Life in Polish Cities During the Second World War

Indelible-Warsaw-631

 

   In late September 1939, the deafening roar of war was replaced with ominous silence on the streets of Warsaw. The survivors emerged from their cellars and other hiding places and glanced upward, expecting the hail of bombs and shells to resume their terrible destruction. It was a terrifying scene of utter destruction and tragedy.

  Warsaw, like most Polish cities, had been cut off from the outside world since September 1. Rumors of surrender were whispered about, and the possibility was terrifying.  Soon, the dreadful truth was revealed, and many officers committed suicide when it was clear the people were bitter with the military and now former government.

Seige of Warsaw

German soldiers marched into Warsaw on September 30, 1939, and were soon in complete control. Immediately, work began on removing debris and barricades, extricating corpses from beneath the ruined buildings, and removing the hundreds of dead horses lying in the streets. Restoring transportation, power, gas, and water were the top priorities.

soup kitchen in Warsaw

Soup Kitchen in Warsaw

Food supply was the most immediate and difficult problem, and at first, army field kitchens were used to feed the population. While the presence of the Germans was depressing to the Poles, these two weeks before Himmler’s men took control was relatively peaceful. Continue reading

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.

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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