A simple quern, likely one passed down from her great grandmother, was probably a Polish village woman’s most treasured possession during the brutal years of the Second World War. A quern, or żarna in Polish, is a simple hand mill typically consisting of two circular stones for grinding wheat, rye and oats in flour.
To the Germans, this ordinary object was a threat to their complete control of the population through implementing food quotas. It was immediately outlawed during the first year of occupation, and the villagers had to turn over their querns that were then smashed and burned. To not comply and then later found with a quern resulted in immediate death by shooting or hanging. Even at risk of death, some women refused to hand over their precious quern. They instead hid their querns in the undergrowth of the wilderness forests and in specially dug pits.
My great grandmother, Jadwiga Bryk likely she was one of the few who successfully hid her quern from the nearby SS and played an important role for many people during the Second World War. Jadwiga was mentioned in the letters of Anna Grabiec as a kind person who brought food to the starving forced laborers at a German farm near her home not far from Camp Heidelager in occupied Poland. She also was the person who brought food to Ks Jan Kurek, a priest while he hid from the SS in the roof area of his empty church for six months. Jadwiga lived across the street from the church and knew of his impending arrest. This true story is told in my historical novel “War and Resistance in the Wilderness.”
History of Querns
Querns have been used since ancient times and are seen in folk museums throughout the world. Although most villages and towns in Poland had a miller, the cost of their services and distance made it impractical for the desperately poor villagers of rural Poland. Also, the frequent wars of the 18th and 19th centuries damaged a large number of grain mills in occupied Poland. To prevent starvation, peasant farmers were forced to use a quern to grind grains into a rather rough wheat to make hearty, coarse bread.
For Polish peasants and farmers, the word ‘bread’ is synonymous with food and was mentioned in several of my Polish family’s writings: “They (immigrants) went to America to find bread”, “During the war, we had so little bread.
In Poland, bread is consumed and treated with reverence. In the past, if a piece of bread fell on the ground, it was picked up with reverence, kissed, and used to make the sign of a cross. Some bakers still trace a cross on the bottom of a loaf of bread with a knife before slicing it.
The German occupation and the Home Army during WWII
The mainstays of the typical Polish diet are meat, bread, and potatoes, but the Germans changed that drastically when they occupied Poland in 1939. The occupiers distributed food rations according to ethnicity (Polityka III Rzeszy w okupowanej Posce Vol II 1970).
The Poles in the rural areas fared slightly better than those in the cities because of close access to the products. Meat, chicken and eggs were scarce and likely were sent to the black market if they became available. The German authorities kept detailed accounts of the livestock allowed on the small family plots and tagged the pigs and chicken for accountability. The Germans levied quotas on all types of agricultural projects and some villagers were forced to purchase eggs on the black market to meet this quota if their chickens had a bad week. The unauthorized slaughter of livestock resulted in immediate death.
Bread became even more precious during the war because it was a hearty food that locals could give to the young men in the forests who were part of the Armia Krajowa, or Polish Home Army. These partisans survived primarily on the generosity of villagers who left foods and supplies in regular pick up spots. The partisans knew which homes or barns were occupied by sympathizers and looked for packages hung from trees or in known hiding places near the barn.
The Germans knew courageous Polish partisans were being supplied by locals. Seizing the family’s quern and destroying it meant the woman of the home would be deprived of her primary way of helping the forest partisans. Not only were the village women the “eyes and ears” of the Home Army in the forests, they were also the primary source for the soldiers’ food.
Author’s Note: I was inspired to write this article after I read a newly released book containing the testimonies of the villagers in Niwiska, Poland: Wspomnienia Mieszkancow Niwisk O II Wojnie Swiatowej by Ks. Wieslaw Augustyn and Ks. Antoni Wiech. My great grandmother Jadwiga’s kindness to the starving farm forced laborers is reported in Anna Grabiec’s letters.