The war-torn childhood of Janina Goetz
Originally published in the September/October 2015 issues of the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley’s “Our Community Newsletter,” written by Gabrielle Robinson.
Janina Goetz tells her often terrifying story of childhood flights and deportation during World War II in a quiet voice, even smiling at some happy recollection amidst the terror. Despite all she endured in her early years, Janina has not lost her warm, outgoing, and lively personality.
“I was born in Katowice, Silesia, Poland” she begins and the first years of her life were happy. She had loving parents who were well to do. Her father owned an overland shipping firm and they lived comfortably in a large apartment right across from the German Consulate. Janina, the only girl in her family, grew up as a little tomboy. Her parents were especially close to her aunt and uncle since they were two brothers who had married two sisters. Her uncle, a banker, and her aunt, and also a grandmother and another aunt all lived in Oswiecim/Auschwitz.
At the outbreak of the war, the family left their home to what they hoped would be a safer place. Their destination was Lwow/Lemberg over 250 miles to the west where they owned an apartment house. Thinking that all would be over soon and they could return before long, they left their maid in charge of all their possessions except what they carried with them. It was a difficult journey and half way there they decided to bury the jewelry they had brought with them. They never saw any of it again.
Lwow, however, turned out to be not at all the safe haven they had hoped for. The Russians came in and they soon started to round up all the single men and deport them to camps. Janina’s two cousins were taken to Siberia where one of them died of scurvy. Next, the Russians also came to Janina’s family to order everyone to leave. As was their practice, they arrived late at night and didn’t leave people much time to get ready. “We were allowed only small suitcases. My mother, who was not practical at all, she had never worked, packed her beautiful nightgowns because they were light. This saved us later in Siberia from hunger because the Russians thought they were ball gowns.” Her uncle, who was sick at the time, was allowed to stay, but her father, mother, and herself were packed off in a crowded cattle train, not sure where they were going. “The trip lasted about a week or even longer. We had some ration of black bread and some hot water from the train engine.” Nevertheless Janina remembers not much personal suffering during that journey, since “everything my parents did was for the child.” This is true of the whole frightening experience. “I don’t remember it as a very difficult time. My family always put me first.”
We were taken to a camp in Siberia, Asino Novosibirskaya Oblast Tomskij Rejon. It was a collection of barracks for prisoners from the Russian Revolution who still lived there. They were intelligent people with whom her parents could speak German. Janina’s mother refused to learn Russian.
Then something terrible happened. “I don’t know how long we were in Siberia before my father died because my mother at first hid the news from me.” He had to do hard labor in the Tajga, cutting down trees in the bitter cold. He suffered a heart attack and died there. He was only in his early forties. “We could not even go to the cemetery to visit my father’s grave because it was beyond where we were allowed to go.”
So now Janina’s mother was left alone with her small daughter. But she was popular with the Russian prisoners and they helped her get a position as a cook in the KGB kitchen. “This saved us. My mother could bring back food, including tangerines, which the Russians ate with their peels, pickled green tomatoes, and onions which provided much needed vitamins. My mother always said that she never had such good vegetables as in Siberia; the carrots, the cabbage and all the rest were so tasty and juicy.”
The two were also much liked by the other Polish prisoners. While Janina’s mother worked in the kitchen, a Polish widow took care of the little girl and even taught her to read and write. They found a seamstress who made her a coat from an old checkered blanket. With that and her Valenkis, shoes made out of boiled wool, she could go outside. At first it was a trick to walk in them, though, since the soles of the Valenkis were rounded.
Then world history once again changed the course of their lives. The Germans invaded Russia in 1941 and suddenly the Siberian prisoners from Poland were allowed to leave. Janina and her mother followed most of them to Almata in Kazakhstan where a large group of Polish and Russian refugees was gathering. It was in Almata that Janina saw her first opera. The two, however, were not allowed to settle in Almata itself, but only in a small town nearby called Ili. “Ili does not exist anymore. It is now a lake.” They rented a room in Ili. It was primitive. The houses were made of unburnt clay, a sort of adobe. To make the floors harder, cow manure was mixed in with the clay, and then they could be washed down with water.
A Polish school had been opened in Ili and Janina at last could get a more formal education. In fact she had first rate teachers there since so many people of the intelligentsia were among the refugees. Her math teacher became a well-known math professor in Poland. Her geography and Polish teacher, who was also her cousin, became an economics professor at the University of Chicago. Janina made friends easily and quickly picked up Russian on the streets. Her mother supported them with her knitting. Summers in Ili were extremely hot and her mother knitted a swim suit for her. Janina remembers with a smile that a young man complimented her on her tan. He grew up to become a famous journalist in France.
This was a little happier time than all that had gone before. They were no longer in danger of being killed, but they missed the rest of their family, and also food was scarce. However, they did have vegetables which people could grow themselves, and also eggs. They caught turtles which were walking about everywhere and made turtle soup. Janina once got into trouble with her mother, who tended to be quite strict. Janina had accidentally killed a turtle. She was just trying to see what he was like underneath that shell. But her mother’s look alone told her that she was wrong.
At last the war was over. The Russians wanted them all to stay and become Russian citizens. Her mother refused. She was put in prison for two weeks. But then they were allowed to return to Poland. So once more they had to make a long and arduous journey, this time travelling from one refugee camp to another until they came to Wroclaw/Breslau. They made a trip back home to Katowice, “but the people who now lived in our apartment wouldn’t even open the door to us.” So they went back to Wroclaw.
This turned out to be a lucky move for it was in Wroclaw that Janina met Abraham Goetz. She was just finishing high school and at first found the young man, who already taught math at university, too serious. It was six years before they got married. By that time Janina had become a pharmacist intern and her marriage allowed her to stay in Wroclaw. Today the couple can look back on 59 happy years of marriage, two successful sons, and a granddaughter.
As she thinks about all her family went through during the war, Janina says: “I must single out again the person who was the most important one in my life. I want to honor my mother, her courage and her strength in those terrible times.”