Village Life for Polish Christians During WWII

 

Americans who descend from Polish immigrants often have limited or no knowledge of their families who were left behind. Those of us who have found the parish, ancestors’ names, and dates are often missing the life stories of not only their ancestors but those of the families who did not immigrate. An understanding of their struggles helps us to comprehend the worries of our now deceased grandparents, especially when we learn what their families went through during the Second World War.

Most Polish Americans descend from the peasant class, and it is likely their families remained in the villages and small towns. Their wartime experience was vastly different than the Poles who lived in larger cities such as Warsaw and Krakow. Unfortunately, much of our information comes from romanticized movies and novels that place a compelling story over reality and facts.

During my research for my newly released historical novel, War and Resistance in the Wilderness, I visited Poland three times and interviewed numerous Polish priests and historians, and my relatives who still live in the villages. Their collective memory of WWII gave me insight into the Poles’ struggles, daily lives, and their efforts to provide food, shelter, and assistance to the persecuted Jewish population and compelling reasons why they couldn’t.

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Nazi Germans forcing Polish peasants from their homes for the expansion of Camp Heidelager in 1941.

The Polish people throughout the country suffered deliberate targeting by the Germans with almost every city, town, or village affected by random raids and massacres.  My relatives in the wilderness villages of Niwiska and Trzesn in southeastern Poland were at mass on Sunday, Sept 3rd, when German gunfire exploded around the peaceful church while planes dropped their bombs.

My two sets of grandparents were poor farmers who lived in these adjoining wilderness villages that would be swallowed up by the Germans to build Camp Heidelager, the largest SS training camp outside of Germany. Soon after the occupation, every square inch of the village and its population were analyzed to determine their usefulness to the Reich. Virtually everyone over age fourteen became a forced laborer as the Germans needed cooks, servants, carpenters, and foresters to build their massive military complex. Schooling was halted for a time, but when it resumed, the children learned only enough to be good workers for the Germans. Village life for everyone was especially difficult with the Gestapo in their backyard.

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Camp Heidelager in Occupied Poland during WWII

The younger people were routinely rounded up, usually at church on Sunday, to be sent as forced laborers in German factories or as farmworkers. The villagers’ farms were confiscated, and the locals had to work on these now German properties. They received a very small wage and were given ration coupons.

The food situation was perilous and unpredictable. Some farmers who were allowed to remain in their homes were permitted a sustenance garden, and one milk cow and horse. Of course, even a low-ranking German could confiscate any possession they wished. Most livestock had to be turned over to the German farms, and the unauthorized slaughter of farm animals often resulted in immediate death. The chickens’ egg production was also put on a German schedule. Desperate farmers bought eggs from the black market if their chickens had a bad week.

Bread, potatoes, cabbage, and beets were the staples of their diet. More desirable foods would have been turned over to the Germans to meet the family’s assigned quota. Chicken or other meats would have been a rare treat. In one story, my great aunt Zofia, who was the cook on a German farm, spilled the pot of Zurek that was the worker’s breakfast. Everyone went to work hungry that day. Zofia was also a helpful person to know because Anna Grabiec reported that Zofia gave her extra food to ward off near starvation. I was so pleased to see that Anna’s letters mentioned my great grandmother, Jadwiga and her family as very kind people.

It was Hitler’s intention to have Poland serve as Germany’s breadbasket by colonizing their farmlands with German farmers. The area within Germany was to be the industrial area of the Reich. When Hitler’s long-term goal was accomplished, the next item on his agenda was the complete extinction of the Polish people. The Germans allotted their civilian population a daily 2,400 calories, but Poles were allotted 600. The 1941 statistics show this not so subtle annihilation began in the early years of the war. My distant relative, Anna Grabiec, reported her mother’s death was due to starvation during the war. Life was cruel, and many were close to starvation. In the villages, the homes during the war were much like their ancestors. Houses typically had thatched or tin roofs, clay floors, and huge ceramic ovens. Most had one or two rooms with rafters for the children’s sleeping quarters. Many somber religious pictures graced the walls with dried herbs and flowers mixed in for decoration.

My great grandparents, Andrzej and Józefa Cudecki, were forced out of their home in Trzesn when the Germans decided to expand Camp Heidelager. Most villagers were given a few days to gather their belongings and leave the area. Where they went was of no concern to the Germans who provided no assistance. Without any means of communication, most put their most important possessions on a cart and in sacks and trudged to a distant village of some relative. The weary and desperate people hoped their siblings or cousins would find room for them in their small, clay floor home with a thatched roof.

