The Baker’s Slave — A WWII Novel
Note from the Author
Victoria Darski and the cast of characters in this story are entirely fictional, but they were inspired by real people and actual events. The character of Victoria gives a voice to the nearly one million Polish-Catholic women who were kidnapped—conscripted at gunpoint by the largest, most secretive wartime slave operation in modern history. Real-life Nazi official Herr Fritz Todt was the man appointed by Hitler to oversee the slave-labor operation. The program was named Operation Todt, after Fritz Todt, code named OT. Fritz Todt died before the Nuremberg Trials, but his successor was sentenced to twenty years in prison for war crimes.
The oral history that brought the character of Victoria Darski to life was given to me by someone close, my cousin, who was kidnapped but survived the forced-labor camps in Germany. Her only request was that I one day write it down. Knowing that I am a lover of all things Polish, and that this was personal, you won’t be surprised to learn that this particular story would not let me rest until I’d exhausted every resource at my disposal. I interviewed others who were forced into slave labor in the Second World War. I relied heavily on scholarly and historical resources (which I’ve listed in my bibliography), and my research added richness and depth to this fictionalized version of a historical event that most people have never even heard of, one that impacted millions.
My research started with a trip to Poland and Germany, specifically to Magdeburg, Germany, where my cousin had been auctioned off, bought by a farmer. I traveled to Berlin, the German city where she was later imprisoned for running away from her owner, who proved abusive. I interviewed other primary sources over the course of five research trips to Poland and Germany. By then I felt I knew enough to pay tribute to all those who were rounded up and taken as slaves of the German state.
While all the characters in this story are fictitious, many of these events actually occurred, especially those describing the treatment and conditions of the nearly two million other Polish people (half of whom were women and teenage girls under the age of nineteen, some as young as six) who were taken by Operation Todt, an operation that today would be called human trafficking. Women and children were taken from churches and schoolhouses in dragnet-style roundups, and via street kidnappings, and big-name German companies like Krupp took advantage of their labor. In fact, Krupp had the largest number of child workers.
Beyond that, this is not a historical work and has no intention of being a historical document. (For my complete bibliography of historical recourses on, see page TK.) This is a tribute to those women who died in slave-labor camps under the Todt Organization, and for those women who suffered the humiliation of slavery but survived to tell the story.
Radio had changed Victoria’s world. It brought swing jazz and blues into her living room. And on the first of September, when she sat on the high-backed sofa and reached for the metal knob on the cabinet radio, it brought news of war. “German tanks crossed the Polish border in a devastating predawn attack that Hitler launched against Poland today,” the commentator said.
Victoria crossed and uncrossed her legs, tightening the straps on her platform shoes. She dug to the bottom of her black leather handbag and pulled out rosary beads, a handkerchief, and her train ticket. Departure: 9. 1. 1939 11:00: that was the date stamped on her train ticket. The train was supposed to take her to the women’s dormitory at Warsaw University, where she would start her first semester of college. The announcer was saying that all university classes were suspended indefinitely, but Victoria’s suitcases were packed and waiting in the front hall.
Her bags were still waiting in the hall closet twenty-eight days later when Hitler raised the German flag on the Warsaw Capital building. She couldn’t listen to jazz because all they were playing out of Warsaw was Chopin’s dirge. But she played it anyway because the radio was her only solution, her quasi escape from being held hostage in her own home. She tried to ignore the familiar sound of her sister bickering with her mother about the impossibility of cooking with little to nothing—no salt, no butter. Would there be ever sausage or bacon or ham again? Thankfully, above the cupboards slamming out in the kitchen, Victoria heard Chopin.
Until Elizabeth came from the kitchen and said, “Mother wants you to turn the radio off and come help me bring the laundry in from the clothesline.” Victoria didn’t look up. She straightened her dress hem. She ignored Elizabeth even though she should have outgrown her habit of teasing her little sister that way. “Victoria!” Elizabeth shouted. Not until she’d switched the radio off the radio did Victoria look up at Elizabeth.
“I’ve been fourteen, Elizabeth. I know it isn’t easy, but at least try to act like a lady,”
“Okay, Miss Maturity. I’ll act like a lady when you help with the chores!”
“I do my share. Your arguing with Mother isn’t helping. Now turn it back on. I need to hear the news.”
“No. You need to help me with the laundry.”
None of them had set foot outside, at least not past the clothesline in the backyard, since the German soldiers had arrived in Lubli and given them strict orders not to leave the property. Being cooped up with Elizabeth another hour was going to put Victoria in the loony bin.
“The point is, Elizabeth, I’d be at the university starting classes this week if it weren’t for Hitler. My suitcase is packed, sitting out there in the hall closet, and I don’t plan to let it sit there forever. There is a chance the West will show up and we’ll fight Hitler together. This could all end soon, and I’ll be out of here,” Victoria said.
“I’d love to see you go to Warsaw. I’m praying for it. Then I won’t have to watch you dress up day after day as if you’re going to go off to college. Why can’t you face the truth?”
“Right now I’m thinking how nice it would be if my sister didn’t treat me like the enemy.” Victoria switched on the radio.
“Are you going to help me or not?”
“I told you I’m waiting for the news to come on. You go get started. I’ll be right out.”
Before Elizabeth closed the back door she shouted, “By the way, since you’re the oldest, you should know that we’ve also run out of salt.”
Even with the volume turned up loud, the radio didn’t muffle the sound of the crucifix rattling on the wall behind the sofa when the Nazis pounded on the front door. They were the only ones who came pounding like that. This just might mean the family’s ID cards had arrived, which meant they could leave the property. Maybe Victoria could even go see Sylvia and borrow some salt today—she and her best friend needed to catch up on the gossip. She hadn’t seen Sylvia in weeks.
Mother was at the door, and Victoria saw the silhouette of man’s hat behind the curtain, the high-peaked cap and leather brim. “Untermesch, öffne die Tür!” The man at the door demanded in a loud voice, but who knew what he meant. “Open door!” a second man shouted. Victoria saw the grotesque skull-and-bones pin on his hatband, unique to the Nazis. “Victoria, go get your sister,” Mother said.
“But is it the ID cards?” Victoria said.
“Go get your sister. Bring her down to the basement. Hurry!” Victoria turned toward the back door, but before she reached the hallway, she heard gunfire. The shots were close together. She’d never heard such a sound—the bullets came in a loud burst. Mama motioned Victoria to come down to the basement.
“What about Elizabeth?” Victoria said, but there wasn’t time. The men were inside the house.
Victoria pulled the basement door shut behind her mother and for a moment only heard the sound of her own breathing. Then more gun bursts.
“Down here, Victoria,” Mother was saying, from the landing below. It was just three steps down, but Victoria couldn’t move. She was frozen there on the top step by the sounds of gunfire, the shattering of glass. The basement door didn’t lock from the inside, but Victoria reached for the doorknob and held it with all her strength. Boot heels pounded up the hallway and stopped outside the basement door. Victoria didn’t breathe. She held the doorknob and felt it turning in her hand when the man shouted, “Kommen rout!”
The door yanked opened, and Victoria found herself crouched on the step with a gun barrel pointing in her face. Behind the gun, the silver-eyed Nazi grabbed her by the hair, shouting, “Kommen rout! Rout!” He dragged her up the steps and into the hallway. The second German shouted, in a mix of Russian and Polish, “On the floor!”
Victoria crouched at his feet, and his friend went after Mother, hauling her up the steps by the arm. He shoved her into the hall. “You! Get on the floor!”
Mother was slow to get down on her knees. “Take me. Let her go. Please,” Mother said.
“I kill slow whores,” he said. “On the floor.” Before mother was down on the floor beside her, the man hit Victoria in the back with the butt of his gun and forced her head flat against the boards, holding her there, the gun butt against her face. “Who else is down in the basement?” he said.
“No one,” Victoria managed, even though he was mashing her jaw into the floor.
“Don’t you lie to me, you little whore! We heard someone down there! Who is it? Your father? Your brother?”
What he heard was Elizabeth on the back porch. Victoria tried to see Mother, to see something in Mother’s eyes that would tell her what to do, what to say, but she only saw the man’s black boot. “My cat is down there. That’s what you must have heard.”
He leaned on his gun barrel, pinching her cheek between it and the floor, hard. “A cat? Oh, a little kitty? Okay, let’s go find your cat. Get up!” Victoria came to her feet, her knees quivering uncontrollably. “Here, kitty, kitty,” he said. In a blur she saw his red armband, the white circle and the black swastika, the bold-stitched letters SS, and then the back of his gloved hand smashed her face. Again and again, the blows sent her back to the floor. Mother cried for him to stop, but he and the other only Nazi laughed. “That’s where you belong! Grovel on the floor.” He spit in Victoria’s face and called her Untermesch and turned to Mother. “Where’s your Mr.?”
“I’ve only the girl with me,” Mama said, her voice trembling. “My husband is—” Elizabeth crashed into the house from the back door crying, “Mama! What’s happening?” And when she appeared in the hallway and saw for herself she screamed all the more.
“Stay there, Elizabeth,” Mother screamed. “Get down on the floor. Do what he says.” Then to the German: “Take me. Let the girls live.”
Elizabeth sank to her knees in the hallway, whimpering loudly.
“Maybe I want you and maybe I don’t. First I want all your money and all your food. Then maybe you’ll live. Maybe you won’t.” Elizabeth screamed when he took ahold of Mother. “Keep quiet! Make her shut her mouth. I hate screaming children! Make her shut up!”
Victoria heard Mother her telling Elizabeth to hush, but her sister screamed all the more hysterically. Victoria lay on her belly. She wanted to make Elizabeth be quiet. But she didn’t say anything—not until the gunfire did Victoria shout, “Elizabeth!” Not until her sister collapsed to floor and Mother shouted no and Elizabeth’s polka-dot blouse was shot full of holes and her blood splattered all over Mother’s favorite rosebud wallpaper, did she make a sound. Then she clamped her teeth on her lip and squeezed her eyes shut.