A different day of infamy

Neal Rubin

World War II began on a different morning for Stan Krajewski.

On our side of the ocean, the day that lives in infamy is Dec. 7, 1941. If we didn’t learn it in school, we’ve seen it in the movies.

In Europe, the date is Sept. 1, 1939. That was the day, 75 years ago Monday, that Germany swept into Poland.

That was the day a German bomb blew Krajewski out of his house.

He lives in White Lake Township now, in a bright and cheery assisted living center where his daughters and their husbands play bingo with him on Friday. He is 99 years old.

There are certain things he can’t remember, like what his mother brought him in jail that would have gotten them both killed if the Gestapo had found it.

There are other things he can’t forget.

He counted four German airplanes in the sky over Biala Podlaska, two fighters and two bombers. The bombers’ target was an airplane factory near the railroad station.

“Let’s get out,” the 24-year-old Krajewski said to his grandfather, and a moment later they were flung out of the building and into a wooden fence.

They ran for a trench — the invasion was unannounced, but not unexpected — and slid into it as more bombs fell. A woman holding a beautiful 6-year-old girl slid alongside them.

Something struck the little girl in the head.

“She died there,” he says, one of the first casualties of a war that would claim at least 60 million more.

Born in Detroit, then off to Poland

Krajewski was born in Detroit the same day a German U-boat sank the liner Lusitania and killed 1,195 people: May 7, 1915.

Later, he would exchange his Polish flag pin for the American flag pin on the lapel of President Richard Nixon. He would recommend a dry martini to Archbishop Karol Wojtyła and be informed that the cocktail remained the favorite of Pope John Paul II forevermore.

He would spend 24 years as editor of the Polish Daily News, serve on valuable boards and raise two daughters with his concert pianist wife in a Southfield home outfitted with two baby grands.

He and Nina would remain married for 63 years, until Alzheimer’s claimed her in 2010. They would retire to Florida, then move home to Michigan as she faltered and his eyes and ears grew weak.

But first, his father would die in the flu epidemic of 1918, and his homesick mother would move her family back to Poland when he was 7 years old.

Krajewski went to college there. Found work, as the purchaser for a cooperative. Made friends, made a life.

And then came the Germans.

Remembering life in a prison camp

Ask him how he spends his days now, and he smiles. “Reminiscing,” he says. Then he laughs: “And mostly a little napping.”

Ask him about the war years, and the detail can be remarkable. How he was an effective courier for the Polish underground because he owned a German trench coat that made people assume he belonged wherever he was.

Or how he learned that liberation was under way: a German-born butcher from Chicago who had been conscripted into the army and became one of his prison guards murmured, “You know our boys landed in Normandy!”

One of Krajewski’s younger brothers was executed by the Gestapo, which believed incorrectly that he had helped bomb a train. Their mother identified him by the color of his socks.

After the United States entered the war, Krajewski was sent to a prison camp, where the International Red Cross delivered so many raisins and prunes that the French inmates began to trade them to the staff for escargot.

“We were treated well,” he says, but they did not let themselves think about the future, because nothing beyond the moment was a certainty or even a likelihood.

Then came hope — the first sighting of American bombers on their way to Berlin. “It was like a cloud coming over.”

An exchange of prisoners set him free in 1945, and he sailed back to North America.

He had a brother waiting in Detroit. He had a life to live.

He had memories to make. Better ones, without the sound of bombs.


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