Krysia: A Polish Girl's Stolen Childhood During World War II

Krysia: A Polish Girl's Stolen Childhood During World War II

by Krystyna Mihulka, Krystyna Poray Goddu
Krysia: A Polish Girl's Stolen Childhood During World War II

Krysia: A Polish Girl's Stolen Childhood During World War II

by Krystyna Mihulka, Krystyna Poray Goddu


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As German troops and bombs descended upon Poland, Krysia struggled to make sense of the wailing sirens, hushed adult conversations, and tearful faces of everyone around her. Within just days, the peaceful childhood she had known would disappear forever.

Krysia tells the story of one Polish girl's harrowing experiences during World War II as her beloved father was forced into hiding, a Soviet soldier's family took over her house, and finally as she and her mother and brother were forced at gunpoint from their once happy home and deported to a remote Soviet work farm in Kazakhstan.

Through vivid and stirring recollections Mihulka details their deplorable conditions—often near freezing in their barrack buried under mounds of snow, enduring starvation and illness, and witnessing death. But she also recalls moments of hope and tenderness as she, her mother, her brother, and other deportees drew close together, helped one another, and even held small celebrations in captivity. Throughout, the strength, courage, and kindness of Krysia's mother, Zofia, saw them through until they finally found freedom. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613734414
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/01/2017
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 866,251
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 10 - 18 Years

About the Author

Born in 1930, Krystyna Mihulka was deported from Poland to a remote village in Kazakhstan in 1940, where she lived as a political prisoner under Communist rule for nearly two years. After several years in refugee camps in Iran and Africa, she settled in Zambia, where she married and had three children. In 1969 she and her family migrated to the United States. She lives in Pleasant Hill, California, under her married name, Christine Tomerson. 

Krystyna Poray Goddu is the author of A Girl Called Vincent and Dollmakers and Their Stories, among others. She has contributed to American Girl magazine, the New York Times Book ReviewPublishers Weekly, and other publications. She lives in New York City. 

Read an Excerpt


A Polish Girl's Stolen Childhood During World War II

By Christine Tomerson, Krystyna Poray Goddu

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2017 Christine Tomerson and Krystyna Poray Goddu
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-444-5


Hints of Impending War

It was the morning of March 12, 1938. I was seven and a half years old and eating breakfast with my family. Suddenly the music on the radio stopped and the announcer said, "Hitler has marched into Austria."

Both of my parents' faces fell.

"Tatusiu," I asked, "Is Hitler coming to Poland?"

"No, Krysiu, don't worry," my father answered, looking at my mother. I could tell that they didn't want to talk about it in front of me.

I picked up my lunch, kissed them each good-bye, and walked out to meet two of my friends, Marysia and Grazyna, for the short walk to school together.

My school, named Marii Magdalena, was only three blocks away, and when the weather was nice we always walked. Today the scent of tulips, violets, and daffodils from the street vendors' stalls drifted pleasantly through the air, sending the sweet promise of spring's arrival after a long winter. In the distance, against the blue sky, the Wysoki Zamek (Tall Castle) towered above the city. Centuries ago a fortress had been built there to defend the city. Now its ruins were a tourist attraction. In winter we pulled our little wooden sleds up to the castle and bounced down the hill.

I hated Marii Magdalena as much as I loved Lwów. The school was an old gray two-story building, with classrooms off the long corridors. Downstairs there was a recreation hall where we had morning prayers, assemblies, and, occasionally, school plays. Not only did I find school boring — except for gym class, where we had to climb ladders, which was terrifying — but I was also scared of the principal: short, stout Pani Morska, whose face reminded me of a bulldog. Her piercing pale-green eyes, hidden behind gray-rimmed glasses, took in every detail. Despite her unimpressive figure, she exerted a dictatorial air of authority. I tried to avoid her, but when I did pass her and had to say "Dzien dobry. Good day," my knees always started to shake. She would just stare at me. I never saw her smile.

"Why do you think she looks so mean?" I asked Marysia.

"I heard my mother tell my father that she's like that because she's an old maid."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

I enjoyed walking the streets of Lwów, sometimes with my father and Antek, sometimes with my mother and my aunts.

"Maybe she's angry because she didn't find a husband."

