For obvious reasons, you cannot remember the war yourself, but according to our family stories you are able to tell me about the fates of your parents. Let’s begin with your mother – what can you tell me about her fate during World War II?
As you rightly said, I don’t remember the war, I was born after it ended, but my mother told me a bit about it. My mother was born in 1925, which means that she was only fourteen years old when the war started. Unfortunately, on the second day of war, during the air raid on Katowice – this is where I was born and where my mum came from – my grandmother died of a heart attack while fleeing to the shelter with my mother, her brother and sister. It was a terrible situation for her children, because my mother was only fourteen, her brother was three years younger and her sister was just a year older. It was a traumatic experience, the German attack on Poland, the air raid and in addition the death of their mother. It somehow influenced my mum’s life as well as her personality, because she became a very tough and resourceful person. She had to manage somehow.
Like most children living in Silesia, my mother had to go to a German school, this was required. She finished a German vocational school and had to go to work. She worked at a well-known soap factory. If I remember well, the owner of the factory was a German called Kołłątaj. The factory was very well-known. Later, my mother told me that during the war they processed fat that had been brought from the concentration camp in Auschwitz. I’m not sure if they were only processing it or adding it to the soap. Mum only told me that it had a very bad impact on women, especially pregnant women who were working at the factory back then. The children were born very sick, if they were born at all. I think mum worked there until the liberation.
My mother came from a Silesian family. Their fates were very complicated, just as the fates of many other families in Silesia. My grandfather had been an insurgent and fought in the three Silesian Uprisings while his two brothers chose the German side during the war and migrated to Germany after the war.
In all this distress, there was one event that saved my mother. One day, when she was working at the soap factory, the Gestapo came and chose some people to be deported to Auschwitz. I don’t know why, my mother never told me that. Strangely enough, one of the Gestapo men asked the young girls – there were only young girls working in the factory – to tell him their names. When it was my mum’s turn, he asked if Mr. Wiechoczek, the director of one of the factories in Katowice, was related to her in any way. She answered that he was her dad’s brother. This saved her: she was taken away from the row that was supposed to be deported to Auschwitz.
Since my mum’s mother, my grandmother, died of a heart attack on 2nd September, mum had to become adult very quickly.
Although her sister was a year older, she was of poor health. Later during the war, she died of pneumonia. Her brother was younger, so all of the duties, like going to work and taking care of the household, were on my mother. All of the young people were obliged to go to work right after finishing school. It was with a great heartache that she recalled how her childhood was taken away.
Getting back to the memories of my mum, I remember that as a young girl she probably worked in the railway protection or the like, because in one of the pictures she is wearing a German uniform. I don’t really have a clue, she never told me about it. I only know she worked at some kind of uniformed services.
The fate of your father, who worked as a forced labourer in Germany, is just as interesting. What can you tell me about him?
I could tell many good things about him, but I will stick to the question about World War II and the post-war years. My parents met towards the end of the war.
When I was little, I was always wondering why the fingers of my dad’s left hand were missing. Initially, he would laugh it off, but when I grew older, he told me how it happened. During the war, as a young boy, he was taken to Germany to perform forced labour, like many Polish people. If I remember correctly, he worked in a factory near Dortmund. I don’t know whether it was a sawmill or a wood or furniture factory. Anyway, it had something to do with wood.
There, a machine cut the fingers off his left hand while he was working. He was sent to hospital, I think it was in Dortmund. When he left the hospital, he didn’t qualify as a forced labourer any more, because he was disabled. He returned home to Poland. My parents told me that after the war – I don’t remember when exactly, because I was a little child back then – my father received an ridiculously low invalidity pension from the Polish government. Only when the so-called “Polish thaw” came, I think it was in the 1970’s, when Gierek was First Secretary, the Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation was created and they found some documents concerning my father in their archives. (Correction: My grandfather started receiving his pension in 1988, while the Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation was only established in 1991)
After many years, my father received a pension directly from Germany. He would get his money every month on his PKO S.A. [Polish national bank] account, because back then it was the only bank where foreign currency was accepted, and the pension was paid in D-Mark. Moreover, he was reimbursed for all the years that he hadn’t been receiving the pension, I don’t remember from which year on exactly. I was already grown-up when my father received a letter saying that his unpaid pension amounted to several thousand D-Mark. I think it was more than ten thousand D-Mark, which was a considerable amount of money back then. Of course the Polish State paid it to my dad at the lowest exchange rate possible. I think they did it to many people, he wasn’t the only one. Finally, it wasn’t that much money that it could help my parents in their future life or that they could afford very much. They were slightly embittered because of that.
Do you think your parents’ fates have somehow influenced you, your life, the way you see everything?
Yes, I think so. I have always had a different view on Polish-German matters. When I got married in 1968, I moved to the Kielce region in the Świętokrzyskie voivodship. I remember how it always hurt when my friends said: “How come you don’t speak German? You come from Katowice, from Silesia, so you are German.” This stereotype was very widespread back then. This was several decades ago, now the times have changed and no one thinks like this any more. But back then, it always hurt me very much, because I always felt I was Polish and I didn’t understand why they thought I was German and was supposed to speak German.
I remember one more interesting thing. In the late 1970’s or the early 1980’s, when it was not possible for everyone to go to Western European countries – you had to have a passport, a visa, and it was very difficult to get them – I went to Germany for the first time. I was very surprised by the behaviour of the Germans. The town I went to was more of a recreational town, so there weren’t many native Germans there, just hotels and leisure centres. There were only two people from Poland. I was very surprised at how extremely nice we were welcomed, both by German youth – back then I was young as well – and by elderly people. I was impressed in a very positive way. Later, even in Poland, I always disagreed with people who didn’t speak highly of the Germans, because I had a slightly different opinion.