Not long ago, I showed a book to a Microsoft manager, a Polish man who immigrated to Canada from Warsaw, Poland fifteen years ago, then several years ago moved with his wife and three children to the U.S. He was a medical doctor in Warsaw, but changed his career to computer science, and was recruited by Microsoft.
The book, written by my mother, was a conglomeration of Polish songs and poems, some of them my mother wrote herself from many years before, some during World War II, when Poland was under occupation, some of which were written by Auschwitz survivors – her co-patriots. There was also a brief summary of my family's background.
The man asked me only one question: “Is your Mother Jewish?” I was stunned. That was all he was interested to know. A highly educated man, yet proved to be so narrow minded and ignorant about history of Poland. He grew up in Warsaw, Poland at the same time as I did. I offered the book to him, but he not only refused, but said “I know history very well.” I thought, “You must be joking.”
All my life I was surrounded by people who had great knowledge of the war, so this response puzzled me to say the least. I tried to explain to this man and his family what my family went through in their fight for the freedom of Poland, but to no vain. Neither he, nor his family, wanted to hear anything I said. I knew the man grew up in a military family: his father was a higher ranking officer, already retired. They were communists who took advantage of the system in order to progress in their professional lives and never suffered any persecution. They did not suffer shortages of food or medicine, like everyone else did under communism.
I wondered if he also thought that the tragedy of Katyn was the work of Germans, as per communist propaganda (Katyn was a place where high ranking Polish officers were killed and buried. Russians accused Germans, but investigation revealed that Russians committed these crimes). Soviet propaganda was also meant to attack the Underground, AK (Home Army) which sympathized with the government in exile and was against the Soviet influence.
I wanted to tell him so much, but his response became increasingly cynical and condescending.
I wanted to tell him about the documents recovered regarding the formation of Auschwitz, that clearly stated the reason for building the camp. One of them, dated June 14, 1940, stated that Auschwitz was founded for the Polish political prisoners, who were brought in to Auschwitz from 1940 to 1944. Another document, bearing the date Nov.10, 1942, signed by Himmler, stated plans to arrest members of the Polish resistance movement and send them to the concentration camps. Other Poles brought to Auschwitz included professors, priests, political leaders, members of Polish intelligentsia – Polish people arrested in street roundups, civilians arrested in Warsaw after the start of the Uprising in August 1944, Polish people removed from their homesteads whose land was given to German families. Another document stated other reasons for imprisonment in Auschwitz, such as listening to the radio, participation in the resistance movement, aiding Jews, and smuggling food into ghetto.
I wanted to tell him about the speech Hitler gave some time before September 1939, where he said, among other things that “ ...I have given orders, and ordered shooting of anyone who utters a single word criticizing the fact that the goal of the war is not reaching some set line, but the physical destruction of the enemy. To this goal only in the East for the moment, I have prepared my Death's Head units, ordering them to kill...men, women and children of Polish origin or who speak Polish, without mercy. Only in this way we will acquire the living space that we need...Poland will be depopulated and settled by Germans.”
I thought that every Polish person knew that.
The following is the summary of my family’s experiences in the war, their incredible heroism, sacrifice and strength of character.
I grew up in post war Poland. We lived in Krakow first, then moved to Czestochowa, and finally all the way north to Tri-City. We relocated to Gdynia, so my sister and I could get the best education. Education was very important to my parents. We attended elite schools in Tri-City. My father was a highly qualified engineer with a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering with several specialties: metallurgy, heating, and air conditioning. He was an assistant director, as he could not be a full director because he never belonged to the communist party. He had his principles which he never broke. My father, the breadwinner of the family, was not the only educated one; my mother pursued studies in pharmacy.
I grew up listening to stories of survival under Nazi occupation. Oswiecim-Auschwitz was frequently the center of our table conversation with many friends-survivors recalling their stories of survival.
When I look back, I can see that both of my parents suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a term not known at that time. My mother, although highly devoted to us children and our father, frequently cried at night. She missed her family and was feeling very much alone. She was the only survivor in her family. She had no support from anyone around except my dad and a few friends-survivors of Auschwitz. She frequently complained to all of us about God being unfair and questioning justice in this world. She had nightmares about her traumatic experience in the war. For a while, she gave talks in grade schools, where she talked about her imprisonment in Auschwitz. That was very healing.
She had frequent debilitating headaches. I remember when she went to see a regular physician in Gdynia, and the doctor threw her out of his office, claiming she made up all her symptoms. She did not look “sick” to him; she was a beautiful woman who dressed very fashionably and you could say she stood out from the crowd. The atrocities she experienced in the war did not reflect on her face. She always tried to cover up her tattooed Auschwitz prisoner number. Consequently, for the next 30 years, she received no treatment for any of her symptoms. Even as a young girl, I knew that doctor was wrong. Nowadays, his actions would be the basis for a medical malpractice suit. Not only did my mother have extremely high blood pressure, she had one deformed kidney and needed support coping with the trauma she experienced in the war. Thirty years after the war, after immigrating to the U.S., doctors discovered her kidney abnormality and high blood pressure. They concluded that most probably the deformed kidney was the result of the criminal experiments she endured in Auschwitz. For the first time in 30 years my mother received the necessary treatment.
My father was a highly religious man. I knew his faith helped him cope with the trauma of Auschwitz and the persecution from the communists. He wanted to shelter us from experiencing that persecution, but once in a while he would come home after an interrogation by communists extremely sad and stressed out. But a few hours later he would regain his strength. My mother, exhausted by the experience, would ask him sometimes to join the communist party so our life would be easier. She knew what his answer would be every time: “No. I am not joining these clowns and I will never be one of them.” Sometimes my mother would ask that same question and laugh. She knew what the answer would be.
My father had symptoms of high blood pressure, severe headaches, but he never complained. I remember seeing his face extremely red. Medical help did not come to him in time. I attribute his premature death to these symptoms, which were directly related to the traumatic experiences during the war and after.
My mother, Leokadia, nicknamed Lila, was born in Kielce to a railroad engineer, and her mother was a homemaker. One of 5 children, Lila was a happy girl, surrounded by a loving family, and an excellent student in grade school. Her aspirations were high: high school, and then college, which was quite an aspiration for those times. I believe she would have been very successful, if not for the war.
It was September 1939 when the war broke out. My mother had just turned 15. A curfew was imposed on Kielce citizens. My mother reflected on those times as times of fear, uncertainty, and hunger. There were roundups on the street where Polish citizens were randomly captured and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp 50 kilometers west of Krakow. The Gestapo also appeared on streets, randomly stopping citizens. There was a shortage of food in the city. My mother recalled the day she and her mother walked to a nearby farmer and bought some potatoes and vegetables for which they spent hours wheeling home on a small cart, an exhausting trip, but necessary to feed the family. They were almost home, only one street over, and they turned, and there was a Gestapo in front of them. He confiscated the load. They were lucky he let them go. Her mother cried the whole day after. They had no money left, and nothing to feed the family with. Winter was coming as was the severe cold south east Poland was known for.
Lila had 3 brothers and one sister. As soon as the war broke out, the 2 older brothers, Tadeusz and Jerzy, joined the Underground resistance, and then later, in the Kielce woods, Armia Krajowa (AK), the Home Army. Armia Krajowa was a model for heroic resistance against the German occupation, but was a sore point for the Soviets who were moving from the east to take over Poland. The Soviets saw the Underground as the enemy, as AK fought for the real independence of Poland, independence from any oppressors. The Soviet propaganda after the war was meant to attack the Underground, AK (Home Army) and those that sympathized with them. The heroes fighting in the woods were persecuted and imprisoned.
My whole family’s involvement in the fight for independence did not surprise me; they were very patriotic. For belonging to AK, my mother and her surviving youngest brother were persecuted after the war by the communists.
The brothers would stop by home once in a while, to get supplies of food and to exchange news from the underground. Their activities in the Underground were described in a book published after the war entitled Chlopcy Barabasza (Barabasz’s Boys). Their leader's pseudonym was Barabasz, and the division’s name in which the brothers fought was “Wilki” (“Wolves”). Both brothers' deaths in the woods of Kielce during partisan resistance were described in that book as well. The partisans resisted the Gestapo in acts of resistance – bombing train tracks and bridges used by the Gestapo, destroying enemy supplies, organizing different actions against the enemy, and much more.
Lila was still living at home at this time, but served as a courier with a pseudonym “Veritas,” relaying information between the Underground and the partizans. She participated in different actions organized by the Underground.
Though it was forbidden by German authorities to have a radio at home, Lila's father hid one, and was able to listen to news from unoccupied Europe.
All these activities in the Bialek family were reported to Gestapo by the Polish traitor, Fialkowski, who was their neighbor. Fialkowski was responsible for many Polish lives in Kielce.
