Servant in a German home
by Józefa Kaczmarek
We have been under German occupation for several months now. Severe frosts and lots of snow outside the windows. We sleep on ready-packed bundles containing blankets, warm clothes and food. The peace of the night is broken from time to time by the sound of a car, by the squeak of brakes and a moment later loud German words, the banging of the gate, the tramping of heavy boots. They are on the staircase. They missed the first floor, they are going up to the second. The whole apartment house is awake. Every one waits anxiously whether his turn has come. We too are ready. Mother woke us up and we all get dressed in silence. We lived at the time in a large apartment block on the ground floor. Our windows looked out on Kościuszko Street. In spite of the black-out, one could discreetly look out through purpose made gaps.
Just outside our windows waits a truck, one of those that Poles have nick-named “buda”. A German policeman wrapped in a sheepskin, rifle on his shoulder, marches back and forth before it. He looks into the cave-like entry gate, listening to the crying of a child and the policemen’s loud curses. A moment later a family of six, including two little girls, emerges from within, urged on by the policemen’s rifle butts. All members of the family carry their own bundles. People torn from their own home on a dark winter night, facing an unknown oppressive future, climb with difficulty into the covered lorry. In a moment the truck moves away, the night is silent again. The dark winter night covers all traces, as well as the pain and despair of helpless people.
Several days later new tenants move into the vacated flat – Germans, of course.
One March Sunday of 1940 the church of Corpus Christi was surrounded during mass by lorries and policemen, who proceeded to check everyone’s papers. Only those who carried their Arbeitsbuch (work document ), old people and children under 12 were allowed to go home. All the others were loaded into the trucks and taken either to the police headquarters or to the Arbeitsamt. Amongst the latter was a large group of young people, including myself, my sister Janina and brother Ludwik. I was 13 years of age at the time, my brother was 12 and my sister 15. In the Arbeitsamt’s yard, guarded by police, we had to join the large group of young people from various districts of Poznań already there. We were registered, our data entered into books, our fingerprints taken, before we were split into groups. Young boys were selected for work in factories and farms in Germany. The Reich needed a labourforce and Polish children were exploited, brutally deprived of their homes and families and of all childhood rights.
The three of us, my sister, brother and I, were directed to different jobs in Poznań. My brother was assigned to a whitesmith’s and roofer’s workshop, my sister was sent as servant to a German family with four children living in a villa in Winogrady. My lot was to be a servant in our apartment house in a family of German Balts from Riga. It was a young couple with a baby boy, several months old.
My duties included cleaning the flat, washing up, shopping, washing nappies and baby clothes. This took up the whole day. Worn out, I could go home in the evening. But listening to my brother, looking at his cut hands, the skin cracked from the cold and wet conditions of his work and from the acids he had to use, I felt I was lucky to have my job. It was worse for my sister. She was able to come home only every other Sunday for a few hours, bitterly complaining of the four German school-aged children who tormented her, and crying in front of our mother, who was totally helpless.
Several months passed, in which time a lot had changed for us. The Germans deprived us of our flat, placing us instead in one basement room without a kitchen, water or toilet. Mother was made to work for Germans as a washerwoman and there was no one to look after my youngest, four year old, sister.
Soon I too had to part with my parents and to live in a German household. My employers moved to Toruń and I was sent back to Arbeitsamt to be assigned a new job. As I was waiting there anxiously in a group of over a dozen Polish girls, a tall German in an air force uniform stopped in front of me, asking what I was able to do and where I was employed before. He must have been satisfied with my too frank and naïve answers, as he decided that I would be right for his household. He did not ask how I felt about it, the Germans treated us Poles as their slaves. This airman, by the name of Pearson, lived with his family near the airfield in Ławica, close to Poznań. He told me to go home and come two days later at the appointed hour. I was to live in the home of my new employer, where I would work in a family with four children, to be soon increased to five, as the airman’s wife was pregnant again. I was full of anxiety; I was fourteen years of age and have never yet lived away from my home.
When I reached my family’s home I found out that my cousin, Miecia Porankiewicz, my aunts only child, a weak girl, suffering from aftermath of scarlet fever, was being sent the next day to Germany. I was still free that day and decided to accompany my aunt to the railway station to say goodbye to Miecia. It is difficult to describe the scene. The wagons were full of children, boys and girls separately. The mothers, trying to get a last glimpse of their son or daughter, to give them something for the journey or at least some good advice, were being brutally pushed away by the guards’ not sparing their rifle butts. Frail Miecia soon disappeared in the crowd of older and stronger girls pushing their way to the window.
We were coming back from the station through the old Lutheran cemetery, redolent of dampness and fresh greenery. But this was not the time to admire nature. And could I have foreseen that a new stage of suffering, of torment awaited me in my new job, that before the year was out I would find myself manacled, with other women, in a prison wagon, on the way to the Ravenbrück concentration camp? And that no one would bid me goodbye, no one would console me, as no one would know of my fate?
The following day I packed my clothes and other belongings which I might need in my new job and went to the address in Ławica. The guard handed me a special pass and took me to my employer’s villa, surrounded by a garden and a wire fence. My new mistress, Gizela Pearson, a young woman of about 25, was waiting for me. Her eyes were cold and cruel. To begin with she asked me whether I suffered with tuberculosis, as I looked so poorly. Then she showed me her children whom I was to look after: the oldest one, Meri, was five years old, Ellen was four, Hariet – three, and Wiliam a year and a half. A month later the fifth child was born, which for me meant more work, more responsibility.
Soon after, Pearson went back on active duty, which seemed to please his wife all too obviously. She spent most of her days, and often nights as well, away from home. On occasions when she did not go out, she was surrounded by her various admirers. With her husband away, she organised drunken parties without any compunction. Afterwards she would scream and shout at me, beat me with her fists, pull my hair and tear my clothes. She treated her own children in the same way if they came anywhere close. Her lovers took turns sleeping in my room and nobody cared where I could rest after a hard day’s work.
I have been working for the Pearsons for several months now and never got a penny for my hard work and never an hour off. I missed my family, my siblings. My shoes were worn out, I had no warm outer clothes, no underwear and I was constantly hungry. And this did not apply just to myself – even my mistress’ children went hungry too, as their mother exchanged food coupons for various trinkets she liked to wear or used them in restaurants which she frequently frequented with various men, usually air force officers.
Every day I went at noon to the local canteen for their leftovers to feed the dog. Poles working there secretly fed me too. Everyone was surprised that I managed to stay with the Pearson woman so long, without trying to get another job. But I was very young at the time, very intimidated by my mistress and was not able to protect myself, even though I suffered more and more in this hateful household. I found a refuge in the garden, in the temporary air-raid shelter – simply a dug-out, covered with branches and hay. I often went to sleep there during the night, feeling safer than in Gizela Pearson’s house with its drunken screams.
My mother, anxious about my prolonged silence, appeared one morning at the gate. Unfortunately she chose the wrong day, as Gizela was in one of her furious moods. Without even asking about my mother’s business, she set the dog on her.
My position became even worse when the SS officer Johan Neumeier became a constant visitor. He was a man of middle age in civilian clothes, with a balding head and a cigar permanently stuck between his lips, called “uncle Johan” by the children. After his visits Gizela was particularly irritated. She would beat me, kick me, tear my hair and call me a piece of rubbish or a swinish Pole. By this time I had nothing at all to wear, as all my clothes were falling apart. I sent a letter home asking for clothes and shoes, but none of my family responded and I guessed that my mistress simply stopped my letter and that I would never be able to achieve anything this way.
One day I went to the canteen too late and there was nothing left there for the dog. I was afraid to return with an empty pail, so – in spite of being forbidden to do so – I went to the canteen for Polish workers employed on the airfield. I was welcomed there and given hot sorrel soup with potatoes. All the Poles were concerned with the way I looked; one of them gave me a sweater, another a pair of clogs and someone else a scarf. I was heartened to meet friendly and sympathetic people.
