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Helene R. Lee: Family letters reveal horrors of WWII

Sept. 1, 1939, is a day remembered by all who fought in World War II. It is the day that the war began. Poland was invaded by the Nazis, thereby unleashing a catastrophic event greater than any war before.

I write about this period of time from a personal perspective – the effect of this war on my grandparents’ relatives in Poland. I have been rereading letters from Poland that I discovered a few years ago when cleaning my mother’s house preparatory to selling it. The oldest letter is dated 1919. They continue sporadically through the 1920s and 1930s, then stop in late summer 1939.

I wonder if my distant relatives were aware of the coming war. Surely they heard of the German invasion of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938, although these were considered “incursions.” Did they prepare in some way? I do know there were no letters in either direction; the mail could not get through during the war.

The letter that affected me deeply is dated early 1946, less than a year after the war ended. It is from my maternal grandmother’s nephew, a farmer. He writes about the war in a matter-of-fact manner.

Dear Aunt,

Through all the years of war you do not write. Things have changed very much. Thank God we are healthy, but not doing well as one expects after such a horrible war and such inexpressible anguish that we went through.

For one, we had to hand over our grain and cattle, almost free, to fill in the required quotas. I had to give my horse. I was able to buy another horse but this brought on greater grief because the Germans found several wagons to carry stone and gravel for roads and they took this horse, too.

So it continued. By this time I thought we would not live; there seemed to be no end. Every little while there were arrests. People were killed in our village – shot. Many times I, with my son, wandered through the forests to evade the Nazis who killed mostly men and older boys. Other times there was always “work and give” to the Germans.

He writes about digging trenches for the Nazis, never asking why they were needed. It was better not to ask. And he writes about hearing of people sent to concentration camps, and the horrific killings in the fall of 1944. Somehow he managed to do a little planting at night after he came back from a work camp and then he prayed for a good harvest to sustain his family, his main worry. He also writes about the Nazis retreating and taking anything they could from the farmers and villagers.

The nephew’s name is Stanislaw and toward the end of the letter he writes: I am 52 years old and remember you very little, only when you came to say good-bye before you left for America.

Stanislaw’s story was repeated over and over again by so many who suffered under a brutal regime.

Each Sept. 1, I remember Stanislaw and others, such as my cousins, lost in the war. I also remember when, as a Catholic school student, the nuns instructed us to pray for the conversion of Russia and for peace.

So with the senseless slaughter in the Middle East and Africa, as well as in our own country, and the blatant actions of the man rattling the Russian sabers, is it too late to pray for peace before another Sept. 1 occurs? Or another Sept. 11 or another Dec. 7?