Flashbacks on My Life between the Years 1939 - 1955
by Andrzej Wieslaw Debicki
At the age of ten, I passed the required State Entry Examination to a secondary school. Happy years they truly were. I graduated from Stefan Zieromski High in 1938. Shortly after, I exercised my option to do my obligatory military service of about one year's duration. I could have taken the other option, i.e. get a deferment and go to a university of my choice.
In September 1938, I joined some 800 other fellows at the Military Academy for Artillery Officers (Reserve) in the town of Wlodzimierz Wolynski. On completion of the prescribed ten months training, I joined the prestigious artillery unit, the 5th D.A.K. (Dywizjon Artylerii Konnej - Horse Artillery Battery) at Oswiecim near Krakow. It was July 1939.
In August, the 5th Horse moved out for their annual field manoeuvres with several other cavalry regiments of the "Krakow" Brigade, operating in the Lower Silesia area.
As ordered, we got busy preparing defensive lines, i.e., obstacles, deep holes and trenches, quite unusual preparations for the highly mobile type of unit that we were. Ironically, we were not aware of the situation to the west of us. The military took orders and did not listen to loose gossip. Then live ammo was issued and we sensed that something serious was brewing.
At dawn on September 1, 1939, our lines were attacked and breached by the German Panzer units, forcing us to retreat. In the ensuing melee with enemy tanks and infantry all around us, I lost contact with my unit and, in spite of my efforts, I remained lost with several other of my men, one of them with a bad shrapnel wound in his leg. I was able to find a Mobile First Aid truck and the medics took him off my hands. I resumed my search for my unit, but to no avail. Nobody was where they were supposed to be.
Our orders were, in case of separation, to head for the town of Lublin and report to the Military Authority for reassignment. Without wasting any more time searching, I made my way as ordered. From there my new orders took me to the Cadet-Officers' Artillery Reserve School in Wlodzimierz Wolynski. There I met most of my instructors from the 1938-39 course who had reassembled to start the 1939-40 course.
Towards mid-September, the school's guns were rather busy providing heavy fire in support of our troops fighting the advancing Germans from the direction of the city of Lwow.
September 17 brought us the knockout news that the Soviet Red Army had crossed our eastern border and was advancing westward on a very broad front, taking prisoner hundreds of thousands of our troops caught in the process of reorganization and regrouping to fight the Germans.
Only a few isolated major units elsewhere were able to offer fierce, albeit futile and short-lived resistance to either of the two aggressors. Our situation was hopeless and any further resistance suicidal. The troops' morale was shattered by the treachery and every effort was made on the part of our officers to make them behave with dignity. On orders from General Smorawinski, the senior officer in the area, we laid down our arms and surrendered to the Soviets.
On September 21, a long, silent column marched out of Wlodzimierz with the officers at the head of it, followed by the rank and file. I was with the officers. Under the armed guard of foot soldiers and tanks, the column moved slowly north towards the Rowno railway station, reaching it two or three days later.
During this march, feverish, cold, hungry and half conscious of what was happening around me, all I cared was to be with somebody I could trust, like my school officer-instructors. However I noticed a new face, belonging to a Cadet-Officer according to his rank insignia, who talked to me in the familiar language of the people from the Tatra Mountain region, the "gorale." He kept talking about dropping back, away from the officers' group and joing the rank and file marching to the rear. He was saying that the officers would be kept in prisoner of war camps for the duration of the war, but he was certain that the rank and file would be released and permitted to go home much earlier. In spite of his thick accent, he gave me the impression of being a well-educated "goral," and somehow I began to trust him. Next to him was his friend, also a Cadet-Officer, bearing a remarkable resemblance to Jesus Christ. He too urged me to drop back and the sooner the better. So, eventually I relented, and after some time, by gradually dropping back, we'ed found ourselves among the rank and file, quietly removing our rank insignia to blend nicely with the soldiers. These two and I became fast friends from that day on. The goral's name was Wladek Tylka, from Zakopane. His tall, lean friend was Andrzej Hawel.
Eventually it would become known what fate awaited some of our officers. General Smorawinski, Captain Jozef Gasiecki and Lt. Mieczyslaw Wielgorski were murdered at Katyn while others disappeared without a trace.
The First POW Camp on the Other Side of the Border
At Rowna we were herded into boxcars and taken east. Cold, hungry and angry, after a few days of a totally disorienting ride, we arrived at a small station where we were told to leave the train. At once, we noticed the absence of our officers! So, Waldek's prediction proved right, at least for now. From the railroad siding where the train had stopped, we were marched off towards a camp consisting of long, low barracks, the whole area fenced off with barbed wire, but no watch towers. It was, obviously, an empty army camp. By now, I had recovered from the fever of the past few days, but was far from happy. Somewhere along that train ride a "boyets" (Russian infantry soldier) had noticed my wrist watch and promptly made an offer - an onion in exchange for the watch! I was so hungry that I gave it to him and soon bit into the onion with gusto. But what really made me mad was that my stomach soon rebelled against the onion and I found myself without the onion and the watch!
To the constant shouting of "davay, davay," we were all eventually housed. We met two new faces, Michal Warejko, a student of mathematics from the University of Warsaw, and young Witold Skibinski. These two hit it off splendidly, both being enamoured of maths.
Hunger was very much on our minds. Night and day we felt its pangs. We found ourselves thinking about food, talking about food and dreaming about food. And it became quite obvious that our captors were not going to keep us happy by filling our stomachs with food. One slice of black, clay-like bread and a bowl of lukewarm vegetable soup a day!
We slept on bare floors, using our coats for blankets and boots for pillows. With so many bodies under one roof, about one hundred, we were not too cold at night. It was November, 1939.
There was no program for us. In the beginning, we were left to our own devices, until the shipment of hammers arrived one day. These were given to us and collected from us every day after work for the duration of our stay there. We used them for breaking large stones into smaller ones, piling them into small pyramids along the highway we worked on every day, thus earning our bread and soup (no butter!). That highway was a very busy one in those days, used by the homeward bound Soviet troops after the cessation of hostilities in Poland. Endless columns of horse-drawn wagons mainly loaded with loot filed past us. And loot they did! Everything down to the proverbial kitchen sinks and toilets. The latter (so we heard later) were often mistaken by these primitive anthropoids from the Asian Steppes as a kind of water fountain, poorly designed of course, for they had to kneel down to have a drink, and the water ran too fast for them to catch any. The loot kept flowing out of Poland until there was practically nothing left to loot. All the time the transports continued, the drunk "boytsy" kept on looting our country. They looked so pathetic with ladies' hats on their heads, coils of sausage hanging around their necks, pianos, furniture, everything they could dislocate and carry away. And we were just sitting there by the roadside, seething with powerless anger.
In the camp, I began to learn about the other faces of real life. I learned about the existence of an insect called "the louse" when I tried to draw the attention of a fellow prisoner in front of me waiting for food rations, that something whitish was crawling along the collar of his tunic. How they all laughed! I must have looked so pathetic and so innocent. Well, I had never heard of, let alone seen, a louse before.
The days were empty and dull and I was hungry, very hungry. Some excitement came from the news reaching us now and then from the "outside." It was carried by our people bringing in needed supplies to our kitchen from the depot somewhere in town. These people, "our" people, were Ukrainians and Byelorussians who could converse with the local people.
The news was not news, just gossip. With the year soon ending and Christmas approaching, everybody loved to speculate about the chances of being released to join our families back home. Silly but true. We grasped at any straw of hope to keep us going. Surprisingly, the news was never of a political nature. That was under the strict control of the powers that be.
There were numerous loudspeakers throughout the camp, blaring either martial music or Soviet propaganda which we very quickly learned to ignore. It was easy for us as we did not speak the language but the Ukrainians and the Byelorussians did, and they, too, seemingly lost interest.
This business of "reliable" news was, on the one hand, keeping our hopes up, but, by raising them too high, on the other hand, would cause a severe letdown when proven baseless. Later on, we would learn about the "Soviet News" - strictly Party controlled propaganda. Not what the people would like to hear but what the Party wanted them to hear and believe in. We would soon learn to be less gullible and less trusting and this lesson served us well. This was not Poland, so as time went by, life was busy teaching me a lesson almost every day.
Soon I found that I could get along with a lot of different people, not completely, but without causing any crisis. First, I learned to listen, then to be very careful of what I said, then not to trust everybody and finally, not to judge a person by his appearance. For example, Wladek, Andrzej and I knew full well that we were not the only ones disguising our true ranks. We did not know for sure but we suspected a few others of being officers.We were also aware of some men brown-nosing to curry favours from the Russians. They were dangerous men and not to be trusted, although some of them looked so harmless. Among these, prominently visible were some Jews and some Ukrainians too. The former exuded hatred towards anyone and everything Polish.
"Pick uo your things and come out," the guards yelled and then we knew: The Transport! We felt elated for no other reason than we were going somewhere. Soon the elation evaporated and speculation took over. Where? In what direction? Suggestions abounded in spite of past experience indicating the futility of it. The "where to" weighed heavily on everybody's mind while we endured the counting, the frisking, etc. When that was all over, the guards issued the warning: " a step to the left or a step to the right will be regarded as an attempt to escape and the guard will shoot without warning." And we were on our way to the railway station where a long, long train consisting of boxcars and one passenger coach for the guards was awaiting us. The loading went quite smoothly, so many "fives" counted off and crammed into each boxcar. Hurried along with the "davay" we scrambled aboard to get the best seat in the house, close to the little window on the upper level.
