‘We had to run for our lives’

Concentration camp survivor never forgets

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published April 29, 2015

 At age 8, Victoria “Olga” Lechniak, right, and her mother, Maria, have their photo taken right after receiving haircuts at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. (Photo provided by Lisa Lechniak)

At age 8, Victoria “Olga” Lechniak, right, and her mother, Maria, have their photo taken right after receiving haircuts at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. (Photo provided by Lisa Lechniak)

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WARREN — “The American GIs were angels of mercy to us,” concentration camp prisoner Victoria “Olga” Lechniak said. “These are the men who freed us from death.” 

As the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day approaches, the 78-year-old Warren resident looked back on the horrors of World War II that she endured as a young child. She remembers death everywhere, bombs erupting, no food, no water.

“Wherever we go, the devil is greeting us all the time,” she said, and it was the Lord that got her through.

 

A tragic beginning
Lechniak — whose maiden name was Kostachuk — was born in 1936 in the village of Zadowa, Ukraine. The oldest of four, her two sisters, Elaina and Anna, died of typhoid fever prior to WWII. Her brother, Steven, was stillborn and received a proper burial with a priest and funeral.

“We had holy water in the house,” Lechniak said. “My grandma baptized him, and we buried him in the cemetery next to my family.”

Lechniak felt “empty” without her siblings.

“I pray for their souls every day,” Lechniak said. “They are angels in heaven.”

In 1944, when Lechniak was 8, her family fell victim to WWII.

“We were going to be invaded by the Russians. We had to flee our homes. I remember the saddest sounds of horses howling, the cows needed to be milked, and the dogs and cats were howling,” Lechniak said. “We had to run for our lives otherwise when Russia came, they took everything from you. The part of Ukraine where I lived was dominated at that time by the Russians. Those who did not agree with them were shot dead. We fled to the (Carpathian) mountains.”

The family included her mother, Maria; her grandmother, Elaina; her aunts Veronica, Monica, Anna and Kathy; and her cousin, Jeff, who was Anna’s son. During the war, Lechniak lost contact with her father, George, who had joined the Romanian Army.

The family members settled in another Ukrainian town for a short time, but “the Germans caught up with us. They put us on the trains. People were screaming. People were dying. People were shot. There was no water, no food, nowhere to go to the bathroom.”

The train arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where prisoners — the majority of them Jewish — were either gassed, burned to death or forced into slave labor.

“They kept us on the railroad tracks for three or four hours,” Lechniak said. “We couldn’t get out or they would shoot you. If you didn’t agree with (Adolf) Hitler or (Joseph) Stalin, they would arrest you.”

The prisoners were eventually unloaded, and the 8-year-old saw something fall from the sky. At first she thought it was snow, but since it was summer, that wasn’t possible. That’s when she realized it was ashes from fire.

“They’re burning people here. We were always afraid when we were in Auschwitz. Every moment you didn’t know if you were going to live or die,” she said. “Grandma used to say, ‘Pray to God. Pray for other people and pray for us.’ We saw piles of corpses. Everywhere you looked death was staring us in the eyes. There were guards all the time.”

After Auschwitz, the family was put on a train with others and taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.

“We were scared to death. They would make us march. There were tons of people and corpses,” Lechniak said. “In the camps, we just had to sit or march. They would play marching songs. There were groups they would put to work. Grandma was trying to comfort us to make us look like it was a better day.”

“I think she kept them through the war,” Lechniak’s daughter, Lisa Lechniak, 46, said. “Somebody had to be that focus. She kept everybody sane.”

 

‘Bombs were falling all over’
Lechniak and her family members were given showers and short haircuts at Buchenwald.

“Something happened politically. Russia came in and said, ‘Who brought us here?’ The Russians went out,” the Holocaust survivor recalled. “The Germans returned. They took us to (the) Dachau concentration camp (in Germany.)”

After a while, a number of prisoners, including Lechniak’s family, were taken to Berlin and forced to stay in an army camp for German soldiers. Several prisoners cooked for the soldiers, but some German military members had vacated the camp already, leaving behind horses and farming-type wagons. While in Berlin, where Lechniak said was near a river and bridge, it was typical to hear bombs exploding.

“We heard everything going on,” Lechniak said. “Bombs were falling all over. Berlin was on fire. Everything was falling down.”

She and the other young children wondered, “Why is this war here? Why (are) the people dying here?” One evening, the kids walked out of their living quarters, even though they were not supposed to.

“We saw an airplane shot down. It was not a German plane,” Lechniak said. “We looked inside. One soldier was dead, one alive but badly hurt.”

The kids found a German doctor in their bunker and told him about the downed plane. He asked, “What color is the flag?” in German. When the kids told him it was red, white and blue, “He went and looked and pulled out the pilot.”

