During World War II my grandmother ran contraband, hunted pigeons
My grandmother Zofia died in 1949, when my mother was eight years old, from tuberculosis she had contracted when she was running contraband cigarettes in the eastern part of Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. In the photo above, my grandmother is the one sitting front row, left of centre. She has a broad and high forehead and strong chin; she wears a dark sweater and grips a crochet hook in her right hand.
The photograph is dated March 30, 1935; a memento from the course is written on the back in my grandmother’s beautiful handwriting. It was taken in Niemirów-Zdrój, a once Polish hamlet, now in Ukraine, near the present Poland-Ukraine border, a popular spa in its day, nestled in pine forests on the sandy shores of a river known for its sulphurous smell. My grandmother was seventeen at the time and one of fourteen girls in a sewing and textile crafts course: they learned knitting, crochet and basic tailoring.
The girls sitting around the table could be Polish, Jewish or Ukrainian—in the tiny village the three cultures intermingled freely. Some of them were surely killed in the war. Some were sent to labour camps in Kazakhstan, the Jewish girls were probably sent to the death camp in Bełżec.
Two years after the photo was taken my grandmother married the man who became my grandfather. By the start of World War II, when Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland from opposite directions, she had her first child, a daughter, Lusia. In 1941, her husband was taken prisoner by the Werhmacht. Their second daughter—Krysia, my mother—was born in a church cellar during the bombing raid that began Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
In the winter of 1943, Lusia died of meningitis. A few months later, when Ukrainian nationalists occupied her village, my grandmother escaped with my mother, who was two, across the River San and found shelter in a small town called Leżajsk. There she eked out an existence for three years. She caught pigeons and cooked broth in the spring, dug potatoes from the frozen fields in the fall. When the Soviet front stopped at the River San, she sewed cigarettes, which her landlady got from the German soldiers she befriended, into the lining of her coat and punted a small boat across the deep and fast-moving river to sell them to Soviet soldiers. She was in danger not only from the Nazi police and the Soviets, but also from the Polish armed resistance, who would have executed her for collaborating with the enemy.
In 1945, her husband, freed from a Nazi POW camp, made his way to Leżajsk. From there he and my grandmother and my mother made their way to the town of Gliwice, in southwestern Poland, where they were assigned a flat abandoned by German civilians fleeing the Soviet Army. Here, in 1947, another daughter was born; she was placed in an orphanage because my grandmother had become sick with galloping consumption. In early 1949, my grandmother was admitted to a tuberculosis sanatorium in the mountains, eighty kilometres south of where she lived. That fall her condition became terminal and she was transferred to an isolation ward at a nearby hospital, where she died on November 30, 1949, far away from her village and from her family.
This is one of a handful of my family’s photos that survived the war.