As a child during World War II, Mary Palczynski was released from her Austrian school during an air raid.
Allowing the children to disburse was standard practice so not all of them would be killed if a bomb hit the school, said Palczynski, a member of an Ukranian family displaced by the far-reaching conflict. “During one of those [air raids] I was scared to death,” she said, so she ducked into a cottage on the way home to wait out the raid.
“I was nosey, so I peeked out the window and here comes ZOOM,” she said, as an airplane passed by the window. “I was afraid to go home after that.” She’d heard bombs fall in the areas where her parents worked, she said, so someone had to walk her home to make sure at least one parent was there.
Palczynski’s parents, Stefan and Helen Celuch, survived that raid, and ultimately the family, with the help of a letter sent to a partially remembered address, made it across the Atlantic to the United States.
“I still see the picture in my head, the little cottage where I stopped off and the airplane going by,” she said. On a recent afternoon, days before Memorial Day and the anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, Palczynski shared her experiences during and just after World War II.
Palczynski was born in Ukraine in 1936. By the time World War II began, her family had already endured the communist takeover of their country.
Then, her parents were taken to Austria “as slave labor for Hitler,” and she was separated from them for some time, she said. Fortunately, they were sent to work on a farm owned by “a human being,” Palczynski said, and her mother was able to sneak back to Ukraine to retrieve her.
“She walked and got rides,” she said. “She managed to get back and get me.” When the authorities found out, the family was moved to another farm.
Woody, Palczynski’s husband of 41 years, said his mother-in-law told him the family lived on one potato a day at one point. “That’s true,” Palczynski added.
“We could walk along the roads and we could see piles of bombs that were dug out that didn’t explode,” she said. People could tell which airplanes were in the sky by the sound of their engines, she said.
“You knew that the bombs that were falling weren’t meant to hurt us, because everybody knew what Hitler was up to, … but, still, it was scary, so you always had to listen. … If you heard the American planes, you knew you didn’t go out. Once you heard the German planes, you knew it was clear to go out.”
After the war, the family moved to one of the American DP – or displaced persons – camps.
“There were really, truly displaced people that had no place to go,” she said. “You didn’t want to go behind the Iron Curtain.”
The camp was close to the railroad tracks, she said. The children would run alongside cars carrying American soldiers, who would throw candy out the windows, she said.
The family was in the camp for a year before, they were able to come to the United States, in 1947. Going back to Ukraine was not an option.
“No. No. They would not go back because they’d had experience with communists,” she said. “That wasn’t thought of at all.”
Palczynski said they were lucky her father remembered the partial address of his cousin, who lived in St. Johnsville, N.Y. “He’s the one that sponsored us over,” she said. But, when Palczynski’s father wrote the letter to his cousin, it bore only the cousin’s name and the name of the town, her husband said. There are several St. Johnsville’s in the U.S., but somehow someone forwarded it to the one in New York.
After working through “all the problems we had with the papers my father’s cousin sent,” the family was sent to Munich to be screened for entry into the U.S., Palczynski said.
Then, they went to Bremerhaven, where they were to board a boat to the U.S.
“That was not a smooth ride, either,” she said. The ship, the Ernie Pyle, hit a storm and had to limp back to the English Channel because of the damage. “We sat there for a week for another ship to come from New York,” she said.
The ship docked in New York while the passengers were sleeping, so they missed the Statue of Liberty, she said, but another image stuck with her.
“Docking into New York that first night, I remember the skyline, and it was beautiful,” she said.
But, authorities in New York thought their papers were false because her father’s cousin used such a simple address. But, luckily, someone “got smart” and realized that, since he was a grocer, odds were good that he had a phone, she said.
“My father’s cousin, he never realized how important that street address was until he realized all the trouble we had,” she said. “When I first saw his house [in St. Johnsville], I said, ‘Oh, it’s like a castle,’ because all I remembered was bombed buildings and DP camps.”
Palczynski went to school in St. Johnsville, and, years later, she met her husband while working for the government after graduating from high school and business school.
“We were so happy to be able to come here,” she said. In Europe, “Mary” is “Maria,” she said, but “when I was getting my citizenship, I changed it to ‘Mary’ because it meant so much to us.
“We knew that everything good would happen to us here. … Some people had wrong ideas, and my mother was more realistic. She said, ‘If you work for it, you can have it.’ Just knowing that you’re free, and you can work and get everything you want. If you worked for it over there, you got nothing.”