Mila by Jim Moore

Arbeit macht frei was the greeting over the entrance gate to a number of German concentration camps, a complex that spanned nations and supplied slave labor to the war machine of the Third Reich when the Nazis were not engaged in medical experimentation using humans as guinea pigs or busy exterminating the expendable. Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, Gross- Rosen and Dachau are some of the camp names that will not soon be forgotten. They were stops for prisoners who became caught up in the Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) directive created and issued by Hitler for use by German Armed Forces High Command Chief Wilhelm Keitel. The directive resulted in the kidnapping and forced disappearance of many suspected political activists and Resistance members throughout Nazi Germany and the occupied territories of Europe. Anyone, whether proven guilty or not, considered a threat to the Nazi regime in Germany or Nazi occupation forces elsewhere who were not summarily executed would simply disappear into the “Night and Fog.” This Hitler created nightmare would be carried out to perfection by his minions, especially the SS. Interestingly while there were many Night and Fog prisoners from within Germany, most were from France, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands and Poland. Arrests by design were intended to intimidate the prisoner, the family and the neighbors. Night and Fog arrests were generally made in the middle of the night to maximize the terror effect. Those caught up in the program were usually spirited away during the night to prisons hundreds of miles away from their home, and all contact with the family ceased immediately. The arrests were brutal physically, emotionally and mentally to the victims for sure, but the effect extended to the Eventually the majority of political prisoners from all theaters would be sent to Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen or Dachau; all would enter through a gate over which the sign read Arbeit macht frei (Work shall set you free). Gross-Rosen became infamous for its treatment of Nacht und Nebel (NN) prisoners, especially those who worked in the Gross-Rosen stone quarry.

Treatment at Gross-Rosen was so harsh the average life span of a political prisoner was less than two months. Activity peaked at Gross-Rosen in 1944 when the camp accounted for 11% of the total inmates in Nazi concentration camps. About 125,000 inmates of various nationalities passed through the Gross-Rosen complex; 40,000 or 32% died on site or in evacuation transports. Almost 50% of all who entered a concentration camp died while engaged in slave labor, being used as human guinea pigs for medical research, of malnutrition, or simply because they were marked by the Nazi regime for extermination. The history of Poland is checkered at best; it has been overrun, conquered, divided, partitioned and oppressed in different ways and by different nations more than once in every century for the last 600 years. And yet the Polish people have remained united in spirit as well as cause. They have always had a prominent intellectual community and in spite of oppression after oppression they have maintained a strong Christian base anchored by the Catholic Church.

Poland is a land that includes a rich history of princes and princesses, kings and grand duchys, gentry and surfs–all strongly aligned with their heritage and possessing an innate tenacity certain to ensure that as a nationality they will continue. The proof of their sense of community is evidenced by both a strong will to endure and survive as a nation and the Polish people’s ability to resurrect their country time after time, often in spite of great odds and opposition. Perhaps it is their spirit that should be admired as opposed to whom they pay their taxes; after all, governments, dictators and conquerors will and do come and go. Only the human spirit seems to have the intuitive skills needed to survive the endless onslaughts that seem to be continually inflicted by man against his own kind. In 1918 The Second Polish Republic was established; it was the re-creation of an earlier independent Poland and it was not finalized until 1922. Political chaos reigned supreme especially after the death of Jozef Pilsudski in However in spite of the political turmoil, significant economic growth occurred within Poland between 1922 and 1939. Woodrow Wilson, U.S. President during World War I, had a 14-point plan to improve the world after the war ended, and recreating a Polish state was one of the fourteen points. Access to the Baltic for the new Polish state was to be a part of the bargain. And so it was on January 10, 1920 Danzig was declared a free city thereby allowing Poland access to its port and the Baltic. Politics were always a concern as the German and Polish governments learned to deal with Danzig and the free city concept but the advent of Hitler changed the dynamics. On August 23, 1939 a secret non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union included terms for an invasion and the subsequent division of the newly formed Polish Republic. The German-Soviet Pact not only sealed the fate but it outlined the demise and the division of Poland once again. The German battleship Schleswig-Holstein was visiting the port of Danzig on the first day of September 