Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 marked the start of a decade-long disruption in Helen Rebidas’s life.
By Michael Ransom - Reading time: 12 minutes
On October 2, 1939, Helen Utrajczak, two days from her 21st birthday, heard the distant drone of planes. Hitler’s Nazis were on the attack. Helen lived in Obra, a village near Wolsztyn, Poland, about sixty miles from the German border. She, her parents, two brothers, and five sisters—all living at home—feared what was to come. Just a month before, Germany had begun invading Poland, and, by mid-September, their troops had surrounded Warsaw. While Poland reeled from the Nazi invasion, the Soviet Union struck from the east, and by the end of September, Polish lands were subjected to both German and Russian occupation. Though Britain and France had declared war two days after the invasion, they provided little relief to the Poles, who over the next five years would endure some of the most severe wartime occupation conditions in European history.
German soldiers came to Helen’s family home. An officer pointed a gun at Helen’s father and said, “She (motioning toward Helen) is coming with me.”
“No,” replied Piotr, Helen’s father. “She’s my daughter, and I need her here to work with me. She’s going to stay.”
The German pressed the gun barrel against Piotr’s temple. “If she stays, I must shoot you. So you see, she is coming with me.” Piotr had no choice but to let her go.
The Germans took Helen on October 2, 1939. She never saw her parents again. Her father died shortly after the war. Her mother, Anna Maria, died in 1968. Helen’s dreams of a simple life—marrying, raising a family, and helping care for her parents in the peaceful, Polish village —were not to be.
Helen was given little time to pack. She hurriedly tossed a few clothes into a tiny wicker basket, and then the Germans shoved her into the back of a cattle truck. They continued on from farm to farm in Obra, selecting the young and the strong women, and forcing them into the vehicle. Soon, dozens of women stood shoulder to shoulder, crying, dazed, and frightened beyond words. That day and all night they rode. They pleaded to stop for bathroom breaks, but their cries were ignored. When the Germans needed to stop, however, they allowed the women to relieve themselves in the ditches and stood by them with guns drawn. Escape was clearly not to be an option.
Women slept standing up. Some collapsed from fatigue. They reached a farm in Ingolstadt, Germany, and were herded like cattle into a barn, where they slept an uneasy few hours on a mattress of straw. In the morning, the women were ordered to form a line, and German farmers walked along it, indicating who they wanted to come with them. Their sons had been drafted into Hitler’s army. The Polish women, Helen among them, were being offered as replacement farmhands.
A man eyed Helen and said, “You’re going to come with me.” Helen said, “No, I don’t want to go alone. I want my friend to come, too.” She had befriended a young Polish woman on the trip and hoped they could be assigned to the same farm. “I don’t need two, just one,” said the farmer. Helen knew by the angry look on his face that there was no room for bargaining.
On her 21st birthday, Helen began her first day of six years of forced farm labor. She was ordered to pin a large letter P to her blouse, to identify her as a Polish prisoner. Much of Helen’s work entailed cleaning cow stalls, shoveling manure, grinding cattle feed, and milking cows. At times she was ordered to do housekeeping chores, such as for hours grating potatoes that would be used to make potato pancakes. Helen, however, was not allowed to eat any. As often as she dared, she risked punishment by sneaking a raw egg and an apple slice or two.
Helen says that everybody—the German woman who owned the house, her daughters, and her maid—kept a close eye on the workers. The farm owners were also under pressure from the German government to deliver milk and farm produce.
One morning Helen milked a cow whose calf stood nearby. The cow’s teats were sore, probably from feeding the calf. When Helen began milking, the cow kicked her, knocked her over, and she spilled much milk from the pail. When done milking, Helen added some water to the pail so that it appeared to be full. The next day the farm owner approached Helen. “They said the milk was not good, what happened? It’s not as good as the rest.” Helen had no choice but to admit what she had done.
In Obra, Helen’s parents owned a tiny plot of land. Piotr, Helen, and her siblings worked on a large, nearby farm that a wealthy family owned. After toiling long hours, they sometimes were not paid. 1930s were difficult times. Helen’s farming background helped her handle her duties capably. Occasionally, she was directed to do things with which she had no experience.
