All posts by Catherine A. Hamilton

German Battleship Opens War at Fort Westerplatte—Polish Troops Fought Hard for 28 Days

Westerplatte Monument in memory of the Polish defenders. Ruined barracks in Westerplatte Peninsula, Gdańsk, Poland.

Polish American Journal, September 2019

By Catherine A. Hamilton

On September 1, 1939—the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on Poland’s Fort Westerplatte at the port of Gdansk at 4:45 in the morning, trapping men inside the burning barracks. A garrison of 182 Polish soldiers returned fire immediately and held off the invasion at Gdansk. The ship had docked at the harbor feigning a friendship visit before opening fire on the sleeping men.

The port attack was the first move in a full scale invasion across the western borders of Poland, from the north at Prussia, the northwest at Pomerania and the southwest at Czechoslovakia and Silesia. Nazi tanks tore across border towns and villages, killing an unknown number of innocent civilians first thing that same morning in the unprovoked attack. Marshal Edward Smigly-Rydz decried the attack as barbarous.

The 370,000 regular Army and 2.8 million Polish reserves defended the borders with fierce counterattacks, causing the Germans to retreat in many locations, giving Hitler the message that Poland was not going to comply with Nazi demands and intimidation.

Air raids hit nine Polish air bases and destroyed 17 emergency landing fields before sunrise. By 7 a.m., on 1 September, 54 Polish planes from the Warsaw Fighter Brigade, Air Force, taking off from bombed runways, intercepted a fleet of 80 bombers and 20 Messerschmitt fighters. The Polish planes downed scores of bombers and fighter planes, breaking up the air raid.

Thousands of troops remained engaged in defensive actions up and down the western border, as many others were repositioning in the interior to stave off further incursion by Nazi troops.

Hitler’s Propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, tried to justify the invasion of Poland by accusing Polish military of crossing the border, taking over a remote radio station in Gleiwitz, Germany by force. The Nazi controlled media in Germany claimed to have eye witnesses who saw the raid and purported to have photos of the bodies of twelve Polish soldiers who were shot dead by the Nazi police.

Polish army commander Marshal Smigly reportedly stated that not one of the 40 military divisions or any reserves would have been wasted time or ammunition on the hold-up of a civilian radio station. Not one Polish solider had stepped foot over the border.

According to Marshal Smigly the attack on the German radio station was set up and carried out by the Nazis themselves. The bodies were recovered at the radio station by Polish military and it has been confirmed by military intelligence that the dead men were dressed in Polish-style uniforms but were neither Polish citizens, nor members of the Polish military.

By September 3, 1939—The Polish army smashed its way across the Northern border into East Prussia, driving Nazi troops from towns along the way. “On the northern front,” according to General Anders documents of the Novogrodek Cavalry, “we stopped the Nazis from driving a barrier across the corridor.” Hitler’s troops fell back behind their borders after a brutal assault. “Hitler has met with resistance,” according to General Anders’ documents. “Poland was attacked and her men were ready to die to defend her freedom. We will not lay down our arms without a battle. But we do not battle without the hope that the West will keep their promise,” Anders was reported to have said.

On that third day of a devastating war launched on Poland, not one ally had moved into position against Hitler’s treacherous attack—despite the fact that France and the United Kingdom had declared war on Germany. Only five months earlier, British Prime Minister Chamberlain promised to do “everything possible” and to give “full support” in the event of Nazi aggression.

Now that the war against the National Socialist Workers Party was being fought on Polish soil, the silence of France and England was deafening. “One can only wonder if we will fight alone,” said Mikolaj Drobniewski of the Warsaw city council.

On September 14, the Polish Army Group of Pomerania launched its counterattack near Lowicz, causing the Germans to withdraw their forces from the battle of the Vistula River. And every 30 seconds the radio broadcast out of Warsaw played snippets of a Chopin polonaise—proving the city was still in Polish hands.

But on 17 September, the Russians, Hitler’s new ally, marched across the Poland’s eastern borders, encircling trapped Polish troops. Skirmishes broke out between Polish troops and the two super powers that met in mid-Poland. The Polish commander in charge of the defense of Warsaw, General Julius Rommel refused to surrender, and made an appeal for the world’s “promised” aid.

Neither the Polish people of Warsaw nor the troops were demoralized. They were ready to defend the nation. From 22-25 September, Warsaw was under fierce artillery and air bombardment.

The end came on 27 September. Rommel surrendered. The city had no water, no electricity, and no telephone. And the radio broadcast replaced the polonaise with Chopin’s funeral dirge.

On 28 September, before the Germans entered Warsaw, the Polish military held the first of its clandestine meetings in the Warsaw town hall.

To those who continued their fight in the battlefields, in the streets, and in the sewers, the lyrics to Poland’s national anthem, “Mazurek Dąbrowskiego,” were as true that day as they were when written in 1797: “Poland has not yet perished, so long as we still live.”



Polish American Journal, May 2019

By Catherine A. Hamilton

Nine years ago, on April 10, 2010, Anna Walentynowicz, the woman known as the Mother of Solidarity, died in a tragic and mysterious plane crash along with the president of Poland and 94 other Polish dignitaries. Walentynowicz was part of a delegation of national leaders on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the infamous Katyn Massacre.

Walentynowicz died as she had lived — full of faith that exposing the truth was the best path to freedom from communism.

Though scarcely heard of in the Western media, Walentynowicz was a woman whose relentless struggle for social justice was rooted in Polish tradition and a deep Christian faith. That struggle can be traced to Aug. 7, 1980, in Gdansk, Poland. On that day, nearly 39 years ago, Walentynowicz was unjustly fired from her job in the shipyard. That event touched off the union strikes and changed the fate of Poland forever.

The petite and bespectacled Anna Walentynowicz earned the affectionate nickname “little Ania.” She was destined to become a freedom icon in the Solidarity movement. But she was much more than that. She was a loving and loyal friend to her co-workers.

Walentynowicz’s journey of faith and her struggle toward the truth started 20 years before the Solidarity movement, after a near-fatal bout with cancer, when she decided that God had spared her life for a reason—“to do something worthwhile.”  Despite a difficult early life, she now felt she had a purpose.

Early Years

Growing up in Poland during WWII had a tremendous impact on the life of little Ania. Born in Równe, Poland, in 1929, Anna Walentynowicz’s idyllic childhood turned nightmarish when she and her family were caught between the vice of invading Nazi Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east in September 1939.  Anna’s father was killed in battle during the 27-day war in Poland. Her brother — whom she remembered as tall and handsome — was taken prisoner by the Soviet army and she never saw him again. During the first months of the Nazi occupation, suffering depression and illness after the loss of her husband, Anna’s mother died, leaving her a war orphan at age 10. Moved from place to place, from neighbor to stranger, Anna became a child victim of Nazi policy — she was no longer allowed to attend school because she was Polish.

The war dragged on and Anna ended up in Warsaw, where she worked in forced labor in farming and tending the fires at production factories. Finally, the war ended. But Poland was then in the grip of the Soviet Union.

As a young woman, she searched for a place to fit in. Most of the churches had been burned to the ground and the priests sent to prison … and Walentynowicz was enticed by the Communist Party. In 1950, she took a job at the shipyard in Gdansk and received recognition for her exemplary performance on the job — first as a welder and then a crane operator. By her early 20s, though, Walentynowicz was unhappy, unmarried, and expecting a baby. Desperate to give her unborn child a better life than she had had, she turned back to the church. Her disillusionment with communist corruption had been growing.  But it was when she discovered that one of the “big bosses” had stolen money from the workers and spent it on gambling — not to mention government control of the press, and it’s the lack of concern for the poor and the rationing of food — that Walentynowicz joined the opposition. She gave birth to her son, Janusz and at age 30, she fell in love with Kazik Walentynowicz, her “one true love,” and the two were happily married.

