Kraków, Poland May 30, 1942

I was walking down the narrow street, right behind the Planty. Someone had told me the Germans were looking for young boys to round up, so I was making a big circle around the Main Market Square. Every single door and window was boarded up, nobody on the street. I was on my way to the YMCA to be with my friends. I didn’t make it. All the doors on the street were closed and locked. The people knew to lock the doors before the Germans began arresting.

I come around the bend, and here comes a big truck, with the [German] SS guards walking in front of it, holding big guns. One of the SS waved his hand towards himself, signaling to me. “Kommen Sie hier. Kommen Sie hier.” [Come here.]

The other three or four soldiers kept their guns pointed at me. What are you going to do? I was twenty-four at the time and they looked to be the same age as me. I felt secure because I had good German papers from working at Freege. I turned and walked right up to face them. They politely asked, “Are you Jewish? Polish? Deutscher? [German?]”

I decided to answer in my best high school German. “Alt Deutscher Staat. Jawohl!”

[I’m from old German country. Yes, sir!]

Alt means ancient, almost pre-historic. Why? Because long ago, Germans had claimed Kraków as the old German city. Of course, that was a thousand years ago. Now, Kraków was under German rule again.

So, what do they give me? They give me a punch in the nose and a kick in the ass, and I find myself in the back of the truck. There I find my friends, about twenty of them from the YMCA. The Germans picked up the entire basketball team, a couple guys from the boxing team, and footballers, all strong guys. I was the only water polo player they got that day. We kept whispering back and forth, “Heh, where are they taking us? What are they doing with us?”

So, someone decided we should eat any papers that had names, addresses, or phone numbers on them.

The truck started rolling slowly and didn’t drive too long. It came to a stop, we heard some orders, and the truck drove through the gates of Montelupich prison and stopped inside the large courtyard. Some SS guards threw open the flaps, then stood back with guns pointed at us, lights shining down.

I’d been by this building before; it’s not far from downtown Kraków. The Montelupich family built it as their manor four hundred years ago; the park across the street used to be the manor’s gardens. In the 1800s, the Austrians made it a prison when they ruled over Kraków. They covered the tall windows in bars. Now, all I saw was barbed wire and glass on top of the walls. I didn’t have time to look around as the guards pointed their guns at us and shouted, “Raus. Raus.” [Out. Out.]

They hurried us into the cellar of the big building. There were about two or three hundred of us in the dark cement room. We kept whispering to ourselves because we had no idea what to do.

The next morning, about forty of us were moved to an L-shaped transport cell on the main floor. The Germans did release three men as Volksdeutsche [German nationals living in Poland]. In the corner of the room, there was a barrel of excrement by these big, heavy doors that slid on a track. There was also a big, tiled oven, and only one twenty-five-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling to light the entire room. Everyone take a seat somewhere by the wall. You get nothing to sleep on, but you take up some space and make do, even though the cement was cold. We talked. Some guys still had matches on them, and someone had a stubby pencil, so we pooled the matchbook covers and made a deck of cards to play bridge. It was something to pass the time.

The first day, nothing.

The second day, interrogations.

One by one, we are taken out to the SS room. An SS officer sat at a table and two other guards stood by. I stood facing the table, but not too close. He looked at me with no expression on his face. Then, the questions began.

“Tell us about your underground activities.”

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Whap! Whap! One of the guards beat me from behind on my head and back with a heavy wooden stick, like he was swinging a baseball bat.

“Did you listen to the radio?”

No! I screamed in pain as the guard beat me again.

My interrogator’s voice got louder. “What? You’re a high school graduate and you’re telling me you didn’t hear the BBC on the radio?”


Whap! Whap! Whap! Now, the blood is running down my face. I can barely stand.

“What? You didn’t see the notes the BBC drop from the airplane?”

No! By now I almost fainted.

“That’s it. Pants off. Now!”

I remember this as clearly as yesterday because it hurt like hell, more pain than I ever have in my life. They had a Pencala brand pen—an expensive fountain pen with a sharp point. You can write with it; it was long and thick like a stick. They kept hitting me down there, with the sharp point. I screamed until I passed out. They throw me out of the room onto the hard cement floor in the hallway and throw my clothes on top of me. I crawled back to the holding room in agony, the guard kicking me if I stopped moving. Behind me, I heard it start all over with the next guy they took in the room.

