PAXTON — Richard Kostrzewski holds up a zig-zag finger, made crooked by some calamity years ago and can't remember why it is so.
The 86-year-old Polish expatriate will tell a visitor time and again that he is a master cabinet maker and built his family's house in Michigan. He'll mention that he met his wife after emigrating to Holland following World War II. He will talk about the need to work hard to succeed. But ask him about the finger, and his memory fails him.
Perhaps it is just as well for a man who, like countless millions, suffered the horrors of the war.
Kostrzewski would talk little after that midcentury conflict, about the atrocities of the German occupation of his native Warsaw, of seeing his father taken away by the Nazis and having to live on the streets to support himself. He also didn't want to talk about life in a German labor camp.
And now time has robbed Kostrzewski of much of the memory of those black days. But his wife, Connie, like Kostrzewski a resident of Paxton's Illinois Knights Templar Home, and their daughter, Brigitte Stevens of Champaign, help fill in the blanks.
Kostrzewski's crooked finger came from the beatings the guards would give him. Kostrzewski, who went into the labor camp as a 15-year-old, would shield his face from the blows, which left a gnarled reminder of how he and countless others suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
There are other subtle reminders. Kostrzewski can't bring himself to eat any potato with skin on it. Such a potato, some water filled with a few vegetables and a piece of bread were all that the labor camp inmates were given to eat all day.
"He will eat mashed potatoes, but he will not eat any potatoes that he can see skin on," Stevens said.
Kostrzewski does remember that part of his years in the camp.
Said Kostrzewski, "I would stay hungry all day."
He said he was close to starvation. That much he remembers. Other things, not so much.
He remembers that the work involved heavy lifting — something to do with wood. Ironic, because he later would become a skilled laborer who loved to work with wood, a profession that would serve him well.
But the slave labor, he had to do regardless of how he was feeling or the weather conditions.
"Whether he was sick or not, (he) had to work from morning to the time you went to bed," Stevens said. "You didn't tell them you were sick, and if you didn't get up, you were whipped, so you just did what they told you to do."
"I had a tough time," Kostrzewski said, "because Germany didn't have enough for their own people. Sometimes I would get no food at all for a day or two."
The malformed finger is an outward sign of what he experienced. The inner manifestations from the treatment inflicted during his formative years are shown in subtle ways.
Later, when his wife would ask him to go to the grocery store for an item of food, he would always come back with two, Stevens said, "because you had to have enough in the house, just in case."
When the Kostrzewskis come back to the room from meals at the nursing home, they carry bread or some other type of food wrapped in a napkin, according to their daughter. Wasting food is just not good.
Stevens, who is the oldest of the couple's three children (they also have two sons — Walter in California and Richard in Louisiana), said one reason she picked the Knights Templar Home is the food. Living in Champaign, she's only a half-hour drive from the Paxton nursing home.
"I knew I had to find a home where you weren't hungry," she said. "This is important to him, to know that he has food."
The mindset was obvious to the children growing up. You worked hard, and you didn't waste.
"I could have very little water in my bathtub," she said. "I could have two squares of toilet paper. You just don't waste anything. You don't waste food. I had to eat everything on my plate. If I wanted more I could have more."
Stevens said her father expected a lot out of her and her brothers.
"We always worked," she said. "I think I was 11 years old, I had a full-time baby-sitting job."
Stevens didn't comprehend why then, but she does now.
"You understand what he went through," she said.
Born in 1925, Kostrzewski had a happy life growing up with his father and stepmother. (His mother died.) He was raised Catholic, and he and his family regularly attended church.
"I was brought up in a church and taught to help people," he said.
When the Nazis came, he saw a far different side of how some people treated their fellow man.
"When the war started I had a very difficult time to survive," Kostrzewski said.
When Hitler's army overran Poland in 1939, Kostrzewski's father was swept away in the maelstrom. It left him, his stepmother, his older stepsister and younger stepbrother to fend for themselves. He would never see his father again.
"It was terrifying," Kostrzewski said.
Added Stevens, "They didn't have enough food, and he was the one left without the food most of the time and was left on his own a lot."
One way Kostrzewski raised money was by singing for money on the street corner.
"I had a fairly good voice," Kostrzewski said, recalling that before the war he would be summoned to sing for entertainment during family gatherings.
His singing would often raise enough money to buy food. Another way to keep body and soul together, he said, was to travel to the country to work on the Polish farms, where the farmers would give him food in exchange for labor.
"The cities would suffer the most," Kostrzewski said. "Farmers could grow their own food. In the big cities, there was a severe food problem. I loved Warsaw, but there was (no work) for me to do."
When Kostrzewski went to buy food one day, a German soldier stuck a gun in his back and told him to get moving. He would not see his stepmother or stepsister again. He was reunited with his stepbrother, who still lives in Poland, after the war.
Kostrzewski was transported by train to Germany. For the next five years, he was forced to work as a slave laborer.
"It was no picnic," Kostrzewski underemphasizes.
That's about as much as he remembers of life in the camp, either due to trauma or old age. He doesn't remember the Allies liberating the camp, but he knew he didn't want to return to Poland, which had fallen under Communist control.
Having made Dutch friends in the labor camp, Kostrzewski decided to emigrate to that country after Germany's surrender. It was 1945, and Kostrzewski was 20 years old. In Holland he knew he could find work rebuilding the country, which had also been invaded by the Germans.
And work he did. But his life changed one day, five years later, after he moved into a rooming house in Amsterdam. There he met a young clothing model, Connie, who had come to the rooming house to visit her boss.
It was love at first sight for Kostrzewski.
"The first view, that was it," Kostrzewski said with a grin.
He asked her boss to introduce them. But there was a problem. Because of his accent, she thought he was German and didn't want anything to do with him. The wounds of war were still quite fresh in the hearts of the Dutch people. Kostrzewski, however, quickly assured her he was no German, and she agreed to see him. They would marry two years later.
Life had not been easy for Connie's family during the war either. Living on the outskirts of the city, she remembers the bombing raids, huddling in the basement, the German curfews, her mother being able to cook only two hours a day, the Germans stealing their bicycles — their only means of transportation. And she remembers the damage. Like much of the rest of Europe, the country suffered heavy destruction.
Kostrzewski, through the help of his future in-laws, would start school to learn cabinet-making. It was a perfect fit. Kostrzewski would excel in the profession.
Due to help from his aunt and uncle in New York City, the Kostrzewskis moved to the Big Apple five years later, and on the trip met another couple who were like the Kostrzewskis: The wife was Dutch and the husband Polish.
Six months later, the Kostrzewskis would move to Michigan, where their friends lived, made a home and raised their family.
And they would work hard.
Kostrzewski would work two jobs for many years, first as a cabinet- maker and later building houses. In the evenings, he worked as a painter.
"Give me a printout (of plans) and I'll build the White House," he said.
Connie Kostrzewski worked with delinquent children.
He would build a house and plant more than 4,000 trees on a 44-acre tract they owned near Burlington, Mich. The Kostrzewskis would later sell the property and move to Florida They moved to the Knights Templar Home in August. It was time, their daughter said.
"It is absolutely the best place for them," Stevens said. "I have never seen such caring, nice people."
Next year the couple will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.
"Sixty happy years," he said.
Kostrzewski bears fewer outer signs of the hardship of his early life. But that early life, like his index finger, was anything but straight and smooth.