I was born in Poland, where – before the last war – religious intolerance was not uncommon. In spite of my father’s objection to my participation in anti-Semitic demonstrations in Warsaw, I very often heaved stones at the windows of stores owned by Jews. I had no qualms about my actions, and it later took months of hardship and persecution, and a Jew, to show me how to abide by the Biblical injunction: ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’.
Here is the story.
When Hitler annexed Austria and war seemed imminent, I quit my job as an instructor at a flying club in Lyons, France, and started for home in my plane. The engine developed magneto trouble and I had to land in Vienna, and stay there overnight, to have it repaired.
The following morning, just as I stepped out of my hotel to buy a few souvenirs before checking out, a man came running past the door, bumped into me, and sent me reeling. Outraged, I grabbed him and was about to give him a piece of my mind, when I saw that his face was white with fear. Panting heavily, he tried to wrench himself from my grip, saying: ‘Gestapo – Gestapo!’ I knew only a little German, but I quickly understood that he was running away from the dreaded German secret police.
I rushed him into the lobby and upstairs to my room, pointed to the foot of my bed, and motioned to him to lie down. I covered his slender, jackknifed body with artfully draped blankets, so that the tousled bed looked empty. Then I pulled off my jacket, tie and collar, so that I could pretend that I’d just got up if the Gestapo men came.
In a few minutes they did.
They examined my passport, returned it, and shouted questions at me, to which I replied: ‘Ich verstehe es nicht’ (‘I don’t understand it’), a phrase I knew by heart. They left without searching the room.
As soon as they had gone, I locked the door and lifted the blankets. The poor man let out a stream of rapid German. It was not necessary to understand a word in order to comprehend his gratitude.
I got out my flight chart and, by gesturing and drawing pictures in the margin of the map, explained that I had an aeroplane and could take him out of Austria. He pointed to Warsaw, and his expressive hands asked: ‘Would you take me there?’
I shook my head, and made him understand that I had to land for fuel in Cracow. I drew pictures of police and prison bars to illustrate that he would be arrested upon arrival at any airport, and I made it clear that we would land in some meadow just over the Polish border, where he could disembark. He nodded with satisfaction, and his narrow face and dark brown eyes again conveyed his deep thanks.
At the airport the customs and immigration men waved us through when I told them that my friend wanted to see me off. The plane was warmed up and ready for the flight. We quickly climbed in, and soon we were in the air.
We crossed Czechoslovakia and, before long, we saw the thin ribbon of the Vistula River and the city of Cracow. Landing in a large field by a wood, and near a country railway station, I showed my companion where we were on the map, gave him most of my money, and wished him luck. He took my hand, looked at me wordlessly, and then walked rapidly into the woods.
When I arrived at Cracow airport, there was a detachment of police waiting beside the immigration inspector. One of the police said: ‘We have a warrant to search your plane – you helped a man escape from Vienna.’
‘Go ahead and search it,’ I responded. ‘Incidentally, I’d like to know what the man is wanted for?’
The response was: ‘He is a Jew!’
They searched my plane very thoroughly and, of course, they had to let me go for lack of evidence.
The war came, and after Poland’s short and bloody struggle against the Germans, in which I served as a fighter pilot in the Polish Air Force, I joined the thousands of my countrymen who wanted to carry on the fight for freedom. We crossed the border into Romania, were promptly caught, and then we were sent to concentration camps.
I finally managed to escape, joined the French Air Force and, after the collapse of France, I went to England and fought in the Battle of Britain. The following June I was wounded, while on a fighter sweep across the English Channel, when the Luftwaffe hit us over Boulogne. On those early offensive missions, we were always outnumbered and outperformed by the Luftwaffe; and our only superiority was our morale.
As we started for home, I rammed an ME-109 and was hit by a piece of its sheared-off tail. I was half-blinded by my own blood. The squadron covered my withdrawal across the Channel, but I was unconscious when my Spitfire crash-landed in England. (I later learned that my skull had been fractured, and that I was so near death that the head-surgeon of the hospital, to which I was taken, believed that it would be almost useless to operate on me.)
When I regained consciousness and opened my eyes, I became aware of a narrow face with large brown eyes looking down at me.
‘Remember me?’ asked the owner of the face. ‘You saved my life in Vienna.’ He spoke with only a trace of a German accent.
His words ended my confusion. I recalled the sensitive face, and managed to ask: ‘How did you find me?’ Then I noticed his white smock. ‘Do you work here?’ I enquired.
‘It’s a long story,’ he replied. ‘After you dropped me off, I made my way to Warsaw, where an old friend helped me. Just before the war, I escaped and managed to reach safety in Scotland. When one of your Polish squadrons distinguished itself in the Battle of Britain, I thought you might be in it – so I wrote to the Air Ministry, and found that you were.’
‘How did you know my name?’ I asked.
He replied: ‘It was written … it was written in the margin of your map. I remembered it.’
His long fingers felt cool on my wrist. ‘Yesterday I read the story in the newspapers about a Polish hero shooting down five enemy planes in one day, and then crash-landing near this hospital. They said that your condition was considered hopeless. I immediately asked the Royal Air Force in Edinburgh to fly me here, to this hospital.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
He replied: ‘I thought that, at long last, I could do something to show you my gratitude. You see, I’m a brain surgeon – I operated on you this morning.’