After the first beating they give us two days to recuperate.

I always looked for a way to get out. I was the one who volunteered to carry the slop bucket out every morning. It meant I got out of the room, even for a few minutes. I was the only one who went outside that came back into the room after leaving. Everyone else, once they left they never came back.

On the third day, the process started all over again. One by one, they dragged us out of our holding room.

I remember when we were waiting for the interrogation, lined up in the hall, they tell us to face the wall, heads to the wall. You don’t move or talk or they hit you. I tried to whisper something to my friend next to me but they heard me. Bam! They shoved my head against the stone wall.

Among the forty of us in the holding cell, there were two priests and a famous Olympic skier, Stanley Marusarz. In the 1936 Olympics, he ranked seventh in the world for ski jumping, and now I get to meet him. He also was one of the very few who ever escaped from Montelupich Prison. He survived the war and competed in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics, but I never see him again.

Our holding cell was on the ground floor of the prison. Some windows had bars on them. Someone found a towel, and the two strongest guys soaked it in the slop bucket to get it wet, then wrapped it around two of the bars like a tourniquet. They bent those bars and made an opening just big enough for a grown man to squeeze through. Stan and two other guys decided to make a run for it. Stan jumped out first, ran to a ten-foot high fence that had glass and barbed wire on top. The second guy jumped out the window and ran to the fence. Stan tried to help him up the wall, but he didn’t make it up the fence and the Germans shot him in the back. The third one got out the window, but the Germans shot him before he even got to the fence. Only Stanley got away.

A few days after that episode, two kitchen cooks from the SS kitchen came into the room, went to one of the window’s bars and jarred one of the bars just a little loose. They were laughing as they did it. They left, and we dismissed it.

Around 10 p.m., just as we’re about to sleep, the SS major came in the room drunk like hell. He went straight to that window and demanded, “Who did that?”

One of the professors who was with us spoke up in German.

Jawohl, Herr Major, two German soldiers came in this morning and did that.”

The SS major got all red in the face and yelled at the poor guy. “What, are you crazy? Two German soldiers?”

He grabbed that professor, slapped him up the side of the head, threw him to the ground and kicked him two or three times. As the professor lay there, the SS major then turned his drunken face to the rest of us with his pistol pointed at us.

Suddenly there was one boy in this corner by the oven. He started shaking, and then said, “I know who did it.”

The German major ordered him, “Come here.”

So, this kid goes to the center of the room. He went into a spasm and fainted.

The drunk SS major starts pointing at us randomly and picks out ten of us. I was holding the bridge “cards” in my hand, so I was sure that’s what he saw. Then, he turns and points directly at me with his pistol. I’m a dead guy for sure.

Nicht du!” [Not you!] And he waves his gun behind me.

I’m taller than most of the guys. I didn’t know some short guy moved to hide behind me. The major saw the movement and grabbed this small kid from behind me, and marched him out with the other nine he’d already picked out. Ten minutes later we heard rat a tat tattattatout in the courtyard. We heard the shots, and I just kept shaking. I leaned my back against the wall, slid down to the floor and put my head in my hands. Now, we were down to twenty-four men.

On June 15, they told us to get dressed and line up. The guards marched us out to the courtyard where a transport truck stood waiting for us. We had no idea where we were going. The truck left Montelupich, followed the outskirts of Kraków, heading west through the woods. The drive was no more than an hour. We kept peeking out under the flaps. As we neared our destination, I saw men in blue-grey striped uniforms working along the road. I recognized two brothers who were my friends. Karol and Wilik Tomaszczyk were pulling a wooden cart on two wheels, sort of like a flat wheelbarrow. Wilik recognized me and signaled, “Henry, you’re going to be all right,” as we drove past. I remember thinking that was a good sign. I tell the other guys, “If they can do it, we can do it.”

As we came through the gates to a camp of sorts with red brick buildings, we drove under a sign in German that said Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free.) I had no idea what this place was, but I remember feeling great relief. I’d always been a hard worker. This had to be better than Montelupich prison.

Copyright © 2017 by Katrina Shawver