As long as I’ve heard about Nazi Germany, I’ve heard about the Gestapo. Heavy handed police stomping out any dissent is what comes to mind. Reading Irene’s narrative, it’s hard to tell who’s who. Even wikipedia seems to have a less than clear grasp on who exactly was part of the Gestapo and who wasn’t. Did they have authority over the whole nation’s police forces?
Regardless, the incident that landed Irene in prison with threats of Mauthausen concentration camp smacked of these above-the-law officers. Excerpted from My World War 2 Childhood (All rights reserved):
The word went around our neighborhood that Hitler was going to destroy the Polish intelligentsia. Father was among the first to be arrested. We were summoned to appear before a Civilian Military Committee. We knew people these days were not given a proper hearing.
When Mama and I arrived we were taken to the second floor of an office building and told to wait. I was called into the office but Mama was told she must stay outside. As soon a the door closed behind me, I heard a loud commotion and voices outside.
….I was terribly frightened and intimidated. I had no idea what was happening and why…
The police lady took my hand and we walked outside into the street, heading toward the railroad station. To my great surprise we went into the railroad police station…The woman took me into the back, opened a door, and pushed me in. Before I knew what was happening, the key turned and I was locked in.
This little cage was not even big enough to hold all our brooms at home. I could hardly stand…half standing, half leaning, I could not even turn around. If this was the jail cell for adults it must be torture for a large person to be in here for any length of time.Only with great difficulty did I finally get both of my legs on the top of the shelf…Now I could stand straight. I had to endure being locked up like this for hours…It had been before noon when Mama and I arrived at the Military Committee office. It got dark, and still I heard people coming and going…I had knocked several times during the day, asking for water, food, bathroom. It was all denied.
….All my questions remained unanswered. [Another lady]…took me by the hand and we marched out into the railroad station hall…toward a train….Here, finally I was able to go to the bathroom and also got something to drink, but nothing to eat. The train personnel looked at my sympathetically but tried to avoid my eyes…They knew I was under arrest.
….We arrived at a large building, the biggest women’s jail in Saxony…I remember they pushed me through a door and it slammed shut with a loud noise…Immediately I gagged from the terrible smell I had never known before.
[Irene describes the conditions and the women, what some were in for, the air raids and food. Uncertain how long she was there.]
….When I cried there was always some woman who tried to console me. Some got very religious. They even welcomed death and prayed so loud that the wardens told them to stop, though they continued. Many had their time of crying; that scared me very much. Most of them were young and pretty, but we were all destined to go to the same place. [Mauthausen]
…I got used to that strange stench and to keep my sanity, I prayed, “I am sure God knows where I am and he will help me.” I was about 12 years old at the time.
One day, I was called alone out of the cell. A guard was walking me down toward the exit and I was full of hope.
We saw each other at the same time and tried to walk toward each other but we were both held back. He looked so tired and we were not allowed to speak but our eyes met and spoke more than words.
….One of the men in civilian clothes said, “The child is the blood relative [i.e. Polish] of him.”
….They began reading something saying “paragraph number…which under this law and according to that law…” Then they said father’s full name, “Basil Walter Skaskow and his daughter Irene will stay under arrest. If certain conditions are not met, the SS will pick them up immediately after this meeting.”
…”The girl’s mother is an Aryan who will not be arrested” and to my Father “Irene will be sent to the Mauthausen camp!”
“There is one solution,” a big man growled.
Irene did not go to the camp because her father, a translator of many languages, finally agreed to translate documents confiscated in on the Russian front. Gestapo tactics, I think. Irene writes:
He looked tired and bruised. They could not get him to sign for his own sake and later we learned that they had kept him from sleep and had beaten him.
He looked at me. “I’ll do this for you, Irene. I want you to live.”
So many sacrifices were made during those days, sacrifices to help others survive. I am reminded of Schindler’s List and other movies. I am reminded of the people who helped hide Anne Frank and her family. This sacrifice paid off where so many others did not. Irene has had a long life with many adventures alongside her Walter, the US soldier she married after escaping from East to West Berlin in 1953.
World War 2 stories and films can be so depressing. In The Devil’s Own, Brad Pitt’s character tells Harrison Ford’s “This is not an American story.” I guess I’m very American. I like a happy ending. I believe my life will have one. Give me the Corrie Ten Boom house over the Anne Frank house six days a week. There’s a true story of hidden people, lives saved, and woman who preached forgiveness all over the world after her release from Ravensbruck. Corrie’s book, The Hiding Place, was also made into a major motion picture.
Even though Irene is a survivor, she did not make it alone.
Coming up…H is for Hidden As a Boy.
Kristin King is an author, publisher, and NGO co-founder. She has been to the Anne Frank House twice and to the Corrie Ten Boom house at least half a dozen times. In May she will return to Corrie’s house, crawl through the entrance to The Hiding Place, and hear something new as each docent shares a different part of the Ten Boom’s story.