On the Wrong Site of the Frontline

This is the third article devoted to World War II in Poland for a series started in the September edition on the anniversary of the war. Read the first article Long Shadows of War - Poland and World War II . This is also a first part of mu Uncle Franek memoirs.

As I already pointed out in the previous article, the majority of Poles in the regions annexed to Germany during World War II, especially in Upper Silesia, were treated like second-class German citizens. The whole Silesian population was divided into four categories - the first two included people who were members of German political, cultural or sport organizations or had pure German blood. The third category, so-called "volksdeutch" (folk Germans or country Germans) were people of mixed blood and mixed culture who spoke either German or Silesian at home. The Silesian language is just a Polish dialect, mixed with some German and Czech words. These people, according to Nazi standards, were not completely germanized but had lived in the region of Silesia for generations. Originally, there was an idea that all of these people should be sent to the Reich in order to germanize them, but this task was simply impossible since there were so many people who would need "germanization." They therefore received temporary German citizenship for a period of ten years. Commonly, people who belonged to this group had all the duties of the first and the second categories: they were required to send their men to Wehrmacht, but they were denied the special privileges of the two higher class.

About 75-90% of Upper Silesians were classified as volksdeutsch. Even the Polish bishops from Silesia called for people to identify themselves as volksdeutch (the so-called masking rule) so that this region would not lost its identity and the people would not suffer expulsion. Because of this, Silesians suffered greatly after the war, since people from other parts of Poland under the General Government considered them traitors. But the fact of the matter is that being a volksdeutch in Silesia, a necessity for survival, was something completely different than being a volksdeutch in Warsaw.

The last, fourth, group was in the most difficult situation - these people were considered either Poles or Germans who were so polonized that they were thus unable to function as good Germans. These people often lost all their property and were resettled to the area of the General Government without any means of support. For instance, two of my mother's sisters, who reached maturity during the war, claimed their Polishness. As a result, they were unable to find jobs and their food rations were minimal; they could not survive without the support of their parents, who had claimed volksdeutsch in order to survive and keep the family together.

When the war started, my uncle Frank (Polish: Franek) was just 14 years old. He was the only boy among six sisters. As he wrote in his memoirs, when the war started the majority of people were convinced that the war would be just a temporary episode and Poland - with help of the allied forces - would win it very soon. At that time nobody realized that the war would last so long that my uncle would eventually have to serve. People believed that the progress in technical development of that time and the presence of powerful weaponry would not allow for a long war, there simply would be not enough soldiers to fight longer.

My uncle was recruited to Wehrmacht in 1943, as were all Silesian boys of his age. He served in France and Italy, finally ending up on the most feared front against Soviets in Hungary. While my uncle dreamed of being taken by allied forces as a prisoner of war so that the war as a German soldier would end for him, he was also very afraid of fighting on the Soviet front. The Soviets were the most feared, since they were the most desperate and cruel, never retreating for the fear of being killed by their own. They did not take prisoners of war but killed enemies on the spot.

The memoirs of my uncle Frank contain many interesting stories, sometimes dramatic and sad, sometimes comic. He was lucky not to serve on the first line of the front except at the very end of the war when the Germans were desperate for more men. Let me quote, with his permission, a fragment of his memoirs from the time when he was in Italy with a detachment assigned to protect an aircraft cannon.

In our company's quartermaster service was a boy who was mentally slow, so he served as the food carrier delivering food in thermoses and bags to the soldiers of the first line (soldiers with the automatic weapons and observers). Every day the supply truck brought him to our position, then he carried the bags to the serving soldiers. It took him a couple of hours to get there and back, about 6 km (4 miles) one way. One night he never came back. We thought that he was either killed on the way or he was taken by the allied forces patrol, as happened frequently to our telephone operators. The allied forces were setting traps for telephone operators (since their jobs was so crucial) but if this boy got into their hands - it was just by chance. We looked for him later on but could not find any trace.

After 2-3 weeks he came back. His thermoses and all bags were filled with American cans, chocolate and good cigarettes. Apparently he was taken at night in front of the German line and he survived shouting loudly to Germans that he is one of the German soldiers.

This was really unusual, since allied forces never before released any of the telephone men. We thought that after they examined him they realized that his mental development is too low, so that he is not a real spy or any danger for them and they just let him go. In the same time they mocked the German army giving him food cans, chocolate and luxury cigarettes which were unreachable dream for a typical soldier on our side of the frontline.

This event reminded me of another story, one which happened where I lived in Brynow (a district of Katowice, Upper Silesia) in September 1939. We had a neighbor named Pawel (Paul) but everybody called him Apa. He was seriously mentally retarded. His posture, face, behavior and the way he spoke - were clearly abnormal. After Germans entered Brynow, Apa suddenly disappeared. We knew that Germans took him but nobody knew where and what for. Apa came back after a couple of weeks His story was hard to believe but true. Germans dressed him in Polish military uniform of a corporal. They drove him like a monkey round to different German towns presenting him as a Polish noncom and a POW. Now, can you imagine what people in these German towns and villages thought about who Polish soldiers are? These are the methods of German propaganda, unfortunately some of these methods were convincing enough for people to believe.

Permission granted by Franek Gwiozdzik

I understand that presenting the memories of my uncle from the German front can be seen as inappropriate for some of our readers. I do not see my uncle as a hero, neither does he see himself as a hero. But he was also not a traitor, he just had no choice but to serve in the army that conscripted him. If I have a positive response from you, I will present more parts from his memoirs in the future, since this is an interesting record of an epoch that is gone.

Read the following article: From the Memoirs of Franek Gwiozdzik - the Beginnings of the War.
copyrights Baba Jaga Corner - November 2005

This article was published in the complete paper edition of Polish-American Journal, you may subscribe to it here

check all the articles in Baba Jaga Column

Polish History and World War II - selection of articles
Among them Images of War - Graphics of Poland's WW II Suffering and World War II in Poland, its Impact on Everyday Life; Personal Perspective

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