Johan was visiting my mistress virtually every day. Together they started to train the dog, Votan, in a most cruel way. I was not able to watch it and would run as far as I could. Soon the dog was so frightened that he would cringe at their very sight, with his tail between the legs, not able to control his bladder. One day they called me and, pointing to the ill-treated dog, announced that I would soon respond in the same way.
Several days later I developed a high fever and could not move from my bed. I am not sure whether I had caught a cold or whether it was caused by the sizeable wound on my head, caused by the Pearson woman throwing the garden shears at me in one of her fits of anger. I felt quite ill, it was early morning and I was terrified of the mass of work awaiting me. I knew all too well that my mistress would not believe my illness and would just create another row. Before anybody got up I went to ask advice of my friends in the Polish canteen. They gave me a glass of hot milk, two marks for a bus and told me to go to the doctor. The German manager, well disposed towards Poles, had a look at me, listened to what my friends had to say about Mrs. Pearson, gave me another three marks and wrote out a pass. He also warned me not to tell my mistress who had helped me.
And so, full of fear, hardly able to stand up, weak with fever, I went home. Unfortunately there was nobody there. Our neighbour was horrified by the way I looked. She helped me to wash and change and went to the doctor with me. He diagnosed concussion and general exhaustion, certified that I needed six days off work and told me to spend them in bed. I returned to my parents’ home relieved that I could at last legitimately have a rest. I asked the neighbour to go to the post office and ring my mistress to tell her I was ill. She did not mind, she spoke good German and reassured me I could rest and not worry.
For the next three days I was lovingly cared for by my family and was beginning to feel better. But in the early morning of the fourth day the police arrived at the door and took me away in spite of my protestations and explanations of the state of my health. A civilian with a stiff arm took me to the Gestapo. They wrote a report and locked me in a cell.
Inside was a plank bed with a carefully folded blanket. I lay down, wondering what to expect. Suddenly the door noisily opened and two more women were shoved into the cell. The German guard noticed that I was lying down, grabbed me by my collar and kicked me towards the door, where the rules of behaviour in the cell were displayed. I was told to read them at once. Only then it dawned on me where I was and what a ‘crime’ I had committed by lying down in daytime. On top of that it was required of a prisoner to stand to attention whenever a guard entered the cell and report which cell it was and how many people it contained. One had to repeat this ceremony each time the guard appeared.
Looking more carefully round the cell I noticed traces of blood on the walls and on the blanket and, attached to the floor, a chain, obviously to shackle prisoners. And lastly I looked at my two fellow prisoners, surprised that they were so silent. But I quickly looked away when I saw their faces. They had bloody stripes on their faces, swollen red eyes, with green and yellow skin around them, blood around their mouths. We stood thus opposite each other, an arm’s length away, without a word, engrossed in our tragic fate. The normal noises of the street outside seemed, against our silence, quite unreal, even more so when interrupted by the rhythmical sounds of the gendarmes’ marching boots. The sounds of bolts being drawn, the shouts of a Gestapo man, the moans of a beaten victim, added to our nightmare. In the background one heard the grating of keys in locks, policemen chatting to each other or screaming at prisoners to go faster.
I heard my name – the door opened, I was taken out of my cell. The same German with a stiff arm was waiting for me and took me to the room where the report had been written the day before. The German behind the desk was on the phone and I had an inkling that the conversation concerned me. I was right, as the German put the receiver down and addressed me: “You are luckier than you deserve. At the request of your mistress we are sending you back to her. Don’t try to escape again, or it will end really badly.” He glanced at his watch and told me to be back at the Pearsons within an hour and that he would definitely check it.
I was so bewildered with all that happened and so mentally exhausted that I was not even able to enjoy my regained freedom, particularly as I was afraid to go home, I feared going back to Gizela Pearson, but above all I was terrified of the thought of being in that dismal prison with the sight of tortured people. I was back at work within the hour. The children were happy to see me back, while my boss gave me her orders for the day with a sarcastic smile on her lips.
