BY MARY WICOFF
AUSTIN, Texas —
A story about a Polish teenager who escaped from a Siberian labor camp during World War II still resonates with people more than 70 years later.
The gripping details of Danuta Gasior Murrmann’s life form the foundation for the book, “Danuta,” written by John Koenig of Austin, Texas, formerly of Danville.
Danuta made her home in Danville from the early 1960s until her death in 1996 at age 73. Her husband, George, still lives here.
Koenig started on the book decades ago, but set it aside when publishers rejected it.
“It was Danuta’s daughter Anita who persuaded me to revive it,” he said. “When I dusted off the manuscript, I saw she was right — the power of her mother’s story has not diminished over time.”
Anita Murrmann of Chicago and Susan Murrmann Price of Memphis, Tenn., are pleased that their mother’s story is being told.
“I’m thankful the book was written,” Anita said. “It was painful to read. I had sympathy for what she had lost in life and re-reading it was difficult.”
The story begins on Aug. 28, 1939, when 16-year-old Danuta Buczak wed Polish Army Lt. Rudolf Gasior in Poland. Four days later, Germany invaded Poland, setting off World War II.
Soon after, the Soviet Union also swept in and occupied the eastern half of the country where Danuta lived. During the next 20 months, the Soviets executed more than 20,000 Polish military officers and government officials, according to historical records, and deported more than 250,000 Polish civilians to labor camps in Siberia.
Danuta, her husband and their infant son were among the victims. Her husband disappeared after he was arrested by the Soviet secret police in 1940. Danuta, 17, and her son were sent to a labor camp, where the child died.
Determined to escape, Danuta slipped past labor camp guards one night in the autumn of 1941 and began a solo journey westward across the Soviet Union. Although Poland was her intended destination, she ended up emerging in Iran in the spring of 1942.
After the war, Danuta immigrated to the United States, where she met and married George Murrmann, who brought her to Danville. They had two daughters, Anita, a business executive, and Susan, a physician.
Idea for book
In the early 1980s, Danuta spoke to a class at Danville Area Community College, where Anita was a student. She asked her history professor if there was someone who could write a book about her mother, and was put in touch with Koenig, then a newspaper reporter in Rochester, N.Y.
At that time, Koenig’s mother, Ruth, was a teacher at DACC, and she’s now retired and living in Austin. His father, the late Don C. Koenig, worked at Hyster and was manager of the Rehab Center.
The younger Koenig started a correspondence with Danuta and spent three or four days in Danville interviewing her. Her English was good, he said, and details were vivid after all these years.
He did research and decided the book would be a novelized version of her life. However, he became busy with his job and family — and the book was put on a back burner.
When Koenig did finish a draft, he discovered that publishers weren’t interested, and he put it aside again.
After Danuta died in 1996, Koenig said, “Anita tracked me down and said, ‘Are you going to do anything with (the book)?’” A couple of years ago, Koenig pulled out his draft and did a complete rewrite. This time, he decided to self-publish the book as historical fiction.
“I don’t know if I would have finished this book if Anita hadn’t called me every few months,” he said.
One revelation that came out in the interviews is that Danuta had an infant son who died in the labor camp.
That was a surprise to Anita, who didn’t know she had a half-brother. She didn’t find out until 1993, when she received a copy of the manuscript and the prologue said even her family didn’t know about the child.
Anita, who had just moved to Seattle, called her mother immediately and said the story was interesting enough without making up something like that.
“For the first time in my life, she was silent and told me it was true. She never said another word about it and I respected that,” Anita recalled.
Her mother did talk about her life in Poland and Siberia, however. Whenever Anita was having problems while growing up, she would think about her mother’s early life — and that would put everything into perspective.
Labor of love
Although the book is fictionalized, Anita said, “The heart of the story is still there.”
Koenig said, “Danuta’s remembrances provided the foundation for the book. There are scenes, characters and dialog in the novel that I invented, but the story still closely follows her own experiences.”
While writing it, he envisioned Danuta as a Scarlet O’Hara-type person who had a lot of spirit and courage.
He described the book as a “labor of love,” and said he knew he had to get the story out there, regardless of how many people read it.
When Koenig made his book available free on the Internet for 48 hours, he was amazed that 450 people from around the world downloaded it.
Koenig grew up in Ohio, and moved to Danville in 1970 for a short time. He attended DACC before transferring to the University of Illinois. In 1973, he embarked on a journalism career with newspapers and magazines in several eastern states. He now works as a marketing consultant.