HENRY: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

HENRY: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

by Katrina Shawver
HENRY: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

HENRY: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

by Katrina Shawver


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“Highly recommended.”––James Conroyd Martin, author of The Poland Trilogy and The Boy Who Wanted Wings

This incredible true story is both a witness to the Holocaust through Polish eyes and the story of how Henry Zguda, a Polish (Catholic) competitive swimmer, survives Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps by his wits, humor, luck, and friends. At times humorous, always gut-honest, this account fills a huge gap in historical accounts of Poles during World War II. Katrina Shawver met Henry in 2002 when she wrote for the Arizona Republic, and after one meeting offered to write his story. They soon became close friends and friendship remains a theme throughout. Relevant history is woven into the account, resulting in a unique perspective of both Jewish and Polish suffering in Nazi-occupied Poland. Henry’s story is backed by authentic documents and photos reprinted throughout the book, combined with meticulous research that includes trip to Poland and Germany in 2013.

Read why so many people are calling this a “must read” and “an important addition to Holocaust literature."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633935204
Publisher: Koehler Books
Publication date: 10/15/2017
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Katrina Shawver wrote hundreds of newspaper columns over eleven years for The Arizona Republic, holds a B.A. from the University of Arizona in English/Political Science and has excelled at the School of Trial and Error. In addition to a variety of previous careers in software support, the paralegal profession, tax preparation, and answering phones for a forensic psychiatrist, she has presented at the community college level on Poland Under Hitler and Stalin. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband and still wishes sweet potato fries counted as a vegetable. Visit her website katrinashawver.com where she blogs regularly. This is her first book.

Read an Excerpt



A week after our first meeting, I arrived at nine in the morning and rang the doorbell. Nancy again opened the door wide and ushered me in. I had to smile back at this friendly woman who gushed hospitality.

"Hi, doll. Come in. Come in. I'm so glad you came back. I've been after Henry for years to write his stories, and he never did. We tried, but it's very hard. There are just so many stories, where do you start? Now you're here. Thank goodness."

I followed Nancy out to the same patio where Henry and I held our first interview. Before we even passed through the same efficient kitchen, I recognized the smell of fresh brewed coffee and, that time, a cinnamon-apple scented candle. As I passed by the fridge, I noticed my newspaper column about Henry posted prominently on the refrigerator.

Henry rose to greet me. I, again, extended my right hand to shake as the usual American sign of greeting and also as agreement on our new joint project. Again, he lifted my hand and kissed the back of it.

Nancy still hovered behind us.

"Doll, I have fresh coffee. Can I get you some? I can make you tea, too."

"No thanks, Nancy. I'm good."

"Well then, can I get you some cake? Let me get you a slice."

"No, really Nancy, thanks. I'm still good." I would soon learn that Nancy offered food and drink to anyone who came through the front door. She seldom accepted no for an answer. It was characteristic of growing up in a large Italian family in the Bronx, which she said she always missed.

We both smiled, and she again slid the glass door shut and went on her way. I was instantly glad I suggested this project. Even if the story didn't pan out, I'd met two very welcoming, nice people.

Henry and I took a seat at the patio table.

This time, a bowl of chocolates and nuts sat nearby. The same thick, brown photo album he'd shown me on our first visit rested on the table next to a few well-worn and yellowed paperbacks. I quickly scanned titles such as The Case Against Adolf Eichmann by Henry A. Zeiger, Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer, and a few volumes in Polish. Henry turned and slid his chair closer to me until we were almost side by side, and opened the photo album. Forget any thought of archival quality photo storage. The aging photos were all glued on those sticky pages with a peel-back plastic film, already yellowed, the pages barely held together with brown duct tape.

I pulled out a folder with my business card, resume, and writing samples to ask Henry's permission to write his story. He asked me what he should pay me. We discussed drafting a formal agreement, and I took notes to draft one for our next visit. As to money, I said we would settle that later, as we worked on the project together. Money never was the goal of this project.

I set up my tape recorder, plugged in the microphone, slid it toward Henry and pressed Record. I pulled out my notepad and pen, ready to take notes as he talked.

Henry gave me a big smile. "Very nice article you wrote. I send it to my friends in Sweden, Poland, and Belgium. You're international now."

I accepted the comment as a form of congratulations, and a sign of more international connections in this story.

He lifted up a framed photo of a young boy in a white suit.

"See, wasn't I a nice boy?"

