By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 20, 2006
Throughout his 40-year career as a physicist in the United States, Mathew “Maciej” Sikorski, Ph.D., rarely mentioned his tormented past as a youth in Warsaw, Poland, under Nazi besiegement and his deportation from the blazing city to a labor camp.
After emigrating to the United States in 1951, the Polish Catholic married his wife Barbara, whom he met at a Polish club in Chicago, and worked as a research scientist in materials science at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey and later at Georgia Tech, while raising their three sons. And finally he fulfilled his lifelong dream of earning a doctorate in 1986.
But through the years he began to half consciously write the childhood stories of World War II in his head. Sometimes, feeling choked by the smoke of burning memories, he awoke at night wondering why he survived, when his father and millions of others died. And when he would occasionally tell people that his father died in the Holocaust, they would frequently respond, “Are you Jewish?” When he’d then tell people, even at his parish of many years, Our Lady of the Assumption Church, that he was Catholic, the next question was, “Did you convert?”
He began to realize that despite the vast amount of literature on the Holocaust many didn’t know the full story of the five to six million non-Jews who were murdered by the Nazis in addition to the six million Jews, including three million Polish Jews, who were methodically exterminated in concentration camps.
The non-Jewish Holocaust victims include 1.8 to 1.9 million Poles, mostly Catholic, at least two million Soviet prisoners of war, up to 220,000 gypsies, thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals and an unknown number of mentally and physically disabled people.
Out of a pre-war Polish population of 36 million, about five million were murdered in all, Sikorski says, while an additional million managed to escape the country, as did one of his uncles, or lost their lives in battle or were taken for hard labor by the Soviet Union.
Sikorski and his mother were sent to a forced labor camp in Hameln, Germany, and separated from his father, who went to a concentration camp and was murdered by lethal injection. An aunt and uncle were also taken to a labor camp.
The Polish deaths include some 3,000 Catholic priests, many of whom who were taken to camps for trying to hide Jews in their parishes, such as Father Maximilian Kolbe, who was canonized by Pope John Paul II. During the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, Poles fought for 63 days in efforts to overtake the Germans and reclaim their city and some 225,000 Polish were killed. Sikorski explains that Poles and other Slavs were considered subhuman and an inferior race, for which the Germans planned to use them as slaves.
“Nobody was secure. We were not Jews, but we were subject to all this horror,” said Sikorski, now 77.
He sat with his wife in the dining room of their home in a neighborhood filled with flowering trees, a Little League field and a lake in north Atlanta and reflected on his past in an interview on April 5, the same date that he and others were liberated from the Hameln labor camp. Their Tibetan spaniel named Shadow observed from a cushioned basket in the corner.
“I feel that the more people are aware of the human cost of the Nazi era, that the sharper our consciences can be about dangers of repeating the mistakes of the past,” said the Polish-American. “There have been a number of holocausts since WWII, the latest one, still in progress, is the tragedy of Darfur in the Sudan.”
Sikorski has been speaking for the past decade to community groups, from civic and military groups to schools and churches, and recently spoke to the seniors group at OLA and to the children at OLA School. He is the only non-Jewish speaker in the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum’s 32-member speaker’s bureau and will give a talk this summer there to educators.
April 25 is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the museum will begin a week of commemoration with the annual Community Holocaust Remembrance Day Commemoration April 23 at the Greenwood Cemetery, an event initiated by survivors. There is also free admittance to the Breman galleries from 1 to 5 p.m. on April 23.
About three years ago Sikorski went to a program on veterans’ war experiences where he heard Dr. Morton Waitzman, another Breman speaker, talk about his service in the 115th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division of the 9th U.S. Army in the Normandy Invasion of France and then in the first wave of soldiers who liberated northern German concentration and labor camps, including the one in Hameln. The two now occasionally share the platform together. “I said, ‘Thank you for liberating me.’”
Sikorski completed his book in 2005, entitled “Innocence and Reality: A miraculous journey of faith and family during World War II.”
“It was a joy to have unloaded all this. I’ve been awakened at night many times thinking how come I survived this, how come I survived that. It took many years before I was actually able to put the stories together,” he said.
