West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Memories and Recollections

REUNION WITH POLES
WHO HELPED WARTIME ESCAPE

FROM THE PONTEFRACT AND CASTLEFORD EXPRESS, THURSDAY 12TH AUGUST 1976

Poland, the graveyard for thousands of Jews in the Second World War, was also a prison for Mr. Jack Gabriel, of Richmond Avenue, Pontefract, writes RICHARD BAILEY.

He returns this week from a fortnight’s re-union in that country with members of a family who risked their lives to help his escape 33 years ago.

Captured by German troops in Norway in 1940, Mr. Gabriel, a member of the anti-tank platoon of the Yorks and Lancs Regiment, spent the rest of the war in Polish prisoner-of-war camps.

Among the worst was one near Katowice, where he was made to work 12-hour shifts in the Satan-grube (Devil-pit). It was a punishment camp meant to break the prisoners’ spirit, where brutality was condoned and became second nature to many German officers. Mr. Gabriel remembers one in particular, in charge of the mine whose ambition was to kill as many Englishmen as possible.

"At the end of each shift there was a rush to get in the cage", said Mr. Gabriel, "so the officer had a white line painted in front of it. Nobody could step over it until he gave the order. One Russian stepped over in the rush to get out. The officer drew his pistol and shot him in cold blood, leaving the body where it fell."

This experience sickened Mr. Gabriel and because of the conditions he refused to work in the pit. With only bowls of water soup and a lump of "sawdust bread" for sustenance, he became weak. But, determined not to be locked away for the whole of the war, he escaped from the underground punishment camp at Poznan. He takes up the story.

"We were out on work-detail smashing up gravestones in a Jewish cemetery and digging up the bodies. A lot of the men had skulls at the top of their beds in the camp for souvenirs."

"We were levelling the graveyard to turn it into a playground. At a moment when the guards weren’t looking I simply walked off the job and carried on walking to the other side of the city."

"On the main Warsaw road I noticed, walking towards me, what looked like an old hag. She stopped and beckoned for me to follow her through the back streets."

"I thought, ‘She’s nippy for her age’ and had trouble keeping up. Reaching some railings at the back of a house, she climbed easily, but as she reached the top her wig got caught and she looked down at me. She was a young woman of about 30."

The Polish woman and her family recognised Mr. Gabriel as a prisoner of war and realising the danger he was in , hid him in the loft of their house for five days. They fed him, gave him clothes (it was the middle of winter, with temperatures about 30 degrees below freezing) and set him on the right road for Warsaw and the safety of the Russian border. The last he saw of the woman, who would have been shot had the Germans found out, was on a freezing winter’s night outside the city of Poznan. She directed him on the road to Warsaw, telling him to hide in the cover of the trees.

He finally reached Warsaw after tramping over 300 miles in 13 days, including a hair-raising scramble under a bridge guarded by two German soldiers, in the cover of darkness. He slept in barns and begged food from farmhouses.

"Big round loaves they gave you," he said, "Looked like cartwheels and tasted like sawdust."

But Warsaw was the end of the line, for as he stood in a crowd watching a parade of German troops, someone recognised him as a prisoner of war and raised the alarm.

"I tried to run away," he said, "but there was no point. My boots fell apart, I couldn’t get very far, so I gave myself up."

At Gestapo headquarters in Warsaw an officer told him to undress but lost patience as he began to peel off his four vests and six shirts. He could not believe that Mr. Gabriel had walked all the way from Poznan in temperatures of 30 degrees below. In fact, he must have felt a sneaking admiration, for he ordered a pony and trap to take the prisoner to the station for his journey back to Poznan – and gave him a cigar.

As he was being escorted back to the camp, Mr. Gabriel passed the work party in the graveyard from which he had escaped. The Sergeant in charge recognised him, shook his fist and shouted threats.

"I was put in a cell on bread and water for 28 days, " said Mr. Gabriel, "but it was next to a dormitory and at night I used to sneak out through a window which was left open and sleep with the lads. The camp authorities never found out and I was back in my cell before inspection next morning."

Mr. Gabriel has kept in touch with the family who sheltered him and after cancelling the trip twice, finally decided to go back to Poland at the age of 65.

When he looked round the familiar places, memories good and bad would flood back. But one person was missing: the woman who helped him is dead. Her father, now in his eighties, and daughter, Czaicka Teodozja, ("I call her Toj") arranged to show him round Warsaw which lay in ruins in 1945.

Mr. Gabriel also hoped to visit the Devil-pit and some of the camps. But his most important duty was to lay a wreath on the grave of the woman who risked her life to save his.

The above article was originally published in the Pontefract & Castleford Express, August 12th, 1976.


 

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