1939 - 1989

Separated by History

Polish History Museum

The aim of the "Separated by History" project is to document one of the most traumatic Polish experiences of the 20th century – separation of families in the years 1939–1989 due to, among other things, resettlements and deportations of the war period, political imprisonment, and the decisions taken in the communist era to emigrate to the West because of political or economic reasons.

We would thus like to preserve the memory of separated families, establish a link between the history of the Poles at home and the history of Polish emigration, and to encourage also the young generation, to take an interest in the history of their relatives or acquaintances.

Every account and story is invaluable, as there are no two identical family stories. All of them deserve to be recorded, because they testify to the vastness of experiences and complexities of life in Poland and in other countries of the region in the 20th century.

The Imiłkowski family shared the fate of thousands of Poles living in the territory annexed by the Third Reich who were subjected to mass executions, deportations, imprisonment in concentration camps and forced labour. The history of the Imiłkowski family is first of all a story of helplessness of children confronted with violence and death. It is also a story of parents who are unable to shelter their own children from evil and suffering.

Maria, the oldest daughter of Irena and Zygmunt Imiłkowski, lived with her parents and siblings – Halina, Zofia and Zbigniew – in Plewno, a village in Pomerania. Her maternal grandparents lived nearby. In August 1939, her father, Zygmunt Imiłkowski, left home to serve in the army. Zygmunt fought in the 29th light artillery regiment at Grodno, from where he returned home after a month-long odyssey.

Irena and Zygmunt Imiłkowski, 1937
Recollection by Maria Brylowska (née Imiłkowska), 2009
Plewno was incorporated into the Gdańsk-West Prussia district of the Reich. The Imiłkowski's farm was taken over by a German, who let them live in one room in their former home.
Leon Kowalski, Maria's grandfather, was a known activist of the Polish Western Union, which fought in the Legions during World War I. Like many representatives of the Polish elite, he was arrested and executed by a firing squad in the autumn of 1939 and buried in Górna Grupa (near Grudziądz).

The Nazis had a plan to turn Poles and other Slavs, as inferior races, into slaves. They shut down all secondary and higher-level educational institutions, as well as cultural ones. Members of the Polish elite were either killed or sent to concentration camps.

Certification of Leon Kowalski's being awarded the Legion Cross (the badge of the Association of the Members of the Polish Legions), 1927

In December 1941, the Imilkowski family was deported to a camp in Potulice. Conditions in the camp were extremely difficult – inmates suffered from hunger, disease, and cold. Worst of all, however, were the forced separations. First, Maria's father was sent to work in an aircraft factory. Then, her sister, Halina, who was seriously ill, was sent to a hospital in Bydgoszcz. She was so weak that when she returned to the camp, she had to walk with a stick. Most difficult was the separation from her mother, who in spring of 1942 was sent to work on the estate of a manor house. A month later, a camp trustee took Zofia and Zbigniew away. Maria and Halina were left alone.

Imiłkowski family's camp number issued to the father, 1941
A song created and secretly sung by children at the Potulice camp, 1941-1944

"Then they drove us to the barrack. 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 barrack at all. There were cracks and crevices in the walls, the room was lacking windows. The sloping roof nearly reached the ground. It was impossible to stand or sit there; one could only stay lying down. So, all the families lay squeezed together, one next to another: men, women and children. There was no running water or sewage system in the barrack. The lavatories were outside. One could walk straight only in the middle of the barrack.

The children wet themselves and suffered from diarrhoea; there was no way to wash oneself or dry wet underwear or clothes; there were lice, fleas and scabies."

From the memoirs by Maria Brylowska (née Imiłkowska), "Separation of Family Members as a Result of Historic Events", 2008
Wiktora Kowalska, Maria's grandmother, was the only member of the family who remained free. Like many other Poles, she visited the camp in Potulice in order to – even through barbed wire – meet and support her imprisoned daughter and grandchildren.

"On visiting days, a lot of people came to the concentration camp to visit their family and friends. It was crowded on both sides of the barbed wire, people searched noisily for familiar faces and called out to each other. Everyone had to yell in order to actually hear. With everyone talking like this, shouting through the barbed wire, it seemed like it was just one great screaming match. It was indescribable."

From the memoirs by Maria Brylowska (née Imiłkowska), "Separation of Family Members as a Result of Historic Events", 2008
The most difficult period for the Imiłkowski sisters was their stay in the camp in Smukała. Children were dying there from hunger, illness, and exhaustion. The sisters managed to survive and returned to Potulice.
Forced labour was one of the forms of occupational repression and a way of acquiring cheap labour for industry and agriculture. Maria’s father was sent to an aircraft factory, she and her mother were sent to a German estate. Zygmunt Imiłkowski (third from left) during forced labour in an aircraft factory Flugzeugwerk Gotenhafen, 1941-1945
Wages of forced labourers were far worse than those of German workers. The money earned by Zygmunt Imiłkowski during his work in Flugzeugwerk Gotenhafen was sent to an account at the camp in Potulice, but in reality, no salary was ever paid to him. Zygmunt Imiłkowski’s notification of the wage category, 1944
Maria was sent to a German estate Orłowo, where she endured a back-breaking work regime. After the arrival of the Red Army, her grandmother found her and brought her back to Plewno. Her mother was already waiting in their home. Maria Imiłkowska’s deregistration certificate from the Orłowo estate, 1945
Zygmunt Imiłkowski was moved from Gdynia to the camp in Leubingen in 1945, where he survived air raids and lived to see American liberation in April 1945. He stayed in Groß Gräfendorf.
In July, Zygmunt Imiłkowski was still in Merseburg. Despite the lack of news about the fate of his nearest and dearest, he never lost hope and decided to return home to Plewno.

"It was a hot summer’s day when I remember my father coming home. We didn't recognise him. He was hunched over and looked more like a beggar than the man we had last seen in December 1941. Father came home in a grey-green American military coat, and he had another American military coat, this one in a blue-grey colour, in a suitcase. These were the only belongings he had brought from the American camp. An acquaintance, Mr Dondziło, who was a tailor we knew before the war, made coats for us children from these military coats."

From the memoirs by Maria Brylowska (née Imiłkowska), "Separation of Family Members as a Result of Historic Events", 2008
In 1946, the family grew – Zdzisław was born, the only child in the Imiłkowski family to escape the experience of war. The Imiłkowski sisters (from the left) – Maria, Zofia and Halina, with their brother Zdzisław, 1949
Irena and Zygmunt Imiłkowski, 1950s

"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."

From the memoirs by Maria Brylowska (née Imiłkowska), "Separation of Family Members as a Result of Historic Events", 2008
Routes of the separated Imiłkowski family during World War II
The history of the Młyńczak family can serve as an example of Polish experiences under the Soviet occupation. The war separated Kazimierz and his wife Zofia forever. The trains going in almost opposite directions took them to the depths of Russia, and the year 1945 brought them no hope. Due to the post-war communist authorities’ terror, it was impossible for a Polish policeman who came to Great Britain with the Anders army to be reunited with his wife and sons – Waldemar and Jerzy, detained in the Soviet Union.

Kazimierz Młyńczak served as a border guard and completed a training course for police officers. He also met 17-year-old Zofia Blidsztejn, whom he married in the Church of St. John in Vilnius. A year later, Zofia gave birth to a son, Waldemar Kazimierz, and in 1932 to a second son, Jerzy Henryk. In the mid-1930s, Kazimierz was promoted to the rank of constable and moved with his family to Kurzeniec in the Vilnius Voivodeship. They were living there when the war broke out.

Kazimierz Młyńczak in a police uniform with his friend Jan Niedźwiedź, 1920s.
Zofia and Kazimierz Młyńczak – photograph sent to their parents, to Krasocin, 1928
Kazimierz Młyńczak with his wife and son Waldemar, during their stay at their parents, in Krasocin, 1930s.

After the Red Army entered Poland, Kazimierz's unit was ordered to withdraw to Lithuania; where police officers were interned. This was the beginning of a long odyssey through the Soviet Union. Kazimierz was first taken north to Murmansk, and later across the Kola Peninsula to Archangelsk.

A letter from Kazimierz Młyńczak to his parents written from the Kozielsk camp, 1941

On 17 September 1939 the Red Army invades Poland from the East, thus fulfilling Stalin’s obligations towards the Third Reich stipulated in the secret protocol of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact (Hitler-Stalin Pact). The Soviet Union’s government declared that the 13.5 million Polish citizens who lived on the annexed land were forced to accept Soviet citizenship. From February 1940 to June 1941 Polish citizens were being deported in large numbers into Soviet interior. Deportations affected the families of officers, bureaucrats, police, lawyers, doctors and other representatives of the Polish intelligentsia. Many of them did not survive inhuman conditions of transport and hard life in Siberia or Kazakhstan.

