The day Hitler invaded Poland was the day Józef Machnik’s life changed forever.
Machnik was a soldier in the Polish army fulfilling his obligatory military service. The Nazis invaded on Sept. 1, 1939, two days before Machnik turned 20.
The invasion by the Nazis and then the Soviets forced Machnik to flee his home country, first for Hungary and then for France and Great Britain.
For Machnik, the year immediately following the invasion was one of close calls, snap decisions and luck.
Machnik made it through the war alive. He would move to Canada and then the United States, where he has lived with his family since 1959.
He’s lived with his wife Johanna in Hickory for the last few years. In September, he celebrated his 100th birthday and received the key to the city.
Machnik recently discussed his experiences during the war.
The following account is taken from the interview with supplemental information from Machnik’s autobiography “My Life’s Journey.”
Caught in a vise
Machnik only had two weeks left in his military service when the Germans invaded.
Shortly after the invasion, Machnik wrote in his autobiography about seeing German forces devastate a small village with bombers and tanks. Machnik described it as “an unholy massacre with absolutely no opportunity for a Polish counterattack.”
Machnik escaped through a potato field under the cover of night.
Not long after that experience there seemed to be good news: the Soviet Union had come to the aid of the Poles.
However, it soon became clear the Soviets were not there to help. They too were attacking Poland, a consequence of the nonaggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
The country, Machnik said, was caught in a vise from both sides.
Machnik’s unit disbanded following the news of the Soviet invasion. Machnik decided to head to Hungary to escape the onslaught coming from both sides.
Once in Hungary, he was taken to an internment camp.
The people at the camp were provided the necessities but extreme boredom set in among those in camp, Machnik wrote in his autobiography. The desire to leave was only exacerbated by news, received via radio, that Polish units were forming in France.
Critically, the people at the internment camp were allowed some time outside of the camp, including weekly trips to a local soccer field, Machnik wrote.
It was during one of those outings that Machnik met a local man with a Polish background who agreed to help him escape the camp.
There were also occasions where the camp authorities would allow the people at the internment camp to go out in the town for several hours, provided they returned by midnight.
On one such occasion in February 1940, Machnik went to the home of the man from the soccer field to re-establish contact. Machnik returned to the camp at midnight but did not stay for long.
Upon discovering the guards were not at their positions shortly after midnight, he left the camp to meet up again with the local man and his family. The man gave Machnik new clothes and helped him get to the Polish embassy in Budapest.
Embassy officials would help Machnik make his way from Hungary through Southern Europe to France. He used falsified travel documents. Machnik, then 20, disguised himself to look like a boy just under 16 years of age to allow him to make the trip.
He recalled a time on the train in Italy when Italian military police asked to see his documents.
They asked what his intentions were. Machnik, speaking German, told them he was going to work in Morocco.
“I was trying hard to make sure that I don’t make a mistake and quote true name rather than the fake,” Machnik said. “I was shivering in my pants.”
The explanation satisfied the officers, who allowed him to proceed.
Totally Unrealistic Situation
Once in France, Machnik joined the Polish forces organized under the auspices of the French Army, but his time in France would also be short-lived.
At 2 a.m. on June 17, word came down from the Polish commander that the French government had surrendered to the Nazis.
The commander told the soldiers they were on their own.
For the second time in less than a year, he was facing a decision that would shape the rest of his life.
Machnik sat with his friend Olek, contemplating their options. “I suggested we head for Atlantic and a friend of mine said, ‘And then we swim to America?’” Machnik said.
“It was a completely unrealistic situation.”
With no better alternative available, the two men headed to the Atlantic.
A few hours into their journey, the two men made a lucky discovery. They saw a lit window in a parish.
They spoke with the parish priest, who told them word had come from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that there would be two destroyers at the port of Le Croisic to carry people from France to England.
The destroyers would leave at 4 p.m. the following afternoon.
The men knew the journey of nearly 40 miles to the port would be a difficult one, but they decided to make the attempt anyway.
Machnik recalled the total vacancy of the landscape as they made their way to the port. “The countryside looked completely deserted, like a moonscape,” Machnik said. “No people, no cars, no cattle. Life stood still.”
Halfway along the journey, the men noticed a store that had a supply car parked behind it.
The men went into the store, pleading with the owner for the key to the car. The owner was not responding. “I often wonder how my life would be shaped if I didn’t see that window,” Machnik said.
Machnik said he then told Olek to show his pistol to the store owner. After seeing the pistol, the owner threw them the keys.
Though Machnik said it was his first time behind the wheel of a car, he relied on the knowledge of cars he learned from a man in the Hungarian camp to get the car going and on the road. The car was “jumping like a rabbit,” Machnik recalled.
The two men arrived at the port a half-hour before the destroyers left.
Lucky a number of times
Not long after coming to Britain, Machnik joined the Polish battalion of the British Army.
Compared to the first year of the war, the next few years were not as eventful.
Machnik’s assignments in Britain included guarding a portion of the Scottish coast. In 1944, Machnik volunteered to transfer from the army to the Royal Air Force. He trained as a fighter pilot but never got a chance to put the skills to use.
The war in Europe ended shortly before he finished his training. The war in Asia also concluded not long after.
Even though the war was over, returning to Poland was not an option.
The Polish communist government gave Machnik what he considered an impossible choice: accept the new government or have his citizenship stripped from him. “I was born there, and this document deprived me of … my own citizenship,” Machnik said.
Furthermore, Poles were not allowed to take part in the post-war victory parade in Britain as a result of pressure from Stalin, a situation Machnik called a personal blow.
Machnik, who faced the initial hostility at the beginning of the war, was facing exclusion and displacement at the end of the war. For more than a decade after the war, Machnik was officially stateless. He was able to go back to Poland in 1963 and see his family again.
Even though he never wore a United States uniform, Machnik has access to Veterans Administration benefits as the result of a law passed in 1976.
Reflecting on his experiences during the war, all the times when his fate could have gone in a different direction, Machnik simply said, “I was lucky a number of times.”