They Came to Kill
It was a time of war and occupation in Poland. I hadn't yet entered the world. Ten years later, my grandmother wouldn't allow me to go to that corner of the garden. I couldn't collect mushrooms or sorrels, or even gather stalks for a bouquet. The best porcini mushrooms grew there.
When I was older, I asked why. The answer sounded like this, "That's where the Jewish women were shot. They were buried near the fence."
She saw the terror of a little girl in my eyes. So she needed to end it in such a way that I could get through it. She continued talking, but without affectation, dryly like an automaton, with broken sentences.
Suddenly, she ran her hand through her hair, "You see? This streak of grey hair, from my forehead to the back, appeared in just one night. I didn't believe that it could have happened so suddenly under the influence of some terrible experience. But it happened to me."
“It happened during the period of German occupation. The Germans appeared. They came with a specific purpose. Someone reported that there were Jewish women in my home, but I'm not sure who because I was always on good terms with the villagers. You don't know this, child, but Poles faced the death penalty if they offered shelter to Jews. But I simply didn't want to know about that. They stayed with me – I rented them a room. Our home was far away from Milanówek and Grodzisk. The current station was not there. There were fields all around with short rye, yellow lupine and seradella. There were no trees and a dirt road. You could see the entire surroundings, the Electric Commuter Rail (EKD) and carts going to market on Saturdays.
“Young friends, members of the Home Army (AK), made a hiding place for themselves in the attic, where they hid when times were uncertain. You know that locker behind the stairs which the tenants now use to store coal and wood by the kitchen? So many people passed through this house, both friends and strangers. In the kitchen, women were on duty all hours of the day, because sometimes they also cooked for their relatives. Most often, however, we would all sit together at the table. In the winter, for example, potato pancakes were fried directly on the griddle. I smoked cherry leaves because it wasn't easy to get tobacco. Somehow, we managed to live that way. The garden gave us food in the summer. It was worse in winter. But you retained your humor and everyone tried to live normally. The principles of savoir vivre prevailed. Your aunt, for example, slept under the piano, because the beds and sofas had to be given to the elderly. The main principle of my home was hospitality. Everyone who needed help received it (with one exception – one mad man in pyjamas, who had escaped from Tworki hospital for mentally ill people and was following the railway tracks to Grodzisk – but that's a whole other story). When people were fleeing from a burning Warsaw, my maid who we called “Stachowa”, would stand by the tracks with a soup pot and bowls. They would then go on their way.
"You need to know that, before this crime, Germans came to us and behaved decently, for example, asking for milk. There were no cows or horses, so they got water from the well. One of them took a liking to my old Bechstein. He played it beautifully. But you know me. I left the living room so that the bastard wouldn't have an audience."
"Grandma", I asked, "how did it happen that they killed the Jews?"
"They checked papers. They ordered us to leave the house and they led us to a the corner of the garden. We were alone at home – my mother, my uncle's wife, Stachowa and the two women. The men weren't there. Your grandfather was probably in Warsaw, in Królikarnia Palace where he worked. Your mother, as usual, was out of the house, maybe somewhere with Zosia. They stood us up against the fence”.
Grandma put a cigarette into her cigarette holder.
"They killed them and that was that. Now you know why you can't go there."
Sixty years have passed since I was told that story. I remember well she was reluctant to return to it. The German men, in their uniforms, killed the women who might have been wearing airy, summer dresses. I've been thinking about it. Apparently, they arrived by car, because the noise of the engine attracted the attention of a small boy who then fell into the bushes. "Germans!" – that word aroused horror in everybody.
It could have been an ordinary, summer day. Maybe birds were singing, maybe dogs were running around. Was there a warm breeze from the west? What were they thinking about? Could it have been about the soup, on the stove in the kitchen, boiling over? Or maybe they were fervently praying or crying. Were they kneeling in front of the Germans?
According to the boy's story, my grandmother shouted at them in German. I can believe that because I know her well. She was courageous. As a student she took part in the school "strike" in Radom in 1905. She had been detained for speaking Polish, when that partition's official language was Russian. In school, she was a patriotic rogue. She had survived the First World War, now she was living through the Second. She had a hot temper, a peculiar nobility and lived by strict rules. Just one look from her would put me back in order. She ran the entire home with an iron hand. Now, in 1943, it was her own Polish State here which was being violated!
There she was, a plump, brunette, eyes as black as coal, shouting at the Germans in their own language. She had nothing to lose – I understand her strategy – it was either a quick death together (by making the Germans angry) or booting the Germans out, degrading them to the role of murderers, these so-called rulers of the world, these compatriots of Goethe, Schiller and Rilke. Burn them with anger. Shame them, to make them aware of who they were – ordinary thugs.
So, what happened? Why did they not kill all people living in the house?
I don’t know. My grandmother passed away in 1974. Why didn't I ask her before her end? I certainly didn't want to make her sad because of such horrible memories. Maybe those soldiers suffered some sort of trauma after committing their crime and were overcome with shame and left quickly? It's quite possible that Grandma had observed some hesitation and shouted as loud as she could at them. Or maybe after shooting those innocent victims the Germans had satisfied their lust for blood and requirements of German law?
Crime was commented loudly in the area but, after the War, a silence descended. Grandma never considered herself as a heroine. She probably considered it as her failure. At the end of the 1960's, Dr Mroczek (I don't know his first name) came here from Canada and, in the presence of a Polish prosecutor and my aunt Zofia, the remains of his wife were exhumed. That’s what I know.
In 2000, a large stone was set in that place. Memorial candles are lit there on All Souls' Day. Only a few people know what happened there. I don't know what to have engraved on it – perhaps swallows that fly away?
Dr Mroczek and his wife
Maria Kaczyńska, nee Tokarska, I voto Dąbkowska, property owner, my grandmother
Henryka Żardecka, nee Jabłońska, my great-grandmother
”Stachowa”, my grandmother's maid, who, after the War, settled in the "regained territories" in the Czaplinek area.
The boy from the neighborhood, the witness – the only one still alive today.
Iwona Rychter, 9th June 2010 / English translation: Andrew Rajcher
On 2nd June 2014, my grandmother, Maria Kaczyńska, was honoured with the title of "Righteous Among the Nations of the World".
Over the four years since writing the above piece, much has happened. I wrote "They Came to Kill" at the suggestion of Mr. Robert Augustyniak, my friend from Grodzisk Mazowiecki. In 2010, the piece above appeared on the Virtual Shtetl website. I was writing a testimony "in the air", in a virtual space. I never expected that the text would have to be updated or added to with new facts. I considered that, after seventy years, I wouldn't learn anything new. After all, everyone had since died.
But, no! Out of the blue, Ms Karen Kirsten, granddaughter of one of the women who had been shot, wrote to me. She does not speak Polish. It turns out that I had written it for her – for Karen, whom I had never met. By chance she had come across my piece and one word or rather a name – Dr Mroczek – caught her eye. She knew the name from a book written by her grandfather Zdzisław Przygoda, entitled "The Way to Freedom", published in Toronto in 1995. After translating my text, she understood that this was about her grandmother Irena Przygoda. After the crime had been committed, a baby, Joasia, deprived of her mother, was found later in my grandma’s house, crying.
There followed a rapid exchange of correspondence between us. Karen had found a trace of her grandmother! And I, thanks to her, began to learn the true story of this drama. The curtain covering the past began to slowly fall, shedding a new light on everything. I hadn't known enough. My brother, Krzysztof, also talked with my grandma when he was a kid and, later, as a young man but he was interested in the War and technical issues, for example, that the Germans had ridden on motorbikes, along the EKD tracks, on the sleepers between the rails. As an adult and purely by chance, at the end of the 1980's, he talked with a witness to the event, that boy I mentioned earlier, now adult. That man described the entire event as seen through "a second camera”. He said that when the Germans led the women out of the house, my grandmother shouted at them in German and that they pushed her such that she fell to the ground. He said that they then led three young women to the corner of the garden. That I did not know.
