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
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.