6 million Jews died during the Holocaust, history’s darkest moment. Yet the Nazi regime persecuted Christians, as well as Jews. Stephen J. Kotz of The Sag Harbor Express tells of one woman whose Christian family in Poland first harbored Jews, before finding themselves refugees and prisoners in concentration camps:
Bozenna Urbanowicz Gilbride, a diminutive woman of 80, wasted little time getting to the point when she was invited to speak about her experience as a survivor of the Holocaust with students at Bridgehampton High School on Thursday. In a 45-minute presentation to a rapt audience, she described a lost childhood …
Ms. Gilbride was the oldest of four children born to a farm family living in Leonowka, a small village in eastern Poland. She was only 5 when World War II broke out.
She told the group of students in teacher John Reilly’s global history classes that her parents hid people in a shed on their farm, and she would bring them food, seeing only the hands that darted out through the barely opened door to quickly take it from her. She would learn after the war that they were Jews, and hiding them was punishable by death.
By 1943, Ukrainians nationalists allied with the Nazis were terrorizing the region, killing Polish families in their homes at night. That summer, Bozenna’s family and their neighbors slept in their fields for safety. In August, her father, fed up, insisted that they return to their own beds. But it turned out to be that very night that their village was invaded by the Ukrainians. The family fled in their night clothes, but met scenes of terror whichever way they turned. Their village was being burned from both ends. “You couldn’t tell the cries of the animals from the people,” she said. “It was chaos, absolute chaos…”
Bozenna learned her first word of German, when the soldiers shouted over and over, “Schnell!” as they loaded the refuges into box cars. After a three-day journey, they arrived in Freiberg, where they were housed in a slave labor camp, the adults working 12-hour shifts in a tannery, the children toiling in the fields.
Her mother was later sent to concentration camp after having written a letter criticizing the living conditions of the workers that was intercepted by the Nazis. Bozenna would not see her again for more than a decade.
Later in the war, Bozenna’s family was sent to another work camp. They lived in fear of the guards and the threat of errant Allied bombings, which targeted a munitions factory and train station on either side of the camp.
Once, a bomb knocked down a section of the fence keeping the camp’s inmates from the outside world. Bozenna snuck through and found herself in a garbage dump. “If there is garbage, there must be food,” she told herself, eating apple peels she found and filling her long skirt with potato peels, which she brought back to the women for cooking …
Ms. Gilbride… said she tells her story because she wants today’s students to realize that 11 million people, including 6 million Jews, died in the Holocaust.
“Catholics, Gypsies, homosexuals, the handicapped were all considered undesirable people” by the Nazi regime, she said.
“I want you to have nightmares tonight,” she told the students. “I still have them every week. That’s what hate does. If you want peace on earth for your generation—my generation, we didn’t do so well—if you want peace, act peacefully. If you want respect be the first to give it, and maybe you’ll have a better world than mine was.”