Grazyna Bergman's Shares The Story of Her Family's Escape From the Nazis: Part II

The Wartime Odyssey of Grazyna Bergman

Editor’s Note:  

Second of two parts 

Susan Stripling

Grazyna Bergman

Grazyna Bergman was a familiar face in Tallahassee’s health-care community for a dozen years. First as the executive director of the Neuroscience Center at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, and then as the director of community development and planned giving for the TMH Foundation, she demonstrated an optimism and love for people that is evident to all who meet her. Those qualities, coupled with a deep sense of personal tragedy and foreboding, were molded by her family’s terrifying experiences in Poland during World War II, when German and Russian forces occupied her homeland.

In Part I of her story (July/August 2005), Grazyna discussed the hardships of her childhood as her family dealt with constant danger and uncertainty. Her father, an educated Pole named Kazimierz Kapitan, was arrested by Russian forces and sent off to the salt mines of Siberia. Grazyna and her mother, Nina, then lived through periods of near-starvation, as well as the constant fear that Nina’s Jewish roots would be discovered by the Germans.

In Part II, Grazyna talks about her escape from occupied Poland, her family’s reunion, their relocation to Canada, and how her wartime experiences have shaped her life and fueled her desire to help others.

 

When the Russians began to drive the Germans back toward Poland in 1943, the Germans decided to set up a military hospital in Czestochowa, the Kapitan family’s hometown. They requisitioned the school in front of Nina’s apartment and told Nina they also were commandeering her home.

courtesy of grazyna Bergman 

Grazyna in 1946, 6 years old.

“They threw my mother out of her apartment and told her that she could go and find a new apartment in the Jewish ghetto because it was empty now. The Nazis had cleaned it out,” Grazyna Bergman remembers. “But my mother was so angry, she foolishly went to the Nazi headquarters in our town and said she wanted to get some furniture from her apartment because we didn’t have anything. Just bare walls.”

The German officer sitting behind the desk asked for her identification papers, and as he examined them, he noticed her obviously Jewish maiden name, Zylberfenig. According to the Nuremberg Racial Laws, the Nazis considered anyone with an immediate Jewish relative in the last three generations to be of Jewish origin and eligible for “special treatment.”

“My mother used to always say God protects the feeble-minded,” Grazyna says with a smile. “She later told me that this particular Nazi was very, very kind. He just smiled, handed back her papers and said, ‘If I were you, I would just turn right around and walk out of here,’ and then pretended he never saw her.”

Several times throughout the war, Nina and Grazyna had to abandon the apartment temporarily and live somewhere else because Nina suspected one of her neighbors was planning to turn them in. Some people did this to get extra rations or some small privilege. A couple of people actually told her they knew she was of Jewish origin and that they were going to report her. Whether they in fact knew this or were merely trying to frighten her, Nina had to assume the worst.

COURTESY OF GRAZYNA BERGMAN 

Grazyna’s mother, Nina (Front row, center), with the medical staff at the hospital where she worked upon graduation.

 

She and Grazyna left Czestochowa for a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Tatry Mountains with a doctor who knew of their difficulties.

“Harboring my mother jeopardized him,” says Grazyna, “and eventually he had to ask that my mother leave, as it was dangerous for everyone if we were to remain. My mother and I returned to the city at a time when the Russians were pushing the Germans out of Poland.”

In late 1944, the Russians were only a few kilometers away from Czestochowa when the Germans packed up and left.

“My mother knew the Germans were leaving, so she quickly went back to our apartment. But when the Russians arrived, they too told my mother that they were requisitioning her apartment – but this time the officer said, ‘Why don’t you stay in the kitchen, because eventually we’ll leave.’ He was very kind, and my mother was once again very fortunate, this time because of a Russian officer.”

A couple of months later, the front moved farther west, and the Russians left. Nina and Grazyna finally had their old apartment back.

Several weeks later, they heard a soft knocking on their door. When Nina warily opened it, a strange man was standing there, saying he had a message to deliver from her husband, Kazimierz. This was the news she had been praying for – the first word that her husband was still alive.

“My father always believed my mother was alive,” Grazyna recalls. “But knowing the Russians would arrest him again if he returned, he had sent his adjutant with some money to find my mother and help her escape to the West.”

 

In May 1945, the war had finally ended, and the Russians already were setting up roadblocks and placing barbed wire everywhere. They obviously had no intention of leaving Poland, so Nina realized she had to leave Czestochowa if she ever hoped to see her husband again. Some other women and children had also decided it was time to leave Poland to rejoin their husbands, so Nina and Grazyna joined a group attempting to flee Czestochowa in the middle of the night. They were soon apprehended by the Russian authorities and sent back home.

