Two World War II victim books – each with a twist. Each worth reading.
First, “Adventures of a Polish Prisoner” by Marian Piotrowski, published in 1943. Piotrowski was a Polish journalist living in Paris when Poland was invaded by Germany in September 1939. Along with many other Poles in France, wanting to join his fellow countrymen in their defense against the Nazis, he joined the Polish Army’s units created in France. Not able to get to Poland, they allied themselves with the French Army fighting the Germans in Alsace and trying to protect the Maginot line. They weren’t placed in the most favorable situations by the French (surprise, surprise) and were left defending an indefensible spot, escaping only for a while before they, inevitably, were caught.
Once caught, he was placed in a two POW camps. The first camp was more like a holding pen (no one knew what would happen to them), and the second one a work camp (as one of the few Polish speakers in the camp, he was able to wangle administrative work at the camp and not be sent out to help power Germany industry. Eventually, the Germans started to release some prisoners, including French POWs, once France seemed clearly in Nazi controlS. Piotrowski was able to pass himself off as a Frenchman (using altered papers) and get out of the camp, fooling guards as he went through the French and then Spanish countryside, until he crossed into Portugal and Lisbon, knowing that would take him to England, where he wife was living.
So, the German POW work camp was no paradise. Food and sleep both were in very short supply. Work varied, but was generally very hard, and didn’t want to slough off. You certainly couldn’t talk back. But you weren’t on your way to a certain death. And you did have free time, and were able to talk to and mix with your fellow prisoners.
Jews did not play a big part of Piotrowski’s book. There were a few Jewish prisoners who seemed to be treated with excessive harshness, but he didn’t write about anti-Jewish legislation or violence, and certainly no one knew of the death camps in Poland.
The book is interesting because it gives you a different perspective of the German military machine during the war.
The other book is a Holocaust narrative, “Castles Burning”, the story of young Magda Denes, born into a wealthy Budapest family in pre-war days. She was 5 when the war started, and 10 when the Germans finally entered Budapest. Her journalist father had escaped Hungary and traveled to America, promising to bring the rest of his family (wife and two children) over – but he didn’t, and in fact abandoned his family, apparently not giving much attention to them at all.
Her father’s departure made it hard for the family to survive economically, especially as the war surrounded Hungary, and antisemitism grew within the country. But while people knew that the Germans could come in at any time, it was somewhat of a surprise when they did in 1944. For the next year and a half, although they survived the war, Magda and her mother were in hiding, sometimes together, sometimes separated. Magda was sent to live with a number of families, where she could be neither seen nor heard. Eventually, the family lived together in what started out as a Swiss owned (incorporated into the Swiss embassy) building that housed hundreds of Jews, largely in terrible conditions in the large, damp, cold basement of the building, which was taken from the Swiss by the Nazi government, but for some reason continued to be the home of hundreds of old, young, ill, impoverished Jews.
Magda’s brother Ivan, some years older joined the underground resistance. He, and a cousin of about the same age (maybe they were 16) were captured by the Germans and joined the group that were shot and killed on the bank of the Danube.
The war ended and the Russians entered Budapest. The Russians were welcome as liberators, but proved pretty bad as overseers, and Magda’s mother was not interested in rebuilding her life with the Hungarians who were recently her enemies. So, they stole out of the country aided by a Jewish underground refugee organization, went through Vienna and Munich and Paris, eventually obtaining Cuban visas. They traveled on a ship that stopped in New York and stayed long enough for her father to come on board, where they had a brief and unpleasant conversation. Whether they ever spoke again, I do not know.
Magda Denes did get to the United States, where she went to City College and Boston University and became a psychoanalyst. Unfortunately, she died at the relatively young age of 62. Her mother survived her.