Bozenna Urbanowicz Gilbride spoke about her experience, as a Polish child in a Nazi slave labor camp during World War II.
By Stephen J. Kotz
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, who co-wrote a book about her ordeal, “Children of Terror,” with Inge Auerbacher, a German Jew who also survived the Holocaust, now lives in Southampton.
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.”
The family fled through the fields and collected a little food and clothing from the abandoned homes of relatives who lived nearby. They made their way to the City of Tuczyn, where they found themselves among a sea of refugees, being pushed by the Ukrainians into the waiting arms of the German army. The Germans offered them a grim bargain: Stay here and be slaughtered by the Ukrainians or come to Germany, where there will be work for the adults and school for the children.
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.
As the war wound down, the guards released the inmates, ordering them to walk west toward the American lines. At the war’s end, the occupying Americans sent the refuges to school with German children, who, despite their country’s defeat, were well dressed and well fed and enjoyed bullying their new classmates.
“I could have killed to have a bow for my hair—and look like a girl,” Ms. Gilbride told the students. She was 12 years old, living in a refugee camp, when she celebrated her Holy Communion and Confirmation. She remembers little about the day other than the fact that her white dress had been fashioned out of an old table cloth and that she missed her mother terribly. “Like any child, I wanted a mother,” she said.
Not long after the war ended, the family was allowed to come to the United States, where they lived with her grandmother and uncles in New York until they could get on their feet. Her mother, she would later learn, returned to Poland after the war and was imprisoned when she tried to escape.
Finally, in 1957, Mrs. Gilbride’s mother was freed by the Polish government and allowed to come to America. When her plane landed, her daughter, remembering the mother of her childhood, could not find her. “Someone was calling me by my given name,” she said. “And there standing in front of me was a little old lady. She weighed 93 pounds, her face was yellow and wrinkled and she had short, mousy hair.”
Ms. Gilbride said she was encouraged to talk about her experiences with schoolchildren when she lived in Garden City. She 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.”