After this first failure, Nina was convinced that only someone experienced in underground activities could successfully elude the authorities and cross the lines. She found a Pole who organized such “expeditions” and, through word of mouth, eventually assembled a group of four or five other escapees. (Only larger groups could afford to pay the organizer’s “fee.”) Initially, Nina was confident this attempt would succeed. The group made it all the way through Czechoslovakia to the German border, but an informant turned them in to the Russian authorities who immediately sent Nina and Grazyna to a special detention camp in Prague.

“We were put in some kind of holding facility,” Grazyna recalls, “and were scheduled to be sent to another processing center from there. My mother knew that would be the end of our journey.

“Even at the age of 6 I remember about burning lice. The camp was infested with lice and burning them was the only way to keep them away from us. We were always very, very hungry, and I was one of the young children that would go out to the garbage heaps to find scraps, as adults would have been punished.

“One day a man came in with a delegation of officials. It was my father’s high-school buddy, a very close friend who had gone into the diplomatic corps. He was a delegate in charge of prisoner exchanges. I don’t know how or why, but thanks to him, we were released with a large group of people. Whether they were spies, underground people or infiltrators, I don’t know – but we were exchanged and sent back to Poland.”

 

Nina was exhausted and discouraged after this second failed escape attempt and their experience in the concentration camp. But convinced that the Russians soon would have the western frontier completely sealed off, she realized it was now or never. The money Kazimierz had sent with his adjutant was by now mostly gone. Determined to save Grazyna, Nina decided to try and escape one last time.

“She said it was her last chance,” Grazyna remembers. “My father’s adjutant had told us he had a sister living on the border of Czechoslovakia and Poland, and he told my mother to try and contact this woman, and she would help my mother and me escape. So we went to see this lady. The only chance we might have to cross the Polish-Czech border would be on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 1945, because the government traditionally opened frontier areas to anyone who looked like they were going to visit gravesites near the border.

“So my mother bought a big bouquet of flowers, and we walked out of Poland. We literally had nothing with us except that bouquet of flowers. ”

Grazyna’s eyes light up as she recalls the scene: “We went to the border and met the adjutant’s sister, who was very young and pretty. The plan was that she would distract the soldiers while we crossed the border. The sister walked up to the guardhouse and began flirting with the guards to try and distract them. And my mother and I had to run down this enormous hill. I remember it vividly, because I was wearing big rubber boots and it was November and really muddy. We ran across the border to a nearby train station and boarded the train – because, carrying the flowers, we wouldn’t be questioned once we were on the train. We reached the German border later that day.

“At some point we got off the train and went to another secret rendezvous the woman had arranged for us. It’s not all very clear to me. There were many people involved, and they were all so generous. Sometimes they wouldn’t even take what little money we had, and they always directed us to other people who would help us. My mother said it was amazing. It was almost as if the whole country was the International Red Cross. She says she couldn’t have survived without them.”

Eventually, Nina and Grazyna reached the official demarcation line separating the Soviet and Allied occupation zones. This was the most dangerous part of their journey, because armed Soviet soldiers regularly patrolled the frontier with orders to shoot any refugees caught fleeing across the border. The wartime underground was still operating in southern Germany, except that instead of hiding Jews and political dissidents, it now was helping refugees flee the Soviet occupation zone.

 

Some partisans took Nina and Grazyna to a large barn that had been used as a safe house to hide Jews during the war, and apparently some of the Jewish families still were living there.

“It was almost like an Anne Frank situation,” says Grazyna. “We stayed at this place for a few days while other people continued to show up. Then this man came. He was an ex-German soldier who had lost a leg in the war.” The German soldier turned out to be their guide, and that evening he led Nina and Grazyna through the woods up to the border crossing.

“It was nighttime, and we had to hide while the guards passed with their dogs, and then we were to be on our own. Suddenly my mother told me to scream. Until then I had always been taught to be quiet – not to make a sound and never to talk to strangers. I was confused that my mother told me to scream. Many years later, I learned that the German guide was trying to rape my mother. I made such a racket that the German was frightened and apologized, because he didn’t want to get caught by the Russians either. We finally managed to make it through the woods into the Allied zone and finally to Munich.

