Book: Beyond The Call: The True Story of One World War II Pilot's Covert Mission to Rescue POWs on theEastern Front

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15.

ISABELLE

A young woman walked along the road leading through the northwestern suburbs of Lwów. As she passed into the city, she kept her eyes cast down at the cobbles, avoiding the gaze of the citizens and of the Russian soldiers who stood about, loafing on corners or guarding the entrances to buildings.

Walking close to the tram lines, where the snow and ice had been cleared, she passed through almost as if she were invisible. During her time in the labor camps she had developed the important skill of not attracting attention to herself. But here, exposed on the street, it was more difficult. And she wasn’t used to the city environment—the imposing town houses, the lingering grandeur of the old Galician era, and the crowds of people. The camps had been crowded, but not like this, and she had since grown used to the isolation of her little group of fellow refugees.

Her clothes were threadbare and inadequate in the freezing weather. But there were many people on the streets who didn’t look much different. The locals and the soldiers were wrapped up warmly, but there were people about who appeared to be refugees of one kind or another.

It was a chilling place to be, if you knew the recent history of this region the way this young woman did. Beneath the city’s faded elegance, Lwów was a place where death and madness had taken root. The traces of it were everywhere. The splintered stonework from gunfire and shrapnel was the least of it. The young woman’s route took her past the Janowska camp, where the Nazis had exterminated the Jews from the Lwów ghetto. It was now being used by the Soviets as a prison camp. She hurried by, keeping her gaze averted from the sentries outside the gates. Coming into the city center, she passed by the Brygidki prison. A strange-looking place, its façade resembled a row of rather squat mansions, and its walls were blackened by fire. It oozed menace. In the days before Barbarossa, in 1941, when eastern Poland was a Soviet dominion, Brygidki had been an NKVD prison. When the Germans launched their war against the USSR in June 1941, there were thousands of political prisoners in Brygidki and other Soviet jails in Lwów, most of them Ukrainians. The NKVD, panicking as the German forces raced across Poland toward them, executed the prisoners in one horrific onslaught that went on for a week, then set fire to the prison.

The Germans entered the city to find it littered with bodies. The response of the SS was to add to the slaughter. The Jews of the city instantly became the scapegoats for the Bolsheviks’ massacre. Rumors were put about that they had aided in the killing; in fact, they had been among the victims. Local Ukrainians and the SS began roaming the city, searching for Jews. Those who weren’t murdered on the spot were herded to Brygidki, where the bodies of the massacre victims were buried in a vast pit in the prison yard. The Jews were forced to do the work of burial. German soldiers, wearing gas masks to stave off the stench of the rotting corpses, fired intermittently at them, and their bodies were thrown into the pit. The German officer in command took off his gas mask long enough to bellow at the laboring, dying Jews. “The whole world is bleeding because of you!” he ranted. “Look at what you’ve done!”

Nearly four years had passed since that day, but the city was still palpably haunted by it.

Keeping her eyes on the icy cobbles, and following the directions she had memorized, the young woman turned right beyond Brygidki and found her way to the grand avenue leading to Mickiewicz Square. At the end, she paused and looked up at the imposing façade of the Hotel George. This was the place, the rumors went, where freedom could be found. There was a man here—an American, they said—who could help the lost and stranded to get home.

The young woman’s heart beat faster as she steeled herself to enter the intimidating doorway. She was sure to be seized and thrown out before she’d even crossed the threshold. Possibly even handed over to the Russians. But she had no choice. She had promised her friends, her comrades, her countrywomen, that she would try.

The lobby of the George was a rather grand affair, but pleasant. The lofty, molded ceiling and the white marble floor tiles were bright with light from the glazed entranceway. On either side were a couple of sofas and a few small tables and chairs. At one of them sat an American officer, engrossed in studying some papers while a cup of coffee cooled in front of him.

