Remembering life with the Russians during World War II
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Intro: Kazimierz Kozak has lived in Colorado for more than 30 years. He grew up Poland and came to the United States in 1977.
Kozak: I was a little boy when World War II started. We lived on a little farm in the country, and for the first few years of the war, German soldiers passed through regularly and stayed at our place. Sometimes they gave us things and sometimes they just took. We were able to stay out of the way of the war until 1945 when the Russian army started to advance and push the Germans out. That was hell.
The Russians pushed the Germans out of Radom, a town about thirty miles from our home. That’s when the Germans retreated to the banks of the river near us and took a stand. We watched as they dug trenches along the river and prepared for the Russians. Then it started. Russian planes were flying overhead and shooting and strafing the Germans. I watched a plane go up in flames and the pilot parachute down. The Germans shot him and he fell to the ground.
We stayed for a while as the Russians and the Germans fought back and forth. The Russians had captured the higher ground and set up machine guns. The river ran red while they kept shooting and shooting. During that time, we stayed in the bunker we had built and prayed the rosary as loud as we could. Sometimes we were in there for three days waiting for it to stop. One time, when the shooting had stopped for a while, my oldest brother ran to the garden and filled his pockets with cucumbers just so we would have something to eat.
The shooting finally stopped and we thought we were safe. That’s when the German army showed up at our house and ordered us to come out. They lined us up with their guns aimed at us. A soldier stuck his rifle in my older brother’s tummy and ordered him to empty his pockets because it looked like he had a grenade. It was only a cucumber.
They marched us into the forest where we saw hundreds of German soldiers. Some were digging trenches and some were setting up machine guns. Suddenly the Russians started firing mortars. Shrapnel was flying everywhere but we had to keep going, the Germans wouldn’t let us go back.
We finally came to a place where other Polish people had gathered and we stayed there for a while. We took some logs from the forest and built a bunker to protect us from the fighting. Whenever the shelling stopped we hunted for things to eat but most of the time we hid in the bunker.
Gallacher: So you thought you were going to die?
Kozak: Oh yeah. When the shrapnel started flying I just hit the ground with my face in the manure. It was hard for me to imagine that I might survive with cannons and planes fighting and shooting all around me.
It was like that for what seemed like forever, first the Germans and then the Russians. We had to try and find food wherever we could. We slept in the trenches where the soldiers had been and looked for bits of food that they had left behind. I found grenades and hung them on my belt. When we came to a river, I would throw one in and it would explode and paralyze the fish. We would gather as many as we could.
Once a Russian soldier stopped us and wanted to know what we were doing with all the fish. We explained and he told us to come with him. He got a tank grenade that was much bigger than anything we had. When he threw this grenade in the river, the water flew up higher than the trees. There were so many fish. My brother caught one that was three feet long. The Russian soldier took the big one and left all the rest for us.
Gallacher: So the Russians were friendly.
Kozak: At first but they always reminded us that they had saved us. They seemed to think that gave them the right to do whatever they wanted to us. After the war, it was Stalin and the Russians with their communism that we had to endure.
For example, when I went back to school, every student had to participate in the communist youth organization, but I never officially joined the Communist Party. It was hard, because when you join you have everything. You could lie, you could steal, you could even kill and you would be covered.
But if you weren’t a communist, you were a second-class citizen.
For example, my father worked very hard on our farm all of his life. But as he got older, he began to get sick and wasn’t able to work as hard. That’s when the communist government began to threaten to take the farm away from us. They told him if he didn’t keep up his production they would give our farm to someone else. I decided to take agriculture classes in high school, so I could be prepared to take over for him.
I convinced him that we should switch to raising hops instead of grain so that we could really make some money. I began constructing buildings and installing a hops dryer. I borrowed some money for the expansion. The money was pretty easy to get. Meanwhile the communists were trying to get me to join. My family was well respected in my community so they wanted me in the party to help recruit others. I told them no.
That’s when the communist government started making it hard for me to get farming supplies. They wouldn’t sell to me. For a while, I was able to get things from other sources but even those sources dried up. They were slowly, slowly swallowing me.
Like they said, I would have been fine if I had just joined.
But I didn’t want to be part of something I didn’t believe in. I had been through the war and I could see the power of Russian communism and I knew it was only a matter of time before I would have to give in.
If you were a party member you and your family weren’t supposed to go to church. In fact on Sundays the Party always had some kind of job or meeting that party members were required to go to. They really went after the little kids. They made sure that they scheduled school events at the same time as church services. If you missed the school events your grades suffered.
I remember them gathering preschoolers in a room and asking the kids if they believed in God or in Stalin.
The presenter would say, “Let’s all ask God for candy. Repeat after me, ‘Please God give us some candy.'” The kids would do what they were told and nothing would happen. Then he would say, “OK, let’s ask Stalin for candy.” And when the kids asked Stalin, candy rained down from the ceiling. They were teaching these kids that if you are a follower you have everything.
They taught us that America was a corrupt, bad place, but I never believed that stuff. I knew somebody who had a family in America and I remembered all the help that the U.S. sent us after the war. American people even came and built schools. Those schools are still standing to this day.
I never dreamed about America because, at that time, we weren’t allowed to travel to western countries, only communist. But eventually, the restrictions were relaxed and I had the chance to come to Colorado to help some people build their house. I told the Polish immigration officials that I was just going on vacation and that I would be back.
To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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