Grand Island woman recounts her parents’ history as forced laborers for Nazi Germany | News

PARKER — Sophie Hodorowicz Knapp grew up in Dunkirk listening to her mother’s stories of the horrors she endured as a forced laborer in Germany during World War II.

Knapp, a guest speaker at the Somerset Historical Society’s May meeting earlier this week, shared her family’s story of forced labor and eventual migration to the United States after the war.

“All the time growing up, my mother kept talking about things that happened to her early in life,” Knapp said. “As I got older, I realized this was my family history.”

Throughout her teenage and young adult years, Knapp had been taking notes, and finally it occurred to her that she had to research the things her mother was telling her, so she could write a book.

In 2000, at the age of 52, after 14 years of research, Knapp began a book she called “Wearing the Letter P.”

The title is taken from the fact that during World War II, in every country Hitler occupied, women (and some men) were kidnapped and forced to work in labor camps. They were all forced to wear a patch on their shirts indicating that they were Poles, which also indicated that they were useless people who did not deserve anything. Anyone caught sympathizing with or feeding a Pole would be sent to a concentration camp.

Knapp’s parents were Joseph and Josefa Zaleska Hodorowicz. Joseph was forced to work early in the war, when the fighting was not yet severe and there was no need for a large number of men in the army. He was sent to work in Germany at a firing range near an ammunition factory, where Josefa was later sent.

When she was a young girl, Josefa was the housekeeper of a wealthy American woman, and she thought it would keep her safe, but one day there was a knock on the door, and two SS soldiers stood up carrying weapons. They asked her to come with them and when she said she would get her shoes, they told her she wouldn’t need them and took her away in her housecoat and slippers. She was placed in prison until she was shipped to Poland in early October 1943.

All of Poland — men, women and teenagers — became forced laborers, taken at gunpoint, Knapp said. She said that nearly 500,000 women and two million Catholic men were sent to Germany from Poland.

“They had no rights, but they were paid very little,” she said. “If they tried to escape and were caught, they were sent to hard labor in a concentration camp. The Germans controlled everything: food and industry. If you wanted to eat, you had to register to work in the Third Reich.

“Personally, I’ve never lived in an occupied country, so I don’t know what it’s like to live where every aspect of my life is controlled,” Knapp said. “Weapons and cameras were confiscated. People were bundled onto trains with all their worldly goods in a pillowcase.

In Krakow, some were mutilated, tortured or killed before being taken to transit camps, where buildings accommodating 200 people were crowded with thousands. In one of those buildings, Knapp’s mother told of doctors sitting at a table, where women were forced to walk around naked, so that the doctors could examine them to see if they were healthy enough to work.

Tuberculosis is widespread and the death rate is very high, Knapp said. In the cattle cars, people were crammed in, and there was a bucket in a corner or a hole in the ground instead of a toilet.

Hitler wanted to increase his ethnicity, so the children were screened for signs of German features and stolen from their mothers. Three days after giving birth, the mothers were returned to work.

The barracks where they slept were infested with bedbugs.

Those who fell ill were sent to a mental hospital, where they were euthanized.

Knapp’s brother Michael was born in a labor camp, and near the end of the war, a munitions factory was bombed. Josefa started running to the nursery in the barracks and grabbed Michael. I ran as fast as I could.

“She knew she would be safe if she could just get into the woods,” Knapp said. “She spent the night in the woods.”

57 children were killed in the bombing and were buried in the town cemetery.

Knapp, who now resides in Grand Island, visited Poland in 2004 and found the factory where her mother worked.

“Here I am today, 59 years later, and I come face to face with evidence of the day that lived in my mother’s memory for the rest of her life,” Knapp said.

Knapp’s brother Andrew was born in a displaced persons camp, and she was born in Hanover, Germany. She said she also had an aunt who survived Auschwitz.

After the war, their father was determined not to stay in a country that had abused him, so he took his family to France to look for work, and then decided to immigrate to the United States.

“You can go to America if you have someone to sponsor you there,” Knapp said. “My mother had an uncle in Dunkirk and I have written to him. I have always felt this tremendous pride in America and I will be celebrating 70 years here in a couple of weeks.

After settling in Dunkirk in 1954, Knapp went to Buffalo to attend nursing school, where she met her future husband, Ed.

Knapp said everyone should write their life story on paper for future generations to read.

“Every life story matters,” she said.

Her book is available at Amazon, SUNY Niagara, and possibly some bookstores.

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