(This story was first published in the March 27, 2014 edition of the VT Standard.)
By Katy Savage, Standard Staff
HARTLAND — Longin Ambros, a war veteran who was forced into a Nazi labor camp in Germany before building his own house in Hartland, died March 13. He was 90.
Ambros was born in a small village in Poland. His mother died young of a disease and his father, a blacksmith, died of what could have been lung disease from mining coal in Argentina. Ambros was orphaned when he was 8-years-old and was raised by relatives.
His mother was illiterate, but Ambros showed academic promise in grade school — so much promise, in fact, that he received a national scholarship that enabled him to go to school in a larger town.
But when the Soviets invaded eastern Poland in 1939, they took Ambros’ uncle and shipped him to Siberia. The Russians were looking for anybody who could read and anybody related to Ambros’ uncle.
“People warned my dad that he was wanted and he had to evade the Russians,” said Ambros’ son, Theodore.
Ambros traveled west to flee the Soviets, but the Nazis picked him up. Ambros was forced into a labor camp in Germany for more than five years when he turned 15. “They took away our leather shoes and our woolen coats, if we had any, and gave us wooden shoes to wear, and rags, and marched us through the streets,” said Ambros in his wife’s book “Rough Road Home.” “And the Germans stood on either side and laughed at us as we passed. ‘Clomp! Clomp! Clomp! Like horses!’ They shouted. ‘Look — Poles are like animals!’” Ambros was one of a dozen people forced to chip and split wood. Each day, he and the others filled 3-5 train cars of wood chips that were then transported all over the country to fuel trucks and vehicles. “If you wanted to survive, you made yourself useful,” Theodore said. “He made himself useful to the Germans.”
Ambros had the advantage of being young and he turned out to be a valuable worker because of his mechanic and language skills. He spoke Polish, Russian, German and Latin. Ambros taught himself English after acquiring two copies of James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Deerslayer” — one in German and one in English — and translating the text.
“I asked him one time what language he counts in and he used both interchangeably,” Theodore said.
Ambros was about 20 on Liberation Day, when all of a sudden, he had no boss barking orders to him. Ambros hiked toward where the U.S. Army was camping — simply because he wanted a pair of shoes and he thought it was likely the Americans would have some.
Despite being starved, Ambros was incredibly strong. The only health effect the labor camp seemed to leave on his body was a hearing problem from the loud wood processor. His growth was also stunted.
“His father was very tall and we think that if my father hadn’t been starved he would have been tall,”
Ambros’ daughter Maria van Beuren said.
Ambros came to the United States in 1946 and enlisted in the U.S. Army because it was the fastest way to citizenship. He became a paratrooper, jumping more than 100 times.
He sometimes joked that he took off in an airplane 50 times before he landed in one.
|Longin Ambros surveys his potato plants at his farm in Hartland.
Ambros became friends with Hartland native Robert Coughlin, the Lt. Col of the U.S. Army who assumed responsibility for Ambros when he had no family. When Coughlin died in the 1950s, Ambros felt it was his duty to take care of Coughlin’s wife Melissa. But it wasn’t long before the two fell in love.
The family lived in a yellow house with crooked walls on Best Road in Hartland. The children were told not to sit near the chimney for fear that the bricks might fall down. They were also told not to jump or run because the house was so unstable.
Locals say Ambros was an extraordinarily polite man.
“He was one of the kindest people I believe I’ve ever met,” said Pat Dugdale, who used to babysit his children when she was a teenager. “He just would help anybody.”
He also had a sense of humor and “amazing facial expressions,” van Beuren said.
When the time came, the family demolished the falling yellow house and Ambros built a new house in 1958. He did everything himself, except the plumbing and the chimney.
His house was his ongoing project and even as he aged, Ambros looked for ways to repair it.
“There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do, fix,” van Beuren said. “You couldn’t stop him.”
Ambros ran the Old Mill Cabinet Shop in Hartland, sometimes staying in his shop until the early morning hours, perfecting his projects.
“My dad was wildly over-optimistic about how much one human being could accomplish in a fixed period of time. So therefore the result was, he was always late with anything and everything,” Theodore said. “He basically judged throughout his life what he could accomplish based upon his memory of his very best day and that’s how he went through life.”
Ambros was also a stickler for accuracy. He was a gardener who built his potato holes deep, and fences perfectly straight. He imagined and fretted about all that could go wrong in his structures and then he made sure that they didn’t.
“Everything was engineered,” his daughter Elizabeth Ambros said.
Ambros had an apprentice program that his son participated in. His advice to young woodworkers was, no matter what you do, you should be perfect. If Ambros didn’t like the result of something he made, he started over again.
Ambros built the barn near his house twice after first one burned down.
He was a part-time farmer who at one point had 12 dairy cows — claiming to his wife at one time that he would farm Polish-style, without any modern advances.
Ambros was also a singer. He sang in the barn, on rooftops and in his shop. He usually chanted Polish verses that even his family couldn’t understand.
He sang to his cows, to the hum of his tractor and to the timing of his hammer.
“You could hear him half a mile away,” his wife, Melissa wrote in Rough Road Home, which was published in the Saturday Evening Post.
Ambros built a home overlooking the Vermont hills and after being tossed around the world against his will during his youth, he established a refuge at the farm from which he nearly refused to leave.
“He always had an excuse — the dogs would be in the house too long,” Theodore said. “The just of it is, he carved out a spot in the world that was his place.”
Vermont was his sanctuary. Ambros called sitting and looking at the hills of Vermont an “adventure.”
Ambros overcame poverty and was a labor camp survivor, but he was most proud of his children and his family.
In his later years, his body became weak and ill, but his brain never faltered.
His children even had to take away his ladders to stop him from climbing on top of his roof in his 80s.
Despite all his hardships, Ambros never pitied himself. He swore at tractors and bailers, but not about people. He was never angry that he starved or that he was pulled out of school as a teenager and he talked about the Nazis objectively.
There will be a celebration of life April 26 at 1 p.m. at the Ambros farm.
“My dad was a survivor and he never complained. Ever,” Theodore