She was just a kid when she was abducted at gunpoint, Kay Zaluska was, a Polish slave labourer who showed kindness to an Allied airman moments before the Nazis murdered him.
Nearing 88 and having survived to raise seven children in Manitoba, that brave teenager, now Kay Tworek, moves adults and teenagers to tears.
If you’re lucky enough to be in the audience of Glenlawn Collegiate’s upcoming stage production of Pig Dog, don’t try to fight it — go ahead and cry.
"How on earth, thank god, we went through and (are) still alive," Tworek marvels.
Pretty much every Manitoba school held a Remembrance Day ceremony this week, with a traditional reading of In Flanders Field, an honour guard, welcoming and honouring a veteran, a minute of silence.
At Glenlawn Collegiate, 20 young people have learned that war is not just the huge battles taught in the curriculum, it is the individual stories of hundreds of millions of people.
Those students are the cast of Pig Dog, a collaborative effort written by four talented and compassionate women to tell the story of that remarkable young Polish slave and the unknown prisoner the Nazis executed in the German town of Borne just seven weeks before the Second World War ended.
No one knows who that man was, but he’s been personified in the play as Jack Duggan, a Royal Canadian Air Force bomber pilot killed by anti-aircraft fire over that same area late in the war.
Duggan, whose personal wartime artifacts are displayed in Glenlawn’s lobby, was the uncle of Charlotte Duggan, a teacher-librarian and head of Glenlawn’s English department.
Duggan worked on the play with drama teacher Anite Skene, school community liaison officer Margaret Lapenskie — Kay Tworek’s daughter — and professional director and writer Rebecca Gibson.
It’s from the word schweinhund, which is what her Nazi masters called the young slave labourer.
The Nazis took Kay and as many as 15 million other young people at gunpoint from their conquered villages and shipped them back to Germany in freight cars to work as slave labourers. Kay was assigned to the house of the burgmeister — the mayor — who was an SS officer.
She worked the fields, she cleaned the house, whatever she was ordered to do — the play hints at rape, an exceptionally difficult scene for the young actors, which the adults say Kay won’t discuss.
"Thirteen years old, they took you from Poland to do some big houses, some big yards. They took whoever they could grab, the young ones who can work. We had to go — we can’t say no.
"Isn’t that something?" says Tworek earlier this week, sometimes speaking in English, sometimes relying on Lapenskie to translate from Polish.
"They had lots of work to do in the fields and gardens and house. At night, room in the basement, cement floor," she says.
Kay would sometimes sneak up to the attic to hear the hum of the Allied bombers flying overhead to bomb nearby oil refineries.
One day, late in the war, the Nazis took a downed airman to the basement where the mayor had him tortured and interrogated.
In a brief moment the prisoner was left alone, Kay took him water.
That was the last kindness the man ever knew — he was taken out and executed.
"Our whole family grew up with these stories. Some of these stories weren’t supposed to be told," Lapenskie says.
Duggan also grew up with stories — hers were about the uncle Jack who never came home, leaving behind photos of a dashing young man standing by his aircraft. Jack Duggan survived his required 30 missions over Germany, and then voluntarily flew more.
When the Glenlawn crew gathered to write this year’s major drama production, having seized on the stories Lapenskie told about her mother, they brought in the Duggan storyline because they realized they needed a Canadian connection.
Jack Duggan’s plane blew up over Germany when an anti-aircraft shell hit its bomb bay, but in the play he’s the downed airman to whom Kay gave water.
Pig Dog is a series of flashbacks, of the elderly Kay relating the story to her graddaughter — who steps into the play to become young Kay — and of Jack in his Canadian home, some scenes with family members, some of events told through the letters that Jack sent home. A video screen behind the characters augments bare sets.
"We have Jack’s flight log. He flew over this little village," Duggan explains.... What we don’t know is what it was like in that plane, (flying for) eight hours, freezing cold."
For the students, it’s been an emotional journey. Some were moved to tears
when they read the script or when they met Kay Tworek and realized all of this was real.
"I cried when I first met her. When I finally saw her, I just couldn’t handle it," says Jenna Ilagan, a Grade 10 student who plays the elderly Kay.
"I was blown away," said Suzie Brown, a Grade 12 student who plays young Kay.
The students knew nothing about slave labour or the realities of aerial warfare for the flight crews with short life expectancies, or for the people on whom they dropped the bombs. They knew largely about Canada’s role in major battles.
"They should rewrite the textbooks," Grade 11 student Dylan Hatcher says. He plays Jack’s father. "World War Two is (in the curriculum) like Hitler, the Nazis, the Holocaust, world domination."
And that’s about it, he said.
Ilagan declares: "This is my World War Two education, this play."
As hard as it was to perform, the play was compelled to show the audience how far the Nazis would go with the enslaved young people under their total power.
Says Eric O’Dowd, a Grade 12 student playing a character that Hatcher describes as ‘el creepo Nazi’: "Let’s not give them any skin to say, well, they didn’t do this."
Keith Schille, the Grade 12 student who plays Jack, was seriously taken aback when Kay’s granddaughter asks if the family is Jewish — he has learned about the Holocaust, but never knew about the enslavement of millions of non-Jews.
Another world, another time long ago, but people who remember it and were there will be watching. The students have to get the story right, says Grade 10 student Hailey Charney, who plays Jack’s sister.
Gibson praised the student actors for the maturity with which they’re handling exceptionally difficult material.
"The guy who is the main Nazi character just turned 15 — he’s treating that with such maturity," she says.
And as for the boy who has to perform the beginnings of a sexual assault, "It made him cry," Gibson says.
Kay Tworek recalls that shortly after the war ended, three uniformed men, one in a kilt, came to arrest the mayor.
And then there she was, May of 1945, suddenly freed, barely an adult, in a defeated and occupied country on the point of starvation. Miraculously, her parents and six siblings all survived the war, but warned her not to try to get back to Poland, already locked away behind the Iron Curtain.
Kay Zaluska managed to reach a displaced persons camp in Belgium, where, again miraculously, she reunited with her brother Stanley Zaluski.
And, Lepanskie says, that’s when her mother remembered that before the war she would write letters for her mom to an aunt in Selkirk, Man.
Kay and her brother Stanley arrived in Canada in 1947. She met the late Stanley Tworek, and together they raised seven children in The North End.
Skene recalls the moment that Pig Dog began. "Margaret told me the story about her mother — I said, there’s a play there."