“As a child, I still remember the scene. It was again nighttime, Munich was completely destroyed, and my mother was standing on a corner crying, asking me, ‘What are we going to do now? Where are we going to go?’ Then, just like in the movies, this old lady with a kerchief happened to overhear our Polish speech and, in broken Polish, she told us that there was still one remaining British outpost in Munich, and suggested we go there.”

Nina and Grazyna walked to the Allied command post where Nina was able to convince whoever was in charge that her husband was a Polish officer in the British army and that she and her daughter had escaped from Poland to join him. The officers were totally awed by my mother’s courage and determination and decided to help us. We were smuggled aboard the last British military convoy out of Munich. As the convoy rolled south through the Brenner Pass, Nina learned that they were headed for Porto San Giorgio in northern Italy, where the British Eighth Army and the Polish II Corps were being demobilized and sent back to England.

But when Nina and Grazyna reached Porto San Giorgio, they learned that Kazimierz already had been shipped to England.

“My father didn’t know that we had escaped from Poland or that we were coming.” Grazyna says. “My mother somehow just managed it on her own. She didn’t know how to reach my father.  She only knew that once outside of Poland she would somehow find him. My father didn’t know anything until we arrived in Italy.”

 

Nina and Grazyna joined the hundreds of thousands of other European war refugees trying to reunite with their families. They registered with the International Red Cross and military authorities and hoped for the best. After a few months in a refugee camp in Italy, they were transported to England.

 

On arrival in England, Nina spotted a face in the crowd.

“It was my uncle Toni, whom had been taken by the Germans at the apartment in Czestochowa in 1939 and whom my mother did not know was still alive. The army had informed my father that we were arriving but he could not get out of his duties, so he sent my uncle instead. Toni was almost unrecognizable. Somehow, he had survived the Dachau concentration camp and had been liberated by the Allies. When they found him, he weighed practically nothing – just skin and bones. The International Red Cross had reunited my uncle and father shortly before we arrived.”

Grazyna remembers the day they arrived at the army camp where her father was stationed.

“This was the day I was to meet my father for the first time. My father had been taken prisoner when I was 7 months old, and now I was meeting him when I was nearly 7 years old. I remember this clear as day. My mother and I were standing there, and this strange man walked down the hall. My mother ran to him, and I was left standing all by myself feeling very angry because she left me.

COURTESY OF GRAZYNA BERGMAN 

Grazyna with her new puppy, Lajdak – Polish for “wanderer,” because he kept roaming the camp where they lived.

“My father came to me and hugged me, and the first words out of my mouth were, ‘If you are my father, I want a horse and a dog.’ The ultimate challenge – prove you love me! I had always wanted a horse and a dog, and constantly asked my mother for them. And my mother had always replied, ‘When you see your father, you will get them.’ The next day, I got my black and white Pekingese puppy, which I later brought with me to Canada. And one Christmas, some years later, I got my horse.”

In 1947, the British army offered Kazimierz and other officers a special military severance package that provided subsidies to ex-British officers willing to relocate their families in various Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia or South Africa.

“I think it was a way the British tried to get rid of the thousands of foreign soldiers that ended up in England after the war,” she says. Many of the Polish officers chose Canada, but in order to go there, they had to agree to buy a farm in a rural community.

“My father ended up buying a farm in Ontario, and he spent the rest of his life there. We arrived in Canada in the middle of winter, on Dec. 20, 1947. Having just come from London, my parents were dressed for the city, wearing fur coats and city shoes. Little did they know what life on the farm would be like.

“They had bought this farm and didn’t even know what a male or female cow looked like,” Grazyna says, laughing. “We didn’t even know when to plant. The first year, after buying all the farm implements, we lost all our money because we planted in the fall instead of the spring.

“It was a very difficult time for my parents. The farm house we bought had been derelict for many years and had no electricity, indoor plumbing or central heating. Our neighbors thought my parents were low-class because they didn’t speak English, and often ridiculed them. It was an enormous change, but my parents persevered. We still own the farm today – with all modern conveniences!”

For Nina, it was also a difficult time adjusting to her new life in Canada. The Canadian government did not recognize the practice of midwifery, so she had to help Kazimierz work the family farm and get a second job at a local factory to help pay the bills. One day, a friend came to our farm to visit, and she found my mother singing in the barn as she shoveled manure. The woman asked, ‘What on earth are you singing for?’ And my mother replied, ‘Because this farm is mine, and there aren’t any bombs falling.’ 

COURTESY OF GRAZYNA BERGMAN 

The farmhouse in Canada, spring 1948 – complete with new windows and roof.

