by Barbara Robaszewski
I was born Jan.17, 1933 in the city of Grodno, Poland. Was born pre-maturely at 7 months, at home. Mother said that I was very tiny, quite ugly, skin and bones, was covered all over by “peach fuzz”. When doctor was summoned to examine me, he said that my chances at life were pretty slim. Mother had a stubborn streak in her and she wrapped me in batting, kept me warm and out of drafts and I made it.
My father was a career army man. We lived in a newly-built apartment building across the road from the army base, so father only had to cross the road to get to work. I was a happy child, the first grandchild in the family. I remember spending summer on my father’s family farm. We used to get there by way of kayak, which my father built himself. We carried a little tent and sleeping bags with us. The food we bought in villages on the way. Grodno was situated on Niemen river, so we would launch the kayak and travel on Niemen to Czarna Wancza to Augustow Canal on the village of Rudawka, grandfather’s family farm. Grandpa Pawel Raczkowski had a large spread on Augustowski Canal. He raised horses which he sold to the Army, also cattle, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese. He also sold lumber and fish. His farm was the largest and richest in the village. I remember our vacations there, playing with kittens, puppies, chicks, ducklings, riding a pony. Those were fun times.
All these happy times came to an end in the fall of 1939. At that time father was in the officer’s school. Mother and I were at home. Wicek, who was living with us at the time was attending high school. Mother just made breakfast for me – hot chocolate and a fresh roll. I was sitting at a table and looking out the window. A plane was flying; it was a beautiful sunny day. As I watched the plane somethings were falling out of it, looked like tear drops; the plane was over the army base. I called for mother to come and look at the fire and explosions taking place. I thought it was fireworks. Suddenly, the door banged open and father rushed in, grabbed me from the chair, called to mother and the three of us were running downstairs with other tenants in the building to take shelter in the basement. I was holding the bun and crying about the hot chocolate which was left on the table. This was Hitler’s sneaky attack on Poland September 1st, 1939. Dad, together with other troops were sent to western Poland to fight the German army. Germans were well equipped armored division; had superior air and ground power. Poland fought for three weeks, was overcome and its army scattered. Dad became a POW. Germany occupied Poland. They were very cruel to the Polish people. Shooting of civilians in the street was common, with or without any reason or provocation. Air raids were constant. Our apartment complex was bombed and burned so we moved in with grandma Harriet who had a little house on the outskirts of Grodno near a forest. Germans were looking for soldiers’ families to punish them. This was the time of extreme fear, stress, every minute seemed to bring new dangers. When someone went to the store we did not know if they will return or get shot.
In late November of 1939 Russia came and occupied eastern Poland. Poland was divided between Germany and Russia. Grodno being in eastern Poland was occupied by Russian army. The Russian soldiers were just as cruel to us as the Germans. My aunt Sophie, a high schooler, was arrested and we have never heard from her again. We still had no news from my father. We did not know if he was dead or alive. We lived in fear for our lives. The Russians were arresting the families of servicemen, so mother and I used to stay with her friends because we thought it would be safer.
One night, mother decided to return home and sleep in grandma’s house. That very night there was a banging on the door and windows. Grandma and mother did not want to open the door not knowing who it was. So, the door was broken down by their rifle butts and fully armed Russian soldiers rushed in and wanted to know whom we were hiding. They searched the hole house then pointed their guns at mother and demanded to know where father was hiding and threatening to shoot her. Mother was crying and told them that Dad was fighting the Germans and that she did not know if he was dead or in some POW camp. The soldiers told mother and grandma that they had to leave, because they needed to have the house. Mom and Grandma started to pack. Some soldiers stayed to supervise, others went to neighbors to collect them. Mother wanted to take just the clothes. Grandma wanted to take as many things as possible. Mother was certain that we would be taken to the nearest woods and shot. Outside the house there were horse-drawn farm carts. We and our bundles and the neighbors with their bundles were loaded up and taken to a railroad station and loaded into freight cars. Each car had wooden platforms built, which served as beds. Each person was allowed one-foot width. On the opposite end of the car was a hole cut in the floor for bathroom purposes. It was a very long train, and took a long time to load up. When it was full, the doors were slid shut and bolted on the outside and the train started moving into the unknown destination. There were many other trains being loaded that night with Polish citizens. People were taken from cities, villages and hamlets. This was April 1940.When trains stopped because of congested traffic on the rails, our captors would slide open the door to let some fresh air in and remove the dead. Sometimes they would allow us to get on the ground and stretch our legs, but the rifles were always pointed at us. Peasants from nearby villages were bringing bread, water, milk, and try to hand it to us. They also said that the rumour was that we were being taken to Siberia.
When we go to the Ural Mountains in Russia it was still very cold. There was a lot of snow on the ground. The train cars were very cold and drafty. We huddled together at night under blankets. Grandma took a large down quilt and 3 down pillows and that kept us quite warm. After 3 weeks of travel the train stopped and we were told to get off and take our bundles. We were in the middle of vast emptiness. Next, we were loaded onto farm carts which were pulled by bulls and taken to a kolkhoz (collective state farm) and told to get out. We were scared, tired and hungry. We sat in the snow and cried in helplessness. The locals saw our bundles and wanted to know what we had to trade. Some women took the three of us to her hut and let us sleep on the floor. In the morning a KBG agent came and said that mother will have to work on the state farm. She worked from sunrise to sunset planting potatoes in the field. Her wage was a slice of bread about an inch thick and hard as a brick. She was given it at the end of the day and brought it home to share with us. Grandma knew the Russian language so she was talking to the women in the village and was gathering all kinds of information. Communists forbade all religions, yet in every hut there was an icon and people worshipped in secret. If discovered by KBG the whole household would be arrested and imprisoned. One of the huts in the village served as the store. Once in a while a farm wagon with supplies would pull in and bring vodka, tobacco, potatoes, flour. The store keeper had to give a good portion to the KBG’s family, ten the store keeper and his relatives would get a go at it and the rest would be bought by village people who were always standing in line outside the store in hope that they’ll get something. The store emptied out in a very short time and stood empty until the supply wagon showed up the next time. Standing in line at the store was Grandma’s job.
In July Grandma and 3 others went exploring. They were gone 5 days, came back and said they’ve found a better- looking village and that we should move. They also brought a request from this new village for workers from the head Communist chief, another KBG guy. Two farm carts and 4 bulls were hired to transport us to the new place. The three of us and 14 others decided to move. The journey took all day, those bulls were pretty ornery and stubborn. As we neared the village we noticed an empty hut. It was a one room, dirty, run down, drafty, but empty. We asked who it belonged to. They said that the hut was haunted and no one dared to go near it. The KBG man said we can have it and that only crazy Polacks would try that. So, all 17 of us moved into that hut. There was a fireplace at one end of it. There was also a window and a door. We stuffed the cracks in the walls with straw and patched it with clay and put more straw on the roof. The floor was just packed mud. The hut was dug into the ground so only half of it was above ground. This is where we lived for 2 years. Mother worked on the farm, here wheat was the main crop. She still brought home a slice of bread at the end of each day. Grandma worked occasionally in the mess hall, so sometimes she would bring home a few cabbage leaves, an onion or a beet. We’d put a piece of vegie on the bread and enjoy. We were trading what we brought from Poland for flour to make a kind of pita bread (mixed flour with water and fried) and that is how we survived. Being hungry was normal. Occasionally we would get a package from grandparents’ farm in Poland, that was an occasion for celebration. Winter was fast approaching and there were no logs for the fireplace. This was steppe land, no trees, so on the advice of the natives all summer we were gathering cow “cakes”. This was the job of the children. Grandma gave me a stick for testing and I with a bunch of children would walk the pasture and test the cow “cake” for doneness. The dry ones we could pick up, the still not ready ones we’d mark as ours and leave it for pick up another day. Winters were severe, low temperatures, heavy snowfall, howling winds.