Once settled down, we started to look around the car. Its interior was equipped with things the passenger cars did not have. There were iron bars on the four little windows in the four corners of the car. There were two-tiered bunks to lie down on and a top-flared tube resembling a funnel, exiting through a hole in the car's side wall. This Russian invention was called a "parasha," "the loo."
Hunger and cold were our constant companions on this trip into the big and mysterious unknown. Our train kept going, taking its time, in a general southeasterly direction, It stopped here and there, whenever and whenever it seemed to please, without any apparent reason. Sometimes, during these stops, food was distributed: black bread, sometimes thin soup or lukewarm water and once or twice salted herrings, adding more thirst to our misery.
When the train came to a stop and did not move on for several hours, we knew that we had arrived at our destination. Eventually, the door swung open and a curt "Come on out with your things," confirmed our expectations.
On wobbly legs, we marched after the group from the boxcar ahead of us. It was a slow march, so there was enough time to look around. We were inside of what looked like a permanent army camp with several brick buildings, all of it surrounded by a barbed wire fence, but no watch towers. The white-brick construction of the mainly two-storey buildings added nicely to the neat appearance. Nice place, we all agreed.
A short railway spur ran into the camp and ended at the far end. All around the camp we could see factories and big foundries belching forth clouds of yellowish-brown smoke.
We were assigned to a room, three men to share two beds (with mattresses!) and soon fell into a daily routine. The three daily meals, seved in aluminum plates and cups, each consisted of one slice of black bread, one cup of tea and one ladleful of cream of wheat, and were eaten in the dining hall, called by us "The Casino."
It was obvious to us that the Russians tried hard to impress us by treating us in the civilized way most of us were accustomed to. We were not only surprised but pleased and even had a kind word to answer to the guards' questions about the food. "Harosho" (OK), we would yell back in unison. Here we felt the protection of the Geneva Convention at work. The guards, all Army men, were quite polite but firm. Soon we became accustomed to forming a column of five abreast for the daily count, and to the standard warning: "a step to ..."
Soon we were made to work for our keep in a vast stone quarry, where hundreds of Russian workers were busy swinging heavy sledge-hammers to break big chunks of rock into smaller pieces, which had to be loaded onto small steel wagonettes running on rails. The blasting was done after work had finished for the day.
On our first day at work in that quarry, we became quite frustrated at not being able to break up the large rocks. We were swinging with those heavy sledge-hammers with all our strength to no avail. The Russian boys had great fun laughing and joking at the "polskiye pany" (Polish gents) who were too weak to crush a piece of rock, which they could break up with one easy blow! They let us go on this way for some time, our hands blistering while our tempers approached the boiling point as we had nothing to show for our efforts. Eventually the Russian boys took pity on us and explained the secret: to first examine the rock and then strike a blow in the direction of the grain.
The work was hard and the pressure to produce was considerable. To this we responded by sabotaging the production through clumsily operating the wagonettes resulting in derailments.
One day the powers that be moved us to another area which proved to be a sweet move as we did not have to work hard or fulfil any quotas. We just had to be there, move about and look busy. We were on general duties in the area of a new rock crushing plant.
Here too, we would carry on with our little schemes to defeat the almighty USSR by small acts of sabotage. And we managed to somehow get away with it in spite of the presence of some Ukrainian and Byelorussian POWs, not to mention the Jews who had turned informers. The latter were a particular problem. They formed a very tightly knit little group, small but potentially dangerous. The slightest provocation would trigger their anger and denunciations to the Commandant, who in turn, could take any action against the alleged perpetrator he deemed appropriate.
The Barges and Kotlas, Komi ASSR
The spring of 1941 finally came around and with it new hopes and new speculations based on rumours, nothing else. We all knew it, but we also enjoyed it. And we hoped against hope for lack of anything better to do.
Then one day we heard the guards shout those electrifying words: "Come out with all your things." Sleepy and blurry-eyed, we collected our miserable possessions and went out to join the others in the assembly square. Bleary-eyed or not, we noticed right away that something big was about to happen. There was a train inside the camp, meaning only one thing - Transport!
Soon more guards appeared, without guns and wearing blue overalls. That was strange and alarming. Soon frisking began. This was done quickly and in a very professional manner. These were not the clumsy "boytsy," but the dreaded NKWD men (State security police).
By watching them work we soon learned that almost everything, personal effects included, was subject to confiscation - knives, big and small, pens and of course, watches. Wedding rings they would leave alone. I had in my pocket a gold signet, my mother's gift to me on my graduation. Aside from my life, it was the last thing I was willing to give up. Carefully I watched how the bloody thieves went about frisking, where they looked for hidden things, and I could see that there was no safe place on or around my person! They searched very thoroughly the bodies of some, the rucksacks of all, dumping their contents out, even our precious water canteens, pulling out the stoppers and pouring the contents out.
Then suddenly an idea flashed through my head - try your finger tips. Place the signet at the first joint and wrap it in a soiled rag. In two seconds I had a piece off my shirt, soiled it under my heel, placed the signet on my finger and wrapped it right, then soiled it some more and waited. When my turn came, I was frisked very thoroughly, standing in front of the man with my arms outstretched, my hands completely out of his peripheral vision. And he missed it! A small victory, but a victory nevertheless.
The frisking over, they counted us twice, then ordered us to get in the boxcars. We were packed in there like sardines. Bogdan, like a cat, jumped into the car in order to secure the much preferred window places for us on the upper level. Another nice looking young fellow asked to join our group and we agreed. Zdzich Swierczynski from Krakow turned out to be an excellent addition, honest and industrious in every way. Later on he would supply me with fresh fruits, rosehips, containing the much needed vitamins to fight the ever present scurvy, which, thanks to him, I was spared altogether.
This time the train just turned north and kept heading north. During the stops, the guards distributed food rations and water to drink. There was a new development in the guards' routine; during these stops, some of them would walk the full length of the train on the roof tops of the boxcars, banging with heavy mallets. We never found out why, perhaps to keep us awake or check for dislodged roof planks.
After days of travelling, the train stopped and we were ordered out and lined up for the count. And there was yet another frightening, new surprise - the guards had dogs with them, held on leashes, big, viciously snarling german Shepherds! What a crushing blow to our frayed nerves and weakened morale. Where were we? What was going to happen to us now? Wladek's constant reminder that "it was going to get worse before it got better" met with a terse "Oh, shut up."
The march began. Some time later we arrived at a very large camp with many watch towers. We found out later that there were actually several camps, separated by barbed wire fences and passageways, the towers manned by armed guards. These camps, or rather enclosures, were full of people, herded there like cattle in pens, all in civilian clothes or more accurately, rags. Between the pens wide passageways provided the space for herding the human cattle in or out of the camps.
There appeared to exist segregation by sex, the men kept separate from the women, but this was not always the case. Later on we met mixed brigades working in the taiga, mainly cutting down trees and clearing shrubs. Our presence here caused an uproar in the women's pens, while the men watched us with silent indifference. The women however, went berserk! Most of their shrieks were lost on us but the gestures and body gyrations were explicit enough for us to catch on. This was quite a frightening and disgusting display. There were mature men among us who too, were deeply shocked by the near animal, frenzied behaviour of these women, an explosion of passion bordering on insanity. I was numb with fright and have never seen anything like it since, the poor wretches.
Long after the shrieks died down, I could still hear them ringing in my ears, see the contorted faces and the madness in their eyes. We were all to a greater or lesser degree shaken by this experience but somehow managed, eventually, to calm down.
About that time, Witold and Michal came back from a scrounging expedition with long faces and empty hands. There was no food anywhere to be found. But they had learned the name of this camp and its place on the map of the twenty year-old Soviet penal system; Kotlas, the main transit centre for convicts in this area. Through this centre would pass every convicted person to begin his or her "social rehabilitation" or "political re-orientation," or those whose sentences had been served and were returning to civilization. The place had been appropriately nick-named "The Gate to Hell."
The days at the camp were spent on searches, compilations of lists of names and counting, counting, counting. It soon became clear to us why they were doing all that. At this point and place, the jurisdiction of the NKWD ended, and another paramilitary organization took over the responsibility for our safety and welfare. Their authority extended over a vast territory north and north-east of Kotlas and the Ural Mountains (so we were told), which appeared to be the Komi region of the ASSR.
Three or four days later we were on our way again accompanied by armed guards, some with dogs. This time, the usually ignored warning of "a step to the left... the guard will shoot without warning," took on a different feel. These new guys looked as if they would do it at the slightest provocation.A few hours later, we arrived at a river landing where several barges were moored. Had I known what had happened to our officers' group from the artillery school, I would have had a heart attack. They and many, many thousands of officers were transported from here to the open sea and the barges were then scuttled!
The guards were all around us with guns and dogs. It looked pretty grim. Urged on by the guards' shouts, we boarded the barge and went below decks. There, in semi-darkness, we could make out the outlines of bunk beds. We crawled in, dragging our things with us, unable to sit up for lack of headroom, keeping a watchful eye on one another in order not to get separated. Making the best of a bad situation, we slowly settled down.
It was not long before we began to feel thirsty. We perspired greatly as the air was getting very heavy and hot. The thirst soon became a major problem judging by the cries for water. Oddly enough, the guards complied and water was brought in from above. It was water from the river though, and as I recall, Bogdan pleaded with us not to drink it no matter what. As difficult as it was to say no, we took Bogdan's advice and it saved us from getting sick with diarrhoea. Bless his soul!
The others did not care and suffered the consequences in a very nasty way in a matter of a few hours. Cries to be allowed up on deck were growing in number and volume. But the hatches were firmly "battened down" - closed tight by the guards and nobody was allowed up. The men were in pain and in need of relieving themselves. Soon pandemonium broke out, men were out of control. Some could not hold it any longer and were forced to relieve themselves right there where they were. The air became foul, the stench unbelievable. It went on and on. We lost any sense of time. To us down there it seemed like ages. And when all hope for a response from above was gone, the hatches opened and men, in groups of ten, were allowed to go up and clean themselves. With the hatches open, the foul air followed the men and breathing became a little easier.
The passage between the bunk beds was filled with the sick, queueing up for the trip upstairs. In the darkness it was impossible to see their pain-contorted faces, and thank God for that. A miserable lot they were indeed. And a stinking lot they were too, perhaps grateful for the darkness preventing them from being recognized. But did they care? I doubt it. They were past caring.
Our group did well thanks to Bogdan's warning. Our stomachs were quite empty and so were our bladders. We had no physical urge to go, except of course, for a breath of fresh air, and to wash off the sweat. Our turn came eventually. Wladek, T and I went together and helped one another to wash in the water hoisted in buckets from the river, the Dvina River; its water so refreshingly cold that it left our skins tingling. It was a wonderful feeling! We looked around. It was so beautiful up there, the air fresh and crisp, with thick forests covering the bank nearest to us. We could not see the far bank because of the low lying fog. We all took turns on deck and felt much, much better for it.
Exactly how many days and nights the trip took we could not figure out. And we did not care, either. And hungry, oh boy were we hungry! We felt completely empty mentally and physically weak. But not sick; being young and basically in good health, we strongly believed in a quick recovery given a day or two of rest.
Then the barges came to a landing and soon the off-loading began. What a sight we were. Worn out, filthy and unsteady on our weakened legs. But we were out of that hell hole, in the open and on solid ground. Anything was better than what we had been through over the past few days and nights.But again the guards went swiftly about organizing us into marching columns, counting heads very carefully. Under these conditions deaths would not likely be uncommon. After the usual warning, on we marched, more and more convinced that they would not hesitate to pull that trigger. We marched through a mostly wooded countryside until we eventually reached a camp.
It was not a typical, Soviet-style camp. There were huts instead of barracks in a place resembling a summer camp. Indeed it had a name, a "konny dwor" or "Horse Park." Being near the head of the columns, our group was able to secure accomodation in one of those huts, or log cabins, if you will. The inside had but one facility - beds without matresses to accomodate people in transit like ourselves. And there was something very unique and interesting there. Every available space on the bunk beds, the walls, the ceiling, even the floors, was covered with names, addresses, dates, messages and even short poems. The poor wretches like us, passing through, wanted to leave some trace of their existence for those who would follow to discover, and perhaps to pass on to their relatives and families at home, that they were here and alive. Cries of despair, messages of hope and love. It was heartbreaking. But, to our relief, we found no names of persons we might have known. Whether this was a good or bad thing, we did not know. The next morning was bleak and drizzly. Following the usual ceremony of counting, the days' food rations were given out - 3 cubes of sugar per head! After the usual warning "a step to the left..." we were off.
The march was fairly uneventful. Prisoners continued to toss baggage away into the bushes as they decided that it was not worth it to carry the extra weight. By late afternoon, the guards brought the column to a halt. Again we came close to a bunch of huts and dilapidated shacks, surrounded by barbed wire but no watch towers. Again, as with the previous camp, it stood unoccupied, awaiting our arrival. This time it was our turn to spend the night under cloudy skies and in the rain. Zdzich, always alert and curious, found a little shelter, just big enough for two - a disused outhouse with the door off its hinges. To keep Zdzich Company and not being too keen on spending the night out in the rain, I volunteered to join him, and on that dislodged door we slept, hugging each other firmly to keep warm. The smell was unpleasant of course, but compared to the hold in the barges, everything else smelled like roses! I had come a long way to adapting to any situation.
Early next morning, following the usual routine, we continued on. That day however, proved fatal for some of the older, weaker men who simply could not keep up the pace, or ran out of strength altogether. We heard five shots fired somewhere far behind us. The guards' usual warning took on a new dimension. They were dead serious. And hearing the shots had a miraculous effect on the over-burdened men, steadfastly refusing to part with their earthly possessions. Whatever they may have been carrying with them all this way was now of questionable value with life itself on the line. The bundles kept flying wayside in ever increasing numbers as the prisoners shed their burdens. Our strength too, was taxed to the limit, but being young we managed somehow.
At dusk, we reached what looked like a large depot - rail ties, lumber and other building materials lay in piles. Soon the news spread that this was the end of the march, the March of the Damned, as I later used to call it. Damned or not, we were happy to get the weight off our tired feet and rest. To that, another pleasant surprise was added; we were going on by rail. Soon enough the loading started, and it was the flatcars this time. We sat there with our legs dangling and arms linked so as not to fall off the moving train. The train was of the narrow-gauge kind and chugged along fairly slowly so there was little danger of our falling off and we quite enjoyed the ride in spite of our fatigue, thirst and hunger.
Czibju, Komi ASSR
The next stop was the end of the line. We were ordered to get off. In the dusk we were able to see what was around us. It was another depot, much larger than the previous one, and quite new in appearance. We were surprised by its newness and its apparent "friendly looks" thanks to the log construction of every building. Wladek Tylka and I were immediately reminded of home, Zakopane, where log construction was extensively employed. For a moment we felt homesick.
The building of the railroad through the northern wilderness towards Workuta and the Arctic Ocean must have had a reason. The reason was the crude oil, floating copiously on the rivers Izma (where we were then) and the Peczora. No drinking water from this river without boiling it! The lesson we learned on the barges was too fresh in our memories to be forgotten. But we were faced with a greater problem; we were not allowed into the new camp. Instead, we were led away to a large meadow on the bank of the River Izma, and told to make ourselves comfortable. Just like that. So we went into a huddle and decided on a line of action for the following day. The night we were to spend sitting around our things, keeping warm the best we could, conserving strength for the morning and the task ahead of us tomorrow.
As soon as there was enough light, Bogdan and Wladek K. went looking for sticks and branches. Wladek T. and I got busy cutting the sod for the sides of the structures we were about to erect while Zdzich coordinated the work. Witold and Michal helped the best they could, giving useless advice most of the time. Very quickly we built two little shacks to house three persons each. Wladek T., Zdzich and I in one, Bogdan, Wladek K. and the sleezeball Cwierciakiewicz in the other. Having finished our work, we decided to go to the river for a good wash, badly needed after all that strenuous work. We all went except sleezeball Mr. C, who offered to stay and tend to the fire and generally keep an eye on our things.
We returned from the river to find our "home" totally collapsed, all of belongings buried under the grass and dirt, with Mr. C. nowhere in sight. I was rather frantic about my signet, still wrapped in a piece of cloth, which I had hung from the central post supporting the roof. It was not there. Nothing else was missing except my signet. We suspected Mr. C. but I could not do anything drastic. I found out much later that it was indeed he who had stolen it.
Things were quickly brought back to "normal" and we concerned ourselves with the affairs of the day. There was not much to get concerned about, however. The Soviets let us just sit there around our campfire and cook whatever we could find. Berries, leaves and grass were it, so we sat there and felt rather miserable but determined to make it to the next day somehow. That stuff we were cooking tasted bloody awful, but it was the only food we could offer to our shrunken stomachs.
But we knew that eventually "they" would come for us, and "they" did. On the third or fourth day of camping, a small group of Russian officials and guards from the main camp arrived, asking for volunteers for work on the railroad. Soon a dispute erupted, rather heated on our side, about the food situation. Our men stuck to their guns, demanding food before going to work. But the Russians calmly informed them, that in the Soviet Union, "one works first and eats after." A stalemate of sorts ensued, soon broken by several Byelorussians, Jews and Ukrainians, who agreed to go to work the next day, and they did. When they came back to our camp after work, loaded with all kinds of goodies, the initial resistance to accepting the Soviet Work Principle petered out, and the next day, many, many more went to work. Sensing victory, another delegation from the main camp came out that evening. This time, they acted swiftly. We were ordered to line up, and the Russians proceeded from one man to the next, individually asking each one, eyeball to eyeball, whether or not he was willing to work the next day. When they were through asking, there were but five of us left, (Zdzich, Wladek T., Witold, Bogdan and myself) who had said “No”. By plan, Andrew and Wladek K. were to go to work and share their bounty with the rest of us. But it did not work out that way.
