Monday, August 20, 2007

Exile in the USSR (continued)

Exile in the USSR (continued)
Life there was awfully hard. We survived by selling some of the things we had brought from Poland. In summer we children would gather berries in the forest and we would sell them for a little money which helped us pay for our bread and soup. Summer in Siberia was very beautiful. After such a winter it was amazing that anything survived under the snow. There were beautiful flowers. One of my jobs was to gather the water from the Churga and bring it to the house. The path was so slippery and during the winter it was all ice. I don't know how I didn't fall into the icy water below. I do know that God looked after us. He didn't want us to die there.

Tadeusz Dobrostanski was just 6 years old when he was deported with his 36-year-old mother and 10-year-old brother to a settlement named Lobva, north of Svierdlovsk, in Siberia. He remembers it as:

a picturesque place in forest near a beautiful river. All the houses were log cabins. We were given half a house to share with a couple of Polish Jews and their son. Digging between the logs of the cabin, we found little rolls, like cigarette papers, saying that this log cabin was built in 1863 by Polish deportees after the 1863 uprising. Their names were recorded. So we were not the first Poles in that area. Very soon they organised work brigades and Mother was given an axe and hand saw. She became a wood chopper in the forest. This was the first physical work in her life because she was a dramatic actress; her life was theatre so this was very hard for her. Somehow, she managed to establish communication with our family in Lwów. We were allowed to send letters, all written in Russian and heavily censored. Through these letters to our family in Lwów she established a correspondence with my father, who had been deported to Rybinsk near Vologda, along with other Polish army officers. My father was trying very hard to get transferred to us, without success. I still have the original letters.

My brother and I were sent to a Russian school. To us it was a great adventure and we were quite happy. We never appreciated the seriousness of the situation. Very soon I was converted to a young communist singing Russian songs and drawing pictures of red stars and shouting 'long live Father Stalin'. They were brainwashing very young and vulnerable brains. My mother was very patriotic, like most of the mothers, and she wasn't too happy, but this was the only option for us because it was the only school and we had to go to school. But she was very particular to make sure that we also learnt Polish and that we would never forget that we were of Polish nationality.
ile in the USSR (continued)
Young Elizabeth Patro was only 5 years old when her family was deported to Siberia. She recounts how, after her father had been sent away to work:

Mother got orders from the authorities to send me to school before fall. She vehemently objected, claiming that I was too young - but no-one listened. I, on the other hand, could not understand why? After all I knew the Russian alphabet. I could count to a hundred and I even learned how to use the abacus. At last the day arrived. Loaded with a cloth school bag with two long handles, a perfectly planed pine board, two soft pencils, and an abacus I marched to school. At that time paper was very scarce, so the pine boards were used for writing. Almost every day after school it had to be re-planed and re-lined ready for the next day.

I did like school and tried very hard. A few weeks later I was called to the front of the class and the teacher informed me that I had become an atlicznica - an excellent student - and, with a great reverence, she handed me a small red triangular scarf, which was placed on my shoulders to the clapping of the class. In conclusion the class sang a lively Russian song, which I did not know. Greatly excited I ran home that day. Bursting through the door I suddenly stopped, my mother with tears in her eyes slowly pulled off the red scarf and told me very seriously never, never to bring it home again. 'Why?' I wondered. 'Why?'

Like Tadeusz Dobrostanski, Elizabeth Patro recalls the attempts to indoctrinate the children to Stalinist ways.

On 21 December 1940 when we were awaiting Christmas, the order came from the school authorities for all children to appear on time at the communal hall. Once there, we were separated. The Russian children were assembled near the fireplace and the Polish children at the opposite corner. The celebration of Stalin's birthday commenced with the hymn of glory of Russia, then one of the teachers came unexpectedly to the group of Polish children and asked, 'Do you believe in Christmas?' After a long pause some of us answered 'Yes'. 'Do you believe that God whom you call Father was born at Christmas?' No-one moved and no-one spoke. 'If you believe that there is a God', he continued, 'pray to Him for lollies'. 'The ones who do not believe in God can go and join the Russian children near the fire, they know there is no God', he continued. Only two slowly crossed the floor, while we watched.

Kneeling down in the middle of the cold Russian floor, on the cold Russian morning, the small group of cold Polish children prayed as they had never prayed before - and nothing happened. After a long pause the Russian children were asked if they believed in God and they shouted 'No!' They were asked if they believed in Batko Stalin (Father Stalin). 'Yes!' they shouted. 'So ask him for lollies', suggested our teacher. 'Batko Stalin, Batko Stalin give us sweets', they chanted and suddenly lollies fell from the ceiling all over the children near the fire. Somehow that memorable day in Russian school opened my eyes and even then, at six, I did know that I was witnessing a lie. God did exist, I was sure of it, and as for lollies, they did not count.
Helena Lancucka had been a 36-year-old school teacher in East Poland before she and her 4-year-old son Krzysztof were deported to Kazakhstan in April 1940:

The journey from Poland took about eleven days. It was a very heavy winter and they put us down in the fields where the snow was very, very deep. It was nearly twelve o'clock at night and there was a horrible, cold wind.