A letter from Zofia Młyńczak to her in-laws written from Siberia, where she had been deported in April 1940. Zofia Młyńczak travelled with eight-year-old Jerzy and 12-year-old Waldemar by various trains further and further eastward: first towards Novosibirsk, and then to collective farms in Altai Krai.

After Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Union in June 1941 an agreement between Polish government in exile and Stalin was negotiated. On that basis thousands of Polish citizens were released from prisons and labor camps. Following the agreement Polish Armed Forces in the USSR under the command of general Władysław Anders were formed. Later in 1942 41 000 troops of the Anders army and 74 000 accompanying civilians were evacuated to the Middle East.

When amnesty was declared for Poles in the fall of 1941, Kazimierz volunteered to join the General Anders Polish Army, which was being formed in Tatishchev. In March of the following year, he left the USSR as a soldier. Serving in a military police unit, Kazimierz Młyńczak travelled with the 2nd Polish Corps through Iraq, Iran, Palestine, and Egypt to Italy.

Kazimierz Młyńczak in Polish Armed Forces in the Middle East, 1942

On 12 September 1942 the Polish Armed Forces in the Middle East were established by joining the armies of Gen. Anders and the Independent Carpathian Brigade – heroes of the 1941 defence of Tobruk. Initially stationed in Iraq, the troops regained their health. In 1943, due to the Allies’ plans to invade Italy the majority of units were moved to Palestine.

Serving in a military police unit, Kazimierz Młyńczak travelled with the 2nd Polish Corps through Iraq, Iran, Palestine, and Egypt to Italy.

The largest unit of the Polish army was the Second Polish Corps (II Korpus Polski), consisting mostly of units from Gen. Anders’s army. They took part in the Italian campaign in 1944, gaining fame at the Battle of Monte Cassino on May 1944, later liberating Ancona and Bologne.

Ruins of the small town of Piedimonte, after the offensive (near Monte Cassino), 1944
After the war Gen. Anders, anticipating a conflict between the Western Allies and the USSR and hoping for the liberation of countries from Soviet occupation, built up his corps. At the beginning of 1946 it numbered over 100,000 soldiers. Kazimierz Młyńczak (first from left) while serving in Italy, 1946

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, e.g. to Foxley, which functioned up until 1955.

Kazimierz Młyńczak in Foxley camp (Great Britain), 1947. Some of the soldiers returned to Poland where they were repressed by the communist authorities. The majority however gained the right to settle in the territories of the British dominions and settled in Great Britain, Canada and Australia.
Kazimierz Młyńczak did not learn until 1941 that his wife and sons had been exiled in the course of mass deportation of families to Siberia in April 1940. At that time he was serving in the Polish Armed Forces and made efforts to get his family out of Russia. Passport obtained by Kazimierz in Baghdad for his wife and sons, 1943

After the war Kazimierz Młyńczak settled in Great Britain and made fruitless efforts to get his wife and sons to join him. Zofia was forced to become a Soviet citizen, which made it impossible for her to leave the USSR to join her husband.

Meanwhile, the family stayed in touch via postal correspondence and photographs. In the 1990s, Kazimierz was visited in England by his granddaughter Olga, the daughter of his oldest son, Waldemar.

Zofia Młyńczak with her grandchildren Olga and Wiktor, 1965
Waldemar Młyńczak with his wife Wala, 1957
Kazimierz Młyńczak in London, 1987
Memoirs “Biography of Mine”. Kazimierz Młyńczak began noting down his memoirs in 1939, at the detention camp in Rokiszki, Lithuania, but they were stolen from him. The author managed to write them down again in England after WWII. At the beginning of the 1990s, the manuscript was acquired by his brother Witalis, in Poland.
Routes of the separated Młyńczak family
The Szwajdler family experienced long separation and the death of the nearest and dearest during the war. Franciszek was taken prisoner by the Germans and spent the whole war in an Oflag. Their hopes of a reunion and common future were shattered by the death of Franciszek’s wife and son in the Warsaw Uprising. The separation lasted longer than the war. Franciszek wasn’t allowed to return to Poland and see his grown-up daughters until 1956.

