Emilia Kowalska
Emilia Kowalska

Interview recorded:

Pogorzyce, Poland
18.10.2015

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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.

Emilia was the second youngest child in her family. She had three older sisters: Felicja, Stanisława and Krystyna and one younger brother, Franciszek. She was ten years old as the war broke out. At the age of 14, she started to work at “Fablok” [locomotive factory] and worked there until she retired. She married Mieczysław in 1946. She has one daughter, Aleksandra, and three sons, Jan, Zbigniew and my father Krzysztof.

Could you please introduce yourself and tell me something about the war?

My name is Emilia Kowalska, I am 86 years old. I was 10 years old when World War II broke out. I remember exactly how we were escaping from the Germans in September 1939. We reached Płaszów, right behind Cracow. I was 10 years old and my brother was 7, I had to hold his hand all the time. We were going by foot and my mother was carrying my sister on her back. We spent two weeks in Płaszów. As the situation calmed down, we returned home. We passed through Cracow and the Germans took photos of us and laughed at us. As we returned home, we found everything as we had left it, in our village everything had passed by calmly.

I remember very well that at the age of 14 I had to work at “Fablok” 10.5 hours a day. For the morning shift, we would come to work at six a.m. and work until half past four p.m. For the night shift, we would come at half past seven p.m. and work until six a.m. We were still children. We did not realize what was happening, we did not care, until they started to take our machines from “Fablok” away to Germany. They took some workers as well, people that we were used to, people who used to be our colleagues. We cried a little bit, but then we had to go on…

My uncle died at the concentration camp in Auschwitz aged 52. We lived near Auschwitz and from our house, we could see the glow above the camp. After the war, I went to see Auschwitz, but I was sick when I came back. I cried for two weeks, I could not help myself after I had seen all that. Those children, those little shoes, those dummies, all of this… I was looking for my uncle in all of the pictures, I was hoping to see him somewhere, and then I missed my bus and had to wait for the next one. I never went there again, I could not make it. My husband was worried. He thought I was losing my mind. But I was just living through all this again, recalling it. I cannot talk about it any longer because it makes me want to cry. I wish that this never happens again, that no one has to go through what we went through.

In 1945, liberation came, but no one was glad that the Russians arrived. We were poor, we were working for half a bread, for a package from UNRRA. My husband was deported to Germany when he was 15. He worked for a Bauer [German land owner], but he always said that he had felt good there because they had given him food and everything he needed. He returned home in 1945 and we got married. Back then, everything was very hard to get. We did everything with our bare hands, not with machines, as we do today. We built our houses and crushed stones with our own hands.

When I was 11 years old, I was going to school. After classes, I had to clean up the whole school in order to bring some money home. So I was working at the age of 11 already. Later I worked as a babysitter. At the age of 14 I went to work at the factory. When I came home from work, we would go to the woods to collect cones and dry twigs so that we could make a fire and the Germans would laugh at us and take pictures of us.

Everyday the Germans would come at midday and control the whole village. There was an estate where some people were working. My sisters worked there, too. We were grinding grains with help of a quern-stone so that we could bake some bread. One day the Germans came when our cousin was grinding grains at our house. They took the quern-stone and broke it so that we could not grind any more, but our mother managed to put it back together and we kept grinding secretly, at night.

We used to knit. One of my sisters lived in Bielsko [big city in south-western Poland] and we used to go there by train which passed through Auschwitz. I sometimes saw the prisoners, but I was too young to realize it. In Bielsko we would get some wool and bring it back home, we put it around our waists. If we had been controlled in Auschwitz, we would have died there. But we always managed to bring the wool home and knit pullovers. Then we would sell them to have some money for food and clothes. My mother hid the wool in stacks of hay so that it would not be found in case of control. People were so false back then, they denounced one another, and when someone was taken to the camp, they would never come back.

My husband’s sister was in Auschwitz for 15 months. She spent some time at the Death Block, too. When I was in Auschwitz, I saw the cell where Father Kolbe died. It was like a cage, you could neither sit nor lay down there, they had to stand until they died. My husband’s sister had two small children, a five-year- and a one-year-old. Once, a German woman came to their house and wanted to take the children away to her husband who worked in Germany. But my husband’s brother begged her to leave the children with his mother, my mother-in-law. There were times when all of this made us very emotional, but now we are forgetting more and more. I would like to ask God for never allowing war again, but when I see and hear all that… I would travel anywhere, but not to Germany. If I ever heard the word “Halt!” [“Stop!”], my heart would stop beating, because I remember these words so well.

We had a neighbour who worked with my mother in Chrzanów and they got sick at the same time. Once, mum 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, I was afraid that he would control me and I would never come home again. When I worked at “Fablok”, one colleague once brought some margarine to another colleague and she was taken to the camp for that.

The Russians were in Płaza and the Germans were in Pogorzyce, not far from our home. There were potato and beetroot clamps in our field, prepared for the winter. The Germans were hiding behind them and the Russians were shooting. This went on for two weeks while we were hiding in the cellar. Once my sister went out because she wanted to take something from the house and she was very lucky, because a bullet hit the door right after she had gone through it.

The Germans had left their horses in our stable and the Russians shot them all through the door during the shootout. Later, they had to remove the dead bodies from the stables. When the Russians came, they chose two houses in Pogorzyce to place their transmitting stations. I wanted to take a look at them but they kept chasing me away. I did not understand why, I was just curious. There was one older commander with them and one major in the other house, and they had a field kitchen. They were looking for brick houses, but there were only old houses around. I remember that the Russian major told my mum to keep us away, because we were young ladies already and he could not keep an eye on all of his men. They would always carry around the things they had stolen and sell them. In Zagórze, they raped many women in a cellar. These soldiers were a horrible mob, as if they had just been released from prison. The daughter of one of the Russians who were in Zagórze was a corpswoman and he was told that she was killed.

Many people were going towards Auschwitz and Libiąż. Behind Libiąż, behind the hill, the Germans were shooting and the Russians were moving blindly forward. Very many people died there. The Russian soldiers stayed in Płaza for a long time. Once, a German soldier came to our house and explained to my mother that he would like to get some sleep. Mum 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 flee. He even left his field spade. My mother saw it and became scared, because if the Russians had come at that moment, they would have thought that we are hiding some Germans and shot us all. So she took everything and threw it away. I had pity with the Germans because they had their orders and were forced to comply with them.