Henryka Trzcińska-Strzelecka, born in 1937
Hidden by My Grandfather
I was born on April 11, 1937, in Warsaw. My place of birth, however, was changed in my birth record. My mother was a Jew and Father a Pole. Mother’s maiden name was Zylbersztajn, and Father’s name was Stanisław Konopczyński. Just before the outbreak of war, mainly because of my mother, my parents decided to escape the Germans by fleeing east to the Soviet Union and wanted to take me with them. I was then two years old and staying temporarily with my Polish paternal grandparents, who lived in Włocławek—which is where my parents were also from. Thus my parents came from Warsaw to Włocławek with the intention of taking me along. My [paternal] grandparents told them that if they were to take me with them on such a nomadic and perilous journey, I, as a small child, would surely perish or starve to death. My parents thus left me with my grandparents and continued on their way. They were not alone; they were fleeing with a large group of people, mostly Jews. They escaped east because they assumed the Germans would not get that far—beyond our eastern border.
My grandparents, Maria and Stanisław Konopczyński, baptized me, changing at the same time some of the data in my birth record—place of birth, from Warsaw to Włocławek, and name of my mother, from Perla to Apolonia. I know about all this from my grandparents.
After the Germans marched into Włocławek, there were people who reported to the Germans that my grandparents had a Jewish child in their home. We lived in a large apartment building on the second floor. On the ground floor lived a couple named Krygier, who had been there a long time. It was a mixed marriage; she was Polish, and he was German. Mrs. Krygier was a noble woman. She used to warn my grandparents when the Gestapo was about to come. She would say to my grandmother, “Mrs. Konopczyńska, you should go out with Henia [Henryka] today, because they are coming.” During the entire occupation, day or night, I would be taken out of the house to the woods or to the fields, where I would be hidden in the wheat or in ditches overgrown with bushes. It was the worst in winter. Then we would hide in stables in order to be warmer. My grandfather always accompanied me. He hid me from the Germans at the risk of his life.
I don’t know where Mrs. Krygier was getting this crucial information but probably from her daughter, who wore a German uniform. I know that my grandparents, for hiding a Jewish child, and Mrs. Krygier, for warning my grandparents of the impending danger, could all have been shot. We lived through all the years of the war like this.
We also hid in the countryside. My grandma was with me for weeks away from home. She knitted sweaters and socks from old wool unraveled from our garments. She would give them to peasants for a bowl of soup and a piece of bread. I remember that we walked everywhere on foot and that my feet were very sore. Because of all that knitting, Grandma almost went blind; she could barely see anything at night. We were both so thin that we looked like human shadows.
I also remember, although I don’t recall exactly when it was, that Nazis once rode into our courtyard. There was no time for anyone to hide me. I climbed by myself into a huge barrel used to store marmalade. The Krygiers had a grocery shop in this building and had set out the empty containers in the courtyard. I sat in this barrel till evening came, scraping out the leftover marmalade from the sides of the barrel. I knew instinctively that I had to hide myself, because there was no one at that moment who could help me. To this day I can’t even look at marmalade.
In the first days of the occupation, someone made it known to my grandma that my mother’s father, my grandfather, a Jew, wanted to see me. Grandfather was a rabbi in Włocławek. I knew that he was a Jewish spiritual leader and that he “wrote letters to God”. My grandma dressed me in my prettiest dress and took me to see Grandfather. I do not remember the place exactly, but perhaps it was a synagogue. We walked into a dimly lit space, and I saw from afar, seated behind a desk full of books, an old man with a long beard who gestured for me to come a bit closer to him. He stared at me for a long time and then signaled me to leave.
A few days later all the Jews in Włocławek, with my grandfather in the lead, were tied up by the Nazis with ropes and chains. Beating them cruelly, they set their beards on fire. Then they herded them somewhere beyond Włocławek and murdered them there. I learned the details only after the war. After all these years, I can still remember the way my grandfather looked—the elderly, emaciated figure, with a completely gray beard and long sidelocks. Before that, Grandfather had not kept in touch with me, because his daughter—my mother—had married a Pole against his wishes. For him, an Orthodox rabbi, she had simply died. He had “buried” her and grieved for her.
Throughout the whole war, my grandparents and I led a marginal existence because of me. We lived under enormous tension and were almost excessively vigilant. My grandparents didn’t sleep nights, always straining to listen. I, on the other hand, was mature beyond my years and always ready to escape at a moment’s notice. In those years that was our everyday life. Today the memories bring forth pain and tears. An irrational fear of lawlessness, humiliation, and danger has been with me from my earliest years and has remained.
As for my parents, I had no news of them for more than five years. My elderly grandparents were everything to me—parents, my whole family. To them alone I owe my survival during that nightmare.
After the war ended, my grandparents turned me over to the convent of the Ursuline Sisters in Włocławek. They claimed that it was for my safety. I was seven years old then and was thoroughly conditioned to keep silent about my Jewish origins. I think only the convent sisters knew the truth about me. My schoolmates always looked at me somewhat strangely—why was I so dark and why did I have no parents, only grandparents? I had such a fertile imagination that I had no difficulty inventing tales about myself. I remember that I always wanted to play an angel in the children’s pageants and nativity scenes organized in the convent. I was told that there were no dark angels. I was very unhappy that I always played the devil; it was the tragedy of my childhood. I felt unhappy, but I already knew that even my saintly grandfather could not intervene with God on my behalf.
I don’t know when I found out that Mama was a Jew and Father a Pole. For me, they were simply my beloved parents. I just told myself that since they were not with me, that meant I did not belong to anybody, and that is why I had to hide. I was consoled only by the enormous care I received from my grandfather and grandmother, their stories about my parents, and their assurances that they would return after the war ended. For many years I dreamed of my parents day and night. I awaited their return to the home created for me by my grandparents.
I do not know how my parents met. My grandparents told me it was a beautiful and intense love affair. My parents were dedicated to each other and very happy together, although their marriage lasted such a short time. Their escape to the east, as I understand it now, was a noble gesture by Father for Mother’s sake. They both wanted to survive for me, for their little daughter left behind in Włocławek. Their escape was a nightmare. They traveled mostly on foot, at night, hungry and cold. When they finally reached the Soviet Union, my father was immediately arrested. That is how my parents became separated.
Father was shipped off to Vorkuta, where deportees like him were building a railroad in an arctic climate. The living conditions in the łagier [Soviet forced labor camp] were macabre. People were dying of exhaustion and hunger. My father was starving and suffered from scurvy, which they called tsinga there. He was so exhausted, emaciated, and starved that he couldn’t stand up straight and walked in a squat. At times he could not remember my name or Mother’s. His brain function was beginning to be affected by hunger.
Vorkuta is a coal-mining town in the Komi Republic, fifty kilometers north of the Arctic circle.The prisoners in that camp slept on raw logs (that is, unprocessed logs). One night, Father was huddled against another prisoner with whom he slept on the log. The man kept getting colder and colder. It soon became apparent that he was no longer alive. This is when Father removed the man’s documents from his ragged clothing and put his own in their place (). From that time on my father went by the name of Stanisław Zaganiacz, while Stanisław Konopczyński was buried in the camp. Shortly thereafter Father escaped from the labor camp and joined the Anders Army (). He went through the entire route of combat and was wounded at the Battle of Monte Cassino. General Anders did not accept every Pole into his army; it was thus a distinction.
…“their place” – author believes that her father switched identity papers because the dead soldier’s imprisonment term was shorter than that of her father.
Anders Army – an army of Poles under the command of General Władysław Anders, also known as the Polish Second Corps. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin, in order to get the cooperation of the Allies, agreed to release Poles who had been exiled to Siberia during the Soviet occu pation of eastern Poland (1939-41) and allowed them to form this army. The Anders Army left the Soviet Union and went to Iran and then to Palestine, where it became part of the British Eighth Army. It took part in the Italian campaign, in cluding the famous Battle of Monte Cassino.
While my father was in Vorkuta, Mother went through hell in Russia. She suffered from hunger and typhus. She was cared for by another Jew, who was also from Włocławek. He lived in the same house as she and had a job. He saved Mother’s life. His name was Mosze Knister. Once a man came to see Mother and informed her that my father was dead. He said that he had seen him buried in the labor camp in Vorkuta.
After the war ended, Mother came to Włocławek to take me with her. She was going to Palestine with Mosze Knister. My grandparents did not believe the stories about the death of their son and tried to convince Mother to stay with them and wait for Father’s return. Mother, at this time, was pregnant by Knister. She was sure that her husband, my father, was dead. She did not accept my grandparents’ proposition. She left me with them and set out on a trip to Palestine by way of Austria.
Shortly after Mother’s departure, a letter arrived from England with Father’s photograph, signed Stanisław Zaganiacz. Father wrote in the letter that he was alive and about to leave for the United States and asked about me and Mother. I can’t describe the joy this letter brought me. I understood that I was no longer an orphan and that once again I had someone to wait for. I was barely nine years old at that time. After a certain time, Father and I established correspondence. Father tried to help us by sending parcels of food and clothing for me. Things had already gotten a little better by then, but my grandparents were growing old and did not earn much money. I don’t know what we lived on, but in any case, I did not go hungry.
I didn’t have any news from Mother for a long time. I finished high school in Włocławek and was accepted for studies at the Medical Academy in Białystok. Once again I could not admit my Jewish origins and presented myself as a total orphan. At that time I received a letter from Mother, which fortunately arrived at my grandparents’ address. I wrote her back, telling her about everything, and the correspondence once again broke off. Perhaps this was not my mother’s fault; it was simply because contact between Poland and Israel had been severed.
After finishing my medical studies I started work in Grudziądz (in accordance with my assignment, which was then obligatory). I got married and settled in nearby Łasin.
When I turned twenty-eight, my father invited me to visit him in the United States. In spite of the difficulties, I went—with his photograph in hand. I was terribly scared, but I could not deny myself the fulfillment of the dream that had been with me since early childhood—to meet my father and be with him. I don’t know by what miracle we immediately recognized each other in an enormous crowd of travelers at the huge Kennedy Airport. I did not even look at the photo. This was perhaps the happiest day of my life. Father fulfilled all my dreams and the converse was also true.
At the end of my five-month stay, Father declared that since meeting me he could not go on living without me anymore and that regardless of the consequences, he would return to Poland, for better or worse. Shortly after that, he returned to Poland for good, “making up”, with his fatherly love, solicitude, and wise counsel, the affection I had missed during my childhood and youth. We were together seven years, and these were the most beautiful years for me. The hunger, poverty, and adversity that he experienced in the Soviet Union and during the whole war took their toll. He died prematurely, at the age of sixty-four. He was a splendid father and human being. He loved my mother to the end of his life. He remains in my memory as a noble man, worthy of being emulated. Unfortunately, my grandparents did not live to see my father’s return. They died while I was completing my studies and earning my medical degree.
…“for better or worse” – anyone who had been in the Anders Army, which had been under British command, was considered suspect during the cold war and was not welcomed in Poland.
After my return from the United States, I gave birth to a son, Maciek. My father adored him and gave him everything he couldn’t give me as a child. After a time I was divorced from my husband and left Łasin for Warsaw. At first I worked in the hospital on Kasprzaka Street, and then, because there was a shortage of positions, I was sent to work at the Sanitary-Epidemiological Station. I ran the Department of Work Hygiene. I completed my specialization in this field, and a few years ago I was named as the state regional sanitary inspector and director of the Regional Sanitary-Epidemiological Station. While Iwaswith Fatherinthe United States, weboth wrote letters to Mother in Israel. However, there was no response. Mother claimed later that she wrote to me the whole time and sent letters to Poland. I never received any of them. She, however, had all my letters. She read them over and over and knew them by heart. Soon after my return to Warsaw, there was a “thaw”. Mother and I began communicating with each other, but I still couldn’t go see her. That became possible only after Father’s death.
We arranged a meeting in Romania. I flew there with my son, Maciek. He was nine years old then. A great tragedy for me and for him happened there—as I left the plane, it became apparent that my child had become irreversibly deaf. Beforehand, he had been a musical child (he was taking music lessons and had already given concerts in kindergarten). We had flown to Romania on a rickety old Russian plane. There was a terrible storm. My son screamed on the airplane that he was in pain. Nothing helped—not candy, not swallowing saliva, nor plugging the ears. This was the price we paid for the visit with my mother.
When I first saw Father after many years, I was twenty-eight years old. When I first saw Mother, I was thirty-eight. Mother wanted us to go to Israel with her. That was her goal in meeting me in Romania. But I couldn’t drop everything all at once and run off with her. Thus I returned to Poland. We continued to correspond.
During the 1980s I married again. Mother invited my husband and me to Israel, where, in addition to Mother, her brother, my Uncle Izrael, was living. Mother at that time was very sick. She had diabetes. In our conversations she kept returning to the time when she was with my father. She knew by heart the letters he had sent her. She constantly wanted to talk about him, even though she was still living with Mosze Knister, with whom she had two grown sons. In Israel I met one of my brothers, Abram. The other one was living in the United States at that time. I have not met him to this day.
We spent only two weeks in Israel. After our return, Mother and I were often in touch, mostly by telephone. There were moments went she tried to escape into the past. In 1992 I was informed that something had happened to her, that she had fallen down and was lying unconscious in the hospital. She soon died. I could not afford to fly to Israel for the funeral. Earlier (this was after my husband’s and my return from Israel) my son, Maciek, had gone there at the invitation of Uncle Izrael. The purpose of his trip was a medical consultation related to possible ear surgery. Because such a possibility was ruled out, my son began working as a waiter and earned enough money to purchase a modern hearing aid. Three years ago, in 1992, my son married a splendid girl from Kalisz and settled there. He is a computer specialist.
Childhood and youth impact a person’s entire life. I still haven’t come out of hiding. I am stuck there, and it is stronger than I am. I have many friends and acquaintances, but no one besides my husband knows about my past, my origins, my experiences, or thoughts. Even my son does not understand them fully, and I can’t really explain them to him.
Today I am a member of the Association of Children of the Holocaust, and here I feel as among family. I don’t have to hide from anyone. I feel safe and can be myself.