It was after retiring in the early 1990s that he became more active in his parish and discovered a new vocation of spiritual leadership and social justice education. His call to storytelling was nurtured through his participation in parish peace and justice committee meetings where he gradually began to speak more about his middle-class childhood in Warsaw under Nazi occupation beginning in 1939 and the horrors and fear they endured there until deportation in 1944. One terrifying memory is of how Nazis would round up Poles in the streets and announce their names over loudspeakers they installed on lamp posts before executing them by firing squad. That was “one of the most horrible memories. … They would be executed for doing nothing.”
On another occasion the family was walking to visit an aunt and uncle and saw people running in the opposite direction from Germans rounding people up for deportation. They immediately turned around and rushed home.
A committee member suggested he give a talk and, although used to working with objects rather than talking about himself, he agreed. Then came another invitation to speak at St. Jude the Apostle Church where he was warmly received and felt encouraged to begin to write down his stories. He later took a class on storytelling led by OLA member Connie Prunch Dodge and was asked by a fellow student in the class to give a talk at a high school in west Georgia. A few years ago he was invited to light a candle at a Holocaust commemoration at the Breman. He also took classes on writing and speaking through Toastmasters International and the Dale Carnegie Institute.
Dodge, a professional storyteller, recalled how Sikorski told her when writing the book he had gotten stuck in finishing it and felt something was missing. She suggested he take her class on storytelling at the Alliance Theatre as a way to help overcome the block. He signed up, and as he told the class the story and mentally journeyed back through those experiences, he recalled new details.
“When he was speaking it out loud, all of a sudden he noticed many things he had not before,” she recalled. “Everyone in the class loved them so much. He got such tremendous feedback, and that’s when he started to share the stories out loud. … The stories just came to life when he was able to go there and be in the story and assume the mindset of a teenager and give such vivid detail.”
Sikorski said he just naturally returned to his youth as he wrote the book and developed the narrative voice of the eyes and ears of Maciej, his childhood name, which he changed after moving to the United States. The book begins describing his childhood as an only child with limited strength due to a heart defect, born to loving, protective parents. He took piano and drawing lessons, cared for his beloved dog and cat, and enjoyed tasks such as repairing his father’s sewing machine and electric irons with his penchant for mechanical work. He was 10 in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland and his idyllic childhood was shattered.
He describes his perspective as the situation progressively deteriorated. During the invasion his parents’ bedroom was hit by a field artillery projectile on the very night his father decided they need to sleep in the cellar. Among the first restrictions, everyone had to give away their radios and rely on underground newspapers for news, and Polish students were forbidden from getting any high school or higher education except vocational training. He went to a fishing school, but teachers secretly instructed them in high school subjects in private homes, and a tutor taught him English and Polish. Jews were later forced to move into a Warsaw ghetto, among them a Jewish colleague of his father, who ran a tailoring business from their home.
He was riding his bike as birds chirped one beautiful spring day in 1943 and ran into Germans by the burning Jewish ghetto, during their uprising protesting deportation. As they raised their rifles, he asked in German “what do you want me to do” and one said “get lost.” As he fled, he heard them start shooting down the street. “You couldn’t escape from the horror.”
His family felt an ominous silence in the empty street outside the apartment on Aug. 1, 1944, as the Warsaw Uprising was about to begin. That day he spotted a dead body in the street and was horrified when a bullet pierced through their apartment window barely missing his forehead. Soon afterward the apartment building caught fire, and he—wearing only slippers on his feet—and his parents were driven to the street, where the lad tucked his beloved Chihuahua Enia in his jacket and grabbed his accordion. They were herded by German soldiers into a once-elegant hotel basement for days. In the middle of the night, they were forced to walk all night across the city, surrounded by flaming buildings, and herded into boxcars where they traveled for days to Germany. He can’t remember how they slept or used the bathroom. Upon arrival, the woman and children were separated from the men and he had to leave his father.
Sikorski remembers various moments of grace even amidst the Nazi scourge. Once was when after his father was separated from them in the holding station, the young boy was overcome with a desire to do something. He left the building they were confined to and asked a German officer to reunite him and his mother with his father. Strangely, the officer allowed him to get his father back and then asked him if there was anything more he could do for him.
But he and his mother later were ripped apart from his father for the last time as he and other men were sent to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp. Soon afterward, a soldier shared that he’d lost one eye because he had refused initially to enlist in the German army, and he advised Sikorski and other boys to stay with their mothers to survive. In recounting the details, Sikorski noted that once during a presentation “one boy raised his hand and said, ‘I counted you were saved seven times.’”
He and his mother ended up in the German military blanket factory in Hameln. Sikorski knows they were very fortunate compared to other war victims, as they slept in bunks in the former factory, got fed enough to survive, and were paid a tiny sum and had some freedom to go into the town and purchase bread or a Nazi propaganda newspaper that reported all their victories even at the very end. With a P for Polish sewn on his uniform made of blanket material, he would go to the river and unearth frozen potatoes from which his mother made soup. He never lost hope he’d be liberated. They were able to survive until the Allied bombing campaign began and eventually the Germans deserted the camp and the refugees dragged through the seemingly empty town and slept in a ravine.
He wrote in his book, “As soon as my head cleared the top of the hill I wanted to shout for joy. It was a tank and it was American! … I clearly recognized the American star on the side of the closest tank. Thank God it was not a Hakenkreuz or a Swastika on a German tank.”
As Mathew approached the vehicle, an American soldier popped out of the turret. He told the soldier that that they were Polish, and the soldier replied that he was also Polish, from Chicago, and he and other refugees were then “showered with Hershey chocolate bars.”
Sikorski still has two letters he received from his father in prison and pulled from a file of war-related papers on his dining room table an original time card like the one he had to fill out in the camp.
In a refugee camp following the war, the youth applied to get into an English-run high school in the science track, but failed the exam due to his lack of schooling and was devastated. He managed to get in the language arts track and went on to get a scholarship through a Catholic organization to attend college in Spain.
“I didn’t relish too much to get into (liberal arts studies), but I felt I needed to finish high school as soon as possible even though there were two more years of Latin I had to take.”
His mother, a school teacher, taught in the camp and later emigrated to Chicago, where many Poles resettled after the war, not wanting to return to Poland as communists took control of it. Sikorski came to America in 1951 where he was reunited with his mother, who took a housekeeping job at a Polish parish in Chicago. He completed his bachelor’s degree and then a master’s at Illinois Institute of Technology, before going to work for Bell Telephone. Years later after enduring a period of exhaustion, he had heart surgery to repair a hole in his heart, which strengthened him. After moving to Atlanta, Barbara opened a sandwich shop, which enabled Sikorski to earn his doctorate in physics at the University of Manchester in England.
Barbara, who occasionally reminded her husband to include certain details as he spoke, showed a little elevator and sliding doors, part of a train station that her husband had made of paper in the refugee camp following the war. A Polish immigrant, she with her parents also survived a forced labor camp, but she prefers not to speak about it. But she is proud of her husband for overcoming any inhibitions and telling his story, educating the public on the horrors that all people are at risk of experiencing when society becomes oppressive and disregards the dignity and human rights of every person. And he’s been enlivened and discovered new talents, she said, adding that the book doesn’t have graphic imagery, which makes it especially appropriate for middle school students.
“We’d like young people to read it. It gives them some idea of what (the Polish) went through so they can work so nobody else has to go through it,” she said, sitting behind a portrait of her father who was a Knight of St. Gregory and one of her from childhood in her first Communion dress.
In 1980 Sikorski returned for the first time to Poland with his son Mark. “I could sense the fear all over my body, that something was going to happen. The memory just came out.” He was touched to find a plaque honoring his father outside the Textile and Apparel Institute where his father had taught.
The scientist, who has watched Dr. Robert Schuller’s “Hour of Power” uplifting sermons on television for years and has a Marian statue on his front porch, feels God has blessed him by saving him and allowing him to build a new life and survive. He prayed without ceasing during the war and didn’t lose his faith afterward because he saw clearly that the overwhelming evil of Nazism was purely the work of man. He also is a presenter of centering prayer meetings at OLA and elsewhere, a prayer form he believes is both physically and spiritually renewing as it rests the body and the mind to contemplate the divine. This researcher, who holds 11 patents, sees himself as God’s instrument through all aspects of his life.
“Every experience was being cognizant of the incredible nature that God has created, looking through a microscope and seeing what God has created. It’s just absolutely astounding. My whole professional life was an expression of admiring the handiwork of the Creator. And I’ve gone from physical sciences to dealing with people and trying to help people,” he said. “I love it. I’m a scientist, and I spent most of my time talking to instruments in the lab, and I thought it’s time to show myself and tell my story of surviving the Holocaust.”
He hopes his story will encourage young people today to face their obstacles and persevere in striving to reach their God-given potential “by not stopping with the minimum of education but studying as long as possible and developing innate talents.”