Advocacy Years

After seven short years of marriage, the sudden death of her husband and a brush with a deadly cancer, the widowed Walentynowicz began her tireless advocacy for the rights of her co-workers. Walentynowicz became editor and distributor of the underground newspaper Robotnik Wybrzeza (The Coastal Worker), in direct opposition to the regime. She was fearless in her efforts; she dared to go face-to-face with shipyard management, calling for an end to government-controlled press and poverty-level wages. She even went so far as to deliver her opposition newspaper to the “big bosses” in person. For her bravery, she was later sentenced to 20 years in prison and off and on spent months at a time in jail before the fall of Moscow-led communism in Poland.

Walentynowicz had a heart of gold and a will of iron. And yes, she was relentless. But she offered a feminine touch to the opposition, often making her co-workers hot soup, tea or warm milk — she even did their dishes. Little Ania was the kind of woman who planted flowers outside the break room to cheer the hearts of others. And because of her kindness, “little Ania” was also simply called: “Mother,” according to Shana Penn’s book Solidarity’s Secret.

Birth of Solidarity

Indeed, it took a mother’s heart to give birth to the Solidarity movement. It took this outspoken defender of freedom, this little Ania, who was loved by her co-workers and despised by shipyard management, to inspire workers to strike. And that’s exactly what she did. On that fateful day in August 1980, Walentynowicz was suddenly dismissed from her job for producing and distributing an “illegal” newspaper — five months before she was to retire. She was told she would not receive her retirement pension, even after putting in 30 years at the Lenin shipyard. This action — taken by the government-controlled management against beloved little Ania — created an enormous uproar among the Polish workers.

A day after Walentynowicz was unjustly fired, the Coastal Worker printed the following announcement: “…. Anna Walentynowicz has been a thorn in their [the repressive regime’s] side because she is a model activist devoted to others. … We appeal to you to defend the crane operator Walentynowicz.” The uproar at the shipyard that day became the first in a series of strikes across Poland, which in turn inspired the Solidarity movement and, in the end, toppled Soviet repression in Poland.

Walentynowicz — together with Lech Walesa, a shipyard engineer who had also been fired for his involvement in the opposition — made a list of demands, and when the strike was only three days old, an initial agreement was reached. On the surface, it looked good. But Walentynowicz took a closer look; the agreement would help only the workers at the Lenin shipyard. But many of the striking workers at Lenin were satisfied. They were putting down their signs and had begun to leave the shipyard. Walentynowicz wasn’t ready to give up so soon. She and a shipyard nurse named Alina Pienkowska saw the danger of signing a premature agreement. They picked up megaphones and shouted: “Stop! Come back! What about all the other workers in Poland!”

After 18 long days, the union of more than a million workers known as Solidarity won its hard-fought battle. Walentynowicz and Walesa resumed their work at the shipyard and the workers got pay raises, better working conditions, and more. This was the beginning of the end of Soviet-occupied Poland.

Post-strike Phase

Although some say that Walentynowicz was sidelined in the later phase of Solidarity and was disappointed because of what she considered to be compromises in the agreement with management, she maintained an important role in the eclipse of communism. When film-maker Andrzej Wajda was casting his 1981 movie “Man of Iron,” he asked Walentynowicz to play herself in the motion picture. She agreed without hesitation — even at the risk of being imprisoned by the Soviets.  The final collapse of communism came in 1989. Anna retired from the shipyard in 1991. She wrote her autobiography, “Shadow of the Past,” with a Polish journalist, Anna Baszanowska. In 2006, her life story inspired Volker Schlondorff’s movie, “Strike.”

Political Alliances

Walentynowicz was a long-time friend and ally of the late President Lech Kaczynski. Their friendship dated to the 1980s, when the young Kaczynski was a law professor and counsel for Solidarity.

Walentynowicz and the conservative pro-American President Lech Kaczynski were not invited by Vladimir Putin to a choreographed wreath ceremony on April 7, 2010, in memory of the POWs killed at Katyn by Stalin’s men during WW II — a fact denied by the Soviets for more than 50 years.  The Russian government’s “official” memorial was held three days before the Tupolev TU-154 crashed near Katyn while attempting to land.

It’s unlikely, even if she had been invited, that Walentynowicz would have attended Putin’s visit to the Katyn memorial. Putin was an ex-KGB agent, and his predecessors had sentenced her to 20 years in prison for speaking the truth.

It was no surprise that Putin didn’t invite Kaczynski to his private Katyn event. Kaczynski was against the very core of Putin’s ideology. What was surprising, though, was Putin’s comment that, in his opinion, Stalin had felt personally to blame for the deaths of thousands of Red Army POWs who died of hunger while in prisons during WW I and that he had ordered the massacre of the Polish prisoners out of his personal sense of revenge. The “revenge” explanation seems all the more cruel given the ghastly event that befell Walentynowicz and 95 Polish leaders three days later at the site of Katyn.

Strangely, Lech Kaczynski isn’t the only Polish commander-in-chief to die in a suspicious plane crash. Polish Prime Minister Sikorski’s plane plunged into the Sea of Gibraltar shortly after liftoff in July 1943; Sikorski had just launched a full investigation of possible Soviets involvement in the slaughter of 20,000 soldiers after mass graves containing the Polish officers’ remains were found in the Katyn Forest.

Unanswered Questions

Many unanswered questions circle the tragic plane crash that took the life of Anna Walentynowicz. Certainly if she were alive today, she would begin to ask pertinent questions and expect answers. Did this catastrophe deserve an international investigation?

Given the way that the Russians handled the investigation — taking nearly two months to turn over copies of transcripts of the black box — anyone would wonder. One concern in the minds of many Poles is that of censorship. Some say the truth will never be found. And as of June 1, 2010, the actual black boxes and original recordings had remained in Russian hands.

Within hours of the April 10 incident, pilot error and weather were blamed for the crash. But the Polish crew of the Yak-40, which transported the Polish press and had landed successfully about an hour earlier, told sources close to the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita that the radio tower had been problematic during their landing. The Yak-40 was the last plane to land safely and, watching from the ground, the crew saw a Russian jet ll-76 having trouble stabilizing on its approach to the runway, which, according the Yak’s crew, could happen only if the radio tower signal were interrupted — or not present at all. The Russian jet veered off to the left and later landed in Moscow just before the TU-154 was expected to land in Smolensk.

How, if visibility was a primary factor, could a crew on the ground see incoming planes? A Polish reporter said he saw the doomed TU-154 from his hotel window as it was coming in for a landing. According to a few journalists in Russia, the air-traffic control crew working April 10 were fill-ins and not the regular crew that staff the tower — reportedly because President Kaczynski was not “officially” invited. The commander of the Polish air force was in the cockpit, but there is no evidence that the pilot was being pressured to land. It has yet to be explained why the experienced pilot didn’t take full advantage of the U.S.- installed TAWS warning system until it was too late.

