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The War for one man, and for one little boy
The War for one man, and for one little boy
Dyonizy Ivanowicz' whole life was determined by having been born on a strip of land that was contested for generations.
He was born in 1914 in the village of Pinsk, then a part of czarist Russia. His father, Ivan, was taken from the family in 1918 as a result of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Because his father had worked for the White Russian Army, the Soviets sent his father to Siberia.
Dyonizy's mother was left with seven children and no support. Dyonizy begged for food from soldiers on the streets and was prevented from having any schooling because there were no public schools and his mother had no money to pay the school master.
When Dyonizy was eight, Poland came back into being, and Pinsk was part of Poland. In 1936, he joined the Polish Army for two years. In 1939 he rejoined because of the threat of war to his country.
Because the Russian Revolution had prevented him from an education, he was illiterate. As some men might have used a diary, Dyonizy used a camera while in the army.
His army unit was stationed in western Poland. The Germans invaded September 1, 1939. When it became obvious that they were losing, his unit retreated east. The unit broke into smaller and smaller units so as to be less noticeable until finally those Dyonizy was left with decided to go as individuals. Dyonizy met up with a farmer and exchanged clothes. Had he been caught in Polish military clothes, he could have been killed.
He walked east until he reached a train yard. He met a train engineer who agreed to let him ride the freight train east to Brzesc on the Bug River. From Brzesc, he had 100 miles to go on foot to reach Pinsk. The land was under Soviet control, but it was where his family was, and it was the only home he knew.
At one point during his walk home, Soviet soldiers stopped him and demanded he show his hands. They were killing all military officers and intelligentsia. The Soviets wanted to remove all the leaders. Dyonizy's big, rough, calloused hands let him live, and he got home.
When he got home, he found his hometown under the control of the Russian Soviets. He worked where they told him to, and they told him to work on the railroad. He befriended another Polish man, and together they stole food from the Russians. The food was moved on the trains, and Dyonizy and his friend helped themselves, to feed their families, and to feed some folks who were not supposed to be there: Polish partisans, hiding in the woods. Dyonizy's friend had a small wagon, and they used it to move the food.
A year later in Pinsk, he married a local Catholic woman. Dyonizy was officially Eastern Orthodox, but he had little use for any religion; he viewed all "men of the cloth" as bandits, but the woman he wanted to marry was Roman Catholic, and Olga was not going to accept less than what she could view as a valid marriage. Olga could read and write and had graduated eighth grade, and Dyonizy likely saw Olga as a little "higher class" than he saw himself, so Olga's standards were accepted. Dyonizy and Olga married in front of a priest in a Catholic marriage ceremony in March 1941. By doing this, they risked their lives since religion was outlawed by the Soviet Communists who controlled Pinsk. The priest promised that no papers would ever be found to prove the two had married in a religious ceremony. It is likely that the priest created no paper trail. Paper was not necessary for the marriage to be valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church; all that was needed was that Dyonizy and Olga made vows to each other in front of a Catholic priest.
Later in 1941 the German Nazis took control of Pinsk. The Nazis kept Dyonizy working on the trains, and Dyonizy kept liberating food that was being moved on the trains. Once the Germans arrived, however, it became problematic: His friend with the wagon was Jewish and was removed by the Germans quickly. With no friend, there was no wagon. Also, the Germans kept better records than the Russians. Nonetheless, Dyonizy was able to continue with the food thefts.
In March 1942, Olga gave birth to a son, Victor. Sometime while Dyonizy was living in Pinsk under Nazi control, he witnessed a scene of Nazi soldiers going into a community, ordering all of the people outside, separating the people into two groups, and machine gunning the people in one group. None of these people were Jewish, according to Dyonizy. By then, the Jews had been removed. Most likely, the Nazis got their point across: "We are the rulers here, and you will live or die by our choice."
Early in the second half of 1943, Dyonizy was confronted by Nazis who knew he was stealing food, and who knew part of the reason why he was stealing food. The Nazis gave Dyonizy two bad choices: Tell the Nazis where the partisans are hiding, and the people hiding would surely be killed, or do not tell the Nazis where the partisans are hiding, and the Nazis will kill Olga and Victor. Dyonizy chose to betray his friends who were in hiding, and they were killed. [Had Dyonizy told me this story, I might not have believed it. Instead, I was told the story after his death by his Polish friend and neighbor. The irony was that, when the woman told the story, she had absolutely no empathy for Dyonizy's plight. Over 45 years after Dyonizy had been forced to make the choice, even months after his death, this Polish woman could not understand why Dyonizy had betrayed his compatriots, and she spoke negatively of him because he had done so. Apparently she had learned because of a confidence shared by Dyonizy or Olga. If there had been any hope for understanding or compassion, Dyonizy had not found it.]
On November 10, 1943, the Germans removed many Poles from Pinsk. These were non-Jewish Poles; the Nazis had already removed the Jewish Poles. Dyonizy, his wife, and son were packed onto cattle cars and taken to Dachau, German. The people were packed so tightly they could not sit.
Dyonizy, Olga, and their baby Victor were at Dachau for less than a month. Living conditions were unhealthy. They slept in a triple-decker double bed, with one family to one mattress. There was no running water. The baby got diphtheria. The family was moved again, this time to Augsburg, Germany, where the parents would be held as forced labor (slave labor). The parents were put into separate barracks. The baby was taken to what was called a hospital. There were Catholic nuns at the hospital who prayed for the baby. Perhaps they knew in advance what would happen if the baby did not get well fast. On December 31, 1943, Dyonizy and Olga were told to go to the hospital to see Victor. A Nazi physician told Olga to hold her baby as Dyonizy watched. The doctor gave Victor an injection; the baby began convulsing immediately and died. The doctor's response was to walk away as the mother held her convulsing baby. While it cannot be proven that the physician intentionally killed the baby, that is most likely what happened. It was the last day of the year, and orderly Nazis liked clean books. That New Year's Eve, Dyonizy and Olga wandered the snowy streets of the slave labor camp, crying.
When I was told this part of the story by Dyonizy, I said in shock, "They killed Victor." It seemed obvious to me. Dyonizy apparently had never been able to admit that horror to himself. He looked stricken and said, "NO! He had an allergic reaction!" The old man then began pacing and twisting his hands. It was a horror he could not admit even forty years later, even when he was able to state the simple facts.