The enemy’s slave

by Feliks Grygier

The years of the German occupation, and particularly the years 1943 – 1945, marked the hardest time of my young life. In the spring of 1943 I was working for a German in Kępno as a painter. One day my employer told me that the Arbeitsamt has selected me, as well as two fellow workers, for deportation to Germany as forced labour. I was very upset and anxious, as I had no idea where they might take me. Mother cried on hearing that I would be taken away. I was the eldest of four siblings and not very robust.

Father had been working away from home since 1941 and mother looked after my younger brothers and our sister, the youngest of us all, who was being at the time clandestinely tutored by a retired teacher of the local secondary school.

I said good-bye to my siblings and mother accompanied me to the granary in Kępno, which was the departure point of the transports to Germany. I was told that I was to travel to Poznań in a group of 100 Poles. We travelled in designated wagons and on the way another group of Poles, from Ostrzeszów, joined us. Even though we did not know what awaited us, the general mood was pretty good. We believed that fate would not be too unkind to us. In charge of our transport was the local manager of Arbeitsamt by the name of Plochowitz, a local German, born in Kępno, and now in charge of the deportation of Poles in the whole region.

We arrived in Poznań in the evening. Trams were waiting for us at the station and, escorted by two uniformed guards, we were taken to Górczyn, to a Durchgangslager, a transit camp. I saw the huge number of barracks behind barbed wire, the manned guard-towers, and for the first time I broke down. I was truly shocked by what I saw. About two thousand Poles were waiting here, young and old, mothers with children, entire families, to be sent to an unknown destination in Germany. The following morning another transport arrived, this time just of mothers with children.

The sanitary conditions as well as food were terrible in this camp. We slept on bunk beds without any bedding. In the morning all we got was one slice of bread and for the main meal a bowl of water with cabbage, thickened with flour. Everyone had to undergo a sanitary quarantine or disinfection. About a hundred people at a time were taken to a particular barrack, where one had to take off all one’s clothes. Those were taken away on trolleys to be disinfected, while we had to go under showers, where each of us had our private parts smeared with lysol by an orderly with a brush. It all had to be done on the run.

It dawned on me what a huge Nazi organisation was engaged in the extermination of the Polish nation. I kept wondering whether the world knew what Hitler’s Germany was doing to us. And that was only the beginning of our martyrdom.

After three weeks in this camp we were mustered in rows – each of us called by name through loudspeakers – and marched out of the camp under escort. I knew by now from one of our guards that we would be working in Poznań in the Focke-Wulf aircraft factory. We were lodged in the factory camp in Łazarz.

The discipline, imposed by stick-wielding guards, was here as rigorous as in the transit camp, except that one was allowed to leave if in possession of a pass. The food, given twice a day, was not much better.

The following day all the formalities were concluded, our photographs – with the personal number on our chests – taken and after several days’ training in the Poznań Fair halls I was transferred to the ‘Werk’ in Krzesin. Here I was assigned to the paint-shop, which I was happy about to begin with, as it had been my previous occupation, but which later proved to be one of the worst departments. We were taken by train to Krzesin every day in the early hours. Already on my first day I was shaken by what I saw. The sight of the Reich’s huge war machine was hard to take in. The only consolation was the fact that thousands of Poles were sharing my fate in this place.

In the fuselage painting section of the paint-shop I was instructed by the German foreman what to do and how to use the equipment. The following day I was expected to work on my own, assisted by three Polish girls. In the first few days I wasn’t yet quite up to it and it was then that I found out what a German foreman was like. As soon as he saw me, he hit me several times in the face, screaming that I could perform my task in his presence, but once his back was turned my work deteriorated. I tried to explain that I was new to the job and have not yet acquired the skill, but all I got in return were more insults and more threats. I tried to avoid his abuse and did my best to master the job. The foreman’s name was Schumann and everyone in the department feared him, in particular Poles, who knew his reputation as a Pole-hater. We nicknamed him ‘Viper’. The other man we feared was the head foreman, König. This one always carried a bamboo stick, striking his knee-high boots with it, as was the custom of Gestapo men.

We worked hard for twelve to fifteen hours per day, often on Sundays too. I slept no more than three or four hours a night. At that time several Poles developed a lung disease. Even young men were quickly affected by working for so many hours surrounded by poisonous paint fumes and on a starvation diet.