Sadly, several Russian security officers — who were supposedly guarding the crash site — robbed bank cards from one of the crash victims and began withdrawing cash from the account less than two hours after the tragedy. The Russian soldiers responsible are now in jail, but only after repeated denials by Russian authorities. It’s enough to make one ponder what else might have been stolen posthumously — cash, computers of military generals, documents, cell phones, memory sticks?

At the same time, the political void created by the untimely deaths of President Kaczynski and his entire Cabinet forced the grieving nation into a rapid-fire presidential runoff between political rivals: Bronislaw Komorowski, of the left-leaning Civic Platform, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the conservative candidate and twin brother of the late president. After a down-to-the-wire race, the election ended with Komorowski the new president. The sudden change in the presidency and respective political parties is the latest chapter in the surreal events occurring in Poland — a change certain to reel the nation in an opposite direction on policies regarding finance, the military and family life issues.

Previously, as parliament speaker, Komorowski supported Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in opposing President Kaczynski. It was Donald Tusk, not the late President Kaczynski, who was invited to attend Putin’s Katyn Massacre ceremony. Tusk was in Smolensk, Russia, on April 7, 2010, with Putin three days before the Kaczynski delegation died there.

Whether or not the incident of April 10 had anything to do with the regime shift to the left, it seems safe to say that had Anna Walentynowicz been alive on Election Day 2010, she would undoubtedly have voted for the twin brother of her good friend President Lech Kaczynski. Lech Kaczynski’s brother, Jaroslaw, ran for president in June 2010, shortly after his brother’s death, and lost after the second round in July 2010 to Komorowski. It would surely have pleased her that Jaroslaw served as Prime Minister of Poland in 2006 – 2007.

 About the international investigation

Less than six months ago an international report was released. It was Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz who had taken the lead in denouncing early accounts of the disaster as “whitewash, secretly coordinated with Moscow.” Macierewicz promised a new look at Tu-154 crash that was based on new evidence. This new report was long overdue and came after Macierewicz wasn’t defense minister any longer. However, this most recent report charged that the disaster was caused by multiple explosions aboard the Tu-154 prior to its collision with the ground, as most Poles had suspected and feared.

 Walentynowicz’s Awards and Acknowledgments

In 2005, Walentynowicz received the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, presented by President George W. Bush. That same year she received a letter from Pope John Paul II — the last, or nearly last, letter he wrote before his death. The pope sent her best wishes for a quick recovery from back surgery. In 2006, she was decorated by President Kaczynski of Poland as a Knight of the Order of the White Eagle.

They say that people die as they live. For Walentynowicz that meant doing what she believed was right, rather than what was popular. It meant she died bearing the heart and soul of the everyday person in Poland. May her sacrifices for freedom and her motherly love never be forgotten!

Part VI – 2019 – Forced Labor in the Third Reich — Katherine Graczyk

Forced Labor in the Third Reich  – Part VI 

The Personal Account of a Polish Slave Laborer  —  March 2019

Katherine Graczyk, a Polish Catholic, was captured by the SS and shipped to Germany. She shared her story with author Catherine Hamilton*

by Catherine Hamilton   


Life was very difficult at Wildflecken Displaced Persons (DP) Camp, as was the case in DP camps all across Germany. Every day more people at Wildflecken died due to poor health caused by starvation during their captivity as slave laborers or as prisoners. We lacked adequate food and medical supplies. Many of the children had rickets.

Hand-drawn map to Wildflecken

Camp yard at Wildflecken

We knew the dangers of returning to Communist Poland—deportation to Siberian camps, or imprisonment. No matter how much we longed for home, we had to think of our child’s future.

Frank and I were thankful to be alive, thankful that at last we could send letters to our families back home. I wrote to my mother and told her everything. How I’d survived the war. That I was now living in a DP camp. About Frank and me and our marriage, and her newborn grandson. I sent her my favorite wedding photograph. To my sisters, Sophie and Anna, I wrote every detail about their sweet little nephew, Kazimierz. I didn’t tell them the hardships we were suffering.

Katherine and Frank’s favorite wedding picture

A year passed at Wildflecken and I didn’t hear back from my family. I felt frantic that something terrible had happened. Did the communists even deliver our mail? I told myself they hadn’t delivered my letters. Every month I sent a letter, never giving up hope, praying they had survived.

In late December, 1947, our one-year-old son fell ill with a bad influenza. He had diarrhea and was vomiting. I had nothing to give him—no medicine at all. And we had only a quart of milk and some bread, which he wouldn’t eat.

“We have to take Kazimeirz to the hospital,” I told Frank. He agreed. We bundled Kazimeirz in blankets and rushed there on foot.   

We were surprised when the clerk working at the front desk of the hospital said, “This hospital is not for Poles.” Her tone was menacing. “Go back to your camp.”

But I refused to leave and approached one of the nurses, asking her to help us. She nodded and asked, “What’s wrong with the child?”  

“He won’t eat anything. He has a fever,” I said. “I didn’t know what else to do. Can you help him?”

She nodded again. “We’ll need to keep him overnight. You should come back tomorrow after the doctor sees him.” She took him from my arms, saying I shouldn’t worry. To get some rest and she would see me tomorrow. I agreed and the next day, I went back to the hospital as I had promised.

The young nurse who greeted me in the waiting room said, “I’m sorry. You’re mistaken; your son isn’t here. We don’t have Polish babies.”

“I brought him here yesterday,” I said, feeling sudden panic. “The nurse that was here said she’d help him. She told me to come back today. Do you think I would lie about my child? He’s here, somewhere!”

“That’s impossible!” the nurse insisted.

“But he IS here!” I got so upset I started speaking in Polish. “Masz moje Dziecko! Pozwól mi zobaczyć moje dziecko!” I cried. (You have my baby! Let me see my child!)

“I can’t understand you!” She turned away and walked up the hall, returning with another nurse, an older woman, clearly the one in charge. “What’s the problem here?” the older woman asked.

“She’s insisting we have her baby,” the young nurse complained, gesturing toward me. “I told her we don’t have any Polish children.”

“There are a few Polish children here. What’s the child’s name?” the older nurse asked.

“His name is Kazimierz Graczyk.”

She looked through some papers. “He’s here. But I’m sorry to say you can’t see him. He’s been placed on quarantine.”  

“But I’m his mother.”

“There’s nothing I can do. It’s policy. You should go now. Try back tomorrow.”

I couldn’t leave him. I pretended to go, but I turned around and sneaked into the other hallway. Carefully, I slipped past a nurse’s station unnoticed. I found Kazimeirz in a tiny bed. He looked at me but didn’t move. He had been walking since he was nine months old—why didn’t he move? I don’t know if he recognized me. He was licking his lips, smacking them as if he were very thirsty. I reached for him to pick him up, but a nurse spotted me. She pushed me out of the room. “I’m his mother!” I screamed.

The hospital police came and dragged me away. All the while I cried, “I’m his mother! I’m his mother!”

The next day, New Year’s Day, 1948, the hospital telephoned the camp office before daybreak. A British officer brought me the message. My Kazimierz had died.

My heart still breaks when I think of him dying there alone. Plagued, as you can imagine, by untold guilt that I did the wrong thing taking him to that hospital. Haunted by questions: Did they try to help him? Did they give him fluids? Did they just let him die?

I later found out that not one Polish child came out of that hospital alive that year. Hitler was dead, but the Nazi ideology of the super-race continued to take the lives of Polish people trapped inside that country. I believe my firstborn son was one of those people. It wasn’t until a doctor from the United States was assigned to the hospital that equal care was administered to Polish adults and children. Poles could finally go to the hospital near camp Wildflecken without fear. It was because of that doctor that Frank and I decided to emigrate to America.

