My Uncle’s Story: Love During War

by Sandy L on August 3, 2011

I think it’s about time to tell the story of my Uncle.  I think this will turn into multiple posts. I hope you enjoy it.

Part 1: Being Taken Away to the Slave Labor Camp

Just over 5 years ago, my dear uncle died of cancer at the age of 84. If I could choose one word to describe him, it would be that he was a survivor.  A little known fact that most people don’t know about the war is when the Nazi’s occupied Poland, the general belief was that Jewish people paid the ultimate price with their lives, but Catholics were spared. I won’t turn this into a history lesson, but although Jewish people were by far the biggest minority that was massacred during the war, there were others that were also sent to their deaths.  Gypsies, Homosexuals, Scholars, Handicap people, people with mental illness, etc.   For Catholics we faired a little better.  We weren’t issued instant death sentences, but it was a requirement that every family send one child, usually the eldest son, to work in a slave labor camp.  If you’ve seen schindler’s list or sophie’s choice, these types of situations really happened. 

My uncle was the one chosen from my mother’s family to go.  From the get go, this guy had the odds of survival stacked against him.  He was only 14.   This was controversial because he had an older brother that was 19 and although he was older, stronger and more mature, he was spared because it was believed he had more potential than my uncle.  My uncle spent the next 5 years in Germany as a slave laborer until the war ended. 

Can you imagine what he must have been feeling as a young teenage kid all charged up with teen angst and emotion?   Back in 1940, the Nazis were taking over the world and for all he knew, he just got a life sentence of slavery. I think I would have been thinking.  “Thanks mom and dad for picking me, your least favorite child.”

My uncle always seemed tough as nails.  He was roofing houses until his late 70’s.  The optimist in me thinks that maybe they picked him because they knew his was tougher than his big brother and had a better chance of survival.  As far as slave labor assignments, my uncle actually did pretty well. Since he was a farmer and had experience in that area, they assigned him to a farm in Germany.   Farmer and Chef were by far the best job assignments one could have. This was already the life he knew and most importantly he could steal extra food and keep himself strong and healthy.  I believe the easiest thing to steal was raw eggs when he was collecting them from the chickens in the morning.

My aunt didn’t fare as well.   Her family took a different approach.  I think her closest sibling was a toddler.  At first they tried to put her in hiding.  That didn’t work very well.  The nazi’s told the family if they didn’t produce her immediately, the whole family was going to be sent to the work camp.  That meant the decrepid grandmother, the toddler, everyone…and if you can’t work, you get shot.   They conceded that she had to go. Off she went to work in a German factory at age 15.  She was also there for 5 years.

The most famous story of my aunt was the day she decided to trade her food ration with someone for a pair of shoes.   That day, she collapsed.   That was almost the last day of her life.  Luckily, one of the chefs saw what she did, helped her get up and snuck her a little food.  He told her that if she wanted to live, she could never ever to do that again or she’ll be shot.  You see, the Nazi’s did all kinds of horrible experiments on people for the sake of science.  One of those experiments was figuring out the minimum amount of food and rest a person needs to be able to work non-stop but without killing them in the process.  They essentially optimized slave labor into maximum labor for minimum cost.  By giving up her food that day, she dipped below the point where she could still work and collapsed.

Thankfully the war did end and the Nazi’s did not win.   All the slave laborers were taken to big red cross camps and given relocation assistance.  They offered to either help send people back to their home country and they were also given the opportunity to go to a few other places that were sponsoring immigrants.   My uncle wanted no part of Poland after what happened to him and he never stepped foot into the country again.  That’s how he came to be in America.   My aunt wanted to go to Australia, but she found out she had some relatives in the states, so she ended up in the states as well. 

My aunt and uncle met at the red cross camp after the war and then after they both camp to America, he courted her and they eventually got married.  Oh what a time it must have been at that red cross camp.  The war was finally over, these young kids still had much of their lives ahead of them and love was in the air everywhere.

The lesson today is to never ever give up. Even if something seems grim, like being sentenced to a life of slavery, don’t give up hope. The people who gave up I’m sure didn’t last a year before they got a bullet in the head.  Make the most of the life you’ve been given and look for opportunities to better it.  For my uncle that opportunity was the US of A.

More to come…..

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Centavos August 3, 2011 at 7:41 AM

The Poles suffered terribly during WWII. Even with being Catholic, many Nazis saw them as sub-human Slavs, and did not spare them in the prison camps. Keep the story coming, please…

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Sandy L August 4, 2011 at 5:04 PM

101- I will, but it I have to be in a certain frame of mind to write this stuff.

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kevin August 3, 2011 at 8:38 AM

Great stories, Sandy. I’m glad that they made it so you could share their story. It’s hard to imagine that so many people such as the Nazis could have been driven to such unspeakable evil, but it’s also dangerous to dehumanize them and paint them as monsters because this is really the dark side of human nature and any society can fall to the dark side just as they did. This was 70 to 80 years ago which is a very short time in human history.

My grandmother was born in 33 in south Germany and thankfully the worst she had to face as a child were planes occasionally strafing the fields; it could have been bad had she lived in Hamburg or Dresden with the firestorm bombing. The civilians all around suffered greatly for the evils of their society and government.

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Sandy L August 4, 2011 at 5:09 PM

Kevin – You’re so right. Nazis were just men. I knew an ex sniper and he had no feelings towards his “targets”. It’s very easy to desensitize yourself from the “enemy.”

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Money Beagle August 3, 2011 at 9:09 AM

Thank you for sharing their stories. As awful as some parts of those stories are, by using them as teaching tools, we hopefully can avoid society making the same mistakes again and make sure that these things never happen in our future.

