Stefan Poniecki 1922 - 2002
My mother, Julia Poniecka, came from a large family of 11 children. I don't know what the break-down was between brothers and sisters, but probably it was 5 and 6 or 6 and 5.
Julia Poniecka - about 30 years old
My maternal grandfather, Franz Paschke, was an agronomist and came from Germany to work as such on the estate of my great-grandfather.
Franciszek Paschke - my mother's father
A romance developed between him and the daughter.
Her name was Żukowska, but I don't know her first name.
The romance which produced 11 children deteriorated so much that although
they stayed together, they would not talk to each other for several years. They both died in the early 1920's.
father, Leon Poniecki, didn't talk much about his family and didn't maintain any
contact with them. Consequently I
know very little about his family. I
believe he had two brothers and his father was a teacher.
My father's previous marriage ended in divorce.
His wife was an alcoholic and she died in an asylum for alcoholics.
From this first marriage there were three daughters, Helena, Maria, and
Stefania. My contacts with my
half-sisters were rather limited because they were out in the world and rarely
visited us. They did not get along
with their step-mother.
was born on the 26th of December, 1922 in Katowice, Silesia, Poland, as the
second son. After giving birth to
me my mother became ill with puerpal fever, a dangerous infection which prevents
breast-feeding. I was taken care of
by a nanny and perhaps a wet-nurse. Shortly
after my birth, my father's work took him to nearby Chorzów, where I spent my
childhood and adolescent years. My
earliest remembrance of my childhood begins with an event when I was two.
I was sitting on the table in the kitchen, when an apparition appeared
and demanded my pacifier. I meekly complied and never asked for it again.
Later I was told that it was our cook who dressed up as Santa Claus by
putting on a fur-lined coat inside out, plus appropriate whiskers et cetera.
I remember this occurrence because the fear associated with it left a
mark on my memory. The method
worked, but it was a rather crude one.
Stefan age 4
next recollection I have is being with mother at the age of four in a cafe cum
cabaret where my mother was meeting somebody.
The cabaret included a floor show with scantily dressed ladies, which I
was taking all in. When mother
finished her business with the person she was meeting she said, "Let's
go." This was not to my liking
and I asked, "Can't we stay a little longer for the next number?"
About that same age I remember an incident where my brother, Janusz, then aged 7, got in a fight with some urchin while we were tobogganing and was losing the fight. I got very enraged over it, but being small, I couldn't do much about it except to swear at him saying, "Get lost, you damn Silesian from Poznań," which would be equivalent to saying "Get lost, you damn Calgarian from Edmonton." There was a regional antagonism between those two provinces, each looking down on the other. My brother must have reported this to my parents, because at a reception my parents gave to some friends my words were quoted, to the great amusement of all the guests. I felt very ashamed and I hid behind the window curtains, swearing that I will never do anything for my brother. I more or less kept my word because we fought constantly all through our childhood, and being younger and smaller, I always got the short end of it.
Stefan age 5
I remember once, my brother in a fury threw a clothes-brush at me - I
ducked and the inside window pane got broken.
Luckily it didn't break the outside pane, because then the brush would
have landed in the street two floors below.
This was not double glazing, the window consisted of two separate frames
about 10 cm apart, but the effect was the same, the space between the frames
provided insulation. This animosity
between my brother and me continued through adolescence, and even today 50 years
later my dreams about my brother are all negative.
Poniecki has the white plume in his hat.
The sign in front of the miners says "Male choir 'Echo' Mine Bielszowice 2 XI 1934".
father was employed by what today would be called a joint-venture French-capital
firm called Skarboferm as cultural officer in charge of conducting miners'
choirs and orchestras. As is well
known, miners, emerging from the confines of shafts and underground corridors,
seek compensation by exercising their lungs through singing (viz. Welsh miners).
They were organized in a guild, the equivalent of a trade union, and on
festive occasions they wore uniforms. One
cannot say that they were colourful because they were black, like the coal the
miners were extracting, but they were striking.
They were adorned with shiny buttons and went with a round hat with two
hammers crossed on the front and topped with black plumes.
Their foremen wore hats crowned with white plumes.
custom established itself that on Father's birthday the miners' brass band, of
which Father was also the conductor, would come to our house early in the
morning, about 7 o'clock, and make everybody jump out of their beds with a
hearty rendition of "Sto lat", a traditional tune expressing good
wishes. The English equivalent
would be the "Happy Birthday to you" tune.
"Sto lat" means hundred years. The words go something like "Hundred years may he live,
then another hundred years."
Janusz, Stefan and Leon
ability seems to run in my father's family.
From his first marriage the three daughters, Helena, Maria, and Stefania,
were all talented. I received my
first piano lessons from Stefa who was a professional pianist.
She used to accompany silent movies in theatres in Berlin.
Maria was also an excellent pianist and travelled with a musicians group
which performed in coffee houses in Poland.
Those were the Viennese-type coffee houses and the group similar to
palm-court trios or quartets in England. Helena
was a violinist. She married a
military man and lived in a town called Siedlce, south-east of Warsaw.
Her husband disappeared during the war, probably arrested in the streets
of Warsaw, and was never heard from again.
After the war Helena played in the Katowice Philharmonic Orchestra.
was a custom in our house that after every dinner (the main meal of the day at
noon), if Father was present, the children had to kiss his hand, no doubt to
impress on our minds not to forget who is feeding us.
This did not apply to breakfast or supper (a light meal in the evening).
remember Father took me once on one of his business trips in a car supplied by
his employer. It was a whole day
trip, so we were obliged to go to a restaurant for a meal. At the end of it Father asked me what I liked best.
I answered, "The stout" (dark beer).
I don't think he was very pleased with my answer.
apartment above the shops. The cobble stones
were watered every summer morning to keep the dust down.
was a small provincial town of about 110,000 inhabitants.
We lived on the second floor over a Jewish fur store, "Wiedeńska
Pracownia Futer" which means "Viennese Fur Workshop" which, of
course, had nothing to do with Vienna. The
fur trade was traditionally in Jewish hands, and you can see it even continued
in Calgary (Hurtig). The
"Farbiarnia" in the photo is a dry-cleaning business.
"Farba" means dye, because dyeing and cleaning clothes went together.
"Cristal" is a winery and restaurant.
From the three digit telephone number you can guess that there weren't
many telephones in the town. We
didn't have one and we had to let the legs do the walking.
was an old established custom that on a Sunday, after mass, the resident
infantry regiment would march from the church to the barracks down the main
street, to the tunes of the military band at the head of it.
After this defile, everybody who was somebody would promenade on the east
sidewalk of the main street. This
gave the men an opportunity for ogling, making acquaintances and generally
playing the field. This continued
until it was time to disperse for Sunday lunch, consisting usually of bouillon
with home-made (not Catelli) macaroni and meat with potato dumplings and
cabbage, followed by "kompot" (stewed fruit).
a Siberian hound, a huge beast with legs like match-sticks and a snout like an
arrow, a creature made for running and hunting.
This dog, Ivan, had one fault, he took after any other dog that he espied
in the distance. One Sunday during
the time of the general promenade, I took him on a leash for a walk and, as luck
would have it, Ivan saw another dog and started tugging at the leash.
Knowing what was going to happen and hating to make a show, I decided to
hang on to Ivan come what may. I
was only 11 at the time, so Ivan had no trouble in knocking me over and dragging
me for 10 metres along the dusty sidewalk in my Sunday finery.
After that he gave up and I was able to get home.
In days after acquaintances were asking me, "Was it you whom we saw
being dragged on the sidewalk by a dog?" to which I replied that we do not
have a dog. This was partly true
because my parents wisely decided that a dog of that breed was most unsuitable
to be kept in an apartment and returned it to the vendor.
the monotony was enlivened, if not by me, then by a street brawl, where the
onlookers would form a crowd around the fighters, nobody interferring.
This fun could last quite a while, because there were only about 5
policemen in town and they were either on foot or a bicycle and had no radio
communication. This is the '20s
that I am talking about and radio was just coming in.
I remember the radio battery alone was half the size of a computer; then
there was the radio itself bigger than the battery, and on top of it sat the
sound tube flaring out into a funnel of 12 inch diameter.
When we took our radio on holidays to a village, the whole population
would gather to admire the new miracle. Villages
in those days had no electricity, so that when night fell, you knew it was night
- dark as in a negro's stomach at midnight.
