Crime no. 2

Alinka Rudnicka – 7 years old, her little brother Stefanek – 10 years old.

The father of these children was deported to Germany at the beginning of the war as a private in the Polish Army – and has not returned to date. Their mother, 28-year old Sabina Rudnicka, was a smuggler. She would go to Małkinia, where her family lived, and bring flour, bread, dairy products, and potatoes, and sell them to earn a living for herself and her family.

Once, however, Sabina hadn’t returned for some time from one of her trips... And suddenly a message came that she had been caught by the Germans in a railway manhunt and was incarcerated in Majdanek near Lublin. Sabina had recently recovered (she had suffered from encephalitis), she had her head bandaged, and it was specified in her papers that she was a mother of little children and her husband was in captivity. None of this mattered for the Germans. Sabina was not released.

Poor Sabina’s mother! She shouldered the burden of supporting two children, and she had three more of her own to care for.

From time to time, some news from the camp would reach us, brought usually by village people who worked in the fields, as they sometimes managed to pick up the scraps of paper dropped by the prisoners as they were being marched off for labor. A dirty scrap of paper would contain the address and a few words: “Mother, remember about the children and pray for me; the roll-call is the worst, we have to stand in the courtyard for two hours with our arms raised.” Such were the messages from Majdanek.

After a few months, Sabina’s mother received a letter written in German. She came to me, asking me to translate it for her. The Gestapo notified Sabina Rudnicka’s mother that her daughter’s things were waiting to be collected. The poor woman sank to the depths of despair, as she was convinced that her daughter was dead. I tried to comfort her, as I had a hunch that she had been deported somewhere. And I was proved right. Having spent half a year in Pawiak prison, Sabina was deported to the camp in Ravensbrück. The poor darling was sent for a long wandering in Germany. She had a right to send a letter and receive a food package once a month.

I translated all Sabina’s letters and I was writing back to the camps (as I did for all women from my street). Sabina’s letters clearly conveyed that she missed her children terribly, and they were full of love and affection for her mother. She wrote that she prayed earnestly for God to give her mother health so that she would be strong enough to work and support so many children. The hands of an old woman had to earn a living for five children, and there were packages to be sent to the camp for Sabina, and the prices during the war were extremely high. Mrs. Głowal was a brave woman. She had a dry, yellowish face and hands gaunt and sinewy from all the washing with which she was usually occupied. She managed somehow thanks to her unflagging energy. The children were neatly dressed, well-behaved and never hungry.

About half a year later, Mrs. Głowal was approached by Sabina’s friend, a Volksdeutcher, who offered that she would get Sabina released from the camp for 3,000 zlotys. She invited Mrs. Głowal to her flat, where a Gestapo man was waiting. The German drew up a petition for release from the camp and took 3,000 zlotys (Sabina’s clothes were sold to collect the sum). It turned out, however, that the poor woman got scammed out of the money. The Volksdeutscher friend proved to be a deceitful German sham, a hyena.

Sabina didn’t return, and each year, each month brought new desperate letters.

August 1944, and Warsaw is burning amid the desperate insurgent fighting. In Praga, the Uprising is promptly crushed. The Germans take all men and young women. House after house is thoroughly searched, and the residents are strictly forbidden to leave their homes. As soon as the Germans leave, we come back to our flats – where else could we go? There is a fire-drenched front line ahead and Vistula is behind us, and behind the river there is Warsaw, engulfed in flames.

Sunday, 9 September and the first shells land in Praga. The shelling intensifies with every minute. Crossing the street involves the risk of death, but people run across the roadways, laden with bundles, to gather in the basements.

The evening sky is wonderfully illuminated with colorful constellations of bombs dropped from the planes. The fight in air and on ground has begun and glass and rubble crumble; the thunder of guns and the wailing of Katyushas pierce the air. The spacious shelters of the house at Targowa Street 15 are occupied by the Germans, and the people are crowded in tiny basements; we literally suffocate. The space is so cramped that our legs quickly get numb, but we cannot stretch them. We use a candle-end for fear of being noticed and thrown out by the Germans. We have some hardtack biscuits and a bottle of unsweetened coffee. The children are crying softly; we’ve been here for four days and nights.

Hell is raging over our heads. The incessant roar of guns makes the house tremble; the rubble is coming down on us... All of a sudden the Germans begin to run through the corridors, faster and faster... And we know that they are running away.