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Sandy L August 4, 2011 at 5:10 PM

MB – I’d love to think that was true, but it’s still happening today…just in different parts of the world.

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Dr. Dad, PhD August 3, 2011 at 9:58 AM

Thank you for sharing your family’s story. My grandmother was a French Catholic and was lucky enough to be sent away for only a couple of years. She never liked talking about her experiences in detail, but a lot of that may have been that she felt I was too young to hear her stories (I was 14 when she died).

I do remember however that whenever things got tough she used a Nazi phrase to inspire her “march or die.” Not the most uplifting motivational story, but I think it’s important to remember how much easier my life is compared to hers.

And with that note, I’ll get back to work on my tenure packet and manuscript.

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Sandy L August 4, 2011 at 5:12 PM

Dr. Dad – yeah, my aunt NEVER talked about the war. I really wish I knew more about the whole experience. Like what the first thing she craved to eat or what she missed most about her freedom.

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Nansuelee August 3, 2011 at 10:25 AM

Great story, thanks for sharing. I learned more about the Holocaust from a presentation at our church called The Paperclip Project. The teachers of Whitwell, TN Middle School wanted a way to teach about diversity and used the Holocaust as their project. The children ran with it and eventually want to collect one paperclip for each person killed. The paperclip idea came from the Polish who would wear a paperclip on their collar as a show of support for those being encamped and killed. It is from this documentory that I learned it was not just the Jewish that were being persecuted. Check out the DVD if you can it is a wonder story.

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Sandy L August 4, 2011 at 5:13 PM

Nansuelee – Thank you. I’ll have to try to find it.

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Nicole August 3, 2011 at 1:01 PM

Wow.

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retirebyforty August 3, 2011 at 2:19 PM

What an amazing story! It’s a great story to pass down to your children.

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Linda August 3, 2011 at 4:36 PM

An inspiring story so far, and hearing this from a person so close to you must have been deeply moving. Several years ago I lived in an apartment building that slowly filled with Bosnian refugees. I was one of the few non-Bosnians in the building, but they were very warm and friendly people to me. I recall one man talking briefly about being in a camp. Despite the language barrier and crude interpretation of his story, his body language was very evocative. He showed how his arms were tied up behind his back, and talked about how he was lucky to get a piece of bread and water each day.

As Kevin noted, this the dark side of human behavior. Sadly, it has happened in many places and continues to happen to this day.

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Sandy L August 4, 2011 at 5:14 PM

Linda – one of my friends worked with those refugees. She ended up publishing a book of children’s art that came from one of those camps. We are so lucky that we didn’t have to endure any of this kind of stuff.

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BigLittleWolf August 3, 2011 at 8:49 PM

I’m here via Mutant Supermodel, and glad that I came to read this. Quite a story – and an inspiration. The sort of beginning that most of us in the US can’t imagine. All the more reason that I think it’s helpful for people to travel – and while they’re young enough to see more of the world and realize the hardships that are sustained outside their own little worlds.

I can’t help but believe that we’d be a more compassionate and responsible culture if that were the case.

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Sandy L August 4, 2011 at 5:16 PM

Big Little Wolf – welcome. I think you’re so right about travel. I have been all over. There’s nothing like going to a developing nation to get back to the basics of what’s important in life. It makes you realize you’re an idiot about stressing about something stupid at work or obsessing about getting that next material item.

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Kellen August 4, 2011 at 9:36 AM

How horrible to have to choose which of your children to send to a camp. Overall, better than the whole family being required to go, but so potentially damaging to the fabric of a family.

I recently read a fiction book where characters were in a similar situation, and are lauded (by the author) for giving up their daily portion to a younger worker, etc… your story shows that in reality of a situation like this, there would be no room to do anything but fight for your own life. (Although I understand she traded, didn’t just give it away.)

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Sandy L August 4, 2011 at 5:17 PM

Kellen – yeah, I don’t think my uncle ever forgave his parents for sending him over his older brother. It really wasn’t fair, but in the end my uncle ended up having a more prosperous life as a result.

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everyday tips August 5, 2011 at 2:05 PM

Oh my goodness, what a story. Your family has so many interesting stories. I am so sorry that people suffered so much though.

I would love if your aunt and or uncle could write a post about their experiences. That would be absolutely fascinating.

Thanks for sharing!

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Jeff @ Sustainable life blog August 5, 2011 at 4:59 PM

Very inspiring story, Sandy – some of the things people had to deal with during the war were terrible. I also didnt know about the food rationing – very interesting.

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Molly On Money August 6, 2011 at 9:19 AM

Great story- keep it coming.
WWII was not very far off and things like this are still going on. During WWII people in the US would hear rumors but it just seemed to vile to actual believe. Today we have CNN and NPR exposing atrocities in foreign countries and I we still don’t really believe it…or worse, don’t want to think about it.

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Molly On Money August 7, 2011 at 9:12 AM

And just to add….I think personal stories like yours does bring it home to us and hopefully move to us to action.

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Squirrelers August 8, 2011 at 6:19 PM

I’m looking forward to the rest of your story, Sandy. This was enlightening and inspriational already. Hard to imagine that this really wasn’t that long ago. Sure, before our time, but just one generation removed. Think about it. Anyway, I’m thankful for what we have today.

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World of Finance August 8, 2011 at 11:46 PM

The lives of our ancestors are truly amazing, full of messages such as this one. Glad that your aunt and uncle were both survivors and pulled through tough times.

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Money Reasons August 9, 2011 at 9:35 PM

Wow, your uncle’s (and aunt’s) story sure makes my generations (and my son’s) look pretty easy.

I can imagine his perspective on things was a lot different than ours… My older family members have had some hard times in the past, but nothing as difficult as slavery!

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