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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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 email@example.com.