“All of a sudden, we hear ‘click, click, click’ and they lock us … we’re in, we’re in … there’s no way to leave the train. If we stayed on that train, like the Germans wanted us to, in a few miles down was Dachau and that’s where we were going — to Dachau,” said Emilia Niklewicz, in a website video introducing her son Robert’s book, “Last Train to Dachau.”
Robert Niklewicz grew up listening in when his father, uncle and their old friends talked in snippets about Poland in World War II. Although the young boy was fascinated by what he’d overheard, he wasn’t impressed.
“I took it for granted and thought everyone had the same stories,” said Niklewicz, a life-long resident of Napa. “It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized the full truth of what they discussed. I told my grandmother what I’d heard, and she started to give me details.”
The train in which his grandmother and grandfather, his mother and her siblings were trapped was a dilapidated train carrying fine art and treasures confiscated by the Nazis. The plan was to hide away the booty in a safe place for retrieval after the war.
“The Allies were closing in and bombing the train tracks,” said Niklewicz, a physical therapist and director of education for the Back School of Atlanta. “The Nazis had rounded up Polish families, herded them into the train and ordered them out to make repairs to the train and tracks every time parts of the tracks were destroyed. They could glimpse parts of the treasures and overhear guards talking about it.”
Dachau was a death camp and the families knew they were doomed. Emilia was 15.
So begins the story of a simple, hardworking family caught up in a horrifying series of events.
Niklewicz knew the story was interesting, but he didn’t realize it was important to record what happened until he met an elderly man named Jerry when he worked as a physical therapist at the Meadows of Napa Valley.
“He was crotchety and kept to himself,” Niklewicz said of Jerry. “But we hit it off. Turns out that 45 years earlier, he’d been at Iwo Jima. We connected. When he started to tell his story, he said he could see his father and he began to cry. It was haunting him. I persuaded him to write his memoirs and got him a computer. That changed him so much.”
“It made a difference that he could write about his family and experiences. But when Jerry died, no one knew the computer password. All of that was gone.”
Robert Niklewicz couldn’t have the same thing happen to his family.
“If I told their story, it would keep my grandmother and mother alive. So, I wrote out what I had learned. All the stories I’d heard for 15 to 20 years were included. It was 500 pages and I put it in a binder.”
“I realized my mother should read it and let me know if I got everything correct. When I gave her the three-inch binder, she asked, ‘What did you do?’ I told her, ‘This is your story.”
Three or four months later, his mother said she’d read it and asked him over to talk. With trepidation, he arrived to find his mother’s usual jovial demeanor subdued.
“Where did you get this?” she asked. After a moment, she continued, “It felt like you were standing right next to me.”
With that statement, the author knew he was on the right track.
“It was therapeutic for everyone. I felt it was important for our family, including the younger kids, to know what had happened. It’s meant for the next generation.”
Niklewicz self-published the book and it received positive attention, a review on Amazon and an interview on Bob Tanem’s KSFO radio program. His website is www.codenameflame.com and his books are available through AuthorHouse, www.authorhouse.com.
He then wrote a second book based on his father.
In 1939, the Nazis conscripted all Polish boys at the age of 15 into Hitler youth. One week before his 15th birthday, Niklewicz’s father, Stanislaw, ran away and joined the Polish underground, where he became a courier, saboteur and soldier. His code name was Flame.
However, Stanislaw Niklewicz was resistant to tell his story at first.
“There was a darker side to what he had to do for the Polish underground during the war, from the time he was age 15," Robert Niklewicz said. "He didn’t feel it was right for children to hear and he didn’t want to relive those horrible times.”
Those times included being captured in 1944 and sent to a labor camp where the Nazis worked their prisoners to death. His camp was liberated by George Patton’s Third Army.
“But I persuaded him and, little by little, with a few shots of vodka included, I heard the story.”
“My father met my mother in a displaced persons camp. He spoke five languages and after the war was hired as an interpreter for the Allies during the Nuremberg trials.”
“They were sponsored to come to America by Robert Hunter of the Grocer’s Union in Martinez and my dad was trained as a grocer. In 1956, he became an American citizen.”
Robert Niklewicz transformed the notes he’d taken with his father into the book, “Code Name: Flame.”
He believes the books could be a TV miniseries and a screenplay outline is under consideration by several companies. Polish television has also expressed an interest.
“My advice to those inspired to write about their families is to listen as closely as you can to the source of information,” Niklewicz said. “Make the story human and credible.”
“People did terrible things in the war to stay alive. We know now what atrocities were committed and how many lives were lost. The survivors have extraordinary memories.”
“My message in the books is that people did brave and heroic things no one has ever heard of. These were simple people who did what they needed to survive.”
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