Isolated from the main group and a little confused, we were led by a guard towards one of the watch towers and ordered to sit down. It was already getting dark, the time that mosquitos come out of their hiding places in the bushes. And come out they did, as if by a prearranged signal, attacking the five of us. We tried to chase them off, slapping each other, killing a few, but within minutes we saw the futility of it all. And the bloodthirsty monsters, the size of bees, kept coming at us in hordes; an unbelievable sight, unbelievable torture. The monsters were all over us, in our ears, mouths and eyes, stinging through our clothing and getting under our collars. Not ten minutes had passed when we started yelling "yes, yes" and capitulated. So ended the last protest against the ground rules around here. Commies 1, Capitalists 0.
The very next day, instead of going to work, we were ordered to form a column, five abreast as usual, and after the usual warning, we marched off that hospitable meadow. Several miles later, we came to a small camp, unoccupied, waiting to "welcome" us. Counting heads preceded our entry into the camp through a big gate adorned with the slogan "Work to the Success and Glory of Communism." "Well, we will see" said Bogdan the Sailor. He was the bravest of our gang, and fearless too. I really admired him for that.
In this camp of Czibju, we stayed several weeks. There were about 300 of us, divided into several gangs, or brigades, of about 30 men each. Our main objective was to build a railroad from Czibju to the North Sea, through Uchta and Workuta. The pressure from the Soviets to complete the job was great and the work punishing.
The spearhead gangs cut down trees and set them aside for others to cut into three-foot long lengths, later to be fed into the furnaces of the train locomotives, as there was no coal. The gangs that followed cleared the ground of all kinds of roots, brush, etc. which was subsequently burned. After them came the gangs who levelled the cleared space. Other gangs moved the soil and shaped the sides of the railway track bed, work which included the driving of long spikes into the sloping sides to hold the soil in place. Next came the gangs preparing the base for the ties onto which rails would eventually be nailed with heavy plates and spikes.
The work was essentially manual and not too heavy, except that the quotas set for these preparatory jobs were, under the existing conditions, simply unattainable! This was true especially during the winter months with the deep snow and numbing, freezing temperatures. The failure to fulfil the quota and the percent of work done relative to the quota would determine the amount of food earned by the individual worker. The work-reward relationship was directly proportional, which meant that the lower the production, the smaller the reward (in terms of food, etc.).
The tragedy of such a situation is obvious. A worker weakened by hard work, with not a shred of hope for things to get better, produced less and less, at the same time receiving less and less food. When he reached the end of his ability to produce, he was invariably branded a "refuznik" and permanently assessed the "straf" ration, which gave him all of 300 grams of bread and, maybe, some hot water. This was a slow way to kill human beings.
By far the hardest, least rewarding work was up front, while the best and most rewarding was at the very tail end, where the rails were laid. Up front worked unskilled labour while at the tail end, the labour was highly skilled. And we understood that skill was well rewarded all over the Soviet Union. The reward system was divided into several levels:
LEVEL 1 was for 100% quota and over; this meant 1,200 grams of black bread, thick soup of the day with some vegetables and sometimes bits of meat, the privilege of a weekly shower, of buying some biscuits at the local canteen, and of getting one's underwear deloused at shower time. A sustained high production gained for the entire gang the privilege of occupying the best barrack available.
LEVEL 2 was for less than 100% quota but more than 50% of it; this meant 800 grams of black bread, a thinner soup of the day without fat or meat, no biscuits, irregular shower privileges, in all a distinct drop in privileges but still at a sustainable level for strength and health. Most of the men were staying, by hook or by crook, at that level.
LEVEL 3 was for less than 50% of quota; this meant 500 grams of black bread and a watery soup of the day, with or without much of anything swimming in it. This was really a semi-starvation diet, the beginning of a slide down into deep health troubles.
"STRAF" LEVEL was for those who, for various reasons, could not meet the quota, or for those who fell out with the administration of the camp, and it meant a mere 200-300 grams of black bread and some warm water.
To complete the picture, one further special LEVEL must be mentioned. It was a level strictly reserved for those who maintained, at the expense of their own health, by almost superhuman efforts, production levels in excess of 150%, and occasionally even higher, than the required quotas. These were few, mostly Ukrainians and Byelorussians, but no Poles. Their names and the attained percentages were posted daily on a board at the entrance of the camp for all to see. They were called "Stakhanovites" and in the Soviet Union, they were referred to as the "Heroes of the Soviet Union." Unbelievable, but true. Among us there were a few, such as Joe Polucas, but they did not last very long.
So in Czibju camp, the first day was spent on organization. Men were allowed to form gangs of their own make-up, and I think our little group was very lucky indeed. Bogdan got a job at the Power Station, a real plum of a job; indoors, no guards, no quotas to worry about. Wladek Tylka, who was always fond of horses (his father operated a hackney carriage in Zakopane) joined the drivers' brigade (otherwise 100% Byelorussian) with a special assignment; he would be delivering boiled water to the brigades at work. He too was very pleased with his fate; fresh air, no guards, and the quota per day was two trips, one in the morning and one in the evening. Zdzich landed a peach of a job as a roving inspector of sorts, free to move about the work area and no quotas. The best! Good luck was also with me. I got "drafted" into the railroad brigade, a group of our own men who had been employees of the Polish National Railways, called up during the general mobilization in August 1939, for the main purpose of repairing the bomb-damaged sections of the railroad system, in order to keep the traffic flowing, during the September war. What luck! What a team! They were not only good at their work, they were a decent bunch of fellows; good natured, honest and clean. Pretty soon our brigade would be regarded as the best in the camp. With me was Wladek Kordylewski, a solid chap in every way, and I was glad to have him around.
Poor Witold got a very rough deal. He ended up with a bunch of total strangers and for some reason, was ostracized so he kept pretty much to himself. But he was in the same camp as the rest of us, so we would keep an eye on him. However, over a relatively short period of time, Witold became a loner and withdrawn. He ceased to care about anything and neglected his personal hygiene which, even in the existing conditions, was not acceptable to a lot of men. He simply stopped caring and would not listen to us.
Michal and Andrzej were lost in the shuffle and ended up in another camp a few miles away, so we managed, at the very least, to keep in visual contact.
Since our brigade consisted of experienced railway workers, it did not take them long to catch on as to how to get the most and the best for the least. These men managed to oragnize our work very effectively.
It is important to understand how the system worked. It all started with the quotas being out of reach of the average man, often sick, always hungry, cold and weak. One had to be smarter than the oppressor to get a little bit of something for nothing, and the only way to get that was by cheating, or padding the work reports a bit. Not too much, because once caught cheating, it meant curtains for the one who got caught or for the group as a whole.
In general, in the Soviet Union, cheating was an essential part of life, but it was also very risky and dangerous; it carried a severe sentence of 15-25 years in labour camps. The heavy penalty was often used as a vehicle for getting rid of a trouble maker for a very long time, and with it, for a lifetime, went the stigma of "Enemy of the Soviet Union," the most dreaded punitive paragraph in the Soviet Penal Code. It was also an effective way of providing the State with cheap labour!
For those already in the camps, any new sentence would be tacked on to the existing sentence!
The practice of padding everything was known as "tufta." There was a very popular saying that "Russia stands on tufta," which was true. It reigns supreme all over the country. In our case, it was a clever disposition of workload by assigning some of the manpower to ancillary but essential jobs, thus spreading the workload over a smaller number of workers and by doing so, giving them a higher percentage of the work done. In this way, we were assured of work production over 100%, thus meeting the requirements for LEVEL 1 rewards.
My railroad brigade consisted of quite ordinary, yet wonderful people, experienced railway men, each one an individualist, but smart enough not to lose control. In this team there was no serious friction, just the occasional argument. The harmonious relations were, to a great extent, maintained by the proper attitude of our brigade leader, Cpl. Tomsza, whose ability to make the Soviets see and approve of his opinions and decisions, was recognized and admired by the entire crew.
Some of the men I came to know better than others, men like Staszek Sekula, a lawyer with a faraway look in his eyes, perhaps trying to picture the little daughter he had yet to see. He never did get his chance as he was killed in action on the Italian front in 1944; Gutek Deja, a likeable fellow, shy and gentle, with whom I used to converse in German to preserve my fluency in it; Gutek's pal Marian Dylong, a clever machinist, good natured and cheerful; Mietek Szymanski, a veritable wizard with his penknife and possessed of an uncanny ability to fix anything.
Mietek once operated on the eyeball of his fellow train conductor, extracting a miniscule piece of cinder lodged in it. He once set the broken ankle, twisted 180 degrees, of our team mate, right in front of our eyes, at work in the -45C temperature. During the following winter, with that penknife, he carved a set of chessmen and the box with the chessboard squares, which he later gave to me.
But the most impressive personality was Mietek's father-in-law, Szczepan Rozek, a man well into his fifties, also a train conductor. Szczepan was a man everyone looked up to for counsel. He was a stabilizing factor in every dispute or difference of opinion. He was wise and considerate, slow in his actions and thoughts. It was he who spread his protective wings over me. He was like a father to me. Quite often Szczepan, Mietek and I prayed together in order to prop up our sagging morale, and we felt much better for it afterwards. The intensity and power of his faith was contagious and left an indelible impression on me. It was my second Confirmation in Faith.
Life in the camp was mostly subdued, devoid of extremes. We were simply overworked, underfed and too tired to generate any serious interest in anything. There were no books to read, no movies to watch and any newspaper brought into camp was immediately snatched up, by those who still smoked tobacco, to be cut up into small squares for rolling "smokes."
The only available radio receiver was in the camp office and broadcast propaganda supplied by the political commissars, in other words, nothing that could be of interest to us, the POWs. So we set up our Information Centre, where world-shattering news was discussed on a daily basis. The place was very busy, and visited daily by everybody. That's right, the local latrine, where the news was born and the news was killed, but between the two a lot of hot air was exhaled! The news was brought by fellow POWs who, like Bogdan at the Power Station, came into contact with people coming in from other regions outside of Komi, namely, the railroad engine drivers. But the news, as usual, was just gossip until June 1941.
Once the initial organization period was over, we settled into a daily routine. Up at 0430 hours, breakfast at 0600 hours, leave for work at 0700 hours and return to camp generally at 1800 hours, then supper and off to bed. We did have a short break for lunch, about 30 minutes or so, enough for toasting half the daily ration of bread at the fire. The other half of the bread ration was usually consumed at supper.
Despite the northern latitude, the summer was very hot, although short. The local saying summed up the regional climate: "The year is comprised of ten months of winter and two months of summer." The hot weather and hard labour worked up a great need for a drink now and then, but the drinking water was delivered only once a day. Having forgotten the lesson learned on the barges, men would drink whatever they could find and hope for the best. Some were lucky, some were not. Those that were not lucky added to their misery by visiting the bushes where millions of mosquitos and billions of black flies were waiting to attack them and their exposed private parts. Some people never learned. One could pick out those sick ones by the branches they were carrying to fend off the ferocious insects.
The mosquitos, and more so the black flies, were so bad that the Soviets issued us with work gloves and head nets in order to protect us, so we could spend more time working and less time fighting off the beasts. Oddly enough, there were no incidents of malarial sickness. Inasmuch as the head net gave adequate protection against the mosquitos, it failed miserably in protecting us against the very small but pesky black flies. But, a nice gesture on the part of the Soviets anyway.
One day the kitchen personnel started to dish out some kind of potion that did not meet with enthusiastic acceptance from the men in spite of serious assurances that we would benefit from drinking it. Men wanted to know what it was that tasted so - odd, to say the least. The cooks explained that it was a mixture of pine needles, yeast and various herbs they did not recall the names of, and that we were supposed to drink it "because it was good for us." Right off the bat it got the name, from the ammonia-like smell, "horse piss," and was summarily ignored. Not me, however. Although I was not crazy about its taste or smell, since it was not rationed, I could get as much as I wanted. So I indulged, hoping that it would do what the cooks tried to tell us, that is, keep the omnipresent scurvy at bay. Very few men did what I did, but when the scurvy hit the camp about six months later, it was too late for them to do anything to combat it.
At that time, in the summer of 1940, the supplies were quite satisfactory and to some extent, varied. For instance, there was a white fish which came in big, fat slabs of meat, smelling of salt and ammonia, but which after soaking in water, tasted really great. There were heavily salted herrings in thick, green grease, requiring a good scrubbing to get the grease off and two to three days of water-soaking to get some salt out of the meat. And here again, I became a great fan of these fish and ate as much as I could, without causing stomach upsets. The men seemed completely unaware of the nutritional value of fish, and the results of their ignorance were not long in coming.
First came night blindness. It became so severe that those not affected by it were designated to lead long lines of blind men to and from the kitchen both in the mornings and the afternoons, like kindergarten kids out for a walk, hanging on to a rope, with a supervisor in the lead. On other occasions, they were on their own, groping around, tripping over people and objects standing in their way. I was one of these leaders, thanking Providence for the wisdom not to ignore the fish, the potion, etc. Some of us, mainly those with previous Boy Scout experience, realized the importance of supplying the body with vitamins, knowing fairly well what was good and what was bad and should be avoided.
Soon the days became shorter and the nights colder, a sure sign of the approaching winter. The transition was amazingly rapid, to us, at least. Zdzich showed up with a capful of frost-shrunken, prune like rosehips. Oh, what a treat! "Russian dates" we named them and enjoyed them while they lasted. And when that vitamin supply ran out, I started my clandestine visits to Kazik's dispensary for a tablespoonful of cod liver oil. Everything helped to the extent that there was not a single blemish of any kind on my body, no hair loss and my teeth did not wobble at all!
And then, before we knew it, winter came. It was snowing almost every day, and night too. The camp thermometer showed the temperature falling slowly, but every night to a new low. We were wondering about work and had questions: Would we be forced to work in those Arctic conditions? If so, how many hours? What would be the rules (if any) regarding the lowest temperature at which we would have to work?
Soon came the answers and we did not like them at all. We would have to go out to work no matter what the outside temperature, and the hours would remain unchanged, except on days when the temperature dropped below -45 degrees Celsius and was expected to fall further. On these days, and there would be many of them that winter (1940-41), we were taken off work in the afternoon at the -50C degree level and by the time we reached camp, the thermometer would often indicate -55C. Later that winter, the lowest night temperature recorded was -63C. Wow! The good news was that there was no wind. Had there been any wind at all, who could tell what would have happened. I still shiver sometimes recalling those nights and the way we felt about the coming morning and another day out on the railroad site.
I should describe our clothing. The top three brigades, and ours was one of them, were issued cotton-padded jackets and pants, caps with ear flaps, and the most envied and priceless articles in this climate, high felt boots. The boots proved themselves by giving the feet complete protection against frostbite.
As for the remaining brigades, they had to rely on their original army uniforms, overcoats and boots. They were, in most cases, in good shape, thanks to the fact that at the time of general mobilization, these items were brand new and of top quality. For the walks to and from work, to keep warm, the men would wrap themselves in blankets, rags or whatever was available.
In the middle of that terrible winter we were cut off from the supply depot. For about two weeks we ate oats taken from the horses' feed supply. And we still had to work every day. During that period, I suffered a nasty frostbite to my face and hands, for which I blame myself. No one is correct 100% of the time, and I did not think about what I was doing until it was too late. But it proved a minor discomfort after all, thanks to the ample supply of Vaseline from Kazik's dispensary. It was itchy as hell when we were inside the barrack but somehow, I did manage to bear it without grinning.
After that episode of frostbite a much greater calamity happened to me, namely a sinus infection. My sinuses got plugged up solid causing unbearable pain around the eyes, nose and forehead. I was not ashamed to yell and moan because I could not help it. It was that simple. The pain was excruciating and nobody, not even Kazik, could do anything to alleviate it. So I was left alone at camp and nobody bothered me as long as I kept yelling. After two or three days came relief from one of the Byelorussian "horse brigade" drivers. I was to sit as close to an open fire as my skin could stand it and stay there as long as I could stand the heat. And that would cure me for sure, he said. And it did, indeed! Within about 15 minutes or so, the puss clogging the sinuses started on its way down and out of my head, bringing immediate and total relief. Three cheers for folk medicaine, simple but effective! But just the same I kept on yelling for another two days whenever I noticed anybody from the office approaching our barrack. The Russians were superstitious. They feared the unknown, and were afraid of people who behaved abnormally. So I preyed on their ignorance and managed to stay in camp a little longer. After all, I thought, if I did not look after myself, who would?
About the time of the trouble with my sinuses, the mystery of the signet ring took a happy turn. I overheard a conversation between two Byelorussians about a gold ring with a blue stone. The name of its owner was mentioned and I made a beeline to his quarters right away, and after a short conversation he handed the ring back to me with these words: "Here it is, take better care of it." I did not ask any questions about who and how. I was just happy to have it back and I felt somehow, whole again.
Because of the heavy snowfalls and low temperatures, our brigade was used to perform jobs other than railroad building, so it was not essential that the team remain at its full complement. One day, Alek Choinski, the surveyor, came over to claim me as his assistant, just for a couple of weeks or so, he said. So, happy as a lark, I joined Alek. I carried the long surveyor's stick for him while he lugged the theodolite. Alek was good company, afraid of nothing and nobody, sure of himself and safe behind his perfect Russian language, which served him well in his verbal duels with the guards while outside the camp. He was able to outperform the guards in the swearing duels that would erupt now and then, leaving them with their jaws hanging open in awe. Alek strongly believed that there was nothing more awe-inspiring to the average Russian than the size and originality of one's swearing vocabulary. The larger the vocabulary, the greater the respect gained, and Alek outdistanced them by a mile, at least! And more importantly, this superiority helped keep the guards off his back. He loved to practise it from time to time, but only on the guards. With us, he was a gentleman, as polite and gentle as a teddy bear.
Alek started me on learning the Russian language, the clean and cultured one (the other one I picked up just by listening to his verbal barrages), by bringing scraps of newspaper or pages torn out of some books he had the good luck to come across. He talked and I listened and memorized by repeating. We made very good progress and that made us both quite happy. Alek was a patient teacher and I was an eager student.
The exceptionally fine weather added to our feeling of happiness. Every day the sun was shining brilliantly, the snow stayed dry and fresh looking for many days, and it was so light you could make it fly by merely breathing a little harder. The snow flakes, large and hard-frozen, were like mirrors reflecting the sun's rays to the extent of blinding us. The air was absolutely still. Nothing moved, even the snow stayed put on the branches, sparkling like millions of diamonds. The White Birch trees around us, majestically silent and beautiful, created a warm and friendly environment. I was no stranger to the beauty of winter scenes from our Tatra Mountains in Poland but this was truly a Wonderland! And it made us forget where and what we were. What a sweet dream it was while it lasted. Unforgettable.
