The following is an excerpt of the real life story Anatol Dmytriuk a WWII survivor who was also helped by the most unlikely people. The author of Mr. Dmytriuk’s memoir, Dr. Gary Shiplett, generously shared with us an excerpt of the story.
“I’m free! I’m free!” That’s all I could think or feel as I breathed in deeply the fresh air of freedom. The sweet taste of freedom filled me and for a brief moment even made me forget the numbing pain in my broken finger. The crisp, morning, October air felt good on my face, and my whole body felt alive in a way it had not felt since the German police had carried me off from my homeland when I was just sixteen years old. They took me first to Leipzig, Germany to work as an enslaved laborer and eventually brought me here to Katowice, Poland to work in a coal mine. That was nearly two years ago. It seems like a lifetime ago. A boy grows up really fast when his survival depends upon it. Otherwise, he doesn’t survive at all. I had learned more than I ever wanted to learn since the time they had come and taken me from both my home and my homeland. No boy should ever have to grow up that fast. But I had to. There was no choice but to survive. I was determined that I would survive.
Narration: Katowice, Poland is located in southwestern Poland near the Czech border. It is the provincial capital of the region lying some 40 to 50 miles west of Krakow. It has the largest and most important concentration of industry in Poland. The basic wealth there is hard coal, which is extracted from some 50 mines. The entire region is surrounded by a wide forest belt. When Anatol escaped, he was faced with the awesome task of covering about 200 miles of German occupied territory to reach the eastern border with Ukraine in the region known as Galicia.
It was a long jump from the second floor window of the medical clinic. When I hit the ground, the shock to my broken finger made it seem like a whole lot longer jump. As soon as I landed on the ground, my feet were on automatic pilot taking me away from the two camp police who brought me to the clinic, away from the forced labor camp surrounded by iron bars, away from the hellish hole in the earth where I was forced to shovel coal for the Nazis, away from the 10 to 12 hour work days, away from the meager meals that barely kept me alive.
Yes, at that moment, I wasn’t so much running towards anything as I was running away from something. Away from the Nazi’s forced labor camp where I had been taken against my will. Away from the slave labor in the coal mine deep in the earth. Away from the long and grueling days shoveling coal to fuel the Nazi industrial war machine. But deep down inside, I knew I was also running toward something. I was running toward home. I was running toward family. I was running toward my homeland. I was running toward freedom. And the more the fresh air of freedom cooled my feverish face with the bracing air of an October morning, the more I felt the power of freedom welling up in my spirit and in my wiry eighteen year old body. My body had become toughened by my early years of long hikes hunting with my father, from playing soccer, and from the extremely hard labor I endured in the camps. Now every ounce of my body was carrying me toward freedom. I had to be free! I will be free! I am free! My face and my heart set their compass on freedom and on home.
I didn’t have a plan how to escape when the security police led me with a guard before and behind me on the one and a half to two mile walk from the barracks to the clinic this morning. It’s not that I lay awake last night plotting a heroic leap to freedom. But I knew that the time had come that I had to escape. It was no longer possible for me to survive in that hellhole of a coal mine. I had definitely put an end to that yesterday, when I whacked the supervisor in the head with a shovel. It all happened so fast. My finger was broken during one of the blasts, but I was expected to pick myself up and continue to shovel coal at the same level of production as I had done before my injury. It didn’t matter that I was severely injured and needed medical attention. Since the plan was to work us to death anyway, why would it matter to the Nazis? I found that the pain was so excruciating and my right arm so weak that it was very difficult to continue shoveling coal. But I continued to shovel coal, as I knew I must. A Polish supervisor noticed I had slowed down in my shoveling and began to holler at me; “Faster, faster, work faster.” Then he came up behind me and pushed me hard in the back. I stumbled and fell to the ground.
That was my breaking point! I exploded. When I picked myself up from the floor of the coal mine, I turned and swung my shovel. It slammed full force against the back of his head. He went down. His body shook in a spasm as he lay there whimpering. Another supervisor saw what happened and commanded me to follow him, threatening me with the severe punishment that awaited me. These lower level supervisors had no authority to mete out punishment, so I was led to a room in the mine where the higher level manager would deal with me. This was it, I thought. There was no way I could squirm my way out of this mess. If I survived my punishment, how could I ever work in the mine again? The lackey supervisor would find a way to deal with me. The harassment would be unbearable, and an “accident” would be arranged to take care of this rebellious Ukrainian kid. With dread, I heard the manager dismiss the man who had brought me to him. Now I stood there alone before the man who had authority to punish me. What would he say? What would he do to me? Was I about to become just one more statistic in the Nazis’ ledger?
Alone with him, suddenly the man softened and seemed to warm to me. “This is your lucky day,”” I heard him say. “I am secretly a Communist like you, and I despise the Nazis. But I am not sure I can protect you down here in the mine. I will send you up on top to have your finger looked at and then send you to your barracks for the rest of the day. Tomorrow we will have to see what can be done. But it doesn’t look very good for you. Go now.” Though I certainly wasn’t a Communist, I didn’t think this was the best time to correct him. So I was sent top side where a nurse treated my broken finger. The swelling was too severe for her to set the break, so she cleaned and dressed my wound. After wrapping it, I was sent to my barracks. I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what I needed to do next. One thing I became sure of. I couldn’t go back down in that coal mine. This morning at the clinic in town, I would have my broken finger set and the splint would ensure that the finger was aligned while it healed. This morning I was escorted to the clinic to see the doctor.
When I stepped into the clinic for the doctor to set my broken finger, my mind was captured by the dull pain that sounded from the little finger on my right hand. The two police who brought me to the clinic led me to the room in the clinic where I would be treated. Then they left me and returned to the lobby. When I stepped into the room where I was assigned for treatment, I found myself strangely and wonderfully alone. Alone from the watchful eyes of the police. Alone from the supervisors in the coal mine. Alone from the poor devils who lived with me each day in the belly of the earth producing coal for the German industries that fueled the insidious Nazi war machine. Alone at last. And it felt good!
While I waited for the doctor, my thoughts turned away from getting a splint on my broken finger and turned toward my escape. If only I could find a way to get out of this clinic without being detected, then I could flee from the nightmares of my life that filled my days in the coal mine and haunted my lonely nights in the barracks. My pulse quickened and my mind began to race in overdrive as I began to think how I could plan my escape. I needed to find a place where I could leave the clinic undetected. This may give me just enough time to get out of the city and into the woods. By the time the guards learned of my escape, I may have had enough lead time to keep ahead of them. Quickly surveying the room, I decided I needed to find a more private place from where I could launch my escape.
I went down the hallway and found a men’s room. Inside the restroom, my eyes spotted above me a small window with the light of day coming through it. There was my portal through which I could make my escape to the outside world. But first, I needed to remove the blue and white badge, which the Nazis made me wear on my clothes. The badge was emblazoned with the German word ‘OST’ that means ‘East.’ The badge identified me as an enslaved “East Worker.” I managed to break a thread and rip the hated badge from my clothes. ‘Good riddance,’ I thought as I wrapped the hated badge in toilet paper and flushed it down the toilet. Then, with no thought but the thought of escape, I began to climb up toward the window. Without reflecting on what I would do if I managed to get up and through the window undetected, I found myself stretching up to open that window. This was a public clinic, so the windows had no bars on them. The window opened easily.
Narration: The Ostarbeiter (‘East Workers’), as the Germans called them, were required to wear on their clothes a rectangular badge of blue with a white border and a second inner white border around a blue field with the word ‘OST’ emblazoned in white for easy identification. It served the same general purpose of identification as the yellow Star of David that Jews were required to wear.
Now I only had to pull myself up to that window that opened on another world, a better world, a more human world. I had to get through that window. I had to get to that better world. In that world lay my freedom, my homeland, my mother, and my future. With only one good hand, the effort to pull myself up and through the window caused a new and throbbing pain that made my whole right arm feel weak. My head pounded in syncopation with the pain. But at that moment, the pain of returning to that bleak and lifeless coal mine where the lackey supervisors would be planning their revenge, the pain of living one more day as a slave of the Germans who occupied my country and abducted me from it, the pain of living one more day away from home and family seemed to crowd out, or at least make bearable, the pain that drummed inside me. For once, my small size was a saving advantage as I slipped through the window. Now I only had to leap to freedom and the ground two stories below.
After landing hard on the ground, I get to my feet and walk as fast as I can thread my way from the clinic and away from my captors. I know I must get out of town and far away as possible before the guards discover I am missing. I walk through the town as fast as I can without drawing attention to myself. My goal is simple. Get away! Find some way to flee without being seen. Do I try to catch a train, or do I head out of town and towards the woods? I come to a railroad crossing where, I discover, several security police are guarding the crossing. That rules out any train ride from here. I will have to pass right by them. When I come near them I make sure I hold my right hand with the broken finger against my chest to cover the place where the identification badge had been sewn. If they notice the outline of the former badge traced by the cleaner fabric that was protected under the badge then it’s all over for me. I brace myself, stand tall, and walk in a manner that shows the expected deference toward the occupation forces without showing any sense of suspicious behavior. Once past the police, I continue on walking out of town towards the woods at the edge of town.
The area of Katowice is surrounded by a wide forest belt. So as soon as I am out of town, I am safely in the woods. Once I am in the woods, I begin to run. The faster I run the more the jarring pain from my broken finger begins to insinuate itself. I hold my right hand in my left hand clutched to my chest as I run, trying to cushion the shock that each footfall sends screaming up my arm. My whole body begins to feel like one broken finger. Still I keep running. There is no time to focus upon the pain or allow it to crowd my brain. At this moment, there is only one thing that bends my will and focuses my mind. I can not go back. I must press on. I know what will happen if the security police led by their well trained dogs ever find me. The older men in the camp had translated for me the words on a sign that was posted in the labor camp. It warned that anyone trying to escape would be hunted down and, when found, would be shot to death on the spot.
Once I climbed through that window, there was only one choice: To go on, to press on with all my heart and soul, with all my mind and strength. To press on no matter the pain; to press on no matter the fear; to press on no matter the loneliness. Not to press on would mean to lie down and die. I am sure that I’m too young to die. At eighteen years of age, I haven’t yet lived. It isn’t the kind of choice that is hard to make once you take that first step toward freedom. You know the dogs may be behind you. You know the security police may be behind you. You know the living nightmares of the slave labor camp are behind you. You know that death is pursuing you. In front of you is freedom and home. Behind you is everything you fear and hate. So I run deeper and deeper into the woods with only the sky for my compass. The sun guides me by day and the stars will guide me by night.
I run until I am exhausted, and then I walk. Then I run again until I can’t run anymore. I run as though my life depends on it. And it does! The hours come and go, with only the pain and the exhaustion for my companions. There is no time to think about the hunger that begins gnawing away at my insides. I’ve known hunger before. I just press on, not knowing where I am going. All I know is my home is very far to the east, so I run with the afternoon sun at my back. Finally, utter and complete exhaustion begin to crowd out the fear and even dull the pain that is throbbing from my broken finger straight to my brain. All day I have been running and running. I need rest. I must rest. I must lie down. I can’t go on without rest, without sleep. But how can I stop when I know by now my escape has been discovered and the German shepherds may be even now sniffing out my route?
It is essential to the Nazi policy of fear and intimidation that no one be allowed to escape, and each escapee is shot dead as a way of destroying all hope of escape. Every hour that I remain at large, every day I survive in my flight, every sunrise without the body of Anatol Dmytriuk tells the lie to their propaganda of an irresistible force, of a superior race. Every day I outsmart the Nazis proves that I am a human being made in the image of God, as my church taught me, and not Untermensch (German for ‘sub-human’) as the Nazis call Ukrainians, Jews, gypsies and any other group they despise. Every day I remain at large gives hope to the hopeless. Tells the truth about hope. Tells the truth about the human spirit and its longing to be free. Tells the truth about life in the face of death. A Ukrainian young man who is only eighteen years old cannot be allowed to defy the crushing power of German occupation. They cannot let me succeed. And I cannot let me fail!
(Excerpted from A Life Pressing On:The Life of Anatol Dmytriuk (As told to Gary R. Shiplett) Copyright 2009, Gary R. Shiplett. This is a pre-publication excerpt and may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the author.)
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