Andrzej Cudecki

Andrzej and Jozefa Cudecki before WWII

Andrzej had been the mayor of Trzesn but was still a poor man. He and a few others from his village found abandoned homes in a Jewish settlement in Radomysl Wilki and lived there for most of the war. Life must have been desperate for his family because his grandson was shot and killed by a German in a beet field. His family was starving, and the sixteen-year-old was only trying to assist his family. After his wife died in 1943, Andrzej returned to Trzesn to live with his son at a dilapidated manor house in his village. Andrzej’s daughter’s family left that home in Radomysl after the war when the Jewish owner returned to claim his property.

Jadwiga Bryk in Poland

My Great Grandmother Jadwiga in front of her home in Niwiska, Poland

My other great grandmother, Jadwiga Bryk, was a widow who had an adult son and two adult daughters with sons and no husbands. They all lived with her in a very small home across from the Church of St. Nicholas. Much to my surprise, they were allowed to stay in their home. My theory is they were likely cooks and servants at the local manor house, which was turned into Gestapo headquarters and home for the chief SS officers. Also, any siblings or cousins from her birth village or Blizna were evacuated at the beginning of the war, so she had no one to turn to. Everyone had to serve the Reich, one way or another.

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Hupka Manor House (Gestapo Headquarters during WWII)

The Germans forced Father Jan Kurek to abandon St. Nicholas church in Niwiska, and it sat unoccupied with its windows and metal bells buried in the cemetery.  The priest sometimes made valiant attempts to conduct mass in an abandoned schoolhouse, but mostly had to serve his parishioners in their homes by commuting on a worn bicycle.

Your relatives in the rural villages of WWII Poland would have had similar experiences. Part Two of this series will describe the relationship between the Jews and the Catholic Poles and the various ways many Polish people helped to save the Jews who sought refuge in the countryside. Part Three will describe life in the larger cities of Poland during the War.

War and Resistance in the Wilderness is the story of these real people who endured six years living in Camp Heidelager, referred to as “Camp Wilderness” by Hitler. It is available in print or ebook on Amazon.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/1689779586

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My Grandparents’ $5.00 Gift

 

My Polish immigrant grandparents who immigrated around 1906 sent $5 twice a year to thirteen sets of families they left behind in Poland. The Polish cousins who told me this story didn’t mention the years but emphasized how this gift helped them get through some very desperate times. The entire family in this small Polish village was severely impacted by the two world wars, the worldwide depression, and then the decades behind the Iron Curtain. A few of their oldest siblings also immigrated, but the immigration act of 1924 made coming to America almost impossible for most Central and Eastern Europeans. The law discriminated in favor of those immigrants who came from Northern and Western Europe. The younger siblings were forced to stay behind in the villages and work as poor farmers.

My great-grandmother Jadwiga, a widow in Poland, born in 1865.

 

My Polish cousins whom I met on two trips in 2016 and 2018 remember the stories of my grandparents’ generosity to this day−a hundred years later! Like the scarf my grandfather sent to my cousin, the stories were handed down through the generations.

Scarf my grandparents sent to my cousin Maria

My cousins were shocked when I told them my grandparents, in my opinion, were rather poor.  They assumed my grandparents had become rich Americans. They owned their own house, but my grandfather, according to the 1940 census was a floor sweeper at a local steel mill. He became a crane operator in later years.

A family history book I wrote about my grandparents’ family history

My cousins’ perceptions made me wonder how much this $10 a year gift was worth in today’s dollars, so I did some research.

$10 a year in today’s dollars* Total to 13 families
1910 $258 $3,354.00
1920 $122.56 $1593.28
1930 $146.78 $1898.00
1940 $175.08 $2276.04
1950 $101.70 $1322.10

*From US CPI index

Those are pretty hefty sums of money, but then consider how much more they would have been worth in a depressed economy such as Poland’s during these decades. In addition, my grandparents sent medicines and clothing. I remember my First Communion dress being sent. It probably was sold on the black market for more necessary items.

Zofia, an elderly cousin who was about twenty during WWII, told me a poignant story that brought tears to my eyes. After the war, the villagers who had to evacuate their homes in 1942 were allowed back in the village. Zofia had only one tattered and worn dress, but my grandparents sent her some printed fabric. This is what she said: “Because of your grandparents’ gift, I made some nice printed dresses for myself, and I was the prettiest girl in the village. A nice man asked me to marry him, and it was all because of your grandparent’s gift of that fabric!”

My visit with Zofia in 2016

I remember her telling me that story with the same seriousness as she would have related any other war story. The end result of this gift was a good marriage, and that was a fact!

