BANNISHED TO SIBERIA 1940
Helena Woloch Antolak
THE ROAD TO THE EAST
When I look back to those distant days, what do I see?
The summer of 1939 was one of the warmest anyone could remember. The sun shone as if it wanted to warm us, to make up for all the years ahead which were to be so difficult. Who could have thought then that thousands of Polish men, women and children would perish in the wilds of Asia; that we would be dispersed all over the cold wastes of distant Siberia? But that is exactly what happened! And my whole world fell from under me like the thin ice on a river.
I had returned home from school for the holidays, to be reunited with my parents, my sister and my brother. Wishing to please me, my father announced that there was to be a grand ball in Radziwillow, that he had been invited, and that I too could go. This was a wonderful surprise for me because it would be my very first ball! The army officers of the region had arranged it. They were leaving to take up positions nearer the German border: “General maneuvers” they called it. It was an occasion to celebrate. And so we prepared ourselves, and set out on the few kilometers to the place in Radziwillow (near Brody).
We had hardly dismounted from the carriage when two men approached us from the ballroom entrance. I knew them: they were elderly friends of my father. Taking me firmly, but gently, by the arms, they led me into the ballroom. Because I was so young and this was my first ball, and because these two gentlemen were elderly, distinguished men (one even had a small beard), I thought that the whole world would fall in upon me.
The hall was beautifully decorated. It seemed as if the whole town was saying good-bye to our Polish officers who were going away to war, a war from which very few would return. I saw various banners posted up everywhere declaring that “We will not give away even a button” and “We are strong, dedicated, ready and calm”, etc., etc.
That evening, everything seemed like out of a fairy tale. Ladies in beautiful evening gowns, and our army officers: so young and handsome. I can still see them all now, dancing like waves to the music. We all had a wonderful time. But the ball had to come to an end. Like most good things, it did not last long. It was summertime, almost at the end of the school holidays. A few days later the war began: Germany invaded Poland.
My father was immediately called up to the army. As he was boarding the troop train to depart, he received a telegram ordering him to return to his civilian work in Radziwillow, because someone had to remain behind and work.
In the first few days of the war, airplanes began bombing the main railway lines. I remember how nine airplanes flew along our section of the line one day. One of them left its formation and began to fly in the direction of our house. All of us began to run to take cover in the nearby woods. But we were noticed, and the plane began to fly after us. Although we were hidden under trees in the wood, the aircraft shot volleys of bullets at us from a machine gun. Each of us pressed ourselves to the side of a large tree afraid to look, thinking that perhaps the rest of us were dead! The airplane flew off into the distance a little and then returned again to make sure it had killed us all. It gave bursts from its machine gun. The bullets ploughed up the earth around us. Finally, it flew off for good. It resembled a black serpent, flying so low over the earth that the ground seemed to tremble beneath it. For a while I was afraid to look around me. Thankfully, by some miracles, none of us had been wounded!
Later, we saw the railway line had been completely destroyed. Trees stood around broken and burned, just like people with amputated limbs, legs pointing to the sky. I could hear explosions. I felt the ground rumbling. It resembled the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra! – wounded civilians, the cries of panic, the people running this way and that. Panic reigned.
An ammunition train in nearby Brody had exploded, and we all immediately let ourselves believe that the German advance had reached that town already — only ten kilometres away. The roads were blocked with fleeing people. Those who had fled from the West to the eastern borders before the German advance now found that they had nowhere left to run to. For here, the roads ended. I remember one young woman, the wife of an elderly judge, who sat trembling like a leaf while her husband stroked her hair softly and tried to calm her down. He later told my father that he was returning to meet the German advance so that everything would be over for him, once and for all. He expected this war to be a long and terrible one that would be fought from both sides, from the West and from the East.
A platoon of Polish soldiers had taken up position in the wood next to our house. The local civilians were afraid that if the soldiers were discovered the planes would return and level the whole town to the ground. We could already hear the sound of the airplanes flying overhead. This time, thankfully, they did not see us. One of the soldiers in the platoon couldn’t stand the tension any longer and let out a shot from his rifle. He was immediately arrested and disciplined by his officers. They took away his rifle, stripped him of his belt, and told him that he would face a court-marshal. I felt very sorry for him.
The bombing continued for two weeks: the frightened people, roads full of refugees: in a word, bedlam.
Until one day, there was silence! We did not hear any noise, no exploding bombs. It was so wonderful! My father set off down the railway line to ask one of his friends who lived there whether he knew anything. When he returned shortly afterwards, he announced to us that the war was over. The Soviet armies had crossed into Eastern Poland.
“So is it true”, my mother asked him, “that there’s no Poland any more?”
My father was unable to answer, for he was caught by a spasm in his throat, and tears which we had never seen in his eyes before that day, began to flow down his cheeks. We all began to cry too. Though pale and frightened, he attempted to cheer us up a little. “At least the bombs won’t be raining down on our heads any more”, he added.
During all this time, my mother could not eat anything; she could only drink. She was the most afraid of all of us, for she had had previous experience of the Soviets. Eighteen years earlier, after the Russio-Polish war, the eastern border of Poland had been drawn by treaty some fifteen kilometers west of Bialotyn (where she lived). The villagers did not wish to remain on the soviet side of the border. So my grandfather, Ludwik Pulkiewicz and others, organized a petition objecting to the treaty, and urging the authorities to push the Polish border a little further eastwards. He was immediately arrested, but managed to escape somehow and make his way into Poland. Meanwhile, his daughter Maria (my mother) secretly continued to hand the petition around for others to sign. The Soviet authorities learned of this. One night, the soldiers came for her. A loud knock was heard, and someone shouted: “Is your middle daughter Maria there?”
The soldiers seemed in a dilemma. They did not know whether to arrest her or not. Perhaps if they didn’t arrest her, her father would return and they would have them both in custody. They argued among themselves until it was dinnertime. Then they left one of the soldiers to watch over their captive, and the rest went off into town to get something to eat. The soldier explained to my mother that he had been left to guard her. She tried to make a joke of it by saying that she must be very important indeed (but he was not really a soldier, but someone from the town whom she knew). When he went outside, my mother seized her shawl, covered her head, and quietly began to run barefoot (and in her nightdress) in the direction of the border. She had an acquaintance in Ostrog, the border town; and there she found work for herself in a hotel and was reunited with her father. So she remained in Poland and could never again return to her family. For this reason, in September 1939, my mother was more frightened than we were.
The roads were still crowded with refugees, their cars loaded with suitcases, all eager to escape the Germans. Now, from the opposite (Soviet) direction, came tanks full of soldiers. The communists were advancing from the East, the Nazis from the West; and the refugees did not know in which direction to flee, west or east. Which way should they turn?
Over the course of the next few days we did not see any soldiers from either army. Slowly, the refugees began to return home. There now began a very dangerous time indeed. As I have already mentioned earlier, we lived in Volhynia, in the east of the country, among many Ukrainians. These were people not kindly disposed towards the Poles (but not all Ukrainians were like this). They called us “Lahhy”. We felt as if we were in the lion’s mouth.
Almost immediately, two young Ukrainians moved permanently into our house without asking, and began to order us about. Our house was the property of the Lyceum of Krzemieniec, where my father was the head of the forestry estates. We felt frightened having such hostile men armed with rifles in our house. It was a difficult time for us. We lived in constant fear. Every creak of the door seemed to foretell some danger. We did not have a single peaceful day or night. Armed Ukrainian gangs had taken over control of the district. They tortured and killed, and none of us knew who would be next. We often heard the sounds of rifles discharging and we felt certain that one of us would be next.
The two young Ukrainians brought some brochures and newspapers with them, and ordered me to read them out loud. I was to read and they would listen. I could hardly bear it; so unpleasant this task was to me. Among many other things, I read that once upon a time there grew a strong tree: this represented the land of Poland. Around the tree grew poisonous grasses: these were the Polish people. The tree had already been destroyed; but the poisonous grasses still had to be torn up by the roots and burned so that no trace of them remained. I had to read such things to them every day. It was a torture for me. They threatened that they would send us to the place where the Polar bears lived, and we would shepherd the bears!
Not long afterwards, one of our permanent Ukrainian workers came to visit us. He began to talk to my mother, and began to praise (or rather imagine) what life will be like for us in the Soviet Paradise. “We will go singing to work, he explained, and return by motor, not on foot. And life at home will be so pleasant. Everyone will have large cupboards full of everything they desire. I began to think that he had lost his mind! He really believed this propaganda! At that precise moment, my seven-year-old brother rushed into the room. The Ukrainian caught him up in his arms and held him there, asking with a devilish grin on his face: “Tell me who you are now?” strongly accentuating the word “now”. At this, the little boy did not know what to say. Our mother had told him not to talk too much with such people. I froze with fright, looking at my little brother. Nevertheless, he broke his silence and answered: “I am Polish”. The Ukrainian (Mr. Bieroza) answered in a loud voice: “Oh no, you’re not! Now you are a little Bolshevik. Ha ha ha”. And he began to laugh. I looked at the man with disgust. I felt that even worse times awaited us, and I felt consumed by feelings of powerlessness.
One day, none of our employees turned up for work. Instead, they sent a fourteen-year-old boy. The boy announced that all the adult men had gone off to disarm our Polish soldiers returning from the front (and that he would join them later). When they had collected enough rifles, they would begin shooting all the Lahhs (that is, us Poles). And that is what happened. They behaved like common thugs. They began capturing soldiers returning home after the defeat. They would strip them almost naked, take away their clothes and underwear, and let some of them return home like that. After the September defeat, the soldiers returned home bedraggled, penniless. Nevertheless, the Ukrainians would go through their pockets and take away even their last cigarettes. Sometimes they would drag some of them through the streets in their underwear, prick them repeatedly with needles, and drag them through various villages until they collapsed. They did this especially to former policemen.
During this time, before the Soviet army took control of the area, terrible things happened. One Ukrainian family who lived not far away from us near the railway line (they belonged to a certain Religious sect called the Sztundry) advised my father to hide himself in their hay barn. They had heard that he was in imminent danger. While he was hiding in the barn, he overheard a conversation between some prisoners who had escaped from jail. He listened as they told one another that they already had enough rifles, and that now they would go and “deal with” the Polish settlers and Pilsudski’s former legionaries. After that they would go and settle with Woloch (that is, my father). They began to talk excitedly about how they would conduct their killings, until one of their comrades arrived on a bicycle to join them. He told them to put a stop to the killings, at least for the time being. He explained that a Russian captain from the Soviet army had been calling public meetings in several towns telling everyone to wait until the Soviet authorities arrived. Only then would the Ukrainians be able to do what they liked. Otherwise, if they acted now, “every death would be paid for by death”. As a result, the killings became fewer in the following days. It later turned out that this “Russian captain” was in fact a Polish soldier disguised as a Russian commissar. It was not long before this “captain” was arrested and executed. He saved our lives, and lost his own. But so many lives were saved because of his actions. I salute you, dear captain, because maybe I too, owe my life to you!
With the Soviet occupation, a new chapter in our lives began. At first, there was nothing to be bought in the shops of Radziwillow. If, by some miracle, we managed to find something, it was sold for a king’s ransom. The Soviet soldiers immediately snatched almost everything in the shops up.
More than once, Polish students, and other people, slept the night in our house in order to be able to cross over the border into Rumania, and so continue fighting the war. Polish soldiers who had been captured by the Russians were forced to work on the roads in their summer uniforms, even in this, the coldest winter weather. They suffered terrible frostbite and hungers. They were worked hard; and if any one of them happened to suffer frostbite to such an extent that he was unable to perform his work, then he was shot immediately. We civilians begged the Soviet officer in charge to allow us to give them something hot to eat. Surprisingly, he agreed to our request and permitted us to give the prisoners-of-war what he called “wartime rations”. “They can eat once a day,” he said.
All his lasted until the night of the 10th February 1940. On that unforgettable night, when our father just happened to be home, we heard a loud voice waking us from our sleep. “Open up!” It was the Russians: two NKVD officers with pistols, and one elderly Ukrainian who lived locally. Our hearts almost stopped! We thought our last hour had arrived. They put my father up against the wall in his underwear and pointed a pistol at him. When my father was stood up against the wall, I remember I caught a glimpse of his face. It was ashen-grey, as if his entire colour had drained away, and deeply marked with worry. Although I was only a young girl, it seemed to me then that my father had been allowed a glimpse of the terrible future that lay in store for his poor children. The rest of us were ordered to dress warmly and to take enough food to last a few days. Then they made an inventory of the contents of the house: how many rooms, what was in each one. After my father had signed the inventory, they allowed him to dress. The Russians promised that they would return all our possessions to us in the place to which we were being taken.
Remus, our family Alsatian dog, howled mournfully the whole time and I asked one of the Russians to allow me to say good-bye to him. He allowed it, but went with me to guard me. For the previous two or three days, the dog had been sensing that something was to happen.
Then we were led outside, placed onto two horse-sleighs, and driven away. It was the night of the 10th February 1940. No one saw how they took us away from our home by night, and cast us away. The sleighs moved smoothly over the thin white snow. The night was so hushed and peaceful. Only a light sprinkling of snow was falling from the sky, covering up our tracks, rubbing away all traces of us. As we were taken away, I kept looking about me the whole time as if wanting desperately to remember these sights: the places where I had been brought up and spent my childhood, and to which I was destined never to return again. I closed my eyes for a while, and not lifting my eyelids, shivered internally, not knowing where they were taking us, or what they intended to do with us.
At first, we didn’t know what was happening. Having been brought to the railway station at Radziwillow (near Brody) we saw other Polish families already there: all of them frightened and many in tears. They were mostly the families of veteran army settlers. Many, many goods wagons stood waiting, surrounded by a large number of armed Soviet soldiers. Soon, the process of loading us all on board began, a process that lasted until morning. It was a freezing February day, and yet I saw many people sitting in the snow, oblivious to all the dangers of the cold, thinking that it didn’t matter: it was the end of everything anyway.
Almost towards the end of the loading process, we noticed a group of Polish prisoners-of-war being marched (or rather hurried) to work on the railway line. When they saw us they began to shout: “Where are they taking you to, brothers?” And they began to weep, making us all start weeping too, until the soldiers came and ordered them away.
One elderly woman knelt down where the snow was deepest, raised her hands to the skies and prayed to God for revenge. Then she began to curse all the Russians vulgarly. She was immediately surrounded and arrested. Some of our men went over and pleaded with the officers to release her. They said that she had been mentally ill for a long time. The Russians believed them and released her. In truth, she was a very intelligent woman. When the Soviets had arrived to arrest her son, she had volunteered to be taken with him. She explained that she wanted to be like the mother of God and go with her son to Golgotha. She was granted that great privilege: they allowed her to be taken along with her son! This woman’s name was Mrs. Bednarska.
We were loaded into the goods wagons like sardines, one next to another in a standing position, families with children. In the centre of the wagon stood a stove. There was also a small barred window. A hole in the floor served as our toilet, which we concealed with a bedcover for modesty’s sake. The doors were locked and padlocked, and were not opened again for three days. Some of the children soon began to faint for lack of water. The men would beat against the doors with their hands and feet in desperation, but to no avail. We were soundly locked up! But why for so long? Nevertheless, we still had some hope that the longer we stood at the station the more chance there was that someone would get to know about our fate: the world would learn what was happening to us and wouldn’t allow the Russians to take us by force. Oh God, how we hoped and prayed…in vain!
After three days the doors were opened and the soldiers shouted: “Everyone out for a walk! So we went out for ten minutes or so into the fresh air under the glare of pointed rifles, and were then herded back into the wagons again. They padlocked the doors so loudly this time that it sounded like the door of a charnel house had shut behind us. Soldiers with rifles stood by every door. We could hear the noise of people in other wagons. Maybe the Russians would not have time to expel us. Maybe other countries would get news of what was happening and put a stop to this rape. The train buffers shuddered. There was a sound of steam. The engine whistled, and slowly the train began to move: in the direction of the East.
Everyone in the wagon began to shout out, and although the wheels made a loud noise on the rails, the wailing and crying of the people was much louder. The whole goods train was lamenting. A great cry of injustice went out to God: “Out of the depths do we cry to you O Lord!” It was a heart-rending cry: this last moan. The hair on the head can grow white from hearing such a desperate cry. And then there came a song, one that has often imparted spirit to this tortured nation like no other. From inside the sealed wagons there burst a mighty song: the National Anthem: “Poland has not yet passed away while we are still alive”! It burst out of us spontaneously. Totally exhausted, we were standing crowded together like sardines, singing through our tears. The engine whistled again. The melody of our national anthem ran out over the deserted fields, lost itself and disappeared in the emptiness of the open landscape.
At first, I did not know what to think: the wailing, the incessant noise from the wheels of the wagons, the intense darkness, the sound of breathing from people whose faces I had never set eyes on before. I shrugged my shoulders, willing myself to wake up from this nightmare — because surely it had to be a bad dream! But no! I was awake and this dream was real, overpowering with the weeping voices of so many people packed together.
Day after day, night after night, the train blundered its way along the railway line. Sometimes it would stop at some remote, unnamed station before setting off again. Presently, we were transferred to Russian wagons (i.e., Pullmans), which traveled on the much wider Russian railway gauge.
We were told to fill one pail of water for every wagon (and there were 74 people in our wagon!), and then we were on the move again. The little children were given positions on two ledges (two bunks) and the rest of us had to remain standing, moving from time to time from the window to the stove, and back again, for a change. We crossed the Russian frontier during the night at Szepetowka.
The rest of the journey continued under frightening conditions. The feeling of physical exhaustion overshadowed all other senses. The sorrow caused by our helplessness was unbearable. Why had fate chosen us for this ordeal? With insufficient water, air or rest, everyone in the carriage began to feel unwell. There was a small unbarred window in the Russian Pullman carriages, high up from the floor. From time to time, one of us would let down a container on a string to gather some snow, which we melted over the stove to augment our water rations. But this situation was not allowed to continue for long. The soldiers who traveled with us, one almost to every wagon, strongly forbade us even this luxury. Anyway, there were so many people in the wagon that we would have to be melting snow continually to satisfy everyone’s thirst.
The train rocked from side to side so relentlessly that the children lying on the bunks would fall on top of those of us who were standing. I could never have dreamt that a train was capable of rocking so abruptly. It seemed to have been done deliberately.
When it stopped, occasionally, (usually at a goods station), we were sometimes able to speak to the Russians outside through the window. At other times, when the train was moving slowly, the Russian civilians who saw us seemed to sympathize with us. Those of us who could speak Russian began to shout out of the window to them, giving them the information that we had been taken from such-and-such a place by force and were suffering an injustice. But how could they help us? This was not the first time they had seen such scenes. They merely shook their heads from side to side and pointed to their eyes and ears. They were showing us that they were not supposed to see or hear anything. This was not the first time such things had happened in Russia.
More stations came and went: Kiev, Oriel, and Smolensk. We would look out on this hostile land as we traveled further on and on. No one had a map. Eventually the train came to a definite halt. The soldiers jumped down from their posts, opened the doors and shouted: “Everyone outside for a walk!” Those of us who still had some strength disembarked to take the air, helping down others who were weaker than they were. We tried to move our legs a little, as if checking if they were still functional. They were functional, and we were still alive, but for how much longer? A shout was heard that the breather was over and we were to return immediately to our wagons. Shortly afterwards, we heard another cry. This time, two people from each wagon were to get out. We did not know who was to go, or for what reason. Soon the rumour went round that they were to bring soup and coal to the wagon. The two volunteers were escorted away under rifles and returned presently with the soup and coal. Water and coal were priceless commodities for us. There were no takers for the soup. It was a thin dull color and no one wanted to eat it.
Further and further we traveled eastwards. I asked one of the soldiers where they were taking us.
The train knows where it is going,” he replied.
One night there was a loud cry from our wagon, and we did not know what had happened. Some of the men began to wave their hats out of the window and shout: “A doctor. A doctor!” Voices in the other wagons began to take up the call. Soon the whole train was shouting for a doctor. Our guards, however, out of spite, pretended not to hear. Whenever we lowered a small container out of the window to gather snow for water, they would see it immediately. But when we shouted for a doctor, they did not hear us! After an hour or so, someone calling herself a nurse was allowed into the wagon. A short time later there was a sound of gentle whimpering, as if from a sick bird, and we felt sorry for whomever it was who was complaining of their fate. We learned later that a little boy had been born in our wagon! The mother did not even have a bed to lie on, and there was hardly enough space for her on the floor. So we all had to squeeze together even more tightly. The little boy was given the name Christopher, after the patron saint of travelers.
