Excerpts from his "Recollections" document about his family history.
The Syska family:
My Father, Czesław Tadeusz Syska born 30 March 1903
My Mother, Janina Barbara (nee Rola – Danielewicz) born 2 February 1906
My sister, Maria Wiesława Syska, born 2 February 1927
And I, Jędrzej (Andrew) Syska, born 26 March 1928
1939: October - November in Lwów
We leave Korzec with sigh of relief. After a short trip by cart and bus, we pick up a train from Równo, a larger town a few miles west from Korzec, to Lwów. At one point the train passes an overturned locomotive, obviously derailed by war action. The sight fascinates me. We arrive in Lwów.
Fr. Polak secures temporary quarters for us in the "Bishop's Palace" in Lwów. Nuns of the Boromeuszki Order run the "Palace". They are kind and very quiet, but make it clear we can only stay there a few days. We are given a dark bed-sitting room upstairs and eat our meals in the nuns' dining room. The nuns fear an inspection by the Russians, which may result in the expulsion of all. The Palace grounds are magnificent, and the location is close to the public school which we shall later attend.
This is a period of religious awakening for me. I go to mass every day, sometimes morning and afternoon. I learn the intonations that priests use during the mass, including the Latin phrases that go with the intonations. I begin to pray deeply and sincerely. I think I want to become a priest in the future.
At the school, we are busy preparing for festivities to celebrate some Russian occasion. We are given no choice but to participate. When my teacher learns that I have played piano, she assigns me to play two piano pieces during the celebration, from the auditorium stage. Both are Russian pieces. I refuse, and after some arguments we strike a compromise: I will play one of her pieces, but the other must be Ave Maria. Why? She is very angry, and finally relents. I end up playing Ave Maria followed by "Dietsky March" (Children's March).
A school bully, his last name is Bonie, forces me to lend him some money. Later he refuses to pay back the loan. I find his home, ring the bell, go up to the apartment door on the first floor and speak to his mother. The boy is there listening. She pays me the money he owes. Bonie does not bully me again.
1940: Spring, Lwów
Mama, Malina and I are walking in downtown Lwów. Streets are busy; there are many people around. We hear shouting, and see several people running. Someone says that the Russians are chasing a Polish officer. Shots are fired. They sound like firecrackers, so flat and insignificant. We see revolvers in the hands of the pursuers. A man falls. They are on top of him. Mama takes us away. We hurry "home". I do not know who was shot, nor why? But the fear stays.
Loudspeakers installed at each street crossing are blaring Russian music and broadcast announcements about curfews and the need to be home when air-raid alarms sound. It is during the air-raid curfew periods that the Russians invade homes and deport people to Siberia. Our school classroom is a barometer of deportations. Each day fewer pupils show up in the class. We whisper about the friends and families which have been deported. When will our turn come?
1940: June – Deportation from Lwów
Air raid alarms sound several times on 28th of June. Everyone is ordered to stay home. It is now late at night. We can hear footsteps of a troop detachment marching on the pavement below. Tata says the Russians are deporting again. We live on the third floor of a house at 41 Kurkowa Street in Lwów. The rooms are small, with sloping ceilings. The windows overlook a church, across a narrow driveway. We hear the footsteps again, and then the banging on the ground floor door of our house. A long pause follows, and then the sound of footsteps dissolves down the street. The same sequence repeats again, until finally, the footsteps stop at our third floor apartment door. The Russians bang on our door. Tata opens it. Two Russians in civilian clothing enter; the armed guards remain outside the door. We are given twenty minutes to pack. Can we bring a mattress? "Yes", he says. "It may be very useful to you". He talks to me. He laughs frequently. "You will be an engineer in the Soviet Union”! I am very excited. Mama and Malina are crying. Tata is very tense. I am looking forward to this adventure! We are marched down the street to the railroad station sidings. There we wait till the next day before we are loaded into guarded goods wagons.