Those of us with such generous immigrant ancestors should be so proud!

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation-Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

This article has been modified from one of the chapters in my book Travel Back to Your Roots which is available on Amazon. The book describes how to begin genealogy for your immigrant ancestors, how to research and find records in Europe,  and how to achieve your end goal of traveling to Europe to visit their birthplace and even meet long lost cousins!  I did it and want to show others that it isn’t impossible, even if you did not inherit any information about your ancestors.

Three Sets of Cousins Mark and Donna Found and Then  Met in Sweden and Poland in 2014 and 2016

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation

Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

Traveling to Europe doesn’t have to be expensive, and the internet allows you to be your own travel agent. For those who are not tech savvy, an agent might be an option, but they typically will provide mainstream and obvious options. Independent travelers will find less expensive alternatives online that will make the trip more customized.

The ideal travel months for inexpensive European travel are just before and after summer vacation months. The prices and weather are likely more favorable, and the traveler has fewer people with whom to compete. Also, many European hotels do not have air-conditioning, and some that do will not allow the guest to control the settings. The popular areas around the Mediterranean in July and August are crowded, warm, and come with premium prices. Also, August is historically the month when many Europeans travel and you will have stiff competition.

You have two options to get to Europe: a round trip flight or a one-way transatlantic cruise with a one-way flight. If you have a flexible schedule and have three to four weeks for your trip, consider booking a transatlantic cruise for your journey to or from Europe.

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The Fascinating History of Polish Honey

Honey produced in Poland has always been esteemed as a type of liquid gold. Historically, many bee colonies were under control of the royal landowners. Stealing honey from their estates was often met with death on the gallows.  Destroying an entire colony of bees, even if they belonged to the accused, resulted in an unimaginable punishment: evisceration. The person would “be handed over to the executioner, who shall take out the entrails and wind them round the tree in which the bees were willfully destroyed and shall afterwards hang him on the same tree.”[1]


A Polish beekeeper from 1870

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Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 24: Nominating Polish Christians for the “Righteous Among the Nations” Award- I Need Your Help!

Monday, April 24, 2017 is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I am in the process of completing the application for two Polish people to posthumously receive the “Righteous Among the Nations” award from Yad Yeshem in Israel. This distinction is awarded to gentiles who assisted Jews during the Holocaust. Please read the story and about the ways you can assist so the application and testimony would be favorably received by the committee. Maybe next year in Jerusalem?

A Tree is Planted in Israel for Each Recipient of the Award

The research for my next historical novel led me to a little-known story about a Catholic priest and a widow only known as “Pani Kotulova.” The details of their kindness and bravery took place in the small town of Kolbuszowa in 1942. Father Antoni Dunajecki, the priest from the town’s church and Pani (Mrs.) Kotulova” are the two rescuers of Norman Salsitz, a young Jewish man. Salsitz wrote about these courageous people in his remarkable book “A Jewish Boyhood in Poland: Remembering Kolbuszowa.”

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What the Son Wishes to Forget the Grandson Wishes to Remember: Why Our Ancestors Didn’t Talk About Their Past (Me Too)

As genealogists and family historians, we often ponder why our ancestors didn’t tell us much about their past or the old country. Our lament as grandchildren is we neglected to ask our grandparents and parents questions about which we now care so deeply.

In my senior years, I now have a laundry list of questions that should have been asked. What were the reasons you came to America, what was life like in your village, how much schooling did you have, what did your house look like? etc. Oh, if we could only have them in our lives for just a week so that we could uncover all the mysteries and stories that died with them.

I “get it” now. If there is blame to be placed, it likely is on my shoulders. It wasn’t until I became an empty nester that I began to genuinely care about my heritage. My interests centered on me during my younger years, a common theme of those interested in family history. We probably sat on the couch in our grandparents’ living rooms just waiting to go home. Continue reading

Niwiska and Blizna during World War II (part two)

Niwiska World War II

The village of Niwiska is surrounded by the wild Sandomierz Forests and provided great strategic significance in World War II. The Nazis overtook the area and evacuated Niwiska and Blizna to test their experimental V-1 and V-2 missiles. The goal was to shift the balance of power with these new weapons. The seclusion of the forests made it a perfect location for such tests.  This isolation also led refugees and partisans to the Niwiska forests for a place to hide and conduct subversive activities.

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Woods near Niwiska

Many of the villagers were in church when the first Nazi bombs struck. They were listening to Father Kurek’s homily and were startled by these initial explosions.  Panic broke out, and the parishioners stumbled over one another as they fled.

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