While we waited to get our papers from the United States, my daughter Stella was born.

Frank with baby Stella

Katherine, Frank, and Stella at Wildflecken DP camp

Thankfully, by that time, life had improved at Wildflecken. My Stella was a healthy happy, baby, and the three of us immigrated safely to the U.S. in 1951. We celebrated that my brother Antony Ponczocha, who had also survived forced-labor camps and had recently married Janina, a Polish woman he met during his captivity in Germany, had received immigration papers for Australia.

DP’s waiting for immigrations papers

When our ship docked at the New York Harbor, we were famished. We walked with little Stella to the first restaurant we could find to get something to eat. But neither Frank nor I spoke a word of English. We stared at the menu and saw SOUP. This word looked very similar to ZUPA (soup in Polish). So we asked for “Zupa.” The waitress understood. Soup was the only thing we had to eat for days! We quickly got to work on our English lessons!

Six years after the war’s end, at last, we were free!

 We settled in Denver, Colorado, and there our third child, Richard, was born. Frank worked as a butcher in a meat packing plant, while I managed the home and cared for the children.

Katherine Graczyk in Denver with son Richard

There were so many other Polish immigrants in Denver that very soon the center of our family life was Saint Joseph’s Polish Catholic Church and school. Because of the Communist occupation of Poland we had no hope of returning to visit family back home, although we tried many times. We weren’t allowed to set foot in Poland, now that we’d come to the United States of America. So I wasted no time trying to contact my family again by mail. I was so worried about my sisters and my mother and my cousins. I hadn’t received even one piece of mail from any of them in more than twelve years. And because there were no telephones in my village, Lipkie Harta, I had to rely on letters.

Saint Joseph Polish Catholic Church

I sent my first letter from America. Then the second. When I received my first letter from home, I wept for joy. The floodgates were open and no end of letters were exchanged over the years. From their letters I learned what happened to the rest of my family during the war. Sophie and Anna and Mother had survived the Nazi occupation! Now they found themselves under the Communist occupation. They couldn’t travel outside the “Iron Curtain.” They had no choice but to remain in Poland after WWII. My first cousin Maturz Ponczocha died in a Nazi prison camp. My aunt and uncle, Maturz’s parents, were arrested by the Russians as the Red Army invaded Eastern Poland. They died in Stalin’s Siberian labor camps. My cousin Sophie survived the Siberian forced labor and returned to Poland, but her farmland was never returned to her. It had been confiscated by the communists. Not until 1972, after my mother’s death did the Russians let me return to Poland for her funeral.

Frank and I always felt extremely blessed to have survived the slave labor camps and the prisons of Nazi Germany. And despite our suffering the loss of our firstborn son, we made a good life for ourselves in the United States.

Now with my story down on paper, after spending years wrestling with the enemy that haunted my bones—that woke me up at night, living with nightmares and bad memories and regrets… Now that I can release the dove and find peace, I have one more thing to say: I hope my story will enlighten people in the free world and that they will know what happened to 1.5 million ethnic Poles during the Nazi occupation of Europe.


Frank Graczyk died in 1986. Katherine Graczyk passed away on Monday, June 14, 2010 in Denver, Colorado.   


  1. I am a freelance writer in Beaverton, Oregon and recorded Katherine Graczyk’s story during a series of interviews. I am honored to write the first-person account of her experiences; Katherine Graczyk and I were cousins. Part of Katherine’s story was also published in the anthology FORGOTTEN SURVIVORS, edited by Dr. Richard Lukas.   


I met my cousin Katherine for the first time in 1997 at her home in Denver, Colorado, after listening to an audio tape she had made for my father. In this recording, I learned that she was kidnapped from her village in Poland and survived slavery in Germany. I wanted to know more. And there began my journey with Katherine Graczyk. We had a series of face-to-face interviews and untold telephone conversations as Katherine detailed the events of her captivity in Germany. Her only request was that I one day write it down.  

This particular story would not let me rest until I’d exhausted every resource at my disposal. There were others who had shared my cousin’s fate, but why hadn’t I heard of Hitler’s slave-labor campaign targeting Polish-Catholic young people? And how many others were there?  

I found data about thousands of Polish people forced into slave labor during the Second World War. By August 1944, 1.7 million Poles had been forced into slave labor by Nazi Germany, nearly half of them women. Many did not survive. Katherine was one of the lucky ones.

Clockwise from top left:

Photo of my parents when they first met Katherine and her sister in the 1990’s; TOP LEFT ROW: Richard Graczyk (Katherine’s son), Joseph Ponczocha (my father, Katherine’s cousin), Jeanne Ponczocha (my mother). BOTTOM ROW: Anna Ponczocha (Katherine’s sister, who had come to visit from Poland), Katherine Graczyk.

A photo of Katherine and me in Denver, 1997, with the beloved family collie.

Family photo of Richard Graczyk (Katherine’s son), his daughter Katie, wife Annie, and daughter Melony. Katherine is seated at the table looking over a map she had drawn for me of our family’s village in Poland.

Thank you for reading my blog series. Follow me on Facebook for upcoming events and publications.


Part V -2019 – Forced Labor in the Third Reich

Forced Labor in the Third Reich  – Part V 

The Personal Account of a Polish Slave Laborer  —  February 2019

Katherine Graczyk, a Polish Catholic, was captured by the SS and shipped to Germany. She shared her story with author Catherine Hamilton.

by Catherine Hamilton * 


Part V     

When I left the Nazi officer’s suite, I hurried down the hall toward the second floor’s female guard. I promised myself I would never go back to that suite. I could tell by the way he looked at me what his intentions were. Women were being raped and I prayed to God that I wouldn’t be one of them. The guard was taking a group of women to the washroom to refill their buckets with clean water and I joined them. I filled my empty stomach with water from the faucet.

We were returning to the lobby on the lower level to clean the entrance floors again, but before we got half way downstairs, the building shook and sirens blared. The Allied air strikes were hitting Germany with more frequency, several times a day now. We all prayed the war would end before we died under a pile of rubble.

“Line up!” the guard called. Military personnel hurried toward the door, running for the bomb shelters in a stampede.  

I pushed my way through the crowded atrium and joined the tail end of the prisoner’s line. Suddenly, the building shook again. Everyone in the building was scrambling. The bomb hit close by, exploding into violent bursts of mortar and brick just outside the entrance. The prison guard blew her whistle and motioned us against the wall. “Don’t you leave this building until everyone else is outside, do you understand? You’ll be shot by the guards outside. I promise you!” She would not let us go outside, but she went out. She watched us from the street with her pistol pointed, watching us. You can’t imagine the fear of being trapped inside a crumbling building, not being able to save yourself, while everyone else ran to safety.

Arial view – the Bombing of Berlin (military stock photo)

When another bomb fell in the street near the guard, I scurried frantically over the rubble and into street racked with debris towards a cement bomb shelter. I was four steps down—half above ground and half below—when another bomb hit. I crouched down right on the stairs, not a foot from the entrance.

Dirt sifted down the stairway. The air was thick with dust and fear. The ground shook, again. And again. The stale thin air held its breath. The shelter was packed tight with people. Huddled against the wall, I tried to get down the steps and into the shelter.

“No room!” someone called.

“There’s room!” protested a German woman. “Let her in!” An elderly women who could hardly make it down the steps entered and stood next to the woman who had spoken up for me.

