From Russian Gulag to Alberta Prairies The story of Maria Alina and Aleksander Romanko By Maria Alina Romanko
( All rights reserved )
……For our Children and Grandchildren……
“Especially for you” …Such potent magic hold. They turn the smallest gift
on earth to one of purest gold. /A.L.Marshall/
The Lukaszewicz Family
Sometimes people consider Poland as being a country in Eastern Europe. The truth is that Poland is located in Central Europe. This country was divided (prior to 1939) into regions called “Wojewodztwo”. Wojewodztwo Nowogrodzkie (from the town of Nowogrodek) was located in the eastern part of Poland. It was a quiet country containing many forests, farm fields and beautiful meadows. The people were proud of this land because it was a cradle of great poets, writers and patriots. In one of the quiet places called Haciszcre Wielkie, I decided to join the Lukaszewicz family, on September 20th, 1925. There was already one son in this family namely my one and half year old brother Antoni.
The devastating World War I was over only a few years ago and people struggled to rebuild their homes destroyed by enemies and strive to make a better future for their young families. My parents Wladyslaw and Antonina Lukaszewicz shared a home with my grandfather Antoni and two uncles Julian and Bronislaw and their families. I was at first given a name Alina but the priest decided that I should have also a name of a saint because there was no St. Alina, therefore, I became Maria Alina. Of course I found out about it much later. From my early childhood, I remember only a few dramatic moments such as a funeral of my little sister Wanda who died when I was 3 years old. Later I remember one night when I was crying because I missed Wanda so much. When my brother Janek was born I was already five and from than on my memory served me better. Both my older brother and I were very fond of Janek and tried to “take good care” of our baby brother. Taking care sometimes turned to a disaster, for example, my dropping the baby on its head, over my shoulder. However, for the baby it was a lucky fall, which didn’t result in injury. Everyone thought that Janek was a beautiful and good-natured child. Much affection was showered on him. Since these were the times when no one heard of kidnapping we three had much freedom to play with our friends and visit with relatives. My grandfather’s house was about one kilometer from ours and we often walked across the meadow to visit him although we thought him to be very strict and so very tall. Those excursions however earned us scolding from our mother.
Up to grade four, we attended a school located close to our home and than we went to Stolowicze a distance of five kilometers. There were no buses and most of the time in summer and winter we walked. Only on stormy days we were given a ride in a decorated sleigh with horses. This was great! Playing in the snow on the way back was much fun and the journey home took much longer than the distance required. Some scolding for coming home much too late was inevitable. Winters were quite cold and rather long. In March on the way home we searched under the snow for blades of green grass. I remember how happy it made me that spring was coming and I loved it. Spring meant Easter, and new clothes. It meant tulips, lilacs all in bloom. Later all this was topped by the summer vacations. I was especially happy about that because it meant the arrival of the Karpowicz family from the city to their country home in Haciszcze. There were three girls in the family: Ala a year younger than me, Halina two years younger, and Irena five years younger. Almost every day I visited them and stayed to play, coming home for the night. I often teased my brothers that it was much more fun playing with the girls because they were not as rough as the boys.
There were many cousins and school friends to associate with. The family gatherings were large because my mother had three sisters: Mania, Maryla and Alexsandra and four brothers: Piotr, Stefan, Jan and Antoni. On my father’s side there were two brothers: Julian and Bronislaw and a sister Bronislawa. All of them had three, four, or five children. The family ties and loyalties were strong and it was easy to find compatible playmates. We were looking forward to growing up together and building a better life in free Poland. The happy dreams however, were not destined to come true. Soon the evil forces, unknown to us at this stage were to shutter our lives with a strong blow.
Clouds on the Horizon
The spring of 1939 as every other spring was welcomed because it came after a cold winter, which restricted our movements and our lives. Spending a lot of time indoors wasn’t much fun. Spring meant coming closer to summer holidays and the freedom which a thirteen-year-old girl knew how to appreciate. From under the melting snow green blades of grass symbolized a new life which brought joy of expectancy and hope for the future. Soon above the fields and meadows the meadowlark will gladden us with its wonderful song. The walks in the woods by its beauty would incite many dreams, which will lead a young mind to explore many distant lands. Were they a premonition of what happened later? Strange how those beautiful dreams came true because of the events of a terrible war which took so many lives of innocent people, innocent and trusting children.Grade seven in Poland was an important one. It was the year of crucial decisions. At this tender age the students had to make a decision as to their future. For most it was the end of formal education. The country was still recovering from its partition, which lasted almost 150 years, and the devastation of the First World War. Schools had to be built. Illiteracy had to be fought. Beginning at the junior high school level, the cost of education had to be shouldered by the parents. Exceptionally intelligent and top achievers were eligible for state bursaries. Village children often stayed at home helping their parents on the small farms. Some sought work in the cities or at the estates of the landowners, others sought some kind of apprenticeship to acquire a trade. Very few were in position to pursue further academic education. Making many sacrifices and taking chances that my academic achievement will assure a better future for their only daughter, my parents decided to enroll me at the junior high school in Baranowicze (eastern Poland). To be accepted at this educational institution, it was necessary to pass an entrance examination facing tough competition. For me, it meant to live away from home.
Springtime was a time of planning. Certain papers were necessary. A passport size picture was needed for my grade school certificate. The trip to a larger city was necessary to find a good photographer. March 23 was warm and rainy. My father and I traveled to Baranowicre. The picture was taken. Some shopping was done and it was time to travel back home.
The traffic on the highway was unusually heavy with mostly traffic of horse and buggy. These were the times when people could talk to each other while proceeding with their traveling. Soon enough we met a policeman, a friend of my father’s. When we asked about the unusual traffic he told my father in confidence that, “There is a mobilization going on”. As young as I was, I felt a chill going down my spine. Will Germans invade our country the way they did Austria and Czechoslovakia? Will my father and other male members of the family have to go to war? What will happen to us? Our parents who lived through the horrors of World War I told the sad stories of suffering to us. Projections of the future war, which could end in a destruction of the world because of the gas tactics, seemed even a bigger nightmare.
Frightening and unsettling events manifested themselves quickly. The very next day when I attended the school I found out that our principal and math teacher were not there. Both were called into the army, so was my favorite cousin Czesio who lived with us and was like an older brother to me. He lost his father during the First World War and was taken in by my parents. The family was unusually quiet. Everyone looked worried expecting the war. During the next months, no new visible events took place. The adjustments were made and the people raised their hopes for peace. Work has to be done, the studies had to continue and intensified with the time of approaching of my entrance exams to Junior High School. To assure a proper review of the material taught in elementary school I attended after school classes with a tutor engaged for the purpose. A few of my close friends and two of my cousins faced the same prospect. Passing the exam successfully seemed to be now a main concern for my parents and me. The life seemed to assume certain normality. Some men came back home to help their families with the work in the fields. That was accepted as an assurance of peace and raised many hopes for a secure and brighter future.
The time went by very quickly. My entrance examination was made up of oral and written parts and lasted a whole week. I stayed with our family friends who took care of my needs, encouraged and helped to cope with the feelings of anxiety which was difficult to bear at such a young age. The dreaded exam came to an end but the results were to be announced after few days that seemed to stretch forever. And then welcomed good news! I passed my exams quite well and was accepted for further studies. Coming home and facing my family I felt much older and wiser. I went through a difficult ordeal in which no one could help me. I had to face the strange teachers, who had my future in their hands, all on my own. Even my two brothers looked at me with some respect and did not tease me for a little while.
The summer months of 1939 were happy for us children. I spent them with the Karpowicz family who took care of me during my examinations. There were three daughters, mother, father and an aunt. One of their daughters Ala remained my friend for life. Her younger sister Halina befriended me later. Both were as close as sisters to me. Their parents spent their winters in the city and summers at their estate close to my family’s home. Our activities during this summer were somewhat different. We spent less time building sandcastles and more time enriching our background acquiring more knowledge by reading books individually or together. Oral reading was quite necessary because Ala’s eyes were easily strained and she had to be read to. This way we all could enjoy our favorite literature. During the breaks we learned and enjoyed doing embroidery. Listening to records and dancing proved to be a great deal of fun too. Our favorites were the horse and buggy excursions to the nearby family owned forest. Here we picked mushrooms, berries and had a picnic. We enjoyed good food prepared at home and drank freshly made juice. Coming back home at dusk we sang many songs. The younger girls Halina and Irka had beautiful voices. Ala and I did our best too.
How I wished for this happy summer to continue forever. As carefree and happy as we were, we could not help but notice the serious expressions on the faces of the grown ups when they were engaged in conversations. There were plans made in the answer to the questions “What if…” We knew somehow that the world around us was not as secure as before and that people again were afraid of German invasion.
We were brought up to be good patriots and to love our country. It was clear that in case of aggression the country would fight for its freedom. There was no limit to the sacrifice that the nation was ready to make to defend its beloved homeland, beloved Poland. Even the preparations for our further schooling were on hold now. And then it all happened! September 1st, 1939! A sunny beautiful day, full of promises was shattered by the announcement on the radio, “Hitler’s troops attacked Poland without provocation or formal declaration of war”. The “rats” did not have the courage to act like civilized human beings, but showed disregard for the international laws. This act which was to be followed by others, shattered my life and my childhood dreams.
It was necessary to have courage and hope. Although from the news we learned that Poland was invaded, we made plans to move to town to start our school. All our belongings were packed into the horse carriage and on September 3rd, we started our journey to Baranowicze. My father came to help us settle. No one was certain whether it was a right or wrong decision but everyone felt that life had to go on. Resuming normal activities was good for the morale of the citizens.
Deportation to Kulag Poldniewica
February 10th of 1940 was a very cold day. The thermometer registered -40°C. Ala and I had a cold and the clothes we had were not sufficiently warm for the weather. Our shoes and socks would not carry us through a deep snow. It was decided that we should stay at home. Both aunts had to go to work in the orphanage and prepared our breakfast before they left. There was very little food but we shared some bread and some veal pat, which my father brought us the day before. Our drink was something that reminded us of a “herbal” tea made out of “lipowe” leaves. I was finishing my breakfast when I saw my aunt, who left for work just a few minutes before returning home. Following her was a Russian officer and three soldiers with their guns and bayonets. We were not alarmed because we thought that they have come to buy some of my aunt’s furniture. She sold many things to keep her family from starving. Only a few days before, an officer took the family piano away. This time, however it was different. The officer asked if he could speak to Janina Lukaszewicz. My surname was Lukaszewicz, but my first name was Maria. We told him so. He lingered, asked many questions and after a while left reluctantly. Aunt Wala decided to stay home. To her it was a frightening experience. In front of the house, she encountered a large truck full of soldiers and she knew that it was a serious matter. For the time being, we all hoped that the soldiers made a mistake. However, after about two hours, the same officer returned again. This time, he had a peasant with him, whose face was familiar to me and who identified me as the person they were after. I was told to put my coat on and leave with them. My aunt’s protestations did not help. She told them that she was responsible for me and that she could not let me leave with the strangers. What about my parents? She was pushed aside and told that I would be joining my parents and that I would need only very few of my clothes. That was all.
Since the murder of my friend’s father, I learned to expect the worst. Only one thought went through my mind, “They are taking me to see my murdered father”. My heart was racing but the rest of my body and my feelings were numb. I felt old. My life was ending. Placed between the two soldiers, I was marched out to the sleigh driven by horses. I felt the suns rays, but not warmth. My clothes were not warm enough to be outside in this weather. The Russians had their Siberian coats on.
The drive seemed to last forever. My feet were cold – freezing. Finally we stopped in front of the railway station. German planes had bombed the building and the windows were missing. Lead into a large hall, I saw my whole family huddled together for warmth in one corner. My father approached me and told me to keep walking back and forth to keep my feet warm. My mother was very ill with pneumonia and was shaking all over. My young brothers were there too. There were also other families, about thirty people altogether. Among them, I noticed a corporal in a Polish uniform. His head had a “cap” made from a bandage. Obviously he was still recuperating from the wounds which he must have sustained in battle.
The people were not very talkative, but from time to time, someone made a curt comment or rather a guess as to what was awaiting us. Everyone seemed to agree that we were being deported to Siberia. However, many did not believe that we actually would get there. Especially men were afraid that they would be separated from their families and imprisoned or executed.
I had a few questions of my own that needed to be answered. What happened and why did it happen? Why was my family in this tragic predicament? Very quietly my father told me that about 12 o’clock at night a sleigh, filled with armed soldiers, commissar a peasant and an anquitance(from a nearby town), drove into our yard. Suddenly there was an urgent hammering at the door. As soon as this was opened all men quickly entered our home. The soldiers told my father to put his hands up and to sit down on the chair, which was quickly surrounded by the soldiers pointing bayonets at him. The commissar than read an “act” was accusing my father and the whole family of being “the enemies of the people”. (My nine year old brother Janek, my fifteen year old brother Antoni and I, a fourteen year old student – we were “the enemy of the people!). But the commissar read on explaining that because of these accusations, we could not stay here anymore and we were being deported to live somewhere else. Where? No answer! We were to take with us only few necessary belongings because we “would find all that we need in our new home.” The commissar ended his accusations by pointing out that there was no need to deny them, as our accusers were present. The commissar indicated the peasant and the civilian from the near by town. My father helped both in the past, which made it all more difficult to accept. The family was given fifteen minutes to get dressed and get into the sleigh. When my father told them that my mother was very ill, the commissar only shrugged his shoulders and told everyone to hurry. My father guarded by soldiers could not pack any of the family belongings. My sick mother could not do it either. Two young boys, my brothers, frightened for our parents, did not know what to do. One of the soldiers, who knew what our fate would be, approached my older brother and told him very quietly to follow him. After they left the room in which the family was imprisoned, he whispered to my brother to get some bags and to pack as much food and clothing as he could in what little time that was left out of fifteen minutes given at the start of the arrest. This soldier saved one other family’s lives and ours. He took a risk of being punished and yet something made him act in a kind manner. It made me wonder if maybe someone close to him suffered the fate which befell our family.
The fifteen minutes were up! The sleighs were loaded, and entered a cold snowy road, which lead to Baranowicze, railway station-a distance of fifteen kilometers. All this operation was done so quickly that neither our neighbors nor our uncle’s family could hear or know what was happening at our home. They were tragically surprised when in the morning they found our home completely empty. After some inquiries, they were able to piece together the terrible deeds of the soviet officials. Going to Stotowicze, a small town (at 5 km from Haciszcze Wielkie – our home) they found out that the arrests were still going on during the day and that families of foresters and of veterans of the First World War were the targets. After the initial shock, two of my cousins- Czesio and Aleksander decided to look for us. They arrived at the deportation train the next morning.
Time was passing slowly. The big hall at the railway station was becoming overcrowded with families that were brought from many different farms, villages, and towns. The noon hour came but no one was having lunch although most didn’t have even breakfast. Suddenly at about 3:00 p.m., the hall became very quiet. We could only hear the stomping of heavy soldiers’ boots. Led by a frowning commissar, a group of soldiers with their ever-present bayonets marched into the middle of the hall. A commissar began to call out the names of the prisoners. The soldiers shoved them into one part of the hall separating them from the rest. Our turn came quickly. We were almost at the top of the list as the earliest arrivals. I heard my name and automatically started to move to join the others, but the commissar shouted, “You! Come here!”. As I approached him, he began shouting his questions, “Why didn’t you come when our soldiers arrived at the house the first time?” I began to explain about the different name, but he interrupted, “You are a liar!” Forgetting the situation, I reacted quickly, loudly with indignation, “I do not lie! I do not lie!” Then this commissar, the representative of the communists who claimed “to love the children”, began to threaten. “You just wait. After you spend sometime at the place where we are taking you, you will not be so brave”. He shouted and shook his fist. Only when he began calling out other names, I had time to realize what had happened. The looks on my parents’ faces told me how terribly frightened they were for me. The corporal shook his head and asked, “Are you trying to become a martyr before you get to Siberia?” What did they expect me to do, to keep myself quiet? I was not lying and I had to tell the brute the truth. I could not help myself and I was too young and inexperienced to know how to deal with an enemy of my country and everything that I was familiar with. Later on I understood why my parents were afraid for me. The Russians separated many children from their parents and took them to a different “kulag”. Most of them died when they became ill and had no one to help them. My parents were afraid that the commissar was promising me this fate when he was threatening. I think God protected me.
The last name was called. We were all lined up surrounded by the soldiers and led outside. Carrying what little baggage we had – tramping through a deep snow, half-frozen and hungry we were pushed into the direction of a very long cattle train. Here the large group was divided into smaller groups of 50-60 people. Our guards stopped our group in front of an open cattle carriage. Big platforms divided the space between the ceiling and the flour. They were packed with snow from when the train was in motion. We were told to climb into the wagon. The men went in first and began to clear off the snow with their bare hands. The guards became angry. They wanted everyone locked up in the car as quickly as possible. They were afraid that someone might escape. Escape? How? Where? It was obvious that women and children could not get in because the snow took up the space. After most of the snow was pushed out (not shoveled out!) the human bodies began filling in the car which up to than carried only pigs and cattle. We spread our clothes and blankets (if there were some) and sat in a very small space allotted to each person – big or small. In the middle of the car we noticed a small metal heater but no fire wood whatsoever. It was -40°C ! There was a little six week old baby among us. The mother and other people tried to warm it up with their breath while the father was pleading with a soldier to let him bring some firewood from somewhere. His pleading brought no results. For many hours no one could leave the train. The doors were closed and barricaded. In the corner of the floor, the hole was burrowed in haste (in preparation for a long journey) which was to take the place of a toilet. Being a shy person, I could not bring myself to use it and suffered a great discomfort by holding in for three days. Only when we were well inside the Russian territories were we permitted to leave the train to relieve ourselves. To loose one self among the strangers, we crossed the railway crawling under the car.
All this time my mother was burning with fever. She melted the snow in her mouth to quench the thirst. We all did that.
It was becoming dark. The day “a hundred years long” was coming to an end. Suddenly we heard the bolt of our door open. The guard motioned to an older girl, Gienia and me to come out and follow him. Than quickly he locked and bolted the door again. First we were given two pails and led to get some water. After we brought it to the wagon, we were told to follow the guard again. This time we received some firewood. Someone had a pot. The heater warmed up the place and some water, which had to be strictly rationed. Hungry children were given some food by their parents who themselves ate very little or not at all. No one knew when and if at all we would be given some food by our captors. Little food that was brought from home had to be dealt with very sparingly.
As night approached, we were exhausted physically and emotionally. We all needed some sleep. We were packed like sardines. There was no light and we had very little room to lie down. Asked how much room there is in a cattle carriage, the soldiers answered, “Enough for seven horses or forty people”.
No one could really sleep well. After the initial exhaustion wore off, people sat up. Some prayed, some cried, some talked. All of us could hear people brought in on sleighs and packed into many other available cattle cars. The arrests went on all through two nights and two days. According to some statistics, 220,000 people were arrested and deported from Poland on February 10, 1940. There were others displaced later.
The next day in the afternoon, the door in our car was opened. The guard called out our family name. As my father identified himself he was asked to point out the members of our family. Each time it happened, we all died a little inside. We were so afraid of separation! Whatever awaits us, we felt we could survive only if we were together. The guard pointed his finger at me, “You! Come here!”. As I approached the door, the feeling of relief engulfed my whole being. I saw my two cousins – Czesio and Aleksander. They brought some food and some more clothes that were given to us after close examination. We looked at each other and did not speak. Our eyes communicated sadness and despair. I was chosen to see them and to say our good-byes. The rest of the family was not allowed to leave the train. The stress was too much for my mother. We could hear her crying and saying her good-bye, “Tell good-bye to our whole family and our home. I feel that I will never be back. That this is my final good-bye”. The strangers’ inhabitants of our “living quarters” identified with her pain and sorrow. Many cried too. For most these words were prophetic. We never went back to see our relatives or our home.
The train began to move forward. Many thoughts and questions raced through our minds. So they are going through with it. They are deporting us all, the oppressors. Why? Why so many innocent people? Why small children who have done no wrong? The train stopped, then started moving back to the station. What’s going on now? Maybe they changed their minds and let us go back home? Optimists! The unbearable stress forced people to delude themselves.
As we traveled through towns we only could guess their names. There were no announcements of their stations. Looking through a small window, people identified Stolpce. Up until now, we still hoped that there would be some kind of change of plan and that we would be turned back home. Once we crossed the Polish/Russian border, those hopes had died their final death. I guess we expected a miracle. Illogical hopes, which we began to encounter then, we continued to entertain through many years of exile. Always a hope that the impossible will happen and we will be home in our beloved free Poland once again. This hope kept up our spirit and nourished our lives. Those that lost their hope perished early.
The train jerked forward and back many times. Everyone suspended his or her comments. It began rolling away from the station. Through a tiny window, we could see the snowy fields. There was no delusion. It was time to say our final farewell to our country, our home, families, friends, everything that was dear and familiar to us. Time to say good-bye to my childhood, which was lost to me on this cold, cold day of February 10, 1940. I felt a heavy burden on my young shoulders. I felt a new responsibility toward my family. My mother was so ill. She was not getting any help. What if she died? Who would look after us? We needed her so. What if something happened to my father? Would I be able to cope and help my brothers? What skills did I have? Would my physical strength serve me in our need? All these thoughts raced through my mind making me into a grown up person. I felt my youth slipping away from me. How I would love to be able to go to school and feel carefree. All these were taken away from me and thousands and thousands of other children. All done by “Father Stalin who loved the children so much!”
The train was rolling through a frozen land. Frozen like our hearts. Cold feelings of grim expectancy gripped our bodies. How long will it travel? How far away are they taking us? What is this country like? This land produced by such a cruel government. What will they do to us when they finally stop this horribly jerking and clamoring train? Thoughts, questions, exhaustion! Sleep! Blessed forgetfulness never lasted long enough, short and interrupted. Interrupted by crying, hungry children, worried sighs of grown ups, coughs and moans of my sick mother. Sitting next to us was the Wojna family of five people: an elderly mother, two daughters and two brothers. The soldiers did not allow them to take any food. On the second day my father noticed that they did not eat at all. They never said a word about it. The only thing they had was their ration of warm water. They did not expect anyone to share food because all other families had children. Worried parents did not dare to give away any food at all. The children came first. They were the future. Than I saw my father hand some meat, bread and a few vegetables to the corporal, a member of Wojna family. He began to protest, but my father indicated to the elderly lady, the mother of the family. Shortly the meat, the vegetables were put into a large pot filled with water. It made nourishing soup, which the family had to ration very carefully.
Once deep in Russia, the guards were not afraid that we might get away. The train stopped most of the time in the open country. We were let out to take care of our physical needs. Most of us crawled under the train to the other side to “hide”. Crawling under the train was very dangerous because trains in Russia moved without giving a signal. Tony, my older brother was trapped on the railway track by our train that moved suddenly. He had the presence of his mind to lay flat on the ground. Since he had no heavy coat on and the floor of the train was quite high, he escaped injury. When the train passed, Tony began to run after it. Luckily it was still moving slowly. He was able to lift himself on an open platform. It was very cold. My parents were frightened and worried. They were afraid that Tony was lost to us forever. But luck was with us. The train stopped at a small station for a very short time. We heard a knock on the door, which was opened quickly. Tony stood there, half frozen, unable to speak. We could only pray and thank God for helping us to get Tony back.
After traveling for a week, we felt very uncomfortable. Our clothes needed to be changed; our bodies needed to be bathed. There was not enough water even to wash our hands and face. We slept packed like sardines overlapping. Strangers used our feet as their pillows. There was no room to stretch. The uneasy sleep was often interrupted by the crying of hungry children and very worried mothers.
By a stroke of luck, I acquired my space by one of the two very small windows, which made it possible to see the country during the day. It did not bring much joy to watch a frozen, quiet land of unhappy people. For the first time in our lives, we saw stalks of grain still on the fields covered with snow. As it was February, that really surprised us. Much later we found out that people did not care enough whether the crops had been harvested on time. They were not properly paid for their work, leading lives of slavery and half starvation. All their hard work profited the communist regime.
The time was moving slowly, drearily, unhappily. The end of the first week was approaching. Knowing the vastness of the Russian territory, we did not dare to speculate how long it would take to bring us to our new location. No one dared to guess. What difference did it make? At least on the train the families stayed together. No one knew if this would be the case once we arrived at the Kulag.
On February 17th, in the afternoon, the train slowed down and came to a stop in the middle of the forest through which we had been traveling for the last two days. Through my little window, I saw long rows of sleighs, horses and a group of men dressed in huge Siberian parkas and hats. We heard people approaching our door. They were unbolted and slid open. Then we heard an order, “Sabirajties!” Get ready! Carrying our belongings, we left the train and stepped into a very deep snow. It was very cold. My shoes were full of snow. I had no winter boots. Our family was loaded on the sleigh. With the driver, there were six of us. The horse looked undernourished and had a difficult time pulling the load on the poor country road filled completely with deep snow. We huddled together for warmth without much success. The night came upon us quickly and we were going deeper and deeper into the forest. To warm themselves, people decided to walk beside the sleigh. I could not do that because my shoes would only fill with snow and make my feet even colder. Obediently I tried to wiggle my toes continuously to keep them from freezing. My mother and father kept reminding me to try and do that but after a few hours, the task became impossible. By that time I lost all feeling in my toes and my feet. There was no point in telling this to my parents, it would only worry them especially because they were not able to help me.