“Cut the grain with this scythe,” the woman in charge said. (Scythe work in Poland was a man’s chore.)
“I don’t know how. I can’t.”
Helen took a wide swing with her heavy scythe. She came so close to the woman—whom she detested—that she nearly cut off her leg. They both screamed. Helen dropped the scythe and ran. Another time, Helen stomped barefoot in a wooden vat, mashing leftover potatoes and vegetables to make slop for the livestock. As she worked, a man intentionally poured scalding hot water onto her feet into the vat. “It’s too hot,” she cried. I can’t take it!” The man laughed at her. Cruel behavior was common.
Helen became fed up with all of the abuse. She hid her little wicker basket in the field and ran away to the bureau in town that oversaw the farming operations. She filed a complaint. The farm owner soon appeared and ordered Helen back. As those discussions were underway, a German officer appeared, his coat covered with medals. “Oh, oh,” thought Helen, “I’m really in trouble now.” The officer, however, heard Helen’s story and sided with her. He wrote an address on a piece of paper, gave it to Helen, and told her to board a bus and have the driver take her to another farm in the town of Holhenfels.
At this farm, Helen came under the direction of a kinder owner, but she continued to work without pay and few belongings. She lived in a tiny shack behind the farmer’s house. Her German work supervisors continually insisted she work harder, faster. Helen never seemed to be able to do enough to satisfy them. They pushed and threatened her. When they twisted her ear, the pain brought tears to her eyes.
Helen had begun to experience excruciating leg pains, so she was allowed to visit a German doctor in Ingolstadt. After some questioning and a brief exam, he began striking Helen’s leg with a leather crop. Helen cried out with each blow. “You’re fine, aren’t you?” said the doctor each time he struck her. “I know you’re pretending. You just don’t want to work.” And he sent her back to the farm. Helen also had painful gall bladder attacks that caused her to writhe on the floor in agony until they subsided. She knew she had to endure them on her own, because the town doctor would have little sympathy.
When Helen said she needed to purchase warmer clothes, the farm owner gave her coupons. In town, the German store merchants, much to Helen’s dismay, would not honor the coupons; they refused to sell their wares to Poles. Staying warm in winter with inadequate clothing was a constant challenge. At night, Helen soaked her tired feet in a basin and fell asleep in a chair. Many times she awoke to find that ice had formed around her ankles.
Days dragged on to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years. From October 1939 until the war’s end in 1945, Helen received nary a letter from her family. She wrote to her parents, but later she learned that none of her letters arrived. Though Helen had no way of knowing, during the war, two of her sisters were taken to work in a nearby brick factory, her brothers possibly joined the underground resistance, and the rest of her family remained in Obra.
Helen’s Roman Catholic faith provided what she needed to persevere. She attended Mass every Sunday, though Poles were not supposed to do so. The Gestapo stood at the church’s front door watching for anyone wearing the large P. When walking by them, Helen sidled into groups or stood behind others who were taller than she. The Gestapo once saw her at Mass and reported to the farm owner, “We saw Helen at church this morning. If we catch her there again, we will take her to the camp in Dachau where they burn people.” In spite of this threat, Helen continued to attend church. The Germans could take her home, her family, and her dignity, but they couldn’t take her God.
One day during Helen’s forced labor life in Germany, planes flew in low to strafe and bomb whatever lay in their paths. Helen ran screaming for the safety of the barn. A woman carrying a small child ran near her. As bullets riddled the mother and child, they dropped to the ground bloody and dead. As Helen trembled in the relative safety of the barn, bullets ripped through its walls and ceiling. The gunfire most likely was from Allied planes. Bullets do not discriminate, and civilians become casualties of war.
On the night of January 2, 1945, British planes bombed Nürnberg, a German city only forty-five miles from Holhenfels. Helen saw the bright flashes of light, heard the rolling thunder of bombs, and watched the glow of the city as it burned. Though she knew nothing of the war’s progress, she soon would be free.