I saw for myself that there were good people among the German people more than once. It was a glimmer of hope.

A month later at morning headcount, one of the guard’s came up to me and said, “Let’s go.”

“Go where?” I asked.

“Back to the farm.”

“To farm number one?”

He nodded.

“I am not going back to that farm! He beats me!” I told him. Somehow the farmer and his wife found out I was still in prison.

“You’re going! Now, move!” the guard ordered, giving me a push. We walked through the dark hallways and out into the rubble strewn streets toward a police truck that waited nearby.

I stopped beside the idling truck and crossed my arms, the piles of brick debris as high as I was tall. I couldn’t go back there. The farmer would kill me. “I won’t go! If you take me there—I’ll run away,” I said.

“You can run away. But you’ll end up back in the prison—or worse. Get in!” He laughed and shoved me into the back of the truck.

Aftermath – Berlin Buildings

I couldn’t believe it, but I ended up back on that farm. The farmer took his anger out on me. In some ways worse than ever because I had run away. But I didn’t run away again. I thought to myself that maybe this was God’s way of saving me from the officer’s suite and the bombing of Berlin. It was the winter of 1944 by then and the Americans were defeating the Nazis. I believed the war would be over soon…

In early April, 1945, when we were working close to the neighbor’s farm, we heard shouting. I looked up to see four American soldiers walking out of the brush. The other farmer had a gun on them. He can’t shoot them, I thought to myself, it’s against the Geneva Convention to shoot men in uniform. They were prisoners of war. I watched the Americans walk in front of the farmer’s gun. Then he just shot them down in the field. He threw them on a wagon and dumped them in the woods. I was so angry. I wanted to report him. But there was no one to tell. I promised myself that I would tell someone someday. Now I have.

On April 13, 1945, the United States Infantry arrived and fought the Germans in the Battle of Magdeburg. I was rescued from the German farm April 18, 1945 by Americans. But before we rode off in those Army jeeps, the officer in charge ordered the farmer and his wife to fix us all a big supper. It was the first time I’d had meat and cheese in five years!

An American Soldier guarding Germans in Magdeburg

In May 1945, when the victory parades began, I still was not free to go home. I had no country to go home to. The Communists occupied Poland, and Soviet operatives were rumored to be killing or arresting Polish people who attempted to return home. Sadly, not one Polish military man who had fought alongside the Allies to the very end of the war was permitted to march in a single Victory parade in free Europe. Why? Because Roosevelt and Churchill didn’t want to offend the Stalin!

I, along with forty thousand other displaced Polish (DP) persons, went to the Wildflecken Displaced Persons Camp, a British-run DP camp west of Magdeburg.  

Map to Wildflecken DP Camp

Freed slave laborers who were transported to Wildflecken

Just when I had given up hope of finding my friends, Frank found me. When Berlin had fallen, the US freed the POW concentration camp where he’d been imprisoned since 1939. He told me he’d begun to search every DP camp in the area until he found me. He immediately proposed marriage. I tried to find my brother through the Red Cross because I wanted someone to walk me down the aisle, but my dear Frank didn’t want to wait. His friend John found some white material for us. It was full of shrapnel holes, but it was fabric. I made myself a wedding dress, and Frank and I were married by a Polish priest—who had also been a prisoner. Two days after the wedding, my brother Antony found me in the DP Camp.

The wedding photo of Katherine Ponczocha and Frank Graczyk

The Graczyk wedding procession at Wildflecken DP camp

My first son, Kazimeirz, was born at Wildflecken Displaced Persons Camp. And we waited on and on for the emigration papers we needed to get out of Germany. Little did I know that Kazimeirz wouldn’t be going with us.

The Graczyk’s first son, Kazimeirz


Continued next month


(1)  I am a freelance writer in Beaverton, Oregon and recorded Katherine Graczyk’s story during a series of interviews. I am honored to write the first-person account of her experiences; Katherine Graczyk and I were cousins. Part of Katherine’s story was also published in the anthology FORGOTTEN SURVIVORS, edited by Dr. Richard Lukas. Previously  published in the Polish American Journal, February, 2019.   


Part IV – 2019 – Forced Labor in the Third Reich — Katherine Graczyk

Forced Labor in the Third Reich – Part IV

Polish American Journal * January 2019

The Personal Account of a Polish Slave Laborer. 

Katherine Graczyk, a Polish Catholic, was captured by the SS and shipped to Germany.  She shared her story with author Catherine Hamilton (1)  

by Catherine Hamilton


Part IV

Locked inside the prison cell, I had fainted from a high fever that struck violently during the night. I didn’t remember anything that happened until I woke up on the floor of the quarantine block. And there I lay on the concrete with a single sheet over my body, wet with sweat. I was alive. The woman next to me wasn’t. I had no idea how long I’d been there. Only later did I learn that they’d transferred me from the prison cell to quarantine a week earlier because I had scarlet fever.

Quarantine was just a place where they let Polish prisoners die. They didn’t give me a drop of medicine. Nothing for the fever. Nothing at all. I just lay on the floor, lost in the deep delirium of fever. I remember one night seeing a giant of a woman standing by the wall, and she was pushing me into the wall, like she was trying to push me through the wall. There was a mighty struggle between the two of us, but my fear gave me the strength to resist the beast. I didn’t know I was delirious. That the giant woman was my hallucination.

After more than a month of untreated scarlet fever, I lost the hearing in one ear and the feeling on one side of my face. No thanks to the Nazi doctors, who kept their distance from the people in quarantine, I made it out of there alive, destined to return to regular prison.

I had already lost a great deal of weight during my captivity, but the day I returned to work, I didn’t even recognize myself in the washroom mirror. Fortunately, most of my hearing and the feeling in my face would return in time. And I thanked God that I had survived.

The same morning I was released from quarantine, a guard took me to the prison headcount, which was completed in a large room with barred windows. After the count, I received a piece of bread. And after that, I was assigned to a cleaning crew of more than a hundred other women, French, Polish, and Czechs. We were swiftly trucked and unloaded at the military complex not far from the second prison.

We stepped past hundreds of Polish POW’s who were clearing rubble from bomb damage on our way toward an enormous brick building. I looked for my brother, Antony, and for Frank Graczyk, my new love, but I didn’t see either of them… all I had were the two photographs that Frank had given me to remember him by. I saw determination and courage in the eyes of the men who glanced up at me.

Katherine’s future husband was a POW in a Salzwedel camp

Frank Graczyk pictured with Polish soldiers during the WWII in Poland

“Here we are,” I thought, “an entire generation of Polish youth enslaved by the Nazis.” I wanted to cry as I walked in that long parade of female slave laborers who, like myself, were now “political prisoners,” awaiting what we all feared would be the death sentence. It happened to so many of the female prisoners arrested before us. I didn’t cry because I wanted to be strong. I wore the letter P on my chest and I was proud to march with the other women who had survived such horrors.  

The guard prodded us into a washroom off to the left of a large entrance. We each got a bucket of cold water and a scrub brush. I returned to the atrium with the others, water sloshing from the brimming pail and heard our guard shouting orders.

“Clean this entrance floor. I want it spotless. Not one speck of dirt. Now move!” She swung her baton and hit the prisoners within reach.   

I got on my knees and started scrubbing. Anything was better than quarantine, even scrubbing floors. When I finished one section of floor and had picked up my bucket and moved to the next section, a group of military men rushed into the building, muddying the floor I’d just finished. I started to go back to re-clean the floor tiles, but the guard shouted for me to halt.  