At first we were too busy trying to keep warm and taking in the surrounding to pay much attention to our driver. After traveling for a long while, we realized that he never spoke to us or try to help in any way at all. That must have seemed odd to my parents. The man did not look like a hardened communist. His appearance indicated that he must have been working hard and that his life was not very happy. We expected some understanding and sympathy from him in our hopeless situation, yet he seemed not to care whether we would survive this journey or not. My father who spoke Russian could not resist the question, “Why are you not speaking to us?” The driver slowly looked around and said, “Since there is no one close by I will answer your question. Before we came to the train to pick you up, we had a meeting in our kotchoz (collective farm). Our pretsedatiel (farm manager) told us not to socialize with you. He told us that you are capitalists, that you hate us and would kill us if we became friendly. But I see that you are the same as us, that you care for your family and that you are suffering now as we have been suffering for twenty years!”. He stopped, looked around to make sure that no one heard him. Our sleigh was the only one moving through this stretch of road. After making certain that no one was close, our driver drew the bag, which was hidden under the straw. He opened it up, took out some bread and salted meat. Breaking it into six pieces, he shared his supper with us. After a while, he took an old blanket, which covered his feet and told my father to wrap my feet into it. From then on he asked me constantly to try and move my feet and rub them. Obviously he knew that I was in danger of freezing them. Fighting the cold and hunger, we traveled for about seven hours. Suddenly we became aware that we entered a clearing in the dense forest. We could even see our hard laboring horse, because it became somewhat lighter. In the distance we saw few lights in the very small windows. We were approaching some buildings. There were other sleighs ahead of us. Our driver became very quiet again. In a whisper, he told us that we were approaching the labor camp and these were the barracks where we were going to live.
A policeman who indicated to our driver the barrack to which our family was assigned stopped us. Soon the sleigh came to a halt and we were told to carry our things indoors. Everyone had difficulty moving but somehow managed to stand on their feet. When my turn came, I was unable to stand up. My sick mother needed assistance too. The policeman became impatient but did nothing to help us. He just told us to hurry because more sleighs were arriving to be unloaded. My father could not carry us both into that wretched looking building. The next sleigh carried the Wojna family. I saw Antek (a corporal) approaching our sleigh. He understood our problem and quickly lifted me out of the sleigh and carried me into the barracks. I was placed on the wooden platform, which was our sleeping accommodation. Without delay my father and Antek took my shoes and socks off my feet. “Bring in some snow somebody, quick”. They both said at the same time. I saw them put some snow on my feet. They both worked hard rubbing, rubbing, rubbing … At first I felt only my body hurting from the constant pulling and then I felt unbearable pain in my feet and then nothing. I must have fainted. When I opened my eyes, I was lying on one quilt and covered by another. My feet were hurting badly. I was told that it was a good sign and that I should feel better after a while. This “a while” lasted many days but after that I could walk and there were no visible reminders caused by frostbite. However, from than on, I had problems with my feet, which were bothering me quite often.
Such was our arrival and the beginning of our lives in the kulag Poldniewica located in the region of Gorky in a “Gorkawskaja Oblast”. My childhood and my youth were lost to me in this God forsaken place. It left such marks and changes in my personality that I was never able to recapture . A news reporter once said about me, “Maria was fourteen going on sixty”. That was me all right! The invasion of Eastern Poland by the Soviet army on September 17, 1939 made an imprint on my mind and in my heart and soul. I can still hear the roar of the heavy tanks and I feel a painful grip in my heart, which comes from an experience of loosing a loved one to death. On the day of the invasion, seeing white, horror-stricken faces of my parents, relatives and friends, I realized that we have lost the freedom of our beloved country. Little did I know that soon we would loose our home to which we would never return; that the graves of my family members would be dispersed over many continents.
The hardships of the Russian Kulag n/r Gorki made me into an adult in a short time. Being sensitive and having a perceptive personality, I saw too much and felt things very deeply.
Life in Poldniewica
The name of our slave labor camp was Poldniewica. Its full address was: Posiolek Poldniewica, Szarynskij rejon, Gorkowskaja Oblast. The closest larger city, Gorky, was 400 miles away. There were eighteen wooden barracks, which housed twenty five hundred prisoners. The barracks were built from rough logs. The cracks in between were filled with dry moss full of bed bug eggs, which later multiplied and infested our wooden beds and attacked us during the night interrupting much needed sleep. The slave laborers who were brought to this God forsaken place sometime before us built the barracks very poorly. We never found out who they were or what happened to them. The barracks were empty when we came.
For two weeks, my family (Lukaszewicz) lived in a two story barracks, number 17 which was fairly new and soon became a hospital. It was much needed because people were being injured while working in the forest and some came down with pneumonia and typhoid fever.
Our family was moved to barracks 18, which up to our arrival was used as a garage for tractors. Instead of two tractors, seventy people were condemned to live in that hole. The cracks in the walls were large enough for the light to come through. The cold came through too, as it was -40C outside.
As in every barracks, we were housed on wooden platforms called “pricze”. Ours was only large enough for the five members of the family to lie down side by side. There was no room to curl up during the sleep. During the day, the middle board was removed, the bedding pushed back and a sitting space was the result. Above us was another platform for another six-member family. The cracks between boards (the ceiling) were large and whenever someone up there moved, the dust and dirt fell into our plates and water. Dividing the two side’s pricze was a long passage. In the middle of it stood a huge rough table and at the end a range stove with four burners. The wooden stove provided some warmth and was used for cooking. Thirteen families used the stove in a very orderly manner and I do not remember even one fight-taking place.
In reality we had very little food to cook. The small supplies that we brought from home did not last very long. Although our men worked hard cutting down the trees in the forest, deep in snow, they did not get any money for three months. We were forbidden to have any dealings with the local people or visit a “kolchoz” (collective farm) to barter for food. However, the hunger was forcing us to break the rules. People left the gulag during the night and tried to sneak back unnoticed though the police were watching constantly. The people who were caught lost the food they bought and were imprisoned in the cellar of the administration building. There was no heater and the weather outside was still very cold with the temperature dipping to -40°C. The prisoners were let go only when they became ill or almost frozen to death. Often they ended up in the hospital.
Since my father and my fifteen year old brother, Antoni were ordered to work in the lumber camp, my mother had to take care of my nine year old brother Janek. She also prepared meals for the family. It was up to me (fourteen years old at the time) to acquire some food by bartering away some of our clothes. It was much needed by the family.
My initiation to the “trade” came on a very cold day at the end of February. My cousin Pola, an older friend, and I, left Poldniewica at dawn, very quietly, and were successful in avoiding arrest. We felt very cold as we walked through the knee-deep snow (there were no roads) to Kolchoz located fifteen kilometers from our camp. My face, hands, and knees were painfully burning from frostbite. In the first village, the people were so poor that we could not buy any food. There were already other people before us looking for food. We had no choice, but to walk farther to the next kolchoz. My clothes were not warm enough for the Siberian winter. Hungry tired and frostbitten, we returned to the camp after walking thirty kilometers. Carrying potatoes and vegetable (some bought and some given out of compassion) made our walking even more difficult. However our ordeal was not over, as we entered the clearing close to our barracks we saw a policeman walking toward us. He was a very mean man who never showed any mercy. To be arrested by him meant imprisonment. At the same time we saw many people coming out of the barracks walking also in our direction. The policeman was distracted by another group of “illegal traders” entering the clearing. He was shouting threats and ordering us to walk toward him. The approaching crowd was shouting, “Come with us! Run into the barrack and change your clothes, he will not recognize you!”. We did as we were told and it worked. After we joined the crowd, the policeman could not recognize us. He was too far to see our faces. Although he checked the crowd closely, he did not know who were the offenders. We knew that he would have carried his threat as he promised to get even with us in the future. After the day of humiliation, cold and physical exhaustion, the cold jail would have been unbearable. We were happy to be safe for the time being.
The village stores brought in clothes and linen only in very small quantities, there was never enough to go around. The quality of it was very poor. Even our second hand things looked wonderful to them, because they were of a much better quality. The “kolchozniks” (villagers) hid in the bushes bringing some food for barter. They gave some signals to get attention of the inhabitants of our camp. One day, very early in the morning, my mother was told that someone was selling milk. She took a risk and walked toward the bushes. My father was getting ready to go to work. He waited for my mother for a long time then began to worry. To be late for work meant being sent to jail located far from our camp, away from the family. My father could not go to work without breakfast and not knowing what happened to my mother. As we were discussing what to do, a child came in and said to me, “Your mother is in jail. A policeman arrested her”. It was the same policeman who wanted to arrest me. Indeed he carried out his threats. There were many arrests in our barracks. My father put on his coat and walked out. We saw him going toward the administration building and began to worry. Our mother was in jail and now they would arrest our father. We knew he was angry and he was going to see the policeman. After a while, to our great relief, we saw both our parents coming home. My father had a plan. He told the policeman that he was going to go to the commandant of the camp and tell him that the policeman was preventing my father from going to work. Everyone knew that the commandant wanted his project to be finished on time to please his superiors and did not tolerate anything or anyone holding back the workers.
There were many of my old friends among the people who were brought to Poldniewica on the night of February 17, 1940. Later I was to meet and befriend many others. Little did I know at the time that among the strangers, going through the same tragedy, was my future husband, Aleksander Romanko, son of Magdalena and Mikolaj, born in Szpakowce, July 21, 1921. Olek (short for Aleksander) had two older brothers, Wladyslaw and Mikolaj. Olek was fond of his family and lived in Szpakowce till he was sixteen years old. Later he moved to the city, Baranowicze, where he studied mechanics. There were many friends and cousins to have fun with but that pleasant life was tragically interrupted.
On September 1st, 1939, when the German army invaded Poland, Olek also (as did I) experienced the bombing of Baranowicze. Many other cities in Poland were in ruins, thousands of people lost their lives and many others had to abandon their homes in order to save them. The stores were empty. It was difficult to buy food and clothing. There was a shortage of fuel. Luckily, the Romanko’s owned their farm so they had their own food. However, life was difficult and uncertain.
On September 17th, the Soviet Union invaded Eastern Poland. Szpakowce, same as Haciszcze fell under the jurisdiction of this enemy who brought fear, death, and destruction. Red Army soldiers were everywhere. People had to follow their orders. No one dared to complain or criticize the authorities, army or militia. If they did, they ended up in jail or dead. There was no freedom. Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. It ceased to exist on the map, but the Poles loved their country very much and were ready to fight for its freedom even if they had to do it on foreign soil. Escape across the borders was very difficult and dangerous.
The time under the enemy occupation went very slowly and the winter was very cold making our sad life even more difficult. Often the temperatures dropped to -40°C. On February 10th, during the night, there was a loud hammering on the Romankos’ door. Someone was shouting in Russian, “We are the soldiers of the Red Army. Open this door or we will break it down!” When Olek opened the door, a group of soldiers with ready guns and bayonets entered the house. They pointed their bayonets at the family members and ordered them to pack some food and clothes within fifteen minutes. The Romankos were arrested, put into the horse drawn sleigh and brought to the railway station in Baranowicze. Their safety and warmth were lost and so were all their possessions. Their hearts were breaking with despair. Olek’s mind was wondering, “Where are they taking us? What was to become of us? Will they drive us away into the forest and kill us? How much of it can my elderly parents endure?” To be accused of being “the enemy of the people” was the strongest condemnation punishable by long imprisonment, slave labor or death. Which was it to be? The only thing the prisoners could do was to pray to God asking Him for His divine care. After hours of driving, frightened and cold, the Romanko’s were led by the soldiers into the snow filled cattle carriage, which was a part of a very long train at the railway station in Baranowicze. Here they saw that hundreds and hundreds of families were sharing the Romanko’s fate. After sweeping the snow from the platform the family put their belongings in and sat down. People were packed so tight that it was impossible to move. The door of the carriage was shut with a bang and the soldiers stood guard on the outside. No one was allowed to leave the carriage. Not even to bring in some firewood or water. The train was being filled with victims over a period of two days. So many were arrested!
One could hear people praying, crying and sadly saying good-bye to their beloved country and life such as they knew so far. The unknown future was very frightening.
Olek and I were on that fatal train and from now on we became a part of the same kind of life affected by the same events. Without knowing about each other, we were in it together. During this journey, we all tried to keep our spirits up hoping that this nightmare was all a mistake and that we would return home in the near future. At the end of the seven day journey, the Romanko’s were part of the long line of a sleigh procession on the road leading from the railway station is Szabrycha to gulag Poldniewica. They were assigned to barracks #10 and were given a “pricza” along with sixty other people who shared the long hall and the stove at the end of it. All barracks contained the same kind of accommodations and “facilities”. From now on we were known as the prisoners of gulag “Poldniewica”. Things could not be much worse.
Finally, after three months, the Russians began to pay for the hard work done by our people. The wages were very low, but having a few rubles made it possible for us to buy some groceries, which were sometimes brought to our camp store. One could never choose what to buy or decide how much to buy. Everything was rationed and distributed according to how many people were working in the family. Those that did not work did not receive any rations, they were not expected to eat. Sharing their rations with the rest of the family the workers never had enough to eat and often went to work hungry.
The line-ups at the store began early. No one knew what, if anything was going to be sold on the given day and we often came home empty handed. If we were lucky, we could sometimes buy some cookies, salt, shoes or some fabric. Whatever there was, we bought it because we needed these things very badly. Not knowing what was in the store, people asked each other, “What will they give us?” “Give us” was an interesting expression because we had to pay for everything with the money earned by slave labor, but the word “give” indicated how happy we were to buy much needed necessities of everyday life. Standing in line was my job. After many long hours of waiting at the door, the store would open and the people would storm into it. Many times I would come home with a torn sleeve or a lost shoe and empty handed. All of us had hungry families at home and there was never enough food to satisfy all the customers. People pushed and shoved to be first.
Our meals were very simple and not very nourishing. For breakfast, mother cooked soup by using some flour and water. Sometimes a little milk was added to improve its taste. It did not happen very often because milk was difficult to obtain.
Sometimes in April, we were permitted to write letters to our families and friends in Poland. I became a secretary not only to my family, but also to many other people who could not write Russian. However, in this area also we had problems. Very few people thought of bringing some paper or envelopes. It was necessary to find a piece of paper-thin bark as a substitute. Writing such a letter required a special skill, which one had to acquire out of necessity.
Letters were our only link with the outside world. They brought some news from family and friends who were worried about us. Many of them believed that we were dead. We had to be very careful about the content because the letters were censored. We managed somehow between the lines to indicate how difficult our life was. Our families managed to obtain permission from the local authorities to send some parcels of food. These were received with great joy often expressed through tears.
My Uncle Bronislaw, my father’s brother, sent us packages at regular intervals. Sometimes it was flour and salt pork, sometimes barley porridge, some cheese, and very seldom butter. Our life became a little easier to bear. We were in great need of better nourishment. Hard labor in lumbering exhausted the strength of the people working. Those at home tried to give larger portions to the working members of the family half starving themselves.
The parcels were not brought to our camp. I had to go to the regional post office some twenty kilometers from our labor camp. Often the country roads and fields were muddy and made walking very difficult. I had to wear my mother’s boots which were too large for me. It made walking much more difficult. Going to the post office and back took a whole day. Often I returned home when it was dark. Every muscle in my body would ache unbearably. At the back of my mind, however, I would realize that my mother would be able to cook a more nourishing meal for the family and that was a sufficient reward for my efforts and suffering.
The month of May brought warmer weather. Budding trees brought a promise of the new life and lifted the spirits of the people drawn by hard work, lack of food and the harassment of authorities. But a new enemy quickly destroyed these hopes for slightly easier life without bitter cold. The lack of hygiene due to overcrowding with the lack of soap, primitive toilet facilities (outhouses), and contaminated water brought in a typhoid fever epidemic. The funerals of the victims at first turned into demonstrations and protests against the authorities that forbade us to walk even to the cemeteries. Soon the epidemic took on frightening proportions. Two huge barracks were turned into make shift hospitals with no doctors, medication or nurses. The few that arrived were young, poorly educated and inexperienced. The death toll became unbelievable. Whole families were wiped out. In many cases, parents became very ill or died, leaving young children to fend for themselves. There were no people to attend the funerals. The epidemic lasted two months. At the end of it, the population was cut in half. I had lost so many of my friends so quickly. One of them was Adela. I remember speaking to her one day about the loss of her parents. We said goodbye not realizing that it was a final one. In three days, she too was gone. It was difficult to accept and as young as I was, I tried to come to grips with that tragic turn of events. I prayed a great deal, hiding somewhere in the bush trying to find some solitude. Praying and contemplating, I came to the conclusion that I can keep sane only if I accept the fact that I will die soon. I found it necessary to reconcile to my death believing that it was the phase of a new life, a life in eternity. As I was loosing so many friends, I would say to myself “Today you, tomorrow me”. This phrase had a certain soothing power. I kept my emotions on hold and it helped me to function when my mother and my younger brother Janek were taken to the hospital. Both of them had typhoid. Both of them were very ill. My father and my older brother were sent away to another lumber camp. I was all alone and also very ill. I was told that I had typhoid fever too, but there was no room for me in the hospital that was overcrowded. Patients were left on the floors in the hallways. I spent my time lying down not able to get anything to eat or drink. People around were coping with the illnesses of their loved ones. No one had the strength or the will to help others. My father was allowed to come only once a week to visit us. At that time, he brought me some food. The days turned into weeks and weeks into months. I had to move around a little. I felt that I had to visit my mother in the hospital and managed to walk by it at a distance, but emotionally I could not bring myself to walk into the hospital. I was afraid to find out her true condition. I could not face the prospect of her death. My father brought the news to me about my mother’s and my brother’s condition. After six weeks in the hospital, my mother was able to spend sometime at my brother’s bedside and to nurse him. I still could not bring myself to visit them. Loosing weight, I became very weak. I had a constant stomachache. When I described the symptoms to the doctor years later, I was told I had an ulcer. People began to shy away from me being afraid that I had developed tuberculosis in my lungs. No one wanted to take the risk of being contaminated by me. I had accepted that and did not blame anyone, but I felt very lonely and sad. Sometimes I heard women say that I was lazy and that I could do more for myself. That really hurt because I had no physical or emotional strength left.
In July, my father was given the responsibility of overseeing a building project. He was given a group of younger men to work with. They all had families to look after and worked very hard to earn some money and a slightly larger ration of bread. The project therefore was completed in record time. This made the Russians quite happy. They said they rewarded good work. As a reward they decided to move us to the newly constructed barracks #19. That meant a little more living space and no one over our heads. Two other families were assigned to our room. That made twelve people altogether. Beside our family of five, there were also five people in the Nowak family and three in the Romanko family. The wooden beds were quickly constructed by the men and were arranged very closely. There was hardly room to walk by. Cooking was done inside the wood stove and again we had to take turns using it. My father knew the Nowak family from Poland. I met Aleksander Romanko shortly after our arrival at Poldnewica, but I did not care for him a great deal! I considered him to be a flirt. He teased me a lot trying to convince me that I was old enough to have dates. I was only fourteen, I felt like a child. On the other hand, the life we lead was full of serious problems that weighed heavily on my shoulders. I had no interest in any foolishness. The Nowak’s son (thirty years old) treated me with a little more sensitivity. There were also two Nowak girls about the same age as me. We became good friends instantly.
After two months, my mother and my brother came home. The three of us were very thin. Every bone in Janek’s knee joints could be seen through the skin that held them together. I found out that he owed his life to my mother who fed him and nursed him after he regained consciousness. It was necessary to give him very little food at the time because his intestines were too weak for proper digestion. My weight worried my mother a great deal. She became very upset when a neighbor advised her to wash my eating utensils separately because she thought I had tuberculosis. Luckily the parcels from my uncle were arriving from time to time. The camp authorities permitted some trading with the villagers. We had more food, which was really needed for building up our bodies, our strength and our health.
In August, the epidemic of typhoid slightly decreased. After few weeks of small but regular meals, I began to feel somewhat better physically and emotionally. Than I suffered a set back again. Pola, my cousin, became gravely ill with diphtheria. The news of her illness came as a shock. A week before that, I paid her a visit to borrow a wash basin, which I needed for a common steam bath house. At that time Pola told me how terribly worried she was about her two little sons, Karol, three years old and Lonek, eighteen months. If anything happened to her, what would happen to the children? She did not trust her husband. She married him because her mother wished her to do that, although Pola did not love him. She didn’t think he was capable or cared enough to look after the children. I asked her if she was ill but she assured me that she was well. A week later, she asked to see me because she was dying. On her deathbed, she asked me to look after her children. I was only fourteen years old and had no experience in caring for the little ones. The cooking and washing in such difficult conditions was hard for the experienced housewives. Every morning, I went to their barracks and looked after the children while their father was at work. The problem became even more serious when he did not want to stay with the children after work. After a few months, my parents decided to bring the children to stay with us. Now I looked after them under the watchful eye of my mother, who helped all she could. We shared our space and our food with the little ones. Their father did not contribute any money and his visits were very rare. This arrangement didn’t seem to work. The children have lost their mother and they needed their father. Finally it was necessary to have a good talk with him about his responsibilities. He agreed to make home for his children. I continued to visit them and do my best for them.
The memory of Pola’s funeral haunted me all my life. I took the children to the morgue to see her. Both children called out “Mama” in happy voices glad to see her, expecting her to move. When she didn’t, somehow they felt their loss. Karol began to cry pitifully, heart-breaking Lenek screamed and went into convulsions. Later when I heard about him, he was almost three years old and still did not speak. I felt that the shock of his mother’s death was the cause of it. My own feelings at that time were difficult to describe. I felt such despair and then I became numb. The children’s loss became my loss also. Why did she have to die? She was so young and needed so. Why did she choose me? Why not someone older? How could I come up to her expectation of looking after the children properly in such a difficult situation? How? How? How?
Our life in Poldniewica was very difficult from the very beginning. Longing for the lost freedom and home magnified from day to day and was enough to bring despair to the down trodden people. This of course would be disastrous. To loose courage or to let our enemies destroy our spirit would equal death. To keep up their hope, people constantly created reasons for our return to our homeland. People claimed that they had heard of someone receiving a letter from home with the news about the incidents of people returning home from Siberia. Palm readers were very popular with everyone. All of them predicted a wonderful future and travel back home. I think they were very wise and had done a better job then a psychiatrist could do. Extraordinary formations and coloring of the northern lights were considered to reveal a hopeful message from God. During the typhoid epidemic despair became stronger. There was even great need for “good news”. Among the members of the camp administration there were hints about the preparation to transport some of the people to a new location. As usual we were not told clearly. People became elated. No one would believe that the prisoners were going to be moved to a different oblast, different region of Russia. Many asked, “Why would they do that?”. The only reason for them to move anyone would be to return us home. They changed their mind about keeping us here. No one could explain why our enemies would want to treat us well. Why would they want to change their minds. The transport was organized. The Nowak family was sent too. Hundreds of people were driven to the railway station. After a few months, we received the letters from them from Archangielsk region. New barracks had to be built and the slave labor was needed there. The Russians were planning more deportations. As we were to find out later such deportations took place April 13, 1940 (320,000 people), in June 1940 (240,000 people) and June 1941 (200,000 people). Many new camps had to be prepared. Many new barracks were being constructed in the vast Russian forests.
In spite of epidemics people still were driven hard. There was a great deal of work. The treeshad to be cut, the lumber had to be prepared and more barracks had to be built. During the summer next to ours, barracks #20 was completed. Shortly after that a group of teachers arrived. The school was opened in the autumn and the children had to attend it. Janek, my brother went too. Parents were unhappy to have their children brain washed by the teachers with the communist ideology. Everyone hoped that there would not be enough time for that. In the meantime, the children’s health would suffer less if they attended school because the other alternatives were a child slave labor in the forest.
The school accommodated only the lower elementary grades. At fifteen, I was “too old” for the school. I had to begin my work in the lumber “industry”. During the winter, my father somehow managed to obtain my release from work. But my reprieve lasted only during the two unbearable cold winter months. In the early spring, I began working at cutting the trees, taking the bark and branches off them. The snow was still deep and soon it started to melt. We were standing deep in the water. I had no proper shoes. My feet and my clothes were constantly wet and very cold. After a while I became quite ill with a bladder and kidney infection. The pain was unbearable. I could not turn in bed by myself during the night, but I had to go to work during the day. A woman doctor (about twenty years old) told me that I did not have a temperature, therefore, I had no excuse to stay home. There was no medication. My excruciating pain didn’t count for anything. Luckily our neighbor Josefa Maj had some medication from Poland and shared it with me. It seemed to work. After months of suffering the pain decreased and became bearable. The condition remained with me for the rest of my life. The bladder infection became chronic. My ulcer and beginning of arthritis was my legacy from the two years of slave labor in this communist “paradise”.
The days seemed to drag. They did not differ from each other. Life was monotonous and sad. There were many personal tragedies of sickness and death of loved ones. People were exhausted physically and emotionally but they kept their hope. In this, faith and prayer played a dominant role. Everyone believed that there must be a change for the better. Everyone expected a deliverance from the Power above.
