what it was like to live in Poland during WWII



Both my father and my mother were born in Poland in 1937 and 1941 respectively. As a child, my father lived outside of Warsaw in a two story house in a small town built within a forest. I suppose that back then forests were not clear cut to make room for a city, but the city was built within the forest, clearing out only the trees that needed to be cut. Up until a few years back, the cobble on the roads still showed scars from the metal tracks of Soviet tanks as they rolled though the streets, “liberating” Poland.

Germany invaded Poland in 1939 when my father was only two years old. When he was five, the Warsaw Ghetto was liquidated by the Germans (read: slaughtered) and while on the banks of a river, my father watched train after train of cattle cars loaded with people being moved to the Treblinka Extermination Camp. It was said that in this specific camp, no one survived more than 24 hours, even the forced labor had a very quick “turnover”. To my father, being a child, he had no point of reference as to what was normal and what was not. To children, everything seems normal since there has yet to be a point of reference formed. That’s why it was normal for him when Ghetto refugees started arriving at his family home in the middle of the night asking for help. They were not turned away. Soon, in this house, people came and people left. At one point, there were over 30 Jewish refugees living in his home. It was made very clear by the Germans, through fliers and example that assistance to Jews or any one else deemed as “untermanchen”, would be met with what was referred to as “strictest consequences”. In short, public hangings were quite common. More so, it was not only the perpetrator that was dealt with, but their entire family as well. Being cold, wet, and malnourished my father soon contracted scarlet fever. It just so happened that two of the refugees living with him at that time were surgeons. A bottle of Ether, a kitchen table, and some kitchen knives and pliers later, my father had a baseball sized piece of his skull removed from behind his left ear along with the infection and puss. My father eventually recovered and although never grew to be more that 5′ 5″ tall (I am 6′ 1″ and my brother is 6′ 3″) he has to date enjoyed a very healthy and fruitful life.

As an infant, my mother together with her parents, lived in the rubble of a bombed out building the the heart of Warsaw. The scouting program was very active during these times and little Polish boys and girls helped in any way they could. Eventually my mother was tended to by a girl who was in what is now called her tweens. This girl somehow found a source for milk and took my mother from the ruins to feed her and then returned her. Soon enough, the big trucks came and my mother together with her parents were put onto a train and moved outside of Berlin to work in a forced labor camp. My mother’s first word was “Alarm”; she learned it from listening to others when all ran for cover when the Allied bombs were falling on the camp.
All while growing up, I have never felt that there was any enmity between my parents and the Germans nor the Russians. We were raised being taught the same stereotypes as everyone else: Germans are well organized, always on time, and they made great cars, while the Russians were disorganized but wrote great literature (L. Tolstoy) and poetry (A. Pushkin). However, not too long ago I asked my father a question: “Papa, if you were to hate someone, not that you do, but if you did, who would you hate more? Would it be the Soviets or the Germans?” The answer astounded me. Without much hesitation, my father answered: “The Germans” and then he continued and qualified his answer, he said: “At least the Soviets hated us. Hatred is a human emotion. To the Germans were were nothing. The Germans dealt with us like someone deals with ants and cockroaches. There was no human emotion there.”
Both my parent’s families were substantially reduced beginning in 1939. What the Germans did not take care of, the Soviets were all too eager to help finish. My parents have quite the story to tell. I have heard some stories, but I am sure that there are things held deep in their souls that will not ever be shared. I have contemplated of the best way to record their individual stories while at the same time maintaining respect for their own memories. Those memories and experiences are theirs, and theirs alone. It is not up to me to extract these from them. But if they want to, they need to be able to share them on their own terms and conditions. After much personal debate and research I come upon the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California, which I am hopeful will be a good medium for them to share their story.
The Shoah Foundation is an organization who’s mission is to record and document the individual stories of the Holocaust. This foundation has over 50,000 recorded interviews with survivors, most a few hours long. Stories are gathered, indexed, and shared with researchers and anyone else who will listen. There is a story to be told here. Because as it turn out, not only did my father live with over 30 Jewish refugees in his home, but he did so living next door to a police station that was converted to an SS command post, and the tween that helped my mother get some basic nutrition in a bombed out basement turned out to be Wanda Grycko, a woman that my mother ran into again some 50+ years later at church in Orange County, CA.
With so many variables, I am hopeful that I’ll be able to get my parents’ story recorded not only for myself and my children, but also for others. It is very important to preserve the individual stories and histories because after all, one death is a tragedy, while a million deaths are just a statistic.

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13 Comments

  1. denverallens :

    Very, very moving. I’d love to go and read those stories.

  2. Kat :

    Victor- You surprise me. This is very enlightening. In the past week I have had plenty of time to ponder, and I have realized that my life has been so “patterned” that I haven’t paid much attention to my own family history. As I have been priveleged to stay at my parents’ home, I now realize the legacy that has been left before me to carry on.

  3. KJ :

    you must record those stories. thanks for sharing this.

  4. eimrek :

    This is a beautifully written post about a not-so-beautiful time in history. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Leslie :

    wow, amazing story, so heartbreaking. it’s just so incredible that in one place in time so many people could be so inhuman, while others were the epitome of humanity and sacrifice. thank you for sharing.

  6. Lindsey Johnson :

    I loved reading this. Thanks for sharing their story.

  7. MTDA :

    Victor,

    There is so much here that I have really wanted to know about your family history but was too hesitant to ask you about. I wish I could say that my grandparents had the courage hide Jewish people when everyone knew what the consequence was, but my grandpa got riddled with machine gun fire fighting the Germans, so you know….that’s pretty good. just kidding.

    Thanks for sharing. seriously.

  8. KIM :

    Thank You for sharing, my great grand parents came to America in the late 20’s from Poland just in time, they used to say.

  9. Hans :

    Well written, man.

  10. the emily :

    This is incredible. I can’t believe it’s just one generation ago that our world was like this. Thanks for sharing your family’s story.

  11. Lori :

    It is all pretty amazing. thanks for sharing.

  12. Dani :

    I just happened to stumble upon your blog tonight. This is amazing! Thanks so much for sharing!