Monday, February 26, 2018

Mom's WW2 Stories: Gustloff and Narrow Escape

In the previous Mom's WW2 Story the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff was mentioned. It served as a cruise ship at its very beginning, then was turned into a hospital ship. Later, Gustloff stayed in the war port of Gdynia and was just a floating barracks for the Nazi army men.

Mom lived with her sister and mother in the war port neighborhood. When the Russian army was getting close to Gdynia, grandma (who was a civilian war port worker) and her children were ordered to appear in the war port to be boarded on Gustloff. Neither grandmother nor the kids wanted to leave their home, but they were not asked what they wishes were. It was a Nazi order so a "no, I don't want to" was not an option. On a cold winter day, they went to the square near the local Nazi army barracks - mom and her sister with their little backpacks (made by grandma) on their backs, their mother carried a small piece of luggage.

When they arrived at the designated place, it was packed with people. Some called the names of their relatives who had got lost in the crowd, children cried. It was all scary and messy - chaotic loads of people who were waiting to be boarded on the ship (which was supposed to happen at 10 PM). Mom, her sister, and grandma kept close together, they talked to each other in Polish that they wanted to go back to their house. A young Wehrmacht soldier who was standing nearby heard them talk. He understood what the two Polish girls and their mother were saying as he was Silesian.

To your knowledge: Silesia is a region in the south of Poland. During WW2 many Silesian families, because of different reasons, signed the so-called "Volks list" and as a result of that, their men were drafted into the Nazi army.

The Silesian got the girls and their mother out of the crowd and led them to the German bomb shelter which was not far from that gathering place. In one of the shelter rooms, there were two big stacks of hay. The soldier helped the three fugitives hide in one of the stacks, covered them with hay and left. Mom and her family sat in their hiding quietly not being sure what would happen. Some time passed, and they could hear two Nazi soldiers came to the room. They were looking for any civilians who would be possibly trying to hide there. Our three 'girls' were horrified. It did not last long and (to mom and her keens' surprise) a young couple was found in the other haystack. In the meantime, the other soldier was kicking mom's family stack of hay with his boot. Suddenly mom felt severe pain - she got a strong kick in her leg. The little girl was about to scream but luckily, grandma covered mom's mouth with her hand instantly. The three ones were frightened and mom thought their end was about to come. But nothing happened. The young couple were taken away by the soldiers and all got quiet again.

The Nazi man must have felt he kicked something or (very likely) somebody, but he said nothing. Was it the Silesian man? Mom does not know as she could only hear what was going on but saw nothing. My guess is, that was the man, otherwise, he would have checked what under the hay was. But he did not and said: "There is nobody here".

Mom cannot recall how long they sat in the haystack but finally, with the help of the Silesian man, they managed to get back to their house. There were some neighborhood people as well, and they all, including the Silesian man, hid in the cellar of the house. The people were afraid of Russian soldiers - the stories of what they had done, especially to women and girls, reached the area before the Russian army managed to get there. Grandma advised the Silesian man to change and put on some civilian clothes. Unfortunately, he did not manage to do that as there was simply not enough time. The Russian soldiers came very soon. Those army men told everybody to get out of the cellar and line up in front of the building. When mom, her sister, and the neighborhood people were all standing there, suddenly a young Russian soldier aged about 18 arrived riding a horse. He got off the horse and shot the Silesian man. Mom remembers that the people who were there wanted to lynch the shooter, but nobody could do anything. The Russian guy was the one who had a gun. And the latter one got back on his horse and rode away. The Silesian had a wife and a baby boy back home in Silesia.

If the Silesian man had not saved mom, her sister, and mother, most probably they all would have drowned when Gustloff was sunk by the Soviet army submarine S-13.

After some time, when mom and family were back in their flat, two Russian soldiers knocked on the door. They searched the place looking for gold. Mom still remembers such a picture: one of the soldiers placed himself with his back against the room door frame. He was moving his back left and right and at the same time loads of lice and fleas were falling down on the floor. Anyway, the soldiers took everything which was of the golden color, including furniture knobs, and pieces of a coffee set made of China (they chopped off the golden coffee pitcher handle and a decorative ball which was at the pitcher lid top). Fortunately, grandma had sewn her rings into one of her petticoats so the soldiers did not find any real gold at home. However, the army men fancied the piano which belonged to mom's family. One of the soldiers sat on the upper part of the instrument and banged the keys with his boots which he enjoyed very much. So they decided to take the piano. Since the instrument was too big to push it through the flat door, they came to an idea that one of them would throw it down from the balcony (the apartment was on the first floor = second according to American standards), and the other one would go downstairs and catch the load. Needless to say, the soldier who was on the street did not catch the piano. The instrument crashed into pieces when it landed on the ground. I guess those men had not expected that? Anyway, there was no piano anymore, and they left without it.

Soon the war ended. What happened to mom and her family later? I will tell you in March.


The photograph was taken before the war in Hel (Hel Peninsula) where the family used to live. Shortly before the war started, grandpa was transferred to a military unit in Gdynia so mom, and they all moved there as well.

The photo: our family (and their friends) are going to the beach. At that time, it was customary children wore pajamas when going to the beach. Mom is the little one in the first row.


UPDATE

While visiting a museum in Poland, we came across the bell.


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