Several times we passed other trains like ours heading in the same direction. It was very hard to bear, knowing that others had been condemned to the same fate as us, just as many others have in the course of our long history. We would meet these other transported Poles when the train slowed down at a station, for instance. We would shout out to one another: “Where are you from? When did they take you?” When we were being arrested we did not fully understand what was happening. When one saw all the other trains full of forcibly transported people, we felt so powerless. “So many people!” What a terrible thing was happening to us all! And how many others had already died in their hearts! Nevertheless, in spite of this, there were certain individuals among us, strong wonderful individuals, who infected us with their courage. For if a person has even an iota of hope that things will turn out well, then it becomes easier for him to endure.
At last, we felt that we were drawing nearer to our intended destination. The frosts became more severe (it was February 1940). The children who slept by turns on the bunks found that their hair became frozen to the sides of the wagon, and they could not get up in the mornings. We were still traveling ever further. The second week began, and still we did not know where we were. Dark clouds hung gloomily over the forests. The sky became darker with every day that passed, and more frightening. All around us there were only forests and more forests without end. We had been traveling through these forests for three days now without seeing a single soul, a station, a settlement or even a road. And still we traveled on.
After about four weeks, the train came to a halt. We thought that they would shout “Everyone out for a walk” again. But this time there was only silence. Then the doors opened as if by themselves. Our guards had disappeared and we had not even noticed when they had gone. The train had reached the end of the line. Here the railway line ended. We had arrived in the Archangielsk region, Lalsk area (Khrystoforov, 16th station on the line). We wanted to get out, but there was so much snow, that we gave up. It was also so bitterly cold. So we stayed where we were and waited to see what would happen next.
One courageous individual did get out. He saw some people standing on the opposite side of the line. These people began to come out of their huts carrying what looked like bundles of clothes. We understood that this place was our intended destination. A few sleighs arrived, and they loaded us into them in small groups, and took us to our barracks.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The first group of us was packed into a small barracks building, basically a log cabin standing by the railway line. The next group (of about seventy people) was accommodated in a larger barracks that stood alongside it. The rest of the people were driven three or four miles deeper into the woods.
The barracks house was fairly small, perhaps only 5 metres by 5 metres. In the centre was a stone stove whose permanent inhabitants were large, red cockroaches with white underbellies. Around this stove, we settled down to sleep on the floor, all thirty-seven of us. The walls were constructed of tree trunks, placed one upon the other. The gap between each log was plugged with moss, in which millions of fleas lived and bred. They were like a plague. They crawled out in their thousands, and even flew around. They gave off a very specific flea-like odour. They would bite us mercilessly. It was like living in an ants nest.
The first thing we did was light the stove, because the cold was so intense that trees were cracking open outside. We had brought a few things with us from Poland. Spreading out the clothes we had with us onto the floor, we lay down to sleep, one next to another. At least we had the luxury of being able to lie down. In the railway wagon we had been forced to stand continuously for four weeks.
Early next morning, the men among us set about constructing a set of three-tiered bunks so as to better make use of the small space. Meanwhile, the women melted snow and made something to eat. When we had finally more or less arranged things in the barracks, we were very tired. We crawled across the bunks on our bellies to find a space to sleep. We were packed tight like herrings in a barrel. At least we each had space to ourselves. Covering ourselves with whatever we had – blankets, coats – we fell asleep.
During the night, someone with a torch entered and began shining a light into our eyes, demanding, from each of us in turn, our first and second names. They were checking to see if we were all there, to see that no one had run away. After this checking, we let out a sigh of relief! But it was only short-lived, because soon voices were ordering us to get up and go (immediately) to the railway line as quickly as we could. A train had arrived waiting to be loaded with wood. What else could we do but get up and obey?
Quickly! they shouted.
Oh, it was so cold and dark outside! The wind wailed unremittingly. We were forced to load newly cut, heavy tree-trunks, which were destined to become railway sleepers, onto the carriages.
When we had finished our work, we were utterly exhausted. Sleepy and sore all over, we returned to out new, communal home only half-alive. We were hungry, cold and tired. After a few hours rest, we heard the familiar cry of Get to work! This time, the railway line needed to be cleared of snow.
The very next day, several of the children in our barracks, died. We carried their lifeless bodies by sleigh a little distance into the forest. The earth was too frozen to be dug, so we just buried them in the soft snow.
After overworking myself that first day, I spent the following days longing for Sunday. The days seemed to drag on doubly long; and Sunday (or Day-off as it was called) seemed to pass so quickly with the flicker of an eyelid. This lack of proportion between ones longing and the reality seemed to be just one more injustice we had to endure. Yet the days did pass, faster even than I could imagine. I would return each evening from my ten hours of hard labour and collapse on the bunk, falling asleep immediately. The man with the torch would always awaken me in the night, however: every single night without fail. We always had to counted and checked. It seemed that things could get no worse. Not long afterwards, our ten-hour workday was prolonged to twelve hours, with no day off in the week at all! The extra day’s work was to be our contribution to the Soviet fatherland!
I would often say to others that a life such as this was unbearable: that no one could survive it. The Russians would always reply in the same way: they would say, You will get used to it. And if you dont get used to it, you’ll perish. And that was exactly how it was! With every day that passed, our numbers became fewer. Many of the elderly died; but the children died in the greatest numbers. We would take them, our dearest friends and acquaintances, into the forest by sleigh and bury them in the snow at night. Some of us pulled the sleigh while others pushed. Someone would hold a paraffin lamp, while the others dug a hole. The wind and the snow wailed unbearably as we sang: Serdeczna Matko opiekunko ludzi. Niech Cie placz sierot do litosci wzbudzi. Wygnancy do Ciebie wolamy. It was a singing mixed with much bitterness and weeping. Every word of the hymn imprinted itself in our minds. Then we would leave our loved ones behind in the forests, leave them there alone. In the next few days, or sometimes even the next day, we would return with the next victims of this Soviet paradise.
One particular evening, a Russian from the nearby settlement of Khrystoforov came to visit out barracks. His name was Baranowskij. He sat down with us and began to tell us of the time when he first arrived here, twelve years earlier. He tried to lift our spirits as much as he could, and gave us good advice. He told us the story of how he, and many others like him, had been taken from their homes and dumped here in the Siberian taiga. From what he told us, we learned that these Russians had had a much worse time of it than we had. When they arrived, there was nothing here at all for them but bare snow. The children and the old folk among them were the first tom die, but the stronger ones managed to build themselves a shelter so as to have some hope of surviving until the spring. A few people did survive until spring: and later, somehow, they learned how to cope. The Russian gentleman promised to return next day. But the camp commandant learned of his visit, and forbade him to come again. The commandant’s name was Tokmakov. His second in command was a certain Voronin. They were heartless individuals.
Everyone over the age of fourteen was required to work. Younger children were sent to a Russian school to be indoctrinated into the Soviet faith. I began by working on the railway line as a railway worker. They formed a few of us into a Polish women’s brigade. At first, all we did was clear the line of snow all day long. Later we were given the job of renewing bolts in the railway line. We would hammer them into place with a giant hammer called a pereszywka. Whatever it was we did, we had to fill out a daily norm, otherwise our ration of bread would be cut. Later we were put to building a new railway line into the forest. It was very heavy work, and it continued every day.
For almost nine months of the year it was as dark as night; for three months we had continuous day without night. Sometimes we would see the Aurora Borealis in the sky! We would come home from work so exhausted that our legs could hardly carry us. We did not have the luxury of rest, because we then had to walk three kilometers to the next settlement and stand in a queue in order to get something to eat. Many times we returned empty-handed because there was no food left for us. Then, we would all lie down on our bunks (onto which it was necessary to crawl on our bellies) and go to sleep hungry, and exhausted. But there were too many impediments to sleep. The fleas crawled over us like ants and bit us. And then there was always the roll call every single night without exception: to make sure that no one had escaped. Escape would have been madness! No one could survive the wastes of the Taiga in all that snow and without any food.
The worst things we had to endure were the hunger, the cold, and the exhaustion. When you went outside the barracks you found it difficult to breathe. Often the cold was so severe that your eyelids would glue themselves together with frost. Whenever someone shouted to you: Hey! Your cheeks! or Hey! Your nose is completely white! we had to scoop up handfuls of snow and rub them into the frozen part of our body until the color returned.
No one was allowed to arrive late for work, or else he was immediately sent to court. The Russians did not call this crime being late but, progoly. One of our number (Pan Rosa) and another Ukrainian was once arrested for being late. Six NKVD officers marched them off as if they were real criminals. For the first progol, the authorities would deduct 25% of our wages for the fatherland. For a second such offense, they deducted 50%. If it happened a fourth time, you were sent straight to the labour camps.
It is laughable to call these wages. We were hardly paid anything at all. We often did not have enough to buy the half-baked bread that was on offer. If we had not had things to sell, or rather barter, (a watch, a skirt, maybe a shirt) then things would have been even worse for us. Conditions were bad enough as they were. In the beginning they did not want to pay us anything i.e., pay us what we were owed; they were only prepared to give us an advance (a few rubles every ten days). This situation lasted for some time. Some of the families among us had not been allowed to take many personal belongings with them from Poland when they were arrested. These people fared the worse. We had to help one another as best we could in order to survive until the next day at least. And when tomorrow came, what then? We placed such great hopes in this tomorrow.
Sometimes when biscuits, or something else, arrived at the cooperative store, the NKVD, the teachers and the doctors (if you can call them doctors) were always allowed in first and the doors closed behind them. They would take what they wanted first, and only after they had finished, would they let us in. What a rush, a squeezing and a pushing would then ensue. It was possible to walk over the shoulders of the crowd!
Each of us workers was given a work card with which we could obtain 700 grams of bread every day (if we had the money to buy the bread, of course). Children and the elderly could obtain 300 grams. The bread was only half-baked in order that it would weigh more on the scales. We could also buy a portion of soup (called stalowoj). The soup was little more than water into which some powdered peas had been added and boiled in a large cauldron. For breakfast it was always oats, almost all of it still in their husks, served on a shallow plate.
My seven-year-old brother never used to want to eat in Poland: he had to be forced to it. In the Soviet paradise, he quickly changed. My poor mother wanted to give my father (as an adult) and me (who was working, and also almost grown-up) a little more of the oats for breakfast. At this, my brother would sit with tears falling into his plate. Why are you crying? my mother would ask him.
Because daddy and Hela have more than me, he replied. He did not realize that we had to work hard almost all day long i.e., ten hours, and then walk the three kilometres for the soup or the bread.
We were regularly forced to listen to propaganda lectures. Basically, the NKVD officers came and escorted us to these meetings. And what interesting things did we hear there? Always the same things every time: the names of those people who had fulfilled their work norms (because this was a rare occurrence), the names of those who hadnt; that we had to get used to life here; that we should attend dances; that Citizen Stalin wanted to create a better life for us……. and so on without end.
Among us, the talk was only of hunger, death, and of our terror and helplessness. The cold chilled us, took away our breath, and entered deeply into the marrow of our bones.
When Christmas arrived, we shared out our bread with everyone around. We wished each other a speedy return home, and a speedy reunification with our loved ones. We believed that these wishes, made on this most holy day of the year, had to be granted! Meanwhile, around us, the trees cracked open with the severe frost; the temperature reached 50 degrees below zero, and deep snow covered everything. Snowdrifts formed around our cabins, which the wind had blown there during the storms. The trees stood silently, like house brooms. Soft powdery snow fell into the air from the branches. Snowy streamers and lustreless icicles hung down from them. The wind was always wailing and moaning like a hyena. We all felt united as one, all of us who had been sentenced to that little cabin. We had been brought together by the same fate, united under a single roof and a single sleeping area. We were strangers and loved ones. Whether we understood one another or not, we nevertheless sought support from each another, even if at the same time we also felt like keeping our distance, or even hated the sight of one another. Then, there began to unfold before the eyes of my soul the image of the broad landscape of my home in Poland. Here and there I saw glimpses of woodland hiding a mirrored slab of pond or lake. Behind them were large orchards overladen in spring with thick bunches of apples or cherries. A dome-shaped willow in the middle of the village. A large house covered in red roof tiles, hidden almost completely in the trees. Variegated garlands of woodland stretching to the crests of hills. Everything shone and smiled. Above them all was a blue sky, transparent as glass. This whole picture flowed before my eyes, and then slowly dissolved itself in mist. Oh, how much I longed to see it again just one more time!
Every day, we had to go to work very early. Every day was exactly the same as the one before it. Work, seven days a week; 800 grams of half-baked bread, the cold, useless hands, backs sore from work. Would there ever be an end to all this suffering?
In winter we would dig channels in the snow so that the melting snow would not flood the railway line when spring arrived. These channels were dug very deep and narrow so that from the bottom you could only just catch glimpses of the sky. The snow, which we dug and tossed out, would come falling back onto our heads (because the channels were so deep and narrow). So many times I felt as if I was digging my own grave! I would become all wet from the snow and from my own tears. If anyone stood still for any length of time he would freeze. Mostly, all of us held onto the slender hope that something sometime would change for the better. Physical exhaustion extinguishes all other feelings and emotions. Perhaps it was this physical exhaustion, which saved me from despair. So many times, I would catch myself crying, unable to control myself. It was not the pain that was unbearable, but the feeling of impotence, and my sorrow at our destiny: that Fate had singled us out for this!
I would emerge from these channels in the snow to have an hours break for dinner. Our so-called pagruzczyki (men who loaded the wagons with wood) would light a fire, and we would sit around it and bite into our pieces of bread, if we had any with us). The bread would be frozen stiff, in spite of the fact that we kept then inside our fufajki (padded jackets). We impaled the pieces of bread onto twigs and warmed them over the fire. Then it was back to work again.
All this lasted for two years. But in reality, it flowed into the whole remainder of my life. All my life I have had before my eyes those dejected, frightened, pathetic faces. They have followed me even here, into the present.
Many of my friends – or rather my young colleagues in misfortune – died in Siberia. There was nothing to treat them with: no medicines, not even an aspirin. We would go to a doctor only for what was called a sprawka, a doctor’s note of exemption from work. This was granted only if one had a high temperature. If one was weakened by working (as we were) so that we could hardly walk straight but wandered around as if we were drunk and had to hold one another up, then no exemption was granted.
At night we were almost eaten alive by fleas. Sometimes it was our turn to eat them! Cockroaches (hideous they were: red with white undersides) sometimes fell into the large cooking pots of soup, which we ate. For this soup we had to stand in line for several hours in freezing weather!
In front of our settlement stood a little wooden box. It looked like one of those booths, which soldiers on guard duty use. The most frequent occupant of this box was a brave, elderly woman called Pani Bednarska, the very same woman who had volunteered to follow her son into Siberia. She was always saying something or other against the Soviet authorities; and as a punishment she was regularly locked up in this cold, damp, narrow box. We would often see her thrusting her clenched fists out at them from the window. She would be released after a few hours. A few days later it would happen again, and she would find herself back in the box once more.
I worked as a laborer on the railway line (zelaznodaroznik), doing everything that the men did. I would hammer nails with a great hammer; remove heavy old rivets; tighten screws, renew portions of the railway line. I carried a so-called demokrat (this was a heavy instrument that was placed under the line and jacked-up so that the tracks could be raised. We would spread some sand under some of the sleepers, and so on. Having worked my hours, I would go home, only to return to work again a few hours later.
In summer I worked on the pereszynki: that is, measuring the width of the track. Using a kind of claw, which held the rails tightly, we would measure their width. Sometimes it was necessary to move one of them further or nearer to each other. One of the people who worked alongside me was a Russian called Paszka. We were allowed to sit down and rest now and again for a few minutes. This was called ‘zakurka’. Paszka would make a kind of smoking pipe out of a rolled-up sheet of newspaper; and many times he would share it with me, saying: Yelena, would you like a smoke? Of course I would try it. It was his own tobacco, but he was very hospitable and he would laugh loudly at me. His wife also worked in our brigade. She had a strange habit of saying the word liszak after almost every word. They were both desperately poor. They lived in an enormous communal barracks along with many other people. They called these places ‘obszczezycie’. They ate the stalowoj (soup), never cooking anything themselves because they never had anything to cook. Thats how they lived. In the Taiga, they knew no other life.
My father, however, was a pagrozczyk: he loaded logs onto railway wagons. He would work all day. He would load up one train and another would immediately arrive to be loaded. The logs were newly felled, raw, and very heavy. His shoulders became so badly bruised that the flesh would hang from his bones. Finally they had to dismiss him from this work and attached him instead to my brigade. But he could not fulfill his norm even here. So they gave him the job of looking after the horses. All night he would have to watch over these horses. In winter he drove with the bread from the bakery to the shop. If anyone had horses in his care, he answered for them with his life. If any injury happened to a horse, even if was just an accident, the man in charge of it was immediately taken to court: because the horse was the property of the state. On the other hand, if a man was killed at work, no one even investigated the circumstances of the death. My father was a little happier working with the horses than before.
After a while, we had bartered away almost all the things we had brought with us, for food or money. Now we were working twelve hours a day instead of nine; and not six, but seven days a week: all day, every day. The extra day we worked was supposed to be for the fatherland. People were dying like flies. There wasnt even any milk to be had.
Most of the young men, as well as the elderly ones, soon began to suffer from what we called chicken blindness (they became blind as soon as daylight faded in the evenings). One day, a stray dog wandered into our settlement. We looked at it as if it was the seventh wonder of the world, because it was the first dog we had ever seen here. Immediately, the men threw themselves upon it like lions. I thought they wanted to stroke the dog. I dont know how to describe what happened next. They caught the dog, killed it and made a drum out of its skin. The meat was distributed to those who suffered from the chicken blindness. The liver, they ate raw. It cured them! My mother asked one of them, Pan Zeman, what the meat was like. I dont know, he answered, I swallowed it the way a cat swallows a mouse.
There were certain individuals among us who, realizing that we were almost at breaking point, in danger of falling into despair, immediately sprang into action. We all needed something to lift our spirits, to give us some life. As a result, many of them suddenly became fortunetellers: they read our futures by various means. Strange to tell, everyones reading came out the same: in a short time we were to leave this place by sea! How could we doubt it? There had to be something to it, we told ourselves, when everyone was getting the same outcome. We also held sances: and the results were very similar. There was some kind of change imminent. We began to receive letters from home in which a mysterious Auntie Fran and Auntie Engie (whom no-one had ever heard of) who had at last moved themselves! These statements were followed in the letters by lines of dots. In these dots we placed all of our hopes! Those of us who had almost been at breaking point began to feel better. I also had a Tartar girlfriend from the next settlement. When I visited her secretly, she would also communicate to me in sign language things, which I understood perfectly.
The superior on the railway line was called Nikolaj Nikolajevicz. Well advanced in years, he could remember Russia in better times. Often, when we were working together, we would talk freely (because I was the only one in my brigade who spoke Russian fluently). I would often complain to him that in Russia there wasnt this and there wasnt that. He would always reply in the same way, smiling: Yelena Aleksandrovna (thats how I was known) we too once had these things in Russia.
Every single day we worked ourselves to the edge of starvation. The wind wailed mercilessly. At night we were eaten alive by bedbugs. It seemed as if every day was exactly the same as the one before. Yet every day was a new struggle with death to survive at least until tomorrow. Because tomorrow something might change. We had hope. The Russians, on the other hand, had lost all hope of anything better in the future. Over the years they had come to terms with their fate. But to live like that – living only to survive – is no life at all. The secret of human life is not just to live, but also to have something to live for.
There were also Russian soldiers among us who had fought in Finland. Many of them had caught frostbite there, and had had to have their toes amputated. For some transgression of the law, they had been sent to Siberia as a punishment. The deep snows and the terrible cold meant that they found it difficult to walk. They could not keep their balance and kept falling over. It was hard for them to get around. We were sorry for them, thinking what they had been through. They suffered physically and psychologically; and they had no one to complain to. They did not trust their own people; and they regarded us Poles as their enemies. They had fought for their country, had lost their health for their Motherland: and this was how they had been rewarded.
