Christmas in Germany During World War II

by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
Polish American Journal (2016)

 

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945 by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab. (Hippocrene Books. 2016)

In those difficult, monotonous days full of homesickness, the most difficult to manage were the holidays, especially Christmas. For Christian Poles, the single most important holy day of the year is Christmas Eve, the birth of Christ. It is an evening when families and friends gather together to eat a special supper called Wigilia and to share an unleavened wafer called opłatek. It is a time, not just to be together, but to bond together with heartfelt words of love. The opłatek is such a symbol of family solidarity that, in the absence of a family member on that night, to let them know that they are thought of and not forgotten, it is sent to them in the mail. During those impossibly difficult war years, families in Poland made every attempt to send a piece of the wafer to their loved ones scattered throughout Europe in forced labor and in concentration camps. If it never reached them, the prisoners, inmates and forced laborers took whatever piece of bread they managed to scrimp and save and shared that among themselves.

    Anna. I remember the first Christmas. On Wigilia, on Christmas Eve, I cried from the morning on. In my thoughts I was at home in Jaroszew, in my quiet Mazowian village. I moved around as if in a dream ... after supper which was a regular supper, after washing the dishes we arranged ourselves in my room one of the saddest Christmas Eves. We had opłatek, a few candies of our own making and a piece of piernik (gingerbread) sent from home. We couldn’t utter a word. Not one of us could take control of the moment. In that quiet silence we sat for a long, long time. That Wigilia I haven’t forgotten to this day.

Christmas in the camps was noted in the diary of Julia Gawryłkiewicz-Kodelska (taken for forced labor after the Warsaw Uprising)

    December 24, 1944. The entire week they have been cutting back on our rations ... we are told that on Christmas Eve we will not receive supper ... we decided that in spite of everything we will have Wigilia. One of us obtained some beets, someone else a cabbage, potato and onion ... we prepared our supper. Everything would have been alright, without sadness and tears, if it weren’t for those first moments of gathering around the Wigilia table. After the first few words of “Wśród Nocnej Ciszy” (“In the Silence of the Night”) all the voices broke and instead of song, there were only sobs. The buried hurt spilled over in a stream of tears. There wasn’t one among us who hadn’t lost someone close in Warsaw.

     

Far from home, missing family, lacking food, the women made valiant attempts to re-create their Christmases from back home as best they could, often assisted by other Poles.

    Kazimiera K. And then it was the holidays (December 1944). Christmas. Poor, sad, hungry. And the boys gave us a wonderful unexpected surprise. One of the boys brought us a Christmas tree. The first and only one the entire time we were there. There wasn’t anything to decorate it with so a ribbon ... one of the girls made a few stars. We were overjoyed.

 

Nothing about their situation, however, was remotely normal and the day didn’t end the way it did back home with the singing of carols and church bells calling the faithful to midnight mass to celebrate the birth of Christ.

     

    Aniela Bojko. Our first Christmas in the foreign country is imprinted forever in my memory. On Christmas Eve we rushed back from work. We decorated our room with branches of spruce. On the branches we hung some candy and apples sent from Poland. From old boxes we made decorations for the branches. On the table were pieces of old bread, some lard, a few apples and a piece of broken opłatek. When the first star showed in the heavens and it came time to share the wafer, none of us had the nerve to be the first to approach the table and take the wafer to share with our friends who shared our misery. In the corners of the large room you could hear sobbing and sniffling. Finally, one of our group, Stefka Walusek from Rzeszów asked:

    What should we sing? Maybe “Serdeczna Matko’ [the much-loved Polish hymn to the Blessed Mother; in the powerful lyrics, the Polish people call on her to look down on her crying people, to save them from homelessness]?”

    We joined together and sang. Only after the song and in the midst of deepest silence did we begin sharing the opłatek and began reminiscing about those closest to us, our friends and family back home.

    Neighboring next to us in a smaller room there lived a group of Ukrainian girls from some kind of subversive organization. They had certain freedoms and liberties on par with the German citizens. They could participate in entertainments such as movies, radio and didn’t have a curfew. They heard our song and ran over to report that the girls from Reiterheim were singing ‘Boże, coś Polskę. We had barely laid down to sleep when we were woken by the loud tramping of men’s feet. It was the police. Drunk, they entered the room hollering:

    “Raus!”

    Shaking from cold and fear, only in our underclothes, we formed two rows. They counted us and then loudly began questioning us: “

    “Who was singing the song?”

    Out of fear we didn’t know what song he was talking about. When they drove us out into the yard where we had to stand barefoot on the ground we finally figured out what this was all about. One of my friends says to me: “

    “Aniela, tell them that we were not singing any patriotic songs, but only to the Blessed Mother.”

    I was deathly afraid but with difficulty was able to mutter: “

    “Das ist aber Herzliche Mutter.”

    After this clarification the oldest policeman thought a little and in the end directed that we each receive two clouts and hollered:

    “Raus zum Bett! (To bed!)

    That was our first Christmas Eve in exile. I can’t forget it and often at my Christmas Eve table I recall this story to my children.

 

Christmas is a time for celebration, for closeness to family and friends, for peace and contentment. That is what we wish for ourselves and for others. As we share the opłatek this Christmas Eve let us always keep in mind the importance of our traditions, to hold them close to our hearts and practice them wherever we are, whatever our circumstances.

Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia!

 

FOOTNOTES.

Anna: From Koziełło-Poklewski and Łukasziewicz, ed. Ze Znakiem P. Relacje i wspomnienia z robót przymusowych w Prusach Wschonich w latach II wojny światowej. Ośrodek Badań Naukowych im. Wojciecha Kętrzynskiego w Olsztynie. Olsztyn 1985

Julia Gawryłkiewicz-Kodelska: From Dyliński, Ryszard, ed. Z Litera “P” Polacy na Robotach przymusowych w hitlerowskiej Rzeszy 1939-1945. Wspomnienie. Wydawnictwo Poznańskie. Poznań. 1976

Kazimiera K: From “Forced Labor 1939-1945” online archive, za209

Aniela Bojko: From Bigorajska, Zofia and Pietruczuk-Kurkiewicz, Władysława ed. Gdy Byliśmy Litera P. Wspomnienia wywiezionych na przymusowe roboty do III Rzeszy. Ludowa Spóldzielna Wydawnica Warszawa 1968

 

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