Friday, March 30, 2018

One Polish American's Remarkable Story: Gene Sokolowski, Son of a Concentration Camp Survivor, Grandson of a Nazi Officer

For my immigration visa, issued under the Displaced Persons Act.
Female Hitler Youth 
 My father’s membership record in the Polish Association of Concentration Camp Prisoners. The two stamps show the prisoner badge he had to wear, which is a red triangle pointed downward with the letter P for Pole. The record also shows that he was first sent to the Radom prison before being sent to the concentration camps.

My father, Jan, was from Horodyszcze, a village about 25 miles south of Biała Podlaska. He was captured by the Germans in 1943 and survived four concentration camps: Gross-Rosen, called “The Bone Mill” by the Germans; Dachau; Natzweiler Struthof in occupied France; and Neuengamme. As a child, I remember him telling me that every day, he didn’t know if he would live or die.

My mother, Lieselotte, was the daughter of a Nazi Party political officer in Dresden. Her father wanted her to marry an SS officer. She wanted to be a nurse, which her father opposed. He relented after Hitler announced the need for more Brauneschwester, which was the nursing corps established for the SS.

Candidates had to meet rigorous SS screening requirements, which included family records through seven generations confirming Aryan racial purity and excellent physical and mental health. She qualified and told me that, when the examiners stamped “Good Racial Material” on her application, her father was very proud.

In early April 1945, as the British approached Neuengamme, the Germans evacuated the camp and forced the prisoners to march to Lübeck, about 80 miles away. The SS guards had strict orders to kill prisoners who could no longer walk and thousands were shot. In late April 1945, the Germans loaded about 9,300 surviving prisoners onto the ships Cap Arcona, Thielbek, and Athen. Jan was on the Athen. The prisoners were confined in the ships’ holds for several days without food or water.

On 3 May 1945, RAF squadrons attacked the ships in the Bay of Lübeck. The RAF said it believed they carried SS troops escaping to Norway. The RAF also said that intelligence confirming that the ships instead carried prisoners didn’t reach the RAF squadrons in time to halt the attack. The Cap Arcona and Thielbek were sunk, the RAF strafed the prisoners in the water, and only a handful survived.

The Athen was some miles away near Neustadt and, although strafed by the RAF, it was not sunk and the 2,000 prisoners survived. The British then established a Displaced Persons camp in Neustadt for the Neuengamme survivors and this is where Jan lived. My mother told me that my father told her that RAF pilots definitely saw the prisoners in their prison garb on the Athen's deck but continued strafing. That same year, the British government sealed its report on what took place for the next 100 years.

For my mother’s first year of training, she spent six months in Germany followed by six months on the Russian Front. For her second year, she was in Dresden’s hospital treating the wounded that had fought the advancing Russians. In mid-February 1945, the British and Americans firebombed Dresden. Her hospital was destroyed and, although many of her nurse colleagues were killed, she survived through sheer luck and it was a French medical guest worker that pulled her from the rubble.

On 8 May 1945, Germany surrendered and, as Dresden was in the Soviet-occupied sector of the country, Soviet troops did pretty much what they wanted. Rape was common and my mother remembered one poor girl she treated who had been torn from front to back. She avoided rape by following the advice of the wife of a Russian officer. She was told to wear her nursing uniform whenever she went out on the street. The Russians had an especially strong respect for medical personnel and this worked for her.

In early 1946, there were rumors that the Soviets would close the border between eastern Germany and western Germany. They began closing the border in June. Not wanting to be trapped in the Soviet sector, Lieselotte left. Her nurse friend in Hamburg said there might be work there, so she put some potatoes in her pockets and slipped onto a freight train headed for Hamburg. As it turned out, there was no work in Hamburg but her friend told her to try Neustadt, so she went there. Still without work and hungry, she went to a movie theater. It was standing room only and, weak from hunger, she reeled backward into Jan, who caught her.

I was born in a DP camp in Germany (Neustadt in Holstein) in 1947. Life in the DP camp was austere. Germany was an occupied country and Allied policy was that no help should be given in rebuilding it except for the minimum necessary to mitigate starvation. Jan and his Polish buddies made schnapps to exchange for meat with local Germans. Because of the scarcity of meat, they sometimes had to pilfer piglets from local farmers. When she could, Lieselotte worked on local farms and brought home vegetables. She also made schnapps deliveries by hiding the bottles under me in the baby carriage.

The trauma of the concentration camps left my father emotionally distraught. My mother told me he was becoming increasingly controlling and she believed he was fearful of losing her. Meanwhile, she had to withstand venomous denigration from local Germans, who called her a Polish whore and spit on me in the baby carriage. Her father in Dresden was incensed that his racially pure daughter married a Pole and gave birth to a Polish baby. When she sent him a letter with a photo of me in it, he returned it unanswered. When she wanted to take me to Dresden, her father refused to have me in his house.

Knowing that the Displaced Persons Act would expire in August 1952, Jan applied for emigration to the U.S. Lieselotte’s father insisted that I emigrate with him because, as a Pole, I would always be a second-class person in Germany while, as an American, I would not. It was an agonizing decision for her because she knew that she likely would never see me again.

In June 1951, Jan and I left Bremerhaven on the USS M. B. Stewart and arrived at Ellis Island on 27 June. Because he couldn’t care for me, he placed me in the Polish Roman Catholic orphanage in New Britain, CT. The nuns were very strict and discipline was harsh. When we were punished, we had to hold our hands out and have our palms hit with a belt.

My father then put me in the Swedish Christian Lutheran orphanage in Cromwell, CT. It was on a working farm with cows, pigs, chickens, and vegetable gardens. I was five years old and now had to learn English. My father visited me every few months and we always spoke Polish. When I was nine, I told him that I couldn’t speak Polish anymore. After that, we only spoke English.

