Andrzej IwanAndrzej Iwan - wartime memories of a child. Andrzej Iwan was born in November 1939. As a child he had a different perspective than adults at the WWII period in his hometown - Sosnowiec. In this interwiev he talks about his personal memoirs from that time and also about stories which were told to him later by his family.
What are your memories from World War II?
I was born in November 1939 and World War II had started in September. I was born during wartime and what is worth mentioning is the fact that the Germans forbade giving birth at homes. There used to be district midwives who helped during house births. Now you had to go to the hospital. I was the first in family to be born in hospital. Of course, I did not know about that, I was told that later: “you were born at hospital, not at home”.
What can I tell you about the war period? We lived in Kaliska street [in Sosnowiec], in a two-storey house in which there was a funeral parlour and other shops. It was in the district of Sielec, which was close to the city centre. On the ground flour lived a lady – a miss or a widow; anyway, she had signed the German list [Volkslist]. She had signed it and because of that she received better food stamps etc. My mother knew her, so when she was going to the shop, she left me with this neighbour. She started teaching me to speak German , e.g. “guten Morgen”. I sat in the stroller, I could not walk yet, but I could repeat the greeting, “guten Tag” etc.I could even swear, say “Donnerwetter” [damn], of course in German. She taught me that and I was only repeating like a parrot after her. She found it funny, so she was repeating it all over again and again. Later she went outside with me. I was sitting in the stroller – I could speak but could not walk yet, it was because I learned how to speak before I learned to walk. There were two guys passing by and I said “guten Morgen”. They looked at me, looked around and started to run away as if they were chased.
I remember that, but only because I was told after the war that I had done such things.
The Germans used to walk around, like Germans would always do. Later we moved to Dębowa Góra [a district of Sosnowiec] to a newly-built house. The Germans came there, too. I remember the time when they were leaving our district. They came to our home. Me and my family were sitting in the basement and on the ground floor they prepared dinner. Than they gathered together and walked away. It was the end of the war. They left almost everything from this dinner, e.g. cheese, and we were very happy because of that.
In the building of the school number 18, which was in Dębowa street, there was no school during the war, it was turned into military barracks. The Germans used to come out of these barracks with a big German Shepherd dog and a trained cock. All the people were scared of this dog.
With a cock?
Yes, with a cock, it was a trained cock and people were scared of him. I was scared too.
I remember our trips to Sławków. My mother’s family lived in Sławków and when she had some time, she travelled there with me to visit her family and to take back home something to eat, like a killed cock, a living cock or hen, because they kept some poultry there. We did not have such animals back at home. I remember that once my mother got into the German compartment in Sławków by mistake. She sat down and said: “I just remembered that you speak German and even curse in German!”. And she started to pray. She took out her rosary and prayed, and I was just looking at her [not knowing] what she was doing. I did not know that this was a German compartment, but the Germans who sat there were staring at me, waiting whether I would behave inappropriately or not. But I did not start to curse. We did not have any problems because of this situation. The train slowly approached the stop Sosnowiec-Dandówka, Dańdówka was the first stop there. Then we had to decide what to do with the cock, because we were given the information that at the train station the Germans were going to control the people who would get out of the train. My mother opened the window and threw the cock, which was tied up, out of it, into the ditch next to the track. We got out from the train at the station, where was my father waiting for us with his bike. He was there to pick us up because he knew what time we were going to arrive. My mother told him: “I had a cock but I needed to throw him away, about one kilometre from the place we are now”. And imagine, my father sat on the bike and rode along the train line in direction of Dańdówka and found this tied up cock. All well and alive.
Was anyone from your family or friends arrested?
No one from my family was sent to a big camp such as Auschwitz. But my neighbours were very often imprisoned because of preparing alcohol. Especially my female neighbours were making this black market alcohol. Somebody told the Germans about it, or maybe they discovered it on their own, and they sent my neighbour to the prison in Radocha. They told her, for the first two times she would be put in prison, but for the third time she would be deported to Auschwitz. When the Russians arrived at Dębowa Góra, their first questions were “kuda Germancy i kuda vodka” – where are the Germans and where is vodka. So my father said: “There are no more Germans here, they left this place and went to the West. This is the end of the war”. [They answered:] “Good, good, but we need alcohol”. [My father replied:] “Our neighbour was making it once”. They went to the neighbour, who had a huge alcohol reserve. The Russians wanted to take it all. They were longing for this alcohol so much that when they saw it, they wanted to drink everything. My father went there with them, so they said to him: “Listen! You will drink half of a cup first, because we do not know what it is!” They were scared that it could be poison. But there was no poison. They gave this cup to my father and he drank it. When they saw that he was all right, they took literally everything! They packed it and went away. The neighbour was left with no alcohol.
The Russians did not behave so bad. I remember one example of a Russian soldier’s behaviour which should serve as an example to everybody. They stood with their car in front of the school and there were aliments in this car, e.g. some sugar and oats. Me and my friend came there and stared at the soldier. He asked me: “Do you have a mother?” and I answered that she was at home. “Well, harasho!” [Good!]. Then the soldier asked my friend the same question but he could answer only that he did not have a mother because she had died earlier. The soldier got very upset. He took some oats and put it into a bag for me saying “Eat!”. We were eating it without any other ingredients, because we were very hungry. But because my friend was an orphan, the soldier gave him even more oats and also some sugar on it. Jasio was so hungry that he put his head into the bag and had oats all over his face. I was just looking at this and felt very sad to see a young boy being so hungry.
Did you or your siblings go to school during the war?
