Andrzej Kaźmierczak, born in 1944
Mom, what’s my name?
Memories, memories and then these blanks. How much can you enjoy your life if you’ll never meet your mother?
I was born in August of 1944 in the Stutthof concentration camp near Gdańsk in the hospital of the women’s “Infirmary” of the Old Female Camp. It’s not easy to write about yourself not knowing the whole truth about your parents and what was hidden from you. I was born at night around August 17, 1944. This date was confirmed by the former prisoner Zofia Piasecka (camp no. 10624), who was the senior nurse at the female camp Infirmary and who delivered me. According to her, my mother spent some time in the maternity room where pregnant and postpartum women were staying. It was also confirmed by another inmate, Wanda Michalak (camp no. 34709), who on November 29, 1944, gave birth to her daughter Jadwiga in the same hospital. Two nurses, inmates Zofia Piasecka and Dorotea Szklarska (camp no. 17446), took me in a laundry basket out of the female camp hospital to the camp washhouse in the SS-men’s headquarters.
As it turned out, I am the son of a French woman, a prisoner at Stutthof who was a Catholic of Jewish origin. Her origin was concealed, which undoubtedly saved her life. My father was a French officer drafted to defend France in 1939, also imprisoned and executed in Stutthof (exhumed in 1946 and buried in the French Military Cemetery in Gdańsk).
After several months of being stowed in the camp washhouse with the tacit approval of the SS and kapo functionaries, which was confirmed by the former prisoner Elżbieta Jaworska (camp no. 21619) who worked in the washhouse, I was transported out of the camp. I was probably christened in Stutthof by an inmate, Monsignor Franciszek Grucza who risked his life moving around the territory of the camp designated for Jews and visited them, offering what he could. He supported them spiritually, administering the sacrament of baptism to Jewish prisoners.
“I was transported out” – in the account for the Stutthof State Museum from June 29, 1970, the former prisoner Walfred Walllit (camp no. 44526), a German from the Kriegsmarine (the Nazi war navy) who was dishonorably imprisoned in Stutthof, testified: “The corpses of Jewish children were also burned. SS-men would kill them and put their bodies in bags designated for burning in crematoria. Once, a ‘kapo’ baptized a child who was being secretly hidden. What happened with that child—I don’t know.” (Archival file no. AMS, vol. XVI, pp. 153–155).
“I was probably christened…by” – Dr. Marek Orski writes about it in “Rocznice i wspomnienia”, “Gwiazda Morza” 9/99, p. 31.
I also could have been baptized by the prior of the Pauline Fathers in Skępe, Father Sylwester Niewiadomy, an old prisoner in Stutthof, who was a kapo at the camp washhouse. Thanks to his skillful diplomacy with the Germans, he enjoyed their trust without blemishing the name of a good patriotic Pole. He helped other prisoners by providing them with warm clothes, shoes, and sometimes food.
Not knowing my Jewish origin, the Germans considered the child of a French woman and a French officer racially suitable for Germanization. At the oral order of Stutthof’s commandant (September 1,1942–April 4,1945), the SS-Sturmbannführer (the SS major) Paul Werner Hoppe, I was transported by an SS guard in a truck with clean laundry headed for the SS barracks in Nowy Port (Gdańsk). En route, I was supposed to be transferred to the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth in Wrzeszcz.
The order of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth and a kindergarten are still there today. During the occupation, it was “Nad Radunią”, a Catholic orphanage for boys who were going to be Germanized. The Sisters of St. Elizabeth, like other orders in this territory, were subject to the Bishop of Gdańsk, Karol Maria Splet, who in 1946 was sentenced to many years in prison for his fascist activities. The SS guard followed the order and deposited me in Wrzeszcz. Along the way, he stopped in Pruszcz Gdański, where he had me fed at the local nursery. Two Sisters of St. Elizabeth, Maria Alena Gothe (died at the age of 70 on March 19, 1945) and Maria Krescencja Baumgart (died on October 20, 1983), collected me from the SS guard. I owe a “second life” to the latter sister. They would call me Bronek, and later Mirek. They repaired my health and were going to transfer me—oh, the irony—to the family of a German SS officer. It didn’t happen because on May 9, 1945, right after the capitulation of the Third Reich, the soldiers of the 48th Army 3rd Belarusian Front, having seized the Tri-city area of Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Sopot, liberated Stutthof.
