You may not have met Jadwiga (who asked that we not use her last name) yet, but you have probably seen this striking, physically fit woman striding through Old Town on her vigorous daily walk. Her old tennis pals and weekly bridge partners could tell you that Jadwiga is an enthusiastic competitor. What they may not know is that she has had to be competitive all of her life. She is particularly proud of her greatest achievements: her two children, Tom and Karen, and her four grandsons. By all outward appearances, Jadwiga has enjoyed a comfortable existence.
However, if you are privileged enough to hear Jadwiga speak of her life before coming to America, you will find that her path prior to moving to Old Town has been anything but easy. Perhaps without the unlikely intervention of a Nazi officer, Jadwiga might have suffered the same fate that millions of Polish people did during World War II.
Her touching story begins during World War II when Jaga, the youngest of five children, and her family lived in Warsaw. Shortly before the war started, her brother joined the Polish army, and once World War II began, one of her older sisters joined the Polish underground movement. Her father was ill, and her mother held life together for the other three girls. In the summer of 1944, just before the Warsaw Uprising, Jadwigas father died.
As Poles resisted their occupiers during the Warsaw Uprising, Jadwiga remembers her mothers hope for freedom; her mother was so euphoric at the prospect of imminent freedom that she donated what little food they had to the Polish home army. When military help did not arrive, their hope quickly turned to fear as incessant bombing pounded the entire city. Like so many Warsaw residents, Jadwiga and her family retreated underground and lived in their cellar without electricity and running water. Meanwhile, above ground, Warsaw was reduced to rubble and ruins. The air outside was always heavy with dust, a memory that is still fresh in her mind.
Warsaw fell two months later. Thousands of denizens of Warsaw were forcibly evacuated by the Nazis and escorted to the trains destined for German labor camps. Jadwiga and her older sister, Barbara, followed the directive and began an uncertain, yet fateful journey. Their mother stayed behind with their other sister who was too ill from typhus to walk. Anyone with a contagious disease like typhus faced certain death by the Nazis, but they managed to hide her illness even when her mother and sister ended up at a segregation camp.
Barbara, who was suffering from tuberculosis, accompanied Jadwiga. They walked slowly over the ruins and debris. Each carried one suitcase with their worldly possessions, but no food. Starving and aware of the danger that awaited them, Jadwiga describes what happened:
Separated from the rest of the family, my sister Barbara and I were forced to leave. During the evacuation of the remaining civilian population of Warsaw, we were herded to the railroad station to be taken to a segregation camp in Pruszkow.
While my sister and I were sitting on our suitcases, scared and waiting for the train to take us to the camp, two German soldiers approached us with a message from their commander. They said that we could avoid going to the work camp if we would agree to go with their leader on another train a few tracks away.
After a short hesitation because we did not know what to expect, I urged my sister to follow the German soldiers. They were unusually kind to us and gave us food and safe passage under the protection of their commander, Ober Lieutenant Rudi Hoffbauer. I know very little about him other than that he was in Herman Goering Division of the German army and he was from Vienna.
At the first stop of the military transport, we were allowed to get off at Radom, Poland. The commander came to say goodbye and asked if we would like to go and stay with his mother in Vienna for the remainder of the war. With no intention of going to Vienna, we simply said we wanted to get off the train and find our family, and so we left.
Jadwiga paused, and then continued with her story. She speculated about the Nazi who helped her, and said:
What motivated this Nazi Commander to help us remains a mystery. After all, he was a leader in the Nazi army responsible for killing many thousands of my people and destroying Warsaw. What we do know was that he was about to face the Russians on the eastern front and perhaps realized he was unlikely to survive.
Without this twist of fate, there is no question I would have been sent to a German labor camp due to my youth and good health. My cousin was sent to a work camp and never returned.
I am very grateful my life was spared, and I am painfully aware that millions of others were not nearly so fortunate. The Nazi occupation of Poland remains a nightmare beyond description. It is not easy to talk about this except very occasionally with others who lived through the same or similar experience.
After the life-saving train journey, Jadwiga eventually reunited with her entire family in their hometown of Sierpc after the war. Finding themselves without a home, they headed north and finally settled in Sopot by the Baltic Sea where many of Jadwigas extended family members live today. Sadly, her sister Barbara, who so faithfully looked after Jaga during the Warsaw evacuation, finally succumbed to tuberculosis on Christmas Eve 1946.
Under the Russian occupation of Poland after World War II, conditions were tough. Jadwiga and other Polish citizens were not permitted to leave the country. During this time, Jadwiga married a Danish-born merchant mariner. A few years later, they started their family. In 1955, she immigrated to New Jersey with her husband and two year-old son Tom, and later became an American citizen.
Last year, she moved to Alexandria to be near her daughters family. Jadwiga does not dwell in the past or on what might have been. Instead, she focuses her attention and energy on her sons family in Texas and daughters family in Alexandria. Jadwiga looks forward to enjoying her next game of Scrabble, or better still, bridge, or her next walk on the bike trail by the river.
All of this may not have been possible if it were not for crossing paths with an enemy officer, Rudi Hoffbauer, whose unexplained act made Jadwiga one of Alexandria’s Treasures.