Dr. Kania. Church & Life: Part Three (b) The Road to Hell Psalm 23: 4 – RSV & John 15: 13 – RSV

I have used the following story from my father’s life many times as a particular area of focus during the Retreats that I have led over the last thirty years. The direction I usually take is to highlight to the students, that young boys have experienced hardships far harder and more traumatic than the irritations that so many of us describe as hardships today. In some ways, I suspect the very stern form of discipline that my grandfather used on my father contributed to his ability to see this specific Odyssey through to its necessary conclusion. Everything that happens in life is relative to other experiences one has lived through. Grandfather being a Ukrainian Cossack, expected his son to be tough, and fearless. Once when my father was ten he came home from school in tears. When grandfather asked him what was wrong, my father replied that he had received a beating from four boys at school. Immediately my grandfather back-handed my father to the ground; stood over him and said: “Don’t you ever come home a loser – you know what to do”. Next day after my father came home from school, four parents knocked on the door. My father had gone to school, sought each of the boys that gave him a beating the day before, and gave them, one by one, likewise treatment that they had given him. When the four parents remonstrated with my grandfather as to what had occurred at school that day, grandfather pointed out that when their four children had meted out on his only son, he, Jan, had not appeared on their doorsteps. I do not in any way condone violence against children – I am making an observation about my father’s upbringing- that no doubt played a role in how he responded to situations of hardship. In that age, in that climate – Jan was passing on what he thought were life-lessons to his son. Jan lived under an era of different life-values. He took certain teachings literally. (cf. Proverbs 13: 24, RSV). My father for his part was always, it appears, very obedient to his parents; almost military style. (cf. Ephesians 6: 1 – 3, RSV) When my father told me this story, he added: “You know what son, after that day, I never had a problem at school.” You see the sharovary worn by Ukrainian Cossack dancers, is surface. Being a Cossack is more than dancing and drinking. I can’t imagine Grandfather doing the former, nor heard of him imbibing excessively. Living with a battle-toughened Cossack is a reality that my father experienced first-hand. Jan Kania wanted to ensure his son would not be a pushover. Vladimir was expected to be a man, a protector, from boyhood. He was expected to fight for what he believed in, and for whom he loved, and for who he was. He was expected to have Faith, for without Faith – the core of being a Ukrainian Cossack – there was no purpose to life and death. ATK

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As the train rolled into the Central Station, my father, Vladimir, now a seventeen year old boy, held his youngest sister close to him. She was exhausted by the emotional strain of the day. Being only ten years old, and having journeyed through a war-torn area, all she had at the moment was her brother. Even though winter was nearly over, it was still bitterly cold, refusing to let up. Vladimir was checking on her, every few moments, rubbing her arm, and giving her kisses on the top of her head. Vladimir’s journey to her had been both by foot and rail. He had a back-pack, filled with what his mother had given him to eat. Home for the Kania Family in February 1945 was no longer in Galicia, they had escaped the Soviet advance, and crossed into Czechoslovakia. At the time, Karlovy Vary was home. The family were nearly all together, except for the little girl. But now she was safein her brother’s arms – and Vladimir had nearly fulfilled the mission that he had been sent on by his mother. He was over half-way home. As the train began to halt on the evening of the 12th of February, 1945, Vladimir gently attempted to awaken his sister. She opened her eyes, and smiled at him; he pointed to the sign, and said: “We are here”. He had chosen the safest route back from Breslau. The other nine girls who had been with her, had taken an alternate route – the train to Linz. All of the girls were to be killed in an airstrike by the Allied air force. The  route that Vladimir chose, included a few night’s stay in what was supposed to be Germany’s ‘safest’ city. The train came to a halt, the sign at the station read – Dresden Hauptbahnhof. Unwittingly Vladimir had led his sister into what would soon be a manifestation of Dante’s Inferno.

