Part 1 - Deportation to Russia
It was February 24, 1942, in Karshi, Uzbekistan. After long weeks of illness in the hospital my children had at last recovered.
The exhausting search for a place to live had ended. One woman, the mother of a tiny baby, offered to share her small room with the three of us. We were grateful. She spared us from staying in a Soviet kolkhoz, the collective farms where people were dying of starvation.
The children fell asleep, but I stayed awake and thought about what had happened earlier to us in Poland and now that we had been deported to Russia wondered what would happen next.
First of all on August 23, 1939, there had been the alliance against Poland of those two mighty, dictatorship powers, Germany and Russia. For centuries they had been Poland's hostile neighbours; now there was conspiracy to annihilate our country and our nation.
Then came the nightmare of September I when treaties between Poland and Germany were broken by Hitler's lightning attack on Poland and the destruction of Polish airfields and airpower.
History repeated itself as the Germans drove deep into the Polish countryside. The air trembled. The earth shook under the pounding of German artillery and thousands of advancing tanks. Poland was in flames again with violence and cruelty everywhere.
The heroic resistance of the Polish Army continued until September 17. On that date the Soviet Army invaded the eastern part of Poland and the River Bug became the line of partition between Germany on the west and Russia on the east. After only 20 years of freedom Poland was again under foreign domination.
The tyranny and brutality of the Kaiser and the Tsar were to be repeated by Hitler and Stalin. Three million Poles were murdered by the Germans, many in gas chambers. Many thousand Polish officers were executed by the N.K.V.D. in the Katyn Forest in Russia in 1940.
Then in November 1939 the mass deportation began of the Polish people to concentration camps, prisons and forced labour camps in Germany. At the same time thousands of Polish families were deported to Russia to end up in forced labour camps, prisons and punitive camps.
The invaders arrested innocent people from all walks of life: officers, farmers, foresters, policemen, labourers, tradesmen, clerks, doctors, teachers, priests, lawyers, nuns, scientists, professors and others.
There were several of these deportations in 1939. The first to go were the higher ranks in the Polish Army. It was generally believed that these officers were being deported for only the duration of the war. But on February the 10th, 1940, the deportations began again.
On a bitterly cold and frosty night, the hated NKVD, the Russian police, with guns on their shoulders, began making wide-scale arrests. Wives and children went on sleighs, husbands and older sons on foot. There was no time to pack extra food or spare clothing. Herded together into goods trains these people were taken away, never to see their homeland again.
Months later, a few letters from those deported began trickling back to relatives in Poland. All told of a terrible journey, during which many had died of cold and hunger, before some found themselves near Arkhangelsk and others on the east side of the Ural Mountains in Russia, wretched and destitute.
There was another wave of deportations in July and August, 1940. This time it was the civil servants, farmers, doctors and priests.
A terrible fear went through the people. Why all those deportations? To what purpose and where? For how long?
The railway lines were busy. Trains from different places kept passing through the town in a great hurry.
Those remaining felt helpless. They had nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape to. In order not to be caught unprepared, people began to pack food and spare clothing. They slept uneasily at night waiting in fear for the sudden knock on the door that would signal the arrival of the police.
I, too, was ready with my children, an eight-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son. My husband, who was a lawyer, had already been arrested in April, 1940, then deported to a mine in Northern Russia in May, 1941.
The routine of the arrests never altered. It was always at night. The house surrounded by soldiers. A loud knock on the door then members of the NKVD, revolvers in hand, would enter with the command: "Get ready . . ."
Two armed soldiers and two NKVD men knocked on our door on June the 19th, 1941, at 4 a.m. My daughter began to shake with fear, but I felt resigned to our fate.
We knelt on the threshold of our home for the last time and I wondered how many thousands of other families were kneeling at that same moment saying farewell to their homes.
They loaded us and our luggage onto trucks. The trucks drove off in the direction of a railway station. It was dawn.
On the other side of the street in one of the windows of my sister's house I could see my mother crying. They did not even let me say goodbye to her.
Then we passed the church where past generations of my family and my children had been baptized.
In the distance there was the cemetery hill where five generations of my family lay buried. We passed the school where I had worked for the last 20 years. Silently, I farewelled the countless students who passed through its gates. I prayed that they would persevere.
The trucks arrived at the station. I glanced at the sign "Sokolka" for the last time.
There was a long goods train standing there. Through the roof of each carriage protruded stove pipes which were connected to small stoves attached to the floor of the individual carriages. The stoves were for boiling the water.
Fear gripped even the stoutest hearts of those that had seen such trains before. They were unquestionable heralds of an approaching deportation to Siberia. A whispered phrase then passed from mouth to mouth: "Ciepluszki (stove carriages) are waiting!'
In the history of nations an ally often becomes an aggressor. As early as June 21, 1941, the Germans launched an attack against the three million troops of the Russian Army then occupying Eastern Poland. Only a small fraction of that army survived. Not only did the Germans bomb boundary installations and railway lines but also the locked-up trains carrying the Polish people into exile. There were many casualties but the trains continued to carry us further and further away.
After three weeks travelling we arrived at Uzhur and were transferred from the train onto lorries.
Some of us were taken to Tukay kolkhoz, 80 kilometres away in Krasnoyarski Region. Others went to surrounding areas.
As I passed through the door of the Siberian hut I remembered that my grandfather had also been deported to Siberia for his part in the Polish uprising of 1863. Following in his footsteps, I reflected that the rule of the communists didn't differ in the least from that of the tsars. The basis of power remained terror, deportation and a Siberian jail.
There were to be eight people allotted to the small single-roomed hut with one stove. As well as the three of us, there was Mrs Moniuszko and her four children. I was glad not to be alone.
Next day we were called out to work. Our daily tasks were mostly in the fields but these were frequently changed, according to need. The work was too hard for the women to cope with. Although I always hurried as much as I could I was never able to fulfil the set quota.
As a result the bread, salt and porridge that was given as remuneration for work done was all I could earn for my eight-hour daily labour. I had to start to sell some of my belongings.
One day we were called to the kolkhoz office where an NKVD official explained to us that we were deported to Siberia to work for the Soviet Union for the rest of our lives.
We were given personal documents which stated that we and our children were to remain in the Tukay kolkhoz to the end of our lives without any choice of location.
We left the meeting extremely depressed but the feeling was short lived. After all the war had not yet ended. We felt certain we would not remain there "to the end of our lives" as they said. Oh, no!
In August, 1941, while working on the fields, in the heat of the short Siberian summer, we were told that we had been granted a "political amnesty". This sounded incredible. We had become far too cautious to believe such things.
The news, however, that General Sikorski had signed an agreement with Stalin proved to be true.
As part of the agreement Polish officers were to be released from prisons and punishment camps to enlist in a Polish army to fight the Germans.
About ten thousand officers were already missing. Something like four thousand of them were killed in the Katyn Forest and we were told that many others were probably drowned in barges in the "Northern Waters". Who knows what happened to them?
All captive Polish civilians were also to be released from Russian labour camps. So the threat of remaining in exile "for the rest of our lives" became only a nightmare of the past.
We decided the best thing to do would be to leave Tukay as quickly as possible just in case the amnesty should be revoked. There was also the danger that the on-coming Siberian winter would freeze us over. So we left almost immediately for Krutoyarsk, 80 kilometres away, to be near a railway line.
The Polish Ambassador, Professor S. Kot, who had set up an embassy in Kuybyshev, sent a despatch on November 22, 1941, stating that everyone should head for the south, so we left immediately for Novosybirsk. At the station there we joined the three thousand Polish people already awaiting transport. We were now under the care of the newly- appointed Polish Agency ("Delegatura").
This time when we were loaded into goods trains for the journey south there were no complaints. "if only they can get us to the south., to the Russian-Persian border", was the single wish occupying the minds of even my small children, lying sick and in fever. Like many other Polish children on those trains from Novosybirsk to the south they caught measles.
We arrived in Karshi on December 20, 1941. The Soviet authorities ordered us all to be put into two-wheeled camel-driven wagons known as "arbas" and distributed to the surrounding kolkhozes, the local collective farms. I joined a few other mothers who begged the stationmaster to let us wait until morning, so that we could take the sick children to a hospital. The stationmaster agreed. We placed twelve of the children in the railway hospital and twenty of them in the nearby hospital of the town. Among these was my own two, very ill, children.
There were no effective medicines available at either of the two hospitals so the children were to suffer all kinds of complications after the measles, such as inflammation of the eyes or ears and pneumonia.
One such case was four-year-old Zosia. She had a tumour on the brain and was unconscious all the time. Two of her older brothers were sick in the same room. Only one was to leave Karshi alive. They buried the boy and his sister together in the same grave.
Their poor mother arrived back at the hospital too late. She had not seen her children since she left them to go to the kolkhoz with the others. After such a tragic loss she sat on the hospital steps speechless, benumbed and without tears. She went back to the kolkhoz again with her only surviving son.
And then there was one-year-old Abraham. That special day in the hospital as his mother looked after him he was so pale, so silent. Suddenly, like a bird, he fluttered in his mother's arms and was gone forever ...
Three other small children were to die as well. It was a distressing experience to helplessly watch the dying and the unconscious.
At the beginning of February I went to Guzari, the Centre for the Organisation of the Polish Army, where I registered myself as a teacher at the Social Welfare Office. I had already been teaching in Poland for twenty-two years. It was suggested that I join the army and work for the Education Office, but I refused emphatically because it would mean parting with my children.
I had only just brought them back from the hospital. They were still very weak and exhausted but I was grateful that they had survived and that we had a roof over our heads.
On February the 25th, 1942, we were still in Karshi, still waiting for departure. But there were thousands of other people in a worse situation than ours.
As soon as the political amnesty was announced there began an amazing exodus. From all the corners of Russia, from Northern Europe, Arkhangelsk and Vorkuta, down from the Ural Mountains, from Northern Asia, from Kolyma, from Siberia, Novosybirsk, Irkutsk, from Central Asia, from Kazakhstan, from all the forced labour camps, mines, prisons, from forests and other places of their exile, almost a million-strong mass of Polish people travelled in goods trains, sick, hungry and in rags to reach the south and the Caspian Sea.
They had heard that a Polish Army was being formed there. They hoped to join it. They hoped to be able to cross the border to Persia.
Their trains were frequently stopped, shunted to a side rail and left there for days before another engine would take them further. They wandered through the stations, often spending their nights out in the streets. By the time they reached the south they were half-starved, ill and empty-handed. Most of their possessions had been bartered for food.
Some trains were stopped in places like Kuybyshev, Buzuluk, Totskoye, Tashkent, Bukhara, Kermene, Karshi, Guzari and Ashkhabad. From these towns the Russians distributed the Poles to nearby collective farms. But the local Uzbeg people were unable to accommodate, employ or feed the unexpected arrivals. They were barely able to keep themselves alive. The land was barren and food scarce.
The new arrivals were provided with spades and told to build their own clay and turf huts leaving holes for the windows and doors. There was only dried cow-dung as fuel.
Starvation began and with it the epidemics. Typhoid, measles, scarlet fever and dysentery spread rapidly among the Polish people living in these bare, clay huts. There was no fresh water available and not enough fuel to boil the dirty water from the mud holes.
From the time that we arrived in Karshi trainloads of volunteers who wanted to join the Polish Army in Guzari passed through every few days. Men of all ages, hungry, emaciated and depressed.
Some came from as far as Vorkuta. After their release, they sailed from the north down the River Pechora. Once in the north, they went down the River Amu Darya on barges. Then they were directed up north again to Nukus. From Nukus to Farrabu, then by trains to the Gizduvan region. Many never reached their destination. Some finally managed to get through to Kermene. Some went to Guzari. Some died of starvation.
For some months now the so-called Delegates and Men of Trust from the newly-established Polish Embassy in Kuybyshev were organising Agencies and Posts in cities, towns and villages in Kazakhstan and Uzbekstan. They were to take charge of the Polish civilians.
I saw hundreds of people queuing up for relief money, food and clothing supplied by the United States. Unfortunately, many people from the distant kolkhozes did not know of the existence of these agencies and many others were too ill and exhausted to get to them. The result was that hunger killed many of the adults and as a natural consequence the number of orphans grew at an alarming rate.
A Polish Agency was set up in Karshi too. It was near the railway station in a former newspaper kiosk. A medical clinic was opened to the public in a separate house opposite the Agency, but there was little a doctor could do for the sick masses, apart from examining them and sending them to the already-overcrowded hospitals.
Some died at the clinic, while waiting helplessly for assistance.
As I watched those ever-increasing numbers of sick, hungry people I frequently asked myself: "How long can such a situation last? How long can they continue to starve? When will it all end? How many people will survive?"
Our hopes were so high when the amnesty was granted.
On February 26, 1942, I went to Kermene and Bukhara to check the lists at the Polish Agencies in the two towns to see if my husband was registered there. I had been looking for him since I June, 1941, when he was deported from Bialystok to a forced labour camp in the north of Russia, close to the Kara Sea. I spent two hours checking names in Kermene and another eight Tours in Bukhara but did not find any mention of him in the lists. I was told that not all the people had been registered yet.
In both of these towns the relief queues were endless. I was lucky that I still had some saleable articles and not obliged to ask anyone for assistance.
On March 6th, I was called to see the head of the Polish Agency in Karshi I was introduced to Captain Ziobrowa, who was the representative of the Social Welfare Office in Guzari which was attached to the Centre for the Organisation of the Polish Army.
Captain Ziobrowa suggested that I take charge of the orphanage in Karshi. We went to look over the proposed living quarters: a house with a roof but without windows or doors.
We thought that we could correct the deficiencies and the fact that food could easily be transported from Guzari by train made us accept the proposed house.
Nine days later the Social Welfare Office advised me that the orphanage was not going to be organised in Karshi after all. instead, it was to be set up seven kilometres from Guzari in an Uzbeg kolkhoz, called Kharkin Batash, where we would be closer to the Polish Army.
The Kolkhoz Kharkin-Batash was situated in the middle of the steppes which during the hot summer used to dry up completely. For those who dared to stay behind it became a "valley of death". This was the reason why the Uzbegs moved on before the drought commenced.
The following day we received some happy news. After the amnesty my husband had joined the Polish Army in Kermene. Thank God he was alive! I took my children and went to Guzari to take on the management of the "District Army Orphanage", as it was officially called.
My appointment was signed by the Commandant of the Centre for the Organisation of the Polish Army in Guzari on March 16, 1942.
From then on, it was to be my privilege to work for the Polish orphans and to act as a parent to them. I could not imagine more noble work.
A soldier drove us in a cart to Kharkin-Batash. On the way we passed a sad procession: an army band, playing a funeral march, and following behind ten wagons loaded with the bodies of soldiers. There were three or four bodies to a wagon simply covered with blankets.
The soldier who was driving told us that such funerals were taking place every day. These were the countless victims of typhoid.
Exhausted by prolonged malnutrition, the officers, soldiers, doctors and nurses had no strength to fight the epidemic. The lack of medicine, the location of the hospital among the clay huts, the vermin-all made the situation worse and provided ideal conditions for the rapid spread of disease.
We arrived at Kharkin-Batash where several clay huts had been reserved for the orphanage. The floors were just clay and against the walls there was some straw for sleeping on.
Near the orphanage, also in clay huts, was stationed the 19th Reconnaissance Regiment, whose Commander was to supervise the orphanage as well.
The following day Captain Ziobrowa provided us with cauldrons and a tank for boiling water. Captain Cwiakalski, from the Polish Agency in Karshi, paid out ten thousand roubles to buy meat and dairy produce. We received some flour and porridge from the Social Welfare Office. Everybody tried to help.
March 20. The soldiers were bringing new groups of children from Guzari and other places every day now. These were the orphans, part-orphans and the children of soldiers who had joined the army and whose mothers had not enough food for them at the kolkhozes.
Their ages varied from three to fourteen. It was difficult to know their true age because during their stay in Russia they changed their age so often that in the end they were not sure themselves how old they were.
It was surprising how many had suddenly become fourteen, the eligible age for joining "Junaki", the Polish Cadets!
My heart ached as I passed from hut to hut with my lamp at night and looked at those thin little bodies, covered up by old blankets or tattered coats. They were lying on a handful of straw, their heads resting on bundles containing their few belongings.
Some were weeping, some sadly sighing.
Here and there, the rain was seeping through the roof.
A cry of anguish went through me: "Oh, God, save these little ones from death, please!"
March 22. We already had one supervisor and two cooks, who were working hard to build up the children's strength.
I went to Guzari to select a nurse, the teaching staff and more supervisors. I returned with six women, Mesdames Spolnicka, Okolow, Surynt, Mikoszyna, Jarmulska and Berdowska.
We spent most of our time cleaning the children's hair and bathing their bodies. Their lessons were restricted to talks, stories and singing. The children were too tired for anything else.
We sat on the step infested with scorpions and serpents.
One day, one of the soldiers brought his three-year-old son, Julek Osko, and said: "His mother is dead, I have joined the Polish Army. Please take my son and bring him up." I took little Julek from his father and held him close.
I picked up another new arrival. The tiny, two-and-a-half-year-old Marysia Pytlos, who could not yet walk or speak. She was so frightened. Her mother became lost on the way when she got off at a station to get some bread. A soldier brought her to me. She was so light and so small, I did not feel any weight as I held her. Marysia was barely two months old when she was taken with her mother to prison and then transported to Arkhangelsk. Her mother's only "crime" was that years before she had served in the Polish Army.
Antoni Dudek brought his six-year-old brother, Kazio. Both their parents, a younger brother and a sister had died in Russia. Antoni was joining the "Junaki" so had to leave small Kazio at the orphanage.
They brought little Olusia Laszkiewicz, pretty as a cherub. Olusia was seven years old but she no longer spoke Polish. She could say only her prayers in her mother's tongue.
Olusia was deported from her homeland with her parents and taken to Kiev. She was separated from her parents there and placed in a Russian orphanage somewhere in the far north of the Ural Mountains. Her father was taken from Kiev to Arkhangelsk. When the amnesty came he was able to find his daughter again and took her to Guzari. From there he managed to send her to Kharkin-Batash, just before he fell seriously ill.
The soldiers were bringing more and more orphans every day. Among them Jan Dawiec together with the sister and two brothers of the Krejcisz family and Michas Petrus.
The three Brejnakowski sisters with their three-year-old brother, Stasio, were already in the orphanage. Their father had died and their mother froze to death on her way to a neighbouring kolkhoz where she was hoping to get some food.
Other orphans who arrived were the four Manterys sisters with their small brother.
There were also Leszek and Zosia Dobronski. Their mother died of a heart attack when she learnt that she and her children would be taken to an Uzbeg kolkhoz. She was terrified that her children would die of hunger there. The brother and sister were so little (one was three and the other four) that they will never remember their mother or their father.
Six-year-old Stefcia Benasiewicz was crying. Through her tears she told me that her father and a baby sister died and her mother was very sick in the hospital. She was now quite alone.
Janek Nawalaniec told me very quietly that his father and four-year-old sister, Kazia, had died. His mother was so sick that they had taken her to the hospital. He and his sisters were taken to the orphanage.
I asked little Stefa what she could remember. She did not reply and sobbed wholeheartedly. Her tiny arms were trembling. Her sister, Ania, explained that they had seen their parents dying. I could not ask them more.
Many parents had sacrificed themselves for the sake of their children. They would leave the last pieces of bread for them. They were slowly dying from famine like martyrs ...
There was also eleven-year-old Lila Gleij. She went to get bread for the family at the railway station in Tashkent. The train left abruptly without a signal. Lila was left behind, alone among strangers. The authorities took her to an orphanage in Tashkent. But a few days later she ran away and went back to the station where she asked some Polish soldiers who were on their way to Guzari to help her find her mother. The soldiers took her to Kharkin-Batash.
It is impossible to mention all the 130 names of the children in the orphanage or to describe all the unbelievable experiences they had gone through. When we were filling in forms we tried to ask as little as possible and never to mention hunger or death.
To the question about parents the most frequent answer we heard was: "Mum is dead, Dad joined the Army", or "Both Mum and Dad are dead".
The days passed quickly for us. We were busy. We had something to work for again.
The children were sad and quiet. They neither laughed nor cried. They did not complain about anything and nothing cheered them up. Many suffered from scurvy, some had malaria, some diarrhoea. They were too worn out even to play. Most of the time they just sat apathetically, propped up against the walls of the huts.
In the mornings when we sang the Polish hymn "When the morning lights are glowing" and another called "All our deeds of this day" in the evenings, the Uzbegs came out of their huts and listened to the prayers of the Polish orphans. They, too, knew what it was to be without freedom.
On March 23, I was called to the headquarters of the ]9th Regiment. Captain Nowicki informed me that the Army was to move from Russia to Persia. The orphans were to go too. He asked for a list of the children and ordered preparations for the departure. Each person was allowed to take only what he or she was able to carry. We were also to take the cauldrons, the tin water container and 3000 roubles to buy food for the children on the journey.
March 24. I handed over 3204 roubles, the rest of the money, as well as the remaining provisions to the representative of the Social Welfare Officer, Mr Franciszek Adamski.
After a sleepless night we left by trucks very early in the morning for the station. Then by train to Krasnovodsk.
We travelled in complete silence with hearts full of emotion. We wanted to talk, to laugh, to cry for joy, but could not. We still found it difficult to believe that this journey to freedom was real. We were afraid that the train might be turned back any minute.
Some of the children had fever, some still suffered from diarrhoea. I asked the others to support the sick ones, so they would not sway, because the Russian health authorities were checking for any sick children to be taken to hospital. No-one wanted to remain in Russia or to be separated from brothers or sisters.
Fortunately, however, we all managed to get to the port. At two of the stations we were given a hot meal.
At Krasnovodsk we camped on the shore of the Caspian Sea. As we had had no expenses on the train journey Captain Ziobrowa and I gave the unspent 3000 roubles to Officer Zawadzki at the so-called Rallying Point of the Polish Army situated on the beach with the request that he sent this money on to Mr Adamski at the Social Welfare Office in Guzari.
When Captain Nowicki gave us our orders on March 23rd he could not have foreseen that we would not need either the utensils or the money taken from Kharkin-Batash. Both the money and the utensils would have been most useful to the "Junaczki" (Girl Cadets) who were stationed in the huts after our departure.
It was a warm spring evening. We lay down to sleep under the open skies. The following morning we would sail on further.
At eight o'clock in the morning we boarded the small vessel which was to take us across the Caspian Sea. It was not very far over the gangway but the children found it difficult to cross. They barely dragged their feet. The older girls carried the youngest children and the boys supported the sick ones.
Below on the shore, the soldiers secretly wiped their eyes as they watched this sad procession of children.
As we went aboard the Russian authorities took away our deportation papers and, as in tsarist times, we were forbidden to speak about our experiences in Russia.
We were on our way to Persia!
The boat was not large. It was filled to capacity with Polish soldiers, standing shoulder to shoulder, packed tightly in one great mass.
The children occupied the top half of the boat with sufficient room to sit. It was raining. We were given hot soup but the soldiers had to go without as there was not enough to go round. We gave them the cooked meat, salted herrings and dried bread that we had brought on our journey but there was not much of that either.
One of the officers recognised me. He was one of my husband's friends from Poland. He got permission to move the youngest children below deck. So we placed the sick and very small children inside the boat, side by side, on the floor of the passageway. It was warm and dry there. But the older children were still above on deck and the soldiers still had room only to stand.
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