Illustration by Dave Seeley

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.9, W.6-8.2, W.6-8.4, W.6-8.9, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.6

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Individual Development and Identity • Power, Authority, and Governance • Global Connections

FLASHBACK

Escape From the Soviets!

World War II affected nearly every corner of the world—especially Poland, where the conflict began. Read the story of one Polish teen’s long journey to safety in this runner-up entry to the 2021 Eyewitness to History contest.

As You Read, Think About: How does Polikarp Van Pyrz’s story help explain the events of World War II?

It began at dawn. On September 1, 1939, Germany’s army stormed across the border into Poland with stunning speed and terrifying precision, striking first from the west, then from the north and south. First came hundreds of warplanes, roaring overhead as they dropped bombs on Polish airfields, railroad lines, military bases, and communication networks. Then came thousands of tanks and more than a million soldiers—taking over cities and towns as they streamed toward Warsaw, the capital.

The Polish army and some civilians tried to fight back, but they were no match for Germany’s overwhelming force. And though Poland’s chief allies, Great Britain and France, responded by declaring war on Germany, the damage could not be undone. Nazi Germany had successfully invaded Poland—and World War II (1939-1945) had begun.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Warsaw, Poland, in September 1939, after the German invasion

Terror and Desperation

At the start of the war, Polikarp Van Pyrz was 13 years old and living with his family on a farm in eastern Poland, about 200 miles from Warsaw. After the German invasion, the teen and his family heard stories of Nazi attacks against unarmed Polish civilians, including children.

Such brutality was a common tactic used by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi followers. Since becoming Germany’s leader in 1933, Hitler had focused on two major goals: conquering Europe and wiping out the continent’s Jewish population, whom he falsely blamed for widespread poverty in Germany. Over the next six years, the Nazis had taken over other countries, using violence and terror against anyone who opposed Nazi control.

So when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Polish citizens—including Van Pyrz—feared the same fate. Surrounded on three sides by German forces, the Polish army was overpowered. Then, less than three weeks later, the Soviet Union invaded from the east. Poland was crushed between Europe’s two most powerful countries—and its cruelest leaders.

In 1939, Poland was crushed between Europe’s two most powerful nations: Germany and the Soviet Union.

At the time, the Soviet Union was ruled by Joseph Stalin, a dictator who severely controlled most aspects of his people’s lives. Like Hitler, Stalin was stomping out opposition at home and looking to expand his power—and his country’s borders.

In late September 1939, the two leaders agreed to divide Poland between them. In German-controlled western Poland, the Nazis built some of their most notorious concentration and death camps, where they sent millions of Jewish people and many others from all over Europe to be killed or worked to death.

Meanwhile, in Soviet-held eastern Poland, Stalin used different terror tactics—on Jewish and non-Jewish people alike. Anyone labeled “socially dangerous” or “anti-Soviet” by Soviet officials was rounded up to be deported, imprisoned, or shot. In less than two years, the Soviets forcibly relocated more than 1 million Polish men, women, and children to remote areas of the Soviet Union, including to forced-labor camps in bitter-cold regions of northern Russia.

Van Pyrz was one of those children. He’d just turned 14 when Soviet troops arrived at his door and took him and his family away from the only home he’d ever known.

PRIMARY SOURCE

Eyewitness to History

Last year, 14-year-old Tylie Czerniak of Colden, New York, interviewed Polikarp Van Pyrz, 94, about his childhood during World War II. Tylie’s interview won runner-up honors in our 2021 Eyewitness to History contest. Read on to see how the war changed Van Pyrz’s life.

Courtesy of Polikarp Van Pyrz

Van Pyrz in a British military uniform, late 1943

Courtesy of the Czerniak family

Tylie Czerniak: What was your life like before World War II?
Polikarp Van Pyrz:
I had a very happy life on a farm with my mom, dad, sister, and brother in Poland. We raised animals and grew crops. We were very self-sufficient.

TC: How did World War II change your life?
PVP:
I was 13 when Germany attacked Poland from the west and the Soviet Union attacked from the east. Stalin’s soldiers arrived and told us they were taking us to a safe place where the German soldiers wouldn’t harm us.

