How I studied during the occupation
In 1939, the war surprised me in Wilno. I wanted to go to the fourth class of primary school at the time. It was a private school, so nothing changed there for a while. The Lithuanians were too weak a nation to persecute us, and the general situation was relatively good in comparison to later years, even if they harassed us at every step.
We studied in the same building as before the war and the same teachers taught using the same textbooks. We learned science and geography from Gayówna and Łysakiewiczówna’s Przyroda i geografia [Science and geography] textbook, and mathematics from the textbook of Banach, Sierpiński and Stożek. The only novelty was the introduction of Lithuanian classes, but even that was taught by a Polish woman brought in from Lithuania. We were not short on textbooks or teaching aids, and we even had our own school tuck shop. Twice we celebrated all the national holidays such as 3 May, 11 November etc.
At first, the Lithuanians turned a blind eye to us, but the whole school had a hostile attitude towards them, so they had snowballs thrown at them or their windows broken now and again. The school board got involved in the incidents, but the perpetrators got off scot-free. All the teachers had a hostile attitude towards the Lithuanians anyway, and some even brought unauthorized newsletters to school and read them to the pupils during the lessons.
Everything changed a year later. When the Bolsheviks entered the country, the Lithuanians came out quite clearly against us. On the very first day, they kicked out all the Polish teachers and took their positions for themselves. A few of them didn’t even understand a word of Polish. Our tutor was a Pole, but she was too obviously subservient to the Lithuanians. She taught us Polish, mathematics, history and geography. She was a lousy teacher and nobody liked her.
Were still studying using Polish textbooks. They actually only covered the fifth class, but we did the sixth class as well by glossing over it. What’s more, we were given notes which were not normally included in the curriculum, things like the geography of the USSR, the history and geography of Lithuania, various pieces by “democratic” Polish poets and other such rubbish. It was all a bit mishmash, and the end result was that we couldn’t do either the fifth or sixth classes properly by the end of the year.
As for textbooks, we used clippings from the Okno na świat [Window on the world] reader because the rest of the book had been confiscated by the teacher for being dissident. In Szober’s Nauka pisowni [Learning to write], all the fragments which contained the word “Poland” were stuck down. The science course was all muddled up, some things were studied carefully, others barely mentioned. Russian classes were introduced, taught by some stupid Lithuanian woman who knew less Russian than the average Pole from the Eastern Borderlands. Drawing, Lithuanian, gymnastics and singing classes were all taught exclusively in Lithuanian.
They tried hard to Lithuanianise us systematically. It was entirely unsuccessful, which the Lithuanians and the Lithuanianised Poles found out on more than one occasion. Of course, all the national holidays were thrown out and replaced with various Soviet ones which were celebrated very ceremoniously. [Lessons on] the history and geography of Poland were entirely abolished, and they did their best not to mention the word “Poland”. Good pupils were rewarded with Lithuanian books. Once again, the Polish language was pushed down the pecking order.
But we didn’t give up, we held all of the Lithuanian teachers as enemies. Many people attended extra classes at our former teachers’ homes in the afternoons. A friend and I studied in this way for some time. We learned the history of Poland according to Jarosz, then Polish grammar and reading such as Sir Thaddeus and the works of Kochanowski. At the end of the year, I finished primary school according to the Soviet curriculum with a very good grade.
Conditions became very difficult when the Germans took Wilno on 23 June 1941. Everything changed at once. The Lithuanians gained the trust of the Germans by shooting the Soviets in the back as they fled. Before long, packs of Lithuanian troops appeared, armed like the Germans and commanded by one Plechavičius. These roamed the forests in search of Polish and Soviet partisans.
The Lithuanians fared extremely well. They had their own schools while we Poles had none. There was not a single school for nearly 250,000 Poles. Secret classes were soon organized, and I attended one such course. We did the sixth class course using old textbooks. We learned history from the books of Jarosz and Kargol, geography from Radliński and Wuttke, mathematics from various people, science from Szajer’s [?] Poznawajmy przyrodę [Let’s explore science] at first, and later on from various notebooks. We had the Okno na świat reader for Polish, kindly given to us by the teacher while we were still at school. We also went through the stories of Prus: The waistcoat, Antek and others.
There were six of us studying in the group at first, but it fell apart later when they started to persecute against the classes. My friend and I studied separately, as did the others, but we all went to the same teacher. We went through the same material concurrently. At the end of the year, we sat the exam before the former headmistress of the school where we had all studied and we received our certificates. Those certificates, on printed forms with stamps, were later recognized by all the teachers in the Wilno Voivodeship.
