Interview with Aleksandra Diermajer-Sękowska
b. 27.05.1929 r.
As a fifteen year old girl, you participated in the Warsaw Rising, and as it turned out, you worked in a medical office for some time, helping to provide care to children.
Yes, that's how it was. Maybe I should start with my childhood, how it happened. I come from a bourgeois family, well situated. My father died in 1936. This period between 1936 and 1939 is blurred in my memory, since in 1936 our lifestyle declined considerably without the decent earnings of my father. My sister is three years older than me. We attended an evangelical school, of the Queen Anna Wazówna Parish of the Evangelical-Augsburg Church, at Małachowskiego Square. This is particularly important for me, it was less so for my sister. Patriotic education played an enormous role there, and consequently scouting. I belonged to a scout troop at this school, except that not until 1943, when studies took place, partially in secret lessons outside the school, and later in the confines of a haberdashery-clothing school. In scouting I underwent an annual, rigorous, in-depth course in field signalling. Specifically, I was a specialist in the Powiśle District and the Old Town. Right before the Rising, I was assigned to some woman physician and I was her liaison officer. On the morning of 1 August she ordered me to report on the morning of 2 August and in this manner I lost contact with her. For the reason that at the start of the Rising, together with other girl scouts who lived together in an apartment of one girl scout from our troop in the City-Centre, we sought out any kind of work to help the army. In the first few days I initiated contact with the scouting community. Namely, at 15 Zgoda Street, in the underground basements, in a former night club, German, pre-army aged girls gathered. This was the Military Social Service, which obtained its organizational form from the Office of Information and Propaganda by a relevant order. There were only girls in our group, who performed various kinds of work, like distributing the press, cooking powdered milk and distributing this milk to various basements, providing people staying in these basements with clothing. After several days I meet this physician from before the Rising, she was thrilled to see me and said: "I'm going to have a medical point here and you're going to help me".
What did this look like?
I couldn't give her much help for the reason that I had no education. The patients were mainly small, several month old infants, suffering from dehydration due to diarrhoea. This woman physician administered physiological salt to their small bodies. She injected this liquid subcutaneously, on their backs, producing a hump. These children looked kind of strange. In principle, I took more care of the mothers than the children, because the mothers were terribly stressed out. I tried to talk to them, calm them down. On the second or third day I broke a thermometer, because I didn't really know how to measure an infant's temperature. Later I asked "Black Wanda (Wanda Kamieniecka-Grycko) to give me some other work because it really didn't suit me.
Were you trained earlier as a liaison officer?
Yes, as a liaison officer and I wanted to serve in this function, though the occupational training wasn't much use, for the reason that I later ended up in the Powiśle District, and it turned out that the most important information concerned where the artillery fire is and how can one safely cross it, and where you have to go through basements or go somewhere in another manner. The number of stories of a given home, what kind of stone is on the surface, was no longer that important. Obviously, the street layout and the connecting gates continued to be important. I left for the Rising from Żoliborz, where I lived for a short while.
Right before the Rising you lived in Żoliborz?
In Żoliborz. It happened this way, that after my father's death we lived in a German district, on Wilanowska Street. While there, some German came forward one day, claiming that the apartment was assigned to him. He was an exceptionally cultural man, an electrical engineer from Mannheim. He said that he only needs a single room, that we can go on living in this apartment and that's how it was for about two years. In the fall of 1943 it turned out that his wife wanted to arrive and this wife didn't want any Polish girls to be in this same apartment. So we started to wander. My sister and I started to live separately. In any event I walked to the Rising from Żoliborz. When the Rising collapsed I didn't really know what to do with myself. It happened that I heard them telling children to return home. I answered that I don't know where this home is.
Your older sister fought in the Powiśle district?
Yes, she was a nurse. Later I joined her there. In September, when the Military Social Service could no longer function, I worked there. I wasn't totally accepted, but during this stage in the Rising, you had to do what was necessary. Some kind of work in the kitchens, various organizational matters, sewing for the soldiers. Together, my sister and I, we decided to go into captivity.
Did you decide to go to a POW camp with your sister?
Yes. It was in the City-Centre North, we left through Pruszków for Fallingbostel, then to Bergen-Belsen, in December, and to Oberlangen.
Please say what the transport was like.
We travelled in a cattle car; I don't remember how many of us there were. Surely it was more comfortable for the women, because they are shorter, nearly all of them could lie down. There were short breaks to get out. We cut out a hole in the wagon to pour out urine.
No one knew where they were taking us. Personally, I didn't have any bad thoughts, but many people admitted, they sensed it would end badly. Maybe I was simply na?ve, given my age of 15?
We were brought to the POW camp in Fallingbostel. They inspected us, this lasted for ever it seemed, and they took various things from us, knives, and scissors. The woman in command of our barrack was Capitan "Rakiet" (Janina Płoska). In the camp she put on insignia of a senior sergeant. Besides me, at Fallingbostel, there was another fourteen-year-old girl.
How many girls were there in your age?
There was one fourteen-year-old and one fifteen-year-old, quite a few sixteen year-olds, later girls aged twenty, twenty-two, and just a few older ones. Capitan "Rakieta" strived to make us sensitive not to have the least contact, even eye contact, with the Germans, because this was clearly visible on our faces. The issue of our birth dates came up and we had to give false ones. This was a problem for me because my sister was two and a half years older, and I didn't know what date to indicate. Since I was to be older than my sister, I was nineteen, which was completely out of line with my appearance. I was very nervous about registration, because this involved taking a photograph. Luckily, nothing happened. To our surprise upon arriving at the camp there was water in the faucets and we could wash up. I, like everyone else, hadn't washed in weeks. A soldier who came to our quarters during the Rising asked for someone to bandage his elbow. He fled the hospital and here the girls didn't want to bandage him. I agreed to this, completely unaware that some half a litre of pus had leaked from this elbow, that I wasn't able to wash off until leaving captivity. Even as a child I had heart neurosis, and here in the camp the arrhythmia returned, I had to go see the doctor. A Septembrist /Polish soldiers who fought in the 1939 September Campaign/ was to admit the girls, I was second in line. A friend had an open wound on her hand and I went in afterwards and said that I'm having problems with my heart. The doctor told me to get undressed to my waist, which I did, and then he said that this was the first time he'd seen an undressed woman in five years. I think that his biggest mistake was saying that he sees an undressed woman, and it was a child. I grabbed my dirty clothes and walked out. I had no intention of continuing the conversation with him, and the neurosis matter settled down after some time. This is proof of just how cut off these people were from the world.
What was camp life like at Fallingbostel?
There was a lieutenant there, Mileska, a teacher by profession. There were two Jeżewska sisters, they had ranks of a second lieutenant. Some older women born in 1920 were active there. They performed their tasks more than 100%. They were not only commanding officers, they also wanted to be our educators and teachers. As a result, they announced that there will be singing lessons at some time, language lessons at another, and then talking about something. Of course they could demand that we comply, though only a few girls took advantage of this. It would be an overstatement to make this into a school. This was very characteristic for Fallingbostel. Our barracks were adjacent to the forest. It was very pleasant, a bit of greenery and leaves that were turning yellow. Besides our women's barrack, there were also men's barracks. We had a common latrine with the men, and there were various problems because of this. The Septembrists took extremely good care of us, they gave us their packages, extended great sympathy to us.
Was there a lot of help and warmth?
Yes. It was September, and in October they moved us to the Bergen-Belsen oflag. There we had three barracks, one of which was an officer's barrack for women, the second for soldiers, and the third was a small hospital. A double wired fence separated us from the men's oflag with POWs from the Rising. Evidently, there was even a married couple that had become separated. They communicated by shouting loudly, or throwing cards to each other tied to stones. We were forced away from there to do various camp work and then you could see the wires, about one hundred, maybe two hundred meters away. They said a concentration camp is there.
What kind of labour did the Germans force upon you?
At Bergen, when something was brought from the storehouse to the kitchen, hospital, then you could see the KL wires. There was even some exit to the outside. I have a cross made of birch branches. It was possible to find such branches, and that's how the souvenir was made. One of my commanding officers at Bergen told me that it is clear they will transport us to forced labour. I'm thin, a weak construction and this could be very difficult for me. As a result, they offered to make me and several other girls assistants to army officers. I made the decision myself, likely after this stay in Fallingbostel, that this was humiliating, because I had many relatives, officers there, and I knew what took place with these assistants. I categorically refused this, which even led to a conflict, because this woman believed that I would listen. The fates of the oflag, including these assistants, was probably more oppressive than we went through at Oberlangen. The first evacuation took place there and these women were at variance with each other. I was taken to work in the Harz Mountains. The first group was transported to remove rubble in Hanover. It was very difficult and dangerous. This was known and said, and it came true, that the next group is leaving for a farm in the Harz mountains. We were told that there has to be 40 of us and that we have to chose among ourselves. We chose the entire troop from the campaign of Lieutenant "Zaręba" on Szpitalna Street, from which we went into captivity. It was a good group. The Jeżewska sisters went with us, two women who knew German well, who were to be our commanding officers. We went by train and a German officer convoyed us. We had three transfers and at some point it turned out that our commander wasn't around, only some man in a hat with a feather. We asked where our commander is and were told that he's not around, and that this civilian would now watch over us. We stated that this doesn't suit us, but of course this changed nothing. We arrived at the Goslar rail station, from there we walked several kilometres on foot. We found ourselves in Schladen, there was a very large agricultural-seed farm there, with some research program. On the second day two or three policemen came from the nearest post and said that we have to take off all our military badges, for the reason that we are now civilians, that this is the order of the head command of the German army, that all POWs shall assume a civil status.
So the Germans wanted to break the capitulation agreement?
Yes. But here these women officers proved useful to us, because they said that as POWs we were entitled to contact external authorities through an intermediary, according to the Geneva Convention. These policemen could care less, they ordered us to take off our insignias. We stood in a granary, in two rows, no one moved. Then they started to rip off our bands. The bands were sewed on, so they started to pull out scissors and cut off these bands. The entire time we stood in formation. A more difficult matter, since we had pennants sewed on and they also unpicked these pennants. It lasted for hours. One of my colleagues - Helena Kolanowska, cut out rifles some 7-8 centimetres long, from boards, she had some army brown crayons from somewhere which she use to colour these rifles and instead of a leather strap they had a few black threads. I offered such a rifle to Aniela Pochwalska, who took care of me, mothered me and she had this little rifle attached to her chest. On of these Germans leaned over and saw, in the end he must have become aware that it was supposed to be a rifle and in anger he unpicked this with scissors. When this part of the assembly ended, they said that for what we did, for our non-subordination, ten of us will be sent to a concentration camp. Selection took place. They first called out the Jeżewska women representing us, who could speak German, so we would be without someone older who could speak German, and then they picked at random. The same German pulled out Aniela from the ranks, he remembered the little rifle, you could see this on his face.
So if they didn't like some girl they called her out? And this group of ten was taken off to a concentration camp?
Yes and it was really operated with the rigors of a concentration camp. They returned to us, to this farm, when women soldiers were being gathered up, not officers, from POW camps in Oberlangen, near the Dutch border. They took those girls from the KL to Schlagen, our forty from Schlagen to Bergen, for one or two days and later to Oberlangen. In terms of Schlagen itself, the work was at a seed farm, we packaged beans into bags. The work was already mechanized, we didn't carry the bags as there were conveyors. You had to fill the bags at one point and tie them up at another, it wasn't that difficult. You could take some of these beans and we cooked them up ourselves. Due to the fact that I was the youngest, when there was a need arose at this research station, where the seeds were weighed and measured, I worked there for several days. They were very pleasant and caring there. Once it happened that I had to drive out crows from some field, so they didn't eat up all the seed. This wasn't such a hard period for our group of thirty, because it was a completely different story for that group of ten.
When did the transport to Oberlangen take place?
We arrived at Oberlangen on 24 December in the afternoon. We were detained in the vorlag. It turned out that the maximum number of soldiers, a dozen or so, who watched over out camp, guards, had been released home, since it was Christmas eve and they couldn't let us in before an inspection. In this situation, it was stated that it would be simplest to lock us up in arrest, for the reason that if they lock us up somewhere we won't have any contact with the rest of the camp. And we really did end up spending Christmas Eve under arrest. There was no light or food either. It was kind of regretful, that the older girls didn't take care to create some kind of mood, because we were very depressed. Christmas day was very sunny, the camp poured out to get as close to our jail as possible, they sang to us and called out, cheering us up. There were soldiers on duty that holiday, but there was no point in gathering us up, so they let us go. At this point four barracks were occupied, there were girls from Sandbostel, from City Centre-South. In the fourth barracks there were girls from City Centre-North, those who arrived from Fallingbostel, who were later taken to Bergen. We should have gone to the fourth barracks, but there wasn't enough room. Twenty of us went to number four and another twenty to the Żoliborz barracks, that also just filled up. I spend half a year in the Żoliborz barracks. I have to say that I think this was a good solution for me, since the average age in the Żoliborz barrack was the lowest. For this reason, that scouting among the youngest girls was very well organised in the underground, among others, they were in the Piłsudski School. Since there were scouts, they brought the principles of scouting life to the camp. This concerned not just signing songs, but also working together, being friends, speaking the truth, although the military drill that often crept into the barracks, was lacking.
What was life like at Oberlangen?
Oberlangen was surrounded by peat bogs, it was a long ways off to Latten, so there was no where to go to any work. We only worked to keep the camp in order. This camp work was scheduled once every eight days. It largely concerned work in the kitchen.
What did you get to eat?
One rather large, squarish loaf of bread for six, there were two, threes slices of bread. Towards the end these rations were reduced. In addition to the bread there were two decagrams of margarine, a spoon of sugar, sometimes marmalade from rutabaga. For dinner, soup, mainly from rutabaga. There were very few potatoes there. The food was completely insufficient.
The girls didn't get enough to eat?
Absolutely. This is difficult to define, because we know that it was even worse in the concentration camps, so it's unfair to complain about it. On the other hand, this was a very inadequate quantity of food. The food packages were a definite help.
They came from several places through the Red Cross. Our scout leaders at Bergen were somehow able to report our group rather effectively to Geneva, maybe this transport wasn't bombed, in any event the Bergen group received relatively more packages than the rest of the camp. These packages reached Oberlangen along a very lengthy route and addressed only for this group. Other groups received incomparably less. On average we received one package a month for three to four girls. Being in the Żoliborz barrack, I conducted a household with two sixteen year old girls, not with my sister as she had her own friends. We agreed that we would eat together. None of us smoked. I bought myself shoes with the cigarettes sent in the packages, since I left the Rising nearly shoeless, and it was already winter. I walked in clogs, but a toenail had started to fall off from walking in them. These packages contained a kind of things and specific, caloric assistance. I don't agree with my girlfriends, who, in many accounts from Oberlangen, say that middle-school level and secondary school level teaching was organized there. I was extremely eager to find possibilities for studying and I only found them two or three weeks before the camp was broken up. Saying that there were secondary school exams at Oberlangen is incomprehensible to me. There were no books, though teaching existed, as there were many teachers.
How was correspondence dealt with? Here one of your camp letters survived.
Yes, there were regulations that precisely governed this issue. A prisoner got two post cards a month and one letter set. The correspondence was terribly important because it involved searching for families. Here is a letter from my sister to aunt Hala, who lived in Ożarów. In walking through the cable factory into captivity, we threw down a card there. So my aunt had information that we are going to a camp, at the same time it was known that the family would also be headed that direction. My mother was sent into forced labour and we weren't able to contact each other until later. The fact that our mother was transported to work in Germany, to Celle, not from Hanover, allowed us to correspond with mother almost everyday. When the Soviet armies crossed into Poland, the girls no longer had anyone to write to, so they gave back all the letter sets, making it possible for us to write as much as we wanted.
As you pointed out, friendships developed in the camp.
Oh yes! Of course yes. I didn't hear about this in the concentration camps, here there were common households, mainly 2-3 persons. The girls shared food with each other, they ate their modest meals together, supported each other.
Who did you become friends with?
There were two Żoliborz girls, one of them supposedly played the piano well before the Rising and she very much missed the ability to practice. I went into captivity with a tiny suitcase, I had no knapsack, I was always at the very end of these military matters due to my age, so I had such a dainty suitcase. My friend Halinka sat on the bunk bed laying this suitcase on her knees and practiced scales. She had such scout-like characteristics, she didn't know what happened to her mother, brother, really we all had so much anxiety, there were difficult times, more melancholic, now it would be said depressing. On such a winter evening she says: "You know what, I'm in a very bad mood, I'm going outside and walk around in the freezing weather, get frozen, return and I'll feel better". So I told her to take my gloves, because they were thicker than hers. She did this, left and calmed down, and not in a way to abuse her compatriots with her moodiness. These were well situated girls, in terms o character, behaviour and also getting along with others. This was really very valuable. After the war she worked in her profession in Paris. The second one was also very nice. It was Wanda who did her secondary school exam in Nazareth or Bethlehem, in one of those most biblical places.
How do you remember the liberation of the camp, because after all it was a huge surprise to all the girls, that Poles liberated the camp, soldiers of general Maczek?
