By Lisa Maguire
Witold “Vic” Brick visits HAC often to swim – usually 3-4 times per week, even now during the pandemic. The 97-year old DuPont retiree and loving father of three has been a member for many years – pre-dating HAC as a long-time Pike Creek Fitness Club supporter.
Unassuming might be the most accurate term to describe Witold (pronounced VEE-tuld) Brick – but behind his kind, gentle eyes lies a lifetime of unforgettable service and memories.
Mr. Brick was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1923. In 1939, just as he was finishing high school, World War II began with the German-Soviet invasion of Poland. The Germans invaded rigorously, dividing territory with the Soviets as agreed upon by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. In the territories taken over by the Germans, many native Poles were forced to give up their property and leave their homes to make room for German soldiers.
A main objective of the Germans was to rid the country of Slavic peoples as well as those of Jewish descent, while converting the allegiance of those deemed desirable for “Germanization”. The population was divided into groups – sets who were forced into ghettos and camps, those who would be “exterminated,” and those who would be chosen to receive German citizenship. It was a volatile time in Poland, with many acts of violence occurring publicly and randomly throughout.
While studying to become an engineer, Mr. Brick was contacted by the Polish Home Army, Armia Krajowa – also known as the Polish Underground State – as a possible candidate. Much of the underground army’s business was conducted carefully and covertly as their resources were far outnumbered by Germany’s. Mr. Brick was eager to support his people but underwent several rounds of questioning to determine his loyalty. He happened to speak German quite well after taking it in school and was also a rare Polish Lutheran instead of Roman Catholic – Lutheran religion was much more common in the enemy state. The Polish Army needed to be incredibly careful in recruitment to avoid infiltration.
After proving his allegiance to his Polish heritage and home country, Mr. Brick was accepted into the resistance in 1942, not long after the coordinated German attack on the Soviets occupying Poland, which brought further disruption. The USSR sought to bring communism to the invaded territory, where Germany sought to eradicate the culture entirely. With competing interests and mounting tensions, the people of Poland were caught in the middle.
The main objective of the Armia Krajowa was to interrupt German operations – intercepting supplies and foiling missions – a dangerous game of cat and mouse against an army with resources that far exceeded their own. Mr. Brick would be critical to these efforts, working with his fellow servicemen in secret. In 1944, Mr. Brick participated in the Warsaw Uprising – an effort by the Polish Home Army to rebel against their oppressors.
From the uprising, high-ranking and powerful Nazi, Heinrich Himmler, ordered that Warsaw, Poland’s largest city and capital, remain under constant fire from air and land artillery. Much of Warsaw was set ablaze to force Polish civilians and members of the underground army out of hiding. Throughout the destruction, Mr. Brick was often unable to communicate with his parents. A few weeks into the strike, he watched horrified as the building in which his parents lived was burned to the ground. Weeks later, he learned of their safety as they’d found shelter in the basement and fortunately survived. In the process of flushing out buildings by fire, Mr. Brick and several other servicemen were discovered and forced to travel to German prisoner of war camps. The German retaliation would last 63 days, and by the end, in January 1945, an estimated 85-90% of the city had been destroyed.
During the attack, Mr. Brick was captured on October 5, 1944, and transferred as a prisoner of war to Stalag 344 Lamsdorf in Germany. From there, he would endure a 500-mile trek that would become known by many names, but that he refers to, along with many others, as “The Great Walk.” Thousands of prisoners of war would be grouped into smaller parties of a few hundred to travel together, lead by Nazi officers. His march took place from October – February, the coldest time of year often without footwear or food. Temperatures could reach –13 °F at times. From start to finish, Mr. Brick recalled that only half of this group made the entire journey – “once you were no longer able to walk on your own, you were shot.” He ended at Ziegenheim in Türingen, where he expected to wait out his days as prisoner number 105456/344.