There were some Polish people who were resettled there before and they already had huts made of mud and grass. Each hut had two rooms where two families lived. There was nothing in the huts, just an earth floor where we put our belongings. In winter time there was no shelter and the snow would come down the chimney. It was hard to get out of that place in winter because the snow was so high. You had to dig your way out and we were mostly women and children so it was hard to cut a tunnel out of the hut. There was no wood for cooking so we had to collect grass to burn. There was hardly any room, especially no room for cooking but there was very little to eat anyway. We had some wheat and we exchanged whatever clothing we had for food but there was very little and there was nowhere to buy that stuff. At first we didn't have to work because we were told that we were brought there to die. But God helped us. It was God's will that we lived.

Wieslawa Paszkiewicz (nèe Wojtasiewicz) was twelve and a half years old when she arrived in Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan. They were then taken by truck another 140 kilometres to a small Kazak kolhoz where they arrived on the first of May holiday. To celebrate the holiday, all the children were given lollies, courtesy of 'Father Stalin'.

Then they dropped us in a paddock and told us to go and look for some room to sleep. Kazaks have small huts made of mud and we had to pay for this because we were supposed to be rich people. They didn't take us for work. We just had to live on what we had. We stayed about nine months like this. When winter came, we had nothing to live on. They brought trucks and took us to another village, a Russian village. This was much better because the Russians had better houses.

By spring time we were told if we wanted bread we had to work. They took all the kids from twelve years of age to the steppe to cut the hay. I had never seen anything like that because I came from a big city, and I was an only child so I was not used to working. I had to learn how to drive the ox on the harvester. For our work we got 400 grams of bread and soup. The soup was cooked from oats, like the horses eat. It was very hard on your throat and when you went to the toilet you could see it wasn't good for you. There might be one piece of fatty meat in the soup but that was it. We worked all day and that was what we were fed all this time. Sometimes we might get some buckwheat. All summer was like this.

Nine-year-old Jerzy Mazak, along with his mother, grandmother and aunt, was also taken to a kolhoz in Kazakhstan.

They told us that we were to assimilate with the locals and the locals were told to take us into their houses, which were basically mud and peat huts. There were about 300 people at that collective farm. Not one single toilet and only one well to draw water. The climate was hot in summer and -50o C in winter. The only fuel available for cooking and warmth was cow dung and straw so all the women collected the dung and made it into bricks of about 40 x 20 x 20 centimetres. They were made in heavy wooden frames, sun dried and stacked for the winter. Later the children were involved in collecting the dung.

We moved in with a Kazak family and soon after, on the 25th of May, Grandmother died of pneumonia. The coffin was taken by bullock and she was buried at the settlement.

There was Mustafa, his wife Minka and their young 7-year-old son. Their house consisted of an entry, on the left a barn with the sheep, and on the right their room, which had mud floors. In the corner of one room they had a big copper which was used for cooking. There were bugs and lice, and one would see women sitting de-licing each other. People survived by exchanging what they had. The locals did not have much, only a cow or some hens. We were here from May 1940 until April 1941.

Zbigniew Stanislaw Patro was 8 years old when he arrived with his family in Kazakhstan.

We were taken to a kolhoz, a collective farm. My grandfather and elder uncle worked on tractors, my younger uncle in the milk processing plant and my mother worked in the fields. My aunt and grandmother did not work. I went to school. All nine of us lived in one room. It was a very primitive existence.

Kazakhstan is very flat and treeless, and as far as one could see there was wheat and cattle pasture. I didn't see a tree all the time I was there. We had big stacks of straw and in winter we used this for fuel. That was the only thing available. There was no wood or coal except for the workshop. To make it warmer in winter we put about half a metre of straw on the floor and when it was crushed it was replaced. The winter was very cold, one night I remember it was -60 o C. One morning we woke up and opened the front door and the doorway was completely blocked by snow. The Russians were used to it, they shovelled the snow into big kettles, melting the snow, and then threw the hot water on the snow, making steps up as they went. I remember only the chimneys were sticking out of the snow when we finally went out that day.

Teresa Sosnowska was deported in one of the last transports to leave Poland for the Soviet Union.