Yes. The artillery fire could be heard much earlier. They were in the reserves and did not conduct war activity. We expected them to arrive. The signalling services was organized, the translators were ready, the quilt flag had been sewn. Since food in the Oberlangen storehouses had been used up, we received some small pieces of bread that was very mouldy, groups of girls were allowed to go to the neighbouring village where they bought potatoes with the coffee, some soap or cigarettes from the packages, at least to have something to eat. During the last days we hardly ate anything at all. These girls said that they happened on some patrol, maybe it was a German patrol, while we were already partially dressed in American uniforms and these Germans took them to be women from the active army moving from the West. I remember how loud the commands fell when the battle started, to hide in the barracks. I saw the first Pole from the window, between the barracks. He was in uniform, in a helmet, he ran nearly in a crouched position through the centre of the camp. When I saw him the entire group went outside. There was an assembly almost at once that is hardly referenced in recollections. The camp assemblies, the assemblies imposed by the Germans, took place in German formation, or in fives. During the last days the Germans allowed us to leave for food, the discipline had already fallen, then our lieutenant ordered assemblies in fours. We practiced this, so it would look as correct as possible. I remember that when we stood that day in assembly, in this fifth barrack, with girls from Żoliborz, our twenty from Bergen, just like it got the most packages, also got American uniforms at some point and we presented ourselves better. The girlfriends pushed us to the first row, so I got to see more of colonel Godziński, Koszucki as they passed.
How do you remember this moment?
A matter that moves me even to the present is the raising of the flag and the passage of colonel Koszucki along these ranks. I stood in the first row, so he passed two meters from me.
A sense of true freedom, maybe you didn't realize it then?
I think that I didn't. On the other hand it was already so anticipated, dreamt of. Later there was great confusion, the arrival of these guests, soldiers. Someone offered a cigarette, someone else one caught a chicken.
For the Polish soldiers, likely it was also a surprise, that here there are POWs, girls from the Warsaw Rising?
Yes. Of course it was a huge shock, a huge joy. The woman that I kept in contact with for a long time, had a husband in the division, more frequently there were fathers, and various relatives that couldn't be counted.
Frequently, families found each other in this manner?
To a large degree the talks concerned whether this one or that one is known. Division soldiers first asked about their families from Warsaw. There was great joy and great sadness, because the news varied.
Two, three weeks after the liberation we were moved to an adjacent camp in Niederlangen, where there were no longer bunk beds, this made us much more relaxed. This camp had a lot of greenery, because there was nothing at Oberlangen, in the camp or outside it. This also concerned changing our surroundings. In the barracks we were divided into those who would study in the confines of middle school and those who would serve in the camp itself, for those students to have better conditions. Very well organized lessons started in one of the barracks. There were teachers, for example there was my Latin teacher. Soldiers weren't allowed to enter the camp, a small hotel was set up in the barracks and you had to have a pass. This was because dissipation began, very specific romances started there, in the bushes, in the barracks themselves. The girls were also intolerable and insubordinate. Several years ago I got a copy of the orders that the lieutenant gave out in the camp every day until it was broken up, they were read at the front, in the last point there was reference to persons sitting in jail. When you didn't come back to the camp for the night, this was recorded and you were placed in jail for several days.
So you could end up paying for love by getting arrested?
Yes. Searches for families continued, all kinds of lists were created. The "Dziennik Polski" and "Dziennik Żołnierza" /official papers/ printed a list of Oberlangen prisoners for a couple of weeks. My mother's grandmother found us on this list. My husband met an officer in front of the church in Maczków, whose son played bridge. The matter of searching, telling about oneself, soldiers from the Division very much wanted to hear about those battles in the city, how they took place, this was completely unknown to them. I was in Niederlangen for a very short period of time. My sister, with here befriended group, arranged for an assignment to the 9th Rifle Battalion, because the cousin of one of these girls was an officer there and the Battalion took in girls mainly to work in the club. Nearly every battalion formed a club where the girls worked. Later they joined the regular Women's Battalion at the First Armoured Division. On the other hand, our mother arrived to our camp by hitchhiking. This is also an interesting story, because an Evangelical-Reformed Church chaplain was found at the POW camp in Dessel, a person of great invention and energy. When the Americans arrived, he and his adjutant started to hitchhike around to camps and frequently he was the first clergyman at all who could conduct mass. Along his way, knowing from correspondence that our mother is in this camp, he went there and said a bit of what it was like in our camp. He held mass in the camp for women and at the same time he reported to the head of chaplaincy at the First Armoured Division, chaplain Franciszek Tomaszek. He was an extremely ecumenical person. He helped our chaplain considerably and said that if any assistance is necessary he'll do his best to help out. After this, when he found out that my mother had been found, and that we are in the camp, at the moment when women could be recruited for work in the division, this chaplain requested that we, mother and I, report to the chaplaincy for work. I have a document issued by him, showing that I have the right to pickup field post sent to the chaplaincy.
