WW2’s brutality still haunts the children who survived it

Asleep in the predawn hours of September 1, 1939, she was clutching a beloved stuffed fox when the fearsome thunderstorm of a German air assault announced the outbreak of World War II. Fifteen days later, the war arrived in her front yard as Polish soldiers dug foxholes in the family garden. Germans advancing on Warsaw fired artillery on Młociny, the picturesque village where her family lived, eight miles northwest of the capital. Artillery shells destroyed the roof of her home, punctured a wall in her bedroom, crushed the porch, and exploded in the garden. Teresa, her older brother, Thomas, and their parents huddled in the cellar for hours, agonized by the groaning of a dying Polish soldier pleading for help they were powerless to provide. As they collected what could fit in an old baby carriage, a German soldier snatched my mother’s stuffed silver fox and placed it on the cab of his truck, a perverse trophy to the subjugation of other humans.  The next five years brought unimaginable horrors. Even six decades in the United States, across the ocean and on the other side of the war, couldn’t erase the trauma oflost innocence. Her parents came from educated nobility; her father, Bohdan Romanowski, was a descendant of Kazimierz Pułaski, a Polish nobleman who fought in the American Revolution and famously saved George Washington’s life in 1777. Her cosmopolitan mother, Alina Sumowska Romanowska, spoke four languages and grew up in what is now Ukraine, on a family estate that was burned in the 1917 Russian revolution, forcing them to flee to Kraków. The family moved to Młociny, a bucolic enclave between the Kampinos Forest and the Vistula River, and built a two-story villa. Nazi ideology saw not only Jews, but also Roman Catholic Poles like my mother’s family, as subhumans occupying territory crucial to Germany. In a closed-door speech to his generals shortly before the invasion of Poland, Adolf Hitler was quoted as having ordered to “send to death mercilessly and without compassion men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. By the spring of 1940, the Nazis were terrorizing non-Jews linked to the resistance as well, staging public executions in downtown Warsaw. A year later, Polish resistance leaders plotted to liberate the city from the Nazis as the Soviets approached from the east. In September, a Nazi brigade arrived on my mother’s block, ordered everyone to the street, and began hurling incendiary devices into homes as punishment. “I was standing in the middle of the street with a basin of dirty dishes, watching our home go up in flames,” my mother remembers. In three months, 650,000 residents of the city and its outskirts were processed there, crammed intonarrow train workshops separated by barbed wire and guarded by Gestapo and soldiers. Teresa, age 88, at her nursing home in Washington, D.C. One day, a pregnant woman gave birth, and a guard grabbed the newborn and drowned it in an oil pit. Gallery: VE Day 75th anniversary (Photos) With Victory in Europe (VE) Day this year marking the 75th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied Forces on May 8, 1945, people around the U.K., Europe and the rest of the world are celebrating the occasion while observing social distancing and lockdown restrictions implemented amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. While much of the planned publicevent schedule has been altered or cancelled due to the virus outbreak, some ceremonies are still being held - albeit in a stripped-back manner. As the public come together to celebratetheanniversary of the end of WWII and commemorate those who lost their lives in battle, we look at the occasion in pictures. (Above) The Royal Air Force Red Arrows pass over Buckingham Palace in London, England during a flypast to mark the occasion. A couple pictured outside their house in Tooting while marking the day in London, England.   A wreath is laid at the Armed Forces Memorial in Alrewas, England.   Britain's Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (known as the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay when in Scotland) observe a two minute silence at the Balmoral War Memorial in Scotland.  Teresa and her mother hid in the empty servants’ quarters for the remainder of the war. The records at Durchgangslager 121, now a memorial to those rounded up in the Warsaw Uprising, show that my mother’s train was bound for Mauthausen, a camp in Austria mostly used for “extermination through labor” of intellectuals and higher social classes in countries occupied by Germany. On April 7, 1945, Americans in Sherman tanks liberated the German village where my uncle was a forced laborer. (Tom never returned to live in Poland, making his way instead to the U.S., where he later enlisted to fight in Korea, attended MIT on the GI Bill, and built a distinguished career as a nuclear physicist. My mother answered his knock, but didn’t recognize the skeleton in a baggy coat with dirty feet poking through torn shoes. Thinking he was a beggar, she shut the door, before he protested, “Teresa, I am your father.” Exhausted by his trek from Germany to Poland, he spent the next year in and out of hospitals, but it was too late. After recovering, she eventually found work as a French and German translator at a stateagency to support herself and my mother. Her family was allocated a one-room apartment in Warsaw with shifts in a communal kitchen and only weekly access to public showers. She earned a masters in geography, but never joined the Communist Party,so her opportunities were limited until she came to the U.S. Life here dealt other blows: a bitter divorce, challenges returning to the workforce, and financial struggles. Prisoners of a Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, wave in joy after being liberated by the U.S. Army. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (L) with American President Dwight D. Eisenhower in London. Children celebrate VE Day amid the ruins of their homes in the Battersea district of London. Soldiers gaze at the Statue of Liberty, which was illuminated for the first time since the Pearl Harbor attack, in New York City. Celebratory streams of ticker tapes are seen strewn all over Wall Street in New York City after premature announcement from Associated Press that war in Europe had ended. The cover of a victory special issue of the British magazine Picture Post, celebrating the first VE Day.