The next few long, exhausting weeks followed. I was feeling ill, I feared the coming winter and sleeping in the garden shelter. The long hours of work beyond my strength and the constant displeasure of my employer, her verbal and physical abuse started thus again. One day the milkman gave me a small piece of paper – it was a note from my mother. She informed me that they had talked to the labour office and were promised that Mrs. Pearson would get a new, older servant, so I would just to have to bear it for a little longer.
One day my mistress sent me shopping to the Jeżycki market. She gave me two ration cards and instructed me to buy flour, sugar, jam and butter. With a bag full of shopping I fell, while getting on the tram. All my shopping spilled out of the bag. Someone helped me up, someone else advised me to go back to the shop and ask for another bag of sugar. I gained nothing in the shop and shaking with fear I went back to my place of employment. There was another row and more bruises on my body. A policeman arrived that same evening. My mistress talked to him in the sitting room with the doors closed, following which I was called. To my great surprise I was accused of starving her children and selling the rationed goods to my fellow Poles. The policeman made me bring all my clothes to be searched. I was ashamed to show him my shabby, torn clothes. Going through them he found in the pocket of my apron a small toy watch. I remembered that I found it while cleaning the veranda, put it in my pocket and forgot to give it back to the children. It could not really be considered a theft, but my mistress insisted that it was mentioned in the report. The policeman ended the investigation and warned me not to hide anything, not even a pin.
I was so frightened and depressed by this incident that I could hardly think of anything else. My position in this hateful house was getting quite unbearable. I tried to contact my mother through the Poles working in the kitchen and find out whether my transfer to another job was coming through. But I learned that mother was told by the manager of the Arbeitsamt that if I was so unhappy in my work I would have to come and apply in person. I knew that my mistress would not let me out, so it seemed that I would have to absent myself again. One October day Mrs. Pearson asked me to take a photograph of her. It made no difference that I tried to explain that I was not familiar with a camera; she obstinately insisted that I take her picture. Keen to see the results, she took the film to be processed straight away. When she came back I was polishing the floor. The pictures must have not been good enough, as she attacked me with great fury. I was bruised, my clothes stained with blood, she tore the sleeve out of my dress. Not even letting me wash off the blood, she sent me to fetch the dog’s food. I went directly to the Polish canteen where they advised me to go to the labour office straight away. Someone lent me a coat and a headscarf, someone else gave me enough money for the bus.
The Arbeitsamt manager heard me out, inspected me and took me to the office doctor. I was given six days’ leave and told to go to my home. I was to come back two days later to collect my documents and receive a sealed letter to the Gestapo in case the police came for me. It seemed events were taking a better turn, as I was offered a new job from 10th November looking after two children. In the meanwhile though I received a letter at home telling me to come to the Gestapo at 2 p.m. on 6th November. In spite of the new referral from the Arbeitsamt, I was frightened of going to the Gestapo, bearing in mind the sight of the two savaged women.
On the appointed day, wearing my mother’s coat and dress, I went anxiously to the Gestapo quarters. In reception my coat and papers were taken away, a pass was issued and I was told to stand facing the wall. Minutes later the same German with the stiff arm took me to an office on the first floor, where, surprised and horrified I saw “uncle Johan” sitting behind the desk. Beside him, with her sarcastic smile, sat Gizela Pearson. I was accused of theft of the watch, an attempt to attack my mistress, trading in her food coupons, as well as political offences. I had apparently threatened my mistress that, come the Russians, I shall personally hang her on the nearest lamp-post. I was also apparently reading her husband’s letters from the front and spreading the contents among other Poles.
I could write pages of the beatings during the interrogations – I bear the scars to this day. My lost teeth I could replace with dentures, but the pulmonary tuberculosis, typhus, my heart and kidney problems remind me to this day of my suffering, fear, starvation and cold. Fort VII, Żabikowo, KL Ravensbrück, KL Oranienburg, KL Sachsenhausen – these were the places I had to go through before returning to Poland in 1945. Soon after I returned my mother died, then my brother died of intestinal tuberculosis and my sister of meningitis.
This is a very shortened version of the events, as I find it difficult to remind myself of the years of Nazi occupation.