What war really feels like – excerpts from ‘unUSUAL stories’ – an ongoing Polish oral history project

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Content-Author: Ingolf Seidel

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Natalia Zapór studies at Warsaw's University Department of Central and East European Intercultural Studies. She works in Central and Eastern Europe Partnership Foundation as one of project coordinators. Her interests in work and studies are Ukrainian culture, polish borderland's history and culture, and history of political repressions in the Soviet Union.

We all have elders around us. And even if we remember to spend time with them, take care of them if needed and talk to them about our everyday lives, we often forget to ask and listen. For years I’ve been thinking about asking my grandparents to tell me their and my family’s story, but there was always something more important to do. I’m sure I’m not alone in this – we always think there’s more time. It was only when I got interested in the growing popularity of ‘oral history’ that I decided to write down my elder’s memories. I came to understand the importance of talking about the most significant historical events from a personal view. They told me the most amazing and interesting stories. Stories they thought weren’t important at all. ‘We are simple people, how could we tell you anything interesting?’ – I heard. But then we talked for hours, days.  About sad and happy memories, about their families, about marriages, deaths, work, about how their children and grandchildren were born, about people who touched their lives…  All the ‘simple’ things in life that went on while our world was changing so much. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be able to tell their stories myself. I encouraged my friends to listen to their families, they encouraged their friends and that’s how our project started. We talk to our elders about everything they think is important and while doing that we have the privilege to share it and learn how thing’s we don’t remember looked from their perspective. Suddenly, the things we learned about in school and university –  instead of being just photos, dates and history facts we had at an exam – come to life. It becomes personal and emotional. One of the most emotional and vivid memories are war memories. I would like to share with you II World War memories of three different people. In September 1939, they or their parents lived in different places within the borders of the Second Polish Republic and our interviewees were no older than 5. 

      LVIV – within Polish borders in 1939, now one of biggest Ukrainian cities. Before the war inhabited by Ukrainians, Poles and Jews; during wartime it’s streets run red with blood. It was occupied by the Soviet Army, the German Army and then the Soviet Army again, and was the place of many battles and conflicts of ethnic origin.

“I was born in Lviv in 1936. I was almost 4 years old when the war started. I was a little girl, so I don’t remember much. Our parents tried to protect us. We didn’t know what occupation was, but I remember what it felt like. I remember us hiding in the basement where grandpa used to keep potatoes. I remember vividly the smell of this basement, the smell of mould. I think it was during bombings. I also remember the sound of soldiers’ boots on the wooden stairs of our building.

My uncles – my father’s brothers – were taken by the Red Army. They were exiled to Siberia. My father was visiting them at their place when Soviet soldiers came. They took them and my father somehow managed to escape through the window. When they had orders to take people who lived under a given address, they took everyone, no matter if you lived there or not. He saved himself when he escaped through that window, because they would have taken him too. Then he was fighting, he was in the 14th Jazlowiec Ulan Regiment, the cavalry. They called him to battle and he went on his horse. He came back on foot –  I don’t know how he did it because my parents weren’t telling us much. They had lived through hell, people were murdering each other in Lviv. Someplace near us was a prison. It was in a big tenement house. Both Russian and German soldiers were murdering and shooting people there. They were throwing corpses into basements. And the situation was so severe that people started to hate each other and started to rat on each other. Poles informed on Ukrainians, Ukrainians informed on Jews, Jews informed on Poles, etc. 

 I remember when German soldiers came to our house. My grandpa had a radio and it was prohibited to have a radio. He could go to jail or get shot for having such a simple thing. We were so scared, but I remember that the soldiers went through our things and didn’t find it. I don’t know where he hid it. I remember that my parents sold our things for food. Once my dad took my mom’s beautiful fox fur, went to the countryside and sold it for a sack of potatoes. A sack of potatoes was worth more than fur then.

