LONDONDERRY | "I'm here to tell you my story."
As a team of middle school sixth-graders sat transfixed, Cecylia Thibault shared painful childhood memories of her years in German labor camps during World War II.
"More and more people are saying that this never existed," she said of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. "I am here to tell you that it did."
Thibault's grandchildren, Nicholas and Robert Beaton, invited her to talk to their classmates while visiting the family from her home in Hernando, Fla., where she lives with her husband, Robert. The sixth-graders at the middle school study immigration as part of their social studies classes.
"You have no idea what it was like to grow up in a World War II labor camp," Thibault said.
"On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland from the west and Stalin invaded from the east. I was only 5 years and 3 months old and it changed my life forever."
Thibault's mother was born in Pennsylvania, but moved to Poland with her family when she was 12. At 16, she was part of an arranged marriage to an older man, Thibault said.
"My mother was widowed in 1940 and she was sent to Germany to work on a farm," Thibault said. "They threatened to separate us if she did not cooperate."
So young Cecylia endured the humilities of being stripped, disinfected and having her hair cut, then she and her mother were put on a train to East Germany. They lived on a farm near Piernik.
"There was one room with three beds and we had no running water," Thibault told the wide-eyed students, who were also shown slides. "My duty was to bring well water in a pail for my mother to wash when she came back from working in the fields. We had bread and one piece of fruit every day, and soup that always had flies in it."
In 1941, Thibault said her mother once told the foreman that they would work better if they were fed more.
"He beat her up," she said. "It hurt twice as bad because the foreman was Polish, too."
Thibault said she is still haunted by the memories of abuses by German children. One is being told by some German children that the nearby lake was very shallow.
"I couldn't swim and almost drowned," she said. "Another time, they locked me up in a chicken coop and I had to exit through a tiny door. Before I did, though, I filled up on raw eggs."
The next two years became sad and lonely for Thibault.
"By 1942, I spoke German pretty well," she said. "But I did not go to school and it was very boring. I felt so alone."
She also had to take care of an infant brother. Her stepfather escaped first to Russia and then to England and served with the Royal Air Force until the end of the war.
In 1944, at the age of 10, Thibault said she was shipped to another farm and had to work alongside adults. She became ill with a kidney inflammation, she said.
Next, her mother was shipped to a factory that made rifle butts.
"It was the first time I saw the war close-up," Thibault said. "I used to hide under the counters with the rats."
The demure woman, wearing a beautifully embroidered traditional Polish vest, became teary-eyed as she spoke of a morning in 1945, when her camp was liberated by an American soldier.
"He was throwing candy to us and people were kissing his boots," she said. "There are not enough words in the English language to describe American soldiers."
Thibault and her mother and brother had to go through 10 displacement camps over three years before finally arriving in New York in April 1948 on the ship Marine Jumper. She was 13.
"During those three years, I learned English," Thibault said. "The first words my mother taught me were 'apple,' 'peaches,' pumpkin pie.'"
At the end of her presentation, the students had the chance to ask questions, one of which was about Ellis Island.
Thibault explained that because her mother was American by birth, they did not have to go to Ellis Island. Her stepfather did, but his time there was brief because of his position with the Royal Air Force.
"We must not forget about what happened during World War II," Thibault said.
She then encouraged the students to be fantastic, inventive and the best they could be.
"You are our future," she said.
LONDONDERRY | "I'm here to tell you my story."
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