We were sent past the Ural Mountains to Novorsibirsk, not very far from Kazakhstan and were put in a sofhoz. A sofhoz is like a main kolhoz: twelve kolhoz answered to one sofhoz. We were put in the old school building with about eight families from Pinsk, mainly young women with one or two children. My mother was put to work digging holes. There was no reason to dig these holes. They didn't bother about human beings because they knew that they had many more who would come and do the work so it didn't matter how many died. This was not only with Polish people. They did it to their own people as well.

My aunt had not been deported: she volunteered to come with us because she knew Russia. She had been deported there before when she was younger, and she thought my mother would never be able to manage the children as well as the work. Because she was a volunteer, and because she was too old, she didn't have to work, so she stayed at home to look after us. My mother had to work for all of us.

I was eight when we were deported but when that happened I grew up very quickly. I considered myself a grown-up and I became a little thief! There was another building where they stored sunflower seeds and we used to run up the stairs when no-one was watching, eat as much as we could and steal as much as we could hide. We also learnt how to steal cabbages from the carts. By the end of the season we had forty-nine cabbages stored in our little storeroom, as well as sunflower seeds!
Exile in the USSR (continued)
Other experiences of exile
Not all deportees were sent to kolhoz in Siberia or Kazakhstan, and others who were did not stay there long. For example, Janina Pienkos (nèe Huszczo) was only 8 years old when she was exiled, along with her sister, younger brother and 35-year-old mother, to the village of Volodarowka in Kazakhstan.

We were just dumped on the street at night time and that was it. A few families got together and we found a house. Later on people could chose to work on the railways so my mother and a few of her friends went to work there. From that time we lived in railway carriages, very similar to the cattle truck we came from Poland in. The carriages just travelled around Russia. I don't remember where we went. We lived and travelled, and slept on the floor of those carriages near a little fireplace. My sister was very sick. There was a lot of sickness. The adults used to shovel snow from the railway tracks and Mother had a very bad accident. She slipped on the ice, fell and hurt the lower part of her back. I remember there was a lot of blood. Sometimes we stopped in a station and then the train would just go. Whoever had left the carriage was left behind.

When we arrived in Kirghistan they took some people off that train and sent them to work on collective farms. The rest of us, about ten families, they just left at a China tea house. That is when typhus hit our group and everybody in my family except me was sent to hospital. When my mother got out of hospital and found me, the first thing she did was shave my hair because I was covered in lice. She had to carry my brother on her back because he had malaria on top of that. After that everybody was so weak they couldn't work.

Other groups were sent almost directly to the notorious cotton plantations in Kirghistan. Often referred to as 'the Soviet Louisiana' because of the harsh living and working conditions, these became a common destination for many Polish deportees after the amnesty (see Chapter 4), as they were waiting for an opportunity to leave the Soviet Union. Tadeusz Gruszka was barely 3 years old when his family was deported to Kirghistan early in 1940, so his first formative memories are of:

cold and hunger. I was with my whole family: my two brothers, myself, mother and father. I was the youngest. We ended up in Kirghistan at first. My family was working in the cotton fields and then my father, I think, was working in the mills. Before the invasion my father was a ranger in the forestry department. In Kirghistan he had to do whatever work they told him to. I was doing nothing: just waiting for my parents to get home, with my brothers. That's how it was. There was nothing to do for us.

The winters were very heavy and we did not have much firewood. I used to go with my brothers at night to get firewood from the cotton fields. This was illegal so we had to be very careful. I must have been about four and a half or five by that time. There was not very much food. My mother and father used to go to the forest to get green plums off the trees. My mother used to cook these into a vegetarian soup made with some things like leaves that the horses used to eat. We could survive but we didn't see meat for about two years. There was a lot of sickness also, due to malnutrition and the conditions of living. My mother and one of my brothers were sick for a while, but they survived. In that part there were maybe two or three other Polish families. I know in one of them, the father died of some disease. It was very bad.

Other families, such as the Smendas, were taken to the very far east of the USSR, near the Mongolian border.

We were not deported till 22 May 1941, not long before the amnesty. We were one of the last transports with around 700 or 800 people and we were taken to Krasnoyarsk on the River Yenisei, much closer to Manchuria and China than to Europe. From Krasnoyarsk they put us on a barge and we were taken further north and dumped in a place called Sowhobuzin which was a minor administrative centre. It was mainly timber mills. We had been sentenced to 'twenty years duress' - those were the precise words. We were not in jail but we could not move outside the boundaries of that settlement without the approval of the local NKVD and a pass.

