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All That Was: Chapter Twenty-Nine - Rutabagas And Responsibility

Lusia Przybyszewicz goes to work in the huge Volkswagenwerk factory, but this is February,1945, Allied troops have reached the Rhine, the German armies are retreating...

Lusia's clear memory and vivid writing style bring alive the horrors and tribulations experienced by millions during World War Two.

Her unforgetable book All That Was is available from her at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

It was still pitch black outside at 4:00 a.m. when the morning whistle sounded. It startled us all. In semi-darkness, with the total blackout very much in force, we had to dress, make our beds and prepare for roll call. Anyway, there was no point in moping about in the intense cold. Wacek did the honours. He strode about the Stube, checking our names and the state of our bunks. It was his duty to personally sanction every woman's right to leave for work.

Unfamiliar with the rough path leading to the factory, I struggled along in total darkness and icy wind. The reflection of the snow helped to guide me. The three kilometres seemed an eternity. At last, at about 5:00 a.m, damp and frozen, I was ready to present myself at the reception of the Volkswagenwerk.

No sooner did I step out of a night of wild weather than I entered a virtual paradise. I found myself in a large, stylishly furbished, well-heated lobby. Once my eyes became accustomed to the lavish lighting, I was absolutely staggered by the very scale of the place. Despite the customary armed German guards on duty, the cosy reception office behind the counter seemed almost enticing. There a few young German-speaking Polish women, one of whom I vaguely recognized from my Stube, sat at their desks. The whole scene seemed very far removed from the war zone.

The authorities thoroughly examined my papers and then issued me with a beetroot colour Ausweiss, which is still in my possession. It states, that as from the 13th February, 1945, I had become an employee of the factory. Significantly, on that very day the Allies finally reached the Rhine and forced the Germans to begin their withdrawal across the river.

The preliminaries over, one of the receptionists took me on a guided tour of the entire three kilometres long factory. I instantly identified the 'Kraft Durch Freude' slogan as the predominant motive of the tour. The young woman showed me the most superb cafeterias, relaxing rooms, gymnasium, boxing ring, music rooms, and so on. All of these facilities were obviously there for the use of the pre-war German 'People's Car' makers. Hitler's portraits and the tiresomely familiar swastikas abounded everywhere.

Sadly, from 1940 onwards, all of this splendour was destined to gradually become a mere ploy of Nazi propaganda. Subsequently, I never met anyone amongst the foreign work force who actually used any of those facilities.

My attractive Polish guide explained everything in the most professional manner. She spoke mostly in fluent German, but her Polish sounded just as cultured. Her whole bearing and her almost imperceptible reserve towards me suggested that I had come upon yet another Jewess in disguise. I had similar impressions about a few other girls working at the reception.

As a final gesture of the Teutonic 'Tuchtigheit' (efficiency), she presented me at the end of the tour with an illustrated brochure about the Stadt des K.D. F. Wagens. I have kept the brochure all these years.

At the conclusion of my indoctrination session, I was dispatched to the Alimentation block to report to Herr Twelke, the German in charge of the factory's kitchens and food supplies. This time, as I followed the interminable empty corridors on the way to my destination, all the glamour of the tour vanished.

At long last I found myself in a small, well-equipped office. My new boss sat behind a heavy desk. He wore the head cook's white coat and matching cap. Through a glass wall in front of him he had an unobstructed view of the spacious, spotlessly clean, tiled kitchens down below. Several foreign cooks, all similarly dressed in white, were exposed to his glare. Each man stood by his giant, electrically-operated cauldron, stirring the soup from time to time, by means of an equally large ladle. From a distance, they gave the impression of being programmed.That peaceful setting of culinary creation, comprising a highly disciplined team of captives, presented an astounding sight. It seemed practically irreconcilable with the notion of fierce battles raging further west in which the Reich was fighting for survival.

Herr Twelke, a cantankerous, short, stocky man with pig-like eyes, spoke in a high pitched voice. His every statement sounded like an order. From my very brief encounter with the great man, I gathered that my working career for the immediate future would consist of peeling and cutting large swedes, called in French 'rutabaga.'

Soon after, I found myself amongst a group of Polish and Russian girls in a very cold, dim workroom. They were sprawled on the concrete floor, each one provided with a small kitchen knife. Some of the girls were engaged in peeling the offensive vegetable and others were cutting it into segments. Most girls wore fingerless gloves in their attempt to fend off the cold. They explained to me that the peeled sections of the swede were processed in a special chips-making machine. Subsequently dried, they were finally wrapped up individually in a protective wrapper. They were destined for the future use of the Wehrmacht in the event of a famine.

Armed with a similar tool, I was left with no choice but to join my mates on the hard floor. After making a few futile incisions into the unyielding Swedish turnip, and inflicting a few cuts to my cold fingers, I began to see results. At the same time, I felt increasingly cold and cramped. Since we had to meet certain production targets by the end of the working day, we could not risk too many breaks.

Mealtimes at the trestle tables of our refectory offered the best chance of stretching our limbs and warming up a bit. By concocting images of our oppressors choking on the dry turnip chips, my working companions and I enjoyed some light relief at recess times.

We finished work at 5:00 p.m, collected our black bread ration and then, again in total darkness, we walked back to the camp, chilled to the bone and exhausted. The frantic rush to the lukewarm showers would then erupt, the precursor to the blissful moment of retiring for the night.

Mercifully, I had to put up with this dreadful job for only a fortnight.

