Polish and Chilean immigrant parents met in Chicago
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Trevor: My parents are both immigrants. My father came from Poland, and my mother came from Chile. My father immigrated after World War II. During the war, he was in the Polish Resistance fighting against the Nazi occupation. The Nazis eventually came and took his whole family because of his work in the Resistance.
Gallacher: What did your father do in the Resistance?
Trevor: Actually his whole family was involved in trying to resist the Nazis, but it was one particular incident that made him and his family a target for the Nazis. In March of 1943, the Gestapo arrested Janek, my father’s friend and a member of the Resistance. When word came of his arrest, my father asked for permission from leaders of the Grey Ranks (Polish Resistance) to try and liberate him. One night, my father and five others ambushed the prison bus that was transporting Janek from Gestapo headquarters in Warsaw to Pawiak Prison.
Five SS guards were killed and three wounded. My father and his friends were able to free Janek and 25 other prisoners, but Janek died shortly after from the beating he’d received during his interrogation. One of my father’s friends was killed in the attack and another was wounded. The guy who was wounded ran to a nearby cafe for refuge. The cafe owner called the Nazis, and they came and arrested him. During his interrogation, he gave them the names of everyone involved.
My father went into hiding but the Nazis came looking for him and took the whole family, his three sisters and his mother and father. One of his sisters, my aunt Lilka, wrote a book about that experience called “The Labyrinth of Dangerous Hours.” Here’s how she describes the day they were arrested.
“We were transported, at dawn, from Gestapo headquarters to Pawiak prison in a crowded truck. … As we entered the prison, women were separated from the men. We were led to a dim office room lit by a desk lamp. A man in a uniform sat behind the desk. He took our names, birth dates, addresses and confiscated our purses. Then we were taken to a quarantine cell. It was in this room that we encountered other prisoners who arrived before us. It was a motley group of women, of different ages. Their faces and their attire showed the almost four years of German occupation: tired, sunken cheeks, clothes from before the war times, carefully preserved; women tired of daily line-ups for the basics; bread, potatoes, milk.”
Two weeks later, my father was arrested and they all ended up in the same camp for a while.
Gallacher: What was the camp?
Trevor: Auschwitz. They were in one of the most notorious death camps, but, because they were Catholic and not Jewish, they were assigned to a work detail in a different part of the camp.
Gallacher: How long were they imprisoned?
Trevor: Two years. They were liberated at the end of the war. My father never really talked about it much so it was only recently, when my aunt published her book, that I really learned about the ordeal. My grandmother died of typhus a few months after they arrived in the camp, so my aunts, who were in their teens, were left to fend for themselves. They knew that my dad was in the camp because they saw him one day, but they weren’t allowed to talk to him.
My youngest aunt, Zosia, was moved to another camp after a year and they didn’t see her again until near the end of the war. In January of that last year, as the Soviets advanced on the camp, my Aunt Lilka and my Aunt Marina were forced to walk from Auschwitz to Breslau:
“In the darkness of the January dawn we were awakened by the loud ‘Raus, Raus’ of the guards as they shoved the prisoners out into the cold, wintry air. Marian and I were terrified, as we couldn’t put our stiff and wet shoes on our blistered and swollen feet. … I searched for a prayer and repeated Hail Marys, but these so-familiar words also slipped away. I whispered to Marina: ‘Leave me here, I can’t go on, I’ll stay behind, they’ll let me be.
“Again she was firm and helped me gently up as the column started moving slowly. ‘Do you hear those shots? They’re shooting the weak ones that can’t go on -they will shoot us, too.’ We moved slowly on, every step an unbelievable effort.”
They made it to Breslau where they stayed for a few weeks and then they were moved to Ravensbruck, a women’s camp. That’s where they were reunited with Zosia:
“As we milled around, we heard our names being shouted by someone on the other side of the road. The voice came from a tall girl whose face looked familiar. Zosia. Our first impulse was to run to her, and we burst out onto the road, but a fearsome German Kapo was on our backs with her wooden club. So we moved back, into the contaminated ranks of the Auschwitz prisoners, and started our discourse above the voices of the others. … We were amazed at Zosia’s height. When she left us she was still a little girl of 14. During the year in prison she grew to be the tallest one in the whole family.”
My aunts were able to stay together and, after a few weeks, they were moved to another camp, Bergen-Belsen. That’s where they were finally freed. They were taken to Italy and eventually reunited with my dad and my grandfather. The family stayed in Italy for a while and then they immigrated to England.
That’s where my father finished his degree in engineering, learned English and started making plans to move to the United States. But Senator Joe McCarthy was holding hearings then and claiming that communists were infiltrating the United States. My father knew that he wouldn’t have a chance of getting into the U.S. with a name like Trzcinska, so he changed his name to Trevor and was eventually granted permission to enter.
Gallacher: How did your parents meet?
Trevor: They met at a dance club in the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. My father asked my mother to dance. They were both alone in the city and started dating after that.
My mother was born in Santiago, Chile. She was the youngest of four children and eight years younger than her closest sibling. My grandfather was a judge, and he enrolled her in a private, bilingual school for diplomats’ children. So she started from kindergarten learning English. She graduated from high school and started a career as a bilingual secretary. Her father died when she was 16, so she continued to live with her mother long after high school. I don’t think my grandmother wanted her to get married, none of the suitors were ever suitable.
So by the age of 26 she still wasn’t married, and my uncle decided he needed to do something. He was involved with Lions Club International, and he was able to get her a job as a bilingual secretary in Miami. From there, she was transferred to Chicago.
Gallacher: What was it like growing up with a Pole and a Chilean as parents?
Trevor: My mother’s culture was dominant. She taught me Spanish, and when I was little we went to Chile for three months and I forgot my English. When we returned, there was so much pressure to speak English that I refused to speak Spanish and I lost it for a while.
It wasn’t until I was in seventh grade that I started really appreciating being bilingual again. I learned Spanish again pretty quickly.
Gallacher: What about your father’s culture?
Trevor: I never learned much about his culture and I still don’t know that much about his side of the family. He didn’t have much interaction with them after he moved to the United States. My Aunt Lilka and Aunt Zosia moved to Canada and started families. My grandfather moved there with them. My Aunt Marina stayed in England.
I think my father suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) before it had a name.
Immigrant Stories runs Mondays in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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