I grew up in communist Poland after WWII. My “Matka” (Mama) loved me and did all she could to provide food and shelter for the two of us. The city of Torun, where we lived, had been bombed out; some of the buildings were empty shells. Only the ancient cathedrals and the thick castle walls, built in the 11th century, remained. Matka and I lived for a while, like so many others, in the underground sewer system. With very little left above, we were at least safe and warm. We ate whatever we could find – cats, mice, insects, anything!
My first memory is of men taking me by force away from Matka. I cried and kicked and they answered with their fists. I was taken to an orphanage where 30-40 German children were kept in one room. The Russians and Poles had such hate for the Germans for what they had done during the war that now they vented their anger on these young ones. The orphanages had no beds, one bucket for a potty, one bucket to hold the food (slop) for all of the children. During the day, we were used as slave labor in the coalmines. At night, we were used for the pleasures of the Russian soldiers and the people who ran the orphanage. Fortunately, Matka’s brother was an officer in the Polish army. Many times he rescued me from the orphanage only to see me taken again and returned there weeks later.
There was one girl at the orphanage I will always remember. This girl had a yellow star on her shirt. She would comfort me after I had been abused. She would hold me and tell me “It’s OK, God loves you.” One night, the Russian soldiers came to the door and dragged me to the train station. I could hear a noise like a “pop.” As we got there, I could see a pile of bodies – children’s bodies. One by one, the Russian soldiers took each of the German children, put a pistol to their head, and shot. I saw my friend – the girl with the star – shot in the head and thrown on the pile. When I was to be next, I heard Matka cry out to the Russian officer and I saw her open her dress to him. The officer yelled out a command and I was pushed away – able to go home with Matka. The Russian followed us home to our apartment. (Matka had sold her body to save my life).
When I was six years old, in one of the orphanages on Christmas, I couldn’t take any more pain – I tried to kill myself. Truly, it was only an angel of God who saved me. For a few years after that, Matka and I were able to live in a room in the castle wall. How I loved that place! I would lay on the deep windowsill and stare out at the Vistula River, dreaming of far away places. Between times spent at the orphanages, my friends and I would cross the river to the old fort and play with swords we had found, pretending to be medieval knights.
Matka had been a circus performer and was friends with a band of gypsies. They loved me and told me that when I turned 14 they would take me to travel with them. How I longed for that day! I would be able to live free. On my birthday, I was so happy! I knew that Matka had given her blessing to this – knowing that it would be the best thing for me. Instead, Matka came to me, with tears in her eyes. She held a paper in her hand and told me that she was not my real mother. My real mother was in West Germany and I would have to leave Poland and go to her. I felt such anger at Matka, such betrayal! I ran from the birthday party and went to hide at the fort across the river. For days I stayed there. My friends knew where I was and brought me food and water. Finally, I returned…
Before I was able to leave for Berlin, I went through months of interrogation by the Russian KGB, months of rifle beatings due to the fact that the papers detailing the facts about my true Mother had come from a U.S. Army base in Germany. For 16 months, the Russians would not let me go because they thought I must be a spy knowing someone in the U.S. Army. I was a 14-year-old kid!
I finally went through Checkpoint Charlie from East Berlin to West Berlin. Freedom? Not quite. I finally met my real mother, Mama – she spoke only German and English, I spoke Polish and Russian. It was difficult. I hated her. How could she have left me and gone on to freedom herself? Mama must have seen the hurt and all the questions in my eyes. She unbuttoned her shirt and showed me her back – it was covered with scars. She showed me her breasts – they were mutilated. On her forearm, a number had been tattooed. I understood the pain and abuse she had taken, but I had no understanding of who had done it or why. I wept and embraced my Mama.
Mama had married an African American G.I. in West Germany and had 2 little girls with him. How I loved my sisters. We transferred to the U.S. to Georgia – in 1959. I was verbally and physically abused from both sides – the whites and the blacks. I was thrown out of the white schools and thrown out of the black schools. Once again, I was caught in the crossfire of hate.
My stepfather became abusive to my sisters. Unable to help them, I would go to my room and cry myself to sleep. One night I could take it no more, I attacked my Father with my fists. He came after me with a chain and beat me severely. I ran to the window, jumped out, and ran away. Many times during the next forty years, I tried to find my mother and sisters. I had even joined the US Army, hoping to find them through the military bases. All I found was more discrimination.
I learned to block out my past; I learned to lie to avoid the pain. When people would notice my accent and ask where I was born, I would tell them “Greenland.” In 1988, my wife and I began a journey to connect to God and find answers. Our path started in Christianity and ended up on Torah Judaism. It was there that I realized that G0d never abandoned me and that He loved me and that He had been with me through all of my life.
In 1999, I received a phone call – “Are you Peter? This is your sister, Barbara. I found out that my 2 sisters were fine – Mama had died in March of that year. The three of us had a reunion shortly thereafter and they told me that Mama had been in a concentration camp, that she had Jewish blood on her mother’s side. I couldn’t believe any of it. I contacted the Red Cross to investigate for me and it was confirmed – with the date of her arrest and the “prisoner number” which had been tattooed on her arm. She had been arrested while 2 months pregnant with me. I was shocked – I had been born in a concentration camp!
I started feeling the stirrings of God that I was to go back to Poland to face it all. Again, God in His gentle ways gave a confirmation – a man came to me and said that God was going to use me in a great way. He said that God had showed him that I was to go back to Poland to be healed – without this healing, I would not be able to minister to others. He then furnished the tickets for our trip to Poland.
In Poland, we went to Stutthof Concentration Camp. My heart was filled with pain. As we walked to the gas chamber, the ovens, I could feel the pain of the thousands of people who had walked there so long ago. In the barracks were pictures of the Nazi officers who had worked the Camp. I heard the voice of God say, “Piotrusu. Piotrusu. Piotrusu. You have to do something for Me. Go down on your knees in front of each picture and forgive them.” I said, “I can’t do it.” The Voice said, “You have to forgive them before I can forgive you.” As I fell to my knees and forgave each one, I felt so different. I felt as if all of the things I had suffered in my life had been for a purpose – to give God the glory. I had a joy that I had never felt before – a freedom in my spirit.