By Katie McFadden
Some kids today might face challenges of a difficult class or a tough home life. For Teresa Donimirska Piechocka, she grew up just trying to survive at a time when Nazis took her home, and were determined to take her family with it. In a recently published book, “My Memoir: Nazis and Communists. Growing up in 1940s War-Torn Poland,” Piechocka tells the story of her life in a time and place that some will only experience through history books.
At 93 years old, Teresa enjoys the comforts of her Rockaway Park home, spending time with her sons, her four grandchildren and her three great grandchildren. Their life looks a bit different from the one Teresa endured, but they’ve always been curious about her story. So much so, that she got tired of telling it. “My grandchildren are interested about the war and when I was young and I tell them again and again, but now I don’t want to keep telling them. Instead, I tell them I wrote this, and you’ll have to read it,” she said over tea and cake at a nearby friend’s home, while one of her grandsons, Chris, helped translate from Polish, as English is her second language.
For Teresa, Poland was home. She grew up on a large 400-acre farm, the youngest of seven children born to Maria Rzepnikowska and Kazimierz Donimirski. As the war started to rage, Teresa’s parents were determined to hang on to Polish culture, by helping to organize Polish cultural events. But it was their very culture that became one of the targets of German Nazis during World War II. When the Nazis came to her home in April 1939 and told her family they had three days, at nine years old, Teresa didn’t understand that the three days meant the time they had to leave their home, and that eviction would be permanent. “After the first World War, the area where I lived near the Baltic Sea was a territory that was neither German nor Polish but was occupied by both. But the Germans believed it was still theirs,” Piechocka said.
Teresa would spend the next five years of the war without a home and on the run. “They wanted to arrest my parents for being Polish,” she said. They were able to get by at first by staying with relatives, and with the help of some who were sympathetic to their cause. One such person was a Nazi guard, pictured with Teresa and her parents on the cover of her book, who donned the Nazi uniform, but did not support the cause. “This man was sent by the Nazis to guard the building where we were staying. He told my father that he did not accept Hitler. He was from Vienna. My father said the Austrians were good people. He was in the uniform, but his mind was different, and he helped rescue us. One day, my parents were going to be arrested and he told us to run and get away as fast as we could, so we ran.”
While the Donimirskis were able to run, not all were able to escape the hardships of the war. Her oldest brother was arrested as the war began in 1939 and was placed in a concentration camp. Another one of her brothers died when he was about 17 from heart complications, at a time when the Polish people could not access proper medical care. Then her mother died when Teresa was just 12. “She died of breast cancer. They wouldn’t provide any medicine for the Polish people. She was 52,” Piechocka said.
After losing her mother, Teresa says her father didn’t know what to do with his youngest. “He didn’t have a home, we were staying with strangers so my dad decided the way to keep me safe was to put me in a school that was run by nuns so I could get an education,” Piechocka said. It was a school that housed Polish and Jewish refugees. Piechocka still speaks with one of Jewish girls she befriended, who now lives in Florida.
Teresa survived the war, but she was never able to return to her family’s estate in Poland. “My father died in 1947, two years after the war. He had come back to our territory, and he worked in town, but not on the farm. We never got the farm back because of the communists,” Piechocka said.
“The property was taken away without compensation. When communism came, they established a law saying that such a big property would have to be used by everyone, so the government took it over. It still belongs to the government,” Teresa’s granddaughter, Gosia, who helped translate her memoir into English said.
Communism forever changed Poland. Teresa’s brother, Marek, decided to escape, first fleeing to England and eventually to the United States, where he called Rockaway home. In 1981, knowing things weren’t getting better, Teresa’s son Greg also went to the U.S. “At the time, my brother invited him and allowed Greg to stay with him. Greg liked Rockaway and decided to stay here, and I decided to come and stay with him,” she said.
There are some other bright ends to Teresa’s harsh beginnings. She says the brother who was sent to the concentration camp survived. “He went to Australia and got married to a German girl. They loved each other and she was my best sister-in-law. It was a nice love story after the war,” Piechocka said.
Piechocka’s family also continued the legacy that her parents strived to hold onto during the war—maintaining Polish culture. “There’s a good Polish community in Rockaway. My mom and dad, Teresa’s son, Greg, ran a Polish school here for a long time on Saturdays at St. Rose of Lima,” Teresa’s grandson, Chris said. It was a school that her grandchildren attended, where they all learned the Polish language, history and geography.
And although she has long lived in Rockaway, Teresa continues to make yearly trips to Poland, where she still has an apartment. During last year’s trip, Teresa appeared at book signing events, to speak about the Polish version of her memoir.
Teresa had been writing down bits and pieces of her life story on paper starting in 2010. And in 2020, when Teresa turned 90, her family decided it was time to put those details into a book that not only her family could enjoy, but for future generations to have a personal account of what life was like during the war.
“I hope my story gives more in-depth details, from a very personal viewpoint, of how World War II was and how it was for the Polish during those times,” Piechocka said.
Her book, “My Memoir: Nazis and Communists. Growing up in 1940s War-Torn Poland,” is now available on Amazon: www.amazon.com/dp/B0BWSMFFH5
The original Polish version is available on Allegro.pl. Piechocka may also be holding local book signing events, so stay tuned for details.