Two heavy lorries stopped at the end of one of the streets of Warsaw, throwing gloomy shadows along the silent houses. A stopping car – be it of the City corporation or of a Polish firm always awakens fear. Usually it means that either the Gestapo or the police are beginning their daily atrocities. This time, however, it seems to be something harmless: engine trouble. Out of the lorry jumps a civilian with harmless-looking tools. His colleague from the second lorry runs up to assist with the repairs.

Suddenly both drivers stop working at the motor, with which there neither is, nor was, anything wrong: They quickly move both cars so that they stand across the road, blocking, despite severe traffic regulations, the entrance to the street. They close it completely. The gap between the lorries is quickly filled with heavily armed uniformed Germans, who jump out of the lorries. Like huntsmen they look with greedy eyes at the crowd of people trying to run away. From a neighbouring street which has been blocked in the same cunning way, people are fleeing. They find themselves in one of the many hundreds of traps which are set by the Germans simultaneously on this day. These traps have teen put up all over Warsaw: in the main streets, in side streets, in broad avenues and in narrow alleys, in Wola, Mokotow, Zoliborz,4 in the centre of Warsaw and in the suburbs.

The overcrowded tramcars which had seemed such a safe shelter only a few moments ago, are being stopped and surrounded. They now look like smaller traps in the gigantic network of streets. Green-grey hunters have already begun to chase their victims amongst the red tramcars: they pull out the men, drag them to the wall of the nearest house, where, within a few moments, they herd together hundreds of frightened people, unable to understand what it is all about. Nobody yet knows the reason for today's hunt in the streets of Warsaw – whether it is the strength of Polish man-power they want to bring to the Heimat's5 farms or factories or if these cunning traps have been set to catch and thin out the strength of the Polish nation.

Fear flickers up in the eyes of the trapped; they are cut off from their daily occupations and their families – their only source of joy. Hope steals into the eyes of those under the wall, because they have surely only been caught to do some temporary work at the barracks or suburban fortifications, work which will allow them to return home after a few hours or a day at the latest. Resolution to regain their freedom glows in the eyes of the people caught by the horrible claws of the aggressor – there must be a chance to escape! They do not yet know, those who are caught on a morning in August 1940, in the streets of Warsaw, that they are doomed as the victims of Auschwitz, that they are going to increase the yet insufficient numbers of the camp's 'colonists' and they will all return home from it – though not on the same day – in the form of official parcels containing handfuls of ashes.

Meanwhile the huge catch consisting of between 10,000 and 20,000 people is loaded into lorries by the Germans and driven off in the direction of Praga suburb. As the loaded trucks rattle through the streets, they are watched with painful and revengeful feelings by those who have luckily avoided the trap, mostly women and children. As their frightened eyes follow the victims who are dragged away from their town, they see many small pieces of paper fluttering out into the street from the groaning lorries. On these bits of paper the prisoners have quickly jotted down the words "they caught me in the street" and the address to which it should, be delivered. This is their only safeguard against a disappearance without trace.

The notes flutter to the ground. Those who are still free collect them religiously and carry them to their destination – to the families or friends of those who have been hunted down today, in the maze of the big town.

In the spacious factory building on Skaryszewska Street, where the victims are examined, there may be a chance to escape from the trap. There, someone in uniform, of unknown rank, looks at the document passed to him by trembling hands, and pronounces sentence: Release-or-keep here. In some cases a small slip of paper has the power of restoring freedom. It happens that a tram driver is caught, or a worker from the gasworks or hospital. Free!

Age is the deciding factor – mostly they keep the young or middle – aged and those looking fit and healthy are preferred; last but not least the whim of the hunt's master decides.

The day is fine and warm. These people who were going about their ordinary business – to their offices, factories, or schools, or to buy cigarettes, medicine at the nearest chemist's or to the cafe next door to telephone – are wearing summer clothes and have with them a cardigan, a coat, perhaps some food and money.

The evening is usually cooler and at night almost all the prisoners shiver; many having not even their coats and dispensing with socks, as often in war-time. The investigation of all these people, with their often useless documents, takes a long time and has to be carried on into the next day. They spend a sleepless night on the floor of the factory; the first and second days are darkened by thirst and a growing hunger which even before had only been satisfied by substitutes.

The further waiting for the end of the man-hunt (which has to mach a certain number fixed in advance) takes place on the dung covered floor of the Riding School in Lazienkowska Street. At last, after endless sleepless hours spent in hunger and thirst, the Germans load their prisoners into lorries, take them to the station, and throw them into cattle trucks which are sealed carefully.

This abduction of harmless people from tramcars, trains, cafes and their own homes – people harmless even in the eyes of the enemy – was christened by us 'Catch as catch can'. The name reminds us of happy childhood games; but perhaps just because of its carefree sound, it shows the spirit of hard resistance of the Polish nation, who can turn a sinister experience into a joke.

The Capital had hardly had time to recover after that first manhunt; when, the very next month, another took place, the so-called 'September' hunt. Zoliborz, the Lubecki settlement and Wola were the areas selected this time, surrounded by machine-guns and armed beaters. Not only from the open street, but even from their own houses and offices, people were dragged; there was no refuge.

'Catch as catch can' was a name which echoed all over Poland: the inhabitants of Lublin, Radom, Kielce and many other towns marked off those fateful days on their calendars.

4 Districts of Warsaw.
5 Germ. Home country.
  previous NEXT