Innocence lost         

By Suzanne Traverws

Herald News, July 2, 2006

"Most nightmares fade with the light of day, but the one through which Mrs. Sophie Straczynski and her two children lived for seven terror-filled years still haunts them, even though they have been free from its grip since last June." -- The Morning Call, Paterson, N.J., December 24, 1946

Theresa Straczynski Skibicki still has nightmares. Decades after her return to the United States, remembering her life in Poland during World War II is a recipe for a restless night.

But on the 60th anniversary of the day her ship sailed from Europe into Baltimore Harbor, Skibicki, now 74, finds that her mind goes back again and again to memories of the war. With the help of a home health aide, she brought the clothes she wore then down from storage on her second floor -- two dresses, and a sweater she knitted to keep herself warm.

Born in Paterson, Skibicki was 6 years old in June 1939 when her mother Sophie, a Polish immigrant, took Theresa and her brother Charles to visit relatives in Poland. They traveled by ship, then train, to their mother's hometown in northeastern Poland, near what was then the Soviet Socialist Republic of Byelorussia.

On Sept. 1, 1939, as they prepared to board a train to return to the United States, Germany invaded Poland with massive air strikes and a thundering army. The train tracks were bombed, the Straczynskis trapped. World War II had started. Theresa spent the next seven years, often alone, struggling to survive.

"Let's put it this way: I went from heaven to hell, and came back to heaven. And I mean hell," she said.

Today Skibicki lives in Paterson, the city where she was born. A bout of polio when she was 18 months old left her right leg weak and atrophied, and for four years, Skibicki lived in hospitals -- St. Joseph's in Paterson, a place in East Orange.

Her mother worked two jobs to support her children and visited once a month, so those early years left Theresa with little sense of home or the world outside the hospital. When they sailed for Poland, she wore a leg brace, and sat while her brother played aboard ship.

Polio meant that when German bullets rained down on them at a train station in the Polish city of Lodz, Theresa could not run.

An unknown man covered her with his body. Sophie Straczynski was wounded in the leg. They regrouped and began to walk more than 200 miles to Bogdanova, a village near the Polish-Byelorussian border in the country now known as Belarus, which borders Russia. Sophie's relatives took them in for a little while, but would not spare food Sophie could not pay for. Sophie set out to look for work with her son Charles and left Theresa with an uncle.

"Nobody ever explained to me what was going on," Theresa said.

U.S. unable to help

On August 1939, Nazi Germany signed a pact with the Soviet Union to divide Poland and parts of Eastern Europe between them when Hitler's armies invaded. On Sept. 17, 1939, Soviet troops marched into eastern Poland to claim that territory.

Two days earlier, on Sept. 15, according to letters Charles collected, a worried friend of the Straczynskis in Paterson, Pavil Statkiewich, had sent a letter seeking to learn "the whereabouts and safety of a Paterson woman and her two children." Sophie wrote the American Embassy in Moscow and Statkiewich, begging for ship tickets and money to get home.

The U.S. State Department wrote it was "unable to accept funds ... for transmission to American citizens in Soviet-occupied Poland" but sent Statkiewich instructions for sending money to Sophie directly. He did not have enough. By the time he had saved up for their passage, the United Sates was at war with Germany, Italy and Japan.

Their escape routes were cut off.

"We had no one to whom we could appeal," Sophie told the Morning Call in 1946. "There was no American consul. In fact, we found it was better not to let anyone know we were Americans."

Alone, Theresa developed what would become a routine. Like tens of thousands in Eastern Europe, the war pushed her to walk long distances, rising at dawn to ask villagers for work in exchange for something to stave off hunger.

She worked until sundown, relying on villagers' kindness for a pile of hay to sleep on in one-room cottages where they lived. The villages, clusters of 10 to 15 houses, might be 10 to 20 miles apart, she said.