“You,” she called to me. “You go to the second floor—to the officer’s suite. They have a meeting in an hour. Get the floor cleaned before that. And I mean spotless, if you want to live!”

By that time, the fall of 1944, my German was nearly fluent. I nodded, picked up my cleaning bucket and headed up the stairs. The female guard on the second floor awaited and she took me to an officer’s suite. I did what I was told without question and got down on the floor and started scrubbing. Glancing up, I saw the officer sitting at his desk. He was setting his things in order and I went quickly back to cleaning. We were not to say a word to anyone. After part of an hour had passed, the officer suddenly stood up and left the room. He returned with a large vase of flowers. He set them at the center of the meeting table in the middle of the room. It was a splendid bouquet and I couldn’t help gazing at it.

“Finally, you look up,” the officer said, catching my glance.

His look made me uneasy. Realizing my mistake, I scoured the floor with greater fervor. I was almost finished.  

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I’ve been watching you. I can help you. I know you’re hungry. I have some bread.” He walked over to his desk and returned to my side with a bread roll. “Have it.”

I hesitated. I’d heard the horrible price a woman might have to pay for accepting kindness, even for a bread roll.

“Please. Take it. You’re hungry aren’t you?”

I looked away and said nothing. But I began to shake, remembering the nights in the attic, the beatings. Accepting something from an officer or refusing to accept—it could cost me either way.

“You’re beautiful, you know. Stand up and let me have a better look at you.” I did what I was told. And he took hold of my arm. “Please. I can help you.” He pulled me close to his chest.

“I’m finished with the cleaning,” I said and shrugged myself loose from his grip. Picking up my bucket, I went for the door. But he came after me.

Just then the door knob rattled and three officers walked in.

“You’re early, gentleman. Come in. Come in,” the officer said as I slipped between them and out the door. “I expect you here at the same time tomorrow, Frauline!” he called after me.   


(To be continued…)


(1)  I am a freelance writer in Beaverton, Oregon and recorded Katherine Graczyk’s story during a series of interviews. I am honored to write the first-person account of her experiences; Katherine Graczyk and I were cousins. Part of Katherine’s story was also published in the anthology FORGOTTEN SURVIVORS, edited by Dr. Richard Lukas.

Part III – 2018 – Forced Labor in the Third Reich — Katherine Graczyk

Forced Labor in the Third Reich – Part III

Polish American Journal * December 2018

The Personal Account of a Polish Slave Laborer. 

Katherine Graczyk, a Polish Catholic, was captured by the SS and shipped to Germany.  She shared her story with author Catherine Hamilton (1)

by Catherine Hamilton


Part III

One Christmas Eve, while I was still hiding at the German farm that took in runaway Polish slaves, the farmer’s wife sat me down at their family table. Were they going to send me away? No, I was invited to have dinner with them. I couldn’t believe it! But it was true.

They had covered the windows with tarps. The farmer checked to make sure nobody was outside. It was against the law for the Germans to eat with the Polish slave-labor workers. But they ate Christmas Eve dinner with me anyway. They gave me a Christmas present, too. It was just a rubber apron. That’s all they could afford. I was moved to tears, knowing the risks they were taking; they could have gone to prison for such acts of kindness.

A few days after Christmas, an SS officer came to the farm and told the farmer I was a runaway. I was dragged out of the house and beaten and shoved into a small Nazi police truck.  The brutal journey ended at the women’s prison in Berlin, where I was jailed on the fifth floor. I was the property of the Nazis. However far I walked, whatever dangerous or safe places I found, I was always surrounded by the informers and blackmailing Nazi loyalists.

One night that first week, after they locked the cell, I saw something that looked like a burning Christmas tree drop past the little tiny window up near the ceiling. An explosion hit the administration building just across the courtyard. My cellmates and I saw flames, and more explosions followed. Allied bombs were hitting the prison compound. For those of us trapped inside, that night seemed like an eternity.

The next day, all we could see was black smoke. It was a miracle we didn’t get hit. The buildings all around us had burned; the smoldering skeleton-of-a-prison was a haunting monument to Hitler.

I didn’t make any friends at the Berlin Women’s Prison. Nobody wanted to talk. We were afraid to say anything because there were informants inside the prison. Trucks came every day, hauling more and more prisoners out of the compound because of the bombing; it was to be completely evacuated. After one week in Berlin, I was shoved onto another truck.

The truck was jammed so tightly with prisoners that I could only stand on one foot. When we unloaded at the Berlin station, I saw that it, too, was on fire, and nearly destroyed by the bombing raids of the previous night. “Get going! Go! Go!” a guard shouted, thrusting a gun in my face. I wasn’t moving fast enough and another guard pushed me. I caught myself and kept going. Plank-like boards stretched across the openings blasted in the corridor flooring by the bombs. A board one foot wide by twelve feet long was my only support? I would have to walk across that wobbly plank with the fire raging down below me?

I was the last one in my row. Just as I stepped onto the plank, another guard shoved me. I pushed the girl in front of me, she pushed the girl in front of her, and we fell like dominos. The fire raged below me as I tumbled toward it, stopped by the twelve inch wide piece of wood, the makeshift bridge. Another miracle. Not one of us fell into the fire.

On the relocation trains, we arrived at the second compound where I was to be imprisoned. A woman guard marched me into the prison block and forced me into a small isolation cell. She locked me up and forgot me. It was dark and something was biting me–some kind of insect. I banged on the door. Hours passed. I banged and shouted until it seemed the entire night had passed. Nobody came. Sometime before morning, a policewoman opened the door and said, “What are you doing here?”

“I was locked up here,” I said. “Why did you lock me up in there? I’m not a murderer! The bugs are biting me! I didn’t shoot anybody! I didn’t kill anybody! I’m not a criminal!” I was screaming and crying at the same time.

“You weren’t supposed to be in there. That cell has to be disinfected,” the guard said. She put me in another cell with eighteen other women. The cell was only meant to hold one person. When I lay down on the floor, my feet touched one wall and my head touched the other. There were no beds. We had four blankets, two for the floor, and two for covers. But nobody was covered and nobody was sleeping on the blanket because there were eighteen of us, packed like sardines in a tiny tin. The newest girl had to sleep by the slop bucket. That’s where I slept for the first several days.

Those of us who weren’t sterilized were forced to take a pill with the morning coffee. It stopped my period. I worked at the military compound scrubbing floors. It was early in the spring of 1944, and I remember it rained non-stop. The officers walked in and out of the building, and I had to follow them with my bucket and brush and clean up the mud that fell from their boots.

One night we had to clean a bunker after an air raid. The bunker was very long. We had to empty the basins, clean them, and refill them with fresh water for the next day. It was hot. I remember the sweat running down my cheekbones. Even the dirty water in the basin was warm. I had to carry the water out by the bucketful and dump it in the street. The strange thing was, it was March, but it had snowed the day before and there was still snow on the ground. Underground it seemed hot, but outside it was freezing.

The next day I came down with a high fever. I couldn’t even get up. So, I told the guard I couldn’t go to work. “I need a doctor,” I said. She left me and I just lay down and put the four blankets on top of myself. But during the day in prison nobody could sit down in the cell, much less lie down; you had to stand or you would be sent to isolation—or worse. When the guard made rounds, “I will try to stand up,” I told myself.

The other prisoners said, “Quick get up. The guard is coming.” But I couldn’t get up.