Henry grinned at his own joke as he pointed to his first communion photo. He turned to the album and flipped the first few pages. There were exactly four photos of him before about age sixteen and they were all school photos. Henry then pointed to a small, very old, sepia-toned photo. There were two young women who looked no older than eighteen or nineteen years old, standing on either side of a seated, very stern older woman. I doubt a smile had ever graced the woman's face. One of the young women held a young toddler up by his arms.

This is my mother, me, my Aunt Antonia, and my great grandmother. When my great grandmother was younger, she was a maid in the czar's palace in Leningrad. I always thought of her as being a hundred years old. For a while, she lived with us. I didn't like her at all. She was always after me, "Henyu don't do this. Henyu don't do that. Henyu clean this." My family all called me Henyu [Hen-you]. My whole life I've never done well with someone giving me orders.

And when she died, at the moment, she had a big coffer, a big trunk, and the black iron bands across it, very heavy. It was the secret of our family. Everyone waited years to see what she has got in there. Maybe money, maybe something. My mother has four sisters, and four brothers — eight together. After the funeral, all the relatives came with the ax and tried to open this trunk. I remember I was sitting in the corner of the room on a stool.

Finally, one of the uncles swing the ax and break the lock. First, out comes the dress from when she was a maid. Then, the dress when she was dancing as a young girl. Funny, Russian style.

Next, the relatives found some jewelry, but just some cheap, costume stuff. Finally, there on the bottom of the trunk lay a thick envelope. Ah, so there was the money everyone counted on. Sure enough, the envelope was full of money. Inside, the uncles found 100,000 Russian rubles from 1917 when the czar was still in power. For 100,000 rubles you could have bought two or three villages with all the peasants in them.

Henry had been laughing since he started the story. Now, he chuckled as he recalled the look on his relatives' faces.

Except now the czar was dead and the money was worthless. Everyone was laughing like hell except for my Uncle John. Uncle John was the richest one in the family.

Curious, I had to ask something. "Why was he the richest?"

Uncle John was a barber. He was so tough. He owned a barbershop, money coming in every day. You buy a pot, you buy it once. But, when you cut hair, people always come back when their hair grows. It was a good barbershop. I remember he would look at my hair, at the thickness and flexibility, and make predictions. A good barber knows his customers.

He tells me, "Henry, you are very timid. You don't go too far in life. But, you're going to go far away from here."

After that, Uncle John was very, very upset and talked to no one for a week.

Henry kept grinning, then turned his attention back to the photo album and continued on.

I did not know my father, Wincenty Zguda, at all. He was made to join the Galician Austrian Army in World War I. They were in the trenches near the Po River in Italy, in plenty of mud, water, and rain, with mosquitos big as birds flying around. So, he got the malaria disease.

I wasn't sure I'd heard Henry correctly.

"Wait. Henry, don't you mean the Polish Army?"

No, No. There was no Poland then.

At that moment, I truly began to realize how little I knew about Poland, and just how much I'd have to learn. I was not even sure if it was Cracow or Kraków, and Henry just said there was no Poland? Right there in the first interview, the scope of the project doubled. As I mulled the idea of no Poland, Henry continued his story:

He came home from the war when I was about one and a half years old. One day, he's jumping off the bed, you know, like a shake, a seizure. He land on the floor. My mother, Karolina, have to pick him up. She called for help, and orderlies finally come and take him to some hospital in Berlin. She didn't know which one, and we never heard anything again. So, we don't know where he is.

Henry stops, smiles, and points his finger to the ceiling as if to heaven. Well, now we know where he is, but not at that time.

"Do you have a photo of your father?" I asked.

No. No photo. My mother was a very tough lady from the mountains. She came from the Górale people, a peasant people from the southern mountains of Poland. Górale are poor, but tough. Independent. She survived. I survive. I have her facial features, sort of dark with a big nose. She was very short, not like me. Henry is my American spelling. In Poland my name was Henryk. My mother and friends called me Henyu. Until I was about seven, we lived with my two aunts, uncle, and four cousins in a two-room apartment.

Though Henry had many cousins, the only two he ever spoke of by name were Wladyslaw and Stanislaus, who were like brothers to him. In the album, photos of him with these two cousins scatter across multiple pages in later years.

We live on the nice street in Kraków, Stefan Batory, who was a king of Poland, in sixteenth century, 1533–1585. He was famous for saving Europe from Turks taking over. Eventually, my mother get a job in the state tobacco factory and we moved into a small apartment on Panska Street.