But it had a specific atmosphere, particularly when a dog barked in the
distance. I remember experiencing
it as a small boy and have never encountered it again.
The closest that comes to it is Carpenter Lake, but it is spoiled by
those yard lights that some country people think they must have on.
photograph of the four of us you can see my father's paintings. He was a hobby painter doing it in a very painstaking way.
He would take a photograph or a picture of something and enlarge it by
means of a special apparatus whose technical name escapes me at the moment.
It worked on the principle of a stylus tracing the outline on the
original and a pencil riding parallel on a long extension and at the same time
reflecting the lines, thus making an enlargement.
Then he would fill the outlines with oil paint.
It was more or less like painting by numbers.
However he was quite good at mixing colours and he got away with it,
acquiring the fame of a local "artist". His attempts at painting portraits from living models were
not so successful and I heard some grumbles from the people who commissioned him
to paint them. He tried to paint a
scene of a young girl carrying her younger brother on her back as they escaped
before an approaching storm. The
point of the picture was the depiction of fright on the girl's face.
He could not do it, so he sent the picture with the missing face to the
Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków to have somebody there paint it in.
My brother discovered the deceit, which of course supplied him with
ammunition to deride Father.
Janusz, Stefan and Julia
childhood and high school years were rather uneventful.
One unpleasant character sticks out in my mind, and it was the priest who
was attached to the school and was in charge of the religious upbringing.
He was a 27-year old zealous product of a Jesuit seminary and his main
obsession was sex. That was the
worst thing that could have been inflicted on humanity.
He was warning us to be "very careful" when we were changing
clothes for gymnastics. We didn't
know what he really meant by this. When
an anthropological research team arrived at our school to take some
measurements, he was running around like a hen with with its head chopped-off
trying to organize an opposition, looking for sympathizers and fomenting
rebellion amongst the students by counselling not to submit to the indignities
of an examination where one had to be naked.
He was also instrumental in thwarting any contact with the girls' high
school and thanks to his efforts a common dance never took place.
my brother was about 13 years old, Mother bought him a race bike for 300 zl.,
which was quite a bit of money in those times, almost half the monthly salary of
my father. You could get a good
pair of shoes for 14 zl., so the price of this bicycle equalled the cost of 21
pairs of shoes. Father had a fit
when he heard about it. He was very
much against it, but he couldn't do much about it because he was put before a
fait accompli. Besides, he was
always against things that would make our lives more pleasant, because he was a
miser, and a purchase like that meant less money for his own pleasures.
However, my brother soon got tired of his bike and he handed it down to
me. It was much too big for me and
I had to ride it with my right leg under the bar. It had the added inconvenience that my brother changed it
from a free-wheeling bike into one with a fixed wheel, which meant that you had
to pedal all the time, even going downhill.
From what I could see, the only advantage of a fixed wheel was that my
brother could balance it in a standing position. This ability had no practical application, for example at a
red light, because in the whole town there was not a single traffic light.
The vehicular traffic was mostly horse-drawn, so it was quite slow, and
you could hear the approach of cars from quite a distance trundling along over
granite cobble-stones. This made
traffic lights quite unnecessary. Only
highways between towns were asphalted. These
cobble-stones made bike riding quite difficult. The centre of the town was paved exclusively with
cobble-stones, with the exception of the streets in front of hospitals and some
schools: there the streets were paved with wood bricks, to dampen the noise of
horses' hoofs and steel-rimmed wheels. In
retrospect, I think this was quite a considerate thing to do on the part of the
town administration, aiming to ensure the comfort of the sick and the peace of
the students in their cerebrations. Come
to think of it, I don't think traffic lights had come into use yet, because I
remember seeing policemen in 1933 directing traffic manually at busy
intersections in Warsaw. So one
shouldn't blame a small provincial town for not having them.
is in the second raw,
sitting third from the left with an open white collar
stands out in my memory from my school years are the excursions. For zoology lessons we went once to the local
slaughter-house. There I saw a
workman at a huge table digging up to his elbows in intestines, livers, kidneys,
hearts and other giblets. I
promptly fainted. This gave me a
hint that I should forget about a medical career.
Another excursion took us to a farm outside the city.
It was winter time and the cattle were kept inside.
We entered a huge stall with perhaps 150 cows in it.
The teacher admonished us to behave quietly because the cattle in winter,
being cooped up in confined quarters, tends to be irritable.
This was an open invitation for me to jab a pointed pencil into the
behind of a reclining cow. In a few
seconds all the cows were standing on their 600 feet bellowing.
excursion took us to a chemical plant where I saw for the first, and probably
last time, liquid air. A workman
brought a pail of seething bluish liquid at a temperature of
-253 C. If you touched it,
it would burn you in the same way that a red-hot iron would.
We were told that it was produced by exposing air to very high pressure,
and after liquefying it, if it was brought into the open air, it would vaporize
into breathable form, a process similar to boiling water where water changes
Stefan age 16
grade 8 we went to Kraków and Wieliczka. Wieliczka
is famous for its salt mines where the miners carved underground sculptures in
salt, mostly on religious subjects, because danger to life and religion go
closely together. We
have a proverb, "Jak trwoga, to do Boga."
This translates as "When
in fright, then to God." My
lasting memory is the inedible Wiener Schnitzel which we were served in some
third rate eatery (to cut costs). The
group photograph of students is from that excursion.
I am squatting on the ground in the second row wearing an open neck white
shirt with a wide collar. Next to
me on my left is a Jewish boy who managed to survive the war in Warsaw thanks to
his "Aryan" looks. Others,
like the three boys left of the Jewish boy in the same row, turned out to be
Germans and joined the S.S. and were guarding their former classmates and
teachers on the way to the Dachau concentration camp.
The teacher in the photograph disappeared without a trace during the
campaign in the fall of 1939. It
would be interesting to find out how many in this group survived the war.
Our geography teacher told us in about 1938 that the majority of us was
destined to fall "on the field of glory". We thought he was talking nonsense. He was right about losing our lives, but not necessarily
"on the field of glory". There
was nothing glorious about going out the chimney of a crematorium.
last year before the outbreak of the war I was attending a technical school in
Katowice with the idea of becoming a chemical technician, not because I liked
chemistry, but because it was the coming thing and the future allegedly lay in
it. Luckily the war prevented my
contribution to the appalling pollution already existing in my home region.
Things started moving in an accelerated tempo with the outbreak of the
war. To start with my brother,
Janusz, and I set out on August 31st, 1939, equipped with a coil of sausage in
our backpack, on one bicycle. We
went from Chorzów in the direction of Kraków, because the feeling was that
Silesia would easily fall to the Germans and we wanted to get conscripted into
the Polish army somewhere inside Poland further away from the border.
The border was only 3 km. from our house.
We made it as far as Kraków within a day, alternating between the saddle
and the horizontal pipe of the bicycle frame, which was not a particularly
comfortable way of travelling. In
Kraków we parted, myself taking the bicycle, because we figured that in the
general confusion nobody would look seriously at a 16-year old volunteer,
whereas my brother, who was 19, had a better chance of being conscripted into
the army where he wouldn't need the bicycle.
I looked up some distant relatives near Kraków and stayed with them for a
few days awaiting developments. Within
a week the Germans had overtaken me and were there.
Of action I heard only the pitter-patter of machinegun bullets in the
tree leaves. As a precaution
against the possibility of lice, I cut my hair off myself with a pair of
scissors. I looked a sight.
The German soldiers were asking me whether I had some skin disease. I remember trying to tell a German soldier in German that
"He who laughs last laughs best", but I am not sure whether I
succeeded in conveying this idea to him because my German wasn't very good yet.
been overrun by the Germans, there was nothing left to do but to head home.
It was a huge shock to return to my home city and find it drowning in
swastika flags. We knew that there
were Germans living among us, but we did not realize that there were so many of
them. It did not matter that many
of them had Polish names and spoke Polish; at heart they were convinced Nazis
and one had to be very careful what one talked to them about because
denunciations were rampant. All of
a sudden German was the official language whether one knew it or not and the
Hitler-ian greeting the norm. I had
my school cap torn off my head by a policeman and thrown into the mud.
In a hurry I had to learn German because my ears were closed to German
when I had to take it as an optional subject at school.
For a while I was lucky enough to take private lessons from a very
knowledgeable Polish high school teacher of classical languages who gave me a
good grounding in that language. This
man was arrested in 1940 in the general program of exterminating the Polish
intelligentsia and he died in Dachau. My
brother also spent 7 months there, but my mother managed to get him out of there
by pulling strings and he was sent to work in Germany.
end of 1939, a few months after the Germans occupied Silesia, they took a census
of the population with a view of segregating it into national groups.
On an official form called the Fingerabdruck one had to declare whether
one is a German or a Pole. The document was so called because in addition to a
photograph one had to leave a fingerprint of one's index.
When I returned from the Police Station where this was done, I found out
that I was the only Pole in the family, much to the consternation of my parents.
My parents declared themselves to be German because they were born in the
last quarter of the XIX century in the part of Poland which was under German
domination as a result of the partitions of Poland in 1793, and they also spoke
fluent German. Janusz, being more
accommodating, also declared himself to be German.
This did not prevent him from being shipped to Dachau.
I couldn't see how I could possibly do the same, my German was so poor.
Then there started efforts to Germanize me.
I was enrolled in a course of German.
I had nothing against that, knowledge is knowledge, and it was useful to
know the language of your enemy. Each
lesson started with a "Heil Hitler" greeting for the teacher as we
simultaneously raised our arms in the Nazi salute.
I thought I would get away without raising my arm in the forest of arms
around me, but one day the teacher
noticed this and that was the end of me in that course.
town was divided into blocks, each block having a "Blockleiter" who
was invigilating the inhabitants of his block as to their political correctness.
I was called before this Blockleiter who thought that I should join some
Nazi organisation. He was suggesting the N.S.K.K. which stands for Nazional
Sozialistische Kraftzeug something (I forget what the second K stood for).
I told him that I didn't think so, I couldn't see myself in it, as I
didn't even speak German. His name
happened to be Goring. I think he
appreciated my frankness, because there were no repercussions.
Then when I was attending the Katowitz Conservatory, pressure was brought
upon me to join the Studenten Bund. Again I refused.
The man trying to enroll me was rather taken aback by my curt
the occupation, since the schools were closed for me and everybody had to have a
meaningful job, I had to register at the Labour Exchange and the Germans sent me
on forced labour to Germany in the winter of 1940.
It was like a slave market in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire.
The transport of a group of Poles arrived at Grafenort in Lower Silesia
(today Gorzanów where you have been on the trip to Poland), where we were met at
the railway station by the local farmers who would choose:
"I will have this one," and "I will have that one." I was chosen by a man called Franz Weirauch who wasn't a bad
man, but he had a witch for a wife who knew how to make my life miserable.
The day started at 5:00 a.m. and ended at 21:00 p.m. with half-hourly
breaks for breakfast, lunch and supper. Supper
was at 19:00, but there still were the cattle and pigs to be fed.
All work was done by hand as far as I was concerned; I didn't have the
relief that the boss had who worked the land with horses.
perpetually tired because the night was not long enough to recover from the
exertions of the previous day. On
days off, that is on Sundays, one worked only 8 hours because that is how long
it took to look after the cattle in the stalls, feeding and watering them three
times a day. They had a strange way
of raising cattle by keeping it always in stalls, never grazing in the open, and
consequently all food had to be brought to them. The hardest work for me was stamping hay in the loft.
It was like walking on steel springs trying to make them stay flat, an
impossible task. And all this in
great summer heat and dust, sweat running in streams.
There were some pleasant tasks like mowing clover with a scythe which I
enjoyed very much. I would go out
at 5:00 o'clock in the morning, spend two hours at it and would return to the
farm for breakfast. The air was
fresh and clear, the countryside was beautiful (it was in the Sudeten
Mountains). The only drawback was that one could not go anywhere, one was
chained to the land like in the times of serfdom. I had to wear a patch with a "P" printed on it so
that everybody coming in contact with me would know what I am, just like the
Jews with the star of David. Today
I wish I had it as a souvenir.
there came a time to say good-by. The
agreement was that I was contracted only for a year, and when the year was up
they would not let me go. So I
decided to abscond with the help of a Polish girl who worked on the neighbouring
farm (she lent me a watch so I would know when to get up). At 4:00 a.m. I left the farmhouse through a window on to the
roof of the barn and from there jumped to the ground and made off.
I did not direct my steps to the local railway station as everybody would
expect me to do, but to the station one above on the line.
I found out later that indeed the wife of the farmer cycled furiously
down to the railway station to intercept me, but she didn't know that I was
already on the train. I made my
getaway to Breslau (today Wroclaw) where my brother lived.
After a couple of days I continued on and made it safely home. On the way in the train I offered hospitality to a German
woman who was on her way to visit her soldier son, a war casualty, and now had
no place to stay. She left the next
day because she could not stand our talk about Germany losing the war.
my return I managed to get accepted to the Music Conservatory in Katowice which
I attended for a few months, until I came to the notice of the German military
authorities. This came about in the
following manner: one day I received an order to report to the Mobilization
Office. I was greeted by thanks for
having volunteered to serve in the German army. I asked how they got that idea.
In reply they showed me a postcard written ostensibly by me in which I
indeed was offering to serve in the
German army. They took my
particulars and told me that the induction would soon follow. I asked whether I could keep the card I had written.
They gave it to me and I took it home.
The question arose who could have written it.
My mother had a brilliant stroke of woman's intuition.
She had an acquaintance, a Mrs. Karbowiak, the wife of the principal of
the Commerce High School in our town. My
mother got a hunch that she wrote this card.
I went to Mrs. Karbowiak's home on the pretext of practicing typing.
She had a typewriter and we didn't.
While practicing typing I made a copy of the text of the postcard and it
was a perfect match. My mother took both cards and confronted Mrs. Karbowiak with
them. It took her breath away.
That was the end of that friendship.
Mrs. Karbowiak's motive was that it would be nice if her son had some
company when he got the call-up. In
her egoism she didn't give a thought to playing with someone's destiny
(Stalingrad was looming on the horizon).
happened that at this time my school friend, Tadeusz Antonik, appeared in town
on one of his frequent trips from General Gouvernement (Poland proper) in
connection with his black market activities.
He and another friend of ours offered to smuggle me through the border
(the part of the country where I lived was incorporated directly in the German
Reich and a border separated the two.) You
needed a pass to cross the border. They
managed to lend me the pass of a person who did not look like me at all, but
fortunately the border guards were doing their job rather mechanically and did
not bother to check the appearance of the person presenting the pass with the
likeness of the face in the pass and I managed to get through to Kraków.
In the meantime my mother staged my drowning in a local pond by
depositing my clothes and some identity papers on the shore.
Of course the Gestapo never believed her story and they kept coming to
check on persons staying in our apartment.
Once they came when a friend of ours was playing the same pieces by
Chopin that I used to play and the neighbour above our apartment must have
phoned in to the Gestapo that I might be back.
is now the end of 1942 and my arrival in Kraków marks the
beginning of a year and a half of living in hiding.
I had some relatives there, but I couldn't abuse their hospitality too
much. I managed to get a pass of my
own (on false pretenses) and was able to sneak my way into our apartment in
Chorzów under the cover of night aided by the compulsory black-out.
This way I was able to get through the winter of 1942/43 which was a very
severe one. Things eased up in the
spring. I discovered that the
safest place was a swimming pool "Nur fur Deutsche" (only for Germans)
in Kraków, because nobody would ask you for identity papers when all you have on
is a pair of swimming trunks. I
knew German sufficiently well by this time to pass for a German.
I would take a train from Kraków to Warsaw just to have somewhere to pass the
night because the nights were particularly dangerous on account of the police
hour. One night I spent in a doss
house in Kraków. It was impossible
to sleep there because of the bedbugs and the light.
The light had to be kept on, because if you turned it off, the bugs would
march along the ceiling and parachute themselves on the palliasses on which the
inmates slept. Then, another night,
I slept in a verandah on the grounds of the Capucine monastery in which King Jan
III Sobieski is reputed to have had breakfast on his march to rescue Vienna in
1683. I slept in a deck chair and
froze because the night turned out to be still quite cold even though it was
summer. Eventually I settled down
in Warsaw where I, among other things, enrolled in the underground Home Army.
We were organized in groups of 5 people which met periodically in the
homes of individual members of the group. At
those meetings practiced taking apart and putting together a hand gun.
On behalf of the Home Army I also took a driving course which was limited
solely to theory because there were no vehicles available for driving.
