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Saved at the treshold of Hell - Part II

on Friday, 01 January 2010. Posted in Testimonies

Pope and lady
The author meets Pope John Paul II

In the last issue of MICHAEL, we published the first part of this testimony written by a woman, who was a prisoner of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for women in Germany, during World War II.

Not long afterwards, Lisa left the camp and was replaced by another SS nurse. An order went out that every woman of Roma (Gypsy) origin between the ages of ten and sixty should be sterilized. One by one they shuffled into the ward. Minutes later, they ran out, screaming and clutching their bellies. I was horrified; the more so as the word was out the Polish women were also slated for the same procedure. They wanted to make sure we would never have children. "Not to bear children?" I thought. "Why live then? How can one live without children, without hope?"

Fortunately, the camp thugs would not succeed in executing their criminal plan, for the Germans began losing the war. Their armies began to retreat from Russia. Allied air raids became more and more frequent. The lights would go off, and we could doze off, if only for a while. "They’re going for Berlin", we would guess. An hour later, sometimes less, we would hear the bombers flying back overhead. At last we felt our suffering was coming to an end. The war was drawing to a close.

The camp commandant ordered his staff to carry out a selection. They marched the women inmates before a commission consisting of himself and other SS officers. The cripples, the old, and the weak were selected for transport. The commandant told us that in view of the imminent end to the war, the enemy could not be allowed to find sick and enfeebled women in the camp, and so these would be transferred to another camp. That day we were able to rescue Helen, a young dispatch runner from Kalisz, who was weak and unable to walk. The women concealed her inside a straw mattress, which they then laid out on an evenly made bed. Later Helen told me: "I was lying still inside the mattress when I heard an SS guard enter the room with a dog. I froze in terror, but they passed me by, and the dog did not scent a thing." Perhaps it was Our Blessed Mother, to whom I was constantly praying, who protected her?

Late one evening, after the siren signal, I went outside to seek solitude and a few intimate moments with God. I looked up at the sky and began to pray. Suddenly I heard a strange creaking noise. Going to where the sound was coming from, I saw two women pushing the same cart we had used to convey dead bodies to the crematorium. Lying in a disordered heap on the cart was a pile of naked women’s bodies. Their heads lolled to and fro; their mouths and eyes gaped open. The mouths seemed to cry out Hitler’s barbarities to the world. Their arms and legs hung limply from the sides of the wagon. One body, draped over the tailboard, seemed to be pushing the cart, as if it were helping the pair in their grim and heavy task. These were the bodies of women prisoners who had been transported to Ravensbruck after the Warsaw Uprising. Because of the lack of space in the barracks they had been quartered throughout the winter in makeshift tents. And so I watched that dismal caravan pass by. Never will I be able to wipe it from my memory! "Do not forget us!" those lifeless, pain-contorted faces seemed to cry out. How much evil Hitler had committed! But had he been alone in this? How frequently man succumbs to Satan!

The bodies of the murdered

Bodies of people murdered in the camps

Fortunately, not all Germans succumbed to Nazi propaganda. The family I lived with in Berlin never said, "Heil Hitler!" Instead they saluted each other with a "Gruss Gott!" [God greet you – ed.] They were people of strong faith, and Satan is powerless in such cases.

One day we became aware of an eerie silence hanging over the camp. No SS guards in sight. Not a dog to be heard. "Girls", I said to my sister inmates, "there’s some evil in the air. Come, let’s pray!" We knelt down in front of the barrack and raising our arms, concluded our fervent prayer by singing the hymn, "Under Thy Protection." We had barely finished when the barking of the dogs broke out. A group of SS female guards ran up, shouting "Los! Los!" They led us to the square where there were other prisoners standing. Each of us was handed a three-kilogram food package from the Red Cross. At last, they formed us in a column five-persons wide and, late that evening, marched us out through the gate that had once greeted us with its infamous slogan, Arbeit macht frei! [Work brings freedom – ed.] Three years before, I had entered through that same gate. The cynical slogan meant heavy labour carried out under conditions of unbearable cold and hunger. The work brought "freedom" only on the high-tension fence wires or in the ovens of the crematorium.

