March 1945: Poland
Freedom held its breath . . .
Ten miles east of the Polish city of Lwów, the main rail line, snaking its way through the snow-covered farmlands, passed through a mile-long stretch of forest. On this day, hidden among the pines on a slope overlooking the tracks, shivering in the bitter cold, was a young woman. Her name was Isabelle, and she had been hiding here, keeping an anxious vigil, all through the freezing night. She was waiting for a train. Not just any train: the train to freedom.
Isabelle was a long way from home, a fugitive in an alien land. Two years ago she had been taken from her hometown in France by the German authorities, herded together with other young women and men, and taken away to the Reich. There the captives—the so-called Zwangsarbeiter or forced workers—were incarcerated in camps and put to work: some in the factories, some in the mines, others on the farms of Germany and occupied Poland. Isabelle and her compatriots had endured years of captivity, forced labor, hunger, and in some cases, rape.
The approach of the Russians caused the camps to be evacuated. The Nazis drove the foreign laborers in Poland westward toward Germany, murdering those who resisted. Many escaped the forced marches. But although they were at liberty, they were still far from freedom. Like countless other escapees—laborers, prisoners of war, and even some concentration-camp survivors—Isabelle and her friends took to a fugitive life. Grouping together for safety, some of the Frenchwomen made their way eastward, away from the battlefront. From various camps they came—Zwangsarbeiter camps, concentration camps; a few had escaped the death march from Auschwitz. Hundreds of them, all French, gathered in the countryside around Lwów, some hiding out in farms that had been destroyed when the battlefront passed over the region, others sheltered by sympathetic Polish farmers and villagers. Many, including Isabelle and her friends, hid among the very farms where they had labored; they knew the region, knew the safe places and the local people. The women lived in daily fear of being taken by the Russians, who would treat them as illegal aliens—potential spies and anti-Soviet insurgents—and incarcerate them in their own hellish camps. Sometimes these camps were the very ones the refugees had been liberated from in the first place.
Now at last there was hope. Word had reached the groups scattered around Lwów, passed along through the word-of-mouth network that had sprung up among the fugitives: freedom was at hand. Isabelle had dared to go into the city, and there she had found the man who could arrange to get them home to France. He was neither a Pole nor a Russian—he was an American officer. He could arrange for a train to take them to the coast city of Odessa, where they could board a ship bound for home. In small groups the women cautiously made their way to the forest rendezvous in the twilight gloom: there they concealed themselves and waited through the cold night hours.
The forest wasn’t a regular rail stop. The rendezvous had been arranged by the American officer. He had come to this country to rescue his fellow Americans, he said: helping Isabelle was a side issue, a matter of humanity. He had become a magnet for the lost souls of foreign nations washed up by the tide of war in Poland; he was a conduit to home and liberty, and all who could found their way to him.
Isabelle believed in the American. She knew the train would come.
Morning had dawned and slowly worn away; midday had passed, and the train was hours late. If it didn’t come, or if it was filled with Russians, or if any one of a hundred mishaps occurred, all the women could look forward to was more incarceration, more suffering, quite possibly death. Isabelle, her heart sinking, dug into the dwindling reserves of hope that had kept her going through the past two years. The train had to come; it must.
At this very moment, she knew, the American would be using every trick he could think of to avoid, stall, and sidetrack the Soviet secret police and prevent them discovering and foiling the escape plan. He was a good man, Isabelle believed; perhaps even a hero. But in this world, there were limits to what good men could do. Her faith was wavering, hope slipping from her fingers, when she heard the faint whistle in the distance. She tensed. There was no mistaking it: the sound of an approaching train.
Would it be the right one? Would there be Russian soldiers on board—or, worse, agents of the secret police? Those creatures were everywhere. This moment would show whether the American was a hero after all. Isabelle’s heart beat faster. As soon as she saw the steam above the trees in the distance, she rose from her hiding place and ran down the slope. Stumbling over the stones, slipping on the ice, she clambered onto the rail bed and stood up in the center of the tracks. She raised the hopeful sign she had made: a sheet of board bearing a single word scratched in charcoal: “France.”
The locomotive thundered toward her, shaking the ground under her feet. Holding her sign in the air, Isabelle waited for freedom . . . or death.