Remembering a Disappearing Generation
The death of Florence Green earlier this year was a significant moment for the world. Mrs. Green, who would have turned 111 on 19 February, was the last surviving World War I veteran. While marking the end of a generation forever, the focus is now on survivors and veterans of World War II and the Holocaust. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 850 World War II veterans die per day. That sobering statistic marks how quickly the “greatest generation” is disappearing. That number hit locally this year with several veterans passing away. One of those distinguished veterans, Stanley Wolak passed away on February 21, 2012.
The High Plains Museum staff is saddened to hear of his passing, and of the loss of that quickly disappearing generation. In an effort to preserve that history, the High Plains Museum embarked on an oral history project last summer to record the remarkable stories of those Sherman County residents that served in global conflicts. Ren Scherling, the project manager, carried out research and interviewed a select few, Stan being the first.
Stan joined the Polish Army prior to the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. By the time war broke out, he obtained the rank of corporal. A quick defeat of Poland saw Stan turn to active hiding from the invading German Army until one cold morning on February 2, 1940, when he was captured. Stan remembered, “The man knocked down the door and gave [me] five minutes [to get ready to move out …with] about five foot of snow on the ground and about 20 below zero.” Stan was then moved out to a train station where he and fellow prisoners were loaded into freight cars bound for Germany. Once in Germany he was taken to Stuttgart, the SS headquarters, and was sent to a subcamp of Buchenwald. Here Stanley crushed rocks for four and a half years. Conditions were rough in the camp and Stan commented that, “You had to work every day. They give you a meal once a day.” Hard labor, meager meals, and 7 A.M. roll calls made for a harsh existence. No information reached the prisoners and they were only told what they heard from Hitler on the radio. Stan recalled, “Every month, once a month…you have [had] a halfway decent meal when Hitler was talked on the radio. You had to listen to him. That’s the only time you had halfway decent meals. And what [when] Hitler [was] talking, that’s the only thing you knew.” They had no idea what was going on with the War; they didn’t know that the Soviets were pushing West and that the Allies were pushing East.
In September 1945 the French forces came and liberated the camp. A French officer who knew Polish conversed with Stan, “He said, what you want [to] do now [that we had been liberated], you want to go with us or you [want to] stay here? I didn’t have nothing to lose so I go with the French division.” Stanley joined the French Army and fought with them as they moved toward Berlin. After serving eight months in the French Army, Stanley switched to the American Army where he was stationed as a guard at Nuremberg. He guarded prisoners that included Hitler’s driver and nurse. He also stood guard to other prisoners watching the prisoners transfer from their work station to the prison. Stanley stayed in Germany until his relocation to the States; he never returned to Poland as it was still too dangerous for men who served in the Polish Army to return.
In 1947 Stanley met and married his wife, Janie, in Ludwigsburg, Germany, and entered an application to come to the United States. A Catholic priest came with applications to sign for possible admittance to the United States and Stanley and Janie signed up. They were accepted and after being checked by most government agencies, traveled from Germany to New York in 1949. From there they moved to Goodland, Kansas, sponsored by Walter Taylor. Stanley farmed and then worked for the City of Goodland for thirty-one years before retiring.
Stanley’s oral history is a remarkable treasure for the High Plains Museum and for posterity. The oral histories collected—Stanley Wolak, Harold VanVleet, Kay Melia, Leonard Kashka, Dale Stephens, and Alvin McCall’s children—account for stark experiences of locals and transplants who served in global conflict and they serve as important pieces of relating those world events to us locally. Capturing those oral histories was a great triumph for the High Plains Museum and for posterity.
As stewards of history and in the need for preservation of the perspective and experiences of different generations, we would urge you to record your own oral histories with your family. It doesn’t need to be fancy; we documented our conversations with a digital recorder and transcribed the interview. The time to record these wonderful experiences is now. The oral histories collected by the High Plains Museum will be made available online as well as at the Museum. We would like to encourage you to visit and listen to their remarkable story and gain some perspective about our local investment in global affairs.
To read Stan’s oral history, click on the following: HPM Oral History – Stan Wolak. The interview material belongs to the High Plains Museum, All Rights Reserved © 2011.