Socializing, a necessary part of life consisted of conversation, and card playing. Books were scarce, reading was considered to be a rare, but wonderful diversion. From time to time, young people got together for a dance. Since our room had no partition, it was usually used for such gatherings. Olek Romanko and my brother were all for it. Olek thrived in having fun. On such occasions, I either left home or stayed at my friends or went to bed, which was surrounded with blankets to give me some privacy as the only girl in these living quarters. No one knew that I was there for a while. I could not do it too often because Olek would check it out and his teasing would drive me to tears. I did not participate because I considered dancing to be a frivolous activity during such sad times. I felt we should not be dancing as long as our country was not free and as long as people were fighting and being killed. I loved dancing but this sacrifice made me feel that I was serving a cause in my own way and I was making a worth while contribution. Considering that all my other friends were enjoying their dancing, I was making my mark as an individual. This part of my character became stronger later in my life. It brought me happiness but it also caused some difficulties with other people. I felt that one has to serve ones ideals rather than doing things to gain popularity.
The first snow fall in the middle of November awakened a sentimental feeling in my heart. I always loved the first snowfall. Everything looked so clean. Snow was a promise of new fun, games and sports. We loved playing on the way from school and received many scoldings from my mother for coming home quite late. Soon came the realization that the snow in Poldniewica did not mean fun and games, but caused many problems. We had no proper boots or clothing for the 40 below zero weather that followed shortly after the first snowfall. My father’s brigade was building a school. They were working on the second story. Heavy boards had to be carried up on the slippery scaffold. There were many accidents. Low temperatures, a blistering wind, and poor clothing were the cause of severe colds, flu and pneumonia. To get permission from the official to stay home was almost impossible. My father coughed all night. In the morning, he dragged himself out of bed and went back to work day after day after day. Both Mother and I were very worried not only about my father but also about Anthony, my brother. He was working with the team of horses and sleigh getting the timber out of the bush. No one helped him to load. He had to do it all single handedly working in deep snow, which reached well above his waistline. Every night his clothes were soaked through (when the snow melted). The heater with a small opening did not supply enough heat for drying clothes. Early in the morning, while it was still dark outside, it was necessary to put the damp clothes on and face a long, bitterly cold day of slave labor. Breakfast consisted of piece of glue-like dark bread, hot water, or light very watery soup. Tonek, my brother, was only sixteen, quite tall for his age but very, very thin. The whole family depended on my father and Tonek’s wages and their ration of bread (400 grams a day), which we all had to share. Sometimes I was lucky to “get” (buy) some cookies in the camp store. There was no sugar. Cookies were the only sweets we could have though very seldom. A combination of bread, a little bit of cookie and boiling hot water was considered to be a good meal. The mail deliveries, during the cold and heavy snowstorms came almost to a stand still. There were no news or parcels from the relatives. The camp store had no deliveries either. The time kept passing .
On the whole Olek was glad that he could work with a tractor rather then in the forest in such perilous conditions. Deep snow, very low temperatures and primitive equipment (saws and axes) endangered the life of the workers. Lack of experience at this kind of work resulted in trees falling down at random injuring people.
However, traveling on the tractor for long distances on the roads lined only with wooden planks was without many difficulties. Mud in the spring and summer and deep snow in the winter caused the tractor to go off the planks and becoming stuck. As it was a huge and clumsy vehicle many people were needed to put it back on the track. Before the necessary manpower was sent to do the work, a rigorous investigation took place. Olek never knew whether his explanation would be accepted or he would face some trumped up charge, which could easily put him into prison.
Cargo loosely placed on the floor of the huge trailer during the bumpy drive could shift very easily and fall off. During the winter an item could be buried in the snow and become invisible especially in the dark. Often it was necessary to travel during the night.
In spite of the fact that Olek was extra careful the inevitable happened. The tractor loaded with flour was travelling from Nea to Plodniewica, a distance of 40 km. Upon arrival the cargo was checked very thorough. It was two bags of flour short! One was found in the snow, the other not. Olek was charged with sabotage. A very serious charge! The court trial took place in Sharya. Olek was joking and pretending not to worry. All this was done for the sake of his parents who were very upset. Naturally it affected us all as we lived in the same quarters where we shared our experiences every day and night. What would the verdict be? We thought, we talked, and we prayed.
Olek was asked many tricky questions meant to confuse him. He was as brave as he could be stating over and over again, his innocence. He was not guilty of a “sabotage”. They let him go free but not without a threat for the future. I feel that the verdict was in Olek’s faver because there was no one more qualified to take his place as he did his job very well. Also, somewhere deep in his conscience (little of which he had) the judge had to realize that Olek was also, an honest man!
The first Christmas in exile was upon us. Our hearts ached with memories of Christmases passed. Christmas in Poland, at home, with relatives and friends. It was a happy time of preparing tasty dishes and decorating our Christmas tree with pride. I put up my hand made decorations. Wanda, my cousin and I spent many evenings working together, helping one another, sharing our skills and creative ideas.
All twelve meatless dishes for Wigilia (Christmas Eve supper) had to be prepared on the same day. We were encouraged to fast during the day. Everyone made up for that at the supper table. What a feast! Barszcz, uszka, lamance, kisiele (jellies), fish, vegetables, fruit, and cakes. Family and friends joined together in celebration. But these were only wonderful memories. The reality of Christmas of 1941 was very grim.
Our hearts were filled with sadness, emptiness, and longing. There was no Midnight Mass, and no relatives or friends to join us on the way to church or visit us at home. No cheerful carefree voices will surround us. There was no Christmas tree decorations, no colorful surprises in the contents of the parcels. There would be no traditional Christmas Eve dishes.
It was getting dark. At home, in Poland, the children would be watching for the first star, a sign for the festivities to begin. The Siberian sky was dark, cold and menacing. My mother was not busy in the kitchen. Actually, there was no kitchen and very little food to be cooked. There were only a few potatoes for the soup and a slice of glue-like dark Russian bread. My mother was sitting quietly. She was praying. I know she was worried. We all were. My father kept looking out through the little pane of glass in a frost-covered window. I knew that he hoped to see my brother, who did not come home from work. It had been a very cold day. The snow fell constantly. The horses would have trouble pulling the sleigh in the deep snow. There were no roads in the thick forest. The horses sometimes got stubborn and refused to move. Sometimes they became wild and ran away leaving a helpless driver behind, lost in the thick, vast woods. Many people ended up with severe frostbites by the time they were found. It was so dark. Where to look? The forest extended for hundreds of miles. Russian officials would not send out a search party. I felt a burning ulcer pain in my stomach. The situation became unbearable. As many times before, I looked for refuge in my day dreaming. The horrible Russian barracks was disappearing. I felt warmth inside me and saw myself standing next to a Christmas tree in our home in Poland. I could almost touch the familiar decorations such as stars, angels, and beautiful bobbles. I could almost taste juicy red apples, cookies, and chocolate candies. The chain, which I made out of straw and multicolored tissues, was beautifully hugging our Christmas tree. I could hear familiar children’s voices. “Mother, Mother, the first star is out. Beautiful bright star…
” The voice persisted until it brought me back to reality. “He is here! He is here!” Thank God. My brother was back. He looked exhausted and very cold, but he was alive and home. It was going to be a Merry Christmas after all!
January was extremely cold. My most dreaded chore was to bring water from a well located about a kilometer from our barracks. The snow was deep and it was difficult to walk even a small distance carrying an empty pail. Getting the pail filled with water was an extremely difficult task. A very thick layer of ice covered the opening of the well. It was almost impossible to get the pail down into the well. Many times the pail got caught in the ice and fell into the well and was never recovered. To replace a pail was almost impossible, as there were none for sale. To avoid this disaster, it was necessary to make a larger opening in the ice by using an axe. The ice around the well was very thick also and one could easily slip into the well. Throughout my grown up life, I had a recurring nightmare trying to get my pail out of that Russian well.
With the arrival of cold winter weather, the typhoid epidemic had come to an end, or so we thought. However, in February, a number of people became very ill with it again. Among others, my friend Wladzia and Olek Romanko were in the hospital gravely ill.
The symptoms of this kind of typhoid fever were quite different and at first misleading. Patients complained of a severe back pain and experienced very high fever. Shortly they lost their consciousness for about six weeks. Since Olek’s parents lived in the same room, we were informed of the stages of his illness. His father and mother took turns staying by his bedside day and night. The doctors and nurses did not enforce the strict rules imposed by the Russian medical staff because Olek was not expected to survive. Death was expected at any time. We watched the suffering of his elderly parents with great sadness. Luckily after six weeks, there seemed to be some improvement. The fever decreased. There was however another reason to worry because Olek was having some hallucinations which he readily described to anyone who came to visit him. My friend and I went to visit our girlfriend Wladzia. I decided to see Olek, whose bed was in the same ward. Only a curtain separated female and male patients. Olek was very talkative. To the amusement of my friends and my embarrassment, he told me that he would build a home for his future wife. He also intended to raise his seven sons in it. At that time I was not even his girlfriend so teasing did not last too long. However, Olek’s predictions did not come completely true, because when we got married nine years later, we had only four sons.
This period of hallucinations lasted for a few weeks and Olek’s parents were afraid that the extremely high fever (42°C) caused some brain damage. Although the typhoid patient felt constantly very hungry and would eat everything in sight, the wasted intestines could tolerate only small rations of food. Parents had to continue their constant vigil to keep Olek from eating too much, which caused death of many patients recovering from typhoid fever.
As if all this was not enough, the additional complications set in as Olek began experiencing excruciating pain in his knee joints. This was soon diagnosed as rheumatic fever. The series of very painful intravenous injections seemed to have brought some improvement. The recovery was very slow. Olek’s illness lasted four months.
During this time his family had no income. Since no one worked the bread rations received were very small. The loss of weight, due to lack of food, was quite visible. Olek’s return to health and to work was a very welcome event.
Our life in the kulag went on at a slow dreary pace. It was filled with deep longing for the homeland. One day resembled another. The deep longing for our country that filled me with sadness was bordering on depression. To keep up hope became more and more difficult. This sad monotony was often interrupted only by even more tragic events such as illness, injury, or death of loved ones. Severe climatic conditions, cruel treatment and punishment by the captors, hard labor, near starvation took its toll among the hard driven people. Graves increased in numbers. Many families were wiped out by death. In many instances, children were left orphaned and had to take care of themselves. The Russian’s interest was such that often they were not even aware that there were orphans. We did not tell them because they would take those children to the Russian orphanages and brainwash them into being good communists. The parents considered such fate worse than death. On their deathbeds, parents asked friends or even strangers to prevent their children from being placed in the Russian orphanages. I spent much time with my friend Bernadeta, fourteen, her little sister, seven, and her brother, nine years old. Bernadeta was the head of the family. She worked in the bush as a lumberjack, side by side with strong grown men. The Russians saw to it that she produced as much as others if she wanted to qualify for the increased ration of bread to which only hard working prisoners were entitled. Bernadeta left home at dawn and came home at dusk. She was physically exhausted beyond human endurance. Younger children went to school during the day. They ate very little. At night, Bernadeta had to prepare the meal, which was not easy. Most of the time, the family shared their ration of bread and ate some soup consisting of water and few pieces of potatoes or a mixture of a few spoons of flour. Other vegetables were nonexistent. After supper the washing of clothes, cleaning the hut and mending kept the family busy till late at night. When finally they went to bed and the little ones fell asleep, Bernadeta worried about the future. How to save the little ones? Asking the officials for help meant separation most likely forever. But what if the children would die due to malnutrition? Did she have a right to decide their fate? At such times, Bernadeta, like all other exiles, felt that this kind of suffering could not go on forever. Things must change soon. In the meantime, the consolation came from being able to pray to believe that God was always there seeing our suffering, loving us and willing to take care of us. A prayer and these thoughts usually brought on some sleep and much needed rest. After all, the next day would again demand super human strength to endure extreme cold, hard labor and a constantly starving body.
The second spring in exile came slowly and was late. All around us the people were recovering from the very cold and very long winter. The letters and a few parcels arrived from home. Since the letters were censored and listening to the radio was forbidden under a threat of severe punishment, we had no news about the progress of war. The Russian officials were still boasting about their great friendship with Germans. People were becoming depressed. No one was allowed to go home. In fact, two young people who escaped from Poldniewica were caught and brought back to our camp after a few months. They never talked about their ordeal, but Wladek, a 24-year-old escapee had a number of teeth missing. After that no one dared to escape. Bringing the prisoners back to the camp worked as the Russians expected it to. But there were a few who secretly constructed a simple radio. One of them, Professor Hofman was caught listening to it. He was arrested and taken away into a prison. No one knew his whereabouts. His wife, who was quite ill, was left to fend for herself in our kulag. It seemed that everything worked against us. Everything worked well for our cruel captors. Life was more and more difficult. Much needed articles of clothing and linen were almost all bartered away and there was little to exchange for food. Luckily we were given small garden plots. At the end of May, we planted potatoes and some vegetables. We were longing for those things to grow a little faster, but the ground froze very deeply and cold did not encourage the growth of our sickly looking plants.
A group of Russian engineers came to Poldniewica. Since they were mostly young men, they tried to make friends with our youth. As a token of goodwill, the engineers were invited to a dance, which took place in our living quarters. Although most of the time, the alcohol was not available, this time the engineers managed to get some from the nearby kolchoz. After a few drinks, they “forgot” that they “befriended” their Polish prisoners. Their remarks became quite offensive. The fight was short. The “enemy” retreated. When the excitement subsided, the anxiety and worry began. “Victorious” Poles knew that this would not be forgotten and that they would be punished severely. To be separated from the families and put into a restricted Russian prison often meant death.
Early in August, it was observed that there was unusual movement around the camp administration building office. There were wagons, horses and new policemen. All of us were frantic with worries. No one knew how many people would be arrested. No one knew who was accused. However, everyone was certain that there would not be a hearing or fair judgment. The Russians were the accusers and executioners. No prisoners would have a chance to defend themselves or even to explain. Olek was one of the suspects. He was also the only working person in his family. His elderly parents depended on his support. Without him, they would starve. His good friend, Wladek, who had two other working brothers, decided to take most of the blame on himself and state that Olek did not take part in this fight. Luckily, we did not find out whether this friendly generosity would work or not. Suddenly, the militiamen, horses and wagon disappeared. People began to breathe. However, no one believed that this was the end of the trouble. Everyone was glad to have the tragedy delayed.
No one was surprised when after a few days many men were called to the comendantura (office). The arrival of the N.K.W.D. (secret police) was earlier observed. No one really paid attention that the men called in were not the youths involved in the infamous fight, but that these were the heads of the families. The hush ruled the labor camp. Frightened people were quietly praying with more fervor than ever. Waiting for the men to come out was almost unbearable. What if they were arrested? What would happen to the women and children? Suddenly the doors opened and the men came out quietly. Their faces carried a mysterious look. They refused to talk in the vicinity of the commendantura , trying to walk as fast as they could to join their families. The news came out in hushed voices. “Germany declared war on Russia (June 1941). Churchill and General Sikorski were in Moscow for talks with Stalin. We were declared free people. The Polish army would be organized to fight the Germans. Unbelievable! People were laughing and crying. Everyone was making plans. All this happy excitement was restrained by the realization that we were still in the hands of our enemies. Not for a moment did we believe that the Russian communists would suddenly became our friends. We knew how they worked and that they had some underhanded plan up their sleeves. We were deep in the Russian forest. How will we get out? How will we get to a location where the Polish forces would be organized? Where were we going to get food for the travel through the vast Russian country? How are we going to get to the train? Where were the Germans? Endless questions. Our local authorities answered, “My niczewo nie znajem!” We don’t know anything. Since the beginning of the Russian German war, there was no mail or parcels from home. There were no deliveries to the camp store. No food to be obtained. The threat of hunger became real. We could not wait for our potatoes to grow. As small as they were, we dug a few leaving the plant still growing. My visits to the villages became more and more frequent. The last articles of clothing had to be bartered. The villagers were feeling the effects of the war. Grain and farm animals were sent to feed the army. To be able to sell I had to walk about thirty kilometers every day. Uncomfortable shoes caused many blisters on my feet. As an “easier” job, I was given a destination of fifteen kilometers a day. It was a cold September day. Every step I took was very painful. My feet were burning. I was alone and so very tired. Why not daydream? I imagined the victorious Polish army bringing freedom to Poland our beloved land. I saw my family arriving back home. Our relatives and friends welcomed us and brought us enough food to satisfy our hunger. I almost tasted fresh, homemade bread with fresh homemade butter. When I returned to reality, I was still smiling and humming a happy tune. I also realized that I was entering our barracks. I brought some food and I could take off my shoes and rest my very painful feet.
After a few days rest, it was necessary to go into another kolchoz. This time it was very far into an unknown territory to me. It was necessary to cross the Vietluga River. There were many frightening stories about the danger of crossing this very wide river. The “bridge” was made out of planks loosely thrown together and filled with dirt that fell through. Through the crack, one could see a roaring river that seemed to want to swallow us. It was necessary to keep good balance in order to stay on the narrow bridge. An early frost made the planks slippery. Every step was an effort. My heart was beating very fast and I was mortaly afraid. My friend’s and my trip lasted three days. After successfully crossing the river (back and forth), it was a relief to walk on the land. My body was protesting. It was numb from the exhaustion. Arriving home was like having won another victory for life. This time I even brought home a little bit of honey. This was carefully put away into a small cellar where we were saving some supplies for the journey to southern Russia where the Polish army was being organized.
Some young men decided to travel earlier. They left in September, taking very little food, clothing, and money. They took a lot of enthusiasm and courage, which they needed, for the uncertain journey awaiting them. My seventeen-year-old brother, Tonek went with them. We worried about him, but did not dare to stop him. It was necessary to get out and traveling without women and children was easier or so we thought. My mother found it very difficult to say good-bye to her first born. She kept saying, “I will never see you again”. He was annoyed with her and felt that she was exaggerating, but her fear turned to be prophetic. The three of us never saw Tonek again. Only my father saw him briefly in the Polish army in Iraq. Our family never met again as a whole.
Many Russians were called into the army. We knew that the Germans were slaughtering Russians unmercifully. On one of my trips to the village, I saw a procession of people taking a young man to the truck, which took him to a Russian Army post. This procession looked like a funeral. People were saying their good-byes as if the young man was already dead. It was very depressing and based on the fact that, many families were receiving the announcements of men “being killed defending their Mother Russia”. These were sad and difficult times for everyone.
Due to this drain of the labor force, it was difficult to harvest the crops of grain and potatoes and villagers asked us to help. My mother and I went into a village (15 km away) to help to harvest potatoes. For the long day’s work, from dusk to dawn, we were to receive 30 pounds of potatoes a day. We were allowed to stay with one of the families who out of their generosity fed us and gave us a place to sleep, often on the hard floor or on top of a brick stove. During the two weeks, which we spent, working in this kolchoz, our host told us a tragic story of his family. Both of them, he and his wife, were about 70 years old. They still worked very hard. Two of their teenage grandchildren were living with them. Marcin and Agata, the elderly couple, raised seven children. One of them was a very high ranking official in the communist government in Moscow. Now that the Germans were approaching the capital, the son asked his parents to give shelter to his wife and children. We were very surprised when the old man refused his son’s request. The father explained that he found it necessary to disown his son and his family because of the tragic fate, which befell one of his daughters, her five children and her husband. She was also the mother of twins (a boy and a girl) which were raised by the grandparents. About ten years ago (in the early thirties) during very cold winter, the young couple and their five small children were arrested during the night and deported to Siberia. In the winter, they were left in the forest and told to build their own shelters. The whole family perished. They were never seen or heard from. The twins were visiting their grandparents. They were only five years old at the time and they were the only survivors. “How could I love my son after that? He was one of those who gave the orders for such deportations and therefore caused the suffering and death to his own sister and her family. Now he wants me to save his family?” The poor heart broken old man! We understood his difficult decision and why both of them were so kind to my mother and me. In us they saw the fate of their beloved daughter. We had that in common with her. Helping us slightly eased their suffering, because they could not save their loved ones from a fate the same as ours.
After the potato harvesting was done, it was again my duty to walk 30 kilometers every day to bring back our pay. I carried about 40 pounds of potatoes on my back while walking through the fields and the forest. The worst part of it was that I had to do it alone. My friend worked in other villages. Often when I came home it was already dark. Walking alone through the forest was a frightening experience. There was the consolation of having some food for the family.
While we were coping with every day problems of staying alive, grown-ups were trying to arrange our departure from Poldniewica which still was a forced labor camp for us. Nothing actually changed since we were given the small piece of paper which declared our freedom. A few men left our camp and traveled to Buzuluk. Some came back with news but still empty-handed. The Russian authorities refused to assign a train, which would carry us to the southern part of Russia. They needed the slave laborers and they were determined to postpone our departure. Finally in October, Antoni Maj comes back with some good news. He was successful in acquiring a train for which we had waited for many long months. How he accomplished that was a mystery to many. We were told to pack very quickly and in a few days we were given horses and buggies, which took us to the closest railway station, located about 20 kilometers from Poldniewica. The first snow had fallen. Our belongings were deposited on the ground and we were left outside to wait for the arrival of the train. No official could or wanted to tell us when this would happen. We had fires going but the snow was falling, our clothes became damp and we felt very cold all the time. The nights were the most difficult. All our cooking utensils were packed away. Cooking by the open fire was quite impossible anyway. We ate very little and only the dry foods. The only hot drink was boiling water “keepiatok”.
After waiting in this misery for three days and nights, the train arrived at the station. It was a cattle train; same as the one that brought us to Russia. We were allocated a space on the “prycze” (platform like shelves) and we had started out journey into the unknown, hoping for a better tomorrow and praying to God for His guidance and help in this yet another difficult journey, which we had to undertake again. Will we survive this difficult journey? Will our health stay with us? How are we going to get some food in this hungry, empty land? What awaits us at the end of this journey?” A lot of questions, but no answers. No assurances, only more delays and long stops on the side railway track. The communists hated to see us getting away from them. After all, as they told us when they brought us to this God forsaken land, they did not expect us to live! “The more of you that die, the happier we will feel!” Chapter V Our Journey South-Escape.
Our Journey South-Escape
Although our train was classified as military transport we still traveled very slowly because we were often shunted onto a side rail as transports carrying military detachment and equipment went by. Being classified as military transport entitled us to receive small rations of soup, bread, and “Kipiatok” (boiled water). All these were brought by two men delegated from each carriage. Bread was packed in potato sacks, soup and water were in pails. To obtain rations the delegates had to present identification cards given to each family. Acquired food had to be equally divided among the inhabitants of each car. My father and Olek were delegated from our car. As the train often left the station without warning some people were left behind and were separated from their families never to be found again. No one wanted this nightmare to be a part of their life, therefore very few people volunteered for the job of bringing in food rations.
Our train traveled to Sharya, Kirow, Ural Mountains, Swierdlowsk, Chelabinsk Orsk, Aktubinsk, Oktiabrsk, Chelkar and Aral Sea, Novakaralinsk, Tashkent, Samarkand and Buchara. It went through a desert of frozen land. Quite often it was placed on the sidetracks where it remained for a long time. At these stops we could get out and walk outside. During such expeditions we came by some other transports of human misery. Among those was a long train filled with Germans who lived in a Volga region in a colony. Now when the Hitler’s troops were approaching the members of German origin communities were rounded up and packed into the freight trains that did not have a real destination. The doors to their cars were open very seldom. We could hear human desperate cries for food and water. As my friend and I were returning to our train we almost stumbled over the naked bodies thrown out of the cars. The shock made us shake uncontrollably.
In Swierdlowsk I went in search of aspirin. Extreme cold made it difficult to breathe. On the faces of people, that I met despair was quite evident. Hunger as well as cold drew out all the energy and vigor.
There were many beautiful buildings, lining up the streets and monuments displayed in the park, but no one had a will to enjoy or admire them. More refined feelings were almost dead only the instinctive strong desire for living directed human actions. Shortly after we left Swierdlowsk on the way to Chelabinsk my, and Olek’s families suffered our own private hell. At one of the smaller stations my father and Olek as usual went out to get some food rations. The station officials were well aware of it and yet it did not prevent them from moving the train without any warning. My father and Olek were left behind and lost to us. For three days we suffered so much. Our family and Olek’s parents were devastated because the men were our only lifelines! We were all desperate! What if Dad and Olek get ill? Who would look after them? As we agonized and prayed our two men did all they could to find us. They kept hitching rides on different trains travelling south, following the route given us, which led to Samarkanda, but they were painfully aware that the Soviet authorities could change their mind and direct our transport into a different direction. Indeed they were wrongly informed that we were on the way to Yambul but in reality our destination was Buchara in Uzbekistan. Luckily while Dad and Olek were checking out trains on one of the stations, they saw a woman from our transport. As she reassured them that they found us their relief was unbelievable. In turn our joy, on seeing them was also difficult to describe. We were separated only three days but it seemed like a very long time. Togetherness was our strong force. Shortage of food, complete lack of hygiene; unbathed bodies, unwashed clothes, illnesses during the six weeks journey south seemed to be minor discomforts in comparison to fear of being separated.
