My mother was indirectly blamed for the worst Polish military defeat of World War II, the Battle of Lenino in Belarus, where on October 12, 1943, Polish forces suffered 25 percent casualties. Her name was brought up in a court martial a week later, but she was cleared of all charges.
I would have never known about this incident in my mother’s life if not for the chance discovery in the 1990s of old files in a garbage dumpster in Warsaw. Almost forgotten by history, these files made their way into the hands of a Polish television journalist. They tell the story of the humiliating defeat of the 1st Tadeusz Kosciuszko Infantry Division and my mother’s alleged role.
The research on her military career began during my work on an art exhibit inspired by letters my mother had written to her parents during her army service. My family approached recordkeeping with meticulous care. Every scrap of paper, even in the time of war, was preserved. This left a rich trail of letters and other artifacts that, taken together, gave a highly detailed, firsthand account from one of the first Jews to enter Poland towards the end of the war.
Even five months before crossing the border to Poland with the army, my mother had already learned the tragic fate of Poland’s Jews. In a letter to her younger brother dated February 23, 1944, she wrote: “In this whole wide world, there are just the four of us left. The rest of our family has been murdered in the cruelest way. We belong to that remnant of 3.5 million who are still alive. I will not be able to live here in the future. To walk on ruins of what was once most treasured, on the cemetery of our relatives, a person would need to be heartless. Don’t have any delusions or visions of a faraway fatherland. This is the grave of our people. We don’t have a place here. Take my words seriously to your heart. Meantime our parents don’t know the whole truth yet.”
The project began in the studio a year ago on Holocaust Remembrance Day, when I found myself facing a white canvas. Many artists who are children of survivors will sooner or later grapple with the pain. The painting that emerged was visceral. Torn fragments of my mother’s words embedded in layers awaited the scraping of the palette knife to surface. This initial work grew into what would become a full project. The exhibition, “Moscow to Berlin,” will open in Ramat Gan’s Beit Yad LaBanim on April 28 and run through May 12. It will then travel to Krakow’s JCC where on June 22 it will feature as one of the opening events of the annual Jewish Culture Festival. And so, it will be a posthumous homecoming for Irena Jung to Krakow, the city she fled for her life 80 years earlier.
My mother was hardly a model soldier, as I soon discovered in one of her letters. This one, hastily written, was folded many times over into a small square to be discreetly delivered by hand. She wrote to her boyfriend, Franciszek Derks, a Lt. Colonel in the Polish army: “October 10, 1943, I am staying in the village of Tichloncyna, not far from the 1st Division. I am exhausted. The new commander mistreats me and there is nobody to stand up for me. Today I have free time from 4 in the afternoon. If you want to see me, you have to come in the evening. We live at the end of the village. Maybe in your division there is an extra Russian submachine gun? Please find one and bring it, otherwise I will go to jail. Mine got lost, and I did not report it. In 28 hours, I slept only 3 and walked 25 kilometers. But this a trifle compared with other matters.”
Losing her rifle, however risky, turned out to be the least of her problems.
My mother was deported with her parents and brother in the summer of 1940 to a forced labor camp by the Soviets, one family out of more than 1.2 million Poles expelled from the Soviet-occupied Polish territories. Almost a year earlier my family had fled from their home in Krakow to Lwow, (now Lviv.) As Polish refugees, the Jung family was required to accept Soviet citizenship, which my grandfather steadfastly refused. One night in June of 1940, the NKWD (a forerunner of the KGB), knocked on the door. The soldier was kind enough to suggest they pack whatever might keep them warm. They waited in a horse-drawn wagon while soldiers continued rounding up other Polish refugees. At dawn, some neighbors offered last minute provisions, sugar in a tin container, tea leaves wrapped in a cloth.
My grandmother, the elegant Klara Jung, had lived a life of easy affluence in Krakow’s prestigious main square with a maid and cook on staff. The bleak contrast of her new lot left her in tears. My grandfather offered what would be, in retrospect, a prescient response.
“Don’t cry. The people who pity us will envy us. Lwow is under Soviet control now, but the Germans will come here soon enough, and in Lwow, there are Ukrainians.”
A year later, almost to the day, Hitler broke his agreement with Stalin and attacked Russia in what was known as Operation Barbarossa. Not a single member of the extended family in Lwow survived the Ukrainian pogroms and the German death machine.
The Jung family was put on a crowded freight train for a two-week ride of more than 2,000 kilometers to the Mari El Republic in western Russia to arrive in a logging camp in a forest so dense one could barely see a patch of sky. In the winter, water left overnight in a bucket inside the barrack would freeze to solid ice. They received letters, postcards and wooden crates with food and clothing from my mother’s aunts and uncles in Lwow until mysteriously, a year later, the flow stopped.