 

“Shortly after my father bought the farm, a Canadian government official came to visit him and asked if he was interested in helping build the Trans-Canada Highway since Canada at that time needed civil engineers. My father turned him down.

“After the war, he just wanted to live quietly in solitude. He never really talked about his wartime experiences, so I think he coped by totally withdrawing – at great expense to himself and his family. Ultimately, I don’t think he was happy with his decision. My father never returned to Poland or Europe as long as he lived, although my mother traveled widely and visited Poland several times after the war. The ultimate irony is that my son, Adam, has returned to live in Poland, and I now visit Warsaw regularly to see my son and grandson. After 60 years, the circle is closed.”

Grazyna says she once tried to thank her mother for saving her life during the war, but she was surprised by her mother’s response. Nina replied, “No, I think it was you who saved my life. You gave me a reason to keep going. I knew I had to survive to save you.”

“I didn’t understand that at the time,” Grazyna says, “but now, looking back, I can see how much my parents looked to me as a source of strength during their ordeal, and how much my happiness meant to them.”

To try and compensate for everything their daughter had lost during the war, Kazimierz and Nina enrolled Grazyna in some of the best schools available. She was placed in an exclusive boarding school called Our Lady of Zion in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England.

“It was a beautiful manor house,” she says. “My life completely changed in two weeks. I went from abject poverty to a place where an engraved sterling-silver place setting was required by each pupil. To this day, I still have mine. It was a Catholic finishing school, and the only place where my mother thought I could learn how to speak proper English. I took ballet lessons and learned horseback riding. I was instantly transported to another world.

“Later, when we moved to Canada, I was enrolled in another wonderful boarding school, Loretto Academy in Niagara Falls. I was there for eight years, and somehow my parents managed to pay for it, because they wanted me to have the best education possible. Here I was, learning to speak English, taking ballet and horseback-riding lessons and learning to play the piano. Holidays and summers, I worked with my dad on the farm. My life continued to be filled with extremes – from the privileged school surroundings to the realities of rural life.”

COURTESY OF GRAZYNA BERGMAN

Grazyna and her mother in 2001, when Nina was 91 years old.

 

Throughout the rest of his life, her father had many health problems, probably due to his time in Siberia and the war. He contracted Parkinson’s disease, and ultimately it was her family’s struggle with this disease that brought Grazyna back to Canada and prompted her to start doing volunteer work at The Parkinson Foundation of Canada. Thanks to her organizational skills and commitment to the cause, she later became the national executive director of the foundation. It was this invaluable experience that ultimately set the stage for a career in the medical establishment.

“This is why I think volunteering is so important,” Grazyna says. “People get to know you and they see your commitment. And if you work hard, often it can lead to a job, should you wish one. And it is such a joy to work with people of similar interests. It can really lead to wonders.”

Over the past couple of decades, most of Grazyna’s relatives have passed away. Sometime after the Soviets occupied Poland, Grazyna’s maternal grandmother, Maria, died in tragic circumstances. After leaving Bialystok to visit family in Russian-occupied Wilno, the Russian authorities refused to allow her to return. Grazyna and the rest of the family don’t know when she died or where she is buried.

“Maria’s husband – my grandfather, Joseph – has a beautiful grave in Bialystok, where he died in 1936, but he is lying there all alone,” she says. Grazyna’s uncle lived to be 91 despite the hardship of his five years in the Dachau concentration camp. 

After struggling with Parkinson’s for almost two decades, Grazyna’s father, Kazimierz, died in 1989 at age 83. Grazyna’s mother, Nina, suffered a severe stroke in 1998, and with great determination lived until July 2004, age 94.

What motivated Grazyna to share her story now, and what did she learn from her wartime experiences?

“Take all the opportunities that are presented to you and do the best you can with them,” she says. “Because of the war, my family lost everything, but they did the best they could with their circumstances and I am so fortunate because of it. Bad as well as good things have always happened to children and adults, but it’s the strength that we nurture that keeps us going and helps manage our various traumas.

“When life is hard, of course you suffer, but you also become stronger, more resourceful and much more appreciative.

Maybe those tragedies force you to confront and overcome whatever challenges are presented to you.

“My mother taught me that the best people are the ones who can adapt to change as they go through life. Those who are inflexible and can’t deviate are weaker because of it.

“My mother’s experience also taught me that good people exist everywhere in the world, and they try to help others. But most important is to have the inner strength to stand up to what life presents to you, to follow your convictions, and – with a bit of luck – you find the miracles that enrich your life.”

Categories: History