In 1942, Hitler and Stalin had a falling out, and Germany declared war on Russia. Stalin knew that the German Army was better-equipped and far superior to the Russian Army. So, he turned to England for help. England was at war with Germany since 1939. At the time of Stalin’s request for help, there was a Polish General in exile, General Sikorski, in London who offered a suggestion to England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill that if Russia would free the Polish servicemen whom they had in their labor camps; they would help Russia fight the German Army. However, they were to be a part of the Allied Forces under the British command. Stalin agreed to the plan and the Polish servicemen were freed from Russian labor camps and prisons and informed about the plan. The men were overjoyed. However, after years of hardships, starvation and psychological pressures, they looked more like ghosts than men. They were issued new ID’s, travel documents, British military uniforms and told to go south to Uzbekistan where army camps will be set up. The men were worried about their families in Siberia, so they were issued necessary documents and travel orders for their families. So, in the spring 1942 my father, dressed in his military uniform, appeared in our hut and told us o get ready to travel. There were tears of joy on our part and ones of anguish from the others because the documents were only for the 3 of us. The other 14 from our group were crying and begging father to take them with us. Father assured them that those who had someone in the armed forces will come and get them. There were four in our group who had a serviceman but the 10 others did not, so after talking it over with my mother, Dad changed the travel documents from 3 to 13. We had to remember to always say that we were related. Next morning, we started on our journey south. After a long and very crowded train ride we arrived in Uzbekistan. There were army tents as far as the eye could see. The civilians had to find housing in the native towns and villages with the Uzbeks. Their homes were tiny, dark and smelly, and had varmints. Father shared his meals with us, and soon more tents were added on the outskirts of the military for the servicemen’s families. We watched the soldiers’ drills and marches; for the children it was our favorite form of playing to march like the soldiers.
In the fall of 1942, the Army received orders to relocate to Iraq to continue with maneuvers, learn English and be battle ready. It had been decided that the civilians would go to refugee camps. Neighboring Iran agreed to have us. So, the army trucks drove us to the port city on the Caspian Sea, we were loaded onto a ship and taken to Iran. We thanked God for delivering us from Russian slavery. Thus, started our life in refugee camps. We were placed in a camp near Teheran. American soldiers from a nearby base would come near our camp, call the children over and give us candy and chewing gum.
We lived in tents, one large tent was a chapel, a priest started to prepare children for 1st Holy Communion. Schools and scouting were organized. There were no books, we were given a pencil and some paper. Teachers were teaching from memory. I was assigned to 3rd grade since I knew how to read and write and knew some arithmetic. Mother taught me to read with Adam Mickiewicz poems. In Teheran I was already 9 years old, made my First Holy Communion and joined the Brownies. We had classes outside on nice days, sitting on the grass under a tree; on rainy days we used truck garages when the trucks left for the day.
In 1944, England offered to take the refugees to its colonies in India and Africa. So we were driven to the sea port on the Persian Golf, loaded onto a British troop transport ship, with two warships escorting us (there were German submarines a plenty) and taken to the port of Dar-es-Salam in Tanganyika, East Africa (now Tanzania). From there we were driven by truck to a refugee camp Morogoro (in Uganda). We lived in barracks made of plywood and roofed with palm fronds. We were told to be on the look out for snakes, big fire ants, termites, scorpions, tsetse flies and other varmint. The beds were wooden frames with ropes strung on the frames, the mattress was stuffed with batting and corn cobs. To give ourselves some privacy we partitioned the barracks with blankets. Malaria was the big scourge. I was sick a lot with it. My 2-year-old brother, Lucian, died from brain malaria and its complications, meningitis. He had been born in Teheran.
The school was being held in a slightly larger barrack, meals were prepared in a common kitchen. You could eat in this mess hall, next to the kitchen, or you could bring the meal home. We had received packages of donated used clothing shoes, linens etc., from the U.S. and England, through the Catholic Bishops Relief Fund. These were very welcome.
After six months in this original camp we were moved to a different camp at a slightly higher elevation; there were not as many mosquitoes so we did not come down with malaria as often. I finished 5th and 6th grades in this camp and mother and I moved yet to another camp where I finished the freshman year and started the sophomore year in high school.
Dad, together with the Allied Forces, was stationed in Italy fighting the German Fascist Army. We worried about him a lot. We wrote letters but they used to take a long time to reach us. He worried about hardships in Africa.
In June 1945, World War II ended. Germany and Japan were defeated, peace was signed, and the armies were demobilized. Dad was assigned to a civilian camp in England, given his discharge papers and civilian clothes. He was now trying to get us to come join him. So, in 1948, we were again driven to an African sea port, Mombasa, loaded onto a British troop transport ship and we sailed to England. Dad met us at the port of Southampton and took us to the camp near Bristol, where he was staying. I was 15 years old; at first it was hard for Dad and me to get used to each other. We hadn’t been together for 9 years. He remembered me as a little girl and except for seeing us in Southern Russia and a brief 3-day military leave in Teheran, we were strangers.
