Story by Hank Bernstein, Red Cross Volunteer, Northern New Jersey
Mike’s story began in August 1944 when he was just 14 and he and his father, Stanislaw, were seized by the German army. “I was in an underground bomb shelter protecting us from Russian shelling in my home town of Kregi, Poland when I saw my father being taken by the Germans. I raced out to try to rescue him, but was captured instead.” Thus began an eight-month nightmare of forced marches, packed railroad cattle cars, slave labor, little rest or sleep and near starvation conditions.
Finally, in April of 1945, as their German captors were retreating from the advancing American troops, Mike and his father escaped -- but not before being nearly gunned-down by the Allies, shot at by the Germans and attacked with scalding water by a German civilian!
Though father and son were now free, this was not to be an entirely happy ending. Just after Germany surrendered, Mike’s father became sick and Mike took him to a hospital in Halberstadt, Germany, which was, at that point, in a British Zone. Several weeks later, when the area was designated as a Russian Zone, Mike was evacuated from Schoningen, the village where he and his father had escaped, to the Delingson Displaced Persons Camp in the British Designated Occupation Zone, some 100km from Halberstadt. He never saw his father again.
“My father and I overcame terrible conditions together for eight months. We were made to travel from Kregi, Poland to Halberstadt, Germany, with many detours along the way. During that time we were forced to walk for 600 km, just to be separated forever at the end of the war.”
In 1951, Mike’s mother contacted the Red Cross in Holland requesting that they try to locate his father. Mike tried to complete the questionnaire, but all that he could tell them was that he had seen his father in a hospital in Halberstadt three days before he was evacuated. Unfortunately, this was not enough, as the hospital was in the Russian zone and information was not being released. In 1956, Stanislaw Piorkowski was officially declared missing.
“Though only 15 at the time, I feel guilty that I could not help him… It has weighed heavily on my conscience.” For 69 years Mike has wondered what happened to his father. Did he recover? Was he imprisoned? Did he live or die?
In September of 2013, while writing a summary for his son and grandson of what had happened those many years ago, he decided to try one more time. “I felt I was getting old. I had to do something.” So, Mike called the Red Cross of Northern New Jersey. He reached Terri Illes, the region’s International Services manager, asking her if, after all this time, the Red Cross might be able to help him in his quest to learn of his father’s fate. Terri forwarded Mike’s request to her volunteer assistant for Restoring Family Links, Hank Bernstein, and thus began the Red Cross’ search.
“I called Mike,” said Hank, “and he related his harrowing experience during the war, the long march and the separation from his father. I then drafted the Tracing Request, with the support of Leslie Cartier, a virtual volunteer with National Headquarters, and submitted the inquiry. The request was then forwarded to the International Tracing Service and to our Red Cross partners in Poland and Germany. I told Mr. Piorkowski that his case was in progress and while we were hopeful, it was possible that the search would not bear fruit. Mike was, nevertheless grateful for our willingness to try.”
Several months passed and then in March of 2014, great news - a notification from the German Red Cross. They had determined when and where Mr. Piorkowski had died - in July of 1945, in the hospital in Halberstadt where Mike had taken him, just three months after he last saw him. They had even obtained a copy of the death certificate. Hank delivered this to Mike who was tremendously grateful for the news and the efforts of the Red Cross.
But the story doesn't end here. While talking with Hank, Mike mentioned, in an off-hand way, that he would have liked to know where his father might be buried. So, Hank had a thought, might the German Red Cross conduct a search of cemeteries in Halberstadt to see if Mr. Piorkowski's father was buried in one of them? National agreed and forwarded this new request to the German Red Cross.
And in July, the response came. Not only had our German counterparts found the grave site, but they took a picture of it! And in September, the final piece of the puzzle, the cause of death, sepsis, was identified. Information from the International Tracing Service and Polish Red Cross confirmed much of the above.
Mike shared the sense of closure that came with the results. “After 60 years my mission is accomplished. Now my heart is at peace knowing where my father is buried. .. Finally, I know the cause of his death. Once more, thank you very much. Great job! Sincerely, Mieczyslaw Piorkowski.”
“Not every case turns out this well,” remarked Hank. “It is very gratifying when we can deliver such important and comforting news to a Client.”