The trek was now through a cold part of Russia. Often there was no wood to keep the fire burning. The men went out to scout around the station and often returned with “the firewood”, which would land them in prison if the authorities saw their findings. An example of forbidden firewood was the material for constructing the parts of the railway. My father and Olek did again most of the work. Other men were afraid to leave the train in fear of being left behind. We were also very worried and when we complained, my father and Olek reminded us, “Someone has to take the risk or we all will freeze to death”.
During our journey south, we suffered untold hardships, but we had a hope that at the end of it we would find help and protection of the Polish army. Therefore, it was impossible to describe our shock when on New Year’s Eve in 1942, we arrived in Buchara Uzbekistan. Here, we were told to leave the train and carry our belongings to a small field where we had to camp under the open sky for three days. The weather was warmer than in the northern Soviet Union, but the nights were still chilly because it was winter. There was no sign of the Polish army and no one could tell us of its location. The Uzbec authorities who took charge decided to send us to the collective farms to help in the fields of cotton. Again we became slave laborers. The communication with local people was very difficult because we did not know their language and they could speak very little Russian.
Our transport was not the only one to be unloaded on this desolate station. There were many other people who already spent some time camping in the dusty field. Many became very ill and death had its harvest. Numbness and despair overtook us all. The nights were cold and the days were very hot. Dust filled our eyes, mouths, and noses causing us to choke and cough. There was no shelter and our future was uncertain.
Finally on the fourth day, our field became crowded with native people (Uzbecs) and horses pulling “arbs” (a vehicle with two large wheels). We shared our arb with the Romanko family. On the black top road, a long caravan of arbs was moving slowly. The men had to walk most of the 30-kilometer distance. Only women and children were aloud to ride on the arbs. Horses found the load quite heavy. After a three-hour journey, we were stopped at a teahouse (chihana) where we found additional families. Amongst them, was the Haciski family. I was glad to have my best friends close by. After a simple meal, we walked two kilometers to a village where we were assigned to the small clay huts. At first Olek and his parents were assigned to a separate “Kibitka” (clay hut). I was surprised at being upset because we would be separated. However, I did not betray my feelings. The relief swept over me when, after all, our families decided to share the same accommodation. All these feelings were new to me and I asked myself, “Why would I want to stay in the same room, day and night with someone (Olek) who enjoyed tormenting me?” I did not want to admit that I was becoming emotionally involved. I still wanted to be an innocent child in this respect. It was bad enough to have been forced into shouldering grown up responsibilities in a fight for survival. Why complicate things even more? Anyway, there was no time to dwell on one’s feelings. Undernourished bodies made demands and there was no food to satisfy them. We knew that we had to work, but where? Will we be paid? That was the question.
Next morning, few Uzbecs came to our small compound and asked us to follow them into the fields where they explained to us what we had to do. It was winter and the fields had to be evened out for irrigation purposes. Soil had to be carried manually on “nosilki” (a board with handles) from higher places to lower and spread out evenly. These were the cotton fields. The work started at sunrise and ended at sunset. The pay for this backbreaking work consisted of a handful of flour a day, enough to make watery soup. There was no fruit, vegetables, or meat. Sometimes we made “pancakes” using clover and a little bit of flour, just enough to hold the clover together. This was not enough to nourish bodies. Hungry people became very thin and grew weaker and weaker.
Our men were still determined to reach the Polish army, but even after a few months, we could not find out its location. Slave labor was needed therefore Soviets were not going to let us go very easily. They were determined to make things difficult. There were also other complications. The trains and trucks were serving the needs of the Russian army while civilians were left to starve. Uzbekistan was a cotton growing country and no one could eat that. Food had to be brought (but was not) from the grain growing regions. In addition to starvation, the epidemic of typhoid fever and dysentry was taking its toll. Complete families were being wiped out. The only rest from it all a person had was sleep. As soon as one woke up, the desperation caused an unbearable pain in my chest. What was to become of us?
Finally, somehow we learned that the Polish army was formed in Kermine, some 400 kilometers from our kolchoz. My father and Olek decided to take an uncertain and difficult journey to join the army especially when we heard that the plans were made to move it into Persia/Iran. General Anders negotiated with the Soviet government on behalf of the would-be soldiers. The men were promised that their families would follow shortly. However, my father and Olek had no time to notify us or send the certified proof of their joining the army before they left Russia in March of 1942. Both our families were cut off and left behind with no one to help. Without official proof of our men joining the army, we would not qualify to leave Soviet Union! However, we could not allow despair to takeover. That could destroy us.
My mother became very ill and I alone had to work and barter for food. Being responsible for the survival of three people for a sixteen-year old girl was a great deal to bear. How to get us out of that God forsaken kolchoz and get closer to the Polish army where we hoped to get some help?
In April 1942, I decided to travel to Kermine to join the army and arrange for my mother and Janek to join me. Both of them worried about me a great deal. My mother had no strength to get up from the bed and Janek was having black outs from hunger. Often I thought, “If I could only have enough food for them, I would agree to go without it for days”. I had no money and did not know how I would get to Kermine, but I had to try. With two of my friends, Ela and Marysia, and an elderly man, we walked 35 kilometers to Kagan. Here, we tried illegally to board a train, which would take us to Kermine. We did that for three days without success.
Defeated, exhausted, hungry, and more desperate than ever, we had to walk back to our families. The thought of giving them disappointing news was very hard to bare. Another night was approaching and we had to go back to a “chihana” (a teahouse of sorts) where all homeless people looked for shelter. Our male companion left us and we felt scared and very much alone. By now, we knew that besides the war refugees, people like us, there were also criminals of all kinds. Three of them surrounded us. My friend had a gold watch given to her by her mother, as a parting gift and we knew that the three robbers planned to take it away from her. The night before, a girl who slept on the concrete floor got up in the morning and realized that her boots were stolen from her feet. The most dangerous time came when the small lamp was extinguished and total darkness fell. Fear was almost paralyzing us and we prayed constantly. It was difficult to imagine our joy and relief when suddenly we saw our male friend coming toward us. He missed his train again and decided to seek us out. With him was another Polish man, (unknown to us) on his way to the army, who joined us. He played the harmonica beautifully and that way befriended the crowd of the teahouse. The night passed safely! God was with us.
In the morning, we began our long walk “home”. The thought that another hope had to be abandoned. The hope of getting out of kolchoz Kuybyshef and that terrible country of Soviet Union, weighted heavily in our hearts. Walking in the heat was very difficult. The asphalt was almost melting and shoes felt very uncomfortable. We thought that walking in our stockings would be easier. What a mistake! The soles of our feet became blistered and the skin came off. All this caused unbearable pain. Worse than that, however, was hiding the pain from our families. What do we do now?
Some relatives sent a soldier for two of my closest friends’ families to be brought to Kermine. Now I was completely alone as Ela’s family and Haciski families went also. Somehow I heard that the Polish consulate probably could help. Again I was not certain of its location, but was determined to find it. For a sixteen year old girl, to walk alone fifty kilometers through the Usbec villages was dangerous. Rapes and murders were quite common. Undertaking this journey would be an act of desperation. I prayed constantly for another solution and this came quite unexpectedly. This fatal journey did not take place.
Sometime in February, Mr. Krycki, friend of Olek’s father, joined us. Mr. Krycki was a prisoner in one of Russian Kulags. He had no family and felt very much alone. One day, Olek met him on the road from Wabkient and started a conversation. After exchanging some information Olek decided to introduce himself and was very surprised when his companion reacted to it very emotionally. “Are you a son of Mikolaj Romanko? He is my very good friend. Where is he? Can I see him?” There was a great deal of excitement. The stories of the past two years had to be told. After that, Mr. Krycki felt that he found a new family and decided to stay with us. Our kibitka was bursting at the seams.
At that time, the Uzbec authorities told us that they had no more flour to give us whether we worked or not. Mr. Krycki was trading the civilian clothes, which he brought from the Polish soldiers in Kermine, to the Uzbecs in the village. His age and poor health prevented him from being accepted in the army. He brought the news about my father and Olek’s departure to Persia. One day while traveling Mr. Krycki injured his leg, which became badly infected, and he could not walk at all. He was not able to obtain any food and we had none to share. All our mother could offer us was a little bit of watery soup once a day. The Romankos were not better off. One day I asked my mother if I could eat my share a little later and when she left the hut, I gave my daily ration to Mr. Krycki who felt a little stronger and began to walk, very slowly at first. After he became well, he told me that I saved his life and he would do everything possible to get us all to Kermine.
To be able to leave the Kolchoz, we had to obtain special permission from the Polish consulate trustee. It was up to me to secure this document, but the trustee would not give it to me because the Soviet authorities forbade him to do so. Mr. Krycki decided that I should write permission myself because my handwriting was quite legible and if we were caught, the authorities would not send me to prison because I was under age. I knew that it was not so because my friend, my age was jailed for being late for work. The punishment for forgery would have been even greater. However, what choice did I have?
One day in the middle of April, we carried our meager possessions to the highway, a distance of two kilometers. There were six of us: Olek’s parents, Mr. Krycki and us. We sat many hours by the road waiting for someone to give us a ride. Again, we had very little money (from selling the last of our badly needed articles of clothing) with which to pay to the owner of arba, who finally decided to take us a part of the way. After four days of traveling, it was necessary to find another arba. We spent our night in the “tea houses” and while Olek’s parents, my mother and Janek stayed with our belongings. Mr. Krycki and I went to N.K.W.D. (Russian secret police service) to register at every place we stopped. The N.K.W.D. were often very hostile and made fun of our problems.
Finally we arrived at the railway in the town surrounded by mountains. The only way to get over the mountains was by train, which was usually already very overcrowded while arriving at the station. Hundreds and hundreds of people were stranded. Hunger and all types of sicknesses took its toll. People too weak to walk lay on the street inside the sacks. They tried to catch passersby, begging for food. Not being able to help the starving people was sheer agony.
On the day of our departure, there were only eight seats on the train to Kermine. Out of this Mr. Krycki was able to obtain six tickets for our group. Hundreds of people were in line. How did we end up with the six tickets? It is still not quite clear to me. I knew that even my phony “permission for travel” helped. Mr. Krycki’s energy and enterprising spirit were essential, but a miracle was also taking place here.
After securing the tickets, we had some difficulties in boarding the train. The Romankos and Mr. Krycki went ahead and had no problems. My mother and I carried a large box while Janek was left behind to watch the rest of the possessions. The arrangement worried me a great deal. I knew that the train could leave very quickly and Janek could be separated from us, but my mother would not think of parting, with a wooden tub, because it could save us from hunger. “I could use it to earn some money by washing clothes in it.” As soon as we deposited the box by the train, I ran back for Janek and if he did not decide to run toward me (leaving the tub), both of us would have been left behind. As we reached the train together, we encountered another problem. The conductor would not let us bring our box on the train. These people thrived on creating problems for others! The train began to move. My mother held onto the box. These were all our possessions! How could we survive without them? Suddenly, two Russian officers (most of the train was taken up by the army) jumped off the train, grabbed the box, and pushed it through the window into one of the carriages. The conductor did not dare to protest! These two soldiers probably saved our lives in this situation. They knew that being left at this station meant death for most of the people. Each member of our group quietly thanked God for His protection. We were also very grateful to Mr. Krycki who showed so much courage and determination in bringing us so far in our difficult journey to freedom. Only two weeks before, this journey seemed so impossible and now it was almost at the end. We knew that our troubles were not over, but we hopped that the train was carrying us to a better tomorrow.
Kermine – Karkin Batash – Kitabo – Krasnowodsk
We arrived in Kermine during the night and conducted by Mr. Krycki struggled with our luggage through the dark streets toward the Polish Embassy. A fence surrounded small clay building. A small yard was now packed with people. Mostly women and children slept on the blankets spread on the sandy ground. There were no tents or any other shelter from the hot sun or cool nights. Enduring the desert climate was not the only difficulty. More and more people arrived. There was no more room in the yard. The town authorities decided to move us to the field on the higher ground. All this time, our two families stayed together while Mr. Krycki continued to travel and to trade.
In the middle of a large field, the portable kitchen served us some soup once a day. Even this little bit of food came from the rations allocated to the army, which meant that the soldiers were also underfed. Russians did not allow anymore food for the civilian population. There was constant talk that we would be sent again to other kolchozes to work. I shuddered thinking about it. The desperate flight from Kuybyszev was just over and we were too exhausted emotionally and physically to be able to endure a similar ordeal. I was very worried about Janek and my mother. Both of them were very weak. Something had to be done!
The army established “Junaki” (cadets). The main purpose was to gather as many as possible young boys, orphaned, separated from the parents or from the family who were not able to supply food, and to ship them to Persia at the first possible chance.
Filled with anxiety and fighting my shyness, I went to the army command to see a Colonel and to ask him to let Janek join the Junaki. My distress was overwhelming when I was told that no more boys were being taken. The Colonel was a kind man, but his hands were tied. However, he advised me to go to another Colonel who might be able to help although he had his doubts because Janek was too small and too young for the group. Adding two years to Janek’s age might be helpful. Upon arrival into the office, a very handsome and truly gallant Captain met us. Having the rudeness of N.K.W.D. officers fresh in my mind, I was moved to tears by the kindness of this young man. The Colonel was also very pleasant and joked constantly. I think he sensed how nervous and frightened we both were. After asking some questions about the family and our latest history, which Janek had to answer by himself, (I was told not to help) my little brother was accepted into Junaki. Immediately he was asked to follow a small group of boys being marched to the Junaki camp. He looked so small (others were older). It nearly broke my heart to see him walking alone from me into his independent, but lonely future, which was to last many years.
Walking back to my mother, I was filled with anguish about how to tell her that Janek, her little boy, was not going to be with her anymore. I felt that this separation was necessary to save Janek’s life. We were facing very uncertain future and if we were going to be sent to another kolchoz, at least Janek would not be subjected to starvation. However, being separated was difficult and my mother took it very hard. She was not well emotionally and physically and she needed to put the blame on someone for all the suffering that we endured. I was the closest person so she blamed me for sending her son away. I was also young and my responsibilities were more than I could cope with. My mother’s reproaches made me very unhappy and yet I could understand her feelings.
The Persian borders were still closed which meant that no one could leave Russia. Thousands and thousands of people; children, women, and the elderly gathered on the field. We had to be fed, but there were no provisions. Evacuation to the kolchozes became a reality. Everyday the arbas came and the people were assigned to leave. I was frantically looking for a way out and was thinking of joining Junaczki (school for girls), but I could not let my mother to be taken to kolchoz alone. If I could only find some kind of work for my mother in Kermine! In despair, I turned to our very good friend, Mrs. Haciska, who joined forces with me. We did not leave a stone unturned. Luckily she knew a Captain who was in charge of an army laundry. The laundry job was considered to be very “prestigious” and was reserved mostly for the officers’ wives or someone well connected. After all, it assured the closeness to the army and therefore facilitated the escape to Persia. In the meantime, it assured some meals no matter how small. It was difficult to imagine how relieved I was when the good Captain said, “Yes, your mother can have a job, however, she must have her own wash tub”. The tub just like the one we left on the station before we boarded the train. My mother was right! It would have helped! Excitedly I began looking among the people and was lucky to find desperately needed tub which actually was never used. There were enough of those in the laundry.
Now my mother and Janek were taken care of. They had their food rations and a chance of leaving the hellish Kermine as soon as Russians would open their borders. I alone was not attached to anyone and had no food. Now was the time to do something about it. During the day I went to see people about being accepted into Junaczki, but it took weeks of waiting and knocking at many doors. Late in the afternoon, I went to my mother or Janek, who gave me a little bit of their food and than slept in the crowded field, now all-alone.
In the middle of May in 1942, I became a full-fledged “Junaczka”. It meant leaving my mother and Janek in Kermine and going to Guzary, a distance of about 400 kilometers. Olek’s parents being older were not sent to a kolchoz, but were still in Kermine, hoping to join their son in the near future. But the epidemic of typhoid claimed their lives a few months after my departure. Both our families were affected by this tragedy.
My two very good friends, Olenka and Zosia Haciski and I were a part of a few hundred girls traveling to a deserted village near Guzar. The name of this village was Karkin Batasz, which meant “The Valley of Death”. It acquired its name when all the inhabitants died during the struggle for freedom and epidemic of unknown illness. Now empty, dirty, and dusty, it became our home.
Thousands of children were coming to be close to the army. They had to walk long distances or hitch a ride on the train, truck, or mule “arba”. Often an older child brought smaller ones with him because their parents died and there was no one to take care of them. Torn clothes and rags in place of shoes covered little skeletons that were supposed to be children. Hundreds died trying to reach the army camps and as many perished after their arrival.
There were many army posts scattered over southern Russia; Kujbyszew, Tockoje, Narpaj, Wrewskoje, Lugowaja, Czokpak, Kitab, Karkin Batasz, Guzary Kitab, Dzatat-Abad, Guzar, Tatiszczaho, Czkaton, Kottubianka, Szachryzjabs, Kermine, Margelan Tergama, The army command was located in Jang-Jul.
While my mother and Janek stayed in Kermine, I had to travel to Karkin Batasz where “Jumaczki” had their camp. Percentage wise, Karkin Batasz was the most deadly place. Small village in the middle of the hot desert (already in April, the temperature reached 35C) had only one well which produced ten buckets of water a day while in June, the camp housed 1,036 Junaczki. We lived in the huts or in the tents. Terrible sanitary conditions, lack of water, dirt, and heat contributed to the outbreak of night blindness, dysentry, typhoid epidemic, and even cholera. Emanated bodies could not fight the diseases. Karkin Batasz lived up to its name of “The Valley of the Death”. The girls died everywhere, even in the toilet. Some even walked away from the camp hoping to escape the misery and died in the desert. Most of the time, they were found too late. One of the girls was not found for months until the well dried out (during the summer months) and her body was discovered there. Often at night, I heard one of my friends cry out in pain and all I could do was to take her to the infirmary where she was put on the mat among other dying girls. Very few of them survived. There was no medicine. The nurses gave some comfort, but really they were working in desperate conditions. Hundreds of girls died in this terrible place. Their bodies were wrapped in the blanket, a name tag was attached to the foot before they were buried (often in group graves) in the hot unfriendly Uzbec soil.
Our commandant, Ms. Teodora Sychowska went to the army authorities asking for removing the girls from Karkin Batasz, but there was much opposition from the Russian authorities. Finally in July, (I came to K.B. in May) 460 of us were moved to Guzar. The tents were located among the trees and there was more water so we could even wash ourselves. The air was better and the breathing easier. After few weeks, we were told that General Tokarzwski accepted us as a part of his division. We were happy to board the train, which took us to Kitabo, and than the army trucks took us to kolchoz Molotow. Our camp was beautifully located among the trees by the river Kaszka, Daria. We resumed our classes sitting in the shade of the trees and our hearts were filled with gladness and hope. Better food and medical help were instrumental in the halt of epidemics.
However, little did we suspect that another disaster (there were so many in that inhuman Soviet land) was around the corner. The area close to the river was filled with mosquito carrying malaria. Within a few weeks, all 460 Junaczski’s and small children in the orphanage became very ill with malaria. There was not enough quinine to control the disease and we were given this medication only on the days when fever crossed the 40°C. Lying on the blankets in the shade of the trees, which helped to cool our burning bodies, we looked after each other; bringing water and watching over those who were delirious and tried to get the water by themselves. I caught one friend hanging over the well trying to get some water with a cup, too sick to realize that the well was deep and she could have drowned.
Our teachers tried to conduct the lessons (without textbooks or any other materials) to keep our minds off our troubles for we also worried about our families scattered all over. I knew that there was an epidemic in Kermine and that Janek was very ill. We were told that we may be soon leaving Soviet Union and it made us very happy. It was also known that the sick would be left behind. I knew that my mother would not leave Janek behind and that they both may be forced to stay in Russia. The thought of it made me sick at heart and robbed me of my sleep, which did not help my body weakened by frequent malaria attacks.
The time has a way of marching on even in the most difficult circumstances. Before we realized, August was coming to an end. We heard that finally the Russians let the evacuation of the army begins again, but since we were the farthest post, we were going to be evacuated last. Therefore, to the end, we did not let our hopes rise being afraid that the Soviet authorities may once again close the border before we reach there. However, preparations were in progress. The army barbers came and cut our hair very short (they even enjoyed spoiling our looks). Wearing army uniforms, (pants, shirts, and huge black laced shoes) we looked like boys!
Finally the day of the departure came. We all held our breath while we packed and were taken by trucks to the train station. The multitude of people (soldiers, civilians and us) were crowded in the small area. The line-ups to the toilets were very long and we had to suffer some agonies because of that. There were no washing facilities.
One of my friends, Irena was left behind. She became ill with a sleeping sickness and was not allowed to travel. Being delirious, she did not know of her fate and died a few days later. Her mother and sister came to say good-bye only a few days before and left her in good health, making plans to meet in Persia. The sickness came very quickly and the death put a stop to all the wonderful plans for the future. At that time the members of Irena’s family were not aware of the tragedy.
Finally the train came and we were packed into it like sardines. No one worried about the lack of comfort. It was important to take everyone with us and to get away form this hell on earth.
The evacuation took two phases. In April of 1942, 31,189 army and 12,408 civilians and in August to September, 43,746 army and 26,094 civilians left from Krasnowoolzk to Persia via Caspian Sea. Land transport from Aszchabad to Meszhedu included 116,131 with 20,000 children. Only 1/10 of arrested and deported people from Poland left Soviet Union. God placed us among those fortunate ones.
The train seemed to crawl as it was going through the mountainous part of Uzbekistan on its way to Krasnowodzk a seaport on the Caspian Sea. As our anxious minds were busily working, we imagined that the pace was slower than it should have been. Were the Russians doing that on purpose? Would they still change their mind and prevent us from going to Persia?
After a few days of difficult journey, the train finally arrived at its destination. Under the heat of a desert sun, the girls were deposited on the sand about a 1/2-mile from the Caspian Sea. Whenever the wind blew, our eyes and mouth were filled with sand. There was no water and the thirst was unbearable. The barter for water with the local people was forbidden because it was contaminated and caused dysentery. Unfortunately some of the girls disobeyed the rules and became very ill. At night the temperatures dropped slightly. Unclean and too tired to care, we spread our blankets and went to sleep. During the night, the strong wind covered us deeply with sand. Early in the morning, one could hear coughing, sneezing, and gasping for breath as the girls tried to dig themselves out from under the blankets of sand. How much longer would we have to stay here? No one had an answer to this question.
The need for a bath was evident. The Caspian Sea looked so inviting. Why not take a swim? It was only a short walk and the desired cleanliness was within our reach. But the result was a shock. What a disaster! Out of the seemingly clean water, girls emerged covered with oil with their hair standing up like wire. Combing it out proved to be impossible. For the first time (since Molotov where it was cut soldier’s style), we were pleased that our hair was so short. Caspian sea “shared” with us its treasures of oil and salt, but its surface gave our images very unflattering appearance of the young girls who tried to suppress their humiliation expressing their despair by the way of a hysterical laughter. Still, being young, one could always hope for a brighter future. It could hold for us a time when we would become sophisticated young ladies capable of turning young men’s heads, at least deserving a second look. But at the moment, we felt very unattractive!
Finally around the noon hour, we were told to begin our march to the seaport Krasnowodzk. The heat at the time was intense and a lack of drinking water made that trip of five kilometers very exhausting. Heavy soldiers’ uniform and equipment weakened bodies, hunger, and thirst added to the aggravation. Uncomfortable heavy boots soon caused blisters on our feet. Many girls fainted, some hallucinated. Even now I still seem to remember going through the villages under the green trees which of course were only creations of exhausted mind and body. However, with the help of Guardian Angels, after hours, we arrived at our destination. Thousands of people were going aboard. Waiting in line, I felt my heart either stood still or raced violently. Being so close and yet so far was frightening. What if there was not enough room for all? It was the last ship before the Russians would close its borders. Praying constantly brought some relief.
Finally my feet were on the first plank of the platform. Trudging slowly along with my friends, we were shown a small area where we fell down. Feeling of paralysis caused by strong emotions and physical exhaustion was felt in every part of my body. The small ship was packed so tight that there was no room to sit down. Anyone could see that it was overloaded. What if it sank? The Russians would not come to the rescue. Such humane gesture was foreign to them. What news would await me in Persia even if I would be lucky to get there? Did my mother and Janek make this journey? What if they were left behind? All these doubts and questions were more of a torture than immediate surroundings. To get to the washroom was another battle. After reaching them, one could not use them because they were so dirty. In 26 hours, I used the washroom only once suffering a lot of discomfort for most of the time. Due to malaria attack, my temperature rose to 41C and still there was no water to drink. Only tightly packed bodies of other girls kept me in the upright position when I was sliding down from weakness. There was no help or medication. If there were doctors or nurses on board, we did not know how to reach them. Communication was impossible and everyone tried to take care of themselves the best they could. The journey lasted 26 hours.
Suddenly someone cried out, “Pahlevi, Pahlevi!” Thank God, we made it! We were in Persia! The nightmare of the Soviet Russia and perilous journey was over! It was difficult to understand where the energy came from, but I managed to place my belongings and myself on a truck, which took us to the camp on the sandy beach by the Caspian Sea. The question, “Are mother and Janek there?” tortured my mind again, but the answer to it came very quickly and unexpectedly. The truck stopped. “Is Alina Lukaszewicz here?” asked one of the soldiers. “Yes, she is”, someone answered for me. It was Antek, a friend from Russia. He helped me step down and said, “Your mother and Janek are here”. The strong feeling of relief was overpowering and it took all my strength to keep from crying.
Soon my mother and I were reunited and spent many hours walking on the beach and sharing the news of the past few months since our parting in Kermine in April. Janek, however, left for Iraq. It made me sad. I was looking forward to seeing him. But he was out of Russia and that was most important.
Next day the malaria attack intensified and there was still no medication. Mother stayed by my side but it was difficult to have a conversation with a half conscious victim of that terrible disease. The fever lasted for a few days while mother was in Pahlevi. Soon she left for Teheran. We had so little time together. Little did we know that we would not see each other again. Mother left for Africa before I came to Teheran. Not knowing what future held in store, we felt it would be better for me to remain in Junaczki where the education would be available. We were hoping for more time in Teheran where it was possible to get more information about the settlements in Africa. However, such was not the case, travel and communication was difficult and the information came slowly. Although we left the inhuman land, our family was still separated with its members scattered on various continents.
Pahlevi-A Gate to Freedom Sojourn in Persia
The Junaczki stayed in Pahlevi for six weeks. During the sunny, warm days, swimming and walks on the beach were wonderful ways to pass the time. But when the rain came, life was not as pleasant. Small tents often leaked and were not very safe. One night, inhabitants of our tent woke up feeling wet. Cold tent canvas was covering our faces. Crawling from under was quite an adventure. Becoming wet brought on more malaria attacks. There was no place to dry the clothes and cool, wetness intensified the illness. In spite of it all, these were happy times for those who were healthy. Malaria and dysentery kept me down. Afraid to see the doctor, who would send me to the hospital, I suffered often with excruciating pain biting my fingers to prevent from crying out. Hospitals were filled with people having typhoid fever, dysentery, and other communicable diseases. Thousands died there. Having dysentery and getting something else could be deadly and that is why I made up my mind not to go to the hospital. Burned toast was the only “medicine” I took for the dysentery with good results. There was a long break between the malaria attacks and the recovery although slow, came just in time. The camp in Pahlevi was only temporary. It was time to move on.
I felt strong nostalgia when the large trucks came to take us to Teheran – the capital of Persia (Iran). Pahlevi was the first haven filled with the atmosphere of freedom. This beautiful ancient place secured a special place in the hearts of the Russian slave laborers. Young voices of one thousand Junaczki and Junaki singing the religious hymns said goodbye and expressed their gratefulness.
Traveling on the open truck made it easy to see and admire the beauty of the mountains, also villages and towns spreading in the valleys. Enjoying the beauty of nature eased other discomforts. The weather was very hot, but there were oranges to quench the thirst. Unfortunately, my intestines ravaged by dysentery were very painful especially when I sat down. Traveling in the standing position was very tiring. However, there was no other choice. What a relief! Toward the evening, the truck stopped in front of the large building in Kazan. Half of the journey to Teheran was over. The rest was much needed and appreciated. After a long sight seeing walk and simple supper, the blankets, spread on the hard cement floor seemed to be inviting “beds”. After prayers the lights were out. In spite of tiredness, the sleep was kept away by the excitement of the day. Going farther into Persia meant putting some extra distance from the inhumane land of Soviet Union. The Caspian Sea in Pahlevi created a welcome barrier, but was it safe enough? Often the frightening feeling was overwhelming. What if the Russians cross over and made us their prisoners? It was so difficult to believe that freedom was really here to stay once the gulag became a part of a person’s life. So difficult to really feel safe! What about the other members of the family? Where were they now? Loneliness and sadness! However, soon sleep overpowered a tired body and the dreams were a happy relief.
Next morning, the wake up call was about six o’clock-much too early for “sleepy heads”. Soon the excitement of a new journey took over. Roll the “beds”, quick wash, a bite to eat and back on the road which again led through the mountains and assumed the shape of a serpentine. The Persian driver used to the terrain was very daring as he took quick turns around the rocks almost touching them. Evidence of broken vehicles down on the lower levels of the road and a fast speed made me quite nervous. A prayer for the safe arrival was, as always, comforting. The driver seemed to be drunk, but the bus was much more comfortable than the truck. Seats were soft. My stomach was less painful so that I could travel sitting down and dozed off when fatigue overtook me.
Reaching the Teheran at the end of the day, we were again unloaded in front of the two storey building and made our “beds” again on the hard cement floor which was a normal routine by now. The girls slept side by side. My best friends Olenka and Zosia were here too as they were through the whole journey from Russia. Whenever there were decisions to be made, we made them together and comforted each other when there was a need for that.
Soon, another important decision had to be made. Our school (Junaczki) had been divided into, School A and School B. Girls joining the first one were going to Palestine and be under the protection of the Polish army while school B students were destined for Africa or India to live in the civilian settlements. The information given us was not consistent or clear. Our greatest concern was a continuation of education.
Some teachers felt that going to Palestine may mean that older girls (born in 1925 and up) would have to join the army. Since I was born in 1925, that would include me. Others felt that the schools in Africa may not be yet organized and we would be again wasting our time. No one really knew what would the future hold and it was difficult to believe strangers after being hurt by them during the past two years. Finally, Olenka, Zosia and I decided to join school B, hoping that in Africa, we may be reunited with our mothers even if we did not know what part of this country they went to. The news of their departure was given to us on our arrival in Teheran and it saddened us a great deal. Will we ever become a family again?
Wanting to remember the important events of my life, I began to write my diary. Often, through the window, watching the mountains, Elbrus (the ones we traveled through) I found myself being lost in admiration and awe. Here too, as in Karkin Batash and other camps, some of my ill friends needed help and I did what I could. Sadly I realized that soon it will be necessary to say goodbye to many of them. When will my life achieve some stability? Being only seventeen, sometimes I felt very old and tired.
But life in a free society held many promises and brooding for long was foreign to youth. How wonderful it was not to have to worry about the food! No more hunger! God was good! I had my life and a hope for a future, which I was ready to face. Hoping to be able to get an education was my most important goal.
The days were filled with many activities. Getting up at six was not very exciting, but after the vigorous exercise and normal breakfast, it was easier to face the other duties of the day. We still were treated as soldiers and everyday practiced marching. Beds had to be made, the shoes had to be shined without real polish. With so many girls in one building, the noise was quite large. Arguments, laughter, chasing each other contributed to it a great deal. Even at night when the lights went out, the uncontrollable giggling and whispers kept the whole dormitory awake. Receiving regular meals improved the health of the young girls.
Teheran was only a temporary stop. From here, people were sent to the settlement camps in Africa and India. Since I chose the “School B”, our destination would eventually be one of these countries. Since my father, my brothers and Olek were in Palestine, where the Polish Army was at present, I would not see them for a long time.
After a few weeks, the leader of our group announced that shortly we would be going to Isphahan where we would be able to continue our studies. Buses were quite comfortable and the highway was in good condition, but the country seemed very dry. Only occasionally did we see an oasis with some trees and water. Buildings in villages were made of clay. The people were very poor. They were very simple and often hid when they heard an airplane or saw the train. They were afraid of these inventions and thought of them as the works of the devil. Often by the side of the road, Persians knelt down on their small carpets to pray to Allah bowing constantly in the direction of the sun. They did it several times a day. Since we stopped for the night in Kumta, our journey lasted two days. The rest was badly needed since we travelled in the hot country in the buses without air conditioning. Kumara was a typical middle-eastern city with beautiful greenery. The windows were open often and the air was fresh. By now we almost got used to sleeping on the hard concrete floor covered only by a blanket.
After two days journey buses rolled into Isphahan. The surroundings were beautiful. It was so beautiful. There was an abundance of green trees and flowers bursting with colors. Homes behind the walls were hidden in huge gardens, which gave it all a mysterious appearance. Was it possible that this place would accept us as its inhabitance for a long period of time? Did we finally come home for a while? Should we dare to hope for so much?
The long line of buses stopped before an open gate through which we saw a large courtyard in front of a large building, which looked like a palace. High walls for the protection of the inhabitants surrounded all these. The appearance of the fine ceramic floors was startling. Large army boots and ceramics! Poor floors did not last very long! Large dormitories contained real beds. Sleeping on the dirt floors or hard cement for such a long time and now there were beds! The tears of joy were many. Soon there were other wonderful surprises for the bell rang announcing suppertime. Under the huge trees, the tables and benches around them waited for our arrival. To eat at the table and not to have your knees and your stomach under your chin, during the meal! What a treat! What a life!
There were 460 junaczki living in this large building called “Goolfa” which actually was an Armenian Bishop’s palace. The Bishop had gone to India to organize more missions. The classes began almost immediately and were welcomed enthusiastically. Working for the better future was so important to us. Many illnesses and other hardships suffered during the past two years contributed to forgetfulness of much of the material learned at school. For some, it impaired the memory making studying more difficult than it would be in normal circumstances. Being separated from the family and not being able to be in touch with its members made matters worse. Loneliness grew strongest during the night.
Christmas was quickly approaching and the memories of this feast celebrated with family brought a new phase of sadness which often resulted in the flood of tears. Attending a midnight Mass in the beautiful Armenian chapel gave an opportunity to seek some consolation in sincere prayer. There was someone who listened and could help. Only God could do that in these circumstances. It was in prayer that we poured our hearts out joining them with the hearts of our loved ones. Hoping that it was indeed the last lonely Christmas and that the next year we would celebrate it in a free Poland at home with our families.
During the Christmas Eve supper called Wigilia (Vigilia) when the time came to share Oplatek, no one could hold back the tears any longer. The sobbing became uncontrolled. Loneliness, longing for the parents and families and not knowing whether they were dead or alive was more than we could take. The teachers hugged and tried to console us without much success. Only the exhaustion put a stop to tears. Only then we gradually began to enjoy the food, which for once was normal and plentiful, and we were thankful to have it.
Right after Christmas, the classes resumed. There was not time for holidays as it was necessary to get back to study. We had to make up for the time lost in the Russian Kulag. Doing something constructive helped to improve our spirits. We were even able to play some pranks on our friends living in other dormitories. Draping the sheets around and becoming howling ghosts was quite popular. The windows faced the graveyard enclosed in the courtyard below the balcony, which made it easy to believe that the ghosts were real! Our “classrooms” were small monk cells. They contained a table and simple benches. The teachers worked very hard giving all the help needed for a good progress in the studies. The time went by and we began looking forward to spring and hoping constantly for news from the loved ones. Finally in February, a friend wrote that he met my father and older brother Tonek in the Polish army in Palestine and that they both were quite well. Janek was there at school. There was also talk that we might be sent to Africa. Isphahan gave certain stability and a chance to become normal students. To be moved again frightened us. When the lists for the transports were posted, my name was on one of them. Once more, there was a lot of sadness when we said good bye to many close friends, caring teachers, and beautiful surroundings. Again the anxiety about the future set in. How long would the journey last? How dangerous was it going to be? What kind of life would be at the end of it? Will there be schools to go to? Polish children (thousands of them) were living in 20 different buildings called “zaklad”. The first transport was made up of 20 buses. In March of 1943, the transport travelled to Kuma. In a bus full of young people, in spite of the initial sadness, singing and joking was easy to come by. After traveling for a few hours, we noticed that the driver of our bus was having a race with another bus full of boys ages 8-14. Being afraid we asked the driver to stop but he did not listen. Suddenly the other bus swayed away and then it ran off the road where it started turning over and over. When it finally stopped rolling, we were afraid to approach it for fear that everyone there had been killed. But we had to go, the help was needed and there was no one else around. The bandages were collected and used to help the badly wounded boys. We were all very young and had very little knowledge of the first aid. Luckily other buses came by and took the most seriously wounded boys to the hospital in Kuma.
After our journey was resumed, we gave some of our food to the driver so that he would drive more slowly and carefully but he misunderstood our intentions and drove even faster. Praying hard for the safety helped to believe that we would arrive in Kuma in one piece.
The night was spent on the floor in a large office building. In the morning, the buses took us to the train for a 24-hour trip to Achwaz. The mountains were high and the tracks were so twisted that our train often made a figure 8 and looked likes a coiled snake. That too did not give a very secure feeling.
At Achwaz, huge trucks drove us to yet another camp. As our truck approached the barracks, a lady whom I knew from the camp in Russia shouted, “Your father is here!” My father? Was it possible? As far as I knew, he was in the army thousands of miles away. What would he be doing here? Maybe she was talking to someone else.
But it was true. My father was there. He was discharged from the army because of the health problems and was also going to Africa or India. Since mother was in Africa already, we were hoping to join her. However, it was not to be. After spending few weeks in Achwaz, father was sent to India while I remained in Ahwaz a week longer and then was sent to Africa.
Very early in the morning, the trucks brought us to a seaport located at the place were rivers of Tigris and Euphrates joined. The name of the seaport was Ahwaz. Here, with a few thousands other passengers I boarded the liner Dunera. Our orphanage included over 600 children aged 18 months to 17 years. There were also many mothers with children and young people.
Dunera began the slow journey through the incredibly beautiful country by Tygres and Euphrates. It was easy to believe the story that it was the place of the biblical paradise. Next came the Persian Gulf and then the Indian Ocean.
Dunera was once a passenger ship with the Cunard Line. Now it was transformed into an army carrier. The passengers slept in hammocks, which looked like spider webs suspended from the ceiling. Since we often had nightmares, falling out of the hammocks during the night happened often. During the day, everyone was required to be on the deck as the ship was in a constant danger of hitting one of the mines placed in the ocean by the Germans during the battles in Africa. Through most difficult areas, we travelled as a part of convoy of twenty ships, passenger, and battle ships. When we passed by Madagascar, two airplanes flew overhead to check our safety.
The little children needed some extra protection so that they would not fall over board while spending time on the deck. They had no mothers to take care of them, as most were orphans. The captain of the ship asked the 10 older girls to form “the Captain’s Guard”. The green ribbons around the sleeves indicated the authority of the members. As a leader of the group I saw that the duties were taken seriously. Our presence on the deck was necessary all day.
However, there was a great deal of trouble getting boys to come up on the deck. After all that they suffered in the Russian Gulag, loosing their loved ones, the boys became rebellious and did not think well of the human race. They were deeply wounded and often desperate. Sometimes they were ready to hurt innocent people in return for what was done to them. Among this group was a boy from our labor camp. Our families shared the same living quarters. His mother slowly faded away from illness and lack of food. Shura became the leader of the boys. He seemed to trust me and was helpful in dealing with other boys who listened to him. Often the boys became quite destructive. For example they tried to force windows to open planning to sink the ship, told the doctor that a passenger was attacked by rats, threw a knife at their teacher, etc. I was able to talk to Shura reminding him that we suffered together more than enough. Now we needed to help each other and other people to make a better life in a free world.
Our journey to Africa lasted 6 weeks. Many settlements, along the Indian Ocean shore, took grown up civilians even with children but they did not want or were not equipped to receive 600 children as young as 18 months to 17 years old. The officials claimed that the living quarters and furniture was not suitable especially for the very young.
Finally the Dunera arrived in Port Elizabeth a week before Easter. Since this city was located at the end of the African continent there was nowhere else to go without retracing the journey. This caused us to believe that now we would have to be accepted.
At first though the whole ship was quarantined for two weeks because one of the passengers had small pox, a very contagious and deadly disease.
In the meantime, the Polish Ambassador in Cape Town negotiated with authorities convincing them to accept us. Finally the orphanage found its home in Oudshoorn in the province of Cape Town, the Union of South Africa.
Olek Leads a Life of a Soldier
Olek and I continued to correspond for many years. He left Kolchoz Kujbyszew at the end of February 1942. It was very early in the morning. From my bed, I watched him say goodbye to his parents as they both blessed him. It was an emotional farewell and I was wondering if they felt in their hearts that it was really a goodbye. Olek asked my mother to say goodbye to me “because Alina was asleep”. But I was not asleep and was disappointed that he did not wake me up for at that time my feelings for him were more than just of a friend. I could not admit that to him, but there was certain new warmth around my heart when I looked at him. How could I confide in him when he tried to sell me to a, Uzbec (young man from Uzbekistan – a province of the Soviet Union).
From our kolchoz, Olek travelled to Kermine, where part of the Polish army was stationed. He joined the army and shortly left for Persia in very much the same way as I did many months later. He arrived in Pahlavi on Easter and was ecstatic that the Russian nightmare was over. Pleasant climate, sufficient food, and the murmur of the Caspian Sea created a New World filled with freedom and hope for the future. At that point, he was hopeful that his parents would join him soon in this place, which could be compared only to paradise. Good health was with him and he could freely thank God for his goodness. Unfortunately, an epidemic of typhoid and dysentery spread and many soldiers were not strong enough to fight off the diseases. After the period of half starvation, when at last they reached the “Promised Land”, many of the soldiers lost their lives. Olek remained in Pahlavi until the middle of April. Then with his company he was transported to Teheran – the capital of Persia (Iran). The city was very beautiful in an interesting middle Asian country. The women with veiled faces seemed especially mysterious to an inquisitive Olek.
Since Teheran was only a temporary base, Olek soon travelled to Palestine. The road led through a desert. Heat, dust, and lack of sanitary facilities made the journey very difficult. Everyone was quite happy to arrive in Qastina (Palestine).
Here, at the beginning of May, Olek was assigned to the third Carpatian Division of which one brigade was fighting the Germans in Libya arrived in Palestine. On May 13, 1942, the army began its preparation for the military action. It was necessary to educate the officers, communication teams, drivers, etc. Since Olek had his driver’s license from Poland, he became one of the instructors.
Although days were filled with many strenuous military activities, Olek constantly worried about his elderly parents in Russia. He could not be a provider for them now and it made him unhappy. He was worried about their health and was afraid that they might suffer from a lack of food. Sadly his worries proved to be right, for in the summer of 1942, Olek received information from the Red Cross that his parents had passed away due to illness and malnutrition. It was a difficult time emotionally. Olek was a caring son and felt responsible for the well being of his parents but he was away and helpless. He could not be with them. Families were separated and tragedies were numerous. I felt very sorry for Olek and hoped that he would share his feelings of sadness. He never did and I could not pry. He shouldered his sorrow alone.
Intensive military exercises kept Olek and the soldiers busy through the summer. The hot climate brought tropical diseases. However, Olek continued to be in good health. Whenever it was possible, he took some time off and went to the close by city where he could rest from the rigorous army life. He visited many interesting places of pilgrimage in the Holy Land.
At the same time, he went out with his friends to have fun and I am sure that he flirted outrageously.
The life in Qastina came to an end in September of 1942 (I at this time finally left Russia). Part of the Polish Army travelled by the Suez Canal, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf until it came to Basra. Then, the journey continued by train through Baghdad to Jaloula in Iraq. The other part of Olek’s division, travelled 7 days through the desert. At Jaloula, the army resumed its exercise continuing its preparation for action on the front. In December 1942, Olek was transferred to Mosulu where the army had to protect the oil fields from the enemy. During the summer months, now in Altun Koepru, on the River Lab the heat was so intense that the exercises could be done only very early in the morning and late in the evening. Since the location of the army had to be kept secret from the enemy the postal address was in code. Olek’s address was PAI Forces 109 (that is, Persian Egypt and Iraq Forces NV. 109).
In July of 1943, General Sikorski was killed in the plane crash over Gibraltar. He was visiting the Polish Forces and was returning to Great Britain. The armies as well as civilians were devastated. General Sikorski was the head of the Polish army’s and a great statesman. As a Prime Minister he negotiated the release of the Polish people from the Russian kulags. He made the organization of the army possible and convinced the western politicians to assure the freedom of Poland. Now this very freedom was in danger. Promises made to General Sikorski could and would be broken.
In the autumn of 1943, it was decided that the army was ready for combat. It was needed on the various battlefields. In November, parts of the division were transported by land to Quastyna 48km from Ismalia in Egypt. Soon they were moved to the seaports of Port Said and Alexandria. On December 12, 1943, the first transport from Port Said, using a Dutch ship began a journey to Italy. Olek’s group arrived there January 11th. The regiment was divided into groups, which were transported on different ships to avoid the complete loss of the unit in case of a ship’s destruction. Olek and his company travelled on an English ship, which also transported some cannons and vehicles. Their ship was a part of a convoy (many ships traveling together for a mutual protection). The ship arrived in the port of Taranto (Italy). From here the unit was transported to the camp at Masso Case Ile. It was winter; the nights in the tents were quite cold.
During January, Olek stayed at different army camps such as, Masa di Tesco, Canosa di Puglio, and Foggia. Olek spent time on preparing and waiting for the further orders. On February 2, 1944, the third Carpatian Regiment of the Light Artillery arrived at the battlefield near the River Sangro. The cold and mountainous region made action quite difficult. The narrow, slippery roads made traveling treacherous.
The objective of the 3D SK/3 Dywizja Strzelcow Karpackich was the protection of the Allied Forces fighting at Monte Cassino. The Monastery of Monte Cassino located on the high mountain became a fortress for German paratroopers. They could control the valley, which was very clearly visible to them. Because of this, they made it impossible for the allied troops to make progress to Rome. In the following months, many armies, American, French, British, New Zealand, and others, took turns storming the mountain without success. They could not dislodge the Germans and obtain their surrender. Polish troops in the meantime were engaged in the diverse action. In May, it was decided that the action would become offensive on the, (by now,) very bloody mountain.
On May 11th at 11:00 p.m., Olek took part in the artillery barrage on Monte Cassino. For two hours over one thousand cannons breathed fire until the earth shook. Then came the army. The desperate fight lasted until May 18 – the day, which was to be victorious for the brave Polish troops. In the morning hours of May 18th, Polish forces conquered the monastery and hoisted the Polish flag at the top of the Mountain of Monte Cassino. The troops of many countries tried but the Poles succeeded. The losses of life were heavy. Over a thousand soldiers and officers lost their lives. Olek once more had a reason to be thankful to God for sparing his life. He suffered a loss of hearing in the left ear, but it seemed very minor to him at that time.
After the battle of Monte Cassino, Olek took part in the action at Ortona, Fermo, Chienti, Loretto, Ozimo, Ancona Nusone, Monte Pelegrino, Polombino, Monte Marciano river, Elino, S. Silvestro, Misa, Senigalia, Seapezzano, St. Lucio, r. Cesano, r. Metaciro, Constanzo and Mondolfo, Civitanova, Devadola, Monte Fortino, Faenza, r. Senio, r. Santernao, Bagnara di Romagna canal di Lugo, r. Gaiana, and Bologna. For this participation, Olek was granted many awards.
Finally on April 29, 1945, the Germans signed the Act of Surrender. The war was almost over. There was a reason for joy for so many people, but the Polish soldiers had to ask, “What now?” Their country was put under Soviet domination. A communist puppet government was installed. For freedom loving people there was no return. To make a new life in a foreign country, without the knowledge of language, or a profession, was very difficult. Family, home and country were lost to Olek who at that time was only 24 years old.
In May of 1945, Olek decided to resume his education by entering School of Commerce. At first it was located in Santo Mero, Italy and later relocated to Bodnay and Fowlmer, England. The move in October 1946 from sunny Italy to cold England was truly shocking. Here the Polish Resettlement Corps was organized for the purpose of facilitating the transition from army to a civilian life. Strict food rationing made it impossible to buy food to supplement meager rations in the camp. Again, Olek experienced the pangs of hunger. The two-year contract with the Polish Resettlement Corps expired for Olek in April 1948. At that time, he received an honorable discharge from the army and began working at St. Catherine’s College in Cambridge where he stayed until April 1949. At that time, he moved to Braintree, Essex where he married Maria Alina Lukaszewicz on April 30, 1949.
In the chapter “Olek Leads the Life of a Soldier”, I gave the history of Olek’s involvement in the action of the World War II beginning with his joining the Polish Army in Kermine, Uzbekistan, and Soviet Russia, his journey through Persia, Iraq, Egypt to Italy and the battles in which he participated in the Italian Campaign from January 1944 to April 29, 1945.
Since I was not participating in this part of his life it was difficult to observe and describe Olek’s behavior and feelings. In the letters that he wrote to me, he could not make any reference to the locations or the action in which he was involved because all these were covered with a shroud of military secret. After we met I tried to probe but Olek avoided discussing the war events seriously or sadly. In the end, to realized that his way of survival was to accept the things as they came, dismiss them, and look to the future.