Quite surprisingly the major of the NKVD turned out to be a very reasonable human being. There are exceptions everywhere. He helped us and tried to get my mother to work as a school teacher. He insisted that my sister and I go to school rather than work. My sister Teresa won Lenin's Prize for being the best student in her year in that primary school. My mother tore it up, which is a pity because it is part of your life. We were lucky compared to many others. We were not in the Soviet Union for very long. (Janusz Smenda)

The first stage of exile drew to an end as the winter of 1941 closed in. As Królikowski (1983, p.17) observed, 'The death harvest among the Poles was terrifying'. No reliable figures exist but it is estimated that anything between a third and a half of the deported Poles were dead by the time of Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 (Ascherson, 1987, p. 93). By the beginning of 1942, almost one-half of the deportees were dead. An estimated 20 per cent of the people sent to the taiga or the steppes died each year while 30 per cent of those who had been sent to prisons or labour camps had died (Królikowski, 1983, p.17). Scattered in small communities throughout Siberia, Kazakhstan, Kirghistan and Uzbekistan, groups of Polish deportees were desperate to leave before they too succumbed to the same
Chapter 4 - Amnesty and the Journey South
The status of Polish deportees in the Soviet Union began to change when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 in Operation Barbarossa. Ultimately it led to the announcement of an amnesty which released Polish exiles from their labour camps and allowed them to travel south in search of freedom and the Polish army. This was being reformed to help fight the German army which was rapidly advancing into Soviet territory.

The personal recollections of those who survived indicate the relief they felt when news of the amnesty reached them, but also detail the hardship they encountered in their efforts to escape. It was a period characterised by uncertainty, hunger, starvation, disease and daily confrontations with death, both of strangers and loved ones. These experiences have etched themselves into the minds of those who witnessed them and this is most clearly understood when their stories are recounted face to face: the written word sanitises the emotional reality because it cannot capture the pain in many people's voices as they recounted memories which, long ago, have been put behind them.

Each individual's story was an odyssey in its own right for, even within families, experiences varied as family members were frequently separated en route. Even where families managed to stay together, both experiences and perceptions of the journey varied according to the age of the story teller, although there were many common themes and a remarkable consistency between stories. There was a marked reluctance to dwell on some of the more disturbing events of the journey and many participants requested that the tape be turned off while they recounted events they thought no-one would believe. Many cried in the course of recollections they had told few, if any, people.

Over fifty years later, the joy of being told of the amnesty remains clear in the memories of all the Polish exiles. Halina Juszczyk described it as 'a miracle for us. Suddenly we found that we were free, but where could we go from Siberia?' Zdzislawa Wasylkowska explained how the people in her camp were gathered together and told that 'a terrible thing had happened. But we were really happy that there was a war because we thought that now something might happen for us'. While the German-Soviet war may have raised the hopes of Polish deportees who had relatives able to join the Polish army, for others it meant an immediate escalation in hardship. Women who had already endured so much in trying to care for their children, often without menfolk, found themselves having to call even more on reserves of strength, reserves which had already been stretched to the limits. This part of their journey often subjected them to more physical endurance, more sickness and more death.

Many Polish women were taken for compulsory work building railways. As Helena Lancucka said, without elaboration, 'It was very heavy work, moving sand for the tracks'. For other families, scattered in isolated kolhozes where little work had been available to them, war simply meant that the intermittent food parcels which had arrived from relatives in Poland could no longer get through to them. Urszula Paszkowska recalled how conditions deteriorated for them in Kazakhstan for this reason. Although her family was given a small garden plot in which they planted potatoes, her grandfather did not survive until the summer of 1942, when the family were finally rescued from the kolhoz by a relative.

Hopes that war would lead to a change for Polish deportees proved to be well founded. Under pressure from Britain, diplomatic relations between the London-based Polish government in exile and Stalin were resumed within a month of Operation Barbarossa. This was to be no easy coalition. The Polish government in exile found itself in alliance with a neighbour who still claimed an enormous part of their territory and who had, less than two years before, launched an undeclared war on their nation. The British and the Americans requested that Poland and the Soviet Union put the allied war effort first and deal with the issue of the frontier at a later date.

On 30 July 1941, a Polish-Soviet treaty was signed in London arranging for the formation of a Polish army on Soviet soil and declaring an 'amnesty' to all Polish citizens living in camps and prisons in the Soviet Union. As Królikowski (1983, p. 26) observed, 'A strange amnesty indeed when there had been no crime! We suspected that this word was meant to be Moscow's way of deluding the West, to camouflage the outrage that had been committed'.

The estimated quarter of a million Polish troops who had been 'interned' in the Soviet Union had been largely forgotten by the West. After their first dramatic appearance on centre stage at the beginning of the war they had fallen into a no-man's-land because, technically, they were not prisoners of war as the Soviet Union had never declared war on Poland. By the time of the Soviet-Polish agreement in July 1941, Stalin needed all the help he could get, and from August 1941 Polish officers were allowed to scour the USSR collecting their countrymen for the army. In the process, they contacted many of the Polish families who had been 'resettled' throughout the USSR.

Królikowski (1983, p. 30) describes how news of the amnesty reached many Poles indirectly, often by accident, and maintains that many impediments were placed in the way of those seeking identification papers which would give them the freedom to travel south. Thus, 'slowly and reluctantly, the gates of the Siberian and Asian camps swung open, and hundreds and thousands of Poles - soldiers, women, officials, priests and even orphaned children - began to make their way towards centres where the new Polish army was being gathered. Many had already died; many were not released' (Ascherson, 1987, p. 119).
Moving South
For those who had survived deportation and exile to this time, the next task was how to escape the encroaching winter and make the dangerous journey south. Their destinations were defined primarily by an 'instinct for self-preservation' which impelled them to leave the cold of the north and head south to the warmer regions of Central Asia where, rumour had it, the Polish army was gathering (Królikowski, 1983, p. 40). Teresa Sosnowska made the point that deportees were given permission to travel in the Soviet Union only if they could prove that they had a relative in the Polish army:

not everybody could be freed because not everybody had the means. We were only able to go because our cousins, three young people between eighteen and twenty-three, were strong and healthy and had some money. They paid our fare down south and we travelled together, south to Uzbekistan. Although the amnesty was in August, we were in that sofhos till October or November 1941. It was snowing when we left.

It is not easy to give a summary account of this great exodus. Królikowski (1983, pp. 41-2) describes how Poles, merging to form a 'great human stream', came from areas as far apart as Arkhangel'sk and Vladivostok. The first flood of Polish refugees moved 'like a swollen river blindly rushing ahead' (Królikowski 1983, p. 42) with no information about where they might settle or what they might expect. Many who came from the east moved along the edge of the Mongolian uplands, travelling towards Alma-Ata in south-east Kazakhstan. A few lucky groups managed to reach the Polish embassy in Kuybyshev by travelling along the Volga River. Most found their movements controlled by the NKVD which directed many train transports of Polish civilians towards the poorest regions of Turkestan, near the Aral Sea. Thousands of other Poles made it further south to the republics of Uzbekistan and Kirghistan. The whole region was plagued by endemic infectious diseases such as typhoid, dysentery and malaria.

The scale and horror of these journeys is clear from every account. Królikowski (1983, p. 30) summarised it ironically but effectively by noting that 'freedom often seemed harder than imprisonment'. The situation was further confused by the concurrent relocation of thousands of Soviet citizens from the war zones of the west to the southern republics.

As several participants noted, you had to see the conditions of travel to believe them. Irena Makowiecka, whose 16-year-old brother had died in Siberia, observed that people could only travel with the greatest difficulty: 'It was a nightmare, much worse than getting to Russia. Out of the thirty or forty Polish families who had been taken to our camp in Siberia, only eight families left. There were eight women with about sixteen children in our group and we did it by ourselves, and had to pay for our trip too.'

Some of the older participants in this project preferred to give only a brief account of how they left the Soviet Union. This may have been influenced by difficulties discussing these events in English. For example, Helena Lancucka, now in her nineties, recalled the episode in these words:

While we were working on the train line the Germans were getting close to Moscow. Stalin was afraid and he sent for our General Anders, who had been in a Russian prison, to tell him that he would free the Poles if he organised a Polish army to fight with the Russians opposite Germany. Anders said he would organise it, but only if the Polish army fought under British command. Stalin had to let us go from Russia. After that many Polish prisoners travelled around Russia looking for their families and that is how we heard about the Polish army. So we went to Dzhalal-Abad, in the Kirghiz Republic, where our army was. I was asked to organise a school for the Polish children and that was how I managed to leave Russia with my son.

Similarly, Maria Szuster-Nowak, now in her late eighties, conducted her interviews in a mixture of English and Polish which her daughter translated on the spot. Maria remembered her feelings about the amnesty and journey south clearly:

They told us we were free and could go where we liked but they didn't give us any means of transport. Some men made a raft so we could travel by river to the nearest train station. We all said, 'Never mind if we go down. We'll be finished but we must try to get away from this place'. And so we left on a raft. We lived off bread we had dried and put in bags for the journey. We would boil some water and dunk the dried bread in the water to soften it. That is how we fed ourselves and the children until we got to a place in the south where the Russian people were growing cotton. We worked there for a while until we got news that the Polish army was forming. Then we went by train to the place where the Polish army had a special post for all these people. I was very sick by then but they put me on the floor in the hospital tent because there were no more beds. The government fed the children when I was in hospital. After I recovered we were taken down south to Tehràn.

Stanislawa Jutrzenka-Trzebiatowska (Adamska) went into rather more detail:

We had no choice of where to go, we just went where they took us. All of us women were taken to a place near a railway. There I suddenly saw a soldier in a Polish uniform, with a Polish emblem. We knew little of what was happening as we had been so isolated so I ran to ask him information; it almost seemed to me that it was my husband. I asked, 'Do you know other officers, someone named Adamski?' He told me that the soldiers who were taken to Rustov had disappeared. I sought out my friend Tokarzewska, she was the daughter of General Tokarzewski's brother, who came from Poland. He told us where to stay so I went with her and her daughter. The road was so muddy and thick. We stayed in this place for a few weeks and from there we were sent to the Aral Sea, near the Syr-Darya River, which means the river of life. Here we were put on a barge to Nukus, south of the Aral Sea.

The journey took three weeks and it was very cold. To go to the toilet people had to stand on the edge of the barge. There was plenty of ice and many children slipped off into the river and were lost. From Nukus it was 100 kilometres to Uzbekistan. Many people were taken there by camels but my daughter and I went by bullock cart with another woman and her daughter. Here we worked the land which was very fertile. We grew djugara, a grain you had to grind. One day this other woman came shouting, 'They have come to take us home!' Her husband had found her. I was crying, frightened and praying because without his help I would have had to stay there. He said, 'You will come too as my wife's sister. At the moment they are not looking at documents'. He was not an officer but he had a position with some soldiers under him. I paid him by giving him my husband's boots. This is how I left Russia.

People who were younger at the time tended to give clear accounts about the mechanics of leaving their isolated settlements. For example, Boguslaw Trella, recalled how his family managed to leave:

My grand-aunt's son, who was in the army, came looking for us. He managed to get us out via Sharhrezyabz where his army unit was gathering. From the north to the south we travelled with my grandmother, my mother, my sister and myself and three other ladies that 'Uncle' managed to call cousins. The Polish government's relations with the USSR were deteriorating by this time so it had become very difficult to get the papers to get out. Uncle was a 'clever' fellow and he paid a lot of bribes to officials to get us out. At one station he bribed a woman supervisor of a carriage in a train carrying wounded Russian soldiers with an ounce of tobacco. She put us in the carriage and held back some of the soldiers.

Due to the remote locations in which many deportees had seen out the first years of the war, most had no immediate access to rail. Those brave enough, or desperate enough, set out by sledge, river craft or on foot, and there were many variations on the theme of the resourcefulness which the prospect of freedom fostered among the Polish exiles.

There was nothing organised when the amnesty came. People had to get to the Polish army as best they could, using their initiative. The mothers deserve all the credit for managing to get us out. It was very cold and we travelled by horse-drawn sleigh to the nearest station. When we got there everyone was pushing and shoving to get onto the train. Even to this day I am amazed when I think of the hardships Mother had to overcome to get my brother and myself to the southern regions where the army units were located. We owe our lives to her. (Ryszard Pawlowski)

Halina Juszczyk described her mother's situation when news of the June amnesty reached their settlement. The commandant of their camp informed them that they were free people who could now go where they liked and, six weeks before Christmas 1941, a transport was organised to take Polish women and children to the nearest station. The women had to work until the day before the transport left if they were to be allowed their ration of bread.

On the very last day Mother and Aunty went to work in the forest and about one o'clock we saw a sledge coming back from the forest with my aunty. She had broken a leg in two places. Just imagine the anguish of my mother! There she was, by herself with a family of four children and now Aunty, who had helped us survive, had a broken leg. What to do? Mother wanted very much to go with people she knew could help us on the journey but she decided we would wait until Aunty was better. Six weeks later-on Christmas Day 1941 - we left Churga settlement because the Commandant said it was our last chance to leave. Aunty's plaster was taken off but her leg was in a wood splint and she couldn't walk. There were only three sleighs leaving: Aunty was on one with my little brother and sister but my mother, older sister Krystyna and myself had to walk because we were older. I was nine and Krystyna was twelve. We had to walk about 30 kilometres in the snow through the night. Sometimes I would cheat a little and sit on the back of the sleigh but when the driver saw me he hit me. My shoes were in tatters and I had to rub my feet with snow to restore the circulation so I wouldn't lose my toes through frostbite.
Travelling by Train
Once the deportees had made it to a railway line, their troubles were far from over. Trains were redirected without notice, or failed to stop at certain stations and several people recalled a practice of detaching the last few carriages from the train, leaving the passengers isolated and without resources. Every participant had recollections of the uncertainty of train travel in wartime USSR. Boguslaw Trella explained:

If you were unable to obtain a ticket, or a permit for further train travel, you were stuck at the place where you found yourself. Your chances of reaching Polish centres in the south were small, and when Polish-Soviet relations worsened, you could find yourself in the same situation as before the amnesty.

Mietka Gruszka was not quite 5 years old by the time of the amnesty and her first memories include fears associated with train travel, of people being left behind, and stories about people whose legs were cut off because they fell under trains.

I remember things that were very emotional, or things that made a big impression. I can still hear the sound of those train whistles at night when we were standing at huge stations with miles and miles of tracks, and trains coming and going. I remember looking out of the window seeing the billows of smoke from the train engines and people rushing out of the train at the stations to see who was going to be first to grab hot water or anything that was available to buy. Also- it seems a strange thing - but I remember being put out of the little window with my seat out to go to the toilet. I was so afraid that I would fall out.

Bogdan Harbuz was 8 years old when his family left the kolhoz near Pawlodar in Kazakhstan to head south. He describes his memories of this period as 'pictures that come into my mind.' He recalled being 'packed like sardines' in cattle trucks, waiting for trains, sleeping on cold marble floors, catching a train only to be ordered off a few stations further on, and left to their own devices because the army had requisitioned the transport.

I was just a little boy, and on one of those trains an elderly gentleman asked me to sit on his lap. I sat on his lap and fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning that gentleman was dead. They took him by his feet and hands and threw him onto the platform and the train went on. At one of the stations, Mother went to find out where and how and when the next train was going and to try to get us tickets. One of my sisters went to get hot water and the other went to see if she could buy, steal or swap things for food. I was left guarding the bundles of our possessions and a big suitcase on the platform and a man came, pushed me away, grabbed the suitcase and ran. We saw some terrible things as a result of war.

Another common tale was that of being left behind when trains moved on without warning. Halina Juszczyk remembered her experience of this vividly:

It was after my younger brother and sister had died and mother was in great despair. She just sat there and didn't speak for a few days. Stations in Russia had great big boilers where you could get hot water but the trains usually stopped far away from the station. It was very hard to get on and off the train because there was a huge gap. We children jumped off but we couldn't jump back. I jumped out of the train and ran to get some water and I was almost back when the train started. There were steps in between the carriages and I was lucky to jump on one of these steps where I sat for hours, cuddled into the frozen corpse of a dead man so the wind wouldn't blow directly onto me. I was freezing but I wasn't afraid at all. I was afraid of living people but I was not afraid of the corpse. I knew I must sit there until the train stopped and then I must run to our wagon. As soon as the train stopped, I ran to the wagons at the front. Somebody opened the door and dragged me inside. My mother was crying. I had lost the little water bucket and was half-frozen myself, but all I wanted was to get back to the family.
Family Separation
Many families risked being separated in the hope of saving a member left behind. Some families were fortunate enough to be reunited within a relatively short time. For example, at the age of 14, Regina Tabaczynska was separated from her parents when her mother was left behind at a station while searching for food. Regina's father left her in the care of another Polish family while he went in search of his wife.

For well over a month I was on my own and I was sick. We went to Bukhara in Uzbekhistan and were sent to various kolhozes. After a few months, quite unexpectedly, my parents came. They were swelling with hunger. I was very sick, but I wasn't in that state. I wasn't starving. It was a miracle that they found me in all that chaos of the war because they couldn't find any trace of our transport until they began travelling with some Russian military men. One of them knew that the transport was sent to Bukhara. He even knew that I was on that train because people there were asking about my parents. So they went to Bukhara and there they met somebody from our transport who told them which camp I was in and with whom I was staying.

The Sosnowski family were separated at different times in this way. Kazimierz Sosnowski was 13 years old when he, his mother and two elder brothers left their labour camp in September 1941 because they were close to the battle lines.

I was left behind the train three times. One time it took me half a day to catch up. The next time, I got off the train to beg for some food and was left behind. I was trying to find where our transport had gone to and I was directed to a certain place. When I got there they wouldn't allow me to leave. They brought another six children from our transport and took us to a Russian orphanage. We made a big fuss. We didn't want to go to the orphanage; we wanted to join the Polish army. After a night-long argument they gave us breakfast and walked us to the station. One of the girl's mothers was waiting at the station and she took us to our train which was about seven kilometres from where we were. Then the third time it took me three days to catch up by catching different trains which were travelling faster. I don't know why our train was so slow. We finished in the Uzbekistan town of Bukhara. It took us three and a half months to reach the destination. It should have taken six weeks at the most, but that was the Soviet Union.

