She sailed out of Antwerp on Tuesday, December 4, 1945. Everything she owned she carried in pigskin leather bag: two dresses from her time in Nuremberg, a sweater, some underwear, one pair of shoes, and the little French-English dictionary she kept from her escape out of Krakow.
With the clean sea breeze brushing along her brow, Bisia Reavis stood alone along the rail of the Belgian Unity, a Liberty Class freighter bound for New York City. Just one month past her 24th birthday, she looked back at the only world she had ever known as it slipped from view. Ahead awaited the American husband she had met and married just ten months ago in her native Poland. Behind lay an old way of life still smoldering in ruins.
No longer the headstrong schoolgirl who thought the war would be a big adventure, Bisia’s six years of fighting under occupation had shattered the world she had inherited, so, too, many of its people. Some, like Bisia, now found themselves scattering like wind-blown seeds to far away lands with only their memories and dreams to replant.
I didn’t know what to think. All I knew was that there was a world out there for me to see, and there would be no second chances, no second thoughts.
Christened just 13 months earlier in Maine at the South Portland Shipyard, Belgian Unity was one of the hundreds of ships ferrying men and materiel Stateside following the war’s end. Though it and its two companion ships had to navigate through a series of mines still menacing the North Atlantic, their passage had gone easily enough until they reached the Azores some 1800 kilometers west of Portugal. That’s when the savage storm hit, and once again did peril become Bisia’s close traveling companion.
Oh, with the horn sounding constantly, pleading like the bleat of a lost lamb for days on end. It was incredible. My stomach flew into my throat as we plunged down another sheer wall of water.
In the initial onslaught, one of Belgian Unity’s sister ships had gone down, the other barely turned back in time. Now alone and vulnerable the 441-foot freighter pitched submissively atop the sea’s undulant power.
“Madame,” shouted the captain above the shrieking wind and battering waves.
Bisia staggered the few steps to his side in the pilot house as the ship rolled heavily astarboard.
“This is the inclinometer,” he shouted, nodding down at the round brass instrument with a dimly lit white dial. “It shows the angle of the ship to the horizon.”
Clutching his coat sleeve as the ship heaved once again, Bisia looked as the black needle swung precipitously along an arch of numbers demarking zero degrees at twelve o’clock high and ranging, in tens, out to 70 degrees at the three and nine o’clock positions.
“As you can see,” the captain continued, “we are pitching over about 55 degrees. Just another degree or so and we’ll be sunk.”
He said this with a what-can-you-do throw of his shoulders, adding, “we’ve also lost all communication to the outside. So lets you and I have another drink.”
Bisia smiled wanly at the captain’s sardonic humor, but she also began to wonder if this is how the fates had planned it, for her to come so far, through so much, only to have it end beneath the howling black curtain of the Atlantic. It would be an irony, she thought, as she wiped a mass of tangled hair from her forehead. So much had been tossed in these last six years. So many times her personal inclinometer had tilted to its final degree. But there was no turning back, even if that were possible.
She had learned what seemed like a lifetime before that all she had to count on was her instinct, no matter what the world presented, be it a Gestapo officer with a pistol in hand, or an angry ocean intent on swallowing her whole. But oh, how different, how trusting had life been before, a time that now seemed so very, very long ago.