Stanisława and Franciszek Szwajdler lived in Łódź, where they built a happy family life. He became a successful lawyer. Stanisława divided her time between her family, social life, and charity work. Each day, Franciszek and Stanisława gathered together for dinner with their ever-growing household – their oldest son Włodek, daughters Barbara and Teresa, grandmother Emilia Lutomska, and aunt Adela, who everybody simply called Dela – as well as the firm's secretary and legal intern, and numerous other relatives and guests.

Recollection by Teresa Rybicka (née Szwajdler), 2009

In August 1939, Franciszek Szwajdler was called up into the army during a family vacation. Already in uniform, he arrived to bid farewell to his family – this was the last time they were together.

As a result of the lost defensive war of 1939, about 420,000 soldiers of the Polish Army were taken to German POW camps – officers to Oflags, private soldiers and non-commissioned officers to Stalags. Franciszek was interned and spent the next six years in POW camps in Gross Born, Sandbostel and Blomberg.

The photos present Stanisława Szwajdler and her children: Włodek, Barbara and Teresa, dated from the occupation period in Piorunów, Warsaw and Głowno, 1941-1944. Some of the photos used to be sent in the letters to father, Franciszek Szwajdler, who was detained in oflag.

During the occupation, in order to support her family, Stanisława Szwajdler, dealt in small trade, which was strictly forbidden. Several times, she brought things from the flat in Łódź, which after the outbreak of war, was within the borders of the Third Reich, and thus presented a huge danger when crossing the border illegally.

Life in the General Government for the Occupied Polish Territories was directed by numerous orders and bans – curfew was introduced, people were forbidden to possess radio set, to visit the places marked as “nur für Deutsche”, and to trade food. Any violation of law was severely punished – people might have been imprisoned, deported to Germany, or to concentration camps – or sentenced to death.

Living under German occupation. Smuggling and crossing the border illegally

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

From the memoirs by Teresa Rybicka (née Szwajdler) "My Mummy", 2007
Teresa and Barbara Szwajdler working on a handbag to be sold, 1941-1943
Throughout the war many letters full of love, concern and words of comfort circulated between the oflag and Warsaw. From a distance, Franciszek supported his wife Stanisława and assisted her in the upbringing of their children; in the meantime, his family sent him cheerful letters which contained not a single word of the hardships of life in occupied Warsaw.
Correspondence from a prisoner of war with his family was possible on special letter forms or on postcards written only in pencil, and were checked by the censors.

Tragic death of the nearest and dearest.

Barbara and Teresa spent their holidays in 1944 in the countryside in Głowno with some friends of her parents. They never returned to Warsaw. News reached them of the deaths of their mother, brother, and Dela, who had been shot in a public execution in Warsaw.

The war's end did not mark the end of the family's separation. Franciszek Szwajdler could not go back to Poland for fear of repercussions due to his pre-war political activity in the ranks of the conservative National Party, which was regarded as a hostile ideology (the same as all alternative political options) by the new communist authority in Poland.

Franciszek Szwajdler in the uniform of the Polish Armed Forces in the West.

Franciszek stayed in Germany after the war. Later, he left for New York, but first travelled briefly to Poland in order to see his daughters. Only in 1956 was he able to return to Poland, to already adult daughters.

Over the years, Franciszek would continue to show his affection and concern for his daughters, sending them letters full of love, encouragement, and longing, just as he had done during the war.
Routes of the separated Szwajdler family during and after World War II
This is the history of two people who travelled via different routes to England, where they met, married, and raised a family. During the war, their paths never crossed. Each of them lived through it in a different place: one under occupation by the Germans, the other under Soviet occupation.
Julian Stryjak was born and raised in Ochędzyn, a town in the region of Łódź. After graduating from high school, he moved to Lviv, where he worked as a teacher.
In 1936, he married Irena Ciszewska, who he had met in the city, who was also a teacher. Two years later, he began studying psychology. He managed to complete his first year of study when the war broke out.
In late August 1939, Julian Stryjak was called up to the army. On September 1, he saw his wife, who had come to bid farewell as his unit marched off to war, for the last time.

On 1 September 1939, Germany attacked Poland from the north, west and south-west. The Polish Army, despite putting up a determined resistance, was not able to stop the more numerous and better armed German forces.

Julian commanded a heavy machine gun platoon in the 19th infantry regiment, which was engaged in fighting near Płock. He was wounded during an artillery bombardment and sent to hospital.
Julian Stryjak in German POW camp, Oflag XI B in Braunschweig, 1939 As a result of the lost defensive war of 1939, about 420,000 soldiers of the Polish Army of the Republic of Poland were taken to German POW camps – officers to Oflags, private soldiers and non-commissioned officers to Stalags.

