ONE WOMAN’S STORY TO HONOR LOST VETERANS: LIFE IN POLAND DURING NAZI OCCUPATION MAY NOT BE WHAT YOU THOUGHT
In honor of Memorial Day and the brave our country lost while they selflessly fighting for freedom around the world, this week I am turning my column over to my mom, Sophie Stach Virgilio.
Spending her earliest years on a farm in Poland, my mom is especially grateful to the American soldiers who liberated the country from Nazi occupation in 1945.
The stories she shares of life as a very young girl in Poland during World War II are heart-wrenchingly real and reinforce how lucky we are today. As well, how life, family and priorities are the same no matter where you live or who you are. Here is one of my mom’s short stories, honoring the real-life impact of our US Armed Forces:
It was the beginning of 1944 and it seemed to me that the war would never end. “The cold cellar is almost empty.” My Aunt Katherine said to my cousin Zosia, “The flour and potatoes will never last till the summer.”
She didn’t think I could hear her.
Aunt Katherine had to give an assessed amount of her grain to the Nazis. She did this each year since the war started. “Every year it’s more and more. Where am I supposed to get it?” she said as she and my cousin Eugene loaded the sacks into the wagon.
I was six years old – old enough to know that the more grain the Nazis took, the less flour and therefore less bread for us; there was less feed for the livestock and most importantly less grain for planting the following spring.
During the summer, I helped my Aunt bring metal jugs of milk to the local school. I was told that the milk was for Hitler’s army. Very, very little was left for us.
Cheese, eggs, bread and butter were the basis of our diet. At the beginning of the occupation, the Germans took all our hogs and goats and our only horse. Aunt Katherine was allowed to keep one cow, some rabbits and several chickens to support the four of us living on her farm.
Unexpected inspections by the Gestapo insured that we had no more than what we were allowed.
Because for years most of our farm produce was going to Germany, in the winter of 1944 food shortages were especially severe. But we were better off than the starving people in the bombed out cities. I saw city families roaming through the countryside. They walked from farm to farm begging – not for a loaf or half-a-loaf of bread, but for a slice of bread.
Their homes had been destroyed; they literally had nothing. Aunt Katherine helped everyone as much as she could.
The dried pears, apples and plums my Aunt stored for the winter were already gone. We ate those months before a new crop was ripe. We could no longer buy fresh produce at the market in the city of Strzyzow. There was no longer a market.
Only one restaurant was operating in Strzyzow. It served the Nazi officers so of course it had the finest food. Zosia knew one of the chefs who worked in that restaurant and he told her which day of the week to come to pick up a bag of apple peels to eat.
One day in the summer of 1944, Stefan, a neighbor’s son, returned home from fighting the Nazis in Italy. At the beginning of the war, he escaped capture and joined the Allied troops.
Stefan came back with a wonderful gift – an orange. I had never tasted one before. Aunt Katherine peeled and separated the fruit into sections and divided it among the four of us. I will never eat an orange as sweet as that one. Ever.
Besides the orange, Stefan brought exciting news. I heard the hope and joy in my Aunt’s voice when she told us, “The Americans have come.” She knew – even though as a young girl I didn’t – that the Nazis would now be defeated. The tide against the Nazis was turning. There finally was hope.
This was the news everyone prayed for. The endless, endless war would finally end. Life would change – because the Americans had arrived.
Thanks to Jeffrey Seeds and other writers for the encouragement and guidance shared at the Asbury Park writer’s group.