Class 7

My wartime experiences

All around our quiet village, the horizon burned and spat sinister, dark smoke up into the clouds. It was Polish homes, burned by the Germans, that threw billowing smoke high into the sky, crying out for the vengeance of God. But it didn’t help. The horizon only blazed more horribly with the terrible inferno.

Nobody in the village slept well. Everybody was preparing for what others had already experienced, for that awful moment that could come at any time. Every day in the church there were maudlin prayers for God to watch over us. Merciful God heard the honest prayers of the people. The days went by and the enemy didn’t so much as peek into our village which was overcome by a terrible unease.

Suddenly, one day, several trucks of Gestapo men arrived. Everybody waited impatiently for what the next day would bring.

When the day of the parish saint came around, the people looked with fear in the direction the Gestapo had gone. The following Monday, a gang of Germans appeared in our village. The village administrator led them to Sucha Wola (a district of Trzeczszany), where they abducted a young woman instead of her father and took her with them. I stood, observing them as they went down the road – I watched them with fear. I look – they’ve turned and they’re coming in our direction. I shot a final glance at them out of anger and ran home. Then my sister and I fled to the orchard, unable to look at their grim and loathsome faces. From behind a clump of trees, I saw our house surrounded by that horde of Germans. They were squirming around and searching for something.

They were looking for my daddy, who was coming back from the fields with my mommy. One of our neighbors met them on the way and turned them off the road because he knew what was going on – that both of our neighbors were surrounded by Germans and that our place was playing the most important role.

My heart skipped a beat at the sight of my mother’s stooped figure, anxiously watching what was happening, making as if she were picking weeds. Suddenly one soldier came rushing straight for us. He stopped, holding his rifle [pointed in our direction], and asked a neighbor sitting just next to us: “Are you Mrs. Oleszczukowa?” “No,” she answered, glancing over in my mommy’s direction. The soldier went on: “Do you know where they are?” And he turned towards us. I looked at him angrily, leaving his question unanswered because I was overcome by a mad rage. My sister took over and answered: “they’re away somewhere in the fields.” The soldier turned and hurried back to his men. After a while, the Germans surrounding our house left, taking another neighbor with them.

When they had gone, my sister and I ran to mommy, tearfully telling her what had happened. Mommy was afraid to go home and she left us, crying, and went into the fields to hide from the Germans.

Night fell. We were sleeping when we were awoken by the loud knocking of rifle butts on the windows and doors. My aunt opened the door, it was the Germans again. Lots of similar shapes were traced in the darkness. They came into the house with flashlights. I screamed, but I don’t even know what it was: “Jesus Christ, save us!” One of the Germans stopped. He shone his light in my eyes for a while and stood still as if my cry had stopped him from entering. But then he came in and started searching the rooms and the beds. Then he asked: “are they not here yet?” “No!” we answered in unison. He left without saying anything, closing the door behind him. We breathed a sigh of relief.

We couldn’t sleep all night. The thought occurred to us that the Germans would catch daddy, and that mommy was already in prison. That same evening we received news that our neighbor had been killed.

We had not seen our dear parents at all since that separation; they were wandering about and living rough. They slept in a field, in a barn or somewhere else, even when it was so freezing cold. When they woke up in the morning, they were completely covered in snow.

The Germans came to us every three days looking for daddy. It made them angry and they decided to end it because it wasn’t bringing them any results. They came for the last time in the morning when it was still dark. They started to beat at the windows and doors with their rifles like some kind of horrible gang. There was one of those terrible Germans standing in every window and hammering away at it; the whole house nearly came down. When we opened the door, they came bursting inside with a huge bang. Their belts and bootstraps were covered with grenades. Their first words were: “Where is Antoni Oleszczuk?” But their horrible expressions had no effect on us. They stood over our beds and hit us with their rifles, asking first my sister and then me: “How old are you?” “15,” she answered. “And the son?” “12,” my sister said. “The son! The son...” and they started to talk among themselves. Then they looked through the beds and the rooms in case they might find the victim they so desired. They left empty-handed, leaving only fear behind.

A terrible winter came. The Germans are uprooting people all around. Everybody expected to be deported from one day to the next, they were ready to take flight, forced into it by the Germans themselves. One day, the whole village started talking about the resettlement that was supposed to happen there. The village slowly emptied. Everybody left for the forest or the settlements to avoid being rounded up.

We got ready to run during the night so that nobody would see us. The sledge was loaded with various things. We moved very slowly; snowdrifts were blocking our way. I walked behind the sledge, falling into the snow up to my knees. Slowly we disappeared into the darkness, leaving our silent and empty home village behind us. Exhausted, we reached the home of a forester who gave us shelter. There was already a lot of people there.

