The Worst Thing Was the Food: A Polish Girl’s Survival and Resistance
This narrative is drawn from interviews carried out for the ESRC Growing Older Programme. I conducted this project about older women from diverse ethnic backgrounds with Mary Maynard, Haleh Afshar, and Sharon Wray.
At the time I interviewed ‘Zuzanna’ she was 78 years old. Her story of survival still grabs me and demands to be told.
I had just turned 15 years old when I was taken to Germany for forced labor. At that time I didn’t know where I was going. That was in 1942 when I lived on the east side of Poland. It is Ukraine now.
I was totally alone because nobody wanted anything to do with me. This was because people knew we were being taken to Germany to work and nobody wanted to be my friend because I was so small. People said, “If you work next to her, because she is so small, you will have to work for both of you.” So nobody would sit by me. I sat in the corner of the wagon and cried. That was all I could do.
I was sent to work on a farm near the French border. It was very hard because I had never been away from home before and I come from a big family. I missed my family very much and it was very hard work. Not knowing German I suffered badly. We had to make signs to understand each other and I cried a great deal.
I didn’t really know what had happened to my family. It was wartime. I used to write letters home and to get some letters from my mother. I was the youngest of 9 children and in 1943 I got a letter to say that my beloved brother, who was taken to Germany before me, had died. I found out later that the German police killed him. It was heartbreaking.
In Germany you had absolutely no rights so when you were told what to do you had to do it. There was no question about it. If you have no rights you mean nothing. We were there to work.
There was no such thing as working hours. You worked from dawn to night. At the first farm we’d get up at say half-past-four and have a cup of black coffee and take some breakfast in a basket and go to the fields to harvest the corn. The old women did cutting and I picked up after them. We had to start very early so that when the man came with the big machine we had prepared everything. In the evening, I never went to bed before midnight. There were two small boys at that farm. You couldn’t get clothes because it was wartime, so we had to wash the same clothes over and over; mend and re-mend them. That was my job too. I washed the children’s clothes by hand and mended them. I also worked in the vineyards and that was a very hard job.
After a year and a half, I don’t know where I got the guts, but I ran away from that farm. I suppose it may have been teenage behavior. I knew what could happen to me but for some reason I ignored it. I ran away to the office where they allocated work. I spoke German by then and I asked to be moved. I don’t know why they did not punish me outright. They obviously thought they would teach me a lesson and sent me to a bigger farm. Fortunately for me they made a mistake and I was happier there.
There were more people at the bigger farm–foreign people, girls and men. The men were Polish prisoners of war so we could talk and because I was so young they treated me as a young girl. I was happy. The old farmer knew if he treated us right we would do the job properly. And it worked out alright. Mind you, I was at the age when I was supposed to be a young girl and start thinking about clothes and that kind of thing. Back home I would probably have gone out and learned to dance but instead I had work piled up to my ears.
At this farm I worked morning and evening milking by hand. But the atmosphere was better than at the first farm. At times it was very frightening when planes flew overhead on their way to bomb cities or when a railway train came near the villages. This was terrifying because bombs would fall on the railroad, and some also dropped on the houses around. Later in life, I always told my children, “If you see films on television about the war in Germany don’t think it is just a film. That is really how it was.” It was very frightening. There was nowhere to hide.
In 1944, when I was nearly 17 years old, I was taken about 130 miles to the French border to dig trenches for the German army. When the Americans beat the Germans in France they broke through the frontline. The Germans collected up all the foreigners from the factories and farms and sent them to that one particular place where they were preparing for frontline fighting. We were in the fields seven days a week from autumn to Christmas. We were there regardless of the weather, rain snow or sunshine. We had no choice.
The area was hilly and in the valley below there was a town with a railway station. Trains arrived there with ammunition, tanks, and soldiers. Of course, the town was a target for bombs. We worked close by, just a bit higher up the hill, so we were always subjected to the bombing. And believe me, after a while, you cease to be frightened. You just hope and pray that if you get hit you will be killed outright. What I was most frightened of was if I got wounded and lose a leg or an arm. But thank God, that didn’t happen.
When we saw the planes coming there were so many – probably hundreds of them – and the earth would literally shake. When we sat in the deep trenches, small stones would fall off the wall because of the vibration. The noise was indescribable. You could barely breathe for the vibration in your rib cage. When it was good weather, they flew very high and it was just a ringing noise but when it was bad weather – which was often between September to Christmas – they flew lower because it meant they were hidden by clouds and had nothing to fear.
The flight crews knew we were foreigners and sometimes they played jokes on us. They flew low just to frighten us. We had to run away and hide. I imagine how they must have laughed in the planes. In a way, they did us a favor because we had to run away and hide and that meant we got to rest for half an hour. But that never lasted long.
The worst thing was the food. In the morning, we had black coffee and a slice of bread. At dinner time, it was just thin soup and even this depended on whether or not the supply plane was there when we arrived for work. Sometimes it came on time, sometimes late, and sometimes never.
The views and opinions expressed by the authors of Voices from the Frontlines do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.