(To be continued…)


(1)  I am a freelance writer in Beaverton, Oregon and recorded Katherine Graczyk’s story during a series of interviews. I am honored to write the first-person account of her experiences; Katherine Graczyk and I were cousins. Part of Katherine’s story was also published in the anthology FORGOTTEN SURVIVORS, edited by Dr. Richard Lukas. 

Part II – 2018 – Forced Labor in the Third Reich — Katherine Graczyk

Forced Labor in the Third Reich – Part II

Polish American Journal * November 2018

The Personal Account of a Polish Slave Laborer.

Katherine Graczyk, a Polish Catholic, was captured by the SS and shipped to Germany.  She shared her story with author Catherine Hamilton

by Catherine Hamilton


Part II

I never got used to the constant hunger. Throughout my captivity in Germany, near the city of Magdeburg, I had nothing to eat but boiled potatoes. For breakfast, the potatoes were fried in yesterday’s coffee, instead of lard or bacon fat. For dinner, the potatoes were served in a liquid. And every night, before I finished eating my potatoes and broth, the farmer’s wife would storm onto the mud porch, where we ate. She would glare at me and say, “Don’t eat all the food. The dogs have to have something!” After laboring for 12 to 14 hours each day with the men on the beet and potato farm, that wasn’t enough food to keep me alive. But I was determined. I wouldn’t let them starve me to death. So, every morning when I milked the cows, I stole a cup of milk for myself.

I was shocked by so many people in Germany saying “Heil Hitler” to one another. I thought they were just a fringe group, a few fanatics. The Nazis forced everyone to say it. They ordered me to say “Heil Hitler” from the moment I was captured. I learned quickly that if a person didn’t use the salutation, she’d be slapped down and kicked to the ground. I took this seriously because I saw a girl beaten to death for not doing what she was told, and I couldn’t do anything to defend her. I rejected the Fuhrer in my mind but said what I had to say. And if the boots came flying at me, I tried to remain on my feet.

I wanted to run away from the abusive farmer and his wife, but I didn’t. I was in the enemy’s country. Those who ran were arrested and sent to prison or the concentration camp, if they weren’t shot outright. “If you work,” the farmer said, “maybe you’re gonna live.” So, I worked. Let the Nazis harvest their own hatred, I kept telling myself; that was my way of winning. I wouldn’t let my heart turn to stone—no matter how much anger I felt after he’d beat me and left me on the ground, nearly unconscious.

One day I met Frank Graczyk, the man I would marry after the war. He was a military prisoner locked up at a nearby camp at night, but I saw him in the fields during the day. He worked the horse-drawn plow. We talked to each other out in the field whenever we got the chance, which was rare. One day he told me the Nazis were sending doctors to the prisons and farms to give the Polish women shots to sterilize them. Frank said he wanted to marry me someday and have a family. “When the doctor comes,” he said. “Don’t let him give you the shot.”

Ink drawing of Lipnik-Harta, Poland, where Katherine was born

“How can I stop him? What can I do?” I answered. All I could do was pray to God. And I did. The day the doctors came to sterilize the women, my farmer had taken me into town. The other girls were there, but I was not.

The Nazis tried to hide their slave-labor program by claiming they paid the workers. When we were locked in the schoolhouse back in 1940, after the SS kidnapped us, we were promised enough money for paper and stamps to send letters to our families. I was young. I thought they’d follow their own rules. Repeatedly, I asked the farmer’s wife for this so-called pay. She refused. “I don’t have to pay you, fool!” she said. I told her I’d report her to the authorities and she laughed in my face.

I became desperate to get off that farm, not because of the money, but because of the abuse and starvation. Still, I was afraid to leave. Where would I go? Finally, I gathered the courage to sneak off to the Division of Employment and report the farmer and his wife. This was the governmental division responsible for Zwangsarbeiter (slave laborers). When I arrived, I went up to the counter and told the male employment officer about the beatings. I showed him the bruises on my arms and legs. I complained about the lack of food.

He shrugged and asked me for my pass. Zwangsarbeiter were forbidden to leave their work camp, designated farm, or factory without a pass card. I didn’t have a pass and he knew it.

“I’m starving. Can’t you see that?” I shook with fear.

I was stunned that he didn’t arrest me on the spot. Instead, he called me stupid and said, “If you’re going to work, you need something on your feet. I’ll tell them to get you some shoes.”   

We had to wear wooden shoes. Mine were broken and when I walked, they’d fall off my feet. But I never got the new wooden shoes. I never got paid a penny. I never got so much as a stamp from them; and the beatings were getting worse. Despite the danger involved, I decided to run away.

Once a month I was allowed to go to church in town with a Sunday pass card. That next month, I told my farmer that I was going to church. But I didn’t go to church. I took a train to another town. And by the time they realized I wasn’t coming back, I was 100 kilometers away. I spoke German quite well by that time, and I convinced the ticket master to sell me the ticket, which was almost unheard of.

When I wandered up the road from the station, I found the farm I was looking for—one that was known to take runaway Polish slave laborers. I told the farmer I’d just arrived from Poland. He didn’t ask any questions. And in the morning, when all the men went out to the field, I got to work inside the house with his wife. We would do the wash together. Then the clothes had to be ironed. She was particular about the ironing and the other girls did not know how to iron well. But I was brought up with my mother, the seamstress, and she taught me how to do those things. I ironed beautifully. And the farmer’s wife was very pleased with my work. This couple was always polite and called me “Miss,” and never called me bad names or beat me. I thanked God for that every day!

I didn’t know the SS were already searching for me.

(To be continued…)


(1)  I am a freelance writer in Beaverton, Oregon and recorded Katherine Graczyk’s story during a series of interviews. I am honored to write the first-person account of her experiences; Katherine Graczyk and I were cousins. Part of Katherine’s story was also published in the anthology FORGOTTEN SURVIVORS, edited by Dr. Richard Lukas.

Part I – 2018 – Forced Labor in the Third Reich — Katherine Graczyk

Forced Labor in the Third Reich – Part I

Polish American Journal * October 2018

The Personal Account of a Polish Slave Laborer. 

Katherine Graczyk, a Polish Catholic, was captured by the SS and shipped to Germany.  She shared her story with author Catherine Hamilton

by Catherine Hamilton


Part I

It was like a bad dream. No, it was worse than a bad dream; it was like one of those nightmares a person never forgets. Except it was real. It was 1940, and I was eighteen years old. I was kidnapped while walking home from the market, but somehow I survived what followed. Many were not as fortunate. (1)

This is my story. When my father was a young man, before he and my mother married, he traveled to America to work. He returned to Poland with $16,000 dollars in his pocket and purchased farmland in a small village in southern Poland. He married Mother, and they settled into a thatch-roofed house on their property.

The gifted seamstress and the broad-shouldered husbandman made a perfect match. They didn’t wait long to till the field or start a family. First came my brother, Antony, then me, then Sophie, then Anna. Soon after their fourth child was born, father fell ill. He died when I was only six years old.

Things weren’t easy on the farm. We lived on the income my mother made as a seamstress. Still, I didn’t know anything different. And as soon as I could thread a needle, I helped mother with the sewing, especially with the button holes. I loved my life and my family. Looking back, I think the difficulties in my early life made me tough. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was going to live through something much worse. 

On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. Everything about my life changed. The sound of bombs and explosions broke into my village, bringing corpses and refugees. The horrors of the war followed; my fellow citizens were beaten, tortured, executed by firing squads, or hung in the streets. For a teenage girl, these things were unthinkable—yet they became my reality.

