The story of Petronela Brywczyńska proves that no one was safe during the war. Petronela’s father, a Polish farmer, was captured while defending his country. After many wanderings, the Brywczyńska family ended up in the Stutthof concentration camp. Yet they were lucky: they suffered, but survived.
When Petronela Brywczyńska was three years old, her father took part in the defence of Poland at the time of the German invasion. After the capitulation he became a prisoner of war and had to serve the Germans as a forced labourer, most of the time on a German farm near Allenstein (Olsztyn). After a few years he even managed to reunite his family there. In January 1945, under the threat of the advancing Red Army, the family had to flee together with the German landowner to Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and Pillau (Baltijsk). Together with thousands of German refugees Petronela’s family crossed the frozen Vistula Lagoon. While the Germans headed further west, Petronela’s family hid in the forests. There they spend several weeks in the severe cold hoping for a liberation that did not materialize. Instead they were discovered by German soldiers and deported to Stutthof.
Petronela still remembers the horrors of the last year of the war: the SS burning down the ‘Jewish camp’ at Stutthof, air raids, her mother’s illness from typhoid fever, and the lack of help from anywhere. Her family survived, thanks to the strength and the resourcefulness of her father. After six weeks, the Red Army arrived at the camp. Undernourished and unable to walk, Petronela left the camp on a trolley. Already the same day the family headed south. They went to a house in the countryside, where Petronela lives until today.
On 1 September 1939 German SS troops took possession of Polish buildings and institutions in the city of Gdańsk. Some 1.500 members of the Polish minority were arrested to be imprisoned, deported or executed. Many others were expelled from their homes and directed to central Poland. That same day the Nazis proclaimed the reunion of Gdańsk with the German Reich.
The obsolete German battleship Schleswig-Holstein played an important role at the outbreak of the Second World War. The ship moored in the port of Gdańsk under false pretences, and then, in the early morning of 1 September 1939, proceeded to bombard the Polish defensive positions on the Westerplatte Peninsula: the first shots of the Second World War.
The Stutthof camp was planned long before the war broke out. It was built as a regional prison camp, but during the war the Nazi’s enlarged Stutthof and incorporated it in their overall camp system. Finally, Stutthof became a concentration camp that contributed in the attempted extermination of all European Jews.
Museum Stutthof is located in the former German Stutthof concentration camp. The museum preserves, researches and displays archival records and historical artefacts. Exhibitions and videos offer visitors a haunting insight into the lives of the 110.000 people that were imprisoned here during the Second World War.
In June 1944, the Germans transformed Stutthof from a prison camp into a concentration camp. Over 50.000 Jews were deported to Stutthof, mostly women from Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states. The vast majority died under horrible circumstances.
Nervous about the approaching Soviet Army, the Germans decided to evacuate the Stutthof concentration camp in January 1945. The prisoners, already hungry and weak, had to walk for days in severe winter conditions, almost without food. Thousands of them died from exhaustion or were killed by the German guards.
The concentration camp in Stutthof was initially founded to eliminate and persecute Poles. Later in the war the role of Stutthof changed as it became an integral part of the planned extermination of European Jews. Before the Soviet Army could liberate Stutthof, the surviving prisoners were send on horrible “death marches”.