John Piechowski (born Joseph Johann von Piechowski) was born at Gowidlino near Gdansk in Poland on 13 March 1918. He escaped from Poland to Germany during World War II and lived out the war as an unpaid farm labourer. He arrived in Australia on 13 December 1949 as a refugee. He married Valerie Barker on 26 July 1952 and they have three children, Suzanne, Sharney and Kevin. John Piechowski is my father and it is ironic that he survived the war living in the country that invaded his homeland. This is his story:
“When the war started I was living in Poland, and working on a dairy farm a few kilometres from Danzig (the city now known as Gdansk). There were three men whose job was to milk the 45 cows on the farm. I used to milk 18 cows in the morning and again in the afternoon. On 1st September 1939, I left the house at 4.00 am and went to do the milking. I had not long started when there was an enormous explosion, which I later learned had demolished a bridge about 12 kilometres away. The noise and shock of the explosion made the cows jump and it took a while for them to settle down again. That explosion was our first warning of the conflict to come. But cows need to be milked, so I finished the job, loaded the milk cans on to the wagon, which was horse-drawn, and took them to the factory. That night the German soldiers arrived with their tanks, and stayed for two days. The first act was to change the money from the guilders used in the Danzig free state to German Marks. Ration cards were also immediately introduced, which were needed to buy food such as bread and meat.
“Because of the breakup of Poland after the first World War there was a lot of resentment from people in the Danzig state who were from a German background. Many of them welcomed the German occupation and were very nasty to Polish people. In 1940 and 1941 I worked on a dairy farm. The owner lived in Danzig and had a manager for the farm. Sometimes when it rained I would get wet, and it was impossible to buy a raincoat. There were fertiliser bags which were tar-coated inside, and thus waterproof. I asked the manager if I could use one, but he refused. One day I took one from the barn to use, and when he saw that I had it over my head he was very angry, threatened to report me and was going to have me sent to concentration camp. Fortunately, the manager was sent to a farm in a different area and I was saved.
“When the Germans occupied Poland, they took young men away to Germany. Some were sent to the German army and some were sent to be workers, such as farm workers or factory workers. In 1942 two of my brothers, Bolis and Wladek, were taken for the German army and went away. In the same year my brother Stanislaw was called to be a worker. In early 1943 I received the letter to come to Danzig to report for service in the German army. I had already made up my mind that I would not do this when the time came. I told no-one of my plan, and not even any of my family. The first day, I left Danzig by bus and then took a train to Torun. I waited all night on the station and then took the morning train to Kutnow, where I could not go any further because the next station was over the Polish border and I had no papers to show. You must understand that Danzig was a Free State and I was making my way to Warsaw, the Polish capital. So I got off the train and walked all day till I saw some houses which should have been near the border. I went into one house to ask how far it was, but the people were nervous and sent me on. When I came to the last house a man told me it was this side of the border and the next in the distance was the other side. I waited until night time, walked across the road into a field of tall wheat, lay down and crawled through it until I came to a cemented line like a footpath which marked the border. Then I stood up and ran. I saw a lighted window in a house, so I knocked and asked if I could stay overnight. But the people refused and told me to go to the next house.
“An old lady lived there with three young boys. At first they were suspicious and thought I spoke with a German accent. But when I told the old lady the circumstances and gave the boys cigarettes, they were more friendly. They let me sleep in the barn and brought me blankets. I stayed there for four days and they fed me and looked after me. They knew a farmer who was taking his daughter to the station at Lowicz to go to Warsaw. First, the old lady coached me on the district, so that I could say I came from there, and gave me a small bag of potatoes to carry to avert suspicion in the train. Lots of people on the train were carrying potatoes. In Warsaw, the girl took me to see her friend, who was a kind of organiser, helping people. First he took me to see a woman whose husband was in camp, a large building in the city, waiting to be sent as a worker to Germany. I had 300 marks saved from my work, so he offered it to change places with her husband, but they refused. Next day he took me to an employment office, and told the man at the desk about me. A few days before Easter, a Ludwig S–, who was a German officer, had come there to ask for a worker to be sent to his home in Germany to help on the farm. When the employment officer asked my name and where I came from, I made up a name and used the district information the old lady had fortunately taught me. So he made up some papers with my new name, Jan Marcyk. Travelling away to cross the border and worrying about not having proper papers until after Warsaw was very nerve wracking. I was then sent into the camp building and registered at the office, where I was asked another question about the district I was supposed to come from. The old lady had told me this particular thing just a few minutes before I left her, so her information saved me. I had to put my clothes into a big heater in case of lice. I stayed there for three days. Then on a Friday morning all the people in the camp were put on a train to be sent to Germany. A Nazi party man in uniform was in charge.
“The train took us to Stettin, then this uniformed man took me with fifteen other men on another train to Berlin. In Berlin we had to change trains in the underground very quickly, as there was not much time, and one man was left behind. I was put in a camp in the forest near Berlin from Easter Saturday till Tuesday. On Tuesday night a camp leader took me to the main railway station, gave me some bread and a card with my destination on it, and I was put on the 8.00 pm train to Erbach, but it was the wrong train, and a stationmaster later put me on the right train. I eventually arrived at a little town called Hochst. I walked down hill from the station, asked someone where the S– family lived, by showing the card I had, and a man took me to their house, where Ludwig S– was already home on leave for Easter. This is how I came to Germany, and I worked on their farm for two years. I was amazed to find they had only two milking cows, which also had to do the ploughing.
“When I was working in Germany, many of the people were nasty to the prisoners in the town. Because we were Polish we had to wear a small cloth square on our clothes with the letter “P”. Gangs of young men would sometimes catch a Polish man and bash him. This happened one day when I was with my Polish friend Felix. Usually they left me alone because they knew Ludwig S– was a high ranking German officer and did not want trouble. There were a few incidents like this, and I know of one person who was actually bashed to death and then buried right next to the footpath. I was once reported because Felix came to see me after dark. No prisoner was allowed to speak to another one at night. Someone saw Felix leave and reported us. But my employer, an old German lady, denied it and protected me. As with any people, some were good and some were bad.
“They were good people and treated me decently, sometimes in ways that were frowned on. For example, Mrs. S– always had me in the house to eat with them at their table. One day the local policeman came, and he told her she should not do this. Mrs. S– looked at him and said, in a very dignified way: “He works with us, so he will eat with us.” Nothing was said again. I consider myself lucky to have been staying with good people. I could not say they actually helped me, but no harm came to me while I was with them. They were ordinary people who did not know much about the world, they were kind, preoccupied with their everyday tasks and not interested in politics. The S– family knew nothing about me, not even my real name, until after the war. My whole identity and background was false, and they were very surprised when they heard the truth.
“The most frightening thing was the bombing towards the end of the war. One day I was ploughing a field and the planes came over and dropped a bomb very closely on the railway line. A huge crater in the field had to be filled in and all the foreign workers were sent there with shovels to do it.
“I was sad not to be able to see my family, but hoped this would not be for too long. Everyone had problems during the war. I expected that if I was still all right when the war ended I would be able to go home to Poland. My first contact with my family was in 1947. I wrote a letter to my brother Bernard in the town where he used to live. The letter came back marked “Unknown”. I wrote a letter to my mother in the town where she used to live, but they had already moved to another town. By a stroke of luck, Bernard visited that previous town and went to the Post Office, where they gave him my letter and he took it to our mother. They were overjoyed to hear from me, and we kept in contact after that.
“I could not speak German before the war. I knew a few words because Danzig used to be a German language state and my mother could speak German, which was used in earlier days for official papers such as birth certificates etc. I learned the language when I started to work in Germany. I would learn a few words each day and say them over and over in my head when I went to bed at night until I could remember them. I can also speak Russian, which was taught to me by another prisoner working in Hochst, and some Yugoslavian. When I arrived in Australia I had a few English words from my time working with the American Army, and learnt English by correspondence when I was working for the first two years on a sheep station in Australia.
“I found out what happened to the family after I contacted them in 1947. When I failed to report for duty in the German army, they came to search for me. They refused to believe that no one knew where I was, and Bernard was put in jail for this for one month, which I was very sorry to hear. My brother Wladek survived the war. My brother Stanislaw, according to some people who told my parents about it, was killed in artillery fire. My brother Bolis came home from the German army on leave, to visit my family on the farm. When it was time to go back, he said he would not go. He went into the forest to hide. One day the German soldiers came to look for him, and were very angry and rough. When they pushed my father, my sister Agnes tried to stop them and was shot in the leg. Then they went outside to look in the barn, and my dog started to bark at them, so they shot him. They eventually found Bolis in the forest, and took him away to jail. My sister Anna went to see him just before he died. She took him something to eat and the guard let her talk to him. Bolis said to Anna “Such a lovely day, and I have to die.” Then he was executed by firing squad.
“In March 1945, the American soldiers were already in Hochst. This meant I was free to do as I liked, so I left Hochst and went to another town, where I worked on a farm for six weeks, then returned to Hochst and worked for another farmer. There was an order that all refugees should report to a camp, so I spent a short time in camp at Heilbronn and Wetzla. When I returned to Hochst, two Polish men I knew were working for the American army, and suggested I do the same. First I worked as a kitchenhand in Michelstadt and then in Bensheim where I worked in the motor pool until April 1946. Altogether I spent three years in Bensheim staying with friends. When the Americans left they gave me a good reference, so I found other jobs.
“I made an attempt to return to Poland, but was unsuccessful. While I was in camp at Wetzla I met some Polish people from my district who wanted to go home. So we got our things together, hired a train compartment and took the train to Bebra and on to the Polish border. When we left the train to go to the border we met a number of people coming back towards the train. We found the border was manned by Russian soldiers, who refused to let us cross. So I took a train back through Darmstadt to Hochst and went to work later for the American army. In 1948, I registered to go as a migrant to England. An old German man who had been there told me it was no good and I would not like it, so I changed my mind.
“Then one day I was walking on the street when I saw a migration office with a notice saying people could go to Canada. So I went in to inquire about it. At that time there were no more places for Canada, so they offered me Australia, but I had never heard anything about that country, so I turned it down.
“One day they sent me a letter to Bensheim, then as I did not answer, sent another letter. Finally they sent a telegram to say I had three alternatives. I could go to Australia, stay in Germany, or go to Poland. I decided to start a new life in Australia. In August 1949 I went to Putzbach to have my name registered to migrate. In October I was notified to come to Putzbach with my luggage to the camp there. I had all sorts of medical check-ups, injections and interviews. I also struck a bit of difficulty when I had to explain why the name on my papers was not my real name, but I had my birth certificate, which I had asked my mother to send to me.
“Next day the people from the camp were sent by train to Innsbruck in Austria for two days. Then we continued on to Capua in Italy. I was taken in a group of one hundred single men to Naples to board a ship, but there was not enough room. We had to wait another two weeks, and then boarded the “General Black”. Next day the ship was filled up with migrant passengers, and we sailed that night. The ship was crowded and sometimes it was very hot, but everyone was cheerful to be going to a new life. My job on board was mainly helping in the kitchen and peeling potatoes.
“The ship took 28 days to reach Sydney on 13th December 1949. So that is how I came to Australia.”
My father, John Piechowski, died 19 April 2005.