Relative's letter inspires novel for SH alum
August 19, 2020
It's not often that a single letter from a relative inspires a book, let alone changes the course of one's life.
Catherine A. Ponzoha Hamilton, daughter of longtime local residents Joe and Mickey Ponzoha, was a practicing psychotherapist and a freelance writer when, in late 1996, she got her hands on a letter from a long-lost Polish cousin named Katherine Graczyk.
Originally sent to Hamilton's Aunt Mary in Longview, Wash. a few years earlier, the letter contained a written introduction and a cassette tape detailing Graczyk's kidnapping during World War II.
"Listening to this recording of Katherine's story launched my writing into a totally new direction," said Hamilton. "This unknown bit of history caught hold of me and wouldn't let go."
Now, decades later, Hamilton is a full-time writer who just published her first novel in June and is in the process of writing a second. Her first novel, called "Victoria's War," centers around the titular character Victoria, who is kidnapped from Poland and sold into slavery in Germany, and Etta, a deaf German girl whose family purchases Victoria.
Though Hamilton said Victoria's War "is definitely fiction," the book is based on true events and eyewitness accounts of over 35 people, including Graczyk's, whom Hamilton eventually met and interviewed in-person. Hamilton based Victoria on Graczyk and Etta on Barbara Binoeder, a German Catholic woman who was a little girl during the war. The whole process, Hamilton said, from researching to publishing, took around 15 years and two revisions.
"As a Polish-Catholic American freelance writer, when I came across this untold WWII story, I felt like it was up to me to ... find out the truth," said Hamilton. "And that's what I did. It wasn't an easy journey, but I never once doubted this project, never once."
In 1941, the SS snatched a 19-year-old Graczyk off the streets while she was looking for salt. She spent the rest of the war laboring on a German potato farm. She wasn't alone. Her brother and around 1.7 million other Polish Catholics were kidnapped and sold into slavery in Germany to bolster Hitler's workforce, which had dwindled, due to the demand for soldiers to fight in the war.
Hamilton, who grew up in Sweet Home and whose parents lived in town for 70 years, said she had never heard about Graczyk or even the plight of Polish Catholics in WWII before listening to Graczyk's tape. She had always been "very connected" to her Polish relatives living in the Pacific Northwest, but due to Poland falling behind the "Iron Curtain of Communism" after WWII, she knew little about family who remained in Europe. As it turns out, Joe Ponzoha's father was the brother of Graczyk's father.
She said the lack of communication between Poland and other countries during Soviet control, and the fact that "Germany wanted to move on" after WWII, also explains why many Americans don't know about what happened to Polish Catholics either.
"People in this country have a great reverence for Jews," Hamilton said, but Polish Catholics "had no microphone whatsoever."
After she read the letter, and as soon as she could buy a ticket, which happened to be a year later, Hamilton flew to Denver, Colo. Graczyk had lived in Denver since 1951, after immigrating with her husband and daughter from Germany, where they had lived in limbo after the war to avoid imprisonment in communist Poland. While in Denver, Hamilton spent a week visiting with relatives she'd never met, interviewing Graczyk, and "making lots of pierogi."
"At the end of that first visit, Katherine's only request was that I one day write (her story) down," Hamilton said. "And I wanted to. But first, I needed to know more."
Through her research, Hamilton "discovered so many stories about this slave labor operation that I realized this was bigger than Katherine's story."
She started off reading literature from various historians and eyewitnesses. Then she purchased maps and traveled to Magdeburg, Germany, where Polish slaves had worked on large potato farms and in factories. Next, Hamilton traveled to Berlin, where Graczyk was auctioned off to a potato farmer and later imprisoned. Then, she paid a visit to the major cities of Warsaw and Krakow, and several towns and villages in southeastern Poland.
Finally, she headed south of Rzeszow to Harta, the area that inspired her fictional town called Lagodny.
When she returned to the U.S, she collected many eyewitness accounts of her own, 20 of whom she interacted with directly, including ethnic Poles, Jewish Poles, and Germans. She listed off names such as Victor and Barbra Bik, Iwo Porgonowski, Ego and Weronika Gorecki, and Jewish-Polish physician Richard Fenigsen.
"Each and every story was different – each one difficult to hear," Hamilton said.
She discovered that after Germany overran Warsaw, Poland, the Nazis started requiring all Polish people to register, regardless of whether they were Catholic or Jewish. The Germans, she said, considered Slavic people "sub-human."
However, due to their particular distain for Jews, they preferred to have Polish Catholics work in the factories and handle their products, sending the Jews to extermination camps instead.
"There are stacks of WWII novels out there, but the amazing thing about WWII stories is that people never seem to tire of them," said Hamilton, who noticed that every year she worked on her novel, a new book came out about the war. "Victoria's War is the book for 2020."
Since its debut, Hamilton said Victoria's War has been "so well-received." As of now, it has a 4.54 on Goodreads, based on 50 reviews.
Despite the novel taking place far, far away from Sweet Home, Hamilton said her upbringing may have affected how she wrote Victoria's War.
"We are where we came from," she said, adding that her small-town roots could have influenced her "simple" approach to writing.
"This book is readable for everyone; the prose reflects that," Hamilton said, noting, however, that Victoria's War is an adult novel about war and not appropriate for all ages.
"Victoria's War is a story about women during wartime," Hamilton said.
"These women teach us about friendship – about courage, hope, and love. We witness them going to great lengths just to help another human being," she said.
"I hope people read Victoria's story, but more than that I hope they learn something new about women during war. I hope they learn something new about the Polish experience during WWII."
In addition to Victoria's War, Hamilton has also written several other pieces about the subject. She started off writing a chapter about Graczyk's story in the non-fiction anthology "Forgotten Survivors: Polish Christians remember the Nazi Occupation."
More recently, she wrote an expanded version of her cousin's story in the Polish American Journal called "Forced Labor in the Third Reich," which is available on her website at http://www.catherineahamilton.com/.
What's next for Hamilton? She is currently three-quarters of the way through a book she's writing on the Katyn Massacre, which she hopes to finish this year.
After that, she is considering pursuing a story about two German soldiers – two characters she had to cut from Victoria's War, due to the book being too long.
Victoria's War is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or wherever books are sold. Signed copies of the novel are also available at Annie Bloom's Books in Portland while supplies last.