We stayed there together until spring. We came back to an abandoned home steeped in mustiness and emptiness. The resettlement never came, although the Ukrainians waited impatiently for it to happen so they could plunder and settle down in the Polish homes.

Daddy, who hid the most, caught a cold and started to complain about a sore throat. He went to the doctor, but he couldn’t help him. He went to a hospital where he died on 13 June 1943 as a result of the large ulcers that formed on his head.

It was a memorable day. Oh, what grief consumed our entire home. Crying was heard, and the house presented a terrible sight. Even the cow, which had a very strong attachment to her master, was sad because she hadn’t seen him for a few days. Some kind of black cloud wrapped around everything. I don’t know how terribly I mourned the loss of my father. I only know that when they brought the coffin and started to prepare the body, I sat alone in the kitchen, crying, unable to reconcile our fate.

The body was taken to the church and the next day – after the funeral – to the cemetery. A horrible sorrow overwhelmed me at the sight of the grave. But it was no use. I could do nothing good for my dear daddy, only toss a bit of Polish earth onto his coffin and pray for his soul. It seemed like the trees kept whispering: “orphan, orphan.”

We lived in sorrow – but in peace – until the moment when some kind of well-equipped soldiers came to the forest. The Germans found out and arrived in their cars to destroy everything they could find in the forest, but it didn’t work. Those soldiers somehow broke through the German forces, leaving behind only the horses, carts and other things which the Germans then took.

A larger regiment made up of Poles and Russians turned up a few weeks later. It was the time of the Resurrection. There were lots of units in the forest and they didn’t let people go to church in case they gave away their presence. All of a sudden the Germans arrived to raid the forest, but a different one standing next to the one where everything was hidden. They headed towards the trees, ready to fight. They had gone past the forest where all the soldiers were hiding, unnoticed by the Germans, when shots started to ring out from both sides of the road, blasting a hail of bullets into the chests of the Germans. Some of them tried to defend themselves, but they soon hit the ground soaked in blood.

Then, without losing a second, the hidden [soldiers] set off through the wheat fields towards the village. A second wave moved in to where the battered Germans lay, but that too was broken and surrounded. Their only escape route was across the open meadow. The Germans scattered and fled with indescribable fear, and the rest torched the Polish houses to gain some cover from the enemy. Flames and smoke belched from several houses, covering the Germans with choking smoke. The withdrawing troops lined up in a deep ravine running alongside the road.

New German soldiers came onto the battleground. The cracking of rifles, the groaning of the wounded and the booming voice of the commander could be heard throughout the whole fight. The sun, looking down on the fighters, sank towards the west. The whole village fled to a manor to hide from the bullets. Dusk settled slowly. From time to time the darkness was lit up by the flash and bang of nearby cannons.

All night, everyone waited anxiously for the morning to dawn. When the sun broke over the fields, several planes were flying in the fog and the smoke. From time to a time a rocket shot into the air.

The band of soldiers withdrew into the forest in the early morning, not wanting to put the other homes in danger of being burned. The Germans gathered their dead – there were about a hundred of them – put them in trucks and drove off. And the sun rose ever higher, pallid as if from dread.

Now the Poles were robbed by the bands of Ukrainians which kept raiding neutral villages and, having murdered the people, returned to their homes. One time, a Ukrainian came to our village. He swore to his friends that he would kill an entire Polish family, but he didn’t manage. He wounded one cripple and a little girl but was caught by the Germans stationed in the village. More than one was caught there and carted off to Hrubieszów. All the Ukrainian families went back to their own villages, gathering to face the Poles. The Polish partisans also paid visits to the Ukrainians from time to time. There was deep hatred between the Poles and the Ukrainians. Nobody in the village slept, they just stood guard and protected their homes.

One time, some German tanks and armored vehicles came and took everything to the forest. The troops went around the village and rounded up all the peasants. They put them in groups of three and hounded them off to Werbkowice as hostages for the German dead. They went through the whole forest and didn’t see anyone, but one of them was killed and one was wounded somewhere in Mołodiatycze. They took 15 of the youngest Polish boys from among the hostages – 10 for the dead German, 5 for the wounded one – and shot them all in a little meadow in Ostrówek. They buried them in the ground like dogs. That was how the Germans gave vent to their rage. They let the rest of the peasants go. Wives greeted husbands with tears in their eyes and those who had lost their loved ones went mad with grief. All of those torments stopped with Germany’s surrender on 9 [sic!] May 1945.