It was only when our friends read the chapter about Olek’s life as a soldier and decided that it didn’t give a complete picture of Olek’s involvement in the War effort that Olek agreed to write his own version of those eventful years. His memories are as follows:
“During the bombing of Baranowicze (Poland) in September 1939 when I saw people being killed and seriously injured I was affected emotionally by the suffering caused by the German pilots. As a young as I was (18) I wanted to join the Polish Army to avenge our losses. At first the obvious enemy targets were Germans. After the invasion of Eastern Poland by the Soviet Army, on September 17, 1939 – we faced two evil forces. Massive arrests and killings, were everyday occurrences. The hate of the enemy culminated when, on Febuary 10, 1940, my parents and I were arrested by Russian soldiers and were deported to Siberia. Our difficult struggles for survivor during the two years in the kulag was described in the chapters, “Deportation to Kulag Poldniewica” and “Life in Poldniewica” of this book by my wife, who as a young girl was a participant and a witness to the tragic event of our life in the Soviet Union. Our journey took different paths when in February of 1942 I was informed by N.K.V.D (secret Russian police} that I, along with Wladyslaw Lukaszewicz (my future father-in-law) and other Polish exiles, had to go to a closest town “Wabkient” to enlist in the Polish army. At that time we lived in the Kolchoz Kuybyszew. We worked in the cotton fields from dusk to dawn suffering from lack of food and general lack of energy. The typhoid epidemic, dysentery, and night blindness were rampart among our people. The whole situation was desperate. The possibility of joining Polish army brought hope for survival for the prospective soldiers and their families. In Wabkient a medical team examined us, mostly women, which (at that time) was quite a new and embarrassing experience. After that we were given a lunch of soup and two slices of bread. What a treat! We had not tasted or seen bread for months!
After a few days we were told that we would have to take a train to Kermine, where the Polish Army was stationed. Saying goodbye to my parents was very difficult. They were older, undernourished, and now they would be alone. I wanted to be optimistic that after I joined the army I would be in a better position to take them away from the misery of kolchoz and assure a better livelihood for them. Unfortunately this did not happen. Soon after I arrived in Kermine, the talk about our evacuation from Russia was becoming a reality. After I received my uniform, Mr. Krycki my father’s friend, took my clothes to my parents so that they could barter them for food. This was my last help and my communication with them. In a few months they became the victims of the epidemics- also in Kermine. But by that time I was far away and not able to help them. This was the most tragic and saddest event of my life. I had a chance to escape from the train when we were being deported on February, 10, 1940, but I decided to go to Siberia to protect my parents and when they needed my help the most I could not be there. We were the victims of tragic family separations inflicted on us by evil events and people. Such was our fate. The place of rest of my parents in Kermine is the largest cemetery of Polish exiles. My long lasting desire was to visit this place and to pay my respects. It was not possible during the Soviet regime. Later when Uzbekistan became independent our health stood in away of undertaking such a journey. Also, there was only a small chance of being able to locate the grave of my parents among the thousands.
However, when I left Kermine on my journey to Persia I was still very hopeful about the future of my parents. I was proud to be a soldier in the Polish Army being ready to fight for the freedom of my country and for the normal life for my loved ones, but we still did not feel safe as long as we were stationed on Russian soil. Even when the train left Kermine on the way to the port of Krasnowodsk (Caspian Sea) we felt that the Russians might change their mind and send us into another part of Soviet Union. The train stopped at many stations and whenever it did, our doubts grew stronger. Therefore, we were ecstatic when after four days we finally reached Krasnowodsk, where we boarded a ship, which took us to Pahlavi a port in Persia.
The journey across the Caspian Sea lasted twenty-four hours. Only the excitement and hope for freedom made this voyage bearable. Soldiers, women, and children were packed very close together. There was no water. A few dry food items had to satisfy hunger. Many people were ill. An area of a ship was curtained off and used as a latrine. People had to use it with very little privacy, which was especially difficult for the women. The waste went right into the sea. General Boruta-Spiechowicz spoke to us reminding that when this journey came to an end, we would be free people, away from slavery, prisons, epidemics, and starvation, which all passengers had suffered in Soviet Russia.
The rickety boat reached Persia very early in the morning. We saw the sunrise on Easter Sunday, 1942, and felt that along with Christ we also rose from the grave.
Soon the ship was unloaded and we were moved to the camps on the beaches of Pahlavi. The tents housed women and children. The army camped in an open space. The sunshine warmed up tired bodies and the waves of the sea bathed and refreshed them. Next day we were paraded to the bathhouses. Before we entered the inside, we had to take off our clothes and leave it at the entrance this was called a “delousing program”. All these clothes contained not only lice but also the germs of typhoid dysentery and other illnesses, which were so rampant in Russia. All these clothes were burnt. After a good shower (what a luxury) we received the new, clean British uniforms!
We were hungry. When we were told that we would receive 400g of bread a day we grumbled: “In Russia we had 800g of bread and we were hungry”. “Don’t worry”-said the General- “there is more”. We were happily surprised when we received our first meal on the beach, which included: corned beef, cheese, crackers, oranges, dates, and jam. What a feast! For supper we went to the field kitchen. The meal included soup, lamb, rice, and fruit.
What a wonderful feeling being assured that the starvation was a part of the past. The beach was a pleasant resting place. This is how my life in freedom began. It felt like a paradise. However, my elation was marred by the thought of my parents, who were still in danger.
Since I had my driver’s license from Poland, I was soon assigned to transportation of the Indian Platoon who was also serving under the British Command. They spoke Hindi and while I spoke only Polish and yet we communicated quite well using a sign language. However, I found their food very spicy. Having some pocket money helped because it gave me the chance to eat in the small Persian teahouse. Another wonderful sign of freedom.
The beaches of Pahlavi were not our permanent place. Everyday the trucks transported soldiers and civilians to Teheran-the capitol of Persia (Iran). Soon it was my turn. Luckily our truck had a make shift “roof” which shielded us from the sun. We were young, happy, and free. It was natural to express our feelings in a song. After stopping for a night at Karwin- we arrived in Teheran the very next day. Here, besides the military camps there were also civilian ones, which I visited in search of friends and acquaintances our reunion was not always happy for many were ill. Among them was Ela L., who suffered with gangrene and eventually lost both legs and her life. She was so young and wanted to live! It all left a lasting impression on me.
Soon we left Teheran for Iraq. After two days of a difficult journey in the scorching sun we arrived in Habania. Here we were ordered to wear our helmets all the time to protect ourselves from the sunstroke, which plagued many soldiers. The journey through the desert was monotonous and our weary eyes created their own images. We saw the palms and villages only to be disappointed, when we reached the place, found it empty and realized that it was only an illusion. We were happy to arrive at the British army posts scattered along the desert to receive a proper meal and a shower. We slept in tents and next morning again traveled all day to the next camp.
From Iraq we were moved, through Jordan to Palestine (Israel). When we reached the river Jordan our journey became much easier for we encounter very good roads and the landscape displayed lush greenery, towns, kibutzen and villages filled with beautiful gardens. In the distance we saw some clay huts, which were inhabited by poor Arabs. The difference was staggering. Rich Arabs lived in beautiful homes. Many of them included a harem.
We were glad to arrive at the Polish army training camp in Quastyna. Here the 3rd Carpation Division was being organized under the command of General Kopanski who as the commander of the Polish Brigade, fought in Tobruk, Libya, in 1941. I was assigned to a 3rd Carpatian Artillery Regiment. In Poland the artillery used horses. I was worried because horses needed a great deal of grooming and I knew that I would dislike doing it. When I found out that the British artillery was motorized I was delighted!
From then on we began very intensive military training in preparation for real military action in a war against a formidable enemy, the German army. The days were well structured and we still could not believe our luck of having good, nourishing meals, the freedom to travel, and making our personal decisions.
Here in Palestine, the land of Christ, I began my life of an artilleryman. After a few days I was assigned to drive a special truck to pull the cannon and ammunition wagon. The day began at six o’clock in the morning with vigorous exercises, breakfast and then the military training till ten in the morning. As it was very hot, the break lasted till three o’clock in the afternoon. The lectures and practical instructions in the servicing and using the artillery guns took the remainder of the day. After supper and prayer, at ten o’clock p.m. we were ready to take a well-earned rest and sleep. Such was the plan for five days of the week. On Saturday and Sunday we were allowed to explore the country and visit many of the places, which were of such important significance to every Christian. I felt very happy and privileged to visit the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.
In Jerusalem I followed the Via Dolorosa- the route which Jesus followed to His crucifixion on Golgotha. Nazareth was important because it was a place of the birth of the Holy Virgin Mary. As I thanked God for the opportunity of visiting the Holy Land, I prayed that one day I could come back with my wife and children. Unfortunately constant strife of the area made it impossible to return in safety.
Other sights, which captured my interest, were the Dead Sea, which was difficult to swim or even walk and the Mediterranean Sea, which gave, had a cool rest from the heat. Haifa and Telaviv were beautiful, modern cities where I visited during my holidays. There were many Jewish owners of the restaurants, who once lived in Poland. The Polish songs and music always welcomed us. Communication was easy since the inhabitants spoke very good Polish.
In September of 1942 Persia opened its borders to receive a second transport of the Polish Army and families from Russia. Since there was no hope for the future transports, General Anders also left the Soviet Union and took command of the Polish Forces in the Middle East which were formed mostly from the former inhabitants of the Russian kulags.
At first my hopes soared for I hoped my parents were among the new arrivals. It was with great sadness that I received the news of their untimely death in Kermine. The malnutrition and communicable diseases took my parents away. Since the time we were arrested and deported to Soviet Union, I felt that my parents were my responsibility. Now they were gone and I had not been able to help them in the most difficult time of their lives. I was alone, with no family. Little did I know that Maria Alina Lukaszewicz, who also escaped Russia at this time, would play an important role in helping me to build a new family. She became my wife in 1949 and together we raised a family of four sons and lived long enough to enjoy our grandchildren.
However at that time my future was unknown to me. The reality was another move of our division to Quizil Rabat in Iraq where the army of General W. Anders was stationed in October of 1942. Besides rigorous training we also encountered very strong sand storms, which added to our discomfort. After a while our regiment was sent to Musulu to protect the oil fields in Kurdystan and Iraq. We spent the winter months in a tent camp. Here we received very tragic news of the death of General Sikorski, our Commander in Chief and Prime Minister of the Polish Government in Exile. He just visited our army and was returning to London, England when his plane crashed over Gibraltar. He was a prominent politician who strove to achieve the assurance, of England, U.S.A. and Russia, that Poland would regain her full independence and democracy. Uncertainty set in especially when Russia severed the diplomatic relations after the Polish Government launched a protest upon receiving the information that thousands of Polish officers and other officials were brutally executed by the Soviets in Katyn Forest in April 1940. The Germans discovered the mass graves but Russia would not admit the international Red Cross to establish the truth. In spite of these events, our army was still determined to go on fighting for the independent Poland.
In the meantime the third Carpatain Division was moved to Kirkuk, Iraq, where temperature in the tents reached 50°C. Training took place only very early in the morning and evening. It was necessary to pour water over both tents and bodies. The drinking water kept in the bags was lukewarm. We dreamt of having a drink of cold water. We were encouraged to drink gallon of water a day.
There was also a change in our command. Our greatly respected and liked General Kapanski became the Chief of Staff in the Polish Government in London. General B. Duch was our new commander. We soon learned to respect and like him for his fairness, patriotism, and bravery.
In October, we went to Qassasin in Egypt where we had to wait for the transport to Italy. We used this time to see the pyramids, sphinx and other architectural marvels as well as Ismalia, Kairo. Alexandria and many other small towns and villages.
In December of 1943, it was decided that our training had prepared us well to take our place on the front. My unit left Alexandria (for now we were in Egypt) in January of 1944. Many found the sea voyage quite unpleasant. After four days journey, we arrived in Syracus and then to Taranto. Finally we were again in Europe where our enemy was responsible for spreading death and devastation. “Bella Italia” was not quite so beautiful. There were many poor people. Hungry children followed us asking for food. Our rations of chocolate helped to make friends among children and senoritas. ” The German took everything” everyone said. Very upsetting was a sight of a heavily bombed Fogia. We also stayed for a few days in Frasolone where snow and frost added extra duties. It was necessary to start the vehicles every few hours, day and night, to keep the motors running.
When we moved to Rionero by the River Sangro and Capracota, the heavy snowfall made the roads difficult. Our soldiers also had to build the new bridges to replace the ones that were destroyed.
At the end of April we arrived in the region of St. Michael mountain peak, 782, near Monte Casino. Our commitment to this region played an important role in the outcome of the World War II and history of Europe.
From then on we began our preparation for the fourth battle of Monte Casino. Since January 1944. The allied forces made three attempts to conquer this difficult strategic point. The Monastery of Monte Casino was founded by St. Benedict in 529 A.D. and became a first monastery for the Benedictine monks. The terrain was chosen for its serene beauty inspiring worship and its secure location. However, through the centuries it was subjected to numerous destruction caused sometimes by human hand and sometimes by nature. Now again it faced an evil force whose principles were in conflict with the Monastery’s ideals.
The Germans fortified themselves in the monastery and surrounding hills to block the passage of allied forces to Liri Valley leading to Rome. The battle of Monte Casino, therefore, became the battle for Rome.
Since January 1944, three attempts by allied forces to conquer Monte Casino were led first by the Americans, second the British, and finally the New Zealanders and Indians. The fourth one scheduled to begin at midnight on May 11th, ended in victory on May 18th due to gallantry of Poles who captured the high areas, which had not been taken by the previous fighters.
The preparations for the attack were done in total secrecy. Artillery guns and ammunition were moved to their proper positions on the mountains and in the valleys, during the darkness of night. Our trucks were covered with brushwood and other materials. Our regiment had 24 artillery cannons; each one requiring 800 pieces of ammunition, which we had to pull up with ropes from the place where the trucks had to stop. This required tremendous effort. As some infantrymen were passing us, I heard as one of them say: “God, I would not want to be an artillery man. They have to work so hard.” Little did he know what was ahead for him as a member of infantry, who actually won the battle. They earned the greatest respect of artillery and other forces and they suffered the greatest loses. Among their ranks was my future brother in law Antoni Lukaszewicz, who was lucky to survive this battle only to be very gravely wounded in the later action. The consequences of serious injury led him to an early death at 38 years old.
After we completed putting the canons in the proper positions I had to return the truck to Venafro located 8 km from our area. It was dark, the roads were terrible and there was constant danger of German fire.
At 11 o’clock, all hell broke loose! Over a thousand allied artillery guns fired on German positions for two hours causing great devastation. We saw flickering light and heard thunder that moved of the ground. All this stayed in my memory for many years and I experienced the same sensations every time I revisited the Polish cemetery at Monte Casino on special anniversaries of the battle.
On May 12th, we knew that we hadn’t reached our objectives and that the fight must go on. The casualties were very heavy. We had to exchange one of our guns. This was a dangerous operation, which we successfully completed during the next night. Fear or not, this dangerous manoeuvre had to be performed.
On May 13th, all drivers had to go in one place to be ready to move in case of an unexpected enemy attack. As I drove my vehicle I was surrounded by hundreds of jeeps and ambulances bringing wounded and killed soldiers. It was such sombre and tragic events of the war, which brought tears to my eyes and pain into my heart. Among the dead and wounded were some of my close friends. My feelings intensified when I came to a bend in the road and saw General Lees, Commander of eighth army, standing on the jeep saluting all those who were passing by. Through this gesture, he honored us because we were ready to sacrifice our lives for the freedom of Poland and the world. Our regiment fired 8305 shells from the 23:00 May 11th to 7:30, May 12th and by the end of this day we fired another 1700 shells. On May, 17 I replaced one of the artilleryman. After discharging 150 shells I could not hear the officer’s command and realized that my hearing was gone. Released from my post initially, I sat by the brook but could not hear anything for three hours. It was very frightening experience and I was very happy when some of my hearing slowly returned. That night we received news that our vice-commander, Major Stajewski, had been killed in action. He was a very understanding and caring officer. We felt as if we had lost a close member of our family.
On May 18th, our army captured the Monastery of Monte Casino and placed the Polish flag on its top. The feelings of pride and happiness were mixed with sadness. We opened the road to Rome for the allied forces but lost so many young people who in their short lives experienced much suffering in Russian slave labour camps and the campaign of 1939. Our Commander, General Wladyslaw Anders congratulated us and expressed sadness because so many lives were lost. There was also another reason for anxiety and sadness because he could not promise us free Poland. This super human effort of Polish soldiers and victory won with such sacrifice was for nothing? Not quite, because Polish soldiers were always faithful to the motto: “we fight for our and your freedom”. Did the world recognized this significance? This was not the end of the action.
We began bringing our guns down and worked hard on clearing out the area. At the end of May, we were given a short rest at the city of Moreona. On June 3rd, we were send to Ortona. Here we took part in a fierce battle along with the Canadian army. At the same time we were engaged in chasing the German army. It was a very difficult task for the Germans destroyed bridges and mined the area. However, we were happy now that we were chasing. Next we took Pescara., Fermo, and Loreto. The famous basilica in Loreto was quite badly damaged. The Polish sappers, members of the engineer unit, saved some of it. One chapel, with Polish paintings depicting many victorious battles in the Polish history, was of special interest and a place of prayer to us. Here we lost many soldiers who found their resting place in the Polish Military Cemetery located in a beautiful area close to the basilica. Among others, were graves of my friends with whom I shared the hardships of kulag Poldniewica. After the victory at Loreto, I was transferred to the recognizance unit. Now I travelled on a motorcycle and followed closely the positions of the infantry.
Polish lancers of Carpatian regiment were moving toward Ancona and our artillery supplied the shielding fire. After many fierce battles Ancona was occupied and it became a main base of supplies for the allied forces in Italy. Next came Senigalia. The German army fought hard to stop our advances by planting mines on roads and fields. When finally our troops, together with the Canadian division, occupied Metauro, the Gothic line was broken and the German Army was in the retreat. We then entered Pesaro, which we considered our final battle in the Adriatic campaign. We were proud and happy. The rest period was earned and welcomed.
We were allowed to take time to visit Rome, Vatican, and many other historical and religious sites. All of these made great impressions on me. After six weeks we resumed the battle in the Apennines in the Arezzo region. Extremely muddy roads and fields made our advances very difficult. My motorcycle was useless. Here the infantry, to my amazement, managed to advance and occupy Faenza.
In January of 1945, I was chosen to attend the non-commissioned Officers Artillery School in Marcerata-Saracena. Capt. Luczynski, who was my commandeer when I was assigned to the artillery in May of 1942 in Palestine, now became a director of the school in Marcerata. As a member of the group of reconnaissance I studied topography, map reading, terrain study and general artillery information. The program ended in April 1945. We received our diplomas in the presence of our Colonel Z. Lakinski, commander of Artillery of the 3rd Carpation Division who congratulated me, on achieving very good results and a promotion. That night the celebration included a banquet and dance to which the Italian girls were invited too. Very good orchestra kept us dancing and having a good time all through the night.
On April, 3 I returned to my artillery unit. Lieutenant Styczynski welcomed me and expressed his pleasure on having a knowledgeable artilleryman. However after a few days he informed me that, in spite of his petition, I was transferred to the regimental headquarters, where my expertise was put to a very good use.
Our regiment supported lancers & infantry in forceful attack at the River Senio and Santerno. In addition to the difficulties of the battle we suffered heavy losses from the allied air forces “friendly fire”. Our infantry with the help of the artillery and tanks broke the German lines of defence. General Rudnicki was in charge of this action.
Among the many casualties was Fr. Waculik, who was shot while ministering a badly wounded soldier. We were sorry to lose such a friend, who brought so much consolation. But the fighting struggle had to go on. General Rudnicki now concentrated on the advance on Bologna, which was liberated by the Polish army on April 21, 1945. We entered Bologna before the Americans.
This was a final action of the Polish army and mine too. On April 29, 1945 German any signed the papers of capitulation. Its army of a million soldiers, stationed in Italy and Austria, surrendered to the allied forces.
After a short break I decided to ask Col. Bilinski for permission to further my education by entering the School of Commerce. Giving his formal consent Col. Bilinski congratulated me on my dedication to the soldier’s duties and bestowed on me a Bronze Medal of Merit. In June of 1945, I began my studies while my regiment was moved to south Italy.
Soon, Winston Churchill declared that since the war was over we, the Polish soldiers, should return to Poland. He did not seem to care that we would be in danger from Soviet Union our second enemy into whose hands Churchill and Roosevelt placed our country through Yalta Agreement. Not many Polish people decided to return. Those that did were ones who had their families in Poland. After the strong intervention of the Democratic Polish Government in Exile, Churchill agreed to let the Polish army to be transferred to England for a temporary stay. A special Polish Resettlement Corps. was organized to prepare the transition of Polish soldiers to civilian life or emigration to other countries.
Our journey, by train, from Italy to England led us through Germany and France. In Germany we saw the devastation, brought by the war, which was started by Hitler. The German army believed that it would be the ruler of the world but now, what we saw, was a conquered nation. We were sorry to see the women and children begging for food but it was also a reminder that the Germans brought the same kind of devastation to Poland and many other countries and their peoples. We felt proud that through our sacrifices we were instrumental in ending this devastation caused by a terrible war. Continuing our journey though France we saw some more ruins and poverty. At Calais we boarded the ship and crossed the stormy English Channel.
I arrived in England in November 1946. Our school was located at Bodney, Norfolk. The winter was very cold; water pipes broke often and heat was difficult to maintain. The food was on ration and often we felt hunger pains. Our cafeteria could sell only a cup of tea and a small piece of pastry. In the spring of 1947, our school was moved to Fowlmere (near Cambridge). Here accommodation and food were much better. Slowly we were adjusting to our life in England. Our adjustment was almost a habit since we had made other adjustments to different conditions in many different countries.
On November 4, 1946 I signed a two-year contract with the Polish Resettlement Corps. I continued to receive a soldier’s pay and was allowed to continue my education as a part of preparation for civilian life. From time to time we were called to other duties. Such was an assignment to work at the post office warehouse in London to help with the Christmas mail. It was interesting to see so much mail at one building! We enjoyed staying in the hotel and having a chance to visit London. After we returned to school, the lessons began.
In August of 1947, the School of Commerce from Nazareth joined us. Janek Lukaszewicz was among the new arrivals. I knew him and his family quite well because, our both families shared the living quarters in Poldniewrca. I was constantly corresponding with his sister Alina since we parted in Kuybyszew in March 1942. Jokingly, I began calling Janek my brother-in-law so did six of my friends. At that time, I did not know that he would indeed become my true brother-in-law.
On the completion of the program at Commercial College I had to leave the Resettlement Corps, as there were no more classes to attend too. To obtain my discharge I had to go to Newmarket. Here I received a suit, shoes, raincoat and a hat. These were the only possessions with which I entered civilian life in a new country; no family, home, profession or knowledge of English. At the medical examination, I was told that the hearing in my left ear was badly impaired. I asked the doctor not to write it in my discharge papers because I was afraid that it would create some difficulties if I decided to emigrate. I never received a disability pension. In November 1948, I received my final discharge papers.
In recognition of my service I received the following awards: Bronze Cross of Merit, cross of Monte Casino and Army Medal from the army. Gold Cross-of Merit (1960) and Gold Medal (1990) from the Democratic Polish Government in Exile Star, (1939- 1945) Italy Star Defence Medal, War Medal (1939-1945) from the British Ministry of Defence. There were many other “Remembrance” awards. After the war, I received a promotion to sergeant.
As a soldier I swore my allegiance to the President of the Polish Democratic Government in Exile, London, England (since 1939). I decided to remain loyal to this Government even when the Yalta Agreement imposed the Communists on the Polish Nation and the Government in Exile lost its diplomatic recognition. I felt that it was my duty to continue the struggle for the independence of Poland.
In the meantime many Polish families living temporarily in India and Africa began joining their soldiers in England. In May of 1948 the Lukaszewicz family, including Alina arrived to Daglingworth, Gloustershire.
I met Alina in February of 1940 in kulag Poldniewica. She was only fourteen, quite childish some ways and very serious in others.
At first we met occasionally with our mutual friends. Sometimes we even played word games called “flirting”, which had some polite, complimentary sentences. Her choice of sentences was intriguing. After awhile, our two families were assigned to the same living quarters. Alina’s father made a screen out of blankets around her bed to give her some privacy. We had many discussions about politics, education and our life situation. We also argued a great deal. At 18, I was tempted to show her my other interest, but she would not tolerate it. She was simply not interested in boys and I was afraid to force the issue. However, she did show special interest in me when I was ill with typhus. She visited me in the hospital in spite of me having a communicable disease. She listened to me hallucinating about building a house by the river and having seven sons in the future. It was lucky that I did not name my future wife or Alina’s embarrassment would have been even greater. She did charitable work in many other ways.
Our lives at the time were difficult but our families became good friends. We shared the terrible fate of a slave labour camp and it brought us together in many ways. When we parted, in March 1942 in the Kuybyszew, Uzbekistan, I hoped that we would be able to meet again in better circumstances. Luckily my wish came true when Alina came to England, to join her brother Janek in May 1948.
I visited Alina’s family in June. At that time they were moving to Rivenhall in Essex. After asking me if this would not take me out of my way to Cambridge. Alina invited me to travel with them to the new location. Naturally I said “no” knowing full well that it would. But it was a good chance to spend more time together and an opportunity to find out about Alina’s outlook on life and what my chances were now that she was grown up. I remembered her, from Poldniewica, as a teenager having no interest in any kind of dating. I was afraid to show any romantic interest because it would have met with rejection. However, during the 7- year period of our separation, during which we correspondent regularly, I dared to hope that maybe in the future she would change her mind. Her letters were often serious, sometimes full of humour but always interesting. My friends thought so too. Once I even played a card game to find out the answer to the question, “Will she marry me or not?” Since the answer was “yes”, I did not play again being afraid to jinx it.
