Rozkowski Zaucha, Mieczyslawa (Michelle)
Krasnowola [Krasnovolya], Kolki, Wyrka, Huta Stepańska, Sarny, Wolyn [Volhynia], Poland; Neumark, Grafl, Regensburg, Hohenfels, Germany
Mieczyslawa Rozkowski was born in Krasnowola [Krasnovolya], Poland on October 29, 1929. She was the fourth daughter of Helena Rozkowski and Michal Rozkowski – Stanislava (Stella), Sophia, Aniela, and Mieczyslawa (Michelle) – followed by three boys – Adam, Jan, and Henry. They lived on a farming ranch that had belonged to her grandfather, a nobleman, and was divided among his three children – Michal and his family, his sister Brocka with her husband and six daughters, and his brother Jan Rozkowski who had two sons and one daughter.
Helena grew up in Wyrka, Poland with her parents, Adam and Aniela Sulikowski, and her four brothers. “When the First World War finished, my father married my mother from Wyrka, which is 25 kilometers from Krasnowola. I don’t know how he got there. My mother said he used to come on a white horse. My father was 20 years older than my mother. When we were small children, we didn’t see the difference because they loved each other and my father said, ‘Isn’t your mother so beautiful?’”
Although some ranches were much larger in the eastern part of Poland, the Rozkowskis were quite comfortable, hiring help to work the farm and the horses, and they always had a maid in the house. Helena worked in the house and the garden and also knew how to sew.
Michelle went to school up to the fourth grade in Krasnowola. “This school was mostly Ukrainian kids but there were a couple of Jewish students that lived in the second next village from Krasnowola. That village was Osówka and was almost just Jewish people. Then there were Polish students too, us Rozkowski kids were going there. After that, you went to school in the city of Kolki, five kilometers from Krasnowola.”
The family was Catholic and drove by carriage every Sunday to Kolki to go to church. “We were a very religious family. My parents always prayed. Even in the morning, they prayed before they started working; they prayed in the kitchen together.
“I had a happy life. Where we lived in Krasnowola, there was a river where we went swimming. I remember when I was six, I sat on the horse and went to the river swimming. But mother didn’t know; my older sister brought us. I could drown but I didn’t. We also had a boat and went fishing. And we were a very happy family.”
Things started to change on September 1, 1939. “Hitler wanted to take Poland. My two uncles went to the army but they didn’t fight too long because they couldn’t compete with the German soldiers. The war was just two weeks long and Germany took Poland. Germany was friends with Russia and they each took half of Poland: the Russians took up to the River Bug; the Germans took from the river on the western side. I was under the Russians in Wolyn.”
Michelle tells the harrowing and miraculous story of her immediate family’s survival during the Volhynian massacres, the anti-Polish genocidal cleansings conducted by Ukrainian nationalists during World War II, and the family’s subsequent internment in Neumark concentration camp and as forced laborers in Germany. As she relates, “I knew everything because parents talk and you sit there and, especially me, I have to be everywhere. That’s my character. Sometimes they chased me to the bed, but I have to hear it.
“When Russia came, I was not quite ten. My parents looked at the airplanes flying above us and saw they were not German. So, daddy looked at mama and they started crying. They know what Russia can do because Poland was under Russia for 120 years before the First World War.
“A couple of weeks later, Russian NKWD [NKVD] agents in Krasnowola called my father to the police station for a meeting. Two weeks later, that Russian agent and the local Ukrainian communists came to the farm and looked to see what we have. Then they sent my father large taxes intended to destroy rich people and he had to sell all the cows, all the horses, whatever we have to pay this tax. That’s the Russian way to do it. So okay, he pays. We just have one horse, one cow left, but we still have a garden…. So, now people are talking mouth-to-mouth because there was no radio, that the Russians are putting people on trains and taking them to Siberia. My parents started to be afraid because they know they are going to take rich people to Siberia. Then they sent my father another large tax and father had nothing left. He couldn’t pay the tax and that meant they are going to take us to Siberia.
“My father heard that many people didn’t even get to Siberia because the people were hungry and died from hunger and cold before they got to Siberia. Because those people just take you right away, like animals, some people didn’t even take anything with them. So, my father and mother decided to get out of this house and run. So, we run to Wyrka, to my grandmother’s house. That’s 25 kilometers.
“My father tried to prepare by sending grain and everything to Wyrka to have some food to eat after the war. And he even sent some cows. Then one night, somebody came and let my father know that the Krasnickis, who had another nice big farm about two miles from us, were picked up and taken to Siberia. Father, right away, put us in the wagon, covered up all the children, and dressed like a poor man, Ukrainian, because we had to pass Ukrainian villages. We went to Wyrka and came to my grandmother’s house. The first night we sleep inside but the next night they decided we were going to sleep in a barn because it is safer and because we don’t know when they are going to come.