The U.S. pilot, who was treated by the physician, offered good news.

“The American said to us in German, ‘You don’t have much time to be here,’” Lechniak said. “The American pilot said half (of) Berlin was captured by the U.S.”

He said that when the time was right, he would flash a light to let them know when to make a run over the bridge to Berlin to “the American side.” Lechniak said half the bridge had been captured by the U.S., but the question was, “How are we going to escape?”

Lechniak remembers her mother talking to a Russian official about where to acquire horses and buggies so the families could get around the army camp. He seemed suspicious of her but offered her information.

“I myself have a family in Russia,” he told her. “I don’t know what’s going to be waiting for me. Whatever you do, do it quickly.”

It’s unclear of the official’s motives. Lechniak wondered if he wanted them to really escape to freedom, or if he thought the prisoners would be shot at while trying to get out. While at the army camp, the unthinkable continued. At this point, the women and Jeff were still together, minus his mother, Anna, who — sadly — died at Dachau.

“During that night, the Russians and Germans were torturing women,” Lechniak said. “I saw my mom being raped by a Russian soldier. My mom, she was begging for her life.”

But soon they would be out of danger.

“Mom, grandmother saw when he flashed that light early dawn,” Lechniak remembered. “We’re going to make a run for it. When we finally made a run for the bridge, the Russians started shooting at us. A man (in our wagon) got shot in the ear. He went deaf. I don’t know if anybody got killed.”

Once they arrived on the U.S. side of the bridge, “We saw the American Red Cross waiting with hot food for the kids. Nurses hugged the kids,” Lechniak said. “It was like running from hell to heaven. We had no clothes, no food. The Americans provided everything. The American soldiers were coming in Jeeps. The Americans were friendly and kind to kids. The American GIs, if they didn’t save us, I would not be here today.”

Once the war ended, Lechniak and her relatives moved around to displacement camps while still in Germany. 

“You had thousands and thousands of refugees,” Lechniak said. “We were still people without a country.”

But, they were not without a Christmas. In 1945, the displacement camp citizens celebrated the holiday in style. Lechniak teared up at the memory. A helicopter swooped down with U.S. soldiers delivering presents. There was shaving cream and razors for the men, personal items for the women, and candy for the kids. There was even a Christmas tree, plenty of food and German renditions of “Silent Night.” A U.S. soldier with a video camera shot footage of the festivities. Lechniak wishes she knew where the footage is, as she would love to see it.

 

A new life
Lechniak never reunited with her father. She knows he remarried, as did her mother. The family stayed in Germany until 1949, all while making plans to move to America.

“You had to wait for a sponsor so we would not be a burden to the government,” she said. Through an organization, the family finally boarded a ship and came to America in December 1949 to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Kellogg, of Detroit, and her three children from a previous marriage.

“At age 13, I came to New York,” Lechniak said, which was definitely a culture shock. “I started to cry. I couldn’t believe the world could be so beautiful somewhere compared to what I saw in the concentration camps.”

“The family said when they first saw the Statue of Liberty, it was so beautiful,” Lisa Lechniak said. “From a distance, it was like an angel. The people were welcoming people off the boat. The (Christmas) carols were going on.”

“There was a sense of feeling of freedom. Freedom you could pray. Freedom you could talk to people,” Lechniak said. “You don’t have to be interrogated all the time. It was a breath of fresh air.”

Lechniak remembers people either relocating to other cities, including Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago. Life went on in the U.S. for Lechniak and her loved ones. Along the way, Lechniak became an American citizen.

She went to school, her mom got a job cleaning houses, and her stepfather, John, worked for a local bakery. Her aunt Kathy had gone to Romania, and Veronica, Monica, grandma Elaina and Jeff emigrated to Australia.

“Australia needed people for work in the mills and the automotive industry,” Lechniak said.

She didn’t see her cousin Jeff for 60 years. In 2009, he came to the U.S. for a visit.

“All it took for those two was to look at each other and they cried,” said Lisa Lechniak.

Lechniak eventually met her husband, Walter, in 1953. The pair met in Detroit, and he, too, came from the Ukraine and became an American citizen. Walter served in the Korean War. He died in 2001.

The couple had four children: Walter Jr., Vira, Lisa, and Andy, and three grandchildren. It’s her faith that gives Lechniak the strength she needs.

“I do believe in the faith of God,” she said. “The Lord is amazing. He can carry us through everything.”

In January, Lechniak’s story was told at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, with a documentary Lisa Lechniak and others put together called “World War II Through the Eyes of a Child: Olga’s Story.” For questions or interests about the film, email Olivia3productions@yahoo.com.

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