Sandra (aka. Sasha, Shanna) Kalinkova Zakrzewski
Born in Bulgaria on May 13, 1921
One of 6 siblings, Sandra was very mature and observant from a young age. She keenly observed the life of the people around her, especially her mothers. Living in a small village, she had no electricity, telephone or any modern conveniences. As a child, observing her mother working so hard broke her heart. Her mother was the sole breadwinner. Her father made very little money working in the mines. In order to feed the family, her mother would harvest wheat and make them into bushels to be sold off in the summer, while in the winter months she worked all day and night weaving wool fibers from local farmers to make 5 kilograms of material. She would also use this wool to make clothing to dress her own children. Sandra would wake up early on those winter mornings and see her mother by the fire, tirelessly working through the night. The thought of her mother working so hard made her feel so much sorrow. Her sisters didn’t appear to be very affected by this, but not Sandra, she was the observant one. She loved and cared for her mother so much that whenever she would come home from school, she would immediately throw down her books and search for her mother making sure she was ok. Only then would she return back home and feel relaxed and content. At 9 years old, Sandra would sit staring at the passing clouds observing their shapes thinking to herself “The first chance that I have, I will get away from here.” She was ambitious and brave from the start. Although she couldn’t know for sure if somewhere else could offer her a better future, she knew deep inside it would be better.
When Sandra was 11, her schoolteachers came from other big cities to teach in her small village. In total, there were about 500 students from all the local towns. That year, she had two teachers. They became very fond of the young and bright Sasha, as she was known then. They would call on her to run errands such as bringing them water, lunch or a sweater when it became chilly. They would call her by her last name, Kalinkova, which made her feel embarrassed in front of all the other students. Every Wednesday the teachers and students would take field trips to the natural mineral baths nearby. One day, her teachers told her to remain behind with them after the other children left to go home. They formed a bond with Sandra that would later change her life in ways she couldn’t even imagine. The next year, 12-year-old Sandra had 3 teachers. Since they all came from other cities, she didn’t expect to know any of them. What a surprise it was to see one of the teachers she was friendly with from the previous year come back. As their friendship grew, the other students became envious of her and sometimes were not very nice. This may have fazed any other 12-year-old, but not Sandra. In May of the next year, she graduated at 13 years old.
Soon after, a family whose father was an Engineer, moved to her town in order to fix the roads and infrastructure. Her teacher, who was friendly with Sandra, happened to also be friends with this family. Seeing Sandra’s potential, she asked the father to take her with them when the family went back to Sofia, the Capital of Bulgaria. Early one morning, around 4:30 am, Sandra went to the mountains with her sister to pick wild strawberries. On their way back home, fatigued from their adventure, they happened to run into the Engineer and his young daughter.
He asked them “what are you girls up to?” Sandra replied they picked some strawberries and asked if they would like to have some back at her house. He agreed and from that day on, Sandra became good friends with the Engineer and his family. She spent every day with his daughter, helping to take care of her. In August, when the Engineers job was completed, the family asked her if she wanted to come live with them in Sofia. She remembered telling herself “The first chance I have to get out, I would say yes.” And so, she did. The Engineer and his wife spoke with her mother, but she disagreed. Brave Sandra then said, “Mom, I’m going to go and I ‘m going to work.” She planned to purchase a sewing machine and learn how to sew, then return back home in order to alleviate the financial burden on her mother. After her persuasive argument, her mother then gave her permission to leave. As they drove off to the city, she started to cry careful to not let her mother see.
Once they arrived in Sofia she asked the engineers wife, who sewed costumes, if she could work with her and learn her craft along with her other duties in the household. Just as she was starting to learn a bit from the Engineers wife, the family had to pick up and leave for another job. The Engineers wife then sent her to stay with her father in the suburbs until they came back. Unfortunately, once they came back, the family encountered financial difficulties and could no longer pay young Sandra. They offered her a room to stay in their home, but she would have to find a job. Luckily, one of her friends knew of an Austrian woman who was pregnant looking for a girl to help her.
Sandra started working with Dr. & Mrs. Reidlich, the pregnant Austrian woman and her husband. She was only allowed Sunday’s off, free to go out as she pleased, however was to be back home by 7pm sharp. Her friends would complain saying “Because of you we always have to stay close to home” so one Sunday, throwing caution to the wind, she decided wander off a bit more. As it was getting dark, she suddenly realized it was almost time for her to be back. In a panic, she ran through the fields arriving breathless finding Dr. Ridley and his wife sitting in their home. They didn’t speak a word to her, instead they simply pointed to the clock. She was late. She felt awful and cried, but despite her remorse they didn’t speak to her for days. Sandra never broke that rule again and proved to be trustworthy and hardworking. One day, Mrs. Reidlich called someone to the house to clean her bathroom, but the person didn’t show up, so she asked Sandra. Sandra firmly said “no, I’m not going to do it”, because she was already handling so many other responsibilities such a cooking and care taking for the couples’ young children. Mrs. Reidlich insisted and a frustrated Sandra packed up her bags and left. She told Mrs. Reidlich firmly, “I told you I’m not going to do it and I’m won’t!” Luckily, anytime Sandra had a problem, she always returned to the engineer family with open arms. They became like a second family to her. Although they still couldn’t pay her, she always had a place to stay and a warm meal to eat.
