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Anecdotes – The Time I Met a World War II Witness

The value of travel has been discussed at large in many different places. All our favourite travel quotes speak of it, innumerable songs have been written about it and hostel common room walls are probably bored with the stories of how amazing and life-changing travel is. I am not here to convince anyone of it who isn’t already. But I will tell you anecdotes that happened to me in my travels that have changed my perspective on life forever. This wil be an irregular series on the blog tagged „anecdotes“.

I’m introducing travel anecdotes as a new series on the blog today. There are many stories I have to share that have never found space in any of my other blog posts. And I love telling stories. Come to think of it, that might be the reason I blog at all. I am kicking off with a memory I have long been wanting to write about, and one of my favourite anecdotes of all times.

In January of 2007, I had to take part in a training in Warsaw as part of my voluntary service in Silesia. It was my first visit to the Polish capital, and as part of the training, one afternoon we were sent to explore the city in groups. So I set out in the company of a Spanish girl, a French girl and a Greek guy to get to know Warsaw, and our self-assigned topic to do it was history.

Palace of Culture, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw Palace of Culture – it doesn’t look cold in the picture, but believe me, it was!!

After a visit to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, which I recommend especially to those who don’t know much about Polish history, we agreed to defy the bitter cold and see some of the many monuments in the city. Making our way through simultaneous rain and snow fall, my Spanish friend asked me what the expression „Third Reich“ meant. I started explaining to her that „Reich“ is German for empire; that the first Reich was the Holy Roman Empire  between 962 and 1806; the second one was the „Kaiserreich“ from 1871 until after World War 1; and the third Reich was consequently the one Hitler established.

As I explained this, the term „Reich“ fell a few times, and so did other German words. Suddenly an old man, probably in his 80s, stopped and asked me in broken German if he had just heard German. I affirmed. He then asked if we were going to see the fragment of the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto. Indeed that was where we were going, so I said yes again. He looked very excited and said: „I made that.“ I didn’t understand what he meant, he could not have made the ghetto wall, but he frantically kept repeating: „I made that, I!“ Eventually he told me to wait with my friends, he would be right back and show us. Everything he said was rather fragmentary and in a German that obviously had not been used in a long time, infused with Polish terms. In our group of four, I was the only one who spoke both those languages, so I translated to my friends what I had gathered and we agreed to wait for him and see what he wanted to show us.

He disappeared into a tiny shop and re-emerged quickly, then motioned us to follow. Walking with us, he introduced himself as Mieczysław Jędruszczak and told me his story. I tried my best to keep up with what he was saying and translate it to the other three. What I understood was that he had lived in Warsaw for all his life, and most of it he lived in the flat right next to the fragment of the Ghetto wall. He wasn’t Jewish, but he had grown up in a multicultural Warsaw with lots of Jewish friends. Then the war came. He pointed out where the ghetto had been and told us details of both the Warsaw and the Ghetto Uprising. A small odyssey through side alleys and backyards later, we stood in front of the fragment of the ghetto wall. I doubt we would have even found it without Mr Jędruszczak.

It was a short stretch of brick stone, unremarkable, but awe-inducing when accompanied by our guide’s historical background knowledge. Single stones where taken out of the wall, and there were signs that pointed out which museum or memorial they had been given away to. Mr Jędruszczak, it turned out, was the one who administrated all of this. He told us more stories about his fight in the Polish resistance during World War 2, in the Home Army, and how he was arrested for it. I wished I understood more and better what he was telling me, and it was exhausting having to translate from the German-Polish mix into English and back form what my friends were asking me to ask him. At the same time I felt overcome by awe. I had never met a living witness of World War 2 before, and my head felt completely empty when I always would have expected to have a million questions to ask.

Finally it was time for us to head back to meet our group. We had missed out on seeing a few other places we had wanted to go to, but none of us cared. All four of us felt like we had just encountered something that was so improbable it couldn’t even really be true. Had I not used a few German words there in the street, and had Mr Jędruszczak not overheard them, we would have never come to meet him. Also, I felt it was typical of Polish friendliness that he dropped everything else and guided us to the place personally. And although sadly I have forgotten so many of the details he told us, so much of the information he gave, I will never forget him.

If you speak Polish, you can read an article on Mr Jędruszczak here. The fragment of the ghetto wall is located at ul. Zlota 60 in the neighbourhood called Wola.

Have you ever met an eye witness of a historical event who impressed you deeply?

6 Comments

  1. What a beautiful anecdote. I am very lucky, I have spoken to people who lived through WWII and my grandfather fought in all of the major theatres of the war. Other than that I’ve spoken to people who lived through Apartheid (as did I) and are living in Israel today. And finally, I’ve spoken to people in Bosnia and Serbia about their experiences in the war. It is always truly moving.

    • bridgekeeper

      Oktober 27, 2013 at 7:20 pm

      Thank you, Mandy. Yes, I spoke to people in Bosnia and Serbia too, and I intend to write about it. Have you written anything on living through Apartheid? I#d be immensely interested in your view.

  2. Absolutely amazing. I’ve always wanted to talk to a WWII survivor, but my German, regardless of how conversational, just isn’t fluent enough to understand the thick dialect of the older generation. It’s the same in Korea; I can’t understand when elderly people talk to me and I’d love to ask their stories about the Korean war and beyond. Their stories are so precious, I don’t want to miss anything they say.

    So this is wonderful, that you were able to communicate with him and hear a story that so few of us were lucky enough to hear. Simply amazing.

    • bridgekeeper

      Oktober 27, 2013 at 7:21 pm

      I feel very lucky too, Sally!! It was very dissicult, especially when he switched to Polish. I’d really like to have met him when my Polish was a bit better, but it was an amazing experience in any case.

  3. Reading this gave me goose bumps…what an amazing experience for you and Mr. Jędruszczak. He must have been so pleased to find you and your friends captivated by his stories.

    My Dad served in the Army at the end of WWII but luckily didn’t experience combat. He was such a people person, that I wish he was here so I could ask him about all the wonderful people he met along the way! He, like many of that generation, didn’t share many stories of war. Yet, you found a man so willing to share his…

    • bridgekeeper

      November 10, 2013 at 3:55 pm

      It was very special indeed, Nancy… It is a shame that very often we don’t ask our elders about their lives as long as there is still time. I try to ask my parents a lot, but I lost my grandparents too early unfortunately. Meeting people who were part of it all is really the best history lesson one could ever have.

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