Standing at a whopping 4’8”, the spritely and sharp Barbara Rygiel is a champion of the world.
On August 14, the South Pasadena resident will turn 106; this is her story.
Born in Austria in 1914, Rygiel grew up in a large family. When she was in her 20s, World War II broke out and, eventually, the Soviets took over her part of Austria.
“Stalin’s mother died. He promised his mother that he would make my country Ukraine,” said Rygiel.
One day, soldiers showed up on her doorstep and demanded that she and her 10 family members grab a change of clothes and leave their home immediately.
Rygiel asked if she could bring a religious painting – one that hid over $50,000 her father had withdrawn from the bank just days prior. Alas, the soldier said, “No, touch anything and I will shoot you in the head.”
She and her family were loaded into cattle cars and taken to a forced-labor prison in Siberia.
Rygiel spent the next two years toppling trees with a hand saw and axe in northern Russia. The family were outfitted in quilted blouses and trousers, fur hats and gloves – her father used the wool from inside their mattress to line their galoshes. Temperatures reached as low as 55 degrees below zero.
“At the end of the day, the train would come and we would load all the wood; we would get paid one slice of rye bread, each.”
When Rygiel’s brother asked what else went with the bread, a Russian soldier told him, “Russia has an unlimited amount of snow. Make yourself a snowball, squash it and put it on your bread – there’s your sandwich.”
“When I was in Siberia,” said Rygiel, “I had no idea how we could survive on that one slice of bread.”
But her mother knew.
“My mother always cut the crust off the bread we earned – that’s what we were allowed to eat, just the crust.”
Rygiel’s mother found out that the bakery workers were gathering sawdust from the sawmill and baking the bread with half flour and half sawdust.
“My mom said it wasn’t safe to eat unless the sawdust was cooked. So while waiting for a pot of snow to melt and boil, my mom would knead the centers of the slices of bread. Pinch off a piece and throw it into the boiling water. We called it ‘pinch noodle soup’.”
The family somehow rationed that soup into two meals – half in the evening after work, the other half for breakfast.
Two years into forced labor, they were released with the help of Pope John Paul II.
“The Pope, he was working for us,” said Rygiel. “He said ‘most of these people here are Catholics, please release them,’ and Stalin signed the agreement.”
Of course, there was a catch.
“The women had to find a country that would take them because they were not allowed to return to Europe – Stalin had already given our land to Ukraine.”
It took Rygiel and her family a year to make it to the Caspian Sea – because although they were free, they were broke. There, the British offered her and her little sister a safe haven in India.
In order to make money for travel, Rygiel worked on a cotton plantation in Uzbekistan and brought seeds home to eat. Her brother fashioned himself a slingshot and caught frogs to supplement their dinner.
Her mother refused to eat the seeds Rygiel brought home, and her health declined quickly, said Rygiel. “She didn’t have any teeth.”
One evening, her mother predicted that it was her last night. She laid her head in Rygiel’s lap and the ladies said their prayers, until her mother grew silent.
She built her mother’s coffin from scraps of wood brought by friends and dug the grave herself.
Eventually, Rygiel and her younger sister made it to India, but the rest of the family scattered throughout England and France.
In India, Rygiel went to nursing school and learned English. Eventually, Rygiel became a nurse in California. She spent 35 years caring for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“Those are the people who need entire care,” said Rygiel. “They couldn’t talk. You had to read their lips to understand what they wanted.”
Today, Rygiel’s days are peaceful.
She wakes every morning before 6 a.m., eats, prays and spends the rest of her mornings taking care of the garden outside of her building. Every Friday and Saturday, Rygiel takes the bus to mass.
“I have no secret,” Rygiel responds, when asked about longevity. “But the secret to a happy life is to be agreeable.”