Authors: Mary Brigid Surber
First published by Top Hat Books, 2015
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Text copyright: Mary Brigid Surber 2014
ISBN: 978 1 78279 934 4
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014954145
All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publishers.
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This is not my story, but it was given to me to tell, so I will tell it.
I may not be the best teller, but I will tell it the best I can.
In west-central Poland, near the German border where two brooks converge, a vast wetland is formed. Along the River Warta, just upstream from the marsh, sits my town. Legend has it that as the city was built, the founding fathers didn’t know what to name it. Someone suggested that the city council sit outside the town gate and take the name of the person who entered first. The older men went outside the walls to wait; soon a young girl came. Upon entering, the council asked her for her name.
She said, “I’m Kusters Trin.” So the city was named Kustrin; in Poland we called it Kostrzyn.
My name is Eva. In Polish, it is spelled Ewa. My name means “life.”
As an only child, I loved the land where I was born and lived my earliest memories. I couldn’t imagine growing up anywhere else. In my mind’s eye I can still see the green of the watery lowlands that stretched beyond our land, the blue of the sky, and the white of the storks. They came in spring and left at the end of the harvesting. This caused me great regret because I knew their leaving meant the summer’s end and school’s beginning. The sky seemed so blue that summer; the summer before the war changed everything about the land and life that I loved; the summer of freedom when I last laid eyes on the green of the wetlands, the blue of the sky, and the white of the storks.
The summer I call the last stork summer.
The scientific name of the European White stork is:
usually associated with making life. Poland was overflowing with potential and the abundance of life…creation.
Grandpa said, “If God came down from heaven, He’d come to Poland because it would remind Him of the Garden of Eden.”
I wondered why God would ever want to come here, especially with the infiniteness of the universe. It wasn’t that I doubted my grandfather’s words or Poland’s potential. It was mankind’s wars over boundaries, causing problems in the world that made me question grandpa’s statement. Over the centuries our country had been torn apart by countless wars and struggles for land. We lived and worked on a farm that had been in my mother’s family for a very long time. Land that meant more than just a place to live and work. Land that we nurtured, coaxed to life, exchanged favors with. Living here gave me lots of opportunity to see life’s potential. Hitler must have seen it too.
Nine days before Germany invaded Poland, Adolf Hitler commanded his military officers to: “kill without pity or mercy, all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space [
] we need.” And so, the terrorizing of the Polish people began on September 1, 1939. By creating his world he was destroying ours.
* * *
It was a beautiful summer morning. The light came in chunks of vividness, making the world around me richer and more distinct.
It was the kind of sunrise that makes you want to linger by the window so your eyes can take in creation awakening, unfolding before you, but I was not allowed to remain a spectator to daybreak, or to leave the house that day. I found my family huddled around the radio in the kitchen, clinging to a hope that would never be realized. They were listening to the words flying out of the box, like geese in formation, one following the other making their imprint on the pages of my brain. Their concentration floated over the radio like a bird hovering in the wind. It remained unbroken by the words of shock and distress exposing Poland’s vulnerability.
In the distance, I could hear squadrons of planes, charting their way toward the east, making clear blue skies turn black and gray. Metal birds carrying bombs and dropping destruction, changing the topography of the land and the life of its people. Eventually, the noise of the war drove us to the root cellar just outside our kitchen.
Down the steps into the cool darkness, we sat with bins of onions, potatoes, and other vegetables. I wasn’t fond of this cellar before the war; dark as a moonless night, it reminded me of a grave and obscured my view of the landscape outside. Now, however, it felt completely different. It took away most of the noise of the war, and kept me feeling protected and encircled by the love and strength of my family.
After the first week of war, papa built wooden benches to sit on and mama added blankets to the stocked shelves. We were surrounded by food and sturdy earthen walls. It muffled the sound of Germany’s crushing invasion taking our countryside, leaving a path of desolation in its churned up wake. Every morning began in this way, followed by days, then weeks of staying inside. I began to feel safer in the cellar than I did in the house. Here we sat, day after day, unable to witness the changes happening in eastern Poland. Kostrzyn had been taken without much of a fight. It was small, and didn’t hold much importance
for the Nazis; many Germans had already made this land their home. Proclamations would be made. New laws would be enforced. Poland would fall.
For a short time every morning, the radio was our only connection to the world. A world that was broken, and so different from the one I’d been born into. I looked around the cellar, desperate for a picture to place in my head, where I could keep it safely cloaked until I needed it. I searched my papa’s face, willing my eyes to commit every line, every detail to memory. I studied the heaviness of his coal colored hair, the clear green eyes that saw beyond the obvious, and the sand colored flesh warmed by hours and hours of living and working on land that was part of his very being.
He saw me staring and held out his hands. I crumbled into the safety of his arms. Beneath the earth, in a cool, dark, stonelined cellar, the days marched on; I learned the meaning of the word comfort, and that authentic strength was simply displayed in gentleness.
