WHO HELPED WARTIME ESCAPE
THE PONTEFRACT AND CASTLEFORD EXPRESS, THURSDAY 12TH AUGUST 1976
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
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
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
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."
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.
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."
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."
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
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."
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.
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
round loaves they gave you," he said, "Looked like cartwheels
and tasted like sawdust."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
above article was originally published in the Pontefract &
Castleford Express, August 12th, 1976.