Michael John Bondyra, a wartime forced laborer whose journey took him from World War II Germany to a new life in postwar Maryland, died of Alzheimer's disease Monday at Riverview Care Center in Essex. The longtime Overlea resident was 86.
Mr. Bondyra was born and raised in Grabowiec, Poland. He attended school until the third grade, when he left to go to work on his parents' farm and several neighboring farms, where he cared for livestock and tended crops.
After the invasion of Poland in 1939, Germany and Russia occupied the country by treaty, with the Germans occupying the western sector and the Russians in the east.
Mr. Bondyra was 20 years old when Nazi soldiers arrested him and sent him to Dingsleben, a small farming community near Hildburghausen, Germany, where he worked as a farm worker for the duration of the war.
At the farm, he met and fell in love with another prisoner, Anastasia Kolosov, who had been sent there from Russia. They later married.
"They worked at forced labor there until the war ended," said Melvin M. Bondyra, the couple's eldest son, who was born in 1944.
On April 10, 1945, American soldiers reached the village.
"The American forces soon found that they were now in a Russian zone and decided they'd have to pull back and not take any of the residents. The forced laborers didn't want to stay and begged to go with the Americans," Mr. Bondyra said.
"They laid on the ground in front of the trucks until the soldiers agreed to take them away from the Russian zone. They piled onto trucks and the Americans drove them away to American lines," he said.
For the next four years, Mr. Bondyra and his family languished in a displaced persons camp in Hohenfilz, Germany.
"When they were in the camp, to make some money, my father would go fishing. He'd bring them to my mother, who went door to door in the town selling them," he said.
But the elder Mr. Bondyra never abandoned his hope of getting to America and starting a new life for himself and fledgling family.
"My father wanted to go to the U.S. It was his dream. He heard that Catholic Charities were helping people do this. They hooked him up with a farmer in Preston, who wanted a young family that had farm experience, and that's the way it happened," the son said.
The family - which had grown to four with the birth of a second son - traveled aboard a U.S. troopship, arriving at Ellis Island in New York Harbor Sept. 11, 1949.
"We then took the train to Wilmington, Del., and then we hitched a ride with a farmer who had been delivering produce. We all jammed in the front of the truck and my father, who didn't speak English, showed the farmer the papers and where we were trying to get to," Mr. Bondyra said.
"He dropped us at the post office in Preston, and then a postman drove us to the farm owned by Leo and Rose Frase," he said. "The farmer was of German descent, and because my father had picked up German during the war, that's how they were able to communicate until he learned English."
The family lived in a tenant house.
"He worked seven days a week from sunup to sundown, but he didn't care. We were free," Mr. Bondyra said.
In the early 1950s, Mr. Bondyra left farming when he took a job at the old American Standard plant on Holabird Avenue and rented an apartment for his family on South Bond Street.
The family later purchased a rowhouse on North Lakewood Street, where they lived until 1972, when they bought a house on Fairdel Avenue, where he lived until his death.
His wife died in 1994.
In 1974, the elder Mr. Bondyra went to work for his two sons, who owned and operated Clean Air Heating and Air Conditioning in Southeast Baltimore. He retired in 1999.
Because his Overlea home was on a double lot, Mr. Bondyra devoted the second lot to a huge vegetable garden, where he grew corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage. He also had a vineyard and made red wine from grapes that he had grown.
He also made sauerkraut and pickles and enjoyed hunting and fishing.
"He never again returned to Poland even though he has a sister there. He used to say, 'I haven't lost anything in Poland,'" his son said.
Mr. Bondyra was a communicant of the old St. Stanislaus Kosta Roman Catholic Church, and at his death was a member of Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church, 400 S. Chester St., where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. tomorrow.
Also surviving are two other sons, Gerald G. Bondyra of Glen Arm and Wallace M. Bondyra of Kingsville; two daughters, Patricia A. Ackerman of Overlea and Frances Ohl of White Marsh; his sister, Frances Bondyra of Poland; and nine grandchildren.