At first, life was difficult for my father. His English was very limited and, as a cabinet maker, he only had occasional employment. After he joined a labor union, employment was more stable. In general, life in the orphanage was satisfactory. We worked hard on the farm and were never hungry. I was given piano lessons and sang in the choir. The Swedes who managed the orphanage also managed a Swedish college in Chicago (now North Park University). At 18, I left the orphanage and was on my own. I enrolled at North Park, which is where I met my wife, Ginny.

I have a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, an M.S. in Systems Management from the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, an M.A. in Science, Technology, and Public Policy from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, a B.A. in German from the University of Maryland, and a B.A. in Mathematics from North Park University in Chicago.

For my first life following graduation in 1969, I was a career Air Force Telecommunications Officer and my family and I spent 11 of our 20 years overseas. Following retirement from the Air Force, my second life was as a Systems Analyst with Northrop Grumman. For my third life, I was an IT Specialist with the Federal Government. With this as a background, one might think I’d be a tad nit-oriented (OK, I might be). I’m now in my fourth and last life, i.e., retirement. My wife and I enjoy being able to spend more time with our three adult children, their spouses, and our five grandchildren.

Fortunately, I was able to reunite with my mother in 1976. I was stationed in Kansas City, MO, and had to go to Germany on business. A fellow officer who had emigrated from Germany at the age of nine was going with me and because he spoke some German, he offered to find my mother. We were successful and it was a highly emotional experience. She had remarried and had two sons, Thomas and Matthias. Her husband Moritz accepted me as a third son and the boys accepted me as their older brother. My mother is now 92 and lives in Lübeck. I call her twice monthly. My father died in 1990.

I was able to find my relatives in Poland using a picture of my grandmother’s headstone that my father had. With the help of the Papal Nuncio in Warsaw, I wrote to the priest whose church served Horodyszcze. He relayed my letter to my relatives in Biała Podlaska and I met them in 2006. Anna, my first cousin, welcomed me with the traditional Slavic greeting of bread and salt.

I now have the one problem. Every time my Polish side puts me in a cheerful state celebrating life, my German side psychoanalyzes everything and messes up my day. It’s really annoying.

My mother and I in our room at the DP camp.
 My father while at the DP camp.
Despite the austerity,
he was able to assemble an outfit popular in pre-war Poland. 
My mother and I, circa 2000, on the Baltic shore.
Moritz took the photo and we were in Wismar, which is in the former East Germany.
My wife and I in front of Ford’s Theater in D.C.
under a banner featuring our daughter Jenna,
who starred in “The Glass Menagerie” two years ago. 


  1. Thanks for that story. Very moving and important to get our stories out there.

    I couldn't help but peek to the end to see how it turned out. Such a relief to find out things seem to have worked out for the long and hard journey.

  2. Such a life Gene Sokolowski lived! The end was unexpectedly happy, and the photos were a joy.
    The experience of the Roman Catholic Orphanage (which exactly what my father and siblings were in, despite their calling it, Dt. Mary's Training school, it was run by strict nuns, and Mass on Latin; but, Dad experienced far worse from the Sister's of Mercy ( you know my father called then "Sisters of Murder," would crack the back of their knuckles with a bamboo rod. Once Dad was locked up all day in a closet (they forgot him). But, they did a wonderful job of structure, liberal education, Catholic studies, and competency-based work skills. But, also, students had thorough studies in music, ROTC, athletics, and a job at the school to fulfill work at the school, whether, cook, laundry,carpentry, which they were taught, and so on.

    I was impressed Gene had multiple degrees, but disappointed he never tells us his rank at retirement.
    He'd have had to have made full bird Colonel (often they'll hold back Brigadier General unless you re-up for 30.
    He deserved the several stages of his life he cited, and humorously his penchant for Polish "cheerfulness", but German over-psychoanalyzing.

    Thank you for tagging me. Feel free to tag me on such consequential and illuminating reads.
    I always enjoy hearing about your life, as well.

    1. They forgot your father in a closet!!!

    2. Rusty thank you for reading and commenting. :-)

    3. Hello, my name is Joan and I lived at the orphanage in New Britain, Ct from 1959-1961.

  3. Gene,

    It's a very touching story. Thank you for writing it and for sharing it with us. I read it this morning and can't stop thinking about it. It made a very big impact. It's an inspiring story about human resilience, but at the same time it's very sad.

    You tell the story so matter-of-factly, you don't talk about what you thought, you don't talk about your emotions, you don't engage in self-pity, there is no bitterness. Yet the little boy must have been scared and lonely. He must have longed for his mother. He needed love and affection.

    1. Ane you speak for me.

      Gene says so much ... and he leaves so much unsaid.

      He is an officer and a gentleman, and we can only imagine what is left out. The photo of Gene as a child is very eloquent.

    2. Hello Ane,

      You wrote previously, that You have "temporarily lost sanity".

      The same thing happens to me. I call it "temporary state of righteous anger". It's a polish thing, I guess. Poles are hot-headed, emotional people "burning up with a million volatile ideas".
      It's better than being cold-blooded, though.

      "When you are angry, do not sin, and be sure to stop being angry before the end of the day" (Ephesians 4:26)

  4. Thanks for writing and posting. Very moving. And told without inciting any further hatred. (Which shows it can be done.) I have no time to say more at the moment - very busy day - Memorial of Jesus' death - a powerful reminder of the rescue that is imminent - and how much we need it.

  5. A very moving story indeed. Why didn’t your mother go to the US with you and your father?


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