The idea was that with the knowledge of how the engine worked we were
supposed to be able to drive a tank in case we conquered one in the showdown
with the Germans in the approaching uprising.
of the meetings we were asked by somebody higher in the command if any of us was
prepared to volunteer for the executive arm of the Home Army.
This meant going armed with a pistol and shooting traitors and
collaborators condemned by the courts of the Underground.
I didn't volunteer. Frankly
I lacked the courage for it and I just couldn't picture myself reading the
sentence of the court to somebody and then drawing a pistol and shooting him
The picture of the Warsaw rickshaws
make a living I hired myself as a rickshaw driver.
Rickshaws were our war time taxis driven by manpower because there was no
gas for the civilian population. It
was a tricycle with a double seat in the front and the driver pedalling
furiously in the back. Driving a
rickshaw you could at least make enough to live on after paying the rent for the
vehicle. It was impossible to live
doing ordinary jobs because the wages were kept at prewar levels, whereas the
cost of living went up tenfold. The
only inconvenience was that I had to take a night shift because the day shift
was already filled. This
circumstance had a decisive bearing on the course of my future life.
As I mentioned, there was a universal police hour in the whole country
from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. during which nobody without special permission was
allowed to be outdoors. There was
an unwritten law which made an exception for rickshaw drivers who, after all,
were performing a public service. It
so happened that one October night in 1943 this unwritten law was set aside and
the Gestapo organized a razzia and was stopping everybody who happened to be in
the street. A razzia is a fishing
expedition where the police close off a street at both ends and pull everybody
who happens to fall into the dragnet. The
Gestapo man did not like the look of my identity card even in the light of a
flashlight. And no wonder because I
forged it myself by changing the name from Kobylińska to Kobyliński, putting my
own photograph in and running the arc of a stamp through the lefthand bottom
corner. The Gestapo man gave me a
passenger in the person of an armed Ukrainian SS-man who ordered me to take him
to Alea Szucha, the headquarters of the Gestapo in Warsaw.
Upon arrival there I was put into what was called a "tramway"
which was a cell with several rows of double seats one behind the other in two
columns. From the neighbouring room
came groans and muffled shrieks of somebody being tortured and beaten.
They were muffled because the henchmen must have stuffed something into
the mouth of their victim. After a
certain time the victim was let into the "tramway".
His face was covered with boils, bruises and blood and he could hardly
stand on his feet. He finally made
it into one of the seats. During
that night I also made the acquaintance with sleeping on a cement floor.
It is hard to believe, but I managed to fall asleep on it.
morning all the "tramway" passengers were loaded on to a truck with a
tarpaulin cover and transported to the "Pawiak" with guards sitting at
the gate of the truck and making everybody sit on the floor by banging the heads
of the prisoners with the butts of their rifles.
There was one young man by the name of Woyton (I found out later), who
had his hands tied at the back and had to be helped to jump off the truck
because of it. I asked him why he
was tied and he told me that he was apprehended in possession of a firearm.
He was as good as a goner.
"Pawiak" derives its name from the Polish word "paw" which
means peacock, and since the prison was located at Pawia Street it got the name
"Pawiak". It was a
present from Catherine the Great who had it built at the end of the 18th century
as a depository of political prisoners. It
consisted of two naves each about 150 m. long branching out from the central
administration part. It had, I
think, three stories and a basement. Incidentally,
it stood inside the Warsaw Ghetto amid ruins of bombed and burned out houses
destroyed during the Jewish uprising in March of 1943.
arrival we first went into the basement which was called the "Siódemka"
which means the 7th Department. I
don't remember how long I stayed there, but it must have been several weeks.
The cell was a space of 3 m. by 5 m. with 8 prisoners in each cell.
For 8 prisoners there were three palliasses about 1.80 m. long, so the
best use that could be made of them was to put one palliasse under our heads and
the other two under our backs up to the pelvis with our legs floating freely on
the cement floor. For pillows we
used our mess bowls placed under the palliasse to give it a bit of a rise to
rest the head on. There were no
blankets, we slept in what we stood in, and the barred windows had no panes.
This was November now and winter was approaching.
In one corner stood an iron barrel, the latrine which had to be carried
on the double to the washrooms to be emptied.
For passing the time we could only walk Indian file around the cell in a
circle, sitting during the day was forbidden.
Every morning there was a roll-call which consisted of opening the door
of the cell and the warden receiving a report in German from one of the
prisoners as to the numerical status of the cell.
This was my function as I was the only prisoner in the cell who knew
German. The wording of the report
was: "Acht Haftlinge, alle anwesend" (eight prisoners, all present)
which was easily verified by a head count of two rows of four people.
everything is relative and the above conditions were still civilized in
comparison to what I experienced in the isolation cell located in the cellars of
the prison. I found myself in it on
account of scabies which was endemic amongst the prisoners.
There you sat and slept naked on loose straw scattered on a cement floor
and you had to rub your body several times a day with a stinking sulphur based
solution. I spent three days in
must confess that I suffered more persecution from the prisoners than from the
Germans because right from the start I was perceived to be a Jew. Appearances were conspiring against me: I spoke German (all
Polish Jews speak German because their language, Yiddish, is based on and is a
variant of medieval German), I did not take part in the pious prayers that the
other prisoners indulged in every morning, I spoke a different kind of Polish
from theirs (there are regional differences in the language), I was dark-haired
and one of the prisoners swore up and down that he had seen me in the ghetto
selling vegetables off a pushcart. They
called me Moniek which is derived from Moses.
They laid off after our first visit to the showers two weeks into
captivity where they could convince themselves that indeed I was not
circumcised. From then on they
called me Monius which is a diminutive of Moniek.
Having found out that I was a non-believer, I was told that I was too
young (I was 22 then) to have an opinion on the matter.
The food was of course inadequate: roasted rye coffee and a piece of rye
bread and marmalade in the morning, turnip soup at midday and the same in the
evening with another piece of bread. So
the main topic of conversation and dreams was food.
Christmas time 1943 I was transferred to the 3rd floor, the "Dziesiątka"
- 10th Department. Here there was a
big cell with about 100 prisoners in it with a little room off to the side which
was occupied by the "elite", i.e. the criminal prisoners.
The story repeated itself, again I was declared a Jew.
They would subject me to exams on the quality of my Polish.
They couldn't find any grammatical or syntactical errors (no Jew ever
mastered the intricacies of the Polish language even though he may have lived in
Poland all his life), but they still didn't like my accent.
day I found myself surrounded by a group of my "examiners" who started
shoving me around, so I took on the biggest of them, a husky professional
bandit. He would have made
mincemeat of me, but luckily we got separated by other prisoners.
My reaction made them sit up and think because it was entirely atypical
for a Jew to fight, and from then on they left me alone.
X department was a pool from which the jail guards drew labour for work inside
the prison. In this way I got into
the prison kitchen where life was entirely different from sitting idly in the
cell and playing chess with pieces made out of kneaded bread.
Food stopped being a problem, particularly when I was detailed to the
kitchen preparing food for the Gestapo where whipping cream was flowing like a
mighty river. The source of it was
food confiscated by the police on the trains which the farmers were smuggling
into the capital from the surrounding country.
One day around Christmas time in 1943, the manager of the kitchen, a
Polish policeman (they were kept on alongside the Gestapo and Ukrainian SS) put
me on a steam kettle. This was a
cauldron about 4 feet deep and 5 feet in diameter.
My task was to stir the soup with a wooden spoon the size of an oar,
about 7 feet long, while the soup cooked. It
was hard work and everything was fine as long as the soup was on the thin side.
But one day it was pea soup. Pea
soup has a tendency to thicken and I did not manage to stir the soup fast
enough, it was just too much for my strength, and it stuck to the walls of the
cauldron preventing the heat from penetrating through the whole volume and
cooking it. The result was raw
peasoup and a cauldron with a thick layer of soup stuck to it.
You could hear the swearing of 2,000 prisoners as it was distributed in
the cells. Of course I was deposed
from this function and returned to the cell.
Every day while working on that cauldron I observed the Gestapo-men
skimming the horse meat (supplied by R.G.O., a benevolent Polish organization)
off the soup and feeding it to their German shepherd dogs.
day I was called on a detail to transport potatoes from a store room on Gęsia
Street (Goose Street - the streets in that part of town were all named after
birds). This store room was
actually a post-Jewish house, and while pouring potatoes into sacks, I found an
English book written by C. E. Eckersley which I smuggled into the cell. It was a self-teaching book of English, but it was not from
the series of books written by this author under the title "Essential
English for Foreign Students" with which I was to make an acquaintance
later on in the Polish army in Italy. It
was something else, and today I do not remember its title.
I later shared this book with a young Jew in my cell by tearing it in two
halves and giving him the first part and keeping the end part.
He was also interested in English and generally was the only person with
whom one could talk about things. I
doubt whether he survived. He
arrived in the cell as Zielinski, but after the first interrogation he returned
to the cell under his own name, Goldfarb, and a split lower lip.
He had his Jewishness written all over his face.
in January of 1944 I was called to an interrogation at the Allee Szucha.
The Gestapo officer also presumed that in my case he was dealing with a
Jew. My position was indefensible,
my identity card was obviously a forgery, so the only course open for me to get
out of there unscathed was to admit who I was and where I came from.
To check whether I was telling the truth, i.e. that I was not a Jew, I
had to lower my trousers in the presence of a female secretary so that the
officer could see for himself that I was not circumcised.
When he was satisfied, he just said, somewhat annoyed or disappointed,
"Weg damit," which means "Be gone with it." That was the only interrogation I had. Towards the end of January I started my trip back to Chorzów.
I travelled in a special prison train where the wagon was divided into
two rows of cells with a corridor in the middle.
The cells were 1 m. square with two prisoners to a cell, so there was
only standing room. The train was
unheated. I don't remember how long
the trip lasted, but I know that it took two days to get from Warsaw to Kraków,
a distance of some 300 km. The
train would be shunted to a siding and just left there standing for hours. I remember standing in a group of prisoners guarded by
policemen with machine pistols at the railway station in Kraków, where two
German civilians were also waiting, and one asked the other, "Sind das
alles Banditen?" (Are these
all bandits?) I said to him,
"Mensch, haben Sie eine Ahnung was los geht." (Man, you haven't a clue
what's going on.)
trip took me via St. Michael's prison in Kraków (walls
4 feet thick), Katowice, the concentration camp in Mysłowice, a prison in
Breslau, and back to Chorzów, where the Gestapo gave me a choice of either
going to Auschwitz or to the German army. I
was just waiting for that, because back at the Pawiak I hatched a plan that if
they gave me that choice, I would jump at it, determined to desert at the first
opportunity. When I consented to be
drafted, the Gestapo-man jumped me with a "Oh, ja, wenn Sie das Wasser an
der Nase haben, wollen Sie ins Militar!"
(Oh, yes, now that you have the water up to your nose, you want to go
into the army.) But this was just
playing cat and mouse. The Gestapo-man put 25 pfennig on the table and said,
"This is your fare for the streetcar from here to the recruiting office.
If you are not there within half an hour, der Bad ist aus." (the
bath is finished, i.e. the water will be cut off.)
He didn't have to tell me this twice, I reported at the recruiting office
and only then went home. I dropped
all the clothes I was wearing to be burned and I squashed the last louse on the
side of the bathtub (until then I didn't realize that I had any.)
a two week's stay at home the call-up papers came and I had to appear before a
medical commission to determine my physical suitability for service in the army.
The doctor giving me the check-up, after tapping my chest, making me
spread my legs and asking me to cough, wanted to know why my hair was so short.
I told him that I had been recently released from prison. The next question was how I got there. I couldn't very well tell him that I had been dodging the
draft into the army and avoiding precisely an appointment like I was having with
him, so I told him that I was arrested for black market dealing.
To which he replied, "Wir legen grossen Wert auf Sie." (We
expect great things of you). I didn't let him down. I
was found suitable for service.
the call-up papers came I had to report to the barracks in Tarnowskie Góry, some
20 km. from Chorzów, for service in the army.
Within a month I was on my way through Germany towards the west in a
cattle wagon. The trip lasted 5
days at the end of which I found myself in St. Antoine in the Alpes Maritimes
above Nice. From the trip three
things stand out in my memory: the dilapidated look of the French towns right
from the moment of crossing the German-French border, the beauty of the
countryside in the region of Dijon (whole mountains and valleys covered with
cherry and apple blossoms) and a sunrise over the sea in Toulon. Those were unforgettable sights.
On the way to France I immediately started learning French.
I had a 5-languages conversation book.
I remember how I struggled with the phrase "il faut" without a
dictionary. Even with a dictionary
it is difficult to guess its meaning because it is a defective verb as it occurs
only in the third person.
St. Antoine we were billeted in private houses from which the owners were
evicted. St. Antoine was a
beautiful village overlooking the river du Var.
Training consisted of chasing up and down the mountains till I thought my
heart would give out. In the sunny
and hot South of France we were wearing the same uniforms that the German
soldiers were wearing in freezing Russia, there was no thought of supplying
tropical uniforms with shorts. We
were confined to the village, we could not go anywhere, we were completely cut
off from the world (no papers or radio), and had to listen to propaganda pep
talks of the officers who told us how we were going to beat the enemy senseless.
Things improved when I was made messenger and my function was to make
daily trips on the bus to the battalion headquarters in Cimiez, a suburb of
Nice, in company of a lance corporal. Only
then was I able to find out from the newspapers about the D-Day landings one
month after the event. These trips
enabled me also to make contacts with the local population which I aided by
dropping off loaves of bread which I was diverting and hiding for this purpose
when supplies were being delivered to our unit.
I made also the acquaintance of a Polish count, a certain M. Louis de
Rokicki, who worked as a labourer at the fortifications works at our company
head-quarters. I visited him and
his Swedish wife 5 years after the war in Villefranche, just to let them know
that I survived the war.
day there was a theft of a camera in the unit and the whole company was ordered
to assemble in the barracks yard with all possessions.
I gathered up everything I had. By
this time I acquired a Langenscheidt self-teaching manual of French, Stanisławski's Polish-English dictionary sent from home and Mark Twain's
"Cruise of the Mediterranean" which I found in an abandoned house in
Cimiez. I displayed all this on the
groundsheet in front of me waiting for inspection. When inspection came, one sergeant started rummaging in my
stuff making noncommittal grunts taking it all in.
He didn't make any comment at the time, but he remembered me.
Sometime later I met him on one of my trips to H.Q. in Cimiez and he
asked me a question to which I replied "Wahrscheinlich."
Then he asked me how that would be in English.
I said "Probably." And
in French? "Probablement."
He smiled. It was on the tip
of my tongue to tell him that in Polish it is "Prawdopodobnie", but I
thought better of it. It is a pity
that I didn't because later I found out that he deserted to the Maquis. But how
was I to know that he was not an orthodox Nazi?
Another highlight from my military service was an outing to a beautiful
villa at Cap Ferrat. All the
inhabit-ants of this location were evicted because their properties were on the
coast and for security reasons the Germans were occupying their houses
(submarines dropping off spies etc.)
this particular villa there was a beautiful Bechstein grand piano and I was
asked to play because somehow it became known that I knew how to play.
I think it must have been the lance corporal with whom I was travelling
to Cimiez, because we would drop into an officers' club in one of the palatial
hotels on the Promenade des Anglais where there was another magnificent grand
piano and I used to play on it. Once
we were surprised at it by an officer and thrown out of there.
This officer couldn't get over our cheek of daring to invade such sacred
ground. He probably couldn't play
himself and my music was just pearls before swine.
The bunch at Cap Ferrat was more appreciative.
consider my service in the German army as one of the most pleasant periods of my
life despite the hardships of military training.
It was the beauty of the surroundings that compensated for the hardships.
The Cote d'Azure in the forties was a paradise on earth.
It was an unpolluted mixture of blue skies and blue water with plenty of
sun, fresh air, luxuriant flora and architecture perfectly blended with nature.
When I visited it the last time in 1981, it wasn't the same; the blue was
replaced by grey, no doubt the result of traffic pollution.
dream could not last for ever: on August 22nd 1944 the American army landed on
the Cote d'Azure and my unit was thrown into action in the mountains in the area
of Frejus. Being messenger I was
sent with a message that such and such company was to attack immediately. I jumped on my bicycle and kept pedalling, but nobody told me
where to find this company. I
wended my way up and down the winding roads in the mountains meeting nobody, the
region was completely deserted, encountering abandoned German equipment, the
road potholed by artillery shelling. From
this I gathered that I was near the front line. At a certain point, as I emerged round the bend in the road,
I got shot at by machineguns from a distance of no more than 30 metres.
I took cover by tumbling with the bicycle into the ditch.