Kindliness could not be extended to our animals, however. We could only venture outside under cover of darkness to feed and tend to their needs. They must have missed the people who cared for them. I had no idea I’d miss the entire autumn that year. I loved the fall. Everything around me turned gold; the grain fields, meadow grass, leaves, fruit. The war kept me from seeing it, though, and I was starting to lose patience with the new routine that had been forced on us. I longed to look out across the valley and watch the seasons dress the landscape in her new colors. There was a stork nest down the hill on the roof of an abandoned barn, just beyond the edge of our farm. I knew the habits and routines of the storks that nested there. I knew it because it was real, true and certain. I knew it because I watched it every year. It wasn’t something that happened occasionally; it occurred consistently, generation after generation. This year I wondered if they’d left early for their wintering grounds because
of the war. Did they sense the difference in our world, or did they continue following the natural cycles of life they were accustomed to despite the challenge to Poland’s survival?
Hitler’s plan for Poland’s destruction was thorough and carried out systematically. By the middle of October, 1939, all of our rights had vanished, and we were fully and completely under German rule and occupation. We were under strict rationing. Only bare necessities of food, fuel and medicine could be purchased. We were also subject to special legislation. This allowed Germany to forcibly draft all of our young men into the German army; they forbid us speaking the Polish language, disposed of the Polish press, and shattered our bookshops, libraries, art and culture. All secondary schools and colleges were closed and all churches and synagogues were burned. Street signs as well as cities were renamed in German. Most of the priests as well as any community leaders, teachers, judges, doctors, and mayors, were publicly shot or sent to concentration camps.
Polish nationalism and Catholicism had been inseparable for years. The Catholic Church provided the foundation for Polish nationalism by rejecting Hitler’s theories and practices of racial purification, and preaching unity of the human race. Organizationally, the Church offered networks and institutions within which people could gather, distance themselves from Nazi propaganda, provide aid to Nazi victims, and oppose Nazi policies. In certain occupied regions, Catholic resistance was “armed.” If the Nazis were to succeed they had to destroy the church organization as well as its leadership. The first clergymen to arrive in concentration camps were the Polish priests. Along with the clergy, Poland’s educated class was specifically targeted. Hitler knew that controlling the country would be much easier without them.
By the end of December 1939, the “street round-ups” started. These continued for the duration of the war. People were forcibly
taken from their homes in the middle of the night. Those living in cities were the first to experience the terror, confusion and helplessness of the round-ups. After being forced at gunpoint from their homes, Polish citizens were lined up for hours, with no regard for their need of food, water, or shelter. They were interrogated and their fates sealed. Those chosen for deportation were categorized by their occupational status, or the attitude they maintained toward the Germans. A few would be allowed to return to their home; most, however, were either sent to work camps, concentration camps, or immediately shot…dismissed, depreciated, and discarded.
By the spring of 1941, the Polish children became the next target of the German war machine. The children with “Aryan Characteristics” were taken from their families and sent to Lodz, in eastern Poland, for further examinations. Children who passed the examinations were placed with German families or in German orphanages to continue their cultural re-education. Children who didn’t pass the examinations and children who didn’t qualify were sent to labor camps to begin a life of confinement and deprivation. By December of 1942 a special camp for Polish children was established within a separate area of the Lodz ghetto.
* * *
I would lie in bed at night and listen to my parents and grandparents discuss our situation.
“We are not in a city, nor near one. We live near a small town, but unfortunately we are also close to what used to be the German border,” said papa. “We have managed to survive this way for three years, our luck will hold,” he added with tired resignation.
“We can hide in the woods,” offered mama. “Many of the families from this area are doing that.”
“Yes, but you know what happens to them if they are discovered…” Papa left the sentence unfinished. There was no need to finish it. We all knew the price.
“I can’t sit here any longer and wait for them to come and take Ewa,” said mama. “There must be a way to keep her safe.”
I could hear the panic in my mother’s voice and feel the helplessness she felt. She carried her regret like a sack of grain strapped to her back. Remaining on our land while hoping for immunity from Nazi policies, was like hoping to survive a burning house by staying inside. I knew it was more than she could bear. I could see the sadness in her eyes and feel the despair in her heart. Surrounded by destruction and chaos it was almost impossible not to feel that way. Over the past three years we had watched helplessly as Germany dismantled our country, culture, and lives.
Other than one old cow, a few chickens and two sheep, all of our farm animals had been taken. Only the land immediately surrounding the house was still ours. The rest of our farm had been given to a German family. Everything we’d known was gone; vanished, like it had never existed. Other families in the area had simply disappeared, gone into hiding, or been deported by the Nazis to labor camps. There seemed to be no way out. Our time was running out and we were painfully aware of it. Like watching leaves change color, then floating away in the winter wind, we were watching the substance of our lives transform and disappear. The first three years of the war showed me that only the seasons, and the storks following their yearly migration and nesting routines, remained constant in Poland. Everything else was changed by Hitler. It didn’t feel real. It didn’t feel possible, but it was.
I will never forget my last morning at home. After waking and dressing, I walked into the kitchen. A heavy sadness hung in the air. Basil stood next to me, resting his head on my leg as I rubbed his ear. My mother and grandmother were seated at the table; my
grandmother was holding my mother’s hand. Eyes swollen from crying, my mother’s face bore the heart-break of our dilemma. I had never seen such a sad look in my mother’s eyes.
“It’s ok, mama,” I offered. I couldn’t bear seeing her so sad. No one had to tell me. I knew my summons had been delivered. My appearance was expected at the deportation center in Kostrzyn. My day for racial examination had arrived.