I didn't know the names of those women (except for one – Mrs Mroczek, the wife of Dr Mroczek), the burial sites after exhumation or even the real number of victims. I didn't believe the village woman who said that there were three. I thought before that there were two, however, there were three women. My brother Krzysztof confirms that fact, because it's what he remembers from our grandma's stories. That witness also told my brother about three women led to the corner of the garden where they were shot. Krzysztof is sure that, according to grandma's stories, the German commander that day was an officer. The figure of that officer is very significant in my grandma's stories, as remembered by my brother. This man led a patrol which visited our home many times. The soldiers would buy apparently excellent moonshine from the lodge. In the meantime, he would come into the living room and play the piano. The members of the household would leave the house at that time and casual conversations were conducted in French and not in the language of the occupier. According to grandma, this bizarre "relationship” could have decided the course of the subsequent tragedy, meaning that she, herself, was not also shot. “How can you dare to bother my guests?!” My grandmother stressed that the officer was shocked she spoke German language knowing she had spoken French only and by the extent of her expressed rage in defense of her guests.
Here is what I learned from Karen:
According to grandfather Zdzisław's memoirs, she knows that Mr Roman Talikowski helped them to escape from the Warsaw ghetto. Earlier, he had provided Zdzisław with a hiding place in his shop on Nowy Świat Street, from where he would go in and out of the ghetto, having also helped arrange a job for him. He then placed him, together with his wife Irena and their child, in my grandma's house in Milanówek, called Teresinek villa. Contacts with the Home Army, which grandma also mentioned on other occasions, suggest that the Polish State Underground was involved.
Mr Zdzisław Przygoda was working in Warsaw at the time. Following the tragedy, he sent his daughter Joasia to Tarnów, where Irena's sister and her husband, also in hiding under false papers, looked after her. He, himself, joined the Home Army, found work and lived in Radom. Later, when Irena's sister and her husband were forced to leave Tarnów, he found them work at a sawmill near Suchedniów, near Radom. In the end, they were arrested there (the child had been left in the sawmill) and were imprisoned in Radom. After some time, they were transported to the German extermination camp at Auschwitz. Interestingly, an SS officer who had interrogated them in the Radom prison and who was known for torturing prisoners, accepted a bribe and returned to the sawmill to look for the child – and he found little Joasia. Not only did he not harm her, but he placed her into a convent in Suchedniów, right under the noses of the Gestapo (they had their headquarters there). Joasia was rescued, yet again.
Zdzisław, Joasia’s father, was later imprisoned in several concentration camps. He even survived Dachau. Irena’s sister and her husband also survived the hell of the camps, and after locating the little girl, they adopted her and emigrated to Australia. Zdzisław first emigrated to Israel and later to Canada. Only when Joanna was an adult did she learn that Zdzisław was her real father.
In October 2012, sixty-nine years after these events, Joanna and her daughter Karen visited Poland. They laid pebbles, in the shape of a heart, onto the memorial stone which I had placed in that location in my garden – the site where three innocent Polish women were shot; Irena Przygoda, Dr Mroczek’s wife, and Zofia Bednarczyk. Above the stone stand three weeping birch trees. It is as if someone had intentionally planted them there – but they had grown there spontaneously.
Joanna and Karen visited the cemetery in Milanówek where two of the women, after having been exhumed from the garden, now rest – Irena Przygoda and Zofia Bednarczyk. Zdzisław arranged this in the 1970's. Joanna and Karen ordered a memorial plaque to be placed on the stone in my garden.
Now we know some of what really happened here.
Maria Kaczyńska and Mr. Roman Talikowski were honored with the title of Righteous Among the Nations in 2014. Joan and Karen Kirsten were promoters.