Interview with Jadwiga Szczęścik-Perucka
born June 18th 1939
Warsaw, February 2nd 2008
Interviewer: Stanisław Maliszewski
You were a five year old girl when the Warsaw Uprising broke out. Where did you live at the time?
At my grandma's house at 13 Olesińska Street. My sister, 12-years old Barbara, was also there. On the day the Uprising began my mom and our oldest sister, 16-years old Stanisława, went to Królikarnia in order to buy some bread rolls.
I was left with grandma, grandpa and Basia. On August 4th Germans came to our house. In fact, as my grandparents later told me, they were Ukrainians. I remember their uniforms. They forced all the tenants of the house number 13 and led us to the house at 5 Olesińska Street. Then they ordered us to go down into the basement and threw grenades in. Some of the people died, some - including myself, my grandparents and my sister - managed to survive. The wall, upon which we were standing, did not crumble. We were all very tired.
What did you feel back then? It must have been a nightmare for such a small child.
I think wasn't aware of what was happening, because grandpa held me in his arms ll the time. All I remember is smoke, a lot of screaming, and all the dead bodies. I knew these people were dead. At one point I lost a sandal and I was thinking only about it. Grandpa held me tighter and said, that we were going to find the shoe and get back to our house, which was still intact. Ukrainians threw the granades and disappeared, while the survivors wanted just to go back home.
We went out through the gate, unaware of the fact that nearby post office at Dworkowa Street is occupied by the Germans. They had machine guns and started firing at us. My grandpa, who was holding me in his arms, was shot, among many others. My sister, my neighbour - many people died. My grandma was at the back and managed to hide when they started shooting.
So you were the sole survivor from the group that tried to cross the street?
Yes, me and some man, who was wounded. Later on I heard, that he crawled back to the basement and told the others that there's a child on the street. He was talking about me.
Germans kept firing and my neighbours were not able to rescue me; they were afraid soldiers would shoot me if I got up. One of the ladies was throwing me lumps of sugar. I remember she was standing in a green gate and telling me not to get up. So I lied down beneath the dead body of my grandpa. I remember that very well.
Were you fully aware what was going on around you?
Yes, I was. They told me to lied down, so I hid beneath my grandpa and my sister, whose body was also nearby. I remember my sister was lying on her side and was covered in blood, while my grandfather seemed to be just asleep, so I cuddled up to him. I remember the moon was huge upon the sky. I also remember seeing soldiers of the Polish Home Army with guns and red-and-white armbands. At the time I didn't know they were on our side. They also saw a little girl, but they did not know, whether I was alive or not. They wanted to save me, but the enemy was still firing. I was lying there for two days and two nights, before Polish soldiers picked me up from the street.
You were there without water, eating just lumps of sugar, for two days?!
I remember chewing on those lumps. Finally Home Army soldiers took me to the basement at 5 Olesińska Street , to all the others. My neighbours recognized me - they remembered I was the granddaughter of Mrs. Kowalczykowa. I remember one lady, who used to visit my grandmother. They washed me, because I was very dirty, and bandaged my hurt leg. It was burnt because of the ashes on the street. As for the sandal - I have never found it.
After two days my aunt, Jadwiga Kowalczyk - my mother's sister, who travelled from Żoliborz to Mokotów through the sewers. Her parents' house was partly destroyed. She went down into the basement and saw me. Then she took me to Królikarnia, to my mother and older sister. My aunt was twenty years old at the time.
I remember that when I saw my mother I started to cry - for the very first time. When I'd been lying beneath the dead bodies, I had been thinking about other things - that I should be quiet and should not get up. I started to sob in my mother's arms.
Because the nervous tension was gone. Only then did you realise what happened.
I was five. My mother began crying, because she lost her twelve-years old daughter and her father. She hugged me really hard and then I realised my sister and granddaughter. From then on I, for the rest of the Uprising, I was with my mother, my sister, aunt and grandmother [Stanisława Kowalczyk was killed during the shooting in Królikarnia Park].
What do you remember from the latter part of the Uprising?
Many events. We wandered from one tenement house to the other. First we moved to Dolna Street, then - to our uncle Franciszek Kowalczyk, who lived on Puławska Street. We were hiding in the basement of that house with all it's occupants. We spent there a couple of days, without water and food. It was unbearable. Finally my uncle tied some white sheets to a stick and, holding a white flag, led us the street to the Germans. They escorted us to a POW camp in Pruszków.
What were you most afraid while staying in the basement?
It was very hot and stuffling and I was afraid of the dark. Why did we left the place? Because people started to suffocate. My aunt covered my mouth with a scarf, because there must have been carbon monoxide in the air as a result of some explosion. I remember the chaos that broke out while we were evacuating. Either my mother, sister or my aunt was holding me in her arms. I began to loose my breath, and then my uncle surrendered the entire group to the Germans.
We spent two days in Pruszków, but I was too little to remember anything. My family looked after me really well, as I wasn't hungry. Many people were starving, but I always got a plate of soup. After two days Germans gathered us and placed in cattle carts. The carts were very dirty and had no roof. We didn't know where the train was taking us. A German soldier gave my sister a little can of milk. She was very happy, because she wanted give it to me. But when we got on the train we saw a woman with a little baby, maybe six months old. So my mom gave the milk to the other woman, as I was five and her child - still a newborn. I was very disappointed and got a slice of bread and a piece of sausage instead.
The Germans transported us for a number of days. At one point the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. Men stepped out and realised all the soldiers were gone. Most likely they were transporting us to Auschwitz, but the end of the war was approaching and that concentration camp was no longer taking in new prisoners.
Local peasants - we stopped at Wolmbrom near Cracow - picked us up. They took us to their cottages; I was living with my mother, my sister and aunt were seperated from us. We spent the rest of the occupation in that village.