Gdańsk had fallen. Coincidentally, the territory of the Gdańsk-Wrzeszcz district didn’t suffer great damage because the fighting took place near the forts, port canals, and the houses that formed a fortress, delaying the Soviets’ seizure of the last escape route of the German divisions and some of the German civilians. Both in Wrzeszcz and in Oliwa the Sisters of St. Elizabeth were able to continue in the same place. Only in Gdańsk the Congregation’s building was reduced to rubble after heavy fire. I remember the destroyed city and port equipment in 1947 when the camera crew of the Military Film Czołówka from Łódź were making a documentary.
The nuns, who had a group of war orphans between the ages of 2 and 4, decided to take them to Łódź, which was Poland’s temporary capital city at the time. They took us (I don’t remember this part!) to the UNRRA center in Łódź to find us foster families. I was only 2 years old but I still remember the room where I was fed as well as the white aprons and headpieces of the nursing nuns. And the “barszczik” (red. borsht)—I still remember it fondly. Among familiar people I would babble incessantly in my own language, but the moment a stranger came in I would instinctively go silent, like in the camp washhouse. They say I had sad dark eyes, dark hair, and a slightly dark complexion. With time, my hair turned dark brown, my complexion very pale, while my eye color became hazel, the look in my eye “heavy” and inquisitive.
The director Jadwiga Plucińska from Film Polski, who visited our branch in Łódź because she was making a movie about orphanages and war orphans, told her friends about the possibility of adopting a child. In June or July 1946, the Sisters of St. Elizabeth transferred me (in an informal adoption) to a childless married couple, a Polish Catholic family. They lived in Łódź at 67 Narutowicz Street.
When I saw the open arms of my future father, I clung to him without hesitation and loved this man. His name was Wacław Kaźmierczak. He was a director and editor at the Łódź Film Studio, one of the founders of the Warsaw Documentary Film Studio (WFD) at 21 Chełmska Street, and a teacher of many generations of the Polish school of film editing. He edited the Polish Film Chronicles between 1945 and 1974. He co-created a number of documentaries, such as: “Zagłada Berlina” (Berlin’s fall), 1945, “Ostatni Parteitag w Norymberdze”(Thelast Parteitagin Nuremberg), 1946, “REQUIEM dla 500,000” (Requiem for 500,000), 1963, and many others. He was awarded numerous domestic and international prizes. During the occupation, he was a member of the Department of Photography and Cinematography at the Bureau of Information and Propaganda formed by the Home Army Headquarters. Upon the instruction of the Home Army’s intelligence, he worked at FIP, which produced, among others, Tygodnik Dźwiękowy Generalnej Guberni (Deutsche Wochenschau [“The General Government’s Weekly Newsreel”]). Following the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, he became the head of the “Falanga” photography and film atelier (at 6 Leszczyńska Street in Powiśle). He also edited insurgents’ film chronicles titled “Warszawa Walczy” (Warsaw is fighting). They were played at the Palladium movie theater at Złotna Street. He edited more than fifteen hundred Film Chronicles and made over two hundred documentaries. He was an incredibly modest person and had many features of a Poznań man. Born in the Poznańskie region on August 5, 1905, he died after a severe illness on April 10, 1981.
When they transferred me to my adopted parents, the nuns handed them an envelope with a stamp in Gothic letters saying “Feldpost” (field post). It contained a sheet of paper with my data, which my parents “were supposed to destroy.” As far as I know from witnesses’ accounts, the sheet was indeed destroyed. The envelope has been preserved and I have it.
To commemorate my father’s involvement with the Home Army, my parents named me Andrzej so that the first letters of my first and last name would form the initials “AK” [Polish: Armia Krajowa—trans. note]. My father registered me in the books at the Registry Office in Warsaw in September 1946. In order to cover my tracks, he stated a different date and place of birth (August 4, 1944, in Warsaw). Only the month and the year are correct. On July 10, 2000, by the ruling of the District Court in Warsaw, I regained my actual place of birth, which was Sztutowo [Stutthof concentration camp].
Those older than me who remember the camp might say that I was lucky because I don’t remember those events. It’s true. It’s a painful blank in my memory. I don’t remember that hecatomb, the odor of Häftlings’ burned bodies or the “Muselmänner” [those apparently about to die] shuffling among the barracks.
Although I don’t remember the concentration camp itself, my body carries permanent marks of the camp, where I miraculously survived smallpox and typhoid. I wasn’t breastfed. I was also malnourished and completely helpless, dependent on people whose lives were also in constant danger. The fact that I survived smallpox is another injection mystery; some “vaccine” was applied to me by an SS doctor—the same doctor who in the same Infirmary killed a 2-month-old boy with a phenol injection because he didn’t like his state of health. The body of the infant was put in a bag and burned that same day. It was the baby boy of an 18-year-old Polish girl brought from the Warsaw Uprising. He was born in the same Infirmary as me. I could list other permanent marks of my stay in Stutthof…
From mid-1946 I began a new life in the home of my adoptive parents. My living conditions were exceptional. But was I happy? My mother treated me like a toy, not giving me real affection. She punished me and enforced obedience by frequently hitting me with a leash. The dog would also get a beating if he growled in my defense. De facto, I was raised by housekeepers who were often replaced in our home. My father, absorbed by his professional work, was spending more and more time in Warsaw and didn’t notice the destructive and authoritarian approach of his wife towards the adopted child. I didn’t fit in. I noticed it quickly because my parents were blue-eyed blonds while I had dark brown hair and hazel eyes. I wondered about unfinished sentences and suddenly interrupted conversations the moment I entered their room.
In 1951 we moved from Łódź to Warsaw. It was a long-awaited move because they both had lived there before the war and my father was already working there permanently at WFD-PKF [Polish Film Chronicle]. My mother stopped working. We had no more housekeepers nor the comforts of a large apartment. As I was growing up, my mother’s resentment towards me deepened.
When I was 9 I got my hands on my father’s desk and the documents stored there. I found the preserved envelope with the Feldpost stamp, and inside a foreign name written in black ink on a piece of paper. Unfortunately, I’ve always had a bad memory for names and titles. My father saw me with the envelope and took it away, reprimanding me. Some time later, when I gathered the courage to look again at the paper in order to copy the mysterious last name, it was gone. There was only a copy of my birth certificate issued on the basis of my father’s registration. The words “Andrzej’s papers” appeared on the envelope in my father’s handwriting. I’m not surprised that at that point he took this paper away from me, but I resent the fact that I didn’t find out the whole truth about myself until I was already an adult.
The family of my adoptive mother had a twofold attitude towards me. My mother’s brothers were relatively kind but I could sense that her sisters-in-law treated me like a peculiar child. On the other hand, many people had a good opinion of me and thought that my mother was mistreating and hurting me. Only after many years, it turned out that I stood in the way of my mother’s sisters-in-law gouging presents and money from my parents. Nevertheless, I have to do justice to my mother: she was the one who could find a way to get penicillin, vitamins, and medication from American packages that came to Łódź. This saved me from tuberculosis and death. I was realizing that I was different from my parents not only in looks but that the relationship between parents and child was not normal in our home. My mother wouldn’t show me any deeper feelings. My father was a man of few words and used work, the dog, shopping, or meetings as pretexts to evade domestic issues. The bad atmosphere at home thickened.
During one holiday, I bluffed and asked one of my “aunts”: What’s the story with my adoption? She replied that the director Jadwiga Plucińska knew the details of this case. I was 16 and I suddenly realized that I was alien in every meaning of this word. I think that this certainty, finally devoid of guesswork, would have been a shock to any teenager.
It was then that I fully comprehended some of the behavior of my mother and her family and my father, of whom I was proud and whom I loved very much. Now I understood why I was so easily sent away between the ages of 10 and 16 on three-month-long summer camps, dropped on holiday at strangers’ and my mother’s family. They paid good money to place me at the Piarist boarding school in Kraków. It became perfectly clear to me that I was an inconvenience to my “mother.”
I remember this moment: I was sitting alone on a bench in the square. My mouth felt dry. After a while, I tasted salt. It was my tears rolling down involuntarily. My thoughts were churning: What to do? What to do? Suddenly, I grew up and began living more consciously. I instinctively looked for support from girls who were older than me by a few years. My first experiences with these young women were that much easier because, although I was 17, I looked at least 20.
I completely lost my trust in many people. I became alert, assertive, and tough. Due to the bad atmosphere at home, my grades started to suffer. Wanting to become independent from home as soon as possible but still being a minor, on January 25, 1962, I volunteered for military service but I was sent home with the “C” category. In this situation, I applied to ZD-PIT in Warsaw, where on March 30, 1962, I started working and a new chapter of my life began. I worked and studied in an evening school. From that moment on, I supported myself entirely and didn’t take a dime from my parents. At times, in order to pay for my room, tuition, etc., I borrowed money from my father in confidence and always paid him back. Over the summer I made extra money editing movies at WFD. I struggled, but the years which I had spent as a boy scout helped me handle the various obstacles and inconveniences of a new situation. I paid half of the wages to my “parents,” and at my “mother’s” request, I started paying her back for the expenses they incurred over the fifteen years of my upbringing (that is: the money spent on me). When my father found out about it (someone told him), he had a big argument with my mother. Still, I thought that they deserved this money and I continued to settle with them.
I focused on education. At that point, I was no longer paid per hour but per movie project. It allowed me to study and have some flexibility. There were different projects. Sometimes I had night filming, at other times I put together an edited project. The income wasn’t steady but I could support myself and complete secondary school. On May 12, 1967, I got my secondary school certificate. After final exams, I was afraid to go to school and look at the list of graduates. It was my father who, without telling me, went first to find out. When I read that I had passed the exams, I felt a huge sense of relief.
The lack of support from my parents put an irreparable wedge between us. The moment I turned 18, I applied for an apartment. I wasn’t assigned one for another 11 years. After I graduated from secondary school, I wanted to apply to the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts but I didn’t have enough support. I dreamed of studying at the Film School of Łódź (WSF), in the directing department, but my father’s colleague, Jerzy Bossak, suggested that I should first complete a course that would help me get accepted at WSF. In 1967 I was admitted by SN in Siedlce in the faculty of Practical and Technical Training and Art Education—I came in second; out of one hundred applicants, twenty-one were accepted.
I completed the year. In eighteen subjects, I had only three Cs and the rest were As. Despite that, in 1968 I was suddenly expelled for “March.” I couldn’t understand why because I hadn’t been arrested in any incidents. No one had interrogated me. Looking back, it’s possible that it was because of denunciations and my Jewish-French origin. My plans to study film fell through. I immediately received a summons to report to Warsaw-Śródmieście WKR in order to perform compulsory military service with the category “A.” I made an appeal, which was considered due to my poor health. I had no choice but return to my job at the Documentary Film Studio, where I was hired as assistant cameraman.
Around that time I got married. I was 24 and longing for the warmth of a home and my own family. Although our marriage lasted for eleven years, it wasn’t successful. Because we had a son, who was born in 1972, I struggled with the decision to get divorced for six years. I chose the lesser evil and got divorced in 1981, a few months after the death of my adopted father. For my son’s sake, I let my wife have our two-bedroom furnished apartment and I paid higher alimony than I was assigned. I changed my job, moving from WFD to the PAN Center for Scientific Information and Documentation. I continued to improve my professional qualifications, starting again from scratch. After my divorce I also worked at the Center for Scientific Technical and Economic Information, moving on to working as a craftsman in 1988.
Because my “mother” died in 1983, I fought for my parents’ apartment, where I was registered, and no longer had to go from place to place. My father and I got very close in the last five years of his life. He did everything to help me out, although at that point he couldn’t do much. He was suffering because cancer continued to spread despite a serious operation. When a doctor told me that my father had only hours to live, I had to ask him who I was. So I asked, saying: “Dad, you’ve been, and you’ll always be, my father but the blood type suggests that I’m not your biological child. Is it true that I’m a child from Stutthof?” My father confirmed my origin and the fact that I was born in the concentration camp in 1944, but he couldn’t remember my last name and didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He passed away the next day. I couldn’t get over this fact for the next five years.
Two years after his death my “mother” died in 1983. After I buried her, I dedicated myself to establishing who I was, where I came from, and what my real first and last names were. Strange experiences from my childhood years started coming back to me. In 1956, a nun visited my father at WFD, asking about me. My father immediately called from work, which caused panic at home. My mother took me in a taxi to her brother’s in Grochów, where they hid me for three days. They quickly packed my things and dropped me off at the Warsaw Main Station at Towarowa Street. They sent me away for three months. I was 12. To this day, I can’t explain this or other events. Another shock came after an article was published in Express Wieczorny (no. 142, June 16, 1961) saying that I had committed suicide when I was at the boarding school in Kraków. The notice was so effective that my “family,” who hadn’t visited for ages, and a school delegation with flowers came by the house. I know it was a shock to my “mother.” My parents called the Piarist school to hear me on the phone and make sure I was alive. I think that the only person who could shed some light on this case was my father but he said nothing.
After my parents’ death, when I was starting my search, my parents’ friends and family split into two groups: those who opposed it (considering my mother’s and father’s memory), and those who thought I should continue. Joanna and Karol Szczeciński (a cameraman at WFD-PKF) showed me the most kindness in this case, believing that it was my duty to find my biological family. I’m grateful for their support.
In 1980/81, I became a craftsman (for seven years) by passing an apprentice exam in the plastics-processing industry. I obtained another profession and the opportunity to conduct my search. After my workshop was liquidated in 1988, I remarried. After only some months, this marriage turned out to be a huge mistake. In December 1989 we got divorced by mutual agreement without apportioning blame. In 1988, I started working at “Polskie Nagrania” State Enterprise as a senior contracts Inspector in the investment sector. Unfortunately, someone overdid it and the enterprise went under. In this situation, I went to work for a private company as a trade councillor and manager. Legal matters basically became my bread and butter, which is useful today in my social work.
Life required professional elasticity from me. I got certified as a service technician and operator of Rank Xerox machines, a photographer of general and industrial photography, and before that, I was a licensed ironworker and filmmaker. Regrettably, I ended up unemployed with no right to benefits. This was the time of the transformation in Poland and it suddenly happened that I was too old to work but too young to retire. A paradox of life which affects us all too often these days.
After ten years of queries, I obtained material evidence which in 1993 allowed me to receive veteran privileges. I joined the Association of Prisoners as well as the Warsaw Stutthof Organization. In January 1999, I asked to leave the Association of Children of Former Prisoners of Nazi Concentration Camps, of which for some period I was the vice-president of the General Board. In 1997 I joined the Association of Dom Sierot Żydowskich im. Amalii Wasserberg in Kraków. The chair of its Scientific Council was the late Professor Dr. Hab. Adam Szymusik, the head of the Psychiatry Department in Kraków and the chair of the International Committee for War Disability (researching the psychological toll of imprisonment in concentration camps).
After four years of trying, I received a certificate from the Jewish Historical Institute, and in 1998 I was accepted in the Association of Children of the Holocaust in Poland. In November 1999 I became the vice-president of the Association of Dom Sierot Żydowskich im. Amalii Wasserberg in Kraków. I’m doing a lot of social work, trying to help people from the circle of war victims and others in the area of state and court administration. These are often personal conversations: how to solve various issues, write an application, and deal with various issues. I share my knowledge and experience in applying regulations and the Journal of Laws.
