From The Great Boer Escape
by Willie Steyn
[Featured at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, 16 May 2015]
We travelled across flat countryside, then through dense forests. It was winter, with snow stretching as far as the eye could see – a strange sight for men from sunny South Africa.
The morning after leaving Theodosia we arrived at a beautiful city called Vilna, where a particularly large crowd was gathered at the station. The platform was completely overcrowded, and the police had to make a path for us to pass through. We went to a reception hall and within seconds it was filled with people. This public attention, however well-intended, soon became tiresome, and we were pleased when the owner sent the crowd away, leaving only the five of us with our three Russian friends.
We sat down at a long table, but the peace did not last long, for the owner then allowed a number of women, of all ages, to enter the hall; and they stood staring at us and waving us adieu.
After lunch the officers told us that we would have to travel to St Petersburg on our own, as they had been instructed to leave for a place called Sivolki. The only way we could get to St Petersburg without passports was through the military. We would have to pose as recruits, for which purpose the Recruiting Officer provided us with the necessary documentation.
Accordingly, we were dressed up as Russian farmers – knee-length overcoats made out of sheepskin, with the wool on the inside, Russian ‘astrakan’ caps, thick gloves made out of a kind of felt, and high boots made from the same material, but compressed. Thus kitted out, we left for St Petersburg.
That Sunday morning, as we disembarked from the train in St Petersburg, a policeman approached us and said in Russian: ‘Passports, please.’ We produced the documents we had been given, he looked at them and said ‘thank you’, and he walked on. We had been briefed beforehand, and had memorised the few essential Russian words to be spoken.
We knew that we would meet friends of the Boers in St Petersburg, and that we could expect a friendly reception and assistance from them. We had already received an invitation from the local Dutch Reformed Church minister.
We walked to the sleighs that were used as taxis, and asked to be taken to the Reverend Gillot, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, whose address we had written on a visiting card. After about fifteen minutes we stopped in front of his house.
Reverend Gillot had invited us by telegram when we arrived in Theodosia, and he met us at the door with a hearty welcome. We were served lunch in his beautiful home, after which we were taken to the Hotel Dogma, where the dominee’s parish clerk arranged our accommodation. There was a slight delay when the owner of the hotel would not allow us in without passports, but this was soon sorted out by the clerk.
After attending a church service – it was a Sunday – we spent the rest of the day with Reverend Gillot, who of course spoke fluent Dutch. We had to repeat the story of our escape, and we also discussed the war in South Africa at length.
The Russian-Dutch Ambulance Service, which was of so much assistance at the beginning of the war, had been the brainchild of this good man. I had personally often seen the ambulance workers on the battlefield, and it gave him great pleasure to hear first-hand news about this from us.
We were later introduced to Mr and Mrs Palovtshoff, the former being an important person in the secret service of His Majesty the Tsar. Mrs Palovtshoff was the secretary of the Ambulance Committee, and in this capacity she had done a great deal for us by tirelessly raising funds, holding bazaars, etc. She gave us each an album which had been specially produced and was being sold to raise funds. I still own this interesting book, which is one of the few momentos I was able to retain during our long and arduous return journey. Such was her dedication that President Steyn had given Mrs Palovtshoff a gold brooch bearing the Free State emblem, in appreciation of her services.