Now, after three years, I was saying goodbye to this place where so many women had perished; and it was seeing me off with what had lately become a particularly dark and dense plume of smoke rising from the crematorium stacks. The thick smoke seemed to hold us back, for it sank earthward and clasped us in a farewell embrace so that we might never forget the stench of smouldering human flesh, bones and hair. Goodbye, our sisters in misery! Goodbye!

The moon, emerging from behind the clouds, revealed a profound stupor on our faces. It seemed intent on seeing which one of us would be the first to break down, collapse by the roadside, and await a lethal volley from an automatic weapon. "What now? Where are they taking us? Where is that long yearned-for freedom?" Such were the thoughts that tormented us. I walked in a trance and kept pace with the others only because I had to. I ceased to feel sorrow, anger, or hatred for what had happened to me. I could not even cry.

The monotony of the march deepened my trance-like state to the point of delirium. I thought I could hear the strains of "Under Thy Protection" reaching me from a faraway place. I turned to see who was singing, but the women trudging behind me were all looking down. Some appeared to be deep in thought; others muttered prayers. No one was singing. Only I could hear the music. Suddenly I became aware of the powerful presence of the Creator. The thought came to me that we were safe in His hands, and my spirits rose. The sun peeped out from behind the village we had just passed; and still I could hear the strains of that hymn. Our march slowed as we trudged up a steep hill. Necks bent to the ground, we walked on at a slower pace; and all the while we struggled with our cruel lot.

Then I recalled my mother telling me how Jesus had also walked uphill dragging His heavy cross. The closer He got to Golgotha the heavier the cross became. He would stumble, fall, then pick Himself up and trudge on. Though they beat Him, mocked Him, and spat on Him, He never opened His mouth in protest and continued to carry His enormous burden. "Why?" I asked myself. "Why did Jesus, Son of God, have to bear that great cross? Why did the Almighty God, His loving Father, permit this?" Then I saw a figure coming up to us from the distance. He was dragging a great cross. From its transverse beam there hung sacks bearing people’s names. One of them had my own name – Adela – written on it. I shuddered. "Is that me?" I asked. But Jesus, bearing my portion of sins, merely smiled and replied, "Follow me!" Weighed down by the sacks, He overtook me, though His shoulders were gored and lacerated, bruises and stripes covered his calves, his feet bled, and a crown of thorns pressed cruelly into His head.

"Los! Los! Weiter!" The SS women’s shouts stirred me from my reverie. I stopped; then, stepping back, I looked for Jesus. There He was – at the head of the column. "Follow me!" He called with a smile. Nina, an older friend of mine, took my arm and drew me forward, but I called after Jesus, "Wait! Wait for me!" "What’s the matter with you?" the marchers cried out. "What are you pulling away for?"

At that moment I seemed to wake from my trance. I no longer saw Jesus. I tore myself free from Nina’s grasp. "Let me go!" I cried. "Why are you pulling at me? I can manage on my own." – "I thought you were feeling weak and needed help," Nina replied. After a while, I regained my strength and was able to keep up with the rest of the column.

The sun was rising higher. We begged for a rest, for we were bone-weary and hungry. But our SS guard said, "I’m hungry too, but that accursed Greta hasn’t relieved me yet!" When we continued to beg for a moment’s rest and offered her food from our Red Cross packages, she screamed, "I don’t need your shitty food! Weiter! Los! Los!" "Keep moving, keep moving!" But our pace was constantly slowing, for we had been on the road for twelve hours. Fortunately, after a few more hours, we received good news. In an hour we would be stopping for a rest near a large barn. This gave me strength. I hoped Jesus would be waiting for me there.

Alas! The rest at the barn proved to be a brief one, for the Russians were close by and the Germans were loath to run into them. We had to douse our fires quickly and march back, but by a different route. By now it was three nights since we had left the camp. We trudged on, taking only short breaks to eat. It was spring and the sun felt warm. Nature was stirring from her winter sleep. But we did not smell her scents or hear the birdsong. Dirty and starving, we stared dully at the road in front of us. But still I soldiered on, for it seemed to me that Jesus was again encouraging me with a smile, saying, "Follow me!"

