1939 - 1945

Separated by War

Polish History Museum

Germans And Russians, Topical Press Agency, 1939-09-29, From the collection of: Getty Images
Following protocols established in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed on 23 August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union attacked Poland in September of that year. The Second World War had begun. In the German-Soviet pact from 28 September, the division of the territory of Poland that had been established was confirmed.

Like every 7-year-old girl, I enjoyed that summer because on 1 September 1939 I was to start the first grade in elementary school. Everything was ready: school bag, necessary supplies, navy-blue uniform with a sailor's collar. The joy lasted only a short time, cause this summer the family's first separation happened.

Testimonial by Maria Brylowska (née Imiłkowska), 2008
Maria Brylowska, about her father leaving for the front in September 1939
Julian commanded the heavy machine gun company of the 19th Infantry Regiment, with which he fought in the Płock environs. He was wounded during artillery shelling and sent to hospital.
Julian Stryjak in German POW camp, Oflag XI B in Braunschweig, 1939-11, Original Source: private collection of Barbara Stryjak
As a result of the failed defensive war in 1939, about 420,000 soldiers of the Polish Army were taken to German POW camps – officers to Oflags, soldiers and non-commissioned officers to Stalags.

Correspondence of a prisoner of war with his family was possible on special letter forms or postcards written only in pencil, and was checked by censors.

Letters of the Szwajdler family are an example of such war correspondence, between the father imprisoned in the Gross Born camp and his wife and children under German occupation. From afar, Franciszek supported his wife Stanisława and assisted her in the upbringing of their children; meanwhile, his family sent cheerful letters containing no word of hardships of life in occupied Warsaw.

Letter from Włodek to his father, 1943-06-23, Original Source: private collection of Teresa Rybicka
"Dear Dad: What a strange impression your letter left on me. This impression resulted from the certainty that, even with hundreds of kilometres separating us – you are still taking care of us like before. [...] Often when I’m indecisive about an issue, some matter, I ask myself how you, Daddy, would act, if you were in my place. It makes it easier to make a good decision." From a letter by Włodek to his father, interned in the POW camp, 23 June 1943.
Card from Teresa to her father, Franciszek Szwajdler interned in the POW camp in Gross Born, Original Source: private collection of Teresa Rybicka
"Dearest Daddy: I have been moved up to fourth grade, with very good marks, and Basia will be moving to seventh grade, also with excellent marks. In the next few days, we go on holiday to Głowno. We are impatiently awaiting the end of the war and your return. You are often in our thoughts and we often talk about you. Sending you hugs and kisses. Tenia. Kisses, dear Daddy, from loving Basia". One daughter's postcard to her father, imprisoned in the Gross Born camp, 6 July 1943.
The photos present Stanisława Szwajdler and her children: Włodek, Barbara and Teresa, dated from the occupation period in Piorunów, Warsaw and Głowno. Some of the photos used to be sent in the letters to father, Franciszek Szwajdler, who was detained in oflag., Original Source: private collection of Teresa Rybicka
The photos show Stanisława Szwajdler and her children Włodek, Barbara and Teresa, from the occupation period in Piorunów, Warsaw and Głowno, 1941–1944. Some of these photos had been sent in letters to their father, Franciszek Szwajdler, detained in an Oflag.
Poland divided between Third Reich and Soviet Union as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, 1939, Original Source: Jan Karski Program
During 1939–1941, until war broke out between the Third Reich and the USSR, the territory of the Polish Second Republic was under dual occupation – Soviet and German.

German policy on the territory of the General Government and territories annexed to the Third Reich was based on extermination and terror (mass executions, deportations, forced labor, labor camps, concentration camps, street round-ups, many prohibitions and commands in daily life) which aimed at dominating Polish society and imposing obedience.

Living under German occupation. Smuggling and crossing the border illegally. Contemporary visualization, with an actor's voice-over, of excerpts from Teresa Rybicka’s testimonial about her mother.
Teresa and Barbara Szwajdler, 1941/1943, Original Source: private collection of Teresa Rybicka
Teresa and Barbara Szwajdler working on a handbag, they made such bags to sell, 1941–1943.

It wasn't easy for her to feed our growing group! There was a stand with cigarettes where she sold a few cigarettes for which she received a concession, and a lot of so-called ‘hand-made’ cigarettes manufactured in our home. My small hands were the most suitable for the job because I was fastest at filling papers with tobacco. {…} Mummy and Basia made flower ornaments from organdie (brooches, hair clamps) and together we wove string bags. Włodek, the ‘handyman’, repaired watches, electric goods and made shoes from cord.

Testimonial by Teresa Rybicka (née Szwajdler) "My Mummy", 2007
Imiłkowski family's camp number issued to the father, 1941-12, Original Source: private collection of Maria Brylowska
In December 1941, the six-member Imiłkowski family was deported from Plewno in Pomerania to a camp in Potulice. The Imiłkowski family's camp number issued to the father, 1941.

Then they drove us to the barracks. It was unheated, overcrowded, cold and dark. Our family of six received an area of three square meters to share. We lay on bare ground, on a pallet; there was no floor in the barracks at all. [...] The children wet themselves and suffered from diarrhea; there was no way to wash oneself or to dry wet underwear or clothes; there were lice, fleas and scabies.

Testimonial by Maria Brylowska (née Imiłkowska), 2008
Zygmunt Imiłkowski (third from left) during forced labour in an aircraft factory Flugzeugwerk Gotenhafen, 1941/1945, Original Source: private collection of Maria Brylowska
Zygmunt Imiłkowski was soon taken for forced labor in an aircraft factory in Gdynia.
Notification of the wage category, 1944, Original Source: private collection of Maria Brylowska
Zygmunt Imiłkowski’s certification of wage category, 1944.

Wages for forced laborers were far worse than those of German workers. Money earned by Zygmunt Imiłkowski for his work at the Flugzeugwerk Gotenhafen factory was sent to an account at the camp in Potulice, but in reality, no salary was ever paid to him.

Maria Brylowska about parting with her mother, taken from camp as forced labor for a household.

In Potulice, in the camp there is a living place,

Anyone who gets there finds it's just a crying space.

When they drove me there, I got quite a treat,

They took my dress and offered rags to greet.


They gave me some bread – just a little bit

And they even wondered if I had eaten it.

“No, I haven’t eaten it; I put it at the door.

Every time I look at it, my tears fall to the floor.”


My father told me: oh, my dear child,

Do not be scared, our life’s far from mild.

I wouldn't listen to my dad, mum or brothers,

That’s how I’ve wasted my youth with the others.

A song made up and sung secretly by children at the Potulice camp, 1941–1944.
Death of children in the camp nursery in Smukała. Contemporary visualization, with an actor's voice-over, of an excerpt from Maria Brylowska’s testimonial from 2008.
The document for Maria Laternus from the period of German occupation, Original Source: Alojzy Lysko collection
The segment of the Polish population in territories under German occupation which was considered appropriate in racial terms was forced to sign the Volksliste (a registration of German national categories), which included the obligation of military service in the Wehrmacht. Prior to that, there had been documents called “fingerprints” – the first operation of national verification in territories annexed to the Third Reich, begun in November 1939.
Wedding photograph of Wiktoria (née Piekorz) and Alojzy Lysko, 1941-01-05, Original Source: Alojzy Lysko collection
Wedding photograph of Wiktoria (née Piekorz) and Alojzy Lysko, 5 January 1941.

The Lysko family from Bojszów in Upper Silesia, as with the majority of Silesians, Kashubians and Mazurians, qualified for the third national category (Slavic-language speakers) and received limited citizenship in the Third Reich. When Alojzy Lysko, as a citizen of the Third Reich, wanted to marry Wiktoria Piekorz, daughter of a participant in the Silesian Uprisings and a Pole, special official permission was needed.

Alojzy Lysko and his younger brother Paweł were conscripted into the Wehrmacht in 1942. Because they did not work in the mines, they had no choice: fleeing and hiding from conscription would mean the transport of their family to camps. They left in March for training in Bavaria and Holland.

