Mrs. Bernice Gilbride called me one day some 15 years ago to let me know that she had a donation for the Institute of World Politics. “Marek,” she said in her usual composed, yet firm voice, “the German government has sent me a compensation check for slave labor and I’d like to write it over to you for the Kościuszko Chair. Would you give it as a scholarship to an intern who is interested the Second World War?” I had known Pani Bożenna for a while then. We moved in the same circles. We shared similar friends, like the Woś family, most of them World War II survivors: some of them combat veterans, either with the Free Polish Forces in the West or with the underground Home Army in Poland; and others ex-prisoners of the Soviet Gulag and Nazi concentration camp. Mrs. Gilbride was in the latter category.
Bożenna (Bernice) Urbanowicz Gilbride was born in a farmer’s family in a tiny hamlet of Leonówka in Poland’s Volhynia in the Eastern Borderlands in 1934. Her parents, Wiktor Urbanowicz and Janina née Łoś, doted on their little girl and her three siblings: two sisters (Irena and Krystyna) and a brother (Czesław). By all accounts, hers was an idyllic childhood. It was rudely interrupted by Hitler and Stalin in September 1939. Five-year-old Bożenna found herself under the Soviet occupation between September 1939 and June 1941. Her family’s farm was seized and collectivized. The family miraculously avoided deportation to the Gulag, but worse would come following the Third Reich’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
In the wake of the victorious Wehrmacht, the Germans and their local Ukrainian collaborators commenced the Holocaust of the Jews. A few Jewish fugitives found safe haven at the Urbanowicz farm, despite the fact that the Germans forbade sheltering Jews on the pain of death. Mr. Wiktor Urbanowicz hid them in his barn. But he and his family were not safe either. The threats came both from the Germans and the Ukrainian nationalists. The Nazis targeted the local Polish Christian elite; some were killed outright, others deported. The new occupiers were also interested in total economic and labor exploitation of the population. Within two years, however, they lost control of the countryside.
In March 1943 in Volhynia, the Ukrainian auxiliary policemen of the SS deserted en bloc to the nationalist guerillas of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Putting into sordid practice the experience they had gained in the genocide of the Jews, the former Ukrainian policemen and their nationalist leaders promptly commenced a mass ethnic cleansing campaign. In July 1943, it degenerated into an outright genocide of the Christian Poles; tens of thousands were slaughtered in Volhynia alone.
After their farmstead was attacked by the UPA, the Urbanowiczes fled from their burning village and took to the road to save their lives. The killings sent waves of refugees like them from the countryside into Volhynia’s cities. There, they were rounded up by the gleeful Germans and dispatched for slave labor in the Reich. Mrs. Gilbride’s entire family was caught and put on the train heading west. Upon their disembarkation, both the adults and the children were put to backbreaking work at a farm.
Because ten-year-old Bożenna’s mother fell afoul of her German supervisors, Mrs. Janina Urbanowicz was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned at the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944. There, the SS experimented on her. Janina was forcibly sterilized. Next, she was shifted to three further camps: Buchenwald, Flossenburg, and, ultimately, Gross Rosen. She survived the ordeal, including a Death March in the Spring of 1945. Unfortunately, having been caught in Stalin’s zone, the mother headed back to Soviet-occupied Poland to look for her family.
Meanwhile, however, the father, Mr. Wiktor Urbanowicz, took the children West. His former home was now annexed by the USSR, and his nation suffered under Communism. After a stint in a Displaced Persons (DiP) camp, the Urbanowiczes were able to emigrate to the United States. There Bożenna enrolled first at St. Stanislaus Kostka Polish School in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint. She actively participated in the Sodalicja Mariańska (Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary) there. Later, holding several jobs, she attended Straubenmuller Textile High School in New York City. Her major was fashion design.
All the while, the mother Janina was stuck in Communist-controlled Poland. She joined an anti-Soviet underground organization and attempted to escape to Sweden to join her family in the U.S. Janina Urbanowicz was, alas, caught and imprisoned by the Communists. Her family was only able to get her out of Poland in 1957, when she reunited with them in New York. By that time, Bożenna had married Richard V. Gilbride. The couple remained together for 63 years: until her death. They had four children.
After her domestic and professional plate became less full in 1989, Mrs. Gilbride involved herself in World War II education. She lectured at schools, participated in conferences, and took part in multiple events, including those on the Holocaust. She inserted the Christian experience into the story of the extermination of the Jewish people. In 2009, together with her German-Jewish friend Inge Auerbacher, Mrs. Gilbride penned a book, Children of Terror, which was a dual biography of survival during the war. Bożenna next wrote another personal story in 2017: Waiting for Mama, which is her mother’s story and the daughter’s trepidation. It is best expressed in a poem Bożenna composed when she was 10 years old:
A Child’s Lament
Why did you leave me, Mama?
I waited for you to come back
I am all alone and looking for you
I am so scared to be alone
Why did you leave me, Mama?
Am I now an orphan?
Or you just can’t find me?
I’ll be waiting for you, Mama
Until you find me again and
Tell me you always loved me
And stay with me forever.
Mrs. Gilbride co-produced a documentary on the Zegota, Europe’s only underground organization designed to rescue Jews, which was part of the Polish Underground. She also helped in erecting a memorial to the Zegota in Warsaw. For decades, she persevered with her mission of education about the Second World War in spite of having reoccurring nightmares each time she recounted her personal experiences to the audiences, including high school students. She was tough and dedicated. She also found time to volunteer for the Catholic League in Long Island.
Bożenna supported our work at IWP, as well as numerous other projects on history; she mentored our interns at times; she raised money for research and publishing; and she herself conducted 16 video interviews with WWII survivors, both Jewish and Christian, donating the record to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, which maintains the Bożenna Urbanowicz Gilbride oral history collection, 1991-1994. She passed away on March 7, 2020. She was 85 years old. Her legacy lives on.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 20 May 2020
More information about Mrs. Gilbride can be found at the following links: