I did not wish to be a German brood-mare

by Barbara Adamkiewicz

At the time of the German invasion of Poland, marking the start the Second World War, I was 18 years of age and lived in Włocławek, a town in north west Poland, the part which became incorporated into the Third Reich. Soon the Nazis began deporting people to Germany as forced labour and rumours were spreading that some ‘racially suitable’ young women were being selected for the purpose of breeding and taken to Austria to provide ‘company’ for German officers. I remember, it was February 1942, when Arbeitsamt, the German Labour Office, requested my employers to present a list of several girls to be at their disposal. My name found its way to the list and I was told to present myself in the Arbeitsamt on 28th February. I realised that I could not avoid deportation.

On the day we were taken to the Łęgska Street School for the initial racial inspection. This was a horrible experience. We were made to enter one by one, stark naked, into a hall, where on a dais behind a table sat one German officer in a white coat, another one in uniform, and a Red Cross nurse. I went in wearing my navy blue slip. As I reached the middle of the hall a German yanked down my shoulder straps and before I realised what was happening my slip fell to the floor. I felt terribly embarrassed and humiliated. I was told to parade in front of the board several times, there and back. I had to answer various questions, including even the size of my shoes. Then they asked questions about my parents. Evidently I had met the requirements – blond hair, blue eyes – as I was directed to the racially pure group.

This only increased my despair. As the two groups were being formed – one consisting of women chosen for forced labour and the other of the specially selected Aryan group – I became resigned to deportation, but decided to escape the ‘privileged' group whatever the cost. It was the latter which was being addressed by a German officer promising us a rosy future as German women. I waited for a chance to slip into the forced labour group. I realised that names had not been taken and in a resulting confusion I managed to cross to the other side. The chosen ones, I guessed, were being taken to Vienna. We were meanwhile marched to the Toruńska Street barracks, where once more we had to strip and were taken to the baths, all under the watchful eyes of German policemen.

Next, in formation and escorted by armed police, we crossed the town to the Starodębska Street School. I noticed that a crowd gathered on the corner of Kopernika and Cyganki streets and in the midst of it I spotted my mother and youngest sister. They were both crying and my chest tightened with bitter grief. All I could hear were the Germans screams of “Los! Los!”

Apart from few personal belongings I did not have anything with me. And no food either. At the best of times my family struggled to survive. My father was chronically sick and out of the six siblings only my younger sister and I had jobs. And now they were taking me away.

Several hours later someone called me to the school gate and gave me a warm shawl and a container with czernina, my favourite soup made with duck’s blood, both sent by my mother. How had she managed to get hold of it? I burst into tears, realising this was my mother’s goodbye gift to me.

At dawn we were marched to the railway station, where we joined a transport of girls, mainly 12-13 years old, and only several of my age. The following night we arrived in Pinneberg, 15 km from Hamburg, and the gathering point for the whole district of Schlezwig-Holstein. A strange view met our eyes: smouldering ruins here and there, all that was left following a recent air raid. We were taken to a huge barrack, already housing many Poles from Łódź, Inowrocław, Włocławek and Poznań, Polish cities now incorporated into the Third Reich.

More ‘inspections’ and ‘disinfestations’ followed and eventually we were mustered in a tightly packed formation in a snow-covered square guarded by police. And thus we stood in the cold waiting for ‘buyers’. Carts and cars arrived every few minutes and an Arbeitsamt escort picked groups of two or three girls who would then be taken away, into the unknown. I was included in a group of eight destined for  Wedel, a small village 9 km away, all market gardens and tree nurseries. Our group kept  melting on the way two by two, and eventually only I and another girl were left. We disembarked in the centre of the village and were taken away by a lame old German, Heinrich Zahrenhusen, our designated master. We were shown into a small room which we were to share. The whole German family came to look at us, expecting to see Polish savages. However, we seemed to have made a good impression. All the same they kept locking their doors, as we then did with ours.

In spite of the unfamiliar hard work in the fields and in the house we did somehow manage. Several days after our arrival we were called to the Town Hall to be read the rules and regulations applying to foreign labourers in Germany. We all had to sign a paper to the effect that we had come here as ‘volunteers’. I myself had to take to the Town Hall cashier the 24 marks which our employer had to pay for each of us. We received 25 to 29 marks a week, from which 18 marks were deducted for board and lodging. Although I had no experience of this kind of work, I was expected to do everything, including assisting the butcher in slaughtering pigs.

When winter came and there was no more work in the gardens, my master – hearing that my father is ill – gave me leave of absence. Unfortunately, as soon as I got home, I was called once again to the Arbeitsamt.

This time my destination was Kiel. This major port was being bombed several times a day. On 28th December 1942, I disembarked in Kiel’s railway station as part of a group of Polish women and again, as before, two ‘buyers’ arrived to pick their workers. Some were taken to a camp whence they were brought daily to clear rubble from the bombed streets. My group was directed to the Robert Koch Street camp. The camp housed Russian women who, in spite of the hunger and squalor, greeted us with warmth. The large room I was assigned to was furnished with 45 two-tier bunk beds. Our fierce Lagerführerin kept order helped by an equally ferocious Alsatian dog, which she did not hesitate to set on anybody who dared to disobey her orders.

My group of Polish women was sent to work in the Berthold Steinkopf workshops at Dammstrasse 44. Wagonloads of clothing and underwear of all kinds would arrive there daily packed in bales. They came mainly from the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Dachau.

"Kanada"  warehouse in Auschwitz-Birkenau.The confiscated property of a transport of Jews from Subcarpathian Rus
outside the so-called "Kanada" warehouse in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Our job was to cut everything, using specially mounted sickle shaped knives, into 40x40 cm squares, which, packed again into compact bales, were sent to factories as machine cleaning cloths. All jewellery and gold found in the undergarments, in the collars of women’s dresses, even in infants’ swaddling clothes, were to be deposited into bowls placed for that purpose on the tables; we were watched by the German women working amongst us and by the supervisor pacing round the table. By the end of the working day the bowls would be practically full. Some of the objects had Hebrew inscriptions and had obviously belonged to Jews. I distinctly remember one small blood-stained tapestry with a rhyming inscription in Polish: “dobra gospodyni dom przyjemnym czyni”, which translates as a good mistress creates a pleasant home. I gathered it to my breast; this piece of material became suddenly dear to me. Behind every piece of fabric was some human drama. Some still crawled with lice. As I handled the baby clothes I could not stop crying, tears were just coming down my cheeks. I re-lived the same emotions when I visited Auschwitz after the war and saw the skeletons of those people whose clothes were torn and treated so callously in the distant city of Kiel.

Meanwhile, with the onset of spring, my former master, Heinrich Zahrenhusen, tried to get me back to work in his gardens; I was very glad when he succeeded and on 25th March we were sent back to Wedel. Gardening was hard work, but it was in the fresh air and we did not starve. I worked with roses and with asparagus and helped in the house.

On the first Sunday of the month there was a special mass for Poles. On Easter Monday 1943 one of the Poles standing near the choir intoned the first words of the old hymn: “Boże coś Polskę…” asking God to give Poland back her freedom. In a moment we all took it up. But we were soon stopped. The Germans all got up from their seats, the priests yelled at us and started throwing us out of the church. This was the last mass for Poles in Wedel.

Next winter I wasn’t sent away and we were busy preparing tree and rose seedlings for the spring. On 3rd March 1943 there was a terrible air raid: bombs rained on the whole village, including our house. We had already gone to the shelter when I noticed that my mistress’s little granddaughter was missing. The whole family had run to the shelter leaving the baby behind in its pram in the sitting room. The Germans had lost their heads. I ran out of the shelter, grabbed the baby in its sleeping bag and managed to dive back to the shelter as the bombs began to fall. When the air raid finished we found the entire first floor and the sitting room destroyed. The Germans could see that it was the Polish slave worker who had saved their baby.  

The allied air raids became increasingly frequent. We concluded that the war must be coming to an end; we also managed to read some leaflets dropped from the planes and occasionally to listen to the radio.

On 4th May 1945 British forces occupied Hamburg and two weeks later we were moved to Osdorf, a British camp for deported foreign workers. Several days later all Poles were moved to a transit camp in Hamburg and then on to the Wendorf transit camp on the outskirts of Hamburg, where about 19,000 Poles were housed in huge barracks – it became a little Polish town.

There I ran into a boy from Wedel, my secret flame. I found that he reciprocated my feelings and we decided to get married. There was a chapel in the camp and Jarosław Krotoszyński, a priest and a deportee labourer from Gniezno, officiated at our wedding.

We all wanted to return home, but transport was limited and I remember that we had to draw lots. Sadly none of us had drawn the lucky lot in the first round. But we kept hoping that it would not be long before we found ourselves back in our homeland. I clearly remember the emotional moments, especially in the first days after liberation, when even men cried on hearing the Polish national anthem.

Towards the end of October 1945 the British took us by car to Szczecin, from where we all made our own way home.