I started to work through the course for the first class of middle school in autumn 1942. I was studying with just one of my friends. We were taught by a teacher from one of the middle schools and a humanities high school, which is why we did Polish in great detail but more or less skimmed over other subjects. We studied in our own homes. We didn’t have any trouble with textbooks yet because there were plenty of supplies in Wilno that had not been destroyed, and we had enough learning aids like notebooks and pencils.
We learned mathematics from Stankowski’s [?] textbooks, history from Moszczeńska and Mrozowska, science from Gembork’s Zoologia [Zoology] and we had liturgics for religion. I also started learning German at that time. We used the readers for Dawniej i dziś [Then and now] and Mówią wieki [Centuries speak] for Polish. As for the rest, the choice of textbooks usually depended on the teacher and on who had which books. We did Latin separately. We were taught it by a nun.
The Germans didn’t cause us any big problems. Admittedly, the Lithuanians had fiercely stamped out all the classes, but a group of two people was apparently no great threat to them because they left us in peace. At the end of the year, we sat several exams before a commission made up of teaching representatives in Wilno, but we didn’t receive any certificates.
I did the course for the second class by myself. I studied Latin, mathematics and religion from September and history from January. Botany and geography were exceptions, I studied those in a class of six people. I learned Latin from the textbook Iuvenis Romanus, Polish from Mówią wieki and history from the textbooks of Moszczeńska and Mrozowska. We studied in different places because the Lithuanians were lurking around and spying everywhere. It was more difficult with the books now; we had to go and find them in bookshops. I also took extra classes in drawing at that time. The majority of my friends studied in a similar way.
Despite the great difficulties, that year brought my best results and I used what I had learned for a long time after. Were it not for the high tuition fees, I would have continued to study in groups because my schooling went much better there.
Two Polish middle schools were created after the Bolsheviks occupied Wilno in 1945: one for boys and one for girls. Besides those, there were also two Lithuanian ones and two Russian ones as well as one Belarusian school. Enrollment was announced and soon more than 3,000 people had signed up for both Polish schools. The entrance exams were easy, so the majority of people passed.
We were graciously given access to a large building near the railway station to use as the school. At least half of the window frames were missing, the roof had been shelled full of holes like a sieve, there were no benches, tables or cupboards, the walls were often smashed in and there was nothing to be said of glass in the windows. We restored the place after a fashion using our own money and we installed windows. In January, the majority of the windows were shattered by a huge explosion of ammunition at the station, and there was no money put new ones in so we had to sit through all the lessons in overcoats, gloves and earmuffs.
There was no coal or wood, so everybody had to bring one log of wood every three days, but nobody kept it up so we chopped up the worst of the benches and burned them. Those benches were often meant for the third and fourth primary school classes, we had brought them from a faraway warehouse ourselves. A useless cupboard was also turned into firewood by the end of the year. Despite that, there were always places to sit because half of the pupils were usually absent. We often went home after two lessons, having waited three hours for the teacher to turn up.
The classes went poorly. The curriculum was entirely different than normal. We studied the literature of independent Poland for Polish, the USSR for geography, the basic rules of economics and bizarrely depicted ancient history. German and Latin remained at the level of the first class, even though we were in the third (Soviet fifth). Only mathematics, physics and chemistry were taught normally. Religious studies were abolished.
The government didn’t care about us at all, but they kept us under strict supervision. They forbade us from hanging the Polish Eagle or the Cross in the classroom. All the national holidays were considered weekdays. We mostly learned from notes because very few textbooks were available. It was relatively better with the notebooks. Food was brought in towards the end of winter. It consisted of one slice of uncooked bread per pupil and a bucket of tea for the whole class. Sometimes we were brought a little sugar or some sweets. Divvying it up and eating it took place during the lessons.
I would have wasted a year by learning like that, had I not been studying at home. I did the third class course from books, with the exception of Latin. There were many people who voluntarily dropped out of middle school in order to study at home. They benefitted more from it because those of us in school sacrificed many hours learning Lithuanian or Russian, which nobody paid attention to, while we neglected other important subjects. The teachers often changed as a result of repatriation and it was only towards the end of the year that our studies improved somewhat.
The exams were in June, but I was released from them. I started the next school year (fourth class in middle school) in Wilno, however, I came to Toruń a month later and enrolled at the Nicolaus Copernicus Middle School.