From The Great Boer Escape
by Willie Steyn
It is well known that one cannot enter Russia without a passport, and I believe that we were the only five people ever to do so. The only way we could accomplish this was to dress up as Russian soldiers, and our friends saw to this for us. We were given uniforms and proceeded to march from the harbour, together with the other soldiers, to the barracks.
Nevertheless, the rumour had somehow spread through Theodosia that five Boers had arrived aboard the Kherson, and when the ship steamed into the harbour a multitude of people had already gathered on the wharf. We were only later told that most of them had come to see us. They stood around for a while and, when they heard that we had already disembarked, they followed us to the barracks and would not leave until we were brought out to be displayed.
Before arriving at the barracks, we went through a large gateway where police officers were on duty. They counted the number of soldiers to compare the tally with information received from the Commanding Officer on board; but they must have been well aware of our presence, and I think the counting was done simply to comply with legal formalities.
On arrival at the barracks we changed our clothing, met many officers and Russian citizens, and received various invitations to spend time with them at their homes. We accepted an invitation from a Mr Herman Rhiel, the German Consul, mainly because we were able to speak and understand a little German, which made it easier to communicate with him and his family. We stayed with them for two days, during which time we were treated extremely well.
That first afternoon in Theodosia we strolled through the city to do some sightseeing. We were even photographed a couple of times, and the evening was spent with Mr Rhiel in his salon, where we met a great many men and women who had come to see the Boers.
During the course of the evening Mr Rhiel’s very attractive daughter, Miss Marie, a young lady of approximately nineteen, asked me whether we would sing some songs. I answered that I had never really excelled in singing, and neither had any of my comrades. She then said: ‘Not even your national anthem?’ to which I could obviously not reply in the negative.
I will never forget her look of wonderment when Botha sat down at the piano and started playing. We sang the Transvaal national anthem, and afterwards they insisted that we all dance.
Each of us had to dance, in turn, with the twelve young ladies present. It became something of a matter of national pride, and I was grateful that we were able to acquit ourselves of the task reasonably well. We were complimented on our singing as well as our dancing, and it was good to know that the praise was not entirely undeserved.
I spent the greater part of the following day in the company of Miss Marie. We had a pleasant day with a Dr Meralovich, and dined together. The following evening was spent in much the same way as the previous one.
The next morning we left for St Petersburg on a special train that was transporting soldiers and officers to another garrison. A multitude of people had gathered at the station to bid us farewell on our way to the Russian capital, and on the platform we received several baskets of fruit from our new-found friends.
While we were waiting for the train to leave, Miss Marie (who, like many of the other ladies, was by now quite tearful) came up to me and said: ‘Oh, Mr Steyn, I would so love to go with you; I would surely have done so if my father had permitted it.’ To say that I was confused and embarrassed by this open declaration from such a beautiful lady would be an understatement. Yet at the same time I realised that these people were very different from us Afrikaners, and I was sure that this declaration was merely the result of her feeling of national empathy and admiration – a passing emotion.
With mixed feelings I heard the clock strike, and we took our leave of these dear friends. Moments later the train steamed out of the station amid loud cheering and hurrahs.