Through a little crack in the door we see terrified faces of soldiers. One of them falls by our basement. The other Germans get him up and take him with them. There are more and more of them. They go through the basements to the bank of Vistula. Only a few young Germans stay behind. One of them noticed a streak of light projecting from the crack in the door of the basement. He comes in and says in German, “I know that I’ll die, but I’m not afraid. I’m actually glad, because I won’t have any problems or worries in the afterlife, but I admit before you that you all have the right to live: the Poles, the French and all other nations alike.” And he leaves. Belated insights indeed!

The last outpost: Sergeant Willy – a young Nazi in a red scarf. He got the order to blow up the railway bridge when the Russians will be a kilometer away. God, our house is barely 20 meters away from the bridge! The sound of fighting becomes louder, we don’t even talk out of terror and fear; it is 2.00 a.m. The huge house begins to tremble, a horrible explosion pierces the air, we get covered with rubble, but we already know: the Russians are one kilometer away. It was the last span of the railway bridge. We are free and there is not even one German left. We cry for joy.

These were the last hours of fighting for Praga. At 5.00 a.m. we gave a welcome to our beloved Polish soldiers and Russian fighters. We watch them in amazement. We look at their honest, grimy and terribly exhausted faces. We shake their hands, blurt some thanks and offer gifts. I give them my prized bottle of vodka, which I kept in the basement for medicinal purposes, I take a fountain pen and a pencil from my purse; I have nothing more to offer.

Praga was liberated from 13 to 14 September, but what does it matter – the Germans are still on the other bank of Vistula, in Warsaw, and their heavy military operation against Praga brings death and destruction. It takes long weeks. Fires break out all the time, houses collapse, the glass and rubble fall. The screeching of “cows” [weapon nicknamed also Screaming Mimi] makes our ears hurt, there is the constant clatter of planes bombing Warsaw, and our hearts are filled with that horrible anxiety about the fate of our loved ones there...

We stay in the basements. The children crunched all the hardtack, and are now crying from hunger. Mrs. Głowal is the first to leave the basement: she stretches her back, takes a bag and ventures to the nearby allotments to get some potatoes and carrots for the children. When she comes back, she shows us her bullet-ridden clothes; she is slightly wounded in the leg, but it’s all right, what matters is that the children won’t starve to death.

Little by little, we get used to the terrors of war, to shells exploding right before our eyes, to constant shooting, to crossing the street to fetch some water under the shower of bullets. One has to live, to get some potatoes and carrots at all costs, exchange goods or even sell something. “Basia, I’ve been hit,” says a mother to her daughter and falls dead to the ground. It became so ordinary!

In December the Germans begin to use even deadlier weapons, allegedly V1 missiles, which make the largest house collapse in an instant. They spread terror and drive the inhabitants of Praga to despair; the district begins to empty. The evacuation order is published. When the neighboring house collapses on 14 December, burying fourteen women under the rubble, we realize that we can no longer stay in the house, as we will either die or lose our minds. So we leave the city. Only Mrs. Głowal stays behind. “Where would I go with so many children?” she asks. “How would I arrange beds for them? God is watching over me,” and she stays.

Praga is fully liberated on 17 January 1945, the day when Warsaw was taken. Finally, Praga is no longer plagued by the Nazi bandits.

Long months passed before Mrs. Głowal received some information from Ravensbrück about her daughter. It was brought by a girl who came back from the camp. Sabina was in a hospital in Poznań, seriously sick. Her mother went there to bring her home, and brought the poor woman in the final stage of tuberculosis. She was a shadow of the healthy, beautiful young woman she had once been. Despite the tender care of doctors and other good people, three weeks later Sabina died. God allowed her to see her beloved children before death and end her life in the arms of her mother. She left two children: 7-year old Alinka and 10-year old Stefanek. Alinka never had a doll or any other toy. When I asked him what he wanted to do when he grows up, Stefanek replied, “I want to be a Polish soldier, to fight the Germans for my mum and dad.”

The address of the children of Mrs. Głowal: Warsaw, Praga, ks. Mackiewicza Street 9, flat 6.

Submitted by Marta Bochenek
Current address: Katowice, Żwirki i Wigury Street 1, flat 3