Editor's note: Local author and Transcript contributor Paul Clermont is holding a series of workshops next month aimed at recording the stories area residents have to share. The following is one of the rich tales Clermont has already encountered among North County residents.
Veronica Durwin (nee Witkowski) welcomed me to her home in Adams on a Wednesday afternoon and offered me a seat on her sun-porch. As we sat down, I noticed that she was wearing one of those small, lapel-sized, American flag pins on her blouse. I commented on it and she answered, "Oh! I wear this all of the time; this country means a lot to me."
In the conversation that followed, I realized how much love and appreciation this vibrant, articulate and incredibly strong woman has for our country. Her arrival in Adams was preceded by a World War, and experiences that would leave indelible impressions on the young girl.
Veronica -- the 5th of 8 children -- was 8 years old in 1937 when she and her family left their small village outside Lodz, in central Poland.
Her father had accepted work on a large farm in France and the entire family immigrated to the village of Bourges 80 miles southwest of Paris.
She recalled, "It was a huge farm with dairy cows, horses, pigs and beets. The beets were grown for alcohol and the fields went as far as you could see. The farm was so big that it even had its own little village. I had not gone to school in Poland
Although they had eluded the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Veronica and her family would en dure 5 years of living under Nazi occupation that be gan when the German blitzkrieg overran France in 1940.
"I remember that there was a military airport close to us so we got bombed a lot until the Nazis arrived and took over the farm."
Veronica recounted her experiences of working on the farm where German soldiers had been billeted.
"We all worked on the farm except my little sister, she was only 2. My father took care of the cows, and he told us to squirt some milk in our mouths when we were milking them. You had to do that because the Germans measured the milk every day.
"Once a month we got ration tickets. You needed one for everything; there was even a special one for shoes. You had to go into Orleans -- the nearest city -- to use your ration tickets. When you went there, you had to be careful. In Orleans they had Special Police, Hitler Youth, SS and Gestapo. You had to say ‘Heil Hitler' when you spoke to anyone. There were a lot of arrests. My mother had a friend who was Jewish, and just because she was Jewish, they took her. We never saw her again. There were four young teenaged boys on the farm that were sent to Germany to work and we never saw them again either.
"On the farm you didn't have to worry too much, the soldiers that occupied the farm were not so bad. There was one who would occasionally give my mother a loaf of bread. Other soldiers would turn the other way and let us eat a beet, but they were scared of the special police and the SS too."
Veronica talked of her family: "My mother and father spoke German, Polish and French. My father also spoke Russian. He was a prisoner in Siberia during the First World War. Although all of us survived World War II, my brother had enlisted in the French army and lost a leg, and my sister's husband was taken to a concentration camp near Hamburg. In June of 1944 we knew something was going on. The Germans suddenly left and the allies arrived shortly after."
After the war, Veronica got a job as a maid in Compiegne (where the armistice ending World War I was signed).
"That's where I met my husband. I had to take the grandmother of the family I was working for to the park every day. We sat on the same bench. There was an American soldier that I noticed because he had a German bicycle like the Gestapo used to ride. Next day he was there again, we both smiled at each other. The third day he was there again. I had on wooden shoes and as I walked on the cobblestones, I tripped and fell. He ran over to see if I was all right. He said something in English and I told him I didn't understand. I said, ‘Polish.' He answered me in Polish, ‘I am Polish too.'
"Then he took me to the army infirmary and after they bandaged my knee, he took me and the grandmother home. If my mother knew that I went to an army base she would have killed me." She laughs.
"The next day he asked me for a date. If I didn't fall down " She leaves the thought unfinished.
"Everybody said I fell on purpose." She laughs again.
"I met my husband in 1945 and we left France in 1947. We had a hard time getting a copy of my birth certificate. Finally the Polish consulate listened to him and provided us with a copy."
Veronica proudly shows me her laminated birth certificate along with a 1947 clipping from the Transcript. It is a photo of Veronica, her fiancé, Stanley Kondel, and his niece Fran Jean Kondel (now Bedini) looking at a map showing the air-route she took to the United States.
When Veronica arrived in Adams she spoke very little English.
"When I came to Adams it was wonderful; almost everyone spoke Polish. I went to the Polish priest and asked if I could learn English with the nuns. ‘One week, we have too many D.P.s (displaced persons),' he said.
"Then I met Father Smith at Notre Dame, and he wanted to speak French. I used to speak beautiful French, Parisian French you know. He introduced me to a lady who taught me English.
"I went to work nights in the Berkshire Mills in the weave shop on the second shift. Mr. Bloniarz, a teacher, brought me some French to English books and I read a lot of comic books to learn English. Later, I worked in Wall Streeter Shoes. Do you remember penny loafers?
"Before I learned English, I used to hear Kate Smith singing ‘God Bless America,' on the radio. I learned that song by heart."
When asked at the end of our conversation what the most significant event in her life was, "America!" Is the one-word answer that Veronica gave.
"All because I tripped on the cobblestones, my life changed in ways I could never have imagined. America has been very good to me. I went back to France in 1979 and one of my nieces was bad-mouthing America, saying, ‘The Americans think they are better than us.' I told her right away: You go to the American cemetery at Coleville in Normandy!"
For Veronica, who recalled the thrill she felt as she voted for the first time in her life in the presidential election of 1948, America is a whole lot more than a flag pin worn on a blouse. It is a country and a way of life that she continues to cherish.