Rajmund & Jadwiga PIERZCHAJLO
(Rajmund & Jadwiga's story was originally published on the Canadian Polish Historical Society of Edmonton, Alberta website
and is repeated here with their permission.
Jadwiga (Gajb) Pierzchajlo
Jadwiga Gajb was born in Pilatkowce, in eastern Poland on April 10th 1919, where she began a life of hard work and perseverance. Shortly before the war, Jadwiga start to study at the Teacher’s Pedagogical College in Lodz. The outbreak of the war caught her at home.
On February 10th 1940, her mother Olga and brother Tadeusz, were deported by the Soviets to Siberia from where, after the ‘amnesty’, they moved to Kazakhstan. Tadeusz died of exhaustion in 1943, while Olga survived and returned to Poland in 1947.
Jadwiga avoided the Soviet deportation in 1940, as she had left home a couple of hours before the Soviet came. She lived in her home region in semi-hiding and, in 1943, when the “ethnic cleansing” in the area began, she escaped to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, near Krakow in southern Poland. In early January 1945, two weeks before the Russians entered Krakow, Jadwiga was seized by the Germans on a Krakow street and deported to Bavaria as a slave labourer on German farm.
Jadwiga and Rajmund, both in their twenties, met in Bavaria in a Displaced Persons’ camp in June 1945, and married one year later.
The end of Second World War, rejoiced by millions of people on all continents, was a sad and most disappointing event for the Polish people. They felt betrayed by the Allies. Fighting loyally on all fronts, dying on battlefields abroad and in the most dangerous underground activities, they hoped to win full freedom. Instead, Poland lost part of her territory and was forced to accept a Soviet-controlled government. Poland became a Russian satellite state. Due to this national tragedy, millions of Poles decided not to return to their beloved Motherland. They chose to become a homeless, but free, people.
Jadwiga and Rajmund stayed in Germany, waiting for the opportunity to emigrate. While they waited for immigration visas to any country that would accept them, they studied for three years at Erlangen University. Jadwiga in the Faculty of Arts, and Rajmund in the Faculty of Medicine. They studied and lived in a small room, sharing a tiny kitchen and one pot with their landlady. For bedding, they had two small blankets and two sheets given to them by the Red Cross. The skimpy U.N.R.A rations, and some food available to them on German coupons, were supplemented by food parcels from the American Polonia and the Vatican. All considered, it was very little, but it enabled them to survive for the four long years of waiting. Then one spring day in 1949, a letter arrived informing them that they could emigrate to Canada. The departure of their ship “Samaria” from Bremen was a happy occasion. Jadwiga never forgot the majestic view of Quebec City and the friendly reception by the Canadian Immigration officials. Each was given twenty dollars for food, and they felt like millionaires. Ray bought some fruit, bread, butter and cheese, filled the canteen with water and they embarked on the weeklong train journey to Alberta, where Tony Sloniewski lived, Jadwiga’s distant cousin.
Jadwiga worked at hospitals in Rimbey and Calgary. She completed her B.Ed at the University of Alberta in 1954, and then spent thirty years teaching in Edmonton Catholic Schools. Following her retirement in 1983, she stayed busier than ever as an active and passionate member of the Catholic and Polish-Canadian communities, serving on many Boards and Committees. Of particular note, she was instrumental in helping over 2,000 Polish refugees immigrate to Canada during the Solidarity years. Their house became a shelter for dozen of Polish immigrants, some of whom stayed there a few days, other a few weeks or even months. She was also involved in supporting the efforts to repatriate to Poland the Poles who have lived in Kazakhstan, exiled there by the Soviets. She also founded the Polish Seniors Friendship Club in 1987, was an active leader with the Polish-Canadian Women's Federation, Catholic Women's League, and the Local Council of Women.
Jadwiga died on January 19th 2011, but her life was truly an inspiration. An accomplished teacher, community leader, mentor, traveler, humanitarian, and family matriarch, she accomplished her life's goals, and then set about helping others to achieve a better life.
There is inspiration in his story, especially as his generation dies off and society begins to lose a direct connection to those who survived the German death camps. The most remarkable thing about Ray is not that he survived more than three years in Auschwitz, but that he lived the rest of his long life with a rock-solid, positive spirit, devoid of bitterness or cynicism.
For Ray Pierzchajlo, a long journey into hell began with a sacrifice he made at the front door of his family’s Warsaw apartment. On Dec 5th 1941, facing the German Gestapo, Ray, 20 at the time, took his brother’s place when they came looking for his 14-year-old brother Romuald, who had been delivering flyers for the Polish resistance. Ray was arrested, along with his father Piotr. After three months in the notorious Pawiak prison in Warsaw, Ray was sent to Auschwitz. On April 4th 1941, Ray secretly sent a brief note of farewell and encouragement to the father.
His father Piotr was incarcerated for more than a year in Pawiak prison. On the night of May 28th 1942, the Germans at Las Sekocinski (Magdalenka) near Warsaw executed Piotr. In 1945, after the war, Piotr’s body was exhumed from a mass grave and identified by his younger son Romuald, who recognized Ray’s handwriting and signature on the small paper scrap, containing the farewell note from Ray.
Auschwitz, the largest of the German death camps, has become a symbol of terror, genocide and the Holocaust. Ray was a prisoner in Auschwitz from 1941 to 1944.
At the camp, prisoners were divided into different lines. Most Jews, children, women and elders were sent directly to the gas chambers. Ray, young and strong, joined the line for forced labour. With the number 12632 tattooed on his arm, he worked alongside other prisoners, barely sustained on thin soup and bread that was full of sawdust. Many times, he witnessed German guards shoot hundreds of Poles and Jews as they walked out of a nearby “death barrack”. In 1942, trains filled with Jews began arriving from all over the Europe. They were systematically killed in the gas chambers in the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, built in 1941. It is estimated between 1.2 million and 2.5 million died at these camps, mostly Jews, but also Poles and Gypsies. Ray remembers the smoke from the chimneys and the awful smell. “It was terrible, watching the Jewish people being slaughtered in gas chambers” he recalls.
Most prisoners lived only a few weeks in Auschwitz. But he survived one week, then another, as he was determined to survive. He got a job in the camp carpentry shop, which helped him to survive winter, and later in chemical factory outside the camp.
Ray was a devoted Catholic sustained by his faith. Fr. Maksymilian Kolbe, now St. Maksymilian, was an inmate in the same block. Ray witnessed his volunteering to die of hunger in place of another prisoner.
After three years and four months in Auschwitz, he was transferred to other labour and concentration camps: Bremen, Neuengamme, Buchenwald, Bochum and Flossenburg. When the Allies bombed the bomb factory where he worked, the factory was abandoned, and the prisoners were put on a forced long march. The destination was a quarry where they would be killed. Weaker prisoners fell at the side of the road and more than 100 were shot. On April 23rd 1945, together with 900 other prisoners, Ray was liberated by a single US tank which suddenly arrived on the hilly road. For about ten days, the liberated prisoners fended for themselves on nearby German farms. Then he was placed in a Displaced Person Red Cross camp where he met his future wife Jadwiga.
In 1949, they immigrated to Alberta, Canada. Ray worked on the railway as a labourer, then as a hospital orderly, and later as an apprentice aircraft mechanic. In 1954, he received his aircraft engineer licence and worked until 1964 for Canadian Pacific, and then Pacific Western airlines in Edmonton. In 1965, after obtaining his teaching certificate, and in 1969 his BEd from the University of Alberta, Ray become a teacher of car mechanics at St. Joseph’s High School in Edmonton, until his retirement in 1985.
Ray served as Vice-President of the Polish-Canadian Society in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1984, he initiated the Polish Knights of Columbus Council Number 11334, under the name “Our Lady Queen of Poland”.
Jadwiga and Ray say: “We feel blessed to have found our new life and home in Canada, a promised land of ours. We have also found our greatest happiness in helping others in need”.
The Pierzchajlos have three sons and one daughter: Richard, the oldest son is a medical doctor in the United States; Jan is an architect in Edmonton; Karol is a mechanical engineer working for ESSO, where his daughter Marge also works. The Pierzchajlos are blessed with seven grandchildren, including a set of triplets.
The note that Rajmund wrote to his father while in prison. After the war, this note was later used to identify his father's body in the mass grave.