In the spring of 1943, a group of Polish communists known as the Union of Polish Patriots announced the formation of a new Polish People’s Army to fight the Germans. Anders’ Polish army had left the Soviet Union a few months earlier for Persia and on to Palestine to fight under British command. This was to be a new Polish army that would fight alongside the Soviet army and under its command. Unlike the antisemitic Anders’ army, here Jewish recruits were accepted and by February 1944, Jews made up over 20 percent of the force.
“One of us must liberate our beloved fatherland,” decided my grandfather, a Polish patriot. He was too old, my uncle too young and so the task of liberating their beloved Poland fell to my 22-year-old mother. She got on a train in the city of Joshkar-Ola and travelled with other recruits to a training camp about 185 kilometers northeast of Moscow.
In a letter dated November 18, 1943, my grandfather wrote: “I remember you at the railroad when we were saying goodbye and you were standing in the train on the verge of crying, but at the very last moment you held yourself and controlled your emotions. It made me happy to see you strong. You have to be healthy, brave and noble and return to your native fatherland triumphantly.”
There was no soft landing to get used to the hardships.
October 28, 1943: “There were nights when my bed was a hard earth under a pine tree and my pillow, my fist. One has already gotten used to everything and has become resistant and hard as steel. I am used to the whistle of shrapnel and the denotation of bombs. You have no idea how the Germans destroy and burn the areas from which they retreat. The pen cannot describe this. I saw the city of Smolensk, which was once a pretty city. These vandals destroyed it to the ground. What they write in the newspapers is just a fraction of the truth.”
There is a photo of my mother as a new recruit with a shy smile on her face, a young woman awkward in her ill-fitting man’s uniform, a cap set jauntily to the right. In a photo taken a year later, after she entered Lublin and saw the ashes of Majdanek, she looks like she had aged a decade. The Noble Prize Winner Russian author, Svetlana Alexievich, wrote in her book, The Unwomanly Face of War: “It is hard to believe that this change took place in a few months, or years. Ordinary time performs this task much more slowly and imperceptibly. A human face is molded over a long time. The soul is slowly traced on it. But the war quickly created its image of people, painted its own portraits.”
Very soon after she enlisted, my mother met and fell in love with Lt.-Col. Franciszek Derks, 14 years her senior, a career Soviet officer of Polish origin, a stocky man with a crewcut of white hair. They worked in the headquarters together, she, as a translator, due to her knowledge of German, and he, as chief of operations. In August, he was promoted to regiment commander and in October, he was assigned the task of breaking the entrenched German defenses in Lenino, a battle that was a bloody disaster from beginning to end.
The Polish 1st Infantry Regiment was seriously under-equipped and inadequately trained, having been formed only four months earlier. The night before the battle, dozens of Polish soldiers defected to the German side and gave away details of the morning attack. An hour before the battle someone took Derks’ only radio, so he wasn’t able to communicate with headquarters. The Soviet allies did not provide air support and two Soviet divisions on both flanks failed to step forward. Tanks and soldiers got mired in mud because the generals who made the battle plans didn’t know there was a swamp on the way. Soldiers were killed by friendly artillery fire causing panic and a mixing up of the battalions, making command impossible. General Zygmunt Berling, looking for a scapegoat, latched on to Derks. A rumor had reached him that Derks got drunk, had abandoned his troops and was seen with my mother. Berling wanted to put a bullet in Derks’ brain on the spot, but Derks found refuge in Soviet headquarters. In a court martial held a week later in which my mother’s name came up, Derks was cleared of all charges, including the charge that he had abandoned his post. My mother’s reputation was cleared.
In a letter 10 days after Lenino, my mother wrote: “I’ve been through a lot of suffering. I will tell you about everything when we meet. As you know from the newspapers, we’ve been fighting. A lot of things await me. This is just the beginning. I hope I will survive and see Poland again.”
Six days later, after Derks’ acquittal, she grew bolder and revealed some more details, but not the entire truth. She said nothing about the court martial.
October 28, 1943: “My personal affairs are not all rosy. I met a man in a very high position, and we have fallen in love. This person has a wonderful character. He is 34 years old but looks much older because he has white hair. He loves me very much and takes good care of me. But the higher ups are against this relationship and for this reason, both he and I have much grief. He desires me to become his wife. Unfortunately, that is not so easy, but I believe that we will hold up and despite it all, we will be together.”
She ends the letter with the following: “I am going to liberate Poland for you, Kisses with all my heart, Irka.”