“Somebody let the Russians know we were undercover in Wyrka and all the children and I went to the woods. When the Russian came to my grandma and my grandpa, their younger son’s wife was a good actress. She said, ‘Oh, they’re asking for the Rozkowski family. Oh, they did not come here. What happened? Where are they?’ And she started crying, so, they left.
“We walked in the woods all day. At night we came to my grandmother’s house in the stable to sleep. And we did this for three months…. Then the Germans came, so Russia can’t take us to Siberia. And daddy said let’s go home about two weeks later. That was a mistake…. We put all the children in the wagon again and were coming back home. We were driving the same road but the German soldiers stopped us and asked us where were we going? And daddy explained we were hiding from Russia but now we want to go home. He listened and listened but said, ‘I’m sorry but we are going to take the horses from you because they are strong.’ So, what do we do in the woods with about 20 kilometers to go with all those children? Daddy started begging him for just one horse. That German probably felt sorry for those five kids and gave them one very weak horse and we had to walk because the horse could not pull us all in the wagon.
“Then we came home. What did we find? The Ukrainians took all the furniture and everything. Our beautiful rooms were ruined and they poured salt on the painted wooden floor. So anyway, they stayed and started growing the garden… potatoes probably.
“The Germans weren’t far away. All the Ukrainians in Krasnowola decided to go to the German army. Just give us a gun. So, they give Ukrainians guns and they make them policemen with the guns. The Ukranians went to the German army. My parents still were in fear of what is going to happen now. They started talking that the war is coming to us too. The Germans don’t like Jewish people and they are going to get rid of them…. When Poland still existed, there was no difference between Jewish, Ukrainian, Polish, we were friends. Mama had Jewish people who brought her sewing.
“One Jewish man, Isaac, would come maybe once a month with his horse and wagon and bring small tools, needles for machines, and, threads and my mother was buying from him…. In the first house from the farm, there lived a Ukrainian, who was a Jehovah’s Witness; they believe not to kill. He came and told my mother, and I was listening too, that the Ukrainians caught this Isaac. That’s a hard part. And they want to kill him. There are no Germans. Just Ukrainians. The way they killed is a terrible thing! They took a stick and put it in his butt and threw him in the mud.
“So, my parents were very afraid because of us children seeing this. After about a week or two, the Ukrainian who was a Jehovah Witness came to my mother and my father and said that all these Ukrainian people and two German soldiers came to the Jewish village Osówka and took those people – maybe a thousand, maybe more people, house by house, children, babies, and men, and everything – and they took them in wagons to Kolki. They dug two very, very long ditches and they told the people to undress to naked and then they were shooting them and throwing them in the ditches and they just put the dirt on the top…. Why I know this is that, when we came on Sunday from church in Kolki, about a quarter kilometer to Kolki, there are white pine trees in a very sandy area near the River Styr. Daddy stopped right by that pine tree and he said to my mother, ‘That’s the place they buried all those people.’
“When we came back home, daddy said, ‘Now they finish with the Jewish people, they said they’re going to cut the throats of the Polish people.’ Then someone came and told my mother that the Ukrainians came to Oborki and the whole Polish village was massacred, not just killed, massacred. They cut their throats. They murdered. They cut the breasts of women. They pulled out people’s eyeballs. They put the babies on the table and with a hatchet cut their heads off. Murdered their whole family.
“Okay, they murdered people everywhere, especially when the people live far away from crowds because it’s easy. Because just a couple of Ukrainians can murder them. There was murder everywhere. So, that’s very scary to hear. So, my daddy and my mama put the kids again in the wagon and dressed up again as a Ukrainian. But this time, we’re going at three o’clock at night and pretending if they see the wagon go through, maybe he’s going for some kind of business. So, we go to Wyrka.
“Nearby Wyrka, there’s Huta Stepańska, a whole bunch of Polish villages together. They think they are going to fight but they didn’t have the guns. Ukrainians got the guns from the Germans. Polish don’t have guns. How are you going to fight? Finally, they have 15 guns. One night, maybe a week later, they attack Wyrka. There was a bunch of Ukrainians already in arms – 3000 of them and two Germans who don’t stop them; they just don’t care. They let them kill Jewish and Polish people. So, those people are burning houses down…. They hide the kids in the big brick high school building. They don’t think the men are going to find whatever they have. But those people were so scared because they were just going to be murdered. And everything is burning….
