“Forgive me,” I say to the lady sipping coffee across from me, “But I thought you were 98.”
“I am,” she replies.
“You look fantastic,” I tell her. She smiles.
“That's because I froze when I was in my twenties,” she says.
I laugh, then stop. Barbara Rygiel isn’t joking; she was sent to Siberia as a young girl, during the war. “I've never used any makeup on my face. Maybe if they would stick their head in the freezer for one hour every day it would freeze the youth in them.”
Reader Rob Fowler sent me an e-mail about a sweet lady who cut in line at Pasadena Produce. She was trying to buy bananas. As everyone waited for her to complete her purchase, she talked to them about being a lumberjack in Siberia – as she took the head spot in line.
“You’d like her,” he told me. “She’s quite a character.”
Barbara Rygiel is quite the character, with quite a story to tell.
Along with her family, Barbara boarded a train from Austria to a Siberian work camp when she was in her mid-twenties. She’d just graduated from college in Austria and planned to teach.
Instead, her whole family boarded boxcars, which they rode for a month. When the boxcar stopped, her family was in Siberia. There, Barbara and her brothers worked as lumberjacks. They sustained themselves on snow and black bread.
“There was a well, but it was always frozen,” she recalls. “We ate the snow. We ate lots of snow. That's why I'm so healthy.
“We had to work to make logs, we had to cut the tree down, pull the core off... and if you made ten logs a day you would get one slice of bread – black bread,” Barbara remembers. “My mother said, ‘don't eat that bread, it's not made with rye flour, they don't have enough rye flour. It's made with sawdust. It's not baked.’ She would make ‘pinched noodle soup’ – she would take the centers of the bread and melt snow, and she would knead the sawdust dough and pinch off pieces of it and drop it in the [boiling] water.”
Her mother – and her father – died in that labor camp. After four years, Barbara, her two younger sisters, and her brother decided they had little left to lose.
“When the war was almost over, the Russians were so sure of themselves they didn't watch us, so one night we decided we would go and find civilized country,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone, as if escaping a work camp in Siberia was a decision on par with whether to have chicken or fish for dinner. When I comment, she tells me,
“We had nothing to lose. We were in Siberia.”
I’m getting a geography lesson in our 1940s world. Barbara and her brother and sisters “wandered,” as she puts it. They walked through Turkestan, Kurdistan, and Persia.
"Iran and Iraq were one country before, it was called Persia," she explains. “The four of us kept together. We lived like nomads, we kept walking. We said we wanted to see a civilized country, that’s why we want to Turkistan. Uzbekistan was an interesting place.”
What does she remember? The first thing she says is, “There was no bread. I never saw bread the six months we stayed there.”
They worked on a cotton plantation. They were told not to take the cotton seed, but, “it was something to eat. We were hungry, my brother and I, so we decided to taste them. They were juicy; they tasted like nuts, so we decided to put them in our pockets. For six months we lived on ‘lepoysha’.”
Lepoysha, I learn later on the Internet, is the forerunner of Naan bread, so familiar in Indian restaurants.
The foursome left Uzbekistan and made it to the Caspian Sea, where they traded her father’s clothes for passage.
“The barge was just logs. You sat on them and if your feet went in the water, that was alright. If there were sharks they would eat your feet, but,” she smiles, “there weren't sharks.
When they got off the barge, they were in Persia, and the British military had Barbara’s brothers, who had also escaped.
From then on, Barbara says her life got easier.
“They shaved our heads, gave us a bath to sanitize us, and they gave us clothes because we had the same clothes for one year. They sent us all to school,” and Barbara went to the Red Cross nursing school "because they needed help.
“But they separated us. The younger ones went to regular school to learn English. My brother went to Nazareth and Palestine, and I went to Teheran. I wanted to see my sisters.”
She took a bus, but didn't have any Persian money. The conductor threatened to put her out at a leper colony.
“I was very upset, so I began crying. So the ladies on the bus, the Persian ladies, gave my money. They gave me more money than I needed,” she says. The conductor told her since it wasn't her money, she had to help carry packages to the leper colony.
