Barbara Janina Obminska, was born September 6, 1936, in Lwow (SE part of Poland).
Her mother, Janina, was a high school teacher. Her father, Adam, was a judge.
Shortly after Basia was born, the family moved to Przemysl (also SE part of Poland). They were living there when the Russians invaded Poland on September 17, 1939. When the news spread that the Russians were arresting government workers, most of the court workers moved to Drohobycz, because they thought it would be safer in the small town.
Sometime in the middle of October 1939, her father and other court workers were arrested. The excuse given was that the Soviets wanted to determine why they had left Przemysl. After the arrests, Basia’s mother saw her husband only one time. After that she received the news that he was deported to Siberia. Basia became very sick, so her mother left to join her parents in Stryj. Janina’s brother Roman with his family also lived in Stryj.
Basia, who was three years old at the time, would only learn about the following events later from her grandmother. Her mother never liked to talk about this ordeal.
They lived with her maternal grandparents only for a couple of weeks. One morning in November 1939(?) there was a vicious knock on the door. When her grandmother opened the door three Russian soldiers, uniformed with guns drawn and accompanied by a civilian, entered the house. The civilian, who spoke Polish, said they are looking for the wife of the judge and their child. In the house at the time was a doctor who was attending Basia, who was still very sick. The soldiers allowed him to leave. After talking to the soldiers, the civilian suggested that they take Basia to the hospital. But her mother objected. At that point the family was told that they had 30 minutes to pack and take whatever they could carry with them.
Since they were not told where they would be going, their packing was not very practical. Grandfather packed some books. Grandmother and Mother packed gowns and laces (which ended up being valuable in Siberia for bartering). They did not pack food. Around this time, Basia’s uncle came to see them but grandmother yelled through the window, warning him that they were being arrested, so the uncle ran away. (Basia has a picture of herself with her uncle, which was taken one week before the arrest.) The civilian offered to take care of all their valuables while they were gone. When they returned, six years later, the only thing that was left was their silverware.
The soldiers took them to the train station, from where they travelled to Lwow. In Lwow they saw many people arriving from different towns of southeast Poland. They were packed into cattle cars (like in the movie Dr. Zhivago) forming a long train.
This was the first deportation transport from southeast Poland, populated by Poles and Ukrainians, an area very rich in oil and agriculture. The Soviets obviously had in mind to get rid of the Poles and quickly convert this part to the Ukrainian Republic, part of the USSR.
The conditions in the train were unbearable. The cars were very cold, there was only a hole in the floor for a bathroom, and a portable stove which usually wasn’t lit as they had no fuel. Since the cars were packed, and there was only the one toilet hole, people would sometimes open the door and, held by others, could do their business. During stops, they would run to go to get hot water from the engine towers. Once a day they were given a hot pot of soup with stale vegetables. On the short stops at the train station, some town people would come down to the station and hand some food to the prisoners through the windows, something the soldiers did not stop.
At the beginning, people were hoping that they were being taken to some work camps in Poland. Once out of Poland, the train would stop sometimes in desolate areas. The stops were longer and longer, and people were told they could go look for food. There were times when the train would leave, and people were left behind. The travel lasted for two months. People were dying from, diarrhea, typhoid, pneumonia, and hunger. It was winter, so it was very cold. No one in Basia’s car died, but many others in other cars did. The dead would just be tossed out of the car. The people did not know where they were being taken, but as the terrain got more barren, they finally realized that they were going to a bad place.
The train finally stopped in the middle of nowhere in northern Kazakhstan, sometimes also referred to as Siberia, due to its proximity and similar climate. The people were loaded on sleds and dispersed. Basia’s family with another family, were taken to the small village of Krasnosielsk, in the district of Kustanaj. There they were unloaded at the outskirts of the village, in front of gathered villagers. They were introduced as Polish imperialists, reactionaries who hate Stalin and communist Russia. The locals listened and quietly left. As a result of these introductions, the locals stayed away from them at first, but after awhile they became more accepted by the villagers. They showed them their home, which was an underground potato storage shelter, with a stove, two bunk beds and stumps for furniture (no electricity, no running water and no sanitation facilities). The room had a dirt floor and one small window, which was covered with a thin animal skin rather than glass. From the door, three steps led to the dirt floor. The walls and ceiling were patched with clay and painted white.