“My parents put the kids in wagons to go to Huta Stepańska because there’s no place to go. Wherever you are going to go, there are Ukrainian villages. They are going to kill you anyway if you want to try. They stopped at my uncle’s farm because he had a gun. He whispered to my mother, to run…. Come morning, mama and daddy and us kids are in a wagon, driving and driving and driving around. You get so far and all of a sudden, they start shooting. Shoot so badly on us. You can hear those bullets flying, pshew, pshew. So, daddy said, ‘To the ditch! To the ditch!’ We jumped to the ditch but don’t forget I was 12, my one sister 14, and another sister 16. Mother carried the baby who was only a year-and-a-half. And the other two brothers were just boys; Jan was 8 and Adam was 10. But we run. You run and you don’t know where.
“That morning it was so foggy and there was steam from the burning houses; so, because of the steam and fog, they couldn’t shoot everybody because they couldn’t see. Once it was light, the Ukrainians would kill everybody. The fog and that flame, that’s what saved us. Not everybody because there were thousands of people that they killed in Huta Stepańska…. My sister and I were running and running but we got so tired. Some people we don’t know were going to the train. I don’t know how many kilometers; probably a half a day walking. We were so hungry. All day and all night and we didn’t have anything at all to eat. And there were some carrots, but the carrots were smashed with the cows and everything. We pulled those carrots with the mud and we ate them. That was good enough.
“So, then we come to the train. The two of us are standing there. Now, what happened to our parents? Here is my mother coming with the baby. But mama was so scared; her eyes were so wide and scared, holding that baby. But the baby was quiet; he didn’t cry; probably the baby was scared too…. Maybe an hour or two later, our daddy is coming and two of my brothers. But the older brother, Adam, we don’t know. My sister, Aniela, we don’t know where she is either. But my uncle and his son went looking through the woods near Wyrka where there were lost children. Here’s my brother, ten-years-old, sitting with a stick. ‘I am going to shoot Ukrainians with this stick.’
“Now they put everybody on the train. We don’t care where we go or what they are going to do because we have no place to go. We don’t care…. My uncle tells my mother we are not going to go on the train. We are going to Perespa near Sarny, a half a day walk, where the Polish people made bunkers. So, we go to Perespa because we still think somebody is going to save us. We always had hope.
“My uncle and his three children and my family, except my sister Aniela, went to Perespa. There was one bunker there. Only 100 people can get in there. It was Sunday and there was going to be mass. The priest said we can’t stay here; we have to run too because that’s all they need to do is just put the fire in the door and we’ll die here like sardines. So, we left.
“That night the Ukrainians attacked this village and we were hidden. When the second attacks were here, oh my god, that was scary. So, we started running. You’re so scared you don’t see even, you just run. I lost my sister. But I see a woman sitting all cut up by a hatchet, bleeding from her neck, and she’s holding a baby and she said, ‘Take my baby. Take my baby.’ I looked at her and I got so scared and I’m still running. I don’t know where. All of a sudden, I see those Polish people running and I run to them. We got to Włodzimieriec and there was a train and there were already people going on the train. But those people were so scared and half dead.
“My mother came too. See, over here, in this situation, God tells you, you’re going to live…. So, they took us to Sarny, a small city. They put us in the soldier barracks. We are so hungry! It’s already like two days no food…. When we were in Sarny, my parents asked people if they had seen my sister, Aniela Rozkowski, and they knew somehow that she’s in Antonówka. Eventually she came to Sarny too. So, we were all together! Isn’t that amazing!
“The next day, they took us to Rovno, a bigger city. Okay, again, they put mothers with babies in soldier buildings but we had to sleep outside on the ground…. Next, they packed those Polish people into trains and took us to Germany. They locked the doors so nobody can come out. I remember I wanted to pee in this train but I was so ashamed because there were girls and boys next to me my same age. My mother covered me with a coat. I had to do it. It was just like an animal.
“The train took us to Neumark concentration camp in Germany. Again, those barrack soldiers, those Germans, with wires all around and high guards. They opened big gates to let us in. We were prisoners because they closed the gate and told us not to try to escape because that wire is electric… They put us all in one room with just a bench to sleep on and mattresses, straw in pieces of material, with lice crawling all over. Lice got all over us. They gave us a cup of coffee and a piece of bread. Boy, it was heaven…. All the infant babies died because of no milk, a piece of bread you couldn’t give to a baby. But my brother Henry didn’t die; he was a year-and-a-half and Mama still fed him breast milk. Can you imagine? I said, ‘Mama, that’s a miracle.’ So, our brother is still living.
“Only healthy people were allowed to live. Each morning, those Ukrainian guards came and we had to get up and stand up. If you don’t stand up, they take you away. But I got sick. I had diarrhea. My stomach. I was so sick. I don’t want to get up because I was too weak. My mother held onto the bench and held me on the back so I could stand. Because they would take me away…. All the guards in the concentration camps were Ukrainian guards, helping the Germans all the way. Neumark was like a concentration camp…. Nobody talks about Neumark, but they should.