On Christmas Eve 1941, the three Sosnowski boys were sent to work on a kolhoz fifteen kilometres from Bukhara, where they could get food only by selling their few remaining possessions. By the middle of January 1942, they escaped to Bukhara, where they survived by begging for food at the town's cafes. After splitting up to look for food, the three Sosnowski boys managed to hitch a ride, illegally, on a train carrying Polish soldiers to Guzar. The eldest brother was old enough to register with the army and so left his two younger brothers at Karsi. In February, the second brother contracted typhoid fever, from which he died. At 13 years of age, Kazimierz Sosnowski was left on his own, like thousands of other Polish children, so he joined the cadets. Once under the care of the Polish army, he was sent to their rudimentary schools, fed and rested until August, when the cadets were railed to Krasnovodsk, marched five kilometres in the searing heat to the port and then shipped overnight to Pahlavi, where he met up briefly with his mother.

When Maria Sosnowska was separated from her sons, she was left with nothing but the canvas shoes and jacket she was wearing, and the meagre ration of bread she had managed to get from a Polish relief agency. She chased the train for two weeks, right down to the Chinese border and described searching up and down every train she came across. She travelled on foot, in the snow, still in canvas shoes, with only a piece of lepioshka, flat, unleavened bread, to sustain her through the journey.

I left at sunrise. As I was walking, the sole of my shoe came away so I had to walk barefoot until I came to a workshop where I hoped I might find some string or wire to tie my shoes up. The workshop was stripped bare and deserted, except for the caretaker, a Polish deportee of Jewish faith. He had a scarf around his neck which he took off to bind my shoe. That is how I got to Dzhalal-Abad before the sun went down. When I saw the Polish flags flying, I fell on my knees and kissed the ground over which the Polish colours were flying. There was a Polish priest running a relief centre for people like me. It wasn't much but they tried their best and advised me to leave that kolhoz and join the army before Easter, so I did and I finally left that part of the world with the army in August 1942.

In Pahlavi Maria found her youngest son in the cadets and from him she learned that her middle son had died. Maria was sent on to Tehràn with the promise that her youngest son would join her there. However, she was only in Tehràn three days before being sent to Ahvaz. Already ill with hepatitis and trachoma, there was nothing she could do except try to regain her strength before being sent to Karachi, where she launched an unsuccessful search for her eldest son. In February 1944 she was sent to Africa, to Makindu Camp in Kenya and then Tengeru Camp in Tanganyika where she was reunited with her youngest son Kazimierz in May 1944. In November, she received news from the Polish army that her eldest son had died in March 1941 in Guzar, soon after he had left his younger brothers.

Boy soldiers (junaks) 10 to 15 years of age, USSR, 1942
(Courtesy of Tadeusz Dobrostanski)

As is clear from the Sosnowskis' story, there was little assistance to be gained en route in the USSR and thousands perished on the way from starvation or disease. Those who survived travelled, stopped, slept on the stations or in parks, and tried to get food. The hot water available at most railway stations was about the only thing people could rely on. Aleksandra Wisniewska (nèe Rewaj), a child of 11 by the time the amnesty was declared, considered that for her the journey south was 'when all the trauma started. People were dying like flies from sickness and thirst. There was no regard for human beings. You only thought about yourself. Human beings are selfish in a way, especially when it is a matter of survival'. Her elder sister, Zdzislawa Wasylkowska, explained how her family lost all their identification papers on the journey south:

A friend of ours took all our papers to get bread for us-without the papers they wouldn't give you bread. This man missed the train on purpose. He just ran away leaving his wife and daughter in the carriage with us. We found out later that he had talked to the NKVD against my father, and that is why my father was arrested in Arkhangel'sk district. It was very hard after that and we were dreadfully hungry. We had to beg for bread or steal whenever we could. There were no washing facilities. There were lice everywhere and so many dead children. I saw many people thrown out from the train. It took us another month to get to Dzhalal-Abad, close to the Afghanistan border, but they did not want to take us. We moved on to Guzar where my mother and sister became sick with typhus.

Soon after that, the Rewaj family were separated, placed in different communal homes organised by the Polish relief agencies or in hospitals where 'body after body' gave way to starvation and disease. Zdzislawa Wasylkowska joined the Junaks, an 'army school' for Polish young people aged between 12 and 17 and it was in this way that she finally left the Soviet Union. Her mother and sister also survived, although she was not reunited with them until reaching Tehràn. Her father succumbed to typhus on 15 April 1942:

That was the only day I didn't visit him. It was miles across the city, and I had been there everyday. I sold the few things that we had left so I had some money which l used to buy an egg. I had to search all around to find a little firewood so I could cook it before I took it to him. The day before he died he said that he was dying but I thought he was confused. I came the next day and I was given his death certificate. I don't know where my father is buried. In the hospital they just loaded body after body on to a cart. They couldn't care less and I didn't have time to worry about it. The main thing was my life. I felt my father's death when I got to Africa but not at the time. When you are in a situation like that you don't have the same feelings that you have in real life. You think differently altogether.

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