She would assist the family anyway she could. When the father developed an ulcer, she would walk into town every day and pick up mineral water for him. Along the route she would pass Dr. & Mrs. Reidlich’s house. One day, returning from her errands, she ran into Dr. Reidlich. He was thrilled to see her. Sandra asked how the children were and he invited her to see them. Happily accepting, she bought them some chocolate as a gift. The children played with her speaking German, however at the time, she didn’t understand them. As she was leaving, Dr. Reidlich asked her to come back and work for them. They told her in the year she wasn’t there, they tried finding other girls to help, but none of them were as good as Sandra. They told her she’s irreplaceable. None of the girls they hired could be counted on. They said, “Sandra, you can go out and stay out as long as you like. You can even take baths here.” Mrs. Reidlich then said, “The next time we have a fight, I’m going to lock myself in my bedroom until everything is ok,” because she was so afraid to lose her again. They loved her and couldn’t be without her! Dr. Reidlich asked once more, would you like to work for us again? Sandra agreed and she couldn’t have been happier working for the Reidlich family.
January 7, 1944. Bulgaria had been invaded by Germans during WW11. Sandra was washing the children’s laundry and walked upstairs in the Reidlich household. Mrs. Reidlich asked if she would like to have some lunch, having prepared duck and roasted potatoes. Sandra replied yes, but only after she finished her work downstairs. As she was going back to the lower level of the home, she took suitcases with her to put away. She asked Mrs. Reidlich, “Do you want me to bring the children down?” Mrs. Reidlich replied, “No we’re going to stay upstairs.” It was when Sandra reached the downstairs area of the home, that the bombs struck. After, she went outside. There were no stairs left in the house and there was a huge hole at the top level of the home. Dr. Reidlich came running asking, where’s my wife. Sandra said she stayed upstairs.
They started searching and digging though rubble when they heard moaning noises. Slowly they found the couples little boy and brough him out to safety to stay with a neighbor. They then went back to look for Dr. Reidlich’s wife and daughter. They found Mrs. Reidlich’s hand, but it was limp. She was dead. They thought she must have been holding both children in her arms, so the little girl may on the other side of her. As they started to dig, they luckily found the little girl alive and brought her to join her brother. They then went back to get Mrs. Reidlich and laid her next to the front door. She had a scar like wound on her face. They couldn’t wait another second where they were, another bomb was coming as the sirens rang out. Dr. Reidlich and Sandra ran to safety but couldn’t find the children since they had left them with a neighbor. It wasn’t safe to search for them; another army fleet was coming and they figured they would eventually be reunited. As the second bomb hit, the house shook, and they heard the children screaming. All of a sudden it stopped and when they emerged from the building, everything was completely destroyed. Sandra said “I cannot stand to hear those sirens one more time. I’m going to take the children and take them to my mother where it’s safe and leave you.” They fought and the stressed Dr. Reidlich said, “Sasha you are now free to go wherever you want and don’t worry about the children.” She responded back that his kids would not live if they did indeed stay. In anger he left, but when he came back he said, “Pack what you can, I will take you and the children away from here.” Sandra was relieved.
Dr. Reidlich brought them to safety to his summer bungalow. It was freezing cold; they couldn’t sleep and tried their best to keep the children warm. In the morning, Dr. Reidlich woke up and bought some coal and other supplies so at least they were warm. His uncle and his wife came to visit, and they would play cards, whoever won the card game would buy a gallon of wine for next time. Things started to feel more normal. Dr. Reidlich was friends with some German officers, and they would stop in to visit from time to time. One day, Sandra was bored and decided to bake a cake, but she had no idea how to make it. As it baked, she was amazed at how good it smelled and somehow it turned out to be delicious. One of the German officers loved her cake so much, he pleaded with her to make another for his journey back home. Nervously she agreed, hoping it would come out just as good as her first attempt.
She stayed at Dr. Reidlich’s summer bungalow from January to April. Dr. Reidlich would leave for work during the week and would return on the weekends. One weekend, Dr. Reidlich said he wanted to send the children to live in Vienna since they had a relative there. He asked Sandra if she would like to go and she said yes.
In order to travel to Vienna, Sandra had to go back to her village to issue a passport. On the way home, the train stopped in a town where her first-grade teacher lived. The train had stopped overnight, so she stepped off and went to into a shop asking the owner if he knew her teacher by name. The shop owner incidentally happened to be her teachers’ brother and directed her to where she lived. When she arrived, her teacher was so happy to see Sandra and they shared stories of their life.
Sometime later, Sandra arrived in Vienna and Dr. Reidlich went back to Bulgaria after settling everyone in. He had an old friend from school who lost her husband during the war, around the time he had also lost his wife. This woman was friends with a very wealthy man from Prague, who had a villa not far from Salzburg. Dr. Reidlich was friends with them both, so one day they all went to the wealthy man’s villa and had a great time. Dr. Reidlich, wanting a mother for his children and a companion, ended up marrying his widowed friend. Soon after, they left Sandra in Vienna allowing her to live in his new wife’s apartment. After taking a few jobs that didn’t work out, Sandra met a girl who was working for an American family. American officers now inhabited the area. She was put in contact with an American Vice Consul’s family who was looking for two girls to help out.