Vladimir’s travel to Breslau had its roots back to when the family lived in Jarosław. The German authorities had called all the families of the city to report so as to cleanse the city of ‘undesirables’. Those who passed the family tree test – could acquire a German passport. On my grandfather’s side of the family, there was no indication, barring his grandmother of any Germanic heritage. His grandmother, Marisae Majster, could have been Austrian or German – but there is no conclusive evidence. All the other members in grandfather’s lineage, going back at least four generations, were Ruthenians. Yet Vladimir’s mother, was a different case in point. On her maternal side, Babcia was a ‘Baraniak’ – and they, were very Polish; there were Polish Generals and Bishops who bore that surname. But it was the paternal side of her family background that interested the Germans the most. Babcia had an ‘abnormality’ on her father’s side. The problem was that although she was born in Poland, and she spoke Polish, and considered herself to be a Pole, Babcia’s maiden name was, ‘Lucht’. The surname is ancient High German. So standing in front of the German officers now, was in their opinion, a German woman, who had been ‘corrupted’ by Polish culture. In Babcia’s opinion she was a Pole, who bore a surname harking back to when Poland occupied a wider geographic territory. Nonetheless, the coup de grâce, was that the Germans now took her youngest child and sent the eight year old girl to Breslau for ‘re-education’, or ‘re-formation’; to help build the future of her ‘true’ heritage. Babcia was shattered, and threw herself on the floor of her home. The Germans had gaoled her husband, killed by now two of her younger brothers as Polish agitators, executed her favourite cousin for the same reason, violently assaulted her son – and now, the insult of taking her daughter, and classifying her other children as quasi-Germans. Perhaps the German officers were affrighted, as there was a General, Walther Lucht, who was part of the occupying army in the Eastern territories. By executing Babcia’s brothers, they may have thought perhaps they had murdered members of the General’s family. There was no familial connection between the General and Babcia, aside from sharing a common surname. The situation was absurd. Babcia’s anger toward the Germans was extreme. Their occupation had irrevocably torn her family apart.

For the eight year old girl, what her ‘new’ national identity meant was a trip to live in Breslau, to a castle, with nine other specially selected girls of ‘German blood’. Once there, she was placed  on a strict ‘diet’ of German language and cultural immersion, with no contact with her family. The child was now a German, she had no mother and father, other than Germany. Her instructor was a German Baroness. My father was now taught German in Jarosław. He travelled on a German Identity Card. Being fifteen when his sister was taken, he was completely irrelevant to German plans, too old, to successfully ‘re-educate’. What they wanted was to raise a new generation of German girls to eventually become German mothers.

By mid 1944, the Kania Family had left Jarosław. In early 1945, Babcia cried that she wanted her ‘baby’ back home. Continuation of the war was futile for the Germans, but fight on, they did. Babcia then asked her only son to travel to Breslau to bring her youngest child home. Vladimir was always obedient to his mother. So he left Czechoslovakia to journey to Breslau. By so doing he risked his life. The chances were more likely than not – that he would die in this attempt. But my father was not scared. He was focussed, he said. By thinking about dying – he mused, this would be the outcome. He had to think about how to live, and come back out from the other side of Hell.

His recollection of the dramatic events as he told them to me of rescuing his sister are as follows:

Arriving in Breslau, he went to the Castle where his younger sister was housed. He introduced himself to the Baroness, and showed her his Identity Card. His sister was brought down to reunite with her brother. She refused to go with him, and told the Baroness that she would like to travel with her new ‘sisters’, who as has been mentioned were going on to Linz. I have no idea what was at this destination. Perhaps Linz was a junction for travel back to Galicia, or Poland. The Baroness convinced Vlad’s sister that she should go home with her brother, as the war was coming to an end. At the train station, the ‘sisters’ sang on the platform a rendition of “Muss I den”. Once again my aunt protested about going home with her brother. My father placated his sister. They boarded the train then to Dresden.

On arrival in Dresden, my father wanted to find safe lodging for his sister. The city was filled with one million refugees – mostly women and children. The Germans were using Dresden as a haven for their women-folk and children; believing that there was an un-written agreement that if they did not bomb the academic and cultural cities of Oxford and Cambridge then the Allies would reciprocate. By early February 1945, this ‘agreement’ had held. No bomb had fallen on Dresden. No bomb had fallen on either Oxford or Cambridge. The German folk knew about this ‘agreement’ – and so did a cosmopolitan ethnic mix of refugees who had picked up on it as well.

My father found his sister a place to stay at wjat he described as a Girl Guide’s hostel. He did not wish to leave her alone, so he requested permission to stay in the hostel with his sister. The hostel provided my Aunt with a clean bed – and they gave hima pillow, mattress, and blanket on the floor beside his sister’s bed. They rested well that evening, and were refreshed and fed in the morning.

February the 13th, 1945 began with the laughter of children – and the sound of the Fair. Vlad couldn’t have imagined a better way of bringing his sister back home. He was trying to reconnect with her; and spent that day trying to share joy with her.

That evening while the Circus was performing – the sound of planes and the scene of ‘fairy lights’, broke the joy. The shock that Dresden could actually be a target for bombing sent panic through the streets. My father grabbed his sister’s hand, picked up his ruck-sack and immediately ran to the train station. He was street-wise and a quick thinker. This young man had seen enough of the war years to judge signs. He was in Dresden Neustadt, as the bombing commenced, and commented that Dresden Altstadt had been levelled rapidly, (including the domed roof of the Girl Guide Hostel falling down on the girls inside), he was soon engulfed in the stifling hot air of the bombing. His lungs felt like they were burning. He grabbed my Aunt and sheltered with her in an outside corner of a building, where they both tried to suck cooler air from the ground of the corner. When they stood up he saw a lion run terrified passing him in the streets. He told me that the lion was so terrified that it did not attack any person. (It was at that moment that my father came to the realization that this was Hell; but also that there must be a God and a Heaven, because of all the good that he had experienced and seen in his life. He pointed out to me that only a fool would fail to believe in the existence of God, because without a belief in God – nothing can counterbalance evil in the world – only despair would be left). What made him strong, was a never-failing belief that God was with him every step of his life.

