CORVALLIS - Walter Plywaski did not arrive at Oregon State University as a typical undergraduate. Much of his youth had been spent in a notorious Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Poland and later several Nazi concentration camps. He last saw his mother when she was forced into a line that led to the gas chamber at Auschwitz, and later witnessed the fatal beating of his father at the hands of a camp commandant.
But Plywaski managed to stay alive, along with his adopted brother. He made his way into the United States, and then eventually to Oregon. In spring 1953, he enrolled at what then was known as Oregon State College and, four years later, received a degree in electrical engineering.
In an extraordinary homecoming, Plywaski will be a featured speaker at this year's Holocaust Memorial Program on the OSU campus. His appearance is scheduled for Monday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the LaSells Stewart Center. This event is free and open to the public.
This will be Plywaski's first visit to OSU since graduating 47 years ago - and his first opportunity to tell his remarkable story to the Oregon State community.
Born Wladyslaw Plywacki in Lodz, Poland in 1929, he was forced into the Lodz ghetto with his family at the age of 10.
"My immediate family managed to survive four years in the ghetto, but we lost approximately 40 other family members," Plywaski said. "Some were sent to extermination centers. Others died of starvation and disease. About 80 more extended family members also perished at Nazi hands, leaving no more Plywacki-named people in Poland by now, a name dating back to about 14th century."
The ghetto was actually worse than the concentration camps, Plywaski said.
"In the ghetto, we were still in family units and thus mothers had to watch their children and husbands starving to death," he explained. "All of that was nearly too surreal to bear. The camps were charnel houses - the suffering was normalized, isolated from its meaning. You expected nothing there."
Among those who quickly died in the ghetto were his maternal aunt and uncle, who were stricken with tuberculosis. Their son, Wlodzimierz (whose American name is now William, or Bill), was found sitting by the frozen body of his mother. Walter's family adopted him, and Bill became Walter's new brother. "Miraculously, the two of us would never be separated in the events that were yet to come," Walter said.
In 1944, the Plywacki family was transported via freight car to the Auschwitz Birkenau death camp, where Walter's mother was immediately gassed because she was too weak to work. This would be the first of many concentration camps to which Walter was transferred, always accompanied by Bill.
For a while, the brothers were able to stay together with their father, Maks (Maksymiljan Jozef Plywacki), but he later was beaten to death in the Riederloh "punishment camp" - an event that Walter witnessed. The boys, very young and still able to do physical labor, were then moved on to several other locations after that.
Eventually, the two teenagers escaped from Dachau (Karlsfeld) during an Allied bombardment and appropriated a supply of German food, uniforms and weapons from a nearby cache. They then "marched off in the direction of the shooting," Walter said, explaining that they intentionally headed for the front line. They were soon "captured" by U.S. troops.
"There were these soldiers with funny-looking uniforms and netting on their helmets, who indicated we should put our hands up," Walter recalled. "Bill and I were wearing our 'liberated' German uniforms under our striped camp pajama jackets and also pretended not to understand German so we would not be taken into a German POW compound. Now that would have been sick joke!
"A Polish-speaking sergeant soon figured out that we were camp escapees," he added, "and the Army unit took us in. We were given cut-down U.S. Army fatigue uniforms to replace the German ones."
They were then introduced to another unit where they became unofficial "mascots," and were provided with tailored U.S. Army dress uniforms complete with stripes of rank, as well as lessons in everything from American history to English to properly ironing a shirt. The U.S. soldiers also gave them their American names, Walter and Bill. (Their last name became more Americanized later - from Plywacki to Plywaski - during U.S. citizenship proceedings.)
By the end of 1945 the brothers were hoping to come to the U.S. together. But this dream was realized separately. Bill came first, brought to Portland, Ore., by an American man they met in Marseilles in early 1946. Walter stayed behind in France, partially because he did not trust this American. As it turned out, the Portland man mistreated Bill. He did not allow the brothers to communicate and "Bill was basically his indentured servant," Walter claimed. A child service agency intervened, removing Bill from this situation and placing him with a new foster family on a dairy farm east of Portland.
Bill was also the first to enroll at OSU. After graduating from Franklin High School in Portland, he came to the university in 1949, joined the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, became a founding member of the OSU ski team, and wrote a column for the campus paper, the Barometer, called "Sitzmarks by Bill Plywaski." He received his degree in chemical engineering in 1954.
Walter, meanwhile, had arrived in the U.S. by stowing away on a freighter in 1947. Upon arrival in New York, he was detained on Ellis Island for six months by U.S. Immigration. Through the help of
After a year's work in Philadelphia as a "printer's devil," Walter joined the U.S. Air Force in 1948 and served four years, including an assignment as a radio maintenance chief on Okinawa during the Korean War. He eventually joined his brother in Oregon, and was invited to live with Bill's new family.
With the goal of enrolling at OSU, Walter began working to establish residency in Oregon, doing both radio and TV repair work and logging (choke setting, green chain pulling, etc.). When he enrolled at OSU in spring 1953, he first majored in English literature, studying with OSU's most famous writer-in-residence, Bernard Malamud. However, Walter found that English lit "wasn't challenging enough" and switched to electrical engineering.
He had discovered a knack for electronics when still living in the Lodz ghetto. Because he had family connections, he was able to earn some extra food for work for the Elektriztaet Abteilung, rewinding electrical motors and alternators. "There are privileges even in Hell," Walter says of this experience. "If you could get work, you could get some extra calories."
His brother Bill obtained work at the Metall Abteilung, operating lathes and other machine tools.
After OSU, both brothers went on to pursue their respective careers. Walter worked as an engineer for several defense contractors and for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and later became a high-tech entrepreneur and consultant.
Bill went on to earn a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, but while on a fellowship at the prestigious International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, discovered a passion for sailing. He went on to teach sailing and navigation, and became a marine-engineering consultant in areas such as charting, navigation and global positioning systems. (A chronology of their personal and career histories is available).
Both brothers live within a mile of each other in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, above Boulder, Colo.