Uncertain as I was, I decided to examine the situation. After a few drinks I had enough “bravado” to ask her for a kiss and since she did not push me away I decided to visit Alina as often as I could. To my surprise I found out that the journey from Rivenhall to Cambrige was quite complicated. First a two-mile walk (back and forth) change of two busses, train, then another walk quite often in the rain. But who cared, it was worthwhile because things became more promising with each visit.
Alina’s health was poor, as the result of all the depravations and tropical diseases so she spent a lot of time in the hospital. She was, however, given a pass to attend dances. This we enjoyed very much because we both loved dancing together. In October, Alina and her friends visited me in Cambridge. It was quite a romantic interlude. We saw “Anna Karenina” and attended a dance at a very elegant ballroom. This date was very significant to both of us.
We wrote each other almost everyday becoming closer and closer. When I visited Alina on December 12 (for my name day) we began planning our future. We became engaged on New Year’s Eve setting the date for the wedding on April 30th. I had very little money and I could not afford an engagement ring, but it did not seem to matter to Alina. However, I put a down payment on a house and we were ecstatic to have our wedding reception in our new home. With the help of a friend, I built a few necessary furniture items and bought some too.
Our church wedding ceremony was very short and simple witnessed only by family and a few friends. Beginning our lives together filled us with so much happiness and strength that we were ready to face the future in good times and bad. We were a family now and our four sons have made our happiness complete.
In April 2003, we will be celebrating our 54th wedding anniversary. During our wonderful marriage, God has showered upon us an abundance of blessings.
There were many battles, feelings and thoughts that should have been described in this chapter but the memory of an 81-year-old man has its limitations. The incidents and dates are difficult to remember. Some memories however are clear and never will fade away. The faces of my friends who lost their lives in numerous battles, will be forever young and hopeful. Their sacrifice in bringing freedom to so many nations will never diminish. I also feel proud for being able to participate in this struggle and I feel grateful to God for keeping me safe.
Saga Oudshoorn was an army camp located in a barren desert. The simple barracks stood in rows. There wasn’t any grass or trees to reduce the heat. What happened to the beautiful greenery, that we saw from the train, which brought us from Port Elizabeth? Inside the barracks the furniture consisted of metal beds. There were no tables or dressers. Clothes were folded in an army backpack, which was given to me (in Russia), as a part of the uniform. The concrete floors had to be swept and washed everyday.
Upon arrival in the camp, quite early in the morning, breakfast was served in the huge hall like “dining room” located slightly below ground level. Often the wind blew sand through the open windows. How we longed for grass which would help to stop the dust. However, this first morning no one worried about this inconvenience. Food was plentiful. Fresh bread, butter, milk, and a variety of fruit tasted heavenly. As many as seven slices of bread were eaten by each person. My friend who came out of Russia looking like a skeleton, brought slices of bread into the barrack to be dried and eaten at night even if the crunchy (mouse like) sounds irritated other girls. There were twenty of us. Ten beds in a row on each side of the long hall. There was only a narrow passage in between. The showers were located in the large building with half-closed doors, which did not provide much privacy. Along the wall the long troughs were placed for washing. All around accommodations were very simple and rudimentary, but we felt that it was nice to be settling down, hoping for some normalcy, even for a short time. The dream of war ending soon and returning home and family was constantly on our minds and in our hearts. It shone like a beacon. In the meantime, we understood that time must be spent on preparation for the future by acquiring much needed education.
The first day of classes was welcomed with relief. The dedication and enthusiasm was quite evident, but malaria attacks and other illnesses demanding frequent trips to the camp hospital created unwelcome interruptions in much desired studies.
After two months of being in Oudshoorn, the mail began to arrive. It was so wonderful to receive letters from my mother, father, and brothers. I was overjoyed to know that they all were well and out of Russia. It was quite a surprise to receive a letter from Olek Romanko because we had argued a great deal when we were in Russia, but it was nice to know that he was well. He had lost his parents and had no family to that Olek write to and to share his feelings with. Although he never complained, it was obvious missed his family.
In Oudshoorn, I was getting used to a new group of teachers, new climate, and new surroundings. There were no textbooks. We listened to the lectures, made notes, and later studied them. We were given few scribblers and had to write very small to save paper. The bus, which was involved in the accident on the way to Kuma, carried the school supplies. The scribblers that we used were stained with blood. The white South Africans and Americans donated clothes to us. We had no money to buy things. When we wanted to write a letter, we had to ask our priest for the paper, envelopes, and stamps. There was no radio. We spent our time on studies and that gave us hope for a better future. We dreamed about returning to our home in Poland and using our hard-acquired knowledge for the good of our people. This was what our Polish soldiers fought for, a free Poland, and reunited families. Hope kept us going.
Sometimes the whole school attended a mission church in the town of Oudshoorn joining the congregation of black people to give an example to white South Africans, who would never attend the church where blacks went. There were also separate trains, washrooms, benches, buses, restaurants, etc. The two races lived in constant separation. The wages of white people were 20 times higher than those of the black people who were labourers and servants. We felt sorry for the blacks, but we could not do anything about it. White South Africans were very angry when we tried to mingle with black people.
The Bishop Koening of Oudshoorn was very kind to us. He donated many things to our camp, chapel, and our school.
Sometimes on the weekend, we went on field trips. The most interesting were to ostrich farms, falls, and the caves of stalagmite and stalactite. What beautiful sights! It was difficult to believe that water could carve such wondrous shapes out of rocks. Of course it took ages to accomplish. A most memorable visit was to the hall of Queen Victoria-throne and all.
After a while, it was decided to change the type of our high school. Instead of an academic program, a commercial one was introduced. Fourteen friends and I decided that we would like to continue the academic program, which would enable us to attend university. The closest Polish High School, (Gimnazjum and Liceum) which offered this kind of education, was Digglefold, Southern Rhodesia. To go there, we had to receive permission from the South African government, which was reluctant to let young, white girls out of the country.
While we were waiting for this permission, my friend and I were chosen by a doctor to spend two week vacations with an English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Swindle who lived in Georgetown. They had a beautiful home, gardens, forest, and a meadow. We could not speak English and that made communication very difficult. My friend refused to try to speak because she said she did not want to be embarrassed. I felt that it was wrong because our hosts were very nice, polite and patient. I felt we owed them some courtesy so I tried to speak for both of us. I knew some vocabulary, but had much difficulty in the sentence formation.
One day we were going for a walk in the forest. We had to cross the meadow where two cows were grazing. However, they did not like women and we had to wait for a servant to take the cows into the barn. Wanting to please our hosts, I wanted to say, “You have very nice cows”, instead I said, “You are very nice cows”. My friend understood that and began to laugh. She told me in Polish what mistake I had made. My face was red with embarrassment. Mr. and Mrs. Swindle did not laugh. They corrected me gently and praised me for trying to speak English. They were truly gentle people.
In addition to their lovely home, they also had a very nice cottage in the Wilderness by the Indian Ocean. We spent a week there and went home brown and much healthier. We corresponded with our hosts for many years and as we learned more English, we were able to thank them for their kindness.
Shortly after we came back to Oudshoorn, we were fitted for two dresses each. The government had given us permission to go to Rhodesia. The teachers felt that we should have new outfits to travel in because our other clothes were in such poor condition. We each had one gray, one blue dress, brown shoes, white socks, brown belts, and navy blue ties. Hats were made from the same fabric as the dresses. We looked very nice and were happy to have decent clothes. Many people on the train asked which private school we attended. We felt very proud.
Saying goodbye to our friend again was very difficult. We were tired of the constant changes and uncertainties. What was at the end of this journey?
We stopped in the cities of Mafeking (birth of Scouting), Kimberley (Diamond City), and Bullowayo. We saw many beautiful places and learned many new things. Usually we stopped at the Catholic Churches where the priests took good care of us. Often the parishioners took us around the cities and countryside in their cars. We visited many missions and listened to the beautiful native choirs. After a week of travel, arrived in Digglefold, Southern Rhodesia.
It was late afternoon when the train stopped in the country to let us off. We picked up our luggage and walked a short distance to a building hidden amongst the trees. Coming from Oudshoorn where there were no trees, we appreciated the beauty surrounding our new school. Soon we found out that a farming couple once owned Digglefold. Their little boy wandered into the bush during a storm became very ill and died. The parents left their farm to move away from the place of their tragedy. Later the Rhodesian government offered this place for a high school for Polish girls.
Our bedrooms were so small that we had to use the bunk beds. The classrooms were also small and so were the windows. Next morning, we were debriefed by the school’s headmaster. General Ferdynand Zarzycki and then instructed to attend classes. We met our teachers one by one and realized that General was a stern disciplinarian. We went around very quietly and were cautious not to annoy anyone. Soon we found out that our severe General was also a very caring person who had our best interest at heart. He wanted us to gain knowledge, develop our personalities, and be ready to face our future positively. He took upon himself the role of an educator, father, and mother. We appreciated and loved him dearly and did not dare to do anything to upset him. The rest of the staff accepted the general’s philosophy and performed their tasks well beyond the call of duty. They spent their time with us not only during the school hours, but came over during the evening to give us extra help, which was much needed. Under their guidance, we made great progress and soon became one big family.
My friends who went to Palestine (from Teheran) wrote to me about their school year being shortened to six months based on the assumption that by now they were older, more mature and were ready to concentrate on their studies excluding everything else. We knew that we also were responsible for our future and we needed education to assure a profession. My friends I had only one move from Teheran to Palestine and were ahead of me in their studies. My moves from Isphahan and Oudshoorn resulted in lost education time. In Isphahan, I did the third year of Gimmasium (Junior High) and in Digglefold, I did the second year because there was not a third-year program. We talked to our teachers about it, making it clear that we were unhappy. We still took ten months to complete second year, but in the third year, a decision was made to let us do the third and fourth year in ten months. It was made clear that we were not allowed to skip any material. Everything was to be covered and at the end we were to undergo some tough examinations. To qualify for this program, we had to have only good and very good marks. Luckily I had those, but my health was very poor. I lost a great deal of weight and was still losing it. Constantly I had a temperature of 99 degrees, which was slightly high. The doctor thought I had tuberculosis. There was no way of confirming this because there was not x-ray in our school infirmary. The General decided to write a letter to my parents asking for permission so that I could enter this special program because it demanded a great deal of hard work and was more stressful. My parents had to be responsible if my health became worse as a result of extra duties. It took two months for the letter to reach my parents and two months to get the answer. By the time it came, I had passed my exams and was ready to begin the first year of high school. It was an important accomplishment and it made me happy. However, my health was still poor. I attended school from the infirmary where I spent all my time in bed. During the day, my bed was placed outside under the evergreen trees. Fresh air was considered to be beneficial for the lung ailments. During the night, I slept inside. Studying in bed became a habit for the rest of my life.
Making good grades and progress was the only aim of our lives. There were no men around to associate with, only the girls. The sole entertainment was Sunday afternoon dances at which the girls danced with each other. Very well used records provided the music. The only contact was with male population was letters to soldiers. It was considered a patriotic duty to correspond with them. We read each other’s letters and often composed the reply together. Of course the recipients didn’t know about that. Some of my friends later married their pen pals making good marriages.
Among others, Olek wrote to me constantly but his letters were only friendly. He was not declaring his love or anything of this sort. In fact, he wrote a great deal about the Italian girls and I still thought he was an incorrigible flirt. I did not approve of it, but we knew each other well and I had other things to write about. Finally my father joined my mother and they both lived in Tengeru, Tanganyika. Olek wrote to my mother, who treated him as an adopted son and in that way Olek became my adopted brother. This gave me certain privileges and I could write to him more freely showing my disapproval if necessary.
Politically we were quite worried. President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill made some concessions to Stalin and the independence of Poland was in jeopardy in spite of the heroic deeds of our Polish army in Italy and on other battlefields. Despite my poor health, I did well in my studies and had reason to be happy, especially when I remembered that Russia was a sad part of my past. But February 26 of 1945 brought a new tragedy of which I was not aware until Easter of this year. I was invited to spend a holiday with the mother of my friends, Mrs. Haciska, whom my family knew well from Poland. We also were together in Russia. She was always very kind to me and treated me like a member of her family.
On Easter Saturday, we went for a walk in the country. The eucalyptus forest provided coolness, wild flowers and colorful birds completed the beauty of the African land. My heart was for once content. Having good friends with me decreased my loneliness. We were holding hands and were discussing our future hoping that in spite of war and political upheaval, the time would come when we would have our families together and return to our home in Poland. “When did you have the last letter from your parents?” asked Pani Ziuta (Haciska). I said that it was quite sometime ago, but it did not seem strange because the mail was very slow and irregular. It was common not to get news for months and then to receive several letters at the same time. “I had a letter from your father” she said. The thought shot through my mind. Why only from my father, why not both parents? “I am sorry, but your mother died on February 26, 1945”. I tried to pull away from them crying, “No, no, no.” They held me tight and tried to console me, assuring me that I would always be a member of their family. I knew that Pani Ziuta would continue to give me her love and I was grateful for that, but my sorrow was so great, I was not able to think of the future. I did not think I would ever be happy again. When friends came to give their condolences, I pretended to be asleep. I could not face them. During the Easter service and procession, I cried constantly. My heart was breaking and I thought I would never be able to enjoy Easter again.
Later I said that in a letter to Olek and he tried to console me too. I could talk to him about it since he had known my mother well and also because he lost his own parents. I felt he could understand my sorrow. Both of us had lost our chance to have our family back. I felt sorry that there would not be a chance to show my mother that I loved her and to compensate for all the loneliness and longing that she suffered by having her young children so far away.
This tragedy affected my health. Greater loss of weight caused a loss of energy. Concentration was very hard and this in turn affected my studies. However, I had to be well prepared for my lessons, especially in Latin, social studies, and philosophy. General Zarzycki constantly asked me questions in these subjects believing that work would stop me from dwelling on my sorrow. It did not seem to diminish, but time did not stand still. I was attending classes from the infirmary and managed to get good grades. The teachers were kind and the General demanding but caring. Often at night when we were studying, he would come and order me to turn my kerosene lantern off and go to sleep. “No late study nights for you”, he would say, having a scowling face and long brows drawn together. He really cared for us, but never wanted to show the softness of his heart.
Pani Ziuta taught in our school, coming from the nearby settlement of Marandellas. She always found the time to give special attention to my emotional and physical needs. She made sure that the doctors took good care of me and solicited the help of an outside doctor when necessary. Whenever we had free time, she insisted that I come to her home along with her daughters Olenka and Zosia. Her young son Wieslaw was like a brother to me. Walks in the country and food supplemented out of her teacher’s small salary, helped to improve my physical strength. At Digglefold, we read and discussed the best books in Polish and other countries’ literature. Our minds were well occupied. After supper, we could stay in the school’s dining room and listen to the news on the only radio at school. At first, the news was of the war. We rejoiced when in May of 1944, we heard of the victory at Monte Cassino in Italy. The Polish troops, after many attempts by other forces, were the ones who reached the monastery on the mountain and placed a Polish flag at the top. The monastery was a German strong hold, which controlled the whole valley and prevented the allied troops from advancing toward the city of Rome. Polish forces suffered great losses. The dead were buried on the mountain slightly below the monastery and the cemetery became a place of pilgrimage not only for Poles, but for people of many other nations.
In spite of this victory, the news for Poles was bad. At Yalta- Churchill and Roosevelt let Stalin take Poland into Russian influence and put in a communist puppet government. The eastern part of Poland, where Olek and I were born became part of Belorussia, one of the Soviet Union’s Republics. Having been imprisoned by Russians for two years, we knew very well what would await us if we returned home. The hopes of returning home and seeing the rest of the family became an unattainable dream. We were worried, but still hoping that the politicians would change their minds and not abandon Poland which fought along with allied forces from the first to the last day of the war.
The war ended in 1945 and we still were hoping for a better tomorrow. In the meantime, we continued our studies. The Christmas of 1945, I spent in the hospital in Salisbury. After lengthy tests and examinations, I was placed in isolation and was terribly upset. I could not speak English. The nurses did not tell me much. I was certain that my premonition of having TB had become a reality and my greatest concern was that I would not be able to go back to school and obtain my matriculation. At that time, TB was “cured” by patients staying in bed, breathing fresh air and becoming fat. There was no medication to help. Next day, I found out that I had typhoid fever. I was so happy not to have tuberculosis!! I even forgot how deadly typhoid fever could be. However, the hospital in Salisbury was much superior to the one in the Russian kulag and I was cured of that dreadful disease. Even though the nurses fed me double breakfasts and lunches, I still remained very thin, anemic, and looked like a young teenager although now I was going on twenty.
When I returned to Digglefold, the holiday was over and we resumed our classes. This was my final year at the high school and the matriculation exams were set for November 1946.
Unknown to me, the superintendent, an English lady, approached the authorities to bring my father from Tengeru to Digglefold hoping that this would improve my health. I was told about it only few days before my father’s arrival. We decided that he would make his home in Marandellas, a settlement 12 miles away from Digglefold. A few times a week, he traveled on a bicycle to visit me. During the holidays, I went to see him and had a place to stay. Soon he remarried. I felt quite unhappy. I felt it was much too soon after mother’s death. Also our future was very uncertain.
Within a short time, I received a letter from my older brother, Antoni, who also decided to marry an Italian girl claiming that he would like to make a home for me because I was not well, and needed looking after. Again, I was anxious, but this time for Antoni. He was having a hard time recovering from his many wounds. After many operations, he still had some shrapnel in his spine that could not be removed without risk of paralysis. He also had lost one kidney.
The time of my matriculation exams was approaching very fast. Hard work and constant pressure caused me to lose even more weight, which had plummeted to 103 pounds.
Our exams were made up of two parts, oral and written. My heart and my stomach were in knots. I was terrified and prayed constantly. The Holy Spirit was with me. I did quite well on the written exams and was exempted from the oral in Polish and history. I did not remember much about my oral exams, but some fragments would stay with me as a nightmare for the rest of my life.
In the end, my marks were very good. I made it! I was a “mature” person, but where was my future? For a week, we put all our problems aside and celebrated. The school, the teachers, and the kitchen staff gave us separate parties. We ate, sang, and danced. A group of 18 girls for there were still no boys. During the night, we wandered around playing pranks and making all kinds of noises. Everything was permissible to us! Our strict General Zarzycki pretended not to hear. Our English teacher locked himself in the room when someone informed him that we were going to carry him out of his room – bed and all.
Then the festivities were over. Reality set in. What would we do now? There was no money to continue our education and no jobs. Although living in Africa, we were educated in Polish and for Poland. Our English was poor. Most of us had to accept jobs looking after the children or running households of white Africans. The salaries were very low. We felt degraded and unhappy.
Since we did not dare to go back to Poland, political plans were made for the families of the Polish soldiers to go to England. No one could tell how long we would have to wait for the transport. Antoni with his wife immigrated to Argentina. Janek was at “Junaki” (school for boys run by the army) and no one knew if he would be eligible to bring his family to England. When I expressed my concerns in the letters to Olek, who by now was also in England, he surprised me by offering very generously to have me come to England as his fiancee. Since he never told me that he even liked me, how could I accept his offer? Naturally I thanked him and pointed out the danger he was putting himself into. What if I accepted? What would he do? As every young girl, I dreamt about marriage to someone whom I would love very much and who would love me too. I did not feel that I was at this stage with Olek. Often he confided in me (as a friend) about the conquests he made among the girls in Russia and in Italy. In my innocent heart, I considered him to be “too experienced”. There was a bond between us, but I could not define it. However, I felt secure enough to tell him what I thought and felt.
In 1947, we were moved to Gatooma, a camp previously occupied by Italian prisoners of war. The clay cabins were very small and hot. Termites ate out our window frames, which made it impossible to open the window. Luckily I was working most of the time, first in Que-Que and then in Gwelo (South Rhodesia). Having black servants to do the housework, I did not have to perform physical tasks. My role was to supervise. Loneliness from being among strangers exhausted me emotionally. I asked my father to send me a telegram informing me that our family would soon leave for England. This spared me from arguing with my employers about leaving my job. The truth was that our family had to wait for our turn.
During that time, I worked in the office of my previous high school for the headmaster, General Zarzycki, whom I always approached with awe. I saw p. Ziuta Haciska and her daughters, Olenka and Zosia. It eased my loneliness, but I had to make some hard decisions. The Haciski family (my surrogate family too) was leaving for Poland to join the husband and father, Pan Zdzislaw Haciski. We were all worried about their safety. They wanted me to come with them fearing that I would be even more unhappy when I lost their closeness and friendship. Our goodbyes were very tearful. My family’s prospects of leaving for England were better, therefore, I decided to stick with them. By now, my father and stepmother had a son Zbyszek
England-Beginning My Life With Olek
Finally in the middle of April 1948, the weeklong train journey from Bullowayo to Cape Town began our journey to England. The waiting was over. Once again I admired the beauty of the African landscape of Rhodesia and South Africa which sheltered me from the war during the five years. A feeling of gratefulness and nostalgia filled my heart. However, making a permanent home here would be difficult and unsafe.The inequality among the people would surely lead to trouble.
The ship which we boarded in Cape Town was very comfortable, much more so than Dunera (1942). Food was good and recreation exciting. Unfortunately, seasickness spoiled it all for me. However, it was interesting to admire the beauty of the ocean and the sky. Interesting stops in Casablanca, Canary Islands, and other ports provided a great deal of excitement.
At the end of a second week, the ship docked in the port of Southampton in England. The question of what awaited us stayed in my mind constantly. When would Janek and Olek visit us? After the warmth of Africa, England seemed damp, cold, and unfriendly. The uncertainty of our future weighed heavily.
Trucks provided transport to a temporary camp, Daglingworth; again, long barracks, strange people, rows of beds. Terrible headaches, dizziness, and constant shivers landed me in a hospital the very first day. There I spent three weeks. The doctors felt that it would take about two years to get over all the tropical diseases, which made me ill for such a long time.
There were no letters from Janek, my brother, or Olek and it was difficult to understand why. Olek promised a visit and our permanent location depended on Janek’s whereabouts. Finally, after a few weeks we heard from both. They both changed the address and did not receive our last letters from Africa. Our arrival in England surprised them.
Janek was not a very keen correspondent. His letters were infrequent and photographs even more so. In the last one, he looked thin and small. To see a “giant” arriving in the hospital for a visit was a real surprise. It was difficult to believe that it was my little brother whom I last saw seven years ago. Now he was significantly taller than I was. After all, Janek was now 18 years old. It was wonderful to see him again.
Soon after Janek’s short visit, Olek wrote that he was coming to London for a meeting and at the same time would visit our family. My feelings of expectations were very unclear. There was a certain friendly bond between Olek and me. After two years of living in the same quarters, I ended up having a crush on him. Olek did not even suspect it. How would he treat me now? I was a grown up person. Would he still try to embarrass and tease me as he did in Russia?
It was Sunday morning. My friend and I were walking in front of the barracks. Olek, carrying a small suitcase, approached us and asked if this was the barrack where a Lukaszewicz family lived. The friend gave the directions. Olek did not recognize me. After a while, I went in and when I greeted Olek, I noticed that he had lost some of his beautiful hair. Comparing to what he looked like when I saw him seven years ago, now he looked quite old. Looking old at 27?
The afternoon was spent listening to Olek’s chatter. It was also necessary to pack for the next morning. The family was being moved to Kelvedon in Essex. Thinking that it would be on the way to Cambridge where Olek lived now, I invited him to travel with us. Later he enjoyed teasing me that in this way I encouraged his interest in me. He was stretching it a little, but travel was spent in pleasant conversation.
The arrival in Riverhall took place in the late afternoon. Olek helped with the luggage. The shelter was provided by tin, half-barrel barracks which once housed US Air Force personnel. A small tin coal stove supplied some heat. The meals were cooked in the common kitchen for all the inhabitants of the camp.
There were seven sites of such “barrels of laughter” (as we called them), spread over a large area. People from all directions walked to the common kitchen for their meals. Some ate at the small dining hall. Others brought their meals home to share with the whole family in the privacy of their new home.
That night, Olek was invited to friends for supper. We both knew the man in Russia and Olek met him sometimes in Italy as they both joined the Polish army. My stepmother felt that Olek should have not accepted an invitation that did not include me. It was a bit strange. After all he was our guest.
Since we were tired after the journey and my year old half brother Zbyszek needed quiet, everyone went to bed. I was not very sure what my role as a hostess was, but I decided to stay up.
Olek came in quite late and being in a good mood decided to flirt and offered to kiss me. Since we were (so far) only friends, I felt that he expected a little too much. But, I thought, here I was 23 years old and until now I never let anyone kiss me. It would be interesting to find out what was it all about. What happens when the people kiss? After prolonged pressure, I decided to find out and was somewhat surprised that some of it was pleasant. However Olek’s good night hug and a kiss left me somewhat disturbed. But my resolve was still, that I could not marry him because he was a flirt and a womanizer. I felt like chuckling when Olek said, “You know that we cannot get married this year”, he added after a pause. What did he think? He did not even propose or ask me if I would even consider being his wife. He took me for granted and I was too shy to say anything about it.
