MY THOUGHTS ON WWII
by Martin Karabin, born October, 1934
(This story accompanies Martin Karabin’s oral history. It should be read before reading the oral history, as it will help the reader understand Mr. Karabin’s remarkable story.)
My father’s home was with his parent in the town of Bezmihowa, county of Lesko, state of Rzeszow, Poland, it was about 4 kilometers long.
Town was in the valley. Large creek ran the length, one main street ran through it, and it was divided into Lower, Upper and the center in which we lived. Poles inhabited the Lower, Ukrainians inhabited the Upper and the middle was comprised of about a dozen homesteads which included Poles, Likes and mostly Jewish. They owned a bakery.
My mother’s parents lived in Stefkova, Olszanica, Rrzeszow, Poland.
Before the war, mother worked for Panstwo, a kind of hierarchy appointed by the state. They had the biggest house in the town. They entertained often the visiting dignitaries, and were well to do financially. The two older children were about my age so I was at their house often and enjoyed finer foods and particularly desserts. Here my mother learned the art of entertaining, cooking and most important, baking fine torts, some of which was passed onto my wife.
Mother had 4 brothers and no sisters. The oldest brother was drafted by the Polish army but ended up in Siberia. After a time they were rescued by the British general and sent to the Arabia and Egypt. A few years after the war ended mother with help of others brought her brother to America. My father had 6 brothers and two sisters. The oldest brother was brought to America and some years later the youngest brother came. All others perished during the war while their parents survived and lived to a healthy age of mid-nineties.
One time Russian forward party came through, about 8 or 9 of them with tattered clothing. They begged for rags to cover their feet and asked if they could pick and eat the peas, which were ready in the garden. My grandmother told them they could have them. A few moments later, a German tank rolled around the bend slowly patrolling the area. The Russians vanished and were not seen again.
When I was 8 or 9, I took the two cows grandparents owned out to pasture some distance away in the hills bordering another town. There began artillery shelling from the top of one hill into the woods on the other side of the town to which the cows and I were close. As the shelling continued the mother cow made a moo sound and began walking toward home. The younger cow, calf of the older one began to follow and I too followed right behind. When we got closer to town, there was a depression in the dirt road with high banks on either side, and as the shells came whistling over our heads, the older cow mooed again, and both she and the younger one both fell down to their knees and I did too. There was a great explosion above but the shrapnel did not affect the cows or me. Only later did I find out that the family living there and their home was completely destroyed And as we proceeded home we crossed a little creek on the other side of a small hill before approaching the town and home, I heard ps, ps, ps of bullets landing in the creek. That day the cows brought me home safely.
As the war was raging and the artillery shelling from time to time, there were rumors about atomic weapons. This inspired the townspeople get together and build a large bunker in to which many could fit. It was built at the side of a hill using wooden logs which were stood up two deep and sandwiched in between was piled earth about a foot thick. The roof of this bunker was also made of logs in three layers criss-crossed with earth sandwiched between each layer. When the bunker was completed people gathered as in a drill to estimate if of sufficient size. There was a decision reached that another bunker of even larger size was needed but was never built and the fist one was never used anyway.
As the war progressed, war materiel was abandoned in the woods on the hills. There were machine guns and artillery guns. There were unused artillery shells, grenades and other munitions. Some local adults, but mostly the younger set, would mess around those things. As a result often there would be a report of someone losing limb, getting badly hurt or even getting killed. One of mother’s brothers met a girl from the neighboring town to Bezmihova and as was a practice the means of transporting oneself was by walking. One day they both arrived in Bezmihova on their way to Stejkova where he lived. As evening was approaching, mother found out that the local partisan group intended to kill my uncle because he was a Pole while she was Ukrainian. Mother quickly was able to borrow a horse and a wagon, buckboard type and had me on the wagon to drive it out of town with both my uncle and the girlfriend covered behind me on the wagon. Mother ordered me to ride as fast as the horse would go since we had to take the long way to be able to use a road. As it turned out night came upon us as we entered the woods bordering the next town on the road to Stejkova, which hastened our escape. The partisans, some on horseback gave chase but it was too late.