“After six weeks, the agent came and took two large families to the farm, to a ranch, Grafl [Grafl, v. Walderdorf’sche]. They took us to a shack by the woods and gave us each a blanket and a straw mattress. There were one room and a stove to cook. We were upstairs and the other family had the downstairs…. We are going to stay there and we have to work on this ranch. We have to come in the morning and work here all day. The secretary of this owner came and gave us the rules. And she brings everybody a yellow and black ‘P’ for Polak. We have to wear this ‘P’ all the time. We can just go to work and back. Nowhere else, because they arrest us. They decide my mother is going to stay home because she has a baby. But me and my brothers, who are 10 and 12, and father and sisters, we have to go work.
“They give us a little bit of food and cards to buy food. But there was nothing too much there – flour, a little bit margarine, and every two weeks the whole family got a piece of meat and mother chopped it up in little pieces and cooked soup. Again, we were hungry, but it’s different if you’re free. Some days I stole potatoes in a field in the Fall. Other times there’s nothing you can steal. That was two years living like this…. No school. We couldn’t go anywhere. They allowed us just to go to work and back. Once a month, we were allowed to go to a church nearby; we had to wear a ‘P’ and the mass was only for those Polish people working in the area.
“Finally, American or English airplanes are coming to Regensburg, 15 kilometers from our place. They bombard every day for a couple of weeks. Regensburg was a mess. I think on May 15, 1945, the war was finished.
“Now we’re free, but what are we going to do? Probably UNRRA sent a truck for us and took our family to Regensburg. After two weeks, they took us to Hohenfels. That’s wood barracks and the whole family has just one room. The bathrooms are outside, one block walking outside. But we have in the hallway water running and you can wash your face and brush your teeth. A couple of barracks down, they have a group shower place, so you could take a shower – my first one in three years! UNRRA gives us food. That’s tuna fish and lots of chocolates. But we needed something else besides chocolate. We didn’t have many vegetables at all.
“My father worked in a court helping the judge. My two sisters married in this camp. They opened a school with some teachers and professors who came back from concentration camps. My father said we had to go to school. I’m far behind. I don’t want to go. I was embarrassed that I would have to go to school with the younger children. I didn’t want to so I took a test and they let me go to high school…. It was hard for me to study in the beginning. I had nightmares. I didn’t tell my mother. I couldn’t study because I couldn’t concentrate for a long time. The school helped me a lot in my life because they started teaching English.
“We can’t go back to our farm in that part of Poland. It was burnt down and Poland was given to Russia. Poland was communist and we were afraid they would take us to Siberia. We found out from the Red Cross that my mother had a brother in America. They wrote and told them we are here in Germany and we are living because nobody knows if we are living. And they said they would help bring us to America. But America didn’t take immigration. Roosevelt didn’t open immigration. When Truman came, he let the people come. That was 1949. They sent the papers and my uncle paid $700. I still remember because when my mother and my father came to America, they were happy to pay him back.
“My older married sister Stella stayed in Poland. Finally, she found us through the Red Cross when we were in the camp already. All these years we didn’t know what happened to her. And she didn’t know we are alive too.
“America was not taking in people until 1949. But for me, l always was so brave everywhere, it was very bad in the camp, hungrier. I finished the fourth grade of high school and I thought that Canada takes only single people, nobody else. And I knew that Canada is very close to America. So, I signed up to go to Canada by myself because I’m going to make money and going to take my family there because we had lost hope for America. It took me two weeks by boat to get to Canada all my myself. I was 17, almost 18 years old.
Michelle continues her story: earning pennies doing piecework in Canada; reconnecting with her family in Hamtramck, Michigan in 1950; falling in love with Alexander Zaucha’s beautiful singing voice and marrying him in 1951; raising their son and daughter, Edward and Theresa; working as a cleaner at General Motors and later as a hairdresser at Bela Deutsch’s Beauty Shop; and traveling back to Poland with her daughter to visit her sister and again with her friend. She told a little bit of her story to Theresa “but never to my son. Why we don’t talk…. It’s such a sad story. I didn’t tell how they murdered those women and children. I just don’t want to talk about it. It was terrible. How am I going to tell these children? I want them to live life; free life.”
Michelle is a very strong and proud woman. “I am the strongest woman in the world.” She wants people to know that “They should just love each other. Be good to each other.… America is divided. I think it is so wrong what is going on in America. We should love. We should be one person…. The future, we don’t know. I hope America will be strong and doing a good job.”
Date of Interview: February 7, 2020
Length of Interview: 146 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus