Then they strangled the dog and ate it
Richard Kuszmar

My father grew up kind of in a forest area close to the border between Poland and White Russia. Bialowieza was the name of the town. That means white something, White Tower, I guess. It's in an area that switched hands between Russia and Poland every time there was a war. Now it's in Poland. It's around there they have the last wilderness area in Poland, lots of wild boar and the last place where they have the European bison, not too far from there. So it's a big place for hunting. My grandfather was an avid hunter and my great grandfather was a butcher.

Actually, my father was born over on the Russian side of the border, but when the communist revolution occurred in 1917, his father, my grandfather, was ordered to leave because he had been running a store. They told my grandfather he couldn't take any money with him so he had taken chairs, so my grandfather, my father's father took chairs and hollowed out the legs of them and put gold pieces, Russian gold pieces in them so they could smuggle them out of the Soviet Union over to the Polish side.

I believe my father must have been about 25 years old when Hitler invaded Poland. He was on the German side of Poland then, attending civil engineering school. So he rushed home to where his parents and sisters lived which happened to be in the Russian half that the Russians had invaded, seized in Poland. When he got to his home there was a commissar waiting, a political officer of the Russians, waiting for him. They took him into custody, tortured him. They were trying to get him to confess to being a... whatyacallit..., a counterrevolutionary.

My father told me a lot about the interrogations. they played all sorts of mind games with him. They would leave a gun in plain view, hoping that he would grab it. And my father said he was smart enough to know that that there were no bullets in the gun. My father initially tried to be a little bit of a smart ass with the commissar, started arguing with him about Stalin until the commissar hit him in the head with a weapon and told him as far as he was concerned he was Stalin. Eventually, my father was forced to confess being a counterrevolutionary and he was taken to the regular part of Russia to work as a forced laborer.

I remember my Dad joking that when he was taken as a prisoner to Russia that that was the second time he had been in Russia because he was born in there but got kicked out 'cause his Dad ran a store.

They put him in a labor camp in the main part of Russia. He escaped from the camps there twice. It was easy for him to escape because "A", he looked sort of Russian, not like a typical Pole, and "B" because he could speak Russian. So the Russians would take him in and let him stay with them. I remember him saying that in the wintertime to keep warm, the Russian families he was staying with would bring in all their farm animals into their huts and they'd have those big samovars that they used to drink tea from and they'd hold... had a big piece of sugar hanging from a little rope from the ceiling and each person would take it and dunk it in their tea and they passed it around. That's what he said about living with those Russian families.

He escaped from those two different camps twice so they decided to put him where he couldn't escape. So they took him on the train line to where it ended in Siberia. He and the other prisoners were marched up 150 miles into the interior of Siberia where they had to cut the wood to build their own barracks. Nearby, besides the forest, there was some sort of mine. I'm not sure whether it was a salt mine. And the prisoners either got to work in the forest making timber or going to the salt mine. But if you went to the salt mine you usually died because of the conditions in the mines. People didn't have a choice where they went. They decided where you went, the commissars, the political officers. My father was just lucky when they said you go... He got put on the forest detachment, and other people went to the mines The trouble... the danger was the people who went to the mines were dying so rapidly that you might get pulled off the forest to go to the mines. He said people went to the mines would die within a year, or two.

The main idea of those Siberian labor camps was to work them to death. The only food they got was like a piece of bread and some water - some kind of bread the Russians had that would dry out, it would go for months and you had to boil it in water before you could eat it. Let me tell you this, this is what my father told me. Food was so scarce there that somebody once took half of their ration of bread, hid it under the pillow to go to sleep and when they woke up the they found another prisoner had stolen the bread so they killed the other prisoner with a shovel, the one that had stolen the bread.

What they did was cut down trees with axes. I guess they made it into lumber. At the same time they were building the Transsiberian Railway. My uncle... my mother, my father's sister's husband and his sister were in another camp where they were building the Transsiberian Railway. I guess when they got out to where they could land lumber on it, they shipped all the lumber to... the end of the line where they were building the railroad.

My uncle told an interesting story how they were building the Transsiberian Railway and the local political commissar came to their camp and had a meeting to rally them and lift their spirits and was saying when we build this Siberian railroad, we're all going to have lots of food! And they go "YES!" The he said when we build the Siberian railway life will be a lot easier, and they all go "YES!" Then he says, "you're all a bunch of dumb asses!" "YES!" they shout. That's what my uncle said.

And because that was the only kind of food they got they would suffer from night blindness. And, usually, they would march them out to the forest before dawn but if somebody stumbled and fell in the dark the guards would just either bayonet them or shoot 'em right on the spot.

The guards there were Russian and they were actually prisoners themselves. They cooperated. Well, you know, you're in the middle of nowhere, you need the other side to give you your food. Everybody sort of cooperated. I think everybody there just wanted to survive. One of those Russian guards had a very mean German Shepherd dog, and somehow they managed to lure the German Shepherd deep into the forest where they could grab him and kill him. They strangled him to death with their bare hands. And they cooked the meat and ate it. But then they had the problem of how to get rid of the hide and the bones so the guards wouldn't find them. The bones were easiest to get rid of, I guess. They just buried them in little holes. But the hide they had to cut into little strips and then bury it around there like they did with the bones. He said he was very proud of that because the guards never did figure out what had happened to the German Shepherd.

There were a lot of Russians in the camp that Stalin had put there. In fact my Dad said there was like a general in the camp, someone that formally had been a Russian general and for some reason Stalin disliked him and sent him to the camp. Oh, that's what he said.

Oh, I told you... Didn't I tell you how my Dad survived the camp? One of the buddies in the camp that was Polish was a good-looking Polish doctor and the commissar's wife was sleeping with him so she was sending him extras and whatever my Dad did to befriend the Polish doctor, he slipped some stuff to my Dad to survive. Bottles of cod lever oil, I guess that's vitamin A, and it helped his eyes.

He was very proud that he survived, that surviving was an achievement in itself. He used to say many people didn't try. He said the people who were like wealthy and lived soft lives before the camps, they didn't fare so well, died real quickly, whereas other people who hadn't much to begin with tended to live. Well, you had to have something to survive. Part of it was just the will, I guess. A lot of people just gave up and just didn't... just died.

Ah, as the war went on, after Stalin and Hitler turned on each other, the British convinced Stalin that they had all those Polish prisoners in the concentration camps, and they should release them so they could be armed to fight the Germans. So my Dad was fortunate that he was released with the initial wave and the British removed them from Russia as quickly as they could because Stalin finally scratched his head and said why am I letting these people go, I could just arm them and train them to be in the Russian army.

So then my Dad fought under the British. He qualified to be a... I guess he called it a tank commander. He was the sergeant who ran one tank. And he fought in North Africa against... the German Army, whatshisname... "The Fox" Rommel.

My Dad said the Arabs did not make good organized armies because they wouldn't follow orders but they were very good for night fighting but they had to be very careful because if they wandered away or slept in the wrong spot they'd be robbed and their throats cut.

And my Dad said they had this... he talked about scorpions, how they took gasoline around a scorpion and set it on fire and the scorpion to escape being killed by the fire stung itself to death. That's what he said scorpions did. It was like kind of a game with them, getting the scorpion to sting itself to death.

And then after they defeated Rommel, he was in Palestine awhile because there was... I don't know, I guess the British moved the troops in from Africa after they had defeated Rommel. ah... because ah... he prior to the war he had known some Jewish people from school and one of the Jewish people had married a husband from that area, ran orchards, orange groves. So he met one of his friends from school there.

While they were in Palestine they went to a centuries-old Christian monastery and were talking to one of the monks and he took a liking to my Dad and his friend and instead of giving him the regular wine, he took them down into their depths and he said then is a special wine, and my father claims that he got just a small glass of the wine and it went right to his head, he barely got outside and he woke up the next day.

My Dad came in from the south when they invaded the second front in Italy. He fought at Monte Casino and he claims that there was mostly Polish troops and Indian Sherpa troops were sent in to fight because at Monte Casino there were rare treasures and art work so the didn't want to bomb it so it was all hand-to-hand combat and the Sherpas were considered... and the Sherpas and the Poles were considered some of the better fighting troops and they suffered large casualties.

And what else did my Dad say? Oh, there was one thing that troubled him, one thing that happened during the war that he thought about a lot. He... they captured a young German officer during combat and he wanted to take him prisoner and keep him alive, but for some reason the men under him didn't want to do it. And they went and killed him anyways, so... That was when they were fighting in Italy or Germany towards the end of the war. It must have been in Germany by then. They killed the man and the war ended a few days later.

My Dad survived the war and was out on leave when his... a guy... one of his friends that he he survived the whole war, he went out in a jeep, they both got drunk and wound up coming back to base and hitting a tree and his friend wound up dead and my Dad got court marshaled for that, just after the war ended. Isn't that something to think about, surviving the whole war and then getting killed celebrating?

My mother she was in Germany when the war broke out. I guess she went like summer vacation to go and pick up some money. I think it was like between high school and when she was going to start college. She was a governess for wealth... like a nanny or governess for some rich German family and all those people were forced to stay in Germany and she was assigned initially to... whatyacall... a nazi party official's house and they were... his wife was beating her and stealing her ration cards and not giving her food so she ran away and she was picked up but when she went before the guy who was in charge of all the forced labor over the area, he liked her probably 'cause she was good-looking so he had mercy on her and sent her to a farm to work and she said she liked it on the farm because the guy was kind and his wife was kind and she got plenty to eat but then the farmer died and she had to go back into the city and they put her, I guess she had been studying to be a nurse so she had a little medical training so they put her in charge of tending to the forced laborers' needs and she was assigned to a factory where they were making bandages out of cloth. And she said that what they would do is ah... when the allies started bombing the city they would chain the forces laborers to the machines while the Germans went into the bunker and after a while it got on her nerves, she had a nervous breakdown and they wound up taking her to Rotterdam which was the big psychiatric hospital for all of Germany and after... they gave her shock treatments and other stuff.

And when they, whatever, stabilized her or made her back to normal, they left her there because she could speak a few languages and that's where she was when the French, that was in the French sector when it was liberated.

And so she was there and they put her in charge of an orphanage, and I got a picture of her a home shaking hands with General De Gaul when he came through on tour.

My Mom said it was horrible when the Russians came into Germany 'cause she could hear the screams of the women and female girls who were being raped, she could hear the screams all night long. It still haunted her after the war.

My Mom had a brother that was in Auswitch. He survived. He was super smart and he was an engineer and so I guess Auswitch was not just totally a death camp, they also had a munitions factory in Auswitch that the Germans were running and since he had some engineering background they made him work in the plant there. So I guess he was sort of like a foreman of the German laborers... Polish laborers. So he survived the camp even though he did have a number like the other ones in the death camp.

After the war almost everybody was in displaced person camps and then when they turned Poland over to the Russians after the war, the British and the Americans agreed that all the Poles who had been promised a free Poland after the war, they had been promised a free Poland after the war, and when they handed it over to the communists they couldn't go back 'cause they would have been killed for exposure to the West. So they were all given a choice to come to the United States because my father had... My father's sister had met a Polish-American during the war and married him. He had been born in the United States, but as a young boy he had been taken back to Poland before the war and he got trapped over there. So he had the right to come to the United States 'cause he was a citizen and then he was able to sponsor my father so my father came to the United States 'cause of his sister. I don't know how the priest came but a lot of the people from Dad's group of people all emigrated to the U.S. It was mostly people that had gotten to know each other from their army units. I don't think he said he met any of them in the labor camp but he was in a whole battalion of Polish folks. But my mother's brother was also in that same unit. Then on the boat over to America that's when my father met my mother. They came by boat to Ellis island. And my Dad took a fancy to my mother and she got sick and he wooed her by... she was terrible seasick, so he wooed her by going to where the Jewish steerage was and he managed to trade or barter with them to bring her back fresh eggs and chicken soup and all that other stuff. And then my mother was initially going to go to Canada, but because she met my father, she changed her mind and came to the United States 'cause she had a great aunt and uncle who were living in the Detroit area who had come over during the earlier immigrations.

I can't remember... my mother says, when they were first married he would wake up screaming in the night ah... from terror. He had shingles that he picked up after the war. Had to go to Ann Arbor. He was a very depressed man.

It's probably not even just the war. It was the fact that he had to come to the United States and be basically a nothing in this country. Cause he never could manage to learn English well enough to advance himself and he had to be in a factory. And when my parents came over D.P.'s were... that was a derogatory term. They... they, the Americans here were resentful about all the Displaced Persons that were coming into the United States. I still remember when the next door neighbor called my Dad a D.P. and a higher fence than this, my Dad literally stepped over it to grab the man. I grew up in the center of all the immigrants.

As a child I met one of the priests from the labor camp. For some reason he was not allowed to practice in our diocese but he would come to our communions and stuff and I remember how we'd have him over a holidays. He'd eat this, his meal and the last thing, he would always take a piece of bread and put butter on it and eat it. And one day I asked him why do you always do that? He says 'cause I was in the labor camp that's the one thing I always wanted was bread with butter on it. I grew up in the middle of all the immigrants.

All these things I'm telling you, all these things are things I heard as a kid in Hamtramck. There were an awful lot of immigrants in Hamtramck. All these immigrants would get together at tell these stories. I was a little kid when I'm listening to these stories. It's not like you sit down telling me the stories and me as an adult taking notes and getting every part in good order. I just snapped up little pieces of it... You know they would get together at holidays and just take turns... take turn telling stories - stories about the war, chasing girls, all the other kinds of stuff.

They were really funny to watch them. They'd get... They had this theory that as long as you ate while you were drinking, you'd never get really drunk. So they would sit there with a big bottle of scotch at Christmas time, eating, drinking and telling all these stories about life in the camps, women.

I just remember their parties. They were a lot different than the American-style parties. The just seemed to have a good ol' time, laughing and and joking and telling tales. It's not like the kind of cocktail parties you'd find in the United states. They didn't have a lot, but they seemed like they had a lot more fun than any party that I ever went to.

I didn't actually grow up in Hamtramck, because when I was a baby, the... they... my parents were renting in Hamtramck and then when they had me the people made them move 'cause they wouldn't rent to people with children. And my parents couldn't afford a house in Hamtramck 'cause that was considered choice real estate. We wound up having to buy a house on the edge of Hamtramck with the other poor people.

And they... my Mom and Dad were one of the few people... first people in their group that could actually buy a TV. They were the old ones with a little port hole, so all the other immigrant friends, kids and stuff would come over at night to watch on our little TV. And the the TV's would break down and they'd take... It would have to go to the shop to be worked on, you you'd have to listen to the radio and then they still had Jack Benny and... what's his name, the Green Hornet on the radio. We had an old refrigerator where the ice man would would deliver a block of ice a couple times a week. Coal chutes. As a kid you huddled under the blanket in the morning 'til they lit the coal in the heater. Ah, now I guess I'm starting to get to be part of history myself!

Richard Kuszmar, Detroit, Michigan, USA, 2008