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Testimony of Aleksandra Diermajer-Sękowska


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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, Milewska, 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. [...]
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.  

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