The train moves out two days later. In the meanwhile scores of local people come to the rail siding fence. Despite intimidation from Russian guards posted around the train perimeter, they throw loaves of bread, clothing, shout words of encouragement, and pass family messages. Malina's shoes are at the cobbler. Someone offers to fetch them and they do bring them back. The initial depression is wearing off. Finally we board the goods wagons and the train leaves Lwów. It crosses the "Russian-Polish border" at Szepetówka during the night, and I am up late into the night to see the old border signs through a small port high up in the wagon side. It is disappointing that nothing momentous has happened during the border crossing. I expected something. We are just there, in Russia, and have left Poland behind.
We pass Kiev in the afternoon, but the train rushes by at full speed, and we barely catch sight of the town. We cross river Volga at Syzran, over the "longest bridge in the world". This is another big and exciting event for me. I stay out late, peering through the small port in the wagon. We cross the river at night. I see very little, other than the bridge trestles. We seem to take "forever" to cross it, so the bridge must be very long.
Our "toilet" procedures have taken time to work out.
Our goods wagon has some 100 people in it. There is one hole in the floor at each end of the wagon for our entire toilet needs. Tata assumes leadership and persuades our side of the wagon not to make use of the hole, unless in emergency, in order to avoid the smell, and to maintain hygiene. All agree, but emergencies arise: dysentery and stomach ailments are on the rise. The usual procedure is to wait for the train to stop at a station. When we are allowed to get out, under the watchful eyes of our armed guards, we cross the rails under the wagon, and proceed with the call of nature, one next to the other. After a while we do not see any problem with that. Other wagons are not as fortunate, and some travel with occupants quarreling among themselves, surrounded by stench and human waste. Getting boiled water for tea is another important necessity. Whenever the train stops at a station, Tata runs to the front of the train and bribes the engine driver to let him have some oil smelling boiling water from the steam engine, and this works sometimes. But mostly we must check out the station “restaurants” to buy boiled water (kipiatok), and be back on the train before it leaves. The train always leaves at unspecified times. Our Route: Voronezh, Saratov, Syzran, Kuybyshev, Ufa, Zlotousta, Chelyabinsk, Kopeysk.
1940: June (Kuybyshev)
As I wonder through the vast railroad-shunting yard in Kuybyshev, I come, between empty rail cars upon this family scene: a slim, small husband, wearing a mustache, a very large fat wife, and a small child. The husband is attempting to wash his wife at a solitary water spigot. She is naked under a loose covering of a colored shawl, there is no one around, and they don't even notice me. I am mesmerized. I have not seen a naked woman before, particularly one so large and fat. He is washing her legs, private parts… and then I hear this awful scream full of obscenities in Yiddish and Polish. It is time to make a fast getaway. I run back to our train wagon.
1940: July - Chelyabinsk
The train stops at a small station near a river. Zlotousta (Gold Mouth) is the name of the town, or perhaps the river? We are allowed to run on the pebbly shore and take a quick dip. But then, at the next station, before reaching Chelyabinsk, still in the Urals, the guards forbid us to come out of the wagons even to relieve ourselves. Everyone is stressed out. Tata tries to persuade them, but to no avail. The train moves. I am very pressed, too. We all have a form of dysentery. As we are about to pass the Chelyabinsk station, Tata lifts me to the wagon port, my observation window near the wagon roof, tells me to drop my pants, and I have to stick my bum through the port, and relieve myself, as we pass the station. This was his way to get back at the guards, and the system, but rather rough on me.
1940: July - Kopeysk (near Chelyabinsk, Asia)
We have been detached from the main train. Only two or three wagons comprise our train now. The rest of the wagons continue farther East. Our destination must be near. We arrive in Kopeysk, just east of the southern tip of the Ural Mountains. We are directed from the train to proceed to a large white building, which houses a trade school, "UczKombinat". The school is closed for the summer. The weather is beautiful, sunny and warm. We move to a large hall, probably a gym, or an auditorium, and find space on the floor for the family. There are probably two to three hundred people on the auditorium floor.