After some time I was moved from the Poznań camp to the factory camp in Krzesiny. In the square between the barracks stood three gallows, left over from the time when this was the Jewish ghetto and Jews were made to build this mighty plant. I could not bear to look at the gallows, I had to leave this place. I had a heart problem (I suffer from it to this day) and went to the works doctor and received a certificate that I was not fit for hard work and for being kept in a camp. I was allowed to leave the camp and found myself accommodation with people I knew in Poznań, Wiktoria and Jan Śliperski. They let me stay with them, even though it meant that their whole family had to share one room.

In Krzesiny work proceeded at a cut-throat rate. And we were persecuted at every level: from the foremen, through various informers, down to the guards. Any absence from the place of work, like going to the toilet, was scrupulously observed by the foremen, watch in hand. The guards also watched us and if anyone spent too long in the toilet, a number of them, furious, sticks in hand, would rush in and beat their victim black and blue. The keenest of them all was a Ukrainian collaborator, a one-eyed guard. I had felt his fists on my own skin.

In the spring of 1944 the Germans brought a group of Soviet prisoners of war from the aircraft factory in Bremen destroyed by allied air raids. The guards were particularly careful to prevent any contact between them and Polish workers. I was very sorry for them, so obviously starved and miserable, but there was no way I could help, deprived as I was myself. We tried to communicate with them in the toilets. Some Poles gave them bits of tobacco, I once gave a prisoner a piece of bread, for which he thanked me with tears in his eyes.

Work in the wing section was somewhat easier. More Poles worked here and apart from Lindemann, the foreman, there were two overseers, one a young German and one a Pole. Exhausted and intimidated, I was not working well. All that kept me going was my belief in the end of the war and the defeat of the Third Reich.

The thought of sabotage has been going round my mind for quite some time. While the German overseer who watched us with an eagle eye as we painted the fuselage was out, I omitted the undercoat, painting directly with the camouflage top coat. I forgot, though, about the German controller who checked every job. He asked me whether I had used the undercoat; I told him that I did. The man took out a pocket knife and scraped the paint – this was my downfall. Irritated, he asked me rudely for my name. Some hours later I was called to the office. Here the head foremen König and Lindemann, having first talked between themselves, asked me why I had omitted the process. Worried, I told them that it was a simple mistake. They ordered me back to work. I was anxious, I did not know what would happen next, yet hoped that I might get away with it.

I was called to the office again the following morning. Two plain clothes policemen were waiting for me. They told me to get dressed and took me in a police car to the Poznań police prison. My first interrogation by a uniformed policeman came few days later. First he asked me whether I had many acquaintances in Poznań and I replied in the negative. A minute later two men in prison garb were brought in and I denied having ever met them before. I was suspected of sabotage and contacts with the underground movement. As I found out later a number of members of the PPR  (Polska Partia Robotnicza – The Polish Workers Party, a communist organisation) were arrested at the time in another plant.

In July 1943, after three months in prison, I was released and taken back to Krzesiny. From then on I was under a special ‘care’ of foremen and controllers. Any function I performed had to be very thoroughly checked by controllers; the latter kept changing, as did my work.

The spring of 1944 arrived. The German personnel of the plant became confused and anxious. Work on camouflaging the grounds was started, antiaircraft guns were placed all around them, obviously air raids were expected. Poles began to hope that the Germans would at last get the taste of their own medicine. The first air raid came during Easter. Allied planes flew over the factory, but did not bomb it. In a panic, pushed by the guards, we had to leave the grounds. From then on the vigilance of the German personnel grew form one day to another. Particularly oppressive and intimidating were the factory guards. These have been recruited from renegades of various nations: Volksdeutches, Ukrainian followers of Własow or Vlasov (Vlasov Army or the Russian Liberation Army was a group of predominantly Russian forces that fought under German command during World War II) and the so called Baltendeutsche (Germans from the Baltic countries).

They all understood Polish and one had to be particularly careful of them.

The evacuation of the main part of the works began in a hurry. Machines were taken by the narrow gauge railway to buildings prepared in the Gądki forest. It was done at an incredible speed over a dozen or so days, Poles were made to work to exhaustion without any food and the forest terrain was patrolled by large units of German police. Poles were excited – something important was taking place.

At last what they were hoping for, happened. On the afternoon of the first day of Whitsun squadrons of allied planes appeared in the cloudless sky, undeterred by the antiaircraft fire. Bombs were coming down, the whole plant was going up in flames. Chaos reigned.