“That's when I first saw lepers. The flesh was falling off their bodies, it was rotten. The smell was putrid. You couldn't stand it, because parts of their body, the flesh was rotten and falling [off]. You could see the bones.”
Barbara stayed there all day, helping carry packages. She lied and said she didn't know how to bath them with potassium permanganate, even though she did. She did not want to bathe the lepers.
Finally, she saw her sisters. They were at an orphanage.
“They were in school, had food, and they were happy,” she says.
She went back to Teheran.
From Teheran, a bus took Barbara to India, where she says Gandhi didn’t want her.
“We don’t want you in India,” she remembers him saying to her military camp in Bombay. “India is for Hindu people.”
Barbara left India, spending a week each in to Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama before arriving in Honolulu.
"That's where I learned how to eat pineapple. I had never seen pineapple before," she says. She ate it sliced. She ate pineapple soup. She ate it crushed. She had it in ice cream. She developed hives from eating so much pineapple.
Next stop? San Francisco.
“I love San Francisco,” she says. “It’s built on seven hills.”
But Barbara had one more place she wanted to see: Brooklyn. She and her sister boarded a train for Brooklyn, where they visited St. Stanislov church, where her parents married and two of her brothers were baptized.
"My mother was American and my father came to America to study English and business. One day my mother came to New York for some fabric – she was a dress designer – so they met and they fell in love,” she says. Barbara’s mother was not yet 20, and her father wouldn’t give the couple permission to marry until she turned 21, so for 15 months he visited her every weekend in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. When she turned 2, they wed at St. Stanislov’s. It was 1906.
They had 11 children.
“A long time ago, there was no television. That’s why parents preoccupied themselves having children,” she quips. When she asked her father why they had so many children, he told her “I see heaven in the baby’s eyes.”
Her parents long-ago romance aside, Barbara did not like Brooklyn.
“I didn't like the tall buildings. And the streets were too narrow,” she says with a frown. She and her sister returned to San Francisco.
Her sister became a nun, saying that she didn’t want to be a part of the world that allowed such cruelty.
After 35 years of nursing in San Francisco, Barbara headed to Florida.
"I had a friend that moved to Florida. She told me 'it's better for weather.' She never told me about hurricanes. I believed her and I came to visit her. And I liked it and I stayed. That was 1983," Barbara said. She rented a one bedroom condo on St. Pete Beach, and then bought a condo in South Pasadena. She stayed there until doctors told her a decade ago she would die in six months if she didn’t have open heart surgery.
She didn’t want to die on the operating table, so she sold her condo, canceled her insurance, and rented a studio apartment. Then she left to tell her family goodbye. In England, Germany, Poland and Austria. She said goodbye to her son, her nieces, and her sisters. She gave her money to her family.
She stayed six months. She did not die.
It grew cold, and she wanted to come home. She came back to the Lutheran residence, where she still lives. She tends the brilliant rosebushes outside the entrance. She walks to Pasadena Produce and gets her bananas every few days. She buys four, five if she can get them for under a dollar. She buys sugar free cookies and canned pineapple at the dollar store. She volunteers at the Fountains.
She never had the surgery.
“Evidently, God has a different plan for me. I ask him, what was the purpose of sending me to Siberia to learn how to cut trees down? What was the purpose of sending me around the world because the doctor told me I was going to die?” she asks.
“But God never answers my questions,” she says, but she doesn’t sound upset. “I'm stll alive, and I'm pretty healthy, and I remember most of the things, so I don't have Alzheimer's.”
On August 14, she will turn 99. Most likely, you’ll find her at Pasadena Produce, buying her bananas and telling everyone her story.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.
Barbara Rygiel’s thoughts on life:
“I am happy but I marvel at Americans. They’re overfed, overpaid, and yet they're overprotective with all kinds of guns and yet they're not happy.”
On some strange blue berries she accidentally ate during the War: “After you ate them you were hallucinating. Americans would like them.”
On her brother, who was sent to a Russian island not too far from Alaska: “What is the part of the country that lady says she can see from her window? That was it.”