Breakfast is a piece of bread, you wet it a little, and a small sprinkle of sugar on it. You know we have a specialty in Poland I love: kasza. It's a grain. You go to the store and buy the kasza grain, put it on to steam, and it grows big and tasty. Then, you top it with real sour milk, not the buttermilk we have here. Mmm good.

In Poland, sour milk was made from full milk. On the border of the city, when the peasants carried the milk to town, the inspector would test the milk for fat. If there was not too much fat, he turned them away and wouldn't let them sell it. Why? The fat was for the children; they needed it to grow.

At this point Henry chuckled again, shrugged his shoulders and lifted both his palms up in semi-frustration.

You know, I can't recognize skim milk in this country; it's like water and you pay double. In Poland, if you sold skim milk you went to jail. No one there was allowed to skim the fat for themselves. Children need the fat to grow. Here, people actually give their children skim milk.

I'll tell you what else makes no sense to me at all in this country. You watch television and there are all kinds of ads for weight-loss programs. I don't understand why people pay to lose weight. Losing weight is so simple — stop eating. Then, you save money. Let me tell you, under communism you stand in lines forever just to get food. Why pay more money to eat less food? That makes no sense to me at all.

Henry just held up his hands and shook his head at the twisted logic of paying to not eat, as I subconsciously reached for another piece of chocolate, ignoring that inch I could pinch.


The evolution of Poland that led to Henry's statement, "No, no, there was no Poland at that time," deserves a brief discussion. Poland's world position in the twentieth century and many of the biases and cultural divides in place during Henry's life resulted from centuries of conflict.

Poland lies squarely positioned in central Europe, between her two historical enemies, Germany and Russia. Poles have always had to defend themselves against outside powers wishing to annex or destroy their lands. From the Polish Golden Age in the sixteenth century, through 1989, the country experienced dozens of border changes in four hundred years. Like several other countries in Europe, there are no natural geographic boundaries that help define Poland's eastern and western borders, or make them easy to defend. Outside powers have always wanted the benefits of Poland's strategic location along trade routes, rich farmlands, coal, and other natural resources. For centuries, the pattern of all invaders was to commit wholesale slaughter against the Poles and destroy villages, farms, and whatever else they could after they stole anything of value.

Most historians agree that Poland's true golden age stretched from the end of the fifteenth century up until it began to decline in the early seventeenth century, ending in 1648 with the Swedish invasion. Kraków University, which was soon renamed to Jagiellonian University, was founded in 1364 as the second university in all of Europe. Though it struggled for a while, by the fifteenth century it flourished, attracting students from all of Europe, and firmly established the city of Kraków as a center of learning. In 1491, Nicolaus Copernicus enrolled in Jagiellonian University to study astronomy, later joining the priesthood. He is known for postulating the heliocentric philosophy that the planets revolve around the sun, and not the Earth. The results were quietly published in 1543 after his death, twenty years before the Italian astronomer Galileo was born. Galileo would later champion the same heliocentric philosophy of Copernicus, only to face persecution and condemnation from the Catholic Church.

By 1600, the Polish Commonwealth was the largest state in Europe, occupying a geographic area nearly three times the size of Texas. The population of approximately ten million was twice that of England, or equal to that of Italy, Spain, and Portugal combined. Poland differed in philosophy from other European countries led by dynasties, such as the Hapsburgs of Austria and the Tudors of England. Where the royal leaders sought to increase control of the individual and maintain their centralized power, Poles took the opposite approach with the conviction that no man had the right to tell another what to do. Noblewomen enjoyed the same property and inheritance rights as noblemen. The disdain for authority and respect for the dignity of the individual were evident from the Middle Ages, and would eventually lead to a short-lived democracy in the eighteenth century. The ideal of individual freedom, at least for the nobility, fed a strong desire and belief in an independent Poland that has existed for centuries.