"How do you find a husband?" I asked.

"I don't know."

"My mother met my father at a ball, so I guess nobody ever asked Pani Morska to dance."

We lined up in the hallway as usual, before dispersing to our classrooms, but today a tall young man, wearing a very serious expression, stood next to Pani Morska and the teachers.

"Let me introduce Adam Kowalski from the Civil Defense organization," Pani Morska announced. "He is here to lecture us about the drills we will be having from time to time, in case of emergency."

Then Pan Kowalski spoke: "When you hear a siren, leave your classrooms immediately and run as fast as you can to trenches that will be dug in the field behind the school building. You will need to have masks to put over your faces in case of gas poisoning. Ask your parents to make masks for you. They should use gauze and cotton with elastic to hold it on around your head. When you reach the trenches, lie flat with your faces down until you are told to go back to school. Do not panic. Listen to your teachers' instructions. We hope that Hitler will not invade Poland, but we have to be prepared."

His words scared me. Could this really happen to us? I looked over at Marysia. She had a puzzled look on her face, as if she, too, were trying to understand if what Pan Kowalski said could ever come true. His words seemed unreal. They sounded like something I might read in one of my father's history books, not like something that could ever be part of my life.

After Pan Kowalski's visit life went on its usual way, but things slowly began to feel different. On October 1 the announcement came that Hitler had invaded Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia. After that, when we went to the Wedel Café, there seemed to be more and more people crowded inside, all talking about the possibility of war. I could feel tension in the air. On March 16, 1939, Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia, and my parents began discussing openly the need to stock food in the cellar and buy bags of sugar and flour.

One day at dinner I didn't want to eat what had been served. My father spoke to me sternly: "Eat, because one day you might want food but there won't be any." How was it possible not to have anything to eat? I wondered. Was that what the war was about?

My mother had made me a mask out of cotton, gauze, and elastic, as Pan Kowalski instructed, and I carried it to school every day. For a long time there were no drills. Then one day the wailing of a siren pierced the silence of the classroom, where we were doing arithmetic at our desks. We all jumped out of our seats and rushed to line up outside.

"Put on your masks!" one of the teachers shouted.

The newly dug trenches were a short distance from the building. We dropped down onto the soft ground, giggling and pushing each other. If this was war, then it was fun, I thought. Airplanes flew in circles above us, adding to the deafening sound. We stayed on the ground until the siren stopped and the teachers called, "Time to go back!"

When I got home that day, my mother said, "If the siren blows when we are home, then we all have to go down to the cellar. Will you remember that, Krysia?"


The radio was on, like always. Hitler's voice now sounded louder, rasping and ominous. It made me feel afraid, but I tried to shake off the fear. I was also filled with curiosity: What would the war really be like?


The Last Autumn of Peace

"Don't run so far that I won't be able to see you," shouted my mother.

"Tak, Mamusiu! Yes, Mommy, I hear you!" I called back. It was late September 1938; the air was cold and crisp, with a light wind rustling through the branches of the tall oak trees. This was the best time of year, I thought, before rainy and foggy November and then the endless snow and frost of the winter months. Antek and I were chasing each other in the park. A few screeching crows fought over bread crumbs somebody had left on a bench. The other birds had all flown to warmer climates. People of all ages strolled leisurely along the narrow paths in the park. Some led dogs that barked and pulled at their leashes. Voices and laughter carried across the park, adding to the happy and relaxed mood of the afternoon.

The fallen leaves covered the ground like a carpet of vibrant colors: rusty burnt sienna, dark red, mustard yellow, olive green, and bright orange. Antek and I rolled in them, having fun, while our mother watched us, smiling. I could feel the love flowing out of her big brown eyes. A dark-green felt hat covered her wavy, shiny chestnut-colored hair. I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

"Children, time to gather some leaves before we go home," she called. We ran to her, and she gave us two little baskets she had brought along.

I picked through the cold, damp leaves, choosing only the best-looking ones. Different shapes and sizes soon filled my basket. Antek, being only four, was slower, and I wanted to offer to help, but I knew he liked to do it himself.

My mother looked at her watch. "It's almost four o'clock, and your father will be coming home for dinner. Let's go."

"Can we please have some Penguin ice cream on the way?" I asked.

"Only if you promise to eat your dinner."

"We will, we will!"

We walked out of the park, into the street. The last rays of the sun were still lingering, but dusk was approaching. Passing tramcars made clicking sounds, and one-horse carriages waited for passengers by the sidewalk. Soon we reached a kiosk where soda water, chocolate and lemon wafers, and ice cream were sold. A big poster of a penguin hung on the door of the kiosk. Penguin ice cream — vanilla ice cream on a stick, covered with chocolate — was the latest novelty from Warsaw, Poland's capital. I loved its sweet flavor, which tasted better than any homemade concoction.

* * *

Soon enough the glorious autumn was gone and winter set in. In spite of the cold, I loved December because of its two holidays: Saint Nicholas Day on December 6 and Christmas. Saint Nicholas was especially exciting because of all the gifts. All Polish children knew that after we went to sleep on December 5, Saint Nicholas would sneak into our homes and leave us presents. When we woke up the morning of the sixth, there they were! The year before I had pretended to be asleep so I could see Saint Nicholas, but instead I saw my mother sneak into my room and arrange all the presents on my bed! I was shocked, but I knew better than to tell her what I had seen. I was afraid I wouldn't get presents anymore if I told.

When I woke up on Saint Nicholas Day this year, there were crayons and books for me — I loved to draw and paint and read. (My favorite days were the ones when I didn't have to go to school but could stay home and read by myself.) Sometimes I also got a doll on Saint Nicholas Day, but not this year. The one thing I — and most Polish children — always got was a red velvet devil. The size of the devil depended on how good or bad you had been during the year. I had a really big one this year because I hadn't been nice enough to my brother.

Since Saint Nicholas brought gifts earlier in the month, Christmas was not much of a gift-giving occasion. We just had small presents under the tree — little boxes of chocolates or candies, maybe an exotic orange. The fun part of Christmas was decorating the tree the day before. Ciocia Tocha, my mother's youngest sister, came to help; we wrapped candies, chocolates, and homemade gingerbread cookies in colorful papers. On one end of each paper wrapper we tied a piece of wool thread and made a loop so we could hang the candy on the tree. In the days after Christmas, we ate all the goodies off the tree! We carefully placed small candles in little holders that clipped to the tree branches. When the candles were lit, the room turned magical. I thought our tree this year, with all its trimmings, was the most beautiful one we had ever had. Maybe I remember it as so beautiful because it was the last one we ever had in our home.


Strangers in the Sky

September 1, 1939, started just like any other day. My father left for court, my mother went out on some errands, and Antek and I stayed at home with Mila, our beloved nanny and housekeeper. Autumn had barely begun, so school hadn't started yet.

"Krysiu, Antek," Mila called. "We are leaving for the park by 11 o'clock. Get ready."

I couldn't wait to go. I was eager to start gathering a collection of colorful leaves to press and dry.

At about 11 o'clock we left the house and walked to the kiosk at the corner, where we stopped for some sparkling lemonade. An electric tram passed us and came to a stop nearby. A one-horse carriage carrying two passengers made a clicking noise on the cobblestone street. A crowd was gathered around the kiosk, discussing the latest news about the war everybody knew was coming with Germany. Nobody knew just when, or how, it would begin.

The roaring sound of airplanes broke the tranquility of the peaceful scene. I looked up and saw five low-flying, dark-colored shapes with a strange sign resembling a broken cross painted on each one. I heard someone say, "Our pilots are training — getting ready for the war." I thought they did not look like Polish airplanes, but children were not supposed to voice their opinions to grown-ups, so I kept quiet.

Suddenly a loud explosion reverberated in the air.

"Bombs, bombs!" someone shouted.

"Boze, zlituj sie! God have mercy!" another voice wailed.

The crowd dispersed in a panic. Mila grabbed Antek and shouted, "Szybko, szybko, lecmy do domu! Quick, quick, hurry home!"

We rushed home. I had never seen Mila run so fast; I could barely keep up with her.

We should have gone right to the cellar, but we were too curious, so instead we ran upstairs to look out the windows. From our windows, I could see the Polish army's military training base up on a hill. The tall gray buildings were visible against the cloudless blue sky. I watched as the planes flew over them, and I saw bombs falling. The sound was deafening, louder than when we were on the street. I dropped to the floor, covering my ears, shaking and crying. Antek screamed and held onto Mila.

Mila tried to calm us. "Don't be afraid. Soon it will be over."

I heard the wailing of the warning siren. Why did it start so late?

I looked again out the window at the military buildings, but, to my amazement, they were gone. Instead, a ball of fire met my eyes. The planes had vanished as quickly as they had come.

A few hours later my mother came home. She was pale and looked very upset. She grabbed Antek and me and held us closely, exclaiming, "You're okay! You're okay! I was so worried — so many people were killed today. Germany attacked us without declaring war, and without any warning. When the next attack comes," she instructed, "we must all go down to the cellar."

"Mamusiu," I asked, "The planes had a strange sign painted on them. What was it?"

"They are swastikas, the symbol of the Nazi Party. Hitler is their leader."

I knew who Hitler was. He was the man who was always screaming on the radio.

My mother was trained as a Red Cross volunteer for a block of houses on our street. She put a white band with a red cross on her arm and packed her first aid kit. She gave each of us a mask in case of a poisonous gas attack and showed us how to use them. They were the same kind she had made for me to take to school. Then she gave us a warning: "Children, do not pick up any toys or candy lying on the street or in the garden. Germans are known to drop poisonous ones from the planes."

I didn't understand. Why would anybody want to poison children?

* * *

We started getting ready to live in the cellar, which was to be our bomb shelter. My mother and Mila gathered pillows, blankets, canned food, and dry biscuits. I was nine, and Antek wasn't even five yet, but we helped by packing toys. I was given a small bench against the wall to sleep on, and my brother would sleep in his stroller. My mother and Mila would share an old sofa that stood in the middle of the cellar.

We carried everything down the narrow stairs. It was dark and damp in the candlelit cellar. Sharp odors from a large barrel of sauerkraut and from a smaller one of pickled cucumbers filled the air. Shelves packed with jars of home-canned peaches, apricots, and strawberry jam lined the walls. A sandbox, filled with potatoes and apples stored for the coming winter, took up a lot of the floor space.

Awaiting my father, we went back upstairs. When he came in he was accompanied by his brother, my wujcio Tomek, and a family friend. Without greeting us, they locked themselves in the study. I stood near the door, trying to eavesdrop, but I couldn't hear anything they said.

When they finally emerged, their faces were sad. My father explained to Antek and me that he and my uncle were reservists in the Polish army. That meant they had to report for duty now that the country had been attacked. He turned to my mother and said with emotion, "Please, take care of yourselves." Then he turned to Antek and me. "Children, obey your mother."

They embraced us and were gone.

My mother tried to hide the tears in her eyes, but I could see them. I was distressed at my father's leaving, and afraid of what would happen next. Antek played happily with his toy horse on wheels, not understanding the seriousness of the situation.

A few days later the Germans attacked Lwów and the fighting began. Whenever the siren sounded we would rush to the cellar. The electricity was cut off, but luckily we still had water. Between the air raids we could go upstairs to wash. When we did, we could hear the bullets whistling outside.


Excerpted from Krysia by Christine Tomerson, Krystyna Poray Goddu. Copyright © 2017 Christine Tomerson and Krystyna Poray Goddu. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Map: Krysia's Journey (1940-1942) ix

A Polish Pronunciation and Vocabulary Guide xi

Author's Note xv

Prologue 1

Part I The End of Life as We Knew It

1 Hints of Impending War 7

2 The Last Autumn of Peace 13

3 Strangers in the Sky 19

4 Life Under Russian Occupation 29

5 Shadows in the Night 41

Part II Journey into Captivity

6 Traveling by Cattle Car 53

7 Traveling by Oxcart 63

Part III Life in Captivity

8 Settling In 71

9 Strange Happenings at Night 79

10 Enduring the Winter 89

11 Spring and Summer Surprises 101

Part IV Flight to Freedom

12 Reunion and Departure 113

13 A Seemingly Endless Wait 121

14 The Trans-Siberian Train Journey 129

15 Tragedy Strikes Home 139

16 Setting Sail for Freedom at Last 151

Afterword 161

Epilogue 163

A Guide to Geographical Names 167

Acknowledgments 169

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