The War and My Life

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It was September 1, 1939 and my friends and I were playing outside when suddenly I heard a boom, almost the sound of thunder. My mother screamed from the kitchen porch, “Peter! Get in this house right now!” I had no idea what caused my mother to do this, because she usually is mad because I’m not outside. I thought to myself that maybe it had to do with the boom, or there could be a parade on Main St., which isn’t out of the ordinary in the capital of Poland, which is where parades are always held.
Making sure I didn’t upset my mom even more, I said goodbye to my friends and ran inside as fast as I could. When I got inside I asked my mom what the problem was. She said the boom that I heard was no parade; instead it was an attack from Germany. The moment she said this, my mind went blank, trying to process what was going on. My 16-year-old brother Charlie, my infant sister Lulu, and I were all rushed downstairs into the cellar. I’ve never been into the cellar because I grew up being told to never go in there because it is for emergencies only. It was a damp, dark room about fourteen feet by twelve feet and had two bunk beds, so that each of us could get our own bed, but Lulu would have to sleep with my dad or mom. It had a shelf of canned foods that were probably expired, but I really didn’t care all that much. I suddenly remembered, “Mom, where’s dad?” She answered with this sad, blank face that I’ve never seen before, “That boom that you heard, well, that was a bomb that hit your dad’s office building and he died in the explosion. I’m so sorry son.” My face went blank and then my eyes filled with tears and I began to cry.
It was only thirty minutes later that I heard a rumble upstairs. It sounded like people walking. I asked my mom and she said she really didn’t know. I quickly thought maybe dad didn’t die and he had returned. I burst out saying, “Mom, maybe its dad!” She said it couldn’t be, the blast was much too strong for any man to survive. But I didn’t listen to her, I couldn’t, if there was any spark in my heart that believed that my dad may still be alive, I had to find out. So, I opened the door, ran up the steps, through the kitchen and entered the living room where I saw a German soldier. I suddenly turned around and attempted to run back downstairs, but he grabbed me too quickly. He held my arms and walked me away. As I was being hauled off, my brother and my mom fought against the German soldiers to let go of me. They would have been successful had two more soldiers not seized them. All of us, including Lulu were hauled off in these open trucks where I saw neighbors, friends, etc. packed into the back. We were cramped into cattle cars, given numbers and shipped away.
After days on end, the cattle car finally came to a halt and we were being unloaded. What seemed to be a large number of people when we boarded the cattle car had dropped significantly because they had died on their trip. When we disembarked I stood by my mom, my brother, and Lulu. We were walked to a line that led all the way to a large metal sign that said on the top, Auschwitz. At first, we thought we would all be taken to a camp that would make us work, but I soon realized I was wrong.
When we got to the front of the line there was a man standing right in front of us. He was a broad shouldered man with piercing blue eyes, an almost bald head, and hands like the devil. He looked at my mom and asked, “What age are the boys?” She responded saying, “Both are eighteen.” Then he pointed at my brother Charlie and me and moved his hand to the right. He then looked at my mom with my sister Lulu and moved his hand left. It was not till years later I found out they were escorted to a room where my sister and my mom were gassed and killed. I didn’t realize at the time when my mom said my brother and I were both 18 that in fact, she had saved our lives. She knew we would be separated and if there was a chance for us to be saved it had to start with being eighteen. My brother and I were then placed in a camp where we would work for the army to make supplies.
After being separated from most of my family, my brother and I were once again put on another cattle car and transported to a working camp. For as long as I can remember, we ate almost nothing and drank the same. It was awful what we were going through. Every day that went on my brother began to loose hope, but that made me stronger because I kept telling myself to never give up, to fight to the end. Our daily routine was we got up before the sun even rose, we worked all day and night till about an hour after the sun went down and then we were fed one small piece of bread with the tiniest glass of water I’ve ever seen. The bread was just thrown on the ground where we stayed and the water was served in a demitasse cup. The rooms we stayed in were damp, muggy, dark, and hot during the summer, but cold during the winter. It reminded me of the cellar in the basement of our house back in Poland. We worked what seemed to be years on end, but I had nothing to keep track of time so I could be a little bit off.
Over the period of time that my brother and I have been here I have lost about 30 lbs and my brother about 25. We used to be well built boys and a little husky, now we look deadly thin. You can see our ribs as clearly as our heads. We barely lived until one day we were told to leave. We followed three German guards on this walk through the wilderness, almost like a march. We walked through snow, ice, around lakes, etc. with nothing to eat. Luckily, all thanks to my mom, we both had our boots, which I believe kept us alive, compared to some of the others who were either wearing nothing or something close to nothing. When we finally got to our destination, which was just another working camp, my brother and I each lost another 10 lbs. And what was a group of 50 became a group of only 15. All the others had died off.
We sat in our rooms at the new work camp and were never told to go to our usual daily routine. Instead we sat and did nothing, while some just withered away. I soon fell asleep. Then, suddenly I was awakened by loud gunshots and bombs that seemed to be coming from outside. “What was going on,” I whispered in my breath. What country dare try to fight Germany? Well, at least someone had the guts to do so. Then, marched in ten US soldiers, walking in perfect unison. Each one took as many of us as he could and said, “Follow me.” We did as we were told. We were then taken back to one of their camps where we were fed, given water, clothed, bathed, and taken good care of. Within days we were all on a military airplane to the United States. I was more excited then I ever have been when I found out that we were going to the US. The US was a place where dreams could become reality and I could live without prosecution.
Soon after being rescued the war was over, Germany was defeated, and everything slowly began to go back to normal. I slowly, but surely got my US citizenship and I now live happily in this beautiful country with my wife and my two kids. And even though life seemed to continue on, the war would always be a reminder to myself that life is important and to never give up.


Donald Popke





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