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The Labyrinth of Dangerous Hours

The Labyrinth of Dangerous Hours: A Memoir of the Second World War

Lilka Trzcinska-Croydon
With a foreword by Norman Davies
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 180
  • Book Info
    The Labyrinth of Dangerous Hours
    Book Description:

    Lilka Trzcinska was fourteen years old when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. The daughter of an architect, Lilka was a high school student at the time. When schools were closed by the occupier, she, along with her siblings, continued their education in secret classes, and joined the Polish Home Army– the secret resistance force.

    Lilka and her family were arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and sent to the political prison Pawiak, then to Auschwitz. There, Lilka's mother died and her younger sister was sent off to another camp. The rest of the family was put to work in the camp building offices. After being transported to a number of other camps (in one instance by a way of a three-day march), the three sisters were reunited in 1945, and shortly thereafter liberated by the British. Lilka later went to Italy to continue her education, moving to Canada in 1948.

    The Labyrinth of Dangerous Hoursis the memoir of a survivor. Lilka Trzcinska-Croydon narrates her adolescence and that of her sisters and brother in a way that binds poetry and history together seamlessly. It describes the strength of the family ties and solidarity that help them emerge from their horrific ordeal with their dignity intact.

    As many as 150,000 Polish political prisoners were taken during the war, half of whom died in the camps. This memoir is a testament to their struggle.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8158-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)

    This account of suffering and survival in wartime Poland is much more than a simple memoir. It is an exquisite piece of creative writing - concise, restrained, observant of detail, and ultra-sensitive to emotion. The author, Helena Trzcinska - now Lilka Croydon - was a lovelorn teenager when she was arrested by the Gestapo. She was the daughter of a Catholic family in Warsaw who were engaged in the underground Resistance and who were all imprisoned with her. When she was finally liberated at the end of the war by a British soldier with battle-blackened face, who handed her an...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Guide to Pronunciation
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  6. Camp Vocabulary
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xviii)

    My parents were married on 31 January 1920 in Minsk. The marriage took place during the early years of the newly formed Polish Republic.

    At the end of the First World War, in 1918, Poland regained its independence, and much of its former territory, after over 120 years of nonexistence on the maps of Europe due to the three partitions that took place in the eighteenth century between Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

    During the years 1918 to 1921 six wars were fought concurrently in Poland. Worst of all was the Soviet war, which threatened the Republic’s existence. Polish legions fought...

  8. Part I: Fighting Poland (September 1939-May 1943)

    • 1 Dies Irae
      (pp. 3-19)

      We were transported, at dawn, from the Gestapo headquarters to the prison in a crowded truck. Mother was staying close to my little sister, Zosia. Marina and I were sticking together. Did we talk to one another? Most likely not, as our talk would have to be purely banal - we could not say what we really thought or how we felt because the other prisoners were strangers to us. In a way we were relieved to know that we would not be executed - at least not yet - otherwise why would they bother taking us to somewhere else?...

    • 2 Gone with the Wind
      (pp. 20-24)

      Our vacations in the summers of 1938 and 1939 were spent with our distant cousins, the Masiukiewicz family. The friendship between our families was fairly recent - only since 1937. By then weʹd lived for several years in Warsaw, after moving there from the commuter town of Milosna.

      We came upon these cousins thanks to my blind aunt Lucia, whoʹd lived with us ever since I could remember. In the winter of 1937 she had to go to the hospital for some treatment. One of the nurses attending to my aunt, on hearing her name, Masiukiewicz, asked if she was...

    • 3 Resistance
      (pp. 25-38)

      When we returned from our summer vacation Warsaw was under siege. Schools were closed. Daily bombings forced us into the basement shelter where my sisters and I indulged in reading countless novels. In breaks between the howling of sirens announcing an air raid and the gentler ʹall-clearʹ sirens, weʹd run to the local library to exchange our books. For once in our school-age years the reading of novels wasnʹt looked down on as an escape, and we celebrated this change to the full. Aunt Lucia was delighted as I was able to read to her for unlimited lengths of time....

    • 4 Rescue
      (pp. 39-46)

      Towards the end of 1942 arrests of members of the Army of the Resistance in Warsaw were increasing. It seemed as if the Gestapo had managed to trace some important connections and was systematically raiding secret meetings and arresting many participants. In Warsaw, we had a sense that the circle of arrests was tightening around us and that arrest was becoming a real possibility for many of us in the Resistance movement.

      Early one morning, in November, our front bell rang, followed by an urgent knocking on the door. Marina, in her dressing-gown, opened the door to find, to her...

  9. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  10. Part II: Auschwitz (May 1943-January 1945)

    • 5 Nos. 44786-9
      (pp. 49-60)

      One day in April 1943 we heard the sound of shots outside Pawiak, in the Ghetto. Our first thought was that our prison was being liberated, but we soon found out that it was the start of the Jewish Uprising. Soon bright explosions illuminated our cell, and gradually we saw some of the houses burning, people running and shouting, shots being fired. Some elderly and religious prisoners started daily prayers for the Jews who were being slaughtered. Soon we all joined in the singing of hymns in solidarity with the heroic, dying Jews. The singing of hymns and prayers resounded...

    • 6 No Lilies for Mother
      (pp. 61-64)

      A messenger came from the gate one day with news that Zosia was to be transferred to what we called the ʹfreedomʹ quarantine. Of course, we didnʹt know whether sheʹd be released or moved to another camp or sent back to Pawiak in Warsaw. We speculated about it for hours, hoping that, because of her young age for a political prisoner, she would be released. After a couple of weeks at the quarantine, deloused and less emaciated - she was given milk daily and a larger ration of bread - she was sent away. We couldnʹt know about her fate...

