513th Parachute Infantry Regiment
17th Airborne Division
Lanzerath, Belgium, 1945
It is now over 70 years since the end of World War II. With the passage of time, I begin to think more and more of what had happened in my youth. In retrospect, I mostly remembered my army buddies and recalled the grueling months of training and the dreadful incidences of the ugly world of combat. When I tried to recall my most heroic deeds, I could say that I might have saved a few lives from among our wounded soldiers, but, in retrospect, my most memorable accomplishment actually happened after the shooting had stopped. It was my recall of what I did as a kind human being for another helpless human being. I had saved one life, for certain ! What had brought back that wartime era to mind was that I had learned of the passing of Toma Czerepniowska, a Polish refugee, who was released from a German Army Forced Labor Camp when the war was ending.
Czerepniowska Toma, daughter of Gregory and Maria, passed away April 7, 2003. Toma was born on December 27 1927 in St Petersburg, Russia (Leningrad). She emigrated to the United States in the 1950’s and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. Toma established a successful interior design sewing studio (Toma Decor Studio). Her work represented talent and attention to detail. A true artist in spirit and execution. Her gentle and refined manner touched the hearts of all who were fortunate to have known her. She will be missed.
Toma is survived by her sister Zoya (Victor) Filipov and Helena Meyer; nieces and nephews Luba Arkin, Yuri Filipov, Mary Hrinek, Bob Roberts, Michael Roberts, and Cathy Ulibarri. She leaves behind many loving great nieces and nephews.
Toma and her a part of her family were forcibly taken by the German Army from Russia to Poland then to Germany in 1939 to work as slave laborers. Each family member was assigned to a different labor camp scattered all over Germany.
I first met Toma in 1945 when she was 18 years old. Because of her small physical stature, most likely due to 6 years of malnutrition in the camp, I initially thought she was much younger, about the same size as my current eleven year old granddaughter. She learned some English by having worked with a captured Englishman. According to what I thought she told me, she was initially assigned to a camp in Magdeburg (Berlin), but later was relocated to a camp near Giessen, Germany, where I was stationed after the war.
It was our army’s policy then to release all internees from those camps and to tell each of them to return to their country of origin, after we had dusted them for lice. Toma did not know where Poland was since she was taken away so early at the age of 12, and besides, Poland was occupied by Russia after the war. As a single young girl, released into a devastated economy among the rubbles of a defeated Germany, she would not have been able to survive at all by herself. I had seen Germans scraping into garbage cans and eating whatever they scraped up. Since human kindness knew no bounds of gender, age or race, I took it upon myself to take care of little Toma. I was then a prematurely matured adult when I was only 21-year old having had to witness the horror of what mankind had done to each other in combat. I chose to take Toma in hand as a daughter that I was yet to have. I made the extra effort to get her a paying job working as a dishwasher at the US Army’s 113th Evacuation Hospital at Giessen where she was to get her three daily meals and a comfortable place to sleep.
On April Fool’s Day in 1946, the 388th Station Hospital occupied a German Standort hospital in Giessen. Those by, in a secluded family plot, one of ‘the really great men of medicine was buried, Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, discoverer of x-rays. But, no one from the 388th had time to visit the cemetery. The unit had been reorganized two weeks before at Karlsruhe, Germany, from the 113th ‘Evacuation Hospital’. It had to take over immediately the operation of the Standort hospital from the 20th Hospital Team, which had operated it as a German prisoner of war hospital since the capture of the city of Giessen by US Forces. Previously, until March, 1945, the hospital was used by the German army. The hospital had been damaged during the war. Material was short, so repairs were difficult. The hospital needed new sidewalks, streets, fences, outside lighting, repainting, re-plastering. A new mess hall was built as well as two new barracks for enlisted personnel. Today, the hospital, constructed mainly between 1936 and 1939, includes eleven buildings occupying about 6,300 square meters with grounds occupying another 6,500 square meters. The patients wards and private rooms are so arranged in a curve that they receive a maximum of sunlight. Each room has a balcony which overlooks the many acres of terraced grounds, landscaped with flower beds and shrubbery. Directly behind the hospital is a large garden which supplies the hospital messes with fresh vegetables and fruit. The hospital provides medical service for about 11,750 civilian and military personnel. With a gradual increase in the number of dependents in the Marburg, Wetzlar, Giessen area, a dependents ward and various clinics covering all fields of outpatient services were established as well as a community dispensary especially designed for dependents. A complete schedule of clinics, orthopedic, dental, female (obstetrics and gynecology), pediatrics, surgery, medicine, and eyes, ears, nose and throat was distributed to families in the Wetzlar Military Post, A fully equipped physio-therapy department is maintained with an experienced physio-therapist in charge. In addition to furnishing supplies and equipment for the hospital, the medical supply section has been designated as a parent station for providing supplies and equipment to all outlying dispensaries scattered throughout the area. Personnel of the hospital have turned to hobbies and the great outdoors for entertainment, since a large percentage of the city of Giessen was destroyed.
Before the war, Giessen was primarily a university and garrison town. The University of Giessen was one of the six largest universities in Germany and contained schools of science and medicine. The university was closed recently, but many of the civilian hospitals are still open. The civilian eye clinic had a world-wide reputation. The most popular hobby at the hospital seems to be photography. A darkroom is at the disposal of all personnel. The hospital Red Cross offers a large craft shop, ping pong room, and lounge. The theater, used as a Chapel on Sundays, will accommodate 100 people. One of the chief sources of relaxation are well-planned hunting trips for red deer and wild boar. There is an excellent library,offering all types of literatures. A large selection of medical books and periodicals is maintained for the use of the hospital staff. In the hospital area,there is an officers club and an enlisted men’s club, both complete with bar, dance floor and an excellent orchestra. A part of a barracks was remodeled recently into a small gymnasium, a reading room, and a game room. The game room now has ping pong tables and will soon have a pool table. The hospital was commanded by Col Seth Gayle, Jr., MC, until May, 1947. Col Gayle is now chief surgeon of the 1st Infantry Division.
The present hospital commander is Col Paul E. Keller, MO. The hospital functioned as a 250 bed hospital until June 30, 1948, at which time it was re-designated as a 150 bed hospital with an authorized strength of eleven officers, twelve nurses and 72 enlisted men. Despite this reduction the strength is thought to be adequate to care for the needs of the military area served. During the past six months, there has been a considerable change over in officers and enlisted men due to rotation and redeployment. Replacements are arriving, however, and it is expected that the efficiency of the various wards and departments will not be lowered. Some of the new men are going to visit the Roentgen museum in near-by Wurzburg when they have time.
I had not taken advantage of her in her plight as I had always been a perfect gentleman throughout our relationship.
When the hospital was later moved to Karlsruhe, she was promoted to work at the PX (Post Exchange) where she had regular daily contacts with many soldiers to learn to speak and understand the English language. I had also helped her to locate the rest of her family, then scattered all over Germany by contacting the International Red Cross.
By the stroke of many good fortunes and wonderments, she was able to learn that her entire family had also survived the war.
Toma purportedly had a reunion with her family after I had left Germany to return home. Toma cried like a baby when I was being loaded onto a truck in Karlsruhe on that early morning of my leaving to return home. She was there to say her teary goodbye to me as if it was to be her very last. I consoled her by promising to stay in contact by writing to her regularly, which I did do.
Toma had worked as a seamstress for the German Army, repairing uniforms, tents and blankets. She had become an expert in mending and altering fabrics.
My first act after I arrived home was that I boxed up some of my sisters’ dresses and mailed them to Toma, who knew how to alter them to fit. My sisters were very upset, but my mother was there to defend me since I was her war hero newly returned from war.
In 1950, I was surprised to receive a letter from Toma mailed from Altoona, PA. Amazingly, she made it to America within 5 years of leaving a labor camp. When I was leaving Germany, she had said to me that she wished that I could have stuffed her into my duffel bag to bring her to America. Indeed, she was tiny enough to easily fit. She later confided to me that she had immigrated to America as a war bride, wedded to a GI by name of Shab from Altoona. She said she planned to divorce him as per their prenuptial agreement after the two-year legal period. She apologized for what she did, but I told her that was frequently done when the guy needed the money and the girl needed to come to America. It was legitimate. I was glad she came to America. In her letter, she pleaded with me to go visit her in Altoona, but I was enrolled in college and had not the time or the means to have done that. She did not realize how big America was. Several months later, she wrote to me again, that time from Salt Lake City with the same plea, of which I was still unable to comply. Months passed and she wrote to me from Corte Madera in Marin County, less than 30 minutes from me ! Apparently, she had worked her way across America making window drapes for various department stores, Macys was one she mentioned to me.
She was then renting a room from a family in Corte Madera, CA. I did meet her to have dinner together. She told me she was planning to open an ice cream parlor in San Francisco and had planned to share half ownership with me as her partner. I was in college full time and was already working 40 hours a week, and my adviser cautioned me not to do anything foolish like that to hinder my education, and, cautioned me that it was illegal for me to marry a White woman anyway, if that was what Toma had in mind. That, I already know from a prior experience.
Instead of ice cream, Toma, an ambitious dynamo of a hard worker, opened a drapery shop, Toma’s Decor Studio, on Pacific Street near Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. She was elated to tell me that she was making drapes and curtains for the wealthy families in their big homes and that all her clientele were so very pleased with her work. She was always so busy that I dropped in only occasionally to say hello, just to stay in touch.
In September 1966, she came to visit me at my home to meet my family. It was my son’s (Billy) 6th birthday and she asked that she be godmother to him. She also offered to make drapes for my home, but my small Edwardian home was not suited for elegant draperies that she was so capable of making. Time flew by so fast that I had soon lost contact with Toma. I eventually found her old telephone number. I did call her in year 2000 to have lunch with me to celebrate the Millennium, but she made many excuses of not being able to join me, one of which was that she had become an old lady with white hair, and etc. My wife advised me to stop pestering her, and that Toma would call me back when she was ready to meet me.
Toma never called back, so I sent her a letter in 2005 to inquire about her well-being, but that letter was returned to me as a no forwarding address. There was a hidden ominous feeling that, perhaps, she had already passed on into eternity, but that would be difficult for me to find out. However, I have a good friend of Polish parentage in Wisconsin who became interested in my dilemma and had offered to help me find out on the Internet. Within that one day, Rebecca Jakubowski was able to find that Toma had died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease – amylotrophic lateral sclerosis) in April 7, 2003, and is buried in Novato, CA. I planned to drive up to Novato (40 miles) the next day to locate Toma’s grave. As though guided by my own Angel, or Toma’s Angel, my daughter Jackie called that she was coming to pick me up to have dinner on that very same day. Jackie had no idea of my plans in Novato, which is about ten miles from her home. Jackie and I arrived at the cemetery at 1505-H that Saturday, but the office was closed at 1500-H. So, she and I must have walked ten miles pacing through the rows and rows, looking for Toma’s site among all the other sites that were buried in those three burial sections. I did not know how to spell Toma’s surname, except that it started with “Cz”. Not many names had that same combination, but it took us over an hour before Jackie’s younger eyes were able to locate Toma, which turned out to be among the last sites (farthest from the entrance) in that plot.
I felt great sorrow for the passing of Toma. She had become a good friend, separated and distanced only by the fast pace of moving times for each of us both working so hard to improve our own livelihoods, and by fact that I was married. I was not aware of her debilitating health problem. However, I am glad that Toma was able to add another 60 comfortable years to her hopelessly bleak life in a concentration camp to eventually live a good life in the comfort and security of being in America instead of being abandoned alone in postwar Europe. I relish in the thought that I was the principle person among all others who had played an important role of human kindness to take Toma in tow to free her from the otherwise brutality of the war and to have helped her to survive the immediate postwar period of hunger and privation, so that she was able to complete her rightful role in life as a productive artisan to became so loved a pretty lady.
Toma Czerepniowska was the daughter of Gregory and Maria. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She left behind many family members, including two sisters, Zoya and Helena in Sacramento, CA., of whom I had never met. The human mind tends to juggle events out of sequence when one reaches the old age of 84. However, I firmly remembered providing much care and love for Toma as though she was my own daughter. She, in turn, had probably looked to me with some degree of affection as a fatherly figure and as her provider, which was probably why she ended up in San Francisco instead of Altoona where she was destined; perhaps, seeking the same degree of comfort, closeness and shelter that she had enjoyed in Germany. But, she found every bit of that here, and more – all by herself !
She will find peace in the Great Beyond.
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In Loving Memory of my Dad
Capt, US Army, Mario Moose Estrada
Jul 23 1925 – Oct 28 2012