My older sister went to school during the war. Not in Dębowa Góra, because the school was built there only after the war, in the street which now is called the 1st May street. It was quite far from home, but she went there and when father had time, he drove her on his bike. Once, when she was leaving the school, an air raid started. Planes were flying around and dropping bombs. The children ran away, my sister hid in a basement and got lost. She did not know where she was, she got lost! My mother, uncles, they all were searching for her. After two or three hours, she found her way out and left that basement. “What were you doing there?” [they asked], [she answered:] “I escaped, they were dropping bombs, there was an alarm”. It was towards the end of the war, so this attack was probably from the East, conducted by the Russians who were chasing the Germans.
Did someone from your family belong to the Home Army? What were their duties?
The whole family belonged to the Armia Krajowa [Home Army]. After they war, they performed a trick. The Communists had started to spy on former AK soldiers and call them for interrogations. My father, his brothers and colleagues gathered and wrote
a paper that they were in the Armia Ludowa [People’s Army, a Polish communist underground movement]. The Communists gave them some orders and medals etc. Of course the Armia Ludowa was there as well, but it was a pro-Russian army. Armia Krajowa was not pro-Russian. They did not admit that they were in AK, but thanks to that they were not imprisoned.
My father was good in climbing trees. One of his specialities was spying on the territory of the Gestapo. He used to climb a tree in the Pogoń district, close to the Miner’s House, and looked down at what the Gestapo was doing. Whether they were training or doing something else. He saw all that and then he had to run away and prepare a report: how many Gestapo participants he had seen?; what kind of armour and in which number they had? etc. It was my father’s task, but his tasks varied a lot. Once he went to grab some grass for the bunnies, but hidden under the grass, he was transporting a report. Unfortunately, the Germans caught him. [They asked:] “What is this? Was ist das?” They searched through the grass, but somehow my father managed to hide that report. If they had found it, he would have been imprisoned. They did not find anything, so they just threw the grass away, but if he had been imprisoned, he would most probably never have come home again.
The greatest things happened in the mine. In my father’s workshop, he made a fake metal wall, which was soldered. It looked as it was a real wall. But behind the sheeting there was a storage room for all of the reports, etc. His boss – my father worked in the mine’s workshops such as the sheet-metal, the wooden, the mechanic workshop etc. – was a man from Szopienice [a district of Katowice]. He was Silesian. When he came during the first days of war, he said to all of his workers: “You may not smoke cigarettes here, ja! There is wood here, it could catch fire. Only I may smoke here!”. He sat on a chair and started smoking. “I may smoke, but you are not allowed to do so!”. The workers laughed, but he was the boss and what was more, he was loyal to the Germans. My father soldered the wall so that everything was hidden. When someone from AK came, they would open that storage and put in or take out a report, run away and that was how it worked.
Were there more people in the mine who worked for AK?
There were more people who worked for AK, even if they did not know that it was AK. They knew that they were in conspiration and were obliged to report what they had seen the Germans doing. It was obligatory. They were soldiers of the lowest rank in AK. Armia Krajowa was the biggest organization and my father and all of his brothers were there.
How did the war end for your grandfather and his brothers? Did they have any trouble because of their membership in AK?
All of them survived. All of them but Feliks. Towards the end of the war Feliks was arrested and imprisoned. He was detained in Mysłowice [a city in Upper Silesia] and died there. He had a higher rank within AK. His brother, Wacław, was delegated to Gliwice [a city in Upper Silesia] to work at the railway station. He stayed there after World War II. His behaviour might be hard to understand. First he fought against the Bolsheviks and then he said: “We do not have a choice. The Bolsheviks have already occupied these territories. There are too many of them. We are not able to win this fight”. This was Wacław’s statement. His brothers were asking how he could act like that, how could he agree with this situation. It was obvious for them that those would not be the governance of law. “It’s true”, he said, “but we cannot make World War III like those who are in the forests now. They want World War III to break out and pray for that. We will not win that war. How could that even be possible? The Russian army is enormous by itself, but in case of another war it would receive help from western allies“. This was how he saw this situation. Later they said that Wacław’s evaluation of this situation was correct. “It is not nice to live in a communist country but we have no choice”. This point of view was later shared by his brothers. It was not a comfortable time for them. Especially for Wacław, who had come back home in 1920, barely alive. When he was 17, he applied for military service, deceived the office by saying he was 18 and traversed the whole front.
Do you have any interesting memories from post-war times?
A man who worked for the UB [Department of Security] came into the building which used to be a hospital during World War I. It was a big, primitive house and people were living in it. From one of the flats, a sound was heard: “boom, boom, boom”. That was the radio broadcast from London. From another flat, a different sound was heard, it was Radio Free Europe. Me and my friend Doniek were playing in the staircase. We saw that man coming and we thought that he could be a snooper, a governmental spy. We were quite scared as we thought that he might arrest us. We were living on the opposite site of the street and we should not have been in this block of flats. That man laid down on the floor and started to listen what was happening in the flats. Me and my friend had a steel washtub that we were playing with and we threw it down on that man. It made a terribly loud noise! The snooper ran away, but both neighbours had heard that noise too, so they went out on the staircase, started to shout at each other “You moron!” and then they started to fight. We sat silently in the corner and then we escaped. When we were on the street, we saw the snooper running away and hiding in the bushes. It was such a stupid adventure, stupid idea. [People were not allowed to listen to Radio Free Europe.] We were not eavesdropping, but we understood the situation because we knew this radio signal. At home, father was listening to Radio Free Europe, we heard that “boom, boom, boom” and then father would look around and close all windows etc. Furthermore, a few years after the war I attended a family party at my uncle Józef’s house, in Skautów street. Someone turned the radio so we could listen to the fortepiano concert. But then the canal was changed and we heard this “boom, boom, boom”. We all knew that it was the radio broadcast from London. My grandma quickly got up, ran to the window, closed it and said: “We won’t have any son of a bitch eavesdropping on us!”. It was 1957, but people were still scared.