had been severely censored and the most important parts eliminated. In Krzemienice I made the acquaintance of the Turkish ambassador and his staff, who, because they were Moslems, patronized only Jewish restaurants. As we were apparently to stay in Krzemienice for longer time I enrolled my 12-year-old daughter in a school. But this idyll lasted only two days.
On the third day, Tuesday, Sept. 12, there occurred the most terrible slaughte. I have ever witnessed when the town, chiefly the market center filled with hundreds peasants, men and women, was suddenly bombed by Nazi air squadrons which swooped down from a great height to an altitude of 100 meters, showering incendiary bombs, blowing up the market and environs, inhabited chiefly by poor Jews, and machine-gunning the densely crowded market. The Lyceum Building, where the Foreign Ministry was located was not hit by bombs, however.
This first bombing of Krzemienice was not preceded by an air-raid alarm through the criminal negligence of the observers. It is difficult to describe the panic that ensued. Many buildings immediately went up in flames and the entire valley in which the town is situated was filled with smoke. Sixty men were killed and more than 200 seriously wounded. The fire brigade was unable to localize the fire because of the shortage of water, which was brought from a well in carts.
The crowd fled in all directions, hiding in the woods. I also fled to the woods not knowing the fate of my wife and children. When the panic was over I returned home, hoping to find my family, but the house was partly destroyed and one wall had collapsed. My son, who had been in the house during the bombardment, had managed to escape by jumping from a window. My wife was already on the spot trying to salvage our luggage from the wreckage.
My staff members, Leon Mandelbrot and Jacob Berman, soon arrived, courageously giving assistance, as usual. I missed only Victor Goldstein, business manager of the J.T.A. Warsaw office, and also my daughter, who had remained in school. Afterwards I learned that Goldstein had been wounded and taken to a hospital. Because of the continued air-raid warning it was impossible to send somebody to look for Goldstein and my daughter. Our host, Kremienicki, although now homeless, continued to act as regional Air Raids Precautions warden.
We stood helpless and despairing amid the flames. An unknown Russian offered his home as shelter although his house was damaged.
When a new warning was sounded we sought shelter in a cellar, where I heard a child crying. It was my daughter, who had fled from school towards home and not find us had fainted. She had been given first aid by Kremienicki, who brought her to the shelter. Seeing us alive, the child ceased her spadmodic weeping.
Meanwhile, “all clear” was sounded and I hastened to the Foreign Ministry for news. I found there the other journalists, who were told that the Ministry was unable to advise newspaper men to continue to stay in this town. The Ministry, however, was unable to supply vehicles or give other assistance.
With the town still lit up by burning houses we realized that we must do everything possible to escape. No automobiles were available and no coachmen were willing to harness horses. Only through the greatest efforts of my Krzemienice friends did we succeed in obtaining three simple peasant carts for my group together with other journalists.
Our party of 12 left. However, we were compelled to leave Goldstein in the hospital since he was not fit for travel, although his leg wound was not dangerous. With us travelled two refugees from the Sudetenland, a Frenchman of Jewish origin with his wife of German origin, a French woman journalist and a Dutch anti-Nazi writer.
Thus began a new phase of our wandering, without protection, to an unknown destination.