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Bernadine Sisters of St Francis

Sister Marietta (Romualda Smolicz),

Sister Clarine Gomulka,

Sister Laetissima Grula

Sitting on the steps outside her family’s kitchen, in the Polish village of Lozowicze, 11-year-old Romualda Smolicz spotted soldiers on the horizon as the sun rose on Sept. 17, 1939.

“I said to my family, ‘Oh, they are Polish soldiers.’ They had eagles on their hats. Five minutes later they came to our orchard and, oh, they were something different and life was not the same,” she remembered.

They were Russian troops who would soon perpetuate atrocities that had begun a little more than two weeks earlier on 1 September, when German troops invaded Poland from the north, south and west. The country was divided between Russia and Germany and World War II was effectively under way.

“It was like a flood and we were under,” said Smolicz, who is now a nun living in Chester.

Poland would eventually suffer the greatest loss of life of all occupied countries during World War II, with 3 million Polish Christians and 3 million Polish Jews falling at the hands of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and his operatives.

“Poland was invaded with no mercy. Hitler gave an order to go unmercifully and slaughter the people,” said Michael Blichasz who has been president of the Eastern Pennsylvania District of the Polish American Congress for 25 years. “It could happen again. We can’t let it happen. Look at what is happening in Afghanistan and Iran,” said the 51-year-old Upper Chichester resident.

Seventy years later, Smolicz has vivid memories of those dark days in Poland’s history.

“Today, I still think it is unbelievable. You don’t forget those things. You remember,” said the 80-year-old nun. “The wounds heal, but the memories last.”

Now known as Sister Marietta, Smolicz resides in Chester with three other Polish natives who survived the Nazi onslaught and have been members of the Bernardine Sisters of St. Francis for more than 60 years.

The Bernardine Franciscan religious community was responsible for bringing Smolicz to the United States in 1947 along with Sister Stella Ann, Sister Clarine Gomaulaka and Sister Laetissima Grula. They arrived in San Francisco on an American warship on Feb. 27, 1947.

“In 1947 the Bernardine Sisters from Reading sponsored 50 girls to come to the states with the possibility they might enter the convent. They didn’t force us. They provided scholarships. Eleven of us entered and stayed in the community,” said Sister Marietta.

In 1956 Sister Marietta graduated from Mary Immaculate Hospital Nursing School in Newport, Va., then earned her Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from the Medical College of Virginia. She and her fellow sisters have served at various hospitals throughout the country including Sacred Heart Medical Center in Chester, now Community Hospital.

Sister Marietta had once hoped to be a history professor at Vilnius University, the oldest and largest university in Poland (now Lithuania). Instead, she became part of history after the Soviets invaded her village that was about three-quarters of a mile from the border with Russia and is now part of Belarus.

“They didn’t say a word. They marched straight through our orchards. They didn’t even stop to pick an apple. They were mannequins,” she said.

Sister Marietta, her parents and her four siblings managed to survive the early onslaught of the Soviets.

“My family was not touched for some reason. Nothing was burned or destroyed. My mother and father were arrested five times when they would go into town, but every time they came home,” said Sister Marietta.

However at midnight Feb. 10, 1940, a knock came at the door. A Russian soldier and members of local militias told Sister Marietta’s family that they were being deported and they had half an hour to assemble all of their belongings.

“They said take everything you can take because where you’re going there is nothing,” recalled Sister Marietta, who noted the Russian soldier was kind and eventually gave them several hours to pack.

At sunrise the Smoliczs were loaded with others onto horse-drawn sleds and taken approximately 25 miles to the railway station at Horodziej, where they waited aboard a cattle car for several days before commencing a three-week-long journey to Sinega.

They were then transported by sled to labor camp barracks in the frozen Archangielsk region of Siberia, near Finland. The adults chopped wood in the dense forests, then floated it down the river to the White Sea when the spring melt came.

“There was no running water. From the river we had to take water for everything.” said Sister Marietta.

Almost two years later, after Hitler violated his non-aggression pact with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and invaded Russia, Stalin granted amnesty to the Poles in the labor camps. They were once again packed like sardines onto cattle cars where they were forced to sleep on shelves. Sister Marietta and her family left their labor camp Dec. 31, 1941.

“As we traveled from north to south in Russia after the amnesty, it took us seven weeks in the train. A lot of people died. When the doors opened in the freight train you would see corpses thrown over the embankment,” said Sister Marietta.

Her youngest sister, Jane, was stricken with measles and died during the night of Feb. 7, 1942, of what was probably pneumonia, while her mother helplessly watched over her. “We left her at the train station in Uzbekistan and what they did with her, we do not know,” said Sister Marietta.

Sister Laetissima remembered seeing bodies being tossed into the snow. “In those situations you did not have time to feel sorrow. Thousands and thousands of people died in those trips,” said Sister Marietta.

From Uzbekistan they traveled to Iran via the Caspian Sea. Sister Marietta’s father, Jozef, died in Tehran in 1942. She and her mother, Sophie, and surviving siblings lived in the Valivade refugee camp in the southern India state of Kolhapur from 1943 to 1947. Sister Clarine was in the camp at the same time.

One of nine children, Sister Clarine was living in Wolyn in southeastern Poland when the Nazis invaded on Sept. 1, 1939. She was 12 in 1940 when her family was deported to a labor camp in the Ural Mountains in western Russia bordering Asia.

In the spring of 1940, Soviet authorities massacred an estimated 22,000 Poles in Russia’s Katyn Forest. “They arrested soldiers, priests and the intelligentsia and took them to Katyn and executed them,” said Sister Clarine.

Her 28-year-old brother, Jan Gomaulaka, a member of the Polish Officers Corps, was among those executed at Katyn. “They would tie their hands and put bullets in their heads and put them in mass graves,” said Sister Clarine.

Her parents also died while traveling south after leaving their labor camp in the winter of 1942. “Parents sacrificed what little they had to give to their children so their children survived,” said Sister Clarine.

Many Polish men who dragged themselves to enlist in the army after the Soviets joined the Allied Forces against Germany, were very sick. “Malnutrition most of the time, malnutrition and all kinds of diseases were raging — typhoid fever mostly,” said Sister Clarine.

It was typhoid fever that most likely killed Sister Laetissima’s sister, Janina, after leaving a Russian labor camp around Easter in 1942. They were traveling on the Amu Daria River on a makeshift barge with other families.

“She had a fever and we had nothing. My father had to dig a grave for her,” said Sister Laetissima.

When they reached Uzbekistan almost the entire Grula family became ill. Sister Laetissima was with two sisters in one hospital, while their mother was with two sisters in another. Their father, Adam, was home with his daughter, Sophie. One day, on his way home from visiting the hospital, he, himself, fell ill and died.

Sister Laetissima, who was barely 9 years old when the Nazis invaded her southern Polish village on the Dniester River, remembers wandering the hospital after her father died. She caught sight of body parts from deceased patients that were being studied by medical students in a crude, crowded morgue.  “I screamed. I thought it was my dad,” she said sadly.

From 1942 to 1947, Sister Laetissima was in the Jamnagar orphanage in India. She cherishes a photograph from that time in which she is pictured with her mother and five surviving sisters. Her mother is holding her youngest sister who was born in the Soviet labor camp barracks.

Family is what helped many Poles endure the evils wrought by Hitler and Stalin 70 years ago. “It was just survival…. Many times we didn’t have anything to eat, no place to sleep. Many times, you would sleep in the open,” said Sister Marietta. “But the family was together and that’s why we survived, because we were still a family.”



The Delaware County Daily Times (, serving Delaware County, PA

Monday, August 31, 2009


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