Family stories
Czesława Poprawska
Interview recorded: by Weronika Rataj Kościan, Poland 30.11.2020

Czesława Poprawska

I interviewed my aunt, Czesława Poprawska, born in 1928, who used to live in Kościan (a town in the Greater Poland Voivodeship, between Poznań and Leszno). She tells primarily about villages near Kościan. She experienced World War II not far from her family home. Her father was displaced to West Germany to perform compulsory labor, and came back after the war was over. Her mother and grandmother worked for the Germans; her aunt joined them when she reached the necessary age. When the war was over, she started working for a tailor.

[WR] Weronika Rataj, [CP] Czesława Poprawska

WR: How old were you when World War II started?

CP: I was 11 years old.

WR: What are the feelings of an 11-years-old child when something like that is happening?

CP: I heard and knew everything. When the World War II broke out, it was quite hot. (sighing) We all were getting ready to flee from the Germans, but that didn’t happen. We stayed at our home, didn’t go anywhere. Some people were running away by carts, but that was useless.

WR: It was September 1st, so you were probably getting ready to go to school?

CP: Yes, I was getting ready, but nothing happened: the school did not start for us.

WR: Did everyone know what was happening?

CP: Yes, everyone knew.

WR: What are your earliest memories from that time except for the heat?  

CP: People were getting ready to leave, baking some cakes to take with them, but nobody left our village.

WR: What village was that?

CP: I lived in Ponin. The Germans came, I suppose, on September 3rd. They did some observation at night, and then, during the day, travelled by cars and motorbikes, for instance, from Leszno to Poznań.

WR: Was there anyone at home who stayed awake at night, on guard?

CP: No. During the first night we didn’t sleep, because when the war broke out, Poles set haystacks on fire. If someone was rich and had big haystacks, and 2 or 3 of them were set on fire at the same time, that was a lot of fire. It was as bright as daylight.

WR: And because of that one could not sleep?

CP: One couldn’t sleep. All of us were watching what was happening that night. We were children, so at some point we got tired and went to bed. I was the oldest in our family. My sister was born in the 1940, and my father was taken away to Germany in 1941. We stayed—four children, our mother, and grandparents. We didn’t spend a long time in our house: they brought us to Lubosz where we were divided. Every adult had to be sent to Germany to perform forced labor, while we were to stay in Lubosz, in one empty room without a floor. The house was newly built, without finishing. One family had an equipped room with a kitchen, and another room was empty. That was where we got.

WR: How long did you stay there?

CP: We didn’t stay there long, because my mother started to work for a German who dispossessed our neighbors, so we were back in Ponin. The Germans approved my mother and my grandmother to work for them, so we could come back, but to our neighbor’s house. We lived there till the end of the war.

WR: So your mother and grandmother were housekeepers? They looked after the house, didn’t they?

CP: Yes. They worked for that German for a year. My grandfather didn’t, but my mother and grandmother did.

WR: When men were taken away, did everyone know that they were going to work in Germany, or was their fate a secret?

CP: Nobody knew where they were going.

WR: Did your father come back home after the war?

CP: He came back only in July. The war ended in May, but I think my father came back from Germany only in July because they had taken him quite far away, he worked for the railway in the mountains.

WR: What were his memories about that?

CP: It wasn’t that bad because the territory was governed by the Americans, not the Russians. It was somewhere in the West. When he came back, he told us that the Germans did not believe him when he told that his family had been forced to live in another house. They didn’t believe, they thought this couldn’t be happening. When the concentration camps were mentioned, they also didn’t know about them.

WR: That’s exactly what I wanted to ask about: information. Because today if we want to know something, we search it on the Internet, go to some information portals, watch TV, etc. But in the past even the press wasn’t very advanced. What level of information one could get? Was it known that there were camps, and that people were taken somewhere by trains? 

CP: We had no idea about the camps during the war. It became known only after the war.

WR: How did you learn about the political situation—that, for instance, the Americans or the Great Britain was taking part in the war?

CP: It wasn’t known. There were no newspapers. We knew nothing.

WR: So you lived in complete ignorance?

CP: It kept happening, but we didn’t know that some people were taken away.

WR: So, everything became known only after the war?

CP: Yes.

WR: I wonder if you have any memories about what was happening locally, around Kościan? Did people fight somehow?

CP: We only knew some people were executed. We knew that because when I was visiting my aunt on Kosynierów Street, I saw them shot at our central square. The bodies were transported by cart along Kosynierów Street. They said they were taken to the Jewish cemetery and buried there. But all of that disappeared after the war, there are some houses there now.

WR: Were those people executed because they were Jewish?

CP: No, usually they selected politicians or teachers. They would transport them by a horse-drawn cart, with a pile of bodies in the cart. My aunt lived upstairs, so we could see the dead bodies in the cart.

WR: Was it a one-time thing?

CP: It happened more than once. In the times of execution they would close all the extits, so that everyone present at the central square had to watch the execution. What’s more, they had to clap their hands when it was said that those people were “traitors.” My father personally witnessed one of such executions, at that same central square.

WR: Do you have and good memories from that time?

CP: Good memories? I was almost 14 years old, so I also started working for a German in Ponin. It was a woman from Berlin, a widow. The conditions were not bad. She had all the usual animals. There were four of us, and we worked there almost till the end of the war.

WR: It wasn’t that bad; but was there anything pleasant, anything that makes you smile?

CP: Yes, when there were no Germans around.

WR: I think that everyone who survived the war is a hero. Of course, I don’t mean aggressors and traitors. It is obvious that some people did more, and some people less, but do you have any memory that makes you proud?

CP: (sighing, thinking) During the war no one smiled, because there were no reasons for that. Everyone was afraid of what was going to happen the next day.

WR: So, during the war you were displaced to Lubosz, then came back to Ponin and worked for a German. Anything else?

CP: My brother had to work, too. He also worked for a German in Ponin. But the youngest brother and my sister were too young for that. They were staying at home.

WR: What was the work like? Was it hard? Did they treat you well? 

CP: It depends. The brother’s situation wasn’t that bad, too. He grazed cows. And he had to do everything they wanted. Even if he didn’t have the skills, he had to learn.

WR: Was there any language barrier? I mean, did you have to quickly learn German words to understand what they were saying?

CP: No. No one forced us to do that.

WR: Did they use gestures to show what to do? Or did the Germans speak Polish?

CP: No. My German didn’t know a word, and they also didn’t know the language at the place where my brother worked. But everyone knew what they had to do, and how to graze cows. We also had to graze and clean. Everyone knew what to do with those animals.

WR: So the work only had to do with the animals, right?

CP: We also brought tiny rabbits and guinea pigs to Poznań for some experiments.

WR: Did the Germans do the experiments?

CP: I think so, in Poznań. But we didn’t know about that. We only had to bring the animals by train, and that’s it.

WR: Did the Germans take advantage of the Poles working for them? Did you have to do household work for them?

CP: Everything had to be cleaned in every room. Everyone had their task: one person cooked, another took care of the garden, and also there were animals.

WR: And what was the social status of those Germans? Were they intellectuals?

CP: I heard that the widow had had a husband who died in the war. She was an elderly person.

WR: Did you learn any German words?

CP: I learned some, but I’ve already forgotten them. But those younger than me were not even interested to learn the language.

WR: Would you like to tell me anything else, auntie?

CP: Everyone was happy when the war was over. It was authentic joy. People had meetings. People respected each other, more than now. And the joy, because we were young. I was 17 when the war was over.

WR: And what was it like: did the Germans leave the country and the locals immediately got their houses back, or was it a longer process?

CP: The Germans ran away. It started in the evening. In the morning I was at home, and my neighbor told me that I didn’t have to go to work that day, because the Germans were gone. Everyone was running away silently. We didn’t know anything. I only saw them through the window, leaving by carts, one by one.

WR: And that was the time you could come back to your house?

CP: Yes. We came back, and our house was empty. Everything had been taken away, because the German who lived there went to war. Only his wife stayed there, and then she broke her leg, so she had to move in with her in-laws. She left our house, and after that it was empty. There was nothing there when we came back.

WR: And then you had to go back to reality, to work and study. Did that happen at once?

CP: It happened as usual. We had to catch up with all the instructuion we had missed. The classes were joint. I didn’t take the matriculation exam, because I had to go to work. My father came back in July, my mother was sick. So I went to work.

WR: What kind of work was that?

CP: At the tailor’s.

WR: Okay, that’s it. Thank you very much.

The interviews are given in the original language or a transliteration of it with preservation of national, regional and individual speech peculiarities.

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