Why you should care
History happened in the streets before it happened in history books.
It was Saturday, May 13, 1922, the day my grandmother Genowefa Sienkiewicz was born. Her mother, Weronika, died right after my grandmother took her first breath.
My great-grandmother Weronika Ciolek was an aristocrat. An aristocrat who loathed the aristocracy. Which is to say she was riding horses when only men did, and she didn’t want to marry her cousin. So she married a farmer named Mateusz Sienkiewicz instead.
They wanted to live life their way, and to do so they had to leave Poland. The United States was their first choice. So they bought land there and moved to the U.S., where Weronika gave birth to six children. They had a good life, the life they had wanted for themselves and their children. But when Weronika was pregnant with my grandmother, they set off to visit Poland, and she took ill on the ship.
Mateusz had always, maybe unconsciously, blamed his daughter for the death of his wife. But he stayed in Poland and remarried soon after my grandmother was born. And as soon as my grandmother could walk, she had to work, taking care of her younger half-siblings, cleaning chicken coops every morning, milking cows … and after all of that was done? She had to run 2.5 miles to school. She loved school, though: She loved to read, and her favorite classes were literature and history.
As they poured out of the church, people were singing and cheering. And then: a very loud buzzing … Luftwaffe planes, emblazoned with swastikas, coming back from bombing Wielun.
When Genowefa was 16, her father and stepmother made a decision: She had to go … and there was this handsome, quiet blacksmith, Czesiek, in a nearby village. His family seemed to be well-situated, and her parents were happy for them to be married.
Which brings us to the last night of August 1939, the night before the wedding day.
My grandmother and grandfather were about to get married in a church in a village that was roughly 90 miles from Warsaw. My grandmother couldn’t sleep. Her 16-year-old life was changing, and she wasn’t sure if it was for better, or for worse.
She liked Czesiek, but he was much older and quiet, and she liked to talk. He was good-looking, though, and crafty, very strong and a good dancer. She also knew that he was tough: He spent some of his childhood in Siberia, where his whole family was sent during World War I. They came back after the October Revolution. He could hunt, he knew how to survive, he knew how to have fun. What could go wrong?
The wedding morning was hot, but the sky was cloudy. She looked beautiful, and he looked beautiful too. They were not in love — that would come later — but they liked each other, and on Sept. 1, 1939, wedding bells were ringing.
As they left the church, people were singing and cheering. And then: a very loud buzzing.
The noise was coming from the sky during a time when, in general, there was no reason for noise to come from the sky. But the noise came from airplanes, specifically, Luftwaffe planes, emblazoned with swastikas, coming back from bombing Wielun, a city near Lodz. Two thousand civilians died that night. Later that morning, the first bombs went down on Warsaw.
My grandmother said that people were whispering something about war and Germans, and then it was official: World War II started. The same day their married life started.
Life seemed quite normal at first. They moved into a house near my grandfather’s family, and it didn’t feel much like the country was at war at all. But it was a little tough. My studious grandmother had to stop attending school, but she could still read after she finished her errands. When she missed her family, she could always visit. It wasn’t that bad yet. But then again there was no internet then so what did they really know?
They knew that on Sept. 25 the ground started shaking again. People ran outside, my grandfather hugged my grandmother and he was trying to cover her ears, both of them looking at the sky now covered with smoke and filled with black planes. Hell had burst forth, she said. More than 400 Luftwaffe planes were bombing Warsaw. For more than 11 hours.
It was the first carpet bombing of a European metropolis in the history of World War II.
And then there were German soldiers everywhere. Coming to the villages, taking stuff from people, stealing livestock, eggs, flour, gold, whatever they wanted. They were also taking girls to the woods, or taking them right where they found them. Some of them survived, some of them died of internal bleeding later. Some of them never came back. Young men and boys would hide in the woods in a bid to avoid being killed.
And Jewish families were disappearing, forever. People were trying to lead normal lives, but when the word spread that Germans were coming, the smart ones ran and hid. Sometimes they returned to find out that everything had been burned.
My grandparent’s house hadn’t been destroyed, but one day there was a knock on the door. It was a Jewish girl a little younger than my grandmother. A redhead. Her whole family was gone. First, they were imprisoned by villagers trying to curry favor with the Germans. Later, they were killed by German soldiers.
The redheaded girl managed to run away and didn’t know what to do or where to go. My grandmother had just had her first baby, but she took the girl in and in time, they became friendly. But as soon as it was calmer, the girl left to see if any of her relatives were still alive. My grandmother never heard from her again.
We suffered as well. My great grandfather was torn to pieces by German dogs. Children were shot at by advancing soldiers. They tried to act like everything was OK, but nothing was OK.
By 1945, the war was almost over. Genowefa and Czesiek had a son and a daughter. Typhoid fever was all around. German doctors were “helping” and offered an obligatory “vaccine.” Stasiu, the oldest son was OK. Krysia, their daughter, died from “complications.” She was just 4 years old.
My grandmother was 23 then and went on to have more children, including my mother. But get over it? Never. So while the war ended for the rest of the world, it never ended for them.