On February 10, 1940, at 4 o’clock in the morning, Soviet soldiers came and marched us about 15.5 miles to the train station. My family and many others had to board a boxcar and travel for two weeks. We had no heat and almost no food. It was very crowded, and some people died.

TC: Where did the Soviets send you?
PVP:
We were sent to a labor camp in northern Russia where the temperature was 40 degrees below zero! My mom’s job was to saw down trees in the forest with a handsaw. I would help her in the freezing cold. We worked long hours and had very little food to eat. If people couldn’t work, they were left to starve. The Soviets told my family we would never be free again, and my brother was forced into the Russian army.

Editor’s Note: In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Part of that country and all of Poland came under Nazi control. The Soviet Union then joined the Allies in the fight against Germany and the other Axis powers. By that time, the war had spread through most of Europe and parts of the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa.

After joining the Allies, the Soviets agreed to release hundreds of thousands of Poles from Soviet labor camps. Able-bodied men were expected to join the Polish army and fight for the Allies. But some men and most of the women and children—including Van Pyrz—became refugees, desperately traveling from place to place in search of safety.

TC: When were you able to leave that labor camp?
PVP:
We were allowed to leave in 1942. But Stalin didn’t want the world to know how badly we’d been treated. So they attempted to starve us all to death on the train ride back.

We traveled for more than two months on the Russian railroad, and many people died from disease and starvation. Families had to leave their dead loved ones on the side of the tracks. My mom, dad, and sister died along the way.

TC: How did you survive that deadly train trip?
PVP:
After two months, my friend and I jumped off and escaped. We knew we had to get out of Russia! We met other orphans and begged a captain to sail us across the Caspian Sea to Iran.

After being released from Soviet labor camps, thousands of Polish citizens became refugees.

The trip took three days because of a storm. We had to tie ourselves to the rail of the ship to prevent getting washed overboard. Unfortunately, one of the kids was swept off the ship and drowned. When we docked, a British truck picked us up and took us to an air force base in Tehran, Iran, where we were put into an airplane hangar with other orphans.

Sadly, because we hadn’t eaten food for so long, our stomachs couldn’t digest the food they gave us and many orphans died. Our diet was changed to rice and milk because we could digest it better. We stayed there for many months.

Nick Parrino/Library of Congress

Polish children at a World War II refugee camp in Tehran, Iran

TC: Where did you go next?
PVP:
After that, they took us across the Zagros Mountains to Iraq. The road was very rough and dangerous. One of the trucks missed a turn and fell off a mountain, killing about 30 kids, the driver, and the soldiers who tried to save them. After the mountains, we survived a sandstorm in the desert. It was almost impossible to breathe!

Arriving in Palestine, I became one of about 1,000 orphans who were tested by the British government to see if we could be educated as radar technicians. I was chosen for the task, and in 1943 I became one of the lucky few to be sent to Egypt to await a ship headed to Great Britain. The ship sailed around the African continent to England and, on the way, we had to avoid three German submarines that could have sunk our ship near Madagascar!

We had to face more storms, and I got very seasick. One kind British sailor helped me get food into my starving stomach. He also gave me his address so I could visit him in England. I became a radar technician for the British, and I visited the kind sailor after the war.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Radar technicians like Van Pyrz tracked enemy ships and aircraft.

TC: Were you able to find happiness?
PVP: Yes! Ten years after the war, I found my brother and reunited with him in Canada. I also went to a concert in Buffalo, New York, where I met a wonderful lady who I eventually married. We started a family and lived happily in the United States.

Editor’s Note: Polikarp Van Pyrz served in the British armed forces until 1953. After leaving military service, he worked as an electrician.

A few years after Van Pyrz joined his brother in Canada, ties to the country where he was born played a key role in another fortunate turn in his life. It was at a 1958 concert of music composed by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a world-famous Polish musician, that Van Pyrz met the woman who would eventually become his wife.

Today, Van Pyrz lives in Western New York. He has one child—a son—and two grandchildren. 

Write About It! How do the primary source interview and secondary source introduction help you understand World War II? How do the two sources provide similar and different information? 

Enter the Contest!
Click here to find out how to enter this year’s Eyewitness to History contest.

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