With two sisters - Krystyna Olchowa and Ludwika Torowskaya – about Wola Massacre, about their service as runners in Warsaw Uprising, their nightmare of Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination and concentration camp, and about the years spent in the Soviet Union talks Anna Dąbrowska.
You both survived Nazi occupation, Warsaw Uprising, Auschwitz and Neuengamme concentration camps, and a postwar wandering life in Poland and Russia. Which was the worst?
Krystyna: Definitely the Uprising. The horrible memory of this time has been haunting us all our lives, in our dreams we see the shootings, fights, fires. We, the civilians, we didn’t know the Uprising had started. When it did, me and my sister spent our summer holiday at our aunt’s, in Wola district. In the afternoon of August 1 or 2, we played “hide and seek” with the rest of the kids. We were just hiding in the bush, when German soldiers arrived on their motorcycles and shot all the children. My aunt ran out of the house, with her little baby in her arms. She’d only had time to shout to us to run away before she was also killed.
How did you manage to survive?
Ludwika: We quickly ran to the nearby orthodox cemetery, and we hid inside a big tomb. Through the window, we saw the Germans killing people running away. We later learned that during this massacre they slaughtered 50,000 civilians. The tomb saved us. Every time we are in Warsaw, we visit this cemetery, and we put a candle on “our” tomb to thank it for protection.
Krystyna: We stayed hidden in this tomb for two or three days, and when it got quiet, we returned home, to Pańska street. There already were barricades on the street, and the insurgents were fighting.
Did you join the fights?
Krystyna: Yes, I was 13, and my sister 14, and with other kids we did throw gasoline-filled bottles at German tanks. It was dangerous, because German soldiers were shooting in the direction from which those bottles were thrown. Being scouts – and the couriers of “Zośka” Battalion – we used to help in the nearby field hospital. We would tear the bed sheets for bandages, distribute medications, bandages, first-aid dressings.
Ludwika: We used to go through the especially punched holes in the walls to carry food and drink to the wounded. Although we often were very thirsty, we never took even a sip to save it for soldiers. Sometimes it was very hard, too hard for us – children, but we did it to fight for the freedom of Poland.
Where did you live at the time?
Krystyna: All this time we lived in the air-raid shelter next to our house. The Germans were shooting day and night, people were being killed in bombardments, they were fighting for every single house. The ruined buildings were on fire, it was hell.
Ludwika: People were starving. Once I asked my mother where our cat was, and she said that we had been eating it for three days already.
Krystyna: People who were killed were buried in the backyards, just where the wells were also dug, because there was very little water. We were drinking water from these wells, and this started diseases. German troops were firing enormous shells, which we called “cows”. Once one of them hit our house. We were buried in rubble, but dug out the next day. All this time the debris laid heavy on my legs, afterwards I had problems with walking. We were dreaming of green grass and the trees – all around us, there were only ruins. One night I had this dream about a lady in a white dress holding hands with two girls. I thought this was a sign that we’re going to survive because we were protected by Mother of God.
How do you remember the end of Warsaw Uprising?
Krystyna: At the beginning of October, German troops forced people out of the ruins, rushing them across all Warsaw. The entire city was in ruins. All around us – the sick, the wounded. When they couldn’t walk no more, they were killed. I also was very weak, but people held me through the way, and so we got to Pruszków.
It was there you got separated from your mother?
Krystyna: First, we were all squeezed in inside a big barrack, several hundred of us. We were prohibited to leave the place. In the corner, there was a big feeding trough, it served as a cesspit. The place was dirty, stuffy and smelly, and we had no food.
Ludwika: Then, there was a queue, a selection. The old, the children, the sick – to the left, those able to work – to the right. That’s where our mom went. Before we were separated, she’d told us to always stay together, because then it’s easier to survive. Later, we always tried to follow her words.
What happened to you?
Krystyna: We were loaded on the freight cars, and when, after several days of travel, we got off, we saw an extensive terrain, surrounded by barbed wire. It was Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination and concentration camp.
Ludwika: First, the queue: the weakest were sent to be killed, and we, the young prisoners, were sent to barracks. We suffered cold, dirt and lice.
Krystyna: We spent days in barracks, but although it was very hard, nobody cried, not even the little ones, because crying was severely punished by the Nazis. Sometimes they would take us to the aid station for blood draw. Some children would lose their consciousness then, and never return to the barracks.
How long were you kept in Auschwitz?
Krystyna: Until December 1944. Then, we heard the planes flying over our heads. Adults told us they were Russians and Allies. The Germans were destroying the camp buildings, tearing down cremation chambers. Then, they hurried adult prisoners in the death marches heading west, and the kids were loaded on wagons. It was a horrible journey. It was freezing, minus twenty, very crowded. When someone died, dead bodies were piled by the wagon’s wall to shield us against cold wind. Finally, we arrived at Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg. The sick children – including me and my sister – were separated, although now not to kill us, but to cure us.
Ludwika: In the spring, we were liberated by English soldiers. All prisoners were disinfested and examined by doctors. We were washed and given new clothes. The soldiers said we could stay in the West, and that they would cure us, take care of us, have us educated. But we wanted to go back to Warsaw to seek our mom. We managed to get to the city along with other Poles.
Did you find your any member of your family?
Krystyna: Nobody. Our house were all rubbles, so we put a note on the wall for our mother: “Krystyna and Ludwika are here”, but she never appeared. Our father died before the war. Perhaps we had some other relatives, but we didn’t know them.
Ludwika: We’d searched our mother via the International Red Cross until they told us to stop searching.
Krystyna: We slept in ruined buildings, and – with other homeless kids – were searching for food. That’s how we met Soviet soldiers who shared their bread with us. We were sick, starving, running barefoot, and got frostbite in our feet. One of the soldiers told us they would take us to the place where the doctors were. One day, they just loaded the children to wagons, and transported us to the Soviet Union.
Were you aware you were going to Russia?
Ludwika: No, not until we’d realized that we were no longer in Poland. The children were dropped off at different cities, me and my sister got to Bobruisk. We were wandering through the city until we found orthodox church. The priest fed us and helped to get to Krasnodar. There, we underwent medical treatment and were given new names: Lidia and Xenia. We started education in the school of communication. Later, I graduated from electrotechnical studies and worked for space program in Moscow, and my sister, after graduation, was appointed the principal of the music school in Baku.
Did you visit Poland?
Krystyna: No, we were not allowed to leave Russia. Once my school had a chance to go for a trip to Poland, and the authorities issued departure permits to all students, except me. In Bobruisk, we told our story to the priest who said we should never ever tell anyone where we had been during a war and what we had lived through. We were on our guard about that. Even our closest family members never knew our past. My husband used to ask me about the problems I had with my legs, but I’d just say it’s the war injury, that’s all. I was afraid my kids would hear something and reapeat it to someone else.
Ludwika: I never told my war story to my husband either, although we lived together for almost 60 years. He only knew I was a Pole. When Krystyna’s husband died, she moved to Moscow, and since the death of my husband, we have been living together. Only in 1995, when political situation in Russia changed, we came to Poland for the first time.
What was it like to see Warsaw for the first time after 50 years?
Ludwika: It was a tremendous experience. We had been dreaming about Warsaw so long, about visiting Poland, and now it came true. When we got off the train, we were so happy that we kissed the ground. The city of ruins, as we remembered it, was now so beautiful.
Krystyna: Now we’re saving all year to buy a ticket to Poland to visit it at least once a year. We take part in Warsaw Uprising celebrations, meet with soldiers and young people.
Did you also start to tell your story in Russia?
Ludwika: Yes, we visit schools, institutions, cadet corps, and we talk about war, occupation, concentration camps. School children always listen to us with attention, in silence.
Krystyna: We think that young generation should know all about the tragedy of war, and we particularly should tell Russians about what happened in Poland. They think that WWII started in June of 1941 with Germany’s invasion on the USSR. We tell them about Polish fights in 1939, occupation, Warsaw Uprising. It’s important that they know about Polish suffering and heroism.
Translated by Anita Kwaterowska
autor zdjęć: Anna Dąbrowska