My mother’s attitude towards Poland took a drastic turn after she entered the country in July of 1944 and witnessed Polish attitudes towards the Jews. The Jungs were an assimilated family who considered themselves Poles. She had never been inside a synagogue and her brother did not have a bar mitzvah. But the antisemitism she witnessed in Poland shook her to the core. On August 28, 1944, with the army positioned across the Vistula River from Warsaw, she wrote: “The ‘Jewish question’ no longer exists. Although society is not happy that a few Jews managed to survive, they will have to accept it. I am telling you this although it is only one hundredth part of the whole story so you can at least have some inkling of the situation and act accordingly. If you want to stay in Poland, you will have to cut off your connection to the Jewish race.”
A month and a half later, on October 4, 1944, she wrote: “I am six kilometers from Warsaw and every day I see the crimes that were committed and for me the greatest crime is the murder of our brothers and sisters. And now, after everything that has taken place, the Poles think that not even one Jewish foot should stay in Poland. ‘Hitler committed many crimes, but he did one good thing and that is to murder all the Jews.’ This is the opinion of the entire immoral society gangrened to the very bone marrow. We should not have any illusions.”
On January 26, 1945, she asks forgiveness for her stingy correspondence. “We are moving forward all the time,” and adds: “I was in Warsaw. The only things that are still standing are smoldering ruins and walls of buildings. I didn’t see in the capital even one intact house. All the buildings are burned. On these ruins people are digging and searching for various things. They think the Jews left precious things hidden under the ruins.”
The road from Moscow to Berlin stretched 1,800 kilometers and with every step my mother witnessed German atrocities. She had no sympathy for the Germans in their defeat.
“Yesterday I was in the small town in the Protectorate and today I am in the Third Reich. Today I saw a lot of German corpses piled up in the middle of the town square. I stood and looked with wild joy. Now they are running and now they are carrying dead comrades on their shoulders and digging graves for them. Now we put a swastika on the prisoners, like they put the Jewish star on the Jews. It was worthwhile to survive to this moment and see the Germans in their defeat.”
The army reached Berlin when there was still fighting from street to street. On the outskirts, the Polish army neared the villa of Joachim Von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister. My mother entered the villa together with other soldiers. She noticed that one of them, knife in hand, cut out the leather that covered Ribbentrop’s antique desk, the one where not long before, he signed documents for Adolf Hitler. My mother asked if she could have the leather. What soldier would say no to the beautiful Irka Jung? Back in Poland after the war she made herself a pair of boots.
“One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”
On May 16, 1945 after her discharge, she wrote: “Things are quiet now. You don’t hear the hum of the German airplanes circling overhead and you no longer expect that in any given moment the ceiling will crash on top of your head. There were many times when I thought I was saying goodbye to this world, but I survived. The most unnerving were the bombardments. Whole nights the Fritzes [Germans] were flying overhead.”
She and Derks remained together for two years after her discharge. On some of her medal citations her name is listed as Derks-Jung. Did she and Derks marry? I don’t know, nor do I know why they separated.
My grandparents and uncle returned from Russia in 1946 with the mass repatriation of Polish citizens in time to meet Derks. The family did not go home to Krakow because it was too painful to walk on Krakow’s beautiful streets and not see familiar faces. My mother had procured for the family a fully furnished apartment in Katowice, in southern Poland, abandoned by Poles of German origins. Since it was a ground floor apartment, they hung a cross on the wall opposite the window after two Jews of their acquaintance had been murdered. My grandfather died in Katowice on April 29, 1948 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery. His last words were the prayer, “Shema Yisrael.” Two years later my mother, who became a proud Jew, immigrated to Israel with her first husband, Herman Fechter, and my two-year-old sister, Halina (Hadassah.) My widowed grandmother followed soon after. The only Jung to remain in Poland was my uncle. He took to heart my mother’s advice written during the war. “If you want to stay in Poland, you will have to cut off your connection to the Jewish race.” He changed his name from Jung to Jarocki and hid his Jewish origins.
My mother lived in the past – not the Russian labor camp past or the army past. She talked more about prewar Krakow and surrounded herself with antiques and paintings which reminded her of her beautiful childhood home on Krakow’s main square.Among the Chinese porcelains, the satsuma vases, the tiffany lamps, the 17th century paintings, her most prized possessions were a few antiques she recovered in Krakow from Polish neighbors who had helped themselves to the Jung family’s possessions.
At any sudden noise, a car backfiring on Tel Aviv’s Gordon Street, her body shuddered, and an instant of panic flashed across her face. ■
The writer is a member of the non-profit organization, Next Generation to Holocaust & Heroism Legacy, whose mission is to preserve our parents’ stories, including those of Jewish soldiers who fought in the allied armies and were among those who liberated the concentration camps. My mother’s stories and her letters will not be forgotten.