He’d had a hard couple of days out in the wilds and was looking forward to a night in his bed. The hotel staff and the Russian officers who frequented the place had grown used to the presence of Captain Robert Trimble during the past couple of months. He gave out that he was on aircraft salvage business, and nobody but the NKVD had any reason to doubt it. Often he would be away for days and nights at a time (nobody knew where he went exactly, despite some of them trying quite hard to find out), but he always returned to the George sooner or later.

Occasionally he had been known to bring other people with him—Americans usually, sometimes British, most of them ragged ex-prisoners. More often, though, he arrived alone, and people came to him, the daring ones, having heard that the ticket out of this country was in his power to give. Some seemed to believe that he had powers that were almost magical. But that was just wishful thinking; hope was a scarce commodity in this land, and what little there was had to be seized with both hands.

While he drank his coffee, Robert was picking through the messages that had come in for him while he’d been away. The most important were the handful that had come in from the agents out in the field. But there was also information on downed US planes and aircrew. That was still part of his job, and still his official reason for being in Poland.

The NKVD were close to him this minute, as they invariably were to any foreigner in Poland on official business. Robert was aware of at least one bird dog sitting at the next table. By now, he could virtually smell a bird dog without even needing to see them. They rarely made much effort to be discreet, and out on the streets it was usually quite easy to shake off the officer escorts. It was the civilian informers who were the dangerous ones.

Robert looked up from his papers to see a young woman standing in front of him. She had approached so unobtrusively he hadn’t noticed her. She was dressed in ragged, dirty clothes, and her face was thinned out by hunger. Her glance swept across his uniform and insignia. “Vous êtes américain?” she said hesitantly.

Before Robert could reply, a Russian officer who had been standing over by the desk came across and addressed her sharply in his own language. The mantra was so familiar, Robert understood it perfectly. “What is your business here?” the Russian demanded. “Where are your papers?”

The young woman stared at the officer, either not understanding him or just struck dumb with terror.

Taking her hesitation for guilt, the Russian seized her by the arm. Snapping an order at her, he tried to drag her away. She struggled and cried out.

Robert had no idea what was going on, but he wasn’t about to sit by and do nothing while a young woman was manhandled by some NKVD bully. He was on his feet in an instant. He laid a hand on the Russian officer’s arm. “Leave her. She wants to talk to me.”

The Russian stared at him. “She has no papers,” he said in English. “She is under arrest and must be questioned.”

“I’m a representative of the United States government,” Robert said, reaching into his pocket for his passport, “acting on behalf of the embassy in Moscow. I am entitled to speak to this lady.”

The Russian reluctantly let go of the woman’s arm. He scrutinized the passport suspiciously, then handed it back, mollified. Robert had learned long ago (as had Sergeant Matles in Lwów and Colonel Wilmeth in Lublin) that mentioning governments, diplomatic entitlement, and the magic word “Moscow” almost invariably had this effect. Russian officers—especially those in the lower ranks of the NKVD, who were paranoid as a matter of professional course—were terrified of any power that stood above them, and especially worried by anything that came out of Moscow.

Glaring at the young woman, the officer withdrew, grumbling a threat that he would look into Captain Trimble’s claim and would come back if it didn’t check out.

Robert sat down and invited the young woman to join him. The bird dog at the next table edged closer to be sure he could overhear their conversation.

The young woman said something to Robert in French. He didn’t understand a word. “Vous ne parlez pas français?” she said.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “No, I don’t. I wish I did, Miss, er . . . ?”

“Isabelle,” she said. “I am named Isabelle. You are américain?”

“That’s what it says in the passport,” he said, putting it back in his pocket. “Are you okay?”

She shook her head. “J’suis loin de la France . . . ah, je veux dire: a long way from France, me.”

Robert smiled. “So I can see. And I guess you’re not here on vacation.”

“Thank you to . . . to stand up for me to the Russian,” she said, struggling to find the words. “I have hoped to find the américain at this hotel—you are he?” Before Robert could stop her, she blurted out: “You help me to France? I am lost, I escape—you can help?”

At the next table, the bird dog was leaning so close he was almost falling off his chair. Robert shook his head firmly. “I’m sorry, miss, I can’t help you.” At the same time, he tore a strip off a piece of paper and scribbled on it. He stood up, clearly indicating that the meeting was over. “I think you’ve mistaken me for somebody else. Now, I have other business to attend to. Please excuse me.” He took her hand and shook it vigorously between both of his. “I wish you good luck. Good day.” Then he sat back down and busied himself with his papers, taking no more notice of her.

For a moment, she stood there, shocked and dismayed. From the corner of his eye, Robert saw her back away, then turn suddenly and push through the main door. It slammed shut behind her. Conscious of the curious gazes directed at him, he heaved a sigh, while behind him he sensed the bird dog subside in disappointment.

Out in the street, Isabelle felt like sitting down on the sidewalk and crying. All that she had survived, all that she had endured, only to have the tiny scrap of hope crushed. Had she got the wrong man? But surely not—the way he had sent the Russian officer about his business, this must be the American the rumors whispered about.

Isabelle wondered if she would ever see her homeland again. Three years ago, she had been a free woman—or as free as you could be in a Nazi-occupied country. She had kept her head down, minded her own business.

Then came the labor conscription. At first the Germans tried to tempt young French people with promises of pay, but few people wanted to go hundreds of miles to a foreign country to work for the occupying power. So the Nazis switched to their natural way of doing things: coercion. In September 1942 the puppet Vichy government passed the law that established the Service du Travail Obligatoire—compulsory labor service. All men aged between eighteen and fifty and all women between twenty-one and thirty-five were eligible, and began being conscripted to do “tous travaux que le gouvernement jugera utile dans l’intérêt supérieur de la Nation.” Needless to say, the “nation” in question was the Third Reich, not France. Failure to register for the STO was punishable by up to five years in prison. Many rebelled, and as the conscription expanded, ever greater numbers of young French people went into hiding and joined the Resistance.

By February 1943, more than 160,000 French civilians had been swept up in the STO. Isabelle was one of them. They were put on trains and sent to Germany, where they joined the great teeming hordes of other foreign workers—mostly Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians. The majority labored in German factories, but Isabelle was among the thousands put to work on the farms of Germany and Poland.

They were not technically slaves—they were paid, on a scale according to race. The French received (in theory, but usually not in practice) the same wages as German workers, while the Russians earned the least. But in every other respect it was enslavement. The workers were herded into camps which were run on the same model as all the Reich’s prisons. By 1944 there were more than five million foreign workers in the Reich’s factories, mines, and farms, together with prisoners of war. As the war dragged on, they were joined by concentration camp inmates, who really were slaves and suffered worst of all. Altogether, forced laborers made up about a quarter of Germany’s entire workforce.

As was the way of things, the women in each category suffered more than the men. There were rapes of female workers by their overseers and commandants. Isabelle was one of the victims. It was only an issue for the Nazi authorities if the woman was an Eastern worker—a Pole or a Russian. The punishment for German personnel indulging in sexual relations with Eastern workers, regardless of whether it was consensual or involved bribery or rape, was to be sent to a labor education camp. The woman would be sent to a concentration camp. From the earliest days of the forced labor program, brothels for the use of male workers were set up in the camps. To prevent the crime of miscegenation, the prostitutes were drafted from among the female workers of the appropriate race.

It was a living nightmare, but worse was yet to come for the forced laborers.

As the war dragged on and the Reich shrank, food became scarce. Starving laborers began to rebel, taking to robbery to feed themselves. In dozens and in scores, they were put to death. At this very moment, while Isabelle stood dejected outside the Hotel George, rebellious forced laborers all over Germany—in Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Münster, every big city—were being executed en masse. Others died in the homicidal mania that was running loose in the towns and villages of Germany in the closing months of the war. It was an altogether wilder kind of madness than the industrialized murder of the Nazi regime; everywhere, the Gestapo and SS murdered their charges, sometimes in retribution, sometimes to instill terror, and often, it seemed, just acting on their own sociopathic hate and bloodlust.

