Oscar Wilde once said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” I interviewed my grandma who was born in 1935 in a small village of Gnatowice. She witnessed the war as a small child, and that experience stayed with her for the rest of her life. Nonetheless, she always seeks the best things in life, and each day tries to share something important with others. This story is centered around emotions and recollections, and describes the life in the time of the war, as seen through the eyes of a child.
My name is Zofia Płaszewska, I was born in 1935 in a small village of Gnatowice near Krakow. I lived in a small house with my parents, my paternal grandparents, and my father’s younger brother.
What are your earliest memories?
I have several memories from the earliest years of my childhood, particularly from the times when I was older than three or four. My parents had a small farm of 2.5 hectares, but it was not enough to support the family. My mother was a seamstress who sewed for the inhabitants of Gnatowice and the neighboring villages. Thanks to that, the living conditions were better. I was taken care of by my grandmother. She told me a lot about life in the city, because before Gnatowice they had lived in Silesia. My grandfather was a steelworker, but then he had an accident that led to disability, so the family came back to the village, built themselves a house, and settled down.
Do you remember the day when World War II began?
Everything was relatively quiet. One day, some strange atmosphere instilled among adults: nervousness, neighbors meeting, telling all kinds of stories. I asked grandma what was going on, why people were having meetings, and she told me the war was definitely coming. And indeed, in a few days we saw very heavy planes flying eastwards from Krakow, and the next day an entire army was marching through our village on the road to the small town of Proszowice. There were tanks in the front and cars in the back, with big numbers of soldiers holding rifles.
It lasted about an hour, and we kept watching. The road was quite close to our house, and we could even see the faces of the soldiers. Afterwards, we saw soldiers on heavy bikes. It was the day when the forces were moved. Everyone was very nervous, disturbed by the fact that the Germans had already come and that the war had started. Everyone knew that life would change from then on. Women cried, men were nervous about the things that would happen. After a couple of calm days, the village mayor hung up posters brought to him by the Germans. The posters included orders for all inhabitants of the villages in the area. I also remember a conversation between adults—they said that there would be a new government, and that everyone would have to obey, because it was clear there would be punishments. Probably people already had apprehensions that the Germans would be killing Poles.
What was the life like after the Germans came?
Even though I was a 4-year-old, some facts stuck in my memory, because the feelings were quite intense. I observed the behavior of adults, the nervous atmosphere, the women crying. One of the things that I remember were the ordinances imposed by the Germans, and the penalties for noncompliance. The inhabitants were to provide certain quotas of their harvest, grain, and cattle to the Germans. No one cared if the inhabitants would have anything left to stay alive. On many occasions one had to give away the last cow. There was a family in the village that had 6 children and a small, poor homestead; still, they had to give their cow away, thus depriving their children of milk. In the following years, when guerrillas became active in the area, the situation deteriorated even further.
Do you remember Germans invading your village and castigating the inhabitants?
I perfectly remember one of such situations, when the Germans came to our village early in the morning. The village mayor’s place was not far from my parents’ house, and that was the place where they went first, left their car there, and then went to our house—a couple of Germans and the mayor. There was panic in our house: at that time, 15 young guerrillas were sleeping in the barn where we normally stored the harvested grain, hay, and forage for horses. My dad was not a member of any guerrillas group, but he found ways to help them. When my father heard the Germans coming, he quickly warned the guerrillas, and they got out of the barn through the opposite side of the building. But the coats they used as blankets were still in the barn. My mom and my grandma ran there to hide them; the Germans were very close, so the situation was quite stressful. My father kept watching where exactly the Germans were. Fortunately, my parents managed to hide everything, and still were quite nervous. I was a small child, but even I realized something bad was happening. It turned out that the Germans went to one of the houses in the neighborhood, to a family that was helping the guerrillas. They took a couple of elderly people, and a younger couple, the older man’s daughter-in-law and her husband, and a small one-year-old child; the man himself was taken by car in some unknown direction, but the rest of them were brought to a hill outside the village, beside the river, and shot dead. We could hear the gunshots from home, and some more gunshots again. Later we learned that they also killed a young man and his sister-in-law. Then the Germans told the village mayor to dig a hole and bury them there. Till this day I can hear that desperate scream of the woman whose daughter and granddaughter were shot dead. It was so dumbfounding. Although I’m over 85 old now, I can still hear that cry.
Do you remember any other stories similar to this one?
Another event that I also remember is the day when my grandfather was ill, and we called for a priest, because that was the custom we followed in the village. The parish priest from Koniusza came and told us that something worrying was happening in the area, because someone had informed him that a very large number of Germans was going to arrive at the village of Łyszkowice. The priest was talking with my parents when we heard a series of gunshots. Everyone got nervous, and the priest asked if he could stay a bit longer. We kept hearing single shots; I don’t know how long they lasted. We didn’t know what happened, but in a short while someone brought the news that a lot of young people were shot in the village of Łyszkowice. The Germans surrounded the entire village and started arrests. Next to the village, there was an area with meadows, a hill, and a line of narrow-gauge railway from Kocmyrzów to Kazimierza Wielka, which is beside Proszowice. They gathered about 40 young people in the meadow, and started segregation. About 28 young people were shot dead. The Germans didn’t explain the reason. In Gnatowice they also arrested a number of people whose wives they had killed earlier. They took those people to Miechów, interrogated them and treated brutally. Later they were released, but their family members died. Coming back to what happened in Łyszkowice: the Germans ordered to bury the bodies right there, where they were shot. This time, I didn’t hear the cries of people, but I could imagine them based on what I had heard in my home village. It was a terrible event, people were very nervous, and didn’t know what was happening. I remember one more event like that, I was not a direct witness of it, but I heard about it from my parents’ conversations. They said a family in the nearby Posądza was murdered for hiding Jews. Those Jews came from Proszowice. Before the war, there were quite a lot of Jews there—craftsmen and traders. When the Germans found out that the family was hiding Jews, they killed both the Jews and the family.
In the beginning I did not mention that after graduating from primary school I graduated from a pedagogical vocational school in Cracow and had an obligation to work as a teacher, initially in the Miechów area. Then I was employed by a school in Koniusza, a community where I still live.
The interviews are given in the original language or a transliteration of it with preservation of national, regional and individual speech peculiarities.