The Funeral

by Irena Mackiewicz

Dorota was not at all well and we had to keep her illness secret. We carried her every day through the forest to the factory, which we called ‘Muna’ (an abreviation of Heeres-Munitionsanstalt or ammunition manufacturing plant), and which produced munitions necessary for the war effort. She coped with the search at the factory gate bravely and, once work had been assigned, we concealed her somewhere in bushes or ditches, wherever possible. She had, though, to be present at the roll call to avoid suspicion. Fortunately it was summer, time when people went on leave, the guards kept changing and did not have the chance to get to know us. On several occasions we managed to substitute another girl for her and then Dorota could then stay in the camp, though under the bed, rather than on it. There were checks in the camp two or three times a day and it was essential that her presence and what’s more her illness, were not discovered. She kept begging us to keep her illness secret, as the discovery would certainly lead to her being sent to the liquidation barracks.

When the camp guard returned from leave it was no longer possible to hide her illness and, following our advice and to save his own skin, he reported a case of sudden fainting after work in the factory. This at least delayed the discovery of her lingering disease. She was transferred to the factory hospital in the absence of the chief medical officer. Unfortunately that was all that we could do for her. Now she was in the hands of the Soviet girls working in the hospital and it was due to their intervention and help that Dorota remained for ten more days in the ward for German soldiers; the hospital had no ward for women.

Dorota’s condition deteriorated day by day. She suffered terribly and we knew that she was dying. Eventually the doctor asked the head guard for permission to give her a lethal injection. The guard in turn asked us, but neither he nor we were keen to make the decision. We just wondered whether to inform her mother of the tragic situation.

Dorota was almost eighteen years old and was brought to Ludwigsort from the General Gouvernement province of Zamość. Her ten year old sister was earmarked for deportation to the Third Reich at the same time. Their homestead had been burned to the ground and her father and brother had joined the partisans in the forest. In this situation the mother volunteered to be deported together with her daughters, but once in Germany their were separated, Dorota came to Ludwigsort, while her mother and sister were sent to another factory several hundred kilometres to the west. They kept constantly in touch by post.

We decided against informing Dorota’s mother of the serious and now hopeless condition of her daughter. It would just worry her and not help anyone. Secondly, in the cable we would have to use the word ‘illness’ and that would incriminate us, Dorota herself, and the doctor who hitherto did not wish to know of her sickness. Her case would create a precedent. Until now sick Poles did not exist and had no right to do so,  a Pole could in the last resort be wounded. That was why we decided not to inform Dorota’s mother.

Eventually the doctor decided by himself to administer the lethal injection. However, Dorota was young and her heart was healthy. She pretended not to know about her illness and those around her also pretended ignorance. She was hospitalised as a case of accident at work and nobody would know or learn what the nature of her illness was.

After several nightmarish days and nights Dorota’s heart stopped beating. This was the first non-accidental death in the factory. Actually the first and – while ‘Muna’  remained operational – the last. The fact greatly embarrassed the hospital staff and in order to airbrush the case from hospital records she had to be buried quickly. She died on a Thursday afternoon. We managed to inform the administration and the same day an official wire was sent from the factory to Dorota’s mother. It had to be official to enable her mother to obtain leave and the appropriate travel documents to attend her daughter’s funeral .

In the meantime, Dorota’s body was placed in an army coffin in a small room, formerly a store, next to the ward, but with a separate entrance. In the expectation of her mother’s arrival we planned the funeral for Saturday after work. Under the pretext of going, under guard, to the post office, we bought from a gardener a lot of flowers to decorate the room containing her coffin. We also arranged for a grave site in the cemetery and secured the attendance of a Catholic priest. The priest was a resettled Austrian, who was always very helpful to foreigners. It was only on Friday that we decided to hold an illegal funeral.

Our men, helped by French prisoners of war working on farms, procured a collapsible hand-cart on which to take the coffin from the factory to the cemetery, a distance of about 2½ kilometres. As it was well-nigh impossible to bring even an empty cart into the factory grounds, they also promised to carry the coffin to the factory gate. They too had dug the grave and as it was forbidden to use planks to make a cross, they cut birch saplings for the purpose and hid them in the shrubs between nearby graves.