In my new abode survival came at a price. I learned very quickly that our Stube harboured some expert bread-snatchers. The only way to keep my loaf of bread safe was to place it on my bunk under my makeshift pillow and to sleep on top of it.

Without Marcel's love and loyalty, especially at that time, I do not know whether I could have dealt adequately with the many hardships, deprivations, and, above all, fear that always lingered at the back of my mind. Our closeness helped to make my inner hell bearable. Often he suddenly appeared out of nowhere: near my turnip department operations, on our way to or from work, or even lurking in the shadows of the Polish camp after hours.

Seeing him at least once every day did wonders for my spirit, even though the circumstances demanded the most secret of conspiracies. As an extra bonus, he often brought the latest news and sometimes messages from my old friends. Marcel was devastated by what was happening to me. Though also worn out and constantly hungry, he determined to use all of his 'connections' to move me out of the rutabaga disaster area to some less obnoxious line of work.

Just then rumours were rife in French circles that the French girl in charge of the factory canteen was accused by the Germans of having loose morals. The Germans charged her two predecessors with similar offences. Our masters constantly dreaded the spread of venereal diseases amongst their ranks. They were particularly severe in dealing with such matters. The girl was about to be dismissed and returned to Vichy for punishment.

Provided that I handled the matter the right way, this new twist presented a golden opportunity for me. The coveted position of being in charge of the factory canteen required a German-French speaker. Even though according to this prerequisite, I was particularly suited to the job, as a lowly Pole I did not dare to risk approaching Herr Twelke directly.

A ruse was called for!

Marcel and his mates arranged for someone sympathetic to us amongst Twelke's cronies to gently suggest to the boss how he could take advantage of my linguistic abilities. To everyone's amazement, the plot worked! On the day the French woman's employment was terminated our turnip supervisor suddenly told me to rise from the floor, relinquish my knife, and report immediately to Herr Twelke.

I had mixed feelings as I trotted off to my appointment, aware of the need to flatter his enormous ego. I walked into his office as humbly as I possibly could. He gave me a scornful stare and screeched his order: 'Report at once to the French canteen. You will receive instructions about your new job. Be warned,' he continued, 'that there would be severe consequences for your slightest misdemeanour.' I listened, as always in such instances, in respectful silence. In my heart, I was delighted at the outcome.

Thus began my exciting new challenge at the Volkswagenwerk.

The position carried heavy responsibilities that were potentially dangerous if one were to consider the extreme punishments awaiting 'the guilty'. However, after the hardships suffered at the 'rutabaga purgatory,' I was ready for anything.

I hurriedly made for the canteen. The distraught and not-so-young Frenchwoman was waiting to show me the ropes before she left. Tears were running down her ashen face as she tried to shed some light on the more intricate details of the job. I was aware of the fate that awaited her at the hands of the Vichy cronies, and I felt pretty awful on her behalf. But such was life!

After my inauguration session was over, she gave me the key to the door of the establishment. (I still have it!). I was expected to open up the canteen at around 5:00 a.m. and lock it up at the end of the working day. I had to make sure that Valia, my Russian off-sider, scrubbed the concrete floor daily, and kept the tables and benches in spotless condition. I was expected to constantly check the list of workers eligible for the daily meals and be totally accountable for every food ration distributed.

The food for the canteen was supplied by the cooks from the kitchens' relevant sections. Our black bread came directly from the factory's bakery. Occasionally at the end of the week we received a special delivery of a small piece of meat or a minute cut of German Wurst.

For the main meal of the day the canteen was packed full of people. Workers queued in several relays with their 'gamelles' (pannikins) at the ready. After I ladled the steaming soup into every lined-up container, the boys sat at the long tables. They avidly lapped up their soup and then wiped their empty makeshift plates with the crusts of bread. Their animated chatter resounded throughout the room. The majority of my 'clients' were French, but most of the other Westerners who had been caught in the web, dined there as well.

A very impoverished looking elderly couple named Potocki turned up one day at my canteen. I never discovered how they came to be there. I must admit I felt slightly amused. The Potocki family name is well known amongst the old Polish aristocracy, the all but feudal lords who owned vast areas of land in the countryside. These two family members of the Polish gentry who would traditionally approach a Jew only as a last resort, to borrow money from him maybe, were now begging me for food. How odd! They stated that they could exchange a black ebony comb, their only remaining possession of value for some sustenance. I bent the rules somewhat by serving them our daily soup, but I kept their offering. I used that comb for years.

One of the most repulsive experiences I had to endure in my new job was unlocking the place every morning. When I reported for work with my beetroot colour Aussweiss at 5:00 a.m., I climbed a dimly-lit staircase to the appropriate corridor. I then pressed on, under the watchful eyes of armed German guards, to open the door with my key. The moment I turned on the light dozens of rats scurried in all directions, sometimes squealing in the process. Seeking warmth, they seemed especially attracted to the heavy velvety dark blue curtains that blacked out the huge recessed windows.Their sight petrified me. I broke out in a cold sweat. I could neither breathe nor swallow. Conscious that no outburst on my part would be tolerated, I learned to summon all my will power and an intuitive spirit of defiance to control my revulsion.

In the meantime, spring 1945 was round the corner. By early March the Germans were forced to completely withdraw across the Rhine. The important cities of Cologne and Coblenz fell to the Allies. Toward the end of March, after the collapse of the infamous Siegfried Line and then of the city of Mainz, the enemy offered no further resistance west of the Rhine. For our tormentors time was at long last running out.


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