On May 8th 2015 we celebrated the 70th anniversary of VE Day. I am posting the following article as a tribute to Stefania Biegarczyk and to the millions of others who suffered but who did not survive the war. I was eight years old in 1945 and I have had 70 good years in which to remember them. The article, which first appeared in the Bristol & Avon Family History Society’s Journal starts off in mundane fashion. But please bear with me.
“This is an example of how one thing can lead to another in Family History. My first cousin Jack GREGORY attained his 90th birthday on April 14th 2014. What to give a 90 year-old-man? The majority of us who have survived to “a certain age” have everything we could possibly want in the realm of “stuff” and more of the same is often a nuisance. So I thought I would give him a present of “himself”. To this end I decided to research and write the outline story of his life and put it together as a booklet with a few historic family photos and some “then and now” shots of places Jack would remember. So I did the rounds: Bristol Record Office for his christening records, took a few snaps outside the graveyard of his ancestors, (the Wesleyan Chapel, Kingswood, now a scene of Gothic devastation with impossible access) and then started on the places where he lived as a child.
I was standing in the street photographing one of these abodes, not Jack’s house, but next door where another of my aunts once lived. This suspicious activity was noticed by the current resident who came out and asked politely “Would you mind telling me what you are doing?” My snooping could have resulted in an unfortunate “incident” but I explained that I had no sinister intentions but was engaged in family research, and that many years before my aunt had lived in the house which I myself had often visited as a child. The gentleman did not say “Clear off” as he had every right to do, but called his wife, and I elaborated on my mission. The world is divided into two groups of people: those whose eyes glaze over at any mention of history in general, let alone family history, and those whose appetites are whetted, principally, I think, by the not- to- be passed up opportunity to discuss their own ancestors. We chatted for some little while. The couple had been in the house thirty six years having actually purchased the house from my late aunt who they recalled. It started to drizzle. They invited me inside. So far, so ordinary and yet so kind.
We were sitting in the living room sipping tea and by now had exchanged names. I mentioned Bristol & Avon Family History Society and my column the Journal. “Do you ever do this sort of thing professionally?” asked Liz EKNER, the lady of the house. Those days are long gone but I still cannot resist a tale. At my urging, my hostess told her family story.
Liz, nee GRABOWSKA, and her husband Jerzy were both born of Polish parents and spent their early lives in different refugee camps in England after the end of the war. They met at a family wedding and were themselves married in 1976. Liz said she “knew everything” about her own ancestry, her father having fought with the Polish Free Forces but it was the Ekner side of the family which intrigued, a mystery specifically regarding Jerzy’s mother, Stefania BIEGARCZYK. Stefania and Sgt Kazimierz Ekner were married in Germany in 1945 and then came to England where their children were born. Eventually they fetched up in Kingswood where Kazimierz died in 1971 and Stefania in 2001.
“Between her marriage and her death we know everything there is to know about our dear Mum,” Liz went on, “but she would never talk about her early life, from her birth in 1921 until…….”
and her next words made me shudder. My stomach turned to ice……..
“……..until she was liberated from Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.”
Stefania was born at Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland, on 30.3.1921. The date is repeated on most documents pertaining, except one, a typescript listing camp internees which gives her birthdate as 30.6.1921. This may be simply a clerical error, though given the Nazis’ zeal for admin, the discrepancy is worth noting. The “Edited List of Polish Political Prisoners” states that her parents were called Jozef and Waleria. She was arrested for political activity and held in the transit camp at Pruszkow (Dulag 121) between 2.9.1944 and 9.9.1944. Following the Warsaw Rising, 650,000 Poles passed through in August, September and October 1944. 55,000 were sent to concentration camps. They were segregated by the Gestapo and SS into Aryan/Non Aryan, came from all social classes, civil servants, artists, doctors, scholars, shopkeepers, blue collar workers; they included the injured, the sick and pregnant women; were aged from infants a few weeks old to octogenarians. Ravensbruck was specifically a concentration camp for women. About a quarter of the women sent there were Polish, who were forced to wear two triangles, one red and another with the letter “P” for political. Their heads were shaved. Norwegian women who were classed by the Nazis as “the highest rank of Aryans” (!) were spared this indignity. Soviet, German and Austrian communists were also denoted by a red triangle; common criminals: green, Jehovah’s Witnesses: lavender, prostitutes, lesbians and gipsies: black. It has been called “the banality of evil”, and nothing sums it up better than the division of the women into these chillingly bizarre subsets. By the time Stefania came to the camp most of the Jewish inmates had been transported to Auschwitz.
Stefania arrived at Ravensbruck on 7 September 1944 where she became prisoner number 65783. She was there for seven months. With the rapid advance of the Red Army in the spring of 1945, the SS ordered the murder of as many prisoners as possible to avoid anyone being left alive to testify. These included the British SOE Agents Cecily Lefort, Lilian Rolfe, Denise Bloch and Violette Szabo. With the Russians only hours away, those who remained, some 20,000 souls, were ordered on a death march towards Northern Mecklenburg. Two thousand sick and dying prisoners were still in the camp when the Russians arrived. They rounded up those guards who had not escaped. At the Nuremburg War trials sixteen camp officials charged with crimes against humanity were sentenced to death. The chief wardress during Stefania’s time, Dorothea Binz, had toured the camp brandishing a bull whip in the company of an unleashed German Shepherd dog. She would select a woman at random and kick her death or order her to be killed. Another guard, Vera Salvequart was a trained nurse, who oversaw thousands of deaths in the gas chambers. Both were hanged by the British public executioner, Albert Pierrepoint in 1947.
It is not surprising that Stefania was so scarred by her horrific experiences that she refused to talk about them. Of her previous life all she would say is “my mother and father are dead. My sister fell under a train. My brother was shot.”
Liz and Jerzy who are bi-lingual in Polish and English, went to Piotrkow several years ago where they met the parish priest (they are Catholic) and searched for Stefania’s baptismal records and those of her siblings. They found no reference to the names Biegarczk or to SIEJEK, another name, apparently an alias, by which Stefania was sometimes known. Their niece Tracy has taken up the challenge and has uncovered more information, specifically camp records on which Stefania’s name appears, but so far nothing to supply a clue to the missing years. Liz says she “feels sure that somewhere, there is someone still alive, who knew Stefania, who knows something of what really happened. That there must be a relative out there…..”
Piotrkow is some 80 miles from Warsaw, about two hours by train. Why did Stefania leave there to go to Warsaw and thus become caught up in the Rising? Was she conscripted or did she go to Warsaw of her own accord? What terrible fate befell her parents, her brother and sister? Why can’t I find any of them on the LDS index (www.familysearch.org)? Is there a kindly LDS member locally or at Utah who could help? Why did Liz and Jerzy find nothing in church records? What is the meaning of the alternative name “Siejek”? Can anybody help. Did you know Stefania? Or others like her?
Stefania on her wedding day to Sgt Kazimierz Ekner. He died in 1971.
Her identity card in her married name.