I persisted with my search, engaging the media, press and television. I went to Stutthof commemorations, finding more witnesses and former prisoners, such as Dr. Lech Duszyński, a prisoner and camp doctor who used his ingenuity and medical expertise to save the lives of around four hundred prisoners in Stutthof alone, in addition to those in “Hopehill”—the branch of Stutthof in Nadbrzeże—including twenty-something other Jews (men and women). He had the courage to express his own opinion in the presence of SS-Hauptsturmführer Teodor Meyer, the deputy commandant of Stutthof, who personally executed over three hundred prisoners. By the court ruling in the Gdańsk trial in 1947, the tormentor was sentenced to death by hanging. I gained valuable information thanks to my contacts with former prisoners of Stuffhof and hearing their accounts. I received a lot of help from the Director of the Stutthof State Museum, Janina Grabowska-Chałka, MA, and Elżbieta Grot, MA, as well as Marek Orski, PhD.
I also searched via the Tracing Service of the Polish Red Cross, and especially Croix-Rouge Française in the person of the amazing Mme. Evelyne Bousquet, who devoted years of research to my case. Her efforts led to French television broadcasting a program which helped me find the persons who not only confirmed my stay in the camp but also the fact that my mother survived the Stutthof camp.
In 1994 I was invited by French television to Paris for documentation of the “Perdu de Vue” program (“Lost from Sight”). In May 1996 the journalists from the French television TF-1 came and shot material with me in Stutthof for this program. A month later they had me come to the studio in Paris. They broadcast pictures of the camp from the time of the war, and in the background, the names of five female prisoners. Alongside that, they showed pictures of me from when I was 5, 16, and 20. In the next three weeks, the program editors received calls from a dozen people from across Europe, mainly from France. Two of them knew what had happened with my mother. A few months later, I got a letter from my cousin in France. There are indications that his mother is the sister of my mother.
A document issued by the mayor’s office in Dieppe states that my birth mother died in France in 1995. I was never given a chance to see her and ask: “Mom, what is my name?” And I was so close to my mother in 1994, when she was still alive!
Are you nothing more than a bloody myth? Who were you…?
A French Jew…?
A beautiful dark-eyed girl, or an inmate clothed in rags?
Do you know what my name is and who gave it to me…?
Mom…How can I live and die not knowing who I am?
[translated from the Polish by Katarzyna Szuster]
—it was written by a friend of mine, a poet and one of my mentors, who died in August of 2002, Professor Tadeusz Płużański, a prisoner for many years at Stutthof.
In May 1990, on a warm spring day, I met a girl who was much younger than me. We got married in late December 1990. In 1991 our daughter was born. This year my son Konrad will be 31, my daughter Dominika 12. Years go by… In 1993, having obtained veteran privileges, I applied to Social Security for a war pension. My application was rejected in a manner that made a travesty of the law and good morals. After three years of struggle, the extraordinary revision of the Minister of Justice, and the ruling of the Supreme Court in 1995, the case was reopened. In 1996, by the ruling of the Provincial Court, I was granted the right to a disability pension due to my stay at the concentration camp. In 1998 at my request the District Prosecutor’s Office applied to the Court to “deny the maternity of my adopted mother,” which automatically annuls the paternity of the adopted father. On April 29, 1999, the ruling of the Regional Court enabled me to pursue the annulment of my birth certificate from 1946 and the establishment of the biographical data according to the facts.
In October 2001 I went to France to meet some of my mother’s family whom I managed to find. The relationship was confirmed by blood-type comparison tests. We are going to have genetic tests ordered by the court. Additionally, we are waiting for more information about our family from the Archives of Bad Arolsen (Germany). I continue to search for information about my father.
The memories of the corpses of German soldiers, which I saw as a very small child in the forest in Hel, are starting to fade away. And others: the last men of Werwolf shooting at us when we were driving in the car of the Military “Czołówka Filmowa,” the execution of the former Nazi tormentor. The memories of time and places are starting to blur but I still have nightmare visions of exhumed murdered bodies tied up with wire.
I have my own family, which I’m trying to protect from the worst. I’m left with a feeling that my memories and friends are disappearing behind the fog, taking a piece of my heart with them.