Sandra met with the Chosino’s and was informed that the family lived in a villa outside of Vienna. They told Sandra they needed to hire another girl, but Sandra convinced them they only needed one girl AND they had to agree to some of HER rules. She advised the family of her two rules:
- Any dirty dishes are to be placed in the elevator and were to be sent down, so she didn’t have to run up and down the stairs constantly.
- Friday is a busy day, so Mrs. Chosino must take care of their own children that day and wake up early.
The family agreed and everything was going smoothly until Fridays came. The mother wouldn’t wake up early as promised to take care of her children. Sandra would come in and wake up Mrs. Chosino, saying “You need to get up! The children need to be fed and cleaned.” Mrs. Chosino responded, “leave me alone!” One day, Sandra became so frustrated with Mrs. Chosino for not getting out of bed, she grabbed the quilt off her bed and threw it out onto the balcony and said commandingly “Now get up, the children are waiting.” Sandra knew she could be stern with the family. They were afraid she was going to leave, but she was never afraid she was going to get fired. It was a beautiful, expansive villa they lived in. So rich. Her time there was brief, as she was only able to stay with them for two years. The family had to move to another country every two years due to Mr. Chosino’s occupation as Vice Consul. Before they moved, Mr. Chosino asked Sandra if she wanted to move to America. She didn’t have an international passport at the time, but Mr. Chosino said not to worry, he’d fix everything for her and made sure everything would go smoothly.
One day approx.1948: The day arrived when Sandra takes the long trip to America, as she gets off the boat they asked her for her name. She was so overwhelmed and scared, she forgot it! Waiting, having no idea how to ask for help, a man finally approached her and asked her in German if she needed assistance. Sandra said yes, I’m looking for Mr. & Mrs. Heller. The man then called for them over a loudspeaker and were found just in time. They were about to leave thinking she wasn’t on the boat! Sandra thought to herself, “Boy was I stupid for not at least trying to ask, but they were double stupid for not coming to look for me!” The Heller’s brought Sandra to live with them at their home in Ossining. Sandra didn’t like Ossining at all and was so miserable. The couple didn’t have much work for Sandra and they weren’t sure what to with her, so they sent her to school in Ossining. While in school, she met a nice Polish girl (Tata’s sister). Sandra didn’t speak Polish, but luckily her new Polish friend spoke German since she had lived in Austria for a while as well. She was a nurse and her husband worked as a hospital resident. She told Sandra that she had a friend in Manhattan who could help her find a better job since the Hellers paid her so little. Sandra was eager to find another job, so she agreed to meet with her friend at their house. Serendipitously, the house she ended up going to was Tomas’s (Tata). The friend who was supposed to help her find a job wasn’t available that day due to a last-minute request to help organize a family gathering, but there she met Tomas, Epi and their brother in-law. The three men took her out in the Polish community and everyone was taken with the beautiful Sandra. After spending some time together, they escorted her to the train back to Ossining. A few weeks later her new friends paid her a visited, it was a large group. She wanted to thank them all for their hospitality but didn’t know who to thank first. Her new female friend encouraged her to write to Tomas specifically and when the group wanted to Visit Sandra again In Ossining, this same friend made sure it was only Tomas who went. When he arrived, she told him she was miserable there and didn’t like staying with the Heller’s so they made a plan. They walked downstairs and Sandra gave the Hellers her 2 weeks’ notice. The Heller’s were not too happy with this news and said, “If you want to leave, then you leave right now.” Sandra was very upset by their reaction, but nonetheless her and Tomas left that day with her suitcase in hand. In February of 1950, Sandra and Tomas were married. Their courtship was brief, she had only met Tomas twice in the two months they knew each other but were happily married for 45 years until his passing. Tomas was very good man, husband, and father, who worked hard for his family.
*Extra note about the Chosino Family*
The Chosino’s kept in touch with Sandra frequently over the years, sending her post cards whenever they’d move to another country. She was accustomed to receiving updates from the family and letters from Mrs. Chosino, but all of a sudden they stopped. Concerned about her friends, she asked her daughter in-law Sue to call the White House but they wouldn’t offer any information. Instead of giving up, the bold Sandra said, “Give me the number” and called the White House herself and informed them of who she was. They said, “Oh Sasha, we know about you, Mrs. Chosino talked about you.” Sandra told them she would like to get in touch with Mrs. Chosino but sadly she had passed away. Instead, they gave her Mr. Chosino’s contact information who was then living in Massachusetts. Sandra called him up and they talked and talked, he was so happy to hear from her. He told her that his daughter, Judy, was working in Wall Street and he gave Sandra her phone number. When Sandra called and introduced herself, Judy remembered her immediately saying, “I know exactly who you are, my parents talked about you all the time!” It was a wonderful reunion.