Winter was now slowly coming to an end. The sun stayed up longer and we felt its warmth on our backs. I rejoined my brigade, but kept in touch with Alek. Soon our camp's population was moved up several miles north to a new camp, vacated for us by the taiga-clearing gangs working ahead of us.
Uchta, Komi ASSR
That camp was even newer than the previous one, and our brigade was, once again, allocated one of the best barracks, obviously just completed. That meant - lice free! It featured double bunks with access on each side. Quite an improvement on the continuous type so common in the camps throughout the "convict world."
A few words about lice and the delousing process. There were two main and inseparable factors in the life of a convict; bread and lice. One could not live without bread and one could not get rid of lice. They were everywhere and no power on earth could kill them because the available equipment was unable to generate steam hot enough to do so. So the delousing process, as it existed at our camps, made the blood suckers not angry but mad, and the next time the owner of a shirt, or any other piece of attire, put it on, they would rush to attack with a vengeance for disturbing ther peaceful existence somewhere in the seam or fold of the garment.
But there was a brighter side to the delousing process. Some of the dirt, sweat, etc. was washed out of our undergarments. You must understand that we never, ever dared to fully undress for the night. This was a simple precaution to prevent things from walking away for good. Boots were kept under our heads in lieu of pillows. Some men would even tie the laces around their necks. Boots and bread were the two most precious and sought after commodities.
With the days getting longer, we were slowly getting rid of the demoralizing effect of the long Arctic nights. There was no news coming in, not even a ghost of gossip to latch onto, to divert the crushing effect of feeling isolated, forgotten and lost in the darkness. These were the moments when Szczepan, Mietek and I used to sit on Szczepan's bunk bed and pray. We were praying for something to happen to save our sanity before it was too late. But there was nothing except the same old cursed call at 0430 hours: "Get up for work," every day, seven days a week. Had God forgotten that we were there? How many of us believed that He had. But Szczepan was deeply convinced that He had not forsaken us and that soon He would send us a message. And He did send us His messenger - the sun. Life came back to our half-dead eyes, our backs straightened up, our faces turned up to greet the friendly, warm sun. New hope entered our hearts, our spirits soared and smiles returned. Hoping against hope we were waiting for something to happen, and happen it did.
The German-Soviet War
In the summer of 1941, news reached us of the invasion of the USSR by Germany, and that the Germans were soundly thrashing the Reds on all fronts. We cheered the erstwhile enemy together with the Russian convicts, wishing the invaders all the luck in dealing a mortal blow to the Red regime.
The guards, obviously aware of the change in our attitude, doubled the security. The camp administration followed with leaner food rations and longer working hours. Now we worked 14 to 16 hour days. Spies were out, busy looking for any agitators or saboteurs among us and within a short time, the lethargic atmosphere changed to a cautious wait-and-see attitude.
Now that one line was complete in our sector of operations, we were working on the second, parallel line. Traffic on the "old "line was slowly increasing with the winter season ending, but pretty soon after the war, it significantly picked up in volume. Watching from our barrack windows at night, we saw long trains, composed of boxcars and flatcars, heading north, filled with people. The flatcars were packed with what looked like people wearing uniforms, huddled together tightly against the chill of the nights. Soon the confirmation came from Bogdan - they were German soldiers, now POWs like us. Our sympathies went out to the poor wretches, freezing if not already frozen, to death. The nights were still very cold and according to Bogdan's sources, they were wearing mostly summer uniforms. We hated the Reds even more for that, as we did not want to see more cruelty to human beings. We were very sensitive to it. It is interesting how people's feelings change and we wondered if the Germans felt the way we did.
But we had to go about our work as usual. An incident occurred which typified the frequent ability of humans to be resourceful in desperate conditions. In this case, Wladek Kordylewski and I were ordered to offload an 80 ton, roofless boxcar full of rough looking tree trunks, most likely to be used as telephone poles to line the railroad. The quota was one car per two men per day. Fine, but how to get the logs, often more than 40 feet long and about two feet in diameter at the thick end, over the eight foot high sides with our bare hands? My heart sank as low as it could possibly sink as I visualized our names on the board at camp listed under the title "Refuzniks" and reduced to 300 grams of bread per day; LEVEL 3 or lower.
It was getting cooler every day, so it must have been August or September when one day we were NOT aroused at 0430 by the hated "Get up to work" command. The camp was peaceful, no guards outside the gate, none of the usual yelling and swearing so characteristic of the work day routine. It was strange and even eerie. Soon after breakfast, there was a call for us to assemble on the camp square where a group of important looking strangers was waiting for us with the camp's administration officers. They announced, with smiles, that we were free!
They then informed us about the agreement between our Government-in-Exile in London and the USSR, to release all Polish POWs held in prisons or in labour camps, in order to form an army to resist "our common enemy," the fascist, Hitler. We were going to be transported out of that area as soon as possible and taken to an area south of Moscow where the Polish Army had already begun to assemble under the Command of General Anders.
We did not have to wait too long, although every minute seemed like hours. We entrained at Czibju Station and headed back to Kotlas, now under a "nominal" guard. Everything after that experience in the North, was quite crazy. For instance, we gave the NKWD a cheer or two. Imagine that, cheering the scum of the earth.
Our treatment at the hands of the Soviets had certainly been in accordance with the Geneva Convention, that is, we were fed and clothed, but we had to work hard for it. We were not tortured or brutalized, but we were used as cheap, forced labour. The odd incidents that took place on the march in to camp, such as the shooting of the stragglers, were the exception. Threats were made thousands of times, but generally not followed up. Once permitted, we were allowed to correspond with family in Poland so that they knew their fathers, brothers, sons and husbands were, at least, alive. Others, such as the thousands of officers murdered in the forests of Katyn, were not as lucky, and I was in no way pleased with the Soviet system as a whole.
On the Way to the Polish Army in the USSR
Our journey south was uneventful but filled with elation and high hopes. The guards were there, not to harass us, but rather to add an official touch to the convoy. The doors of the boxcars were left open during the daytime, and closed, by us, at night to keep in the warmth. There were no more head counts except for one at the gate of a camp we eventually came to, although this was when we were being transferred over to the Polish side. That put a stamp of reality on the whole "Dream of Freedom," as we did not trust the Russians further than we could throw them. As it turned out, the camp was totally in Polish hands, the only Russian guard was a back-up, sort of, at the main gate, which remained open all the time.
Soon, to our greatest joy, came our own staff officers led by Lt. Col. Nikodem Sulik. We gave them a thunderous and rousing welcome. The Colonel announced the formation of the Polish Army under the totally Polish command headed by Gen. Anders, recently released from the infamous Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. Col. Sulik asked us to behave in the proper military manner and with dignity, and above all, not to forget where we still were. He ordered us to show our true ranks and names to those whose job it was to make lists of all present. We were surprised by the number of officers who were among the ordinary soldiers. There was even one major, and I would not have guessed it in a million years.
A few days later we were joined by a large group of officers and cadet-officers released from internment in Lithuania, now under Soviet occupation. What a difference in appearance, posture and state of health. They looked like the pre-war officers used to look - neat, clean-shaven, boots polished, and insignia in place. And us? Good Lord, a band of ragamuffins at their worst; shaggy and long-haired, like scarecrows.
In our little group, we realized that the moment to say goodbye was not far off and we were saddened by the thought. Once the lists were posted, we all went our separate ways; Navy, Air Force, Infantry, Artillery, Sappers, Medical Corps, Signals, etc. The first to go was Bogdan who left with a group of Navy men for England to join the Polish Navy units that had managed somehow to avoid capture or destruction in 1939. A big, long hug, a firm handshake and the usual "take care of yourself," and Bogdan was gone (eventually to settle in Australia after the war). I was assigned to the artillery.
Soon the rest of us, those who were able-bodied, left by train for an unknown place further south. My parting with the railroad gang was emotional, especially with Szczepan Rozek who meant so much to me. We all shook hands, hugged and slapped each other on the back, promised to keep in touch and went our different ways, but with the same ultimate direction in mind; Poland and home.
Some did not make it though. Stas Ezman was killed at Monte Cassino. Staszek Sekula, shot through the chest, died instantly somewhere in Italy in 1944, leading his platoon. Witold did not make the transport because of his broken leg. Leaving camp, I saw him leaning heavily on his crutches, tears streaming down his face. He made it into the Corps later on, though, and served the entire campaign with the Signals Battalion. He came to England with the rest of us in 1946 then returned to Poland.
The train was moving fairly well this time. Military transports were given priority. Nice to enjoy some privileges for a change! We passed through a place called Buzuluk where General Anders had his temporary headquarters, then we passed through a much bigger town called Kuybyshev and kept on going until we reached a small station called Tockoje, somewhere around September, 1941.
At Tockoje we found a tent camp surrounded by forests, a picturesque place for camping in summer. Soon we discovered that it was indeed a summer camp for the Red Army. There were very few permanent huts but lots and lots of tents with double roofs, and they were dug in, meaning that persons entering them would step down to reach the floor level. In other words, they were holes in the ground, approximately 15 x 15 x 5 feet in size. In those tents we spent the better part of the winter of 1941-42 (4 months) before we moved on to warmer climes further southwest. Meanwhile, we had to make the best of it since complaining would get us nowhere, and besides, it was wiser to keep a low profile than to further aggravate the Russian authorities since relations were not too friendly at best. So we suffered in silence, like the good boys we were supposed to be.
Fortunately, we were too busy getting organized, helping the sick new arrivals to get better, making our domiciles habitable and warm by installing home-made stoves made of discarded metal barrels, building higher sides for more protection against the wind, cutting and stacking wood for the stoves, etc. In other words, we were really busy. We did find time to attend lectures and instructions in artillery tactics and related subjects.
The regiment I joined was the 6th Lwow Field Artillery under the command of Lt. Col. Czeslaw Obtulowicz. The regiment was a part of General Michal Tokarzewski's 6th Lwow Infantry Division. There were also three infantry battalions in the division, the 16th, 17th and 18th plus the usual support services. Somewhere in the vicinity, the 5th Division was also getting organized along the same lines although we, at our level, had no contact with it. My first immediate superior officer was Lt. Jan Niepokojczycki, who happened to know my father quite well. What a dashing officer he was. Born in Georgia, at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, dark of complexion with slanted eyes and a gorgeous smile, he was truly a prince among men. Unfortunately, he was not an artillery officer and was replaced as soon as true "guns" became available.
The make-up of the units was in a constant state of change as new men continually arrived and were placed in a unit only to be moved back and forth, and it continued thus for some time.
One day that winter, I pulled a large bundle of rags from a deep snow bank near our tent. On closer examination of the bundle, I found a human being inside that heap of dirty rags, wearing a face that I thought I had seen before, but I could not be sure. Then the face spoke one word: "Jedrek?" and I knew who he was. He was Cadet-Officer Edek Wojciechowski from the 5th Horse at Oswiecim. We were together rather briefly at the front line before the September, 1939 German invasion of Poland. Edek was so emaciated and weak that he could not go any further and he was only several feet away from the warm tent that was our office at the time. He was one of those civilian "spies," arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in the northern regions of the Komi ASSR. Quite a number of others like Edek managed somehow, on their own, to reach our army. How did they do it? It remained, mostly, their secret or they did not remember, travelling those endless roads half dazed, exhausted from lack of food and sleep and weakened by the cold they had to endure. Most of these new arrivals were in the final stages of exhaustion, almost dead on their feet. But they kept coming, reporting for duty! Like Major Marian Siewinski, who came all the way from the Kolyma region, the most dreaded, isolated death trap on earth, where men were dying by the thousands working the gold mines, standing in icy water, ankle deep, for hours every day. Knowledgeable people were all in agreement regarding the conditions on the Kolyma Peninsula: not too many came back to tell others of their ghastly treatment there.
We were also blessed with a few ladies, who joined our regiment as canteen staff, reading room attendants, sick-bay nurses and so on. Sometimes the positions were the products of the C.O's imagination as they strove to keep these civilians under our army's care, having to justify and legalize their presence in our units in the eyes of the Russians. One of the first ladies to join our regiment was Marysia Podobinska, a lovely lady in her mid-thirties. Soon after, she was joined by some more ladies, who, of course, were all warmly "incorporated" into the 6th.
The agreement with the Soviets had specified the exact number of personnel to be recruited into the new Polish Army. Based on that figure, a corresponding number of rations was to be released. These rations, almost always slow in arriving and often in quantities below the agreed level, had to be stretched very thin in order to feed the ever increasing number of our people flocking to join the army from all directions; the influx had swelled well beyond the agreed upon number of 44,000.
The restriction created untold tragedies at the field offices where men and women would arrive only to be told that there were no more "vacancies," and that they would have to await further developments. Imagine telling that to a man at the end of his rope, like Edek, and there were thousands of people in this situation, begging to be accepted.
In order to cope with this impossible situation, scouting parties were sent out to forage for food. This in turn , caused a strong reaction from the local population, themselves hungry, but often willing to share their meagre supplies with us. They called in the NKWD, who demanded that foraging be stopped forthwith! And it was, almost. So we went a little hungry, but we were happy to share our rations with the others. To compensate for that setback, we decided that if we were to be hungry, we should at least be warm, so we took up axes and saws and started cutting trees for our little tent stoves. This helped tremendously to boost our spirits and morale. By the time we left in February, 1942, most of the forest had been cut down.
The Christmas of December, 1941 was celebrated in a truly Polish way, with singing, crying and a few drinks. It was made a truly memorable occasion mainly thanks to the presence of our "ladies," who added that extra feminine touch to the festivities. We really felt like one, big happy family again, for a little while, at least.
By the end of January, rumours started making the rounds about an impending move further south to warmer climes. In early February, we picked up our things and went to Tockoje station where the train stood ready to take us south. Tockoje bid us goodbye with a brilliantly frosty -42C. We were happy to leave, expecting better and warmer days ahead. Little did we know what awaited us.
The relatively short period we spent here was rich in events, affecting the communal as well as the individual lives of many.
At the railway station at Jakobak, we saw a shocking example of Russian wastefulness resulting from the centralized system of government. All around the station there were big piles of snow-white cotton picked and delivered to the collection point as ordered, but with no protection against the elements, the cotton fibres had been allowed to rot. There were several big trucks, with no tires on them, rusting away to the complete indifference and apparent apathy on the part of the local Uzbeks we glimpsed on the way from the station to the campsite a few miles away.
The campsite, a fairly large area of flat, grassy land and few permanent structures, did not generate too much enthusiasm in our men - no trees, only empty space all around, inhospitable.
Our first impression proved right and we could say, in retrospect, that nothing good happened to us while at Jakobak. The first few weeks were not bad, but soon the heat was pouring down from the skies upon the roofs of the tents housing the troops. It was quite impossible to breathe inside the tents during the day and the tents were the only shelters offering protection against the murderous sun. Something had to be done fast to protect the men. Polish ingenuity took over, and in a few days the troops had that protection in the shape of African-style huts without walls, providing protection both against the sun and the heat. With the huts in place, the daily routine was reversed; troops would rest during the day and "play soldier" at night. But all that ingenuity proved powerless to hold off what was destined for us. Weakened by the heat and a series of reverses, the 6th Field Artillery Regiment was by July, flat on its collective back.
First came an attack of dysentery caused by contaminated water from the only available source, the river. When this epidemic was over, malaria, typhoid and other lesser ailments followed. There was hardly anybody unaffected by one thing or another.
Boredom was another malady which was coupled with anxiety over the Soviet obstinancy regarding General Anders' request for more food rations and a relaxation of the restrictions imposed on us by the Soviet authorities. There was also the constant worry that the Soviets would change their minds and decide to cancel our freedom. Their sometimes threatening attitude led our Headquarters in Szachrisiabs to order intensive night marches, with several pounds of weight in the backpacks, to toughen up our weak muscles. We would need all our strength should push comes to shove and we had to "run for the hills" - in this case to the Pamir Mountains - to escape another enslavement. We would probably never make it but the thought of it toughened up our posture and firm resolve.
Little could our Command do to help fight all these adversities. Our hospitals, overcrowded as they were, took care of the seriously sick, while the walking sick remained with their units. The boredom was something else. One night, a strong detachment under my command managed to "borrow" one of the rusting trucks we had spotted at the Jakobak Station when we first arrived, for training purposes. After all, we were going to be motorized, if and when the equipment became available. But most of our men knew nothing about combustion engines, their maintenance or even how to drive a motor vehicle.
We had a rotten hard time of it but we did manage to get one of those tireless behemoths to camp and hide it. The elation was shared by all but it was short lived. The very next morning, two NKWD officers came to the camp to arrest the perpetrators of this major crime against the Soviet State! Unbelievable. But as time went on they became frustrated because they could not decide who was responsible for this heinous crime and therefore, whom to arrest. First they wanted my hide, but my immediate superior officer, Lt. Andrew Cieszewski stepped in saying that it was he, who gave me the order so then they wanted him. But at that point Captain Jerzy Stypulkowski took the responsibility upon himself only to be reminded by Colonel Obtulewicz that the order came directly from him and no one else. The Russians were so obviously confused by this type of defence, that they decided to withdraw and take the matter to a higher level, that is, our HQ in Szachrisiabs, where the case was eventually dropped. But they did take the truck back and returned it to its graveyard where it could continue to rot while benefitting nobody. What a pity.
Another big problem for us were the Polish civilians who naturally flocked to the Army in the thousands, hopeful of help and sustenance, and eventually the possibility of evacuation from this terrible land of the Soviets.
For some time now, on orders from the top Command, scouts were dispatched to various points in the area occupied by the Army with the purpose of collecting information, rendering financial help where needed and preparing a list of names of those who were Polish citizens AND Roman Catholics. I was one of those scouts, given two men, a horse-drawn wagon and a considerable amount of Russian Rubles to dish out. I visited every kolkhoz (collective farm) within 30 miles of my appointed centre and what I witnessed during my work then would fill volumes. Our people there lived like cattle, in sub-human conditions, without work, without help, without food, chiefly relying on help from other Polish families in contact with their families in Poland who sent money, food and clothing parcels, or the money obtained from the various items sold to the Uzbeks, or exchanged for food.
My "office" was swamped with crowds of bedraggled creatures, begging to be registered. There was a strong belief that the registration and their name on the list I was compiling meant sharing the fate of the Army, its protection and their salvation. When I dropped the bomb that ONLY Polish citizens of Roman-Catholic creed need apply, a near riot erupted. It was beyond their comprehension that the religious distinction would slam the door shut in their faces. They strongly proclaimed to be Polish citizens, some even falsified their religious affiliation in order to get their names on THAT list. Perhaps it was not known by them that the lands they had lived on in 1939 had been taken away from Poland and incorporated into the Soviet Union as a number of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Ukraine and Byelorussia were now part of the Soviet Union and the Soviets considered Jews, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, etc. to be Soviet citizens and therefore not eligible to join the Polish Army. In fact, the Soviet authorities expressly forbade the Polish Army from recruiting "their" citizens.
But try to reason with a drowning person. They would not and could not understand it and accept it. There were endless attempts to bribe me by husbands offering their young wives, or their attractive daughters, some offering gold, diamonds or money. But I could not be swayed. I had my orders and I stuck to them. True, I was tempted many times over, but I did not give in to them. All that, however disturbing, was nothing compared with the almost sacrilegious feeling I had of playing God with these people's lives. Who the hell was I, Jedrek Debicki, age 21, to pass the sentence of life or death on these people who were here, in the USSR, by the act of an evil regime and not of their own free will? On many occasions I felt so bad about it, that I had seriously considered giving all the money away and running off. In the end, the Polish Army did manage to evacuate thousands of non-Poles with them.
After that ordeal, clean of conscience, albeit in mental turmoil, I made my way back to camp two weeks later. I was, quite surprisingly, still enjoying good health, nicely tanned and interested in everything and everybody around me. And there were a lot of things around our camp. As I mentioned before, we were surrounded by our civilians, mostly women and children, who depended to a great extent on us. To show their gratitude, they offered various services, such as laundering men's clothes, repairing socks, etc., anything to try and make themselves indispensable, for which the men, hungry for women's attentions for so long, were very grateful indeed. And they showed it too, by generously rewarding the ladies with whatever they could spare.
One of these young ladies caught my eye one morning delivering clean laundry. We talked a while, then she invited me for a modest supper at her place next day. She also happily mentioned the fact that she was already on THE list as a family member of one of our sergeants. This fact brought a sigh of relief from me as it meant that I would not be badgered to get her name registered for the evacuation. The news about the impending evacuation out of the USSR was travelling fast and wide. We, at the regimental level, knew nothing about it but the civilians seemed to know everything!
So, the next day, with permission from my superior officer, Lt. Andrzej Cieszewski, and the reminder to be available for funeral services at 0600 hours the next morning, I took off.
The village she lived in was on the railway line so I walked along the tracks very comfortably. As I arrived at my destination it was getting dark. The young lady was waiting for me with a nice, cool lemonade. We sat and talked for a while, and when it became too dark to sit outside, we went in and sat down to a truly gourmet meal with all the trimmings, a candle and sweet, heavy, delicious Uzbek wine. I could not believe my own eyes, and her explanation that most of this spread came from the Uzbek lady she was renting a room from, somehow did not quite convince me. No matter. Soon I was so wonderfully full and happy thanks to, I was sure, the sweet AND potent wine that worked its magic on me. One small wonder was that somehow I had left the table and found myself in her bed, with her snuggling up to me sweetly. How I got there, I really did not remember, it must have been the wine. It had been so long since anyone had been so nice and so close to me. I let myself drift away in this tender state of total surrender.
But somewhere at the back of my mind was the funeral at 0600 hours. My colleague from the class of 1938-39, Cadet-officer Czeslaw Swital, had suddenly died of typhoid fever and I was to lead the honour detail. My lady friend knew this and around midnight helped me out to get started on my way back to camp. A kiss, an embrace, a "Thank you for everything," and I was on my way.
I chose to return to camp by the same route along the railroad tracks, aware of the possibility of getting lost in the darkness since my head was still buzzing and my sense of direction somewhat muddled. Soon I found the tracks and my confidence was greatly restored. The night was bright, the stars were out and the air was pleasantly cool. I felt good. But not for long though. Something was not quite right. Distressed by this new and unexpected development, I decided to rest a while and review the situation. But not being in motion brought back the drowsiness and soon I was overcome by sleep. A sixth sense told me to lay my head on the rail, thus giving me an early warning of approaching trains. I must have dozed for longer than I originally intended to because it was already getting brighter and dawn was not too far off. I had to hurry!
Trusting the early hours against not meeting anybody, I took off my pants and got underway on the double. But on approaching the camp's perimeter, I glimpsed the funeral procession just leaving the camp. Too late! Well, sure as hell, I was going to get my ass in a sling. But when reporting to Capt. Stypulkowski, my answer to his stern "What is your excuse, Cadet-officer Debicki?" was a full, graphic account of last night's events. I thought the Captain was going to split his sides laughing. He understood youth well and I loved him for it. All he said to me was "You will learn, you will learn."
Sometime in July, our "Old Man," Col. Obtulewicz, whose own wife and daughter were with him in the camp, announced the arrival of three young girls, brought from Kazakhstan to enlist in the Army with a temporary assignment to canteen duties at the 6th Arty Regt. "And keep your hands to yourselves" he growled with the usual twinkle in his grey eyes. In Colonel Obtulewicz, the girls found more than just a protector, they found a father. One of these young ladies, the shortest, the plumpest but the prettiest was Hanka Zwierzanska, who became my future wife. In January of 1945, the Colonel gave away the bride to a young, dashing commander of the First Troop of his Regiment, Lt. Andrzej W. Debicki.
Hanka reached our camp after several days of travelling by train from the small village of Urdzhar, east of Lake Balkhash in the Kazakhstan SSR. The entire Zwieranski family had fled their home in Tczew in north-western Poland, ahead of the German invasion, during the earliest days of September 1939, for fear of being arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis. Driving across the country they found accommodation with their family in Lwow, in south-eastern Poland, only to be arrested and deported by the Russians in April 1940.
Hanka's father, Jan, had been arrested by the NKWD and imprisoned somewhere in the USSR. He did not return to his family in Kazakhstan until 1942, barely alive, having endured interrogations, maltreatment while in prison and typhoid fever. Until then, the fatherless family had been brought to a farming/herding kolkhoz at Urdzhar, where the living conditions during the enforced exile were deplorable: food was hard to get, the small communal building had no windows, the summer heat was intense and the winters icy. Above all, there were the daily orders: Work! Work! Work! Soon they, the urbanites, became proficient sheepherders and users of hoes, pitch-forks and spades.
When Germany attacked the USSR in the summer of 1941, the Polish exiles were, in theory at least, freed from compulsory work and allowed to move around, so Hanka's family moved from the Kolkhoz to the village of Urdzhar. When the news about the reborn Polish Army reached them, it was decided that the young boys and girls must leave immediately and try to join, with the rest of the family members to follow. Unfortunately, the Travel Permits of the remaining family, issued in their names by the NKWD and essential to carry in order to avoid re-arrest, were sold to the highest bidder by the unscrupulous representative of the Polish Authority who was handling their distribution. Left behind at Urdzhar, without the much needed help of the younger ones, both of Hanka's parents died of starvation and sickness. The girls had no way of knowing about it until much later. Janka, the youngest sister, survived and was repatriated to Poland in 1946.
Towards August 1942, our situation generally worsened. The merciless heat drained our strength, the incidence of malaria was alarmingly high and rapidly rising. At the same time, the civilian population around all of the Army camps was growing in numbers, further reducing our share of the food rations. In some camps, the situation became desperate. But Providence was with us because in early August, orders to get ready for evacuation came down from Corps HQ. In three days, we were moving by train and the destination, for once, was known to everyone - the Soviet port of Krasnowodsk on the Caspian Sea.
At Krasnowodsk came the last frisking by the NKWD, searching for Russian rubles and taking a final headcount of those departing the "Land of Sunshine and Everlasting Happiness." We were then finally left on our own.
But before the transport ship arrived three days later, Mother Nature decided to give us a taste of what we would have to put up with later on in the lands of Iraq, Egypt and Palestine; the sand storms, called "hamsin" in the Arab world. For two days and nights, one of these storms kept us rolled up in our blankets like mummies, trying in vain to keep the fine sand out of our eyes, ears and mouths.
On the third day of waiting, the ship "Zhdanov" came in and the embarkation of troops began. What a depressing sight they were. Human skeletons, walking, crawling, sick on stretchers, some too sick to crawl calling for mercy, begging not to be left behind. And nobody was. The ship was filled to the gunnels and then some. Somebody with a sense of humour said that this scene reminded him of the River Styx, the boat overflowing with the dead, with only Charon the Ferryman missing from the picture and the direction of the final destination of Hades reversed. But it did not matter anymore. We were finally and irrevocably, irreversibly out of hell. The day was August 3, 1942, and we were floating on the Caspian Sea. Our collective thoughts however, were for a long time with those civilians we had to leave behind after Stalin closed the borders to further evacuations, who because of the whim of a tyrant, had the doors to freedom shut in their faces.