There were no guards in the vicinity. Technically, they could escape but there was nowhere to go. The shelters in which they stayed in had a stove as the main fixture. However, there was always a problem to find fuel. Villagers burned “kiziaki”, dried up bricks made of cow and horse manure and straw. Since they did not have farm animals, and there was only a small forest, guarded by a forest ranger. Basia’s mother had to go at night and steal some wood (sticks and branches). One night she was caught, but when the ranger came to the house and saw their conditions, he didn’t try to arrest her. In the winter when the snow was up to 10 feet high, her mother would get some kiziaki in exchange for some of her and grandma’s dresses, which were then used as a wedding gown by some of the village’s brides.
Every morning her mother and grandfather were taken to work in the collective farm in the field, except in the winter. This work was mandatory. Work was from early morning until dusk. Grandmother stayed home to take care of small Basia. For a whole day of work, the family received a loaf of bread for each working person and ½ loaf of bread for the kids and elderly. Once a month, the family would receive some potatoes.
The second year of their exile in the winter, Grandfather died of starvation. It is a terrible death, but luckily near the end the person is unconscious and no longer feels the pain.
The ground was frozen and there was no wood for the coffin. A group of gypsies dug a grave for one of their dignitaries and agreed to bury grandfather in the same grave. Both bodies were wrapped in only a blanket. After Grandfather passed away, they were able to rent a room in a house, which had a stove and a big loft, a wooden table, chairs and beds made by the local people. They stayed in this place until the end of their ordeal, which lasted in total over 5 years. The lady that they rented the room from had three children, all sick with tuberculosis. Her husband, like most of the men from the village, was in the Russian army. The lady’s name was Valentyna, nicknamed Vala. She became a friend of Basia’s mother, and they both helped each other with the chores around the house, after they came home from work at the collective farm.
The following paragraph has information recounted to Basia by her mother. It was believed that the lard from sheep dogs is a very good remedy for tuberculosis, so Vala was raising dogs for their lard. Killing of the dogs was always done around the spring. This was a time when in Basia’s family all the food was gone, the family was starving. Basia’s Mom was taking dog meat and served it to the family. Since she knew the source of this food, she herself could not eat it.
The village Krasnosielsk was built on both sides of a dirt road, wide enough to be called a “two lane” road. In the village, the only office was the house of the magistrate. There was also a store which opened once a month, that sold matches, kerosene for the lamps, salt, and occasionally sugar cubes (which were used to “look at” rather than eat because of the price). Sometimes they sold needles, thread, and hard candy. All other products were bought from the village people in the form of bartering. There was also a school, which consisted of one large room for all ages, open only in winter (weather permitting).
There was no church, doctor or dentist office, and if someone needed serous medical help they would have to travel to the town of Krasnoyarsk, about two days by horse and buggy. All other sicknesses were treated by self appointed villagers. They made extensive use of herb medicines.
In Basia’s recollection, their life generally revolved around food, as she always was hungry. In the summer they picked mushrooms, wild cherries, and strawberries, not to eat, but to sell to locals for money (rubles) that was needed to buy anything in the store. For themselves they collected sweet sap from the birch trees. From the fields of the collective farm, they dug potatoes and collected grain left after the harvest. They ate some wild growing plants such as nettles and others.
The best possibilities for getting food were at weddings and funerals. For these occasions, all the villagers were normally invited, and everybody would come, because there was always plenty of food.
Around the age of seven, Basia developed two professions that made her very popular among all the Russian grandmas in the village.
- She would tell fairy tales, some that she heard from her Mother or Grandma and some that she improvised.
- The other skill was the very thorough and fast removal of lice from the heads of the ladies.
Because of poor hygiene, lice in hair and clothing and bed bugs were people’s constant companions. Basia’s Mom kept Basia’s head shaved during the entire ordeal in Kazakhstan. Normally during the day, only old ladies were taking care of the houses and their gardens, while all the adults were working in the field. Small Basia’s stories were welcome entertainment, much appreciated and generously rewarded with food, vegetables and sometimes even with milk. Basia learned the Russian language quickly, so obviously the stories were in Russian.
Asked about toys, Basia does not recall having any dolls to play with. However, her big warm comforter was frequently visited by the cats from the neighbourhood, especially at night. Those cats became her dolls; she would dress them up and play with them.
The only shoes that Basia had were knee-high sheepskin boots called “valonki”. They were excellent for the winter but too hot for the summe,r so she ran barefoot the entire summer. The winters were very harsh, with snow and Siberian style temperatures. The worst events were snowstorms called “burans”. If you were caught in one of these far from home, you would freeze to death. Basia and her mother lived through one. Fortunately for them they ended up with only severe frostbite to the ears, nose, hands, and feet. The first snow in the village was usually very severe because in the matter of a few hours, houses would be covered completely with snow to the eves of the roofs. It would take a few days before people could dig themselves out from under the snow. Neighbors would help neighbors with this task. Since Basia’s mother worked only in the field, she stayed home during the winter, when the others attended farm animals.
Basia recounts that there were very beautiful times throughout the punishing winters, despite the cold and severe hunger. These were the times when her mother started teaching her the Polish language (she automatically picked up Russian playing with the kids), taught her about Polish traditions and promised that they would return to Poland, and that one day she would have a whole loaf of bread just for herself. Grandma was a compulsive smoker (raised her own tobacco), and in the winter she would be busy making cigarettes using pages from Grandfather’s books. There were wolves in the area and they were very dangerous in the winter because they, like the villagers, were hungry. They would come to the outskirts of the village and howl throughout the night, which at times sounded like a beautiful concert.
It took Basia a year to recuperate from the pneumonia that she developed just before the family was arrested. She remained very skinny, but reasonably healthy. However, because of the lack of vitamins and minerals, she developed periodontal disease of the gums (scurvy). She had the painful swelling, bleeding and loose teeth that are the common signs of this disease. This situation was partially treated after she returned to Poland, but successful treatment was finally done in the United States, after she immigrated.
In 1941, the Polish 2nd Corps was organized by General Sikorski and General Anders. The soldiers went to Persia and joined the British army in the Middle East. All the families of those that joined this army were also relocated to Persia. Unfortunately, in Basia’s village nobody heard about this army.
In 1943, another Polish Army was formed to fight the Germans side by side with Soviets. This formation was called the Kosciuszko Army and was formed by Wanda Wasilewska and led by General Berling.
The other Polish family that came to Krasnosielsk was relocated, because they had two men that joined this army. In Basia’s family there were no men to join the army, but in 1944 information came about the need for workers at the sugar factory in the Ukraine on the outskirts of Kiev. After almost 5 years in Kazakhstan, Basia’s mother got this job and they moved to Kaharlik, Ukraine. This was like a new world for Basia, with brick houses up to three stories high, electric lights, sanitary facilities, paved streets and large parks to play. During Christmas here she was able to see Santa, for the first time, called in Russian “Died Moroz”. There was a big Christmas tree, presents, colorful dolls and a lot of candies.
Basia’s mother was able to send a message to her brother Roman, who was still living and working in Stryj. It took some time, but he was able to obtain a a document that would allow him to take his mother, sister and Basia back to Poland. He personally came to Kiev and in 1945 he brought them back to Stryj. Basia was 9 years old. From Stryj they moved to Silesia, in the southwest part of Poland and found a home in Zabrze, within the Katowice state. Basia’s uncle Roman, with his family, settled in Warsaw. The reason for their departure was that they refused to become Russian citizens.
After they settled in Zabrze, life became normal. Basia went to school, straight to third grade, for which she was well prepared by her Mother and Grandmother. Her Mother did not return to teach at the school but took a job as an accountant. Her Grandmother stayed home until she died at the age of 89. Basia finished high school, and than studied at the Polytechnic of Gliwice, obtaining a master’s degree in civil engineering in 1960.
In 1961 Basia married Marian Strutynski, whom she met at the University. Marian finished his master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1957 and immigrated with his Mother to Seattle in 1959 to join his Father. Marian’s Father had been arrested in 1939, sent to a gulag in Siberia, and in 1942, with Anders Army traveled through Persia to England, and then immigrated to the United States in 1949. He taught at the Oregon Technical Institute in Klamath Falls.
Marian found a job at United Control Corporation. In 1961, he went back to Poland and, after marrying Basia in a church ceremony, they both came to Seattle. In 1962, their son Adam was born and in 1965 Basia got a job with Metro at the Waste Water Treatment Plant in Renton. She retired after over 37 years of service with them.
Basia’s Mother died in Zabrze, at the age of 67, in 1977. When Basia, her Mother and her Grandmother returned to Poland in 1945, they began to search for what happened to Basia’s father. They heard he was seen around Katyn, a place where Russians murdered 22,000 Polish POWs as well as civilian government workers. At her Mother’s request, Basia wrote to the Russian Government as well as to the Polish president at the time, Boleslaw Bierut, enquiring about the whereabouts of her Father (it was safer during communism to ask such a question by a child rather than by an adult). The Soviets acknowledged that he had been in Russia but claimed that they did not know where he went. Finally, in 2008, thanks to a lawyer friend in Poland, Basia received a letter from IPN, Instytut Pamieci Narodowej, (Institute of National Memory) that Adam Obminski was a victim of the Katyn massacre in 1940, not necessarily in Katyn itself.
Barbara Strutynski was an outstanding longtime member of the Polish community in Seatle. Known to everybody as “Pani Basia”, Barbara was a community pilar, active since the early 1960s until the pandemic. During this time, she founded and directed different performance groups involving children, youth and adults. Her name was most notably connected with the Młodzi Polanie / Young Polanie group.
Both Barbara and Marian were very active members in the Polish community centered around the Polish Home, now the Polish Cultural Center in Seattle. Barbara’s energy and enthusiasm, especially her love of the performing arts greatly enriched the region’s Polish community.
In 1967 she founded a children folk dance group; as there was an adult group called Polanie she called the new group Młodzi Polanie / Young Polanie. The group performed under her direction at many venues and festivals over the years, including several times at the International Children’s Festival in Seattle before the pandemic. Several generations of children and young adults were members of the group.
In 1992 she created the theater group Biedronka / The Ladybug that gave performances of children fairy tale classics. She also was instrumental in creating a Polish Cabaret at the Polish Home and directed several performances, starting in 1981 and going on through the early 2000s. An important aspect of all these activities was hosting of different folk groups and artists coming to Seattle. Over the years, Barbara and Marian hosted many groups and hundreds of artists from the United States, Canada and Poland at their home on the Eastside.
Barbara was a lifetime member of the Polish Hom Association (PHA) and for several years served as the PHA Vice President for Cultural Affairs. She was also a longtime member of the Polish Women’s Club, helping with the organization of the Polish bazaars where she was the dining room manager, and other events; for several years she was managing the dining room for the Pierogi Fest organized by the Seattle Polish Foundation with the Polish Women’s Club. For a long time, Barbara and Marian were teaching Polish at the Polish School in Seattle. Barbara was also active in her St. Margaret’s of Scotland Catholic Church, particularly tending to the grounds outside and to her favorite roses.
Barbara’s cultural activities were noticed and appreciated. She was awarded an Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland and the Siberian Exiles Cross, both bestowed by the President of Poland; an Angel award and recognition diplomas from the Consul General of the Republic of Poland in Los Angeles as well as recognition and awards from the local Polish community.
Basia died in Seatle on August 24th 2022. She is survived by her husband of 62 years, Marian, her son Adam with daughter-in-law Theresa, and her three grandchildren Michael, Matthew, and Kathryn, along with their spouses Stephanie, Cari and Dixon.
1938 Basia visiting Cioca Felicja
1939 Wojek Roman and Basia
1939 Basia in Przemysl
Basia and Marian wedding
Basia in Seatle
Copyright: Strutynski family