Unfortunately, an inefficient government structure, and a lover's triangle would set the stage for Poland's eventual demise. The Polish nobility considered themselves the highest authority in the land. Membership in the nobility was inherited, peasants had few rights, and kings were elected by the nobility. Any Catholic nobleman — citizen or foreigner — could run for the position. In the vein of independent spirit, or perhaps a stratagem by the nobility to ensure no one acted against them, they eventually instituted the flawed concept of Liberum Veto, or rule by unanimous vote. In the Polish assembly, or Sejm, no proposal could become law and no decision was binding, if even one person voted in opposition. The vote for royal elections had to be unanimous. Imagine any government trying to function with unanimity — nothing would get done. Thus, it shouldn't be surprising that, despite a population of more than eleven million people and a large geographic territory, Poland never developed a strong central government, central treasury, or substantial standing army. In the early eighteenth century, ninety percent of Poles lived in poverty or service to nobles. Despite a proud heritage, the country fell victim to stronger powers, though not without a valiant fight.

Catherine the Great ruled Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796 at the age of sixty-seven. She came from a ruling family in Germany, and had strong ties there. She ascended to power after she had her husband arrested, forced him to abdicate, and subsequently had him murdered by the brother of her current lover. She took many paramours throughout her reign. One of her earliest lovers before she took the throne was Stanisław Poniatowski, a member of Polish nobility. He fathered one of her children, then she subsequently forced him out of the Russian court. Sensing he would be an ineffective leader, Catherine maneuvered politically to help get Poniatowski elected king of Poland in 1763, and placed Russian armies in Poland "to help protect" the country.

When Poland enacted a constitution in 1791, it was the first-ever such document in Europe, and only the second in the world, after the young United States ratified its constitution in 1788. Prussia, Russia, and Austria strongly opposed an independent country, especially so close to their borders, lest the spirit of independence spread and incite their own citizens to rise up against their respective monarchies. To divide and divvy up Poland, Catherine the Great used her connections to lead a three-way coalition of Russia to the east, the Prussian empire to the west — the precursor to modern day Germany — and the Austrian empire to the south. Russia, by far, gained the greatest amount of territory in the move. By 1795, Poland disappeared from the map of Europe.

When Poland was partitioned, Warsaw and eastern Poland fell under Russian oversight; Kraków came under Austrian rule, and the western areas came under German dominance. The Austrians treated Kraków far better than the Russians did Warsaw. The Austrians gained land, but were predominantly Catholic — like most of the Poles in their newly acquired territory — and hated the Germans and Russians despite their strategic alliance.


Excerpted from "Henry"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Katrina Shawver.
Excerpted by permission of Koehler Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Henry and I Begin,
An Overview of Poland,
Growing up in Krakow,
St. Mary's Church and Altarpiece,
Happy Birthday, Henry,
A Beautiful View,
Cowboys and Indians,
Karol May,
Swimming Makes You Dumb,
A Dinner Worth Ten Zlotys,
The Beginning of the YMCA,
Blind Marie,
Helena Weiss,
Freege Seed Company,
The Jew Beaters at Park Jordana,
Why Did People Hate the Jews?,
PART 2: POLAND AT WAR: 1939–1942,
September 1, 1939: Shock and Awe,
Karol Wotyla,
Of Sugar and Mouse Droppings,
Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here,
The Beginning of Auschwitz,
Prisoner 39551,
Building Roads,
Collecting Rinde,
Stay in the Middle,
A Growing Friendship,
Auschwitz in October 2013,
The Frauenlager,
Music in the Camp,
Prisoner Mail, Packages and Money in Auschwitz,
Letters from Auschwitz,
The Camp Hospital,
Promotion to Cook,
Poland Will Never Die,
The Beginning of Birkenau, or Auschwitz II,
An Incoming Train of Jews,
Death by Gunshot,
Teddy Pietrzykowski,
Boxing Matches,
A Secret Murder Plot,
The Stehebunker in Block 11,
A Night of Swimming,
Görlitz Train Station,
Prisoner 10948,
An Overview of Buchenwald,
Henry's Arrival at Buchenwald,
Buchenwald Today,
From the Stone Quarry to the Stonemason Kommando,
The Goethe Oak Tree,
Prisoner Movies, Theater, and Concerts,
Prisoner Diversions,
Prisoner Mail, Packages and Money in Buchenwald,
The Puffhaus,
The Americans Bomb Buchenwald,
Bombing Aftermath,
The Buchenwald Crematorium,
Provenance of Henry's Grisly Photo,
Evacuation of Buchenwald and the Dead March,
Beloved Mother, I Am Alive,
Two Near Misses,
The S. S. America,
"Now I Am a Therapist",
St. Barnabas Hospital for Chronic Diseases,
Tremors and Brain Surgery,
Henry Meets Nancy,
Jerzy Kosinski,
A Rich Life,

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