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Wearing the Letter P: WNY author recounts mother's tale of Nazi labor camp

Nancy Fischer

In her latest non-fiction book, Wearing the Letter P, Grand Island resident Sophie Knab tells the story of her mother and other Polish women who were taken from their homes, their families and their country and sent away to forced labor camps in Nazi Germany during World War II.

The horrific and inhumane treatment of Jewish people during the Nazi regime of World War II is well documented.

But lesser known is the story of peoples from occupied countries, like Poland, who were dragged away by Gestapo and thrust into forced labor camps in Germany – working in munitions plants and other similar war efforts – often on the front lines when Allied bombs were dropped.

At 70 years old, Sophie Hodorowicz Knab grew up hearing her Polish mother’s own stories of being taken away to work in a munitions plant in a forced labor camp.

“There’s two Gestapo standing on the curb and they said, ‘Are you Jozefa Zalewska?’ They told her to come with them and she said, ‘I’ll put my shoes on.’ And they said, ‘You don’t have to worry about shoes. You’ll be back directly.’ They took my mother in a car and they took her to jail and essentially – after being in a transit camp on Grodzka Street in Krakow, my mom never saw Poland again, let alone where she had been working in Krakow. She never saw her family again.”

For 14 years she researched her mother’s story and that of other Polish women for her book. The unflinching portrait tells of the abuse and heartache women faced in these camps.

Knab’s mother and father met in the forced labor camp, and her oldest brother was born there in 1944, toward the end of the war. Her mother often told the story of the danger they faced as Allied bombings began.

“They knew they were going to be targets. My mother said, ‘All of us started running towards the nursery. Bombs are falling. The earth is shaking and all of us are just running to get our babies.’ She would tell us this story all the time. It was like a photograph she would take out all of the time and be amazed she survived it.”

Her mother ran with her infant into the nearby forest for safety, but not all of the mothers were as fortunate.

Knab said, “In the morning she went back and was looking for whatever had happened and found babies were dead and mangled moms. By that time the Allies were already using napalm in their bombs. I can’t imagine the horrific scene she must have seen.”

The title of her book, Wearing the Letter P, illustrates how Hitler’s Germany forced those of non-German descent to label themselves.

“The Jews, of course, had the star of David as their symbol. The Poles had to wear a large letter 'P' to signify they were Polish. The Russians and Ukranians has to wear a patch called Ost-Arbeiter, signifying they were from the east. They were forced to wear these identifying badges so that anyone walking down the street would know you were Jewish, or from Poland or Russia. It was form of discrimination.”

Knab said in one instance she documented for her book, Gestapo surrounded a church in Poland following Sunday services and just took people away in the clothes they were wearing.

“The church was surrounded. They checked everyone’s papers and if you didn’t have papers they sent you to jail or a holding center and then transit camps and then to Germany.

Like Knab’s family, millions of displaced persons were found by the Allies following the war and were repatriated or resettled. Knab herself was born in a displaced persons camp before her family moved to France and then to the United States when she was in first grade.

“We were odd man out, refugees after the war,” said Knab. “We experienced some discrimination, even from our own people. It’s the same kind of mentality we have now – suspicion and fear that they will become a burden on the rest of population.”

However she said most of America is built on immigration.

“You can’t be an immigrant to this country and then close the doors to everyone after you,” said Knab.

She said she was proud of her heritage and culture.

She said if her mom hadn’t forced her to continue to speak and read Polish when they moved to the United States, she never would have been able to do the research and Polish translations she needed to do to write her book.

“She told me stories, but she didn’t tell me the worst stories. When you do the research, you find that those women experienced some horrific things.”

She said those stories are why she wrote her book.

“This was my contribution. It was inspired by my mom. As I was researching and reading I thought, where was this book when I was growing up so I could have understood my mom a little bit better.”

Knab has also written a book on Polish customs and folklore and recipes from the Polish country kitchen. Her books are available on her website at sophieknab.com, at Polish bookstores and on Amazon. The book is published by Hippocrene Books.

Making Buffalo Home is a WNED|WBFO multi-year project looking at the impact immigrants and refugees are having in our community. For more Making Buffalo Home stories, visit WNED.ORG/MakingBuffaloHome.