    • 7 Gifts and Secrets
      (pp. 65-70)

      Every morning I woke up with terrible hunger. The herbal tea did not appease it, and the watery nettle soup at lunchtime didnʹt erase the great hunger gnawing at my innards. It took time to adjust to life on these meagre rations. Every morning I promised myself that in the evening I would eat only half of the bread ration we received for supper - about 200 grams. Sometimes a spoonful of beetroot jam was added, and on Sundays we would even get a piece of sausage, about 20 grams.

      One evening I managed to deprive myself and save half...

    • 8 A Legacy of Herbs
      (pp. 71-77)

      While my mother was in the hospital, at Birkenau, she met one of the nurses, Rysia Wloszczewska, a young Polish woman who was there with her mother, a pharmacist. Rysia was concerned about her mother, as she was too feeble to dig ditches or work in the fields. The two of them conceived the idea of forming aKrenter Kommando, a work group that would gather herbs for the hospital. Instead of aspirin - linden flowers, camomile, pansies, and bluebottles for other ailments. Everything for free: the fields outside the camp were covered with wild flowers, and twenty women prisoners...

    • 9 High Fever
      (pp. 78-85)

      Next day I went to be admitted to the hospital. After I passed the criterion that legitimized me as a patient - a very high fever -1 was led to a sauna, where I was given a cold shower and a long, rough cotton gown. I was then led across the camp, together with other patients, to the hospital blocks.

      Inside one block I was directed to the lowest bunk, where there was already a young girl, suffering fromDurchfall- a case of severe diarrhoea. Needless to say, she was lying in her own excrement, but I was too...

    • 10 Designing a Dream House
      (pp. 86-95)

      Marina was slowly regaining her strength, and we knew that we would have to work outdoors again. However, one day a messenger came from the gate and announced that a new building office would soon be opened in Birkenau, and they were looking for architects, draftsmen, and secretaries - anyone with these skills could apply.

      I begged Marina to put her name in, as she had been studying architecture, at a secret school, before our arrest. She refused to do so without me: ʹWe mustnʹt separate. No matter what, we have to stay together.ʹ In my heart I agreed with...

    • 11 SOS
      (pp. 96-104)

      To facilitate the destruction of the Jews being transported to Auschwitz by trains from all parts of occupied Europe, the camp authorities extended the railway tracks to make the ramp, where selections took place, closer to the gas chambers and the crematoria.

      Most of the transports used to arrive at night, and in the morning the air, thick with ashes, would let us know what had transpired during the night. I often wondered why the outside world was silent and did not react to these mass exterminations. After all, Jerzy and I had learned about these atrocities from theInformation...

  11. Part III: From Winter to Spring (January-April 1945)

    • 12 Walking to Breslau
      (pp. 107-116)

      My memories at this point dissolve, and I canʹt remember much except that soon we heard the women prisoners were going to be evacuated from Auschwitz I. The departure would take place on foot, as the Allies had bombed the railway tracks to the nearest railway station, Breslau. The Silesian prisoner promised to ʹorganizeʹ some better walking shoes for us. Heʹd been very kind to us, once in a while bringing us some extra food.

      Every day we heard the airplanes bombing nearby towns, and we realized that we were going to leave this place just days or hours before...

    • 13 Bergen-Belsen
      (pp. 117-122)

      Our career in Ravensbruck ended after a few weeks. One day, early in March, we were told to prepare for another transport. There was nothing to pack - weʹd been travelling light in the last two years. Hundreds of young women prisoners lined up on the ramp. We were embarking on another cattle train, but this time Zosia, Marina, and I were together.

      This journey is again a blank. But I recall vividly getting off the train as it stopped by a beautiful, ancient forest. There was a road, lightly covered with snow, running through it, and as we walked...

  12. Part IV: The Taste of Freedom (April 1945-June 1946)

    • 14 My Egg of Resurrection
      (pp. 125-130)

      That cool but sunny April morning, as I was busy working, I suddenly heard a strange noise coming from the main camp road. It grew into a loud roar. I left my pile of clothes, threw on my prison jacket, and rushed to the door. I stepped outside, and with my bewildered eyes I saw a tank rumbling along the road. There were some soldiers on top of the tank, and I thought they were black Americans, as their faces were shining black. Later I realized that the black on their faces was camouflage so that their faces wouldnʹt shine...

    • 15 Concert for Survivors
      (pp. 131-137)

      At the beginning of July there was an announcement that a concert was to be given for the survivors by a violinist named Yehudi Menuhin. Benjamin Britten was to accompany him on the piano. These two names meant nothing to me - I had come out of six years of the dark ages: no concerts, no radios, no newspapers to tell us what went on or ʹwho was whoʹ in that world outside. But I was thrilled at the prospect of hearing live, classical music. And, above all, the fact that a couple of musicians from England wanted to play...

    • 16 Capriccio Italiano
      (pp. 138-146)

      In the meantime we inquired about how to continue our education away from Poland. Our identity as students was very strong. Our studies had been interrupted by our arrest, and my sisters and I were determined to be back at school by September. We had missed two years already, while our friends, if they werenʹt killed in the Warsaw Uprising, moved ahead of us in their studies.

      We contemplated various possibilities. Marina could go to Brussels to continue architectural studies, as she had some French. One day a delegation arrived from Norway. That country was offering educational opportunities to younger...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 147-150)

    While still in Rome I learned that Father was alive and well in a displaced personsʹ camp in Germany.

    After our arrest my grandmother moved in with one of her other sons. Aunt Lucia moved to Krakow after our arrest and lived there with her brother, Lucjan, and his family.

    All efforts to find Jerzy failed. His parents, in Poland, used all possible means, but they could learn only that he was registered in Buchenwald camp files as alive, working at a satellite camp called Taucha, right up until the liberation of the camp.

    Later on some rumours came that...

  14. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 151-152)