A story of great joy
This photograph is of a true heroine – she celebrated her 95th birthday a couple of weeks ago – I am sure this is something she certainly didn’t expect to do 75 years ago when the second world war ended. About ten years ago she gave me a typescript to translate which she had written, approximately twenty years previously , about one of the most significant events in her life. I found it today and asked her if I could publish it here.
After her immensely brave activity in the Warsaw Uprising she made it her mission to help anyone who suffered at that time and to create environments where the events of the uprising would be remembered for generations to come. She was Chair of the Polish Home Army Association for many years and is now an active member of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust.
You will be able to see her on this Remembrance Sunday if you watch the Commemorative March Past the Cenotaph – she will be heading the Polish contingent.
This was written in 1986.
I’d like to tell you about something that happened which is still very alive in my memory, even though 42 years have passed. A short time after we were liberated by the Polish 1st Armoured Division under General Maczek, my sister and I received news that our mother was interned at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I don’t need to tell you what her state of health must have been like – we know from descriptions, reports and films what the prisoners in the camps went through. I can only say that it was her faith and her incredible strength of will to survive that helped her to her freedom. She was in the sick bay suffering from typhus, constantly praying that she would find us alive – she knew that her daughter, Ewa, had been wounded on 12th August.
Let me return for a moment to the time of the fall of the Old Town, that is, to the end of August 1944. During the Warsaw Uprising, my mother was caring for our wounded colleagues and for Ewa. We knew that this would be the end of the Old Town, but not the end of the battle. The command came to evacuate the wounded through the sewers, to the centre of the city. Everybody else, the healthy and those who could walk, was to go the next night. Unfortunately, some of our colleagues, amongst whom was our mother, didn’t manage to get down into the sewers. I only found this out once I was down there.
In the morning, the Germans tracked down everyone who had dispersed. They killed those who were lying wounded in the cellars and the rest they took to Pruszków, and from there to various camps. That is how my mother found herself in Bergen-Belsen. Her fellow prisoner, who was working as a hospital nurse, promised herself that if she managed to come to the end of those nightmare days, wherever fate took her, she would try to find those two daughters for whom their mother prayed so devotedly.
After Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the Allied forces, our mother, weak and emaciated by her illness, was placed in the post-German barracks, which had been turned into a hospital. The nurse I mentioned, whose surname unfortunately I don’t remember, seeing that the patients would now have the care they need, decided to go out into the world to look for her comrades-in-arms. She reached Oberlangen, in fact Niederlangen, where we had been moved to, because of the better state of the barracks there. And to her joy, and of course to ours, she found us and gave us the news about our mother.
We were still so excited about having been liberated by our countrymen; almost every day we would find somebody else that we knew, another relative or friend or acquaintance. We kept being met by coincidences. One of our friends was found by a friend of her brother’s, Lieutenant Roszkowski from the Sappers. When we found out about our mother’s fate, we immediately shared this information with our friends from the Sappers. We asked them for help to bring her to our camp. After a short discussion how best to get her ready, we were advised that the best thing would be to put a bed into a lorry, as an ambulance couldn’t go that far – it was 600 miles. The news about the two Home Army girls who had found their mother in a concentration camp spread like wildfire through the whole division. We didn’t even notice that the lorry that we were to travel in was full up to the brim with food and clothing so that we could immediately give it to the ex-prisoners of Bergen-Belsen.
We left at dawn with everyone wishing us a safe journey. The journey seemed endless – we couldn’t wait for the moment of meeting our mother. Finally we got there. We registered at the camp headquarters, where we were informed which block our mother was living in. It was bad luck that our mother wasn’t there at that time – she had gone for a walk. A daily walk and fresh air was helping her to get her strength back.
Meanwhile, the ward where our mother slept had filled with people who wanted to be witnesses to the reunion between mother and daughters. The delegation which had gone to bring our mother back from her walk took a long time to return as rain had begun to fall and an enormous thunderstorm had broken out. We were growing more and more impatient, waiting for this longed-for reunion. In order that she would be spared an emotional shock when finding out about our arrival, our mother was told only that a delegation from the Red Cross had arrived to take ill people to convalesce in Sweden, and our mother had to come back to give them her details. It transpired that this wasn’t a good idea because it didn’t appeal to our mother at all – in fact the total opposite! She said that she wouldn’t go because she had to find her daughters first, and if she didn’t find them, she’d be going back to Poland. For those of us in the now very full ward, the wait seemed interminable.
Finally, the long awaited moment arrived. Our mother, as she told us later, walking in the direction of the ward, was silently praying that those who had arrived to take her to Sweden wouldn’t put any pressure on her to go. Coming nearer to the block, she saw a large group of people at the entrance, and on the stairs, and in the ward, making it very difficult to squeeze through. But then a pathway seemed to open up towards her bed. Walking slowly, she noticed me, and I could see that the emotion was choking her. We fell into an embrace and then with a choking whisper she asked about Ewa, convinced that she couldn’t be still alive. Then she suddenly saw Ewa, who was standing next to us.
It’s hard to express in words our joy and our emotion, and that of the people present, who also wanted to share this moment of happiness with us. It was late, people dispersed to their own blocks, but we just couldn’t get to sleep. Early in the morning, we signed our mother out of the camp and went on our return journey. Our colleague, Halina Czarnocka, also returned with us, who also, as it happened, had a daughter in Oberlangen.
I’d like to express my very deep gratitude for the sacrifices, goodwill and care from our colleagues of the 1st Armoured Division, without whose help this whole event would never have been possible.
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