Emilia Kowalska
Emilia Kowalska

Interview recorded:

Pogorzyce, Poland


Emilia was the second youngest child in the family. She had three older sisters: Felicja, Stanisława and Krystyna, and one younger brother, Franciszek. When the war broke out, she was ten years old. At the age of fourteen she started working at the locomotive factory “Fablok” and worked there until she retired. In 1946, she married Mieczysław. She has one daughter, Aleksandra, and three sons, Jan, Zbigniew and my father Krzysztof.

Could you please introduce yourself and tell us about the war?

My name is Emilia Kowalska, I am 86 years old. I was ten years old when World War II broke out. I remember very clearly how we were running from the Germans in September 1939. We went through Cracow and then on to Płaszów. I was ten years old and my brother was seven, I had to lead him by the hand. We were going by foot and my mother carried my sister on her back. We spent two weeks in Płaszów. When things calmed down a little, we went back home. We were going through Cracow and the Germans were laughing at us and taking pictures of us. When we arrived at home, everything was all right, in our town everything had gone quite smoothly.

I remember well that at the age of fourteen I had to work at the “Fablok” ten and half hours a day. For the morning shift, we went to the factory at six a.m. and worked until half past four p.m., for the night shift we went there at half past seven p.m. and worked until six a.m. We were still children. We didn’t realize what was happening, we ignored all that. We only understood what was going on when they started taking the machines from “Fablok” to Germany. They also took away some workers that we had close relations with, because we had worked together, we had been colleagues. We cried a little, but somehow we got over this…

My uncle was 52 years old when he died in the camp in Oświęcim. We were living nearby, so we could see the glow over the camp. Later, after the war, I went to visit Oświęcim, but I came back sick. I kept crying for two weeks, I just couldn’t stop. Those children, those little shoes, those dummies, those pictures, all of that… I was looking for my uncle on the pictures, I thought I could find him somewhere. I did it so long that I missed the bus and had to take the next one. I never went there again, I didn’t manage to. My husband was worrying about me. He was afraid that I could become insane. I took it very emotionally, I recalled everything. I can’t talk about it because I feel like crying. I wish that this never happens again, that no one has to go through what we went through.

In 1945, the liberation came, but no one was glad that the Russians had arrived. We were poor, we worked for half a bread, for a UNRRA aid package. My husband was 15 years old when he was taken to Germany. He worked for a Bauer [German landlord], but he said he had felt well there, because he had had enough food and everything he had needed. My husband returned home in 1945 and we got married. It was difficult to get anything back then. We did everything by hand, not by machine like it is done today. We built houses on our own, we crushed stones on our own, everything by hand.

I was eleven years old and I was going to school. After the lessons I had to clean the whole school in order to bring a few Mark home. I worked already at the age of eleven. Later on, I started babysitting. At the age of fourteen I went to work at the factory. When I came back home, we used to go to the woods to collect cones and dry sticks for firewood and the Germans laughed at us and took pictures of us.

Every day at midday, the Germans came and inspected the entire village. There was a manor where some people were working at. My sisters worked there, too. We secretly milled some grains with a quern in order to bake bread. Once, the Germans came at midday, when our cousin was milling grains at our house. They took the stone and broke it so that we couldn’t mill any more, but my mother managed to put the stone together again and we milled the grains secretly at night.

We used to knit. My sister lived in Bielsko and we took the train via Oświęcim to get there. I saw the prisoners, but I was too young to realize who they were… We brought wool from Bielsko, we wrapped it around our waists. If we had been inspected in Oświęcim, we would have died there… But we managed to bring the wool home and we knitted pullovers out of it. Then we sold them to have money for food and clothes. My mother brought the wool out of the house and hid it in sheafs of straw so that it wouldn’t be found in case of inspection. People were so deceitful back then that they gave away other people, and when someone was taken to the camp, he never returned.

My husband’s sister was imprisoned in Oświęcim for 15 months and spent some time in the Death Block as well. When I was there, I saw the cell where Father Kolbe died. It was like a cage, you could neither sit nor lay in it, all you could do was to stand until you died. My husband’s sister had small children back then, one was five and one was just a year old. Once, a German woman came and wanted to take the children with her, because her husband worked in Germany. My husband’s brother begged her to leave the children with his mother, my mother-in-law. Once, we took all that very emotionally, but now the memory is fading away. I would like to ask God for not allowing any war again, but now, when I see and hear all that… I would go on a trip everywhere, except Germany. If I ever heard the word “Halt!” [Stop!], my heart would stop, because I remeber these words, I know them very well.

My mother had a neighbour who worked together with her in Chrzanów and they both fell ill at the same time. Once, she gave me a litre of milk in a bottle and told me to bring it to her friend. I was walking along the road when suddenly a German with a dog appeared. My heart stopped beating, because I thought that if he inspected me, I would never return home. When I was working at the “Fablok”, one colleague once brought a piece of margarine to another colleague and was taken to the camp for that.

The Russians were in Płaz and the Germans were in Pogorzyce, not far away from our home. In our field there were piles of potatoes and beetroot which we had prepared for the winter. The Germans were hiding behind those piles and the Russians were shooting. Bullets were flying around for two weeks and we were all hiding in the cellar. My sister got out once in order to get something from the house and she was lucky, because as soon as she had passed, a bullet hit the door.

The Germans left their horses in our barn and the Russians shot all the horses through the door during the shootout so that they had to pull out their dead bodies later. When the Russians came, they picked two houses in Pogorzyce where they established their transmitters. I was watching them, but they kept chasing me away. Back then, I didn’t understand why, I was just curious. There was one elderly captain with them, a major in the other house and in the field there was a field kitchen. They were looking for brick houses, because there were only old houses all around. I remember that this Russian major told my mother that we should go away, because we were young ladies already and he wasn’t able to keep an eye on all of his soldiers. They were carrying around the things they had robbed and selling them. In Zagórze they raped many women in a cellar. This army was a rabble, like they had just been released from prison. The daughter of one of them, who was stationed nearby in Zagórze, was a nurse and he received a message that she was killed.

Very many people were going towards Oświęcim and Libiąż. In Libiąż, the Germans were shooting from behind the mountain and the Russians were moving blindly forward. Very many people died there. The Russian army stayed in Płaz for a long time. Once, a German soldier came to our house and started explaining to my mother that he would like to get some sleep. My mother made a bed for him and told him to sleep, but as soon as he heard the shooting, he ran out of the house and tried to escape, he even left his sapper equipment behind. When my mother saw it, she was scared, because if the Russians had seen it, they would have thought we are hiding Germans at our house and they would have shot all of us. So she took everything and threw it away. I felt sorry for the Germans, because they had their orders and had to obey them.