FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE JEWS…
She survived a Nazi forced labour camp, only to be imprisoned by the Russians
Halina Sonia Maczka
Born: Berlin, 11 May 1930
I MET Halina in my home village of Cessenon-sur-Orb, in the South of France. She lives down the end of my street. Small and frail, but always with a smile, she and I began our friendship with how’s-the-weather small talk. As we became friendlier she gradually opened up and I discovered her past and her amazing war-time story. Did anyone else know her what she’d experienced, I asked? No-one, she replied. After all, she’s just an old lady who potters down to the bakery to buy her daily bread…
Here’s what she had to say:
“I was born in Berlin during a holiday visit to my aunt and uncle who lived there. My parents lived in Poznan, in Poland, where my mother was born. My father came from Krakow. My father was a jeweller and had a shop in the Jewish quarter of Poznan. Business was good during the early 1930s, but then declined. Despite looking for my aunt and uncle through the Red Cross after World War II, we never found out what happened to them.
When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 we weren’t overly worried at first. Sure, we had to make do with food rationing and there were strict restrictions on meetings, but on the whole the Nazis left us alone. Our family, along with everyone else, had to register with the authorities and we were obliged to present ourselves to the Gestapo every 15 days. Although Jews and non-Jews were not allowed to mix, the Jews were initially pretty calm as the Germans were not taking people by force.
That soon changed. The Brown Shirts – the SA – and the SS started smashing up Jewish shops and there were troops everywhere. We were terrified, as they screamed and shouted at everyone, and would beat up people in the streets. We also knew that the Nazis were rounding up people and executing them en masse.
My mother packed my small suitcase
During early 1943 our shop was spared, but then one night, in the early hours of the morning, the Gestapo arrived. My father, who answered the door, was roughed up and we were given 30 minutes to pack our bags. My mother packed me a small suitcase. I was only a child and I was terrified, as the Germans were shouting and screaming and physically very aggressive towards us.
They smashed up the shop and stole all the jewellery, and later installed a German family in our home. Of course the Gestapo wanted our jewellery – it was valuable! Polish collaborators accompanied the Gestapo on the raid as they were used as translators. We knew that many Poles acted as spies for the Nazis, so we had to be very careful about who we spoke to and what we said.
We were forcibly removed to a camp in Poznan, where we were held for several days. We were told that we were being taken to work in Germany. It was terrifying. The Germans would shout at us all the time and they’d beat up anyone who was old or frail and couldn’t move quickly enough. We had bread and soup to eat, and some coffee in the morning. After a couple of days the Nazis separated the men from the women and children.
After a week of this hell we were put in cattle trucks for the three-day train journey to Berlin. At least during the trip my mother and father were reunited. The train would travel only at night and stop during the day, and we would be allowed off the truck to relieve ourselves.
German work camp
When we arrived in Berlin we were loaded on to trucks and taken to a camp. Again my parents were separated. I stayed with my mother. However, we could talk to my father as we were only kept apart by a fence. My mother’s job was to clean the barracks, while my father was put to work in the nearby arms factory, where he made artillery shells. I used to take food to my father at lunchtime.
The Germans would beat up anyone who was unable to work, or too ill to get out of bed. They would also shoot anyone who approached the restricted zone. Some people tried to escape by tunnelling, but they were always easily caught as they were foreigners and could not speak German. They were shot. A lot of people died in the camp.
We saw lots of Allied bombing, but one day the bombers missed their target and hit the camp. It was lunchtime. I survived as I was taking food to my father, but when I returned I found out that my mother had been killed. There were dead and body parts everywhere… arms, legs and heads… and people were clearing up. Of course I cried, but when you’re young you just get on with life. You have to. My father never got over my mother’s death and he soon passed away with dysentery. I think he just gave up hope.
The Russians arrived in 1945, in March if I remember correctly. They rounded up all the Germans, while I was placed with a German family, where I stayed till the end of the war. The husband was a fascist, a Nazi. He was rarely at home, always at work, so the mother was in charge of the household. I was their servant. They had two children a little older than me and the three of us got on well. We’d play games like hide-and-seek and they’d give me a little extra food. Children look after each other. The husband was taken away and shot by the Russians. They knew he was a fascist.
