My mother, Helena Solecka, my half sister, Maria (Lila) Siennicka, my father, Roman Konstanty Siennicki, and I, Jerzy Maciej Siennicki, lived in a comfortable two story home in Ursus, while living hell was taking place just a few miles from us in Warsaw. I remember the many nights that my parents would awaken me and take me to the basement, because the German planes were flying in to bomb Warszawa. And I remember the German troops marching through our neighborhood, their feet making the very disciplined sound. We lived through all of this in a relatively good spirit. We had ample food. In fact, we had enough of it to share with our Jewish friends, who were in hiding. My father, who was a chemical engineer, had a job in a battery factory near our home, and I even attended a preschool. However, in January, 1944, when I was five and a half years old, my mother passed away from a dreadful disease for which we still do not have a cure today. That sad event began to change my life.
During the summer of 1944 my father came to the realization that there would be no chance for us to live in a free Poland after the war was over. He convinced himself of that thought, because the Russian troops were just waiting across the Vistula River for the German troops to leave and for them to occupy Warsaw. He knew that when this would happen, he would not be able to travel freely abroad to pursue his musical talents. You see, in addition to being a chemical engineer, he was a concert violinist and a renowned pianist, one who completed his musical education at a conservatory. Consequently, he decided to leave Ursus by whatever means possible. Somehow, he was able to arrange for us to board one of the last trains to leave Warsaw. And so, one morning, having packed just a few of the family prized possessions, including his violin and two family photo albums, we left Poland for the last time. Our destination was Charleville, France. The train ride was very uncomfortable. It was packed with people; it was hot; and we had no food and little water to drink. People were scared. I remember the bombs exploding a short distance from our train, and the German troops shedding their uniforms and throwing their weapons down. They realized that they had lost the war. After two long days on the train, we found ourselves detained for a number of hours by the Russians in Prague, Czechoslovakia. All of us had to leave the train, and I remember one of the Russian soldiers giving me a piece of bread that he pulled out from the compartment of his tank. Even though that small piece of bread was saturated with gasoline fumes, it still was very tasty. Following an extensive search, the train was allowed to leave, arriving in Breslau, Germany, on the third day. Breslau today is part of Poland and is called Wroclaw.
Once in Breslau, we found ourselves in a German labor camp. Life was not easy there. My father and my half sister, who was twenty-two years of age then, had to work very hard each day in a factory that produced some kind of war materiel for the German troops. There was very little food for any of us and the living conditions were terrible. We lived through that as best as we could, knowing that the war was just about over. Finally, on May 8, 1945, we were freed. Alleluia, the war was over! I can not remember how long it was before we reached Karlsruhe in the Western sector of Germany, but when we did, we found ourselves in the first of what was to be eight different Displaced Persons' camps.
We were extremely happy that the war was finally over and that the American troops were there to protect us and to provide the basic necessities of life. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was everyone's hero. His picture could be found everywhere. From 1945 to 1948 we lived in numerous D.P. camps, and life went on as normally as was possible under the circumstances. In 1949 my father was fortunate to get a job as a translator at the Landsberg Army Base in Landsberg am Lech. He spoke five languages, English being one of them. His responsibility was to translate English to Polish and Polish to English for the Polish troops of the 7317th Labor Service Squadron, who were employed by the Americans, to guard an ammunition depot. I lived on the base with my father and was the only child there. Life was unusual for me but enjoyable. For one thing, I didn't have to go to school, because there was no school. And, after all, I was a soldier. In March, 1951, however, my father, who was sixty-three years of age then, suffered a severe stroke that left him totally paralyzed on the left side. The doctors determined that there was no hope for his recovery. I was twelve years old when this happened, and my life was thrown into complete chaos.
Because my father could no longer be employed on the base, the authorities decided that I should be placed in an orphanage. I dreaded that very much but had very little choice in the matter. It was at this time that an "angel" in the form of a lady, who was employed by the American Catholic Charities' Organization, intervened in my behalf. She asked me if I would be interested in going to the United States. Without a hesitation, I answered her that I would be. Plans then were made with my father's consent for me to emigrate to America. After nearly a year of trials and tribulations, I was allowed to leave Germany for the United States on February 12, 1952, aboard the S.S. General M.B. Stewart, a military ship. What a joy that was!
I arrived in New York City on the morning of February 22, 1952, not being able to speak the English language at all. What a feeling it was to see the Statue of Liberty, and knowing that finally I would live in a country that would provide me with the freedom and the opportunity to pursue my dreams. I was thirteen years of age at that time.
After spending three wonderful weeks in New York, I began a new life at the St. Joseph's School for Boys in Philadelphia. There, I began my formal schooling and was taught a very good work ethic. Because I wanted to experience a normal family life, as any thirteen year old boy wishes to, I decided to join the Hayward family in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. They were interested in adopting a boy my age to replace the one that they lost a number of years ago. I was adopted by them in 1953, and even though I had no formal elementary schooling, I completed my high school education on time. I was fortunate to continue my education at Iowa Wesleyan College, graduating in 1961 with a B.A. Degree in History. In 1970 I completed my M.S. Ed.Degree in Personnel and Guidance from Northern Illinois University and continued my graduate work at two other universities, receiving my Administrative Certificate in 1972. From 1961 and for the next thirty-six years, I served as a teacher, a principal, Director of Adult Education, and the Director of Title I with the Rockford Public Schools, retiring in 1997 to enjoy the "American Dream" to the fullest.
This is my unbelievable but true story.
This article was first published in the POLISH NEWS magazine in the July, 2001, issue.