I AM SHOUTING WITH SILENCE
FR. PAWEŁ BOROWSKI
A January evening in Działdów. Monday. Allegedly not different or particular. People are returning homes, others are returning from school, somebody is hurrying to settle some important matters. There are also those who are staying in their warm houses, spending their time in front of TV after a hard day. However, for me this is an unusual evening.
I arrived here to make a particular journey in time. To see, hear and feel what happened over 70 years ago, when I had not been born yet. In order to make this journey I only needed a time-machine. I only need memories of those who survived to give a testimony.
I was brought up in the shadow of former military barracks being at Grunwaldzka street. The primary school which I attended was nearby. I often passed by old buildings, when I used to go to the workplace of my parents. There was a wholesale of alcohol, and the very place always filled me with fear. The monument being nearby reminded me of a woman playing the harp. And it was not astonishing to me. After all in one of the buildings there was a music school. With passing years, thanks to my teacher of history in the secondary school, I began to discover the place. Terrifying facts began to constitute a whole, like a moving paintbrush on the canvass, and a full image appeared to me eyes, nearly a few days ago, on the mentioned January evening. A German death camp – KL Soldau was established in September 1939. It was the first concentration camp established by the Nazis on Polish lands. It was called a transitory camp and in fact for thousands of prisoners it became a gate through which they were passing from life to death. The harp from the monument changed into a barbed wired fence, the woman - into a prisoner. I understood why this place was terrifying.
It was not a film
‘Soldau – a city on the border of death’ – this is a title of a documentary which made me arrive in my home place. Its premiere was planned on 15 January 2018. The Aula of the Center of Continuing Education in Działdów was filled to the brim. Among people gathered there – two women. I stopped to talk with them for a while and I found out that I was standing with the witnesses of those gloomy events. They were children who were in the camp in Działdów with their parents. Teresa Krowicka was 4 years old then, and Krystyna Gajewska – 10 years old. The traumatic experiences left a mark on them which they have had till today. – We all were sentenced death – says Mrs. Krystyna. Both of them emphasize that the fact that they survived was a miracle. – Every day I thank God for it – adds Mrs. Teresa.
We got used to violence shown on TV every day. We often ignore people’s tragic lives and we get down to everyday life as if nothing happened. Maybe it even happens that we are treating them as fun. This time, with bated breath and wet eyes from tears, I was listening to their stories. And I realized that it had not been a fun fair. It was not a film.
In the camp there was a terrible hunger. There was only stale bread to eat and coffee to drink which might have been called dirty water. From time to time there was soup served in corridors – 100 bowls were per a thousand of prisoners. Time for a meal was short. – One had to hurry up to eat something. One had to be cunning. People were grabbing food from one another – says Mrs. Krystyna. – I remember my feeling of hunger – says Mrs. Teresa. I have been worried till today that I would be short of food. – I could not understand for many years after the war why my mum did not allow me to eat the soup given by the Germans in the camp. Only when I was a teenager, my mum told me that the Germans had kidnapped children who had been born or died at the early age and prepared food out of them – she says with tears in her eyes.
Starving death involved a lot of prisoners. Those who did not die from starvation, experienced everyday terror, beating and humiliation. Priests and nuns were treated in the worst way, among the others, beatified archbishop Antoni Julian Nowowiejski and beatified bishop Leon Wetmański. Forcing to stomping on the cross and renunciation of Christ clashed with courage of faith ready for everything. Executions were everyday life. Prisoners were shot dead on the stairs to a basement or transported to nearby forests.
I cannot find any words to describe what I heard. Cruelty reaching the worst degree and the bottom of humankind. – A wild animal will attack, eat up its victim and goes away. In this camp a lot of those felons were unsatisfied people – says Fr. Can. Marian Ofiara, a custodian of the sanctuary of Beatified Martyrs in Działdów, who undertook the action of commemorating the victims of the Soldau camp.
Starvation of thousands of tortured people – does it also become my starvation? Their desire – is it also my desire? What to do to want to commemorate their sacrifice?
The film presentation begins. Organizers of the meeting and film makers say about a purpose which they had. – For many years I could not understand why I had not heard about that place and that terrible crime before. This film is our monument - a virtual monument of remembrance. Why did we undertake this task? Because we thought it as necessary. This is our duty – says Andrzej Rutecki, a secretary of the Association of Christian Renewal ‘Remembrance and identity’.
A question about the lack of proper commemorating victims of the camp was also worrying me. For years it seemed to me that everything had been done to blur the memory and cover the place with forgetfulness. I began to search for information about KL Soldau. In January 1945 the Germans organized a Death March for the last prisoners of the camp. Arranged in rows of four, in the raging blizzards, were being rushed to the North by the Nazis. A long 2 km row of prisoners passed across Frygonowo, Ostróda, Stare Jabłonki and got to Zawady Małe. It was where a group of 120 prisoners was shot dead. Only a few survived and lived till being liberated. Only a few days after that event, the Red Army entered Działdowo and created its own camp. – The Soviets organized a command and distribution camp of NKWD, from which thousands of Poles were transported to the East. Some attempts were made to blur the memory about the second camp. It might have caused unwillingness to the authorities and dealing with matters and the history of the place – says the president of the Association, Zenon Gajewski in an interview with me. No wonder that the matter of the camp was forgotten. – To such an extent that in awareness of inhabitants of Działdowo, this building exists as a military barrack, not a camp – adds Zenon.
In an interview with people engaged in the work of restoring remembrance, we come to the conclusion together that there are fewer and fewer witnesses of those events, and time is not our ally. The film which was made, is a step to save this place from forgetfulness. This is also one of elements of the monument of remembrance which we must build. – When I began to work on this film, I wanted these people who survived to know that their story is important, that there is somebody with them fighting to save it from forgetfulness – emphasizes the film director of the documentary Maria Cegiełka.
Bishop of Toruń Wiesław Śmigiel, who participated in the film premiere, did not hide his emotions. – For me it is a particular experience as here two bishops, many priests and nuns were killed. This is a place of execution of the Polish clergy during the Second World War – he says in an interview with me. The film does not only remind of history but also speaks a lot about us. – I would not exist if there was no clergy, no seminary, no Church in Poland which is successful thanks to its power of evangelization, if there had not been those martyrs who devoted their life for Church and for Poland. This place deserves particular remembrance – he adds. The former prisoners emphasize that this film is necessary for the next generations to warn them against terrible consequences of turning away from God. – Turning away from God leads to a terrible cruelty. If they had had God in their heart, I do not believe that they would have been able to do such things to another man – says Teresa Krowicka.
I am returning home as not the same man. In my mind I hear the words which I read in one of the military barracks in the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau: ‘The nation which does not remember its history, is doomed to its repetition’. I will not forget.
Translated by Aneta Amrozik
„Niedziela” 5/2018 (4 II 2018)