Shortly after the war ended, Helen met John Rebidas, a Polish man who was doing forced labor on a nearby farm. The Poles were told, “You’re free. You can go wherever you want.” Their options, however, were limited. They were penniless. There were no buses, no cars, and no trains. Refugee camps were set up all over Europe. Helen and John set off on foot together and joined a camp near Holhenfels with thousands of other refugees. Camp administrators interviewed the refugees and, as jobs became available, people left the camp to begin their lives anew. Calls came first for those with professional skills: engineers, doctors, and dentists. When war broke out, John was a carpenter’s apprentice and few demands came for what he could offer. He and Helen would remain in the refugee camp for five years.
In the midst of this turmoil, Helen and John fell in love and decided to marry. To do so required their birth certificates. Helen wrote home for hers, and it was sent. When John wrote his family in southern Poland, his mother wrote back to remind him, “What do you mean you want your birth certificate so you can get married? There’s a girl here in the village waiting for you to return so she can marry you.” John wrote back, “I’m not coming home; I’m marrying Helen!”
They married on June 25, 1946. A year after their marriage, while still in the camp, their first child, Joseph, was born. Due to poor conditions and limited medical care, he died within a few weeks. Three more years passed and no offers for work came. England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil were offering jobs in coal mines. John told Helen, “I am not going to take a job in a coal mine just to get out of here.” John also wasn’t about to return to Poland. As a captured soldier before being assigned to farm labor, he had been sent by Germany to Russia and then to a labor camp in Siberia where he almost died. He saw Poland becoming a Communist country if the Russians took over, and he wanted nothing to do with their politics.
Finally, after five years in the camp, John and Helen received an offer that seemed too good to be true. The offer came from Doctor Siebert, a retired surgeon from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Doctor Siebert had retired in his forties and purchased a 300-acre farm in Ellicott City near Baltimore, but he knew little about farming. He requested a Catholic husband and wife who had no children and knew farming to be his farmhand and housemaid. Through a government program, he paid for John and Helen’s boat passage, and they in return agreed to be his indentured servants for three years.
John and Helen were both terribly seasick during much of their ten-day passage to the United States. Helen recalls seeing the Statue of Liberty and feeling the excitement of walking from the ship onto American soil. The Red Cross greeted them first. Says Helen, “They gave us donuts and coffee, our first American food, and it tasted so good.”
Their paperwork processed, they traveled by train to Baltimore, where they stood waiting at the station for Doctor Siebert to arrive, carrying all their worldly belongings in their few suitcases, unable to converse in English, and eager for a fresh start. It was 1950—eleven years after their years of struggle and strife had begun.
John and Helen were each paid twenty-five dollars per month and supplied with servant’s quarters on the farm. In 1951, they rejoiced in their son Frank’s birth. Near the end of their three-year term, the Rebidas’s began to hear from several Polish friends who had settled in Detroit. “Jobs in Detroit pay a dollar an hour. You must come!” Doctor Siebert agreed to release them from their contract. On the day of John and Helen’s departure, he drove them to the train station and bade them farewell. When John, Helen, and Frank arrived in Detroit, they stayed with friends while John looked for work. Ford Motor Company hired him on the spot.
Helen and John’s son Stanley was born in 1955. After Ann’s birth in 1958, Helen began evening shift employment as a maintenance worker. Each weekday afternoon, Helen and the three children met John at the bus stop on his way home from work. Helen boarded the bus that took her to her job, and John went home with the children for the evening.
European immigrants in the 1950s worked hard, saved their money, and paid for their children’s college educations. They rarely complained, for they knew what true hardship entailed.
Helen and John retired from their jobs and lived comfortably in Detroit. In 1977, Helen and Ann traveled to Europe to visit Helen’s siblings. This was Helen’s first visit to her hometown since 1939. With a special visa, they entered East Germany, where Helen’s sister Pelagia lived. During the war, her husband joined the Polish army and never returned. He was listed as missing in action. Pelagia remained in her small village to raise her son in the area that later became East Germany.
John Rebidas died in 1999. Three years later, Ann helped Helen move from Detroit to Rochester, Minnesota. On June 13, 2013, Helen peacefully passed away.
There are numerous monuments and statues dedicated in honor of brave soldiers who lost their lives in war. There are fewer markers that honor people like Helen and John, innocent victims of horrible times who were fortunate to survive but nevertheless lost their innocence, family members, and dreams. We should never forget them. We should never forget their stories. And we must long admire their courage in the face of adversity.