Isabelle knew what these people were capable of. On the Eastern Front, as the Red Army closed in, SS units were killing foreign workers who tried to avoid being driven along with the retreat. Not far from where Isabelle herself had been incarcerated, a group of her own compatriots were killed for attempting to escape. At Oppeln in Silesia, between Kraków and Wrocław, French laborers trying to hide in a cellar were driven out by Germans with flamethrowers, herded together in a farmyard, and shot. They were a few among many. Most were force-marched westward, along with the POWs and the concentration camp inmates, but hundreds, thousands, escaped the roundup and went into hiding.

Among them was Isabelle. With a small group of friends, she had managed to drop out of the march one night when the Germans moved on suddenly to get away from a Soviet advance. The women headed east and hid themselves in the Polish countryside, not far from where they had been enslaved. Like most other liberated prisoners, they feared and avoided the Soviet forces. Isabelle’s little party of Frenchwomen made contact with other groups, and soon there was a network of them, all women, scattered across the countryside near Lwów, hiding out in barracks in the former camps or sheltered in abandoned farm buildings.

One question went back and forth between them, without an answer: How can we get away from here and get back to France? They were trapped. But then they heard the rumor about the American officer who helped people get to Odessa. He was hard to find, they said, let alone to contact. Sometimes he’d be in one city, sometimes in another. And he was only interested in prisoners of war, particularly Americans. Would he be willing to help French civilian workers?

It was worth a try. Isabelle, who spoke some English, was elected to seek him out. He was known to spend time in Lwów. That was where she should go. Terrified of being rounded up by the Russians and sent to one of their holding camps, she had set out to walk into the city.

And now, that slender hope had come to nothing. Standing on the sidewalk outside the hotel, Isabelle wondered how she could go back and tell the other women that the American wouldn’t help them.

As she walked away, she became aware that there was a scrap of paper balled up in her clenched fist. Isabelle recalled the American’s hands enfolding hers and the hearty shake. She unscrewed the paper and turned it over. There was a number written on it. A hotel room number. Presumably his. But why? A familiar cold sensation gripped her. Was there going to be a price to pay for securing his help? With a flash of anger, she asked herself whether there were any men at all in the world who would do something for a woman without such payment. Was there no man who would do a person good without taking his price?

As evening drew in, Robert went up to his room and started getting ready for bed. For the rest of his life he would remember how blissful this bed at the Hotel George felt when he came in from a mission out in the countryside. He pitied the poor people who were living out there constantly, waiting for the opportunity to escape, or for somebody to help them.

He thought about the young Frenchwoman and hoped she would make use of the room number he had slipped to her. (Or hoped he’d slipped to her; he wasn’t at all sure he’d done the move right.) It wasn’t safe for anyone, let alone a young girl, to be alone on the streets after dark. Thinking back to that first night in this hotel, and the woman being tortured and murdered, still gave him the creeping horrors. Even if you were a man and were armed, breaking the curfew could get you shot. The Russians seemed to believe that German spies came out in swarms after dark, like cockroaches. It wasn’t at all uncommon to hear gunshots in the night, and to find bodies on the streets in the morning.

Just as Robert was about to get undressed, there was a soft knock on the door. He opened it, and with a thrill of relief he recognized the raggedly dressed young Frenchwoman. So he hadn’t fumbled the handshake trick!

“Come in,” he said warmly, throwing the door wide.

Isabelle came in, bringing the unmistakable odor of the farmyard into the room with her. For a woman who was hoping to be helped, she didn’t look very friendly. She stood and stared coldly at Robert as he closed the door.

He went to take a step toward her, and she held up a hand. “Wait,” she said haughtily. “I want a bath, please.”

“Okay,” he said. “That’s easy to arrange.” Bathing was usually the first thing ex-prisoners wanted when he brought them here; that and food. They didn’t usually demand it in such frosty terms, though. “Whatever you want. I’ve got a towel and soap here. The bathroom is down the hall. I’ll have to come with you to—”

“No,” Isabelle said, snatching the towel and soap from his hands. “Please, let me to bathe first, before you are with me.”