So you were living with a local family?
They were good people. My mother visited them long after the war.
Do you remember their surname?
Mrs. Bieniowa from Sobiesenki. My mom always called her a very decent woman; she provided us with milk, bread, let us wash in their bathtub. The conditions were great. My sister was living in another cottage, because peasants could not afford to invite more than 2-3 people.
They couldn't take the entire family.
Because they were poor themselves. They treated us really well. After the Uprising we returned to Warsaw, to Okęcie. My father was working at the airport and had an apartment in that district.
When exactly was it?
I think March 1945. We were lucky, because Warsaw had been already liberated. We did not come back to Olesińska as the apartment burned down and my grandparents were dead. My parents' apartment in Okęcie district had been broken into, but it was standing. My father went to work and my mother stayed home with me and my sister. It was then when I managed to understand all that had happened. The fact I was lying beneath dead bodies at Olesińska. Throughout the Uprising I was in shock, I barely cried, I was just dejected.
It took you some time to realize what had happened.
After the Uprising, when I was six or sevene years old, my mother could not leave me be myself - I was seeing dead bodies everywhere. I saw them when I was alone in our apartment - my mother took me to many doctors, because she was afraid I had been traumatized. And I was, for a very long time.
When I was eighteen I still afraid of staying home alone or going into the basement. I married young, but even as a woman I was afraid of the dark. In the basement at Olesińska Street I saw dead people with open mouths and eyes. I remembered them for the rest of my life. The fear left me at a specific moment of my life - when my mother died. I was 24 at the time, my mother was 54. From then on I was no longer afraid to go to the basement or even to the cemetery.
The fear have not come back ever since?
No. My relatives thought that I my mother was partly „responsible" for that fear. She understood me perfectly. While my sister or my father scolded me: „You're already 20 and you refuse to go into the baesment?", my mother always responded: „Leave her alone, I will go with her". The fear disappeared when my mother died - I cannot explain it.
There is a plaque commemorating the victims at Olesińska Stret.
At No. 5.
Have you ever visited that place?
I go there every year.
When did you visit it for the first time?
On the first anniversary of the Uprising. My mother lost her daughter and father there. We visited the place every year, lighted candles and left flowers because my beloved sister and grandfather did not have any other grave. I still visit the place - with my sister and my younger brother, who was born in 1948, so he cannot remember the events I am recounting. We visit 5 Olesińska Street each 4th of August.
What did you feel when you went there for the first time? Everything appeared before your eyes? The fear became greater?
I don't remember. I was just six, I was beginning my education. We were living at Okęcie and visited the place etery year.
Your mother wanted to take you there?
Yes, she did.
Wasn't she of the opinion that you, still a small child, should not be present at the place of that tragedy? Wasn't she afraid you will again go through that nightmare?
I don't remember. To be fair I don't remember exactly, when all that happened. I'm not sure my mother took me there rigth after the Uprising, as I was really traumatized. I already told you my mother could not leave me for one minute. Even during the day, when left alone, I could see dead bodies everywhere. I asked her to take me everywhere she went, even to the doctor. The fear went away when I was 10 or 15, but the fear of darkness lasted longer.
Even as a 20-year-old woman I was afraid to enter dark rooms, as I was convinced I can see corpses. It was just a self-suggestion. I loved my mother with all my heart and I was very attached to her. When she died I used to go into the dark basement or to a room without light and asked God to let me see my mom. But she has never appeared.
As for the fear - it has disappeared following my mother's death. Nobody could explain it to me.
How did your life look like? Which school did you go to?
I finished a primary school in Okęcie district. My mother walked me to school, because I was so traumatized after the Uprising. When I was 14 I graduated from the middle school.
Where did you pass the matura exam?
In a geological college at Grójecka Street, nearby the Kołłątaj college. It was the first technical school with such specialization in Warsaw.
Then you went to the university?
To study geology. I married at a very young age, so my life did was rather complicated. Only now, as I grew old, I manage to put my experiences during the Warssaw Uprising in order and in perspective. I was the youngest child in my family and everybody looked after me. I don't remember being hungry at any point of our ordeal. From what I heard people were starving - there was no bread and potato peelings became main source of food. My family made sure I wasn't hungry - in Pruszków I always got a plate of hot soup, while earlier my uncle used to bring tomatoes from Królikarnia Park.
From one of the many allotments, which were situated in Mokotów.
I remember the tomatoes were placed in large bowls. But on the whole I have a scant recollection of the entire Uprising - I was too scared. After the war, when I was 7 or 8, the memories came back. I saw dead bodies - one was lying in the corner of the room, the other had an open mouth. All these images originated from the basement at 5 Olesińska Street. I remembered vividly the moment my grandfather took me in his arms and carried me over the pile of dead bodies.
Did you recollect anything else, for instance the German soldiers?
Yes, very clearly. Especially the moment they were leading us from 13 to 5 Olesińska Street. I remember these horrible soldiers in their uniforms and with their guns - later I was told they were Ukrainians. They forbade us to speak and ordered to go into the basement. I also remember the Germans that escorted us to Pruszków. They had those helmets on, guns in their hands and were speaking in an unintelligible language.And then I remember our flight - from one basement to the other, from one house to the next. Somewhere along I saw Polish soldiers. They had a field hospital in a school building. This recollection may come from my what my sister has told me, but I remember a young, 14-years-old soldier, nicknamed „Perełka", who was in agony.
My sister, ten years older than me, is now 77. At the time she was 15 and I was five. My aunt was 20 and now she's 85. I often visit her and talk about these events. She remembers everything way better than I do. Most of the facts I have established come from things my relatives told me, and not directly from my own recollection.