1939 and without warning it opened fire on Westerplatte and the Polish Garrison stationed on the Polish side of the port of Danzig. Shots from a visiting battleship that was unprovoked and at anchor as well in the city port of Danzig signaled both the beginning of World War II and the end of the Second Polish Republic. Marianna Kepa and her future husband Wincentry Radamski were part of the Polish gentry. Both were the youngest in their families, grew up in towns named after their ancestors and were well educated. Marianna was fluent in Polish as well as German; and Wincentry, like his father before him, was a bridge designer-builder as well as a Civil Engineer. Wincentry’s father had as one of his accomplishments designed and built the longest wooden bridge in Poland across the river Nida near where they lived. Marianna and Wincentry married just as the Polish Republic was being formed following World War I. He was young, handsome also young, extraordinarily beautiful and full of life. Theymade a perfect pair. In the summers Marianna and her four children would often travel to Nieswiez, the place where she grew up and home to the country palace of the Radziwill family as well as her brother Adam. While there they would often travel about in a carriage drawn by 4 to 6 horses. It was a trip she and the children looked forward to and found to be a mixture of enchantment and excitement laced with fun and adventure as well. As the summer of 1939 drew to a close, once again Marianna and her children made the journey to Nieswiez for a visit with her brother Adam. The trains as usual passed through Warsaw and there Marianna met a Military Envoy. He was a son of the royal Radziwill family and he too was traveling to Nieswiez and the royal country home. Prince Radziwill was impressed with Marianna’s stunning beauty and amazed that one so youthful looking could be the mother of the 4 children with her. The prince invited Marianna and her children to visit the palace and have dinner there. That evening a royal carriage arrived at the home of Adam, complete with a governess to care for the children. As Marianna, the children and the governess arrived at the palace the prince had just received orders to secure the Polish borders. The prince, aware of the precarious situation developing on the border with Germany, had a military vehicle and driver take Marianna and the children to the train station and ensure that they safely boarded the train. It would be the last train to leave Nieswiez before the outbreak of World War II. The days that followed ended an era of innocence, affluence, elegance and kindness for the Rodomski family as well as the people of Poland; where in spite of political uncertainty everyone seemed to be prospering, doing well, getting along, and on the move. Marianna, Wincentry and the children had no way of knowing it but their lives and lifestyle would soon be changed forever. As the world turned to war, Wincentry operated a business that was thriving in spite of a world depression; he was in the process of building a motel on the Nida River as part of a fishing resort–it was the same place where earlier he had built a recreation center. The Nazi invasion changed his plans because along with control of the Polish Nation, after the invasion the Nazis confiscated all of Wincentry’s wealth and belongings as they swept through the countryside wreaking havoc. It was clear Poland no longer needed architects, engineers and businessmen like Wincentry; they needed men and women willing to be Polish patriots and to die if necessary as part of a Polish Resistance Movement. Fear for the fate of his Jewish friends made joining the Resistance Movement easy for Wincentry. His reason was simple, his motive was pure: his Jewish friends were being rounded up and taken away. He felt obliged to help them hide and hopefully escape from the Nazi death machine that was on the march hunting the Jews and other “un-worthies” throughout Eastern Europe as if they were animals. Four of the five Rodomski children had already been born and were soon to be teenagers; the youngest, Milusia, was not born until after the war was underway. Helping Jews was a perilous task; if caught it was instant death–no judge, no jury, just an immediate bullet to the head and the body tossed in a pile to be disposed of when convenient! It did not stop the Rodomski family, all of them, from doing their best to protect and help their Jewish friends. Milusia, the new addition to the family,was too young to pitch in but her sister Krystyna (Christina), who was 16 years older than Milusia, did her part. She made a place in the house for a teenage girlnamed Esterka (Ester), her best friend and a Jew, to hide by hollowing out a place within the walls of the house. Ester was very thin and when danger approached she hid inside the hollowed-out portion of the wall. Wincentry in the meantime helped the rest of Ester’s family escape the Gestapo. He found a safe haven for them in the country on a farm. Realizing his family would be in danger if he or any of them were caught, he sent them to the farm country also to be away from all his activities and hopefully be out of harm’s way. Wincentry’s instincts proved correct; an informant gave him up to the Gestapo while he was in the process of disseminating fliers for the underground movement on behalf of a Polish