A few days ago my friend Rich buried his mother.
Katherine Graczyk was 88 years old. After years spent in the confines of a wheelchair, and after months of enduring pain which no medication could completely alleviate, she wanted to pass on. She died peacefully in her sleep.
Most of Katherine’s life had been good. She had a wonderful husband who died too young and a loving son Rich who with his wife Ann took her into their own home when Katherine’s exhausted body began to give out and she could no longer walk.
In this blog I’ve written about fictional heroes and all the fantastic skills they have to fight their way through their glamorous life. Yet every last one of these characters – from my own Layla Daltry to James Bond and Indiana Jones and others – are mere creations of writers’ fevered brains and suppressed longings.
The simple fact is, thin, quiet Katherine could have taught any one of them how to be truly strong, how to be courageous, and how to survive.
For five years, Katherine survived slavery under the Nazis.
She was seventeen when the Nazis invaded her native Poland. Her mother was a desperately poor widow who supported her four children with seamstress work. All of the children also worked hard and earned what money they could to put food on the table. No one in their village had much of anything. Still the Nazis took everything from everyone. They arrested the best educated people and made them disappear.
Then the day came when two SS men shoved guns into the backs of Katherine and her brother and a friend as they were walking down a road, and forced them into a nearby schoolhouse. The German soldiers there separated the Catholic girls and boys – about “fifty kids,” as Katherine described them – into two different classrooms and forced them to take off every last stitch of clothing.
Next the kids were herded single files into the hallway, where both girls and boys stood naked for hours. One by one, their hair was cut off and their heads were shaved. Katherine’s hair had been down to her waist. Now her skull was as exposed as the rest of her. Like all the other young prisoners, she was put on a table and examined by laughing doctors to make sure she was physically acceptable for work.
That night, Katherine and her brother and their friend and other kids slept on bug-infested hay. In the morning they were issued identification patches: a yellow square with the purple letter “P” in the center, which meant Polish forced labor. They were ordered to sew the patches onto their sleeves. Then the kids were crowded into a military truck. It was pulling away when Katherine saw her mother running down the road after it. She was crying and in her outstretched hands were two wrapped bundles that she threw into the truck for her daughter and son. Katherine’s contained a sweater, a pair of shoes, and bread. “I touched her fingertips,” Katherine said. “That was the last time I saw my mother.”
The truck took the kids to the train station. Katherine was crammed with eighty other young women into a cattle car. Four days later, starving and dehydrated, they arrived in Berlin. There the German soldiers force-marched them to a marketplace, where they stood on display as slaves. “I want that one,” a man said as he pointed at Katherine.
The man took her to work on his farm near the German city of Magdeburg. She would be a slave from the early months of 1940 until liberated by American soldiers in the spring of 1945. During that time she was constantly hungry and several times nearly starved to death. She was usually fed nothing more than a few potatoes in exchange for twelve to fourteen hours of daily labor. Every day the farmer’s wife berated her for eating too much and not leaving enough scraps for the dogs. But every morning Katherine was able to steal a cup of milk as she milked the cows.
She was forced to say Heil Hitler on command. She saw a girl who refused to do so beaten to death in punishment. She learned that doctors were going around to farms and sterilizing the female slaves. In the rarest stroke of luck for which she had prayed, the day the doctors came to her farm the farmer had taken her into town, and she was spared.
Slaves who tried to escape were sent to prison or a concentration camp or shot. But one day Katherine took the risk. She got 100 miles away by train, found another farm family, and talked her way into working for them. Though poor they treated her well, and on Christmas Eve allowed her to sit at their table and eat with them, even though it was against the law for Germans to eat with Polish slave workers. A few days later, storm troopers found Katherine, beat her and dragged her out of the house, and sent her to a woman’s prison in Berlin.
That same week, Allied bombers destroyed most of the prison. So the Nazis took Katherine and other prisoners and crammed them into a truck that took them to a prisoners’ compound. There she was locked into a cell designed for one person but held eighteen women. There were no beds and four blankets. Days later, when Katherine became delirious with scarlet fever, she was taken and placed on a quarantine area floor. She survived that quarantine, and she survived the Nazi doctors who did nothing to help her.
After three months in prison, when she was so emaciated she couldn’t even recognize herself, Katherine was sent back to the farm where she had been beaten and starved. But this time she didn’t run away because it was now the summer of 1944, and she knew that the Allies were beating the Germans. She was also, once again, near Frank Graczyk, the Polish military prisoner working as a slave on a neighboring farm. They could rarely see each other, but it meant the world to her when she could see him and talk with him.
At last, one day in the spring of 1945, American soldiers drove onto the farm. By then the old farmer had died and his son had vanished on the Russian front. But the farmer’s brutal wife and daughter were still, like evil itself, alive. One American soldier put a gun in the wife’s face and ordered her to treat the Polish people on her farm very well until they could be taken away to their freedom.
Freedom, too, proved to be very hard. Although the war was over the communists now controlled Poland, and neither Katherine nor Frank could go back home. Katherine remained in a refugee camp, where she married Frank. She gave birth to her son Kazimierz while still in that camp a year later, and when at thirteen months the boy came down with diphtheria, he was taken to the nearest German hospital, where he died. “No Polish child ever came out of that hospital alive,” she said.
One day a notice was posted in the refugee camp. Anyone who wanted to get onto the last transport ship for refugees from that camp to the United States had to sign up for it. Neither Katherine nor Frank spoke a word of English, and neither of them had any idea what was waiting for them in America. Still, Katherine wrote down their names.
Weeks later they left for America, where they started their lives all over again. Their new lives were very hard, but still so much better than the ones they had left behind.
And that’ my story of Katherine Graczyk. While too long for this blog it is nevertheless incomplete and inadequate. It also doesn’t fit within the usual theme of this blog. But none of this is relevant. What matters is that sometimes we meet people who should be remembered and whose stories must be told, and today I have tried to tell Katherine’s.
Rest in peace.