Over the years, I’ve had a number of students who immigrated to the United States after World War II. Most all of them have incredible, sobering stories to tell about struggling to survive during the war, stories often more personal and poignant than we read in history books. Many of these students have never written their stories before attending my class. When I read what they’ve written, I feel so grateful they’ve decided share their experiences with future generations, who can only be proud to learn they have such courageous forebears. What would happen to these stories if they did not write them? Maria Romanski, enrolled in my class this year. She is a delightful woman, a beautiful Polish immigrant with thick silver hair and brilliant blue eyes. Her riveting story about her childhood in Poland after the Nazi invasion will touch you through and through. Read on to see what I mean.
by Maria Romanski
It was a bitter cold, bleak and depressing month. We had no heat in the apartment and not much food. Money was scarce. We had no Christmas tree that year, but Mother managed to prepare our traditional Wigilia meal for Christmas Eve. Before sitting down to our meal, we wished each other a blessed Christmas and wished for the war to end so Dad would come home. That is all we wished for. The meal consisted of pickled herring, potatoes, mushroom soup, fish, sauerkraut and mushrooms, and noodles with poppy seed. For desert we had cooked dried fruit compote. The portions were small but we upheld the tradition. There were no presents and none expected because we knew our situation.
To add to the depression, Mom ran a high fever during the night and had to stay in bed the next day. I was terribly frightened because I had never seen her ill. On Christmas Day, my brother and I went to church by ourselves. After Mass there was a program for the children prepared by the Red Cross. Each child received a present, including me. I took the package home for my mom. As it turned out, it contained a pair of ladies pajamas. Mom could certainly use them. We spent the day quietly and talked about food and toys we would have when war ended. Mom had not heard from Dad since we left Zegrze.* She did not know whether he was dead or alive.
I remember Mom telling us to have faith there would be happier times in the future and to just keep praying, which we did. I distinctly remember the words in our prayer: “Oh Lord, please help Daddy to come back safely to us.” Of course, this was in Polish: “Boziu dopomóż aby Tatuś szczęśliwie powrócił do nas.” Although I was just a child, life became very real and I realized the dangers of war. All through the war years, Mom received two small packages, one with raisins and one with almonds from Portugal. There was no sender, but Mom hoped they came from Dad to let her know he was alive. Dad could not write because if the Germans intercepted the mail and found out that Dad was out of the country, we would be killed. During that time Dad fought with the French Army and later he was in the Polish Army under British Command. He and thousands of Polish soldiers fought with the Allied forces abroad.
There was constant anxiety about food, safety and survival. Mom had to travel across town to her place of employment. Years went by. We lived in the same one-bedroom, or I should say one- bedroom and a tiny room off the kitchen that was given to my grandfather because he was old and needed privacy. In the evenings and during the nights we lived in constant fear of German planes flying over Warsaw and bombing. We prayed that none of the bombs fell on our building. We were lucky. We survived, mainly because the German Air Force headquarters was right next door to us. Life was tough and it got worse as time moved along. My brother and I did not really have a childhood. The constant concern for survival and safety was always with us. Would Mother come safely home from work? Would there be bombings during the night? And if so, would we survive, or would our building be destroyed and we’d all die?
Mother worked all day, but she spent evenings with us. She always asked how our day was. She was a very loving person, religious and a great disciplinarian. She had a gift of not raising her voice, but at the same time we listened. Of course, she had help from Aunt Lusia and to a certain extent from our grandfather, who was very religious and stern. Because of that we watched ourselves. He spent many hours a day in church and went for a walk every day, but he always managed to be around when my brother Kazik and I were home.
On the morning of January 13, 1943, Mother started out for work as usual, riding the trolley. When she arrived at her destination in the Praga district, the street was closed off. Everyone was ordered off the trolley. Hundreds of people were already standing on the snow-covered street, surrounded by German soldiers with their weapons drawn. Mother had no choice. She found herself pushed towards the crowd. These street closures and arrests were common during the German occupation. Mother, realizing the danger could only think of one thing: to let my aunt know what had happened. Standing right in front of a shop window, she wrote a telephone number and her name on a piece of paper and pressed the paper against the window, trying to attract the clerk’s attention inside the shop. The number was to a friend’s home. We did not have a phone. These friends helped many military wives who lived in Zegrze before the war. Their home was like a refuge for all displaced military wives. It was a center for information in case of any problems.
Mother knew the clerk that worked in the shop, and since he was allowed to remain inside, this was her only hope. Although quite frightened and scared what might happen to him, the clerk copied down Mom’s information and ever so slightly nodded his head. Mother had no way of knowing whether he would be able to make the call or also be arrested on that day. It was her only hope that Aunt Lusia would get the message.
After standing in the bitter cold for about an hour, all the people were divided into groups, and no one knew the reason for this mass arrest or what was going to happen. It was an everyday occurrence, just the location was unknown. Even kids like myself knew and fully realized the danger of a potential street closure, arrest, and the possibility of never being able to return home. All these things flashed through Mother’s mind. After all, she had lived in this constant fear for four years. The questions in her mind were would she be released later, or would she be shipped to a labor camp? Or…would she be executed on the spot or at a later date?
There was nothing anyone could do but pray. Ironically, although priests were also arrested and sent to concentration camps, the churches were still packed and people continued to pray. No one knew what happened to the hundreds of people arrested on that day, with Mom, or the thousands arrested during the war years.
