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< Echoes of Memory

The Bridge

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By Halina Yasharoff Peabody

The prettiest bridge I have ever seen is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

The most meaningful bridge I remember is the one from my hometown in Zaleszczyki, Poland, which crossed the river Dniester to Romania. Zaleszczyki was a famous resort town in the l930s. Dniester encircled Zaleszczyki almost completely and my mother, who was a swimmer, loved to water ski there. She also used to take me with her, and we kayaked between the shady beach and the sunny beach. I had a special small paddle that was made for my five-year-old self.

The bridge spanned from one country to the other. Officially one needed a permit to cross into Romania, but it was easy to obtain since it was a friendly neighbor. We used to go there to get fruit and vegetables, even though the wonderful climate was just as good on our side, allowing us to grow grapes, cherries, and apricots in our garden.

The weather in our part of the world had four distinct seasons, and winters were extremely cold, so the river would freeze and we used to skate on it. My mother, who could do any sport and who danced on ice skates, taught me to skate when I was five. We, of course, had lots of snow, and so I was learning to ski as well. I don’t remember skiing, but when I visited Zaleszczyki after the war, I found people who remembered my mother teaching me and watching us.

I also remember that I was promised a piano by my grandparents who lived in Krakow. It was my grandfather’s wish that his four children would play a musical instrument, and my mother played the piano, even though she told me that she was tone deaf. They probably hoped I would do better. But the piano never arrived, because on September 1, 1939, World War II started and the bridge became the focal point in our lives. I was six and a half years old, and my sister was two months old.

There was panic in our town. Russia and Germany had made a pact to split Poland between them, and Russia was going to occupy our part of the country. The men were afraid of being involuntarily conscripted into the Russian army, which had been a common practice during World War I. The gates on the bridge were open, and whoever decided to escape could cross to Romania, which was not going to be occupied. My father went alone because he was concerned that there would not be enough facilities for the baby. They did not suspect then that the women and children would be in danger. This is how the bridge became an escape hatch, and a lot of people in our town took this opportunity to escape.

My mother coped as well as she could without my father. Nobody knew what would happen next, except that the Russian army would march in, and we were all afraid of what they would do. There was a lot of fear. I know that there was a lot of looting and arrests, but mother kept us at home and, thankfully, I didn’t see any of it.

In the meantime, the weather got very cold and the river froze. Some of the escapees, including my father, decided that perhaps they could cross back quietly over the frozen river and rejoin their families without anyone being any the wiser. Unfortunately, the Russians had sealed the borders, and they all got caught and put in jail. My father was accused of being a spy—he was a dentist—and sentenced to 20 years hard labor and was promptly sent to Siberia. His remaining family—my mother, sister, and I—were also to be punished as “the family of a criminal” and to be sent to Russia. For some reason this didn’t happen, but we were thrown out of our house and sent to a place close by—a little town called Tluste—where we lived in one room until the Germans decided to occupy the rest of Poland. We then went back to our house and awaited the next occupier. We did have some communication with my father after the first year of incarceration but that ceased as soon as the Germans occupied our area.

I remember the bridge and during one of my trips back to Zaleszczyki many years after the war, I found that while our house had been destroyed, the bridge was still there and still quite imposing. And, it is now in Ukraine!

Tags:   halina yasharoff peabodyechoes of memory, volume 13

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