Kyiv Post | 03Dec2009 | Jan Czekajewski

If you were starving to death and Nazi soldiers took you prisoner, how would you respond?
Jan Czekajewski writes: Demjanjuk case is a propaganda tool.

It was November 1942. I was eight years old walking to the illegal, underground school in Czestochowa, Poland, at a time when my town was already three years under the oppressive Nazi German yoke. The school was illegal, because Nazi Germans forbade the teaching of history. Nevertheless my parents decided to send me to illegal courses run in a private apartment. My school did not last long. The clandestine school was raided by German Gestapo the following year and teachers were sent to Auschwitz.

Nazi Germans determined that the Poles should become slave laborers and, as such, they would not need a high school education or knowledge of history. It was about a two-mile walk from my home to the apartment where the courses took place. Along the way, on the Handlowa Ulica (Commerce Street), I noticed a group of about 100 Russian prisoners of war walking under an escort of two German soldiers.

On the left side of the street there was a field of cabbage planted that year, with cabbage heads already harvested, but from the frozen soil there were sticking up remnants of the cabbage stems. Prisoners asked the German guards for permission to explore this field, and when a compassionate German soldier agreed , they ran into the field devouring these stems as if it were a rare delicacy. One Russian or maybe a Ukrainian POW begged me for something to eat. My parents gave me two slices of bread with margarine for my school lunch.

I could not resist this man’s misery and I gave him my lunch bread. In exchange he gave me a toy, a hand carved alligator, which he made at the POW camp. In school at lunch time, my teacher asked me where I had my sandwich. I had no choice but to tell the truth, that I gave it to the starving Soviet soldier (POW).

To my surprise the teacher took me in the front of the class and said that, in spite of the Soviets being our enemies (they invaded Poland as allies of Hitler in 1939), it was the Christian thing to help a starving human being, enemy or friend. That was the only one instance when I ever got a compliment from a teacher in my school years.

After the war we learned that, in the small German POW camp in my home town of Czestochowa, many thousands Soviet POWs were starved to death. There were hundreds such camps on Polish and German territory where millions of Soviet POWs were sentenced to death by starvation.

The chances of Soviet POW surviving imprisonment were equivalent to Jews surviving a concentration camp in Auschwitz. They did not gas them. They were just starved to death. Many years later, in the 1980s, a friend from Poland came for a visit to Columbus, Ohio and brought with him a present for my daughter, a wooden alligator. It was an alligator of the same size and look which I got from the starving Soviet soldier. I did not pass this alligator to my daughter; I kept it for myself. It was too dear for me to part with it.

I do not know what happened to the original gift that I got from the Soviet POW, as I have changed my residence many times in a few countries. Some 67 years later, on April 14 of this year, I saw on American TV Ivan Demjanjuk, the former Soviet soldier, and German POW, 89 years old, being taken on the stretcher to the detention center from where he will be deported to Germany to be tried for his alleged World War II crimes as a concentration camp guard.

Maybe it was Ivan Demjanjuk who gave me the wooden alligator in exchange for two slices of bread. Maybe it was he, who when confronted with the possibility of death by starvation, decided to become a Nazi German guard. Some of these people guarded fuel or food depots and some maybe were assigned to guard concentration camps. I do not know if Ivan Demjanjuk from Cleveland was a guard in a concentration camp, because he denies such involvement.

But if he was, who of us would have behaved differently if confronted with imminent death by starvation? We may have chosen to extend our life for a few more months or weeks. We do not blame Jewish policemen in theJewish ghettos, who herded their own people to the trains taking them to the concentration camps of Auschwitz or Treblinka. What is ironic is that now Germans, instrumental in Demjanjuk’s wartime tribulation, as well as in the murdering millions of Jews and Slavs, assume to be the judges of his perceived crimes. Are they trying to divert attention from their own people’s responsibility?

I cannot resist the thought that this affair with Ivan Demjanjuk has nothing to do with justice, his guilt or even his identity. It is a propaganda tool which serves a particular group of Justice Department officials desperately proving that their office is still needed. They have a “pressing problem.” Such people as Demjanjuk are just dying off.

Jan Czekajewski, a U.S. resident, is a member of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences. He recently published the wartime (1939-1945 in Czestochowa, Poland) diaryof his father, Franciszek Czekajewski. The book received favorable recognition by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem. He can be reached at [email protected]