In Stefkova, as the Germans were retreating a German officer gave my uncle a trained German shepherd dog to keep. He was well trained. He would stand on his hind legs with front paws on the man’s shoulder and if that man even twitched, the dog would attack.
After the war ended, the powers in charge decided that Poland was for poles and all the Ukrainians were to be deported to Ukraine, Poland was to be for poles only. My mother was placed under guard , brought to Lesko along with many others to board the train. No explanation was acceptable from her even though she was Polish as were both her parents. At the age of about 10, or 11, being a kid I with others kids went through the city of Lesko where stores were looted, tons of paper everywhere, but finding what was happening I did not know until I located my mother. She asked that I try to get her brothers to vouch for her. I walked and ran as much of the distance from Lesko to Stejkova, found one of my uncles, then both of us hurried on foot many kilometers back to intercept the train that was about to pull out with mother on it. We got back to Lesko just in time to rescue mother.
After the invasion of Poland by Germany, there followed a great famine. Because the crops were confiscated, it left the people with little to live on. Many went to look for certain weeds in the fields and woods such as fern roots, nettle, thistle and loboda’ a geen-gray weed known here as arrach or orrach. that grows on good and poor soil. Thistle in particular tasted very good provided you had some fat to fry or sauté it and provided you could find it since many others were looking for the same thing. When UNDRA, the United Nations Relief began to arrive in Poland, mother got involved and was able to obtain lard and salt which was in high demand as she distributed those provisions in town. Of course, there was never sufficient quantity of foodstuff to share with everyone. Also mother had to account for all that she received and distributed.
During the war there was little danger from either Russians or the Germans. The front lines were generally somewhere else, only the shelling was evident from time to time but the shells did not drop anywhere in the town of Bezmihowa. When the Germans came to the town, they checked everyone over for disease. One girl, a teenager was found with lice on her head, she was publicly shaved and treated to get rid of lice.
In general the danger came from your own people who formed the underground. Instead of fighting the enemy, the rode roughshod over the townspeople, issuing orders and collecting food and clothing for themselves.
Between the Upper and Lower Bezmihova was a central section which generally was considered to be part of the Upper Bezmihova because mostly Ukrainians lived in the Upper and mostly Poles in the Lower. In the middle there were perhaps a dozen homes of which my namesake, Karabin, occupied half. We were all related in some manner. My cousin directly across the street, after joining the partisans, became very aggressive. We got word that he wanted to kill mother because she was a Pole and interfered with his plan for the possession of my grandparent’s estate. Mother and I spent many a night in hiding, generally at someone else ‘s house where the partisans did not expect us to be. The leader of the partisans was a woman, a cousin of my mother, but that did not matter.
The partisan’s activities culminated one dreadful night when they murdered three or four people and in addition the mayor of the town was murdered in my grandparents’ house where we lived. He stopped in for a visit and was quickly overcome by a band of the same partisans in the early evening; they punched with their fists and clubs until he looked dead. Since it was a small bedroom where it happened and we were preparing for bed, all of the action was happening in our presence. I screamed loudly and mother was told to shut me up or that they would. They dragged the mayor’s body for over a kilometer to the town office and hung him there with another. After that incident which might have been during the occupation of the town by the Russians, investigations began and the leaders on the partisan group either skipped the area and some were captured then taken away.
On one occasion during the occupation of the town by the Russians, everyone had to house the soldiers. This resulted in numerous claims of rape including one of a five-year-old girl. Our house was assigned a captain who after being there for a few weeks became more trusting. One Sunday morning he spoke out by telling us not to miss Mass. Then he recited the portion of the gospel that would be read that day at mass in our church, which was Eastern (Byzantine) Catholic Church. His knowledge of the readings from the bible for not only that Sunday but others that followed astonished every one. He explained that he was studying for priesthood in the Russian Orthodox Church. He also begged not to be exposed for it would have meant a certain death for him.