Julian Stryjak spent six years in German POW camps. In captivity, he found out that his wife had been deported to the USSR. He kept trying to make contact with her. Though he had little success in making direct contact, thanks to correspondence with a cousin from Różniatowo (occupied Poland), he had news about his wife.

Postcard from Irena Stryjak, sent from exile in the USSR to her husband’s cousin in occupied Poland, 1941
Julian Stryjak’s letter from Tangerhütte Stalag field hospital to his family in Poland, 1944
In 1942 letters from Irena Stryjak stopped coming, she had died in far-away Guzar in 1942, but Julian learned of her death only after the war. Up until that time, he had been trying to find out where his wife had been taken to in the Middle East.
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.

In 1945, Julian managed to escape during the evacuation of the POW camp in Görlitz. He travelled through Bohemia, Germany to France, where he joined the Polish Army.

Julian Stryjak (second from right) during a trip to Lourdes, 1946
Julian Stryjak, at the Polish military camp in La Courtine, in France, 1946
Service record book documenting Julian Stryjak’s military service, 1946
Completion of military service in relation to dissolution of the Polish Resettlement Corps, 1949
Julian Stryjak, Foxley camp in England, 1949. After demobilization he started working as a watchmaker and settled in Manchester, where he started his new family…
Hilaria Borowska was born and raised in Białystok. After graduating from secondary school, she began working as a clerk. She was 26 when the war broke out.

In 1941, Hilaria Borowska, her mother and her brother Tadeusz were deported to Siberia via different routes. Only her father, Wincenty, and her younger sister, who was caring for him, remained in Białystok.

In 1942, Hilaria reached Pahlevi (Iran) and joined the General Anders Polish Army, where she worked as a quartermaster.
Hilaria Borowska (third in left-hand column) in a Women’s Auxiliary Service of Anders army, 1943-1944

The Women’s Auxiliary Service formed alongside the Anders Polish Armed Forces in the USSR, was based on the same organizational principles and hierarchy as the army. It consisted of about five thousand volunteers, who performed duties relating to first aid, culture, propaganda, transport, administration, sentry duties and communication. This force was disbanded in 1946.

Hilaria Borowska travelled with the Anders army to Teheran, where she met her brother Tadeusz, whom she had not seen since their arrest in 1941. In February 1944, Tadeusz married Janina Marszewska in Karachi, and they left together for camps in Africa – first in Dar es Salaam, and later in Kigoma. Tadeusz died of a heart condition in May 1945, leaving behind a six-month-old daughter, Barbara.

In autumn 1947, Hilaria sailed on the "Empress of Australia" to England.

Hilaria Borowska, second from the left in the front row, Polish Resettlement Corps camp in Witley, 1949
Hilaria Borowska in Trafalgar Square, 1949
Hilaria Borowska and Julian Stryjak met via acquaintances, got married and settled in Manchester. On their wedding day in 1950.
Hilaria and Julian Stryjak with their children Andrzej and Barbara, 1957

The Stryjaks travelled back to Poland for the first time since the war in 1971 – after a thirty-year absence, Hilaria crossed the threshold of her family home.

Barbara, daughter of Hilaria and Julian Stryjak, recounts the fate of her parents during World War II
Route taken by Hilaria Stryjak (née Borowska) through the Middle East during Word War II, sent in a letter to her daughter, who was to make a journey in the Middle East retracing her mother’s footsteps.

"I am sending a map of my journey there so that you may get a grasp of it. From Teheran we travelled 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). The chamsin was blowing all the way; one could see nothing at an arms-length distance but the whirling and howling red desert dust. From Baghdad it took us four days to get to Jerusalem by car – nothing but desert and black stones, 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 to her daughter Barbara, April 29, 1975
Barbara Stryjak with her parents by the Berlin Wall, 1987
Routes of the separated Stryjak family during and after World War II
Credits: Story

The Polish History Museum in Warsaw expresses its sincere appreciation for their kind and helpful involvement in the project to — Maria Brylowska, Teresa Rybicka, Barbara Stryjak
Curation — Ewa Wójcicka, Polish History Museum
Proofreading — Barbara Stryjak, Tomasz Wiścicki
IT support — Artur Szymański
Exhibit's origin  — the presentation is part of the “Families Separated by History” project run by the Polish History Museum, rodziny.muzhp.pl

Credits: All media
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