The Russians wanted to repatriate me to Poland. They thought that the Poles should return home to rebuild the country, but I had no home and no family there. What was I supposed to do there? This was a forced repatriation. I was outspoken and told them I would not return. Really, I wanted to go to America to start a new life.
A group of us decided that we’d try to escape the Russian sector of Berlin. We hated the political situation under the Russians. Amongst the group were Estonians, Yugoslavs and other nationalities. I was caught and tried by a military court, and placed in an old German concentration camp north of Berlin, where I stayed for a year-and-a-half. We had enough to eat – potatoes, soups and some meat. At the end of my sentence, in August 1948, I was freed and made to sign a document saying that I would never repeat that the Russians had imprisoned me. I was forced to return to the Russian sector of Berlin. We left the camp, first in trucks and then we were made to walk.
Our group decided to escape to the American sector of Berlin. We found ourselves in no-man’s-land, caught between Russian soldiers threatening to shoot us, and Americans threatening to fire on the Russians. It was terrifying. The Americans shouted at the Russians, telling them we were no longer in Russian territory. Luckily the Russians did not shoot. We were free!
The Americans could not keep us, so we were sent to the French sector of Berlin. I told the French that I wanted to go to America, but there was a long waiting list, so I ended up in a refugee camp in Freiberg, where I worked in the kitchens, cleaning pots and pans. One day I was very badly burned by boiling oil and taken to hospital, where a German surgeon operated on me. I was 18 years old.
Where did I belong?
The French authorities gave me a choice as to where I could emigrate. I was offered the opportunity of moving to Canada, but I would have had to wait ages, so I opted for French Guyana. I didn’t even know where it was, though they told me it was in South America. I knew I could go to Guyana quickly. During my wait I was placed with a French military family.
The trouble was that to emigrate you had to be married or have children. I was single. I knew a young Romanian who was also waiting to emigrate, so we got married. That way we could both leave for Guyana. The wife of the French family was our witness at the wedding.
Three weeks after our marriage we were told we could leave. We were taken by train to Naples, a three-day journey, and then had to wait for the arrival of the banana boat that would ship us to Guyana. Once the little boat had unloaded its cargo, we boarded and spent three weeks at sea, leaving the Mediterranean via Gibraltar and then across the Atlantic.
There was no port in Guyana. We were ferried to land by rowing boat and met by horse and cart. Guyana was very poor. There was little or no electricity. I worked in an hotel and earned enough to buy food, while my husband worked in a large shop. As he spoke good French he was reasonably well paid.
Guyana was full of dangerous prisoners who had been transported from France to live out their sentences. Once they were released from prison they were not allowed to return, so the atmosphere was nasty and dangerous. The French were very strict. There was a guillotine in the main square of the village I stayed in and people were executed in public, although I never wanted to watch. This was in 1949, even though the death penalty had been abolished in France in 1947.
I caught malaria and became very ill. The local hospital could not treat me properly, so I was taken to Dutch Surinam, where the doctors were very good. When I was almost cured I was moved back to Guyana, where I was cared for by a nurse, but eventually I had to be returned to France for further medical attention.
Across the Atlantic
As we were contracted to stay in Guyana for one year, my husband had to pay for his return trip. The boat took two weeks to cross the Atlantic and we slept in hammocks. On my arrival in France I was taken in by the Red Cross. Once cured, I was given one week to find work. I got a job as a parts controller for the 2CV, while my husband worked on the assembly line manufacturing the DS. I earned 20 centimes an hour as my French was not very good!
My husband and I separated. He had got involved in the black market, which I didn’t like. I found lodgings with a family in a nice home with five children. Later I met another man at the 2CV factory and we married. He was from Cessenon-sur-Orb – and that’s how I came to live in the South of France.
The rise of the extreme right in Europe now is frightening. I’ve lived through fascism and have seen how evil it is. I lost both my parents – good people – and have seen untold suffering under Nazi rule. I’m 89 years old and I don’t want this generation of youngsters experience what I lived through.”