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
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.