They came in the night. I don’t know what time it was, maybe midnight. We were all sleeping. There were four of them, maybe more. They wore military uniforms and thick, black boots. They carried rifles.
At gunpoint, soldiers of the Soviet Union’s Red Army lined up my family against a wall. They ordered us to get dressed and pack only as much as we could carry We didn’t know where they were taking us or how long it would take to get there.
I was only 10 years old on February 10th 1940, the night the soldiers came. I didn’t understand what was happening, and I was terrified. I worried I would be separated from my family. My mother had died about a year earlier, and my grandmother raised me.
Nearly 70 years later, I still remember that night. It was the last time I saw my homeland and my grandmother Natalja.
I was born in the district of Nowgrodek in Eastern Poland and lived there with my father, stepmother, older brother and sister, little stepsister, and grandmother, until the soldiers came. Derewna was the closet town, a beautiful little community about 10 kilometers away.
My father was a forest ranger, and we lived in a house provided by the forest service. We had a small farm and grew crops for food. We also had a few farm animals: sheep, geese and horses. My brother Piotr, the oldest, fed the cows. My sister Nadzia fed the pigs. I fed the chickens and the geese.
The night the soldiers came, my father told us to put on as much clothing as we could, so we piled on layers. He wore tall riding boots and a heavy wool coat with a sheepskin lining. It later proved to be a godsend.
The soldiers hurried us. We took blankets and some food: bread and cheese that my grandmother had made. We left everything else - the furniture, the farm animals, and my mother’s wedding dress - behind.
The soldiers took my father – with a gun pointed at his back – to the stable. They made him watch as they pierced the hay with their bayonets, searching for any Polish officers or soldiers that might be hiding. After finding no one, they transported us in cattle trucks to Derewna, where we were crowded into city hall, along with many, many families of teachers and other government employees. Soldiers surrounded the building. We were prisoners.
Eventually, the soldiers loaded us back onto the trucks, which deposited us at the railroad station. We were loaded into train cars meant for cattle and cargo. There was no sanitation except for a hole in the floor that served as a public toilet. We travelled for many, many days without water or food, except for the little we brought with us.
When the train finally stopped, we boarded a sled to our destination: a forced labor camp in a frozen Siberian forest in the Arkhangelsk district. We were assigned to barracks with about 10 other families. We had no privacy, no personal space. We slept on wood benches like sardines.
My father and brother were forced to work, mostly cutting trees in the forest. I missed my grandmother terribly as well as other relatives – aunts, uncles and cousins. I didn’t know if I would never see them again.
After some months in the gulag in Siberia, my stepmother had another baby. M father became ill and was too sick and weak to work. But if you did not work, you did not get food. So my sister and I went to work to help the family survive. We cut wood for a slice of bread and some soup. She held one end of the handsaw, and I held the other. My fingers and toes were frozen. They hurt so badly I thought I was going to lose them.
We became thinner and thinner. People in the camp began dying of starvation, exposure and disease. We were all sick, coughing, freezing and hungry. The conditions were filthy. I had lice in my long blond hair, and my father cut it all off. I don’t know how we managed to live like that for nearly two years. We suffered so much.
And then ‘amnesty’ was declared and we were told we were free to go. We were no longer prisoners. All the men and the single women were called to join the army to defeat the Germans.
My brother was 16. My sister was 14. I was 12.
With my father, stepmother and two young stepsisters, we took a train to Uzbekistan, where the Polish army was forming. Like the journey to Siberia, we traveled for days without much food or water. People were dying every day.
In Uzbekistan, local people spared some food, but they did not have much. I was weak and I could hardly walk. We were all malnourished. My sister and I were suffering from typhoid and dysentery.
My father and Piotr left us with some local people in a farm for about six weeks while they joined the Polish army in Kermine. Piotr went with him and enrolled in cadet school.
While they were away, my sister died. I will never forge the moment I found her. She died in her sleep, lying next to me on the floor. When I woke up, I touched her and I knew. I screamed, “Nadzia is dead”.
I had to dress her for the funeral. We do not know how or where she was buried.
When my father returned to the farm, he took us, along with a few other families, to Kermene, the place where the Polish army was organizing. He hired a cart and a camel to take us there. Only the children got to ride in the cart. The adults walked behind.
At the army camp, Polish soldiers shared their rations with us. They saved many people. But many people - soldiers and civilians - also died. Thousands of Polish people who had been starved in forced labor camps were being sent to Uzbekistan. Many were sick and starving. I saw mass graves with my own eyes.
My father left with the Polish army. My stepmother, stepsisters and I took a train from Kermine to the port city of Krasnowodzk, where we boarded a ship to Pahlevi, Iran. We stayed in Iran in a refugee camp for a year. We were all weak and sick and needed strength to go further.
From Iran, we took a British ship to Karachi, India. We stayed there for three months. I was very sick and could not see. I had surgery on my eyes. A Hindu doctor scraped my eyelids. I still had poor nutrition and lack of vitamins.
In 1943, another British ship took us to Mombasa, Kenya in Africa. Then, we rode a bus to our new home: a Polish refugee camp in Koja, Uganda on Lake Victoria.
We lived in a hut with a straw roof, where snakes would hide. There were about 3,000 people in the camp, and all of the refugees were Polish. Despite the snakes, monkeys and crocodiles, we were safe from the war, the Soviets and the Germans.
Our men - our husbands, sons, and fathers - were on the front lines. When the mail call came, everyone was terrified. People would receive letters informing them about the death of their soldiers. Faith is what kept us going, faith and hope.
Milk was a luxury reserved for small children. We ate bananas, mangoes and oranges. We did not have a stove. Many people contracted malaria and died. We slept with netting around our beds because otherwise the mosquitoes would eat us alive and infect us with malaria, and we wore clothing provided by the Red Cross from donations from the US.
I managed to complete three years of high school and study English. Three or four student shared one book. Our books and papers were donated by a Catholic welfare organization.
When the war ended, that was the most glorious day. The bells rang and sirens blared around the camp. People shouted, “The war is over! The war is over!” We sang Polish songs and rejoiced.
But I didn’t want to go back to Poland. I was scared of the Soviets. My district was part of the region that became part of the Soviet Union. Now it’s part of Belarus.
In all, we lived in Africa for five years. When we left in 1948, I was 18 years old.
We travelled by bus to Nairobi, Kenya, where we boarded British army airplanes for London. I had only one dress when I came to England, where my father was waiting for us in a refugee camp. Piotr was working as a merchant marine. I hadn’t seen them in more than six years.
About a month after we arrived, we transferred to another camp. In all, we lived in about four different camps in England. Like thousands of other displaced Polish soldiers and citizens, we were in transition.
At the second camp, I got a job as a waitress in the canteen, and that is where I met the love of my life, Jozef Kochel. He was from Wilno, also in Eastern Poland. He served in the Polish 2nd Corps. He was an ammunitions truck driver. He was seriously wounded and discharged with a military pension. He was a good and honest man. When we were married, I was 19 and he was 29. Our marriage lasted 53 years, until Jozef died.
Our first daughter was born in England. I worked in a tailor shop and later in a paper factory. Jozef painted airplane hangers. When our daughter was born, I stopped working to take care of her.
Our last refugee camp in England was the East Moor camp for Polish Displaced Persons. At the time, Polish refugees were being repatriated to Canada, Australia, Argentina and Brazil. Piotr met and married an English woman and stayed in England. I was praying to come to the Unites States.
We had been tossed from country to country as refugees. We had been in limbo for so long. I wanted so badly to come to America, where there were opportunities for higher education for everyone and freedoms, especially freedom of religion. I love this country.
With the help the Catholic Church, I found a sponsor in America, and the Polish military paid for our voyage. In 1952, Jozef, our daughter, and I, left England for the United States, and the start of our new lives in Seattle. At last, we were no longer refugees. We were immigrants.
It was difficult at first. I worked in a tailor shop and a bakery. Jozef worked in a cabinet shop and meat packing plant.
Eventually, Jozef and I had three more children. We became American citizens. Now, we have five grandchildren. All of our children have graduated from college. Our oldest has a master’s degree in education. Our second daughter has a master’s degree in law. Our oldest son has a doctorate degree in biochemistry. Our youngest son has a degree in electrical engineering. All of our grandchildren have graduated from college or are still attending college.
We never went back to Poland. We couldn’t go back. Our country is no longer our own. When I look back now, I think it is a miracle I survived.
Anna was born on May 12th 1930 and died on July 11th 2020.
1946 in Mombasa
1947 in Mombasa
Copyright: Kochel family