My parents weren’t talking with us much, they were scared that we would let something slip and bring tragic consequences to the whole family. My mom never talked about what happened in Lviv during the war. I vividly remember our street. There was a small cinema somewhere close and we watched movies with my sister. Once, we watched a movie in which there was this ‘monster’ called ‘kaschei’, we were scared of it for a long, long time. I rewatched this movie when I was an adult and found out that it was just a man in uniform with bones painted on it. It’s more funny than scary, but kids are silly and easily scared. 

We lived close to the center of Lviv. My mom took me there once and there was a big commotion. Germans had shot a Jewish woman, just like that, in broad daylight. Mom closed my eyes so I wouldn’t look, but for a brief moment I saw this dead woman laying on the pavement. She had beautiful long black hair.

We fled Lviv in 1946, as soon as it was possible. My father was scared that the communists would exile him to Siberia, just like it happened to most Polish Army soldiers.” 

       WIZNA – A small town in eastern Poland situated by the Narew river. The Battle of Wizna, fought between 7th and 10th September 1939, is known as the Polish Thermopylae. Despite the heroism of Polish soldiers, it’s also one of the most tragic battles and shows how late and chaotic the Polish government was with preparing the defense. Almost 900 Jews lived in Wizna before the war – only few of them survived the Holocaust.

“I was born in 1934 near Wizna. My parents had a big beautiful farm. They were quite wealthy for farmers, we even hired help – they worked in our house and in the fields. I remember them, they were really nice people. My father was a fisherman too, our house was situated on a river bank and we had ponds. My parents had Jewish friends, I vaguely remember them, but each Sunday they were visiting and buying fish from my dad. When the war started my mom asked me to carry a small basket of food to the field and leave it by a big rock. She told me it was for my father, but I think it was for my parent’s Jewish friends. It was near a forest and my father wasn’t working that field at the time. I carried the basket to the field for a week or so, and then one day she  just didn’t ask me and never spoke about them again. I don’t know what happened to them, but I think they got caught.

German soldiers came to Wizna before the whole front came – they were there to prepare everything for the battle. Our land and a part of our house was taken from us and I remember soldiers setting a field kitchen in our orchard, we could see it from our windows. One day I went there to pick some apples, I was a kid and didn’t understand what the danger was. It was the beginning of September, so the fruits were beautiful and red. When I was reaching for the apples I heard shouting. One of the soldiers saw me and wanted to shoot me, he was aiming at me with a rifle, but his commander saw it and stopped him. Then the commander took me to my father. I think he was a Volksdeutsche, because he was speaking very good Polish but with a German accent. He told my Dad to keep an eye on me, because the other guy (the one that tried to shoot me) is crazy and could’ve killed me.

One day everyone started to pack – someone told us that we should run. We were late. To stop the German front, Polish soldiers blew up the only bridge there was. My nanny ran with my little brother before that. When the planes started to fly above our heads, my mom told her to take him and run, no matter what. We found them sometime after, but I don’t remember how and where.

The only way was to go through the river. Dad took the horses first, Germans caught him, but he told them that he’s going to the field to work, and somehow, they believed him. I think maybe he just paid them. Then he came back for us and we crossed the river in boats. I just remember that we were running with some neighbours and family and the Germans caught us again. They rounded us up on a small hill and we were standing there for hours in the sun. Everyone thought that they will kill us, but suddenly they decided to let us go. I don’t remember everything, after that I remember only bits of it. We were hiding in a forest for days. Then we found a small cabin – it was our family and my mom’s cousins’ family, so there was a lot of us. We slept there for days, but we had fleas, because we took dogs with us. There were two big dogs. It was impossible to sleep with those fleas, so one night me and my brothers decided to sleep in a small stead near the cabin. We were kids and we didn’t know that Polish partisans were sneaking into that stead to sleep. They got really scared and angry when they saw us, and told my father that we can’t sleep there, cause they could’ve shot us thinking we were German soldiers. 

We had to run again, and dad found a small house. It was empty, I think Jews used to live there before. There was nothing there – no heating, no kitchen, we had no food, no wood, nothing. It was near a Red Army military camp, my father worked there in a bakery. Once a week he was bringing us some bread. It looked awful, but we were so hungry that it tasted amazing – I still remember the taste. 