Dear Wife, I don't know what's waiting for us. If I have to go to the Ostfront, try to do everything to save yours, mom's and the child's lives. This is the most important task for you. Give away everything, leave everything, all that matters is that you survive. Cause I feel like it's all going to end bad. God save you all.

From a letter from Alojzy Lysko to his wife, Wiktoria, Holland, 15 January 1943.
Letter from Alojzy Lysko to his wife, 1943-10-03, Original Source: Alojzy Lysko collection
Earlier, Paweł had been sent to the Eastern Front, and died in 1943 near Vitebsk. Alojzy, after Germany's defeat at Stalingrad, was sent to the East. His letter from the front to his wife, Wiktoria, from 3 October 1943.
Letter to Wiktoria Lysko from the Deutsche Dienststelle in Berlin, 1965-07-20, Original Source: Alojzy Lysko collection
After the war, for twenty years the family had no news about the fates of Alojzy and Paweł, despite the efforts they undertook. Only in 1965 did Wiktoria Lysko receive a letter from a German office [Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt)] with information about the loss of her husband in Ukraine in 1944.

Alojzy perished on 12 January 1944 on the Eastern Front under the tracks of a Soviet T-34 tank, in the village of Jamka, north of Kirovohrad.

A distinct policy was applied during German occupation regarding Polish citizens of Jewish origin – they, like all Jews, were destined for extermination. The first stage of the Holocaust was closing Jews in ghettos where the tools of extermination became forced labor, starvation and daily terror.

I recall we were stealing candies with a certain kid from the courtyard. Sugus candies was displayed before the shop, we ran by and grabbed a candy and ran away. As a kind of sport. That there's a war and a ghetto doesn’t mean kids can’t play. […] It was 1940. The worst was waiting for us.

Excerpt from Joanna Majerczyk's testimonial from 2007 in the collections of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, ed. Marta Cobel-Tokarska
"Arbeit Macht Frei" gate at Auschwitz-Birkenau Former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp, Stanisław Mucha, 1945, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
After the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 and the decision about the so-called final resolution of the Jewish question, the ghettos were liquidated and their populations were taken to death camps at Bełżec, Sobibór, Chełmno, Treblinka, Majdanek and Birkenau. Holocaust victims were Jews from Poland and from other nations transported to German death camps built on territories of occupied Poland.

An operation is on and I can see through the window a crowd of people downstairs, not in the courtyard, perhaps on the street. My father walks behind my mother and supports her, I walk behind. And I feel as if they forgot about me and if I don’t move, nobody would notice. We climbed up. I feel it was the last floor. A small room with other people inside. We joined them and sat on a bed. A big closet which stood in the room was shifted to the door together with all the other heavy furniture. You could see a courtyard by the window. I don’t remember whether it was done by somebody. You could hear many shots and steps climbing up. A newborn baby who was in the room cried and was calmed down. We all kept silent, there was not a single whisper. And I am still able to feel this fear.

Szulamit Magen – daughter of Natan Malczer, testimonial from the Warsaw ghetto, made in 1992.
Masza Malczer z rodziną, 1925/1926, Original Source: Joanna Majerczyk collection
Pre-war picture of Masza Majerczyk (seated at bottom left) with family, including her sister Róża, her husband and three children, Łódź, 1925–1926.

Masza Majerczyk forged Aryan papers during the war and hid her daughter Joanna, age 9, in an orphanage, and also aided other Jews in surviving. Thanks to her help and an organized hide-out, she saved Szulamit – the niece of Natan who had perished in Warsaw – and Ola, also a niece. Masza’s sister Róża and her two children were taken from the Łódź ghetto to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Only their son, Henryk, survived.

Jews hiding during the war by assuming "Aryan” identities had to organize relevant documents. Aryan papers were issued by underground organizations for their members, also by Żegota and the Council to Aid Jews (with support of a validation cell of the Home Army). Sometimes Polish acquaintances were delivering their own papers to Jews. These were also available at an enormous price on the black market.