He stared at her a moment, brain ticking over, then it clicked. “Whoa, whoa,” he said. “It’s nothing like that! Is that what you thought?” He looked at her face, at the trace of fear behind the hostility, and was appalled. He’d heard the stories; he knew as well as anyone the kind of things that had gone on in those camps. “You’re safe now,” he said. “Nothing to be afraid of. Listen, the bathroom is down the hall; I have to come with you to make sure nobody stops you in the hallway. Come on.”

He led her, still suspicious, down the hall to the communal bathroom. “In there,” he said. “Lock the door. I’ll wait for you, Miss, er . . . ?”

“Isabelle,” she reminded him, her expression softening. “Call me Isabelle.”

After she had bathed, Robert went downstairs and brought back some food. She ate ravenously. Between mouthfuls she told him fragments of her story—the conscription in France, the journey to Poland, the forced labor. The atmosphere of fear and abuse in the camps had intensified as the years went by. Just this past year Isabelle had been raped more than once by the slave drivers who ran the camp. She described how at last she and her compatriots had managed to escape the march west, only to find themselves stranded in Soviet territory.

Robert told her again that she was safe now. “I’ll take you to the station and put you on the Odessa train. You’ll be home in no time.”

She looked at him, studying his face. “I have heard that the Americans have liberated France,” she said. “But you—why do you do this, for nothing?” After what she had been through, the idea of a man helping a person without expecting something in return was mystifying. She had apologized for her suspicions of him, but still she didn’t understand.

Neither did Robert, entirely. It would be many years before he would be able to look back on all this and begin to figure it out. He had seen too much death, and it was as if he was trying to fight back; as if helping people, doing good, could somehow push back against the tide of violence, cruelty, and callousness that was threatening to engulf the world. He couldn’t articulate it to Isabelle—or even to himself; all he knew at the time was that his missions helped to stave off the nightmare of what he had been through.

“Anyhow,” he said. “We’ll go to the station in the morning and get you on a train. You’ll be in Odessa in a couple days. There’ll be a British ship to take you home, and—”

Ah, non,” she interrupted, almost panicking. “Non! Toutes mes amies—il faut qu’elles m’accompagnent.” She stopped and gathered herself. “Excuse me. My friends . . . I will not be without them. It . . . they must too, go with me.”

“Sure,” said Robert, unfazed. Refugees were almost never alone. They always came in pairs or groups. “How many of you are there?” In his head he started working out ticket costs and a plan for getting them to the train station without attracting attention.

“Four hundred,” said Isabelle carefully.

Robert blinked. “Four . . . er, I think you mean forty.” Forty was a lot to manage at once, but he’d handled larger numbers. He went back to his mental arithmetic.

There was a pencil lying on the table; Isabelle picked it up and wrote on a piece of paper: 4 0 0.

“I can count,” she said. “Four hundred.”

The number swam in front of Robert’s eyes. It wasn’t possible to get that many out in one go. No way in the world. Nobody sane would even attempt it. Four hundred Frenchwomen, marching through Lwów? They’d be arrested before they got within a mile of the station. They’d have to be split into groups; but that could take days. He tried to puzzle it out. Say ten groups of forty . . . but there was only one train a day. In the meantime he had other calls on him, other people needing help. Maybe eight groups of fifty, or five groups of eighty . . . but no, it wasn’t feasible, not without abandoning the stray POWs who needed him.

He saw her watching him anxiously. “Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll think of something. Do you have any papers? Identification?”

She shook her head.

“Okay, well, I guess we’d better sleep on it.” He looked regretfully at the quilt and the soft pillows that had been calling to him for the past couple days. “I guess you’d better have the bed,” he sighed.

That night he lay awake on the hard floor in his parka, trying to work out a solution. He couldn’t bring four hundred women into Lwów, and he couldn’t split them into groups. There had to be another way.

And then the solution dawned on him. Couldn’t bring them into Lwów . . . That was the answer, right there: he didn’t need to bring them in. The idea was absurd, it was dangerous. But it was a plan. He was going to need a whole train.

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Next: 16. BAIT AND SWITCH