In the middle of night, the Germans came to the Bialek home. They first took my mother’s father, Jan, and interrogated him in the Pinczow prison. After being tortured, he died in December of1943 either in the prison or on the way to Auschwitz. After that, they came to my mother’s mother, Anna. Lila went instead and told the Germans she was Anna. Five months after the arrest, the Germans realized the mistake, and released Lila. Anna, was arrested, and transported to prison in Radom. From the prison in Radom, she was transported on 29 July 1943 to Auschwitz, with the transport Warsaw-Kielce-Radom-Sandomierz. She was given prisoner number 50608 with a P, political prisoner. Later, Lila met her in Auschwitz. Lila's mother lasted in Auschwitz for three months; she died of typhus on 6 December 1943.
Lila was left alone at home with her younger sister Maria, nicknamed Mucka, and youngest brother, Jan, nicknamed Januszek. In order to support the family, Lila took a job in the firm Troicki and Co. in Kielce. In the meantime, her sister Mucka was arrested in a street roundup in Kielce and transported to Germany where she was used as a forced laborer on a farm. She tried to escape, was captured and transported to Auschwitz. She was given the prisoner number 74888, and a P for political prisoner. She died at Auschwitz on 13 July 1944. My mother met her there, and witnessed her death.
Lila was arrested and transported to Auschwitz on 12 August 1943 with the transport Warsaw-Kielce-Radom-Sadomierz. Her prisoner number was 55079, and she was also designated with a P for political prisoner.
The youngest brother, Januszek, who just turned 9, ran to the Kielce woods and joined the partizans. He was very young, and the partizans were hesitant to accept him; he had no choice, as there was no one left at home. He fought with the partizans until the end of the war.
Life was very hard for him. After the war, he struggled for many years with his traumatic experience, robbed off his childhood. He fought against communist regime and was beaten and imprisoned by the communists many times. He died shortly after the war, a broken man.
My mother lost everyone in her family; she was the only survivor.
My father grew up on a farm outside Krakow. His family owned several hectares of land. His parents and sister survived the war in that village.
My father, Dobroslaw – or Doniek, as he was called – was an excellent student, and was already in college in Krakow living in a dormitory. When war broke out, he was an editor of a resistance newspaper. He eluded capture for several months. Unfortunately, he was eventually arrested and sent on a train to Oswiecim-Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was plagued by numerous epidemics. There was constant terror, starvation, and cold. There was stench. Lila was selected in Auschwitz for criminal medical experiments, which she recalled were performed by Klauberg, a pseudo physician in Oswiecim. One of her kidneys was destroyed as a result of the criminal experiments. She was given injections and subsequently checked for symptoms. After the injections, she would get sick. There were many scars left on her body. My mother barely survived on the meek rations of bread and soup. She would tell me how sometimes her ration was stolen by other prisoners and she would have nothing to eat. Even when sick, Lila was assigned to slave labor – clearing the area surrounding the camp, carrying stones, building new structures, etc. It was hard labor and the guards did not allow anyone to slow down. The conditions were extreme: bunks were very hard; there was no heat, extreme cold in winter and hot, suffocating summer, together with starvation, terror and extreme stench. The air was filled with stench of dead, decomposing bodies and stench from the crematorium. With starvation, destructive living conditions, a lack of hygiene, exhaustion, and epidemics of typhus, there were daily deaths. There were daily executions as well at the Death Wall, and at places where they performed slave labor, prisoners were hung at roll-call, put to death by lethal injection in camp “clinics,” and killed in gas chambers. Prisoners were attacked by guards and their dogs, trained to kill. It amazes me that my parents survived the ordeal.
Life had no value. One had to be incredibly strong to endure all this and survive.
My mother met many Polish people there – Polish intelligentsia and nobility alike, who survived Auschwitz with her. Later, after the war, she kept close contact with. For instance Mrs. Adela (Ada) Stadnicka, who frequently helped my mother, by getting her extra ration of food, and in other ways. Other people there were writers and poets who, after the war visited our home, and wrote poems for our family. Some of those poems were included in my mother’s book, Bliskie sercu Polaka piesni i piosenki. Fortunately, Auschwitz prisoners were allowed to receive food packages. Lila’s neighbor in Kielce, Mrs. Wera Farkas, sent her several food packages, which helped my mother survive the camp. After the war, my mother frequently met with Wera Farkas and Kazia Fraczak (Kazia was Wera’s sister or cousin). Wera had one daughter, Ewa, a beautiful girl at that time, who became a pharmacist. They spent many summers at our house in Gdynia. Unfortunately, Wera experienced two big tragedies in her life: first her husband and then her beautiful daughter died. I wish I could get in touch with Ewa’s son, and tell him about his family.
On 29 October 1944, Lila was transferred from Auschwitz to Ravensbruck, and later to Finnover Ammunition Company, located near Berlin, where she performed labor for the Germans.