So you ended up in the Gen. Maczek's Armoured Division with your mother and sister?
Yes. Not everyone had such an opportunity, you go to the Division through acquaintances. My husband got there because he had an uncle, a colonel in England.
Surely you all wondered what to do next?
Of course. Except that my sister was in the Rifle Battalion, it was quite a few kilometres to the north. My service at headquarters didn't last long, for the reason that when the school in Maczków started up, I asked for and received a detail to this school. In Maczków there was a platoon of this Women's Battalion and the service took place in the confines of this platoon, although there were no military duties, you just had to study.
A Polish city was organised in Germany, precisely Maczków.
Yes. It was a city with a total Polish administration, a chaplaincy was very much needed. In principle, only those families who were transported to forced labour could live in Maczków, as this concerned reuniting families. It was not permitted to get married, although there were many such relationships that formed at work. Children were born. In the beginning in Maczków, likely in June, there was a wedding for several dozen couples at the same time. These people lived in Maczków. This concerned re-establishing the Polish family. There was a day care centre, pre-schools, primary schools, a middle-school, secondary school, trade school, tailoring classes, a factory manufacturing small parts from aluminium melted down from containers or from destroyed aircraft standing in the German airports. There was a café, cultural life was very highly developed.
For many Poles Maczków was a long stop before taking the next decision on whether to return to Poland or remain in the West?
Of course yes. Yes, but there was bombing from both sides, because on one hand people from England were arriving and they literally examined us. People who spent the entire war in England, because there were many such people. The Polish theatre arrived from France, a very large troop. There were children, POWs who flowed from camp to camp. Maczków was always the stopping point. On the other hand, many Poles passed through "illegally". Everything was superbly organized under the cover of the UNRRA, this American assistance. Two of my scout leaders also came through Maczków. Broniewski, Białous, all of them were there. These people encouraged us not to return. There was also official propaganda. People from the Lublin, Warsaw government arrived in a semi-truck, but they were driven off by our colleagues. Studies, that nearly everyone treated extremely seriously, and at the same time a social life. We danced a lot, there was a bit of sport, movies, theatre. Nevertheless, thoughts arose on whether to remain in the West or return. Everyone had a different point of view. Everyone a different past. The past of those people in Maczków was some unbelievable community which these people passed through. For this reason these decisions varied. Not a lot was said about this subject, everyone wanted to decide for himself.
One lived for the moment.
Yes. Besides this, we were young and happy with this freedom. I remember a story from school, in which the teachers were professional educationalists, reserve officers and in 1939 they ended up in camps. This was well organized, they went after these teachers, middle school professionals. They walked in uniform, they were mainly lieutenants and they were addressed as Lieutenant Sir, and they spoke in formal terms even if a girl was the youngest, for the reason that there were also thirty-year-olds, for example from the Division, who hadn't graduated, or various camps. There was also a German teacher, but he was very good looking and rousing girls so, I have to say I didn't like this. Our group of girls from the Division, living in the "Wichers" Hotel, decided to tease him. We drew a long obituary of him, very malicious, we made three copies and hung them up at night. The officer stated that an officer's honour was hurt, and that it must be punished. The director grabbed himself by the head, what to do about this. He set the police on us, because there was a police force in town. They were summoned, because in the end they figure out it was someone from this corner building. We were summoned for interrogation to the police headquarters. We agreed not to say a word about this, since we are soldiers and we are subject to the gendarmerie. The women's gendarmerie had to be sought out, because it is an insult to the honour of an officer. It was too small a unit to have its own gendarmerie. It turned out that we would have to talk before the women's gendarmerie in England. Since the matter was essentially amusing, insignificant, and on the other hand if records had been maintained on us, then we could never go to England again. In this situation our director went to the unit's commander, which all these broken up camps were subject to, all matters of POWs, workers, and he advised what to do in this situation. This officer listened and asked the question, where did these students in the camp come from? The director answered that from the KL, from the oflag, from stalags, from forced labour, through "illegal entries", from the Division, everything that could be. This means that this everything involves people with a terrible war past. The commander said that if that's the case and these people still have a sense of humour and still want to accomplish something, then he congratulates such a team, and for sure the director will go on doing fine work. When my commander, the chaplain, later found out about this, he rammed our director so hard that he had to leave his office.