Within a day or two I become seriously ill. High temperature and I cannot walk. Mama is desperate. There is no doctor, and no medical supplies. People are beginning to gather and gawk at me, as I lie on the floor delirious. Mrs. Wang, a Jewish lady with two children, procures a chicken somewhere, probably in exchange for a gold bracelet, and cooks chicken broth with which she feeds me all night. Or is it two nights? I slowly recover, and gradually begin to move around. It is many days later, however, before I can walk properly; but even then, the slightest push topples me over, to the amusement of Russian boys. One boy, however, begins to protect me, fends off the other Russian kids, and helps me on my feet. His name is Raphail Taypov, or Rafał. We become friends, trade stamps, and then swap stamps for potatoes.
Rafał's parents are gone. He doesn't know much about them, except that he believes they may not have been part of the Bolshevik system. Rafał’s grandfather, a Tatar, has brought him up. His uncle is young and cruel. Rafał persuades the grandfather to allow him trade with me some of their potatoes for stamps. I meet the grandfather. He offers me a boiled potatoe with molten butter. I love it. The uncle gives Rafał a beating for trading potatoes. Rafał and I become inseparable. He lives about a mile or two away, past two huge coal slag mounds, where cable pulled wagons from the coal pit are discharging the slag. Sometimes we go there to look for good coal pieces that have been overlooked by the sorters. Occasionally we play war with matches at night. We flick match sticks at each other in wooden barracks under construction pretending we shoot rockets at each other. When flicked, matches light.
Just before Christmas, in 1940, Tata has been imprisoned for refusing to work down in a coal mine. He is concerned about his lungs that were badly damaged during his 1938 bout with pneumonia. He nearly died then. On Christmas Eve Malina and I are taking food to Tata, who is held in the Kopeysk prison some three miles away. There is plenty of snow on the ground, and it is very cold. We walk through open fields (steppes), the snow is hard, crispy. We don't say much to Tata, perhaps we are not permitted to, I am not sure. We are in a small dark room and barely can see him. We are afraid to be there, and want to get away as fast as possible. We leave the Christmas food with him and take quick leave. On the way "home", we are in awe of the night sky so full of stars and of the moon, which is so bright and yet so cold. We get back home long after the first Christmas Eve star has appeared. We find Mama crying. A letter has arrived from Zgierz. Both Babcia and Dziadziuś Syska, Tata's parents, are dead. It appears that Dziadziuś was either pushed by the Germans, or jumped himself from a moving train as he was being deported, and was lost. The letter implied his body was not found. Babcia died soon after that. Other news concerns uncle, wujo, Roman, Mama's youngest brother who was in the Polish Air Force. He too, appears to be dead, shot in a German prisoner of war camp in Austria. However, a parcel with food also arrived.
We live in a "forced resettlement" compound in Kopeysk, east from the southern end of the Urals Mountains. The compound was erected in the middle of grassy plains, called steppes, a mile or two from the nearest populated area, but close to a coal mine and a slag disposal heap. There are about 10 long wooden barracks in the compound, each containing 24 small rooms, twelve on each side of a central corridor. Our barrack number is 12, and room number 16. A secret police commandant rules over our lives. Passes are required to leave the compound for any reason. Mama, Tata, Malina and I live in one of those small rooms in the end barrack, and share a double bed made up of two twin beds pulled together. Our two mattress halves, brought with us from Lwów, cover only the upper part of the bed. Wooden slats support our feet. Another single man, pan Kazimierz Śrutka, older than Tata, is assigned to live with our family, and share our room. He sleeps on a cot, at the foot of our bed. Red bedbugs have infested the barracks in the millions. When the light is flicked on during the night, the walls appear alive with the red bedbugs. Everyone, except for me, is suffering from the bedbug bites, especially Malina and Tata. Mama never complains. We regularly have to singe the beds and the wooden slats in order to kill the bed bugs. We do this by pouring kerosene into the cracks of the wooden slats and bed frames and lighting fire to them.
The winter is hard and very cold. There is very little food. Malina and I dig in the frozen soil in the garden plots outside our window in search for leftover carrots and beets. We eat them raw.
Bread and food are rationed with allowance for working members of family. When Mama does not work we have to share Tata's one ration among us all. We have ration cards for bread and soup. I am the one who most often stands in bread lines to buy the bread. On the way back home, a good distance away, I usually "pinch" a few crumbs of bread that “accidentally” seem to break off. I know better, and yet Mama has never scolded me for it. Occasionally I erase very carefully the penciled “X” marks from the ration card that I had just used, and buy another ration of bread. I have not been caught. Soup is very difficult to buy in a canteen. Russian men line up for it and make it impossible for us kids to sneak in and stay in the line. The soup is normally the cabbage soup, zupa shchi. It is foul, and contains an occasional shred of meat. We rarely can get it. As I remember, it is us, the kids, who always stand in line up for bread, potatoes, and soup.
1941: Winter-Spring (Kopeysk)
We find out one day that a Co-op store a couple of miles away has potatoes to sell. Malina and I get dispatched to find out. We make our way across the snow-covered steppes to the store. There are no trees, bushes, or roads to guide us. Deep snow is covering the steppes. We find the store, line up for half a day and obtain a sack of potatoes, perhaps 20 pounds. We are exhilarated with our success. But then the reality sinks in: how do we get the potatoes back home? I drag the sack through snow, often sinking to my waist. We almost give up, and consider leaving the potatoes in the snow, hoping that perhaps we can get help, and go back to find the sack. However, we continue, but I no longer am sure whether Malina is still with me? We get back home by the late afternoon, totally exhausted.
Russian boys are out to get us again. They think everyone in the settlement is a Jew, and they badly want to bully the Jews. One winter day (January or March), with snow several feet high, a group of Russian boys, all in their teens, set out for our settlement on a bullying mission. I know about it, but refuse to take any notice. I go out to our settlement store in defiance. The store is some 100 feet from our own barrack. I see the Russian gang outside the store, but after doing the shopping, and despite warnings to wait them out, I come out regardless. I am not going to be scared by these Russians. They confront me, and surround me. The snow is deep, and there is only one narrow path with high snow banks on each side for me to run for safety of my barrack. I punch the nearest guy in the face, break through, and run. Then, almost on the steps of our barrack I slip, or get tripped, and fall. They are all over me, kicking and punching. I put both arms over my head to protect myself. Someone comes out from our barrack, and screams. The boys run. I am not hurt.
One day a pretty blond Russian girl shows up near our barrack and we talk. She teaches us Russian songs and one jingle, which I still remember: “samoliot letit z vierzhu kolami, etot nash letit z konsomolcami…”. She stays with us for several hours. She is just a little older than my friend and I, and very attractive in many ways. We quickly become very friendly. However, I never see her again.
1941: Summer (near Kopeysk)
We are bathing and swimming in a river near Kopeysk. The water is cold. The beach is wide, flat and pebbly; no sand. I use my underwear as my swimming shorts. When out of the water, unbeknown to me, my wet underwear has become nearly transparent. Two sisters, twins from our barracks in Kopeysk, Micia and Ola Dąbrowska, look at me and giggle. They are a few years older. I am mortified! Mama just looks and smiles. Word has just come that Germans invaded Russia. We are excited, believing that perhaps we will be released from Siberia.
Malina and I sign up to work on a kolkhoz (a collective farm) to earn some food. We must walk there for some three hours each way, work in the fields, and then we get a meal! Occasionally we stay there a few days at a time, and sleep in barns. The mosquitoes are dreadful. We smoke cigarettes to keep them away. I wear a modified pajama outfit at work, with long striped pants, that someone sent us from Poland. Mama sewed buttons in the front. After several days of working at the farm, when the pay shares in the farm produce have been determined, we find we have not worked enough to receive any farm produce. Still, we did get the food, and we are satisfied. One day we are given a small bottle of sunflower oil, and gorge ourselves dipping bread in the oil.
Although we hear very little about it, Germany appears very successful in its war against USSR in 1941. In October of that year, rumors reach us in Kopeysk that Polish Army is being formed somewhere in Russia, and that Russia has now become our ally. Tata is convinced that we can get out from Kopeysk and Siberia when he joins the Polish Army, but first he must get more information. He manages to get the necessary permissions from our NKVD overlords, and travels to Buzuluk (Kuibyshev) where he believes the Army headquarters is located. His vision of getting us out of Siberia drives him to heroic acts.