Forced Labor in the Third Reich – Part III
Polish American Journal * December 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 (1)
by Catherine Hamilton
One Christmas Eve, while I was still hiding at the German farm that took in runaway Polish slaves, the farmer’s wife sat me down at their family table. Were they going to send me away? No, I was invited to have dinner with them. I couldn’t believe it! But it was true.
They had covered the windows with tarps. The farmer checked to make sure nobody was outside. It was against the law for the Germans to eat with the Polish slave-labor workers. But they ate Christmas Eve dinner with me anyway. They gave me a Christmas present, too. It was just a rubber apron. That’s all they could afford. I was moved to tears, knowing the risks they were taking; they could have gone to prison for such acts of kindness.
A few days after Christmas, an SS officer came to the farm and told the farmer I was a runaway. I was dragged out of the house and beaten and shoved into a small Nazi police truck. The brutal journey ended at the women’s prison in Berlin, where I was jailed on the fifth floor. I was the property of the Nazis. However far I walked, whatever dangerous or safe places I found, I was always surrounded by the informers and blackmailing Nazi loyalists.
One night that first week, after they locked the cell, I saw something that looked like a burning Christmas tree drop past the little tiny window up near the ceiling. An explosion hit the administration building just across the courtyard. My cellmates and I saw flames, and more explosions followed. Allied bombs were hitting the prison compound. For those of us trapped inside, that night seemed like an eternity.
The next day, all we could see was black smoke. It was a miracle we didn’t get hit. The buildings all around us had burned; the smoldering skeleton-of-a-prison was a haunting monument to Hitler.
I didn’t make any friends at the Berlin Women’s Prison. Nobody wanted to talk. We were afraid to say anything because there were informants inside the prison. Trucks came every day, hauling more and more prisoners out of the compound because of the bombing; it was to be completely evacuated. After one week in Berlin, I was shoved onto another truck.
The truck was jammed so tightly with prisoners that I could only stand on one foot. When we unloaded at the Berlin station, I saw that it, too, was on fire, and nearly destroyed by the bombing raids of the previous night. “Get going! Go! Go!” a guard shouted, thrusting a gun in my face. I wasn’t moving fast enough and another guard pushed me. I caught myself and kept going. Plank-like boards stretched across the openings blasted in the corridor flooring by the bombs. A board one foot wide by twelve feet long was my only support? I would have to walk across that wobbly plank with the fire raging down below me?
I was the last one in my row. Just as I stepped onto the plank, another guard shoved me. I pushed the girl in front of me, she pushed the girl in front of her, and we fell like dominos. The fire raged below me as I tumbled toward it, stopped by the twelve inch wide piece of wood, the makeshift bridge. Another miracle. Not one of us fell into the fire.
On the relocation trains, we arrived at the second compound where I was to be imprisoned. A woman guard marched me into the prison block and forced me into a small isolation cell. She locked me up and forgot me. It was dark and something was biting me–some kind of insect. I banged on the door. Hours passed. I banged and shouted until it seemed the entire night had passed. Nobody came. Sometime before morning, a policewoman opened the door and said, “What are you doing here?”
“I was locked up here,” I said. “Why did you lock me up in there? I’m not a murderer! The bugs are biting me! I didn’t shoot anybody! I didn’t kill anybody! I’m not a criminal!” I was screaming and crying at the same time.
“You weren’t supposed to be in there. That cell has to be disinfected,” the guard said. She put me in another cell with eighteen other women. The cell was only meant to hold one person. When I lay down on the floor, my feet touched one wall and my head touched the other. There were no beds. We had four blankets, two for the floor, and two for covers. But nobody was covered and nobody was sleeping on the blanket because there were eighteen of us, packed like sardines in a tiny tin. The newest girl had to sleep by the slop bucket. That’s where I slept for the first several days.
Those of us who weren’t sterilized were forced to take a pill with the morning coffee. It stopped my period. I worked at the military compound scrubbing floors. It was early in the spring of 1944, and I remember it rained non-stop. The officers walked in and out of the building, and I had to follow them with my bucket and brush and clean up the mud that fell from their boots.
One night we had to clean a bunker after an air raid. The bunker was very long. We had to empty the basins, clean them, and refill them with fresh water for the next day. It was hot. I remember the sweat running down my cheekbones. Even the dirty water in the basin was warm. I had to carry the water out by the bucketful and dump it in the street. The strange thing was, it was March, but it had snowed the day before and there was still snow on the ground. Underground it seemed hot, but outside it was freezing.
The next day I came down with a high fever. I couldn’t even get up. So, I told the guard I couldn’t go to work. “I need a doctor,” I said. She left me and I just lay down and put the four blankets on top of myself. But during the day in prison nobody could sit down in the cell, much less lie down; you had to stand or you would be sent to isolation—or worse. When the guard made rounds, “I will try to stand up,” I told myself.
The other prisoners said, “Quick get up. The guard is coming.” But I couldn’t get up.
(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.