Next morning Olek left very early waving goodbye from the distance. He promised to visit us sometimes. That was all. I expected only that much but why was I disturbed. In the late afternoon, a girlfriend whom I met on the ship came to visit. It was raining but it did not stop us from going for a walk. It was necessary to find out a little more about the camp, which was to be our new home for quite sometime.
First of all, we decided to look for a chapel. As we entered it and said a short prayer, a priest invited us into his head quarters. Since we had many questions about work possibilities and life in general the visit lasted quite a long time. When finally we decided to return home it was pitch dark outside. Only then I realized that I did not know the number of our family’s barrel (a barrack constructed from a metal). Peering in the windows, walking around and around somehow we managed to locate the right place.
Next day an official announced the place and the time for the job interviews. This was the reality of life. What would I have to do? My health was poor. I had no energy. Any physical work would be too much. Poor knowledge of English and lack of training made it almost impossible to acquire an office position.
Almost all of us were offered a job in a Courtould cotton factory in Braintree. There was no other choice. The meals prepared in the common kitchen had to be paid for. To get to the factory it was necessary to walk one miles to the bus. The bus trip lasted one hour. Since the route to the bus was all uphill, I was exhausted at the end of it. The work in the mill was demanding. Walk back home at the end of the day took the rest of my energy. I could not wait to collapse into bed. The next day was the same routine. No wonder that after two months, I ended up in the hospital suffering from ulcers and severe anemia. I was discouraged and depressed. My hopes for going to university had no possibility to materialize. A future without health and education seemed very bleak.
Olek came to see us in July and made it clear that he wanted us to have a future together or so he said. Since I considered him to be a bad boy, I was afraid that he would not be faithful and decided to end our relationship. I asked him not to visit us but later changed my mind and told him that I would enjoy seeing him since we had known each other for such a long time, and faced so many difficulties in the past. I was glad when he visited me in the hospital and could not ignore his attention. We became closer and closer as we saw more of each other. For months I had to take treatment and was not able to work which upset me a great deal. Olek’s visits were a welcomed diversion. Going to dances and the theater, although very seldom, visiting friends together lifted my spirits. I continued to ask Olek to behave like a grown up and be more serious but he told me, “It bothers me when I am serious” and went on joking and clowning around. He was working in Cambridge. His work was not very satisfying but again, without knowledge of English, it was impossible to get anything better.
In October, three of my friends and I were invited to visit Olek and his friends in Cambridge. It was a very happy event. At that time I realized that the future without Olek would be very unhappy. I was in love with him and fell in love with Cambridge. If only I could study there. But poor health and lack of funds still made it only a dream.
Since Olek could not get free time we had to wait till December 12th (Olek’s name day) for his next visit. His letters were very frequent and welcome. We made plans for Olek to spend Christmas with my family in Rivenhall and were very happy about the prospect of being together. Janek was coming home too. Mr. and Mrs. Chmara, the parents of our friend (Olek’s and mine), who died in the army, came from London. My father knew them from Poland. We enjoyed being together.
Christmas of 1948 was a very happy one for me. Finally it was a Christmas with a family. I missed my mother and my older brother (now in Argentina) and Olek missed his parents and brothers. However, we were now thinking of creating a new family and became engaged on the New Year’s Eve. I even forgave Olek when he volunteered to vote for my friend if she entered a beauty pageant when we attended our first New Year’s ball together. Taking me for granted, he forgot that maybe I would have some chance and needed his encouragement.
Everyone was concerned with the future. Poland was still overrun by the communists. That made it impossible to return there. It was time to make more permanent plans for a home in England. Mr. and Mrs. Chmara had no other family or friends and asked Olek to buy a house with them. They had chosen him to take place of the son that they had lost. It was decided that both Olek and Chmaras would come back in a few weeks to look for a small house in Braintree. After that was done, I was chosen to be an interpreter in the procedure of arranging the deal, price, contracts, rates, down payment, etc. Although Olek and I were engaged, no one thought of writing my name into the contract. Olek and Chmaras were full owners. However, when I asked for permission, Olek let me move into the house at the end of January 1949. Olek was still in Cambridge and I began working in a laundry since my health slightly improved and I even gained some weight. I was no longer a 103 pound skeleton but all of 112 pounds.
Staying in Braintree was beneficial in many ways. It took only 10 minutes bicycle ride to get to work. Not much effort so I had enough energy to carry on with my duties. After supper I went to bed early for much rest was needed. I wrote letters to Olek for I missed him very much. His letters were also frequent reassuring me of his love. This reassurance meant a great deal, because I was still unsure of my future. I was lonely, unhappy, unhealthy much too long, and had experienced so many tragic events that it was difficult to embrace better times very easily. Olek was a much easier going person due to his optimism, clowning around and a sense of humor. He came out of the war time nightmare a much stronger person and very generously shared all these traits with me. From then on, he became my source of strength in more difficult life experiences. Sometimes, even Olek became impatient when with me doubts crept into my letters whenever his were late as much as one day. I realize now that my emotional as well as physical strength was spider web thin. Was Olek a hero for having to put up with me? Even now I hesitate to be sure and to admit that Olek had strong love for me. Could anyone really love me like that?
Writing the above, I wanted you to know and to understand how complicated my emotional state was at the time. Some of it unfortunately remained with me for the rest of my life.
Letters from Olek was my only form of entertainment. There was no radio or television. Going to a movie by myself was not feasible. Luckily Olek’s visits were more frequent because the travel between Braintree and Cambridge was better and took less time than between Cambridge and Riverhall. In February, we set the day for our wedding. Our letters and visits were filled with plans for it.
Since Olek spent his savings on the down payment for the house I decided not to buy a wedding dress or a veil for these were very expensive and I had no money. It was too showy anyway for my taste. Luckily I brought a light colored linen material from Africa and had my friend make a two-piece suit. A lightly veiled white hat completed my attire. White shoes also bought in Africa (two years before) had to do. However, we borrowed money from a friend for a new suit for Olek. He felt he had to have it. Even now I tease him that instead of him buying a dress and veil for me, as European custom dictates, I bought him wedding clothes but we had to pay it off when we were married.
April 30th was approaching, not fast enough for me. Olek managed to buy a double bed, build a dresser and a bookcase, with the help of a friend, and shipped them from Cambridge. Now I had a place for my clothes, which until now was spread on boxes and such. We shared a dining room table with Chmara’s so we paid for half of the table. As a surprise for Olek, I bought two nice dining room chairs.
All this may indicate to the reader that we were very poor and yet, we felt truly rich. Most of the Polish people still lived in the camp barracks. We had a house, shared yes, but a house with a real fireplace. Sharing a small kitchen and a dining room, having two rooms to furnish as we wished was really wonderful. After all, we both remembered very well our room in Russia, which housed three families; Romankos (3), Lukaszewiczs (5), and Nowaks (6). Indeed we now felt very wealthy and secure. Looking forward to the day when we would be able to bring a child to our own home instead of rented quarters where the owners often accepted people with dogs rather than children. That was something that bothered Olek very much.
On our wedding day, we invited 25 people, my family, and our friends. Food was rationed very strictly. Arranging a small reception needed unusual ingenuity. A friend of my father bought a ham from a farmer, which was considered a criminal act punishable by prison. The friend was lucky and we had a “stolen” ham for our wedding reception.
Olek came from Cambridge two days before the wedding and was working very hard with my stepmother preparing bigos, galareta, sledzie and other dishes, which did not require much meat. Lard was not rationed, neither was fish. Olek had to look after borrowing extra furniture for the reception and had a great deal of trouble buying my wedding bouquet and keeping it fresh without a fridge for it was now quite warm. It was necessary for me to work until the last day because we could not lose my salary as Olek had left his job in Cambridge.
The 30th of April was a beautiful day. Olek remembers the morning as the time when Mrs. Chmara found it difficult to wake him up. Exhausted by all the preparations, he went to bed very late and when the milkman came at six o’clock, to be paid, Mrs. Chmara had to shake Olek to wake him up. I slept in another room and did not hear the commotion. Poor Olek was teased about it for a long time. Everyone reminded him that he did not want to wake up to get married.
Two Packard taxis, decorated with white ribbons and bows on the door arrived at 140 Coggleshall Road, Braintree, Essex, England at 1:30 p.m. to take us to the church.
The two best men, Olek’s friends, Tadek and Klaudek came with me in the first taxi while Olek and two bridesmaids (sisters Marysia and Gienia) followed in the second taxi. According to one of the customs in Poland, two best men accompany the bride and the groom came with the bridesmaids. In the taxi, very discretely, I was organizing my clothes to make sure that everything was in place because I had only 15 minutes to get ready. During this time, I also helped my bridesmaids. All morning was spent in the kitchen. Then according to Polish custom, we had to ask our parents for a special blessing. Kneeling down before my parents, who were holding a Bible, we heard them bless us in “the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. It was a significant moment in the life of newlyweds and in our case, it was also a very sad moment which brought tears even to Olek. His parents and my mother were not with us. Only my father and stepmother performed the ceremony.
The marriage service was very short and very simple. The guests made comments that I said my vows very loudly and clearly and that they could hear me better than Olek. Was he still hesitating? I remembered that in October 1948, during our walk in the Cambridge park, when I thought him committed to me, he told me that maybe we should not get married because I was a sickly person and we may not be happy. An hour before he gave every indication that he did want to marry me. Try and understand that! No wonder I had my doubts. But this conversation, I must have not taken seriously. The ceremony was over and Olek was not going away. We were both committed to spend the rest of our lives together helping each other. I knew I was very much in love and hoped that Olek was too. A five year old girl, Dzidzia, summarized our vows to her parents as follows, “Olek said to Alina, I am taking you to be with me because I can not live without you.”
During the reception in our home, I wanted Olek to stay very close to me and was very unhappy when he socialized with other girls, which made Olek very angry. He went into a bedroom, threw my bouquet at me, and pulled down the bed cover. At that moment, Olek’s friends looked in through the door wanting to say goodbye. When they saw Olek’s action, they came to a wrong conclusion. Thinking that Olek was impatient for the honeymoon, they quickly retreated and I followed them out leaving Olek to his tantrum. Mature behaviour?
But why was I clinging to Olek so much? Well, there was an old belief in my country that if the bridegroom wonders away from his bride during their wedding day, he would be unfaithful to her later. It was crucial for the bride to keep close. I was not going to take chances!
The guests and the members of my family departed the next day. The house had to be cleaned. Our floors were bare boards, as we did not yet have money to buy linoleum. On Monday, Olek went to London to a meeting, as he was quite involved in the politics of the Polish government in exile. Chmaras went to work. I took out a scrubbing brush and made all the floors shine. Some honeymoon, one might say. Doing chores in my own home and making it a pleasant place for my husband to come home to was true happiness. We were a family and we did not have to wander from place to place. We were truly home!
During May, the weather was beautiful. Every free moment we spent together; walking in the fields, going to movies, visiting friends. Happiness and new sense of security improved my health. Olek earned only four pounds and ten shillings a week and my wages amounted to two pounds and ten shillings. It was not much but we managed to pay our basic expenses and even began to safe a little.
When I gained weight, it made Olek and my doctor happy. Olek helped me to cook dishes with considerable amount of fat saying, “I will fatten you up”. Unfortunately, this process works too well now. The fattening, I mean. However, Olek stopped taking pride in it.
At the end of June, I fell off my bicycle and became quite ill. After examination, the doctor told me that I had a miscarriage. Although it was only a very early pregnancy, losing a baby caused much suffering. Would my luck and happiness be so short lived? Would I be able to have a healthy baby? The feeling of doom returned. For so long, only bad things happened to me, it was difficult to believe that lasting happiness could be a part of my life. Because I was still anemic, I had to be hospitalized. Olek was very loving and attentive. He thought of many little things to lift my spirits and I slowly recovered. Because my health was improving, I hoped to be much stronger before my next pregnancy.
Finding work in Braintree proved to be difficult. Not knowing English was a barrier. After a while, Olek began working as a driver for a coal business. The work was demanding and not very pleasant, but it did not dampen his spirits. He was always happy, planning the future with great expectations and optimism. Since I was working too, we had some money left (after paying the mortgage and utilities) to buy some pieces of furniture for our living room. Many of Olek’s friends, now also mine, visited us often and complimented us on our accomplishments.
Olek and his friend Bozek Domanski planned our trip to London as our delayed honeymoon. Visiting various museums, evening in a theater, tea at Savoy impressed me greatly. After the first visit, revisiting London became more frequent. The opera: Madame Butterfly, Ice Capades with Barbara Scott, an American variety show, sightseeing, and visiting friends enriched our life even more. However, my favourite event was a visit to Cambridge. Its beauty and educational environment was good for the body and soul. Olek’s friends, Tadzik, Franek, and others arranged many exciting activities. Visits to various colleges and rafting on the river were only some of them. Once we attended a political rally organized by the Polish Government in exile. Political action was necessary to remind the world that Poland that fought from the first to last day of World War II, was now a puppet of the Soviet Union. This was the only way to serve our beloved country Poland to which we longed to return.
Time seemed to go so fast as life was so good. My illness in the summer of 1950 was again an unwelcome event. The ulcers (acquired in Russia) opened up again. Dr. Wright and the surgeon planned to operate. However, the ulcer disappeared after a few months, but I felt even worse. Back to the doctor. Great news! I was expecting a baby. I was happy, strong, and optimistic in spite of awful morning sickness. I never stopped praying for a normal delivery and a healthy baby. At that time, everyone wished for the first born to be a male. Olek did not show his feelings as openly as I, but he did everything to keep me well and was busy constructing a little crib, shopping, admiring the embroidered articles which I was preparing for the birth of his son – the heir!
In spite of strict rationing of food in a post war England, expectant mothers experienced very good medical care. I was given a special orange powdered vitamin and nutrition supplement, was allowed to buy one banana a week and three more eggs than Olek. The grocer across the street who knew about our war experiences (or Russian experiences) sold us extra ration not used by some of his customers. But physical nourishment was not the only concern. I also read only very good classical books thinking of my baby’s intellectual development. The loneliness disappeared. When left alone, when Olek worked, I talked to my baby, who already was wonderful company and source of joy and great expectations. From time to time, I was concerned about the actual birth and prayed hard for it to be a happy event.
A seven and a half pound baby boy was born to us on April 24, 1951 about 12:30 p.m. The night before, we attended a name day celebration of a friend and returned home about 9:00 p.m. After scrubbing and preparing the white articles of clothing and leaving them to soak over night, I began to prepare myself for bed when suddenly, a sharp contraction took my breath away. The contraction came every five minutes and lasted 14 hours. The pain, exhaustion and everything else disappeared at the instant I heard the baby’s cry. The midwife was saying, “Take a look at his big hands and feet.” Why is he so blue? What did it mean? Is something wrong? But my heart told me that everything was very right. Untold happiness filled my heart and I was anxious to share it with Olek. Unfortunately, he would be allowed to see me after a few hours. “You don’t look tired”, he said. Too bad he didn’t see me when I was screaming my head off during the labour. When the nurse said to me: “There is a priest in the hallway”. I half screamed back: “I could not stop even if it was a Bishop”.
At that time, new mothers had to stay in the hospital for ten days. Seven days I had to sit in bed, very upright and suffer the pain caused by the stitches. The baby was brought to me only for nursing but I longed for him to be with me all the time. Discomfort or not, I was on cloud nine. Olek, after a visit in the hospital stopped at the bar to do some of his own celebration. His joy and pride was very apparent. On the seventh day, I was permitted to get out of bed and visit my baby in the nursery. The next few days were set aside for “training” a new mother. I was taught to bathe my baby and change his diapers.
The homecoming was a glorious event. Three of us were at home together as a family. Our wonderful baby boy erased all the past sufferings, made up for all losses and put our life together again. All we could do was to praise God for this wonderful blessing and enjoy each other to the fullest. We named our precious little boy, Bogumil (meaning loved by God) the name of our very good friend Domanski and Ferdynand for my headmaster general Zarzycki who was a caring force during the absence of my parents. Bogumil Domanski was a Vice Council of Poland (before 1939) in Latvia and France. Both men were respected, intelligent, knowledgeable and good models for our son. When we baptized our baby in June, my brother Janek and Bogumil Domanski were the godfathers.
Bozek was a very happy baby. He smiled all the time. When he began to walk at 10 months, I had to stop polishing the linoleum floor to prevent injury as Bozek quickly changed his walking steps into fast running. Even at that, the accidents did happen resulting in scraped knee, cut lip, etc. Did Bozek cry? Oh no! He picked himself up and was on the go again. He began talking early and by the time he was two years old, he knew many poems by heart and could recite a prayer “I believe in God” which in Polish contains many difficult words. On everyday shopping trips, left in the baby carriage (while I went into the store) Bozek spoke Polish to everyone who passed him. Often when I came out, I saw a group of people around Bozek talking to him and laughing happily although they could not understand what he was saying. This way, he made many friends. Many of them became family friends.
Anxious to raise our little son to be a gentleman, we decided to use reasonable discipline. Table manners were important and the child was to learn and practice them, probably slightly too early. Bozek displayed an exceptional sense of humor and used it even in the most difficult situation. Once when he broke some rules, Olek said, “I will take my belt off and spank you if you don’t stop”. “Yes” answered Bozek sadly”, but you will lose your pants”. And that was the end of the spanking.
A very small enclosed yard (they were all small in the over crowded England) was shared with Jamisons our next door neighbors. Luckily they had a little daughter Patricia, who was only ten months older than Bozek and was a wonderful playmate to him. Bozek’s vivid imagination and Patricia’s happy disposition made their play with toys a real adventure, watched with interest and amusement by their doting parents. I watched over our son with so much love and wonder never forgetting to thank God for this wonderful gift. Whenever I was unhappy (bad memories or argument with Olek), I would hug my little son and he would make everything seem better.
Seeing Bozek becoming moody sometimes while playing alone, we decided that he needed a little brother to grow up together to be his constant companion and friend close to his age. Our wish (Bozek’s too) came true on April 10, 1954 at 1 o’clock p.m. at the Julian Courtauld Hospital. Our second son was born. He was a healthy 8 lb., 10-oz. baby and we all loved him very much from the first time we looked at him. Lech Julian was always hungry and it was a real pleasure to nurse him. There were no stitches this time so that my stay in the hospital was quite pleasant. The only drawback was that I missed Bozek very much. He was attached to us and would not stay with anyone so Olek took him to work. Driving in the truck with his father was a real treat, but I did worry about both of them. Sometimes Mrs. Chmara looked after Bozek for he liked her very much. It was no wonder as she spoiled him outrageously!
At last, after ten days, we were ready to come home. Bozek and Daddy picked us up in a taxi and here the two brothers made their acquaintance. Leszek gave Bozek a beautiful Easter egg, which played various nursery rhymes. Bozek liked it, but he loved his little brother more and took keen interest admiring his little hands and feet, asking hundreds of questions about “his” baby. The first meeting went very well and there was no trace of jealousy. How can one be jealous of a little brother who comes bearing gifts? Since we came home on Easter Sunday, the whole family was there to see the new baby. Again, it was a wonderful homecoming. My father and his wife, Zbyszek, Janek and his wife Wanda were there to share in our happiness. Janek married Wanda Gawlak on December 26, 1952.
There was so much love among the four of us that it overshadowed the little and bigger worries and problems. Leszek was a hungry baby and had to be nursed every three hours day and night. As soon as I would fall asleep, Leszek would demand his meal. The lack of sleep left me very tired. Bozek lively as always would not have his afternoon nap, neither could I. After all, he was a “big boy” at three! No matter how tired, I was happy to nurse my baby and loved holding him in my arms.
Leszek rewarded me by many smiles. Leszek was also baptized in June at the same church as Bozek’s baptism in Braintree. His godparents were Ciocia Wanda and Wujek Jan Gudynowski, my cousin. The whole family enjoyed again getting together to celebrate this happy event. Mr. and Mrs. Chmara divided the boys for the purpose of their affection. Mrs. Chrmara chose Bozek but Mr. Chmara spent much time with Leszek. Both boys had surrogate grandparents to spoil them, which sometimes created some problems for their parents.
Unfortunately, we had some worries about Bozek who suffered with infected tonsils. The attacks were quite frequent and soon the doctor decided to operate. We took Bozek to the hospital in Chelmsford, about a half-hour bus drive from Braintree. During the weeks prior to the surgery, we tried to explain to our son what awaited him. Inquisitive always, he had to know why he had to have the operation and accepted easily the explanation that it would stop the pain in his throat. However, before the surgery, the infection had to be taken care of. As a result, there was no soreness in a little patient’s throat as he walked away chatting in Polish with a nurse who spoke only English. Parents were not allowed to stay in the hospital and it broke my heart to leave my precious son in the care of strangers. Next day, when we saw Bozek, his heels were bandaged because he injured himself kicking and protesting against the anesthetic mask. In a very small voice, my sad little boy whispered, “Mommy, you told me it would make my throat better. Why does it hurt even more?” Saying goodbye to him took all my strength to hold back my tears as Bozek was held back from running after us crying his heart out. These were very difficult times for parents with sick children because the hospitals did not allow them to stay together. We knew that it changed Bozek’s personality. He loved, never complained, or reproached us. It was difficult to know how much blame he attributed to us. He became serious, very grown up, smiled less and cried more often. But the tonsillitis was not bothering him, which improved Bozek’s appetite. He grew and developed better and gradually became the happy little boy again. Leszek loved to have Bozek play with him. When he was six months old, he took his drinks from the glass. When Bozek was close,
Leszek would drop a toy on the floor and when Bozek bent down to pick it up, he would drop his glass on his brother and laugh for a long time. Since Bozek went on serving his brother, I tried to stop this game, but Leszek already was a determined little man, so we taught Bozek how to duck. The children grew and filled our hearts with joy uniting us into a very happy family.
The horrors of war were difficult to forget and the existence of an atomic bomb which caused such devastation in Japan, made Europe very unsafe. England was very overcrowded. Our future in this foreign (to us) country was very uncertain. After the death of Stalin, no political changes for the better took place in Poland. It was now obvious that our return to our homeland was very unwise, as the evil force of communism was still dominant there. Many of our friends left England for America, Australia, and other countries far away from Europe. Olek and I began thinking of taking our little sons to some place where they would grow up in peace and freedom.
In the summer of 1954, the three of us went to the Australian Embassy in Colchester. We passed our medical and were accepted as immigrants. However, since Australia did not accept expecting mothers, we had to wait until Leszek was born. In the meantime, Olek and I went to London where we visited a Commonwealth Museum. The life size display of four seasons made me want to live in Canada. I was tired of constant heat in Africa and constant rain in England. I longed for four seasons like in Poland. After thinking and discussing matters for a few months, we decided to emmigrate to Canada instead of Australia. By the time Leszek was born, we had most of the formalities taken care of.
As we prepared for our journey, we experienced much anxiety. Our very own home, the first we made together was nicely furnished by now. It was warm, comfortable, and safe. Our family and many friends were here. What awaited us at the end of the long journey? Was it safe to undertake it with the two children, one almost four years and the other only 10 months old? But we were young and confident, although worried at times. It was difficult to part with our furniture, which we acquired with hard-earned money and much care.
On February 10, 1955, with fond farewells, we left our beloved home to stay with my parents in Rivenhall as all our furniture was gone. After a few days, we took the train to London. It was also very difficult to say goodbye to my father and Janek’s family. Since Wanda was still in the hospital where their little baby girl was born, we could not even see her before our departure. There simply was no time to take a detour to the hospital and make a train, which took us to Southampton. It was necessary to spend the night in London. Bozek Domanski (Bozek’s godfather) and J. Wnuk invited us to stay at their house. As most of the rooms in the large house were rented out, our family stayed in one room.
Early next morning, Bozek D. came with us to Victoria station and here we said our final goodbyes. Bozek was a good friend who enriched our lives with his cultural personality. There were many political discussion as well as historical and geographical information exchanges. Jozef Wnuk was also a wonderful friend and mentor. We knew we would miss their presence in our life and were reminded again that they did not approve of our journey into the unknown. Taking small children out of a safe home on the long journey in the middle of the cold winter was really asking for trouble! But we were on the way and there was no turning back now.
Somehow we managed to board the ship Samaria with our heavy luggage and extra clothes for the cold Canadian winter. Samaria left English shores a few hours after our arrival. We watched the land disappear with our hearts filled with strong feelings of nostalgia and hope but also some doubts and fear.
However, the children demanded our attention. Bozek took his Daddy all over the place exploring the ship. My task was to stay with Leszek who needed his food and diaper change regularly and on time. Unfortunately, seasickness made my journey very difficult. Very often, I could not go to the dining room for the meals and Olek had to take care of the children. Sometimes he did not do a very good job of looking after Leszek, who managed to slide out of the high chair and land on the floor. Bozek reported this incident to me. Olek did have a chance to socialize while I managed to find some strength only to wash the diapers and clothes. The formulas had to be made. Needless to say that I was drained physically and emotionally which brought some criticism from Olek. The end of the sea journey, which lasted a week, was very welcomed. As the time when Olek could travel free as an ex-serviceman expired we paid for his journey out of our savings. It would have been nice to have this money to start our new life in Canada. There were four of us our savings were small, we had no home or job to come to. However we were glad that we arrived safely on the shores of our chosen land.
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