Our main task for Friday was to buy as many as possible red and white gladioli at the local gardeners. We also ordered for Saturday morning a large bouquet of gold-coloured roses for Dorota’s mother. We expected her to arrive on Saturday, but did not know exactly at what time. We planned the funeral for between 2 and 4 p.m., a quiet time in the town. However, all our plans were thwarted by an accident which took place at noon of that particular Saturday. Not far from the town a train carrying materiel for our factory was derailed and several cars were overturned. The Germans, always suspecting sabotage, were alarmed. Civilian police were also mobilised. Transport was immediately organised and all men, including Poles, were taken to the site to unload the overturned cars. That took about eight hours and the whole business of the funeral fell to Polish women.

The positive aspect of the derailment was that it reduced the numbers of guards both in ‘Muna’ and in town. After work we all ran to collect the flowers which we had hidden between the beds. One of the Frenchman was waiting with the cart in a small wood next to the highway and close to the factory gate. What remained unsolved was the problem of carrying the coffin the 500m from the hospital to the gate. The girls working in the hospital brought it to the main road of the factory grounds and waited for a suitable vehicle to come by. This took quite a while, as most vehicles had gone to deal with the derailment. Finally a driver of a military vehicle agreed to help and with the aid of the hospital orderlies the coffin was loaded on the lorry. Being an army vehicle it was allowed through the gate after only a very perfunctory search. Thus, against our worst expectations, the coffin left the factory grounds and some way down the road it was transferred to our waiting cart.

One by one women were coming out of the wood. The cart was easy to push on the smooth surface of the road and by the time we reached the end of the fence surrounding the factory grounds on one side and the wood on the other, a proper funeral procession had formed behind the cart. Due to the derailment the funeral cortège consisted exclusively of Polish women distinguished by the obligatory “P” patches. Soon the funeral reached the main street of the town. The coffin was followed by a long column of women, carrying on one side white and on the other red bouquets of gladioli: a living red and white Polish flag. The cart rolled quietly, accompanied by  the rhythmic clutter of our clogs.

Some Germans appeared on the balconies and in front of the houses watching the cortège. Our “P” patches and the noise made by the clogs proved to be sufficient provocation. The first to react were the young people, followed by children. Suddenly an uproar started. We were showered with stones, lumps of earth and shards of all kinds. Tree branches and planks wrenched from fences followed. One of the Polish women walking behind the coffin shouted: ”Never mind! Proceed and cover yourself with the flowers”. Our garland of flowers fell apart and the large bouquets served us as shields, the flowers falling as main victims. Soon the irascible Nazi youths ran out of missiles. There were no more loose stones in the street. They were still throwing whatever came to hand. But the flowers protected us until the uproar subsided. The funeral entered less populous streets, leaving behind it pavements strewn with stones, earth and broken flowers.

The Austrian priest was waiting for us close to the cemetery. We told him of the riot, but he just went on with the ceremony. And so Dorota was buried. We marked the grave with the birch cross and arranged a long ribbon of white and red gladioli from her grave to those of other foreigners buried in the cemetery long ago.

After the funeral we took the cart to pieces to carry it back through the town. We thought it more prudent to avoid the main road leading to the cemetery, so one by one we slipped out unnoticed between the bushes to the rear unfenced part of the burial ground. Then, first across fields, we had to walk through the town to get to the camps. Behind us, in the distance, we heard the rumble of engines and we knew that the cemetery was being sealed off. The priest who had stayed a bit longer by the grave was found there by the police .

To be less conspicuous we walked barefoot with our clogs out of view, in small groups and by different streets. We managed to cross the town without any more problems, as the news of the funeral had not yet reached the smaller streets. We left the cart parts in the prearranged place. They disappeared quite quickly and the restored cart returned to its German owner, who remained unaware of his contribution to the  funeral of a Polish woman.

The first search of the camp found us all in our place. They were looking for a Polish flag and for the red and white flowers. There was no flag and the flowers had been left on the grave. They did not touch the gold-coloured roses by Dorota’s bed.  

Dorota’s mother and younger sister did not arrive till the afternoon. Visiting the cemetery was out of question. Tired out, they went to sleep on Dorota’s bed. There were two more roll calls and searches with dogs in the camp during the night, but with no results and no consequences.
On Sunday morning we dispatched Dorota’s mother and sister with the bouquet of roses to the cemetery. We were confined to the camp until the recall of the order. Besides new supplies had been delivered and we had to work in the factory on Sunday. Dorota’s mother found police guarding the cemetery gate. Having shown their documents the two were allowed in. They found Dorota’s grave untouched and the gladioli still looking fresh. They put the roses under the cross. They had to leave on the same day, as their special leave was coming to an end.

Dorota’s funeral, so spontaneously organised by us, was an unheard of occurrence on the territory of the Third Reich. It succeeded due to some lucky and not entirely fortuitous coincidences.