A far cry from Paterson

Accustomed to hospitals and life in Paterson, Theresa was horrified that chickens slept with families indoors, and wondered why, if a man could make his own fishing net, he couldn't make a net to keep swarms of big black flies from coming in through the windows.

By 1941, the Germans had pushed across Poland. In June, Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with the Russians and invaded the Soviet Union. For the next two years, the Soviets fought back, often through the territory where the Straczynskis were living.

Their situation as American citizens stranded in occupied Europe was not uncommon, but the family could hardly have picked a worse place to be, said John Stanley Micgiel, director of the East Central European Center at Columbia University and a professor of international affairs.

As the Germans and Russians fought through the region, residents were caught between occupiers. Theresa by this time had learned Polish, and picked up German, Russian and White Russian, the language of nearby Byelorussia.

They kept the fact that they were American under wraps, especially around German troops.

"The front line passed us about four or five times," Theresa said. "One day it's Germans, next day it's Russians. Everybody was so afraid of them that we didn't dare open our mouths."

Germans seized the train station in Bogdanov and forced Sophie and Theresa to cook for them.

"I had to peel potatoes in the basement all night long," she said.

She saw soldiers line up girls and rape them; she saw them deposit their dying horses at villagers' doorsteps and demand rested ones.

As Nazi death squads swept through Poland killing Jews, Charles said he witnessed Jews machine-gunned into ditches and burned in a barn.

Theresa was 9 when a German soldier offered her candy, took her to his room and undressed. Her cries alerted German officers, who shot the man.

Theresa and her brother say their mother got an SS officer drunk one night, stole his keys and freed the barn full of Jews his squad planned to execute in the morning. The occasional German was kind, she recalls: one brought her the first doll she ever owned, a ceramic-headed baby she still keeps in her living room.

The Soviets regained the territory in 1943, and Theresa remembers climactic battles.

Before she hid in a bunker during one such fight, she remembers seeing a wave of Russians coming across a field and Germans with machine guns awaiting them.

The Russians plowed through, and afterward Theresa picked her way among dead and dying soldiers, sometimes taking a dog tag. For two more years, she continued her routine: working in exchange for food, or a ball of wool with which to knit a scarf, a pair of socks. She spun the wool herself, she said, touching the small lambswool sweater she pulled from storage. Her hair went uncombed; lacking soap, she scrubbed herself clean with pond mud.

Life's full circle

Under Soviet occupation, Sophie renewed her efforts to get the family back to the United States. The Germans surrendered to the Soviets in May 1945, and the family's hopes soared. Sophie went to Moscow, then returned to collect Theresa and Charles and bring them to Moscow.

Statkiewich sent them money for passage, but they had to wait for an exit visa from Moscow. They lived at a Red Cross shelter until May 1946, when they were finally given passage on a U.S. Merchant Marine ship from Odessa.

After seven years abroad, Theresa was 4-foot-10-inches, 14 years old, and still slight in the Sunday dress her mother made her. She kept that one, along with an everyday dress her mother sewed from a German sheet.

Her days on the ship were the best of her life to that point, she said. They were well-fed, and the ship's sailors doted on her.

"They had to drag me from it," she remembers.

Back in Paterson, a 15-year-old Theresa remembered no English. She was enrolled in second grade, and raced through her classes. After a year, she had little patience for it, and decided to open a store, Theresa's Deli, near St. Joseph's Hospital.

She married and bought a historic home on Haledon Avenue, where she still lives. Polio victims often weaken as they get older, and for eight years, Skibicki has been homebound.

But she keeps busy, and content with daily chores, games and visitors -- perhaps a legacy of her early years in the hospital, or her gratitude for her life since the war.

"All those years I suffered in Poland," she said. "I figured 60 years in America, and I'm so happy that I'm in my own hometown where I was born. Sixty years, that's a long time, and I still remember every part of it."

Reach Suzanne Travers at 973-569-7167 or travers@northjersey.com.