The Red Army was passing through, going to the front. I remember hundreds of boots walking, and an orchestra in front. And what an orchestra it was! They played such joyful music and the soldiers walked, walked and walked. One of them stopped next to us. He gave my mother two tin cups, he looked at me and said that he left a small girl like me at home. He left us his cups cause he was sure that he’s going to die. I wonder if he ever saw his daughter again. 

When we came back after the war I was much older. Our house was ruined, everything around us was burned to the ground, the riverbank was full of landmines. People were throwing rocks at them to disarm them. Once I went with my friend on a walk and we found dozens of corpses rotting nearby. They were Red Army soldiers. During the war our parents didn’t talk to us much about what’s happening and I was too small to understand anyway. I was scared sometimes, but I thought it’s something natural. That life should look like that. When we were escaping, my dad buried the most valuable things in our yard. When we came back after the war, we found out that our house was bombed and we lost everything, except for what we took while running. I’m still sad about the family photos we lost due to the bombing. I would love to show my grandkids what my grandparents looked like.”

       NOWA SŁUPIA – a small town in western Poland near Kielce. During wartime, occupied by the German Army from 1939. A ghetto was established in Nowa Słupia in 1941, where more than 2000 people were relocated. All of them died in the Treblinka death camp in 1942. Before 1943 the population of Nowa Słupia had a population of over 3300 people – after the war, it dropped to 1350.

“I don’t remember 1993 because I was born in 1942, but I remember some of my parent’s stories and the end of the war. It was a big blow for Poland, the German and Soviet attacks. Poland had just started to grow and rebuild itself. My parents were from a small village near Kielce, in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains. A few years before the war, they moved to Warsaw to find a good job and make a better life for themselves and their families. During the war they had to move back to the country...        

I was my parent’s first son. I was born on the day when in Nowa Słupia – my parents home village – German soldiers hanged twenty men. The story was that two guys, one Polish and one German, were interested in one girl. And that the Polish guy killed the German guy out of jealousy. As revenge, German soldiers caught twenty random men and hanged them on the gallows in the middle of the town square. My dad’s brother-in-law was killed that day – that’s why I know this story. My parents told me that German soldiers often hanged people and they used to make the whole village look at it to scare everyone. 

My mom’s cousin was a very wealthy farmer and he had a Jewish friend who was wealthy as well. I think he was a merchant. This friend left him his jewelry and some dollars for safekeeping if he or his family ever come back. They never came back – their belongings outlasted them. I think they were taken to a concentration camp, but my parents never talked about that.

I remember that for a long time after the war there was a small German cemetery in a forest nearby. Soldiers who died in the area or were killed in the battle were buried there. Our neighbour, a lonely mother, had a daughter born during the war. Before she was born, a German soldier was visiting her at night. Everyone knew that little girl was his daughter. When we were kids my friend used to take her to this German cemetery, laugh and say: here’s your father’s grave, go and kiss the cross. She was very little then, she was like 4 or 5 years old and didn’t understand much. She kissed the cross, even though her father was alive and went back to Germany. I think she didn’t know that. Somehow, it stuck in my memory. Also, kids are kind of cruel and don’t understand much – they repeat after adults. Our parents didn’t like those who were friendly to the Germans or to the Soviets during the war. But no matter what adults were saying and no matter the stupid things we were doing, we liked her very much. We used to play with bullets – bullets and rifles where everywhere after the war. We had no toys, so the best, funniest game was to make the bullets go off by throwing them into the fire.” 

Keep in mind that stories presented above are real people’s memories, they are not objective and cannot be treated as historical facts. We do not interfere in the words of interviewees, we only correct them if necessary to make the text understandable. We try to be as true to what they said as possible. Our project is created by young people of different ancestry and beliefs to promote intergenerational communication and oral history. Project run by the Central Eastern Europe Partnership Foundation situated in Warsaw, Poland


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