Oct. 16, 2008
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
The scarf, trimmed with wool fringe, was emblazoned with flowers in vibrant hues of pink, red and blue. As was local custom, Maria began wearing a headscarf following her marriage to Wladek. The adornment hid her flowing chestnut braids, sending an outward sign that she was “taken” or otherwise spoken for. On this day, Maria selected her newer scarf, the one she wore to church, although it was not a Sunday. She hoped it would provide extra protection.
Maria’s village, nestled between the Carpathian Mountains and the wending Vistula River, had the misfortune of being located between Russian and German lines. When the two armies engaged, villagers witnessed lethal volleys of calamitous projectiles flying overhead. Missed targets blew up fields, houses and civilians long before the term “collateral damage” was common.
German soldiers, forcibly quartered in Maria and Wladek’s home, took pity on the family with whom they shared a Catholic faith. They secretly warned the couple of an impending infusion of troops that would displace villagers. Sitting at Maria and Wladek’s kitchen table, the soldiers showed photos of their children and talked tearfully of how they hated their mission. As representatives of Hitler’s army, they were required to carry out everyday cruelties of an occupation force.
The cemetery contained a mass grave of Jews murdered in aktions. Other Jews who avoided deportation to Auschwitz fled to surrounding forests. Villagers left food in an abandoned doghouse for them to retrieve at night when they emerged from their hiding places.
The price for harboring Jews in German-occupied Poland was death. A recent “example” was made of a couple who hid Jews in their barn. They were found out, likely turned in by a collaborator. The wife, her belly swollen in pregnancy, was forced to dig her own grave alongside her husband. They were executed as their remaining four children watched from the front window of their thatch-roofed house.
Wladek found a Jewish woman with an infant hiding in his barn.
“I mean you no harm, but you cannot stay here,” he said. “It’s too dangerous. I will bring you some food, but you must leave tonight in darkness. Patrols are happening all the time. If you are found, we’ll all be shot.”
“I fear my sunsets are numbered,” the Jewish woman uttered, sadness in her eyes.
She did leave, with bread and bits of salted lard Maria packed for her.
Maria and Wladek heeded the German soldiers’ cautionary warning, plotting what to do with their seven children. Wladek’s stepmother lived in a neighboring village about nine kilometers away. The family could hide in her attic until the danger passed.
Wladek quietly began carrying food — potatoes and grains — to his stepmother’s home. Foodstuffs were followed by small animals, a few chickens and rabbits in batches, so as not to garner suspicion. The family’s one cow would be left behind. Wladek slowly moved his five older children — Mietek, Piotr, Genia, Wladka and Marysia — on foot to their hiding place.
Maria stayed behind with Helena and Jancia, her youngest girls, to make final preparations. On this cold, rainy autumn morning, she rose early to bake two loaves of bread and milk the cow one last time. She carefully wrapped eggs in brown paper for the journey.
Helena, a toddler, played on the earthen floor, blissfully unaware of the unspoken, looming danger. The loaves were nearly done when Maria heard motorized vehicles. German reinforcements were coming. Trembling with fear, she snatched up Helena and took Jancia by the hand to run out the back door, abandoning the loaves still baking.
A German soldier cried, “halt,” but Maria kept running. Bullets whizzed through the air as she fled into the drizzling forest. She ran and ran, cold rain stinging her warm tears, clutching her crying daughters until she collapsed in a heap under a tree. Only then did she realize that little Helena had no shoes and her tiny feet had turned red from the cold. Maria removed her scarf, tearing it in two. Each piece was carefully wrapped around one of Helena’s feet; strands of the woolen fringe were used to tie the makeshift shoes.
I first met “Maria,” my grandmother, when I was 16 years old. Visiting her tiny village, I wanted to learn my family’s stories.
“What was it like during the war?” I asked in youthful naïveté.
Grandmother’s faint blue eyes, looking at me from beneath her babushka’s scarf, filled with tears.
“It was horrible, just horrible,” she said, and started to cry.
Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org or LittleDetailsCol@yahoo.com.