On the fifth day of our march, we ran into a train of wagons and carts on the road. German civilians were fleeing with their precious belongings toward the American zone. Profiting from the confusion, I along with four companions broke away from our hated escort. We joined the crowd of refugees. But we had no idea what to do next and so when, on the following day, we saw another column of prisoners – ours, from Ravensbruck, as it seemed to us – emerging from a side road, we joined up with them. Once again we marched in every direction, depending on the vagaries of the front.

On the tenth day, I became so weak that nothing concerned me anymore except for the crashing noise inside my head. I had reached the end of my rope. But my companions took turns in supporting me under each arm and made me go on. They would never leave me behind, they insisted. What physical effort that required! What proof of love on their part! Who gave them the strength – wasted and worn out as they were?

Suddenly, we heard a loud clatter, then a whistle and an expulsion, as something dropped from the skies. People screamed and we all dived for the ditch. That action saved my life. How long we lay there I have no idea, but when I opened my eyes I saw a mass of overturned carts, dead horses, and refugees sobbing over the bodies of their loved ones. The air raid allowed me to regain my strength, and I was able to march on again. Finally a squadron of American and Russian tanks came rumbling up in our direction and the SS guards took to their heels in panic.

At last we were free to return to Poland. Her border was now on the Oder River. We traveled for many days, spending the nights in deserted German houses. After a week or so, we reached a small town. We went to the railway station. Unable to board the train, three of us climbed into the locomotive with the engineer despite his protests. In this way we managed to reach the city of Lodz. There we separated.

Finding myself alone on the crowded platform, I felt lost and listless. Fortunately, I managed to board a train to Warsaw. When we arrived there, people poured out of the cars and ran off in various directions. I could hear laughter and people calling. I stood in a numbed state, gazing at the city around me – a vast pile of rubble. Somehow I managed to get to the other station – or at least the place where the building had stood. The waiting train was packed with passengers: inside, outside, on top of the cars, in the stairwells, but I managed to secure a spot on one of the entry/exit platforms and in this way succeeded in reaching Nowy Dwor. I had come home!

Quickly I walked – or rather ran – down the familiar road by which, after an absence of seventeen years, I was returning home. Stopping to bless myself at the crossroads chapel, I automatically turned right toward of my parents’ home.

I saw the old whitewashed thatched cottage. Outside in the clean-swept yard sprinkled with white sand stood an old woman chopping sticks on a tree-stump. "Who could that be?" I wondered. The answer came to me at once: "It’s mother!" she did not see me approach and replied to my greeting without looking up. Pain and love infused her heavily wrinkled face. I stopped to wonder what this woman, whose love my uncle’s affection had replaced, meant to me. To my uncle I owed my later childhood and happy youth. This noble man had naively believed in Hitler’s propaganda and taken me to a country that hated the Poles and Poland. I survived only thanks to God and Our Blessed Mother’s care. Now I felt cheated and deprived of the greatest of treasures – a mother’s love and a family home. I looked at the little rosary cross that hung from the patched pocket of her apron. Then I knew that the Crucified Jesus had brought me home to my family.

Breaking my prolonged silence, I asked her, "Does Mr. Orlikowski live here?" Still without looking at me, mother replied in the affirmative. Another moment of silence. Finally, unable to endure the growing tension, I cried out, "Mother, do you not recognize me?" It was then that she made eye contact with me. Astonished, she cried out, "O My God! It’s Adela! Renia! Adela’s come home!" My sister came running out of the hose. My mother’s embrace instantly soothed my wounds and eased my pain.

After my first proper bath and meal in years, I fell asleep almost at once and slept through the whole day, then the whole night, then again through the following day. My brother Stasiek came in to wake me. It was he who had insisted on saying good-bye to me upon my departure to Latvia. My father also entered the room. "So", he said, "you have come back to our poor Poland!" Not long afterwards I got married and wrote a book about those terrible years spent in the concentration camp. I entitled it, In Search of God, Happiness, and Country. In recent years a priest friend of mind has been inviting me to speak at youth meetings. There I describe my camp experiences and, in this way, give public witness to what I became convinced of in such a palpable way: that God exists – and so does Satan.

A Love One Another reader
Reprinted with the permission of Love One Another