Karta meldunkowa Maszy Majerczyk na przybrane nazwisko Halina Witkowska, 1942, Original Source: Joanna Majerczyk collection
Registration card of Masza Majerczyk under her assumed name of Halina Witkowska. The document was issued by the Arbeitsamt (the Work Office during the occupation) in Warsaw, 1942.
Joanna Majerczyk z koleżankami z zakładu dla sierot w Chotomowie, 1940/1943, Original Source: Joanna Majerczyk collection
Joanna Majerczyk with her peers from the orphanage in Chotomów, run by nuns, where her mother found a safe hiding place for her, 1940–1943.

My mother each week was coming to visit me and bringing food. I had a suitcase or case in which I kept [this food] locked. Very unpleasant and not educational not to share with others, but this is how it was. Of course there was hunger in the institution, that’s natural, there was hunger in general. Many girls kept busy thinking about food, how to get food. There were two days a year when one could eat one’s fill. Those were Christmas and Easter.

Excerpt from the testimonial of Joanna Majerczyk from 2007, from the collections of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, ed. Marta Cobel-Tokarska.
Structure of the Polish Underground State and its relationship to the Government-in-Exile, 1942, Polish Government Information Center, 1941, 1941, From the collection of: Polish History Museum

Even before Warsaw's capitulation underground structures to battle the occupation and to morally sustain society began to be established. The Polish Underground State was created, with its activities covering the entire territory of the pre-war Second Republic and constituting a world-wide phenomenon in organizing resistance movements. Its military sector was constituted of the Home Army (AK) – the Polish underground army.

My father hid me under the bed, telling me to be quiet and to never cry, no matter what happened. I heard heavy steps in the corridor, two armed Gestapo men stood in the door with a civilian speaking in Polish with the tortured Ignacy. Father and Ignacy were taken away. The Pole took away new shoes and an old clock. I didn't realize what had happened, and felt sorry about my new shoes. From the conversations, I heard that Ignacy stole a typewriter from a German office, on the orders of the Home Army. Along with my father, they had been commissioned for a task about which no one spoke.

Ewa Romaniec, "The Romaniecs: History of a Family", 2008
Jerzy Jasiński, Home Army member and Auschwitz prisoner, speaks of his arrest and term in the camp.

On 1 August 1944, the Warsaw Uprising broke out – an armed operation of the Home Army to reveal the highest structures of the Home Army in Warsaw. It aimed at a self-enacted liberation of the city before the Red Army stepped in. Faced with the halt of the Soviet offensive and limited Allied support, under concentrated attack by the German forces, the uprising ended in capitulation 63 days later. Losses among Polish forces were around 16,000 dead and 15,000 taken prisoner. As a result of war operations and mass murders, about 150,000 Warsaw inhabitants lost their lives.

Card written by Barbara Szwajdler to her father, 1944-10-08, Original Source: private collection of Teresa Rybicka
In one street execution of civilians, Stanisława Szwajdler, her sister and son perished. “My dearest Father: They are gone; they all were killed on 14 September, shot by Ukrainians – Mummy, Włodek and Dela. It’s so devastating, cruel and terrible! Tenia is coping quite well somehow; I wish I could have been with them. Beloved Daddy! We put our entire love and hope in your hands! I kiss you as strong as I can, and as warm as the only dearest person ever! Basia.”

After 17 September 1939, thousands of soldiers were taken into Soviet captivity, including around 10,000 officers. By the decision of Soviet authorities, from 5 March 1940 these POWs and other prisoners were kept in special camps, then some 22,000 people were murdered by the NKVD in Katyn, Charków and Miednoje. The large majority of victims of the Katyn atrocity were Polish Army officers, NCOs, reservists, officers of the police, Border Protection Corps, and prison services.

A letter from Kazimierz Młyńczak to his parents written from the Kozielsk camp, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
Kazimierz Młyńczak – policeman from the Vilnius region, after war broke out was interned in Lithuania. After annexation of the Baltic nations by the USSR, he arrived at the Kozielsk camp and from there was deported to Murmansk, later to the Kola Peninsula and Arkhangelsk.