In the fall my rifle strap broke, and that's the last I saw of it, I just
left it there. I took out my
handkerchief and started waving it above my head and shouted in English
"Don't shoot!" They
obliged and I surrendered to a unit composed mostly of black soldiers.
I wanted to shake hands with my captors because I was very elated (this
was the moment that I had been waiting for for five years), but they wouldn't,
they didn't trust me. Ironically,
becoming a prisoner of war I considered a liberation.
a white soldier came along and introduced himself as a Jew from New York.
He wanted to know why Hitler had it in so much for the Jews.
With the knowledge of the problem that I had at the time, I told him that
Hitler considers the Jews an inferior race and blames Jews for all the evils
that befell the German people. I
didn't know at the time that his hatred was based on his personal experiences
with the Jews in his Vienna days. After
that short discussion with the Jew I was taken before an officer for
interrogation. I wanted to continue
speaking English, but the officer changed to German which he spoke quite well.
He was probably an American of German descent.
I told him all I knew about the structure of the military command, which
was not much, who the commander of the division was and such.
It happened to be somebody called General Freto-Picco, a strange name for
a German. After this interrogation
I was locked up in a chicken coop for a few hours.
My guard noticed a watch on my wrist and wanted to buy it from me.
He was quite insistent about it, but I refused to sell it.
It didn't occur to me that he could have simply taken it from me without
any compensation. From the chicken
coop I was taken to an assembly point in St. Raphael.
There the prisoners were exposed to the brandishments of the population,
mostly housewives armed with brooms and mops, as they were walking along the
streets on the way to the port. We
were loaded on one of the Liberty ships, a thousand of us, below deck.
Each one of us had a tag hung on his neck with his name and a text from
the Geneva Convention in different languages including Japanese.
The German officers were quite impressed with this organization making
comments like, "Have you ever seen anything like that in our army?" Each prisoner had a berth to sleep in. On board ship I was introduced to instant coffee which was
the only beverage given us. For the
duration of the trip we were given no warm food or drink.
The trip lasted some three days. I
was quite an important person on board ship because I was the only one among
1,000 prisoners who spoke English and all the "pourparlers" between
the captain of the ship and the German brass had to go through me, a private.
One of the crew again noticed my watch and this time I gave in and
exchanged it for an English-German dictionary.
didn't know it at the time, but we were bound for Naples, passing by the Ile of
Capri. Upon landing in Naples and
surviving the sight of Vesuvius, we were taken inland some 30 miles to a P.O.W.
camp at Aversa. There I spent some
three months, first under the open sky and then in a tent. I stayed there longer than necessary because again I was
needed as an interpreter. In the
meantime I got in touch with some Polish liaison officers who were scouring the
camp for volunteers to the Polish army. I
came forward and at the end of October 1944 I was taken to San Basilio near
Taranto (Province Puglia) and there entered the Polish army under the name of
Stefan Ostoja (the first half of my family name which fell into disuse).
In order to obliterate one's tracks one assumed a pseudonym in case one
should fall into German hands again. So
in 8 months the plan I hatched in the prison cell at Pawiak materialized.
I cannot say that it was a dream come true.
Actually I felt quite depressed and uncomfortable in the Polish army on
account of the distrust that surrounded me on account of my service in the
German army. The veterans of Monte
Cassino were lording it over those whose way to the Polish army led through the
west instead of the east.
San Basilio I went to an officer cadet school in Matera, Province Lucania, which
I absolved with the lowest placement (it was called lokata). This low placement was caused by my absolute refusal to learn
anything about mines. I considered
them the most repulsive artifact of warfare and would have nothing to do with
them. During the examination I
remained silent. The examining
officer was dismayed that I didn't answer a single question and I didn't tell
him the reason. (I was 50 years
before my time, because the subject of landmines is being discussed now, in
1995, at a United Nations conference in Vienna dedicated to control inhumane
weapons. Unfortunately it ended in
failure to agree on tighter controls over landmines which kill 20,000 civilians
a year, many of them children.) At
the conclusion of the course we were given a week's holiday in an officers'
resting camp in Bari. There on one
of my walks through town I met totally by chance my brother, Janusz, who was
also in the Polish uniform. He was
also conscripted into the German army, was sent to Dax in France and from there
followed more or less the same route to Italy via Aversa and San Basilio after
the liberation of France by the Allies.
the rank of Ensign Lance Corporal I returned to my unit in San Basilio to train
new recruits. I soon tired of it
and enrolled in high school courses to finish my education. For this purpose I
was transferred to a place called Alessano in the Province of Puglia.
Alessano is a small town in the heel of Italy near Lecce.
There the sun shone 6 months without a break.
The days were very hot, you had to take a siesta.
We were in conflict there with the local population because their real
life began at 6 o'clock in the evening and carried on into the early morning
hours, whereas we were sticking to the northern routine with our day starting
with 8 o'clock classes. It was a
trying time, but things improved in winter which was quite cold and it put a
damper on living outdoors. This was
now the winter of 1945. I continued
attending the school till the summer of 1946.
While I was in Italy my father died of natural causes in 1945, just after the war. I don't know the precise details of his death. My parents survived the war by renting out part of our 5-room apartment to a gynecologist and selling pieces of furniture and the odd picture. Father may have also had some kind of old-age pension, but I am not sure of this, having left the parental home when I was 18.
Grandma Julia Poniecka as she called herself.
Taken in 1961. She died in 1964 at the age of 84
After the war Mother carried
on in the same way with myself
supplementing her income with parcels which I later sent her from England.
In 1958 she came to Calgary and stayed with us for two years.
At the end of those two years she decided that Canada was not for her,
and returned to Poland. Having sold
her apartment in Chorzów before she left for Canada, she had no place to return
to, but her brother, Jan, in Wroclaw agreed to take her in.
This did not work out too well and she ended her days in a old-folks home
near Wroclaw. It was a rather sad
end for her.
June 1946 it was time to leave Italy and the whole II Polish Corps was
transferred to England. I landed in
a camp in the village of Cawthorn near Barnsley in Yorkshire.
I stayed there, still continuing with the high school courses, till
November when I found a job as a foreign correspondent in a wool export firm in
Bradford, Joseph Brennan & Sons. My
job consisted of dealing with the mail coming from the Continent and replying to
it in German, French and Italian.
5-year stay in England was uneventful, nothing like the preceding 5 years where
almost every year I found myself in another country.
There is nothing more boring than a weekend in an English town when it
rains. And it rained a lot in
Bradford. I found life in England
terribly circumscribed by innumerable laws and by-laws.
It was supposed to be a free country, but one felt like in prison.
You could not play tennis on Sunday on public courts, movie theatres were
also closed because it's the Lord's day, pubs were closing and opening at funny
hours, you couldn't withdraw your own money from an account when you needed it
because it had to stay in the account a required minimum of time. For one of my holidays I went on a bicycle tour to the South
Coast. Before leaving, I put some
money into my Post Office savings account.
The P.O. acted like a bank. Two
days later, when I arrived at my destination, I wanted to withdraw my money for
living expenses, but I couldn't because it hadn't been in the account long
enough. This slavish sticking to
rules was carried to ridiculous lengths.
day, during very dense fog, something fell into my eye.
I couldn't dislodge it, so I went to the emergency at the nearest
hospital. There, they wouldn't do
anything for me without first giving them a urine sample.
There was no use arguing that there was nothing wrong with me at that
end, it was my eye that was hurting like mad.
The answer was that I would be surprised at what a urine analysis could
reveal. In the end it turned out
that I had a piece of metal filing lodged in my eye.
How it could have floated in the air to hit my eye, is a mystery.
It must have been a really thick fog.
my entire stay in England I didn't make one friend among the natives.
They formed a closed, tightly knit society unto themselves.
This was not for lack of trying. There
was a young man whom I met through playing tennis.
He was a much better player than I, I could never win a set from him.
He liked to keep it that way. One
day after a game, I invited him up to my lodgings which were not far from the
tennis courts. Upon entering, he remarked on the loneliness of the
surroundings in which I lived. He
put forward the idea that I should come to his house for a visit. I thought it very nice of him, thanked him and we made an
appointment for a visit. He was
single and lived with his mother. After
a nice meal, I noticed that they had a piano, so as a way of passing the time, I
suggested that I play something for them. There
was a volume of Beethoven's sonatas on the piano, and being familiar with some
of them, I was able to entertain them for a while.
After this musical interlude, I asked my friend whether he played chess.
He did, so we had a few games all of which I won, because his chess was
on a rather rudimentary level. Well,
I couldn't help that; perhaps I should have been more diplomatic and let him win
a game, but perhaps I was thinking of the beating he was giving me in tennis.
The upshot of it all was that he dropped me like a hot potato, I was
never invited again and never played another game of tennis with him.
I concluded that this was motivated by jealousy.
It irked him that there were fields in which a foreigner was beating him.
This was in about 1947, when the English were all puffed up with national
pride and conviction that they were the best in the world in everything, having
just defeated the Germans (forgetting about the help of America).
This superiority was rubbed in everywhere, all the time, at every step.
The English also had subtle ways of letting you know that you were not
welcome in their midst. For example, when I went to register for an evening course at
Bradford College, the principal told me that I should realize that my tuition
was being subsidized by the English taxpayers.
I told him that I also was a taxpayer and enrolled in spite of him.
Passport photo of Stefan, about 35
I don't remember all the petty annoyances, but the sum total made for an
uncomfortable living. After five
years of it, I had had enough of England and decided to emigrate to Canada.
On the positive side, I must chalk up the enjoyment I derived from
listening to the English radio. The
B.B.C. had me glued to my little Philco apparatus for hours on end.
There were many interesting programs bringing gripping drama, such as
"Kind Hearts and Coronets" with Alec Guiness, the Reith Lectures with
Bertrand Russell, and a lot of humorous features.
later fortunes in Canada were rather humdrum.
It took me two years before I settled in a permanent job as a court
reporter in Calgary. As I say, the
excitement ended with the war. Those
were interesting times, but they cost too many victims.
With the fall off the bicycle into the ditch my active participation in
the war ended, not having fired one single shot in earnest.
At least I can say that my hands are clean, I haven't anybody's life on
sailed from Southampton on the 3rd of November, I think, 1951, on the S.S.
Columbia, a Greek ship. The ship
carried twice as many people as it was designed for, so the passage was not very
pleasant. I was assigned to a table
for two because somebody assumed that I was married.
When it came to light that I was single, I got reassigned to the flotsam
table, i.e. the singles' table. And
who should be at this table, among others, if not your future mother.
There was no romancing on the ship because, for one, I was seasick and
besides Joyce was in company of a male, so I did not interfere.
Canada on board the S.S. Columbia, the Canadian coast appeared on the horizon
not where I expected it, that is in the west, but somehow too much to the north.
Looking at the map now, I understand why it appeared in the north:
we must have passed Newfoundland in the fog and never seen it, and
Anticosti was the first glimpse of land. Anyway,
there it was, a confirmation of "Aca nada", Spanish for "nothing
there", one of the conjectures of the derivation of the name Canada.
The coastline of Anticosti looked bleak, empty and uninviting.
The same for both sides of the St. Lawrence River.
Human habitations looked primitive, utilitarian and able to provide only
the barest minimum of comfortable accommodation. We were supposed to land in Montreal, but our sea voyage was
cut short in Quebec City, because the St. Lawrence River beyond Quebec City was
frozen. We docked in the middle of
the night. I was wakened by the
noise of stevedores unloading the ship. On
waking I lost my bearings because I heard human voices speaking an unfamiliar
language. I concluded that it must
be an Indian dialect; but on shaking off the sleep and concentrating more on the
sounds, I began to discern French words. It
turned out to be Canadian French as it is spoken in Quebec.
It sounded awful and I took a dislike to it immediately.
This dislike I have not been able to overcome to this day.
City of Quebec we were met by a Salvation Army officer whose task was to greet
us officially into Canada and direct us to a train which would take us to
Montreal. The shipping company felt
obliged to provide this transportation at its expense because it failed to
forward us as far as Montreal, the final destination for which we bought
tickets. We finally arrived in
Montreal towards the evening of November 11, 1951.
We directed our first steps to a restaurant. It was named F.D.R. I
remember the name because I associated its name with Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
the war-time president of the United States.
I remember the name of the restaurant also for another reason:
all the cutlery were engraved with the words "Stolen from
F.D.R." This made me wonder
what kind of country I was coming to, where everybody was presumed to be a
thief. I was impressed by little
gadgets which were new to me because you didn't see them in England, such as
napkin holders, sugar dispensers that you reversed and poured the sugar out of
instead of taking it with a spoon from a bowl. But to call toilets "rest rooms" was definitely not
an improvement, it only helped to create confusion and make a pressing situation
it came time to say good-by to Joyce and her companion who were going on to
Toronto. Her companion was a
Canadian, which did not prevent him from borrowing money from a poor immigrant.
He asked me for $10.00, so I gave him the money thinking I would never
see it again, when Joyce asked the pertinent question, "How are you going
to get it back?" I had an
address of a friend who emigrated to Canada a few months ahead of me, so I gave
that address with the money. Today
I don't remember how we did not lose track of each other because I didn't know
the address I gave to Joyce's companion was wrong.
spent my first night in this hemisphere in a miserable $10.00 a night room and
the next day I set out to find my friend but there was no one by that name
living there. So there I was,
setting out in search of lodgings. Having
pounded the streets for a few hours, I stepped on somebody's heel.
I said "Sorry," and it turned out that I stepped on the heel of
the friend I was looking for. Being
a bit disorganized (he was an artist), instead of giving me 5511 St. Urbain
Street, he gave me 1155 St. Urbain Street, a difference of some 40 blocks.
Talk about coincidence in a city of 2 million.
At Christmas I went to Toronto and visited Joyce and stayed at her
companion's house. Joyce tells me
that she had to work over the Christmas holidays, so we didn't spend very much
time together. I returned to
Montreal and we kept writing to teach other.
found the people in Toronto very rude. For
example, I was riding the streetcar seated on the aisle seat. When the negro sitting on my right decided to get off, he
didn't ask me to make room for him to get by me, which I would have done by
angling my legs into the aisle. He just climbed over me and at the same time
ripped the gift wrapping off the parcel which I was holding on my knees.
The manners of people in Montreal weren't much better.
At the place where I worked I met a man in the door.
At that moment he happened to sneeze, bespattering me with his spittle
right in my face. No word of
found my first job in Montreal within two weeks.
It was in the shipping department of Kraft Foods Ltd. in Outremond, just
ordinary clerking. The only thing I
remember happening in that job is being searched on leaving work by a security
guard who noticed a bulge in my overcoat. It
was a book I was carrying. He was
very disappointed that it didn't turn out to be a chunk of Cracker Barrel
Cheese. This obsession with
people's dishonesty was present everywhere.
I remember going shopping for a pair of gloves.
At the end of November or December I went into a store where the owner
was interrupted as he showed me the gloves.
As he left he instructed a helper in French to keep an eye on me,
assuming that I didn't understand French. I
told him to keep his shirt on and left the store without buying.
This was the third example of taking everybody for a thief within just as
relief, I fell victim of a gyp, perhaps inadvertently on the part of the other
party. I have to give him the
benefit of the doubt. I lived in
St. Urbain Street, the heart of Jewry in Montreal, the scene of Mordecai
Richler's "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz".
I went to the nearest library which happened to be a Jewish library.
I thought nothing of it, books are books, as long as you didn't bring
home bed bugs hiding between the pages, as used to
happen in my own home town. I
became a member by paying a fee of $5.00, a sizeable sum for me in those days,
and went to look at the shelves. There
wasn't one English book in the whole library, they were all in Hebrew or
Yiddish. There is
one-track-mindedness for you. (At
Anita's friend's Jewish wedding where she was a bridesmaid, my neighbour in the
pew of the synagogue drew my attention to the fact that I was holding the prayer
book upside down. This is how much
I knew about Hebrew).
three months I had enough of Montreal's mixture of Franco-American-Jewish
atmosphere. My brother wrote to me
from England that according to the research he had been doing on Canada, he
thought that Edmonton would be a better place for me. I took his suggestion and
left by train for Edmonton. The
trip lasted, I think, two nights and three days.
I was very concerned about how we would sleep on the train, because to
all appearances there was no bed in sight, and I pestered the uniformed black
train attendant with a red round hat about it (all the train attendants were
black in those days). He told me
not to worry. And indeed when night
came the wagon became a sleeping wagon by letting the beds down from their
hiding places below the ceiling. I
couldn't afford the dining room, so I cooked for myself in the kitchen provided. There was no sightseeing: outside there was just white-out,
fog, snow and blizzard, a continuation of Aca Nada.
The snow appeared only on the stretch from Calgary to Edmonton - Alberta
lived up to its reputation. Upon
arrival in Edmonton I purchased a local paper and looked for rooms to rent.
I phoned one place and asked if I could rent a room for a fortnight.
I got an earful of abuse. The
lady of the house didn't know what a fortnight was.
(Next time I heard the word was 43 years later.
It was used by none other than Pierre Trudeau as he spoke about the
recent referendum). Eventually I phoned a house on the south side of Edmonton,
carefully avoiding the use of the offending word, and changing it to "two
weeks". Being on the south
side meant crossing the Saskatchewan River via the High Level Bridge, on foot of
course, because I didn't know what bus to take. The High Level Bridge is enormously long; at least it seemed
so in the dark. The wind was
howling something terrible. I came
in contact with the chill factor for the first time.
I rented a basement room in which I stayed several months.
struck by the colour of Edmonton suburbia.
Every roof was a different colour: there
were green-shingled roofs, red, brown, blue, variegated. Against the background of pure white snow, Edmonton looked
quiet gay, particularly on a sunny day. It
was a welcome change from the drabness of St. Urbain Street, and I thought with
a shudder about the grime of Bradford, wondering how I could have stood it for
first steps after arrival were directed to the municipal library. Here you became a member without payment, but you had to
supply two references. These I was
unable to give because the only person I knew in Edmonton was my landlady.
The lady receiving my application had a hard time believing that there
could be someone not knowing anybody else.
Finally she relented and accepted me, a "new Canadian" as she
put it, on the strength of one reference.
came looking for a job. I tried
selling newspaper subscriptions but I was totally unsuccessful.
I tried to get a job in a
hardware store, but you had to be "bonded", a completely new concept
for me. I had no idea how one
became bonded. Eventually I found a
job in the Bridge Branch as a bookkeeper. This
was a job with the Provincial Government. It
was steady, but immensely boring, so I left it because I wanted to do something
more constructive. As a result I
landed in construction as a manual labourer. The remuneration was slightly under a dollar an hour,
somewhere in the range of 90 cents. The
foreman who was paid $1.20 an hour was looked upon as a very lucky fellow.
The pick and shovel weren't too bad, but then I was put on the cement
mixer and my job consisted of emptying cement bags into the revolving bowels of
those great cement trucks which one sees carrying mixed cement to different
construction sites. It was not only
extremely heavy work, it was also dirty because there was no way of avoiding
cement spilling onto yourself. At the end of a shift I was covered with cement from head to
foot. Then I had to take a bus in
that state. People were squirming
and shirking away, trying not to come into contact with me.
I don't think I lasted on that function more than two days.
On the third day, when I was again assigned to this task, I told the boss
that I was not going. He just
turned to the foreman and told him to give me my cards.
That's the first time I heard such an expression.
It didn't mean much to me then, but I soon realized that I was being
the street again. The next job I
found was in a wholesale hardware store, Ashdown's.
The job consisted of bringing different pieces of equipment such as
fridges, stoves etc. on a dolly down to the groundfloor for shipment to
customers. They had a primitive
elevator which I set in motion by activating a flywheel at the top of the
elevator by pulling with all my might on a hemp rope. I forget now how I stopped it, but there must have been some
kind of brake. This yanking on the
rope was very energy consuming and tiring, so I left that job and let somebody
else yank on that rope. It was
difficult to believe that in the middle of the XX century there were still such
primitive methods being used.
found a job in a dry-goods warehouse, more or less the same as the previous one,
but the work was on one floor. This
was Dower Brothers, a Jewish firm. Here
the principle was that you were not supposed to sit down during working hours. In
the course of work it became necessary to sharpen a crayon.
To do that I sat down. The
foreman pounced on me for that. I
asked him what difference does it make whether I sit down or stand for
sharpening a crayon. This was too
much chutzpa from a goy to a Jewish foreman.
Within minutes I was playing with my cards.
that job I went to the Court House to ask whether there was any need for
interpreters. There was no position
like that, but during the course of the interview it came to light that I knew
shorthand. The sheriff opened the
world of court reporting to me by showing me a thick book of some 250 pages and
flicking them in front of my nose, thereby creating a pleasant draft, and
telling me that each of those pages was worth $1.00.
I liked that draft. So about
a year after my arrival in Edmonton I got hired to work in the sheriff's office
pending an opening for a court reporter student.
This came about after six months and after a year's training I was posted
to the Police Court in Calgary.
summer of 1952 Joyce visited Calgary after a job as a chambermaid at the Banff
Springs Hotel. She hitch-hiked to
Calgary with her friend, Claire, I hitch-hiked from Edmonton and we met at the
Calgary Stampede. I don't know how
she did it, but she even persuaded me to go on some of the rides, which I hate.
My sense of balance gets very easily disturbed through spinning around.
Besides, I think that it is stupid for grownups to be amused by such
frivolities and they are better left to children. I was very glad when I got off the infernal devices and
haven't been on them since. However
it seems to be an accepted thing here, witness the popularity of the Edmonton
Mall. This fondness of carousels
comes from England where they are an attraction of many seaside resorts such as
Blackpool, Brighton and others. Now
I know where Joyce gets her immunity to sea sickness which she demonstrated on
board ship eating for two, while I was languishing in the cabin. Joyce returned to her job at the hotel and eventually to
nursing in Toronto while we maintained correspondence as a result of which she
complimented me that I write good business letters. I should, having had five years' experience of it in England.
further consequence of this correspondence Joyce came to Edmonton while I was a
court reporter student at the court house.
She and her friend, Claire, got nursing jobs at the Royal Alexandra
Hospital. My brother, Janusz,
joined us that year and we rented a room together.
In the winter of 1952 Joyce and I got married. The wedding was a very modest affair with the only guest
present being my brother. The
Catholic Church would not marry us because I did not accept the condition of
promising that the eventual children would be brought up in the Catholic faith.
So we went to the Anglican Church and got married at the All Saints
Cathedral. My brother was one
witness and we had to ask the beadle to stand in as the second witness.
Then we raced down Jasper Avenue with a bunch of flowers (it was 20
below) to our apartment on 109th Street. Janusz
lived with us until his wife and children arrived in the summer of 1953, at
which time he took over the apartment and Joyce and I rented one room in the
same apartment block. In September
Christine arrived. By that time we
had managed to buy only one item of furniture, a desk, for me to have a place to
study. The first few weeks of her
life Christine lived in the top left-hand drawer of that desk, until Uncle
Raymond sent an aluminum folding crib with canvas sides from Jamaica. We still have it and some of our grand-children have used it.
Later, when we moved to a bigger apartment, I made a proper wooden crib
and steel frame which served well for the next three children who kept arriving
in regular four-year intervals. I
was hoping that the wooden crib would remain in the family as an heirloom, but
we lent it to a needy acquaintance and over the years forgot who it was, so that
we didn't know who to ask for the return of it.
spent five years in the Police Court. Then
came promotion to District Court and finally the Supreme Court.
Contrary to what people think, I can't say that court reporting was
interesting. I found it rather
depressing because you learn about humanity from its worst side.
In the criminal court you deal with rather unpleasant things, and in
civil court the subject matter is mainly money and people's greed for it.
There is very little humour in it. I
can remember only one funny incident in a domestic dispute.
The husband was dishing out hot mashed potatoes to the members of the
family while engaged in a quarrel with his wife, and he let her have them in her
face rather than on the plate. This
was cited as an example of physical cruelty in a divorce case.
continued in my job as court reporter until 1980, when I retired and opened my
own free-lancing court reporter firm. I
closed it after my second heart attack in January 1995, thinking that at the age
of 72 it was time to quit. Borrowing
the titles from two of my favourite English television programs, I find myself
now with "One Foot in the Grave" and I am "Waiting for God"
to make the next move.
back, I see that my life was governed by many coincidences mixed with luck.
If I hadn't been arrested on the rickshaw I probably would have perished
in the Warsaw Uprising because of my involvement with the Home Army.
If I hadn't chosen the German army, I would have perished in Auschwitz. I was lucky that I wasn't hit by the American soldiers (they
were poor shots). It was a
coincidence that Joyce chose the same sailing date as I, topped by the switch of
tables in the last moment: if I had been assigned to another table, we would not
have met and you all wouldn't be here today.