The group of women that mother was taken away with were sent to a political prison called Pawiak.** It was one of the severest prisons and very rarely anyone saw the outside again. Most of the women arrested with Mother were employed in nearby shops, making a living to support their families. One young mother had just stepped out of her apartment to buy milk for her baby and left the baby alone asleep. She was hysterical. Mother tried to calm her as best she could.
When I was older, Mother told me that after the gates closed behind their group, a sudden realization of fear and helplessness and total defeat came over her. The women were interrogated one by one, some more than others. Still no one knew why they were being detained or if they would be released or sent to prison or concentration camp.
In the meantime, the clerk from the shop was able to make the phone call to Mother’s friends and gave them the message that a woman by the name Kowalewska was arrested on the street that morning. Mom’s friend, Nela Skośkiewicz, in turn contacted my aunt and told her what had happened.
My brother and I knew nothing. In fact, we were quite surprised when Aunt Lusia took us out of class early. She said nothing. We went home with her and immediately she left us with Zofia Sudacka, the owner of the apartment who occupied the second bedroom. I wondered why she left so quickly and why we were taken out of class and brought home. I knew not to ask questions. We spent the rest of the day with Zofia and no mention was made of what had happened. As far as we were concerned, Mother was at work and Aunt went out to take care of something. We were not aware that Aunt Lusia went to try and find where Mom was taken and the chances of her coming back.
The Polish underground in Warsaw was very active and Aunt Lusia knew some people who could possibly obtain this information. It was in later years, Mom and I talked a lot about what happened during the war years and she told me many things that I am writing about.
When night fell, I started asking questions. Why wasn’t Mom coming home? Where was Aunt Lusia? Why was she not home cooking dinner? Even Grandfather was irritated. He liked his meals on time. The only answer I received was, “They will be back later tonight.” In the meantime, Aunt Lusia was running all over the city trying to make contact with someone who could tell her where Mom was, why she was arrested and where she was taken. Finally Aunt Lusia came home but looked tired and was very quiet.
About seven-thirty that night, Mom and the other detained women were released from the prison and allowed to return home. Nobody was detained. Nothing was said. Mom told me everyone ran for the trolley because curfew was at eight o’clock. They had only a half hour to get home. Curfew was observed by everyone. Anyone found on the street after curfew was arrested. Mom walked in the door at exactly eight o’clock. It was not till then that we were told what had really happened.
That day I fully realized the meaning of war, danger and the threat to our immediate family. I realized that I came very close to losing my mother, whom I loved dearly. From that day on, we also prayed for Mom’s safe return from work every day. We still did not know where Dad was. His image became blurred in my memory. After all, he went to war when I was six, and now I was ten. Four years had passed and lots had happened.
All this happened on a Friday and the following Sunday there was a raid on our apartment complex. It was night time. All of a sudden, the whole courtyard was filled with armed German soldiers. Soldiers ran up and down the stairs banging on all doors. There were five stories in each section of the apartment complex that contained 10 apartments. All together, there were 100 `apartments in the complex. They came to our door. As Mom opened it, she was told to go downstairs with the soldiers. This time Aunt Lusia went into action. She feared no one. She was single and spoke fluent German. She told them if they wanted to take someone, to take her because she was alone and Mom had small children to take care of. I don’t know why or how, but it worked. The soldier beckoned to her to stay and proceeded to the next apartment. God was definitely watching over us. The next day we found out they were looking for some Polish underground members who had assassinated a German spy who lived in the complex. No one was arrested that night but no one slept either.
* Zegrze is a village in east-central Poland about 17 miles north of Warsaw. Today the village has a population of 970. (Wikipedia)
**Pawiak Prison: “Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Pawiak was turned into a German Gestapo prison, and then part of the Warsaw concentration camp. Approximately 100,000 men and 200,000 women passed through the prison, mostly members of the Armia Krajowa, political prisoners and civilians taken as hostages in street round-ups. An estimated 37,000 were executed and 60,000 sent to German death and concentration camps. Exact numbers are unknown, as the prison’s archives have never been found. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Pawiak became an assault base for the Nazis. Jailers from the Pawiak, commanded by Franz Bürkl, volunteered to hunt the Jews. On July 19, 1944, a Ukrainian guard, Wachmeister Petrenko, and some prisoners attempted a mass jailbreak, supported by an attack from the outside, but failed. Petrenko and several others committed suicide. The Resistance attack detachment was ambushed and suffered very heavy casualties, practically ceasing to exist. In reprisal, over 380 prisoners were executed the next day. It is thought that the whole incident was actually a well-planned Gestapo provocation.The final transport of prisoners took place shortly before the Warsaw Uprising, on July 30, 1944. Two thousand men and the remaining 400 women were sent to Gross-Rosen and Ravensbrück. After the area was secured during the Warsaw Uprising and subsequently again lost to German forces. On August 21 an unknown number of remaining prisoners were shot and the buildings burned and blown up by the Nazis. After World War II, the building was not rebuilt. Since 1990, its surviving basement has held a museum which, with the Mausoleum of Struggle and Martyrdom, forms the Museum of Independence. (Wikipedia) Notice how Wikipedia’s description so closely follows Maria’s personal account of what happened. Go here to read about Pawiak Prison in more detail.