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 *
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?”
“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.