My father got sick almost immediately after being transported to Auschwitz. He told me that at one point he could not get up from his bunk, and was unconscious for a long time. He could still hear other people around him commenting about his condition, saying “he is not going to make it. He is a Muzulman” (“Muzulman” was a term used in Auschwitz for people who were dying). His food rations were taken by other prisoners. My father's faith played significant role in his survival. His spirit was very strong and was never broken. I frequently think about his survival, which has helped me cope with my own problems in life, which became insignificant in comparison.
My parents paid the ultimate price.
My mother's entire family perished in prison, Auschwitz, and in the Kielce woods, fighting for independence.
Both of my parents paid heavy price with their health. At fifteen and sixteen, their childhood was stolen from them. They suffered unlawful imprisonment, were treated inhumanely, robbed off their dignity, beaten, attacked by guard dogs, injected diseases and forced to endure criminal medical experiments, suffered from exposure, malnutrition, lived in constant fear, and forced to perform labor. All of this caused their health to deteriorate. It is hard to believe that a human being could survive all this.
After the war, both of my parents spent two years in Sweden. They were transported there during the war by the Swedish Red Cross, thanks to the actions of count Folke Bernadotte, who negotiated the release of 31,000 prisoners. They turned down the opportunity to stay in Sweden permanently. They wanted to come back to Poland and be part of building the new, free post war country. Unfortunately, for years they were persecuted, this time by communists for their involvement in AK during the war and for being outwardly anti-communists. My father was especially persecuted after the war because he refused to belong to the communist party although he held an upper management position due to his high qualifications. He was also an outspoken opponent of the communist regime. Both of my parents struggled with the trauma of the war and post war persecution for the rest of their lives.
I look at the miserable man who asked me if my mother was Jewish, thinking “What difference does it make? Is that all you are interested in knowing? Do you know what Auschwitz was about and how many Polish people perished there just because they were Polish? Do you know what a miracle it was if somebody survived? Do you know what price my family paid so you could go to school and be free to speak Polish, be free to do what you want to do in your life?”
We must not forget what happened to Polish people imprisoned in Auschwitz.
We must not forget what price Polish people paid simply because they were Polish.
68 years have passed since the end of the war. Polish Auschwitz survivors, the witnesses to the atrocities of the camp, are dying, one after another.
We must make sure that everyone who learns about Auschwitz will perpetuate the knowledge about it and memory of the Polish victims who perished, and those who survived. Let’s pass this knowledge to the next generation.
The generation that sacrificed their lives deserves our utmost respect and recognition. Their absence must be a reminder to us about the war and its atrocities.
Here are a few facts regarding concentration camp Auschwitz-Oswiecim:
This is the most known death camp, because of its size, number of victims and crimes that were committed. It was the largest center for mass extermination. The Nazis transported to Auschwitz over 1,100,000 Jews, 150,000 Poles, mostly political prisoners, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and 25,000 prisoners of other nationalities. Located 50 kilometers west of Krakow, it was chosen because of 20 prewar barracks that already existed there. That was Auschwitz I. The first transport in 1940 consisted of 728 Poles from Tarnow prison. The expansion started almost immediately in order to hold the constantly growing number of prisoners. The new buildings were erected by prisoners and second floor added to original 1-story buildings. Between 1941 and 1942 Birkenau was built, also known as Auschwitz II. Birkenau, or Brzezinka, was located 3 km from Oswiecim. This was the largest camp in the whole Nazi camp system; it held the largest number of prisoners and covered the largest area.
Birkenau was the place where most people died. Mass extermination was perfected there. Four buildings contained gas chambers and furnaces: crematoria II, III, IV, V, and 2 provisional gas chambers installed in houses confiscated from original Polish residents, gas chambers I and II, known as little white house and little red house. Birkenau had separate camps for women and men. There was a quarantine camp for newly arrived prisoners, the “hospital camp,” where most of the criminal experiments were performed, and a separate part of the camp that was used for sorting out the property taken from prisoners. Auschwitz III was created in 1942, consisting of a sub-camp called Buna. This was a forced labor camp that produced synthetic rubber and fuel.
Auschwitz I held the famous camp gate with a cynical slogan above: “Work makes you free.” Despite this inscription, work, or forced labor under extreme conditions, was one of the methods used to eliminate prisoners by breaking them down. Work was never a way to gain freedom. The Auschwitz II gate was called by prisoners “the Gate of Death,” because most of the gas chambers and crematoria were located there.
Both Auschwitz I and II were surrounded by electrified wire.