By the time that he and his sister reached the Elbe River, he said that the entire river was on fire. My aunt said that she could not go on any further, so he put her on his back and ran toward the train station. Sheer pandemonium was occurring at the Station. My father had no trouble forcing his way on to the train – he knew how to use his fists; my grandfather had insisted that his son have the skill to fight. The problem though was that everyone wanted to board the train, and my Aunt was physically thrown off the train. Immediately my father began fighting in order to get his sister back on board. After a few moments, my Aunt was back on the train, and my father was hanging on the steel rails of the train. The train left the Station and raced to Königstein. The distance between Königstein and Dresden is approximately 40 kilometres. By the time he arrived at Königstein, his hands were stuck frozen on to the train railing. My father had had no gloves. The Wehrmacht soldiers in Königstein breathed hot air on his hands in order to free him from the railing. They kept asking – “What the hell is going on in Dresden?” At Königstein; my Aunt and my father disembarked. They were now near the Czechoslovakian border. Karlovy Vary is 130 kilometres from Königstein. Now they would walk.

The bombing of Dresden – filled my father’s heart with intense anxiety. The outrage of the bombing meant that all areas were now ‘fair-game’, and a target. On the night that Dresden was bombed, disoriented Allied pilots had also dropped bombs on Prague, following as their guide the Elbe River. My father insisted that he and his sister race home as fast as they could. The problem was now that he was not travelling alone, but with a ten year old girl, who for the last two years had enjoyed relative comfort, while her brother had experienced near every day the vision of the horrors of war. My Aunt has no recollection of the bombing of Dresden aside from the sound and sight of glass breaking and falling down in sheets from the buildings. Another serious problem was that when he had picked his sister up from Breslau, she left the Castle with a pair of girls school shoes on her feet. He was wearing a broken-in pair of boots. As they began trekking home, my Aunt’s shoes cut hard into her feet, and the heels of the shoes broke. This forced my father to use newspaper to wrap her feet. Worse still, my Aunt refused to walk and sat on the roads at frequent intervals. All my father wanted, was to get home – and fast. He ‘piggy-backed’ my Aunt for most of the journey home. He took food from fields, whatever could be eaten. He realised that if he died somewhere on this return trip, that all hope had gone for his ‘baby-sister’ as well, who was so needy.

When they eventually arrived at Karlovy Vary, my father was spent; physically and emotionally. He cleaned his sister’s face before entering the family home. He was proud that he had come back with the youngest child. He walked into the house. My grandfather and Babcia were there. When Babcia saw her son, she gave him a kiss, and then walking in after him was her little girl. Babcia reached out to her, saying, in Polish: “My daughter – thank God!” My Aunt looked at Babcia and in perfect German replied: “I have no mother or father except Germany!” Immediately, Babcia slapped her ten-year old daughter hard across the face. My grandfather stood up and held his wife’s hand. “Don’t hit her,” he said, in Polish. “She does not know what she is saying.” He then turned to his daughter and said, in German: “Thank God you are home – it is so good to see you again child.” What no one noticed was that, my father was seated on the floor, with his back against the wall. After these words spoken by my grandfather – he had fallen asleep.

Postscript: A number of years ago, after having told this story to a group of seventeen year old boys; the boys sat quiet. Then one boy put his hand up. The others turned around to hear what he had to say. His words struck me to the core. I had never seen this story in the light that this boy had. He said: “Dr. Kania, did your grandmother love your father?” I was gob-smacked. I answered that I was sure that she did. But then a few weeks later, my Aunt, without any prompting made the same comment: “I often wonder if mother loved Junior. How she could have sent him on that trip to find me?” I went to ask my father the question. He simply said to me: “Who else was able to do this? Father was half-paralysed. My sisters were either helpless, or would have become victims themselves. I know that she loved me – without question!”

After my father died – I searched on You Tube the footage of the Bombing of Dresden. I had watched such footage when he was alive, numerous times, but now, with my father no longer here with me, something strange happened. I heard a voice within me calling out to him as I watched the film – “Run Dad! Run! Run hard Dad! Please!” I was distressed and crying. This film had been taken from on high from one of the bombers, raining hell. The reality of my father and Aunt being in the inferno down below filled me with fear; even though I knew the outcome.

The image of the Cross is always with me when I tell this account from my father’s life. A son going out on a life or death mission, requested to do so by his parent; being the only possible person able to fulfil the outcome.

By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania