My Parents' Experiences as Polish Slave Laborers in Nazi Germany and Displaced Persons after the War
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
HOW MY PARENTS MET: A SURVIVORS' STORY
parents didn’t much talk about their relationship or their love for each other
or how they met. To tell the truth,
they weren’t a happy couple. In fact,
they didn’t much talk about anything to each other. They made sure for years that they had work
schedules that conflicted and kept them out of the house when the other one was
home. The only time they would really
see each other was on the weekends and holidays, and you could always expect a
serious fight or argument.
It was a hell of a marriage. They went at it whenever
they’d get together, even on Sunday mornings, even on Christmas Day. It got so bad at times when I was a kid that
my sister and I would plead with them to get a divorce. What finally stopped them arguing was the
death of my dad in 1997.
I knew the bare bones of how they met.
It was during World War II, and sometimes, if my mom wasn’t around and
my dad had had a few drinks, he’d start talking about the war, the stuff he
saw, the life he led. He’d talk about
how he’d been a Polish farm boy when he was captured by the Nazis and taken to
Buchenwald Concentration Camp as a slave laborer. He spent more than four years there, doing
the work that the Nazis needed done because their own farm boys were out
conquering the world. My dad would talk
about the work and the hunger, and once in a while he would talk about my mom.
One of the stories he told me was about the day she was captured
by the Nazis. They came to her house and
killed her mom and my aunt and my aunt’s baby, kicked it to death. My mom was able to save herself by breaking
through a window and escaping into a forest.
That’s where the Nazis caught her the next day. They shipped her and a bunch of the other
girls from her village off to the slave labor camps in Germany. When she got to the camp a week later, she
was still crying so much that one of the guards said if she didn't stop crying
he would shoot her.
My dad liked to tell that story about how she was captured and how
brave and strong she was when she saw the terrible things that happened to her
family, and sometimes he would tell me about when she was freed. It happened near the end of the war when he
and some other slave laborers from Buchenwald were being led on a death
march. My dad and these other guys were
passing the camp where my mom was, and that’s when my dad first met her.
And that’s also pretty much where my dad’s story about what
happened and my mom’s story split.
The way my dad told it, the guards prodding the prisoners on this
death march came up to the camp my mom was in and found all the Nazi guards
gone. It had been deserted by the men
who were supposed to watch it. According
to my dad, every Nazi in Eastern Germany was trying to put as much distance between
himself and the ten million or so invading Russians. There were no guards in my mom’s camp because
they had fled before the Reds that were barreling down on Germany. When the Germans who were watching my dad
realized this, they split too, leaving my dad and the other prisoners in front
of my mom’s camp.
Telling this story, my dad would always throw in at this point the
fact that he had been a prisoner for 4 ½ years, and that they were hard
years. He has seen his friends beaten,
hanged, starved to death, and castrated.
The German guards controlling his concentration camp never extended a
human touch toward the prisoners, as far as my dad could tell, and he figured
it was the same for the women. They had
seen their mother’s raped, their sisters’ bayoneted, babies thrown up in the
air and shot. When my dad and the other
men saw those women standing at the camp gate with their hands on the barbwire
looking at them, you can imagine what they thought, what all of them
My dad liked to say about that meeting between the men slaves and
the women slaves, “First we had something to eat, and then we got married.”
He always made it sound like some kind of party, a sad party
maybe, but a party nonetheless. People
in rags eating and falling into each others’ arms like heaven had suddenly
sprung up where hell had flourished.
But – he assured me – he was always a gentleman.
That’s the way my dad told it, and that’s the way I understood it
for years—until after my dad died, and I asked my mom about what she remembered
of that day she met my dad.
I asked her
because I was writing a series of poems about them for the book that eventually
became Lightning and Ashes, and I wanted to write about that day they
I asked her, she said, “Sure, I’ll tell you.
Take out a legal pad.”
She was always doing that, asking me to write
things down, if she knew that she was going to tell me something that she
wanted me to put in the book I was writing.
So I reached for my briefcase and took out the yellow legal pad and sat
back to listen.
told me that she first saw my dad in front of the barracks building she was
in. He was walking with a dozen other
prisoners, a German soldier behind them prodding them on with some kind of
rifle. My father, she said, wasn’t fat
like he got to be toward the end of his life.
He was skinny then, like two shoelaces tied together. 70 pounds, she said, and he had only one eye. He lost the other when a guard clubbed
him because he begged for food.
wasn’t such a prize after three years in the camps either, she said. When the Americans liberated the camp she was
in, they put her on a scale and found she weighed less than 100 pounds. She was wearing woolens on her legs, a grey
rag to hide her hair, and a dirty stripped dress.
here’s what else she said to me:
him? Your father? Like I said, skinny, a shoelace, with a
bleeding towel across his face from where he lost his eye. Still, he walked up
to me, took my hand, and said in Polish, ‘Proszę,
pani.’ Yes, that’s what he said,
‘Please, miss,’ and like a proper gentleman, he clicked his heels. I thought he was at least a count, maybe a
prince. Then just before your dad had a
chance to kiss my hand, the German behind him kicked him in the pants and said,
raus.’ Get moving,
father was like that. Always putting on
airs, even there in the camp talking of Polish honor as if he and Poland shared
a soul. Really, he was worthless. I wish he had left me there in the camp. He couldn’t drive a car, he couldn’t fix a
leaky roof. After the war when I asked him in the refugee camp to help me pack
to come to America, and what do you think?
He took a little drink and bundled all the clothes together in a bed spread
like America was across the street.
fool, I should have kicked him like the German soldier did when I first met
him. Instead, I kissed him and wept.”
probably wondering whose story was the true story about that first meeting, my
mom’s or my dad’s. I heard both stories
first hand. Listened to my dad and my
mom, and they both sounded true. I could
see it in their eyes, the way they looked at me when they told about that
meeting at the camp gate, separated by barbed wire. They probably were both telling the
truth. The truth’s never simple. If my parents taught me one thing, that’s
it. Different people tell the truth in
This memoir first appeared in Shout Out, a British journal.