Bonfield man’s incredible life is told
He painted the gas chambers at the Auschwitz death camp.
Wounded in the knee after being drafted as a German soldier, he was flown out of the deadliest battle of World War II at Stalingrad, Russia.
He deserted and escaped across the English Channel.
He escaped from a coal mine on an elevator, as the shaft flooded behind him.
By chance alone, he missed the sinking of the Andrea Doria.
He was an acquaintance and employee of P.K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs for many years.
Any one of these items would make for a great story. All of them, plus more, occurred to one man, Wladyslaw (Wally) Pieszka. After a lifetime of narrow escapes, hard work and colorful travels, Pieszka lives in Bonfield. Now 94, he moved to Kankakee County to retire in 1989.
Pieszka’s life story has been written by J. Dennis Marek, local attorney and weekend columnist for the Daily Journal for the past eight years.
Marek has self-published Pieszka’s story as “The Ultimate Survivor: He wore a Nazi and an Allied Uniform.” The book, hardcover with 196 pages including 12 pages of photographs, sells for $25. The pictures, drawn from Pieszka’s personal possessions, serve as proof for an incredible story.
Pieszka’s life basically is told chronologically, with the exception of moving the Stalingrad chapter to the front. Chapters are numerous and short, making for easy reading.
This is, of course, a bit of local history — and extraordinary history of any kind. Pieszka is one of the few World War II veterans of any kind remaining in Kankakee County. The last World War II member of the Marine Corps League just passed. Throughout the country, there were more than 16 million World War II veterans. The Veterans Administration estimates there are about 550,000 left and that 362 pass away daily.
Pieszka’s service was even rarer than that. An estimated 89,300 men deserted from the German Wehrmacht to serve in the Free Polish forces in England, like Pieszka did. In the United States, a Polish Combatant’s Society, similar to a VFW or American Legion, was founded in 1952. It disbanded in 2012 because so few were left.
Along with Pieszka’s experiences, the book is noteworthy for a fantastic amount of detail. Most of us cannot remember what we had for lunch a week ago. Through interviews with Marek, Pieszka reconstructs his life. He remembers befriending a Jewish girl who most likely died in the Holocaust, signing an agreement at Auschwitz to keep silent about what he saw and undergoing electroshock therapy to recover from his wound.
Many biographies focus on the dramatic material, but fall short when it comes to describing a full life. Not so here, this is the story of Pieszka, unsparingly, from birth until today. Separated from his family, first by war and then by the Iron Curtain, he returned for rare visits. He married late in life and saw his only son grow hair longer than a father would like. He worked in Chicago and moved to the suburbs and, ultimately, here as neighborhoods deteriorated.
He outlived his beloved wife, then learned that vandals stole angels off her grave. Heartbreak stalked Pieszka throughout, but he is resilient, never giving up, never giving in.
In both the beginning and the ending of the book, Marek details his search to find an author to tell the story. Finding none, he took up the task himself. He did a masterful job. This was a story worth telling, one worth remembering and one worth reading.