She was born in Poland, didn't leave Europe until she was 18 and maintains a strong Polish accent while not faltering in her English.

For awhile, she continued to cook some Polish dishes like cabbage rolls or potato pancakes and had some friends with whom she conversed in their native tongue.

But make no mistake. Halina Wiercinski’s home country celebrates its birthday on July 4.

Wiercinski, 87, said that when people would ask her what life is like in the United States compared to Europe, it almost offended her.

“I don't have anything to compare it to,” said Wiercinski. “We didn't have a life when the war started.”

Wiercinski, who has lived in Jackson County nearly 70 years – raising a family and seeing grandchildren grow up – was 8 years old when Germany invaded Poland invaded from the west and the Soviet Union rolled in from the east, starting World War II

She immigrated to the United States and eventually Kansas City after surviving a German slave labor camp, then married a fellow survivor from Poland. However, in Europe she was forever separated from her father after the family was forced off its farm and from her younger brother when he became gravely ill in the labor camp.

Indeed, there is no comparison.

'Everything changed'

Born in 1931, the fifth of six children to Victor and Stanislawa Krzywonos, Halina also had a half-sister about 12 years older, whose mother had died at childbirth.

She remembers that they lived on a self-sufficient farm, raising animals and many vegetables. She had a pet sheep that followed her around, Halina said.

“We were a happy family; not very rich, but we were happy,” she said. “Then in 1939 everything changed. I had just started school.”

Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, leading to Great Britain and France declaring war two days later. The Soviet Union, having agreed in August to a pact with Germany, invaded the opposite side of Poland on Sept. 17, and the two sides divided the country.

The Krzywonos farm fell on the Soviet side. Halina and her schoolmates had to learn Russian. Her parents didn't have to learn the new language, but the Soviets were trying to assimilate the children. Halina said Russian was hard to try to learn. It remembers a bit of it still and always recognizes the alphabet.

“Their alphabet is completely different,” she said. “You couldn't complain; there was no complaining.”

Then, in June 1941, as Halina puts it, “the Germans got greedy.” They invaded the Soviet Union, taking western Poland in the process. Soon, Halina and schoolmates had to start learning another new language – one she never really picked up, she said.

Two years later, after the Soviets had steadied their forces and began pushing back to the west, the Germans retreated from eastern Poland, forcing the Krzywonos family and others out of their homes.

“They burned everything to the ground,” Halina said. “We started in buggy; we didn't know where we were going.”

After a few miles, the Germans stopped the party and took what supplies they wanted for themselves. Halina said she and other family members had to walk about 50 miles before they reached a railroad station, and a train took them to a camp in Frankfurt, Germany.

During this time her father got sent elsewhere, and she never saw him again. She knows he survived the war and lived his last years with her oldest sister, dying about 1956. One brother, John, joined a Polish army under Soviet command, fought against the Germans and stayed in Poland after the war.

'I never forget that'

In the camp barracks, Halina remembers having “enough to sustain” for food – bread, strained potato soup and what passed for coffee. Sometimes women from other countries living in the barracks would give her some of their food, motioning for her to eat.

Her younger brother Irek was too young to work, and their grandmother peeled potatoes in the barracks. But Halina and her sister Sophie and their mother had to walk several miles. Much of their work involved repairing buildings from bombing raids, at times making like a human conveyor belt to pass bricks.

“It was pretty hard without gloves,” she said.

The wooden shoes she wore didn't last too long walking on concrete a lot, either.

The barracks were in an old synagogue, Halina remembers, and one day there, before her mother and sister had returned from work, another bomb raid struck close by and an unexploded shell landed on the roof. Some German soldiers scrambled up and disarmed it.

“The noise – I didn't know how we were going to survive,” Halina said, remembering clutching her brother. “It was a miracle it didn't explode; we all would've died.

Another vivid remember is lice running rampant, and Sophie cutting and combing her hair.

“I can see it right now, falling like sand to the ground,” she said. “I never forget that.”

Halina and Irek, among many other people, contracted measles, and Irek grew much sicker. The rest of their family wasn't allowed to visit.

“Too many children died there,” she said.

She carried Irek to a train car bound for another hospital; he was too sick to even lift is head.

“I can see the picture now,” she said, remembering Irek's bag of clothes that served as a pillow. “They wouldn't let me go with him.

“I don't know if he made it to the hospital,” Halina said, tearing up a bit at probably her most painful memory. “I have no idea (where), but I know he didn't survive; he was too sick and worn out.”

As Allied forces closed in around Germany, Halina's slave labor camp was evacuated and again they were walking for days. One night, they were able to sleep in a barn loft. Some of the refugees then noticed white sheets hung up at windows.

“All of a sudden, one American soldier climbed up and found us,” she said. “I probably didn't realize what it meant (at the time), but all the people were talking – we knew the war was over.”

“They made the Germans leave (the houses) and they put us there. I was young, but I didn't feel that was right.”

Even so, Wiercinski remained eternally grateful for that day.

A new start

Halina's first post-war home was the army base in Wetzlar, and quickly she began to get caught up in schooling, now taught by fellow Poles. When that was disbanded in September 1946, they were moved to the former base at Wildflecken, aided by the United Nations' refugee agency.

Three years later, she and the family with her left Europe on a ship bound for New Orleans. Through the War Relief Services, part of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, she and her mother were paired with sponsor families in Burlingame, California (a suburb of San Francisco) and Los Angeles.

Halina served as a housekeeper for a family with three young boys, but soon joined her mother's sponsor family and worked in a factory that made electronic shuffleboard games. While the young boy in the house picked up some Polish from Halina's mother, Halina began taking evening classes to learn English.

“You live here, you have to – any language you learn,” she said.

In 1950, she and her mother moved to Kansas City, where another brother already had settled. She soon met up with another Polish refugee named Irek Wiercinski who had been a neighbor in their homeland and worked in the same slave labor camp. While she doesn't remember being fond of him back in Poland, they wrote each other upon reaching the United States.

In Kansas City, they would meet as much out of convenience as anything, both being Poles finding their way in a new country. Then, they started dating, and on Dec. 27, 1952 they got married.

Halina's mother also remained in the area and died in 1968, just shy of 70 years old. She is buried in Mount St. Mary's Cemetery. Halina became a U.S. citizen in 1954, and she and Irek settled in western Independence and had two children – Walter (who died in August 2016) and Barbara – and three grandchildren. Irek, who worked at Armco Steel for 35 years before retiring, died in 1999 at age 69, not long before their 47th wedding anniversary, and she continues her longtime membership of St. Ann's Catholic Church

A good life mantra for her has been that “God does not give you what you cannot handle.”

“I very much believe it,” she said. “I'm still handling it, I don't know how handled it.”

At the Fairmount Plaza Apartments, where she resides, for 10 years now they have had flag ceremony before Memorial Day. This year, Halina – with a son-in-law who served in the military and a grandson in the service – was given the American flag. She has asked her son-in-law to procure a display box for it.

“I was very proud and surprised that they would offer it to me,” said of receiving the flag of her adopted homeland. “Actually, that's the only home I know … or remember.”