On eastern territories of the former Second Republic occupied by the Red Army, between February 1940 and June 1941, Polish citizens were deported in large numbers into the Soviet interior. Deportations affected families of officers, bureaucrats, police, lawyers, doctors and other members of the Polish intelligentsia. Many of them did not survive inhuman conditions of transport then of the hard life in Siberia or Kazakhstan.

Janina Reich, deported with her mother and siblings in April 1940. She recalls their arrest and transport to Kazakhstan.
Two of Janina's brothers found their way to the Anders Army, and two sisters to a children's camp in India. Janina remained with her mother, then joined the Kościuszko Division, with which she arrived in Warsaw in 1944. Her father was arrested in 1944, and died in prison. She met again with her mother, who managed to return to Poland from the USSR, only after demobilization in 1946.
A letter from Zofia Młyńczak to her in-laws written from Siberia, where she had been deported in April 1940, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
In April 1940, Zofia Młyńczak with Jerzy, age 8, and Waldemar, age 12, were taken to Russia, in the Novosibirsk region, and later to a collective farm in the Altai Krai region. Letter from Zofia to her parents from exile, 1 September 1940.
In 1940, Czesław Blicharski from Tarnopol, along with his brothers, attempted to get to the Polish Armed Forces in the West, but they were caught at the Hungarian border. He was imprisoned and transported to a camp in Siberia.
Postcard from Irena Stryjak, sent from exile in the USSR to her husband’s cousin in occupied Poland, Original Source: private collection of Leokadia Zielińska
Card from Irena Stryjak, sent from exile in the USSR to her husband’s cousin in occupied Poland, 1941.

After the German-Soviet theatre of the war broke out in June 1941, negotiations between the Polish government-in-exile and Stalin started. The established Sikorski-Majski pact gave a basis for forming Polish Armed Forces in USSR under a command of general Władysław Anders. Over 100 000 of Polish citizens who were sent to prisons and lagiers after the Soviet agression on Poland in 1939 joined the army. In 1942, 75,000 troops of the Anders Army and 41,000 accompanying civilians were evacuated to the Middle East.

Kazimierz Młyńczak in Polish Armed Forces in the Middle East, 1942-11-11, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
Kazimierz Młyńczak volunteered in 1941 to join the Anders Army, which was being formed in Tatishchev. In March of the following year, he left the USSR as a soldier. He served in a military-police unit and travelled with the Polish II Corps through Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Egypt to Italy.
Passport obtained by Kazimierz Młyńczak in Baghdad for his wife and sons, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
Passport obtained by Kazimierz in Baghdad for his family, 1943.

After learning of the deportation of his wife and sons to Siberia, he began attempts to obtain their release.

Hilaria Borowska (first from the left) working in the quartermaster's department, 1942-11-29, Original Source: private collection of Barbara Stryjak
Hilaria Borowska from Białystok was deported to Siberia in 1941. In 1942, with the last transport from Krasnowodsk, she left the USSR. She passed through a camp in Pahlewi (Iran), joined the Anders Army and found work as a quartermaster.
Route taken by Hilaria Stryjak through the Middle East, 1975-04-29, Original Source: private collection of Barbara Stryjak
Hilaria Borowska made the Middle East route with the Anders Army to Egypt, leaving after the war in 1947 for England. In 1975, she re-created this wartime route for her daughter, who wanted to make the trip following her mother's steps.

I am sending a map of my journey there so that you may get a grasp of it. From Teheran, we traveled at the beginning of April by train (more than a hundred tunnels) to Ahvaz; from Ahvaz, by car to Basra; from Basra by a very small train (with small carriages). Simoom winds blew the whole way; one could see nothing at arm's length but whirling, howling red desert dust. From Baghdad, it took us four days to get to Jerusalem by car – nothing but desert and black stone, not a single blade of grass. Only after we had crossed the border with Palestine did farmland become visible. In April, it was already very warm there; I wore a light denim uniform – a skirt, a poplin shirt and short sleeves.

