In 1987 I jotted down my first notes about my mother's memories of her time as a forced laborer in Nazi Germany during World War II. They were quick notes: Rheinmetall Borsig, Unterluss, Kreis Celle Germany. It was the return address she wrote on envelopes and postcards to her family back home in Poland . She repeated it frequently as if not wanting to forget it.
I wrote it down in what I was using as my journal - a cheap steno notebook bought at the nearest drug store. It wasn't the first time she had said it nor would it be the last but by then I had learned that people talk about those things that are most important to them, the things that are closest to their hearts, so I wrote it down. I thought that, if anything, this was family history and I should remember it too. But on another level I wondered why I couldn't find any books about the forced labor experience, why I couldn't put what happened to her into context with the rest of all that happened during World War II. The literature was abundant when it came to concentration camp survivors so I knew what my aunt, my mother's sister, had experienced but the history books came up empty about the forced labor experience. I was kind of lost about this part of my mother. I knew her experiences were real. There were other women in our Polish American community who had been forced laborers in Germany as well. How to make sense of it?
At the time I was using my steno notebooks for a lot of different things but central to their use was to write things down about Poland, mostly the customs and traditions that I had grown up with and that the Polish American community was interested in when the articles ran in the Polish American Journal. And then in 1991, when she was 80 years old, my mother came to live with my husband and I. Frail, depressed, feeling no one needed her anymore, she spent most of her time in bed but she was very alert and really loved to talk. Sometimes when I was doing something around the house, she'd call for me to come to her bedside. "Pogadamy sobie," she'd say, meaning, "let's talk." I'd lie down next to her on the double bed and she's ask me what was I doing and what were we having for supper and other general things but that talk was just a pretext for what she really wanted and that was for me to listen to her talk. And among her talk of growing up in Poland were her memories of her time as a forced laborer in Germany during the war. I wrote them down in my steno notebooks during the seven years she lived with us. She would ask me what I was writing and I said to her, believing it with all my heart, "Mama, someday I'm going to write a book about what happened to you in Germany." I kept my promise.
My latest book, Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945 is my finally making sense of what happened, not just to my mother, but to the hundreds of thousands of other Polish women who suffered and died during that terrible time known as World War II. I wish I knew what I know now while my mother was still alive.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.