Zosia's story

Crakow 1939-45 -- forced labour in Germany

Living in Poland in a town called Lesko, not far from Crakow, Zosia's thoughts were like those of any beautiful young girl, only interested in nice clothes and having a good time. In 1939, Crakow was the Paris of the day and everyone admired Zosia's style, her looks and the fact she was always laughing and enjoyed life so much. However, events unfolded that took away all her happiness.

One day walking into town to do some shopping, she was shocked to suddenly hear the roar of motorbikes and crowds of German soldiers on lorries drove into the streets. The shoppers stood open mouthed at the sight, as unable to understand what was happening as the bikes and lorries came to a halt and loudspeaker announcements called out that Poland, was now a part of the Third Reich and everyone should go to their homes. A curfew was announced and anyone found out after curfew would be shot.

The place came to a standstill and clutching a friend's baby Zosia tried to run home, only to be stopped by a young German corporal. He took the baby from her arms and heart pounding and knees trembling, she stood terrified, not sure what was going to happen. Too frightened to cry out, she watched in surprise as the young man kissed the baby's head and handed him back. Perhaps the sight had reminded the man of family he had in Germany, but Zosia didn't stay to find out, instead she fled in panic.

Twenty one years old and newly engaged her life in a few months her life would never be the same again. Although now under the rule of the jackboot initially life went on as before. She went to the office as usual to the job as an administrator a job that she had only just started. Now she had to fight her way through the ridicule and insults of the German military and watch as they pushed old people off the pavements and smashed shops belonging to the local Jewish people. Soon the round up began and people began to disappear. Later to her shame she felt no disgust at the activities, she was young and it didn't affect her or her family. What is more she spoke fluent German, as it was taught at school as a second language. Sometimes she found herself translating when an altercation transpired in the streets.


However, she began to realise that life was not going on as before when her fiancé disappeared. She went to his house but no one knew where he was. His old mother was wailing loudly, terrified that something had happened. He was a young hot head, and had many close encounters with Germans in local bars and had been threatened with arrest. He had also taken to going out after curfew. One day he went out and was never seen again.


The Nightmare begins...
One day early in 1939, she set off for work as usual, the streets thronging with motorbikes and cars full of the German military, when a large truck pulled up near where she was walking. A group of soldiers jumped out and before she knew what was going on, she had been herded into the vehicle along with any young women that happened to be walking past, some only fourteen. Screaming and crying, not sure what was going to happen to them they sat in the truck clinging to each other in fear.

There had been many rumours about the way the Germans treated Polish women. Many an exaggerated tale had been spread, about something that had happened, but it was usually without foundation. However, they soon found themselves taken to the German military headquarters, where they were led into a large office and briskly asked for their documents. They were then summarily informed that they would be going to Germany to support the German war effort by working in factories. Instructions were barked out, they were advised that their families would be informed and the group were sent by passenger train to Berlin Charlottenburg, in Eastern Germany.

Surprisingly, they were not ill treated but many of the women spent a lot of time crying for their loved ones. Zosia decided to make the best of it and was soon set to work in a factory called Siemens and Halskie. The conditions were not too bad, the factory made batteries, the work was very dirty but when the authorities realised that she spoke German, she was taken off the heavy duties and began work as a translator. She was allowed to write home, but the news from there, was not good. Apparently her brother, his Jewish wife and new baby were dead. He had been killed by some Ukranian soldiers, who had asked him to show them the way to an office in the main square and his wife and baby murdered by German soldiers who herded all the Jews they could find into a church yard, and mowed them down with machine guns. Gradually the letters ceased as her mother had taken her brother's other half Jewish child and hidden with him in the forest to save his life. Zosia stayed in Germany all through the war.

Every morning the women were taken from a large army camp, where they lived under armed guard to work in the factory. They returned to the camp at 6pm. They were then given a meal of watery soup and potatoes. When this was finished it was lights out in a large dormitory containing at least fifty girls. Some of whom were the girls she had arrived with. Many times women would try to escape, but they were always caught and punished by being refused food and locked up in solitary confinement. In the end they gave up all hope of release.
Saturation bombing
As time rolled on and the war neared its end, the town suffered saturation bombing and the factory was destroyed. Many of the women were killed; those that survived were moved to a place called Weimar in Thuringen. Their lives became a torment. Apparently a rumour had spread to the allies that Hitler was staying in a castle nearby; as a result the Americans started bombing the town. Day after day, the sky was filled with planes as hundreds of them dropped their bombs. The devastation was horrendous. As the Germans had other things to occupy them now the girls were left to their own devices. They were not permitted to seek shelter in the civilian shelters, and had to find what shelter they could to escape from the bombing.
One day the bombers hit a camp where hundreds of Hungarian girls lived and completely destroyed it. Trying to escape the girls ran screaming into the forest for safety. The bombs were made of phosphorous and everything in their path caught fire, the women now alight jumped into the river in an attempt to put out the flames. As many of them couldn't swim those that didn't die of burns drowned.
To escape the carnage, Zosia too hid in the forest, and hysterically dug into the earth with her bare hands to try and make a hole to hide in. All around her people were screaming. It was like a vision of hell. At last it became unnaturally quiet, and standing up she looked around to find that she was the only living person. All around her were the bits and pieces of bodies. People that she had known and befriended were now just mangled bits of flesh, some were just decapitated heads tangled in the low hanging trees. Somehow amid all this horror, Zosia had survived physically unscathed but the horror of what she had witnessed lived with her for the rest of life.
As the town's infrastructure had been blown away, the remaining survivors had to fend for themselves. The German military faded away. However, as the German people were suffering just like the foreign girls, many of the locals took the girls in and helped them. One German woman permitted Zosia to stay as a lodger; she became part of the local community hoping that when the war was finally over she could find a job and support her self.
The war ends
At last the war ended and their town was allocated as part of the American Zone and all non German's had to register to be repatriated to their own countries. They were returned in a set order. The Russians went first and the Poles were the last in the queue. Whilst waiting her turn she had a letter from her mother saying, "Don't come home. The Russians are here, go to America."
There were rumours that this part of the American Zone was to be handed over to the Russians and everyone was rushing to move out. There had been news of atrocities and already one woman she knew, had been raped by many Russian soldiers, and had saved her eight year old daughter from that fate, by hiding her up the chimney. There was no way that Zosia wanted to remain in Weimar, once the Russians came, but she had made friends with an American captain and wanted to go to a dance, so she stayed.
Part two: The war ends -- but the nightmare continues...


Told to her daughter-in-law Jacquee
3rd November 2011

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