From a letter by Hilaria Stryjak (née Borowska) to her daughter Barbara, 29 April 1975.

The largest contingent of the Polish Armed Forces was the Polish II Corps, consisting mostly of units from the Anders Army. They took part in the Italian campaign in 1944, gaining fame at the Battle of Monte Cassino in May 1944, and later liberating Ancona and Bologna.

Ruins of the small town of Piedimonte, after the offensive (near Monte Cassino), 1944-05, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
Ruins of the town of Piedimonte, after the offensive (near Monte Cassino), 1944.

18/4/1944 from Carpinone arrival to Venafro and preparations for an offensive on Monte Cassino. There was no quiet meal or sleep, and much talk of life and the future. At night on 11 May 1944 at 11, I stood on an alarm signal, and in the sky a huge fire appeared  from shells thrown and hurled from different kinds of cannon.

Excerpt from the diary of Kazimierz Młyńczak, "My Curriculum".
Czesław Blicharski along with the Anders Army made his way out of the USSR. After he joined the air force he found his way to England, where he attended pilot training. Finally he was designated a bombardier and after training was assigned to the 300 Squadron.
Julian Stryjak's military ID card, Polish Armed Forces in the West, Original Source: Barbara Stryjak collection
In February 1946, the British Government decided to dissolve the Polish Armed Forces. In September, it agreed to form the Polish Resettlement Corps. It was to smooth the demobilization process by giving soldiers adequate preparation for civilian life. Soldiers were dispersed to former military camps, for example to Foxley, which functioned up until 1955.

Irena Stryjak, deported in April 1940 to the USSR, reached the organization centers of the Anders Army in Guzara, but in July 1942 she died from exhaustion and disease. Her husband, Julian, who in 1939 had been captured by the Germans, learned of his wife's death only in 1945, when he was in France, in the Polish Army.

Mister Julian: We were so happy to be among our own and in the army after the horrible wandering in horrible conditions. That had been our dream – but unfortunately the joy didn't last long. [...] I visited her in hospital, she was dreaming about the return and talking incessantly about you, her Parents, Janka.

From a letter to Julian Stryjak from Irena Rychlicka, who was present at the death of his wife, 14 December 1945.
Letter from the Polish Red Cross announcing the death of Irena Stryjak, deported to the USSR, 1944-01-03, Original Source: Barbara Stryjak collection
After the war, thousands of people had no information about their nearest and dearest. Civilian and military organisations helped to search for and reunite families. The Polish Red Cross was at the forefront in providing this sort of help to Polish nationals. Letter from January 1944 from the Polish Red Cross stating the death of Irena Stryjak in 1942, received by her husband, Julian Stryjak, at the end of 1945.

It was a hot summer’s day when I remember my father coming home. We didn't recognize him. He was hunched over and looked more like a beggar than the man we had last seen in December 1941.

Testimonial by Maria Brylowska (née Imiłkowska), 2008.
Franciszek Szwajdler remained in Germany after the war. He couldn't come back to Poland, fearing retaliations for his prewar political activities in the structures of the National Party, regarded by the new communist authorities in Poland as ideologically inimical (as with all other political parties). Before his departure for New York City in 1950, he came to Poland for a short time, only to see his daughters. This moment is recalled by his daughter Teresa.

I was 12 years old and I could neither read nor write. […] After leaving the camp for freedom, we received no help. […] That time after the war – almost until 1956 – was difficult and full of sacrifices for us. But I was happy that I was with my parents and siblings, and that I could go to school.

Testimonial by Maria Brylowska (née Imiłkowska), 2008.
Credits: Story

Kurator — Ewa Wójcicka
Konsultacja merytoryczna — dr Dobrochna Kałwa
Korekta — Tomasz Wiścicki
Prezentacja zrealizowana ze środków Departamentu Dyplomacji Publicznej i Kulturalnej Ministerstwa Spraw Zagranicznych RP.

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