For the next few days the Germans were treating us less harshly, but it did not take long for the guards, informers of various kinds and police to go back to their old tricks. One day I went to the office to hand in my stamped work card, when the only person present there, a Polish secretary, warned me that I might be arrested again. It did not take me long to decide: I left the plant during the night shift and decided to go into hiding. I went to my digs, packed my clothes, said good-bye to Mrs. Śliperska and asked her to tell the police, should they come looking for me, that she had no idea what happened to me. I left Poznań illegally and went to Kępno, but kept away from my family in order not to expose them, moving from place to place. I intended to join the partisans in the Wieluń region.

It was only in September 1944 that I got the opportunity to join a group of Poles being taken for trench digging to the Wieluń area. A school mate was on that transport, but my suspicion was aroused by a German also present amongst us. No one knew him and I noticed that he kept scrutinising us. He did not wear the lapel badge which Germans habitually wore and did not open his mouth even once all the way. We wondered why a German would be travelling together with Poles. It was only after we reached Wieluń that he introduced himself as Weber and said that he came from Osiny near Kępno. That was our first verbal contact, but I did not relax, as he was obviously German. As we were being taken to Mierzyce and later to Orzegów, Weber never left our side and became more loquacious. I had a feeling that he was trying to gain our confidence.

After the whole group was taken to their lodgings in Mierzyce near Wieluń, Weber was told by operatives of the Todt organisations that as a German he could lodge in the German quarters, which offer he however declined, joining us in the barns we had been assigned to. After we were organised into work groups he became our group leader, wishing to remain with Poles. As we were marched to work he always kept pace with me and whenever he saw a uniformed German he would get excited and curse the Nazi regime.

Our group of about 100 men marched to work in formation, always singing Polish songs, as this kept up our spirits. While digging the trenches, each group had a given sector. Weber whispered to me not to dig to the end and to take frequent breaks, promising to keep an eye on the supervisors. He said the same to others in our group. When some people had finished their quota and were going back to their quarters, Weber told us to do the same, leaving the work undone.

This brought us closer together and I asked Weber who he really was. He told me that he was a German communist and, like us, an enemy of Nazism. One day after work Weber took me and my mate aside and to prove what he said showed us his German Communist Party card. I remarked that he ought to be more careful, but he replied that he knew whom he could trust. Most Poles got to like Weber and he too liked to be among us and even shared his food ration with us, though he was receiving the same amount.

When Weber came to trust me and my friend unreservedly, he suggested that we visit Kępno, saying that he had a contact there. I agreed, though I was anxious, aware that the Nazi police were looking for me. Weber reassured me and gave me a counterfeit pass and his friend’s address. As I found out, he was in touch with an underground communist group, particularly active in Kępsk and co-operating with a left-wing partisan group in the region of Radomsk. As soon as we arrived in Kępno we went to the address Weber indicated, in the Market Place. We found another German, Brockmann, there, also a member of the Communist party. There were a few other men in Brockmann’s flat. Covert meetings were taking place here.

Brockmann, a bricklayer by trade, joined the Kępno police as ordered by the Communist party and with a particular task in mind. Following a brief talk he gave us a packet of illegal publications and leaflets and several letters for Weber. Risking our lives, we took the whole dangerous parcel to Weber who came out to meet us in the fields. He in turn embraced us and congratulated us on being true patriots, ready to join the fight against fascism. The leaflets we brought were directed to Germans, calling them to desert the Wehrmacht, to engage in sabotage and to join the underground struggle with the Nazi regime.

Weber was one of the emissaries of the German Communist organisation in Moscow. Already suspected by the Gestapo of left-wing activity, he planned to cross the front line to the Soviet side. In view of this, we suspended our activity for a while. Only when sure that we were not watched, we went to fetch the next packet from Brockmann.

It was January 1945 when the front began to get close. The Nazi functionaries of the Todt organisation began to panic. Half way through the month the Germans lost all interest in us and we began to go home one by one. I went back to Kępno on my own. The atmosphere in the town seemed to be peaceful, even though the front was getting close and artillery shells were exploding here and there. The streets were empty, apart from groups of disorientated German soldiers seeking ways to escape. I found my whole family at home, except for father, who was working in Wieluń, and who returned later, to the already liberated Kępno.

Next morning, the 21st January, I and other inhabitants of Kępno, greeted the first Soviet soldier to enter our town. He just asked for directions to Syców and proceeded that way. We were happy to be free of the Nazi yoke. By noon of that day I ran out to greet the Soviet armoured columns. I hardly believed my eyes when I noticed Weber, my friend and companion from the trench-digging, riding on one of the tanks. He noticed me, leapt off the tank and embraced me. Weber kept repeating one word over and over again: Freiheit! – Freedom!