Our dziesiatnik (work-leader) on the railway line was a poor, goodhearted, native Siberian called Czaszczyn. He had been born in Siberia. I called him my commander, and he loved to be called by this name. His wife had a two-year old child whose bones were so badly deformed, that it could not sit up properly. The poor child would just lie in bed without moving, pale and malnourished. Indeed, we hardly saw any children at all in Siberia. After a time, the little child died, and the wife of my commander came to visit us at night, frightened lest the NKVD spotted her. I remember her whispering something to my mother. I later learned that she had come to beg us for some holy water to sprinkle over the coffin. Because her child had died without being baptized. The childs poor Russian mother was secretly asking us to help her child when it was dead, because she had been unable to help it in life.
One day, we were replacing portions of the track and were moving the rails to the left and to the right with our crowbars. Our commander began to shout out: One, two, lift it through, and we have it too. One two give it here etc. I found this funny at first. But after a while I became sick of it, of hearing it over and over again. So I began to impersonate his voice. Everyone laughed. They loved my impersonation so much that alas, to the end of my stay in Siberia, they made me be the one to shout out One two lift it through….
Various superiors and foremen would visit us on the trains that came for the wood. Sometimes they would even walk the eighteen versts from the station at Sosolowka. They were eager to talk to us Poles working on the railway line. Our commander always wanted to introduce me to them in the best possible light. They would tell him not to trust me because I was a Polish woman. They said they knew of incidents when Russians had fallen in love with Polish women, (and believed that they were loved in return). It had ended with a knife in the back!
Now and again, in the summertime, we would see a sailor walking along the railway line. He would walk the twenty kilometers or so from Susolowka station in his white sailor’s hat. He was probably visiting some family members in Khrystoforow. He liked talking to us Poles! He came many times. He was also very handsome! He would even visit us in our barracks. We would often wonder why he was allowed to visit us, and everyone else was forbidden. So sometimes, the thought would cross our mind that perhaps he had been sent to us on purpose by the authorities. We enjoyed his company nevertheless. One time he came and said: Yelena Aleksandrovna! In a very short time you will all be leaving here, you know
Where to?, I asked him. Home, to Poland?
No. Not home immediately to Poland, he answered. But one day, when you return, Ill come and visit you there. You wouldnt throw me out if I did that, would you?
The sailor departed, and shortly afterwards, we gained our freedom. The sailor’s name was Lonia. Thats all I know about him. To this day I still wonder who this Lonia was. I remember him with fondness.
All of us bore our fate as well as we could. One of us, however, (Pan Langner), was forever complaining. “My good lady”, he would say, “a man can’t live like this when he’s starving, when he’s sleepy…. “and so on and so forth it was always the same: “My good lady”…. It was even worse when we celebrated some religious feast day like Christmas or Easter. Then he would tell us how the feast was celebrated in his house at home; how much there was to eat, and what he ate, how each dish was prepared, all in the minutest detail. He would describe one course after another, and how each course tasted. He had a phrase he used often at these times: it had eighteen flavours. Each of us, in turn, would then describe other delicious dishes we had tasted. We spent our time in this way. For a short while we were transported away from our miserable existences and traveled away home. All of us wished that we could return back home as quickly as we could!
Whenever we wanted to say prayers together, at the May festival or whenever, the camp commandant always got to know of it immediately. He would shout at us in the most vulgar fashion and threaten to throw us into prison. I remember when my seven-year-old brother once gathered together a group of his little friends, made themselves a red-and-white flag from some rags, and went marching along the railway line: playing like little boys do. Voronin, our military policeman, came rushing out immediately, chasing the frightened boys away. My father was summoned to the komendatura and told that if anything like that happened again he would deal with the children in a wholly different way.
Soon, we were sick of everything. By some miracle, news reached us that the Germans had declared war on Russia. This news raised our spirits considerably. Suddenly it seemed to us that even the dog had not died in vain: because the sick among us had been able to eat his meat and feel better; while we younger, healthier ones had had a drum made from its hide (which Pan Rosa drummed upon every day). Up until this time, the Soviets had continually tried to persuade us to organize diversions for ourselves: to begin to accept life in the Soviet Union. We never took their advice. Now, when we knew well that the Russians had problems with Germany, we began to arrange dances and pretended to enjoy ourselves just to spite them. When the commandant asked us what all this meant, we would explain to him that suddenly everything made sense to us, and that we were beginning to get used to life in the Soviet Paradise. If a person possesses even the smallest crumb of hope, he is able to find enormous energy to survive.
A short time afterwards I fell ill with pleurisy. We had nothing to treat it with. Through my acquaintance with a young doctor, I was sent to hospital in a nearby Russian settlement. A few months earlier she had bought a nightdress from me, which she used as an evening gown. Through her I was given access to the hospital. The lady doctor told me that there were no medicines to be had in the hospital, but that once a week I would at least receive a soup made with milk. This meant a lot! They treated my high temperature with quinine, but from where they obtained this quinine I have no idea. My kind doctor could not keep me there for very long, however. I was soon dismissed from the hospital and told to report once a week for an examination. Every day I began to feel worse. I had difficulty walking and could not sleep at all. I was suffocating. I could not breathe lying down, only in a sitting position….
One woman who lived in our barracks had banki (cupping instruments). After she came back from working every evening, she would position the banki on my chest. Only then, when I felt the little cups clawing at my flesh, was I able to breathe easier and feel better. Next day, and the day after, I would wait on my neighbour to come home tired after work to attend to me. She would see to me immediately, without complaining in the slightest.
All this lasted several weeks. When I sat ill in the barracks, I would always have before my eyes all those I had known, those young girls fresh as flowers, who had died here in Siberia and who could have still been living: those whom we had driven into the forest on sleighs and buried in the snow by night. The wind blew terribly. The dark and the snow of the endless Taiga. All we had was one lantern. Several of us had wanted to sing: Dear Holy Mother, protector of peoples, let the weeping of orphaned exiles wake you to mercy. We sang out the song, but the wind blew away our words. Once again we felt like lost orphans.
Soon there was no remedy for my illness. It had become worse. Pani Bednarska, the old woman who had volunteered to go to Russia with her son, also fell ill. She had a daughter in Warsaw who was a doctor. This daughter tried everything she could to aid her mother. She crossed from the German into the Russian sector of Poland, and by some miracle, managed to get hold of a Russian passport and all the necessary papers allowing her to work as a doctor wherever she wished in Russia. She immediately bought a ticket to Archangielsk, got into a train, and arrived at the door of our camp to treat her mother! It was a wonderful thing to do; but alas, she arrived too late. Her mother had died seven days earlier and was already buried. Poor Dr Wanda had gone through all the bureaucratic procedures to get here, and had not been able to see her mother! She wrote on her mother’s grave: I am longing, Lord, for my own country.
Dr Wanda had managed to bring some medicines with her, and began to treat everyone in the camp. Soviet women also came to her. She helped everyone she could. She even cured me! The NKVD was unhappy with this state of affairs, however. They confiscated her passport. She was condemned to work in the camp on the same terms as us. She lost her freedom! She too, had to do hard physical labour. She was a newcomer, however, and still had some strength and psychological resistance; and somehow she survived. Because some of us did not even feel angry after a while. Anger is bad. But sometimes it has the function of giving one some strength. When one loses hope in what one has been waiting for, longing for with ones whole soul, and if that hope finally betrays us, then I think that hatred still gives us a little something to live for. People who have no hope, or even hatred, no longer respond to anything and they collapse into a vacuum.
Summer arrived full of mosquitoes, bedbugs, cockroaches and hunger. What was worse was that now there was no night. We had become so sick of winter; but summer was also hard because there was no darkness. In our barracks there was hardly room to move, it was suffocating; we were unable to sleep because the bedbugs ate us alive. Some people did not sleep for weeks at a time. They were forced to walk about, their heads wrapped in handkerchiefs, waving tree branches about in the air to scare off the mosquitoes. Going to work without having slept was totally exhausting.
Until one day we felt something new in the air. The commandant came, as usual, to chase us to the political meeting. We always went to these meetings against our will. On this particular evening, however, we walked the 3 km to the venue happily for some reason. When we entered the hall, we saw that the commissars had friendly expressions on their faces! This was very strange! They all stood up and informed us that……. we were free! They stretched out their hands to congratulate us!
We were struck dumb for a time. But not for long. Suddenly we all began to embrace one another, and to cry with joy! Someone started to sing the Polish National anthem (Poland has not disappeared while we are still living…). Every one of us, with one voice, joined in, sobbing the whole time. What happened next in that hall would be impossible to describe. In short, we could not get it into our half-sick minds that what we were hearing was the truth. For almost two years we had had it drummed into our heads that they (the Russians) had liberated us; that our Polish rule had ended for good. They had called us leeches living off the working class, that if we didnt perish here we would grow used to this life in the Soviet Paradise. As the night began to draw to a close, we were still walking around as if intoxicated, unable to believe the news. Perhaps it was a trick, we thought.
Next day we were issued with documents (udostwierenja), which permitted us to travel anywhere we wished in Russia, with the exception of Moscow. The local authorities tried to persuade us to stay and continue to work in Siberia. They had been paying us a little more money lately. But we wanted to get away from there with all of our might. Where to? We had no earthly idea. It was not easy to travel anywhere without a worker’s permit that would have allowed us to get bread or something to eat. People who had no money were unable to leave. Some families were unfortunate in this respect. We were paid everything that was owed to us, and we set off on the third day after our release. Doctor Wanda and her brother left the day before us.
The railway station had been built only for goods trains hauling timber. No one had ever seen a passenger train on this line. So we embarked on one of those primitive wagons, or rather platforms, sat down beside the timber, and waited. We waited all night, but no engine arrived to move the wood. In the morning, to our relief, an engine finally did arrive to take the wagons and us with them. We were moving!
We were so happy! Not for long, unfortunately. The locomotive took us only two or three kilometres up the line, and then stopped in the middle of the forest. We were freezing. The locomotive unhinged itself from our wagon. The staff on the engine got out and said to us: You have to all get off! You can’t travel any further. This is a goods train and passengers are not allowed to travel on it. If you dont get off these wagons you will be put up against a wall and shot, because this is wartime; and in times like these they shoot you for what you are doing. The locomotive unfastened itself from us and set off without us to the station at Sosolowka, about 18 Russian miles away.
People had been traveling on these goods wagons to court and back for twenty years or more. Even big fish from Moscow or the NKVD traveled this way. Yet these railway workers had decided that we couldnt travel! We were frightened, but we didnt care any more. We had no intention of returning to our barracks. Consulting together, we decided that if we were to be shot, then so be it; but we were staying where we were in the wagons. We waited in the quiet of the forest to see what happened next.
Not far away from us stood a railway box in which Lizka, a friend of mine, worked. Lizka was a Russian signal-woman. There was a telephone in her box. (We had often used this railway box during our lunch breaks wheb we were working nearby. There was a stove inside on which we would often place our frozen pieces of bread to thaw them out). I went over to Lizka and asked her whether she knew why the locomotive had abandoned us. She didnt know. After about an hour, the telephone rang to tell Lizka that a locomotive had set out from Sosolowka to pick up our wagons with the timber. I quickly ran back to tell my parents and my comrades-in-misfortune that a train was on its way. I said my good-byes to Lizka. Then we all sat down on the wagon and waited to see what would transpire.
The locomotive arrived, attached itself to the wagons, and let out a shrill whistle. We were moving again! We were frightened, however, that there would be unpleasantness when we reached the railway station. When we arrived, before the train had even stopped moving, we saw that the crew of our locomotive was different; and we saw the members of the original crew were being escorted away under arrest by the authorities.
We bought tickets to Kotlas. I can even remember how much they cost — 120 rubles. Boarding the passenger train, we set off. I looked around me at those places for the last time, and life began to flow into me once more.
* * * * * * * * * * *
THE ROAD TO FREEDOM
When we disembarked from the train at Kotlas, we were confronted by a large number of Polish families already waiting there, from the other camps. We held out our arms to one another and greeted each other as fellow countrymen. We began to embrace, weeping with the joy that we had been counted among the chosen ones.
Representatives from our group went to speak to the town elders: to tell them our story. By some miracle, they responded by arranging a train for us, free, at no cost! This railway station, we learned, was a “gathering point” (as they called it) for refugees. A very large number had gathered there. Many of them were Soviet citizens: refugees from Stalingrad.
Every so often, the train would stop at a station, and we would run out to get some hot water to drink before the train started again.
We were traveling with many people who had been released from the penal colonies. These were individuals traveling alone, dressed only in a single prison shirt. They had rags wrapped around their feet instead of shoes. Each of them held a “kotelok” firmly in his hands. This was just an empty tin can with a piece of wire attached to the top so that it resembled a little pail. It was their only possession. People like us, with families from the labor camps, had at least a few bundles of clothes or blankets with which to cover ourselves. These ex-prisoners had nothing: no money, not even a single blanket. All they had was lice! The weather was cold and these poor souls did not have a single article of clothing with which to cover themselves at night.
Once, the train stopped for a longer time than usual, (it was in Chelyabinsk, I remember); so we took some of our possessions to the marketplace to see if we could exchange them for food. The Russians who lived on collective farms had no decent clothes to wear, so we gave them some of our clothing in exchange for vegetables. Only rarely was it possible to buy anything for money. So you can imagine how our poor, almost-naked fellow-countrymen from the penal colonies fared! We tried to help them as much as we could.
We had often noticed that if someone managed to run into the station dining rooms early, before the train had even stopped moving, they could sometimes buy something to eat at the window. I tried this on one occasion, But by the time I got there, and took my place in the queue with the hope of buying something (anything, a piece of bread even) the window closed and they said: “Nietu!” There was nothing left. So I began to run back empty-handed. There were trains setting off, one after another, in every direction. My train had been standing at platform 5. Although all the trains were traveling slowly, it was still very dangerous to run under the wagons; but somehow I managed to do it. When I returned to the platform, however, there was no sign of my train anywhere! I went around asking everyone; but no one knew anything. In fact they would not even tell me in which direction the train had gone, because it was forbidden. In wartime such information was secret! My train had been heading south, roughly, so I jumped onto the first moving train headed in that direction, and traveled onwards, my heart beating fast. Maybe I would catch up with them, I thought! But, My God, the train could be going anywhere. I could not think of anything else to do.
I traveled on until we came to an unnamed station, where I jumped out. I looked around, but there was no sign of our train there either. Again, no one would give me any information. It was then that I began to become afraid. I wondered what I would do, all alone, in this foreign, hostile country. Just then, I saw a column of Soviet soldiers marching by. Each of them was carrying loaves of bread in his arms. I must have been staring desperately at those loaves of bread because one of the soldiers (the last one in the column) – I don’t know why – shouted out to me: “Catch!” and threw me a loaf of fresh bread. Then he marched away out of the station, without even looking back behind him. I don’t remember if I even thanked him, but my spirits rose tremendously.
I approached the railway line and waited for a miracle! Maybe some goods train would arrive, I thought, so I could jump onto it and travel onwards in my search for my family. I stood there waiting and listening for a very long time. At length I heard something approaching: a passenger train. I thought to myself: good enough! Jumping onboard, I began looking for an empty space in which to stand, still holding my precious loaf of bread tightly in my hands. The passengers in the train all looked like beggars. I began to listen to them and realized that they were talking in Polish!! I went into the adjoining carriage and finally understood that…Good Godthis was my train! My train had caught up with me!
I was so happy to have found my family, who were all in tears. They had presumed that I was lost, like so many others, never found again in that country. My parents were happy to see me; but what was just as important was that now we had a loaf of bread to keep us alive for a little while longer. So we all felt a little lighter at heart as we traveled on southward, happy to be getting ever further from the cold place of our exile.
There was an outbreak of lice on the train. We were bitten so badly that we could hardly bear it. There was nowhere to wash, and nothing to wash with. The washrooms were blocked up so badly that everything was spilling out of them down the stairs: dirt, stench and misery.
Sometimes, for several days at a time, we had no food whatsoever. In one place where we stopped, some of the men in our group went to see the town elders. They begged them to give us something to eat, anything. They explained to the officials that that we had just been released from the Siberian camps and the penal colonies. We were starving. Our children were dying every day and we had to throw their dead bodies out onto station platforms whose names we did not even know. They asked the officials to imagine the anguish of a mother who saw her second child dying from malnutrition or some other disease. The person in charge took our papers and soon afterwards returned with some bread for us to share with everyone on the train. This only happened to us once, anywhere.
We were ill, exhausted and felt we could travel no further. At one of the stations, we met the director of a collective farm from Saratov. He was happy to learn that Poles were on the train because he needed help on his farms; all the soviet men had been drafted into the army and there was no one to work the land. He tried to persuade us to spend the winter working for him. When spring arrived, we could continue our journey, he said. We considered his proposition. We really had no other alternative. The leaders of our group did not think it was wise to travel on into Asia right away. They explained that too many refugees would be flooding into the warm countries. Epidemics were likely to break out, which might finish us off. It was better to wait.
So together with several other families, we left the train, were loaded up onto a truck, and driven to the collective farm. We spent that first night in a little shack by the side of the road. The next morning, some girls arrived with oxen to take our group of four families to one settlement, and the other group of four families to another settlement several kilometers further away.
The oxen took us to a village called Merlino-Voskresienka, in the Saratov region near the River Volga. We were put up with some Russian families. We all lived together communally. It was wonderful not to be troubled by lice! The families received us heartily, because it was easier to find kindling for the fire if a large number of people lived together. Finding something to burn in the stove was a real problem in this area. There was no wood to be found anywhere; and the winters were severe, though not as severe as in Kotlas.
We lived in a little house together with a young Soviet girl who operated the combine harvester. She drove the combine harvester in winter and attended to the cows in the summer. She was an orphan and had a younger, ten-year old brother. Her name was Katia, and her brother’s name was Miniok. The house comprised just one room, which was reached via an open sewer and a pile of manure, propped up against a small larch tree. In the middle of the room stood a stove. Katia and her brother Miniok slept on top of this stove. We, however, slept on the floor. We spread out some straw, and some spare garments we still had with us, and covered ourselves with our coats (those of us who still had them!)
There was no fuel for the stove, and so we had nothing to cook with. We would have to go out into the fields and wade waist-deep through the snow to look for stalks of wormwood that sometimes emerged here and there from under the snow. We wore ourselves out looking for this wormwood to bring home. It was hardly possible to warm oneself adequately because the stalks burned too quickly. If, by some miracle, we managed to cook a potato on the fire, it left the bitter taste of wormwood in our mouths.
Miniok had only one coat that he wore every single day, and in which he slept. All day every day, he would sit by the stove with my younger sister and brother, telling them stories. Most of all, he liked to tell the story of Dr. Doolittle: how he talked to the animals. He probably only knew this one story. Maybe he had heard it when he was young from his mother. But his mother had been dead for several years.
That winter left its mark on us. The worst thing was that there was nothing to burn in the stove. There was little to eat either. We ate the bran from the wheat, and stole sugar beets from under the snow. Back home in Poland we wouldn’t even feed such things to the pigs.
Every night, sometime after midnight, the Russian women would come and knock on our window. We would be waiting, dressed and ready with ropes and pickaxes. We would go out far into the fields where the giant haystacks stood, the property of the collective farm. The wind moaned cruelly, and the wolves wailed from below in the valley. We would have to go out to the haystacks, bring some of them down, and tie them into bundles, (by touch almost, because we could hardly see them) and hope we weren’t caught. Sometimes we lost our way because the earth and the sky were the same color. If we managed to bring home some hay, then next day we were able to warm ourselves a little by the stove and cook something hot.
Our wages were five pounds of wheat for a whole weeks work. We made a kind of primitive hand mill with a stone. Turning it this way and that, we were able to grind some of the wheat into rough flour. There was too little of it. But what else could we do? Yet all around us, there were thousands and thousands of acres of wheat, sunflowers and sugar beet hidden under the snow. They could have allowed us to take these because they were only rotting anyway. There was no one to harvest them: all the able men had been sent to defend the fatherland. While here, people were starving.
Soon there was a call-up of young women to the army, and Katya received her summons to go and help dig trenches with the soldiers at the front. Her young brother had to remain behind alone while she went off. We looked after him.
There was a kitchen on the solkhoz where they made a soup called “sh-ch-i” for the tractor drivers. One day I went to this kitchen to get some drinking water for the workers picking potatoes in the fields. The cook started up a conversation with me, and among other things, she asked me whether I would like to work with her in the kitchen. Of course, I said yes immediately! We all had to sleep together on the floor of one room near the kitchen: the cook, her husband, their two children and me. The cook and her husband were very kind to me. They shared everything with me, even the floor of the room they slept in. I don’t even remember their names!
Among others on the collective farm, were two young brothers whose family name was Chowanski. Their mother had been sent to prison for the reason that the boys’ grandmother happened to live in America. She would send her grandsons letters written in Polish. The boys were unable to read any Polish. So they brought me a pile of these letters and begged me to read them. Oh how overjoyed they were to hear that their grandmother in America loved them! Even though America was far away, they knew that they had someone who thought about them, the poor orphans.
In winter we, the Poles, were allowed to gather sunflowers from under the snow. There were thousands and thousands of hectares of them. We were allowed to gather as much as we wished. The problem was how to bring them back home. After work, it was usually possible to ask for the use of the oxen (when they were not being used), and take them to transport the many bundles of sunflower plants. But it was dark. The sunflower fields were situated very far away. We were tired; and so were the oxen. Nevertheless, my mother and I used to go out and tie up the sunflowers into large bundles and load them onto a sleigh. We tied the ropes around the bundles so that they wouldn’t fall off, and set off back home. The sky was the same color as the earth: greyish-white. How were we to navigate our way back home? Not surprisingly, we lost our way. It was dark. The wind wailed and blew hail into our faces, pricking us like needles. My mother and I would find ourselves wading through snow up to our waists, hardly able to pull our legs out of the snow. After a while the hail began to come down heavier. The sleigh would fall over onto one side and then the other, and almost overturned completely many times. We traveled on regardless, not knowing where we were going. We blundered onwards, snow falling onto our heads. But what else could we do? We could have been going round in circles for all we knew. I began to jump up like a horse, but would slip and fall into snowdrifts. At one point I was even crawling on all fours. It all ended well, however. We saw a small light in the distance! It was our house. The oxen knew the way, and had led us back to the safety of the village. What a joy! We now had something to burn in the stove. And we had the sunflowers to eat!
Soon after this, my father fell terribly ill and no one knew what was wrong with him. He had a very high temperature and his tongue began to crack open all over. I was worried that it might fall apart altogether! For days he just lay on the ground, and I was worried that if he died there would be no wood to make a coffin for him. A certain elderly doctor came out to examine him, but he explained that he was unable to help because he had no medicines. The best he could do was to send him to a hospital a long way away. There, he would at least have a bed to lie on, and would be given tea with sugar! We agreed.
Two weeks later, two officers arrived at the collective to see us: Polish officers from the army of General Anders. They were dressed in uniforms with the Polish eagles proudly displayed on their fur-lined hats. They said they were taking us to Tatishchevo, into the care of the Polish Army. We had two days to prepare ourselves. You can imagine the joy we felt at seeing Polish soldiers again after such a long time; and to know that the army was reorganizing! I phoned my father in hospital from the solkhoz office and asked him what we should do. He answered that we should definitely go with the officers, and that he would go too. I dont want to be left behind, he added.
We gathered together all our earthly goods, the few miserable rags we possessed, and took the oxcart to the railway station at Ekatirynowka. Once at the station, the officers began to inquire about arranging a wagon for us. The soviet authorities gave them no assistance, however. So we spread out our belongings onto the concrete of the station and waited. Even though it was winter, we had to spend the night there. Next morning the officers busied themselves phoning everywhere they could. Yet the soviets always said there was nothing they could do. So we continued to wait on the platform.
There was nothing to eat. We were not working, and so were not entitled to any bread. Suddenly we saw my father approaching! He was walking as if he was drunk, poor man! The hospital had not wanted to release him, so he had released himself, and walked here in his condition, the twenty Russian versts or so, through the snow. On reaching us, he immediately fell down on the cold concrete earth and slept.
On the third day there was still no news of transport. I went to the kitchens and explained to them how things stood: that we were sitting here in a cold station, we had people who were ill; that surely the Soviet Union cared about its citizens! I begged them for something to eat, or at least something for the young children and the sick. It wasnt pleasant for them to hear all this, but it proved effective. They came up with over a dozen portions of soup for us. Now, we felt a little better.
On the sixth day of our stay, the officers found a little hut on one of the goods wagons and quickly packed my father, and us with him, onto it. We were on the move at last. We were not sure that we were traveling in the direction of our army in Tatishchev, however. The railway officials did not know that we were aboard the train, because we had boarded secretly. At least we were moving. Every time the train stopped, we would open the doors to see if it was our station, because we did not want to miss it.
After a long time, we stopped at some unnamed station, and saw some soldiers approaching uswith blankets! Our Polish soldiers. They had been waiting for us at the station and had been searching every wagon until they found us. They wrapped us all in the warm blankets, sat us on a waiting sleigh, and we set off!
Presently we arrived at the camp: an enormous barracks building with three-tiered bunks filled with civilians. How beautifully we were received! They dressed us from head to foot in new clothes. They fed us. They even had medical personnel on hand: in a word, this was heaven! We were given as much food as we could eat, and a place to sleep. Most important of all, we felt happy to be among our own, Polish soldiers.
After about two weeks there, we were informed that we were leaving Tatishchevo for Asiatic Russia. The army would be traveling with us. They loaded us up, several families at a time, onto some railway carriages and made us comfortable. There was an army kitchen on board that served delicious meals. In a word, they treated us like a mother treats her children.
We were traveling onwards, further and further away from that Hellish place of Siberia. One morning, however, we woke up with surprise to find that we were stationary. The train and the army wagons were nowhere to be seen. We were alone on the railway line. No one had told us anything, and to this day I do not know why our carriage had been disconnected from the train. A Russian railway worker had probably unhinged our wagon by mistake. The army train had left us behind, and we were stuck on a side track!
This was a desperate situation that we now found ourselves in. What could we do? What? Some of the elders of our group found a piece of chalk and used it to write the name of some Russian town on the side of our wagon. It worked! The railway workers read the sign, attached our wagons to another goods engine, and we found to our joy that we were traveling again. But what a difference there was now! This time we had nothing to eat. We could not ask anyone for directions because we were at war. We desperately wanted to reach some Polish army centre. The men in our group intended to enlist in the Polish army. When we reached these centres, however, we found they were invariably full up, and we had to travel further onwards.
The train stopped somewhere on the Russian steppes. There wasnt even a station there. It was the middle of nowhere. The train stopped, and waited. On both sides of the track stretched barren uninterrupted plains as far as the eye could see. We asked the engine driver if he would be stopping here for long. Oh yes! He answered. About four hours.
Some Mongolian men entered our wagon and asked whether anyone had tea or soap to barter. My mother had a piece of soap she had been holding on to as if it were a precious heirloom. Soap was impossible to obtain anywhere. She exchanged the soap for a few carrots, with which we were immensely pleased. We disembarked from the train, and went off to pick some greenery and a few thick stems of plants that lay around. We lit a fire on the edge of the railway track, and hung our tins on some sticks (which we had in the carriage with us) and boiled the carrots sliced up in some water. As soon as the water began to boil however, the train began to move away quietly without giving any signal. I started to run towards it carrying the tin on the stick with me. People in the wagon stretched out their arms to me, and somehow they managed to pull me into the wagon. Even today I can still remember the taste of those uncooked carrots in the water. It was such a luxury.
We had now been traveling for three months in the wagon. We were hungry, and we were finding that there was no room for us in any of the army centers we found along the way. In one particular place, we stopped for the night and were given a pail of soup for every wagon. That was in Samarkand. The Polish authorities there had learned that we were on the train; and at the behest of a Polish Community Organization, they had stopped the train and were able to give us something to eat. I can still remember the name of the officer-in-charge of the operation. His name was Szymczyk. This was the only place we got something to eat.
We had been traveling a very long time now, and still we were on the move. It seems to me that after this, we didnt stop anywhere else for four days. For four days we did not have a single thing to eat. Finally, somewhere in Uzbekistan, the train stopped and an Uzbek came on board with a water melon, hoping to exchange it for something. We no longer had anything to trade with. We only had money. We must have looked very miserable and desperate because he agreed to sell us the melon for a ruble! Divided up into five portions, it was the first meal we had had in over five days.
A few days later we arrived in Tashkent, where we learned of a Polish camp that was not yet full. We got off the train at a station called Guzar. When the train left us, we sat down at the station to discuss how we should proceed, terribly exhausted, dirty, and beggarly. We picked a few individuals from our company to go to the camp and ask whether they would receive us into the Polish army.
The refugee camp consisted of a few miserable mud-huts, filled with Polish nationals. There were people lying outside on the streets and under fences as well as indoors. Everywhere we saw dying people, most of them suffering from typhus, cholera and bloody dysentery. These were people who had come directly from Siberia. Here in Uzbekistan they had immediately contracted various diseases from which they were dying like flies. From morning to night, squads of soldiers dug large communal graves, but they could not keep up with the number of corpses to be buried. The dead bodies were thrown one on top of the other without coffins or any kind of wrappings; and they covered them with lime.
There was also an army reception camp nearby which was receiving volunteers into the army. No one here was yet in uniform, however. Children who had been orphaned were sent to the Childrens Home where our Polish children were brought up to be communist citizens. My sister and I were accepted into the junior cadet school. My little brother was handed over to the orphanage.
We lived ten cadets to a tent. Sometimes when it rained, we found ourselves swimming in our hammocks. The worst thing of all was when we had to share something out between the ten of us, because it was difficult to make all the portions exact. We would look with hungry eyes at those who were dividing up the food, and it led to many quarrels. Once a day we would go with our tin cans to get some barley soup. Sometimes an ill person would give us his portion of soup.
My father enlisted in the army in Guzar (Uzbekistan) but one of his fellow soldiers fell ill with scarlet fever and hence his whole tent was quarantined.
Soon, we began to hear rumors that the cadets were to be sent to India. We had only been in the camp for a few weeks when we received the orders to leave! We were to travel with the army volunteers (the pestki). If any one of us fell ill with any disease, or collapsed with exhaustion, her comrades would have to hold her upright on parade so that no one would know that she was ill; otherwise they would leave us behind in Russia!
At long last we arrived at Krasnovodsk, the port on the Caspian Sea, the last place we passed through in the Soviet Union. The whole group of us was packed onto two Soviet ships, and we left the Soviet Paradise behind us forever. A band played the national anthem. We were sailing bound for Persia.
I am unable to describe the scenes that followed because even today, when I think back to that moment, the joy of that event flows through me again! The voyage across the Caspian Sea to Iran lasted for six and a half hours. We docked at the port of Pahlevi.
There, on the very shores of freedom, people among us started to die. Some of them died from sheer euphoria, others from overeating. Everyone knew the dangers, but starving people often have little willpower.
Our whole cadet school was bathed and given new clothes. Some of the younger girls had to have their heads shaved. Every shred of our old clothes was taken from us and burned. Our commandant led us into one of the tents and exclaimed: And now my girls, take a blanket and go and get some bread! She was the only commandant born in France. In the provisions tent, one soldier threw us a can of condensed milk, while another threw oranges. We were given a whole blanket full of very tasty fresh bread. I thought that this was to last us for the whole week, but our instructors assured us that we would receive the same amount of bread again the next day. Try as we might, we could not bring ourselves to believe them. Just as they had promised, however, the next day they gave us more bread, and we ate from the Polish army kitchen on Persian soil. I walked about in a stupor unable to take everything in. It was as if I had seen bread for the first time in my life! Today, I am an old woman and still, for me, bread comes first before anything else!
In this way we fled out of the house of bondage. Persia took us, sickly, beggarly people to itself with all its heart! In Teheran I managed to trace my mother and brother; they were in Camp No. 1. Our father had had to remain behind in the Soviet Union, with the other sick soldiers in Guzar.
* * * * * * * * * *
As I mentioned earlier, my father had signed my sister and me over to the junior cadet school in Guzar, Uzbekistan. Oh God, how fortunate we felt to have left the Soviet paradise!
After a month, we were sent to the first transit camp in Tehran. There were 107 of us cadets and six instructors. The Persian population received us lovingly. We were given a large hall carpeted with Persian rugs, on which we slept all together as a group with our teaching staff. We were so happy to have left the Soviet Union that we seemed to be breathing in the whole of Persia with every breath we took.
The camp compound was situated not far from Tehran. Solely women and children populated it; the men had all been sent to join the Polish forces in Iraq. We lived for almost a year in this camp. After that the authorities decided to send all the civilian population to India. My mother, who was being sent with them, managed to get my younger sister out of the cadet school and my brother out of the orphanage. I remained where I was for the time being. After a month I suddenly changed my mind and begin to make efforts to follow them to India. My father was still with the army in the Soviet Union (Guzar) quarantined and unable to leave because someone in his tent had contracted an infectious disease. So I decided to follow my mother to India, because I was her eldest daughter and she might need me. Things did not go according to plan, however.
My journey to rejoin then was a hurried one. It was through mountainous country by train. Every mountain seemed to have a tunnel going through it. Finally I arrived at Ahvaz on the Persian Gulf, where I discovered that my mother had already left. I heard that there was another ship leaving to sail that very day, and I was packed onto it. I dont remember much about the journey, or how long it took. Eventually I reached the port of Karachi in India where I was reunited with my mother.
We lived all together in a transit camp situated on a wild plain, not far from an Indian town. At night we would hear the wailings of jackals or hyenas. I was always frightened that a hyena would come into my tent and drag me away by the legs. During the day we saw large lizards resembling crocodiles, which were also frightening when they approached our tents. The food we received was very meager.
After some three weeks, we were driven to the port and packed onto another ship bound for East Africa. The ship was very small and bobbed up and down on the waves like the shell of a nut. I was seasick a lot of the time and just lay on deck unable to eat anything. The only food I was able to keep down was onions, which an elderly Indian member of staff would bring me.
Somehow I survived the voyage and arrived at the port of Dar-Es-salaam in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Once again we were put to sleep one next to the other like sardines in a tin, on the floor of a large hall. The lights were kept on all night long. We received quinine against malaria.
After three weeks, we were all loaded up (ten people to a jeep) and the whole convoy traveled through the burning sun to an Italian convent at Tosamaganga, where we spent the night. Sometime in the middle of the night we were woken by the nuns and led into the chapel. The singing of the choir was so beautiful that I was transported to heaven. I wanted to remain there for ever! But it was wartime. The nuns were not allowed to take any new postulates. So next morning we were off again.
Finally we reached our intended destination of Ifundi. We were given a hut built of mud with a thatched roof. The place was called camp A. There was no glass in the windows. There were only heavy wooden shutters kept open during the day with a pole, and lowered at night. There was no furniture: only our beds, if you could call them that. This was our famous intended destination.
For a very long time we had no news of what had happened to my father. We wrote to the war Office giving all his details, but with no results. Finally I wrote to the religious authorities. I received a reply informing me that my father had died in Kermine Uzbekistan. He had been buried in a communal pit together with other soldiers. My mother took the news very badly. We had traveled through Hell, and here at the very end of the journey he had not made it. Yet we were lucky that at least some of us had survived. Some families lost several members. I remember one woman in Tehran. She was sitting by a wall in Camp No 1 beating her head against the stone and lamenting to God: why had He taken all her family from her; why had He not taken her too? (It reminded me of the Arab in Slowackis poem whose family had died and he was returning without his wife and children). This was the lament of more than one family.
Instructors were assigned to us and we began our studies. We had to make up for lost time. Students who wanted to study in the High school had to travel to another camp called Kitugali. They would return to us only for the holidays. We had a hospital, several doctors, a public school and a small altar where Father Krawczyk celebrated mass. We had a Polish YMCA community Center. Also a radio to which we listened every day for news of the war fronts where our soldiers were fighting.
One time, we staged a small theatrical performance. It was a sketch that featured Hitler walking about painting fences. One woman with her child passed by the dictator and began to malign him and his work. Some very talented individuals wrote it. The English officer in charge of the camp, as well regional governor with his staff, were present at the performance. Everyone seemed to enjoy the show. The English colonial governor stood up, however, and ordered an immediate end to the performance. Hitler, he said, was a genius, and we had no right to malign him. It was the year 1944. We were not pleased with his behavior.
Life in the camp was very monotonous. The local people would drum and chant every night. Lions would approach our settlement. Sometimes some Tanzanian would knock loudly on the door asking if we wished to buy any kalanga (ground nuts) from him. We learned to talk a little Swahili. Sometimes they would ask us about our country and would be amazed to hear that is was populated solely by white people. So who does all the work? they asked us!
In time we set up a scouting organization, and we had meetings and bonfires etc. I also belonged to this movement and had 150 scouts under my supervision. Very often we would be visited by various delegations, even ministers from London or from the Nairobi consulate. They would inspect our scouts, take photographs etc. Once we were even honored with the presence of father (professor) Wargowski, who enjoyed his visit immensely and sent me a letter from Nairobi thanking me profusely for his visit.
Dr Brzozowska, together with other members of the medical staff, organized a nursing course that I attended. After a time, there was an appeal from the Polish government for nurses to care for the wounded Polish soldiers in Scotland. I answered the call. I expected that after the war, I would eventually return to Poland and, as eldest daughter, I would look after my family. So together with a few other nurses, I left our camp at Ifundi for Britain. We traveled through the jungle by army trucks. A young boy with an artificial leg was traveling with us to Nairobi. Two days into the journey and the truck broke down. As we were pushing the truck in the dark with the help of some local tribesmen, a beautiful limousine driven by an English woman overtook us. We thought that perhaps she would give us some advice or even stop to help us. Instead, she was very angry and shouted: “Why are these Poles always wandering about here and there where theyre not wanted”? And she sped off in a cloud of English pride.
Eventually another truck arrived and came to our aid. We were finally able to reach Arusha, and then Mombassa. We spent only one night in some shack, and in the morning we were quickly packed into a Red Cross ship bound for England. There were 73 of us on the ship, accompanied by a doctor.
While we were on the ship we heard the news of the Warsaw Uprising, and everyone became sad. The captain, a very merry soul, invited us to tea and wanted to cheer us up after hearing the news that the Uprising had failed. We explained to him that none of us were in the mood to enjoy ourselves because people had lost their lives and that there had been some promise that the uprising would succeed. But the captain could not understand why we were so unhappy.
We sailed across the Red Sea, passed through the Suez Canal and arrived at Port Said (Egypt). We were given uniforms, rested for ten days, and then traveled on in a large convoy to Great Britain. On arrival, we showed our documents to the authorities at the port of Liverpool. A representative was waiting there to take us to Scotland. This representative was Lieutenant Stanczyk from the Polish Hospital at Taymouth Castle in Aberfeldy.
I worked one month in this hospital before moving to a convalescent home for Polish war invalids in Forfar. There were many soldiers who had lost their legs and arms and eyes on the Italian front: Monte Cassino, Ankona, etc. It was distressing for us to see so many young men who had sacrificed so much. And for what? Our own allies had betrayed us. So many of our soldiers were lying in graves in the place of English dead. I remember the time George 6th visited our soldiers, praising their bravery, saying that the British would never forget what the Poles had done for them. Shortly afterwards, however, they sold us out at Yalta. Living in this country for so long, we still remember all this. But what can we do?
I managed to bring my mother, sister and brother to Scotland from Africa several years later. My mother died many years later in Scotland. I still live here in Scotland. In Aberfeldy I met a Polish soldier who had lost his leg, and he became my husband (he is no longer alive). I was unable to return home to Poland because my home is now in the Ukraine. My grandfather, Ludwik Pulkiewicz, was murdered in my village of Androszowka, (near Szumsk, Luck) in 1943. I only learned of this after making various searches in 1996.
I could tell much about the many countries through which I traveled and in which I lived: Persia, Africa (Tanzania), India, Pakistan, Egypt…At present I am living here in Scotland, and I am old now. I live with my children and am good for nothing.
During all those years of wandering from camp to camp, one thought above all dominated my mind: to return again to my own country. Our soldiers fought all over the world…surely there must be some justice in the world! But there seems to be none. The war finished and we had to remain in a foreign country, unable to return to our homes. We were left to bitterness and sorrow. Sometimes, talking to my Scottish neighbors the question is asked of me: Why dont you return home? What can I say in reply? They are unable to understand.
Yet we must carry all this in our memory.
Because we can never forget.
* * * * * * * * * *
Helena Woloch Antolak
Compiled and translated from the original Polish text
by Ryszard Antolak