In the central section of town was a settlement of Jews, about 6 families. As a kid I played with a couple of my Jewish friends. The family owned a bakery which produced some very fine rolls and breads along with some sweets. One day they were told to pack up and were escorted under guard, loaded on a truck and transported to Lesko, the last we ever heard about their whereabouts while their houses remained vacant thereafter and the bakery after a while was burned down. At this time mother decided to move to Stefkova to live with her family. One day I was out somewhere and as I was returning home I saw a long line of Jews of all ages gathered on the road. This town like Bezmihova had one main road through town by which houses were built They carried no belongings and with them was one of my uncles carrying a carbine guarding them. Later I was told that if my uncle refused to guard the he would have been shot on the spot. Among those in line was a good friend of my uncle’s. Through some mutual understanding that did not reveal to others what they were planning, the friend jumped into the creek which had brush along the sides and a short distance later emptied into a small river deep enough to hide a man. As the man was escaping, my uncle shot at him several times intentionally missing. The German guard quickly ran to the shooter and began to search the creek after my uncle explained what had happened. Over that incident he was nearly shot himself. When every one of the Jews were gathered, they were marched a short distance where they crossed the creek, bridged across the deep banks on each side. There was a mass grave dug and all were shot falling into the grave. When the war ended my uncle received a letter from his friend who was then living somewhere in France telling him that he successfully escaped and survived the ordeal.
After mother and I moved to Stejkova the Germans were occupying that town. There was a small detachment that positioned an antiaircraft gun against a two-story schoolhouse building, the only tall building in the area other than the churches and just two town lots removed from mother’s family house. This gun was well camouflaged. As a kid we could visit with the soldiers and even get some food like soup and fruit, which I would take home for others. Then one day the town was bombarded with leaflets to seek shelter because the heavy bombing of the area would take place to immobilize the antiaircraft gun. Mother took me to hide along the banks of the river not too far from home while others hid under the bridge at the house. When the bombing began, some bombs fell it seemed like on top of the banks of the river cutting the underbrush to shreds. After a day or two of bombing, several homes were destroyed along with part of the schoolhouse, the gun was disabled and the German detachment retreated abandoning the gun at the schoolhouse.
When the war ended mother and I moved to western part of Poland near Breslau which became Wroclaw when the historic 1000 mile strip of Poland which had changed hands each time after each war from Polish hands to German hands and back again. In this part of the country we encountered partisan groups from many factions. There were Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Byelorussians. These groups were looking only for support in food and clothing as they passed through. At this time, mother began to push for us to get to America, soliciting the help of her uncle in Johnstown, Pa.
My father was already in the States, coming in 1937, but the local alderman withheld the papers that should have been approved for over a year. When he finally released them it was already too late — the war started. On his deathbed he summoned my father so he could apologize for his arrogance.
In order to get our emigration papers approved, I was summoned to Warsaw to meet with the NKVD. Mother and I traveled to Warsaw. The mode of transportation was train, a bus or tram if you were lucky, then mostly walking. And here we were with our two carry bags; one was a suitcase, dragging our possessions wherever we went. It was difficult to find the location since Warsaw central was basically in piles of rubble but many of the streets were cleared. After several hours of interrogation in which my mother could not participate, my papers were approved. One of the questions that is still clear was, “What makes you think that you are American citizen? Mother and others grilled me on some things. We did not know what would be asked of me but as kids going through the war we quickly learned to keep secrets and not to talk too much or at all about politics. By virtue of my father being born in Philadelphia I was an American citizen. At about the same time in trying to book a passage to the United States, mother learned that the Americans were gathering all citizens to move them to the United States so we boarded the troop ship SS Ernie Pyle for the voyage to America. The ship traveled through the German port of Bremerhaven and then the canal to the North Sea. The voyage was not too difficult; we did encounter storms at sea. Throughout the ocean crossing, mother remained ill, confined to her bed. She would not eat any food that was prepared for all of us. She survived for most part on the fruit that was given to us and the extra oranges I was able to get from the kitchen. On my thirteenth birthday I woke up in the New York harbor.
As a matter of information, being good at schoolwork, I completed 4th and 5th grade in one year but the 6th grade I began twice in Poland due to war and then twice in the United states while learning the English language. At that time English was taught in the 7th grade in Poland.