Living in constant fear of being dragged from our home and shot, simply because we were Poles, we spent most days hiding in the forest or the cellar. Polish soldiers arrived and told us to evacuate. But by the time we prepared to go, enemy troops had rolled into town. At gun point, they forced everyone back to their houses. “We’ll shoot you!” they shouted. We went home.

Enemy “destruction troops” set fire to a nearby village. As soon as we heard this we began the ritual of taking our belongings outside during the daylight hours; we’d stack everything in the yard. If the Nazis came to burn our village, at least we’d have our lives, and something to put on our backs. Night and day, one of us stood watch, while the Polish Army fought Hitler’s men. After 28 days, the Nazis captured Warsaw and declared that Poland was a territory of the Third Reich. Again everything changed.

We had no freedom. SS officers appeared everywhere. They closed the stores, arrested the owners, pulled big trucks up to the storefronts, robbed and ransacked and hauled what they wanted back to Germany. The Gestapo set up headquarters in every town. Everyone was ordered to report to the main office with birth papers. They searched us. They grilled us with questions. They called us names. Priests, teachers, doctors, bankers, and lawyers—they were all arrested. No one saw them again.

We couldn’t stand by and do nothing. A new war began, an underground war, fought by citizens and the newly formed Polish Home Army. Unfortunately, I only witnessed and participated in the early phases of the resistance.

On New Year’s Day, 1940, my mother received a notice that my brother and I were to report to the SS headquarters; from there we would be transported to Germany to work for “the Fuhrer.” We didn’t go. That was our way of fighting back. Every village, town, and city received a notice of the number of “heads” that had to report. But no one reported for “work.”

My mother received a second notice. Fearing they would come after us, my brother and I escaped to another town to hide. When word spread that the parents of the youths who didn’t report for work in Germany were being arrested, we returned home to protect our mother; but we didn’t go to the headquarters. We stayed on the farm. If the SS drove up the road near our house, we would run and hide in the forest beyond the potato field.

One day Antony, Sophie and I—Sophie was a close friend of ours—sneaked to the neighboring town of Dynow to buy salt. The Nazi soldiers had taken most of the food; even though a salt mine existed only kilometers away, salt was scarce. Not finding a grain of salt to buy anywhere, we headed home.

Suddenly, we noticed two SS officers walking behind us. We kept walking; maybe they didn’t notice us. But they came closer and closer, marching stiff-legged. Before we had a chance to run, they grabbed hold of us and shouted, “Halt! Du kommst mit uns! Halt!” They were speaking German and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I only knew they were shouting and pushing and had a gun in my back.

We were taken to a schoolhouse and herded into a classroom along with 50 other kids the SS had captured. All I could think of was my mother. She didn’t know where we were. If I could get to the window, I thought, maybe I could get someone’s attention. I could ask them to go tell my mother that we’d been caught in a round-up. I scooted backward to the window. Slowly, I opened it. It would only open a crack, but that was enough. A man on a bike, who had watched as they pulled us from the truck, was still at the edge of the schoolyard. I waved him over.

“My name is Katherine Ponczocha,” I whispered. I told him my brother was there with me, and I gave him our address. He rode away. I didn’t know the man. And I didn’t know if he could help us.

We were trapped inside classrooms empty of desks, the girls locked in one room and the boys in another down the hall. That first afternoon, they ordered us to take off our clothes. Threatening to shoot if we did not comply, they took every stitch of clothing we had on and prodded us like cattle into a single-file line. “For physical examination,” the guard said, speaking in broken Polish. Forced to stand for hours in the hallway opposite the young men, who were also naked, I felt completely numb. Humiliation is not a strong enough word.

Then it was my turn. First, the barber cut off my waist-long braids; after that, he shaved my head. Since I had only seen the doctor on one occasion when I was very sick with a fever, this was to be my first physical examination. The doctors talked loudly. They laughed. There I was, naked on a table in front of four of them, and they had guns pointed at me. I didn’t know what they were going to do. I heard a young man swearing on the other side of a curtain, and the doctor proceeded to examine my every centimeter and natural cavity. My mind went completely blank and I have no recollection of how long I was on the table.

They finally returned us to the classroom, still without anything to wear. I stared at the walls and pretended to be invisible. Several hours later, they brought me my clothes, but not my shoes. Wadded and wrinkled, my dress smelled of insecticide. Then I was made to sleep on old, bug-infested hay that looked like it had been piled in the classroom for months, possibly since the beginning of the round-ups. [Photo 4]

In the morning, we received identification patches. A violet triangle with the capital letter “P” was issued to me because I was a Polish Catholic. I was ordered to sew the patch onto my sleeve. I learned all the girls were being transported to Germany.

As the military truck was about to pull away from the schoolhouse, I saw my mother walking quickly up the road. She walked faster and faster—the man on the bike must have told her where to find me. She started to run, holding her bag over her head so that someone at the rear of the truck might reach it. The truck suddenly slowed for the next corner.

I called out, “Mama! Mama!” pushing my way toward the back of the truck. I forced my hand outside the back railing.

Mother was directly below me, lifting the bundle toward me with both hands, and I could see that she was crying. We were both crying when I took hold of the drawstring of the bag and felt Mama’s fingers. The truck lurched forward, leaving my mother behind in the street, her arms outstretched. “Remember who you are! You are a Pole!” she called.

The truck pitched and turned the corner. That was the last time I saw my mother. That was last time I touched her.

I was still crying when I looked inside the sack—a pair of shoes, a sweater, some bread. I had touched her fingertips. And I would remember who I was. The truck didn’t stop until it reached the train station in Krakow. SS swarmed the trainyard like yellow jackets on trash. I looked everywhere but didn’t see my brother or Sophie. Unloaded at gun point and crammed into a cattle car with eighty other young women, I somehow felt completely alone.

After four days on the cattle car, a trip that typically takes two days, we lurched to a stop at the Berlin station. A forced march brought us to a market place. Between the food venders and cloth merchants and flower-stalls, we slaves stood on display. There were hundreds upon hundreds of us. Armed guards patrolled the perimeter of the slave auction. A man in suspenders and work clothes approached me and pointed. He must have said, “I want that one.” Because he gave the man in charge a few coins from his pocket. And that was it. I now belonged to a German potato farmer.

Later, I learned from a male prisoner who was taken to the same work farm—a Polish POW who also spoke German—what the farmer had told the guards at the auction.  He intended to treat his workers so badly they wouldn’t last one year, and I was going to give him everything I had until I ended up six feet under.

Bondage? Slavery? How was I to survive this? I remembered Mama’s parting words. I would not forget who I was! I was determined!

But I was so hungry. We had nothing but water on the train. Oh yes, at the station stops, they might give us a piece of bread and cold coffee. It wasn’t actually coffee, but a substitute of some kind. One time while I waited in the bread line, something smelled so good, like bratwurst. I couldn’t believe my good fortune—they were giving us meat. But my ration of bread held nothing but bread. It only smelled of bratwurst. I decided they must have cut the sausage for the guards and used the same knife to cut the bread for the prisoners.

(To be continued…)


(1) I am a freelance writer in Beaverton, Oregon and recorded Katherine Graczyk’s story during a series of interviews. I am honored to write the first-person account of her experiences; Katherine Graczyk and I were cousins. Part of Katherine’s story was also published in the anthology FORGOTTEN SURVIVORS, edited by Dr. Richard Lukas.