After a brief stay in the camp, our family and two other families, Dad’s buddies from the service, we rented a house in Bristol and moved in. We lived there for almost 4 years. England was ruined by the war. All food was rationed. People lived in crowded conditions since a lot of houses were bombed. Father enrolled me in a Catholic high school. It was a very good and expensive school, the sisters took me as a charity case. I did not know English, except for a few words, yet I was assigned to class with other 15 -year olds. The other girls watched me like I was from a different planet. Dad hired a retired English teacher to tutor me in the English language after school. My life was a misery.
Andy was born in 1949. He was a colicky baby so he screamed a lot. I spent a lot of time after school learning English, crying and begging my parents to let me quit school. Father worked in a factory, putting together wooden crates. His fingers were all bruised, since he often missed hitting the nails and hit his fingers instead. Grandma worked in a drape factory and mother was home with the baby Andrew.
Slowly, thanks to my very patient tutor, I learned English and was making progress in school, and I graduated # 25 out of 200 girls. At that time in England an exam was given covering all the school years, by a local university. I passed the exam and was admitted to University of Bristol, but the following January, Dad was notified that we were eligible to immigrate to the United States. Our sponsors were Eric and Sophie Fiorani, our American cousins.
We sailed on the HMS Mauretania, Cunard Line, from Southampton, England to New York. We went through customs and the immigration agents, boarded a train to Chicago. Ciro, Sophia and 8- year-old Kathy met us in the Union Station and brought us to their home. This was Sunday, January 28, 1952. I went for a job interview on Monday and started work Tuesday morning. I was working beside the store cashier, putting merchandise in bags and handing it to customers. The owner loved my English accent, everyone else thought that I talked “funny”. Dad got a job that same week in the Chicago Stock Yards, their shipping department. We were crowding Ciros in their home, so after a 2-week stay with them we moved to a 2-room basement apartment. I met Dad’s friend’s daughter, Sophie Sadgak (Derwinski) and both of us joined Polish Girl Scouts. After 2 years of working at Archer Ave. Big Store, I decided to change jobs. I went to Prudential Insurance, in downtown Chicago and applied there. I was given an aptitude test and scored pretty high on it. The lady in personnel said that she would be happy to hire me but also said that if I were her daughter she would insist that I go to college. This idea was not new to me since Dad made me promise before we left England that I would continue my college studies here. I met a college student and she promised to go with me to the University of Illinois admissions office. I brought with me my I.D. papers, high school report cards, results of my Bristol university exams etc. The admission person took them all and sent them to Washington, D.C. to have it converted to the American high school credits. They notified me by the end of July that I am eligible to enroll in the fall semester. I still had to pass an 8-hour admission test to get in. Well, I scored low on the very simple questions concerning baseball, football, basketball, but did well on the very hard ones. The counselor was surprised that I was dumb on simple questions but did well on the tough ones. He was pretty pessimistic of my success, but I enrolled, paid my tuition and started University of Illinois studies at the Navy Pier in Chicago in September, 1954. I carried 14 credits, worked part-time during the school year, and full-time in the summer to pay for school. This was a two-year school so, in the fall of 1956, I transferred to the University of Illinois in Champaign–Urbana to continue my studies. Also worked part-time on the campus and full-time summers in Chicago. Back then, there was no such thing as “financial aid”, one had to do everything on our own devices. My parents were poor. They could not help me and they had Andy to educate. In those days, not many women went to college. The ratio of men to women was 6 to 1. I graduated from college in June 1958 with a Bachelor Degree in Psychology.
I met my future husband that year through the scout movement. He had a congenital heart defect and thought that he will never want to marry. I wasn’t interested in marriage either, but we dated. His life was similar to my family’s. He was born in Poland. His father was in the Polish Army. His mother, his sister and brother were taken to Siberia, and his family was also in Teheran and Africa. His family settled in London; he alone decided to come to the United States. In 1960, he decided to have his heart defect corrected. He underwent open heart surgery at the University of Illinois Research Hospital in June 1960. His congenital heart defect of 3 chambers was corrected by placing a patch in his heart and thus restoring the heart to 4 chambers. We were married a year later and had two children, a boy and a girl.
This is the end of my tale.