Amazingly, however, he was liberated by General George S. Patton’s army on April 2, 1945. “They came with tanks and liquidated the Nazi officers” to take control of the camp, he remembered, visibly relieved even today in the memory. Nearly unrecognizable after months of malnutrition and poor treatment, Mr. Brick was just 103 pounds at the time of his liberation. “The Americans brought such rich foods with them when they came! We’d not eaten such things in a long time,” he recalled with a smile and followed with a raspy chuckle over how real, rich food made all their stomachs upset.
Though liberated, Mr. Brick was not yet out of danger. With freedom came the need to act quickly, and in their haste to reach security, he and a few other Polish servicemen commandeered a Volkswagen and headed for Italy – a safe haven at the time. There, they joined the Polish Second Corps, a part of the British 8th Army under General Alexander. He would serve two years in Italy before being transferred to England – a country where he didn’t speak the language. All this time – nearly three years – his parents had no idea if he was alive. Given the odds of surviving the journey as a prisoner of war, they were right to believe him gone. It was in England that Mr. Brick finally was able to send word to them, and they were elated. He’d wanted to return home, but his father selflessly urged him to stay far away from Poland, as the Russians were still occupying and working toward their communist agenda. They were there under the guise of liberators, but instead, they forced their culture and overtook the Polish government. The Russians tried to force native Poles who’d fled during the war to come back to their home country by threatening to remove their Polish citizenship – which meant he’d not be able to return to Poland without the chance of being imprisoned. Though he missed his family and was on his own in England, he heeded his father’s advice and sacrificed his nationality to pursue the chance at a better future.
The Russians kept their word. All Poles who’d not returned had their Polish citizenship revoked and were deemed “Stateless Displaced Persons,” a term used to describe a nationless man. Now a civilian belonging to no country, and in a place where he couldn’t even speak the language, Mr. Brick found himself in a predicament. Being the courageous warrior he is however, he did what he always did – he took action. He found a job as a dishwasher in a British hotel and worked there for about six months as he learned the language and prepared to enter a career in engineering.
Mr. Brick would take a job with an American Engineering Company based in England, where he worked for five years as a designer and engineer. While there, a special immigration offer from the United States was made for up to 10,000 Polish ex-servicemen that fought against Germany to come to the USA and receive citizenship. After carefully thinking about the offer, Mr. Brick coordinated a sponsor in the United States for his arrival, and on June 6, 1951, he boarded the Queen Elizabeth and headed for New York City. Mr. Brick was greeted by Lady Liberty before docking at 34th Street with just $100 in his pocket.
After waiting for hours for his new American sponsor, he’d resolved to believe that they weren’t going to show at all and turned to a stranger in the city for help. He was directed to try the YMCA for temporary housing, where he thankfully was able to stay until he found work. Mr. Brick continued to work and live in New York. His war-service was recognized as American service and he became a nationalized citizen on July 17, 1956, after about five years in the country. This was exciting for many reasons, but most importantly to Mr. Brick – for the first time in twelve years – he could return to his homeland and see his parents.
He remembered with a sly smile, “I went to the American Embassy first when I got to Poland. I didn’t know what exactly they would do if something happened, but I wanted them to know I was an American in Poland in case anyone tried to arrest me for being there.”
After a successful visit to Poland that would be followed by nine more throughout his life, Mr. Brick returned to New York. In 1968, he took a job with DuPont company and moved to Delaware, where he eventually met his wife and made his family. He brought with him and kept several Polish traditions that he still completes with his children and grandchildren, including making Wiśniówka, a sour cherry vodka, and adding a special Polish birthday song to every celebration called Sto Lat, which is a wish for the honoree to live 100 years.
Yes, unassuming may be the most accurate way to describe Witold Brick at first glance, but in reality, Mr. Brick is nothing short of extraordinary. Thank you for your service, and congratulations on a life incredibly-, and bravely-lived, Mr. Brick. We’re so proud that you choose to spend your time with us, and humbled for you to share your story. May you live 100 years and many more. Happy Veterans Day.