Government in exile operating from a London base. Wincentry, now a political prisoner, was sent off to the Auschwitz concentration camp. There he became part of the slave labor force the Nazi regime came to rely on for much of its war effort. Laborers were moved from camp to camp depending on their condition and the needs of the Third Reich. Majdanek was the next camp on the German agenda for Wincentry Rodomski and from there he was moved to Treblinka. If it is possible to use the words good and luck when speaking about a concentration camp inhabitant then it might be said Wincentry had a bit of good luck. The last two concentration camps he was moved to were Gross-Rosen and then Dachau. Dachau was liberated by the Americans as opposed to Auschwitz and Treblinka. Those camps had to rely on the Russian forces sweeping through Poland for liberation, food and medical services. Release from the concentration camps by the American Army was not immediate. It took time,patience and planning toprocess and provide medical and other services required by so many people, many of whom were barely alive and unable to travel. While Milusia, the last of five children, remained too young to participate in the Resistance against the Nazis, her older sisters and her brother never gave up the fight after the arrest of their father. The family had lost everything, they had been forced out of their home and into the countryside, their father had been arrested by the Gestapo sent to Auschwitz and no one knew for sure at any moment if he was still alive. But for Marianna and the children it was important to carry on and to survive the Nazi occupation. All during the war Milusia’s sisters and brother carried food and other goods to their Jewish friends in hiding and they also carried food and cigarettes to members of the Resistance. It was dangerous work that needed to be done and for a while they seemed to be charmed. Then it happened. There was a change of luck when Milusia’s sisters, Christina, Wacia and Hania, were stopped by the Gestapo. “Hey, you . . . what do you have under your skirt?” the Gestapo officer shouted. The girls knew if they were arrested by the Gestapo it meant not only serious trouble for them, but also for their mother and baby sister Milusia. One of the sisters had a pillow under her skirt meant for a Jewish friend and they all had potatoes stuffed in their sleeves. They dropped the goods and literally ran for their lives with the Gestapo in pursuit, barely managing to escape. Milusia’s brother Zygmunt was only 13but he had already been chased by the Gestapo many times without having been caught. One time as he was running and evading the Gestapo he was hit in the hand by a bullet that exited his hand near a blood vessel. The proximity of the vessel made it difficult for the wound to heal. Finally after many times of trying, the Gestapo was able to follow him home. They entered the house prepared to arrest Zygmunt. A panic-stricken mother jumped between her son and the Gestapo officer and in perfect German said, “You’ll have to take us both; you cannot have my son—you already have his father!” Her German was so perfect it stunned the Gestapo officer and he stepped back, then in an unlikely fashion he backed down. It was clear a terrified Polish mother able to speak perfect German with resolve and with the ability to summon nerves of steel saved her son from a fate too hideous to imagine. Marianna was put to the task once again when her daughterHania was arrested by the Gestapo while on a mission for the Polish underground. Hania was taken to a labor camp, which was a step short of a concentration camp. The resourcefulness of a mother should never be underestimated. Marianna Rodomska was prepared to do whatever she could to save her daughter from ending up in a German concentration camp, a fate she knew would be a death sentence. She made contact with a Polish prison guard who directed her to a Polish doctor who worked at the prison in which her daughter was held. Marianna was desperate to raise money for bribes. She sold everything she had—her jewelry, gems and anything else of value. She raised enough money to bribe the camp doctor. The doctor fed drugs to Hania that made her so weak she was no longer able to work. Eventually due to the bribes and drugs, Hania was released from the work camp and sent home. It was a horrible thing to have to do to your own child but it worked, and that was all that mattered. The war ended for the Polish people but not the occupation; the Russians took over where the Germans left off. Milusia would not meet her father until she was three years old. For all of Milusia’s short life it had been the responsibility of her mother to keep her children safe, to care for them and never let them give up hope that one day, somehow, they once again would be a complete family. When in hiding that’s a formidable task, especially when weeks become months and months become years and there is no end in sight to the pain and misery. But fortunately, by default it had been left to a mother who was kind, loving and soft spoken to remain calm, show compassion and explain almost daily why things could not always be as simple as they seemed to a child—even to a child who had come to understand the devastating effects of war but not how or why people were driven to be so wretched with one another.

It was clear by the end of the war that the Republic of Poland, only 21 years old, really had ceased to exist after the German and Russian armies overran the territory in September 1939. Even when peace came in 1945 the situation appeared bleak for citizens of Poland as the Russians took permanent control of their country and installed a puppet government. The Potsdam conference was not kind to Poland or to a number of other Eastern European Countries. Clement Attlee won the election in July 1945 and replaced Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of England. This left a thug (Stalin) with instincts not far removed from his former ally Hitler to deal with a brand new President (Truman) and a brand new Prime Minister (Attlee) as they attempted to implement agreements worked out by a former president (Roosevelt) who for all intents and purposes had been negotiating and making deals from his death bed just a few months before with the treacherous Stalin, often overriding a Prime Minister (Churchill) who understood the consequences of caving in to a gangster like Stalin. The irony of ironies is that Churchill, in the process of politics, had been turned out of office before the final negotiations in Potsdam began. It is difficult to know what the outcome of Potsdam would have been if Churchill had been able to guide Truman.

But one thing is clear: Churchill, much like his role in the 1930s of sounding the Hitler alarm, had a clear understanding of the intent as well as the integrity of Joseph Stalin and, like the old war horse he was, he began sounding the alarm about the intentions of the Soviets and the terrible plight of the people of eastern Europe–especially the Polish whose London based government in exile had directed Polish forces who had escaped both the Russians and the Nazis to fight with the Allies. Polish pilots flying Spitfires fought valiantly in the skies during the battle of Britain and Polish soldiers fought on the ground in Europe for the Allies only to have their sacrifice neglected or, worse yet, forgotten when the war ended.

 

It was summer when three-year-old Milusia Radomska came out of hiding and returned to her hometown of Kielce. She had always remained optimistic and waited for the day her father would return from the concentration complex. It seemed as if she had always known her father was being held against his will in one of those camps even though no one had ever told her so. Filled with a child’s optimism she dreamed of a tomorrow when a father whom she was yet to meet would come home to Kielce, to his family and to her. She knew in her heart and she felt in her soul that he too dreamed of being home and holding her and telling her that he loved her and that he had missed her. It was a shared dream much like a secret they had together–the little girl in hiding and a father she had never met. Both were trapped and kept apart by the same evil menace, yet separately they held on to the same hopeful dream that sustained the father’s will to live and survive, if only for one day at a time. Finally her dreams became reality. When Milusia was told her father had arrived in Kielce she ran straight home like a bullet, but as she drew near the front door she became a bit apprehensive about how she should act. She walked slowly for the last few steps to collect her thoughts and ensure that she did not during this very important meeting make any mistakes. Her emotions in conflict, she addressed her father as “Pan,” the equivalent of Sir or Mister in English. With open arms and tears running down his face, her father embraced her lovingly and said, “I love you, my baby, my little Milusia. Oh, don’t be shy now. It is okay. You can call me ‘Dad.’ I am not Pan. I am your father.” The dream a little girl and her father shared had finally come true; they were for the first time in her life a family. As if he had never been away, Milusia knew instinctively that this man, her dad, was the new authority in her life. She would later, as an adult, say about this important time in her life: “I was overjoyed that he was alive . . . Wonders of God’s miracles, now I could have a father! In the face of adversity, we had been blessed standing strong, surrounded with my mother’s love . . . Now it was a moment of celebration, looking at my father. Though I saw a strange man, at first glance I saw in him admiration, love, and longing disappointments. I knew it was a moment of truth: he had finally come home, and we were finally reunited.” She remembers becoming so excited when he told her he had a surprise for her and opened a small suitcase neatly packed with chocolates. Milusia says, “I was overwhelmed. I never even imagined I could have so much chocolate in my whole life. It was a big surprise to have precious sweets in the time of occupation when food was a precious commodity. I was so happy and thankful for all my sweet presents from my dad, chocolates made in the USA. Later I found out from my dad that it was the American soldiers, in rescue camp generosity, who gave my father a small collection each week of bars of chocolate for his little girl. He saved all of them for his little one left behind, his almost lost war child. Strangely, we had been blessed in the face of adversity. We had survived the misery of war, constantly struggling, facing the uncertainty of a miserable existence. We had lost everything but the faith in God. My mother’s determination and her faith and love kept us hoping for a new tomorrow.” Milusia began formal schooling in a Polish operated Soviet controlled educational system. Current history textbooks were forbidden; history was learned from notes taken from teachers’ lectures. Milusia then went on to attend the School of Architecture in Warsaw, and along the way she became known simply as Mila. The early years of Mila’s life clearly ran the gamut from nightmare to poignant, only to be followed by intrigue, cold war politics and romance. Just 18 years old, Mila went on to cover new and uncharted ground. She met Norman Kalson, an American diplomat, and a romance followed. But like so many fables where lovers meet, there were many obstacles for them to overcome. The Soviet-controlled Polish government, because they themselves could not be trusted, found it impossible to trust anyone else. The idea that two people raised in different worlds where different ideologies existed might meet, fall in love and want to marry without political consideration was a notion not just difficult but impossible for totalitarian state officials to comprehend. The cold war had reached its zenith and weddings involving the East and West were not allowed. There was strict protocol on both sides requiring interviews and investigations that seemed to go on and take forever. The courtship of the couple was also made unique by the Polish secret police. They followed every move Mila and her future husband made, stopping them sometimes for interrogation. Finally, to the amazement of everyone, for the first time ever, approval was given for an American diplomat to marry a woman from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Their wedding, which was held in a beautiful gothic Catholic Church, was very elaborate and created quite a sensation in their town. It was the first wedding of an American and a Polish National. Mila would find out after the wedding that she was not yet quite free to go on her own. Three days after the wedding her husband Norman, by law, had to leave. While Mila was free to leave and had a visa, the Polish Government had not issued her an American passport; it took several months for her to gain a passport enabling her to leave Poland. On October 11, 1961 Mila Kalson and her husband arrived in the USA and lived in Duryea, PA for the next 5 years. Then they moved to Miami where their three children grew up. (All three of them are now very successful adults: their daughter graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and married a doctor; one of the sons became a Navy pilot and later an airline pilot, and the youngest son is in Public Administration.) Mila’s husband, Norman, bought a chain of dry cleaning establishments stretching from Pennsylvania to Miami. However, he made a better diplomat than a businessman. A divorce ensued and Mila’s parents came from Poland to help her out, now that she was a single parent with 3 children. That enabled Mila to return to college in 1975, on full scholarship, where she earned a degree from Florida International University;that, coupled with her credits from Warsaw University School of Architecture, allowed her to work as an Industrial Engineer. Mila has found employment with several multi-national corporations–Siemens, NEC Technology and Amphenol North American, to name a few–as well as the US Navy. As the Director of the Polish-American Council in Atlanta, Mila met and spoke with Lech Walesa at a banquet in his honor. Walesa was the Polish leader who in 1980 met with the Communist-led government of Poland and signed the Gdansk (formerly the city of Danzig) accords, a document that would become the harbinger of a new chapter in the history of Eastern Europe and Poland in particular. With the support of President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, Walesa led Poland out from under the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union and helped Poland once again become an independent and democratic state. Walesa served as Poland’s President from 1990 to 1995. He came to the attention of the world when in December 1981 the puppet government in Poland, at the insistence of its master the Soviet Union, declared martial law in an effort to crush Solidarity, the Trade Union that was led at that time by Walesa. His friend President Ronald Reagan put the Russians on notice that the United States was prepared to go to war if necessary if Russian troops moved into Poland against the Solidarity Movement. In a December 23, 1981 speech directed at the Russians, Reagan said:“I want emphatically to state tonight that if the outrages in Poland do not cease, we cannot and will not conduct ‘business as usual’ with the perpetrators and those who aid and abet them. Make no mistake, their crime will cost them dearly in their future dealings with America and free peoples everywhere. I do not make this statement lightly or without serious reflection.” It was Reagan’s unwavering support coupled with that of Pope John Paul II that stiffened the Resistance and gave hope to the people of Poland and it was the subsequent actions by the Polish people that precipitated the total collapse of the Iron Curtian in 1989 across Europe. Here in Panama City on the Navy base Mila was the Quality Assurance Manager for a government contractor coordinating the certification of the Hyperbaric Life Support System required for two navy dive boats used by NEDU. There is a certain satisfaction in her voice as the girl from Poland who began life hiding from Nazi occupiers explains the details of her work on a U.S. Naval Base. Since leaving the Navy Base, Mila has worked for herself as a consultant after she formed her own company known as Mila International Ltd. And now she is in the process of putting together a cosmetics company known as Milaeurolux Ltd. That imports a luxury line of European developed cosmetics. Like many other Bay Point residents, Mila’s life story is inspiring and something to be proud of; her experiences are unique. There have been incredible highs and impossible challenges to deal with, but through it all she has demonstrated strength, courage and a will to prevail and move on. Mila still has strong ties to and a love for her native Poland, but she is red, white and blue to the core.

She’s an American through and through, not because it is all she knows, but because she knows what it means not to be . . . an American.