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
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.