So you distinguished yourself with common sense?
Yes, that's right. We had to pass an internal secondary school examination, that was the decision of the director. The scout troop was also important to me. Scouting was reborn at a crazy pace. In Maczków there was a women's troop and a men's troop. The men's troop was larger of course, much more active, they organized many more camps. In the photos you can see this troop walking along the main street of the town. Nevertheless, a women's troop also existed. I had patrol of girls, who as small children were transported with their parents to a camp. There were continuous changes to this set of people in Maczków. One was in the troop 2-3 months, left, this changed, that changed. Still, there were attempts to be more consistent, a several week long meeting gave these girls something to think about. There were work crews, singing.
Were there any trips, scout camps?
There were trips to Maczków itself, scout pledges took place there. Personally, I was at the airport grounds, at a large scout gathering. Due to the fact that I was in the scouting underground, I had no scout camp for myself, and to receive a senior rank in my scout career I had to have credit for a scout camp. A dilemma arose, but in Maczków there was the Mydlarzowa troop, the leader of this troop in northern Germany, who knew that I spent time in the Oberlangen camp. She asked one of the troop leaders how I behaved in the camp, in these difficult conditions, where you had to be resourceful and prove yourself in communal life. I received a positive opinion and on this basis I obtained the rank of a Samaritan. It was an atypical solution.
And when did you meet your future husband?
I met my husband at a New Year's Eve party, it was 31 December 1946 in Maczków. He had already completed his secondary-school exams. They arranged for this small group not to go back to the main unit, and to remain in Maczków. It seems they pretended, that they were studying languages here. A classmate, who was also a Division soldier, invited me to the division boarding house for this ball. The day before he arrived from Brussels and didn't feel good for some reason and said that he feels bad and has to lie down. I don't know, maybe there was too much vodka there. He said that his friend would take care of me and this friend turned out to be my future husband. I got my first civilian dress from a chaplain, from Scotland. It was a beautiful blue, evening dress. The situation was difficult, how much to rescue, how much not to. That's how our friendship began. Four months later we left together for Brussels and there, on Good Friday, he proposed to me.
Was it a quick decision?
Yes. A decision as to expressing one's feelings. Unfortunately, my husband returned directly to Poland, since his brother-in-law, an officer, was sitting in Wronki. His mother had TB, he had a small stepsister and this prisoner in Wronki had a child that he didn't know about.
He was needed here.
Yes. The women were left alone. On the other hand the father colonel persuaded me and my mother to go to Canada, where his nephew had a farm, very large and very well to do. The nephew was a bachelor and I received a proposal to get married to him. He was twice as old as me. First I was to complete a four year college, for farmers' wives. They taught everything there, from feeling hens to maintaining accounts and seed recognition. I was to learn everything during these four years, and afterwards get married to him. Likely this made me extremely reluctant. Here I knew that I would have to start over from nothing, I couldn't imagine what it would be like. There, in turn, cut off from Polish culture. After graduation, I tried to remain in Scotland, studying the history of Polish literature at some college. Though it was known that I wouldn't earn much, this interested me the most. I gave up on this, later we became engaged. My sister categorically did not want to return to Poland. Shortly before the Rising my mother got remarried and this husband dragged her back. We took the decision to return, but we took this decision in England. We were formally demobilized, both of us have papers from this demobilization. We were at a community camp in Ontario outside London and there, after a two-month stay, we decided that we want to return.
When did the return take place?
At the end of November 1947, by way of two British temporary camps where the conditions were even more severe. In November we lived in Scotland, in the so-called "barrels of laughter", these were metal barracks that were freezing cold in November. We walked with a mess tin for food that was given out along the road, it was cold. It was difficult and this constant anxiety, if this is the right thing. Every departing ship was sent off by a Scotch orchestra, which played "Góralu, czy ci nie żal?" /Highland song/. When the ship anchored in Gdańsk, soldiers stood on the wharf with rifles aimed at the ship, at this moment the British captain said, that we are located on the territory of Great Britain and if someone doesn't want to get off the ship, he'll be carried back to England.
So this soldier's appearance with sub-machine guns worked in such a way that some people changed their mind?
Yes, especially that earlier they were uncertain of their decision. That was in the fall of 1947 and this academic year was a write-off.
Was there a return to Warsaw?
Well no, to my aunt's in Sopot. There was nothing to return to here.
So you first lived in Sopot?
And later, three of us including my step father lived in Mikołowice near Warsaw. My husband returned in May. Already working, as a bus driver, he was accepted for university studies. We had to authenticate our secondary school examination certificates. My matriculation student record book is conditional, for the reason that I had to pass Latin, because I completed a mathematic -natural science secondary school. There was no other possibility, though I attended a humanist department. I had to pass Latin and classes on contemporary Poland. We were treated very nicely at the Ministry of Education. My husband was accepted without an examination, I passed the examinations.
And when was the wedding?
We got married in 1948, after my return. The first years of studying were difficult. I resigned after giving birth. We lived in Komorów and the commuting took up a lot of time. I had a small child and the studies were increasingly difficult for me.
Please tell me again how experiences from the Warsaw Rising and later from the camps had an impact on your psyche?
A Swiss clergyman asked me this same question recently, and even earlier I was asked about the 50th anniversary of the Rising, when there was a lively discussion in my church community about hatred towards Germans. I was in happy situation. I started to work in the church in 1964 and there was a lot of guest traffic from the GDR and FRG, I met with Germans, but with people working or active in the Church, with honest people who strived to take the least participation in the war, who suffered terribly even though they served in the Wehrmacht. Friendships arose, here, in this apartment. We drank a lot of alcohol together. These prejudices quickly cracked, but I had conditions favouring this. The Germans from FRG were open and honest and this suited us greatly. On the other hand my sister, who remained in the West, it is worth noticing that those who remained in the West stand at the same point in their hatred towards Germans to the present. Just like this hatred looked like after the war, later it did not undergo any transformations and was the reason for which they had to emigrate. The first visits to the military cemetery were connected with such a feeling that if so many people lay here, then maybe I'm alive because I was too sparing, that I didn't fulfil my duties.
Were these pricks of remorse?
Yes, of course there were. Later we talked in the confines of the church, that the answer to this is very simple, that if was experienced, then it was to do something else in life. To document this, to do something for other people.
Yes and take care to remember those who died and bear witness to history.
Yes, exactly, hence the 50th anniversary of the Rising, in a military church, Evangelical-Augsburg, I had a sermon on this subject. There were two sermons, mine and bishop Dembowski's, who I knew from various ecumenical activities. Father Dembowski talked about when he was young man and chopped wood and when that axe struck the wood, he imagined that's how he kills Germans, that he could unload his anger towards Germans by chopping wood. That's just what he recollected in this sermon. Even today I am working on the history of my community. Both that what turned out in the Evangelical-Augsburg Church, and that what happened beyond it, which is a performance of this duty in relation to those who no longer could do this. These experiences are hugely significant. It was very difficult to enter into an adult life, because I lacked the chance to grow up. I had no father, later a step father for a very short time.
You entered adulthood very quickly under war conditions.
Yes, if it concerns resourcefulness, if you have to repair fuses with a wire or some such things, then sure, but this growing up meant going down a certain path, and some things were terribly in need of. Surely I feel this somewhere even today, I don't know if my children feel this somehow. My oldest son says that he was born too soon after the war, because everything was still vivid for us, we hadn't yet obtained some kind of internal peace.
And internal anxieties related to post-war stress, did they last a long time?
Yes, for this reason that we were these "wretched stunts of reaction". From the start I was my husband's secretary, when we started to write on the subject of chemistry, and later I worked at the church, as a result of this I had no contacts at work with party authorities. On the other hand, arrests among my closest friends and family, went on all the time.
This ordeal continues.
It ended end this way, we joined in Workers' Defence Committee activities. We were active in the second or third circle, nevertheless we thought this was needed and we suffered very serious consequences for this, especially my husband, for the reason that, in terms of me, the Office of Religious Denomination, which it immediately reached of course, told my bishop, that they would either release me or the first Xerox machine. This was the first Xerox from the West, and this Xerox was in customs at the time. They said that the church where this person works doesn't have the right to have a copying machine. To that my bishop said that we chose Mrs. Sękowska. I found this out years later, because the bishop kept this secret.