“Each one of us has innate talents,” he said. As they develop those natural gifts, they “can help each other more.”
He also believes his story illustrates the importance for youth of learning a foreign language, as being able to communicate with German soldiers saved his life and learning Spanish enabled him to live in Spain and attend the University of Madrid. While many Americans think it’s not necessary, it can serve one in unexpected ways in this age of globalization, he said. “If my parents didn’t have the foresight to give me a tutor to study German and English at an early age, some of the things I described in the book I would not have been even able to attempt.”
And as he works at the Breman, Sikorski also sees himself as an ambassador of ecumenism and reconciliation in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and of Pope John Paul II, who is revered at the museum. The pope’s statue is near the front entrance. He noted proudly how Pope John Paul II transformed Jewish-Catholic relations with his many acts of reconciliation including visiting Rome’s largest synagogue, and he brought into the dining room a large framed photograph of him and his wife greeting the beloved Polish pontiff in 1998.
Liliane Kshensky Baxter, Ph.D., director of the Weinberg Center for Holocaust Education at the Breman, who has many family members who were killed in the Holocaust, is grateful to work with Sikorski and other Holocaust survivors and liberators.
“It’s a pleasure and an honor to work with people like Mathew Sikorski. He’s a gracious, generous, gentle, intelligent person. He’s representative of the whole community of people willing to tell their stories so young people can help build a different kind of world, a fairer world, a more just and peaceful world,” she said. “It’s important for young people to know what can happen as a result of prejudice and discrimination and (hatred) of a certain group.”
Baxter and two other woman have started the Save Darfur Coalition of Georgia as well where they’re calling the public to action to stop the violence in Darfur, Sudan, where over 400,000 have been murdered since 2003 and which is “the greatest humanitarian disaster of our times.”
She affirmed it is also “very important” for people to know about the persecution of non-Jews, and when the U.S. Holocaust Museum in its series of exhibits on non-Jewish victims of the war features Poland, the museum will show it as well, just as it is now showing its exhibit on persecution of homosexuals. Baxter, whose Jewish mother and a Catholic together hid a little boy in Poland during the war, said that the Nazis viewed the Poles as “subhuman” people who should be slaves; Poles were treated more harshly than populations more Aryan or Nordic, such as France, she said.
“If a Pole helped a Jew, that Pole was immediately killed,” she said. “They were very mistreated and yet (they are) the largest group of rescuers at the Yad Vashem” museum in Israel, which honors those who saved Jews in the war.
She added that Sikorski in his talks manages to include touches of humor in his presentations, such as when he pulls out the stuffed toy puppy to tell the amazing feat of how he managed to keep his Chihuahua alive and tucked under his jacket throughout the ordeal.
Dodge, in coaching Sikorski on his storytelling, was also glad to work with him and was particularly moved by his courageously asking the German soldier to help him get his father off a train and to keep his father with him and his mother, which allowed the anguished family to have a few more days together.
“Even as a very young man his ability to speak out and take tremendous risk (is remarkable). He had a language dexterity even at a very young age. … He managed to save his father in that situation and keep him alive for that time because he was bold enough to follow an intuition,” she said. “It inspired me most about following your spiritual intuition and taking the risk.”
She believes the story of survival can help youth and others dealing with fears of terrorism today to see that people can overcome even the most horrific circumstances.
“People see how he came through it and was able to use his gifts and not become bitter.”
She is a member of the OLA centering prayer group and sees how his communication skills serve him as a spiritual leader as well. “I admire Mathew very much. He’s such a tremendous personal storyteller and a tremendous spiritual leader.”
Sikorski hopes his story will help people better understand the processes through which evil can infuse society and lead them to “keep a watchful eye in society” and work for peace and justice.
“I think the hope of the future is young people, is education and being able to travel and learn languages and cultures of other people and acquire respect for other people. … Just tolerating somebody may not be enough. We have to respect each other and our differences, and we have to understand each other’s values and appreciate them until we come to the point that love takes over following the teachings of Jesus Christ,” he said. “It behooves us to finally start learning how to apply the principles taught by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago.”
As he wrote at the end of his book, “I firmly believe … that America can be the beacon of light for the whole world and that we must learn to respect and learn from each other, so that all races and creeds can finally live together in peace.”
Mathew Sikorski’s book Web site is www.innocenceandreality.com. The book can also be purchased at Trinity Bookstore at Ignatius House, at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit bookstore, and the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.