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Polish Survivors Share Pain at Buffalo Polish Legacy Conference

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By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY –

Seventy years of untold stories will be shared this weekend in Buffalo at an international conference for survivors of the World War Two Polish invasion. More than two hundred survivors and their families are expected to gather downtown to preserve a vanishing piece of history. The conference, "Untold Stories Come Alive - Poland to Buffalo Through World War Two" was organized to document their stories for future generations. WBFO's Joyce Kryszak sat down with two survivors who explain why the stories are so hard to tell.

Click the audio player above to hear Joyce Kryszak's full story now or use your podcasting software to download it to your computer or iPod.

For information about how to attend the conference you can call 716-510-7562. More information about the Polish Legacy project is also available at Polish Legacy Buffalo.

Helena Golebiowska's blue eyes twinkle as she scoots in her house slippers around the piano showing off her precious portraits. Mamma, Daddy, "Babcia" and grandfather. The 77 year old woman, dressed in layers of soft white, has a doll-like face and her mouth bends sweetly into the smile of an adoring child. It doesn't take much imagination to picture her as a five-year old little girl in Poland hugging her mother's knee. But the image shatters when she tells us what that little girl's eyes had to watch.

Golebiowska said she watched her grandfather's pastoral gardens ripped apart by bombs. Her own home had already been burned to the ground. You see, her parents sheltered two Jewish children. And they took in a cousin who was orphaned by the Germans as the invasion began. Golebiowska remembers the day soon after when the German soldiers came to take all the village teenagers away. She clung to her mother as the village gathered to bid farewell and sing a song of prayer, pleading with God to protect the children. But the soldiers loaded up the children anyway.

But those children and Golebiowska's family were among the lucky ones. Later the soldiers did let the children go. And Golobiowska's family managed to escape being sent to Siberia. Not so lucky was the man who she later came to Buffalo to marry. A corporal in the Polish army, he spent five years as a prisoner of war, surviving only on scraps of bread. Later he would tell his two sons never leave bread on their plates. Andrew Golebiowski's father has been gone ten years now. But the younger Golobiowski remembers. And the television videographer is documenting it.

Golebiowski, whio speaks fluent Polish, started the Polish Legacy Project to make sure stories like those of his parents and so many others are not forgotten. "We've heard these stories our whole lives," said Golobiowski. "And we just think it's important now to share these stories, so people know who their neighbors are and what they went through."

And there are many neighbors in Buffalo's large Polonia. It's estimated as many as 3,000 Poles emigrated here after the war. And many of them carried deep wounds with them.

Krystyna Pienkowska was 12 years old when her brothers and her father were taken by the Germans. She never saw her father again. She and her mother were loaded into a cattle car and taken to Siberia. For three weeks they were stacked in with 80 people and given no food. She said the destination was worse - a cold, lifeless Siberian camp. She does not know how they survived there for two, long harsh winters.

She said many did not. Pienkowska remembers one baby in the barracks with them. The baby's mother had no food for her - not even breast milk.

Pienkowska held her while she was secretly christened. The infant died moments later.

But Pienkowska and her mother escaped their cold, barren prison. They became soldiers for Poland. They traveled the world fighting for Poland and eventually they made there way to the United States, to the comfort of good jobs and nice homes.

Pienkowska's living room in Amherst is wrapped in fabrics of warm red and amber. She points out a few of her favorite paintings brought back from trips to Poland. Landscapes - mostly snow covered winter scenes. She still loves winter she says. The war did not take that away. But Pienkowska remembers clearly what it did take away. And she said that's why she tells her story.

"What happened to us, what that war did to us, to our families, that you can not forget," said Pienkowska.

Hundreds of survivors and their families will return to Buffalo this weekend to share their stories too.